If you head north on Highway 365—people from Atlanta will call it 985, but everyone north of Gainesville knows it by its real name 365, and if you don’t use that name, people won’t know where you’re sending 'em—you will eventually find two towns whose names sound like musical notations or perhaps like a widow-lady and her scruffy dog: Lula and Alto. According to their oldest citizens, both towns once promised to boom and spread. Lula with its train station and our Alto close enough to feel the ripple effects of Lula’s progress. Yet, as so often happened with these hidden Southern towns, the highway diverted all attention from the railroad, and soon, the town began to disappear until all that was left was the shell of the train station, an abandoned peach stand, and a few brick buildings hinting to a main street. There, a traveler would find the requisite small-town stores: a hair salon specializing in quilted purses, a wilting florist, and a bait-and-tackle shop.
The abandoned peach stand. A turquoise green shed, sitting lonely on the Old Cornelia Highway, the two-lane path that the big road bypassed. If a person didn’t know better, he would think the stand was a relic, some lost piece of the town’s history, forgotten and empty like so many other buildings, their only denizens the grass overpowering their foundations. Surrounded by pink-flowering trees, the abandoned stand rests at the front of a peach orchard. Gnarly, stooped trees in regimented rows that file away over the low rolling hills.
What appears to be the front of the farm property, evidenced by the stand, the driveway, the house facing the street, is actually the rear. Time and change demanded the citizens of Lula and Alto face another direction. Located on the opposite side of the orchard is the sprawling farmers market Jaemor Farms, a main stop on the agritourism trail of Northeast Georgia. This supersized market is renowned for its boiled peanuts, pumpkins, and apple harvest. In late summer and early fall, when the grass becomes scorched and the trees start bowing under their fruits, wealthy Atlanta and Gwinnet citizens battle Interstate 85, just to taste the Northeast’s peaches, apples, squash, and tomatoes.
My grandparents bought their produce at Jaemor. In their Georgia dialects, that word—produce—became a dull spondee, each syllable dragged to its full length, a slow-moving word that rolled off their lips like honey dripping off a spoon. At the grocery stores in Gainesville, my grandmother always held my hand tight in hers, but at Jaemor she gave me my own basket and let me run the aisles.
Kicking aside the dried stalks, leaves, and corn husks forgotten on the floor, my tennis shoes scuffed on the concrete. My nose tickled with a cornucopia of smells: the brushed, dry scent of the paper apple-bags; the sickly sweetness of the melons; the earthy smell of potatoes, radishes and carrots; the sharpness of a yellow squash; the sunshine-y tang of row after row of peaches.
Leaning on his cane, my grandfather held up a melon. Its green, round belly drooped and rolled between his hands. He frowned, surveying its spottled hide, and then lifted his knotted thumb and gave the melon a sharp thwump!
“See that splotch on its belly? Hear that sound?” he said. “It’s how you check for its juice. Take it to your grandmama.”
Like a master revealing trade-secrets, my grandfather led me through the market. He placed the ripe fruits into my small hands, instructing me to discern the weight and heft of the ripe opposed to the unready. He taught me to search for the red gleam of a ripe tomato, to listen for the drumbeat of a ready melon, to smell the sweetness of a juicy peach.
Arranged in baskets, the peaches were piled haphazardly, red and yellow gems waiting to be polished. My index finger brushed their downy flesh, soft like the hair on a baby’s crown. My grandmother always wrinkled her nose at a peach’s skin and peeled away the fuzz and down with her sharp little knife.But I protested. I loved the way the tender fuzz tickled my nose when I bit into the peach’s yellow flesh; I loved its brush against the roof of my mouth, the way the sticky juice spurted and oozed between my fingers.
Perfection, ain't it.
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