Read an Excerpt
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER
ALSO BY ELLEN MEISTER
The Other Life
The Smart One
Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO
IN LOVING MEMORY
The first thing I do in the morning is brush
my teeth and sharpen my tongue.
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER
Violet Epps stood before the maître d’ in the lobby lounge of the Algonquin Hotel, waiting to be noticed. She cleared her throat and he looked up, glancing right past her.
“Who’s next?” he said.
Me, she thought. Me. But before she could summon the courage to get the single syllable across her tongue, a young man behind her spoke up.
“We have a reservation,” he said, putting his arm around the pretty girl at his side. “Dr. Walker.”
Doctor my ass, Violet thought. Guy was maybe twenty-three years old, probably a waiter who just walked over from his afternoon class at the Actors Studio.
Violet closed her eyes and tried to find the gumption she needed to speak up and tell the maître d’ she was there first. But as usual, social anxiety paralyzed her vocal cords. Too bad she couldn’t channel Dorothy Parker the way she did at work.
Violet Epps was a thirty-seven-year-old movie critic whose withering zingers were inspired by the famous wit who had made the Algonquin Hotel her home for many years. Dorothy Parker was Violet’s hero, and not just for her scathing reviews, clever jokes, quotable poetry, and insightful short stories but for her potent social courage. The diminutive Mrs. Parker, as she was often called, was so commanding that even her friends thought of her as larger than life.
So far, Violet had been successful in summoning her muse only when writing her movie reviews. In her personal life, she was held captive by her own timidity. Today, she hoped, would be different. She was meeting her boyfriend, Carl, for dinner, and needed to tell him it was over. She had tried this once before—just a few weeks ago—and failed. Worse, Carl had made a strong case that the only problem with their relationship was that they didn’t spend enough time with each other. He even managed to convince her that if they were together more he would drink less. And so she caved, agreeing to let him move in with her. In two short days it would be happening. Everything in the “apartment” he rented in the basement of his parents’ home would be loaded into a U-Haul and moved to her house.
As the maître d’ led the young couple to their table, Violet glanced inside her oversized handbag, where a tiny bundle of fur lay sleeping. It was Woollcott, a funny-looking little dog who had survived the car crash that killed her sister and brother-in-law. Violet had petitioned for temporary custody of her thirteen-year-old niece, who had also survived the accident, but wound up with the dog.
Violet knew that Dorothy Parker, whose most famous quotes were uttered right here in this room, would have made a glib joke about the trade-off. After all, it was life’s most painful events that brought out Mrs. Parker’s famously wicked sense of humor—like the time she responded to an unwanted pregnancy by saying, That’s what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard.
Violet gave Woollcott a pat. He was, she had discovered, a mellow companion who had a calming effect on her nerves. That was why she had decided to sneak him into this meeting with Carl; if she couldn’t channel Dorothy Parker from the hallowed walls of the Algonquin Hotel, at least she had this little dog to help steady her.
A grab from behind gave Violet a start. It was Carl. She pulled his hands from her waist.
“Hey, babe,” he said. “Where’s our table? Didn’t you tell them who you were?”
“You scared me,” she said.
“But I was just horsing around.”
Violet sighed. What did one thing have to do with the other? Surely she was entitled to be startled regardless of the intent.
But that was Carl. He was so sure he never did anything wrong that you couldn’t suggest otherwise without feeling like you had done something truly villainous.
Violet shook her head. This relationship was not just dead. It was starting to rot.
They had met three years ago at a crafts fair in Stony Brook, Long Island, and Violet was immediately intrigued, as he was the opposite of her rigid ex-husband. Carl McDonald was an artist and looked the part, with a messy mass of long wiry locks, parted in the middle. He was thickset with large hands and bitten nails, which usually had paint embedded deep in the cuticles. Carl had carved out a niche for himself painting nostalgically kitschy designs on small pieces of furniture, and eked out a living selling his work in cramped booths at local shows. Recently, he launched a Web site to try to broaden his customer base.
He was handsome in an offbeat way, and Violet, God help her, loved his disheveled-artist look and the intensity of his dark blue eyes. Yes, he was different, but that was why she felt so immediately electrified. Here was a man with passion—someone who could love. But when they met, she was still on the rebound of her failed marriage and got involved way too soon. What seemed like disarming emotional honesty in the beginning revealed itself to be nothing more than a self-involved kind of neediness. And then there was the drinking.
She leaned in to take a whiff, hoping he hadn’t stopped someplace for a shot or two on his way to meet her. He misinterpreted her body language and responded by kissing her on the mouth with passion more appropriate for a private room than a hotel lobby.
She pushed him away before her body had a chance to react. She was, she believed, too easily stimulated by the smallest touch. “How much did you have to drink?”
“Nothing. Just two little Bud Lights.” He snapped his fingers at the maître d’.
Violet cringed. “Don’t do that,” she whispered. “For God’s sake.”
“Can I help you?” the host asked. He was classically handsome—almost a central-casting version of a maître d’, Violet thought—with dark hair, rigid posture, and a wisp of Middle Eastern accent.
