Fiction by Jacob M. Appel
If you are reading this note, I am most likely dead and you are the new tenant or tenants at #172B Meriwether Terrace. Under the circumstances, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for taking the liberty of sharing some historical information about your future home, which was my former home, and before that belonged to a deranged postal worker who went to the loony bin for hoarding undelivered mail. After all, if you’ve found this letter, it means you were poking around beneath the shelving paper, probably searching for a suicide note or dirty pictures or whatever. Well, you can stop searching—for a suicide note, that is. Because I didn’t leave one. Unless you count this memo, which you shouldn’t, since I’m writing this for your benefit, not for mine. To give you context. A person only writes a suicide note if she has someone she wants to leave a message for—someone she knows personally, I mean—and the sad reality is that I don’t. Not even a cat. Of course, I do realize that I’m not the first fifty-eight year old woman to drink a gallon of bleach on account of a man, although I do think I’ve had better reasons that most. But like I said, this isn’t about me…
So I’m going to assume that you’re from Pontefract, or at least that you know something about the place, because nobody seems to move to Pontefract these days. I read somewhere that the entire state of Rhode Island is shrinking five percent a decade—that at the rate we’re going, there will be fewer people here in two hundred years that there were when Roger Williams founded the place. Yet on the one-in-one-thousand chance that you’ve actually relocated here from somewhere else, and you want to learn about the town, you can find out more than you’d ever want to know at the Bristol County Historical Society—just remember that they have very limited hours. And if you’re already from here, or if you’re not from here but you don’t particularly give a damn about the Pilgrim Fathers and the golden age of deep-ocean whaling, then you can forget about all of that. What you should keep in mind, either way, is that you’ve moved into a duplex, which isn’t anything like living in an ordinary private residence. It’s more like sharing a hospital room or camping together on the back of a giant fish. Nobody warned me about that thirty-nine years ago when I signed my name to the lease. So that’s why I’m giving you a heads-up.
Truth of the matter is I was a naïve kid when my aunt and uncle moved me into this house—the kind of girl who thinks that life is fair, and love runs smooth, and girls who work as church secretaries marry handsome young ministers who speak like they’ve stepped out of Jane Austen novels. That’s what I did back then: I did typing for the First Congregational Church on Oxbow Street. But I never wanted to marry a minister. I wanted to marry Aaron Sucram, who’d been three classes ahead of me at Barrington High School, and played a dashing George Gibbs in his senior class production of Our Town, and had been dating a skeleton of a creature named Marcy Hopkins for as long as I’d known him. I figured I’d have my chance when they split up. And everybody swore they were going to split up. Aaron was off to college in Connecticut, after all, and nobody really thought a Yale man would stick with a high school junior. So I bided my time. Aaron and I weren’t really friends, and we didn’t have friends in common, but his father submitted all of his accomplishments to the Pontefract Clarion, so I knew when he won a chemistry prize and when he made phi beta kappa—and later when he sideswiped a fire truck in his father’s Oldsmobile Cutlass. The article about the accident reported he’d been driving alone, at nine p.m. on a Friday, so I took that as a good sign, an indication things weren’t going well with scrawny Marcy—and then, out of the blue, he up and married her. I remember the pain of reading their wedding announcement in the Clarion as though it was yesterday, and thinking what nerve they had! If I’d married Aaron, I’d have wanted to let the world know too, obviously, but I’d have had the decency to hold myself back. Never would I have rubbed my victory in Marcy’s bony face the way she did to me with that piece in the newspaper. That’s just not the kind of person I am. But the reason I’m telling you all this is so you get a sense of how heartbroken and vulnerable I was when I first moved into #172B and met Sebastian.
Sebastian and Alice weren’t living in #172A when I first moved in. My lease started in July and they didn’t arrive until the following May. Before that, my neighbors were an elderly woman and her disabled adult son. The son wore a plastic helmet. I’d hardly have known they existed, except some of their mail was delivered to my box by mistake. Nothing interesting—just a few outstanding bills and a package from a distant cousin embarking on genealogy project: The cousin actually included a hand-drawn family tree in the envelope and asked them to return it to her with additions and corrections. But then a moving van appeared one afternoon and the pair of them vanished. Two weeks later, while I was sitting opposite the bay window, Sebastian and Alice parked at the curbside. They drove separate cars, Sebastian’s Corvette leading. He carried a cardboard box up the front steps, his shirt matted to his chest with sweat—the handsomest man in the universe with his sharp jaw and towering forehead—and I’ll never forget promising myself, at that very instant, I’m going to marry that man someday. This was before I knew he was married to Alice.
At first, I didn’t even have the courage to introduce myself to Sebastian. I’ve never been a particularly sociable person—that’s what comes of being orphaned as a toddler, I guess, and it didn’t help that my aunt and uncle came from the variety of Puritan Yankee stock who could go an entire supper without uttering a three-word sentence—but I did manage to learn a considerable amount about the Carranos from afar. That was Alice and Sebastian’s last name: “Carrano.” A label punched onto red embossing tape appeared above their mailbox, replacing Mrs. Delacroix’s hand-scrawled tag, and I found myself fantasizing that my new neighbor was a wild Latin lover in the mold of Rudolf Valentino. In reality, Sebastian Carrano conducted the orchestra at Pontefract Middle School, where Alice taught math, and he supplemented their income giving private voice lessons to adults. After I lost my job at the church on account of my nerves, and went out on disability, one of my greatest pleasure was listening to Sebastian’s students in the late afternoon. The lessons began around four o’clock most weekdays, and for two to three hours, my parlor filled with music—everything from show tunes to arias from Tosca and Carmen. One woman even sang Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” over and over again each Monday afternoon until I’d memorized the lyrics—and you’d have thought Rosemary herself had relocated to Pontefract. Needless to say, some of the singers had more talented that others. And I couldn’t actually hear Sebastian’s instruction through the wall. But I loved imagining him coaching these middle-aged women—and nearly all of his students were middle-aged women—loved picturing him flaring his baton while tiny beads of perspiration sprang up on his perfect bronze brow.