Each year, as the sweet smell of peaches filled the June air and ripened into summer, I found myself looking for Ginny Rose Gilley. For seven summers, I held on to a fading hope that she’d show up at our orchard, just like she had the summers I’d turned seven, eight, and nine.
The first summer she didn’t come I was devastated.
Where was she? How was I going to survive harvest without her?
Growing peaches may sound romantic, but when your family owns twenty acres of them, reality is quick to replace fantasy, and when picking season is in full swing, farms all over need help with harvest, including ours. Especially ours. There’s no shaking a peach tree to get the fruit down, or using a machine to harvest it. Peaches need hand picking, and every summer field workers swarm in to help.
The summer I turned ten, pickers came, but Ginny Rose and her father did not. That left me spending long, hot days sorting peaches in the field with strangers, and my family certainly didn’t fill the void. Bobby, who was twelve and full of himself, and Doris, who was thirteen and full of spite, bossed me around, while Father ran the crew and Mother gave birth to twins.
“They’re boys,” I heard Father say when Willie and Wesley were born, his breath gusting out on a big sigh of relief, as though he could see himself resting at some future date.
Mother, on the other hand, seemed condemned to never rest again. Those babies cried. And fussed. And cried some more. “Boys,” I heard her mutter, and in it was a whole wide world of weary.
My mother had been my only ally. Oh, my grandmother Nonnie, who lived with us, used to be, but the older she got--or maybe the older I got--the more she seemed to disapprove of me. And now they were both overoccupied with the twins and had little patience for my misery.
“They’ve surely moved on,” Mother said that first summer, when I complained about missing Ginny Rose. “Maybe they’ve gone back to Oklahoma. You should hope for them that they’ve found something better than fieldwork,” she said, changing Willie’s diaper.
“But Ginny Rose is my friend,” I whimpered. “My best friend!”
“You have plenty of friends, Peggy,” Nonnie said, changing Wesley’s.
“Not like her!” I wailed.
Nonnie raised an eyebrow in Mother’s direction, indicating her disapproval at my tone. Nonnie is Father’s mother, and that eyebrow of hers has done my mother in on more than one occasion.
“Well,” Mother said to me, ignoring the eyebrow as she finished pinning the diaper tight, “friendship won’t feed their family, and that’s the same for us. Now go out there and do your part.”
I did do my part. From dawn to dinner, I sorted peaches brought down by the field hands, hauled buckets of drinking water out to the orchard, and helped load wooden lug boxes of fruit high on a truck bound for the cannery. I did my part until peach fuzz coated my arms and face, until it permeated every pocket, every seam, every fiber of my being. I did my part until the trees were bare and the sickening rot of fruit on the ground buzzed with flies. I did my part until I never wanted to taste or touch or smell another peach for as long as I lived.
Anyone who’s lived this life knows--farming’s a roll of the dice, a prayer to the skies, and work. Endless, body-bruising work. And every nickel we earned seemed to be needed for repairs, supplies, and equipment.
But even farmwork can be fun when you’ve got a friend. Nonnie was right--I did have other friends--but Ginny Rose was special. Maybe that was because we did the same work--fieldwork. Words can’t really explain what it’s like, so mostly I didn’t feel like talking about “my summer vacation” to other friends, or at school. Our family rarely went anywhere. And during harvest? We never took a day off, not even Sundays.
Summer meant working the farm.
Dawn to dark, we worked the farm.
So there was that, but there was also the way Ginny Rose could make me laugh. We’d giggle about everything, including Bobby, who was as bossy then as he is now, and Doris, who’d rather sting us with insults than work alongside us. Having Ginny Rose around made the days go by fast.
So even as I got older, even as I moved from working out back in the orchard to working out front at our fruit stand, I missed her. I missed us. But this summer after the month of June came and went, I finally stopped hoping she’d reappear. I’d be seventeen soon. It was time to let her go.
Besides, so many things had changed since those summers with her. The war had started and ended, rations were over, Franklin Delano Roosevelt--who’d been president for as far back as I could remember--had died, and Harry Truman was now in charge.
