by Noelle Florio
“It comes in waves, Miss. Loakey. Some days will be better than others sweetie, but the results of your spirometry test show your lungs have increased inflammation since your last visit,” Doc said in a huff with a look of desperation on his face while Lana sat in the bubblegum recliner, her skeletal hand held over her chest. Doc reached into the worn out file cabinet to retrieve a tightly packed envelope labeled, “Loakey, Lana.” He shuffled through the stack of papers then pulled out the desired collection he was searching for.
“Looking back on your test from last July, your inflammation was at an all-time high as well,” Doc said, the papers shielding his doughy blue eyes and cleanly shaven face. A pause. More thumbing through papers. “You’re not taking up that peach business again, right dear?”
“You mean the “Blue Ridge Ripest Peach” contest? Lana asked.
“I’ll take that as a yes, dear.” Doc’s eyes popped up from the top of the pages and locked with Lana’s rolling ones. While she was quite sick of Doc’s ‘dears’ and ‘sweeties,’ he’s been her pulmonologist ever since she was diagnosed with asthma and heart palpitations twenty years ago. She couldn’t change now. Back then, it was just an occasional huff at the top of the stairs more often her condition turned into a looming huff just upon getting out of bed.
“Well, Doc, you know how much it means to me.” A deep breath. “You really thought I’d listen to your orders?” Lana said, chuckling a little. “When do I ever do that?”
“You should do it more often to be honest with you.” A pause. Lana was weary of what Doc would say next, for he didn’t tag a pet name on the end of his sentence. When he did this she knew he was actually trying to be serious.
“You’re pushing it Lana. While I know you want to pretend you are in your mid-50’s, sooner or late you need to accept the fact that you are pushing your late 80’s.” A pause and a wheeze from Lana. “90 to be exact,” Doc said as he put Lana’s stack of files back into the cabinet. Lana’s breathe was at a constant wheeze.
“Dear, you know I hate saying this, but I cannot guarantee that your lungs are strong enough to take on this contest,” Doc said. “It’s a risk I don’t want you to take.”
“Got it, Doc.” Lana couldn’t face listening to those orders.
The sunsets always looked like the painting palette of an artist’s in the mountainside of Blue Ridge, Georgia; much like it was when she arrived at her house that evening. Pulling her wiry blonde hair back into a thin pony tail, Lana knelt down with one knee at a time and a deep breath to look at her tree. While she gripped for balance on the damp earth she gazed up at the cotton candy swirls of the sky until she gained a steady pace. Deep breathes. In and out, she thought. After a minute or two, Lana eventually got close enough to view the progress of her peaches only to find them browned and rotting.
“Damnit.” Reaching for the hose, she thought she could salvage whatever bit of life was left within it. Every year that Lana entered the annual “Blue Ridge Ripest Peach” contest she failed terribly. Her peaches were either of the brown, mushy texture as they were now or they were bitter, leaving her with nothing but a sigh and a dim hope for the next year. The contest had a special place in her heart though, for she has been trying to grow a successful peach tree since she was a little girl.
“But why, Ma? How come the Mayfields and the Forrests always have these full, orange peaches and I got nothing but shriveled and moldy balls of mush?” twelve year-old Lana asked her mom as she sat with the hose snaked between her chalky legs. She sat next to her tree, day after day, as the sweat from the Georgia sun dripped down her face and stung her eyes.
“I’m sure your peaches will grow, honey. You just got to give it some time,” Lana’s mother would tell her. More than fifty years later and Lana was still giving it some time. She asked herself what had she done wrong all these years that prevented her from growing the fruit that her state loved and cherished so much? Perhaps it was the way she took care of the tree. Did she water it too much? Too much sunlight? Or maybe it was the geographic makeup of the land; it was simply not fertile enough to grow such a tree.
