Tropicana on Steroids

Sean Trolinder

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             Tropicana prides itself on marketing 100% pure orange juice, but its reputation was threatened after the Chief Agricultural Engineer, Randy Archbuckle, Jr., proposed it smash the Guinness Book of World Record for largest orange by circumference. I was in charge of cleaning up the mess. The official record was twenty-five inches around the orange’s widest point and it was set in California around 2006 by two low profile farmers. How Tropicana never produced one bigger than that in its seventy-one years of existence perplexed corporate, so as a publicity stunt, it quarantined a section of the Palmetto grove to achieve a giant orange.

Four months after the project launched, a crowd stood outside the gates, pointing at this massive orange we called Zion. Measuring eighty-nine inches in circumference and growing, it had skin as tough as AstroTurf. A large branch was attached onto this monster, causing the tree to lean sideways. With the Florida sun radiating in the horizon, the peel glistened and shined like a crowned jewel, causing people to awe. The press lined up, some setting up scaffolds to get a clean picture. My son, Charlie, clapped and smiled at it. He, nor anyone else, had ever seen a fruit taller than a toddler.

A team of botanists, all employed by Tropicana and wearing white lab coats, stalked Zion, using three gardening hoses to cool it off. The grove had a centralized sprinkler system, timed to each hour to handle the massive acres of fruit, but when you have an orange big enough to blot out entire trees in eyesight, you give it special attention.

My gorgeous wife, Cindy, wore a bonnie hat and waved a silk hand fan across her face.

“When are these Guinness yahoos going to arrive?” she asked. “It’s a scorcher and I’m going to miss my hair appointment.”

“They’re only fifteen minutes late,” I said, checking my watch. I was wrong. They were thirty minutes off schedule.

“I see the thing, Gerard. It’s a giant. It’s done. Why do I need to be here?”

She knew why, but chose not to say it out loud. Since I worked as Tropicana’s Strategic Analyst and was in charge of spin control, my family had to be present. The unwritten rule of business was that if corporate was present, employees must keep up appearances. It was like participating in a family reunion where you were forced to hang with annoying cousins thrice removed.

Corporate patted each other on the backs, toasting screwdrivers and making plans for early vacations, convinced shareholders would be impressed with the future of Tropicana. Archbuckle shook hands with power players, all wanting to know his secret for Zion’s growth and he’d give some clichéd answer, preaching the whole love, nurturing, and raising it like it was his own son spiel.

Butlers shined silverware, glasses, and pitchers under large tents. A few men in T-shirts with the Tropicana emblem embedded crushed oranges with manual squeezers. The crowd whistled and applauded when a long, black limousine pulled in front of the gate, drove past security, and parked twenty feet away from Zion. Three men with polos and sunglasses stepped out with measuring tape and syringes.

“Do you think they’ll be the first to taste Zion?” asked Charlie. “I bet that’s some good juice.”

I wondered what the syringes were for, too. The Guinness committee was only interested in the size of the orange and by how much it broke the record, right?

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” said Cindy, deciding to pull out her cellphone and take a picture of Zion. She sent it to someone. “You don’t drink juice from a needle.”

The butlers quit slouching and stood at attention. The grove became still for a moment, as if a glorified general had stepped onto an army base. The pride of Palmetto, Florida, and perhaps the entire state, rested in the hands of these three men. Tropicana wanted to send the world a message—that Florida, not California, was the true producer of quality oranges.

One judge, who had a hunchback and was clearly, switched from sunglasses to clear spectacles. He leaned forward, stroking his chin. Within my earshot, he uttered, “Frankenfruit,” and pulled out an official document from a briefcase. He nudged the other two toward Zion.

The short one stabbed a syringe into the side of Zion and sucked up some juice. He set up a lab and computer along an empty table under the tent. The last judge whipped out the measuring tape and stretched it along the peel. Zion’s circumference was so massive that his wingspan couldn’t fit around its widest point.

“Need some help,” he said.

Archbuckle stepped forward, but the oldest judge said that he couldn’t interfere with the official proceedings.

“Come on,” someone yelled. “Make it official already!”

Cindy forked her cellphone into the purse. “This is getting ridiculous. What’s going to happen to that thing after the record? Press the juice and sell it to billionaires?”

“Aren’t you being overdramatic?” I asked.

“I’m leaving.”

After the judges finished measuring, the old man announced that Zion had a circumference of eighty-nine inches, but it wouldn’t be an official record. The judges disqualified Zion, since it had been injected with oxytocin.

Many things happened as the Guinness committee packed up. The botanists coiled the hoses and abandoned the scene, Cindy uttered that the charade was a waste of time, Tropicana fired Archbuckle with cause, the crowd turned into a mob and chucked oranges at the limo, Charlie kept asking what would happen to rotten Zion, and corporate told me to fix this problem or else.

