Big as Life: Three Tales for Spring

Big as Life: Three Tales for Spring

by Maureen Howard

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The second volume in Maureen Howard's planned quartet of fictions based on the seasons reaffirms her reputation as one of America's most highly regarded authors. In the title piece, Howard presents an ambitious exploration of the life and work of John James Audubon, revealing how his dedication to his masterpiece, The Birds of America, devoured

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The second volume in Maureen Howard's planned quartet of fictions based on the seasons reaffirms her reputation as one of America's most highly regarded authors. In the title piece, Howard presents an ambitious exploration of the life and work of John James Audubon, revealing how his dedication to his masterpiece, The Birds of America, devoured everyone around him, including his wife, Lucy. In "Children with Matches," a feminist historian discovers that the hard lessons of the past may be a route to responsibility in the present. "The Magdalene" is a tale of willful innocence and loss of faith about a woman who comes to New York in the 1930s to be the nanny of a wealthy family. Thoughtful, intricate, and insightful, Howard's stories are compelling achievements.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A splendid new triptych of novellas." —John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review

"Succeeds in gorgeously evoking the movement of lives and minds and emotion . . . This is a quiet, contemplative book of subtlety and grace, passion and commitment." —The Atlantic Monthly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With a sharpshooter's eye and brilliantly attuned sensibility, Howard considers the implications of the spring season in the second in a projected series of works (after A Lover's Almanac) inspired by the natural world. In tensile, beautifully articulated prose, she reveals the souls of people who reflect on renewal and redemption in three richly conveyed settings. In the "April" section, a young woman inherits the house where she lived for a while as a child with two eccentric maiden aunts and brooded in a secluded turret. Ruminating on her ancestors and the play of nature in their lives, the adult Marie Claude also muses on her own life and the future of a new relationship. A rich, elegiac tone pervades "May." Nell Boyle, an 18-year-old Irish beauty with secret shames and hidden sins, is sent to live with her wealthy cousins in America and becomes a wary observer of their dysfunctional family. Watching as her innocent young cousin Mae's burgeoning religious fervor is squelched by the reserved, upper-crust Boyles, Nell contrasts the adult Mae's conventional but heartbreakingly empty existence with her own unhappy past. In the tripartite "June" section, Howard examines the sacrifices required by passionate commitment. The extraordinary life of nature artist John James Audubon is seen through the eyes of his long-suffering wife, Lucy. "Salvino" revisits Artie and Louise, from A Lover's Almanac, again reflecting the interplay of nature against a background of academia in its most political incarnation. The final panel, "Myself," is a crisp quasi-memoir, revealing Howard's own "landscape of memory" of the flora and fauna that had a significant impact on her imagination. Howard's language is fresh and energetic, her metaphors luminous. Her narrative method filtered vignettes, shadowy implications, layers of complexities, delayed explanations results in challenging, adventurous literary fiction. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (May 21) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The second installment in Howard's cycle of fictions based on the four seasons, this work revolves around awakening and the urge to go forward. The first story in this challenging if beautifully written collection is "Children with Matches," in which Marie Claude, recounts her strange childhood. Complete with eccentric aunts and a housewith a mysterious and sometimes scary tower, it is the stuff of magic, but Howard's frequent, mercurial flights between time frames and characters sometimes leave the reader confused. In the second story, the beautiful but besmirched Nell is sent from Ireland to live with relatives who have little patience with her, but Nell takes charge and goes forward. Again, Howard's use of language is incredible, but the seemingly excessive entanglement of so many plotlines disrupts the narrative's flow. The third story is about John James Audubon, who suffered no obstacles in his quest for success. This is followed by the author's thoughts on her relationship to nature and a modern couple's search for spiritual balance; the connections to Audubon are tenuous. Though Howard's language is often enjoyable, the stories themselves lack cohesion. For larger collections. Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.76(h) x 0.49(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Children with Matches

What force is there in the thing given which compels
the recipient to make a return?

