An original short story by Martha Thomas
After her husband died, Sandra decided to move to the town in Maine where they’d raked blueberries when they were first married. Her friends thought the plan impulsive and discouraged Sandra from selling the house where she and her husband had raised their children, believing that she’d come rushing back once winter set in. But Sandra was determined and began sorting through her belongings, making piles to pack for Maine, to throw away, to donate, or to sell at an estate sale.
She filled just a few boxes with dishes and mugs. She packed her cast iron skillet and chose practical cookbooks with recipes for bread, casseroles, and soups. She carefully packed the old steel blueberry rake in a box of its own, wondering if pickers still used them or if some new machine had taken over the job of bending low to the ground to collect the tiny berries between the tines of the rake without disturbing the bush.
She limited her clothing to three suitcases, one for summer clothes and two for winter. In the winter suitcases, she packed neoprene-lined boots with thick soles, wool sweaters, hats, mufflers, and mittens. She took her work clothes, silk scarves, and party shoes to the consignment shop, where the woman selected two dresses and the four scarves without creases, and suggested Sandra take the remaining suits, blouses, trousers, and footwear to the Goodwill.
She hired a professional team to price the household belongings, which represented the accumulation of thirty-eight years of marriage. There were the rugs, some of them from India, where her husband had taught chemistry during a sabbatical year, others were brightly colored but worn carpets from the 1930s, their borders decorated with plumed birds and urns. The books, hard-bound novels and political books about past administrations, her husband’s outdated textbooks and her collection of art books, she was told, weren’t worth selling. Nobody bought books these days. For that matter, the heavy furniture and needlepoint pillows would be tough to sell. And nobody wanted fine china. Perhaps, the team told her, she should pay them to liquidate her home. In the end, Sandra invited her friends to take what they wanted. She observed as the neighbors she had spent hours sipping coffee with, or drunk too much wine with, watched kids play sports or act in plays with, treated her home like a game show in which contestants race to fill a shopping cart, heedlessly grabbing without attention to value, knowing they could evaluate the quarry once they got to the finish line.
She came across her friend Monica in the dining room examining a cake stand. “Is it real?” Monica asked, turning the cake stand upside down in search of an engraved logo of the famous Fifth Avenue store. Sandra and her husband had received it as a wedding gift and Sandra had dutifully brought it out for every child’s birthday celebration. The crystal pedestal didn’t make a cake taste any better, she thought. She remembered when her son had leaned in close and singed the ends of his too-long hair. The year her daughter turned 16, she had stormed out of the house, telling Sandra she hated her, slamming the door. Sandra had baked the cake as she’d planned, her daughter’s favorite yellow cake with chocolate frosting. The family sat down to eat, the cake sitting on publish up.
Sandra put the house on the market and stayed away when potential buyers came to view it. The real estate agent had hired a staging company to accelerate the sale by making the house more appealing to young families. They decorated it in a palette of shadow and ecru with autumn accents. A midcentury sideboard held a bowl of papier maché oranges. The sofa was upholstered in itchy charcoal wool, tufted with buttons that dug into your legs, and the area rugs had geometric patterns. The built-ins, once loaded with books, some stacked upright, with overflow laying horizontally on top, were now curated with sets of leather-bound classics that looked like they’d never been opened, a vase of dried grasses, a collection of gilt orbs in various sizes that Sandra couldn’t figure out a use for.
She continued to live in the house while it was on the market, and she felt like a stranger as she moved from room to room–a nursery with taupe walls and a white shag rug on the floor, the teenager’s room with a guitar set on a stand, a neat row of Harry Potter books on the shelf. She imagined the family who imagined themselves living here, who believed in a life with home décor magazines arranged on a coffee table, a 12-year-old boy who kept his room neat.
She met the couple at closing. Madeleine was petite and her hands flew about as she spoke. She was the social media director for a coffee shop chain and had a team of thirty-six working under her. “We’re all about optimizing the power of authentic human engagement,” she told Sandra. “When you go to a Hoppin’ Java we want you to interact in an organic way with the environment–and of course share, share, share!”
