Half of What You Hear
By Kristyn Kusek Lewis
Being careful is not as much fun as being friends. . . . Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends? —A Bargain for Frances
Even with the windows rolled down, the air feels thick and hot. Like “drowning in chowder,” Teddy used to say, although he didn’t know humidity like this. New York could get warm in the summer, even unbearably so, but it wasn’t Virginia. Susannah had forgotten just how bad it could get.
She’s sweating in a way that a lady should never admit—that was something she might have said once, in her old life, winking to her well-heeled friends to indicate that she didn’t really buy into the stodgy rules she’d been raised with—and her palms are slippery against the steering wheel. Its perforated leather reminds her of the one in the Cadillac that her father had driven. She leans into the open frame of the window and pushes her foot on the gas, encouraging the breeze.
She’d wanted a truck like this her whole life. It’s red, a Chevy Fleetside pickup. She’d first seen it in an advertisement in the back of the New York Times in 1967. She was nineteen then, living in the Barbizon Hotel on Sixty-Third Street. Occasionally, over the years, she’d mentioned the truck to Teddy, not in any serious way, just in passing, daydreaming aloud, the way you might say that it could be fun to climb the Great Wall someday, or see the northern lights. But because he was Teddy, he filed the nugget away (he was always listening, even when he seemed like he wasn’t), and on her sixtieth birthday she found it parked in the circular drive of their summer house, a bow the size of an inner tube tied over the hood.
She remembers the shock of it, the first time she saw the truck and how it filled her with good feelings—warm feelings, loving feelings. This is what he could do to her. It was as if she were one of the precious crystal water pitchers she’d received as wedding gifts, and his actions could fill or empty her, depending. She’d turned to him in the driveway that day, shocked and elated, her fingertips pressed against her lips, and then ran and wrapped her arms around his starched shoulders, just like he knew she would. Her friends commented on how fortunate she was to have this doting and generous husband, but they didn’t know the half of it.
That was ten years ago now. Teddy is gone, his body buried in Connecticut beside his horrible mother last year. The summer house is gone, too. She’s back in Virginia, living in the house she grew up in, a move some people might describe as full circle. She takes a deep breath, the thick air in her mouth like . . . well, like chowder. So much in her life has changed. And yet, she’s realized recently, so much hasn’t.
Like the radio, for instance, still playing Patsy Cline all these decades later. “I Fall to Pieces.” She chuckles to herself, noticing the sick irony of it. And this lazy stretch of asphalt, Whippoorwill Road. The pines are still densely packed on either side, soldiers marking a path. The mottled metal mailboxes are familiar, the wooden plaques carved with house numbers and nailed to the trees. Even if she doesn’t know the people inside them, she knows the little houses in her blood. Eyelet curtains hanging in the windows, porches jammed with rusting furniture, the occasional horse slapping at something with its tail, blackberry brambles, the sharp scent of someone burning something in their backyard.
Gone for more than fifty years, she thinks. With all the land and the expansive blue sky, the breeze in her hair, the mountains beyond, she should feel free, released, but she doesn’t. Instead, she’s anxious, a single leaf floating aimlessly through the air.
She sticks her hand out the open window and feels the liquid warmth of the wind through her fingers. Her eyes dart toward the trees. Even when you’re by yourself out here, you’re never really alone, she thinks, imagining all the things she can’t see in the woods, the way she used to when she was a girl, squinting out the window in the back seat of the car. The bears, the deer, the snakes, the foxes. The ghosts.
She rubs a sweaty palm against her skirt—pink, Norma Ka- mali, bought in 1983 after she saw it on the runway. Her eyes dart from side to side. She realizes she’s swerving, kicking up gravel on her right side. Jesus, she mutters, shaking her head at herself, and then takes another deep breath, her hands at ten and two. Maybe it’s time to turn around.
She reaches for the radio dial. She’s losing the signal. When she looks up, there’s the slightest bend in the road, easy and gradual, like the curve of her hip. A bead of sweat rolls down her temple. She flicks the heel of her hand against the side of her face, runs a finger across her upper lip. There is no AC in the truck. The wind is hot. The sun is beating down on the hood. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, August in central Virginia. What was she thinking?
