These Houses Chapter One

These Houses of Intimate Acquaintances is my young adult rewrite of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I will post a chapter a day. Please let me know what you think! It’s set in 2013, during the teacher strikes.

Copyright Amy L. Montz

THESE HOUSES OF INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCES

A NOVEL

BY

AMY L. MONTZ

“The evening, without employment, passed in a room high up in an hotel, was long and heavy. Mr. Hale went out to his bookseller’s, and to call on a friend or two. Every one they saw, either in the house or out in the streets, appeared hurrying to some appointment, expected by, or expecting somebody. They alone seemed strange and friendless, and desolate. Yet within a mile, Margaret knew of house after house, where she for her own sake, and her mother for her aunt Shaw’s, would be welcomed, if they came in gladness, or even in peace of mind. If they came sorrowing, and wanting sympathy in a complicated trouble like the present, then they would be felt as a shadow in all these houses of intimate acquaintances, not friends.”

– Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

“You’re keeping in step
In the line
Got your chin held high and you feel just fine
Because you do
What you’re told
But inside your heart it is black and it’s hollow and it’s cold.”

– Nine Inch Nails, “The Hand that Feeds”

CHAPTER ONE

            They were not in Indiana but two hours before the car broke down.  Mags had unpacked her few boxes of clothes and books from the U-Haul and, after a quick shower, volunteered to return it so her father or mother didn’t have to.  They were all tired, after all, worn out from the road, and defeated by sun and circumstance.  Not surprisingly, her mother and father agreed, with a simple reminder to bring the GPS along.  She had arrived at the site, watched as the mechanic unhooked the trailer from the Land Rover, and was lost halfway back to her grandmother’s house—home now, she thought—when the engine gave a great shudder, then a little one, then clicked to silence.

She managed to coast off the road into an empty elementary school parking lot and waited it out for five minutes.  The SUV was ten years old, so it wasn’t the first time it had broken down.  It might, however, have been the first time it broke down after fourteen hours on the road, in the worst heat wave the Midwest had seen in thirty years.  Normally, it needed a little bit of cooling off, some water added to the radiator, and she would be good to go.

            Mags timed it, five minutes exactly, before she climbed out of her car into the sticky August air and lifted the hood.  She was not a mechanic, had no real understanding of cars or their inner workings, but she had been driving the Land Rover long enough to know that a splash of water wasn’t going to solve this problem.

Not for the first time, she wished they had been able to afford to keep the new car.

            She leaned against the car door and closed her eyes for a long moment, sucking in the hot humidity through her teeth.  Then she opened her eyes and reached into the car for the phone.

            “Hi, Dad,” she said when he answered.  “The car broke down.”

            “Just wait it out,” he said.  “There’s water in the trunk.”

            She climbed back into the driver’s seat and left the door open for some breeze.  “That’s not going to work.  There’s something seriously wrong with it.  There’s this kind of… burning smell.”

            Her father was silent.  “Where are you?”

            “Does it matter?” she asked.

            “I can send a tow truck by, to pick the car up.”  There was a moment’s pause.  “And you.  I’m sure the mechanic can give you a ride.”

            He hadn’t offered himself.  She knew he was busy unpacking her mother’s room, making sure everything was just so.  There was the eyelet cover, of course, and the fan, and the essential oils that would help calm her nerves.  It had been such a long drive, after all.  Such a long, hot summer.  “Can she come get me?” she asked.

            Another pause.  “Your grandmother’s busy, Margaret.  This has been a long day for her, as well.”

            It hadn’t needed to be.  All she had to do was wait for the Louisiana invasion to arrive on her doorstep and welcome home the return of her wayward son, gone now these twenty years to New Orleans, but returned back to the Midwestern fold.  She hadn’t done anything to prepare, not really.  The room allotted to Mags was covered in doilies and photographs of people she didn’t recognize, belying her grandmother’s insistence that she “make yourself at home.”  But Mags said none of those things. 

            “Or the car might be fixed before you know it,” her dad continued.  “Can you tell me where you are?”

            “Of course,” she agreed, because she always agreed.  That’s what she was good for, after all.  She peered out the window at the school in front of her and gave her father the name.

            “Sit tight,” he said.  “The tow truck should be there in ten minutes.”

