Authors: Tara McTiernan
“Hello, Hannah! How are you doing? Well?” Mr. Harris’s voice took a minute to recognize over the phone.
“Uh, oh! Great! Thanks! And you?”
“Fantastic! We’re very excited. Ginny is graduating from Colgate – a little behind schedule, but with honors. We’re very proud of her.”
Hannah had heard occasionally of their youngest daughter, Ginny, a child that had come late to the couple when they were well into their mid-forties. While their youngest was just finishing college, their two much older sons were married with school-age children and settled in Boston, Massachusetts and Boulder, Colorado respectively. She had often seen Ginny in passing when she was home for a visit, roaring by in her Jeep on the road near the house, straight brown hair flying. They had been formally introduced at the Harris’s Christmas open house this last December, Ginny smiling dutifully while Mrs. Harris rhapsodized about the improvements Hannah had made on the carriage house.
“That’s wonderful! Congratulations!” Hannah said into the phone while turning and walking to a window to look at her garden. Once a thicket of weeds and brambles, the area was now a carefully tended cottage garden filled with colorful flowers and enclosed by a new white-painted picket fence.
What favor would it be this time? Watch the house and feed their cat while they went away? Babysit for the grandchildren while the family was in town to celebrate Ginny’s graduation? Whatever it was, it would be worth it. The Harris’s charged her a very low rent in return for an on-site all-around helper who also happened to be willing to fix up their little outbuilding which had been literally disintegrating when Hannah moved in, the roof bowed, the walls falling in.
“Thank you! We’re going to have a big celebration, and of course, we’d love to have you join us. Nan was thinking of a big barbecue here at the house.”
“Sounds great! I’d love to come,” Hannah said, waiting.
Mr. Harris paused and said, “There’s something else I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. Do you have a minute?”
“Of course! What’s up?”
He cleared his throat and said, “Well, we were thinking. Now that you’re engaged, you’re probably planning on moving in with your fiancé, correct?”
Fiancé. Would she ever get used to the idea? She glanced at the 2-carat emerald cut diamond on her left hand and then looked away. “Moving in? Ah, I wasn’t really thinking about it yet. You know, we haven’t even set a date, and-“
“Oh, but we thought most engaged couples lived together these days?”
Living with Daniel? In the city? And leaving her precious little house? She’d worked so hard on it…and, oh, it was weird to even think about not being alone, having to be with someone all the time. All that forced conversation and togetherness. God! “I’m probably going to stay here, for now anyway. Daniel and I haven’t even talked about where we’d live when we do get married. Who knows what we’re doing? Ha! Maybe we’ll live here!”
There was a pause, and then Mr. Harris said, “There, in that little place? The two of you?”
No, she couldn’t imagine that either. She didn’t want to think about it right now. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s too small. Well, we’ll figure it out when the time comes.”
Mr. Harris sighed. “That’s the thing. We…ah, Ginny was planning on coming back home, but we already made her bedroom into a guest room. She kept talking about living in the city when she graduated, so we were sure we lost her for good. Anyway, we were thinking…maybe the carriage house might be available, since you’re getting married and everything. It would be perfect for Ginny. Close enough so we can know she’s safe, far enough so she feels independent. You know how hard it is for parents to let go of their little girl.”
No, she didn’t. The door had practically slammed on her butt on the way out when she left home at eighteen. And her little house! The pile of rubble she’d turned into a home! Hours of work: replacing the peeling linoleum in the kitchen with tiles, sanding and painting the new walls, putting fresh shingles on the roof herself after the roofer had handled the structural work. She made nice with a general contractor in New Canaan who let her scavenge at his construction sites, and found many things including a beautiful mahogany front door was well as a pretty pale blue porcelain pedestal sink, all tossed aside at the multiple construction sites in the area where they were doing a tear-downs in order to build more McMansions.
