I don’t often…in fact have never…posted excerpts from a work in progress. But I feel like it today! I hope you enjoy this portion of the first chapter of my new novel, Harmony House, which I hope to complete early in 2013.
When the screen door scrapes open and music swells from inside the house, Dan again closes his eyes. Feigning sleep, he learned, serves him fittingly when he alienates friends or exasperates neighbors. When the party shifted from the porch to inside the house, the first time he closed his eyes, he understood why no one bothered trying to wake him…another polite, if grudging, acknowledgment of his status as a recent widower. As with an impish celebrity, they excuse his behavior. A woman approaches, her perfume delicately floral, and pauses beside him to tug the blanket snug to his chin. While evaluating this act of kindness, Dan opens his eyes to find Peggy Snell’s face intimately close to his and watches her expression shift from surprise to alarm. Retreating to pause beside his chair, Peggy screens her chest with folded arms, the sleeves of her cotton turtleneck pushed up to her elbows. Dan notes the fine dark hairs on her forearms.
Twenty years of public relations experience coalesce with guilt and Dan scrambles for a reason for his anger, a defense for its eruption. Depression? Grief? “I’m not sure what got into me.” He pauses. “I guess no one really wants me to stay, do they?” He cocks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the people in the front room.
“Everyone sympathizes, Dan. They feel sad for you. But you were so unlike yourself tonight. Misfortune can seem like a disease and some people want to keep their distance from you. I think they expected you to suppress your anger rather than scatter it over everyone.” Peggy unfolds her arms and slips her hands into her pockets.
Dan realizes that since the funeral, his contact with his neighbors has been sparse; the porch party seemed a timely idea. “I don’t know why I felt so much anger.”
He slumps in the Adirondack chair with his legs propped on a wooden footrest, shrouded against the frostiness by the plaid stadium blanket. Fingering the coarse wool, he gazes over the porch railing at the trees across the street in Iske Park. The sun, setting behind the house, dipped below the level of the roofline, and what Dan sees astonishes him: autumnal leaves on the uppermost limbs arrested in a luxuriant blaze against the darkening eastern sky. Below the treetops, in the shadow cast by the house, the drab trunks and the dun-hued turf sulk; winter approaches. A squirrel scuttles around the trunk of a thick oak, its paws scratching on the crusty bark. Peggy and Dan watch the animal, its cheeks bulging with collected food.
“I wonder what it would be like to sleep all winter,” Dan says.
“Or watch all the comings and goings of your neighbors from the top of a tree,” Peggy replies.
This evening Dan’s target, Peggy’s husband Gary, initially received Dan’s hurled scornful jibes with laughter; but as he prolonged his assault, stillness fell among those lounging on the porch. An overweight man and off-putting in his flabbiness, Gary Snell does little to conceal his bulk. He favors generously-cut floral shirts and baggy khakis. His round head, capped with unruly red hair, accentuates his girth. Gary’s deep-set, brown eyes burrow above an expansive nose and paunchy cheeks on a broad, almost flat face. Dan resents how Gary injects himself into others’ conversations, punctuating his opinions with thrusts of a chunky finger and penetrating yelps of “Am I right? I mean am I right?” and “I’m not lying!” He also irritates Dan by finishing other people’s sentences during a conversation. Dan ended his sentences with non sequiturs, hoping to confound Gary’s expectation of what Dan would say next. It succeeded, triggering abundant laughter at Gary’s expense.
Dan reflects on what in particular about Gary annoyed him more: his appearance or his attitude. Or that he was a nail-biter. Over the course of an hour he pummeled the man repeatedly…mocking his weight, his eyeglass frames, the tufts of back hair poking above his shirt collar, and mimicking the cadence of his speech. When Gary tried to deflect Dan’s onslaught by criticizing Peggy in a sarcastic comment, Dan hammered at him more intently, oblivious to boundaries, embarrassing himself, until Peggy leaned across the short space between their two chairs and patted Dan’s hand, whispering a breathy “Easy there.” She then stood, her jeans tight over her thighs, asking if anyone wanted anything from the kitchen. Dan failed to appreciate the combustibility provoked by his words and tone, a mood he would have identified three months ago. Like a crocodile peering through the second set of eyelids, he observed nothing but his prey… perceived everyone as prey. Surveying the porch in that moment, Dan strove to remind himself that these people, friends whom he had known for years, plainly sought to lighten the grief of his wife’s death. He wondered if he would always behave this way now, lashing out, without Marcie as a limiter on his rush toward extremes. Despite that insight, Dan feared his neighbors were becoming people about whom he no longer cared; that realization angered him…but deciding how to channel that anger mystified him, so he lashed out wildly, like a blind swordsman.
