Oysterback, Maryland.--If she shifts a little and leans back against the trunk of the tree, Jeanne Swann can see all the way down past the soybean field to the river. Up here in the tree house, sheltered by leaves and protected from the world by dark blue night, she almost feels safe. Almost, but not quite. Ugly reality, like a hound from hell seems to be lurking just below, waiting for her to come down. She fishes a cigarette out of the crumpled package and lights it, inhaling deeply. The patches aren't working. Nothing, it seems to her, is working these days.
In the dark, she can just see the thin white straps of her sandals wrapped around her ankles. She has always been proud of her feet, small and well shaped, always paid as much attention to her toes as her fingers.
While she doesn't hear her husband coming up the tree, she's not entirely surprised when Hudson's face appears, pale beneath his beard in the moonlight.
"What time is it?" Jeanne asks.
"About two-thirty," Hudson replies. The silence between them is not uncomfortable. He climbs up on the platform and settles awkwardly down opposite her. He's a big man, tall and thick, and he doesn't like small spaces high up off the ground.
"So?" he asks, after a while.
"It's safer up here," Jeanne says.
When it looks as if Hudson doesn't understand, and men are like that, Jeanne shakes her head. "I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the fact that people are so poor, and times are so hard, and there's no relief in sight, but I tell you, this is the Age of Irritability.
"Listen, honey, Doreen and Desiree had a big fight because Doreen doesn't approve of what she thinks is Desiree 'running' that young boy, Michael, and then Carlotta Hackett was there getting her roots done and she jumped into it and Desiree and Doreen turned on her, and she stormed out of the salon and backed into Faraday Hicks' pickup truck, and he told her she was mutton dressed as lamb, and when Faraday went into Omar Hinton's, he was so mad he kicked Warner, Omar's dog, and Omar threw a price gun at his head.
"Only trouble was, he missed and hit your father, Mister Hardee, square in the jaw and dislodged his upper plate, and Mister Hardee got so mad he went for Omar, but he fell over Warner, who was lying in the middle of the floor and knocked over the Little Debbie Snack Cakes display. My mother, Miss Nettie, was over behind the Little Debbie Snack Cakes fetching a carton of milk down and all those Devil Dogs got all over her Wednesday afternoon bridge dress, and now she's mad at your father and Faraday Hicks and Omar.
"She went on over to the Blue Crab to wash off that sticky chocolate stuff in the ladies' room, and Beth, who was tending bar, was having trouble with the baby, and hadn't had a chance to clean out the toilets so she told Mom the restrooms were for customers only, and Mom was so put out that she called Beth and Paisley's baby a no-neck brat and said all the Redmonds weren't worth the powder it would take to blow them to hell, and Beth, well, you know how sensitive these artistic types are, she burst into tears, and about that time Ferrus T. Bucket came in, hoping someone was there who would buy him a drink and he told Beth she was a pretty useless bartender, so you know Mom, she gave him a piece of her mind, and Ferrus gave it right back to her, and I don't know what all, but Mom got so mad she took her Velveeta Cheesecake she was taking to Wednesday bridge party over at Hagar Jump's, she took and slammed the cheesecake right into Ferrus's nasty old face, which is the only way he'll ever get any of her cheesecake.
"I don't know what happened after that, because I got a call from Miss Wanda, over to the day-care to come and get the twins because they were fighting with Jason and Jeremy Goob, and then when I got home, you were in such a bad mood over the low price of crabs that I just stayed out of your way and here I am. I tell you, Huddie, I got through the whole day without fighting with anyone, and I intend to stay up here till things calm down, because it's safer up here."
Hudson takes a deep breath and one of his wife's cigarettes. "Believe I'll join you," he sighs, lying down to look up between the leaves at the stars.
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.