The Peach Season
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
~Robert Frost, “After Apple-Picking”
In the fourth year of our marriage, my husband, Rick, and I took jobs teaching college English in a South Carolina mill town in the middle of peach country. Our first summer there, on a Saturday in mid-July, Rick and I had exactly five dollars in our checking account, a tank of gas, and a one-year-old baby who only took naps in his car seat while the motor was running. We took a drive with no destination in mind, only the desire to lull our son, Hunter, to sleep. We headed east on Main Street, toward Cowpens, a pasturing town that grew up around a Revolutionary War site. There, murals of redcoats marched along the sides of the antique shop, greeting us as we passed through the town.
Beyond the turn off for the battlefield, we crossed the interstate and under a trestle just as a freight train bearing peaches rolled above us. We slowed as we reached a field of trees whose limbs opened like rows of green vases in pastures that sloped for miles on both sides of the road. The trees were heavy with blushing peaches. We rolled down the windows, letting the heady scent fill the car. When we reached a roadside produce market and peach packing warehouse, we parked beside a white picket fence below a sign that announced “The Sweetest Peaches Anywhere, U- Pick, We Pick, $10 a bushel.”
The owner of the orchards, Mr. Cash, was running the stand that day, selling baskets of peaches, ciders, jams, and cobbler mixes. A middle-aged man in a cowboy hat, he stood behind a freezer case, scooping out cones of home-churned ice cream for a couple of disoriented travelers, giving them directions back to the highway while ringing up their purchases. When it was our turn, we asked Mr. Cash if we could buy a half bushel, and said we’d like to pick our own. We’d brought nothing to put the peaches in, so he let us borrow an empty bushel basket, saying, “You can use this one as long as you promise to return it when you’re done.”
He began chatting us up, explaining that he grew a series of orchards that ripened in overlapping windows through 18-weeks of summer. It had been a good peach season for him. The foothills of Cherokee County had protected the blossoms from late spring frosts, and there had been plenty of water at this elevation. He said a local couple had decided to get married in his orchards in April, celebrating their nuptials among bows laden with pink petals. “When you have a good season, every day’s like a wedding this time of year,” he said.
He directed us to an orchard we hadn’t seen from the main road, where a variety of mid-season peaches called Red Globes glowed from within the green shaggy branches. We drove up a winding dirt road, and parked beside a barn and corral where a bay horse loitered in the pasture beside a concrete water trough. Standing outside the car, I was tempted to stop at the field’s edge, where the trees staggered beneath the weight of peaches, but I feared we might miss the sweetest ones if we didn’t move deeper into the center of the orchard, where the trees bowed over the paths, dropping fruit.
Hunter looked drowsy, so we put him in his stroller where he’d have some shade, and rolled him into the orchard. Rick picked a peach, took a bite, handing it to me. I lifted it up. It did resemble a tiny red globe, an entire planet alive and warm in my palm. I took a bite. The furry skin broke, and the tart yellow flesh splashed across my tongue, the juices running down my chin, arms, and elbows. I gave Hunter a bite. His feet bounced, and he grabbed for it. The noon sun pleasantly pounded my shoulders through my t-shirt, and Hunter fell asleep, finally, to the rhythm of falling peaches.
I held it up, examining its flawless blush. If sweetness were a color, it would be this shade of peach, I thought, walking over to Rick, urging him to taste it. He took a bite, and a slow smile bloomed across his face.
The ripest ones were fermenting on the branches in the mid-day sun, liquefying into a noon wine so heady that I caught a contact high that sent me scrambling through the pathways, oblivious to the field heat and the peaches squashing beneath my feet. I began searching for the perfect ones, the kind with a yellow hue running just beneath their ruby skin. They needed to be sweet and tart, but not too tart, softer than a tennis ball, but not too soft. There could be no nicks, bruises or scratches. Above all, they had to smell exactly like a peach must taste—sweet and tangy, alive on the tongue. Mindful that we had to hold ourselves down to a half bushel, I began picking exactly one peach off each tree in the orchard.
I picked off high and low branches, and once I picked one off the ground. It split open in my hand, and I saw a bee swimming drunkenly in the juices around the pit, happily drowning. I set that one gently at the base of the tree, continuing on. The orchard was so full of ripe peaches, and so empty of pickers, that there was no hope of anyone harvesting them all before they fell. Occasionally, I’d sneak a taste of one—just to be sure I was selecting the best. I held it up, examining its flawless blush. If sweetness were a color, it would be this shade of peach, I thought, walking over to Rick, urging him to taste it. He took a bite, and a slow smile bloomed across his face. He deposited our sleeping son and his stroller in the shade, and began picking alongside me. We buzzed from tree to tree, picking and sampling the irresistible fruit as our son slept in a swoon.
