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Die a Little: A Novelby Megan Abbott
Later, the things I would think about. Things like this: My brother never wore hats. When we were young, he wouldn't wear one even to church and my mother and then grandmother would force one on his head. As soon as he could he would tug it off with soft, furtive little boy fingers. They made his head hot, he would say. And he'd palm the hat and run his fingers through his downy blond hair and that would be the end of the hat.
When he began as a patrolman, he had to wear a cap on duty, but it seemed to him far less hot in California than in the South, and he bore up. After he became a junior investigator for the district attorney, he never wore a hat again. People often commented on it, but I was always glad. Seeing his bristly yellow hair, the same as when he was ten years old, it was a reminder that he still belonged to our family, no matter where we'd move or what new people came into our lives.
I used to cut my brother's hair in our kitchen every week. We would drink cola from the bottle and put on music and lay down newspapers, and I would walk around him in my apron and press my hand to his neck and forehead and trim away as he told me about work, about the cases, about the other junior investigators and their stories. About the power-mad D.A. and his shiny-faced toadies. About the brave cops and the crooked ones. About all the witnesses, all his days spent trailing witnesses who always seemed like so much smoke dissolving into the rafters. His days filled with empty apartments, freshly extinguished cigarettes, radios still warm, curtains blowing through open windows, fire escapes still shuddering...
When I finished the cut, I'd hold out the gilt hand mirror from my mother's old vanity set and he would appraise the job. He never said anything but "That's it, Sis," or "You're the best." Sometimes, I would see a missed strand, or an uneven ledge over his ear, but he never would. It was always, "Perfect, Sis. You've got the touch."
Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I'd blow them off my fingertips, one by one.
For their honeymoon, just before New Year's 1954, my brother and his new wife went to Cuba for six days. It was Alice's idea. Bill happily agreed, though his first choice had been Niagara Falls, as was recommended by most of the other married couples we knew.
They came back floating on a cloud of their own beauty, their own gorgeous besottedness. It felt vaguely lewd even to look at them. They seemed to be all body. They seemed to be wearing their insides too close to the surface of their skin.
There is a picture of Alice. The photographer — I'm not sure who it was — was ostensibly taking a picture of our godparents, the Conrans, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. But the photographer snapped too late, and Uncle Wendell and Aunt Norma are beginning to exit the frame with the embarrassed elation of those unused to such attention and eager to end it, and what you see instead is Alice's back.
She is wearing a demure black silk cocktail dress with a low-cut V in the back, and her alabaster skin is spread across the frame, pillowing out of the silk and curving sharply into her dark hair. The jut of her shoulder blades and the angular tilt of her cocked arm draw the eye irresistibly. So like Alice. She didn't even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention.
It had all begun not six months before.
My chest felt flooded by my own heart. I could hardly speak, hardly breathe the whole way to the hospital, lights flashing over me, my mind careering. They said, "What is your relation to William King?"
"Are you his wife?"
"What's wrong with my brother?"
But he was fine. He was fine. I was running down the hospital corridor, shins aching from my heels hitting the floor so hard. I was running when I heard his voice echoing, laughing, saw his downy, taffy-colored hair, his handsome, stubby-nosed profile, his hand rubbing the back of his head as he sat on a gurney, smeary smile on his face.
"Lora." He turned, speaking firmly to calm me, to strip the tight fear from my face. Hand out to grab my arm and stop me from plowing clear into him, he said, "I'm fine. I just hit my head, got knocked out, but I'm fine."
"Fine," I repeated, as if to fix it.
His jacket over his arm, his collar askew, he had, I noted with a shiver, a break of browning blood on his shirt.
"Someone hit your car?"
"Nah. Nearly did, but I swerved out of the way. The driver kept going off the road and into a telephone pole. I stopped to help her, and while I was trying to get her out of her car, another car rear-ended it and knocked us both down. It was some show."
He laughed when he said it, which was how I knew the driver was young and pretty, and troubling and helpless, all of which seemed, suddenly to me, to be just what he wanted, what he had been waiting for all along. It happened just like that. I realized it about him just like that, without ever having thought it before.
"Is she all right?"
"She had a concussion, but she's okay. She sprained her wrist trying to break her fall." He touched his own wrist as he said it, with great delicacy. This gesture confirmed it all.
"Why did she veer off the road? What was wrong with her?"
"Wrong? I don't know. I never even..."
