OK, there wasn't exactly a groundswell, but I did have some requests to put the first ten chapters of the novel into one post so that readers could catch up or get started. Here they are, in order, that so no one has to search backwards. After this, the novel takes a different turn. And remember, it is a novel—fiction. I made it up.
Chapter 1 / Pot
They live in a house by the river. The Hudson River, about two hours north of the salt point, a narrow stretch that offers all the possibilities of an expanse of water along with the reassurance of another shore. The house is sturdy—brick, nothing elegant—with two big bay windows, one on either side of the front door, and it’s set just far enough above the water to avoid being swamped but close enough to be flooded with river light. Only the weather alters the light here; neither shore has changed in a hundred years.
On this day, an afternoon in the middle of September, late in the twentieth century, the sun shines behind a thin cloud cover, casting a hazy, golden glow off the river and into the house.
In one of the front rooms overlooking the river is a piano, a baby grand covered with a multicolored cloth woven in Cuscatlán. Every day a woman takes the cloth off the piano and plays it. Earlier this afternoon she practiced a Bach prelude in D, a ragtime song, and the second movement of Metamorphosis by Philip Glass.
A man often listens to her play, lying on his back on the couch, legs crossed, eyes closed, in the room across the hall, or sitting in the dining room out of sight of the piano. When she finished this afternoon, he laid his cheek on the top of her head for a moment and told her, again, that he loved to hear her play. He sat next to her on the piano bench and they went over parts of what she had practiced. As a young man, he was an accomplished pianist—not professional, that wasn’t the point, but if Metamorphosis had been around then, he thinks now, it might have saved him a lot of wasted time. Now he doesn’t play it. He plays “Stardust” or other jazz songs he knows from memory, but not Metamorphosis. Not only does he think of it as hers, but also he has no interest in hearing how it would sound coming from him.
He likes the piece though, and later when she goes out to her piano lesson he puts on the CD and sits on the broad flagstone deck at the front of the house in a metal armchair with a scalloped back. He smokes a cigarette and gazes at the river, marveling at the honeyed light and the fact that the house is theirs and he’s in it with her, not in prison or a psychiatric ward or dead half a dozen times over, but that he survived all that and now belongs here, sitting on their deck, in a comfortable lull, watching for her return. A year and a month before, she had an accident on her bicycle and was in a coma for three days. He stayed in her hospital room every minute he was allowed to, holding her hand, alternating between willing and asking that she not leave him then. She didn’t, but now in her absence he finds himself—not uneasy, but alert.
The CD continues; the piano ripples, the river flows. A small dog trots onto the deck, a small but long-legged dog that hops onto the man’s lap in one leap. She does not curl up but sits on the man’s knee and stares in the same direction, out at the river. Pleased, the man rests his free hand on her flank. The dog belonged to the woman first, and he refers to her as his step-pet.
A boy walks over to the porch from the house next door—for this is a row of mismatched houses built years ago on a street called Riverview. Man and boy acknowledge each other with a look, but they don’t speak. The boy pats the dog’s back, then sits on the stone steps, facing the river. He knows that if he speaks, the man will shake his head—he won’t talk when he is listening to music.
The boy, who is 9 and called Kenny, thinks this is silly. If “creepy” were part of his vocabulary, he would probably use it for this music. But he finds the rest of it intriguing—the man, who has a gold tooth in the side of his mouth that flashes when he smiles, and the woman, who died but woke up again because it wasn’t her time yet, and even the dog, which has eyes like almonds and never barks. And the night before, as he played Oregontrail on the family computer, he overheard a snatch of conversation between his parents in which the man’s name, Andrew, and the words drug dealer were spoken in the same sentence, and now Kenny finds Andrew fascinating. He imagines himself asking Andrew if he is a drug dealer, if he smokes pot. That scene of Kenny’s goes no further, because he can’t believe, much as he might prefer it for the drama, that Andrew would answer “yes.”
He’s right. If he were to ask, Andrew would look at him directly. He would smile slightly as he shook his head, and say, “No . . . why do you ask?” Kenny would shrug, his brown eyes wide, unable to convey whatever it was that made his father suspicious.
If Andrew and Kenny could discuss this, Andrew would explain that he is not a drug dealer but a marijuana farmer—a distinction important to him—and that is why he and Annie and the dog named Chloe moved into the house by the river.
Chapter 2 / Road Kill
We lived on a road where the women drove faster than the men.
The women drove what people around here refer to as “vehicles.” These women zipped down the hill above our house and around our curve in their Chevy Blazers or their Ford Expeditions, as they ferried their kids to school or set out on errands.
The men drove pickup trucks with elderly brake linings and stiffer steering. The speed limits were set for the pickup trucks. We learned this our first year here, when Ed got his second speeding ticket in six months and I had to take charge of drives into town for a while. Obey the limits in a vehicle, or even in a Honda hatchback like mine, and they seemed out of date, a throwback to 30 years ago, when the county was truly rural, dotted with family farms. Or even 10 years ago, when our neighbor Thompson still rode his tractor to the post office to fetch his mail.
Borrow a friend’s truck to pick up a load of topsoil and you fit right into the pace.
So we suspected our neighbor Sally and her red Jeep as responsible for the death of the peaceful stray cat that our neighbor Nancy had been feeding for a month. Ed imagined the old guy wandering around, or distracted by a field mouse, not having learned to be fast enough to stay out from under Sally’s wheels. Nancy buried the cat more or less where it fell by the side of the road, in a final act of charity mixed with her Scots practicality.
For Bob’s calico cat, I blame Grace in her black Chevy Blazer.
I was driving home one Saturday morning from my twice-a-month trip to Shop Rite when I saw the cat lying in the other lane of our road, its calico coat still fluffy, dead but not yet squished. It lay across the road from Thompson’s house, and I thought it must be his. I pulled over just past his door and knocked. Thompson’s given name was Peter, but Ed and I always referred to him as Thompson or in public, Mr. Thompson. He went to school in our house, back in the day when the building was the one-room schoolhouse for this area, when his family’s farm would have been one of the three properties on this three-mile stretch of road.
“Water was always silty,” he said about our well, trying to reassure us, but Ed, trusting no one, had a new well dug.
Thompson had an ancient, agreeable black dog and a turquoise barn out in back of his house, so I figured he would have some cats. But he said, “Nope, must be Bob’s.” So I ran down the road a few hundred feet and up Bob’s 45-degree driveway, praying that other drivers would steer around the cat and not mangle it, and hoping Bob was home.
Like Thompson, Bob greeted me with bewildered suspicion—this was the bachelor farmer end of our road.
“Do you have a calico cat?” I said. “I’m afraid it’s been hit—”
Bob was out the door, past me like a shot, his tanned, moon face creased with fear. “Thank you—” he called over his shoulder.
I followed slowly, not wanting to see this. I knew Bob only slightly, to wave to as he passed in his pickup truck. We met up with him sometimes at the post office or the dump or when a local issue brought us all to a town board meeting.
When I got to the road, Thompson had scooped up the kitty in a shovel and deposited it on the shoulder of the road. He leaned on his shovel as Bob kneeled over the cat, his back to me. I left, feeling I had done my part and not wanting to see the dead cat. Driving away, it occurred to me that Bob probably thought I had hit it.
“That was nice of you, Annie,” said Ed as we put away the groceries.
“If my dog were lying in the road, I’d sure want someone to tell me,” I said, momentarily irritated with Ed because he would have felt the same, even more, and why couldn’t he put himself in Bob’s shoes, etc.
