Grenville: Summer Birds of a Feather
Frank paused in the middle of the kitchen. “Which is it? Fast or slow?”
“Doesn’t matter now.” Louisa grabbed a sponge and made a swipe down a perfectly clean counter. “He’s gone.”
Frank craned out the window overlooking the tiny mowed area behind their one-story house adjacent to the Pine Breezes Motel they owned and operated. “What was it?”
“Goldfinch.” Louisa opened a cupboard and took down a plate to make Frank a sandwich.
“That reminds me: we gotta move those feeders. You can keep them, but they’re too close to the motel. I’m washing poop off the windows and it gets on cars in the parking lot.”
Louisa opened her mouth to protest, but Frank never listened to her argument on this point. No one had a right to complain about anything at Pine Breezes. It was always clean and cheap—too cheap, as far as she was concerned—catering to budget-minded families and fishermen with bait and beer coolers. She deserved better than this. Mouth set in a hard line, she pulled her purse from the corner of the kitchen counter and jangled her keys on purpose. Frank could make his own sandwich.
“If you’re going out, get some of that iced tea, will ya?” he called after her.
The screen door slapped the frame, her only reply.
As a young woman, it was all she’d ever wanted: to marry her boyfriend, Frank Pherson. By the time she was twenty-four, Louisa had a toddler and a baby. Now, their son lived in Boston, and their daughter was married and in Westchester County. And here she remained at age 50, still living at the Pine Breezes, which Frank’s father had started in the 1960s, right about the time the state road to Lake Placid was widened and motorists had to pass right through Grenville to get there.
Louisa punched the gas pedal on the old Subaru Outback. The car hit forty on these empty, familiar roads. Just as the speedometer flirted with fifty, Louisa caught sight of something and hit the brakes.
A dove-gray Volvo sat at the very end of the driveway at Arrollson’s cottage. Louisa studied the summer home with its cedar shingles weathered gray and white shutters and trim. The Arrollsons were her first sighting of the summer people who owned cottages and vacation homes in the Adirondack Mountains. By Memorial Day, at least half of them would be back. And by July 4, the town would be swarming with them.
Louisa always liked Grenville much better when the summer people came back. She admired their sophisticated ways, so different from the Grenville townies. She studied vacationers, especially the women, patterning herself after the way they dressed and spoke. If someone didn’t know, Louisa told herself, she could pass for one of them.
Bambi Arrollson stretched out on the sofa with her feet up. At sixty, she still had the good bones and trim body of the woman she’d been at forty, except for a little thickening here, a bit of softness there. Her hair, once blond, had more ash tones in it. The bright purple of her reading glasses framed her blue eyes. She opened her book at the marker, found her place halfway down the page, and resumed reading. The best thing about Grenville was having hours free for thick novels and biographies she never had time for back home in Rochester.
Her husband still fancied the outdoor life: fishing on the Raquette River, mostly with a guide who supplied the boat and bait. Fishing was Karl’s therapy, the closest he ever got to being spiritual and only here, at the old cottage that had been built by his parents.
Bambi could take about 10 days at a stretch here, then found some reason to go back to Rochester for a long weekend—social events, charity obligations. Plus Karl, though semi-retired, from time to time still had to go into the law office he co-founded years ago.
Someone knocked on the wood frame of the screen door. Bambi lowered her book and looked over the top of her reading glasses. A woman stood there: hair bright and brassy, wearing blue and white printed Capri pants and a blue top, and holding something in her hands. A bowl, a basket? Someone selling something? Or maybe, she grimaced, one of those pushy church people.
Louisa held the peach cobbler in her good ceramic dish. Since first noticing the Arrollsons were back, it had taken her two whole days to come up with a plan. Who didn’t like cobbler? It was a neighborly gesture. And they were neighbors—sort of. There was no reason to be nervous, Louisa told herself firmly. But now, watching Bambi Arrollson through the screen door, she almost lost her nerve.
“May I help you?” Bambi asked.
