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Follies: New Storiesby Ann Beattie
Linda turned left, into a housing development with a waterfall to one side, above which rose a sign: Beechwood Village. Underneath it, someone had spray-painted on the rocks: sucks shit. "We weren't able to have children because of treatments Rich had for an illness, long ago. We should adopt, you'd think. But I've never felt like doing that. If it's God's will that we can't have children, maybe we should honor that. Not that it wouldn't be a great idea and all that, but I just don't really...the thing is, I've sort of said to Sister Mary Matthew that we'd do it, one day, but I really think it's enough that Rich gets the children out. There are families waiting for them. I mean, lists of families. It's just not something Rich and I ever talked seriously about doing, even though Mary sort of thinks it is. You know what I mean?"
"You mean she assumes it's going to happen, and it isn't," Paula said.
"Exactly!" Linda said. She pulled into the driveway of a big house and touched a button on her visor. The garage door began to rise. "I mean, we let her think it, because she couldn't imagine not thinking it. You know what I mean?"
She knew, and had known since childhood: she meant that the course of least possible pain was to let somebody retain his view of how things were, even though you knew otherwise.
Father Ambrose raised a champagne flute. "In the thirteenth century," he began, "Saint Francis was blessed and privileged to live in times of compelling significance. Today, in times whose complexities we may dread, and in an age that may lack so many qualities we identify with Christian charity" — he drank most of his champagne — "with Christian charity," he repeated. "But, like Francis, there are always those individuals who stand apart and distinguish themselves from others not through any feeling of superiority, but because they understand that they have been called. The message received may be humble. It need not be the case, as it was with Francis, who saw around him the disorder of the state and the paucity of honorable examples and felt compelled to take a stand. One's being selected can come not as an epiphany, but begin as an enigmatic question, a thing confusing rather than enlightening." A man stepped forward and poured more champagne into the empty glass. "Thank you," Father Ambrose said. "As a longtime friend of the groom, I am here today to say that one must act according to one's conscience, which may mean..."
Paula wandered off. The next morning, the wedding couple would be gone and the three of them would finally set out for Charlottesville, the town where George had last lived, where he had met a woman who somehow persuaded him — she must have persuaded him, though Paula described him repeatedly to her shrink as intractable — to move outside his usual parameters. And what exactly were they? she thought, bringing herself up short. So much analyzing, when she had only limited information to go on. She supposed that if she thought like some of the people at the wedding, she would have to say that she had committed the sin of Pride. What a surprise to find out that he and Rich went to the aid of ailing honchos in places they shouldn't be, the U.S. government — and even American Express, if she could believe what Linda had later told her — entering into bribes and blackmail with foreign governments, and if that wasn't problematic enough, they got to be heroes by hauling back children, like remora, along with the sharks. What had she, with her brilliant novelistic imagination, thought he was doing? She had thought he was killing people, was the answer. She had not wanted to ask because she had been so sure. For years, she had assumed he was an assassin, and she had been relieved but also let down, as if his life were downright ordinary, when she began to piece the puzzle together from what Linda described and what bare-bones details Rich O'Malley assumed she knew.
Father Ambrose was reading from something called Canticle of the Sun. He was a little tipsy, which added to the strangeness of the day. She shuddered to think that she had almost married the wrong man. If only she could see George again, she might think seriously about proposing to him. What she'd thought all those years she didn't ask questions was that he was an assassin, and she had always assumed that because of his ability, he would be all right; now, even though she'd had it verified that he'd been involved in dangerous activity, she felt less sure that he was safe. There was her inimitable reasoning, as her shrink liked to call it: if he could kill people, he wouldn't be killed. If he was just some glorified body snatcher, somebody might be able to kill him.
She walked around inside the house, where it was darker and cooler, and the young bartender followed her with his eyes. What did he make of these people with their flushed faces and their purses stashed here and there, as if they were squirrels, burying nuts? Her own purse was upstairs, in the bedroom where she'd slept the last two nights, bizarrely papered in gingerbread wallpaper, with a mobile of gingerbread boys and girls suspended from the ceiling, as if the room awaited children. She had pulled the door closed when she went down to meet the bride and groom, so she was surprised to see it open when she walked upstairs to comb her hair. A teenage girl was sitting on the side of the bed, reading a magazine. She had stepped out of her high heels, and one foot was tucked under her, the other planted on the woven rug on the floor. The girl looked surprised. No — just unhappy to be discovered. She had been reading a thick issue of Vanity Fair, Paula saw; the girl put her thumb inside and closed the magazine.