When the sergeant came by to get more details for his report, he told us that the woman, Alice Steele, would be released momentarily. I asked him if she had been drinking, and he said he didn't think so.
"No, definitely not. She was completely coherent," my brother assured us both. The young sergeant respectfully nodded.
Her eyebrows, plucked and curvilinear like a movie star's, danced around as she spoke: My, how embarrassing — not just embarrassing but unforgivable — her actions were. She never should have been driving after taking a sedative even if it was hours before and never should have been driving on such a crowded road when she was so upset and crying over some complications in her life and with the rush to get to her friend Patsy's apartment because Patsy's boyfriend had hit her in the face with an ashtray. And, oh God, she wondered, what had happened to Patsy since she was never able to get there because of the accident. Would Patsy be all right? If there were scars, her modeling career would end in a heartbeat, and that would mean more trouble for Patsy, who'd had more than her share already.
Watching, listening, I imagined that this would be how this new woman in my brother's life would always talk, would always be. As it turned out, however, she rarely spoke so hazardously, so immoderately.
She had a small wound on her forehead, like a scarlet lip. It was this wound, I calculated, that had flowed onto my brother's shirtfront. A nurse was sewing stitches into it with long, sloping strokes the entire time she spoke to me.
I tried not to watch too closely as the wound transmuted from labial-soft and deep red to a thin, sharp, crosshatched line with only a trace of pucker. The nurse kept murmuring, "Don't move, don't move," as Alice gestured, twisting with every turn of phrase, never wincing, only offering an occasional squint at the inconvenience.
"Lora. Lora King," I answered.
"You're the wife of my knight in shining armor?"
"No. The sister."
"I'm Alice. Alice Steele. You're smiling."
"No. Not at you."
"Where is that heroic brother of yours, anyway? Don't tell me he's left?"
"No. He's here. He's waiting."
A smile appeared quickly and then disappeared, as if she decided it gave away too much. As if she thought I didn't know.
The three of us in my sedan. I drove them to Bill's car, which was unharmed. I knew he would offer to drive her home and he did and they vanished into his sturdy Chevy like circling dangers. Patti Page trilled from the radio of his car as it drove off. I sat and listened until I couldn't hear it any longer. Then I drove home.
At first, it was the pretext of checking on her recovery.
Then, it was his friend Alice, who needed a ride to the studio, where she worked in the costume department as a seamstress's assistant. She lived with a girlfriend named Joan in a rooming house somewhere downtown.
Then, it was Alice, who had bought him the new tie he wore, with the thin periwinkle stripe.
Next, it was Alice, with whom he'd had chop suey because he happened to be by the studio around lunchtime.
At last, it was Alice over for dinner, wearing a gold blouse and heels and bringing a basket of pomegranates spiced with rum.
I prepared ham with pineapple rings and scalloped potatoes and a bowl of green beans with butter. Alice smoked through the whole meal, sipping elegantly from her glass and seeming to eat but never getting any closer to the bottom of her plate. She listened to my brother avidly, eyes shimmering, and complimented me on everything, her shoe dangling from her foot faintly but ceaselessly. It would be true in all the time I knew Alice that she would never, ever stop moving.
She asked many questions about our childhood, the different places we'd lived, our favorite homes, how we'd ended up in California and why we'd stayed. She asked me if I enjoyed teaching high school and how we'd found such a lovely house and if we liked living away from downtown Los Angeles. She asked me where I got my hair done and if I sewed and whether I enjoyed having a yard because she had "always lived in apartments and had never had more than a potted plant and no green thumb besides, but who cares about that, tell me instead about how you keep such lovely petunias in this dry weather and does Bill help at all or is he too busy playing cops and robbers," with a wink and blinding smile toward my rapt brother.
Five months to the day after they met, they decided to marry. The night they told me, I remember there had been a tug over my eye all day. A persistent twitch that wouldn't give. Driving to the restaurant to meet them, I feared the twitch would come at the wrong moment and send me headlong into oncoming traffic.
As I walked in, she was facing my freshly shaved and bright-faced brother, who was all shine and smile. I saw her shoulders rise like a blooming heart out of an hourglass puce-colored dress. He was towering over her, and she was adjusting his pocket square with dainty fingers. From the shimmer lining my dear brother's face, from the tightness in his eyes, I knew it was long over.
The day before they were married, we moved Alice's things from the rooming house in which she'd been living for over a year. It was a large place in Bunker Hill, a house that had once been very grand and now had turned shaggy, with a bucket of sand for cigarettes at the foot of its spiraling mahogany staircase.
