A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who works in San Francisco as a secretary, feels lonely and dispirited over the loss of her fiance, Jim Towers, who has been killed in the war. Unexpectedly, she inherits a walnut farm in the San Vincente Valley. On her first visit to the property she meets Jeff Landeau and his son David, who live on an adjoining farm. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, who is staying with some laborers on the Landeau property, offers to help Serena with the farm work.
Jeff stretched his long legs and sat upright in the redwood chair. “Luis is a good man, one of those rare things, a truly good man. And reliable, why, I’d trust him with anything.” Then he turned in his seat, a little frown on his face. “I don’t know just how to say this, I don’t want to sound maudlin, but I believe that Luis is a man who has found God.”
That’s it, Serena thought. Luis was at peace with himself.
“Luis has seen dark times,” Jeff cut into her thoughts with haste. “I’d want you to know that, but he has come out of them, how I’ll never understand. You need have no fear of him.” With that he was silent, his eyes closed. Serena felt that he had forgotten her and Luis.
Looking at him, something stirred inside Serena. She felt a quickening of her emotions she could not understand. She looked at Jeff again, still lost in his dark thoughts. There was something about him that reminded her of Jim. Something in the way he moved, the tone of his voice, and his concern about Luis.
Her thoughts came back to Luis. “I still don’t know …”
As if he could read her thoughts, Jeff opened his eyes. “What Luis needs most of all is a decent place to live. He has friends. He goes to Church. He’s a Mormon, you know. But he has no house. If you could give him his food and a few dollars a month, he’d be content. I’ll give him extra work from time to time.” He sat on the edge of the chair, waiting for her decision.
“I will try to make some arrangements.”
“I have the arrangements so clear in my mind, that I forgot you haven’t had time to become acquainted out here,” Jeff explained as he stood up. “There’s a good enough bed in my barn, all wrapped in canvas. Luis could sleep there in summer. When it gets cold he can move into my basement.” He started to move away. “Think it over if you want, but to Luis having a home will be a gift straight from heaven.”
Serena jumped to her feet. “I don’t have to think it over,” she cried, happily excited. “Does he want to start work tomorrow?”
Luis bounded out of the car, tears streaming down his brown, wrinkled face. “God bless you, Mees,” he said and bowed. Then he hurried towards the barn.
“Well, that’s all settled,” Jeff Landeau said and he and Luis drove away. Serena watched the car disappear into the twilight of the lane. She had a home, a walnut farm, and a hired man.
On Monday when she asked for an early vacation, Mr. Green said, “Hold on now. You’ve already been out there four days. You wait until harvest time. You’ll want time off then, and on a farm there’ll be emergencies coming up every week or so. You’ll want a lot of time off. Better save for it.” He turned to his work, grumbling something about needing her now more than ever.
Serena saw the wisdom of his advice and promised to wait.
“When you have an extra load of typing, you can stay out there and do it. That will save commuting.” He looked at her as if he thought she might be getting a little weak-minded. Like Jeff Landeau and Mr. Howarth, he thought she should sell the farm.
Serena stayed in town until Friday. Joan Givens, a girl in an adjoining office, offered to take the apartment lease. With that settled, she bought summer cottons for Meadtown and some gay material to cover the somber chairs on the screened porch, along with some new plastic ruffles to enliven the kitchen windows.
Early Friday evening she was ready to leave. Albert, the office boy, had borrowed a pickup from a neighbor who was a house painter. He carried her belongings, radio, pictures, lamps, books, to the paint-stained pickup, and they were off to the San Vincente Valley.
The warm weather was over. Fog hung over the hills on the western rim of the valley, but the stars were bright overhead. Luis had cut the lawns, and the earth was fresh and sweet. Albert, big-eyed and open-mouthed in wonder, stayed for a late supper. There were radishes and sweet, tender peas, along with lettuce barely old enough to be eaten. Luis served, his eyes happy above his white apron. Tomorrow, friends were coming.
Serena fell into the commuter’s rhythm. She was up with the sun to find Luis had already arrived, and was squeezing her orange juice and cooking a dish of cereal. She drove to the bus station at Valley Oaks, leaving her car in a parking lot to be retrieved when she came home in the dusk.
After dinner she would sometimes sit in the kitchen a while with Luis, teaching him English and learning Spanish herself, glad for his sweet face and bright old smile. In the last light of day she walked across the lawns and on the brick paths, telling Luis, before he left for the Landeau place, what was to be done on the morrow.
Almost before her eyes the walnut trees came into full leaf, drawing a green curtain between her and the other world. Even the white clapboards of the Landeau place were hidden. She caught no more glimpses of Jeff, moving about his yard, and Mrs. Landeau’s trim figure was no more than a shadow against a green curtain. David was out of school, but his play hours were over before she arrived home.
