Mary was his big adventure. They made each other feel alive and since her death, Walter had become reserved and alone. He liked California and he liked the solitude of his farm. Although he missed his wife, Walter poured himself into his work rather than die poor and empty from a broken heart. His blood orange orchard sat apart from anything interesting. He enjoyed being far from prying eyes. He kept his own hours and only hired extra hands when it came time to harvest. That time had passed, and he was alone again. Alone and content. Walter parked his car and sat listening to the wind through his empty trees. They stood like giants among the grassy fields, whispering to him the only way they knew how. He listened. He smiled. Walter was convinced that he was the only one that had ever heard them. Their tiny voices creeping from their leaves and into his ears. Subtle but there. He remembered the first time he heard them and it made his stomach drop, the way the trees reached out and seemed to touch his soul like nothing had ever done before that moment.
Meridian sat and watched his money pass through his teeth and form a fire in his belly. He was drunk and getting loud, pushing and slapping other men trying to drink their sorrows away, chasing away the few women that came through the doors, eager to find a bed to creep into. Meridian would laugh and hold his hands away like he’d not meant any harm. Five minutes would tick by and he would be at it again. “Hey pal. Keep your shit together or I’ll throw you out. Understand?” The bartender was a large man and his fists were as big as softballs. Meridian smirked. “Do you think I give a rat’s ass about this shit hole of a bar? I just came here to forget where I’ve been but there is no one to dance with. Will you dance with me?” He laughed then, those big teeth dancing under the neon signs that ran along the wall behind the bartender, giving his white shirt a sickly yellow look, like nicotine stains on pale flesh. The bartender just shook his head. There was a tiny stage near the back of the bar. The lights were dim and the stools sat broken and feeble. A frail, old black man meandered in from the cold and ordered a gin and tonic. He called himself Maurice and tucked beneath the crook of his arm was a violin as old as the skin that hung from the man’s bones. Maurice took the stage and began a love affair with those that would watch. He plucked along the strings to check their tonality and then, he began, moving in between notes like daredevils on motorcycles through highway traffic. A melody hit Meridian that night and he could barely stand. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard and he nearly cried. Instead, he listened and bought Maurice his drinks. After an hour, the bartender gave Meridian a tap on the back. “Hey pal. Your credit may be good other places, but not here. Pay up.” Meridian hit him square in the face and broke the man’s nose. Everything stopped. Meridian, in a fit of rage screamed at Maurice to keep playing. His eyes were on fire and the old man’s hand trembled but his music swayed on through the night once more. Meridian hopped over the bar and stuffed a one hundred dollar bill into the bartender’s mouth and proceeded to pull out every one of his teeth with his bare hands.
Her name was Constance. They met along the beach and the moon smiled down upon them. The two hardly said a word. And Meridian liked that she wasn’t full of talk like so many of the women before her. He liked that they didn’t have to say anything, to say so much. They could just sit and watch their fingers trickle between bones and work between the sheets that held them so close in the morning hours. And nothing seemed as frail as those days for Meridian. He knew that he loved her and she knew it too. But Constance was a damaged woman. She had been beaten and sodomized by her previous husband and left for dead. Meridian would always say, “I will make things right, my love. The way they should be.” She would take her pointer and middle fingers and press them against his lips and smile. He would smile back and kiss them gently. Constance tasted the way tulips smelled after a rain storm. He woke one morning to find her gone and he knew that she would never come back. But, he looked. For the next ten years he stayed in Baltimore, wandering the beach where they first met until the sun would warm his feet. Meridian would sit and cry while the gulls flew overhead and the waves rolled along the sand. Then stand straight and fix the pleats in his pants, only to wander some more before finding his way back home. His tears would turn the sand into glass.
Silence. Walter turned his head slightly to the right and the man in white was standing only an arms reach away. His stomach sank and he began to raise his rifle. Those big teeth came out and Walter couldn’t understand. “What do you want?” Walter’s eyes were wide. “What makes you think… I want something, Walter?” The man talked slow and his voice was like a hollow wind. Silence. “What are you doing here?” Sweat dotted his furled brow. Silence. “Answer me dammit!” The man in white stopped smiling and his eyes went a little dark, the way shallow water looks when the sun comes in from an odd angle and hits it just right. “I don’t like guns, Walter. Can you please lower your firearm. You’re making me… uncomfortable.” “What, do you think I’m some sort of fool? Oh no, I’m going to keep this rifle aimed right at yer chest until you tell me what your business is here.” “Well Walter, I’ve been looking for a place like this,” the man in white put his hands behind his back and began to pace, his bare feet gliding through the tall grass. Then, “I just really like oranges. It’s the rind, I think. It’s a lot like our skin. You see, our skin is somewhat gelatinous and flimsy but it protects us to a certain degree. It keeps out the rain and the sun. It looks good when we take care of it. Same thing with an orange, or in your case, blood oranges, which are divine if I do say so myself. Really quite a talent you’ve got. Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, skin. You see, the rind is delicious. I like to nibble bits of it while I eat the rest of the orange. Kind of like how some folks do when they eat pasta. Bite of noodles and then a small bite of bread or roll. Quite romantic if you think about it. But, pasta doesn’t have skin, does it Walter? No, it doesn’t. Have you ever tasted skin? I mean, real skin? It’s a little salty at first but it’s delicious otherwise.”
