Think in the Morning occasionally posts our own short stories and poems. If no other author is referenced, the work is ours and ours alone. Our fiction and poetry is a work in progress.
“It was a great shock to us all.”
Janet was standing outside the church waiting for them to come out. Mrs. P was by her side. Mr. P had died several years ago. Janet and Mrs. P often went to church together. Janet was divorced. She was with her youngest son, Devon, who this morning swayed back and forth behind his mother, bored but also anxious. Janet and Mrs. P had on their Sunday hats. Devon thought they looked about as ridiculous as the starched white smocks on the alter boys, smocks he solemnly vowed never to wear himself. The idea of being an altar boy repelled him . He didn’t wish to do anything to alarm his mother. He was happy the subject had never come up when he was that age. His older brother Eric, who was at business school at UC Berkeley, seldom went to church these days although he had been an altar boy when he was Devon’s age. Devon thought the fact that he still went to church at all should be enough to make his mother happy. He loved his mother completely. He lived in a different world, but he wouldn’t think of hurting her.
At last they were emerging, organized and compliant like ducklings following the mother duck out the church door, all eight children from the youngest just behind her mother to the oldest son at the rear. “It was a great shock to us all,” said Janet as she tried to look without staring, taking a somber pensive stance, exhibiting something between pity and horror, trying not to lay blame yet wondering if somehow, surely unintentionally, Mabel Jensen had played a role in the events that had recently stunned the little farming community of Sugarvale.
Jeffery Jensen married well. Mabel’s family, the Petersons, had been farming in the Valley for generations. Jeffery owned some land of his own but with Mabel’s inheritance (could this be the problem wondered Janet) the Jensen farm was among the largest in the county. Yet, something had gone wrong. There were persistent rumors about problems with debt—rumors one shouldn’t always take seriously given the mean-spirited attitudes toward the rich, but rumors that could not be ignored after what had happened.
Mabel Jensen was one of those rare women who could be at once both conventional and exceptional. She was young and vibrant and her beauty remained unmarred even after bearing eight children. She kept an impeccable house and did most of her own cooking even when entertaining guests. Intelligent but reserved, she let her husband take the lead. But, on this Sunday she found herself in the lead unexpectedly. She marched her children with precision out of the church and along the walkway looking neither this way nor that with stoic determination.
Devon walked with his mother toward their car while Mrs. P went her own way after inviting them over for a swim later in the day. Devon loved to swim and lay by Mrs. P’s pool on these warm summer days. He was delighted. As they approached the car, Devon’s mother abruptly turned toward him. “Let’s go see Pearl. I think she may be going out of town for a few weeks later this summer. Maybe she’ll hire you to water her garden and look after the house.”
Pearl was not religious. She lived alone in a beautiful old house next to the church where she could watch everyone coming and going through her window shades. Her garden was exquisite. She had dozens of varieties of irises that she’d collected from all over the world. She was short and stout like Devon’s grandmother. The two old ladies were great friends. Some found her severe, but Devon had a way with her. She liked him and trusted him with her prized irises. It was about the greatest compliment she could give anyone. Devon was no expert on flowers but he did appreciate beauty. He was reliable and conscientious when given responsibilities. He got on well with older women being raised by his mother and grandmother.
Pearl was happy to see them. Her house, always dark and cool in the summer, was a maze of extraordinary rooms filled with treasures she’d acquired on her many trips abroad. Devon loved to wander in these rooms, to look at the clay figures, the pictures, the lace, the antique vases, and the paintings on the walls—Pearl’s treasures. He could picture her at a wild bazaar in some exotic foreign place wandering with her straw hat and her modest dress, bargaining with a seasoned vendor who also loved to bargain until they struck a deal—both satisfied, both pleased, both sure that they each had the best of the other. She was older now and traveled less although by all appearances her health was satisfactory and not a reason in itself for her to slow down. Perhaps she simply preferred to spend more time now visiting the memories acquired from a lifetime alone, memories that in some cases were not real but created out of her unique and solitary world. One could never quite tell with Pearl which of her stories were imagined but they were all equally fascinating. Pearl told Devon that we had two lives, one on each side of a thin curtain. The curtain separates us from everything other than ourselves. We live alone, each in our own solitary world, but can, with the five senses, reach through the curtain to gather impressions of that other reality. They are always only impressions. We can never be sure of what we find there. From piercing the veil, we make up stories and call them reality.
