Anne Leigh Parrish Writer

Edith didn’t have to read the return address to know the letter was from Walter. They’d been coming all summer, always on a Wednesday. The first paragraph would be about his law job and the cases he was assigned. The second paragraph would talk about his parents, or his sister, Kathleen, and the wild things she and her new husband were up to. Sometimes he wrote about someone he had lunch with, or a problem with his apartment the landlord was neglecting to address. The third would touch on current affairs, now all about the Koreans and the trouble they were stirring up. He’d close with All Best, as if they never married, never cared for each other, and never made a single plan together. Sometimes, when her heart softened, she thought he might sense how she’d fallen apart after moving out of their apartment. He could be trying to bolster her spirit with a cheery, neutral tone, as if to say, “I understand, you’ll be fine, I’m fine, too.” But usually, she thought not.

She took the letter from the silver tray in the hall where Henry’s butler, Alistair, had left it, and went into her room. The door that connected it to Henry’s was closed, but not locked. There was something about having her own bed that was deliciously freeing. Henry was a good man, and a good lover, but she didn’t like lying next to him all night. She thought it was civilized, this arrangement of separate yet connected bedrooms. His wife, Mary, had had her own room down the hall, one with no shared access. She wanted it that way. She had gone back to England last winter. Henry had asked her several times for a divorce since then, and she refused. It just didn’t make sense. Two months before she left, she had an abortion. The pregnancy was kept secret from him, but she confessed it to Edith. It seemed that when a woman didn’t want a man’s baby, or the man himself, she should be willing to set him free unless her pride stood in the way, or fear of being a divorced woman, though now, in 1949, it was more accepted.

Far less accepted was an unmarried man and woman living together, though neither Henry nor Edith worried too much about that when he invited her to move in. She accepted because when she left Walter she had nowhere to go. It was pleasant at Henry’s; she needed that comfort to heal and collect herself. Henry devoted himself to her, didn’t talk about the past or the future, and seemed glad to just drift along with her in tow. Then, just the other day, he told her to tell Walter that it was time to divorce.

“You need an orderly life, my dear, and waiting for him to free you is disorderly,” he said. They had just made love, and he was slipping on his robe to return to his room. The clock by the bed ticked quietly. Outside, Cambridge and the whole of Boston were asleep, pressed down by gentle, inky darkness. Henry stayed longer than usual, lying awake beside her. Sometimes, she tried to time her breathing to his, willing her rhythm to match his, but it never did.

Edith put the letter in her drawer without reading it. She’d never done that before and took it as proof that Henry was right, the time had indeed come. She scratched out a hasty note to Walter at her writing desk. She asked him to find someone to handle the arrangements. She was about to close with “I’m sorry,” but stopped herself. Why did she have to be sorry? She changed who she was for him, or at least gave up what she wanted. Her abandoned doctoral degree drifted past, yet for once she didn’t grieve. She had the bookstore and it meant more to her than poetry ever had, but then she hadn’t set foot in it for two months. She needed to return and pick up where she had left off.

She wrote Walter’s address on the envelope, stamped it, and dropped it on the same silver tray where his letter to her had been before.

Next, she used the telephone in the library to call Patricia Wilkins, the manager at The Turned Page. She wanted an update on the sales for the week. Patricia gave her the numbers. Edith noted the small drop from the week before. Patricia explained that July was often slow, many people in Cambridge were away then. She, herself, was due to visit Cape Ann the following week, which meant leaving Jocelyn and Liza, the two college girls she hired, in charge. Edith asked Patricia if she thought the store would carry on without her for those few days, and Patricia was confident that it would. Edith said she hoped she’d have a lovely vacation and would speak with her again, soon.

She realized Henry was still out. They had lunch, then he had to run an errand. She assumed he’d be back within the hour, but he’d been gone for close to three. She went into the kitchen to find Alistair sitting at the table with the newspaper and a cigarette.

“Has His Lordship returned? I didn’t hear the door,” Alistair said.

“Not yet. Did he say where he was going?”

“Not to me, Madame.”

“Alistair.”

“Yes, Madame?”

“It’s high time you called me Edith. I know you think we Americans are far too informal about everything, but I can’t stand it another minute.”

