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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Vichinsky

An Orange Tree in the Desert

Disclaimer: This was part of a writing challenge. Ideas were listed and were randomly chosen based on the roll of the dice. I had to include a desert, CEO, interview, and neighbor.

"The company is going down, man!"

"Tom, Tom, it'll be okay"

"How?! How will it be okay?!"

Rich didn't know.

"We have always figured it out."

Rich knew what Tom didn't, that they were running out of money. Out of stories. He looked back toward his window and stared at the midline view of downtown Phoenix.

"Rich, people don't read. It's pointless." His head dropped and so did Rich. It didn't kill him, but it broke his heart.

Tom had been Rich's best agent and writer since he created the company. He knew as much as Rich, if he didn't find a story by the end of the month to publish he had no shot at keeping his many years of hard work afloat. He gave a sigh.

"We have until the end of the month, don't look over any story too big or too small. Talk to everyone you know, maybe me and you can draw up something by the end."

Tom, having nothing left but some pride for what they have done, a love for his CEO Rich, and desperateness, said in an exasperated whisper, "Alright..." Tom shook his head and walked out of Rich's office, closing the doors behind him.


That night, after a few more hours of looking out the window and hoping some inspiration would come, he started home. He looked out at the windshield at the purple and orange sunset that had taken over the desert horizon and was thankful, at least, for the view. He pulled past the cactus into his nice house on the outskirts of the city. He had a pool and a mostly empty house. His wife, who he had loved, and his kids, who he does love had left for different things. Mostly because of his time away. The cliche as old as time, man starts a business, gets caught up in that business, wants to be successful for this family, loses his family on his stretch to success. Now he sits on the verge of bankruptcy.

Rich took off his coat and sat it on one of the patio chair backs and unbuttoned his top button and sat down, he had poured - at some point in his journey through the house - a whiskey. He sighed and took a seat resting this forearm to the back of his head and leaned back - closing his eyes.

He slept there for a bit and his mouth awoke before his eyes as his mouth closed and his eyes opened. He looked around and sat in the dark with the sound crickets and cicadas humming. He started to head back to his slider when he heard a slam coming from the other side of his fence, from his neighbors lawn.

Out of curiosity, Rich walked lazily to the front holding his now watered down whiskey to his side . When he came around the corner there was a lanky man in his driveway tying another bag to the roof of an already packed Subaru. He slapped the pack for good luck.

"That'll do." He smiled.

"Excuse me."

"Crikey! You scared me, mate"

"I apologize." He sniffed, one of those awkward ones men do to break silence.

The man held out his hand, "Allen"

"Sorry, uh, Rich"

"What's going on out here, Allen?"

"I could ask you the same, you are out here at 2:00AM on a Thursday, with a half unbuttoned shirt and plonk."

Rich thought for a moment "Touche" and then, "when did you move in?"

"A year ago, mate"

"Ah."

Allen smiled and fixed his glasses. "Pleased to meet ya."

They nodded.

"So uh..." He gestured with his hands toward the overflowing Subaru.

"Right, I'm going on a trip!"

"Where?"

"Not sure yet, mate. Hoping to find gold so to speak."

The cicadas grew louder and Rich suddenly felt the mosquitoes biting at his ankles and swatted.

"Gold, huh?"

"So to speak..."

Rich walked around the car and Allen, with his hands on his hips, walked around with him. Rich noticed he was a lanky man, one many years passed his own age. He seemed a bit fragile, but excited and experienced just by his walk and his greeting.

"So you're just headed out into the desert?"

"It'll be a corker!"

Rich smiled, "Well I'll let you get back to it, nice meeting you, best of luck out there"

Rich turned but he remembered suddenly his words to Tom and thought, Fuck.

He turned around, "Uh, Allen"

"Yeah?"

"You don't happen to have an extra spot open in your Subaru?"

Allen looked confused, and feeling judged, Rich felt the need "You see -"

"Bahbahbah, not every story needs an explained motivation" he smiled. "We leave first thing in the mornin'!"

The night was cool and a little light when Rich turned around and noticed the stars. It wasn't much but it was an opportunity to find something, even gold. That night he packed his bags for however many nights he could, he made coffee, called Tom, sat on his couch and waited.


 

I'm not sure what Rich expected but he didn't find gold within the first couple hours. Instead he looked out the window at the vast desert. His windows had to be down as he quickly was reminded how severely car sick he gets. The only problem about the windows was that it kicked up the dry desert sand and so he was soon caked with dried sand and sweat.

"You alright there, mate?"

Rich lifted his head from the window and looked over his shoulder, "You didn't tell me you didn't have AC."

"Yeah, uh, sorry, I wasn't really expecting company."

