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Summer/Fall 2020

The Prodigal Son

Nia Dickens

Under the weight of the sun, the skin of Black boys don’t even rust. There are no more field whips to crack us open down to the weathered bone. Only the heat and humidity to wrestle through, but we were made to win that war. At least that’s what Granddaddy Browdy on Momma’s side always says. And Pops tends to agree with him, so my brother and I grew up picking oranges with Pops and his farmhands after school from the family grove that surrounds our backyard in Polk County, Florida.

But since I’d returned from my great stab at the American Dream—on scholarship for the first year at Georgia Tech and then fumes for the mere months that followed—my skin doesn’t just rust. The base of my neck routinely cracks open into expanding fault lines until it sheds thick pepper flakes of dead skin. And in their wake, a series of scars stretch across my shoulder blades, spreading faster than the markings of citrus greening disease that I found in one of our trees last week.

Tugging off my glove with my teeth, I watch another root lean over and collapse into the same stock I’d just re-secured. Weighed down by fatigue and frustration, I make the mistake of wiping the perspiration off my neck with the back of my hand. I’m not even supposed to be in this section of the grove today. My days are normally spent among the more mature trees, but I agreed to take over my baby brother’s shift in return for him using his nimble fingers to run an errand for me.

My shoulder blades retract as the flames from the burn migrate down my neck, but the expletive heard ‘round the grove comes from further down the aisle. I dust sand from my knees and rise to see my punk-ass little brother Jeremiah, half-naked and sucking on his left hand while carrying a sack full of Hamlin oranges nicked from the grove in the other.

“You got bit by one of those snakes again, didn’t you?” I sigh as he drops his sack. Jeremiah nods and covers his bleeding hand with his now empty right, leaving his mouth free to swear again.

“Your ass is lucky those snakes aren’t venomous. For someone aspiring to be a thief, you might want to consider investing in glasses.”

“Those things are blacker than me,” Jeremiah whines. “How is anyone supposed to see them after sunset?”

I reach for my smartphone and turn on the flashlight app. “I hope you didn’t use your thieving skills today for just oranges. Did you manage to get what I asked from Old Man Michaelson’s storage?”

‘Miah pats affirmatively to the bulging item in his lower right pocket, but changes the subject.

“We can get to that in a minute. But this…Jesus!” Jeremiah huffs dramatically as he kneels forward into the neatly lined row of sand and stumps. “That’s never gonna stand up right. You cut the scion too short. The root’s never going to fit like that.”

“Yo, I can get that. I said I got it!” The words fall on deaf ears. Jeremiah’s already got his grafting knife out and refastening the scion.

He looks like a different person when he’s knee-deep in grove sand, focused on the task ahead of him. Nothing like the little brat I left behind; the one who would be too sick to get out of bed for our chores before sunrise, but well enough to make it on the school bus hours later to avoid getting dragged into the grove during the heat of the day.

I stand over him, fidgeting with my own tools, at a loss as to how in less than a year, Jeremiah’s gotten halfway to taking over as Pops’ perfect little orange farmer. With Jeremiah still in high school, I’m supposed to be Pops’ prime choice for a business partner. Gideon & Sons: the last orange farming negroes in Florida. Ever since I returned to the grove with a suitcase of boxers, fatigue, and compounding debt, the old man has gotten his dream back. But I can barely keep a damn rootstock together, let alone be man enough to tell Pops that a silent killer has set in on the grove.

The oranges ‘Miah stole linger in the corner of my eye, so with his back turned to me, I make a grab for the makeshift sack made from my little brother’s shirt.

“Yo! What the hell?” Jeremiah rises again, the blood from his wound running down his palm. I tear off a thick strip of cotton and let the oranges spill into the sandy billows of the grove.

“This is what you get for ransacking the grove just to appease your sweet tooth,” I scold. I yank his hand forward and for a moment revel in the little yelp he lets out as I wrap the fabric around his open wound.

“Pops isn’t going to miss a few oranges, Izzy.”

Jeremiah’s a smart little shit. He only nicks a few pounds of oranges from a crate here or there. Something easy to miss in a 100-acre grove, especially back when we ended the harvest with enough profit to go around. But last year’s trees were priced at less than half a fucking penny. Our family was lucky to break even. And that was before I trucked home with Sallie Mae’s college loan payments on my ass.

