True Places – fiction by Frances Browner

Veronica watched the snowflakes drift onto the grass, in a thin white gauze. April was always a tease; just when you thought winter was over, there’s that final fall of snow. She could hear Frank shuffling about in the garage. “Wouldn’t ya think the bloomin’ realtor would’ve told us this was a snow zone?” he’d been muttering every year for the last fifteen. Hauling out the snow plough again, retrieving it from behind the swing-set and patio furniture he’d pulled to the front in preparation for summer. “If it’s not fricking leaves I’m raking, it’s bloody snow I’m shovelling.” The engine started to whine and tick along the driveway. Veronica could’ve told him he’d stowed it away too soon. Instead, she pulled an imaginary zip over her lips.

She’d had the notion to move Upstate, to surround herself with trees and flowers and the Catskill Mountains. Frank had been content in the Bronx, their view a dirty courtyard with raccoons and squirrels jostling over neighbours’ leftovers. A man in the apartment opposite had dumped a saucepan of spaghetti bolognese out of his window once, and the rodents had chewed with relish, long strings of pasta dangling from their chins, their mouths dripping red sauce. Made her stomach churn, it did. She’d been embarrassed when her cousins came over from Ireland on a shopping trip, but sure they thought the squirrels were grand. She’d forgotten they’d be considered cute at home; recalled her own delight when she’d first met the mites scurrying around Tibbits Brook Park. Everything had been exciting at the start; even meeting Frank one night on a high stool.

“Would you like a cup of coffee,” he’d asked and she eyed the empty pot behind the bar, its hotplate now stone cold. It was two o’clock in the morning, after all.

“Where would you get coffee at this hour,” she’d asked him.

“Back at my place,” he replied, sliding off the stool.

By evening, there was a thick film of snow on the lawn and small piles of slush edging the driveway, like miniature pyramids leading up to the front door, like the haystacks on her father’s small Irish farm long ago. She’d hoped this rural life would transport her back, but there was nothing here to remind her of home. There hadn’t been a word out of Frank in a while. He had probably flaked out in front of his new 50 inch HD digital TV, cursing at some baseball, American football, or basketball team. The wide, flat screen dominated their living-room, the players like giants flickering on the wall, the commentators’ voices echoing through the house. Veronica hated it but never said a word. Men were more liable to give in when a woman didn’t put up a fight.

She stole into her den here beside the kitchen and settled into the bay window seat whenever she wanted to be alone, a book unopened on her lap. The bookcase was made of distressed wood. It even had holes, as if the woodworm had been at it. She’d filled it with old hardcovers slightly scuffed; the pages nicotine yellow. Books she’d never read. When she moved to New York, she’d spent most of those earlier weekends up this part of the State, rummaging around antique stores, had even collected some first editions. Finally found a home for them, here.

After years in rented accommodation, herself and Frank on their own until Alan came along, then the three of them squashed into a one-bedroom apartment on Katonah Avenue, she’d been dying for a place of their own.

“We’re grand the way we are,” Frank had argued.

He hadn’t wanted another baby either but still insisted on the fumbling in the dark, his hand clamped over her mouth, for fear she’d make a sound. Afterwards, she tiptoed over toys and teddy bears to their boy’s bed, listened to his breathing, and kissed him lightly on the head.

Sundays she had followed the realtor through two-beds, condos, co-ops, townhouses. All the time progressing up the Saw Mill River Parkway or the Deegan Expressway; all the time edging farther away from Woodlawn.

Frank accompanied her on only a few of these excursions. There was always a football or hurling game from home being televised in the Three Counties.

“Show me on the map,” he’d insist. “I’m a builder. I need a map.”

When she saw this two-acre property in Hopewell Junction, she knew it was a steal. Even Frank had agreed. He’d been looking for an escape route back then. Had been involved in some shenanigans with the big boys in the city, needed to lay low for a bit.

Family outings to Home Depot were spent choosing light fixtures and doorknobs; picking out paints; selecting wood for the decking. Alan got a Thomas the Tank Engine bed, matching curtains, and a comforter. Frank was all about ‘flipping over.’ He saw dollar signs in every nook and cranny, his way to pay off the boys, he said. Then, he got the job with UPS, complete with a brown uniform and benefits. Veronica had been able to see herself far into the future, an old lady in the window, reading and watching grandchildren carve footprints in a lush carpet of snow.

