After her father's death, thirteen-year-old Victoria and her mother struggle to regain a sense of order and security.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Age Range:
- 11 Years
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A Place Apart
By Paula Fox
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Paula Fox
All rights reserved.
Three years ago, when I was ten, I woke up one morning when it was still dark, thinking that if I could describe one entire day of my life to someone, that person would be able to tell me what on earth life was all about.
When my father died four days after last Thanksgiving, I knew there would never be anyone who could tell me anything. But lately, there's been a change. I've begun to feel that, with help and luck, I could find reasons for the strangeness of events. If someone would only point me in the right direction.
I told my Uncle Philip how perplexed I was and he said that perplexity was one of seven natural conditions of life.
"What are the other six?" I asked him.
"We are too perplexed to discover them," he replied. I wanted to ask him how he knew there were seven conditions of life, but before I could speak, he said, "Victoria, you'll waste a good deal of time if you spend it looking for someone to explain everything to you."
"Will I ever understand anything?" I asked him.
"In flashes," he said. "A glimpse when you least expect it."
He folded up his old green sweater and dropped it in his suitcase. "And in dreams," he added.
"I had a dream last night," I told him. "I dreamed I was a queen, and my crown was a circlet of those little brown pears you can buy in the market in the fall. And I was floating over land that was covered in mist."
"Your dream means that what you must do is find your own country," said Uncle Philip, and he shut his suitcase and set it upright on the floor.
"I wish you could stay a few more days," I said. "Ma doesn't want you to go either."
"I can't leave my business any longer," he said. "Two weeks is a long time for me to be away."
"And there's your cousin Jed, Tory," my mother said as she walked into the small spare room Uncle Philip slept in when he came to help us fix up our house. Ma lit a cigarette and stared at us both through a smoke screen.
"Jed is all right, just bursting to finish school. Lois, why don't you throw those cigarettes out the window?"
"Our yard is not big enough to contain them," Ma answered. Uncle Philip frowned at her. Ma said, "I'll really try to quit this year. Has Jed applied to any colleges yet?"
"He wants to go to Peru for a while," Uncle Philip said. "He wants time off before he gets buried in college."
"Maybe he had a dream that Peru is his country," I said. Uncle Philip smiled and picked up his beret from the foot of the cot, and we all went out to the street, where his panel truck was parked. Ma and he walked with their arms around each other. Even though Uncle Philip is four years older than she, they looked almost like twins at that moment. Perhaps it was because they were feeling the same things — sorry to say goodbye. I was sorry to say goodbye to him, too, but there was something else I felt that I wouldn't have told him about. I was relieved.
Whenever I saw Uncle Philip, or Jed, I couldn't stop thinking of the terrible trouble that had come to both our families. My Aunt Ethel, Uncle Philip's wife, had died three years ago. And now my papa was dead, too.
Ma leaned against the side of the truck and Uncle Philip rested his hand on the door. I wondered if they had ever imagined, when they were children, that they'd grow up and have children of their own, but that the man and woman they had married and had those children with wouldn't be around to see what happened to them.
I wondered where I'd be ten years from this moment, and if I'd remember myself standing here thinking about that faraway future time. I shivered and Uncle Philip suddenly hugged me and said, "I'm off!"
We looked down the street until his truck had vanished from view, then we walked back up the narrow cement path to our house. We stood there a moment. The little houses on Autumn Street looked dingy and ramshackle. There weren't any people out on the sidewalk; there wasn't even a dog.
"It looks like snow," Ma said.
"It always looks like snow here," I said.
Ma clasped my arm. "We'll be all right," she said. "Come on. Let's go inside. I'm freezing." These days, Ma was always saying we'd be all right.
A month after my father died, when we were still in the old house in Boston, she had come to my room in the middle of the night and shaken me awake. I'd sat straight up in bed, my heart thumping. She'd turned on my bedside light and we had stared at each other, neither of us saying a word. I remember how terrible the feeling was that we weren't anywhere we had been before — and morning wasn't going to come, and we were in danger. Suddenly, Ma had said, "We'll be all right." But that time she'd grabbed my hands and asked, "Won't we?" I don't remember what I said, if I said anything. One thing I knew though was when Ma started telling us we'd be all right, it meant she was feeling we wouldn't be.
That's why Uncle Philip had come to stay with us for two weeks. Two months ago, he'd helped us move into our little egg crate of a house in the village of New Oxford. He had come back to help Ma feel better, not just to take up what was left of the torn and muddy-looking linoleum that had once covered the entire floor of the house. I knew it was hard for him to leave his fabric store sixty miles away in Boston. It was a pretty place, full of beautiful material he imported from France and Italy and England. Ma said she had to ask him to leave it, that there were times when she couldn't even make up her mind whether to open or close a window. Then she knew she needed to see her brother.
