Beneath the banyan tree with its drooping limbs and leaves of its own wintry discontent in the early October morning, he ate oranges while watching the white woman, Andrea, behind locked gates and barbed fences guarding her grand house here in his South Africa.
When Andrea later called his name from somewhere inside the house, he thought for a moment longer on the story of the orange pearl.
“Demo!” The den window framed Andrea’s head. “Demo, where’re you at? I need you. Now!”
With a Swiss army knife Demo scraped clean the orange shavings from beneath his fingernails, tossed the leftover peels from his breakfast into a plastic bag and lifted himself up. Before using his key to enter the gate, he dumped the plastic bag with the orange peels into a bin by the outer fence.
On his way in Demo saw a tattered cloth hanging on a rosebush near the corner of the house. He’d have to see to that on his way out before Andrea noticed.
Demo found Andrea in the kitchen, where he thought she might be, seated at her dinner table with an empty fruit bowl between her outstretched palms flat against the surface of the rough wood. Andrea raised her right hand with her latest diamond ring—more than likely a blood diamond—pointed into the bowl and said,
“I’m glad you found time to join me, Demo, but can you please be so kind as to explain to me where my fresh oranges and bananas have gone? Just yesterday this bowl before you was filled to the rim with beautiful oranges and now not a drop of fruit. Explain yourself.”
Demo checked the clock on the stove, turned to catch the curtain blow inward from the window above the sink. It’d be another hot, dry day in Johannesburg with the high around twenty-eight degrees.
“I’m thirty minutes early today, ma’am.”
“Are you being smart with me?” Andrea placed both her hands around the base of the bowl and titled to make her effect. “You’ve still not answered my question, Demo. Where in the world are my oranges?”
As he was about to speak Andrea’s churlish Pomeranian stepped through its dog-door and into the kitchen.
“Ivanka!” Andrea settled the fruit bowl back on the table and leaned over to sit the dog in her lap. “I was worried sick about you, yes I was. Don’t you scare your Mama.” Andrea rubbed Ivanka’s belly and chin, the dog panting from the early heat and unseen play it had been involved in outside. Andrea glared back at Demo. “Well?”
“Maybe Ivanka ate your oranges, ma’am. It seems to me she’s been gaining some un-needed weight.”
“She is not.” Andrea gasped and clutched Ivanka to her chest. “My darling angel detests oranges and despises bananas even more.”
The dog licked its owner’s hand in a display of refined thankfulness that made one want to puke.
“As much as I like oranges, ma’am. I didn’t eat those fruit. Have never taken a thing from this house. I’m no thief, and if you’d like me to buy you some, I’m happy to do so.”
“What do you think, Ivanka? Can we trust our old friend Demo?”
Ivanka barked, jumped and landed its front paws atop the kitchen table, and barked again.
“I guess that’ll have to suffice, Demo.”
“Now remember, Demo, I only eat those Florida oranges from Nelson’s Market near my university. You know the place. And don’t let Bamboo give you any fuss about squeezing for the best oranges.”
“I won’t, ma’am, and I do. I’ve known Nelson since I was a babe-child. He’s a good man. Anything else you want? Any bananas?”
“There’s no need. I’m no longer in the mood.” Andrea bent over and deposited Ivanka to the floor. The dog spun in a few circles as its master stood up. “And remember, Demo. I want the Florida oranges.”
“The expensive ones. I know the kind.”
“Now that’s settled, I just want you to understand, Demo, that I’m not upset about the missing oranges. Not really.”
“You’re not, ma’am?”
“Not at all.” Andrea stepped to the kitchen sink, removed her diamond ring, washed her hands, dried them on a towel, exhaled as she replaced her diamond ring, and stared out the window as she said, “It’s this damned business of rioting and looting for free higher education that’s given me a bad temper.” Andrea turned back to face Demo. She leaned against the edge of the sink and watched Ivanka lick its ass before prancing off into the den. Andrea crossed her arms, thumbed her new diamond ring and added, “The uni postponed classes three weeks ago because hundreds of protesters, many not even students, have started to act out violently. A few days ago, windows were broken at the university and classrooms vandalized. You see, Demo, I can’t go back to teaching until the government can reach a resolution with the student factions. And if I can’t work, I can’t afford to pay bills or to even buy oranges in December. So you can see why I’m a bit put off at the moment. I even heard a young student of mine was raped by a taxi driver near the university campus. Just a few blocks from where I teach. Can you believe that?”
