Strawberries

By Jessy Wallach, TIWP Student

When I lived out in Fairbank, I’d go visit Mrs. Walsh every Thursday. I’d always bring a small Tupperware of strawberries from my garden to give to her. She grew her own, but they were small, seedy, and sour, and the patch was constantly picked clean by birds, deer, and gophers, anyhow. She wouldn’t admit this, so every week I’d pretend to forget about her miserable little strawberry patch and bring over some of my own.

“You needn’t have,” she’d say. “Remember, I grow my own over the fence.” And I’d say, “How could I have forgotten?” or something like that, and she’d take the strawberries I brought her and tell me it’s alright, just remember next time. We both knew I hadn’t forgotten, but it was a game we played. Then she’d start talking to me about anything, the weather, or her garden, or whatever news headline she’d read. The only things she avoided were politics and religion, which was good, because those were the topics that could break a relationship in two. 

Her home was larger than mine, but it was cluttered everywhere, books and coffee cups and specialty calendar piled up on her kitchen counter and pillows and shoes and a whole manner of china angels and small metal sculptures and all sorts of unless junk in the large living room connected to it. Normally I’d wash her dishes while she was talking, not because I cared much if she ate off of dirty plates, but because I hated mess. If you went over to my house, it was never a hospital room or anything, but it was nothing like hers. I vacuumed twice a week and kept things organized, I mean.

Mrs. Walsh’s favorite thing to talk about was her grandchildren. They’re about my age, so she loved to compare me to them. She’d always tell me about their breakups and divorces, or how she hated their jobs, or that they never visit. “You’re not like them,” she’d tell me. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. What are you, an artist?” “A writer,” I’d say, and she’d nod like that was the same thing and just keep on talking. I could never tell if this was a rendition of the strawberry game, or if her memory was really failing. 

I’d often look at the drawings over the sink as I washed. They were coloring sheets of angels, each one the same. Her grandchildrenーfour of them, there wereーhad drawn them when they were young, before they were such disappointments. In all of them, a sloppily colored girl angel with yellow hair and blue eyes handed a star to a small boy in striped PJs, whose hair was normally also yellow, but in one child’s drawing it was orange. Below, in that sort of curvy writing they use in comics, it said “CHILDREN ARE A GIFT FROM THE LORD; THEY ARE A REWARD FROM HIM, PSLAM 127:3.”

Mrs. Walsh was asking me if I had a boyfriend yet. She asked me this at least once a month. “No boyfriend,” I said. I set a bowl in the crowded drying rack. It was white with a pattern of roses and some other pink flower running across it and had a chip in the side, and it used to be mine. At first, I brought Mrs. Walsh strawberries in bowls, but she never returned them. After that, I stuck with Tupperwares.

Lanie, who was really my only friend in that town, thought I was crazy for visiting Mrs. Walsh at all. I liked the old woman, though. I think we both took each other in as charity cases. I felt pity for her because she was an old, grumpy hag who talked too much and lived all alone. She had a husband, once, but I guess he must have died, only I never saw pictures of him up around her house. Normally, that means he left, or else they got a divorce. I never asked. I liked to imagine him as an old, balding man with a giant stomach that bulged out over his belt, who probably talked just as much as Mrs. Walsh did. Every Saturday he’d go out to repair the fence around that darn strawberry patch, and he’d already be so red-faced and out of breath from the effort it took just to kneel down on the ground to reach it that he’d get nothing done and come back to the house an hour or two later cursing that strawberry patch anyhow, let the deer get it for all I care!

Anyway, now Mrs. Walsh lived alone. I guess she felt bad for me because I was new there, and young, and I didn’t talk much or go to church or have any friends. Besides Lannie, I mean. I didn’t mind any of those things, but to Mrs. Walsh, each of them was like some terrible illness she had to avoid speaking about, which was more funny than annoying. We each got on this way, thinking we were taking care of the other.

I finished with the dishes and decided it was time to leave, so I excused myself as quickly as I could, Left something in the oven, or something like that. When she wasn’t looking, I put the strawberries in the fridge, the only place in the house that wasn’t cluttered. I think there’s something sad about empty fridges, with just a lone carton of milk or jar of peanut butter or pickles, under all that bright, almost fluorescent light. Especially in Mrs. Walsh’s house, where, when you closed the refrigerator door, you were right back in the crowded, stuffy house, with the light all blocked out by frilly curtains and barely room to sit down in all the mess. It felt lonely somehow, disjointed.

I’d say goodbye again, and then go through the door quickly before she could sweep me up in another conversation. I don’t know what Mrs. Walsh did when I wasn’t there. I never saw her in town, except when she was on her way to church on Sundays. She probably just sat in front of her television all day, watching soaps or waiting for her grandchildren to call. 

I’m making her existence sound pathetic, but it wasn’t, really. Just a bit pitiful. There are a lot of people like her in the world, who don’t do much but watch their TV and sit in cluttered houses, and they friend their way to be happy. 

I even met Mrs. Walsh’s grandchildren once, or at least two of them, a man and a woman. They were both blond and blue-eyed, but not nearly identical. The man had a large gut and a red face, which I think he must have gotten from his grandfather. The woman was very pretty, and I think she might have been slightly pregnant, though I didn’t congratulate her because I was terrified I’d be wrong. They both seemed like pleasant people. I wondered if one of them was the one who had drawn the child with red hair on the angel sheet. I thought about asking, but I didn’t want to seem insane. It wasn’t an appropriate time for it, anyway. They were there because Mrs. Walsh had fallen and broken a hip, and though it had been months, her health hadn’t recovered. They were taking her to a nursing home in the city.

I knew that Mrs. Walsh was like me, she didn’t belong in the city, but I wasn’t the one in charge, so I kept my mouth shut. They spent a whole three days packing up her stuff, giving most of it to charity and throwing the rest away, except I suppose for her jewelry and valuables, and the clothes she brought with her. The house was put up for sale for a few months before a couple in their late thirties with two adopted young boys and a small, yappy dog moved in. I brought them brownies the day after the moving truck showed up, and they thanked me and dug through the boxes the movers had brought in for a plate to put them on before giving me back my own. They seemed like lovely people, and they made the house look beautiful. Mended the gate and tore up the old strawberry patch, even. I’d miss Mrs. Walsh sometimes, though. More than once, I thought about calling her at the nursing home, just to say hello, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with her grandchildren to find out where she was. Guess she was right that I could get lonely, living in that town without any friends or company.

That was years ago, which means she’s dead by now, but I still remember her. Funny how it is, that someone can slip through your life so quickly, but they might stay in your head forever. If they’re lucky, you might even write about them, and then you’ll never be forgotten. “What are you, an artist?” Mrs. Walsh would ask me. “No,” I’d say. “I’m a writer.”

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