Read an Excerpt
Honora sets the cardboard suitcase on the slab of granite. The
door is mackereled, paint-chipped—green or black, it is hard to
tell. Above the knocker, there are panes of glass, some broken and
others opaque with age. Overhead is a portico of weathered shingles
and beyond that a milk-and-water sky. Honora pinches the lapels of
her suit together and holds her hat against the wind. She peers at
the letter B carved into the knocker and thinks, This is the
place where it all begins.
The year is 1929. A June day. A wedding day. Honora is just
twenty, and Sexton is twenty-four.
The clapboards of the house are worn from white to flesh. The
screens at the windows are ripped and flapping. On the second story,
dormers stand like sentries keeping watch over the sea, and from the
house a thicket sharp with thorns advances across the lawn. The
doorsill is splintered, and she thinks it might give way with her
weight. She wants to try the pitted knob, though Sexton has told her
not to, to wait for him. She steps down into the dooryard, her pumps
denting the springy soil, unleashing a scent that collapses
Sexton comes around the corner then, his palms upturned and
filled with dirt. He is a man with a surprise, a stranger she hardly
knows. A good man, she thinks. She hopes. His coat billows in the
breeze, revealing suspenders snug against his shirt. His trousers,
mended at a side seam, are loose and ride too low over his shoes.
His hair, well oiled for the wedding, lifts in the wind.
Honora steps back up onto the granite slab and waits for her
husband. She puts her hands together at her waist, the purse she
borrowed from her mother snug against her hip. Sexton has an
offering: sandy soil, a key.
"The soil is for the solid ground of marriage," he says. "The key
is for unlocking secrets." He pauses. "The earrings are for you."
Honora bends her face toward the pillow of dirt. Two marcasite-and-
pearl earrings lie nearly buried in Sexton's hands. She brushes them
off with her finger.
"They belonged to my mother," Sexton says. "The soil and the key
are an old tradition your uncle Harold told me."
"Thank you," she says. "They're very beautiful." She takes the
key and thinks, Crossing the sill. Beginning our life
The man came into the bank with a roll of tens and fives, wanting
larger bills so that he could buy a car. He had on a long brown coat
and took his hat off before he made the transaction. The white
collar of his shirt was tight against his neck, and he talked to
Honora as she counted out the money. A Buick two-door, he explained.
A ????, only three years old. It was the color of a robin's egg, he
said, with a red stripe just below the door handle. A real beauty,
with wood-spoke wheels and navy mohair upholstery. He was getting it
for a song, from a widow who'd never learned to drive her husband's
car. He seemed excited in the way that men do when thinking about
cars that don't belong to them yet, that haven't broken down yet.
Honora clipped the bills together and slipped them under the grille.
His eyes were gray, set deep beneath heavy brows. He had a trim
mustache, a shade darker than his hair. He brushed his hair,
flattened some from the hat, from his forehead. She had to wiggle
the money under the grille to remind him of it. He took it, folded
it once, and slipped it into the pocket of his trousers.
"What's your name?" he asked. "Honora," she said. "How do you
She spelled it for him. "The H is silent," she added.
"O-nor-a," he said, trying it out. "Have you worked here
long?" They were separated by the grille. It seemed an odd way to
meet, though better than at McNiven's, where she sometimes went with
Ruth Shaw. There a man would slide into the booth and press his leg
against your thigh before he'd even said his name.
"I'm Sexton Beecher," the handsome face dissected by grillwork
said. At the next window, Mrs. Yates was listening intently.
Honora nodded. There was a man behind him now. Harry Knox, in his
overalls, holding his passbook. Growing impatient.
Sexton put his hat back on. "I sell typewriters," he said,
answering a question that hadn't yet been asked. "The courthouse is
one of my accounts. I need a car in my job. I used to borrow my
boss's Ford, but the engine went. They said it would cost more to
fix it than to buy a new one. Don't ever buy a Ford."
It seemed unlikely she would ever buy a Ford.
The courthouse employed at least half of the adults in town. Taft
was the county seat, and all the cases went to trial there.
"Enjoy the car," Honora said.