And the biggest change of all?
Everyone seemed more hopeful.
Also, if I’m being completely honest, instead of pinning my hopes on a friend who’d disappeared, I was putting them on Rodney St. Clair, a classmate who had already appeared at the fruit stand four times since school let out in June and had been especially friendly to me when I’d seen him at the Freedom Parade on the Fourth of July.
So that was where my mind was--firmly and fondly focused on sweet thoughts of Rodney St. Clair.
And then, suddenly, there she was.
“Ginny Rose?” I gasped. She was standing in front of the fruit stand, blue-eyed and freckled, her strawberry-blond hair braided in one long tail, just the way I remembered.
“Peggy!” she squealed. “That is you!”
We threw our arms right over the stand, right over the peaches, right over the years that had divided us, and wrapped each other tight.
I held on to her shoulders as we pulled apart. “Where have you been? Do you know how much I’ve missed you?”
“Aw!” she said, her eyes going glassy. “Honest?”
“What do you mean? Yes, of course! You were my best friend.”
“Aw!” she said again, this time looking away as she blinked back tears.
“So what happened?” I pressed. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged noncommittally. “We moved around a lot. You know that.”
“But . . . where? Mother said you might have gone back to Oklahoma.”
Ginny Rose shook her head. “Papa lost everything there, so . . . no.”
“But . . . are you still . . . are you still farmhands?”
“No. Papa found other work during the war, but he still hopped from job to job. We never really put down roots anywhere.” She brightened. “But he’s got a permanent job at the Ferrybank switching yard now.”
“At the rail station?”
She nodded. “The job comes with housing and a little piece of land. We’re plannin’ to stay.”
“All of us are tired of movin’ around, and the Littles love that trains roll by.”
“Oh!” she said, and her cheeks went rosy. “There’s two more Gilley girls now. Katie Bee--she’s six--and Bonnie Sue, who’s seven. And of course there’s Anna Mae, who’s ten. So that makes four, and I’m mighty glad for all of ’em.”
I couldn’t help bouncing on my toes. “My mother had twins! They’re boys and the same age as your Littles!” I laughed. “Maybe we’ll get them to fall in love with each other someday!”
The idea of it really tickled me, but Ginny Rose barely smiled and seemed quick to change the subject. “What about Bobby and Doris?”
I grinned. “You mean Bossy and Dodo?”
That did get a reaction out of her--we both giggled like we were kids again. Then I said, “Bobby graduated high school and is practically running the farm now. And Doris eloped with a man right after the war. He was wearing a uniform then, but he’s working the oil fields in Modesto now.” I rearranged a few jars of preserves. “She had a baby.”
“Doris is a mama?”
I nodded, then laughed. “It seems to have made her extra grouchy.”
“It’s a wonder that’s even possible,” she said with a grin. Then she waved a hand across the stand and said, “This is a smart idea.”
“Father built it when I turned twelve,” I said. But seeing it with new eyes now, I realized how weathered the raw sheet of plywood on four-by-four posts had become. “It’s not much to look at, but it does the job.”
“Well, it’s in a great spot,” Ginny Rose offered. “Folks can just pull right off the road, then get right back on it.”
“You sound like my father!” I said with a laugh.
She laughed, too, then scuffed the dirt, her mood suddenly darker. “I wanted to write, Peggy, really I did. But . . .”
“So why didn’t you? You have no idea how much I missed you!”
She was silent for a moment, then heaved a sigh. “Mama said there was more dividin’ us than bindin’ us. She said I should give up the notion of us bein’ friends.”
She kept studying the ground. “You know. ’Cause we were pickers?” She sneaked a peek at me. “Okies?”
“I never called you that!”
“But we were. We are.” She gave another little shrug. “And Papa says to take it with pride when people say it. That it means we’re survivors.”
“So then . . . why . . . ?”
“Well, other folks don’t see us as survivors. They still see us as trash.”
Even though I could tell she was papering over painful memories, her voice held no sharp edges. It was the same as it had always been--cool and smooth and fast, like ice cream dripping quicker than you can lick it.
