Some Assembly Required A Novel By Lynn Kiele Bonasia Touchstone Copyright © 2008 Lynn Kiele Bonasia
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781416550594
Always maintain plenty of space around you in all directions.
-- from the Flexifoil Blade II Kite Instruction Manual
Valeria Shimilitis is not a disease, though the name sounds like a mosquito-borne illness that might cause painful inflammation of the large intestine.
Valeria Shimilitis is not a dance. (Come on, come on, and do the Shimilitis with me...)
Valeria Shimilitis is not a shape, though this is what she claimed in those first moments.
"I'm a trapezoid," she said, so convincing Rose might have believed it had she been able to suppress her inner journalist, with an emphasis on inner since she'd yet to find work as such. Where are the edges? Rose wanted to ask. The angles and points? Had the woman claimed to be a circle, an oval, even a cone, Rose might have conceded. But a trapezoid? It seemed too far-fetched.
Valeria Shimilitis moved out of the doorway and onto the top step. Her bare legs were as white as the frost on the handrail. Rose backed down a couple of stairs to make room for her. The woman wiped her hands on her apron, then pointed to the edge of the yard.
"See, the property line comes in like this and then flares out down there, so you can park down by the fence." As she pointed, the loose flesh of her arm jiggled in front of Rose's nose.
The woman was talking as if Rose had already decided to take the apartment she hadn't even seen yet, a"waterfront one-bedroom" in her price range, according to the Cape Gazette. It was hard to believe anything in her price range could have running water, let alone be waterfront. Rose figured the ad had probably been a misprint, but decided to check it out anyway, desperate to escape the dark, musty room at the Ocean View Motel, which had no view unless one counted the sinkhole in the parking lot, no waves except the ones that had splashed from the toilet onto the floor the first night she was there. Rose had been almost ready to give up on Cape Cod. She wanted to live there but not enough to take that dingy basement room below the deli that smelled of cured pastrami and garlic pickles, or the shack that backed up to Route 6. All she wanted was something peaceful and clean, far from the city, and most of all, far from Martin.
Valeria Shimilitis pointed her thumb at a rambling, weather-beaten farmhouse visible through a leafless hedge.
"She says I'm a rectangle but I'm not."
It was too much to take in all at once, the elaborate anarchy of the woman's hair, the red terry washcloth that had been sewn into a rudimentary apron, and the way the flesh spilled out over the tight waistband of her madras shorts. And beyond her, the bay glittered like a box of diamonds.
A thick row of twigs ran along the front of the house. It was only the fourth of April, yet Rose knew they were hydrangeas. She pictured their soft blue pom-poms come summertime. Rose always loved hydrangeas, even as a kid when she used to come to the Cape with her parents. This place had always held happy memories for her, which is why she decided to come here when life took this turn.
Valeria Shimilitis's house was old, but had charm in the way old houses do, with its silver shingles, scrolled carvings over the front door, and dentil trim along the roofline. The house was situated high on a lot that sloped down to the water, offering a sweeping view of the harbor to the south, and the suede flats of the inlet beyond. From here it was just a short walk to the public beach. From these steps one could even hear the sigh of the incoming tide.
"Rose is a pretty name," the woman said. "I have a granddaughter named Rose. Come."
She waved Rose inside. Rose followed down the narrow hall, having to rely on other senses until her eyes had a chance to adjust to the dark. The house had decades of apples and onions baked into the walls. The uneven floorboards creaked beneath their feet. The hallway opened up to a bright and comfortable living room, with a picture window that laid out a panorama of the inlet.
"Have a seat." The woman pointed to a mission-style chair, its concave leather cushion cracked with age. All the furniture was faded and mismatched. Rose sank into the chair. Valeria Shimilitis sat on the mustard-print sofa. Rose could see she was somewhere in her mid-forties, though didn't know why she'd first thought the woman was older, something in how she carried herself and in the way she always seemed to be catching her breath.
"Your name is unusual," Rose said. "But pretty," she added.
"Valeria Shimilitis." The woman sang it like it was music. "It's Lithuanian. But call me Val. Everyone does. My father was born in the old country and my mother's family was English. My poor mother -- imagine the leap of faith from Thayer to Shimilitis." She laughed.
Rose looked around the room. There were several portraits on the wall, accomplished oils that seemed out of place with the rest of the furnishings. To the left of the picture window was a painting of an old man with a long, narrow face and bristly hair. He appeared sallow and sickly, and had that look of fear in his eyes that people get when they know they're going to die soon. Rose knew that look.
On the other side of the window was another painting, this one of a woman in her early sixties. She had a pink sweater over her shoulders and a beige purse in her lap that she clutched as if it might rise up and float around the room if she were to ease up on her grip. Something about that patent-leather bag with the gold clasp, the tightness of it, mirrored the woman's expression, the set of her jaw, and the way her thin lips pressed together. Whoever had painted this was a fine, intuitive artist, Rose thought.