The man seemed reluctant to turn away. But there was Harry Knox
stepping up to the grille, and that was that. Through the window at
the side of the bank, Honora caught a glimpse of Sexton Beecher
buttoning his coat as he walked away.
Sexton tries the switch on the wall, even though they both know
there is no electricity yet. He opens doors off the hallway so that
light can enter from other rooms with windows. The floorboards of
the hall are cloudy with dust, and on the walls a paper patterned in
green coaches and liveried servants is peeling away at the seams. A
radiator, once cream colored, is brown now, with dirt collected in
the crevices. At the end of the hall is a stairway with an expansive
landing halfway up, a wooden crate filled with a fabric that might
once have been curtains. The ceilings, pressed tin, are nearly as
high as those in public buildings. Honora can see the mildew on the
walls then, a pattern competing with the carriages and footmen. The
house smells of mold and something else: other people lived
She enters a room that seems to be a kitchen. She walks to a
shuttered window and lifts the hook with her finger. The shutters
open to panes of glass coated with a year or two of salt. A filmy
light, like that through blocks of frosted glass, lights up an iron
stove, its surface dotted with animal droppings. She twists a lever,
and the oven door slams open with a screech and a bang that startle
She bends and looks inside. Something dead and gray is in the
She walks around the kitchen, touching the surfaces of shelves,
the grime of years in the brush strokes of the paint. A dirty sink,
cavernous and porcelain, is stained with rust. She gives the tap a
try. She could budge it if she leaned her weight against the sink,
but her suit is still on loan from Bette's Second Time Around. The
butter yellow jacket with its long lapels narrows in nicely at the
waist and makes a slender silhouette, a change from a decade of
boyish dresses with no waists. She shivers in the chill and wraps
her arms around herself, careful not to touch the suit with her
hands. There are blankets in the car, but she cannot mention them so
soon. She hears footsteps on the stairs and moves into the hallway
just as Sexton emerges from the cellar, wiping his hands on a
"Found the furnace," he says. "In the fall, we'll have to get
She nods and gestures with her hand to the kitchen. He trails his
knuckles along her arm as he passes her.
"What a mess," he says.
"Not so bad," she says, already loyal
to what will be their home.
In April, the typewriter salesman returned to the bank. He came
through the door so fast that Honora thought at first he might be a
robber. The wings of his coat spread wide around his trousers as he
made his way to her station. She resisted the urge to touch her
hair, which she hadn't washed in days.
"Want to go for a ride?" he asked. "You bought the car." "It's a
honey." "I can't." "When do you get off work?" "Four o'clock."
The clock on the wall said half past two. The sound of a woman's
high heels could be heard on the marble floor. Sexton Beecher didn't
turn around to look.
"I'll be outside at four," he said. "I'll give you a ride
I don't even know you, she might have said, except that
Mrs. Yates was leaning in Honora's direction lest she miss a word.
Honora was silent, which the man took for acquiescence. She noticed
this time that his eyes weren't really gray, but green, and that
perhaps they were set too close together. His forehead was awfully
high, and when he smiled, his teeth were slightly crooked. And there
was something cocky in his manner, but that might just be the
salesman in him, she thought. Honora laid these flaws aside as one
might overlook a small stain on a beautifully embroidered tablecloth
one wanted to buy, only later to discover, when it was on the table
and all the guests were seated around it, that the stain had become
a beacon, while the beautiful embroidery lay hidden in everybody's
Sexton returns with a can of oil from the car. Honora finds a
piece of castile soap wrapped in a tea towel in her suitcase. He
removes his jacket and rolls his sleeves. His left forearm is
already tanned from leaning it out of the window of the Buick.
Honora feels a small ping in her abdomen and looks away.
The tap retches and sprays a stuttering dome of brown water into
the sink. Honora jumps back, not wanting the water on her suit.
"It's the rust," he says. "They said the water was turned on, but
I didn't know for sure. A valve was stuck in the basement."
Together they watch the water clear.
His shirt is dirty at the back. She reaches over to brush it off.
