We sat in the parking lot, butts pressed against chilled pavement. The lot was attached to an abandoned store where only the essentials were sold. Now, the doors and windows were boarded and the foundation was crumbling. The security cameras that were once drilled to the side of the building loosely dangled and spray paint cluttered the brick in peculiar symbols and vulgar pictures.
Across the street was an old movie theater. A blinking open sign was strobing in neon. The windows nearest to the road glowed in arcade colors as game machines flashed in fluorescents and echoed in animated tunes. Friday and Saturday nights delivered the theater most of its revenue. Drive past it on Tuesday or Wednesday, however, and it was sure to make any passer-byer question why it was still open for business.
The month was July and tomorrow the east orchard would need to be picked. Only then, with the skin of an Arizona sunset, would peaches be transported to local grocery stores. The date was stamped on the calendar hanging crookedly in the kitchen, above a vase of sunflowers, as yellow as Van Gogh standards. The four a.m. forecast had been checked repeatedly. All the bedroom alarm clocks, too, were set and boots laid by the door. Growing up on an orchard, participation was required and it was always best to never complain. But Bridget never felt the urge.
Harrison sat beside her in his typical tall posture. The baseball cap crammed onto his head was coral and his t-shirt orange. His khakis were tan, dressed in a style that mimicked the skin of any ripe peach. But when you lived in this small Georgia town, anything could remind you of the fruit, even something in opposite palette.
Bridget’s legs were stretched in front of her, parallel to old parking spot lines. His were crossed tightly, muscles compact. Sitting outside during a night in any month of the year was something they’ve always done, almost like a ritual or holiday tradition. Minutes into this custom on any other night, the cool air would have been swirling around their mouths as they talked, laughed, and playfully teased each other. But the air felt off tonight. It was as if the world itself was tilting too far, falling off its own axis, sending the duo into unknown realms, forcing them to explore unmarked territory that could never be pinpointed on a globe or atlas.
In both of their hands, with palms glazed in a sort of gold from sun rays, rested a peach. The stems, both possessing shy characteristics, hid deep within the peach’s crevice. Each fruit was sprinkled with a type of unripeness. They were picked too soon, forced to pretend to fit inside the mask of maturity.
The clock tower positioned in the distance, behind a row of trees, struck ten. That was Bridget’s cue.
On the dot, “So, what do you think?” She knew the conversation would have failed to commence if she didn’t initiate. Bridget ran her thumb across the fruit’s soft, fuzzy jacket, apprehensively waiting for words to dribble from his tongue.
She glanced over at him, an appearance of anger overtook her face uncontrollably. “You know what.” The words were sharp, almost as if they were equipped to prick his skin and wake him up from whatever distraction was racing through his mind. Bridget’s fingernail wedged itself into the peach, as juice trickled to the surface and oozed in the shape of a teardrop.
“I don’t know,” Harrison whispered, staring down at his own peach. His hand was steady, fingers outstretched and level. It looked as if the peach was growing out of his palm. Placed in his large hand, the peach was small. “I just don’t know.”
“That peach isn’t a magical orb.”
“So stop looking at it and talk to me.” Her voice snapped, raising to a tone she never imagined it would with him. Recently, he pulled strings that revealed a new side of her and she absolutely hated every bit of it.
He just shook his head in return.
Fully aware he wanted the conversation to be done, she pressed on anyway, “Are we done? Are we still together? Why can’t you answer that question for me?” Her thumb deepened into the peach, turning cold as it progressed toward the pit. Juice continued to seep, a string of it rivered toward her dainty wrist.
He raised his own peach to his mouth, teeth sinking. A chunk in his mouth, “God, this one isn’t good.” He chewed, then swallowed. “If I throw it, maybe a raccoon can have a feast.”
Thumb sticky and fingernail polished in peach, she went, “This is just like you.”
“Just like me?”
“To change the subject.”
“I told you I didn’t know.”
“I know you know. You are just too scared to say something.”
“I always say what’s on my mind,” he retorted. “Just right there I was thinking of a raccoon.”
They both tossed their peaches, her’s tumbling into a trash can with empty fast food burger wrappers while his peach soared through the air, landing hard at the edge of pavement and grass. From several feet away, you could hear its smack.
And after that, they never spoke again.
Since their final night, the tempo of picking and plucking peaches sustained as the orchard expanded. The field spun around the sun one thousand times, as the grasses were chopped one thousand more.
