Sunday, August 17, 2008

Settling by Joan L Cannon


Chapter One

Ruth March reached for the arm rest to steady herself as the big black Buick sedan slewed on a curve. She wondered why Realtors felt such a pressing need to show how big a car they could afford. Her mind felt as unbalanced as her body, turning from one misgiving to another with the futility of a goldfish circling its bowl. She wound down her window to get some fresh air on her face. The view through the windshield showed her how far she was venturing from Greenwich Village, from everything she had known for over twelve years.

A moist wind blew across her face and pulled strands of her copper-colored hair free, dragging them into her eyes. She pulled down the visor and used the mirror to try to tuck them into place again. She was surprised at the face she saw there, not the features, which showed some distinction, with her short nose and wide mouth, high cheekbones and level brows, but rather by the expression. She had been unaware of how mournful she looked.

Mrs. Chapin, the real estate broker, had a nasal voice, full of flat As. “Don’t you want to run the window up? The wind is spoiling your hair. You say you're moving out of the city?”

Slightly startled out of her reverie, Ruth nodded. “Yes.” She pushed up the visor and made an attempt to arrange her face to look more cheerful.

“How’s that?”

“Well, I’ve—. It’s time for a change.” Ruth had known she would have to learn how to field questions like these, but certainly she wasn’t ready now.

“Tch!” clucked Mrs. Chapin, twitching the wheel to avoid a pothole. “It’s hard when things don’t work out. You did say you were by yourself, didn’t you?”

“Mm-hm.” Ruth closed her eyes for an instant as if she could shut out even inward sights. She fingered the scarf at her neck, then pressed at the pins securing her chignon. Her long legs were cramped by a short driver’s adjustment of the front seat. The scenery at least was soothing, but she longed for silence. She reminded herself that panic only thrust tranquility further out of reach, and did her best to resist it, but was unnerved by a sensation of sinking into a void.

Mrs. Chapin piped up again. “Just tell me if you want me to mind my own business. I suppose you’re divorced. I’m sure you’ll find some other young women….” She rattled on, apparently oblivious to her passenger’s discomfort. Ruth knew that Mrs. Chapin was only trying to do her job, which was to sell real estate, and maybe she even meant to be friendly, but she itched to tell the woman to be quiet.

Finally Mrs. Chapin said, “We turn here where the mailboxes are. It’s the last house on the road, about a mile in from the highway. You wouldn’t mind being alone? So few neighbors and all?”

Ruth said, “No, I was raised in the country.” In the field on her side of the car, small dark junipers scattered among golden bunches of poverty grass showed that no one had mowed the pasture for some time. On its far side a small hill, wooded with oaks and beeches, rose against a sky roiling with massing clouds. Stone walls were partly hidden by young trees and brush, draped with hoary seed-heads of wild clematis, clumps of barberry, grape vines, brambles. A clear brown stream, overhung by maples and ashes, angled off from a culvert they crossed. Early leaves were turning; Virginia creeper flamed against dark tree trunks and silvery fence posts.

The catalogue of plants flowed comfortably through Ruth’s mind like the names of old friends. She drew a deep breath, savoring the mossy smells, the scents of earth and dead leaves and coming rain. A flood of girlhood memories rushed into her mind.

She leaned forward in the seat to see around her companion’s plump bosom. A feathery hemlock partly hid the corner of a house, its weathered clapboard siding blending into the landscape like the plumage of a grouse in the woods. A small lawn separated it from the road and showed green through a drift of new-fallen, golden leaves.

Ruth turned her gaze hungrily to the fading autumnal countryside. She thought how the scene was so unlike her childhood home on the coast of Maine. Here horizons were close and cozy, formed by thick woods or the folds of hills. She recognized her rush to the rural as an atavistic move, but was already reassured. The country itself lifted her spirits. Maybe nature and solitude—a symbolic return to innocence—might help.

When they stopped with a jerk, Ruth jumped out and hurried around the front of the car up to the paneled door of the house. Mrs. Chapin went on talking like a nervous hostess as she rummaged in her handbag. “I’ll just find the key, and then we can go inside.” She raised her voice to cover the distance between them, as Ruth, standing on the porch, leaned sideways to look in a window. “There’s a good, dependable water supply. You can see the spring house roof there back of that big rock… ”

Ruth didn’t listen, waiting impatiently for Mrs. Chapin to bring the key. She looked up at a deserted phoebe’s nest above one of the porch posts, saw a cracked pane in an eyebrow window, a row of neat dentils almost hidden by the gutter. The louvers of the real shutters were lumpy with generations of repainting. Suddenly she felt like an exile returning, overcome with eagerness to see every detail, to compare this place with her unexpressed—indeed barely acknowledged—expectation. The saleswoman’s monologue ran on, praising meaningless details of renovation, while she made her way across the lawn to Ruth on the porch.