And hearing it now sent me back to the sleepover we’d had one August--a concession I’d begged from my mother for my ninth birthday. I hadn’t understood Mother’s objections, and eventually she’d lost the will to argue with me and had relented. It had been a magical time, with just the two of us playing crazy eights and old maid and whispering late into the night.
I was about to ask Ginny Rose where their house was when a car rolled up to the fruit stand. It was a sparkling new, deep red convertible with whitewall tires. And, as if tailor-made for each other, it was Rodney St. Clair sitting behind the wheel.
My heart went for a tumble.
“Hey, Peaches,” he called, giving me a devilish grin as he stepped out.
So did Ginny Rose.
“You let him call you that?” she whispered.
“It’s only the second time he’s done it,” I whispered back. “And what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Her name’s Peggy,” Ginny Rose asserted.
Rodney slipped his sunglasses down his nose as he approached. “And you are . . . ?”
I pulled Ginny Rose behind the fruit stand so she was standing beside me and said, “This is my friend Ginny Rose.”
Rodney gave a little bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Rose.”
“My last name’s Gilley,” she said. “I’m Ginny Rose Gilley.” She tilted her head a little. “And you are . . . ?”
“This is Rodney St. Clair,” I hurried to say, hoping to get things back on track. “His family owns Valley Motors, which is how he comes to be driving a brand-new . . .” I leaned around to admire his car and let him fill in the blank.
“. . . Ford Super Deluxe.” His gaze shifted to an old bicycle propped against a tree near the road. “I could set you up,” he said with a grin in Ginny Rose’s direction. “My dad offers great financing.”
I stared at the old bicycle with its worn, oversized front basket, wondering for a moment where it had come from. But then it dawned on me--Ginny Rose hadn’t just magically appeared. She’d ridden her bike.
“Not interested in financing,” Ginny Rose said with a distinct huff.
“Well, cash is always welcome,” Rodney said.
The air was feeling strangely charged, but not in the way I would have liked. “So!” I said to Rodney. “Are you here for peaches? Preserves? Pie?”
He flashed another grin. “Maybe all three?”
My brain had gone numb wondering what he was actually after when a black Dodge sedan skidded to a stop alongside the fruit stand. “Lisette!” I called out with a wave.
She emerged from the car, her skirt waist cinched impossibly tight, her smooth dark hair in a perfect victory roll. “Peggy!” she called as she hurried toward me, her saddle shoes flying. But when she realized that the boy with his back to her was Rodney St. Clair, her skirt came in for a landing and her voice took on an aloof tone. “Hello, Rodney,” she said, turning her nose up slightly.
I’d kept my feelings about Rodney from Lisette because--not so very deep down--I knew they were foolish. I was a farm girl and he was . . . well, he was Rodney St. Clair.
I also hadn’t told her because it felt disloyal to be head over heels for a boy she hated. She’d said time and again that he was annoyingly full of himself and not to be trusted. I’d never seen her give anyone the cold shoulder the way she turned it on Rodney.
But here he was, and here she was, which left me feeling stuck between love and loyalty. So when she turned her attention to Ginny Rose, I broke out of my paralyzed state and hurried to make introductions: “Lisette, I’d like you to meet my dear friend from childhood, Ginny Rose Gilley. Ginny Rose, please meet Lisette Bovee, my dear friend since ninth grade.”
Nonnie likes to say that proper introductions put the hand that’s attending to social encounters firmly on the tiller. And since I’d heard that expression my whole life, it was almost natural for me to put the notion to use. It seemed to be working, too, because as Ginny Rose and Lisette were saying their pleased-to-meet-yous, I could feel a calm settling over all of us.
That is, until my bossy brother came clip-clopping up on our white mare, Blossom, his cowboy hat wedged on tight.
“Bobby?” Ginny Rose gasped.
I did a double take, because instead of making a crack about him still riding a high horse or some such, she was looking at him like he was Clark Gable.
Unfortunately for her, Bobby only had eyes for Lisette--a relatively new development that made Lisette uneasy, to say the least.
Copyright © 2022 by Wendelin Van Draanen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.