On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, September 10, 2015

NEIGHBORS: An Excerpt from the Foxhill Series

Chapter 1

            They looked a bit out of the ordinary to her, but in this neighborhood, she knew from living here for almost five years, first in the apartment, now in her own place, non-conformity was the rule, not the exception.  People of different ilk seemed eager to move into a historically important place, including herself.  Paige Crowell considered herself a responsible sort of homeowner, the kind the Foxhill Association loved—widowed, just under fifty, presentable, and gainfully employed.  In fact, she was still able to attract the opposite sex as she sometimes told herself.  She thought less and less, though somewhat ruefully, of her short-lived romance she’d ended a couple of years ago; but no, she wouldn’t lament over that. 
            Now, she was settled quite happily into her own early 1900s piano box or spinet style home, looking with interest at an aging hippy and his wife, who were moving in across the street.  This identity of theirs Paige felt quite certain about as she noted the man’s sandals over a pair of socks, his shaggy beard and little pony tail, as well as his wife’s long straight hair, now graying, and her gauzy shirt over a long cotton skirt.  How inappropriate, Paige thought, for transporting boxes and furnishings over the broken sidewalk going to their house and through the tall grass if she took a shortcut.  Sometimes, the woman stepped on her skirt as she traversed the three stairs leading to the porch.  One or the other or both of them probably wore a peace symbol on a chain close to their heart.  They seemed like impractical, other-worldly types, always rather endearing people to Paige’s buttoned-up banker’s heart.
            She was observing them from the white painted wooden bench on her front porch. She’d gone out this Saturday morning to enjoy the late spring air and, by happenstance, view the activity on the corner, an obvious activity with a U-haul truck parked in the drive.  The house had sat empty for nearly six months before being sold.  The elderly Glenn sisters had died, one after the other in the space of a year, leaving the 1900-era four-square house looking rather seedy and unkempt.  The neighbors had anxiously awaited a sale in the hope some eager fixer-uppers would buy the old place and restore it.  Next door to Paige and a twin to the house across the street, the Metcalfs’ house gleamed with its white paint and dark green trim, its red tile roof and new copper flashing on the chimney.            
            Paige knew all about the history of the matching four-square houses: the grandson of the original plantation owners of Foxhill, now the name of the neighborhood, presented to his twin daughters matching homes upon their marriages, a double wedding, no less.  Paige’s neighbors, Martha and Hank Metcalf, had lived in their house for twelve years, Hank having plenty of income as an insurance executive to restore it to pristine condition.  The bane of their existence was the ever increasing dowdiness of the yellow painted twin across the street from them. 
            “When we bought our house,” Martha had confided to Paige, “we were the ones who had to scramble to get up to standard.  The Glenns were still living off the benefits of their parents’ will and keeping their place immaculate.  Gradually, though, it went downhill as the poor dears got in worse and worse shape, both financially and physically.” 
            Martha Metcalf was an attractive, athletically inclined woman with crisply curling black hair and warm, tobacco colored eyes.  She was near Paige’s own age and had one son, Rick, in his senior year at Duke.  Looking every inch the handsome, successful scion of a pair of successful, talented people, Rick had recently arrived home for the summer and planned on doing some computer work in his father’s office.
            Paige always looked at the Metcalfs admiringly, almost enviously, the family characterized by beauty of person, including not only Martha and good-looking Rick, but also the very attractive Hank.  Then too, even the grounds surrounding their house seemed perfection, being immaculately groomed like a park.   Martha herself slaved over the iris and tulip beds, regularly keeping the gold mound shrubs under control, even wrestling with tree shears and whacking off the tough, low-hanging limbs of the male Osage orange that grew like a giant umbrella in the back yard.  Luckily for its existence, only the female tree produced the nasty green “oranges.” The mowing was handled by a lawn service, who also took care of periodic fertilizing and pest control.  Paige had tried to mow her own small yard herself, but gave up after a harried summer at her job and engaged the same service.
