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Authors: Thomas H. Cook

Breakheart Hill (37 page)

BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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We lived on Myrtle Street in those days, just down from Chatham School, in a white house with a small porch, like almost all the others in the village. As we drove toward it, passing through the center of town on the way, my father pointed out various stores and shops where Miss Channing would be able to buy her supplies. She seemed quite attentive to whatever my father told her, her attention drawn to this building or that one with an unmistakable appreciativeness, like someone touring a gallery or a museum, her eyes intently focused on the smallest things, the striped awning of Mayflower’s, the
hexagonal bandstand on the grounds of the town hall, the knot of young men who lounged in front of the bowling alley, smoking cigarettes, and in whose desultory habits and loose morals my father claimed to glimpse the grim approach of the coming age.

A hill rose steadily from the center of town, curving to the right as it ascended toward the coastal bluff. The old lighthouse stood at the far end of it, its grounds decorated with two huge whitewashed anchors.

“We once had three lighthouses here in Chatham,” my father said. “One was moved to Eastham. The second was lost in the storm of twenty-three.”

Miss Channing gazed at our remaining lighthouse as we drifted by it. “It’s more striking to have only one,” she said. She turned toward the backseat, her eyes falling upon me. “Don’t you think so, Henry?”

I had no answer for her, surprised as I was that she’d bothered to ask, but my father appeared quite taken by her observation.

“Yes, I think that’s true,” he said. “A second makes the first less impressive.”

Miss Channing’s eyes lingered on me a moment, a quiet smile offered silently before she turned away.

Our house was situated at the end of Myrtle Street, and on the way to it we passed Chatham School. It was a large brick building with cement stairs and double front doors. The first floor was made up of classrooms, the second taken up by the dormitory, dining hall, and common room.

“That’s where you’ll be teaching,” my father told her, slowing down a bit as we drove by. “We’ve made a special room for you. In the courtyard.”

Miss Channing glanced over to the school, and from her reflection in the glass, I could see that her eyes were very still, like someone staring into a crystal ball, searching for her future there.

We pulled up in front of our house a few seconds later. My father opened the door for Miss Channing and escorted
her up the front stairs to the porch, where my mother waited to be introduced.

“Welcome to Chatham,” my mother said, offering her hand.

She was only a few years younger than my father, but considerably less agile, and certainly less spirited, her face rather plain and round, but with small, nervous eyes. To the people of Chatham, she’d been known simply as the “music teacher” and more or less given up for a spinster. Then my father had arrived, thirty-one years old but still a bachelor, eager to establish a household in which he could entertain the teachers he’d already hired for his new school, as well as potential benefactors. My mother had met whatever his criteria had been for a wife, and after a courtship of only six weeks, he’d asked her to marry him. My mother had accepted without hesitation, my father’s proposal catching her so completely by surprise, as she loved to tell the women in her sewing circle, that at first she had taken it for a joke.

But on that afternoon nearly twenty years later, my mother no longer appeared capable of taking anything lightly. She’d grown wide in the hips by then, her figure large and matronly, her pace so slow and ponderous that I often grew impatient with it and bolted ahead of her to wherever we were going. Later in life she sometimes lost her breath at the top of the porch stairs, coming to a full stop in order to regain it, one hand grasping a wooden supporting post, the other fluttering at her chest, her head arched back as she sucked in a long, difficult breath. In old age her hair grew white and her eyes dimmed, and she often sat alone in the front room, or lay curled on her bed, no longer able to read and barely able to attend to the radio. Even so, something fiery remained in her to the very end, fueled by a rage engendered by the Chatham School Affair, one that smoldered forever after that.

She died many years after the affair had run its frightful course, and by then much had changed in all our lives: the large house on Myrtle Street no more than a memory, my
father living on a modest pension, Chatham School long closed, its doors locked, its windows boarded, the playing fields gone to weed, all its former reputation by then reduced to a dark and woeful legacy.

I was in my room an hour later, perusing the latest issue of
Grady’s Illustrated Magazine for Boys
, when my father summoned me downstairs.

“It’s time to take Miss Channing home,” he told me.

I followed him out the door, then down the front stairs to where Miss Channing was already waiting in the car.

“It’s only a short drive,” my father said to her as he pulled himself in behind the wheel. “Perhaps I can get you there ahead of the rain.”

But he could not, for as we drove toward the cottage, the overhanging clouds suddenly disgorged their burden, thunderously and without warning, as if abruptly being called to account.

Once outside the village center, my father turned right, onto the coastal road, past the great summer houses that rose along the shore, then on toward the marsh, with its shanties and fishermen’s houses, their unkempt yards scattered with stacks of lobster traps and tangled piles of gray netting.

Given the torrent, the drive was slow, the old Ford sputtering along, battered from all directions by sudden whipping gusts, the windshield wipers squeaking rhythmically as they swept ineffectually across the glass.

My father kept his eyes on the road, of course, but I noticed that Miss Channing’s attention had turned toward the landscape of Cape Cod, its short, rounded hills sparsely clothed in tangles of brush and scrub oak, wind ripping through the sea grass that sprouted from the dunes.

“The Cape’s pretty, don’t you think, Miss Channing?” my father said cheerfully.

Her reply must have startled him.

