Season of Mango by Michelle Kicherer
We’d actually won the trip in a drawing. There was a raffle at Bradley’s work and he’d put his name in with a ten dollar donation. It was a fundraiser for the Estradas, this family whose house had burned down after their daughter had hung her sweater from the wall heater to dry. First rain of the season—it was another drought year—and no matter how many times her parents had warned her, honey you can’t put things so close to the heater, it gets too hot, she just didn’t get it. They didn’t warn her that honey, if you hang a sweater on the heater and leave it for an hour not only will that sweater dry, it will start to smoke and catch fire and because it’s a polyester blend it will catch more quickly, the smoke will smell funky and the fire will spread so fast across the walls and down to the carpet and the flames and smoke will fill the house and by the time you notice you will be getting out of the shower in the back room and you will have to run naked—the towel you grabbed was accidentally a hand towel—and you will stand on the lawn crying until a neighbor runs over, tosses you his jacket, and calls the fire department.
Maybe if they’d put it like that she wouldn’t have thought to set it there. Vagueties are frustrating sometimes.
A few days after the fire Bradley had come home from work and called, “Rachel! Rachel, oh my god where are you!”
I sat up in bed and thought oh no, what is it. So I said, “What is it?”
He bounded into our bedroom where I was sitting cross legged on the bed, papers on my lap and in my hands and lined along the bedspread. He sat down. He was smiling.
“Wait, Brad, get off you’re crushing this kid’s homework.”
He leaned forward so I could snatch the paper from under his thigh.
“Sixth grade history papers,” I said. I smoothed Jackson’s paper. He’d called it, Mesopotamia: Where Was It? a fine title and a fine start, though I wondered how much his dad had helped with both.
“Are you ready?” he raised his hands like he was about to do a magic trick.
“One second.” I finished my comment on the top. I almost wanted to address it to Jackson’s dad, Will. I could have jotted, Hey Will, another winner, but I wrote Nice work, Jackson. Don’t forget to cite your sources and set it on the nightstand. Our school was so small that not only did I know all of my students’ parents’ names—and their siblings, their pets—but I knew all of the parents of the kids who weren’t in my class. I knew the janitor and the school’s letter carrier and I went to high school with the UPS driver, Robert Thomas, who stopped going by Rob after a nineties rock band ruined it for him.
“We just won,” Bradley tossed another student’s paper onto the floor and leaned into me, put my face in his hands. “A trip to Costa Rica.”
“What?” I said it like a gasp.
“Yes!” I said and I thought wait, where is Costa Rica? I moved my carefully sorted papers aside and stood up and we hugged and I demanded more information. “Were you on The Price is Right?”
“No no,” he said, and he explained about the fundraiser. About how the bank heard about Casa Estrada burning down, how they were going to do their annual fundraiser for a good cause anyway—the timing worked out well!—and about how there was no minimum donation required, you just had to donate something and you got a raffle ticket. “Ten bucks, I only did ten bucks!” he kept saying.
“But,” I had that sinking feeling like when you realized you left your train tickets on the dresser and you’re already at the train station, all aboard. “Wait shouldn’t the Estradas win the trip?”
Aren’t we doing this wrong? “I just mean—”
“It’s a fundraiser so they can build a house,” he said, confused.
“So we’re the ones who win a trip?”
Bradley scratched his belly and frowned like he couldn’t hear me. “Well how would they have the raffle otherwise?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. Then I understood what he meant. He meant, why would anyone donate money if there wasn’t a real incentive. Sure, helping some family rebuild their home is nice but what’s in it for me? And I’m sure he wasn’t even aware of it—it’s a subconscious thing sometimes—but I couldn’t help see it that way.
Bradley looked at me with a tilted head, his excited smile started to shift away.
Well it wasn’t Bradley’s fault, he wasn’t the one who set up that raffle! So I said, “I just, I can’t believe it!” and we hugged again, laughing.