The static on the radio is getting worse. She reaches to turn it off, and when she looks up—the bend in the road—there’s an- other car. A sort of goldish beige, sleek. Barreling fast.
She hugs her side of the road, but the car is coming faster, right toward her, in fact, the glare from the sun a white streak across the windshield. She lays on the horn, pounds at it, but it barely whimpers. She always meant to mention it to Teddy, how it never worked. The car! It’s crossing . . .
She opens her mouth and screams.
The wind stops. The air is still. Searing. The locusts buzz in the trees around her, the sound unforgiving, an electric singe that feels like it’s coming from inside her. She tastes blood in her mouth. She hears the trill of a bird in the distance—a pine warbler, she thinks, remembering. She opens and closes her eyes and wonders if this is the end. She thinks to herself, tries to say it again, over and over (how many times has she said it?): Help.
Two Months Later
“So, Martha, how many people did you turn away today?” Martha Brown swallows a sip of her third chardonnay and tells herself that it is her final glass. “Take a guess,” she says, yelling across the bar to where her godson Tom is mixing a whiskey sour. “How about seven?” he guesses, draining the cocktail shaker into a glass. “The final count was eleven,” she says. Tom whistles, deep and low. “Eleven wives!” repeats Jenny Perkins from her usual Saturday-night spot at the bar, wiping ketchup from the side of her mouth with her pinky.
“E-lev-en,” Martha repeats, lifting her glass again. They play this guessing game at the bar in Dahlia’s restaurant every week. Martha is the owner and sole proprietor of Brown & Brown Realty on Maple Street. Her grandfather and great-uncle founded the office, but now that they’re both gone and her parents are, too, she’s the only Brown left in Greyhill.
Fall and spring are her busiest seasons, but not because she sells any houses. Instead, she puts aside her usual workday activities—reading her paperback mysteries, watching CNN on the little TV she keeps on her grandfather’s desk, maybe sipping an occasional afternoon glass from the bottle of wine she keeps in the office fridge—and fields questions from the DC and Richmond women and their husbands.
They come to town in droves this time of year, when the leaves are at their peak, the town seemingly outlined in a gar- land of reds and oranges and yellows, the scent of wood smoke and cider in the air. They walk up and down Maple in their quilted vests and designer jeans, darting in and out of the delightful little shops, pointing at the hand-painted signs above each storefront and the brass plaques on the brick facades of the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, and it doesn’t take long for the wheels to start turning in the wives’ heads. We could start a simpler life here, they think, hobbling in their high-heeled boots on the cobblestoned streets. We could open one of these little shops! We could get horses! Chickens! We could garden! By the time they walk into Martha’s office, they’re practically panting. “I’m interested in some property,” they squeak, looking down their perky powdered noses at Martha, the gold bracelets clink- clanking on their wrists. They all wear those big bangles now, Martha has noticed. All the way up to their elbows. They look to Martha like handcuffs.
She explains, as she always does, that there is nothing currently available.
“Nothing at all?” they say, their mouths open in little O’s like in that famous painting The Scream. The husbands, in contrast, are barkers—lawyers and lobbyists, she’s sure. Little terrierlike men. “You have nothing?” they say, eyes narrowed, not believing her.
“Nothing at all,” she coos, placating them by turning to the dusty Dell monitor on her desk and offering to add their names to a wait list.
The wives all want to be reincarnations of Jackie Kennedy, whose escape from Washington was a horse farm an hour from here, on Rattlesnake Mountain near Middleburg. What they don’t understand is that while Greyhill has all the charm and timeless beauty of those hunt-country towns farther north—Middleburg and Upperville and la-di-da—Greyhill is no-vacancy. It has never been a weekend-country-house kind of place. Martha, and every- one she knows in town, would like to keep it that way.
She can tell you, having sold just a single property in the past six months, that the vast majority of homes in Greyhill proper are true family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation or sold by word of mouth to close friends. The last one she sold was the Ammandale house, to Cole Warner and his wife, the chubby woman who used to work in the White House. It’s nice for Cole to be back in his hometown, across the street from his parents.
“Would you believe that I had somebody ask me about Esperanza today?” she says. Her voice feels loose and slurry. She pushes her wineglass away.
“You’re kidding,” Dahlia says from behind the bar.
