After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up James's coat,
because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he
and Fritz and Mary?Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with
moss?colored carpet, Fritz's La?Z?Boy, Mary?Margaret's embroidered parlor
chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber
golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary?Margaret's piano shines with lemon
oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their
homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are
wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when
Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just
her fingertips show.
"I'm going for a walk," she says.
'Why?" Herbert says.
"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight?thirty, put yourselves to bed."
"But you'll be back by eight?thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.
"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good?bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.
"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary?Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark, worried eyes.
"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.
Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."
"Mama's boy," Mary?Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."
"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.
Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. These after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, as she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowning the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.
From the street the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary?Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re?election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.
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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