What was the worst was that Mr. Harris knew exactly how much hard work and tender care she’d put into the house. Her life was that little house and her writing. How could he? But the carriage house was his, it was on his property, and it was his daughter, so what was Hannah supposed to say?
“I…I wish I knew what my plans were. Um, can I get back to you?” Hannah had said finally after she realized how long the silence had stretched out, and got off the phone as quickly as she could. Now, she wished she had been more firm. No! If it wasn’t for her, that house wouldn’t even be livable, just a pile of rotten wood. They wouldn’t even be considering letting their darling oh-so-perfect daughter live there! Hannah jabbed at the wax in the votive she was cleaning, her lips clenched in a tight line.
Her tips from the lunch shift had been awful. Between it being a slow lunch in late August when every self-respecting Greenwichite was in Nantucket or the Hamptons or abroad and the fact that the few tables she had gotten were tightwad types who gave exactly fifteen percent to the penny on a lunch bill that wasn’t much to start with as they had been drinking water and hadn’t ordered appetizers or dessert, she had made less than $15. To top off her bad day, she had an Advil-resistant headache that meant her period was coming and, even worse, her least-favorite manager, Josephine, was working.
Josephine hated Hannah on sight. In fact, if Hannah had walked into Bella Via two years before looking for waitressing work when Josephine was on duty, Hannah wouldn’t have gotten the job. Hannah didn’t understand why Josephine harbored such an instant and endless animosity toward her, but it was there.
Luckily, Hannah had walked in when the owner, Manuel, was there and he had the opposite reaction to her. He had the pure red hots for her, so instead she had been hired on the spot and had gotten almost all of the good high-paying dinner shifts – rarely working the poor-paying lunch shifts and managing to wiggle out of the slave-labor runner shifts by begging Manny to take them off of her schedule.
“Do you know how rare it is to have blue eyes and dark hair?” he had asked the first time he met her, his eyes sweeping over her again and again.
Hannah had noticed since she’d hit puberty when her figure started filling out, that suddenly the pairing of her blue eyes and dark brown hair was something men commented on. It was a look that was subtle and seemed to appeal mostly to men with brown eyes. Sometimes she liked the attention, but other times men like Manny made her feel alarmed, protective of herself.
Hannah put down the knife and rubbed fingers that were aching from clutching the butter knife so hard and was jarred, once again, by her ring. Her beautiful engagement ring from Daniel. It was perfect. It was terrifying.
She had analyzed this mixed feeling of wonder and fear since she first felt it immediately after Daniel slipped the ring on her finger out on his sailboat one beautiful early summer evening in the beginning of June, the first truly warm day after a very cool and wet spring. They had moored in a little cove and were sipping champagne out of plastic wineglasses – that should have been a clue, the minute he produced that bottle out of the cooler her antennae had gone up – and then he had gotten this strange strained expression on his face right before he’d gotten down in front of her.
She examined the ring, its brilliant rainbows shooting into her eyes. This wonderful perfect man, this man she had trouble believing was her boyfriend, wanted to be her husband? And what was a husband supposed to be like? She had never witnessed husbandly love up close at home, only the celluloid version on TV and in movies. Her mother hadn’t married until three years ago at the age of thirty-eight, a year after Hannah had moved out.
All of the Barefooters, her mother’s closest friends who had functioned in Hannah’s life as both aunts and godmothers, had many bad experiences with men. Aunt Amy had a series of emotionally abusive boyfriends who had played endless games with her head before finally meeting Uncle Gus and finding real love. Aunt Pam had never married again after her first marriage at age twenty nine, which had only lasted two years and produced one child, Jacob, who was shuttled between the warring exes for his entire childhood. Whenever Hannah tried to find out what had gone wrong with the marriage, or why they still hated each other so vehemently, Auntie Pam said, shaking her head, “You don’t want to go there, honey.”
