- THE CHEERLEADER
- HENRIETTA SNOW
- THE HUSBAND BENCH
- A BORN MANIAC
- A GUNTHWAITE GIRL
- SITE FIDELITY
- LAZY BEDS
Ruth Doan MacDougall
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The seventh title in Ruth Doan MacDougall's Snowy Series
SNOWY THOUGHT:thiscould be getting dangerous.
A ridiculous thought, because she was only in her snowbound backyard in the hazy dark before sunrise, shoveling a path through the latest foot of snow brought by yesterday’s New Year’s Day snowstorm. She was just aiming toward the pole from which hung two tube feeders for sunflower seeds and a suet feeder. A pole! She wasn’t on the North Pole, the South Pole—or Mount Everest. The thermometer had told her it was twenty-six degrees this morning, a balmy twenty-six above zero. Central heat and safety were close by in the gray barn where she and Tom lived, where the outside light over the snow-clogged screen door of the back porch glared at the narrow slot she’d already shoveled from the porch steps. She was bundled up in her L.L.Bean gear, navy-blue parka, baby-blue fleece cap, and insulated boots. The fresh snow smelled like ozone, which should energize her.
Still, the snowfall had weighted down the trees and bushes, with a white pine’s floppy lower boughs pushed so low they’d frozen into the snowbanks, and she felt smothered, fragile. The poor lilac bush was more bent over than she was as she chopped yet another square of snow, slid the shovel in to lift the top half, being prudent, not lifting up the whole twelve-inch chunk—
A banging on a barn window made her turn. Looking up at the lighted kitchen window of their upstairs apartment, she saw Tom, white hair once curly but now thinning, white beard neatly trimmed. Tom Forbes, whom she, Henrietta Snow, had started dating when she was a sophomore and he a junior at Gunthwaite High School. She waved a mittened hand, her fingers within cramped and cold.
Despite the storm window and the inside window, she heard him bellow, “For Christ’s sake, come indoors!”
She bellowed back, “The birds!”
“Fuck the birds!”
"I’m almost to the feeders, I’ll be in soon!”
“I’ve got the coffee made!”
She repeated, “I’ll be in soon.”
He gave up, left the window, and she continued shoveling. When men are scared or sad, they can’t cry so they tend to get angry. Usually Tom cleared the paths with his snowblower, but his knees had given out during a similar session in the last snowstorm. His son David had volunteered to do the snowblowing, but right now David would be busy digging out his own house. Sunrise was about seven-fifteen today—the days were getting longer!—and with sunrise the birds would come zooming to the feeders, which they’d almost emptied yesterday during their frantic efforts to keep stoked throughout the storm. She couldn’t let them find nothing this morning. What if a chickadee keeled over from starvation? So, after her shower, while Tom was taking his shower, she’d hurried downstairs into his workshop, the North Country Coffins factory on the ground floor, gone out to the porch, and started shoveling.
The problem was, they were getting old. Hell, they were old. Today was Wednesday, January 2, 2008. On his birthday in May, Tom would turn seventy. Sooner, in March, she’d be sixty-nine. And what jokes her dear friend Jean Pond Cram Hutchinson, aka Puddles, would make about that number!
Chop, lift, throw. She always did the tidying-up shoveling after Tom did the snowblowing. She could do this. Yet a sudden fear stabbed her. Had she used up all her courage, the daily courage necessary for daily existence and the courage for emergencies, for big stuff? Or was she maybe saving up any smidgen she had left of the quota of courage she’d been born with? Saving for the inevitable. She and Tom were old.
The black haze overhead had begun to lighten, pink. She heard a pickup truck set to work plowing. Ryan Hopkins, who had a home-services business, had arrived to plow out the parking lot of the little white clapboard post office next door. Beyond the post office was her store, the general store, whose parking lot Tom would be plowing out with his pickup after he did their driveway. The store opened at seven, and although people understood if she didn’t open on the dot during or after snowstorms, she started shoveling faster. Chop, lift, throw. Her mother had died of a heart attack at age sixty-three, but while asleep, not while shoveling. (That strange milestone, reaching the age at which a parent had died, then living onward, older than they. A mixture of feelings: relieved, victorious, guilty, grief-stricken.)
Triumphantly she arrived at the pole. A chickadee zipped past to alight atop it and yell at her.
“Hold your horses,” she admonished.
