A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who works in San Francisco as a secretary, lost her fiance, Jim Towers, in the war. Unexpectedly, she inherits from her cousin Harriet Lester 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. Serena learns that Jeff’s wife, Beth Henley, a wealthy woman in her own right, has been dead more than five years.
The coolness of July gave way to unprecedented August heat. The hills encircling the valley turned to dun color, save for the trees and shrubs on the western side. Even in San Francisco the gray fog did not roll in from the ocean. Waves of heat met Serena when she came through the tunnel that led to her valley. By the time she reached home there was often a cooling breeze and she was glad she had the screened porch for a bedroom.
Luis watered early in the mornings, using the water almost to the danger line, then resting the well until the cool of evening. Each week less water registered on the measuring shaft. The apples that had shown so much early promise fell from the trees, dry and inedible. The peaches on the young trees were sweet, but they did not develop to full size, and the figs almost gave up growing, as if the tree had no will to reach out for the disappearing water. Only the walnut trees held their own, their green branches stretching outward and upward.
“The soil of your land is heavy and good,” Luis told her proudly in Spanish.
Jeff Landeau rode over one evening. When Serena saw him get out of the car, she waited inside for him to strike the porch gong, determined to meet his coolness with casualness.
“I’ve been looking at the trees,” he said, “and the aphids are bad. They’re bad all over the valley in spite of the heat. If the breeze ever lets up in the evening, we’ll dust.”
She thanked him, but did not invite him to sit on the cool lawn.
A few nights later when she came home, not a leaf stirred in the orchard. She ate outside, Luis serving her a salad he had bought in the village. “Too hot for you to cook, Mees,” he said, wiping his brown face with a big red handkerchief.
“Dust tonight?” She pointed to the walnut trees.
Luis’ brown, wrinkled face smiled with understanding. “Leesen, Mistar Landeau, he dust now.”
From the distant orchard she heard the whine of the dusting machine, loud and mournful as it came closer. Later, its monotony brought sleep. A little before midnight a cool breeze came and ended the dusting. Coughing, Serena awoke. About her the air was thick and colored, like a heavy yellow fog covering her. She stood up, half asleep, struggling for breath and smelling the nicotine. From the rear she heard Luis running and calling, “Get in, Mees, get in!”
She ran into the living room, blanket-wrapped, while Luis shut the doors and windows, all too late. A film of fine dust lay on everything, and the smell hung in the room, heavier than dust. After the breeze had drifted the cloud of nicotine down the orchard, she sent Luis back to the orchard. Because her sheets and blankets were covered with the penetrating spray, she came inside to sleep. Why hadn’t Jeff warned her so that she could close the house? Perhaps he thought the sound of the machine was warning enough for a walnut grower.
The next evening she was alone. It was Luis’ night to go into town for a church social. He had cleaned the house and left her supper ready to be eaten outside, where she could enjoy the gaudy zinnias and the banks of thirsty marigolds.
The shrill clang of the telephone broke the evening stillness. Jeff Landeau had never called her before, but she knew his voice the instant she heard his deep “Hello.”
“If you will loan me Luis for the evening, I can finish around the yard and dust your orchard tonight.”
When she told him it was Luis’ night out, she could almost feel his irritation, it was so strong.
“I haven’t a man on the place,” he complained, “either they are sick or they have sick relatives, and we may not get another still night like this until it is too late.”
He paused, and Serena knew he was trying to think his way out.
“Anything I can do for you?” she asked it lightly, making conversation.
“Why, I think you could,” he replied in surprise. “It will be your test of a farmer.”
“What do you want me to do?” There was excitement in her voice.
“You can drive for me while I handle the dusting.” He was daring her.
“When will you be ready?”
“In fifteen minutes.”
