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5

After the cemetery, and the buffet supper at Harriet Laughtons house-where March is called poor dear at least a dozen times, and Gwen is asked so often whether something is wrong with her eyes that she finally goes into the Laughtons powder room to remove her mascara with a white washcloth-March phones Ken Helm, who always says no job is so odd he cant get it done, and asks if hell drive them back to the hill.

Not that way, March all but shouts when she realizes Ken intends to take Route 22.

Gee whiz, Mom. Gwen cant believe how touchy her mother has become. Whats the difference?

About two bucks, Ken Helm says, deadpan as always. That back road is one slow shortcut. Ken stares into the woods. Make a tree sound and its fruit will be sound. Make a tree rotten and its fruit will be rotten.

Intrigued, Gwen leans forward. Meaning?

Were all responsible for ourselves, arent we? Ken takes the bumps in the road easily. And what we harvest.

Are you trying to tell us that orchard of Mrs. Dales needs work? Gwen asks. Is that your point?

No, March says. Hes letting us know that you pay for what you get. Two dollars more, for instance, for the back road.

Thats it, Ken says. Matthew 12:33.

Its twilight when they reach the house, which means its still a sunny afternoon in Palo Alto. Richard is probably in his office, on the far side of the quad. Sunlight streams in from the west at this time of day; the windows are so high Richard has to use an iron rod in order to pull down the shades. He needs to take care at this hour; the specimens he keeps lined up on the window ledge are susceptible to light damage.

The house on Fox Hill is cold when they get inside, but before March bothers with checking on the heat or lighting a fire, she goes to phone Richard. Shes still wearing her jacket; her purse strap is draped over her shoulder as she dials. She feels a little desperate, perhaps even more than a little.

How about some tea? she calls to Gwen.

Fine, Gwen says, throwing herself into the easy chair patterned with roses.

No, I mean, you make it. Please.

March simply wants her daughter out of the room. She wants to be alone with her husband and be told that she continues to be the same exact woman she was when she kissed him goodbye at the airport. She wants to hear him say it out loud, because at this moment, standing here in this house, she doesnt feel the same. If she werent such a rational creature, shed think the night air was calling to her; shed believe there were still peepers in those muddy puddles, even though this isnt their season. Her heart is beating in a different rhythm here; faster, a dangerous pace.

Richard had visited her during those years when she was waiting for Hollis, but she never made anything of it back then. Shed been friendly with his sister, Belinda, and Richard was the sort of kind, slightly dazed person to whom charity came naturally. He rescued lost dogs and stopped for hitchhikers, so it made perfect sense that hed come to call on March, bringing candy and books, as if getting over Hollis was not unlike recuperating from some horrible illness.

March might have never noticed that Richard was courting her, in his own mild way, if not for the night of Alan and Julies wedding. The wedding was held on New Years Eve, the year March was nineteen, and by then March could barely feel anything. She could stick a pin in her finger and not even bleed. She could go without eating for days and not feel hunger. She could stay up all night with no need for sleep. The only indication that she was alive at all was that the new shoes Mrs. Dale had insisted she buy hurt her toes.

On the night of the wedding, March was alive enough to overhear many of their guests whisper their opinion of her. What a sorry thing she was, thats what they were saying. Wasting away, growing old before her time. Only nineteen and look at her, so pale and gray she was little more than a ghost. Look at her hair, with all those white strands. Look at the way her hands had begun to shake. To console herself, March drank five glasses of Mrs. Dales champagne-laced cranberry punch, then gave in and danced with Richard. Richard was so tall that March couldnt look him in the eye as they danced, and perhaps that was best, since she would have been extremely surprised to discover how ardent his expression had become.

Then a senior at Harvard, Richard spent his days at classes and his evenings doing good deeds, volunteering at a shelter-where he folded laundry and mopped floors-and tutoring freshmen students who were overwhelmed by their class work. If not for March, he wouldnt have returned to Jenkintown at all, since he and his father were no longer speaking. That he came back so often, March had convinced herself, was simply because she was another one of his projects. But on the night of Alans wedding, as she danced with him, she realized this wasnt the case. It was the way he held his arms around her and the slow sound of his breathing which informed her that pity was not Richards motivation. Actually, it never had been.

