Since Karen left me, my evenings are quiet and predictable. No longer does she greet me the moment I open the front door with her wiry silence, unnerving as eye contact with a tiger pacing its cage. When she lived here, the house was awash with the novels and magazines she paged through feverishly in a quest for something that eluded her as completely as it did me. When I return from work these days, the house is exactly as neat as I left it, the only evidence of my presence that morning my teacup on the kitchen windowsill, a single brown drip dried translucent on its porcelain curve.
Most nights I bring my dinner home in a bag from one of the fast-food places along the expressway between my office in White Plains and the village of Armonk, where I live. I pass the hours between eating and going to bed calmly, listening to jazz or working on the miniature model of Manhattan I have wanted to build since I was a boy.
At forty, I am mature, settled, and well adapted to living alone, although my secretary, who uses her white hair to excuse her intrusion, worries aloud about me. A man whose wife abandons him, vanishing with no more than a note saying goodbye and cutting him off from his daughter too — that man, she says, has suffered a blow. That man needs human company to draw him past his pain and back into life.
But I am neither so fragile nor so surprised as she assumes. Of course I miss Heather; it is in her room that I’m building the model city, so that what remains of her after a year’s absence is near me. But Karen showed me in a thousand ways that she was going, and I never knew how to stop her.
Only when I wake up am I sometimes at loose ends, momentarily confused by the vastness of the bed around me. I study myself in the mirror while I knot my tie, wondering if my narrow nose and the deep lines bracketing my lips are what cause so many people to dislike me. I am reluctant to go downstairs, and I remain in the house only long enough to drink my tea, standing by the kitchen window.
This morning, in mid-October, the side yard is dotted with the first red leaves from the maple, and a cardinal, bright as the foliage, lands on my bird feeder. He finds it empty and settles instead for a breakfast of the purple berries that load the privet hedge between this house and the more elegant one some thirty-five feet away.
A family named Hollis has lived there for five years. Karen didn’t like them because, she said, the woman was always cool to her. I don’t know them. Today, as I often do, I watch Mrs. Hollis and her daughter climb into their white Mercedes. Mrs. Hollis looks utterly ordinary: a little heavy but not fat, encased in a beige car coat from shoulders to hips, wearing slacks and sensible low pumps. As always she is hurrying, fluttering her hands, encouraging the child to get into the car, move over, close the door.
She backs quickly down her drive and does not look at me as I walk out my front door. I place my briefcase on the back seat of my Toyota and fold the suit coat on top of it. I do not want to get into the worn driver’s seat. My day will begin with an unpleasant meeting: my managing partner and two clients want to discuss their audits, which are behind schedule. I decide to put seed out for the cardinal.
A powdery dust rises from the seeds as I pour. Averting my face, I notice a large jar, filled with water and several tea bags, situated in the sunny front corner of the Hollises’ lawn. I am familiar with sun tea from the days when Karen read Family Circle instead of woman of power, and I think of it as a summer concoction. I allow the jar’s untimely appearance to preoccupy me for the first mile or two of my commute.
The following morning, and the next, and the next, the jar draws my attention as I pull out of the driveway. The brew does not grow muddy and foul as the autumn days decline into winter; its clarity is constant, indicating a new mix each day. I come home for lunch one day and find the jar moved from its morning position to a sunny afternoon spot. Then I know the tea maker is vigilant, monitoring the sun’s low circuit across the crisp and empty sky.
I cannot help speculating about what kind of person would undertake such a ritual. Someone who has little else to do? Someone who values order and predictability in life? Is Mrs. Hollis such a person? Then one day in November I see two jars. Now what? I wonder. No one can stand that much tea.
That evening after work, I ring her bell.
Mrs. Hollis is obviously surprised when she opens the door, but almost instantly her face composes itself into a serene and welcoming smile. I introduce myself as her neighbor, but she says she has seen me and knows who I am.
“Come in,” she says, making a smooth, sweeping motion with her hand, palm upturned. It’s pale and soft, the fourth finger ornamented with several diamonds, the others naked. “Will you sit in the parlor or the kitchen?” she asks me.
I find her question a curiously direct attempt to determine the type of guest I will be. The parlor, to which her hand points, is as muted as a museum. Drapes, cushions, and Oriental rugs intermix patterns in perfect counterpoint. A Ming vase, which looks genuine, stands at the center of a heavy glass table.
I choose the kitchen. Never before have I called on a neighbor for no reason, and in the parlor I think I would feel like a salesman. Also, the house feels chilly, and I have a vague notion that the kitchen may be warmer.
Gracefully, Mrs. Hollis leads me down a hallway of polished wood, mirrors, and silk flowers. I wonder at the utter silence of the house. “Gwynneth is at dance class,” she says, as if she reads my thoughts. “I must leave in fifteen minutes to pick her up.” Again her directness pricks me, so precise is her instruction as to what I may expect here.
In the kitchen, the light is bright and the counters an expansive, gleaming white. No clutter of unopened mail or unfolded laundry mars the perfection of the room. In fact it is so immaculate it appears never to have been used. Mrs. Hollis indicates the chair I should take at her large white ash table, then asks if I would like something to drink. Coffee, perhaps, or ice water?
