This is still very much a work in constant progress...
New chapters will be added in between current chapters and holes will be filled.
I had hoped that the living room bar with all of its shiny bottles of booze and its counter full of ashtrays would dissuade my parents from leaving, but I guess I underestimated their need to get rid of me that summer. It was a room made for parties and there had obviously been one recently. Empty glasses littered the room and there were bottles of varying degrees of emptiness on every flat surface, including the golden hardwood floor. Still, even my 13-year-old self knew it was a beautiful room. The windows were bright and clean and plentiful. Not one water spot dared to live on those gleaming surfaces. The furniture was beyond trend. It was grey and blue and not puffy. There were no patterns, not a plaid or a flower dared to land on the fabric. All the tables were solid wood, stained to show off the real hues, not the orangey tones that my parents dropped all over our own house. The walls were white, but with a hint of grey, and there were real paintings hanging. None of them had kids with big eyes or black velvet like my dad liked. I stared at one that had the palest yellow spiral pulling me in for the first seven minutes we were there. I wished so hard that it really could pull me into its textured world.
I watched my mother look around like someone searching for comfort in the known. She had spent a few weeks here every summer as a kid, so I imagined she was checking to make sure it was the same, but what did I know? My dad just stared at the starburst clock over the bar. Nothing registered to him but time, and it was getting late. The drive from California had been long and quiet. The back seat was the perfect place to watch my parents carefully ignore each other for nine hours. We’d stop to get food, and the conversation was directed at me and me alone. What would I want for my birthday that summer? What did I think of my mom’s new book idea? Did I think it was a good idea for my dad to take time off from his engineering job to come visit for my birthday? It was ridiculous, and yet I was a part of it, too. I hated all of us that day.
My great-grandfather's fourth wife, Eliza, the widow of the amazing William Keller - writer extraordinaire - sized me up over a cigarette. She had that wrinkled pucker only chronic smokers can have after decades of puffing, but she still had a look about her that made you realize she was once gorgeous, although her makeup was currently smeared and there were almost two inches of grey roots peeking above a very faded red color job. Her hair needed to be shorter, I decided while staring at her. And she needed to let the red go. The slate grey and white of her roots made me calm, but the almost burnt orange color of the ends made me agitated. I wanted her bob to be cut above her ears, like Sheena Easton. Her pointy face was pretty, I decided. She had a few wrinkles on her forehead and around her mouth, but they looked okay on her face, and she was 66, so wrinkles seemed right. She was holding her cigarette in front of her face, just staring at it after a long, concentrated inhale. She watched the ash grow longer. I wondered if she was drunk right now. I'd read William's biographies. All of his wives were alcoholics. I'm sure there was a direct correlation between drinking and being married to someone so arrogant and weird.
"There's plenty to do around here with Bill gone. So, if you feel like you need to dump her somewhere, this is as good a place as any, I guess," she said when she finally put the inch-long ash out in an empty vodka bottle on her coffee table. My mom had the decency to look a bit shocked, but my dad kept glancing at the clock above my head. I stared at him, imagining what the girlfriend my mom had discovered looked like. Pretty, if he was willing to overlook the fact that he was leaving me with this scary woman I'd only met once as a toddler. At that moment, I hated him. It wasn’t hard to feel that way, considering how much my mom had cried and the things her friends had said about him. He was never the dad who spent a lot of time with me, either, so it was so easy to paint him as the villain. He was selfish, and my mom wasn’t, so it was an easy choice; I loved my mom, and I hated him.
"It's not that we're dumping her!" my mom said, "I thought maybe you could use the help to go through William’s things…"
"Oh, yeah, that," Eliza waved it off. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, or Danielle, in order to feel better. Spencer is a great little town."
I fell in love with her at that moment, although I was sure her words were the product of the many bottles of liquor surrounding us on shelves. I admired the fact that she could say whatever was on her mind. It made me wish I were almost 70 years old. Or drunk.
I looked directly at my mom, trying on Eliza's bravado, "I'm fine. You two should leave now. It's obvious Dad has somewhere to be."
My mom looked at her hands, but it was very clear that Dad missed my words completely. They got up to leave, and I didn't even give him a hug. I was sure he'd get plenty from his girlfriend, why waste my time on him? Mom squeezed me and tried not to cry. I wanted to tell her to stay here, too, away from my dad, the Big Bad Wolf, so he couldn’t chew her up and spit her out. She didn’t deserve a nine-hour drive alone with him. She was too soft for that.
