A Perfect Stranger
Random HouseRoxana Robinson
All right reserved.ISBN: 0375509186
At Christmas, we went to my grandparents’.
My grandparents lived outside New York in a private park, a strange nineteenth-century hybrid between a club and a housing development. The Park was enclosed by a thick stone wall, and at the entrance was a pair of stone gateposts, and a gatehouse. As we approached the gate, a man appeared in the doorway of the gatehouse, sternly watching our car. Our father, who knew the gatekeeper, would roll down his window and say hello, or sometimes he would just smile and wave, cocking his hand casually backward and forward. The gatekeeper would recognize my father then and nod, dropping his chin slowly, deeply, in confirmation of an unspoken agreement, and we would drive through the gates into the Park.
One year there was a gatekeeper who did not know my father. The new man stepped out of the gatehouse as we approached and waved heavily at the ground, motioning for us to stop. He was frowning in an official way.
“He’s new,” said my father, slowing down. “Never seen him before.”
My mother laughed. “He probably won’t let us in,” she said.
My father pulled up to the gatehouse and rolled down his window. “We’re here to see my family, the Weldons,” he said politely. “I’m Robert Weldon.” My father looked like his father: he had the same blue eyes, the long straight nose, and the high domed forehead. The gatekeeper glanced noncommittally at the car, and then he nodded. He was still frowning, but now in a private, interior way that no longer seemed to have anything to do with us. He gave us a slow wave through the gates, then he went ponderously back into the little house.
The four of us children sat motionless in the back. After our mother spoke we had fallen silent. Our faces had turned solemn, and we had aligned our legs neatly on the seats. Our knees matched. Our docile hands lay in our laps. We were alarmed.
We did not know why some cars might be turned away from the Park gates. We had never seen it happen, but we knew that it must happen: Why else would the gatekeeper appear, with his narrowed eyes and official frown? We knew that our car did not look like our grandparents’ car, nor any of the other cars that slid easily in between the big stone gateposts without even slowing up. Those cars were dark and sleek. They looked fluid, liquid, full of curves, as though they had been shaped by speed, though they always seemed to move slowly. Those cars were polished, the chrome gleamed, the smooth swelling fenders shone, and the windows were lucid and unsmudged. Those cars were driven sedately by men in flat black hats and black jackets. It was the driver who nodded to the gatekeeper. The passenger, who was in the back seat, never next to the driver in the front, did not even look up as they drove through the gates.
Our car, on the other hand, was a rackety wooden-sided station wagon, angular, high-axled, flat-topped. The black roof was patched, and the varnished wooden sides were dull and battered. Our car was driven by our father, who did not wear a black jacket, and next to him in the front seat was our mother. The two slippery brown back seats were chaotic with suitcases, bags of presents, the four of us children, and our collie, Huge. We felt as though we were another species when we arrived at this gate, and it seemed entirely possible that we would be turned away. The rules of entry and exclusion from the Park were mysterious to us; they were part of the larger unknowable world which our parents moved through but which we did not understand. It was like the struggle to learn a language, listening hard for words and idioms and phrases, being constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate system we could not yet grasp.
After we were through the gates, my mother turned to us.
“Well, we made it,” she said humorously. “They let us in this time.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows, waiting for us to answer. My mother was small and lively, with thick light brown hair parted on one side and held with a barrette. She wore her clothes casually; sweaters, and long full skirts.
We said nothing to her. We disapproved of my mother’s levity, all of us: Sam and Jonathan, my two older brothers; Abby, my older sister; and me, Joanna. I was the youngest, and the most disapproving.
Inside the gates, the road meandered sedately through the Park, which was on the slopes of a small steep mountain. Up on the top, along the ridge, the land was still wild and untouched. Deer moved delicately through the thickets, and we had heard there were bobcats, though we had never seen one. Down along the narrow paved roads all was mannerly, a landscape of wide lawns, great towering shade trees and luxuriant shrubberies. Unmarked driveways slid discreetly into the road’s docile curves. Set far back, even from this narrow private interior road, were the houses. Tall, ornate, gabled and turreted, half-hidden by brick walls, stonework, and the giant old trees that surrounded them, they stood comfortable and secure within their grounds.