“Maybe not,” I contend, ignoring the way he fidgets as I finish binding the fake bandage to his hand, “but I will. It cuts into profit. You know that.”

 “I’m sure those big fancy college classes taught you something about estimates and margins,” he taunts. “The only things you and Pops really have to worry about are corporate buyouts or the place succumbing to disease.”

I glance down at the leaning rootstocks again. Once the disease starts spreading, the cloth-backed tape holding these roots and scions together will start to wither at the ends, until the tares reached the heart of the knots. The twigs of the neighboring trees would start browning at the tips until each leaf left shrivels with yellowed veins and the trees collapse into each other.

Without a cure for greening, we’d have to uproot the trees and abandon the harvest. We could probably make it another year or two. Try some of the more extreme longshots in feeble attempts to revitalize the land, but eventually, we’d have to succumb to defeat and leave the grand family inheritance to die.

God knows where that’d leave us—where’d it leave me. I can’t even bail up north to Granddaddy’s tobacco farm in Tarboro. I’m slow as molasses in those trenches. Georgia Tech sure as shit won’t take me back and I’ve got $20,000 in debt from them that says if this grove fails, I fail along with it. Which is why tonight, I’m putting fate back in our own hands.

“Not that I don’t love getting business lectures from you,” I snap, “but why don’t you hand over the bag so we can call it a night?”

Jeremiah opens the lower right pocket of his cargo pants and tosses a small black traveler’s case embroidered with the initials of our former neighbor and rival farmer, Old Man Michaelson.

“You wanna tell me what’s so special about that sack filled with outdated prescription bottles—which by the way required me hopping a wire fence and nearly getting my leg bit off by The Beast?”

“Last time I checked you don’t have any dog marks on you, so I think you’ll be just fine,” I tell him. “Besides, I thought he would’ve taken the dog with him when he up and abandoned the place.”

“Yeah, me too, so imagine the joy I felt seeing that scoundrel again. Also, don’t think I missed the fact that you’re trying to change the subject,” Jeremiah says, leaning into my line of sight. He was born with a big nose and a knack for getting into other people’s business, but before he can start nagging me the shrill ring of Rihanna slurring about wild thoughts over the laziest record DJ Khaled has ever made cuts in before Jeremiah can say a word. ‘Miah fumbles through his pockets to recover his phone and swears as he reads his texts.

“Listen Izzy, I need you to do me a favor.”

“No.”

“Skye’s on his way over to pick me up. We were kinda hoping to hang out for a few hours—”

“And you’re hoping that I’ll cover for you, so that Pops doesn’t start asking why you have so many late-night “tutoring” sessions with your boy, Skye?”

Jeremiah rocks on his heels before releasing a deep sigh. “Look man, I know it’s unfair to ask you to keep lying to him for me. But Skye’s only in town for a few more days. The next time we see him, we’ll be back up in Tarboro and I swear you won’t have to worry about covering for me then.”

“Yeah right,” I tell ‘Miah, walking around him to put my back to the poisoned tree and the lies already growing in the grove.

“You’re probably not wrong about that,” he concedes, “but I’m just not ready to tell Pops yet. Especially with all the shit that happened to Lenny when he told the family…”

My thoughts follow Jeremiah’s back to the Christmas Eve that our eldest cousin Lenny introduced the family to his military buddy who seemed too close to be a roommate. ‘Miah hasn’t seen Lenny since he was in Pull-ups and me in elementary school, so we know him best as the first and last of us to make his own way. He was supposed to take over Granddaddy Browdy’s tobacco farm in North Carolina. Then came al-Qaeda and Uncle Sam, Len’s pretty blue-eyed roommate, and a one-way ticket out of Tarboro.

After Lenny left, Granddaddy Browdy’s crops started drowning in competition from corporate-owned farms. The faster his farm wilts away, the more Pops talks about his plans for our future Gideon and Sons sign on Highway 60 and my tongue trips over the ability to refuse.

“How about we call it even, given your near mauling today,” I tell Jeremiah.

“You know you’re my favorite big brother, right?”

“I’m your only brother, punk!” I remind him as his grin grows. “But if Pops asks, you stole the oranges.”

