It is a fall morning and Andrea is getting ready to set out with her dogs. Opening her window, she takes a deep breath. There is a crispness in the air, the smell of burning. Horse chestnuts are on the ground. Her dogs whine at her feet, anxious to be off, but she ignores them. Today she is not in a hurry. She isn’t heading out as the sky is turning pale. Already it is light.
Instead she sits at the window and waits. Looking out, she sees the route she takes every day, past the Vitales’ and the Partlows’ houses down to the end of Walnut, a woodsy cul-de-sac, where there is a path. The path loops into the woods around a large pond that breeds algae and mosquitoes in summer. In winter children skate on it. In the woods she has seen deer, raccoons, rabbits. Once a coyote darted from the bushes in front of her.
Andrea loves this cul-de-sac where she lives—Hartwood Springs. It’s something about the way the trees drape themselves across the road and the light streaming through them. Now Andrea sits at her window, a cup of coffee in her hand. She is gazing toward the Partlows’ house, which is on a rise. If she leans out slightly, she has a full view of the house, with its many wings, the garden, which is a rainbow of mums. Fall blooms.
She can see into the kitchen where Patrick and Loretta Partlow are reading the paper. He zips through the sections as Loretta reads slowly, one article at a time. Loretta pauses to make notes in a notebook beside her. As Andrea takes another sip of coffee, her dogs peer up at her. She pats their heads to calm them down, then looks around her apartment.
Though advertised as a one-bedroom, it is really a single room. A living room, dining room, and kitchen with a sleeping alcove off to one side. In the alcove, her clothes lie scattered on the unmade bed. The radio is on and in the background she hears the news. There is talk of peace in the Middle East, the economy soaring, a scandal that won’t go away.
A few of her early paintings hang on the wall. They are mostly landscapes and one portrait of a nude she did in school. She’s been meaning to replace them with more recent work but hasn’t gotten around to it. Her eyes travel from her paintings to the photograph in the entryway.
It is a picture taken long ago, of a house in autumn, set against a hillside of blazing color. Though it is faded, Andrea can spend hours staring at it. This was their summer house on Shallow Lake. Her stepmother, Elena, sent her the picture just after her father’s will was read. It was the only thing Andrea requested from his estate.
Andrea isn’t sure who took it, though she believes it was her father. She may have even been with him that day. She hung the photograph in her entryway so that she sees it every time she walks in or leaves. It is the last thing she looks at before she drifts to sleep. Now she gazes at it once more, then turns back to the window.
Patrick is rinsing the coffee cups in the sink as Loretta tosses the newspaper into the recycling bin. It is almost seven-thirty, time for them to head out the door. Normally by now Andrea would have finished her walk and been on her way home. When she walks, Andrea prefers to leave before six-thirty. If she sets out after seven, she runs the risk of crossing paths with Loretta and her husband.
Andrea does not like to have to stop and make small talk with her neighbors or to relinquish her pace. These walks are her only exercise, her time to think. It is on these morning strolls that Andrea tries to make sense out of what happened to her father. She has worn out her brother, Robby. She has worn out several friends, including Gil Marken, the math professor she’s been seeing for the past year. No one will listen to her anymore, though Robby in some ways agrees, and Charlie, her former boyfriend, says she may be right but she has no case.
It is true; there is no evidence. Nothing she can prove beyond a series of hunches. Still, Andrea knows what she knows, and though she tries not to think of it, though she says to herself as she walks, “I will think about something else, I will stop dwelling on this,” she does not stop. It is as if her mind can find nothing else to settle on. At times she wonders, If I didn’t have this to think about, then what would I? She runs it through her mind over and over again. It is a problem, like a Rubik’s cube, that she has looked at from every angle, tried to solve, until the pieces began to fall into place.
In the past Andrea went out of her way to avoid the Partlows because Loretta, whom she scarcely knows, would ask in that syrupy voice with the feigned tone of concern: “How is he doing?” “Is there any improvement? Any change?” Or later, after Andrea’s father died, “It was so odd—the way it happened.”
She found herself pulling back from these encounters, tightening in the gut. She had a feeling that if she allowed it, this woman would worm her way in. Get under her skin. So she always replied, “Oh, he’s the same.” Or “Not much change.” And she’d watch Loretta’s face, the pointy, wily-looking nose, the dark eyebrows that came together, furrowing her brow.
And then, after it was over, after he died, she chose to avoid their questioning stares altogether. It bothered Andrea. The way her neighbor tried to ingratiate herself. After all, Loretta Partlow barely knows her. They know one another well enough to say hello on campus, to exchange cordialities at faculty meetings and greet one another when walking in the woods they share a few miles from the campus.
But when Andrea’s father had his accident, Loretta sent a note of concern, an offer to have tea. “Dear Andrea,” she wrote, “Patrick and I were so sorry to hear about your father. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. I just want you to know that we are here if you need us …” The letter went on for a page or two, talking about losses and the nature of grief, well beyond any other condolence note Andrea received.
“I hardly know her,” Andrea said, tossing the note across the breakfast table to Charlie. Charlie works in communications. He publishes the Hartwood Chronicle—the newsletter that goes to parents and alumni—and he interviewed Andrea when she first came to Hartwood. He took her head shot as well. Charlie has a good eye for black and white, and Andrea complimented him, saying that his photo of her was her favorite. Afterward they kept running into each other, at the faculty club, at events.
At first Charlie thought Loretta’s concern was genuine. “It’s a neighborly gesture,” he said. But then he asked around. He heard stories about her. A friend once confided in Loretta Partlow that he believed he had been the cause of his mother’s suicide. He had left the house one day when his mother begged him to stay, and she had killed herself in his absence. Loretta had comforted the friend, consoled him. She had assured him that his mother was unstable and perhaps would have killed herself no matter what. Then, six months later, a short story with just that plotline appeared in a national publication.
When Charlie heard that, he cautioned Andrea, “Don’t tell her a thing. You’ll just be grist for her mill.”
Andrea had written back—a polite but terse note saying she appreciated the concern, that for the moment she was wrapped up in family matters, but when she had time, in the future, she would let Loretta know.
When Andrea moved into the neighborhood, she wasn’t that familiar with the works of Loretta Partlow. She’d read only a novel or two that was required for school, but they hadn’t made a lasting impression. But Elena had been amazed when Andrea said she was living down the block from the author of What If? “I loved that book,” Elena said.
So Andrea read a few of Loretta’s early novels, the ones that won prizes and made it to Oprah’s Book Club, and a few of the short stories that were always appearing in magazines. It seemed as if she couldn’t open a magazine at the doctor’s office or beauty salon—or after her father’s accident, in the innumerable waiting rooms where she found herself spending her days and nights, and then in lawyer’s offices, and outside judge’s chambers—and not find a story or poem by Loretta Partlow.
The ubiquitous Loretta Partlow. Like a new vocabulary word, this woman seemed to be everywhere. Her name sprawled across the front of magazines or The American Review of Books, where her essays and reviews were published. Or in Hartwood itself, where her knowledgeable and amusing syndicated column, “Gardener’s Euonymus,” appeared.
Andrea liked the poems best. She found them edgy, often cruel, especially those that explored gender issues. (“His sword cuts through me but I am butter …”). She taped a poem to her refrigerator about a man making obscene phone calls to the wrong woman (“For though he did not know me, /it seemed as if he did./He knew where to place his lips;/how long to linger there”).