“Reservation for Violet Epps,” Carl said to him, pronouncing her name loudly enough for several diners to overhear. This was typical. He loved having a well-known girlfriend and always thought it was a good idea to use her celebrity to their advantage.
“Yes, of course,” the host answered. “Right this way.”
A few heads turned as they were led to the Round Table Room, which was really just a section in the back of the open lobby. As they made their way past people relaxing in the overstuffed chairs and sofas of the hotel’s famous lounge, Violet heard someone quoting from one of her crankier reviews: The best thing I can say about By the Longhairs is that people who have been given two months to live might be dead before it comes out on DVD.
Violet squirmed. It wasn’t the notoriety that made her uncomfortable. In fact, she liked being cited in newspaper ads and didn’t even mind getting trashed online. But being recognized in public was a horror-film double feature compared to seeing her name in print. She let her hair fall in front of her face.
“Your server will be right with you,” the maître d’ said, as they took their seats.
“Could someone get me a Dewar’s, rocks?” Carl asked.
The host bowed and left. Violet balanced her open bag on her lap and petted Woollcott.
Carl leaned over the table to get a look. “You brought that ugly mutt with you?”
“He’s not ugly,” Violet argued, though she knew she would have a hard time defending that position under cross-examination. He was, without a doubt, one of the oddest-looking dogs she had ever seen. In addition to the dull beige fur that stuck out in every direction, he had a pushed-in snout, round bulgy eyes set too far apart, and a nose and mouth cramped too close together. And though he was her niece’s dog, Violet was the one who had named him. She took one peek at his face and decided he looked like Alexander Woollcott, the famous theater critic of the 1920s and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—the group of wits who met daily for lunch at this very spot.
But unlike his vinegary namesake, this Woollcott was so sweet and docile she considered him the world’s most perfect pet. Without opening his eyes he stuck out his pink tongue and licked her hand. She rubbed his ear.
“I have to talk to you about something,” she said to Carl. “Something important.”
“Is it the garage?” he said. “Because—”
“It’s not the garage.” Ever since she agreed to let him move in, Carl had been badgering her about the detached garage, which he thought would make a perfect studio for him. But it was crammed full of family possessions Violet was not prepared to part with.
“It’s just that there would be so much room in there if we got rid of all that—”
“Carl,” she said, and then hesitated. There was simply no way she was letting him do this. “I can’t—”
“I’ll rent the truck for an extra day and put the stuff in storage myself.”
“Wait,” she said. “Please.” She petted Woollcott again and tried to find the words. She put her head in her hands and mumbled, more to herself than to him, “This isn’t working.”
“What’s the matter? Did I do something wrong? Are you mad about the beer?”
Yes, I’m mad about the beer, she thought. I’m mad that you can always find time to get a buzz on but can never find time to come with me to one of my screenings. I’m mad that it’s always about you and your needs, and never about mine. I’m mad that—
“Because you know I love you,” he said, “right?”
Irrelevant, Violet thought.
“And anyway,” he continued, “I really don’t drink that much.”
“You’re just hung up on the drinking thing.”
I am not.
He reached over and took her hand. “On account of your sister’s accident.”
Okay, so maybe he had a point. She pulled her hand away.
“And what about Delaney?” she asked, referring to her niece.
“What about her?”
“I need a stable environment for her.”
“I know I kind of got off on the wrong foot with her,” he said, “but she’ll warm up to me. I’m great with kids.”
Just say it, she told herself. Three simple words: It’s over, Carl. Then get up and leave. She stroked Woollcott. He picked up his head and looked at her, then gave her hand a lick and went back to sleep. Things were so beautifully simple in a dog’s world. Love, food, slumber.
“This is not…” She paused and swallowed, struggling to finish the sentence as she anticipated his reaction. Please, God, she thought, don’t let him freak out.
“Not what?” he asked.
Violet closed her eyes and tried to summon strength from her surroundings. She imagined the room abuzz with chatter as the members of the Algonquin Round Table ate and drank and traded quips. They were a group of writers and actors who met here for lunch every day for ten years, and their bon mots were printed in newspapers, laughed at over morning coffee, repeated in offices, and celebrated in speakeasies. But the most often quoted of them all was Dorothy Parker. Violet could envision the tiny brunette wedged between the rotund Alexander Woollcott and the very tall Robert Sherwood. And though physically dwarfed by the two men, her presence was gargantuan.
In contrast, Violet did her best to be invisible in a crowd. On the rare occasion that she actually accepted a social invitation, Violet managed to slink her way from the door to the host and back out again without being noticed. And if anyone did happen to spy the lanky woman with the hair in her face, they never would have suspected she was the often-quoted Violet Epps, whose passionate praise shouted from so many full-page movie ads, and whose searing swipes lit up the blogosphere.
Help me, she thought, and envisioned her muse turning her head. Violet looked straight into Dorothy Parker’s eyes, and for a moment the scene was so vivid she could swear she smelled gin and cigarettes. Was it her imagination? She took a deep breath. It was strangely powerful, and yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was smelling history. Where was it coming from? She sniffed her blouse.
