The Julius House

Chapter Two

The PURCHASE went swiftly since there was no loan to approve. I'd thought I'd have to do a lot by mail, or perhaps make a return trip, but it wasn't necessary, to my relief. The essential work had been accomplished after three days were up. By the time I drove my rental car back to the airport in Pittsburgh, I'd paid two more visits to the bookshop, eaten in every restaurant in town, and rigorously avoided Cindy's Flowers. If I could have announced who I really was to someone, I might have passed the time with people who knew the man I loved, but I had to stay in character when I wasn't in my motel room. The chances seemed distant that someone would find out the real reason I wanted the farm, someone who liked Joseph Flocken enough to tell him. But I couldn't risk it. So I was virtuous, and ran in the morning, tried not to eat too much out of sheer boredom, cruised all the local shopping, and was heartily sick of Corinth, Ohio, by the time I left.

I swore I'd never wear my hair in a bun again.

I wanted Martin to meet me at the airport, so passionately I could taste it, but of course he'd want to know why he was meeting a flight from Pennsylvania, and I didn't want to give him his wedding present in the airport. When I got off the plane in Atlanta I felt more relaxed than I had in a week. Carrying my luggage as though it were feather-light, I located my old car in the longer-term parking, paid the exorbitant amount it took to get it out, and drove off to Lawrenceton reveling in the familiarity of home, home, home. When I passed the Pan-Am Agra plant on my way in to town, I had to stop. I had only been in the plant a couple of times before, and felt very much out of place. At least Martin's secretary knew who I was. "I'm glad you're back," Mrs. Sands said warmly, her grandmotherly voice at odds with the luridly dyed black hair and lavender suit. "Maybe now he'll be happier."

"Something wrong?"

"Oh, he got some mail from South America that made him angry, and he was on the phone all day that day, but he's back to normal now, just about. Go on in." But I knocked, because he was at work; so he was looking up when I came in. He dropped his pen, rolled back in his chair, and came around the desk in a second.

After a few minutes, I said, "We should either lock the door or postpone this until tonight."

Martin glanced at his watch. "I guess it'll have to be tonight," he said with an effort. "I should have an appointment sitting out in the reception area by now. Mrs. Sands is probably wondering what to do. However - I don't mind keeping him waiting..."

"No," I said, trying not to giggle. "I have to confess, it makes me feel a little self-conscious knowing Mrs. Sands is sitting out there. Tonight, then?" "We'll go out to eat," he said. "I know you won't feel like cooking, and I won't get through here until seven, so I won't have time." Martin's cooking is limited to grilling steaks, but he never minds doing it.

"See you then," I whispered, giving him one last kiss. He tried to pull me back, but I wiggled away and grinned over my shoulder at him as I left the room.

"Bye, Mrs. Sands," I said in what I hoped was a collected voice. It probably would have been more effective if I hadn't suddenly realized my blouse wasn't tucked into my skirt any longer. I scooted across the room quickly, catching just a glimpse of the dark-complected man waiting to see Martin; a man with a heavy, piratical mustache, thick black hair, and ropelike arm muscles. He looked more like a nightclub bouncer than a job applicant. I called my mother from the townhouse to tell her I was home, and learned what had happened in town in the few days I was gone. "Thanks for the flowers, Aurora. I don't know what the occasion was, but they were lovely."

I started. I'd forgotten all about sending the flowers from Ohio. I mumbled something deprecating.

"Have you seen Martin yet?" Mother was asking. She sounded as if the question were loaded. I could see her at her desk at Select Realty, thin and elegant and self-possessed, remarkably like Lauren Bacall.

"Yes. I stopped by the plant. But he didn't have much time. We're going out tonight." If I'd had antennae, they would have been pointing in Mother's direction. Something was afoot. "How's John?" I asked. "He's just fine," she said fondly. "He's been planting a garden."

"In the backyard?"

"Yes, something wrong with that?"

"No, no," I said hastily. If I'd ever doubted my mother adored her recently acquired second spouse, I knew differently now. I could not imagine in a million years my mother allowing someone to dig up her carefully groomed backyard to plant tomatoes.

I hung up shaking my head, decided to put off retrieving Madeleine from the vet until the next day, and carried my bag upstairs to unpack, happily, in my own bedroom.