But the novels seemed excessive, and though friends pressed copies into her hands, saying, “You must read this,” Andrea could hardly bring herself to finish them. Some were about families, and she could relate to these. A few posed interesting metaphysical questions about the purpose of life, and she thought these were among Loretta’s best. But others were grisly and disturbing and focused on extremes of behavior. Not that Andrea wasn’t drawn to extremes. But who could think of such things? Women tied down with Velcro straps. Children tormented in unspeakable ways. Though critics said, “Partlow probes the depths of the human psyche,” Andrea felt like a voyeur when she read her novels.
When she first met Loretta, who also teaches at the private college where she has long been its most famous faculty person (“Loretta put Hartwood on the map,” Gil Marken liked to say), Andrea was surprised. She had expected a large, imposing person. Not this compact, slightly bowlegged creature. Almost a homunculus, a miniature of a woman, “a pocket Venus,” Gil called her, and that big, flushed husband of hers, Patrick, who was like a barrel beside her. An overbearing man with sweaty palms and a weak handshake (Her father always said, “A weak handshake is the sign of a weak man”) whose true function, everyone knew, was to stand guard between his wife and the world.
But Loretta didn’t look as if she needed much protection. Though she was a small woman, petite with sharp features, her fox-like face made no attempt to hide its intelligence. Her eyes were pale blue and piercing, though at the same time revealing little. As if made of glass. She showed her bones—shoulder, elbow, hip—the way a marathon runner might. Her sleek body seemed to point in different directions. Her gray hair (once almost red and considered her best feature) was blunt-cut and usually pulled back into a short ponytail. A broad smile revealed her white teeth.
One day Andrea spotted Loretta running in the woods and found it almost comical to see the woman who had been called “a national treasure” darting on those thin bowed legs, her ponytail bobbing in the wind as if something were chasing her.
From the window Andrea sees them getting ready to leave. Loretta, dressed in powder blue sweats, goes to the patio to stretch. She stretches like a flightless bird, thick in the middle, but with skinny arms and legs. She flaps her arms, bending to touch her toes. She is surprisingly limber, as she curls her head to her knees. She curves her back like punctuation. Andrea has watched her become a parenthesis, an exclamation point, a question mark.
Patrick comes outside with Kippy, their overwrought West Highland terrier. Loretta claps her hands, and the dog leaps up and down, racing in circles at their feet. Patrick pulls a treat from his pocket, and the dog sits as Loretta completes her methodical series of stretches. Then they head toward the towpath, and Andrea gets ready to leave.
She makes her way down the stairs two at a time. The briskness of the day, its clarity, strikes her. She braces for the chill, zipping her jacket. Then dashes with her two mutts, Chief and Pablo, both border-collie-and-something mixes, past the houses of Hartwood Springs to the towpath. The ground is hard underfoot, but the towpath is soft, coated in pine needles, as she jogs along it. The air is so fresh it stings her nostrils. Tears slide down the corners of her eyes.
Andrea slows down and manages to arrive at the loop through the woods just as Loretta and Patrick do. Her dogs bark and growl, racing ahead as Kippy hunches, tail between his legs. Patrick scoops Kippy up, in case the dogs are vicious. Andrea spots Loretta, who has a slightly dismayed look on her face.
Andrea can only imagine what is going through Loretta’s mind as they are about to cross paths. She is thinking: there she is—that girl with her green eyes and sad story. That strange business about the father and an accident that may or may not have been an accident. Though Loretta was once an admirer of Andrea’s work, and told her so when she first came to the college, now she would barely know Andrea Geller existed were it not for her story.
But Andrea doesn’t really mind. She has begun to suspect that Loretta has a story of her own. Not that anyone really knows it, though her biographers have hinted and her close friends wonder. No one, not even her own husband knows what makes Loretta tick. But in recent months Andrea has made a study of her. She has learned to read between the lines.
In the official story, Loretta grew up outside of Baltimore, a middle child with brothers on either end. In her Paris Review interview and in the one approved biography (with the innocuous title Loretta Partlow: A Writer and Her Work), she describes her parents as simple working-class people. Andrea saw a photograph of the house where Loretta was raised. It showed a front porch and a black person sitting on the stoop next door. A mixed neighborhood.
But Andrea, who has now read all the monographs, the critical essays and Festschrifts, the unauthorized biography, Demon Writer—a book Loretta tried to stop (“rubbish,” Patrick calls it)—believes the truth is more complicated. She thinks she has gotten some insight into Loretta’s childhood—the father who drank and was known to be violent, who once twisted her left arm (she is left-handed) until it snapped. There is a photo of young Loretta with her arm in a cast. And, the biographer noted, a child with a broken left arm occurs no fewer than seven times in Partlow’s fiction, as do many drunken fathers.
Then there are the hands. This Andrea noticed herself. Everywhere in the writing there are hands. Helping hands, hands that tremble, fingers of authority, broken hands. Hands that shake on a bargain, swear to a pledge. Very few hands are held. But many wrists—and faces—are slapped.
Perhaps Loretta made herself a promise when her broken arm healed that she would use it. She would write with it. She’d find the way to get back, the pen being mightier and all. She would pay her father back, and her mother for not leaving him, for staying when she should have gone. It was Loretta who had to leave. She left and never looked back. She was unstoppable. She has been called a diesel engine, a gorgon, a devourer of whatever gets in her way. And this is what Andrea is counting on.
Andrea knows what Loretta thinks when she sees her. It is sad to be someone who is pitied. But Andrea doesn’t care. Let her pity me, she thinks. For now. As they approach, Andrea can almost overhear what Loretta is saying behind the hand over her mouth: “There’s that girl, the one whose father was in the coma. He had that strange accident …”
“Oh,” Patrick says, clasping Kippy under his arm. “I thought the college had let her go.”
“Oh, not yet. I think they plan to, but she’s still around.”
“Do you want to avoid her?” He leans in to his wife, touching her sleeve.
“No, she’s seen us.” Loretta smiles at Andrea, nearing. “It’s too late now.”
Andrea gives a wave as she reaches them, her cheeks flushed, breathless as if she’s been running. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I hope they didn’t startle you.” As her dogs race to the pond, Patrick puts Kippy back on the ground. “They’re friendly, really,” Andrea says.
“Andrea,” Loretta says, “it’s been so long … we haven’t seen you.” She seems pleasantly surprised yet distracted. “I thought you’d moved away.”
“No,” Andrea says, “I’m still here.”
“And you’re still at the college?”
Andrea sucks in her breath. She knows this is more a dig at her status than an actual question that requires an answer. She is one of those junior faculty members who just won’t, not unless she produces and perhaps not even then, get tenure at Hartwood—a fine liberal arts college (ranked number twenty-one in the country by U.S. News & World Report). A rural campus just two hours north of the city, which is one of its big draws. One of the most respected women’s colleges until the 1960s, when it was forced to go coed. Some people still ask if men are allowed.
Without a growing body of work, Andrea is not the kind of person the college wants to keep around forever, but she is the kind they like to keep around for now, and know they can, for their own purposes. They believe, and they are probably right, that any artist would kill for a job at Hartwood. Andrea is a guest. A long-term guest, it seems, already on her third contract. One who may be overstaying her welcome.
Andrea came to the college with some fanfare, thanks to her mentor and friend, Jim Adler, who hired her for the art department. She was prettier then, with her strawberry-blond hair. There was something spunky about her, though one could already see a darkness in her eyes. But she had worked on a number of series, which had garnered her early acclaim and helped her land the job at Hartwood. All her work involved reenactment (Backpack) and repetition (Dragonfly).