“What’s wrong?” Carl asked.
Violet looked around. “Is someone smoking?”
“I don’t smell anything.”
She took another whiff. The scent was gone. Maybe it was her imagination after all.
She leaned back in her seat. When the waiter came with Carl’s scotch and asked her if she wanted something from the bar, Violet pulled her handbag closer and waved him away.
“What were you trying to say before?” Carl asked.
She stared into his drink, thinking about her niece. You can do this, she told herself. Just say it. She swallowed hard, rehearsed the words in her head, asked Dorothy for strength, and then tried to spit it out.
“You,” she said, and choked. C’mon, words.
“Me what?” Carl said.
“I can’t what?”
Violet shut her eyes tight. “You can’t move in this weekend.” There. She did it. She did it, and she wouldn’t back down.
“You want me to postpone the move?”
“Good,” he said. “Because I would probably lose my deposit on the truck.”
“I mean, you can’t move in period.”
He laughed. “Okay, I get it. I won’t pressure you about the garage anymore. At least for now.” He snapped his fingers at the waiter. “Can we see menus, please?”
Violet rubbed her forehead. Please, Dorothy, she thought. Help me out here. Give me something.
She looked up and saw two men approaching their table—the maître d’ and an official-looking man in an expensive suit. The floor shook with their footsteps, and Violet knew she was in trouble. These men were on a mission, and it could be only one thing. The dog. The waiter must have seen him when he delivered Carl’s drink, and now she was busted. Violet knew it would do no good to try to make a case that Dorothy Parker brought her little toy poodle to lunch at the Algonquin almost daily for ten years. They were going to throw her out.
Damn it, Dorothy, she thought. I ask for help and this is what you send?
She quickly threw a cloth napkin over her open bag, her hands trembling. The thought of making a scene terrified her. Please, she thought, let it be over quickly. I’ll just grab my bag and leave.
“Ms. Epps?” the maître d’ said. “I’d like to introduce Barry Beeman, general manager of the Algonquin.”
The suited man thrust his hand at Violet, and she shook it. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “Here at the Algonquin we’re big fans of the reviewer who’s been called ‘the modern Dorothy Parker,’ and we’d be honored to have you sign our priceless guest book.” He leaned over and placed an antique leather-bound volume in front of her.
“Guest book?” she said.
“It belonged to Percy Coates,” he began, and Violet nodded. She knew he had been the manager of the hotel when it became a literary landmark. “All the original members of the Algonquin Round Table signed it, and over the years we have asked specific notable representatives of the literary establishment to add their names—”
“Literary establishment?” Violet said, her face burning with embarrassment. Dear God, all she did was write snarky two-paragraph reviews for a weekly entertainment magazine. “I hardly think—”
He put an expensive pen in her hand and carefully opened the cover of the book. There, on the very first page, were the actual signatures of the men and women who had made the hotel so famous. Violet got dizzy just thinking about it—all these people in the flesh, holding this same book and signing it. The first was George S. Kaufman, who had a special place in her heart because she was a Marx Brothers fan and he had written three of their funniest movies. He was followed by humorist Robert Benchley, who was Dorothy Parker’s best friend, and then Franklin P. Adams, whose newspaper column quoted the group almost daily. Harold Ross, founder of a tiny magazine he called The New Yorker, was on the list. Violet remembered reading that he had hired Dorothy Parker to write reviews, and once found her at a speakeasy in the middle of a workday. Her excuse? Someone was using the pencil.
Of course, Alexander Woollcott, who presided over the whole affair, was on the list, and so was Edna Ferber, who wrote Showboat. Then, right under Robert Sherwood, was the one name she had hoped to see.
“Dorothy Parker,” she whispered. Violet put her hand over the name and could swear she felt a comforting warmth rising from it, as if the famous wit was trying to reach out and touch her.
“Some say she still haunts this room,” Mr. Beeman said.
I believe she does, Violet thought.
In fact, there was a powerful force emanating from the signature, and the longer Violet held her hand there, the stronger it got, until her fingers prickled with the strangest sensation—tingly and hot like she was touching a sparkler.
Her fingers started to burn, and she wanted to pull her hand away, but she willed herself to be brave, take a chance, see what happened next.
And then. The strange heat moved up her arms and shot through her body with so much force she had to grab on to the table.
“Oh!” she cried.
“What is it?” Carl said. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
He reached over and touched her cheek. “You’re ice cold,” he said.
No, she thought. I’m burning up. But she let go of the table to touch her own face and realized he was right. She was red hot and ice cold at the same time.
Then she was swept up by a terrible wave, as the two forces seemed to meet and clash, resulting in nausea so overwhelming Violet thought she must surely be dying.
The nausea continued to build until she could no longer endure it and the light began to disappear from her world. Thank God, she thought. Thank God I’m fainting. At last she passed out, carried off in beautiful, blessed unconsciousness.
Still, even in her blackness she heard the voices of the men around her. Are you okay? Ms. Epps, are you all right? Maybe we should call an ambulance. Violet, wake up. Violet!
