Home > Count the Ways(6)

Count the Ways(6)
Author: Joyce Maynard

Lightning had split its trunk down the middle. Limbs and splinters lay spilled in all directions like a bunch of pickup sticks, leaving leaves and branches scattered across the grass over the perennial bed and down onto the field.

Long ago—the year their marriage was falling apart, though Eleanor had been too occupied with everything else to recognize it—Ali had built a fort in this tree, a getaway from what was going on in the house at the time, probably. Now Eleanor could make out, through the tangle of fallen branches, the remnants of the rungs Ali had hammered into the trunk. If she and Cam hadn’t been so distracted that year—Eleanor consumed by anger and grief, Cam drunk on new love for a girl who could still view him as a hero, not a disappointment—they would have inspected that ladder and recognized how unsafe it was, how easily those rungs might have given way.

And now look. It was not the sketchy ladder that presented the greatest risk, or the long fall. The rungs had held fast. It had not been the wooden slats that gave way but the tree itself.

There stood Eleanor’s children—adults now, all three of them older than she and Cam had been at the moments of their births—standing in a semicircle around the wreckage, their hands to their faces. Only Toby spoke—Toby, for whom life appeared less complicated than it did for the rest of them. Toby, whose vocabulary contained so many fewer words, yet those he spoke sometimes identified the truth with greatest clarity.

“Some tree,” he said, shaking his head.





In the spring of the year Eleanor turned twenty, she bought a secondhand Toyota Corolla and set out on the road to buy a house. It was late May the first time she laid eyes on the farm.

She’d driven a couple of hundred miles that day—that day, and a dozen before it. There was something comforting about all that driving. Put a person in a car with a full tank of gas, give her a road map, and never mind if she can’t think of one hopeful thing to look forward to. She can listen to the radio and keep driving.

The Watergate hearings were in full swing, though Eleanor had only the vaguest idea of what any of that was about. A year had gone by since the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. The first issue of Ms. Magazine. Title IX. All around her, women were making it clear, for good reason no doubt, that they no longer wanted to be defined by life in the home. But for Eleanor, it was home that mattered more than any of the rest. She’d gone looking for hers.

Eleanor put a thousand miles on the Toyota in those days she spent on the road, driving around Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire. She didn’t listen to the news much. She kept a mixtape playing, of songs she loved, most of them sad. George Jones fit the bill, as did old Irish ballads about love gone wrong, and, equally, certain old R&B singers, but only the ballads. Otis Redding singing “These Arms of Mine” got to her every time, as did Edith Piaf. The heartfelt lyrics of James Taylor songs never really spoke to her, but Joni Mitchell’s did—her yearning for love, her endless disappointments, and the realization she seemed to have acquired, young as she was, that for all her handsome rock star boyfriends, she might be alone forever. Alone on a two-lane highway, Eleanor sang along with Dolly Parton. In my Tennessee mountain home / Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh. And with Joni. She played Blue on repeat all the way from upstate New York to the New Hampshire border.

There had been nothing particularly distinctive about Akersville when she stopped there. No cute coffee shops. No traffic light even. Most cars that passed this way drove on through.

It had been a random choice on Eleanor’s part, pulling into this town. For close to two weeks she’d been staying at a different motel every night, living on handfuls of raw almonds and bags of carrots and Dannon boysenberry yogurt, picking up real estate flyers at rest stops with one idea in her head: to find a safe landing place.

Eleanor had pulled up in front of Abercrombie’s Realty, with its row of straggly pansies and the faded wooden sign “Where Dreams Come Home.” The agent on duty was a man in his late sixties, from the looks of it, nursing a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Ed Abercrombie,” he told her, extending a hand.

Not many people Eleanor’s age went real estate shopping. Even if they had the means, they wouldn’t have possessed the inclination. But if Ed Abercrombie felt surprise or curiosity about any of this, he concealed it well.

More often than not, when Eleanor had stopped at some Realtor’s office on her odd, solitary road trip, they didn’t take her seriously. Maybe they detected a certain sense of melancholy desperation tucked under the surface of her greeting as she entered their offices—her tight smile, her unnaturally vigorous handshake. She probably appeared too eager (she usually did), her needs too urgent. A person might sense, meeting Eleanor that spring, that her desire to buy a piece of property suggested a hunger deeper than that of the ordinary client.

Ed’s only question concerned her employment. Not a whole lot of jobs in this area, he told her. That might be a problem.

Only it wasn’t.

“I make books for children,” she said. (Did he notice her fingernails, bitten down below the quick? The very slight trembling of her hand as she brushed her hair out of her eyes?)

“You make a living doing that?” he said. “Don’t like to pry, but the bank’s going to ask you. Taxes aren’t cheap around here.”

“It won’t be a problem,” she told him. To the surprise of no one more than Eleanor herself, her first book, published the previous year, had sold almost a hundred thousand copies. She’d be getting to work on the fourth one soon.

“I write about a little girl without any parents who travels around the world having adventures.”

“A writer,” he said. “What do you know? My wife used to write poetry.”

Actually, Eleanor explained to him, she was more of an artist. She made pictures with stories attached. She could have gone on to explain to Ed that since she was five years old—younger maybe, an only child left to her own devices for long stretches—she’d seldom found herself without a pencil in her hand. She’d spent her childhood making up characters to keep her company and stories about the things that happened in their lives, things that never in a million years would have happened in Eleanor’s. Some of these stories featured a girl named Bodie whose parents had died in a car wreck, who headed out to explore the world in search of a mysterious great-aunt she’d always heard about but never met, who was an archaeologist. Eleanor’s English teacher at boarding school had suggested she send one of her Bodie stories to a publisher, along with the illustrations she’d made.

She had not yet graduated when the editors at Applewood Press had invited her to their offices to meet them. One week later, not yet in possession of a car, she had ridden the bus to New York City to meet with them. Now, in addition to Bodie Under the Sea, there was Bodie Goes to the Potato Chip Factory and, soon, Bodie in Zanzibar. Just before setting out on her epic journey in search of real estate, Eleanor had signed a contract to deliver Bodie, Queen of the Desert. She hadn’t collected the check yet, but when it came, it would be a large one.

She had tried for a while there to do the things other young people did. Go to college. Fall in love. More than publishing children’s books, what Eleanor had hungered for was a normal life, or something resembling that.

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