Big City Eyes: A Novelby Delia Ephron
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"Compassionate, funny, and tremendously satisfying," was The New York Times Book Review's description of Delia Ephron's first novel, Hanging Up. In her new book, she brings her heart and humor to the story of a woman's attempt to deal with passion, guilt, murder, and motherhood.
In a state of near panic because of the nighttime activities of her teenage son, Lily Davis decides to uproot herself and Sam from Manhattan to Sakonnet Bay, a small Long Island town, where presumably the opportunities for trouble and grief are less available. She becomes a reporter for the weekly paper, Sam enrolls in high school, and for at least a few weeks life proceeds as expected. Then, through unexpected and unnerving circumstances, she spies a naked woman asleep in a summer house. And everything changes. There is a murder. Or is there? And there is a man. But he is married, and Lily is filled with guilt-about her own divorce. Friendship and love relationships unravel, or threaten to. Are people and events as they seem, or is Lily just perceiving her small town through big-city eyes?
"Gentle humor and deadpan observation," said The Boston Globe of Hanging Up. "Ephron handles her characters with a deft, delicate touch." Delia Ephron has become known for her subtle ability to mix wit and sensitivity. In this book, she outdoes herself, with quirky Lily Davis, a big-city woman attempting to make sense of small-town life.
Delia Ephron, author and screenwriter, has written many books for children and adults, including the recent novel Hanging Up. Her film work as a writer and producer includes the movie Hanging Up, as well as You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and Michael.
- Penguin Group (USA)
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- Product dimensions:
- 6.26(w) x 9.28(h) x 0.87(d)
Read an Excerpt
I moved to Sakonnet Bay to save Sam. I woke up with the idea. It had been one of those problem-solving nights. Having fallen asleep in a state of intense distress, I awakened with the notion that if I uprooted my life for three years, I could avert disaster.
I'm a journalist, a small-time, freelance magazine writer, and there is no telephone number I can't wheedle out of someone, no tidbit I can't unearth. If the front door is locked, I know how to sneak in the back. Now I would simply apply my creative doggedness to the problem of keeping my teenage son safe.
Once I made this decision, I rented a car and drove out of Manhattan. I felt virtuous, even noble. I turned on the radio and was able to listen. For the first time in weeks my mind was at rest, which is to say lying in wait for the moment when it could become agitated once again. Agitation is normal for me, calm is unexpected. I veer toward agitation, list naturally in its direction. Taking action, almost any action, calms me, regardless of whether or not it is the correct action. I assume this is true for everyone, a small measure of peace secured when one goes from worrying a thing to death to doing something about it.
I felt noble and virtuous because I love Manhattan, and even before finding my new town, I had committed to giving up New York. To sacrifice. For a time. I had moved there originally from Los Angeles to attend Barnard College. I don't remember my first sighting of a New York City street, or my first glimpse of its magical skyline, but I fell deeply in love. Every single time I left my dorm, later my apartment, and walked outside, I felt a rush: I live here. I get to live in this amazing place. It's very strange when a city can do more for you than a husband or a lover, but for me, that was always the case.
I drove 495 east, then cut south and prowled the Long Island coast, trusting that someplace would strike me as the solution. On one of those roads that jumped to fifty mph between towns and then abruptly announced thirty mph as it became a main street, I found myself in Sakonnet Bay. It felt like Brigadoon, a village that came to life for only one day every hundred years, so perfectly was it a dream come true.
Sam needed order and this town was orderly. Main Street, which formed a T with the only other commercial stretch, Barton Road, was lined with charming nineteenth-century buildings of clapboard construction-a visually comforting style, each narrow strip of wood tucked obediently under another, everything painted in refined grays, whites, and blues. Awnings shaded display windows, giving shops a proper, well-mannered look. There were no chain stores, no outlets that felt transient or common.
In my present condition, I was willing to leap to many conclusions to believe this move was right. Still, Sakonnet Bay's harmonious façade appeared to be a statement not just about its architecture but about its inhabitants. I had read Sherwood Anderson, knew that odd behavior could fester beneath the surface of small-town life, but that did not seem relevant. "Pretty" was the word for this sweet place. It was immensely pleasing and at the same time innocuous. This town could not possibly attract or foster trouble.
I stopped at a real estate office and in one afternoon located a house to rent and a future best friend. In my mind, meeting Jane Atkins, my realtor, elevated the discovery of Sakonnet Bay from luck to destiny. The first person I met was simpatica. A former New Yorker, sharp and witty. I would not be lonely.