"It won't always be like this," she had told me just before she telephoned Uncle Philip, "I won't always be like this."
I watched her while she spoke to him and I thought about our house in Boston. I began to imagine that she was really speaking to the people we used to be — only last year but a time that felt a century ago.
That time was sealed away now. When I thought of it, I always saw myself as a very small child. In those days, my mother and father, and Uncle Philip and Aunt Ethel and Jed, had Sunday dinners together. In the summers, we all went down to Cape Cod for picnics on the beach, and on rainy days, Jed and I used to play in the attic of our house. Even though Jed was three years older than I was, he loved that attic as much as I did — the old trunks with lids so heavy it took both of us to lift them, and boxes full of buttons, and heaps of dusty books, and old postcards covered with spidery handwriting, which we tried to decipher, and a stack of hats we pretended had been brought over by the first colonists.
Then, one day when the turkey wishbone was still drying in a cupboard, and there was still one piece of mince pie left over from Thanksgiving, Papa fell down on the sidewalk on his way to work in the high school where he was the principal, and by the time the ambulance came, they told us later, he was dead from a heart attack.
After that it seemed as if our house got emptier day by day, even though people came to keep us company and brought us food. If I was downstairs, I could feel the emptiness on the top floor, and when I was on the top floor, I was afraid the first floor was being boarded up and would look like those condemned buildings I passed on the way to school.
It rained all through Christmas — at least, that's how I remember it — and Ma and I hardly spoke to each other. Every time I looked at her, she had a cigarette in her mouth. She was getting thinner by the day. When she fixed our supper, she'd stand over the stove and stare down at the frying pan until whatever was in it began to send up a smoke signal.
Time passed and all the minutes hurt. I went back to school, where everyone looked sorry for me, and I took a bath now and then and washed my teeth with plain water once in a while, and Ma and I had our silent meals. One night in late January, when I was fighting with my math homework, Ma said we had to sell the house. Papa had not been practical, she told me, and she sounded angry, as though it was Papa's fault for not knowing he would die so suddenly and when he was still young. Not much insurance, she said, and there were a lot of bills mounting up. She sounded strange and hard, as though she were having a fight with someone and knew she was losing.
I started to cry and to shout. We couldn't sell the house! We just couldn't! Ma went and closed herself into her bedroom, and I wandered through the dark rooms all evening. I climbed up to the attic and turned on the weak light and sat down there among the old books and the dust. I knew there was nothing I could do. Our life was changed. It had been two months, then, since Papa had died. I think I hadn't believed it until that moment in the attic. I hadn't believed he'd died for good.
I stayed with Uncle Philip while Ma looked for a new place to live. In the end, she picked New Oxford; first, because she thought it would be a lot cheaper for us to live out of the city and beyond the suburbs of Boston, and second, because Papa had once gone to a boarding school near the village. But later we found out that the school had gone bankrupt and had been turned into a nursing home for old people.
While I was staying with Uncle Philip, Jed came home from his prep school on the weekend. From the way he acted with me, it was hard to believe we'd ever played together and been good friends as well as cousins. That first night, we had an argument about which television program to watch, and it ended with Jed throwing a book — not exactly at me, but in my direction. My uncle sent him to his room. Jed gave me a foul look as he left, and I felt a mean laugh rising up in me. A hint of it must have showed on my face because Uncle Philip looked at me sternly.
"You remind him, Tory," he said.
"Of what?" I asked, but I knew what he was going to say next. And he did.
"Of his mother's death."
"Well — he reminds me, too!" I cried, still feeling mean, but not like laughing. Uncle Philip didn't say anything to me for a long time. I was left alone with my thoughts, which were mostly about how unfair everything was.
The day Ma told me she had found a house on Autumn Street, I felt an odd little thrill. But after we moved into the house on a fierce cold afternoon in February, our old suitcases bulging, the string around the packing boxes frozen stiff, our upright piano sounding terminally out of tune as I hit middle C, and when I saw the rotten planks piled up in the yard near a collapsed shed, and the four miserable stunted apple trees in the front yard, and the yellowed bits of torn lace curtain at the living-room window, the floors covered with gruesome brown linoleum, the iodine-colored cracks in the wall, and the kitchen stove that must have been excavated from the Tigris River after the first flood — my heart sank and the thrill about the name of Autumn Street was all gone.
Somehow, that first evening, we made a meal. We shoveled the grease and rust out of the oven. We walked to a shopping mall on the outskirts of New Oxford and bought pork chops and baking potatoes. And we sat on boxes in the tiny kitchen and ate our supper with our plates on our laps.
