Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chapter 22 / Country Life

“There’s still snow here.” 
Andrew had paid the cab and stood in Annie’s driveway, looking around him at late April in the rural northeast.
“Just in the corners,” she said, “where it hasn’t melted yet.” 
Annie was letting Chloe re-meet Andrew outdoors. He stood still, hands in the pockets of his old tweed jacket, looking down at the dog, amused, while she thrust her nose into his ankle. 
He looked around again. “If we spread it out, it’ll melt faster.” 
“You don’t have to do chores.”  
“Chores are good, come on, the shovel’s in the garage?”
Andrew shoveled out the snow piles and Annie spread them with the rake. “What are those,” he would say, and Annie would say “crocuses.” “And those,” he said. 
“The daffodils are starting to come up,” she said. “Didn’t you have flowers in Kentucky?”
“Long ago and far away.” 
They did the front yard first—Nancy and Frank drove by with a wave—and then the north side of the house—which drew Inez and Tony, driving by with a wave. 
“Are your neighbors watching us with binoculars?” asked Andrew. 
“I think we have to conclude that.” 
“Keeping an eye out for your safety.” 
“That’s giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
In the backyard, Chloe nipped at the rake, thrilled with the activity. 
“Thank you, Andy, this is great. It’ll probably melt this afternoon.” 
“I know country life.” 
Right . . . but I forget, does it snow in the mountains of Cuscutlán?”
“No. It got damned cold, but it didn’t snow, the ground didn’t freeze. I know because I dug the latrines. I led the latrine team. And carried our one shovel.”
“Commendable . . . you miss it?”
“Every day.” 
He said it simply, factually, emphasizing each word equally, and without thinking she took his hand, even as Chloe pawed her, hard. Andy squeezed her hand, and still holding his, Annie reached down and picked up the dog on her right arm. 
“Don’t cry for me, Annie Sullivan. I did it then. I couldn’t do it now. If I wanted to.”
Pues . . . I’ve been meaning to ask you, Andrew, if you think of me as a project, you know, ten years ago you helped Cuscatlán, today you help Annie.”
“No! Not a project. You’re my friend, I . . . look after you . . . I think of you as my girlfriend, you know.”
“Your upstate girlfriend?”
“No, my girlfriend. I’m lucky to have one. What made you say that?”
Annie shrugged. “Insecurity.”
“Have you been researching me in the microfilm again?”
“No. I’ve been too busy, and I was afraid of what I would find. Why, what would I find?”
Andrew pretended to think for a second. “I don’t think you’d find anything else. I could check, but I’m too busy too. 
“Anyway, I take care of you, that’s all. I . . . make sure you’re OK. A new skill for me. A good one. Historically, people have had to take care of me—but I’m getting better at that. The job helps. It may be part-time, and I may work for peanuts, but I can organize my life around it.”
Annie made a point of looking right and left, like someone on stage, and then she stood on tiptoe and kissed Andrew’s cheek. 
He kissed her back. “You’d be a great mother, you know, swooping down to pick up the kid while you held my hand.” 
“No way! Let’s take a walk.” 
She had decided they would walk down the dirt road, the one on which she had lost, and then found, Chloe, rather than through the woods that Chloe loved. The road was rural without being isolated. It led past half-a-dozen houses, and then an abandoned farm with beautiful, falling-down buildings and finally to a broad view of the Catskill Mountains. 
“This is where Jethro disappeared,” she told Andy, indicating the woods road off the dirt road. 
“Do you think Ed swooped down and picked him up?”
“More likely a coyote. But yes, I like to think it was Ed.”
“What do people do who live around here?”
“Some are retired—Tony was a plumber. Some are weekenders. There’s a doctor and his wife, who’s a nurse. Marcia and Barry teach. Across the road from them is Tom, an electrician with aggressive Labradors. I hope they’re not outside.” 
“I thought Labradors were jolly.” 
“These are obnoxious.” 
And they were outdoors, the black and the yellow. Tom’s house was set well back and down an incline. The dogs came galloping up from the porch, barking, not joyful but menacing. Andrew and Annie stopped. 
“Will they come onto the road?” asked Andrew.
“I don’t know, I’ve never tested it.” Chloe strained at her lead, outweighed, outnumbered, and eager for a fight. “Dammit, I wanted to show you the view. It’s the one thing we have around here. I hate these dogs.” 
“The guy isn’t curious, doesn’t want to know what his dogs are barking at?”
“No. I turn around.” 
“Well, let’s see . . .” Andrew crossed the road. 
“I wouldn’t go farther Andy.” 
“I won’t.” Andrew put his fingers to his lips and emitted an ear-splitting whistle, a whistle that stopped cabs and dogs. In the ensuing second of silence, he said, “Go home!” The dogs started barking again. 
A slender young man came to the door, barefoot. “They’re friendly!” he called.
Annie waved. “Hi Tom!” 
“Hi Tom,” said Andy, projecting his voice over the barking. “Annie wants to show me the view. Just call the dogs while we walk by, OK?”
“Lucy! Ricky!” Tom called. The dogs paid no attention, galloping in circles near the edge of the road, barking. 
“And then we’ll be back in . . .” Andrew half-turned to Annie
“Twenty minutes,” she said. 
“Twenty minutes!” called Andrew. “We’re walking by again in twenty minutes.” He turned again toward Annie. “Walk,” he said quietly.
Chloe was now tangled in her leash. Annie picked her up and walked briskly, looking straight ahead. Andrew ambled on the dog side of the road, hands in his pockets, looking straight ahead. They had to go fifty yards, around a curve, before they were out of sight of the dogs, who stood in the middle of the road, watching them. 
“Damned unneighborly,” said Andrew. 
“Welcome to country life. I’m not supposed to pick up Chloe like that, it communicates my fear. But I’m terrified. Everybody hates those dogs. We all hope they’ll get hit by a car.” 
“Another reason to get my driver’s license.” 
The farm, with its acres of silence, settled her. The property began with wetlands, which were opening up for spring, and then offered acres of high grass. In the distance was a large, empty farmhouse; March’s blizzard had put a valley into the main roof. The barn, with its beautiful aged wood, its door hanging on one historic hinge, was near the road. 
“You don’t find this sad, Annie?”
“No, I find it peaceful. It used to be sad—the farmer drank and forgot to milk the cows, apparently, I’ve been told—that was years ago, before I got here. The couple who live in that white house over there—the hired man’s house—inherited the property. They don’t do anything with it except run after you with a shotgun if you put a toe on the land.” 
“You have great neighbors.” 
“I do, really—Nancy and Frank are terrific, and Inez and Tony are very kind. The rest of it is just normal country life. Greed, violence, depression. Teenagers setting fire to your shed if you don’t run after them with a shotgun.” 
“Where’s the view?”
“Right after the barn.”
Another curve, and the valley spread out before them, with the Catskill Mountains in the distance. In the clear afternoon, every tree stood crisp. Andrew took Annie’s free arm and put it through his, tightening them up, side by side. 
“Are you warm enough?” she asked. “You look like an Edward Gorey illustration, in your tweed blazer and turtleneck.”
“I am an Edward Gorey illustration,” he said. “What’s the dirty little secret to the view?”
“ . . . Clandestine chemistry. There’s no work over there, especially now that the farms are shutting down, but old farmhouses make great meth labs.”
“Excellent. American entrepreneurial spirit. But not in the farmhouse we just passed.” 
“Not with Bob and his shotgun.” 
“Can we walk all the way around, in a circle?”
“We can, but it’s miles. We’d get home after dark, and there are other dogs. There are always other dogs.” 
“OK, let’s face Lucy and Ricky.”
Lucy and Ricky were still furious, still barking, but indoors. 
“See,” said Andrew, as they got beyond the house, “working together we can postpone a problem.” 