Alistair looked bemused. He was in his early fifties, with thinning hair and a second chin. He worked for Henry’s father back in England, then later for Henry and Mary, and had been eager for the chance to come to the States with them. Edith wondered how he liked it here. She knew almost nothing about him, his personal life, or even what he did on his days off. Henry said something about his being a member of a club. She assumed he meant the kind of gentlemen’s club to which Henry belonged where you could go and sit in deep leather armchairs and drink good whiskey, but Henry said, no, he meant a club with other domestic servants, a professional association he thought. It sounded like a chance to gossip about one’s employer, and she hoped Alistair was always discreet.

She asked if he’d like a cup of tea.

“Madame?” he asked and got to his feet.

“Oh, sit back down. I’ll make it. For us both.”

She slipped on the apron Alistair wore when he cooked. It fell to mid-calf since he was a lot taller than she was. And wider. She had to wrap the ties around her waist twice. She hadn’t worn an apron in a while and didn’t mind the feel of it. She told Alistair she hoped that wasn’t proof that she was just a housewife at heart.

“I’d say at heart you’re a businesswoman,” Alistair said and offered her a cigarette. She took one and allowed him to light it for her.

“Well, I was.”

“If you’ll permit me, I feel certain you’ll be back in the thick of things in no time.”

“I doubt it will be that easy.”

So many changes, each more difficult than the last!

During the war, she had a job in Washington. Afterward, she enrolled in graduate school at Harvard when Walter began law school there. She completed her master’s degree in American poetry, applied for the doctoral program, and on the same day that she was accepted, he told her to drop out. He’d been spotted as a young man with promise, one who needed a certain kind of wife. They fought bitterly. He refused to back down. Angry and miserable, she went to New York to live with Walter’s Aunt Margaret and worked at the United Nations as a secretary. That was in June, a little over a year ago, and all that summer, Walter begged her to come back. In August, she did. Then Walter and Henry became friends, and Henry bought The Turned Page for Mary to have something to do. Edith became the manager when it was clear that Mary wasn’t interested. Edith’s father died, she came into a little money, and bought the store from Henry last spring. Things were fine until she learned Walter was having an affair. Her only choice had been to leave him.

The kettle whined, Edith turned off the flame and poured the water into a pot where a stuffed tea ball was waiting to steep. She arranged everything on a tray and brought it to the table. Alistair reached to take it from her, and she told him not to bother.

Edith sat and Alistair filled their cups. He poured cream into his, stirred, and smiled to himself. Edith asked him why. He said he was just considering how there she was, sitting with him in the kitchen when she had been so formal the first time she came to the apartment last Thanksgiving with Walter.

“Yes. I was as nervous as a cat. I think I was a little overwhelmed by how Henry and Mary lived,” Edith said.

“Understandable.”

“Of course, Walter was over the moon that he made friends with a real English lord.”

“He sounds somewhat impressionable,” Alistair said.

“Who, Walter? Oh, yes. And easily flattered.”

Which is how that creature, Babs, got her hooks into him so easily. Babs was an ambitious woman and needed an ambitious husband. The one she had was a quiet man, a good law student and now a decent lawyer, Edith assumed, but Babs wanted more. And what Babs wanted Walter would be happy to provide, not like what Edith had wanted, her own career, for one. Babs would make Walter her career, which would suit him perfectly if they were still together. Walter never mentioned her in the letters.

The front door opened, and Alistair stood and slipped on the black jacket he’d removed and hung on the back of the chair. Before he got out of the kitchen, Henry appeared. His usually polished air had dulled. He’d been drinking.

“What a cozy scene!” he said. Edith got up and took off her apron. She asked Alistair to bring her tea into the library, and to make some for Lord Henry, too. Henry walked ahead, chatting about how awful the traffic had been around Beacon Hill, which was odd because he thought the place would have emptied for a while. It was summer. Didn’t Americans take their holidays in summer?

“I think you stopped off somewhere,” Edith said.

“My club.”

“And had a couple.”

“Well, yes.”

“Any particular occasion?”

“Just got talking with a new member, Ethan Bradford, charming fellow. He wants to sell me a yacht.”

“What?”

“A sailboat, really.”

“Do you know how to sail?”         

“No, but wouldn’t it be smashing to learn?”

“Oh, Henry.”

The semester ended in June and Henry decided not to continue with graduate school in the fall, leaving him at loose ends. He was wealthy and didn’t have to work. Edith suspected he came to Harvard just for the fun of it. He could have easily attended an English university.

