Home > Count the Ways(7)

Count the Ways(7)
Author: Joyce Maynard

Only Eleanor never did well at normal life. She had lasted at college exactly one month shy of finishing her sophomore year. That was when she moved out of her dorm, packed up her mixtapes and albums, bought the Toyota, set out on the road.

She had thirty-seven thousand dollars in her checking account—the advance from her publisher for Bodie in Zanzibar, along with royalties from her first two Bodie books. Plenty of money, no place to live. This was when she decided to buy a house. Maybe, if she had a house, all the other parts that came with that—the things that happened in people’s houses, in people’s lives, so absent in her own—might also be within reach.

There was nobody to tell her this wasn’t a good idea. This was the problem, in fact. Apart from her editor, who just reminded her when her next manuscript was due, and her agent, who read over the contracts, there was nobody to tell Eleanor anything.

Now here she was in Akersville, New Hampshire, listening to Ed Abercrombie talking about a log home he’d just listed, with vinyl siding and a mother-in-law unit out back.

Eleanor didn’t know much, but one part was clear: the place Eleanor was looking for didn’t have to be very large, but it would have land around it, and be far enough from town that you could see the stars. She needed good light, she told Ed, for making artwork. She’d never had a garden before, but she wanted to grow tomatoes and maybe peas, lettuce for salad. Zinnias.

Close to water would be nice, Eleanor told Ed. If not on the property itself, nearby.

Well, there was this one place, he said. Right down the road from a swimming hole and a waterfall. The owners hadn’t actually put it on the market yet, but he could show her.

“This one’s a real fixer-upper,” he told her.

The old Murchison homestead had been unoccupied for five years at this point—and even before that, the family only came up summers. Nobody had spent a winter in the house since before the war, and Ed wasn’t talking about Vietnam or even Korea. There was an ancient furnace but no insulation. The town no longer plowed the road, though if Eleanor lived there in the winter—he studied her face here, assessing the likelihood of this—she’d have a right to request it. Ten minutes later, she was in the passenger seat of Ed’s Oldsmobile headed north out of town.

On their way, Ed handed her the sheet with the listing information, but Eleanor chose to look out the window instead. Though she took in a number of fine old colonials and capes—the kind with stone walls around them and apple trees out back—this wasn’t one of those prettied-up New England towns featured on postcards and calendars. There were two-hundred-year-old houses like the one Ed was taking her to, but there were also double-wide trailers and ranch houses with cars in the yard that didn’t appear drivable. A pizza place, a Laundromat, a gas station, a church next to which were cemeteries with gravestones that went back to the seventeen hundreds, Ed told her.

They passed a row of mailboxes. A farm stand, not yet open for the season. A sign that said “Deaf Child.”

Not a whole lot else.

The house sat on a rise at the end of a long dirt road—the kind in which a strip of grass marks the space straddled by a car’s tires. It looked out over a hillside: a few acres of open land, and beyond those, another thirty of woods, Ed told her. No streetlights, of course—they’d passed the last of those a couple of miles back. This was a place where a person could look out at the night sky with no light competing with the constellations but that of the moon, no sound but the cry of owls and, in the fall (though she would only learn this later), the gunshots of hunters. The nearest neighbors lived a good half mile away.

It was lilac season when she first laid eyes on the property, and the trees were leafing out. One in particular dominated the view: an ash that had somehow survived the famous hurricane that people in these parts still spoke of, Ed told her. The tree sat just far enough from the house so as not to block the sun, but its branches seemed to fill the sky and span the horizon.

“How’s that for a tree?” Ed said, as he pulled the car up alongside the door to the porch. “I’m guessing this one got started right around the time my great-great-great-grandfather hung out the first sign for his dry goods store. That would be more than two hundred years back. Maybe longer. I’m going to wager you’re looking at the oldest tree in town.”

A person could hang a hammock here. If she ever had the time to put her feet up, that is. With all the work a property like this required, not to mention coming up with the tax money, there might not be much time for snoozing.

Never mind that. Eleanor wasn’t looking for something easy.

She stood there out front for a while, taking it in, before stepping onto the granite slab by the front door. She made no comment, asked no questions. She could feel the beating of her heart.

 

 

5.


Where the Happy People Lived


The house was small, but she liked that. Her childhood home had been large and lonely. When she had children, she’d keep them close.

She stepped onto the porch first—a screen porch, with a trestle table. From all the stuff stored there, it looked to Eleanor as if whoever used to live here knew how to have good times together. Hung up along the back wall with the kind of care that suggested the sun shone regularly here were a croquet set and an assortment of badminton racquets, shuttlecocks, Ping-Pong paddles, baseball bats, fishing poles, horseshoes, skates and sleds in a variety of sizes. There was a hammock and a dartboard, an old pedal car.

There was a miniature cannon. Every Fourth of July, Ed explained, the family had fired off three shots. You could hear it all the way over to the Pouliots’ place.

Everywhere Eleanor looked lay evidence of a life full of good things. Gardening tools. A toboggan. There were board games and a Victrola with a stack of old 78s. (Benny Goodman. The Andrews Sisters. Bing Crosby.) The wall by the door featured pencil marks indicating the heights of various children. (Mickey, 4th of July weekend 1952 four foot six. Susan, July 1957. Bobby, five foot eight! Peter, five foot eleven. Look what happens when a boy eats his vegetables!)

It looked like a house where people who loved each other had lived.

In the kitchen, a fireplace occupied most of one wall; in another century the woman of the house might have set a loaf of bread in the baking oven. The floors were wood, counters Formica. At one end of the room was an old Coldspot refrigerator. “You’d want to replace this,” Ed told Eleanor, but she knew she wouldn’t.

Off to one side of the kitchen lay a small pantry whose shelves had been covered with red-and-green flowered contact paper, most likely laid down in the fifties. Running her hand along one of these shelves, Eleanor pictured mason jars filled with vegetables canned in the pressure cooker, sitting on a top shelf alongside cake toppers and packages of birthday candles and little yellow plastic corncob holders, with plates to match shaped like corn husks.

Out the pantry window she could see blackberry bushes. If this house were hers, she’d make jam and write the dates on the labels, line them up along the shelves. She’d grow tomatoes for a winter’s worth of sauce.

The other end of the kitchen opened to a tiny space—barely large enough for a single bed—that Ed referred to as the borning room. In the old days, this was where the woman of the house gave birth to her babies, Ed told her. Another bedroom, larger than this one, faced out to the front of the house, with another, smaller fireplace and windows opening south and east. Morning sun.

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