If blood were orange
a pastorale interrupted
She was wearing a loose green flannel shirt—dark green and very loose. And jeans. The jeans were loose too. There was not much to see there but that she was tall. After a moment I took note of the L. L Bean hunting boots and the heavy belt that brought the bulk of her shirt to an abrupt termination at her waist. I could see right there that she was not fat. Nor thin. But all that was secondary.
What I saw first, from a hundred yards away, was her hair. It is the first thing anyone would notice. Everyone does.
That day she had her hair gathered to her back and tied loosely by a single thick strand of unbleached gray-brown wool cut from the skein she’d been working with during the early morning. As you know, the hair is orange. If blood were orange it would be this color, not more yellow. The burnt orange of a French liqueur, but marbled here and there with an errant strand of bright metal gray that makes it certain to the eye that the orange is real.
She waited by an open gate where she had crossed the empty fields from her house on the hill above and, with her eyes on me, I was immediately self-conscious about the way I walked and how I looked to her, and that brought enough natural rebellion against the predetermination of things that I started immediately to look for other matters of interest. Unsuccessfully.
Her dog was with her, a dark coated German shepherd who stayed down on his haunches and studied me in return with his mouth closed. He was clearly ready for business but had received his instruction and would not have disobeyed. His name was Fred.
Margaret’s eyes are more green than blue though it is the blue you see until you are close, which is a trick of their color in the setting of her hair and the ruddy pink of skin so heavily freckled.
You must remember that at this moment I did not know whom she was other than that she owned the property I wanted to rent for a year. The name she’d taken on at the time was her mother’s. Abernathy. And she was only famous for being Maggie Flynn.
Did I recognize her at all? Yes and no. I certainly understood that I’d seen her before but must have instantly doubted that recognition as impossible because I had Margaret Abernathy on the piece of paper the realtor had given me and nothing more was said about it and this was 1996. The Maggie Flynn I knew of was a younger woman by twenty years, which was when I’d last seen her in a movie. And I had never seen the woman in person before.
There was a tick to the small finger where her right hand braced at her hip and thrust her elbow out in a neat triangle. I was certain this was impatience. It was, of course. But my response, just as much of an involuntary twitch as her own, was opposite. As I have said, I’ve a tendency to rebel against predeterminations. I slowed to look at the open fields around us as I approached her at the crest of road. The last strides were felt in slow motion.
I said, “A gorgeous fabulous wondrous spring day.”
She said, “ ‘Beautiful’ would be sufficient.”
She said it like a teacher would in class. Her voice has settled. Deepened. Nearly husky now after about twenty thousand cigarettes, though she no longer smoked. I did not recognize any familiar tone to the sound of it.
Contrarily I said, “Beauty is never sufficient.”
She tilted her head at that. A pose, I thought. As if telling me she was reconsidering her decision to rent the house. Still I did not see the actress.
She asked, “Have you ever lived in New Hampshire before?”
She had not yet introduced herself. We’d spoken briefly on the phone that morning and she had spoken to the realtor the day before, so there was no mystery to that. Just the formality.
I answered and put a hand out. “Hi. I’m Jim McNeill.”
She took it reluctantly I think. It was a womanly hand, and not weak but I instantly thought that the intimacy of a handshake was more than she wanted. I answered, “And yes, many times. I went to camp here as a boy. And I’ve rented houses up this way before. I gave a couple of references to Ellen at the Realty.”
Ignoring this, she asked, “Why did you walk?”
“To get the feel of the place. And I like to walk. My truck is down on the main road.” Wanting some humor I added. “Nothing to do with the fact that it’s a bit battered and I didn’t want to give the wrong impression.”
The tilt of her head straightened just a little to let me know she approved of that.
Fred watched all this intently, as if he were reading lips. I bent down to him and showed him a hand. His nose was as cold as the day. I gave him a scratch on the neck.
She said, “He bites.”
I stood and gave back a smile. “I hope he’s not hungry.”
She had not yet smiled at me. She was not wearing makeup that I could see but the wrinkles that touched the curve of her cheeks and flayed at the outer edge of her eyes and neatly furrowed her brow against a bright sun did not appear to be the product of frequent frowning.
She turned away from my scrutiny and pointed further along the road as it dipped down again to the filigree of leafless maple and oak in the next intervale.
“The house is there.”
With the bright white of the clapboards laced in the foreground by the gray of fat and budding limbs, this was the one-and-a-half story Cape that was advertised. Or not advertised, as the case was. Ellen Macomber, the realtor in Madison, had the information set aside, along with a single photograph attached, on a sheet that she took from a drawer after giving me the third degree. I thought she had done so reluctantly..
Ellen is that busty sort who wears too much jewelry, an unmistakable perfume, is brusque, and yet has an immediate intimacy to her manner. I’d rejected the half-dozen other rentals she had available. Most of them recent second homes built with the good taste of building contractors in a hurry and on a limited budget. I wanted something old. She repeated that it was the wrong time of year unless I just wanted a place just for the summer.
She handed me the sheet and said the owner of this one, Miss Abernathy, would show it if it seemed to be the right sort of place for me. “But Maggie is as particular as you are.” And I was warned then that it might be a problem in winter. It was an old building and the insulation did not seem to keep the drafts out. “And there is no heat to speak of.”
That sounded even better for my purposes. I smiled, and Ellen Macomber frowned with doubt.
Now, under the owner’s scrutiny, I studied the perfect simplicity of the house from the distance and knew it was far better for me than something grand. “Looks beautiful.”
Miss Abernathy caught the intent of that comment as we began to walk.
“Pretty, perhaps. But that’s the best I can say about it. Ellen said you were looking to stay through winter. That might not work. There’s no real furnace. Just wood heat, except for an old hot water heater in the basement that has it’s own thermostat. The thermostat has been known to freeze.”
“I don’t mind the cold. But what if I bought enough insulation to seal up the center room at least?”
“You haven’t seen it yet. You ought to look it over first.”
“I will. But I’ve lived in drafty places before. If you can get one room right, it’s a good refuge on the worst days.”
“Yes. . . . That’s true.” The agreement was spoken as if to counter-weight her previous disagreement, the word, ‘true,’ tossed out to lose itself in the air ahead.
Though nothing was said to Fred, he had followed just behind and I was already feeling a touch of admiration for her command. I had a dog for nearly twenty years. He was a mutt but mostly Border Collie. He was a friend and companion but never gave much of a damn about anything I had to say. But then, most of my friends are like that.
I asked, “Where do you live?”
“Back there,” She swept her hand up and around toward the crest again. “Behind those trees at the top of the field. I have the view. But my house is new. Nearly new. This little place here is where Isaac Abernathy lived for ninety-three years. And his father before him. He was born in the keeping room beside the chimney. He never seemed to mind the drafts.”
I immediately thought of how I might make use of a keeping room. “I’m sure I’m not the man he was. I sit a lot, and sneeze. But I could use a cozy place to work.”
“You’re a writer?”
She said, “I think you’ll find it’s a good house for that. Cozy may depend on how much wood you burn. But then, what do I know.”
I did not expect such phrasing. I was already certain that she knew a great deal. Ellen Macomber would have told her I was single. My age was on the sheet as well.
“I’m hoping you know enough to keep me out of trouble up here. I just want the peace and quiet.”
“You’re out of luck, then. Between the birds and the chipmunks and all the rest you’re going to have to get used to a lot of noise. Except in the dead of winter. And then it’s the wind.”
“I’ll settle for the peace.”
“Maybe you will get that. We’ll see.”
Large flat fieldstones set in rough uncut grass made a walkway from the road through the collapse of a stone wall tied by dried vines and withered weed. Several gnarly and naked sugar maples followed the road to the West with the largest of these close enough to the walk to make good shade when summer came. Closer, the house seemed smaller, and the entry low and narrow, though I was only expecting four rooms, including the kitchen.
The door opened silently on fat iron hinges. Not brass, and not decorative. The interior was colder than outside. Not unexpected, but a surprise nonetheless. In the front hall and directly ahead, a shallow stair wended upward from the entry along a hip of rough chimney stone. I figured this must lead to the “unfinished space I could use if I wanted,” mentioned by Ellen the day before. Miss Abernathy had stepped into a room on the left but I went directly at the stairs. The treads protested each step with a squawk. A small door opened at the top to a tent-like attic of rough hewn beams which had evidently been covered over in some distant past but the space was now long empty and smelling of the plaster which had broken loose from the lathing and dropped in clumps to the damp-stained floorboards. A single window at either end threw in light as if it were an afterthought. The upper chimney there appeared to squat at the center of the floor before tapering quickly for its exit up through the center of the roof. I could see slivers of daylight at the edges of the stone.
She said, “My aunt told me the kids were all relegated to that space as soon as they were weaned. She hated it up there. And they all left home early.”
A cold thought.
“What if I stuck a little something into those cracks too? Just to keep the weather out?
She was just below me at the bottom of the stairs and I looked down into a concerned face.
“So long as it is not ‘construction.’ I’m trying to leave the house as much like it was as I can. There aren’t many of the older homes left that haven’t been made convenient, if you know what I mean.”
A lungful of chalky air fortified me against her caution but I was immediately aware that I was on tender ground.
“I understand. But you could loose the whole house if the weather keeps coming in like that.”
Her expression hardened. “I can’t pay for it. I have no budget for that.”
“I can handle that much I think. A little flashing, shingles and tar along with some fiber glass shouldn’t be that expensive.”
She nodded without answering. I imagined she was wondering if she let me do that much, would I want more.
Downstairs and to the left of the entry on the East was what would have been a narrow dining room. At least this was bright. An unused door there on the opposite wall led to a small porch I hadn’t noticed on the outside. I discovered later that the shed roof there had rotted and been pulled away and the remaining floorboards were unsafe.
Another and wider door to the back of the dining room led to a large kitchen.
“I keep that door shut tight so that the heat that rises from the water heater will keep the pipes from freezing. The water is turned off now, but you’d have to do that as well.”
The kitchen was at the North side, darker in spite of having four windows, and smelled of stale odors that I could not identify. Even in shadow, the pattern of the linoleum on the kitchen floor was clearly worn away in the most frequently used paths. Nearer the back door, there was no pattern remaining at all.
The refrigerator suddenly came on with a rattle and I opened it reflexively. The little light showed it to be empty and well cleaned. An electric stove nearby appeared to be even older than the refrigerator. A small clock glowed yellow on a rear panel of the stove, with the wrong time by an hour.
“The stove is still good. But the last person I tried renting too turned the oven on and left the door open to get the heat, rather than cut wood. I asked him to leave.”
I ignored the edge on this statement.
At the center corner of the kitchen, the original dark maw of a massive cooking hearth was agape, as wide as it was tall, and looking ominously dark within. The space in front of this was blocked by a broad-topped black iron cooking stove with bright nickel trim that could have been in service shortly after the Civil War. I ran a hand over it with some obvious awe, while opening the firebox and looking into the lightless interior, not knowing what I expected to see.
“My Grandmother didn’t like to cook. I’ve heard that she could make bread and would keep a pot filled on the stove top with what was handy”
“Why do you think Isaac married her?” I meant the question as a joke and smiled with the asking but she did not rise to the bait. The green eyes turned away.
“Probably because he was getting lonely after fifty years, and she was handy.”
There appeared to be a hint of humor in that remark so I persisted in my own weak attempt. “A handy woman is a good thing to have.” I smiled again to make sure she understood, and then had second thoughts about possible implications.
Miss Abernathy seemed unperturbed. “Well, she was that. She could milk a cow, plant a field, and cut hay as well as a man, or so I’ve heard. She was also good with horses.”
I gave my own effort up.
A door beside the hearth that opened beneath the rising stairs from the front hall revealed the cellar and another stale odor when I opened it. A light came on automatically and I looked quickly but the space was low and I decided not to stoop and snoop just to see the water heater and the ancient unused cistern she said was there.
The back door by the sink opened on a small decaying porch, patched for use over the years, but in obvious need of repair.
A bathroom had been installed immediately beside the kitchen at the back, filling most of the space where the ancient ‘keeping’ room had been. This was sensible, of course, making it accessible through from the other side by the bedroom as well. There were few toilets in houses when this one was built, or when Isaac had been born, and his bride had not been sentimental about a better use of the space.
Leaning in at the bathroom to show due diligence, I saw a claw foot tub below the window. This sported a shower attachment on a rubber hose. As I looked at the odd configuration, I must have said, “Too bad,” aloud, because it was my thought at that instant, not about the shower, but the loss of the original room and my prematurely conjured idea of writing there.
Still keeping her distance behind, Maggie Abernathy spoke to me from the kitchen. “The new cistern and well are just up the hill on the other side of the road. That was my grandmother’s doing too. She was frugal and didn’t want to spend a lot on copper pipes, so she put the bathroom in there. I don’t think she ever intended to have any children herself. No need for a nursery. She was over forty when she married and she was never particularly fond of children. But even though old Isaac married late, he managed to get three kids out of her in twice as many years. One good litter he liked to called it.”
She might have smiled then but she was out of sight.
The remaining portion of the space was divided into a narrow closet space set against the chimney stone. Beyond was the bedroom, empty except for a lone wire hanger on the naked cedarwood floor. This room was narrow, like the dining room, but darker for being on the northeast corner. It was big enough, though not a space I planned to use more than was necessary.
I said, “The beds were smaller in those days. I guess the making of children was inevitable.”
This could be taken as something of personal remark, or as simply another bit of my weak humor. But I thought Miss Abernathy had already opened the door on that.
She didn’t answer.
Other than the kitchen, the largest of the rooms was the ‘parlor,’ around to the front again. There, another large fireplace faced out from the center corner; this one a lower affair with a polished red granite mantel, but this hearth was also blocked, here by a smaller wood stove. This room was bright with the slant of afternoon sun. The wide yellow pine of the floors was honeyed by the light and I could easily imagine spending time there in a clear morning light.
In the yard, after the inspection, she stood on the flat stone of the walk and waited again. I took my time. I had made up my mind, but I liked that moment and wanted it to last for as long as I could stretch it. The first moment. Maybe the beginning of something. As always, my imagination was getting ahead of me.
The front door, a sturdy plank-and-batten of oak heavier than most anything you could buy today, opened between a battered sill and jambs and lintel that were themselves as thick as the posts that supported the beams of the house. The space between was narrow and low and I stood cramped in the frame of it for a moment, enjoyed the sense of filling it with my body, and studied her there, standing on the walk. That little finger on her hand began to tick.
“This is what I want.”
She had yet to really smile. She squinted at me instead.
“Don’t complain to me when the winter comes.”
“I won’t. I’ll celebrate! I’ll shoot off fireworks on New Years Eve! Do you think the neighbors will mind?”
Almost a smile then. “Alright with me, though Fred might worry. He was trained by the State Police and he’s heard guns before, I know—but he was a reject.” She knelt, rubbing his neck with her fingers, “Weren’t you. A cull!” speaking the word ‘cull’ like a compliment, or at least in recognition of her own good fortune. “He didn’t pass some test or another and I bought him from an ad in the paper.” She stood then and pointed off through the trees behind the property. “And Harold Jenks, over that way, is deaf. His cows aren’t, but they hardly move when it thunders. Bob and Marie Ferrell down the road there go to Florida right after Thanksgiving. Terry Bills and Georgina Greider live in the house you passed as you came up. They have a daughter in California and after the holidays we don’t see them back until April. But I’ll tell you, it’s February that’s the longest month for most people.”
“And you stay?”
“That’s the best time of all! On a clear night when the moon is down you can see all the way to the ends of the universe.”
She looked up toward the crest of the hill again with her words, as if to say she had often done just that.
And I added the thought, “To the end of time.” Which was the way such star gazing often felt to me.
She frowned at some new concern then as she looked back at me. “Yes.”
I bought two thousand, four hundred dollars worth of shingles, tar paper, tar, aluminum flashing (because I couldn’t afford the copper), fiberglass insulation, as well as a couple of basic tools, and loaded them in the bed of my pickup and it didn’t seem like a whole lot beneath the tarp next day, standing in the rain and reconsidering what was needed. I had already decided to limit my roofing to the north side where the moss was thickest at every seam.
The distinctive feature of the house was the chimney with its two great hearths. This massive fieldstone monument was nearly twelve feet wide at the base where it disappeared into the litter of gravel in the cellar space beneath the house. It was certainly the reason the home had endured. I was in love with the place immediately and the chimney became the centerpiece of that affection. Even without a fire in the hearth I found my eyes on it at all hours, like another living presence. Perhaps a shade of old Isaac Abernathy himself. I imagine he had spent many hours there warming himself as he considered the burn of time.
Surprisingly there was very little rot, possibly because the air so freely circulated, but I did not express this opinion to Margaret. She might have stopped me from my project.
I write in the morning, often starting as soon as the coffee is made. It was my habit to eat breakfast during my first break sometime after eight. By noon or one o’clock I’m pretty much empty of ideas and my hands start to hurt from too many years pounding the keys. I usually took a walk then before setting up to work on the roof by about three o’clock and pushed that through to the last twilight, as the spring days grew longer. Margaret might have the morning views to the east above, but I had the sunsets from my roof.
And I had other thoughts about the place. The foundation for the original barn was quite clearly visible from the roof, a shallow but level depression in the earth just away on the downward slope to the West and I started thinking about a little garden for myself there. I could shovel any debris from the interior and dump some more soil in. And closer in, there was a small shed that had fallen down and I picked out the pieces of wood that weren’t punky and set those up in the attic to dry for some future use. I only learned the purpose of that little structure when I found the quarter-moon carved in a buried door plank.
The brown stems of roses bristled out of the collapsed rock along the road where a low wall had once been. Close within the yard two gnarled apple trees bowed their limbs to the ground and were already covered with the starting buds of their white blossoms. Judging by the remnant stumps scattered about, those two were the remains of an orchard that must have stretched all the way down the slope to the west toward the rim of oaks and maple and beech that now trimmed the farthest reaches of field.
Someone had obviously brought a bush cutter into the field at least once a year to keep it from being overwhelmed by scrub and second growth. I assumed that was to allow for a seasonal pasture but there was no fence, only a string of metal posts and I finally figured that part out when I found the ceramic knob for an electric wire in a kitchen drawer.
Each day in April Margret came over to watch me on the roof, we chatted then a bit. Not much. She would disappear after a short while.
Early on I asked, “Who uses the pasture?”
“That would be Harold. He still has at least a dozen milk cows. It’s against the law for him to do it now I guess, but he makes cheese and gives that and the milk that’s left over to his grand kids when they visit, or just gives it away. It’s very good. Some days you can smell him cooking the milk in his pots. The cows are getting old and he won’t ship them off. He sold most of his own pasture so he could afford the taxes.”
“I’m glad you can afford it here then. I like cows.”
“I can’t afford it. Not anymore. That’s why you’re here.”
And then she disappeared.
Fred followed her up the road when she came, zigzagging from side to side as he checked out one thing or another. When she got to the yard, his special interest was the wall where I had begun to pull up the loose stones and set them back in place, one by one. This was where the chipmunks lived and he had a cause to mind. Margaret did not seem to take note of my own effort there but I was sure she had. I figured that particular project would take me through to the fall if I did a little each day.
Another time, later in May, she walked around to one of the apple trees, blossoming wildly then and putting honey in the air.
“What did you do?”
“I trimmed it just a little.”
“You should have asked.”
“I’m sorry. I meant to. I only did what the book explained. You should know that I sprayed too.”
After a short examination of the branches she said,
“Good.” And then she left.
The roof took me a month of afternoons. I’m wary of heights and though the house is not tall nor the roof so steep, I was constantly feeling like I might misstep from the supports I’d set, and this slowed me considerably. The 864 square feet of it—that is about half of the roof–took me over a hundred hours. If I had to earn a living doing this, I would be even poorer than I am.
But on my daily walk at noon I made it my focus to find out a little more about the woman that was occupying a great deal of my thoughts.
I started with Bob and Marie Ferrell on my very first Sunday. Marie was in their yard raking up fallen branches from the wintertime and freeing the early flowers from the wind drift of debris. She seemed friendly enough but despite her direct questioning of me I got the sense that she was being very purposely circumspect about Margaret.
