Pix Miller, Faith Fairchild's next-door neighbor, expects to find more than a hole in the ground when she goes to check on the progress of the summer cottage the Fairchilds are having built on Maine's Sanpere Island. She expects a concrete foundation. What she doesn't expect is a very dead body wrapped in a very valuable antique quilt! The deceased is a local handyman with a suspiciously lucrative sideline in antiques. Sharing her friend Faith's inquisitive nature, Pix resolves to restore Sanpere's shattered peace. But by digging too deeply the determined Ms. Miller just might be arranging another burial her own!
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The Body in the Basement
By Katherine Hall Page, Phyllis G. Humphrey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1994 Katherine Hall Page
All rights reserved.
There were days when Pix Miller was forced to agree with her husband, Sam's, observation that "Don't worry, Pix will do it" would be the epitaph carved on her tombstone in the family plot in Maine.
She was at the plot on Sanpere Island now, thinning the potentilla that grew on her father's grave. The sky was slightly overcast and the woods that surrounded the cemetery were dark and dense. She preferred to be there on sunny days, when the white birch trunks shimmered and the stately emerald evergreens looked as if they had been and would be there forever. The dead were not dead on those days, but came alive in memory as she walked past stones with familiar names to their own bit of earth, the ground covered with wildflowers until Freeman Hamilton came with his scythe.
Today as Pix looked down at her father's grave, she had no trouble remembering that first shock, the first grief, although he had been gone for a dozen years. She put down her clippers and stretched out on the green, very green, grass. "Pix will do it." Apt, extremely apt.
She sat up, feeling a bit foolish at the picture she presented—spread-eagled on her forebears. If there was anything Pix Miller was not, it was foolish, however much she tried. She plucked a piece of grass from the ground, slit it with her thumbnail, and put it to her lips. The ensuing high-pitched whistle was gratifying. She still knew how. She'd taught her children the trick, just as she'd taught them all the other things she'd learned on the island when she was young: how to sail, canoe, and swim; where to find the best clams, best blueberries, best shells; to leave nests undisturbed and to walk silently through the forest; to get every last morsel from a boiled lobster and to wake up in anticipation each morning.
That was how she had awakened this morning. It had taken about thirty seconds for her to realize she was not in her bed in Aleford, Massachusetts, but tucked under the eaves in her bed in Maine. Pix didn't waste any time getting to Sanpere for the summer, and this year was no exception. Yesterday at exactly twelve noon, she'd picked up seventeen-year-old Samantha at the high school, then swung by the middle school for twelve-year-old Danny and turned the Land Rover, packed to the gunnels, due north. She had already driven her oldest, nineteen-year-old Mark, to Logan Airport in time for the early shuttle to Washington, D.C., where he was spending the summer as an intern in their local congressman's office. Mark had protested the ungodliness of the hour all the way to Boston, but Pix was too busy running through her mental lists, making sure she hadn't forgotten anything, to pay him much mind.
At the airport, he had given her an affectionate bear hug and said, "It's okay, Mom. I know you can't help yourself. The old Siren call of Sanpere, and probably they'll be a few moments this summer when I'll wish I was there, too. When it's a hundred degrees in the shade in D.C."
Pix had had a sudden hope. This was the first summer the whole family wouldn't all be together for at least part of the time. "It's not too late to change your mind, sweetie. We could swing by the house and get some of your more rugged clothes." Mark was dressing for success these days.
"Mom, I said, moments, 'a few moments.' Sure, life on Sanpere is gripping: 'Mrs. Walton will be entertaining her daughter and family from Bangor for the weekend' and 'Sonny Prescott has a new lobster boat, which he has named the Miss Steak.' Health-care reform and balancing the budget are going to seem pretty tame." Mark had rolled his eyes. "Time to let one of us fly."
"But you'll come up Labor Day weekend?" Pix was trying to hold on to the end of the string.
Mark said something that could have been a yes or a no, the string snapped, and he was gobbled up by the crowd of morning travelers just beyond the terminal's automatic doors.
Still absentmindedly picking at the grass, Pix realized this was going to be a summer of women, not an altogether-bad thing, of course, but different. On the way up last night, she'd dropped Danny off at his beloved Camp Chewonki near Brunswick for a virtually whole-summer stay, and Sam probably wouldn't be able to get away until the Fourth of July, and then only for a few days until his August vacation.
Samantha had picked up on her mother's mood the night before as they drove through the darkness, bent on getting to their cottage no matter what the hour. "We'll have fun—and think how easy the housework is going to be, and the cooking." Pix had brightened considerably at this prospect. She didn't mind the housework, but unlike her friend, next-door neighbor, and now employer, Faith Fairchild, food preparation as a pleasant activity was up there with lighted matches under the fingernails. If Pix had not been endowed with a superabundance of Puritan guilt, it would have been Hamburger Helper every night—instead of merely some nights.
