"Sue, I think that's good," I called to her. "Your sisters and your mom, and your dad."
Susan had a benign aloofness that made her irresistible from the moment I saw her. She was a mystery and remained that way for the duration of our marriage. We were at school the first time we met. She and three of her friends visited the house I had just moved into with four other guys because she knew one of them. We all sat across from one another in old fl ea market chairs and a couch left out on the curb that we'd carried home. It was a rainy, late, luminescent August afternoon and I chain-smoked cigarettes and we talked about music and art and books and I exaggerated my enthusiasm for anything Susan mentioned that I liked, too. She poured red wine from a green jug into a blue glass. When she raised the glass to her mouth, the daylight lit the glass purple and it seemed as if her eyes turned the same color. When she lowered the glass, her eyes returned to the silvery turquoise of her scarf. She wiped the wine from her top lip and smiled at what I'd just said, but more to herself than me, and I knew that I'd never get through to her, really, fully, and that if I did it'd dispel what was already enchanting me anyway, and that made everything impossible, but it alsoor especially made her all the more attractive. When she stood up to leave with her friends a couple hours later, she stretched her arms over her head and looked out the window and her eyes turned the gray blue of the thunderclouds gathering over the vacant fairgrounds across the street.
Since I'd been a young kid I'd loved books and read constantly. I loved mysteries and horror stories and books on history and art and science and music, everything. The bigger the book, the better; I deliberately found the thickest novels I could, for the pleasure of lingering in other worlds and other people's lives for as long as possible. I borrowed six books a week, the limit, from the library and devoured potboilers and war stories and histories of the Apollo space program and Russian novels I could make neither heads nor tails of and it was all thrilling. What I loved most was how the contents of each batch of books mixed up with one another in my mind to make ideas and images and thoughts I'd never have imagined possible.
School was another matter. I was a terrible student and regularly failed assignments and wrote pathetic essays and missed due dates. The only college I was accepted to was the state university, and that just barely. When I met Susan, I'd been on academic probation for a semester, and I dropped out the following fall. Susan and I moved in together while she finished her degree and I painted houses and mowed lawns and shoveled snow.
We moved to Enon when Sue graduated. By then, she was already three months pregnant. I went to work painting houses full-time for one of my grandfather's neighbors, a guy named Louis, who'd hired me for summers in high school. Louis had moved into a converted boardinghouse across the street from my grandparents with his wife and four kids a few years earlier. My grandparents had been friends for decades with the woman who'd lived there and let rooms before, mostly to Enon's bachelor civil servants: firemen, cops, mail carriers. When she died and Louis bought the house, he renovated and repainted it by himself. My grandfather liked to stand around in the side yard and pass the time talking about the neighborhood while Louis replaced shingles or primed the doors. Louis always called my grandfather "Mr. Crosby" and shoveled his driveway and the footpath to the front door whenever it snowed, "Because we're neighbors now, Mr. Crosby, and that's what neighbors do."
Louis paid me well, but I had to work with an old ex-con named Gus, who bragged and complained and spewed vulgarity without pause all day, each day, and nearly drove me mad.
Excerpted from Enon by Paul Harding. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Harding. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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