It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve, already the snowiest winter on record, when Will Greaves’ wife told him she wanted to separate. He was standing by the stove, making tea before heading upstairs to wrap her present; Phoebe was sitting at her computer on the opposite side of the long, yellow room. Through the darkened window above the sink, he could see the first flakes of a new storm move horizontally against the black trees in the yard.
“I got a job with an ad agency in SoHo,” she told him. At first he thought she was talking about a freelance job. “Shirley thinks I would benefit from seeing her four times a week.”
Greaves was pouring steaming water into mugs. He’d never understood why Phoebe had to choose a therapist who only saw patients in New York, more than two hours away, but he hadn’t said anything about it. “Isn’t that an awful lot of time on the train, though?”
Her voice sounded brittle, as if saying his name gave her pain. Since Phoebe had been seeing the therapist, 15 months now of Mondays, he could usually count on her having a good Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the three days during which she’d recovered from whatever she and Shirley had talked about, but was not yet dreading her next appointment. As long ago as August, Greaves had looked ahead to make sure Christmas fell on one of the good days. “I guess you could check in with this agency more often then,” he offered, carrying the mugs to the end of the counter.
Phoebe clicked the mouse twice and looked away from the screen. The deep sockets of her eyes appeared bluish, and her face was molded exquisitely around them, as if by a talented hand. The skin looked thin across her high, rounded cheekbones. The snow drove harder against the windows behind her. “It’s a full-time job, Will. In New York. I’m moving there right after New Year’s.”
Greaves felt his mouth fall open. “What?”
“We need to take a break from each other,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“As in separate, Will. You can’t tell me you’re surprised.” The storm outside seemed to swirl around his head.
“I mean you shouldn’t be,” she said, turning back to the monitor. “We’ve been married for almost six years and we still fight about the same stupid things. We’re not getting anywhere.”
“I didn’t think that was the point.”
“This isn’t a seminar, professor. We’re not trying to make points,”
“What I meant was I didn’t think we had that sort of marriage,” Greaves said. “You know, acquisitive. I thought we liked things the way they were.”
“I meant emotionally, Will.”
The kitchen was suddenly close and fluorescent around him. “What you mean is I’m not getting tenure. That’s what this is about. You want me to pose as some kind of revolutionary in order to knock a bunch of dead guys off their pedestals, and get rewarded for it with a sinecure, while what I really love to do dies. I told you I had to take this sabbatical to concentrate, Phoebe, it’s more. . . .” He was going to continue, tell her what was important, but the slow shaking of her head stopped him dead. The room felt cold and behind the loose arrangement of her hair, individual snowflakes stayed alive for long seconds on the glass.
“It’s not about your job, Will.”
“What is it about, then? Can I ask?” The storm had lulled for a moment, but it came back in force now, wind howling in the crowns of the trees. The sound ballooned in Greaves’ head and he felt himself shiver; the wind made him feel like a child. “Can’t you see I don’t know?”
Phoebe swiveled back and forth on her drafting stool. She seemed to be building up to, or maybe remembering something; wording the shrink had given her, Greaves thought. Maybe it was written right there in the pallor of her screen.
“It’s not about you,” she said. “It’s my problem.” Her stockinged feet brought her around along the circular footrest of the stool. “It’s been my problem for a long time, since before I even met you. It might even have something to do with why we’re together.”
“God damn it!”
He struck the countertop with his palm and turned away; hand smarting, he walked toward the refrigerator, a patchwork of messages stuck to the gleaming white door. He thought about punching it, but drew his fist back: He was not that land of man. Gently, he swept the papers off with his hand. “I don’t understand why we have to be apart while you figure it out.”
Phoebe didn’t say anything. When he turned again, she was standing at the end of the counter, her long nails picking at the chain from one of the teaballs, her eyes round and shiny as she watched him. There was something motherly and yet hard about her look, Greaves thought, as if she were doing this for his own good.
“You were going to spend this spring at the cabin anyway,” she said.
“Not the whole spring. Just a few weeks to finish my translation.”
“Listen, Will.” She put a hand out but Greaves stepped away, his back foot sliding in the papers on the floor. “I just can’t pay much attention to us right now. I’m sorry, OK? I can’t make love. I can’t listen to you talk about your T’ang verses or imitate the chairman at meetings. You’ve said this all yourself, at least you did before you got so angry you stopped saying anything at all.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Greaves said.
Phoebe took the plastic clip from her bundle of hair and rearranged it in a ponytail. The gesture lifted her breasts beneath her sweater. From the darkness above came the whipping of limbs. “On the surface, I guess it’s not. I mean, I was raised to think that poor communication was normal, a certain lack of fulfilment. But you’ve heard this all before.”
“No. I don’t think I have.”
“Shirley says I should learn to listen to myself better.”
Just the thought of it made him feel dizzy. Sometimes, when Greaves was translating, the same disorientation overcame him and he felt as if he were falling into the page. Then he would come downstairs from his study and watch Phoebe at work, doing corporate logos and jackets for books. She wore his old white shirts, loose and frayed at the collar, and a certain light in her skin made him think of the Renaissance portraits she had shown him in Florence, women’s faces layered with opalescent paint. That same glow in her face now reminded him of the old church sanctuary in Cambridge, where they had been planning to go with his father and eldest sister for Christmas Eve. Until last Monday, when Phoebe had killed the idea without explanation. He should have known.
“This is why you didn’t want to go to my Dad’s for the holiday, isn’t it?”
A limb cracked high in the trees. Phoebe, the house, were so silent that he could hear the snow fall harder through the branches. She turned and walked around the kitchen table, her long fingers touching the backs of the chairs. The meteorite shower on her computer screen rushed toward her face when she sat down—a mindless parody of the endless flakes attacking the window beyond. Alone, Greaves stood at the counter, sipping his tea.
Two hours from now, the candles in the old white church would be lit by the women in their red-and-white robes. The walls would absorb and reflect the candlelight, the globes of the sconces throwing an arc like the arc cast by diamonds on a beautiful woman’s throat. It was a warm light but it never quite penetrated, it never went deeply enough to stay with you, Greaves thought, as you walked home through a store-lit Harvard Square.
The surface of the tea was cold on his lips, lukewarm underneath on his tongue.
“Because it seems like you’ve been planning on this for a while,” he said, swallowing.
