CLARA COMES HOME
The chair’s rockers edge over the porch floor boards until one of them comes to rest in an indentation and grinds away at the dry rot. It comforts Clara with the sound she thinks might be termites gnawing away at a tasty bit of oak—a sound imperceptible to everyone except to those who only listen. Settling into the gentle back and forth motion, she looks out over the rows of tomatoes running north toward the horizon.
Clara hates those tomatoes, hates the enormous expanse of flat land cracked open by the unforgiving sun like her girlhood lips rubbed raw by the icy wind and freezing temperatures of upstate New York. She wonders if the blistered earth in the Central Valley hurts, and why her niece’s husband doesn’t moisten the ground like her mother had soothed her daughter’s lips with the salve she made from comfrey leaves and lavender buds.
Clara rocks harder and tries to remember how it felt when she ran her tongue over her sore lips and how her mother’s work-worn fingers caught on the chapped skin as she rubbed in the ointment. She breathes in the remembered smell of lavender. The sun continues to bear down on the long rows of tomatoes. The air sears her throat. She closes her eyes, shutting out the sun’s punishing glare. The chair never stops rocking.
The screen door squeals, and Josie walks out onto the porch. She lays a cool hand on her aunt’s arm. “Want some ice tea?” she asks.
Clara shakes her head and withdraws her arm from Josie’s touch. Cool as it is, it isn’t welcome. She continues to stare out over the fields and listens to the flocks of crows caw away at the peacefulness of the morning. No need for Josie to get all nice and pretend to be happy that her aunt has come here to live. No need for that, nor for Clara to be taken away from her home and brought to this wretched valley. She’d been taking care of things back home very nicely, thank you.
Josie sighs. “Use the bell if you need me.” She picks up the cowbell resting on the table, shakes it, and bends to kiss her aunt’s forehead before returning to the house.
The bell’s metallic clang assaults Clara’s ears and she wipes away Josie’s kiss with the back of her hand. She gives the bell a malevolent look and wonders where Josie found the danged thing. Clara hasn’t seen a single cow since she came to live with her niece and her husband, Louis, almost a year ago. Farming here is not like farming back home, where small dairies are etched out of the softly rounded hills covered with sugar maples, hickories, and birch, and where water runs freely through the creek beds, washing rocks and scouring banks instead of flowing dutifully through man-made ditches, being told where to go and what to do, never feeling a trout tickle its deeper spots or a water snake nest in its shallows.
Tears flood Clara’s cheeks. She’ll never see the creek again, the little house where her mother and father slept in the big room by the wood stove, where Mellie, the oldest, bedded down in the loft, and where Clara and her brother, Chris, slept in the woodshed, sharing the big double bed that Ma had bought for two dollars off the manager of the West Glenn Hotel when it closed down.
Clara’s thoughts roam the big room in the old house, the house where she was born and had expected to die. Pa’s winter coat hangs by the front door, his straw hat lies where he tossed it onto the bench, and his milking boots warm themselves behind the wood stove. A bowl of milk from Franchel’s dairy sits on the table, waiting for the cream to separate. Ribbon tape hangs near the open window, waiting to catch unsuspecting flies, and a pot of potatoes has been put on the stove to boil. As she reaches out to touch the handle of the pump next to the sink, the Ford’s big diesel engine clatters to a stop. Louis, Josie’s husband, is home for the noon meal.
“Ready for lunch, Aunt Clara?” he asks. His sun-scorched face wears a broad smile, and his thick-soled boots fall heavily on the stairs. He bends to pat her shoulder like she’s some kind of dog.
Clara’s lips stretch thin. She wrinkles her nose at his sweat smell and stares at his baseball cap. What a strange thing. A farmer in a baseball cap. She waggles her head in puzzlement. Not even big enough to shade the back of his neck. Where she came from, you could hardly call yourself a farmer if you didn’t wear a broad-brimmed straw hat that had been bleached by the sun and rendered shapeless by the rain.
Louis smiles. He straightens and looks out over the tomato fields. “We’ll get a bumper crop this year, Aunt Clara.” He looks at her, at a loss for words. “Yep, a bumper crop. Guess I’ll go in and wash up.” The screen door squeals shut behind him.
Clara hasn’t spoken since around the time that she and Chris had begun touching each other. It wasn’t long before she decided that she loved her brother more than anybody, more than Mellie, even more than Ma and Pa. To keep her secret, she had stilled her voice, fearful that if she told anyone, someone would put an end to those nights of the only tenderness she’d ever known.
