November in Northern Virginia. The time of year Anne liked best, at least in that part of the world, and from her daughter’s living room window, she admired the red, gold, and copper-colored leaves, falling silently from the tall trees, usually a few at time, but sometimes, when a sudden gust of wind blew through, in a much greater quantity—and then it seemed as if it were raining leaves, adding to the deep, brown, rustling sea already blanketing the lawn. The gentle morning sun was shining through the branches and the only sound throughout the house was the tiny, meticulous tickings of the porcelain clock on the fireplace mantelpiece. Technically, she was on vacation for the next few weeks—it helped that the office was three thousand miles away—and she could relax and dream a little, grudgingly admitting to herself that she was glad Roxanne and Richard, her son-in-law, had chosen this house in Great Falls. Anne only visited at Thanksgiving and sometimes during the summer, a pleasant change from her condo in California. She liked to imagine this place, cut off from the rest of the world, self-contained, apart from the noise and business, people and troubles, which lay only a few miles away. This would have been the kind of place, she thought, she would have liked to have grown up in—silent, spacious, isolated—the kind of home she wished she had provided for Roxy. Instead, Roxy had grown up in a cramped, one-bedroom condo in San Diego, while Anne had worked long hours at various jobs—as a waitress, temp, office assistant, and finally, as an office manager. Roxy’s father, Jeff, had left when Roxy was two, but Anne did not want to think of that. Remembering only brought back pain and anger—Jeff had left Anne for one of his co-workers, a fellow teacher and a former friend of hers. Because of this, Anne had found herself trusting people less and less over the years, losing interest in those around her, losing contact even with her own relatives, choosing instead to focus on work and raising Roxy; it had been a gloomy, and yet sometimes satisfying self-sufficiency, with just the two of them. In San Diego, they had been able to build a stable life—Anne’s work, Roxy’s school, Roxy’s art and music lessons, the same stores, the same restaurants, the same neighbors, the same politely friendly circle of co-workers, friends, and acquaintances. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t exciting. But it was better than what Anne had had in her own early childhood, shuttled around from relative to relative, all over the country.
Now, all the hard times were past, it seemed, and little Rachel, Anne’s four-year-old granddaughter, would live here, in this big house, and enjoy an ideal childhood. Roxy was happy here, with her new studio, the house, and of course, with Richard, a promising young research scientist. For years, Roxy had tried to convince her mother to move to the area – California was so far away, Thanksgiving and summer visits were not enough, and didn’t Anne want to be near everyone anyway? It was true, Roxy and Richard and Rachel, were indeed “everyone” in Anne’s life—she liked to joke that they were the three necessary Rs in her life. But as to other people, the walls she had built around herself over the years had done well in keeping them out, or at least at a safe distance.
Now, without Roxy around, Anne was lonely. She couldn’t deny this. But to move, back to this part of the world and away from all that was solid and comfortable in San Diego—that she didn’t think she could do. What was more, this was Virginia, and Virginia was The South, and Anne did not want to live anywhere near the South. Some of it was because of the stories she had heard from friends about the South, maybe some of it was stories she herself had read about in the papers and books, and maybe some of it was from her own visits to the area—the Confederate flag that she had seen hanging in front of a house in Alexandria, the perceived snubs at the stores; from all this, perhaps, she had formulated her stubborn, inexorable dislike of the area. All of these things were reasons—but there was more. Anne had spent a few years in South Carolina with her Aunt Doreen as a young child, and those years had been among the worst in her life. Her Aunt Doreen had been cruel, and there had been bullying at the school she had attended. She had been called a colorful variety of names and the worst was not knowing enough about her own background to deny the accusations—so she denied them all. She was aware, of course, that she didn’t look like the other kids—anyone could see that—but then she didn’t look like any of her relatives either. Anne’s mother had been a wild one, running off with some mysterious boyfriend, and then living in a commune for awhile, before finally being dragged back by her parents—by then, she was pregnant with Anne, the boyfriend was long gone, and she was dying from cancer. She never revealed who Anne’s father was. Anne could not remember her mother, and no one felt it necessary, or wise, to answer her questions. There had never even been any photos of Anne’s mother, although she had heard that she was once beautiful. On the other hand, there had been plenty of speculation about Anne’s father—who he might be, where he might be, if he was in jail or lying dead in a ditch—none of it ever certain. All that she knew was that she did not look like her mother, nor anyone on her mother’s side. Her hair was light brown and curly, rather than black and straight; her skin was smooth and brown, like caramel, rather than fine and white, like china; her eyes were black and almond-shaped, and not large and deep-set and green or hazel; she was small and wiry, rather than tall and big-boned. Her looks were always a source of comment, and she was glad that Roxy had inherited Jeff’s blond good looks, rather than her own mixed features.