At home, Annie cut a banana into the fruit salad she had made. 
“Don’t cook,” said Andrew. “I didn’t come here so that you could cook.” 
“Making a fruit salad isn’t cooking.” 
“Ed cooked.”
“He did. I made the fruit salad.” 
“You were a team—a good team.” 
“We were a team.” 
Annie had cleared the table of its layers of newspapers, but they agreed to eat outdoors; the yard faced west and still had sun. They sat on the edge of the deck, their legs stretched before them, their boot heels resting on the damp ground. The raked snow had all melted. They ate slowly, commenting on the fruit, which was still winter fruit—citrus, banana, kiwi, pineapple—but a first, Annie thought, since Christmas, that she had sat and done nothing but eat. Slowly.
“You never eat at home?” she asked Andrew. He had mentioned this weeks ago, in the context of something else, and she had been unable to forget it, turning it over in her mind ever since. 
“No,” he said. 
“Not ever? You never take the coffee can out of the refrigerator, put a couple of tablespoons into the French press . . .”
He was shaking his head. “The fridge is unplugged. I get the seven shirts back from the laundry, stack them on the shelf. It’s one of those little office fridges. Socks in the freezer. Is that disgusting?”
“Are you kidding? It’s marvelous.”
He lit a cigarette. “What else do you want to know?”
“Well, Andrew . . .” 
“Is your name Anna? Anita? Anne, with an e?”
“No. It’s Annie. I think my parents just couldn’t resist.” 
“Annie Sullivan. You will make people see.” 
“Oh, please . . .” 
“I interrupted you. You were saying  . . .” 
“Andrew . . . if you work part-time, where do you get all this money?”
He made himself look left, turning toward her so he could catch her eye. “Inherited wealth.” 
“Oh.” She ate her last spoonful of fruit. “What industry?”
Another silence. “You and Al Gore.” 
He nodded. “Two peas in a pod.” 