No, no, she thought. Leave me alone. Let me stay in this faraway place.
And then another voice spoke to her. A woman’s voice.
Don’t be a coward. It’s your moment.
Violet opened her eyes, and the sickness compressed itself into a tiny tight ball right behind her navel. She looked around the room, and it was as if the light had changed in a way that altered her focus. Everything was crisper, like she had just put on stronger glasses.
She stared straight at Carl. With her new vision, he looked smaller, weaker.
“There’s my baby,” he said, with a grin so condescending she wanted to spit.
“She’s okay,” the maître d’ announced. “Thank goodness. Ms. Epps, is there anything we can get you?”
Violet didn’t take her eyes off Carl. “A loaded pistol.”
“What are you talking about?” Carl said.
“Us. We’re over.”
Carl turned to the general manager. “Maybe you should call an ambulance. Something’s wrong. I don’t like the way she sounds.”
“And I don’t like the way you look,” she said.
“Violet, what’s wrong with you?”
She removed the napkin that covered her bag. “Don’t get up,” she said, as she reached in to give Woollcott one reassuring pat. But as soon as her fingers grazed his warm body, the hot sparklers returned to her fingertips and sent a charge of static to the unsuspecting animal. Yet something more than electricity passed between them. The knot behind her navel shot from her like a bolt and split in two, zapping the dog and the guest book. Immediately, the room seemed to soften and change. Woollcott growled.
“Is that a dog?” the man in the suit asked.
“He’s very docile,” Carl said, reaching across to give him a pet.
Before he could make contact, Woollcott jumped from her bag to the table and sunk his sharp little teeth into the artist’s fingers.
“Fuck!” Carl said, and pushed the dog right into his scotch, which knocked over. Violet quickly slammed shut the ancient leather-bound guest book to protect it. Woollcott released Carl’s hand, leapt from the table to the floor, and ran, scurrying around chairs, past customers and between waiters, as he headed for the door.
“I’m so sorry!” Violet said to Barry Beeman and the maître d’. “Woollcott!” she shouted, and before anyone could notice, she slipped the guest book into her bag and ran off after him.
“Settle down,” Violet said. “I can’t hear myself think.”
But the little dog continued to bark and yip as if he was, well, possessed, running in frantic circles around her kitchen table, where the Algonquin guest book lay.
Violet couldn’t believe she had actually stolen it. She had never done anything like that in her life. But then again, she had never had an experience as terrifying and exhilarating as those few moments in the Algonquin. If she opened the book now, would it happen again? Violet put her head in her hands. Couldn’t that dog be quiet for a second so she could get ahold of herself and reason it all out?
“Come here, boy,” she said, but he ignored her and kept yelping.
She picked up his leash and jangled it. “How about a walk?” That usually got his immediate attention, but not today. “A treat?” she asked, opening the cabinet where she kept his Milk-Bones. She shook the box, but even that got no response.
Violet paced. She didn’t understand what was going on with the poor little dog and didn’t know how to get him to settle down. One thing she did know without question—the force that had seized her at the Algonquin was Dorothy Parker.
And now that force was captured in the guest book.
As tempted as she was to open it, she couldn’t bear the thought of feeling as sick as she did in the restaurant, but, oh, the power! With Dorothy Parker’s spirit compressed into a tight ball at the center of her soul, she was as courageous as she had always dreamed of being.
The phone rang, though she could barely hear it over the incessant high-pitched barking. Knowing Woollcott would follow, she picked up the book and carried it into the study, a dark, cozy room off the foyer her sister had restored to its original charm, repairing and refinishing the ancient oak paneling and recessed bookcases. It was a small space, furnished with a settee, an old desk, two antique wingback chairs facing the stone fireplace, and loads of books. Except for the anachronistic laptop she kept on the desk, entering the room always felt like taking a step back to another century.
She tossed the hefty tome onto one of the chairs and a cloud of dust wafted up, followed by a pang of guilt. This house had meant so much to Ivy. Violet needed to do a better job of keeping the place in good order.
Woollcott, oblivious to her shortcomings as a housekeeper, jumped onto the seat and put his head on the cover of the book. At last he was quiet.
Violet went back into the kitchen and listened as her answering machine clicked on.
Hey, baby, it’s Carl. Why aren’t you answering your cell phone? And what the hell happened to you in the restaurant? I guess you’re a little wigged out about moving in together, but I promise it’ll all be okay. We’ll talk about it more on Sunday when we’re unpacking, okay? Hope your back is feeling strong, because mine isn’t. And my fingers hurt where that crazy little dog bit me, but I put on some ointment and bandages, and now all I need is a kiss. Love ya!
“Shit,” she said, and grabbed for the phone. It was Friday evening and he was planning to move in on Sunday morning. She couldn’t put this off another minute. She had to tell him it was over.
“Carl,” she said, “you still there?”
Violet heard the tap-tap-tap of Woollcott’s nails on the tile as he came back into the kitchen. He sat at her feet and rubbed his face against her leg. “You’re better, huh?” she said, giving him a gentle scratch behind the ears.
“Much better,” Carl said. “I think the Neosporin helped.”