—Marcel Mauss, The Gift


Imagine carp—flickering metallic orange, not gold. Their movements delightful to behold as swamp grasses swaying on the edge of an ornamental pond. Natural, by design so natural. The carp are the idea of George Baird, President of Baird Bank and Trust. He has caused the gutting of this pond, the cementing of its retaining walls to simulate crags and timeworn crannies. He believes his carp to be old, that the same stock performs for him these twenty years, flashing like dancers in the Burly-que over in Troy or hovering in tranquillity like their gilt images on a Japanese screen. His fish are that versatile.

    George Baird is set out by his fish pond, tucked up in lap robes. He is dying. The day is resplendent with the warmth of false Spring, so his doctor allows this excursion. Baird has sent his nurse back to the house. In a feeble pantomime he has asked for a cup of tea. Free of her fussing at last, with difficulty he wheels his invalid chair closer to the black water, the better to see his treasures, for they have emerged from their Winter torpor.

    During the Winter the carp do not feed. Banker Baird, as the mill hands once called him, does not feed. The taste of milk toast and junket is abhorrent, nursery food spooned out at life's entrance and exit. His flesh hangs pale and bruised from his bones, though he is sothoroughly swaddled only one hand moving fitfully and his bulbous head topped with a jaunty fedora can be seen. The overseers and engineers who came to his office, caps in hand, knew him as the broad barrel of a man with a thicket of unruly hair who let their notes run till next payday.

    He knew you as Canuck, Polack, Irish.

    On Sunday you took the wife and kids on the trolley to Baird's place—a good walk past the end of the line—to picnic on his back acres.

    You believed he was like you—that he was uncomfortable buttoned into the worsted suit pulling at his shoulders and high belly, that he had once earned his living by the labor of his hands. It was memorable, the crushing grip of his handshake granting your first mortgage—the small lot you would proudly build on in town.

    His ring, set with diamonds big as headlights on his touring car, was an affront to the town merchants and to the lawyers educated at Williams and Harvard, who'd lost the Yankee art of cutting a shrewd deal. They went, when invited, to Baird's showplace beyond sidewalks and city water, although by arrangement, let's call it an arrangement, the phone and electricity lines extended to his world.

    He contributed to the Congregational church but did not enter its pure whitewashed walls.

    His raucous baritone laughter broke the sanctimonious whisper of cash counted out in the mighty hall of his bank.

    From his post by the pond, George Baird cannot see the grand house which lies behind him. Insofar as he can ask, he has asked that his back be turned to that investment in shingles, lime and bricks. His son now lives there with his pickle of a wife, a mean spirited do-gooder, and their two little girls, Lily and Rose. They have taken possession, filled the rooms with their discontent. The sour wife dusts and mops and scours. No servant save the nurse, Miss Wipe Arse, an annoyance.

    In the mighty brick mills and factories along the Housatonic it has been launched—the next downward cycle—and how will this son survive—his second son no better than a clerk at the bank, a mild, evasive man not party to his wife's spiritual ambition. If the patriarch had words, could spew forth more than clotted vowels, he would say, Do not foreclose. By Jesus, boy, I did not shut down in the Great Depression of '07. And in a period of recovery built this damn house you have never enjoyed. In his mind, which is clear as the sky above, the big house with its gardens and stable was built for his first son. The pond intended as a watery diversion for the weary soldier home from the Great War. And didn't that brave fella love to spot the biggest fish-supple, iridescent, leader of the pack—though the soft-finned koi could lose them all, slip away without a ripple. George Baird was planning ahead to a tennis court when the golden son died of the Spanish flu in 1919.

    Such a bustle in the water plants provided for his exotic minnows. The females laying their eggs. He will not live to see them hatch. He fears he will not live to hear the insistent comfort of Spring peepers. A flash of graceful tail, the rare koi, an arrogant fellow much like the gilded fish suspended in calm waters on his Japanese screen which that woman has folded away in a crippling Christian gesture, that woman (pretending he can't recall her name), the woman married to his son, the clerk. Not the glimmering fish she counts sinful, but the seductive brush strokes of the pagan painter, his boat adrift with many beautiful maidens posturing in their embroidered kimonos, tending to their luxurious hair.

