Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chapter Nine of Hampton from the Halfway Line


South Derry, Vermont

“Has anyone shown you the chickens?” Marianne Papineau asked her esteemed guest as they crunched along the cedar walkway covered with a new fallen inch of icy snow.
It was nine in the morning. The plan for the day was to go to the ski mountain. The Papineau holdings lay in the midst of three resorts:  one big; one small; one smaller. The smallest had lifts that sometimes stopped working. The largest could sometimes feel snotty, if you let it get to you. The Papineau party, which included Novak, would go to Stratton, the large mountain. When we say large, remember this is Vermont, not Utah or Colorado. Stratton, for example, has about one-fifth the terrain acreage of Park City, one-tenth that of Vail.
Ben Hampton was wearing one of the fleece-lined field coats the family kept on hand for visitors. He might choose to stay behind with Marianne and her mother, Joanna. Not because of any alpine fear or bias against spoiled brats from New Jersey demanding $200 gloves from parents who came to ski and drink (not spend time with the kids); but because he had detoured from his January book tour to meet and interview Marianne Papineau. He came to soak up some of what Novak had been unable to avoid mentioning in their many hours together in the Cotswolds, Maidenhead and London during December. He wanted to understand Marianne’s allure and to gain a more immediate sense of any possible effect she’d had on the choices Novak had made throughout his adult life.
Ben Hampton’s pact with Rosalie McMahon, Jonathan James and the Julius Novak book was limping toward a pronounced inevitability.
“You can see for yourself where the fresh egg portion of that bistro-quality breakfast came from,” she said, with a miniscule hint of having spoken primarily French since her teen years. “We had a little help from the girls.
“When it’s warm out, we might gather ten eggs a day from them,” she explained as they approached the white house with the red barn door and metal roof painted Essex green like the historically-correct homes in the village. The Taj Mahal, as they called it, possessed sixty-four square feet of interior space for a dozen lucky Araucano hens. Its back door opened onto a large coop built into the hillside.
“Now, the days are short and it’s freezing, so we’re lucky if we see half-a-dozen eggs a week, even with their red heat lamp.”
Sometimes, the Papineaus would see no eggs for days. Marianne’s father, Roger shoveled a little path, between the walkway and the Taj, for both humans and dogs and on the chance the chickens might venture out and walk around.
“These ladies aren’t crazy about the snow, though. Too cold for their feet, I guess. I’ve seen other breeds walk around all day in the snow.”
The top-half of the door remains open throughout the sunny days so the hens can look around the yard from a perch and at least consider a ramble. Not much fun, though, exploring the property if they can’t scratch up some leaves and eat a little grass and find seeds and other specks to peck at like they do when there’s no snow and the ground is soft.
“But don’t you love the silence from the snow?” she asked. “It’s like a muffler.”
The eighth-of-a-mile driveway through the trees and the fact of the surrounding forest on the hillside gave the Papineaus a welcome privacy.
“We’ve talked a lot about how important seclusion has been to all of us,” she said, sounding like a visitor’s guide to an art exhibit. “My stuff has always varied depending on where I am when I create a piece. Even my drawings are notably more serene when I’m in a rural kind of … idyll, I suppose. If you gathered all my work and separated it between city-produced sculpture and country sculpture, then you would see, I think, two distinct camps. The urban-born stuff, even if I’ve been hanging out in le bourgeois Marais, has an edge.”
A critic in the Times agreed, as Ben had read in a review of one of her Mayfair exhibits.
“There’s a bite to these urban pieces,” the article read, “as though they reflect what’s happening in densely-populated, loud, tense, diverse, thrilling surroundings.”
“The work I’ve done outside of Paris, whether it’s the Gascogne house or Phillipe’s folks’ place or, now, here, is more … what would be the cliché?”
“Contemplative?” Ben offered.
“Yes, I think so. Those sculptures tell a more meandering story or they suggest … well, you’ll understand after you’ve been here for a few days. The country will wrap her arms around you and sing you to sleep.”
Ben looked inside the chicken house. Eight, well-appointed nesting boxes lined one of the walls. Pine shavings covered the floor. A buff-colored hen flew up with a great explosion of effort onto the half-door.
“Oh, hello sweetheart. This is Louise. Louise has always been the first one to jump up onto the door and up on the kitchen windowsill. That makes my mom happier than almost anything. Opening that double window and having them fly up to say hello. Chickens in the warm months are like being at the circus. They’re so funny to watch.
