A BORN MANIAC or Puddles's Progress

The fifth title in Ruth Doan MacDougall's Snowy Series

Chapter 1

A Born Maniac coverSHE HAD DONE every damn thing you’re supposed to do in the year after your husband dies. She had stayed put. She had kept working—at her two jobs, no less. She didn’t make rash decisions. She remembered to eat properly and to exercise.
      What do you do when your mother dies?
      First of all, you phone your best friends. Same as she had after Guy died.
      So Jean Martha Pond Cram, known since babyhood as Puddles, gave her father another hug and said, “I’ll be right back, Dad,” and left the waiting room of the Helmsdale hospital where he and her two brothers, her twin daughters, her two grandchildren, and her sister-in-law were milling helplessly around. As she walked outdoors into the sun of the South Carolina September afternoon, she felt tears on her face and realized that she’d been crying all the while she’d thought she was being strong and efficient. No, she wasn’t really crying, and she wasn’t weeping. She was seeping tears.
      But she must be strong and efficient. She was, after all, a nurse. An Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner.
      In the crowded parking lot bordered by green lawns and flowering shrubs on a life-support system of sprinklers, she managed to remember where she’d parked her Toyota Camry. She dug her key ring out of her shoulder bag. With great concentration she thumbed the correct button on the remote to unlock the doors. Then she collapsed on the driver’s seat. Hot. She inserted the key into the ignition, switched the air conditioner up to full blast, and glanced in the rearview mirror to see if she looked as abandoned as Dad did. Her brown eyes were reddened and she looked paler than normal, her makeup worn off; her faded short brown hair needed shampooing to fluff it up because she hadn’t taken a shower during these past twenty-four hours she’d spent in this hospital. Otherwise, she looked like her familiar sixty-two-year-old self. She glanced down at her wrinkled shirt and khakis that had still been fairly fresh yesterday afternoon when she was working at Palmetto Family Medicine on Hilton Head and Dad had phoned her from the Helmsdale hospital, where she had worked years ago when she moved to South Carolina, before she became a nurse practitioner with her own office at the Helmsdale Clinic.
      The air conditioner’s chill made her think of morgues.
      A year ago, June 2000, after Guy’s death from a heart attack she had fled out of the Hilton Head hospital to the parking lot and phoned Snowy and then, using the number Snowy had given her, phoned Bev at a hotel in Boston. Now, hauling her cell phone out of her shoulder bag, she speed-dialed the New Hampshire number of Snowy’s Woodcombe General Store, knowing the caller ID would alarm Snowy because Puddles didn’t usually phone her at the store.
      “Puddles?” said Snowy, whose real name was Henrietta Snow Sutherland. “Is everything okay?”
      “Mom has died,” Puddles told her.

