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1 Rowing in Eden

In the late arriving darkness of the long solstice day, in the old house filled with sleeping child silence, Lee flipped the wall switch that turned on the desk lamp, pulled the drop cloths off the floor and the slanttop desk, and turned the radio volume just far enough to fill this one small room with The Ride of the Valkyries, thundering southward from QXR.

Ann Medlock.com                    
 
 

Ann Medlock.com

Yeah. Ride, sisters, ride. And you, Palmer. Hurry up please, it’s time. To get on with it. Go, no go, sign, don’t sign. Tonight. The papers in the morning mail. Or not. And I stop this noodling around. Eppur si muove, kiddo. The earth still moves, whether I do or not.  
 

                     Crescents of dark earth tipped each paint-speckled finger as she spread the pages out to be read one last time.
                     In the early morning hours, before the sun had moved above the trees and driven her indoors, she’d planted fourteen flats of impatiens, making a border of salmon and coral giggles along the curving brick walk to the front door. Alternating the colors, she began to see the salmon as her declaration of joy and possession, the coral as bait. As she placed each knot of white roots and black soil, the coral faces added to a seductive brick road for strangers to follow to the door of a house for sale. Just another sad real estate deal, one small ratcheting up for the Gross National Product 1977, another positive statistic from a personal disaster. But the salmon faces wobbled a happier declaration, bringing her own head up to smile at the house as her labors brought it closer. “Mine. My good old house.” And she would turn up another spade of earth. Her earth.
                     In the afternoon, with lunch finished, Gabe down for a nap and Tobias practicing chords, two fans blew droning kisses at her damp skin as she painted this small room just off the foyer a smiling, heartwarming gold, the color she’d always known the room should be, the color that coated over any lingering fingerprints the room’s previous occupant may have made on its ice blue walls. Exorcism, she thought, could take many forms.
                     If she didn’t sign the papers and the check, she would keep making this room, this house, truly her own. She would move her writers’ files down here from the upstairs bedroom she had turned into her office, take her Selectric off the door that had been her desktop and put it here, on a typing cart, next to the Dickensian mahogany desk she had found for Joe so he could receive clients in style. She would fill the wall of shelves with incoming manuscripts from her Princeton neighbors, writers and professors, each one awaiting her editing magic, her eye for logic and sequence, for clarity and for ways to keep a reader turning pages.
                     This evening she had moved the household accounts here, and paid all the bills. In years to come, she could sit here, in this office that was hers, in this house that was hers, to edit her clients’ books and articles, to help Gabe with his homework when he got old enough to have some, to make calls to Tobias in the apartment he’d be sharing with fellow students at Hunter, to write the grocery lists for Dasya or his replacement to pick up at the store. There would always be a grad student in the attic studio to help with chores, and the “east wing” to rent for extra cash. There would always be tomatoes and beans from the garden, fresh or put up for the winter, the jars in bright rows on the pantry shelves.

 
 

 

Damn good duty, Palmer. Unearned but hell, I’m here. A guest in Eden, done with the compass, done with the chart. Home. Me and my sons, home. My name the only one on the title. Aully aully auction free. No. It’s Hojotoho. Go Valkyries.  
 

                     As a child she had passed by so many big old houses on shady streets near the Navy bases where her family lived. She’d told her father she loved being a nomad, always moving on, but in truth she had envied the people who lived out their lives in those houses.
                     Now, she had been one of them for seven years, the time it took to renew every cell in a body, making her a different being than the one who had moved into the derelict house on Rebellion Road as Joseph Montagna’s uxore. Now, she had the papers that named her sole owner, or more accurately, sole debtor, contracted to write checks forever to the New Jersey National Bank. Now, there was no more fear that Joe could upend it all.
                     Now, she could hold this ground for her sons, saving the place they would someday bring their children for Easter egg hunts and Christmas feasts. She could grow old in this house, sustained by thick plaster walls and quartered-oak floors, hearing for the rest of her life the doves whose heard melodies were the sound track for the tranquil life of Rebellion Road. Nothing untoward would happen here, nothing frightening. Not now. Not ever. Here, women did not need to be warriors, armor on, spears in hand.
                     If she signed the papers arrayed across the leather desk top, if she wrote the check, it would be another story. She’d need a grub stake, and she could only get it by selling Home. Newcomers would come down the jaunty walk, taking in the old place, solid, simple, but winking its chocolate shingles at them, flapping its peach shutters. They would be new department heads at the university or New York Achievers ready for the great move to this ubersuburb, taking their rightful places among the winners. Achievers and their proud wives would stand in the two-story front hall, under the ficus tree whose top leaves had reached the second-floor landing, absorbing 1911 solidity, something they would never find in new, thin-walled construction.
                     Now step this way if you will. This was, for the first half of the century, the office of the town’s most beloved family physician. Perfect for any at-home work you might want to do, or for seeing clients, patients.
                     And what a lovely golden glow the office had. How Norman Rockwell, they would think it all, not seeing scenes played on this charming set that had been painted instead by Munch and Bacon, text not Saturday Evening Post but Journal of Abnormal Psychiatry.
                     And for her and her sons, their future cast off from this perfect mooring would be—what? There was no template to trace, no charts to show possible bearings, ultimate landfalls.
                     “Do what? Leave Princeton to live in the city with your kids?” That wasn’t the way the tide flowed. People upgraded to Princeton, after paying their dues in New York.