On Anne’s first day of grade school in Fresno, California—where she eventually went to live with an aunt and uncle after the aunt in South Carolina suddenly died—the teachers had asked the children to form a circle and introduce themselves. When it was Anne’s turn, someone asked, are you Mexican? Anne answered, no, which started off a persistent round of questioning. Are you Indian? Are you Italian? Chinese? Japanese? Australian? French? African? South American? And so forth, all to which Anne quite calmly answered no. When all the countries of the world, it seemed, had been exhausted, the children, and the teachers for that matter, sat in silent perplexity, and finally admitted that they had given up—and so what was she, anyway? To which Anne had triumphantly replied, “American!” She was surprised it had taken them so long to say it. And the children had sighed in relief or disappointment, but glad, mostly, to have the mystery solved, more or less. Anne had gone home that day and told her aunt and uncle what had happened. Why hadn’t the kids been able to figure out what she was? Her aunt and uncle had looked at each other, and her aunt, a quiet and calm woman, already nearing her sixties at the time, told Anne that she had said the right thing. Anne was grateful for that; South Carolina was not such a hurtful time anymore. It was in the past. It was far away.
On the mantelpiece, the porcelain clock chimed ten. Time to go. She hopped off the window seat, pulled on her long, winter socks, her boots, her red jacket. Picked up her keys, a manila folder, and her purse from the foyer table, opened the front door, and stepped out into a rain of falling leaves and cold autumn sunshine.
She was to pick up Rachel at the Montessori school at twelve, as Roxy was in Washington D.C. this morning—Anne had insisted that she take some time off, and so Roxy had chosen to spend a day at the Smithsonian, taking in a lecture at the art gallery and meeting with some friends for lunch. Secretly, Anne had planned to look at a few properties in the area, before picking Rachel up, just to see what was available. The real estate agent she had half-heartedly been working with couldn’t meet this morning, so Anne had decided to do a few drive-bys of her own. The houses she had selected were all carefully mapped out, with directions, in her folder, and she was trying to read these (even though she had it all practically memorized in her head), while also trying to keep her eyes on the road. She hated driving here, as everyone always seemed to be in such a hurry, even more so than in San Diego. As if to emphasize this, a driver in a battered, black sedan honked at her, and then zoomed past along the shoulder of the road, apparently because she had refused to make her left turn directly into oncoming traffic, so that he could pass.
“I can’t believe it,” she muttered, “I should get killed just so you can drive by a split second faster, is that it?” She was already nervous, and now she was also in a bad mood. Still, she resolved not to let the other driver rattle her, because she couldn’t be late to pick up Rachel. She worried about driving too fast, and then getting pulled over by some bored policeman, or maybe—she didn’t even want to think about this—she’d even get a flat tire. Why not just forget this whole thing, she told herself, and wait for the agent to do the driving. Why not just forget about looking at houses, period. She didn’t want to live here. She could just drive to a Starbucks, right now, and treat herself to a tall vanilla latte, instead of submitting herself to this unnecessary stress. The problem was that the only Starbucks she knew of was several miles away, near a shopping center by Roxy’s house, and she was driving now, in an unfamiliar and entirely residential area. She looked at her map, and saw that she was near the first houses she had planned to see. Well, since she was there already, Anne decided, she might as well see them.
