A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who works as a secretary in San Francisco, lost her fiance, Jim Towers, in the war. Being worried over her future, and lonely, she decides to take her vacation early and visit her cousin Harriet Lester in San Vincente Valley. Before leaving, however, a neighbor of Harriet’s, Mrs. Hale, telephones that Harriet and her husband have died within a few hours of each other. Serena attends their funeral and is surprised to learn that their walnut farm has been left to her. Mrs. Hale takes Serena to see the property, and there she meets Jeff Landeau and his son who regard her as an intruder.
The man lifted his broad-brimmed hat. He was dressed in working clothes, but his boots of fine leather were polished and he was clean-shaven.
“I’ve been looking after the Lester place,” he said in a smooth, deep voice, keeping his eyes carefully leveled on Serena. “Are you Mrs. Lester’s niece?”
“Mrs. Lester was my mother’s cousin.” She felt as if she were saying it in self-defense. She had never seen this man before and yet he seemed to dislike her.
The man turned his gaze toward the orchard. “You have a good thing.” His tone was almost curt.
“I know that far better than anyone else.” She tried to keep her irritation at his manner from showing.
He turned back to Serena. “Excuse me,” he said and smiled. His smile was sweet, and Serena wondered if she had been wrong. “I’m Jeff Landeau, and this is my son David.”
“Oh, you own the big orchard next to mine, and you know a great deal about walnuts.” She extended her hand, smiling up at him. It might be that he resented a stranger taking possession of the land. Country people could be like that.
He took her hand and for a brief moment their eyes met. Then he dropped her hand. “I don’t know about that,” he said, dismissing any further small talk. “I stopped by this afternoon to finish leveling the orchard. I don’t know what your plans are for the orchard, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish the job today.”
Without waiting for her answer he started across the driveway, followed by the silent boy.
Serena stretched out her hand in quick protest. “Can’t you stop a moment?” She was aware of a pleading note in her voice and tried to be more matter-of-fact. “I haven’t any plans, Mr. Landeau. Until a few hours ago I had no idea this land would be mine. I’d appreciate it if you could take time to give me a little advice.”
The man and the boy stopped, waiting. For a minute, when she suggested that they go around front to the lawn chairs, she thought he would refuse. But he walked behind her to the front lawn. They sat facing each other, the sun warm on Serena’s back. He looked at her, still waiting.
Because it was so hard to begin, she hesitated, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.
“What do you intend to do first?” he asked kindly, breaking the silence.
“I have a job in San Francisco. I told Mr. Green, my employer, I’d be back in the morning. I thought I’d go back tonight, then come out Friday night and get acquainted with the place over the week end.”
Jeff Landeau scuffed the grass impatiently with his polished boot. “This lawn hasn’t been watered for four or five days,” he said, with a sharp edge to his voice. “In this weather it will be brown by Saturday, and you could lose a lot of your flowers.” He stood up, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “You wouldn’t notice it, living in San Francisco, but we’ve had no rain to speak of since the latter part of March, and the ground is parched, though it is still May.”
It was as if he blamed Serena for the rains not coming. She did not rise with him. “I haven’t had time to think it over, Mr. Landeau, but I can telephone Mr. Green to say I won’t be back until Monday.”
“Do you intend to run this place on your week ends?” His tone implied that she might be that foolish.
“No,” Serena said quickly, her face hot. “I know it can’t be done on week ends. I’ll commute to work like other people do.” She knew now, as she said the words, that she would live in the house. “I can water the grounds night and morning and over the week ends, but I don’t know what to do about the orchard.” She rose to her feet, her eyes grave. “Do you think a woman could take care of it?”
“There’s a woman in the valley across the mountain who runs an orchard, but she’s not exactly your type.” Jeff Landeau’s mouth did not change, but his eyes were smiling.
“What is my type, Mr. Landeau?” Now Serena’s voice had an edge.
The smile that had begun in his eyes spread over his face. He looked amused. “I wouldn’t know that right off,” he answered, his eyes noting her expensive gabardine suit, her high-heeled pumps, and her sheet stockings. “She’s a big woman, would make two of you. And she’s got a man’s drive.”
Serena laughed. “I don’t expect to get much heavier, working two shifts, but I might develop more drive.”
“That’s up to you,” he answered, his face serious again. “George used to do the cultivating with an old tractor he has. He saved a lot of money that way. I did the pruning and managed the harvest, until the last two years, when I’ve done everything, cultivating, dusting, and harvesting.”
She was silent, trying to envision the work of the orchard.
As if he read her mind, he reached to a walnut branch overhanging the lawn and plucked a leaf. “I wonder if you’re one of those persons who think all there is to a walnut orchard is just going out and picking up the nuts? If you are, you have a surprise coming.”
She was really angry now. “I know better than that, Mr. Landeau,” she said, biting her words in quick succession, “but I still don’t know what it takes to run an orchard.”
