Cabbage Roses

The old lady bent forward in her chair and peered at the laptop the young man held. Her name was printed in block letters at the top of the screen. “Are you going to try and fit me on that little page?” she asked. “It won’t do, you know.” Her sharp blue eyes stared defiantly from beneath hooded lids. Time had painted her face with a wrinkled brush. “I hear you’re interviewing folks all over town. Bare bones is all you’ll get. You can’t capture flesh and blood, they won’t let you. Most folks learn to hide out.”

She sat beside him in a heavily upholstered chair whose seat sank low on worn out springs. The cretonne cover was frayed at the seams, and the fabric’s cabbage roses had faded into the green leaves scattered on its surface. Her veined hand picked at a split seam, first separating the material, then joining it and pressing the edges together.

Bored, the young reporter watched the withered hand worry the fabric. A small tape recorder sat on a table between them. The town was two hundred years old, and his paper was running a series of articles about its past; the tapes would be given to the library as part of a permanent oral record. For two weeks he’d canvassed the quiet streets and listened to the ramblings of old men on park benches and old women in stuffy parlors, pressing faded photograph albums into his hands.

“I’ll give you some bones for your paper,” she said firmly. “This year I’ll be 96, the oldest living thing in town except for the maples on Main Street.”

“What is it like to be the last survivor?” he asked.

“It’s a surprise when you pass 90, a real surprise. You glance in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is and what she is doing in your house. Then sometimes you can’t remember things. Oh, I nag and search, but I can’t ferret out their hiding places. Everything is there, you know, everything that happened, but I can’t always reach it.”

His hand adjusted the volume on the tape recorder. Her voice had dropped to almost a whisper.

“Things can help you remember, like this old chair,” she continued. “It had been in the attic for years before my boy brought it down for me. I made this cover in 1937, got the stuff for fifty cents a yard and stayed up all night sewing on my old pedal sewing machine. I remember that night—the soft, smooth feel of the material as I fed it into the machine, even the cramp in my foot from pushing the pedal. The sun was coming through the window when I finished and the children were awake, crying and hungry. I fed them then I sat here to give the baby his bottle. I had a big Turkish towel on the arm in case he spit up.” She ran a hand lovingly over the arm of the chair.

Senile old bag. Who cares about your rotten chair? It belongs in the city dump. I never wanted this assignment. Thank God she’s the last one I have to see. She’s probably a Roosevelt Democrat. I’ll have to listen again to how he saved the country. All these old bags make a saint out of that crippled liberal.

“You’re looking for history,” she said. “This old chair is history. My boy shook his head when he carted it down from the attic and took off the dust cover. He wanted to have it reupholstered for me. I know it’s old and frayed, but so am I. We match.” Her eyes grew fierce and stared straight ahead.

The damned chair isn’t history. The violence when the paper mill was unionized is history. The motorcycle gang that set fire to the school, that’s history.

“Did your husband work at the paper mill?” he asked in an attempt to salvage something from the interview.

“In the 1930’s he worked there three days a week,” she said. “Then he did odd jobs when he could find them. We were worried and tired all the time. The Depression could make a martyr out of anyone. All the mending, scrubbing, counting pennies and waiting for things to change. Yes, he worked at the mill, when there was work. The lunch pail that he carried is history, just like this chair. I packed it with windfall apples and beaten biscuits when I didn’t have any yeast to make bread. It had a little tray that sat under the lid. I’d slip a piece of pie in when I could find berries in the empty fields at the edge of town. Lots of berry bushes there then.”

Now it’s the lunch pail and the chair. What other junk is she going to resurrect? He pressed his lips together in exasperation. “Was he there when the mill was organized?”

“No, he was still in the army. Is that what you want to write about? The agitators and the violence? It tore this town apart. Men came home from the war and found another war at the mill. They were organized, but that didn’t end the trouble. I don’t want to remember that.” She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the chair. An uneasy silence filled the room. Suddenly her eyes flashed open. “I suppose that you’re a Republican,” she said sharply. “Most young people with jobs are Republicans.”

“Yes, I am,” he said. Here it comes, one more notch in the great Roosevelt’s belt, one more ride down liberal lane.

“Don’t matter which one you are, they both steal whatever they can. The only difference is that the Democrats give a little back. Not much, mind you, but a little. I’m an Independent. I don’t join clubs. They shut out people and make some folks think they’re better than others. Don’t belong to a church either. Righteous people make me nervous. My relationship with God is my own business.” After a pause, she said, “I’m a thief.” She laughed and covered her mouth with her hands in a gesture of girlish gaiety. “Fooled you with that one, didn’t I?” she asked. “I don’t look like a thief, do I?” She hit the arm of her chair with a flat, solid slap.