Jane toured me through town to see the sights that would make a New Yorker happy: the perfect food-doughnuts (plain and powdered-sugar), deep-fried and flipped automatically for everyone to see on the old-fashioned doughnut machine in the window of LePater's Grocery; a produce stand featuring local goods, which reassured me that Sakonnet Bay was country, not suburbs; and the bookstore, selling new and used-this was no intellectual wasteland-owned by an ancient sparrow of a woman, as quaint as the doughnut machine, whose thinning white hair was twisted into a tiny knot.
White hair. In one day, I noticed more than I had seen in a year in Manhattan. And permanents. Curls all over heads, turning older women into lambs. Fashions dating back in time. No, that's not quite accurate. No sense of fashion. A sort of immutability in women's looks. But not Jane's. While her approaching middle age might be visible in a certain widening about the waist, her hair remained a flashy honey yellow, a color that could be created only artificially. Hair dye alone identified her as a transplant.
In Sakonnet Bay, people aged and looked it. I had auburn hair and there was no way I was going to let nature take its course. At this time of my life, age thirty-seven, the only thing I had to do about gray hair was extract one strand at a time, but I already had plans to eradicate one irritating vertical crease between my eyebrows. I'd read in Elle about this magical remedy, Botox. A little shot of botulism. No beau of mine would ever boast, Lily doesn't wear a lick of makeup. But many women here didn't wear a lick, and I found it cozy. Sam and I were moving into a village of grandmas.
After we walked the business district, Jane took me on a ride through the pricey area. "The ocean-side of Maine," she called it. An elegant landscape of groomed gardens and sprawling houses, but deserted, lifeless. It was late April, a month before the weekenders and summer residents from Manhattan would begin their occupation. Then we went north into my future neighborhood.
Here locals lived on tree-lined streets in two-story shingled dwellings on identical quarter-acre lots. The houses appeared to have been built at the same time, because they resembled one another like members of a large extended family. Jane said they dated from between 1875 and 1920. Each had a bit of personality-a path bordered in whitewashed rocks, dormer windows edged with gingerbread-but only personality, not eccentricity, and that was further confirmation of solidity, of a world that fads passed by.
I wrote about our move for Ladies' Home Journal, in a cheerful upbeat piece, which was what the magazine always wanted. I described my going-away party at a SoHo bar, claiming that my friends had sworn to visit. They did promise-that was true-and we all kissed and cried; but they were like me, diehard Manhattanites. To leave the city, unless it was to go someplace thrilling like Paris, they would have to be towed. I said that the traffic, crowds, and noise were driving Sam and me away. In fact, I thrived on chaos. It was unlikely we'd be back, I insisted, neglecting to mention that we'd sublet our rent-stabilized apartment month to month, to a writer friend who needed an office. I also enthused about how glorious it would be to see stars at night, when actually a grand sparkling night sky would turn out to be intimidating. Fodder for my overactive fearful imagination. Until I moved to a quiet place, I didn't understand how fears and fantasies could expand to take up all available space. So in this article, I was as inaccurate in projecting my tranquil future as in describing my troubled present. I omitted that my fifteen-year-old son was sneaking out to Manhattan clubs. Several times I'd caught him returning at four in the morning. And I certainly didn't mention the incident that had triggered my panic and subsequent break with the city: I had found a knife in Sam's underwear drawer. A steak knife, imitation-wood handle and blade with serrated edge. I'd been hunting for drugs, been prepared to uncover a baggie full of grass, when I discovered the knife instead.
I removed it and mentioned it to neither Sam nor his father, whom Sam visited in Massachusetts every fourth weekend. I couldn't imagine waving and yelling, What was this doing there? Besides, I thought I knew. Its presence was consistent with a crayon drawing Sam had made as a six-year-old, after the divorce: a stick figure of a boy under a sky filled with long narrow triangles.
"What are these?" I had asked.
"Missiles," he told me.
I showed the picture to his pediatrician, who announced, "Sam doesn't feel safe."
Nine years later, he evidently still felt unsafe. Perhaps his club-hopping was a way of seeking danger. He was going after an experience that would confirm an existing feeling. Mulling the situation, that's what I concluded. The knife was not a weapon but protection. I didn't think that anyone else would necessarily accept this interpretation of the facts, but I didn't care. I knew Sam. What I couldn't determine was whether his late-night expeditions to clubs where alcohol and drugs were readily available marked the beginning of a downhill slide.
I continued to obsess until I made the decision to leave Manhattan. Until Sam was out of high school, when his fragile teen years were over, we would live in a missile-free town.
"We're moving to Sakonnet Bay because I think you'll be better off there," was all I told him. I came armed with a map so I could point out our coastal town.
He didn't bother to look.
I started to fill in the details, to describe a place he'd never been able to visualize in his childhood drawings, but I choked up. He hadn't stomped away in anger. There was no one he wanted to phone, no friend to bitch and moan to.