Years later—the field of coneflowers that Ed had planted around our new wellhead was waning but still beautiful, and even Ed was mildly optimistic about this new presidential candidate, Bill Clinton—September then, three years later, a state trooper came to the door to tell me where I might find Ed’s body, and I thanked him.
I had been puttering around the house, feeding the dogs, not trusting my voice to talk to them. Afraid to use the phone, I still called Kathleen, who always knew what to do. I’m on my way, she said, so I sat and worried, trapped in a paroxysm of indecision about whether I should wait for bad news or go out and look for it. The officer arrived first, and I thanked him the same way Bob had thanked me—as an afterthought, appreciating an effort made and remembering not to kill the messenger.
What I saw in my mind’s eye as I put on shoes, found a jacket, was Bob’s calico cat, still clean and combed in the northbound lane of our road. And that reminded me of the red fox that Ed and I had seen just down the hill from Bob’s house one Sunday morning—one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever encountered. It lay stretched on its side in the early sun alongside a county road, its pelt perfect, full and rich and glowing auburn as if it had just been curried.
“Oh no,” said Ed. For as he slowed the car, a smaller fox came out of the brush and sniffed the dead one, nudging it a little.
In the back of my mind, as Kathleen drove me through the darkening countryside toward the hospital, lay years of road kill—the dog with its head severed from its body, the half-dead deer struggling to rise—but they were still in my subconscious, waiting till I slept. After 15 years with Ed, what I thought of when he died was the calico cat and the red fox.
Chapter 3 / Aria
I had no money with which to grieve. Like Ed, I freelanced as a writer and editor. Unlike Ed, I had no special area of expertise. When he died, editorial work was halted on two different textbooks, one in emergency medicine, the other in U.S. history, while harried project editors sought—and could not find—a line editor with the same combination of intelligence, skill, and speed.
I applied for food stamps. Two-thirds of my “family income,” as the form described it, had disappeared. In its place I had an expanding accordion file, into which I organized, in separate slots, papers representing my growing financial problems. For example, the $11,000 Ed had in his checking account. Since we weren’t married, I couldn’t touch it. We had discussed this, once. If anything happens to you, your mother will get everything, I said. He had looked appropriately horrified, and given the opportunity—a small life insurance policy, his Keogh account—he left it to me. But he had no will.
His mother took the $11,000, saying simply, I raised him.
“She said that?” Jaime stared at me, then mimed closing her mouth with her hand.
“When Ed was little,” I said, “he decided to run away. But he told his mother first. She said OK, but he couldn’t take any of his stuff. I think he was wearing his cowboy suit, and she said she’d bought it for him, it belonged to her.”
“Jesus.” Jaime looked aside, out the window, then back at me. “He should have gone anyway.”
“I know. But he hadn’t even started his paper route.”
He did get away. Through a mix of brains that led to scholarships and the paper route that turned into selling tickets at a movie theater, followed by summer jobs at a Coca-Cola factory and a hospital, he got away. Now he was back there again, reclaimed by the rocky Portsmouth soil. His mother took his body, too, and buried it next to that of his father in a New Hampshire cemetery twenty minutes away from her and more than three hours from me. He was buried after a Catholic Mass, a ritual I took some comfort in, though it would have infuriated Ed. By that point I was too desolate, frightened, and angry to care what he thought.
I did have friends. They caravanned in three cars to the funeral, transporting me and the dogs. Back home, they wanted to hold a memorial service, for us. “Just tell me whom you want to invite,” said Kathleen. “We’ll write it together. All you’ll have to do is show up.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Not right now. I have to think about some things.”
“It could help you think,” she said. “That’s the last thing I’ll say about it.”
“No,” I said. “But don’t leave me.”
“Never,” she said. “If you won’t let us mourn, we’ll organize.”
Kathleen supervised the food. I had always joked that if it weren’t for Ed, I would be trying to live on coffee and breakfast bars. Now that menu was staring me in the face, except for Kathleen, who like Ed, was a terrific cook—they connected that way—and who put together a food chain that brought me a soup or a casserole each week. By myself, I could make it last for days.
Jaime took me to the bank. She had a disabled brother in assisted living, so she was accustomed to dealing with people who couldn’t quite take care of themselves. “She needs to renegotiate her mortgage.” Jaime told the suited woman in an office at the bank.
“And the line of equity against the house,” I said softly.
They both looked at me, the bank lady through cheerful eyeglasses with leaf-green frames.
“We took it for the renovations.”
“I’ll leave you two to talk,” said Jaime. “I’ll be right outside.”
“What else,” said the bank lady gently.
“The car loan,” I said. “On the car that was totaled.”
She got out pieces of paper and we talked about them and I tried to listen to what she said. I tried to listen to what everyone said and to read the papers they gave me, which I kept in the new accordion file, one slot for each problem, but I wasn’t listening carefully and I couldn’t make my eyes focus on the papers.
What I had to think about was this: On that rainy Tuesday morning, exactly one week after my 40th birthday, Ed drove off at 8 o’clock on his way to Dave’s house for their regular weekly meeting. He and Dave functioned as a kind of freelance editorial company without offices, meeting weekly in each other’s houses, and it was Ed’s turn to travel.
But when Ed’s car skidded off the road, he was 10 minutes and three parkway exits beyond the turnoff for Dave’s road.
He should have turned right, but he didn’t. He kept on going. What haunted me then was not why he went off the road—he braked for a deer, he was changing a cassette tape, he was testing the brakes on the slick road (something he had confessed, out loud, to doing in the past), or he had, for the third time ever in his life, given in to an urge to smoke a Gauloise cigarette while he was driving—but why he was driving where he was.
“There are a lot of ways to get there from here,” said Dave. It was eight o’clock again, 12 hours after Ed had left the house. Dave and I sat at the kitchen table while Lauren, his wife, fixed spaghetti with clam sauce. There hadn’t been time for a picturesque covered dish, steaming under a towel; she had grabbed ingredients off shelves and thrown them in a bag.
“He might have decided to double back on one of the town roads,” said Dave.
He might have. He liked to drive the back roads. He might have found he was running early, decided to check out a new route. The day was misty, with a spitting rain, not a great day for exploring, but not impossible either. He often glanced at a map, even as he drove, never trusting my directions.
He might have been distracted by the radio. He loved music—all kinds, except for the trashy oldies station I liked—and he always listened to music in the car. Just last week we had sat in the car in our driveway five minutes or more, listening to “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly, my favorite aria in the world. Ed might have figured he couldn’t do something like that in Dave’s driveway without Dave coming out and interrupting the music, so he was going farther south to double back while he listened to something he loved.
Or, he was driving away. He had left us and was going somewhere else altogether. So unlike him as to be incomprehensible. Not the leaving, but the leaving in silence. I am running away, he told his mother. This time, no one could stop him. And slipping off, hoping no one would notice, sounded like me, not Ed. He was honest, and more, he knew—didn’t he?—that he would be missed. Not only by me, but also by Jethro. He might have hurt me, figuring that I’d recover and go on, but he would have never, ever, hurt his dog like this.
I thought he was coming to the house, said Dave. That’s all I know remained unspoken between us. If Ed had confided an affair, a dream, an escape plan, Dave wasn’t going to offer it, and I didn’t ask.
Why do I even think about this? Why take up this train of thought?
The mail, the desk.
Chapter 4 / Mail
I returned from Ed’s funeral to a shopping bag full of mail. Our neighbor Nancy had picked it up at the post office and left it on the back deck. Bank statements, Christmas catalogues. I put it in the mudroom, curled up with the dogs.
