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. There she meets a neighbor, Jeff Landeau, who lives with his son David and his deceased wife’s cousin Delia. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, offers to help Serena with the farm work, and she gratefully accepts his offer, becoming much interested in his wholesome and buoyant attitude toward life. Serena makes friends with young David, and Jeff and Luis help her with the first harvest. Then the torrential rains come and flood Serena’s land and her house. A huge oak tree, uprooted by the storm, destroys a screen porch. Soon after Christmas, Jeff and Serena are married and go on a honeymoon trip to Mexico. Upon their return, Delia greets them coldly.
Alone with Delia, Serena was tense. she talked too much, covering Delia’s coldness, who went about her work tight-lipped, scarcely answering questions. When she started to set the dining room table, Serena rose to help her.
“No,” Delia said, lifting out the Haviland china from the corner cupboard, “I’ll tend to it myself.”
Serena struggled to keep the rebuff from showing in her soft, brown eyes.
“You’re tired, driving all that way. You must go sit in the parlor.” Delia made an attempt to cover her rudeness.
The sound of the returning car broke the awkward silence. Serena ran through the house to the back porch, her arms outstretched in eagerness to David. A step behind his father, the boy halted.
“Hello,” he said with slow indifference, holding out his hand to ward off her embrace. She could not have been more surprised if the boy had come, leading with both fists. The color left her face, and she had to brace herself against the railing before she could tell him how glad she was to see him. Relax, don’t show there is anything wrong. Relax and wait.
David started towards Delia, his face a question mark. She drew him to her side with an affectionate gesture. “You mind your manners, David, and tell Serena you’re glad she’s back.” Her tone was that of a fond, admonishing parent.
It was all Serena could do to keep from turning to Jeff, who stood there as puzzled as she.
Smiling brightly at David, she said, “If you’ll go into the living room, you’ll find some things you might like. But we’re saving the best for you when we go home tonight.”
“Thanks,” David answered and went into the living room, trailed by Delia, her face smug.
The couch was heaped with brightly colored wooden toys. Serena had bought the airplane and the child’s gay carrousel made from discarded tin and bits of painted wood, with miniature figures astride the tiny animals. There were the straw animals bought from street vendors and the wooden bull’s head Jeff had bought from a boy playing in the street. There was also a boy’s dream of a leather belt and wallet. In spite of his show of indifference, David’s eyes danced.
“Oh, boy!” The exclamation died, half born on his lips. “Thanks, dad,” he mumbled. Leaving his gifts untouched, he walked outside to the barn.
“I’ll …” Jeff turned in anger to follow the boy.
“Don’t, not now.” Serena touched his arm. Everything inside her crumpled. “There’s something we don’t understand.”
“There surely is. And I intend to find out.” But his feet hesitated.
“Boys get notions.” Delia’s voice was superior, her hands clasped under her white apron. “They pass quick enough if you leave them alone.” She started for the kitchen, stopping to say, “Dinner will be ready in an hour, and I want you here on time. I can’t have my biscuits ruined.”
“We’ll be back in plenty of time, Delia.” The words came automatically as she followed Jeff outside.
“I’m going out to the barn, and I’m going to find out what’s happening.” His back was stern with purpose.
Matching her stride with his, Serena debated with herself. Her first day with David was no time to start interfering. She thought she had some intuition; yet it had failed her today.
“I wouldn’t, Jeff, not for a little while. Let’s just act as if we hadn’t noticed. We can’t push him too far – yet.”
“All right.” Jeff’s reply was half sigh. ‘I’m going out to the orchards to see the soil condition. Want to get your boots and come along?”
“I think I’d better go in and shower and change in Delia’s honor, if you don’t mind.” She gave his arm an affectionate pat, glad to have a few minutes alone.
Luis was on the front lawn waiting. “Meeses, meeses,” he cried, removing the old, white sailor cap he was wearing. he came running forward with his hand outstretched, his black eyes shining with tears. With the sun on his silvering hair, he was, as on the first day she had seen him, clothed in radiance.
“It’s good to see you, compadre,” she called gaily in Spanish. the word started the tears coursing anew down his withered brown cheeks.
“Gracias, gracias!” He shook her hand again and again.
Muy contento with the brown serape, he traced the design with his brown fingers. “Is good.”
Even after she told him she was home to prepare for Delia’s dinner, he lingered intentionally.
“Did everything go all right while we were gone?” she helped him.
His black eyes flashed. Placing his gifts carefully on the floor, he faced her, his arms free for gesturing.
“Ay, that Mees Delia.” His shoulders shrugged expressively, his mouth twisted in delicate mockery of Delia.
“What was your trouble with Delia?” she asked him in Spanish.