“You know, some years before the cancer, Marcie thought I had the hots for you,” he tells Peggy. “She claimed I ogled you at parties. We argued about it a few times…she was always a stronger woman when we were fighting. Otherwise she was pretty docile.”
“I never noticed,” Peggy says, turning away from the park and gazing through the front window. “You paying attention to me, I mean.”
Dan detects a tone of disbelief in her voice that he supposes is genuine, wondering if Peggy believed that Marcie was correct in her suspicion.
“She could be really jealous. But she never showed it to anyone but me.”
“Uh huh.” Peggy’s voice flattens and Dan wonders if he is boring or irritating her.
“She thought I was constantly prowling for something else, someone else. Thinking with my dick.”
“You mean being a man?” Peggy smiles as she regards Dan.
“Sure. I’ll go with that. Doing what we guys do.” Dan pauses and despite Peggy’s earlier kindness to him, he narrows the focus on her. “But she really singled out how she says I looked at you. Kept accusing me of thinking you were so hot, asking what made you so special, and repeating over and over how she knew I wanted you.”
“Are you serious, Dan? Or are you just trying to piss me off?”
“My mouth to God’s ear.” Dan raises a hand as though swearing an oath. “I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on it. Marcie wasn’t that good an actor.”
The two of them say nothing for a few moments while the music and voices from within the house jell into a uniform echo.
“You went too far with Gary tonight, Dan,” Peggy says.
“Oh, give me a break, Peggy. He’s a big boy…a very big boy…he should be able to take care of himself.”
“That’s not the point. It’s not about him, it’s about you and the way you treated people tonight…it was ugly and everyone saw it.”
“So? What do I care?”
“You should care, Dan. These people are your friends. If you treat them badly, insulting them when all they want to do is console you…then you’re going to lose your friends.”
“Maybe they’re really not my friends,” Dan says.
“Oh, don’t sulk like a child,” Peggy admonishes, shaking her head. “Being petulant is no better than being hurtful.”
“So you all want me to be happy. Gosh, thanks. But what about you…are you happy with Gary, Peggy?” Dan asks.
Peggy shivers. “We’re not going to have this conversation Dan.”
Dan flips aside the stadium blanket and slowly stands. Peggy tilts her head back and stares past him, where the volume of the music suddenly decreases. “Everyone deserves to feel something other than anger day-in and day-out,” he says.
“What about you, Dan?” Peggy presses her lips together so tightly they pale.
Dan glances toward the complaint of the door opening once again. “I’m just coasting along, trying to stay balanced. I don’t need or want any high or low spikes for a while.”
Grayson Eilers pokes his head around the screen door. “Everything okay out here?” he asks.
“I’m being banished, Grayson,” Dan says. “But lovingly.”
Grayson bobs his head, stroking the door frame absently. “You were a little rough on Gary tonight, Dan,” he says.
Dan mulls over his reply as Peggy leans against the porch railing, steadying herself by gripping it with both hands.
“Dan was just going home,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says, turning toward the porch steps, grazing his fingertips against Peggy’s knee as he maneuvers around her. “I’m homeward bound.”
“I just wanted to make sure you’re all right, Dan. If you ever need someone to talk to…” Grayson offers as Dan walks past him, steering toward the steps.
Dan resists the urge to assault Grayson’s compassion, opting for restraint in front of Peggy. “No need, my friend,” Dan says. “No need.”
As he clomps down the steps, past the slumping Jack-o-Lantern, its misshapen face, collapsed, gnawed by squirrels, Peggy calls after Dan. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”
Dan acknowledges her statement by raising his arm and waving it, then jams his hands in the pockets of his jeans and strides down the sidewalk toward his house, never turning to look at her.