“I can’t say that I do, ma’am. That’s horrible, and sad.”
“Do you see, Demo? Do you really see what it is I’m talking about?”
“I was just thinking to myself what would aggravate Miss Andrea to such a heated level. Now I know.”
“Now you know.”
“Yes, ma’am. Things have been getting pretty bad out there, I know it, Miss Andrea. You should stay inside. I’m sure these young students of yours will come to see reason sooner or later, for the good of South Africa.”
“Let’s hope sooner rather than later, Demo.”
Ivanka barked to announce its entrance back into the kitchen. Demo leaned over and scratched the dog’s head and neck. Satisfied, Ivanka sought water.
“I guess I’ll be going to Nelson’s, ma’am.”
“That’ll be superb. But come back around five. I’ll have a surprise for you then.”
“You want me to take the day off, ma’am?”
“You could say that, Demo. I’ll be home reading all day and I don’t want you banging around on that wall in the backyard all day.”
“See you at five, Demo.”
He left the kitchen through the backdoor. On the porch he assessed the vegetable plants and the back brick wall which still needed repairs. He could get to those tomorrow.
Demo walked around to the front of the house. At the corner he bent down and snatched up two banana peels and a half eaten orange, covered with a few searching ants. He shook the ants free of the discarded fruit and cupped the peels in his left hand. With his right hand he picked the torn cloth from the thorns of the rosebush and saw it was from a child’s T-shirt.
Demo placed the piece of cloth over the fruit peels in his left hand and scanned the fence line for a sign. Nearest the spot where the northern and eastern fences met, one of the metal sheets at the bottom had been bent inward.
He walked over and knelt down. Demo readjusted the metal to its proper position and then placed nine clay bricks against the metal sheet for support. That would have to do until he got back in the evening so he could do a better fix.
Demo picked up the fruit peels and cloth he had placed in the dirt and left the front yard through the gate; when it snapped shut the door locked automatically.
He lifted the plastic bag with the orange peels out of the bin by the outer fence and let fall the additional fruit peels and cloth into the plastic bag. Six blocks down he dropped the plastic bag with its contents into a barrel reserved for public waste and headed home.
On the outskirts of Johannesburg, Demo opened the door to his flat and saw his wife, Gertrude, shuffling after their two-year-old son, Homer. In the background Demo heard his wife’s favorite song playing in the stereo: Bea Miller singing “Paper Doll.”
Demo dropped his keys onto the counter next to the door and caught Homer as the boy squeaked with laughter into Demo’s arms. Gertrude crossed the living room and switched off the stereo. A calm filled the empty spaces in the room.
“You should not believe what happened to me this morning,” Gertrude said. “I came to Charity Market today and stood on line for twenty minutes. All for some poorly grown cucumbers and a shakerful of beans.”
Demo grunted to show his agreement in the disapproving nature of his wife’s mistreatment. “That’s a sad shame,” he added. He kissed Homer on the cheek and placed him gently to the floor, where the boy darted to a toy firetruck overturned in the center of the living room.
Gertrude started again: “And Millie’s daughter, Queenie, said three more universities shut down ’cause there’s no reason nor sense on going to classes to either get attacked by lunatics with sticks and rocks or to get arrested by the police because no one can tell who’s a student and who isn’t one.”
Demo had gone into the kitchen to wash his hands while his wife spoke of the news most likely spoken in every home across South Africa, from Cape Town to Johannesburg to Pretoria. From the drain he quietly removed remnants of broccoli and tossed them into the red plastic bucket beneath the kitchen sink, and added to that a dead waterbug he found lying upside down behind the faucet. Demo washed his hands with a yellow bar of Tide soap, twice, dried and emerged from the kitchen just as his wife finished her diatribe on the university demonstrations.
“Now, Gertie,” Demo said, “One must take fire to make light. These youngsters are trying to figure things out for themselves and they’re fighting for a noble cause, not just for them right now but for generations on ahead. Imagine if Homer here could one day go to university, something we couldn’t afford to do, and to do it for free and get a real education. That sounds like change to me.”