"I'll come get you as soon as my book is done, okay?" She rubbed my hair like I was still a kid. I nodded, looking at her without tears. I was pushing my fingernails, always too long for my dad’s taste, into the palm of my hand to avoid crying. I was keeping my eyes dry by wondering if the fingers had drawn blood yet.
"Okay," I replied with the smallest fake smile I could feign, “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” she whispered. Her voice wasn’t hers, but I nodded, trying to stay dry-eyed as they walked out the door.
As soon as they left, Eliza turned back to me. "You hungry? I'm famished. Your parents stressed me out with all that bullshit." I followed her into the kitchen, which was surprisingly clean, white with chrome and black accents. It was bigger than ours. The floors were stone, dark grey, but not black, not charcoal. An island with a wide counter sat in the middle, with a stovetop that looked scarier than the one we had at home. Ours had spirals; hers had tall geometrical cages. I wondered if she had a housekeeper or something. It looked so new. I was that odd 13-year-old who liked things hyper clean, so the kitchen was reassuring. My bags were still by the front door. This was all I'd seen of the house I was going to spend my summer in, and I was hoping the bathrooms matched the kitchen and not the living room. I let my fingernails leave my palms. When I glanced down, I was surprised to see no blood, only pale indents.
"Yeah. They're pretty dumb right now."
She made some gurgling coughing sound that I realized was laughter, and said, "Yeah. People are always stupid when they're breaking up. "
She opened up the bright white fridge, some giant thing that had more doors than a fridge should have, and pulled out a pizza box, "This is from last night. It's sausage. How do you feel about that?"
I shrugged and took a slice. I didn’t even know I was hungry. "Did they tell you they're breaking up?"
"No, but isn't it obvious to you?" She handed me a plate and a glass of milk. Pointing at a stool by the island. I sat, nodding as I bit into the pizza. Two black labs suddenly appeared, and Eliza let them eat sausage from her palm. One sniffed my butt as the other rubbed its nose against my crotch which made Eliza shoo them from the kitchen. They left out of a door I hadn’t noticed earlier. More windows. So many windows.
"When Bill and I broke up, nobody knew. We went on pretending, because he was famous. I think that's what eventually healed us. You know what they say: Fake it until you make it. One night we were at a party. I was flirting with another man, thinking about the future, you know? When we got home, he yelled at me and threw things. Then he stayed the night in my room. Something he hadn't done in months." I knew she meant they had sex, but I tried to look cool about it. I mean, I knew what it was, even though my knowledge was limited to sex ed, Judy Blume, and a couple of quick peeks at a magazine my dad kept in their bathroom.
"My dad doesn't want to pretend, even for me. He's a selfish bastard," I said, borrowing the words I heard my mom's friends use the night my dad told my mom he wanted to leave. I waited to see if Eliza would be shocked by my rough language. She wasn't. Instead, she poured a drink from a bottle out of the freezer.
"Men are always selfish, and they're always bastards. Things haven’t changed just because it’s 1986." She raised her glass to the sky and drank it down like water. I raised my milk glass and said, "I'll keep that in mind."
She gurgled a laugh again. I almost laughed myself, but something inside hurt too much. The dogs scratched, begging to be let in, and I asked Eliza which room would be mine.
“Oh, it’s the first door on the right at the first landing. The bathroom is the next door down. Need me to show you?”
“No. I can get it.”
“Okay. I’m going to stay up and watch a movie. You’re free to join me, if you like.”
I didn’t want to, but it took me a half-beat to admit it to her, so she waved me away.
“You have to be tired after that bullshit. Off to bed with you!”
I got my suitcase and wandered up the stairs. I could hear her starting a movie, something old from the music. In my room, I could barely hear anything with the door closed. I sat on the bed and looked around. It was clean. And huge. I was grateful. I got up and unpacked my case into the white dresser. All the furniture was white and it smelled faintly of lemons. The sun was heading down, so the place had a warm glow to it that matched the scent. It was late, almost 9:30. Tears were falling down my cheeks now, but they were for my mom. I knew I would be safe here, in the room she stayed in all those summers, but she would be alone now.
That next morning, I discovered that Eliza was someone who liked to sleep in. Waaaaaay in. I showered, looked through the kitchen cabinets, got myself a bowl of cereal, brushed my teeth, and sat in my room for an hour before realizing she wasn't getting up any time soon. It was almost 11:00.
So I wandered around the house, giving myself a tour and picking up as I went along. It was a giant farm house that had been updated in the '50s into something amazing - bigger rooms, more windows, expensive furniture. And, luckily, it was all very clean. Looking out one window, I saw the start of a beautiful garden. It reminded me of the summer before, when my family went to France. I think my mom had already been desperate then, knowing my dad was wandering off. Everywhere we went, she took too many pictures and smiled and laughed too much. She always wore red, my dad's favorite color, and curled her hair. It obviously had not worked.