The perspective of the orchard, rising across the land and up a slight hill sometimes startled Bridget when she glanced out the window from the cottage down the street. For more than twenty years, she had grown accustomed to seeing the vast orchard from her own bedroom window. A new address and red mailbox later and her view was different now. But the list of orchard to-dos still hadn’t left her.
Bridget’s father spooned a mound of cinnamon into his oatmeal. Stirring, the thick substance turned a dark shade of brown. A potent scent lifted from the bowl, pricking his nostrils. “There’s a new grocery store opening at the edge of town.”
“Another customer for our peaches?” Bridget’s mother wondered from across the table.
“I surely hope so,” he went. “That will be our eleventh.” The family’s orchard was popular in this segment of Georgia, but the thought of another local store becoming a proud distributor, never lessened in excitement.
“I’ll see if Bridget can head down to the story later today and request a partnership.” This was an excursion she had been used to embarking on since the age of sixteen.
Around two o’clock, Bridget wandered to the edge of town, visiting the brand new grocery story. A display of jams, jellies, and marmalades were stacked in the store window in a spectrum of golden orange and dark pink. Walking inside, a small bell rang out, indicating her entrance. To her right were carts and baskets with three cashiers to the left. One lady was purchasing several baskets of berries, while a man was buying two cartons of eggs and a jar of buttermilk. A few other heads bobbed about the aisles as soft classical music drifted from the speakers overhead.
“Can I help you?” a young girl asked, approaching her. Her tiny shoes squeaked across the polished floor. She sported a t-shirt with the store’s name and emblem.
“I’m looking for the owner. My family owns a peach orchard down the street.”
“Fabulous!” she beamed. “Let me see if our owner is available.” Bridget watched as her squeaky soles walked away.
The lady with several berry baskets handed over a few bills, before leaving and walking out to her car. She placed them gingerly into her minivan’s trunk as the man collected his eggs and milk before dashing away.
Finally, the lady reappeared.
“He’s ready for you,” she spoke. “Just through that door.” Her arm and finger extended in the door’s direction, slightly ajar with a Welcome sign hanging on its window.
Bridget passed an aisle with more of the same spreads seen in the window, before baking ingredients, nuts, olives, and pickles. Peeking through the door, a guy was sitting with his back turned to her. His eyes were focused on a computer screen, mouse moving, keys typing.
Her knuckles tapped the door.
“Come in,” he spoke, swiveling in his chair.
Bridget recognized the owner’s face immediately.
They knew each other in the same second as their eyes interlocked.
Frozen, she couldn’t pronounce any words.
“How are you?”
She thought to myself, out of all the people in the world who wanted to own a grocery store in Georgia, he had to be the one to own this particular establishment. If only she had known, she would have rejected this chore and requested that her father or mother complete the assignment. But she was far too old to not be able to handle something like this. Unlike him all that long ago, she was mature. She wondered if maybe, he, after all these years, was now too.
She managed to muster, “Hi.”
“How are you?” Harrison repeated.
“Uh, fine, really.”
“Good.” He stood up as his hand extended, the shake then accepted.
“What brings you here?”
“My dad would like to sell some peaches here.”
“We’d love that.” He returned to his desk, opening a drawer and pulling out a pad and pen. Writing down the appropriate information, he ripped off the sheet, handing it to her.
“So, you are good?”
Bridget folded the piece of paper, once, twice, a third time, and then a fourth. She hoped the constant folding would cause this moment to conclude, but paper didn’t possess this type of power.
“I am. You?”
“Good as well.”
Silence fell upon them, except for the distant intermittent beeping of groceries ringing.
“Would you want to meet in that old parking lot tonight?”
Bridget was taken aback, having thought she never would have returned with him, by herself, or with someone else. “What?”
“Please? For the sake of old times. It’s been over five years, we might as well catch up.”
After tossing the idea around her mind, “Fine.” The paper folded once more.
That night, the two of them met in the same parking lot, still untouched and lifeless. The windows of the theater still beamed in the same arcade palette as her mind remembered them to. It felt strange to return to this place, in which they had attempted to erase from their mind.
Harrison handed her a peach, this one ripe and perfect.
“Want to eat?”
“We can eat.”
They both bit into their peaches. The sweetness exploding in their mouthes with a slight burst of something tart.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“You know what.”
“I don’t know.”
He grinned at her and in truth Bridget did know. She was just playing clueless, like maybe he was all those years ago.