In the slack week between the two holidays, Phoebe divided their things. They didn’t have much, it seemed to Greaves, for a man of 37 and his wife of 32: a futon couch and some tables and shelves from IKEA that would break into sawdust if you moved them across the room, his Chinese rugs and Phoebe’s various objects and prints that either brightened the muslin upholstery or made it look dirty, depending on how you felt. The house was a roomy Victorian, and the Scandinavian furniture made it feel drafty and spare. They decided to rent the place furnished, or rather Phoebe had already planned it. She would give him the kitchen utensils and the blankets and blue flannel sheets. On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, Greaves stood in the room at the top of the stairs, helping her shake out and fold the worn bedding.
“I still can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
“You just don’t want to,” she told him.
The sheets billowed and their breeze broke over him, an empty space underneath. He could see Phoebe’s shadow through the cloth. She raised her arms again and he lost one corner, but the solitary space was already collapsing and Phoebe was gathering the halved sheet against her chest. She folded it neatly and lay it on top of the others in a box.
“I wonder why,” said Greaves sardonically.
Phoebe picked up the box and squeezed past him through the doorway. For a week, she had slept there in the guestroom, hadn’t touched him, had barely met his eye. “Two years ago you wanted to have a baby, now you want a divorce,” he called after her. “I just don’t get it.”
“No, you don’t.” She started blindly, in her stocking feet, down the wood stairs.
Greaves followed, carrying the last carton of books from his study. She’s reckless, he thought. As she turned on the landing, her eyes strayed for a fraction of a moment to the mirror, and he swore that the corners of her mouth curled up in a smile.
He put his box down in the entry hall and grabbed her arm before she could go out the front door.
“My God. Will!” Her box upended on the floor.
“Why don’t you try to explain it?” he said, stooping to pick up the sheets. He hadn’t meant to grab her like that.
“Because I don’t know yet, that’s why.”
“You don’t know? Jesus. What makes you think that therapist does?”
“Sometimes you need an ally, Will.” Her voice was above him. “Someone without a stake in your future to help you find your way.”
“Who, some woman who charges you 125 dollars an hour? I can just see it. All over the country, people sitting in anonymous rooms, paying people they don’t know to listen. It’s. . . .”
She watched him place the sheets back neatly in the box. He stood up, searching his mind for a word, while she took the box and hugged it to her chest.
“It’s the right time,” Phoebe told him, reaching for the latch and pushing the storm door open with her hip. Through the glass, the sky was black above the houses and trees across the street. “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never know.”
The door swung closed behind her, bringing his own face toward him in the glass.
When all the boxes were loaded in the well of his Jeep, Phoebe stood in the headlights, as usual without a coat. The engine roared, then dropped slowly to an idle. Exactly a week and three hours had passed since she’d told him, and all along, he realized, he had thought she wouldn’t really let him go.
He waved once and tears clotted his throat; Phoebe waved back with her fingers and walked up the icy sidewalk to the house, hugging herself against the cold. Beyond the frosty hood, the broken chrome on her old Volvo’s grille splintered the headlights of the Jeep. He drove west from New Haven, stopping once to buy a quart of dark beer that was cold on his ungloved hand, steering with the other and letting the alcohol blanket his mind. The four-wheel drive churned in the snow with a sound that was alternately angry and numbing. The hilly mill towns, with their broken-down factories, beer signs, and swift rivers moving under ice gradually set themselves between him and his married, professorial life. He began to think fondly of his book. The land ragged out into farm country and crossroads Connecticut villages, and he passed the sign, bristling with Kiwanis and Rotary badges, welcoming him to Lakefield County. Ten miles farther, the small town of Dovebury nestled, remote and candlelit against the white hills.
The Garden Center, where Greaves turned north, had been dismantled for the winter, with a Christmas Shop promised inside. The clapboards of the large Federal houses looked wrinkled and battened against the weather. At the public works lot, the lights and warning bells of heavy machinery came through the glassy air. When Greaves arrived at the cabin, he could barely pull off the road because a pile of snow and ice blocked his way. Whoever had been paid to plow the lane appeared to have given up several storms ago. He turned off the Jeep’s ignition and sat listening to the engine block tick and expire. Silence.
Across the snowfield, the cabin lay hunched like an animal killed by the freeze, snow sticking to the furry shakes of its roof. He roused himself and trudged around to the tailgate, cracking through the crust of ice with each step. The air was so cold it had no smell at all. Greaves was opening the tailgate, thinking how the air was freezing the hair in his nostrils, when suddenly a strange sound came through the slender pines from the direction of the lake. A dampered, resonant heave, a piano key struck with all pedals depressed: it seemed familiar and alien all at once. Seconds after the first heave, a tremulous whistle ran away from his ears. Before he knew it, he was stumbling toward the heart of the sound.
The lake was covered with snow, the night air above it clear and sparkling. Greaves had wandered far beyond the margin of safety before he thought about the thickness of the ice. Twenty yards and the lake sighed beneath him; the sound he was after ran away from his ears. It whistled under the snow and broke up in the black smudge of trees on the opposite shore. When it was gone, vibrations warped around his head. It made him dizzy and he remembered Phoebe saying she had to listen to herself. The snow shone like white paper around him; the dark depressions of his footsteps led from shore. His life was bottomless now, the kind of life you tumble into and never come out. The kind of life he had never considered he might have. He jumped once, then twice in succession to make the sound echo again.
When it didn’t come, Greaves squatted low and launched himself as high as he could. The force of his landing went up through his legs to his head and the ice shuddered beneath the packed layer of snow. The lake convulsed in waves of sound. The tone seemed human this time, but it was gone again before he could place it.
Ten yards away, a spring had kept the ice thin and seductive, dyed the black of the water below. Picking his way through the shattered snow, he sat down on the thin spot and it sighed with relief. The surface seemed lower than the world. He lay back and the trees on the shore leaned above him; their dark tracery of branches seemed to dance in a circle around the cold, marbled moon.
When his family had lived in Chevy Chase, he had snuck out his window after bedtime and lain on the roof of his father’s study, looking up at the shapes in the trees. Through the open window behind him, underneath the closed door to his room, came the sound of his mother doing the breathing exercises she had used three times to give birth to his sisters, then to him; ten years later she was using the same pattern to endure the pain the bone marrow transplant had caused in her bones. He lay there, breathing with her, trying to push out the pain, and his father’s door opened and footsteps passed down the hall. His father whistled a popular song from the Forties, whistling louder, insistently, as he neared the spare room, whistling loudly the way you do when a child cries harder and harder.
It had made Greaves a listener, a careful judge of sounds; not out of love, he thought now, but necessity. When he’d first met Phoebe, she’d confided that the other girls in the class he was teaching thought him sexy for the way he listened. “You watch us so intently,” she said. They were sitting at the bar at the West End, cabs rushing downtown outside the windows. “Then at the last moment, your eyes slide away.” She’d hugged herself and shivered ecstatically.