Pearl was happy to see Janet and Devon but she didn’t invite them inside. “I have … I must … run some errands before lunch.” With Pearl this could mean either she wished to be alone or that there really were errands. It was not wise to pry into the shell surrounding her with anything sharp like a pocketknife. Accidents occur. They leave scars, the kind of scars that led to the Pearl some found severe—best to leave this old nut in its shell. “Sorry … I must run … but, yes … I could use you Devon … during most of the month of August. I will call you next week to confirm the dates. Goodbye now … thank you for stopping.”
“Well, that was short,” laughed Janet as they walked back to the car.
“Pearl is old and she lives alone. She is very eccentric but I still like her,” replied Devon.
Janet suddenly grew cold in spite of the warmth on that summer day. Perhaps she too would become eccentric, growing old alone, after Devon left to go out on his own. Eric was already gone. Devon would be off to college in a few years. She put her arm around Devon. “I love you,” she said with a tear in her eye as she watched Mable Jensen and her eight children climb into the van with the driver that would take them out to their farm, out to the fields of barley and safflower and rice and alfalfa, out near the river where Jeffery Jensen’s truck was found. She held Devon so close that it made him uncomfortable. “It was a great shock to us all,” she said, “certainly … a great shock to us all.”
Mrs. P’s pool was little more than a hole in the ground surfaced with a thin layer of cement surrounded by a little walkway—but, it was enough. Mrs. P and Janet sat in the shade of some olive trees. Mr. P had planted them years ago and they were now quite large and very productive.
“I wonder what the poor people are doing?” This was Mrs. P’s constant joke especially when she was sitting by her pool sipping iced tea. Mr. P had planted a small almond orchard now tended by his son whose interest in agriculture had led to a job in the City. The orchard still provided a modest but sufficient income for Mrs. P. The family was very Italian, very Catholic, the parents simple, the son and daughter well educated and successful beyond their parent’s dreams. The children could have provided an opulent life for Mrs. P, but she preferred the life she had always known. She lived in the small house Mr. P had built so many years ago when they first moved to Sugarvale next to the orchard that he had tended all his life. She wanted to live as she had always lived. They say Mr. P had a good heart but an imposing disposition. Because of his circumstances, he was very frugal and was quite vocal in his dismissal of even those small pleasures that most people took for granted. Mrs. P had been severely constrained before his death. While she loved him without question and gave all appearances of respecting his opinions, life was in many ways easier for her now.
“Yes, I wonder what the poor people are doing,” repeated Janet, playing along. Suddenly, her face grew dark. She looked straight into the brown eyes of Mrs. P said: “I worry about Mabel and the children. Do you think they’ll be alright? Do you think Jeffery was losing the farm?”
“No one knows, Janet. No one knows, but I’ll tell you that was an awful thing for him to do. Mary, Jesus, and Joseph! How can she go on? The farm is the least of it. Mary mother of God! I can’t even imagine how this will affect the children.”
Devon was laying by the side of the pool enjoying the warm light of the sun and listening or not listening to the conversation between his mother and Mrs. P. Devon wondered what Mr. Jensen had been feeling behind that curtain, the one that Pearl talked about, that made him do such a thing. He wondered if some day he would find the same lonely place that Mr. Jensen found and how he would respond. Then he fell asleep.
“Wake up Devon, its time to go home.” His mother looked down at him. When he looked up, the sun was blinding. All he saw was a shadow.
They arrived home a few minutes later. Devon’s grandmother, Eunice, was sitting at the porch table playing Canasta with Ida. A few years ago when Devon’s grandfather was still alive, Devon used to visit his grandparents’ home. That’s where Ida and Eunice had taught him how to play Canasta. Ida was a fiercely competitive player She sulked and brayed when she lost and held grudges for weeks. Devon didn’t really enjoy cards anymore. He now had other interests. Sometimes he would play just for fun or to watch Ida fume if he won which he often did. It was more fun before his grandmother moved in with them after his grandfather died. Devon loved the old house, especially the kitchen with the card table in the corner and the antique gas stove by the sink next to the door where his grandmother cooked all his favorite things even though he fought with her mercilessly and knew in his heart that she loved Eric more because she had practically raised him.