The boy raised his head at the mention of his name but returned to his play with the toy firetruck.
“I can’t imagine such nonsense,” Gertrude said. She walked over and unwrapped a platter of oatmeal cookies she had baked the night before. “Who can imagine anything in this world being free? That’s plain silly talk. Just silly.”
“In the States—”
“Here we go again with ‘in the States’,” and she held out an oatmeal cookie to her son, “Homer, bring this cookie to your Papa before he loses his sweet, considerate mind.”
Homer obeyed and quickly returned to his play by the window.
Demo thanked his wife and son for the treat. He extended the oatmeal cookie as if it were a gold medal and said, “Let an old man eat his lunch and have his dreams.”
“You can have dreams,” Gertrude returned, “but keep them to yourself. We’ve bills to account for and dreams don’t pay squat. No matter how much you want to believe in dreams, there’s people like me who need to believe in the real, like how we’re going to buy Homer some new trainers. The boy can’t go barefoot his whole life like I did.”
Homer, as if summoned once more, walked to Demo. The boy rubbed his eyes and said, “Papa, will you tell that story.”
Gertrude leaned on the counter and placed her hand on her hip. She sipped water from a glass.
Demo lifted Homer to his chest. “The story of the orange pearl? That one again?”
“Yes, Papa.” Homer rubbed his eyes. “That one.”
“You might as well put your son to nap while you’re here, Demosthenes.”
“Okay,” Demo said. “The orange pearl it is.” And father and son vanished down the hall to the back bedroom.
Twenty-five minutes later Demo returned to the living room to find Gertrude on the sofa reading a fashion magazine.
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Gertrude said, “but why’re you home today?”
Demo looked out the balcony window. “I’ve got to buy Miss Andrea some oranges at Nelson’s. Seems she lost hers.” Demo walked to the hall.
“Nelson’s? We can’t afford Nelson’s. What d’ya do?”
From a shoebox they kept in the hall closet, Demo collected several bills.
“And you’re using our savings?”
“Not much,” Demo said. “Just to buy Miss Andrea a few oranges. She’s having a rough time of it and she somehow thinks I ate hers.”
“Those are sins too small to mention,” Gertrude said. “Why not blame the bees and ants on to Apocalypse?”
“I’m just replacing a few oranges,” Demo said. He tucked the shoebox back into its place at the top of the hall closet. He gently folded the bills and placed them in his pocket. “Let’s not kick the hive. I’ll replace what I’ve taken. You know me, Gertie.”
“You better,” Gertrude said, “I’m going to need that for Homer. He’s getting bigger but we aren’t getting richer.”
Demo kissed his wife on the head, and then he asked, “You still taking Homer to that art center this afternoon?”
“It’s called Lalela,” she said as she placed the fashion magazine on the sofa seat beside her. “And yes. We’re going today.”
Demo kissed his wife, once more, on her temple. “Be safe,” he said, and then he left for Nelson’s Market.
Demo entered the market and Nelson instantly greeted him.
“How’s the philosophizer?” Nelson joked. “Come to see me in my hour of need? Or to donate to the cause?”
“I’ve come to learn a thing or two, Uncle,” Demo replied. Demo hugged his old friend who seemed now a much older relative. “It seems you’re doing better than the last time I saw you. You’ve grown wider.”
Nelson playfully slapped his oversized belly and followed this with a hearty-good laugh. “Too much of a great thing, I’m afraid, Demo.”
Nelson led Demo farther into the store where Bamboo—with eager, steady eyes—swept the cereal aisle.
“What can I do you for, Demo?” Nelson asked. “Don’t see you around my parts lately.”
“Miss Andrea,” Demo began as Nelson rolled his eyes, “wants me to buy her some of those Florida oranges, the ones you’re so famous for. Seven or eight should do.”
Moving forward, Nelson placed a hand on the lower part of Demo’s back. “I know the ones. The real luxurious kind. Ha! Follow me, son.”
Demo scanned the fruits and vegetables section of the store looking for the Florida oranges. Off to the side, Demo saw Bamboo with her horse-haired broom inching closer with every swipe she took. Each time he saw her she never spoke and it bothered him to have her eyes follow him across the store. Demo found the sign he was looking for and walked forward.