Our grandparents’ house was called Weldonmere, and it stood below the road, at the bottom of a wide sloping oval of lawn. The driveway traced a long semicircle, starting from one corner of the front lawn, swooping down to the house at midpoint, then back up to the road again. Along the road stood a screen of trees: dogwoods, cherries, and an exotic Japanese maple, with small fine-toothed leaves, astonishingly purple in season. Down the hill, protecting the house with its benevolent presence, stood a great copper beech, dark and radiant. Its dense branches, like a vast layered skirt, swept down to the lawn, and beneath them were deep roomy eaves, where we played in the summer. Now all these trees were bare, and mantled with snow.
Weldonmere was white, with pointed Victorian gables and round neoclassical columns. At the front door was a big porte cochere, and above it the house rose up three stories to the scalloped blue-black slates of the roof.
My father stopped the car under the porte cochere, and we cascaded out. Huge darted alertly into the bushes, his long nose alive to a new universe. We children, following our parents through the brief shock of cold air, lurched stiffly into the big square front hall. We stood among the suitcases on the Turkey carpet, blinking in the light of the chandelier. Our parents called out to the household in a general and celebratory way.
“Well, hello! You’re here!” Grandpère appeared in the doorway to the living room. Grandpère was tall and dignified, with a neat thick silver mustache. He held himself very straight, like an officer, which he had been, or a rider, which he still was. There was about him an air of order, he was always in charge. Grandpère carried his gold watch on a chain in his pocket, and he wore a waistcoat, which was pronounced “weskit.” He was a formal man, courtly, but kind. Underneath the mustache was always the beginning of a smile.
“Hello, Robert! Sarah, children.” His voice was deep, his manner ceremonial. He included us all in his smile, and he opened his arms in a broad welcoming gesture.
Grandmère appeared behind him. Grandmère was narrow and elegant. She wore a long dark dress, and her white hair was parted on the side. It was straight at first, then turned to dense mannerly curls, pressed flat against her head. Her mouth was eternally pursed in a gentle smile. Grandmère was from Charleston, South Carolina, but her mother’s family had been from Baton Rouge, where they spoke French. She had been brought up to think English was common, which was why we called our grandparents “Grandpère” and “Grandmère.”
“Here you all are,” Grandmère said faintly. She sounded pleased but exhausted, as though we were already too much for her. She stood gracefully in the corner of the arched doorway, leaning her hand against it and smiling at us. We milled around, taking off our coats and being kissed.
Huge had come inside, and now held his plumy tail tensely up in the air, his head high and wary. Tweenie, Grandmère’s horrible black-and-white mongrel, snake-snouted, sleek-sided, plump and disagreeable, appeared in the doorway behind her. The two dogs approached each other, stiff-legged, slit-eyed, flat-eared. They began to rumble, deep in their throats.
“Now, Tweenie,” Grandmère said, not moving.
“Oh, gosh,” said my father from the other side of the room. “Get Huge, will you, Sam?”
Sam was the closest, but we all took responsibility for our beloved Huge. We all began shouting, and pummeling his solid lovely back, sliding our hands proprietarily into his deep feathery coat. “Huge!” we cried, sternly reminding him of the rules, and demonstrating to the grown-ups our own commitment to them. Of course this was hypocritical. We believed that Huge could do no wrong and was above all rules, and that Tweenie was to blame for any animosity, in fact for anything at all. We thought that Huge was entirely justified in entering her house and attacking her, if he chose to do so, in her own front hall, like some pre-Christian raider. Huge ignored our calls to order, shaking his broad brown head, his eyes never leaving Tweenie’s cold stare. I laid my head against Huge’s velvet ear.
“Huge,” I said, holding him tightly around the neck, “no growling.”
We did not touch Tweenie: she bit us without hesitation.
“Now,” Grandpère said firmly, “Tweenie, come here.”