      “Oh no. Oh Puddles.”
      Hearing Snowy’s voice go mushy and choked up, Puddles sat up straight and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “She had a stroke yesterday afternoon when she was driving home from the Piggly Wiggly—” Shit. Puddles remembered that Snowy and Bev found references to this Southern supermarket chain hilarious. But Snowy didn’t start laughing. Puddles continued, “Mom then hit a telephone pole. She didn’t, thank God, hit any cars or cause any other accident. We’ve all been at the hospital since then. She never regained consciousness. She died a half hour ago.”
      “Oh Puddles.”
      Mothers mothers mothers. With her left hand Puddles pulled a Kleenex out of her shoulder bag and mopped her face. Snowy’s mother had died of a heart attack only a week after her father had died of pancreatic cancer. That was decades ago, in Gunthwaite, New Hampshire. At least, Puddles thought, I still have Dad. I am not a sixty-two-year-old orphan. She said, “Dad is beating himself up because he was off playing golf per usual and wasn’t with her, wasn’t driving.”
      “Oh Puddles. He won’t get over that.”
      Hell, Puddles thought. Foot in my mouth. Snowy was still beating herself up over going to bed one night leaving her husband sitting up alone with the TV; Snowy had awakened the next morning to find that he had drowned himself in Woodcombe Lake because their general store was on the verge of bankruptcy.
      Snowy asked, “Have you phoned Bev?”
      “Not yet,” Puddles replied. Beverly Colby Lambert, the third member of their triumvirate, was an orphan like Snowy, and like Snowy she had gone through a suicide fourteen years ago, but Bev’s mother had taken an overdose of sleeping pills because she was dying of cancer, which made sense. Dying wasn’t reversible, while bankruptcy might be. Bev’s father had been killed during the War, at Iwo Jima.
      Snowy asked, “When is the memorial service?”
      “The others haven’t thought that far, but I guess I’m in charge, not Dad or my brothers.” Her brothers, younger than she, had always let her boss them around; Dad hadn’t, but now he was—abandoned, lost, in shock. Puddles studied the date on her watch, the date she would always remember, September 4, 2001. “Today is Tuesday. I’ll see if I can schedule the service for Saturday, the eighth.” Her brother Malcolm’s kids had to get here from California. “It’ll be at the Presbyterian church here, like Guy’s. Don’t feel you should come, you have to mind your store . . .” Puddles trailed off. In high school, Snowy and Bev used to tease her a little because she still occasionally went to church, Gunthwaite’s Congregational church. Snowy and Bev weren’t religious; Snowy’s parents had been Methodists, but Snowy was an atheist, and Julia, Bev’s mother, had been sort of vaguely Unitarian though as far as Puddles knew neither Julia nor Bev had ever gone to church. Bev hadn’t had any memorial service for her mother. Snowy hadn’t for her parents or her husband. Snowy had come to Guy’s memorial service at the church but she’d looked as out of place as a call girl in a gay bar.
      “I’ll be there,” Snowy said. “Of course I’ll be there. Do you want me to phone Bev for you? She’ll want to come too, we can fly down together.”
      Only Snowy had flown down for Guy’s service because by then Bev had flown from Boston to England on her second honeymoon. England! St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands was where Puddles and Guy had gone on their first and only honeymoon forty-one years ago, Puddles finding “virgin” uproarious, since she’d lost that title four years earlier and not with Guy. But my biggest trip, Puddles thought, was after the honeymoon, moving to Helmsdale, Guy’s hometown. As she’d said at the time, it was like moving to the moon. Then, years later when Dad retired from his job as a foreman at the shoe factory, he and Mom had followed her, moving from Gunthwaite to Helmsdale. They had become real friends with Guy’s parents, become part of the community, had joined Guy’s family’s Presbyterian church. Then her brothers had settled here. One of her daughters, Susan, lived here with her husband and children. But when Guy, who was nine years older than Puddles, had decided to retire from his construction business, he got the urge to move to Hilton Head for oceanside golf. She had rebelled. Hilton Head Island was an hour and thirty-five minutes away from her family! She was used to having them nearby! But eventually she had given in. That had been another long trip, emotionally.
      Puddles glanced up at the hospital and saw Dad wandering out of the entrance, a slight man with thinning silver hair and silver-rimmed glasses. He halted and stood there alone amid people in wheelchairs being helped into cars. He must have decided that she wasn’t in a restroom and come hunting for her. “Yes, thanks,” she said hastily to Snowy, switching off the ignition, “could you tell Bev? Tell her Mom didn’t suffer.” Puddles prided herself on not sugarcoating things with her patients and their relatives, but in this case she had to. Dad lifted a hand to shade his eyes as he searched the parking lot for her car. Ralph Pond, age eighty-five, had no doubt believed the statistics and been sure that, though he was fit and trim thanks to all his golf and Mom was overweight, arthritic, with blood pressure that even the combination of Norvasc, enalapril, and hydrochlorothiazide couldn’t consistently lower, he must have been absofuckinglutely positive he would be the one to die first. Puddles herself had assumed he would be.
      Snowy asked, “How is your family doing? Your father? Your brothers?”
      “I don’t know. I’ll call you with details about the service when I learn them. Bye.”
      Puddles got out of the car, semaphored her father, and hurried back to him.


