His gold buttons and official-looking badge were bright beacons in my face. He looked at my 2001 model-year car like I had driven from Mars.
“No, it’s only residential on this side of the road.” He waved off-handedly at me.
“Yes,” I said. “But I was hoping to visit Laval House.”
“We don’t allow that. This here is a gated community—no drive-throughs.” “I came by to take a look—”
“This here road is private property.”
I wanted to cross the security stop and drive to my ancestor’s home, set among the bright, green fields above the river, but the guard made any forward progress impossible.
“Just wanted to drive through and come right back,” I said.
“I can have you towed out of here, miss.”
For a moment I stopped trying and rolled my eyes upward until I nearly lost sight of my vision. “I’ll turn around,” I said¸ and spun the car in the opposite direction, back up the hill from where I had come. I looked in the rear-view mirror, and the security guard was writing down my license-plate number.
Coming toward me was a blonde man in a white Mercedes. In my mirror I saw the guard wave him through. The guardhouse gate rose.
Scooting up, I saw my own face in the mirror. My brunette hair had fallen, and the start of little veins drilled their way across my cheek.
I wouldn’t get any closer to Laval House today.
Four glass hand bells from Aunt Hedda’s collection and five gallons of Uncle Virgil’s homemade wine that she had kept since his death. That’s what I got.
“We can keep her alive, and no doubt she’ll rally,” the doctor had told me, “but over time the result will be the same.”
Aunt Hedda couldn’t swallow anymore, and her advance directive indicated no feeding tube. Her time was short.
“About 14 days or so,” the doctor said.
Milk-white skin is what Aunt Hedda wanted. Years ago she could haul a fifty-pound bag of potatoes, set up pints of strawberries by the dozens, and work the fields on her hands and knees. On Saturdays Aunt Hedda and Uncle Virgil trucked their produce to town for market on Courthouse Square.
My aunt pulled used stockings over her arms as a sunshield. She considered tanned skin déclassé, but that wouldn’t be the word she’d use. All farmers tanned while working in the elements. People with no tans were unusual, and being unusual was Aunt Hedda. It was a sponge bath every morning. She washed her face only in cold water, a personal secret to longevity that she shared with me. I wondered whether it would help my veins.
She was in her eighties when the stroke took her, but she remained a truck farmer with a strong heart to the end.
I had some of Uncle Virgil’s wine for ten years until the last drop of it was gone.
Jeremy came over to taste Uncle Virgil’s wine. He was a wine snob from the restaurant, and I knew he wouldn’t like it. “Very fruity,” he said, scrunching up the crow’s feet around his green-marbled eyes. He attempted a half-smile of pleasure. “It reminds me of the wine my parents serve at their vacation home by the river,” he said.
“Your parents have a vacation house?” I asked. “I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, we visit most weekends. Wanna come?”
I’ve been working at the restaurant for three months, and I liked Jeremy, but not enough to visit him at his parents’ cottage. We’re only friends. It seemed like it would be uncomfortable for me to say yes.
“When?” I asked.
After the funeral I had a few of Aunt Hedda’s friends over, ladies she talked with at their daily coffee klatch in her low-rent apartment complex for seniors. “Sharon,” one of them said, “I’d like to see the bells. She always rang them for us when coffee was ready.”
I took out the hand bells. One was ruby colored with exterior glass bumps that sounded a tinkle. Another was blue and missing its clapper. The third, all pink, reminded me of Tinkerbell for some reason—maybe because it held a kind of the girlie charm with its hand-painted, sprite-like white flourishes. The fourth was a somber purple, the color of ribbons that ovarian cancer patients and their families wear.
“Did Hedda ever mention her key?” another of the ladies asked.
No key came to my mind. “What key?”
“She said she had a key for you that opened a chest somewhere.”
I didn’t know of any chest that was locked.
The guard smiled at me this time. I wondered what made him change his mind.
“Yes, you can go right in, miss,” he said. “Jeremy Clauers is waiting for you.”
I drove up to the cottage. It was nothing fancy, only a white one-story with skylights and blue-jay-color shutters. There was a short beach along the river that I suspected the Clauers had rights to use.
Jeremy met me outside by the grassy driveway with a cut-crystal wine glass of some red wine that was too dry for me. It didn’t go down well.
“How did you know I was coming?” I asked.
“The guard called,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy kissed me on the cheek, and I wondered whether he was a snob when it came to choosing his girlfriends, too.
“Could we walk around?” I asked. “I’d like to see Laval House.”
“It’s a dump,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get rid of it, but there’s some historical society guy with rights, and he keeps fighting us.”
“I hope so. That’s my ancestor’s house, but I didn’t see it from the road,” I said. “Where is it?”
