The Chrysanthemums ~ A Classic American Short Story by John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.
It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.
Across the river, on Henry Allen’s foothill ranch there was little work to be done, for the hay was cut and stored and the orchards were plowed up to receive the rain deeply when it should come. The cattle on the higher slopes were becoming shaggy and rough-coated.
Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits. The three of them stood by the tractor shed, each man with one foot on the side of the little Fordson. They smoked cigarettes and studied the machine as they talked.
Elisa watched them for a moment and then went back to her work. She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.
She was cutting down the old year’s chrysanthemum stalks with a pair of short and powerful scissors. She looked down toward the men by the tractor shed now and then. Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.
She brushed a cloud of hair out of her eyes with the back of her glove, and left a smudge of earth on her cheek in doing it. Behind her stood the neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows. It was a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps.
Elisa cast another glance toward the tractor shed. The strangers were getting into their Ford coupe. She took off a glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots. She spread the leaves and looked down among the close-growing stems. No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started.
Elisa started at the sound of her husband’s voice. He had come near quietly, and he leaned over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs and chickens.
“At it again,” he said. “You’ve got a strong new crop coming.”
Elisa straightened her back and pulled on the gardening glove again. “Yes. They’ll be strong this coming year.” In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness.
You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”
Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”
“Well, it sure works with flowers,” he said.
“Henry, who were those men you were talking to?”
“Why, sure, that’s what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too.”
“Good,” she said. “Good for you.
“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”
“Good,” she repeated. “Oh, yes. That will be good.”
Henry put on his joking tone. “There’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?”
“Oh, no,” she said breathlessly. “No, I wouldn’t like fights.”
“Just fooling, Elisa. We’ll go to a movie. Let’s see. It’s two now. I’m going to take Scotty and bring down those steers from the hill. It’ll take us maybe two hours. We’ll go in town about five and have dinner at the Cominos Hotel. Like that?”
“Of course I’ll like it. It’s good to eat away from home.”
“All right, then. I’ll go get up a couple of horses.”
She said, “I’ll have plenty of time to transplant some of these sets, I guess.”
She heard her husband calling Scotty down by the barn. And a little later she saw the two men ride up the pale yellow hillside in search of the steers.
There was a little square sandy bed kept for rooting the chrysanthemums. With her trowel she turned the soil over and over, and smoothed it and patted it firm. Then she dug ten parallel trenches to receive the sets. Back at the chrysanthemum bed she pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly pile.
A squeak of wheels and plod of hoofs came from the road. Elisa looked up. The country road ran along the dense bank of willows and cotton-woods that bordered the river, and up this road came a curious vehicle, curiously drawn. It was an old spring-wagon, with a round canvas top on it like the cover of a prairie schooner. It was drawn by an old bay horse and a little grey-and-white burro. A big stubble-bearded man sat between the cover flaps and drove the crawling team. Underneath the wagon, between the hind wheels, a lean and rangy mongrel dog walked sedately. Words were painted on the canvas in clumsy, crooked letters. “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” Two rows of articles, and the triumphantly definitive “Fixed” below. The black paint had run down in little sharp points beneath each letter.
Elisa, squatting on the ground, watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed wagon pass by. But it didn’t pass. It turned into the farm road in front of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking. The rangy dog darted from between the wheels and ran ahead. Instantly the two ranch shepherds flew out at him. Then all three stopped, and with stiff and quivering tails, with taut straight legs, with ambassadorial dignity, they slowly circled, sniffing daintily. The caravan pulled up to Elisa’s wire fence and stopped. Now the newcomer dog, feeling outnumbered, lowered his tail and retired under the wagon with raised hackles and bared teeth.
The man on the wagon seat called out, “That’s a bad dog in a fight when he gets started.”
Elisa laughed. “I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?”
The man caught up her laughter and echoed it heartily. “Sometimes not for weeks and weeks,” he said. He climbed stiffly down, over the wheel. The horse and the donkey drooped like unwatered flowers.
Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were graying, he did not look old. His worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease. The laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors. The calloused hands he rested on the wire fence were cracked, and every crack was a black line. He took off his battered hat.
“I’m off my general road, ma’am,” he said. “Does this dirt road cut over across the river to the Los Angeles highway?”
Elisa stood up and shoved the thick scissors in her apron pocket. “Well, yes, it does, but it winds around and then fords the river. I don’t think your team could pull through the sand.”
He replied with some asperity, “It might surprise you what them beasts can pull through.”
“When they get started?” she asked.
He smiled for a second. “Yes. When they get started.”