After Alans wedding, Richard began to appear several times a week. He brought March boxes of apricots and books from the library. He presented her with potted tulips from Holland and fancy Vermont maple syrup. Often, when Mrs. Dale had the night off, Richard insisted on coming to the house to cook dinner. Alans new wife, Julie, who couldnt fix anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich, acted as his assistant, dicing peppers and carrots, stopping only long enough to take March aside and whisper that shed be crazy to let Richard Cooper get away from her now.

March watched Richard sometimes, as he sat in the living room and read from one of his textbooks, and he looked so familiar and comfortable that she felt like weeping. She allowed him to kiss her, and she kissed him back, but when she went up to her bedroom and stood at her window to watch the road below, it wasnt Richard she was looking for.

You probably shouldnt come here anymore, she finally told him one day when the air outside had turned meek, the way it often does before a storm. Ill never be in love with you.

She thought hed be hurt when she said this, but instead Richard took her hands in his. He was going off to Stanford, for graduate work, and he wanted March to go with him. Hed had a last bitter argument with his father, which concerned Mr. Coopers interests in a logging company that was destroying a species of wood spider so tiny it was invisible to the naked eye. In fact, the fight was about greed and love, the sort of brutal argument that can get you written out of your fathers will and drive you three thousand miles away.

Richard had nothing to lose by asking March to marry him, and he wasnt destroyed when she said no. He was a biologist, after all, with a specialty in entomology, and he knew what reversals often happened in a single life cycle. He sat beneath a palm tree outside his rented apartment in Palo Alto and wrote to March every week, and she wrote back from her bedroom on the second floor. She informed him that the leaves were changing, and that his sister Belinda no longer seemed interested in anything but her horse, and that the hunting ban had been lifted on the hill, so that shot-guns could be heard all day long. She told him much more than she would have imagined, and revealed herself in many ways, although she did not write that she often woke from sleep with tears in her eyes, or that she sometimes heard Holliss voice inside her own head.

After she finally stopped waiting for Hollis, Richard was there, right on time, when she arrived in San Francisco. In fact hed gotten to the airport two hours early, and had been awake since dawn. That first night in California, March slept in his bed. It is the bed they still have; the headboard is more than a hundred years old. Richard found it in a junk shop in Menlo Park, but actually its quite a good piece, fashioned of golden oak. March has often wondered why anyone would have ever gotten rid of such a wonderful bed; if, perhaps, the previous owner had died or if hed loved someone so completely he couldnt bear to sleep in the same bed once shed gone.

Richard is stretched out on that bed when March phones, his thin, angular frame completely relaxed. Though its late in the day in California, hes just getting around to reading the morning paper. He appreciates the topsy-turvy in life; hes always believed, for instance, that mutation is good for a species. If hed been someone who was easily convinced by statistics, rather than a man who rejoiced in the odd and unprecedented, he would never have gone after March in the first place.

Im so glad youre there, March says when he picks up the phone.

Richard laughs. Well, I cant say the same for you.

Its awful here, March says. Thats for sure.

Thats why we left, Richard reminds her. Did you see your brother?

He wasnt at the funeral, and I dont have the heart to go looking for him. Although, I guess I really should. Then out of Marchs mouth comes a thought shes been thinking all day: Hollis wasnt there either.

She can hear Richard breathing; its almost as if hes in the same room. She shouldnt have mentioned Hollis.

I didnt ask about him, Richard says, did I?

After March had married Richard and soon after she discovered she was pregnant, Judith Dale finally told her that Hollis had come back. He had been living above the Lyon Cafe for some time, spending a great deal of money, impressing everyone in town with his new financial status. March remembers how she sat there in the backyard after that call from Judith; her chair was beside the lemon tree, and her feet, which had swollen with her pregnancy, were soaking in a basin of cool water. She dialed Jenkintown information, then phoned the Lyon, and she did it all quickly, before she could stop and think. When she asked for Hollis, she was told he didnt have a phone, although the bartender who answered was willing to go upstairs to get him. She waited, completely unaware of the scent of lemons. She didnt notice that there wasnt a cloud in the sky.

