Andrea disliked flying not because she felt out of control or endangered—a mere metaphor for life in general and hers in specific—but because even with the vent dialed open for maximum blast, there was never enough air. “Call me a decadent sensualist,” she joked, “but I like to breathe.”
The flight attendants stalked the aisle monitoring seat belts while the plane tilted into its descent. That month, everyone was afraid of flying. Passengers who had hung rabbit-foot charms and rosaries and Saint Christopher medals on the latches of their tray tables put them in their pockets or purses. The airplane jounced down the runway and nosed into its gate. No mad rush for overhead luggage; everyone cooperated out of group relief that this plane hadn’t been hijacked and they felt safe until their next flight.
The Manchester airport was undergoing massive renovation. A sparrow fluttered up to a high rafter as Andrea followed other passengers down an unfinished corridor. Cousin Susannah waited at the foot of the escalator, first in line.
Andrea stepped off the escalator directly into Susannah’s firm hug.
“You streaked your hair!” Susannah said.
“It’s the chlorine in the swimming pool,” Andrea said. “See? Plenty of gray.”
“Silver and copper,” Susannah said. “You get that from a pool? Hair that looks that good, you should have to pay big money for.”
“I love you, Susu. You’re so full of shit.”
Susannah took after the Gangloff side of the family. She had a solid peasant build, dark hair and thick eyebrows, a broad forehead, a big bosom, and a cheerful smile. At forty-nine, she was closest in age to Andrea, who, at forty-six, was the baby of all the Gangloff and McCormack cousins. While the family had its intricate map of hurt feelings and compiled grudges, nobody disliked Susannah. She and her husband, Henry Huntley, had raised four decent, intelligent children who were now going to college, getting jobs, and getting married. Susannah was the one who had stayed with Nana to the end, witnessed her passing, and informed the rest of the scattered family.
Susannah had already steered Andrea to the correct baggage carousel. “First, we need to get you outside to fill your lungs with real air. Am I right or am I right?”
“To air is divine.”
Susannah chuckled. “I’ve missed you.” She swooped up Andrea’s bag, and they went out the revolving door to the parking lot. Susannah led her to a big SUV.
Andrea got in and fastened her seat belt. “Who’s going to be at your house?”
“You would ask that first.”
“Don and Judith?”
Susannah blasted onto the exit ramp, cutting ahead of another car. “It couldn’t be helped, honey. I’m putting you in Binky’s room tonight, but I thought, if you wanted, you could stay at Nana’s by yourself. Sort of. We have a carpenter there, bringing the cottage up to selling condition. He’s a sweetie pie, a friend of Hank’s since high school, and his name—”
“Susu, I’m not interested in—”
“—is Charlie Hamilton. He’ll take the sofa and let you sleep in his bed.”
“The big bed. Nana’s bed.” Susannah glanced at Andrea. Horns blared as she swerved between lanes. “We can’t ask Charlie to commute; we’re not paying him enough. It’s good to have someone there.”
Andrea knew Susannah was right. “When does the house go on the market?”
“Next week. We’re asking three. If we get two eighty, it will divide out to a little over fifty grand each. There’s all kinds of tax stuff.”
“I hate to see her place leave the family.”
“I know, honey. But Hank and I are mortgaged to the max, Ned isn’t interested, Ben has his hands full with his place, and Don and Judith only want top dollar, so that leaves you. If you applied your share as a down payment?”
“I couldn’t afford the mortgage.”
“I wish we didn’t have to sell her cottage. But.”
“I know. It’s just—oh, the loss, all the loss.”
Susannah squeezed her hand. “The other side of loss is strength. You should know.” Susannah signaled a right turn, and brakes screeched behind them as she swung left onto a narrow road lined with birch trees. Their white trunks glowed in the dark, like ghost trees. “You were so brave when—”
“Don’t talk about Paul. Between Nana and the terrorists, we have more than enough tragedy to deal with.”
Susannah pulled into her bumpy dirt driveway and parked behind Henry’s truck. Lamps glowed through the French windows of the old farmhouse. It was the kind of house Andrea yearned for: a well-made wooden house with a history, a fireplace, built-in shelves, and plenty of windows. Henry came out with a flashlight, his moccasins crunching on gravel.
