Celebrated (part twenty-one)
She had an awareness of herself, arguing at Tom with all she’d never…
All Ian had never given her the chance—
All she had turned over in her mind through forty years of explaining to him, making him accept her point, in mentally staged confrontations.
“I wonder if he’s alive? Well…he would be sixteen years older than me… But eighty-two is not unpossible. Are you sitting there doing the math?”
A little belated smile. “I gave up telling students how not to sound…the first idea I had about teaching, way back when. Actually, do sound, like any writer you admire. I’m not sure why I thought you wouldn’t…the student, that is. A publisher, I grant you, wants a book that fits a category, is easy to sell to an audience. So aside from general jackassery, Guiness might have had a different approach to criticism than a teacher. No, Dorrie… Your problem with her is that you set her up for a mechanical purpose. She has to exist, because Hector has to learn enough about Harold for your plot to move forward. So what we’re solving is, can Dorrie be someone else? Is there a hole in the story a particular character can fill, and the shape of that hole is not a cousin from Maine? But then you’re only going in a direction. You can pick any direction you want. You could have Harold tell Hector everything while they’re on the boat. You’d maybe plot your story in increments, going back and forth in time, to keep up suspense. Or you could have pleased Guiness… I’m gonna go out on a limb and suppose Harold was gay…”
She nodded. “I was a coward about it.”
“Well, yeah… A genre unto itself in the seventies. You were taking on a lot for a first novel. But do I think that’s wrong? If writing were a linear path…but then, if it was just a matter of formula… Just mix these ingredients and out pops genius. But all any of us do is stumble around. Grander ambitions teach faster lessons. Pretend Harold’s secret was a wife his father didn’t know about. There you could make the romantic angle work. Hector meets Dorrie and has an affair with her…she has reason to protect him. It makes sense she tells lies for him. But the part you care about is Hector and Carter, so Dorrie becomes a nuisance regardless. But, can she not exist at all? You have Hector falling into this scheme…he can’t conjure the whole thing, predicated on a few wild longshots, while the ship is sinking. And that doesn’t seem negotiable.”
He bent, and jotted. Tom’s notes were turning a discussion into a session. Tomorrow he’d have left her with an outline to follow, and Petra would find herself badly tempted to raise the Titanic.
“It fits together the way you have it, the letter in Harold’s pocket, Hector unconscious, having his identity assumed, snatching at a chance. You know it yourself, those are book circumstances. But book circumstances can be within the realm of book possibility…or out of it.”
“And if he’d had some long discussion shipboard with Harold…no, I’m pretty sure that kills it. Because my story is Hector finding his own humanity. I said he can’t be the loveable scamp, and he can’t be guruish, either. He doesn’t invite strangers to confess all. He invites tips.”
“He’s superficial and a little greedy. But he gains depth…and your focus, the whole thing, is about finding the lost father, right?”
“Mm…yes. But it’s not hugely psycho-autobiographical, if there is such a thing. You’ll understand. I thought a lot about whether my father was someone I might find, if I were ever able to afford it, going to Poland. I’m not sure the camp was really in Poland. Madeline told the story, or I told it to myself. The papers my mother had are just confirmations of arrangements, all in English, all a one-sided conversation—her charity with whoever they were getting kids from. So my father, besides being dead by now, might have been a passing soldier…”
She let Tom nod that he got, of course he did, all this could mean.
“He might even have been an American. He might be horrified and refuse to acknowledge me. You have to give things like that up.”
He gave her a short silence, and went back to the comfort zone. “And so you have Dorrie…”
He shuffled loose the scene she’d written. Had scribbled over, brokenhearted, the fit of a teenager at the age of twenty-eight.
“Hector tells her the truth, he tells her Harold saved his life…he realizes, saying it, that his gratitude is genuine. When he says it, he feels it, for the first time.”
She’d had the courage to come up to his room, maybe allowing belief, maybe teetering in her unworldliness, on the hope that Harold’s friend might have him ensconced there. It would be real, all this, and Dorrie would pour out something of her heart to the cousin she’d confided in, valued for his being that ear to her.
Now she had only Hector, and he watched her nerves at work. She would not sit down. She kept going to the window.
“Ma’am, I would never hurt anyone for the world.” He supposed this wasn’t true either. “I don’t ask you much…only to not say. Not say to Mr. Carter… Because I’ll be leaving, you know, when I’ve got it sorted.”
And I’ll pay, he had tried adding, but she said, “No. No, I can’t take money from you! But why would I tell? I don’t know that it’s got anything to do with me. I might tell…”
Hector sat, on the bed.
Dorrie, by some prompt of society manners, as though he’d thrust a tea-biscuit in her hand, and she chewed it unthinking, sat beside him.
“I might tell Tam… Here is the awful business I’ve mixed us up in. Should I go to the police, Tam?”
She could have a picture in her head of this conversation…Hector could not, but he could see in her stillness that she rehearsed it, sat shoulder-hunched with the bearing of its dread, pictured it punctuated with a fist or a shout.