Apparently, Bill had been trying to get her to move out since he first visited her there. "I know places like this. I spend days knocking down the doors of places like this," he had told her. "It's no place for you."
But, according to him, she only laughed and touched his arm and said that he should have seen her last place, in a bungalow court where, the first night she spent there, a man stabbed his girlfriend in the stomach with her knitting needle, or a fork, she couldn't remember which. "She was all right," Alice had assured him. "It wasn't deep."
When we helped her pack up, I noticed how many clothes Alice had, and how immaculately she kept them, soft sweaters nestled in stacks of plastic sleeves, hatboxes interlocked like puzzle pieces in the top of her closet, shoes in felt bags, heels stroked in cotton tufts to keep them from being scratched by the hanging shoe tree, dresses with pillowy skirts tamed by sweeping curls of tissue paper or shells of crinkly crepe.
Alice smiled warmly as I marveled at each glorious confection. She said she accumulated most of the clothes from her work at the studio. The seamstresses were often allowed to take cast-off garments deemed too damaged or too worn. No clothes or costumes were ever supposed to be given away but used over and over until the fabric dissolved like sugar. At a certain point, however, the clothes were passed to the girls, either because the designers could do nothing more with them, or as a favor or trade for extra or special work.
So after five years of studio work, Alice had accumulated quite an array of repaired clothes, the most glorious being a dress Claudette Colbert had worn, which was nearly impossible to put on or off. It was a delicate black velvet with netting around the neck, and it made Alice's small chest look positively architectural, like cream alabaster jutting up from her wasp waist.
Our godparents hosted the wedding party after the ceremony at City Hall. The other junior investigators from the D.A.'s office and my fellow teachers from Westridge School for Girls filled the small house.
No one came from Alice's family. Her only guests were a few coworkers from the studio, who sat on a corner couch, smoking and straightening their stockings.
At the time, she said that she had no family to invite, that she was orphaned and alone. She was a native Southern Californian, if there was such a thing. She was born in Santa Monica Hospital to a domestic with Hollywood aspirations and a recently discharged chauffeur. That was all we really knew.
At the party, my eyes could barely leave her, this woman who had entered our life and planted herself so firmly at its sharp center.
She buzzed around the party, hovering with large, rain pail eyes, a body compact, pulled taut over every angle, raw-boned, and a few years or a few ounces away from gaunt, ghostly. Her appeal was a kind of thrilling nervous energy, a railrack laugh that split her face in gleaming abandon.
There was a glamour to her, in her unconventional beauty, in her faintly red-rimmed eyes and the bristly, inky lashes sparking out of them, blinking incessantly, anxiously. Her hair was always perfectly coiffed, always shining and engineered, her lips artfully painted magenta. When she'd turn that black-haired head of hers, a collarbone would pop out disturbingly. She had no curves. She was barely a woman at all, and yet she seemed hopelessly feminine, from her airy walk, her muzzy, bobbing gesticulations, her pointy-toed shoes, and the spangly costume jewelry dangling from her delicate wrists.
Even though Bill and Alice repeatedly urged me to live with them, I moved into a small apartment while they honeymooned.
"I can't imagine you two apart. What is Bill without Lora? Lora without Bill?" Alice would say, dark eyes pounding.
"I'll be closer to school. It'll be easier," I assured them, packing up the chocolate-colored figured rug, white and rose chairs, and rough cream drapes of our living room, the heavy dining room table we'd had since children, the blond bedroom set my grandparents had given me upon my graduating teachers' college.
I moved to a one-bedroom on Pasadena's west side, as Bill and Alice prepared to move from our duplex to a pretty new ranch house in tonier South Pasadena. They bought it with Bill's savings, borrowing against his pension.
It was strange at first. Bill and I had lived together for so long, not just as children but always. As I polished the dining room set, wedged uncomfortably in the corner of the living room of my new apartment, I remembered a thousand evenings spent at the round, knotty table, long nights when I was studying for my certification and Bill was at the police academy. He always wanted to work for the district attorney. He wasn't joining the force because it was in the family (it wasn't), like so many of the others, and he wasn't doing it because he wanted to see action, to be a tough guy. He did it out of a larger purpose that he would never say outright but that I could feel in everything he said, every look he gave as we drove through the city, as we saw the things one can see in a city, driving through, watching, watching everything.