“My friends in the city ask me ‘what the hell do you do up there in the middle of nowhere?’
“They look at me like I’m mad when I say, ‘Oh, normal stuff, like spray the hose in the air so our cairn terrier can jump and try to catch the water in his mouth by biting at the air in these huge clicks that sound like castanets. Sit on the front porch and watch the moodle and the Bengal cat wrestle and stick their heads into chipmunk holes. Watch the sun dip below the ridgeline. Yes, we actually mend fences. For a variety of reasons, the picket fences lose slats every winter and the stonewalls tend to crumble. We try to get chickadees to land in our hands for black-oil seeds. We lose our minds with joy if we see a deer family in the meadow or, thrill beyond words, a mama fox and her kits. The little fox will actually play hide and seek with our cat, and the mother allows herself to be chased by Stuart, the terrier. She runs at about one-quarter speed. He couldn’t catch her in a million years. When we see the little fox family, we assume the papa has demanded everyone leave the den for a while so he can have some peace for a change. We rarely see the daddy fox. They usually stay away because of the dogs, even though the sound of the chickens lures them toward an easy meal.
“In the evenings we read and sometimes play Triolet,” she went on. “We can do that with you later. It’s kind of like Scrabble with numbers. You have to put three tiles together to make fifteen all over the board. The children can do it, and we all laugh and laugh at whichever adult is the worst. I will tell you I’ve never lost. Julius will tell you he’s never lost, and so will my father. We’re all ridiculous.
“We play belôte out on the screen porch. Julius and my father also play belôte alone together in the library. When it’s just the two of them, it’s called belôte á la decouverte.”
Ben was not immediately familiar with the game.
“You don’t know belôte? Klaverjas? The men playing cards in the Amsterdam cafes? We’ll teach you. Kind of a French pinochle.
“Also, we watch DVD movies from NetFlix. Mom and dad argue about which of their selections should be where on the queue. I’ll show you their queue online. When they are in a particular battle, sometimes the order of films to be delivered to us changes several times a day. It’s a comedy.”
And they talk. Talking is what mostly goes on. Sitting around at the Gourlie-Papineau homestead one can talk oneself in and out of fights, in and out of tears, divorces, business ventures, feuds and grudges.
“I’ve talked myself in and out of racing to Albany airport to go and face whomever and telling him what he needs to hear. You let yourself go and you feel free to … I don’t know … make each day matter. You become energized and then feel compelled to make sure that today and tomorrow mean something.
“How will I follow through today on something I vowed to change? Or, simply, what needs to happen today to go forward? You might do nothing on a certain lazy day but read a book. Suddenly, you’re engaging in a connection of some kind, a communication that you’ve been putting off. Voilá, your accomplishment. But that’s a light day. We actually do a lot here. Each has a space.
“What we don’t do, day to day, anymore is worry about what that man with his hands in his coat pockets walking toward me will do. We don’t worry that maybe someone will be sleeping in the car when we open the door or hanging on tightly to a child’s hand so she doesn’t get run down in the street. Of course we miss all the fantastic bits of the city. I don’t need to tell you. It’s just two different worlds. Now we go down to New York for our thrills. But, you know, New York is New York; Paris is Paris. And, what can you say? Chickens are chickens.”
Marianne had grown up with chickens and cows and all this beauty and peace. The village and its surrounds were far more rural back then. Ben considered it plenty rural. A mere forty-five minutes from the interstate, on a twisting, two-lane mountain road, and he believed himself in the wilderness.
“Wilderness? Welcome to Yuppyville,” she corrected him. “Oh, I shouldn’t say that. Every person I’ve bothered, or taken the time, to get to know up here, I find they’ve moved to Vermont for the best of intentions. The same way my grandparents did. It’s no different here, in that respect, than any other beautiful place on the planet. The last one to arrive wants to lock the door behind her. I’d like to think I’m not that way. But then you run into some appalling blue blood or blue-blood manqué, or someone who just got too rich too fast, who thinks every Vermonter was born to serve them. Nothing is ever good enough for them, always complaining, so very self-absorbed.
