Oranges for Christmas. The lady dropped them off along with some socks and a sack of marbles. The box sat on the front porch, abandoned, for the world to see. She was ashamed, but the lady couldn’t bring herself to knock on the door. She didn’t want to witness what she knew couldn’t be fixed with charity.
Paula was in the kitchen. She heard the dogs next door bark as the lady’s high heels clomped across the porch toward the screen door. She heard the thud as a cardboard box hit the loose boards. The boys were asleep under a pile of blankets someone from the Salvation Army had left the day before. She could see the tops of their heads barely sticking out from under the covers, just enough so they could breathe and not see their breath. Smoke from her last cigarette hung in the air, a cloud to keep her company at the kitchen table. She felt nothing. Not her own hunger, not even heat from the oven door she’d cracked open to fight off the chill long enough to give the boys a bath before bed. Bed. There was no bed. Only an old, discarded sofa. Now in the quiet, early morning she wondered what she would feed them. There was nothing left. No eggs. No bread for toast, and no money until after the first of the month.
It was a crooked road that had led Paula to that place. That place she wished she could leave and never see again. She had thought about it many times, but someone else’s morality had always managed to keep her there. There in that place. That place where her value was measured by an invisible yardstick held on one end by church ladies delivering hand-me-downs and the other end by social workers delivering warnings. Time meant nothing in that place. One day was like the next, slamming doors, neighbors shouting, kids running barefoot across dirt yards. Hunger. Anger.
The one thing Paula had going for her was that she was alone with her thoughts. Alone with two kids. He’d made sure of that. She had no choice in the matter. That’s the way he liked it. The way everyone seemed to like it. Important decisions, quitting school, having babies, living in that place, those decisions had been made for her. Life as Paula knew it was about the lesser of two evils. Lucky for her a judge had made sure one of those evils would be locked up for a long time. A bar fight and a loaded revolver made it an open and shut case. The lesser evil was the label. She was a statistic, and not a good one. Her kids were statistics too. Lucky for them they were still too young to know what that meant. Other people’s charity was now the lesser of two new evils. Paula Hollingsworth set the bag of oranges on the kitchen table and walked out the door.
Jake Hollingsworth didn’t remember his mother. He never met his father. All he knew was that they were the reason why his big brother, Mason, hated oranges.