Back in the 1850s my ancestors had come from Canada and worked in the fur trade along the river. The old man, ancestor Laval, ended up on a farmstead—right here. Over the years the house had become dilapidated. It’s still there, with a gated community built around it.
“See that hill? It’s up there hidden in the birch wood.”
“I thought there was a farm,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s up on top. It’s flat up there; good, rich farmland.”
“Have you ever been in the house?”
“No, but I poked around the barn once,” he said. “Want a roll in the hay?”
I laughed out loud. A work affair was never worth it.
I was looking though Aunt Hedda’s few personal effects—furniture, pots and pans, books, flowery dresses, and a brown footstool with a locked top. The stool was hollow inside, and the top had a hinge. It fastened with a padlock. Her keychain had a key that I thought might work.
Inside, I found a few insurance papers, duplicates her attorney already had. At the bottom of the stool was a fancy pen-and-ink ledger in script that once belonged to Joseph Laval, my ancestor. It listed his fir-trade accounts and beaver pelts. The last pages focused on his farming operations along the river and the acreage he planted in corn and winter wheat.
Laval’s handwritten script on the last page of the ledger said: “The brass padlock opens with a key.” I kept Aunt Hedda’s keychain just in case.
The last time I saw Aunt Hedda alive she was unconscious or sleeping in her hospital bed. Orchestral music was being piped into her room. She was breathing, but it was labored and her exhalations came from her mouth, causing her lips to part. It sounded like she was whispering the word “poo,” and I realized how weak and tired she had become. Was she ready to give up after all? I prayed aloud. It caused her to fidget, so I finished, left, and never saw her alive again. She was probably telling me in her own way not to worry and to get on with my own life. Otherwise, mine would be poo. How else could I interpret it?
I went home in the early evening and made a pot of coffee. When it was ready, I rang the ruby glass bell in her honor and sipped. I went to the john.
Some names you’ve got to avoid. Get near a Mark or a Susan¸ and it’s bad news. Mark’s stalk, and Susan’s like to control things. I had no experience with a Jeremy except that I once saw Jeremy Irons on stage and liked the show.
“This is it,” Jeremy said. It was a two-story house with a barn. The house had unusual open porches on the north and south sides, but Jeremy drew me into the barn. I nosed around the tool bench and looked into some cabinets. Nothing needed a key. No brass padlock, either.
“Jeremy,” I said, “your expensive wine—that I can’t stomach—is giving you far too much courage.” He took his hands off my rear end.
I waltzed around the house, which was locked. I think Aunt Hedda sauntered along with me, somehow. At one point I closed my eyes when I thought of her. I saw a ray of light grace the upper area of my vision—which would be vision if I had had my eyes open. They were closed and I saw the light, and I thought better about putting Jeremy off on a rage. Pissed, he walked back down the hill alone.
When I was a girl—I’m uncertain how old I was, maybe four or five—I visited Aunt Hedda and Uncle Virgil. I sat in their cozy kitchen while dad and Uncle Virgil drank some wine poured from a glass jug. Mom and Aunt Hedda talked for hours and agreed sometimes. I had orange pop and watched the summer sun shine its setting warmth up through the strawberry patch and into my comfortable memory of Aunt Hedda’s kitchen. The light reflected off the edging on the glass-front cupboard that stretched the length of the room.
I invited a few of Aunt Hedda’s coffee-klatch girls over again and poured each of them a juice glass of wine. I thought for sure Aunt Hedda would have served them some. They didn’t know she liked wine. It was something special, something Aunt Hedda kept to enjoy alone or with family. It meant more to her than I thought. It was part of her love for her husband. It became part of the love she shared with me. I liked Uncle Virgil’s wine. I don’t think I’m a snob.
As much as I tried, I could not get into that house. The historical society had it all locked and said it wasn’t safe for visitors. They had plans to fix it up and were seeking donations. I gave all I could afford—twenty-five dollars. Reservations are down, and a server has a hard time making a living.
I talked to someone on the telephone involved with the renovation, and he said he hadn’t seen anything that resembled a bronze padlock. Most of the furniture was gone before the society began its work, he told me.
It was time to leave.
A man drove a white Mercedes. He entered the gate as I was on my way out.
The guard said to me, “You’re interested in Laval House, right?”
“That man in the white car is in charge of it.”
The guard signaled us each to pull over.
As soon as I left my car, I admired the blonde man’s blue-eyed directness and his combed hair in the sun.
“I’d love to show you the house, grounds, and barn,” he said.
A ruby-bell tinkle sounded somewhere, and a flash graced my vision.
Want a roll in the hay? I thought.