 
    Exactly. There’s the rub. I just landed on Park Place. Baggage. A camp follower. Year after year, that wonderfully honest property tax bill from the state of New Jersey came in addressed to “Joseph W. Montagna, et ux.” That was me. Anonymous property, et uxorem.  
 

                     She breathed deeply into a small movement of air that began to move through the window screen. It carried the clean new scent of the watered topsoil feeding the clusters of color as they settled in along the walk, maybe sending small white feelers out, startled to hit not planter-pot walls but open soil, inviting, yielding, limitless.
                     There would be no more digging and planting if she signed. They didn’t let you do that in Central Park.
She wiped her damp hands on the seat of her cutoff jeans, careful not to smudge the papers as she read, yet again, the ponderous terms and conditions, and the changes and deletions she had made in them. If she decided to step off this cliff, if she could be absolutely certain she had removed all the dangers, she might then date and sign two copies and mail them up to the city. When—if— they countersigned despite her changes, she would put her copy on file so they could never get away with telling her she’d agreed to something she hadn’t. She’d ferreted out every problem, she was fairly sure, though she’d left in the attorneys’ grammar errors, not wanting to seem a total pain. Now it was time to sign, or lose to another apartment-hunter.
                     She smoothed creases out of the tea towel that kept her from sticking to the wooden chair she’d carried in from the kitchen, and smiled at Joe’s elegant leather desk chair, an empty, punished chair she’d faced into a corner.

 
    Joecooties. Sitting there could get them on me. The cooties would say, in that Joevoice, “Lee, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Well join the chorus, cooties. I’m daft for even thinking of this. So say all.  
 

                     She cursed the New Jersey summer that insisted on invading her beautiful town, weighting and boiling the air as if this were Saigon or Leopoldville. Past midnight, officially into summer, she was still sweating, still fighting to get some oxygen from the wet stuff that enveloped her. It couldn’t hold much more heat and water, would have to crack open into rain soon. There were rumblings to the north and flashes of blue light, making her smile.

 
    Cue the lights. Bring up the thunder. Louder mit das Heldenslied.  
 

                     Pen in hand, she stared at the signature page of the almost-memorized lease. “No one reads that stuff,” the agent had said, “It’s meaningless. Just boilerplate.” But Lee was not willing to be sliced and fried by New York. She had taken it away unsigned and parsed it word-for-word, pencil in hand, making notes.
                     Reviewing her edits, she felt solid, a responsible head-of-household, looking out for her family. The “boilerplate” protected the owners of the apartment building against every possible loss and liability, all at the tenant’s expense. She had shaped it into reciprocity, protecting her and the boys as well. They couldn’t be evicted for having overnight guests, for hanging a picture or for painting the walls gold—as long as she returned the place to its original condition before they moved.
                     Which, she reminded herself, would happen. Signing wouldn’t commit her forever, only for two years. In her master plan, it looked like four. Four years to see if she could play jacks with the big kids. Four years and she would be a woman with an established career of some kind and one remaining nestling. Or. Or she would be a woman who had taken her shot and failed, a woman who had confirmed her place in life at the back of the queue, a woman no longer filled with foolish longings, but resolved, accepting, resigned. She might be able to get back into this sweet town, as a renter, of a tract house. Or of rooms in this neighborhood of grand old houses.
                     The checkbook was in the top right drawer, along with the careful statements and records she’d learned to keep. She’d have to send a check for the first and last months’ rent and a security deposit. It was more than it should be, but everything was. She tore out a check and put it next to the nine-by-twelve envelope that would go to the city certified mail, return receipt requested. If she actually did this.
                     The city glowed, nor north east, in front of her and slightly to the right, pulling insistently like some huge centripetal force field, though she was alone in feeling it. Tobias had been eyeing her strangely. Gabe understood only that something big was up, something maybe not good. Her mother, on the line from Carolina, was filled with the economic and safety reasons to stay put, mystified as always by her peculiar daughter, sure she could not affect this wayward offspring’s decision, finally saying only, “But sugah, you’d be so lonely.”
Lee had quieted her with numbers and lies. Surely if her lonely daughter were ever to find a good husband the odds were better in the largest possible population. Lee couldn’t say her truth to a kind, puzzled woman who had been a fulltime wife and mother for more than four decades.
                     The fears assumed by neighbors and family did not include the one that most frightened Lee, the fear of being proven, finally and irrevocably, second-rate.
                     Signed, the papers splayed out in front of her would put her, as of September first, at windows that looked out not on this silent, sycamore-lined street but on the roaring heart of Manhattan. A person looking out those high windows would not be able to hide from the city. A person seeing all that would know she was “on.” Exposure. She would be exposed, the city looking back at her, daring her to try her hand. The city waited now, indifferent, there where the thunder rumbled and the blue light flashed.

 
    Hojotoho yourself. A warrior woman I’m not.  
 

                     She put the pen down and stared out at the moonlit, blossom-lined path, the path that led to her home, and away from it.

 

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