"Hi. I'm Paula."
"Shalissa Ray," the girl said. Her black hair was pulled back in an elastic band. "Am I in your room?"
"I don't like weddings," the girl said. "My sister was killed the night of her wedding."
"How awful," Paula said.
"I know," the girl said. Like many teenagers wearing their best clothes, she looked uncomfortable. "I'm not going to get married. Not because my sister died, just because you can just live with somebody."
"I used to think that way," Paula said. "Then my boyfriend disappeared, and suddenly I'm missing him so much I'm thinking about getting married to him."
The girl shrugged. "How come you've got a room that looks like a kid's room?" she asked.
"Well, I'm only staying here temporarily, so it isn't really my room. I came up because the ceremony didn't make a lot of sense to me."
"Yeah. The stuff about Saint Francis taming the wolf."
"He was talking about Saint Francis. I'm afraid I didn't quite understand the point, so I thought I'd take a breather."
"He practiced what he was going to say last night, at my parents' house. He's my uncle," the girl said. "And his boyfriend's my stepuncle, supposedly. I don't care if people are gay. I just don't understand why weddings are such a big deal. I mean, I guess if I'd been a nun, a wedding would be a surefire way to let everybody know I was having sex and all."
"T-t-true," Paula said.
"My sister used to stutter. You didn't even ask how she died. A tire came off a truck and turned their car over, and he lived, but she didn't. Anyway: she learned how not to stutter by using puppets. She'd put on these little finger puppets, and they'd say everything she was saying, but it came out perfect. She didn't do it in public, but she did it at home, so really all she had to learn was how to think her fingers were talking."
"Never heard of that," Paula said.
"Nobody's ever heard of it," the girl said.
"Want to go back down together?" Paula said, combing her hair.
"I guess so," the girl said. "Especially if my uncle's done with his speech. I never understand what he's talking about. He's obsessed with Saint Francis, though. He's got a blind bird named Francis, which makes sense, with Saint Francis having so much trouble with his eyes and hiding in that dark cave and all."
"I went to Assisi once," Paula said. "With the person I was telling you about. We went to a monastery because I wanted to see the garden."
"What was it like?"
"The person who showed us around was very nice. He spoke Italian very slowly and gestured, so I could pretty much understand him. There was a cat there that they took care of. Everywhere else, the cats were starving. Pretty scary cats, actually. The guy who showed us around was there because the brothers had helped him to give up drugs. He wasn't one of them. He was more or less just there to live a clean life."
"That's a lot more interesting than that myth about Saint Francis and the wolf," Shalissa said. "One really lucky cat shut up inside a monastery, being taken care of — that's something you can understand if you believe in good luck and bad luck." She looked at Paula, to make sure that it went without saying that her sister was still part of the conversation; her sister who'd had bad luck.
"What's the luckiest thing that ever happened to you?" Paula said, dropping her brush in her purse.
"Being rescued from Vietnam. But long after the war," she added. "You might say I was lucky not to be born yet, during the war."
"You were rescued? Your sister, too?"
"Yep. We went to Massachusetts, but I don't remember it. It was really cold. I think that's something I do remember, not just something I was told. But nobody knew we were sisters, and we weren't reunited for a whole year. Then I went to live in Louisiana with Nora. They gave her an American name. I don't know what, exactly, the point of my name is supposed to be. Anyway, they found out we were sisters, and then Sister flew with me to New Orleans."
"My boyfriend might have been the one who got you," Paula said.
"Really? Did he fly with Rich?"
"Y-y-yes," Paula said.
"That would be way cool if I was meeting the girlfriend of one of the guys who saved me," she said. "Worms were eating my intestine. I had to have surgery once I got here. I don't remember anything about it, but Sister Mary Matthew kept me all that year, while my sister was gone."
"You must be very fond of her."
