Joel and Mindy stand at their kitchen sink, peeling peaches for freezing. They place the deep red and gold slices in glass jars that will be filled with a light syrup. These are Red Havens, classic peaches that are perfectly ripe the first week in August. A cool wind blows down from Wisconsin, across Lake Michigan, picking up moisture and then dropping it along the west shore of the state. Perfect weather for perfect peaches. The light syrup they pour on the sliced peaches has just enough sugar to make everything Joel and Mindy touch turn sticky.
“Do we have to stand up to do this?” Joel leans forward and rests his elbows on the kitchen counter. “Didn’t we sit last year?”
“You play soccer for hours.” Mindy gently punches him on the arm with the hand that holdings her paring knife. “Chop wood. Mow the neighbors’ lawn so you can play with your new lawnmower.
“I’m sure I sat down last summer.” Every year they prepare and freeze a half a bushel of peaches. When they thaw and open them deep in the Michigan winter, the whole kitchen smells of summer.
“My mother says, Only lazy women sit down while they work. She also said Red Havens were the best. Not Earlistar, Rising Star, New Havens, Blushing Star. Red Havens are the peaches by which all others are judged. Early August. Perfect.”
“The barstools would work,” Joel suggests.
“When she was a little girl, she tried to do the ironing sitting down, and my grandmother told her that only lazy shiftless women sit while they work.” Joel aims a peach pit at the disposal. “Joel. We never put the pits down the disposal. Put them in here.” She hands him a bowl with a duck on it, and he fishes in the disposal for the pit. “They will take weeks to grind up in the disposal.”
“Do peaches have pits or stones?”
“Pits. Peach pits.”
“Peach stones? That sounds right.” He pauses in his work and leans on his elbow on the counter. “Did you ever stop to think—pits are holes in the ground, right? Where you trap bears or have dog fights, or put orchestras. They are holes, not hard stones in the middle of the fruit.”
“Word games again. Is this my lecture for the day?”
“Is there something I can say that would be right? “When she doesn’t answer, he goes on. “Cherries have stones, too.” Then he sang, “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone.”
“Can we possibly fix peaches for the freezer in peace? No lectures? No lessons?”
“Deliver us from all anxiety,” Joel says softly.
“I’d like to try that just once.”
“Without anxiety, life would be one flat line.” He runs the paring knife slowly in a line in front of his chest. “That’s what’s on the hospital monitors when you’re dead. One flat line. No anxiety.”
“You never let up, do you?” She looks out the window at the deep shade of the elm tree in their back yard.
“Let’s not fight,” he says. “What happened to something to sit on? Barstools.” When she doesn’t respond, he goes to the breakfast bar and brings back a stool. “Do you want one? I won’t say a word about it to your mother.” He sits. “I need to rest for my woodcutting and soccer, right?” Again, she did not respond. “Did you know I picked peaches? The summer my parents separated?”
“What do you mean by that, the summer your parents separated?”
“They sent me off in June to spend the summer on Uncle Stan and Aunt Irene’s fruit farm. I was worried about starting one of the largest junior highs in the state in the fall. That and this huge pimple on my nose that lasted at least a month.” He touches the side of his nose. “Then, I eavesdropped. When I was supposed to be in bed, I got up and sneaked out onto the porch to get one of Uncle Stan’s ice cream bars that were hidden in the bottom of the freezer. Aunt Irene didn’t believe in dessert. They were drinking wine in the gazebo, and I learned my parents had separated.”
“Betty and Big Bob.”
“But at the end of the summer, they picked me up, and nothing had happened.”
“What do you mean, nothing happened?
“Nothing at all. We all went home, and no one said anything about separation, and that was it. Everything went on as usual.”
“Oh, I see. You’re making this story up. Your parents never even raise their voices to each other.”
“They separated. Why would I make up such a thing?”
“To change the subject. To lighten things up, so we wouldn’t have a fight.”
“Hardly a lightening-up story. Of course, it’s true. Why don’t you get another bar stool and sit down, too? No one would ever call you lazy or shiftless.” He pauses. “Or a liar.”
“You can’t resist, can you?”
“They never said a thing. Betty and Big Bob. I kept waiting for them to sit me down and give me the news, but they never did. I even checked their closets, and there were all their clothes hanging together.”
“Maybe you were wrong. Children are always imagining that their parents are getting a divorce. Did you ask them?”
I had sneaked out of bed to steal forbidden ice cream hidden in the freezer.”
“Maybe you misheard.
“Now who’s lecturing? I did it night after night. They talked about how surprised they were. About how my father had moved out and gotten an apartment in the city.”
