Fuller Brush salesman had the unfortunate task of trying to sell his wares to the women of Freesia Court during the fifth day of a March cold snap.
"They were like caged animals," he complained later to his district manager. "I felt like any minute they were going to turn on me."
"Brushes?" Faith Owens had said when he offered up his bright smile and sales pitch on her icy front doorstep. "I'm sorry, but I've got a little more than brushes to worry about right now. Like wondering if spring is ever going to get here. Because I truly believed it might really be coming when boomhere it is, twenty below zero with a wind-chill factor that would bring Nanook of the North to his knees."
"Thank you for your time," said the salesman, picking up his case. "You have a pleasant day, now."
"And what exactly is a wind-chill factor anyway?"
"Faith," called her husband, Wade, from the living room. "Faith, don't be rude, honey."
"Well what is it?" she asked, slamming the door with her hip. "What exactly is a wind-chill factor?"
"This is Minnesota," said Wade, ignoring her question because he wasn't quite sure of the answer. "What do you expect?"
"Oh, I don't knowmaybe a little damn relief?"
"Might I remind you," said Wade, "how you cried with delight seeing your first snowfall?"
"I cried with delight the first time I had sex with you, but that doesn't mean I want it nonstop."
"You're telling me," said Wade with a wistful sigh.
"Ha, ha, ha," said Faith, surveying her neat and trim husband as he brushed his crew cut with his palm, a gesture he always made after what he thought was a joke.
It was no surprise to Faith that her husband had less trouble adapting to the frozen north. Hell, he was flying out of it all the time. Right before Christmas, Wade had been transferred to Minneapolis from Dallas, although to Faith, it may as well have been Siberia.
That very morning he was leaving for a three-day trip with a layover in warm and sunny Los Angeles, and as she stomped upstairs to finish his packing, anger seethed through Faith like steam through their loud and clanking radiatorsLos Angeles! In just a few hours Wade could feasibly be lying poolside as some flirtatious Nordic stewardess (why did every Minnesota stewardess she'd seen have to look like Miss Sweden?) rubbed suntan lotion on his shoulders, while she, Faith, rubbed ointment onto the chapped little bottom of their son, Beau.
She pitched a rolled-up ball of socks into Wade's suitcase with the velocity of a teenage show-off trying to knock down a pyramid of bottles at a carnival booth. There had been a time when she actually enjoyed packing for her husbandwhen she'd fold his shirts into neat rectangles, slipping a sheet of tissue paper between them so they wouldn't wrinkle; when she'd tuck a love note inside a pair of boxer shorts or dab her perfume on the neckline of an undershirtbut routine had long ago tarnished that thrill.
Now Faith had an urge to pack a different sort of surpriseperhaps a used diaper from the bathroom pail that reeked of ammonia, or maybe a sprinkling of itching powder.
She smiled then, remembering one of her more innocent teenage pranks. She and Melinda Carmody had ordered itching powder from the back pages of True Confessions magazine and, sneaking into the classroom during lunch hour, sprinkled it on their algebra teacher's cardigan sweater, draped over the back of his chair. When tyrannical Mr. Melscher (who rewarded wrong answers with a sarcastic "Think again, Einstein") put the sweater on, Faith and Melinda held their breaths in anticipation. Although the man's shirt seemed to have blocked much of the powder's itching powers, he did tug at his collar and squirm a bit, giving the girls far more entertainment than they had trying to figure out if x equaled y.
Closing the suitcase, Faith sighed, realizing how far removed she was from things like best friends and practical jokes and giggle fits.
How far away I am from everything fun, she thoughtfrom rides in convertibles with boys who drove with one hand on the wheel and the other one on her; from parties where couples necked on the porches of fraternity houses; from gently turning down, on the same night, two boys who wanted her to wear their pins.
Who are you kidding? Faith thought, sitting heavily on the bed. You're starting to believe your own press. It astounded her sometimes, the ease with which she assimilated into her present life: how she could get huffy about a visit from a Fuller Brush man or about packing her husband's suitcase as if she were some normal housewife. As if she weren't Primrose Reynolds' daughter.