Nelson had torn two plastic bags from a roll on a stand at the end of the aisle and started for a large selection of oranges. Demo watched as Nelson put one fist of orange after another into a plastic bag. When one bag had six oranges, Nelson began to fill the second plastic bag.
“How much do Florida oranges cost?” Demo asked because Nelson never marked a single item in his market with a definitive price. Nelson liked to think he was being a traditionalist for doing so.
“Florida oranges?” Nelson said, “Ha! I tell Miss Andrea these oranges here are from America and she goes and eats them up like candy, sugar candy. Do you think, Demo, old Nelson can afford to buy and sell American when South Africa grows its own damn oranges? And in this sad state of our economy?”
Without a word, Demo collected from Nelson the two plastic bags filled with large oranges; there were twelve oranges in total.
“No, sir, Rob,” Nelson said as he led Demo to the storefront. “These here oranges, the same Miss Andrea buys each week on account of my store being next to her university, these oranges here are from Egypt. These are Egyptian oranges.”
“I’d no idea Egyptian oranges tasted like the ones in Florida.” Demo held up the two plastic bags and examined the contents. “They look the same. In fact, identical.”
“And taste the same, too,” Nelson added. “An orange is an orange. Just costs more in the winter season. Supply and demand.”
Demo nodded. “Now that’s an education,” he said as Nelson led him around the cashier and to the front doors. “You don’t think Miss Andrea will notice?”
Bamboo stopped sweeping and listened.
“She’s only noticed the price going up, as it should,” Nelson said. “Even Egyptian oranges get costly come the end of the year.”
“Shouldn’t I pay?” Demo asked his uncle. “I don’t want to put you out or anything.”
Nelson vigorously shook his head in the negative. “Your money’s no good here, son,” Nelson said as he gave Demo a little shove out the front doors. “Go and buy that boy of yours something useful. Or save. With the state of things, with the way things are worsening, we’re going to need all the help we can get. Trust me, Demo. Be a good ant and save.”
Demo nodded along to his uncle’s words. “Why don’t you come over for dinner one night?” Demo said. He looked back at the store with Nelson framed between the large, open doors. “Gertie would love it, and Homer hasn’t seen you in a time. It’d be fun.”
“Well, if you persist,” Nelson said. “I can’t pass up a fine meal on account of manners.” He waved Demo away. “Now get before that bitch sets her bitch on you. On second thought, just kick that rat of a dog for me. Ha! I’d like that. A lot.”
Demo didn’t answer his Uncle Nelson but nodded and waved awkwardly with a bag of oranges in each hand. In his heart, Demo knew he could do no man nor woman malice. He was raised better than that, and he hoped Homer was too.
The firetruck nearly hit Demo as he crossed the street three blocks from Nelson’s Market. Men in large hats and heavy coats shouted from the sides of the firetruck, which sped between and around cars and trucks as it headed in the direction of the university and closer to a wave of protesters Demo could see a few blocks away.
Just as soon as the firetruck zipped by Demo with its horn and siren blaring, the nervous arms of firemen waving pedestrians out of the way, a mob of protesters swarmed through the street toward Demo. The firetruck slowed and then stopped when the front exploded in flames after being hit with a home-made cocktail of bottled fuel and fire.
Another protester hurled in a perfect arch through the air a green bottle, its neck trailing a fiery rag. The bottle exploded near the back tires of the firetruck and caused the firemen to dive off their perches and tumble frantically onto the pavement. Shedding hats and coats, the firemen fled for safety back down the street as the protesters, by the hundreds, surged forward, over, and around the burning firetruck.
Demo had tucked himself onto the steps of an office building and watched the men take baseball bats and iron bars to the windows on the firetruck and parked cars.
“Fees must fall!” one shouted. “Fall!”
Another: “Free for all!”
Another: “No pay! No way!”
At times, as a unified voice, the angry parade of rioters cried out, “Fall! Fall! Fall! Fall! Fall! Fall!”
Demo watched in horror as the earth shook and burned.
The tide of rioting men passed only to be followed by a large crowd of women peacefully singing songs of freedom, revolution, salvation, and betrayal. Many of the women—who Demo thought to be in their late teens or early twenties—carried large sheets of thin paper with lettering and all the messages advocated for free tuition in South Africa.