He looked older than Andrea expected: not so much his gray hair and glasses as his walk. “Hey, kiddo, how are you?” His accent was thick: hawaya. They hugged briefly. He took Andrea’s bag from Susannah, and they went inside.
Cousin Don and his wife Judith sat at the long, harvest-style table, reading the newspaper. They were down to coffee cups and dessert plates. Judith had left a slice of pie crust, smeared with red syrup. A bony woman who stayed thin with a vengeance, Judith had the wounded look of someone who had been perpetually disappointed and had become proud of it. When she smiled, it felt like a charity donation. She donated a smile to Andrea. “Andrea, at last. You look like a wreck; you must be exhausted. How was your flight?”
Andrea didn’t care to be told she must be things, but the word “exhausted” worked like a wizard’s spell once Judith voiced it. “Blessedly boring.”
Susannah patted her shoulder. “I’ll heat a plate for you.”
Andrea sat. “Hello, Don.” As a child, Don was the cousin who hadn’t caught the jokes and whose default expression was suspicion. He was fair-skinned, with a crew cut and bulky body. As an adult, he had developed a smirk.
Don shook her hand. “Good to see you, Andrea. Next time, don’t wait until someone dies.”
Andrea asked: “How’s the shop?” Don owned a U-Rent franchise, from tractors to tableware.
“Beating my competition. And you? Still writing?”
Don asked, “Ever thought of getting a real job?”
Susannah set a warm plate in front of Andrea. A stew of ham, onions, apples, potatoes, and winter squash. “Here you go, hon. More coffee, Don? Judith?”
“Half a cup for me, and none for Don,” Judith answered. “Andrea, how is your lovely mother?”
“Fine.” Andrea forked a large bite of ham into her mouth. Mary McCormack’s illness was a family secret. Her father’s move to California when Andrea was thirteen prevented the East Coast McCormacks from detecting her mother’s ever-darkening dark side. To the outside world, Mary McCormack was charming: the perfect 1960s housewife. Even Andrea’s father didn’t know about the times his wife parked the car on a hill and went for a walk, instructing Andrea to push her feet on the brake to keep the car from rolling down and crashing into the brick wall of the factory below. At times, Andrea still felt she was a six-year-old stretched out in the seat of a Chrysler, her head below the steering wheel, her feet braced against the brake pedal, trying hard to keep the car in place until her mother returned, fearing every creak and slight motion of the chassis. When she panicked, her life lost chronology: the deaths of her father and Paul, her mother’s illness and her narrow escapes, all blurred into the same event, happening at once. When these moments occurred, Andrea asked herself, “What would Susannah do?” and usually came up with a good answer. Focus. Pay attention. One thing at a time.
“We sent Mary chocolates for Christmas and never heard from her,” Judith said.
“She probably wrote a thank-you note in her mind and then thought she’d sent one.” Years of experience making excuses for her institutionalized mother. “I’m sure she enjoyed the chocolates.”
Susannah came to her rescue escorting a slice of cherry pie. “Pure butter crust, just like Nana taught us.”
Henry hid in the den answering e-mail while Don turned on the television to watch CNN. Judith’s mild probes were firmly deflected by Susannah and Andrea until, at nine thirty, everyone was eager to go to bed early.
Andrea took the room of Susannah and Henry’s youngest daughter, Beatrice-nicknamed-Binky, who was now a sophomore at UMass. No rock star posters and stuffed animals in this girl’s left-behind room; shallow shelves displayed Binky’s carefully labeled rock and shell collections while her leaf collection, framed under glass, adorned the walls. Much like the girl Andrea had been—wanting to collect, classify, and save.
As soon as Andrea hoisted open the window, it promptly slammed shut. She opened it again and propped it ajar with a dictionary. She got into Binky’s single bed and pulled the covers up. The sheets were cold. Her feet were cold.