“Where you from?”
“What do you do?”
“I write. What about you folks?”
“My husband used to manage the Aubuchon Hardware before the Walmart came in. Now he leases tractors. I do a little of this and a little of that. I sell some real estate for Ellen Macomber when I can.”
“Have you known Margaret Abernathy long?”
“Since she came.”
“When was that?”
“A few years ago.”
“She didn’t grow up here?”
I decided to slow down my inquiry and asked about the black Labrador retriever that danced around us both, looking for attention.
I said, “I’d like to have a dog again.”
She seemed more enthusiastic about that. “You gotta have a dog up here. Life’s too short without ‘em. What kind did you have?”
“Now that’s a writer’s dog for you. Smarter than most people. I once knew a fellow who wrote. He used to go to the writer’s colony down near Jaffrey. He had a Border Collie and we took care of her when he was down there. Stubborn little thing. Never minded.”
“Well, this is my attempt to achieve a writer’s colony of my very own. A colony of one. By the way, where is that fellow now? Maybe his dog had pups.”
“Oh, he’s dead. Twenty years ago. But I know that dog had lots of pups. She got around on her own. Maybe you’ll come across one of her great grandchildren.”
I figured I might have already had one.
The following Sunday I got down the road in the other direction and found Terry Bills and Georgina Greider both outside at once, putting together boxes of assorted junk left over from a yard sale they’d conducted on the main road with several other families the previous day. Most of it appeared to be children’s toys so I used that to start the conversation. Their kids were all grown. Terry sold insurance and had a local franchise on a steam cleaning business. Georgina knitted authentic Irish wool sweaters which she sold through a craft store in North Conway. I saw the same natural gray-brown wool that I’d noticed more than once in Margaret’s hair, on a skein with a dozen others.
“Does Margaret knit too?”
“Oh, I taught her. She’s good. But she doesn’t work at it like I do. She has her flowers and chickens and things. You have to put in the hours or you won’t get enough done to pay for the time. I’ve told her she has to get herself a dish antennae. If she had one of those she’d get all the television shows and she can have them on while she knits. It’s the only way. But she won’t have a television in her house.”
This was the singular piece of information I acquired from my attempts to pick up more information on Margaret. Little else. Her neighbors were unlike any I’d ever met before. They did not gossip. I was impressed.
I would make the parlor my writing space and set up most my shelves and desk there when I got them out of storage. In the mean time I pitched my tent right in the middle of the open floor for safety against the rampant mosquitoes and any possible rain leaks on the first nights. The dining room I now considered my sitting room because it was there that I would read and listen to music, at least in warmer months. I could put my reading chair up close by the window, on the south side facing the road, where the light was best and the largest and oldest of the maples would throw shade midday in summer and I could open the window for the breeze. For the time being I propped my typewriter up on the plank with the half-moon inscribed in it, feeling rather good about any symbolism to that. I would eat my meals in the kitchen which was more than big enough for the pressed-metal topped table I bought the very next Saturday at the Spring Auction in town for five dollars. I bought two mismatched chairs to go with it for an additional ten.
The ‘Hotpoint’ refrigerator that was already in place (a contradiction in naming that befuddled me) was thirty or forty years old and chugged a little when it switched on and off but kept everything plenty cold. I quickly decided, based upon evidence, that I’d better invest in a dozen plastic containers at Walmart, immediately, to keep the mice out of the rest of my food—whenever I finally got a chance to really go shopping. For the first weeks I got by using the Quick-Mart at the gas station.
At the same auction where I’d bought my kitchen table, I purchased a Browning 12 gauge over/under manufactured in 1938, as well as a more recent Browning .22 long rifle. The .22 was for target practice. The shotgun was to get the feel of the thing, having never fired one before. It was about time. I had gone to the auction for the guns. The table was a bonus. Still, I was $1260 out of pocket. The cost surprised me.
Years ago I’d bought two hand guns, one a .32 Colt Police Special and the other a .9mm Smith and Wesson, at less than half that price. These had been necessary for the mystery series I was writing about a private detective, loosely based on n uncle. Both of these were in a safe deposit box now, along with a few odds and ends that passed for the McNeill family jewels, along with some legal paperwork. I hadn’t touched a gun in at least a dozen years. As I thought about it, I realized this was probably about the same time I’d taught my son how to shoot. He had been fourteen then. Now he was twenty-six and a first lieutenant in the military and handling weapons I could only read about.
But my purpose for being in New Hampshire for the year was to write a story about my grandfather, Daniel ‘Buck’ McNeill, and he had owned a shotgun and used it to great purpose on several occasions. He swore by Brownings and I had to take his word for that.
Something more about the economics. I don’t really have any money. A little in random royalties. An article now and then. But most of my usual income is from whatever book I write each year. One every year. I’m that methodical, give or take. And my agent had yet to find a home for the last one, so I was feeling the pinch.
“You are a romantic in an age of nihilism,” she told me once. “You have to let go of the old conventions. ‘Boy meets girl’ is now ‘boy hooks up with girl’. Love is now simple lust. Even better if it’s the girl who’s doing the lusting. Danger is not enough. You need a body count. And in the end, boy always loses girl. The bloodier the better.”
I’ve never had a real bestseller, despite what the cover blurbs say. The Cold War thrillers I wrote in the seventies did well. The mysteries I wrote in the 1980s did well enough. My two travel books did better than the mysteries. The horror novels I tried writing in the early 1990s had been a waste of time. Now the bank account was running fairly near empty. So I want to admit right here that I took on that little house, and the expense I knew was there, because of Margaret. That’s just how smitten I was. And I didn’t like that one bit.
More about Margaret.
Harold Jenks may be deaf but he never stops talking. The cows seem to enjoy that. When I went looking, I found him fixing the hinge on a barn door and I stood back, intended to wait for him to turn around. He has a little dog that is of no particular breed but reminds me of the sort of small hounds you see down South. The dog barked like crazy as I came down the unpaved road between Margaret’s land and the property owned by Bob and Marie Ferrell. Harold didn’t seem to notice as he turned a shiny new bolt into a rusted hinge plate and fasted the nut at the other side with his free hand without looking, but he started talking just as I got close enough to hear.
“Charlie doesn’t bite. I wish he would, but you can’t train a dog to bite. They do or they don’t. Now, I had a dog once that would bite me as soon as he would a stranger. I kept him around because he liked mice and rats and was the only dog I ever had that was smarter than your average rodent. But Charlie dances. I can see him dancing out of the corner of my eye and I can tell by just what sort of dance it is who might be comin.’ Like for a waltz, when he goes side to side, one foot to the other, I know it’s Marie. He loves Marie. But if it’s Margaret, he just goes quiet and disappears because she is never alone and he has no affection for Fred. And if it’s the postman, he turns flips. Every damned time. But not for you. He hasn’t figured you out yet so he doesn’t yet know what your dance will be. You had him practically going in circles.”
Harold had tightened the nut with a wrench until it got a grunt out of him and then he turned around to me.
He is as wiry as the scrub trees that line the gravel road. He has a baseball cap and a white fuzz of beard grown thick from lean cheeks after the last week’s shave. His coveralls looked like they were just out of the wash and bright at the knees from wear. I stuck my hand out and said my name and he pulled his glove off and took it.
“Jim. James McNeill.”
“Your family from over by Manchester?”
“No, sir. New York.”
“Long Island, actually. But my grandfather came from down around Exeter.”
“Hemph. . . You staying in Isaac’s house?”
“Cold in there come winter.”
I nodded, “I’ve heard.”
He asked me what I did and I told him as best I could. He told me about a writer he met once that used to live over in Fryeburg, Maine, who wrote westerns. I told him I grew up watching those Hopalong Cassidy westerns on television but he didn’t quite understand me and I couldn’t see an antennae on the small house there that catty-cornered to the barn so I gave up on that.
Then he said, “What do you think of Margaret?”
I was unready for this and fumbled over any sort of brief answer that would be easy to lipread. He laughed at me.
“She does that to fellas. I’m just sore that I’m too old to make my game. I would if I could. But you watch out. She’ll take your head off.”
I tried a direct approach
“Where is she from, do you think?”
Of course, I was thinking this had to be some other place in New Hampshire that I wasn’t familiar with.
Harold laughed hard enough for me to be sure he had a well-used set of dentures.
“You know where that is! And I’ll bet you know her!”
So, I drove down to the library that afternoon.
In fact, though I’d seen her in half a dozen films, I knew very little about her–but that was intentional on my part. I had long ago dismissed her from the world I wanted anything to do with. And that prejudice is easily explained.
The ‘Joe Parker’ series, my first success as a writer, had been optioned by Universal Pictures in 1975. And the essential plot of that storyline had been hatched out of my three year’s incarceration with Army intelligence. My job there was as an analyst. I sat at a desk, in uniform, and read translated copies of Soviet, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Hungarian, Polish and East German documents (the Chinese were sent to another section). These had been translated by some poor schmuck more unfortunate than myself who’d also been drafted as I was and also probably majored in some aspect of the liberal arts but had mistakenly opted to minor in a foreign language (clearly and not necessarily the one they were made now to translate).
Thankfully, I had majored in English literature and minored in writing. To the Army’s way of thinking I was made for the job they gave me. I was stationed at Ft. Belvoir, in Fairfax, Virginia. I left to work every morning at seven. I got home at six. I lived in a small two-bedroom house in Arlington that I shared with another officer. I was, indeed, an officer. A second and then a first lieutenant. I never made it beyond that. And I was bored stiff. So in the best Walter Mitty tradition I dreamed up an alter ego. That was Lt. Joe Parker. He also worked in Army Intelligence. But unlike the department of the Army he and I both worked for, I invested Joe with actual intelligence. He was naturally curious. And he was continually seeing connections between odd scraps of information which his superiors thought worthless—like the number of potato chips eaten at a particular East German army depot. By a process of elimination, Joe Parker figured out that this depot was actually a secret missile site that housed twice the number of known personnel. Stuff like that.
Most importantly, the object of Joe’s great affection was Molly Lynch. Joe had met her during training, and fallen in love. Molly was in fact an actual agent for Army Intelligence, and one who was assigned to dangerous duty. And those assignments kept her in Europe, while Joe was chairbound in Fairfax. So Joe took it upon himself to keep an eye on her, even to the point of re-enlisting and eventually rising in rank to Captain. He was her guardian angel. Against rules and regulations, he followed her progress on paper from place to place and spent his own free time analyzing information that concerned the area of her postings. He would inevitably pick up on some incipient mortal danger, and warn her surreptitiously (she did not know where her tips were coming from) or give her something of real interest, like the potato chip problem. Unlike James Bond, Molly had little luck seducing the subjects of her inquiries, not because she wasn’t a beauty, but because Joe kept putting obstacles down to foil any possible romance when need be. The comic element of this reverse on the usual ‘lover and spy’ was what made it work for me. I thought it was a good and humorous take on the entire Cold War situation of the time. The fun for me was working out the segments of cloak and dagger interwoven with the daily humdrum.
But my real problem was keeping my own identity secret. The Army frowns on soldiers writing novels that poke fun at their activities. And the first in the series got an advance from Simon and Schuster before I was officially out of the Service in late 1973. That caused a little dustup in the papers, and got some needed publicity for me that the Army could have done without in those dark days.
It was that publisher’s option on the Joe Parker series that fueled several bad decisions on my part, including getting married and buying a house in Seacrest, New Jersey. But the succession of disasters that followed, all in fact of my own doing, were begun with the decision by Universal to drop the option for the series when the young female lead they had planned for the part of my habitual damsel in distress went into drug rehab for the second time and told the papers that the head of the studio was a lecher and a cokehead.
At the Madison library I followed the progress on microfiche film of a young woman from Malibu to hell. She’d apparently never had a guardian angel. More the opposite, in the person of her profligate father, Matt Flynn. And very quickly, I knew more than I wanted to.
Maggie Flynn had been nominated for an academy award when she was fourteen years old, for playing a sixteen year-old girl who had been abused by her retired soldier father—still a shocking theme for Hollywood at the time, and one that only added to the darkness of Matt Flynn’s shadow over her life. She had been in two dozen films over the next twenty years, though the frequency diminished and the last was in 1985. Matt Flynn had been a very big television star from the 1950s and 1960s playing first a cowboy and then a down and out detective. He had died of a drug overdose in 1987, thought to be a suicide. Her mother, Abby Abernathy, a sometime actress, had died years before that in a car accident in 1957. The car had been driven by Maggie’s father. In the years after, her step-mother Cheri Bing, a model, evidently had constant problems due to her own drug issues.
Despite the photo likeness, and allowing for age, it was nearly impossible for me to believe the two Maggies were one and the same person. She actually looked a lot worse when she was younger.
I wondered briefly if she had remembered I was the author of the book, Berlin Liberty, which was also the title of the movie that she’d once been contracted for. I decided the answer was a no. She must have been so drug addled at the time that the memory of it had been lost. I decided my next best move was to not say anything about what I knew and to let her tell me what she wanted to in time, if that time ever came.
I had succumbed completely to Margaret’s idea of leaving the house as much as it was, or at least as much as circumstances would allow. My task was to find ways to preserve it as best I could. Besides, it was the expedient thing to do. I was getting pretty low on cash.
For a bed I’d been using my sleeping bag atop a slab of foam picked up at Walmart, but I’d had enough if that. I’m a light sleeper. Every lump beneath or bump in the night had me up on my feet and staring dumbly out the parlor window at the moonlit ghost of a road in front. The emptiness of the room magnified every sound. My own tread on the floor made a noise like a Junior High School drum majorette in a hurry. The chipmunks started their racket at dawn–before dawn–when the light outside was still blue and the smell of some spring flower I had yet to identify was wafting in through every pour of the structure around me. I’d moved my usual waking time to an hour earlier, but this was not enough.
My Ford pickup was still a youngster. It was only nine or ten years old at the time, but had less than a hundred thousand miles on her because there just wasn’t that far to go for anything you wanted from Brooklyn. Everything is right there. Most of the mileage, in fact, had been picked up on several cross country camping adventures with my son.
With the roof secure, I drove down to the warehouse in New York during the first week in May. I rented a U-Haul trailer at the warehouse on Flatbush Avenue and packed up all my worldly possessions.. Not that I have that much in the way of furniture. My reading chair. My writing desk—really just an old oak bedroom door that I salvaged one time from the curb on Garfield Place and refinished very nicely right down to the black pressed metal and glass knob. (I had always assumed it was a bedroom door for my own reasons). I set this up in the middle of the room on two short file cabinets with the knob away from me and this stayed put very securely beneath the twenty-pound weight of my Swiss-built Hermes typewriter. But it gave me a kick to see the reaction of people when they saw that I’d left the doorknob on. I could reliably get a groan when I told them it was what I used to open up my stories, and besides, a lonely guy needs a knob to fondle.
My bed frame has drawers beneath. My previous apartment in Brooklyn, though it cost more than three times as much, was half the size of this little house and I’d built the bed there myself from a kit to fit a room that was little more than a closet. Admittedly, t looked like something built from a kit. But it worked fine. Other than the shelves and books, bed frame and desk, the next largest component of my belongings were just the plain stuff of living. Clothes. Kitchen utensils. Towels. The like. The kitchen utensils were heavier by volume than any of the other boxes because I like to cook in iron pots and pans just like my own grandmother did and my plates are all what they call ‘stoneware’ for a reason.
The shelves and books were another matter. There were exactly twelve shelf units (I made those too, but I didn’t need a kit), and just over three thousand books in 156 boxes. These were the remains of a painful triage performed some months before. The shelving units are all three feet wide and eight feet tall. I had never measured the ceilings in the house and I worried all the way to Brooklyn and back that they were too high and I’d have to trim them.
It was evening when I was home again and backed the trailer into the yard. A cold daylong rain had turned to night. In my rear view mirror I saw eyes staring back from the door. A second look and I realized that it was Fred, staring back at me in his usual protective pose. The door opened and out came Margaret. She had a flashlight in her hand. In keeping with my previous resolve, I decided not to ask what she was doing there.
I just hopped out and said hi. Fred’s tail began to quiver and then wag at the sound of my voice. His head lowered just a little.
She said, “The power’s off. There was some wind earlier. I didn’t see a light so I brought over a camp light and left it inside.”
I said, “Thanks.” and then the second thought, “But that means my ice cream will be melting.”
“You better eat it fast.”
“There’s too much. Have some with me.”
“I should be getting back.”
“Just a little. Strawberry. I have some chocolate syrup too.”
She propped that hand up on her waist. “You have a box of oatmeal, and the heel from a loaf of bread, four cans of beans, a can of coffee, a half-empty six pack of beer, a container of Hershey’s chocolate syrup and that ice cream.”
“You’ve been looking.”
“I was curious.”
“Have some ice cream with me then.”
“You mean before you eat your bread and beans.”
“I ate some pizza on the road.”
She relented for the moment, “Okay.”
But a cloud of mosquitoes or black flies or both quickly followed me into the light of kitchen from the open door and I suggested we sit in the truck to eat it instead. At that point she took a rain check and headed back. This was probably for the best because there would have been little room for Fred on the seat between us and I was not sure where the bowls were in the boxes I still had to unload.
I slept better that night knowing that I had an inch to spare on the ceilings. Except for the part of it I slurped alone from the container, the ice cream was a loss.
There was no lock on the door. This was the first place I had ever lived without a lock on the door. There was a bolt inside if I was home, but when I left, everything I owned would be available to anyone passing. I thought about this a lot during the month I worked on the roof. By May I had forgotten about it completely.
My next project was the garden. I wanted fresh tomatoes, lettuce and carrots. That was my key objective, but I was going to try a little of everything. Even corn and pumpkins. I had never grown anything on my own before, and I was too much aware of this essential inadequacy. My characters were most often city dwellers.
The minus factor about using the level area that had once been below the barn floor was that it was hard. But not as hard as the stony soil beyond. The plus was the untold generations of horse and cow manure imbedded there. I bought a shovel and a rake and a hoe. I quickly unearthed everything from rusty nails to old horseshoes. I kept the horseshoes and used the tarp from my truck to drag the bad crap away and then dug out more soil at the tree line and dragged that back again until I had the entire area that I’d loosened, a rectangle of about thirty by forty feet, at least six inches deep in black earth. Including what worms I found under the leaves in the woods. This procedure was all well described in a book I’d taken out at the local library and I followed the advice fairly closely. It was harder work than I had imagined it to be and I was feeling fairly proud of myself for getting it done as quickly as I did. And again, I will admit here an ulterior motive. I wanted to impress Margaret. I had to suppress the urge to run up the hill to fetch her and show off my handiwork. But she did not come by that week.
The next time I saw Margaret was at the supermarket in Conway. She saw me first because I was studying an array of cereal boxes at the time and she came over and took notes on what was in my cart while I was distracted.
“You’ll need dishwashing liquid. That’s a lot of grease to break up.”
The sound of her voice shocked me just a little. Surveying the bacon and the sausages and the hamburger, I had no retort.
“It’s on my list.”
“And those muffins are overpriced.”
“I like English muffins with my hamburgers.”
“The store brand is just as good. Or make your own. The oven works.”
There was an opportunity in that. I could probably bake just fine. The Betty Crocker Cookbook would have the plans all laid out in simple sign language. But if I told her I couldn’t bake I was fairly certain she would not offer to teach me. I quickly opted for the opposite strategy.
“You’re right. I should make my own bread. I’ll pick up some flour.”
“Do you know how?”
She let a moment pass on that lie. She was reading me like a comic book.
“You’ll want to get the all-purpose type. Get a container of baking soda and one of baking powder. A couple aisles over they have sifters, rolling pins and the like. Shortening. Don’t forget the shortening. Look at the recipe on the bag of King Arthur flour to see what else you need. I see you already have the eggs and salt.”
And then she was gone again.
