The Perfect Peach

by Catherine Shallcross

Yesterday Bob and I went fruit-picking. We went with Carol and Wu; Wu's mother, "Ma," who has a little bit of English and is just about to take her citizenship test; Wu's friend Jason, whose English is excellent; and Ma's friend Mr. Ye, who has no English at all except for one phrase: "very good."

And so it was. We drove up to Brentwood where the orchards are: "U-Pick-It, U-Pay-for-It." So we filled our plastic buckets with peaches and nectarines, then sat under a shady tree at a table provided by the orchard management.

We feasted on a magnificent picnic provided by Carol, Wu, and their friends. We were surrounded by families picnicking at other tables, mostly African-American, Asian, Indian, and East European, so there was a mixture of accents, languages, baseball caps, T-shirts, and saris. Welcome to America, I thought, the Promised Land, and to California, the Land of Succulent Orchards.

The picnic commenced. We ate cold garlic chicken cooked by Ma, Carol's special cucumber potato salad, Wu's chow mein, green salad prepared by Jason ("with avocado," he announced, proudly), and sweet buns handcrafted by Mr. Ye, who is 79 and full of joy. He had more energy than the rest of us combined. When we went out to the orchard with our plastic buckets he ran ahead of us. He was the first one to bite into a peach, and grinned in delight as the juice dribbled down his chin.

"No! No!" we cried. "We're not allowed to eat fruit on the premises."

"Very good," he replied. He pulled over a metal ladder and exuberantly climbed it to disappear into a tree. Timid, the rest of us stood beneath him with our empty buckets, looking up in amazement. We couldn't see much, but we heard branches moving and leaves rustling, then the soft thud of peaches as they hit the bottom of the buckets. Our mouths began to water, but we were so used to city living that it took us a few more minutes to open up to the air. It was saturated with the almost alcoholic fragrance of peaches, peaches so ripe that when you picked one, the one next to it fell off the branch and rolled by your feet. Soon we were walking on a wet, mushy carpet of crushed peaches, sliding a little as we reached up to seek the rounded duskiness of the Perfect Peach.

Carol said she felt like the Chinese monkey king who sneaked into the gods' orchards to steal peaches because they held the secret of immortality. Perhaps they do. At any rate, my bucket quickly filled with peaches (I'd fallen back into the rhythm of Kentucky summers), while the others were more prudent.

"What are we going to do with all these peaches?" Bob asked.

"We'll think of something," I replied.

After lunch, we dozed. I stretched out on the grass to watch the treetops and sky. Jason stretched out beside me and was soon fast asleep. Bob and Wu napped in plastic chairs, their baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. Mr. Ye and Ma sat upright in their chairs, but their eyes soon closed. Carol never slept at all but gazed off into the distance.

Then, one by one, we woke up. Sluggish from the afternoon heat, we went into the orchards again, this time to pick apricots. They weren't as ripe as the peaches; some of them even glowed a little green around their edges, but when you cracked them open (with one flat gesture of the hand) they were perfect inside, virgins all, their taste pure and crisp, their color paler and subtler than the sluttish peaches.

We slid boxes of peaches, nectarines, and apricots into the back of the car while Bob continued to worry. "These peaches are too ripe," he said. "By the time we get home they'll be too soft to use."

"Relax," I said. So he did, and so did I. We fell asleep in the back seat while hot wind blew in through the open window, and the peaches in the orchard behind us ripened in the sun.

Growing up in a rustic area on the outskirts of Louiville, Kentucky, Catherine Shallcross enjoyed both rural and urban life. She now lives in Oakland, California, across the Bay from San Francisco and only a couple of hours from the fruit farms farther inland, so she still has the best of both worlds.



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