Now, rubbing a soft cloth over each knot in the table, I could nearly picture us seated there, books spread out, coffeepot warm. He would rub his eyes, run a finger under his collar, sometimes pass me a grin like "Lora, look at us, look how devoted we are, look how alike we are, we're the same, really."
And we were. Taking notes, furrowing our brows, our necks curled, craned, sore, and aching, and yet exhilarated, our whole lives beginning and everything waiting for us.
Before my brother met Alice, there were always women telling me, "I can't believe your brother's not married" or "How is it no woman has snatched him up yet?" I never really knew how to answer.
He could have married anyone.
And he had girlfriends, but it never really led anywhere. When I first started teaching, he dated Margie Reichert, the sister of his partner. Tiny with fluffy hair and empty eyes, Margie had the vaguely tubercular look of a child-woman. She often ran into minor troubles generally instigated by her shyness, her difficulty in speaking up before it was too late. When Bill discovered Margie was paying for utilities on her small apartment, in violation of her lease, he spoke with the landlord and ensured Margie receive a refund for the months of bills she'd paid. When Margie's boss at Rush's Department Store fired her for stealing, Bill quickly learned the other salesgirls were using Margie to conceal their own shortchanging. Soon enough, Margie had her job back.
Everyone was certain they would marry.
Somehow, they never did. The time came and passed, and they seemed to see each other less, and Margie decided to move with her family to San Diego after all. There seemed no pressing reason to stay.
Besides, Bill was so absorbed in his job, in getting to where he wanted to go. And we were this team, both moving forward, digging our feet in, making roots. A new family, a family born anew.
In this fashion, six years had passed.
And now, it was as it should be. Bill had found someone. It seemed, at some point, I would, too.
Let me say this about my brother. My brother, he was one of those gleaming men, a jaw sharp, color always flushing up his straightedge cheekbones. And, amid all the masculine rigidity, all the razor lines and controlled flesh, lay a pair of plushy, girlish lips, pouty and pink, and a pair of lovely and nearly endless eyelashes — eyelashes so extravagant that as a young boy he had taken our mother's nail scissors to them. But of course they'd grown back, immutable.
With a more moneyed background you could imagine him as one of those glorious, arrogant, seersucker-suited men out of novels. But with his middlebrow roots, he could never be less than earnest, more than provincial in his views, his tastes.
And yet, there was Alice.
While they lounged in a haze of lovesick in Cuba, a honeymoon far beyond my brother's modest income, their new bungalow filled itself happily, riotously — gifts from family and friends, but also things Alice ordered to set up their new home.
A full set of smooth pink and gray Russel Wright everyday dinnerware, my mother's Haviland china in English Rose, a series of copper fish Jell-O molds, a large twelve-slice chrome toaster, a nest of Pyrex mixing bowls, a gleaming bar set, tumblers, old-fashioneds, and martini glasses with gold-leaf diamonds studding the rims, a bedroom set with soft, dove gray silk quilted coverlets, matching lamps with dove gray porcelain gazelles as their bases, a vanity with a round mirror and a silver deco base, a delicate stool of wrought curlicues holding up a pale peach heart seat cushion, a tightly stuffed and sleekly lined sofa, love seat, and leather wing chairs in the living room, with its green trim, jungle-patterned curtains, and a large brass cage in which a parrot named Bluebeard lived.
The only remnants of our old house, aside from the china and a family desk of plantation oak, are a set of rose-hued photographs, one of Bill and me at ages six and nine, and one of us with our parents in front of a fireplace before their last Christmas, before dying in a base-camp fire overseas, my father in plaid robe and Santa hat perched jauntily, Joel McCrea-handsome, and my mother, all ripe grin and tight curls, tugging us close to her lace-trimmed dress.
Bill and I are so unmistakably siblings, both with rough blond hair, popping eyes, and downy faces, round elbows curling out of matching holiday suspenders. While mine attached to a stiff skirt and Bill's to short pants, our seated poses conceal the distinction.
When I first visit the newlyweds' house, I can't help but notice there are no framed family photos from Alice's side, not even a stray snapshot. When I ask her why, she says she doesn't have any. Thinking about it, however, she remembers one bit of history she can show me. Running to her closet and back, she brings out an old Culver City newspaper article that ran in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of an establishment called Breuer's Chocolates. Accompanying the story is a photo of a shapely young girl in her teens, a blur of black hair and arms with curlicue dimples, sales smock pulled tightly across her chest, a cloud of airy divinity puffs in front of her.