The third week in May, when I had spent several days planting seeds according to the instructions on the packets, Margaret drove over in a great big Chevy Suburban, pulling a trailer loaded with wire fencing. She backed that right down to my garden, got out with a nod as if she was only doing what was expected, and rolled the fencing bundles out onto the grass.
I watched quietly.
She said, “You’re going to need this. It won’t keep everything out. The deer can go right over the top if they have the mind to. But it will stop the rabbits and the ground hogs and most of the other critters that’ll eat your crop before it has a chance to grow. I was going to replace the fence on my chicken run but I’ll hold off on that. When you get the chance, go down to the Home Depot and buy me some replacements.”
She tossed several bundles of metal stakes out as well.
I said, “Thanks.”
She said, “Run some string across the top of the stakes from side to side and tie pieces of fabric on that. It’ll keep the dumber birds away.”
Then she nodded and left.
My Grandpa Buck was a self-avowed primordial son-of-a bitch. But none of his grandchildren believed him.
While in the Merchant Marines, he had survived the torpedoing of his ship in the First World War and later gone into business for himself, succeeded and failed several times, married once, helped raise four children, and never retired. He finally died at his desk filling out stock orders for his stationery store in Brooklyn when he was 84. And that was the way I wanted to leave the premises too. Maybe not in a stationary store, but retiring seemed to me a fool’s wish—the vacant dream of someone who has not really been living their lives in the first place. What was it you were going to do when you retired that you should not have done before when you were young enough to enjoy it? Paris? London? Rome? Daniel ‘Buck’ McNeill had seen all of that and more at least once in his journeys around the world in tramp steamers as “a kid,” But every August of his adult married life he and Grandma Doris were off on another trek, with one, two, three, and then four kids in tow. He told me once that if he couldn’t afford to do that when he wanted, then he knew he was doing something wrong. That seemed like a very neat philosophy. It basically meant I’d been doing something wrong for most of my own life. But I did agree with him on the first point. I would never likely be able to retire.
Where the ‘son-of-a-bitch’ came into the picture for Grandpa was that he spent every dime he made. He had no intention of dying with more in his pocket than was needed to tie up loose ends. Their house on Sterling Place in Brooklyn had been mortgaged to the hilt. He’d already bought the plot next the grandma’s family spot up near Boston and paid the insurance for the burial. My grandmother had made it to that place the year before he did. In other words, I inherited nothing from him but a contrary disposition.
My father is still very much alive in Florida and doing all he can to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps on this account, though he has a shorter hurdle to accomplish the deed. He was bankrupted when he was seventy-eight, during the stock market collapse of 1987. For most of his career he dabbled in real estate and wrote some very successful travel books with my mother. Actually she does the writing. He does the photography. And she still goes by her maiden name of Cass Green. Before that, back when he still lived in Brooklyn and before the twenty years they spent raising their three kids in Queens, he was a crime photographer for the New York Mirror. I’ve seen some of his work from that time. Gruesome. That was during the 1930’s and was where he met my mother when she was working as a reporter for the same newspaper. Now they still get by selling a little real estate down in Sarasota and producing the occasional travel article. But they don’t travel quite as much as they used to.
The problem with being raised as I was in the suburbs of New York by such an unremittingly and unrepentantly middle-class family is that the values are in your genes. Bourgeois is what you are and what you will ever be. No excuses. Your poorer friends always suspect that you will not understand their fears. Your Marxist buddies will make their remarks at your expense and then freely complain to you if their trust fund check is late in the mail. Your nouveau riche acquaintances will keep you at arm’s length, always afraid you might want to borrow some of their money. And those you know who are born rich are always too different to get close to. So you hang out with others of your own sort and soon get tired of talking about the same nostalgia, about wanting to get away to the same places, about paying all of the same taxes and suffering all of the same ills and misfortunes.
My endeavor in New Hampshire was to somehow break that cycle without demanding the rest of the world to be ripped asunder by revolution or plagued with catastrophe to accomplish my goal. My parents had certainly lived a good life and earned the right to enjoy the last sip of that. I just didn’t want that for myself.
My problem is, and always has been, that I have never been sure just what kind of adventure I wanted out of life instead. Writing that out in my stories is perhaps the closest I would get.
I was pretty sure that Margaret had meant for me to use the electric oven for my baking, but I was determined to use the wood stove. It was clear inside. I pulled the damper and the flame from a piece of discarded manuscript fluttered nicely. But the Betty Crocker cookbook had nothing about cooking with a wood stove so I made my dough according to Betty’s recipe and then took a walk.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Margaret wasn’t home.
I went over the field then to see Marie Ferrell instead. But she wasn’t home either. Back up the road again. I found three cars nosed in on the gravel at the Greider’s and Georgina in her kitchen with Ellen Macomber and Marie Ferrell, all drinking coffee and laughing loud enough to be heard before I could actually see the house in the trees.
They could see me when I knocked on the screen at the back door and they all went quiet and looked a little sheepish for a minute as I stepped in.
Ellen immediately said, “What did you hear?”
“You mean your laughing?”
Marie said, “Cackling I’ll bet you thought it was. We were talking about you.”
“What did I do?”
“Nothing, that we know of. That’s the point. We all agree, you are a very sneaky customer.”
Georgina had to get in on their conceit and waved Ellen off before the entire thing was obvious.
“We all had it figured that you’d have made your move on Maggie within a week. Two weeks tops. Sleeping in your little bag there on the floor. Too cute and oh so lonely. But you are the smart one after all. She would have kicked you right out if you had.”
They paused to let me incriminate myself. So I did.
“I just figured we should get to know each other a little first. See what we had in common. I’m a little old-fashioned that way.”
Ellen said, “I thought your type were all dead, or married, or both.”
This was a conversation I wanted to curtail. I gave a laugh at that that and thought it might be enough of a defense and then asked them all at once.
“Does anyone here know how to cook on a woodstove?”
They looked at each other with jaws open.
Ellen spoke up, “I guess I’m the former hippie in this bunch. What are you making?”
“I wanted to bake some bread.”
Another momentary silence. Then she looked at me with a totally blank face. “You just forget about Maggie. You can marry me. I’ll make you happier than any man has a right to be.”
Georgina and Marie both thought this was hysterical.
Ellen drove me back to the house and wrote out her instructions on a pad of her company paper. (I noted that she underlined the phone number at the top.) Then she poked at my dough and said that it was ready. I put some cardboard from the empty boxes and some kindling in the stove. She spotted the baking stone lying loose in the hearth at the back and handed that to me because I was not using pans. I had an idea about something I’d eaten once in Brooklyn.
I asked, “How do I know when it’s hot enough?”
“Sprinkle a little water on the stone. It’ll speak to you. If you do it often enough, you’ll learn the language.”
Before the dough was in the oven she took the opportunity to walk completely around the inside of the house and then came back.
“That’s a lot of books you have there.”
“I need them for my work . . . Actually need some more. I don’t have the right ones.”
“Have you talked to Jean at the library?”
“Impose on her. She likes to be useful. She has the time. People don’t read like they used to. She’ll find you anything you need.”
“And if you need anything else, you just let me know.”
Her voice dropped with that last statement. I laughed to let her understand I thought she was joking.
When she left, she was still shaking her head.
This much was unfair, of course. Remember, my efforts were wholly self-serving, and not only because I was going to get something to eat out of it.
I’d gotten the right consistency with my vaguely rounded loaves within a week. They had the rustic look of something on the cover of a cooking magazine and again I was feeling rather full of myself. When I carried one up the hill to Margaret, I caught her while she was shoveling chicken shit out of the hen house and I left my offering in a paper sack out on the table on her deck and went back to my own responsibilities.
That evening she showed up with Fred at my door, carrying a small sack of her own. Her hair was in a scarf and she had on one of her thick sweaters against the chill that was settling.
She at least gave me a partial smile. “Was that a loaf of bread you left me?”
“You didn’t see it?”
“Fred saw it first. He seemed to like it.”
Fred was all ears and total innocence. I invited her in.
This was the first time she’d come into the house since I had set up my shelves and gotten the books in place and all the rest. She stood at the door to the parlor and wandered with her eyes.
“Isaac would be surprised at all this. He wasn’t a reader.”
“I wondered about that. I was trying to imagine him out here by himself in the evenings for all those years before he married. I imagined him reading.”
“Oh, he might have. He had a Bible, and a copy of Pilgrims Progress. They were both pretty worn, so perhaps I am being too hard on him.”
I took the chance opening.
“What do you read?”
She squinted at me. I was growing fond of that squint. It was a put on look that was meant to be seen as unserious so I could be sure then that I hadn’t done or said anything myself to be worried over.
“I’ll tell you, if you won’t laugh. . . . I read children’s books.”
“Only children’s books?”
“Yes. Any age, so long as they were meant for the young. Not recent ones though. Nothing much that was written after I grew up.”
“Which means you probably haven’t read any of my stuff.”
She answered quickly, the thought perhaps already fixed in her mind. “No. I’ve determined not to. I don’t want to know. . . . I’m sorry if that’s rude. But I’ve read your mother’s books—the kid’s books about living in New York. I love your father’s pictures in those too. I just wish New York was still that innocent.”
I should have been surprised, but somehow I wasn’t. The funny thing about it was, the children’s books were the ones I’ve paid the least attention to. But at an early age I had begun to explore the world in my parent’s travel books.
I made an excuse, “You’re better off staying away from my stuff then. You might be disappointed and kick me out if you did.”
She shook her head. “No! Not that. Because I believe writers are a lot like actors. They try to please the audience. They go for the big laugh or the tear. They put on a face for the public. They give their readers what they think is wanted. But it’s never them that you know. It’s only misdirection. No matter how true they try to be. It’s always what they want you to see instead.”
This was the longest string of words Margaret had spoken to me up to that moment. If it hadn’t been so absolutely on target I might have come up with some defense. I couldn’t. But now I understood something else. She knew I was aware she’d once been Maggie Flynn.
Foolishly, I turned that illumination away from myself in order to reveal the petty knowledge I’d gained. “Do you read those books now because you never had enough of a childhood of your own?”
Immediately the friendly squint was lost in a moment of bewilderment. For the first time since I’d met her, for a brief instant, she did not appear to be the strongest woman I had ever known. She looked like a girl. I didn’t give her a chance to answer.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s none of my business. Let me get you another loaf of bread. If you don’t like that, you can at least give it to Fred.”
I had another loaf of bread in the kitchen. As it was, I’d eaten most of my mistakes that week and had about enough of it. I was gone and back again in just a minute, but the door had already closed behind her. The paper sack she’d carried, filled with a dozen eggs, was on the mantel.
I was getting to know her schedule. Just as I do myself, she awakens before dawn. When the leaves of summer had not yet filled in I could see the smoke rising above the brim of the hill from her chimney into that first light, white or yellow or reddened by whatever weather had passed in the night. On Sundays she was home and I could usually catch her doing something around the house. On Mondays she was gone. I didn’t know where. She took her eggs to a market in Madison on Tuesdays. She went to the grocery store in Conway on Wednesdays, when the extra 10% sale was on. On Thursdays she carried the fresh flowers from her four greenhouses to a shop near Wolfeboro and fresh herbs to a restaurant there. She wasn’t Catholic but she always ate fish on Fridays. She said it was freshest then, and she was right. Everyday she attended to the chickens and her other chores early and found time to walk with Fred later in the day when she returned.
I was ready with a fresh loaf when she came up the road the next afternoon. I met her there.
An apology was clear in her eyes. “Sorry about leaving so abruptly. I just had to go.”
I waved that off and handed her the sack.
She said, “Thank you. I’ll keep Fred away from this if I can.” She squinted briefly and then didn’t and simply looked at me square on with those big green eyes and I was pretty much done in and could not say another thing. She said, “And to answer your question from yesterday—yes. But it’s a little more obvious even than that. My mother died when I was seven. I had trouble reading before, I think because she would read everything to me. I liked that. By pretending I couldn’t read, she would spend more time with me. Very basic stuff. Every psychologist I’ve ever spoken to discovers that in no time and thinks they have the key to revelations and that everything else will follow suit. Like everything else will follow in a neat little line. But I don’t think it’s all so neat as that. I think it has more to do with lost innocence. I cannot remember ever feeling such innocence myself as what I find in children’s books. Flat out. Open-faced. I wish I’d been able to know some of that—that simple confidence in the good when I was younger. And even when my mother was reading those books to me, my mind was telling me that those characters were different. I would never be like that. I always knew the wolf was at the door.”
There was nothing glib to say and nothing wise that I knew of. I thought she probably understood her situation better than I ever could. Then she waved her goodbye and went on with her walk.
By accident, I’d discovered the bookshop in Sandwich that Margaret liked to visit each week. The owner was a fairly nosy woman who was intent on talking to me about everything that interested her as soon as she found out I was a writer. Trying to be polite only encouraged her. I had mistakenly said that I was renting the old Abernathy house on my first visit. She proceeded to tell me what she knew about ‘Maggie,’ which was nearly nothing but took a quarter-hour.
The day after I’d given Margaret the loaf of bread, I went back to the bookshop to look at the children’s books but there was nothing on the shelf that I knew anything about that I liked. I was, however, made aware of two obvious facts I hadn’t considered. One was that, unlike Margaret, I had not read much that qualified as children’s literature since I was ‘grown up.’ I’d only given my son the things I’d liked as a boy. The other was the simple fact that I was a guy and probably read things years ago that she would not have. For some odd reason, most of what was written in that genre was directed at either girls or boys but seldom both.
The day afterward, having seen that they did not have a copy for sale, I brought one of my own books with me to the shop instead, already wrapped, and asked the woman there if she would give it to Miss Abernathy whenever she came in. I bought a copy of another book that I was interested in to make the request less onerous when the woman broke her usual line of conversation about herself and showed some hesitation .
“Why don’t you give it to her yourself?”
“It’s a surprise.”
My next visit to Jean at the library was to ask her if she could find any good books about tramp steamer travel during my grandfather’s time and order them through interlibrary loan. Grandpa had gone around the world in one vessel or another, and I could not remember any of the ship names. I knew that one of these ships had actually changed its registration in the short distance between the Azores and Lisbon. He suspected it of smuggling, though he had never learned the facts.
Jean is a small woman who stands up very straight and has her hair piled just a little higher on her head for the desired effect. I figured her to be somewhere in her thirties—with no wedding ring, a too quick smile, and reserved in the way that shy people often are. She was obviously more used to dealing with the demands of children. Quite fairly, a request from an adult was given exactly the same sort of attention and an equal tone of voice.
“Are you sure of the author’s name? Are you sure of the title? Are you sure of the spelling. When do you think it was published?”
When I asked for anything she might have on tramp steamers she was flummoxed. She stared blindly into space, then turned, and went silently back to her office. I waited under the fair assumption that she would return, and after a few minutes she had found a particularly thick subject-index containing the category I wanted. She stared into the midst of that for a moment after licking a finger and flipping pages, and then turned the volume around to me on the desktop with no more questions asked.
I had the sense that she was pleased with herself for this discovery and I said, “Thanks,” but she did not manage to say another word and went back to filing three by five cards in a loose drawer from an old wood case.
I was now in possession of all the wisdom of the ages, so long as I could further categorize my interest. Over the following months I looked into that same book a hundred times. Jean began pulling the inter-library loan slips from her drawer as soon as I walked in the door.
But soon after that first inquiry about steamships, a neatly collected line of my own books suddenly appeared on display at the front desk beneath a sign saying “local author.” A dozen of them, at least. All I could do was give her a nod and a smile. I was not particularly proud of them at that moment, but it was a nice gesture.
Jean also knew of Margaret’s interest in children’s books.
This had come up in a different way. I’d started going through that section of the library to get an idea of those titles I knew very little about. Jean kept an eye on me and on my second visit to that alcove of the room, while I was sitting on the linoleum because the chairs were too small, and I was about three feet away from a tyke with a runny nose and bad habits, Jean came over. She handed a tissue to the kid before turning to me.
“What is the age of the child you are looking for?”
Her reaction gained her an extra inch.
“Are they disabled?”
“Not yet. I just never read most children’s books when I was a kid. I thought it was about time.”
This got her to flush. She has very black hair and very white skin and the flush was brilliant and splotchy.
“I’m sorry. It’s for you, then. I see.”
“I really don’t know what I read when I was very young. Holling C. Holling. Robert Lawson. That sort of thing. But I was reading Tom Sawyer by the time I was eight and I never looked back. I thought it was about time I learned a little something more.”
“You have a child?”
“No. My son is grown and out on his own. He reads thrillers and true adventure books. Not much else.”
“Are you thinking of writing one yourself?”
I was dumbstruck. I had never thought of the idea and now suddenly it seemed like the very best idea I’d ever heard. And just like that I said, “Yes.”
“About a tramp steamer?”
“Yes. But not exactly. Something about my grandfather who was in the Merchant Marine.”
“How wonderful! I hope you do. People don’t have enough real adventures anymore. Too much TV.”
“I agree with that.”
The flush had gone to a quieter pink and filled her entire face when she turned to her desk again but half way there she turned back.
“I’ll tell you this. The person who knows the most about children’s books of anyone around here is Margaret Abernathy. She loves them. She still reads them.”
I had to be forthright then.
“She owns the house I live in.”
Her eyes went wide but the pink faded.
“Old Isaac’s place?”
She turned again to her desk as if to escape and it seemed to me that the pink had faded all away.
I told Margaret about the idea that afternoon when I joined her for her walk with Fred. This was an example of my being over anxious, of course. I should have kept it to myself. I might have surprised her with the book and won her with a single gesture.
The fact was, I’d previously explained the need for buying a shotgun. This necessity made the ridges of the frown on her forehead curl downward in neat brackets at the ends.
Now when I told her I had decided to write the story as a kid’s book, her first response was, “That will be unique. A children’s story with shotguns.”
I was humorless on the subject.
“It’s not about shotguns. My grandfather once used a shotgun to hold off pirates in the Indian Ocean and again later to save my grandmother’s life—and his own.”
“Maybe so. But it’s not a subject that’s in demand nowadays, I think. I can’t imagine librarians like Jean ordering such a thing. Fifty years ago, maybe. Back when people still read Robert Louis Stevenson. Not today.”
She was right, of course. I could hold back the parts that involved pirates and outlaws and shotguns and temper my story to the sort of events that a child of our own day might better comprehend. But not without misgiving. I’d been asked to alter stories before to meet one editorial demand or another. I wasn’t sure I should start this one while already assuming the worst. It seemed obvious to me that the constant resorting to fantasy in children’s stories today was the result of just this sort of filing away the sharper edges of good and evil, and the removal of risk and consequences. Were the children of Robert Louis Stevenson’s day so much stronger, or smarter?
Summer came on in a rush. The summer people arrived and the local markets became busy and the roads loud at all hours. Old Isaac’s house had often been rented during the summers before and a young couple showed up one morning when I was writing and knocked on the door. The fellow reminded me of myself about twenty years ago. His wife was not as good looking as my ex-wife was, but somehow seemed more appealing in her manner. They already had three kids. All five of them were standing there at the front door when I opened it. All with bright smiles.
The fellow spoke up immediately. “Hi. My name is Bob Decker. I was just wondering if you had bought the place? We’ve stayed here once before and we loved it but the realtor told us it was taken this year and she made it sound like that would be a permanent thing.”
“I hope so.”
Frowns grabbed at the faces of the children. His wife chimed in, “We just love it here. So peaceful.”
I said, “I’m sorry. But maybe you should check in about it next year. You never know.”
This seemed to be the most polite way I could put them off.
The girl in the family, a twelve year old if I guessed correctly, decided it was her turn.
“My daddy wants to buy it.”
Her father put out a hand in defense.
“Not this year, of course. No! But it’s just the kind of second home we’ve always wanted. I was thinking of talking to Miss Abernathy about it.”
I shrugged, “I don’t think it’s for sale.” And then, as an afterthought I said too much. “But frankly, I’d buy it myself if it was.”
All smiles were gone as they filed out the walkway to their car on the road. But the girl could not resist jumping from stone to stone as she brought up the rear.
I did not see Margaret on her walk that afternoon, but she was at my door early that evening.
