portion of the artwork for Laurence Klavan's fiction

The Core
Laurence Klavan

He grabbed hard and yanked, and the thing came off in his hand. The effort set Dag back on his heels, almost knocking him down, and he laughed a little at his own fragility. Still, he held onto it with pride, which was peculiar, for how hard was it? Any child could do it—not the reaching but the pulling: look, even little Baylor was doing it, albeit on a lower branch, and he was only six. (Seven? Six. Dag wasn’t sure, though he’d never say so to his sister.) He motioned for the boy to open his canvas bag, and then Dag placed the apple he’d picked inside, because the apples were for the kids, they weren’t for him; he didn’t even like eating apples, it was too messy, the biting part left your face all wet—and what about those people who ate them all, not the stems but the seeds? That sickened Dag, that was like, well, biting into bark or buttons, into something inedible; or was it more like swallowing what it actually was, sperm or something reproductive, so it was too intimate and that’s why he didn’t like to see it? Anyway, Dag had only agreed to pick apples today with his sister, Zena, and her kids (Coco was the smaller one, still a few steps behind, with her mother) to show that he was all right now, not panicky and hiding from other people, as he’d been all summer, was normal enough for apple picking in an orchard at least, to put Zena at ease.

“Don’t you want it?” Baylor asked, referring to the apple. He had that hurt or maybe just confused look that kids get when you don’t want to join in on something.

“No,” Dag said, trying to defuse it and so spare his feelings. “It’s for you.”

“It’s a Honeycrisp,” the boy said. “It will appeal to teens. It’s good for snacking.”

Dag nodded, not answering, biting his tongue. He suspected that Zena had insisted her children read up on the orchard website about the kinds of apples they’d be picking—because every experience was for extra credit now with kids, nothing was for leisure any more or lollygagging around; or was it just that Baylor, like so many these days, had some sort of developmental problem and so was overly intent on memorizing and lecturing, lacked basic social skills, and so was taking it all too seriously? (The boy actually had two settings: super-intense and terrifying tantrum.) Dag didn’t even know what it meant, “will appeal to teens,” thought it was probably a desperate move on a website writer’s part to differentiate apples, but he kept it to himself, trying to be a good uncle, a good sport, and calm his sister down. She’d been so freaked out by his recent withdrawal from others or “spells” or whatever extreme agoraphobia was called these days, more upset than Dag, who by now endured them as some people did chronic sinusitis, not taking his meds as he was meant to, not liking being “evened out,” reduced to being moist and mealy—like a bad apple, he thought, amused by the comparison, as he watched his nephew with a conscientious effort free another piece of fruit from its branch.

“Braeburns are also good for teens,” Baylor said. “Being crispy.”

“Do teens like crispy things?” Dag asked, knowing the boy’s weird gravity prevented his having much sense of humor and so assuming he would not know he was being teased. And, in fact, Baylor considered it before giving a solemn reply.

“Yes,” he said. “They do.”

Baylor was in his benign mode and hadn’t melted down once this morning. Was the boy on drugs, too? Probably not: Zena wanted to believe he didn’t need them, either; maybe that was really why she’d asked Dag along, to convince herself that everyone in the family was fine, nothing bad ran in their blood, everything would be OK today in the autumn in the orchard, everything starting over, a new season in the suburbs, all sweet and good for you, again like an apple—

“Autumn Crisps are the slowest to brown,” Baylor said, “and so the best for salads.”

—exactly, Dag, thought, slow to brown, bright and healthy until the end. It wasn’t true, he knew, but what was the harm in Zena believing it, after her husband had walked out on her, unable to deal with all the developmental whatevers in their world (the jury was still out on Coco, who seemed OK, but for how much longer?), leaving Zena alone and even more hysterical? She had even asked Dag to move out there and live in her house, as if the city had always been his real problem, the outside world, and not the tangled transit systems and run-down and dangerous dwellings that were inside him.

What was so great about the suburbs, anyway? It was unusually hot, for October.

“That one’s out of our reach,” Baylor said. “Why don’t you use the pole?”