The next morning I poured a second cup of coffee and, out of habit, divided the mail into two piles, his and hers, on the kitchen table. We had never opened each other’s mail. If one of us received something we both wanted to see, the other one would say, Open it! Open it! and stand next to the recipient until we knew what was inside. The most obvious junk mail lay on the table until the addressee threw it into the recycling bag.
In fact, there was nice mail here, lovely mail. People sent condolence cards, or even letters they had written themselves. I opened each envelope carefully and read the notes slowly. I examined the cards and tried to imagine the person—the freelance graphic designer in San Diego, whom I had never met, Ed’s high school friend from Portsmouth that we exchanged Christmas cards with—driving to the mall, entering a card shop, choosing something to send to me. The local library would buy a book in Ed’s memory. Perhaps something about the Hudson River, wrote the board president, since he loved to explore the flats in his kayak.
And a friend—someone that I had always wished we saw more of—typed out six lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets that he said had served him as an “emotional mantra” during “unutterably” difficult times. “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” I could not even imagine it. But that was his point, wasn’t it. Mantra. You asked for it. You prayed for it.
Then I opened Ed’s mail. Bills he would have paid, a confirmation of his order of a barn jacket—we didn’t have a barn, but as Dave said, Ed was something of a clothes pony—a paycheck I couldn’t cash, a pitch from the Democratic Party that he support Bill Clinton. They must be after everybody; we were both enrolled as independents. I opened all the credit-card offers, just to make sure they didn’t, by accident, contain some cash.
I saved for last a business-size envelope addressed by hand to Ed from a post office box in Truro, on Cape Cod. We had spent a week in Truro each summer for the past three years, but we hadn’t begun to talk about next year’s trip. Chloe was sitting in my lap by then; I turned the envelope over, let her sniff it. Finally I slit the side with Ed’s letter opener and pulled out a copy of a one-page contract for the rental of a house in Truro and a receipt for payment in full for a week’s rent. The receipt was made out to Ed. The contract was cosigned by Ed and the owner of the house. For the last week in July. Next year.
A week’s vacation. All planned, all paid for. I knew the house. We had rented it the summer before this past one. Three stories high, glass all around, it was like living in the tops of the trees—the most beautiful house I had ever stayed in, anywhere. This past summer the owner had caught on and raised the price to well above our budget, and we rented another house, nowhere near as nice. Next summer, I see, she’s holding steady at the new price.
That must be it. She’s confused the summer tenants, pulled Ed’s name out of her files, sent a receipt to the wrong person. Not that Ed’s last name, Tuczinksi, is a common one, but there had to be a mistake. I picked up the portable phone, which I now carried with me at all times, and called the number on the contract.
“No,” she said, “it’s not a mistake.” I remembered her voice as soon as I heard it—I was usually the one who made this kind of booking—and from it her small, energetic, efficient self. In the summer she lived in a cabin at the edge of the property, one room no larger than a potting shed. She cleaned the house herself between rentals. Got it as part of a divorce settlement, we figured.
“Your husband called me,” she said. “I’m so sorry, about his accident. So sorry. The contract I use says no refunds, but in this case, and since it’s so early in the season, I could make an exception.”
The money would support me for a month. “Can you make the check out to me?” I asked.
“—I guess so,” she said.
Again, so completely unlike him.
Yes, he could be manipulative with his surprises. Guess what! he would say, when I was exhausted or distracted, not ready for games. Don’t you notice anything different? he would ask about some miniscule change he had made in our house while I was out.
But to spend so much money without saying so, or, rather, without complaining about it, several times. To plan something like this without consulting me, much less even telling me.
Now a vacation waited out there in July. Paid for with money I had never seen. It might support me for a month, that money, but then I would just need more money, and there would be no prize, no rest, no splendid house in the trees, down the road in July.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll keep it. I’ll come.”
“It’s a big house,” she said. “You could share it with friends.”
She was right. I could see who else might show up.
Chapter 5 / Desk
As far as I could tell, Ed kept every birthday card and Valentine he had received for the last fifteen years. Dozens of them—every expression of love or affection, any remembrance or acknowledgment, from anyone. I kept all the cards he gave me because each one was unique—beautifully made, with a special verse. But I discarded the rest. Looking at the cards I gave him, I repeatedly told him that I loved him. “I love you,” I wrote. “Know you are loved,” I wrote. Did he know?
Ed’s desk sat in the back room of the house, overlooking the garden and the meadow beyond. It was five feet wide by three feet deep, and it made sense that the drawers would go all the way back, but I had never really thought about it: that you could stuff years of written memorabilia into them. But Ed the pack rat had got ahead on me on several fronts:
Stacks of magazines in the attic, created by Ed, the man who worried about fire. I recycled them immediately.
Fifty-one pairs of socks in a drawer, two with the label still on them. Four black, eight blue, thirteen brown, twelve “other,” and fourteen sport. In the back of the sock drawer is $42.50 in fives and ones in a Ziploc baggy, and $100 in twenties, held together with a paper clip. I transfer this money to my T-shirt drawer.
Twenty-two wine bottle corks in the kitchen miscellany drawer. Most of them French, but one each Budapest, Geyser Peak, Julius Echter Heffe-Weissbier, anonymous. Did he think he would use them again? Was it a reference library?
Fourteen shopping bag handles. I set out to keep a couple, then threw them all away.
But the desk, the desk. My thinking was I’d use it now, I’d start a real business, the way Ed did, and this would be my action central, as it was his. But I had no idea what an archaeological dig this old wooden desk would be, the desk that he bought at an auction one evening, back in the day when auctions sold furniture we could use and afford. On the left side, instead of drawers, was a contraption, a inner table on a spring on which you could keep a typewriter; this allowed the inventor of this desk to store more papers on its surface, I supposed, and it was a fortunate invention because it meant there are only three drawers, on the right side of the desk, into which Ed could pack stuff, along with the vast top of it. We bought the computer together, ostensibly for both of us, though Ed used it most of the time. And surrounded it with his piles of paper.
I reminded myself that my desk, upstairs, was something of a mess too, but I thought my piles of paper went back only six weeks, not six months. Probably these papers were duplicates of what his clients had, but I should ask, be ready to mail things. “Maybe they’ll hire you,” my mother said on the phone from Key Biscayne, optimistic in her off-the-wall way. Ed’s clients would never hire me as Ed, but maybe if I was helpful and well organized, I could pitch myself as a proofreader.
I was labeling stacks of paper, whom to call about what, when at the bottom of a pile of stuff at the back of the desk I found a color printout. It was smeary—color was not the strong point of our printer—but it was clearly a boy, a young boy, in the nude, facing the camera.
Blond hair, brush cut, standing in the sun in the nude, full front, smeared, the colors hadn’t come out well, there was a lot of red, of blue. A thin boy, narrow chest, a boy, with a small prick, for peeing, not a teenager, younger than that, but not a little boy either, somewhere, somewhere in between, he stood there, staring at the camera, squinting into sun, smeared in color. He did not look comfortable; neither did he look surprised.
I did not know him. I took in his blurry face, his squint, his lips. This was no one I recognize.
I crumpled the paper. I smoothed it out again. I took it to the kitchen trash and looked at it one more time before I tore it into tiny pieces.
I went back to the desk. My eyes were tearing, my throat ached, but I touched every single sheet of paper on the desk, all over again. An hour passed. There was nothing else like it.
What in the name of God was he thinking. We gave each other privacy. The picture lay on the desk. He counted on me not to look. He left it for me. He forgot it was there.
All those nice cards I received. “He called you ‘my Annie,’ wrote a physician on the EMT book.
No one said he loathed me.