Tucked in a dim corner between the bookcase and the fireplace was another portrait, this one of Val. It wasn't flattering. No imperfection had escaped the exaggeration of the artist's brush. She was seated in a chair by a window, staring at something outside the frame, as though she were waiting for someone. Her posture was rigid and her hands were folded in her lap. She seemed uneasy, or maybe just uncomfortable, as if the stool was too hard, or she'd forgotten to cut the tag out of her dress. Rose could see why the painting had been relegated to a dark corner.
Val obviously saw where Rose had been looking. "Noel did those. You'll meet him," she said. "That one of the gal with the purse is his latest."
Val pressed her thumb down to flatten the corner of a plastic doily that had begun to curl.
"I'd love to meet him," Rose said. Maybe there was a story here. Perhaps the best way to get her foot in the door at a newspaper was to write something speculative and try to sell it to an editor. There were just a handful of newspapers on the Cape and Rose's hope was to land a job at one of them.
The clock on the mantel chimed. It was a Howard Miller, the Lynton model that slightly resembled the kind of lantern one might find in the hand of someone riding through town on the back of a horse at the stroke of midnight, a square box with a brass handle at the top, finished in "Windsor" cherry with decorative corner spandrels and durable bronze bushings. Rose had written the instruction manual for it but had never actually seen one in person.
For clocks that have an operating moon dial, follow these instructions for setting the moon dial. For clocks that have a pendulum, follow these instructions for hanging pendulum.
This clock didn't have a moon dial or a pendulum.
One of the perils of writing instruction manuals for a living was that Rose couldn'tgo anywhere without seeing a fan or a vacuum or a VCR or a blender she knew intimately. She had become a repository of information on products she didn't own: how to use a rubber spatula with your Sunbeam mixer and when to change the battery of the transmitter on your electric boat. Her work was everywhere, translated into languages she'd never heard of, much less heard spoken. She'd become the go-to gal for instruction booklets, spoke at seminars instructing attendants on the how-tos of writing how-tos. She had more work than she could handle. The money was decent and the work, tedious as it sounded, was easy and even a little bit interesting. Rose had to admit she liked learning about how things worked in general. It benefited her from time to time, when the toast got stuck in the toaster or when she accidentally hit a button and the TV started speaking to her in Spanish. It wasn't a bad living. She could work from home, and on her laptop from Martin's apartment.
Even her ex-boyfriend had come with his own set of instructions. He couldn't be spoken to until he had his orange juice. Toothpaste had to be out of sight. At least once a week, Rose had to walk on his back in stockinged feet to relieve his sciatica. He couldn't sleep without a white-noise machine, which had to be set to "rain," and never "surf " or "wind." On Sundays, she was required to shave the hairs on the back of his neck. He was lactose intolerant and allergic to garlic. His feet blistered from walking on sand. To turn him on, Rose had to nibble on his ear or wear a tank top to bed. To turn him off, she had to leave her bra hanging on the shower rod, wear pink sweatpants, or talk about money. Large crowds made him nervous. He couldn't wear wool on his feet.
Instructions. Rose hadn't just written them, she'd followed them all her life. It was only when she realized she knew all too much about ceiling fans, curling irons, and cappuccino makers, and nothing about relationships, or life, for that matter, that it was time to move on. What she intended to do was just wing it for a while, make life up as she went along. At the very least, Rose intended to give a shot to her lifelong dream of becoming a journalist and following the path she'd set out for herself in college before getting seduced by the idea of making an easy buck.
After she and Martin split, Rose decided to throw out the rule book, the one that said at thirty-nine, she was probably too old to be switching careers. She'd written her last treatise on safety precautions.
Val got up and was rummaging through the top drawer of a writing desk near the fireplace. She produced a pad of paper and brought it back over to the sofa.
"Nice clock," Rose said.
"My daughter gave it to me," Val said. She studied the pad.
Rose noticed a stack of Cancer Cell, magazines on the coffee table. An odd choice of reading material unless Val was caring for someone who was sick, or was sick herself. Rose had never thought to read Cancer Cell magazine, never even knew such a publication existed, when her mother was ill three years ago. Might it have made a difference?
"The cottage is out back. I'll take you to see it in a minute. First, my daughter gave me a list of questions to ask," Val said.
Cottage sounded a lot better than apartment.
"Let's see," Val said. She took a pair of reading glasses out of the ashtray on the side table and put them on. One side of the frame had been fastened to the lenses with tape so they sat a little crooked on her face. She ran her finger down the page. "Where are you from? What do you do? I'm supposed to ask for references."
"I can get a letter from my former landlord. I've lived in Boston for the last fifteen years, in an apartment in the North End. I'm originally from western Massachusetts. I'm a reporter," Rose lied.
Val's face lit up. "Have I seen you on TV?" she asked.
"No," Rose said. "Actually, I'm a technical writer but I want to be a reporter. I've been talking to one of the newspapers in town." Harassing was more like it. Rose got up and walked over to the window. "Incredible view," she said. "Have you lived here your whole life?" The place had a settledness to it, something in the collective weight of everything in the room.
"Not yet." Val laughed, maybe a little longer than the joke warranted. "Cape humor. You'll get used to it."
