Plum Tree

Natalie Serber

       Nora managed to scrape together enough for a joint from her mom’s stash. Her mom kept it hidden under her bed on a silver tray, which, in better times, displayed a tea set. The tray’s scalloped edges were already tarnished when she bought it at a neighbor’s yard sale, and her mother never bothered with polish. 
       Nora cupped the pot in her hand and stepped out to her backyard with its struggling lawn. Her friend Zellie was waiting for her, rummaging through her backpack. “I don’t have any papers,” Zellie said. Instead, she held up a Tampax and ran her tongue along the edge of the wrapper. “We’ll have to use this.”  She ejected the tampon onto the lawn where it lay like a white firecracker. The raggedy-edged wrapper made a lumpy joint, the words, slender reg, along the side. 
       “My mom claims this pot is the same kind Hitler smoked before he committed suicide.”  Nora wondered if the pot actually had a family tree and her mother knew it, or if her mother was just trying to scare her off, or if Hitler even smoked pot. “It was one of my mom’s voice-over moments when she tries to tell me stuff without telling me stuff. As if…” She sat in the dirt, leaning against the plum tree behind her bedroom.
       “Here’s to Hitler’s suicide,” Zellie said, sucking her voice down her throat with the smoke. Nora’s mom croaked like that when she smoked pot. Sometimes she croaked out entire sentences, like “What should we make for dinner tonight?” or “There’s a Thin Man movie on at ten.”  Then they’d roll the TV into her mother’s bedroom. She was named for Nora Charles and Nora imagined reclining in satin with a dry martini and a sublime husband like Nick Charles. Nora would stroll across the bedroom, imitating Mrs. Charles, with her mother’s cigarette held elegantly between two fingers. “A little more hip,” her mother would say, or, “God, I’d kill for your legs.” 
       Zellie twisted a plum from the branch above her. “The only thing I’d want to steal from my mom is a diuretic pill.”  When Nora shrugged, Zellie continued.  “You know, pee pills, for water retention. Her tongue clicks in her mouth because she’s practically desiccated herself trying to pee away twenty pounds.” 
       “I’d like one of those pills.”  Nora held her hand open and Zellie dropped a plum into her palm. This was the first house Nora ever lived in with a fruit tree. 
       “Maybe I’ll learn to preserve,” her mom had said to their new landlord. He’d lit her cigarette and she re-inhaled the curl of smoke escaping from her mouth. French, she called it. He told her he’d come every winter to prune and spray for mold.
       The tree was nestled at the back of the yard, where the two fence sides sharply met. If Nora had gone to geometry often enough she’d remember what kind of angle it was, acute or oblique or something worse. She’d hated her geometry teacher. Supposedly he was hypoglycemic. He nibbled sandwiches through all of his classes. His wife made them and his suits. During quizzes Nora stared at the crust and bits of bologna sitting on a cloth napkin on his desk. She read the labels sewn into the suit jackets he hung on the back of his chair. Hand sewn by Mrs. Loudermilk. If he never removed his jacket, no one would know the work she’d put into that suit. Now Nora took courses in which she knew she’d excel, typing instead of geometry. She quickly mastered the home keys and aced all the self-tests; Now is the time for all good men… That’s how she slipped off the college track in school.  She still hadn’t told her mother about her schedule change. Ruby had sympathy for screw-ups, but Nora thought this change was just a decision. Sometimes Ruby made snap decisions—like dying her hair red, or adopting strays, or moving, or, one time, as if she’d done it a thousand times before, passing Nora her little stone pipe. “What the hell,” she’d said, releasing a long, steady stream of what smelled like burnt honey. “We’re home, you’re safe. I’d rather you try it here than somewhere else.”  Nora wanted to make decisions like that, change big parts of her life in a heartbeat.
       The plum tree’s branches dipped over either side of the fence, the plums dangling into the alley, tempting anyone who passed by. Nora had watched the blossoms give way to green lumps, tight as eyes squeezed shut. Then, with the warmer days, when she came outside to get stoned or escape her mother’s moods, she noticed they’d begun to soften and purple up. Someone had taken the time to plant this tree. 