Inching along past gigantic Colonials and sprawling brick ranches, she had to admit that these houses were much too big, for just herself. She had told the real estate agent she had wanted someplace she could plant a garden, but this was ridiculous. Gallows Road, turn left, she remembered from the directions, and she turned, and found herself on a small, heavily wooded, two-lane street. Leaves covered the road, and vast oceans of leaves swelled in reddish-brown waves over the enormous yards facing the narrow road. She was amazed at the size of the yards—ahead, stood one of the houses on her list. It was a modern-looking structure, set back from the road, with a tall wall of windows. It was certainly impressive—especially the price it was selling for. No doubt, real estate here was more affordable than in California. Ogling the property, she was faintly aware of the sound of another car, approaching from the road she had just left. And then, in what seemed like the very next moment, the car was right behind her, following much too closely. She attempted to pull to the side, to let it pass, when she felt suddenly a sickening, dropping sensation in her stomach—the front of the sedan tipped forward and downwards. A deep ditch on the side of the road had been covered by leaves—this, her car had driven into. The car which she had let pass—a burgundy-colored, late-model sedan—drove by slowly, without stopping; the driver’s face was a blank, white mass as it turned to look at her—she could not see the details of the face, and yet, it had been so near. Anne’s hands began to shake, panicky thoughts seized her mind, and she felt like screaming, but slowly, with clenched teeth, she tried backing out of the ditch—with no success; the front wheels ground ineffectually against the sides of the ditch. And her mind was turning over and over as well, with so many questions—how could those people have just driven by like that? Surely it wouldn’t have taken a minute or two to see if she was okay, or even to offer to phone for help! Of course, Anne had a cell phone—she was never without one—but still, the thought that someone could be so indifferent was infuriating and hateful. And after she had let them pass, too! Well, what was she going to do now? She could call roadside service, but by the time they got there, it would be too late to get Rachel. She could call Rachel’s school and let them know she would be late. She could call Roxy. It would be all right. Still Anne couldn’t stop shaking, and she got out of the car to see what there was to see. The ditch wasn’t as deep as she thought—it was just enough so that her car could not get out. Really, all it needed was a good push from the front, and she’d be back on the road. She tried pushing the car for a few minutes, but it was like an ant trying to move a boulder. She uselessly got in and out of the car a few times, looked around quite thoroughly (there was no one around, despite all the houses), and resolved to call roadside services, when she heard another car approaching. Surely, this car would stop—she would make it stop. All she needed, she thought, was one more person, or two, to help push her car out of the ditch. She was someone who dreaded the thought of asking a stranger for help, much less frantically flagging one down—but she thought of little Rachel waiting for her, and she resolved to make a pathetic case of herself, if need be. The car was a gray SUV and it stopped; the driver was a young man in a barn coat, and she saw a small child in a car seat in the back.
“Could you please help me?” she pleaded. “I think I might be able to push my car out of there, with some help.” And then she added, remembering her manners and the man’s small child, despite her desperation. “If you have time.”
But he said, “Sure”, and there were so many grateful words tumbling around in her mind, trying to get out, that she was struck dumb.
The man parked his car, and came over to where her car lay, wedged into the ditch. They pushed and pushed, but it wasn’t enough. The car would not budge.
He said, “I think we need more people”. They looked around, but there was no one. Only leaves and trees and empty houses.
“If you need to go, I’ll be fine,” she said, near tears, but not willing to ask him to stay. “I do appreciate your trying to help.”
The man looked embarrassed, and said no, he wasn’t in any hurry. They just needed to find another person. He went back to his car, took out the car seat, with his son still strapped in, and set the child down, with the car seat, on the lawn. The child was about the same age as Rachel, with large, gray eyes and a big head of light brown curls; he stared at Anne silently, seriously, and did not complain or cry. She wanted to make some comment about the child—about how well-behaved he was, and if he would be all right, sitting there, like that—and she would have liked to say something directly to the boy; of course, in a normal situation, she would have done all this. But today, her mind was frozen, and she could barely think, much less speak. Running continually in the back of her mind were images of poor Rachel, set upon the doorstep of the locked school, crying and wondering where her Grandma Anne was. She would never be able to get to the school before two or three, at this rate. And on top of that, she had wrecked Roxy’s car. Anne was miserable and about to urge the man to go, tell him there was nothing more he could do, when once again, there was the sound of a vehicle, coming down the road. The young man said, “Here’s somebody.”
