One lone tree is all that remains of the cherished Standridge family orange groves, a legacy that goes back as far as the Civil War. But for young Colly Standridge, that solitary tree is at the center of a magical world.
Inspired by real people, The Sour Orange Derby follows the lives of Colly, who dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, and K.B. Standridge, an imaginative old man who spends his days creating stories for his grandchildren to enjoy while searching for a new family legacy – and finds it in his last beloved orange tree.
A story about love and healing steeped in southern traditions, The Sour Orange Derby is a tale of one family joining together to celebrate life and history, and how their last remaining orange tree holds them all together when the young boy’s fight with cancer threatens to tear them apart.
EXCERPT FROM THE SOUR ORANGE DERBY
Annual Sour Orange Derby
“There ain’t nothing quite like the feel of a sour orange bursting beneath the swing of a
Rod Jenkins, a middle-aged New York reporter, scribbled the quote on his pad of yellow,wide-ruled paper. He was an old-school reporter, and preferred the feel of pen and paper in his hands rather than a cold metal recorder as he covered the biggest event that Barton County,Florida, offered once a year.
The comment amused him as he attempted to imagine the skinny and seemingly
unthreatening woman before him swinging at a big, sour orange. And even though he had no desire to experience the feel for himself, there was something about the way she spoke that created an atmosphere of both nostalgia and mystery.
The woman, Kariss Standridge, turned her steely green eyes from the reporter sitting on the hard aluminum bleachers to the baseball dugout, where her friends and family, all members of Team Colly, were debating over the lineup. She toyed with the end of the French braid that
trailed all the way down her back, a smile tugging at the corners of her small mouth and lighting up her face – a bright, unpainted face that deceived the years it had seen. To any glancing eye, she looked like she was seventeen, with a heart-shaped face framed with dark brown tresses, cat-like green eyes that saw everything, high cheekbones that accented a tan yet somehow creamy complexion, and a petite frame, but Rod knew she was pushing thirty. He wondered if her love of oranges and fresh air kept her young, then silently ridiculed himself for thinking such foolish
Rod followed her eyes to the field. On the pitcher’s mound was a pile of oranges, sour, no doubt. They lit up in the sunshine, looking delicious and juicy despite their bitter nature. On the field, the opposing team was anxiously waiting to begin. Smiles flashed as jokes and laughter echoed throughout the park.
The first player was up to bat. At home plate, he dug the toes of his cleats into the clay much like he’d seen professional baseball players do before a big hit and practiced a few swings. His bat was painted a gaudy neon orange, with his name and number scrawled along its length
in dark green. Turning before the first pitch, he waved to the large, enthusiastic crowd gathered on and around the bleachers, where sat Kariss and the reporter, getting them riled up for the hit. Kariss offered a loud shout of encouragement, pumping a fist into the air, while children milled
around with hot dogs and Cokes despite the fact that the clock was yet to hit noon. Meanwhile, their parents wished other players wandering about the throngs of people good luck on their upcoming game. On the second field, the first orange had already been thrown, the umpires adding up and awarding points. A scoreboard lit up with the time and inning.
The games were beginning.
Eager to get on with the article that focused on a game of sour oranges that was beginning to gain nationwide fame, Rod shifted so that he had a clear sight of both the field and Kariss. He pulled a camera out of his bag, double-checked to make sure the flash and shutter
speed settings were right, and snapped a couple pictures of the first member of Team Colly as he taunted the pitcher from home plate, which, oddly enough, was a metal trashcan lid. The sight was strange, but Rod was expecting strange, considering the fact that he was in a small town not
far from the Florida-Georgia border that regarded an annual game of oranges as the high point ofthe year. If his boss hadn’t of personally requested that he cover the story as a test of his diversity as a reporter, and if Rod, a somewhat seasoned newspaper man yet to have his big claim to fame, wasn’t hoping for his own regular feature column, then he wouldn’t have thought twice about the Annual Sour Orange Derby.
But he was in Barton County to get the story of the Derby, and in order to do so, he went back to Kariss’ statement about the feel of hitting a sour orange.
“So how did you come to discover such a thing?”
“Oh, I reckon the same way anyone comes to discover such a thing.”
“And how is that?”
“My Papa.” There was a distinct touch of reminiscence in her southern-twanged voice, a hint of memories still fresh and joyful and ready to be relived.
“So, tell me how all this began.”
Kariss leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, squinting as she watched the field.
The wide bill of the baseball cap made it hard to see her face, and even harder to determine where her concentration was directed. “Well…that’s hard to say, really, ‘cuz there ain’t a specific date. It didn’t begin in one place or at one time. This…all this…has been more than ten years in the making.”
“Begin where you see fit, then.”
“How about I begin in nineteen sixty-three?”
“Or maybe a little closer to the origin of the game.”