Once inside, Ruth rebelled against the remorseless flow of information. “Mrs. Chapin, would you mind very much if I just spent a few minutes looking around by myself? I’ll meet you at the car shortly.”

Eyebrows raised, unmistakably miffed, her guide flounced back to the car, leaving Ruth alone in the quiet old house. The darkening day accentuated the sheltering character of low-ceilinged rooms and heavy beams, wide boards and paneling. Plaster, uneven over old lath, was scabrous; paint was smudged and faded on the woodwork. Mouse droppings littered corners, and when Ruth opened the cellar door, her nose told her the floor down there was earth. There were old fashioned registers in the floor, but plumbing in kitchen and bathrooms looked less antiquated than what she had grown up with.

She went up the steep boxed stairs, and looked at the three rooms on the second floor. When she stooped to one of the small-paned eyebrow windows, she could see over a granite outcrop to the mossy shingles on the spring house roof. Beyond thickets stretched the small meadow that went with the house, a clump of molting cattails showing where the ground was wet.

Something in this pastoral setting gave her a sense of second wind, like a tiring runner. In the few minutes since she had seen this house, her thoughts had taken an eager leap forward. It was the first time in long months that she began to feel less burdened by sadness, less hopeless. She pictured her great-grandmother’s sampler hanging above a rocking chair, delphiniums and hollyhocks planted along a stone wall.

Downstairs again, she looked up at the beams that someone had exposed in what had once been a kitchen, but now would serve as living room. They ran out from the chimney wall, where she knew they were supported by the fieldstone structure in the middle of the house. The kitchen, the center of the home, and the prop for the whole structure. Symbolic. Ruth bent to look up through the large opening and saw swifts’ nests silhouetted on the sides of the chimney. A whiff of old smoke and ashes made her sneeze.

With a quick turn that was almost a pirouette, she scanned the room one more time, then went out the back door and headed for the spring house. A few large drops of rain fell heavily from the lowering sky. Where water overflowing from the spring drained away into the field, the small runnel was fringed with cattails, ferns, loosestrife, and wild flags. For an uplifted moment she stood, breathing the smells of wet earth and dry leaves. Like a tiny kingdom, this was complete. She held her palms up to the rain. Drops fell more rapidly as the air cooled abruptly, and a breeze sprang up.

Distracted with her impressions, she had no idea Mrs. Chapin was watching her from the driveway. “Mrs.Duchamp, don’t you think we ought to be getting back?” The shrill voice slashed through the whisper of raindrops.

“Coming,” Ruth called. Hugging herself as if she were protecting her joy, she hurried to head off this garrulous, anxious person she already viewed as an intruder.

As they drove away, Ruth kept silent, while Mrs. Chapin renewed her gush of superfluous data, punctuated by requests for agreement. Ruth tried to shut out the voice next to her; she wanted to review every detail of what she had seen before they reached the real estate office. She walked again in her mind through each room, recalling yet more delightful particulars: how the view through the narrow windows under the eaves provided a special slant on the world outside, the texture of worn chestnut planks, smoke stains on the mantels, even the corners where cobwebs hung fluttering gently in the air her passage stirred. She knew she could be at home there.

Ruth interrupted the monologue. “Would there be an option available, if I should be interested in buying later?”

Mrs. Chapin glanced away from the road. “I’ll be happy to inquire for you, but I’m sure something could be arranged. It’s part of an estate, and they’re just beginning probate now, so I imagine they’d be happy to settle matters expeditiously.”

“When could I move in?” Ruth blurted.

“Oh,” Mrs. Chapin said, taking her eyes off the road and trying to see Ruth’s expression. “Then you do like it? You didn't say—. ”

“My lease in the city is up in a very short time, and I want to spend the autumn here.”

Ruth couldn’t hide a smile, but it was no longer important. At least now there was silence in the car. Mrs. Chapin was apparently satisfied. Clearly, nothing short of a deal could have stemmed her tide of maddening conversation.

Back in the office, Ruth signed necessary papers with a feeling of calm gratification mingled with anticipation.


Author: Joan L. Cannon



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