“A kid in the night could make a mistake.”
“There was no mistake. They talked about my mother knotting my father’s ties together and throwing them out on the front lawn with the rest of his clothes.”
“Betty? The woman who had the architect put the bathroom on the other side of the house so dinner guests would never hear the flush? Clothes on the front lawn? Never Betty.”
“But it was my mother and father. That’s why Irene and Stan couldn’t stop talking about it. Then in August, three days before I was to start my new school, they picked me up, and nothing had changed.” He paused. Outside the kitchen window, the sun had moved over the peak of the room and filled the elm with light. “Olives have pits, too, don’t they? I must admit I’ve never heard of olive stones.”
“And you never asked.”
“About olive stones?
“I was a kid. Who’d been stealing. How could I ask a question about something I’d learned eavesdropping? How could I ask the woman whose toilets you never hear flush.” Pause. “I checked my dad’s ties. They weren’t even wrinkled.”
“I can’t conceive of your parents separating.”
“That’s the point.”
“So, there is a point, after all.”
“Actually, you were right. I did start out to change the subject. To lighten things up. But there is a point about possibilities.”
“Possibilities. I don’t want to talk about possibilities or knotted ties, or anything. Just peaches.”
“Nothing is one flat like. There are always possibilities.”
Mindy stares out the window. The elm had escaped the Dutch Elm disease, a mold carried by beetles that had swept out of Asia, across Europe, to New England, and across the US, arriving in Michigan in 1950. Every year, she has a local nursery to treat and protect it.
“Relationships are an example. They’re unpredictable.” He splits a peach open and drops the pit in a pile that has grown in the duck bowl. “They come apart, and no one knows why.” He holds the halves to her.
“What are we talking about here?
“And the people in the relationship don’t even know why.” He holds the peach halves together. Seeing she is ignoring him, he slices them, puts them in a jar, and licks the juice off his wrist. “Sometimes it’s just better to know there are possibilities.” He hums the first line of the cherry song and then sings, “I gave my love a chicken that had no bone.“
“You know, that’s not a nice song. Do you know what that is, a chicken without bones?”
“An egg. What’s not nice about an egg?”
“It’s a song about tricks with words. About not saying what you mean.”
“It’s more about puzzles than tricks.”
“Word games. Puzzles. It doesn’t matter what you call them. They are tricks.”
“He’s giving her puzzles. They’re mysteries. They’re special things.”
“They’re tricks. He only gave her ordinary things, common things when he promised magic.”
“But that’s the point. He loves her enough to find magic in common things, and he gives them to her.”
“There’s no magic and no mystery. Just tricks. Just ordinary things that have to be passed off as special gifts. Aren’t there any real things that aren’t tricks or games?” She has not raised her voice. However, now she reaches across the counter to straighten the rows of jars filled and ready for tops. She catches the edge of the one Joel is filling, knocking it over and spilling the Red Havens and syrup along the counter. “Damn.” She turns away from him, her eyes filling with tears, and says in her first angry voice, “Damn, damn, damn.” She will pour all the peaches down the drain and dump those remaining in the half bushel into the garbage. There will be no smell of summer in the dark of winter. She cannot breathe. She will kill the elm.
Joel is completely still. “It’s nothing, Mindy. I’ll clean it up.” He puts several of the peach slices back into the jar, which is not broken, then changes his mind and puts them down the disposal. He wipes the syrup, not the sink. “No use crying over spilled peaches.”
Mindy turns and stares at him, and then says with angry force, “Prunes have pits. Prunes are what? Plums? Plum stones?”
“That doesn’t sound bad, does it?” She is still angry. “Not right, but not bad.” She runs her hand holding the paring knife in a straight flat line between them. “Plum stones. Prune stones. Do we vote?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do I get to vote? On the possibilities?”
“Maybe it isn’t always necessary to vote. Just to know the possibilities are there.”
They go back to working on the peaches in silence. Mindy screws on the tops. She leans on the counter and watches him, her body relaxing. When they speak again, their voices are normal.
“What would my mother say if she knew your mother knotted Big Bob’s ties and threw them out onto their front lawn?’ They stop working and look at each other.
“She’d fall off her stool.”
“That’s why she never sits on one.”
“Do you think we’ll remember next year? Or will we forget? Like we forgot about the barstools?”
“We won’t forget,” Mindy says. “You never do.”
“Pits or stones. Could we vote?” Still holding the paring knife and careful not to get his wet hand on her blouse, he puts his arm around her shoulder.
“Possibly, Jack. Possibly.”