Vinegar Hillby A. Manette Ansay
In her debut novel, Manette Ansay writes of one woman's gradual realization that in order to reenvision her life she must break all the rules. It is 1972 and Ellen Grier finds herself back in the Midwestern hometown she thought she had escaped for good. Worse yet, she and her family have had to move in with her in-laws: narrow-minded, eccentric people who are as tough… See more details below
In her debut novel, Manette Ansay writes of one woman's gradual realization that in order to reenvision her life she must break all the rules. It is 1972 and Ellen Grier finds herself back in the Midwestern hometown she thought she had escaped for good. Worse yet, she and her family have had to move in with her in-laws: narrow-minded, eccentric people who are as tough as the farm lives they have endured. Devout Catholics, they inhabit a world "as rigid, as precise as a church," and Ellen struggles to live by their motto: "A place for everything; everything in its place." But there is no place for Ellen -- fresh, funny, bright with passion -- in a house filled with the dust of routine and the ritual of prayer, the lingering bitterness of her in-laws' loveless marriage. She tries to be the model woman everyone expects her to be -- teaching at the Catholic school, coaxing her traveling-salesman husband through his increasingly irrational moods, caring for his aging parents -- but Ellen's hopes for her family's future collide with life in this bizarre household, and she worries over her wryly observant adolescent daughter and her timid young son. Encouraged by her friend Barb, a woman ostracized for being "modern" and "wild," Ellen begins to consider her own desires and dreams as well. Surrounded by the family's obsession with an exacting, angry God and the disquieting ghosts of the past, Ellen searches for a way to satisfy the demands of this rural community and its traditions until, at last, she discovers the family's darkest secret, one that frees her and changes her life forever.
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After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up James's coat, because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he and Fritz and Mary-Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with moss-colored carpet, Fritz's La-Z-Boy, Mary-Margaret's embroidered parlor chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary-Margaret's piano shines with lemon oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just her fingertips show.
"I'm going for a walk," she says.
"Why?" Herbert says.
"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight-thirty, put yourselves to bed."
"But you'll be back by eight-thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.
"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good-bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.
"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary-Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark,worried eyes.
"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.
Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."
"Mama's boy," Mary-Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."
"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary-Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.
Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. These after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, as she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowning the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.
From the street the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.
That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.
Oh no, it was much too dry.
No, really, it was good.
Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.
But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch and wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the singsong way of a prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat end the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.
She heads toward the downtown past other ranch-style houses, each centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it allthe harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a milethe clock in the steeple like a huge, patient eye.
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