Madeleine’s chin-length blonde hair was styled into a helmet that moved with her head. She was dressed in a knit wrap dress with a deep V that would have benefitted from a strategically fastened safety pin. “Hug!” she had exclaimed when Sandra stepped into the room, rushing up to throw her arms around her. “I feel like I’ve known you all my life! Your energy is so present in that house!”
Madeleine’s husband Alfonso was silent. He had dark hair and skin and was dressed in a double-breasted chalk-stripe suit, a silk square jutting from the pocket. He was the South American buyer for Hoppin’ Java beans, Sandra learned.
The president of the title company pulled out a sheaf of papers and handed them to Sandra. Each page had a post-it tab indicating where she was meant to initial. She signed a waiver acknowledging that the attic had remnants of asbestos and agreeing to a slight reduction in the sale price. She would leave the lawn mower and the gardening tools.
Across the table, Madeleine grinned. “We just love your gardens,” she said. “Especially the rose bushes out back. We hope we can work around them when we put in the pool. The landscaper is coming in next week to assess the situation.” She looked at her husband. “Do you agree Alfonso? I mean about how beautiful the roses are?” Alfonso nodded and said nothing.
After Sandra had initialed every page, the title company president pulled a check from his leather portfolio and handed it to her. It was an astonishing amount.
That morning, she had cleared the remaining food out of the refrigerator and poured the remainder of the wine she had opened the night before down the sink. She had called the church to come and pick up her bed, which she had arranged to donate. The staging company would arrive in the late morning to dismantle their furniture and move it on to the next fantasy.
She’d packed her car the night before, wrapping her suitcases in a tarp and tying them to the roof. She dressed in her road trip clothes, loose jeans and an old sweater, loafers she could kick off when her feet needed to breathe. She had packed her travel supplies–sunglasses, water bottle, chocolate, sliced apples, phone chargers–in an old rucksack that her son had used when he took a year off from college and traveled to Mexico to work on a farm.
Sandra was an hour and a half early for the closing but found a Hoppin’ Java across from the title company offices where she could wait. She ordered a regular coffee, splashed in some half-and-half, and made her way to an armchair in the corner. She pulled out a paperback novel she’d been reading.
“Excuse me.” Sandra had dozed off. She looked up at the boy who stood above her. He had long legs but seemed to be in his teens. He wore a white shirt with the Hoppin’ Java logo embroidered on the pocket, a smiling coffee bean leaping into a cup of coffee. “You can’t just camp here, you know.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m just waiting to get my house sold,” she said, vaguely gesturing in the direction of the title company across the parking lot.
The boy looked at her. “You’re going to have to go,” he said.
Sandra pushed her book into the rucksack. She didn’t have the energy to argue, to point to her empty coffee cup, to tell this boy that she had a right to be here, in spite of her old jeans and frayed sweater, the backpack that had seen better days.
Sandra thought about this as she drove north. She couldn’t picture her son treating anyone like the boy at Hoppin’ Java had. She felt relieved to be driving away from her past.
The following evening Sandra drove across the bridge to Maine. The light was behind her and illuminated the pale green ironwork. She remembered the days before the high arched bridge was built, when you had to hope that a tanker or a sailboat with a high mast wouldn’t stop traffic while the old drawbridge rose and lowered. In the summer, cars could be backed up for hours. She and her sisters had sat in the back seat of the station wagon while their mother, up front, tried to entertain them by singing songs with lyrics printed by hand on index cards, or playing guessing games. Road trips back then involved holding your breath when passing a cemetery, guessing the number of cars on a passing train, and vigorously pumping your arm to try to get a truck driver to blast his horn. Air conditioning, according to her father, was rolling down a window, and the radio signals were unreliable.
As she drove across the bridge, Sandra felt a lightness come over her, one she hadn’t felt in some time. She thought about calling her daughter. Maybe when she stopped for the night.
