Isaac Golden shuffled the potatoes about the plate, his cutlery clinking profanities. He had identified the counterfeit liquid at a glance, resting undisturbed in the fancy Lucite pitcher. Coonskin-capped Eli somehow knew not to reach for it.
Did Melody think he was blind? Where in the fridge had his wife hidden those tiny tin cans of concentrate?
Inspired by true events surrounding a historic Florida citrus season and the civil rights struggle in a region not immediately associated with the movement, Goldens Are Here offers a glimpse of the sea changes occurring in Florida and the nation in the 1960s through the prism of one family’s negotiations with the land, their neighbors, and with each other.
Color was okay, Isaac thought. They got that down pretty well. A precise dosage of pulp, too, formed filament archipelagos at the surface, lapped the Lucite circumference. Just something about its viscosity, the way the reconstituted orange liquid—he could hardly consider it juice—resisted the morning rays streaming in the bay window from over the Atlantic, its greater opacity, vaguely chalk.
He stabbed each of the three loose yolks, watched the eggs bleed about the Pfaltzgraff. For their milchik meals, Melody still insisted upon using her mother’s service, the winterberry design at the rim clashing against their current environs. A vague reproach? Nostalgia only? Mere habit? Isaac exhaled audibly through his nostrils.
“Forgive me, I just thought we’d try some,” Melody finally burst the silence, raising a paper napkin to her mouth as if to capture the escaped words.
“Yes, I see.” He cleared his throat.
“Oh, don’t be such a pill, Iz.” His laconic sullenness was too much for her to bear, apparently. “Is it such a crime to sample a glass? It’s really super.”
She loved that word. Super. Everything with her these days was super. Or not.
“The things they can do,” she continued, then sighed, her head swiveling back and forth on its axis to punctuate her point, leaving it to the family to speculate upon the several examples. Color television? Air-conditioning? Project Mercury? Plastic wrap? Isaac’s wife was someone ever primed to be awestruck by this and that new thing, while he was slow, or unwilling, to concede the purported advance.
“Really, Iz, you’d have us all living in caves for crying out loud. Next you’ll deprive the baby her evaporated milk.”
Isaac glanced over at their youngest, Sarah—healthy as a horse, this one—mewling through her frothy mouth and making a general mess of her soggy cereal oat rounds on her tray. Goodness.
“Concentrate’s all they serve now at Janisse’s and everyone…”
Whenever Melody got going like this, it was no use resisting. She radiated an enthusiasm that had drawn him—opposites and all—but her vim was ill-suited, Isaac worried, for this hot drowsy state. It was a state slow to excitement. A state that took its time. That curious expression bandied about in town—honest as the day is long—hadn’t made much sense to him at first. No one uttered such things in Philadelphia. About long days. About honesty for that matter. But the very days were longer and slower here, the sun vaulting itself high in the sky at daybreak and staying put, only reluctantly teetering toward the earth’s bruised horizon by nightfall.
He rose from his chair, reached for the pitcher, and topped their cups. “There,” he said. “We’re trying it. Satisfied?”
“Mmm,” Eli let slip, then cleared his throat.
“So what do you think, Iz?” Melody’s eyebrows rose with her voice. Her hands clapped silently below her fine chin, before her lovely slender neck, just this side of Modigliani. A dark beauty, Isaac had married. “Super, right? You have to admit. And the dear cans take up so little space. And every pitcher tastes the same. Never sour. And you can potchkee it up any old way you please by adding more or less water. Amazing what they can do—”
“Sorry, dear heart, but it tastes like that Johnson’s baby aspirin if you ask me. What’s the difference if they’re consistent about it?”
“Well now you’re just being silly, Isaac Golden. Such a fuddy-duddy. There’s simply no speaking with you.”
Something about the way she said this—the lilt of her voice, the precise angle she set her raven do atop her delicate frame—betrayed her unswerving, if exasperated, affection for his fuddy-duddy-ness, his peccadilloes. Affection above all, which offered him license to continue:
“We’re fresh-fruit people, Mel. Parson Browns, Hamlins, Valencias—”
“Midsweets!” Eli cried in his bewildering falsetto, only half-mocking him, Isaac hoped. “Gardners! Duncans! Marshes!”
Sarah pounded her fists and wailed falsetto too, flashing a wet pair of bottom teeth Isaac hadn’t noticed before.
