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 the adjoining farm. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, offers to help Serena with the farm work and she begins to spend all her spare time at the farm. She learns that Jeff’s wife, Beth Henley, a wealthy woman in her own right, has been dead for more than five years. Serena makes friends with young David and her interest in Jeff Landeau increases, and also, she finds comfort in the wholesome and buoyant attitude which Luis displays towards life. Finally, Serena decides to leave her work in San Francisco and make her permanent home in San Vincente Valley.
The first day of the harvest began at seven o’clock, barely sunrise. Serena was up in the cold at dawn, too excited to do more than merely taste breakfast. Luis, who was working on the Landeau huller, left with a warning for her to supervise the picking near the flower beds and to distribute the sacks to the pickers.
Promptly Jeff drove his tractor and shaking machine into the orchard. Behind him trailed the crew to handle the shaking and poling. Fascinated, Serena watched the cables adjusted to the limbs, and the tractor started.
The trees quivered like live things. Then the nuts came down in a brown rain. Serena ran and gathered some in her hands, loving the feel of the satiny shell, freed from its tight hull by last night’s shower, the first of the year. Then she remembered her dream and laughed in pleasure.
She watched the pickers move in, men, and women, and children. It was like a processional as they left their cars and approached the trees with their trailing buckets. When they came to the trees, they dropped to their knees and for a moment their laughing voices were still.
There was music in the steady rhythm of the nuts, the emptying of the buckets, and the quivering trees. The branches that yesterday had drooped wearily with their burden, stood out in the cool air, straight and free.
You won’t have to work so hard now, drawing those gallons of water up through your roots, Serena thought, as she watched a tree divesting itself. It was good to be a nut grower. She felt alive and full of hope, as if she had lived long for the fulfillment of this day.
By noon of the fourth day the shaking crew was gone. Only the pickers, a little quieter, were there. Dusk, and they left the orchard empty, save for rows of bulging sacks to be picked up in the evening. Each night the big Landeau truck came through the orchard; and each morning the nuts, cool in their sacks, were poured into the huller. Here they were washed and scrubbed, the culls sorted from the sound ones, and all placed in the drying racks of the dehydrator sheds. From here they went to the big plant at Valley Oaks. Soon she would know the financial return.
“Your orchard and mine,” Jeff told her on the fourth day as he left for lunch, “have always had some of the highest grade nuts in the valley, but this year it may be a different story. From the crack test so far they won’t make top grade.” He picked up a nut from the gravel and cracked it with his white teeth. “See!” He held out the meat halves, one deep ivory in color, the other a golden brown. “They taste just as good, but they ought to be whiter.”
That night rain was predicted. By morning dark clouds scudded overhead, and strong winds blew all day. The following morning the ground that had been so smooth and firm was dark and soft. Under the trees the walnuts lay thick, almost as if the trees had not been shaken. Whenever the rain stopped, Serena, in old shoes, gleaned the nuts. Luis could not help. He would be working the huller for weeks more, as Jeff Landeau moved his crew from one orchard to another, each day more anxious to be done before more storms came.
For two weeks Serena gleaned, until her bones ached at night. Week ends, friends from town came out to help. Most of what they picked, they carried home. Serena broadcast invitations to friends to come out for their winter’s supply of nuts. When her vacation ended, she was in the orchard a few minutes each evening after she got home, anxious to fill a bucket before dark. Now the nuts did not mean money, they meant something precious to be saved so that people could enjoy them.
A big rain ended the gleaning. It moved in on a high wind and seemed to stay forever. Day after day the rain poured down. For a while the earth absorbed it, but soon the roads reverted to streambeds, and the orchards became lakes. Serena’s lane was a sheet of water on which David’s boat bobbed up and down until it was carried away by a new cloudburst. The long drought was broken.
When the rains stopped for a time, the mists came in damp and warm. By late November the dun hills were green and the leaves hung green on the trees like midsummer. Serena was home for a few days typing briefs for Mr. Green. It was eerie, sitting in the living room and looking out on the still, green world, shrouded impalpably by the gray mist.
One day, tired of typing, she walked outdoors in the late afternoon. It was like walking in a dream, and for a moment she felt lost in the stillness.
Reality came to her with David, coming in his high boots through the orchard. She smiled, for he, too, was in a dream. In his extended hand he held a long stick. He walked silently forward, his eyes also lost in a world of his own.
“Hi, there, David!” she called. “Where have you been so late?”
The boy stopped still, his face turned toward her, the dream-like quality still there. Then it dropped from his face like a discarded mask. He smiled politely, but she knew she had interrupted some place that had been more real than reality.
“I’ve been to cub scouts.” He started to move on.
“I interrupted you. What were you playing?” She detained him with her question.