Our bushel half full, we pushed Hunter’s stroller back toward the horse barn. We reached a tree that must have been split by lightening, half its bent trunk forming a makeshift bench to rest upon. There, we sat examining two bright peaches growing from within its bare branches, marveling at how something so alive could be growing out of something so dead. The bored horse became curious about us, and he wandered over to the fence. Hunter awoke, his brown eyes wide, as if he were aware of the little peach-picking party Rick and I’d been having without him while he slept. We walked him over to the fence to see the horse. I picked a peach off the ground, held it out in my palm for the horse. He took it whole, rolling it thoughtfully around his mouth, sorting flesh from seed with his teeth, then spitting the pit out clean. Hunter belly laughed as if this were a party trick.
When we stopped feeding him, the horse ran back to the middle of the pasture, rearing up, dancing around the water trough. We took the bushel basket back to the produce market. Mr. Cash poured the peaches into paper bags without weighing them as we wrote out a check for our last five dollars. He chucked Hunter under the chin, said, “Why she is the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen,” and in that moment my son did look pretty, his brown eyes wide, his mahogany hair curling gently around his heat-flushed cheeks. The question of his gender seemed petty compared to this man’s generosity. I opted not to correct him. He swept Hunter into his arms and put him in the basket we’d just emptied, carrying him around the stand like a bushel of ripe fruit. Then, he gave him a cup of peach ice cream. We fished out some quarters to pay him, but he waved our money away. At the picnic table outside the market, we sampled spoonfuls of the ice cream as we took turns feeding it to our son.
At home, I discovered the obvious, that we’d picked too many peaches for our small family to eat before they spoiled. I spent the next hour delivering peaches to neighbors—the librarian from Alabama next door, the artist from Virginia up the street, the schoolteacher from New Orleans two streets over. Finished with my goodwill mission, I returned to the house and broke out my grandmother’s peach cobbler recipe. Rick turned on a little Louis Armstrong, Hunter’s favorite. He was wide awake after sleeping most of the afternoon, ready to be held. I rigged our convertible baby carrier to my back, and Rick lifted him into it. In this way, I peeled and sliced peaches into a shallow dish, sprinkling the slices with cinnamon. I worked butter into flour and sugar, dropping large spoonfuls of this mixture on top of the peaches before sliding them into the oven. As the cobbler cooked, I swayed and danced Hunter around the kitchen to Louis Armstrong tunes, feeling his deep belly laugh against my back, his feet bouncing to the cadence of Cake Walkin’ Babies, A Fine Romance.
I must have had this romance with peaches in mind the late-summer day after we returned from dropping Hunter off for his first year of college in Nashville, where he’d been accepted into the music school, and would begin preparing for a career as a professional bassist. Home from Tennessee, I stood in his room. A Gibson Les Paul Standard and Viola Epiphone were propped up in opposite corners. Steinbeck’s The Pearl was cracked open on his desk. Tolkien, Huxley and Orwell had been tucked between the sideboards and mattress of his bed.
I felt at once proud and guilty, remembering the white lie I’d told Hunter to keep him reading good books through his teenage years, that the greatest musicians and songwriters in modern history had all aspired to be English teachers in their earlier lives, and were well schooled in the classics. Now, I realized that my son had been lulling himself asleep by reading these books simultaneously, memorizing their cadences, filling his head with their printed words with hopes of transforming their rhythms into music.
Standing among the detritus of all he’d taken with him, I had the overwhelming urge to spend the morning filling a basket with peaches, the afternoon cutting butter into flour, kneading dough delicately into pie pans. I wanted to mix peach slices with sugar, pour and tuck this mixture under another layer of dough, baking it until the peaches liquefied, bubbling out of the crust’s corners. I wanted to serve this pie up with ice cream that was custard-based and studded with peaches, like the kind I remembered eating at Mr. Cash’s produce market.
I took off in my truck, heading east toward the orchards. As I passed through Cowpens, I slowed, startled by the transformation of the Revolutionary War murals on the side of the antique store. Had the soldiers’ coats always been blue instead of red? Had they always aimed their muskets directly at the street traffic? The town had grown since I’d last been there. The Main Street was lined with a new French bakery, and a couple of boutiques. The antique store had expanded into a gallery with a bright, blue door. Distracted by all the new businesses, I was no longer sure of where the turn-off for the Cash peach orchards had been. I parked in front of the antique store, and walked inside to ask for directions.