"That's me, believe it or not." Alice smiles. Finger pressed to the round girl in the picture, she talks about how she used to have a soft white belly, sweetly spreading pale thighs, a faint, faint pocket of lush flesh under her chin. It happened when she was working at Breuer's, making a dollar a day.
As Alice tells it, she would come to work so hungry, having eaten only eggs and hash for dinner the night before. How, after all, could she stand it, inhaling that rich, warm smell all day and not sampling it? It was easier to filch a whole box from the wrapping room than to slip them out individually from the case. All day long, she would make trips to the ladies' room or her locker and savor a piece or two, a waxy cream, a brittle honeyed toffee, a dissolving coconut spume.
Of course, she eventually tired of chocolate, but not for a long time, and when she did, there were nougats, jellied candies shaped like wedges of lemon or lime, butterscotch coins she could slide under her tongue all day, paper sacks of sharp candy corns. Oh, she wouldn't be hungry until late at night after a full day at the store. And then a smooth hard-boiled egg or a starchy wedge of day-old was all she needed. A dentist later told her she was lucky to have teeth like a hillbilly, impenetrable.
As I look at the woolly image, she explains how, when she left the chocolate shop for a sewing factory, she lost fifteen pounds in a month, both from working hard, long hours and from nights out with her new girlfriends — other factory girls who brought Alice into their circle, spending nights at the army canteen, dancing and drinking gin fizzes instead of eating dinner and sleeping.
Looking at the younger Alice, however, I'm struck by something. It is clearly her in the picture: her thick eyelashes, upturned nose, wide mouth. But there is something in her face that seems utterly foreign, utterly exotic and strange to me. Like someone I've never met, someone who no longer is.
It is one month after the wedding and long past midnight, and I am lying in bed in my brother's new house, wide awake, thinking I should have made the drive home, where I could have nursed my insomnia with some exams I needed to grade, or at least played the radio or turntable to ease my racing mind. Instead, I am holed up in the makeshift sewing room/guest bedroom, staring at the alarming seamstress dummy lurking out of the darkness. I wonder how early in the morning I can leave without being rude.
Somewhere beyond the door, I hear a faint rustling, and I imagine my brother awake. We would have a late-night talk, chamomile tea or even a cold beer, me curled in a chair and him slouched on the floor, rubbing my feet. We would play records, and he would talk through the case that was bothering him, or I would talk about the student who was troubling me, and the night would curl in on itself so comfortably.
I hear what sounds like pages turning. Someone is definitely up, and it must be my brother. Alice's fourth martini has to have put her in a very sound sleep.
I slide my robe on and make my way to the door. Opening it delicately, and walking down the hall, I see one of the living room lights on. As I move closer, I realize it is only Alice after all. Her legs tucked beneath her on a wing chair, she is paging through one of our thick old family photo albums.
I am about to turn around and head back, not wanting to disturb her, but as I do, my eyes play a funny trick.
I stop suddenly at the archway and find myself stifling a tight gasp. Under the harsh lamp, in sharp contrast to the dark room, her eyes look strangely eaten through. The eyes of a death mask, rotting behind the gleaming facade. A trick of the light somehow —
"Lora!" Alice says, surprised, jolting me out of my thoughts. She realizes how loudly she's said my name and covers her mouth with her hand, smiling. "You scared me."
"I'm sorry," I say. "I couldn't sleep."
"Ditto. Sit down."
I move over to the sofa beside her, tightening the belt on my robe and trying to avoid looking her straight in the eyes, which still have that rotting look, set deeper than her doll-like face.
"I was just looking at some of the old King family history," she whispers with a tone of playful conspiracy.
"Really?" I look over at the pages open in her lap. There are my brother and I fishing on the dock of our grandparents' property, he waving a mangy trout in the air. We were probably around four and seven, and both of us tanned and naked to the waist in a way that makes me blush.
"The faces alone — if it weren't for those little braids tucked behind your ears, I couldn't tell you two apart," Alice says, trying to meet my gaze.
"Yes. Same blond curls, until Dad made Bill get regular military-style cuts."
"And you a little tomboy, too."
"We both liked to fish and play outdoors. Cowboys and Indians, I guess. I don't really remember," I say, even as I remember everything, even in one wave of sharp grass, rowboat creek, feet pounding tag, whispers from top bunk to bottom in the heavy July night.