Lana always had to drive past the was the Maywells and the Forrests’ plantations before she got to her own. Even though the Forrests’ moved out once their kids grew up and began lives of their own, Lana still regarded the plantation as theirs. Maya Maywell was still there though, and because it was summertime, her grandkids were visiting. Lana knew this because as she pulled over to look at her peach tree, bikes with trainers on them and beat up hoola hoops were strewn all over the front lawn. She shut off her husband’s Chevy Malibu that she just couldn’t seem to part with and felt the cool breeze refresh her face that already began to sweat in the Georgia heat. The wind whistled through the small trees that swayed before her as the sweet scent of peaches filled her with a melancholy happiness. One foot out of the car and a deep breath with the other one, Lana was on her feet, staring at Maya’s vegetation. She leaned over on the side of the road and just stared at the mixture of ruby red and orange that seemed so impossible for her to obtain. As she turned the peach in her delicate hands, feeling its soft and fuzzy texture, she was taken back to the days of her childhood. The days when she would run down the very road that she staggered on now.
“They have more than enough to go around, just don’t let anyone see you when you do it, okay?” Lana’s mother would say as she instructed her to go down to the Maywells’ late on a Saturday night to steal peaches for breakfast on Sunday mornings. Lana would always hesitate for she despised taking something that was not hers, but always end up on giving in for the Maywells had the best peaches in town. Even better than the supermarket. The adrenaline would be pumping through her system, full well knowing that she could get caught at any second. Little puffs of dirt would follow in her tracks as each foot tapped off the ground, one step closer to the forbidden fruit. She’d kneel down on the side of the road, stuff two or three peaches in her shirt and take off in the night. She never took more than three peaches for only her and her mother lived on the plantation and Lana hated wasting food. In all the years that she stole peaches, her classmate Maya never found out. Even if she did, she never confronted Lana about it. Deep down, Lana always thought Maya secretly felt bad for her because in all the years they joined the contest together, Maya was always one of the top three contestants. Meanwhile, Lana was given a sticker that read, “I love peaches!”
It was the sound of sneakers scuffing against the ground that took Lana’s head out of the clouds as she turned around to see Maya’s grandkids quickly approaching her. They shot her a look that read, ‘what are your doing next to our peach trees?’ She stood up slowly and watched the kids’ legs run at speeds she wished she could reach.
“We’re going to win first place this year!” one of the boys said as he darted up to Lana then past her, leaving a trail of dirt to dissipate in the air. The other one, much shorter and younger, trailed behind as his short and stubby legs tried to catch up to his more agile brother. He had to have been around seven or eight years old as he stopped in front of Lana to catch his breath. For a second both of them stood there, looked and one another and took deep gasps before saying a word. Lana smiled as she watched him push the sweaty clumps of chocolate brown hair from his eyes.
“Is your grandma around at all?” she asked. The boy turned around and with a finger the size of those baby carrots you buy in the supermarket, pointed toward a woman awkwardly jogging down the dirt road. She held her white sunhat against the wind and tried to hold onto her dress before it got caught in the breeze, too.
“Lana!” She heard Maya scream as her arm arched over her head to wave at Lana. Lana hasn’t seen her in over six months for her heart palpitations restricted her to only the food market and the doctor. Lana was surprised when she noticed the definite creases in the outer corners of Maya’s eyes and forehead as she reached in to give her childhood best friend a hug. Despite the wrinkles, Maya had that same infectious beauty that had all the boys in school melting over her.
“What are you doing down here? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages! How you been?” Although Lana has known Maya since Kindergarten, one thing she never got used to was the rambling questions she would spew out at lightning speed.
“I’m still hanging in there, you know,” Lana answered as she counted in her head to hold onto the pace of her breath. One-two-three, deep breath in. One-two-three, deep breath out.
“How’s the good old heart? Still pumping?” she asked. In mid conversation, Maya shot her head over to the older brother, “Hey! Johnny, you put that rock down and stop pushing your brother!” Her head turned back to Lana. “I know you were having some heart trouble. I’ve been meaning to stop by but you know how it is with kids, ha!” she said. Right away, Maya must have seen the look on Lana’s face for she quickly followed up with, “Oh! I’m so sorry, I forgot.” She was visibly nervous for she began to twirl the ends of her hair. Lana’s breath started to lose its steady pace again.