The back of his head began to ache from the ice as he remembered how much he had once thought about her observation. But now he wasn’t even sure he liked to listen anymore. When he got to his feet, the lake moaned, somewhere between a sound of pleasure and pain. He knew it could easily swallow him.
My father never remarried: it was the first thought that came to him next morning, as he woke cold and stiff beneath a mountain of blankets and clothes. His breath was like smoke. It occurred to him that he could have died during the night, and he said, “Dad,” to say something and the small sound of his voice in the cold room excited him. He let things weigh for a long second, then threw the covers off and jumped from the bed, hopping and running around the cabin to get warm. It was not until he had gotten the woodstove lit that he was able to stand still and see the place as it was.
He had always wanted to remember it as Walden, but in the end Phoebe had been right: it wasn’t a cabin at all but a bungalow really, a bungalow deteriorating into a shack. It wasn’t like Phoebe’s family to try to be rustic. At some point the studs had been covered with a thin, dense wallboard that made a poor sound when he knocked on it, and the wood had absorbed its lettuce-green paint so that now the color was chalky and inoffensive as it could be. Two bookshelves were lined with curling, watermarked paperbacks, a strange selection that spoke of whimsical, languorous forays into Zen Buddhism, bad Southern Gothic, and holistic health—little lives left behind. Between the shelves an oversized window faced the lake, and it was there that he decided to situate his work table. When he’d done that, there was one other thing.
He went through his briefcase until he found the envelope from Phoebe’s mother, in which she’d given him information about the place. “It’s yours as long as you can stand it,” she had written. It was clear from the rest of her letter that she considered their separation Phoebe’s fault. On the back of her notepaper, Greaves found what he wanted. The man in charge of the driveway was named Matthew Maiden. He and his wife had bought the house down the road.
Greaves wedged his feet into his frozen boots, resolving never to leave them outside again, and struck a new path around the side of the cabin, past rhododendrons laden with snow. The Jeep started with a clatter of valves and he swung it out into the road. Sprinkled with sand, and treaded with ice, two tracks curved gently down through the stone walls and birches to the big yellow house. Built by Phoebe’s great-grandfather, Henry Penchant, who had made his fortune in the brass industry in Riverbury, it had once claimed more than five hundred acres, which were slowly sold off under the hand of a miserly trust. It was the very kind of arrangement that had landed Greaves’ own family in a narrow, listing twin on Franklin Avenue in Cambridge when they returned from Chevy Chase, a crowded vertical house where he and his sisters fought over the single bathroom and his father’s books encroached on what hallway there was more and more each year following his mother’s death. The same kind of trust—no trust at all was what it amounted to—and yet the more Greaves learned about it, the more he had come to appreciate its legal architecture: Like a work of literature, it wired its meaning, its predictions, into a future it could not hope to see.
Greaves parked in the driveway, behind a Chevy pickup with its plow-rig resting guiltily on the snow. A middle-aged woman answered the door, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans worn thin by her flesh. Her face was partially obscured by a large pair of glasses, and her frosted hair clung to the sides of her skull as if held there by static. A certain efficient attractiveness about her made Greaves think she might be a nurse, a type he recalled from his mother’s final days. Her eyes, slightly swimmy behind the glasses, stared at Greaves as if he were more lousy weather. The expression was not exactly unpleasant, it just lacked any surprise. It irked him that anyone could be so at peace with the unknown.
“I’m Will Greaves,” he said, shivering. “Phoebe’s husband. I just moved into the house by the lake.”
“Can’t it wait just a bit?” said the woman he assumed was Mrs. Maiden, standing aside.
Greaves stepped in. The hall was toasty and more carefully decorated than he would have guessed. “The hydraulics on the plow froze,” she said. “Matt wasn’t able to keep up. Once the third storm came along he just stalled out when he tried to move the pile.” Her accent was dampened and cavernous, from Nebraska or Iowa perhaps; somewhere you spent long winters alone and when you did have a visitor, you disgorged all your information at once, no time to observe more than the basic human needs. As a translator who sometimes made use of regional dialects, Greaves was intrigued by what the accent might say about her life. “It was all he could do just to push the snow in a little ways from the road,” she told him, pronouncing the word “poosh.” “Don’t know how you can sleep up there, though.”
“It’s pretty cold,” he acknowledged. “But there’s a good bit of wood on the porch.”
“I meant the lake,” she said frankly, “all that cracking and crying it does. I’d always be waiting for the next time it was going to start up.”
She laughed at herself. It was as close to confiding as she would get.
“You really think it’s a cry?” Greaves asked. “It seems more like a moan or a whistle to me, a psychedelic sort of sound.”
Mrs. Maiden bent over a fraction. A modem dialed from behind a set of closed pocket doors. It was the last sound Greaves expected to hear.
“Matt is working,” she said, “or I would take you in to him. Pretty soon, though, he’ll get tired of all that craziness and want to chop wood. Then you’ll see him.”
She was showing Greaves the door.
Her accent stayed in his head as he drove to the grocery store, a bright, melodious affair in the town where the fruit seemed to give off its own light, making the people look shabby and pale. It made Greaves feel shabby too, a catalogue of depressing human wants: he missed coming home from Yale and telling Phoebe about his day; he missed her body between the flannel sheets. He thought of his father spending all those years alone with his books, Greaves’ sister keeping the house with a gravity exceeding her age. He glanced at his work table as he carried the groceries into the cabin, but nothing in the sheets of white paper uplifted him, and he brought up Mrs. Maiden’s homely accent to cheer himself, forming her vowels as he put away cans, pulled on his gloves and got the spade from the porch.
“Don’t know, how you can sleep there, though,” he repeated to himself as he hacked through the crust. Some common sense was housed in her inflections which he lacked. “I don’t know,” he sang out loud, improvising as he began to break a sweat, “how you can stand it though.” The shovel scraped against the gravel of the lane.
“Muddy Waters, or Al Green?”
Greaves whipped around and nearly threw a shovelful of ice shards straight into the man who had spoken. The man was holding an axe on his shoulder, and the blade flashed grayly in the afternoon light, quicksilver now in the west behind the trees, strips of blue fading quickly to white.
“Matt Maiden,” the man said, his mouth twisting a little. Their gloves clasped awkwardly.
“You caught me,” Greaves told him, trying to free his fingers from Maiden’s. “Practicing my scansion. I translate poetry for a living.”