‘Miah laughs outright and claps my shoulder before racing up to our house at the north edge of the grove. I hate that he can do that—find moments of joy for himself amid his own desires to rebel. It makes him strong, certainly adding more muscles to his back than all these summers working under Pops ever could. And though Jeremiah may not be ready now, one day my reckless little brother will grow roots strong enough to germinate in grove sand and dare the earth around to try to move him. Meanwhile, my own brittle bark’ll continue to chip away since I’ve already proven myself to possess neither the strength nor the intelligence to be the type of Black man that Granddaddy Browdy or my father expected of us.

I kick at the sand below, but there’s too much force behind my swing. My right shoe collides with the leaning rootstocks and I watch the feeble plants domino into each other. Groaning out loud, I wait for Jeremiah to disappear into the house before taking off deeper into the grove to find the poisoned tree with Michaelson’s case.

When I looked at the tree last, only the leaves closest to the base carried the yellowed veins, safely hidden by taller, healthier trees on either side. Those sick leaves now cover the full face of the tree and the tips of the branches look thinner and blacker than before. I turn on my flashlight app, drop the phone in the sand to illuminate the tree, and reach forward into the dying bush. My hands scrape against twigs and pat their way up the trunk until I find purchase in one small orange. I pull it back and reach for my pocketknife to slice it open. It’s an unnecessary move. As I turn the fruit over, the markings of the green disease cover the citrus’ skin like a fungus.

Most cures for greening are bullshit or just temporary placeholders meant to contain the infection. But for those with deep pockets, there’s growing hope for bactericides. It’s a newer treatment for the citrus industry, so naturally, the EPA has it blocked for farmers to use. Still, a few years ago, Michaelson’s farm used to produce the fewest crates of citrus each year. Then the summer before senior year, his trees started beating our value. Last year, he sold the most Hamlin’s in the county. When he up and abandoned the place earlier this year, most of the farmhands left in a lurch came to our grove. And with them came the whispers that Michaelson fought back an infection that covered nearly half of his grove with black market bactericides hidden in his portable medkit.

I open the kit to find an assortment of bandages, two small bottles of rubbing alcohol, and an array of pharmacy pill bottles. When I shake the bottles next to my ear, there’s no rattle of aspirin tablets knocking against each other. Only the sound of liquid bactericide splashing against the edges of the bottles.

If Michaelson used this stuff to turn his place around in a few short years, then maybe I can save the grove around before Pops finds out anything’s wrong. At least then, I’d be closer to being the kind of farmer, the kind of Black boy Pops raised us to be.

I pour some of Michaelson’s bactericide from his pill containers over the dead orange and toss it back into the abyss of greening and citrus ahead of me.

Once inside the house, I catch Jeremiah carefully maneuvering himself on his tippy toes to avoid the squeaky boards in the kitchen. ‘Miah signals me to pause and points down the hall, where the door to Pops’ office is ajar and lit. Once Jeremiah can hop over to the front door and unbolt the lock, he’ll be smooth sailing—but Pops calls out for us before he can make it to the front door.

“Actually, Pops it’s just me,” I holler back. Stepping forward into the kitchen, I drag a chair from our small dinner table across the room to cover Jeremiah’s escape.

“Is your brother with you?” Pops asks. “And what the hell is all that noise back there?”

“Just trying to reach for something! And no, Jeremiah’s not here. He left about an hour ago for another tutoring session,” I reply.

“Well bring yourself down here to the study. I’m not planning to go hoarse hollering like this,” Pops yells back. “’Sides you and I need to have a little chat.”

Jeremiah’s got one foot out of the front door, but his eyes instantly lock with mine. Pops isn’t the talking type, the opposite of Momma who can go long enough to make your ears fall off. Michaelson’s stash feels like stone in my back pocket as my breath starts echoing in my ears.

‘Miah moves towards me, only inches away from the plank that squeals with even the slightest touch. I wave at him to leave before he blows his own cover, and I head down the hall. Along either side hang various milestones and family photos; everything from the family’s first bill of sale to the property to a small framed polaroid of me as a toddler cheesing at the camera. At the last second, I stash Michaelson’s black med case in one of the hallway drawers before facing Pops.

