10,000 Tangerines

This is what I know of Walter. He is five and wild. His hair is long, mostly brown with a few blond curls that won’t last. I dated his uncle in high school, the one he is named after. He died some time ago, on the twisty stretch of highway that connects downriver and upriver. They say he was drunk and wanted to go home. I didn’t go to the funeral, but sent flowers.

Three days after interviewing, I got a job at the elementary school as a teacher’s aide. I walk into the classroom. Walter runs out with a handful of cookies.

“You have to watch that one,” the teacher says. “He steals food.”

She explains my job is to follow him.

“No need to try to bring him inside. Just make sure he doesn’t disturb other classrooms or leave school grounds. Keep him safe.”

This is what I know of the teacher. She isn’t local, and in the winter when storms flood the highways, she stays at our casino hotel. I briefly worked as a maid at the hotel. In her room, I would find cigarette butts piled high in the ashtrays and lottery tickets wrapped in bed sheets.

The school days pass, and Walter never comes inside. I follow him as he steals food out of the cafeteria and rummages for clothes in the lost and found. Even in the rain, I follow. He kicks off his shoes in downpours, hitting every puddle in his path and some out of the way if they are big enough.

I once heard Walter’s mother was shot at by her own father, when she was around Walter’s age. It took the police three days to investigate the incident.

The rain stops, and the days grow warmer. I sit on the grass at the edge of the playground and watch him race around the basketball court or climb the worn-down jungle gym. He scavenges the area for lost balls, old jump ropes, and forgotten toys. He puts them all in a pile and goes off to look for more.

Closing my eyes, I listen to his footsteps. Speeding up, kicking dust, zigzagging across asphalt. They slow down as they get closer to me. He stands over me for a time. I open my eyes and turn my head. Walter flops down next to me. He has brought his treasures with him. While he arranges the items, he asks me who my family is. He sounds like an old man. Like my grandfather.

“My father’s family are the Ivors,” I tell him.

“What about your mom?”

“I don’t know her.” I pull out a tangerine from my sweatshirt pocket and give it to him.

He snags it and starts peeling before I grab a second tangerine for myself.

“Why don’t you know your mom?” Tangerine juice drips down his chin.

I shrug my shoulders and find a rock in the grass.

I throw the stone at a basketball Walter has found. It bounces off the ball and lands in a Styrofoam cup with bite marks on the rim. He laughs, then grabs a stone and throws it at the ball. It rebounds and hits him on his cheek. We take turns throwing rocks. The rocks hit and bounce, leaving red marks and scrapes, but none make it in the cup again. Walter asks me if I have any more tangerines.

“Not with me.”

“I could eat 10,000 of them.” The bell rings signaling the end of the day.

This is what I know about me. I would buy 10,000 tangerines. They would fill my kitchen, overflow the table and counters, and roll on the ground. Everything would glow orange. Walter and I would eat one after the other. Our faces and hands covered with sticky juice. Fingers burning, turning pink. We would eat until our skin smelled sharp and lush and only of tangerines.

Sloan Thomas lives on an Indian reservation in Northern California. She grew up with great oral storytellers all around her. She’s trying to figure out how to write a story as good as the ones she hears everyday. She has work published in Jersey Devil Press and Word Riot and SmokeLong Quarterly under the name R.S. Thomas. In 2012 she made Wigleaf’s Top Fifty.When she’s not writing she works a full time job, takes care of her four children and takes classes at the local community college. Occasionally she remembers to breathe.