I used to love peaches. Now I’d rather chew the ears off a dead rat than eat a peach.
Lots of things used to be different. Daddy took good care of us. Then he fell off a balcony and hit his head real bad. He’s been in the veterans’ hospital for a few years, trying to get better. It doesn’t seem to be working too well.
Mother and I are poor. She doesn’t want me to use that word, but we are. Daddy didn’t have much in savings, so we get by as best we can. Mother works at a photo studio, helping develop pictures. It doesn’t pay a lot.
Lots of other people are poor, too. No one knows when this Depression will be over. Mother says we have to work hard and trust Jesus to help us. She says God never gives us more than we can bear. I don’t know about that. Daddy couldn’t bear hitting his head so hard.
Our money problems got worse at the end of June. That was the first time I ever saw Mother look really scared. Her boss said he was shutting down the photo shop for six weeks during the summer. School was out and Mother said that she and I would both have to work. In a peach orchard, she said. Don’t you love peaches? I told her I loved eating them, not picking them.
Mother tried to laugh at that. She always tries to see the good in what happens to us, even when it’s mostly bad. She’s better at that than I am.
Mother said I was twelve years old, and that was plenty old enough to start working. I sat there at the supper table, eating my cornbread and buttermilk. It wasn’t enough for supper, but it was all we had. My stomach made an angry rumbling noise like it was mad at me. I gave in and told Mother I would go to work with her.
Today the alarm clock went off at five in the morning, as it has for the past few weeks. I never get up that early, even for school, but I felt guilty about resenting it. I knew Mother wouldn’t make me work in the peach orchard with her unless it couldn’t be helped. Some days now, we only had buttermilk for supper.
We put on our work clothes, which always smelled like peaches no matter how hard Mother tried to clean them. I think she tried harder the first week and then gave up. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, so I didn’t say anything about it after the first few days. We were both used to it.
We walked down to the town square to get on the truck that took us to the orchard. It wasn’t a long walk, but it felt like one because it wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go. We got on the truck with the other workers. They scrunched us together pretty good. Then the engine started with some loud wheezing sounds, and we went lurching down the road to the orchard.
Mrs. Ledbetter was sitting across from me. I liked her. Her skin was all dry and wrinkly from working in the sun so much, but she still smiled a lot.
“How you doin’ this morning, Miss Anna?” she asked.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said. Mother had taught me to answer that way, even when I wasn’t doing fine at all.
“Supposed to be a hot one today,” Mrs. Ledbetter continued. She was friendly but not very original in her conversations.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. We had already heard the weather report on the radio. Even Mother couldn’t think of anything cheerful to say about the heat we would have to endure.
“You take care of your daughter, Miz Reed,” said Mrs. Ledbetter. “Let me know if she needs a rest during the day and I’ll try to cover for her.”
“That’s mighty generous of you,” Mother said, “but Mr. Calhoun might not be happy about that.”
Mr. Calhoun was our boss in the peach orchard. He was an awful man. Mother wouldn’t want me to say that, so I won’t say it out loud, but it’s true.
Mrs. Ledbetter laughed. “You let me worry about that, sugar.” She leaned back against the dusty side of the truck. Her eyes closed, but a faint smile remained.
We rode and rode. It seemed to take forever, but we always got there too quick.
The truck pulled into the orchard through the front gate. The wood looked all crumbly and splintery. It was so old it might have been there since before the Civil War. Too bad that General Sherman didn’t burn it down. Then maybe the orchard wouldn’t be there.
But the orchard was there, and so were we. The workers climbed slowly out of the truck. They didn’t like the ride, but they liked the job even less. I keep saying ‘they,’ but I mean me. Mother and me. Not that you’d ever hear Mother complain.
Mr. Calhoun was standing next to the truck as we filed by. He was a fat man wearing a short-sleeved shirt that was too small for him. It was kind of a fancy shirt because he wanted us to know that he was the boss. The shirt already had sweat stains.
As Mother and I passed by, Mr. Calhoun looked at us like we didn’t belong there. We had already been on the job for a few weeks, so he knew us, but he still gave us that look every morning. Maybe I looked like his little girl, if he had one. Maybe he thought Mother was doing a bad thing by pulling me along to the orchard every day. But we had to eat, and eating takes money, and we didn’t have any.
We went over to the sorting area. That was our job, sorting peaches. We had to pick out the bad ones and sort the others. There were so many of them. Other workers kept bringing us more and more from the trees all day. Just when we’d think we had made some progress, a new batch would come in, and it was like we were starting over. It reminded me of one of those old Greek stories we read in school where the poor man had to drink a glass of wine, but no matter how much he drank, the glass was never empty. I bet he hated wine after a while, like I hate peaches now.
The fuzz was the worst. You probably never think about peach fuzz because once you eat a nice peach, you’re done with it. All you remember is that gentle, sweet flesh on your tongue and maybe a little peach juice running down your chin, but you wipe it away with a laugh, and the summery flavor is all that’s left. I used to think about peaches that way, too.
