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By Michelle Huneven
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Michelle Huneven
All rights reserved.
The first thing Millicent Hawthorne did after scheduling her surgery was to enroll her daughter Joey in a summer typing class at the local high school. Joey was twelve and had never set foot in a public school, but she'd refused to go to camp that year, and Millicent wanted her occupied.
First-level typing was at the end of a long corridor in a double-sized classroom where hulking blue typewriters with blank keys sat on each desk. A wall of windows overlooked a courtyard of blooming roses.
Although she would not make a single friend among them, Joey was intrigued by her fellow typists, especially the girls with their defiantly short skirts, long, straight hair, and expert makeup. How could they be so easy with one another? They tried to draw Joey into their huddles at the break, then left her alone, for which she was grateful.
Joey was instantly good at typing, surprising herself. She assumed she'd be bored by its lack of content. Typing, she found, was like playing the piano, minus the tones. A-S-D-F-J-K-L-Sem caught in her head like an arcane chant, a secret alphabet. Class got out at eleven fifty-five, and Marlene, the Hawthornes' housekeeper, would be waiting out front in her red VW station wagon. Together, they drove back to the house, where Marlene made crustless ham and butter sandwiches, one of the few things Joey would eat at that time.
The first week Joey was in typing class, her mother had a radical mastectomy. The doctors, claiming success, sent her home. When Joey went in to say hello, Millicent, an athletic six foot one, now seemed like a small, folded-up packet of herself, with eyes so sunken, Joey saw the contours of her skull. Millicent reached out a hand, and Joey, taking it, experienced the curious sensation of having her legs turn into water. The home nurse said she'd fainted, but Joey insisted that she never lost consciousness.
It soon became obvious that something more than pain was impeding Millicent's recovery. She went back into the hospital, and the doctors found a system-wide fungus and a new, invasive form of cancer in her spine.
Because Joey had collapsed after her mother's first surgery, she was not allowed to visit, at least not until Millicent had recovered somewhat. Joey had no doubt this would come to pass, because nobody told her otherwise and because one night her father asked her to help him pick out a gift for her mother's birthday four months away. They decided on an add-a-diamond necklace from the Gump's catalog, clearly a gift for someone with many birthdays to come.
During her fifth, penultimate week of typing, Joey walked out of the old brick high school to find not Marlene, but her tall, dazzling uncle Brice leaning against his Studebaker pickup.
Hi, beautiful, he said. Marlene was running an errand, he explained; Joey's father and grandmother were at the hospital. And I, he said, am at your service.
The family had drifted so rapidly into extremity that their long-held rules — no public schools, no discussing problems — had given way like spiderwebs. Thrilled as she was to have her renegade uncle fetch her from school like a common babysitter, Joey knew slippage when she saw it.
Brice was her mother's kid brother. He was twenty-eight and had already burned through his inheritance, more than a million dollars. Joey's father, in rare good humor on the subject, said that it was breathtaking and almost admirable how Brice, in an attempt to recoup the initial heart-stopping losses, had managed to obtain and lose trust money he wasn't even due to receive until he was thirty-five.
Brice was six foot four, with dark gold hair, overly tanned skin, and a nose he referred to as "the big old hook." Joey loved him thoroughly and irrationally and planned to marry him the moment she turned twenty-one and came into her own trust fund. (She'd heard there were states in the Deep South where uncle and niece might wed.) Joey dreamed of restoring Brice to the lifestyle and financial bracket where he rightfully belonged, although she also imagined dispatching her money with the same profligacy with which he'd already flown through his, if only for the sheer, exhilarating blur of it.
Clutching her flat typing manual against her chest, too smitten to speak, Joey climbed into the tobacco-scented cab of the rare Studebaker and Brice drove them to the Bellwood Hotel for lunch.
* * *
Joey's parents' best friends, Cal and Peggy Sharp, owned the Bellwood. Cal had inherited it from his father, and did what he could to keep it running in a town where the Sheraton, Hilton, and Doubletree had cornered the convention trade. Cal shut down two floors, rented residential suites to wealthy widows, booked offbeat conventions (rare books dealers, grandfather clock collectors), and housed two private clubs: the Downtown Club, where membership could be purchased, and the more exclusive, invitation only, Mojave Club.
Joey's father, Frank Hawthorne, was on the board of the Mojave Club, and the Hawthornes used the Bellwood as their second residence. Whenever Millicent called in the painters at home — she did that a lot — the Hawthornes moved en masse to the Bellwood's penthouse. And until their large, architecturally significant but deeply flawed glass-and-concrete foothill home had air-conditioning installed, the family sought refuge in those refrigerated rooms during heat waves. Frank and Millicent Hawthorne were both famous for their tempers; each time one or the other stormed out of the house, Joey and her two brothers knew where to find them.