“I would say, though, that most people who move here quickly become influenced by the notion of scaling it back, getting involved in something sweet and meaningful and healthy and coming to terms with what is really important in life. I see it happening to people all the time, stepping outside of oneself. It’s beautiful and affirming to experience, and it’s never surprising because it happens so much. I would say I’ve explored that sentiment in my work.  Friends have shared that observation with me.”
The late morning was sunny. The absence of wind made it seem warmer than it was. Marianne left the chicken door open as she and Ben retraced their steps back toward the cedar walkway and up toward the old barn, recently renovated into studio space for the mother and daughter, resident artists.
“One of the things that binds us up here,” Marianne said, as she paused to point out a particularly sublime view, “whether most people know it or not, is not the liberalism.”
Kerry only got like seventy-two percent, after all.
“Our bond is that we all moved here because we wanted to be in a beautiful place. Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Libertarian, doesn’t matter. I can sit down with a conservative and talk about how pileated woodpeckers scream like jungle birds and chop like lumberjacks; and how Flood Brook or the Black River are both so high they look like you could whitewater raft them; how tough the going will be for the ski mountains if we don’t get a big dump by Christmas.
“The common denominator is the idea that we realized life is too short to exist for one more day not loving where you live, not seeing a Jiffy Lube sign every time you drive your car. That’s my icon of horror and congestion and despair – a Jiffy Lube every few miles. They’ve got some catching up to do, but soon they must overtake McDonald’s, mustn’t they? The funny thing is, I recognize what a genius company it is. Do you know about Jiffy Lube?
“When we took our daughter to school last September, I sent Julius out to get Isabel’s oil changed on her car. He went to a Jiffy Lube and spent $600.
“I said, ‘What did you do?’
“He started giggling. He knew he was the boy who bought the magic beans.”
“They were changing her oil,” he said. ‘I was in that little room watching Montel Williams and reading USA Today and eavesdropping on cell-phone conversations. And this sweet little redheaded college girl calls me out to the garage to this impressive computer terminal, and she starts talking and pulling up all these interactive screens showing the engine and all these color charts and stuff and … Isabel’s car … my God, it was like a ticking bomb.
“Her wheels were all spinning at different speeds,” he goes on. “Well, I mean, they’re supposed to, but hers were … fucked up. The fluid. Stuff in the fluid. She could have been killed. Has she ever had her tires rotated since she bought it? I said No to rotating the tires, but she needs it. Who’s your dad’s guy for that? Well, call Russ then. And one of her lights was out; that’s a must. She said the radiator cap needed to be pressure tested for leaks. I said OK to that. Any fool could see that from the color chart. The bar graph was red all over where it should have been green. Again, she’s driving these mountain roads late at night and ‘psssshhhhhhttttt!’ Forget about it. And her pan gasket was nowhere near specification. She asked me if Isabel has been idling a lot, which I found a touch personal and don’t think had anything to do with the pan gasket actually.”
“I said, ‘Six-hundred dollars, Julius? It was an oil change, for goodness’ sake.’”
“He said, ‘Did I mention she had this adorable little smudge of grease on her cheek? I think she put it there on purpose like an actress applying grease paint in the dressing room. I thought, ‘Ooh, if Isabel worked here, I would want the customer to understand what she was trying to explain. You know, these kids work so hard, and … ”
“I thought of my dad, back when I was a teenager trying to talk my way out of trouble, and said, ‘Julius! Êtes-vous tout à fait à travers?’ Which I then had to repeat in English, because his French is crap.
“I called dad and urged him to go on his E*TRADE account and, quick, buy some Jiffy Lube shares. I mean, has a McDonald’s worker ever talked some idiot into spending $600?”
Ben Hampton could not stop laughing. He imagined Novak the continental intellectual as an ordinary, born yesterday consumer. Marianne chuckled a little before pressing on. The novelist could not tell if her attitude toward Novak was benevolent or not.
“You gotta love Julius. The older he gets, the more gullible he becomes. When he was young, he was suspicious of everyone. Now he’s practically a sap.”
Marianne paused and smiled as the dogs approached her and Ben. She directed her guest’s attention down the hill toward a coppice of butternuts in the meadow.
“There’s an underground spring in the middle of the trees. The water doesn’t bubble up or anything; it flows just under the soil and rock. I imagine it meets up eventually, along with other streams, with Flood Brook. That land is very marshy. Even though it looks dry, it isn’t. A tiny bit of rain, and you’re up to your ankles. I remember the first time I saw the spring. I was probably five – 1969 or thereabouts. My brother showed me. There’s a … like, a little crevasse between the trees and shrubbery, and you can hear the water moving. And when the sun is shining in, you can actually see fish and millions of minnows or guppies or whatever they are. I used to sit out there and daydream.”