© 2011 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved


A companion novelette to Ruth Doan MacDougall's Snowy Series.

Chapter 1

A Gunthwaite Girl coverHENRIETTA SNOW, KNOWN AS SNOWY, sat beside Tom Forbes on the log and looked at the mountain pond, listening to him talk about grease pits.
      “Before Varney installed the hydraulic lift outdoors,” he said, “we didn’t know any better, and down we’d clamber to work under cars in the inside grease pit. Really fun in the winter when the snow and salt on the underpinnings would drip on us.
      It was June now, sunny and hot and breezy, and she was seeing double, the exuberantly green trees and the trees’ rippling reflection in the blue water that matched the sky. Tom smelled of fly dope. So did she. Blackfly season theoretically lasted from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, and yesterday had been Father’s Day, but the blackflies had disregarded the cutoff date. Varney’s, she thought. Stanley Varney had owned the gas station near the high school in Gunthwaite, New Hampshire, her hometown and Tom’s. High-school guys had worked on their own cars there as well as on customers’; you’d glimpse a jalopy’s hood up and a guy headfirst into its guts or a jalopy with a guy’s feet sticking out from beneath. Mostly, however, they seemed to spend their time whistling at girls (well, Tom had been too cool to be a whistler), and when she had walked past she’d pretended to ignore them while all her antennae radiated, seeking Tom.
      She said, “Even with a hydraulic lift, you’d still be under a car. Eek!”
      “Varney’s lift was dangerous in other ways. One day there was a car up on it, head-high, and Butch Knowles came running out of the garage because some babe was walking by and he ran smack into it. Took him right off his feet. A wonder it didn’t kill him.
      “Back in those good old days, I don’t suppose he went to the hospital to be checked.”
      “Hell, no.”
      As they smiled ruefully at each other, Snowy realized that their expressions matched, like the pond and the sky. Oh horrors, were she and Tom really growing to look alike, as married couples were said to? They weren’t married—indeed, they each had been married in the past to somebody else—but they had met in 1954, the spring of her freshman year, and started dating the next year, so now in 2005 they had known each other for how long? Fifty-one years! And they had been living together for nine years. But no, they did not look alike, Tom at sixty-seven with his handsome square face, his once-curly white hair getting straighter and thinner, his trimmed white beard, his rimless trifocals, she at sixty-six still sort of cute and still sort of blonde (thanks to her hairdresser’s highlights). Yet she knew that they did share some facial expressions, and their minds sure were apt to travel the same paths.
      Their L.L.Bean hiking boots this Monday had traveled three miles up the Swiftwater Mountain Trail to the pond for a picnic lunch. From L.L.Bean had also come their tropic-weight long-sleeved shirts and long pants; during blackfly season, if you were wise you didn’t hike in a T-shirt and shorts. A half hour ago they had finished their sandwiches and cookies, the Saran Wrap now stuffed in the lunch bag in Tom’s pack, which was waiting on the ground beside hers for the hike back down. Yet they were lingering, to Snowy’s relief. She felt exhausted, even though on her birthday in March her daughter, Ruhamah, had announced that it was time for Snowy to take Mondays off from work at her Woodcombe General Store, instead of just Sunday afternoons. Implied: Snowy was getting old. Ruhamah, named after a New Hampshire poet whose name was pronounced Ru-hay-mah, was now thirty-four. Thus Snowy had all of today off as well as yesterday afternoon, but nonetheless she felt worn out. And despite ibuprofen, her back was killing her. She leaned against Tom, who, because of Ruhamah’s edict, was now taking Mondays off from his coffin factory when he wasn’t working at his other job, fire warden up in Mount Pascataquac’s fire tower. Although he never mentioned his bad knee, which had been banged up in high-school football, probably it was bothering him as much as her back was. Ah, the golden years. He put his arm around her. The security of his arm, the beauty of the scene. She should be feeling just happily tired from the hike up the mountain, content, at peace.
