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Chapter One

Uncas Metcalfe’s Raleigh had been stolen. There was a time, not so long ago, when he’d ridden his bicycle everywhere, in all but the most inclement weather. Now he rode locally, for errands, and, occasionally, a mile or so for pleasure. No doubt it would turn up. It had disappeared before, and unless the thief were equipped with a wrench to lower the seat, he---or she, his daughter Fauna would probably add, wanting the fairer sex to be equally considered even in matters of thievery---in all likelihood wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals. Uncas was six and a half feet tall, tall even for a Metcalfe. He wasn’t as put out by the absence of his bicycle as he might have been earlier in the fall; he had promised his wife he would put it away at the first snow, which the chill temperature indicated could be any moment. He could see it as a seasonal shift. Besides, the several-block walk from his house to his office often put him in a contemplative mood.

He turned onto Sparta’s main street and looked across at the triangle of land occupied by the Laconia Avenue Shopping Center. Before urban renewal, there had been a Flying A gas station at the tip, with more practicality---Johnson’s Office Supply and Wells’s Dry Goods---anchoring the two corners. The new indoor mall seemed to specialize in whimsy. It was occupied by stores like Der Klockhaus (filled with cuckoo clocks) and Water Bed Warehouse; no one Uncas knew had either a cuckoo clock or a water bed. As absurd as those shops were, at least they were still downtown and independent. With its big chain stores, the box mall on the outskirts of town had siphoned off much of the commercial vitality. If that continued, Sparta proper would be a ghost town. The sidewalks were virtually empty. No one walked more than half a block anymore; they were all tethered to their cars. Even he and Margaret no longer made do with just one: he had his Jeep; she had her station wagon. He nodded to the pharmacist as he passed Fulmer’s Drug, which had been there since his childhood, though the soda fountain had been discontinued. Soon, no doubt, the store would be shuttered completely, unable to compete with the lower prices and vaster choices on the outskirts of town. Quality of service and product seemed to be irrelevant. The physical upheaval and near abandonment of the heart of Sparta over the last forty years were in sharp contrast to the occasional hiccup in his own life which was absorbed with little fuss by the resilient stasis he had achieved.

Farther up the street, outside the old jewelry store, Uncas saw a young woman; with torn camouflage pants and crew cut, she looked ready for the army. Bleached spikes radiated from her head like the filaments from an exotic flower. She was, apparently, engaged in conversation with someone he couldn’t see, someone standing in the recess of the doorway. He wanted to hurry by---the girl looked upset, agitated---but instead he found himself slowing down. As he approached, she grew quiet. Without meaning to, he turned to see to whom she’d been talking.

“Hello, Mr. Metcalfe,” the girl in the alcove said.

He hadn’t anticipated being greeted by name, though in a town this size and given his family’s prominence, he was used to it. He nodded; she had on a T-shirt covered only by a white apron with some kind of doughnut stitched on it. Collins’s Jewelers was long gone. Was the new shop a bakery? Uncas looked around surreptitiously. The words painted along the bottom of the store window---hot coffee warm bagels cool customers cold cash---provided a clue. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed the place before, and was disconcerted to realize he had walked right past his own office building, the Menelaus, without the faintest inclination to turn in, and was now faced with a young woman whose name flickered at the edge of his memory. Uncas looked back at the spiky-haired girl, but she didn’t look remotely familiar. She had an earring in her nose. Cool customers, indeed.

“How are you, Mr. Metcalfe? Here for some bagels?” The aproned girl stared at him; not in an unfriendly way---she was smiling---but more as though she’d exhausted conversation of the type reserved for people over the age of twenty-five. She turned to the door. “Come on in,” she said. “It’s cold out here.” Something about the tilt of her head, and her composure, jogged his memory. She was the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of his father’s business partners. She was Joe Stephenson’s girl; he was surprised he hadn’t seen the likeness immediately---above his desk hung an oil painting of old Mr. Stephenson, his son, and Uncas’s father in the heyday of Laconia Farm Works. She had come to his father’s Christmas parties. He tried to will her name into his memory. Anna, maybe. No, that didn’t sound right. Miss Stephenson was going to have to do.