I scrubbed my out-of-state trip away in my own shower. I dried my hair. I took a nap. After I woke up, I went down to my basement to pop a load of clothes into the washer. The neighbor who'd been collecting my mail brought it over. I thanked her and she left. I stood by the kitchen counter leafing through the assorted junk. Suddenly, I let all the pleas from new resort areas and all the sweepstakes offers slip through my fingers to land in a heap on the beige formica.

Perhaps because I was tired, or shaken out of my usual routine ... I don't know why. Suddenly I was asking myself, Why am I marrying Martin? There were gaps in his history. He was more than he seemed. There were moments when I found him a man of frightening capabilities. He could be tough and ruthless and hard. But not with me.

I was getting maudlin, silly. I shrugged physically and mentally, shaking off the dramatic notions I'd entertained. I sounded like the heroine of one of those romance novels, the gals who think with their vaginas. I tried to imagine Martin and me posing for one of those covers, me with my bodice artfully slipping, him with his "poet shirt" strategically ripped. Then to complete the picture I added my favorite glasses in their bright red frames, and the half-glasses Martin wore when he read. I laughed. By the time I had put on makeup and chosen a dress, one Martin had bought me and made me promise to wear with no one but him, I felt better.

Actually, he'd said, "Never wear that unless you're with me, because you look so good I'd be afraid someone would try to lure you away." Maybe that was the reason I was marrying Martin.

He arrived at seven on the dot. I had the deed tucked in my purse. I was determined we wouldn't give in to our hormones, but would actually make it to the restaurant, because I'd had this movie in my head of us swapping wedding presents in a restaurant, and I couldn't get rid of it. I think we were supposed to wait until the rehearsal dinner, but I knew I couldn't keep a secret from him until then, even a short three weeks.

We went to the Carriage House, because it was the fanciest place in Lawrenceton, and our reunion was a fancy occasion.

We ordered drinks, and then our food.

"It's early to do this, Roe," and Martin reached across the table to take my hand, "but I've got your gift, and I want to give it to you tonight." "I have your gift, too," I said. We laughed a little. We were both nervous about this exchange. I supposed he'd gotten me a diamond bracelet, or a new car - something costly and wonderful - but I never expected a real surprise. He reached in his coat and pulled out a legal envelope. He'd changed his will? Gee, how romantic. I disengaged my hand and took the envelope, trying to make my face blank so he wouldn't read disappointment. I slid a sheaf of stiff paper out, unfolded it, and began reading, trying to force comprehension. Suddenly it came.

I now owned the Julius house.

I felt tears in my eyes. I hated that; my nose turns red, my eyes get bloodshot, it messes up my eye makeup. But whether I wanted to or not, my eyes began to leak down my face.

"You know how much this means to me," I said very quietly. "Thank you, Martin." I picked up my huge cloth napkin and gently patted my face. Then I fished my own legal envelope out of my purse and shoved it across the table. He opened it with much the same apprehensive look I must have had. He scanned the first page and looked away, over the heads of the other diners, blinking. "How'd you do it?" he asked finally.

I told him, and he laughed in a choky way when I talked about my representation of myself as a religious cultist. But he kept looking away, and I knew he would not look at me for fear of crying.

"Let's go," he said suddenly, and groping for his wallet, threw some money on the table.

We got out the door, adroitly dodging the young woman with the reservations book, who clearly wanted to ask us what was wrong. I put my arm around Martin's waist, and his arm snaked around me, and I went across the gravel parking lot pretty briskly for a short woman wearing heels. Of course Martin wouldn't forgo opening my door for me, though I had often reminded him I had functioning arms, and by the time he had gotten in his side, he was really breathless from trying to tamp the emotion back down inside. I turned around in the seat to face him and slid my arms around him. Sometimes I am very glad I am small. His arms went around me ferociously. He was crying.

My husband-to-be handed me the keys to our house the next morning. "Go see it. Make some plans," he said, knowing that was exactly what I wanted to do. I was pleased to be going by myself, and he knew that, too. I showered and pulled on blue jeans and a short-sleeved tee, slapped on some makeup, stuck in some earrings, tied my sneakers, and drove a mile north of town.

The Julius house lay across open fields from Lawrence-ton, the fields usually planted in cotton. As I'd pointed out to Martin, you could see my mother's subdivision from the house - if you went to the very back of the yard, out of the screen of trees the original owner had planted around the whole property, which was about an acre.