            She wondered how the new neighbors would landscape their place.  These two corner houses in Foxhill called attention to themselves, being large and in a prominent location from the main and side streets.  She hoped they would remove or at least trim the scraggly forsythia on one corner of the house as well as the overgrown bridal wreath in front.  It was a very large house, but she saw no sign of a family to fill it up.  Maybe they worked at home and needed the space.  She was sure to find out soon, for Martha would make it her task to inquire, probably with a neighborly pan of brownies or a casserole.   Also in her hand would be the sheet of Foxhill Association rules and regulations, which as secretary of the Association she felt it her duty to present to all newcomers in the area.
            Always a concern to Martha and others in the Association were places like the large Victorian Queen Anne next door to the corner house.  It seemed quite naturally to turn a blind eye to the moving-in activity, with renters as the sole occupants.  It had been divided into apartments years before and though the owners lived elsewhere, it was fairly well kept up, so far, but with renters and absentee owners, neighbors were on the alert for signs of disintegration.  The apartment occupants were young working people who took little interest in the neighbors, coming and going from work to entertainments, Paige supposed, for she seldom saw any of them for any length of time, except a man who jogged through the neighborhood each morning.
            Paige couldn’t see the Metcalfs’ driveway from her vantage point with the two projecting ells on either side of her porch enclosing her, but she heard the low purr of Rick’s sports car as he backed out.  Before he got to the street, however, he saw her and gave a friendly wave.  A nice young man, Paige thought, though she had very little personal knowledge of his attributes, other than he had a friendly manner and the fact that he was managing to stay in college.  So many of the professional people she knew had problems with their children.  Odd, really, that prosperity ruined so many.  At least in her lonely, childless state she was spared that worry.
            She went back into the house when she noticed the new neighbors had noticed her.  The man nodded and she smiled, but she decided her scrutiny might seem a bit pointed if it went on too long.  Besides, she had things to do today, her cleaning and errand day, always busy for a working woman, and it was nearly nine o’clock.  But after her chores around the house were completed and she was sitting in her art deco kitchen eating a bowl of cereal, her doorbell rang.  She couldn’t imagine who’d be calling on her, but she hurried to the front door.  Martha stood before her, holding with oven mitts a large covered dish, her eyebrow raised, her lips pursed in one of her assumed dramatic poses that she used for various effects. 
            “What’s all this?” Paige asked, standing aside for her to come into the room.
            “Have some chicken confetti spaghetti.  They don’t want it,” she said with a head gesture toward the house across the street. She spoke emphatically but not really in an angry tone.
            Paige looked with dismay at the large casserole being offered to her.  It would take days to down it by herself, and she hadn’t planned on having any dinner parties.  Her innate sense of fairness obligated her to at least make the attempt to eat all of it.  Well, there was always the freezer, the saving grace of leftovers.
            Martha zoomed though the living room into the kitchen, with Paige following, where she set her dish on the stove.  “I thought I’d be neighborly, even though I’d already decided they didn’t look our sort, and I fixed this complicated casserole, not that I minded.  You know me, Paige, it’s what I do.  Well, guess what?  They’re vegetarians.  Thanks but no thanks, they said.  Didn’t even invite me in. What do you think of that?”
            “I–I don’t know.  They’re very busy, it looks like.  And I suppose people have a right to not to eat meat.”
            “They seem a certain type, wouldn’t you say?” Martha continued, her normally smooth brow furrowed.  “The artsy-fartsy type, maybe?”
            Paige laughed.  “I wouldn’t be surprised.  Actually, I’ve dealt with the ‘flower children’ crowd before and usually they lead simple lives in an attempt at some sort of purity, according to their thinking.  For the most part, they pay their bills and cause no problems at the bank, that’s for sure.  Hate to take out loans, for example.”
            Martha gave a sigh and turned to go.  She seldom stayed long at Paige’s house, always claiming to have a multitude of tasks awaiting her.  “We’ll see,” she said after a long pause, “if you’ve analyzed them accurately.”  She turned and sailed out of the room, flinging back at Paige, “Enjoy the casserole!”
