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The Palumbo family, beholden to tradition, drives every year into the country on the last weekend before Thanksgiving to buy the turkey. Beyond Lexington, beyond Bedford and Concord, where the country opens up and darkens, there are still farms where large cages hold white, startled birds. “That one,” says Joannie, the little girl, pointing, then runs back to the car, and before she is even inside, she covers her ears against the knowledge her big brother chooses not to protect her from. In the backseat, keeping her company as he’s been ordered to, Jack repeats it: “They cut off their heads.” Already (he is eight), he has mastered a certain smile that will make him, years later, catnip to women. But not yet; now he is only Jack, her tormentor.
“I wish he’d be nicer,” Stella, watching the scene between her children from the cages, says to Richie, and Richie, chuckling mostly for show, touches her neck. He carries with him a keen awareness that people are watching them, that their lives are on display here and they must behave differently, affect a certain refinement. There are rural people here, of course, shopping for turkeys, but also men in pressed khakis, men who belong, mysteriously, to this world of “the country.” Something of who he and Stella are as a couple must not be too much on display. He tries to affect the smile of the native, and when he touches Stella, it is with the delicacy that he imagines other men, bankers, might adopt when touching their wives.
The children are waiting in their steamy warmth when they lug the bird back to the car, the look on Joannie’s face, Stella can see, remorseful.
“It wasn’t yours, Joannie,” Stella says. “That one was too small. Because remember we’re having Aunt Betty and Uncle Carl and Josie and Phil, and your cousins.”
For Richie, even the recital of these coarse-sounding names diminishes all of them in the car (he wants to tell Stella to hush, as if others might be able to hear) after this breath of a richer, subtler world. But Joannie’s face comes forward: Let it be so. Let me not have consigned a living creature to death. Jack, beside her, is smirking. He will tell her later that their mother lied.
It is a wonder to Stella, the difference between them, Joannie’s birth a modest one, the baby slipping from her without a sound, almost without a will to live, and what seemed a full minute of terror before a cry could be coaxed out of her blue form. After Jack, who broke her, ripped her open, all red limbs and blood-soaked organs, a butcher’s carcass they had handed to her and told her was a son. For eight years she has been trying to fold Jack’s excess into a being more manageable, a little man in a sailor suit, someone she might more wholeheartedly love.
As soon as the thought appears, she runs from it—not love him? Inexcusable. But then it’s only one of a great string of unhingements that seem to define her lately. Her sense of life (she thinks sometimes) was formed by a June Allyson movie, or a series of them, seen most likely in the early fifties, when she was a young woman, while Richie was in Korea and they were not yet married. She remembers nothing of the plots of those movies, only a sense of strong, bullheaded husbands, noisy, demanding children, and, hovering over them, June Allyson, pert and smiling, one end of her smile lifted to suggest that some joke lay at the heart of a married woman’s existence and if only women learned to get it, everything else would fall into place. Somehow Stella has failed to get that joke, and a more complicated set of feelings has emerged.
About sex, for instance. The way, over time, it has become more of a need: embarrassingly, more for her than for Richie. And about the house they are consciously looking for, the great upward move that has come upon them with the force of a demand.
Richie has been promoted—head of production control at ComVac, the defense plant where he works; he’s now making thirty thousand dollars a year, a king’s ransom. They have been living, since before the children were born, in a house on Bryant Street in Waltham, nice but too small now that the children are growing. And Richie has become dissatisfied with it—with the house and with their lives within it—for reasons that are mysterious to her.
Her three older sisters are wild with encouragement that she and Richie should join them and their husbands in the developments—heavily clustered with Italian Americans—that have begun pushing into the woods of Waltham and Winchester, Natick and Lexington. But the garishness of her sisters’ big new split-level houses puts her off, their air of immodesty. To her they are like houses with too much lipstick on them. Look at me, those houses seem to be saying. Find me alluring.
Richie, too, feels that those houses are inadequate, but there the agreement ends. He wants something else, something almost indescribable. Thirty-nine years old, Richie understands that he has caught a wave, his ascendancy buoyed by a distant war. Seventy percent of the contracts ComVac receives are for war-related materials. He can justify making his money on the blood of boys only because it could so easily have been his blood that was shed, in 1952 or 1953, to feather the nest of a veteran of World War II. Such economy always prevails; it doesn’t bother him. But something else gnaws at him. If they are inevitably to rise, he feels an obligation to rise in a certain way. It is not his brothers-in-law’s houses so much as their lives that disturb him.
His brother-in-law Frank, for instance. Frank has taken to wearing a peace medallion over his turtlenecks. He runs the AV department in their local school system and loves to goad Richie for his work in the “defense industry.” “How many bombs this week, Mr. McNamara?” Richie endures this; the sight of Frank, balding, with a paunch and those ridiculous sideburns he’s grown, never appears as a real threat. It is becoming like Frank that scares him, accepting a kind of upgraded Italian Americanness that takes the form of split-levels, of sofas and “artistic” lamps. There is another possibility he can sense—though never precisely enough (which is the maddening part)—for himself and Stella, for his children.
