BloodLines: "Orchard" by Alexi Zentner
We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards.
In Alexi Zentner’s BloodLines piece, a retired teacher’s past comes vividly to the fore when a tragedy befalls her former students.
**Note: This piece contains strong language.**
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"Orchard” by Alexi Zentner
It’s been a few years since I retired from teaching, but I'm still up at five, taking my exercise before sunrise. There used to be six of us, but we’re down to four women on our walks—one taken by the cancer and one by a mean son-of-a-bitch who killed himself before he could go to trial—and we see the emergency lights bleeding through the dark before we turn the corner by the library. I'm eating one of the apples I picked from the orchard in my backyard, and I toss it into the bushes where it will serve as compost.
There are police cars and a fire truck parked in front of the town square. They've got their floodlights turned over the fence and our war memorial. Every November I’d march my first-graders over, children neat in line, showing them the empty tomb and the names of each man our town had lost to war. There are three policemen standing by the cars, and up on the white marble, a firefighter in his bib and coat, hosing down the steps of the memorial. One of the policemen sees us and starts to walk over.
“Careful,” he says, pointing down at the ground.
I look at my feet. There are flakes of rust on the sidewalk.
“Morning, Mrs. Hazel,” the policeman says. “We haven’t had a chance to get all the blood cleaned up yet. A nasty business.”
It takes me a few seconds to come to his name: Thanh Chu. I don’t think he notices the pause. I like to call my former students by name, so that they know that even though they've gone and grown up, they are still always mine. “I can’t believe you’re old enough to be in uniform, Thanh.”
“I just graduated, Mrs. Hazel. This is only my second month.”
He was the first of my students to be Vietnamese, and God help me, but I thought he was nasty and brutish at first, a product of his people. Foreign blood in a small town, but he was only lonely and scared and just like every other six-year-old boy I ever taught. All I can do is ask forgiveness for my backward thoughts and be thankful that I never spoke them aloud nor acted on them. I loved Thanh as much as I loved every student I had, and it does me good to see him here.
“And can you tell us what happened, Thanh?”
“It’s nothing good, Mrs. Hazel,” he says. “ Michael Conlon stabbed Paul Teserkas last night. Killed him.”
“Oh, Thanh,” I say, and then I turn my head and tsk.
Leslie, next to me, says, “I remember Paul, but not Michael. Was he one of your boys, Hazel?”
Thanh leans over and puts his arm on my shoulder. “Oh, all of the boys in town are Mrs. Hazel’s. The three of us were in class together.”
I hear Melanie ask Thanh what it was over and Thanh say, a girl, it’s always over a girl, but the words brush past me because I'm struggling not to cry. It’s not because of Michael Conlon or Paul Teserkas, but because I realize that this isn't Thanh Chu. This is Thanh’s son, Binh. The years just fall away, from father to son, and Binh must think I don’t remember him. But I do remember him, and now I can remember him and Michael and Paul all sitting in the cafeteria together. That must have been fifteen years ago, but I remember watching Michael take a bite of his red-skinned apple. I was close enough to see the way the juice dripped down his chin, and then Michael tossed the apple into the rafters of the cafeteria. He slumped over when it did not come down. He caught me staring at him and he said, “I wanted to see what would happen, but now I can’t eat my apple.”
Which doesn't explain why he stabbed Paul Teserkas last night.
But it’s not the boys that I'm thinking about anymore. It’s the apple in flight, and the way it reminds me of the apples I have in the small orchard in my backyard. I've spent the last few days picking them and putting them down in the cellar, but there are so many that I can’t reach. Those are the ones that are going to fall from the tree and bruise on the ground, turning to dust and rust, sinking into the ground to feed the trees, always hoping that the branches will reach higher.
Alexi Zentner is the author of Touch and the forthcoming The Lobster Kings (May 2014). Touch was shortlisted for The 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, The Center for Fiction’s 2011 Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the 2012 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the 2011 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Alexi’s fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Glimmer Train, The Southern Review, and many other publications. He is the winner of both the O. Henry Prize and the Narrative Prize. This is Alexi's first year as an Assistant Professor at Binghamton University.