Edith sat down. Alistair arrived with the tea tray, set it on the table, and asked if they needed anything else. When Edith said they didn’t, he left.

Henry looked skeptically at the tea Edith poured him. She could tell he wanted another drink. She stood up and got him a small glass of scotch from the liquor cart.

“You’re a darling,” he said and took the glass from her.

“I’m enabling what’s becoming a bad habit.”

“You sound peevish.”

“I’m not. I was waiting for you, that’s all.”

“Please, don’t be upset with me,” Henry said.

“I’m mostly upset with myself.”

“Why, for Heaven’s sake?”

She said she’d taken refuge in his comfort for too long, then stressed that he mustn’t misunderstand. He and Alistair had taken excellent care of her. All that time to lie in bed, all those lovely cups of tea delivered gently to her room. They lifted her from the low point the breakup of her marriage had caused, and she would be eternally grateful, but she wanted to get back to work now. Henry held his glass and didn’t drink from it. His gaze, which had been soft, almost woozy, focused.

“Are you leaving me?” he asked.

“No, of course not.”

“Good. Because I have a little something for you.”

He put down his glass and removed a small velvet box from the inside of his jacket. He extended his hand as an invitation to take it. She did. The box held a ring with a large square-cut emerald. It was breathtaking. She slid it on her finger and found it fit perfectly. 

“How did you know my size?” she asked.

“Alistair borrowed your discarded wedding band.”

“He went through my things?”

“Only your jewelry box, which sits in plain sight on your dresser.”

“Oh, Henry, I do wish you hadn’t!”

“Don’t you like it?”

The green color drew her in. She found it calming, almost soothing.

“I do, very much. It’s exquisite and wholly undeserved,” she said.

“Nonsense.”

Emeralds were her favorite gemstone, though she’d never owned one. She must have mentioned that to Henry but couldn’t recall when or where. He was generous but didn’t buy her gifts. He had given her nothing since she moved in, until now.

“I don’t suppose this means . . .”

“That I’m proposing? I’m afraid it does.”

“I think Mrs. Tremaine finally got to you.”

Edith referred to the neighbor at the far end of the hall, who had run into them several times in the elevator. Henry politely introduced Edith as his good friend. Then, when Edith’s name went on the mailbox, Mrs. Tremaine paid them a visit to offer congratulations on their marriage. Edith told her that they weren’t married. Henry, overhearing from the library, came to explain that Edith had her own bedroom, always had, and always would. Theirs wasn’t that kind of relationship. Mrs. Tremaine, widowed, in her sixties, said she had no use for modern ideas and threatened to call the police, at which point Henry summoned Alistair and asked him to explain the sleeping arrangements to her. Alistair said he was prepared to swear in court that nothing untoward had ever taken place between Mrs. Sloan and Mr. McCormick, and he was in a position to know because his duties as butler required that he live in.

“She’s a dreadful nuisance, but no, she’s not the reason,” Henry said.

“Why, then?”

“Oh, Edith, you can be quite exasperating! Don’t you know I’m in love with you?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

That was a lie. It had been clear to her for months. It had begun to make her feel guilty because she didn’t feel the same way toward him.

She thought about the advantages of accepting him. Money topped the list, though she had some of her own. Respect was a close second. She knew how people worked. Being married to an English lord would put her in a separate class, far above anything she’d have occupied as the wife of an up-and-coming lawyer. She didn’t care about class, but about being able to make her own decisions without reproach. People didn’t criticize you, at least not to your face, when they thought you were above them in some way.

Could she be happy as his wife? Was she inclined to accept only because he was kind to her, or was there truly a deeper connection? They were like-minded about many things, the value of literature, for instance. They both believed personal freedom was more important than social convention. He had his faults, of course, among them an overdeveloped fondness for alcohol, and impatience with what he thought was laziness in other people. Sometimes he was hard on Alistair, and she gently rebuked him for it. She asked him to imagine what it might be like to be at someone else’s beck and call, and he responded that growing up his father had treated him like a servant. Not in terms of asking to be waited on, but to be attentive, and stand in silence to receive another lecture.

