I was six the summer Jessi and I figured out how to get up onto the roof of Mrs. Whitaker’s gardening shed. Mrs. Whitaker was an elderly lady who lived alone on the neighboring property over our back fence. A gardener took care of her estate for her and she almost never came out of her house. I remember for a time, I didn’t even believe she existed.
Her gardening shed itself held no particular interest for two second grade girls. Mrs. Whitaker had a peach tree and it was the tree, or rather its delectable summer yield, that enticed us. It wasn’t a terribly big tree, but it was tall enough to reach over the roof of her small gardening shed and tease us whenever we were out playing. When you’re six, logic is a simple thing. Mama couldn’t see the shed from inside the house, Mrs. Whitaker could only see her side of it, and peaches are yummy.
We weren’t supposed to be playing in the garage where we found the step-ladder, but the June weather was hot and muggy and it was cool and dark inside the garage. Daddy always kept the big swinging door padlocked, but our garage was a rickety old shack and Jessi and I had no problem squeezing through a hole in the loose boards around on the side. The ladder easily made its trek from the garage through the same hole. We dragged it across the back of our property, leaned it over some bramble Daddy was never good about clearing, and propped it up on the wall of the shed.
The first time we climbed it reminds me of those scenes where the fire department has to come get your cat out of the tree. Climbing up was easy and the roof wasn’t too steep. Jessi did it first because she was older and taller. I followed along in naive confidence and we lay hidden on our backs, just below the peak of the roof, with the fruit-laden branches right in our faces. The peaches were so sweet and juicy; there was never anything so delicious! We ravenously devoured a few of the biggest eye-grabbing fruits we could reach and when we were full, we discovered Annie’s acrophobia.
I had never climbed any higher than our front steps before. At the prospect of returning to the ground, my whole body became suddenly paralyzed. Hyperventilation and copious sweating replaced the sweet delight of our conquest. It took Jessi near an hour and uncounted trips up and down the seven or eight steps on that ladder, before she finally convinced me to take my first from the edge of the roof. Even then she had to stand at the top and help me over the first step, guiding me down one step at a time until my legs finally moved on their own again.
Fear has always been something I instinctively fight. Once I made it down the ladder, there was never a doubt I could make it down again, and again. The peaches were far too great a temptation and in a matter of days, the small peach tree was barren on our side and we were sneaking over the roof and quickly back again for the peaches on the other side. It was exactly that action that Mama witnessed when she came out to inform us that Jessi’s parents were coming early to get her.
Mama was not happy and that Flower Anne girl was in trouble again. It seems like every time I ever heard her name she was in trouble. Mama demanded an explanation as to where we got the ladder, and then of course Flower Anne was in even more trouble. It never seemed like what we were doing was really that wrong until we were caught. Now I was sure my crime was commensurate with the most heinous family treason, assuredly punishable by death or even worse. Indeed, Mama did have something worse in mind. I had to march myself immediately over to Mrs. Whitaker’s and apologize for stealing her peaches.
Stealing! The word harbors such harsh connotation and an unbearable burden of guilt. We didn’t steal her peaches, we ate them. Nobody else was eating them. It was a good long walk down the road and then around and back up the next one to Mrs. Whitaker’s. I protested my sentencing the whole way, wondering what terrible things Mama was saying to Jessi back home. I stood grumbling on Mrs. Whitaker’s porch for at least ten minutes before I finally got the courage to reach up and ring her bell.
“Oh hello, Sweetie!” Mrs. Whitaker answered her door. “You’re Annie, right?”
My throat constricted and I’m sure my eyes went as wide as the peaches I hadn’t stolen. I had no idea how she could have known my name, and her friendly greeting only made the gravity of my task that much more ominous. I was already struggling with what to say. Whatever else happened, “I stole all your peaches,” was not coming out of my mouth.
“I was going to stop by your house,” she continued. “Carlos noticed the peaches were disappearing from my tree and I was going to ask if you and your little friend wanted to come by and pick the rest for me before they fall.”
My eyes grew even wider and I could feel my cheeks getting hotter than the summer afternoon. It was all too much for my six-year-old conscience and I snapped.
“I’m so sorry,” I began to cry. “We didn’t think we were stealing. We only took the ones on our side.”
Somewhere in the back of my head that wasn’t actually a lie since it had been true once upon a time. Mrs. Whitaker just laughed.
“Don’t be silly, Dear,” she said. “Come on inside now, let’s get you out of the heat.”
She probably just wanted out of the heat herself, but I followed her into her house. It was almost as dark and cool in there as the stupid garage that had me in this mess in the first place. The furniture was all antique and very strange to me, and my eyes darted curiously about taking it all in as fast as I could. My unnervingly gracious hostess poured me an ice cold glass of lemonade and watched quietly as I drank it. Then came all the questions. How old was I? Was I in school yet? Did I like my teacher? What was my friend’s name? And so on. I’d never heard an adult ask so many questions before.
“I’d better go,” I set the glass down next to her sink. “Mama will be looking after me.”
“Of course, Dear,” she said. “You ask your Mama if she’ll let you come back tomorrow.”
I nodded and she let me out.
Jessi was gone when I got home. I didn’t tell Mama about the lemonade. She seemed satisfied that I’d delivered my apology and whatever fate awaited me on the morrow would serve as my punishment. She agreed to let me go back.
The next day, Mrs. Whitaker led me out into her back yard. She walked very slowly and it took ages to get out to the little gardening shed by the back fence. She unlocked it, and had me pull out a ladder and a small basket. She helped me set the ladder up and place the basket on its little shelf and then I climbed up and filled it with the rest of the peaches while she stood below in the shade of the tree, chattering the whole time about things she did when she was a little girl my age. I kept glancing over at our yard and thinking how different it looked from the other side of the fence.
When I was done, we put the ladder back together and I carried the basket into her house after she locked the shed. Jessi and I had eaten so many peaches there really weren’t that many left. I set the basket down on her kitchen table and she asked me to wait. She disappeared into the other room and came back after a few minutes rummaging through her purse, from which she produced a $10 bill and handed it to me. I looked at it like it just ate Jessi’s pet rat.
“I can’t,” I said, shaking my head.
“Oh nonsense, Dear,” she argued. “It’s the same as I’d pay Carlos. Those peaches are such a mess. Take them home too if you like.”
“No thank you,” I said.
I really wasn’t in the mood for peaches anymore. As sweet as their taste was, I could only think about what a sweet old lady our backside neighbor had turned out to be. She stuffed the bill into my hand and I stared at Alexander Hamilton’s face in disbelief and wonderment all the way to the door. I’d never held so much money before. Mrs. Whitaker opened the door to let me out. I stopped on the porch and finally wrested my gaze from the vast treasure I held to look up at her.
“I’m really glad I stole your peaches,” I said.
© 2011 Anne Schilde