Rich put his head back onto the smudged window.

"Say, there's a bar up the road, why don't we stop there for a drink?"

As the car pulled up everything was shades of brown and orange. The rusted bar seemed to blend into the backdrop. There was a sign up front and had an ineligible words. A few cars sat in the parking lot, some dusted - seemingly been there for forever, cemented in sand - and others look like they had been traveled like the Subaru that Allen had. It had surprised Rich that places like this still existed, yet here they are.

Inside looked like, what Rich told me, a scene from modern a western. It was dark and dingy. It smelled like tabacco - the rolled kind not the manufactured - and old beer. At the bar a lady at the counter was passing out beers to two sad cowboys. Another man was asleep his forehead stuck to the bar counter.

"Get me a drink, whiskey," Allen said, "I got to use this pisser."

Rich nodded and almost rolled his eyes.

At the bar, the lady did not look up from the glass that she had been washing. "What can I get you?"

"Two whiskey on the rocks please"

She still didn't look up, instead, she flipped over the cup she had just washed and put a scoop of ice in it followed by the house whiskey. As she did this, Rich looked around at the memories stapled to the walls. Famous people who are now unrecognizable with other mustached men - dated in the corners. He looked at the neon lights that were half working- the flickering made it seem even brighter when you looked right at them. On the ground different color refracted light shimmered - a few antique bottles in the windowsills were stacked to make it look like stained glass. She handed one of the whiskeys over.

"I have seen that fella a lot," She pointed to the bathroom where Allen had gone, "but I have not seen you. Where are you from?"

Rich smiled, a kind of half smile, "Phoenix," and then recognizing what she said, "Wait you see him a lot?"

She continued without answering the question, "Welp, if you're looking for the baron middle of the earth, you've come close."

Rich gave a short smirk. She continued, "But ya know, there's something special about this place."

Rich gave a snort and a drink, doubting it.

"Yeah, it doesn't look like much but this guy," she points with her cigarette at the man with his head sleeping at the bar, "Waits for someone here everyday"

"Who?"

"He never told us, he just shows up and drinks, sometimes says thank you or nods. I just feed him drinks," She shook her head, "Yup."

"Huh" Rich said, and then took a sip of his whiskey.

Just then the drink that had been slid next to Rich, the other one, had been picked up and Allen's voice behind him, "Boy that was a big shit," he snapped down the drink and the ice clinked in the glass. "Ready, mate?"

Rich put a bill down on the table and waved over the bartender. She walked over, still with a glass in her hand, drying it with a towel.

"Get the guy a drink on me."

She nodded.

As Rich waked out the door Allen started honking, "Let's go! On a mission," Rich took picked up the speed and got in the passenger seat.


 

On the dusty road, big purple clouds started rolling toward the car. In the distance, a wall of rain fogged the road ahead. The temperature, approaching dawn and the dark clouds, had dropped significantly. The windows down had finally made the car cool and lightning made a nice sky-drop over the baron desert. It was quiet except the scraping of the tires on the wetted dust roads.

"Allen"

"Yeah?"

"The lady at the bar said she knew you"

"Yeah, mate, I come out this way a lot!"

"For what"

"Looking for the treasure!"

Rich thought for a second, "What is this treasure are you after?"

"More of what treasure aren't I after? I look for anything I can hold onto."

At this point, the clouds have rolled closer. Rain in the desert lasts shortly, but it is intense. The cactus, the few that there were, seemingly stand taller in order to receive their last drink they may have for awhile.

"Physically? Or..."

"You know, you ask a lot of questions, mate"

The rain is now too hard to keep driving, Allen pulled over and leaned back his seat.

"We will have to sleep here."

Rich's face turned sideways. After a minute of silence, "How did this all start?

"I think we've had enough questions for today." Allen turned his head and slept. Rich stayed awake and wrote down everything that happened so far and watched the thunderstorm roll over their head.


 

A few days later, when Rich woke, they were already a few miles into another day of travel. The sun glared in their eyes and the rode became bumpy even shaky and then a "oh, shit." from next to him. So when Rich's eyes finally fully cracked open he woke to the smell of metal and a sheet of dark smoke swarmed over the windshield. The Subaru had rolled to a stop.

It was quiet for a few moments, Rich checked his phone. 11:00am. No service.

"No service, mate. We are in the middle of the desert."

Already sweat started to bead on both their foreheads. "Welp, looks like we are walking."

"Where?"

"To find either reception or help."

Rich, discouraged at first by the prospect of spending another day searching aimlessly around the desert, looked down at his notebook which had been filled the night before of his adventures so far. Rich sighed understood that he had no option, for more than one reason, but to go. And so, Rich got out of the car, grabbed his backpack with his notebook, some crackers and sunscreen. He took out the sunscreen, applied it, took a sip of warm water and put on his sun glasses, and away they went.