Maybe it was the narrow bed that turned her thoughts to Vesta, the sloop she and Paul had sailed from Panama to Colombia. Maybe it was jet lag tipping the ceiling ever so slightly to-and-fro. She had forgotten the face of El Quemado, the man who shot at them, but not the echo of bullets ricocheting off the water as Paul rowed the dinghy furiously to the broken-down dock at the shore. Her pain was so intense she could not talk, though she tried with all her will to tell Paul to let her go, let her fall into the ocean and end her suffering. What surprised her—even at the time—was not only that she could think, but that what she was thinking about was Walt Whitman’s poem about Lincoln’s coffin that mentioned lilacs and a gray-brown bird, and the line “come lovely and soothing death.” She stayed conscious forcing herself to try to recall the title. Later, in the hospital, she decided forgetting the title of the poem was what had kept her alive.
A year later, Paul had died beside her in bed while she slept soundly, dreaming something happy and complicated involving chess pieces, oblivious to the aneurysm that killed him. An ironic death for a man who had risked his life in Central America photographing a drug war. Andrea had returned home alone. Two Guatemalan soldiers at La Aurora had snapped rifles in front of her and forced her out of the boarding line while a third took her replacement passport into another room and shut the door. She remembered thinking she had never been more alone and, from that moment on, would never be less alone. The guards at LAX with M16s echoed the memory early this morning. Andrea half-imagined this was a full-circle sign; her turn to leave instead of being the one left.
She traced her finger on the familiar scars on her abdomen, the wide, puckered scar where the bullet went in and the ten-inch scar that reached straight up her middle and crooked around her navel like a question mark, from the surgery that had removed her colon and saved her life. The surgeon had said they cut around her belly button because patients found it too distressing not to have a navel, more distressing than losing a breast or a testicle. That made sense to Andrea. Genitalia made you man or woman, but a navel made you human. To know where you came from, you had to see the proof.
The window rattled and a breeze scooted around the room. Andrea tucked the down comforter under her sides and fell asleep listening to plinks of water dripping into an empty sink.
Andrea got up later than the others to find breakfast in progress. The conversation halted when she entered the kitchen. They had been talking about her. She poured herself a mug of coffee. “Good morning?”
“Morning, hon.” Susannah gestured to the cupboard. “I bought some of that healthy cereal you Californians eat.”
“I’m still Yankee enough to eat pie for breakfast. What’s up?” Andrea pulled up a chair. Legal papers were spread in the middle of the table.
Judith was dressed in a tidy red pantsuit which, with her white hair and blue eye shadow, gave her a patriotic look. “If it were important to Grandma Evie, she would have specified it in the will.”
“It’s her jewelry,” Susannah explained. “Nana wanted her granddaughters to have it, you and me. Me to pass on to Jill and Binky. You to . . . in case you had a daughter someday. They aren’t very valuable, but they’ve been in the family for generations.”
“All the McCormack women should have some,” Judith said, “whether they’re related by blood or marriage.”
Susannah’s face was strained. She was good at mediation, not assertion.
Andrea sipped coffee. “I think Susannah should have it all. She’s the only one with daughters. We should respect family tradition.”
Judith shook her head in a schoolmarmish way. “The two of you are going to try to buddy up to get what you want, but the will says five equal shares. It would be a shame to have to get lawyers involved.”
“What do you mean, buddy up?” Andrea asked.
Susannah fingered her napkin. “I mentioned the possibility of selling you Nana’s house below market price.”
Don placed his hand on Judith’s arm, signaling her to let him take over. “We all know you’re the worst off financially, Andrea, and we feel for you, of course, but it’s not fair to ask us to sacrifice so you can buy the cottage. The will says five equal shares. Judith and I only want what’s fair, and that’s the actual selling price.”
Henry sighed a deep sigh, a large dog sigh. “Looks like war.”
“Who, me?” Judith put her hand to her chest, a defensive gesture of innocence.
Henry took off his glasses and folded up his newspaper. “It looks like Bush is going to attack Afghanistan.”
“Good!” Don said. “We can’t let Bin Laden get away with what he did.”
“I agree, but Bin Laden is a person, not a country.” Henry got up. “It got below freezing last night. I’m going to chop some wood.”
Susannah gave him a look, don’t abandon me, but he ignored her and went outside.
Henry Huntley spoke little and made his words work overtime, smaller truths expressed within a larger truth. They could try to divvy up Nana’s things on the basis of appraisals, but the accuracy of the estimates would be a cause of endless sniping. The only way to get five perfectly equal shares was to sell everything, to melt every scrap of Nana’s history into money, and then do the math.