    The gentle slap, slapping of water on concrete in the wake of some minor disturbance in the reeds, and in the distance the lopping of limbs, his son working in the woods, forging his solitary trails. George Baird locates himself in the day—midafternoon. The bronze doors at his bank are locked to its unhappy clients. His son should be there tending to desperate business, not plotting his folly. George Baird, President of the failing bank, cannot in the end, knowing it's his end, pass on his title to the woodsman who can't tell good ash from chokecherry, who, with a dainty silver lead pencil, takes notes on the weeds underfoot—skunk cabbage, bedstraw, cancerroot. And then the repetitive tune, his granddaughters home from school, the gangly girl, Rose, her high shoulders hunched over the spinet, playing her scales, obedient da-deedle-dum-dum, deedlee-da, his insufferable daily penance. Banker Baird, strictly commercial, has never been afflicted by the arts, the spinet in the parlor purchased as furniture in 1910, along with his wife's Limoges, the Tiffany tea service, the mahogany dining room set. In that same year he procured the Japanese screen, the only thing in the lot he cared for.

    Midafternoon. A long shadow stretches across the lawn, the turret of his house catching up with an old man, chilling his bones. How often his wife climbed the back stairs so narrow and steep to that useless rotunda, freeze your tits off in Winter, hell in the Summer heat. To read. To sew. She held with that story. To absent yourself, Miss High and Mighty. She has been absent now for some years, at rest in her family's vault, a fancy dollhouse of death. George Baird has instructed that his remains be stuck in New England earth with no marker. Da-deedlee-da-da, deedlee-dum-dum. His carp shimmering now, strutting their stuff in vaudevillian procession. With the good arm he wheels closer, closer down the grassy slope into the mire, as if to join them in play, peeing himself with pleasure. He has always marveled at how they survive, dormant, unfed in the cold; burrowing into the mud in a dry season. He hears the death knell of Nursey's tread on gravel, the tinkle of cup and saucer, the snap of her starched apron, but has one moment left to himself, mumbling the undeliverable message, a gargle of o, o, o's—Do not foreclose.

    Dum-diddlee-dum. Diddlee-dum-dum. Rose has turned the page, progressing in her Czerny Exercises. Lily, dull as a dumpling, colors another picture for Grampa, red for the King's cape, yellow for his crown. Dum-dum-diddlee-dum. In the woods—lop, lop—a split second of silence between the cut and thud on the ground. And then peep, peep, peep, peep, the first sweet amphibian cries of the season, but it is the enduring silence of fish the old man yearns for now that he is at a loss for words.

    In 1907 scrip was issued by the Berkshire Clearing House as emergency currency. In 1933, as the snow held fast to the peak of Monument Mountain, scrip was issued again, with nothing behind it but the town's desperate belief in Banker Baird's son. It was Spring, and Julian listening for the crazy courtship flight of the woodcock at dusk, for the rustle of the red fox emerging from his Winter lair, did not hear his father's garbled order, but Julian Baird made good on every note of the funny money. He did not foreclose.


Spook house. Attractive nuisance. Children in the neighborhood no longer wonder at shutters banging off hinges, the flutter of curtains at blank windows. No way a thrill in their tough street life. Spook house, only attractive to me. Wind sucks down through the chimney, a fierce April shower splashing out of gutters—what's left of them. Silent carpenter ants work away at the listing veranda, labor endlessly at their hills of powdery decay. I am in the tower where my prince will find me.

    Yes, that sort of wide-eyed story with a prince.

