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The House on Belle Isle: An Other Stories (Shannon Ravenel Books)by Carrie Brown
Duncan drove and Claire sat in the passenger seat beside him, the letter with directions to the house they were renting for the next year open on her lap. They had slowed down for Claire to look for landmarks, which she was trying to do while also listening to Duncan.
The couple to whom they had rented their own house in Providence, a perfectly sane-seeming art history professor and his wife and their two children, were young and friendly, a matched set of sinewy runners who rolled their eyes in feigned despair at Providence's steep hills, though Claire knew perfectly well that they thought themselves equal to any ascent. She herself felt more than usually earthbound in their presence by her own elliptical shape, at five foot two and a straining D cup.
Still, the young Lehmans seemed incapable, to Claire's way of thinking, of any but the most innocent injury--stains on the floor from overwatering the agave in the sunroom, perhaps, or even a broken window here and there. Weren't the children boys? She had a recollection of having been shown a photograph of them, both rather touchingly toothy, with shaggy, dark hair.
But Duncan could imagine a million opportunities for something to go wrong, starting with the ancient fuse box and equally ancient furnace, and he went on to list for Claire, as though she were a stranger, the swimming pool, the storm windows, the chimney, the slate roof. A frayed wire inside a wall might burst into flames, he suggested. An insidious leak might begin in the basement. Why, the entire foundation of the house could be infiltrated by an unseen and fatal decay.
Claire took her eyes away for a moment from the unremarkable passage of small, dusty trees going past her outside the window. She had suddenly remembered the disturbing scorched smell she'd detected when she'd used the dryer early that morning before they'd left. The dryer was old and lived on the inside back porch amid a welter of coats and boots and browning philodendrons and cracked flowerpots, because it was too noisy to be borne anywhere else and because it left a little powdery hill of rust on the floor every time the door was opened. Claire gazed ahead, wondering how to remind herself later of this potential problem, when she might just call the young and able Lehmans and mention it to them.
Outside the window, the trees flashed past, their gray-green line broken occasionally by a small building, its window shades pulled down, close beside the shoulder. Sun streamed in the car window and fell on her lap with an almost palpable weight. Before her, the white line of the road ahead drifted and wavered, and her eyes had almost closed when an enormous beetle hit the windshield in front of her face with a loud pock. Claire jumped. The beetle, dark metallic green and the size of a hickory nut, slid slowly, inevitably, across the glass, approached the edge of the windshield, trembled violently, and then blew suddenly off the car and away behind them into the tall yellow grass by the side of the road. Claire blinked.
What had Duncan been saying? She tried for a conciliatory tone. "We'll only be two hours away," she said, hoping she sounded comforting rather than argumentative, although as she heard the sound of her own voice, she realized that her reply was coming too late in the conversation now; Duncan would accuse her of having fallen asleep. Better just to continue, though. "You can go right home if anything happens," she went on, as if she'd been thinking it over. "Try not to worry."
But Duncan frowned at the road ahead as though something untoward--an elephant, a steamship, an avalanche, something preposterous--had just moved heavily onto the white line. He often frowned in the face of uncertainty, as if the force of his disapproval might weaken an enemy's resolve, should an enemy appear.
"What's the name of the street?" he asked.
Claire had told it to him already, twice just on the drive this morning. "Forest," she said again, but happily, because she didn't feel irritated with him this morning, despite his grumbling. "It'll be on the right. After the church." She reached over and patted his knee.
"I'm excited," she said. "Aren't you?"
Duncan hunched over the wheel. "What sort of church?"
"Oh! That's it!" Claire cried, as they drove past it and she caught sight of the small street sign just beyond it, a few yards from the black Gothic railing of a tiny cemetery. Duncan braked and bumped onto the sandy shoulder.
"It came up so quickly!" Claire craned around and looked behind them. "Go on and back up. No one's coming."
But Duncan would do no such thing. After a series of excruciating maneuvers on the grass, he managed to turn the car around and they drove back in the other direction. Duncan turned the car onto the lane.
The house was situated at the end of the street. After two small, gray shingled houses facing each other at the beginning near the main road, their mailbox posts ringed with white stones, there were no other dwellings, and trees closed in against the car as it pushed on. Loblolly pines and beach plums and blackberry brambles crowded the edges of the sandy lane, but chunks of white light filled the shadowy interiors of the shrubs and made Claire feel they were near the transparent edge of something. She rolled down the window. The ocean was still hidden from view, but the roar of the nearby waves was immense. She had forgotten how the scale of the sound, so enormous, so overpowering, excited her. She had forgotten her great satisfaction, even gratitude, at the ocean's size.