Loretta herself had praised Dragonfly—that multifaceted image with many possibilities but no one true shape—when it was in a Manhattan gallery. She’d admired the glass bricks and the paintings behind them. The play with perception. She told Andrea when they first met that she had been fascinated by the images and found them mysterious and beautiful.
Was it a woman making love? Or being murdered? Or something more banal—perhaps just taking a shower. “And the play on words.” Loretta was one of the few people who’d gotten the joke. The contradiction of dragons and flies. The paradox of women who “fly” or, in the face of domesticity, “drag on.”
When Jim Adler told Loretta about the new hire, she gave her approval. “She does interesting work,” Loretta said. Others had agreed. Dragonfly—the conceptual piece about perception and the female body—was compared to Jennifer Bartlett’s Rhapsody and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The New York Times described it as “a piece that enlarges our notion of memory and time. Illusion becomes all too real.” Critics called it “haunting.”
But that was years ago. When her father had his accident, it all came to a grinding halt. Andrea could not work. For years she had no ideas. Now she shifts her feet and tries not to get depressed about her prospects.
“Yes, I have one class this fall,” Andrea tells Loretta.
“Oh, that’s good. One never knows around here. What with the budget cuts … It’s hard to predict what the college will do next.” Loretta shakes her head, then adjusts a bobby pin in her hair.
Andrea does not want to say that her course load has been cut in half, her benefits severed. That she is furious with the college and looking elsewhere. How she feels they used her and, when she was down, when she had nowhere to go, they cut her off, giving her just one undergraduate drawing class that they had no one to teach.
“Andrea, you know we haven’t seen you since—”
Andrea looks at a leaf stuck to her shoe. “Yes, I appreciated your letter. I hope you got my note.”
“Oh, yes. You didn’t have to. We were so sorry. We’ve been meaning to have you over. We were talking about it just the other day.” Loretta looks straight at Andrea with her pale blue eyes. “And he never …”
Always the same question. “No, he never regained consciousness.
“Um.” Loretta sighs. “All those years. Well, perhaps it was a blessing.”
“A blessing?” Andrea shakes her head. She thinks of her father, lying in his coma. A “head on a bed” was how she’d overheard one resident refer to him—a resident she’d screamed at until hospital security threatened to take away her visiting privileges. Her father who’d always been there for her, who came whenever she called. How could anyone think his death could be a blessing? “No,” she says. “I don’t think so.” Then she whistles for her dogs and walks on.
For years Andrea’s routine was the same. She rose early, went for her walk. Then she drove to the nursing home where her father lived. She called it “lived,” because he did in fact live there, but not as anyone else did. He was in suspended animation, bobbing on his bed, a man floating. Not Simon Geller, the pediatric cardiologist who had traveled with medical teams to rural China and war-torn Gaza, to the shantytowns of Brazil and the remote parts of Africa to unclog an artery, repair a valve in a child’s heart.
This man was a rag doll. Sometimes she lifted his hand only to hear it plop when she put it down. And yet he breathed. He breathed and sometimes he spoke. He said oddly unrelated words such as “spatula” and “fences” and the name of a patient who died long ago. Once in a while he opened his eyes and stared at Andrea as she sat at his bedside. It was always a questioning look, as though he was trying to recall something on the tip of his tongue. A look of wonder at his predicament. She tried to envision the semipermeable state in which he existed, a restless sleeper, moving in and out of his dream.
Andrea had been in her own dreamlike state in the years since his accident. She could not explain the sinking feeling that often came over her. It was as if she had fallen into a dark hole of her own, disappeared into herself. It was more than depression, though clearly it was that. She described it as emptiness. “I’m a cracked vessel,” she told her brother Robby.
It was as if she lay in a coma beside him. She went to the hospital, and later, the nursing home, and she sat, watching him sleep. She groomed him. She propped him up in bed and trimmed his hair. She cut his nails, both fingers and toes. Filed them into smooth half-moons.
He gazed at her, almost smiling, as if grateful for the care. He had always been spic-and-span, perfectly clean. Before the accident, if she was going to visit him, she often got her nails done. She shaved him. She liked it when his face was smooth. “There,” she said, rubbing her hand across his cheek, “you look nice.”
Then one night Andrea woke with a start. She thought she heard someone calling her name. She was trembling, in a cold sweat. For a moment she imagined she was in her father’s room and he had actually spoken. An hour later Robby called from San Francisco with “the strangest feeling.”
“I know,” Andrea said.
On the day of the funeral, Andrea said to Charlie, who has since become her friend, “I heard him call me in the middle of the night. Can you explain that?”
And Charlie just shook his head.
Charlie had come over the night her father had his “accident.” She always says it this way. “Accident,” making air quotations with her fingers. She never says, “My father was in an accident,” because to Andrea it was never just that.
That night remains a blur, a mosaic of time. It was shortly after midnight when Elena called to say Simon was missing. That he had gone out hours before and had not returned.
“What?” Andrea, fuzzy with sleep and perhaps too much booze, asked. She had been out drinking, then suddenly the phone was ringing, waking her. She didn’t know where she was. Or how she’d gotten here. “Went out how?”
“He drove,” Elena said, her voice rising, “in the car. I don’t know where he is.”
Andrea shook herself, forced herself awake. “He’s driving?” She tried to remember where she was, where she’d been. At a bar in Poughkeepsie, then somehow she’d gotten home. She touched the bed beside her and felt relieved to find herself alone. She glanced at the digital clock. It was after two A.M.
Her thoughts turned back to her father. “Elena, where did he go?” But in a frenzy, Elena hung up. Andrea’s impulse was to jump in the car and look for him, to go searching through the miles of unlit back roads between Hartwood and Poughkeepsie.
Instead she called Charlie. She said, “I’m sorry. I know I’m disturbing you …” She started to cry. He thought she was crying about them. They had been seeing each other for over a year and a month before he’d said he was ready for more. He wanted to live together, take it from there. They had argued over that. She wasn’t ready. The timing wasn’t right.
“I love you,” she told him, “but I don’t know if I’m in love with you.” Even as she said it, she knew it was wrong. It was a distillation of her feelings, not an accurate representation. She struggled to find a way to explain. “I mean, I don’t know yet.”
“Well, then, you aren’t.” The hardness in his voice had startled her. “It’s pretty simple, isn’t it?” Though she’d begged for more time, he couldn’t be moved. It surprised Andrea how stubborn he became. He didn’t want to see her after that. “I have my pride,” he told her.
Of course, that was when she really wanted him. She’d tried to win him back. She showed up at his place with a cake. But he’d just taken the cake, cut them each a piece, and sat at the kitchen table and ate it. She’d been adrift for the month or so without him. Not knowing quite what to do with herself after hours. She’d begun hanging out in bars, drinking too much again. Meeting strange men. Old habits she’d thought were long gone.
But that night Charlie answered her cry for help. He heard her sobbing and said, “Just sit tight. I’ll be right there.” She sat at the window, listening for his red Honda to speed into Hartwood Springs, pull into her drive. He arrived in a white T-shirt and jeans, a wide, bulky man with a boyish face. A head of dark curls. He came up her walk, tight-lipped, and she clung to him when he stepped in the door.
He was still holding her two hours later when Elena phoned back. They found Simon in his car in the river. A passerby had pulled him out, but he was already unconscious. The police had just come to the house. “Why was he driving?” Andrea shouted at Elena. A man on a delicate balance of Catapres for his blood pressure and Remeron for depression should not have been driving on a foggy night. A doctor who knew how sedating these two medications would be when taken together. He should not have been driving at all.