“Don’t worry about it.” A pause. “I should get going anyway,” Lana said as started to turn toward her car.
“You’re still entering the contest this year, right?” Maya asked.
“Um, I don’t know if I have enough time for it this year,” Lana turned around and answered. Although she tried to play it off as if she was too busy to grow the peaches, she didn’t want to admit how horrible they were turning out.
“Well, there’s still two weeks until the contest. You need any help? I can send one of the boys over to make sure you’re doing everything right. I gotta teach ‘em young, you know? They have to carry on the tradition. Right boys?!” Maya turned around to the boys, who were now wrestling in the grass. “Hey! Stop that!”
“No,” Lana said without hesitation. Realizing that her tone gave off an irritable impression, “I’m fine, really,” she followed with a smile. “My peaches are turning out quite good, actually.” She turned back around to face her car, put the key in the door and unlocked it.
“But, I thought you didn’t have time–” Maya asked but the sound of Lana’s car door overpowered her question.
Lana cranked the window down and leaned her head out the window before pulling away.
“Tell the kids I said goodbye,” she said. Lana drove off into the sunset as the two boys chased each other into Maya’s home with handfuls of leaves they found in the yard.
By the time Lana made it back to her house, the sun was laying over the horizon, casting magenta hues onto the colonial styled windows of her house. She knelt down on the front lawn and stared at the yellowing leaves that piled at the base of her peach tree. She reached for the hose to wash away the dead leaves and then proceeded to water the root of the tree that was still damp from when she watered it earlier this morning. Letting out a sigh, she brushed the dirt off her pants and slowly headed for the house.
Surrounded by cascading hills, Lana’s washed-out yellow house with cream colored shutters sat far back from the road which allowed for much privacy. Over the years, she painted it a variety of different colors from blood red to plum purple. She always came back to yellow though, for she thought it would attract more light into her house. She stood on the soggy lawn for a moment before entering and looked at each desolate window that faced in her direction. She imagined a home full of children. A set of twins playing cards in the top left window. A teenager brushing out her younger sister’s hair in the right. She glanced down towards the dining room on the first floor and imagined a family gathered around the great big mahogany table that she and Robert bought at an auction right after their marriage.
“If we’re going to have a family of our own one day then we need a place of meeting. A place where we can all be together to talk about our day; to ask how each other is doing,” she said to him right before she placed the highest bid on the table. Robert gave her a hesitating glance, seeing that the table was five hundred dollars over their budget.
“Can’t you just picture it, Robert? All of the kids around the table, passing around the mashed potatoes? Then coming back for a slice of that peach pie that your mother always used to make?” she said, with a great big smile on her face. Reaching into her back pocket, Lana pulled out a damp tissue and wiped off the corners of her eyes with it.
“Come on in Lana, it’s time to eat!” a voice yelled, directing her focus from the dining room window to the front door where her nurse, Mary, waved a hand at her. Mary was a middle aged woman with a heavy-set build who came in to look after Lana for a few hours each day. When Mary first started coming around, she would stay for hours at a time. They would drink tea together and talk about all sorts of things from Lana’s senior prom with Robert to Mary’s favorite books of the month. But ever since she became a grandmother two months ago, Mary would leave right after cooking Lana’s dinner to spend time with her own family. “I have to run now Lana; the baby is waiting for me!” she would always say.
“Feeling okay today? Dinner’s all ready for you. How’s the peach tree doing? Good? I know that contest is coming up soon. You have to submit the peach in a couple days right?” Mary said with a whirlwind of energy.
“Two weeks. The deadlines’ in two weeks,” Lana said, still trying to process the babbling thoughts that Mary spewed out in one breath.
“Well how do the peaches look? Any good ones?” Mary asked as she placed a spoonful of corn onto her plate.
“Bruised. Browned. Yellow leaves gathering around the root.” She took a breath between each sentence.
“It’s not your fault that the soil isn’t fertile. It’s just the way it is. Are the Maywells having the same problem?” Mary placed a few pieces of fried chicken on Lana’s plate.
“I’m not very hungry,” Lana said, ignoring further acknowledgement of the peach tree.