A wedding to look forward to would put an end to the limbo she floated in. But it was at an end already, wasn’t it? The bookstore now occupied her thoughts the way it had in the beginning. The last item she addressed before she fell in on herself was a plan to host author readings. Then there was the press she wanted to establish. As a husband, would Henry help or hinder? She had a feeling it might be the latter, that he might turn out to be needy, or feel deep down that women had no place in business, though there was no hint of this. She could give back the ring, but she couldn’t go on living there if she did. They had crossed a frontier and there was no turning back. They must move forward together or not at all. This proposal was merely an extension of the path they’d been on for some time. There were worse reasons to marry someone. She had married Walter because everyone expected her to. Now the only souls involved were hers and Henry’s. That made things much more intimate and simpler.

“Yes,” she said and extended her hand. He approached, joined her on the couch, and took her in his arms. They kissed for a long time, then pulled gently apart. As always, she felt safe with him, comfortable.

“May I ask why you agreed, given that you’re not in love with me?” he asked.

“I’m not being mercenary if that’s what worries you.”

“I know you’re not.”

She said they proved they could live together, were good together in bed, and well, she had gotten used to him.

“I hope that doesn’t disappoint you,” she said.

“Not at all.”

She could see it did, though. She reminded him she never promised him love. He said that sometimes love snuck up on you when you least expected it.

“I’m sure you’re right,” she said. She looked at the tea tray and asked Henry if he’d make her a drink. He asked if she preferred sherry or scotch. She was in the mood for sherry.

As he got it for her, she told him about the letter she had just written to Walter.

“Was it difficult?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“Such a brave woman.”

“I’m not brave, just practical.”

“Highly.”

“And speaking of practicalities . . .”

“Mary,” he said.

“Pay her off.”

“I’ve already offered far more than she’d get as a settlement.”

“Then what does she want?”

“To see me.”

“What?”

“I’m to ask her in person. On bended knee, knowing her,” he said.

“You have to go to England?”

“Unless she’s moved somewhere else.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake! How long have you known about this?”

“Not long.”

Edith didn’t press him. He wouldn’t yield if he didn’t want to. She asked him if the timing of his proposal to her had anything to do with Mary’s request to see him.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” he said.

“Perhaps you wanted me in your pocket for ammunition, as it were. To strengthen your request.”

“You mustn’t think that.”

She asked when he was leaving.

“We sail on the fifth,” he said.

“We?”

“I booked you a stateroom if you care to come.”

“To England?”

“Yes, to England.”

“You’re full of surprises today, Henry.”

“I hope your passport is in order.”

“It is, which I suspect you already knew. And I promise to think about it.”

Henry summoned Alistair with his infernal handbell, and when he arrived, Henry asked him to make a dinner reservation for them at Parkers. They were to celebrate their engagement.

“Very good, milord, and may I offer my congratulations,” Alistair said.

“Thank you. And Alistair? The next time you want to rummage through my things, please ask me, first,” Edith said.

Both Alistair and Henry stared at her.

“I’m not angry, I’m just saying,” she said.

When Alistair left, taking the tea tray with him, Edith leaned back and kicked off her shoes. Henry smiled. He said before it must be a uniquely American habit because he never saw an English woman do that. Edith was sure Henry never spent time with Englishwomen in the lower classes, and if he had, he’d have seen plenty of stocking feet.

After another moment, Henry stood and went to the window to take in the view, something he did when his mind was full. Edith thought she should go to him, be loving, and thank him again for her gorgeous ring but couldn’t. She worried that Walter would refuse her request for the divorce. It might be all over with Babs, letting him harbor some notion that he and Edith would get back together. Walter could be both stubborn and unrealistic, a difficult combination. She told Henry her concern.

“In that case, I think I should crack his skull,” he said.

“I can’t tell if you’re joking.”

“I’m not.”

“Oh, Henry, that’s not like you.”

“Blame it on the liquor then.”

“Why don’t you leave off until we have dinner?”

“Just as you say.” He put his glass on the table. She noticed it was almost empty. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and she didn’t like looking at them, so she studied his shoes. Their high polish struck her as fussy and overdone.

She lifted her eyes and found him watching her.

“You said something about needing to get back to work. I assume you mean the bookstore,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I thought you had second thoughts about it.”

“Not at all. I meant to ask you; how long will you be away?”

“About a month.”

