Rona’s House

Chapter 1

May Rose

I often think I’d like to go back to a time when we were all together in the boardinghouse, Freddy and Hettie safely at home, their father with us still. Then the very next moment I think of all the heartache I’d have to endure, first losing Barlow, then Freddy, and I change my mind.

I was working in the store with Barlow the day he dropped to the floor. We were filling an order for delivery to the hospital, and I’d started to carry a ten-pound sack of flour to the van. “Here, let me take it,” he said. It was 1940, and he was 74. Freddy was in his second year of college; Hettie in her first.

After Barlow died, I floated in the same places—Townsend’s General Store, our town, the boardinghouse—barely half of myself. Both our children said they’d come home and manage the store. I said I could do it. I couldn’t.

Recently I dreamed Barlow had come back. He’d found me here at our cottage after all these years, and he stood at the door asking to be let in because the screen was hooked shut. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled to the elbows, and he wore suspenders and a butcher’s apron, though he was never a butcher. Townsend’s General Store sold no fresh meat.

In my dream I told him he couldn’t come back; too much time had passed, and my life was different now. I woke feeling sad but good because I’d seen him and heard his voice again.

I am content in the present. I have my cottage and I have friends nearby. I have my cat, one channel on television, and in summer, my flowers. I’m 92, and I’ve been alone a long time. I never thought I could live alone again, but there’s a peacefulness to my days and I sleep well in the silence of this valley. Only the cat requires something of me, to be fed, to be let out, to be let in.

It’s a shock to realize I’ve been without Barlow more years than we were together. The years with him were the best of my life, but life is okay now.

For months after he died, Wanda guided my decisions. To sell the store. To take down the boardinghouse sign. To spend summer at our cottage in the country, weeks at a time. When Dessie had her stroke, I quit my job and Wanda helped me take care of her because Dessie was like our sister. We tried our best to bring her back to herself, but she had another stroke and couldn’t breathe. After she died, Tom said he couldn’t stay without her, and he moved away to live with his nephew. Wanda persuaded her Aunt Piney to sell her house, and Piney moved in with Wanda and me. Eventually I stopped feeling like someone who didn’t belong on this earth. As Piney said, doing for others is the best way to set aside your own grief.

Today I have Hettie, though she lives far away in Pittsburgh, and I see her only if her daughter can fill in for her at the store. So yes, I also have a granddaughter, but I see her even less than I see Hettie. We lost Freddy, more than 30 years ago in the war. It’s nice to talk about Freddy with my friend Bertha Watson, who lost Jonah Junior in that war, too. Sometimes we cry but we also laugh about our boys’ youthful escapades and their tricks and looks and sayings and we’re cheered, remembering those things. Unless you die young, you will lose people you love. Sometimes in the night I recite the long list of everyone I’ve lost, dwelling on each name and holding each person in my heart. Then I know I’m blessed.

I moved permanently to the cottage almost ten years ago, at the same time Wanda moved to Arizona. I have close friends here, Judith and Bertha, and I’m only a few hours away from Hettie. Bertha and I used to walk back and forth between our houses, but now I am old and she is sick. Judith is very attentive to both of us. Judith calls herself my sister because her mother was my stepmother, Elizabeth Watson. The Watsons make me feel like family. Ha-ha. I almost was.

Hettie telephones every Sunday morning, and she was here for my last birthday. The most recent birthday, I mean. I hope it wasn’t my last. She came alone—her husband doesn’t like our mountain roads.

If someone forced me to explain why I dislike my son-in-law, I would say it’s mostly because he keeps Hettie tied to that store, seven in the morning until seven at night, six days a week. I’m being selfish: I know she loves the store. I’ve often thought it was the reason she married him—his family was in the grocery business.