"She wasn't all that nice. If my sister was alive, you could ask her. She was four years older than me. There was even a letter from Sister Mary Matthew to the people who adopted both of us, saying that they could give us back if we didn't get healthier. I mean, what's so nice about that?"
"Wow," Paula said. "You're right. That's not very reassuring."
"I think maybe I was fated to meet you," Shalissa said. "Since I don't much like Sister, somebody nice showed up that I could like instead."
"My new friend," Paula said, putting her hand lightly on top of the girl's shoulder.
"So what's your boyfriend's name?" Shalissa said.
"I've always called him George, but his real name is Larry."
"Then why do you call him George? I know! It's his middle name."
"No, he — he has aliases."
"An alias? It means you have an assumed name. A made-up name."
"A pen name."
"Well, yes. But I think you only call it a pen name if the person has written something."
"Hey, he should write about his adventures. Uncle Ambrose told me a couple of things when he was drinking, and I know they risk their lives to get kids and all."
Maybe he should, Paula thought. Maybe she could advise him. Help edit whatever he wrote. Wouldn't that be nice? Just the two of them by the fireplace, as she held a pen in her hand and learned about his adventures. Well, that was obviously not going to happen. If they got together again, he would be just as secretive — perhaps even angry that she'd found out all she had. She flashed on an image of herself in the kitchen in California, taking the cookie sheet out of the oven. She had tried to be nice, to be liked by her fiance's daughter. That was what happened when you tried too hard: you usually got fucked. In a way, she was like George. Larry. She sometimes imagined scenes in which what she wanted came true, but she always made them so sticky-sweet (like the damned cookies), she always sensed the hidden cliché, she inflated everything until it became ludicrous, in order to dismiss the possibility of happiness, because she didn't believe in it. She had picked a man who didn't believe in it, either. His way of coping was to run away, while she sat still long enough to play out the fantasy, subverting it until its sugary unreality made her run, too. She thought again of California, with a shudder. And even in Sonoma...she had stayed there, but she was the one who'd bought the motorcycle to ride farther and farther from home. So far out into the country, and the sunshine, and the moonlight, and the breeze, that she really lost him back then, long ago. Even though she'd returned every time, it was during that time that she'd lost him.
"I'll tell you what," the girl whispered. "Let's say what we really think about people. I'll go first. Mary's fat, and her husband has nasty, narrow eyes. Now you say."
Paula looked around. Speeches were over, and an orchestra was playing. She finally located her host and hostess and said, "Those people are unhappy, and neither one will admit it. He's looking at women out of the corner of his eye, and she's scared she's not pretty enough to keep him."
"She's not pretty, is she?"
Paula shook her head no.
"It's all about how a person looks. It's a lie that it isn't. Some people are never going to have what they want because they're not attractive enough."
Paula looked down and saw that the girl had walked downstairs barefoot. Her feet were a child's: soft skin on her heels; toenails badly polished — no doubt, she'd done them herself. Paula felt the sudden urge to hug her tight, to reassure her that she would be a beauty, but that right now — like a puppy — her paws were too big, and she had too much energy so that certain people who'd forgotten their own youth — or never really lived it — would want to punish her.
In fact, she did say those things. She started by mentioning Shalissa's sister, though. She said, "Was your sister beautiful? I'll bet she was. And you worry you won't be that pretty, or you worry she might have been punished for being beautiful, right? But none of it is true. People are in the wrong place at the wrong time sometimes, that's why bad things happen to them. You're going to be every bit as pretty as she was, and your feet will stop growing and you'll learn how to make your hands look pretty by wearing rings and putting perfume on your wrist, and even if you don't get married, there'll be someone who loves you."
"How could you know that?" the girl said. "There's no way you could know."
"I know it the same way I know those were the things you would have asked."
The girl looked at her. Hesitant, she almost drew back, but didn't. The bartender from inside the house circulated through the tent, with a tray of salmon arranged on little rounds of melba toast to look like roses.
"Don't be fooled," she whispered, high on her own certainty about what Shalissa thought and wanted and liked. Hands cupped around the girl's ear, she leaned closer and whispered so softly she risked her missing what she had to say, "Don't fall for it. It's fish."