Four months and no questions later, that August, we moved. Ladies' Home Journal wanted to accompany my peppy article with a photo of Sam and me attempting to install a hammock in our first backyard. I remember this day fondly, my pounding a nail into a tree while Sam held the hammock aloft as if it were a giant fish he'd landed. Sam, my baby, was now six feet tall, his flesh as pale as mole rats I'd seen on the Discovery Channel, animals that never once encountered the sun. He wasn't fat, more soft and squishy from a disinclination to move except when absolutely necessary. Still he was sweet-looking. Impish blue eyes, and brows that curved comically over them like quarter-moons. Nose straight and fine, a strong chin with a dimple. As the photographer snapped, Sam squinted into the sun, his head cocked back as usual. He led with his chin, walked with it tilted up and out.
I had stuck a copy of the photo in a frame, a reminder of the last time I could look at my son without wincing. The morning after that lovely afternoon, when he had, incredibly, swung in the hammock, and Jane had arrived with housewarming presents-candles and a transistor radio for the inevitable power outages-Sam shaved the sides and back of his head and pulled his remaining dirty-blond hair into a rubber band so it looked as if he had a spout on top of his head.
In Manhattan, Sam had gone through a phase in which he wore a set of plastic werewolf fangs to school-they fit neatly over his upper teeth-and that was fine. That was, in my opinion, in the normal range of teenage behavior. But one evening he had confessed to forgetting his algebra homework. This was well into his freshman year, and when I suggested he call someone in class, he said, "I don't know their names."
"Any of them?"
Not in the normal range.
I tormented myself with this code of measurement. No friends. Not in the normal range. Hair spout: NNR. I longed for normal range, lusted after it. When I signed the lease for our new home, I envisioned Sam strolling down Main Street, laughing and talking to other kids, munching a doughnut, powdered sugar misting his neatly-tucked-in alligator shirt. Within months, he would be as pretty inside and out as Sakonnet Bay. I caught myself, wanted to bang my head against the real estate office wall, dislodge a few pictures of oceanfront houses to knock some sense in. I must keep my expectations reasonable. Still, in the recesses of my heart, where reason did not dwell, a boy was talking and laughing, walking with friends, munching doughnuts. Having a wonderful time.
Our transition was initially easy. I worried that Sakonnet High might reject Sam because of his hair spout, but the registrar handed over the forms and he enrolled. This surprised me so pleasantly that I stopped at a nursery and purchased tulip bulbs. That evening I planted, measuring an exact six inches from one bulb to the next. The following day I started work at the weekly paper, The Sakonnet Times. A piece of good fortune, landing this job-the editor, Art Lindsay, happened to be the uncle of one of my city friends. Each week I would write a column on a subject of my own choosing, as well as several articles on assignment. I was thrilled to give up freelancing. It's an outsider's existence. With this work, I could set an example for my son. I would join the community, be part of the life.
On October 4, the day events took an unexpected turn, Sam sat at the kitchen table ignoring his bowl of cereal, which he had saturated with so much milk that the Cheerios floated around like pool toys. NR-normal range. One leg was pulled against his chest, permitting a crusty size-twelve foot to rest on the chair seat. He picked at the cuticles on his toes. NR, but disgusting.
"Isn't it beautiful out today?" I was reduced to weather talk with Sam. Weather talk had turned out to be a big activity here. Commenting on how crisp it was, or how great the air felt on one's cheeks. Sam didn't bother to reward me with his usual grunt. I tried a more provocative approach. "I saw a fox the other day, hanging out down the street, near the corner." Sam poked the Cheerios with a spoon, sinking them and then allowing them to bob up. "I think the fox had a baby in its mouth."
He made the strange noise that I heard from him a couple of times a day: he opened his mouth as if to yawn, but what issued forth was somewhere between a sigh and a wail. I hadn't yet settled on a rating for this behavior-NR or NNR.
I really had thought the fox had a baby clamped between its jaws. In a foggy twilight, I was driving home from the Italian deli when I spied the animal by some tall shrubs. First I noticed the flat bushy tail-unmistakable, definitely not dog-then how surprisingly lithe the fox was. Just as it vanished, I thought I saw...
As a part of my job on the paper, I was allowed to peruse the log, the town's official computer printout of reported crimes. I went to the police department dispatch office and looked:
Ellen Franklin, 245 Cummings Lane, complained that a sport utility vehicle pulled in and out of her driveway three times in approximately fifteen minutes.
Victor Marcum reported that he had received one hang-up call a day for the past three months.
An intruder entered Stanley Lamb Housewares, 106 Main Street, via an unused doggie door, rearranged some merchandise, but removed nothing.