She shuddered. It was as if her memories had a geography all their own. In the most recent ones she was on safe and firm ground and was the Faith she wanted and tried hard to be; further back she was the neglected little girl who seemed to be ground zero for lice infestations, the wild teenager who could just as easily have gone to prison as to college. In these memories, she struggled through swamps and quicksand.
Faith's life had been one of constant upheaval, and if she had learned anything, it was not only how to adapt to it but how to go beyond it. But maybe it was to be the great irony of her life that while she survived years of chaos, a few months as a lonely housewife in the frostbitten north had the power to finally do her in.
"Stupid godforsaken frozen tundra," she muttered, refusing to trespass in the dangerous territory of her past. As she dragged Wade's suitcase off the bed, she looked out the window laced with frost to see the Fuller Brush man take a tumble on the slippery walkway of her neighbor's house.
ACROSS THE STREET from the Owens residence, in the big colonial that in Faith's estimation needed a little TLC, Audrey Forrest lay in rumpled sheets, staring at the ceiling. Her five-year-old was bullying her three-year-old, but it was her belief that children settled their differences faster when adults didn't intervene. Besides, she didn't want to get out of bed.
She stretched her arms to the ceiling, admiring the delicacy of her fingers and wrists. At the moment she was on a diet that called for entirely too many grapefruits and boiled eggs, and until she saw progress on a scale, she would admire those few things, such as her wrists and fingers, that were in no need of size reduction.
Thinking about her stupid diet, her good, lazy-cat mood fadedwhy was Paul so adamant that she lose twenty pounds anyway?
"It'll help you feel better about yourself," her husband had said the other day, handing her the diet paperback he'd bought on his lunch break downtown.
"I feel fine about myself," said Audrey, piling her thick dark hair on top of her head and posing like a pinup model. She liked her curvy body, ample seat, and full breasts. "And fine about my body." She leaned over, wrapping her arms around Paul's neck. "You usually feel fine about my body." She pressed herself to him, nibbling his earlobe, but what normally drove him crazy now seemed to alarm him, for he pushed her aside as if she were transmitting a germ he did not want to catch.
"Paul," she said, unable to believe he didn't want to ravish her right there on the kitchen floor, "what do you expect? I'm Italian." In truth, she was mostly Dutch and German, but she felt far more affinity toward the Italian grandfather who spiced up her genetic mix.
"No," said her husband, looking at her with the glasses he thought made him look like a more experienced attorney than he was. "Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren are Italian." He pulled the sports section out of the paper and snapped it open. "You're just fat."
"Paul," said Audrey, her voice wounded.
"Oh, baby, I was just making a little joke."
"Well, it wasn't funny."
"I know. I'm sorry. I do think you're beautiful, Aude. It's just that, geez"he swatted the newspaper he was reading"every one of these models in here looks like that damned Sticky."
Audrey had to laugh. "Twiggy, honey. Her name's Twiggy."
"Well, compared to her, Miss Americawhich you could be, babelooks hefty."
He certainly hadn't been thinking of where her weight fell in the current fashion curve that morning, when he'd pulled her to him, pushing up the fabric of her nightgown until it was a lacy roll around her waist. Audrey had been in the middle of a dream about her grandfather's backyard garden, the place of some of her happiest childhood memories, but she was always welcoming of Paul's advances and kissed him hungrily. After he climaxed, he jumped out of bed, his arms held up to the ceiling, and said, "Thank you, God, for letting me marry a sex maniac!"
"There are worse things to be a maniac about, wouldn't you say, big boy?"
Paul didn't turn around to acknowledge her little Mae West impersonation, but skipped off to the bathroom to shower.
"That's mine! Give it back!"
A crash accompanied her three-year-old's plea, and then there was a moment of silence before both her children began screaming. Wrapping her robe around her, Audrey got out of bed, ready to seize the dayor the scruff of her children's necks.