Dag looked at the stick, utensil, whatever you wanted to call it, held in his hand, the long thing that let you grasp the hard-to-get apples near the tree top, like a claw in an old-fashioned arcade game, only going up and not down. Dag had not used it for he had secretly feared he wouldn’t be able to, never having been adept at any kind of machinery (and, yes, that’s what he considered the pole, machinery), fearing his nephew’s judgment if he fouled it up, that was the truth, he couldn’t help it. But the child’s innocent question left him the choice of confessing his irrational anxiety to him or giving it a shot, so he decided on the latter, since it seemed—a bit, anyway—easier.

And he found it was easy: the apple above them came to Poppa, sank into the pole’s outstretched hand like a jumper on a ledge falling into a fireman’s arms—and even though the apple dropped out before Dag could get it to the ground, nearly but not hitting Baylor in the head, the boy retrieved it and placed it in his bag, impressed.

“Good work,” he said.

Dag couldn’t deny it: he felt a thrill at having completed the simple act, doing what any normal, non-nuts thirty-eight-year-old man would have done without thinking. As they walked to the next tree, Baylor kept talking about the kinds of apples around them—“The Golden Delicious is related to the Red Delicious in name only”—and slipped his hand into Dag’s, naturally, without fanfare or even any forethought, and Dag started but too slightly for his nephew to notice, before squeezing the little hand, not hard but hard enough to let the boy know that he liked it, for he did, surprising himself at how much.

Dag looked around at the other—what would you call them? pickers?—suburban families he had thought so unlike himself, at ease in groups and in the world, and at that second he felt a part of them, in a mass of people not scary but just striving for sustenance, hunting and gathering, acting out of instinct in an ancient way, and an unprecedented peacefulness fell over him, a man with a boy, carrying a stick and a canvas bag, and he entertained the idea that maybe he could come to such a place, be a part of a community; he and Baylor both, even with their “issues” (mental illnesses) could fit in, inaugurate a new kind of neighborhood, one in which the anxious or the odd would be accepted, even become the new norm, and he thought of the room in Zena’s house, living where the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious would be related by more than name, and now he knew that he was pushing it, but fuck it, that’s how he felt.

He and his nephew were so far ahead of Zena and Coco that he could hardly hear his sister call him. They approached the parking lot and Zena’s car, which he realized was locked and to which he didn’t have the keys.

Then Dag stopped, seeing the other people there.

He noticed the car doors first, many of which were open. Men—and it was mostly men—were in the drivers’ seats, some with one leg stuck out and one foot firmly on the ground. Their motors were panting; steam baked the cement. Sweat oozing off them, they were listening to radios, official and metallic voices from which Dag began to comprehend. The voices told of bombs being dropped, targets hit, violence committed—to retaliate for something? Or was it a game in a sport of some sort?

As Dag pulled—not so gently anymore—his nephew along, he heard the men in the cars exclaim, approvingly, egging it on, aroused.

“That’s it!”

“Do it!”

“Scorched earth, baby!”

There were a few women there, too, beside the men or in cars by themselves, their children in the backseats or standing befuddled or bored in the fiery sun outside. While the men were eager to encourage harm being done, the women were excited but secretly, a few even pretending to resist, holding up hands before their faces, to ward off more blows being rained down on others.

“My God!”

“Oh, no!”

“That’s terrible!”

Then Dag looked at the ground and saw apples there, squashed and melted and mixed with what looked like the mud and blood of battlefields—or that dish Jews ate at Passover to remind them of the mortar used to build the pyramids when they were slaves—and he found his hand was empty, no longer holding his stick or staff. Both his hands were empty; and he heard a boy call his name, growing increasingly shrill, then shrieking what just seemed syllables, and he ran, stamped, splashed his way beyond the orchard toward the highway, going to what he hoped, could only hope, would be safety.

Laurence Klavan’s Comments

I usually write short stories from anxiety, upset, or some other disconcerting emotion I’m trying to understand or just express. This little story is no exception. The events in it happened but not in the context I put them in nor with the meaning I imposed upon them.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 39 | Winter 2013