After clearing away the last of the leaves from the gutter, I climbed down off the ladder and ventured into the garden. The new owners wouldn’t be here for a few days yet, the estate’s realtor had told me. I was drawn toward the bench, a simple perch peeking out from the honeysuckle boughs that arched down all around it. I saw immediately that the spot dad had chosen for it was perfect. The bench was bathed in the gentle light of the late afternoon sun, but anyone who sat there was completely in the shade, hidden beneath the cool green leaves. The scent of the honeysuckle enveloped me. And her, once. I wondered whether I should take the bench with me. Keep it, or destroy it.
She had been a customer for over fifty years. I had cleaned her gutters since I was a teenager, and had come with dad for years even before then, looking up at him from the ground as he towered above me on the ladder, pruning the cherry laurel. He wouldn’t let me sit on one of her patio chairs, even when she wasn’t home.
I never thought to ask dad about Miss Helen until a few months ago, when it was nearly too late. That day at the home, I had been trying to talk to him about his old friend Pete Wayland, who had lived on Spruce a few doors down from Miss Helen. Pete used to carve ducks out of wood. I had spotted a wooden mallard at a garage sale and had brought it over to show dad, thinking it might be one of Pete’s. He held the duck, slowly turning it this way and that, his pale, gnarled hands still strong looking despite their slight tremor.
He was quiet for awhile. I thought he was thinking about Pete, but then, still looking down at the duck, he said, “Spruce, what a gorgeous street. That street had more magnolia trees than any other street in town.”
“D’you remember Miss Helen’s magnolia tree, the one in the back? She had a rare one. It was yellow, remember?”
“Yeah, I think I do. I remember you really admired her garden design. What was it you said once, that it was ‘graceful and orderly’ something like that?”
“No, no, I don’t know about that.” He looked out the window. A cloud overshadowed the sun, darkening the perfectly manicured lawn of the home. I tried to change the subject back to Pete, but he just leaned his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
He spotted her obituary in the Town Topics a few weeks later. When I came to him that day, he was asleep, his mouth hanging slightly open, his day old stubble the same color as the spotless pillowcase on which he rested his head. The paper was in his hands. I saw Miss Helen’s picture. Curious, I reached for it, but as I did, dad woke.
“Frankie,” he said, his voice like gravel. He hadn’t called me that since I was a kid.
“Dad, is that Miss Helen?”
He wrinkled his brow, looked down at his hand, still clutching the paper. He said nothing, but when he looked up, his eyes were watery.
“She was lovely, Frank. A real lady,” he said. Something in his tone made me look at him more closely. “Did you know her? I mean, not just as a customer? As a friend?”
He sighed. “We knew each other way back, before…” At this, his throat caught. I handed him a handkerchief, wrinkled. It was one mom had embroidered years ago. I could see her small frame bent over that handkerchief, her fingers flying with the needle as she sewed the little green vine with delicate flowers twining around his initials, FW. She had chosen that design because it was so like dad, treading gently among the tender green things he loved.
“Yes. Before, in Hartford.”
“You and mom did?” Mom was a Jersey girl, but had been working as a nanny in Hartford when they met.
“No, this was long before mom.”
I gaped at him.
“How come you never said anything?”
He gave me a thin smile.
“How come you and Miss Helen ended up here? In Princeton?” I asked.
“How come we ended up here,” he said. He said it like he was wondering the same thing.
He looked down at mom’s handkerchief.
His voice soft, as though explaining to a child, he continued, “You see, we knew each other in middle school. I’d walk her home, carry her books, things like that. I’d try to find flowers or plants I thought she would like and pick them for her. Not just pretty plants, but interesting ones, even weeds, with tough prickly stems and jagged leaves. I think she even liked those the best.”
He shook his head slightly and closed his eyes. I put my hand on his. The handkerchief disappeared beneath our hands, but I knew it was still there.
“You see, she wanted to be a botanist. She would sketch the plants I’d collected for her. We’d sit on her front porch steps, and I would watch her. She had the most serious look on her face when she was drawing.” He smiled. “She’d notice everything about the flower or plant she was drawing. Every little detail.”
When he didn’t go on, I asked, “What happened, dad? Were you sweethearts later on?”
He shook his head. “Her father sent her to finishing school for high school, so we never had the chance, but I sure was sweet on her.” He chuckled. “We went to our school’s may day fair together. She danced around the maypole and I remember the ribbons streaming all around the girls, but I could only look at her, her wide smile, her golden hair flying around her. She was such a vision! Later, that summer before she left, I took her to the soda fountain for root beer floats. I guess you could call that a date. First time I had money in my pocket, that was. I felt like such a man.”
