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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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