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A Bigamist's Daughterby Alice McDermott
SHE IS ALMOST BEGINNING to believe him.
He's been here for nearly twenty minutes now, sitting across from her on the edge of his seat, his forearms resting on her desk, his hands folded before him, the right hand covering the left, the left a fist that he occasionally taps, ever so lightly, upon the gray steel to give his voice emphasis. His voice is Southern, slow, but with a rising quality that makes her feel it's being rushed from behind, that something is pushing him to get the story told faster, to get it finished. Perhaps it is only her slow, habitual glances at the clock on the edge of her desk, or the quick sounds of the typewriters outside her office.
But his voice will not be rushed, and his face, that light, open, seemingly featureless face that only very blond people can have, very blond people with pale skin and colorless lashes, remains unchanged.
"He seemed to look different each time we saw him," he tells her, reciting. "Not a difference in weight or dress or disposition, not even the difference that can come over someone at different seasons, but a true, somehow internal difference. At times, he would look kindGod, so kind it made you want to kneel, filled you with an optimism, a joy, that was almost religious. At other times, he would look fierce, savage, so that you knew if he were to touch you, as we'd seen him touch his wife (who was only one of his wives) and a shopgirl, and even a dog at these times, there would be no humanity in it, no connection of blood and living skin, no recognition. Just weight and direction; the blade of the tractor meeting dry earth."
He speaks slowly, carefully, and his voice, like his small blue eyes, seems to search the air, the pale sunlight coming from the window behind her, as if some response should be found there. As if each word were a cue.
"One summer we saw him in town. He was driving a gray Mercedes with Montana plates and it was the first any of us had seen of him for nearly a year and a half. He pulled up in that car that was like a flash of black water thrown onto the dry, dusty street, stepped out, and then stood there, seeing no one, but waiting, as if for our vision to clear. He seemed thinner, even taller than we'd remembered him and he wore white duck trousers and a loose white shirt. He was tan and his hair had begun to turn gray.
"He walked slowly into the liquor store, all of us watching him and him knowing we were watching, came out with a bottle, got back into his car and drove out to his home that, as far as any of us knew, he hadn't seen in the past year and a half. And all of us, despite what we'd been saying when we saw his wifewho was really only one of his wivesmoving through us like a whipped dog, despite the pity we'd been giving her, the puzzled shame we thought we'd seen her wearing, despite that, any one of us, man, woman and child, would have sold his soul to have been there in that darkened house on the Fainsburg Road that night, to have been there waiting to receive him."
Like a medium, he searches the air as he speaks, and although she's sat at this desk, in this white office, and has listened to the drone of countless other voices, countless other stories ("Do you have a story to tell? Have you ever told yourself: 'I should write a book?' Vista Books seeks new authors with manuscripts of all types."), she has been, in these past twenty minutes, intrigued, interested, verging on belief.
"And the other women, his other wives, whom we could only guess about, only imagine as we waited for him to return to our town again, those women became as real to us as the women who we knew to be his wives, and we always imagined them crying. Crying in different rooms, in different cities, on different days of the week. One, we would say, is fat, with curly hair, and she cries in her kitchen and wipes her eyes with a gingham apron, a small whimper always at her throat. Another is thin, sharp-nosed. She places long, bony fingers over her face and cries sitting on the edge of a cream-colored couch in a darkening living room. Another, we would tell one another, winking, smiling a little, is blond, shapely; she lies flung across her bed, crying with awful, shuddering sobs, one red slipper on the floor, the other still dangling from her polished toes."
The phone rings, and she almost expects him to make the sound part of his story, the way a dream will sometimes gather the real world into itself and build a meaning around it.
He merely smiles, pulling his lips together, and nods when she says, "Excuse me."
It's Ann, her secretary. "Elizabeth, you've been in there nearly half an hour," she says in a low voice. "Do you need to be rescued?"
"Fine." Elizabeth reaches for her pen. "Give it to me again, slowly." She notices her movements are sluggish, drowsy.
"Should I give you about fifteen more minutes?" Ann asks.
