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[End Page 64]
The new house was a horror. Martin and his wife remarked on it each time they turned onto Minuteman Road and were struck by the bald ostentation. The house, constructed in just three months, appeared to have been modeled after a Palladian villa. It was fronted by a columned entry with a pediment like a dunce cap, and its symmetrical wings were shot through with fussy, arched windows. Although the structure was set back from the road, the owners had perversely removed the trees at the property’s front edge and installed a squat stone wall flecked with mica. [End Page 65] Neither of them was typically prone to prejudgment, but Martin and Philomena considered themselves people of modest leanings and allowed themselves the small, wicked gratification of condemning the owners’ taste.
And so Martin detected a tone of abashment in his wife’s voice when, over dinner, she told him she had met their new neighbors.
“The wife’s name is Sheryline,” she said between bites. “I was driving past and she was out by the mailbox, so I stopped to say hello. Anyway,” Philomena sighed, “she seemed very nice. Maybe in her midfifties.”
“They just moved up from the city. Their kids are already grown.”
“You mean it’s just the two of them?” Martin said. “In that palazzo?”
“Yes, I guess so.” Philomena sighed again. “Anyway, I invited them over for Saturday. It seemed the natural thing to do.”
“I wish you would’ve asked me first.”
“Why? What would you have said? No?”
Martin looked down to the burnt-orange cross-hatching of the chair upholstery, then back up to his wife. She was in her usual spot, across from him at the table, her plump form silhouetted by the window behind her, gilded with late-afternoon sun. Her hair shone white gold.
Martin had seen forty years of skies pass by that window. The interior of the dining room was still lined with wood paneling, as it had been the day they had moved in. Like a ski lodge. He had stared at the same wooden slabs for forty years, too, his eye settling on their natural flaws, the dark knots in the grain like stationary whirlpools. Forty winters in this room, with chili and cocoa. The zero sound of snow. The shifting, lenticular sky.
In the summer, Philomena’s garden opened like a garden in a children’s book. Her climbing-rose trellis bloomed, then the diagonal rows of marigold. The little pond in the woods came alive with turtles and frogs. And over those forty years, property values had blossomed, too. Their three-bedroom colonial with green shutters and charmingly darkened shingles was now worth at least a million dollars. Nearly a full acre on a desirable street between train line and school. If this was possible— if it was possible that a boy who’d sucked licorice on the sidewalks of Flatbush could be a millionaire now, inflation notwithstanding—then the world was a spooky and fabulous place indeed.
Martin had hated the house at first. It took him too far from the city and the cramped studio on 14th Street that he’d come to romanticize. He [End Page 66] enjoyed watching the restless parade of crooks, bums and nuns beneath his window. He enjoyed putting a canvas against a wall and making brutish marks that clanged like music. But this house had endeared itself to him over the years. The rooms had absorbed something of him, and he of them. And he knew that it had been a fortunate confluence of timing and geography that had softly deposited him upon a tenure track at the state university, just a twelve-minute drive from Minuteman Road.
They’d grown fairly close to some of the neighbors, a handful of couples with children the same age as theirs with whom they took turns hosting dinners. Martin always had the feeling that these gatherings were building toward some ultimate consummation of friendship that hovered just one or two dinners away. The Loomises had been...