Throughout the tip there had been an excessive amount of small talk. However, it had seemed that they had learned quite a bit about each other. For instance, Rich had learned Allen, in his years used to climb mountains. He had moved from Australia and had climbed most of Mt. Kilimanjaro until he got frost bite on his pinky toe. He had also learned that his wife had died too young, he talked about her love for gardening and other plants. They moved to the desert to feel close to home, while being far away. She was fascinated, he said, by plants ability to survive in harsher conditions than humans were capable of. He told the story of the time she planted and Orange tree in their backyard and all their neighbors said they were crazy. She didn't care, she did it anyway, and they would make orange juice on their porch. Rich inferred that this is why Allen wandered so often - to remember an unretrievable memory.

Allen had figured out why Rich had joined him on his journey to nowhere. He learned about the failing publishing company, the lack of stories. He learned, or inferred, about Rich's family leaving him alone with his company, and inside hurt for the young man next to him. Rich admitted in passing he is not the adventure type and hated the desert but had found a few things about the trip particularly amusing and that he would hope to use when he got back - about the man at the bar, about the journey to the center of the desert, about Allen. Allen smiled timidly.

But, after many miles they had seen no one. Both phones were out of service and Rich's phone would not turn on because it was too hot. Their skin was burnt. Around them was blurry waves of heat which made it hard to see the distance in front or behind them. What they did know for sure was that there was some rigged hills a few miles away where maybe they could find shade and set up camp for the day, if need be, or maybe there was some outlander setting up residence in the desert hills.

They walked onward and toward the hills. Rich tried to get the courage to ask his question again, where did this all start? But he couldn't, again and again he felt it be swallowed by worry. But, when the next few miles came and Rich started feeling his legs drag through the sand a little more, he tripped and face planted in the sand, which caused the breaking point.

"You alright, mate?" Allen took a short jog toward Rich.

"What the hell, Allen! What are we doing out here? Why are we here?"

"Mate, you wanted to come with me?"

"Just tell me what you are looking for, otherwise I'll walk the other way home."

"Don't get mad at me because I couldn't supply you with your story you need, bloody pathetic!"

Rich got up and shoved Allen, the older man fell backwards, stood up and pushed him back.

"Get stuffed, bugger!" Allen stated to walk away.

"Your pathetic, Allen, you know? You think you'll find something out here. There's nothing. It's pointless, you search and search for some sign of whatever the hell you're looking for but life doesn't work like that! How much time have you spent out here anyway?"

Allen took a breath, felt the anger rise up to his ears and could not hold it in. "Oh, and you know so well?" He mocked, "Life had gave you a shitty hand, you think?" and continued "but in reality it was all your fault. Everything bad has been your own fault!"

Rich raced toward him and Allen gave him a strike to the cheek. Rich fell to the sand and his ears rang, his nose bled and he looked up. Allen shook his head and continued to walk toward the mountain, but when he turned around again, there was a silhouette of a tree in the distance.

"Holy shit," He whispered. Rich was working his way up holding his nose and wiping the sand off of his face. Rich looked the direction of Allen and saw it too.


According to Rich, when he caught up to Allen, who started jogging that way, there was an extensive amount of tears - and not much talking left to say between the two. He noticed that the man had dropped to his knees, as soon as, they had come into the distance of the tree and cried. Rich had looked up and seen it was a tree filled with full oranges, with green leaves. Around it, there had been baskets filled with oranges and a latter leading up to the bottom branches - but there was no one around.

In his sob Allen had whispered to himself, "I knew you hadn't left me."

He wiped his dirty face and his eyes and looked at Rich, "We found the treasure, mate... we found it."

Rich, in disbelief picked up an orange from the basket and peeled it, he took a bite and the juice had dripped down his chin and between his fingers, making his hands sticky. His jaw was in awe.

Allen, who had now reached his feet, joined him standing up and starting laughing hysterically and a few more tear drops dropped. They shook hands and hugged. Rich took a picture of the tree, they sat below it and fell asleep for a quick nap, before heading back in the direction they came.

I have interviewed them both about this many times. The most important question I asked them was if Allen believed that it was a message from his wife? Rich had said, "what else could it be?" Allen had said, "I just really love oranges." I have tried to go back to the place they said it was, but I either can't find it or It just did not exist to anyone besides them. Finally, driven crazy by this I have come to the only conclusion that I can make is that the orange tree in the desert, we all find when we need it. Allen got his message, Rich got his story. The man at the bar, will get his, too if he wanders closer.






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