The Stonegarden

EXCERPT

 

Chapter One

He lifts the last stone of the evening, his aging hands easing it into place with the others. He is working near the shore in darkness, a sliver of moonglade upon the water. A lantern, a cup of whiskey. He is thinking of her. He is always thinking of her. 

One over two, two over one. 

He shifts the stone sideways, wedging it deeper. The lantern flickers, its kerosene light lambent and diffusive upon the fretwork of cedar trees. Black shapes against blue, their fragrant silhouettes stir alongside him as he works. 

One over two, two over one. 

He sips his whiskey, nods to his dog. Tonight, the cold, rough limestone centers him, centers his thoughts. The weight of his work pulls at the sinew of his upper arms, his neck, his back. It draws his shoulders down into his chest. When he sets each stone into place, pushes it against others, he is free; he is whole. This, his work, is his connection to the earth—to the sand, the water, reality. 

It has been this way for five decades. He scours the peninsula, collecting stones. Rubble limestone, discarded fieldstone, beach stone—it doesn’t matter which. In fifty years’ time he's grown au fait in the properties of each, able to coax beauty from even the most common dull gray stone solely from its placement within his beautiful, complicated morass.

He is building a stone fence. He’s always been building a fence. Someday, he thinks, it will be done. One day, he hopes, she'll return. 

One over two, two over one.

 

Chapter Two

The moving truck was late. Daisy Tate was pacing back and forth on the front lawn, wondering why. Maybe the driver had trouble navigating the dense Chicago traffic or was lost, unable to find the charming port of Orchard Bay. It was easy to miss, the way it was nestled like a secret between the villages of Ephraim and Sister Bay on the bluff side of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. 

Over the years, some have come to doubt the existence of Orchard Bay after failing to find its obscure exit off Highway 42. But the town does exist. Though somewhat hidden and hard to find, its always been there, a cheery harbor village tucked between a bell-shaped bay and two steep, chalky cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment.

Daisy knew there could be a million reasons why the movers were late. A blown tire, an accident, a family emergency. Weighing the possibilities, she shamed herself for being impatient. But she couldn’t help it. She was eager for the truck to arrive, eager to put her belongings into place.

It had been a fast move. It was only thirty days ago when she and the realtor first pulled up to the old, gray shake-sided house on Cedar Lane. Daisy had warmed to its quaint exterior right away; the arched entry door was a pale shade of robin’s egg blue and there was a magnificent bank of cottage-style windows along the front of the house. At first glance, Daisy suspected the door was once a vibrant azure, long before years of sunlight had dulled it into its current washy hue.

And when she’d put her hand on the door’s thumb-latch to go inside for the first time, she was captivated by the seafaring details of the antique handle. Its backplate was primitively etched with gulls and waves, and the lever was a shapely fish tail. When opening the door, she remarked to the realtor that it fit her hand perfectly, a sign the cottage was meant to be hers. Not even two minutes later, she told the realtor to consider it sold. 

But all the same, the realtor had tried to discourage Daisy from buying the house. There were others in better shape, she said while pointing to the cedar shake roof, noting the upward curling shingles and woolly tufts of moss poking out between them. Signs of rot, she had muttered. 

But Daisy could see the flaws for herself. The yard was badly overgrown, the shutters stripped of paint, the garage window broken, the fence leaning. And yet, she wasn’t concerned.

To her, something about the house felt right. It was neatly trimmed and pocket-like, a departure from the showy Chicago greystone she was about to leave behind. 

* * *

A widow for four years, Daisy was ready to start over.

When she and Joe married in 1988, they’d purchased a three-story house in North Chicago, an eroding greystone structure that Joe had stumbled upon by happenstance. Located in a ten block arc of dilapidated historic buildings, it had been long neglected and was therefore bargain-priced. So with a newlywed’s heart, Joe vowed to restore and preserve the greystone’s Romanesque heritage for his lovely young wife.

And in the years that followed, that’s exactly what he did. He honed the crumbling facade to make it handsome again; he patched every crack to make the house strong, repointed every corner with lime and sand mortar. Inside the house, he spent his every spare hour sanding and staining the elaborate wood bannisters and stairwells. He replaced windows, refinished floors, changed fixtures, painted rooms. Joe fixed every broken part, and this work was his simple, heroic, unsung offering of love, put forth each night in the routine after-dinner hours of their fortuitous married life. 

And just as they’d planned, the Chicago greystone became their fortress; it was their towering fasthold where dreams flourished within its comfortable, protective spaces.

And then everything changed.

Every time Daisy reflected on Joe’s death, it was the same moment that played in her mind: two Illinois State troopers walking up the front steps, knocking on the front door and delivering the dark news, the weight of which caused her to fall to the floor where every molecule of water and breath inside her evaporated at once. 

While lying there, all she heard were hazy, thundering syllables as the words cracked from the troopers’ mouths, words that split her world in two and set it ablaze, her heart disintegrating into an ash heap of pain at their heavily booted feet. It was hours before she could stand. 

And when she did, a young female paramedic was there, holding a tumbler of ice water, raising it to her lips. With that first cold sip, she knew the greystone was no longer a fortress. It was nothing more than a dim maze of cold walls and high ceilings, a labyrinth of long hallways and empty rooms. Even her own words, when spoken out loud, spun echoes she couldn’t stop. 

* * *

After the funeral, Daisy’s heart broke more with each passing day, and the daily routines of city life quickly became a mare's-nest of worry without Joe at her side. The constant checking of latches and locks, trying to remember the rules of odd-even parking, calculating rush hour. The sirens, permits, toll fees, traffic—it was too much. It was four years too much.

This made it easy for Daisy to say yes when her neighbor Larry Sullivan, owner of the stately condo next door and a contractor by trade, asked to buy her out. He knew she wasn’t adjusting to the changes hurtled her way. He could see it in the way her flower boxes went unplanted, her windows unwashed, her steps unswept. 

But Larry’s motive to buy Daisy’s home wasn’t rooted in an act of friendship, though Daisy thought it was. He didn’t want to buy the greystone—he had to buy it. Without even knowing if she would consider selling it, he penned blueprints for a mega-house, conjoining hers to his to create one luxurious, trendy single family unit. 

Larry did this because he heard the neighborhood was on the cusp of gentrification. People were spending small fortunes on big homes and he wanted in. Unscrupulously, he showed his plan to a client under the pretense he owned both buildings. It was a long shot and he knew it. 

But much to his surprise, the client approved the drawings on the spot. They even agreed to his asking price and signed a contract based on his ability to meet their sharply negotiated deadline. Larry had told no one about his ruse. 

To make things worse, Larry had not only lied to his client about owning both structures, but he quickly spent the down payment they’d given him as well. This meant he had to motivate Daisy to move out of town while also persuading her to accept less than fair market value for her home. 

Because he had needed to get the deal done swiftly and without questions, Larry Sullivan pushed every button he could push so Daisy Tate would say yes.

 

Copyright 2017 Kathy-jo Wargin / All Rights Reserved.