2005 – Katherine MacKenzie – Cherries

Fiction selection from the 2005 issue

Cherries
by Katherine MacKenzie

Kat spends every Sunday in summer standing by her grandmother’s cherry trees. She looks out past the globes of deep red wine, towards the wooden fence that always gives her splinters when she pushes her hand against it. When she peers through a knothole in the oak fence, the next door neighbor’s swimming pool beckons. The Georgia summers are 100 degrees, so she sits, wiping her neck, licking the sweat off her upper lip, staring through the hole in the fence until her next door neighbor David invites her and her brother Jonathan to swim.

The water is so blue, the smell of chlorine like some musky perfume that stays all day on the skin and reminds you how cool you have been, how the water has felt sloping up between both breasts.

Most of the time, only her brother is invited to swim. Whenever he is still indoors eating his post-lunch popsicle, she runs outside and sits near the fence, watching David rise from the pool, his blond hair slicked back by the water, his lean tan body diving in one confident movement forward, ending in a splash. She notices the way his body seems to take over space, spreading his limbs out like an eagle over a sky of blue water. David usually jokes only with her brother, tossing out comments Jonathan throws back at him.

When David doesn’t invite her to come over, she sits in the middle of the lawn, too hot to move. The smell of freshly mowed grass rises up like a mosquito, lands on her body and seems to replace her blood with the smell of earth and bones and green. She can imagine becoming like the elf in a fairy tale, taking root in the mud, veins extending past her feet until it is impossible to uproot her, until she flowers and is covered in bees, until her skin is blanketed in rough bark and her family forgets her name and her favorite ice cream, thinks only of the annoyance of one tree in the middle of the yard and calls the woodsman to chop her down.

Her grandmother comes outside, dressed in her white silk shirt with the bow at the collar, her beige tailored skirt, beige heels and gold jewelry left over from her old store in Chattanooga, the JoAnne. She walks down the hill and smiles at Kat before calling out to Debra, the next door neighbor. Debra’s dressed in tiger prints, holding a glass of iced tea. They discuss the new red silk pillows Debra’s husband has gotten her while in India.

Grandmother calls Debra a woman of the world behind her back. The only time Debra says hello to Kat is to ask if her grandmother is around. Grandmother says she’s lonely because her husband is always traveling. Kat gets bored of listening to them talk and walk towards the section of the yard with trees and pine straw. She wants to climb a tree but ever since watching Romeo and Juliette she’s decided to try a little harder to keep from getting so many scrapes on her legs. So she sits, staring at the cherries hanging ripe like drops of blood falling from the sky, like manna used to fall for the Israelites. Kat always thinks about the Israelites and about Eve when she sees the cherries.

Kat’s family has lunch every Sunday at grandmother’s after Sunday school. Every Sunday in church they tell the kids another story about Adam and Eve and the fruit, Jonah or Abraham or David. Although they say Adam sinned because of an apple, Kat had never liked the look or taste of apples. She secretly thinks it was a cherry that began the world of sin. Every cherry seems another chance to become Eve, to destroy paradise and become like the neighbor, with her tiger prints and her red silk pillows.

One day she is playing in the driveway in her swimsuit and Keds, practicing jazz to Madonna. David comes around the bushes and puts his hands on his hips.

“Where’s your brother?” He asks.

“Home sick.” she says, twirling around.

“Want to swim?”

“Uh-huh.” She hides her Walkman in the bushes and follows him around the fence. She watches David jump into the water. She sticks her toe into a cool wave, walks down the steps while gripping the stair rail. She stands on the shallow end and looks towards David’s house. The lights are off. The wood house seems lonely, the windows black and curtainless, the sides of the house colored chocolate against the blue sky and sunlight.

She walks so far towards the deep end that her chin bumps the water. It is her favorite place to stand while watching the boys diving. David gets out of the pool to take another dive.

“Where’s your father?” She asks.

“Out shopping.”

“Oh,” she says. “I can’t stay long. I didn’t tell my mom I was coming over here.

He answers by diving into the water again.