She nods, writing nonsense, illegibly. She's not sure she wants to get rid of him so soon, but Ann's call and her response to it are automatic, cues and stage directions in a scene she knows so well that even to improvise would mean to pick up a pad and a pen and pretend to be writing. "Fine," she says. "Got it."
"It's twenty-five after ten," Ann tells her. "If he's not out by ten forty-five, I'll come in and say there's a meeting."
Elizabeth writes, "This is the day that the Lord hath made," and nods again, wondering where in her mind the phrase came from. "Well, that's fine," she says, "but tell them not to start without me."
Ann laughs a little. "Okay, I'll tell them."
She hangs up the phone and stares at the pad. Remnants of Catholic brainwashing or God trying to get a message to her? She scribbles a bit more, as if she has something urgent on her mind, and then looks up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Daniels," she says. "Please go on."
He smiles a little, eyes on his hands, and she's suddenly ashamed, afraid that he's seen through the phone call. "Well, it's all in the book," he says and then, looking up, "Why don't I just let you read it instead of reciting it to you?" He smiles, a weak smile that somehow reaches to the very corners of his mouth, squaring them. His teeth are small and white and straight, his skin smooth, beardless, his narrow eyes a very light blue. There is, she thinks, something uncomplicated and pleasant about his face.
"Yes," she says, smiling back at him, placing her hand over the thick yellow envelope before her. "Why don't I read it first and then we can talk?" She pushed her chair back slightly, places her hands on its arms. He stands. She stands too, and holds out her hand. "I'll call you as soon as I've read it all. Maybe we can have lunch."
They shake hands across her desk, above his manuscript in its yellow envelope, and for just one moment she catches a certain facetiousness in his eyes, as if he's seen through more than the phone call. She suddenly feels like a little girl caught dressed up in her mother's clothes, gravely playing grown-up. It's a feeling she often gets when acting the businesswoman around people her own age.
"I'd appreciate that," he says and smiles again. He is a broad young man, nearly stocky, and as she walks him to the door she notices that he is only an inch or two taller than she. He wears neat khaki pants and a navy-blue blazer. Loafers and no socks. She briefly imagines him naked, but can think only of a pale, rather knotty backside.
"How much longer will you be in New York?" she asks, as they walk down the corridor, the typewriters clicking on either side of them. Ann peers over the green, smoked-glass partition, watching him carefully, as if she suspects he may bolt at any minute, make a run for it back to the office, where he will demand more time. She seems ready to block the door if he dares.
"I have some shopping to do," he says. "And some old friends to visit. Actually, when I come to New York I usually just stay until I get tired of it. Once I was here about four hours, once for over six months."
The idle rich. She imagines the price of his contract edging up over the $5,000 mark.
They stand in the small reception room and shake hands. It's a sleazy room. Dark paneling, brown-and-orange Danish modern furniture, beige linoleum. It's so much like a front, like the fake offices they used to set up for Candid Camera, she often wonders how their "authors" fail to see it. The first time she sat here, when she came up for her interview two years ago, she could think only of illegal abortions and unlicensed electrolysis, of Allen Funt suddenly revealing that nothing is what it seems to be.
As it's not, in here. Vista Books is a vanity publisher masquerading as a real one. Making the dreams of every would-be writer come true, for a while. And then sending them the bill.
"I'll call you," she says to him. "Soon." They stand looking at each other, smiling somewhat awkwardly. She knows what he's waiting for. "Tomorrow," she says, giving it to him.
Now he really smiles. "Great. I hope you like it."
She reaches for the door and holds it open for him. "I'm sure I will."
He says, "Have a good day," and walks out. He has an odd little bounce in his step, and he walks with his hands straight at his sides, like a well-behaved child.
Bonnie, the receptionist, sits behind a small window opposite the door watching her, sucking on a red-and-white straw stuck into a can of grape soda.
"Yuk," she says as Elizabeth turns back into the room. The straw doesn't leave her mouth. "He's a creepy one." There are bright red pimples spread across her forehead like strawberry jam. She is fat, painfully homely; nasty with homeliness.
"You think so?"
