Old Miss Lavinia looked at the long staircase and sighed. It was time to move, and she knew it. She’d lived in the house at 2659 Flower Lane since she’d been a bride, over fifty-five years ago. The stairs had been nothing then. Now, they rose up before her – a personal Everest.
She looked out at her lilacs. She didn’t imagine that there would be lilacs in her new house. It would be a small one-story without peaks or valleys.
She called two of the realtors she’d seen smiling out at her from the for-sale signs that dotted the neighborhood like tiny billboards.
Kate and Josh Simons arrived to inspect her home. They were not as young, good-looking, or thin as they’d been in their picture, but so nice. So friendly!
“Such a great old house,” Kate said.
“We’ll move some of your furniture into the garage,” Josh said. “It will make the house appear more spacious.”
“But my things,” old Miss Lavinia cried, wringing her hands.
“They are so lovely,” Kate patted her veined hands with smooth, pudgy fingers. “Don’t worry, Josh will be very careful.” And he was.
It was odd having her mother’s china cabinet in the garage. She circumnavigated the empty space. It seemed daring somehow, this change, as if she was embarking on a voyage of discovery.
The first open house was set for Saturday.
“It’s good to bake bread or cookies the night before so that the house smells welcoming,” Kate said. “But just boiling cinnamon in water will do the trick.
I’ll make the lemon cookies my mother used to, thought Miss Lavinia. They made the house smell delicious. She smiled, remembering the citrus-scented mornings and the lazy summers of her youth. She spent the day baking- something she had not done in a long time. She couldn’t wait to have Kate taste them.
On Saturday she was so nervous! Thank goodness Kate was there to help.
“These cookies are so fabulous,” Kate crunched one, careful not to drop any crumbs on the newly vacuumed carpet. “Don’t worry about a thing. it will be fine.” And it was.
Miss Lavinia sat in her parlor, door open. The breeze wafted in, soft and curious, stroking her ankles and arms, making her feel almost young. It had been so long since she’d sat by an open door waiting for visitors. She hadn’t realized how solitary she had become, how isolated. First, her husband, Terrance, had been killed in the war. Then, but so gradually and steadily she hadn’t even noticed, all her friends had died or moved away, one by one, fading like the scent of the lilacs in the garden, leaving her alone in a flowerless world.
“Hello?” A girl peeped around the door. “What is that marvelous smell?” she said, just as Miss Lavinia had imagined someone would.
“It’s my mother’s lemon drop cookies,” Miss Lavinia said. “Won’t you have one?”
“How lovely,” the girl said, holding out her hand. “I’m Margie, this is my fiancé Ken.”
Margie was pretty, but not in the flashy way some girls were. She was sweet and respectful. You could tell she’d been brought up well.
Ken had brown hair the color of damp sand at low tide. His eyes were blue, serious, and kind.
“Why, you look just like my husband, Terrance, when he was young,” Miss Lavinia blurted out, without even considering if that was a proper thing to say.
“Ma’am, if I weren’t already engaged, I’d marry you in a heartbeat,” he said. “Those cookies alone should garner you a slew of suitors.” He bent over her small hand and brushed it gently with his lips. Miss Lavinia flushed.
“I must get your recipe for those luscious cookies,” Margie said when they were leaving. And when Miss Lavinia copied it out in her spidery hand, Margie kissed her cheek.
There must have been a dozen people in and out that Saturday. All commented on the wonderful smell of Miss Lavinia’s cookies. They chatted, complemented her house and garden. A few even stayed for tea. When the open house ended, Miss Lavinia was tired but happier than she had been in years.
And so it continued for two months. All week, Miss Lavinia would bake, preparing for her open house. She began to work in the garden again, slowly at first. But gradually growing stronger. After a few weeks, she even managed to dig out the old, dead rose bush. It left a hole in the yard, which she planned to fill with a white lilac.
Every Saturday- and sometimes half of Sunday- she would sit in the parlor, welcoming visitors and showing them around. All the lonely years after Terrence had died, all the decades since her friends had passed away condensed, like an accordion closing. They vanished without leaving even a memory. Only the early years and these later ones remained like bookends, the solid pillars of a happy life.
Miss Lavinia was in the kitchen, rolling up cinnamon squares, when the phone rang, shattering the calm of the swirling dough.
“We have a buyer,” Kate announced, not even saying hello. Not even saying her name. Her voice seemed brisk and sharp. So different from the kind, concerned Kate, Miss Lavinia expected.
