Home > Count the Ways(8)

Count the Ways(8)
Author: Joyce Maynard

There was a small front hall, and a living room with a third fireplace and old nails on the mantel suggesting that some December long ago, children had hung stockings here. Wide pine beams spanned the ceiling of the room, as they did in the kitchen.

There was a surprising brightness to the space, thanks to the windows, looking out to a field no longer tilled, stone walls, a few old apple trees, and beyond them, woods. And that enormous tree, of course. The ash.

“The Murchisons never did much in the way of upgrading,” Ed told her. He said this as if it might be a problem, but Eleanor loved that about the house. The walls still bore decades-old wallpaper (roses in the bedroom, farmers and milkmaids chasing cows across the living room, a row of their buckets spilling milk, a row of dancing children below them). The floorboards were wide and rutted, and not even close to level, though not enough to suggest major issues with the foundation, Ed assured her, as if she might be worried about that, which she wasn’t.

Upstairs (steep risers, bowed in the middle from 150 years of use) there was a single room, divided in the middle by the massive chimney from the fireplaces below, with a window seat where a person might place herself and take in the scent of lilacs. Children should sleep here.

At this point in the tour Ed suggested that Eleanor might like to see the basement, but she was more interested in studying the dishes in the pantry (a complete set of Fiesta ware, and a Blue Willow teapot, and cast-iron frying pans and muffin pans and an old popcorn popper). In the living room cupboard were at least two dozen boxes of jigsaw puzzles, which, when completed (give or take a piece or two), might reveal the image of a covered bridge in fall, or a New England churchyard surrounded by snow, along with an ancient Monopoly game with the original pieces in lead.

He took her out into the field, to the spot where the green of young grass met the trees, so she could look up the hill toward the house. Already she thought of it as her house. When she looked down, she saw moss and a patch of lady’s slippers.

There was more: the tool shed, an old plow, a wooden wheelbarrow. “You probably wondered about the well and the septic system,” Ed said to her.

She hadn’t.

He was saying something then about what it would cost to insulate the place, and to install a new furnace (essential) and double-pane windows. The roof was old, but they built them right in those days. She’d need to install a new water heater.

She barely heard him. He had already explained that the owners were selling the place with everything in it: dishes, furniture, sheets and towels. An old hand-crank ice cream maker. The Bing Crosby 78s.

They were standing under the giant ash tree, with the front door behind them. The door was blue, but needed paint.

“Hear that?” he said. It was the sound of water. “There’s a stone arch bridge just down the road, over Hopewell Falls. This time of year, with all the rain we’ve had and the runoff from the snow, the water’s running high. If you favor trout fishing, the swimming hole below the falls is the spot for you. Nice place to cool off on a hot day.”

She had no idea how to catch a trout, and less what she’d do with one if she succeeded. But the part about the waterfall got to her.

“I’ll be buying this house,” she told him.




Who Should We Call?

Eleanor was sixteen, the winter of the crash. Her parents, Martin and Vivian, had been driving home to Boston from a ski trip in Vermont. Nighttime black ice on a two-lane highway, tires locked, a skid into the path of an oncoming Pepsi delivery truck. Impact sufficiently violent that one of her mother’s boots had turned up fifty feet from the side of the highway. Her father would have been smoking, which explained why the windows were open, though how it was that the boot made it out of the car was one of about a hundred questions Eleanor preferred not to consider, same as she chose not to think about how—if things had been different between them—she would have been there in the back seat when they hit the truck. Some teenagers would have been with their parents on that ski trip, but Martin and Vivian were happiest when it was just the two of them.

She was halfway through her junior year at her Connecticut private school when she got the news. Sometime a little after ten that night—a Sunday—came the knock on her dorm room door.

Later she would remember the sound of showers running in the bathroom they all shared, down the hall. Simon and Garfunkel on somebody’s record player. I am a rock, I am an island. The smell of marijuana from the joint her roommate, Patty, had lit earlier, and Patty opening the window next to her bed at the sound of the knocking, the voice on the other side of the door announcing the presence of a faculty member.

“Eleanor? It’s Mr. Guttenberg. We need to talk.”

“Oh, shit,” Patty said, just before Eleanor opened the door. For a moment they had actually believed this would be the big catastrophe of the night: Patty getting put on probation or kicked out of school, even. But as it turned out, a drug violation had been the last thing on Mr. Guttenberg’s mind.

At the time Eleanor had been painting her toenails. For weeks the evidence remained. One foot with all blue nail polish. The other, three toes only.

After he told her the news—“Head-on collision,” “died instantly,” “at least they didn’t suffer”—Mr. Guttenberg patted Eleanor on the shoulder, almost as if he were petting a dog. (Somewhere in the background, Patty was wailing. Oh my God, oh my God. Eleanor made no sound.)

“Who should we call for you?” he asked her. The emergency numbers on the forms she’d filled out back in September listed her parents’ number. No point calling that one now.

“My mother had a second cousin in Illinois,” she said. Or maybe Wisconsin.

She actually slept that first night—an odd, dead kind of sleep, more like a blackout. The next morning there had been a moment when she woke up and, for a few seconds, forgot what had happened. She heard the sound of the girls along the hall and the clanging of radiator pipes. Then it came to her.

“Who can we call for you?” the headmaster’s wife asked her when she stopped by that morning with a plate of blueberry muffins. There was nobody. Her family had consisted of three people. Two of whom were now dead.

Eleanor had never asked her mother the reason why she was an only child. She had the feeling that after they had her it must have occurred to them that they really hadn’t wanted to have children after all, and the best they could do was not have any more.

She was probably no more than three years old when she made up her imaginary brother, Anthony. He was older, and very handsome. He played dress-up and later Candy Land with her—a game her mother said was boring—and when she walked to school he held her hand. Somewhere along the line he turned into a teenager who carried her on his shoulders and drove her places. By this point, she no longer talked to him in her head the way she had when she was little, but even in her Holcomb Academy days, she sometimes let herself picture what it would be like if Anthony were there. Calling her up, or driving to see her on Family Weekend and taking her bowling. She knew what kind of car he’d drive. A VW Bug.

Or maybe she would have had a little sister. “I’ll always take care of you,” she would have told her sister that she never had. She pictured herself wrapping her arms around a little girl who resembled herself, but smaller, pressing her tight against her chest and not letting go—the same exact thing she would have liked to have someone do for her.

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