It took exactly twelve minutes for the bartender to retrieve Hollis from his rented rooms. As soon as she heard his voice, March panicked. She listened to him say Hello twice, and then she hung up. After that, she was nervous every time the phone rang. Had he guessed his caller was March? Had he cared? All through her pregnancy she felt sick to her stomach and trapped in some deep, irrevocable way. When her doctor informed her that her blood pressure was elevated and she needed to spend at least six hours in bed, on her left side, she wasnt surprised. She was affixed to this place and to her own body; anchored by flesh, blood, and her own exhaustion, she dared not fight her condition. She slept away mornings and afternoons, so dreamy she didnt hear the birds in the trees or Richards voice when he tried to rouse her from sleep.

On the day when Hollis phoned her, March had just woken from a nap, and at first she thought she was still dreaming. March, he said. Thats all he said at first, her name, and she had to sit down before she could listen to more. Why did you leave? he asked. Why did you do this to us?

Dont be mean, thats what she said to him, forgetting where and who she was, at least for the moment.

Youre the mean one, hed said to her. Its you.

They spoke every night after that, hushed and secret calls, conversations so passionate their words burned. March was seven months pregnant, but that didnt keep her from calling him. For some reason, she thought it could go on and on that way, but then he made it clear that he wanted her to come back to him. Hed fly out and get her or messenger a first-class ticket. March looked out at her lemon tree. She could feel the baby inside of her moving, and thats when she knew she couldnt go. Hollis, however, seemed incapable of understanding that she was too far along in her pregnancy to pack a suitcase and leave.

If you wanted to, you would, he kept saying. If you loved me, youd do it.

Each night he sounded more bitter. Each night, his disappointment grew. Finally, March called the Lyon to discover that Hollis had moved out. After Gwen was born, March was so distracted, in such a milky trance, that she was able to keep herself from thinking about him. By the time she admitted to herself how much she wanted him, he had married Belinda and it was too late to do anything other than sit beside the lemon tree and cry, then go and wash her face before the baby woke from her nap.

Ill be home before you know it, March tells Richard now.

Its the oddest thing-she feels as though she is lying, and shes not. Hes so far away, thats the problem. Shes more connected to whatever is close by-the teakettle whistling in the kitchen, the first star in the sky.

Five days tops, she says. Well go over the estate, pack up the house, and were gone.

It takes Richard a long time to answer, as if the distance between them has somehow slipped them into different time warps.

I dont know. Richard is stretched out on his bed, but he might as well be floating through space. I worry about you being there.

Well, dont. March can barely hear him now. It must be the connection, or the disparity between a starry night and a bright afternoon. I love you, she tells her husband, but her voice sounds wavery, as if she needed to convince either him or herself.

After March hangs up the phone, a dog somewhere on the other side of Fox Hill begins to howl. Looking out the window, its possible to view a vista that appears to reach on without end; its as if she can look across the darkness into another universe.

Did you want milk and sugar? Gwen calls from the kitchen, where shes fixing the pot of tea. When theres no answer she goes to the doorway and sees her mother with her coat still on, standing by the phone. Mom?

You know what? March says. Im too tired for tea. You have it. Im going to bed.

Not that she could sleep if she tried. Not in this house. When March goes to her room, she sees the same quilt, fashioned of red and white squares, that was on her bed when she used to think about Hollis. It was as if his image had been implanted inside her eyelids; she carried him with her night or day, eyes opened or closed. She thought about Hollis so much youd guess thered be nothing left to think, but here she is, doing it all over again.

It started with all that kissing out on the roof, on hot nights when they couldnt sleep. In the morning, theyd always pretend nothing had happened. They avoided each other or were overly polite; sometimes, they did manage to forget for an hour or two, long enough to go swimming at Olive Tree Lake, where they raced against each other in the deep water for hours, as though they were nothing more than friends.