One dark room was filled with books, a word processor (under a cover I was afraid to move), and a dusty typewriter. I opened the blinds to let in the sun and made myself at home. There were tons of notebooks that were day-to-day notes of William's - Had a croissant, but it was terrible. So boring. I looked through the bookshelves and found a couple that looked good. When I opened the first one, Tales From the Jazz Age, I saw a bunch of scribbles on the pages. I couldn't believe that a novelist like William Keller would damage books like that. I ruffled through the pages – all of them had pencil markings. All of them.
I started to read.
Life is so dull right now. Everyone is boring and the talk is all the same. I left the States hoping to find something to capture my attention, but it seems the entire world has fallen into a routine of nothingness. Even the food has no flavor.
I drink to keep my sanity.
The children are noisy and I am tired of being married to Ruth. I once found her beautiful and exciting, but staring at her today I felt nothing but a sense of disdain. I can't even hate her; that would involve some sort of passion, and I have none for her. She might as well be the maid. She tried, bless her simple little heart, always wearing the earrings I got her when we first were engaged and that perfume. When she suggested sending the kids back to stay with her mother, I felt something close to fear. At least they distract her while I explore the local scenery…
I drove for miles last night with the headlights turned off, but the full moon kept me from dying. It is not my time as of yet. When will this end??? It's tiring. I have to stop this. As soon as the kids are less of a burden to her, I will leave. I feel I owe her that much.
I try to write, but no words appear on the page. I need a Muse. I need a woman to fill me with desire, so that the words will pour out again. I need someone to touch and caress without one ear listening for the sounds of children. I just need. I fucked a prostitute, but it was nothing but a different skin to touch. I need someone to dazzle me…
At thirteen, some of what I read was beyond me, and I was shocked that a married man would have sex with a hooker. How could I understand that relationships sometimes just didn't work out? I was struggling to figure out why my dad would do this to me and my mom. Trying to liken it to William Keller's margin notes was confusing me more. I wasn't noisy. Mom wrote and illustrated picture books from a studio behind our house – hardly a profession that created anxiety in our home. She was always available to bake cookies and help with homework. She was beautiful, too, all my friends said so, and, well, the sex thing made me feel weird, but my parents used to go on weekend trips without me, so I knew I wasn't the problem there.
So why did he find someone else?
I decided that discovering these notes was going to make sense out of the weirdness that was happening back home. There are no coincidences, right? Maybe my great-grandfather was reaching out to me in some supernatural way, trying to help me understand my father so I could hate him a little bit less. Or maybe so I would hate him more. The idea didn't upset me. I started to organize my summer reading schedule. I grabbed a dusty sheet of paper from the stack next to the typewriter and found a pencil in the top drawer of the desk. First thing on my list? Vacuum & dust.
The problem with the margin notes was the lack of dates. The newer notes were obvious because his writing got shakier and shakier and the copyrights more recent, but I could only guess at the older entries. The journals helped me create a better timeline, although they were written as though he knew someone would be reading, so they were just there to check events. I sat with the stack of fake diaries next me, browsing quickly through their paranoid-ly generic pages (nothing subtle about his intention to fill them with nonsense) until I found mention of a newly-read book. I would then search the shelves for a copy, knowing that’s where he had felt free to share his real thoughts. I started making a list and shelving them in some sort of order.
He didn't worry about Eliza - She is not a reader, unless you count the endless stream of gossip magazines that show up every Thursday in our mailbox. I remembered seeing some of those in the living room and noted that things hadn’t changed much through the years. Eliza didn’t seem the type to care about books, other than the ones William wrote that gave her a pretty comfortable life.
William spent time with Hemingway - what a bastard - and argued with Dorothy Parker - dirty, nasty drunk who smells like dog shit - and I couldn't wait to read more about them than the quick bits that were scribbled on the inside covers of their books. My mom has two degrees in literature. I started reading at three. My great-grandfather’s contemporaries are a big deal to her, knowing his view on them made me feel like I knew even more than she did. William was our family treasure, the reason why she had an easier time starting her writing career. I was figuring this out more and more the older I got. Even though she wasn’t a novelist, all of her book bios contained “granddaughter of author William Keller,” and every review mentioned him. He followed her like a ghost.
