Monday, July 27th
by CB Bassity

    "Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr agreed today to grant limited immunity to Monic--" I nearly punch the radio button to silence it. The local news, here in southwest Oklahoma, is no better. Every day the newspaper runs another story about the heat. Yesterday the temperature here reached 107. The low for the day was 81. Today is the 40th consecutive day of 3-digit temperatures for Altus, a little southwest of here. I don't need any more stories about "parched fields" or "desperate farmers"--or "the plight of the presidency." Weary of this distorted monotony of the "news," I'm driving the sixteen miles to Topper Jackson's place this evening.
    Because there's other news.
    Topper Jackson, who farms and runs cattle outside Anadarko, planted a peach orchard about ten years ago, for his kids during their college years. Ten rows of trees on the roadside by Topper's house, two acres, half a city block or more. Since then his kids have moved off. Topper runs full-time keeping up with crops and cattle; he hasn't time to prune limbs or give the trees more than minimal care. But the trees bear peaches. I used to live close by, and two years ago Topper told me to come pick some, get all you want--they'll go to waste otherwise. And I did. Last year, a late frost got the blooms, not a peach anywhere.
    This year, however, there are peaches.

******
    I get to Topper's place around 7:30 and park on the roadside. The sun is low but still hot enough that a hatbrim makes welcome shade. I've brought a plastic bucket, cardboard boxes, and a stepladder. I pull my ladder under the barbwire fence and carry it and boxes into the trees. Flies hum, but otherwise show restraint. Maybe they're peach-drunk.
    Every two rows are planted to a certain variety of peach, some early-maturing some late. My thumb sinks easily into an early peach in the fourth row from the west. When I bite into it, juice runs everywhere. You have to lean forward to eat these, to keep juice from running down your chin. My fingers are wet with sweet, sticky juice. I wipe them on my jeans and spread the legs of the ladder.
    The tree is loaded with fruit; each is flushed a rich orange-yellow, streaked and mottled with blood tones blending to umber. They're not large, these free peaches--some appear to share DNA with a golf ball. Mostly they're a full two to three inches in diameter, just a bit smaller than their distant cousins in the produce aisle at Homeland. Those others are firm and tasteless units, miserly of juice and flavor--but they ship well.
    With a box cradled in my left arm, I try all the fruit I can reach. They don't ripen uniformly, and some are still firm. When my thumb sinks easily and the peach turns loose of the branch without persuasion, that's a keeper. Sometimes just disturbing a branch causes a peach or two to drop. They plop to the ground, which is littered with yellow-red and turning-to-brown carcasses. A rich insect life crawls and hums.
    It's apparent from the weed growth that Topper or one of the boys has disked the ground between the rows, probably in the spring, probably each year. But within the rows themselves, broken limbs lay where the weight of fruit has pulled them. Elm and hackberry saplings grow, their limbs intertwining with peach limbs. Wind, seed, water, and gravity work to undo Topper's unnatural arrangement.
    There is soft, powder-like ground underfoot, soft dirt and weeds. I see bovine tracks in the dirt. Topper has turned cattle in here--as he has on every spare acre--to get whatever grazing he can. Here and there I see manure patties.
    Having tried what fruit I can reach, I'm poised to climb the ladder when a woman's voice surprises me. It hadn't occurred to me that, of course, Topper would have welcomed others to the fruit bonanza. A white-haired woman, all smile, emerges from the trees and asks me are you from town too? Town means Anadarko. I'm from town, but not Anadarko--it's too much to explain--I just tell her yes. With her tranquil smile, the woman seems content just to be here. Behind her, another woman, thin with energy, says Naomi, this one's full. The thin woman climbs into a tree.
    You have a ladder, Naomi says. We found one over there, and she points, but it's too heavy for us. Anyway we're getting all we need. She drifts back to hold a plastic crate for her wiry and eager companion.
    I'm five steps up into a tree, pivoting from this branch to the next. The ladder, on uneven ground, is an uncertain perch. A peach beetle makes a crazy, buzzing dive and bounces off my cardboard box.
    With half a boxful, I look for another tree, another row. I move from tree to tree and find one and then another full of ripe, soft fruit. When the sun disappears, I'm on the orchard's far west row, reaching for a peach. In a drumming flurry of wing-beats a dove erupts from the tree and sails into the adjacent field. On a branch just above eye level I see a nest of stemmy dried grass and in it the white top edge of two eggs. Nesting in late July? I don't make the rules; I only work here.
    Wandering north between the first two rows, I meet two yearling bulls. The nearer one is languidly nosing a downed peach. At my approach he looks to his buddy for counsel. His buddy looks blankly in my direction. Closer now, I say hey, boys, in greeting. The peach-noser's eyes widen. Turning away from me, he shoves into his partner, and both amble away.
    I'm three rows in, and up the ladder, when the two women from town come by. They're easily in their seventies, and I feel unfairly privileged this high in the tree. I say, This is a good tree; can I pick you some more?
    Oh, no, they say, thank you, we have plenty. The smaller one declares, I just climb up and get 'em. They disappear into the leaves, and the sound of their voices with them. I hear their car doors shutting at the edge of the field, and then the motor starting. Through the leaves I glimpse a white Honda pulling away.
    It's dusk soon. I have three boxes and a plastic bucket two to three layers deep in peaches. They're too delicate to hea p in any depth. I carry two boxes toward my pickup, setting them down next to the barbwire. At the east fence corner a man crawls out through the wire and carries a shopping bag to his car. He leaves for town. I go back for the ladder, the other box, and the bucket. Driving home, inside the pickup I'm steeped in peach perfume. I leave the radio off; I already know the news.
    The coming days will be hotter than blazes.

CB Bassity ©1998 All Rights Reserved

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