***

            I didn’t take pride in spinning Archbuckle out to be the villain. Since he injected Zion with oxytocin, which was illegal to use in fruit, the accusation was easy. I issued a press release downplaying how he went rogue and reminded the public about an Orlando Sentinel interview where he supported cheating to get ahead in business because “our president didn’t get to where he’s at without cutting a couple of corners.”

My job required protecting Tropicana’s image and figuring out how to flip this into a positive. But sitting at the dinner table one evening, Charlie spooned his mashed potatoes, refusing to eat. I wondered what was on his mind, until he spoke up.

            “Did Tropicana know Zion was on steroids?”

            Cindy dropped her fork, rolled her eyes, and gulped the chardonnay. It was her way of announcing, “Of course.” The Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon” played in the background. The fruit salad sat in a porcelain bowl mid-table, untouched. The chandelier shined over it, the juices rich and thick.

            “What do you think they pay your dad for?” Cindy asked, the words slurring together. Wine stained her upper lip and I prayed that she’d leave the table with some dignity intact.

            “It doesn’t matter, son.”

            I lied. If Tropicana already knew one of its oranges, something it staked the phrase “100% pure” on, had been contaminated, then it would’ve ruined the public trust. Zion represented a black mark on the company, a blemish that could cost the company millions of advertising dollars to revise its slogan. To be less than 100% meant faultiness and the world’s most powerful corporation in the orange business needed a perfect record.

            “Are they going to squash Zion?” asked Charlie.

            Cindy stumbled standing up, but she grabbed her plate of half-finished chicken parmesan and marched into the kitchen. A minute later, the stereo was turned off and replaced with a CNN report about Trump paying off farmers for destroyed crops. I thought about how easy it would be to shift blame to the president and Archbuckle was a card-carrying Republican, but I didn’t think Tropicana wanted that type of publicity. Being tied and dependent on Trump was like a gambler betting on a hunch from a boar.

            “The guys at corporate think it’d be fun to move Zion to St. Petersburg and have the Tampa Rays’ batting order club it at Tropicana Field, but I brought up how the oxytocin would infect the field. Then it’d become the MLB’s problem and you know how that’d look for the company.”

            Charlie finally shoved potatoes in his mouth. After drinking his water, he cleared his throat, and said, “Is Zion still growing?”

            This was something corporate struggled with and became its own problem. Even after the Guinness judges disqualified Zion, it grew another four inches over the next few days. Ninety-three inches! People continued visiting it at the gate, leaving flowers, cards, and other gifts. They treated the thing like a child with brain cancer, but kept marveling at its legend.

            “I’m tired of these know-it-alls badmouthing Trump,” Cindy yelled from the next room. “Man’s stabilizing the economy.”

            Charlie laughed, understanding the idiocy of his mother’s statement. I shot him a thumbs up, but I thought about my own job security. Something had to be done with Zion to help Tropicana’s image and I needed to make the company seem like an unwilling victim. I thought about corporate’s misguided idea about a mob with baseball bats smashing up this giant orange, all for the amusement of the crowd. It still caught the eyes of strangers standing outside the Palmetto grove, their fingers clasping onto the gate.

            And then the idea hit me.

***

            Tropicana agreed to auction off Zion to the highest bidder and all the proceeds would go to a charity called “Curators Corner,” an organization focused on saving people who developed life threatening illnesses due to digesting food infected with chemicals. Contenders for the prize had to sign an agreement not to eat the orange or serve it as food. The contract specifically read, “Tropicana accepts no blame for violating terms of this agreement upon post of sale.”

On the day of the auction, Zion measured a whopping one hundred and two inches wide and word got around to profiteers across Florida. A representative from the Rays hung around, excited about corporate’s original idea of having the club use Zion for batting practice. Two professors from UCF ran scans along Zion’s peel, discussing how much money they could pool together. A research scientist from FSU inspected the ground, fingering the soil. Spectators kept mumbling that this guy won some massive grant and had unlimited resources to “do as he pleased” with Zion. Some fat guy and his cousin wore polos that said “Orange County Chevrolet.” The cousin carried a Halliburton case, but the other flashed gangster rolls of hundreds, prompting odd questions from Charlie about what do owners of a dealership want with a huge orange. Who knew? I could only conclude it had something to do with the county name.

The oddest contender for Zion was a hustler from Florida Orange World based out of Kissimmee, Florida. Charlie and I had seen the store once with its large dome covered in orange tarp. It had imprints of a T-shirt, palms trees with a setting sun, and a coconut spilling fruit. At the threshold, it had said, “WE SHIP FRUIT.”

“I want them to win,” said Charlie, pointing at a haggard farmer and his son, both wearing matching navy blue button downs.