Matthew Maiden looked skeptical. His graying shoulder-length hair framed a boyish face, round and fleshy at the cheeks, but several days’ beard made his overall appearance seem grim. He wore a brown-and-white lumberjack’s coat. “One of my patients was a translator of Vietnamese poems,” Maiden said, resting the axe-head on the toe of his boot. “Collected all the poetry taken by Army intelligence from the bodies of Viet Cong dead, and put it together in a book.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“V. A. contractor. I process medical records, psychiatric histories, that sort of thing. Technically, I’m not supposed to meet the patients, but it turned out I was in a group with this guy, the poetry collector, down in Bridgeport.”
Just then, the lake moaned and out came the whistle; Maiden twisted to listen. Although he was not a large man, there was a wiry sort of strength in the motion, like a soldier, or a wrestler, Greaves thought.
“Your wife described it as a cry,” he explained when it was quiet again, “but I don’t think that’s it. I need to find a word for it, though. It’s the translator’s disease.”
“She’s only heard it the once,” said Maiden, narrowing his eyes and gazing over at the lake. “I brought her up here a few weeks ago, day before Christmas, but she couldn’t stand it. The holidays are hard for Virginia. She never came with me again.” A small aftershock warbled in the air. “Then one day I’m on the ‘net and I’m working on this record, guy wakes up in the middle of the night and shoots his wife right there in the bed. You know when you wake up and a sound in the bedroom is bigger than life?”
Greaves murmured yes. After his mother died, his father had bought him a dog, and the sound of his panting at night had been loud as someone breaking into the house.
“It’s just sounds that are quieter than everyday life,” Maiden said. “This guy woke up and he thought he heard the whistle a shell makes, four, five counts before it hits. You know you’re in range, you just don’t know if it’ll kill you or not. In this case, it was only his wife’s breathing. She had a cold.”
A truck passed on the road, tire-chains clicking, scraping and scattering salt. Greaves waited for the noise to compress, become part of the hardening dusk. “So he shot her?”
“Slept with a . 45 under his pillow. Just like we all did for a while.”
“It was a bad war,” Greaves observed.
Maiden peered suspiciously at him. As an expert on Asia, Greaves’ father had been tapped by Lyndon Johnson; that was what had brought them to Washington for the two years right before his mother’s death. “I was a kid then,” Greaves added.
Matthew Maiden slung his axe across his shoulder. “Programmed myself to wake up the night after I read about this guy.” His eyes returned to the lake. “I could hear Virginia breathing: it was a small sound but it filled my whole head. Then I understood the vet’s mistake. His survival reflex took over. Once you learn that, it’s stronger than anything else.”
“And you think that’s the same sound as the ice?” Greaves asked.
“You describe it how you can,” Maiden said.
Greaves heard from Phoebe so infrequently during February and March that he began to forget how long it had been. He was working well, three hours in the morning, two and sometimes even three in the early afternoon. On toward four, Matt Maiden arrived to split wood with a fifth of Jack Daniels in his coat, and Greaves was surprised to find that the bourbon actually melted the desperate feeling that sometimes descended on him now, with the falling light.
Near the end of March, he was translating poems that were written by a hermit who had left his job at court after his wife died in childbirth; the poet had glorified his emperor in battle, but in his new home in the Western Hills outside Beijing he wrote verses about nature, rocks, water, and trees. The days were a little bit warmer now, and the ice on the lake had turned mostly to slush. Greaves and Matt sat more and more on the cabin’s front porch because the need for wood had diminished. One day he told Matt what was bothering him. Like the poet, he was worried that, because of his mother’s death, he was apt to give up on people too easily, that now he felt the same way about Phoebe as perhaps he would have if she had died.
“Survival instinct,” Matt observed. “This guy’s wife died in childbirth, you said?”
“The baby was stillborn, too,” Greaves told him, handing back the bottle.
In the middle of his work the next morning, Phoebe called. Some note in her voice signaled a revival of interest in him. Reluctantly, he agreed to go in to the City to have dinner with her, but as soon as he got off the train at Grand Central Station, he began to feel how the cabin had changed him. The cabs rushing by on the viaduct sounded louder than he remembered. Downtown, SoHo’s unadorned spaces seemed artificial and absurd. The restaurant where he met Phoebe was so slickly designed that talk and clashing utensils ricocheted from the tiled floor and oiled cherry walls. New Age Thai music tinkled in the background like breaking glass. “Mom’s petitioning the bank to release us from the trust,” Phoebe said, leaning toward him across the tiny table. Her newly bobbed hair fell to a point from behind her flushed earlobe, and she tucked it back again.
“You talked to your mother?” Greaves yelled. Her white wine and his beer were arriving.
“I talk to her almost every day,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As far as he knew, she hadn’t spoken to her mother since a few months after therapy began.
The waiter poured half the beer and Greaves tipped the glass, peering inside.
“Why not pour the whole thing?” he asked Phoebe. She raised her eyebrows, which looked plucked. “Must be some minimalist acting theory afoot. When I was at Columbia, there was a water shortage and method acting was big and if you asked for water in a restaurant downtown, the waiter was likely to say Tuck You!’ and seethe for the rest of the meal.”
“Did you hear what I said, Will?” Phoebe’s eyes were alight. “We may be able to convince the bank that manages the Penchant trust to withdraw from their role. For years they’ve been selling off land just to pay their own fees. The cabin and the land around the lake are all that’s left.”
“I don’t see why you’re so excited about it.” Greaves poured out the rest of his beer. “You’re talking about the only thing preserving the place where you’ve sent me to live.”
“Nobody sent you anywhere.”
Their salads appeared and the waiter produced the fresh pepper as if he were using a hand tool. “See?” Greaves mouthed. “Minimalism.”
“You’re being satirical, Will. It doesn’t become you.”
“I disagree,” said the waiter, making the pepper mill vanish.
“Anyway,” Phoebe said, “the trust is a horrible thing. Mom says Henry Penchant was obsessed. He concentrated on it so much he lost his business.”
Greaves dug into his salad, shunting the chick peas aside. “I still like it. It’s solid. It doesn’t change.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes but her overall expression was fond. “Since we sold to the Maidens,” she said, dangling a piece of reddish lettuce from her fork, “the return on the money from the sale has just been going to the bank. The place is imploding financially. Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Greaves managed. All this winter she’d been down here, playing like a speculator with his life. Phoebe had never even shown any interest in finances before.
“Getting out from under the trust was her shrink’s idea anyway,” she said.