She skipped the ‘hello.’ No hint of a smile.
“I hear you were talking to the Deckers.”
“They showed up this morning.”
“Bob said you told him you wanted to buy the house.”
There is something more fierce than any expression on Margaret’s face. That would be no expression at all, I think because her features seem to be made so well to reveal her thoughts.
I said, “Sorry about that. I shouldn’t have. I only said it because he told me he wanted to buy it. I wanted to put him off.”
“It’s not for sale.”
“And unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to buy it if it was.”
After a beat of consideration she seemed to accept that and took an extra breath. I could see that she’d worked herself up into being very angry.
“I know you’ve put some effort into the place and I appreciate that, but you should know now that this house will never be for sale. Not as long as I live.”
“I’m glad of that. And I hope you live for a very long time.”
She nodded enough to make it clear again that she now understood the situation I had been in. The thought passed my mind that she had been stewing over this slight all day. Now her shoulders seemed to drop an inch as she relaxed. Even the green of her eyes lightened considerably. Fred stood his ground just behind her, mouth closed. He had not moved a quiver and had clearly heard the tone in voice. He sat back and licked his chops as if he might be interested in another loaf of bread.
She took a breath, “Thank you for the book. That was a surprise. Jean seemed a bit puzzled by it all. But how did you know I’d never read Kidnapped?”
“Just a guess. It’s a boy’s book.”
“But I read boy’s books too.”
‘I’ll bet you do. I just wanted to get you something that I’d liked myself when I was a kid. That’s what sprung to mind. When I was nine years old I used to pray that I’d be kidnapped. I read it again a few years ago and was amazed it was still so good.”
“You were a silly boy.”
“I was. Still am.”
“Thank you again. I was up all night with it. It’s wonderful.”
“I’m glad it was the right thing.”
Behind her I could see that the roses had begun to bloom all over the rock wall in thick clusters and that they were blood crimson and lovely there in the amber of the evening light, like an old painting with the image subdued by age. I slipped out the doorway past her and cut a baker’s dozen of them as a peace offering. I only had my little pocketknife and pricked my fingers pretty well on the small thorns, but I kept that to myself. She watched all this without saying a thing as I came past her again with the clutch of them, to wrap the prickly stems in some pages of wadded manuscript that were in the wastebasket close by so that she could handle them better herself, and presented this bouquet with an exaggerated bow.
“Is it a little too cheeky if I give you your own flowers as my apology?”
Her face again appeared expressionless to me. Truly blank. But at least she took them.
The beach at Silver Lake opened up, but it was crowded immediately with the summer folk on any warm day. Looking for a good alternative, one afternoon I asked Harold Jenks where it was that he used to swim when he was a boy.
“Boy, hell. Still go over ta the Swift River when I get all chaffed up. But you want a swim. The best swimmin’ hole around here is Norris Pond. It’s an old quarry and deepens off right quick. Sally and I used to put on our birthday suits and go in over there on any ol’ hot day. Then the Norris dairy got to hurting for some cash and sold off the back part of it to a fellow from New York and he put up half a dozen cottages. We still used to go over with the kids, but it wasn’t near as peaceful, and we had to start wearing bathing suits. Kinda spoilt it. But still a lot better that Silver Lake any day.”
I knew the Swift River pretty well. I wanted to see the pond. He directed me to the old logging road that would get me back to a “big rock.” This turned out to be a glacial boulder nearly the size of Isaac’s house. From there the trail led directly into the shore of the lake. The dairy was long gone now and the pastures there overgrown with second growth, making it all look less appealing from the road, but at least the Norris land had been put in a conservancy trust. Further ‘development’ had been stopped. The ‘New York’ fellow’s cottages squatted serenely in the shadows at the far side on that late afternoon. I went in without my bathing suit, just to say I had.
This visit became a regular midday routine as July came on.
On July Fourth, at noon, there was an explosion in front of the house. Then I heard Fred’s bark. I was out the door immediately. Smoke still curled in the air beneath the big maple. Margaret stood on the road, hands on her hips.
“I thought that might wake you up.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“It looked pretty quiet in there.”
“Writing doesn’t make a lot of noise.”
“So that’s your excuse. But I thought you said you liked fireworks?”
She held a bag up in her hand. “You want to make some noise?”
She put on a mischievous face. By the curl at the corners of her mouth she’d become a sprite.
I said, “You’ve got things out of order. First you go for a swim. Then you eat hot dogs and ice cream. Then you go for a swim again to see if you can get cramps like your mother warned you about. Then you eat a hamburger and go swimming again. And by then it’s getting onto dusk and you do the fireworks.”
“Is that it? I guess I just never did it like that before.”
“I’ll be happy to show you then. Go get your bathing suit.”
She set the paper bag down by the wall and ran back up the road like a very large little girl, hair flying behind, arms pumping. Fred, seeing something he was unfamiliar with, followed her, leaping.
I followed her in a few moments in my pickup. At the top of her drive I met her practically dancing with anticipation. She had her bathing suit gripped in one hand and her towel in the other. I already had my trunks on.
“In the house. He gets too excited with the kids at the beach.”
“But we aren’t going to Silver Lake. We’re going to Norris Pond.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Harold is a wonder. But, there’s no place to change there?”
“You’ll just have to turn your back then.”
She seemed a little giddy.
I had to ask as she climbed in, “What’s happened?”
She just said, “What do you mean? It’s gorgeous fabulous wonderous summer day.”
“Wouldn’t fabulous be enough? Did you sell a bunch of sweaters?”
“Did the hens lay a whole lot of eggs?”
“Like crazy, as usual.”
“Did you sell all your flowers?”
“It’s only roses right now. And herbs. Everybody has roses.”
“Even I have roses.”
“But you have the very best roses.”
This was a wholly different Margaret, and yet the same. Every word out of her mouth was in her voice but in a brand new tone and said at a pace that would have matched the way my son often spoke to me when he called.
At the lake she was out the door and into the trees before I turned the motor off. I yelled after her that I would wait a minute and let her change, and then started to follow too quickly in the hope of maybe seeing something I shouldn’t, and suddenly feeling some of the excitement, before I remembered the towels behind the seat of the truck and went back for those. She was already in the water before I got there. And very clearly she was naked.
It was not a difficult decision in that moment. I was no longer thinking all that clearly. I slipped off my trunks to a rather loud giggle from my singular audience and went in after her. The houses on the far shore seemed quiet and, I hoped, uninterested.
There in the water was where I first kissed her, and for the second time. And the fourth and the twelfth as well. I wasn’t really counting. I was out of my mind.
Idylls are necessarily brief, or they are not idylls at all.
For the rest of July and the entirety of August we saw each other every day. Her home, with all its glass and open spaces, and the ‘great’ room running nearly end to end on the south side, felt larger, but she liked it better to come down to Isaac’s house in the late afternoons and seldom left until dawn to do her chores. It took me a week before I could manage to write another decent sentence.
Most of those first days were taken with one discovery after another. I suppose she found out things about me as well that might have pleased her, or not, but I thought my own existence was fairly plain for her to see. Her life alone on the hill however, though seemingly more visible from the distance, had been the greater mystery. I’d never been inside her house until that day, the Fourth of July, for instance. Wrought with curiosity, I’d peeked in the broad windows from the deck on several occasions when she was not home, but she usually had the sun blinds closed and the darkened shapes within only revealed a certain neatness and order. The smaller windows set high on the span of the northern exposure were nearly seven feet off the ground and offered little more to see.
Let me describe the house.
It is at the very top of the hill, built in a former pasture and surrounded by fields with no natural shade from the trees. The summit of land there is solid rock only partially covered with a thin veneer of soil so that there is no basement to the structure. The house is elevated above this and built on a flat carriage of heavy laminated wood beams, some spanning as much as twenty-four feet. These supports float horizontally like a dock amidst six poured concrete outer piers. At first appearance as I walked closer, the entire house reminded me of a strange anachronistic ship that must have the leeway between those pilings to accommodate the rise and fall of mysterious tides. That base carries the house above the surface of the earth, opening a space of about two feet at the closest point to the ground and over eight feet at it’s highest beneath the outreach of the deck. The deck, and indeed the entire face of the house, opens to the south. From the road to Isaac’s house, what you see above is only the span of the gray back wall facing the north with its narrow horizontal windows and the oddly arching white roof. From below, the roof line changes its shape depending on the day and the time of day.
There are, in fact, only two outer walls and these curve together at the ends, again like the bow and stern of a ship. This ocean reference is announced more clearly at the south side by a three-part upper canopy actually unconnected to the house beneath, but to the piers and held there between by attached spars, much like a series of white triangular ‘jib sails’ that look to have been blown loose at a bottom edge and are now far more horizontal than vertical. Those sails and jibs are in fact connected by ropes which allow them to be shifted for the need, pivoting from the piers and offering all the shade necessary to both house and deck on hotter days and even deflect much of the wind and weather from the actual fixed arch of white roof beneath. In bad weather the spars are brought together by a pulley at each end and set back against the piers.
The deck on that south side spans east to west, curving outward beyond the enclosed house and piers with no other visible means of support than the beams beneath which connect to the undercarriage of the whole structure. Thin oak rails at the extremity of the deck are also painted grey and easily forgotten by the eye.
A center ‘mast’ at the peak of the arching roof has a multipurpose. It’s thicker and taller than the other piers that rise at the sides but not noticeably so. The visible uppermost portion is the chimney top. Below the roofline there is support at this center mast for a water cistern which is supplied by the windmill nearer the well and closer to the greenhouses below. At its base this central mast is planted into the rock at the very highest point of the hill.
The main entry to the house from the drive is from the western end where several broad and open concrete steps rise to the deck and there meet the front door and an entry that fills the ‘bow.’ The nearly identical ‘back door,’ which is in the stern to the east, is the one I used more often to head away down the grassy slope of the hill to Isaac’s house each day. All of this was very dramatic but had not been especially beautiful to me from the distance, and seeming out of place so far from the sea. Eccentric for its own sake I thought, until I lived there and realized the sense of floating above the earth that it offered. The exterior walls were smooth vertical shiplap cedar planking stained gray and in the right light on a rainy day the house nearly disappears.
In total, despite first appearances, her home is relatively small inside: a bedroom, a great room, a kitchen and a bath. But all of these are fairly large in themselves. The dining table is in the open extension of the south-facing great room at the western end. The kitchen occupies its quarter on the northwest wall. The bedroom is to the northeast. Between the bedroom and kitchen there is a laundry and water heater in the bathroom, entered through a short hall that is just behind the center hearth and beneath the cistern. In this respect, the whole plan roughly reflected Isaac’s house in the positioning of the rooms, and is not much larger.
The great room occupies fully half the interior floorspace, wrapping the southern exposure nearly end to end, connecting both entries and looks out upon the dropping elevation at that side of the hill with floor to ceiling windows which form an arc of natural light facing the deck. The hearth is stone only at its base, but otherwise a modern contraption of welded iron and glass that is a Swedish reinvention of the woodstove with a black metal flue rising directly above it to the vaulted ceiling. This fireplace squats at the very center of a middle wall, which is glass again, and also runs from bow to stern.
When blinds are raised, the center glass wall affords a full view, through the great room for both kitchen and bedroom at either side of the hearth, but more importantly, it allows the light from the larger windows on the south to reach all the way to the enclosure of the back wall on the North. Unlike Isaac’s house, all the interior ceilings are high, arching in sections defined by the rib-like beams that curve upward and correspond to the concrete piers outside, and this again offers the visual note of the interior ribs of a boat hull, but turned upside down.
I’d remarked casually on the house several times before first entering there because it was so obviously unusual and Margaret told me it had been built by a construction firm in Conway. Little else. And in that it did not at first appeal to me from the distance, I didn’t press for anything more. I was well enchanted by my own cottage.
Now I learned the surprising fact of the matter. The house was built by the Farley Brothers Construction, true enough. But it had been designed by Margaret.
That knowledge was enough to place a considerable awe upon a mind already inebriated by love. But like the door that I used to write upon, once opened, the story beyond had dimensions I could not have guessed at before venturing there.
The shelving that held her collection of children’s books was off-white and low, and punctuated the base of the middle wall of glass to either side of the hearth. The simple shiplap pine of the interior walls, here also set vertically in the manner of the exterior, were painted an off-white. This was the color of new vellum I told her. “Of hand-made paper,” she said, well aware of her choice. The solid vertical space of those walls is decorated only by watercolors and drawings, unframed and pinned in place by simple thumbtacks, these pictures could catch the eye as if done right on the surface itself. They were not all of the same quality. Many appeared to be quite professional and focused and others simple and naïve. I especially liked the drawings done of singular things: a fence post, the apple trees in winter (before I trimmed them) with their short trunks stooped and limbs touching the snow with age, and the stonewall, still breached as I had first found it, and with a haunting sense of what would come in time for the wooden house behind. There were many drawings of Isaac’s house, inside and out. The massive hearth had been sketched in charcoal several times. None of the work was signed but I had no doubt about the artist.
However, I saw at once that one of these pictures was completely unlike the others. This was a plain sheet of white, eight-and-a-half by eleven paper which had clearly been waded up, perhaps to throw away. Confused by the vague image, I brought my nose within six inches in order to see what the illustration there might be.
I could tell from the reverse impression that there was typing on the other side of the sheet, facing the wall. The faint and spotty impression, presented off-center and in a single but uneven maroon-like color, was made more ambiguous by water stains with several steaks as if struck by rain. It became clear to me only with some study. It was the palm of a hand. Portions of all five fingers were there. It took a moment longer then for my brain to comprehend that the hand was mine; that the color was the smear of blood, and that the water which had splashed that crude impression must be tears.
What had I done?
I had given her roses.
But what had I truly done? That was the question begging at a weakened mind.
I had been enchanted by a sorceress. I had fallen in love not with a common Dorothy but with the Good Witch of the North.
I had to know then how a Hollywood brat becomes an artist. Having already skinned my shins before on her otherwise invisible sharp edges, I tried my questions in small increments. What it amounted to was this: that her father had tried in his own way to keep her from the excesses that he knew were ruining him. Matt Flynn had a sailboat for some years, before it was lost to debts. He used that to take his wife and daughter out whenever he could, and just the two of them after her mother’s death, coasting from Baja to Monterey Bay. And most importantly, sensing some other nature in his girl, he had taken her to art classes from the time she was three or four. But she had always wanted to be an actor, like her father, and the art lessons had been pushed aside.
“The first day I came here to Isaac’s house,” she told me, “I hadn’t drawn more than a doodle in twenty years. I was numb and it was cold and there was snow deep all about. Harold saw my feeble attempts at a fire by the color of the smoke from the chimney and came over with a load of good wood and an equal quantity of advice. I was lost, so I simply did everything he said. One thing was that I should stay busy. Never sit on my hands. If I was going to daydream, do it when I was getting something done. There is no time to waste. Life is short enough without cutting at the middle.
“I’d actually picked up some paper at the Aubuchon one day. Just something to plan a few fixes. The drawing quickly got out of hand, you might say.”
Her own future home had been designed as if in a daydream the second week after she’d arrived to live at Isaac’s house. She had used the better part of the life insurance left to her from her father, and it was dedicated to him.
Foolishly, concerned with her meager income from sweaters and flowers and eggs, I suggested, “You could sell your art work.”
She had frowned deeply at me then, but at least offered a tone of patience in her voice. “I don’t do it for that. It’s not for money. It’s for me. I feel like I’m a part of what I see when I draw or paint.”
I wanted to argue but I kept it to myself. And I learned at last the answer to my wondering about where she went on Mondays. She was going to an art class in Meredith. She was learning to use oils.
And for that brief moment, a sort of domestic bliss overcame us, I think. It is difficult to consider the petty problems of life when all else seems perfect. You throw the bills in the drawer and make love instead. You wallow in clover. (There is indeed nearly an acre of clover there below the deck. What else was there to do?) You make a cliché of everything you say and become too stupid to hear yourself, and you are quite happy for it.
You are always aware in life of your own mortality. If not, you are insane and dangerous to yourself and others. This is not a specter or a haunt, but a dimension and a prompt—a sense that there is something behind or beneath and an awareness of the passage of time. It simply is; and it is that awareness that reminds you to enjoy what you have while you can, for it, and you, will not last.
We took turns cooking. For a while, at least, the trick seemed to be an effort to surprise the other with something different each night. I lost that battle after a few weeks because I had run out of ideas I could wrangle from Betty Crocker using the produce of my garden combined with any reasonable effort.
Waiting for the bread dough to rise and then the baking had quickly brought me new discoveries. Most importantly, I learned to make biscuits. Building a good steady fire in the wood stove was an art in itself and though I was a mere craftsman at it, I understood it was a waste of wood and effort if I used it only for the bread. I brewed my coffee there on the top well. I cooked my eggs and bacon and grits there too. Another change then for me was to make the dough first thing in the near dark of morning and while that was ‘resting’ as the book called it, I would bake some biscuits first. Alone in Isaac’s house I could flesh out my notes for the day the metal topped-table in the kitchen before I started in to writing and eat a couple of the biscuits right there with my coffee and some blueberry jam. Marie Farrell made the jam from wild blueberries and it was the best that I had ever had. At noon I made a mid-day meal and when Margaret arrived I fired up some bacon, or sausage, or ham and some eggs as well as the grits and we ate together then before our walk. She’d never had grits before, but I’d grown to love them when I was stationed at Ft. Belvoir. With sufficient butter, she came around.
But in mid-August something odd happened. Shortly after she left one morning she called down on the phone to say someone had been in her house the night before. She was upset. I went up there immediately and helped her look around for anything missing. Fred moved frenetically from one end of the house to the other, putting his nose on anything he could, but we found nothing moved or taken. That night and for the weeks that followed, I stayed with her there.
I knew she did not like guns, so I kept the shotgun in the truck beneath the seat, wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. Thinking about it now, I wonder how rational I was. It would have done me little good out there in an emergency and might even have been a tool for someone else.
On a Sunday night, the last week in August, we had a visitor. Fred had already alerted us to something going on outside, with both ears raised and mouth tight. In anxious anticipation, he finally barked. Someone knocked on the door immediately as if in response.
It was Margaret who opened it. From the side I could see a neatly dressed black man standing there and he immediately looked back at me before speaking to Margaret. He was of medium height, in a polo shirt and slacks. By the look of his shirt, he was very fit. And his shoes were shined. That was an odd thing to notice but you simply don’t see a lot of shined shoes in the neighborhood. Not even boots. Nor black men. The African-American population of Carroll County must be less than 1%.
He said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but my car’s broken down. Down on 113. Not broken exactly. Stalled. It’s happened before. It just quits. I saw your light up here and was hoping I could use your phone to call a garage. I have a car phone but I can’t get a thing on it.”
He got all of that out without pause. Margaret studied him rather carefully the way she does. I spoke first. A reflex action I guess.
“Sunday, after nine. There aren’t any garages open until you get down around Wolfeboro or over in Center Harbor. Maybe up in Conway.”
“I can call in the morning, I guess. Is there a place to stay that’s close?”
I said, “You might be lucky. There are two bed and breakfast places this side of Silver Lake. They both probably have a vacancy on a Sunday. A lot of weekend visitors go home. We can call them for you.”
Margaret said, “Come in.” The reluctance in her voice was clear. Fred growled. The fellow remained by the door as she closed it.
He was clean shaven, hair cut short to near military length, well spoken and clearly ill at ease being there. I figured him to be in his late thirties. I felt for him a little. I’ve broken down myself in difficult circumstances. Because Margaret did not seem to want to say anything else to him, I did. I reiterated all of this a day later, so the facts are still clear.
We exchanged names. He said his was Robert Smith. I asked, “Where’re you from.”
“Greenwich, Connecticut. Just up looking for a place to spend Labor Day.”
“Well. Yeah. For now. I might get lucky. Who knows?”
He had the manner of someone who found it fairly easy to make his own luck.
I said, “Silver Lake is nice.”
“Nah. I was up in through Crawford Notch and North Conway earlier. A little too rustic for me. I was told there was some kind of music thing going on in Wolfeboro. That sounds more like my speed.”