I got up, stared out at the garden, the meadow. His Annie wasn’t enough. Is any of us ever enough? He would be mowing the meadow this month. He was gone. No discussion, no confession, no fight. The pain of death but not the agony of humiliation.
One picture did not make a pattern. But he printed it out. The computer may hold secrets. Up to me to find them, delete them; no one, not Jaime or Kathleen or Dave, can help with this.
Right now, no more secrets. I was terrified of the computer, I would have put it onto Ed’s office chair and wheeled to the trash can in the garage, but I couldn’t do anything to it until I looked at it. Instead, I cleaned off his bulletin board, with its public display of schedules, letters, a few mementos, like the faded fortune from a Chinese cookie: “Many pleasurable and memorable adventures are in store for you.” We always added “in bed” to make the fortune more interesting. I crumpled the slip of paper. And then I remembered—
I worked the table for Amistad, our Central America solidarity group, at the county fair this past Labor Day Weekend. Taking a break, walking around the fair, I passed the Gypsy fortune-teller booth. I’d never had my fortune told, mostly because I was too much of a chicken, but that day I felt ready, curious. I sat down and the man looked at my left palm, but before he said anything he got a call on his portable phone and began a conversation with someone in San Diego. I waited, sitting across from him, but he continued to talk, with no sign that he would ever stop. Finally I put a couple of dollars on the table and got up. I’ll do it, I’ll do it! called a woman sitting in back of him, but I was annoyed, so I left.
That evening I described my non-fortune to Ed. “He just kept talking,” I said, “as if I weren’t there.”
“Maybe he saw something he didn’t want to tell you,” said Ed.
Chapter 6 / Goats
I had lived alone before Ed, on even less than I earned now. But I didn’t have a house then, and a car, and two hungry dogs.
“You could sell the house,” said my mother in one of her daily phone calls. “That would give you plenty of money to get back on your feet.”
“—Where would I live?”
“—Well, you could stay in our house while we’re in Florida, then by spring you’d be able to find an apartment, or something.”
Would it happen? Would I have my furniture in storage and drive around with a car full of suitcases? I swallowed back bile. “I thought widows weren’t supposed to make any changes for a year.”
“That’s if you can afford it.”
She was right. Make no changes for a year was starting to sound very middle class. But my renegotiated mortgage was probably comparable to any rent I’d pay for a habitable place around here, one that allowed dogs. On the other hand, I needed heating oil for the winter and Ed had totaled our “good” car, the one with only 60,000 miles on it; mine had 120. I made a round of calls to the people I freelanced for.
“Yes, the annual report is on schedule,” said John. “Look for it the first week in November.” October stretched ahead, vast and uncharted.
“I meant to call you,” said Lois. “That book’s been postponed. Why don’t you get back in touch”—she sighed—“after the first of the year. Maybe by then I’ll know the new schedule. Everything’s hell around here, waiting to see what happens with the election. How’re things with you?”
“—Ed died,” I said. I had to get used to telling people. “Car crash.”
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. Do you have anything else for me?”
“I’ll see. I’m so sorry. Maybe some proofreading. Oh, Annie, what are you going to do?”
It went on like that, as I called people and spoiled their day. I said yes to writing the chapters on African American history for a textbook, a project I knew I’d end up paying for—the fee would cover the writing but not the research—and yes to a young adult biography of Irving Berlin, even though the advance was stingy and the royalties probably wouldn’t come through. Everyone else said they would keep me in mind.
I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. I had always been good at short-term solutions. I dug out the last couple of issues of the local newspaper, an invisible Ed scoffing at me: You’ll never find anything there. I shook open the paper and sharpened a red pencil.
Three different restaurants needed staff, but I had been a waitress during college and hated it. Bartender, short order cook; not me. Plenty of social work positions for which I wasn’t remotely qualified; carpenter, cabinetmaker, nope, but here, Camphill Village needed an office assistant. I did not have a “minimum of one year’s experience in a secretarial position dealing with the public,” and I did have a momentary twinge about taking the job away from a young person who had a “high school diploma or GED,” but I needed a job too, so I circled the ad.
And here, Blue Ribbon Chèvre had openings for full-time workers, either taking care of their 100 dairy goats or helping in the creamery. They even offered benefits—vacation, life and health insurance, a 401K. What luxury! Maybe I’d be outdoors sometimes, maybe I could wear jeans. I would write about the experience. “Call for an interview,” you bet.
Under part-time, a dentist, a lawyer, and an insurance agency each needed office help. It wouldn’t pay enough, but I would apply anyway, just to get something going.
I felt better than I had in days. I wrote myself a new resumé, leaving out my master’s degree in creative writing, remembering all the secretarial kinds of experience I had ever had, back through high school. I got into the theater aspect of the project, responding to each ad exactly as instructed, to show I was a team player who could follow instructions. The exception was the law office, which had given only its street address. I piled the dogs into the car and drove to Schuyler to take down the name of the firm at that address, to show that I was a team player who could do her own research.
Back home I sat quietly for five minutes, thinking about goats and my experience in farm work. I had picked cotton for two weeks in Cuscatlán, on a volunteer brigade during the contra war, and I had done trail work in Wyoming, which mostly consisted of digging trenches and moving rocks. That was before we moved to the country and started digging our own trenches and moving our own rocks. And there was hiking, bicycling, canoeing. I called Blue Ribbon Chèvre.
“Starting pay is minimum wage and you have to work some weekends,” said a woman who didn’t sound at all happy about spending her days with a hundred goats. “The health insurance starts after three months and the rest of the benefits after you’ve been with us for a year. Do you still want an interview?”
“Yes,” I said firmly, in my role of job seeker. I could use the practice pitching myself.
“Come at 10 o’clock tomorrow.”
The next morning I brought the dogs along for the ride and arrived at 9:30 so we could take a walk and check out the place. Three huge barns—red, white, and blue—were set well off the road and below it, down a little hill. I wondered if they had trouble with run-off, the way we did.
As I walked the dogs up the road, a herd of goats started out a door at the end of the blue barn into the yard. The goats didn’t trot so much as flow, a school of white, four-legged fish, all moving in the same direction, parallel to us. At least 50, they just keep coming out of that door, following the goat in front of them, or maybe following what they saw in the distance, a human with two small, curly-tailed goats who in turn were wildly excited, pulling at their leads, whining, wishing to play with or snack upon these bearded dogs. I put up with this for a minute, then turned around and started back to the car. The goats all turned around then too, the lead goats first, bumping into the later ones, who pushed into the last ones, until they had all gradually reoriented themselves to head in the opposite direction. “Cute but dumb,” I told the dogs.
I parked the car exactly where I had been instructed, in the lot across from the blue barn. A heavyset woman strode out of it, shaking her head.
“We can’t have dogs on the property.”
“They’ll stay in the car. I’ve locked it.”
She shook her head again. “No. We can’t have it.”
“—OK. I’ll park up on the road.”
“No. It’s still too close, and it’s dangerous to park there.”
“—What do you suggest I do?”
“That’s up to you. Dogs are not allowed on this property.” Her broad face, her whole body stood guard for the goats.
“All right. I’ll park in the lot for the town hall down the road and walk back.” I looked at my watch. “I’ll still be on time.”
She was appraising me, my brown corduroy pants, my one pair of tie shoes, brown suede, my red sweater and blue waterproof shell, all carefully chosen to combine respect for the interview with common sense and practicality.
“Why do you want this job?”
She already disliked me, so I might as well be honest. “My husband died,” I said. “I need a job. I like animals.”
“Ever done farm work?”