So, just like that, after having come from New York to Bethesda, Maryland, Paula didn't continue to Virginia. She got up early and left a note thanking them for wanting to help. She thanked them for inviting her to the wedding, which she still thought it was extremely strange not to have mentioned. That thank-you was insincere: the only good thing about the wedding had been Shalissa, and she felt more than a little sorry that she would probably never see her again. Sure, they'd exchanged e-mail addresses, but friendship depended on gestures, and smiles, and whispered words, and how could you do that with e-mail? If she called, and got the girl's parents, it might have been fine once, but beyond that, they would have wondered about her. She also thought — gratefully, not egotistically — that the girl had served her purpose. It had been in talking to her that she reconnected with her own hopes and fears at that age that still made her insecure. More than that, she had learned something from trying to console the girl. She had learned that her relationship with George — if it was ever to get back on track, which she seriously doubted — would require a lot of renegotiating, because she had ended it in Sonoma and only retained the necessary delusion that it continued. But that wasn't something she wrote in the note. They wouldn't have known what she was talking about. What did they know about her relationship with George, and what could she have told them? Their own relationship seemed to be coming apart, and adoption was the least of their worries. If he spent so much time grieving for an out-of-business restaurant, then it was displacement, pure and simple. He was grieving something else.
She snuck out of the kitchen and turned on her cell phone. There must be a Yellow Cab. There was a Yellow Cab everywhere in the world. Or she'd walk a little, take the metro back to Union Station. It was a beautiful day, and quite frankly, she was glad that Sister Mary Matthew was on her honeymoon and that she wasn't. It would have been a disastrous mistake to marry her fiancé, and it would be equally disastrous, she thought, to propose to George. She had just been there for his convenience, and she was proud of herself for not following him to Charlottesville, and equally proud that she'd come to her senses and not gone there with Rich and Nancy. What was their plan? To waylay some woman on her way out of her house? To gang up on her and demand that she explain her relationship to the Mystery Man, who was obviously less of a mystery to Rich and Linda than he'd been to her all those years? She had some mild curiosity about what the woman looked like, and how much of a factor that had been in his taking off for London. Though she didn't feel sure he'd really gone to London. She thought he might be in Mustique, and pictured him there, alone, hands plunged in his pockets, in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, surveying his land with a builder at his side. If there was a woman, as well as the builder, she didn't want to know about it. She had a strong suspicion that that was where he was, and she should leave him there. Let him return to her, if that was what he wanted. She had returned, but not returned to him, one too many times.
The bartender had given her his phone number, but she was not going to call him. He was too young. The Demi Moore thing was faintly embarrassing. The Cher thing.
She found the entrance to the metro and went down the stairs, following the crowd. It was probably too soon to get sentimental about the good times they'd had. She felt sweaty and wished she could have taken a shower, or a bath, but she hadn't wanted to risk awakening Rich and Linda. Thinking about how refreshing water would have been, she remembered, again, hugging George's back in the bathtub, and how it had provoked the story about the lynx in the petting zoo. Had it ever really happened? If so, what had taken him to a petting zoo? And what had the woman really been saying, as she clawed the cage like an animal, herself, giving the advice George would of course want to hear: that he should watch his back.
Let him watch it in Mustique. Let him lie in the sand, where nothing more dangerous than pesky sand fleas would attack his back. He could watch his back, and from now on, she'd watch hers.
All the way to New York, though, she kept thinking about him. If she'd known he was in Virginia, or that the woman could have pointed her toward him, would she have gone? She envisioned a woman much more attractive than Nancy Gregerson, pointing a finger toward a sunlit island paradise, and then she imagined that finger twisting into the finger of someone else: the woman in the animal's cage. Finally, she looked at her hand and remembered the girl's advice about puppets and thought that really, as advice went, it was rather interesting. She wiggled a finger, but had nothing to say, either aloud or simply where most of her dialogue happened — in her head.
For days she wouldn't speak, as it turned out. Confusion and guilt began to seep in about why, exactly, she'd run out on George's friends, why she hadn't at least let things play out. She would become increasingly doubtful about whether he'd made it to Mustique, and be surprised, also, that Rich didn't call, and neither did Linda. Were they ever going to get in touch, or would she just be someone who'd passed through their lives on her way somewhere; or from somewhere, in a nursery that wasn't a nursery, and then ran out before they could help her look up her boyfriend? Boyfriend. He wasn't her boyfriend. He was an elusive man who made up stories that had a moral not so easy to decipher — nothing as easy as Saint Francis taming his wolf. What did it mean that all those days she passed in silence she could see the lynx up in a tree, looking down, and the woman, looking up, telling George that she knew how to outsmart it?
