Authors: Barbara Michaels
“I’m so glad for them.” The sentiment was as sincere as such statements ever can be; Kevin’s parents, of whom he spoke often and fondly, sounded like nice people. “But what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that they just bought a house,” Kevin said. He was smiling with warm amusement, as he always did when he mentioned his parents. “I couldn’t believe it. They sold the old house in Fort Wayne after I left, because they said it was too big for the two of them; and now they are the proud owners of a ten-bedroom manor house. Mother said she knew it was crazy, but she fell in love with it at first sight.”
“That kind of craziness I can sympathize with. Why shouldn’t they have a good time with their money?”
“Exactly.” Kevin beamed at me. “I haven’t seen the place myself, but it sounds fantastic. The trouble is, they don’t want to leave it empty this summer when they go to Europe.”
I laughed. My amusement was genuine; Kevin’s mother and dad sounded like my kind of people, even if they had ruined my summer. “They really are living it up, aren’t they? I can see why they don’t want to take a chance on burglars and vandals; and I suppose you feel obligated to volunteer, right?”
“They’ve never asked much of me,” Kevin said. “It isn’t just the house, it’s the family pets. Belle is a pretty old dog, she isn’t happy without one of the family around, and one of the cats has this medical problem—”
“How many pets do you have?” I asked, half amused and half exasperated. I didn’t mind (much) being supplanted by a sweet old mom and dad, but a senile dog and a cat with prostate trouble…
“Only four. Two dogs and two cats. Unless Mother has taken in more. She does that.”
Kevin was looking so noble and serious and guilty that any decent person would have patted him on the head and told him not to worry. I couldn’t oblige, I was too depressed. I wanted to put my head down on the desk and howl.
“I was thinking,” Kevin said hesitantly.
“Good for you.”
“I figured you would go to Europe with Joe.”
“You figured wrong.”
“Well. Then maybe you might consider…No, probably you wouldn’t.”
“We’ll never know until you ask, Kevin.”
“We don’t have to work here. There’s a good library at the house, I’m told, and plenty of room…”
I can’t say that the suggestion took me by surprise. It was such an obvious solution that it had occurred to me immediately, and I had assumed that Kevin was using his parents’ request as an excuse to cancel our summer plans. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Unless his father made some disastrous miscalculation in his financial manipulations, little Kevin, the only child, wasn’t going to be interested in three-digit royalties. Apparently he wasn’t trying to weasel out of our deal after all, but I could see, by his furrowed brow, that something was bugging him; so instead of shouting “I accept,” I waited to see what he would say next.
He said, “But maybe Joe wouldn’t like it.”
My jaw dropped. The people in the department sometimes joked about Kevin’s old-fashioned manners and antique notions of polite behavior; there were even rumors that he never kissed on a first date. I had laughed at this bon mot, but had never taken it seriously. Now I wondered, but only for an instant. There was another, more plausible explanation for his outrageous remark.
“Joe has nothing to do with it,” I exclaimed. “Honestly, Kevin, how chauvinist can you be?”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I’m sick and tired of men telling me they didn’t mean what they said!” That was unfair—Kevin had no way of knowing this was one of Joe’s less attractive habits. “What is it really? Would your parents object if they heard I was living in the same house? Would the neighbors burn crosses on the lawn?” Kevin’s mouth opened, but I didn’t give him time to answer; I had worked myself into a steaming rage. “Because if that’s the reason, I can live with it, but if you really think that I go when Joe says go, and come when Joe says come, then you and Joe can both take your notions of masculine supremacy and—”
Kevin fell forward, out of his chair. On his hands and knees, he banged his forehead twice against the floor.
“Will that prove an acceptable substitute to what you were about to suggest?” he asked meekly.
“Get up, you idiot,” I said, laughing.
He did so. “I’m sorry, Anne.”
Kevin shook his head. “It’s the damnedest thing, how these subconscious preconceptions linger; I never suspected I was thinking that way, but you’re right, it was a stupid, dumb idea. Will you come?”
Solemnly we shook hands across the desk.
TWO WEEKS LATERI was hopelessly lost in Pennsylvania. The taxi driver was lost too. The sun was sinking in the west, the numbers on the meter had reached a total that froze the blood in my veins, and there was nothing to be seen but rolling hills, a stretch of rutted road, and two bored black-and-white cows.
“We must have taken a wrong turn at the last intersection,” I said.
“You said turn right,” the taxi driver remarked tightly.
“I was wrong. We’d better go back and try the other direction.”
The taxi driver was an elderly gentleman. The noun is well deserved; if he had not been a gentleman he would have kicked me out of his cab long before. In eloquent silence he turned around and we went back the way we had come. The cows watched disinterestedly.
It was my fault. Kevin had given me detailed directions before he left campus. I don’t know whether I misplaced them while I was packing to go home, or while I was packing to leave home. All I know is that when I got in the taxi, at the bus station in Pittsfield, they were gone.
I turned the contents of my purse out onto the seat of the cab. I found a recipe for cocktail dip, three old shopping lists, and some notes for a lecture on Byron. I did not find Kevin’s directions.
The taxi driver watched with an air of fatherly patience. The meter was running.
“Oh, well,” I said. “I know approximately where it is. Ten miles northwest. The name of the road is Green Valley. Or maybe Green Haven.”
It wasn’t Green Haven. There was no such road. Green Valley Road had two farmhouses and a tavern named Josie’s Place.