"Yuk," she says again, and then adds, biting the straw, "Ned wants you in Production."
She goes the back way, through the stockroom, a large gray area that smells damp and oily like an old garage. There are rows and rows of books, some in opened boxes, some wrapped in brown paper, others piled loosely on metal shelves, there jackets sooty and torn. Hector, the stock boy, is on one of the wooden skids, disco-tap dancing to the music from his transistor. He waves to her. She waves back. She fights her recurrent fantasy of the entire room in flames.
As she enters Ned's office, a small, windowless room between the storeroom and the large area where the six members of Vista's production staff actually work, she can tell this is not going to be a pleasant session. He has a large, sloppy manuscript on the desk before him; judging from his face, it is giving off a terrible odor.
"You signed this book?" he asks. "The Coy Catiff?"
She moves to his desk and looks at the title page. "By Blanche Willis. Yes, I signed it. It's a good contract."
"I don't suppose you've read it." His eyes and forehead are small, pushed together, but the rest of his face is wide, long, exaggerated like a cartoon character's. He's spent the last ten years with a trade publisher, and after six months at Vista he's still a little surprised at what goes on at a vanity press.
"I didn't read the whole thing," she tells him. "But I read some of it. Why?"
He sits up in his chair, sighing, playing with the buttons of his shirt. "The copy editor I gave it to just brought it back. He can't make any sense of it. He says the main character keeps changing his name. And his sex. He says on one page the author's calling him Fess and on the other page she's calling him Bess, and sometimes she describes the clothes as male, sometimes as female. I've just looked at it and I can't make any sense of it either." He pushed the manuscript away from him, toward her. "How am I supposed to send it to the compositor if I don't know where it's supposed to be B-E-S-S and where it's supposed to be F-E-S-S, where it's supposed to be he and where it's supposed to be she?"
She begins to laugh a little. Ned doesn't, and she wishes he would. She realizes that Ned takes his job seriously because he has a wife and five children and a mortgage, but she also believes a certain amount of laughter is important, for perspective.
"It's really very simple," she tells him, pretending to be serious. "It's all explained in the outline." She sits on the edge of his desk. Blanche Willis, she knows, has already become a celebrity in her small New Jersey town, and her husband, who is an executive for the telephone company, has just given her an office in his own building, where she can begin working on the sequel. She had called just yesterday to ask Elizabeth what she thought of Dustin Hoffman starring in the movie version of her book. Blanche wondered if he was "serious" enough.
"In the beginning of the book," she tells Ned, "Bess and Fess are twins, male and female. Bess marries a doctor and they drive cross-country for their honeymoon. Fess goes along with them because he's gay and wants to live in San Francisco. On the way, there's a car crash and Bess is killed. Fess is castrated."
"Shit," Ned whispers.
"So," she goes on, "to calm the broken-hearted doctor, Fess proposes that he become Bess and the two of them live as man and wife. This pleases Fess because he's always wanted to marry a doctor, and it pleases the doctor because he's always liked Fess better anyway. The story goes on from there."
"It's not supposed to be a funny book?" Ned asks.
"No," she says. "The author believes it's a reflection of the way we live now. That's what she wants on the jacket."
He breathes another "shit" and then asks, "So what do I tell the copy editor?"
"Tell him it's easy to figure out. When Fess and the doctor are in public, Fess is called Bess. When they're alone, he's Fess again because the doctor knows he's not really Bess. In public, Fess is she, in private, he's he, unless the doctor is kidding him and calling him she in private. I think the same goes for Fess's mother because she knows Fess is Bess, too."
Ned looks down at the manuscript and then looks up at her. Laughing a little, she slides off the desk and straightens her skirt. "Does it ever occur to you to reject a manuscript on the grounds it's ridiculous?" he asks.
She laughs out loud, again wishing he would smile. "It occurs to me every day," she tells him. "But if the author's willing to pay us to publish it, what can I do?"
He shrugs, dismissing her. As she turns to leave, she sees Kevin, their art director, standing behind her. He grins through his freckles and whispers, "Bess and Fess, what a mess," as she passes by. They both raise their shoulders and giggle into their hands. Ned ignores them.
