Upstateby Sallie Bingham
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A woman’s obsession drives an affair out of control, violating social contracts and devastating the people in its path. For years, Ann and David shared weekends and holidays with country friends Flora and Edwin, even after womanizing Edwin took Ann away to pick grapes and started a year-long affair. The ground rules were clear from the start: Flora accepted what she called Edwin’s meaningless “things,” and Edwin stipulated no divorces. But Ann’s empty marriage (to which David was providing neither money nor sex) and growing need for Edwin causes her to ask for more, leading to estrangement and a startling climax.
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By Sallie Bingham
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1993 Sallie Bingham
All rights reserved.
I am standing on Shultz Hill at six o'clock in the morning: Labor Day. To the west, the Hudson River Valley is streaked about equally with industrial smoke and fog. The river itself is hidden by a fold of hills. Beyond it lie the Catskills, those humpbacked purple mountains, which we never climbed in our eight years here. To the east, the Berkshires back up against a cloudbank which is reddened by the hidden sun. At my feet, the little hills and valleys of my country are lined with banners and processions of mist. It is an old, failed landscape, the farms gone—my place was one of them—and the fields grown back with sumac, heaven trees and scrub pine. Even on my hilltop, I can hear the buzz of early-morning traffic to Poughkeepsie.
Eight years ago, I bought the white house which I can see in the valley: a small frame house, with eight rooms divided four downstairs and four up. It was the cheapest advertised that Sunday in the "Farms and Country Homes" section of The New York Times. Waiting for the real estate agent to unlock the door, I heard the traffic on the highway, beyond the yard and a row of old maples. I was carrying Jeff, and Molly and Keith were picking along behind me. "You do hear the road," my husband observed.
"That's just 11H," the real estate lady said, "an old two-laner they'll never get around to widening. You can't actually see it from the house."
A few hours later, I had decided to buy the house, with money my grandfather had made off railroads in Florida.
"Do you want it?"
"Yes. Do you want it?"
"Yes. But you do hear the highway ..."
I was a righteous person, working on my third baby, protecting my two older children from most of the rigors of the world and satisfying my husband to the best of my distracted ability; fortunately his demands were minimal. I had packed my life so tight there was no room for one alien impression, one mistaken impulse to intrude. So buying a house on whim was like buying a mad hat or a chocolate ice cream cone: it just didn't fit.
The sun moves up out of the cloudbank, blinding me and casting my stork-tall shadow across the grass. A blue-jay screams in the woods behind me. The grass as it warms smells sweet. Across the river, the trees shimmer and turn green and the traffic on the highway picks up. It is morning, time to go home.
I turn down the path. The first climb, and the last. At eight o'clock, the auctioneer and his men are coming to set up their tent in my yard. We are selling eight years of accumulation—"household effects," the advertisement called it—because the house has been sold and we are moving on.
I think of the children sleeping, each in his cell. Their light breath fills the house, lifting it slightly, ballooning out the thin frame walls.
My husband is here, too, for the auction, installed in the downstairs guest room. We have been married for fifteen years and separated for the last five months. His hairbrush and shaving gear are laid out on the toilet tank in the bathroom, as neatly aligned as they were on the shaky nightstand, in Florence, in the room where we spent our first careful, sticky night. He had a zip-up bag which contained all the necessities, even a pack of rubbers which he slipped under the pillow, not quite escaping my eye. Those were the old days, and my diaphragm had stayed in my pensione with my guide books and camera and list of letters to write home.
Walking down the hill, I wonder why my children have never seemed as young as David and I seemed, that summer in Florence and for so many years afterwards.
I stop at the edge of the highway, feeling self-conscious in my rubber boots and old Mexican serape. Pale faces peer from the interiors of speeding cars. At last I cross, at a dead run. I hurry up the gravel road, wondering what David will think if he wakes up and finds me gone.
I crossed the patch of parched grass between the concrete slaughterhouse and the sideporch. My begonias are blooming in crocks on either side of the door. I slide it back and step into the smoke from burning pancakes. David is standing at the stove in his white pajamas, pouring batter onto the griddle. He glances at me, smiles, and pours another dab. "Good morning, Ann. Enjoy your walk?"
I grunt. His civil behavior is a cross I will not bear.
"The children are still asleep," he says.
"They wouldn't be frightened if they woke up and found I wasn't in bed. They know I take walks in the early morning."
"Would you like some pancakes?"
"No, thank you."
"I put blueberries in them." He is proud of his newly-acquired cooking skill. I am thinking of the price of the blueberries, charged to my account at Mrs. Hunter's fancy fruit market.
"You sound like a teenager."
"You put me in my place." I push my heel into the crude wooden bootjack which Edwin and his eldest son made for me, last Christmas. Stepping on the back of the jack with my other foot, I imagine that I am stepping on David's neck.
"I see you still have that thing," he says, sitting down to his pancakes. His pajama fly gapes and I catch sight of a mass of dark curled hair. He closes his fly with one hand, then pours maple syrup liberally on his pancakes. "I thought you said you were going to get rid of it."