She’s playing a game with me. He kept his face blank and his eyes dropped to his notebook. He had written “96, no clubs, no church.”

“Put that on your page,” she snapped. “I’m a thief; that’s a confession. You want a story, you got a story.”

“What did you steal?” he asked with a polite, set smile.

She stared at him for a moment then began to fold and refold the worn seam that lay under her fingers. “Your smile stays on your lips; it never reaches your eyes,” she said. “A person’s smile can tell you a lot if you know what to look for. There’s no joy in you, young man, and no human understanding.”

She’s baiting me. He shifted uneasily under her gaze, and the smile was replaced by his former blank expression.

“That’s better,” she said. “Even an empty face is better than a phony one. You have a cold eye, but then you work for an institution, you deal in fear. You can print things that hurt people, especially in a small town like this. Well, I’m not afraid of you.” She fixed him with a long look. “No need to fear anything anymore. Even death is becoming a friend. All my friends are gone except one and she’s in one of those nursing homes. Disgusting places! I visited her once, never went back.”

“They serve a purpose in our society,” he said. “An uncle of mine runs one. I’ve been there. It isn’t so bad.”

“They’re graveyards,” she said grimly. “People laid out without the dignity of a pine box. Your uncle is in the death business.”

I’m wasting my time. I’ll try once more and then I’ll call it quits. Someone else can listen to this old bag’s ramblings. “What did you steal?” he asked again.

“Did you ever steal anything? I don’t mean somebody’s job or their girl, or a candy bar when you were a kid. I mean really steal something because you had to have it. Something you thought about all the time, no matter what you were doing. Something that grew into a mountain when your whole world was a flat sheet of slippery glass. I stole because I had to. Because I needed something pretty. Because everything was grey and hopeless. I betrayed those who trusted me.”

Impatiently he adjusted the volume on the recorder as her voice rose. The force of her words filled the room with emotional static. Her eyes held his. He squirmed nervously in his chair as she leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. The Seth clock on the mantle chimed the hour, four o’clock. “You want to know what I stole, don’t you? In good time. Now we will have tea. A lot’s wrong with the world and it’s getting worse all the time, but once in a while something civilized happens. The British are an arrogant lot. The only thing they did right was create the four o’clock tea, all the rest is ego. I have everything ready, just need to put the kettle on.” She rose from the shabby chair and left the room.

She has me hooked. And she knows it. Now I’m about to have a British tea. She’s a tough old bird. I wonder what she stole. She makes it sound like the crime of the century. 

He began to move restlessly around the room. It was neatly furnished with a golden oak sideboard, an ornate, carved Victorian loveseat, two bentwood rockers and several marble topped tables. A braided rug covered part of the polished floor. The only odd note in the bright room was the shabby chair.

She returned carrying a silver tray that she placed on the table between their chairs. Two pots of jam with small, silver spoons were surrounded by plates of biscuits, triangular cut sandwiches, cookies and slices of raisin cake. She went back in the kitchen and brought out the tea, which she poured into thin china cups.

“Help yourself. This is my treat for the day. It’s necessary to do nice things for yourself. Sacrifice is alright in small doses, or when you’re young—builds character. But you have to be careful with sacrifice: it can make you righteous.” She put some jam on a biscuit and sipped her tea in silence as she rested her head against the high back of her winged chair. He joined in, sampling the contents of the tea tray, and he waited. When she finished, she placed her cup down carefully and her eyes held his.

“So you want to know what I remember. My memory is like that brook out back. Some things are clear and solid like the stepping stones, and some things rush off like the water and slide into pockets of the mind. Today, I remember the roses, so bright and beautiful, so real.”

“What did you steal?”

“Here’s the evidence,” she said. “It’s been here all the time. I’m sitting on it.” She spread her fingers over the worn fabric.

“You stole the chair?”

“No, you fool! It was the rose fabric, I had to have the roses. Every day that summer I saw them in the window of Blackman’s notions store on Main Street. I’d be pushing the baby carriage and I’d stop and look. I figured it all out carefully. Fifty cents a yard, and I needed ten yards. I stole the food money from my family to buy the roses.”

“What are you telling me?” he rose angrily. “Are you telling me that I sat here for two hours to hear that you stole five dollars? Five dollars is nothing!”

“It was all we had!”

She grasped the arms of her chair. In the heavy silence that followed, she watched him with eyes filled with pity. “You don’t understand, do you? I stole from the ones I loved and the ones that loved me. And I was forgiven! It’s hard to accept forgiveness when you know that you don’t deserve it. My husband was a good man. When he saw the chair that morning, he didn’t ask about the money. He knew. I remember the way that he smiled when he saw me sitting here. That’s history. Try and fit that on your page.”

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