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Kim Bonner
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The Grove


By Kim Bonner

 

       Tower lights twinkle against the night sky, a reminder that home is, as the crow flies, less than a half a mile away. The structure went up about the same time that the town whipped up the slogan, Prosperity, Progress, Plenty, and stuck it on a twelve-foot marker at the county line. An occasional wink from the tower illuminates the sign for a millisecond before it goes dark again. The town's promises, now-you-see-them, now-you-don't, mock me. But when I take stock of my surroundings, it seems right that I should end up back here, like this.

The Orangeland Fruit Company has owned this grove for over thirty years. It weathered hard freezes, low carb fads and a blight that sucked the life out of most independent grower's trees. It's the only grove still turning a profit in a county where meth replaced citrus as the town's hottest commodity. Welcome to the dirty south.

       Before, families kept their land for generations, relentlessly clinging to the luster of owning a piece of dirt that didn't love them back. At first, the locals viewed Orangeland like a big box store, coming to town to put mom and pop out of business. But the company grew on them after awhile. They paid cash bonuses at Christmases. The managers handed out frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving. The female employees got a bottle of Orangeland's Exclusive Valencia Spice perfume on their birthday.

My aunt's boyfriend was the head groveman for the company. That winter, he'd pick me up from kindergarten aftercare because my aunt had headaches.

       The groveman usually had a lady friend with him. Just giving them a ride, he'd say. No reason to mention it to my aunt. Sometimes the women would talk to me, whisper at me to jump out and call the police. One, with mangled teeth and scabs on her arms, merely wept without speaking.

       "Why is she crying?"

       "It's just a game," the groveman said. "Do you like the coloring book I bought you?"

       I did.

       There were others. A doe-eyed clerk from the convenience store. The lady who ran the laundromat. The others came from truck stops or bars, places they shouldn't have been in the first place.

       We came here, to this spot. Something about sound echoes more than usual here and the smells of fruit blossom and muddy cowpens hang together in a putrid knot. This week the ranchers hauled their spring calves to market. I know this because the mother cows are at the fence, crying for their babies, who aren't ever coming back.  The mothers will mourn at the fence line for a day or two and then forget about their babies and go to the molasses bin and come back next year to do the same thing all over again. Right now, they are inconsolable. I wish they would shut up and forget already.

       I wasn't supposed to look when the groveman took his lady friends for walks. I was supposed to color or play with my new yoyo or count to a hundred real slow. Later on, a detective asked me about our routine. His eyes and chin receded into his puffy flesh, like there was a thin person inside trying to escape.

       "What did you see your aunt's boyfriend do next?"

       He took the red head to a pump and forced her to gulp water straight from the spout. The chemicals they ran through the pipes to kill citrus canker made her foam at the mouth. She couldn't scream because he'd cut out her tongue.

       "He gave the lady a drink of water."

       I shiver even though the humidity sits at eighty percent. The back of my shirt feels wet even though it hasn't rained. My fingers caress the dirt. Plenty flashes from the road. Home is so close.

       The groveman took over a dozen lady friends for walks. I got a yellow Walkman. Then there was the one who got away. Cecelia, a bottle blonde waitress with cigarette breath and chipped nail polish. At the trial, she pointed at the groveman with a withered stump of a right arm. She would have gestured with her left hand except he'd cut that off too. She cried. Said she couldn't hold her baby the same anymore. Her husband wouldn't touch her. Some days she couldn't even get out of bed.

       Whiny bitch.

       The prosecutor let me hold a teddy bear in court.

       Where are your parents?

       In heaven.

       Do you know what it means to tell the truth?

       Yes.

       Can you point at the man we've been talking about?

       He's sitting over there next to the bald man in the brown jacket.

       The groveman was one of the last to be executed in Old Sparky. The tower twinkled just now when I thought of him. I wonder if it hurt much when they flipped the switch. We never corresponded.

       People avoided me after the trial. I ate lunch alone all through elementary school, then middle school and then high school. I still came to the grove from time to time after my aunt gave me to the state and decided to stay in bed a while longer. When I aged out of foster care, I moved to Michigan, a fresh start, a change of seasons. I floated from apartment to apartment, cleaned office buildings at night with a group of women who spoke no English. Boyfriends came and went, nothing serious. Like a mother cow, I went to the molasses bin and forgot to remember.

       My aunt felt guilty in her old age and wrote to me on Facebook––sorry about everything. Regrets. Guilt. Whatever. She left me her house, though. Last month, I came back, got a Netflix account and a job at Cracker Barrel. 

       The tower winks at me again. I could be home in less than five minutes. But not without my legs. They are currently lying in a heap next to me. 

       Cecelia's been holding a grudge all these years.

       Stumpy has a shiny prosthetic hand these days. It must have a GI Joe Kung Fu grip because she keeps shoveling dirt on top of me with an effortless flick of her wrist.

       I never told the police that I helped him bury the others. He never told either, not even at the end. Cecelia blathered to the fat detective that I wasn't an innocent bystander, but he chalked up her crazy talk to the trauma of almost getting hacked to bits. She didn't get a teddy bear to hold in court.

       "You knew. You knew what he was. I begged you to help me. But you just smiled. Why did you smile? Why?"

       I won't answer her. And I won't beg for mercy. Mercy is beneath the grove. She'll probably get caught anyway. Probably was dumb enough to buy the saw and shovel on a debit card, and she jumped me at a gas station with a surveillance camera. Amateur. She really should do something about those roots,too. Bottle blonde suited her. 

          The tower lights dim a little with each shovel full of dirt until it blinks at me one last time and goes dark for good. The sweet of the orange blossoms wraps itself around the stench of manure until they settle into a reluctant dance. As I lay dying, the grove pulls me into the dank embrace of the ones they never found, the ones I put in the ground all by myself after they took the groveman away. My friends, it's been so long. I always knew we'd see each other again one day. I am home.


Kim Bonner’s work has appeared in the Barely South Review and will be featured in the fall edition of the Flying South Literary Journal. She is a graduate of Stetson University and writes short stories in multiple genres, as well as adult thrillers.

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