Inside the store, I wandered through a carefully arranged clutter of new and old: bath soaps and organic candles sitting on top of antique vanities; Depression-glass vases sprouted among trendy water fountains shaped like lily pads. Earlier that summer, the whole town had celebrated the Mighty Moo Festival, a yearly event honoring the crewmen of the USS Cowpens, veterans of WWII who returned every year for a parade, beauty pageant, and a golf tournament. The antique gallery remained strung with wilted red, white and blue streamers. Leftover Mighty Moo Festival t-shirts were stacked neatly on shelves within the open doors of a refurbished armoire.
I walked up to the cash register and asked the owner for directions to the turn-off for the Cash Farms.
“I thought I’d go out and pick some peaches,” I said.
The storeowner’s eyes dropped, and the celebratory air drained swiftly from the store. The wilted streamers beside the cash register seemed to sag even lower.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out there,” the storeowner said.
“What do you mean? I used to go out there every—” I stopped. How many seasons had passed since I’d last gone out to pick peaches?
“Hasn’t been anyone out there for years,” she said.
“So you can’t go and pick peaches?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Can you still buy the peaches at the stand?”
The woman looked genuinely puzzled. “You can try, but I don’t think there’s anything out there.”
“I think I’ll go check it out, see if I can at least buy some peaches.”
I felt so bad about casting a mysterious gloom over the festive store that I bought a Mighty Moo t-shirt for my father, a history buff who’d once enjoyed visiting the battlefield with me years before. The owner smiled as she rang up my purchase. “When you come back through, let me know what you found.”
The road was straighter than I remembered, and the fields were planted with something low, dark, and burly. Crows rose from a few exhausted stalks of corn, circling their burnt tassels.
How strange, I thought as I drove over the interstate and neared the place where those lovely orchards had been. Only a few trees remained in the middle of some weedy fields. They reached like arthritic hands from the earth, surrounded by round bales of gray hay, tall grasses with purple tassels swaying softly between them. The warehouse stood empty, and the faded roadside produce sign out front leaned over the faded and broken picket fence. The darkened windows of the market were filled with “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs.
I drove around to the back of the warehouse, searching for an orchard I might have missed. To the left of the building, there was a small stand of spindly trees guarded by another “Keep Out” sign. Behind the warehouse, the open loading dock was a graveyard of farming equipment—a row of blossom thinners, mowers and tractors upended beside a lopsided pile of tractor tires. I kept driving, in search of the orchard where we’d picked the Red Globe peaches years before.
The road was straighter than I remembered, and the fields were planted with something low, dark, and burly. Crows rose from a few exhausted stalks of corn, circling their burnt tassels. I found an old spook house with all its windows missing, its front door swung wide open. Though it looked like no one lived there anymore, its front room remained furnished with a cherry wood bedroom suite. From within the fence that surrounded the tiny yard and front porch, a bright bower of pink zinnias, blue coneflowers, and red poppies brimmed. Farther down the road, I saw the horse barn, its tin roof streaked with rust, half of it caved in, the other half rolled back from its rafters. The corral was filled with more high weeds, but empty of that peach-loving horse.
About a half mile down from the abandoned corral, I found an orchard of trees set back from the road, growing in militant rows. Though they were not bearing peaches, their leaves were thick, green and unwilted by the sun, their branches pruned into uniform urns. Beguiled by my own nostalgia, I considered taking a walk along the paths between them. I swerved into a pull-off beside an open metal gate hung with a shooting target shaped like a human silhouette and shot through with hundreds of bullets. The words above it read, “2nd Amendment Security, Nothing Inside Worth Dying For.”
As I stared at the bullet-ripped silhouette hanging from the fence, an eerie cloud of common sense drifted into the back of my mind. I decided there was nothing here worth dying for. I got back in my truck, rolled up the window, and locked the doors. I looked up the number for the nearest peach stand on my cell phone.
I located one down the interstate, close to Gaffney, a town in the heart of peach country marked by a 135-foot water tower resembling a giant peach known locally as “The Peachoid.” As I passed by, I saw a road crew scrubbing its rosy cleft, overlay stem and leaf with a fire hose and an enormous, long-handled brush. Not far from the Peachoid, I found a frontage-road produce market run by a pleasant, middle-aged woman and her teenage son. They were sitting outside the market among the peach bushels, offering samples of a variety called Blaze Prince. The woman handed a sample to me. It was smaller than a Red Globe, its skin a high red color, its flesh almost orange.
“I was just over at the Cash Farms,” I said. “They were closed down, and most of the orchards were gone. What happened to them?”
The woman glanced over at her son, and stood, “You’d better follow me inside.”