"Ma, this is awful!" I said.
"I know it is. But listen! Wait until spring! We can make it better. And the apple trees will bloom. Wait till you see what fresh paint can do!" She put down her fork and lit her hundredth cigarette of the day.
"You won't live to see the trees in bloom," I said, "if you don't quit hammering at yourself with those coffin nails."
Ma started to cry, the tears falling onto her plate, her mouth open, her eyes staring at me. I don't ever remember seeing anyone cry like that except a baby. I felt so alarmed, so frightened! Just the way I had once, long ago, when Papa rented a rowboat to take us for a row on some New Hampshire lake, and when we got out a ways the boat began to sink. That time, Papa had carried me ashore.
Suddenly I grabbed one of Ma's cigarettes from the pack on the floor and I stuck it in my mouth.
"Give me a match!" I shouted.
Ma shut her mouth and snatched the cigarette out of mine. She took hold of my hand.
"Listen, Victoria. The Boston house has been sold, so we've got a bit of money in the bank, enough to help fix this place up and keep us going until I figure out what kind of work I can do. The school you'll be going to is small, and you'll get to know everyone. And it's interesting to live in a village, a real village ... also, we have a back yard, we didn't have one in Boston —"
"— We didn't have anything in Boston but our beautiful house," I interrupted.
"We are going to have to make it all right here," she said.
"Who bought our house?" I asked.
"A realty company," she answered. "They're going to put up an apartment building in our old neighborhood —"
"They're going to knock our house down?" I cried.
She was silent.
I wasn't hungry any more. Finally, I said, "We've burned our ships," remembering something I had read in a history book about Hernando Cortez when he landed on the shores of Mexico.
"Yes," she said quietly. Then she smiled at me, and I smiled back. It was as if a fever had dropped, a fever we had both had for the last two months.
"You'd better unpack a few clothes," she said. "You'll be starting school on Monday." Then she got up and washed the dishes.
That night, we made up our beds where the moving men had left them. We floated like small barges among the debris of everything we owned, boxes of plates and books and pots and pans, albums of photographs, lamps, a few chairs, and the big table that used to be in our dining room in Boston.
"We've got too much stuff," I said to Ma.
"We'll have a yard sale," she replied sleepily.
"Don't smoke in bed," I said. A pale light from a street lamp washed over the room, and I could see a thin trail of smoke rising from somewhere around Ma's pillow.
"Ma? Remember Pompeii!"
"Always ..." Ma murmured. I saw her heave up and put out her cigarette. I listened to her breathing for a while, and the comfort of it carried me off to sleep.
A new regional school was going to be built just outside New Oxford, I heard later, but the one I found myself in Monday morning looked like an old-fashioned railroad station, one made of dull red bricks and with turrets. Somewhere in the middle of it there was a gym, because at various times during the day I could hear the thunk of a basketball.
No one paid me much attention that first morning except the teachers, who made a special effort to point out to me how much I had missed learning by skipping the fall semester. They weren't unfriendly; they just pronounced their words very loudly when they spoke to me. I ate lunch in the cafeteria, which must have been a classroom in the past; there were still a few desks nailed to the floor.
I played the time game with myself — tomorrow it would be easier; next week I wouldn't remember how strange I felt today; next month it would be as if I'd always been in this school. But sitting there, alone, eating a dry, wizened hot dog and beans as hard as pebbles, I thought to myself, Only the present tense is real, the past and the future are just grammar.
A tall, thin girl with short, dark, curly hair suddenly sat down next to me.
"We're in the same social-studies class," she said. I nodded, my mouth full of beans. "My name is Elizabeth Marx."
"Victoria Finch," I said.
"Are you from around here?"
"Now I am. I used to live in Boston."
"Oh. That little town to the east."
I nodded again.
"In a week, you'll feel better," she said. "And in a month, you'll feel you've always been here."
I said, "That's what I was thinking."
Elizabeth Marx was right. In a month, the strangeness had worn off. I knew most of the other students in the freshman class, and the teachers no longer spoke to me as if I were deaf.
In the shopping mall, Ma and I found a hardware store where we could buy window shades on sale. Everything in those shops and markets was on sale — television sets, shoes, furniture, and clothes. Ma and I put up the shades and felt private, and better. We painted the walls a kind of celery color Uncle Philip had picked out for us, and we had discovered oak floors after the linoleum had been ripped up, so we polished them and put down some small, bright rag rugs. The local piano tuner, who came to tune our upright, was a comedian. When he hit a chord to see what kind of condition the piano was in, he fell down on the floor shouting, "I've been killed!" But he got it into playing shape.
Excerpted from A Place Apart by Paula Fox. Copyright © 1980 Paula Fox. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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