Serena had city friends out almost every weekend. After Miss Wyatt’s first visit, that lady bought herself a new office dress and quit screaming at people. The friends helped with the weeding and watering, and Luis made them the savory, hot dishes of his homeland. Once a week he went into town for a Church meeting, and came home laden with tamales and tortillas. Bread, he said, did not satisfy the hunger.
Often at night Serena was so tired she fell asleep the moment her head reached the pillow. When loneliness came upon her she worked in the vegetable garden or brought greens to the chickens. There was little time for introspection, and at times, in spite of the dread headlines, she knew a kind of peace for the first time in years.
She was wise enough to know that she should find some friends in the community – participate in life and not always be an observer. But she was not quite ready for the plunge. It was Mrs. Hale who forced her decision. There was to be some kind of a community potluck supper, and she insisted Serena go with them. It was on a Friday night, and Serena took a cake. The supper was on the high school lawn. Serena watched the people come, two by two. Except for one frail old lady of more than eighty years, Serena was the only other single person and, try as she might, she was aloof and lonely. In the city it was easier, girls could go about together, or one could go alone. But it was not participating. She almost envied Luis the companionship and sense of belonging which he found in his Church.
Most of the people on her side of the valley had lived there for generations, since the gold-rush days. Just to look at the big white houses set back from the highway among the walnut trees gave Serena a feeling of permanence. She could wait to know those people, for they would be there for many tomorrows.
There was one exception. Mrs. Landeau should have paid her the courtesy of a call, if only for the sake of business.
One Saturday morning Serena was alone. No one was coming out from town, and Luis had gone to do the marketing. She was watering the lawns so that the well could recover for the evening work. Just as she was turning the last valve, she saw the long-awaited Landeau car come down the drive. Only the father and son were in the seat, however.
“Good morning,” Jeff Landeau spoke impersonally, as to a stranger. “I’ve come to take a look at the trees. Have you seen any aphids?”
“Should I?” Serena asked brightly, going to meet him. She would not know an aphid if she saw one.
“You should, if there are any to see.” Ignoring her light tone, he walked straight to the trees on the side lawn, examining one leaf after another. She followed, peering at the leaves as he held them in his hand. From the surface of a leaf he flicked off a tiny speck. “When you get more than ten to a leaf, it’s time to do something.” He walked to another tree.
David walked with him, trying to match his father’s long stride. Serena followed behind, the hard pellets of dirt bruising her sandaled feet when they walked into the orchard.
Turning suddenly, Jeff said, “You need some sensible shoes.” he walked on.
She didn’t like his tone. “These are cool and light. I like them.” She ignored the pain and followed him from tree to tree.
“Do they need dusting?” she asked anxiously.
“Not yet,” he said. “We’re lucky this year with the ladybug invasion. But if the cool weather continues, you’ll have to watch.”
For him the conversation was closed. He got into his car and called David, who was watching a blue jay dip its beak into the wet grass.
Serena was not satisfied. “How do you spray?” She really wished to know the process. This man should remember she was a novice.
He waited until David was beside him. “We use nicotine dust,” he said, and managed the turn in the driveway.
Of all the disagreeable men! Why did he dislike her so much? And he was always repeating the pattern, ending the conversation abruptly and driving away. She ought to get someone else to care for the orchard. There were a number of other men who would be glad to do it. Yet as a newcomer to the valley, she should be careful. To change might give her a reputation of instability.
In the house she felt restless, even sad. Luis had cleaned the house thoroughly yesterday. She looked at Jim’s picture over the living room desk and went quickly outside. The longing for him was becoming only the memory of a longing, but a persistent memory.
She decided to visit Mrs. Hale. She went in and changed to a fresh blue-print dress and put on a pair of heavy hose to protect her feet, for she would be walking.
Mrs. Hale, resting on her front porch, welcomed her warmly. “I was thinking of you this very minute and telling myself I had to get down to see you today.” She got slowly to her feet and pulled out an easy chair for Serena. “Now tell me what you’ve been doing. Have you been lonely?”
“I’ve just been keeping busy,” Serena countered, relaxing in the deep chair and enjoying her neighbor’s gay border of purple and cerise petunias. “This morning I was alone, and it seemed a good time to visit you. You know,” she smiled at Mrs. Hale as she said it, “you and Mr. Landeau are the only neighbors I know. He’s been over several times to see about the orchard, but Mrs. Landeau has never called. It would be easier to do business if she did.”
“What Mrs. Landeau?” asked Mrs. Hale testily, her nostrils dilating.
“Mr. Landeau’s wife, of course, David’s mother.” Serena’s voice showed her surprise at the question. She wondered if Mrs. Hale had not been listening.
That lady gave a short, knowing laugh. “Don’t you know,” she asked, leaning towards Serena and lowering her voice confidentially, “that there is no Mrs. Landeau? Beth Landeau died better than five years ago, and Jeff hasn’t looked at another woman since.” She sighed, enjoying his fidelity. Then with narrowed eyes she looked at Serena.
