03370_000_006First-Place FictionIt wasn’t a song he had ever heard, but … he couldn’t help listening. When she finished playing, he felt like he ought to clap his hands. Instead he just looked at her
Sitting in front of the group of people waiting to speak, Steve let his thoughts slide backward 12 years to a frosty winter evening when two small boys dragged snow shovels behind them, each clutching dollar bills in red right hands.
The house on the corner had a light on.
“There’s one,” Steve had said hopefully.
“Okay,” his brother Paul had answered, “you go ahead.”
Wearily he had trudged up the front walk and rung the bell. Two severe-looking brown eyes had stared down at him as he had forced his voice to ask, “Would you like your walk shoveled, ma’am?”
His voice had cracked and broken over the cold air that surrounded him as he realized that the old lady was Sarah Dunn. Sarah Dunn seemed ancient, and scary, and he thought of the rumor that she had once shot at someone for running across her lawn. Steve remembered being too scared to turn and run, and he could still feel the tingle that ran down his back as she had looked him in the face and asked, “Do you think my walk needs it?”
He had begun to step backward when she said, “Why don’t you go ahead?”
The air seemed black and freezing as he turned to start shoveling. Looking up, he realized Paul had gone home or to find another house to shovel. He shivered, both from the cold and from his close contact with old Sarah. He wasn’t really sure what she had done to make some people afraid of her, but he was in no mood to find out. He decided he wouldn’t ask for any money for the shoveling; he would just do it and be glad to get home where it was warm and safe.
It took him longer than usual; he didn’t want to miss a spot. Once he looked up and saw her glancing out the window at him; he quickly bent over his work. Just before he pushed the shovel toward the porch for the last time, she opened her front door.
“Is it all right?” his voice faltered.
She leaned out from the porch, her eyes following the line of newly exposed pavement.
“Here,” she said, handing him three dollars and a Hershey bar, which he took gently from her.
“That’s too much,” he started to say, but she cut him off. “Next time it snows,” she said, “you come back.”
It snowed the next day. Steve watched the flakes fall and prayed for the sun to come out. Miss Dunn’s brown eyes haunted him throughout the afternoon as he and Paul played Ping-Pong. After losing three games because he kept watching flakes hit the windows outside, he left with the snow shovel.
It was the same that night—three dollars and a Hershey bar and she told him to come back. Opening the chocolate with red-cold hands, Steve realized he wasn’t quite so scared this time. Handing him the chocolate, she’d almost smiled.
It snowed a lot that winter, and Steve did lots of shoveling for many neighbors, but mostly for Miss Dunn. One night in February she asked him to come in when he had finished. His mouth almost said no before his brain could give the possibility any long thoughts. But his feet stepped right ahead until he was sitting in Miss Dunn’s front room and she was handing him a steaming cup of chocolate.
“It’s been getting harder for me to do my yard work,” she began, and before he left that night he had a summer job. He was hired to work Saturdays, but he usually found himself coming at least twice a week. He mowed the lawn while she pulled weeds and raked. She seemed strong for as old as she must be, he thought, feeling something like admiration as she leaned to pull a weed the size of a funny-stemmed carrot. She got as thirsty as he did, too, and she always seemed to have an ice-cold bottle of ginger ale waiting for both of them after the work was finished.
One day, when she finished her glass of ginger ale ahead of him, she looked at him suddenly. “Would you like to hear me play the piano?” she asked. He nodded, surprised, as she sat down and glided her hands across the keys. A smooth, many-noted melody drifted into his ears, and he began to relax, and she leaned her head back and started singing. It wasn’t a song he had ever heard, but she seemed to like it so much he couldn’t help listening. When she finished playing, he felt like he ought to clap his hands. Instead, he just looked at her.
“I used to sing for people,” she said. “I have pictures in my album. Would you like to see them?” She picked up a huge black book and patted a place beside her on the couch. He sat awkwardly next to her, expecting to be bored. Yet her voice added color to the tiredly fading newspaper clippings that clung desperately to the album’s pages. He found himself absorbed, reading along with her and looking when her finger pointed to pictures of herself in choral groups. He found it was late afternoon before he left her house.