To say William was eccentric and unbalanced would be understatement – something he hated as a writer. He was a bold man and his writing reflected it. He was quoted as saying, “Subtlety is the crack in American culture. We use it to hide what we’re really feeling, hoping someone will read through it and understand what we really want. No one will. Subtlety is pure horse shit.” I used that quote in an essay I had to write for my seventh-grade English class, and my teacher had mixed emotions about it, but I still love it. It seemed so perfect, looking back at that time, since my parents' marriage seemed built on quiet hints of wants and needs.
"I thought you'd find your way here," Eliza opened the door, making me jump. "This was always Bill’s domain - always a mess - and I have no desire to clean it up now, so if you want to work on it, you can. Feel free to box up anything you want."
She didn't even pick up a book, just stared at me sitting there with the pile of notes.
"You finding anything good in those journals?"
I picked one up and read from it, thankful for the mundane scribble, "Saw Ted at the store. Listened to him prattle about nothing interesting. Ate tuna fish at lunch. Ruth added pickle. Made it almost edible. Cleaned out the shed. Almost time to rake."
Eliza shook her head. "Hard to imagine he wrote some of the greatest literature known to man, huh? Well, I was thinking we could head into town and get some lunch, if you want."
I put down the book, wishing I could say no - that I'd be happy to stay here until my mom came to get me. "Sure. That sounds great."
"They have milkshakes at the Soda Shoppe."
"I need some hair of the dog, then we'll head out."
"What's hair of the dog?"
"Oh, girly, I have much to teach you this summer!" She laughed, less phlegmy than last night, and I followed her down the stairs into the kitchen. “Hair of the dog is what we drinkers do after a fantastic night to relieve the pain the following morning.”
I must have looked at her oddly, because she laughed again, poured some tomato juice into a glass and then opened the freezer where she grabbed ice cubes and a bottle of vodka. “Follow me,” she said, leading me back to the living room where she grabbed olives from a cabinet by the bar. She held the jar out to me and I took a couple, then she poured some of the liquid from the jar into her glass.
“Vitamins, salt, fatty olives, and vodka. The only thing better would be greasy fries, which Ruthie will have.”
While she drank, I looked at her. She was pretty. Her face was clean, she’d touched up her lipstick and mascara, and she put a pretty scarf over her hair. It covered the weird orange, and I couldn’t help but say, “I really like the grey and white of your hair. Why do you dye it?”
She shook the ice left in her tumbler and looked at me with interest, like she was just seeing me. “I guess because Bill loved my red hair, so I wanted to keep it. He’s been gone almost two months now, and I haven’t even thought about it. You don’t think it makes me look older?” She glanced at her reflection in the mirror above the bar.
“No. It’s like Anne Bancroft’s hair in The Graduate. Hers was grey with that streak, right?”
She laughed. “No, it was brown with blonde, and she was only 35 in real life, but I’m sure she seemed older to you, as she was supposed to. Did you like that movie?” She started walking back to the kitchen, “Let’s leave out the side door.”
“I haven’t seen it, but I saw pictures. My mom said we can rent it when it comes out on tape.”
“Do you know what it’s about?”
She opened the door and the dogs came running in.
“I read the book.”
She nodded while petting the fatter of the two. I still didn’t know their names. “You like to read, huh?”
“I do.” I walked behind her, wishing I were anyplace else. The dogs were hyper and drooling, and I was regretting wishing Eliza was awake. I wondered if my mom would come get me if I guilt-tripped her enough.
We wandered out the door, passed the garden, and into a giant red barn through a small door. The big doors on the house side were closed, but the far end was already open. There were five cars and a pickup in there. Eliza pointed to a convertible with only two seats. “No, boys! No!” she yelled at the dogs, making them go lay down by a bench as I sat in the front seat of the smallest car I’d ever seen.
“Well? Whaddya think?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t know cars came this small. Or this yellow.” The car was almost fluorescent.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” she said as she turned the key. “I have always loved cars.” As she shot us out of the open side, dirt spewed from behind us. I worried about the dogs, but I couldn’t look back. My stomach jumped, and I grabbed the dash, hoping not to vomit.
“1986 is the year you learn how to drive, Dani!”
I didn’t remind her that I was only 13. I was too busy trying not to cry again. How could this be my life? How could my parents leave me with someone that was so unbalanced? I didn't deserve this. My grades were perfect, I wasn’t wild, I kept my room clean – what more could they want from a daughter? I looked at Eliza. Her scarf was billowing behind her like an old movie. She looked so happy. I let go of the dashboard and looked around.