It was not ten minutes.  Mags watched the clock tick eleven, then twelve, then thirteen.  She undid the clasp in her hair, twisted the length and secured the damp mass of it again.  “Catholic school girl hair,” Henry had always called it, that sloppy bun with its waterfall ends dangling over whatever barrette or clip the girls had found to get their hair up and off their necks.

Before she allowed her brain to travel down that path, Mags closed her eyes to the relentless onslaught of the summer light.  Still, the sun intruded.  Too bright, it burned against her, turning the inside of her eyelids pink.

The blur of the pink, the streaking against her eyelids brought back a memory, so vivid and real she tasted it in her mouth.  When she was ten years old, New Orleans went through a cold snap like it hadn’t before, not in her lifetime.  Her parents braved the cold to take her to her favorite Mardi Gras parade: Bacchus.  The closest parking spot they could find was eight blocks away, and by block four, she felt too cold to walk.  She must have whined enough because her brother ended up lifting her to sit on his shoulders as they walked the rest of the way to Napoleon Avenue. 

The parade had already started by the time they found the rest of the family, but because of her vantage point on Freddie’s shoulders, Mags saw it first.  And she saw it in a way she never had before.  The cold air—not all that cold for the rest of the world, but 35 degrees in New Orleans was next door to blizzard—made everything seem crisp and sharp.  Even the scent of cotton candy and plastic beads in the air burnt her nostrils and tickled as it went down.  But the lights.  The beautiful, gorgeous lights smeared across the night sky as the big floats rolled down the street.  The streak of color, the flash of camera bulbs and beads, of streetlamps and the flambeaux swirled together in her mind, and even at ten, she wished she could capture that moment—that happy, delicious moment—forever.  Freeze it in time, to take out of a box and treasure whenever she wanted.

            Her parents often remarked that after that Mardi Gras, Mags became peculiarly obsessed with cameras, but she understood the rightness of preservation, of holding on to a moment, to relive it whenever she pleased.  Her mother, in particular, was so kind, so supportive when it came to her photography.  At least, she had been then.

            If only she could fall into that familial memory now, cradled in the crisp love of February in New Orleans.  Not into the memory of last night, its sticky August heat, Henry’s palm damp against hers, his breath too warm, too wet against her ear.  “Just stay,” he had whispered.  “For fuck’s sake, Mags, just stay.”

            “For me,” were the unspoken words.  She resented them, both for their selfishness and for the fact that they stayed unspoken.

            She opened her eyes.  Twenty-one minutes now, and no sign of the tow truck.  She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her face had flushed as pink as her memory.  Reaching into her purse for a face wipe, her fingers brushed her camera instead.

            Edie’s face was first, of course, as she flipped through the dozens of pictures she had taken yesterday.  A proper farewell, Edie had said.  She had even had t-shirts made, and, laughing, forced them all to wear them.  When Mags clicked to picture three, she saw the shot taken by their waiter at Café du Monde, Edie and Noah clinging to each other, Mags on Edie’s other side, smiling, and Henry at her right, sullen and silent for the camera.  But they all wore those obnoxious bright blue shirts with “Margaret Hale’s Farewell Tour” emblazoned on the front and “THANK YOU, NEW ORLEANS!” printed on the back.

            Picture after picture: beignets for breakfast, shrimp po-boys and muffalettas for lunch, boiled crawfish for dinner.  Sunset on the levee, the bright flash of lights and beads on Bourbon Street, the darkened alleys off of Jackson Square.  Henry hanging from the fence around the Mint screaming Decemberists’ lyrics from the top of his lungs, and Edie and Noah dancing under the stars, right in the middle of Royal.  Henry, lifting Mags over his shoulder and she, laughing so hard, tears streamed down her face.  More photos, ones she took and ones she didn’t, the difference marked by her presence and the quality of framing.  Noah could never get the subject in the center of the frame, while Edie preferred “artistic shots”: someone’s feet, trash blowing by, candlelit parlors.  Only Henry preferred extreme close-ups, and there was a series of them, photo after photo of Mags’s face.

