J.R. Lara

Growing Oranges in Oaxaca

It was the year he planted the orange tree            that my father         Alejandro              told me his story of tipping off the Mexican Navy with secret information about a roving band of criminals and kidnappers.

He had collected the tip-off information himself           he found himself in a position to do so                        when it turned out his own vacation rental property had                       quite accidentally                  been leased to these suspects            under the guise of being tourists on beach holiday                 but when they were found to have holed themselves up in the house              and put black plastic over all the windows         and stocked enough food to last weeks              everyone got suspicious                     and this was all hearsay          reported upon by the caretaker Jose who arrived to water the orange tree and sweep the pool and was alarmed by these things.

Orange trees produce fruit slowly              and a sapling’s first crop can take years                and the previous vacationing tenants    Canadians      had a young girl who had picked the only orange                        not yet ripe                the one my father had been watching and waiting for and checking on for months                        and he was clearly disappointed which came out                        as it does                  as a deep and existential disappointment in families                 in little girls                        and in the human race unspecified.

Why would somebody do that         he asked through the phone line        and I made a sympathetic sound                and in any case          there were more pressing problems to deal with in that moment than oranges               or Canadians     and so the kidnapper-criminal-vacationers were ejected                    and Alejandro flew to Oaxaca to put the house in order and do a bit of detective work on his own.

And it is in this part of the telling that his eyes develop a glint               and his hands begin their animated gesticulations in earnest             as he recalls how he                        during his clean-up visit                noticed another house in the village             another vacation rental                         with parked out front what appeared to be the same black Suburban                       with the same license plate number          of the same kidnapper-criminal-vacationers                     and there would have been no way to be sure without a plate number             since the black Suburban in southern Mexico is an apparition ubiquitous as tortillas for breakfast and ants on orange trees                and he watched the house and the black Suburban for several days               on his bicycle rides through the village and to the ocean and out to the main road and back again                     and saw lots of suspicious-seeming comings and goings to and from the house of people who did not look                  on the surface       to Alejandro like families             or Canadians            or vacationers in general.

He began taking photographs         with the small camera he bought for the photography class he had taken the previous spring               in which he studied composition and light and contrast and texture                        and had come away from with a collection of photographs that showed the close-up corners of oak leaves                  and branches in snow             and lampposts at dusk          and an inability to any longer look at a simple object in a shaft of sunlight                   without seeing the exquisite slope of its borders          and the perfect juxtaposition of its body               against a universe that he now understood to be constructed entirely in light cast from a distant star.

To take photographs of the kidnapper-criminal-vacationers without arousing their suspicion            he wore his casual canvas ball cap            and sunglasses and bicycle shorts and sandals                and packed a sports bottle of water along                        and made sure his pauses near the vacation rental included long moments appearing contemplative         over the waterfowl and palm trees and bougainvillea                    and he was a Mexican pretending to be a gringo              because Mexicans cannot be trusted.

When he finally gathered enough photographs of the comings and goings of the suspects                  and of the license plate number and of the black Suburban                 and was convinced beyond all doubt       that even if these weren’t precisely the same kidnapper-criminal-vacationers who had holed up in his vacation rental                        they were certainly in cahoots          or at least more or less in the same line of business                   of which he could not and would not approve                         he placed his photographs in a manila envelope               sealed                      and walked straight down the long dock to the office of the Mexican Navy   where he encountered a guard.

The Navy        I asked           why didn’t you go to the police         the police     he said            everyone knows you can’t trust the police.

Take these                 he told the guard                 and pressed the packet of photographs into the man’s hand                      and with that             Alejandro walked back down the dock      and returned home to the vacation rental                    which had by now been restored to tranquility                and in the last light of day            sat at the edge of his pool            where the garden sloped upward into forest                  and the moon brightened and rose through jasmine vines                     and admired the orange tree’s tiny new fruit                still green but ripening                  and knew that one day         if he could be patient             and diligent            and honorable                and just              the orange would be perfect               the orange would be the one perfect thing              and he would wait                for sweetness.


J.R. Lara is an environmental journalist and an MFA candidate at Western Washington University. She serves as Nonfiction Editor for Bellingham Review and Poetry Editor for Psaltery & Lyre. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in River Teeth, Hippocampus, The Eastern Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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