She shuts her eyes as water sprays everywhere. Keeps them shut, relaxing into the wall, feeling the heat against her eyeballs contrasting with the coolness of her legs and toes.

When she opens them, he is popping out of the water in front of her. His blue eyes look amused as she jumps, swallowing pool water and sputtering. He waits for her to finish.

They both look at each other. His face is covered in freckles.

“I see you watching me from behind the fence,” he says.

“I don’t watch you,” she says, feeling the heat rising up her neck, the smell of chlorine burning into her skin.

“You do,” he says, “The knothole is big.” He points to it.

She looks over. She can clearly see a tiny part of the cherry tree past the knothole.

“You like to watch me,” he says, stating it as a fact.

She can’t think of anything to say and nods.

He put his hand to her breast, pinching the nipple.

“Ouch!” She shrieks, edging toward the shallow end. She stops when the water hits just above her breast. She leans against the wall and watches him. He comes towards her again and stops across from her.

“I think you like it.” He says.

“No, I don’t,” she says.

“You do,” he says. “You’re just like the girls in my father’s movies. What would you do if I did this?” he says, touching her between the legs really fast, and then moving away.

“Nothing,” she shrugs, pretending to be cool. She puts her hands behind her butt to keep them from shaking.

“I dare you to stay still for a whole minute. I bet you can’t,” he says.

She’s plays a lot of truth or dare and says, “I can too!”

“Count,” he answers.

“One…two…three…”

He puts his hand between her legs, a little awkward. Rubs his hand all around over her swimsuit. It feels weird. He gets closer, hunches down a bit, pushes her legs until she opens them wider.

“Twelve…Thirteen…Fourteen…”

He keeps rubbing between her legs, watching her face. His blue eyes seem like clear pools against all the freckles. His hand feels like rubbing against the swing set pole in the playground. Whenever she climbs that pole it feels good. He rubs his hand up and down kind of hard, and she opens her mouth.

“Feel good?” He asks.

She nods, voice soft and high as she says,

“Thirty…thirty one….”

“Katherine! ”

She jerks at the voice. “That’s my mom – I have to go.”

She hurriedly turns, lifting herself with her arms and jumping onto the concrete, running across the yard, grabbing her Walkman and going inside the house. She doesn’t look at him as she leaves.

The next week her brother feels better, and David invites them both to see the new rabbits his father has gotten him.

“They breed real fast,” he says, laughing. He and her brother hunch over the cage talking.

She stands back, left out. She walks away and when no one notices, she runs back to her grandmother’s house and gets an ice cream sandwich from the freezer. She and her brother are only allowed to eat them in the kitchen so she sits in the doorway, watching TV from there. Her grandfather lies in the same spot as always, holding the remote and watching Bonanza. She likes westerns and after she finishes the ice cream and washes her hands, she sits on the other couch for the rest of the afternoon.

For the rest of the summer she stays on the couch after Sunday lunch, watching movies with grandfather. Grandfather tells her he loves her because she is quiet. By the end of the summer, David is gone.

One day, while the house next door is waiting for someone to buy it, she eats one of the cherries from the cherries trees, without even washing it. It is tart and bitter and nothing like she’s imagined.

After David moves, she worries another kid won’t live next door. Then she’ll never get to swim in the pool, never feel the wet and the heat together again.

Until one day Maggie walks over to her driveway. She hears Kat’s Walkman blasting out “Like a Virgin” and sees her practicing jazz steps in the driveway. Maggie loves Madonna and wears rows of black bracelets around her wrist, a giant silver cross around her neck, a puffy black lace skirt and a lace scarf around her head.

“I want to be a diva like Madonna,” she says.

“What’s a diva?” Kat asks.

“It’s someone who’s not afraid of anything, especially a boy. Madonna just does what she wants.”

Kat likes the sound of that and walks around the bushes to Maggie’s house. Maggie doesn’t like to swim, so they both just dip their ankles into the pool. It is a haven, a girl sanctuary, for her brother is never invited, and they can play Like a Virgin without anyone complaining.

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