She could get a lot done in a month. The two college girls who helped must know a slew of local writers. Patricia would, too. A sign could be placed in the window inviting them to send a note if they were interested in giving a reading. Until a schedule could be drawn up, she could offer a Saturday afternoon children’s story time. But who would host it? She supposed she could, or one of the girls. Perhaps some over-eager local mother would want to take that on. The store had two main rooms, one in front and one in back. The back was a perfect spot. She’d have to round up a colorful, cheerful rug for the children to sit on, as well as some small, inoffensive snacks. Nothing should cost too much. The idea was to make a modest investment and bring in mothers who would leave them to be entertained while they browsed the shelves. But what if they weren’t dedicated readers, but just housewives looking for an hour away from their children? They might bolt out the door the minute they handed over their Jimmy or Jane.

As to the press itself, she’d written to a local printing company soon after she arrived at Henry’s. The reply gave printing prices per copy up to a certain number. The per-unit cost dropped as the order size increased. Choosing a typeface was key. Some were more difficult and thus more expensive to work with. She needed to schedule a visit to meet with the manager, look at the various typefaces, and discuss paper stock, another complex issue. And she’d only contacted one press. There were several others she wanted to speak to.

But Henry had just proposed marriage, given her a gorgeous ring, and invited her to sail with him to England. Was she really thinking of not going? His feelings would be hurt if she stayed behind. And hadn’t she longed for a trip like this?

“It sounds perfect,” she said.

“I’m sorry, what does?”

“An ocean voyage.”

“You’ll come?”

“I will.”

“Jolly good! I think we’ll have a marvelous time.”

He laid out the itinerary after they docked at South Hampton. They’d spend a couple of nights in London at Claridge’s and then take the train north to Shropshire. It was a lovely ride. Did she have a camera? If not, there was still time to get one. He also advised her to take a trunk because she’d need clothes for all kinds of weather. And evening clothes, of course.        

“Whatever for?” she asked.

“My parents are old-fashioned. We dress for dinner.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. I’m allergic to evening clothes.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to try.”

“And I’m afraid I won’t.”

He held her gaze, then looked away.

“All right, my dear, I shan’t press you,” he said.

They repaired to separate rooms to change. Edith put on a pale green dress with a string of pearls. She studied her reflection in the mirror of her vanity table. Henry’s parents would assume she was marrying him for his money. They probably assumed the same thing about Mary, but with her it would have mattered less, because she was a better fit. She was upper crust, dressed impeccably, spoke beautifully, and was witty and charming. And cold, as Edith supposed most upper-class British women were. Edith wasn’t cold, but she was stubborn. Henry’s parents might like that about her, or they might think it spelled trouble. Not dressing for dinner would prove nothing, except that she was a crass American. Well, she couldn’t change who she was, could she?

Alistair drove them to the restaurant. He was a new driver, and unsure of himself, which put Edith on edge. Henry didn’t seem to notice. He enjoyed the car, a late-model Cadillac, with its eight-cylinder motor and plush interior. He held her hand and said she’d love England, she really would. Oh, and Alistair would come with them, wasn’t that grand?

“As your butler?” Edith asked.

Henry smiled indulgently. “No. Mother and Father still have old Carstairs, at least they did as of their last letter. Doddering old wreck of a man, but still keen to serve, I expect. Alistair will be my valet.”

“And am I to have a maid?” Edith asked.

“Of course. One of the parlor maids will do, I expect.”

“Henry, I was joking.”

A faint smile flashed across Alistair’s lips in the rearview mirror then vanished as a nearby driver honked. Alistair swore under his breath. Edith had offered to help him practice his driving, but he always declined.

They arrived at Parker’s and Henry asked Alistair to return around nine-thirty. If they weren’t ready, he should circle the block until they came out, so he should make sure the gas tank was full. Alistair said it was, he’d taken care of that the other day.

After the first glass of wine, Edith’s mood improved, but by the second, it soured. She felt like she was acting in a play, following a script, complimenting the duck she ordered which she found ridiculously heavy for summer. Henry’s eyes were on her almost every moment and she tried casually to avoid his gaze until he asked her if she were well.

“I’m just thinking about the store,” she said. The duck sat sullenly on her plate.

“Oh, Edith. Must you, at a time like this?”

“I think of the store quite a lot. Just because I’ve failed in my responsibility to it doesn’t mean it’s not always on my mind. I thought you understood that.”