“What?” Miss Lavinia said. She’d forgotten the end goal. She’d become used to a week of baking and a weekend of visitors. Life was rich and full again. Even the long stairs had become manageable-just a bit of exertion that was probably good for her.
“Who wants it?”
“A Mr. Forbes. He’s seen the house on our website and wants to redo it.”
“What do you mean?” Miss Lavinia said.
“He’s a contractor. He buys homes and remodels them.”
“He’s never even been here?” Miss Lavinia asked.
“He’s more interested in the property than the home. He plans a teardown. But he’s willing to pay top dollar.”
“I think he should see the house,” Miss Lavinia said.
“It’s really not necessary,” Kate said.
It’s not fair, Miss Lavinia thought. Just when life is good again. Some man-some stranger – wants to destroy my home.
“He can come and make an offer in person,” she said.
Miss Lavinia knew just what this Mr. Forbes would be like. He would be like the generals in the war, the ones who never left their big, leather chairs in their big, airy offices. The ones who unthinkingly, unfeelingly sent young men like her Terrance to do the killing for them.
And what was the outcome? Only more wars and more sorrow. More tears and more widows. She tightened her lips and marched into the kitchen, baking with a fierce determination, as if sugar and lemon zest could have more impact than bullets or tanks.
Mr. Forbes bustled into her home late Friday, looking exactly as she’d imagined. He was big and swaggering. His lips were fat and moist. A sad, thin fringe of grey circled his bald head, like an adolescent’s attempt at a mustache.
He did not comment on the lemon, chocolate, cinnamon goodness of the air or the newly blooming, wild, red poppies, or the porcelain-delicate lilies of the valley in the garden. No, instead, he shuffled over to the table- her table- and sat down without even asking, just as if he already owned the place. He opened an olive-green leather folder and pulled out a sheath of papers.
Miss Lavinia did not believe in green leather. It was unnatural, displaying a lack of taste, a dearth of refinement.
“All you need to do is sign here,” he said.
“But I’m not ready to sell,” Miss Lavinia said.
“I’m paying well over market price,” Mr. Forbes snarled. “You’re not going to get a better deal.”
“I need to think it over,” Miss Lavinia cried.
“The house has been on the market for months. You don’t need to think; you need to sign,” and he pressed an enormous silver pen into her trembling hands.
“Here.” He pointed to a blank space at the bottom of the tightly typed page.
“And here, and here.”
“All right,” she said, “But we need to make a toast and celebrate.”
“I don’t have a lotta time, lady. I’m a busy man.”
“I’m sure you are,” Miss Lavinia said. “But I will only sign if we can have a toast and some sweets. I have never sold a house before. It’s the civilized thing to do.”
Miss Lavinia doubted if Mr. Forbes was civilized, but she knew that a man so fat could never resist chocolate – at least not hers. She brought out her lemon cookies and carefully rolled chocolate crumbles.
“Just taste one,” she said, pouring them each a tiny glass of sherry.
For a big man, he went down fast.
The lily-of-the-valley powder had an almost instantaneous effect. Mr. Forbes tumbled onto the floor, foaming at the mouth. His face grew red, then purple, then gradually white. His moaning and drooling stopped, and he ceased moving.
At first, she thought she’d chop him up and bury him in pieces, but just severing his little finger required all her force, and besides, there was so much blood. It was much easier, though it still took three days of lifting, and shoving, and resting, and thrusting to maneuver his remains into Terrance’s old wheelbarrow, push him into the garden, and curl his body into the hole where roses had once bloomed, but she managed. It was midweek. No one came by. There were no open houses planned as the house had ostensibly been sold. She burned his papers and clothes in the fireplace. She hadn’t used it for more years than she could remember, but now, after a hard day of sawing and digging, she enjoyed sitting at night by its warm, orange glow.
Kate called on Friday. “Have you heard from Mr. Forbes?”
“Wasn’t he going to come over to sign the papers?” Miss Lavinia asked.
“Yes, didn’t he show up?”
“No, he must have changed his mind.”
“That’s odd,” said Kate. “He seemed so definite.”
“It’s a mystery,” Miss Lavinia agreed. “I guess we’ll just have to put the house back on the market. I’ll start cooking right away.”
She grated up lemon peel and dried up some more lily of the valley, wondering when she would have to prepare her next chocolate crumble.