She was only with him once. Just that one time. It didn't make any sense to Annie that afterward she could not quite get him out of her head. What had he said—that she hadn't heard before? What, for that matter, had he done—that she hadn't done with scores of others? Nothing. So, why, she thought, walking down Second Street was he lurking around the corners of her mind and—more terrible still—the center of her heart.
Second Street was in the old part of Fall River and parts of the sidewalks were still paved with uneven cobbles that made walking a hazardous chore. It was distinctly not the place to wear short little narrow heeled mules. It wasn't as if Annie hadn't known that, but here she was wearing them, doing the stupid thing yet again, and slinking over bricks and mortar that tilted her right and left and nipped at the heels of her shoes.
Her ostensible mission, of course, was to take a little tour of Lizzie Borden's old house. The reality (the truly stupid thing, she admitted to herself with a sigh) was that she knew he often took lunch at a nearby café that managed to be swanky and casual at the same time. Going to Lizzie's old haunts would give her an excuse to drop in at the Buffinton and, more importantly, a conversation opener. Tom Creedmore was a writer and he was spending that summer in Swansea; he was doing yet another book on the famous parricide. He spent a lot of time in Fall River—at the Historical Society, the Library, the Oak Grove Cemetery and everywhere else Miss Borden had released pieces of her soul. The café was the best venue for locating him—short of getting in her car and driving to the house where he was staying. She'd done that, too, Annie remembered; but at the last moment, she'd only parked and sat inside her small Hyundai and gazed up at the windows, imagining she could see Tom's silhouette as he typed on his laptop. Wishing he'd divine she was out there and hungry for him. Hoping he'd call, write—anything--as long as he desired her again.
She bought a ticket for the 12:30 tour, but it wasn't going to begin for another 40 minutes, so she walked toward the small park around the corner. It was hot. Nearly as hot, Annie thought, as the day Lizzie took up her axe.
She sat on a bench in the shade, swigging cold Daviani water, swinging her sandaled feet. Tom had been unfailingly polite everytime she ran into him that summer—since that June night they'd collided sexually. He never made Annie feel awkward or that her conversations were unwelcome, but he kept her at arm's length—making it clear that talk was all he had in mind. She checked her watch. 12:15, too early to go and hang around outside the house. She really had no interest in the tour, anyhow. She was only going because Lizzie was Tom's passion— though she was certain he wouldn't be there today. She only wanted to see it because it would give her something new to tell him. “I finally got over to Second Street,” she played in her mind for something like the twenty-fifth time. She saw herself smiling as she said this. The conversation could proceed with her asking salient questions and replying to whatever cues he gave. At least after she saw the damn house, she saw a chance of making some quasi-intelligent remarks. Up till now, she'd paged desultorily through a few books on Lizzie, bored with looking at spotted, poor quality silver gelatin prints and grainy misshapen islands that were supposed to be the riven bodies of Andrew and Abby. If the subjects of Lizzie's guilt or innocence, her sensational trial, the murders themselves fascinated Tom, they bored the tits off Annie. Up till now, when she ran into him she'd been forced to fall back on that dead chestnut, “So, how's the work going?” To which he'd reply, “Very well.” Then he'd ask how her work was going and Annie would natter as brightly as she could about the summer course in Marine Microbiology she was guest teaching at Roger Williams. It was already the first week of August and she'd be back at the Unversity of Washington in just a week or two. Some days, when she thought about Puget Sound and its utter clarity compared to the messy terrain, the heat and damps and humidity of coastal Massachussets, she wished she were back there already. The trouble was, she wished she were back there with Tom Creedmore.
It was 12:23 now. Annie stood up and plodded back toward Second Street.
A short woman opened the brown front door and let in Annie along with 5 or 6 other tourists.
“We'll just go in here,” she said, ushering the group to the left. “Feel free to take a seat.” The tour guide positoned herself at the head of the room and began to talk about Lizzie, the murders and the house.
“Yesterday, August 4th was the anniversary of the murders,” she said; Annie thought, Oh thank god, I missed that.
“We dress in costumes and we even re-enact the events with living actors.”
Tom, she thought, must have been in heaven. Well, next time she saw him she could pretend she was just so damn chagrined to have actually missed the dreadful playlet.