Walter stood on his back porch and looked over his trees. It was quiet and still. The sun was reaching further into the sky and clouds dotted the rich blue canvas.
His old bones found a seat and he slept until the sun was nearly kissing the horizon. It was still quiet and Walter smiled an empty smile.
“Well old man, let’s hope you can make the dead proud.”
He creaked and found the kitchen, his nearly empty cupboards staring back at his sunken eyes. Another blood orange’s skin stained his hands and he waited for sleep to take him once more.
Dawn would come early and he would rise, without rest and without an alarm. It would still be quiet and he would still be alone, wanting nothing more than for the oranges to come back and put some color into his life once again, their deep color like tiny sunrises along every horizon that his eyes could find.
Just off of Highway 1, gentle tides met the California coast. Walter sat and watched the waves come and go. The radio in his BMW crooned static and blues. His old fingers peeled a nearly ripe blood orange while an early March chill crept along the pavement and onto stretches of sand. Walter was getting old and he could feel it in his bones. They were becoming brittle and hollow like a bird, and at any moment he felt as though they would all snap, like rusted chains that held shipwrecks on the bottom of the ocean. He was not afraid of the ocean though. It held his gaze. It held his respect. Those anxious for burning lungs passed him, digging their strong heels into the supple sands and Walter was jealous of their vigor. He would walk but since the passing of his wife, walking along a barren coast was a waste of his love. He would rather remember her and smile, than miss her and be sad. Walter did miss her though. The coast told him that, with every wave and every passing cloud. This had been their place of refuge. Their haven when the thought of being overwhelmed was too overwhelming. A giant circle of nothing. He started the engine and let it warm and hum under his feet before shifting it into gear. Walter liked to drive and the coastal highway stretched further than he had ever gone. Not since the war at least.
He liked women but he never married. Meridian would sit in speakeasies and drink scotch, listening to small talk amongst the drunkards and the lost. He found that most only wanted a warm body to wake up next to in the morning, the desperation in their voices reaching only the ears of those they thought suited for such a task. Sometimes, he would follow them back behind closed doors and watch them, waiting until they fell asleep in each others’ arms before whispering them into a frenzy. They would wake up and wonder where they were before cutting their eyes out and bleeding to death. The others would panic and jump from rooftops and Meridian would laugh and laugh. That’s when he stopped wearing shoes. He liked the way the world felt on the bottoms of his feet. It was 1922 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A couple he had followed home were nearly ready to die after slicing themselves up with the knives they had received on their wedding day and making love amongst the blood and severed fingers. Meridian took them up to the rooftop and told them to wait until they saw him down below before jumping to their deaths. They smiled and nodded, barely able to stand. He rushed down to the street where he took off his shoes. They looked over the edge and saw him there, smiling up at them. They shared one last kiss before hopping over the brick wall. The couple made a terrible sound and quite a mess, their blood leaking between the cracks in the street while Meridian licked the blood from his lips. He stuck his feet in their insides then and worked them around before pulling them out and spreading them across the pavement, to see how they moved under his calloused soles.
Meridian was born in Colorado in 1896. His father was a banker and his mother was a woman that liked men that weren’t her husband. It was the thrill, she would say, pushing ample clumps of hair behind her perfect ears just after asking for her husband’s forgiveness, streaks of make-up running from the corners of her eyes all the way down the curve of her face. Meridian always thought that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. His father would agree and would kiss her tears away before she fell asleep in his strong arms, thinking about all of the men she had before gliding her slight frame under the covers to press tighter up against his. They would make love and Meridian would listen. His father killed himself in 1910. His mother found him slumped between the toilet and bathtub, pieces of brain and skull stuck fast to the tile. Meridian didn’t cry. Neither did his mother. She left later that night with a suitcase full of clothes and Meridian’s father’s brother’s hand clutched tightly in her own, smiling from ear to ear as she waved goodbye to the small town she’d called home for so long. Truth is, Meridian told her to do it. While she napped on the kitchen counter, he whispered in her ear that it was time for her to go. No one here loved her anymore and it would be best to forget about her life and start new somewhere else. Meridian told his father to shoot himself in the face before that. The young boy sat his father down and told him to do just that. He said, “Poppa, momma is a whore and she doesn’t love you anymore. She doesn’t love me neither and she told me that you should just die so she can move on and not feel guilty about it. I think you should do it, Poppa. Just take the rifle and put it against your nose. Pull the trigger with your toe. She wants it that way. She told me so.”