The Fruit Cocktail Tree
Gunnison winced at potholes and the bruises they left when he drove the produce truck from his family’s apple orchard in Marengo, Illinois, to the Loop farmers market in Chicago. Under train girders thatched overhead like a grape arbor, urban professionals asked Gunnison for organic fruit that lasted weeks and was unmarked by brown spots. Gunnison knew that no earthly fruit could meet such specifications. At night, he dreamed of misshapen produce and awoke to the pressure of his skin straining against his heart and his lungs. His girlfriend, Olive, a dental hygienist, told him dreams do not produce swelling. He made an appointment with his doctor because he trusted Olive’s judgment in matters of the body. When Gunnison first tried to kiss her years ago, she asked him to open his mouth wider and ran her finger along his gums.
“I floss,” he said, the words coming from the back of his throat.
Olive nodded. “I can tell. You may kiss me.”
Those first months, they met in the orchard at night and cleared a space free of fallen apples before lying down together on a flannel blanket. Now they slept together in the wooden farmhouse at the orchard and woke each other up with murmurings from their dreams.
Gunnison started dialysis for kidney failure the same month Olive discovered she was pregnant. None of his relatives were matches for a transplant, and so, that spring, Gunnison awaited the death of a stranger and placed bets against Olive on the gender of the unborn child. During dialysis sessions, Gunnison read library books about fruit grafts because the pamphlets on kidney transplants and childbirth were too gruesome.
He learned that like was easiest to graft with like because the cambium matched. There were rules that God in his almighty, produce wisdom had decreed. A citrus tree shall not graft with a pome or stonefruit tree. Gunnison picked out a lemon tree from the greenhouse and knit the boughs of a lime tree onto the stalk. He wrapped the seam of the graft in burlap, which made the tree look like a wounded soldier. That summer, his transplant coordinator called during one of his dialysis sessions with news of a motorcycle accident in downstate Illinois.
“What kind of motorcycle?” Gunnison asked.
Sitting next to him, Olive leaned in to the phone. “Can we look at the dental records?”
The transplant coordinator hesitated. “I couldn’t say. And no.”
Gunnison’s kidney was transplanted four days after Olive’s C-Section, and their mothers came in from the East and West coasts to care for the ailing couple and their newborn twins. The mothers took Polaroids of the scars on their stomachs, Gunnison holding an orange over his stitches and Olive holding a watermelon over hers. When the twins began to cry, Gunnison and Olive moaned in their beds until the mothers quieted the children.
Though his doctor said he was on the mend, Gunnison felt uneasy in his skin. He worried over his cadaver donor, the dead man who had probably spent these last months buying toilet paper at the drug store and necking with his girlfriend at the movies. The surgeon left the diseased right kidney inside of him because it did not need to be removed in transplants. His body housed two kinds of death: the living parts of a dead man and the dead parts of his living self. He felt pummeled by the whims of nature, the diseases that kill whole orchards, the early frosts, and the hail that pounds fruit off the tree. He worried that he should not have survived. When he drove the produce delivery truck, the potholes in the road seemed to rend him open from the inside. Olive had begun to grind her teeth at night, and Gunnison lay in bed and rubbed the scar on his abdomen to remind him that the kidney had become his own.
That spring, the grafted tree bore both lemons and limes. The urban professionals bought the lemon-limes by the quart, giddy with the flush of novelty. They asked Gunnison about Vitamin C and if the fruit would taste like 7-Up, and he told them that the lemon-limes counted for two servings of fruit and the taste of soda was mixed in a laboratory. Gunnison dreamed of plucking peaches and plums off the same bough. He dreamed of pioneering new territory for fruit grafts and combining apricots, almonds, sweet cherries, plums, and nectarines in a fruit cocktail tree. His faith in the fruit grafts was strengthened by the inconvertible fact that he was still alive, and the kidney was still alive, but the motorcyclist was dead.
“All your daily fruit allowance in one bite,” Gunnison whispered to Olive.
“And not in sugary syrup,” Olive said, nipping at his earlobe.
The dormant buds in the spring were ripe for grafting, and Gunnison expertly knit scion to stock, adding almonds and apricots to the lemon-lime tree. The branch from the almond tree turned a dark, healthy brown. The apricot slipped a green bud from its bark. Gunnison removed the burlap wrapped around the grafts and unwound the string. The grafts were rigid and the sap flowed, though none of the buds bore fruit.
When Olive came out to the greenhouse one night after the twins were asleep, she carried a flannel blanket and asked him if they could lie down in front of the lemon-lime tree.
Gunnison shook his head soberly. “This is a holy place. I don’t want to risk it.”
Olive eyed the tree from root to branch. “If you want to grow an orchard full of fruit cocktail trees, you’re going to have to take the plant outside.”
The next Saturday afternoon, Gunnison dug a hole in front of the farmhouse and planted the fruit cocktail tree in the earth. He gently loosened the plastic that encased the roots and drowned the tree in water. He bought fertilizer and spread it around the tree with a rake. Each day, he and the twins watered the plant, spraying each other and the tree with the hose. The fruit that the tree produced was green and misshapen, woody rinds betraying no hint of the flesh that lay unsweetened inside. By October, when the winds came, the leaves of the fruit cocktail tree wilted and fell off. Gunnison hoped that the tree’s sickliness indicated only a change of a season, but the grafts began to come apart at the seams. In a fit of sadness, Gunnison ripped out the fruit cocktail tree from the ground and burned it in the fire pit on the back acres. The next day, he bought a motorcycle.
He pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse and let the motor idle.
Olive opened the front door, one twin gripping each leg. “Where’s your helmet?”
Gunnison revved the engine, and then he was gone.
Lorie Kolak has won awards for her fiction from the Bellevue Literary Review, Bear Deluxe Magazine, and the Illinois Center for the Book. She graduated from DePaul University with a master’s degree in writing and works at DePaul University Library.