“Now that picture, there,” the tour guide was saying. Annie looked around the room at the ugly carpets, uglier wallpaper and thought, why don't they just rip it all out....The house didn't belong here anymore. Across the street was a bus station. The house was like an abscess in healthy gums...everyone knew you had to pull an infected tooth. What was this house still doing here?
“Just step this way and we'll go into the dining room,” the tour guide said. Annie looked at her fellow conductees. Their faces wore eager expressions as if they could hardly wait for appartitions or the incorporeal sound of the axe whooshing through the hot heavy air. Annie just wished she were seeing the wretched little house with Tom at her elbow nodding over this and that and standing out from the crowd of curiosity seekers because of his knowledge and willingness to share his expertise. She would have bet he knew ten times more than the tiny woman with the thickset body and the dull voice who was pushing them this way and that through the house like water forced through a sewer line.
She half-heard the woman explain the dining set came from Lizzie's grander house on French Street. The one she bought after the murders, after her acquittal. Tom had wangled an invitation by the current owners of that house and the first night she met him, he'd told her about it. What had he said? She named it Maplecroft, but that didn't sit well with the citizens of Fall River. Naming a house, well, that was hoity-toity. Lizzie, he'd grinned. She didn't play by the rules. Any rules. Had an affair with an actrress named Nance—
.... What had he said? Oh yes. That first night, their only night really. A dinner for visitng summer faculty. Tom Creedmore wasn't lecturing but his school had arranged for Roger Williams to more or less host his stay so he could use libraries there and in town. He flirted over dinner, over wine while they stood in the paneled library of one of the older buildings, very elegeant, very Victorian. He said, I can't believe I'm with the most beautiful woman at this party. Annie. He took her hand and looked directly into her eyes. I could fall in love with you.
That was before—
"Just before she let Andrew in at the front door--
To meet his death--
"Bridget," the stout guide said, "was startled to hear Lizzie laughing on the stairs." She herded the group into the room where Andrew had been caught out sleeping. Lizzie's version of the truth was that while she serendipitously sought a piece of iron in the hot (it was cool, she declared) barn to mend a screen (to make sinkers for fishing, she amended when no damaged screens were found) some unknown intruder crept in and dispatched her poor aged papa with an axe. The autopsy photo on display in a thick book showed a man with a hole shaped like a wasp's nest where his face should have been.
The king (Andrew) was in the parlor—perhaps dreaming of counting his money. The queen (Lizzie)was in the barn—having eschewed breakfast and bread or honey, she was eating pears. The maid (Bridget) was up in her third floor attic room, where the heat must have been like pressing your naked backside up against a woodstove. So, the rhymes were wrong, Annie thought. They always were.
Feet trooping on the stairs to go and behold the very place where Lizzie's step mother (wicked stepmother) lay prone between the bed and dresser. All two hundred pounds of short little Abby Durfee Borden felled where she stood and hacked about the head and spine till what was left of her was the pool of blood congealing around her body.
“Abby was killed first, somewhere about 9 or so in the morning.” An amazing intruder to have hidden in that tiny house and wait nearly two hours (Where? Stuffed in a closet that looked a tight fit for brooms?) before giving his axe a good wiping and emerging from the hall to chop off Andrew's face. And then, run unseen, undetected through the narrow populous streets of the old mill town.
“People sometimes pick up odd feelings in the house. One of the chambermaids was working in here and she suddenly saw the imprint of a short stout body on the bed. She quit immediately. On the other hand, some of the guests actually sleep on the floor where Abby died when they spend the night.” The guide chuckled. “Two hundred dollars and they sleep on the floor.”
Poor Abby. Her life run out in pain, blood, funeral arrangements and the family burial plot in the cemetery. She on one side of Andrew, his first wife on the other.
A laugh ran out of Annie. “Maybe the ghost of the first wife came back to finish off Abby and Andrew.”
No one looked at her, and Annie wondered if she'd actually said her last thought or laughed out loud.
They moved in to Lizzie's room. The larger one, the one Emma had conceded so that her spoiled baby sister could have more space to display the things she brought home from Europe.
Annie suddenly felt a tremendous heaviness in the air. Her legs seemed sodden—like wood that has been in water so long, its buoyancy leaches out and it sinks like stone. Whatever that weight was, it pressed her head, too; her neck was bent under it.