“You knew his medication,” Andrea screamed into the phone. “Why did you let him go?”
“I didn’t let him go. He just left,” Elena yelled back, then slammed the receiver down.
Charlie went with Andrea to the hospital. He sat with her at her father’s side while the doctor explained that perhaps the accident had caused the heart attack, or vice versa. “It’s academic,” the doctor said. She hated the way the doctor said “academic” without looking her in the eye. What mattered was that her father may or may not wake up, but “probably” he would wake up. In all likelihood, he would. The water had just risen in the car when the passerby saved him. He had not been unconscious that long.
Charlie stayed with her at the hospital day after day as she played her father’s favorite music on a CD player. The Beethoven symphonies and concertos. She’d heard that people in comas may respond to stimuli. Favorite tunes, the voice of a loved one calling, as if from the other side of a closed door. She read to her father all of David Copperfield and Mansfield Park (“He’ll die of boredom,” Charlie said). She held her father’s hand, said his name over and over again.
In the evenings Charlie drove her home. He curled up beside her in bed, holding Andrea while she sobbed. He was drawn back to her. But when he tried to touch her, she pushed him away. “I can’t make love with him like this.” Charlie made love slowly. He liked the lights on. He wanted to look into her eyes as he stroked her nipples, slipped his finger between her thighs. She couldn’t stand it—his lingering touch. She felt exposed. “What is this?” she asked. “A medical exam?”
Though she could not admit it even to herself, Andrea wanted to be taken. With Charlie, there were too many pauses. He held her too long. Caressed her as if he had nothing but time. It made her squirm. She preferred swift strokes, drunken passion, followed by dreamless sleep.
In the two years it had taken her father to die, Charlie became her friend. “He called my name and I heard him,” Andrea said, weeping to Charlie on the day of the funeral. “Can you explain that?”
It seemed no one else could explain it, either. Not the nurses or doctors. Not the hospital chaplain. Least of all her stepmother Elena, whom Andrea has not laid eyes on since the funeral. And whom she rarely saw for the two years prior to that at the hospital. “Why is it you’re never at the hospital?” Andrea asked.
“It’s so hard on me,” Elena said, “to see him like that.”
“It’s hard on all of us,” Andrea said. Even before the funeral, Andrea suspected something was wrong. Elena’s infrequent visits dwindled down to none at all. Then at the funeral, the way she showed up in a tight black dress and veil, with an odor about her. The smell of drinking. Andrea recognized it right away. Her lipstick smeared. She tottered on her heels.
Andrea had never seen Elena this way before. It was as if some layer had been stripped off and what remained was the cold, hard shell. Even her touch was icy. Robby commented on it as well. “She’s a slut,” he said.
“Yes,” Andrea replied, “but she’s not a fool.”
Andrea thought there would be tears. Or at least sadness. “She’s in shock,” said their mother, Barbara, who was not usually sympathetic to Elena. It surprised Andrea that her mother was the only one other than Andrea to cry.
And then there was the aftermath. The funeral over, the reception back at the house near Poughkeepsie. The platters of ham and cheese sandwiches. The potato salads and macaroni salads in metal tubs. Fruit bowls and cookies, all hastily ordered. People standing around with paper plates and plastic forks until Elena suddenly seemed fatigued. “It’s been such a long day,” she said.
Everyone was oddly silent, unsure of what to do. There was a hurry to clean up. The house a mess, and Elena wanting to straighten up. Scraping plates, putting food away. She seemed to be shoving guests out the door. “Goodbye, Elena,” Andrea said, hugging her on the doorstep of her father’s house. Even then Andrea remembered that Elena had once given her a clean bed, sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Elena hugged her back with her soft, fleshy arms and waved as Andrea drove off, then shut the door. And Andrea never saw her, not in person, not even in court, again.
It had taken a year to probate the will, which left the summer house on Shallow Lake as well as the house outside Poughkeepsie (a small place he’d bought after the divorce), all their possessions, and all his holdings to Elena to be distributed at her discretion to his children, Andrea Geller and Robert Geller. After Elena’s death the estate was to go to his children. But as long as she was alive, they would get only what she deemed to distribute to them.
It had taken another year to contest the will. Their lawyer assured them that it would never hold. This will was an implausible document. They claimed undue influence. They testified that their father, who was depressed because of his high blood pressure and declining health, could not have been responsible for his actions. Every morning Elena gave him his pills. It was she who dispensed all of his medication.
The judge listened and, in the end, ruled that despite what he thought of the will itself, there was no hard evidence to suggest that Dr. Geller was incompetent. No indication of undue influence. Only circumstantial evidence that, on the face of it, looked questionable but did not add up to proof.
After all, he said, Dr. Geller was a physician, and it seemed unlikely that he did not know what medications he was taking and the effect they would have. There was little the judge could do, because the intentions of the deceased had been made clear, and all previous wills indicated the same thing.
A few weeks after the will was settled, Elena called Andrea and asked if perhaps there wasn’t something she would like—some keepsake, some dishes or furniture—something from the house on Shallow Lake, which was already up for sale, as was the house outside Poughkeepsie. She said she was planning to send Andrea and Robby a check as a token of goodwill. “I’m going to send you each five thousand dollars for now,” Elena said.
“You can keep the money,” Andrea told her (a grand gesture she would later regret), “but I would like the photograph of the house at Shallow Lake.”
“Which picture was that?” Elena asked, as if she’d never seen it before.
“The one my father kept in the entryway.”
The picture came taped in newspaper and Bubble Wrap, still in its old frame. Andrea unwrapped it and looked at the house for the first time in years. There it was, frozen in time, as if it still belonged to her. She hung the picture where she could always see it in her apartment.
Shortly after the picture arrived, she began to dream about the house on Shallow Lake. She dreamed of it as she saw it from this picture—the expanse of lawn, the screened-in back porch, the long terrace. But in her dreams the house was transformed. There were monsters behind doors, rats scurrying through rooms, barbed wire on the windows. There were rooms she did not know that opened into other rooms and took her to places she had never been.
And then, slowly, she began to work again.
When the phone rings that afternoon, Andrea isn’t surprised. She has anticipated the call. She hears Loretta’s low but insistent voice inviting her over for cocktails. “You know, after we ran into you today, Patrick and I were talking. We’ve really hardly seen you, and we feel—”
“But you shouldn’t feel badly,” Andrea says.
“Please. You must come. Just us,” Loretta says, “unless you’d like to bring someone.”
“Oh, no,” Andrea replies. “That’s fine. I’ll come alone. But I can’t make it today.” Even as she says this, Andrea is glancing at her “Galleries of SoHo” wall calendar, which is virtually blank.
“Well, how about tomorrow? Would that be good?”
“Yes,” Andrea says, “I think I can make it tomorrow.”
Loretta seems relieved. “All right. Shall we say five-thirty?”
“Yes,” Andrea says. “That will be fine.”
Andrea has been to the Partlows’ a few times, but always at parties, in roomfuls of people. Loretta is known for her parties. There is her annual tree trimming, her end-of-school bash, her Labor Day potluck. The cocktail parties she throws when colleagues have books published, when someone receives a promotion or will soon retire. Then there are the spontaneous events she arranges for visiting dignitaries—a head of state from South America, a Nobel laureate from Japan.