Margaret called down to The Moon Rest Inn while we spoke.
She interrupted, “They have a room for $65. Is that good?”
“It’s fine. How far a walk is it?”
I spoke up, “I’ll drive you. It’s right next to the Sunoco station. They can get your car running again in the morning when they open.”
His eyes kept going back Margaret.
“I hope so. It’s an old Jag. No one ever seems to have the right parts.”
I said, “They’ll be able to help you. They seem to be able to fix anything.”
The fellow’s eyes were now fixed on Margaret. He said, “Do I know you from someplace?”
She shook her head a little too quickly. “I don’t think so. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Right. Well . . .” He stepped aside as I opened the door and then followed me out. When he was in my pickup he was quiet for only a moment.
“Your wife looks very familiar to me. I don’t know why. She must look like somebody.”
I thought a little misdirection was in order, “I’m the one who usually gets that. People tell me I look like George Clooney.”
He actually laughed before answering. “Clooney! You gotta be kidding. I’ve met Clooney. You don’t look anything like him. And he’s younger, a lot younger.”
I was a little hurt by the added information. I suspected he meant it that way. But there was other information in his answer.
I asked, “You’ve spent time in Hollywood?”
In the dark of the cab I could not watch his face but he hesitated just long enough to make me think he was not giving me a straight answer.
“I spent some time there a while back.”
“Nice. I’d like to live in Southern California someday.”
“Too much traffic. No fun anymore. Just the traffic.”
In the dark beyond my headlights, the hunter green Jaguar parked to the side of the road lost its color. He hopped out and grabbed a leather duffle from the back seat, before slamming the door.
“Damn car. I had a Mercedes 300 before this one. That was nice. But this drives better. It’s a pain in the ass though. There’s a crack somewhere, I think. Everything is electronic these days. You get a crack in a circuit board and they can’t find it. Pain in the ass.”
With the truck door open he put the bag on the seat and unzipped it to reach in.
It was just then that a State Trooper car slowed as it passed us. I waved.
He repeated the words, “Pain in the ass,” for a third time, zipped the bag again and climbed in. He was silent then, and we were at The Moon Rest in under five minutes. As he got out and said, “thanks for the lift,” and reached over to shake my hand. I have no idea what he thought of me, but I thought his hand was soft. For a man as muscular as he clearly was, he was not used to doing much in the way of manual labor.
Back at the house Margaret was in a funk. She admitted she had lied.
“I know his face. I don’t know who he is, but I know his face. He certainly knew me. Right from the moment I opened the door, he knew me. Acting like he wasn’t sure was . . . Acting. He’s an actor, maybe. I think I knew him in Hollywood. I don’t remember his name.”
After noon the next day I drove down to the Moon Rest to see how our visitor had gotten along. But he was long gone. His car was evidently fixed earlier that morning and he had left immediately.
I walked around to the Sunoco to see just when that was. I think I was also going to make sure of his name. The mechanic there said no one had asked for him to look at a Jag. He never liked looking at Jags anyway.
As I mentioned before, fewer than 1% of the population of Carroll County are African American. That next afternoon I had reason to think the statistic might need adjustment.
I was hoeing in my garden a little late because the sun had just fallen behind the near trees and that offered a slight but needed relief from the heat. I removed half a dozen very ripe tomatoes that I’d neglected the day before and pulled a sack of green beans that were a little young but looked too good to leave behind. A car pulled up on the road at the front, one of those small white rental cars you get at airports, and out of it came a large and overweight black man wearing baggy brown slacks, and a white shirt soiled at the gibbous rounding of the front by the fresh drippings from a chocolate ice cream cone. He came down the slope toward me in no apparent hurry. He seemed not to appreciate the fact of the heat, sweating profusely, and breathing in a labored fashion that might even have been for some affect. Perhaps a play for pity. As he got closer I judged that the shirt had probably needed changing the day before in any event.
Nor was he in any rush to say hello, so I kept hacking at the ground in my ongoing effort to keep it loose like the book said. I’d long since discovered another drawback to having my garden set in the depression of the old barn foundation. Water ran in but did not run out as easily. The remainder dried up there and hardened the soil to a brick-like consistency wherever I’d failed to keep up with the matter.
The heaving fellow with the baggy slacks and dirty shirt appeared content to watch me so I kept working. My thought was that he would grow impatient and finally speak but he didn’t. He just watched. He sized up the house. He surveyed the land around us with his eyes and looked squarely into the faces of Harold’s cows, all twelve of which were just across the wire in the open field hoping I was going to toss something else their way that I’d pulled loose from the broken soil.
My own curiosity got the better of me.
“What can I do for you?”
“You are James McNeill?”
The thought ran through my head that he was a process server. Had my ex-wife found some hidden asset she hadn’t tapped years before? Then I thought of my son. Had he hurt himself? I knew he’d been jumping out of airplanes. Then it flashed across my mind that the fellow was a cop and he was there to tell me my father’s driving had finally accomplished what nature could not.
The last guess was almost half right.
“My name is Bill Reed. William R. Reed, when you check up on me. I used to work for the Los Angeles Police Department. Detective. Investigator. I’m officially retired now.”
He reached out a sweaty hand that was easily larger than my own. Not soft. Reminded me of my father’s.
“Hello. Well, you found me. I did indeed write the script for Parson’s Way. I did it under duress but I knew someone would find me some day and arrest me for that.”
There was no chuckle at my effort. He spent a glance out at the cows again instead. “Yeah. Right. Maybe so. But I was actually here to see Maggie Flynn. I hear she goes by the family name Margaret Abernathy up this way. The lady down the street tells me you and Miss Flynn are good friends.” He hesitated. He wanted me to know he was fully aware of our relationship—at least as aware as he could be. “She’s not at her home and I was hoping to find her here.”
I figured, given his past profession and my previous encounters with the law that I was best off simply giving him the information he wanted before asking anything. “Not right now. She’s over in Meredith today. This is flower day. She grows flowers and takes them to a florist there.”
“Right. And chickens, I hear. Do you know when she will be back?”
“Anytime. Soon. . . . How about now!”
Just then, Margaret’s big Suburban pulled in beneath the shade of the sugar maple.
Mr. Reed waited in place, turning around to see, and introduced himself to her when she came down. He suggested that they should go back to her house to talk. She stood her ground, as she does. Unmoved from the moment she knew who he was.
“No. Jim can know. Whatever it is.” She turned to me. “Maybe you should know a little more about me anyway.”
Bill Reed turned at me as well then, with sad and weary eyes. I felt like he wanted to see something then that I was not sure I had to show him. Then he set one leg a little further behind himself for steadier support against the slope, looked directly at Margaret, and started in on his purpose.
“I am sorry to tell you that your stepmother is dead.”
My eyes were immediately on Margaret. She showed nothing, but brushed some hair away from her face. She did not speak.
Bill Reed nodded at that as if she had. “She might have killed herself. The medical examiner won’t have a report until,” he shrugged his shoulders, “maybe next week. I don’t have any friends in the New York police department so–”
Margaret asked, “She was in New York? Was she living there?”
Reed said, “She’s been there for eight or nine years. She opened some sort of boutique. Fashion and jewelry. I saw that. Small little place. In SoHo. Evidently she did pretty well with it. But she was always short of cash. I think she was still playing with the cocaine.”
He waited then for Margaret to add something more about that perhaps. But it was the quiet Margaret again, listening.
Reed looked at me, possibly thinking that I might not know. “Cheri Bing was Miss Flynn’s step-mother.”
I asked, “How do you think she died?”
He winced slightly as if at an uncomfortable fact. “I think she was murdered.”
Margaret said, “When?”
“Three days ago. In her shop. After hours . . . You knew her as well as anyone. Or at least you did. Was she the type of person who would kill herself?”
Margaret was staring at the ground. “No.”
Mr. Reed took a heavy breath, pulled a white handkerchief from one pocket and wiped his forehead and face. The handkerchief did not look much cleaner than his shirt.
“No. I don’t think so either. But you know, we all make mistakes. She might have taken an overdose. Maybe. She had a couple of needle marks . . . But, tell me, do you think she would have taken heroine?”
“No. She was a health nut. She thought cocaine was good for you. Heroine was poison.”
He nodded in an exaggerated motion that moved his entire upper body. “Right. I remember her saying something of the sort one time to me. Just the kind of foolishness you remember. And that’s what I told the New York police.” Then he nodded again as if in consideration of what else he should say. “I told them that, and about the fact that I’d made another very bad mistake a couple of weeks ago. Anyway, that’s why I’m here.”
Mr. Reed had our complete attention now, but I could not help but look again at Margaret’s face. Her first lack of expression had altered just slightly. She was shaken.
I said, “What happened then. A couple weeks ago.”
Mr. Reed took another audible breath, this one heavier than the last.
“I’d gotten it into my head to close some of the cases that were never properly finished up on my watch. So, I decided to look into Matt Flynn’s death again—this time with some of what I’ve learned since then. And then I talked about some of that with a former colleague who knew most of the details. . . . I shouldn’t have done that.” He choked on his last words. “I have to apologize. It’s been a rough year for me too, I guess. That’s not an excuse, mind you. Just the fact. And those things have slowed me down quite a bit . . . My wife died last year. I just wasn’t ready for that. I thought she’d outlive me for sure. Then she went and had a heart attack and that was done. And here I was just retired. It’s usually the guy that retires and then drops dead. But no. It killed my wife, instead. I guess when she suddenly had to put up with me every day. It was too much.”
Margaret said, “I’m sorry. That sort of loss takes a long time. But what exactly was the mistake you mentioned?”
He shook his head. “No. No. You see, my first mistake was that I decided that I was never going to go on all those trips we used to talk about. Not by myself. I really didn’t give a hoot about all that anyway. It was just for Ethel. She wanted to see the Taj Mahal. That’s just another tomb to me. And you know, I finally saw Grant’s Tomb the other day. I was in New York and I figured I might as well go see that. I don’t think it would have impressed Ethel in the least and it did not impress me. What impressed me was the memorial at Pearl. What impressed me was all those rows of white crosses at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy.”
Having seen it myself, I said, “You are right about that.”
Bill Reed licked his lips as if he had more to say on this point and was not sure of his words quite yet.
Margaret asked, “But why would someone kill Cheri?”
Reed studied her for a moment, staring her directly in the face before answering.
“Do you remember me?”
“I don’t think so.”
He rocked back on his leg and patted his stomach. “Age does that. I’ve gained a little weight. And I had a nice little pencil mustache back in those days, but it turned gray and I was not about to dye it.
Margaret suddenly nodded. “Yes! You were the police detective who was investigating my father’s death.”
“I only met you once, I think. You were with another fellow.”
“Lt. Anderson. Yeah.” Mr. Reed clenched his jaw against an inner jolt of anger. “He’s a Captain now. And I should not have spoken with him. But I did . . . And now, well that’s done too. . . . Gotta live with that. And I know you left Hollywood right after your father’s death to get away from all that and came here . . . As you know, his death was ruled a drug overdose. And you may remember that you once insisted to me that your father never used heroine. And the coroner then just up and ruled it a possible suicide because there was no evidence he had used heroin previous to that one time.”
She said, “He was a drunk. He was always a drunk. But he never took drugs. It was Cheri who took drugs.”
“And she only used cocaine. That was all we ever had on her. With all the arrests. But she was getting that money to buy the cocaine from someplace. Somebody. Your father surely did not have it. Not then. He was already broke. As you know. And then Miss Bing left town all of a sudden, right after you did. And that was that. Case closed.”
I said, “Only you don’t think so.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
Bill Reed wiped his face again. I finally suggested we go into Isaac’s house. I had half a gallon of ice tea and some fresh lemons. He sighed loudly at that suggestion, clearly relieved at the thought of it, and followed us up to the kitchen. His previous dramatics were now clear to me—an effort to get the offer of some hospitality.
It was Margaret who first put two and two together.
Mr. Reed and Margaret were sitting at my little metal-topped table while I leaned against the counter after I pouring the tea.
She said, “There was a fellow here just the evening before last.”
Mr. Reed gave that a long straight-faced stare and waited for her to add something else. It was clear she was rethinking what she had not considered before. And I was beginning to realize Mr. Reed was given to a certain theatrical presentation. Perhaps that was a result of being so close to Hollywood for too long.
He finally said, “A black fella. About six inches shorter than me. Handsome devil. Short hair. Muscular?”
I said, “Yes.”
Reed looked at me and then back at Margaret. “Did you think you might have known him?”
“Yes! I know for certain now that I did. He used to come to visit Cheri about once a month. He was leaner then. He’d show up at the pool and take a swim and chat and then leave. She said he was just a friend. But I wasn’t sure of it until you started talking about all this.”
Mr. Reed nodded his head with a rocking of his body and a complaint from the chair, “His name is usually Robert Smith these days. At one time it was Terrell Wood.”
Margaret said, “That was it! Terrell.”
Bill Reed raised his glass and emptied it to the bottom.
“I don’t think either one is the real thing. At least not all of it. Maybe it was Terrell Smith before that. But he has I.D. for both. I think the oldest record we have on him is for the Wood character.” Mr. Reed licked his lips again but I did not take the hint. “When you knew him before, he was just a legman. Not much better than a mule. He was just out of college then. He’d done very well for himself at UCLA carrying the drugs from his underboss, Jorge Gee, in Mexico, to the addicts they had on the line as ‘vendors,’ for them to sell directly to the customers. Cheri was one of those. She was right there in Hollywood. In the middle of it. She was known there. And I’ve spoken to people she used to supply.
I asked the obvious, “Why didn’t you just arrest him.”
“Because he was smart. He never had it on him. I don’t even think he was ever a user himself. Maybe when he was in the Army. The discharge was unclear about that. We don’t know. But he was always clean when we picked him up. His only record is for breaking a fella’s nose, and once for carrying a concealed weapon. That’s it! All we had otherwise was the word of a few Hollywood types–” He nodded to Margaret, “if you’ll excuse the expression. Nothing good enough for a conviction.”
Margaret shrugged. “You were right. That’s why I left. I was in need of a steady dose of reality.”
I said, “But what’s a legman doing here?”
Bill Reed kept his eyes on Margaret. “Mr. Smith moved up the ladder after your father’s death. Did real well for himself. When he was in the Army he wanted to go into the Special Forces. They rejected him. So he quit that but starting taking martial arts classes and the like anyway. I think he wanted to see himself as some sort of Rambo. A bad Rambo. He seemed to have found his calling. Now he’s simply called the ‘Repo Man.’ ”
I said, “Those repo guys work for mortgage companies–lease companies—don’t they.”
“Yeah. No. Mr. Smith doesn’t do that. He’s just a sort of a grim repo.” He hesitated at his joke but it went over our heads. “He repossesses the lives of people who try to escape—who think they’ve escaped. The ones who still owe money. He enjoys it. A regular sociopath, our Mr. Smith.”
“Did he kill Cheri?”
‘That’s what I think. I’m a long way from any proof of that. He was in New York two days ago. He was in the proximity. But opportunity is only one count, an important one, but it can be hard to prove. We know he had motive and means.”
I asked, “But why would he come here looking for Margaret?”
Mr. Reed rocked back once in my secondhand chair until it squeaked with pain. “Because, he thinks Miss Flynn took the money that was missing when Cheri skipped out of L.A. ten years ago. There was a goodly sum of money and drugs that went missing. Her clients were fairly heavy consumers and paid the price. Given her own situation, moneywise, it must have been hard for Miss Bing to see all that cash passing through her hands.”
Margaret could only ask, “But why? Why would he think I had anything to do with that?”
Bill Reed paused to give his answer some added dramatic heft. His voice was deliberate and calm. “Well. If I had to guess, it would be because she told him you took it, in an effort to save her own skin. I believe she’d done exactly that same thing ten years before when Terrell Wood came looking for the money she’d collected for the drugs she was distributing to her various friends in Hollywoodland back in 1987. Only her clients were pretty quick to complain that they did not get their usual allotments. And I think she told Mr. Smith back then that your father had taken both the money and the drugs. I do know that some of your father’s friends had told him that she was dealing, and he’d promised he was going to stop her from doing it.”
Mr. Reed held his glass up without even looking at me. He’d been waiting for me to notice it was empty. I got my wits and finally poured it full again.
Understanding at last what had happened, Margaret sat still, her mouth open with the realization. Mr. Reed took a large swallow and continued. “For whatever reason—probably because Mr. Wood was sleeping with your step-mother at the time—he had believed Cheri that first time when she told him Matt Flynn had taken everything. And that’s the reason I believe Mr. Smith killed your father instead.”
After a silence, while Margaret tried to comprehend everything from a moment of her life that must have seemed a total chaos in her mind, I smartly said, “But that was a long time ago.”
Bill Reed nodded with his whole upper body, again making the chair squeal. I was thinking that the furniture in his house must be rather sturdy.
He says, “But neither the money or the drugs was ever found. We know that or they would have stopped looking. And we know that there was a lot of scrambling around. There was a lot a noise going on then. I think Jorge Gee told Mr. Wood that if he wanted to keep working he would have to go out and collect every dime again from Cheri’s clients. They could write off the drugs, but they wouldn’t take a loss on the cash. People could get the wrong idea if they let a thing like that slide . . . And we now know that Cheri Bing showed up in New York with about a quarter million dollars in 1989. That and a new name. But I tracked her down. You can use these new computers to track anything, you know. Credit cards. Bank deposits. Car rentals. I tracked her first to Memphis . . . Now, I like Memphis. I like the food around about there especially. Dry ribs. Pecan pie. Good God Almighty!” He hit the side of his head with the palm of his hand hard enough to hear the slap. “My father was born just south of there in a shack with mud chinking in the walls. And you know the air there still smells like home to me—anyway, that’s where Cheri picked her new name. That and a new social security number. Bought them for an exchange of some drugs, I think. That’s a transaction I could not trace so well. But she hadn’t bothered to change her address while she was playing that game, so I found her again. That was one mistake that she made. Then she moved on to New York. I found her there too. And then I made my second mistake. Like I said. I told my old pal Captain Anderson about it.”
And there was one more matter. Margaret was pregnant.
She was 46 years old. She would be 47 when the baby was born. I would be 50. Somehow, that didn’t matter to either of us. I think it must have been hours later when we let the reality of the fact sink it. I was the one who was a little giddy this time. But I was certain she was happy.
I know an editor down in New York who has six kids. The last one was born when she was well into her forties. So, I called her. She said her doctor was the best in the world. So that was the one we wanted. I got an appointment and Margaret and I drove down together. They did a dozen tests. A few more. Modern medical science told us that Margaret was healthy and the baby would likely be fine.
The real problem was that I wanted to get married. Immediately, if not sooner. I had the one bad experience behind me, but the rest of what I knew about that proposition was all for the good. Margaret had nothing of the sort to rely on. She wanted the baby, but she was not sure about marriage.
This might seem to be a little ahead of the story, but it is important because Margaret already knew and I knew it next and it immediately influenced our behavior.
At the table there in Isaac’s kitchen, Bill Reed looked up at me and said, “Do you have a gun?”
“A shotgun and a twenty-two.”
He looked at Margaret. “How about you?”
“Well, I’d keep those guys pretty near at hand if you know how to use them—and I assume you do. I imagine you two’ll be close anyway, but I wouldn’t let Miss Flynn get very far without you being there.”
Margaret asked, “For how long?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Smith did not come all this way to say hello. I believe he’s around someplace. He’ll do something. And I should go now and talk to the State Police about that.” He arose from the table then with a prolonged grunt and a push on the metal table top with the flat of his hands. “The knees are no good. When the knees go, everything else sorta collapses.”
With directions from me about the best route to the State Police, he fit himself into his little car and was gone.
Margaret was still at the table when I came back in.
She said, “Sit down.”
It was a definitive sounding statement. I sat down. But I wrongly anticipated what she was going to say.
“I’ll be careful with the guns. The shotgun is a bear, but I think I have the hang of it.”
“It’s not the guns . . . I bought a steak.”
“That’s great! I’ll grill it!”