    If he cares to find me looking down from a modest shingle turret, which as a girl I imagined to be a tower high above the sweeping lawns and woods—the family land. Once-upon-a ... In those days a stone floor was exposed to the elements where a carriage house once stood. Children with matches. The charred ruins had been cleared away. I scoured the Belgian blocks for treasure—worn chips of glass, mysterious brass fittings. And what did they know, two old women who kept me in the gloomy tower? How could they possibly know, with their doors bolted, their shades drawn, to blame children with matches? The only wicked child in clear view was me. The horses gone before their time, long gone, Dobbin and Rascals of their legends, the illustrious names dusted off for a moody girl, though they recalled each automobile driven out of the carriage house—the Auburn, the DeSoto, the dark green Lincoln with opera windows. As though I cared, a kid they were stuck with for a season, gave diddly-squat for their fancy garage, their uppity porte cochère which held fast to the house over a circular drive so that in some tiresome dead time they were sheltered from the scalding sun.

    And from the softest Spring rain, wasn't that so? Old girls checking glories of the past.

    Peonies round the gazebo. That would be Lily.

    By the tool shed. Correction came by way of Rose.

    More children with matches, for this house stood alone, ungarnished by outbuildings. When I was first closed in the tower, I saw at a glance that in their vast garden there was no place to hide. I'm up in that drafty room again, listening for the squeal of a hinge, creak of stair tread. No place to hide if he comes, the man I'm determined to kiss into life. No craggy frog prince—believe me, he's handsome, smooth. You may think him too old to be my lover.

    As a child I was called Marie Claude. From below I heard their anxious, lilting voices, "Marie Claude! Marie Claude!"—the chirping of those creatures who held me hostage in the tower. Eventually I might go down to supper and not sulk, make one of them, most likely Lily, the stout one in bangles and gossamer scarves, huff and puff up the stairs to the door of my chamber, bumping her head on the low lintel. Eventually, but for the punishing moment I narrowed my eyes, despising a clot of cement in the brown lawn and the dark tangle of woodland. To the East, they told me, lay the fish pond now dry, and to the West Daddy's Timber Trail, schooling me in their sacred geography.

    To the West the sun burnt its way through the pitch pines and birches where final hillocks of snow clung in darkness to matted leaves. Beyond the woods, white chimney smoke rose, wavered through the fiery end of day, and oh!—if only I, too, might be carried by the wind, dissolve in thin air.

    "Marie Claude!" It was Rose stooping in the doorway, the tall whiskered one come for me, the one dressed all in grey flannel like a giant mouse in Nutcracker, which I was taken to with much ceremony and dress-up by my mother. That was Christmas, a glittering evening in the city, and now it was Spring—mud season in this Northern industrial town. I had been dumped, an angry child with a permanent frown, abandoned to these witches (elderly aunts), confined to the tower (sewing room of a rackety old house) while my mother (on an amorous adventure?) flew away. One night, before the door to the tower was pawed open, before the great mouse with bristly grey hair smiled her nibbling smile, Marie Claude, as I was then, scooted out, down the steep back stairs once good enough for serving girls. Out through the chill solarium, off to the shadows and glowering branches of the forest. A nasty escapade, not a story to tell my silver haired lover.

    When I came back to the tower, just weeks ago, and looked down, the trees were gone, one ancient pine left, darkly drooping as a widow. Hans, Hans Gruen, settled on the window seat to a stack of old Life magazines. The very spectacles sliding down his nose were distinguished. How amazing that Hans Gruen came with me to the spook house, a man busy with his conferences, his corporate boards. Unwilling to reveal the cruelty of a childhood prank, I didn't tell him of that night long ago when I ran for the dark woods. Terrifying, though often in the Brothers Grimm a child encounters a helpful bird or tattered peasant with a loaf of bread, no more marvelous than Hans coming with me to this ghost ridden place. Looking down through the rattling sash windows, I saw a small yard with that mournful tree and exhausted forsythia blooming wearily over a chain-link fence that sets the house apart from a few rinky-dink trailers to the East, a strip mall to the West.