I loved the log. I loved the innocence of the crimes and the idea that crimes could be innocent. In addition to mining the log for ideas for my column, I read selections from my notes to Sam at dinner. "Listen to this: A kitchen door was stolen. Someone's mailbox. Three Dr Peppers were lifted from the refrigerator at Oscar Limpoli's chicken ranch."
I laughed gaily, alone, about these incidents. But I have a theory that just because a child isn't reacting doesn't mean he isn't listening or appreciating. I was influenced in this belief by Enchanted April, the only movie I have seen that is about being in love as opposed to falling in love. It explores the power of relentless kindness. Even though Sam was not my husband or lover, I believed the film's message still applied. One day he would not be able to resist my stories, my enthusiasm, my jollity, and would end up, against all inclination, having fun.
"I checked that log," I continued, despite Sam's manifest lack of interest. "I scoured it from top to bottom. No missing baby. I must have imagined the whole business."
Without any assistance from his hands, Sam worked his feet into laceless sneakers. He got up from the table.
"May I please have your bowl?"
He passed it over, and milk slurped over the side onto his hand, which he licked. I put the bowl in the dishwasher, opened the cabinet under the sink to get some Cascade and discovered a dead mouse.
I slammed the door closed. "There's a dead mouse under the sink."
"This place sucks," said Sam. He disappeared into the hall, his jeans drooping off his hips, the bottoms drooling around his toes.
After pacing, trying not to wish there was a man around the house, I opened the cabinet again, this time squinting so that whatever was in front of my face would have a vague shape. The gray blob, undoubtedly the mouse, was between a blurry green-the Cascade-and a yellow blotch, probably sponges. With a wad of paper towels, I reached in and seized the soft gray item, which stiffened and squirmed. I screamed, throwing the wad into the air. The mouse landed on the floor, ran across my feet and under the stove.
"What was that?" Sam called, his voice remarkably flat given my shriek.
"Nothing, nothing, forget it, nothing." I didn't know that mice slept. I had never heard of a sleeping mouse, except perhaps in a children's book where mice wore aprons.
The front door rattled as Sam left. My son never did anything gently. In our New York apartment, drawer pulls were falling off his bureau, his window no longer shut properly, the bathroom doorknob no longer worked. Out the window, I saw him kick up some dirt for no apparent reason as he passed several deer chomping bushes in the front yard. Did deer ever charge, did they bite, did they carry rabies as well as ticks? I rapped on the pane to shoo the animals off, but they ignored me. Possibly they were smart enough to sense the difference between a real order and a feeble one: Please leave, okay? As I cleared the table, and set the milk carton back in the refrigerator, where there was a heap of squash, four varieties, the phone rang. It was Art, my editor, suggesting that I skip the weekly staff meeting this morning and head to Claire's Collectibles on Barton Road. Over his police band radio, he'd heard that a baby's head was stuck in a pitcher.
Another baby. This one should prove less elusive than the last.
It was before nine and stores weren't open yet. The child must belong to the owner, Claire. Whoever that was. I started to leave by the front door, but the deer were still nibbling and a convention of squirrels had gathered on the lawn. Squirrels did get rabies, and a person bitten by a rabid one didn't always survive the antidote: shots injected into the stomach. A sixth-grade classmate had informed me of this, his eyes bulging excitedly as he whispered behind his earth science book. Exiting by the back instead of the front, I ran down the driveway to my car, jumped in, and slammed the door. Even locked it. I hit the horn several times. This caused the squirrels to scatter and the deer to amble off my property. For a second I felt smart, as if I'd invented a new use for the horn. The honking attracted the attention of my neighbor, Mr. Woffert, who was on a ladder engaged in serious construction. He had removed his clapboards and was stapling on Tyvek, the house-wrap. "Insulating," he had informed me. The task kept him busy from sunup to sundown. I waved and pulled out.
The trip was quick-a scoot three blocks through my residential neighborhood, a left turn onto Route 35, which almost instantly declared a name change to Main Street. In five minutes, I had reached the intersection of Main and Barton. The site of the calamity was obvious. Three squad cars had spun in at odd angles. How dramatic. They'd been summoned while passing and had to make last-second screeching U-turns across the road. I drove past the shop, then turned into the public lot that backed and serviced businesses along both of Sakonnet Bay's commercial streets. After trying the rear entrance to Claire's, which was locked, I hustled down a pedestrian alley to the sidewalk. Flashing my reporter's ID, I squeezed between some gawkers and pushed my way in.
Reprinted from Big City Eyes by Delia Ephron by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Delia Ephron. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Meet the Author
Delia Ephron, author and screenwriter, has written many books for children and adults, including the recent novel Hanging Up. Her film work as a writer and producer includes the movie Hanging Up, as well as You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and Michael. She lives in New York City.
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