"My parents took me here when I was a kid. I always loved the beach but my boyfriend isn't -- wasn't -- much of a beach person. Type A. Couldn't sit still." Couldn't be happy with one woman.
Val's face dropped. "Did something happen to him?" she asked.
Rose tried to laugh but it sounded more like a choking sound. "He's fine. We just split up."
"How long were you together?"
"That's a long time," she said.
Please don't ask, Rose thought.
"What happened?" Val asked.
What would Rose tell her? The truth? "Irreconcilable differences," Rose said. She pretended to be enthralled with a framed snapshot on a table by the window.
"It's difficult starting over," Val said. "That's my daughter."
The photo was of a girl somewhere in her mid-twenties. She had dark chin-length hair and enormous brown eyes. She was pretty. She also looked nothing like her mother.
"It was taken right before she knew she was pregnant with Rosie."
Rosie. To no one but Rose's poor dead father had she ever been a Rosie. Rosies were cute and round and Rose had never been either. She'd been a thin child with an angular face and straight hair that separated into blond ropes. When Rose hit her mid-teens, cheekbones emerged, giving structure to her face and her boyish figure took on some modest curves. It wasn't until the acne cleared in her early twenties that she began to enjoy some overdue male attention. But even then, none of her suitors had ever called her Rosie. Not even Martin. Not once. It didn't occur to people.
"How old is the baby?" Rose asked.
Val seemed to have to think a minute. "Thirteen months. I have some pictures upstairs. I'll get them down for you the next time."
At least Val was talking "next times." The two of them seemed to be hitting it off. Rose hoped she would like the apartment. No, cottage.
"Come, let's go see the place." Val rose from the sofa and set the pad of paper down on the coffee table. Rose saw there was no writing on it at all. No list of questions. Maybe she was just trying to look like she knew what she was doing. Maybe Rose wasn't the only one.
Though April, it was nearly freezing, certainly too cold to be wearing shorts, but Val didn't seem to notice. She didn't even bother to put on a jacket. She led Rose through the kitchen with its black-and-white-check vinyl floor and knotty-pine cabinets with old-fashioned wrought-iron hinges, past the gold stove and twenty or so orange prescription bottles lined up above the clock behind the burners. It seemed like a lot of medicine. Rose recalled the magazines on the coffee table. Before she had a chance to think about them, she and Val were out the door.
While the front of the house was shielded from the road by mature cedars and a tangle of underbrush, the back of the house was wide-open, with a lawn that sloped down to the marsh and the inlet beyond. At the end of the driveway, behind the main house, in the back right corner of the property, stood a small structure, a cottage. When Rose first drove in, she'd mistaken it for part of the main house. The cottage looked like a miniature of the original, with the same black shutters and silvered shingles. It was adorable, a dollhouse, and even closer to the water, presumably with a more spectacular view than the one Rose had enjoyed from Val's living room. She tried not to let herself get too excited. There had to be a catch.
"This is it," Val said. She took her crooked glasses out of her apron pocket, put them on her nose, and went through the keys on her ring, one by one.
Rose backed away from the cottage. She tried to picture herself living there. The forsythia at the side of the house was just starting to yellow. "It's nice," she said. She didn't want to seem too enthusiastic. Surely there had been others who had come to see the place.
"Here we go," Val said. She had found the right key and slid it into the lock. The back of her shirt was still bunched up from where she'd been sitting on the sofa, and when she jiggled the key, the loose flesh of her hips splashed up against her waistband like water up against a jetty. "Might be a little stuffy in here. I shut everything tight to keep out the critters. Last year I had bats in the attic. Oh, but they're gone, don't worry. Lou Tuttle from the Natural History Museum came and set traps. Actually, he's eighty-seven, so I was the one who had to climb into the attic, more of a crawl space, really. But I didn't have the heart to call an exterminator." Finally the tumbler gave way and Val pushed the door open.
She reached in and flicked on the light switch. Rose followed her inside, into a small living area that was sparsely furnished with two mission-style chairs, a lobster trap with a piece of glass over the top for a coffee table, and a small antique desk. Two windows on either side of the door held a generous swath of blue. Rose could see the mouth of the inlet to the north and the long stretch of dunes that ran the length of the outer beach. To the south, however, the pristine view was marred by a construction site, a large structure going up on a strip of land that jutted out into the inlet.
"Come see the rest," Val said. She tapped Rose on the arm.
"What is that?" Rose pointed.
"Ah, the mystery mansion," Val said. "That's what the locals are calling it this week, which is better than what they were calling it last week, trust me. No one knows who's building it." Val looked out the window herself. "It's gonna be something, huh? Don't know where these washashores get their money."
"Washashores?" Rose asked.
"Just means people from away. Not born and raised here," Val said. "No offense."
Rose could count at least six gables and the house possessed what had to be one of the most breathtaking views the town had to offer, encompassing the entire harbor, the inlet, the beach with its rolling dunes, and the ocean beyond.
