Excerpt of Vinegar Hill by A Manette Ansay
(Page 2 of 7)
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That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.
Oh no, it was much too dry.
No, really, it was good.
Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just
a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be
history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist
the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so
strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set
too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and
perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.
But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary?Margaret that might cause a
stranger to notice, to slow and watch and wonder without really knowing
why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on
their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep,
their voices rise and fall in the singsong way of a prayer. Fritz knows
something terrible about Mary Margaret that he ultimately threatens to
reveal, and this threat ends the fight instantly, with Mary?Margaret
saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks
around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding
what they mean.
She heads toward the downtown past other ranch?style houses, each
centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the
chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut
larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of
graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast
curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form
the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it
all?the harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular
houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a mile?the clock in the
steeple like a huge, patient eye.
As a child, Ellen was afraid of that clock, that steeple, the gaunt
cross at its peak. Strings of smoke from the electric company rippled
behind it like the shadows of large birds, and she was always relieved to
go inside, to sit between her mother and her sisters in their usual pew
down front. The altar shone like a holiday table, decorated with flowers
and white linen; the air was scented with incense, shoe polish, the sweet
odor of women's perfume. Often she'd sleep with her head on her mother's
purse, lulled by the murmur of the congregation's responses and the slow,
steady thrum of the hymns. The church was no less familiar than any room
in the house where she, like all of her sisters, had been born, fifteen
miles north of Holly's Field. They came to Saint Michael's for Mass on
Sundays, for Wednesday night Devotions whenever they could, for plays and
recitals and long days of school, for holiday celebrations. Every
Christmas Eve, their mother drove them up and down the streets of Holly's
Field to see the Christmas lights, ending the tour at Saint Michael's
parking lot?the grand finale?where a twenty foot wreath opened the
darkness like an astonished red mouth. This was a treat they waited for
all year, talked about for weeks afterward. And yet, Ellen always felt a
sweet, secret relief at folding back into the blackness of the
countryside, heading for home, the quietly lit farmhouses spread out from
one another as if they'd fallen to earth, a shower of meteorites, each
still faintly burning.
Now, though it's less than a week since Thanksgiving, Holly's Field is
already strung with decorations. Plastic Santa Clauses wave from front
lawns; nativity scenes glow between the bushes. Looking back, Ellen
notices that only the house at 512 is dim, giving off the frail fight of
an ordinary table lamp. Fritz refuses to pay for the extra electricity; he
doesn't want the bother of putting up a Christmas tree. Other years,
visiting for a few days at Christmas, Ellen didn't mind. After all, there
were lights and decorations and a fresh?cut tree at her mother's house for
the children to enjoy. But this year it was different because 512 Vinegar
Hill was home.
Copyright 1998 by A. Manette Ansay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Avon Books.