“I didn’t know,” faltered Serena, trying to adjust her thoughts. “I just thought there was a Mrs. Landeau. I’ve seen a woman moving about the yard. I thought she was his wife.”
Mrs. Hale chuckled, the superior chuckle of a woman who knows. “That will please Delia. Delia,” she said, in answer to the question in Serena’s eyes, “is Beth’s cousin, and she’ll never see sixty again.”
“I saw her through the trees, and she has a slender figure,”Serena spoke in justification.
“Yes, Delia prides herself on her figure, and her hair doesn’t show much gray.” She laughed heartily, and Serena knew the lady was already planning how to tell the story.
“You’ll just have to forgive me,” Mrs. Hale apologized, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes. “I took it for granted Harriet had told you about the people here.”
“They seldom talked of anyone. I met you only because you brought the cake over on Harriet’s birthday, remember?”
Mrs. Hale remembered with a nod. “I’ll have to tell you about it.” She moved her chair closer, settling down for a long, enjoyable tale. “Beth was Beth Henley. At one time her father owned most of the land in this part of the valley. We bought our place from him, and so did all the people from here on into town. Even your place is part of the old Henley farm. Did you know that?”
Not waiting, Mrs. Hale went on. “And Beth was the only child.” She looked at Serena impressively. “She inherited everything her parents had and she inherited almost everything on her mother’s side, too. Her inheritance there ran into six figures.”
Serena’s eyes were wide. She had no idea the story would be so interesting. “Yes, just two years before Beth died, she came into the full inheritance. But this is the part you must hear.” Mrs. Hale was almost whispering. “When Jeff Landeau married her, he didn’t have a penny except his salary as a high school teacher. He was the high school athletic coach here and taught Spanish, and Meadtown didn’t amount to much then, just a little farming village.”
“Mr. Landeau wasn’t a valley man then?”
“Oh, no!” Mrs. Hale’s tone implied that this was not in Jeff’s favor. “He came from somewhere in the southern part of the State, on the coast, I believe. He was courting Beth the year we came here. Everyone in the valley was watching. We all wondered which one she would take.”
“She could have her choice?” Serena asked the question judiciously.
“Choice!” Mrs. Hale might as well have said, Ha! “She could have had her pick of anyone, even if she hadn’t had a cent. She was a pretty girl, slender, and about your height, and smart as a whip. Jeff Landeau did well for himself in every way when he married Beth.”
Serena felt a tug of sympathy for Jeff Landeau. No wonder he was so grave now.
“It was real love, all right,” Mrs. Hale prattled on. “Beth was as crazy about him as he was about her, and they were both crazy about the farm. The old people were alive when they first married, and when he wasn’t working in the orchard he was pumping them about walnut raising. He read every bulletin there was and went to every farm demonstration. He’s a real farmer now, and a good one.” Mrs. Hale settled back, her hands folded across her ample lap.
“Then he did all right with the Henley fortune?” Serena wanted to hear more.
“Indeed he did,” chortled Mrs. Hale. “But the old-timers in the valley, the ones whose fathers and grandfathers got the land first, have never been able to forgive him for inheriting his land. They wanted Beth to marry a valley boy, but it was none of their business. If he lives to be a hundred, Jeff Landeau will still be the man who got his farm by marriage.”
“Thanks for telling me.” Then, as if to herself, she added, “He looks like a gentleman, and I feel he is one, but every time I meet him he is almost rude to me.”
Mrs. Hale’s eyes narrowed again. She leaned forward, placing a plump hand on Serena’s slender one. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, my dear, but you mustn’t blame Jeff too much. You see, when you inherited George and Harriet’s farm, you were young and unmarried, and the farmers have been ribbing Jeff about his new neighbor.” She looked at Serena out of the corner of her eye.
Astonishment was Serena’s first reaction. Her soft brown eyes opened wide, then her cheeks flushed in anger. She jumped from her chair, so indignant that she was trembling. “I’m glad I understand,” she said, trying to control herself. “But I wish someone would tell Jeff Landeau that he has nothing to fear from me.” She bit off each word, as if Jeff Landeau could feel the sharp impact. “I’m one of the few females of marriageable age who isn’t interested in Jeff Landeau or any other man.” She felt tears coming and turned her head.
Rising, Mrs. Hale patted her gently on the shoulder. “I know, my dear. Harriet told me about you once. I know you’re not interested in marrying, though you should be.” She pressed Serena’s hand in a final gesture. “You should forget and marry some good man.”
Serena did not answer. She wanted to get away.
“Jeff’s a fine man,” Mrs. Hale continued, “a fine man and he needs a mother for David. Delia’s good to him, but it’s not right to have a boy raised by a spinster past sixty.” She looked shrewdly at Serena. “He’s a fine catch if a girl knew how to get him.”
Serena had herself in hand. She smiled. “Thanks for telling me, Mrs. Hale. I won’t mind his rudeness now.”
She walked down the lane under the green shade. She felt a kind of wry kinship with Jeff Landeau. They were two souls dedicated to the past.