Andrea turned to Susannah. “I think I will stay at Nana’s this week. To say good-bye to the place.”
Nana’s house was a white clapboard Cape, with a chimney planted smack in the center of the steep black roof. A back porch extended toward frost-blackened squash leaves and dry corn stalks in the vegetable garden—her last harvest. The separate single garage leaned to one side as if bracing itself against a hurricane. Parked beside the garage was a long red pickup truck, the only sign of human life.
“That’s Charlie’s truck,” Susannah said.
“Charlie, the guy you want to fix me up with?” Andrea asked.
“Did I say one word about fixing you up with him?”
“I know you, Susu. Besides, you never need a carpenter to repair a house before selling it. People buy houses as is all the time. No matter how as the is.”
Susannah held up her forefinger. “When the damage is big, it pays to fix it. Apparently, the downstairs bathroom floor has been rotting out for a long time. The toilet and sink were tilting, and one foot of the tub sank into a floorboard. So Charlie’s going to cut out the rot and redo the floor.”
“Okay, but you also want to fix me up with him, don’t you?” Andrea nudged Susannah’s arm as they walked up the stone path. “Am I right?”
“He’s a nice guy,” she admitted. “Not like those flaky Californians you date.”
“They’re not flaky, they just—”
“Won’t grow up? Won’t be faithful? Won’t commit?”
“Let’s stick with flaky.”
Susannah caught her arm at the door. “Give Charlie a chance.”
“I’m only here for a week. There’s no point.”
“The point is to meet a good man so that you recognize the next good man you meet.” Susannah opened the door and they entered.
Sun cast large diamonds of light through the windows onto the hardwood floor and braided oval rug and the edge of the old horsehair sofa. Nana’s red glass vases and ornaments glinted in the back window. Nana had been a collector, too: red glass, salt-and-pepper shakers, and anything with ducks. Decoy ducks crowded the mantelpiece and the wallpaper was an elegant replication of dark green mallards.
They followed the noises of spurts of hammering and a radio blaring through the kitchen. Andrea noticed empty beer cans and a few dirty dishes on the counter, which included Nana’s Daffy Duck coffee cup. The Os of a Boston Globe had been doodled into peace signs.
“Charlie?” Susannah called out.
The hammering stopped. The bathroom was stripped of fixtures and cabinets and its floor. An unsettling contrast to see floor joists, the concrete foundation, dirt, and sawdust: to have one room naked and exposed while the rest of the house was dressed up in lace curtains and silver teaspoons.
A large man rose out of the crawl space. “Hi, hawaya?” He sounded exactly like Henry, but looked younger: more honey color than gray in his messy curls and fewer lines in his face. He had a carpenter’s big arms, a barrel chest and belly, and he wore work boots, jeans, a faded flannel shirt, and a Red Sox cap. He wasn’t handsome, but he had an intelligent animation in his light blue eyes, what Andrea called “the sparkle.” Few men did.
“Charlie, meet my cousin Andrea. The baby of the family.”
He shook her hand. His was huge and warm compared to hers. “So, you’re sure you want to stay here without hot water?”
“I didn’t hear about that.” Andrea gave Susannah a look.
“She didn’t tell you about the water heater exploding?”
Susannah looked like a puppy waiting for a reprimand. “Honest, Andrea, that slipped my mind. But if you don’t want to stay the night, call and I’ll come and fetch you. Is that all right?”
Andrea shook her head slightly, bemused. “Go, Susu. It’s all right.”
Charlie explained that the water heater probably had a defective safety valve. “The T and P valve gets old, starts to drip, and people who don’t know better put in a plug to stop the leak short term. But these older heaters will keep generating heat until—kaboom! A forty gallon bomb goes off.” Charlie showed her where the heater had punched through the boggy floor and blew out a chunk of the wall as well. He needed to sister in new floor joists and put in a floor before the plumber could install another heater. Meanwhile, he used the lavatory in the master bedroom, which still had cold running water.
“I manage a hot shower with two big glasses of water. Heat the first one in the microwave and soap up. Heat the second one and rinse.” Charlie had a mischievous smile that gave Andrea a glimpse of what he could have looked like at age eight: a bright boy who caused trouble in interesting ways. “My macho survival skills.”