“Christ!” he shouted, covering his ears with his thick mitts.
“Eli,” said Melody. Then, casting her gaze toward her husband: “We’re Jews from West Philadelphia, Isaac. We’re no kind of people…. Juice-wise, anyway.”
“Well I didn’t buy a hundred acres of choice grove land on the river to start selling pound-solids to the frozen people. That’s for sure.”
Before the words had fully escaped his lips, Isaac thought he saw Eli roll his eyes behind that bird nose of his. He wasn’t certain, though, so he let it slide. “Remove that ridiculous hat at the table,” he said instead. “It’ll be 80 degrees in a couple hours.”
“Okay, dear. Calm down.” Melody rested a hand atop his. Isaac could feel its soft warmth, her cooler platinum wedding band against his knuckle, swollen from yesterday’s labors. “You’re going to give yourself palpitations.”
The frozen people. A few scientists from the woolly interior of the state had caused all this trouble. They boiled, pasteurized, and evaporated fresh juice to crude-oil consistency in behemoth Short Time evaporators festooned with octopus arms spewing a steady sludge. That was the easy part. The tough part was making it taste half-decent upon reconstitution at the tap as various orange essences wafted off into the ether during evaporation. And so the scientists, shortly after the war, concocted the cutback—fresh juice, mostly, but also d-limonene, that piquant peel-oil potion, and other mysterious, unadvertised compounds. Esters? Carbonyls? Hesperidin? Lycopene? The frozen people, Isaac worried, would be the end of them. (And before he’d even had time to carve out a proper beginning!) He didn’t quite know how he knew this. Only that he did. Perhaps it was its very obliterating popularity that worried him. Its leveling force. Concentrate. Isaac pondered the word. The nation used to aspire toward big things. Cars. Rocket ships. Skyscrapers. Why labor toward this shrunkenness, whittling fine things down to smaller, ersatz components?
Other fruit stands all along the U.S. 1 didn’t even serve fresh chilled, anymore. They still advertised their Hamlins or Valencias in their vintage E. Bean orange crates to motorists from the north, yet thought nothing of administering medicinal doses of concentrate, distilled from some mish-mosh concoction of early-, mid-, and late-season cultivars. People, orange people, didn’t even talk about oranges anymore, but acids, sugars, and degrees Brix! So yes. Maybe it always tasted the same, as Melody insisted. Yet what was so terrible about a little variety, the more acid Parson Brown and Hamlin nectar in October—the most complex nose and palate tang—the rounder, fatter flavor of Pineapples and Midsweets come December, the audacious Valencias in spring, the sugary juice bursting the Brix scale? And what about the manifold additional citrus varieties petering out toward extinction, or undiscovered? The craft edged closer and closer to monoculture. No one else in Isaac’s co-op fathomed wasting acreage on improvement, experimentation. Walt, Edwin, Doyle. Even Clay. They left the crossing and hybridizing for others, scientists from the commission on secret state plots, university laboratories, and enclosed orangeries (for all Isaac knew), inland.
The Goldens flinched at the table from the deep-bass discharge.
The concentrate quivered.
“Son of a…” Isaac refrained from completing the curse. The children. “He’s doing it again!”
“Isaac,” Melody warned.
“Sunday, for crying out loud!”
Sarah cried upon the third report, the flesh underneath her faint eyebrows rubicund with rage. Melody rose from her chair to pacify her.
“What’s Mr. Boehringer doing, Dad?” Eli asked—his own tender scion—then issued a rich cough into his seashell palm.
“Eli?” Melody asked. “You okay?” Eli nodded his head, raised a small hand high toward his mother as if to ward off a blow.
“That ignoramus!” Isaac’s Pfaltzgraff hopped as he pounded his fist against the pine table.
“Isaac, don’t confront him now,” she warned, bobbing Sarah in her arms. “Not while your dander’s up, not while he’s carrying a rifle for heaven’s sake.”
“Shotgun, Mel,” he corrected her as he rose, the legs of his chair squealing against the lemon linoleum. He threw his paper napkin on his plate, a puny gesture.
“Shotgun? What’s the—”
He ignored his wife as he fled to the scene of the struggle, only taking enough time on the porch to throw work boots on his oversized, unsocked feet.
“He has a gun, Isaac!” he heard Melody shout after him.