Faith was the Faith of Have Faith, an extremely successful Manhattan catering company that Faith had recently reopened in Aleford. She'd moved to the village following her marriage to the Reverend Thomas Fairchild. Pix's responsibilities at the catering company didn't involve cooking. Keeping the books, counting forks, and other organizational feats were the areas where Pix excelled.
Over the years, Pix Miller had developed a reputation for getting things done. And having earned it once, she kept on earning it. She was the town-wide coordinator for the Girl Scout cookie drive, although Samantha hadn't been in uniform for years. Then there was the United Way appeal, Town Meeting, the library board of trustees, and so forth. She'd ceased being a room mother now that her children were out of elementary school, but she still held her seat on the PTA Council. And she did all this along with chauffeuring these children to soccer, ballet, French horn lessons, ski team, swim team, as well as making their Halloween and school-play costumes. Some Alefordians called Pix a superwoman, but she didn't feel like one. She'd talked about it once with her friend Faith in a sudden burst of self-examination: "I'm not working, so I feel I can't say no, and everyone always calls me. I don't want to disappoint them—or my kids—but sometimes I wonder how the heck I got in so deep."
Faith had taken a dim view of the whole thing, especially the notion that Pix wasn't working. As a minister's wife, Faith lived in fear that she would end up in charge of the Christmas pageant or fund-raising for a new roof. Fortunately, Pix had taken this job. "You have to start saying no. You know the slogan, 'Just Say No'. All this is not so different from doing drugs, Pix. I think you've gotten to the point where your system needs it and you have to go cold turkey. Besides, now you are gainfully employed and you have a perfect excuse."
It was hard for Pix to face the fact that Faith might be right—that Mrs. Miller had a reputation to uphold and had grown dependent on the praise she got from all these unpaid jobs. But then again, often no one knew she did them—except Pix herself—so she supposed it was the same thing. That night, more confused than ever, she'd talked about it with Sam. He'd been slightly exasperated with Faith, not an unusual occurrence.
"Pix, you like to help out. You're good at it. There's nothing wrong with any of that. Except, you take on too much and don't have enough time for us—or yourself. Pure and simple. Samantha's driving now and Danny's the only one who really needs you. You can start getting out of some of these other things—like the cookies." Sam was always annoyed at how much room the boxes took up in the garage. He had to park his precious sports car outside for the duration.
Pix had stopped listening after the phrase "Danny's the only one who really needs you." Where had all these years gone? It was like shrubs. You put them in and they looked so tiny and inadequate, then before you knew it they had outgrown the space and you had to get a backhoe to yank them out. Maybe Danny would go to college nearby. With all the colleges and universities in the Boston area, Mark had to pick one in Colorado and Samantha was considering Reed in Oregon.
Her mind drifted back to the present. A summer of women—three generations of women, to be precise. Pix's eighty-year-old mother, Mrs. Arnold Lyman Rowe, Ursula, was already in residence at The Pines, the immense "cottage" Ursula's father had built for his family by the shore in the late 1890s.
In those days, the rusticators' journey was not a five-hour drive from Boston, but one stretching out over two days, starting with the embarkation from the Eastern Steamship pier on Atlantic Avenue—complete with steamer trunks, portmanteaus, wicker lunch hampers, hatboxes, and all the other bulky accoutrements necessary for a back-to-nature summer. Ursula Rowe reflected ruefully on the soft-sided nylon luggage that sufficed for her now and told her daughter there would never be a better way to travel than those long-ago voyages.
Mother. Pix blew another shrill note on a blade of grass. Just as she was bewailing the departure of her fledglings, she was wondering how to clip Ursula's wings a bit, and once they were clipped, what would Pix do with her? Ursula resisted every effort to change her way of life and Pix was plagued with anxiety about all the things that could happen to her mother, still living alone both in Aleford and on Sanpere, rattling around The Pines with only Gert Prescott coming in a few times a week to do for her. Yet, where else would Mother go? Mother and daughter got along very well, but Pix was not sure how it would be if they were ever under the same roof. She had the strong feeling any roof Mother was under would soon become Mother's roof, and while Pix as a dutiful and loving child might be able to cope with this herself, Sam would not like it. At all. As it was, when everyone was on vacation on the island at once, away from work and school, ready for leisure activities specifically with Pix, she felt as if she were slowly being stretched to fit Procrustes's bed—pulled in opposite directions by her loved ones. She could navigate the road between her own cottage and The Pines blindfolded.