It was pretty. Eliza’s house was on the edge of town, and the area was green with fields. The houses by hers were older, built for the small ranches that existed in the ‘30s. Now the old farmland had a few horses and sheep, a couple had a handful of cows, but they were really just shy of being what my dad called hippie communes, places that people were trying to homestead in a casual way.
Town wasn’t very far. Honestly, we could have walked. I said so, too.
"You're right, but convertibles are more fun and we're picking up groceries, too."
The streets were small, which forced Eliza to slow down, so I could take everything in. There was a lot of brick, just like back home. It was comforting. The street we were on had wide sidewalks by the storefronts. A few people were out talking to neighbors. A flower shop had some pots out front. The buildings were two-story. It was cute.
Eliza drove past that little section and sped up a little. She turned a corner onto a wider road and went down a block, before parking in a small lot. There was a pharmacy, The Soda Shoppe, and a small corner market in the strip mall. It was remodeled to look old fashioned. Or maybe it was just old and was recently repainted, either way. I was expecting more.
“First, we get you a chocolate milkshake and some overly salted French fries. You need to meet Ruthie.”
The outside didn’t matter as soon as we walked in. I decided it was going to be my summer hangout. It smelled like heaven to a teen girl. Donuts were frying, ice cream was everywhere, candy lined the walls in the cleanest jars I’d ever seen, and everything was spotless and white. A woman that looked my mom’s age walked over and hugged Eliza, “I thought you were giving up sugar!”
“I’m not here for me! This is Bill’s great-granddaughter, Danielle. She’s here for a chocolate shake, and we both want fries.”
“I’m pretty sure we can do that. Have a seat anywhere,” she said while walking away. She glanced back once over her shoulder to wink and say, “It’s nice to meet you, Danielle.” I liked her. We sat at a small round table with three chairs.
“She seems nice.”
“Ruthie’s the best person I know, and I know a lot of people. Did you know that Bill’s first wife was also named Ruth? It used to make me wonder if he thought of her every time we saw Ruthie. Crazy, huh? The mind… Anyway. Ruthie was a bartender for a long time, but it got hard when she gave up drinking.” There was an odd pause and Eliza picked at a fingernail to fill it. Her nails were a bright orange-red and obviously fake. “We used to be drinking buddies. Now I come visit her here so that I can still know her. It was our compromise. That and she wouldn’t try to get Bill and me into AA. She never did, but I know people in recovery – they always want to bring you into the fold. I can’t stand that churchy stuff. You’re not religious, are you?”
“No. I mean, I went to vacation bible school one summer with a friend. It was all Jesus and lambs. At least, that’s all I remember.”
She laughed. “Yeah. That’s about all I remember, too.” She picked at her fingernail again. “One more thing that I remember from my church days: Have patience with all things, but first of all, yourself. St. Francis de Sales. My parents tried to make me a Catholic. It didn’t really stick, but it did get me a beautiful wedding to my first husband and a lot of money.”
“Well, I used to be quite the looker, and there was a boy at mass every Sunday that really liked that about me. His dad had died, but his mother liked my parents, so we ended up married. He died a couple of years later and left me a lot of money.”
“Were you sad?”
She looked me in the eyes and said, “Not really. He wasn’t that nice.”
Ruthie showed up just then, carrying a silver tray with our order. “The fries are HOT, so don’t get crazy with them. Here’s your shake, Danielle. And some ketchup, or would you rather have ranch dressing?” I was already squirting ketchup on to one corner of my basket and shook my head. Eliza answered for me.
“This is fine, Ruthie. Can you sit for a bit?”
Ruthie sunk into the other chair and stole a fry from Eliza’s basket. “So, Danielle, how long will you be staying?”
I looked at Eliza, “I’m not really sure.”
“Her parents are having some troubles and thought my craziness would distract her. She’s going through Bill’s books for me. And then I’m going to teach her how to drive.”
Ruthie laughed and took another fry. “Is that so you can have another chauffeur?”
Eliza laughed as Ruthie went on, “Eliza is the one that got Bill to start collecting cars, but the ones she loves the most are always two-seaters. He always grumbled that she liked drying her hair in the wind but hated to drive. And she always told him that she was paying him to be her driver anyway and that he should just shut up.” Eliza laughed, but I saw something funny in her eyes. Like there was more to the story.
I watched as they reminisced some more. The best thing about being a kid is that adults often think you’ve tuned them out; the best thing about being a teen girl is that you learn quickly when the conversations are important. I kept eating those fries and drinking that milkshake as I learned more and more.