“No! I bought it to celebrate. I have something to tell you. But, now it’s spoiled.” The words barely got out of her throat. In an instant her face was suddenly transfigured.
I had never seen her cry before. I had to practically lift her out of her chair because it is very difficult to hug someone when they are sitting down.
All I could find to say was, “It’ll be fine. Everything will be fine. I’m sorry about your step-mother but I’m here now and everything will be okay. The son of a bitch has probably gone anyway. He probably saw the situation and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. He’s gone.”
Margaret shook her head against my shoulder, wiping her face on my shirt as she did.
“That’s not it. If he comes back I want to kill the son of a bitch myself. He killed my father!”
She said this while hugging me pretty tight, and me feeling the pity of the ages at the same time as I just as suddenly wanted to make love to her. It was about impossible for me to hold her and not feel that way, but with her crying, all that feeling was magnified beyond any sort of reservation.
“What is it then?”
As absolutely as a woman can totally destroy a guy by crying, she can completely stun him with those particular words. I had heard them once before in my life. I think I felt just about the same both times. And the most interesting thing about that is, when my first wife told me, she was crying too, but for the exact opposite reason–she had never wanted a kid in the first place.
Bill Reed found us later on, up the hill on Margaret’s deck, with the steak on the grill and Fred being very obedient as he slobbered on himself and patiently waited. Fred’s singular interest was so absolute that he practically ignored our visitor and Mr. Reed sat heavily into one of the Adirondack chairs and sighed with satisfaction as he appraised the view over the treetops to the blue-green of the hills beyond.
“This is the sweet spot, isn’t it?”
“The best. Do you want some steak? Fred will eat anything we don’t manage to anyway.”
He reached a hand out and scratched the dog’s neck. “I wouldn’t want to deprive Fred.” Fred ignored him.
“Fred is not deprived, I can tell you that . . . Did the State Police have anything to say.”
“More than I expected. Did you see a police car the other night when you gave Mr. Smith a lift?”
“Well, they’d already run those plates. A Jaguar abandoned beside the road on a Sunday night is not so common up here to be ignored. That car was a rental. Some place in Boston rents Jags. Can you imagine? And he used another name entirely. Robert Evans. They are trying to track that credit card now.”
“What are the police going to do?”
“They can’t do anything. He hasn’t done anything wrong. That’s the same reason we couldn’t arrest him in L.A. He’s very careful. Like I said, never has any drugs on him. Never even had a gun except once.”
“But you think he’s still around here now?”
“I do. The State Police will keep an eye out, but they can’t sit down here and babysit. They don’t have the crew for it. Labor Day weekend. Like the sergeant said, they’ll have their hands full down at Winnipesaukee. He told me every year some genius gets drunk and tries to set a midnight speed record on his jet ski. Then they have to go fish the body out sometime after at three in the morning when his buddies notice he’s missing. That sort of thing.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I thought I’d hang around a day or to. I’m on my own budget though. I can’t afford to stay for long.”
Margaret said, “You could sleep here.”
Mr. Reed nodded at that without a pause and smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask. If that would be okay?”
Margaret had been in the kitchen making a salad. She was standing now at the screen.
“This couch in the living room turns into a bed. It’s pretty good. But the sun comes right in every morning at dawn. You won’t be able to sleep much longer than that. I was going to stay down at Jim’s tonight, anyway.
“That would be mighty fine. That would be just right.”
I had no idea of the actual time when I heard the first shot. Fred was down at Isaac’s with us and he tried to go through the front door first without opening it. That alone would have been enough to wake me up. Then there was another shot. The sound was not that close but I was fairly certain of the direction. I got on my pants and boots, told Margaret to call the State Police and then bolt the door and go into the cellar with the twenty-two. Fred went by me when I opened the door to leave and was gone into the dark.
The moon was down and the sky hazy, but there was enough starlight to see my way as I went up across the open field toward Margaret’s house. There were no more shots. I was probably fairly conspicuous in my headlong dash and should have been more careful but before that thought sank in, I saw a large figure standing still at the top of the drive. I let him know it was me coming on.
Bill answered, “He was here.”
“Did he have a gun?”
“I don’t know. What you heard was me.”
He held up a revolver in his hand that I had not seen before.
“Did you hit him?”
“Don’t know that either. He was moving pretty good. It surprised the shit out of him to find me there in the living room. Practically squealed. Don’t know how he got in but he was quiet about that. Or else I’m losing my ears along with everything else.”
At that moment we heard Fred somewhere down the road in a fight. His growl was unmistakable and then just as quickly there was silence. Bill Reed and I were already running in that direction.
I found Bob and Marie Ferrell both out on the road near their house when I got to where Fred lay panting on the gravel at the side. Marie was talking to the dog in tones I did not like.
Blood glistened from the pavement. Just then at the bottom of the road the lights of a car came on and the wheels spun and scattered gravel.
Bill shouted, coming up from behind me. “Call the police quick!”
Margaret said, “I’ve already done it,” as she came up behind him, in feet bare and wearing only her bathrobe. The twenty-two rifle fell to the ground with a clatter as she bent over Fred. His ears moved to her voice. In the flashlight it was clear that his wound was from beneath. Perhaps from a knife. She said, “Call the vet. Wake Molly up, damn it!”
We lifted Fred into the back seat of Marie’s car. Margaret, still dressed only in her robe, went with her to the vets. The State Police came up, first one car and then another, light’s twirling as Marie and Margaret were driving down.
It was Bob Ferrell who made the first observation concerning the blood.
“I don’t think that’s all from Fred.” It was clear that Bill had hit something.
The State Police found that Margaret had left the window in the laundry room open when she had washed Bill’s shirt and other things that evening. They walked the stretch of field between the house and the road several times until it was nearly dawn while I went back to Isaac’s and got a few more clothes on myself and some things for Margaret and drove to the vet’s.
Fred was alive. I knew that the moment I opened the door. Margaret smiled at me when I came in.
We got back to the house about seven o’clock, both of us totally played out, Bill Reed was in the chair on the deck, his bulky figure gilt by the early light and a mug of coffee in his fist. He turned to us, clearly expecting the worst, and Margaret told him that the Vet thought Fred would be okay.
Bill said, “Well then, it’s a better day after all. You were right about that sun. When I die, this is what I want heaven to be like. Right here. Right now.”
The report came in later that the Jaguar had been returned to the dealer in Boston the day before. Our Mr. Smith had been smart enough to get himself another car before coming back to finish his job. That was the reason the State Police had not been able to stop him in his retreat.
A question I had was what Smith had intended to do when he entered the house with a dog there and me as well. He might have assumed I would have a gun. The dog might bark. I could have shot him. We could not know the answers but Bill had a thought.
“He has shot people before without the sound of it being reported. He might have a silencer on his weapon. We know he had a knife. I expect he always moves fast. He would have been in and out of the house in less than five minutes. And you were never trained for close combat. You would likely have never known what hit you. . . . What is it you said you did in the army?”
“Right. Well, my intelligence assumes he had a plan of some sort. It just didn’t include me. But now he knows I was there. He might even have recognized me. I said something before I fired. I’ve spoken to him before. And he had some sort of mask on so he had himself covered, so to speak.”
Bill stayed one more day. A ‘vacation day’ he called it, spent walking over most of the hill from Isaac’s house on down to Harold’s barn, looking at everything he found of interest. Harold keeps turkeys and Bill Reed later told me with a straight face that he had been adept at their language for some time and greatly enjoyed the conversation. I liked his sense of humor.
I couldn’t write under the circumstances and spent time splitting some logs I had dumped in the driveway the week before in preparation for a cold weather. Not having the back of an Abe Lincoln, I was using an electric log splitter I’d rented at Home Depot and Bill found the device fascinating and split several sections himself before moving on. The machine worked fine but it was still more effort than I had the energy for. Before mid-afternoon I took the chance for a doze. That was when Margaret took the opportunity to go shopping alone. This was an act of defiance against me having to be with her. But she was fine.
Bill Reed was an interesting fellow. I imagine being a police officer for nearly thirty years would alone be a cause of that, but there was more. He was a 100% California boy. Specifically Southern California. He had grown up in the suburbs of L.A. near Long Beach. Served as a Master-At-Arms in the U.S. Navy out of Long Beach Naval Station. Had gone to college at USC. He had lived in the same three-bedroom house in Inglewood for most of his time on the force. I know he had a small boat and a trailer which he hooked up to a big second-hand Ford Crown Victoria and used that for fishing at Lake Tahoe once a year. Or had done, previous to his wife’s death. He had three children, two girls and a boy. The oldest girl was presently a Senior Chief Petty Officer and finally thinking about getting married. His youngest daughter was already married and had three kids and lived in Santa Barbara. His son worked for a computer company in San Jose. But all that wasn’t the interesting part. Not to him, at least. What he thought most interesting about himself was the fact that he was, “ the best French Chef in Southern California. Bar none.”
This was a sort of self-assumed pride I did not often encounter and it needed immediate challenging. I should have guessed from his weight problems that he was at least half right. It appeared that his one recreation during the year since his wife’s death had been cooking. “She never liked to cook. She liked things that came in packages and cans. You can call that a fault, given her other abilities, but it caused me to learn.”
The second evening he was with us he went down to my little garden and pulled an assortment of everything I had, added a collection of fresh mint and herbs that Margaret grew near her back door, and made us the best meal either Margaret or I had ever had using store-bought chicken when Margaret refused to sacrifice one of her own to the cause. Fred was not yet home from the animal hospital so he was not driven to further madness by the smell of it.
A phone call from California came shortly after we had finished with the main course and he presented us with a pastry dessert using strawberries, almonds and a custard cream on a shortcake and added to that the word that Mr. Smith had just been seen back in L.A. on his old stomping grounds. Apparently he had injured himself but it was not clear how.
I had the pleasure of doing the dishes while Bill and Margaret sat on the deck and chatted about the future.
Getting married again was an upheaval. Likely more for Margaret, but she did not complain as much as I did. Nether of us were religious, nor did we have any interest in having our arrangement officiated over by a government factotum. My parents were nominal Catholics, as Margaret’s father had been. But the Abernathy family had been Congregationalists. In honor of Isaac we talked to the Congregational Minister in Conway and made the arrangement for October. The upheaval was in the matter of reconsidering everything in your life from the status of ‘mine’ to ‘ours.’ Reweighing all your priorities in terms of what is best for the both of you—or for the three of you, as the case was. Or simply reconstructing your habits so that you could find your toothbrush when you wanted it.
Bachelorhood is an inferior state of being in every respect. Suddenly you see the pettiness of it and wonder how you managed to get by. When you decide to get married you are in fact ‘married’ long before the legal settlement. It’s a state of mind. Once accepted, it is done. You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit hitched. It’s just that very sense of being which you feel bereft of after a divorce. And I image that was part of the feeling of loss felt by Bill Reed following his wife’s death. It was my estimate that the modern attitude toward marriage as a mere convenience to clothe your periodic nakedness was very much responsible for a lot of the mischief in society at large.
I had lived as a bachelor for about as long as Margaret had lived in New Hampshire. This fact seemed somehow very important to my assessment of our situation, but despite my facility with words, I was unable to put my pen on the actual reason why these two disparate facts were equivalent.
One change was immediate. I officially moved up the hill to Margaret’s house and only used Isaac’s each morning for my writing. For her part, Margaret set up a studio space in the dining room there to use in the afternoons, and on the better days would work on the rebuilt side porch, which was still roofless, in order to catch the later sun. She expressed no interest in a ‘northern light.’ And perhaps with some encouragement from me, or at least by my example, she began to work down there for hours. She was surprised she had never thought of it before.
When Fred came back he was not particularly happy with this arrangement and I was sure his moping around then for a week or so had more to do with my still being around than his recovery from a stab wound which had missed his heart by a quarter inch.
Bill’s advice to me concerning marriage had been quite fatherly. “Learn how to bend your tongue back in your throat without gagging. That’ll keep you from arguing. She’s going to be right anyway. Get used to it.”
He left the next morning after our grand meal, following coffee and a final ‘sit-down’ on the deck. He said he would keep in touch and try to keep an eye on Mr. Smith.
That was the last we saw of him.
In October—one great and glorious October day when I had actually thought of Bill Reed that same morning, sitting in the Adirondack chair and gazing out over the splendor of autumn with a mug of coffee in his hand—I received a call from the State Police. They had been trying to contact Bill on a follow-up. Their news was that Bill Reed had been found dead at his house in Inglewood. An apparent heart attack.
Like beauty, all that color was not enough. Not for warmth, certainly. It was a balmy day, but we both were properly chilled by the news.
Margaret asked simply, “What are we going to do?”
I had said only what I could, “Whatever we have to.”
When we had driven to New York to see the doctor for Margaret, I detoured over to Brooklyn and opened the safe deposit box I had at the bank. The reason was not only for the pistols. There was a ring there. It was my grandmother’s engagement ring. I had been saving it for my son, but I had an interim purpose for it now.
That ring is a story in itself. Legendary in the small way of family tales. My grandfather, Daniel ‘Buck’ McNeill, had bought it at a hock shop in Hong Kong with his last U.S. gold piece—evidently all the pay he had left from one job or another—and before he had even met my grandmother, simply because he thought it was the kind of ring he should have just in case. He met her that very year. She had worn it until my father had brought my mother home to meet his parents. They had sized that situation up correctly and my grandmother had taken the ring off her finger and given it to Dad then and there. He had immediately presented it to my mother right in front of them. When I came home at last with Sandra and introduced her to my parents, mom had removed the ring again and passed it to me. Sandra tried it on. She even wore it for a while, but then put it away as too old fashioned. During the divorce, I had asked for it back and she had refused. It was my son, Dan, then twelve years old, who had heard that argument and after I left, had told her he wanted it. I am not sure exactly what he said to her but she gave it to him. He then gave it back to me.
I told this story to Margaret in the truck as we drove and had her slobbering like Fred, but with tears. It was only the second time I had seen her cry. Then I gave her the ring.
Margaret agreed to learn how to shoot a pistol. This did not require the persuasion I thought it might. The reality of our situation had sunken in. We practiced at the range I’d set up in the field just below the garden. She preferred the 9mm Smith and Wesson and got fairly good with it in less than a week.
The joke there was that she hit the bull’s eye the very first time she pulled the trigger. I never did, no matter how I compensated. And after hitting the target where she wanted, she always said, “Puckoo,” and blew the imaginary smoke from the end of barrel. I told her I only knew one other person who ever used that made-up word for the sound of a gun firing. My mother.
Between that, the .32 Colt Police Special, a few rounds with the shotgun and the twenty-two, we burned almost two hundred dollars in ammunition before Thanksgiving.
The apples were ripe by late September and we had a barbeque in the yard close by the trees and invited anyone who hadn’t already had enough of their own to come. Everyone in the neighborhood had apple trees. But everyone came none-the-less. For the barbeque.
Our marriage was witnessed by my son, Dan, who wrangled himself a week’s leave of duty and was Best Man, and by my parents who flew up from Florida for the occasion. They were clearly very happy for both of us. Dad took more pictures than I thought we would ever have the patience to look at. Dan had to get back, but my parents stayed in Isaac’s house for the week. Harold Jenks also attended, as well as Bob and Marie Ferrell, Terry Bills and Georgina Greider, and Ellen Macomber (who was Bridesmaid and several times repeated the fact to all assembled that it was she who had brought us together) and by Fred who had received a special dispensation from the Reverend to attend.
Nevertheless, the event felt dampened by the news about Bill, and I know I looked at Margaret several times that day and saw the same thought in her mind.
My father’s wedding gift to us was the price of a trip to Italy, by steamship. In fact, it was possibly one of the last of its kind and operated by a Polish company which had resurrected a ship built prior to the Second World War and, I thought brilliantly, had named it the Joseph Conrad. The Ferrells took Fred in custody while we were gone.
The excitement of our return was short-lived. Fred was in full health again and after a month of being unrestricted while in the care of the Ferrells, was difficult to command on the first day or two. As good a trip as it was, our emotions had been tied to getting back, and this was spoiled almost immediately by the evidence once again that someone had been in the house while we were gone.
This time his visit was less subtle. He clearly wanted us to know he had been there—as if the intention was to spoil any happiness we felt. He had made himself a pot of coffee and eaten some canned tuna fish and left the tin on the table. And he had slept in our bed.
I called the State Police and they came and took fingerprints where they could but Mr. Smith had worn gloves, as he always did.
The conjecture of Sergeant Geddes, who had spoken with Bill Reed several times before and was well aware of the case, was that Mr. Smith had come to get the job done at last and, finding us gone, had reacted with anger. There was petulance in his leaving evidence of his visit. But there was nothing they could really do. The Sergeant’s prediction was that Mr. Smith would return yet again. Given the perverse temperament of the man, he might even choose a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The Sergeant said he would pass the word on to the L.A. Police and perhaps they would be able to keep some sort of watch. At least enough for a heads up that he had left the area again.
Sergeant Geddes was oddly enthusiastic about our prospects. He was young, under thirty, and was not yet worn down by the process, I suppose. Unmarried, he also appeared to have more time to spend. He was ex-military, as so many of the cops I have met were, and still kept his hair cut short and worked out daily at a local gym. Importantly for me, he was willing to conjecture aloud about Mr. Smith from the profile of whatever evidence he had, and this prompted me instead to form a model of the Sergeant that first week we were back, with the hope of using him in a story someday when a good plot thickened. It was difficult, in fact, not to suppose the sort of relationship that a young fellow like Geddes might have had with an older partner such as a Bill Reed. The problem there was only in avoiding the caricatures in every half-baked Hollywood buddy movie I had ever seen.
With several other police still checking around the premises, the Sergeant took the time to bring us up-to-date.
“You should know that the medical examiner in L.A. has determined that Bill Reed did not die of a natural heart attack. It was chemically induced.”
It was Margaret who said, “Damn!”
I had little to add to that sadness.
His thoughts about Mr. Smith were instructive.
The man was obviously smart. “Quick” he called him. But just as clearly plagued by the character flaws that dominated his life—and his kind. He fed off the faults of others, “like a maggot in a wound.” I thought that characterization was apt. Sergeant Geddes had read the L.A. Police report. Geddes had even researched a little about the drug cartel of which Mr. Smith’s boss, Mr. Jorge Gee, was a ranking member.
Sergeant Geddes advised us, “The common sense belief among these people was that everyone was corrupt, and that there was no innocent party in any transaction to be concerned over. Advantages must always be taken. Anyone who left money or opportunity on the table was a fool. Emotions were not to be trusted, and those who displayed that weakness were to be avoided or eliminated. Anger was the sole exception. Anger could be channeled. And Mr. Smith is always angry.”
The Sergeant sat in the same chair on the deck that had once been occupied by Bill Reed and made his predictions and added to that some of the motivations that might matter.
Geddes speculated, “Cheri Bing had betrayed Robert Smith. He should not have allowed that to happen, but once it did, it was his responsibility to take care of the matter. But he had let emotion blind him to necessity. He probably liked her. Worse, she was likely the sole witness that tied him to the murder of Matt Flynn. As for Margaret, it didn’t matter any longer whether Smith believed she’d taken the drugs or the money. He’d failed to take care of business. It was a loose end. As long as she was alive—now, as long as both of you are alive—you’re were a link to his past actions and things he might still be held accountable for—either by the police or by the cartel. And the cartel could care less, you understand, unless it caused unwanted friction in their bailiwick.
“I think what Bill Reed told you will still be true. And I think Smith lingered here while you were gone to make a statement. But he wouldn’t do that again. He’ll plan his moves differently the next time and be here and gone before any trooper can respond to an alarm. He hasn’t survived this long in a nasty business by being careless.”
This was not encouraging.
“Why do you think we can survive it then?”
“Because you know it. And we know it. You know what he’ll do when the time comes. You can prepare for it.”
“Think it through. You write stories? What would you do in his place?”
This is actually a thought I had considered multiple times—pretty much on any night when there was an odd sound to awaken me. Margaret would always be awake then as well.
