Home > Count the Ways(5)

Count the Ways(5)
Author: Joyce Maynard

She probably fell in love with Cam the moment she met him—with his shirt open and a black-eyed Susan tucked behind his ear, reaching out his hand in her direction. A cleft in his chin. Perfect teeth. That smile. “Cameron, actually,” he told her. “But nobody calls me that except my mother.”

Eleanor had never known a person with redder hair. Not strawberry blond, but true red, curling down to his shoulders—like a man with his head on fire, she used to say. She could still remember the feeling of her hands raking through that hair, and of how, when he lowered his body over hers, those curls fell over her face. She had loved his body, loved his seemingly endless capacity for any new experience, mystery, joy. She could not get over the fact that a person like him would have noticed her and sought her out. There had been nothing remotely self-assured about Eleanor, but maybe that was what had drawn him to her.

He spoke of babies the night they met.

He moved in with her—here, on this farm—the week after they met. They were married that summer. Watched their first child born on their bed the winter that followed, and within less than four years, two more.

How does it happen that a person with whom you have shared your most intimate moments—greatest love, greatest pain, joy, also grief—can become a stranger?

 

 

3.


Some Tree


Earlier that afternoon, shortly after her uneasy arrival at the farm, but before she’d located Al or Ursula—or known whether Ursula would even be speaking to her, or if she’d have a chance to meet Louise—Eleanor had spotted a very old woman sitting off to herself under the tent. It took her a moment to realize that this was her former neighbor Edith, from down the road. She did not approach her.

Edith had never liked Eleanor, probably because her husband, Walt, had liked her too much.

Walt had died years ago. All those years living down the road from Eleanor—before her marriage to Cam and after—Walt had been as good a friend to her as anyone. Especially in the days when she’d lived here on her own, Walt used to stop by just to check up on Eleanor and see if she needed his assistance with anything. He’d delivered cordwood for the stove and split it for her, and he helped her get rid of a family of skunks who’d moved into the shed. After she got together with Cam, he’d been less quick to come over, but he still left zucchini and tomatoes from his garden on their doorstep.

“You know the old man’s got a thing for you, right?” Cam had told Eleanor, after one of Walt’s visits.

“He’s just my friend,” Eleanor said. “He likes to look after me.” Not a whole lot of other people had.

It had been Walt into whose arms she had collapsed that day Cam told her he didn’t want to be married to her anymore, that he’d fallen in love with someone else.

“Your husband’s a fool,” Walt said, stroking her hair, the one and only time he’d done so. They had stood there like that for no more than thirty seconds, probably—the longest he’d ever dared embrace her, the only time. Then he’d climbed back onto his tractor.

It had been Walt who carried her boxes of possessions out to the U-Haul the day she moved out. Walt who drove the truck.

“I still don’t get it,” he said. “Why it’s you that has to go.”

Eleanor didn’t explain this to Walt, but she knew the answer. Sometimes you leave a place because you don’t like being there. Sometimes you have to leave because you love it too much.


The brothers were rounding everyone up now, with instructions to gather in the lower field behind the house, the spot where a guitarist was playing and someone had constructed an arbor. The ceremony was due to begin, and they were anxious to get on with it, in part no doubt because everyone had been studying the sky, whose darkening clouds suggested a coming thunderstorm.

As the best man in the day’s ceremony, Eleanor’s son Toby—the youngest of their three—stood next to the groom, with that familiar shock of unfathomably red hair, that wistful look, like a visitor from some other planet, still trying after all these years to figure out how life was conducted on this one. Unsure how long he’d be sticking around.

This was Toby—twenty-eight years old now, but with the face of his five-year-old self barely changed, his expression perpetually dreamy. Toby, the sweetest boy alive—hard to think of him as a man, who trusted everyone and bore no grudges and wept at the death of a baby lamb or a bird who crashed into the window. On a day when her daughter had met her with wary formality and her older son, distraction, Eleanor felt gratitude that the face of her youngest child had lit up when he spotted her. He still called her Mama.

Just the act of taking the ring from his pocket to hand to his older brother had seemed to take place in slow motion. His brother, a concept to which Toby had adapted more swiftly and with greater ease than any of the rest of them. What did it matter if this person called himself a man or a woman? He was someone Toby had loved all his life. It was that simple.

Sitting there with Louise still fingering her bird necklace, Eleanor studied the groom—the son who used to be her daughter, staring at his bride—his gaze full of love, his face familiar and unknown, both at once. Here they all were, on the same piece of land where they’d started out, the same cast of characters, more or less, all these years later, though with the happy and unexpected addition of Teresa’s large Mexican American family come to celebrate, along with Elijah. And Louise.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The familiar, old-fashioned words, spoken in Spanish by a Jesuit priest, a cousin of Teresa’s, assisted by a friend of the couple from Seattle, ordained for the day by the Universal Life Church, who added, “You may now kiss the bride.”

Al and Teresa finally released each other from their long embrace and turned to face the assembled guests. A trio of mariachi musicians who’d flown in from Texas began to play. Now everyone was milling around—taking pictures, admiring the floral arrangements, checking themselves for ticks. Having worried all afternoon about the possibility of a thunderstorm, a sigh of relief seemed to overtake them all as the final words of the service were spoken. The sky was overcast, nothing more. Disaster averted.

Eleanor had gotten up from her seat, Louise in her arms, and headed for a spot a little ways over on the hill. “Grammy!” Louise pointed to a plastic bottle she’d left on the ground by the chair. “My bubbles.” Feeling like an outsider, Eleanor felt glad to have a job to do, retrieving it.

That was when they heard it. The crash.

First had come the lightning, a crack like the sky splitting in two. A person might have mistaken it for gunfire. One shot, followed within a fraction of a second by a volley of others, like nothing she’d ever heard.

Then came a different, deeper sound, louder than the first, and not from the sky this time, as a flash of light shot down, like a message from God in some old painting. From where they’d gathered for the service, at the foot of the hill, nobody had seen it yet, but this was the moment Old Ashworthy came crashing to the ground.

Ursula’s old lab, Matador, reached the spot first. He was barking loudly. The rest of the group made it up the hill a few moments later.

Huddled together in the pounding rain, they could see it all plainly then: the giant tree lay lengthwise, from the grape arbor all the way to the pond, its branches splayed in all directions, as if the whole world had just gone sideways. Three centuries’ worth of growth—spring, summer, fall, winter, a few hundred years of the cycle repeating itself, the tree growing taller and thicker, branches reaching out in a leafy green canopy for as long as any of them remembered and long before.

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