It always amazes people that Loretta, with all the demands of her professional life, entertains so often and so well. In Hartwood people say, “I suppose I’ll see you at Loretta’s on the Fourth.” Some of her parties are so much a part of the fabric of the town’s life that she doesn’t even invite people anymore. They just show up with their sesame noodles, their corn salad. On summer holidays they automatically buy an ornament for Loretta’s tree when they are in Prague or Thailand.
It is rare for anyone to refuse an invitation to Loretta’s, not to come when summoned. Sometimes friends joke that they’re having an audience with her. Loretta is a living legend in Hartwood. In fact, some people have written about her as if she is already dead. She seems like someone who should be.
Loretta has had one of those careers any writer—or any artist, for that matter—would envy. The immediate success with her exquisite first novel, What If?, a growing audience with her second, a few spotty years, but then a huge book, Carnage, a novel set in France that chronicled the D-day invasion. It won the Pulitzer Prize and made her a best-selling author.
It was praised for “its historic sweep … and Partlow’s ability to enter the mind of soldiers on the brink of death.” Though never stated, it was implied that critics did not see how a woman who really had never been anywhere (before her success, that is) besides Baltimore and Hartwood could imagine the war scenes, the grisly scenarios. But what was most powerful was how she entered the minds of the young men—their preoccupation with wet socks, their girlfriends back home, jobs at the A&P or the steel mill they’d left behind. As one critic wrote, “She seems to channel them.”
Loretta spent years researching it along with Patrick, whom she credits for his invaluable assistance. He is also a novelist, though much less successful. He is known more as a literary functionary—a writer who sits on boards, runs programs, judges contests. But Patrick’s main job, and this would be how he would describe it, is to protect Loretta. To keep her safe from fans and bad reviews and anything that might impede the engine she is that needs to be fed and spew and can never be satisfied.
So Andrea knows that the invitation is unusual. After all, she’s been going past Loretta’s for years, but she’s hardly ever been over except for a block party and a few artists’ receptions. At times Andrea got a piece or two of mail for them. There seemed to be so much mail; mail from all over the world.
She has admired the envelopes of rice paper and blue aerograms with precise, elegant stamps—the feathery cranes of Japan, the rock stars of England, the wildebeests of the Serengeti plain. Stamps, and even letters, she has been tempted to keep. But Andrea returned to Loretta all the handwritten notes from Italy, from Australia, from Singapore.
“This was in my mailbox,” Andrea would say, and Loretta would smile a rather timid smile, the kind of held-back way she has of smiling, and extend a frail, almost spindly hand, and take the letter and, after a word or two of politeness, close the door.
The longest Andrea has been inside the house was for what the neighborhood association calls its Moveable Feast, a roving dinner party that goes from house to house. Andrea had just moved in and thought it might be nice to meet the neighbors. A good way to make herself known in the community. “The more people you know around here, the better,” said Jim Adler when she began teaching at Hartwood. “You don’t want to be the best-kept secret in town. That is, if you plan to stick around.”
And Andrea did want to stick around. She wanted to put down roots. Be a part of somewhere, something. So she’d gone. The Partlows were hosting the appetizer part of the roving meal. Andrea can recall standing on plush carpeting, taking bits of cheese impaled on colored toothpicks from trays that students in white shirts were passing around. She remembers feeling out of place in her navy slacks and light blue turtleneck, an Indian necklace, and fake tortoiseshell clip holding up her hair.
That night on their carpeting, her ankles ached and her body tottered. She had difficulty balancing her wineglass and cocktail plate. She’d left with a headache and a recollection of pale blue and somewhere in a corner, perhaps, a stain, red, like red wine or blood. That was all she remembered of the house, except that she had come home with a vague sense that her life was flawed and other people had what felt like perfection.
Now Andrea stands in front of her full-length mirror, wondering what she should wear. Jeans would be too casual. Certainly not one of the pairs of navy slacks or the long skirts she used to wear. Those got carted off to Goodwill long ago. Shortly after that party, she switched to black. She rifles through her closet, pulls out a few choices—black pants, a black turtleneck.
As she gazes at herself, she is not exactly pleased with what she sees. She is tall and thin, even leggy, men say. Her reddish-blond hair is still thick and curly. But there are dark circles beneath her green eyes, a sunken look in the hollow pockets of her cheeks. Hardly the “knockout” Charlie called her a few years ago. Though she is just thirty-two, there are furrows in her brow. She looks like someone who has not slept, and in fact she hasn’t—not that much or that well in years, not without vodka or Seconal or the arms of a man she will never mean that much to. And vice versa.
She tries to comb through her hair so that it isn’t so unruly, but it seems to have a mind of its own. Though people say her hair is her best feature, she often wishes she had her father’s hair, dark and wavy. A real head of hair, people used to comment. She never looked much like her father, or her mother for that matter, whose black mane was never styled, just pulled back into a ponytail. Some people even asked if she was adopted. Once, in a supermarket, Andrea overheard a woman say to Barbara, “Where did you get her?”
But if one looked closely, it was obvious that Andrea resembled her father a great deal. In the structure of her bones, the squareness of her jaw. In her tight, narrow frame. And anyone who knew them, who saw the father and daughter together—hitting golf balls, skating, playing tennis—saw how alike they were, how fiercely competitive. How hard they fought to prove a point. Or make it. Just to win.
She settles on black slacks, a snug-fitting wintergreen jacket that brings out her eyes. She bought the jacket on a Saturday in autumn several years ago. She and her father had had lunch. They strolled Fifth Avenue. It was chilly, and he offered to buy her a jacket, so they wandered into Bergdorf’s. They went up and down the escalators, and she saw them reflected over and over in the mirrors. Her father with his dark hair turning silver and the charcoal windbreaker that set off his eyes.
She tried on jackets—suede, leather, wool, in muted colors. Money was no object. He never looked at the price tag. Her father thought green suited her. A green suede. He examined the snug fit of the jacket, had her turn this way and that. He scrutinized her with his discerning eye. “She’ll wear it now,” he said, standing beside her, replicated into infinity in the mirrors.
As the salesgirl was clipping off the tags, she leaned close to Andrea and said, “It’s nice that your husband takes you shopping like this.”
Andrea thrust her hand to her mouth. “That’s my father,” she said.
“Oh,” the salesgirl replied, the color rising to her face. “I just assumed … Well, you look so … so right together.” Then fumbling, trying to recover, “I mean, I see a lot in this neighborhood, you know.”
Andrea stands frozen before the mirror. She thinks about changing the jacket, then decides against it. She adds garnet earrings for a drop of color and a smear of wildberry lip gloss. She pinches her cheeks and at five-twenty-five sets out the door.
The Partlows’ house sits like a gray spider, built low to the ground, reaching out from its thick, copious center with various arms. It began smaller, with just the belly nestled in a knot of trees, but as success came, extensions were added, with bedrooms off to one side, studies toward the rear, a kitchen off another, and a glassed-in porch that doubles as a greenhouse in the back.
It is just a three-minute stroll from her house, and Andrea walks slowly, not wishing to be early or late. She pauses to admire Loretta’s garden. It is a rainbow of mums—magenta, pumpkin orange, lemony yellow. There are also Nippon daisies and toad lilies and fall clematis that climbs up trellises, producing a delicate white flower. And some lovely coleus with green and scarlet leaves. Andrea knows this because she has read all of Loretta’s essays on gardening. She has sat at her window, identifying the blooms.
