Five Corners on Potato Hill, 1953
Laura Farnsworth stood at the kitchen window watching her brother maneuver his immense two-toned Buick up the unpaved driveway leading to the farmhouse. Walter and Anna Marie had arrived for a day in the country wearing hats, Walter’s a cap with an outlandish “Papa Hemingway” bill, Anna Marie’s a straw bucket-like affair secured with a green scarf under her chin.
“Good Lord,” Laura’s husband Sebastian said at her elbow. “I can’t eat lunch with people wearing hats like that. I’ll choke on my food.”
“No, you won’t.” Laura pushed open the screen door as Walter and Anna Marie emerged from the Buick. “You found us!” she called by way of greeting, just as she did with all her guests, regardless of how many times they had successfully navigated the barely visible signs and unpaved roads to the farmhouse before. When Walter reached the open doorway where Laura was standing, he reached for her hand, squeezed it, and dropped it, all in one motion.
“I brought rolls,” Anna Marie announced, extending a napkin-draped basket. “A jelled salad would not have traveled well.”
“You didn’t need to bring anything,” Sebastian said. “We have food here.”
Anna Marie reddened, and Laura pushed in front of Sebastian to take the basket Anna Marie still held in her hand. “That was very thoughtful of you, Anna Marie.” Laura set the basket on the counter. While her back was turned to Walter and Anna Marie as they entered the kitchen, she made a face at Sebastian.
After Walter and Anna Marie had each used “the facility,” as Walter liked to call it, Sebastian ushered them into the living room where they sat side by side on the couch. Walter carefully removed his hat and set it on the couch cushion next to him, and Anna Marie followed suit.
“What can I offer you to drink?” Sebastian asked, just as he asked every time they visited. “Beer, wine, something stronger?” And just as she did every time he asked, Anna Marie answered, “Cold water would be lovely, thank you. Well water is such a treat for us.”
Laura watched this exchange almost as Sebastian himself would, detached, yet keenly observant—Sebastian’s smirk (impish, she would say, not snide), the flicker of revulsion crossing Anna Marie’s face and passed wordlessly without gesture or glance to Walter, Walter’s resigned tone as he repeated, “Cold water, thank you.”
After he handed over their water, Sebastian plopped down on the arm of the chair Laura was sitting in and said, “So, Walter, what have you been up to?”
Walter bristled. “Up to? I’ve been working. I work for the telephone company. As you know.”
“Ah yes,” Sebastian said. “Ma Bell. “Quite a domineering mother, isn’t she?”
“Walter has done very well at the telephone company,” Anna Marie said.
“I don’t doubt it,” Sebastian said, leaning back into the chair with no regard for the parts of Laura that were already there.
Laura shifted to make room for him. “How is Gwen? You should have brought her with you. We haven’t seen her in ages.”
“She and Thomas want to start a family,” Anna Marie said, “but I am encouraging them to wait until Thomas has established himself. They need to buy a house before they can start thinking about children.”
No one said anything, Walter apparently having heard it many times over, Laura wondering how Anna Marie had surmised that Gwen and Tom wanted a family in the first place—surely Gwen would not have told her—Sebastian manifestly uninterested in the turn the conversation had taken.
“Just as we did,” Anna Marie resumed. “Walter built me a beautiful house the first year we were married.”
Walter acknowledged the house with a nominal smile. “Gwen is well,” he said. “We had them to dinner a couple of weeks ago. She and Tom seem very happy together.”
“We’ll have to invite them up,” Laura said. “I don’t think Tom has been to the farm yet. It would be nice to show him our woods.”
Walter leaned forward. “I would like to see your woods some time. I haven’t yet, you know. Maybe later this afternoon, after we’ve eaten.”
“Walter,” Anna Marie said, shaking her head.
Laura’s chair creaked as Sebastian shifted position again. Laura also shifted, to better see her brother, sitting on her couch looking so balding and hopeful next to his Papa Hemingway cap. “Sure,” she said. “You’re not wearing the right shoes for it, but Sebastian has a pair of sneakers that should fit you.”
Sebastian nodded. “The blue ones. I’ll come along; I could use some exercise. Anna Marie?”
“Walter needs to curtail his physical activities,” Anna Marie said. “He has angina.”
Laura looked hard at her brother, clinically she would assert, albeit her knowledge of disease was limited to knowing which of them were generally fatal and which were not. Walter did not look any different from the last time she had seen him, four or five months before. “You do?” she said. “I didn’t know you have angina. How long have you had it?”
Walter sipped his water and shrugged. “A couple of years. It’s nothing serious.”
“Nonetheless,” Anna Marie said. “He needs to be careful.”
Sebastian slid off Laura’s chair and turned to Walter. “Walter?”
“I’d better not,” Walter said. “Perhaps another time.”
“Sure,” Laura said. “Another time.” She stood up. “I’ll get lunch on.”
Lunch passed pleasantly enough, Laura always thankful at times like this that she was quite a good cook; her guests did not feel obligated to use small talk as a diversionary tactic to disguise their dislike of the food.
Over coffee, Anna Marie announced, as though she had been waiting the entire visit to say so, had in fact made the trip with Walter for the sole purpose of saying so, “I have taken up painting.”
Laura looked up from the sugar bowl, the tongs in her hand transporting air. Before Sebastian could say, “Ah, rather like taking up a rug,” she blurted out something banal like, “Oh, you have, isn’t that nice!”—then, recovering, “What subjects do you paint?”
“Outdoor scenes.” Anna Marie took a sip of her coffee without looking away from Laura. “While Walter is at work tomorrow, I’m going to paint your hay barn. It will be quite a challenge to get all the shades of weathered wood right, particularly from memory!”
Sebastian spoke up. “Why don’t you stay here for the week? You can paint it from life. Walter can come and collect you on Saturday.”
Anna Marie’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, Sebastian, I couldn’t. Thank you all the same.”
Shortly thereafter, Anna Marie collected her roll basket, and their hats, and signaled Walter it was time for their departure.
Laura and Sebastian stood together in the doorway watching the car back down the driveway, as had become their habit when guests left, regardless of the distance they had traveled to see them or the length of their stay.
“Walter has gained some weight,” Sebastian mused. “Anna Marie looks the same; she went gray early. Do you think Walter is happy working at the telephone company?”
“I don’t know. I daresay he never thinks about it.”
“Hmm. That’s probably for the best, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t presume to tell my brother what to think or how to feel.”
“Touchy, Laura. I was just making conversation.”
“I know you were.” Laura left the room without saying anything else to her husband. Suddenly, inexplicably, she could not stand the sight of him. My marriage must be over, she thought. It’s the strangest thing.
And so it was.