“I was talking to Woollcott.”
“I’m the one who got bitten, and you’re worried about the dog?”
“He hasn’t been…himself,” she said.
“I noticed. He nearly took my fingers off.”
Violet rolled her eyes. She knew Carl hadn’t been badly hurt. “Well, thank goodness he didn’t,” she said. “Thank goodness it’s just a tiny wound.”
“It’s not that tiny,” he said. “My mother thinks I should get a tetanus shot.”
His mother. When Violet first started dating Carl, she thought his attachment to his parents was charmingly eccentric. But now she realized how arrested his development really was. If he moved in with her, he would bring that neediness with him, making Violet the mother figure. It was the last thing she wanted from a man.
“I…never finished what I was trying to tell you in the restaurant,” she said.
“Yeah, what the hell happened to you in there?”
“Wait,” she said. “I think I just heard something.”
“In the house. It sounded like…like a little dog barking.”
“Woollcott,” he said. “Duh.”
Violet bristled. Didn’t he think she would know if it was her own dog? “Woollcott’s right here with me,” she said.
“Must be coming from outside.”
That made more sense. She pulled out a kitchen chair and sat—she had to get this over with. “Okay, remember when I said you couldn’t move in this weekend?”
“You were upset about the garage. I understand. You have a lot of family treasures in there. But maybe we can put a shed in the backyard.”
“I don’t want a shed, Carl.”
“I saw some at Home Depot that were pretty attractive. They even have them with wood shingles.”
“I don’t care about wood shingles.”
“Or a fiberglass one that looks like white clapboard siding.”
“Carl, please. I have no interest in a shed.”
“Don’t be so stubborn,” he said. “A shed is a perfect solution. You get to keep all your sister’s stuff, and I get a studio.”
This isn’t about the fucking shed, she thought. This is about us. “Look,” she said. “This isn’t going to work.”
“I bet there’s room in the attic,” he said.
Violet heard something—something that definitely wasn’t coming from outside. And it wasn’t a dog.
“If it’s empty—” Carl said.
“Shush,” she said. “I think there’s someone in the house.”
Carl was still talking, so she took the phone away from her ear. And then she heard it. She heard it as clearly and distinctly as if there was a person in the next room.
Oh, for God’s sake, said a woman’s voice. Just tell him to go to hell.
The phone slipped from Violet’s hand and hit the floor. She fumbled for it. “Carl?”
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her heart pounding. “Someone’s here. I heard…a woman.”
“First you heard a dog and now you hear a woman? Violet, are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she whispered, her hand over her mouth. “I’m going to investigate.”
“If there’s really someone there, don’t you think you should call 911?”
“Shh,” she said, as she tiptoed out of the kitchen and toward the study.
The door was ajar, and she quietly pushed it open. The first thing she saw was the Algonquin guest book, open on the floor beside the wingback chair. And there, on the seat itself, where she had left Woollcott, was a cloud of dust far thicker than the one she had created when she tossed the book onto it. It seemed to hover several feet in the air with a distinct shape. As Violet stared, she could make out lines and shadows within the floating matter. It was like seeing a three-dimensional form take shape in one of those Magic Eye pictures you had to look at with a relaxed focus.
And then the particles settled themselves into a recognizable image. Violet blinked. She wasn’t just looking at a mass of floating dust particles. She was looking at a pale gray suggestion of a small woman holding a French poodle on her lap. As she continued to stare, the vision got stronger, more vibrant, until it wasn’t a vision at all but a real live person.
“You still there?” Carl asked, but Violet didn’t answer him. She couldn’t. She was paralyzed in place, unable to move or speak.
Then the apparition broke the silence.
“It’s customary,” the woman said, as she petted the small dog on her lap, “to offer a guest a drink.”
Violet hung up the phone without saying good-bye.
“Dorothy Parker?” she said to her guest. It came out as soft as vapor.
“And this is Cliché,” Mrs. Parker said, introducing her poodle.
Violet stared, dumbstruck.
Dorothy Parker looked straight at her. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Your name, miss.”
“Uh, Violet. Violet Epps.”
“The movie critic?”
Dizzy, Violet held on to the door frame. “You’ve heard of me?”
“One doesn’t float about the dining rooms of the Algonquin for forty-five years without learning a thing or two.”
Violet closed her eyes for a second, remembering the smell of gin and cigarettes that seemed to pass right through her just moments before the incident with the book. Had that been the spirit of Dorothy Parker?
“What are you—” she began. “How…?”
“It’s all tied to this awful thing,” Mrs. Parker said, indicating the guest book, which lay open on the floor next to her. “My damned luck. I get to spend eternity with one book and it’s a collection of signatures.”
“I don’t understand,” Violet said.
“Percy Coates,” she explained, referring to the erstwhile manager of the Algonquin, “was obsessed with two things—writers and death. He collected us in life, and tried his damnedest to collect us in death. His favorite medium, a Madame Lucescu, assured him that anyone who signed the book would be captured in it upon their death. But I’m the only one who stuck.”
“Long story, dear child. But it’s my own stupid fault, I assure you.”
