Zachary knew from her slightly lopsided smile, eyes squinted tight against tears as she stepped from the farmhouse porch, that Muriel’s dissertation defense had been strenuous. Muriel sometimes put her emotions on highest exhibit by exaggerating a suppression of them. “I got through it,” she said.
“Oh, I know you did more than that,” Zachary said. “Congratulations. You’ve worked so hard.” They had a good kiss. Anyway, she was now Dr. Muriel Streuth. He could also see that the drive in early-December sleet and on icy roads, from Medford, Massachusetts, home to their farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, had worn Muriel to a frazzle.
“How do you want to celebrate?” he asked.
Muriel removed her coat and draped it over a chair. “For starters,” she said, “a cup of tea in the bath.”
She kicked off her boots, crossed her arms, and, grasping its bottom hem, lifted off her sweater, which she carried into the library. She set her sweater on the rocking chair. She then walked along the wide wooden slats to the first-floor bathroom. She ran a hot bath. Japanese bath salts tinged the water an orange hue. She smiled at the sound of the Chopin nocturne Zachary placed on the old-school phonograph in the living room; they had quite a collection of vinyl albums. The nocturnes were what she often played, arriving home after the long drive, needing just to unwind and not think. Standing in the bathroom doorway, her peach-colored blouse half unbuttoned, her gray slacks on the floor, Muriel called toward the kitchen, “Zach, I only didn’t hug and squeeze you because I want to save every ounce of strength for later.”
In a few moments, Zachary set a steaming cup of cinnamon tea on the windowsill next to the bathtub. Muriel had been sitting on the rim, one hand monitoring the water level and temperature. She stood and turned off the faucet. She dropped her blouse, brassiere, panties, and socks to the floor, then slid into the bath.
“What a day for you,” Zachary said.
He picked up her clothes, carried them to the laundry room, and set them on top of the washing machine. Muriel’s clothes could wait. I knew that the volume of bath water, combined with what the wash cycle required, might strain the capacities of the artesian well. Probably not, but why risk an automatic shutdown of the pump, which was at 230 feet. The laundry room window displayed ostrich feathers of frost. Zachary went upstairs.
Watching Muriel and Zachary since I’d died and returned to this farmhouse, I have come to believe that certain evenings delivered them into each other’s arms, as if the passing hours themselves had it in mind all day. There was so much human urgency, but also something more, perhaps indefinable. At least I couldn’t define it. There just seemed a powerful sense of predestination about it. I’m sure that neither of them would be caught dead using the words “delivered them into each other’s arms.” That’s perhaps my own literary pretention at work. Muriel Streuth and Zachary Anders now own this 1845 farmhouse. Notice I did not say my former farmhouse. I am still in residence here. Things should be stated directly, don’t you think?
At the age of forty-eight, I died of a heart attack, an hour out to sea, on May 23, 1994, at the rail of the Bar Harbor, Maine–Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, ferry.
Now I must also mention MOTION IN LIBRARY. Muriel and Zachary had put in a state-of-the-art alarm system. There had been some robberies in the neighboring villages of Woodbury and Plainfield. Along with motion detectors, this system included highly sensitive smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Since I wander freely through the farmhouse, there seemed no determinable logic as to why only the motion detector in the library kept registering a disturbance. It was occurring quite often. I figured it might somehow be a reaction to the metaphysics, or physics, or something, of my condition, and though I don’t unfailingly set off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm each time I enter the library when the alarm is set, when it does happen, a dispatcher at Onion River Security in Montpelier receives the MOTION IN LIBRARY signal. According to procedure, volunteer responders, in a predetermined order, are telephoned. The way Muriel and Zachary have it, first on the list are Jody and David, writers and translators, who live just around the curve of the dirt road. They are followed by Eric and Cathy, who both work in ecological conservation, then Erica, a radio programmer and private investigator, who lives halfway between the farmhouse and Route 14. Last to be contacted is Jasper Sohms, a retired high school math teacher, who lives in Plainfield.