“You what? You what?”  Tommy’s voice, which he rarely raised, was so loud Ellen held the pay-phone receiver a full arm’s length from her ear.
                  “Calm down, Tommy,” she said.
                  “You call me up and tell me you put a house on your Optima card and you’re telling me to be calm? Damn it, Ellen, I...”
                  “It was a cheap house,” she cut in. “You just wouldn’t believe how cheap real estate is up here.”
                  “Yeah, because nobody in their right mind lives there. You’ve flipped, Ellen. Is there a state hospital nearby? You go check in right now. No, stay where you are. I’m calling the state troopers to pick you up.”
                  Ellen let silence resonate over the phone line for five seconds and then said, “You finished?”
                  “What got into you?” Tommy demanded, but the heat was gone from his voice, and Ellen believed that by the next afternoon he’d be milking this for all it was worth. She could just picture him, sitting in a booth at Michael’s Pub with all his lawyer buddies from the Public Defender’s Office. “Guess what my wife pulled?” he would say as he jiggled the ice in his Early Times and ginger. “She goes away for a week to visit her sister in Montreal, right? And before she even gets there she puts a fucking house on her credit card.” She could almost hear Bill Foster now. “Way to go, Ellen!” he would chant, raising his clenched fist in the air the same way he did twenty-five years ago when he was into Black Power; “Way to go, baby!” She smiled to herself just imagining it. The idea that she was still capable, at forty-six years old, of doing something outrageous thrilled her, and she felt a warm rush of self-love.
                  “Oh, Tommy, you’re gonna love it. It’s a little run down, you know? Nobody’s lived there for years, but I always wanted an organic farm, and...”
                  “Hel-LO, Hel-LO,” Tommy yelped. “Excuse me, Miss, but could you put my wife back on? Ellen Kenny?” Ellen stopped talking and simply thrummed her fingers on the metal shelf inside the phone booth. “Excuse me, Ellen,” he continued, “but this is the first I’m hearing about your lifelong wish to be an organic farmer. I’m going into shock over here.”
                  “Look, Tommy, it’s obvious we can’t talk about this now. Look, I’ll call you in a couple days...give you some time to get used to it.”
                  “Don’t hang up, Ellen.” His voice was thick with warning.
                  “It’s a done deed. Bye, Tommy.”
                  “Don’t hang up, Ellen.” This time the sing-song rhythm that particularly irritated her had been added.
                  “I’m gonna call you from Karen’s. I love you. Bye.”
                  She reached toward the phone. From the receiver, she heard “Ellen? Ellen! Ellen!” just before she pressed the disconnect button and everything went silent. Sighing, she backed out of the phone booth and glanced up and down Main Street, Lamone, New York. It might have been prosperous once, back in the 1890s when most of the buildings went up, but now many were half-burned, boarded up, empty. She noticed a flat, six-foot, wooden ice cream cone halfway down the block and started toward it, hoping for a cup of coffee. She definitely needed one. It had been a crazy day so far.
                  Ellen peeked in the door of the ice cream parlor but the row of video games beeping, whirring, and speaking out loud in robot voices put her off, and she backtracked to Newberry’s, where a huge fluorescent orange “Going-Out-Of-Business SALE” sign was taped across the front windows. She pulled the door open, spotted the lunch counter, and slid onto a naugahyde stool as far away as possible from the only other custom-er in the place, a cigarette smoker eating ham and eggs.
                  “Just a coffee,” she told the waitress.
                  “Sweet & Low and Half & Half,” she answered. It soon appeared in front of her and she sipped it gratefully. Tommy called it her “caffeine fix with white death and fat calories.” She smiled affectionately, thinking of her husband. They had been married seventeen years. Their marriage had crashed and nearly burned twice, but they had managed to stagger away from the wreckage--together--both times. A realist, Ellen viewed their relationship as average to above-average for people married that long. Not great, if such a thing existed (which she seriously doubted), but far, far above the murky marriage-swamp that many couples sunk into. She liked Tommy and he liked her. They still enjoyed each other’s company, and though sex had become something of a special event between them, they were both relatively good humored about that particular loss and took it in their middle-aged stride.
                  But suddenly Ellen experienced a little stab of terror. What if her outrageous act, which she thought was actually rather charming, backfired and Tommy got fed up and divorced her? One thing she knew for certain: in marriage, anything could be the final straw. If it all collapsed, would she really, at her age, find happiness as an organic farmer? Was it even remotely possible for her to find serenity in a broken down old farmhouse, a shack really, that sat on the steep slopes of a mountain town famous all over the North Country for its arctic winter temperatures and its overpopulation of black flies? She felt a bubble of hysteria rising inside her, ordered a refill of her coffee, and through sheer force of will, re-established her tunnel vision. She could not allow such peripheral fears and doubts to distract her from her goal, and her modest goal was simply to be herself. That didn’t sound like much for a woman of her age and experience but it was, and she was determined to devote herself to it.
                  Using a plastic stir-stick, she swirled her coffee with such intensity that a whirlpool formed in the middle. Ellen stared into it, mesmerized. It carried her away, back in time, to the end of the sixties when she was living in Somerville, Mass., in a house populated by so many hippies, her share of the rent was only twenty dollars a month. She was a sociology student at Tufts, but her class load had diminished each term in direct proportion to the increase in her extra-curricular activities, which included floating in an inner tube in Walden Pond while reading novels by Collette or Henry Miller, and waiting tables at a basement jazz club in downtown Boston.
                  One night after work, very late, she’d stood on Mass Ave. to hitch a ride across the river into Cambridge. A beat up ‘62 Plymouth Valiant stopped for her and she climbed in. It reeked of pot and beer.
                  “Where to?” the driver asked.
                  “North Cambridge. Porter Square,” Ellen answered. Her house was a quick walk from there.
                  “Right on my way,” he said, pulling out into the light traffic.
                  Ellen braced herself, stiff-armed, against the dashboard because, clearly, the driver, a long-hair wearing a leather vest and no shirt, was totally stoned. But then, at that time, everyone was always shit-faced and somehow simultaneously immune from harm. He stared, obviously transfixed, into the lights of Central Square, negotiated the turns and tunnels of Harvard Square with extreme concentration, and whooped with glee over the fact that the “Wee Bit O’Gloucester Bar” on the first floor of the Quality Motor Inn had suddenly become the “I Did It My Way Lounge.” He insisted on driving her to her door, but once they turned off Mass Ave. into the warrenlike streets of Somerville, the driver seemed to lose control of the situation. He veered to the right and scraped a parked car.
                  “Shit,” he said in a low voice as Ellen screamed. Peering intensely through the windshield as if they were in the midst of a blinding snowstorm instead of a clear summer night, he made a left, too wide, onto Lowell Street and broadsided a car on the other side of the block.
                  “Shit,” he said again as he continued slowly up the hill. Ellen got out midway up the hill, giddy with relief to be safely home. She watched his car turn left onto Highland Avenue and disappear.
                  For some reason, the memory of that driver’s profile, staring straight ahead and totally focused as all the havoc he created melted into nothingness behind him, inspired her. It became a secret and private source of strength. And somehow, she felt certain, buying this farmhouse was part of keeping her eyes focused on her goal, just to be herself, no matter how much hollering Tommy did or how terrified she suddenly felt at the Newberry’s lunch counter. This was somehow meant to be.
                  That’s what she had to believe.