            “Wait, wait, Martha,” Paige cried, pursuing her, “you’re the one with big eaters over there.  Don’t you think you should keep it?”
            “Made two,” she said, letting the screen door slam behind her.

Chapter 2
            But it was Paige who discovered the facts about the new neighbors in a most satisfactory and unexpected way.  She had been at work the next week, as usual seeing customers in her office, those wanting to open a new account or apply for a loan.  Paige worked in a branch of the bank located near her home, and as one of two vice presidents in charge there, she had to handle a variety of transactions. 
            She didn’t recognize at first the couple that entered her office on Wednesday and sat down across from her desk.  She smiled at them and gave her usual pleasant opening, “And what can I do for you?” when it occurred to her they just might be the people she’d seen moving in across the street.  She looked from one to the other as the man said they wished to open a checking account.  Yes, she was sure it was her new neighbors that she’d viewed from her porch, dressed more formally now, but only just, the man in a plaid shirt worn outside a pair of wrinkled slacks, the woman, who up close was rather attractive in a gaunt, au naturale sort of way, wearing a butcher linen dress with a long, straight skirt and strands of colored beads around her neck.
            As Paige took out the various forms for the couple to fill out, she asked, “Are you folks newcomers to the city, by any chance?”
            “Yes,” the man said, “I’m Stewart Carpenter, and this is my wife, Noreen.  We just recently moved to Nashville.  I’ve just gotten on with the Symphony.  I’m an oboist.”
            “Oh, that’s very interesting,” Paige said enthusiastically.  A respectable musician, no less.  That will be something to report to Martha.  “I believe I’m your neighbor,” she went on, continuing to take her measure of the two.  Noreen hadn’t yet said a word.  “I live across the street in the little piano box house it’s called, for the style of 19th century pianos.  I saw you last Saturday when you were moving in.”
            “Ah,” said Stewart, nodding.  He turned to his wife.  “We were too busy to notice neighbors, weren’t we, hon, but one lady came over with something to eat, which because of our dietary restrictions, we were sorry to refuse.”
            “We don’t eat meat,” Noreen said in a voice stronger than Paige might have imagined.  She looked meek, but that might be a misjudgment.  “Or fish or eggs, for that matter,” the woman persisted.
            Paige hardly knew how to respond to such information.  “I see,” she said, and then changing the subject and getting back to business, she explained about their choices in checking and savings accounts.  The couple looked at one another and made up their minds, presenting a cashier’s check to Paige to open the account.
            “We have savings at our bank in Birmingham, which we can move out later,” said Stewart.
            “Of course.  Whenever it’s convenient.   Now if I can have your signatures on this card–and we’ll get your check deposited.”  While they were complying, Paige said in a friendly fashion, “Do you have family?  That’s a nice sized place you’ve bought.”
            “Just our daughter, Aurora,” Stewart replied, “we’ll be picking her up at Berea this weekend.   We’re real proud of her.  She’s got a full academic scholarship, but she’ll be looking for work this summer.  I don’t suppose there’d be anything here,” he added with a grin through his blondish beard.  His wife looked around the office as if she might spy an available job.
            “I’m afraid we’ve already selected our two summer interns,” Paige responded. “Is your daughter majoring in finance?”  That seemed most unlikely, given her parents.
            “Not really,” her father said, “but summer jobs are kind of hard to come by.”  He looked at his wife.  “I guess Aurora could help Noreen in her business.”
            Paige raised her eyebrows inquiringly.  “Oh?”
            “That’s why we love our new house,” Noreen said. “It will give me room for a kiln–in the basement, I mean.”
            “Ah,” Paige gave a knowing nod, “so you’re a potter.”
            “Indeed she is,” her husband said proudly.  “She’s won prizes–her things are in porcelain.  That’s pretty rare, you know.”