A bell jingled when she pushed open the door. As eager as he was to get to his office, he followed her into the shop, unwilling to reveal that he’d overshot his building. The Stephenson girl turned around and, ducking past Uncas, caught the door before it closed, setting the bell off again. “C’mon back in, Alex,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Uncas found himself staring again, as the army girl stepped in the door.

“Oh,” the Stephenson girl said. “Sorry. Mr. Metcalfe, this is Alex Miller. She’s Betty Delafield’s stepdaughter.”

“Hello,” Uncas said. He had forgotten that Betty had married.

“She’ll be a sophomore at Mott next year.”

The girl nodded, silent.

Mott College---that explained her outfit. It was an all-girls (women, he could hear his daughter correcting him) college in the next town over from Laconia, where Uncas was a botany professor at Wright University. The local youngsters weren’t quite so outlandish. He offered his hand and she shook it. Her solid grip surprised and impressed him. He liked a little oomph in a handshake. Most young people looked puzzled when you offered your hand. She looked him in the eye, too, which was another surprise.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. The room was as humid as the university greenhouses; Uncas’s glasses started to fog up. If he took them off, he wouldn’t be able to see; removing them also wreaked havoc with his astigmatism. If he left them on, it would take longer for the glass to defog. Both options made for a fuzzy world, which he disliked. Sometimes at night, after he had taken his glasses off, he could still feel their weight on his nose. He would run his hand down his face to see if they were still there, when he knew perfectly well they were folded on the nightstand next to him. Now, he kept them on his nose and squinted, trying to see what was on offer.

“What would you like?” the Stephenson girl asked from behind the counter. “A dozen bagels?”

Uncas frowned. Better than doughnuts, he supposed. Slowly the shop came into focus.

“Why not, Miss Stephenson?” Uncas said.

“Hannah.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Hannah. It’s Hannah Stephenson, Mr. Metcalfe. That’s my name.” She smiled briefly. “Mixed?”

“That would be fine,” he said, wondering what on earth he’d do with a dozen bagels. Did Margaret like bagels? He wasn’t sure he did.

“Would you like me to choose?” she asked, though she was looking over his shoulder as she spoke.

He studied the wire bins. They looked like extra-deep in-baskets, loaded with seeded tufts of bread.

“Why don’t you?” Uncas said. He could feel himself get warm. The Stephenson girl was in her T-shirt behind the counter; she’d also donned a paper cap. He was bundled up for the chill outside. A dozen bagels. Margaret would think he was daft. His grandchildren were expected today. The bagels could be for them. He felt his shoulders ease. “Hannah, were you in my daughter Fauna’s class?”

“She’s older than me. I remember her though. Doesn’t she have a kid?”

Than I, Uncas thought. Older than I. “She and Doug have three children. Or as I like to think of them, three grandchildren.” And a fourth on the way, but he’d save that information.

“Wow. Three. My mother was saying that Doug was coming back. We live across the street. It’s been weird having that house empty.” Hannah wiped her forehead on the sleeve of her T-shirt.

“That’s right. They’re scheduled to arrive from Illinois today. They’ll spend a few days with us and then they’ll be your responsibility.”

Hannah looked puzzled but then smiled. “Oh, because they’ll be across the street,” she said. “I get it.”

Uncas recalled the time he’d seen Delores Fletcher, his son-in-law’s mother, in that house. She had had a few too many, as usual. “What’s that?” he said, cocking his ear toward Mr. Stephenson’s granddaughter.

“Baker’s dozen, Mr. Metcalfe. You get one more. Do you want me to choose that too?”

“Make it a cinnamon raisin, please.” He himself didn’t care for fruit in bread or in chicken or ham or in any dish except dessert or oatmeal, but his grandchildren would like the raisins. That seemed to be the kind of thing they thrived on.

“That’ll be six dollars even, Mr. Metcalfe.”

Uncas tried to contain his surprise. These were big-city prices for glorified bread. Still he supposed it was too late to refuse to buy. This would teach him not to miss his building. He handed the girl a ten and a one; he would get a five-dollar...

 

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