Taken aback by the comment, Kariss slowly turned, lifting her face to the reporter so that their eyes met, placing a hand on her hip. Her stiff body language and lifted brows suggested insult. Rod leaned back a bit when her piercing glare seared through him, and he was instantly aware that while the woman seemed pleasant, she certainly packed an attitude.
“Look, Mr. Yankee,” she said with her southern drawl, taking only a second’s glance at the middle-aged man. He could almost hear her sigh inwardly at his close-cropped black hair, thick glasses that sat on a long nose, and inquisitive if not arrogant blue eyes, before turning her head away so he could see only the profile of her jawline. “I know you probably don’t like having to come down here from New York. It’s hot, it’s the south, you’d rather not get your fancy suit dirty, it’s a small town with people you probably don’t like or probably think are simple, and so you want to hurry up and get your story. Maybe you look down your nose at us
because we play the Annual Sour Orange Derby. It’s happened before.” Kariss shrugged and gestured to the field. “But we ain’t just a bunch of people standing around hitting oranges with baseball bats. This ain’t a simple story filled with simple people. It’s so much more. And like
I said, it doesn’t begin in one place or at one time, so if you want the story, then you’re gonna have to settle for gettin’ it my way.”
It was a story she longed to tell, a story filled with family pride, tinged with fate, tradition, and magic. It was a story worthy of legend and legacy. But she wouldn’t cheapen it by cutting to the chase. Her family deserved better. Her brother deserved better.
“Alright.” Rod nodded in defeat, a bit embarrassed by receiving such a verbal berating in public. No one looked their way or spoke a word in agreement, but that didn’t stop the snickers that worked their way through the crowd. He nervously adjusted the collar of his new shirt. She was right – he didn’t want to get his suit dirty, and while he prided himself on keeping his body in shape and his wardrobe looking crisp, he nonetheless didn’t want that holding him back from his article. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was only making sure we stay on track.”
“Whatever I say will be right on track, I guarantee you that,” Kariss promised, chewingon her bottom lip as she thought about everything she had to say. “But this story…the Annual Sour Orange Derby…it ain’t always so easy to talk about. Despite its appearance, this ain’t all fun and games for some of us, as I’m sure you know.”
He didn’t, as he hadn’t bothered to do much research prior to his arrival in Barton County. He’d been sent to Florida last minute, with less than a day to pack and hop onto the flight south. Upon a brief inspection at a few websites along with his boss’s initial description, there wasn’t much reason, in his opinion, to further his research. Now he was left wondering
what exactly he didn’t know that was so important to the game. “We’ll start wherever you wish.”
“Thank you.” She thought about her story, and decided she wouldn’t start from the beginning. That part was for later. But she couldn’t start at the end, or even somewhere in the middle, either, because first she had to establish a foundation. She knew exactly how to do that, as she was a writer and story-telling was her specialty.
“For generations, my family was known for their orange trees,” she began. “But in nineteen sixty-three, a frost swept through Barton County, Florida, turning almost all of the orange groves my family owned sour. The trees still stood, still grew, but the fruit couldn’t be saved. My family’s business was in those orange groves, or what was left of them after a rare snowfall in nineteen fifty-nine destroyed more than half the acres of orange trees. They lost their business, their income, everything. Even worse, they lost the Standridge family tradition.” Kariss held up a hand as though to emphasize the tragedy. “So, they cut the trees down,
all except what was left around the house. Those, they let live.” She smiled a proud smile.
“Some twenty years later, by the time me and my brothers were kids, my Papa,” she gestured to the old man with broad shoulders and a wide grin sitting on the top row of the bleachers, dressed in a pair of torn jeans and an Atlanta Braves T-shirt, “had to cut down almost all the rest after they died. Eventually, only one tree remained, the one that still stands behind the family house. The oranges were always sour, but they were beautiful, serving no purpose, as Papa always said, other than to represent the magic of nature.” For a moment she seemed lost in time, her eyes taking on a faraway look as her mind took her back to the days spent playing around the orange tree, listening to the wind rustling among the leaves, leaping from tree to tree on their makeshift wire-and-rag swing, watching her grandfather collect the fallen fruit for their
Kariss’ attention turned suddenly to the game as the second batter swung hard, spraying sour orange juice all over himself when the orange burst into a dozen pieces. The crowd cheered and hollered out encouragements. Her smile widened at that, snapping her back to the interview.
“Then my brothers and I came along, and Papa found a new use for the sour oranges, called it The Annual Sour Orange Derby. The Derby is…a combination of all of our childhood moments, like a series of crazy, magical snapshots of everything that ever mattered to us.” She focused her attention back to Rod.
“The Annual Sour Orange Derby is more than a game, Mr. Yankee. It’s our way to heal. It’s our way to remember…It’s Papa’s way to make us a family again. And it all begins with one little boy and his grandpa.”