"Mrs. Newhouse wants you to help her move some ferns up to the atrium," Charles, the head gardener, said. " I’ll be in town to run a few errands, so take the flatbed down to the big greenhouse and follow Mrs. Newhouse’s instructions. She might want you to move some other plants around in the atrium. Do what she says. I won’t be back until you quit for the day.”
“Okay,” Chris said. He was glad to have the truck to himself, even if it was only to go from the carriage house to the greenhouse, and then up to the big house. He was happy when he could be on his own, and especially when he was operating a piece of equipment, big or small.
“All right, then,” Charles said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Chris said again and watched as Charles got in his car and drove it around the circular drive past the gate house and out onto the main road.
Chris backed the truck out of the carriage house and rolled down to the greenhouse where Mrs. Newhouse was waiting. He stepped down from the cab and peeked in, trying to see the old woman through the glass, a hand over his eyes to cut the glare. He saw her moving slowly down the rows of plants.
She suddenly looked up, and squinted at him. "Oh, the young man who does the lawns," she said to herself and to the plants. She didn't consider that talking to herself, since the greenhouse was so full of living things. She motioned for him to come in. He swung open the wooden door in the otherwise all-glass structure and looked around to see who she'd been talking to.
"There's no one else in here if that’s what you’re looking for," she said. "Have you never known people to talk to plants?"
"Yes," he stammered, "I've done that."
"Well,” she said, “ I expect you have.”
It was the first time he had been alone with Mrs. Newhouse. It was a summer job and he slept on the floor of the boathouse in a sleeping bag. Being this close to this wealthy woman who lived in that huge house made him feel ashamed of his grass-stained jeans and sweaty T-shirt.
"All right young man,” Mrs. Newhouse said, pointing to the ferns on the lower level of the bleacher-like potted-plant stand. "We’ll move that bench up to the house."
“The whole thing?” he blurted out.
"No, not the entire bench, only the ferns resting on it. Honestly!"
"Yes ma'am," he said. He didn't normally answer people that way, but Mrs. Newhouse had something about her that made you want to call her 'ma'am'.
"Hand me my hat," she said, walking towards the end of the greenhouse. He quickly stepped over to the door and took the hat off its hook and opened the door for her. She took her hat and said, "I’ll be at the house," stepped outside, and headed up the drive that swept past the house and over to the atrium.
He lifted the potted ferns, one by one, onto the flatbed and drove along the curved drive, stopping just before the three-story high, green-tinted glass of the atrium. To his surprise, Mrs. Newhouse was standing with her hands on a four wheeled cart, ready to push it out to the truck. Chris got down from the cab of the truck as quickly as he could and ran to take the cart.
"Oh, nonsense, young man. I can handle a cart; you start handing down the pots." She pushed the cart to the back of the truck and watched while Chris reached in and pulled one of the heavy potted ferns to the back of the truck and lowered it onto the cart.
"Now, I'll let you take charge of the cart," Mrs. Newhouse said. "I'm afraid this kind of work will only make me more of an old woman than I already am."
He followed her into the atrium, pushing the cart behind her, to the far corner of the enormous glass enclosure furthest from the entrance to the house. "Now, if you just push that big palm away from here – you think you can do that?"
Chris nodded, "Yeah – yes ma'am."
"Well, I hope so," she said. "That's what I'm paying you for."
Chris grasped the big pot by its rim and corkscrewed it across the floor until there was enough room for the seven potted ferns.
"There, that will do. I had my doubts, but Charles assured me you could handle the work, and there it is. Now let's get the rest of those ferns and settle them into the corner here."
Chris slid the three ferns into the corner where the big palm had been and went back to the truck for the rest.
"Now, we'll just have to leave that palm right where it is until Charles comes back with the lift. I don't suppose you think you could get that tree up into the truck on your own?"
"No, I don't think so ma'am."
"No, I don't think so either; not even Charles can lift the big ones without some help." She looked around the atrium to see if there was something else for him to do. She gave up and said, "I suppose you have your chores to do.”
"Charles has gone to town and I think we pretty much finished what we had to do today." He immediately wished he'd kept his mouth shut, because Mrs. Newhouse was the one who paid him and she'd know he had nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon, late as it was.
"Oh, has he? Charles does seem to find things he needs the use of his car to accomplish. Well, then…" she began, but then drifted off, gazing through the tinted glass of the atrium. Finally, she looked back at him and said, "Well, with Charles gone, I suppose you will feel time resting heavily on your hands. Perhaps joining us for tea would relieve your burden."
Chris wondered who the 'us' would be, but then thought, considering it was Mrs. Newhouse talking, it might be the royal we. "All right," he said, then thought better of it and said, "Yes, please."
"Yes, well, the day maid has her day off. Charles is driving his car around who knows where, so, I suppose I shall have to manage to fetch the tea myself."
"Do you want me to do it?"
She looked at him, shaking her head, "No, I shall manage the tea myself. You may take a seat," she said indicating with a wave of her hand, the white cast iron lawn chair on one side of the huge Grecian urn near the center of the atrium.