“I was an Indian stalking through the woods. You stopped me from getting a deer for my starving family.” He was very serious.
“I’m sorry.” She was equally serious. “Can I make it up to you by giving you some cookies?”
His eyes told her that it was foolish to think cookies could replace venison for starving Indians, but he followed her into the house. “You know,” he said, munching cookies, “at school we are studying colonial times. Tomorrow night I think I’ll be a Puritan hunting a turkey for Thanksgiving, but I’d rather be an Indian.”
She kept him in the kitchen talking for as long as she dared.
“After these cookies, I feel acquainted with you, Miss Serena. I’ll stop by again if you’d like me to.” He looked up at her, gentle and wide-eyed, as he said, “Maybe you get lonely like I do sometimes.”
“You shouldn’t be lonely, David. You have your father and Delia.” She laid her hand lightly on his soft, brown hair.
“Oh, Dad’s all right,” the boy said, “but he’s so busy most of the time that we don’t have much fun. Except on Sundays,” he added loyally. “On Sundays he tries to be with me all he can. Delia’s all right, too, but she’s just a second cousin, not a mother. I don’t expect too much of her.”
He looked at Serena, showing plainly that he was struggling with an idea. “How about you?” he asked finally. “You have Luis and lots of friends. I see them every Saturday and Sunday. We don’t have many people come, just a few relatives. Delia gets too tired to cook for friends.”
“Oh, Luis is all right,” Serena said, confiding to him in return, “but he’s getting to be an old man, sometimes, tired, like Delia. And my friends are just here on weekends. Sometimes I think I’d like some relatives instead.” She smiled down at him. “If ever you are lonely on week days, remember I’d be glad to have you come.”
“I’ll do that.” He held out his hand in parting.
She watched him disappear into the mist-hung trees, an ache in her heart for the boy who was lonely, and an unacknowledged one for the woman who had no son.
Jeff Landeau had been over once since the harvest. He examined her chart from a walnut association and told her about what her returns would be. After the harvesting and dehydrating bills were paid, the remaining money would be too small for her to think of giving up her job. Serena struggled with discouragement. She had a valuable piece of land, which she had to work hard to support. If she could do all the work except the actual harvesting … no, the idea was ridiculous. The hard labor of cultivating, pruning, and hoeing was not for her, and Luis was too old to do it all. Office work was still her only solution.
“Another year, a bigger crop, and a cooler summer, and it will be a different story,” Jeff consoled her.
For a time they had seemed on the verge of friendship, then he retreated again. She would have said that he occupied none of her thoughts, yet she sometimes found herself watching for his car to go up and down the lane. She recalled that for a good many years she had been as cold and indifferent toward life as Jeff Landeau. These last few months she was beginning to live again. Life was giving her back half a loaf, and she was grateful for the half.
One Friday in early December the rain came down in tropical downpours. Serena decided to spend the night in her old apartment with Joan Givens. She would do her Christmas shopping on Saturday and complete plans for the Christmas party on the farm. Four girls from the office were coming for the long holiday, along with two other friends. On Christmas day a number of young men would come for dinner. It was to be a gala time.
Saturday Serena shopped in the rain. When she got up early Sunday morning it was still raining and there was a cold wind. She decided to start for home, stopping at Valley Oaks for breakfast and for church. But along the highway there were so many washouts and so much flooding that she decided to go home at once. Luis was faithful, but there was a limit to his capacity.
When Serena came to her lane she was really worried. The side ditch that Jeff Landeau had recently scraped and enlarged was no longer adequate. The lane was a turbulent river; the orchards lay deep in water. From the driveway she could see that her lawn and flower beds were flooded. Rushing into the cold house, she called, “Luis, Luis!”
He came from the basement, struggling with a bucket of water and wet to his knees.
“Ah, Mees,” he cried, relief fanning out over his tired face, “too much water, too much water. Very bad!”
He set the bucket on the kitchen floor and began gesturing and talking rapidly in Spanish. There was water everywhere, he repeated.
Alarmed, she followed him into the basement. The water was seeping through the cement walls and floor.
“Everything is ruined,” he moaned in Spanish. “The furnace will not operate, and I do not know how to get out the water.”
Serena was frightened. The water was rising steadily. Stepping up on the basement stairs, she surveyed the havoc. “Buckets will do no good, Luis,” she told him, shivering in the damp cold.
Tears streamed down the old man’s face. “All night, Mees, I work. Too much water.”
She made some chocolate and toast and had Luis start a fire in the living room fireplace. His wet boots left marks on the rug. “Get into some dry clothes,” she told him.
Luis only moaned, “Too much water. Everything ruined.” he said it over and over, and his hands trembled.