Andrea had to laugh. “When it’s down to you and a microwave oven.” At once, she regretted her joke; she didn’t want him to think she was making fun of him. To her relief, he also laughed. “But what if the power goes out?”
He shrugged. “I turn on the generator.”
Andrea spent the afternoon hiking the dirt path that circled the small lake. It was a mild shock to be stepping on acorns and pine needles instead of dry California grasses, to see brick buildings and church steeples amid brilliant red and yellow maples instead of brown hillsides of cattle and cactus. Maybe her giddy feeling was still jet lag.
North of Los Angeles, where Andrea lived, weather was described by tactile adjectives such as cooler, warmer, wetter, dryer: a peculiar paradise of touchy-feely moderation. In California, autumn was foggier, windier, but in New Hampshire, autumn was a vibrant painting, clear and distinct. Her childhood had evolved with seasons you could recognize by sight alone. How had she forgotten?
She wanted to revive appropriate memories of Nana, but in truth she had known her grandmother more as a presence than a person. She had spent two weeks at the cottage every July. Her mother and Nana didn’t get along, and in order to escape the tension between them, she stayed outside as much as she could, tramping in the woods, picking blueberries, and collecting rocks. Mica was her favorite because she liked to peel the shiny layers. She remembered nighttime outings to the dump, where the locals showed up with flashlights to watch bears go through the garbage. During summer storms, there were Lego blocks and Monopoly in Don and Ben’s basement. Her grandmother was a background adult who fretted, gave orders, and baked pie. She wished she had a distinct anecdote of her grandmother to honor her memory. She needed a story. She needed to know where she came from.
When she returned to the house, Charlie was in the yard looking up a tall oak tree. He motioned her to stand beside him. “There’s an osprey.”
Andrea shaded her eyes and scrutinized the spot at which he pointed. “I don’t see it.”
Charlie imitated an osprey call. The bird whistled back as though it were imitating Charlie and, after a single flicker of white and brown wings, zoomed in a straight line startlingly close in front of them.
“Look at that. Doing a flyby. He’s showing off for you.”
“He’s beautiful,” Andrea murmured.
Charlie turned to face her. “I would have thought bird-watching would be boring for a war correspondent.”
“I’m not a war correspondent.” That had been Paul. “I write articles for trade journals. You would find them boring.”
“Didn’t you get shot in a foreign country?”
Andrea took a step back. “How did you . . . ?”
“Susannah told me. What do you write about, then?”
A pause. “Regular houses, like I build?”
Andrea nodded. “Well, it’s the historic houses I like, the twenties and thirties California bungalows. My favorite is the airplane bungalow. They have shallow-pitched gables with winglike extensions. Three graceful parallel lines. One for the porch, one for the house, and a third on the upstairs area they call the cockpit.” She wondered if she was babbling, but Charlie seemed to be listening. “The cockpits are sleeping porches, lots of windows. I always have to sleep with a window open, no matter how cold it gets.” She was babbling; she stopped.
“I like the window open, too,” Charlie said. “With a thick comforter.”
“I’m curious. How does someone who writes about old houses end up getting in trouble all over the world?”
“I don’t know. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“So, why do it?”
“It just works out that way.” The osprey sliced the sky in a precise line back to its perch in the maple tree. Why do it? She hadn’t perceived it as a choice. Pushing the brakes of a car; pushing through the jungle with Paul. Her mother’s knife. El Quemado’s gun. The constant feeling of being powerless, helpless—that was the raw truth about life, wasn’t it? “You ask good questions.”
A boyish gleam in his eyes. “I could ask a lot more.”
Susannah phoned at dusk. Don and Judith were dining with an old college friend of Don’s, and she and Henry were going out to celebrate the hiatus of their houseguests. “You and Charlie have to join us,” Susannah said. “Saying no is not an option.”
Lucca’s was a small Italian restaurant with five pasta entrees on the menu and one special. Henry and Charlie talked about a miter saw Henry was contemplating buying while Susannah and Andrea discussed how to present estate issues when Ned and Ben arrived tomorrow. After dinner, the four of them walked across the town square to Callahan’s bar and sat on stools facing a mounted moose head strung with flashing colored lights. Three musicians were setting up in a corner, and a television was on.