Woollcott trotted into the room and parked himself at Violet’s feet. He gave one of his quiet little yips, which was much more characteristic of him than the frantic barking he had been doing earlier. She bent to pick him up.
“And who is this charming creature?” Mrs. Parker asked.
“His name is Woollcott.”
Violet saw the corners of Dorothy Parker’s mouth curl as she recognized the name of her feisty friend and fellow theater critic.
“Then he must have quite a bite.”
Violet couldn’t suppress a smile, as a soft tingle of conspiratorial warmth relaxed her. “Not really,” she said, “though my friend Carl might disagree.”
“The handsome fellow with the messy hair?”
“In that case, I hope it was worse than his bark.”
Yes, Violet thought. It’s really her. She took a step forward for a closer look. “Are you…a spirit?”
“Something like that. Speaking of spirits, where’s that drink?”
Violet wanted to touch her guest to see if she was flesh and blood, but she held back. “Can you do that? Can you…eat and drink and all that?”
“As long as the guest book is open I can take on a corporeal form. All I have to do is hold still for a few minutes to let the matter settle together.”
“And if the book is closed?”
Mrs. Parker shrugged. “It’s rather like going to sleep.”
Violet considered this for a moment. “Can you open and close the book whenever you want?”
“I cannot,” Mrs. Parker said. “And there’s the rub. I’m a damned prisoner. I can’t even leave the confines of the room. Wherever the book is, I am. About that drink.”
“Of course,” Violet said. “Sorry.” She didn’t want to walk away, afraid that if she took her eyes off Dorothy Parker she would disappear. But she did as she was asked and went across the foyer to the living room, where Ivy and Neil kept their liquor cabinet.
“Gin okay?” Violet called.
“As long as it’s not homemade.”
Violet mixed gin and tonic in a highball glass. It was the first time she held a drink in her hand since the accident, and for a moment, she thought about him, the stranger in the pickup truck, and wondered what he had been drinking. They never did tell her the particulars, only that his blood alcohol level had been more than twice the legal limit. Back then, Violet had been burning to know every detail, as if that would help her make sense of it all. But, of course, it didn’t really matter. Not one bit.
She came back into the study and handed the cocktail to her guest.
“Where’s yours?” Mrs. Parker asked.
“Oh, I don’t—”
“You’re not going to make me drink alone, are you?”
Violet took the chair opposite her guest. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t drink.”
“I understand that’s very fashionable now. Reformed drunks.”
“Oh, I’m not a…an alcoholic. I just don’t, that’s all.”
“Suit yourself,” Mrs. Parker said, and took a dainty sip of her drink. “God, that’s good. It’s been so long.”
“Is this the first time you’ve had a drink since…” She nodded toward the book.
“Since I died? Heavens, no. I’ve helped myself to more than a few cocktails behind the bar at the Algonquin, though I’ve learned to do it during the wee hours when no one’s around.” She took another sip. “I once made the mistake of materializing in front of a Guatemalan bellhop and the poor thing collapsed.”
Violet nodded. She imagined that over the years there were times the guest book had been left open for days or even weeks, enabling Dorothy Parker to become a free spirit in the truest sense.
“Tell me about your young man,” her guest said. “He seems like a faun’s behind.”
“Carl,” Violet said. “He’s not so bad, really. He’s just…childish. And needy. And maybe a little lazy.”
“I know the type. You’d probably wind up supporting him. What does he do?”
“He’s an artist.”
“God help us. I hope you’re not in love with him.”
“I was. Or at least I thought I was. But no. And I have to end it.”
“Why don’t you, then?”
She makes it sound so easy, Violet thought. “It’s hard. I…I’m not very good with confrontations.”
“So I noticed,” Mrs. Parker said. “You seem to need a good deal of help.”
“Is that why you came to me in the Algonquin?”
She took a few sips of her drink. “I knew I had to do something. And I couldn’t very well crack you over the head with a bottle of whisky. So I took over. It would have worked, too, if you hadn’t backed down.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m so ashamed.”
Mrs. Parker waved away the remark. “People have done far worse, trust me.”
“It’s not just Carl, it’s…” Violet paused and thought about the nervous meltdown in court that had cost her custody of her niece. And poor Delaney. She deserved better. “I’ve really made a mess of things.”
“Join the club,” Mrs. Parker said, and finished the last few drops in her glass. “Would you be a dear and fetch me another? And this time get one for yourself, as well. I insist.”
“I did you a favor, didn’t I? At least I tried. Now, don’t make a poor dead woman drink alone. One little cocktail never hurt anyone.”
Violet took her guest’s glass and went back to the bar. She did as she’d asked and poured herself a drink, too, despite the silent promise she had made at her sister’s funeral. At the time it seemed like the best way to honor Ivy’s memory. Now, though, she had to wonder. After all, it wasn’t as if she was getting behind the wheel of a car. And anyway, maybe it would even do her some good. Maybe it would give her the courage to call Carl and end it once and for all. “Forgive me, Ivy,” she whispered, as she took a small sip. “It’s just this once.”
