By Robert Earle
A suburb that once was a few estates roofed with old hardwoods on a peninsula bordered by two rivers flowing into the Atlantic. The man knew the way (he’d been married there), but the woman directed him where to turn. They were looking for her childhood home, not his. Only she had memories of the woods that stood before these roads were built and of the barn being torn down when she was five and of the trees her father preserved to ensure their privacy as he sold off twenty acres, one after another, and kept just three for themselves.
They turned up a side street. There, set back a good eighty feet, stood the house with its shingles painted silver-gray and its trim in perfect condition, likewise the rain gutters, and the window in the second floor gable behind which she had lived from her birth until she was eighteen.
She said, “I’ve got to knock.”
“I’ll sit here. They’ll react better if it’s just you.”
He watched her get out of the car with that certainty of hers when in the grasp of an emotional truth. She had long, graying brown hair, but he remembered her in cut-off jeans and a sleeveless pullover and buffalo sandals. Smelling of patchouli oil. Strong and tall with beautiful shoulders. A perfectly shaped head. And her father and mother inside. They loved her best at the doorway, coming and going. In between there was incessant squabbling.
She felt like someone walking through a rising flood, the water over her toes, touching her anklebones, the flickering reflections and darker moods and losses pulling her down. Just wanted to say she’d lived there long ago. No idea who would be inside, how often the place had changed hands and what that might have done to the mysteries of sunlight spinning through the windows, the smells of the pantry, or the high-pitched creak of the back stairs to the hideaway behind her brother’s bedroom.
That was exactly it. Approaching the house was like entering an aquarium reefed with the remnants of the past: the flower beds where her mother wore her long yellow leather gloves, the notch where her father parked his Buick after the drive home from New York, meaning they’d eat now and hear about his day and discuss her C in geography. “If I’m not mistaken, there is no C in geography,” he said. “George, please, not at dinner,” her mother said. Hard looks. Silence. She wanted to go; she wanted to be free. Loved her family and this house but could not wait to get away.
She knocked. A woman in her forties with short blond hair answered. A man appeared behind her. No one knocked on doors around here other than tree and lawn people looking for work but out by the curb the man waiting wasn’t in a battered pickup. He sat in a shiny Volvo.
She’d already seen that the porch along the garage bays in the back had been converted into a glassed-in orangerie. And the cottage where her grandmother and grandfather lived had been connected to the orangerie, so there was no port-cochère back there either. The house was bigger as a result, all of a piece, and through the opened door she could sense it didn’t have the faintly musty quality of her aging parents overlooking things that ought to be touched-up, wallpaper that should be re-pasted and smoothed, doorknobs that ought to be screwed tighter so they didn’t rattle, silverware filigreed with tarnish prior to its once-a-year cleaning when she and her mother would restore its luster. She now had that silverware in another state far away, and every time she polished it, she thought of her mother coaching and encouraging her in what a housewife was, which she didn’t want to be.
The woman smiled. The husband extended his hand. How could they know how irrelevant they were, intruders in her life, not occupants of their own?
“Would you like to walk around?” the woman asked.
“That would be wonderful.”
“We love this place. We’ve lived here fifteen years and done a lot to it.”
Fifteen years. Done a lot to it. In other words, my house now. But surely a doubt or two. Like meeting your husband’s first wife and wondering…you did, of course, you always did, if he was really yours, not hers.
All picture-perfect, plump window seat cushions, handsome wallpaper, the kitchen cabinetry and floor and appliances new and gleaming, lighting in the ceilings…the whole place less warm and worn than as she had known it, in part because her parents were so old when she was born, mother forty-five, father fifty-three. That famous telegram from his college roommate: Congratulations, Daddio. Whom do you suspect?
She walked through the room they had called the library, now dominated by a flatscreen TV, into the orangerie with its expensive garden furniture and wet bar and potted orange and lemon and fig trees. Turning right, she approached the cottage where her grandmother Maggie would read to her and scratch her head and sometimes sing her hymns. Maggie was forbidden to say, but she believed in angels and presences, and insisted, even when Grandpa was traveling, that she was never alone.
“You mean God is always with you, Maggie?”
“Not just God. He has emissaries and guardians who can go wherever they want when He’s busy elsewhere.”
