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In the early hours of June 24 a car pulled into a long macadam drive on Rolling Hills Road in the town of Mount Mason. The driver cut the engine, so that as the car rolled down the drive and into the oval turnaround between the back of the big white clapboard house and the garage, it made only a soft swishing sound, like the whisper of summer rain those first few moments after the dirty gray storm clouds open.Copyright 2002 by Anna Quindlen
There were deer in the fields that surrounded the house, cropping the rye grass with their spotted fawns at their flanks. But the fields stretched so far from the drive on either side, and the deer kept so close to the tree line, that the does did not even raise their divot heads from the ground as the car slid past, although one or two stopped chewing, and the smallest of the babies edged toward their mothers, stepping delicately sideways, en pointe on their small hooves.
“I don’t feel that good,” said the young woman in the passenger seat, her hair veiling her face.
The moonlight slipping at an oblique angle through the windows and the windshield of the car picked out what there was of her to be seen: a suggestion of the whites of her eyes between the curtains of her hair, the beads of sweat on her arched upper lip, the silver chain around her neck, the chipped maroon polish on her nails—a jigsaw puzzle of a girl, half the pieces not visible. She was turned away from the driver, turned toward the door as though she were a prisoner in the car and, at any moment, might pull the door handle and tumble out. The fingers of one hand played with her full bottom lip as she stared at the black shadows of the trees on the rough silver of thelawns, silhouettes cut from construction paper. At the edge of the drive, halfway down it, was a small sign, black on white. blessings, it said.
Blessings was one of those few places that visitors always found, on their return, even more pleasing than the pleasant memories they had of it. The house sat, big and white, low and sprawling, in a valley of overgrown fields, its terrace gardens spilling white hydrangeas, blue bee balm, and bushy patches of catnip and lavender onto a flagstone patio that ran its length. The land surrounding it was flat and rich for a long ways, to the end of the drive, and then the stony mountains rose around as though to protect it, a great God-sized berm spiky with pine trees.
The house had a squat and stolid quality, as though it had lain down to rest in the valley and grown middle-aged. Ill-advised additions had been made, according to the fashion of the times: a den paneled in rustic pine, a long screened porch, some dormers scattered above the horizontal roof line like eyes peering down the drive. The weeping willows at one end of the pond dipped low, but the cedars at the other were too tall and rangy for grace, and there had been sporadic talk of cutting them down almost from the day they were planted. The gardens were of the most conventional sort, hollyhocks in the back, day lilies in the center, alyssum along the borders. Wild rhododendrons grew in the shade wherever a stream sprang from the ground to spill down the hillside and into the big pond, a lake almost, that lay along one side of the house. None of it amounted to much on its own.
But taken altogether it was something almost perfect, the sort of place that, from the road, which was how these two had first seen it, promised plenty without pretense, ease without arrogance. From the road Blessings looked like a place where people would sit on the terrace at dusk, sip a drink and exult in the night breeze over the mountain, pull a light cardigan around their shoulders, and go to bed content. At one time or another, in fact all of these things had been true, but not for some time.
In the fashion of the young, the two in the car, peering down the drive some months before, had convinced themselves that appearance was reality. For the girl, it was the awnings that had finally convinced her, faded green and gold stripes over each window, like proud flags of this little nation-state, where it had been arranged that the sun would never fade the upholstery. That, and a small boat to one side of the pond, in which it was not only possible but indubitable that children could sit safely, row handily, put out a fishing line. In the light from a thumbnail moon the boat, upended on the grass, shone as though a smaller moon had dropped down to earth. The girl saw the sign by the side of the drive in the car’s headlights as a benediction, not as a sign of ownership, the proud name of an old family at the end of its bloodline.
The pond made the car’s driver nervous. It was shiny bright as a mirror, every star, every constellation, even the path of planes, reflecting back within its dark water and seemingly magnified by the pitch black of the night and the stillness of its surface. Frogs called from its banks, and as the car rolled silently into the circular driveway turnaround a fish jumped and left circles on the surface of the water. At the same moment the car tripped the automatic light at the corner of the house’s long porch, and it lit up the drive and the water and the bats that flew crazy eights in search of mosquitoes. The light caught the car itself squarely, so that the two people in the front seat, a boy and girl, each poised between the raw uncertain beauty of adolescence and the duller settled contours of adulthood, were illuminated momentarily as though by the flash from a camera. Their light hair shone, enough alike that at first glance they could have passed for siblings.
“Oh, shit,” said the driver, stepping down hard on the brake, so that the car bucked.
“Don’t do that,” cried the girl. Her hand touched a cardboard box on the backseat, then her own forehead, then dropped to her lap. “I’d kill for a cigarette,” she murmured.
“Right,” whispered the boy harshly. “So you could have an asthma attack right here and wake everybody up.”
“That’s not why I’m not smoking,” the girl muttered.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he said.
The car glided to the corner of the big garage, with its five bays. There was a narrow door on one side of the oblong building, and three flagstone steps leading to it. The boy had oiled the doors of the car that morning, with a foresight and industry and stealth the girl had not expected of him. They had both surprised each other and themselves in the last two days, he with his hardness and his determination, she with her weakness and her grief. Anyone familiar with the love affairs between men and women could have told them that theirs would soon be over.