Alan was a sophomore in Fordham University now and had informed her he wasn’t coming home for the summer. Too boring, he said. He’d have a better chance of getting part-time work in Manhattan; where there was a better social life too. What would he be doing in this ass hole of nowhere?

Veronica had winced at his words; her heart clenching. At least, Frank had gelled with the place, despite his complaining. They’d settled into a rhythm, the two of them, side-stepping the gulf between them, which was as wide as the one he’d ploughed through the snow, scattering the pyramids of slush.

A few weeks later, she took a drive up the Thruway, car windows open to let in the sun, the radio cranked up and a container of iced tea on the dashboard. Her favourite time of year, the long climb out of winter over. Every now and then, she took a random exit, drove around colonial hamlets like Peekskill, Carmel, and East Fishkill; places she imagined Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne writing about if she ever got around to reading their books. She drove through the small towns, without stopping, and took to the highway again.

She’d been roaming around for hours when she came upon one that felt familiar. Roxbury, the sign said. She’d been here many a Sunday in the early days. Had even brought Frank with her, when he’d been in a playful mood. At a red light, she noticed a shop she’d been to several times. Scanning the window display, she saw a garden table similar to the one she’d bought in Fingers Lake Mall. Lime green retro, sixties. Next to it was a wooden swing-set, like the one she’d had handcrafted in Poughkeepsie. Alan had long grown out of his, but she was keeping it for the family she hoped he’d have one day.

Like her mother had done for her. Mam had carted over Veronica’s baby bath on an Aer Lingus plane after Alan was born and the Christening robes her great-grandmother had sewn. Had mailed over Veronica’s first pair of wellington boots for his third birthday. Had even made them take the rocking cot that Veronica’s father had made; that all of his six children had slept in, even some of the grandchildren. Frank was furious when they’d had to pay a small fortune to have it shipped all the way over here.

“Clutter,” he’d snarled. “More rubbish.”

Could that be the cot crammed into the window of Rick’s Barn, three thousand miles from their barn at home, where her father had painstakingly put it together? The car behind her beeped. She pulled over, wrote down the phone number from the shop door and headed for the highway again. Her mind was racing with all of the things she would say to Frank. This called for a confrontation, whether he liked it or not.

She took the exit for Hopewell and turned onto Cypress Drive. The street was called after a tree. Trees produce leaves. Shouldn’t that have been a clue? Hundreds of them cascading to the ground every October, needing to be raked. The branches were laden now, forming an archway over the road, casting shadows on the ground, concealing the houses on either side. She didn’t notice the bare windows until she drove into the yard. Felt her heart unravel and drop, drop, drop to her toes. Vacant black eyes glared down at her, as she stumbled towards the door and jabbed her key into the lock several times. Watched it turn. Eventually.

She saw the note on the worktop before she noticed there was no kitchen table. “Can’t stick it anymore.” The words were fuzzy. “This country life is not for me.” No indication of when he had gone or where he was going, but it wouldn’t be too hard to track him down. Try any Bronx bar on a Sunday afternoon.

She took a deep breath and pulled open the door to her den. The armchair was how she’d left it, alongside the window-sill, a stack of books on the floor. The bookcase was still there, complete with worm-ridden holes, its books with the parchment pages, hard protective covers. She skimmed her fingers over them. Brushed off the dust. Browsed down to M. Pulled out Moby Dick. Took her seat in the window and looked across at the Catskills.

Noticing an old tricycle of Alan’s lying on the lawn, she drew the crumpled scrap of paper from her jeans pocket, smoothed out the number for Rick’s Barn. She wouldn’t bother with the swing-set or even the garden table. She might retrieve the rocking cot, however.

She sat there through the night; slipping in and out of sleep, dreaming about selling up and making enough money to take her back to Ireland, to take her home. Alan could visit on vacation. She finally awoke to banging doors, revving cars, schoolchildren chattering, their mothers reprimanding them, the book still open in her hand. She’d fix herself a cup of coffee, make a few calls. If there was any coffee; if they still had a phone.

As she rose from the chair, a car screeched into her driveway and a uniformed man alighted, clutching a sheet of paper, his metallic star badge gleaming in the sunshine. The Dutchess County Sheriff kicked Alan’s tricycle aside and strode towards her hall door. She heard him rap on the knocker, rat-tat-tat-tat, or was that the hammering of a nail?

Veronica tried to recall a sentence that had leaped out at her the day she bought Moby Dick. She flicked open the book. Found where she’d underlined: It is not down on any map; true places never are. The only words she’d read of it, so far.

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