“Well,” said Elisa, “I think you’ll save time if you go back to the Salinas road and pick up the highway there.”
He drew a big finger down the chicken wire and made it sing. “I ain’t in any hurry, ma am. I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather.”
Elisa took off her gloves and stuffed them in the apron pocket with the scissors. She touched the under edge of her man’s hat, searching for fugitive hairs. “That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live,” she said.
He leaned confidentially over the fence. “Maybe you noticed the writing on my wagon. I mend pots and sharpen knives and scissors. You got any of them things to do?”
“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “Nothing like that.” Her eyes hardened with resistance.
“Scissors is the worst thing,” he explained. “Most people just ruin scissors trying to sharpen ‘em, but I know how. I got a special tool. It’s a little bobbit kind of thing, and patented. But it sure does the trick.”
“No. My scissors are all sharp.”
“All right, then. Take a pot,” he continued earnestly, “a bent pot, or a pot with a hole. I can make it like new so you don’t have to buy no new ones. That’s a saving for you.
“No,” she said shortly. “I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do.”
His face fell to an exaggerated sadness. His voice took on a whining undertone. “I ain’t had a thing to do today. Maybe I won’t have no supper tonight. You see I’m off my regular road. I know folks on the highway clear from Seattle to San Diego. They save their things for me to sharpen up because they know I do it so good and save them money.
“I’m sorry,” Elisa said irritably. “I haven’t anything for you to do.”
His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. “What’s them plants, ma’am?”
The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face. “Oh, those are chrysanthemums, giant whites and yellows. I raise them every year, bigger than anybody around here.”
“Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” he asked.
“That’s it. What a nice way to describe them.”
“They smell kind of nasty till you get used to them,” he said.
“It’s a good bitter smell,” she retorted, “not nasty at all.”
He changed his tone quickly. “I like the smell myself.”
“I had ten-inch blooms this year,” she said.
The man leaned farther over the fence. “Look. I know a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums. Last time I was mending a copper-bottom washtub for her (that’s a hard job but I do it good), she said to me, ‘If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you’d try to get me a few seeds.’ That’s what she told me.”
Elisa’s eyes grew alert and eager. “She couldn’t have known much about chrysanthemums. You can raise them from seed, but it’s much easier to root the little sprouts you see there.”
“Oh,” he said. “I s’pose I can’t take none to her, then.”
“Why yes you can,” Elisa cried. “I can put some in damp sand, and you can carry them right along with you. They’ll take root in the pot if you keep them damp. And then she can transplant them.”
“She’d sure like to have some, ma’am. You say they’re nice ones?”
“Beautiful,” she said. “Oh, beautiful.” Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair. “I’ll put them in a flower pot, and you can take them right with you. Come into the yard.”
While the man came through the picket fence Elisa ran excitedly along the geranium-bordered path to the back of the house. And she returned carrying a big red flower pot. The gloves were forgotten now. She kneeled on the ground by the starting bed and dug up the sandy soil with her fingers and scooped it into the bright new flower pot. Then she picked up the little pile of shoots she had prepared. With her strong fingers she pressed them into the sand and tamped around them with her knuckles. The man stood over her. “I’ll tell you what to do,” she said. “You remember so you can tell the lady.”
“Yes, I’ll try to remember.”
“Well, look. These will take root in about a month. Then she must set them out, about a foot apart in good rich earth like this, see?” She lifted a handful of dark soil for him to look at. “They’ll grow fast and tall. Now remember this. In July tell her to cut them down, about eight inches from the ground.”
“Before they bloom?” he asked.
“Yes, before they bloom.” Her face was tight with eagerness. “They’ll grow right up again. About the last of September the buds will start.”
She stopped and seemed perplexed. “It’s the budding that takes the most care,” she said hesitantlv. “I don’t know how to tell you.” She looked deep into his eyes, searchingly. Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to be listening. “I’ll try to tell you,” she said. “Did you ever hear of planting hands?”
“Can’t say I have, ma’am.”
“Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It’s when you’re picking off the buds you don’t want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They’re with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you’re like that you can’t do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?”
She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately.
The man’s eyes narrowed. He looked away self-consciously. “Maybe I know,” he said. “Sometimes in the night in the wagon there—”
Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him. “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.”
Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.
He said, “It’s nice, just like you say. Only when you don’t have no dinner, it ain’t.”
She stood up then, very straight, and her face was ashamed. She held the flower pot out to him and placed it gently in his arms. “Here. Put it in your wagon, on the seat, where you can watch it. Maybe I can find something for you to do.”
At the back of the house she dug in the can pile and found two old and battered aluminum saucepans. She carried them back and gave them to him. “Here, maybe you can fix these.”