“I picked cotton for two weeks in 100-degree temperatures. I moved rocks in Wyoming in the rain. I take care of five acres. I’m strong, and I’m patient. I can learn goats.”
“This isn’t a lark,” she said, and the word, lark, was so odd coming from her thin, unpainted lips that I knew she must have heard it from the Blue Ribbon bosses. “City people think goats are cute,” she said, “but they’re a business here.”
“I’ve lived in Smokey Hollow for seven years. My husband died in an automobile accident. I need a job. That’s not going to change.”
We have had this conversation eye to eye. Now her gaze flickered as she thought. “The one a couple of weeks ago? On the parkway?”
“—Sorry.” She was single too. Her husband had left her, or he drank and she left him. “I’ll call you if we need you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said to the back of her faded red sweatshirt.
“You don’t want that job,” Jaime said that afternoon. She was on her way in to Schuyler, where she worked part-time as a graphic designer for the county’s one printing company. She had a harvest soup for me, filled with vegetables from her garden.
“There was something appealing about goats, instead of paper,” I said. “If only I hadn’t brought the dogs, I would have at least got into the barn.”
“They run that ad all the time. The turnover there is like a hundred percent a year. Maybe you should take a course in graphic design, on the computer. There’ll be enough business around here for the two of us—we could open a studio together!”
“No, Jaime. I know how things should read, or sound, but I never know how anything should look.”
“Your house looks great.”
“That was Ed.” I followed her eye to the framed T-shirt hanging by the staircase. “OK, I had his SoHo Weekly News T-shirt framed, but he knew where to hang it.”
“And this is your fabric sculpture, Satin Manhattan, right?”
“A friend made it for us. But Ed realized these two fabric paintings from Cuscatlán went with it, and he hung the three of them as a group.”
“Who hung this mirror?” She cast a critical eye at the Mexican pressed-tin mirror by the door, which Ed had hung vertically.
“He did. . . . I always thought it should be horizontal.”
“It should be.” She was taking it off the wall. “Got a hammer?”
We rehung the mirror horizontally, at just the right level for my face. Immediately the whole house felt tidier.
“This must be how people feel after they’ve been to a chiropractor,” I said.
“Exactly!” said Jaime. “Write that down. I gotta go.”
“Let me pay you something.”
“Get a job.” She hugged me good-bye. “Then we’ll talk.”
I went back to work on my latest idea, which was a mailing to all the colleges within a 50-miles radius of my house, pitching myself to their communications offices. There were a surprising number, if I went north as far as Albany; too many, really, and the writing of yet another resumé, to show that I was the perfectly experienced staff member for an academic setting, the crispness of my best white paper underneath my best grade of printing, the confident hopefulness of my cover letters, made me unbearably tired. I should take a run, get the endorphins moving. Instead I found the dogs, curled like Cheerios on the bed, and curled myself around them. Jethro moved away, but Chloe stayed with me, as needy for shelter as I.
It was dark when I woke, the dogs staring balefully at me from the floor, late for their walk, their dinner. Ed always walked them at four, fed them at six, summer and winter. I was inadequate even to them.
Chapter 7 / Witches
While I waited for a job, on the off chance that some college an hour’s drive away would want me part-time, I said yes, I wanted to learn all about the workings of a dental office or yes, I would take a course in spreadsheets.
But people didn’t trust me. They didn’t know what to make of me when I walked in the door, despite my sad story, which was something of a classic around here in any case: woman left stranded, needs income desperately.
Finally the law office in Schuyler called on a Monday to ask me to come back in the following Monday to meet one of the name partners. This for a job that paid $9 an hour for 20 hours a week. But I let myself dream. It would be nice to work in Schuyler, with its courthouse square and its one decent restaurant. I couldn’t afford the restaurant, but maybe a partner had something else in mind. Maybe he needed a tax write-off and instead of gentleman farming or offshore oil drilling, he would consider funding a writer. It was no more preposterous than Jaime’s and my design office.
The local paper came in the mail that day and I made myself look at the classifieds again, even though I knew them practically by heart—
—and there was a new ad. The ad of my dreams. I stared at it for a long time, reading it twice. Every word.
The newspaper itself needed a managing editor, someone who would also cover meetings and write news stories and features. That should be good for about 80 hours a week, but the pay was listed right there: $40,000. Forty thousand—more money than I had ever made in my life.
I fired up the computer and started another resume. I had managed a chronically depressed man. I managed two insane dogs. For five years I had managed two homes, one here and one in the city, until we gave up the apartment. I could manage a couple of reporters. I left out all of that and emphasized instead my writing and editing experience. I dragged out my team spirit, bloody but unbowed.
I put the letter and resume in an envelope, gave the dogs their watch-the-house biscuits, and set out to drop off my application at the newspaper office in East Wynham, which, since we were centrally located in the middle of nowhere, was about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction from Schuyler. Then I stopped in the garage, thinking, and, confusing the dogs completely, came back inside to change my clothes. What if they decided to see me right away? Or what if they just happened to walk by the counter in the moment I was there? Every second counted. I found my suede skirt and a heather sweater that went with it. Happily, the weather was cool enough for tights—I didn’t want to go off the deep end here, with stockings—but warm enough to skip a coat, just to run into the office.
Or to stand in the office for literally six seconds, taking in one huge, two-storied room divided into three sections downstairs and with a balcony upstairs on the right that ran the length of the building, with three doors suggesting offices.
“Thanks,” the tall, dark-haired woman at the front counter said kindly. “I’ll be sure the editor gets it.”
Low buzz of voices, people sitting at computers, daylight on either side of the building but not in the middle. I couldn’t pause any longer, so I left.
Back home, I called Jaime; she had worked there briefly as a typesetter. The production crew wasn’t a very happy group, she said, but maybe the reporters, with more interesting work, were more cheerful. Two sisters owned the paper, she reminded me: Tina who was the editor, and Wendy, whose title was publisher.
“You know what they’re called,” said Jaime. “The wicked witches of East Wynham.”
“I have to try to get an interview.”
“You’ll get an interview. They must be desperate, to offer so much money. Make sure you get it.”
Wendy called the next day. The witches, both of them, wanted to meet me at the diner between my house and their office on Thursday. I wondered why I didn’t just come to the office for an interview, but I would have met with them in the deep end of the high school swimming pool, if they had wanted, so I didn’t ask.
At the diner, the witches—two slim, handsome women, whom I gauged late forties, early fifties—sat across from me in a booth.
“You have never worked as hard as you will work at the newspaper,” said Tina.
I paused, my coffee cup at my lips. I have always been too literal. Did I have the job already? We hadn’t even been served our toasted muffins. And second—
“How do you know?” I said.
“You won’t have time to write the opinion pieces you’ve sent in,” she said.
“Or the fiction listed in your resumé,” said Wendy. “We have no lives but the paper, seven days a week.”
“—You’re very tan,” I said, thinking of my pale, anxious self, seated across from these two robust blonds with awfully good tans for this time of year.
“Well,” they said. Wendy played some golf. Tina had tried a tennis camp last month. They had their children, of course—Tina had two, Wendy three. I knew one of them was married to a lawyer, the other to a surgeon, but I could never remember which was which.
“You wrote a very good cover letter,” said Wendy.
“And you write good presses releases,” said Tina. “That’s how we remembered you—from your releases for the library and the Central America group.”
“You’ve also published all my letters to the editor,” I said.
“Well,” said Tina—a little sadly, I thought—“we publish every letter that comes in.”
“Almost,” said Wendy.
They offered me a job, but not the one described in the ad. “We’ve decided to restructure slightly,” said Wendy. “Your title will be senior editor. One of the reporters is moving up to news editor, and the two of you will manage the reporters and the story flow, so that Tina and I can focus on long-term projects and planning.
