George and Mary Cooper, newlyweds, came to Tremainsville from Ulysses because they were beguiled by a house. The house was not especially good, nor was it bad, but it was old, and that was its proper attraction. It was built in 1900, the realtor said, and they both hummed in approval. The foundation was poured and let sit a year before the house was built, the realtor said. George nodded approvingly, and they both respected the sagacity of the old doctor who'd built the house. The inside woodwork was American chestnut, cut from trees the doctor had had on his farm, and there was a barn and space for a garden out back. Of course, Mary pointed out, the stucco was in need of repair, the shingles had to be replaced, the plumbing was old, the electric wiring was original, and the wood needed to be stripped, but that only thrilled them with the challenge, and they happily closed the deal.
Before they occupied the house, they would drive by it and delight in the chill of ownership that slid down their spines. They had a dream in their heads of how it would look and wear, and they traipsed through scrapbooks of wallpaper and priced paints and bought paint stripper and steel wool in anticipation of the day this clay would be theirs to shape. Mary was for doing a room at a time, but George wanted to defeat the house at once, and when Mary had shown George the error of his way, she herself became giddy with possibility and he, in turn, had to calm her down and get her into proportion. They entered the house in July.
Tremainsville is a small town, and word of their occupancy ran like a synapse up and down the block, especially when it was known they had bought the Riverton's house. Adelle Riverton had been a peg the town had hung itself on for years. As a young girl in the 1890s she had come to Tremainsville with her father and mother, who were looking for land to farm. At that time Tremainsville was nothing but a main street, not big enough to stop wind, and land was cheap. Adelle's father, a burly man who could drive a nail into a board with the palm of his hand, bought forty acres a mile from the village store, and Adelle grew up surrounded by the smell of horse and chicken and winter and cow and wood. Her mother, a heavy-hipped woman who could lug a thirty-pound tub of laundry, kept a rigid command in the house, something her father even bowed to, and the three of them, enlarged later by three boys in four years, lived a hard and satisfying life.
The town followed Adelle's growth, and when she was ready to marry, the town held three stores, four churches (Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Baptist), three bars, a restaurant, a gas station for the new cars, a feed and grain store, and a railroad spur that heaved a loaded train into Tremainsville every other night. Her father, now well off enough to marry his daughter away, held a fine celebration, and Adelle Farwell became the wife of Vernon Riverton.
Shortly after that, after they had moved into the house built by Doctor Kelley, the whispers began. Adelle had changed -- her complexion was more pale. She hardly laughed or chatted in public. Vernon worked late at the gas station, they said, and oftentimes people on MacNelly Street would see him weave unsteadily homeward. People unconsciously cocked an ear and peered more closely at them, but nothing concrete came. Later, there were jaded hints of a mistress, but that, too, was only conjecture. Vernon eventually bought the gas station, then the grain store, became a large investor in the bank, sat on its board, ran for the school committee and won, ran for mayor and won, and did so for the next sixteen years. Adelle gave plays for the children in the neighborhood, setting up part of the woodshed as a stage, and wrote the local society column for the Day Press. She organized civic activities, held teas, wrote poetry and recited it, and all the women, and their husbands, agreed that things certainly seemed better.
Vernon died in 1965 and Adelle lived on alone in the house on MacNelly Street with her son. Eventually she had her son sell the house to George and Mary Cooper, and she moved to an old folk's home the next town over. She was fully deaf, almost blind, and lame. She gathered a few prizes, sold everything else, and moved off.
Mary Cooper went to see Adelle as one of her first genuflections to the house and brought her some rhubarb from her garden. Adelle received her graciously, constantly saying "What?" to Mary, who felt slightly embarrassed to shout at this diminutive woman. Finally, Mary ferreted out all the reasons for all the oddities of the house, and this knowledge made her more securely a part of the house. She left, promising to return, and scurried home to George with her cargo.
The neighbors soon trickled by bearing squash bread or cookies, and Mary welcomed them in her tattered jeans and tied-back kerchiefed hair. George, always self-conscious around strangers, hung on the edge of things, wanting to get back to work while the conversations addled on about What do you do? and What do you do? They found out he was a teacher at the high school. They found out she was an administrator for the university and had been once divorced. And the neighbors paid their visits and took their tiny scraps of information home, and soon George and Mary slipped into the fabric of the place.