            One, with Edie, her lips pursed against Edie’s cheek, Edie laughing her wide-mouthed, squinty-eyed laugh.  One well into the wee hours of the morning, where the night brushed against her skin, making it even paler than normal.  One of the two of them, her head resting on Henry’s shoulder as they both stared—“serious,” he had said, “because this is a serious fucking occasion”—solemn and still, at the camera in his hand.  And the last, before she had taken her camera back for the final shots, of Mags, standing alone, staring at the Mississippi River.

            Henry was not a trained photographer, not like she was.  But her critical eye noticed the quality of the image.  The framing of the shot.  She was in the first third of the frame with the wide expanse of the river stretching out at her side.  Her hair was down, dark against her cheeks and shoulders, and she stood almost on tiptoe, as if she were going to leap, at any moment, into the calm muddiness below.  As if she could fly.  It was a careful shot, beautiful, one designed to make the background and the subject look, despite their plainness, rather extraordinary indeed.

            She swiped her wrist at her eyes and checked the time.  It was officially thirty-two minutes by the time the truck did swing into the parking lot.  Mags had sweat through her t-shirt and felt her shorts sticking to the backs of her legs.  But after she put her camera back in her back, she climbed out of the Land Rover and waved needlessly at the driver.  He swung around so that he was on the near side of her.  She read “CALEB MUELLER AUTO SERVICES” painted on the side of his truck.

“You Fred Hale’s daughter?” the man asked.

Her hand formed a visor over her eyes, shielding them from the worst of the sun.  She saw that the man was on the younger side of middle-aged, with a thick head of reddish-brown hair not at all given over to gray.  “I’m Margaret,” she said.  “Thanks for coming.”

He smiled at her, quick and sudden, and his teeth flashed white against his smudged face.  “I’m Caleb.  Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.  I was at a job about forty minutes away.  Got here as fast as I could.”

She gave him a tired nod.  “Thank you for coming so quickly.  May I help you with the car?”

He blinked at her twice before he shook his head.  “No, that’s okay.  Get your stuff and come inside, soak up some A/C.  You look like you might keel over, any minute.”

She dragged a hand across her forehead and nodded.  She gathered her bag, phone, and drink while he readied his tow truck.

When he climbed into the cab several minutes later, she peeled open her eyes to look at him.  “Thank you,” she said again.

He shrugged.  “Nothing to thank me for.  Just doing my job.”  But he reached over and angled the left middle vent toward her, so that three blasts of air hit her, not two. 

Mags closed her eyes as the coolness washed over her.

“I thought you was from New Orleans?”  The question wasn’t really a question, but ended up anyhow.  “This kind of heat can’t be a stranger to you.”

She opened her eyes but stared straight ahead, trying to find something familiar in the neighborhood in front of her.  “I am,” she said.  “It’s just… it’s been a long day.”

“You drove in this morning?”  When she nodded, he let out a low whistle.  “How long’s that drive?”

“Almost thirteen hours,” she said.  Her knees felt sticky from the Styrofoam cup she clutched between them.  She lifted the cup and took a long sip of cherry limeade.  “We left at two a.m.  Dad wanted to miss the majority of the heat.”

“Drove all night?” he asked.  When she nodded, he let out another of his whistles.  “You must be beat, kiddo.  When we get back to my shop, I’ll get my nephew to run you home, get you some rest.”

She looked over at him with steady eyes.  “Thank you, Mr. Mueller,” she said again, and wondered if she would ever stop saying it.  A constant stream of gratitudes: thank you, grandmother, for letting us move into your home.  Thank you, stranger, for showing more kindness than the majority of our friends.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you all.

He smiled over at her, suddenly shy, and she saw the boy this man had been, some fifteen, twenty years before.  He had been handsome, was still so, for a man in his forties, working seventy-hour weeks of hard, manual labor.  “My nephew’s about your age.  What are you, seventeen?”

She nodded and looked out the window again.  There was a sign advertising “DONUT HOLDUP” and she remembered one winter, back when they still visited Grandma Hale, going there on Christmas Eve.  “Does he go to Milton?”

“Yep.  Plays football, too.”

She couldn’t help her wince, but didn’t think this man noticed.

“I knew your dad, way back.  Did he tell you that?”

He hadn’t, but she nodded anyhow.

The man continued, clear he wasn’t waiting for an answer.  “Your dad was one of the best,” he said.  “Took his school to state.  Course, he went to Helstone.  That’s where you’re going, right?”

