Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 12, and 2014. Stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review and other journals. Three of his poems are featured in this issue of IVJ.
In the east-facing kitchen of the tall white farmhouse it was the slow and quiet hour or two between breakfast and noon dinner, the main meal of the day.
I sat with my Aunt Lila who was crippled as a child from polio, at the walnut table by the two windows that let you see the lawn and my grandmother’s rose garden and the Black Mission fig tree.
My Grandmother Georgia, who was born on a cattle ranch near Alma, New Mexico, before her parents left for California in 1896, sat by the phone, listening to an unnamed caller as Lila watched her.
I looked out past the fig’s giant hand-like leaves, down the long vine rows and above them at the cradle of high Sierras where the sun rose each morning, Georgia and Lila’s faces reflected dimly in the glass behind my own.
“Yes, I will,” Georgia said finally. “You too, Della.”
She set down the black receiver in the alcove of the corner cupboard. She hesitated a minute, before she stood and took the straight-backed chair next to Lila, who waited to hear what Della had said.
For half an hour my grandmother hadn’t spoken more than a few words, only now and then saying, “Well – ” or “Goodness – ”
“It was Della?” Lila asked.
“Yes. She told me about Claire White. And the boy. You know it’s been a month.”
“I know,” Lila answered. “I’ve thought of Claire. She never had children. Now at her age. What did Della say?”
“He’s her grandnephew. The son of Claire’s sister’s boy.”
“Yes,” Lila said. “Mable had the one boy. His name was Will.”
“Yes,” my grandmother said. “That was his father. Della said the little boy’s so polite and good.”
“She said he folds and puts his clothes away after school. He makes his bed and his room is always neat and clean. He washes and he brushes his teeth and Claire never has to tell him or clean up after him.”
“Does he?” Lila said.
In the window’s reflection I saw her look down at her joined hands on the table. Who were they talking about?
“He’d be all alone, if it weren’t for Claire,” my grandmother said.
“I’ve thought of him,” Lila said. “Of him living with Claire.”
A yellow swallowtail butterfly dipped just above the head of Smoky, the gray one of the stray cats that my grandmother and Lila fed and talked about. He jumped with a lifted paw but the black-striped butterfly flew too high.
I turned from the windows you could open with a heavy L-shaped key, wondering what the boy had done wrong.
“He doesn’t live with his parents?” I asked. “Why doesn’t he, if he’s so good?”
“There was an awful car wreck,” my grandmother said.
“They got hurt bad?” I asked.
“They were killed,” Lila said.
She adjusted her glasses, then touched the hearing aid at her ear.
“His mother and father, and his two sisters.”
“He was all alone,” my grandmother said to me. “His grandmother Mable passed away. His great-aunt Claire took him in. Otherwise he wouldn’t have a place to go.”
“He lives in Selma?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lila said. “Claire has a home by the Lincoln Park.”
“Does he go to school?” I asked.
“He must be in second or third grade,” Lila said. “Did Della say?”
“At Garfield?” I asked. It was the school across the railroad tracks and highway in town. On the way you passed the graveyard.
“I imagine he does,” Lila said. “Claire lives close to there.”
“He’s in the second grade,” my grandmother said. “He gets up early on his own. He washes and he brushes his teeth and combs his hair. He dresses in the clothes he laid out the night before. Then he makes his bed and brings his papers and schoolbooks and sets them on the kitchen table. Claire told Della she puts out his bowl and cereal and when he’s done he takes his dishes to the sink and washes them and sets them in the rack before he goes to school.”
“Well,” Lila said. She looked down at her bent fingers.
“Della said at night he says his prayers, on his own, after he does his schoolwork and gives himself a bath. Claire can hear him. He never cries.”
“Did Della say if he gets lonely,” Lila asked. “If he talks about his family?”
“No. She said he never complains. He doesn’t ask for things. Toys or candy. He walks to school and back home again. He’s never late. She never has to scold him.”
I stared again at my grandmother’s rose bushes, big yellow and red and white colored roses and the moving shadows of the butterflies across the leaves and blooms, thinking about the poor orphan boy and how good he was. I saw the silent gray room he kept so neat, bed, chair and cleared desk.
I didn’t do the good things he did, even though I had my parents and my brothers and my grandmother and grandfather and Aunt Lila.
“Does he go to church with Claire?” Lila asked. “To the Christian Church?’
“I don’t know,” my grandmother answered. “I didn’t ask. I imagine he does.”
“Claire goes every Sunday,” Lila said. “She’s gone for years. That’s where Della sees her.”
“I know,” my grandmother said. “I suppose he goes with her.”
