Love and peaches, p.1
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       Love and Peaches, p.1
 

           Jodi Lynn Anderson
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Love and Peaches


  Love and Peaches

  A Novel by

  Jodi Lynn Anderson

  For Jan

  Contents

  Before

  The Darlington Orchard in Bridgewater, Georgia, had seen its share…

  One

  The grassy lawn of Columbia University was a vivid green,…

  Two

  As usual, Birdie Darlington had her nose in a book.

  Three

  As the Greyhound bus idled in the cavernous depths of…

  Four

  Mexico City had nowhere quiet to walk. It was one…

  Five

  Murphy stretched in bed, staring at the dingy white ceiling…

  Six

  Outside the banquet room of the Cawley-Smith Hotel, the late…

  Seven

  Murphy climbed off her bike at the foot of the…

  Eight

  It was as if the whole year disappeared the moment…

  Nine

  Primrose Cottage, the home of the late, great Grandmom Eugenie,…

  Ten

  Murphy sat cross-legged on the floor of the women’s dorm,…

  Eleven

  Birdie and Leeda sat at the decrepit picnic table behind…

  Twelve

  Leeda woke in her dorm room in a bed across…

  Thirteen

  “Can you find me the tax stuff from last year?”…

  Fourteen

  The Dooly County Fair was in the town of Nomini…

  Fifteen

  The Bridgewater Courthouse was lit up in the summer sun;…

  Sixteen

  “He’s staying at the Homewood Suites,” Murphy said. She was…

  Seventeen

  “You sure you’re gonna be okay, Bird?” Leeda asked.

  Eighteen

  Some people can predict whether it’s going to rain or…

  Nineteen

  Poopie and Murphy cooked a big “Get Well Soon” meal…

  Twenty

  It started with Leeda coming for a couple afternoons here…

  Twenty-One

  Almost everyone was at church, so the orchard was deserted…

  Twenty-Two

  Murphy lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.

  Twenty-Three

  Rooooooooo.

  Twenty-Four

  “I’ll have a profiterole,” Eric said. Leeda ordered the same.

  Twenty-Five

  Poopie and Birdie sat at the sorting table, sorting peaches.

  Twenty-Six

  Murphy biked circles around the courthouse parking lot like an…

  Twenty-Seven

  Wednesday night, Leeda woke to the sound of tiny pebbles…

  Twenty-Eight

  Long ago, Birdie had gotten into the habit of having…

  Twenty-Nine

  Birdie stared at the Departures board at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport,…

  Thirty

  From where Murphy, Leeda, and Birdie sat in the tree…

  Thirty-One

  Leeda hung up the phone in the kitchen and stared…

  Thirty-Two

  Birdie ran around all morning, getting the workers ready to…

  Thirty-Three

  “Do you think they want this?” Murphy asked, holding up…

  Thirty-Four

  It was surprising how many people showed up on the…

  Thirty-Five

  Leeda peered through the open doors of the trailer, making…

  Thirty-Six

  Murphy looked at the address and then up at the…

  Thirty-Seven

  Birdie was in the garden uprooting a few favorite plants…

  Thirty-Eight

  Rex Taggart was packing up his truck in the parking…

  Thirty-Nine

  For the first few days of September, Leeda felt like…

  Epilogue

  There were so many ways to get between Bridgewater and…

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Before

  The Darlington Orchard in Bridgewater, Georgia, had seen its share of love affairs.

  Some of them, like the blooming love between Poopie Pedraza and Walter Darlington and the roller-coaster romance between Murphy McGowen and Rex Taggart, had been out in the open, plain as day. Others had been secret, hidden under the shade of the trees, stolen in moments, never revealed.

  But even these left traces.

  A box of letters sat tucked in a closet on the upper floor of Primrose Cottage, waiting to spill its guts. An envelope arrived at #504 Anthill Acres Trailer Park, regarding the past of an eighteen-year-old girl. A ring dotted with tiny diamonds was removed from where it had been hidden for over fifty years and dropped into a Jiffy mailer.

  Poopie Pedraza would have told you it was ghosts of these things being stirred up. She believed in all sorts of ghosts. Ghosts of the peaches that had grown there. Ghosts of dead pecan trees. Ghosts of long walks and swims in the lake. She told everyone who would listen that she believed in lost souls too, because once she had been one.

  In the late spring, a nervous little Chihuahua was dropped off by the side of the road five miles outside Bridgewater and left to fend for itself. Judge Miller Abbott, the town justice, lost his wife and wondered how he would ever feel like his heart was whole again. A Mexican boy tucked a tiny box into his backpack and hoped.

  Far away, in New York and Mexico City, Birdie, Leeda, and Murphy were blissfully oblivious to the fact that the ghosts were calling them home.

  One

  The grassy lawn of Columbia University was a vivid green, and Leeda Cawley-Smith lay entwined with her boyfriend, letting the sun’s rays seep into her heavily SPFed skin. They were a T; she was perpendicular to him with her head on his stomach, big black sunglasses shielding her eyes. He had his knees up and a school catalog of summer classes covering his face. Occasionally someone appeared and hovered over them to say hello, as if they were Jackie and John F. Kennedy, beautiful and perfect and sunlit, being visited by their subjects.