“Mom’s. She went to see him after I cut off communication. The shrink and Mom figured out that the trust is a symbol of everything Mom always hated about her family, but thought she couldn’t do without. It’s what ended her marriage to my Dad.”
“How do you figure that?”
“He wanted to farm the place but he wouldn’t pay the taxes because of Vietnam. Ending the marriage was good, but relying on the trust to make her do it. . . .”
“And what are you relying on?” he muttered.
“Managing the money herself is Mom’s last step. What did you say?”
“You said something, Will. I saw your lips move.” She put down her fork with a clatter.
“I didn’t say anything, Phoebe.”
“You did. Tell me.”
Quietly, Greaves drank his beer. Through the glass, he could see Phoebe, boiling. He wanted to get up then and kiss away her anger, feel the skin of her forehead on his lips, but his head was filled with cotton and a great weight was pinning him down to his seat. He’d resolved to listen better but he couldn’t even hear himself think. The waiter set his rare tuna on the table and a memory came to him of February, ice-fishing with Matt. The sight of the wriggling bass, being pulled from the water on his line, had almost made Greaves cry.
“If you don’t tell me right now, I’m leaving,” Phoebe said.
“Oh for Christ’s sake. Phoebe . . . .” A scrape of her chair, and a flash of blue coat, and she was a small figure squeezing through the people at the door.
Greaves caught her on a corner, almost two blocks away, in a grocery’s semi-tropical light. She was dry-faced, in a rage that seemed strangely remote. At his touch on her elbow, she turned and they stared at one another, locked in awe at the immensity of their lives together. Greaves looked away across the street where a man loped along, dressed completely in black, with long, greased-back black hair. The man wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air like a dog.
“Look at that,” Greaves said. “He’s actually sniffing. Smelling the air for cultural trends.”
Phoebe tossed her short hair in a gesture of ridicule. Her chin suggested the toe of a fine Italian boot. “Snobbery always hides something inadequate,” she said.
“That’s the meaning of the word. Look.”
The man in black crossed to their corner, and began holding pinkish-yellow grapefruits to his nose. “I was talking about you,” Phoebe said. “Shirley told me when you start to get pompous, I can ask you to stop.”
“But I wasn’t being pompous.”
“What did you say in the restaurant?”
He guided Phoebe backward, next to the bouquets of daisies and iris in cellophane. “I feel like your father,” he whispered. “You’re using that place to . . . I don’t know.”
“Dad was an addict, Will.”
“And I’m not him. I don’t like the trust because I think it’ll pay my bills. I admire it because it attempted to save something, as long as the benefactors did their fair share.”
“You mean as long as the men stayed in control. As long as they cared more about an esoteric thing like a trust than they did about their children.”
“It put your mother in control. You said so yourself.”
Phoebe began to laugh. There was an abrasiveness in it that sounded on the verge of hysteria, but he couldn’t mistake a clouding of tenderness, too. “You’re so clueless,” she said. “It’s almost nice. Everyone at the agency talks about abandonment issues and codependency. The writer, Jonathan, on my creative team does this confessional poetry with 12-step terms. He went to one of those chest-banging men’s groups where they give you a Native American name.”
Greaves was suddenly very tired. He had bought a one-way ticket out of a reckless hope that Phoebe might invite him to stay, but he barely even wanted to now, and the thought of the train to New Haven, retracing the sad, freezing ride to the cabin, made him angry.
“I hate confessional poetry,” he said. “It’s lazy work, lacking in form. It’s like one of those freaks in the English department accosting you at a cocktail party, telling you about their sex life. It makes itself out to be so honest but it’s really just a mask.” He took a deep breath and looked up at the building across the street, its cold, exquisite cast-iron filligree. He didn’t know if Phoebe’s silence meant that he should go on or not. A cab slowed down, its back tires sliding sideways in the slush, but Greaves waved it on. “If you break from a form, you should do it for meaning, for beauty, not to be tawdry and shocking like the confessionals do.”
“You’re being pompous again,” Phoebe said.
“I was only trying to have a conversation.”
“You argue for a living, Will.” She looked around nervously as the man in black came out of the grocery, a pint of ice cream and cat food showing through the plastic film of his bag. He wore a short leather jacket festooned with chains. Only the homeless in New York seemed dressed for the weather. “I’m entitled to an opinion, am I not?” said Greaves.
“Not if it sets me back.”
He was shocked. “How can an opinion about poetry possibly set you back?”
Phoebe wrapped her scarf tightly around her shaven neck. “You’re the one,” he added, “who started ragging on the guy at your stupid advertising agency.”
“Oh, that’s nice, Will. Now you admit you don’t like what I do.”
Greaves couldn’t disagree. Phoebe looked down the block at the art dealer’s lemon-lit windows, the frosty little bars. The flanges of her nose went in and out like a hunted animal, alert. A plane roared high above the buildings and a cab honked uptown. When Greaves had been in graduate school at Columbia, he’d loved New York, but it seemed like a rival to him now.
“I’m drunk,” Phoebe said. “I need to go home.”
“You had one glass of wine.”
“They have happy hour at the agency every Friday afternoon.”
“So you downed a few with Jonathan Bares-His-Soul?”
“Your jealousy isn’t attractive, Will. Besides, Jonathan is gay.”
“All right.” A great sneeze brewed like a squall in his nose. “You want me to get you a cab?” His head was stuffy and the only comfort he could find was the small thought of holding his wife’s elbow as she climbed into a cab.
“I’ll walk, thanks.” She kissed him dryly on the lips. “Good luck with your translating.”
She turned and hurried up the cracked bluestone sidewalk.
Virginia Maiden said the snowfall had kept the ground warm, and that the plants with hardy habits would be stronger. First crocus, then daffodils put up beleaguered and leathery leaves. Tulips appeared on the side of the cabin away from the lake, but Greaves’ translation went slowly. Each morning, he sat at his desk in the grip of an anxious despondency. He couldn’t find the words to convey his poet’s joy at discovering solitude. The poet conjured his stillborn child’s spirit from the buds on the trees, the fledgling birds, but the exercise struck Greaves as precious, sentimental. He telephoned his father in Cambridge; his father had always thrived on working alone.
“Solitude has its benefits,” his father told him. “I won’t say that they’re equal, or greater, than having a family. It is possible to draw strength from them, however.”
He went on, with Greaves rarely responding. In the end, the conversation only underlined their differences. His father believed in all the old things, virtues that had made him sure enough to advise LBJ on Vietnam. The salient feature of these virtues, Greaves thought, seemed to be their resistance to communication between fathers and sons.