The couple at the table nearest them stopped talking, utensils in mid-air.

“You haven’t failed in anything. I simply meant you should be enjoying yourself,” Henry said and signaled the waiter to clear their plates.

He said he was sorry and blamed his remark on being anxious about going home and seeing his parents.

“Why anxious?” she asked.

“We’ve had our differences. They weren’t keen on my coming here. And frankly, I don’t know how they feel about divorce. There’s nothing they can do to prevent anything, I have my own resources, as you know. I just don’t want to have to suffer their thinly veiled disapproval.”

“Well, I’ll be there to help. I’m pretty good at weathering that kind of thing,” she said.

He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

They declined dessert, paid the bill, and went outside to find Alistair waiting for them. He asked if they enjoyed their dinner, and Edith said they had, it was delightful, then asked him to drive them over to The Turned Page.

“At this time of night?” Henry asked.

“Why not?”

The streets were quiet and pleasant. Windows were softly lit, and the night sky was bright and clear. Edith loved Cambridge after taking a long time to warm to it. They passed the street she and Walter used to live on, and she was surprised to feel no pang at the memory of their shabby little walk-up. A light glowed in the front room of their former apartment and Edith was sure it belonged to another student, toiling away toward a brighter future and an easier life. She never faulted Walter for his ambition, only that he denied hers.

Harvard Square was more crowded than the side streets had been, yet people walked in a gentle, unhurried way. Edith directed Alistair to the store. He couldn’t park in front, so she asked him to let them out, then to find a parking spot and join them, if he liked.

The door was locked but the lights were on. It took Edith a moment to locate her key inside her handbag, then she had trouble getting it to work, and Henry helped her. Inside, Patricia was unpacking a small crate of books. Straw had spilled onto the floor.

“Patricia! Why are you here so late?” Edith asked.

“Edith, my goodness, I didn’t know you were dropping by!”

“Just a surprise visit. We were dining out.”

Patricia and Henry had met before, and they said hello to one another as Patricia pushed up loose strands of gray hair that had escaped her bun.

“Some orders came in and just sat. I told Liza about them, and she put them there in the corner. How does that look to customers? Anyway, I decided to stay and just get the whole thing taken care of,” Patricia said.

“You’re wonderful! Is there more to unpack?”

“This is the last.”

“I’ll help.”

Henry lit a cigarette and wandered around, bored. Edith ignored him and lifted copies of Graham Greene’s The Third Man from the box. She put three with the new releases on the central table in the front room and said the others should go into the storage area in the basement. The shelving system down there had finally been completed. There was some ridiculous delay because the floor wasn’t level, the wall wasn’t plumb, and the overhead bulb was so dim that doing anything accurately was a challenge until the carpenter installed a standing light connected to a long extension cord. Edith was furious when she discovered he left it burning for an entire weekend, having forgotten about it the Friday before when he quit for the day. Also in the crate were copies of Shirley Jackson’s story collection, The Lottery. Edith ordered them despite Patricia’s concern that they wouldn’t sell, given the macabre nature of Jackson’s work. Edith said even though Harvard was highbrow in the extreme, and many would look on Jackson as a writer of cheap horror, a woman author taking on such a violent subject was important, and Edith wanted to support her. And, she stressed, Jackson’s appearance the year before in The New Yorker Magazine meant she already had a mainstream audience. Edith thought Patricia was too timid and needed to be encouraged to recommend titles she was leery of. The first round of Orwell’s 1984 had sold out and so had two subsequent orders. The only trouble was they had to be kept behind the counter so the censors, who always arrived unannounced, wouldn’t see them.

There were new cards pinned to the shelves to indicate the category of titles found there, drawn by hand, and decorated with a charming border of flowers, vines, or even smiling moons for the small section on astrology. Edith asked who had designed them.

“La Gioconda,” Patricia said, then explained this was her nickname for Jocelyn, the other college girl, who said little and always looked as though she had a lovely, yet terrible secret.

“She’s talented.”

“Art major.”

“Didn’t you say we should never hire art students?”

“I made an exception.”

“What’s the matter with art students?” Henry asked. He’d settled himself on a window seat and was flipping through a second-hand copy of Robinson Crusoe.

“Patricia thinks they’re loose,” Edith said.

“Well, all the more reason to engage them, I’d think.”

“Oh, honestly, Henry.”