The July day Brice drove Joey to the Bellwood, it was a hundred degrees out, dry and bright and as still as glass.
Brice was not a member of the Mojave Club. He never could've managed dues, even if he'd finagled an invitation. But with Joey trotting alongside, he headed straight into the Mojave dining room with its filigreed columns and mahogany wainscoting. The tables were padded and double clothed, the sterling polished, the water glasses heavy. Huffy, the Mojave's maître d', glided toward them on the diagonal in an attempt to steer Brice toward a middle table, but Brice sailed past to claim a coveted window booth.
Since returning from his four-year international spending spree last January, Brice had worked for Cal Sharp, who also owned the Lyster apartments on Avalon Street, where Brice was the resident manager and renovator. The Lyster had seen better days, and Brice's job was to reverse its course. Joey's father referred to the four-story faux château as "the ever-listing Lyster." Hello there, Brice, he'd greet his brother-in-law. How's life at the ever-listing Lyster?
The waiter brought Brice a beer in a V-shaped pilsner glass and Joey a Coke in a brandy snifter, her preferred glassware of the moment. She was just beginning to wonder what she and Brice would say to each other when she heard her name.
Joey, my girl. Cal Sharp stood over her, tall and important in his silvery suit and matching hair. His wide hand cradled the back of her head. His cologne was sharp, citric; and his other hand, resting on the tablecloth, was perfectly manicured, the nails pink and so smooth. You just missed March and Stan. They were here for breakfast, he said quietly, his grip tightening on her scalp. They'll sure be sorry they missed you.
March was Joey's age, but Stan, two years older, had been her great companion growing up, until he became a tennis star last year. At the Mojave Spring Fling he and Joey had ditched March and climbed up the fire escape to sit, swinging their legs off the side. There, Stan explained that if they were seen together so much at the club, people would think they were boyfriend and girlfriend. And while they would always be friends, he wanted a different kind of girl for a girlfriend, a pretty girl with long blond hair who was also an excellent tennis player.
You doing all right there, sweetheart? Cal murmured, leaning down. Everything okay?
His large male face so close to hers made it impossible to speak. Cal Sharp had never taken such notice of her before. And his eyes were growing red around their rims.
We're all praying for your mom, he said quietly. You know that, we're praying as hard as we can.
Oh. Her mom. That's right.
Most remarkably yet, Cal kissed her forehead. Then he kept his hand on the back of her head and talked to Brice about awnings for the Lyster's south- facing windows.
The waiter brought Brice a small club steak with french fries and Joey a crustless ham and butter sandwich. Joey hadn't been to the Bellwood since rejecting lettuce some days back, and seeing the thin green line dividing the pink meat and the white bread, she slid into what her mother called a fit. Joey never agreed with this term. Wasn't a fit some kind of muscle-flapping thrashing about? Whereas, when faced with the insurmountable, she simply froze for anywhere from a minute to an hour. There was no predicting it. Most episodes were brief, brought on by a food or something mean one of her brothers said. Her mother, who was often the only person to notice, was always enraged by what she felt was Joey's willfulness. But Joey really could do nothing other than wait for the so-called fit to pass, as she did now, with Cal Sharp's large hand cupping her head while he and Brice debated whether to buy striped or solid canvas. Cal, noting her untouched plate, tousled her hair. Forgive me, he said. I'll let you two eat.
Not hungry, baby? Brice said when they were alone. Want some steak?
Joey shook her head. Brice ate a couple of fries and glanced at his watch. I have to make a phone call. I'll be right back.
Alone, Joey pushed her sandwich aside and stole two of Brice's fries. The waiter removed the sandwich and, with a wink, set down a thick glass cup of pineapple sherbet, cold and perfect, tasting like snow.
Soon the waiter took Brice's steak away and returned it wrapped in foil in the shape of a swan. Joey took the swan, signed the check, and went looking for her uncle. He wasn't in any of the phone booths. She told the concierge, If Uncle Brice is looking for me, I'm in the ladies' snooker room.
The women in the Mojave Club used the ladies' book-lined snooker room for meetings. The snooker table was gone, replaced by big, comfortable chairs that pitched you back so far it was hard to get out of them. A large volume devoted to Michelangelo sculptures sat on the coffee table. Joey took this up, intending to continue her ongoing study of male anatomy.
Today, however, she paused at the Pietà, one of the few women in the whole book. Mary wore nunlike robes with beautiful folds and had Jesus' skinny dead body draped across her lap. People always referred to Joey's mother as "statuesque," but here was an actual statue, and it had nothing in common with Millicent Hawthorne. Mary seemed so delicate and calm, completely unlike Millicent, who always looked angry, although she always denied it.