The memorial service for Mrs. Bell had been attended by angels — people who dressed as angels and announced themselves to be angels — and among the mourners had been the blond boy Nancy had come to suspect was retarded — correction: mentally challenged — at the nursery where she'd once bought a bush and ever after avoided. He'd approached her, wearing his flowing white robes with high-set shoulders and wings folded down as if he were a sleeping bird, and explained that he and the other angels were making an appearance as "guardians of the spirit." Mrs. Bell was still alive in what he called "every real sense" ("Riding on the back of Tyrannosaurus rex?" she'd wanted to ask), as was his sister (Ah: Vancouver was synonymous with heaven). She understood there was something wrong with him, though he stood amid four other adults with shortly cropped hair and pale faces she did not want to inspect closer for evidence of powder, their costumes lushly multilayered. While that didn't make her think they were sane, at least she saw that he was not alone in his delusion. The minister was either a very cool customer, or the angels had made other appearances at memorial services. One thing they did do was sing very nicely. The boy's tenor was joined by the stronger tenor voice of an older man, who — because he moved in with no space between their shoulders, and because he had the same sharp nose and thin lips — she assumed must be his father. The singing transported her back to her former neighbor's children, whom she'd lost touch with...those stepladder little boys who had sung, well, so angelically every Christmas, the sheet music in their hands, their mother accompanying them on the piano, their father piping out inexact little notes from a flute and looking self-conscious. Well — whatever people needed to get them through the night, she supposed: the afterlife of Mrs. Bell; the reappearance of a girl who had died on Afton Mountain, alive again in British Columbia. By such reasoning, her son could be dancing with the Tin Man down the Yellow Brick Road, and maybe he was: those druggie friends had such odd nicknames for one another. Some scraggly speed freak would be Toto. The private investigator her husband hired had come up empty-handed, and her own brilliant idea had resulted in nothing but a lot of money lost in plane fare. Instead of a white shirt, perhaps the private investigator should have worn angel wings, and then he could just have announced where Nicky was. The man had come to Virginia and searched Nicky's computer, which he'd given to a friend when he left town, since — like the majority of things the boy owned — it was perpetually broken, and in searching the hard drive had found messages back and forth from Toto and Tin Man and Judy Garland (if you suffered enough in life, were you awarded the distinction of being, simply, yourself?). What he found turned out to be nothing but drivel: code names for drugs that were so obvious, she could figure them out without being told; bleak jokes about the uselessness of normal people; plans to meet at boring places in the county deemed lively because they would grace them with their presence, and also because Sam Shepard was known to show up at the bar. Wade Butler, Private Investigator (he had handed her a business card on which was embossed the face of Sherlock Holmes), had hinted that he'd like to stay in her guest room, but she hadn't picked up on the suggestion. She gave him a few phone numbers that she copied out of the phone book and a cup of coffee, and she also did him the courtesy of pretending he was a serious person, even though his questions continued to be pathetic: Nicky's sports interests in high school (none); the name of the by now long-married girlfriend who'd gone to Lexington (she'd called Information). And pets — that was a good one! She did not say that he'd killed a turtle, while others might have tried to adopt it. She did not mention the neighbor's cat. She lied and said that he had been very fond of Bernadine's dog. If he'd asked a second time, she would have told him that blue was Nicky's favorite color. Perhaps he didn't remember that crucial question he'd asked so long ago.
At the end of the service, which, to Nancy's surprise, Jenny had attended with her older daughter (who rushed to Nancy's side for a hug), the two women exchanged raised eyebrows about the angels. Mrs. Bell's son from Richmond was there. Mrs. Bell's doctor attended: a young man who had surprised them all by actually visiting his patient at the facility, instead of having her transported to his office. He seemed friendly with the son, and the two men stood chatting, ignoring the angels who milled about, telling anyone who would listen that death was just a journey.
Copyright © 2005 by Irony and Pity, Inc.
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