       When Nora shelved books at the library to work off detention, she’d come across a book on fruit trees. First she thumbed through the pictures, then she found the chapter on plums and she’d slumped down in the stacks and read the names; Beauty, Damson, Elephant Heart, Golden Nectar, Nubiana. Judging from the description—large amber-fleshed plum with deep purple skin, sweet and firm—she had a Nubiana tree in her yard. To plant, you must dig a hole three times the size of the root ball, mound up a pile of soil and compost in the center, and then spread the roots as gingerly as a child’s hair. She imagined a gardener tamping down the soil around the trunk with the toes of her shoes, tucking it in.  For such a colossal effort, you’d better know you were sticking around.  A fruit tree meant total commitment.
       They passed the goitery joint, biting Nubianas between hits. Juice dripped down their chins and when they couldn’t hold the joint without burning their fingers, Zellie spit on it and dropped it in the film can with their emergency supply of roaches.  
       “What now?”  Zellie asked.
       It was the dead zone of the school year, a week left until summer, reports already turned in, finals taken. Yesterday the entire school participated in a rollicking locker purge. Teachers paced the corridors while students chucked torn pictures from Rolling Stone, empty lip-gloss applicators, old tests, and shriveled orange peels into strategically placed trashcans. Those who had attended school today would be enduring cobwebby videos of Masterpiece Theatre, watching the institutional timepieces click, half a notch back, full minute forward. Nora had spent many hours staring at the clocks’ limping hands, as if even the clocks had to work hard to develop enough momentum to make it through Junior Composition. 
       Nora stood up, her left hand pressed against the trunk for support. Overhead, the sky was swept clear of clouds, and the afternoon stretched out before her, full of absolutely nothing.  A light feeling crept up from the arches of her feet, along her thighs, rising up her spine until she felt herself upright as a sunflower. “Head rush.”  She wiped the dirt from her ass. Plum pulp smeared the seat of her pants. “Shit. I promised I’d rake these up.”  She kicked at more fallen fruit around the base of the tree.
       “Let’s just hang until the party,” Zellie said. Yesterday, during P.E., when Nora and Zellie were smoking, slouched against the cyclone fence in the senior parking lot and checking their reflections in car windows, a boy they hardly knew told them about a kegger on Ocean View Drive. 
       On Fridays Nora’s mother could be counted on to hit happy hour after she finished teaching. Zellie and Nora had the house to themselves. Zellie flipped through the channels for an old movie. Nora settled onto the sofa, its cushions wide as her smile.  Nora and her mother used to eat together in front of the TV, first with John Chancellor and then they’d do schoolwork to Taxi. Her mother had a crush on Judd Hirsch, and she liked Tony Danza.
       “Something for everyone,” Nora whispered to herself now. That was before Nora had started cutting classes. Before they’d moved to this house and Nora met Zellie. Before she mixed vodka and crème de menthe in pint milk cartons and brought them to school to share before 5th period, Health.  Before she joined her friends screaming insults out car windows at pigeon-toed, D-cupped Tara Istrin. Before she’d kissed a boy and was fitted for a diaphragm because all the girls she knew had one. Her mother tried to get information out of her, calling Nora in to sit on the toilet while she soaked in the tub, a shell-shaped inflatable pillow behind her neck, a hot washcloth spread over her cheeks and chin, opening her pores. Nora didn’t want to hear that her mother had done the same things—that she and her mother were similar in any way. “Take advantage of my experience,” her mother would say. Nora couldn’t stand when her mother was earnest. 
       After Return from Planet of the Apes, and a rerun of Hogan’s Heroes, Nora peeled Zellie off the couch, “You’re such a slug.”  They walked through her neighborhood to the beach and the Boardwalk, killing time. The late afternoon sun stretched long arms of light through a fogbank that hung just offshore. A breeze fluttered the girls’ hair around their shoulders and carried the smell of baked kelp up the cliffs to where they stood. 
       “Do you think Randall looks like Charlton Heston?”  Zellie asked.
       Nora blew air through her lips, snorting. They both knew Zellie only wanted to get him into the conversation. “Randall is so into you.” 
       “I don’t know.”  Zellie picked at her split ends.