I enter Pops’ office to find him leaning in his chair with a tall glass of pressed orange juice in one hand and an opened bottle of vodka in the other. Two small packets of paperwork sit in the middle of his clean desk, just below the larger flask of orange juice. Pops swivels back around in his seat and the rim of his chair nearly kisses the framed original deed to the property.

“Your counselor from Georgia Tech called today,” he begins. “Said you ain’t been checking your email.”

The counselor assigned to me by the college was a woman drowning in so much paperwork about directionless freshmen that she didn’t even bother to learn my name. If anyone bothered to reach out it would be Dr. Wyles. He’s had a soft spot for me ever since I bombed his baby Bio course, putting an effective end to my academic scholarship.

“There’s not much of a point in keeping up with it,” I explain. “What did he want?”

“Mentioned something about a program he thinks you’d like,” Pops replies. His voice is strangely calm for a conversation revolving around GTech. He was never vocally against me going to college, but he didn’t make his joy upon my return a secret.

Pops slides the thinner of the two packets to my side of the desk. The document, only a few pages thick, turns out to be the printed copy of an email Wyles forwarded to my father with the subject: INTRODUCING YANCEY COHORT FOR FIRST GENERATION STUDENTS—DEADLINE APPROACHING.

DEAR MR. ISAIAH B. GIDEON,

Georgia Institute of Technology is proud to announce its inaugural cohort of the Ronald Yancey Fellowship for First-Generation Students. Selected students will receive partial to full tuition scholarships, as well as participate in an exclusive cohort catered to the holistic needs of first-generation students…

The cohort appeals more than it should. The idea of going back is one thing, but to not be so alone, so different from the kids who’ve always known that they’re going to college with parents who wanted them to go; who’ve never worried about any legacy besides their own.

My head snaps up at the sound of the rim of Pops’ vodka bottle meeting the tabletop of his desk.

“Wyles seems to think this would be something you’d be interested in,” Pops says, “but I’d like to think that I know you better than that. Am I wrong?”

I read the document only half-a-dozen more times, the words blurring together as the possibilities run endless in my head—including the ones surrounding the hidden bottles of bactericide.

“I mean it’s a mighty fine offer son, but I think you know you’re gonna have to tell him no.” He stands to his feet and clasps my shoulders with his hands. Maybe he’d noticed that it’d become increasingly difficult for me to remain steady in this room.

“I know that school is something you want to try again eventually, but I think we can agree you’re needed more here,” Pops continues. “Maybe you can apply again down the line.”

“What if there isn’t a ‘down the line’ for me? You saw it in the header. The deadline is coming soon. If I don’t—”

I reread Wyles’ offer again. My hands shake as I set the email back on the desk and lean forward to question him head-on.

“You said you learned about this recently?”

“What of it?” Pops asks.

“How recent? Because the date on this email is from a month ago, which means you’ve been hiding this from me!” Desperation creeps into my voice, elevating it from a whine to a near shout that makes Pops visibly shaken, if only for a moment.

“And what if I did? They only wanna give out a little bit of money. How would you plan on filling in the missing gaps? Or am I supposed to be paying for that too?”

The insult between Pops’ words slaps me across the face so hard that I nearly show my hand and come outright about the greening in spite.

“To believe I’m in here trying to make sure this isn’t gonna be the last glass of Gideon and Sons orange juice and you’re worried about the date on an email?” Pops thunders back, splashing juice across the desk as he shakes the pitcher around.

“What the hell are you talking about?” My voice drops to a hiss.

I can’t help but wonder if Pops somehow has some kind of sixth sense and knows the land is dying before it really starts. He shoves forward the second packet, a thickly bound legal-sized contract. As I shuffle through the new pages, Pops pours out vodka into a shot glass and continues talking.

“Found out recently why Michaelson departed before the harvest. Florida Natural doubled their offer to him for his grove.”

“So, you’re gonna sell this place?” The Florida Natural offer feels weightless in my grasp. My fingers itch for Dr. Wyles’ email, but Pops has already taken the document back.

“Like hell,” Pops replies taking a swing of his shot as my fingers tighten around the paperwork. “But this does mean that I’m gonna need my future business partner sooner rather than later if we’re gonna keep the Gideon and Sons dream alive.”

