Catherine Tudish Tenney's Landing: Stories

ISBN 13: 9780743267670

Tenney's Landing: Stories

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9780743267670: Tenney's Landing: Stories
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A series of interconnected stories includes "Where the Devil Lost His Blanket," in which a woman is asked to transport a late stranger's ashes to South America and "The Dowry," in which a woman confronts her painful past during her father's final illness.

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About the Author:

Catherine Tudish is the author of the acclaimed short story collection Tenney's Landing. Tudish taught writing and literature at Harvard for eight years before moving to Vermont to work as a journalist and fiction writer. She now teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and Dartmouth College.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Where the Devil Lost His Blanket

As the plane taxis away from the gate, I see Gordon standing with our children, Jamie and Sarah, at the big plate-glass window. And even though I know they can't see me, I press my hand against the tiny window next to my seat. The plane lurches along, with alarming creaks and vibrations, and gradually picks up speed. I watch the trees and the Air National Guard hangar whizzing past, and at the moment we leave the ground, I nearly cry out. Partly it's the unreality of taking flight, but mostly it's knowing how far away from them I will be when the plane touches ground again.

We rise above Pittsburgh, circling over the bridges and the three rivers that look motionless and glistening from above, and turn west, climbing into the clouds. Bogota. I say the name to myself. It conjures up nothing.

Somewhere beneath me, in the plane's luggage compartment, Margaría Flores lies in her funeral box. And her husband, Arturo, in an urn, packed in a little crate. I know so little about these people whose remains I have inherited, but Margaría wrote in her will that I should be the one to take her home. "My friend Elizabeth Tenney," Jackson read from the pages he was holding. Gordon and I sat together on the sofa in his office while Jackson read the will, and Gordon held my hand, as if we were hearing the news of my own terminal illness.

Margaría left me a pair of silver candlesticks -- I remember seeing them on her dining room table -- and money for the trip to Colombia and back. "I want my friend Elizabeth Tenney to have some remembrance of me and take me to my final resting place," she had written. Jackson held the will up for us to see, several sheets of lined paper filled with very precise, sloping handwriting.

We sat there looking at those pages for a minute or two, and then Gordon said, "I'll be damned."

Watching me, Jackson tipped his head to one side. "I didn't realize you and Margaría were friends.""We weren't close," I said. "It is kind of surprising." I tried to think of who else she might have asked instead, but I couldn't come up with anyone.

Jackson straightened the papers on his desk, looking amused. "Of course, you don't have to go. I can arrange to ship the casket."

"That wouldn't be right," I said, a feeling like shame curdling in my stomach. "I think I do have to go. She chose me."

That evening we called at the Cantwell Funeral Home, where Margaría was laid out. It's the only funeral home in Tenney's Landing. Our town has one lawyer and one undertaker. And one aging priest we share with Rownd's Point, a town nearby. Father Rollins stood beside the casket, a velvet-lined mahogany box that was too big for Margaria. She wore a black dress with a white silk flower at the neck, and she looked as if she had only closed her eyes for a moment, preparing herself for a photograph. A strand of her hair had come loose and trailed across the tiny pillow beneath her head. Instinctively, I reached out to tuck it into place, remembering how Sarah as a baby had been fascinated by Margaria's dark, glossy hair, the way she would reach up from her stroller and stroke it when Margaría bent down to speak to her. "Pretty," Sarah would say, her small hand patting Margaría's cheek.

Both of my children liked her. Jamie would call out "Hello, Mrs. Flores," whenever he saw her. Once she had given him a small jade carving of a turtle and told him it would bring him luck. He carried it in his pocket for a long time.

Father Rollins was speaking with Margaría's next-door neighbors, Aggie and Jasper Moffat. They were the ones who found her, lying in her back garden with a rake still in her hand. She'd been mulching her rosebushes, getting ready for the winter.

"I guess it's not such a bad way to die," Aggie said. "Except that she wasn't very old." The Moffats themselves were in their mid-seventies.

"Heart attack, it must have been," Jasper added.

Gordon stood next to me, his hand on my shoulder. Since leaving Jackson's office, he had been moving through the day reluctantly. When we had lunch in Pittsburgh while we waited for my passport, he took forever to choose a sandwich and then left half of it on his plate. As we were getting in the car to come to the funeral home, he decided that he needed to change his tie and spent another ten minutes picking out the right one. It's not like him.

"I'm glad you came," Father Rollins told me in a near-whisper. "You're the only ones from town, besides Aggie and Jasper, and just three or four from the college. Margaria told me she was grateful to you for your kindness last year when her husband died."