Taking the part of Mr. Smith, I said, “For one thing I wouldn’t be caught again on foot. I wouldn’t walk up that road. I would just drive right in.”
“Bingo to that! That’s what I’m talking about. Now, if you know that, there are ways to react. If he thinks you’ll be expecting him to be sneaking around again, he’ll think you won’t be prepared for him to drive right up to the house. But that’s the only way he can be done and outta here in minutes. Right?”
“He’ll cut the lines.”
“Well, he’s probably seen you have a generator that’ll come on if he cuts the power, and he might even cut that line as well, but certainly the phone lines—you gotta figure those are dead. He could accomplish that much anywhere along about three miles of road. As for the generator, he could even turn that off with a finger. Listen. We are going to give you a panic button for this. A radio alarm. It’s like an SOS. And it has its own battery, so it’ll work, one way or the other.”
“But the house is completely exposed. If the door is locked, he can just shoot out the glass.”
“That’s right. He came in the laundry window before because it was an open invitation. That won’t happen again, I’m sure—but a lock won’t slow him more than a few seconds, if that.”
“What do we do then? We can’t live like we’re under assault every night of our lives.”
“You won’t. This will be over, one way or the other, pretty soon. It’s dragged on long enough. Because of the murder of Bill Reed, the L. A. Police have reopened the investigation on Matt Flynn. That’s even in the papers out there. That’s the friction I was talking about. Whoever’s supplying the precious young things of Hollywood with their dope is now in the spotlight. And remember, Jorge Gee has climbed the ladder in the last ten years as well. He likes being on top, I’m sure. Mr. Smith will be in here to take care of business sooner than later, or he’ll be out of a job more permanently.” He paused on that to make sure we understood. “What I need you and your wife to do, when the time comes, is to stay alive—just long enough for the Troopers to get here. Maybe ten minutes. What we need you to do is just slow him down.”
Given a certain reasonable paranoia, I began to carry the 32 Police Special with me all the times. Following on Sergeant Geddes’ conjecture, there was no certainty that Mr. Smith would come at night. He might hit us in broad daylight. We could not assume any less. I bought a couple of nice black fabric Velcro holsters
Margaret was less consistent about carrying her 9mm. This was a psychological hurdle from too many years spent in the politics of Hollywood to get over quickly.
I kept the shotgun beneath my side of the bed. Margaret had offered the after-thought that ours had turned into a ‘shotgun wedding’ anyway. It seemed a proper use of the idea.
There was a lot of cleaning up to do. My garden, which had already seen more than one early frost, was as dry as the grass in the field. We had harvested most of the apples from the trees by the first of October. The remains now littered the ground beneath in a dark rubble. They could be left. The pumpkins were still good and I took those into Isaac’s kitchen. The last tomatoes had gone soft and rotten. The green peppers hung wilted and blackened from their stems, in scrotal sacks. I had told Harold and the others to take what they wanted while we were away, but I’d over-planted and the crop we had more than anyone needed. I dug over a hundred white and red potatoes out of their mounds and filled two bushel-baskets that I set in the cellar at Isaac’s house along the apple hoard.
I put my limited carpentry skills to use on a trap door in the bedroom, and this was another matter for negotiation
Margaret asked, “Who are you trying to trap?”
“It’s for us to escape.”
“Then why do they call it a trap door? Why not an escape door? Like a fire escape?”
“What would you suggest? Escape hatch? Everyone needs an escape hatch.”
“How about a decamp? Or a skedaddle?”
I agreed then to calling it a ‘skedaddle,’ but promptly forgot.
I cut our escape hatch right into the wood floor between two beams, using a reciprocal saw borrowed from Terry Bills. I put it close by the bedroom wall on the northeast side. The windows there are high and narrow and were likely, I thought, to offer the least interest to our intruder. I framed it so that it was not visible unless it was being looked for, but we kept a rug there as well.
Supposing we were to make an escape, I began to consider a possible means of getting away. It was no good imagining Margaret running hell bent and pregnant down that slope. Given that the slope of the hill down toward Isaac’s house offered the most convenient objective as well as accounting for the snow that would soon be there, the first thing that came to mind was a sled.
Finding a proper sled was my next project. A kid sized Flexible Flyer was not going to do the trick in deep snow. Margaret had a sledge that was good enough for hauling wood and chicken crap but had to be pulled and would not steer. I began to check catalogs. I asked around. The best thing I found was a nice old-fashioned wooden deal with curved ash runners and a good seat, perfectly fine for a child of six or eight, but not sufficient for two adults, a supernumerary, and a dog. But the design of it was good. If Margaret could design a house, I could at least do as much for a sleigh.
Terry Bills, being the better carpenter, helped me to execute the plan. Broad hardwood runners. Ash again. I brought those to a woodshop to have them steamed and bent upward at the ends in a very pretty curve. The seat would fit the four of us in a pinch, one in front of the other. A basic metal leaf spring was used between the runners and the seat. Two bolted rudders were attached to a pull bar for slowing down. After the first snow I tested it a few dozen times along with all the neighbors to make sure it worked. There was a general sense of satisfaction in being middle-aged and still able to have such fun.
With the onslaught of a snowy winter I set up a very simple alarm each evening in the form of a fishing line across the plowed driveway. This was attached to a cluster of Christmas bells. They made a considerable racket. The battery connected panic button was placed right on the wall above the bed and had a very small red light that glowed disturbingly in the dark to remind us it was working. Awakened by any noise at all, my eyes went to it immediately.
It was my thought that Margaret was still the primary target. This caused me the greatest concern each morning when I knew she would be headed down to the hen house, which was so much closer to the main road, and from there would be an easier target. She carried her pistol high on her waist then in a black cloth holster riding above the swell at her tummy. But whenever I said or did the wrong thing now, she stuck her hand out at me with two fingers together like the barrel of a gun and said, “puckoo,” and then raised them to her lips and blew a kiss across the ends as if she would take care of the problem. The sound of that, though very cute, was not convincing to my ears.
In general we tried to keep to our normal schedules. I wrote in the mornings and did my chores in the afternoons. She finished her chores early and worked at her painting later. The one change for her was to take her walk with Fred at mid-day along with me, immediately following her work in the greenhouses. Each day I looked forward to the sound of her boots on the front walk.
The greenhouses are on the southeast slope about a hundred yards below the house, in a wide-open field that captures almost as much light as the house itself and shadowed only by a windmill that is less than thirty feet high with small blades that spin almost continuously depending on the breeze. The inspiration for those greenhouses had been yet another story. Margaret had no intention of gardening at first. She had never grown more than a houseplant in California. But necessity is still the mother of invention.
Margaret had served as her own contractor after getting several outrageous quotes from professionals, and as a result of misestimations had a quantity of low UV glass as well as concrete leftover from building the house. The manufacturer would not take the glass back. But in another of her sudden inspirations, she had traded this excess off to a local builder for a quantity of regular glass and this she then used along with the concrete for her two original greenhouse structures–which had since increased in number to four.
Each of these are low in profile, with gravel floors dropping about three feet below grade and roofed with a series of lean-to panels rising to about eight feet at the back, and hinged there. The back wall of each structure, as well as a front lip, is blackened concrete. A silvered fabric shade is pulled down from the upper ridge to block out the sun on individual panels. Each structure is no more than eight feet across with a narrow aisle up the backside. The plants are cultivated in broad containers which are at least two feet deep. She admitted to me, not being a business woman and never having played one on TV, that she had grossly over-spent on everything, not realizing that it would be years before the structures could reasonably pay for themselves.
The henhouse was another matter. Margaret thought from the start that she might raise chickens and looked into the matter the winter she arrived. She had read of people doing such things. She had even read a book, The Egg and I, about a woman doing the same thing and the debacle that followed, which had not in the least discouraged her. Someone else had advertised in the paper the following autumn that they were retiring and selling off their equipment. Margaret had bought it all, including the long henhouse itself, which was broken down into sections, and had it moved to its present location nearer the trees, just below the house on the southwest side.
I also learned some more facts of the matter, perhaps relating to why Mr. Smith thought Margaret might have in fact taken the money and drugs from her stepmother. Matt Flynn, through a life insurance bought during the days when he was a television star, had left Margaret a million dollars, tax-free.
With her existence in Hollywood shaken by her father’s death she had awakened one morning clearly remembering her mother and their last time together on a trip to New Hampshire for the summer when she had just turned eight. This visit had occurred when her grandmother died, and she had met old Isaac only that once. She had slept in the attic where her mother had before. She had played in the fields with her grandfather’s ancient dog Theo. She had fed the chickens her grandfather still kept in a henhouse, a structure long gone when Margaret later returned. She remembered, “cupping the warm eggs in her hands and smelling them for the odors of the mother hens.” She had warmed herself on crisp mornings at the iron stove and sipped warm milk laced with coffee. She had long remembered the place as the refuge her mother had sought at a difficult time. The car accident which had killed her mother had happened the following autumn.
Margaret had purchased the land from her aunt and uncle, both still alive and living happily in Florida. She was told the old house was not worth saving, but she was determined to stay and so she built her own. She had new wells dug, and new septic systems. Blasting into the rock at the top of the hill deeply enough for the water and waste pipes as well as the pilings and then building the house along with the rest of it, she had managed to run through all of her money in just three years. As of the moment I met her, Margaret was living hand to mouth. Far better than most, it was true, but with no reserve.
Her best luck had come with growing herbs. The market for that was increasing and she had cut back some on flowers and learned the values of anise and horehound, basil and oregano, catnip and thyme.
One chilly morning when my writing had run into a ditch, I wandered up to be with her in the moist calm of a greenhouse. I understood perfectly why these were her favorite moments of the day. The profound quiet alone was sufficient. The fragrances of things she had just picked filled the soft air.
She told me, “Dill makes the air fresher. And basil also keeps the flies away.”
I said, smartly, “There are no flies on me, so basil can bug off. But horehound sounds interesting.”
“Sore throats. And did you know that catnip discourages mosquitoes.”
“No. I have never met a discouraged mosquito. Not one that was alive.”
She pouted, “You aren’t taking it seriously. These are remedies that go back in history to ancient times.”
I said, “It’s all fine with me. I’ll just throw some salt over my shoulder and get back to work.”
“You can use the salt to kill fleas.”
“I would rather use it to keep the devil away for now.”
And he stayed away, for a time, at least.
Harold raises several dozen turkeys each year. These he gave names and in the quiet of an evening you could often hear them being called to the pen where the raccoons and foxes and coyotes couldn’t get to them. The call was distinctive. Harold’s own take on a turkey call. Over the course of the months Harold acquired a fair knowledge of their personalities. For instance, he could always predict which of them would be the last to scoot through the gate, or the first to come in for the corn. I had never known that a turkey had a personality. Just giblets.
Harold’s daughter Connie, a woman who is relatively short and reminds you immediately of the all woman in the framed photographs in the parlor at the house, but perhaps a little more stout, comes over from Sandwich to visit on Saturdays and did a little housework and drives her father to the supermarket in Conway. She was not as talkative as her father, and has a wrier sense of humor, but I got her to tell me about a few things. There was really not a lot to do in taking care of her Dad, she said, mostly just laundry and vacuuming, because the ‘Old Man’ spent most of his time outdoors and nothing much in the house had changed since her mother’s death. He used to play cards with Isaac, mostly penny poker, and go hunting in season, but now he just tended to spend his time fixing things. Despite her promises, he was worried someone would take him off and put him in a ‘home’ if he let the place run down. I soon found a little irony in that.
One Saturday morning Connie walked up to the Isaac’s house to ask if I was interested in getting a turkey for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t sure if it was a question.
I was surprised. “He eats them? I thought he just raised them. Like the cows.”
She thought I was kidding. She said, “He only eats the ones that argue. Do you want one?”
“Do I get to pick?”
“No. You get George.”
“Because he’s the biggest pain in the ass.”
“He argues more than the others?”
“They all argue. But George is the only one who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. Maggie usually gets a turkey, but I figured to ask you first this time. You were closer and maybe you had different plans.”
“How does Maggie manage to eat a whole turkey?”
“With a fork, I expect.”
“She has friends. You may have been the center of attention lately, but she has friends.”
“She hasn’t mentioned anyone.”
“Don’t worry about that. She will. Meantime, tell Maggie that Dad’ll hold onto George for you.”
George was enormous. I had gotten a peek at him striding up to the pen one evening and that made waiting for Margaret to tell me about her friends just a little too difficult.
On our walk that day I said, “I hear we’re having George for Thanksgiving.”
Margaret frowned at me. “Who’s George?”
“A very large turkey.”
“Oh.” She got the point. “We were busy. I forgot to tell you.”
“We’re having guests for Thanksgiving?”
On Thanksgiving Day at three o’clock the entire ambulatory population at Mountain Air Elder Care not otherwise spoken for by their own families, a total of eleven including a nurse who also did the driving, arrived in a bright yellow school bus. They brought their own function table and folding chairs. The party, which amazingly included not one but two banjo players, did not break up until nine. Everyone had heard about enough of the banjos by that hour.
I was given the job of cooking the turkey and had to call my father in Florida for a few tips. His first piece of advice was not to try cooking George in the woodstove at Isaac’s. I concurred. But I did bring up apples and potatoes and turnips from Isaac’s basement. The rest was easy.
The gist of the situation was this. The autumn after Margaret had finished building her house and the greenhouses, she already had lots of flowers and no customers for them, so she started taking them around to give to various clinics and health care facilities and the like. At several of those places she got to talking to the residents who were most appreciative. When Thanksgiving had come and she realized she would be alone in her brand new house with no one to enjoy it with her, she had been struck with better idea.
The variety of the characters present at the tables, which were set end to end in the great room with Margaret and I across from each other at the middle, was exaggerated by the fact that they had each planned a short poem for the occasion. Something they did every year. Arising from their chairs in some predetermined order they delivered their verse with a delightful flourish of hands and inflection. Some of these were sweet and traditional. Others were a stretching of the envelope of rhyme. Included were some limericks with obvious potential for double meanings. And several were prayers. Humorous or not, they were all affecting.
A small woman with short and curly white hair who had helped with the others on the steps coming in, quickly set about distributing the plates and silverware they had carried with them, and later on had officiated over the kitchen duties, turned out to be the oldest of the group at ninety-six. Despite her physical abilities, she was also the quietest.
I pushed into a space on the couch beside her.
“Your name is Milly?”
“Whereabouts did you live before?”
“My son’s house.”
“Down the road.”
“Is the house still there?”
“They widened the road in around there.”
I was afraid to ask about her children, or her husband. I had already stumbled on that point while speaking with someone else. The mere mention of family unbidden could open a box of memories and regrets, often centered on an untimely death or divorce, or the recounting a prolonged illness. One of the banjo players had started to cry when I was speaking to him briefly before dinner.
So I asked, “Did you know Isaac?”
She said, “Too well.”
How should I respond to an answer like that? The gaunt fellow, wearing a red tie and one of Margaret’s pink carnations as a boutonniere, who was sitting next to me at the other side chipped in.
“Old Isaac was what you call a free spirit.”
Clearly there was nothing I could fairly inquire about there. Not at a Thanksgiving party.
Then Milly spoke back at the other fellow’s answer.
“Not so much. No like they say. It was more the girls who had their eyes on him. He was a handsome fellow. What was a fellow to do?”
“Were you one of those?”
She sighed, “Yes . . . But he was too old for me. My mother said.”
“How old were you then?”
I figured there might be a little color to be had out of that.
I said, “Did you know Margaret’s grandmother too?”
“I knew Naomi quite well.”
“What did you think of her?”
“I think that once he met Her, poor Isaac never had a chance.”
Milly got up then to break the conversation and moved off to the kitchen.
The event was a good preoccupation for the mind under the circumstances. I did not recall Sergeant Geddes’s warning about Mr. Smith’s likely perversities until our guests were gone, and the sudden quiet then made being alone there on the hill on that cold and breezy November night a little more chilling. I blamed the fact that I did not sleep well afterward on having put too much butter in the stuffing.
My grandfather, Dan McNeill had been born on a rocky bit of New Hampshire soil somewhere near Exeter, a place he referred to as the ‘Apple Farm,’ where he had eaten apples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; had been weaned on apple sauce and first been drunk on apple jack. This last incident, and his subsequent destruction of a wagon, was the cause of his leaving home, never to return, as well as his life-long vow to never eat another apple. This is also where he acquired the nick name, ‘Buck,’ as in the reaction of an unbroken horse to a saddle.
That place of his birth has long since been swallowed by urban sprawl creeping north out of Massachusetts, and the specific location difficult to discern amidst tract houses and trailer parks. There is not an apple tree visible there to mark any corner of the farm. Given his disdain for apples, I’m not sure he would be unhappy to know it.
He had run away from home when he was 16. My thrill in life at that age was my first kiss. Grandpa ‘Buck’ worked his first steamer out of Boston the year William McKinley became President. Though for a time he had no shotgun of his own, early on he had learned to his father’s, hunting ducks and pheasant in the tidal basin of the Squamscott River. In passing, if you listened to his stories, you came to understand that he was an excellent shot, but that was between the lines, so to speak. He never bragged. “A boast is a sign of weakness,” he often said. “Beware!” and “You’ll know your advantage with the other fellow when he puts up a brag to hide behind.”
It seemed to me that Mr. Smith’s camping out in our home and sleeping in our bed was a sort of brag. If he could do that he could do anything, he was saying. “Be afraid.” This gave me my own thoughts on the matter.
My grandfather had his shotgun ‘taken down’ and stored away in his sea trunk at the time pirates attacked the ship he was working on in 1906. This mistake had cost two lives.
This was ninety years before I’d found my own way back to his home state for good. And there was something else for me to consider in the passage of that time as well. Something about whole lifetimes come and gone.
But the story he told me was that those raiders of that seemingly distant past had disguised themselves as traders, coming to the ship on small boats visibly laden with fruits and melons and dates. The ship had just been through a slow passage across rough seas from Goa, and the captain, an American unused to the ways of Indian Ocean traffic, had slowed to get some fresh fruits for his crew. The pirates had taken the opportunity to storm the ship from both sides at once.
On that day, Grandpa “practically fell” his way below decks to his sleeping quarters where he bunked amidst six or seven others, had assembled the gun there, loaded it, and stuffed a box of cartridges “in his pants.” By the time he had returned above, the Captain was dead and another man beheaded as punishment and example for the others to cooperate. Grandpa had shot the man with the bloody sword first, and then the one who appeared to be the leader.
He had killed seven men in all that day. And he told the story to me long after, while sitting on a sunny porch on Long Island just after a little league game in which we had brawled, and he had said that what we had done on the playing field was a sad display of poor sportsmanship. “You might as well quit that game if the measure of yourselves is not playing well but knocking heads. It’s not a game at all.”
“We should have killed them.”
“You should choose your words more carefully. Killing is no game.”
My contrary nature already in gear I said, “How do you know? Have you ever killed anyone?”
“It’s not the stuff of idle conversation. Another time, perhaps.”
“You’re going home tomorrow. Please.”
He said, “Not now,” again.
But I was a smart aleck kid. I had my ways to get what I wanted.
“Dad said you once killed a boatload of pirates with a shotgun.”
He nodded at me then as if to say the outcome of this contest was inevitable. He was already used to my persistence.
“There were seven. Likely that made seven widows and a dozen orphans. Bad enough.”
“But they were pirates!”
“Foolish men persuaded by greed and their own stupidity.”
“They were bad guys!”
“They were indeed that, because they had a poor idea about the value of human life. Be still now. I’ll tell you all of it so you will know and not ask again.”
And he did, not as a boast but as a caution.
At the end he said, “Always be ready to defend yourself in strange company. Know which way you’ll go before you have the need.”
I related this to Margaret all at once with as much detail as I remembered.
In return she said, “My grandfather lived his entire life right here on this land. He hardly ever left, or wanted to.”
“Thank goodness,” was all I could answer.
Margaret had her own interest in the story now.
“You said your Grandpa Buck saved your grandmother as well.”