When Henry Murray died, at his desk, in his office on Main Street, everything in the house went black for two weeks. All the mirrors were covered with old sheets, and the door was left open so visitors could stop and pay their respects. March mostly remembers sitting in a corner and watching neighbors arrive with bouquets of lilies and platters of food. Once, Hollis sat down beside her. He didnt own a suit, and was wearing jeans and a white shirt; when he tried to take Marchs hand, she pulled away from him. Hollis took up so much space, and at that moment, March had no room for him. But with Hollis it was all or nothing, always. He was sulky and nasty-tempered for days afterwards, leaving March to feel guilty-about what exactly, she was never quite sure.

She should have learned her lesson then; it was so easy to wound him and so very difficult to make amends. She didnt search him out to apologize for slighting him until several days later, when the house had cleared out. But when she knocked on his door, he didnt answer; his belongings were no longer in the bedroom closet or stored in the oak dresser. Alan had decided that Hollis had best move up to the attic, seeing as how he wasnt a member of the family-he was really, Alan reminded Hollis, nothing at all-and that was where March found him. He was sitting on his bed, under the eaves, where a spider was hard at work on its web. The air was close up here, and filtered through a haze of dust, so that everything you looked at seemed silvery and swirling.

What do you want? Hollis said. He had a hard, annoyed tone, and he gave her one of his stares, a mean, superior look that could make almost anyone feel like an idiot.

It was best not to talk to Hollis when he got like this. March sat down on a wooden stool and picked up a book from a box of her fathers law books that was being stored up here. Criminal Procedure. She wondered if criminals had the same talent she did: to appear to be doing one thing-leafing through an old, dusty book-white you were really doing something else completely inside your mind. In Marchs case, she was imagining that she was kissing Hollis as she sat there and dust floated by.

There was a sharp, stinging odor in the attic, as if a trail of sulfur had been poured over the wide pine floorboards. It was probably the scent of fury, which, in Hollis case, was often overpowering. The heat had a heavy, yellow cast, and it was oddly exhausting. Hollis lay down on his metal bed and turned his face toward the wall. There were squirrels nesting on the other side of the plaster; their feet skittered back and forth, like drumbeats inside the eaves.

Go away, Hollis said. Get lost.

March knew he could be cruel, shed seen it herself. In a fight he was particularly dangerous because his own blood didnt frighten him; he didnt care if he got hurt. Boys at school had learned this the hard way; even those far stronger than Hollis were amazed at how much punishment he could take. Alan had given up physically harassing him; sticks and stones were nothing to Hollis. broken bones still less. It was humiliation that did the trick. The supper eaten at the kitchen counter. The bed in the attic. Anything secondhand, second-rate, run-down, charitably donated.

Fine, March said after he told her to go. She was genuinely amazed by the cool authority of her own voice. Your loss.

March felt as if she were outside of herself, perched somewhere in the rafters of the attic, watching calmly as her earthly form flung the heavy law book on the floor. A cloud of dust rose between them. She would have done anything for Hollis at that moment. Thrown herself out the window. Relinquished every possession. Slit her wrists. But she certainly wasnt about to let him know.

Hollis turned to look at her as she headed toward the door. When it seemed that, indeed, she truly was leaving, he stood up, confused. Wait, he said.

It was probably ninety degrees outside, and much stuffier up in that attic. March thought about that night when shed watched him cry himself to sleep. She thought about all of their kisses. A single leaf fell from the chestnut tree in the yard, and March swore she could hear it, falling and falling. When Hollis came over to her, March could feel how hot he was. She was only fourteen, but she knew what she wanted. She wanted him to look at her that way.

Dont be mean to me, he said.

March laughed. He always said that. Youre the mean one.

No, Im not. Its you.

She knew what was going to happen if she stayed, and yet she couldnt imagine leaving. That was when she began to wonder if the scent of sulfur wasnt fury but desire, and if, perhaps, it might not be rising from her own skin. Shell never know how she had the nerve to kiss him the way she did. This wasnt anything like what theyd been doing on the roof on nights when they sneaked out their windows. Those kisses were shy, tentative things, and this was everything; this was what was deep inside. As soon as she kissed him like that, Hollis could tell how far she was willing to go. He didnt have to be a mind reader to divine that. It was the way she leaned her head back; it was the way she closed her eyes. She thought she was so smart, keeping all her secrets safe, but in a single instant she revealed every one.

