Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. The after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowing the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.
From the street to the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.
That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.
Oh no, it was much too dry.
No, really, it was good.
Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.
But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch in wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the sing-song way of prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary-Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat ends the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.