"Remember that year Bill talked me into the truck? Said it would be a better choice for winter and then I went ahead and slid it into that ditch the first weekend. There was no way I was ever going to drive that thing again. The way the backend wagged like a dog's tail when I hit that ice...Still can't believe that's the car Bill insisted on teaching your mom in, Dani. Allyson was always too soft and nice to tell people no. You should've seen her! I doubt she was any taller than you are right now. He would start out all nice and patient and then yell at her. She probably never got over that."
They drifted into some boring discussion about an upcoming parade and the cars they were going to use. I could only think about how my mom was still too nice and soft. She went along with everyone's wishes. My dad would get so tense about things like dinner, and my mom would tell him whatever he wanted was fine with her. I'd see his jaw get tight and he would sometimes say, "A sandwich is fine. I have to finish up some work anyway." I never got why he could get so mad about her wanting him to be happy. What's so bad about being easy-going? Why get mad when she was happy to put her needs and wants after his? It was just more proof that my dad was a jerk. My mother didn't deserve that.
“Oh, Dani, I hope I see a lot more of you! Is it okay if I call you Dani?,” Ruthie smiled as she got up to greet new customers. “It’s a quick walk and an even quicker bike ride from Eliza's.”
“I’ll be down as much as possible.”
It felt safe there. The smells were familiar, like some universal scent of childhood.
"What do you think?" Eliza asked.
"She's great. I love it here. The fries are perfect."
"They really are. It wasn't here when your mom was a kid. There was a little counter at Woolworth's that she loved. We'd go there for lunch a few times a week. She'd have whatever Bill was having, didn't matter what it was, either. He loved making her try the oddest combinations. We would laugh later, because there was just no way she was ever going to tell him that she hated anything. He used to say, 'Ally is a good egg. She'd eat a shoe horn, if I suggested it, just to make me feel good about my choices.' She's pretty damned pleasant, your mother. It's too bad men don't like that more."
"What do you mean?"
She swiped a fry through my pool of ketchup and took her time eating it. "A lot of us were raised to make men happy, but the way we were taught was all wrong. Men don't give a shit whether or not you can cook them a good pot roast on a Sunday night. In fact, I swear Bill thought fighting was foreplay. He hated his first marriage, because it was boring. Every day the same routine. Bill had a restless heart, you know. He needed someone to keep him guessing, or he would create some drama to entertain himself. My first husband used to hit me and tell me that I sounded like his mom. I started hitting back until he left for the war. He died in a car accident while home from the Navy – he wasn’t some sort of hero, like our home town tried to make him - and I never missed him one day. I'll bet Bill's ex-wives didn't miss him, either. He was such an ass, but it worked for us, because I wasn't about to shine some fucking man's shoes for him, you know?"
I didn't. I had no idea what foreplay was and I still didn't get why being nice was boring to men. Eliza finished up the fries, left some money on the table, and waved at Ruthie to let her know we were leaving. As we walked out, I asked, "What's foreplay?" as we walked past a young couple, and they burst out laughing. Eliza laughed with them and said, "I'll tell you later."
I knew she would, too. Eliza wasn't a liar.
My mom told me one story before we left California. She wanted me to feel comfortable, so she told me about the summer she drove herself to visit Eliza and William. She was 19 and felt the most daring she probably ever had. She drove from Brown University to Spencer, a 45-hour trek that took her six days.
"By myself! I thought for sure that William would be impressed, but he wasn’t. He kept saying driving alone in a car was no big deal, and he dared me to hitchhike back.”
“Hitchhike? But that’s dangerous! Don’t people die?”
“It was 1966, so a lot of people did it, but I was too scared. William could tell. He laughed at me and then left to go drink with friends. Eliza stayed, though. I went to my room and cried. I was tired and honestly thought I had finally accomplished something that would make him see me differently, something that was really important to me at 19. Eliza came and knocked on my door. She handed me a dirty martini, lots of olives, and we had a drink together. I asked her why he was such an asshole and instead of getting mad, she just said, ‘He can’t help himself, I guess. He always has to push people around, so that he can feel superior. And, I guess, he picks on you the most, because you look so much like him and act so much like your Grandma Ruth.’ She was always bluntly honest like that.”
“What’s wrong with being like Grandma Ruth?”
“Nothing, unless you’re William. She was the sweetest, most loving woman.” To me, my mom was the sweetest, most loving woman, so I was glad she was like Grandma Ruth.
“But you like Eliza, too, right?”