"I'm hoping for a movie star," Val continued. "Could finally put my father's old telescope to good use. Oh, but I wouldn't just casually mention it to people in town or you'll get an earful. Most folks are opposed to the project and are looking for anything to raise hell about: pollution, runoff, encroachment on wetlands, endangering the horseshoe crabs, you name it," she said. "People don't like change, is what it is. Almost makes you feel sorry for those poor rich people who are going to try to live there. Come see the kitchen."
Poor rich people. It was funny, but Rose didn't think she meant it to be.
A low wall separated the living room from a tiny kitchen with pale yellow countertops and pine cabinets like the ones in the main house. The appliances were old but had been scrubbed clean. The burners on the electric stove were lined with fresh aluminum foil. There was a small fifties-style table with a Formica top and two metal chairs with matching red vinyl seat cushions. One had been repaired with duct tape.
"Sometimes the faucet drips a little," Val confessed. She started playing with the hot and cold knobs to try to stop the leak.
A leaky faucet is usually caused by a scratched or damaged cartridge, O-ring,or grommet. In most cases a cartridge repair kit or replacement cartridge will correct a leak.
"I'm pretty good with sinks," Rose said. "Is the bedroom back here?"
"And the bathroom. Don't think I could even squeeze into that shower stall anymore," Val said. She looked Rose up and down. "Of course you'll have no trouble."
Stress made you skinny, Rose thought. Then again, Rose had been skinny all her life.
Val stayed in the kitchen while Rose went to check out the other rooms. The bedroom was at the front of the cottage. It was a decent size and had three windows, two facing the hedges and the house next door, and one facing the driveway.
"What do you think?" Val asked from the kitchen.
Rose came out. She smiled. "It's perfect," she said.
Val clapped her hands. "You know, you never told me how you heard I was looking for a tenant. Just got the tax bill last week and hadn't even gotten around to putting a sign out front. Of course I'd mentioned it to Dorie Nickerson, and once you tell her something it's all over town. I just figured -- "
"I saw the ad in the paper."
Val cocked her head to the side and squinted. "What ad?"
"In Sunday's paper. A 'waterfront one-bedroom -- '"
"Uh-oh," Val said. The moment she said it Rose realized she'd been waiting for that "uh-oh" since she'd set foot in the place. It was all too good to be true. "Did it say three-fifteen?"
"That's Cooper. I'm three-nineteen. The cottage is three-seventeen."
"You mean I came to the wrong house?" And yet this whole time she'd acted as if she'd been expecting to show the place.
"Part of the nine on my mailbox is a little broken off. I can see how the nine might look like a five." Val put her hand over her mouth to try to hide the grin that had suddenly spread to her cheeks. "Cooper'd have a fit if she knew the ad she paid for got me a tenant."
"What's her place like?"
Val's smile disappeared. She shook her head. "Oh, you don't want to live there. Used to be a duck farm. She subdivided the old barn into two cramped efficiencies. The walls are paper-thin and the rooms all face the street, so you can't even see the water. And when it gets humid, the whole place smells like wet duck."
Great. "How much are you asking?" Rose asked. It had to be three times what she could afford.
"Well, I don't know. I hadn't gotten that far yet." She rubbed her chin. "What's she asking?"
"The ad said six hundred a month." Rose braced herself.
Val didn't answer right away. Rose stared out at the blue liquid backyard.
"Five seventy-five," Val said. "That's as low as I can go."
When life throws a pie in your face, you might as well taste it. It was one of Rose's mother's favorite sayings, and one that appealed to Rose's sweet tooth. As a kid, she couldn't wait for a little Boston-cream or cranberry-apple adversity. Now, suddenly, here it was. She'd been left with no choice but to try to see this situation as an opportunity, a clean start in a new setting. Landing this cottage was a lucky break, which was more than Rose's father got, thirty-five years as a bus driver for the Pioneer Valley, schlepping college students who reeked of pot and curry from one campus to the other, only to have his heart stop beating at sixty-two. Or her mother, who, four years after he died, found a lump on her breast that doctors said was "probably nothing." Only it turned out to be everything. In the end, dignity was the one thing life couldn't take from a person. Watching her mother die had taught Rose that much. Dignity was fuel. If you conserved it, there'd be enough to carry you through. Rose felt like she still had about a half tank left.
Martin and Rose met at the hospital during her mother's illness. He'd been visiting a friend's wife who was suffering from ovarian cancer. One day Rose saw him in the waiting room staring at a blank TV screen, apparently gathering the courage to set foot in the elevator and move on with his day. By then, Rose was good at spotting newbies. She understood how difficult it was making the transition from in here to out there. She got him a cup of coffee from the machine down the hall in a gesture that seemed to make her, if not the official goodwill ambassador, something of a cross between hall monitor and welcome wagon.
"Three kids," he had said. Those were the first words he ever spoke to her, though he probably would have spoken them to anyone who would have listened. "The oldest is six." His eyes were shiny and Rose wondered if he was fighting back tears or just one of those people with shiny eyes. Later she learned he suffered from chronic dry eye and had to apply drops three times a day. So on that day at least, his emotions had gotten the better of him. Rose suspected she knew it then too. She'd always been drawn to men who weren't afraid to show their feelings. Probably because she was the opposite.