That was when she was in the fifth grade, when the school principal had told Ma to send her to the home for the delayed kids up in Albany, when Ma told her she was old enough to help with the chores and kept her hidden from the county-sent woman who came snooping around every once in a while, when Clara started walking two miles every day to the main road where the mail lady stuffed the post boxes, and where she waited impatiently for the school bus to return her sister and brother to the safety of their little house.
The rocking chair slows as Clara leans back, shuts her eyes, and remembers hitching up Mellie’s outgrown skirt that hung down around Clara’s hips and wadded itself between her knees. She sees herself passing the time by jumping off the milk bench where Orrin Franchel’s twenty-gallon milk cans wait to be collected by the co-op truck, and sitting on the piles of rain-hardened bags of lime that the government men dropped off and none of the locals had taken the time to haul away.
“Lunch time,” Josie’s voice sings out.
Her voice startles Clara. Josie’s cheerfulness annoys her. Ma always said, “No time for niceties if you want to get through the day and get some rest.” Clara looks past Josie’s shoulder and sees Ma, her blackberry-scratched arms reaching up to hang the clothes on the line strung between two birch trees, warning that this wasn’t the time to play and admonishing Mellie to hand her the clothes pins, to collect the eggs, to close the hens in for the night, to fetch the potatoes from the root cellar and put them on to boil.
“Do you want to eat lunch out here or come inside with us?” Josie asks.
Clara shrugs. It makes no difference to her. She only picks at her food. Here or in with them, nothing tastes good.
Josie takes her arm and helps her out of the chair. “It’s better if you eat with us. Come on.” She leads her aunt into the cool interior of the house. “Louis doesn’t get much of a chance to talk to you.”
Not that Louis talks to her. He talks about tomatoes. About irrigation. About the chemicals the droning tractors spray over the fields. About hiring the pickers. About contracts with the haulers and canners. So much talk about tomatoes makes Clara grieve for her mother’s introspective quietness and her father’s forbearance.
At home, the tomatoes ripened and they picked them. Ate them fresh in the summer and cooked in the winter. Big tomatoes. Not the puny little things they brag about out here, fifty or so to a bush, hiding from the sun under the leafy stems, waiting for the machines to come and haul them out of the ground and onto a conveyer belt that dumps them into the waiting trucks like so much trash. Tomatoes here never feel the eager hands of a child placing them in the folds of her apron, never enjoy the cold water from the pump that sent them to the table all shined like a pair of shoes going to a wedding. It makes Clara sad to think about it.
Ma had complained that she sorely missed Mellie after her oldest daughter quit school and went to live in the city and work in the steam turbine plant. Pa had forbidden her to leave, told her that she could just as well stay put at home and marry the oldest Kroft boy. What with his 120 acres and his folks passed, Junior Kroft needed someone for the washing and canning and feeding the men at harvest time. But one morning, without telling anyone, Mellie rode to town with the mail lady and took the bus to the city.
After that, Clara had taken up Mellie’s duties and learned the ways of housekeeping. That was just fine with her except for having to go to the cellar to bring up the root vegetables and canned goods for the evening meal. Her innards tighten as she remembers going down the wooden stairs to the dirt-floored room, damp darkened and filled with spiders and mice and an occasional raccoon, with only the tiny bit of courage she could muster and the dim light of a lantern.
“Keep the lamp wick down,” Ma would call after her. “No sense burning up the kerosene for nothing.”
At first she’d wait until early evening when Chris came back from Franchel’s, where he hired out to milk cows after school, and ask him to go to the basement with her. She could feel the warmth of his hand when he took her elbow, holding the lamp high, guiding her down the steps, his lips touching her ear as he whispered that he loved her.
But Ma had put a stop to that real quick. “Got his own chores to do,” she’d scold. “And besides, he ain’t always gonna be here, so get on with it.”
“You should eat something, Aunt Clara.” Josie picks up the spoon and hands it to her aunt. “I think you’ll like it.” She pours some cream into her aunt’s bowl, making a white round circle on the surface of the orange squash soup. “My dad gave me this recipe. Said it was my mother’s.”
Clara takes the spoon and stirs until the cream disappears. Mellie died a few days after Josie had been born, and her husband took the baby off to California without so much as a how-do-you-do, sending a picture of him and Josie each year at Christmas. That was the same year the war started and the government sent books of blue and red stamps to purchase food. Orrin Franchel had come down with the news—the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He and Pa had speculated some time about where that might be before Orrin took off to deliver the milk cans to the bench.
