(This is a short story rather than my usual blog. It recently received fifth place in a competition sponsored by Reader's Digest - woo hoo!)
The yellow jackets had come again, and by this Huntley knew the pears were nearly ripe. Each September he waited for their arrival, observing them as keenly as he did the yellowing fruit. It was a grudging relationship; more than once he had picked a pear only to find a hole with a yellow jacket’s rear end sticking out and his palm on fire. He never bothered with the pears that fell, knowing the creatures would swarm on the leavings and riddle them with holes before he could salvage them, and that at his own peril.
He put his hand to the trunk of a mature tree in a paternalistic gesture and patted it like he would a favored dog. The scaly bark was sharp and rough beneath his palm, and a bit of it crumbled. He thought of his trees as an orchard, not a copse, or a grove, or a planting as some might call it. Three Barletts, two Boscs and a Seckel planted thirty-seven years earlier surely made an orchard and if not an orchard, they made memories in years of abundance and years of failure.
The fruit would soon exude amber scents, sweet and lush. The smell of a pear heightened certain feelings in Huntley. It was pleasurable. Sensual. He doubted anyone would understand his peculiar obsession. Even his mother had shook her head at him when he once tried to explain, telling him, “You need to move on.” He couldn’t. Of all the things that defined his life as an adult, what had happened in the unfolding of his manhood was recalled primarily in the olfactory sense.
Time had barely diminished the imprint of the summer nights when her pear-scented hair had brushed his face, her taste had graced his lips and her skin, soft and inviting, had warmed his. Those were nights of cheap wine, bonfires on the beach and naked swims in Lake Michigan, dime bags and Zig Zag papers, Led Zeppelin and Moody Blues. They laid on the dunes and watched meteors streak across the sky, the sand firm and cool beneath their backs, sand that had stuck to his skin, sand that lingered long afterward. The grit of it had chafed hard with the passing years.
She had said she was going to see him on breaks and he had believed her. He ticked off the days waiting for Thanksgiving, then Christmas and eventually spring break, but she hadn’t come home and wouldn’t return his calls. When he understood, he planned the trees.
He hadn’t gone to Vietnam, a diagnosis of thalassemia made him unsuitable for military service. Unsuitable! He’d tried to enlist, thinking he’d somehow find purpose, thinking they were taking anyone. He wished it had been him, not his brother, who was drafted and killed in action on his second week in the God-forsaken country. He had longed for her comfort in the bitterness of the loss. He’d thought she might call, or send a note of sympathy. Her silence had been as unbearable as his brother’s death.
He’d heard she had moved to Chicago after college, further disappointing him, but it was the engagement notice in the local paper that flayed him raw. She was marrying a lawyer who was a junior partner in a large firm, a man of means he supposed, an important man. Did she still smell of pears? Did the man even like pears? Huntley had almost uprooted the trees that, by then, had begun to bear in earnest.
Fred was the guy’s name. Fred. If anyone should have been an attorney, it should have been a man named Huntley. A man named Huntley should have a broad mahogany desk and an outer office with a secretary who screened calls.
It was a vain fantasy. Nothing would drive him to a grave quicker than living in the city. He went into a claustrophobic sweat at the least thought of walking between skyscrapers. His place was in rural Michigan where he could watch the seasons change on the wooded hills beyond the pear orchard, beyond the open garage bay where he revived ailing machines, where he made a modest and reliable living as a mechanic. He consoled himself by thinking he was the better man for it. All that stress. Fred could have it. Huntley only wished he didn’t have her.
He had buried his mother in May that year and in July, when the fruit was yet green, desperation overcame him until he was compelled to do something even he had thought pathetic. He went to the drug store, skirted the candy aisle, and sidled along the shelves of shampoos. One by one, he picked up the bottles, opened them, and sniffed. One by one, he set them back, unable to find any that smelled of pears like one she had used. Had it been a body wash or a perfume? Maybe he was only imagining what she’d smelled like, a trick of his mind. He saw a young clerk turn to a co-worker. He read her lips—pervert. Pervert?