      Two bumps on a log.
      Suddenly Tom whispered, “Look.” He moved his free hand slightly toward the pond’s outlet, where Swiftwater Brook meandered into the woods before it lived up to its name and began its plunging descent.
      On the opposite bank, twin black bear cubs came scampering out of the woods and romped along the edge of the pond.
      He whispered, “We’re downwind.”
      She and Tom had seen several bears over the years, but bears still scared her, especially the brazen ones who made forays into backyards to grab bird feeders and couldn’t be frightened off. However, these cubs were adorable, small and self-absorbed.
      And then, following them, out of the woods plodded Mom. Mama Bear. Her fur shone glossy in the sun, and her vast bulk was just plain terrifying.
      Snowy tensed. She felt Tom tense. The rule: never get between a mother bear and her cubs. Shouldn’t she and Tom make a racket, to warn the bears they were here?
      Mom stopped in her tracks, sank down heavily on the bank, and went to sleep.
      Tom whispered, “I’ll be goddamned. That’s a first.”
      “She’s tuckered out,” Snowy whispered, remembering the cares of motherhood.
      The cubs paid no attention to Mom’s nap and continued frolicking along the pond.
      Tom whispered, “Good time to beat a retreat.”
      Very quietly, she and Tom got up, slid into their packs, collected their four trekking poles, and stepped into the woods. The weight of her pack eased the back pain by pulling her spine straight. Away from the pond and the bears, they rejoined the trail alongside the brook. After they scrambled over some boulders, the brook picked up speed in a rush and they dropped fast down the trail, which crossed the brook on rocks seven times during the descent, crossings that had presented Snowy with an anxious balancing challenge the first time Tom had brought her here, for an overnight backpack on his fiftieth birthday. She still had to concentrate; strolling across brooks wasn’t second nature, the way it was to Tom.
      The brook crashed into a meadow that had once been a beaver pond and was now being invaded by saplings, the trail skirting it briefly through more woods. Then they came out on the logging road. The vehicle that awaited them here continued to startle her, even though five whole years had passed since Tom had finally recognized that his ancient green Jeep could no longer be patched up enough to pass inspection and had given it to Ruhamah and D. J., her husband, to use on their farm but not on roads. He’d bought a secondhand black Ford Ranger pickup that, to put it mildly and sadly, did not have the Jeep’s character or history. Snowy knew she ought to love it, something different in their lives, but perversely she missed the Jeep. She shrugged out of her pack.
    Tom said, stowing their packs and poles in the truck bed, “Can’t get used to Mondays off. I still keep thinking it’s Sunday again. On TV tonight, it’ll be 60 Minutes.”
      The routines, the routines. Years ago, she had always made some kind of crepes for Sunday-night suppers. That had ended, and in recent years it was Paul Newman’s pizza. Hauling herself up into the truck’s passenger seat, she said, “No pizza tonight.”
      “Turkey burgers,” he said. “It’s Monday and it isn’t raining, so I’m grilling turkey burgers.”
      Along dirt roads they drove up to High Knoll Road, where he braked for the view of one of the mountain ranges that loomed over Woodcombe.
      He said, “The air is so clear, the mountains look like they’re under a magnifying glass.”
      “Remember the lovely fog in Scotland?” The mountains were beautiful, and she was still feeling perverse. She and Tom had made a trip to the Hebrides five years ago; they knew fog.
      He rejoined, “Remember the time it rained sideways?”
      But now she was remembering that these past two years New Hampshire had been named “The Most Livable State” by State Rankings, an annual reference book.