I followed the woman into the store, and she closed the glass door behind her. There, among the ciders and jellies, she lowered her voice. “Mr. Cash died a few years ago,” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“The Cherokee County serial killer shot him.”
My heart began pounding as the woman explained how Mr. Cash had begun selling hay during the leanest years of the recession, and how the killer had first come to his house under the pretense of buying a bale of hay.
“They say the killer was after the wife, but she’d gone out on some errands when he came back later that day. When she got home, she found her husband shot dead on the living room floor.”
Four years had passed, but I still remembered the killer’s shooting spree in 2009, the murders of five people in a span of six days. I remembered the attending deputy’s public statement after the police shot and killed the murderer: “He was unpredictable. He was scary. He was weird.” Strangely, I did not remember that the killer had murdered that sweet farmer, the owner of my beloved peach farm.
“His widow couldn’t afford to keep up the orchards after that,” the produce lady said. “It was just too much.”
This is too much, I thought, numbly watching the produce stand lady pack an extra-large Styrofoam cup with peach ice cream and fill a sack with peaches. I paid her, but I don’t remember how much. Outside, the sky was heavy, swirled with white and gunmetal clouds. In the distance, the newly-washed Peachoid gleamed like an obscene red moon above an evergreen windbreak. All the murders had been frightening and tragic, but there was something especially indecent about the killing of that kind peach farmer, the attendant death of so many orchards.
At the house, I told my husband about the murder of the farmer who’d owned the orchards where we’d picked peaches when our son was a baby. Rick nodded sympathetically, and tasted a peach. The interstate peaches had been refrigerated, their ripening stunted before they’d reached their peak. They were a little too hard, and not a single drop of juice ran down my arms. The home-churned ice cream was clotted with chunks of ice. Still shocked by the news of the serial killer, I forgot about making pies, and pulled out the blender. I sliced all the peaches into it, pouring in ice, spiced rum and sugar, pulsing everything together. I poured this bright, boozy slush into two parfait glasses, one for Rick and one for me.
We took our drinks out to the back deck, and sat beneath Hunter’s bedroom window, from where bass cadences once pulsed on nights when our son, his head so full of music, forgot himself and played well past midnight. Though the walls sometimes shook, the house had felt fuller, safer, as if every room had been sheltered by our son’s steady rhythms. I’d grown so used to his midnight playing that the sound of his bass often lulled me to sleep. As we sipped our peach cocktails, Rick and I began talking about what our son might be doing in Nashville that very moment, what music he’d been listening to and learning in his college classes all week. When the conversation waned and the air around us became too silent, Rick brought out his Gibson Hummingbird acoustic, plucked a few chords of “Harvest Moon.” He only knew part of the song, and when his playing trailed off he settled the guitar back into its case. I gulped the rest of my makeshift cocktail, listening to the shrill churning of end-of-summer crickets as night fell invisibly around us.
I didn’t attempt to buy any peaches for the rest of that summer. I didn’t buy fresh peaches the following summer either—until I noticed the sickly grocery store kind that Rick had bought and placed in the fruit bowl in the kitchen. Rick rarely asks me to bring home treats for him, especially ones found at produce stands, so I knew that he, too, harbored some lingering nostalgia for those orchards. We couldn’t let another season go by without eating a single fresh peach.
The following morning was a Saturday. I woke early and went down to the local farmers market beside the old train station in search of peaches. The parking lot was larger than the market itself, brimming with mini-vans. I waded through the crowd, lingering at each booth, taking in the briny smell of shrimp and oysters two fishermen had brought up from Shem Creek that morning; the sweet red and poblano peppers displayed like jewels in baskets; the streaky heirloom tomatoes and black mission figs. I tasted every flavor at the pimento cheese dip booth, and moved on to a soy candle vendor. I smelled candles with names like “Kiss Me,” “Touch Me,” “Sweet Surrender” until I became confused, and they all began to smell like a cross between suntan lotion and a piña colada.
Just beyond the candles, I caught the headier scent of peaches. An elderly farmer stood among baskets brimming with a late-season variety named “Big Red,” calling out, “Now that’s a stone-free peach, some good eatin’.” He sliced one open. “Look at the juice running down my elbows. Look at my smile. We’ve gotta 18-week season, and we’re not done yet.”
The Big Reds were larger than the Red Globes, more fragrant than the Blaze Princes. But I was having trouble deciding which one would be the perfect peach.
Tall and slender with white whiskers on his chin, the farmer looked a little bit older than Mr. Cash would have been if he were still alive. As I waited for him to sell peaches to a few couples at five dollars a bag, it occurred to me that I wanted only one peach, a perfect one, to eat out of hand as I browsed the rest of the market. When I finished looking at all the beautiful summer produce at every stand, I would return to buy an entire bag for Rick.