He leans against the lip of the sink and bends his head, letting her
touch him in this way. When she stops, he straightens. She holds out
the soap and together they wash their hands in the bulbous stream of
water. She scrubs the marcasite-and-pearl earrings. He watches as
she puts them on.
"Should I bring the picnic in, or do you want a nap?" he asks.
She feels herself blush at the word nap. "I haven't been upstairs
yet," she says.
"There's a bed. Well, a mattress. It looks clean enough."
So her husband had looked for a bed even before he searched for
"There are blankets in the trunk," she says.
After a time, Honora stopped thinking of him as "the typewriter
salesman" and began to think of him as Sexton. He drove over from
Portsmouth eight times in the three months that they courted,
telling his boss that he was onto something big in Taft. He was from
Ohio, he told Honora, an American heading in the wrong direction.
He'd had a year of college on the co-op program, but the freedom of
traveling and the possibility of fat commissions had lured him east,
away from the classroom. He made good money, he said, which might or
might not be true; she couldn't be absolutely sure. Yes, there was
the Buick, but she couldn't ignore the too-tight collars and a sole
coming loose from a shoe. The sleeves of some of his shirts were
frayed at the cuffs.
They courted in the Buick with all the typewriters (Fosdick's
Nos. 6 and 7), her mother's house too small for any sort of privacy.
Sexton was charming and persistent in a way Honora had never
experienced before. He told her that he loved her. He also told her
that he had dreams. One day there would be a Fosdick in every
household, he said, and he would be the man to put them there.
"Will you marry me?" he asked her in May.
On his sixth visit, Honora noticed that Sexton could hardly
contain his excitement. A stroke of luck, he said in the Buick when
finally they were alone. His boss knew someone who knew someone who
knew someone. An abandoned house, but upright nevertheless. All they
had to do, in place of rent, was take care of it and fix it up.
"It's a way to save," he told Honora, "for a house of our own."
When they announced their engagement, no one was surprised, least of
all her mother. She'd seen it in him from the very beginning. In
fact, she'd said so early on to Harold—wasn't that so, Harold?—that
this was a man who would get his appointment.
Honora reaches down to touch the fabric in the carton. Faded
chintz, curtains after all. And something else. A framed photograph
tucked into the side of the box, as if snatched from a dresser at
the last minute. A photograph of a woman and a boy. Years ago,
Honora thinks, studying the dress that falls nearly to the
The stairs creak some under her weight, which even with the
bedding isn't much. The sound embarrasses her, as if announcing her
intentions. A crystal chandelier hangs rigidly over the landing, and
she sees that the ceiling of the second floor has been papered like
the walls. At the top of the stairs, a sense of emptiness overwhelms
her, and for the first time she feels the enormity of the tasks that
lie ahead of her. Making a house liveable, she thinks.
Making a marriage.
It's just the empty rooms, she tells herself. The second floor is
a warren of tiny chambers, a surprise after the spaciousness of the
floor below. Some of the rooms are painted pale blue; others are
prettier, with printed paper on the walls. Heavy curtain rods sit
naked over the windows. On the window seats are cushions—frayed and
misshapen from overuse.
At the end of the hallway, she finds a suite of three rooms with
a series of dormers facing the sea. In the bathroom there is a sink
and a bathtub. In the bedroom she thumps a mattress with her fist,
making a small cloud of dust in the salt-filtered light of the
window. Why did they take the bed but not the mattress? She tucks in
the sheets, crouching at the corners, and listens for sounds of
Sexton below, her heart beating so erratically that she has to put a
hand to her chest. She unbuttons the yellow suit jacket, only then
realizing that there aren't any hangers in the shallow closet by the
door. She folds the jacket inside out and lays it on the floor next
to her shoes. She slips off her skirt, turning that inside out as
well. She sits on the edge of the mattress in her blouse and slip,
and unrolls her stockings.