  “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you for the next couple of weeks,” Eric Woodard said, running his fingers through her loose curls. Leeda rolled over onto her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows to look at him. He was peering over his catalog at her, his dirty-blond hair messed up from lying on the ground. “Who’s going to match my socks?”

  Leeda smiled. She had an obsessive-compulsive habit of matching Eric’s socks, which were all cashmere and sent by his mother. She also liked to fold anything that was hanging from anywhere. Leeda was very visual. She liked everything in her vision to be orderly.

  “I’ll be back before all your groupies know I’m gone and you can get a new girlfriend,” she said. Eric rolled his eyes. Leeda liked to tease him about all the girls who constantly hit on him, sometimes right in front of her.

  Leeda was headed home to Bridgewater, Georgia, for two weeks come Saturday. It was something she was ambivalent about. There were some things she was thrilled to see again after a whole year away. There were some things she would have been glad to skip. It seemed silly, but the hardest thing would be the two weeks without Eric.

  They had met on the bus the first week of school. He had gotten her first name before he’d jumped off. Then he’d called the dean of her college and had made up some story to find out exactly who she was. When he’d showed up outside her second Tuesday econ class, Leeda had been wary. But Eric had assured her that once he set his mind to something he always followed through. He hadn’t been lying. He had even known what he wanted to be since he was in fifth grade—a surgeon.

  Tonight he
d make Leeda study with him like he always did. He liked to tease her that he was the reason she had an almost perfect GPA. But they both knew that wasn’t true. Leeda didn’t like Bs. They made her grade sheet look messy.

  There were some ways, though, in which Eric had shaped her life at school. He knew everyone. He was always invited somewhere. He took to people like a swimmer takes to water, and he was always liked. It had been too easy for Leeda to ride his coattails into her group of friends at Columbia. She wasn’t sure where she would have been without him in that aspect. She, too, was usually well liked. But not great at making close ties. She was too contained.

  If there was such a thing as a white knight, Eric was hers. When he was around her, Leeda felt like she didn’t have to worry about anything. It was something she couldn’t explain. He was the kind of guy who took care of things. If there was anything she needed, she knew he would give it to her. It made her life feel as smooth as silk.

  “You’ll be batting off all those southern boys,” he said, grinning up at her and also looking the tiniest bit worried.

  Leeda rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you know how I’m into guys who drive tractors and drink Bud Light,” she said. Murphy McGowen would have said she sounded snobby. But Eric didn’t seem to notice.

  He opened up the schedule book and showed it to her. “Here’s the class I signed us up for.”

  Leeda read the description. Art of the Italian Renaissance. “That sounds good.” It was a summer class Eric had talked her into. They planned to spend the rest of the summer sitting at sidewalk cafés, seeing movies, and taking advantage of all the city had to offer.

  Leeda sometimes felt like her life as a Georgia girl had gone up in a puff of smoke, replaced by a NewYork life that was full of conversations about things that mattered and countless things to do. It had all surpassed her wildest expectations. On Fridays, she and Murphy had a permanent date, no matter who else tried to get in the way. Friday afternoons and evenings were theirs, without fail, to ride ferries, to tramp Fifth Avenue and window-shop, to ice-skate, to lie on the grass in Central Park, to eat falafel from stands, to get crepes in the East Village, to take up seats at diners for way too long while eating rice pudding, and sometimes just to stay cooped up in one of their dorm rooms and cowrite lively, chaotic e-mails to Birdie.

  “What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get home?” Eric asked, scrunching up his eyebrows thoughtfully, his hazel eyes half caught in the shade Leeda cast. He had a smooth, open face, the kind you liked right away. Even his features were uncomplicated and honest.

  Leeda’s thoughts immediately went to the smell of peaches, which she had almost forgotten, and the Darlington Orchard. She had the same eager feeling about seeing it that a kid might get while anticipating going to Disney World, like it was something huge and far away. But in two days, she thought, it would be New York that felt far away and the orchard that would feel real—quaint and quiet and full of shadows and tucked away at what felt like the edge of the world. She didn’t know how to explain her excitement to Eric, though. He was more of a facts and figures guy. “They’re reading my grandmom Eugenie’s will on Saturday. So I guess I’ll do that.”

  Eric looked confused. “Didn’t she…die a long time ago?”

  “Yeah, last spring. The reading was supposed to be in the summer, but we all have to be there, and Danay and I have both been away.” Leeda had spent Christmas with her sister, Danay, Danay’s husband, and their parents in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, skiing and being civil to one another.

  Leeda watched a group of girls walk across the grass, between them and a redbrick building where she had calculus.

  “Do you think you’ll inherit something interesting?” Eric asked. “I may need you to support me in med school.”

  Leeda smiled. They both knew he’d graduate near—if not at—the top of his class and get a scholarship. Even though his family was pretty well-off, and he didn’t need one. “Grandmom was pretty wealthy, but Murphy says that if she left me anything, it will be doilies. Or maybe some coasters. She was really type A,” Leeda joked. “She would want me to keep my glasses on coasters.”