Pops pours a second shot of vodka with a splash of juice and reaches out towards me. I stare at the offering, but my fingers remain bound to the paperwork in front of my chest.

“I just…thought it’d be a while before we got to this conversation.”

 Maybe if I had a slicker mouth like Jeremiah, I could talk Pops into considering the shot that Wyles is trying to put back on the table. If I had more guts like Lenny, I might even ask Pops if he learned this kind of guilt trip from Granddaddy Browdy.

Pops sighs and collapses in the chair closest to me. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t go back. I want to see you finish son, I do. Nobody on my side of the family’s ever been to college. Hell, I barely made it out of high school. I can’t wait to see all those fools who thought we’d never amount to a damn thing hear about all we’ve accomplished. And that includes you finishing that degree.”

“But just not right now. The competition’ll be vicious once Florida Natural hits our backdoor and I can’t be the one who loses the farm. Not after everything we’ve been through. And Lord knows I can’t do it alone. I need my partner, Isaiah. I need my son.”

Exhaustion is written all over his face. The type of weariness that comes with replanting the same soil and recalculating the same numbers every year. This grove has been passed through the generations. Pops and his folk have been living and working on this land since before they were free before General Lee took a knee or Lincoln a bullet in the back of the mezzanine.

I was raised to fulfill that kind of legacy. To be a strong black man—built to withstand whatever nature, God, and country throws my way.

I take Pops’ offering. He pours out another shot of vodka for himself and we both raise our glasses and silently toast to Gideon and Sons.

            Well after Jeremiah scoots past our parents’ radar by making it in just before curfew and Pops shuts the door to his office for the night, I lay up in my bed fully dressed, waiting for Momma quit gossiping on the phone with her sisters and get to sleep. Once the house falls silent, I make easy work of slipping in and out of Pops’ office to grab the keys to the equipment supply shack. Back in the hallway, I slowly pull out the drawer to the dresser where I’d stashed Michaelson’s bag. But the only thing that greets me is a stack of old letters and cards from my mother’s siblings.

            I shuffle through the old graduation announcements and birthday cards, but my fingers never find the tattered edges of the bag or the curves of individual pharmacy pill bottles hiding liquid bactericide. The longer I stand in the hallway, the louder my hunt becomes. I check the other drawers in the dresser, unbothered by the whine the wood makes as it opens, but I’m met with more outdated papers and photographs.

            This can’t be happening. I must have forgotten moving it after leaving Pops’ office. Or accidentally put it in one of my oversized pockets instead. I pat my body down, but it yields no surprises. Without Michaelson’s liquid bactericide the ways to eliminate citrus greening whittle down to myths of men and land. My hands return to the top drawer again, to recheck what I know isn’t there. My fingers shuffle through the papers too quickly and soon I’m biting back a shout of frustration as I give myself a paper cut along the palm of my hand.

            Keys in hand, I force myself to take a step back and ball my fists up at the top of my head. While exhaling, my hands move over my hair and down my neck. Even in the cool darkness, when my knuckles pass over the sunburn scars, my neck cracks back open in pain and the keys drop to the ground in a pronounced thud.

I don’t move for several minutes, listening for any sounds of Jeremiah or my parents as my neck continues to throb. After a few moments of silence, I grab the keys and hustle out to the back porch to catch my breath. I lean against the railing, hands clenched so tight that they both start throbbing.

Pops needs his perfect little orange farmer back. He needs a grove without disease and a son who can do at least one thing right. With Florida Natural in our backyard, there’s not even a shred of hope that I could escape again and leave Pops to pull through by himself. Even if I went back to school, I still have no idea what I want to study or do with my life. I’d be stuck back in classrooms watching lectures about the differences between mitosis and meiosis. All the while, struggling to keep myself from wondering if this degree’ll really be enough for my father to forgive me for abandoning the grove again. It’s been thirteen years since Lenny left and Granddaddy hasn’t spoken to him. How much time would have to pass, how many degrees will I need to have earned to ensure Pops doesn’t stop talking to me?

The shed where Pops keeps all the equipment for the grove sits just a few feet from the back of the house. Once the sliding door is unlocked, I rummage through the supplies, grabbing the wooden handle of the largest spade I can find. Next, I grab a small plank of wood, and a couple of industrial-sized trash bags stuffed with a burlap sack and large flashlights. Once outside again, I retrace my steps back into the grove and past the aisle with the collapsing rootstocks and down to the dying orange tree.