“It looks tormented,” she said, staring out the window on the passenger side, her voice suddenly quite somber, as if it came from some darker part of her mind.

My father glanced toward her. “Tormented? What do you mean?”

“It reminds me of the islands of the Florida Keys,” she answered, her eyes still concentrated on the landscape. “The name the Spanish gave them.”

“What name was that?”

“Los Martires,” Miss Channing answered. “Because they looked so tormented by the wind and the sea.”

“Forgive my ignorance,” my father said. “But what does ‘Los Martires’ mean?”

Miss Channing continued to gaze out the window. “It means ‘the martyrs,’ ” she said, her eyes narrowing somewhat, as if she were no longer looking at the dunes and the sea grass beyond her window, but at the racked and bleeding body of some ancient tortured saint.

My father drew his attention back to the road. “Well, I’ve never thought of the Cape as looking like that,” he said. Then, to my surprise, I saw his eyes lift toward the rearview mirror, fix on mine. “Have you ever thought of the Cape like that, Henry?”

I glanced out the window at my right, toward a landscape that no longer seemed featureless and inert, but beaten and bedeviled, lashed by gusts of wind and surging waters. “Not until just now,” I said.

At about a mile beyond town we swung onto a stretch of road bordered on all sides by dense forest and covered with what had once been a layer of oyster shells, but which past generations of hooves and feet and wagon wheels had since ground into little more than a fine powder.

The woods had encroached so far into the road that I could hear the surrounding vegetation slap and scrape against the side of the car as we bumped along the road.

“It gets pretty deserted out this way,” my father said. He added nothing else as we continued in silence until the road forked, my father taking the one to the right, moving down it for perhaps a quarter mile, until it widened suddenly, then came to an abrupt dead end before a small white cottage.

“There it is,” my father said. “Milford Cottage.”

It was tiny compared to our house on Myrtle Street, so dwarfed by the surrounding forest that it appeared to crouch fearfully within a fist of green, a dark stretch of water sweeping out behind it, still and lightless, its opaque depths unplumbed, like a great hole in the heart of things.

“That’s Black Pond,” my father said.

Miss Channing leaned forward slightly, peering at the cottage very intently through the downpour, like a painter considering a composition, calculating the light, deciding where to put the easel. It was an expression I would see many times during the coming year, intense and curious, a face that seemed to draw everything into it by its own strange gravity.

“It’s a simple place,” my father told her. “But quite nice. I hope you’ll at least find it cozy.”

“I’m sure I will,” she said. “Who lived here?”

“It was never actually lived in,” my father answered. “It was built as a honeymoon cottage by Mr. Milford for his bride.”

“But they never lived there?”

My father appeared reluctant to answer her but obligated to do so. “They were both killed on the way to it,” he said. “An automobile accident as they were coming back from Boston.”

Miss Channing’s face suddenly grew strangely animated, as if she were imagining an alternative story in her mind, the arrival of a young couple who never arrived, the joys of a night they never spent together, a morning after that was never theirs.

“It’s not luxurious, of course,” my father added quickly, determined, as he always was, to avoid disagreeable
things, “but it’s certainly adequate.” His eyes rested upon Miss Channing for a moment before he drew them away abruptly, and almost guiltily, so that for a brief instant he looked rather like a man who’d been caught reading a forbidden book. “Well, let’s go inside,” he said.

With that, my father opened the door and stepped out into the rain. “Quickly now, Henry.” He motioned for me to get Miss Channing’s valises and follow him into the cottage.

He was already at the front door, struggling with the key, his hair wet and stringy by the time I reached them. Miss Channing stood just behind him, waiting for him to open the door. As he worked the key, twisting it right and left, he appeared somewhat embarrassed that it wouldn’t turn, as if some element of his authority had been called into question. “Everything rusts in this sea air,” I heard him murmur. He jerked at the key again. It gave, and the cottage door swung open.

“There’s no electricity out this way,” my father explained as he stepped into the darkened cottage. “But the fireplace has been readied for winter, and there are quite a few kerosene lamps, so you’ll have plenty of light.” He walked to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out into the darkening air. “Just as I explained in my letter.” He released the curtain and turned back to her. “I take it that you’re accustomed to things being a little … primitive.”

“Yes, I am,” Miss Channing replied.

“Well, before we go, you should have a look around. I hope we didn’t forget anything.”

He walked over to one of the lamps and lit it. A yellow glow spread through the room, illuminating the newly scrubbed walls, the recently hung lace curtains, the plain wooden floor that had been so carefully swept, a stone fireplace cleared of ash.

“The kitchen’s been stocked already,” he told her. “So you’ve got plenty of lard, flour, sugar. All of the essentials.”
He nodded toward the bedroom. “And the linens are in the wardrobe there.”

Miss Channing glanced toward the bedroom, her eyes settling upon the iron bedstead, the sheets stretched neatly over the narrow mattress, two quilts folded at the foot of the bed, a single pillow at its head.

“I know that things take getting used to, Miss Channing,” my father said, “but I’m sure that in time you’ll be happy here.”

I knew well what my father meant by the word “happy,” the contentment it signified for him, a life of predictable events and limited range, pinched and uninspired, a pale offering to those deeper and more insistent longings that I know must have called to him from time to time.

BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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