Now it’s all just fuzz. The fuzz gets over everything. It clings to your hands, your arms, your clothes. It’s like a curse in one of those scary movies they sometimes show in the air-conditioned theater in town. Except this curse is real, and there’s no air conditioning.
I was thinking too hard, and I got separated from Mother as they were lining us up at the sorting bins. She ended up on the other side of the bins, right next to Mrs. Ledbetter. As Mr. Calhoun shouted at us to get to work, Mother gave me a reassuring wave and tried to look happy. It was hard sometimes, even for her.
I was next to Mr. Throckmorton. He wasn’t mean like Mr. Calhoun, but I didn’t like him. He had big greasy hands and always looked like he was thinking about something secret that he didn’t want anyone to know.
“You’re looking fine this morning, Miss Anna,” he said, giving me that hidden-secret smile. “You’re getting to be a right sweet little peach yourself.”
“Thank you, Mr. Throckmorton,” I answered. I looked down at the peaches and went to work. I hoped that would stop him from continuing the conversation.
Time went by. Peaches, fuzz, heat, sweat. More peaches, more fuzz. I looked over at Mother. Her sweat had made her glasses slide down her nose a little ways. She looked like a schoolteacher. The peaches were her students. I hoped she gave them bad grades. I was feeling funny, and I needed a drink of water, but it wasn’t time for our break yet.
Then I felt it. My bottom suddenly got warmer. I thought I might have wet my pants. I looked down.
Mr. Throckmorton had his hot, sweaty hand on my behind. He started to move his hand around. I wanted to throw up.
I didn’t know what to do. Without thinking, I cried out. Mother and Mrs. Ledbetter looked up from the other side of the bins. They saw what Mr. Throckmorton was doing. He gave them a strange grin and took his hand off my backside. He went back to sorting peaches as if it were his favorite hobby.
Mother’s face frightened me. It was as hard as a diamond, but not a pretty one. A rough diamond that was about to drill into something. Was she angry at me? What had I done wrong?
Mother left her place and came around to our side of the bins.
“Mr. Throckmorton?” she said. He turned to face her.
Mother slapped him across the face. It sounded like the time I did a big belly-flop while diving into the lake. I remembered how much that hurt.
Mr. Throckmorton touched his face. His damp fingers caressed the red mark on his cheek.
“Mr. Calhoun! Mr. Calhoun!” he called.
Our boss came over. His sweat stains were much larger now. “Why did you stop working?” he asked.
“This crazy lady slapped me in the face,” Mr. Throckmorton said. “I don’t know why. She didn’t say. She just hit me.”
“Miz Reed, what do you have to say for yourself?” Mr. Calhoun asked.
Mother still had that diamond-hard look on her face. “He touched my daughter,” she said. “He touched her where he had no business touching. I won’t let anyone do that to my child.”
“I don’t know what in the Sam Hill this woman is talking about,” Mr. Throckmorton answered. “I was standing here sorting peaches and paying no nevermind to anyone, and she just come over and slapped me.”
“Mrs. Ledbetter saw it, too,” I said. “Isn’t that right?” I looked across the bins and knew that we had lost.
Mrs. Ledbetter’s face had none of its usual well-worn cheer. She looked like a tired old prune. She gave me a despairing glance and turned her attention back to her peaches without saying a word.
Mr. Calhoun pulled out a damp handkerchief and wiped the latest crop of sweat from his face.
“Miz Reed, I can’t have my workers hitting each other. You and your girl can finish out the day, but don’t come back tomorrow. You’re fired.” He turned and walked away, expecting Mother to plead for our jobs. He didn’t want to hear none of that.
But Mother didn’t say anything. She took my hand and we walked back to the other side of the bins. Mrs. Ledbetter left her spot and took my place next to Mr. Throckmorton. We worked in silence.
We drank our buttermilk that evening with less conversation than usual.
“Why did you do it, Mother?” I finally asked. “You’ve never hit me as hard as you hit Mr. Throckmorton, even when I did something real bad.”
Mother tried to put her words together. I don’t think she quite knew why she slapped him, either. She never hit anybody.
“We’ve had our share of burdens, honey,” Mother began. “Most of the time, we need to put on a good face and move ahead as best we can. God helps those who help themselves.”
“But God didn’t hit Mr. Throckmorton after he touched me,” I said. “So you had to do it yourself.”
Mother’s laugh contained real joy for the first time that day.
“I guess so,” she said. “You do what you can, and sometimes you need to do a little more. There are some things you can’t ignore.”
“But we lost our jobs, Mother. What will we do now?”
“I don’t know, Anna,” Mother said. “God will provide.”
She said it again, quietly, as if trying to convince herself. “God will provide.”
Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia’s Ghosts. His short stories for adults have appeared in the Eunoia Review, the Oddville Press, Idle Ink, After Dinner Conversation, and others. Carl grew up in Atlanta and currently lives in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.