Phoebe called once at the beginning of May, sounding tense and superficial, and that night the poet’s stillborn baby surfaced in his dreams. Trapped under the ice, it was letting off bubbles, calling silently to Greaves. The next morning, he didn’t work. He sat on the porch and searched the lake for the herons, who had built their nest in a dead, white tree on the opposite shore. Between the porch rails, the canes of ancient rosebushes sprouted new thorns. Their waxy leaves turned quickly from dark red to green and by the second week of June the gnarled wood was scattered with blossoms. He passed the afternoons with Matt, fencing a pasture on the ridge, where Matt’s new belted Holsteins would graze in July. After another lull, Phoebe was calling him regularly, at least every other morning from her desk. The phone rang at 11 and there was her voice, complaining about work, about the high cost of therapy and living in New York. Above all, she was angry with her mother, who had nullified the trust but was now in love with the money manager she had hired to invest the proceeds.
“I’m worried she’s going to lose the cabin,” Phoebe told him.
Greaves remembered a strategy he’d come up with months before, to wait her out until she tired of her new life, but now the prospect of their former domesticity filled him with dread. Late that afternoon, he went swimming and in spite of the work he’d been doing with Matt, his limbs felt weakened. He paddled feebly through the placid evening water. Pockets of warmth wrapped around him and he dove, looking for the cool springs he remembered from the past. Brown sediment hung in the sun-lightened water and as the air in his lungs expired, the lake pushed him up; the silky, delicate feel of the surface on his skin, the water’s buoyancy surprised him. She cares about the cabin, he thought, surfacing.
That night, he called her at home. “The water’s so nice, I thought maybe we could have a picnic on the Fourth of July, with the Maidens,” he told her. “I know you don’t want to live in the past but this could be a new tradition.”
“That’s so funny,” Phoebe said. “Shirley and I were just talking about traditions.”
The Volvo honked, and then came up the lane at one o’clock on a sweltering Fourth, Phoebe driving in a black bowler hat. She dragged Greaves suggestively into the house and threw the bowler onto the table. Her mouth was determined, eyes wry as she undid his belt.
“Phoebe,” he said, sliding his hands around her back.
Greaves murmured assent.
Her skin was cool and surprising. He slid his hand down the back of her jeans and squeezed her. “I missed you,” he said, watching her take off her shirt.
“You’re a good man, Will Greaves. Rare.”
“You make me sound boring.”
“I’d forgotten,” she said, stepping mechanically out of her pants. Her white body shone before him, making the room where he lived look empty and dull. She came to him and he could feel his blood pulsing against her hand. “Still waters,” she said.
“It’s all so fragile,” Greaves told her, looking over her shoulder at the lake.
She was pushing him down on the old rattan couch. “Shirley says that makes you want to wreck it all the more.”
Greaves closed his eyes as she guided him, haltingly, inside her. He felt her above him and he thought of their first year together, the spice of geraniums from her bright dorm-room sill. When he opened his eyes, she was gazing across the water, as she had years before across the treetops of Riverside Park, the wide Hudson, and the Jersey Palisades. She moved to her own internal rhythm, which had always turned him on.
* * * *
When the steaks were ready, Greaves resumed his place at the picnic table and passed the platter around. “We haven’t celebrated the Fourth,” Matt said. “How long has it been?”
Virginia held an ear of corn in her hand. “When you don’t have much family close by,” she said. “It isn’t much like when I was young.”
“Ginny’s a recovering Catholic,” Matt told them. “Ten kids.”
Virginia elbowed him fondly. Greaves looked at Phoebe, and for some reason, her expression made him nervous. Her knife hovered just above her steak, like an embarrassing question about to fall. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she said. “It has to do with families.”
Virginia looked to her husband for support.
“I wouldn’t ask. . . .” Phoebe told them. “But lately I’ve discovered that Will’s and my problems are a symptom of hiding our feelings about parenting. I started going to this group and it seems like a lot of people there, mostly our generation, grew up with divorce. We all look—the women especially—look at their husbands and think, he’s not going to be there. So we start to give them what my therapist calls these how-much-do-you-love-me tests.”
Greaves wanted to crawl under the table. He’d always hated couples who argued with each other through their guests. “You want to know why we don’t have kids,” Virginia said. “It’s OK. Matt and I have made our peace about that.”
“That’s true,” Matt said, staring into, then finishing off his beer. “For years, we thought Virginia couldn’t have them.” He put the can down and looked at his wife’s cheek. “I was very resentful about that. Then one day I read something in a medical journal I was editing about exposure to Agent Orange, that it reduces sperm count.”
“The doctors said, if we did conceive, that there was a very high risk, both for me and the baby,” Virginia added. Her tone was flat with the jargon of illness, studied devoutly, out of hope.
“But for a long time before that,” Matt continued, “I kept the sperm thing a secret. I was very unfair to Ginny.”
“Did you ever think of adopting?” Phoebe asked.
Virginia gazed at their barn, which showed red with new paint through the trees. “We decided to adopt houses instead.”
Phoebe launched into a hymn to historic preservation, but the afternoon spoiled after that. Greaves wasn’t surprised. He didn’t like Phoebe’s newfound directness. The first thunderstorm of the season came on quickly at four and Matt and Virginia hastened away in their pickup with two uneaten pies. Greaves and Phoebe sat under the porch, watching the lake surface dimple with rain.
“It’s sad about Ginny and Matt,” she said.
The rain came harder through the trees. Droplets bounced on the stone where Greaves and Matt had split wood, pounding the splinters around it into the mud. “I don’t know if I buy it,” Greaves said. “I’ve never heard that Agent Orange affected that.”
“You just feel guilty because your Dad worked for Johnson.”
“Maybe. But maybe some people have seen too much to have kids. They know too much about death. When I was in China—they have the one-child policy, you know . . . .”
“It’s appalling,” Phoebe said. “Sterilization. Forced abortions.”
“You’ve been in New York City too long. When you go out into the provinces, you see the suffering. It’s hard to think about bringing more kids into the world. You want something to drink? Gin-and-tonic?”
Phoebe made a sour face. “I don’t want to drink anything,” she said.
In the kitchen, Greaves dropped melting ice from the cooler into a glass. He’d bought a bottle of Maker’s Mark for the occasion, hoping he and Matt could sit with it later on the porch, but it had been a false idea and now he felt foolish about it. The smell reminded him of his mother, and how his father had bought her whisky for the pain, the first bottle he’d ever seen in their house.
“Scotch?” asked Phoebe when he was back in his chair.
Slicks of wind shivered over the lake. “Bourbon, you sure you don’t want some?”