“The office is open every day except for major holidays,” she added proudly.
“We rotate covering weekends,” Tina said pointedly.
It was probably dreadful, but it didn’t sound impossible. I took a breath. “What’s the salary for the restructured position?”
“Oh, it’s the same,” said Wendy. “Thirty thousand, cash.”
“—The ad in the paper said forty thousand.”
“That’s the total value of the package,” said Wendy, not missing a beat, “including benefits—health insurance, Social Security, paid vacation.”
I gave Wendy and Tina the first of many long stares I would give them, individually and collectively, over the next couple of years, as I admired their gall, was infuriated by their boldface lie, protested mentally at the unfairness of it all, and felt helpless before it.
“I have to bring my dogs to the office,” I said.
Chapter 8 / Byron
That was Thursday. I started the job on Monday, and by then I had only one dog.
It was a country thing, one of those times that proved we were not of the country, even if we thought we were, or tried to be. Jaime came over with Ruth, a stalwart of our Amistad group, our rock, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. thirty years before and hadn’t been young then. Ruth’s vision was poor now and Jaime often drove her, to help her with errands and to listen, to imagine herself back in New York and D.C. in the ’60s.
Today Ruth had decided that what Annie needed was a blueberry bush, a cutting taken from her own hardy rows, and Jaime had driven her over. I didn’t know where I would put the blueberry cutting or when, but I thanked her and said I would plant it that afternoon. Jaime wanted to show Ruth the gardens and in moving around the yards, Ruth, who was accustomed to well-trained, obedient dogs, farm dogs, not dogs who were part wild and completely bereaved, dogs who had lost their alpha wolf, Ruth, who had always put people ahead of dogs in any case, left open both the back door and the door into the attached garage. The garage door was already open, and standing in the living room—now Jaime wanted to show Ruth the wide-angle photo of the base of the Brooklyn Bridge that stretched above our mantelpiece, taken a hundred years ago, just before the bridge went up—I saw the most amazing sight, of our two dogs trotting down the road by themselves.
Never had I seen such a thing—never were the dogs outside of the fence, for even an instant, without leashes, from their necks to our hands. Now they hurried along the edge of the road, heads up, facing in the direction of oncoming traffic, as if they’d been trained to do that. Jethro was leading, and in the second before I started to move, to run for their leashes and then out the garage door, I could tell that Chloe was sending him dog messages: But what about our good dinners, Jethro? What about our biscuits? Jethro kept his head up, faced forward: Hurry, Chloe, hurry, before she notices we’re gone.
Running out of our driveway, I saw Chloe’s curled tail turn left and out of sight down the dirt road. Already my heart was pounding and my throat dry. I remembered the rule of don’t run, they’ll think it’s a game, but they couldn’t see me, so I ran. “Jethro! Chloe!” I called, making my voice strong and cheerful. “Dinner!” Damn, I should have brought the biscuit tin! Turning, I saw Jaime a few paces behind me—she held up the tin and shook it. At the corner Tony and Inez were on the steps of their cabin, looking stricken. Tony held a bag of potato chips, Inez a package of chicken.
“We offered them food,” Tony said sadly.
“They’re looking for him,” said Inez, as if I needed to know that.
Once again I saw Chloe’s tail disappear left, onto the old logging road into the woods. Now we ran, Jaime and I, not to lose sight of them.
“Jethro! Chloe! Dinner!”
But we lost them. A little rise in the path; Chloe’s tail disappeared, and when we got there, no dogs to be seen.
“Oh—” My heart had gone with them.
“Stay here,” said Jaime. She thrust the biscuit tin at me, then took it back and grabbed a handful. “Keep calling them. Let them know where you are. I’ll get the car and drive the road.”
Minutes later I heard the car, and then a sound on the path. They were back! “Jethro! Chloe!” I called, smiling into the woods, but it was Jaime, with my fleece jacket, a baseball cap, and a package of Fig Newtons.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but I could only shake my head.
This had happened once before. A Saturday. I was at Jaime’s. Ed called me there, distraught; he’d mowed the lawn, left the gate open, forgot—a mistake he would have been furious about if I had made it—and Chloe had wandered off.
I came right home. Ed worried so much, about so many things, it was always easy for me to be calm. You drive, I said, I’ll walk.
He drove off, and I realized immediately that my search was hopeless. Our little road, which seemed so populous now—two new houses in the last two years—was backed by miles of woods on either side. If we couldn’t see the dog from the road, we would never find her.
I did find her. She was just a few hundred yards away, sniffing around the pond in back of Nancy and Frank’s house. She gave me one of those dog looks like, what’s the problem?
This day, I walked up and down the logging road, 50 yards in either direction, calling into the woods, time and again, keeping my voice cheerful, confidant. “Jethro, Chloe! Dinner!” They might have headed left to the closed landfill where Ed used to walk them, they might be back at the abandoned cabin on this path, by now they could have reached the next hamlet. We needed an army of searchers here, as if for a lost child, but people don’t do that for small dogs that can run 30 miles an hour, camouflaged by the woods.
Jaime took the dogs’ photo off my bulletin board and made a bold flyer with our copier and got it to the post office before closing. I prayed. Ed, watch over them, Ed, please, please don’t take them— bring them back to me. The sun slipped behind the hills. My voice began to pipe, like a cry from a wounded animal.
I came home in the dark; the three gates to the yard were open, and I left them that way. Cold, my throat scratchy, I heated up the new soup Jaime had left. Tonight, I wished someone would stay with me, but no one had offered—dogs had been lost, not a human—and I was too miserable to ask. I slept in a sweat suit, ready to run at the first sound, and woke in the dark, remembering something else I had read somewhere, that at dawn and dusk you go to where you last saw the dog. I started coffee and sat on the deck, listening for Jethro’s howl.
I should have known this would happen. I should have known he had this in mind. Last week he woke me bolt out of bed by sitting at the top of the stairs, howling, his nose pointed toward the ceiling. The abandoned-baby cry, we used to call it, but that night his grief was mixed with rage. I got up and sat next to him on the stairs. He ran downstairs. By this time Chloe was up; we all went out into a sweet, silent night, lit by a half moon.
The yard was fenced into two sections, the dog yard and the “back forty”; there I found the dogs, just out of sight of the deck. Chloe was sniffing around under the crabapple tree, looking for something edible, while Jethro policed the fence, every inch of it. Maybe a deer had stood on the other side, munching something in the compost. Maybe Jethro was looking for a way out.
And again I thought, if Ed had really been leaving me, he would have taken Jethro “along for the ride.” He often did. He might have hurt me, figuring I would recover, but he would have never hurt Jethro like this.
Jethro sniffed his way into the dog yard and then sat down, his back to the house, facing me. He sat in the middle of the yard, in the broad circle of light cast by the fixture at the back door. Basenjis have expressive faces, and right then he looked as anxious and sad as I felt.
I squatted, facing him. He’s gone. I mouthed the words more than said them, not trusting my voice. A sob caught in my throat. You won’t find him. I extended my hand, palm up. Jethro turned away and trotted into the house.
This morning I sat on the ground at the entrance to the logging road in my winter jacket, a cup of coffee at my side. Speechless once again with grief and fear, I didn’t call out. They would smell the home scent of coffee, which equaled food. I curled myself into a ball, hugging my knees, resting my forehead on my arms. I wouldn’t see the dogs this way, but if they have survived the coyotes that sometimes howl from the landfill, they would see me, and, hungry—if they hadn’t feasted on something long dead—they would come to me.