Ann is in her office when she gets back, gathering papers from Elizabeth's OUT basket and twisting her head around to read the name on the yellow envelope.
"What's his name?" she asks as Elizabeth walks in. "Tupper?"
"That's what it says."
"As in Tupperware?"
She sits down at her desk and picks up the envelope. The label says Tupper Daniels, Monteagle, Tennessee. She slides the manuscript out. It's on nice paper, neatly typed, and she suddenly feels strangely embarrassed, as if he'd accidentally left something very private in her office, like a pair of rosary beads or a worn sock. Ann leans over her, her large breasts pressing softly against Elizabeth's shoulder and arm. She almost wants to block the manuscript from her view.
"What's it about?" Ann whispers.
She shrugs. "Bigamy, I think. He just recited most of the first chapter to me."
"Oh God," Ann says. She straightens up. She is a big woman, huge actually, but her face is thin and she dresses well, so Elizabeth only notices her size when they are standing side by side in front of the bathroom mirror, or when, like now, she stands close enough to block out one entire side of the office.
"Bigamy?" Ann says. "My, my, he didn't look the type." And then she laughs that staccato, sophisticated laugh Elizabeth loves her for. "That's an answer to the divorce problem. I wish Brian had thought of it." She's been divorced from Brian nearly seven years now, but his name still haunts her conversations; she seems to hold it in her mouth like a dog with a bit of coattail: the only part of the thief that didn't get away.
"You would have preferred Brian to be a bigamist?"
She shrugs, hands on her wide hips. "Why not? Half a man's better than none at all. And think of the freedom; he'd have to work double-time being two husbands, but I'd only have to work part-time being half a wife. It's the working girl's answer to a demanding marriage. Don't get a part-time job, get a part-time husband! I love it."
Elizabeth tells her she's got a point. Had Brian been a bigamist, she knows, Ann would have made herself believe this. She has a marvelous way of turning every rotten thing her once-husband did into some kind of sly joke in which she is ultimately the winner. Her poetry, which she used to let Elizabeth read, was full of such twists.
"Well," says Ann. "Are you going to sign old Tupperware?"
"Probably." She flips through the manuscript and then drops it onto her desk. "And I told him I'd call him tomorrow, so be a dear and get me his file so I can make out his contract. Type a folder for him too, and find me a time tomorrow afternoon when I can see him–he'll probably sign then."
"Right-oh, chief," Ann says, saluting and turning to walk out the door. The "chief" is to remind Elizabeth, nearly six years her junior, that she's getting carried away.
"And then take the rest of the morning off," Elizabeth calls after her. An apology.
"You're a sport," Ann calls back.
Tupper Daniels' background file consists of his first letter to Vista, the questionnaire he was asked to fill out, the summary he was asked to submit and the two letters arranging this morning's meeting.
His questionnaire says he's submitted to all the major houses, the real publishers, and was turned down by each one. It doesn't say why. It says he finally decided to come to Vista because he feels a writer should believe in his work enough to pay to have it published. He also adds that Stephen Crane published his own first works himself, and he's always admired Stephen Crane.
She sits back, lights a cigarette. She recalls having read it all before, just yesterday probably, but it had no meaning then. She reads hundreds of these backgrounds a week, hundreds of letters from people with books that Vista simply must publish, no matter what the cost. Housewives with desks full of poetry, businessmen with exposés they're sure will change the world, old people, so many old people, with memoirs and philosophies they want urgently to be preserved, recorded. So many pathetic people with dreams of immortality and a spot on the Tonight Show.
In the beginning they had depressed her with their sad stories and hopeless ambitions, but gradually she came to see that, like anyone who dealt with the public, she would have to keep her sympathies, and her imagination, in check. How, she reasoned, could even the most humble shoe salesman accomplish his work if each socked or stockinged foot he held brought visions of this little piggy and pedicures and calluses earned in vain pursuits? Of mortician's tags hung from cold toes?
She picks up his summary. It's sketchy, but enough to allow her to discuss his book with him for hours; her own special talent.
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