A Rose for Anna
What had hurt the most was the loss of Anna. Joseph slumped into his hard, wooden chair. The shirt that once fit him well sagged at the shoulders and his right sleeve dropped limply at his side. Thin strands of white hair lay on his head. The house he built had changed little over the years other than the addition, finally, of the telephone, which rarely rang. The same dusty pictures covered the walls in frames he had carved with careful hands years before. The young faces of his children smiled eagerly from the old photographs. He stared blankly at the weeds that had overtaken his vegetable garden. He sighed and shook his head. Occasional houses had sprung up on the horizon like mushrooms after a spring rain. He longed to look back into the setting sun with no obstacles to obscure his view. He hoped to hear Anna bustle in the kitchen and to touch the long black braid she wound in a ball on the back of her head every morning. But she only returned to him in his dreams.
His head tilted toward the right so he could watch his son’s cattle graze in the pasture across the gravel road. He had to strain to find the small dark dots in the green haze. Why could he see the brown dot cows more clearly than the things he held in his hand, he wondered. He could no longer read the Czech newspaper, Vestnik, that lay before him on the coffee table. When relatives sent letters he had trouble opening them. At night before he slept, he could no longer even read the Bible. He remembered the epic letters he wrote to his family in Europe. And that journal he had kept with each year’s profits and losses etched in its yellowed pages. Where was it now? His life eclipsed while he sat in the darkness and waited. Aquamarine eyes hid behind heavy lids.
“Let’s see what brother George has to say,” Mary would announce with a pile of mail scattered on her aproned lap. But he was asleep before she finished the letter.
His life was like a dream now. He no longer felt contained in his body. At times, he stretched like a spider web in a dark corner. Then he drifted like a cloud of vapor across time and space. He would find himself in Kromeriz, Czechoslovakia, where he was born. He walked down the dirt path and saw his father in the back yard heave an ax over his shoulder to split logs. He smelled the honeysuckle that grew on the vine beside him and saw the delicate flowers that his mother cared for like her own children. The bluest of blue humming birds, a promiscuous lover, flitted from one flower to the next. The rise and fall of his mother’s voice echoed in song through the open window where two loaves of bread rose and waited to be baked.
More often, he returned to his new life in America. He remembered how his knuckles pounded his uncle’s door the night they met for the first time. He had taken a train from Galveston and arrived in Cameron earlier than expected. His English was awkward, and he walked through the dark streets with his heavy trunk pressing into his back until he found a man who spoke Czech. He followed his directions and walked the two miles to his uncle’s farm. He bowed his head and trudged down the unfamiliar road. He tried to imagine what it would look like in the sunlight. His mind filled with apprehension. The unusually flat land made him feel like an intruder in a stranger’s house. The cold wind slapped his face and burned his eyes.
Sounds brought him back to the blue wall. Mary bustled about the room. She swept the floor and gathered the newspapers. “We will have a visitor, your granddaughter, Marenka,” she urged in Czech. He had not spoken to anyone but Mary in weeks. His son John had visited several times, but he always slept and missed him. So he forgot what Mary fussed about and faded away into his dream world.
He saw himself awaken in the house across the street that now had its windows boarded and its floor rotted. The image of his first farm in Texas, a large house with smoke unfurling out the chimney made him smile. He remembered the yard filled with people who drank beer and ate barbecue the day he was married. The large empty rooms felt extravagant when he lived there alone. In the mornings, his only companions were a chorus of birds on his rooftop. After he kindled the fire in the stove, he grabbed his jacket and hurried out to the barn. The sun, a cold and distant friend just above the horizon, illuminated the earth with a pale, red glow. He opened the long, wooden gate and let the cattle out to graze.
On Sundays, he could take the time to walk to the forest of baby pine trees he had planted and measure how tall they had grown. On this particular Sunday, after breakfast, he gazed into the mirror and combed the thick crop of brown hair with more than the usual attention. He lathered his face and carefully scraped the short stubble from his cheeks and chin. He looked pleased into his deep, blue eyes, but was distracted by the tangle of his eyebrows. He damped his fingers in the steaming water and smoothed the protruding hairs. He even trimmed his mustache. He dressed for church in his finest blue suit, tipped his hat to the right, straightened his tie, and walked onto the front porch where he waited. It was a cold winter morning, and a blanket of frost still glistened in the fields, but the fierce sunlight quickly dissolved its lacework. Soon, he could see her long, black hair that flowed from under her scarfed head and danced around her bundled body. At the perfect moment, he walked onto the road with his prayer book in his left hand. He slowed his pace until he heard her footsteps behind him. With a gentle turn, he met her blue eyes and smiled into them for the first time.
He extended his right hand. “Good morning, my name is Joseph, may I walk you into town?” She looked down, and he continued. “I noticed you in church last Sunday. We must be neighbors.” She remained silent. He nervously clasped his damp palms and tried to carry on a conversation, but she would not answer him. He was sure she despised him and tried to think of a graceful way to disguise his chagrin. Then, he mentioned he lived alone and his family was in Czechoslovakia. Her eyes lit up and she spoke in soft, Czech words.