I unload the flashlights from the trash bags first and set them up around the trees as guiding lights. With the other items off to the side, I thrust the spade into the grove sand around the infected tree and cry out when a thick, black Indigo snake slithers out from the earth and across my foot. Stepping back from the handle, I try to focus on pushing more air in and out of my lungs.

The snake bends around the flashlights, trash bags, and wood panel, all the while hissing as loud as the chirping crickets nestled in the trees. Reminding myself that they’re still nonvenomous, I anchor one foot on the top of the spade’s blade and push it deeper into the ground. I heave sand away from the base of the brittle trunk until the ball of the tree, packed with all its roots, is exposed and ready for the burlap sack and plywood slide.

Sticking the slide into the moat around the tree, I bend down into the sand and soil and start tucking the burlap underneath the tree. This one is smaller than the others and with its brittle branches, the normal two-man job should be more feasible alone. But as more of the trunk’s weight bears down on my shoulders, I lose my grasp on the sack. As the trunk pushes my body further into the trench around it, the weight of this damn tree, the grove, and its legacy bear down heavier than any day underneath the Florida sun.

The tree descends slow, steady, and in silence. I groan against the wood and put the last of my energy towards keeping the trunk off my esophagus with little success. A strangle wrestles its way out of my mouth as my lips scrape against bark. And I hate it. I hate that I can’t form a whisper without it breaking into a sob. I hate that I’m under the weight of this damn thing because I couldn’t keep track of one item. That the pungent scent of citrus feels close enough to seep into the pores of my arm and stain my skin. That I’m not even strong enough to do this by myself. I hate this tree, this farm, and this disease almost as much as I hate the broken skin across my neck.

“What the fuck are you doing out here?”

Jeremiah doesn’t wait for an answer and starts muttering dumbass under his breath as he positions himself behind the tree and me and pushes it forward and off of my torso. We work together to ease my feet from under the trunk. Once freed, I crawl by the elbows out of the trench and rest next to a bundle of dead leaves and fruit. Jeremiah walks around the bush of the tree to the other side and drops to the ground.

“How did you know I was out here?”

“You may be a little too fond of flashlights big brother,” Jeremiah replies pointing to the array around us. “This isn’t Gotham City, the only Dark Knight you’re gonna signal out here is Pops. Speaking of, when exactly were you planning to tell him about this?” He holds up one of the oranges, checkered in green spots. 

The night hisses as I feel that sand snake slide over our ankles and up out of the tree’s pit. Jeremiah flicks it off with one of the broken branches and its dark scales glitter under the moonlight as it slithers to a garden of smaller grove trees.

“I don’t know. Maybe never. I thought I could stop it.”

“I’m guessing with this?” Jeremiah reaches into his pocket and pulls out Michaelson’s bag.

“Where the hell did you get that?” I lunge out for the bag, but ‘Miah pushes me back with ease.

“I saw you it hid away before you went into Pops’ office earlier,” he explained rummaging through the bag. “Did you really think I hadn’t opened this thing up and figured out what was in here? This shit isn’t legal Isaiah. You do realize the kind of fine we’d be hit with if anyone caught a whiff of this thing? Hell, if someone caught me stealing this from Michaelson in the first place?”

“I didn’t know what else to do! I was just trying to save the farm.” My voice cracks like my skin and this damn tree as the weight of my failure washes over me. “Michaelson just sold his goddamn land to Florida Natural and Pops wants me to help him go head to head with them. Meanwhile, I can’t even fix a fucking rootstock! And then Wyles sends that damn scholarship email just to taunt me.”

I kick the dirt in frustration once I finally run out of words, but my leg swings to wide and collides with the trunk ricocheting pain throughout the nerves of my foot.

“Then you should go back!”

“And runaway. Again, with everything on the line? I don’t want to be the next family outcast.”

“But you don’t want to be here either.” Jeremiah rocks forward into his knees and holds the position as if he’s contemplating building an imaginary altar in the ground where he sits. But if he’s praying, ‘Miah recites a few more expletives than our Sunday School teachers taught us to use. 

“What do you know about Lenny?”