Phoebe peered at him curiously. “You haven’t been drinking this winter, have you? Sitting up here rendering yourself impotent so as not to pollute the world?”
“I don’t believe you’ve found me impotent,” Greaves said, sighting through the amber liquid at the trees. As a child, the color had been exciting to him, part of the secrets of adulthood.
“How about endurance?” said Phoebe, reaching out for his hand.
* * * *
The next morning, they awoke to someone rapping on the door. Greaves turned over, feeling Phoebe beside him, naked and warm between the light sheets. Outside the window, sails of mist passed each other on the surface of the lake, and Greaves had trouble remembering what summer it was. He struggled into his shorts and found Virginia turning circles on the porch.
Matt’s tractor had bucked as he dragged out a stump. His wrist had jammed against the wheelguard and the bone had come through the skin. When Greaves and Phoebe reached him in the kitchen of his house, Matt’s arm was blue around the wound and his face was white as chalk.
“He can’t stay away from those stumps,” said Virginia. She seemed slightly in shock.
“Get that shit from the medicine cabinet,” Matt told her. “Now.”
“You’re not supposed to take that anymore.”
“Damn it, Ginny!” Matt tried to push himself up with his good arm but Greaves laid a hand on his shoulder. He glared up at Greaves but his green eyes turned glassy and dull. A faraway look in them made Greaves feel that he’d never really known Matt at all.
“I think we’d better take you to the emergency room,” Phoebe said.
Riding in the back of the Volvo with Matt, who was cupping his wrist in his lap like an injured bird, Greaves watched Phoebe drive, her hands at 10 and 4, talking to Ginny. The summer after they met, when Greaves was her T.A. at Barnard, she had thrown these wild parties at the lake. Sooner or later someone would always get hurt and something about the way she handled the disaster—the bee sting, the bad trip, the arm broken on the dock—had attracted him to her. There she was at the middle of a frenzy, being so cool—it wasn’t until now that he realized how much the frenzy was of her own making.
“I was running up a hillside,” Matt was saying, “back up to my hole. I was so stoned I didn’t even know I’d been hit. I was running, and my brain didn’t know what my body had known for a while. I was hit in the backs of my legs and my back, and my mind was still running when my body went down.”
At the hospital in Riverbury, Virginia stayed in the operating room while they pulled Matt’s bone back together, pinned it in place, and stitched up the wound in his arm. Greaves and Phoebe waited outside. The television rigged in the corner of the ceiling had its own horror trapped in its black plastic box, but the people sitting on the vinyl couches didn’t seem to connect with it.
“My God,” Greaves said quietly. Matt’s mantra was true: the survival instinct was stronger than anything else. The television showed a parade of refugees in horse-drawn carts, crawling along a mountain road. The rags they wore, against the olive- and khaki-colored hills, made the tint on the screen look slightly pale. “I don’t think I’ve been in a hospital since my mom died.”
“That couldn’t be right,” Phoebe said.
“When my sister had Willy, I couldn’t go. I think I was in China.”
“Viewing the suffering of billions. How convenient for you.”
“Why are you in such a bad mood?”
“I guess I don’t like hospitals either.”
With difficulty, Greaves tore his eyes from the television, the corpses in the streets of city like laundry flung down by a storm. “You know what Napoleon said to his adjutant at Waterloo?”
“Is this a joke?”
“Napoleon was watching thirty thousand of his best men get slaughtered by Prussians, and his adjutant observed that this might be the end of the Empire. “Ne t’inquiete pas,” Napoleon said. This day will be made up in one night in the bedrooms of France.”
“But it’s true. Look at the baby boom. Wars are always followed by a surge in fertility.”
Phoebe’s eyes went back to the television, and Greaves was stirred by an immoderate desire. “You want to go skinny-dipping tonight?”
“Men are pigs.” She didn’t say it with conviction. “Anyway, I can’t.”
“I take it this means you’re going back, then.” “To the City?”
“The City,” Greaves echoed with distaste.
Virginia and Matt appeared in a doorway beside the nurse’s station. Matt wore a contraption of metal and foam on his wrist. “The last step of my therapy is to find a way to live with what I know,” Phoebe said in a low voice.
“How do you do that?”
“Don’t think too much about it.” Her hand rested on his for a moment before she got up.
When it finally thundered, Greaves looked up from his work. The lake was a livid grey-green, without depth. A pair of geese flew over the cabin; through the tattered screen door he could hear their wings, creaking. “August,” he said. The air outside had gone still. Thunder sounded again, bumping against the hills and rolling off down the valley and suddenly the wind burst in, soughing through the needles of the pines and wrinkling the skin of the lake. The smell of rain came through the screen. If the storm blew hard, the mailbox would leak: he should salvage whatever was there.
He sat on the porch step, pulling on his boots. The lake had changed from the milky green color to lead. He remembered sitting on the cool stone steps of the White Dagoba on Jade Island when he was doing his graduate work in Beijing, staring out across the slimy green water of Beihai Park. The lava rocks were all in their place around the willowy shore—ordered, unlike this shaggy Connecticut lake—and there he had worked out his upcoming marriage, career, his life. The whole attempt seemed callow to him now, to have thought he could plan things, rely on a strength he had only assumed. There’d been something about saving in the plan, he recalled, preservation: saving things that were beautiful, alive, through steady work. Riding back across that water in the tiny, painted ferry, the strength of his resolution had made him vaguely sick.
He walked down the lane toward the mailbox, greenish-gold light seeping through the woods on either side. The storm boiled slowly up the next valley and Greaves found himself dawdling, wanting to be caught under the trees in the rain. Since the Fourth, Phoebe had been sending him postcards—family scenes from the Fifties, with colorized tvs and lips. Against their manufacturer’s intention, their campiness struck him as driven by pathetic nostalgia.
On the ridge, someone was hunting out of season. Before he’d recovered from the sound of the first shot a second one clapped and then roared down the lowering sky. At the mouth of the lane, the light dimmed on the fender of a passing car. He heard it slow, coming to a stop behind the hemlocks, then begin to back up with a whining of gears. The Maiden’s beige pickup. The passenger window slid down with a whir as a huge raindrop splattered on the scrap wood in the bed. “You’d better get in,” Virginia observed. She sat close to the dashboard, hugging the wheel.
“I have to get the mail,” Greaves told her. He hadn’t seen the Maidens much since Matt’s accident. “I don’t mind getting wet.”
“Suit yourself.” Her window was open a crack and her middle-aged body seemed padded against some sort of loss. Her wide blue eyes held a memory of space. “We’re leaving,” she said.