She still had several hours of driving and had planned to find a motel once she made it past Freeport.
At her husband’s funeral, Sandra had stood aside as her daughter’s friends stepped in to comfort her. Her daughter had flown from San Francisco but had not brought her children, Sandra’s grandchildren, with her. She had spent the night with one of her high school friends and left the following day.
Sandra knew that her daughter held her responsible. Luke had been twenty-two, and read Sartre and Malcolm X and Steven Hawking, Kahlil Gibran and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction. Every day he had come at Sandra with a new idea about the world and a new reason to blame her for its injustices. It took all her energy to convince him that she wasn’t the woman he thought she was, the type who would call the cops on a black woman asleep in the college common room or who would drive an SUV.
He’d been her baby boy, her little Lucas. Luke. Lukie Dukie. Luckie Duckie. She’d kiss his hair, inhaling the smells of fresh air and baby shampoo, and tell him that she was the lucky duck to have such a beautiful boy.
Along with dismantling her life, Luke had done damage to her marriage. Sandra’s husband had retreated, disappeared into himself until the cancer took over, and at the very end, she’d gripped his hand and begged for forgiveness.
“No, it wasn’t you,” her husband had said, his voice raspy from the coughing. “It wasn’t you.”
She wanted more, more reassurance, more to hold on to, more to convince herself that her son was mentally ill, that the demons had won out in the end.
It was midday when she arrived at the camp, a one-bedroom house tucked in a pine grove on the shore of the lake. Her father had left the cabin to her–mainly because her sisters didn’t care much about it. Sandra hadn’t been here since Luke died.
She moved about inside, flipping the breaker switches, plugging in the microwave. She had to crawl under the porch to turn on the water, which was pumped from the lake through long hoses buried in the ground. She was relieved that they hadn’t dried out or frozen during her long absence. Before he died, her father had set up a trust to keep a caretaker on, a local man who came in each fall and spring to check the cottage for mice and make sure the pipes were intact. The caretaker had pulled in the aluminum dock, which was now resting upside down on the pine needles near the water, legs in the air like an overturned insect.
Even though it was May, the air was cold out of the sun so Sandra went to the side of the house to collect wood for the tiny red Jøtul. She released the flu in the back of the stove and then opened the door. A din erupted midway up the pipe that traveled from the small belly of the stove to the outside wall. In a whoosh, a streak of grey burst into the cottage. At first Sandra thought it might be a bat, but after flapping furiously back and forth a few times, the creature settled on a beam near the skylight.
She recognized the bird as a gray catbird, with its cinnamon undertail feathers. It was clearly agitated up there and would flap its wings as if ready to take off, only to settle down again. It didn’t seem to know what to do. Sandra opened the cottage door and then went to the utility closet to find the long-handled duster she used for the beams and the ceiling fan. She gently raised it. The poor creature leapt into the air and flew toward the bedroom and Sandra found herself chasing it round and round the cottage. When she finally managed to get the bird out the door, she dropped to the floor. She sat with her back against the wall, her heart pounding, and laughed at her own foolishness, how she must have looked in pursuit of the invader.
She laughed again because she realized that the little bird might be the only visitor she would have for a long time.
The following morning, Sandra fed the woodstove and made herself a cup of coffee with her mother’s old percolator, which spewed and hiccupped and got more coffee on the stovetop than in her cup. She pulled a fleece over her nightgown, and in her wool socks, walked with her mug to the edge of the lake. Mist hung over the water and she could hear the soft coo hoo of a loon not far away.
It was too early in the season for blueberries. She knew that when she walked up the hill later that day, she would find a field that was one-half charred and one-half covered with fresh green leaves and tiny green berries hard as pebbles. The new growth wasn’t possible without the burning. Sandra knew that using fire to prune blueberry bushes had been around since long before Europeans arrived to fell the forests. Even so it had always troubled her to see the blackened side of the hill, while the other side sprouted green as if to rejoice in its biennial pardon.