Mags shook her head.  “Milton,” she said.

She felt rather than saw his surprise at her comment.  “I just assumed your grandmother would insist on Helstone,” he said.

Oh, she had, but since she hadn’t been willing or able to pay for it, public school it was.  The family couldn’t afford private school, not anymore.  Yet another point of contention between Mags’s mother and her grandmother.  Yet another result of the family’s problems—Mags’s indiscretions, they had called them—to lay at Mags’s feet.

“I was at Milton, but your dad and I knew each other through church.”  He paused.  “That was a long time ago, but everyone pretty much knows everyone on this side of town.  And everyone knows everyone’s business.”  That explained how he knew they were coming, then.  Another pause.  “Your dad had a hell… a heck of an arm.”

“He still does,” she said.

“Just… assistant coach?  For high school?”  He glanced over at Mags.  “I thought he was a head coach or something at one of those colleges down there.”

Mags hands clenched around her drink.  So everyone did know everyone else’s business around here.  It seemed an important point to hold on to for later consumption, to pick it apart when she had the moment.  New Orleans had been a big small town, with everyone knowing “your mom ’n them.”  But this was an actual small town, with actual small town gossip.  Mags felt her stomach clench as she thought, not again.  “He was,” she said in a soft voice.  “Then, we decided to move here.”

“Decided” was such an interesting word, meaning that input was given, opinions asked, clear choices made.  There had been no input, not on her part.  But then, she lost the privilege of giving her opinion sometime last year.  She couldn’t blame them.  Her words had caused so many reverberating problems, after all.  Freddie had heard the one-word answer to his question—“Was it them?”—and all their worlds exploded and collided and exploded again.

“There have been some problems locally,” Mr. Mueller said, continuing to make random conversation, it seemed.  “With the teacher unions.  Did that make the news all the way down there in New Orleans?”

“We’ve had some local problems of our own,” Mags said.  “But I haven’t heard anything about Indiana.”  She followed the news rabidly, had been photographer of the school paper when she was in New Orleans and had aspirations of becoming a photojournalist.  Everywhere in the country, it seemed, was having problems with the unions and the schools.  But she didn’t know of any problems specific to her new home.

“Well, it’s a real mess,” Mr. Mueller said.  “My sister, Sean’s mother?  She’s the superintendent, and she’s always got concerns.  Milton’s the center of it all, it seems.”  A pause, then, “And you’ll be in the center of it now, too.  She’s at her end with it.”

“Is she?” Mags asked, tired.

Mr. Mueller looked over at her and gave her a little sympathetic smile.  “Your brother was All-American too, wasn’t he?” he asked, changing the subject.  “I saw the game he led against Auburn, few years back.  Goddamn, that boy has an arm just like your daddy’s.  I always thought he was going to go pro.”

He hands clenched harder and she felt the Styrofoam begin to crumple under them.  “That was a long time ago.”  She eased her grip and lifted the drink to her mouth and took a long sip.

Mr. Mueller turned then and the road changed, became rougher underneath them.  She felt the jolt and jostle of the bumps and one of her hands gripped the door handle for balance.  Then the road turned to gravel, and they pulled around the back of a body shop. 

Mags looked out the window as the truck beeped its intention to back up.  Through the side mirror, she saw three men step out of the bay and blink against the sunlight.

“Doesn’t look like Sean’s back yet.”  Mr. Mueller put the truck in park and turned to look at her.  “Do you mind waiting for a few minutes?  He’ll be happy to bring you back to your grandma’s when he gets here.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said.  “Thank you.”

At this eighth or ninth repetition of gratitude, his brow furrowed.  “Seriously, Margaret.  It’s really no big deal.  We’re happy to do it.  I’d bring you myself but I want to get started on your car so we can get you mobile before school starts.”  Again, the sudden flash of smile, paternal and kind, and she couldn’t help it, not in the face of such kindness, and she smiled back, hesitant, but it seemed to placate him.

“Come on in,” he said, and hopped out the truck.  “We’ll get you something to drink, something to eat.  Oh, and Margaret?”

She glanced at him.  “Sir?”

He seemed pleased at that, her inconsequential nicety.  “Welcome to Marlborough.”

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