The parameters of the trip were that we had to take it in the off season, but Bradley had some big project coming up at the bank and he wouldn’t be able to get away in the fall, so we said, well how about spring? And it just so happened that Sierra Junior High had its spring break during the last week of March. It was only two weeks away but we figured, why not? We called the travel agent in tones of disbelief—did we really just win a trip to Costa Rica? Do travel agencies still exist?—but she happily booked our tickets and explained that we’d be staying in San Jose, that the best rainforest tour was two hours away and that our meals were included except for when we ate outside of our hotel, La Rama.
The day after the fire, I’d seen Theresa at work. She was the janitor at our school. I always thought that was kind of cool because before Theresa I’d never seen a lady janitor before. When I asked her what happened that day, or if she was okay—I forget how I’d phrased it, it’s always so awkward asking about that type of thing—she went into a surprisingly elaborate anecdote. About how no one could get hold of her at first, because she was in the back of the school trimming some tree branches that had gotten so long that they were tangling with the phone lines or electric lines or some lines that ran along the back fence. When I asked her why the landscaper didn’t do that part she’d smiled and said, oh, there isn’t one, I just mostly do all of that stuff. Impressive, I’d said.
So Theresa went on trimming those tree branches while her house burned to the ground. She had stepped down from the ladder with an accomplished feeling, she’d been meaning to do that for weeks and finally she stayed late one day and did the whole trim job at once. And as she walked back through the school campus her phone’s signal returned and the accumulation of beeps went off, one after another—voicemails and missed calls, many many texts—and the urgency duplicated and she felt sick.
She drove home—it was hardly twenty minutes away—and then she noticed the smoke, how did she not smell it before? It was that stupid cedar tree, she’d thought, the smell was so strong as she cut its branches that she didn’t register the faint smell of smoke in the air, it got stronger as she drove closer. She’d already gotten word that her daughter and husband were okay—they weren’t even injured—so nothing else truly mattered but she did not know what else to expect.
When she got home there was her daughter, still wearing the neighbor’s jacket. Alicia started sobbing when she saw her mother, and she said mommy, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to, and Theresa had crouched down and hugged her saying, of course you didn’t. Where is your father?
Theresa looked up and there was her husband, crouching in the chicken coop. He was holding the white chicken, she was very still in his arms not because she was harmed, but because she was comfortable there.
How many are there? Theresa had asked. She tried not to name them anymore.
Her husband’s eyes looked empty. They were wide open and so was his mouth, and when he looked up at her he blinked several times as if to reset his vision, his voice.
Four, he’d said. All four. And his mouth sounded wet because he’d been crying.
Theresa told me all that then leaned on her broom. She said but we are all safe, so that’s what is truly important. Then she stopped talking and swept something into her dust pan. It was the kind with the long handle and I always felt bad when I saw her walking around with it, sweeping up litter that kids were too lazy to toss in a garbage can.
I’m so glad, I’d said. Definitely.
Theresa walked a couple paces away and swept up the remnants of a corn dog. Someone had left that last bite on the stick, that part that was always slightly more crisp. When she told me that Red Cross put them in a hotel for two weeks’ time, it made me wish I’d asked about that part but I hadn’t thought of it.
I’d just nodded and said, that’s nice you have a hotel. And when I asked, is it nice? She didn’t answer me and we’d had an overly quiet goodbye.
So days later when Bradley came home with his golden ticket, said we’re going to Costa Rica, baby! of course I was excited but as he hugged me I pictured Theresa leaning on her broom, John crouching in the coop with that white chicken in his arms. Their daughter standing on the lawn in a neighbor’s borrowed jacket, her little legs exposed. But it’s like the next thing I knew we were on a plane then in our hotel then we were asking the concierge about the best place to see monkeys. We booked a jungle excursion, as Bradley called it.
“Okay the bus is picking us up at six,” Bradley said.
“God, that’s early.”
“Well the best jungle is two hours from San Jose.” He was looking down at a map that had cartoon parrots and monkeys and surfers accenting the trees and jungles and beaches.
“Hey try this coffee,” I said.
“Get that out of my face, no thanks.”