She really is intensely beautiful, Ben thought. Better than Lena Olin.
“One day, my mom and I walked down there, and she said, ‘Who piled all these stones on top of one another?’
“The ground all around the hole looked like an elaborate sculpture garden. I honestly don’t remember having done it. I told her, after a minute of staring at this methodically-arranged pile of rocks, ‘I must have done it, mama, but I don’t think I remember.’
“She’s a painter, as you’ve probably heard, a fantastic painter, so she believed me or wanted to believe me. I suppose I could have made it up to make it sound as though I’d had some divine inspiration for my Tower of Babel, or perhaps I was trying to sound artistic to be like her. You know, curious or beguiling. But it was extremely pleasant and affirming, really, to have a parent at that moment not look at me as though I were either mad or a typical little fibber. I felt like we understood each other, and that wasn’t the only time. I love her so much … and my papa too. He doesn’t seem seventy-three, does he?”
Ben hadn’t considered it. He shook his head, snapping out of the rock pile meditation through which he’d been guided.
“Roger was always afraid someone would fall in the hole or that one of our dogs would fall in. I knew that couldn’t happen. My father – Professeur Papineau. You watch. When we walk down to the village store, he’ll say, ‘Don’t get hit by a truck on 100.’”
Marianne had been a little Vermont girl in the late sixties, when Joanna referred to the rural landscape as having been a minimalist canvas as far as human movement.
“There was nobody up here.”
Nowadays, some believe one must venture up into what they call the Northeast Kingdom to experience the old Vermont. Not as mountainous though. Lots of lakes, farms, rolling hills. Places like Lake Willoughby, which looks just like some impossibly-clear, glacial fjord.
“Vermont without people,” is how Novak refers to it.
“Our guy loves the Green Mountains,” Marianne said, then sadly or spitefully, Ben was unsure. “Not enough to move here though.”
So Novak relocated to the Cotswolds a couple of years ago, claiming it felt like Vermont and other nonsense about Tuscany and the way the ochre stone shimmers at dusk.
“You can never tell with him,” she said, referring to his Gloucestershire rhapsody.
Indeed, Novak had made a point of mentioning to his “biographer” how quickly he could reach Oxford by train. Now Ben wondered whether Novak’s doing so was in partial justification of having left his old, comfortable and convenient life behind. Ben supposed, however, that one could logistically trade a north-south Cambridge/Thaxted/Bloomsbury lifestyle for an east-west Blockley/Oxford/Greater London lifestyle.
“You’ve been there?” she asked. “Did he meet you at Moreton-in-Marsh and then take you for a pint in the little town with the model of itself that you walk around? He thinks that’s so cool. He dragged Isabel there as though she were still five years old. Then he took her to the river to play. What was the pub called? Ah, yes. The Mousehole. I can hear him now and picture the earnest face.
“They say Agatha Christie stayed here quite often,” she imitated him. Then, in her own voice, “Ay-ay-ay.”
And on she plowed a rut into Novak. Try and get him out of Blockley Village now, she said. If he didn’t have a daughter abroad, no one would ever see him outside of Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire, she said. He fancies himself a local character, she said.
“What do you think about your subject?” Marianne stopped to asked. “Is he your subject, or is he just a friend now? Are you doing it or what?”
He allowed that he was doing something or other. Right now he just wanted to hear more about her and the Papineaus.
“Hm. Fantastic childhood up here. And I was away more than long enough so that I’m content to live here for a while, maybe forever. I guess it depends on what Isabel wants to do after university. I don’t know, now, if I would move back to France. My parents are getting older. Thirty years since I lived here full-time.
“And my baby’s in college. My God! I always made a priority of Isabel’s having as much as possible of what I had growing up. She and I, and sometimes Phillipe, who I was on and off with (hopefully not to Isabel’s detriment), and sometimes Julius, have spent extended periods – weeks at a time -- in Vermont at least once a year since she was a baby. She’s sort of living my life in reverse, in some respects – first Paris, now New England. I was the other way around.