    "They locked me in this tower." They, poor maiden ladies. In the dusty Spring twilight, I examined a skein of grey wool, in its strands tiny curls of dead moth worms, brittle and dry. I fingered a bit of rose chiffon, a limp scrap of violet sateen, and heard them again, the harmless old crones who have willed me their house—"Marie Claude! Marie Claude!"

    Hans paced the room, circling the cutting table, a trunk with trans-Atlantic stickers, a Morris chair in full decline. "You can make quick work of this."

    His voice betrayed no impatience as he tapped a Singer sewing machine, gilt flowers girdling the swell of its Victorian body. His tapered fingers tap, tap, tapping.

    Prince. Lover. Piss-poor abstractions.

    Maddening—his manicure, exquisite haircut, the denim work shirt he affects. His generosity seemed programmed at that moment, self-aware, and I found nothing more to say to this curried specimen I'd brought to view my miserable inheritance. That's where your disappointment gets you, Claude, slops over to this admirable man. Unclear what I expected from a desolate house, discarded even in memory, but hadn't I hoped for something, a sentimental shard—one cut glass goblet, a weightless teacup with faded gold rim?

    "Quick work? I have to come back for the lawyer." And for Spero's Quality Homes. Tilda Spero, the real estate woman already entrusted with my sale, had greeted us at the busted iron gate and handed over the keys to the house now mine. A woman professionally suited up for work, but her station wagon waiting at the curb in a downtrodden neighborhood was full of children in Catholic school uniforms—punching, shoving each other in some hilarious game.

    Not a chatty sort, Tilda Spero forced a smile—"This is no longer a residential zone"—then, looking from the unruly kids in the car to the shattered windows of the house, "more of an attractive nuisance, I'd say."

    I made it clear that Mrs. Spero's duties were over for the day, but as I wandered the echoing rooms with Hans he picked up on her theme: the dangling electric fixtures, rusted heating vents were a menace. Though the leaded glass, the green tiles framing the fireplace—lovely Arts and Crafts. "If only," Hans said, "twenty, thirty years ago ..."

    "If only they had died earlier?" I'd thought that as we drove upstate, and if only the company in this company town had not left for cheap labor, then my great-grandfather's house with its parklike acres would still be intact. "They lived to an inconvenient old age."

    "How old, Claude?"

    "Sorry!" His age a running joke between us. Our May/December problem no problem at all, and there was my admission what with my mother dead, my father practiced at keeping his distance, I wanted to be no one's daughter. "The aunts were old when I was a kid. Especially the great mouse."

    The artist?

    "That was the roly-poly. She did something fey with pillows and silk scarves. Sold them to my mother's horror in the parlor of this house."

    "A commercial property then. And the other one?"

    "Music." I was reluctant to speak of the other one, a tall drink of water bundled in grey sweaters and stockings, her steel wool head bobbing over the yellowed keys of a spinet, spidery fingers stumbling through flashy arpeggios. Each night, after supper, I had been her captive audience while the artiste readied the sloppy desserts to be served in the library, some ritual that went back to Daddy or to Dobbin's day. A story too foolish for this serious man; still, I laughed outright at the memory—"Blancmange! Bread puddings!"

    "Hungry?" Hans checking his watch. Always checking the time allotted.

    "Desperate. I bet there's no place fit to eat in this town."

    A bet I lost, for Hans can find the one perfect restaurant in Keokuk or Belgrade and found it on the mostly deserted main street: an old German couple proud of their schnitzel, their prune whip. On our way back to the city, I slept the heavy meal off, but later that night roamed the tidy rooms of my lover's apartment, still unfamiliar to me, worrying that I had shown him too much or too little of my past. The house on Park Street pitiful, no more than a dreary picture of domestic decline—not a sea of sweltering tents in the refugee camps of an African country Hans Gruen had recently advised, as though in a land laid waste by tribal wars and AIDS, he must propose a faint hope of economic prosperity. With that decent thought, I believed I was no pouting princess. Just lucky for once in my life. I switched on the light over his desk to see what hour of the restless night. There was the kidskin calendar embossed with his name, a full calendar with his departures to mostly foreign cities; there, too, the dead wife, handsome—the grown sons with merely pretty wives, the gap-toothed grandson in a sailor suit. All perfect in their silver frames, untroubling to me, this family he had scheduled in. How my Hans suffers his sons' suburban success, the chill embrace of their admiration. A little late in the day, he's discovered there's no way to bridge the gulf. I bathe in his contrition. Look, I have captured my prize, we both know it. And there, set apart, the photo ops, my economist with men of state—with Kissinger, Carter—Hans, almost boyish—with Thatcher, Mitterrand, with the Pope for God's sake. His sharply cut features are now smooth as the profile on a worn coin.