“I know you’re not a coffee person but this coffee is so good. If you don’t try it, that’s like, not trying rum in Jamaica.”
“Well I don’t like rum, either.”
We packed out backpacks with sunscreen and extra socks, water and granola bars and the next morning we got up before the sun did. We ate the yogurt Bradley had taken from the breakfast buffet—the waitress had said sir, we’re not open yet, but Bradley insisted, no we just need two!—and we went outside to stand in the warmish air waiting for the bus marked Tourismo. It was called something else, but all we could remember was that word.
“God, I hope we see monkeys,” Bradley said, rubbing his hands together.
“So do I!” I said.
Two other couples were outside, too.
“Are you guys going on the jungle tour?” Bradley asked an older gentleman.
“Rain forest?” The old man said, smiling.
“Same thing,” Bradley scoffed and they stopped talking.
Our little bus arrived—it was more like a van—and I realized that it would only be the six of us taking the tour. Me and Bradley and four old folks, and I felt disappointed when I assumed the walking component must not be too rigorous. We took the seats in the front row. For the first hour we drove along a flat road, the sun slowly replacing the moon. It looked like the road simply stopped at the foot of the mountain, they seemed to meet at a ninety degree angle. And on either side of the road was a dense forest of palm trees.
“Is this a palm tree forest?” Bradley leaned forward and asked the driver.
“It is a plantation,” he replied.
“Are they growing coconuts?” I asked.
“They are for olive oil,” the driver said. “Palm oil trees.”
We stared out the window and I wondered if this was true, but then I thought well, it’s not like he’s lying. “I’ve never heard of that,” I said.
The driver shrugged.
A few minutes later we drove by a fruit stand made from an old boat. Fishing nets filled with bright fruit hung over the sides.
“Are those mangos?” I asked.
“Yes. It is the season of mango,” the driver said.
“Season of mango,” I said to myself and smiled as I closed my eyes, letting the rumble of the road lull me to sleep. When I woke the bus was tilting up a mountain, it was bright out and we were getting higher for a few more minutes before the van turned on a road and down we went, descending past walls of trees in varieties I’d never seen before. Thin trunks and thick ones, dark green leaves and light.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more flowers,” Bradley whispered.
When we unloaded from the bus, backpacks on, sleeves rolled up, the seven of us began our walk. It wasn’t a real rainforest journey, Bradley had complained, it was actually an area that was sectioned off from the rest of the forest. Some tour company had chopped down a bunch of trees and taken out a bunch of bushes so people could walk along and experience the jungle from within.
It was a slow journey, more of a jungle stroll, and we all looked around silently for wildlife. We saw birds that looked like crows but that whistled like frantic canaries. A flutter of bright wings soared by and Bradley gasped, “Was that a parrot?”
“I think so!” I whispered and pointed at a spider the size of my palm.
“God, we better see a monkey,” Bradley said. It was all he’d talked about, it was all he wanted to see. Of all the beautiful things we’d witnessed in Costa Rica, he would not feel satisfied unless he saw a goddamn monkey. He peered into the trees. “I just know they’re out here,” he said as if he were referring to aliens.
The tour guide told us about one of the trees, then something about a bird who steals other birds’ babies, but I wasn’t listening. I kept thinking about the day before spring break how I saw Theresa in the hall. She was pushing a yellow mop bucket toward the girls’ bathroom. I asked how she was doing.
I’m doing okay, she’d said and smiled. That fundraiser actually is going to help build us a new house. It really will help. She was nodding.
I’d said, That’s so good! Because I didn’t know what to say. I knew there was still a lot of money they needed. I wondered what would happen, if the bank would give them a loan and if they’d cut them a deal.
Thank you for donating, Theresa had smiled to me as if I’d done her a huge favor.
I felt sick, like I’d just gotten caught stealing and she was giving me a chance to confess. I wanted to say no no no, it was actually nothing, really. I’ll give you the trip, this is a stupid system. Our donation wouldn’t have bought you more than a quart of paint. In fact, that very morning Bradley and I had been putting the finishing touches on our packing, making sure we had sunscreen, bathing suits, sandals. He’d told me something.