What about tea? I want to ask. Don’t you have quite a lot of tea? But I find myself too shy to speak, and accept a tumbler of water I do not drink.
She sits down too, folding her hands on the table. She has brought no drink for herself. In her quiet roundness, her composed smile, her beige slacks and beige sweater, a zigzag of darker brown across the front, she resembles the doves who visit my feeder on summer evenings. I almost expect her to coo gently. Instead she questions me politely about my work, my house, and how I like the neighborhood.
I tell her I am an audit manager with Arthur Young, that I live alone now, and that I seldom have much to do with the neighborhood. Before the divorce, I say, when my daughter lived here, the streets and yards seemed filled with children.
She makes a quiet sound of sympathy when I say divorce. “It happens to too many people,” she says.
I have no more to say on that topic, so we speak of commonplace things: the turn of the season, the eggs thrown two weeks ago by the trick-or-treaters, whether the town will do a better job of clearing snow off the streets this year than last. She says that since her husband is now a councilman, she expects that our street, at least, will receive good attention. Then she looks at her watch and says, “It’s time for me to go.”
I stand up, too quickly, and my chair scrapes loudly across the terra-cotta tile. We both look down, silently, to see if the floor is marred. It is not. I am awkwardly indecisive as to which door I should exit through, kitchen or front, and while I hesitate she says, “Was there something in particular you wanted to say to me?”
“Oh, no,” I answer, embarrassed by my fumbling. “I merely thought we should get to know one another, as we are neighbors.”
“Yes, that’s nice,” she replies. “I’m glad to know you.” She puts out her pale hand. I shake it, and I leave by way of the kitchen door.
On Thanksgiving Day I start work on the model at seven in the morning. I am building and populating Central Park, and there are a thousand details to attend to. Stymied for a means of copying the bronze statue of Alice on the toadstool, I give up temporarily and gloss the boat basin with plastic film. With balsa wood and an etching pencil I make ducks and toy schooners.
The work absorbs me, and I am relieved that there is no confusion of relatives or rich odor of turkey to distract me. But at five o’clock I run out of glue. I am nowhere near finished, and such a swell of frustration rises in me that the smooth progress of the holiday is ruined. I decide I must get more glue immediately.
The pharmacy in town is open, and there, at the checkout, I encounter Mrs. Hollis. She is muffled in a tan trench coat, and though it is dusk she wears sunglasses.
I wish her a happy Thanksgiving. “Yes,” she says. “The same to you.” She does not look at me when she speaks.
Quickly I pay for the glue in my hand. The druggist calls Mrs. Hollis’s name and hands her a bottle of prescription pills. She asks him for a box of Epsom salts and an Ace bandage.
“Is someone injured at your house?” I blurt as she turns to go.
“No,” she says, closing her handbag with a sharp snap. She takes two brisk steps, stops, then speaks again, her back still turned. “I mean, yes. In a way. I have bursitis in my arm.”
I express sympathy, and then, in a torrent of chatter that forces her to turn toward me, I hear myself ask her about the tea. Why does she make sun tea in the winter, and what does she do with so much of it?
“It’s mint tea,” she explains. “Brewed in the sun, it’s rich in color but very weak. I use it for migraines. It’s soothing to sip and smell.”
“You’re troubled by migraines too?” I ask.
“Sometimes. And Gwynneth as well.”
“That’s terrible!” I say, so vehemently it is foolish.
“Everyone has troubles,” she says lightly, and then points to the bottle of glue I’ve bought. “Are you repairing something?”
I begin to talk about the model and cannot stop. She is silent, but I feel her hidden eyes assessing my ridiculous volubility. Gradually her lips compress and curve, until, like Alice, I am faced down by a Cheshire cat. Panicking, I suggest that perhaps Gwynneth would like to come and see my miniature city. Heather loved it, I say, even when it was only a sketch, and now it takes up nearly her whole room, though she doesn’t know it.
“Gwynneth would enjoy that sometime,” Mrs. Hollis says.
“Would you like to come tomorrow?”
“Oh. Tomorrow we can’t.”
“Some other time then.”
“Yes. Another time.” With that, she quickly walks away.
One damp evening in December, I decide to buy a small artificial tree, the kind with the decorations already attached, to place in the living room window. I stop at Service Merchandise on my way home from work. When I come out and begin searching for my car in the huge, crowded lot, the sound of loud shouting draws my attention. It’s a man yelling in an ugly, abusive voice. I continue my search, thinking only, What a boor, to quarrel in public that way. But as I get closer I realize this is no quarrel. It’s a tirade.
“You nitwit,” the man bellows. “Have you got a tongue in that pointed head?” His face is red and contorted. “It’s simple. You speak when spoken to. You’re in a store. Someone who knows me speaks to you. All you have to do is answer. But what do you do?” He leans forward menacingly. “Look at the ground and hide behind your mother like a damn three-year-old. Well, I’ve had all I’m going to take. You are going to learn to account for yourself in public if it’s the last and only thing I teach you. You are watched. Because I” — he taps his chest — “am somebody who matters, you” — he points his finger — “are somebody who matters, whether you deserve to be or not. The next time one of my constituents speaks to you, you will answer her, and if you don’t, I’ll damn straight make you wish you had.”