At five-thirty sharp she rings the Partlows’ bell, and before she has time to take her finger away, as if he is standing behind the door anticipating her ring, Patrick opens the door. He is wearing a red cardigan (cashmere, she notes) and brown corduroys. With a glass already in one hand, he shakes her hand with his free, moist palm. “Andrea,” he says, “it’s so good to see you.”
Andrea smiles, unsure of what to say. They have hardly ever seen each other, yet now it is good to see her. It was one of the things that was difficult for her when she first moved to Hartwood. When people said “We’ll give you a call,” she actually thought they would. She did not understand that this was a form of politesse, a game to ease one in and out of conversations. But she has learned to play the game as well. “Well,” she says, “it’s good to see you.”
From somewhere in the house she hears the dog barking, as if he has just been set free. Then he runs toward her, yapping louder, his white body bouncing. Andrea stoops down. “Hello, Kippy,” she says, rubbing the dog’s neck.
“You know his name,” Patrick says.
“Yes.” She blushes, trying to remember when she first learned it. “I’ve heard you call him.”
He nods, taking her by the elbow and leading her inside. “I’m sorry. We really should have had you over sooner.”
“It’s all right. I’ve been busy myself.”
Andrea follows him into a very tidy house with an expansive living room and huge picture windows overlooking Loretta’s garden and the meadows and the pond Andrea walks around with her dogs. The room she enters is done in pale blue, both walls and curtains, as if intended to match Loretta’s eyes. The furniture is a slightly lighter shade of blue, and the bookcases are painted white.
She has never been alone in this room before and is surprised by how big it is. How open. There are so many things in it—so many books and paintings, glass sculptures, places to sit and read. Yet it doesn’t seem cluttered at all. The carpeting feels as if she is walking inside a cloud. Patrick goes to a panel and flicks a switch, and the venetian blinds open, bringing in more light. “Passive solar,” he says, pointing to the panel, “but you can override it.” Andrea blinks at the passive solar panel, then gazes back across the room.
It is brighter now, and she can see that the walls are lined in shelves, rows and rows of books, all in alphabetical order by category. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, travel. Hundreds, thousands of books. On the table are bowls of olives, mixed nuts, mozzarella sliced with sun-dried tomatoes. A basket with crackers and bread. “Please, come in, have a seat. What would you like? White, red, or something stronger?”
Andrea contemplates, then decides against something stronger. “Oh, white would be fine.”
Patrick disappears into the kitchen, and Andrea is left alone. The music of an easy-listening CD fills the room. Andrea identifies it as Brubeck. She fiddles with her pants, her shirt. She thinks she hasn’t dressed properly. Her jacket doesn’t quite fit her anymore—it feels too tight—but she is reluctant to give it away. Still, she fears it will buckle when she sits down.
Not knowing what else to do with herself while she waits, Andrea scans the walls. The books, the pictures of Loretta Partlow with other famous novelists, mostly male, two Nobel laureates. Loretta receiving an American Writer’s Award. A medal from the White House and a picture of Loretta shaking hands with Bill Clinton. A few photos of Loretta and Patrick, smiling at some event. And on the glass table near the sofa, some family pictures: Loretta holding a baby. And later, a picture of them with a boy.
Andrea has heard that they had one child who used to be seen riding around Hartwood on a bicycle in winter wearing just a flannel shirt. Once, when Charlie was in high school, he babysat the boy and said he used to fend for himself, scavenging in the kitchen, opening cans. The boy, who’d left Hartwood years ago, rarely returned, and most people considered him estranged. There are only a few pictures of him, and they all seem to be from when he was very young. One or two appeared posed, not the usual pictures taken on a boat, a reunion, at a country fair.
Andrea has drawers full of these—loose snapshots of her family fishing on the lake, on a picnic, in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The pyramids of Mexico. She has albums and boxes that her mother gave her of them doing this and that, not happily, really, always in some kind of conflict, some problem or issue, some fight, something her parents couldn’t get along about, but they were a family. At least until Elena came along, they were. They did things together. There were pictures—evidence—to prove it.
When Patrick returns with the wine, Andrea looks up quickly, through the vast expanse of living room. “This is lovely,” she says, gazing at the space around her and already feeling her own flawed life enveloping her. “It’s so … so blue … so big.”
“Oh, we love it. We love to just sit at this window and look out at the woods and the pond.”
“You do have a good view,” Andrea says, rising on her tiptoes.
“You know, we never want to go anywhere.”
“I can imagine. It’s like heaven.”
“What’s like heaven?” Loretta asks, emerging into the room from, Andrea assumes, her study off to the side.
“All of this.” Andrea makes a sweep of her hand.
“Yes, I suppose it is.” Loretta is wearing black slacks and a pink angora sweater. Her glasses hang from a gold chain around her neck, and except for the glass of white wine in her hand, she looks like a guidance counselor from the 1950s. Our Miss Brooks, a show Andrea’s father liked to watch reruns of. Prim, even priggish, with her gray hair pulled back from her face, leaving Andrea with a sense that she is paying a visit to her elderly aunt. “We never want to leave, do we dear?” She turns to Patrick, who gives her a nod. “But we have to go places all the time.”
Patrick shrugs. “You could say no, I suppose.”
Loretta shakes her head. “It’s hard when people invite you year after year. Sometimes it seems as hard to turn them down as it does to go. We just refused an invitation to China for the second time.” She sighs. “They seemed so disappointed. They said they’ll ask us again next year.”
“You’ll have to say no again,” Patrick teases her.
“I’d actually be interested in going. There’s so much happening in China now, but it’s such a long trip. Anyway, let’s sit down.” Loretta settles into the sofa, and Kippy jumps up after her. “Do you mind the dog?”
“Oh, not at all,” Andrea says.
Loretta pats the place beside her. “Here, sit next to me. So, how are things for you? At the college and all.”
Andrea sits down and sinks into the sofa. She keeps sinking and for a moment feels as if she will keep going to some dark place deep in the earth. She fears she might disappear altogether, and then she settles. “I’m quite busy. I have a new painting studio this term and—”
“I’ve heard about those cutbacks in the art department. It’s a shame, really. I hope it doesn’t affect you.”
“Oh, no,” Andrea says, lying. She finds her spirits sinking as her body did. She feels caught in this sofa and in Loretta’s stare. Andrea wants to talk about her new studio, a place that has become a kind of sanctuary for her. How she can go there anytime, night or day, and lose herself in her work, which, of late, has consisted of a series of paintings. How she is glad that the college has given her this space. She wants to talk about all the new work she plans to generate from this studio. What she does not want to talk about is the reduction in her course load, the slashing of her benefits. “I’ve got plenty to do.”
“I’m sure you do. How are your students?”
Andrea has the impression that she must talk quickly if she is to answer the questions being posed, because Loretta is already ahead of her, moving on to the next thing. “They’re good, but you know, I feel as if you can teach drawing to anyone.”
“Really?” Loretta says, taking this in. “I don’t think I could learn.”
“I think anyone can. It’s just a matter of perception, really. Learning how to see.”
Loretta seems to be pondering this. “I read once that Jackson Pollock could draw very well. It’s hard to believe.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that, too.”
“So your new paintings, what are they like? I remember that early piece …”
“Dragonfly. That was a long time ago.” Andrea says this with a laugh. She can envision Dragonfly in her storage locker, the neatly labeled cardboard boxes where it has been sitting for years. “I’ve been working on a new series for a little while. It’s a group of realistic miniatures, almost photorealism, but with surreal elements thrown in.” Andrea shakes her head. “It’s hard to describe.” But she smiles as she thinks of it. For the past few months she has returned to the studio working late into the night, sometimes not eating, at a manic pace.
