Pebbles in a Stream – Part 8

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part VII.)

PART VIII.

Andrea lay on the bed in her day clothes, her mind lulled into a safe void by the waning afternoon, when a knock woke her. She blinked sleepily then propped herself up on an elbow to listen. Again it came, though it was less a knock and more a timid tapping on the thick glass of the main entry. She waited longer, unmoving, hoping the unexpected visitor would soon grow impatient and disinterested. Andrea flopped back down onto the bed and turned onto her back, massaging her temples with the thumbs of her hands. “Go away, go away, go away…” she chanted. The visitor didn’t and knocked again.

“Mrs. Palmer? Ma’am? Are ya ‘ere?” a man’s voice called.

She recognized the measured, drawling tone. Damn it. She sighed and rolled herself up off the bed. Exiting the room, she swiftly adjusted the pins in her hair and brushed the wrinkles out of her royal blue cotton dress printed all over with cream-colored Fleur de Lis. By the time she reached the landing her guest was tapping again on the door’s glass window, his small nose pressed obnoxiously against the etching of a pair of dueling stallions rearing on mighty legs. The man’s wide eyes trespassed brazenly into the foyer. Andrea grumbled over the wide blotches of sweat and dirt and palm prints smeared across the freshly cleaned window.

“Mrs. Palmer? That you?” At sight of her approaching his hopes were confirmed; his head went still, ending its wild search, but the eyes continued to fidget in their sockets. “Mrs. Palmer, ma’am, c’n we chat? Please?”

Andrea opened the door without responding. The young man on the other side stumbled back a step as his prop retreated, forcing him to regain his balance. Andrea stared coolly at her visitor, waiting, inspecting.

He was shabby and dusty, just as he was every time she saw him. His overalls were too long, his button shirt too small, and though he didn’t own a hat—or at least one that Andrea recalled seeing—his straight, sandy hair was matted in places around the circumference of his skull, giving him the appearance of a man who’s head cover was ever-present and invisible. His clothes were wrinkled; a few sticks of straw hay stuck to his pant legs and a sticky pad of manure grew outward from the underside of one boot. She peered onto the ground behind him: a one-footed trail of muck ran from the barn to where he now stood, disclosing in an array of multi-directional prints at the base of the porch the pause taken to carefully lean a rusty pitchfork against the lower railing. She sighed and raised her eyes to look over his face. He had a narrow chin and drawn-out, sunken cheeks that pretended not to know sustenance; while he appeared ill-fed, Andrea knew he enjoyed a hearty supper at precisely eight in the evening in the company of the other hands, in Old Theodore’s single-room cabin on the eastern edge of the farm. She knew well of the longstanding, nightly tradition. None of the workers had families to speak of, or else their families were far away, so the crew bonded easily over whiskey and whatever meal Old Theodore decided to boil for them. On lonesome evenings in the summertime, when Henry was away, Andrea often sat out on the porch rocker, listening to the men’s rowdy laughter bellow out across through the citrus leaves. She imagined them haranguing one another as men often do over bowls of stew or barley soup or cobs of freshly roasted corn and toasted slices of oatmeal bread; she could smell the heavy pine smoke thick with sap and see through the cracked windows the orange glow of a hearty fire raging in the oversized stone fireplace of O.T.’s rundown shanty. The noise made her long for like companionship, and she often wondered if the men might allow her the pleasure of dining with them, to let her indulge in the joy of their company and the pollution of their simple happiness. But she’d never asked. She wasn’t that lucky. And, at least from afar, she could find solace in the possibility.

Andrea came out of her speculations and returned her focus to her visitor’s face. The thick, coffee-colored growth on his jaw was erratically shorn, showing off patches of sun-starved skin beneath. His sideburns were crooked: one hung at the base of an earlobe while the other dangled an inch lower. Being long past boyhood one would hope that, by now, he’d have gotten a handle on his grooming. It was a disappointment, but not unexpected. Even though the man had celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday just this past spring, his fifth since he’d been at Palmer Farm, his naivety with life hadn’t diminished. He was slow to learn, slow to speak, and, from what Andrea knew of him, slow to decide. He was a stable boy, an errand boy, perfectly contented as such, and with no aims to be more.

How this young man had managed to enchant her daughter was beyond Andrea’s understanding.

She stepped out onto the deck, closing the door behind her, and said with as little interest in her voice as possible: “Hello, Jimmy. I didn’t realize you were back at work for us.”