Rose's mother had just finished up her third round of chemo after a radical mastectomy, and was suffering from a new set of complications, a case of neuropathy, which had left her without feeling in her legs and hands. She couldn't walk or feed herself. She couldn't brush what was left of her own hair. The doctors didn't know if the feeling in her limbs would ever return and they waited as with each day it became increasingly irrelevant.
Martin paid his friend's wife two more visits, both times while Rose was visiting her mother. Afterward, they had coffee and talked. When Rose learned the woman had died, she didn't expect to see Martin again. But a few days later, he showed up at the door to her mother's room and engaged the ailing woman in a conversation that lasted for hours. Later, Rose's mother told her daughter about the visit.
"I knew right away," she told Rose.
"You knew what right away," Rose asked. She adjusted the objects on her mother's bedside table, a blue plastic pitcher, a pack of mints, a small box of tissues, and a photograph of young Rose on her father's lap.
"I could tell as soon as he started talking." Her mother coughed.
Rose smoothed her mother's hair. It needed to be washed. She would tell the nurses. "You could tell what?"
"He's in love with you," her mother said. Apparently, the cancer had reached her brain.
"Oh, Ma." Rose dismissed her with a wave. Rose refused to entertain her mother's morphine-induced ramblings, though something inside her stirred at the idea.
"He asked all about you. He asked if you were seeing someone."
"And you told him my calendar was as 'barren as the fallow fields of Sunderland.'" Another of her mother's favorite expressions.
"I might have said something to that effect." Her mother smiled.
"And let me guess. You told him about my hula-girl costume, and my swimming trophies, and the time I drove Daddy's Pinto wagon into two trees in one night," Rose said. Rose couldn't think of a person her mother hadn't told those stories to at one point or another.
Her mother frowned. "And then you came home and said you were sideswiped twice by two different cars and expected us to believe you. Honestly, Rose." She grinned. "There were branches lodged in the grille."
Rose felt a lump in her throat. Might this be the last time she and her mother played out this familiar exchange?
Her mother continued. "I didn't tell him about the car. But if he comes back, remind me." She adjusted her legs. Ironically, some of the feeling had come back to them in the last couple of weeks. "You know why I used to tell people that story?"
"To get even," Rose said. She reached for her mother's hand. Her mother's fingers were cold and her cuticles were dry as dust. Rose reached for the lotion on the dresser.
"Because I wanted people to know you weren't all Nowak. So even-tempered and well behaved like your father. There was at least a little wildness to you. A little spunk."
"And don't forget my vivid imagination," Rose added. She rubbed the lotion into her mother's hands. Her mother had always thought writing instruction manuals had been a waste of Rose's creative talent. "I mean it was a creative story as I recall."
Her mother coughed again. Her face reddened and the phlegm rattled inside her chest. It was as if there was nothing left inside the woman but phlegm and tumors. Rose drew her mother forward, then bolstered her back with pillows to let gravity do its work. When the coughing subsided, in a weak voice, her mother said, "If he asks, you go out with him. He's a nice man."
"You will." It wasn't a question.
"I will." Rose looked to make sure there was no one standing in the hall. Then she leaned in close, where she could already smell the decomposition that had begun in her mother's body. "He has to be better than the oncologist you tried to fix me up with who smelled like clove cigarettes and turned out to be gay." Rose leaned back. "And need I even bring up the orderly who carried Milk Duds in his breast pocket?"
Her mother raised her finger. "He had nice eyes." Her speech had slowed to the pace of a windup toy that had lost its juice. She tired so quickly now.
"You get some rest," Rose said. She stood to go.
"Promise." Her mother's eyes closed. The lids fluttered with current.
"I promise," Rose said. "I like him," she added.
A smile turned the corners of her mother's lips.
Before her mother passed, she'd had the chance to see Rose and Martin together. Their first date had ended at the hospital when Rose had been called by the nurses in a false alarm. Later Rose wondered if her mother had put them up to it. Rose knew seeing the two of them together had given her some peace.
Even to Rose, it seemed Martin was the man she'd been waiting for all her life. The one. His soothing voice over the phone, the cool, powdery feel of his hands, how he knew his way around a Thai menu, these were things that kept her sane through those early days of orphanhood.
Near the end of their first year together, they talked about getting married. Actually, Rose was the one who did most of the talking. Martin had been married before -- two years, no kids -- with financial consequences that made him reluctant to jump into it again. He didn't like to talk about it, but from what he'd led her to believe, his first wife had run off with a bartender. At the time she bought the story. Until she learned from one of his old friends that it was Martin who had done the running. Just one of the things she conveniently chose to overlook for the sake of love and momentum.
As far as he was concerned, Martin would say, they were as good as married. It was just a piece of paper, after all. Rose didn't press him, perhaps deep down fearing he might run from her too. She allowed herself to settle into a state of complacency. Marriage would happen for them sooner or later. After all, the stars had aligned to bring them together at her mother's deathbed. He had to be the one.