“My parents met in Massachusetts in nineteen sixty … one, it would have been. My dad, fresh from Gascogne, was teaching down at Amherst. And my mom, the ski bum/painter, was down visiting a friend at Smith. A torrid love affair ensued, of which my brother was the product. They married before he was born – that’s what you did -- but didn’t always live together. That’s not what you did. So they got one of two right, which for them is all you can ask for. My mom went back and forth between here and Northampton, where dad had an apartment. I came around not long after. My grandpa, the born-again farmer, referred to my dad, to his local friends, as ‘a French, French teacher.’
“When I first explained this course of events and this lifestyle to Julius, he got this surprised look on his face and said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ Not the sort of thing he grew up with, but I could tell it turned him on.”
Joanna and the children lived in the little cottage, where Ben Hampton was now a guest, until Marianne started school in the late sixties. Then they got their own small place in the village. Joanna began teaching art class part-time at the childrens’ school and other schools nearby, in addition to giving painting lessons in the evenings and taking various classes from others. She lived the Vermont seventies life. She helped her friends who were artisans or who had small farms or who made goat cheese. Everyone, it seemed, helped one another. She contributed time to the arts council and other things. Always busy. And always there for Marianne and Danny. In case of emergency, there was always Grandma Pipps.
“When we weren’t living up here, we would stay at my dad’s apartment in Northampton. That was wonderful for my brother and me, like an adventure in a big town. We thought Northampton was a big town. It was even bigger than Brattleboro. Going there was good for my mom too, first of all for the sex and companionship. The other draw was the many galleries, a legitimate market for what she called her real paintings.”
Marianne and Ben entered the restored barn, studio space shared by painter mother and sculptor daughter. The author was about to view Joanna’s unreal period.
Marianne explained how the only work her mother could hope to sell in significant quantities up here in Vermont, before the onset of Internet distribution, had to be geared toward the tourists. But she never quite forced herself to master the style or fake the style of art that tourists would want to take home with them as a memento of what they thought New England should look like.
What the public would gladly pay for – and continue to pay for today – was, in effect, a framed picture of their quaint getaway. They wanted postcard quality:  the ubiquitous covered bridge; the manicured town green – preferably with a bandstand or some other gazebo; all the Colonial houses with Greek Revival additions done up with the correct color of shutters; the roadside produce stand; marble sidewalks and quarries; farmers wearing green-plaid, ear-flap hats pouring tins of maple sap into a steaming vat; the old barn with a gambrel roof; and lots and lots of autumn leaves – red, yellow and orange clinging to the branches, wafting along in the mountain breezes and floating on the roadside streams.
“Mom would produce these potential souvenirs,” Marianne said, as she motioned Ben toward one of the storage alcoves filled with unsold canvases stacked on their sides upon skids, leaning against walls and shelves. “You see? Scores of them.”
She painted Farmer Joe and his Jersey cows. She painted men standing in water, fly-fishing for trout wearing enough gear to … whatever. She attempted Norman Rockwell. She tried Grandma Moses. But something about her ‘art-for-tourists,’ as Ben Hampton experienced standing there, wasn’t quite on. Marianne narrated the retrospective documentary as Ben flipped through the stacks.
“The scenes she depicts look as though, and it’s all moderately subtle – or not … they look as though she’s partaking in almost a kind of mockery. The paintings and sketches have an unsettling air of … ironic detachment is the rhetorical term that comes to mind. Like she’s not just recording a pastoral landscape or a coming together of rural folk. But as if she were, at times wistfully and other times harshly, drawing attention to an absurdity or some manner of grotesque. Julius says the paintings have the same effect as ‘Eminent Victorians.’ He always has to explain what he means by that. But that wasn’t what people, who came up here with money to spend, wanted.”
Ben wanted to buy them all but feared Kate would divorce him. He could only imagine what an insurance salesman and his wife from Connecticut thought when they saw a painting at the outdoor market that showed not only leaves on the trees in the aforementioned brilliant reds, yellows and oranges but also the sky, the water, the buildings, the animals and Vermonters themselves in similar colors. So that it was difficult to tell where the autumn foliage ended and every other facet of Vermont life began.
“Her positioning of inanimate objects in relation to one another, or juxtaposed with humans or beasts, was often jarring,” explained Marianne, casually demonstrating her many years of absorbing art theory. “Look at these. Here’s a pig walking across a country club fairway. One of my favorites has maple syrup spraying out of trees. Several show clocks in the village green displaying different times of day.