“Sometimes people’s soil is more fertile than others’, that’s all,” Mary followed, sliding Lana’s dinner plate in front of her.
“But why?” Lana asked. She tapped her fork against the ceramic plate, poking at bits of chicken. She placed the fork down then slid the plate back toward Mary.
“That’s just how God made the land, my dear! There’s nothing you or me can do about it. Now finish that chicken for me.” Mary said.
“How is the little one?” Lana asked after a short silence at the table. She knew exactly how to work Mary for if she asked her about her kids, Mary would forget all responsibilities and talk about them until she was forced to stop. She sat down at the little table for two, put a heap of chicken and corn on her plate and then went off on a tangent.
“Oh, they’re just wonderful! You know how kids are during the ‘terrible twos.’ Tommy’s just a bundle of energy. Every time he comes over I make sure to have all his toys set up for him you know,” Mary said. Lana nodded. She regretted asking her about Tommy for although it diverged Mary, it forced Lana to wonder what her children would be like if she had one of her own.
“Once he gets tired of being inside all day he usually watches me out in the garden…” Mary babbled on. “But anyways, how can I help you with your peach tree? The sun hasn’t gone completely down yet. Why don’t we go out there to see what we can do?”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Lana said “I’d rather just go lay down.”
Mary rose from her seat and made her way over to Lana. She put her arm on her shoulder to guide her up from the table.
“Now, don’t speak like that. What better time to fix it then right now? Let’s go. What’s the worst that could happen?” Mary asked.
There must not have been worst that could happen for it was pitch black outside while Mary was hunched over the wilted peach tree with a shovel and pale in hand. She dug the shovel into the ground, removing vital roots of Lana’s tree while Lana’s chest rose and sunk with every dig of the ground. It was Mary’s idea that she try to dig out the “dead” roots of the tree for it was a “family secret” that supposedly preserved all their fruits and vegetables. While it may have sounded like a good idea, Mary’s stubby fingers were not nimble enough because she dug out whatever life was left in Lana’s peach tree.
With a yellow bucket full of arm-like roots in her hand, “I’m so sorry, Lana dear! You know I wouldn’t do this on purpose right? I thought I was good at this,” Mary said with tears welling up in the ducts of her eyes.
“It’s probably best if you just head home,” Lana said as she grabbed the bucket from Mary and knelt down. She stared at the gaping hole that surrounded the now diminished bunch of branches and leaves that she called a peach tree. “There’s no way. There’s no way I can produce a peach from this. This mess. In two weeks.”
“Why don’t we go down to the Maywells’ trees! All we need is one peach! She won’t even notice,” Mary chimed in.
“No, I made a vow to never take anything that wasn’t mine ever again,” Lana said. “Please, I just want to go to sleep. I need to take my medicine.” Lana slowly leaned up from the ground that sloshed under her feet and turned for the house. She sent Mary home, told her not to worry and assured her that she would clean up dinner.
It was almost 10:00 pm when Lana finished with the dishes and was ready to go to sleep. When her breathing became too heavy to climb the stairs, Mary moved Lana’s mattress to the guestroom on the first floor. She shuffled into the bedroom that wasn’t truly hers but instead, was made for an outsider. The walls were bare white. No pictures or memories. Lana couldn’t stand to take everything out from her real bedroom for she thought her lungs would be strong enough to tackle the stairs again one day. She opened a little wooden nightstand and changed into a pair of worn out cotton pajamas. Just as her head hit the pillow, a loud pounding off mahogany wood echoed into her room. Lana’s heart started to race because she never had visited at this time of night. There was no one to visit her. Lana slipped out from the cool satin sheets on her bed and glided her fragile feet across the floor that creaked with every step. She scraped the door open just to get a good enough look of who was outside. All she saw in the dimness of the moonlight were two chubby hands holding one of the ripest peaches Lana had ever seen. She swung the door open to see that she who it was that possessed such a beautiful fruit.
“I know you didn’t want to do it, so I did. The offer was too good to pass up!” Mary said as she stepped into the reflection of the moonlight. She was dripping in sweat and gasping for breath. Mary looked down to see that her slacks had dirt marks all over the knees.