The target of this venomous drubbing is a girl of about eight or nine. As I move closer I find her familiar, and then with a shock that roots me to the pavement I recognize the child and her mother.
Mrs. Hollis watches wordlessly, her hands clasped over her stomach, as her husband screams at their daughter. The girl grinds her toe into the asphalt. Tears drip off her face. A truly polite person would not notice this family altercation, I think, but I cannot turn away.
I stare, and my arrested movement draws Mrs. Hollis’s attention. Over the head of her crying daughter, behind the back of her enraged husband, her hands loose their grip on one another and begin fluttering. Get away. Be gone. Hurry, they say.
I disobey them. I look Mrs. Hollis stolidly in the eye. She does not avert her gaze. Instead, she refolds her hands and smiles that beatific, calm smile, which I suddenly see is as habitual to her as lying is to a thief.
Slowly I walk toward my car, weighed down by the plastic tree under my arm, hounded by the cheerless clanging of a sidewalk Santa’s bell.
All through December, I watch jars of tea appear in the Hollises’ yard. Early each morning, shining a flashlight at my feet, I walk outside, fill my bird feeder, check the jars’ position, and wonder what is going on behind the smooth, blank windows of the big house next door. I grow dull with worry and confusion and winter’s gray isolation until one morning, just after Christmas, I’m surprised to see in the Hollises’ yard a single jar, quite empty, lying on its side in the snow.
It is bitterly cold, and I think that at last the elements have outmatched Mrs. Hollis — the tea would only freeze if she set any out. But even though a thaw sets in toward the end of the week, the tea jar is not refilled. I fear there is some terrible significance to the interruption in the brewing ritual, but I am so cowed by Mrs. Hollis’s inscrutable smile that I cannot think how to find out.
On New Year’s morning I wade through the slush to my bird feeder. The birds welcome me, the chickadees withdrawing only inches and the nuthatches, expectant, dangling upside down from the tree trunk just above my hand. Suddenly, from the Hollis house, I hear a sharp scream, then a loud thud against the wall nearest me. The birds whirl up and away while I stand gaping. There is nothing more; the house is still, its half-drawn shades like heavy lids on furtive eyes.
I leap over the hedge and across ten yards of sodden lawn to pound on the heavy oak door. I don’t know what I intend to do, but I will be part of whatever is happening in there. Hollis himself opens the door. He is breathing heavily and one fist is clenched alongside his thigh, but his face shows only surprise, no trace of guilt or fear.
“What do you want?” he asks me. I realize he does not know who I am.
“Has there been an accident here?” I stammer.
He smiles slightly and repeats, “Accident?” He steps back from the door, opening it more fully, and turns to speak into the parlor behind him. “Mary,” he calls, “was there an accident here?”
Mrs. Hollis is standing in the shadows next to the Ming vase. She wears her beige slacks and sweater, and when her eyes meet mine she puts on her smile. “No,” she says. “No accident.” Behind her, on the damask-covered couch, is Gwynneth, her face once again slick with tears.
Mrs. Hollis steps in front of Gwynneth and introduces me to her husband as coolly as if we were meeting at a country club. Her movement betrays her, however, in a shaft of light escaping the drawn front drapes. One side of her face is red and swelling, and her arm is awkwardly stiff at her side.
Hollis extends his now unclenched hand. He’d like to invite me in for a drink, he says, but just now they are expecting company.
There is nothing I can say. Muttering something about my own commitments, I turn and rush away.
In my house I brew a strong cup of tea, trembling as from a deep chill. I gulp the scalding liquid, then I phone the police station and say I want to report a domestic disturbance next door. A woman comes on the line, and I describe to her exactly what I heard and what I saw.
“Thomson Hollis is a councilman,” the woman says. “Are you certain of what you’re saying?”
“Yes,” I answer.
“Does Mrs. Hollis wish to file a complaint?” she continues.
Why don’t you ask her, you ignorant woman? She has a black eye and an injured arm, and I don’t think this is the first time it’s happened. “I don’t know,” I say.
“I see,” she says. “I’ll phone Mrs. Hollis and see if she’s all right.”
“Right. Thank you. I hope she can make it to the phone.” I hang up, and, standing by the kitchen window, I make more tea. Outside, the empty jar, its lid missing, lies abandoned in dirty ice that squeezes tighter with every thaw and freeze. By spring it’s bound to burst.
The cup in my hands will not warm my fingers. I move from one room to the next, turning on every light. In Heather’s room, I sit down on the floor in the middle of the little city I have built. There are no people in it, and it is perfect. Next door, in a house as composed as a magazine picture, Mrs. Hollis smiles and her husband hits her while their daughter shrinks and wails. Karen never smiled, and I never struck her, and Heather always laughed when I told her stories. In my cup, the tea is troubled; tiny circles ripple its smooth surface, enlarging rapidly to wreck against the brittle rim. By this sign, I know that I am crying.