“A gun Iz! Don’t be a crazy person! You’re acting like a crazy—”
Rifle. Shotgun. A distinction without a difference to his wife, Isaac considered as he tromped out back past Melody’s vegetable garden and the wild tamarind (which had no business growing so far north); the triad of live oaks beyond that had been permitted to stretch their arms and grow their shaggy beards a respectable distance from both the house and planted acres. He followed his beeline along the dusty path between the scruffy patches of palmetto and lantana, the taller spice-smelling islands of wax myrtle and privet where the towhees and scrub jays and cardinals and mockingbirds loitered, and disappeared into the raised rows of his experimental, untagged, unharvestable crosses, hybrids, and chance seedlings toward the property line. These ten acres of his larger property. Eli’s grove, he called this parcel he set aside for the perfection of fruit.
A gun was a no-good gun to his wife. Pasht-nit, in the vernacular of the tribe. Not for them. Why make fine distinctions? But such distinctions mattered now, mattered here. That Walt, say, prided himself on his 12-gauge Winchester, while Clay was a Browning man. A new livelihood in a new state with new people and new rules and new words! A new life, they had embarked upon. Because the climate would be better for Eli’s lungs. And because their parents had already died early deaths, anyway. And because why not?
“Walter!” Isaac shouted, still several rows from their irrigation ditch border.
“Walt! You hear?!” He glimpsed him, finally—boom!—picking off butterflies hovering over the Hamlin and Valencia orange trees with his Winchester. Some swallowtails, broader than sparrows, disintegrated upon impact, vanishing into the atmosphere, redolent now with pungent gunpowder, while others, clipped, dropped helter-skelter from the sky like wounded kites. Poor creatures. Isaac felt his hackles rise. He imagined crossing the irrigation ditch and throttling his neighbor, watching his face grow scarlet above his grip, his bloodshot eyes bulge. He shook his head to clear the terrifying image from his mental screen, exhaled volubly. It wasn’t only, or even mostly, this shoot ’em up that inspired Isaac’s rage. Walt wanted Isaac out, having never wanted him in, and barely concealed the sentiment. What’s more, a vandal had been attacking random trees on Isaac’s grove the past year with an axe or machete, four thus far, issuing near-lethal scars, piercing the cambium. While Isaac couldn’t bring himself to name Walt as a suspect (not wanting to pish in his cereal, as his father would have put it), he couldn’t quite dismiss him from suspicion, either.
“Tomfoolery,” Sheriff Wright downplayed the gravity of the offense, while promising to increase his patrols. “Bored teenagers up to tomfoolery,” he had speculated.
In any case, Walt had called him here this morning. To have it out. That’s what all this shooting was for, Isaac knew. His neighbor might as well have used the rotary. Had Walt not meant to draw him near, he wouldn’t have so carefully avoided Isaac’s gaze until he reached the very edge of the ditch. Just yards from Walt now, in plain view, Isaac lifted his palms as if to say, Well? He was a big man, Isaac, nobody’s nebbish, fair-haired with hands like frying pans, forearms rippled with muscle-cords beneath, hardly looked the city Jew at all. His heft meant something more here in Florida, across these dusty rows of grove trees—his new, outdoor life—more than it had meant in Philadelphia. Emboldened him.
Walt lowered his shotgun, bent it open at the middle and laid it at its crease across his elbow, pasted with red fur. His mustache—a furious, untended weed—blanketed his upper lip. Tobacco bulged beneath his lower lip like a malignancy. There were standards of decorum, Isaac knew, standards that held fast. Which was why he knew that he needn’t fear confronting his neighbor over the irrigation ditch, bone dry now in advance of the rainy season. Which was why, too, he didn’t truly figure that Walt was the culprit attacking his grove trees. Walt would disable his shotgun before engaging a fellow grower in conversation, no matter how angry. He would spit a bolus of tobacco-stained saliva to the side, never toward his neighbor, and then he would speak.
“I ain’t doin’ nothing wrong, Ike. These durn butterflies of yours’ll destroy my whole row. Look at these poor Valencias already.”
Isaac studied Walt’s row across the ditch. Robust ten-year Valencias, the copious foliage from spring flush mildly degraded, gnawed at.
“Look fine to me, Walt. Now we’ve been through this. You want to shoot up the swallowtails, bully for you. But keep your Winchester pointed over your own trees. I can’t have you firing into my grove, Eli tromping about half the time.”