“She wouldn’t leave him alone,” Lila said.
“No,” my grandmother said. “I’m sure they go together. In the car.”
I had gone one time to church, with my grandparents, and seen the people of the town dressed in black without smiles and people in purple robes singing sad songs as if someone had died, someone they didn’t name.
Afterward at the Valley Inn in Parlier where you could have seconds I’d eaten my fill of chicken legs and mashed potatoes with hot rolls and butter and when my grandparents let me off at our small house down the road from their bigger house I’d run up the brick steps to the bathroom and been sick.
Maybe it was the boy’s parents they’d been sad for, or the boy who was left alone.
“Did Della say anything else?” Lila said.
“She said Hazel’s sister is visiting from Oregon. She lives in Corvallis.”
“I knew she did. She moved there, before she was married.”
“She lived there all her life, after she left Selma.”
“She left right after school,” Lila said. “Her aunt lived up north.”
“Well, I better start supper,” my grandmother said. “I’m going to make tamale pie.”
“Did you feed Smoky?” Lila asked.
“Yes. A while ago. He and the orange-striped one. And the one called Socks.”
“I can set the dishes out.” Lila reached for the arms of her walker with her stretched slender arms.
“I guess I’ll go home,” I said. “Mrs. Mayhan is staying with us.”
“Your mother’s gone?” Lila asked.
“She went to Fresno,” I said. “With another woman.”
“With Gail Orme or Betty Willis?”
“I don’t know her name. I didn’t see her.”
“You rode on your wheel, from way yonder, did you?” My grandmother looked out the windows.
“Yes,” I said. “Not on the road. Around the ranch, on the alleyways.”
“You could stay and eat with us,” Lila said. “Your grandfather would like that.”
“No, I better go. Mrs. Mayhan won’t like it if I’m not there for lunch. I’ll come
“Come soon,” Aunt Lila said. “We love to see you.”
“Come soon,” Aunt Lila said. “We love to see you.”
“Tell your mother I miss her,” my grandmother said.
I got up from the table and crossed the kitchen to the door and went out on the landing into the orange tree’s musty shade. By the dark trunk lay the abalone shells my grandmother collected at Morro Bay before I was born, beside the open passageway where the cats ran in and out under the house.
The shells were dusty with spider webs and bird droppings, dead leaves. Each one had five holes as if for fingers, like a strange baseball glove. The insides of the shells were called Mother of Pearl and maybe could still be washed and shined. Two dirty pie pans by the railing for Smoky and the other half-wild cats were empty. I went down the wood steps past the upraised steel plate where my grandfather wiped the bottoms of his work boots, then faster and jumped on my black bike.
I was trying to get away from something I couldn’t see or name that had come up behind me on the stairs. I thought it was right at my heels so I almost turned to look.
I rode out of the yard past the garage and tractor shed and up the south alleyway above the pond, past the Thompson Seedless vineyard and the plum orchard but now I didn’t race. I watched the two blurred shadows of the turning spokes and the open blonde dirt behind and ahead of me and knew I’d got away from something that wasn’t there.
Sometimes I could make it from our house to my grandmother’s in five minutes but this time I didn’t go fast. I thought of the boy who was better than I was or would ever be, who was my same age but wasn’t sad or scared. He had lost everything, his mother and father, his sisters and his grandmother, and now he lived alone with his great-aunt, the same age as my Grandmother Georgia.
He never complained or cried. He never wanted anything. All his family were dead and he was the only one left and still he prayed to God every night.
I imagined his room again, this time like a small church, very still and neat, almost empty, where he never spoke except to say his prayers.
Then I passed the blue irrigation pump with the orange Chinese hat for the rain and the boy’s room was different.
It was still a silent waiting place, like at the doctor’s, not the waiting room now but down the hall a dark unused room I’d seen once, with old leg braces, a lamp with a big bulb and some black, heavy machines with arms coated with dust, things the doctor had used a long time ago for sick children who later died, from mumps or measles or polio.
The boy’s room sat in the middle, between death or heaven and this world. It was halfway between where his family was now and where he’d left his bike and toys, his ball and mitt he wouldn’t use anymore.
He was like a grown man and would never be a kid again, like the crippled boy in the Pied Piper who couldn’t keep up and got left behind when all the children followed the Piper from the town and would never come back.
I saw a black-tailed jack rabbit with tall ears loping far down a vine row. I sped up, standing as I pedaled toward the familiar zigzag pitch of the white house’s green roof, first a long low slant, then in the middle a high peak like a steeple, and then a lower, shorter slant above the back door.
I thought its shape meant something I hadn’t noticed before just as I remembered I didn’t know the boy’s name.