Though the initial transgression had taken place weeks earlier, the confession came on the Ides of March, a suitable day for betrayal, though Martin would never have deliberately planned this detail. He wasn't the kind who planned things. After working from her apartment all day, Rose had gone out for Chinese food to surprise Martin at his place. She expected he'd still be at work, so she used her key to open the door. There she found him standing in the shadows in the hallway, a stripe of light from the streetlamps bisecting his face. She heard the tinkle of ice in a tumbler.
"You scared me," Rose said. "For heaven's sake, turn on some lights."
She reached for the switch but Martin intercepted. He took her by the wrist. For a second, she thought she had walked into another surprise party, like on her thirty-seventh birthday, when their friends jumped out from behind the furniture. "Surprise!" This time Rose was in for a surprise. It didn'ttakeher long to figure out something was wrong. Less than seconds.
All of it had happened less than three weeks ago. Rose had landed on Val's doorstep on Monday. By Thursday, she had moved into the cottage. After an exhausting day of navigating a rented U-Haul through narrow streets, lugging boxes and furniture, she'd fallen onto the mattress and slept like the dead. The next morning, as she peered out from the bedcovers at the strange room, she remembered something her mother had read to her once out of one of her old books, an essay by William Thackeray upon arriving in Boulogne from London. He'd written: "The morning comes -- I don't know a pleasanter feeling than that of waking with the sun shining on objects quite new..."
This morning there was no sun, and even if there were, it would have shone in a place that was quite new, but filled with objects that were quite old and familiar, and which now seemed strangely out of place. And so, rather than a pleasant feeling, it was one of dislocation. Rose was struck by the finality of the move and whirlwind of actions that had brought her there. How abruptly, if not impulsively, she'd called all of her clients and arrested her career. How she'd walked away from four years with Martin without so much as a definitive good-bye, just an unwillingness to pick up the phone ever again. All this had taken up residence in the room as well.
Rose stepped into the cocoon of a shower and was comforted by the smallness of it. This much she could absorb. She let the hot water run down her pale back and hamstrings, which were starting to ache from the previous day's exertions. When she got out, the porcelain tiles were cold on her feet. Rose dried herself and dressed quickly, before all the warmth from the hot water could escape her skin. She put on a pair of jeans and a turtleneck sweater, and was running her fingers through her hair when the doorbell rang. Through the peephole, she saw it was Val. She didn't need her landlady getting in the habit of dropping by unannounced. Rose would have to lay down the ground rules.
"Hi," Rose said, opening the door just enough to stick her head out.
Val smiled. "Hope I'm not bothering you. Just wanted to see how you're settling in." She strained to see in past Rose, apparently curious to see what her new tenant had done to the place. The room was still cluttered with boxes.
"I still have lots of unpacking to do, but thanks for checking up on me."
Val was shivering. A late season ice storm had hit last night and, once again, she wasn't wearing a jacket, just a thin cotton T-shirt that stretched tight across her belly and a maroon cardigan that had something heavy weighing down one of the pockets.
Rose was afraid she'd catch her death. "Want to come in?" She opened the door.
"Thanks," Val said. She stepped past the threshold.
Fine, but Rose wasn't about to invite her to stay for coffee. She had things to do, like find a job.
"Coffee smells good," Val said. She rubbed her hands together.
"Want a cup?" Rose asked.
"If it's no trouble." She followed Rose into the kitchen. "Clean mugs are in the cupboard."
"I found them," Rose said. She motioned for Val to take a seat at the little kitchen table. Rose took a mug from the cupboard and filled it with coffee, then handed it to her guest.
"It sure feels funny having someone living out here."
"Do you take it with anything?" Rose asked, hoping she'd say no because Rose had neither cream nor sugar.
"Just black," she said. "My father used this place to see patients when he retired." She made quotation marks with her fingers around the word. "Though he kept seeing patients till the end. He was an old-fashioned general practitioner. Last night I saw the light on and for a split second I thought he was still out here. The man's been dead for over thirty years. Can you imagine?"
"The mind plays tricks." Rose rinsed out the coffeepot in the sink, a Mr. Coffee, TR series, ten-cup.
A decanter-activated Pause 'N Serve drip-stop valve allows you up to thirty seconds to sneak a cup while the coffee is still brewing.
"That sink doesn't seem to be leaking anymore."
"I fixed it," Rose said.
"I think I'm going to like having you around." Val took a long draw of the coffee, then set it down. "I'll be honest. I really dropped by for three reasons." She touched her thumb. "One is to avoid Dorie Nickerson, who called to say she's dropping off a calendar list of things for me to do in the remaining two months before the Tri-centennial. As if I don't already know what they are. I'm afraid if she sees me, she'll add a few more for good measure."
Rose heard a car coming up the drive. Val stood up and peeked out the kitchen window.
"I've heard a little about that. When is it?" Rose had read a story in the Cape Gazette that laid out a brief history of the town of Nauset going back three hundred years to when it was first incorporated.