A family named Zinsner had built the house originally, about sixty years ago. When the second Mrs. Zinsner had been widowed, she'd sold the house for a song to the Julius family. ("No realtor," my mother had sniffed.) The Julius family had lived in the house for a few months six years ago. They had renovated it. T. C. Julius had added an apartment over the garage for Mrs. Julius's mother. They had enrolled their daughter in the local high school.

Then they had vanished.

No one had seen the Juliuses since the windy fall day when Mrs. Julius's mother had come over to the house to cook breakfast for the rest of the family, only to find them all gone.

The wind was blowing today, too, sweeping quietly across the newly planted fields, a spring wind with a bite to it. The trustee for the estate, a Mrs. Totino, Martin had told me, had had the yard mowed from time to time and kept the house in decent shape to discourage vandals and gossip. It had been rented out occasionally.

Today the yard was full of weeds, tall weeds, but this early in the spring, they were mostly tolerable ones like clover. The clover was blooming, yards and yards of it, bright green with bobbing white flowers. It looked cold and sweet, as though lying on it would be like lying on a chilly, fragrant bed. The long driveway was in terrible shape, deeply rutted, the gravel almost all gone. Martin had already arranged to have more gravel hauled in. The huge yard was full of trees and bushes, all tall and full. An enormous clump of forsythia by the road was bursting into yellow blooms. The house was brick, painted white. The front door and the door to the screened-in porch were green, as were the shutters on the downstairs windows and the awning on the second-floor triple window overlooking the front yard. I went up the concrete steps to the screen door opening onto the front porch that extended the width of the house. The wrought-iron railing by the steps needed painting; I made a note on my little pad. I crossed the porch and turned my key in the front door for the first time.

I threw down my purse on the smelly carpet and wandered happily through the house, my pad and pencil at the ready. And I found a lot to note. The carpet needed replacing; the walls needed new paint. Martin had told me to pick what I liked, as long as avocado green, gold, and raspberry pink weren't included. The fireplace in the front room should be flanked by bookshelves, I decided dreamily. The dining room that lay between the front room and the kitchen had a built-in hutch to hold our silver and placemats and tablecloths, the gifts that were already accumulating in my living and dining rooms at the townhouse.

There were plenty of cabinets in the kitchen, and the cream and golden-orange scheme was just right. I'd have to reline the shelves; I made another note. The Juliuses had begun renovating the downstairs bathroom, but I didn't like the wallpaper, and the tub needing replacing. I made another note. Would we want to use the downstairs bedroom, or turn it into a smaller, less formal family room? Perhaps an office - did Martin bring work home?

I went up the stairs to look at the size of the two upstairs bedrooms. The largest one looked out over the front of the house; it was the one with a row of three windows with an awning to keep out the afternoon sun. I was drawn to them immediately. I looked out over the ridge of the porch roof, which was separate; the porch must have been an afterthought. The impression from the front yard was of looking at a large piece of typing paper folded lengthwise - that was the roof of the house - echoed by a smaller piece of notepaper folded the same way lower down, the porch roof. However, this roof didn't intrude on the view, which swept across the fields to a series of distant hills. No other houses in sight. The fireplace downstairs in the large front room was echoed in the fireplace up here.

I loved it.

This would be our bedroom.

Closet space was a definite problem. The double closet was just not adequate. I went across the landing to the little room with no apparent use. Perhaps it had been a sewing room originally? Could we build an extra closet in here? Yes, it was possible. There was a blank wall that would make a larger closet than the one we had in the bedroom. And there was room enough for Martin's exercise equipment. The other upstairs bedroom could be the guest bedroom. Books - where would I put my books? I had so many, with my library combined with Jane's. ... I took time for fond thoughts of Jane, with her silver chignon and her little house, her Sears dresses and modest ways; rich Jane, who'd left me all that money. I sent waves of affection and gratitude toward her, wherever she was, and hoped she was in the heaven I believed in. I went slowly down the stairs, looking below me as I went. The stairs ended about six feet inside the front door and divided the large front room from the wide hall that gave access to the bathroom and downstairs bedroom, and another way to get to the kitchen, rather than going through the dining room. What a nice wide hall. Wouldn't it look great repapered and lined with bookshelves?

I laughed out loud. It seemed there could hardly be anything more entertaining than to have a house to redo and enough money to redo it. This was the happiest morning of my life, spent all alone, in the Julius house.

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