            “I’m sure it is.  I’d love to see some of your work.”  Paige rose and ushered them from her office, leading them to a particular cashier to make their deposit.  The couple took turns shaking Paige’s hand before she went back to her office.  She wasn’t put off by them, but she wasn’t particularly impressed either.  She was pretty sure they’d not become fast friends.  Aurora?  As best she remembered, that was some sort of goddess.  She quickly checked on her computer and found it was the goddess of the dawn, “the rosy-fingered one.”  Of course.
            Paige wasn’t the sort of person who dropped in casually at her neighbors.  For one thing, she wasn’t particularly close to any of them.  The Metcalfs had their own busy lives, both Hank and Martha involved in numerous activities that seemed to keep them constantly on the go.  Paige felt little connection to them other than gratitude that they were highly respectable and responsible neighbors.  On the other side of her house, the resident in a red brick, 1929 English style two-story was elderly and apt to be nosy.  A daughter periodically came around to check on her and take her to various appointments, according to Mrs. Hammond, the lady of the house that Paige had met outside when she was moving in and now occasionally over the rose bushes out back.   This was fine with Paige, who tended to keep to herself and her long-time friends.
            Yet, the information collected at work about the new neighbors Paige felt Martha would be pleased to know, having been so definitely rebuffed in her attempt at neighborliness.  As Paige passed her living room window after work on Friday, she saw Martha’s car pull into the drive and around back to the detached garage, enlarged several years ago to hold three cars.  Paige made up her mind and went swiftly to her back door, intercepting Martha as she started for her house.
            The woman turned and gave Paige a look of mock surprise.  “Hello, neighbor.  What’s going on?”
            Paige joined Martha and walked slowly with her toward the Metcalfs’ patio.  “I found out some interesting facts about our new neighbors, which I was sure you’d like to hear.”  Martha gestured for her to sit in one of the wrought iron chairs around a matching umbrella table, where she joined Paige. 
            “What, for heaven’s sake?” urged Martha.  “Is he a registered sex offender?  Does she do palm readings?  I’d not be surprised at anything.”
            Paige laughed.  “They’re seemingly respectable, if different.” Paige gave Martha the run-down on the Cartwrights’ occupations, watching Martha’s face change from avid curiosity to surprise to a kind of acceptance. 
            “Artsy-fartsy, just as I suspected.”
            “Yes, but not far out, really.”
            “Oh, really?” Martha countered.  “We’ll see.  I just hope they are conventional when it comes to taking care of the house and lawn.  They can do whatever in their private live, eat tofu, play the sitar, whatever.  Just so they keep up appearances.”
            Paige hesitated a moment and then said, “They asked if there might be something for their daughter in the way of work this summer at the bank.  Of course, we’re a small branch with little summer hiring, so I couldn’t help, but maybe if Hank put in a word at his company, just a word to the H.R. department, she might be taken on.”
            “Isn’t that carrying neighborliness a bit far?” Martha said.  “I mean, we don’t know them, or the daughter at all.  What’s her name?  Aurora?  How peculiar, but I guess it’s better than the girls names I hear all about me now–Taylor, Macy, Shepherd, Quincy–oh, well, times change, don’t they, Paige?”
            Paige had a moment of embarrassment as she reflected her own name wouldn’t pass muster with Martha, who continued on with her musings. “ I’ll tell you what, you say they’re bringing her home this weekend?  Well, if I see them outside, I’ll make a point of greeting them–again.  If I can meet the daughter, I’ll see what I can do.  I’m nothing if not persistently friendly!”  She gave a peal of laughter.
            Paige smiled in agreement.  “That would be nice of you.  I had a feeling they might be operating pretty close to the vest.  I doubt that a Symphony member makes that much.  I’ve heard they have to do a lot of moonlighting, and how much work can an oboist get?”
            With that, Paige parted from her neighbor, feeling she’d done her good deed for the day and not quite knowing why she’d bothered.   There was something about the new neighbors that evoked her interest.