“Incest,” the guide was saying in a hiss-whisper. “It appears now that Lizzie was almost certainly a victim of incest—“
Annie backed against the wall, her palm brushing the ugly dark paper and where her skin touched the wall, it stung like fire. Her stomach hurt. The air felt as if it were being squeezed from her lungs; and worst of all, her heart hurt. She looked around the room, the group was sauntering on.
She clutched her stomach, tried to make her legs move.
Isn't this how it might feel physically if your papa climbed on top of you night after night? Your legs pinned, the breath squeezed from your narrow girl's chest. The sadness, the sorrow, the sin would add more gathering weight. Your heart would twist, hurt, ache from the betrayal.
The room felt dark—as if there were old layers of pain visibly hovering in the air and blotting out the light. The physical and mental depression. Lizzie had been tortured here. In the dark. In the dark she planned. She would strike back. Sat in this room brooding, feeding on fantasies of blood and evil. Kill them both. She paid with sorrow, they would pay in blood.
Now, today, more than 100 years later there was central air conditioning, but the room was as hot and oppressive as infection.
Annie thought she would faint and she closed her eyes tightly. She heard the group moving on the back stairs; in a second the guide would be back to shoo her along.
In her mind, she imagined Lizzie lying on her bed, hearing the steady creak of Andrew's footsteps as he moved toward her in the dark. No wonder as an adult she'd placed her bed against the doorway and secured the latch.
Some people had to be locked out of rooms, out of hearts.
The guide came and Annie nodded at her to indicate she was all right; she hobbled after the group before the short woman could speak and reprimand her. She trotted obediently downstairs to the kitchen where these curious intruders stood about in a lazy circle and the guide began to talk about Lizzie burning up her bloodied dress in the woodstove....Bloodsuckers, all of them. Wanting a little shiver on a hot day...
... This house, Annie knew, this family was Tom Creedmore's obsession. He laughed at Lizzie's thin excuses: (The dress was missing because it had been stained with paint; so Lizzie had burnt it. No, she hadn't attempted to poison her stepmother. She'd been trying to buy prussic acid...because, well...doesn't everyone use it to kill moths in sealskin furs? ) And all the while she kept her cool, unflappable exterior while inside her blood was a lake of fire and her heart was cleft.
Tom was good at the game because he understood its essence. Creep in the night, into beds and hearts like Andrew. Tell your lies like Lizzie and stay cool when accused—even indirectly.
Isn't that what Annie was doing everytime she ran into him? Silently accusing him? The lie he told was the politeness he flung at her; it was a mask for his guilt.
On the way out, Annie patted the wall. Taking a bit of Lizzie with her. She had fought back, she had won. Gone on to live in her own house and have affairs of the heart.
Obessessions could be shared, Annie knew. Her weapons wouldn't be steel hatchets or poisons. She had only to gather her resolve and she could creep inside his heart, the way he'd crept in her bed. She would be calm, unflappable all the while she was laying her plans. When he least expected it—asleep or awake—she would tear his heart in two and watch the stupid wool of carpets drink his lifeblood. He would be shattered--an empty shell--and her life would go on.
She emerged into brilliant sunshine on the front steps. When she was just about to go through the gate; she turned to look at the house, shading her eyes. Mismatched thoughts skittered in her brain...the long drive west back to Washington...it might be a while before Tom was missed...and who was to say when she left, where he'd gone or when....Why they were never even sure whether they found the damn hatchet....
She heard a sound behind her like wild laughter, like what Bridget must have heard just before....Annie whirled. Of course, there was nothing there.
It was hot when she walked into Buffinton's café, her head held high, her face smiling, her sexy summer sandals ticking over the wooden floorboards. I still say you're sexy he'd said the last time he'd seen her. Flirting—to appease her? To ameliorate his guilt? It didn't matter. The fans whirled slowly overhead; the dimly lit restaurant was redolent with the scents of good food and herbs.
Tom Creedmore was sitting alone at one of the far tables, an archipelago of books and papers and maps spread around his bright red luncheon plate. He hastily chewed a mouthful, brushed his lips with the fingers of his right hand, his left clenched a paper napkin.
“Annie!” He gave her a wide smile.
She smiled back.
Lizzie knew. She had been acquited.
Shell games were easy when you knew the patter, when you watched closely.
Soon Tom would be the shell.
She would have affairs of the heart.
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