He owed apologies.
He could not offer the first, as Dorrie said, “I’ll go home and thank him, of course. Thank him for letting me see Harold, go off by myself, leave things for a day. I’ll tell him Harold is sailing again for Italy, and so we probably… Well, I’ll tell him Harold’s not coming to our house. And that he won’t write.”
“Not to worry.” Hector for some reason found his throat dry, the words coming not rueful, but a bit choked.
Tom dropped the passage here. He was the sort of reader-out-loud who dives into the work. Even his accent for Hector’s lines suggested something of England—no worse than Petra had sounded to herself inside her head.
“You see,” he said. “I like that. I’m satisfied with it. Dorrie is not a female lead, not in accord with the rules of any genre, or by any standard of plotting. She risks trouble for herself to see her cousin. She finds out her cousin is dead. She goes home thinking that if Hector could get himself free, maybe she can too. And maybe that message was what didn’t sit well with Guiness. But it doesn’t kill the book. Stories aren’t always didactic…so what?” A pause. “I wonder, though, a little, about Brill. I feel like he would have wanted married people reconciled…he wasn’t conventional in everything, but…”
Oxenham, boutique publisher, could sometimes…not fly in the face of ethics, those often flouted anyway…but bend rules, more than the big houses, in service to friendship and favors. Brill had sat himself at Madeline’s secretary, and hooked fingers, beckoning. Petra’s memory saw the desk painted white with floral decoupage, a delicacy far from her mother’s taste…if.
If general principles applied. Anything extreme in its incongruity became congruous. A lawn chair could be a dining room fixture. And so Brill had sat on a velvet-seated vanity stool, opened the desk lid, found a sheet of stationery, longhanded a document, smiling. A contract. Its terms were not, “we’ll publish your book”, or, “we’ll pay you so much in advance”; they were a promise that the daughter of his friend would get an editor for consultation, an agreement she would not shop her manuscript to other publishers, for a period of ninety weeks.
Her emotional growth as a woman in her mid-twenties had been stunted, Petra knew. Brill’s attention, the shared secrety nature of their compact, made her giddy. But his staging was done to communicate, by its oddity, by its informality, exception.
And that favors could come of love, the sort old, good friends have for each other. He extended love, although not that of an uncle or a stepfather…he extended regard, maybe…to Madeline’s daughter.
Also Brill was not above locking up a business opportunity.
While Tom sat drawing her a flowchart, she read through her Dorrie scene, sighing at herself. This was the cost of burying things, putting a marker on the grave: Bad Feelings Do Here Lie.
Ian had said to her, “I think you should go out and get some experience.”
Wouldn’t it be easier for you to write about Dorrie? She’s a woman.
And why does it need to be easy?
Petra thought, me being a woman. That was Ian’s bias…that I could do something heartfelt, or authentic, so long as I worked my own little stand…but that it must be this lesser thing, this thing within my scope.
“And every time I tried to write about Dorrie,” she said aloud, “I got this hopelessness. It was all wrong…I’d worked so hard, I’d written seventy thousand words, I’d have to do it all over again…”
She laughed at her scribbles, and laid the sheets on the table. “You know what? I was jealous of Dorrie. She was my rival with Ian. He wanted her and not me. Dorrie, love, I forgive you.”
They carried cups of tea to the pondside, where a pair of practical-minded plastic Adirondacks faced the water. The guineas, of course, gathered, and Gingerpie trailed, jumping onto Tom’s lap.
“Do you stock it?”
“No, I think it’s too small for fish…besides I don’t ever want to kill one.”
“People keep koi…”
“Where you come from.”
This was pleasant. She was fairly sure he was staying. He had settled himself into her house by degrees, and it was too dark now for a drive into town.
First things first, though…it was more than high time. “Tom. Thanks, by the way. That was the only good conversation I’ve ever had about my book. Poor Hector. But, Tom, now… You were my mother’s student. She mentored you. You had a big success with Motion. Which I hope you’ve got a copy of somewhere, so I can read it again. You quit writing…but you took up teaching. You retired from teaching and you came out west, and you looked me up, because I’m Madeline’s daughter. Because you wanted to say to me…?”
A moment of nature stirring and a car roaring down the highway.
“Uh…well. Can I say…it’s kind of a Scheherazade-in-reverse. I wanted to tell you, and I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to it, so I let you tell me your stories instead. Because no one else seems alive anymore… Sorry. I thought if I owed the truth to anyone, it was Madeline. She had faith, and it feels like depredation to exploit someone’s faith in you. And if it couldn’t be Madeline, then maybe… I don’t know. I guess I allowed for something a little miraculous. You would somehow know, and I could ask you to forgive me. And I’d feel better. And if I got a little boost, I could do the right thing. But it’s harder to do the right thing than you think. First you have to find someone who remembers you and still gives a damn.”
See Amazon for another novella, Are You Haunted
(2019, Stephanie Foster)