The kitchen was unseasonably hot and close for late June, steam
rising from the iron and making droplets on her mother's nose and
brow. Her mother wore her purple cotton dress with the petunias, her
low-slung weight seemingly held up only by her pinafore as she
lifted the iron and set it down again on the tea cloth over the
butter yellow suit. Honora sat on a chair at the kitchen table,
writing labels for the canning, both of them silent, aware of
change. Her mother's hair was done up in a bun with combs and
hairpins, and the stems of her glasses dug into the sides of her
head. On the stove, there was the white enameled pot, the funnels
and the jars, waiting to be filled with spring onions and asparagus
and rhubarb jam. Even at the beginning of summer, the kitchen was
always awash in jars, the canning going on late into the night, as
they tried to keep one step ahead of the harvest from the kitchen
garden her mother kept. Honora, who hated the peeling and the
preparations she was expected to do after she got home from the
bank, nevertheless admired the jars with the carefully inscribed
labels on the front—Beet Horseradish Relish, Asa's Onion
Pickles, Wild Strawberry Jam—and the way that, later, they'd be
lined up in the root cellar, labels facing out, carrots to the
north, wax beans to the south, the jars of strawberry preserves
going first from the shelves. But this year her mother had cut the
garden back, as if she'd known that her daughter would be leaving
Her uncle Harold, blind and papery, couldn't walk the length of
the aisle of the Methodist church and so he stood by the front pew
with his niece for half a minute so as to give her away properly.
She was the last child to leave the house, the boys gone to Arkansas
and Syracuse and San Francisco. Her mother sat in her navy polka-dot
silk with the lace collar, her comfortable weight caught primly
within the dress's folds. She wore real silk stockings for the
occasion, Honora noticed, and not the tan stockings from Touraine's.
Her mother's black shoes, serviceable rather than pretty, were the
ones Harold always referred to as her Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes.
Her mother wore a navy cloche, the silver roll of her hair caught
beneath it with mother-of-pearl combs.
Just before they'd left the house, her mother had polished her
gold-rimmed glasses at the sink. She'd taken her time at it and had
pretended not to cry.
"You look very pretty," she said to Honora when she had hooked
the stems of her glasses behind her ears.
"Thank you," Honora said.
"You let me know, won't you," her mother said. She took her
hankie from inside the cuff of her dress. "About what you want me to
do with the suit, I mean."
"Some women, they like to keep the clothes they get married in. I
had my wedding dress with me right up until Halifax."
Honora and her mother were silent a moment, remembering Halifax.
"Your father would have been so proud," her mother said.
"So you let me know about the suit. I'll be happy to pay for it,
you decide to keep it."
Honora took a step forward and kissed her mother's cheek.
"Now, now," her mother said. "You don't want to set me off
Sexton walks into the bedroom with the picnic basket in one hand,
the suitcase in the other. He looks at Honora sitting on the
mattress, her stockings and her shoes and her suit folded, her
garters peeking out from beneath a girdle to one side of the bed.
His face loosens, as if he'd come prepared to tell his new wife one
thing but now wishes to say something else. Honora watches as he
sets down the picnic basket and the cardboard suitcase. He removes
his coat and lets it fall from his arms, snatching it before it hits
the floor. He yanks the knot of his tie sideways.
She slides backward and slips her bare legs under the cool sheet
and blanket. She lays her cheek against the pillow and watches her
husband with one eye. She has never seen a man undress before: the
tug of the belt buckle, the pulling up of the shirttails, the shoes
being kicked off, the shirt dropped to the floor, the trousers—the
only garment removed with care—folded and set upon the suitcase. He
unbuckles his watch and puts it on a windowsill. In the stingy light
of the salted windows, she can see the broad knobs of his shoulders,
the gentle muscles through the chest, the surprising gooseflesh of
his buttocks, the red-gold hairs along the backs of his legs. Sexton
kneels at the foot of the mattress and crawls up to his new bride.
He puts his face close to hers. He slides under the sheet and draws
her to him. Her head rests on the pad of his shoulder, and her right
arm is tucked between them. His knee slips between her thighs,
causing the skirt of her slip to ride up to her hips. He kisses her
"What makes it so shiny?" he asks. "Vinegar," she says. "You're
shaking," he says. "Am I?"
He presses his mouth to her shoulder. "We'll take our time," he
Copyright © 2002 by Anita Shreve