The suet feeder still held some scraps. She would do the messy job of refilling it later. She ran back along her path to the porch, into the workshop, where next to the back door stood a small garbage can with a metal scoop balanced on the lid. Instead of garbage, the can held sunflower seeds. After pausing to reach under her parka and into her jeans to adjust the waistband of her silk long underwear, she scooped up seeds. As she ran out toward the feeders trying not to spill, she felt as if she were in an egg-and-spoon race in a P. G. Wodehouse novel—and then she slid, slipped, and in a shocking split second landed flat on her back on the path.
Sprawled there, scared, she didn’t move. Had she broken any bones? Had she broken her back? She knew what Puddles would say at this moment: “Now will you listen to me? I keep telling you to spend the winters in South Carolina!” Well, actually, since Puddles was a nurse, the first thing Puddles would do would be to minister to her wounds.
Chickadees darted down and grabbed the seeds scattered on the snow, then flew away. Slowly she tested her arms and legs. She was okay. She might have some bruises. The surprise of the fall was the worst part. And the most difficult part would be sitting up and getting to her feet. She flailed around, seeking purchase, hoping that Tom hadn’t been looking out a window, hadn’t seen her comeuppance. When she did her morning exercises on the living-room floor, she had to haul herself up with the help of a nearby chair. No help here. She rolled onto her knees, picked up the scoop, shoved it into a parka pocket, and crawled on her hands and knees to the porch, then grabbed the screen-door handle and pulled herself upright. In the workshop, she refilled the scoop. She walked carefully back to the feeders, taking baby steps, remembering that Dorothy Parker had named her canary Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground.
The sunrise was becoming gorgeous, a deep rosy flood of color.
She heard Tom’s Ford Ranger start up out front, and thus as she returned to the barn and stomped snow off her boots, she knew she would have the apartment to herself. She and Tom could still feel an exultant contentment about cohabiting these past twelve years after all the years apart, but some solitude was welcome too. She crossed the workshop, where two coffins were being built. Tom had mentioned that coffins were getting bigger because people were fatter as well as taller. She climbed the inside staircase and at the top removed her mittens, flexed her knobby arthritic knuckles, unzipped her parka. Into the kitchen she hurried, into the fragrance of coffee.
The apartment was small, built by Tom: this kitchen-and-living-room area, two bedrooms, a bathroom. Simple and practical, walls painted white, pine-board floors. She didn’t have time for coffee, she would be making some at the store, but she was so cold! A compromise; she lifted the Gevalia coffeepot and poured coffee only halfway up a black Bennington Potters mug.
Tom had traveled light after his divorce and his move from Newburgh in northern New Hampshire here to Woodcombe in the Lakes Region. He’d bought some basic furniture and built the rest, including the kitchen trestle table. He’d built cupboards, shelves, bookcases. When Joanne, his ex-wife, remarried, she shipped him a bookcase and a record-player-radio cabinet he had made in high school shop and had given to his parents, who years later, retiring to Florida, had given them to him and Joanne. After his mother died four years ago after his father’s death nearly twenty years before, he and his two brothers had chosen shares of her treasures, including his father’s souvenirs from the Philippines during World War II; Tom had got a handmade knife with a carved handle, a wooden plaque with a carving of the Philippine government seal, and a coolie hat (there must be some politically correct term for this nowadays).
But mostly the apartment seemed to Snowy packed to the ceiling with her own past. When in 1985 she and Alan, her husband, had bought Hurricane Farm and the Woodcombe General Store, the furniture they’d accumulated for their young-marrieds apartment in Eastbourne and their first house down in Pevensay, on New Hampshire’s seacoast, had been transported here. But two years later, after Alan committed suicide when the general store was going bankrupt, she’d had to sell the house to save the store, and she’d also sold most of their furniture, only keeping enough for the apartment over the store into which she and her daughter, Ruhamah, had moved. Most of that had remained with Ruhamah in that apartment when Snowy moved into Tom’s apartment in 1996, but after Ruhamah married and began furnishing her own home, Snowy and Ruhamah divvied things up. So Tom’s living room now held the Martha Washington chair and glass-fronted bookcases that Snowy and Alan had found in secondhand and antiques stores. Snowy had also taken her grandmother’s braided rug, now on this floor. Ruhamah had hoseyed the wing chair that had been Alan’s and the Oriental rug. On that rug, Snowy suddenly thought, baby Ruhamah had crawled, and this morning she herself had been crawling on a shoveled path.