The hardness went out of his face. He looked kind, even gentle. “I don’t expect you do at that. You’ll learn as the seasons come around. That’s how I learned it.”
“I can’t wait too long,” she told him, feeling the urgency of her need. “I must know if it’s possible for me to live off this land. That will determine my plan.”
He scrutinized her again, as if he were estimating the cost of her smart clothes. “That’s hard to say,” he said slowly. “If you could do all your own work, except the harvesting, and you can’t, because you haven’t enough equipment – this amount of acreage doesn’t warrant buying it – you might make a go of it.” His eyes left her and went directly to the orchard.
“There are so many things to consider. We’ve had good prices for a long time now, but this year they are taking quite a tumble. And there’s the weather. We never know what it will do to the harvest. This year’s crop isn’t large.” He turned, looking her squarely in the eyes. “I’d say if you have a job you’d better keep it for a year or two. Then you can tell.”
Serena watched him turn towards the car. She waited, feeling he was not finished. By the car he paused.
“It’s a long way out here to commute, and you have a full-time job in town. Have you thought of renting your orchard? You’d get a share of the profits and your house would bring a good rent.”
“Oh, no!” She was fiercely intent. “I intend to live here. I’ll keep my work in the city as long as necessary.” A happy thought came to her. “Maybe I could find something to do in Meadtown or Valley Oaks.”
“That would simplify things for you.” Jeff Landeau whistled to the boy, who was climbing the oak tree on the far side of the lawn. “When I get the orchard dragged, there won’t be much more to do until harvest – just cultivate a little more and count the aphids, and when there’re too many, dust.” He put on his hat and got into the car. “You’ll have time to get acquainted and you can decide then what help you need.” His foot was on the starter.
Serena’s hands went out in an unconsciously appealing gesture. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Landeau, I wish you would continue with the orchard. We can talk terms when we both have more time.”
He said nothing, only nodded, and drove his pickup to the lower yard. Serena watched him leave the car and walk to his tractor, midway in the orchard. She wondered if she had done right to ask him to continue with the maintenance. The man plainly didn’t think too well of her. He might dislike women in general. She felt sorry for his wife.
Sighing, because all of a sudden she felt tired, she went in to place a call for Mr. Green.
After Mr. Green’s startled congratulations on Serena’s becoming a property owner, she decided she would start work by watering the lawn. The day was warm for May, and her gabardine suit felt hot and sticky, her pumps tight. In a closet she found a short-sleeved cotton dress and low-heeled shoes, a size too large. There was a yellow plastic hose fastened to a hydrant by the front steps. She began to sprinkle the lawn.
It will take forever, she thought, looking at the wide expanse of lawns and flower beds. She remembered what Jeff Landeau had said of the dry spring. Would there be enough water in the well? She prodded about the flowers. The soil was hard and dry. Busily she moved the hose back and forth, barely penetrating the top of the soil in her eagerness to spread the water.
A boy, no, it was a little man came through the hedge that separated her land from the Landeau orchard. He was a Mexican, an aging man with hair that shone like silver in the sun and dressed in clothes so big that they looked like the shapeless garments of the villagers in his native land. He came to her, bowed, and took the hose from her hand. His dark eyes, even his lean, brown wrinkled face had a radiant quality.
“No, Mees, thees way,” he said, turning off the water. Then he sprinted around the corner, returning in a moment with a steel rod in his hand. He fitted it to a valve on the edge of the grass and the water spread in a high arch over the lawn.
When she thanked him, he shook his head saying, “I like you, Mees.”
“I like you, too,” Serena said. “Can you show me the well?”
The little man looked at her, puzzled, and lowered his head. “Not much English, Mees,” he murmured. Then he raised his head and his face was radiant again as he said, “I do, Mees.”
He ran around the corner again, coming back with a spray nozzle which he fastened to the hose and carefully placed at the edge of a flower bed. The spray adjusted, he beamed proudly at Serena.
Reaching back into her high school Spanish, she haltingly asked him where he lived. His reply came in a cloudburst of Spanish, and she asked him to speak slowly. She learned that he lived with some families who rented cottages at the far end of the Landeau orchards. His name was Luis Pedro Garcia de Trejada.
Jeff Landeau must have sent him over, or Mrs. Landeau. That was more likely. Leaving him to do the sprinkling, Serena made her exploration of the farm. She found the well, covered by a doll-sized pump house. There was an acre or so of young walnut trees, not yet in production, a small vegetable garden, badly in need of water. On the other side of the driveway was a family orchard. Delighted, Serena saw that she would soon be picking her own cherries and apricots. Later, there would be peaches and apples. There was a lone fig tree and an arbor of seedless grapes. From the fruit orchard she walked to the end of her walnut acres and back, her feet sore from the unwanted exercise on the hard clods. She saw Jeff Landeau drive his tractor out of the orchard. From a distance, the orchard floor looked smooth as a board. All the weeds were gone, even from the base of the trees, sealing in the moisture for the long, dry summer ahead.