At the sound of a car, I sat up, trying to look as if I belonged there. It was Nancy, going to work, driving out of her way to take this road. “Ach, Annie,” she said in her Scots accent, “I’ll watch for them. I have food here—” she waved a package of bologna. “They’ll come back, they love you.”
Did they? Did anyone in that household love me? Maybe Chloe. Of the two dogs, she was the more practical. We were her second pack, and in her walnut-sized brain she knew things didn’t always work out. She had been a good dog, playing nicely with her boy and girl children for two years until their parents decided to change dogs, the way you might a table lamp, and I picked her up, a day short of the shelter. This family kept her in a corner of the kitchen without even a towel to sleep on. Her coat was coarse with over-washing and she had a snaggletooth that the vet fixed easily when he cleaned her dirty teeth. I groomed her till she glowed, I changed her name from Joey to Chloe, and oh, I loved that dog.
Jethro was Ed’s first dog, since his mother would not have one in the house, chosen by him six years ago, raised and adored by him. We should have called him Byron, but Ed stuck with the name he had chosen years before, when he wanted a bulldog. And Jethro, in his own Byronic—dashing but neurotic—way, returned Ed’s loyalty.
“Jethro’s ours,” Ed used to say, “Chloe’s adopted.”
“She hasn’t bonded with us the way Jethro did,” he explained to the incredulous me.
“Jethro isn’t bonded, he’s imbued with separation anxiety.”
Chloe and I were sidekicks—if she missed her two kids, who loved her, I’m sure, she never howled. And if Ed the Alpha Wolf and Jethro Top Dog were usually half a block ahead of us, we were safe together, poking along at the pace of her sniff.
“Make her move!” Ed said once, bursting with impatience.
“It’s her only hobby!” I snapped back.
“Reads with her lips,” he muttered another time as Chloe investigated some important dog message. But he was fond of her, allowing her to curl up between his ankles on winter evenings as he and Jethro stretched out before the fireplace.
Was he fond of me?
Like Ed, the dogs didn’t come back. But their bodies had not been found, so instead of preparing for my new job, where I would work harder than I ever have in my life, I looked for my dogs. I didn’t make a beef stew, so that I would have something nourishing to eat as I started this new job, I walked the woods, looking for a sign, a body, anything, and lived on soup and peanut butter. I didn’t press my clothes, I drove to the neighboring hamlets, posting Jaime’s flyer wherever I could. I didn’t make a list of possible features for my new newspaper, I use my last $35 to take a display ad in it. It was Sunday, too late for a free classified, but they were kind—Tina came downstairs and introduced me to Lakota, the statuesque designer who was finishing up the Monday paper. Lakota got Tina’s permission to pull a house ad in order to use the photo. “They do come back, you know,” Lakota said quietly, as if she knew.
And at dawn the next morning, Chloe came back. That is, she was sitting at the end of the logging road when I arrived, as if we had agreed to meet there. I knelt before her and extended a hand with a dog biscuit. She did her front-leg stretch with her rear up—an invitation to play—then sat again, squinting at me, exhausted. I continued to hold out the biscuit until she came close enough for me to clip the leash onto her firefly collar. She was covered with burs and ticks, but I drew her to me and held her, feeling like the luckiest person in the world. “Chloe, Chloe, what a good dog!”
Finally, she leaned into me. I picked the debris off her, first one side and then the other, feeding her biscuits and hoping that Jethro was nearby.
“Where’s Jethro?” I ask Chloe.
She looked away, offering nothing but her profile, fox-like, silent, keeping his secret.
Chapter 9 / Children
It’s a good crew, Wendy the Witch had said during my interview at the diner. Including production and distribution, she said, the newspaper employed 55 people.
And it was a good crew. About 20 of us were in the office at any given moment, most of us working downstairs, “on the floor.” Advertising had a home base on one side, production stretched across the other side, and editorial filled everything in between. Tina started every school tour of the office, for any age group, with advertising: “This is what supports the newspaper,” she would say. The all-female production team was a little prickly, afraid they were about to be dissed, but the ad guys were fun, and editorial talked to everybody.
With the possible exception of the two upstairs. Tina the Terrorist—as she was known to all her staff and half the community—had a terrible temper and a garbage mouth, as my mother would say. She dissed the production crew weekly, she looked me in the eye and lied to me, she made enemies in a field in which networks were essential. But she worked like a maniac and more than once she was right about something.
I did work harder than ever. I had pulled all-nighters to finish freelance projects on deadline, but once I put the package out for Fed Ex, I could go to bed and sleep half the day. At the newspaper, our office day began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., with a half-hour off for lunch—the maximum Wendy could legally extract from us. But she and Tina were there at 8:30 when I arrived and at 5 when I left, and, except when they had their hair colored, they lunched in half an hour. They also got their weekends, while the rest of us rotated responsibilities, so that the office was open seven days a week.
At least two week nights, 5 p.m. was just a dinner break before we all—Tina too—went out again to cover a 7 p.m. board meeting—town, school, zoning, planning, they went on and on, all of them wanting our presence, too many to oblige. Because I had “editor” in my title, I earned no overtime for the meetings, or mileage reimbursement, the way the reporters did, but neither, supposedly, did Tina.
The next day we wrote our stories and then Tina, Catherine, and I edited each other’s and reporters’ work, and everybody tackled the never-ending onslaught of press releases.
Twice a week, on deadline days, Tina worked downstairs, and my first gift to my coworkers was to accept the desk nearest to her outpost. At 30, Catherine was moving up from reporter to editor, and she and I were instructed to decide which of us would work where, between two available desks. “Would you mind taking that one, between Tina and me,” Catherine whispered. “Not at all,” I said, determined not to be afraid of where I sat.
If Tina put up with my weekly mistakes, it was because I could write, I had a firm grasp of grammar, she didn’t have to tell me not to wear jeans to work, and, unlike her, I kept my emotions to myself.
“It’s like being the children of alcoholic parents,” Evan observed on one of the last days warm enough to lunch at the picnic table in back of the office. “You never know when the boom is going to fall.”
I returned his gaze, took in his gray-blue eyes. “And the need to affix blame,” I said, “on someone else.”
“They’re not drinkers,” he added quickly.
We were alone at the picnic table, having made our 2 p.m. deadlines for entertainment features. Evan lived with Lakota, who had helped me with the lost dog ad, and I didn’t think of this as a come-on, but rather something he would say to someone he knew would get it.
Does it show in my eyes?” I asked.
He smiled back. “Like minorities nodding to each other within a crowd? No. If it were the eyes, I might have thought it was your loss of Ed, for which I’m very sorry,” he added, “but it’s something more. How you deal with them, I guess.”
“I’m not so great at dealing with them.”
“None of us are,” he said, “but you bring something to it.”
“I do what I can. It was nice of you to take the desk near Tina, so Catherine didn’t have to.”
“It’s a desk,” I said. “I can see a window from there. Watch the light change during the day.”
“And know there’s something . . . more, beyond this.”
For all the hellish days of the job, we were lucky. Editorial had turnover, because most of the reporters were young; we had three j-school grads among us that fall. They would serve a year or two in this upstate backwater and then move on, but most of us—the ad guys, the production ladies (who could wear jeans to work), Evan, had roots here, families even. People were fired more often than quit.
In fact, I often found the work soothing. For every minute that was fascinating I endured an hour of stultifying boredom, but I seldom had the brain space to worry about money. I seldom had the time to spend any money.