Louisa waited, but the screen door stayed closed. “I wanted to welcome you back—back here for the summer.” She stumbled over the lines she’d rehearsed all the way over. “I made you this peach cobbler. Had to use frozen fruit—nothing in season yet. But the fruit is still very good. Not mushy—like fresh, which it was, of course, before it was frozen.”
The screen door still didn’t move.
“I’m Louisa Pherson, Frank’s wife. From Pine Breezes.”
Bambi opened the door slowly, and Louisa stepped inside.
The room looked like a cross between L.L. Bean and Pottery Barn—Louisa got both catalogs. Pine tables and comfortable chairs formed a semi-circle in front of a fieldstone fireplace, where a bright rug lay on the hardwood floor in front of the hearth. Careful not to gawk, Louisa did a quick sweep with her eyes.
“So kind of you, Louise,” Bambi said.
“Louis-a,” she corrected, smiling. “My mother thought it sounded exotic.” She still held the cobbler.
“Won’t you come in for a moment?” Bambi motioned toward the sofa.
Louisa perched on the edge of the cushion, still clutching the cobbler. She’d imagined them taking tea in the kitchen, helping themselves to a serving of the cobbler, which was still warm. But Bambi didn’t look like someone who ate dessert in the middle of the afternoon. Louisa straightened up and sucked in her stomach. “You here for the whole summer?” she asked.
“Mostly, yes,” Bambi said. “We’ll go back home a few times, but Karl likes it here.”
“Good fishing, right? Karl and Frank like to talk about fishing.”
“Frank, from the motel?” Bambi finally seemed to register.
“Yes, that’s my husband,” Louisa repeated.
The peach cobbler still in her sweaty hands, Louisa explained how Frank had spent the winter sprucing up the place. She talked about her ideas to upgrade the property entirely: rooms decorated in individual themes, a common great room, gourmet breakfasts every morning. “Attract a little different clientele,” Louisa said. “Not just the fishing crowd.” She remembered Karl’s passion for fishing and her cheeks reddened. “I mean the usual fishing crowd.”
Bambi’s expression remained pleasant, but neutral. She appeared to listen, but never asked a question. Not knowing what else to do, Louisa kept talking.
“I have to meet Karl soon,” Bambi interrupted. “He’s expecting me.”
“Oh, and here I’ve been going on and on about nonsense.” Louisa knew this was her cue to leave. “I hope you like the cobbler.” She set it on the end table.
Bambi led the way to the door. “Thank you again.”
Louisa called back from the car. “See you soon.”
The clean baking dish and a monogrammed thank-you note appeared at the motel office a few days later. Frank told Louisa he’d been up on a stepladder at the time, so she told Bambi to leave it on the counter.
“Why didn’t you tell me she was here?” Louisa scolded Frank.
“She seemed busy. Why’d you bring that to them, anyway? You don’t know her.”
“The Arrollsons have been coming here for years. And you fish with Karl. Of course we know them.”
Frank looked around the kitchen. “You make one of those cobblers for us?”
“I will,” Louisa promised.
Bambi Arrollson was reserved, maybe even shy, Louisa figured, and frankly she probably had a low expectation of the kind of people who lived year-round in Grenville. Determined to show she was different, Louisa vowed to make a good impression on her. Three or four times over the next three weeks, she dropped by the Arrollsons—bringing another cobbler, then the first peas from her garden, and, in mid-June, an invitation to dinner, which Bambi declined with what seemed like genuine regret. “We are just so busy,” Bambi said. “Our daughter is engaged, and we’re constantly involved in wedding plans.”
Louisa stood on the front step, begging for crumbs of details, but Bambi said nothing more.
As June approached, Pine Breezes booked quickly. The black flies were bad this season, but the fishermen still came. One day, on her way back from the IGA, Louisa saw the dove-gray Volvo in the motel parking lot and ran into the office, expecting a surprise visit from Bambi.
Karl Arrollson stood at the counter with Frank, studying a fishing map. “You’ll need two canoes. Coupla places you have to portage them,” Louisa heard her husband say. She looked around for Bambi, but it appeared Karl was alone.
“Can you find me guides who’ll do that? We can carry our own gear, but we won’t be able to manage with the canoes.”