“They’re here in the cottage?”
Maggie nodded, going as far as she would go, or else she’d be lectured by her son-in-law, dismissive of angels and demons and devils. That was another fight often fought at dinner: Maggie whispering thanks to her many familiars but refusing to say whom she was talking to. “Oh, George, please leave her alone!” her mother pleaded while Maggie innocently mumbled her grateful prayers.
There was a door on the far side of the cottage. She opened it, letting in another slapping, rushing wash of memories.
“What are you looking at?” the wife asked her.
She was staring at a ratty patch of ground near a creosote-blackened utility pole. “Those wild strawberries over there aren’t really wild. My grandmother planted them. And there were some asparagus spears she put there, too. My God, they’re still going.”
The wife looked at the intermingled asparagus and wild strawberries and knew her husband routinely slashed through them on his riding mower. She was about to say she didn’t think these could possibly be the same plants when the next bit of news had to do with a rusting ham radio operator’s antenna hung on the utility pole.
“That was my father’s. He could talk to Fletcher Christian’s grandson on Pitcairn Island.”
“You mean from Mutiny on the Bounty?” the wife asked as though the invisible spirits now were whispering to her, too.
“What did they talk about?”
“They’d ask each other what the weather was like and if everyone was well and if they were coming in loud and clear. I can still hear Christian’s voice. He was called Fletcher, too.”
“Where did your father have his ham radio set?”
“I’ll take you.”
She led the wife up the still creaking back stairs through the hideaway into what was now a guest room, not her brother’s room, and off to the left, where now there was an upstairs family room, but where in the old days there had been a daybed, battered bookcases, and a picnic table on which her father had his shortwave gear.
“He’d sit here for hours talking to people all over the world.”
“What was he like?”
Within the family he was like a two-year old, but she tried to be fair to the front he put up for outsiders: “He was temperamental, a romantic, a banker who probably should have been an electrician. He was never more at ease than when he was on the radio.”
Not asking permission, she walked out of the family room and into her room, still her room, though the wife said it now was her daughter’s room…her daughter who was twenty-six and lived in Denver.
“It’s really not the right size for anything but a little girl, but she won’t give it up. Stays here whenever she’s back east.”
She wasn’t really listening. She was looking at the ceiling, she was looking at the latticed window, she was looking at the small closet, she was looking at the liquid mirage of her dollhouse, her riding ribbons, her Beatrix Potter figurines. Then she noticed the wife’s eyes were wet.
“I shouldn’t take any more of your time.”
“It’s just that we love this house so much. We’ll never leave it.”
She looked at the wife without wanting to tell her she was wrong.
“That guest room and the room behind it were my son’s rooms,” the wife said. “He’s married, almost never comes home.”
The husband came out of her parents’ bedroom, dressed to play golf. “Good memories?”
She didn’t know what to say. These bits of hymns, these little shrieks, this rattling as her mother slid a tray of cookies out of the oven…not memories–her life–but she couldn’t say that, so she did not answer him.
He was nonplussed by this strange woman clearly off in some world of her own and his wife floating moist-eyed beside her. “Well, I’m heading to the club. Your parents belong to the club?”
“Kind of a pushover golf course it’s so flat but the wind can give you trouble. Hit ‘em low. I’ll bet your father did.”
No, her father and mother didn’t belong to the club for the golf; they belonged to it for the marina where they kept their little sailboat. That was probably the last time and place where she did what her father told her to do: tie the knot like this, not like that, watch out for the boom, push the tiller hard, the river skimming under them like ice, her brown hair growing more and more blond as her fair skin grew more and more brown.
The wife took the husband by the forearm, not letting him leave until their guest left first.
She walked down the stairs, or must have, because she found herself on the porch, found herself on the steps, found herself walking past the oak tree and across the yard toward the car.
The wife watched her go. She had pulled her husband downstairs to wave goodbye from the front door. Then she buried her face in his chest and her tears became sobbing about all the life she had lived and all the life she hadn’t and never could because there it went, driving away.
Robert Earle has more than sixty stories in print and online literary magazines and is the author of three novellas, two novels, and two books of nonfiction.
Photo Credit: Fanno Farmhouse by Finetooth