After that, they talked regularly as they drank ginger ale and ate the oatmeal cookies she made. He brought his yearbook to show her, and she dug out pictures of herself when young. By noticing the year on one of the newspaper clippings she showed him, he figured that she was past 80. Yet she still pulled weeds.
His friends didn’t understand why he didn’t look for other work or why he stayed after the yard work was finished. He didn’t tell them much about his reasons; somehow his time with Miss Dunn wasn’t something he felt like sharing with everybody else.
For seven years he worked in Sarah Dunn’s yard, mowing in the summer and shoveling in the winter. Then, the summer he turned 19, he received a mission call. He wasn’t sure Miss Dunn knew what a mission was or how long it would last. Sometimes it was hard for him to tell himself he would really be gone two years. He knew he had to let her know so that she could find someone else to take care of her yard.
They were looking at a book together when he told her. She looked up into his eyes, and a look passed between them. “Two years,” she said softly, and the look said, “Maybe I won’t be here when you come home. Maybe this will be the last time.”
Steve looked down and pointed to something in the book she was holding. “Look at that,” he said, and his voice broke.
She wrote to him while he was gone, about how high her tomato plants were getting, and how last winter had seemed colder than all the others, and she asked was it cold where he was. He wrote back, glad when he was handed each new letter from her.
She was there when he came home. She walked a little slower, and he had to talk a little louder so she could hear, but she was definitely glad to see him. They sat on her front porch, and she looked at the pictures he had taken on his mission, holding each one out into the light and then close to her eyes so that she could see it.
“Beautiful,” she said quietly, studying one closely, “beautiful.”
It was hard for him to believe it when she died. He had thought it might happen while he was gone, and now that he was home, she had seemed safe somehow. Her niece telephoned him at home.
“Aunt Sarah had definite ideas about her funeral,” she said, “and she wanted you to be the main speaker.”
So here he sat, now, in front of the people who waited for his words. Getting up, he felt his knees shake, just the way they had that day when he asked, “Would you like me to shovel your walk, ma’am?” and he wondered if he could make his voice come out. He rested his hands on the podium edge. “How many of you,” he asked in a surprisingly clear voice, “how many of you really knew Sarah Dunn? I started to know her when she told me that she sang for people.”
His words came easily after that. He visualized the garden and Miss Dunn bent in half with her hands wrapped around a stubborn bit of morning glory weed. He saw in his mind the rounded shapes of her velvet living room furniture the color of rhubarb, and he saw himself seated on the edge of one of Miss Dunn’s chairs. (He never did quite trust himself while holding the gold-edged water goblet filled with ginger ale.) He could almost taste the ginger ale in the back of his throat as he talked.
“Do you know what Sarah Dunn gave me?” he asked the people in front of him. “She gave me my mission. I don’t mean she gave me the money to go, though a lot of what I saved came from working for her, but what she gave me was more important. She showed me how to love someone whose life was completely different from mine. She showed me that all people have some things in common. After a while, when we looked at the pictures in her album together, it seemed like we were seeing the same things—at least we could both appreciate what we saw.” Steve stopped, feeling a tear on his cheek. Would more people notice if he wiped it away, or if he left it? He left it, feeling the raw wetness descend his face.
“And on my mission, it was the same. Some people who answered the door gave me looks that made me feel like turning back, and then I would remember that 12-year-old boy standing in the snow on a bitter winter night. I would remember how the look on Sarah Dunn’s face scared me then, and think of how warm her ancient smile became that summer as we drank our ginger ale and tried not to think how many weeds we had pulled. I would think of Sarah Dunn, and I would begin to talk to the man whose frown seemed glued to his forehead, to the woman who looked as if she really wished she could be someplace else.” He stopped to breathe. His face felt really wet by now.
“I’m not saying it worked every time. I’m not saying the whole world suddenly became interested in me. But through Sarah Dunn, I suddenly became interested in the world. It wasn’t easy for me to like her. There was more than half a century between us, and at first I felt every one of those 60 years. Yet at the end of last summer, we might have been born on the same day. For showing me that loving your neighbor is really the most natural thing there is, I would like to thank Sarah Dunn now. Thank you, Sarah. What we shared will always be a part of me.”
He could talk no longer. He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew it belonged to his mother. It was funny, though. The hand felt exactly the same as Sarah Dunn’s had, the night she had said to him, “You know, I used to sing for people.”