Authors: Susan S. Kelly
How Close We Come
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to quote from “Prospecting” by Catharine Savage Brosman. First published in the
, vol. 101, no. 2, Spring 1993. Copyright 1993 by Catharine Savage Brosman. Reprinted with the permission of the editor and
Copyright © 2001 by Susan S. Kelly
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.,
Hachette Book Group
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New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: August 2001
For my mother, who let me read.
My thanks to Jamie Raab, who saw the story’s core, to Rhoda Weyr for her wisdom and humor, and to the Virginia Center for
the Creative Arts for the solitude of a corncrib studio.
stretched a length of tape over the lid and nudged the box toward seven other moving cartons labeled T
boxes were stacked in our bedroom. Possessions to be thrown away didn’t merit marking; they were accumulating in the hall.
There’s something wholly satisfactory in packing. It had been seventeen years since I’d boxed and wrapped and crated everything
I owned, when Hal and I returned from our honeymoon. The bulk of my belongings then were wedding gifts gleaming with newness,
each present carefully recorded by my sister, Ceel, in a white leatherette album and checked off as thank-you notes were written.
Everything was “to go” then, brass candlesticks and linen napkins and floral cachepots and casserole dishes, the few silver
trays and bowls and breadbaskets I hadn’t swapped for Lucite versions. My mother was dismayed.
“You’ll want that silver,” she’d said as a pitcher joined a gravy boat to be returned.
“Christenings,” Mother answered, and I’d laughed. The concept was as remote as funerals. My son, Mark, was christened two
years later, five more and Ellen was baptized. My father’s funeral came three years after that.
No silver was going to Rural Ridge. I couldn’t picture filigreed salt and pepper shakers anywhere in the single-storied stone-and-timbered
house Hal and I had bought. One wing held a kitchen; the opposite arm comprised three small bedrooms. A step lower than the
rest of the house, the entire midsection was a den with scarred wood floors, a rock hearth flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves,
and a gently vaulted ceiling of tongue-and-groove paneling. Built in the twenties as a summer home by a less advantaged relation
to the Vanderbilt scions of Asheville’s famed Biltmore Castle, the cottage was subsequently lost during the Depression, then
defaulted, deeded, or sold to a succession of owners.
And it had been available, the scarcest and most precious of commodities in the alpine hamlet. While Rural Ridge year-rounders
numbered only twelve hundred, summer residents swelled the population to five thousand.
As soon as our house in Durham sold we’d bought the cottage on sight; love at first sight on my part, from the moment I stood
on the slate terrace snugged within the house’s horseshoe shape. “Less space,” Hal said about the square footage.
“More room,” I contradicted him.
Below the terrace an inclined acre of yard sloped away. But it was what lay beyond and above, spanning the entire semicircle
of horizon, that captivated me, dispatching any doubts about furnace age or roof condition or electrical inspections. In shades
from denim to indigo, the ancient range of the Blue Ridge rippled in humped and overlapping folds one upon the other like
carelessly unspooled bolts of fabric. Gently undulating hollows cupped sunlight with such clarity that the trees massed within
them seemed perfectly separate, as if I might part them like hair, a Gulliver peering into Lilliput. Intersecting with forest
and farmland were tiny houses with the diminutive perfection of model train settings. Tin roofs, clothesline poles, and heating
oil drums were mica chips of glitter. The vista was vast yet comfortingly finite.
“Think of this view in the winter,” I’d sighed, hugging myself with contentment.
“You mean in autumn, with the leaves,” Ceel said. “I mean in winter, with the snow.”
My realist sibling had snorted. “It’s North Carolina, not North Dakota.”
I checked my list, surprised by the difficulty in choosing what to leave behind and what to take along. I thought it would
be simple: this for the old life, this for the new one. A college roommate had always packed in leaf bags, loading her car
with bulky black plastic shapes, and I’d admired the economy of her system. Or perhaps it was only laziness, carelessness.
Hal stuck his head in the kitchen door. “The crawl space and the toolshed are almost empty.” He brushed cobwebs from his coarse
light blond hair. “You sure you want to take all those clay pots? They’ll probably bust in transit.”
“I’m sure,” I said, thinking of Ceel’s horticultural bribe.
“Hannah, think of what you’ll be able to grow!”
“Fuchsia, asters big as plates. It’s cooler here. Tulips come back a second year.”
Tulips had been blooming the afternoon she called from Rural Ridge. It was a Sunday, and I’d been outside regarding our sorry
yard. Among the rampant ivy, the tulips I’d ordered especially for their rare color were just blooming. After a mild winter—no
snow, not a single paltry flake—a series of killing freezes in early April crippled and stunted earlier varieties, sending
flower freaks hustling to linen closets for sheets to protect budding camellias.
But my tulips were a failure all round. The foliage drooped limp as noodles; the cupped petals opened bright orange instead
of the expected pale pink. At the nurseryman’s urging I’d purchased a drilling device to corkscrew through the drought-dense
autumn dirt and had planted the bulbs too deeply. The blossoms opened a scant four inches from the ground, with stems barely
long enough to pick, much less arrange in a vase.
“What are you doing?” Ceel had asked, her standard opener.
“My tulips are orange. Pumpkin orange.”
“Let Ellen take them to school like you used to, you teacher-pleasing suck-up.” Mother’s daffodils had sprung from a bank
of periwinkle outside the kitchen, and every spring I begged to pick a bouquet wrapped in a dripping handle of crumpled tinfoil
for my teacher’s desk.
“Easy for you to say.”