Inside her chest, her heart took a sudden minor leap, as if it had been touched with an electric prod, and began beating hard. Claire reached involuntarily for the door handle as the familiar hot flush rose in her cheeks and her throat tightened. Diagnosed with a heart murmur many years before, when she was pregnant with their third child, she felt obscurely that the condition had somehow worsened over the years, though she had been told heart murmurs were harmless. But it seemed to her, at fifty-one, that she had to wait through such incidents almost daily now, and it was a great effort to appear normal while they were going on, as she completed transactions at the bank, for instance, and chatted with the teller, or sat with friends over lunch, or worked in her office, unrolling sets of blueprints at the big table under the round window. She pictured her heart like the sacks villains were tied up inside on children's cartoon shows, the ones where you could see the struggle taking place inside, fists and feet flying.
If she was alone during one of these moments of arrhythmia, she would freeze, standing utterly still and listening, for it seemed to her then that she might hear the news of her own death coming toward her, while the thickened sound of her pulse rose in her ears and stars began to blister the edges of her field of vision. She hoped at least that something certain might make itself understood out of her heart's failure--a horseman blowing out from behind a black curtain on thudding hooves, or the immense and salty-smelling wings of angels wafting air around her burning cheeks. She hoped, at least, to be surprised by the denouement of her own death.
But it had never gone that far. After a moment or two, her heart would settle back into a steady pattern, her ears ringing, and she could go on, shaken, but smiling brightly. As she had sat in the cardiologist's office after her first echocardiogram twenty-five years ago, clutching her purse over the bulge in her lap that was her daughter Greta, six months along, the doctor had told her that many women, especially thin women, had similar murmurs. Mitral valve prolapse, he called it, which made Claire think of tunnels fallen in on themselves, of escape routes suddenly closed. He'd recommended she take antibiotics against infection during dental work or any other surgery. "Otherwise," he had said, patting her chart, "I suggest you forget all about it."
Claire had asked why the murmur had made itself felt then, after so many years. The doctor had shrugged, and afterward, when she tried to remember the conversation in order to repeat it to Duncan, she could not recall exactly what he'd said, or whether he'd answered her question at all. "It's nothing to worry about, Mrs. Morrisey," he had said as he led her to the door, his fingers cool and absolute beneath her elbow. "You've a perfectly good heart. A fine heart."
Still, ever since then, Claire had to struggle to apply cool logic to the terror the incidents created in her. With effort, she had trained herself to stop putting her hand to her heart, a gesture that alarmed Duncan so much and felt, even to her, melodramatic. But sometimes, when her heart rustled so queerly in her chest, when it seemed to pause and lurch, she held her breath and tried to prepare herself for it to cease altogether. The sensation, she imagined, would begin with a terrible pain, but she hoped it might then give way to an almost pleasant release, as if the earth had been tugged away slyly from under her feet, leaving her to bicycle slowly in air before beginning her slow revolutions downward. Claire did not imagine dying in the presence of anyone she knew. She believed, instead, that it would happen when she was alone. They would come upon her later, fallen in the garden like a bewitched child, or crumpled by the bed, her cheek bruised, after it was too late. She imagined the toes of Duncan's black shoes staring into her face.
Now her heart fluttered and knocked within her, so chaotic that she felt a rush of anger, sure that now, just as they had arrived, her heart would fail her at last, cheat her of this final reward. But Duncan stopped the car and turned off the engine. And as they sat there for a moment, Claire listened to the ocean, surrendered to its massive sway over her, and felt her heart calm. It was, as she knew it would be, perfectly quiet except for the sound of the waves breaking rhythmically upon the shore.
Claire had not seen the house they would be renting except in photographs, pictures in which it appeared to tilt, as though the arm of the person taking the photographs had been jostled just as he snapped the shutter. Claire had spread the handful of photos out on the dining room table back home in Providence, trying to piece together what the house looked like from the jumbled details, but the fragments did not seem to fit exactly; the perspectives were different, frame to frame. The pieces overlapped in maddening ways. Still, she liked what she saw, a runaway rose of Sharon growing by the front door, the folded shutters punched with half-moons, the terrace with its low stone wall, the sky flying up over it all like a tablecloth snatched and shaken, billowing up into the air. The house was set in a grove of pines, a short walk from the beach--a path led over the dunes. In the distance rested the ocean, a straight edge of blue and silver, brimming at the horizon.