“Naw, ’m not,” he drawled, shaking his head. “I got t’ doin’ some work fer Mister Hubert lately—that’s what ‘e likes to be called, Hubert; I guesses ‘e hates ‘is fam’ly name—but I comes over sometimes when Mr. Palmer in’t ‘round t’ visit w’ Hero.” He gestured behind him with a dirty thumb. “Ee’s a good ‘orse—an ol’ ‘orse, fer sure, an’ no good fer nothin’ much ‘cept cuttin’ grass, but a good ‘un—an’ nawbuddy else ‘preciates ‘im, I think.” He looked back at the old barn as he spoke, a sad longing in his voice.

“Ah, well. That’s all fine,” she said, “as long as we don’t have to pay you.”

“No, ma’am.” Jimmy shook his head. Slowly.

“Well, then,” she crossed her arms over her chest, “now that that’s settled, what can I do for you?”

“Yes’m.” He tipped a hat that wasn’t there. “Well, I’s cleanin’ Hero’s stall an’ was thinkin’ to m’self—y’knows how I do that thinkin’ all th’ time; alw’ys thinkin’, I am, whilst ahm workin’—I’s thinkin’ about Miss Cherie. I was wondern’ when she might come back home?”

Andrea nodded. “Ah,” she said, dropping her arms. “I thought that might be what you wanted.” She wasn’t much good at empathy; she’d lost her touch for it over the years, but she tried to sound kind. She remembered what heartbreak was and how much it stung. “I really have no idea, Jimmy. In fact,” she added, “I’m not sure she’ll come back at all. I know you boys have all kinds of talk and gossip going on about why Cherie is no longer here,” she paused, looking over his suddenly paled face, then whispered, sharply, leaning in, “Don’t think I don’t have my own ears away from this house, young man.”

He swallowed. “Yes’m.” Jimmy lowered his head and glanced back and forth between Andrea’s face and the dirty toes of his boots.

“I’m certain,” Andrea continued, standing straight again and looking past him at the petals in her garden glistening in the sun, “that in between all the connivings you boys have about my daughter at O.T.’s and what information you might glean from the neighboring farms and their hands, you’re sure to find your answer somewhere.” When she stopped talking, she stood looking at him, arms crossed, waiting for him to leave. He didn’t move and continued to fidget. She exhaled, throwing her fingers out to him. “What? Out with it!”

Jimmy lurched, awakened. “The fellas say Cherie in’t comin’ back.”

“Well, there you have it!” Andrea snapped. “Mystery solved. Now get back to work or whatever it is you’re doing and don’t bother me with this again, you hear?”

“But, Mrs. Palmer…”

“For Heaven’s sake, Jimmy. What do you want me to do? Send the dogs after her? She’s nearly a grown woman and too big for me to drag home and whip for breaking curfew. I can’t help what she does anymore.” Andrea spun on her heels to go back inside and was just through the open doorway when Jimmy proclaimed, in his typically soft and slow and even timbre:

“But we were to be married.”

Andrea stopped and turned. Jimmy’s shoulders were slumped and both fists were stuffed deep into his pockets. His body language communicated meekness; his words spoke courageously. She tilted her head to one side, curious, bewildered, as she approached him. The young man, who seconds ago seemed immature and timid and directionless, had somehow managed to change the air about him by a soft utterance of declaration. She watched him look down and kick casually at a black clump of mud dried to the wooden deck. The mud chipped away under the force of his shoe, flung off cattycornered across the painted wood floor, and shot out in between two rail posts to be lost in the brush and to dissolve back into its mother’s womb with the first rain. Leaves rustled their objection as the clump fell into the shrubbery.

“Come again?” Andrea said.

“Mar-ried,” Jimmy said, more slowly this time and leaning a bit forward as if Andrea were hard of hearing, or senile, or both.

Andrea stepped slowly again onto the deck, the door creaking behind her as she pulled it closed. It was the first time he’d spoken to her as an equal—No, Andrea thought, as an inferior—instead of as his employer. She was at once confused and astonished. And a little intrigued. Perhaps there is something to this boy after all.

“Since when?”

“Since we talked ‘bout it last fall, when we was, uh,” he blushed, peering about, “when we was kinda goin’ t’gether.”

Andrea rolled her eyes and strode past him down the steps. She waved off his comment with a flick of her wrist. “No need to be prudish, Jimmy. The whole of California knows my girl is no innocent.” She crossed the dirt drive and moved toward the rose hedges, gesturing for Jimmy to follow. He did, grabbing the pitchfork on his way. “Have you talked to Mr. Palmer about your engagement?” she said. She brushed the velvety petals of a yellow Lady Hillingdon with her fingertips. The shrub was one of six just like it, planted last year; together they worked hard to climb and cover a short redwood lattice encircling the garden.

“No, Mrs. Palmer, I ‘aven’t. We had a feeling ‘e wouldn’t approve. Cherie was s’pposed to find the right time to tell ‘im, but she n’er got to it, I guess.”