    But what had I not told him? That I had been deposited in the spook house for a short season between the convent in Montreal and the lycée in Paris, a packing up, moving on time, moving to the best post my father would ever have. And that my mother had sublet a tiny flat in New York, a pied-à-terre. Molly Montour would toss that term at the Baird sisters, her weird half-sisters, a generation older. They were to look after Marie Claude. Yes, to help with my lessons, but truly to keep me with them for some weeks to get the feel of family, of home, the place her people came from. This plot was presented by my mother as a gift to all parties, and then she skipped off to an interim affair. How did a kid know that for certain? Know the smell of Havana cigars in her clothes. My father did not smoke. Know the gold link bracelet never worn, hiding in its velvet pouch at the back of her dresser drawer. Know that in Molly's wandering life, I must wait for her in odd places until she turned up once more.

    Listen, it was never Christmas holidays, Summer visits. For one cold season I was given over to childless women who hadn't a clue. I wasn't a prisoner in their tower, merely sent up to answer simple questions in workbooks of math and French. I never saw the aunts again. When my mother died, they sent a sympathy card to the hospice on the Maryland shore. How the news of that death came to them was unclear. Their card was signed in the big open script of good children. Aunt Lily. Aunt Rose. There is no mystery in the lawyer finding me in the age of accessible identities from which no one can hide. When I flipped through my mail and discovered the letter with the postmark of this town, I was shamed, the wounded shame of a naughty child. Now I'm simply mortified that these poor souls thought of me at all. Thought to please me with their gift.

    So—waiting for Hans to come get me.

    I've set a rusted pot under a leak in the ceiling. A downpour veers to the West, flapping the sheet-metal roof of Jimbo's Bakery. My day begins with a cruller and cup of weak coffee at the counter of this greasy shop nestled between a laundromat and a nail salon. Each morning, crossing the tarmac, I think Daddy's Timber Trail. Slow work, my business with the lawyer and Spero. I never guessed how slow the other business—memory, a swiping at dust in unreachable corners. I soon lost track of the week, then counted—this is the day he will come, if he comes. Testing him, testing, an old habit with me, testing—one, two, testing—to see if my claim rings true. Hans Gruen must drive right under the porte cochère, sheltering him from the Spring rain, isn't that so. Ridiculous, we will drive back to the city in a convoy of two. But first he must climb the stairs to the tower to find me, listen to the ping, ping, ping of water in my pail, then take me home. Home, his spare widower's apartment.

    Or home, the cramped room and a half, two blocks from the community college where I teach. If you asked me a while back, I'd have said it would take a miracle to get me out of my safe nest. The home of my childhood was nowhere, as you may have guessed. My father was State, Foreign Service, honorable, The Honorable Jack Montour, to put the best light on his career. We moved about. In her final days, my mother confused the houseboy (Bogotá) with the cook (Ivory Coast). She insisted the chaise longue was lost on its way to Marseille. We knew it was the Shaker bed.