Ma never did figure out how to use those stamps, what with a basement full of food from the garden, as much chicken as any family could want to eat, and only just enough cash money to buy the things they couldn’t grow. The stamps lay on the shelf with Ma’s china tea set until Clara tore them along the perforated lines and threw them in the air like confetti. She smiled at the memory. All those little blue and red papers scattering in the breeze. It surely was a pretty sight.
Ma was right though. Chris wouldn’t always be at home with them. He’d gone off after he got that letter from the army that told him to report to Pine Camp up in Jefferson County. He sent word from time to time to tell them he was all right. Before long, the letters came on a small blue paper with their address and par avion on one side and, when unfolded, his writing on the other. Pa said it made him feel mighty important to get a letter with foreign words on the envelope, but Ma thought there was no use to it if you didn’t know what the words meant. But that’s the way Ma was, never did look at the bright side of things.
Each time a letter came, they’d wait until Franchel’s oldest son, Jimmy, had time to come down and read it to them. After he finished, they’d ask him to read it again, just so they could memorize the words. When he finished, Ma put them in the blanket chest and forgot about them. After a few days, Clara would take the letters out, hide them under her pillow and, before sleeping, bring the words back to her mind.
“Don’t expect him back,” Ma had said right after Chris left. “That’s the way it is these days. Young’uns go off, and you don’t ever see them again.”
But Clara had been certain he’d return. That’s when she took to carrying an umbrella every day, winter or summer, and wearing the floppy black hat and black stockings she’d found in the attic so she’d look right when Chris returned. Ma had said that Clara was acting a mite peculiar, but told Pa to let her be so long she wasn’t hurting nobody. And so, all made up like she was going somewhere special, Clara would walk to the mailbox every day like she was expecting the government to mail her brother back home.
After lunch, Louis puts his arm around Clara’s shoulders and guides her to her place on the porch and sees that she is safely seated, rocking her way back to the rut in the floor board, and listening for the pleasing sound that lures her thoughts back home. “Can I get you something else?” her nephew asks.
Clara shakes her head and rocks, staring at the tomato fields.
“See you ‘round supper time.” The truck engine starts and clatters its way back down to the packing sheds. Clara watches until it disappears around the bend in the road.
Pa never had a truck. But he always thought it would be nice to have one, like the old Chevy that Orrin had stored on the ground floor of his hay barn and took out when he needed to go to town. But Pa never did get one. He died before he learned how to drive. That was during the second year of the war. The winter was unusually harsh, and he was felled by an ague that turned him from sweat to chills more times a day then Clara could count. When he passed, the ground was so frozen that it was spring before they could dig his grave alongside the creek where he could listen to the music of the water washing the stones and scouring the banks. They didn’t have a box to put him in, so Ma sewed him into a worn blanket and lined the hole with straw left from last year’s harvest.
“He’ll be real comfortable like,” Ma had said when the shoveling was done and she had repeated some verses she’d memorized from the Bible. “Now you go along there and get some stones from the creek and cover that grave so he won’t get dug up by some critter.” Clara had spent the rest of the day carrying stones to the gravesite and covering them with wild flowers.
Clara’s thoughts are interrupted when the mail truck’s brakes grind to a stop at the end of Josie’s driveway. The mailman shoves letters and the newspaper into the box and waves to her. She pretends she doesn’t see him. She has no call to be friendly with the likes of him. She could live here twenty years and never know his name. Back home, Mary Hilts drove the mail truck along the twenty-three mile stretch between West Alder Creek and Brooksville delivering the mail, the latest news, and the items she’d purchased from the lists and with the money the folks on her route left in their mailboxes.
That’s how Clara found out the war was over. Mary had brought the news along with the mail. That meant Chris would be coming home. She had wanted to cry out with joy, but she feared that if she spoke, the magic she had shared with her brother would disappear, that he would come home a different man, that he would have forgotten that he loved her. She just smiled and waved as Mary drove off to deliver mail and her news. Back at the house, she calmed her mind, busied her hands, and waited for each day to pass.