“Could I just buy one peach?” I asked.
The farmer nodded as I looked through the baskets above and below the table. The Big Reds were larger than the Red Globes, more fragrant than the Blaze Princes. But I was having trouble deciding which one would be the perfect peach. “I’d like to eat one right now, for breakfast,” I explained to the farmer. “Do you see one that looks ready for that?”
The farmer tossed a few peaches around the basket and handed one to me. “Here, try this one,” he said. I handed him a five-dollar bill. He pocketed it. I waited for my change as he moved on to help the next customers, exchanging whole bags of peaches for their five-dollar bills.
“I believe I gave you a five-dollar bill,” I said. The farmer nodded, his face so impassive that I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me. “I only bought one peach.”
He nodded again, but didn’t move to make change. I waited a while for a teasing smile, thinking he might be kidding, but the smile never came.
“You just charged me five dollars for one peach,” I said.
The farmer reached into his pocket and pulled out my five-dollar bill. “You don’t think my peach is worth it?” he said.
“That’s not the point,” I said. “You’re charging everyone else five dollars for a whole bag of peaches, and you just charged me five dollars for one.”
“If you don’t think my peach is worth it, then here’s your money,” he said, slapping my five-dollar bill on the table. As I moved to return the peach he stopped my hand. “You can have it for free, if that’s all you think it’s worth.”
I wavered, wondering if the peach was worth it. By this time, I’d expected to be biting through its furry skin, its juices running happily down to my elbows—just as this farmer had promised. As we stood at this bargaining impasse, I stepped aside and walked away from the stand in a daze, the peach awkward and heavy in my hand. Now, with the luxury of time and distance, I consider what kind of life that might have led this man to charge his mean price. Maybe he’d spent all of spring protecting blossoms from late frosts, and early summer guarding against cankers, cutworms, and moths. Maybe he’d spend the rest of August and September saving late-season varieties from drought. Now I know that the farmer had not killed my memory of a rare moment with my young family in that first orchard, not entirely. Now I believe his bitterness taught me the immeasurable worth of sweetness.
At the time, I simply walked away from the farmer’s table and through the rest of the market, my skin prickling with late-summer heat and embarrassment. I stopped at a booth where some women were selling organic chickens. They pulled several plucked and headless chickens out of a giant ice chest, explaining the vegetarian diet they’d fed the chickens while they were alive, the hygienic method they’d used to butcher them. The women’s faces were so hopeful and kind that I couldn’t tell them that I wasn’t in the market for a vegetarian chicken, or that I didn’t have enough cash on me to pay ten dollars a pound for one—no matter how cleanly it had been eviscerated. I still needed to pay the peach farmer something.
I tried again to appraise the value of the peach. It had begun to feel as dead in my hand as the chickens displayed on the table before me. I was still frustrated by the farmer’s unaccountable meanness, even more irritated by my own misguided belief that I could revive a delicate memory of my young family by tasting a single peach. I thanked the women chicken farmers for their time, and turned around, walked back to the peach table. All around me, a crowd of people shuffled their feet, lowering their eyes as they offered their five-dollar bills, and received full bags of Big Reds. I fumbled in my purse, pulled out a wad of uncounted dollars. I handed them all over to the farmer, and said, “I don’t know what it’s worth, but I can’t take your peach for free.”
He nodded, his face no less stony. I turned, walked back through the market and out to the railroad station, where new mothers sat behind an iron railing, holding infants and toddlers on their laps, waiting for a train to pass. I stopped walking, unable to join them. I felt vaguely that I’d moved past this stage of my own life, that I might feel like an intruder standing among those who were still in it. I stood at a distance, down in the rail bed among the stones and rusty railroad spikes. The sky was completely colorless. A vee of black geese rowed through it, heading deeper south, their harsh calls already distant. I began eating the late-season peach. The Big Red was large as a softball, fragrant and soft, but not too soft. Its juices ran properly down to my elbows. But there was a deep nick at the top near the stem, and there was a chemical taste within its flesh. As the Norfolk and Southern charged through, grit blew off its empty freight cars, and the children screamed with terror and delight. Though it passed too quickly, I had just enough time to glimpse the black logo of a young horse rearing up, dancing on the nose of the locomotive.
Susan Tekulve is the author of In the Garden of Stone, winner of the 2012 South Carolina First Novel Award and a 2014 Gold IPPY Award. She’s also published two short story collections: Savage Pilgrims and My Mother’s War Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Crab Orchard Review, and The Literary Review, among other places. An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College.