The Old Man and the Seeds - A Short Story
There was this house in my neighborhood with fruit trees that rose up to meet the rooftops with displays of bright and glowing citrus. They ripened from fall into spring when the loquat trees were filling up with golden orange fruit of their own, so there was always something to punctuate my walks. I was always craving a juicy tangerine afterwards but the blooms were another story, perfuming the air in summer so that I could actually enjoy it from the sidewalk, rather than merely feel teased by the sight of plump and juicy tangerines in winter.
I didn't really see the guy who lived there much, but he seemed like a kindly retiree with shocks of exuberant white hair and kind eyes. I imagined that if we were to meet, this gardener would invite me out back to share some of his gardening secrets with me, and perhaps a bag of kumquats and meyer lemons while he was at it. After all, I'm sure he wouldn't mind sharing. Hey, maybe there would even be an extra potted plant or a cutting that he would share! His wife would then send me home with a loquat pie, freshly baked, and I would feel welcome there, as a neighbor.
As luck would have it, I had the chance to meet the mystery gardener one July afternoon but I was in for a rude awakening. A sinking feeling took over when I saw the sun beating down on lifeless stumps where once there were fruit trees. I was going to be sick. Where was the wise and kindly gardener? What had he done? Piles of freshly wounded branches were mounded up against the fence with leaves wilting in the heat, and stacks of green wood labeled "clean burning firewood $3." I turned my attention toward the equally miserable looking yard sale on the driveway. Bargain hunters left their cars and turned back around disappointed. Some rummaged around out of politeness. There was all sorts of useless junk, but I was especially drawn to a cardboard tray with "SEEDS" scrawled across the side.
Curious, I summoned the strength to get over the sight of dead orange trees. "What kinds of seeds are you selling?"
"You're in luck, young man!" he exclaimed. "I have apple seeds, banana seeds and dandelion seeds, and they're on sale today!" He looked much as I imagined, but worn and tired. Just enough spark to make a quick sale.
I was perplexed. "Dandelion seeds? Am I to understand you're selling dandelion seeds?" Maybe they were some rare and unusual dandelion that I wasn't aware of. Who knows?
"Yup!" He said. "The seeds are fresh and dammit, the kids love em. Don't ya remember playing with the puffballs of seeds as a kid? I got packets for a buck each. You just try to find a tougher plant... it's drought tolerant too, you know." He actually made some good points.
I tried to change the subject."Wait, did you say you're selling orange seeds?"
"Uh huh! These are what they call "Honeybell" tangerines. Wanna know why the call 'em that?"
The seeds were clearly just spat out remnants of the man's lunch and I could even see bits and pieces of chewed up orange pulp clinging to the seeds.
"They're called that 'cause the tangerines taste-"
I cut him off. "That's alright. Citrus trees are best grown as grafted cuttings since the seeds are unpredictable. You never really end up with the same fruit that you ate in the first place."
"Now you mean to tell me that those shade givin' trees would be a waste of time, boy? That those pretty orange fruits aren't good enough to look at without them tastin' the same?"
Once again, he had a few good points. "Um."
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
Where was my sense of adventure? I regarded this idiot savant with a cautious curiosity, as if I might actually learn something here. He had to know a thing or two about horticulture after all.
"Well, what about those... banana seeds? What kind of banana are they from?"
Leaning closer, he conspiratorially handed me a folded up napkin. I gingerly unfolded the parcel and frowned, looking down upon five globs of banana that were carefully spaced out as if they were anything other than globs of banana, which I just realized were sticking to my fingers in a cold damp mess. Okay, he had some points about the dandelion and orange seeds, but this was freaking unbelievable. The yard sale bargain hunters looked up from their quarry to chuckle at me, an idiot with stinky gray banana paste on my fingertips and a stupid look on his face. This was clearly a joke or a prank, since no one in his right mind would go through the trouble for the few bucks that those "seeds" cost. The kindly old man, wise in the ways of horticulture, had become a grinning beggar, a fool. A swindler. "Are you kidding me?"
"No sir, I'm afraid not. Is there a problem?"
"Yes... there is. Those are not seeds, and you are a liar. I mean, you're trying to pass off your trash as treasure as if it all actually has some kind of value." Still thinking about those murdered citrus trees, I was fuming. "You can't grow edible bananas from seed, and even if you did you'd end up with shattered teeth and a mouthful of blood! I mean, did you even try to separate the "seeds" from the banana's pulp? Did you?"
"I'm gonna have to ask you to leave." His voice was quivering.
"What did you do to the trees?"
He didn't know what to say.
"Why did you cut the trees down? If money was an issue, why not just wait til they had fruit again so you could just sell the fruit instead of that useless firewood?"
The old man looked stricken and wounded, and was no longer the confident huckster that I mistook him for. He had no money, and waiting until winter wasn't an option. The decision to cut down the trees wasn't an easy one. I struggled to backtrack and dig my way out, to find the words to 'fix' the damage that my arrogant rant had caused. I looked around at the yard sale and the desperate knick-knacks that he painstakingly placed price tags on with the hopes of making it until another meal. The broken light switch cover. The discolored and warped venetian blinds. The carefully stacked firewood baking in the summer heat. This was poverty in my own neighborhood and I had just given a beggar a scolding for not knowing his botany. I felt like an ass.
"I'd like to buy some of that firewood. And some branches... for tinder."
Four more yard sales had passed before I paid another visit to my neighbor. A chill was in the air, and the other orange trees in the neighborhood stood out even more now, heavy with the bright fruits. My car was loaded with small orange tree saplings that I had rooted from the severed branches, and in the passenger seat was a warm apple pie.