By the time Chris returned to Clara and their bed in the woodshed, Ma had become poorly, refusing to eat, thinking Chris was her husband, and asking him why Mellie hadn’t come home from school that day. Chris had folded his uniform, put it in the blanket chest at the foot of Ma’s bed, and hired out to the sheep ranch down the hill towards North Fulton, helping with the lambing in early spring, shearing in the summer, and haying along towards fall. Clara cooked, mended, did the canning, and comforted her mother. When Ma passed, Chris and Clara buried her next to their father.
Not much changed in their lives after Ma died. Clara left the little house only to go to the mailbox. Although she sometimes wondered about the world that lay beyond the end of the dirt road, she never asked to see it. She delivered Chris’s notes to Mary Hilts, asking her to pick up a few things in town like bolts to keep the pump handle in working condition or canning jars to replace the ones that broke. When Orrin delivered milk to them once a week, she put the tin in the well to keep it cool, and when Ruth, Orrin’s hired girl, came out to pick blackberries, Clara joined her, silently working alongside just the way she had done with Ma all her life.
A year after the war ended, electricity came through, and a man who said he was from the utility company gave Chris a dollar for letting them put a pole on their property. They never took in the electricity, though. Clara still fixed the meals on the wood stove, lit their way at night with the kerosene lamp, walked to the mailbox six days a week, scattered wildflowers on the graves, and waited for Chris to come home when he hired out to the sheep ranch so he could be the one to carry up the potatoes and canned goods from the basement.
“I brought you some lemonade,” Josie says to her aunt.
Clara pushes her hand away.
“I know you’re not happy, but I had to come get you.” Josie’s voice was soft and wheedling. “My mother would have wanted me to look after you. Louis and I want you to be happy living with us.” When Clara doesn’t answer, Josie moves away. “I’ll be out back taking down the laundry. Ring the bell if you need me.”
Clara stares out over the tomato fields, and tears once more moisten her eyes. She is saddened by the thought that Chris is alone at home, on their bed in the woodshed, covered with Ma’s quilt, the one that was too good for anyone to use, the one left folded on the blanket chest at the foot of Ma’s bed for as far back as Clara could remember. After she had put him to bed and tucked the quilt under his chin, she had gone to the loft to sleep. She had slept uneasily that first night, listening to the music sung by the creek, wondering if Chris could hear and feel comforted by it. So he didn’t feel alone and afraid, she’d left the oil lamp burning next to the bed.
She hadn’t been lonely in the days that followed because every night she sat by him, thinking about the day’s events, knowing that he would be proud of how she kept their home going: how she split the kindling, went into the basement alone, carried water from the creek after the pump handle broke, wired the hinges on the outhouse door when they pulled away from the frame, tied knots in the rotting clothes line, and nailed the slats from her parents’ bed across the window after it had been broken by a falling tree limb.
That summer at shearing time, the manager and the foreman from the sheep ranch came to see if Chris would hire out again. When Clara heard their truck rattling up the pot-holed road, she had run out back and hid behind the wood pile. The manager knocked on the front door and called out, “Anybody home?”
“The place is so rundown, it doesn’t look like anybody’s lived here for some time,” the other man said.
“Must be here,” the manager answered. “They’re not ones for going out much. Pretty well keep to themselves.” As he opened the woodshed door, the hinges gave a rasping sound, like an old man clearing his throat of phlegm. There had been a moment of silence before the manager yelled, “Holy Mother of God, come take a look at this.”
“Is that…?” the foreman asked, staring at the skeletal figure, hair neatly brushed to one side and teeth arrayed behind an unearthly grin.
The manager nodded as he stepped back and shut the door.
Clara closes her eyes and trembles at the memory of the shouting and confusion, the fire truck with its whirling lights, and the county-sent woman who came to take her away. Pa, then Ma, then Chris. All taken by the lung fever. Clara’s head sags, the chair slows and then stills.
After a while she rises, turns her back on the tomato fields, and shelters under her umbrella as she wanders up the dirt road to the little house, stopping by the gravesite where her parents rest. A pleasant breeze plays among the tall grass that has grown over the graves and teases the loose bark on the birch trees. Down by the creek, a frog croaks out his passion.
Clara hums as she bends to pick wildflowers, surprised at the sound of her voice. Before long, Chris comes and places her hand in his.
“Been away for some time,” he says. He takes the flowers from her and spreads them over the grave. “We’ve been missing you.”
Clara speaks for the first time in fifty-seven years. “I was a long ways away.” She quiets for a moment and leans against him. “But got back just as soon as I could,” she whispers.
Chris smiles and squeezes her hand.