“What happened?! Get inside, will you?” Lana said as she motioned Mary into the house.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Mary said as she helped to walk Lana into the kitchen. She put water on the stove for a cup of tea while Lana opened the cabinet under the sink to get out a rag. Again, Mary waddled over to help her.
“Don’t worry about me. Let me tell you what happened,” Mary said. She went over to the cupboard and took out a sleeve of chocolate chip cookies. “I was driving home and I was just thinking, because I really felt upset about earlier.” She shoved a cookie in her mouth. “And as I was passing the Maywells, it was staring at me right in the face,” she continued through muffled chewing. “Anyways, long story short, I pulled over and scurried like a solder across the ground to get this peach.” Mary stared at Lana with great big eyes; eyes that resembled Doc’s doughy ones. “I knew how upset you were and I just swooped in and made it worse by practically destroying all your work.”
Lana looked at Mary then down at the beautiful peach and then back at Mary, who’s smile became wider with each passing second. Tears began to flow from Lana’s eyes much like the hose she drowned the peach tree in every day. Lana sat hunched over the kitchen table as the water on the stove began to boil over in the pot.
“Oh now what’s wrong? I thought you would love it! Stop crying dear, please. Talk to me,” Mary said as she put the peach on the table and began to caress Lana’s frail shoulders. The warmth of Mary’s hands on her boney shoulder blades brought her back to the very day her husband was doing the same thing.
“We’re going to figure something out, just like we always do,” Robert, Lana’s husband said to her fifty years ago as she was hunched over the kitchen table of her parents’ home.
“Who am I going to care for? Who’s going to care for us, Robert? In our old age?” Lana said through sobs. Her tears left a stream down her bare face, washing away the fresh concealer and blush that was on her cheeks. Her peachy colored tears traveled down the length of her chin and onto the letter that told her she was diagnosed with Endometriosis.
“Let’s not think that far ahead. We gotta take it day by day. Were just gonna keep trying, you see?” Robert assured. At the age of 21, Robert had no idea how to handle such a heavy situation, especially as a newlywed. He was still trying to adjust to being married for it was only six months after the wedding that they found out Lana was unable to have children.
“But look what it says here: ‘although not impossible, genetics show that my particular case shows greater struggle,’” Lana read the fine print on the letter.
“Wait a minute! I got it. Adoption, Lana. What if we look to adopt?” Robert said as he bounced up from behind the chair and sat down at the table.
“Adopt? But I want our child to be ours. I want to carry them in my own belly and want them to have our own features,” Lana said as she looked at Robert through the clumps of hair that clung to her tears.
No matter how much Robert tried to convince Lana into adoption, it amounted to no avail for she felt too much guilt in taking ownership for something that was not hers.
“It doesn’t feel genuine. I want my very own or I don’t want one at all,” Lana would remind Robert whenever he tried to convince her. Her stubbornness began to aggravate him to the point that her was no longer able to handle her. Robert left one Lana six month after the night they found out about Lana’s diagnosis.
“I need to reproduce somehow,” were the last words Lana heard from his mouth before he took a bus to his mother’s home in New Jersey. She always wondered why he took the bus instead of the Malibu. Perhaps, he secretly wanted her to chase after him although she never did.
As Lana relived this painful memory that shaped who she became for the last fifty years of her life, she looked up from the table to see Mary staring at her with the peach in her hands. Lana took it from Mary with her lanky hand that still had her wedding band wrapped around it and stared at the peach.
“Just two more weeks.” A pause and a deep breath. “I need you to hold out for two more weeks,” Lana said as she looked down at the peach.
About the Author:
Soon to be college graduate of English, Noelle Florio is an aspiring fiction writer. While she loved to read when she was younger, Noelle began to truly appreciate literature after her English teacher showed the film, “Dead Poets Society” during one of her last classes of high school. Throughout the years as an undergraduate student, she sharpened her skills both as a reader and a writer. Fertility will be her first published piece of work to which she hopes to begin her career.