“Oh, Senora, I have no trouble.” His denial was swift. “I keep myself separated from her at all possible times. It is with herself that she has trouble.” His look asked if Serena understood, and added, “That senorita lives with ingratitude. For all that Don Jeff has done, she has no remembrance. She remembers only that she grows old without the strength of Don Jeff or the sweet youth of David.” Moving his hands in pantomime, he showed Jeff as the staff and David as the light.
“She thinks only that people will no longer salute her as the head of Don Jeff’s household. To herself she says, ‘Now I cannot have the expensive garments or prepare the splendid meals. I will have only my cousin who is older than I and who complains that her days of affliction have taken hold of her and that her soul is weary of life.’ Is it not so?”
He threw out his hands in a gesture of dislike and started to fold his serape.
Serena could have hugged him in sheer love, but she only said, “It is very difficult for her.”
“Difficult!” Luis jerked himself upright, standing militantly in the doorway. “Is she,” he demanded of Serena, “the first person in the world to grow old? is she the first person to be bereft of family? No, God has not deserted her. It is she who has deserted God.” His shoulders dropped wearily, then in one of his quicksilver moods, he smiled sweetly as a child.
“Now it is Delia who has the sick soul. If she can be made to see she has many blessings to count,” he raised one hand impressively above him, “for she still has strength, a splendid home, and the love of you and Don Jeff – if she can see these things, there is a cure for her.” Stooping again, he picked up his gifts, settling them in his arms with a final gesture. “You must be of great endurance with her, senora.” Bowing, he trotted amiably away.
He was barely out of the house before Jeff came in, the cool breath of the orchards and the smell of damp earth clinging to him.
“We could have stayed longer,” he said remorsefully. “It will be days before we can turn the soil.” Hugging her tightly, he whispered, “Glad to be home?”
Serena knew the question meant many things. “Wherever you are, Jeff,” she answered, smoothing his windblown hair. But a part of her wished that she were still in Mexico, far away from Delia, and without problems to be solved.
“I thought you were going to change your dress.” His eyes said that he had seen her brown tweed suit before.
“I was, but Luis came in to talk, and you know Luis.”
Slipping away, she went into the bedroom to pick out a dark dress, suitable to wear to Delia’s dinner. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” she called alter from the shower.
When she came out, Jeff was standing at the west windows, viewing the green hills through the bare limbs of the walnut trees. “I don’t mind making Delia wait,” he teased her, “but my soul rebels at the thought of spoiling her biscuits.”
As they passed through the dining room, she saw a large, gilt-covered box on the table. With a sudden impulse she picked it up.
“Do you have to show everything tonight?” Jeff protested.
“This one is so pretty.” Her voice was light. In the box was a beautiful white woolen scarf, big as a cloak. She had bought it in one of the shops in Juarez their last day in Mexico.
“That’s pretty enough for an evening wrap,” Jeff said. “I’ll take you dancing when we go back.”
“It doesn’t look like the Legion hall on Saturday night.”
“Legion hall,” Jeff scoffed. “That’s for Nob Hill.”
Delia, wearing the silver combs and earrings, was slightly put out.
“You go right into the dining room,” she commanded them. “Everything is spoiling by waiting. Don’t make it any worse. And my land,” she turned to David who was shining with cleanliness, “pull out a chair for Serena. I hope I’ve taught you how to treat guests.”
Serena’s eyes met Jeff’s. Don’t say anything, her eyes begged.
It was a good dinner, rich with dressing, brown gravy, and whipped cream.
“How does it feel to be back to some good home cooking after all those hot Mexican dishes?” Delia asked as she served Jeff a second helping of cream cake.
“Heavenly, Delia, heavenly,” Jeff smiled, settling back in his chair.
Serena rose from the table, asking to be excused for a moment. Then she was back with the golden box.
“Our thanks for the wonderful dinner and all the other things you have done for us and David.” She put the box in front of Delia.
Jeff’s mouth started to open in quick protest, but she did not look his way.
“It’s something beautiful to look at and lovelier to wear,” she told Delia, who was staring at the box.
“My land, you’ve brought me so many things! Go get my kitchen scissors, David.” Her veined hands fumbled with the cord.
“We saved the best for the last,” Serena assured her.
Delia cut the cord and lifted the scarf from its tissue wrappings. Her mouth fell open, her hands trembled, and telltale color darkened her thin cheeks. “Why, it’s beautiful, too beautiful for me!” She kept her eyes downcast.
“It will give you something really elegant to wear to your parties.” Serena draped the scarf around Delia’s square shoulders.
“My, my,” Delia muttered, watching herself in the buffet mirror. “Now I have to get at the dishes,” she scolded them, folding the scarf with jerky fingers. She left the box on the table and went to the kitchen, where Luis was scraping the pans. “You don’t need to help,” Delia said testily.
“I’ll help.” Serena took a pan from his hands. “Isn’t it your night to go to Church?”
Luis beamed. “Tonight I would like to work. We build a new chapel, and now we finish floors.” He went happily out.
In the living room David and Jeff got out the chess set.