“I, too, am from Czechoslovakia. My name is Anna.” She glanced into his eyes to see that he understood, then continued. “My family just moved here a few weeks ago and my English is not good. I was too embarrassed to try to speak to you. I’m so glad you speak Czech.” She laughed. Joseph’s heart pounded when she held his arm and allowed him to escort her to and from church. The following Sunday, he met her again and offered her a red rose, moist with dew drops, from his garden.
The next week was unbearable for him. The days dragged and a storm raged that prevented him from working in the fields. He sat on the porch and grimaced each day. His eyes searched the road to the east as if he expected Anna’s tall slender body to appear. In frustration, he went to his garage where he busied himself for hours. In the work area, he found his tools and an old sheet of metal that he began to carve and shape. He sat beside his tractor and looked around to make certain everything was in its proper place. The dirt floor was smooth and dustless despite the rain outside. Onion and garlic dangled on ropes above his head. He painted the petals he had wrought bright red and yellow. He planned when and how he would present them to Anna this next Sunday instead of the customary red rose. After church, he decided to take her on a tour of the farm. When he showed her his tractor and work room, he would give her the flowers and invite her to a dance the following Saturday. His blood surged with a new sensation while he gazed out the window at the falling rain. He sat content with his pipe and blew smoke rings into the clearing sky.
A hand gripped his shoulder and rocked him forward to the present. His eyes watered, and in the haze, he discerned two figures. One leaned over his shoulder and felt familiar as she shifted his pillows and helped to lift him in his chair. “I’m fine, don’t worry with me, Mary,” he muttered. Again he noticed the other figure who he thought resembled Anna. He saw her lips move and heard a mumble of words. He motioned for her to come closer and explained that he could not see well and that, without his right arm, he was not the strong man he used to be. In the light, he vaguely recognized his granddaughter, Marianne, whom Mary fondly called Marenka. She still looked like Anna, except that she dressed in such peculiar men’s clothes; blue jeans and a long sleeved shirt.
“Hello, Grandfather, how do you feel today?”
He tried to smile at her, but his eyelids felt thick. She asked him many questions in English, and his eyes followed her movements around the room with great concentration. When he answered her, she always responded with an anxious look, “Grandfather, I don’t speak Czech, please tell me in English.” One of the questions hit a nerve that vibrated through his body. It echoed in the corridors of his memory. “What was it like to come to America, Grandfather?”
He struggled to form sentences, but could only manage to say, “Kromeriz.”
“The Koeln,” he uttered, then, “It was a cold wind.” His eyes closed, and she sat beside him with his rough, wrinkled hand in hers.
He remembered when his hair was brown and wavy and his skin smooth and fair under a wide brimmed felt hat. He waved to his family at the train station and set out, alone, for Bremen, Germany, where he would board the ship, the Koeln. He rode all night on the train but had difficulty sleeping. He stared out the window at the blurred images that rushed past in shadows. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He pictured his mother in her bright, navy gingham dress—the one she wore on special occasions.
In the morning, he awoke early and watched the sun slowly rise over tall stalks of sugar cane. Soon they reached the port, and he clutched his suitcase and trudged across the town to the dock. He noticed many other young men already waiting there when he arrived. He even recognized one, John, whom he had met on the train the night before. Women in bonnets walked close behind their husbands, with children at their sides. Husbands checked in the baggage ceremoniously. Women said last farewells to the few relatives who stood with their hands over their foreheads shielding the sunlight. He smiled into the warm eyes of his fellow immigrants, and the ship churned. He felt lucky as he buttoned his jacket and a cool breeze whipped over the water. The town disappeared, and the ship drifted further out until all he could see was the church steeple. His attention shifted to the swells of the current that bobbed the ship up and down like a toy. His hands began to sweat, and he felt a chill. An older man to his right, whom he guessed to be thirty-five or forty, removed his hat and spoke as if he was addressing everyone in sight. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to Texas to drill for oil, and I’ve never felt better in my life. I’ll buy a schooner of beer for everyone who makes it to Galveston with me. I wish I was your age again, young man.”
“Thank you, sir. The name’s Joseph Vira, and I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Anton Bauer, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. Where is your wife and family?”
“I’m only seventeen, and I’m traveling alone, but I will be going to Galveston, and although I don’t usually drink, I’ll take you up on that offer.”
“Well, of course you will; we’re going to a free country.” Bauer smiled and patted Joseph on the back.
“I’ll have to be going soon,” he heard Marianne say. She pressed a glass of water to his lips, but he insisted on holding it. She had stopped her questioning and sat with her hand on his arm. Her touch awakened his heart and he felt a strong yearning to communicate. He wished she spoke Czech like Mary or that his English was better. He remembered the first time he met Anna and chuckled aloud.
Finally he spoke. “I want to visit Anna, but I’m too old and tired. Would you go for me?”
She squeezed his hand in hers.
“There is a rose bush by the porch. Bring her a red rose. It was her favorite flower.” He added. His eyes closed. Marianne kissed him good-bye. She carefully clipped one long stemmed blossom and embraced Aunt Mary.
When he awoke, an auburn cloud hung in the western sky and twilight settled in the room like an evening visitor. Alone, he sat in the darkness and watched the moon rise in the east.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.