“He did, sort of. That was some years later . . . Her father, Parker Dean, was a ‘Harvard Lawyer.’ At least that’s how he was always described in the family, though he had not passed the bar until after he had gone to California. That much is on the framed certificate which I’ve actually seen. For some years he had wandered around in the West after graduating from Harvard in 1878. Family lore is that he had even been a cowboy for a time. In any case, he married a rancher’s daughter, named Bertha, somewhere near Sacramento, settled down and raised a family.
“My great grandmother always called him Parker in her letters, but Dr. ‘Dean’ was the way he was known to others, I suppose because of his degree. By 1908 or so, my grandfather had already been smitten by Dr. Dean’s daughter for several years, though they had been forbidden to see each other. We have a few of those letters as well. Buck was uneducated and uncouth. Doris Dean was a beauty and likely a debutante. But this denial of their relationship had, of course, closed the matter for them. They saw each other every chance they got. Dr. Dean evidently had an opportunity to move into Sacramento and take over a practice and probable judgeship there. Which he did. However, he quickly fell afoul of local custom.
“The housekeeper he had hired, a Chinese woman, had fallen in love with a local brewer, who was white, and she asked Dr. Dean to marry them. Which he did, of course. But there were anti-miscegenation laws on the books in California then and for long after. Dr. Dean appealed to the higher court to strike the law down. But they upheld it, instead. In defiance, he had by then married another couple—a Chinese man and a caucasian woman. All hell broke loose after that.
“The law firm was dissolved when the partners resigned. Dr. Dean was ostracized. Another judge annulled the marriages. The second couple had fled, but police came to arrest the housemaid and her husband. Dr. Dean stood at the door with his gun in hand. A mob formed.
“It was about this time that Buck McNeill was there once again on one of his periodic visitations. “Like a bee to the flower,” he said of his courtship. He had been staying at a local hotel, and was well informed of the imminent confrontation. When the time came, he was at the house, standing beside his future father-in-law.”
“Did he kill anyone then?”
“No. They threw stink bombs but grandpa threw them back. Dr. Dean negotiated a temporary truce with the police and they were allowed to put their things in order and leave town, but not before grandpa managed to put a round of buckshot through the ‘O’ in a placard that said, ‘Chinese Out!’ to prove to the mob that he meant business. Though that sounds like embellishment to me, he never mentioned that detail himself.”
Isaac Abernathy was literate, but seldom wrote much more than his name on one legal document or another. He did, however, write Christmas cards.
This surprising fact was revealed to me on Christmas Eve when Margaret opened a flour tin and showed me the few that remained.
Some of these had been returned by the United States Army during the war, and were addressed to Margaret’s Uncle Jack, who was then in Europe. Another to Jack had failed to find him during a sojourn he’d made to California, perhaps to visit his sister there. Margaret’s mother had received one at that address as well, and that too was returned. Perhaps she had moved. Another was sent the Margaret’s Aunt Cornelia.
These cards, the envelopes stamped repeatedly at various stops on their way, had not been kept by Isaac himself, but by his wife. It was one of her own hair ribbons that bound them and they had been found amidst her grandmother’s clothes in a bedroom trunk.
Each was a simple note wishing them well and good tidings for the season, but the real magic of them was in their decoration. They were each illustrated by a simple picture of the farm, each one different, first drawn in pencil, and then colored not with paint, but by the juice of some fruit or another—a cranberry, a blueberry, a raspberry, the green of a squash perhaps, or the black char from the hearth.
I was impressed as much I think by their creation as I was by the new thoughts I had already gained about the one who had saved them.
Allowing for the deterioration of time, and the loss of chinking and flashing around the chimney at its meeting with the roof, I think that the attic must once have once been the warmest place in the house. Certainly it had been plastered for a reason. That was not an extravagance to be wasted. I understood at last that making the children sleep up there at night was not an act of meanness then at all.
But Margaret did not know much about her grandmother, Naomi Grant. She had been a quiet woman, strict in her ways, a hard worker, and by reputation, difficult. Margaret’s Aunt Cornelia had often referred to her as merciless. Making them sleep in the attic was symbolic of this. And one more thing. She had red hair. The only one of the family other than Margaret to have that singular characteristic.
Curiosity brought me down to the Madison Town Hall and then to the Library again, and though I found her family name repeatedly, there was no mention of Naomi Grant in particular. It was Jean who first noticed that there was a mention of an Ossipee Mountains clan of the same name.
I found more at the library is Center Ossipee. This was in early December and the thought had already occurred to me that a small biography of the woman might be a nice present to give to Margaret. But just having made the decision, I was suddenly faced with an annotation on a school record for 1912. Naomi Grant, the only one by that name I’d found, was listed there as an adopted child.
There were no adoption records to be had except in Manchester. I didn’t want to be away from Margaret for such a period of time. My jaunts had previously been timed to her own scheduled rounds and she was seldom gone on those for more than a few hours. The only course was to lie and say I needed other records there for my writing and ask her to go with me. Thankfully, that required only one trip. I had expected there to be some secrecy about the matter. Perhaps Naomi Grant had been born out of wedlock to an unnamed mother and thus put up for adoption. But instead it was yet another tragedy. Her birth mother, Amelia Grant Cobb had died young. Her father, Horace Cobb had given her up for adoption in 1917 and she had been taken back into her mother’s family instead. Horace Cobb was nowhere else to be found, but his hair color was noted there and it was listed as red.
Thus, Naomi Grant was an original red headed step child.
At the Ossipee Library I found more about that branch of the Grant family. They were carpenters. Builders. They were responsible for many of the houses in the neighborhood for over a hundred years. And likely as not, they had built the very house Isaac Abernathy had been born in.
And more. Jean uncovered a firsthand account by one William Merrow, a New York theatre man with local family connections, of a hunting expedition into the Ossipee Mountains in 1932. This had been guided by one Isaac Abernathy, “a local fellow with a reputation as the best deer hunter in New Hampshire.”
Brilliant! I had neglected to quiz a primary source. And this brought me all the way back again to Harold. Harold was, as he liked to remind you, young enough to be Isaac’s son. But he had been around in those days. “Just a kid, but it was a small place then and you knew everyone to know.”
It was Harold who told me, “Isaac went out every year and shot himself a deer. He said he liked the taste’a beef better, or he would have shot more. Thing was, he didn’t ever shoot the first deer he saw. He waited. My Pop swore he would never go hunting with Isaac Abernathy again because of it. Isaac would go up in those mountains and spend a week if he had to. Then he’d find just the right one for himself and take it.”
I asked, “Do you know if he met his wife there?”
“Why sure. She was one of those Grants who lived up near to Dan Hole. The deer in thereabouts used to be something. Stags as old as a man, they said.”
“Did you know her family?”
“No. They were a private people. Scots. They would harvest their own timber, kiln it, mill it, and then build you a house out of it. They were an independent lot.”
“Did you ever hear any stories about their courtship?”
“Courtship! You didn’t know Isaac! He was not a man for courting. That’s why it took him so long to find a wife. And when he found her, wouldn’t you know it, she was no better.
“Can you tell me anything more about her.”
“Just that she always helped out at sugarin’ time and knew how to birth a calf. She’s the one first started raising chicks for the eggs around here. She had a way with them. But Naomi was not to be fooled with. Just like her Granddaughter.”
On Christmas Eve I gave Margaret my short account of the life of her Grandmother. I had embellished where I had room to speculate, using the appropriate qualifiers like ‘might’ and ‘could,’ but for the most part it was a simple history. Isaac Abernathy had been out hunting for several days when he first saw Naomi Grant. The first thing he saw was her hair. It was the first thing he could have seen in that autumn wood with the leaves all down and the snow already boot deep.
New Year’s Eve was cloudy. Warmer than it should be on that day, with fog arising from the snow in mysterious drifts. Anxiousness had been common over the months since Bill Reed’s death and this had exposed an anger at our circumstance that I felt keenly about my small paradise lost. As if this whole matter were just about us, or me. The look of the fog was enough to put an edge on that. It was dark early and I knew I was alone in the house, with Margaret just outside doing something or another, and the quiet was depressing.
Suddenly there was an explosion. Gun in hand, I ran to the deck. Unnatural colors flushed in the mist above.
Margaret’s voice was calm. “Is it time yet?”
She stood on the snowfield just below, where clover would bob its white flowers in a summer breeze, and looked up at me with complete insouciance.
I asked reflexively, “What time?”
“For the fireworks!”
I had forgotten entirely about the long neglected bag from July 4th in the closet.
“You like to do that when I’m least expecting it, don’t you?”
She smiled her imp smile. It easily brought back that day in when everything had changed for us.
I said, “I think we should wait until midnight!”
She gave her head a tilt to express her doubt. “Alright. If you won’t fall asleep on me.”
“But I love to fall asleep on you.”
She rubbed her hand at the middle of her coat front where it was already well extended.
“But you can’t now.”
“Well then, you both can fall asleep on me”
“After the fireworks.”
“I’ll make dinner now. I won’t fall asleep.”
With smoke from that bit of business still lingering, a car came roaring up the drive, moving at an alarming clip.
I only had the presence of mind to say, “Come in, quick!” But as she moved, the blue strobe from the top-bar ignited and we saw that it was police.
Sergeant Geddes climbed out of his car very deliberately and walked slowly up to the deck.
I apologized for the false alarm cause by the fireworks.
He called in a report and stood with me then at the rail on the deck and stared out at the thickness of the dark.
“You ought to know that Mr. Smith has not been seen in a while. Maybe Jorge Gee got tired of waiting. Or maybe Mr. Smith has been away on other business. He has a house in Malibu, right in there with all the Hollywood types. But no one has seen him.”
“What’s your guess?”
“My guess is he’s still in business. If his boss got rid of him he’d want everyone to know. There’s no good in getting rid of someone quietly in that business. It’s all show and tell. He’s probably just off making someone else’s life miserable.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Just stay on you toes.” He winced at his words. “You know, I don’t even know what that expression really means. My sister took ballet. Is it from that? When I play basketball with the other guys, the coach is always saying that. So I told him it was a ballet term. Got a good laugh.”
Sergeant Geddes had asked me about my writing once before. I think he assumed I would know.
“I think it just means to be light on your feet.”
“Be light on your feet then. Keep your mind on thinking of ways Smith could get to you and not get caught doing it.”
We were well chastised for our own game. But this incident gave me another thought. If the lines were cut, fireworks were a possible signal for the fact. At the very least, they might be a good diversion.
And because I had written a fair amount about him earlier that day, I made an apple pie in honor of my grandfather that evening instead.
A month later, it was the sound of Christmas again that awakened me from my dream. The small metal bells sounded more like falling ice in the still hard cold of night.
My hand hit the panic button atop Margaret’s.
Then I pulled the wire to the battery connected to the fireworks.
Mr. Smith had a truck. From the sound of the motor it was likely a 350 diesel, and rode high. He drove this right up to the smaller bedroom windows on the North side. Fred barked in a near continuous cry as several tear gas canisters burst through the double glass above our heads. The spray of shards bit at us as we moved, and the canisters popped on the bed and on the floor while I foolishly pulled at the trap door while my big toe was in the way blocking my efforts. We had both strapped on our Velcro gun belts first thing over our pajamas, just as we had rehearsed, like a couple ultra cool cowboys. Margaret’s belt hung just below her breasts and atop her belly and was a sight to see, even in the near dark.
Momentarily hearing nothing, I tugged on the wire to my contraption once more. The object now was not to breathe, but the gush of cold air from beneath the house, joined with the close smell and grunt of the diesel, was doubly frightening and made breathing an involuntary reaction. Margaret gasped and grabbed Fred’s collar for support and I went down first onto the gravel beneath to help her through and pulled the shotgun down after her from where it lay beneath the bed. The truck had remained idling there close at that side, but I was certain Mr. Smith had not.
There was no time for more clothes. In the dark, even our slippers had eluded us. My bare feet numbed quickly. Crouching low beneath the beams, we scrambled onto the snow. I heard glass shatter on the deck. At least we knew he was now on the floor above. With my free hand I hooked the cord of the sled from where it lay just under the house edge and set Margaret down at the middle, she pulled Fred onto her lap against his will, and I put the shotgun between them and started to push.
The thought crossed my mind right there that perhaps I should turn and take Mr. Smith’s truck instead for the getaway. I don’t believe I stopped to consider this for even a second. I am certain had I done that, and even if the door was unlocked, or I had broken the window glass, we would have lost our chance and once in the cab we’d have been sitting ducks. But such thoughts linger.
Amidst the grinding sound of the runners across the breaking crust of snow and my own gasping breath, I actually heard the first bullet that passed by my head. The first of the fireworks exploded immediately after that. And then another bullet, and then I looked behind us for the first time. The dark figure of Mr. Smith stood at the nearest corner of the deck, maybe sixty yards away, taking aim across the end of the rail. He was wearing what I assumed was a gas mask and the obvious bulk of a ballistic vest. The falling embers of the fireworks glared behind him. The third of those went off, shooting up and out toward the main road. I thought certainly he might have some night vision goggles as well and could see us clearly there on the snow with that additional illumination and I turned the sled with a sudden jerk from our course down hill i the open, toward the trees of the woodlot, if only to make his work a little harder. The sled veered and nearly flipped, but stopped instead. A third bullet passed. The minor clap of the firing in the silent night made the sound of it seem somehow less dangerous.
Stricken with my stupidity then I looked to the sky and suddenly saw what was there and said aloud, “Look up!” The stars were thick and clear and spread in clouds of light. I was sure that we would soon be dead and I wanted Margaret to see that at least. “We can see forever!”
And she repeated, “To the end of time.”
It was only the foolishness of an instant. I could hear Smith moving across the snow crust behind us. Margaret tried to stand and I held her down and began to push again. Another bullet passed.
As we gained some speed then on the steeper portion of slope, I attempted to climb on the back of the rails but missed the moment and was forced to follow, stumbling behind instead. Near halfway down I heard the motor of the truck growling and the crying spin of tires as Smith first steered onto the snow and then backed it away and headed down the drive.
Would he leave?
No. It was a race now.
The driveway led off to a lower part of the hill at the far side, but he was traveling at a speed that would make up quickly for his loss. The numbness of the cold and the hard edged crust on my feet was now replaced by a jarring pain. Several times in my gallop, breaking through the surface, my feet went too far and sent me into a headlong tumble.
My odd thought, how was I to stay on my toes in this?
Margaret was at the bottom already, and climbed off the sled and crossed the fence. Her light blue nightgown fluttered and pulled against the rounding of her body and I could not reject the thought of an angel in the night. Like a bad dream that might not be refused before you awaken. But my own progress felt unnaturally slow. My legs had suddenly stiffened. There at last, she handed me the shotgun as I clambered over the top rail. Fred struggled against her grip on his collar, but she held tight. In the starlight I could see the looming shape of the truck at the top of the rise but the sound alone in the dark was enough to move us. We went immediately into the house.
We had not practiced this part so well. I bolted the door but then my bare feet slipped on the shedding snow and my own blood as I crossed the polished wood in the dining room and I fell again. I reached Margaret at the kitchen door, kissed her too briefly there, and helped her down into the dark on the cellar stairs, keeping a hold on her hand until she had gone beyond my reach. She pulled Fred along behind her, moaning. At the last second, I fit myself into the dark space of the hearth behind the kitchen stove. This was not done for any strategic advantage. I was simply afraid of falling on top of Margaret in the dark. A window had broken, likely on the door to the small porch. Mr. Smith was almost instantly in the house.
I could hear him stride across the dining room floor, perhaps even seeing the gleam trail of blood from my ice-shredded feet through his visor. I could not control my breath at first and I heard Margaret cautioning Fred in the cellar below. She would be close behind the base of the chimney now, crouching in the old stone cistern there. Smith stopped at the kitchen door. Listening, I think. I knew we must be heard. But he could only guess at what would come at him when he entered the threshold there and some basic instinct perhaps had halted him.
A second passed. Perhaps even two. Time enough for several thoughts. I wondered if he fully comprehended that the police would be coming, or that he had only moments left, and waiting would certainly lose him any advantage of escape. He must. He must not care.
He stepped through into the kitchen. I fired.
The distance to the portion of his body I hit was no more than three feet. The glancing force of it from the side punched him back into the dining room and I heard him fall there in a clatter. And then a strained breath. And just as quickly he scramble up to his feet again and lunged low through the door. I fired a second time. This shot missed him entirely, but destroyed the pantry window across the room. He fired back toward me immediately from the kitchen floor. This was a continuous spray of bullets, striking the iron of the stove in a ringing cacophony and I knew that one or more of those hit my legs from beneath and others stung my back in ricochet. I fell from my crouch. The pain was not terrible. I simply could not stand. Thankfully, he must have heard my fall though, he could not see me there for the moment. I gripped my pistol and held my breath and hoped he would peek around the edge to see.
Instead he stood, opened the door to the cellar and went down.
Our unrehearsed plan was that if he came down the cellar stairs Margaret should shoot as he came, before he could locate her position, but just as soon as she could locate his by hearing him on the steps in the dark. Not to wait. And she was ready. The 9mm fired through its load in a near continuous barrage in mere seconds. I suppose most of that missed him or whatever protective armor he wore was enough to save him from those lighter rounds. Now I was most worried for Margaret’s safety instead because of the deflection of the bullets against the stone foundation. That was another matter we had not properly considered beforehand.
And I could immediately smell the apples that were hit.
I knew that Smith’s night-vision goggles would not serve him quite well in the near total black of the cellar, though he would probably have some sort of red light with him. When he turned that on, he would see her well enough. Only then did I recall Fred’s eyes looking back at me from my door on the night when I had first moved in.
I wiggled my body to get past the legs of the stove. I hoped that the sound of this would be at least a momentary distraction for him. As a final thought I reached and grabbed an iron frying pan from the surface above me, extending this ahead of myself. He saw the rounded shadow of that I think, in the meager framing of light in the doorway, and fired upward just then from the bottom of the stair. His bullet struck the pan like a church bell. I saw his position, and fired down.
Margret had let Fred loose only when her ammunition was gone. Fred saw the flash of Smith’s weapon as well. Enough at least to see the raising of the man’s arm as he craned his neck around to fire at me.
But he was already dead. I had aimed at the opening of his vest at the throat and hit him in the eye instead.
The shinbone in my right leg was fractured. The anklebone on my left was badly chipped. Those were Mr. Smith’s only real hits. I would not be taking any long walks for a couple of months. And I only had forty-eight stitches in all. Besides the wounds on my legs, there were twelve on my back and the ones on my butt. These were primarily from bits of stone and metal I had acquired while in the hearth behind the stove. Many of them left small tattoos from the ancient char that I could now show off like tiny badges when I am at the beach—or in bed, if anyone cares to see.
I thought I should have had more stitches. At least a hundred. But the doctor called the lacerations on my feet and shins from the snow crust and ice, ‘superficial.’ It was my ‘lay opinion’ not being a doctor but having written about several of them through the years and having done an extensive day’s worth of research as well as being prone to such judgments while lying down, as I was (and would necessarily be for the next six to eight weeks), that ‘superficial’ was a category of wound which did not adequately cover the degree of pain or itching.
Margaret agreed with me. She didn’t have a scratch, but was very sympathetic. At least so long as I would be available for duty the first week in April. And she did manage to find a long smooth bamboo strip she could slip down beneath the casts. And she is very good at sponge baths.
For a time, at least until the real thing came along, she also got to calling me her “baby,” or “a baby, as in “Don’t be a baby.” Same thing.
Between my complaints and the sponge baths, I sat on a foam pillow which would not be as likely to disturb the three or four wounds on my ass, and wrote another book. At least this one was spoken for. I had a fairly sizable advance in hand, which was a necessary help with the medical bills. And that had come about unexpectedly after a reporter for the Union Leader had figured out who Margaret Abernathy had been, and why we had been attacked, and then connected the dots from Robert Smith to Bill Reed and Jorge Gee. The only good in that report was a confirmation that it was Cheri who had stolen the money and drugs, which very publicly cleared Margaret of this transgression against the pride of Mr. Gee, when the story was picked up by the Associated Press and then republished everywhere else.
(Third draft updated 2018)