"It has been in and out of the garbage several times." Watching him eat, I am annoyed by his silent assumption: he has always said that Edwin caused it all. "I am going to keep everything he gave me," I add defiantly. We both know there is nothing else.
I hang the bootjack on its nail and stop its swinging, gently, with my hand. Edwin's handiwork. Why is it that making love once with Edwin under a full moon in a wet field mattered more to me than fifteen years of discussion, dinner parties, agreement, affection, shared meals, plans, children? Edwin, the maker, with his small strong hands, the opposition between thumb and forefinger maddeningly delicate, precise. Edwin, the wizard, the healer, the one who splits the soul.
David eats, his fork traveling to his mouth at regular intervals. Now and then he wipes his lips with a folded paper napkin. He has set the sugar bowl where he can reach it next to the vitamin pills, lined up silverware on either side of his mat. Next to his right hand, he has laid a yellow legal pad and a sharpened pencil; I see the date written across the top.
"What are you going to write on your pad?" I ask.
"Just a few thoughts. When are they coming to set up the tent?"
"In half an hour, at eight. Tom wants to have everything set up and ready to start the auction at ten."
We both glance into the living room where the furniture is huddled in a corner. "I notice you've decided to sell your aunt's sewing table," David remarks. "It's very fine. Don't you think you ought to keep it for the children?"
"I've told you several times, I'm keeping almost nothing."
"It seems to me you ought to keep something from your family, for the children." He catches a runnel of maple syrup on the side of his fork and carries it to his mouth.
"What are you keeping from your family?" I ask.
"Nothing, really. I don't like that heavy Victorian stuff. My mother asked for the pair of Ming lamps—I told her I'd see to it that she gets them."
"Be sure to put a label on them."
"I will, as soon as I'm finished here. Surely you're going to keep the grandfather clock?"
"I don't think the children are going to want a grandfather clock."
"Why should you decide for them?"
"They can have my diaries," I say, "when they want them. That's the whole story: money and desolation. The furniture, the silver, the china—that's the trimmings."
"I don't like yard sales."
"This isn't a yard sale, it's a cut higher—an auction. The last yard sale was a disaster." I like to make concessions when I can. "People parked all over the grass and they wanted to see what else we had in the house."
"That woman from Red Hook came into the parlor and actually asked me the price of the chair I was sitting on."
"You were very polite, you even offered her a cup of coffee."
We laugh and the weight lifts. I go on eagerly, "It was a real disaster, a mistake in judgment. Do you remember, it began to rain after lunch and we had to haul everything inside. We only made something like nine dollars, and that had to be divided among the three children." I do not remind him that I was helpless with giggles all day, rattling my change box like a leper's bell.
Since then I have wanted to get rid of the rest of my possessions. When David moved out, my wish began to grow vigorously, sprouting roots and leaves like the sweet potato vine I grew in a glass jar as a child; now the roots have filled all the available space. I am bound to my mistakes by these chairs and tables, these nesting ashtrays and mismatched lamps, all remnants of other pasts, some mine and now partially detached, some connected to other people's lives. It seems to me that change will come more quickly without the framework of my mother's good taste and my own extravagance, David's mother's vulgarity and his own cleverness at spotting a good buy.
I imagine the way the living room will look, cleared out, full of sun, as it was when I first saw it. I am making space here, again, I am clearing the way. I am also hoping to make a little money. With it, I will be able to buy the essentials for the apartment in the city where I will be living alone with my two younger children.
I look into the living room again. My family's things—the sideboard from the Georgia house, the Shaker rocking chair, the cradle we never used—are pushed together with the carved wooden knicknack shelf, the icon with its starring eyes and the curly-legged rosewood chairs which David's mother contributed. Around and beneath these objects lie the things we bought ourselves—the little round mirror from the antique store in Claverack, the toolchest the children used for blocks. All these things have fused into a molten lump.
I remember unlocking the front door on winter Fridays, my arms full of groceries, the children scrapping at my heels; the furniture loomed in the dark like the real inhabitants of the place. The overstuffed chairs by the fireplace were as gross and misshapen as the farm wives whose yearly labors took place in the downstairs guestroom, the china cabinet loomed like a maiden aunt. I only loved the house in the beginning, when it was nearly empty. Then there was the sweet smell of baby powder, the fragrance of the pine essence I used in the vaporizers, the fine stink of diapers. As the children began to grow up, the house began to fill with things, and then the parties began.
Last New Year's Eve, I sat on the basement steps with Edwin, his cool hand down the back of my jeans. Looking down, I saw a cow snake lying on the warm cement next to the furnace. "Look at the snake," I said. Edwin got up, went down the steps, took up the broom and, with a whack, broke the snake's back. Then he opened the basement door and scraped the snake out, where it lay in a loop on top of the frozen snow. "You should really have kept it to eat the mice," he said, coming back, the cold air fresh in his dark hair. Sitting down again beside me on the stairs, he put his hand again down the back of my jeans; his fingers were chilly.
