The Farallon Review (excerpt)
The small, gabled Victorian had always belonged to Mrs. Thomas, but the hungry young woman lingering by the fence did not know this. She had followed a man to California from the mid-west three years ago, before the war, but when she lost the baby, she gave up looking and began to wander place-to-place. She liked the look of this place--two stories of gray wood in need of paint, a leaf-strewn porch, a garden gone to seed and a bed of thriving roses, three rows deep. She was admiring the roses when she noticed a gnarled old hand, palm up on the ground beyond the third row, where Mrs. Thomas had fallen dead.
The old woman lay on her back, one hand over her chest. She might have been sleeping. She might have been anyone’s grandmother, and, as the young woman knelt over the gray face, her heart seized with the weight of all she had lost. She glanced around, but the street was still, the day new. Fog draped like a shroud over the town and there was no sky at all and no one else about, no one to see her untangle the old woman’s skirts from the thorns, to lift the brittle little body or tug her down the stone path into the house, and arrange her as comfortably as she could, on a chintz divan in the sitting room.
The young woman shivered. The fire had died, but the coals lived and soon she coaxed heat back into the room. She would sit for a moment in the heat, rest her eyes. But by the time she opened them again the fog had vanished. The day swelled and with it the smell of roses through the French windows and she could see how much there was to do. Dust grimed the glass lampshade, gathered in drifts in corners. Spoons, saucers and tea-stained cups littered the coffee and end tables. She gathered as many cups as she could and found her way to the kitchen. The sink was full of dishes gray with mold. Ants marched crumbs down a cracked tile countertop. In two hours she had washed and dried the dishes, cleaned the counter and the stovetop, mopped the floor, and felt, along with a scavenger’s pride, the comfort and unaccountable familiarity of long residence.
That is until she saw, out the French window, a keel bent Chinaman with a hitch in his step pushing a cart. He wore faded trousers, a white collared shirt. His hair and eyebrows were white.
“Mrs. Thomas?” he said. She held tight the doorframe. If necessary, she could overpower him, outrun him to the creek, out of town.
“Resting,” the young woman said.
Not long ago people would have called the young woman pretty, but after losing the baby she’d gone early gray and began to slouch. She wore work boots she’d stolen off a drunk in a train yard north of Stockton, and her clothes, never fine, were rags. In the miles between here and home, she’d lost the meek expression that once complimented her wide, trusting eyes and shy smile. People now watched her as they might a stray dog lurking near a hen house; she had become hardy as a stray, with a stray’s spooked poise.
But the old man only cocked his head, a half-smile scoring his eyes. He lifted a grocery box from his cart, placed it at her feet. From the back of the cart he took four infant rose bushes, swaddled in burlap, and pointed beyond the third row of roses, where old Mrs. Thomas intended them to go. He hoped old Mrs. Thomas would not insist on digging the new row herself. She never took his help, he said, even after she had started feeling poorly. For years she had not been herself. He told the young woman how deep to plant the roses and how to care for them until their roots took hold. She listened and after he limped away, brought the box of food into the sitting room and sat and ate all afternoon, watching the old dead woman.