“I think Jim Adler mentioned this to me.” Loretta cocks her head as if trying to recall a conversation. “He said your new work is quite good.”
Andrea feels buoyed that her mentor and friend, Jim Adler, who stops by her studio from time to time to check on her, would share his opinion with Loretta about her work. “That’s nice to know. This new series, it’s of a house my father built.”
“He built it?”
“He had it built. On a lake.”
“You must show me the paintings sometime. I remember Dragonfly very well. I’m interested in young artists … You know, I was so sorry to hear about your father. I’ve been meaning to give you a call,” Loretta says, that look of concern coming over her face. “It’s strange that we can be neighbors, teach at the same college, and know so little about each other. But I’m sure it’s been hard.” Her eyes narrow, giving her a ferretlike quality.
“Oh, it was, though it’s been a while. But it has been hard.”
“Yes, I know. The circumstances …”
“Well,” Andrea can’t quite stay focused on what she wants to say. “Yes, the circumstances were … strange.”
“I’d heard something about that.”
Andrea struggles to go on. “But the worst part for me has been …” She finds it difficult to continue and takes a sip of wine. Though she thought she was past the point of breaking down, now she isn’t so sure. “My father and I were very close.”
“That must be particularly difficult.”
“Yes, he was the one person I could really count on.”
Loretta nods, then turns away. She seems to set her gaze on the picture of her son on the glass table behind Andrea.
Andrea continues, “He really believed in me. That was the main thing.”
“It must have been good to have had such a supportive father.”
Andrea nods, feeling the enormity of her loss. “It was.” She sighs. Even as she says it, she thinks about how her father was always there for her. Much more of a presence than her mother, who was so distracted. He was Andrea’s lifeline. In his suit and tie, with his mustache trimmed. Camel-hair coats and fedoras. Even in khakis and a cardigan (always cashmere, like Patrick, she notes), a man who knew how to dress, how to present himself. A dapper man. But still, he was always there for her “messiness.” There to bail her out when she went astray, which happened from time to time. In the difficult years, when her parents separated and then divorced. And afterward, when she needed help. When she’d struggled with alcohol and drugs.
“It must be especially hard,” Loretta says, leaning forward almost touching Andrea’s hand. “If you were so close, with the accident …”
“Yes, they called it an accident, but to be honest, I’ve never been satisfied with that explanation. I’ve never quite believed it.”
“You mean …”
“I don’t mean that someone drove him off the bridge. But he never should have been driving. That much I can say for a fact.”
“What do they think? Did they ever determine the cause?”
Andrea feels a kind of heat surrounding her. A rage she has never been very good at keeping in check. He should not have been driving. He never should have been at the wheel. Everyone knew that. Elena more than anyone. Why was he alone? Where was he going? And what was on that slip of paper the police found in his hand, the one they confiscated, then somehow misplaced, the one that was never found?
A shopping list? For years Andrea has tried to imagine the words, scribbled on a notepad, soaked in the river as the waters rose. Eggs, milk, beer. Bananas. A confused man going on an errand at nine o’clock at night?
She has tried to reconcile these things—her father’s illness, his driving off the bridge. The illegible note. She says, “It has been declared an accident. The case is closed. But not in my mind.” Andrea sips her wine, then turns to Loretta. “Would it be all right if we don’t discuss this? It’s very painful to me.”
“Oh, we are so sorry,” Patrick says. He gazes at his wife with a look of concern. “Perhaps …”
Andrea feels the tears. Real tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I think I have to go.”
“Of course, my dear,” Loretta says, obviously surprised by Andrea’s sudden emotion. She takes a sip of wine and rubs the wet spot where the wineglass sat as Andrea collects herself. “So,” Loretta clears her throat, shifting her legs beneath her, “are you friendly with any of the neighbors?”
Andrea is relieved by the change of subject. “Just the Romanellis. They’re very sweet. I mean, they’re simple people, but …”
“You rent from them, don’t you? We’ve lived here for years, but we hardly know them. We’re good friends with the Vitales. He used to be head of Romance languages. Do you know them?”
Andrea shakes her head. “Just to say hello.”
“Well,” Loretta says, patting Andrea’s knee, glancing at Patrick, “we’ll have you over with them sometime, won’t we, dear.” Patrick gives his wife a nod.
“I’d like that,” Andrea says, glancing at her watch. “I should go,” she says, getting up, “it’s getting late.” At the door Loretta gives Andrea a hug that surprises her. Patrick does, too. Then she says good night and walks home.
That evening, before she goes to bed, Andrea opens her window and looks up at the stars. It is a clear night and the air is fresh with the hint of fall. Normally, when Andrea looks out at night, she gazes into an abyss of darkness, but tonight as she looks across Hartwood Springs, every house is dark except for the Partlows’. A single light glows from one of the wings.
It was right after the will was read that Andrea began poring over the collected works of Loretta Partlow. It had begun inadvertently at first, as a way to occupy herself, to pass the time while she waited for her father to awake. It helped her to read about the miserable lives of other people. Once, in an airport, Andrea paused at a rack of paperbacks, turning it slowly, and said to herself, “I want to take all my suffering and put it right there.”
She could see Elena on her way somewhere. Just having finished a book she was reading, pausing at a rack like this one. Browsing. Elena would pick up a title that intrigued her and, perhaps standing there, or better, on an airplane, a long flight somewhere—Paris or Singapore—in a middle seat, where there was nowhere to go, she would begin to read. At first it would not sound familiar, but soon the story would begin to resonate in her mind. In Andrea’s fantasy, the narrative grows more complex. Elena is in a book group and they have assigned this title. Not only would she be on the flight, reading it, but later, having to face her friends, who live in their gated communities in Newport Beach, Leisure World—the wives of successful men, who swap ideas on the tennis court or beauty salons, who would all greet Elena with, “Didn’t your husband have an accident like this?” “Wasn’t he a cardiologist, too?”
It was common knowledge that the famous novelist lived at the end of Andrea’s street. When she first moved in, Andrea had seen her, walking her white dog in the woods, but she knew little about her. Then one day as she roamed in the hospital, waiting for her father to wake up and get on with his life, Andrea found a copy of Harper’s with a story by Loretta Partlow—a story entitled “The Dead Spot” about a couple who go sailing. The man, who is debating whether or not to leave his wife, accidentally kills her. This time, perhaps because of what was happening in her own life, Andrea found it riveting.
Except for what she must read for her classes, she has read nothing besides Loretta Partlow since. At first she read the books and stories, essays and poems, in a haphazard fashion, without paying much attention to order or sequence. She read whatever she found lying around. She dug up the books friends had loaned her, which she’d never returned. She read the novels that had been nominated for prizes and the two that had won them, though long ago, early in Loretta Partlow’s career. Slowly the reading took on a life of its own.
Like a biographer, Andrea set herself the task of reading the whole body of work in the order in which it was written. And there was so much. So many books and articles, short stories and poems. The nature essays and a sentimental volume on gardening called Snippets and Cuttings, in which Loretta compared gardening to writing: “A gardener, like the writer, learns you can take anything out, you can move things around.”
And there was the more offbeat work—a coffee-table book on arcade freaks and an extended essay on the impact of silent films entitled “The Right to Remain Silent.” It seemed there was nothing that could not entice Loretta’s curiosity. Her omnivorous interests extended to baseball and art history. Her essay “The Captured Moment in Vermeer” was now a staple on Andrea’s syllabus.