Serena ate the last of her ice cream and changed quickly into an old, blue linen dress, with a short jacket. She wound a blue silk scarf around her short brown curls and went on the lawn to wait. Overhead the plane tree, with its graceful leaves, was still, and she could see the golden afterglow of the day through the great oak beyond the lawn. Stretching herself on the cool grass, she closed her eyes and waited. There was no sound save the goodnight twittering of the birds and the chirp of an early cricket.
The sound of a car on her gravelled drive brought her quickly to her feet. Jeff Landeau got out of his pickup and opened the door for her.
“You look pretty fancy for a lady crop duster,” he said, the amusement in his blue eyes denying the severity of his mouth.
“But practical, hope.” She slid into the driver’s seat. Close by was a pile of clean white handkerchiefs, man-size. She looked questioningly at them.
“You’ll be ready to use them soon.” He got in beside her.
Tonight was her first close view of the Landeau yard. The old house with its white clapboards and high railed porch was freshly painted, and there were summer flowers. It looked as if Delia had said she wanted a flower garden and Jeff had gone out and hurriedly planted flowers in straight rows to satisfy her. Everything was neat. The fine farm machinery was sheltered in the white barn. The driveways were carefully raked and weeded. Yet the place looked lonely, even gloomy.
Young David was in the barn hammering. “I’m making a boat,” he confided, pleased to have company. “It’s a flatboat, to float down the river.”
“Where will you find a river in this dry country?” She leaned out to appreciate the pieces of light wood.
“I’ll sail it in a tub. Or maybe I’ll wait until winter. Daddy says after this hot summer it will be a wet winter, and the water will run in the ditch along the lane, enough to sail a real boat.”
Serena remembered the narrow ditch filled with weeds, and said, “Oh, I hope not enough for a real boat. That would mean floods.”
By now Jeff had the dusting machine adjusted and the sacks of dust poured into the hopper. Serena’s coughing ended the conversation, and, at a wave of his father’s hand, the boy went back into the barn to his lonely play.
“When it gets bad, tie one of these around your nose and mouth,” Jeff said and gave her a handkerchief. She piloted the car up and down the rows around the barn and house. Occasionally they paused a moment to let the dust settle so that they could breathe. Jeff knew what he was doing and enjoyed it. His enthusiasm reached Serena, and her laughter was young and gay as they drove through the yellowish mist. By the barn he hoisted more bags of dust into the rear of the pickup while Serena got out of the car to sniff the honeysuckle, sweet in the young moonlight.
“It’s the smell of the moonlight itself,” she declared, holding up a spray to Jeff. He stuck it grudgingly into his buttonhole. “When you get as old as I am you just smell the dust,” he said.
On the way to Serena’s place, Jeff glanced at her through the rear mirror as she tucked a stray curl inside the silk scarf. Leaning against the window, he sang in a smooth baritone, “She had a dark and rovin’ eye, and her hair hung down in ringlets.”
Surprised as much by his unexpected burst of song as by his mellow voice, Serena answered him in her clear soprano, “She was a nice girl, a proper girl, but one of the rovin’ kind.”
They sang lustily together until the machine’s whine started and obscured their voices.
This time they were finished before midnight. They were ending the last row when the cool wind came, carrying the dust away from the trees. Serena took off the binding handkerchief to revel in the cool, clean air. Stopping the car under the grape arbor by the kitchen door, she said, “It’s been fun.”
In the moonlight his face looked relaxed and young. “Did I pass the test?” she asked, teasing, yet wanting an affirmative answer.
For a brief moment Jeff’s arm touched hers. She could feel its warmth and vitality. Then, abruptly, he withdrew it and got out of the car to resume the driver’s seat. “Yes, you passed the test.” His voice was stiff and cold.
She stepped to the ground, suddenly chilled and tired. The moment of intimacy was gone.
“Good night,” she called and went into the house.
A week after the dusting, the hottest weather of the summer came, not two or three days at a time, but a week, the days, and then August slid into September, the heat still strong. The green nuts began to show brown cheeks. It was sunburn, getting worse each day.
