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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

Barbara Greer

Barbara Greer

Stephen Birmingham


They were sitting side by side in canvas chairs on the little terrace behind the house. Between them, a glass-topped table held an ash tray crowded with lipsticked cigarette butts, their empty iced-tea glasses resting on moist paper napkins, a crumpled match folder, two heart-shaped gold earrings that Nancy Rafferty had removed because they pinched her ears, Barbara Greer's folded sunglasses—the relics of a summer afternoon. Barbara turned in her chair and began aimlessly arranging the objects on the table in a sort of pattern. Nancy had come to the end of her story a few minutes before and now there seemed to be nothing to say. Barbara sat silently wishing that Nancy had never begun it, or, better still, that there had never been any story to tell. Then Flora came out of the kitchen door, untying her apron as she came. ‘It's ten to five, Mrs. Greer,' Flora said. ‘I'd better go now if I'm going to catch my bus.'

‘All right, Flora,' Barbara said.

‘Is there anything else, Mrs Greer?'

‘No thanks.'

‘The boys are in the kitchen having their supper. Well, good night, Mrs Greer. See you tomorrow. Nice to see you, Miss Rafferty.'

Barbara looked quickly at Nancy. ‘I hope Miss Rafferty will spend the night,' she said. ‘Will you, Nancy? Not drive all the way back—'

‘Well—' Nancy said hesitantly.

Flora looked doubtful. ‘I haven't fixed the guest bedroom, Mrs. Greer,' she said.

‘I can do it,' Barbara said.

‘Oh, it's too much trouble,' Nancy said.

‘No, no, it's no trouble at all.'

‘Well—if you're sure you don't mind—'

‘Don't be silly!' Barbara said.

‘Well, then I'll see you both tomorrow,' Flora said. ‘Good night.'

‘Good night, Flora.'

They were alone again and Barbara lighted a cigarette. She put her head back and looked at the sky, blowing out a slow stream of cigarette smoke.

‘I suppose you're terribly shocked, aren't you, Barb?' Nancy asked after a moment.

‘No, not shocked,' Barbara said. ‘I'm just so sorry, Nancy.'

‘I had to tell you,' Nancy said quietly. ‘I just had to tell somebody. Needless to say, there isn't another person in the world I've told.'

‘You poor dear!'

‘Look,' Nancy said. She leaned forward, opening her pale blue eyes wide, and pointed with one finger to a thin line just above her cheekbone. ‘Can you see that?'

‘What is it?'

Nancy's eyes seemed to grow wider and bluer. ‘My scar,' she said. ‘She told me, “If you scream, I'll hit you,” I screamed and she hit me. I had a black eye. I wore dark glasses for two weeks.'

Barbara looked away with a little shudder. ‘Oh, Nancy!' she said.

Nancy sat back again and uttered a short little laugh. ‘I have other scars in other places of course,' she said. ‘But that's the only one that shows! I guess I'm lucky. It was horrible, but I suppose it could have been worse.'

‘You poor dear,' Barbara said again. She sat there then, holding her cigarette, saying nothing. It had been a hot day and the afternoon lay oppressively upon her. She felt above her eyes the beginning of a headache, and she gazed across the terrace toward the house, at the climbing blue clematis that reached, now, almost to the low eaves across the wide pebbled roof to where, at the apex, the gilded rooster stood rigidly on the artificial weather-vane, pointing arbitrarily east. The air was full of sounds that were both distant and close. From the kitchen she could hear the boys, Dobie and Michael, talking as they ate their supper; Dobie seemed to be having a conversation with himself as Michael banged his spoon on the tray of the high chair. From the window-box in front of the kitchen window flies were buzzing in the red blooms of the geraniums. From next door she could hear Muriel Hodgson's voice talking on the telephone, saying, ‘Okay … okay … Sure, sweetie.' Farther off, from the highway at the foot of the hill, she could hear traffic sounds. All these sounds were deeply familiar. But, hearing them, she felt suddenly mournful, and the shadowy, slanting afternoon sunlight seemed to transform the house and the terrace, to change them from solid areas of home to oddly disconnected places of singular loneliness. The terrace seemed unfamiliar, foreign, and she and Nancy Rafferty, her old friend from college, seemed like two strangers cast aimlessly adrift upon it. The chairs they sat in seemed to be floating apart. Something, perhaps the heat, made her feel dizzy; she wondered if a salt pill would help. She still could think of nothing to say. She wished that, by some magic, it were still four o'clock before Nancy had begun the story. She wished that when—a few minutes ago—she had asked Nancy to spend the night, Nancy had said flatly no. She started to raise her cigarette to her lips and then, not wanting it, she tossed it. It landed neatly in a flower bed. She stood up, straightened the waistband of her shorts and tucked in the bottom of her striped cotton shirt.

Barbara Greer was a tall girl, slim and dark. Her long legs, below her abbreviated shorts, were darkly and evenly tanned from being held, stretched out straight in front of her, for at least half an hour each day in the summer sun. She pushed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and stood slightly forward, almost on tiptoe, in the pose of a girl on a beach who might be looking for a sail on the horizon. Then she turned to Nancy. ‘I think I'll run down and pick up Carson at the office,' she said.

Nancy looked up at her. ‘Do you always do that?'

‘After a day like today he'll be tired,' Barbara said. ‘If I hurry, I'll catch him before he gets into that sweaty carpool. And besides—' She left the sentence unfinished.