They were still deep in their game when Serena looked at her watch. “It’s eight-thirty.” She smiled at David. “And there’re still the best gifts to look at before you go to bed.”
David looked questioningly at Delia, who was knitting one of her endless sweaters. She started to count stitches, not lifting her eyes.
“That’s right,” Jeff said, stretching, “and time for two people who have to get back to a farmer’s schedule to get to bed, too. Get your things,” he turned to David. “Tomorrow we’ll move everything over.”
David stood up, the red king in his fingers.
“Get along.” There was authority in Jeff’s tone.
David made no move, looking at Delia. “I’m going to stay here.” His voice was a monotone. Abruptly he dropped the red king and went quickly out of the room and up the stairs.
Jeff rose, his face black. “What’s this?” He turned to Delia. “What have you been doing with the boy?”
“I’ve been doing nothing but taking care of him.” Her voice was as bland as her cream cake. “You know you’ve often let the boy make his own decisions.”
“Well, he’s not making this one.” His voice was iron. He turned to follow his son.
Serena was also standing. She had not yet earned the right to interfere. The lace on her fragile white handkerchief tore under her fingers.
“Leave him alone for a few minutes, Jeff. If you’ll let me, I’d like to speak to him first. It’s because of me that he’s acting so.” Already she had lost count of the times today she had interposed her will on Jeff. David had not made this decision alone. She had to learn why.
“He needs a good spanking. He’s been spoiled too long,” Jeff announced, but he was wavering, his face puzzled and unhappy.
Poor Jeff. He hadn’t counted on this either. Serena looked at Delia, too intent on her knitting. ‘smiling weakly at Jeff, she went upstairs.
The silence was dark under her feet as she groped her way to David’s bed. The boy was still, the covers protecting him.
“May I talk with you a few minutes, David?” Her voice was easy.
“If you want.” His answer was a mumble in the darkness.
I’m swimming in waters too deep and dark for me, and so much of my strength is already spent. Help me, she prayed, make me wise enough. I know so little about children. She fumbled for the bedside chair, found it, and drew it close to the low bed.
“Do you remember before your father and I left, David? You told me something?” She pushed the anxiety from her voice.
From underneath the bed covers came an assenting mumble.
“You said you were planning for days when we could live together, and you would call me mother.” Her voice had a soothing quality.
The silence that followed was long, and Serena could hear the throbbing of her heart.
“Maybe I did,” he said at last, pushing the covers back, “but I feel different now.”
Glad for the darkness, she asked, “Can you tell me what happened to make you feel different? Was it anything I did?”
David twisted his head on the pillow. “I don’t want to tell.” His voice was flat.
“I think you should tell me, David. Your father feels very bad about this and I feel worse. We have to understand what it is.” It was hard not to reach out her hand to the troubled boy.
There was no answer.
“Was it something I did, David?” By an effort she retained her smoothness.
He was biting his lips.
“I don’t know,” he managed to say.
“Was it something that someone else said to you, maybe Delia?”
“I guess so … maybe.”
“Did she say I didn’t want you?”
His “yes” was a bare whisper.
“Why did she say that I didn’t want you?”
David sat up in bed, his hands clutching the blanket. “She said,” his voice was thick, “that you only wanted Dad, and I would just be a nuisance to you.”
“Did you believe her, David?”
“Well, I didn’t, not right at first … then maybe I did.”
Serena could feel his hot breath on her face. Still she kept her hands tight in her lap. “Did she say that she wanted to have you, that maybe she would act differently?”
“How did you know that?” he asked in a gasp of surprise.
“I just thought she did. What did she promise you?”
“She said that now Dad was gone she would have lots of time for me, that she wouldn’t be so tired and I could have my friends come to see me.”
“Did she promise anything more?” Nothing must be hidden now.
“Oh, yes,” his voice came clear and boyish, “she said that this year she would give me a big birthday party. She said I could invite all the boys I wanted, and she would cook me a big dinner with lamb roast and cake and ice cream, afterwards.”
“A birthday party means a lot to you, doesn’t it, David?”
“Yes, it does. I’ve never had a real birthday party, not since the one my own mother gave me when I was four years old.”
“Can you remember it?”
“Not too much. I just remember the children singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and I couldn’t blow out all the candles at once.”
“Has Delia let you invite friends?”
He was emphatic. “She never acted like she wanted me to. And they didn’t like to come much because she was always following us around and never letting us do the things we wanted to do.” His tears were beginning.
“And was that all Delia told you – was that the only reason she felt you should stay with her?” Serena let her cheek rest against his hair.
“No, it wasn’t all.” He straightened a little, still keeping within her arms. “She said that this was my own mother’s house, and that my father had no right to take me away from it. She said I could only have one mother – it wouldn’t be right to my real one to have you for a mother.”
Oh, let me say the right thing, Serena prayed. I have to say the right thing.