    Awful for us, her daughter and husband by the bedside, Molly's fevered mind recalling the many households we presumed she did not love. It came to me then that her beauty had led her astray, may have masked much ordinary life that she cared for. In a way we banked on her ripeness-is-all, her extravagant body to let Moll go her way and to keep us in line. Now her prattle was of Wedgwood bought at Harrods, of the Portuguese soup tureen—all broken in transit. Awful, so awful we believed it was the morphine speaking, easing the constriction of her failing heart. In what seemed a final aria, she raved about State's warehouse in Istanbul, like a fire sale at Macy's. How clearly she remembered the vast display of recycled domestic goods-abandoned chairs, tables, double boilers, baby cots—from which she chose the rattan couch to overlook the Bosporus where Russian tankers with more than oil sailed by, ships in the night.

    "Which you reported on, dutiful Jack."

    "Now, Molls," my father said to stop her spilling the beans, open secrets no longer buried in the files.

    The hairdresser came in the room with brush and harmless hair spray. Imagine Molly Montour waving her away, no longer vain or interested in the dignity of her dying, her hair a fright of white roots gaining on ash blond tangles. Taking our turns, we waited. Toward dawn, she roused herself. I was alone with her in the room. "That house was the best," she said, "stairs to the sewing room, high, so high...."

    I knew at once it was the tower she spoke of, the best house was the spook house where she once left me. "Why the best?" I asked. "Please tell me!"

    "But you were too often away, Marie Claude, too often away at school." Scrambling the years, my mother gave me the only clue that she ever missed me. I'm grateful—too grateful don't I know it—for her final words.

    Long ago, I dropped the double moniker given to me by my Francophile father. If you would only straighten up, Marie Claude. My mother, who carried her breasts high as an endowment of the gods, could not bear my schoolgirl slump, the downward cast of my weak eyes. Molly Montour, née Baird, did not live to see the fashion for narrow-chested scrawn and scholarly glasses. She would have taken little pleasure in her daughter pecking at the edges of academic conferences. You do see that I have been a determined disappointment. But lately, there's this dear, deluded man, who transforms schoolmarm into sprite, sees me as gamine. I'm waiting for him in the high round room, prison or primal palace, that my mother's thought turned to in the end. And if he does not come, Molls, I will have lived in your leaky tower at last, launched a paper missile, the frail trajectory of my story.


You may wonder how we met, your daughter and this serious man who often travels with a State Department visa, who may be seen with glib television pundits mourning the slippage of whole banking systems into default. How does a player of that mark tie up with the little brown wren?

    Hans Green arrived at the community college where I teach without escort. An urban campus surrounded by parking lots half empty in the lull between day and night classes. He found his way through the crisscross of walks, not a scrap of the red carpet he was accustomed to, the welcome of deans, provosts, Nobel economists. Skidding cross campus, he headed toward the dowdiest building, figuring some authority in its age. Ugly red brick with colonial façade houses our administration. In our muddled architecture you can read a history of public education—WPA moderno, Fifties Bauhaus bunker, glass box of the Sixties, Post modern student center with its giddy, gaudy references coming full-circle to colonial revival. Teachers' to junior to community college.

    In the empty hall of the administration building, Gruen encountered himself on a Xeroxed flier the color of bubble gum, his flesh pixelated grey, hair rubbery, a case of pinkeye. The title of his lecture alarming: "Total Networking in the Entrepreneurial Culture." What the hell did that mean? This gig put on his calendar by an intern from the Kennedy School, a fast-tracker who made it known he was overqualified for the Summer job. Hans Gruen was booked months ahead. Perhaps this trip to the inner city foretold grazing pastures to come. As his name reached the upper limits of the Foundation stationery, might he be eased off the tougher assignments? Goodwill missions to such modest campus settings were the duty of junior officers or advisers ex officio. Yet his calendar was always full. Next week he would be back in West Africa, check the program investigating the managerial impact of transnational corporations. The poster informed him that he was an hour early. An hour of Hans' time is cosily.