Millicent had never fussed over Joey. She was an impatient mother who brushed Joey's fine hair roughly and tied her shoes and sashes with quick, harsh tugs. The two spent little time together; they never cuddled or confided in each other. Joey, in fact, made it a point to stay out of her mother's way so as not to annoy or inadvertently antagonize her. Yet despite the mutually cultivated wide, empty spaces between them, Joey was connected to her mother as if by a fine silver wire. If her father spoke angrily to Millicent, Joey burst into tears. If her brothers back-talked, Joey bristled in her mother's defense — she would not have been at all surprised to learn that she experienced her mother's feelings more keenly than her mother did. That day when Millicent came home from the hospital and Joey took her hand, Joey had inhaled both the dry, sickly-sweet must of sickness and her mother's terror, and it was more than she could bear.
Joey wandered again past the phone booths and over to the elevators. She pressed the button and considered going up to the roof to stick her feet in the pool, but when the elevator doors opened, out stepped Uncle Brice. Oh! There you are, he said jauntily. What shall we do now? How about a movie?
She wanted to go home, change out of her stupid school clothes. But going to the movies and sitting next to Brice in the dark was irresistible.
The Sound of Music was playing at the Big Oaks Revival House. Brice bought a tub of buttered popcorn, half a pound of Raisinets, and a box of ice-cream bonbons. During the previews he nosed the big old hook through Joey's hair until it rested against her ear. I'll be right back, he whispered, and stacked all the food on her lap.
Joey couldn't concentrate. She was embarrassed by the clumsy way that Julie Andrews ran, and by the fake way the nuns broke into song. She kept turning to see if Brice was coming back. There were only three other people in the theater, two men and an older woman who was eating noisily. Then cool moisture oozed from the box of ice-cream bonbons and some of it went on her skirt. Setting everything down on the sticky floor, Joey left for the ladies' room.
Nobody was in the lobby or at the candy counter. She ran upstairs to the lounge and sponged her skirt with a paper towel. She did not want to see the rest of the movie, but there was nothing to do in the lobby, so she returned to her seat and practiced typing on her knees — transcribing the movie as fast as she could.
* * *
The ticket takers and countermen were back at their stations, and still Brice had not come. She studied the movie posters in the lobby until people arrived for the second matinee, and she kept studying them as they stood in line and bought their snacks. When the lobby was empty again, she decided to call both hospitals in town to see if Brice was in an emergency room. Since she had no money with her and was too shy to ask for any, she decided to walk back across town to the Bellwood, where Huffy would let her use the phone, if he wasn't too angry about the steak-filled swan she'd left in the ladies' snooker room.
Joey set off down Green Street in the dusty, late afternoon heat. She'd gone about five blocks when the Studebaker pulled up alongside her. Patsy, Brice's girlfriend, smiled in the passenger seat. Hey there, she said.
The truck's door swung open. Patsy had long yellow-blond hair and long, tanned legs and a wide, happy smile that revealed all her perfect, straight teeth. She taught history at a local college, though Joey's father said she didn't look like any history professor he ever had.
Patsy kissed the side of Joey's head. Hi, kitten, she said. How was the movie? Ridiculous drivel? Yeah.
Show her what we got for her, said Brice, and Patsy handed Joey a tiny black velvet box.
Inside was a necklace — a small oval glass pendant on a thin gold chain, with matching oval earrings. All three ovals contained the same picture: the black silhouette of a palm tree and grass shack set against an orange sunset — exactly the South Sea paradise where, Joey imagined, Brice used to live.
Here, Patsy said. I'll fasten it. Her long nails grazed Joey's neck.
Look, Patsy said, and parted Joey's blouse at the neck so Brice could see the pendant. You're prettier every day, Patsy said. Isn't she, Brice?
Brice said, I've been in love with Joey since the day she was born.
Were they drunk? Both held bottles of beer between their knees.
Darn, Brice. Her ears aren't pierced. Well, that's easy enough. Patsy threw an arm around Joey's shoulder. We'll exchange these for the un- pierced kind.
Or I could get my ears pierced, Joey said. She'd asked to have them done this summer, but her mother said pierced ears were primitive and low-class.
Patsy squeezed her shoulder. They were driving east now, away from the Bellwood, school, home, everyplace Joey knew. Aren't we going to my house? she asked.
I have to stop in at work, said Brice.
He pulled up before the four-story white building, with its skinny turrets and pointy roof. Ah, said Joey, the ever-listing Lyster.
Brice and Patsy burst out laughing. We know whose daughter she is, Brice said.
Excerpted from Blame by Michelle Huneven. Copyright © 2009 Michelle Huneven. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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