“You know,” she said, “you resemble Henry to a degree when he was about your age. Only to a degree, you understand. I’d say you were about seventeen. Have I got that about right?”
Chris hated when people always thought he looked younger than he was. "No ma'am, I'm nineteen," he said, trying hard not to frown.
"Not a great deal of difference between the two," she said. “Cream and sugar with your tea?"
Tea with cream and sugar didn't sound too bad to Chris as long as he was getting paid for it, so he said, "Yes ma'am, cream and sugar would be good."
When Mrs. Newhouse came back she had a tea service with settings for three. She put it down on the round cast iron table. "You may find this strange, but Henry never sits when he comes. He never has his tea either, but it wouldn't be polite not to offer, would it?"
Chris wasn't sure if he was supposed to answer, so he kept quiet.
"You know, Henry was my husband don't you?"
"Well, ma'am, I don't know much about your family except that you're rich and have a really big house."
She looked up at him sharply, "Young man, you are impertinent."
Chris wasn't sure what that word meant but from the look on her face he guessed it wasn't a good thing. "I'm sorry ma'am," was all he could think to say.
"Yes, well, at any rate, this is a bit irregular. We've never asked anyone to join us for tea; it never seemed quite the thing to do. I'm not sure how Henry will feel about it; perhaps I'm losing some of my marbles. I'm getting quite old, you know."
Chris nodded, "Yes ma'am, I know; I mean, not that old but…"
"Oh, I suppose I'm throwing you down the well without a life preserver. Is that something one would say? Well, never mind; my apologies, I shouldn't put you on the spot like this. You know, most people would find it strange to be invited to tea this way, but as time goes on…" she paused, looking at her hands. Then she continued, "as time goes on, one becomes lonely." She nodded to herself, "Yes, one becomes lonely. It's different when one is young, full of vitality, full of ideas, full of dreams. But when one gets older… yes, one gets lonely. And Henry – Henry wants me to be with him, and perhaps I should be. I shall, one day, but, I’m not sure. Not yet. Oh, one does get lonely, though. At any rate, I would like Henry to meet you. I think he’d enjoy that. You will stay until he joins us, won't you?"
He nodded slowly. "Yes ma'am."
"Good, I know Henry gets lonely too; That's why he keeps coming back.” She gently shook her head and took a sip from her tea. Chris followed her lead and took a sip of from his. "We'll have to wait for it to get just a little dark, sunset, you see, or a bit later. Just so the sun doesn't cut quite so directly through the glass. Just a bit of shadow, that's all he needs. We’ll just wait a bit and drink our tea. She picked up her cup again and drank, and again he followed her lead. They drank in silence and watched as dusk crept into the room.
When Henry came, he didn't enter the room, he was simply there, standing next to the table facing them. "Henrietta, I see we have a guest. Are you sure this is wise?"
Mrs. Newhouse turned her head to look at him. "Henry, I'd like you to meet"… she trailed off, looking at Chris and said, "Goodness, I find I've never asked your name. How rude of me. I know your age but not your name. What is it then?"
"It’s Chris," he said looking up nervously at the man who had suddenly appeared beside the table.
"Yes, I'm sorry, Henry. Henry, this is Chris he works for us. He cuts the grass."
Henry’s eyes looked through Chris, not just through him, but through and beyond to some other place. He nodded, "Chris. That's fitting, I suppose."
"What do you mean by that Henry? You haven't forgotten your manners, have you?"
He looked back to her. "Perhaps I have, forgive me, but under the circumstances…"
Mrs. Newhouse cut in, "Henry, will you join us for tea?"
"Henrietta, you know I can't take tea."
"Henry, just this once, for our guest," she said looking over at Chris again.
"No, Henrietta. Not this once, not any time. I'm dead Henrietta; I've been dead for twenty-seven years. I'll always be dead, nothing you do can change that. The only way you can be with me is to join me. It would be well for you to admit your time has come Henrietta. Come and passed." He looked at Chris, and then back at his wife. "Do you really think we should be discussing this in front of the boy?"
"Oh Henry, I know you are unhappy; I thought you might enjoy the company."
Her eyes began to fill with tears and Chris was afraid she was going to cry. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand if she did. He looked up at Mr. Newhouse quickly and said, "Please don't make her cry," and just as quickly looked back down at his cup on the table.
The man stared at Chris, and then back at Henrietta. Then he simply turned to leave.
Mrs. Newhouse said to him, suddenly in a pleading voice, "Henry, don't leave, please, not before we’ve finished tea. Stay for tea with us, and I promise, I’ll go with you." She looked at Chris. "Young man, drink your tea. I'm afraid we must be going. When Charles comes back, remind him about moving the palm back to the large greenhouse."
Chris lifted his tea, glanced at the man and the woman and said "Yes, ma'am," and drained his cup. He stood, looked up at the couple. She had stood and had her arm looped through Mr. Newhouse's now.
“Don’t forget the palm,” she said again.
He looked over at the palm, then back at the couple, and walked out of the atrium and headed for his sleeping bag in the boathouse.