Patricia said a letter came for her that morning and was in the office. Edith went in and noted how tidy everything was. Bills to be paid were in one stack; book orders were in another. When Edith had put herself on leave, Patricia drew up checks each week for her to sign and sent them to Henry’s address. The bank statements were sent over, too. Edith reviewed the bookkeeping ledger and checkbook, both kept in the desk’s drawer and found everything in excellent order.

The letter was under the telephone. The Florida postmark meant it was from Walter’s sister, Kathleen. Kathleen’s life had changed a lot recently, too. She had married and given up her job at Marshall Field and Company in Chicago to follow her husband to a small town in the Florida panhandle near a tung nut plantation he bought. Why tung nuts, Edith had no idea, but Dennis was a hustler, a “maker of deals,” her mother called him, so obviously he smelled a financial opportunity there.

Dear Edie,

I’m sending this to your place of business because I misplaced your new address and couldn’t very well ask Walter for it. These days, any mention of you sends him into a tizzy, and heaven knows, he’s not in a good way as it is. Not that he’s your problem anymore, I realize that. I understand completely your reasons for leaving him. Heck, if I ever catch Dennis with another woman . . . well, I leave the rest to your imagination. But that’s neither here nor there. He sounds miserable—Walter, not Dennis, and I can’t help but infer some dreadful regret over his decision to involve himself with what’s-her-name. Again, not your problem, I just wanted you to know. If you hear from him, will you let me know how he seems? I guess I just feel so far away, down here in this wild, red-earth country. The locals are appalling, by the way. I can’t understand a thing they’re saying. Dennis, of course, is in hog heaven. As for me, I’m bored stiff and trying to persuade D to let me handle the accounting. That’s what I’m trained for, right? The silly man seems to think I’m going to put on an apron and stay in the kitchen. He’s got another thing coming. Hope you and what’s-his-name, Lord Something or Other, are doing well. You, and an English peer. Who’d a thunk it?

Love,

Kathleen

Edith admired her lively spirit. They’d been friends for years, and Edith had worried that leaving Walter would change that. Obviously, it hadn’t.

Henry leaned his head in.

“Anything interesting?” he asked.

“It’s from Kathleen, you remember her.” Walter and Henry had dinner with her when she came to Boston last winter. Edith hid out at home, faking a dreadful headache.

“I do. What has she to say for herself?”

“She’s worried about Walter.”

“Why?”

“She says he’s unhappy.”

“I should imagine.”           

Edith folded the letter and slipped it back into its envelope, which she shoved into her handbag.

Henry said Alistair was in front with the car, and they should be getting along. Edith left the office and told Patricia she had news.

“Henry and I are to be married, and we’re going to England so I can meet his parents. We’ll be gone about a month,” Edith said.

“Oh, my, that’s splendid!” Patricia hugged Edith, then rushed forward to shake Henry’s hand. Henry turned pink, taken aback by her sudden effusion. Patricia was acting like any other old maid by displaying much more excitement over an engagement than she felt. A quizzical look came over Patricia then, and Edith suspected she was thinking about Edith’s current marital state and the obstacle that presented. She asked to see Edith’s ring, and when Edith extended her hand, Patricia gasped, then said an emerald was an unusual choice.

“Well, Henry’s unusual, aren’t you, dear?” Edith asked. Henry, now recovered, looked slightly peeved.

Edith explained she would let Patricia know how to reach her in England in case of an emergency, and that she’d have to hold all bills until Edith’s return. She wanted to begin reviewing them again. She hoped the delay wouldn’t cause a problem with any of the vendors. Patricia didn’t think so, because they were prompt in making payments. Edith said once she returned from abroad, her presence would be on a regular basis. She thought Henry sighed quietly at this remark but couldn’t be sure.

They all left together, and Patricia used her own key to lock the door.

On the ride home, Henry took Edith’s hand and said, “You adore that place, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Then I’m glad we stopped in.”

Edith wished she hadn’t said she’d go abroad with him. What felt right just a few hours before was now a burden. She’d much rather stay here and throw herself back into work than sightsee and be nice to a couple of people she had nothing in common with. Nothing besides their son, that is.

Edith rested her head on his shoulder and tried, without success, to put away the annoyances of the day. She let go of his hand and was grateful he didn’t take it again.

Nothing ever timed out right in life, she thought.