Sourland: Stories

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But would he come inside, for a drink?

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Stammering with gratitude Anton scraped his hiking boots against the welcome mat. The soles were muddy and stuck with leaves. The sodden shoelaces trailed out—left, right—in perfect symmetry. Inside, most of the downstairs rooms were dark. Now it was late October night came quickly.

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Pleasantly excited, a little nervous, Hadley went about switching on lights. There was a curious intimacy between her and Anton Kruppe, in this matter of switching on lights. Hadley heard her voice warmly uplifted—no idea what she was saying—as her tall lanky guest in his stocking feet—soiled-looking gray wool socks—came to stand at the threshold of the living room—stared into the interior of the long beautifully furnished living room with a shoulder-high stone fireplace at its farther end, book-filled shelves, Chinese carpets on a gleaming hardwood floor.

Above the fireplace was a six-by-eight impressionist New England landscape of gorgeous pastel colors that drew the eye to it, as in a vortex. Except for surreal pastel colors and a high degree of abstraction in the rendering of massed tree trunks and foliage, there was little in the Wolf Kahn canvas to suggest the earlier, great artist. Outside, while Anton changed the floodlight, Hadley had been thinking I will offer him coffee. But now that they were out of the October chill and inside the warm house it was a drink—wine—she offered him: a glass of dark red Catena wine, from a bottle originally purchased by her husband.

Anton thanked her profusely calling her Hedley —a flush of pleasure rose into his odd, angular face. In his wiry hair that was the color of ditch water a small pumpkin seed shone. Hadley poured herself a half-glass of wine. Her hand shook just slightly. Since there was an opened jar of Brazilian nuts on the sideboard, Hadley offered these to Anton, too.

A cascade of nuts into a blue-ceramic bowl. Gratefully Anton drank, and Anton ate. Thirstily, hungrily. Excitedly he talked—he had so much to say! So sharply his hair receded from his forehead, it resembled some sort of garden implement—a hand trowel? Hadley thought He would be waxy-pale, beneath. A hairless chest.

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A little potbelly, and spindly legs. Hadley laughed. A warm sensation suffused her throat and in the region of her heart. Politely Hadley tried to listen—to concentrate—as her eccentric guest chattered rapidly and nervously and with an air of schoolboy enthusiasm.

Sourland: Stories

How annoying Anton was! Like many shy people once he began talking he seemed not to know how to stop; he lacked the social sleight of hand of changing the subject; he had no idea how to engage another in conversation. Like a runaway vehicle down a hill he plunged on, head-on, heedless. And yet, there was undeniably something attractive about him. More incensed now, impassioned—though he seemed to be joking, too—speaking of American politics, American pop culture, American fundamentist ignorance about stem-cell research. And how ignorant, more than ninety percent of Americans believed in God—and in the devil.

Hadley frowned at this. Ninety percent? Was this so? Yes, yes! To believe in the Christian God is to believe in His enemy—the devil. That is known. With his newfound vehemence Anton drained his glass of the dark red Catena wine and bluntly asked of his hostess if he might have more? Americans are—we are—a tolerant nation…. How smug this sounded. Hadley paused not knowing what she meant to say. The feral-dark wine had gone quickly to her head.

Anton laughed harshly, baring his teeth. Chunky yellow teeth they were, and the gums pale-pink. Of course he knew.

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She opened her mouth to protest bitterly then thought better of it. Surreptitiously she glanced at her wristwatch. Only P. Her guest had been inside the house less than a half hour but the strain of his visit was such, it seemed much longer. Still Anton was prowling about, staring. Artifacts from trips Hadley and her husband had taken, over the years—Indonesian pottery, African masks, urns, wall hangings, Chinese wall scrolls and watercolors, beautifully carved wooden figures from Bali.

A wall of brightly colored primitive paintings from Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala.

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Hadley laughed again, uncertain. Was Anton Kruppe mocking her? She felt a slight repugnance for the man, who peered at her, as at her art-objects and bookshelves, with an almost hostile intensity; yet she could not help it, so American was her nature, so female, she was anxious that he should like her, and admire her—if that could be settled, she would send him away, in triumph.

Remembering the foreign-born children at her schools. A drivenness to them, the complacent Americans had mistaken initially as weakness. In soiled wool socks Anton continued to prowl about. Hadley had not invited him to explore her house—had she? His manner was more childlike than aggressive. A row of subsidized faculty housing along the river… Ah! They were in a glass-walled room at the rear of the stone house, that had been added to the house by Hadley and her husband; the solarium, intended to be sun-warmed, was furnished with white wicker furniture, chintz pillows and a white wrought-iron table and chairs as in an outdoor setting.

But now the room was darkened and shadowed and the bright festive chintz colors were undistinguishable. Only through the vertical glass panels shone a faint crescent moon, entangled in the tops of tall pines. Anton was admiring yet faintly sneering, taunting:. Such a beautiful house—it is old, is it? You are so very lucky, Hedley. You know this, yes? For so few people.

On each acre of land, it may be one person—the demographics would show. A brash sort of merriment shone in his eyes, widened behind the smudged lenses of his wire-rimmed schoolboy glasses. He must know, then. Someone at the co-op has told him. What sort of reply this was, a stammered resentful rush of words, Hadley had no clear idea. She was uneasy, Anton peered at her closely.

It was as if the molecular biologist was trying to determine the meaning of her words by staring at her. A kind of perverse echolocation—was that the word? Except Anton was staring, his desire for the rich American woman came to him through the eyes…Hadley saw that the pumpkin seed—unless it was a second seed, or a bit of pumpkin-gristle—glistened in his wiry hair, that looked as if it needed shampooing and would be coarse to the touch. Except she could not risk the intimacy, she felt a reckless impulse to pluck it out.

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As if Anton had heard these words, his mood changed suddenly. His smile became startled, pained—he was a man for whom pained smiles would have to do. No more. Your basement—furnace—that, I could check. I am trained—you smile, Hedley, but it is so. To support myself in school—. Clearly this was a lie. Hadley could lie only flatly, brazenly.

Her voice quavered, she felt his eyes fixed upon her. Anton took a step closer. I would come back another day, if needed.