His manner changed. He became professional. “Good as new I can fix them.” At the back of his wagon he set a little anvil, and out of an oily tool box dug a small machine hammer. Elisa came through the gate to watch him while he pounded out the dents in the kettles. His mouth grew sure and knowing. At a difficult part of the work he sucked his under-lip.
“You sleep right in the wagon?” Elisa asked.
“Right in the wagon, ma’am. Rain or shine I’m dry as a cow in there.”
“It must be nice,” she said. “It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.”
“It ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman.”
Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. “How do you know? How can you tell?” she said.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he protested. “Of course I don’t know. Now here’s your kettles, done. You don’t have to buy no new ones.”
“Oh, fifty cents’ll do. I keep my prices down and my work good. That’s why I have all them satisfied customers up and down the highway.”
Elisa brought him a fifty-cent piece from the house and dropped it in his hand. “You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do.”
He put his hammer back in the oily box and shoved the little anvil out of sight. “It would be a lonely life for a woman, ma’am, and a scarey life, too, with animals creeping under the wagon all night.” He climbed over the singletree, steadying himself with a hand on the burro’s white rump. He settled himself in the seat, picked up the lines. “Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll do like you told me; I’ll go back and catch the Salinas road.”
“Mind,” she called, “if you’re long in getting there, keep the sand damp.”
“Sand, ma’am?. .. Sand? Oh, sure. You mean around the chrysanthemums. Sure I will.” He clucked his tongue. The beasts leaned luxuriously into their collars. The mongrel dog took his place between the back wheels. The wagon turned and crawled out the entrance road and back the way it had come, along the river.
Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming the words “Good-bye—good-bye.” Then she whispered, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” The sound of her whisper startled her. She shook herself free and looked about to see whether anyone had been listening. Only the dogs had heard. They lifted their heads toward her from their sleeping in the dust, and then stretched out their chins and settled asleep again. Elisa turned and ran hurriedly into the house.
In the kitchen she reached behind the stove and felt the water tank. It was full of hot water from the noonday cooking. In the bathroom she tore off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her back.
After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her lips.
Before she was finished she heard the little thunder of hoofs and the shouts of Henry and his helper as they drove the red steers into the corral. She heard the gate bang shut and set herself for Henry’s arrival.
His step sounded on the porch. He entered the house calling, “Elisa, where are you?”
“In my room, dressing. I’m not ready. There’s hot water for your bath. Hurry up. It’s getting late.”
When she heard him splashing in the tub, Elisa laid his dark suit on the bed, and shirt and socks and tie beside it. She stood his polished shoes on the floor beside the bed. Then she went to the porch and sat primly and stiffly down. She looked toward the river road where the willow-line was still yellow with frosted leaves so that under the high grey fog they seemed a thin band of sunshine. This was the only color in the grey afternoon. She sat unmoving for a long time. Her eyes blinked rarely.
Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he came. Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked at her. “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!”
“Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?”
Henry blundered on. “I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.”
“I am strong? Yes, strong. What do you mean ‘strong’?”
He looked bewildered. “You’re playing some kind of a game,” he said helplessly. “It’s a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.”
For a second she lost her rigidity. “Henry! Don’t talk like that. You didn’t know what you said.” She grew complete again. “I’m strong,” she boasted. “I never knew before how strong.”
Henry looked down toward the tractor shed, and when he brought his eyes back to her, they were his own again. “I’ll get out the car. You can put on your coat while I’m starting.”
Elisa went into the house. She heard him drive to the gate and idle down his motor, and then she took a long time to put on her hat. She pulled it here and pressed it there. When Henry turned the motor off she slipped into her coat and went out.
The little roadster bounced along on the dirt road by the river, raising the birds and driving the rabbits into the brush. Two cranes flapped heavily over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed.
Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.
She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”
The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon and the mismatched team as the car passed them.
In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back.
She said loudly, to be heard above the motor, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.”
“Now you’re changed again,” Henry complained. He took one hand from the wheel and patted her knee. “I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch.”
“Henry,” she asked, “could we have wine at dinner?”
“Sure we could. Say! That will be fine.”
She was silent for a while; then she said, “Henry, at those prize fights, do the men hurt each other very much?”
“Sometimes a little, not often. Why?”
“Well, I’ve read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.”
He looked around at her. “What’s the matter, Elisa? I didn’t know you read things like that.” He brought the car to a stop, then turned to the right over the Salinas River bridge.
“Do any women ever go to the fights?” she asked.
“Oh, sure, some. What’s the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don’t think you’d like it, but I’ll take you if you really want to go.”
She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.” She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.