       “Trust me. I can interpret the way a guy stares.”  Though guys didn’t stare at her. It was always her mother. Fervent men in cars, at gas stations, in checkout lines, her friends' dads—even her mother’s ninth- grade school bus driver. Her mom used to sit in the third seat behind him just so they could “make eyes” in his rear view mirror. Now, whenever Ruby smelled Old Spice cologne she brought up Leroy, the bus driver, like some amazing treasure from her past. Nora once asked her if anything came of the flirting and her mother said, “No?” as if it was a question. She’d raised her eyebrows expectantly, like wide-open windows waiting for a breeze, only she was waiting for Nora to share about her life. When Nora didn’t, Ruby finally said, “When you’re ready, I’m here. Whatever you need: advice, birth control, a shoulder.”
       “I told Randall about the party,” Zellie said. “I hope you don’t care.” 
       Nora shrugged as if she didn’t, although with Randall at the party, she’d be left on her own.
       The sun was gone now, and the lights from the Boardwalk flickered on. Screams from the roller coaster reached them. They were always louder in the fog. Nora could hear them from her twin bed; the screams shrill at the top of the hill and then fading quickly away as if the riders plummeted straight down a hole. She’d lie in the dark of her room, following the route in her mind. The seats rattled, and like the passengers whose hips slid from side to side in the fiberglass train, Nora would sway in her bed, mimicking the ride. Sometimes, lying there and listening to the screams rise over the crest of the first hill, her heart pounded.

       Nora had to lie down on her bed to lace up the front of her jeans.  Zellie was digging a straightened paper clip around the bowl of Ruby’s pipe and up the draft hole. She smeared residue along the length of a cigarette and then lit it. “Wear the batik skirt, it makes your ass look good.” Zellie passed the cigarette, then rifled through the pile of clothing on the floor. “Can I wear the angora?”
       Nora nodded. She slipped the skirt on and turned sideways in the mirror, ran her hands over her hips. She’d seen her mother do this exact thing, stand in front of a mirror, saying “This is relaxed,” letting her stomach pooch out, then sucking it in tight, “And, this is held in.” Nora sucked her stomach in; she shouldn’t have eaten so much today. Sometimes she went an entire day nibbling on one bagel so when she and Zellie listed what they’d eaten she could say, a bagel, and feel in control.
       “I look fat.”
       “Yeah, right.” Zellie said. “Can I sleep here?”
       Nora nodded then squeezed back into her jeans and re-laced the front with a rainbow-colored shoestring. Zellie called her mom. 
       “Mom… Fine… I’m sleeping at Nora’s…I already said fine… I dunno, the movies… how early?”  She took a drag off the cigarette and blew the smoke out the side of her mouth. “What?… Bounce?… I know what it is… Okay. Bye.”  She hung up and stared at Nora, “My mother needs Bounce.”  And they burst out laughing. “My mother has been doing laundry for sixteen years.”  
       “Bounce.” Nora said in her springiest voice and she laughed and felt comfortable because now the evening had a theme, a private joke to share at the party.
       Nora left a note for Ruby. 
       At the movies. Zellie is sleeping over.
                                      Love, N. 

       They plucked more plums to eat on the way. The fog never did come in and the first stars made pinpricks of light in the darkening sky. The girls passed bungalows and cottages. Watery blue light and the smell of onions seeped out windows toward the street along with bits of the evening news, the clatter of dishes, “I’m in the kitchen,” someone practicing piano—the loose connections of family in the hours between dinner and bed.  Nora had the feeling of swimming past all that life on the inside. 
       “I’d want to live there,” Zellie said, pointing to a dark house. “Everybody’s out doing their own thing.”
       “There’s mine,” Nora pointed. Tiny lights illuminated shrubs on both sides of the path to the porch like guide lights on a runway. A tabby cat perched on the rail, flicking its tail lazily, watching them through slitted eyes. The porch light glowed off the doorknob as if the house could hardly wait for someone to wrap a hand around it. “Wouldn’t you love to come home to that?”
       “You are so weird.” Zellie pointed to the window boxes. “Those are plastic flowers.”