    No one about, he read notices of career opportunities for specialized skills, workaday jobs a good distance from entrepreneurial. Later, he would tell me he'd thought to speak to the students about his recent travels in Africa, bring them up to date on the poverty problem—call the selfish man, homo economicus, into account. What models do we press upon the post-colonial world with our aid, material goods versus quality of life? That sort of thing. What cultures lie beyond the extended instructional reach? This lecture played well in small liberal arts colleges, but Hans had little knowledge of my students, decent kids aiming to enter a world of commerce more parochial than global. His distinction between patronage and the spirit of contemporary philanthropy would mean little to them. He looped back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, the outset of social responsibility in the West, networking, for it was always a trustee of the Foundation who pressed him to visit elite venues where a son or daughter ... Why would students at this blue collar school receive the Foundation's lofty agenda, the support of good causes in hopes that the state, if there exists a responsible state, will take on population control, the gas line, clean water? Money laid out for distant, unpredictable profits.

    Eerie, the empty hallway, scuffed walls of institutional cream, many doors, shadowy figures moving behind frosted glass in a dumb show. Gruen succumbed to panic, the sudden divestment of his purpose, of himself as the rosy pretender on the poster. For a mere five minutes out of time, his precious time, he loitered on the stained industrial carpet. In a disturbing projection not new to him, he saw himself apart, as though on a screen. Out-of-body, the spiritual fakirs call it, as though his lethargy in the blasting steam heat of this deserted passage was a spell cast on another Hans Gruen, a boy dead to all feeling, hiding in the dark, a scene that faded quickly as in a movie land dissolve. Later, he would tell me that lost memory was like capital never recovered.

    But on the day of this misadventure at our humble campus, his hosts came upon him with elaborate apologies. Hans returned to the reality he was cast in. Inaccurately introduced: his years at the World Bank overlapping his run at UNESCO. A conference table, no students. Apparently he was to hold forth for the edification of the faculty and their colleagues at neighboring institutions. The young scholar in Trotsky beard and glasses who muddled the introduction had cribbed "Total Networking in the blah, blah, blah" from the annual report of the Foundation. Hans so blind to home grown pomposity, he hadn't recalled the invention of an illustrated page on which liberating computer screens circled a classroom of sub-Saharan students (many of them now dead of starvation). I sat doodling at the far end of the conference table between two women sociologists. Disguised in a floppy black sweater that swallowed me up, Gruen sensed I didn't belong, a kid too wise for my years, smiling at my colleague's tedious bid for his day in the sun as darkness fell on the obscure campus. I worried the spikes of my elfin hair. If you would only soften, wash and curl, Marie Claude ... Doodling at the conference table, I was bored, bored as Hans Gruen had been the previous weekend watching the pre-game show to the Super Bowl in a hotel room, popping a can of beer from the hospitality bar.

    You'd like us to move on to the Hyatt, to the neutral bed hastily rented?

    But Hans first set eyes on your daughter in a classroom where he scrapped his encouraging talk for privileged youngsters to instruct needy academics on valid technologies replicable across multiple constituencies, his words airy as bubbles stretched thin. Let us take African initiatives, Zimbabwe. Let us take free markets as opposed to an agriculture of protectionism. Let us take the erosion of GATT by the EU deflationary cycle. Gruen had an easy sell with this crowd, delivering applied economics, fancy pants experiments in hope more uncertain than the answers to the weekly quiz I give my classes. Now he directed his words to the little woman in black with the wry smile. I wasn't buying.

    The Hyatt?

    First the dull reception where Hans Gruen caught my name with the French spin on Montour I was trained to. He would have caught at any favor.


    He had known my father, of course. In Brussels at a NATO conference? Perhaps earlier? The Paris years. In any ease the honored guest escaped the wine and cheese post-mortems with me, not rudely, for didn't we know how to duck out? Diplomacy in our bloodlines. And the networking left behind, when it came down to it, was in-house academic, career opportunities in the tristate area, a limited constituency.


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From the Publisher
"A splendid new triptych of novellas." —John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review

"Succeeds in gorgeously evoking the movement of lives and minds and emotion . . . This is a quiet, contemplative book of subtlety and grace, passion and commitment." —The Atlantic Monthly

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