While Loretta is capable of poignant stories of childhood and growing up, such as Signs of Life, in which a boy grapples with his father’s suicide (it is a book Andrea now loves), it is her Gothic works that have made her famous. And rich. She is known for her ghoulish imagination, her flair for the strange and bizarre. The woman who sets out to understand her brother’s death only to realize she knew nothing of his life. The private investigator who comes to understand that the person he has been seeking is himself. Loretta seems to have an endless fascination with forensics, detective work, discovery.
While reading the books in order, Andrea made discoveries on her own. She found it instructive, for example, to read the books of poems that preceded specific novels. Loretta seemed to be working out certain themes that she would in turn dramatize in her novels—themes such as the family, gender and sexuality, notions of power, lost love, betrayal, man versus nature, mortality.
In all the writing, Andrea found a kind of perversity—fetishes, genital fixations, mutilations. In most of Loretta’s work, there was violence, but also a kind of ironic humor. Andrea concluded that what Loretta was writing about most was madness. And obsession.
But there was a period of about ten years when Loretta seemed to write her darkest tales—stories of captives, girls locked in root cellars, disappearances, drownings, racial violence of the cruelest sort, unimaginable torture and perversions. Things that would be difficult for anyone to dream up. It was as if she had taken the tabloids and turned them into fictive tales. Yet some were deeply compelling. And others disturbing. Some were brilliantly written; others felt dashed off, as if Loretta simply couldn’t not write them.
Then, a few years ago, Loretta seemed to have emerged from this darkness. The stories became lighter, the themes more everday. Teenagers morphed from sadist gang members into college students majoring in accounting. Lost children reconciled with parents with the help of their ministers. Bad marriages that once ended in murder finished in the tedium of divorce. Couples found ways to stay together through therapy and hobbies such as bird-watching.
None of this latter work made much sense to Andrea, who had inadvertently become a student of it. Some critics wrote that Loretta Partlow stopped being a madwoman herself and returned to more traditional fiction, but Andrea was left with a different feeling. It did not seem possible that the woman who had gone through these ten dark years could emerge to craft such normal stories of daily life. It seemed to Andrea that there was no way back from the dark journey Loretta had embarked upon.
It occurs to Andrea that the stories Loretta Partlow had published in recent years were in fact written long ago. Loretta hasn’t written anything new in a while. Perhaps, Andrea speculates, it has to do with her son. Or maybe she is just an artist hitting a wall.
But this does not really matter to Andrea. Because she’s begun to imagine a story of her own unfolding.
Her father’s house was filled with the smells of roasting chicken, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits. Rich, buttery smells. Andrea could not remember ever smelling so many things at once. Her father had picked her and Robby up from school, told them he was bringing a woman to dinner. But the woman was already in the kitchen when they got there.
She had an apron on and was stirring a pot, tasting something with a spoon. Simple gestures Andrea had rarely seen performed. The woman was short and fleshy, but she had big amber eyes with colored flecks, like ponds in summer. “So there you are,” the woman said when they walked in.
It was a meal intended to seduce small children, with the potatoes whipped to a froth, the chicken crisp and brown; but though he was three years younger than Andrea who’d just turned twelve, Robby was not impressed. He whispered into Andrea’s ear, “She knows where everything is.”
Robby was right. They had not noticed this stranger settling herself into their lives on the off days when they lived with their mother. They hadn’t seen the string of cultured pearls left in the soap dish, the bottle of lavender shampoo. The slippers by the side of the bed. They had, at times before their parents separated, awakened in the night to shouts and accusations. Andrea had heard their father, a scientific man, say, “But what is this based on? Where is the proof?”
Their parents met in grad school. He was on his way to medical school and she to a career in research. This was how they always spoke to each other. With the kind of directness, the frontal attack, of scientists and probers. They were always asking each other, and their children, for the facts, the truth. If Andrea gotaB on a test, her mother had to know the percentage of the class that also got B’s and exactly where Andrea had gone wrong.
There could be no ambiguities, no shades of gray. So when their mother began to suspect, when she began to feel that something was wrong but she could never say what, no one believed her. She didn’t even believe herself.
It wasn’t until Andrea smelled the meal Elena had prepared that she understood this other woman existed. Perhaps she had existed for some time. But still, as she ate dreamily, Andrea, thinking of the TV dinners, the canned vegetables, and the macaroni her mother served, replied like some kind of traitor to her brother’s accusatory tone, “It’s better than what Mom makes us.”
She watched her father leaning over his food, laughing. The way he pushed himself away from the table when he was done. How long had this woman been in his life? After dinner, when the dishes were washed, he drove Elena home, but he was away a long time. The next time they saw her, he did not bother driving her home. Still, everyone was astonished when he married her. She seemed so different than he was. He was a cardiologist at Albany General, and she was a secretary in admitting. She was dark and strong, from “out west” somewhere, she’d say with a flick of her wrist and a laugh.
It was a love of books that had brought them together. He had seen her in the cafeteria, absorbed in a novel he’d long admired, and soon they were talking books, swapping them. But while her father read them and discussed them with his book group, Elena seemed to consume them. She read with a concentration that was frightening. If you interrupted her, she would give you a dazed look that could turn into an outburst. It was the only time she ever seemed capable of true rage. She even said once, “Don’t you understand that when I’m reading, I’m not really here?”
Elena read whatever she put her hands on, whatever she heard mentioned on the radio or in a newspaper—not as a sign of her intelligence really but more as an indication of her ability to transport herself. She was capable of getting up in the morning and reading all day. She easily finished a book in a sitting, and she never put one down once she’d picked it up. She read classics and trash and did not seem to discriminate between them as long as there was a story she could get caught up in. When a character died, she went into mourning. A triumph became her own. But family friends were dubious. Elena seemed to have sprung from nowhere. A forty-year-old woman without a past. It was a rebound, people said, though she gave Simon and the children the kind of structure and routine he craved. Barbara, the research scientist, never had time to put a meal on the table or sew a torn pant leg. She never made it to assemblies or cleaned her children’s rooms. Her life revolved around petri dishes and stem cells. It was difficult to compete for the time of a mother who was set upon curing incurable disease.
Elena worked her way into everyone’s hearts, starting with the children who grew fond of her. She waited for them after school. She had made funny snacks on platters for when they walked in. She called the snacks her geometry lessons—triangular sandwiches of salmon and cheese, sliced circles of peanut butter and banana, cookies cut in squares. “So what will it be today, children?” she’d ask as they left for school when Simon still had joint custody. “Circles, triangles, or squares?”
It was true she made changes, especially to the house on Shallow Lake. She put out lawn gnomes—leprechauns reclining under trees, and two “little Negroes,” as she called them, one dressed as a butler, another pushing a wheelbarrow that she liked to put a flowerpot in, until Simon made her take them down. Robby referred to her as “the weirdo.”
But she gave to Andrea what her mother never had. Hot meals on the table, clean warm beds, clothes that had buttons, matching socks. Elena was small and round, and you could put your arms around her. She was so different from Barbara, who was more at ease in a lab than in her own home. And from Simon’s mother—a cold, demanding woman wrapped up in herself. Once, when Andrea was in college, Elena turned to her and said, “You know, I don’t think your father ever got over his own mother until he married me.”
And Andrea had agreed.
REVENGE. Copyright © 2004 by Mary Morris. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.