It comes to him at odd moments, his own dream of elevation. On shopping trips to Boston—when Stella, like her mother before her, gravitated toward the North End markets where peddlers hawked vegetables and grains from open wooden carts—Richie caught sight of an old Protestant church, or the glass-fronted S. S. Pierce on Tremont Street, where the Beacon Hill crowd bought tinned specialties, foodstuffs sealed behind colored wrapping. He wanted to be there.
It was an odd dream to have, for someone of his background. His father had been a mason, a Sicilian immigrant, a dark, sullen man who loved to smoke cigars under his grape arbor in Watertown. That Richie had chosen to get an education—even the minor, largely technical night school education he’d managed to piece together—had come as a surprise, and, to his father, not a particularly welcome one. The dream had started then, on Richie’s trolley rides into Northeastern in the early fifties, before he was drafted, when he was a young man taking night classes, his nose to the wind of a city that seemed to him thrilling. He’d developed a sense that value resided in the old parts of the city, the venerable buildings, in the feeling of life you caught while watching a man in a long woolen coat and a muffler walking at night, a newspaper under his arm, in autumn. Where was such a man going? To what set of rooms? Some elemental elegance existed, lay in wait, but how did you get to it?
The house on Bryant Street was not it. Returning each evening to the house, with its small, exposed yard, the sounds from every adjoining house intruding—the Lampports’ marital spats, Louis Antonellis yelling at his brood of daughters. No. This was too far from the man in the woolen coat, the muffler, the lit windows of the apartment houses near the Museum of Fine Arts, his stop for the Northeastern night classes. It was not enough, and this thought, this goad is with him so often now that even here, with the turkey in the backseat, in the warm, domestic enclosure of the car, thinking of the men he has recently been among at the turkey farm, the long-coated, mufflered man’s distant cousins, he finds himself distracted. He has not been paying attention to the road for several miles. Suddenly nothing looks familiar. Did he make a wrong turn or miss a right one? Rather than coming out of the bucolic turkey farm landscape into the world of gas stations and stores—an opening into civilization he would have expected by now—he finds he is going deeper into the wild, deeper into field and stream, thicket, stone wall, wooden bridge. He needs to turn around but doesn’t.
There is a new quiet in the car, though he is certain that none of them have yet caught on. Sometimes you can feel trust, as a father, and know how misplaced it is. How people—people you love—can look at you and see facial hair and largeness of feature and believe that along with these comes command. It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t. But he cannot admit the mistake, cannot quite say to them, I have gotten us lost.
He is waiting for a road sign, the indication of a route. The dark is coming. The vegetation has grown heavier. Yet it is undeniably lovely out here, the dark trees stripped, the clouded November sky leaking a substance the color of chalk at its edges. Something keeps him going in this direction.
It is Joannie who says, “Are we going home?”
“Of course we are, darling,” Stella answers. It would not occur to her to think that Richie doesn’t know where he is going.
Jack knows, of course. Jack knows and is watching him. In the rearview mirror he can just see Jack’s face. The boy never dreams, never loses himself. He studies things, doglike, intent, as if at any moment a salvageable scrap might fall from the table. His son, at the age of eight, already his opponent.
It is unclear how long they have driven before they come upon the town. The lights of houses at first. Leaves blow across the wide, darkening main street. A stone library, a white church, not Catholic, a village green in the shape of an icicle, in which stands a monument. It is pure instinct that makes Richie stop.
“Are we lost?” Stella asks, but not with concern.
He peers up at the monument, which stands fifty feet high and has at its summit the figure of a man in a tricornered hat, a Revolutionary War hero. (The name on the base seems to have been rubbed away, but something is written there about “riders.”) Beyond it, a partially broken white fence, a house facing the village green, its windows lit. He steps out of the car, and as he does, the strangeness of the town gives way to something else. Is it the combination of light and fallen leaves, late-fall dusk, the order of the town, the benevolent order laid down for two centuries, everything old, the primordial hush, the sense of safety here? Looking at the stone library makes him want to be a reader, he who never picks up a book.
He waits just long enough to feel the cold breeze against him, leaves blown against his feet. In the window of the house near the green, he sees the figure of a woman leaning forward, laying a cloth over a table. She is in a formal-looking dress. Her hair is tied in a knot behind her head. She has prepared dinner. Her family will soon join her, warm faces seated around a table.
“Richie?” he hears from inside the car, and turns to see Stella inclined toward him. Stella insisting they go back. It is Sunday night. Dinner has not been prepared. The children.
In the center of the town is a store, its windows many-paned. Don’t they need to pick up something? Milk? He wants badly to know what waits inside the store.
When he gets back into the car, it feels immediately like a surrender, the way a drunk must feel when his children come to the bar to fetch him, their expectations thick and limiting. He moves the car forward, but he can’t leave.
“Now I know we’re lost,” Stella says.
“What’s the name of this town?” he whispers.