“I do! She’s loving, too, in a very different way. Ruth was softer. She would sacrifice her own happiness to make sure everyone else was comfortable. She told little white lies to keep everything calm, thinking that’s how you made a happy home. I sometimes think it backfired on her. I guess that’s what I was like at 19, too. I didn’t want to stir the pot by speaking up for what I wanted. Eliza, though, isn't much for smoothing the edges of a rough situation. She’s going to tell you what she’s thinking most of the time. She once told me that lying means you have to keep track of things. The truth means you never have to worry about keeping a ledger. And I always knew that she would answer any of my questions, no matter how difficult the truth would be.”
"Let's just grab a few things at the little market here," Eliza said, pointing. "Any favorites you'll want to keep in the house? Soda, cookies?" She grabbed a small basket.
"Um, I guess some Coke would be good. And chocolate chip cookies, please."
"Granny Smith apples? Celery," I was wandering through the small produce section and putting things in the basket.
Eliza laughed, "You are definitely your mom's kid, rounding off the sweets with some healthy choices. I love it. Do you like grapefruit? The pink kind are my favorite." She grabbed a couple and looked at me.
"I do. Can we grab a few more?"
"Anything else?" she asked, and I wondered if she was thinking I was like my mom, willing to eat a shoehorn.
"I like radishes with salt. Also, turnips with vinegar." I was thinking about the weirdest foods I loved. "Maple bacon and ham and sharp cheddar cheese… And whole wheat." Eliza grabbed them all without blinking an eye.
When we got to the counter, she asked for a carton of Marlboro Reds, "Oh, and I'm picking up a crate of alcohol. Tim said he had it put together for me." The cashier went over to a cabinet, unlocked it, and pulled out a box of liquor. Eliza glanced quickly at me and must have seen something in my face. "Time to refill after my last shindig, you know? It's not like it's all for me."
The car had a trunk so tiny, I wasn't sure if even the paper bags of groceries would fit. They did, but she handed me the box of alcohol. "That'll have to sit on your lap, Dani."
I squished in, the box pushing against my chest. I tried not to panic, but I kept picturing what would happen if we were in an accident. I imagined my face full of glass, stinging from the vodka and whiskey. I think I held my breath the whole way back to her house. She was talking about that last party, but I couldn't pay attention to anything but keeping the box steady.
It was going to be a long summer.
Back at the house, Eliza unpacked groceries and asked me to get the alcohol to the bar. She saw my face and said, "Don't worry. There's no wrong way to do it."
So I wandered into the party room. I went behind the bar with the box and started putting the bottles on the glass shelves. There were a few other containers there, and I tried to match up liquor for liquor. I didn't hear Eliza come in. When I turned around, she clapped. I couldn't tell if she was making fun of me, but I decided to go along with it and took a bow. She laughed, and then the phone rang. She wandered off. I heard her say, "Yep. I'll get her." I almost ran. I handed her the box and she mouthed, "It's your mom."
"Hi, Mom." Eliza whistled for the dogs and went outside to give me some privacy.
"Hi, Dans!" she always called me that, but tonight it sounded like she was faking being happy. "How's the second day going?"
"Good. I went for a drive in Eliza's tiny convertible and met her friend Ruthie. She owns The Soda Shoppe. She reminds me of you, super nice."
"Oh, I'm so glad."
"How was the drive home?"
"Well, your dad and I had a good talk. No yelling, I promise. We have a few things to work through."
"Okay." I knew there was only one thing to work through, but we were trying to step lightly. I wondered if she thought I didn't know.
"I should be sending the draft of my book to the editor in two weeks, if I can keep up this pace. Will that be okay?"
"Yeah. Eliza is having me go through William's books and journals. There's a lot to do. She told me I can have whatever I want. Can we make space for the ones I want?"
"Of course! That's a pretty special gift."
"I know. I'm being careful, Mom. I promise."
"I know, Dans. I trust you. I should go. You can call me later to say good night, okay?"
"I will. Love you."
"Love you, too."
I hung up. To keep myself from crying, I told myself I only had a few days to go through the books and box up the ones with writing to save for later.
Eliza was throwing tennis balls for the dogs. I went out to let her know I was done talking.
"How's she doing?"
"Okay, I guess. She's pretending to be happy for my sake."
Eliza looked at me, but I pretended not to notice. "A lot of people pretend to be happy."
"Yeah. I guess so. I just wish she felt comfortable being real with me. I mean, I'm her daughter, and I'm almost 14. Old enough to know when people are being fake."
"Definitely old enough to understand what it is to be hurt."
"Yeah. I haven't had a boyfriend, or anything like that, but I've had friends hurt me, you know? Even private school kids can be douchebags." I smiled at her, because I needed to smile at someone. Blue and Angel came back, begging for more throws.
"I'm guessing private school kids can be the worst kind of douchebags." We both laughed.