Ruhamah would be thirty-seven in July. This seemed impossible. Well, a few of the houseplants throughout the apartment were nearly that old, such as the spider plant and Christmas cactus brought from Pevensay.
Snowy could see, across the living room on a wall in the bedroom, another of Tom’s mother’s treasures, the framed blue butterfly amid dried flowers and milkweed fluff that she had first seen in the living room of his parents’ house in Gunthwaite the night of his junior prom. The night they’d begun going steady.
Going steady! Unmarried, they were going steady all over again.
© 2017 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved
The eighth title in Ruth Doan MacDougall's Snowy Series
KERFUFFLE, Snowy thought, turning her Subaru onto Lakeside Road and driving past cottages on Lake Winnipesaukee, the autumn’s dark blue water seeming more intense than ever without the competition of bright foliage colors, the leaves of the trees now old gold or rusty brown or fallen. A new septic system at the Inn on East Bay was causing a kerfuffle. Had she ever used that word before, while talking or in a poem? Why had it popped into her head?
Henrietta Snow Sutherland Forbes was a poet, the owner of three general stores, a new bride as of June, and a first-time grandmother as of August. But on this sunny Sunday afternoon, October 26, 2008, she was mostly feeling like a best friend.
Sundays, the Woodcombe General Store closed at noon. Right after she had locked the door behind the last customer and had pulled a fleece vest over her blue Woodcombe General Store sweatshirt, the telephone beside the cash register had rung. Caller ID had told her it was Beverly Lambert’s cell phone.
Bev, her best friend, wailed, “Snowy, there’s a gigantic gaping hole in the lawn, and creatures are swimming and drowning in it! Frogs, moles, mice, terrible, and Roger just says not to look!”
“Oh, no!” Snowy said. “Why are they drowning?”
“It’s too steep for them to climb out, they can’t tread water forever! I’m indoors now but I can’t stop picturing them! The hole is part of the new septic system, the tank will be delivered tomorrow, supposedly, but meanwhile—Snowy, this is the last straw!”
Snowy realized that over the past few months she’d been too distracted by the pregnancy of Ruhamah, her daughter, and then by the bedazzling charms of her grandson to have paid thorough attention to Bev’s plight. She said, “I’ll drive down. I haven’t seen the renovations, you can show me those. Do you have any guests this weekend?”
“Nobody since the foliage peaked. There’s nothing but an awful mess to show you. You mustn’t waste your afternoon off—”
Snowy heard Bev gulp back a sob. She reassured, “I’ll be there soon,” and left the store and hurried up Main Street to the North Country Coffins barn in which she and Tom lived in the apartment over the workshop. After telling him about Bev’s meltdown, she drove south out of Woodcombe to Gunthwaite. Her hometown, where she and Bev had met in second grade. Best friends ever since.
Yes, this was her afternoon off. Three years ago Ruhamah had insisted she take Mondays off as well, but this summer Snowy had insisted on working Mondays so that Ruhamah herself could have Mondays free—and whatever other days she felt she needed when the delivery date drew near. Ruhamah had stuck to Mondays but did agree to a maternity leave after the baby’s arrival.
Bev’s mailbox on Lakeside Road used to be a small one, dented by snowplows, with discreet lettering that said Waterlight. This had been the old name of the big place Bev had bought in 1995, having discovered it during her work as a real-estate agent and getting a good deal on the purchase of what she’d called her dream house. She and Roger, her husband, had been separated for eight years; she was living in a ranch house in Gunthwaite while Roger stayed in their Connecticut home. Into Waterlight she had moved. Five years later Roger had retired from his law practice and moved here without, Snowy gathered, really being formally invited by Bev. Yet they had formally renewed their wedding vows and resumed their life together, for better or worse. During the past year this “worse” happened: the nation’s economic crisis; their dwindling savings. Roger had a brainstorm and decided to turn Bev’s dream house into a bed-and-breakfast and change its name. After balking, Bev had given in. But there wasn’t time to transform the place completely into a business, so this summer they’d only rented two of the three bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms. The third was Bev and Roger’s room, which had the best views of the lake from upstairs, and, Bev had told Snowy, she would die before she’d give it up.
The new mailbox’s larger lettering said The Inn at East Bay. A strident sign now hung from a tree branch overhead, repeating the new name.
The economy. Last month the stock market had “crashed.” Panic seared Snowy as she swung the car down the circular driveway, hearing the lines from Yeats’s “Second Coming” that nowadays were pacing heavily through her mind:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .
Behind the tennis court and brown-shingled garage was an expanse of overturned earth—the leach field?—from which a raw trench disappeared around the right-hand side of the classic summer cottage (winterized long ago) whose brown shingles and green trim blended into the surrounding pines—eek! Snowy braked at the sight of a wooden ramp leading from the driveway to the screened porch, spoiling the look of the entire front of the house.
Bev came rushing off the porch, down the broad stairs, wearing a faded green flannel shirt and old jeans. “I forgot!” she said. “I forgot it’s lunchtime, did you have any lunch?”
Snowy clambered out of the car, her back aching. The goddamn scoliosis. Below the lawn on the left side of the house, a lake breeze was jiggling the water around the brown-shingled boathouse and along the small beach. On that lawn Bev and Roger had renewed their vows, Bev in an elegant outfit, a green jacket and green ankle-length skirt to match her eyes, Roger in a navy blazer and gray pants (not intentionally to match his receding gray hair and his gray mustache). She hugged Bev; up close, she could tell that beautiful white-haired Bev had been crying, smudged mascara mingling with exhausted livid puffiness below those green eyes. She replied, “No lunch, but I’ve been making breakfasts and brunches all morning, nibbling. You and Roger go ahead.”
“He’s off to Home Depot, he’ll stop at McDonald’s. When Parker left Friday after digging the hole for the new tank, he asked us to use as little water as possible over the weekend, so we aren’t doing dishes and Roger said I could dash naked through yesterday’s rain instead of taking a shower but I certainly did take a shower and today too, though quick. Yesterday’s rain! Rain filling up that hole, along with the underground water seeping in, and the poor creatures drowning! I have no appetite.”
Snowy remembered Bev had mentioned that Parker Danforth, of Danforth Excavations, was installing the new expanded septic system. The name had lodged in her memory because a sister of her first boyfriend, Ed Cormier, had married a Danforth, and if Ed had lived after being paralyzed in a football game, he would’ve been Parker’s uncle. Hugging Bev again, Snowy said, “I don’t want to see the septic hole. Show me what else is new. Is that a handicap ramp?”
“Oh, God, isn’t it a ghastly eyesore! Leon built it for us.”
Bev and Roger’s younger son, Leon, a handyman and the father of Bev’s older grandson, Clement, lived with Miranda Flack, Bev’s housecleaner, in a mobile-home park across town. Snowy asked, “But a handicap ramp is an essential amenity, isn’t it?”
“Roger says we’ve got to offer everything to everyone, after just making do this summer. TVs and mini-fridges, we’ve bought them for the bedrooms and stored them in the cellar, waiting for the new bathrooms we’re adding, but the contractor and his gang have hardly begun, they’ve been so busy elsewhere this summer right straight through the foliage season, the carpenters, the flooring man, the tile man, not to mention our plumber—”
Snowy took Bev’s arm, as if she herself were the hostess, and led her up the stairs and opened the screen door. The porch circled the house, the front section furnished with four wicker armchairs, their green cushions in need of plumping. Suspended from a ceiling painted sky-blue, a mobile of a black-and-white loon drifted gently, the first loon the B-and-B guests would see of the many loons Bev had collected over the years. The real loons had now migrated from the lake to spend the winter on the ocean.
Bev said, “A welcome mat. Roger says we must get a big welcome mat for the porch. I’ve seen mats in catalogs that say ‘Go Away.’ I want one of those.”
Snowy tried a lighthearted reminiscence. “Remember the time we saw in some store a mat that said ‘Gone Shopping’ and we both were tempted to buy it?” She opened the front door and stepped into the large hallway.
Bev had claimed the house was a mess, but the hallway looked normal, and the only change was the presence of Roger’s prodigious mahogany desk; on it sat an optimistically thick leather-bound book that identified itself on the cover in gold lettering that Snowy could read without her reading glasses: Guest Book. Beside it was stack of pamphlets. Snowy picked up the top pamphlet, which showed the cruise ship Mount Washington plying the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.
“Roger’s idea,” Bev said. “He loves telling the guests about all the tourist attractions in the Lakes Region and the White Mountains. I think he tells them more than they want to know.”
“Oh, lord,” Snowy said, and put the pamphlet down.
© 2020 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved
Copyright 1974 - 2020 by Ruth Doan MacDogall
All rights reserved