I am on a hill, some 900 feet above sea level, in the middle of San Francisco. It’s quiet up here. It’s very early. There are no cars moving on the street yet. No sun in the sky either. The night hangs on, as we all tend to do. The Pacific Ocean is so near and to my left; my childhood—somewhere off to the right. Above me is black sky. My husband is asleep, safely connected to our bed, and I am at the kitchen sink prepping ten pounds of fresh peaches.
I bought these peaches yesterday. I drove down this hill, along an impressive canyon, until I reached that place on the south side of the city where the two freeways cross. The freeways avoid the canyon and my hill, of course, and so do the fruit vendors. They set up their booths where the freeways converge. A present day temple. Cash only. Noisy and crowded.
I prefer the stone fruits this time of year. Apricots. Cherries. Plums. But mostly the peaches—from the skin to the pit. I elbowed my way towards them and fingered the yellow and pink beauties available at the market yesterday. I selected many of the older, softer peaches. The riper the better. They need preservation the most, don’t they? But I picked some young, firm peaches too. Out of boredom or haste, I am not sure.
Now, at the sink, I am quite pleased with each of the peaches I picked. I wash each carefully, a slow stream of cold water running constantly as I work. Each peach is lovely in its own right and worth preserving, though not a one of them compares to a certain peach—the single, solitary peach given to me for my 26th birthday by a younger version of the man now sleeping down the hall. Oh, that peach was so soft and so fuzzy! It was perfectly ripe, too, and without blemish. “Your favorite fruit,” he had said as I accepted his delicate gift. Then he touched the blonde fuzz on my arm and said, “You have the skin of peach.” I ate his peach, fresh and perfect, right after he gave it to me. I didn’t even think about preserving it. That was nearly five years ago now.
But I can still see the two of us, at that German beer hall, with all of our friends from that time, laughing and clanging heavy steins together, toasting the coming year of my life, my 26th. A good day. Almost perfect.
The sun is threatening to rise now, but my mind is not. It wants to go down, to dig up bones. I run my hands under the cool water, and I look to my right, to the east, towards my childhood. Yes, I can think of a perfect day. The perfect day took place more than 20 years ago in rural Minnesota, a couple hundred yards off of a two-lane highway.
The highway runs straight west and east through flat but wooded country. My family lives in a home at the end of a long driveway on a plot of land where the trees have been cleared away. Our home is a good deal off of the highway; we never hear the trucks flying by. But when a train passes along the railroad tracks that run parallel to the highway, we hear its whistle. Not too loud, just lonesome and lovely, powerful and perfect. You can measure time against each whistle.
On the perfect day, my brother and I are playing baseball in our backyard. We are protected by woods so thick we can’t see through them. It is summer, early August, and a handful of neighbor boys have made their way through the thick woods to our baseball diamond. They are all about 11 years old, and I am nine. We aren’t expecting them. They just show up! The boys are just enough older this summer than they were last summer; their mothers are just willing enough to let them go off on their own without having made any formal arrangements with my mother. It is summer’s end—a time for transitions. Or maybe it’s the perfect light that has drawn them—the perfect daylight shining in our backyard.
Our baseball diamond is humble but accurately measured. A particular spruce tree marks first base (just get your foot as close to the base of the tree as you can, my brother says when I complain about the sharp blue needles of the spruce poking my arms and legs). The edge of the garden’s boundary where the huge nail sticks out of the wood beam is second. The smaller of the two crab apple trees marks third. Home base and the pitcher’s mound are obvious; grass never grows on them, so frequently are they stomped on by my brother and me. We’ve spent so many afternoons taking turns at bat, one of us pitching to the other, day after day, all summer long.
Having the neighbor boys over to our diamond feels like sweet excess. We rotate, each taking a turn fielding, pitching, catching, and hitting. The variety is sheer joy, and so is the exhibition of the whole thing; I’m a lot better at baseball than I used to be. My brother would have no doubt preferred to have spent the summer playing with boys his own age and size every day, but he had not had that option. He’d just had me, and he was the kind of older brother that, in the absence of any other option, would take to teaching his little sister everything he knew.