There’s a white truck on the road now, raising a lot of dust. It doesn’t belong to anyone I know, so I pay attention. I seldom see a vehicle I don’t recognize because there’s no through-traffic here; the road ends down the valley at the Watson place. I push myself up from the porch swing to see if it’s going to stop anywhere, but no, it’s turned around and is coming back. It slows like it might turn down my lane, but it doesn’t, it turns into the lane at Wanda’s farmhouse. And stops. Now why, I wonder. Nobody home there. I’d call to the driver, but there’s a field between my house and the road and I’d never be heard. Somebody, a man I suppose, gets out. I think he’s walking around but I don’t see where he goes. Nobody’s been at home at that place for ages, not since Wanda and the kids moved to town. That was in the thirties, the depression. Charlie used to come regularly to cut back the brush and nail up the spouting, things like that, but he’s gone too, passed away in his sleep last year, which I think must be the best way of all to go. Possibly Wanda hired this man to make some repair. If you leave a house to fend for itself, it will soon fall down.

I stare across the field at the farmhouse for a long time, thinking of the first summer Barlow and I spent in this cottage, just our children with me through the week and Barlow at the week’s end; Wanda, Will and their kids just across the road, so much going back and forth, so many good times. I miss Wanda, my dearest friend, my stepdaughter. She was the first to grow up in my care, she and Charlie. I loved him too, as much as my own. Everyone in my family has died or gone somewhere else.

The phone is ringing. Hettie gave me a wristwatch, and I wind it every morning and look at it often, marking off my day, so now as I get up to see who’s calling, I know the stranger’s truck has been parked in the farm lane for almost an hour. My phone hangs on the kitchen wall and has a long cord so I can carry the earpiece and sit with it almost anywhere in the cottage. It doesn’t reach to the porch, so I say hello and take it to the chair by the window where I can watch the stranger’s truck.

“Hey, Ma.”

“Wanda! How are you?” Long-distance telephoning is a lot clearer than it used to be. She sounds like she’s next door, not all the way off in Arizona.

“Tolerable,” she says. “Hotter than I like, but this dry heat is good for my bones. I get around better and Evie looks in on me every day.” Like me, Wanda lives alone, but her daughter Evie is right next door.

“Evie is well, and everyone?” Years ago, Evie’s husband bought a newspaper business in Arizona and moved the family there. I get a Christmas letter from Evie every year with photographs and news about the doings of her kids and their kids. I remember their names but that’s about all.

“All good here, far’s I know,” Wanda says.

Maybe I’ve mixed up my days. “Is this Sunday?” We make long-distance calls on Sunday because Sunday rates are cheaper.

“I’m fine and it’s Thursday,” she says. “I thought I’d splurge, see how you are.”

Wanda never has much to say, so I try to think of things to tell her, like news about the neighbors, because she knows them all.

“There’s someone here right now,” I say. “Did you send him?”

“Someone at your house?”

“At your house, the farmhouse. He’s been walking around, been there for an hour. He came in a truck.”

“What kind of truck?”

“I don’t know. It’s white. The kind that’s all closed in.”

“A panel truck?”

“I suppose. Like a delivery truck. Oh, I think it’s leaving. Yes, he’s backing out of the lane, turning up the road now.”

“Maybe Evie sent him to look the place over. She’s been talking to me about selling the farm.”

“Maybe that’s it, then.”

“I’ll find out and let you know.”

“If you sell the farm, you must first sell me this piece of ground,” I say. “I don’t want someone else owning my cottage.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t kick you out. Unless you want to come and live here with me?”

“I’d love that. Wouldn’t we have good times? But I’m too old to move, stuck in my ways.” She understands.

“I’ll talk to Evie about that truck. Say hi to Bertha and everybody.”

Wanda may put the place up for sale, but I can’t imagine anyone will want it. No one in her family cares about the house or the farmland. Her kids, Otis and Wanda Rose, have jobs that keep them oceans away. She tells me what they’re doing but I haven’t seen them in years.

In the afternoon, the phone rings again. “It’s me,” Wanda says. “Evie says you should keep your doors locked, night and day. Whoever was at the farmhouse had no good reason to be there.”

Evie has lived most of her life in cities where maybe she had to be afraid of strangers. Nobody around here locks their doors.

END OF THIS SAMPLE. Rona’s House is available in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon.com.