keeping the house


First Chapter of Keeping The House

Tuesday, June 13, 1950

Dolly, her brand-new sewing basket hanging from her elbow, set out for Cecilia Fryt’s bearing a fresh plate of Lacy Raisin Wafers, clutching a note in her fist that read “412 W. 1st.”  It was a perfect June day, and Dolly, having breezed through her ironing and the rest of her chores this morning, would have preferred to stay at home sunbathing in her backyard with a good book, but she hadn’t dared turn down the invitation she’d received Sunday at church.  Having grown up in a small town, she knew in her bones the Herculean efforts that newcomers had to make to get accepted into the best circles, and she wouldn’t have her yet-unborn children suffer because she hadn’t had the sense to help out the Pine Rapids Ladies Aid. 
     Dolly didn’t know Pine Rapids very well yet, though she knew that the Bear Trap River carved a rock-stippled, elongated S through it, with a babbling rapids punctuating its eastern bend.  (Everyone who was anyone, she had been told, lived south of the Bear Trap, but not too far south.)  And to find the address on the note, she knew enough to walk straight up Jefferson Avenue to First Street, where the busy downtown hugged the south side of the river’s S.
     She turned left onto First Street at Holman’s Market, hurrying along the sidewalk that ran between the storefronts and an unbroken row of Fords, Chevrolets, and Buicks that were nosed up to it.  She nearly bumped into a man who was transfixed in front of the lawn mowers in the window of Wasserman’s Hardware, and he turned as though angry, but once he saw her he just raised his eyebrows and smirked, tipping his hat back on his head.  She blushed and walked faster, watching that she didn’t collide with anyone else, though it was hard to avoid some of the women who were so intent on their shopping. 
     It was only three blocks before she left downtown behind, and she was grateful for the shade of the tall maples that lined the sidewalks.  Scanning the house numbers, she wondered if Mrs. Fryt could possibly live in the house that Dolly had fallen in love with the day that she and Byron had driven into town in their Chrysler, pulling the trailer loaded with their belongings.  She could see the house up ahead, sitting high atop the hill above the river like an aging queen on her throne, three stories of disintegrating dove-gray clapboard and melancholy stained glass, trimmed in an aged white, with a stately front porch and third-floor windows on the side and in front that poked up like pointed caps. 
     Of course, Byron had just snorted that day when she’d pointed it out to him.  “Falling apart, looks like,” he’d scoffed.  “Someday we’ll have a brand-new house, Doll.  Modern.  Nothing old-fashioned like that for my girl.”  But for Dolly, it had been love at first sight, though the corner of the porch was caving in and the roof was pockmarked with missing shingles.  She had gazed longingly back as the house grew smaller in the Chrysler’s rear window, until it slipped from view.
     A block before the grand house, the north side of First Street became all brambles and birches, as the road curved to hug close up against the Bear Trap, and a hill began to rise to its south, so that all the houses were up a set of stairs from the sidewalk, first four steps, then six, then eight, then ten, as the hill got progressively higher.  The number 412 hung from the railing of the last set of steps, which led to a tepid green house with a pinched look about it.  To reach the dove-gray house from here, Dolly would only have to cross the avenue and run up the hill.  She climbed Mrs. Fryt’s steps wistfully, watching the beautiful house all the way up and even as she stood on Mrs. Fryt’s porch, waiting for an answer to the doorbell.
     Mrs. Fryt’s door opened reluctantly, as though it was unenthusiastic about visitors, and Mrs. Fryt greeted Dolly with a grunt of assessment.  She was taller than Dolly, and stout, with iron-gray hair swept up in a bun, and a face like an old potato.  She looked Dolly up and down with caterpillar eyes behind her glasses, eyes that were the same color green as her house.  Dolly thought the house had taken the years better than Mrs. Fryt, who must have been nearly eighty.
     “Well, come in,” the lady said, without a smile.  Dolly obeyed and, once inside, had the immediate sensation of being flattened.  Profusions of flowers danced across wallpaper as far as the eye could see, while more than two dozen spider plants dangled from the ceiling, as well as from several coat trees stationed at intervals throughout the room.  Chairs, lamps, a radio, and even the upright piano, all festooned with lace doilies, appeared hard-pressed to hold their heads up in the fray; lace curtains hung bravely at the windows.  On the lace-covered coffee table was an issue of The Saturday Evening Post and a blue glass vase filled with yellow tulips.  The air smelled slightly of mothballs.
     “My, what a lovely home you have,” Dolly said. 
     “Dorothy, is it?” Mrs. Fryt said, her potato chin flapping.
     “Dolly,” Dolly said.  Oh, this was going to be a disaster.  She began to worry that she hadn’t dressed correctly for the occasion: Mrs. Fryt probably didn’t approve of the red ballerina slippers she had just purchased at Birnbaum’s, or her glossy red fingernail polish.  And her dress – white, flaring, sleeveless, trimmed in red – was probably too risqué for the Ladies Aid.  Well, she was here now, and might as well make the best of it. 
She smiled.  “I brought some cookies for you, Mrs. Fryt.”
     “Why, look there!  It’s our newest member!”  Emerging from the parlor was Corinne Olson, who had been the one to issue Dolly the invitation.  Taking Dolly’s shoulders in her large hands, Corinne looked down at Dolly with a wide smile that narrowed her blue eyes to tiny slits.  Her hair, done up in a twist, was so fine and blond that whatever silver there might have been... Read next page


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