       “Maybe they went to Europe. They didn’t want the plants to die.”
       “Europe’s not so great.”  Zellie lobbed a plum pit into the hedges. Zellie tossed off statements like that all the time. As if her family vacations, family meetings, family meals, family code words, family outings were nothing compared to the freedom, the laissez-faire child-rearing Ruby claimed bloomed from her complete trust in Nora.  
       There were no plastic flowers at the party house. These parents had left for just a few days. Nora followed close behind Zellie. She hoped Randall wouldn’t show up right away and whisk Zellie off, at least not until she found someone to talk to. It was awkward being alone in the center of so many people. Three clans populated the wide porch, the smokers, the talkers, and the kissers. Nora knew she was a member of the first, and she patted the pack of Winston Lights jammed into her waistband. She recognized people from school, but no one she knew well enough to say hi first, so she drifted past, her hand ready in case anyone greeted her. The Stones, When the Whip Comes Down, bellowed from washing machine-sized speakers just inside the living room. Music vibrated up from the floor into her stomach and throat as if she was nauseated. An antique couch, its back arched up like a cat, held three too many people and as they walked by, a boy thrust a corndog toward Nora. She waved, and then yelled over the music,  “No, thanks. I’m a vegetarian.”  It sounded ridiculous.  She was a vegetarian because she liked the way it sounded to her mother’s friends, as if Nora believed in something besides men and fun. 
       Someone clicked off the overhead light and draped scarves over floor lamps as Nora and Zellie weaved through knots of dancers toward the keg in the kitchen. Institutional white tile covered the floors, walls, and ceiling. It was bright, and loud, and reeked of pot and fast food. Der Wienerschnitzel wrappers littered the counters. A girl with black bangs unwrapped corndogs from a greasy brown bag and loaded them onto cookie sheets. She said, “Voila,” again and again while wrappers spilled to the floor. 
       “Hey, ladies. Can I buy you a drink?”  A guy with a foam mustache held the keg nozzle toward them. He sucked at his upper lip and revealed a wispy blond moustache then gestured toward the corndogs.  “You should have seen the guy at Wienerschnitzel. They had to get the manager to unlock the freezer.”  He handed them each a cup. “Pretty righteous…” 
       Zellie smiled and Nora asked where the parents were.
       “Mexico.”  He smiled with protruding lips, as if imitating Mick Jagger or protecting his own lips from braces.
       Another guy was taking jars out of the refrigerator and dumping them into one bowl—mayonnaise, relish, three different kinds of mustard, ketchup and mango chutney. “For our feast,” he said to the corndog girl. It looked as if this party had been underway for some time.
       At the kitchen table, people slammed back shots of José Cuervo and sucked on grapefruit sections. A guy with hairy knuckles and a golden retriever smile held an eggcup full of tequila out to Nora. She leaned against the doorjamb and drank it down like it was a job, like taking out the trash. She’d tasted her mother’s tequila and orange soda. Ruby and her girlfriends drank them summer afternoons, greased up with coconut oil, sunbathing nude in the backyard with an Indian bedspread flung over the clothesline as a gesture toward privacy. Nora kept her eyes closed to hide the tears that sprang up with the alcohol burning down her throat. The same boy pressed a grapefruit section to her lips. She smiled around it, bit down on the flesh. When she opened her eyes, Zellie and the guy had grapefruit smiles as well and heat lit up her insides. They tossed the peels onto the kitchen floor with the wrappers and corndog sticks. He grabbed their hands, pulling them into the living room. Someone’s sweaty back rubbed up and down Nora’s arm. She let herself half dance, half be bounced by the crowd. “Bounce,” she yelled twice before Zellie heard her and laughed. The guy heard too and he started bouncing and all three of them did and then it spread across the room like a wave and everybody bounced to Mick Jagger singing Lies. They danced through three more songs before Randall popped up, wrapped his arms around Zellie, and she was gone.
       Hairy Knuckles, who Nora recognized from somewhere, brought his lips to her ear, “Beer?” he yelled and she nodded. He filled their cups in the kitchen and returned to her with a handful of tiny pickles and a corndog, the stick between his teeth like the stem of a red rose. They leaned against a speaker, watching the dancers, watching their beer jiggle along with the bass line. Nora ate pickles from his cupped hand and when he held out the dog, she took a bite, swallowed it down with beer.  It tasted bad, like wet rye bread and sugar, but when he held it out again, she took a second bite. 