And every week, along with a tiny check, the newspaper handed me the plot line of a juicy novel. Too busy for last week’s novel? Here’s another one! Tragedies of Shakespearean proportion, tales of greed and avarice, the occasional comedy. The tragedies—the fires, the accidents—seemed to occur the weekends I was in charge of the paper, and I grew accustomed to talking to survivors. Possibly I began with a shared well of grief; whatever, on my first Sunday in charge of the Monday paper I called the parents of the 12-year-old who had been riding his bike home Saturday night and was struck and killed by a drunk driver. To my astonishment, these parents both got on the phone; they wanted to talk to me. And then I remembered, yes, we who survive want the story, whatever it is, to be correct. I did so well on that front page that I could see Tina eyeing me on Monday, slotting me for the Tragedy Desk.
Some days I got lucky: the man accused of strangling his wife, whose body washed ashore in a duffle bag, lived in a town I covered, so the story was mine. I took notes as Catherine coached me on what to ask the DA, but the sartorial observations—of the accused, his girlfriend, and his lawyers—were mine, and Tina relished them.
Chapter 10 / Thanks
“Do you want any help sorting Ed’s clothes?” Kathleen asked in November.
Kathleen had stopped by with baked chicken and we got to talking about her running for state assembly. People still cooked for me, but now, in return, I made donations to worthy causes. To my mind, Kathleen was a perfect candidate: wavy red hair, four kids (two adopted), and years of dues paid on the school board. Clinton had lost our backwater by only 200 votes. Jaime was in a furious funk that we hadn’t done better for him, while Kathleen and I were amazed that we had done so well. We should try to move ahead now, we said, while he was in office, before he blew it.
“I’ll put all my donations in an account toward your campaign,” I said.
“Maybe I should try for town board first,” she said, and then, often the mother, she asked about Ed’s clothes.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll wash them all and give them away next spring.”
To rush his clothes out of the closet, as my mother had done after my father died, seemed peremptory. Plus, I liked seeing his collection of Hawaiian shirts hanging there; he had left so quickly, with only a brief kiss of good-bye, I liked the reminder.
But I knew what Kathleen meant. We were standing in Ed’s office, now my office, sort of, the back room with a sliding glass door that led to the screened porch. It was the only room in our house with any closets, so we kept our clothes there, even though we slept upstairs. The door on Ed’s closet didn’t close all the way, and the sight of a fuchsia orchid peeking out must have looked incongruous on this gray day. Not to mention that if I could take over his office, if I could finally sell his computer and box up his papers, surely I could give away a couple of sweaters. Ed wasn’t missing. He wasn’t going to limp into the house next spring, looking for his stuff.
“I guess we could look at his winter clothes,” I said. “Give those away in season.”
“Exactly,” said Kathleen. “And if you’re not ready to give something away, you keep it. It’s allowed.”
It’s allowed. In fact, Ed had two-dozen sweaters and four fleece jackets. Dave, who had dubbed Ed a “clothes pony,” chose a sweater and a fleece jacket. I saved one of each for my brother and kept one of each for myself. The rest I gave to the thrift shop, wishing Godspeed to their softness and color, and discovering that I liked the idea of someone finding them in time for Christmas, making a gift of them to someone else, or themselves.
By moving Ed’s summer clothes to the attic, I suddenly had an empty closet. Such a marvel had never before been seen in any of our domiciles. I kept it vacant for a week. I dusted it and vacuumed it, and then I moved my clothes into it. In my former closet, I hung my two coats and three jackets. Next to them, I hung extra hangars, for company. A coat closet! Another first.
Lots of things were allowed. I had slept with the radio on until it was cold enough to close the windows against mysterious night sounds. But it was Ed who watched television to relax, not me; pitched high and fast, TV made me jittery. So I wheeled the TV, on its stand, out of the living room and into a corner of the office, but that seemed silly, so I wheeled it out the front door, down the three steps, and into the car. Returning later from the thrift shop, I found the house somehow more peaceful. Less cluttered, calmer.
I went into Ed’s office and looked at the room; on one side a window gave out on the deck; on the other side, the view was perennial gardens. Through the sliding glass door at the end, giving out onto the screened porch, I could see a day with the last of the golden fall light. Our neighbor Frank had kindly mowed the field. For all intents and purposes, my freelance career was over. Now a wage slave, I never had time for my own writing, despite all those juicy novel plot lines just waiting for me. I stared at this room and into the light, and I thought, it’s allowed.
By the time my brother, Nick, and his wife, Liza, drove over from Boston for Thanksgiving, bringing Cornish game hens and all the trimmings, I had moved everything that I could by myself, exchanging the office for the bedroom. “I need help moving the bedroom furniture down here,” I said, “and bringing this office stuff upstairs.”
“I don’t think we can do all that today,” said Nick. “We’ll come back.”
“Sure we can,” said Liza, who loves a project. She set multiple timers in the kitchen, and we ran up and down the stairs. We managed my bureau, the mattress, dinner, and the dishes, but at eight o’clock we realized that we could not budge the wooden base of the bed, one of the many beautifully designed, impractical items Ed had left me. It weighed about 100 pounds and would probably have to be sawed in half.
“Ed and Dave moved it up here,” I recalled belatedly, not adding that I had thought moving it down the stairs it would be easier.
“Christmas isn’t that far away,” said Nick. “We’ll come over again and you can line up somebody to help me.”
“What about your neighbors?” asked Liza. “It’s only eight o’clock and we have two pies.”
So I called Nancy and Frank, who were in fact at loose ends by then, and they walked down the road. Frank, however, voted with Nick on the current unmanageability of the project. “I’ll call a couple of guys tomorrow,” said Frank, who earned a living as a master of many trades. “We’ll come over before you go to work on Saturday. I’m sorry it can’t be tomorrow,” he added sadly, looking down at my tidy bed. “I couldn’t do that,” as if sleeping on the floor were something consigned to the young and reckless.
Liz had the coffee and two pies—pumpkin and mince—ready. To my pleasure, Nancy and Frank sat around the table with us for an hour, and we wound up exchanging war stories of worst jobs we had ever had. Right then I was the winner by only a hair; Nancy, a cook at a nursing home, had to be at work at 5:30 the next morning, three hours ahead of my start time.
“For me it was the war,” said Frank, standing at the sliding glass door, smoking a cigarette and tapping the ash outdoors. “’Nam. Everything’s been easy since then.”
“Nick served in Vietnam too,” said Liza, since my brother will seldom talk about it.
“Oh yeah?” said Frank. “ROTC?” Rot-see. A word from college.
“No,” said Nick. “I enlisted in the Navy. Spent three years stateside, thought I might make it, but I didn’t. Went over as a quartermaster.”
“He drove a little boat, like in Apocalypse Now,” said Liza.
“He knows what I mean, sweetie,” said Nick, and I could see that Frank—and Nancy—did, and that we had just gone up several notches in their eyes, no longer simply people who ran up and down the road in shiny long underwear.
Liza brought humor back to the circle with her tales of working as a secretary for a man who once literally chased her around the desk, until she ran out the door.
How I wanted to stop time right then, at the second when we all laughed. I wasn’t staring into the kitchen sink under the overhead light at 10 o’clock at night, my head full of numbers, thinking, I cannot sustain this life. Nick had paid for my home heating oil but he couldn’t buy me a new car, and how would I pay next year’s property taxes? No matter what I did, I could not keep this house, and apartments didn’t want dogs, but she was all I had, I couldn’t give her up, around and around, until I wanted to cry out and instead went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.
Tonight Liz had turned off the kitchen light. We sat around the circular table under honeyed fall light moved indoors by lamp. Safe for the moment, the next tragedy held at bay, I gave thanks.
Copyright © Debby Mayer