The authority in his voice quieted us all. Tweenie paid no attention, but Grandpère strode across the rug and took her powerfully by her wide leather collar. Tweenie’s growls rose suddenly in her constricted throat, and she twisted her head to keep Huge in sight as she was dragged away.
“Oh, dear,” said Grandmère gently. “Tweenie gets so upset by other dogs.”
Huge, unfettered and unrepentant, trotted triumphantly in small swift circles on the rug, his thick plumy tail high.
“Huge,” I said sternly and banged on his back. I looked at my father for praise, but he was making his way toward us through the luggage. When he reached us, he grabbed Huge’s collar.
“Now, hush,” my father said sharply to Huge. Huge, who had never been trained in any way, ignored my father completely. My father pulled him in the other direction from Tweenie, and Huge whined, twisting his great shaggy body to get a last view of Tweenie’s smooth repellent rump. Tweenie was being slid unwillingly, her feet braced, past the front stairs and past the little closet where the telephone was, through the small door behind the staircase that led into the kitchen quarters.
Grandpère opened the door. “Molly,” he called, “take the dog, will you?” Without waiting for a reply, he closed the door behind Tweenie’s reluctant rump and returned to us, brisk and unruffled.
“She gets upset,” Grandmère murmured again, smiling at us in a general way.
“We’ll take Huge up with us,” my father said and turned to us. “Let’s get settled now, let’s get our things upstairs.”
We set off. The staircase was wide and curving, with heavy mahogany banisters and a carved newel post. The steps were broad and shallow, and the red-patterned carpeting was held in place by brass rods. Lugging our suitcases behind us, we went up in slow motion, step by step. On the second-floor landing there was a door which was always closed.
One afternoon I had climbed the stairs by myself. When I reached that landing, instead of going on to the upstairs hall, I stopped at the small closed door on the right and opened it, though I knew I should not. I looked in: a narrow hallway, with closed doors on either side. I stepped inside. It was hushed and dim; everything seemed different there. The ceiling was lower and the floor was uncarpeted linoleum. I walked silently, on my toes, down the hall. I pushed open one of the doors and peered into a small bedroom. It held a narrow wooden bed, a small bureau, and a chair. Everything was perfectly neat. The window looked out the back of the house to the garage. The curtains at the window were limp, and the air seemed muted and dark. A clock ticked in the stillness. I stood without moving, looking at everything, staring into a world I didn’t know. My heart began to pound, and when I heard someone coming up the back stairs from the kitchen, I fled back to the front hall.
Later I asked my mother what was behind that closed door on the landing. She said it was the servants’ wing, and that we must never go in there, as it would disturb them. That was where they lived, she said. I didn’t understand this, for how could you live in a place like that? How could you compress a whole life into that one small room with nothing in it, in someone else’s house?
There were no servants in our own house. My father had been a lawyer in New York, like Grandpère, but he had given that up. He had left the law and the city, and moved to Ithaca in upstate New York, where we now lived. My father worked for the university, helping poor people in the community. I’d heard him tell people about making this change, and from the way he said it I knew it was something unusual, and that we were proud of it.
We lived outside town, in an old white clapboard farmhouse. There was only one bathroom, and the house was heated by a big wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room. In the winter, after supper, we sat around the stove and my mother read out loud, and my father peeled oranges for us. While we listened, my father pulled the oranges apart, separating the succulent crescents and passing them to us: fragile and treasured. Then he unlatched the heavy iron hatch on the stove and threw inside the thin bruised-looking orange peels. We heard the faint hiss as they gave themselves up to the red heart of the stove. We closed our eyes for a moment, listening, and feasting on the sweet fragrance the peels gave up.
At Weldonmere we slept on the third floor. Abby and I were in one room, the boys in another. Our room overlooked the porte cochere, and it had been our father’s when he was little. It had low twin beds, foot to foot, and a velvety engraving of a Raphael Madonna and Child. The boys’ room overlooked the back lawn, and beyond it the small pond that gave the house its name. Our parents slept on the second floor, with Grandmère and Grandpère. We children were alone on the third floor, and we liked this.