He threw endless ground balls at me that summer. Pop flies. He’d watch me run bases and throw up his arms when my outside foot didn’t hit the base at the right point in my stride. Of course we’d fight sometimes, and I’d go inside, tell my mother about the injustices of my training. But I wouldn’t stay inside long, and then I’d swing the kitchen door open and go back out for more, and my brother would hold the end of the bat as I stood, pretending to prepare for a pitch, until he was certain I was initiating my swing with my lower body.
“Your sister’s not bad,” one of the neighbor boys says after I hit a hard line drive in between second and third. It lands just before the garden and runs well past it on the perfect day. I am so happy I could just die—or play baseball with these boys for the rest of my life.
We play baseball together for hours, right into the evening, right up until the sky is pink and yellow, like peach skin stretched over the tops of the tall trees that surround us and almost contain the perfect day.
I step away from our perfect diamond just for an instant to steal a quick drink from the hose. As the cool water hits my lips, I hear my father’s truck pulling up the drive. I look at my brother, I look towards the house. Through the kitchen window I see my mother peeling potatoes—this is usually my job. It’s time for dinner, and there is nothing we can do about it, so my brother and I say goodbye to the neighbor boys, put our bats and our gloves in the garage, and head into the house.
I see my mother first at the sink—all legs and young and lovely—looking us over to see how dirty we are. Then I see my father, sitting on the stool near the garage door, muscled and strong, undoing the criss-cross of the laces that run up the high top portion of his work boots.
We eat fish for dinner—Northern Pike that my brother and I caught out of a nearby lake and that my mother fried in a cast iron pan. We say a prayer before we eat. Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty... The fish is served alongside the potatoes that I hadn’t had to peel, and my brother says, “She hit one past the garden today,” and my mother smiles at him for being kind to me, and my father says, “Is that so?” and my brother says, “Yes, past the strawberry patch even,” and it is all, as I said, nothing short of perfect as forks hit plates and fingers pick small bones off of the delicious white fish.
I don’t like peeling peaches. I shift my feet, try to relieve the pressure that builds in a spine curled over a sink. I should put shoes on. Canning involves so much standing, so much time on one’s feet. My slippers would feel nice, but they are in the bedroom, and fetching them might wake my husband. I decide to let him sleep. These peaches aren’t his problem. The preservation of things causes him no grief.
The peach skins are sticking to everything. They are wet and blanketing my hands and forearms. I’ll turn into a peach before I’m done peeling all of this fruit. There are other means of removing peach skins, but I prefer the control of the peeler. I stand over the sink, and as I peel, and as I discover any imperfections in the fruit, I can just cut them out. How simple! The peach is bruised here? Hurt there? Just cut the problem away. Save the peach. Just like that.
I turn on the water in the kitchen sink and rinse the hundreds of pieces of peach skin off of my fingers and arms. It’s time to cut the skinless peaches to size now. Little crescent moons—that’s the shape I’m going for. I cut thousands of them, letting each little moon fall into a large saucepan. To these crescents I add an impossible amount of sugar and sour lemon juice. Such extremes in this, such extremes all around. Onto the burner the saucepan goes.
I’ve piled all the pits on the counter next to me. There must be at least thirty of them. One for every year of my life you might say. What to do with all of them? Throw them out the window, that’s what I’d like to do. Throw them out the window and let them roll down this hill. Let them roll like hell until they come to a stop in some concrete gutter where they will never grow up, or flourish, or have a chance to become strong, fruit-bearing trees. The trees surrounding the plot of land where I grew up used to be so thick when I was a kid. They are thin now. Last I was home, I could make out other houses in the distance through the trees. What’s worse: home base and the pitchers mound are green with grass, the only fish my mother fries come randomly as gifts from the neighbors, my father looks more of bone than muscle, and my brother has been dead some twenty years.
My hundreds of crescent peach pieces are fragrant now. They are simmering along with the sugar and lemon on the stovetop. I stir them slowly and consider first base—the blue spruce. My brother wouldn’t recognize the tree now. It’s grown so tall since he stood in that yard next to it. I could walk right up to the base of the tree without slouching now I’d bet. The blue spruce flourished. Can I say the same of myself?