Something big was happening outside New Hampshire, because the television drama had been replaced with news. Reporters with microphones looked grim. At Callahan’s, no one asked to turn the volume up.
The man next to Andrea had bleary eyes, matted white hair, and mismatched clothes. He wore an orange nylon vest encrusted with pins in alphabetical rows, from Aardvark Alliance on his left shoulder to Yellowstone Park over his appendix. “Sometimes,” he drawled, “all you can do is drink about it.”
He raised his shot glass to the television. “September 11. The tragedy. All those innocent people. And now we got anthrax to worry about. Can’t even open the mail without risking death. What’s your poison, darling?”
The bartender pushed glasses of red wine at Susannah and Andrea, and cans of beer at Henry and Charlie. Andrea tapped her glass.
“Oh, you’re a wine gal. Classy. What do you do?”
She sighed. “I’m a writer.”
“Oh, yeah? I write poetry. Want to hear one?”
“Go for it.” Andrea prepared herself with a big gulp of wine.
He cleared his throat and spittle flew onto the counter. “The way a crow shook down on me the dust of snow—from a hemlock tree—has given my heart a change of mood. And saved some part of a day I had rued.”
“Um, that’s Robert Frost,” Andrea ventured.
“That’s me. Robert Frost.” He held out his hand. “What’s your name?”
“Andrea,” she said.
“You don’t have a family name?”
Andrea felt Charlie’s hand rest on the small of her back. She leaned into it, and he spoke into her ear: “His name really is Robert Frost. Used to be the smartest kid in our high school before he became a drunk. He’s all right, though he’ll yak your ear off.” Charlie signaled the bartender to fill Robert Frost’s glass. His other hand remained on Andrea’s back, a generator.
Fed by the current of energy from Charlie’s fingers, she told Robert Frost: “I’m Sean McCormack’s daughter, named after his father, Andrew, who married Evie Gangloff.”
“Evie, yeah, rest her soul. I used to shovel snow off her sidewalk. She made good pie.”
“Pure butter crust,” Andrea said.
“And Evie McCee always had a story.”
“Tell her one,” Charlie prompted.
Robert Frost looked confused at the infusion of whiskey into his shot glass, but he didn’t question the magic. “So many stories. You know the Canada Dry story?”
“No. Please, tell me.”
“Well, Evie McCee said during the prohibition her husband Andy and his buddies would drive to Canada and smuggle liquor back home. They came back late at night and for the most part got away with it. But one night, a border cop got suspicious and stopped the Buick. ‘Whatcha boys up to?’ Well, Andy had a plan in case this happened; he and his friends pretended to be drunk. Like they’d gone to Canada for a binge, not to stock a trunk full of bottles. Andy slurred his speech and pointed to a billboard. ‘Officer, see that sign? That says Drink Canada Dry?’ The cop went yeah, yeah, what of it? And Andy said, ‘Can’t be done, boys, can it?’” Robert Frost downed his shot and chuckled. “And the cop shook his head and waved them through.” He gestured with his arm, nearly losing his balance. “Just waved them right on through.”
Andrea discovered her own glass had refilled. “Thank you,” she whispered to no one in particular.
Susannah touched Andrea’s shoulder and gently asked, “Do you want to step outside for some air?” She tapped her watch and raised her eyebrows, asking a more private question.
Andrea shook her head. “I’m okay.”
The television showed stoic faces giving speeches. Press secretaries, generals, the secretary of state, the president himself. With the sound turned off, you couldn’t tell what was being said, only that it was bad. But for this one moment, before the next volley of bad news made itself known, Andrea was satisfied to lift her glass and admire the reflection of flashing lights in the red wine.
Sara Backer, author of the novel American Fuji, has received fellowships from the Norton Island and Djerassi resident artist programs and three Pushcart nominations. She teaches writing at UMass Lowell and leads a reading group in a men’s prison. Her short fiction has recently appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Best Fiction, Perihelion, Read Short Fiction, and SOL: English Writing in Mexico. For links to her stories and poems published online, visit www.sarabacker.com.