Andrea laughed out loud. “Of course he wouldn’t approve! Since when does my husband approve of any scheme that doesn’t make him richer or more powerful in his small-minded circles?” she quipped, staring up to the Heavens for help.

“Ma’am?” Jimmy leaned on the weathered handle of his pitchfork, one eyebrow raised, his weight pressing the tines of the fork into the soil. As the pitchfork retreated from him, he stood up and pulled the steel from the ground with a commanding tug. Andrea’s eyes widened. It wasn’t the task—saving the fork from the grasp of the soft garden topsoil—that impressed her; it was the purposefulness of the act that caught her attention. She wondered if she’d ever really seen the boy before at all.

Andrea sighed. “Never mind that,” she said. “I suppose what I mean to say is that I understand. Frankly, Jim—may I call you Jim?—I don’t care when or even if you decide to inform my husband about your intentions with Cherie… his sole offspring and heir, and my only child.” She scanned him up and down again with the last part then with a twinkling of disgust, then moved away to sit down on a narrow stone bench near a row of American Beauties. She patted the cool, empty space of concrete beside her. Jimmy raised an eyebrow, but didn’t move a muscle.

“No, thank you. I’ll stand.” He tipped an invisible hat again.

Smart boy. “Jim, I’m glad you’ve told me about you and Cherie. I’m happy for the two of you, really I am. This might be the best news I’ve heard all year. I know you and I don’t know each other well, but, if Cherie loves you, and you love her…” It was a question. Andrea waited for a response, staring up at him from beneath thinly groomed eyebrows.

Jimmy grinned crookedly. His chest puffed just a little, just enough for a woman to notice, and he nodded to her. “That we do.”

“Good,” she nodded back and returned her attention to the roses at her shoulder. “That Cherie loves you and you love her is truly all I mind about the whole situation. There’s little worse than being with a man to whom love matters not.” She fingered a stem of glossy emerald leaves, flicking off a meandering aphid, then feeling bad about it. “Just be prepared: Henry won’t approve, as you already know, and will proceed to deny any inheritance to his daughter out of spite. He may even go as far as to say she’s not his daughter, that I was… untrue, in our early years of marriage.

“I know you don’t have much to offer and Cherie, well—” she laughed “—Cherie has absolutely nothing aside from what I, personally and individually, might pass along to her by way of a dowry.” A pause and a deft look up from the foliage. “A dowry which, mind you, her father will know nothing of.” She waited for confirmation from Jimmy. His face went solemn as he gave her a single, firm nod. Andrea nodded in return. “Fine. Just fine.” She stood and brushed what dust there might be on the backside of her dress skirt. “But I do have one question for you, Jim.”

“Yes’m?”

She walked up to him, stopped inches away, and stared him in the eye, squinting. She wasn’t a tall woman but neither was he a tall man; with her heeled boots on they were almost eye to eye. She examined his face for any misgivings, watched for a blink, a tic, a twitch, any telltale sign of distrust or fear or uncertainty. Jimmy leaned back and shifted his weight, but didn’t move his feet. Good boy. She smiled and moved back a single pace to give him room to breathe again. He did so, audibly.

Andrea spoke sharply, her interrogation nearing its end. “You do know that Cherie ran off with a young man by the name of Amrid Blaine, don’t you?”

He hesitated but answered. “Yes’m.”

“And you do know rumors are that they eloped to be married, don’t you?”

A longer pause, a slight reddening of his face, but he answered. “Yes’m.”

“Well, how do you feel about all that, Jim, dear?”

There was no pause this time. “Is all lies, Mrs. Palmer.”

“Oh? Which part?”

“The marryin’ elopin’ parts.”

Andrea crossed her arms. She smiled, her broad white teeth glistening in the sunlight. The day was turning around. “You seem so certain, Jimmy.”

“Is ’cause I am, Mrs. Palmer.”

“Why? Have you spoken to your beloved lately?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then how?”

“I…” Again the hesitation. “Ah’m afraid I ain’t at liberty to say.”

She dropped her arms. “Careful, Jim. Secrets are a poison to the soul.”

A quietness passed between them. A cold breeze blew through the garden gathering scents and riddles and shadows of truth and carried them off and away across the fields of corn and citrus, down the road toward a dilapidated Model-T parked in a dusty, neighboring driveway. Jimmy smirked. “Aren’t they?” he said.

Andrea grinned, blinking slowly, and nodded, her heart fluttering just enough to surprise her. A worthy contender. “Touché, young man.” She turned and sat back down in her spot on the stone bench. “Now,” she waved him away with her hand as she watched a lady bug crawl up a dainty stem, “go grab a bucket of water from the horse trough and bring it here. My bird bath is getting low.”


 

Getting juicy. Keep reading…

 

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