"Are you okay if I keep working on the office?"
"Go ahead. I'm going to take these guys down the road to Jane's. Her house is the grey one with the yellow trim, if you need anything. She and I like to take the dogs for walks on the hill behind her house."
Jeannette is so calm. It is such a relief after Anna. She knows my needs before I do, it seems. It doesn't matter the need, either. Food, drink, sex. I never need to ask for anything. We were out walking and she pulled me behind a tree to take me in her mouth. After the wedding, she wanted to meet before receiving everyone. She insisted I take her from behind while she still wore her white dress.
Judy Blume made me blush; William made me cringe. This was my mother's grandfather writing about his third wife like he was scripting a porno.
I couldn't stop reading.
Was drinking with Marty the other night. He asked me if my conscience kept me up at night after stealing Jeannette from Victor. I admitted that I hadn't given it a second thought. "We don't have the ability to steal people." Vick's a good guy. They were never going to last. Hem told me he would always love Hadley the best, but that she wasn't suited for the life he wanted for himself. I told him he was a liar. I'd been there when the two were so tight that I wondered if they'd die together from overindulging. I have never had that with a woman. Until now. Jeannette is my greatest muse. I'm writing a new book about her, The Third Wife.
My parents let me read whatever I want, but I remember they were concerned when I said I was going to read all of William's books. I was in the 5th grade at the hippie private school they'd found for me. My teacher was all about my relationship to a famous author, and he couldn't quit talking about it. I went home and told them over dinner, "Mr. Tucker is obsessed with William, so I need to read his books."
"Honey, I don't know if that's a good idea, yet," my mom said while she and my dad shared a look.
"Yeah. William wrote a lot of things that aren't appropriate for a 10-year-old, Dan."
"I understand that, but if people are going to basically quiz me about him every other day, then I feel that I need to know why."
"We could try talking with Mr. Tucker, if that helps," my mom offered.
"No. I really want to do this. We already had sex ed, so I think I'll be okay. If it's something I don't understand, well, I'll just skim over it, right?"
"Sure, Dan. That works." My mom was trying her best not to give him a death glare for agreeing, but I could see panic in her stare. He looked back and shrugged.
That night I started the first book, The Apocalypse. It was short, published when he was twenty, before any of the wives. A take on the Spanish Flu epidemic, it was modestly successful. In school, we'd barely touched on this time in American history, so I had to look up info in the encyclopedias we kept in Mom's studio. He wrote about what it was to survive when so many others didn't. The protagonist Henry lost a brother to the first world war and then a few friends to the flu. It was emotional and sad. That book made me wonder if there was more to William than the biographies I'd read let on.
"Hey, Mom?" She was working on a bunny illustration at her desk, while I finished the novella.
"There wasn't anything inappropriate here. I mean, a lot of death, but we read Anne Frank's diary, you know? I'm going to go get the next one now."
"You finished it? Didn't you just start that a couple of days ago?"
"Seriously, Mom. It was short." She laughed and waved me off.
His second book, Welcome to the New Age, was a little more risque. The narrator had multiple lovers and hung out in a lot of jazz clubs - mixed race clubs at that.
"So, I finished the second book." We were having dinner, something we once did together.
"What did you think?" my dad asked while digging pasta out of a big bowl.
"Remember when I told you about that girl Krista in my class who is on her third boyfriend of the year?"
"Yeah…?" Mom was taking the bowl from Dad. Her forehead showed concern.
"The guy was kind of like that. He seemed like someone who's afraid to be alone. I liked the parts with the jazz musicians, though. Does William have African-American friends?"
"I never met any…"
"Well, he wrote some nice things. I made sure to talk with Mr. Tucker about that. He seemed happy. The next one is about his third wife. She's the one who died after they got married, right, Mom?"
"Jeannette, yes, she died. I have mixed emotions about you reading that one."
"Why? Is it too much like a porno?"
My dad choked, "What do you know about pornos?"
"Nothing, really. There's a kid in our class who says his parents watch a lot of pornos about sex. I'm not going to tell you who, but I think you can probably guess, if you focus hard enough."
My mom sighed, and I could tell she was battling herself. They were the kind of parents who wanted to raise a free-thinker, but they also didn't want me growing up too fast. Or at least my mother didn't.
"It does have a lot of sexy parts. How about you promise to skim the uncomfortable sections until you're older?"
"Sure, Mom. I can do that."
It took me a year to get through all 37 books, with a lot of skimming. Some were compilations of his short stories. Two won Pulitzers. Many won other awards. I reread most of them through the years.