“We don’t know how bad it will be,” Jeff Landeau told Serena one evening as he stopped with David on his way home from town. “I’m going to start harvesting the Persian orchard the end of the week, then we’ll start the Concords. I’m afraid the entire crop will be darker this year.”
“I know that sunburn shrivels the nuts, but does the dark color affect the quality?” she asked, phrasing her question carefully to hide unnecessary ignorance.
David’s blue eyes opened wide. “You don’t know much about walnuts, do you?” he asked in surprise. “When the nuts are dark, we don’t get as much money.”
“That’s your answer – in a nutshell,” Jeff added.
That night Serena felt lonely, the house too big. Because the night was suddenly cool, she closed the doors before she sat down to read. Before she could open her book, there was a light tap on the door and Luis came in, his hair neatly brushed and in his freshly changed clothes, as always a little too large for him.
“Scuse, Mees.” He stood in the doorway, an apologetic, yet determined look on his face.
Serena invited him to sit down. He took a straight-backed chair, facing her. Then in slow, careful Spanish he began to talk. He hoped she would forgive his great audacity, but for all these months he had watched her and now he must speak.
“You have too much of the sadness, Senorita.” He clasped his hands together in a gesture of supplication. “With me, with others, you try not to show it, but it is there. Now you are young and your strong body and mind can resist this malady of the spirit; yet the time will come when it grows too strong for you.” He raised his eyes to study her face.
“Ah, Senorita, there are people in this world created by God and do not want God. Of such people we can expect little. But you, Senorita, God did much for you, and you have a debt of gratitude.”
Surprised, Serena could not resent these words, for they were spoken in truth. She lowered her eyes, looking at her hands, slim and still in her lap.
“Sadness,” Luis went on slowly, “makes in time for bitterness and despair. Between us and hope it puts a barrier. Senorita, I know.” Luis spoke with much earnestness.
“I, too, had the sadness once. But I had not your wisdom, for I did foolish, bad things.”
“How did you find yourself?” Her voice was so low that she scarcely heard it.
Luis smiled his quick, radiant smile and moved his gnarled brown hand in a graceful sweep. “That, Senorita, is a story of great length, but I first heard of God’s plans for his children from two young men of your country. I heard of the gospel from them – these missionaries, and that was the beginning.”
Then, as if he had said too much, he bowed and excused himself.
For a long time after Luis left Serena sat in her chair, staring at her folded hands but not seeing them. Luis’ words came hard. She had cherished the belief that by now, at least, her malady was hidden from others. Yet, if Luis saw it, it was just as plain to others. The time had come when she must forget.
With a quick, decisive gesture, she got out of her chair and went to the desk where Jim’s picture stood. It was a young Jim, smiling and confident in his officer’s uniform, proud of his first wings. “Dear Jim,” she whispered, taking the picture in her hands. Not looking at it again, she placed it in the bottom of the chest in the big bedroom which she reserved for guests. She would not look at it again until time had softened all her memories.
That night she lay awake for a long time. She was in that dark country where the past ended and she could not yet see the light of tomorrow. When at last she slept, she dreamed of the walnut harvest. She was on the lawn and the nuts came falling down in a brown shower. Jeff Landeau stood under the tree. “Pick up the nuts,” he told her. She held some in her hands, turning them over and laughing, happy because they were her possession.
Riding on the bus next morning, Serena evolved her plans. First she would find someone to live with her, a woman or a girl who needed a home. Perhaps it would be a teacher, a young one who, like herself, found it difficult to become a living part of the community. Together, they could make their way. They could go to the various church socials. Perhaps they would visit Luis’ church. They would attend the high school plays and cheer the basketball team. Serena would bake cakes for the boy scout food sales. There was the Farm Bureau she could join. And all the time she would be looking for congenial work nearer home. That shouldn’t be too hard in the fast-growing community. Within the year she would make the break from Mr. Green and the office.