"June fourth. That's a Saturday. It's going to be quite a shindig, that is if we don't all kill each other before it rolls around, Dorie especially."
"The town administrator's wife. She means well but she goes off full bore in twenty directions at once and thinks she can boss everyone around just because her husband's a bigwig. Lately, there's been no stopping her. I tell her she needs a hobby." Val stood up to look out the window again. Then sat back down. "The way she struts around town, you'd think we'd all forgotten how she and her scallop-shucking girlfriends came up in a carload from New Bedford one summer hell-bent on landing husbands. Dorie set her sights on Zadie Nickerson and that was it. He didn't stand a chance, poor fool. She's a handsome woman, least she was then, and pretty resourceful. Zadie's ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, by the way, and when you meet him, you'll know it in the first five minutes."
"Why's that?" Rose was thinking some obvious blue-blood pallor or protruding jaw like the Habsburgs.
Val sipped her coffee. "He tells you every chance he gets. Cooper's the only one who puts old Dorie in her place. See, Cooper's Portuguese too, and she won't let Dorie forget it, not for all the bottle blonde this side of Buzzard's Bay."
Rose laughed. It was good to get an insider's perspective. It might help with her reporting. "What's the second reason? You said there were three."
Val touched her index finger. "I wanted to invite you to dinner tomorrow night."
"Thanks, but -- "
"You just moved in. You probably have nothing in that refrigerator yet. Am I right?"
Two cans of Coke, some packets of duck sauce, and a yogurt she'd had in a cooler in her hotel room for almost two weeks.
"I know what you're thinking," Val went on. "I'm going to be dropping by and bugging you all the time. I'm not. Let me just do it this once. I won't be a busybody landlady, I promise. I like my privacy too."
Rose had had her fill of iceberg-lettuce salads from Puritan Pizza. Plus she wanted to learn more about the people and the town, and about that artist.
"What can I bring?" she asked.
"Just yourself. Around six-thirty." Val stood and looked into the driveway again. "She's leaving, finally."
"What was the third thing?"
"The third thing." She reached into her sagging sweater pocket and produced a large Jimmy Fund can, the kind at cash registers encouraging people to drop in their spare change. "Raising money for cancer research is a pet project of mine." The cancer magazines. Was it her or someone close to her? "I'll be manning a booth at the Tri-centennial," she said. "Anyhow, I make a point of keeping a can around the house for when my wallet gets fat with coins. Every little bit helps."
She held out the can and Rose took it. There was a boy's face on the front.
Val continued: "You can just give it back when it's full. No hurry."
"Sure," Rose said. Maybe she'd lost her mother that way too. Maybe she was actually doing something about it. Rose felt guilty. She imagined their mothers up in heaven comparing daughters and her poor mother coming up short again. No wedding. No grandchildren. And she didn't even raise a red cent to cure the damn disease that killed me.
"I suppose it would help to know my daughter is a researcher at Dana Farber. I drive people nuts around here with my fund-raising. Most know about Eve, so they don'tmind. Gotta do what I can to help keep her in business, right? Just last night she called and told me they're onto something big, something to do with getting cancer cells to commit suicide."
Rose was impressed. Maybe Val wasn'tsuch a kook after all, having raised a kid who was making that kind of contribution to society.
Val took the small gold cross around her neck into her hand. "Suicide is a sin but God would make an exception for cancer cells, don't you think?" She dug into her sweater pocket and pulled out a penny, a broken toothpick, and a couple of lint balls. She dropped the penny in the slot and shook the can. The lonely sound of it rattled in Rose's ears.
The streets of Nauset were deserted. Last night's freezing rain had glazed the roads. The tangle of vines and fallen branches near the street were weighed down with ice. It was hard for Rose to believe in a few short weeks they'd become scaffolding for a fresh green canopy. The soulless voice from the National Weather Service was forecasting high gusts and a marine advisory. It didn't feel like April, but half the time April never did.
Rose needed to go into town to drop off her résumé at the Cape Gazette before the weekend. She had finally gotten through to the editor over the phone and he agreed to take a look at her puffed-up, virtually nonexistent credentials. She knew she didn't have much of a chance but it was worth a shot.
As Rose pulled out of the driveway onto Sea View Drive, a beaten-up Volvo came flying out of the driveway next door, cutting her off. She jammed on the brakes and the car started to slide, eventually coming to rest against the curb on the wrong side of the road. The engine stalled. When Rose looked up, the Volvo was gone.
"Asshole." Rose started breathing again. She rolled down the window to get some air. It was so quiet she could almost hear her heart beating. She restarted the engine and crept down the street, which was in rough shape, with frost heaves and patches of cobblestone showing through the layers of asphalt. This town was behind the curve for improvements. Most Cape villages had already been gentrified, young families squeezed out to make room for deep-pocketed baby boomers approaching retirement. Schools were faced with dwindling numbers and some were on the verge of closing their doors. What tradesperson could afford to buy even a simple cottage? Property values had risen almost steadily throughout the eighties and nineties to the point where Val's land alone, without the house, would have to be worth millions. But she wasn't living like any millionaire. It was obviously all she could to do to scrape up the taxes. In the Boston papers, Rose had read stories about Cape Codders who had been forced to cash out and move to places like Maine and Florida, even descendants of the great Cape families, the very blood and bone, being forced into exile. And while one couldn't feel too sorry for them -- after all they were now rich -- one could certainly feel for the next generation, the kids graduating from high school who hadn't a hope of ever earning enough money to settle down in their hometowns.