Bully for you. Shoot up the swallowtails. Tromping about. Where the hell had Isaac picked up these phrases? Since migrating southward to the underpopulated coastal center of the peninsula, since joining this co-op of salty citrus growers, Isaac’s vernacular had been shifting in kind to the frequent surprise of his own ears. What had happened to the essential Isaac? Was there an essential Isaac?
“Hell, Ike”—Walt spat again—“just spray like the rest of us and we wouldn’t have no problems. Didn’t we all just give you the commission’s new spray schedule at Janisse’s a month ago?”
Isaac exhaled through his nostrils. “You know I won’t spray, Walter. And you know why. Eli’s lungs.”
Walt’s face fell as soon as the words escaped Isaac’s lips, which made Isaac regret the utterance. Walt’s humane qualities were much more bothersome, somehow, than his red-faced truculence.
“Aw, hell, Ike,” Walt gathered himself. “Aw, hell. If you don’t want to use no malathion or aramite on account of your boy, ’least use DDT. Keep those skeeters and no-see-ums from pestering y’all too. Them bugs can’t be no good for that Elly of yours, either. Skeeter bites sure pester Jo Ellen. Something terrible they pester poor Jo.”
There seemed a new and separate accusation here—Isaac’s mosquitoes looping across the irrigation ditch to harm Walt’s daughter—but he chose to ignore it.
“We’re doing just fine by our ladybeetles and fungi,” Isaac insisted. “Plus mineral oil, sesame and fish oils too. Just fine.”
Isaac, despite the co-op’s objections, had gone the biological route to combat the countless biting and sucking insect insurgents: red mite, rust mite, bud mite, thrips, whitefly, blackfly, aphid, pumpkin-bug, wax scale, soft scale, red scale, chaff scale, mealybug, leafhoppers. The two-spotted and blood-red ladybeetles kept the aphids and most of the scale in check. Purple scale was a bit more trouble lately, but there was a new parasitic wasp he hadn’t tried that the commission was pretty optimistic about. The white, red, and gray fungi ably choked up the whitefly larvae works. Keeping matters “in check,” however, wasn’t Jake by co-op standards. Complete and utter annihilation was expected, his partners’ attitude toward pests and weeds approximating the nation’s sentiment toward human enemies across the waters, the communists.
“Fine by whose standard?” Walt continued. “Old Man Hawley worked these acres to a pound-solid yield near a third more than your piss-ant harvests. You gotta work the land, Ike. Can’t just play with it.”
Everyone argued from time to time, it seemed to Isaac, but some people just didn’t know when to drop it.
“Yes, you’ve told me, Walt. I’ve had to turn over some acres.” Why was he explaining himself? “And I’ve been working on some things here, not playing.” Isaac could see Walt’s eyes glaze, his mouth fall agape, a peaty well of tobacco juice rising just inside his drooping lip. Walt crossed his meaty right forearm underneath the left one, just above his paunch, to help support the Winchester. Isaac should have left well enough alone, too. Yet it seemed that he, like Walt, was one of those people who just couldn’t drop things, which was probably why they got under each other’s skin so. It wasn’t mere Jew-hating on Walt’s part, which might have been easier for Isaac to truck.
“We have to think long term, Walt. Not just about this year’s harvest. What’s a few acres here and there? Might come up with something that’ll help us all in the end.”
Walt issued a copious spurt of tobacco-juice to the clayey soil. “Hurts us all when one don’t pull his fair share, what I know. Those Simply Citrus folks on the ridge been beatin’ the tar out of us with their yields. We’ve got hardly no leverage no more with the bird dogs, those Suncoast fuckers. And your Dr. Frankenstein crap over there ain’t helpin’ none. That’s what I know, partner.” Walt spat again, a purely rhetorical gesture, it seemed to Isaac, the tiny squirt scarcely meriting the effort this time.
Isaac watched as Walt’s pale eyes glanced over his shoulder, as if his thoughts had drifted elsewhere. But no. Walt had spotted their approach. Isaac turned and saw them too, the men with lacquered hair walking clumsily up his row in their irrelevant shoes, thick ties, and short-sleeve oxfords, laminate badges dangling on clips from their chest pockets.
“Sweet Jesus,” Walt groaned. “Now what do those suits want?”
Read Andrew Furman’s story “What I Remember About Captain Horace Holtkamp” and his essay “The Problem with Pretty Birds” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header graphic by Gellinger, courtesy Pixabay.