By that time I was sitting up front with the driver, looking at his map. I had told him the life story of Kevin’s parents—their poor but honest beginnings, their recent affluence, their purchase of the house. He was very interested, but the tale conveyed no clue to him.
“I don’t get many calls out to the country,” he explained apologetically. (At that stage he was still apologetic.) “And if these folks are newcomers, well, see, I wouldn’t even know the name.”
“But you must know the house,” I argued. “It’s a historic home, or something of the sort.”
“Miss, every damned house in the county is on the historic register,” said the driver. “If you just knew what it looked like, or its name, or something about it…”
Which I didn’t.
We finally got lucky. A country store, at a crossroads, had a gas pump, shelves of dry goods and canned goods, and a sharp-eyed little old lady who had lived in the area for all of her seventy years.
“You must mean the Karnovsky place,” she said. “I did hear as it was sold to some folks from out west. You go down to the next intersection and hang a right…”
Her directions took us into a region so different from the farmlands we had been traversing that I could hardly believe we were in the same county. It was an area of big estates, and not nouveau riche, either. For the most part the houses were invisible, but the wrought-iron gates and stone gateposts, some with heraldic animals perched on top, indicated the quality of what lay beyond the trees and hedges. A few miles farther on and we reached another crossroads, around which clustered, not a town or a wide spot in the road, but a genuine Old World village. It was tiny—a dozen pretty old houses, a surprisingly large church, and a general store. The latter was not at all like the establishment run by the old lady who had given us directions. Instead of a sagging front porch with splintery wooden steps, it had a long stone facade with tubs of geraniums flanking the door. Instead of decals advertising beer and bread and cattle feed, it had a carved wooden signboard.
After passing through the village, we soon came upon the high stone wall the old lady had mentioned. It went on and on and on before we reached the gate. A bronze plaque on the left-hand pillar said “Grayhaven.”
The taxi driver refrained from commenting on this example of confused thinking. He turned off the highway and came to a sudden halt. The iron gates were closed.
I had developed a not entirely unreasonable annoyance with Kevin, who might have offered to meet me at the bus station, damn him. I was prepared to climb the wall, seek out the house, and tell him what I thought of him, but these heroic measures proved to be unnecessary. The gates were not locked. We proceeded for another mile along a driveway walled in by trees and bushes. An abrupt turn brought us out of the leafy tunnel and gave me my first sight of Grayhaven.
The other day, when I was looking through some papers, I found a snapshot of the house. I burned it, which is not easy in an all-electric apartment. If I wanted to remember its appearance, which I do not, I would not need reminders. Every detail of the place is clear in my mind.
It lay in a green cup of valley, surrounded on all sides by wooded slopes. Behind it, terraced gardens rose in measured steps toward the trees. The plan of the house itself was square, four wings built around a central courtyard. The irregular roofline showed numerous stages of building, but the dominant feature was a massive gatehouse, castellated, battlemented, crenellated, and what have you. Sir Walter Scott would have loved it.
I rubbed my eyes. I have never been abroad, but I am an armchair traveler of the most fanatical type. I had seen photographs, engravings, even other people’s slides. What I saw now was a medieval English manor house, perfect in every detail.
The driver’s exclamation assured me that I was not dreaming.
“Criminy,” he said. “Sure is big, isn’t it?”
We proceeded at a respectful twenty miles an hour along the road that descended in gentle curves. I could understand why the taxi driver was unfamiliar with this area. The owners of country estates don’t need taxis; they would own three or four cars apiece, and maybe a helicopter. If they had car trouble, they just threw the blasted thing away and bought a new one.
The closer we got to the house, the more I doubted my eyes. Space warp, I thought; we drove through some sort of science-fiction gadget at the gate, and we are now in southern England, and maybe in another century. The taxi came to a stop before the gatehouse. It had been incorporated into a later wing, Elizabethan or early Tudor. The only door visible on this side of the house was a mammoth arched portal in the gatehouse itself. It was not difficult to identify this as the principal entrance—one could hardly demean such a structure by calling it a front door. I would not have been surprised to see a couple of lackeys dressed in knee breeches rush out to greet us.
Nobody rushed out. After the driver had switched off the engine, the silence of rural peace descended. The door, built of blackened oak planks, remained uncompromisingly closed.
I looked at the driver. He took his cap off and scratched his head.
“Looks like there’s nobody home. You sure this is the right place, miss?”
I was not at all sure. It was hard for me to picture Kevin in this ambience. It was hard for me to picture anyone I knew in this ambience.
Then, from the shrubs along the driveway, came an incongruous figure, that of a shaggy, fat, ambiguous dog, clearly the result of some act of canine miscegenation. White hairs ringed its muzzle, which was of inordinate length. The muzzle opened; two rusty barks issued forth. Then, as if the effort had been too much for the animal, it collapsed onto the grass and lay there watching us.
“Belle?” I said, wondering why my illogical brain could forget the name of Kevin’s house and retain that of his dog.
The dog’s raggedy ears twitched when I spoke the name. Another rusty bark confirmed my identification.
“It’s the right place,” I said. “Look, it’s late and I already owe you a month’s pay; why don’t you start unloading my stuff? I’ll see if I can rouse my friend.”
No doorbell was visible. In the center of the panel was a knocker, platter-shaped and two feet in diameter. Using both hands, I lifted the thing and let it thud back into place. I did this twice more before my muscles protested. The sound produced no result, not even from Belle, who had closed her eyes and dropped off to sleep.