I put my largest pot in the sink and turn on the water. I watch it fill up, the water level rising slowly up the steel sides on the pot. To the east I see the sun has taken over the sky; I can see the San Francisco Bay. I am 900 feet above that dirty water, 900 feet above sea level, up here on this hill. Funny to think that Minnesota is even higher—at a higher altitude—than where I am now. There is something about being on this hill, something deceiving; it makes a person feel more elevated than she actually is.
I look down into the sink and see that my huge pot is now full of water. I transfer it quickly to the stovetop. A cup or so of the water sloshes over the top of the pot onto my straining arms. Good thing the water is not yet scalding hot. I turn the burner to high and put the cover on the huge pot. I stir my peaches. I look back towards the bay.
I know the water in the bay moves constantly, that it sloshes in and out to sea every day. But from up here, the bay seems as still as the clean little lakes we used to fish on back home. I draw a line in my mind to that lake—the lake where we caught those Northern pike. The line starts where I am now on this earth, on this hill. The line stays right at 900 feet above sea level, and it blasts its way east. It blasts through the Rockies, the Dakotas. It blasts through the last twenty years. The line keeps going, staying right at 900 feet, until it reaches a certain lake in Minnesota, on a certain day, late in one certain summer. The line stops underwater, in the middle of the lake. About 300 feet above the line’s stopping point is a little fishing boat. My brother and I are in it, our lines hanging down into the clear water. “Let’s leave ’em in a little while longer,” my brother says, and I say, “Sounds good to me,” and there are trees all around us, and the sun above us is warm, and school is once again about to start.
To have that again.
The lid on my huge pot is rattling now. The water has reached a boil.
I lower each of the empty jars carefully into the boiling water. I’m purifying them, scalding them clean. I bought theses jars yesterday. I bought them fair and drove them up this hill. Pop! went the unsealed lids as I drove. The higher up the hill I went, the less the atmosphere weighed on them—each pop a hymn of release. What if I could drive even higher? Up out of this world, up into atmosphere. I do not know if things rot in space or not. But I know what happens here, you can’t preserve anything here, not in this dirty container of blue and green. Not even the blue spruce will make it out of this sphere alive.
My peaches will go into clean jars. I’ll see to that.
Out of the scalding hot water I pull each of the jars. Then I lovingly pour my peaches into each of them. The peaches are warm, and so are the jars. You’re going to stay just as you are right now, I tell my peaches. Don’t you worry. I top each jar with a lid and screw on the band. Not too tight though—there is still something unclean in these jars that I must banish if my magic, this trick of preservation, is to work.
It’s the space between the fruit and the lid that matters; I change that space, I change the future of these peaches. I push the air out of that space, and I stop time. I push the air out, and I create a vacuum—a sacred space, a protective layer.
I dip each jar carefully into the scalding hot water. Then I watch the surface expectantly. Yes, now it is happening. Bubbles are rising to the surface. Air bubbles are leaving the insides of each jar. I’m changing that space. I’m saving these peaches. Get out, I whisper. We aim to keep things here.
Sure, the Pacific is impressive. But look what I can do with this pot of scalding hot water! I pull each jar of peaches out of the pot. I set each jar down carefully on a clean white cloth near the sink. My peaches are safe now, they are preserved.
My mother says we cannot keep what belongs to God. She says my brother belonged to God, and God retrieved what was his. God will retrieve her and my father too, I know. They will go the way of my brother and the perfect day. But I can keep these ten pounds of peaches. Look at them, cooling there on that white cloth. They are mine now. Don’t I have the skin of a peach?
“You’re up early.”
There is full light on the walls in the kitchen now. The inevitable next day is here, and so is my husband. How had I not heard the bedroom door open? I should turn towards him now, towards my future, towards bearing good fruit on this hill instead of throwing such stones. But I cannot. Not yet. One of the jars on the countertop pops. A vacuum has been created. The cycle has been stalled.
This piece originally appeared in Harvard Review.