Ida was a retired schoolteacher, a spinster who had no family except some second hand relatives in Sugarvale who were waiting for her to die so they could get their hands on her money. She moved back from the City when she retired and bought a house on the edge of town. Her back yard bordered the high school football field. When he was younger, Devon would stand in Ida’s backyard and watch the games through the wire fence. She had a beautiful garden that rivaled Pearl’s. It was as different as Ida and Pearl were different. Ida’s garden had exotic shrubs, fragrant colorful flowers, lush trees and giant bushes. The area, though beautiful, was dark and mysterious.
Devon had the luxury—yes, he believed it a luxury—of being raised by and surrounded by women, older women. Everyone has both feminine and masculine qualities. In traditional families you might expect the men to have a greater influence on the boys and the women a greater influence on the girls. Devon emerged from his matriarchal childhood differently. He had a love for cooking and reading. He even liked cleaning while he had far less interest in hunting or repairing cars. He was more comfortable being around women than men. He loved gardens and music and art but was far too intimidated to imagine doing any of these things himself. Fortunately, he also loved mathematics and rational thinking and sports. Had this not been true, his friends might have tagged him as a sissy. He never worried about stepping on cracks or walking through dark buildings or his astrological sign. While he went through the motions in church, he could not bring himself to believe in a Father God looking down on him from the heavens.
Ida was winning at Canasta. She was rather cold to Devon fearing that he might decide to join in the next round and turn around her luck.
“Hello Ida. Sorry I can’t join in but I’ve got some chores to do.”
“We’ll miss you then.” She smiled and became more relaxed.
Devon went out through the screen door into the backyard and walked around in the field next to his house where he had once made trails in the weeds and played hide and seek with his friends. Janet went into the kitchen to decide what to do for dinner. She also wanted to make plans for the women’s group on Tuesday night that she was hosting. The theme was Hawaiian. She’d picked up some macadamia nuts last weekend when they had taken a weekend outing to the Nut Exchange over in the county seat. She was thinking of pineapple upside down cake. She made a list of the things she would need from the store.
In the distance, Devon saw Yvonne Yves watering the flowerpots on her front deck. Yvonne was French. He had no idea how she ended up in a place like Sugarvale. She had lived in town for years without any family though she often mentioned a son back in France. His mother told him Yvonne had married an American on holiday. They had a son, then her husband left her for another woman and moved away. The son was sent to grow up in France with Yvonne’s family. She was too ashamed or proud to return to France, so she carried on by taking in sewing jobs at which she was very adept. Her intricate designs were very much in demand. She always wore dresses and laced shoes and stiff small hats even when she was at home. Devon watched her water the plants on her small deck. She’d never lost her thick French accent.
Devon drew close to the porch window. He heard Ida and his grandmother talking about Jeffery Jensen.
“They say outside his truck there was a pile of cigarette butts, perhaps two packs worth.”
“That’s what I heard also.” said Eunice. “He must have sat there in the dark thinking for hours before he put that gun to his head.”
At the other end of town, Mrs. P was sitting alone in her kitchen thinking of how Mr. P would be coming in about now from the orchard covered with dust and how he would tell her that it was going to be a tough year and that they wouldn’t be able to go to the coast to get out of the stifling heat and that she would just have to make do here while she stood cutting up the vegetables for dinner. Mrs. P stood quietly watching the bright yellow sun fall in the clear blue sky through her kitchen window, watching the splashes of light filter through the trees and dance across the pool to finally disappear into the roses along the fence. “I wonder what the poor people are doing,” she thought. Then she laughed out loud.
Pearl had no errands that day. She guarded her privacy like a dog guards a bone. She sat looking through her window watching the undertaker pull up to the church to set things up for Jeffery Jensen’s funeral. “What a simpleton,” she thought to herself. “Life is too valuable to throw away.” She had no sympathy for weak men.
Mabel Jensen went through the motions as her friends and relatives arrived in solemn arrays of twos and threes. Her eight children were dispersed to the fashionable homes of neighbors where they had the comfort of their own friends and where they were sheltered from the pain but also the understanding of death. Her five senses wandered through the curtain, but she herself remained on the other side. She sipped cool tea, she listened to the condolences, she hugged friends some of whom she’d not seen for several years, she watched the cars pull up and leave. What hurt most of all were the smells around the house that brought back the memories she wanted to forget. She cut the links. The curtain became an impenetrable wall. She was alone at last, unaware of anyone or anything.