Critical Thought: Orchard

This story has been with me for a while. It used to be called something else and was, in essence, a different story. I didn’t realize until recently that “Plans for an Orchard” had to be a story of an immobilized couple content to live hand-to-mouth, always ready to lie or change settings rather than face their problems, which I think are unclear to them. Their problems have never been fully clear to me, either. But that didn’t make me any less interested in the story.

There will always be readers who must have the answers to the questions: What’s wrong with these people? Will the landlord evict them or not? I tried filling out the story in both ways. But either strategy did little but flatten the gravity of the couple’s exchange, the tension between the Romantic and the Pragmatic. The meaning of the story has always been in the bleak fact that the wife’s plans and dreams and desires are meaningful only in the beauty of their design and her sincere articulation of them.

I don’t think readers need answers from stories. The pleasure and worth of stories for me has always been in the moods created, not in the fullness of the information provided. I’m a minimalist. So, I’ve never been much interested in stories that resolve in the traditional sense, that explain too much. I don’t trust stories that linger too long on the page. Stories should be told in the way we experience life. They should be stark and brief demonstrations and readers the witnesses.

Justin D. Anderson lives in West Virginia with his wife and son. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Controlled Burn, Cold Mountain Review, Potomac Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.

Plans for an Orchard

Nate and Martha sat in lawn chairs on the porch drinking beer and looking across the road at their landlord George’s house. It was the only other house at the end of the lane. The morning air was cool and moved up the valley and crossed the hill. Nate and Martha had to wear sweaters. Sunlight poked through the openings in the trees around George’s house and flickered yellow and shadows on the white siding.

“Look how the light hits George’s house,” Martha said.

Nate looked over. “What about it?”

Martha shrugged. “It’s nice,” she said.

Martha sat back in her chair and drank. She moved a curl of black hair out of her face with her finger. Nate watched her and took a sip of beer.

“Let’s go out in the yard and see what our house looks like,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I already know it wouldn’t look the same. George has all those beautiful trees.”

“We have trees,” he said and pointed out a few.

“Not like over there,” she said.

He lit a cigarette.

“I’d plant some pines if we lived over there,” she said.

He smoked the cigarette and exhaled at the porch ceiling.

“Pines are filthy,” he said.

“I’ll tell you honey, if we lived in George’s house, we’d plant an apple orchard in the meadow,” she said.

“An entire orchard?”

“Yes,” she said. “At night and in the mornings we could walk through it.” She followed the slope of the meadow with her hand. “We could eat the apples. And we’d see a lot of deer because they’d come in to eat the apples.”

“It would take too long to grow,” he said and drank some beer. “We’d be dead by the time it bore fruit. Besides, we’d never plant an orchard. Or pines. You know we wouldn’t.”

She smiled at him and continued: “I’d put some peace lilies and rubber trees in big pots on that lower patio. I’d also hang some wind chimes around. Look over there. He doesn’t even have any chairs out. What kind of a person doesn’t like sitting outside on a patio? A crazy person. I’d sit out there every morning and evening. We’d have better chairs than these, though.” She patted the plastic arm of the lawn chair.

“We’re sitting outside now,” he said.

“But it’s not the same,” she said. “You know what would be better than sitting on the patio? You could have some chairs and a table up on the second-story patio. Off the bedroom. We could eat breakfast and dinner up there every day the weather was good.”

“We would never do that,” he said. He finished the beer.

“It would be romantic,” she said.

“This is romantic.”

She didn’t say anything. They looked at George’s house. George’s old gray pick- up truck sat in the driveway.

“I don’t know why George doesn’t do things like that,” she said. “He’s got such nice property.”

“We wouldn’t do those things either,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves.”

“He doesn’t take advantage of what he’s got. He takes it for granted. We can’t do anything over here because it’s not ours. We don’t have anything.”

She shook her head and drank the beer.

Nate got up and went into the house through the screen door and came back with fresh cans of beer. Martha got up and switched chairs. He sat down and handed her a beer.

“So, what are we going to tell him when he gets over here?” he said. He opened the beer.

“I don’t know.”

“I thought maybe we could tell him that we had to buy a part for the car or something,” he said. “That seems believable. Something like how we were all set to square things on the rent and—”

“We could tell him the truth. I think it would do us some good to tell the truth for a change.”

“No. We could say that we had to get a new carburetor,” he said. “Those things are hundreds of dollars, I think.”

“He’ll never go for it.” She shook her head slowly. “He’s going to throw us out.”

“He won’t,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“He won’t. He let us move in here on a handshake. How many landlords have we had who did business like that? None. He’s a decent man.”

Martha opened her beer and took a sip. They sat and listened to the birds.

“We should just kill him,” she said. “When he comes over here. He’ll never suspect it.”

“What?” Nate laughed.

Martha smiled and took a drink of beer. “I’ve never seen anyone come to his house. We could kill him, bury him in the woods and move in over there.”

“Yeah.”

“It’d be easy.”

“How would we do it?”

She looked up at the porch ceiling. “I don’t know,” she said. “He’s pretty old. You could strangle him. You could strangle him easy.”

You could strangle him,” he said. “Why would I have to do the strangling?”

Martha tapped the lip of the can on her chin. “You wouldn’t want to take any chances that he’d escape,” she said. “To tell the tale. We’d be goners for sure.”

“We’d have to go on the lam,” he said.

“No, the way you kill him would have to be serious. And final. You could hack him up with an ax and bury the pieces in different places.”

“Why me?” he said. “And don’t you think that would be pretty messy? Hacking a guy up?”

“You’re right. Stabbing?”

“You’d have to stab him a lot to be sure. People live through multiple stab wounds. And again, messy.”

They sat quiet for a moment.

“Poison? You could offer him a cup of coffee and slip in some—”

“We should stop joking like this,” he said.

“We should.”

They drank from their beers.

“So, how long do you think we could live over there before somebody started asking questions?” she said.

“Probably not long. I think he has a son or something.”

“We would have to flee the country.”

“Then what’s the point?”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Europe.”

“I know,” he said and took a drink.

“Madrid. Madrid is where I want to go.”

“We’ll sit on a terrace and drink wine in the morning and watch the running of the bulls in the streets below.”

“That’s Pamplona.” She drank.

“Then we’ll go there, too.”

“We’ll never go.”

They looked over at George’s house. They watched George come out of his front door and start through his yard toward theirs. He waved at them. They waved back. They got their story straight about the carburetor. He’d buy it. George would believe them. He was decent. Everything would be fine. They’ve been through all of this before.

by Justin D. Anderson