“It’s the damn paddles—that’s the hardest,” Frank said. “And don’t get me started about them double paddles. I’d rather carry a moose through the woods.”
Louisa cringed at Frank’s grammar, but Karl laughed. “You come along, too, Frank?” he asked.
“If I can get away from this place.” Frank looked over at Louisa.
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “You two running along fishing.” If Karl wanted Frank to go fishing, it wouldn’t be long before Bambi invited her to lunch.
Ten long days later, Louisa was up early the morning Frank and Karl’s party of four left for an overnight fishing trip. Karl’s guests were three men from his law firm, who brought more gear than a sporting goods store. Frank hired four teenage boys as porters and to help with the tents. Louisa tucked a Tupperware container of brownies into one of the waterproof bags that held their clothes.
The day dragged, even with guests to check in and out, and rooms to clean, since one of the regular girls was six months pregnant and had to watch her blood pressure. Finally, at five-thirty, unable to wait any longer, Louisa showered and dressed, fixed her makeup, and took a fifteen-dollar bottle of wine she’d hidden in the back of the pantry so Frank wouldn’t find it and have a fit.
She should call first, Louisa knew, but couldn’t risk Bambi saying no. They were both fishing widows this weekend, their husbands off in the woods someplace. If she just stopped by, Bambi would probably welcome the company.
Other cars were in the yard and the lights were on. As Louisa got out of her old Subaru, she heard laughter and women’s voices. It was an old story, one she’d seen play out during hunting season when she was a girl: her father and her uncles left for a few days, and her mother and her aunts got together. But not like this with long-stemmed wineglasses and tiny plates of hors d’oeuvres.
Louisa stood in the yard, the condensation from the wine bottle dripping onto her toes bared by the red sandals that matched the new sundress she wore. Bambi locked eyes with her right through the front window. Bambi’s mouth moved, and another woman swiveled and looked out.
The Subaru engine roared. The bottle of wine rolled on the passenger side floor mat as the car picked up speed.
Esther Crocker watched the lightning bugs in her backyard blinking their Morse code. They said something, she was sure of it, although she was inclined to give creatures, even bugs, more intelligence than the Universe intended them to have. But ever since Oliver, that snowy owl who spent a few weeks in her backyard in late March, she paid closer attention to wildlife.
She especially liked watching birds: pairing off in the spring to build their nests; their young growing fast and wary in the summer; flocks forming in fall to migrate to warmer climates. Some birds stayed through the harsh winter, the hardy ones that could take the cold. Esther always kept her feeders full through the bitterest months, and more than a few times she saw deer nuzzling in the snow for fallen seeds.
Esther turned her attention to an unwanted bit of nature in her garden. She plied the long-handled weed digger to unearth the taproot of a dandelion.
“It’s a losing battle, you know.”
Esther straightened, recognized Frank Pherson, and looked around for Louisa. Frank was a good sort; she’d known him all his life. Louisa could be a pain, though, with uppity ways as if she wasn’t born and brought up on this hunk of granite like the rest of them.
After small talk about lawns and gardens, Esther flat-out asked Frank what was on his mind. He spilled out the story of his wife’s fixation on Bambi Arrollson.
“She oughta know better. Summer people never did mix much with us locals,” Esther said.
“Karl Arrollson’s a stand-up guy,” Frank said. “I take him out fishing. But Louisa’s never gonna be Bambi’s best friend. Now, Louisa’s convinced she’s made a fool out of herself and the whole town will know.”
Esther swiped an “X” with a garden-muddied finger across her heart. “I promise—won’t be from me.”
That’s when Frank asked what he really wanted, a party for Louisa to go to. Esther made no attempt to hide her displeasure but gave in for the simple reason that Frank looked desperate and she hated to say no.
A week later, the women sat outside in Esther’s backyard: Glynda Rivers, Sue Parsons, and Donna Tompkins. Esther wondered whether Louisa was going to show, and when she hadn’t by seven-fifteen, decided that maybe she wouldn’t. Esther passed a tray of devilled eggs decorated with faces made from olives sliced for eyes and smiling pimento mouths. Frank Pherson’s truck pulled in at seven twenty-five and Louisa got out of the cab, sullen as a kid dragging her feet to Sunday school.