       A joint came by and he put the lit end in his mouth. He blew evenly and a turbo stream of pot smoke came off the back end. Nora leaned close, held her lips in a tight O and breathed it in until she couldn’t hold anymore. Then they switched and she felt the heat of the cherry just above her tongue as she blew into the Hairy Knuckles’ mouth. It was mean, thinking of him as Hairy Knuckles. She was glad not to have to stand alone, now that Zellie found Randall. She stared at him, pleasant brown eyes, thick eyebrows and no pimples. His front teeth overlapped at a jaunty angle, like someone tipping a hat.
       “You okay?” he mouthed, and she shook her head because just then, she felt incredibly dizzy. He led her outside where the cold air felt fresh and clean on her face and she could breath deeply. They stood beside a night blooming jasmine. He plucked a flower and held it beneath her nose. 
       “I’m Nick.”
       “You are not.”  She said, trying to focus on the white blossom.
       “Sure am.” 
       She burst out laughing. “I’m Nora.”  He wrinkled his brow, smiling cautiously. Clearly he’d never seen The Thin Man
       “I know.” He said he remembered her from school, though he graduated last June. 
       “Are you in college?”
       “City.”  He asked if she’d ever been to another party here. She shook her head no and saw two white blossoms and two sets of brown eyes bobbing before her face. The jasmine smell was sweet and strong.
       He threaded his arm through Nora’s. “Let’s walk.”
       She asked if he had a dog named Asta and he still didn’t get it, but he listened to her laugh and didn’t seem to mind that she had her own joke. They shared a cigarette and her head swam. 
       “I think I’m pretty drunk.”  She leaned against his shoulder.
       He smiled with his eyes as if he had all the time and shoulder space she would ever need. “Hey, don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got you covered.”
       Nora thought, ‘Hairy Knuckles is so nice.’ 
       She stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk and he caught her by the wrist, then wrapped his arms around her so her shoulder fit right into his damp armpit like a jigsaw puzzle. He kissed her neck, said maybe they should rest in his car and then they were right next to it and he was helping her into the back seat and shutting the door. They eased back onto the seat, facing each other. He kissed her again, softly and slack lipped, and Nora felt as if she could tumble right inside his mouth.
       ‘I am kissing Nick. Nick Knuckles. Nick Knuck.’  And she kept saying that over and over in her mind while they kissed and she felt the ridge of his crooked teeth against her gums. She thought about a time in the future, when they’d be eating lunch together and she could tell him how she’d called him Nick Knuck. She would tease the hair on his fingers when she said it. Perhaps even plant a row of kisses across all five.
       Nick’s tongue leisurely swished around in her mouth. She tasted grapefruit in front of other flavors, corndog, smoke, tequila and something else, something salty, lush and warm. She wondered and worried over her taste, thought of her diaphragm, left at home between her mattress and box spring and how she wanted to have a lot to tell Zellie later. Nick pressed against her and she felt herself pressing right back, facing him in the dark, her legs knotted around his, his hand reaching beneath her sweater; he tried to jiggle it beneath her waistband. She sucked her stomach in and felt, at one and the same time, regret and relief that she’d worn the tight jeans. 
       “I didn’t expect this,” he said softly.
       She wasn’t sure what Nick meant—the luck of meeting her, or the inconvenience of her pants. A seat belt dug into her back and she was acutely aware of where she was—alone with a boy in a car.
       He kissed her again, more deeply and his hand worked its way down toward her ass. The jasmine smelled sweet and Nick’s weight felt good.  Over his shoulder, the windows fogged and Nora believed they had done that, together. No one passing by would see them together inside. She had been wanting this to happen to her, though things weren’t exactly as she had imagined—they both still had their shoes on. But the air in the car was warm and thick as blankets. Nora unwrapped her arms from around his neck and untied her pants. She loosened the rainbow shoestring and peeled her jeans down. As she revealed them, her hips and legs glowed in the amber light. Her own thighs looked supple, firm. Nick never took his eyes off her, determined and grateful. Even in the time it took to get the jeans off, she didn’t change her mind.