They stayed outdoors until the sun had gone behind the trees at the edge of the meadow and the air was starting to chill. 
“Play the piano for us while I feed Chloe.” 
“Do you know a tune called ‘rusty,’” he said, but he sat down at the piano. 
“The songs I have are easy.” 
“Someone has left ‘Stardust’ on the piano. Marked up, as if she had studied it. Not an easy song.”
He proceeded to play it slowly, gently, and almost perfectly. 
“You must play the piano somewhere.” 
“These days, in my head. When I’m not talking to you. And sometimes, if I eat dinner very late in a certain restaurant, they let me play while they clean up. They make requests, and I see if I know the song.” He was shuffling through the music on the piano. “Is there anything in this neighborhood that isn’t melancholy?”
“‘Skylark’ is there.”
“Here it is. You play it.”
Annie shook her head. “I haven’t played in months. I don’t have time for lessons, or practice.” 
He played a C scale. “The piano is in tune.”
“I had it tuned when I knew you were coming over.” 
He turned on the bench and regarded her with his pale blue eyes and flash of gold tooth. “Neighborly of you,” he said.
“I was hoping you would play it. I love hearing you playing the piano.” 
“In your head?”
“You were playing the Sunday after the blizzard, when I came in with Chloe.” 
“—That’s right. The piano wasn’t in tune then. But that made you happy?”
She nodded. 
“Then I’ll play anything you want. But sit here with me.”
She sat next to him on the piano bench. He played “Skylark” without a mistake and they sang along, pitching their voices—his baritone, her tenor—to each other’s perfectly.
“This is great,” said Andrew, “we can put together a cabaret act.”
“The Low-Register Lunatics.”
 “What else do you have . . . did you really learn all six parts of ‘Metamorphosis’?”
 “Yes. But Andrew, I should take you to the train.” 
“Shit . . . We’re living our whole life here. Can I take a later train?” 
“You have to go into the radio station tonight, right? Get ready for tomorrow?”
He slumped, like a kid, she thought, who wants to keep playing, and she was the mother.
“It makes you happy,” she reminded him.
“So does being here, playing the piano with you. I want everything! Don’t you?” 
“I have been criticized for wanting to live my whole life every day.”
“Who said that? I’ll . . . set some Labradors on them.”
“A well-focused poet, a long time ago. Can I bring Chloe? She’ll ride in her crate.” 
“You’re driving Annie. You tell me what you’re doing.” 
 “That reminds me.” Annie stopped moving, her jacket on, Chloe’s leash in her hand. “I wanted to thank you, again, for going to the car auction this week.” 
 “You’re welcome, darlin,’ glad to do it.” 
“But one thing . . .” 
“—Yes . . .” Andrew stopped his paring down of newspaper sections to look at her.
She looked back at him, aware she was perfecting her posture. “No SUV.” 
“They can be a good solid car, girl! You’d be able to see more than one bumper ahead of you.”
“They’re such a cliché around here.” 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

1 comment:

  1. Gees, I want Annie and Andrew to be together. Is that going to happen? They just seem so compatible and decent to each other and honest with each other. Which is another way of saying, keep it coming Debby. I'm definitely into this story and these people.