He’d said, Hey you know, my boss kind of joked that I should give this trip to Theresa and John. Or maybe he wasn’t joking. He went like this. Bradley held up his hands and moved them side to side like he was weighing options.
We didn’t look at each other after he said that, we just stared into the suitcase we were sharing. I looked at my bathing suit. It was bright blue. I said, what did you say?
Bradley shrugged and went, I said no way! He tossed his swim trunks on top of the bag and laughed, saying, I want to go see some fucking monkeys!
Theresa had thanked us for our ten stupid dollars and I wanted to know: did she know how much we’d donated? Did she think it was a lot, that that’s why we won the trip?
The tour continued along the rainforest floor. We learned about different trees and which spiders were poisonous and what birds lived where. The tour guide pointed at a plump white bird who’d landed on a branch above our heads. He watched us walk. I wondered why it wasn’t scared, if it was so used to tourists by that point that it didn’t mind us. I made a kiss noise and it flew away.
“I’m so glad I didn’t give this up,” Bradley turned to me with wide excited eyes. “Best ten bucks I ever spent.” He pointed to a black spider suspended between two bushes. Down each of its needle-like legs was a thin silver stripe.
“Very poisonous,” the tour guide called when he saw us looking.
“Bradley,” I whispered.
“I’m sure she knows they should have won.” I looked away from the spider. “Theresa, I mean.” It was not the right time and I was being too vague and a bird cawed loudly. We looked up as two parrots charged into the air.
“Oh my god awesome!” Bradley gasped. I watched him clap and turn to the man next to us, saying something about how cool that was, what do you think startled them?
I looked away, into the trees behind us and that’s when I saw him. I don’t know if he was the reason those parrots got startled or if it was just a coincidence but not too high above us, on a branch only one tree away, sat a little brown monkey. He held a small red fruit in his hands. His black eyes shone against his hairy white face, and though he looked kind of like a tiny, furry old man. He was very beautiful.
Bradley took a granola bar from his back pocket and the sound of his fingers fumbling then ripping the red plastic package was all I could hear, louder than the whistle of every bird and the sway of every branch and so much louder than the sound of our feet crunching over leaves and twigs. When he finally got it open a tiny corner of the wrapper fluttered to the ground. I stared at it, shining red between green leaves and brown dirt.
Bradley took a bite of his granola bar and maybe it was just because he was winded from walking but he chewed it with his mouth open, I could smell the peanut butter. I knelt down to pick up the wrapper and when I looked up at him he looked back as if to say, what are you doing down there?
“You dropped this,” I said, holding it up between thumb and pointer like it was a dirty thing.
“Oops,” he said, chewing and walking.
I stood up again and stared at the wrapper. Ten bucks, I kept hearing. Ten bucks. I watched Bradley as he listened to the tour guide, smacking his lips while he finished his snack. I held the shiny red piece of plastic up and showed it to the monkey as if maybe he would understand. But the monkey pretended not to see me and continued eating his little red fruit, gnawing with eager but dainty bites, his eyes wide as if he was listening to a good story.
“Rachel!” Bradley whispered, waving me on.
I nodded but before moving I looked up at the monkey on his perch. La rama, I remembered. Branch. The monkey put the last piece of red fruit in his mouth and chewed, swallowed, vigorously picked at his tooth and then he saw me. He stopped picking and lowered his hand, rested it on his knee, and we stared at each other for a fine moment. And then as if someone commanded him to do so he suddenly looked down at his knee and became very serious as he picked at it.
Bradley turned around and stopped, looked in the direction I was looking.
I looked away from the branch.
“Do you see something?” he asked.
“No,” I said. And we kept walking.
Michelle Kicherer is a fiction writer and journalist. She teaches through Literary Arts, Litquake and Writing Workshops, and offers a limited number of writing coaching spaces each season. She regularly interviews writers and musicians like George Saunders, Sharon Van Etten, Tess Gunty, and Ottessa Moshfegh for outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and Willamette Week.