Now Edwin and I do not see each other anymore and I do not know what to do with what I have become. In six years of living alone, I've seen enough to know that my careful opposites at dinner parties will never want my hunger. Even Edwin had his doubts, calling me names when I was too greedy. He did not believe me when I told him I loved him. He had only his penis to offer and he wanted to be accepted for that alone; but also to be honored as a friend, revered as a doctor, appealed to as an authority on the problems of childhood, respected in general for his commitment, his moral stance. The split in this man was so wide and so deep that my ceaseless attempts to bridge it were as futile as a spider's aim to fling a thread from one fence-post to the next—not that a spider would have tried. Yet my split man is the only man in the world who seems worth reassembling, to me, or loving in pieces (he would say, to pieces), the only man in the world whose honest pain cannot be comforted, whose rage cannot be placated, who exists independently of my love and attention (although not of his wife's) like a meteor on a dark country night.
David has taken his plate to the sink. "I think you're making a mistake with this auction," he calls over the running water.
I walk over to him, realizing as I do that there is a space of inert air, as resistant as plastic, between us. "We talked about this months ago, David. I told you then I wanted to get rid of practically everything."
"I don't believe you can do it."
"I know. Also I need the money."
This is something he will not discuss. He squeezes soap onto the dishes.
"When are you going to decide how much you can afford to give me for the children?"
"My lawyer is talking to your lawyer next week. I doubt if you're going to clear very much on this auction, by the time we've split the proceeds and paid the expenses. Labor Day—whose idea was that?" For the first time, he is crisp.
"Tom thought it was a good idea—the end of the summer, people feeling restless, ready to buy. He should know, I thought."
"Tom? Well, he's in the business. I never have heard anything good about him, though.
He has those auctions in that rundown inn in Hillsdale, doesn't he?"
"Yes, those and that one which was really quite good—the Hull place on the river."
He is mollified. "Still, I would have thought Labor Day was a bad time to choose, especially with this weather. People are going to the lake."
"We'll just have to see, won't we?" My tone has become the nasty harsh self-justifying voice I used with my children when they were too young to argue.
Attracted by my sharpness, he asks, "How are you managing, living alone? Are you all right?"
He is coming with the bandages.
"I like it a great deal. I've always liked living alone. The year before we were married, when I was working in New York, was one of the happines times of my life." That of course is not entirely untrue. I add, "Being up here alone for eight summers with the children was what convinced me I wanted to live by myself."
"I don't know how you can say that."
"Well, it's so, in a way. The more conspicuous reason may turn out in the end to have been less important."
His eyes slide around the curve of my cheek before catching on my ear; they hang there briefly while he speculates. "Don't you think it might have been worth something,—another year, or so?"
"I don't know. Nothing would have changed."
He gets up to let in the cat who is scratching at the kitchen door. He waits until she has finished rubbing against his legs and then sits down so that she can jump onto his lap. "It might have changed," he says.
"Why? You weren't hurting, and I was half asleep."
"I was starting to notice a little something."
I laugh, hear the teetering sound and stop. "A little something. Such as that we never wanted to fuck anymore. When I used to try to talk about it, you'd say I was being pessimistic."
"You were always so black. You never wanted to talk about the good things."
"What were they?"
He stirs sugar into his coffee. "It's late to talk about that now. First you made up your mind you want a separation and now you want an agreement, as well."
"I thought you wanted it, too—to straighten things out."
"I told you, if you want it, I'll agree. If you want a divorce, I won't fight it."
"Anything I say. Why is it I'm not worth a fight?"
"Because you've already made up your mind," he says.
And yet I want him to fight for me, to struggle against the current that is sweeping us apart.
After a pause, David asks, "Where are the children?"
"They'll be up soon." I know he has reached the limit of his endurance; the children will provide a little padding. How easy it is, still, for me to read his signs. David's mother, the dragon lady, used to ask me why I couldn't understand her son; she had taught him a set of signals which worked quite well in the rest of the world, worked superbly well, in fact, in his law firm and at dinner parties. I tried to explain that I could read him well enough but that his vocabulary was too limited. My own is simplified enough, but it is entirely different. It is only in the last year that I have been forced to add a few qualifiers to what is, after all, only the old sordid all-engulfing search for love. Now I know that I must also learn to survive, and that is another language.
"There they are," David says. I think he means the children, then see that he is looking out the window. Tom's green pickup has turned onto the gravel road. It stops at the slaughterhouse and two men climb out. "I wonder if we ought to offer them coffee," David says.
"I don't think they expect it."
David goes to the window to watch them. The two men let down the truck's tailgate and begin to haul out a mound of canvas.
"What percentage are they getting?" David asks.
"What," he asks quietly, "is the usual?"
"I've forgotten. You can ask Tom when you take him out the coffee."
Excerpted from Upstate by Sallie Bingham. Copyright © 1993 Sallie Bingham. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sallie Bingham is a writer, teacher, feminist activist, and philanthropist.
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