The Ash Orchard

by Lorna Garano

Even with the shades clamped over the screened-in porch the house smelled of burnt apples. Some nut had been setting fires all over town and this last one, which was just two days ago, was at the orchard up the street. The apples had dropped to the ground and rotted in the fall when they went unpicked, so now the whole neighborhood smelled of their rotten-sweet flesh. When the police came to our house afterward to ask if we had seen anything, Steven stupidly asked if the trees would ever blossom again. As if that mattered. No one had touched their progeny for at least a decade, but still they went on producing, shitting out apples every September. And they were ugly. They looked like row after row of an army frozen in place, whose limbs had become arthritic. I was sick of seeing them, so I didn't care about the loss of the orchard, and I might have even hesitated before calling the emergency line when I realized that was where the fire was.

            Because I had to keep the screens covered and the windows closed the May breeze couldn't alleviate the heat that had built up in the house. I turned on the fan, but it blew the envelopes I was addressing all over the room and when I moved it far enough away for it not to disturb them I got no relief. I was working my way through the mailing that Cindy Cressmore said was going to “every eligible voter in town who wasn't living under a rock.”

The presidential election was over a year away and the official polling hadn't yet begun, but Cindy said that the mailing was our first effort to ensure that Reagan would be the frontrunner in Southern Connecticut when it did. We would eventually cover all of Fairfield and Litchfield counties. She began her letter by quoting the man himself, “Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her…” and she didn't ask for a donation until the end when you felt like not to give was to return to what we all feared—or what they feared. I knew how to rise above the defeatism, the helplessness, the laziness that plagued the country. I had been doing it all my life.

            I sealed a letter and placed it on top of the others in the pile on the table. Then I scooped up the whole stack and dropped them in the kiddie pool in the corner of the porch. The pool had sat there since the day Steven used it to recover from his vasectomy. He dumped a bag of ice in it and then eased himself down and rested quietly with a self-satisfied look on his face until the ice melted around him. I now made it a point to use the pool whenever I could. I put laundry that needed to be folded in it. I used it as a temporary storage for winter clothes that were to be packed away. Once I put the coats of a few guests who had come to dinner in it, but that seemed strange.

            Steven was always too dense to know what was best for him. I had laid the groundwork for our children to have what neither of us did. I saw that our rural town was becoming a suburb and a suburb required houses, schools, and everything else that families need, so I pushed him until he started his own plumbing business. If it were up to him he would have kept working for his uncle for wages that barely covered our groceries. We did well financially because of me, and I had even planned out how I would explain our wealth to our kids and to the other families who, like us, would have plenty of money but might have made it in more refined ways. “Daddy (or Steven) likes to think of the plumbing system as the veins of a building and what he's doing is setting up a vascular web that will make sure the building lives forever.” I thought of this when my father died of heart disease. I imagined his arteries clogged with the fat from decades of rib eyes and cheeseburgers and the blood pooling in huge bulges, while the rest of his insides dried up.

            Cindy wanted the letters to go out soon and my plan was to finish my portion of them and then check in with the other volunteers whom I supervised at our monthly meeting in a couple of hours. I addressed another letter. As usual, I was ahead of schedule with my work.

At first, when Cindy trooped in to the Committee's headquarters with the daughters she had adopted from Vietnam or one of those steamy Oriental countries she greeted the other volunteers, showed the girls what they were doing, and then later when she had settled them down somewhere—usually, the older girl who looked like a scarecrow in a corner with her sketch pad and the younger one at a typewriter—she would stop by to talk with me in a hushed voice, as if she were doing me a favor. It was different now that I had proved my worth. The mailing was only the latest task I had taken charge of, and now Cindy turned to me when anything had to get done.

There were three remaining people on my list. Michael Lazar, Eugene Lazpin, and Eleanor Lazzerini. I addressed letters to each of them and then started getting ready for the meeting.

In the shower I rehearsed how I would explain to the group that we were ahead of schedule for the mailing and how if we kept up the current pace (which was mostly due to the amount of work I had done, although I would let them conclude this on their own) we could send the first wave of letters out before the deadline Cindy had set. I put on the pants and blouse I'd bought for the Committee, combed out my hair, and then swept it back in the tortoise shell combs I had picked up at the drugstore last week. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that my face was too puffy to wear my hair back. I pulled out the combs, so that a frame of hair sliced the edges off of my face.

I took out a slice of lasagna from the refrigerator, wrote “dinner” on a napkin, and left the house.

The orchard was now only a few blackened trees. As I drove I imagined myself accelerating into it, the dead apples mashing under my tires as I barreled toward the trunks of ash. I saw them disintegrate into a death plume of black specs that floated quietly to the ground, long after I had driven away. I sped up and didn't brake until I could no longer glimpse the orchard's edge in my rear view mirror.

When I arrived at St. Mary's Church basement a few of the other volunteers sat around the table in the church basement drinking coffee and chatting. We smiled at each other as I walked past them to the coffee urn. I didn't want to make conversation. I returned to the table with a Styrofoam cup full of syrupy coffee and quietly rehearsed again how I would explain the progress on the mailing.

I heard Cindy's voice before she opened the door. She said something about the end of the school year so I knew she had her daughters with her. “Ming and Ling,” I had come to think of them as. I heard giggling, which had to be Sandy, the younger one, because Tina, her older sister, never uttered a sound. She had a face that was so round and flat it made me think of a paper plate, and I always had the feeling that she was just seconds from asking a painfully stupid question.  

“Spain. I want to practice my Spanish,” Sandy said.

“But we went there last year,” Cindy answered.  

“Mom, it's a big country. We can go back.”

When I turned around the first thing I noticed was the carved ivory combs that held back Cindy's blonde hair. I thought of the combs I had left sitting in my bathroom and raked my  fingers through my still slightly damp hair, pushing it away from my face.

Anna, another volunteer and a music teacher at St. Mary's High School, approached Cindy and the girls with a check in her hand. Cindy signed off on it and then walked toward me with only Tina in tow. Sandy stayed behind to talk with Anna.

“Nancy, I'd like to talk to you about another project,” she said.


“This one is essential and I'd like to start working on it immediately.”
            It was then I noticed Tina staring at me. This odd girl who never made eye contact was looking, without hesitation or reticence, into my face.

“We need to get the chamber of commerce involved. Not just the one here in Bainford, but in every town in Southern Connecticut,” Cindy said.

I tried to look only at Cindy, but Tina's gaze pulled me toward her until I looked in her eyes that were unblinking and as dark as crude oil. That's when Tina shot a look at Cindy and then turned back to me and rolled her eyes. I tried to study Cindy's face, but I could feel Tina watching me, expecting not just acknowledgement, but commiseration.

“I want to make some presentations to them,” Cindy went on.

I looked down into my empty Styrofoam cup and thought about escaping to the waste paper basket that was a few feet away, but Cindy didn't pause long enough for me to ease toward it gracefully.

Tina still stared at me, the expectation hanging, like a caul, on her face.

“I'm working on some statistics for business owners and an introductory letter. What I need from you is help with list.”

“I can do that,” I said. “Let me just get my notebook.” I rummaged through my purse looking for what I knew wasn't there.

“Actually, let's talk after the meeting. I'd like to get started.” Cindy walked to the front of the room. I turned away, relived by the knowledge that Tina would follow her.

I looked into my empty cup again. Then I sat down and began shredding it into smaller and smaller pieces.