“That’s more like it,” Mrs. Parker said when Violet come back with two drinks. “Now, have a seat and tell me more about how you’ve made a mess of things.”
“I’d rather hear about you,” Violet said. “I have so much to ask. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Let’s take turns, then,” her guest said. “First me, then you.”
Violet shrugged her assent.
Dorothy Parker scanned the room and peered out into the foyer. “Nice place. Is it yours?”
“It is now. My parents bought it figuring it would be a fun project. It needed a lot of work, and they were going to renovate. But…it didn’t work out that way. Then after my mother died, my sister and her family moved in.”
“When did your mother pass?”
“About ten years ago.” It felt like yesterday. It felt like forever.
“So you were…”
“Twenty-seven,” she said. Too young, she thought.
“You had a mother, dear,” Mrs. Parker said.
“Right, of course. You lost yours when you were very small.”
“Yes, but she was quickly replaced by Lucrezia Borgia. Did your father remarry?”
“He’s gone, too—about three years before my mother. That’s why they never moved into this house. It was sudden. Dad was doing so well with his business, and this was where they were going to spend their golden years after he retired.”
“You’re from money, then?”
“Oh, no,” Violet said, thinking about the wealthy people Dorothy Parker had known—old-money types with sprawling estates and servants’ quarters. “At least not in the sense you’re imagining. My dad was in manufacturing and did pretty well, but wasn’t rich. Not Gatsby rich, anyway.”
Mrs. Parker stroked her little poodle. “So you’ve read Scott.”
“Scott,” Violet repeated, smiling. “Of course. I mean, everyone has. You knew him, right? What was he like?”
“Handsome, bright. Charming when he wanted to be. I was never crazy about the wife.”
“Zelda,” Violet offered. “They say she was beautiful.”
“In a vapid and petulant way, I suppose.”
“What about Hemingway?”
“What about him?” Mrs. Parker asked.
“One of your biographers implied that you might have had a crush on him.”
“Everyone had a crush on Hemingway,” Mrs. Parker said. “He was a brute, but he had magnetism. And he could write.”
“One of the truly great American novelists,” Violet added.
“His novels were fine. But he could write the fucking bejeezus out of a short story.”
Goose bumps. Her idol was talking about Ernest Hemingway…and cursing like a sailor, as she was known to do. People of every generation seemed to think their contemporaries practically invented swear words, but Dorothy Parker and her friends were dropping the f-bomb way back in the 1920s.
“What about the other members of the Algonquin Round Table?” Violet said. “Robert Benchley and George S. Kaufman and—”
“I believe it’s my turn,” Mrs. Parker said.
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Parker sighed. “Your apologies are starting to give me a headache.”
“I’m—” Violet said, and caught herself. She remembered a conversation she had with Ivy a number of years ago. Her sister had suggested she try channeling a strong female movie character when she was feeling timid, but Violet had just reviewed Kill Bill, and all she could picture was Uma Thurman ripping out Daryl Hannah’s eyeball with her fingers. That was a bit stronger than what she aspired to.
“You’re right,” she said to Dorothy Parker. “I have to work on that.”
“Never mind,” her guest said. “Tell me what you’ve made such a big mess of.”
“That’s a long story.”
“All I’ve got is time. I’m rich with it. I’m the goddamn J. Paul Getty of time.”
“Okay,” Violet said, and took a deep breath, knowing it might feel good to talk to someone besides Carl and her lawyer about this. “A little over a year ago, my sister and her family were driving to visit friends of theirs upstate. But some loser with a pickup truck had decided that the best way to get through his impending dentist visit was to get plastered first. Only he never made it to his appointment. At eleven o’clock in the morning he got onto the Taconic Parkway headed in the wrong direction and had a head-on collision with a little family from Long Island. My brother-in-law was killed instantly.”
Violet paused, remembering the call she got from the hospital. They didn’t tell her over the phone that her sister was dead, but the coldest, darkest chill swept through her and she knew. In the months since, she could never remember the drive to the hospital or even the words the doctor used. But she could still feel his clammy hand on her shoulder. At the time, it was incomprehensible. How could this man be alive if the world had just ended?
Violet swallowed hard and continued. “My sister bled to death on the way to the hospital. Delaney, my niece, was in the backseat and survived with a broken arm and a chest contusion that did enough damage to her young heart to put her on medication for the rest of her life.”
“And the drunk?”
“Dead. Shot through his windshield like a missile.”
“That’s one way to avoid a dentist appointment,” Mrs. Parker said, and then shook her head and looked into her lap. “I’m rotten to the core.”
“No, it’s okay.”
Mrs. Parker looked up. She was crying. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She kissed Cliché on the top of the head. “Truly. Were you close with your sister?”
Violet took a sip of her drink. She didn’t want to start crying. Not now. She wanted to get through this story and move on. “Very,” she whispered, and drew a long, jagged breath. “They had been living here, in this house. So after the accident, I gave up my apartment and moved in to take care of my niece.”
“So where is she?”