“It happens once in a while. Lately, more than ever. Everyone wants to know what’s happening up in the house on the hill. Dear old Susannah.”
“I can’t blame them for asking,” says Dahlia, stretching to place a clean wineglass on the rack above her. Her tight T-shirt rides up, revealing her navel, and Martha watches, amused, as Tom’s eyes travel over her curves. Oh, to be young and naive and not realize that everyone knows you’re sleeping together.
“Susannah’s brought all that attention on herself,” says Jenny. “That’s the way she operates, always has. I still don’t understand why she came back here after all these years.”
Hal, her husband, shifts in his seat. He puts a hand over his mouth, pretending to clear his throat, and says, “Carpetbagger.”
“Oh, Hal,” Jenny says. “What?” he says. Martha laughs. “If the shoe fits.” “I don’t know, though . . .” Tom starts, putting a hand on his hip. He has that squinty look on his face like he thinks he’s about to say something insightful. Martha rolls her eyes.
“Is what she’s doing really ‘wrong’?” he says, making little quo- tation marks with his stubby fingers. “If Susannah Lane has all this property to sell, why can’t she sell it to whomever she wants? Isn’t that her right?”
“Hell no!” Hal says, leaning across the bar, a finger pointing to the boy’s face, making Martha giggle.
Tom rears back. “Well, why not?”
“Because, Tom,” Hal says, “the woman is a Greyhill, the last living one, and that land of hers is Greyhill land. She has a responsibility to all of us who’ve been raising our families here for generations to continue the tradition of this town, not turn it into a playground for outsiders. I mean, damn! The buses that come through town on the weekends, carrying in all those drunk Northern Virginia housewives for lunch after they’ve been around to the wineries—that’s bad enough.”
Jenny pats his arm.
“I heard she listed that plot up north of Little Comfort Road for almost three million,” Dahlia says.
Tom whistles again. “That true, Martha?” Hal asks. She throws a hand up. “How the hell would I know? You know
I refuse to have anything to do with any of this. When she came to my office after she moved back, asking whether I’d be her agent, I told her exactly what I thought of that idea.”
“And that’s why she brought in that guy from New York,” Jenny says.
“He flies down whenever it’s time to show some land,” Mar- tha says. “He got licensed in the state just for this.”
“Well, he knows what kind of commission he’ll make,” Hal says, spitting as the words come out of his mouth.
“Now, now,” Jenny says, patting his shoulder.
He shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he sputters. “This infuriates me. It should infuriate all of you! How she can just come back here after decades, thinking she’s the queen bee and that she can just start shaking things up!”
“Times change, Mr. Perkins,” Dahlia says. “We might not like it, but—”
“Times change!” Hal screams back. “Dahlia, if your father heard you say that! I mean, come on, you were raised here. And here you are, running the restaurant your parents started. Is nothing sacred?”
“The way you’re riled up, Hal, I might start to believe you’re the one who tried to run Susannah off the road over the summer,” Martha says, laughing and reaching again for her glass.
“Martha!” Jenny scolds.
“Don’t think there’s not a part of me that didn’t wish it was me!” Hal says.
“Hal!” Jenny says.
“Oh, I don’t mean it,” he says. “I saw the pictures the sheriff took afterward. You should have seen the way Susannah’s truck was wrapped around that tree.” He whistles.
“It’s amazing she lived, much less came out basically un- scathed,” Dahlia says.
Martha nods and looks around the bar. “Nine lives, that one.”
“That’s for sure,” Jenny mutters, her eyes on her plate as she drags another fry through her ketchup. “That’s for damn sure.”
“Anyway.” Martha clears her throat. “I told the woman who came into the office today that Esperanza wasn’t for sale and probably never would be. I said the owner is very happy to stay where she is.”
“Well, did you tell her about all the land she does have for sale?” Tom asks.
Martha smiles. “Forgot that part.” Hal laughs. “Here’s to ya, Martha!” He raises his glass. “You think she’s really happy being back here, up in that house all alone?” Dahlia asks, rubbing the rim of a wineglass with a white bar cloth.
“I can’t imagine she would be.” Jenny shrugs. “I almost feel sorry for her.”
Her husband huffs and steals a fry off her plate. “Almost,” he says. “That’s the key word. I, for one, hope she leaves just as quickly as she did when she was seventeen.”