      On they went, past white Capes and red or gray or white barns sitting amid fields of buttercups, daisies, and Indian paintbrush, down into Woodcombe village. When the summer people were here in full force, she would make herself see it through their eyes, a village hailed as one of the prettiest in New Hampshire, a village she’d overheard some tourists call “Brigadoon.” But now it was too damn familiar, after the long winter’s imprisonment. Woodcombe was a prison—and an anchor. The place dragged at her like a fathoms-deep anchor, its white houses under tall maples with roses blooming in front yards, its town hall and library and high-steepled church and the quaint general store that she and her husband, Alan Sutherland, had bought in 1985. There the store stood, the heart of the village, a white clapboard building with a long screened front porch where on the deacon’s bench some folks were schmoozing. After Alan committed suicide in 1987 when the store was on the verge of bankruptcy, she had sold their home, Hurricane Farm, and she and Ruhamah had moved into an apartment over the store and kept it going all these years. But the income still remained precarious through the winter months. And this winter her daughter had convinced her to proceed with a project that Ruhamah had long had in mind, buying another general store, in the nearby village of Thetford. The very idea had always made Snowy panic, but Ruhamah was the one with the MBA so Snowy had acquiesced. Why oh why couldn’t the worry about money at least provide the thrill of risk-taking? But no, it was a weight, an anchor.
      The cabin fever of winter had become spring fever.
      Tom drove past the store and the little white post office and turned in the lengthy driveway to a gray barn. Snowy looked at the small sign on the barn: North Country Coffins. Years ago up in farther north country, Tom had bought an old coffin factory when he’d had enough of teaching English at Newburgh High School. Then, after widowed Snowy and Tom met in an unexpected reunion atop Mount Pascataquac in 1987, the distance that had been increasing both physically and mentally between him and his wife, Joanne, became a separation and eventually a divorce. He had rented this barn, built an apartment in the loft, and he and his younger son, David, had moved the business here. In 1996 she had accepted Tom’s invitation to live with him in that apartment. To shack up! In 1999 he’d finally bought the barn. Their permanent home. And also in 1999 he’d asked her to marry him—well, not precisely. They’d been planting garlic, and he’d taken her dirty hands, turned over the left one, and asked, “Would you like a ring on this?” Although she’d been thinking about such a proposal for ages, she hadn’t known what she would answer until she heard herself say, “I don’t think we need one, do you?”
      David’s big pickup, the so-called company truck, was parked to the right of the open double doors. Tom parked on the left. Carrying their packs and poles, she and Tom went into the barn, an expanse full of things she’d learned the names of to make them less terrifying—radial-arm saw, thickness planer, a joiner, a lathe, a drill press, and such. The barn’s old stalls held stacks of lumber. David was working on one of North Country’s specialties, a pine coffin that Tom had designed to serve as a coffee table until needed. You could also order coffins for use as a bookcase or an entertainment center, a bed or blanket chest or whatever your heart desired. Nonetheless, North Country’s best sellers were plain pine coffins.
      David looked up and said to Snowy, “A couple of phone calls. One for me—from Lavender—and one for you. I told the woman to call back and leave a message for you on the machine.”
      David and his wife, Lavender, lived in a Cape on Crescent Road with their two daughters. Tom, a grandfather! Snowy said, “Thanks. Did the woman say what it was about?”
      “Nope. The caller ID was ANHW.”
      “Oh.” The Association of New Hampshire Writers. Probably it was Andy—Andrea Edgecomb, who’d become the new executive director a couple of years ago. Probably Andy was cooking up a poetry workshop.
      While Tom stayed downstairs to confer with David, Snowy climbed the staircase to the apartment, where she dumped her pack on the kitchen floor, leaned her poles against a cupboard, sat down at the trestle table that Tom had built, and took off her hiking boots and socks. Barefoot, she walked over to the counter and hit the answering machine’s button.
      Andy said, “Snowy, could you give me a call as soon as possible? I have exciting news!”


© 2017 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved

Copyright 1974 - 2020 by Ruth Doan MacDogall
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