The man yanked his Wranglers and his son sported blue shorts. They both had holes in their shoes and were not real contenders for Zion. A horse carriage with lopsided wheels remained next to a shaded bush with sprouts.

“In a perfect world, they’d get it,” I said. I flapped on my collar. The Florida sun boiled over my neck.

“We live in a world of giant fruit, now. Anything is possible.”

“Doubt they’ll nab this one, son. Maybe we can give them some complimentary oranges to take home.”

“Clean ones?”

“You’ve got it.”

An auctioneer named Frederick Ponnicop stepped to a podium wearing a black bolo tie and white dress shirt. In one hand he held a microphone and in the other he raised a bottle of pulp free Tropicana orange juice. Corporate agreed to pay Ponnicop an extra two hundred dollars if he drank the whole thing before the official sell. That was my idea, by the way. The public needed reminding that our product was healthy and superior.

The duo from UCF put away their field equipment, delivering a death stare to the scientist from FSU, who adjusted a visor with a spear aimed in their direction. He yawned, confident in his grant money.

“Get a load of the Ph-dumbasses, thinking they can roll with this,” said the fat guy from Orange County Chevrolet, pulling another wad of hundreds. If I didn’t know any better, he would make it rain if he’d win just to prove wasted money earned was greater than wasted government funding.

After Ponnicop went over the formal announcements about auction proceedings and thanking Tropicana for its generosity and many contributions to society (again, my idea), one of Archbuckle’s botanists tapped me on the shoulder.

“We have a problem.”

***

            “Where have you been hiding these super oranges?” I asked, walking into a warehouse protected by two armed guards. I felt silly saluting them.

            Cases of Tropicana orange juice were stacked on wooden pallets and a machine capped plastic bottles along a conveyor belt. Laborers walked up and down steel inclines, loading trucks and wiping sweat from their brows between trips. Toward the back was a greenhouse where botanist ran some experiments. We crossed the threshold and there were two massive oranges atop aluminum tables. They appeared like spawn of Zion, but sustained growth once they were plucked from their trees. The team informed me that they were Archbuckle’s other contenders, but lacked the “self-determination” of Zion.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. I snatched a clipboard, going over data that made no sense to me. I just spun lies, so numbers and chemicals meant nothing at the end of the day.

            “It means we believe Zion has more than oxytocin in its system. How does it continue to grow without our aid? Corporate wished it rotted the day those Guinness jerks exposed it as a fraud.”

            “Something stronger than oxytocin? Then why didn’t Guinness say so?”

            One botanist laughed and slapped the table. The oranges remained still.

“They’re only looking for the obvious. That little lab they used was basic, high school tech.”

            “Which means what?”

            The botanist folded his arms.

“Which means you better hope them PhD quack packs don’t win that auction and discover something abnormal. Someone’s bound to win a Nobel if the truth’s exposed.”

***

            Jobs were on the line and not just my own. The stake of Tropicana’s empire rested in the outcome of this auction. Running across acres of the Palmetto grove, I found myself rooting against academia and knowledge and cheering for on mobs—a sport’s franchise and two wise guys running some shady car dealership. The farmer and his son and the hustler from Florida Orange World were the long shot miracles I couldn’t count on winning.

            Charlie sat on a foldout chair, playing Pac-Man on his cellphone. He kicked mounds of dirt, oblivious to how close our family was to losing everything. I imagined Cindy crying to her pricey hairdresser, pouting about having to visit a Supercuts. She’d leave me in the months to come and hook up with a newly minted Trump strategist. We all knew how the president fired aids and associates on a weekly basis and replaced them with fools just as inferior. The thought of being beneath such a man chilled me to the bone. My son would lose that phone. The potatoes that he refused to eat would be replaced with Top Ramen. After relinquishing our house and being forced to live in a shack, I’d watch Tropicana crumble and I would have to lobby for worse causes than orange juice. I’d defend the slaughterhouse butcher or the pharmaceutical company pushing prescription pills on innocent children. The Tropicana incident would cost me any credibility with Fortune 500 companies or any non-profit organization that could use the full potential of my talents for the greater good.

            “Enough of these peanut gallery bids,” said the hustler from Florida Orange World. “Fifty large.”

Without looking up, the scientists from FSU said, “A hundred grand.”

            That’s a bid, one so great that it made Charlie’s head jerked up and forced Pac-Man into a corner. The wonky echo of Pac-Man dying merged into the talking crowd. It made the farmer and his son join hands and walk to their horse carriage.

            The hustler from Florida Orange World snapped his fingers, tucked his tail, and stepped into a pickup truck. He waved to the crowd, telling everyone to visit the store in Kissimmee if they ever drove into town.

            “Do I hear one twenty-five?” asked Ponnicop, his mouth rattling and rushing like a locomotive. “One twenty-five. One hundred and twenty-five thousand big ones. Again, one twenty-five. One twenty-five.”