They drank the hot chocolate together, huddling close by the fire. The wind blew harder, swaying the tall pines and the great oak on the edge of the lawn.
Rain lashed against the windows, bending the shrubbery and shutting off all view of the outside.
“I’m sure the water is rising,” she said more to herself than to Luis. She could imagine it swirling underneath the house and seeping up through the living room floor. Luis must get into some dry clothes and she must get the water out.
“I’ll call a plumber,” she decided.
Even as she spoke she knew the uselessness of it. A hundred people must be ringing the same number. Still she tried every plumber’s number in the directory and got only one answer, a woman who said that her husband could not possibly come until tomorrow. When she finally put the receiver into its cradle, she felt hopeless.
Luis, warmed by the drink and the fire, stopped trembling. “Ah, Mees,” he said sadly, watching her face.
“We’ve got to have a pump, Luis.” She stood in the center of the room, pressing her cold hands together. “Do you know where we can get a pump?”
Understanding, as sudden as lightning, came to Luis. “A pump, Mees, I know where.”
With no more explanation, he ran from the room. Serena saw him jump into her car and drive quickly towards the Landeau place. She had no more than built up the fire and changed into an old brown tweed skirt and a yellow sweater than he was back again. Close behind was Jeff in the green pickup. Jeff had on high rubber boots, a gray raincoat and hat. He looked strong and happy, as if he enjoyed the storm and was confident he could master it. Waving to her in greeting, he lifted a small electric pump from the rear of his car. Luis followed him into the basement, carrying a long garden hose.
Standing hopefully by, Serena watched them wade through the water to attach the pump and start it going. Soon the water was shooting through the hose onto the flooded lawn. Serena let out a long sigh of relief and a little color came back into her white face.
Jeff walked uninvited into the kitchen, stopping first to wipe his boots on the rug. “That’s the first time that basement’s ever had water in it.” He washed his hands at the kitchen sink.
“Will the water keep seeping through?”
Jeff dried his hands with a paper towel. “I’m afraid it will if the rain keeps up. We reached saturation point a long time ago. You must keep the pump there and I’ll rig up a device that will start it automatically.”
“It’s awfully generous of you. I was just about panic-stricken before you came.” She smiled at him warmly, pressing her hands close to her sides in the sweater pockets to warm them.
“You don’t look much older than David,” Jeff said, returning her smile. Serena’s heart gave an unexpected leap. This was a new Jeff lingering here in the cold kitchen and eying her with warm approval.
“Won’t you come into the living room where there’s a fire? I’ll heat you a cup of chocolate as soon as I can get some dry clothes for Luis.”
She wondered if he would refuse, but instead he thanked her and went into the living room, as if he wanted to stay.
In the big bedroom closet on the top shelf she found an old suit she had thought too worn to give away. Then she found her garden shoes, some woolen socks, and an old sport shirt. She handed them to Luis, who was shivering in the kitchen. When she came in with the steaming chocolate, Jeff, his raincoat off, was standing with his back to the fire, appraising the room. It was the first time he had been in the room since she had taken possession.
“You’ve made this room come to life. It’s a good room, but it always looked as if its heart was put in cold storage.” He gave his head a little shake. “I don’t know what you’ve done to it, but you’ve given it life.”
“I didn’t know you were an interior decorator,” she answered brightly, as she handed him the steaming cup.
He looked a little foolish, then he smiled, making his face look young and eager. “I’ve spent so much time thinking how I’d like to change the old farmhouse that I’m a little touched on the subject.” He began sipping his drink.
“What do you want to do with it?” Serena sat down on a small chair near the fire, stretching out her cold, stiff fingers to the warm blaze. It was good to have Jeff and his exuberant strength with her on this dark afternoon. The sound of the wind sweeping up the driveway only made the room seem warmer.
“My wife liked it the way it was. She was sentimental about the old place.”
It was the first time he had ever mentioned his wife. Serena turned her face attentively toward him, still warming her hands.
“Beth was born in the old place. Never lived in another house,” he explained. “Of course we modernized it some, put in new floors and central heating and new plumbing, but it still needs a lot done with it. Now I have to fight Delia. She wants it just the way it was when she was a girl; so I just let things go.”
He set the cup on the fireside table and stood there, twirling his rain hat.
It was on the tip of Serena’s tongue to say, “Won’t you sit down? There are things I need to ask you about,” but before she could form the first word, there was a new and stronger burst of wind, rattling the windows and swaying the trees. In alarm, she and Jeff rushed to the window nearest the fireplace. They saw the wind sweep down more fiercely and heard the sound of a tree cracking. Before their astonished eyes they saw the old oak tree uproot itself with a mighty sound and topple towards the house.