  “Apple doesn’t fall far from the Granny Smith tree.”

  Leeda shook her head furiously. “Oh no. I’m not like my grandmom.”

  “Was she defensive?” he teased, propping himself up on his elbows and playing with a bit of her hair, then leaning in to kiss her near her ear.

  “Apparently,” Leeda said, distracted by the question, considering it. “She got in a fistfight with my great-aunt once, because she told my grandmom she had handwriting like a boy.”

  “Ha!” Eric looked intensely interested. “She sounds wild.”

  Leeda thought of her grandmom, her minuscule frame, her tight white curls, her giant hats on Sundays. “Maybe when she was younger. When I knew her she was more stubborn than anything. And really conservative.” Leeda twisted to face him more directly. “She wrote fan letters to Ronald Reagan.”

  He ran his hand across her cheek, just once, smiling. “Was she pretty like you?”

  Leeda shrugged. She had looked kind of like a walnut by the time Leeda had known her.

  “Who knows, maybe you’ll inherit something surprising,” Eric said, pulling a textbook out of the knapsack that Leeda had brought and handing it to her so she could study for her next exam.

  Leeda wondered about what that something might be. Maybe she’d get more money than she’d thought, or less. Maybe she’d be slighted altogether. You never really knew with Grandmom Eugenie, who had been buried to the tune of “Blue Hawaii” and had owned a rescue shelter for miniature ponies.

  If there was one thing her grandmom had been, besides conservative, it was contradictory, and that meant she was full of surprises.

  Eric sighed. “Time to hit the books.” He opened her book for her, happening on a page where she had stored a peach blossom and forgotten about it. It slid off the page and down into the grass.

  “What’s that?” he asked absently, pulling out a book of his own.

  Leeda stared at it, touched its dry, paperlike petals, and smiled. “Just a flower,” she said. “It’s nothing important.”

  She brushed it aside and left it on the grass.

  Two

  As usual, Birdie Darlington had her nose in a book.

  Since coming to Mexico City to study at the National Autonomous University of Mexico for the year, Birdie had gotten hooked on travel books. Not for any practical purpose. She didn’t plan to go to any of the places she was reading about. Flipping through pictures of strange lands was like a game to her, like flipping through catalogs and imagining what clothes she would buy if she had loads of money.

  Growing up with the myth-loving, crystal-wearing Poopie Pedraza as her family’s cook and surrogate second mom, Birdie saw magic in many things. Despite what she knew logically and factually, she imagined other countries much as people living a couple of hundred years ago might have—as an old map with lots left undiscovered. Here, there be dragons. It was because she had grown up on stories. She had grown up painting far-off lands in her own colors. And only Mexico City had been her litmus test. Indeed, it seemed to belong on a different planet. It felt like another kind of sun hung above her in Mexico. Birdie had never been more excited or enchanted, more stimulated or challenged, than she had this year while studying abroad. It was something she could take home with her.

  Birdie planned to continue school at Florida State. She and Enrico Fiol, whom she’d followed here, would spend the summer together, stretching out their time as long as possible. Then she’d head back to the States, and real life, to get a degree in agriculture like she’d always planned. She and Enrico would make it work long-distance. And after school, Birdie would move home to take up her rightful place running her family’s peach orchard. She planned one day to keep an old-fashioned collection of World Book Encyclopedias lined up on her shelf in the living room at home and to decorate her family’s pract
ically ancient farmhouse with colorful posters from Tahiti and China and Mozambique. Just because she would probably never go to the countries didn’t mean she couldn’t remind herself that they existed.

  Her only regret was that she would have to say good-bye to Enrico at the end of the summer. And that she would miss a precious summer at home.

  Bock bock bock.

  A chicken, fat and white, its feathers a little disheveled from sleep, pecked at her shoelaces, distracting her.

  “What do you want?” she asked, picking up Pollito and giving her a kiss on her head. Twice, Birdie had had to get lip medication from the doctor for a fungus she’d gotten from kissing her chicken. Over the phone, her mom had been furious. But Birdie couldn’t help but kiss her chicken.

  It had been easy to smuggle Pollito, (pronounced Poyeeto), whom she’d acquired on her first visit to Mexico City when Enrico had rescued her from a chef, into her off-campus studio apartment. The place, perched on the top floor of a five-story building, was quiet and private, though it had barely enough space for Birdie and a chicken. It contained a small bedroom “area,” a kitchenette that could be closed off with a folding door like a closet, a white tile floor, and a big gray suede chair.

  It didn’t help that Birdie’s bedroom was full of clutter, albeit clutter that Birdie loved. A collection of wooden santos lined the windowsill, over the heads of which she could see the Avenida de los Insurgentes and the rooftops of Mexico City beyond it. Photos of her butterfly-eared papillon dogs, Majestic and Honey Babe, standing side by side in argyle sweaters, and then a photo of Majestic alone, wearing a leg cast after Honey Babe had died, covered the wall. Masks and crazy little dolls she’d bought at the floating market; scarves so colorful they made your mouth water; matchbooks from her favorite restaurants; and photos of her, Leeda, and Murphy at the orchard lay strewn everywhere.

 
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