"It feels so different, so...impossibly different from my childhood." Alice rubs her brow.
"I guess you were a city girl."
"Hmmm," she murmurs. "That, too. And no brothers or sisters and no grandparents I ever met. And no homestead. I mean, I know you moved a lot because of your father's different posts, but it seems like you always had a real home. A house, the same furniture and things. We always lived in furnished places. I remember instead of counting sheep, I used to recite the places I'd lived: five bungalow courts" — she counted them off on her fingers — "Corrington Arms, El Cielo Court, La Alambra Bungalows, La Cienega Arms, Golden Dreams Bungalows. And eight hotels, four rented rooms, two in-house maid's quarters, and one rented house that my mother skipped out on so fast we left everything behind but a laundry bag full of dirty clothes. We never even had the same car for more than a few months."
Alice grins, as if suddenly remembering. "The only thing that was constant was the set of Johnson Brothers china my father had from his mother and her mother. It dated back to the Gold Rush, I think. When I was little it had twelve place settings. Each move, when my father would pack it up carefully in the same old cloth napkins, there would be fewer pieces. I broke a few washing them. Rough moves broke lots of cups, especially the handles. But mostly my mother would throw plates or saucers at my father when they fought. Surest way to get a reaction out of him."
I smile and feel relieved to see Alice's eyes turn gray-brown, like coffee with cream. It is a story filled with dirty ghosts, yet there's a fondness in the way she tells it, a pleasure in its rangy tumult.
"I always used to sweep up the shards afterward. I can picture the little blue flowers now. One night...
"One night, she was so mad, so furious, I remember she cracked one over her own head. And I remember laughing, because it was funny, like in a movie. Like Laurel and Hardy or something. But then it didn't seem funny at all when I looked at her face, which looked cracked, too. There was blood, yes, but it wasn't that. Her face was so...unhinged...that it was as if it had split. As if she had split." Alice touches her face as she says it, the heel of one hand under her chin, the other on her forehead. "It scared me. My pop, too. He kept looking at her. She was standing still, her arm hanging there, holding the broken shard at her side. She was shaking, but she didn't say anything. Like she was shocked by what she'd done. Like she couldn't believe she'd gone that far."
As Alice tells me this, I turn away from her. I stare hard at my hands, wrung around each other. I am afraid to look over at her because I know what I will see. I will see her eyes turning, always turning back to rot.
After the honeymoon period, when real life had to resume for them, Alice was determined to make a home. She had quit her job, had her last day at the studio just before the wedding. She was so relieved, had found herself disgusted by her work, tearing fabric apart and replacing panels because of a variety of stains left by actresses, stains suggesting encounters had while still in costume. She'd throw them in the bin to be laundered, always asking the laundry girls never to bring her costumes that hadn't gone through them first. She wouldn't miss that, she assured me. Not one bit.
Now, hunched over her Singer, she made curtains for every room, bright curtains that hung stiffly or blew languorously; she painted the walls by hand, apple green, buttercup yellow, crÈme caramel. She planted tomatoes in one corner of the small yard and dug flower bulbs along the perimeter, trimming the grass around every curve of the small footpath to the front door.
Bill insisted I take all our cooking and baking wares, farm-style pieces of cast iron and heavy wood. It was just as well for Alice, who wanted her own things, and she set out to fit her sunny yellow-painted kitchen with all things modern.
Small, well-chosen pieces, of course. She bought a set of casserole dishes with rattan frames made by Gladding, McBean. She asked my brother for, and received, Broil King by the Peerless Electric Company for her birthday. She bargained successfully with the salesmen at McCreary's Department Store in downtown Pasadena for a prime deal on a set of Samson folding chairs by Shwayder Brothers. She bought a Cornwall Thermo Tray with gold finish and wooden handles for serving hot artichoke hors d'oeuvres and tuna squares.
Only a few times would I actually see Alice cleaning, but the immaculate house revealed that cleaning must have been going on all the time. I could picture her on hands and knees, hair covered in a topknot cloth, scrubbing fervently, greedily, so gladly because nothing seemed to make her happier than seeing pure lines, smooth surfaces, sharp corners, and the smell always of cleanliness, intense, pungent, shaded over with the scent of fresh-cut flowers or a simmering stovetop.