Ceel laughed. She’d gotten through school on sheer personality. “The child charmed the teachers,” Mother still claims. Ceel
would pick Mother’s flowers without her permission and smuggle them onto the bus. She rolled up jeans under her skirts to
circumvent Mother’s “no pants to school” rule, later stuffing her skirt into her gym bag. She’d sneaked out so often in junior
high that in a last-ditch effort to keep Ceel home, Mother had taken away her shoes every night. Four years earlier the two
of us had returned to Cullen for a wedding, and Ceel, who was driving, had taken an unfamiliar route into town. “What road
are we on?” I asked. “I don’t know this shortcut.”
“You’ve forgotten.” Ceel grinned. “While you were at home doing your first child thing, I was on the road to Chesney to buy
“You’ll never believe why I’m calling,” she’d said over the phone that April Sunday. “The Academy has an opening for an upper-school
social studies teacher.” Ceel’s husband, Ben, was head of a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Episcopal day school in Asheville.
“You’re going back to teaching?” I asked. Ceel had taught fourth grade for six years, before trying to have her own child
became more important than teaching someone else’s.
“Hal?” I parroted.
“Isn’t he sitting there with his business sold, waiting for something to grab him? He’s talked about teaching for years, the
way other people talk about opening a bar, or going around the world on a sailboat. This is his chance.”
“Hal doesn’t have any teaching background or certificate.”
“We’re talking about a private elementary school here, Hannah. You could move this summer after Ellen and Mark are out of
school,” Ceel went on. “It’s just for a year, while Ben looks for a permanent replacement. Hal can get his ya-yas out teaching—before
he finds out what academia is
about. You could live up the mountain in Rural Ridge, far from the madding crowd. I’ve even found you a house.”
I smiled, tempted. “With room for a garden?”
“Shade and sun. Plus there’s a university in Asheville, and you know what Mother’s always said”—Ceel’s voice had risen in
mimicry—“ ’There’s always something going on in a college town, speakers and seminars and whatnot.’ Now don’t tell Hal I called.
Let Ben offer the position first. Act surprised.”
I stood up as Mark walked in wearing a thick braided silver choker of mine. “Look what I found. Ugh,” he grunted, straining
his neck muscles against the metal twists. “See how thick my neck is?”
“Put that back.”
Were we ever bored in Cullen?
I thought, walking outside. I wedged my toe beneath a tree root that had surfaced through the dropped soil line. As a child,
my closest friend and I constructed entire villages within knotty tree roots in which to steer our Matchbox cars, earnestly
debating who would drive the milk truck or the police cruiser, who would deliver firewood with the pickup truck. While Ellen,
who apparently inherited Ceel’s hostessing genes, used the weedy produce of our yard—crumpled violet blooms and wild strawberries—to
accessorize her dolls’ tea parties, I’d never seen either of my children spend an entire afternoon contentedly entertaining
themselves outdoors. They were too busy with lessons and sports and organizations. Overinvolved, overentertained, with karate,
But that was all going to change now. “Haven’t you and Hal discussed moving?” Ceel had asked.
We had. Idly, ideally, hypothetically. Even before Hal sold his grocery cart manufacturing business, whenever our Durham lifestyle
seemed stressful and scheduled and superficial. A small textile town like dozens throughout the South, Cullen had had no social
echelons, no pecking order. No country club or swim teams, no team sports at all but for boys’ Little League. Summer evenings,
while twilight deepened and small children scrabbled in the red dust, I’d watch Geoff from the rickety bleacher with the O’Connors.
Everything in Cullen was public: pool and school and single tennis court.
Rural Ridge offered more than a career change. More than adventure, yet less. The move seemed a beacon to me, an opportunity
to restore and reclaim what once had been. Some simplicity and sweetness I’d lost, left behind, or cast off in the intervening
years no different in some ways from clothing my leaf-bag roommate had left with a shrug in dorm room dresser drawers.
I wasn’t so naive as to believe our moving could duplicate or re-create for Ellen and Mark the benevolence of my small-town
childhood, but debate had evolved into longing, and with the decision made, longing had become excited anticipation.
“There’s nothing in the house to eat,” Mark complained from the door, and I automatically waved my hand at him in a family
code. A directed complaint required some corresponding gratitude, no matter how trivial; a parental system of checks and balances
that amused my friends.
“But,” Mark conceded, “you took me to the mall to get a CD.”
The CD was the one item on his recent birthday list that had failed to materialize in the stack of wrapped gifts. My list-making
gene had been inherited by Mark and Ellen, who routinely typed out their birthday and Christmas requests, lists I sentimentally
saved along with drawings and report cards. For this birthday, his fifteenth, Mark’s list had been a comical compendium. A
new putter and as many used golf balls as twenty-five dollars would buy at Play It Again, the used-sporting-goods store. A
five-foot down body pillow: cuddling company, no doubt, to melon-breasted models in the Victoria’s Secret catalog I’d found
poorly hidden beneath a beanbag chair. At the other end of the teenage spectrum, Mark asked for a computer game called Blood
Bath. A gooseneck lamp he could clip to the headboard for homework. A waffle maker, of all things, because a friend had one,
a friend with a mother apparently more inclined to special Saturday breakfasts than I. At least the list was, in a favorite
phrase of my mother’s, “well rounded,” covering sports, sex, cooking, technology, education. And of course the battery-operated
fart machine with remote control, guaranteed to embarrass anyone within twelve feet. There was the child I knew and loved,
the one who hadn’t yet outgrown the useless but intriguing items that resist categorization—faucets that run into a never-full
beer stein, lava lamps, fake arms to dangle from car trunks.