‘Are you sure you meant what you said, Barb? That you wanted me to spend the night?'

‘Of course,' Barbara said. ‘You're like one of the family, Nance. Carson would hate to miss you.'

‘I could honestly go—'

‘Oh, stay. You don't want to drive all the way back to Philadelphia tonight. Stay, and after the kids go to bed we'll have a cocktail and maybe eat out here on the terrace. You can start back in the morning

‘Well, you know I'd love to.'

‘Then do it!' Barbara said cheerfully. ‘I'll run down and pick up Carson. Be back in fifteen minutes.' She pointed toward the house. ‘If the kids ask for something—you know, just give it to them. Anything within reason, that is.' She started across the terrace.

‘Barbara?' Nancy called.

She stopped and turned to her.

‘You won't—you know—you won't mention any of this to him, will you? You won't tell him, will you?'

‘Of course not.'

‘I don't want him to—to know about it. I mean, I think Carson still has a few shreds of respect for me!' She laughed a little wildly.

‘Respect! He's got all
of respect for you, Nancy! Don't be silly. Now, when he gets home, let's be cheerful. Let's not be gloomy. After all, this will be the poor guy's last night home for six weeks.'

‘Oh, I'm afraid I'm intruding!' Nancy said.

‘Let's just not be gloomy!' Barbara said.

She walked quickly across the terrace and down the short flight of brick steps to the driveway where the car was parked.

In the car, she glanced briefly at her reflection in the rear-view mirror, pushed her dark hair tighter behind the red scarf that she had tied, bandeau-fashion, around her head, and ran a tentative finger along the thin ridge of her nose where she had burned slightly and was peeling. She looked, she decided, presentable. She was always pleased with her appearance when she had a tan. She started the car and backed out of the driveway.

It was five and three-tenths miles from their house on Bayberry Lane to the main office of the Locustville Chemical Company, and Barbara Greer could make it in almost as many minutes. She liked to drive fast, and at the foot of the hill where the lane met Locustville Pike, several clear, uncluttered miles of road stretched out straight in front of her. There was traffic, but, at this hour, most of it was coming the other way, away from the town. The road dipped and rose as it crossed the low, rolling Pennsylvania hills but it was straight; she could see, in the distance directly ahead of her, the skyline—such as it was—of Locustville: water-storage towers, the new television tower of WLOC-TV, and Locustville's single skyscraper, the ten-storey Conestoga Hotel. On her right she passed the sign that said:






And Barbara Greer, who loved her children but hated Locustville, drove faster in defiance of the sign—knowing that there was not a stop light nor a stop sign for miles, that the road was straight and unpatrolled, that all the traffic would continue to be coming the other way.

Locustville, as Locustville residents were quick to point out, was not a little town, but a city of somewhat more than sixty thousand souls. It was one of the few American cities of its size to deserve an article a column and a half long in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica
. It had been the birthplace of one U.S. President and the residence of two others; it was the centre of one of the most highly cultivated agricultural districts in the country, producing tobacco, corn, wheat and dairy products; the Locustville stockyards were one of the largest east of Chicago, and the Locustville airport was served by four major airlines, with direct flights daily to New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. It was an important industrial centre, too; principal manufactures were candy, toys, television tubes, industrial paints and finishes, and gunpowder. It was also a city that offered a rich cultural life. Such institutions as the Locustville Symphony Orchestra, the Locustville Community Theatre, the Locustville Art League, the Locustville Lecture Series (which had recently heard Sir Edmund Hillary), and the Locustville Community Concert Series all received enthusiastic public support. In addition, plays and musical shows occasionally had pre-Broadway try-outs in Locustville because, as the Locustville
Evening Herald
pointed out, ‘Producers know that cosmopolitan Locustvillians are typical of big-city theatre-goers. If it's a hit in Locustville it will be a hit on the Great White Way, and vice versa.' In summer, especially, the city received a generous influx of tourists. It was a quaint city, and thanks to the efforts of the Locustville Historical Society, much of its quaintness was being efficiently preserved. Downtown Locustville contained a number of quaint cobblestone streets and quaint red brick sidewalks; old brick houses in this section were carefully maintained, their brass door knockers polished, their ironwork painted, their window boxes filled with bright flowers. Along these streets, the old shade trees that rose from the sidewalks were regularly clipped and fed and sprayed. The population of Locustville also contained a quaint element—a number of Amish and Mennonites—who wore quaint, unadorned clothes, drove horse wagons rather than motor cars, and spoke a quaint language all their own. Gift Shoppes specialising in Pennsylvania Dutch crafts did a thriving business. Driving toward the town, Barbara passed one, then another, of these quaint shops now.

Driving along the Locustville Pike at sixty miles an hour in the early summer evening, with the top down and the wind blowing her hair forward about her face, with all the traffic rushing toward her instead of with her, she found herself losing, or leaving behind, the sad, dizzy feeling that had swept over her sitting on the terrace; she began, in the sheer enjoyment of breaking Locustville's speed limit, to forget about the story Nancy Rafferty had told her, and to look forward to the evening ahead. She slowed the car at the last rise and signalled, though no one was behind her, that she was about to turn into the circular drive that led to the new brick and glass office building of the Locustville Chemical Company, manufacturers of industrial paints and finishes.

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