Despite all her prewedding glamour, Alice quickly became the most quiet, the most demure of a quiet and demure set of junior investigators' wives. She was the first to bring the tuna noodle casserole to the new family that moved in, or to the household with the sick mother. She attended church with Bill and often me, turning the pages of the hymnal with her immaculate white gloves, apologizing that her half-Catholic, half-Pentecostal upbringing hadn't prepared her for the Lutheran service we attended.
Almost instantaneously it seemed, Alice, with her fresh and lovely looks and her handsome, upstanding husband, had made friends in the neighborhood. It was not long before she and the other women in the cul-de-sac began buying each other things, visiting gifts, housewarmings. They bought each other mint julep sets made of aluminum and cork, copper fruit bowls, tidbit stands, pink Polynesian chop plates adorned with a black palm frond pattern, spun aluminum nesting bowls with neat reed handles, Pyrex hostess sets for picnics on the back lawns, Klise Frosted Oak relish boats and cheese boards with Lucite inserts, Manta Ray centerpiece bowls with a chic black glaze or elegant figured white, canapé rosettes with three banked levels which as the pretty box said, "make this tray an ideal serving accessory for 'after bridge' and for afternoon teas."
For months, it seemed all she did was bake. She was learning by doing, with Betty Crocker perched on the counter, with Joy of Cooking, with our mother's dog-eared collection of country cookbooks. She made a raspberry-coconut jelly roll for a brunch with the Leders and Conlans. A rum-and-cherry-cola marble cake for a cocktail party. Caramel-apple chiffon cupcakes soaked through with Dry Sack cream sherry for the Halloween party. On Bill's birthday, she spent hours making cream-puff swans shaped from what she carefully pronounced as a "pâté à chou." For a block party, almond icebox cake and cornflake macaroons. Chow mein-noodle haystacks and fried spaghetti cookies for a neighborhood association bake sale. For a dinner party, white chocolate grasshopper pie still foaming with melted marshmallows and doused with Hiram Walker. More dinner parties and still racier items, ambrosia brimming with Grand Marnier, a fruit-cocktail gelatin ring nearly a foot high and glistening. As the parties grew more elaborate, more frenetic, bourbon balls studded with pecans and Nesselrode pie with sweet Marsala and chestnuts. Strawberries Biltmore covered with vanilla custard sauce. Baked Alaska drizzled through with white rum. Peach Melba suffused with framboise.
Soon, she had no rival. In the neighborhood and among the investigators' wives, she set all the trends, and everyone else followed.
It was as though she had waited her whole life for this.
As the months passed, however, I began to see glimpses, odd, awry glimpses of a different Alice, an Alice somewhere between the girl in the picture of Breuer's Chocolates and this matchless homemaker. At parties or bridge gatherings, in the ladies' room after three stingers, she'd lean over to me, hot alcohol and perfume, and whisper something like a clue, "When I was a department store model, a customer once paid me seventy-five dollars to come home with her and put on her dead husband's clothes, piece by piece. She played 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles' on her turntable over and over all night. She never laid a hand on me, but she might have. Love is funny, isn't it?"
Or "This old roommate of mine, Lois, she bathed every night in rubbing alcohol. She'd bathe in it for hours, and then come out and coat, coat her body in jasmine lotion — together, the smell was like a punch in the face.
"Then — listen, Lora — then, one night, my other roommate, Paulette, had a date over and he — his name was Dickie — was on the fire escape smoking. Next thing we hear this scream, horrible, like an animal under a car. Apparently, Dickie had thrown his lit cigarette down the alley and the wind carried it up and through the bathroom window. Lois was just getting out of the bath covered with the alcohol. We ran in, and we got the bath mat around her, rolled her on the floor, like they tell you to do in school.
"Her skin felt like crinkled paper. I could barely look at her. I kept thinking her flesh was going to fall off in my hands. Then it turned soft and shiny, like wax. The bath mat was cheap, and bits of it stuck to her. When Paulette looked down and saw what was happening, she started screaming. I had to slap her three times.
"Lois was okay, some second-degree burns on her stomach and her thighs. What was funny was that Dickie felt so bad, he kept visiting her at the hospital, and the next thing you know, they were a couple. Things happen like that sometimes. It didn't last, those things seldom do, but when I would see them, out in Santa Monica or Hollywood or something, they'd be sitting together, smoking like chimneys, and I would laugh, and Lois, one tough nut, she'd laugh back and wink and say, 'Where there's smoke there's fire, honey.'"
Copyright © 2005 by Megan Abbott
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