Because we are Presbyterians, I don't know this priest very well, so I did not say, "But all I did was take her a vegetable casserole on the day of the funeral," even though that was the extent of my kindness. Sometimes I'd see her at the post office or the grocery store and ask, "How are you, Margaría?" On those occasions, I would rattle on about the children, our busy lives, suggest that we get together -- maybe next week. But the days would roll by, and I would forget about Margaría until I saw her again. Each time, her expectant glance caused a guilty shiver down my spine.

One thing I do know -- Margaría was afraid of fire. That day last year when I stood in her kitchen clutching the steaming casserole between a pair of hot mitts, Margaria said, "It was Arturo's wish to be cremated. I do not wish it myself -- such a hellish way to die."

I hadn't pointed out that Arturo was dead already. Instead, I put the casserole on the table and, not knowing what to do next, hugged her clumsily with the hot mitts and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."

"You are a kind woman," she replied as I pulled away from her.

She asked me to stay and have a cup of coffee, but I told her I had to take Jamie to the doctor; he had an appointment for his school physical. I promised to come back soon. At the time of Arturo's funeral service, I was reading a magazine in the doctor's waiting room.

Margaría and Arturo appeared in Tenney's Landing so quietly, we hardly noticed them at first. One day they were living in the old Kramer place at the end of Pinkham Street, hanging curtains and sweeping the front walk. They were small, dark-haired people with unfamiliar accents, and because they seemed reserved we pretty much left them alone.

The morning Gordon stopped to help him fix a flat tire, he found out that Arturo taught Spanish at McClelland College, a small, expensive school of graceful red-brick buildings about twenty miles downriver in Fayette. No one from Tenney's Landing went to school there, and no one who taught there, except Arturo, lived in our town. It seemed odd, Gordon said, that Arturo would have come all the way from Colombia to teach at McClelland College. Although Margaría and Arturo lived there for years and had the house painted a new color, we always called it the old Kramer place.

As the plane levels out, I open my purse and find one of the memorial cards printed up by the Cantwell Funeral Home. Margaría Flores, 1931-1982, it says at the top in black letters. Underneath is a short poem:

God hath not promised

Skies always blue,

Flower-strewn pathways

All our lives through;

God hath not promised

Sun without rain,

Joy without sorrow,

Peace without pain.

On the back is a picture of a sheaf of wheat in warm tones of tan and gold. Most of the little cards were still stacked on the table by the door when Gordon and I left the funeral home last night. For some reason, I gathered them up and took them with me.

Who picked out that poem, I wonder, and who wrote it? I read it again, as if it might have a message for me as I set out on my strange journey. Except for the two years I went away to college, I have never been far from home. I peer out the window again. We are above the clouds now. Around me, the other passengers appear unconcerned, flipping through magazines, chatting with each other. I tilt the seat back and close my eyes, imagine my family driving home from the airport, the leaf-dappled light on the river as it flows past our town.

The Monongahela runs fast and green most of the time, with thick, ropy currents out in the middle, so you'd think it was constant. In the coldest winters, though, when we were kids, it would freeze over. The first warm night of March, lying in our beds, we'd hear the ice start to creak and moan in some kind of water agony. By morning it would be cracked into big, ragged pieces that slid up over each other, trying to push their way downstream. Townspeople walked out and stood on the banks, looking it over and checking their watches, making bets on what time it was going to break up and let loose.

In the flood of '52, when I was nine, the river went wild, rising and rising until it ran down Front Street -- the sixth day of a seven-day rain. My cousins who lived in the house next to the post office came up to stay with us because they had river water running through their downstairs. They kept saying, "Two feet of water right in the living room." They couldn't get over it. My little sister, Ruthie, gave her bed to these boy cousins and slept in with me and pressed her knees into the middle of my back as I imagined the river washing up against our second-story windows.

The first morning of the flood we walked down the hill to see if it was true that houses and goats and chicken coops were floating downstream. But it was only dead trees and one old rusted-out truck that turned and turned in the current. Then one of my cousins yelled, "Hey, it's Gordy!" and I saw Gordon in the back of his dad's rowboat, coming down the street. He was wearing a blue jacket, and when they went past I could see his black-and-white collie, Skipper, in the bottom of the boat, soaking wet and shivering. Gordon looked right at me and raised his hand and said, "Hey, Lizzy." I remember that.

Walking through the gate at the airport in Bogotá, I am surrounded by a knot of people pressing forward to greet the arri...

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