Even the slim, chic, and ridiculously wealthy Aunt Zo, Zooey Walker Delaney to outsiders, had been through two husbands and was on her third. The third marriage had failed to be the charmed one she’d hoped for and the lit-up way she used to talk about love had left her. The only time she glowed these days was when she returned filled with enthusiasm from her travels to yet another exotic place, when she was with the Barefooters at any of their innumerable parties, and when they all went back to Captain’s Island every August, kicked off their shoes and were the Barefoot Girls again.
Hannah stared at her ring and the scattering of reflected light it created on the tablecloth. Her life was scaring her. Her fiancé was too perfect for her. The novel she had labored over for a full year in what used to be the potting shed of the carriage house, freezing in the winter with a space heater burning her ankles and sweating in the summer with a fan whipping her hair into her eyes, had actually been sold to Knopf a year ago and had finally hit store bookshelves two weeks before. Her mother and all the Barefooters had gotten advance copies from Hannah, of course.
But she wouldn’t let herself think about the book at work as a rule, because all she wanted to do was write, not wait tables or scrape wax candle nubs out of votive holders. The clash of her dream and her daily reality became painful if she thought about it on the job. She picked up the butter knife and resumed scraping and chopping at the next votive holder.
At that moment, Josephine walked into the room. She stopped and made a loud tsking sound before walking over to where Hannah sat. “You shouldn’t be doing that on a tablecloth. You’ll ruin it.”
Hannah looked at the tablecloth with its wine stain and chocolate smears. “What do you mean? It’s dirty.”
that the wax could get into the fibers and you can’t get that out.”
Everyone that was stuck with this job did it at a table with a dirty tablecloth and Josephine never said a thing. Except when it was Hannah.
“Fine, I’ll roll it back.” Hannah moved the votives to a chair and stood up to roll back the linen tablecloth and expose the cheap wooden table underneath.
Josephine smiled her non-smile and reached into her shirt pocket, pulling out a folded piece of paper. “Hey, I heard about your book. Congrats. Thought you might find this interesting. It’s a review by your hometown newspaper. Fairfield, right? Seems they’re interested in anything if it’s about a hometown girl. Really fascinating review. I clipped it for you.” She put the newspaper clipping on the table.
Hannah looked at it and knew immediately it was bad. She looked up in time to see the small mean smile play across Josephine’s lips, and forced herself to smile nonchalantly. “Thanks.”
Josephine stood a moment, waiting for Hannah to pick up the clipping, read it. Hannah picked up the butter knife and a votive and started digging at it, ignoring Josephine.
Josephine waited a beat longer. Then she turned to go before turning back. “Now, don’t forget about the tablecloth again.”
Hannah didn’t look up. “I won’t.”
After finishing up with the votives, Hannah stuffed the review in her apron pocket, carried her cleaned votives in to the dishwasher and cashed out.
Hannah had intended to read the review in her car, but then she saw Josephine in the parking lot talking to one of the waiters and decided it would have to wait until she got home, even though she was dying to know what it said. She just couldn’t take the chance of Josephine seeing her read it, give her the satisfaction of seeing her reaction.
How would she react? What did it say? On the way home each red light seemed unusually long, each driver in front of her an obstacle. She thought of taking it out to read at one of the lights but knew that once she started reading, she wouldn’t be able to stop.
Pulling into her cottage’s driveway that ran alongside the original estate, a narrow old dirt and gravel road that was merely flecked with gravel now as no one bothered to refresh it over the years, her heart beat faster and she had to control her urge to speed up which would only make her car’s wheels dig up soil and gravel and make ruts in the driveway that would turn into holes in the rain. She let the car roll through the tunnel of greenery that led to her house and drew to a stop in front of it. She glanced at the little house, which seemed to perk up and smile at her through the climbing roses that arched over the front door on a trellis she had recently installed.
Now she could read it. She wiggled it out of her apron pocket, lifting her butt off of the car seat in order to get her hand deep enough to get at it, and unfolded it.
Her cell played “Under the Boardwalk”, her mother’s programmed song, the song of the Barefooters and Captain’s Island, her childhood summer home.