“Do you think her parents didn’t approve of you?” I wondered, vexed, what they had against my dad, my grandparents.
“I don’t think they had anything against me, son, they just didn’t know our family. And they had other ideas for her. Granddad told me later on that he’d heard Miss Helen’s father wanted her to go with the son of a friend of his from his club.”
“But Dad, if you loved her, why didn’t you try to do something?”
He shook his head. “I was so young. I’m not even sure I understood that I loved her, and I guessed I understood how her dad felt. I figured if I had had a daughter like that, I would also want her to be with someone I knew, someone who was accountable to me.”
He paused and looked out the window. Typical dad, I thought. Giving others the benefit of the doubt, never thinking they might look down on a gardener.
“Anyway,” he continued, “She went off to Miss Turner’s school, and then she married the man they wanted her to marry, a Princeton man, and moved down here so’s he could finish his graduate degree, in business, or finance, I think it was. She didn’t go to college, though granddad said she got into a couple good ones, including that one that’s with Harvard now, you know that one?”
“Radcliffe, is it?”
Yeah, Radcliffe. That’s it.” The pride in his voice was unmistakable.
“They settled here in Princeton, and they had a son.”
“Yes. And they named him Francis.”
Francis. Frank. Frankie.
He looked at me, his eyes watery once again. “He would have been a few years older than you. He died, you know, just before he turned fifteen. He had leukemia.”
He took a deep breath and looked down. I took my hand off his and sat back. I leaned all the way back in my hard metal chair, taking comfort from its sturdy support.
Dad went on, his voice weak, as though he was talking around something caught in his throat. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “It broke her heart. She stopped going out, stopped doing much of anything after that. Just tended to her garden. That was when I made that bench for her, so at least she could sit and take a rest out there. Do you remember that bench?”
I nodded numbly. I had watched him make it in our garage. He had always had some talent with woodworking. A toy box for me, a shelf for mom’s CD collection, a desk. But never anything for anyone outside the family. I vaguely remembered the bench being for Miss Helen, but I didn’t know it had had anything to do with a dead son. Whose name was Francis. Frank. Did dad know him? Did he ever spend time with her alone?
I didn’t — couldn’t — ask those questions.
So instead, I asked, “How come you and mom ended up here in Princeton? I mean, I know she was a Jersey girl and all, but her family was from the shore.”
But he only said, “Mom, she was something. How I loved her.”
“Yes, but how come —
A nurse knocked on the door. Visiting time was over.
“Dad,” I began again. “Was it because of Miss Helen that we moved here? Did you follow her here?” Why did she name her son Francis? After you? Was he —?
Frantically, in my mind, I began searching for clues. Every reference to Miss Helen, every absence. Can it be?
He waved his hand as though swatting at a fly. “Next time, Frankie. I’m about done in.” This last he said with a heavy breath and with his head bowed.
“Dad,” I said sharply. I leaned forward, and saw that his eyes had closed, and he was breathing softly. I shook my head in disbelief.
How can he fall asleep at a moment like this? I knew his heart condition often made him tired, made him fall asleep even while eating sometimes, but I refused to believe it was happening now.
“Dad,” I said again. Nothing.
I leaned forward and tried to take mom’s handkerchief from his hands, thinking he might resist. I tugged on a corner of it, but it was balled up tight in his hand.
The nurse rapped on the door. “Time to go, Mr. Winter.”
I turned back to dad. “Ok, another day, dad.” I kissed him on the forehead and left. He didn’t stir.
I got the phone call from the home in the earliest light of dawn. I squeezed my eyes shut as I clutched my phone, barely breathing. I thought of dad in his nursing home bed, dying frail and alone, and I imagined him as a hopeful young man, sitting on the porch steps with a young, fair haired Miss Helen. I remembered him in our garden, and smiled when I remembered how stubbornly reluctant he had been to cut down the wild flowers peeking out of the grass. He rejoiced in their presence, knowing they sustained many creatures, and let them be, no matter where they wished to settle.
Pity broke open the sorrow in my chest, the ache wide and deep.
The sun had set and the bench was in the shadows. Looking out over her garden, I sat as day turned to dusk, breathing in the sweet scent of honeysuckle, just as Miss Helen must have done. In the driveway, I could see the white siding of our company truck, “Frank Winter & Son,” emblazoned on it. I got up and strode out of the gate, leaving the bench where I had found it.
Ximena Skovron lives in Princeton and writes under the pseudonym A. Goodnight.