A large, rusty, blue truck came down the road, and the man driving it—a robust, white-haired, pink-cheeked, square-jawed, Southern type, if there ever was one, about sixty or maybe older, wearing a red, plaid, flannel shirt—looked over suspiciously at them, but he stopped; the young man in the barn coat took charge and calmly asked the driver if he had some cables they could use to pull the car out with. She had not heard him mentioning that as a possibility before, but nothing could surprise her now.
Anne, of course, did not believe in miracles, and had once gotten upset when a classmate of Roxy’s had sneered at her daughter, calling her “stupid”, for not knowing what the Miracles were, but what came along next was about as close to a miracle as Anne had ever believed in. The tough-looking Southerner got out of his Ford, and retrieved from the back of the truck, what (Anne assumed) were a complicated set of cables. He silently, steadily, and expertly worked to hook the cables up to Anne’s car, and then to the truck. The young man and Anne and the child looked on solemnly, and once Anne tried to thank the older man, but he ignored her and went on doing whatever he was doing, and the words stuck in her throat, and she had to keep them there, for awhile. Finally, after the older man had carefully checked everything, he got into his truck, turned it on, drove forward, and pulled her car out of the ditch as if it had been a toy. Anne, on the other hand, was nearly weeping with anxiety, at this point, but she managed to pull herself together, and the young man suggested that she try to start the car. She got into her car, stuck the key into the ignition, and turned it, but to her horror, the engine made no sound. She tried again and again, with no results. She was dumbfounded by this turn of events—after all that, and her car wouldn’t start. She hurried out of the car, over to the older man, who was observing her, and held out the keys to him.
“I can’t get it to start,” she said. For a moment, no one moved or spoke (or laughed), and then the man took the keys without a word, got in the car, and started the engine on the first try. Anne’s hand shook as she took back her keys. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.”
For the first time, she saw a small smile on his face, and he said, not unkindly, “You’re just nervous.”
“Yes, yes, I am,” she said. “That’s it. That’s just it. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along. I am so grateful to the both of you.” She shook the young man’s hand, and then she stuck out her hand towards the older man, and he shook it, too—but reluctantly, as if he were startled. Anne, however, was beyond caring about manners and propriety and rules and customs, because she was so glad, just so glad that these particular people had been here today, that they had chosen to do what they did, so glad it was all over now, and that she would be seeing her granddaughter soon. Then a thought startled her, and she added, “Please, can I give you something for your trouble?” She was low on cash that day, but she would give them whatever she had. That would be the solitary twenty-dollar bill in her purse. But the older man shook his head, and gave her his first real smile, a wide, genuine, toothy smile, and then she looked, truly looked at his face, something that most people don’t often do, she realized—to look at another person’s face. She saw intelligent, unwavering, bright blue eyes, surrounded by a map of deep wrinkles from wear and hard work, a large, proud nose that looked as if it might have been broken a few times, a square, probably usually grim mouth, surrounded by more deep wrinkles; he looked like maybe a general, or a president or a judge or someone along those lines—but no. That wasn’t right. It was more than that, she thought, he looks normal, like what a normal man should look like. Yet, she knew that this man was from a vastly different world from hers, a world that she could never be a part of—one of farms and fields and churches, of large, close-knit, extended families, fishing and weekend ball games—and she knew they would never be friends, in any deep sense, nor would they ever cross each other’s paths again. Maybe this man might never have even stopped, if it hadn’t been for the younger man. But nevertheless, she felt as if something had been changed for her—for him, too, perhaps—not just by his simple act of humanity, but also by her grateful recognition of it. And then the older man said, before driving away, “God bless you” and Anne understood, and even though she had long ago stopped believing in God, it was still one of nicest things anyone had ever said to her.
Margaret F. Chen’s stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Legendary, and A Long Story Short. She was awarded Honorable Mention in the February 2010 Glimmer Train Contest for New Writers and named a Semi-Finalist for the 2010 Kirkwood Prize.