Luis was watering the vegetables. He saw her and turned off the water. “Mees,” he called beckoning her to the well. Pointing to the measuring board on the side of the pump house, he said in Spanish, “No more for today. In the morning, yes.” Then he bowed and went across the orchard.
By now it was almost sunset. She felt tired and hungry, too tired to change into her clothes and go back to town. On the shelves in the little room off the kitchen she found canned goods and crackers. There was canned fruit in the basement.
When she went into the familiar guest room to open the windows, the air was hot and still. Even the walls were warm. Loath to sleep inside alone on her first night, she dragged the mattress to the screened porch, promising herself she would somehow get the springs and bed out tomorrow. In the linen closet were clean sheets and blankets, all smelling of lavender. Sleepily she removed her shoes and stockings. She hoped Mrs. Landeau would call soon. It would be good to have neighbors.
There must be a million crickets, she thought. At first they sounded louder than the traffic up Telegraph Hill. Then they became the music of the night. The air was unbelievably cool. It smelled so good she wanted to breathe it all in at once. The stars were there, back of the lace of the trees. Sleep, that had long been so difficult, came easily as she looked at them.
In the morning, responding to Mr. Howarth’s telephone call, Serena drove into Valley Oaks to sign the necessary papers. The old lawyer counseled her to hold onto her money. “Remember,” he said, “the walnut expenses all come before you get your payments. You get a final payment early this fall, but I doubt if it will defray the dusting and harvesting expenses.” Hinting that she might do well to sell the farm, he told her that the sale would bring a tidy sum.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I intend to keep it.”
“That’s your privilege,” he answered dryly, but his look said plainly that he thought her incapable of managing the land.
Back in Meadtown, she stopped for groceries and found a shop where she could buy a pretty cotton dress and a pair of sandals. After lunch, eaten on the side lawn where the smell of pinks was sweet in the air, she began the long process of removing the personal effects of Harriet and George from the drawers and closets. Everything that was suitable she packed to give away. After she had washed the shelves and drawers and lined them with clean paper, the most of Thursday was gone and the house was still and warm.
Outside it was hot, hotter than yesterday. She turned the sprinklers on the side lawn and started toward a flower bed. Before she had the spike inserted, Luis was moving across the orchard.
“I do, Mees,” he said, taking the hose.
Serena sat on a white garden chair to watch. When all the sprinklers were adjusted, Luis chattered to her in Spanish. She learned that he had fought with the revolutionists in Mexico. That had been the great period of his life, when he had a wife and children and hope. Everything was gone now. All he needed now was to satisfy his small needs and to love God. To love God meant that he must love all God’s children. Tears came to his dark, shining eyes. They were both silent, Serena trying to understand him.
Suddenly he faced her, a look of humble entreaty in his eyes. “You need me, Mees,” he said and bowed to her. His face lit up with a smile as beguiling as that of a child, and he added, “I need you.” He burst into torrential Spanish, which she could not follow.
Serena stared at him, more bewildered than ever. He smiled again, this time to assure her, and after rearranging the sprinkler over the flowers, he ran quickly through the orchards, towards the Landeau place.
Watching Luis, barely visible through the green of the leaves, Serena saw a slender, quick-moving woman in the Landeau yard. In a moment she disappeared with Luis. Soon a car came down Serena’s driveway. It was Jeff Landeau in his green pickup. Luis rode with him.
The tall, sun-tanned man wasted no words on small talk. “You seem to have yourself a hired man,” he announced, as he got out of the car.
“I couldn’t understand what he meant,” Serena said, with a sigh of relief, motioning for her caller to be seated in the redwood chair opposite her. “When he goes so fast in Spanish, I can’t make him out, and he never slows down. But if this is what he wants, you will have to tell him I can’t afford a hired man.”
“I think you can afford this one.” There was a little twinkle in Jeff Landeau’s blue eyes. “He seems to have taken a fancy to you, and you can certainly use him.”
“I know that,” she admitted ruefully. “I’m just realizing what it will take to keep the grounds, and I haven’t thought of the housework yet.”
“Luis has been in the valley about a year, living with the Mexican families on the far side of my orchard. The houses are small, and all the people have children. I think Luis has been sleeping in his car this summer.” He spoke slowly, watching her carefully.
Serena’s face showed her solicitude.
“Luis isn’t young any more,” Jeff said, scoring his point. “I don’t think he was ever a fast worker. Now he’s too old for the farmers to want to hire him, wages being what they are.”
Serena felt as if he were charging her with the fate of Luis. She liked the little man, and felt they would be compatible. He needed a decent place to live, but how could she, a young woman, living alone, share her home with him, even if she could afford his wages?