A SUNDAY-SCHOOL TEACHER had once told Merit Iverson that God had held her face in his hands and sculpted it himself. It was true, she had the face of an angel, and had anyone been observing her that morning, it would appear also true that she had the smoking habit of a pool hall hustler. She lit her third cigarette of the hour, dragging on it as if it were oxygen and she were tubercular. If moving to Minneapolis from Iowa had been the first subversive act of her life, smoking was the second. Her father, a Lutheran minister (from whom she hid her habit), thought smokingat least for womena vice as well as a mark of low moral character. But waiting for her bus one day, Merit saw a billboard of a woman lighting up, a sophisticated, elegant woman who looked as if she had the world on a string, something Merit decidedly did not. She bought a pack of Kools that day.
Her husband, Eric, didn't mind if she smoked; he thought a woman smoking an occasional cigarette was glamorous. But she knew he'd mind how much she smoked. Even she was surprised how quickly a full pack deflated into an empty, crumpled one, but if cigarettes calmed her nerves, what was the harm?
"Are you sure it won't hurt the baby?" she had asked Eric, because if anything would make her give up her beloved habit, it was her beloved baby, growing inside her.
Her husband had given her one of his bemused, dismissive looks, which made her feel like a cute but pesky kindergartner, and said, "I'm a doctor, aren't I?" (Somehow he seemed to think Merit needed to be reminded of this factas if she hadn't typed millions of invoices in a drafty accounting office to help put him through med school.) "I'm a doctor and I smokewould I do anything to endanger my health?"
"But the Surgeon General"
"The Surgeon General's talking to heavy smokers. Moderation, Merit. Things done in moderation are fine."
A wreath of smoke hovered over Merit as she began to wipe down the counter. Barbra Streisand belted out "People" on the radio, and she added a little dance step as she attacked the smudge marks on the toaster. She listened to a radio station in whose demographics she did not fit (she knew far more songs by Perry Como than the Rolling Stones), and the waltz step she did in time to the music preceded the Twist or the Pony by centuries.
When she was finally convinced all crumbs and fingerprints had been banished (her husband liked his home as sterile as the hospital he worked in), she sat down at the kitchen table and leaned over to smell the roses Eric had brought home last night. Her pregnancy had been good for a number of bouquets and fruit baskets, one of the latter from the senior Dr. and Mrs. Iverson, who were wintering in Florida. They were thrilled by the news; they'd been pestering Eric and Merit ever since they were married to produce a grandchild. "And while you're at it," her father-in-law would add with a wink, "make sure it's a boy." Sons who became doctors was an Iverson tradition, started five generations earlier.
Merit stubbed out the inch that remained of her cigarette and rubbed her stomach.
"Please be a boy, little baby," she whispered. "It would make everything so much easier for everybody."
FREESIA COURT was a short dead-end street tucked on a parcel of land a stone's throw north of Minnehaha Creek. Nearly all the houses had been built in the 1920s and '30s, and it was such a pretty neighborhood that once in, hardly anyone left. Like many others in Minneapolis, Freesia Court was a cathedral street, so named because the leafy branches of trees on one side of the boulevard met those on the other side, giving those driving under them the sensation of being inside an airy green cathedral. It was only recently, when the original owners had grown too old for the upkeep of their spacious homes, that they had become available for sale. Now more than half of the retirees had moved out, and the sidewalks were littered with tricycles and wagons and chalk drawings belonging to the children of the young couples who'd replaced them. Today, however, the only evidence of children in this frigid winterscape were abandoned sleds and scrawny, weather-beaten snowmen who, with their missing stone eyes and broken and sagging twig arms, looked like Civil War veterans returned home after battle.
Faith's stucco Tudor (she still could hardly believe she lived in such a nice house) was at the end of the cul-de-sac, and the south side of her yard gradually eased into a hill that ran down to the creek basin. She had splendid views from her kitchen window, hundreds of trees and the creek itself, but it was not this view that was making Faith teary-eyed; it was that of her husband, Wade, backing out of the driveway. Seeing her standing at the window, he gave a jaunty salute, which she returned with a limp little wave.
At least the twins were sleeping, thank God. In January, just after their first birthday, they had taught themselves to walk, giving themselves a gift Faith often wanted to take back to the returns department. If they weren't contained in a playpen or crib or high chairs, Faith was chasing them through the house, plucking them off stair landings and couch backs and other dangerous perches that were so attractive to them.