A gust of wind made the pine boughs swoon and toss. Greaves’ insides went soft. “Why?”
“You’ll have to ask Matt about that.” She gestured past Greaves’ shoulder with her chin.
The hunter was still shooting in the woods. The gun’s report shook Greaves’ body, leaving behind it a gloom in which his senses were terrifically acute. He could hear the rain sifting onto the surface of the lake and thin braids of water ran against him in the wheeltracks of the lane. Down at Maiden’s, he heard the truck’s tailgate slam. He was soaked already and his clothes had begun to feel cold against his skin.
Greaves walked briskly toward the cabin and suddenly a noise like an animal went crashing through the woods to his left. He quickened his pace, staring into the rain-blackened trunks. At the thin spot, where out of anger Phoebe’s father had once felled a tree with his car, he saw five of Matt’s Holsteins, herded against the barbed wire fence that ran through the pines. The dark flanks of the cattle were matted and shining, the white belts around their middles splattered with mud. The air was diaphanous with rain and when the sound came again, it seemed closer than the fence.
Greaves entered the woods. The cracking and whipping of limbs kept on to his right. He swiped blindly through the fragrant green boughs, trying to keep the noise before him as water shook into his eyes. Blinking through a screen of needles, he ran right into Matt.
Matt cradled a 30. 06 on his cast, the stock wedged against the folds of his camouflage slicker. “Will. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t shoot you.” He had put on weight since the accident and he seemed more haggard, older than before. His hair had been cut, but a grey shock was plastered to his forehead. Raindrops dappled the yellow lenses of his glasses. Looking through them, Greaves thought he saw pain in Matt’s eyes. “She told you, didn’t she?”
“It’s awful wet out here. What’s the shotgun for?”
“A coy-dog killed the calf last night. I’ve been up in the woods all day, hunting it.”
“I heard you. Any luck?”
Matt pumped a shell out in frustration. “Virginia told you we were leaving?”
“I asked her why. She said to ask you.”
Matt’s face slackened. Long creases had formed around his mouth.
“You want a drink, Matt?” The rain fell fitfully through the branches. “I’ve got some bourbon in the cabin.”
“I just can’t work it anymore, Will.”
Matt looked off to where his cattle had trampled the grass to a late summer yellow. Sloping down to the stock pond it was greener than green. He raised an orange glove toward it.
“You’ve made a beautiful place,” Greaves said. “Before you came, it was a mess.”
“I’m cut off from people, though. I’m not giving anything back.”
“You’re giving back beauty,” Greaves said. “You’re preserving something beautiful.”
“I’m not talking about poetry.” Matt had never sounded bitter before.
“Neither am I, necessarily. What you decide to save should be what you’re good at.”
“Don’t lecture me, Will.” The shotgun wheeled around in the folds of the slicker. He gestured with the barrels in front of Greaves’ chest. “See that’s the difference between you and me. I was trying to build something, not preserve it. I don’t have anything I want to preserve.”
Greaves couldn’t stop himself from shivering. Rain dripped from his hair down his forehead into his ears and his eyes. He swallowed and the woods were all around him.
“There’s only two kinds of people in the world anymore,” Matt said, “them who has something they think should be saved, and them who they use in order to save it.”
“Don’t tell me you’re feeling like a slave to the Penchants. You bought them out.”
“But people like them are always looking over your shoulder, waiting for you to slip. Ginny’s folks left us enough to buy the place, mortgaged up to our asses. I couldn’t make it.”
“You had an accident, Matt.”
The wind came through the thicket by the pasture. Thunder rolled off the hills and broke up in the distance. The air between filled with gentle, steady rain. “One thing I learned in Vietnam is that there’s no such thing as accidents.”
A month later, Greaves was returning from a few days of meetings in his department at Yale. The sky was bright, the air crisp, but Greaves was under the gun. The new chair had seemed glad to have him back, but a certain indulgence in her tone did not bode well for his future. Classes started again in two weeks and if he didn’t finish his manuscript now, he would never have a contract in time for his tenure review in November. He hadn’t seen Matt since that day in the woods, but he found himself wanting the feeling of friendship that their conversations had always brought him. As the Jeep passed sagging farm buildings and ponds daubed with swans, he thought about asking Matt to help him set up the new laptop he’d bought at the co-op, as a catalyst to finish his book.
When he turned on Penchant Road, his heart sank. Not only were the cows gone from the field, but the sign advertising the sale of the big yellow house had sprouted three matching offspring, planted in the ragged brown grass around the barn. The pickup was gone and so was Virginia’s blue Ford. Orange tape, tied to surveyor’s stakes, dotted the pasture like artificial flowers. The Jeep idled loudly against the big shut doors of the barn.
“Bastard.” He pounded the wheel. “Bastard.”
The phone was ringing as he stepped onto his porch.
“Did you get your computer?” Phoebe asked.
“Matt and Ginny subdivided the land. They didn’t even wait more than a month to see if someone would buy the whole parcel. They just moved out and carved up the land.”
“They can’t do that,” Phoebe said. For a moment she was silent and he could hear the rush of traffic and a horn outside her window.
“The trust is gone,” Greaves reminded her, carrying the cordless phone to the porch. The lake reflected the high, polished sky. “It ended when the house was sold to them.”
“Well maybe they can do it.”
“Why can’t people forget what was done in the past? Why do they have to ruin what little they have?”
“He didn’t ruin it, Will.” He could hear her switch ears. “Besides, I have a surprise . . . .”
Greaves sat down and looked up through the branches at the high autumn sky. The breeze from the lake shook the screendoor and he thought he sensed a different consistency to the air, as if it were bracing for winter. The shadows under the trees had a yellowish tinge.
“Don’t tell me. Your mother sold me out. Her shrink told her it was the healthy thing.”
“Will.” He stood and walked to the rail. “I’m not going to let you spoil this.”
“Spoil what? Tell me, please, what isn’t already spoiled.”
“Our baby,” she said in a feeble, new voice.
He felt his head begin to swell with possibilities. She had been in control all along.
“Will? Are you still there?”
A heron dove on the lake, its bluish body disappearing beneath the water. Tears brimmed in his eyes. “I’m not sure,” he said.
“You sound a bit funny. Don’t you want to come celebrate, go have dinner in Chinatown?”
The heron’s wings beat the water, black legs trailing like commas behind.
“I don’t know. Just the thought of Canal Street makes me feel like a refugee.”
A warm laugh came through the phone. “You always told me,” Phoebe said, “to put myself in their shoes.”