92 degrees, back-to-school creeping up around my legs, and my father sends me out back to gather the peaches. 10 cents each, he says cheerfully. It’s insulting that he still insists on paying me. But he’s in a good mood and I don’t want to spoil it, so I grab my bucket and gloves.
The trees drape their tired arms over our backyard quilt of grass and moss and clover. Green everywhere, dotted with pink and orange, more peaches on the ground than in the trees.
In the storeroom, there’s an old photo of our family in front of the first sapling, sixteen years ago. Dad, grinning broadly, his arms spread wide like the glowing V of a motel vacancy sign. Mom, looking bright and young with fluffy, eighties hair and a striped romper and a tolerant smile. Me in her arms, a bundle of pink blankets and pale flesh. When my boyfriend saw the picture, he said I looked exactly like her, and I spent hours wondering whether to take it as a compliment.
Elberta: My dad’s favorite. A good, old-fashioned peach, he calls it. Named after the wife of the man who cultivated it. She died and he remarried. His new wife, Pearlie, never got a peach named after her. Good for eating and canning. A little too tart for some people. Highly susceptible to disease, which is probably why most of ours are rotting from inside, rotting while they’re still on the branch. Elbertas are freestones. If you cut into one, the pit will fall right into the palm of your hand.
Dad planted the first sapling for my mother. A wedding gift. He planted a new tree every spring after that, four more times, until Mom bubbled over like the peach compote Dad left on the stove and forgot about. We have more peaches than we could ever eat in our lives, she said, dragging him down to the basement. Jars upon jars upon jars, yellow half-moons cradling each other in syrup like liquid sunshine. I’m sick to death of peaches and I used to love them. Mom knocked one of the jars off the shelf and it shattered, syrup bleeding toward the walls. Then the smoke alarm went off and she ran upstairs to stop the house from burning down, and Dad noticed me standing in a sea of broken glass, barefooted. Don’t move, Cupcake, he said, and he swept up the glass and the glass-studded peaches, glittering slugs the color of egg yolk, and then he threw away the broom.
Strawberry Cling: My favorite, back when I used to like peaches. White flesh, mildly sweet. Clingstone. The flesh adheres to the pit, unwilling to let go. There are probably several methods to force the stone out. I like to use a grapefruit spoon, the kind with serrated edges. Once the pit is removed, you can tell how big it was by the raw, red-flushed wound it leaves behind.
When my boyfriend came over to “study” a few weeks ago, Dad gave him the tour. He showed him the basement, and I was surprised to see our supply dwindling. Only a few dozen jars left, some of them dated several years back. Those can’t be safe to eat, I said, but Dad reassured me that most of them were from the past year or two, he just didn’t bother peeling off the old labels. He led us back outside and picked an Elberta for my boyfriend. Ain’t she one hell of a peach? he said proudly, as though the peach was the younger sister I’ll never have, and when my boyfriend said, wow, yes, that’s one hell of a peach, I wondered if he was mocking my dad, but later, in private, he told me that he thought it was so cool my family had an orchard. It’s not an orchard, I said. But later I looked up the definition of orchard (a piece of land planted with fruit trees), and I guess technically our little fenced-in backyard is a piece of land, and I guess technically our peaches qualify as fruit. My dad does not qualify as an orchardist. When Mom was around, he pruned the trees once in a while. Watered them sometimes. He had dreams of a roadside fruit stand, of the two of us gathering the day’s harvest, of Mom in her fictional checkered apron and her fictional warm, adoring smile, ready to peel and slice peaches for canning. Now he mostly wanders through the yard, tasting, looking bewildered. Sometimes he sprays for peach borers, just enough to keep the rotten fruit growing.
Georgia: My boyfriend’s choice, when Dad asked his favorite. You must mean the Georgia Belle, my dad said, an attempt at saving my boyfriend from what he perceived as embarrassment. I’ll grab you a few others to sample from the basement. We’ve got extra. My boyfriend looked out at our clearly overburdened trees, the way their elbows touched in some places and their fingertips dragged in others. Do you need some help with pruning? he offered, before I could stop him. My brother’s an arborist; I could borrow the tools. Dad didn’t respond. He just turned and walked back inside.
My dad thinks my boyfriend is a Poor Choice. He’s too good-looking, Dad insists, he has a tattoo, what kind of parent would let a 16-year-old get a tattoo? He’s 18, I say, my first mistake. I’ll probably get a tattoo someday, I add, my second. You’re just like your mother, Dad says, flat-voiced, and I don’t understand what he means. Mom didn’t have tattoos, as far as I know. She didn’t like the idea of doing anything permanent to her body. She didn’t even have pierced ears. If it was the peaches that pushed Mom to leave, it’s hard to blame her. The juice always sticks to my skin and seeps through the pores, even with rubber gloves. The first time my boyfriend went down on me, he said my cunt tasted sweet, like peaches, and I didn’t speak to him for a week. I’m sorry, he said, in texts, at my locker, with flowers and old-fashioned scribbled notes. (Maybe he’d like the Elberta.) I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how you felt about the C-word. I forgave him. I tried to explain. I’d been begging Dad to prune the trees. Or better, to chop them all down. Imagine having sunlight in the kitchen, I’d say, but Dad would pretend not to hear me.