       It was after. Back at the party, with wrappers now strewn across the living room carpet and the music blaring. It was when Nick looped his finger through the shoestring in her pants, pulling her toward him, that she changed her mind. She’d seen gestures like that, a slap on the ass, a tweaked nipple, a man pinching a cigarette from between her mother’s lips and putting it to his own. Those gestures, like Nick’s finger wrapped in her shoestring, were flip, cavalier, possessive. Her mother flourished under them. When Nick held his beer to her lips, “Drink up, Baby.”  She felt something rise inside her that she couldn’t swallow away. He smiled at her with his crooked teeth only they didn’t look jaunty anymore. They looked as if they were crowding toward an exit. 
       “Who’s this Asta you were talking about?  Isn’t he The Jetson’sdog?” Nick asked.
       She shook her head, “That’s Astro.”
       “Right.”  He showed his teeth again. 
       “I’ll be right back.”  On the porch, everyone belonged to the kissing clan now. Nora reached for a cigarette then realized they must be in Nick’s car. They should have stayed in the car, just the two of them. Perhaps there, behind the fogged windows, she wouldn’t feel so vacant. 
       “Nora?” Randall and Zellie smiled down at her over the porch railing. Two round, pale faces hovering from the planet Couple.  
       “Hey.”  She looked up at them. “I think I’m going home.”
       “What a good girl you are.”  Randall said it like it was a compliment. He had his arm around Zellie, their shoulders and hips touching. 
       “I’m going to stay with Randall. Cover for me?”  Zellie asked.
       Nora nodded. “Don’t forget the Bounce.”

       Her mom’s Rambler was parked straight so Nora knew she hadn’t been drinking. She took a deep breath and opened the door. 
       “How was the movie?” Ruby called from her bed. Her voice sounded tired. Nora heard the drone of the TV. 
       Nora hadn’t thought about what movie she supposedly saw and now she tried to remember what was playing.
       “Come talk to me.” 
       “I have to pee.”  In the bathroom she wadded up toilet paper and stuck it in her underpants. She felt raw, pulpy. She didn’t even want to think about her clean and cornstarched diaphragm, useless in her room.
       Her mother slumped cross-legged in the center of her bed, her faded kimono cinched loose around her waist.  An adding machine sat on the silver tray with her grade book open next to it, and a trail of white paper snaked over the quilt, onto the floor. A fleeing herd and a pursuing team of lions ran across the TV screen. Nora braced herself for questions about the pot. “Did you and Zellie argue?  I thought she was spending the night.”
       “She changed her mind.”  
       Ruby studied Nora, gave a doubting, suggestion of a nod.
       “What are you watching?”
       “I was watching Johnny Carson.”  She kept her finger placed along a column of numbers, someone’s grades, and Nora avoided her mother’s steady gaze. 
       “What?”  Nora finally asked. If any one could intuit what she had done, it was Ruby. That she’d done it, she was glad, she thought. She had something to tell Zellie. She could cross it off the list. 
       “Tylenol helps.”  Ruby held the grade book out to her. “I’m on Jared Cavanaugh.”   
       Nora used to grade with her mother twice a year. Ruby would stay in for an entire weekend and they’d have potpies and candy bars while she corrected stacks of papers, and then read out the scores. Nora keyed them into the calculator and wrote the final tally like a premonition of someone’s future. That’s how she used to feel about her own grades, that they meant something. 
       “Nora, are you okay?
       “Why wouldn’t I be?”   She must reek of cigarettes and tequila. She took a plum from the glass bowl her mother kept on her dresser. 
       “Maybe it’s a good thing I have no plans this weekend.” Ruby sighed, fishing through her nightstand for a cigarette. The match flared bright and blue. She stared at her daughter through the cloud of exhaled smoke—her girl, Nora, steadying herself against the dresser. Outside, beyond the windows, wild screams rose up from the Giant Dipper. 
       “Are you happy?” 
       It was such a weird thing for a mother to ask.