“Since he’s left, I know that Granddaddy’s closer to losing his farm every year. I can’t do the same to Pops.”

“That’s not about Lenny,” ‘Miah says. “That’s about them. What do you know about our cousin? What do you remember?”

Jeremiah’s always leaned on me for information about our eldest cousin. ‘Miah was born in the first few moments of the new millennium. He’s always known the love of our parents and our tobacco wielding grandfather. He doesn’t know Lenny really. He can’t pick the guy out from a crowd. He doesn’t remember the man. He only sees a myth.

And honestly, he isn’t alone. Nearly a decade and a half has passed since Lenny’s been around to hoist me on his shoulders or play cops and robbers in between bundling tobacco leaves. I don’t know if he managed to keep his round beaver cheeks or if time and war hollowed his face and boxed his jaw like his old roommate. Would he recognize me as the little boy from his photographs? Or would he only see a broken reflection of the responsibilities that he left behind in Tarboro?

“Not enough,” I concede.

 “So maybe it’s time for that to change.”

“What are you suggesting, that tracking the guy down is gonna solve all of my problems?”

“Not exactly. But Lenny’s been hanging over us like a ghost since we were kids. You nearly broke your back tonight trying to uproot a tree just so that you wouldn’t end up more like him. You can’t keep living like this.”

“Even if that’s true, the greening is still here. And it’s my responsibility to help Pops stop this. He needs me. He needs his partner. His son.”

Jeremiah scoots closer in order to lie side by side. “You’ll still be his son, even if you leave this place behind.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“No, I don’t,” Jeremiah concedes after a few moments. “But even if you stopped being his son, you’d still be my favorite big brother.”

I snort and remind him, “I’m your only brother, punk.”

We laugh for a few moments, before ‘Miah becomes somber again. “We can’t use this on the grove, you know that right?”

“We would have a widespread infection without it.”

“Maybe, but we could still have one with it. Michaelson was supposedly spraying this shit on his property for years, right? All with no real understanding as to how it works or could affect others. This tree is pretty close to the fence that divides our properties. You really think that’s a coincidence?”

The news that the grove is likely to die should set my nerves haywire, but after bearing a hundred-pound grove tree, I only feel weightless.

“The grove is dying.” The words don’t feel real yet, but they repeat themselves over and over in my head as I lean against the tree trunk to stand upright. Whatever the next great legacy for this family ends up being, it won’t be found on these 150 acres.

“I’ll tell Pops about the greening in the morning,” I decide.

“And then what?”

 “I can stay through the harvest, through most of the summer. Help Pops start to figure out a plan but…It’s already dying and if I stick around to become the perfect little orange farmer for him, I’ll probably be the one to burn it to the ground.”

I offer my hand to Jeremiah, who stares back at the creases of my palms. He bends over for another expletive-filled prayer, then takes my hand.

“We still have to get rid of this thing without starting a small wildfire. Last thing we need is the sheriff’s office on our ass about setting a tree on fire at night without a permit. Can you walk?”

We drag the tree to the property line and heave it over the wire fence to Michaelson’s old grove. While I rest my foot, Jeremiah digs a shallow hole with the spade at the end of a row and we dispose of the tree near the staged soil. By the time we make it back to our own back porch, I can feel my foot throbbing. Jeremiah helps me hobble into my bedroom without waking our parents. He leaves on the whispered promise of returning with ice and the old Dell laptop stashed away in Pops’ office.

After nearly throwing my shirt into the trash, instead of the laundry basket, I reach over to plug my phone into the wall. With the screen alit, my thumb taps the Internet open and I log back into my old Georgia Tech email account. When Jeremiah re-enters the room, I’m still typing my confirmation of the acceptance email. ‘Miah bears not only the laptop and bag of ice but leftover orange juice from earlier.

There’s only really enough in the pitcher for three or four sips between the two of us. The juice is sweet but rounded with a soft tartness that makes our crop among the best of the independent run farms in the state. I can barely imagine what Pops’d think of his own sons in this moment. Neither of us are exactly the boys that he raised. But so long as we’re trying to find our way out together, I might be able to get this right. Jeremiah and I each take our own turn with the pitcher and silently toast to the future of Gideon’s sons.

 

 

[Check out Nia Dickens back porch interview]