The house soon became their only child. Every free moment was spent working on some project, scraping money together when possible to outfit it so it would shine. In the evenings they would sit wearily on the porch, sipping tea for her, beer for him, and just stare at the setting sun. There was never enough time or money, and they were always anxious and impatient, but what they had done was good, and they felt glad for that. One evening, as they sat sipping on the porch, and George gazed at the darkening light in the sky, she asked him what he was thinking of.
"Oh," he said, "just about our wedding."
"You don't regret it, do you?" she asked playfully.
"Of course not." He sipped his beer.
"What do you remember best?" she asked, snuggling down into the moment, her hands warm around her tea.
"The best? I don't know. It was all pretty much a whirl."
"Try. I remember best the look in your eyes when you spoke the vows." She gazed at him, wanting him to smile at her. He sipped at his beer, then finished in one gulp and stood up. "Gonna check that plaster for sanding. Wanna come?"
She sat there, the warm smile on her lips, just realizing that he had not looked at her or grinned back at her, that he was standing up and ready to leave. She stammered a "no" and shuddered when the screen door slammed.
All the next day, and for days after that, she worried the scene in her mind at the same time as she tried to push it away. She began to look at George closely, only dimly knowing she was seeking some crack, and she started to find small inattentions, vague outbursts of frustration, a growing obsessiveness with working on the house. They were small things, and George still seemed happy, but she worried them until they grew large. She resolved to talk it out with him, and that made her feel better.
But she didn't talk. George came home every day and immediately changed into his work clothes and was at one of his projects when she came home from work. He more and more took to working by himself. When she asked to help him, he kindly said no, saying he could manage and why didn't she take a rest, but he really wanted to be alone, without her. At dusk, when he stood in the garden amidst the neat rows with their labels, he stared at the house and a spasm of helplessness passed through him. So many things he wanted, so many things he thought the marriage and house would give, but he feared them now because he could feel inside of him the shriveling of his first desires and the cold substitution of duty and responsibility. He could not talk to her about this because it was so much about her and she would never hear it for her fear. And he felt like a thief in his own life. As the sun set and moon rose, he stood in the garden, his fists on his thighs, washed in moonlight, and stared at the dark hulk of the house.
They continued to work on the house, but the more it changed, the more it became completed, the stronger became their walls. His outbursts shaded into anger, and she, sensing his pain but unable to touch it because of her own sorrow, retreated into passivity, and the more angry he became the more shadowy she was. He took to coming home late, sometimes drunk; she met the neighbors more, became involved in village projects. He continued to work on the house, his alchemy transforming walls and woodwork, but it was a shell he carried. She made the obligatory gestures of curtains and carpet, and together they arranged the furniture. They still slept together.
She discovered his affair almost by accident, some inadvertent letters left in his desk. In some ways she was relieved -- now there was an enemy and perhaps together.... But he, at first overwhelmed by guilt, then heartened by the freedom he'd longed for, would not work toward but only away. He moved out, in degrees, the two of them dancing like children afraid of the dark, and finally they divorced. They kept it quiet, made excuses for the other's absence, but it was over.
Mary lived on in the house, with everything almost completed, and she tended the garden and mowed the grass and dusted the woodwork and paid the bills. George's check came every month, with no return address. At night, under the light of the moon, she sat in the comfortable living room sipping brandy, quietly numbing herself and deadening the silence that greeted her everywhere. Sometimes she cried, and even though everyone now knew, there was no knock on the door or ring of the phone.
One day, toward autumn, she made a batch of rhubarb and took it to Adelle. She entered the home quickly and asked the nurse if it was all right to see her. The nurse said yes, smiled, and pointed to her room. Mary walked down the hall past rooms with old nodding men and women in them. She pushed Adelle's door softly, and when Adelle didn't react, stood there for a moment staring at the wizened woman. Adelle, finally sensing someone was there, croaked "Who is it?"
"It's only me, Mary Cooper. I brought you some rhubarb." Adelle turned up her hearing aid and said, "What? Say that again."
Mary knew she could still outrace this aged woman, but she cleared her throat and repeated herself.
"C'mon in, c'mon in." Mary sat. "How are you? I was just thinking of you the other day, wonderin' how my house was coming along and wishing I could see all the marvelous changes you've made."
Mary buried her face while the old woman's words drowned in her ears.