Face burning, he’d hurried out the door. He shouldn’t have gone, he knew better. In a one-stoplight town there’d be gossip about his trip to the shampoo aisle. He knew the crow-eyed biddies had whispered about him for years, the bachelor who didn’t seem attracted to women, people who enjoyed their ignorance for the sake of having something to talk about.
Why had he tortured himself again? He’d tried to find the shampoo that smelled of her once before, nine years after the low, youthful urgings of those August nights. Whether by fate or sheer circumstance, his decision to go to the store had resulted in shock and sorrow.
That time, he’d been turned away by a matronly clerk admonishing him to look in the men’s products. He bought an aftershave he didn’t want and would never use, so embarrassed he forgot where he parked and had to walk around the block to get his head straight.
Eyes on the sidewalk, he turned a corner and nearly collided with a woman carrying a toddler in one arm and corralling an older child with the other. Stunned, he halted, heart galloping, his mind flooded with so many thoughts and emotions it momentarily shut down. The woman angled her face away as if trying not to notice him. The girl locked her eyes on his and dragged her feet. “Mommy, do you know that man?”
The mother said something to her, he couldn’t make it out, and he almost let them go. With immense effort, he found his voice.
“Mommy, he’s talking to you.”
A half-step beyond, the woman stopped and turned. “Excuse me?”
Her intonation was cold, her blue eyes flinty. It was her, but not the same her, not the carefree, happy girl of sultry August nights. He took in a deep breath and said, “You, uh, I used to, we used to—don’t you remember me?”
She lifted her chin and drew the girl closer. “Sorry. I don’t remember you.”
But she did, and he saw it in her widened pupils. The child, about eight, was lanky like him and though she had the same golden hair as her mother’s, she had brown eyes. His brown eyes. The girl cocked her head and looked at him sideways, the exact way his mother regarded others. She smiled at him. “You smell good, mister.”
The aftershave. He’d put some on at the store if only to get the lady off his case.
The mother took the girl’s hand and roughly tugged. “Don’t dawdle, Charity. Come on.”
The little girl looked over her shoulder at Huntley for a half-dozen yards before submitting to her mother’s quickened pace. He wanted to run after them and plead with Margot, make her say she remembered. Instead, he turned away and sobbed, and that night he had dreamed of her and the child, a merciless, tormenting dream. Why she hadn’t told him? He could demand the test, but what would it do to the girl? It had taken Huntley several days to right himself enough to get out of bed and when he did, it occurred to him she hadn’t smelled of pears or any other fruit for that matter.
He had marked the years since in his head—and in the growth of the trees. Charity would be in her late thirties by now. There could be grandchildren; he liked the idea of grandchildren. Beyond that, there were other considerations, genetics and health history at the least. He told himself that was the reason he’d found her on Facebook. In truth, it was to ease the intense loneliness that caused his heart to fold in half. He needed to belong.
He imagined long conversations with Charity and had almost sent messages to her, typing and deleting them. Didn’t she have a right to know? What if she purchased a kit and found her blood was not Fred’s? That was Margot’s ultimate betrayal, denying her daughter, his daughter, the truth. It hurt to think of how his own mother had never known she had a grandchild.
A breeze teased his silvery hair as Huntley stood in the orchard and surveyed the years of his life with an unaccustomed clarity. Maybe it was saying goodbye to his mother, maybe it was only the wearing of years, whatever it was, the intense compulsion to cling to what he never possessed had softly dwindled to acceptance. He’d decided not to plant more trees, though perhaps it was time to think of it, fruit trees not given to live on in eternity. Hundreds of bushels, more fruit than he could ever use, had come from them. He’d given so much away, canning only enough to get him through to the next season. Enough for the day, as he’d told himself.
He detected a faint aroma and looked for its source. One of the fruits caught his eye, a Bartlett on a high limb that had ripened sooner than the others. He wove his long body between the branches and stretched his arm upward, barely reaching the swollen base. A little twist and a downward pull was all it took to separate it from the tree; he’d done it thousands of times. Instead, he held it long enough to feel the skin warm beneath the pads of his arthritic fingers.
He imagined biting into it, the stone cells crunching between his teeth, the juice oozing from his lips, dripping and sticky over his chin, the perfume and taste filling his senses, the first of the season.
Huntley sighed, withdrew his hand, and left the pear for the insects.