But something was going to have to be done about Mother. She even refused to wear one of the Medic Alert medallions supplied by Blue Hill Hospital. "There are so many people going in and out of my house every day that if anything ever happened to me on this island, you'd know before I did," she'd told Pix. There was some truth to this. Sanpere was a close-knit community; some might even call it too close-kit. But still Pix worried. Mother was so stubborn.
Just like Samantha. Pix had unfortunately assumed any adolescent turmoil on her daughter's part would be over at age seventeen. Recently, it seemed Samantha was making up for lost time, a late bloomer—not that she stayed out until daybreak or had pierced her nose. But "Oh, Mother" punctuated their conversations with alarming frequency. Lately, Samantha hadn't seemed very interested in completing her collection of island mosses, last summer's all-consuming passion, and she was letting her hair grow, abandoning the style Pix favored for what she feared might be "big hair."
Pix looked around. It was a typical Maine day, which meant the sky was perfectly blue, the air clear, the sun pleasantly warm. If she was at the shore, the water would be a slightly darker blue, with an occasional whitecap. She took a deep breath. For Christmas one year, her brother had given her a can of Maine air, the kind they sold to tourists up at Bar Harbor. She'd laughed along with everyone else, then late that night she'd gotten out a can opener and opened it, closing her eyes and burying her nose inside before it could mix with the Massachusetts molecules. She didn't think it was her imagination. There was a hint of balsam and a crispness, then it was gone. She opened her eyes to look into an empty can that she quickly threw away before anyone could tease her.
Arnold Rowe, her brother, an orthopedic surgeon, was thirty-nine, six years younger than Pix, and there were just the two of them. He and his wife, Claire, lived in New Mexico. Arnie was attentive to Ursula—from a distance—and of course reaped all sorts of glory merely by showing up. He was the fair-haired son, and if Pix hadn't loved him so much, she might have resented all the attention he got, arriving in Sanpere on vacation or for fleeting holiday visits in Aleford when he would not be called on to drive Mother to doctor's appointments, Symphony on Fridays, tea with her friends, the flower show, the ...
Arnie and Claire would be arriving sometime in July. Mother had had his boat taken out of storage and all was in readiness for his return. Gert would leave Arnie's favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb pie, for the first night's dinner, and then they'd see very little of the two Rowes, what with sailing, golf, tennis, cocktails, and dinners at their innumerable friends' houses on the island and mainland. They wouldn't see them, but the house would still be in a whirlwind as they dashed from place to place. He'd leave with regret: "Where did the time go? We'll take that sail to Vinalhaven next year, I promise." Things would settle down, and Pix would find herself missing the clutter of Arnie's tennis things and golf clubs in the hall.
All this reminded Pix: she had taken Mother's supply of sheets down to Aleford for the winter to wash and repair. "You can't get percale like this anymore," Ursula asserted, and Pix agreed. The linens were like silk. She'd have to unearth them, or her brother and his wife would be sleeping on mattress ticking. She laughed at herself and felt better. Sure Arnie and Claire were a little self-centered, but they were also fun to be with and very generous to their nephews and niece. With no children of their own, they encouraged visits; Mark had once spent a whole vacation with them, exploring cliff dwellings and learning about the Anasazi.
Pix stood up and stretched. The first day with one foot still in Aleford was always a little difficult. It would take some time to get into her island rhythm—maybe another hour or two.
After returning home, she spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking. Samantha had left her a note saying she'd taken her bike over to Arlene Prescott's house but would be back by five o'clock, in plenty of time to go to Granny's. Ursula had invited them for dinner this first night. Arlene was Samantha's best friend on the island. They'd known each other all their lives and each year picked up where the last had ended. They had been faithful pen pals when younger. More recently, the correspondence had degenerated to a few postcards. Presumably, teenage life on Sanpere was just as time-consuming as it was in Aleford—even with the closest mall sixty miles away.
Pix unpacked her clothes. It didn't take long. She smiled to herself at what Faith would say about her choice of raiment. On Sanpere, Pix lived in jeans, shorts, and turtlenecks or polo shirts, depending on the weather. Tonight, though, she'd change into a skirt. Mother had worn pants all her life, but she didn't like to see them at dinner. Pix donned a white wraparound skirt and, with a nod to Faith, paired it with a bold black-and-white-striped Liz Claiborne shirt. She slipped on some red espadrilles, washed her face and hands, combed her hair, and was ready. When Samantha came home, she eyed her mother approvingly. "You look nice, except you forgot your lipstick."
"No I didn't," Pix replied. "I'm on vacation."
"Oh, Mother." Samantha went off to get ready, a process that took considerably longer than her mother's titivations.
Excerpted from The Body in the Basement by Katherine Hall Page, Phyllis G. Humphrey. Copyright © 1994 Katherine Hall Page. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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