            The duo from UCF raised their hands, but one of them stepped back, a sign of weakness.

The representative from the Rays muttered something under his breath about the ridiculousness of bidding when Tropicana was ready to give Zion to the ball club for free. He raised his hand at the mention of one hundred and fifty thousand. He called the owner, questioning if it was cost beneficial for the organization to spend more than two hundred thousand on a public display of “Major League Piñata.”

Charlie went back to his game. I noticed Pac-Man had one life left and I prayed that those wise guys from Orange County Chevrolet had the pockets to withstand the PhDs. The Rays rep closed his cell, grimacing. War Daddy Piggybanks just capped his allowance.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand,” said the FSU scientist. He pulled that visor tighter. Fear the spear.

The crowd behind me whistled. Some muttered that Zion was a scientific marvel and this bidding could easily go into the millions. Those words caught the fat guy from Orange County Chevrolet’s ears. He chuckled and raised his hand.

“Three hundred thousand,” said Ponnicop, who finished off his bottle of orange juice. With numbers in the six figures, I wondered if he’d demand a bonus after this fiasco. “Remember, folks. Proceeds go to charity, so do I hear four hundred thousand? Four hundred? Four hundred.”

The scientist from FSU rolled his eyes and raised his hand. Perhaps his grant money had reached its ceiling? This bid caused the UCF duo to pull out calculators and weigh their all-in shove. I prayed the wise guys from the dealership had it in them for one more massive bid.

“Going once, going twice…”

In the moment when one second could tilt the fortunes of many people and wipe out an entire job market, man can ponder the craziest things. The most horrible possibilities jarred my mind—a man blowing his brains out, starving children, elderly parents being forced into nursing homes with careless aids, a homeless man bathing in a gator infested lake, some executive turning to heroin to forget recent failures, and the future of unemployed botanists resting in the hands of lawmakers fighting medical marijuana. I think of Trump and my wife’s love for him. This second, this American second, hinged on the bloated owner of a car dealership in Orlando.

“Five hundred thousand,” said the fat guy from Orange County Chevrolet.

The PhDs shrugged, nodded, and walked away. The FSU scientist ripped off his visor and spiked it on the ground. So close to a possible Nobel Prize; so close to crippling an empire. The wise guys from the dealership congratulated one another. The cousin swung the Halliburton around and mentioned they had just enough to pay the auctioneer, so the lavish storm of cash would have to wait until their massive summer sale. They signaled the crew to escort Zion onto the towing bed and make sure to “strap her in good.”

“Will Zion help them sell over five hundred thousand in Chevys?” asked Charlie, jostling his phone. Pac-Man remained alive and advanced to the next level. Little did he know how close it all came to crashing down.

***

            There was still the issue of the spawn of Zion, those two massive oranges hidden in the warehouse. They were contaminated with oxytocin and not edible, so corporate felt pressure to do something, but keep them out of the public eye. I saw the farmer and his son atop a horse, galloping to the security gate.

            “Can’t you just give them the oranges?” asked Charlie. “It might give them hope or something.”

            “Is that why you think they came for Zion?” I asked.

            “I think that’s why people gathered at the gate. To watch. If they had massive oranges, maybe it’ll attract a crowd. Make them respected members of the community, perhaps.”

            Charlie texted his mother that they’d be home late, since corporate wanted to have an urgent meeting with me about the future. I expected a promotion, but felt relieved just to be employed. My son’s words resonated with me and gratitude warmed my heart, or what little of it was left. Tropicana’s waste could be that farmer’s treasure, so I whistled them over and requested they pull the carriage behind the warehouse.

            The farmer’s son smiled and when he stepped off the horse, he shook my boy’s hands. They swapped stories about baseball and their hatred for the Rays. I knew Charlie was a secret Yankees fan, but I had instructed him to remain quiet about that, since the Rays’ field was named after Tropicana. I didn’t care anymore. The farmer said they had a little farm in Ellenton and he wanted Zion as a tourist attraction, thinking it might improve the local economy. Just to be safe, I reminded them not to eat the oranges. Briefly, I felt my soul absolved, thinking the gift of Zion’s spawn would help him achieve his goal.

            As the sun set behind the Palmetto grove, I put an arm around Charlie and watched the farmer and his son roll the two large oranges into the crooked carriage, both laboring, sweating, bonding, and full of hope.

 

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Sean Trolinder received an MFA in Creative Writing - Fiction from Texas State University - San Marcos, where he was a W. Morgan and Lou Claire Rose Fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Into the Void, Map Literary, Midwestern Gothic, Cagibi, Deep South Magazine, The MacGuffin, MARY, The Sand Hill Review, and many other journals. Currently, he teach IB English Literature at Celebration High School in Florida.