Rose pulled into the lot behind the offices of the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper with a circulation of approximately thirty thousand. She checked her face in the rearview mirror and, in it, saw the green Volvo that had nearly killed her. She grabbed her folder of résumés and got out.
Rose approached the Volvo, which was less car than carcass. There was a dead Christmas wreath tied to the front grille, decades of dump permits affixed to the windows, and a bumper sticker that said Plover tastes like chicken.
She walked across the lot and entered the low brick building. Inside, there was a large wood counter and, behind it, a silver logo on the wall. A young girl with short hair and long earrings was busy with a customer.
"Think it's going to clear up, Cooper?" the girl asked.
Cooper. Wasn't that the name of the woman who was trying to rent the apartments next door? So she'd been the culprit. The woman had on a yellow rain slicker -- regulation foul-weather gear -- with thick navy corduroys tucked into moss green knee-high rubber boots.
"You want to run the same ad?"
"Don't know why I even bother. Last one did me no good."
The girl made eye contact with Rose and winked as if to say, Bear with me. When she moved, her earrings tinkled like wind chimes. "Any changes?" she asked Cooper.
"No changes. It's about the only thing around here that never changes, me wasting my time running ads in this crummy paper that no one reads." Cooper looked around to see if she had an audience. She was a tough-looking bird in her sixties, with thick bangs and straight white hair cropped just above the chin in a hard line. The skin on her face was ruddy and weather-beaten, and her hands were chapped. "If I don't fill up those rooms soon, your next headline will read, 'Landlord Takes a Swan Dive off the Sagamore Bridge.'" She closed her eyes, stuck her arms straight out at her sides, and held them there.
Rose smiled. "Excuse me," she said. "Did I hear your name is Cooper?"
The woman nodded, still in her crucifix.
"I'm not sure how many Coopers there are in this town but I think I might be your new neighbor. Rose Nowak. I just moved into the Shimilitis cottage."
The woman opened her eyes and let her arms slap the sides of her slicker. "See that, Alice? Shimmy does better than me and she doesn't even run an ad." She extended her hand to shake Rose's. Her skin felt like tree bark. "Cooper Almeida."
"I understand you rent out apartments?" Rose said.
"Need tenants to be able to say that," Cooper said.
"You have one," Alice said.
"Think that one's what scares away the others," Cooper said.
"He couldn't scare a fly," the girl said. The printer spit out a piece of paper. The girl named Alice took it and walked back behind the partition.
Cooper turned to Rose. "So how much she charge?"
The rudeness of the question caught Rose off guard. "Five seventy-five but -- "
"A week?" Cooper whistled like it was a lot.
"A month," Rose said.
"What?!" Cooper shook her head in disgust. "That broad is nuts. The place is worth triple that."
"Do me a favor and don't tell her, okay?" Rose said, hoping to get the woman to crack a smile. She didn't.
"Don't have to worry about that. She never listens to me anyway." Cooper put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. "I suppose she fed you that crap about her property line."
"She might have mentioned something about a trapezoid," Rose said. Suddenly she felt uncomfortable, like the temperature of the room had spiked.
"I'll tell you what. I've known that gal long enough to know she flunked geometry in high school. Fact is, she's a rectangle," she said. She drew it out in the air, in that way where one can almost see the lines connect.
Here we go again, Rose thought.
"And I got the deed to prove it," Cooper added.
Rose took a step back. "Well, it all sounds complicated," she said.
"You brought it up," Cooper said.
"Did I?" Rose felt the heat migrate up her neck. She started thumbing through the papers in her folder so she wouldn't have to talk anymore. She found a typo on her résumé.
"I gotta know something," Cooper said.
Rose looked up.
Cooper craned her head over the desk to make sure Alice was out of earshot. "Was Val yapping about that kid of hers?"
What kind of question was that? Did this woman have it in for Val or what? "If I had a daughter like Eve, I'd talk about her too."
Cooper slapped the counter. "Oh Jesus, here we go."
Just then Alice came back round the corner. "Here you go," she said. She handed Cooper a receipt. "Better luck this week."
"Better wish her luck," Cooper said. She nodded in Rose's direction. "She's gonna need it." She lifted the yellow hood up over her head and started for the door.
"I can see that," Rose said. Welcome to the neighborhood. She waited until Cooper was out the door. "What a piece of work," she said to Alice.\
"Don't let her get to you. It's all an act."
Was she kidding?
"Sorry about the wait," Alice said. "What can I do for you?"Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Kiele Bonasia
Excerpted from Some Assembly Required by Lynn Kiele Bonasia Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Kiele Bonasia. Excerpted by permission.
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