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.
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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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