Red Haven: Actually, this one might be my favorite, if I had to choose. They’re semi-freestones. They start out clinging, but once the fruit ripens, the pit becomes easier to remove. Their skin is gold with splotches of red. They’re self-pollinators, which means they don’t need another tree to bear fruit.
My dad is still home. He might be watching. I don’t want him to suspect anything, so I pull on my gloves and start working. The first peach oozes black goo. The second is formless as unset jam. The third caves in like a softened skull under the pressure of my thumb. Bees and hornets hum around my legs, drawn to the exaggerated sweetness of rotting flesh. After a while, Dad’s pickup truck coughs awake in the driveway. He’s going for groceries, which means he’ll be gone at least an hour. He likes to explore, looking for new brands of cheese, weird flavors of Klabrunn. Sometimes he buys grocery store peaches and puts them in our kitchen as though we grew them, and I act like I don’t notice. When I hear him drive away, I send a text, and then I sit with my back against Elberta’s smooth bark, waiting.
Champagne: My mom’s favorite, before she left. A melting-flesh clingstone, white skin tinged with pink. Some might de- scribe them as blushing. A sweet, delicate, juice-down-your-chin peach. Most grocers can’t handle them. They bruise easy. They are delicate and prone to fungus and you can’t squeeze too hard when you pull them off the branch. This is the tree my dad planted the year his marriage failed, to beg her to stay, and I wonder if he ever knew her at all.
My boyfriend has brought pruning shears, a handsaw, a pole pruner that towers like a flagpole. He offers to do all the work, he says I can grab a drink and relax, but I tell him to leave the tools and go home, and I’ll text him later. This feels like a private moment, a mother-daughter thing. Like getting your period, or trying on a prom dress, or pushing out a baby after nine months of growing it and deciding, right in that split second, whether it was worth all the labor and the sweat. Maybe that’s not how it works with babies. I don’t know. I’ve never had one.
I grab the shears. I start with Elberta, her lowest branches first. I think of Dad’s ruined peach compote, how the smell burned my throat. I think of Mom in that photo, already with a faraway look. The pole pruner next. It’s addictive: just line it up, pull, and those unreachable top branches snick into the grass around me like shanks of long hair. At first the bees and hornets stir up around me, but soon they settle into my bucket, tasting the sticky-sweet remains.
When Dad gets home, I’m sitting cross-legged under Elberta’s branches, nursing my torn, bleeding palms against a cold glass of water. I’ve pruned too much. She’s thin and scraggly and ex- posed. I can feel sunlight coming through. Dad must be looking out the window. He must see what I’ve done. But he never comes outside. When I wash my hands and sit down for dinner, he passes me the blistered potatoes and the peach chicken bake, and he doesn’t say a word about it.
Elberta: I lied earlier. This one’s my favorite. Yellow flesh, tart and sweet. The pit falls out easy, right into your hand. It doesn’t even put up a fight.
As it turns out, peaches grow better when you prune them. Any ten-year-old could’ve guessed this. My father is delighted. He kisses me on both cheeks like we’re in France and he goes out to the hardware store for plywood. He fills the basement with jars of preserved sweetness, still with old canning labels in Mom’s slanted handwriting. He takes down the old family picture, claiming he only kept it to remember the sapling, how small it was back then, and no matter how much I search, I can’t find it anywhere. He puts peaches in his cereal, on pancakes, in smoothies, and on ice cream sundaes with whipped cream and toasted pecans. He slurps them between his lips like squirming goldfish, swallows them whole. We will never, in our entire lives, eat this much fruit.
I wrote this story after seeing a childhood photo of a peach tree in my family’s backyard. I hardly remember the tree, but I have vague memories of my parents canning peaches. My dad chopped the tree down because my mom wanted light through the kitchen window. When I saw the photo, I was struck by how out of place the tree looked—wild and overgrown, in a space that’s now home to a small, tidy flower garden. I researched peach varieties to decide what type to include, and the descriptions were all so evocative. I loved the idea of using different trees as a physical reminder of what was lost, and different types of peaches as the narrator’s way to attempt to categorize and make sense of her family. The rest of the story grew naturally from there.
Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming at Pithead Chapel, Flash Frog, Emerge Literary Journal, and X-R-A-Y. She works as a writer at a small video game studio, creating learning games for kids.