As he slid out and opened the back door there was almost no sound, only the sort of clicks and snaps that could have been a moth hitting a screen or a raccoon stepping on a stick in the woods that stretched behind the garage and into the black of the mountains and the night. The girl was huddled against the door on her side now, all folded in upon herself like an old woman, or like a child who’d fallen asleep on a long journey; she heard the sounds of him as though they were musical notes, each distinct and clear, and her shoulders moved slightly beneath her shirt, and her hands were jammed between her knees. She felt as though they were somehow alone in the world, almost as though the house and its surroundings were a kind of island, floating in a deep sea of ordinary life through which the two of them would have to swim back to shore by driving back up the drive.
She thought this feeling was because of the boy, and the box, and the night, and the ache in her slack belly and her bruised groin, and the pain in her chest that might have been the beginning of an asthma attack. But she was only the latest in a long line of people who had felt that Blessings was somehow a place apart. In the moonlight the high points of it, the faint luster of the slate roof of the house, the shed on the knoll where the gardener had always kept his tools, the small white boathouse at one end of the pond: all of them were set in high sepia relief like the photograph hung carelessly now on the short wall of the library, the one of Edwin Blessing, who bought the place when it was just another old farm and lavished money on it in the years when he had money to spend. The people from Mount Mason who worked there, washing up at the parties in the old days, fixing frozen pipes for the old lady in the years after the parties ended: they all said it was like going somewhere out of this world, the quiet, the clean smells, the rooms and rooms full of polished furniture and toile draperies, which they only glimpsed through half-open doorways. Above all the pond, the gardens, the land. The real world tried to intrude from time to time upon Blessings, but usually the real world failed.
Even Lydia Blessing, the last of the Blessings, had once said as a girl that when she left the city and went out to the house for the holidays she felt as though she were in the kind of snow globe that all the girls in her class at the Bertram School were given one Christmas, the Christmas before the crash, when she had just turned seven. She felt that God was holding her in his hand, looking through the orb of glass at the blue spruce by the barn, the path around the pond, the pillars on the front porch, the swampy bog in the far field where the turtles lay their eggs and the cat- tails rose. It was hard to believe that God could concern himself with anyone in the city, with all of them hidden in the hives of their apartment buildings and narrow limestone houses. But at the country place she stood on the great lawn between the house and the road and raised her face up to the lambent blue and felt certain that the air was transparent down to the patch of ground on which she stood, and that she was watched, and watched closely and well.
“I don’t know where you come up with these things,” her mother had said, working on a large piece of floral gros point in the failing light of the living room fire. But her father had smoothed his hair and said, “I get your point, Lyds, my love.” That had been the year when he was drawing up plans for the apple orchard, when he could be heard at every dinner party at their house in the city referring to “our old farm,” his light high drawl rising up the circular stairwell like pipe smoke.
“Why do you think Papa is so nice and Mama is so mean?” she had asked her brother, Sunny, once, when they were in the boat in the center of the pond, where you could say secrets and no one would hear.
“That is a question for the ages,” Sunny had said. Confucius, they called him at school when they studied the religions of antiquity with the chaplain in the third form.
The only way Lydia Blessing could remember the child she had once been was to look at photo albums, and even then she seemed strange to herself, incredible that the seeds of her old age had been germinating within that pink inflated flesh. When she used the mirror every day to fix her silver hair in one of the three pinned-up styles she used, when she rubbed cold cream briskly on the fine skin that had been shirred around the eyes and lips for decades, she was occasionally incredulous, not about the fact that she had gotten old, but about the notion that she had ever been young. There was no longer any thought of snow globes, or the hand of God. The gros point had been made into a pillow; it sat on the chair in the back guest bedroom, the one she had used for house parties only if the house was very full. Every time she saw it, which was very seldom now, she remembered that her mother had complained about the price of having it made up. Those were the sorts of things she remembered nowadays.
And Sunny. She remembered Sunny always, as though he would come walking up the rise from the barn, his cornsilk-colored straw hat in his hand. Sometimes she dreamed about him on nights like this, and he was always young and happy.
A fresh breeze blew across the mountains and dipped down into the valley, and the willows on the banks of the pond, where the muskrats made tunnels between the fingers of the roots. The boy took the cardboard box from the backseat and carried it to the flagstone steps that led upstairs to the second floor of the garage. He stumbled and almost fell as another trout leaped from the black water and fell back with the sound of a slap. He caught himself, and never looked at what he was carrying, even when he put it down and stepped back to turn away. “Drink Coke,” it said on the box in red letters.
“Not the garage,” the girl hissed frantically, leaning across the seat and almost out the car door as he opened it. “You’re supposed to leave it at the house. The house! Not the garage!”
“Somebody’ll find it,” the boy mumbled, his resolve gone now.
“You can’t leave it at the garage,” she said, her voice trembling, but he had already started to turn the car slowly.