JANICE HARRISON goes to the front door when the old bell scrapes the silence. Decades of rust have all but destroyed its voice, the thing will die entirely some day, the clapper freezing or the wires shorting out or whatever they do. Whenever she says she wants to call the electrician, Ronnie tells her it's on his list of home improvements, he'll get to it. He likes to do things himself. Harry was all for letting other people do them.
A twinge in her hip slows her progress out from the sunny worn kitchen, through the dining room, whose shades are drawn to keep the Oriental rug from fading and the polished mahogany tabletop from drying out, into the front room, where the reproduction cobbler's bench in front of the gray cut-plush sofa causes a detour that has worn a pale path in the carpet. A big brown Zenith television, its top loaded with her mother's dusty knickknacks, blankly stares where her father's Barcalounger used to be. They don't sit out here and watch on the sofa like they used to. Ronnie likes the little Sony in the kitchen for the evening news, watching while he eats, and Nelson when he's stuck at home after work has the computer upstairs that he says is more fun than television because it's interactive. He wasn't so interactive with his wife that Teresa didn't move back to Ohio with the two children over a year ago. He and Roy, who is fourteen now, do a lot of e-mail, mostly rude jokes (one especially shocking joke this summer went
Often Janice doesn't hear the bell at all, even when she's in the house or the backyard garden. She finds pinched in the door these notices from deliverymen who had to go away or cards from salesmen who didn't get to make their pitch. She's grateful for that but still it makes her feel isolated; suppose somebody rang she was dying to see? She doesn't know who that would be, though. So many she cared about are dead.
The heavy walnut door with its tall sidelights of frosted glass patterned in floral arabesques, the door that she has been going in and out of most of her life off and on, has been swollen and sticking all summer with a humidity that never produced rain. Now it swings open more easily, with a dry crack, fall crispness being in the air at last. The girl-woman, really, close to Nelson's age-who stands on the front porch looks vaguely familiar. She has a broad white face, her eyes wide-spaced with some milk in their blue and middle-aged crinkles at the corners beginning to develop. Taller than Janice by a bit, she fills her beige summer dress well, the cotton taut across her bosom and lap. She wears a navy-blue sweater draped over her shoulders like the young women at the Pearson and Schrack Realty office do, manning their glowing computers, giving a businesslike air. She asks, 'Mrs. Angstrom?'
Janice is taken aback. 'I was,' she allows. 'My husband's name now is Harrison.'
The girl blushes. 'I'm sorry, I did know that. I wasn't thinking.' The girl's milky-blue eyes widen and Janice feels this stranger is actually trembling, her body aquiver in its careful quiet clothes, a creature somehow trapped on the welcome mat, in the rectangular shade of the brick-pillared porch.
Behind her, cars swish by on Joseph Street with a fresh dry sound. A shiny-new, brick-red Lexus stands at the dappled curb, under the still-green maples. A cloud passes overhead and the shadow is almost chilling: that's how you feel the new season, the shadows are sharper and darker, and the crickets sing under everything. With the terrible drought this summer the leaves are turning early, those of the horse chestnuts curling brown at the edges, and the front yards where no one has watered have turned to flattened straw, a look Janice remembers from childhood, when you are closer to the ground and summer is endless.
'My mother died two months ago,' the girl begins again, taking a breath to steady her trembling, both her hands holding a small striped purse in front of her belly.
'I'm sorry,' Janice says. Nelson deals with crazy people at his work all the time and says they're not to be afraid of. She deals with people trying to buy or sell houses, the most money a lot of them will ever have to think about, and they can get high-strung and irrational, too.
'I've never married, she was all the family I had.'
So, despite her respectable clothes, this is a beggar. 'I'm sorry,' Janice says again, in a harder tone, 'but I don't believe I can help.' Her hand moves to swing the heavy door shut. Nelson is off at the treatment center and Ronnie playing golf at the club with some other retirees so she is alone in the house. Not that the girl looks violent. But she is bigger than Janice, bigger-boned, with a dangerous fullness to her being there, as if defiantly arrived at the end of a long wavering, like a client taking the plunge of offering thirty thousand more than she can afford. Her eyes are set in squarish sockets showing the puffy look of sleeplessness and her hair, cut raggedly short the way they do it now, is mixed of light-brown and darker-brown and gray strands.
'I don't think you can either,' she agrees. 'But my mother thought you might.'
'Did I ever know your mother?'
'No, you never met. You knew each other existed, though.'
Janice does wish Nelson were here. He could tell at a glance if this person were over the edge, and give it one of those names he had- bipolar, schizophrenic, paranoid, psychotic. Psychotic, you see and hear things, and can murder without meaning it, and then in court seem so innocent. The varnished grain of the door under her hand calls out as a potential shield and a slammed end to this encounter, but the something pleasant and kind and calm about the girl, who is these as well as troubled and trembling, holds the door open. The dry warm air of this early- fall day in southeastern Pennsylvania-children tucked back into school, the mid-morning streets quiet, the vegetables in the backyard gardens harvested or gone to seed-lies on Janice's face as a breath from the past, her visitor having come from this same terrain.
'I nursed her at the end, she didn't like hospitals, they made her feel penned up,' the light, considerate, shaky voice goes on.
'This is your mother,' Janice says, in spite of herself entering in.
'Yes, and of course being a nurse I could do that, administer the meds and see that she was kept turned in the bed and all that. Only it was strange, doing it for your mother. Her body had all these meanings for me. She didn't like being touched, as long as she had strength. Though she could come on free and easy with some people, she was really a freak about her privacy, even with me. She didn't like telling me anything, except then when she knew she was dying.'
The girl as her nervousness eased has skipped a stage of her story without being aware of it. 'What did you say this had to do with me?' Janice asks.
'Oh. I guess-I guess you were married to my father.'
A mail truck coasts by, one of those noseless vans they have now, white with a red and blue stripe. They used to be solid green, like military vehicles. Mailmen used to be men; now theirs is a mail-lady, a young woman with long sun-bleached hair and stocky tan legs in shorts who pushes her pouch on a three-wheeled cart ahead of her along the sidewalk. It is not time for her to go by yet, but across Joseph Street, another young woman comes out on the righthand porch of the semi-detached house opposite. For years and years that address was occupied by a couple that had seemed old and changeless to her. Then they went off to assisted living, and a young couple has moved in, with hanging plants on the porch they fuss at, and music that booms out over the neighborhood through the window screens, and two small children who go to pre-school.
'Maybe you should come inside,' Janice says, stepping back invitingly, though admitting to her home this piece of a shameful dead past disgusts as well as frightens her.
Inside, the girl, her face and arms as white as if summer had never been, hangs in the dim-lit living-room clutter like one more piece of furniture that time's slow earthquake has jostled out of place. She seems, as Harry used to, a bit out of scale. Janice is used to her house with average-sized people in it, herself and Nelson and Ronnie, though Ronnie's Alex is big, when he visits from Virginia, and Judy and Roy when they lived here took up plenty of space with their music and games and sibling competition. Though with one a girl and the other a boy and over four years between them it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
'Would you like any coffee?' Janice asks. 'Or tea-that's what my husband drinks now, for his blood pressure,