“Ah, this was a disturbing period,” Marianne said, picking out several dark canvases. “I think she was depressed here and smoking a lot of weed.”
“That would explain the propensity toward … what are these exactly?” Ben asked, squinting.
“Flooded fruit cellars.”
In other macabre studies, Joanna would place apple pies unexpectedly – in graveyards or floating in rivers or being eaten by pygmy goats off of tree stumps. People dance at inappropriate times or places. Children carry things that are far too heavy for them to carry, like two little boys effortlessly transporting a walnut armoire to someone’s truck bed at an auction.
Ben held a canvas up to the light but failed to determine if the characters in it were tourists arriving or locals leaving.
“There was a suggestion,” Marianne said, “in the words of Julius, quoting one of his literary heroes, that ‘all was not right with such people about.’ Sometimes you find yourself looking for what’s strange, and you never really find it; but you just know it’s there.”
Among the Gourlie-Papineaus and their friends, but sometimes uncomfortably suggested to them in social situations, there continues an endless debate. What approximately might Joanna Papineau’s inspiration or motivation have been to comment in such a way on an otherwise quite wholesome segment of Americana?
“You know,” Marianne attempted to place her mother’s work in context, “cause we’re talking about cheddar cheese, maple syrup, the changing of the leaves, Robert Frost. It’s not like we were spouse swapping or scamming anyone or smuggling fur from Montreal or undermining society in any way.”
Various of the family had their theories. The clan hierarchy used to weigh in.
“As we speak, it remains an unsolved art crime. I don’t know how it is in Britain, but in America, at least, the market for sardonic rural art has remained relatively flat.”
As Ben flipped through the dusty work, stopping to pause in surprise, delight or awe, it became obvious that these sorts of paintings and those in other of her oblique styles didn’t exactly fly out of the state each October.
“Is this really what I think it is?” Ben asked, holding a canvas depicting well-dressed men and women at a South Derry Field Club fundraiser gala in springtime.
“I’m afraid so.”
“She intended for the sun to be shining out of everyone’s arses?”
Every once in a while, Marianne said, someone with unusual tastes from New York or Boston would buy one, and the family would end up inviting the customer home for dinner or drinks. If one appreciated Joanna’s art enough to want to own a particular piece, then that more often than not meant one would like her as well.
“I’ve always thought that was kind of cool. I’ve tried to emulate her in that way.”
Many times Marianne would fall asleep while the guests were still there. Music, laughter, dogs barking when anyone went outside or someone new drove up, glass clinking, occasional singing. These were the sounds that put her to sleep on weekends or throughout the summertime. Joanna, alone, and together with Roger Papineau, entertained a fair amount.
“That’s the other thing we do up here to fight boredom. Everyone hosts parties, and everyone goes to parties. You don’t turn down an invitation in Vermont, because soon enough you’ll stop getting them. That leads to a domino effect, the result of which is marginalized public status. Dad pushed for mixing; mom resisted it, beyond her small circle. Eventually, she won.”
The study in Ben’s cottage, where Novak liked to work when he visited, had been Marianne’s room as a toddler. Roger and Joanna, or usually just Joanna, had the bedroom overlooking the pond. Marianne’s big brother Danny had the small bedroom.
Roger had been around most often in the summers and over the holidays, except when the whole family went to France – moving there in 1978. Sometimes he went to France alone. Sometimes Biarritz or home to Bayonne, sometimes Paris, sometimes Provençe.
“I could never decide which I liked best – the city, the country or the sea. Roger would say, ‘Be sure to make a life for yourself in which you can have all three. There is no need to decide.’ Well, of course, that’s what he said.”
When Marianne was ten, her father snuck her to the bullfights in Bayonne.
“I was horrified, and I got sick where we were sitting, which, on the bright side, instantly worked to convince him that he’d made a terrible error. He seemed genuinely sorry. My mother screamed that he was an adolescent and a narcissist, and she would never forgive him or trust him. But that was almost thirty-five years ago, and here we are still arguing over belôte and NetFlix and what foods the dogs can eat.”
And, Ben thought, here they are holding each other and kissing, helping each other do their work, standing by each other and cherishing each day. Marianne scuffed some blue rock gravel back into place around a small stone garden wall and spoke to Ben without looking at him.
“So what did you come all this way to talk about?”

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