It is the sign outside the library that tells him. NORUMBEGA. He has heard the name, the old, unaccustomed Indian sound of it set here, in this part of the state, against names like Harvard, Sudbury, Ayer, like a town making a deliberate attempt to hide itself, or to claim its specialness.
It is when he is past the end of the green, past the library and the store and ready to turn, that he spots it. The house has three stories of windows. Some of them are lit. It is not yet so dark that he can’t tell the house is painted in some shade of green, the windows trimmed in yellow. Smoke lifts from the chimney. The short front yard ends in a weathered fence, a lamp shining against the encroachment of dusk. It is a feeling that resembles first love, the completion of a thing already started long ago.
As he stops the car to study the house, Stella sighs, picks at something in her lap.
Joannie, in the backseat, leaning forward, thinks, I will know if the turkey I picked is the one they killed if I can see it. Let me see it. She says a brief prayer, descending into a place that feels comforting to her, a place of God and angels, immense light, a secret room. When she emerges from it, the turkey no longer matters. Jack waits, deeply aware of his father.
“Wait. I’ll just be a minute,” Richie says, and gets out.
They all watch him approach the house.
“Your father’s going to ask directions,” Stella says. She knows, and Jack knows as well, that something else is true. “We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but your father will right it.”
For a moment Jack feels something he will fight against for years: he remembers a year ago, seeing his mother walking down the street toward their house, holding a paper bag containing groceries. He had been in the front yard playing with friends. Where was Joannie? Who was watching her? He can only remember in the sight of his mother’s figure the sudden perception of some lack in her, some integral vulnerability. It is a feeling he has about women, that they must be saved. It is never those words that appear to him, only a feeling. His mother walked like a target, there for anyone to throw something at. She wouldn’t know how to duck or dodge.
But he could do nothing, because the man who has walked up to the doorway of this strange house is in charge, at least for now. The door has opened. An old woman stands there, being polite. An intense yellowness of interior space settles over his father, who has become deferential—if he were wearing a hat, he would be holding it now. Jack is embarrassed for his father, for the need in him that only he, Jack, sees. And then the more exquisite embarrassment of watching his father pushing on the door, to keep it open, as the old woman tries to end their encounter. In another moment, Jack believes, his father will kneel before her, grovel.
Stella sees this, too, and tries not to. She turns away, considers the town. It is dark, overgrown, old, and as she thinks this, she knows that Richie has not approached the house to ask directions. Some part of her knows that whatever he is doing is a way of welding her to this place she finds so dark and unattractive. She closes her eyes. There is a hallway that is life. Doors open, and you must enter, you have no choice. They are never the doors you want to open. Smile against that, June Allyson once said.
They were an old couple; their names were the Greeleys. The man had patches of white hair and a remote air, as if he had just witnessed your golf swing and was offended that you’d been invited into the club. But he was frail, clearly on the way out. It was always dark when Richie arrived, and he was never fully welcomed. He smelled wood burning in the nearby fireplace, and as winter came on, lacings of frost formed attractively on the windows.
Richie had resisted it at first, this mad idea of his, after the first night of his inspiration, seeing it after the fact, after his embarrassing presentation of himself to Mrs. Greeley at the door, as a bit crazed and certainly unrealistic. But something kept pulling him back, usually after work on his way home. The house never lost its beauty or its irresistible appeal. Then began a series of formal visits.
On each of his increasingly awkward visits he tried to peer farther into the house and was more and more intrigued, the house familiar somehow. He caught sight of the small room off the long kitchen, not big enough for a proper living room, but holding a fireplace and two comfortable chairs, a table between them where lay knitting and a copy of Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People, a book he immediately decided he should procure and read. There were signs that the house was never properly cleaned. Behind the kitchen he sensed more than saw the large porch, its windows broken into tiny panes like the windows of the store in town, where he always stopped on these visits, sometimes simply to wander through the aisles and notice the things that did not appear in his local grocery store: shortbread, English biscuits, jars of mincemeat. The little store might have been an outpost of S. S. Pierce.
He tried to temper the strangeness of his visits to the Greeleys by making himself useful. Was there anything they needed? “No, I drive, you see,” Mrs. Greeley said. “And we have a son, he lives in town.”
“We’re not selling,” she said finally, directly.
He was sitting at the table. “We don’t want to move, you see,” she said. He saw steel in her, and an echo of her husband’s instinctive disdain.
“Look,” he said, “I’ll stop coming if it makes you nervous. But eventually it will happen. Eventually you’ll want to sell. All I want is the chance to make the first offer.”
She nodded, her face caught in the passing shadow of a need she would not admit to.
“And one other thing,” he added. “Since I’m not coming back, and since I expect I’ll be making an offer someday, I’d like just once to see the upstairs.”
She hesitated, not entirely certain whether to trust him. But his manner was businesslike, and she finally gave in. “Go ahead. You’ll find the stairs just past the bathroom over there on your right. But don’t touch anything, please.” Then she decided not to trust him, and she followed him up, with what he could see was difficulty.
Copyright © 2012 by Anthony Giardina