Demo would later tell the judge and jury, who would find him innocent on all charges, that the next time he blinked—or so he told himself—the street had been emptied of noise, anger and people. All that remained of the chaos which nearly swept Demo away was the abandoned firetruck, smoldering and smoking and broken.
With two bags of Egyptian oranges—which seemed to Demo silly and childish—he ran as he once did as a younger man off the steps of the office building and around the nearest corner. He didn’t stop running until he was two blocks from Miss Andrea’s house.
Demo unlocked the gate, as he did earlier that morning, wiped sweat from his face with sweaty fingers, and entered Miss Andrea’s house through the back door. In his hands, he still clutched the two plastic bags of oranges from Nelson’s Market.
“There’s the thief!” Andrea screamed to three police officers standing by the kitchen table. “Finally! I caught you in the act red-handed.” Andrea yelled and held Ivanka to her neck. “Grab him! The thief’s returned to cover his crime by replacing my oranges.”
The three police officers—with wide, fearing eyes—turned from Andrea to Demo to the barking dog to the two bags of oranges and back to the hysterical woman behind them.
“There seems trouble, Demo,” one of the officers said as he stepped forward and took the two bags of oranges. The officer placed the oranges on the rough wood of the kitchen table. “We’ll need to take you to the station to answer a few questions.”
“Do you know him?” Andrea asked the officers. “Now that’s just freaking fine and dandy.”
The leading officer turned to Andrea and spoke with a firm voice, “And we know you, too.”
Andrea quieted Ivanka and stepped to the back of the kitchen.
“Demo,” the officer continued, “You’ve been suspected of stealing Miss Andrea’s diamond ring.”
Demo’s knees shook and he stumbled forward to right himself against the kitchen table. To keep the sweat from dripping to his eyes, Demo rubbed his forehead with the base of his thumb nearest the palm.
“See,” Andrea said, “guilty men sweat.”
“I’m sweating,” the leading officer said. “It’s hot.”
“How could you?” Demo managed to lift his eyes to Andrea’s bare hand where the diamond ring had been that morning. The day was the same, the kitchen was the same, but the hand had changed and Demo didn’t know why. Then Demo told himself, quietly and regretfully: The moment we stop thinking the thieves will come, the thieves come; that’s true fear.
The two officers moved over to Demo and pulled his arms behind his back. The leading officer tightened the handcuffs around Demo’s wrists.
As the metal clinked shut and firm around Demo’s wrist bones, Demo happened to turn to the same window he had seen that very morning Andrea stick her head out of and yell his name. Outside the window, in the lower left corner, Demo saw a child’s face, a boy of eight years or so, and the two felt themselves becoming one.
Ivanka barked and Andrea said, “Now that you’re going to prison, Demo, I hope for a really long time, what do you have to say for yourself? The shame, is it too much to handle?”
“Would you like to say anything, Demo?” The leading officer said. “It might save us a trip.”
Demo didn’t need to look at Andrea when he spoke next. He studied for a moment longer the boy in the window, turned to catch the curtain blow inward from the kitchen window, and, over his shoulder, said, “What we do, we do for the love of our country.”
“He admits it!” Andrea shrieked. “I hope you burn in hell you filthy, dirty worm. I trusted you!”
The three police officers started to move Demo forward out the back door but Demo hesitated. The officers waited.
Demo turned his head to check the time on the clock on the stove and looked one last time at the two bags of oranges on the table.
“I was twenty minutes early,” Demo said.
The three police officers bounced daunted gazes off one another and shrugged.
“Let’s go,” Demo finally said, “It’s time I washed my hands of this house.”
When the three police officers led Demo around the front corner of the house where the rosebush waited, Demo feared a moment for the boy, but when Demo caught sight of the front yard of the house, there was no boy to be seen.
Before the gate snapped shut, Demo did see, however, for the last time Miss Andrea and the mutt Ivanka framed by the front window, and for the first time in several months, as Demo drove away in the back of the police car, he felt free of a burden he never knew existed.
Demo sighed and then fell softly to sleep. Things would work themselves out. Things always did for Demo.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.