Shadows of Oranges
by Carole Avila
Winner of the 2016 Art Tales Contest Sponsored by the City of Ventura
Wisps of S-shaped smoke rose up from the engine. My bumper penetrated the stucco of someone’s home. Oil splattered across the windshield, black inkblots without symmetry. Viscous fluid crawled downward, too lazy to drip in a steady stream. Maybe too traumatized to move.
A slender tree, defenseless against the impact, fell forward over the hood. Her oranges hung from weeping branches, and wooden limbs bent at an odd angle, like my leg. My head drooped over my shoulder.
Juicy pulp bled from crushed victims. I inhaled the sour odor of citrus and gasoline. The tang of burnt rinds in my nostrils didn’t smell like the citrus shampoo I used on my baby boy’s golden hair. Far away sirens lost any sense of urgency, and the oranges hung without fear of falling off branches, as if the stillness could hold them.
The paramedic asked my name, but I couldn’t answer. He shouted, “Breathe!” but I didn’t like what I saw and closed my eyes. The next time they opened I lay in a hospital bed and my leg dangled in a sling strung up to a metal pole. My arms and hands hurt, as if I still clung to the steering wheel, a useless life preserver.
A midnight vista in the window reflected the headboard and smooth plastic edges of the bed with an automated blow-up mattress. Monitors winked at me, as if they had a secret. Two vases of flowers, one full and one anemic, sat on a rolling tray.
A basket held fruit—oranges—and their brilliant color washed out any of the other treats. The fluorescent fixture cast a shadow on the pitted skins. Orange waxing moons. Slivers of smiles, like my son’s just before he fell asleep in his car seat.
Weeks passed before the hospital released me with a stack of papers on my lap and a metallic heart-shaped balloon attached to a long curl ribbon tied to the wheelchair. A nurse pushed the chair and me and the balloon down the long cold aisle to the hospital lobby. People pretended not to stare. Their eyes felt sorry for my scars peeking out the bandages, but the plastic bracelet on my wrist reminded me of who I was.
My parents picked me up in their battered sedan. Mom apologized because there was only one route back to my apartment. For just a second my heart gave out like it did that orange day as their car neared the stucco house. Someone wrapped a sturdy mesh screen around the tree where my bumper had embraced it like a crushing bear hug.
I asked my dad to stop and pick the one remaining fruit, and at home my mom peeled and sliced it. The first bite squirted stinging nectar into my eyes, and it tasted sweet. Blood oranges. It smelled like gasoline.
Dad said to call if I needed anything. Mom would stay for a couple of weeks. She had already packed up the nursery.