Extracting Duncan from their house in Providence had been exhausting for Claire. In his mid-sixties, a mathematics professor at Brown, and more than a decade older than her, Duncan was not a man who had ever liked traveling. A year before, Claire had gone away for the first time without him, on an Alaskan cruise with an old college roommate who had married a man from Fairbanks after her first husband drank himself to death. Claire had not enjoyed her friend's company very much--Leigh drank too much herself and was boring and embarrassing after dinner, and depressed and contrite in the morning, so that Claire felt it necessary to be very kind--but in every other way the trip had met and then surpassed her expectations. She went to every lecture, signed up for every walk, and saw at least one whale, and usually more, every day. She had brought back photographs to show Duncan but was disappointed to recognize that the pictures conveyed nothing of the whales' enormity, their thrilling size. "I wish you'd been there," she'd said to him as they looked over the photographs together, Claire trying to match up the creatures in the pictures, small and insignificant as pencil erasers, with the animals that had inspired in her such intense happiness. Standing at the railing of the Alaskan boat, when the first whale of the trip broke through the waves in front of them, she had felt a wild, hysterical joy. The sensation was both completely novel and yet vaguely, achingly familiar, as if it resided as only a faint, disappearing essence, a memory of a memory, in the cells of her fingertips. She had wanted to clamber up on the railing and fling out her arms and shout with triumph, a primal salute to this mighty beast, its back long and rigid and dignified as an aircraft carrier. But she had not said or done anything, of course, and the disappointment, the actual physical difficulty of having to choke back such an impulse, had been so powerful that it had brought tears to her eyes. How few such occasions are, she had thought hopelessly, as that first whale disappeared from sight. And later she had been rude to her friend, ignoring her at dinner in favor of the company of a retired female botanist from Edison, New Jersey, who had worked for Du Pont and was self-congratulatory but fascinating on the subject of arctic flowers. Claire had not felt herself all evening, though. "You must come on trips like this all the time," she had said fiercely to the botanist as they left the table, expecting a recital of itineraries. The woman had looked at her shrewdly, but not unkindly. "I'm trying to spend all my money before I die," she said. "I have only one son to leave it to, and he's an utter pig." And then she swept away, leaving Claire breathless with shock.
The year's rental in Newcomb had come about through a colleague of Claire's. The young woman hired as the new architect for the Providence Preservation Society, where Claire was the administrative secretary to the president, had an aunt with a small beach house in Newcomb. The aunt was eager to find someone to look after her house for several months, as she wanted to spend the year in Phoenix with a daughter who had just given birth to twins. Once apprised of this opportunity, Claire, who had lived her whole childhood on the Rhode Island shore, had persisted with Duncan to the point of anger, telling him finally that she would leave him alone for a year and take the house by herself if he wouldn't come with her. She wondered whether she would actually have done such a thing, if it had come to that, but he had finally agreed, and so she had never had to find out.
"It's right on the ocean, Duncan," she had said, hardly able to contain her excitement at the prospect of it, once he'd agreed to come along. "It's on the next beach down from Matunuck. It's a beautiful place. Remember?"
"Of course," he had said. "Do you think I am losing my mind?"
Now she did not wait for him. She got out of the car and advanced toward the house. A small flagstone path led around the side through a narrow gate fitted between a crabapple tree and a crumbling stone post. Claire unlatched the gate and walked down the path to the back of the house, to the terrace, with its wooden chairs and table, its row of pots on the ledge, the sea spreading out before her. She stood there, looking out over the water. And then, because no one was watching, she put her hand to her heart. But it was not a gesture of fear. She lay her hand there as if to comfort it, as if her own heart were a small child made to see the light, surfacing at last through disbelief to happiness after a great disappointment.
She turned at the sound of a door opening behind her. Duncan stepped out onto the terrace, a piece of paper in his hand.
She felt so glad to see him there suddenly, as if he had just arrived after a long separation between them. She smiled at him. "Isn't it marvelous?"
He squinted into the sun, put up a hand to shield his eyes.
"What's that?" she said, looking at the paper he held.
"Instructions. Tablets for the water, trash pickup, that sort of thing. Power goes out, of course, in a bad storm. She keeps flashlights in the kitchen." He hoisted one, leveled it at Claire like a gun.
Claire recoiled. "Duncan!" She had spoken before she could help herself, and she knew her tone was one of accusation and reproof and bewilderment, as if he had really shot her, put a bullet into her heart, and was now watching her bleed to death before him.
Duncan stared at her. "Also in the kitchen, a case of wine, as a gift. Mixed years. Mostly reds," he said quietly. He frowned, looking down at the paper in his hand again; she saw that she had embarrassed him, that in saying his name in that way she had upset him. Why had she done that? Recovering, she stepped up to him, took the flashlight from his hand. "Duncan," she said, standing on tiptoe, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, "I am so happy," and she felt an enormous relief as their bodies met. What a thing her foolishness was, a thing to be borne all her days, like a hump on her back.
He bent his face toward her, allowed her to kiss him.
She tugged at his hands. "Come with me."
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