“You’re a glass behind,” Donna yelled out to her.
Louisa came emptyhanded. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No matter,” Esther said. “Longest day of the year, so plenty of light left.”
Esther almost felt sorry for Louisa then, knowing that this backyard gaggle of familiar women was nothing like the rare birds she longed to be part of. Esther wanted to tell her that these women were glad to have an evening out, even with each other. Just look at them—hair done, a little makeup on. They may be plain as house wrens, but they’d dressed for the occasion. Esther smoothed the edge of the nautical stripe top she wore over dark blue slacks, an outfit she broke down and bought last week when she realize how old and worn her clothes were. Old and worn, just like her.
Cheese and crackers, devilled eggs, and celery stuffed with cream cheese made the rounds. Laughter deepened as stories were recalled from when they were young and pretty and full of plans. Glynda Rivers, on her second glass of wine, dredged up the ancient history of when her husband, Jimmy, had been in love with a girl from New York City. “Sometimes I think he still is,” she admitted.
“Oh, I remember that girl,” said Sue Parsons, who’d been in high school with Jimmy. “All she had going for her were good teeth and her father’s money. You’re ten times the woman she is.”
Glynda patted her stomach. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Didn’t meant it that way.” Sue swatted her on the arm.
“You ever wonder what they think of us?” Louisa asked. “Coming up here in their new cars and spending time in their second houses, and then going back to lives we can’t see or even imagine.”
“Nope!” Esther shocked herself with the force of her reply. “Surefire path to misery is counting someone else’s money or imagining their double-helping of happiness.”
Dusk painted its palette of blue and indigo. Overhead, a cluster of sparrows made dark arrows against the deep-blue canvas of the sky.
“When Charlie died, I thought I was the unluckiest woman on the planet,” Esther said. “I’d see all of you, riding shotgun beside your husbands on the way to the IGA or to church on Sunday. And sometimes, at least in Donna’s case—” Esther grinned across the circle of women in lawn chairs surrounded by an orbit of citronella candles—“behind the wheel.”
“Terrible loss,” Glynda said. “Seems like yesterday.”
“Well, it wasn’t,” Esther continued. “About six months of moping make me so miserable I hated my own face in the mirror. Then one day I decided I had to stop measuring the emptiness of my pocket. Can’t go around wanting what you don’t have.”
The women stayed until well after ten, and still the sky held the last strands of light. The Solstice, they reminded each other, giggling about being earth goddesses and feeling the pull of the moon.
“Hate to tell you, but that pull? It’s gravity,” Donna said. “Every time I stand up, something else droops.”
“Just wait,” Esther said. “I got almost ten years on you.”
As the circle of women broke up for the evening, Donna asked who should host their next gathering.
“Me!” Glynda pulled a small calendar out of her purse and marked the date. “How about July 7th at 7— oh, that’s 7-7-7.”
“Then we have to have it then,” Sue exclaimed.
Louisa hesitated. She’d come this evening because Frank insisted. He’d told her she had to get it through her head that Bambi Arrollson didn’t want to socialize with her because, well, she didn’t. But Louisa refused to declare defeat on her dream that her life could be different, that she could have more—be more—than just Grenville.
Esther leaned over toward her and spoke in a low voice. “You might like us better than Bambi.”
Louisa frowned. She figured Frank had told Esther, and didn’t want to be reminded or teased about an incident she’d rather pretend never happened.
A cardinal called at the feeder, a bright red fellow who grabbed a sunflower seed in his beak. A moment later, his brown mate fluttered at his side. Cardinals stayed year-round: bright Christmas red against the winter snow; cheery as geraniums in summer. Nothing fickle or transitory about them.
“Yes, I suppose I might,” Louisa told Esther. “July 7th is good for me.”
The cardinals, having eaten their fill, flew off from the feeder toward the trees where they always nested.
More to come!Visit us next month to read another installment in the Grenville series.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction.com. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Copyright Robert Koutny.