Hollis locked the door and they went to his bed, which hadnt yet been made up with sheets. When he got on top of her, March heard herself say Oh as if she meant to tell him something, but her voice sounded peculiar and he wasnt listening anyway. He knew how to kiss, he really did; he knew how to touch you in ways that made you feel like crying, and caused you to want him even more. He must have had the ability to make a girl lose her reason completely, because there they were, in the attic, with Mrs. Dale cooking chicken cutlets for dinner in the kitchen and Alan drinking a beer out on the porch, and March wasnt stopping him when he pulled down her jeans. A truck delivering some fencing Alan had ordered turned into the driveway, but March didnt understand what the deliveryman was calling out. She couldnt understand anything, except how hot she was inside. His fingers were burning her up when he reached into her underpants; he seemed to be going right through her, but she must have been crazy, she was crazy by then, because she never once thought to tell him to stop.

Alan was still talking with the deliveryman from the hardware store when Hollis pulled his zipper down. March grabbed her long hair away from her face. There was a wasp hitting against the window, and all that dust, and outside the fencing was being tossed down from the truck. She knew this would happen, back when she was standing in the doorway. She knew once youd started something with Hollis, youd better be ready to go all the way.

All the same, March had a nervous feeling in the center of her stomach; she was starting to have pins and needles in her legs, as she always did when she was frightened.

Maybe we shouldnt.

When she closed her eyes and turned away, she could feel him. All that heat, right next to her. You know were going to. He was whispering, but his voice sounded thick. You know we will.

Of course, he was right, and she knew it. She went to the attic every night after that, and now she wonders how they managed to keep their secret. Sometimes theyd do it with their clothes on, hurried and silent, and hed cover her mouth so she couldnt make a sound. Dont say anything, hed whisper in her ear, when they heard someone downstairs, Judith Dale on her way to the bathroom, or Alan coming home late from a date. Dont move, hed say, and hed make love to her that way, forbidding her to shift her body, not even an arm or a leg, until she was so overcome with desire she thought she would faint.

That winter, they grew even more daring, and March sometimes didnt get back to her own bed until six or seven. By then the house was already growing light and she had to run through the halls or be found out. Whenever Mrs. Dale wondered about noises in the night, March blamed the squirrels nesting in the wall, or the family of raccoons who had come inside for the winter. Or perhaps it was the wind-that might explain the moaning Mrs. Dale heard, as if someones heart was about to break. They were shameless; they did it three times a night, and there were days when March was so exhausted shed fall asleep in class. At noon, she was often so tired she would put her head on the table in the cafeteria and miss lunch completely. Belinda Cooper, who went to a girls boarding school in Connecticut and was only home on weekends, was completely puzzled when March would come over to visit, only to curl up at the foot of the bed, where she would sleep for hours. Of course it was Susanna Justice, who had inherited her fathers talent for judgment, who finally figured it out.

I dont believe it, Susie said after taking a good look at the dreamy expression on Marchs face. Youre doing it with him, arent you? Now I know youre insane.

Susie went with March to a doctor shed heard about in Boston for birth control pills. The girls said they were going shopping, and in fact, both made certain to hurriedly buy a pair of shoes before starting for home.

I wish it was anyone but him, Susie had said. I wish you werent so stupid.

They were waiting for their bus across from South Station. The girls had been on hiatus from despising each other, but March could tell theyd be back to hating each other before the afternoon was through.

Well, maybe love is blind, March said archly.

Maybe you are too, Susie slung back.

To this day, Susie doesnt understand why March fell in love with Hollis. Susie has always demanded hard evidence and documentation, and there is no explanation for something such as love, considering what grief it can bring. Now, for instance, what would compel March to go up the crooked old stairs to the attic? Theres nothing but junk on the other side of the door, boxes of it, and yet she cant seem to stay away. The explanation she gives herself is one Susanna Justice would never accept. It is simply that March has discovered that when she kneels beside that old metal bed, she can feel the wind rattling the roof; she can still hear every leaf as it falls from the chestnut tree to the cold ground below.


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