The small, gabled Victorian had always belonged to Mrs. Thomas, but the hungry young woman lingering by the fence did not know this. She had followed a man to California from the Midwest three years ago, before the war, but when she lost the baby, she gave up looking and began to wander place-to-place. She liked the look of this place — two stories of gray wood in need of paint, a leaf-strewn porch, a garden gone to seed and a bed of thriving roses, three rows deep. She was admiring the roses when she noticed a gnarled old hand, palm up on the ground beyond the third row, where Mrs. Thomas had fallen dead.
The old woman lay on her back, one hand over her chest. She might have been sleeping. She might have been anyone’s grandmother, and, as the young woman knelt over the gray face, her heart seized with the weight of all she had lost. She glanced around, but the street was still, the day new. Fog draped like a shroud over the town and there was no sky at all and no one else about, no one to see her untangle the old woman’s skirts from the thorns, to lift the brittle little body and tug her down the stone path into the house where she arranged her, comfortably as she could, on a chintz divan in the sitting room.
The young woman shivered. The fire had died but the coals lived and soon she coaxed heat back into the room. She would sit for a moment in the heat, rest her eyes. But by the time she opened them again the fog had vanished. The day swelled and with it the smell of roses through the French windows and she could see how much there was to do. Dust grimed the glass lampshade, gathered in drifts in corners. Spoons, saucers, and tea-stained cups littered the coffee and end tables. She gathered as many cups as she could and found her way to the kitchen. The sink was full of dishes gray with mold. Ants marched crumbs down a cracked tile countertop.
In two hours she had washed and dried the dishes, cleaned the counter and the stovetop, mopped the floor, and felt, along with a scavenger’s pride, the comfort and familiarity of long residence.
That is, until she saw, out the French window, a keel-bent Chinese man with a hitch in his step pushing a cart. He wore faded trousers, a white collared shirt. His hair and eyebrows were white.