“That’s the part I screwed up so badly. When the people at her school district told me I needed to be her legal guardian, I figured it was just a matter of paperwork and that a judge would rubber-stamp it. But Neil’s parents—Delaney’s grandparents—showed up at court with a lawyer. And not just any lawyer—a mountain of a guy with a shaved head and a European suit. He got right in my face and said, ‘My clients just want what’s best for the child, Miss Epps…or should I say Ms.?’ He was so derisive, as if I could only be one of the two lowest forms of life—an unmarried woman or worse, a feminist. I realized later it was all theater meant to intimidate me, but at the time it worked like a charm. I freaked. I was so blindsided I couldn’t talk. Not a word. I could barely even stand upright. So the judge set a date for a formal hearing to determine guardianship, and in the meantime…in the meantime he granted temporary custody to her grandparents.” Violet paused to push at her cuticles. “It should have been me,” she said softly. “She had stability here—her room, her house, her friends, her dog. If I had been able to utter a single word—”
“But you’ll get her back, right?”
“Not if I have another meltdown in front of the judge.”
“You have a lawyer now, yes?”
“I do, and she’s good. But since Delaney’s been living with her grandparents for a few months, it’s not a slam dunk.”
Mrs. Parker looked puzzled.
“A sure thing,” Violet explained.
“I see,” Mrs. Parker said. She petted Cliché as she considered this. “So you appear before the judge and go mute in terror and he decides you’re too irrational to take care of a child and he grants permanent custody to the grandparents.”
“Irrational? No, I’m good with her. Maybe not perfect, but I’m learning. And Neil’s parents are ghastly. Not that they don’t mean well, but she’s miserable there. Sandra, the grandmother, is a hypochondriac and a neurotic mess. And her husband, Malcolm, is in his own world. He used to be okay, but now that he’s retired he devotes his spare time to a worthy cause—himself.”
“What does the girl want?”
“She wants to move back here.”
“Won’t the judge honor her wishes?”
“The way I understand it,” Violet said, “he’ll take that into account, but it’s not the deciding factor. So I’m going to need to do a hell of a lot better at the next hearing, or poor Delaney will be stuck.”
“Well, then,” Mrs. Parker said.
“Well, then what?”
“Well, then, we will just have to teach you to speak up for yourself.” She held up her empty glass. “Let’s have another drink.”
Teach her to speak up for herself? Yes, Violet thought. That was just what she needed. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. Violet had been suppressing her voice for decades.
She hadn’t always been so timid. As a small child, Violet was so outspoken that her verbal brass became family legend. It was blown out of proportion, of course. To hear her relatives tell it, you would think she was the love child of Oscar Wilde and Fran Lebowitz—a neat trick in more ways than one. But in truth, she really had been a verbal prodigy, speaking in clear sentences at eighteen months, to the delight of her loving parents and any other adults who might be within earshot.
Unfortunately, the more praise she received, the angrier her older sister became. It was a perfect storm of sibling rivalry. By the time she turned five, Violet was running verbal rings around seven-year-old Ivy. Naturally, this infuriated the older sibling, who found every possible excuse to cut her little sister down. Still, Violet worshipped Ivy with an almost fanatical devotion.
Back then, she was too young to understand the reason for Ivy’s animosity. In fact, Violet was so awed by her sister’s talents that it never occurred to her that Ivy could be jealous. She just assumed everyone recognized that Ivy was the true genius. After all, making clever remarks was easy. But the ability to draw realistic horses and build intricate Lego structures and know right away where the jigsaw puzzle pieces went seemed like a miracle. Violet thought Ivy was a star.
And so the little sister continued to perform her verbal parlor tricks for the adults while dogging her sister for attention.
Until the day she went too far.
The girls were sitting at the kitchen table, doing homework. Ivy was struggling with her spelling, and their mother was trying to help her. Words like “dense” and “fence” were giving her trouble.
“Spell fence,” their mother said.
“F-E-N-S-E?” asked Ivy.
“F-E-N-C-E,” their mother corrected. “Now try to use it in a sentence with one of your other words.”
“She’s too dense to spell fence,” Violet said, grinning. She expected her mother to roar with laughter, but she just looked at her crossly.
The next thing Violet knew, she was on the floor. Ivy had tipped over her chair and was standing over her, seething.
“Why’d you do that?” Violet said, rubbing the spot where the back of her head had hit the hard tile.
“I hate you!” Ivy said.
For a moment, Violet couldn’t speak. She just lay there, her eyes filling with tears as she stared into her sister’s angry face.
“I was just kidding,” she said, but it was too late. Ivy had stormed out of the room. When Violet pounded on her bedroom door to try to apologize, she wouldn’t answer. And the next morning at breakfast, Ivy acted as if Violet were invisible.
“I’m sorry!” Violet said. “Please talk to me. Please!”
But Ivy was stone-faced, staring at the back of her cereal box as if it were the only thing that mattered. She acted the same way that afternoon and evening. The next day was more of the same. And the next and the next. Ivy had completely stopped talking to her sister, and Violet was in agony. She cried. She pleaded. She apologized. Night after night she lay prostrate outside her sister’s door, wailing and begging. But Ivy was resolute.
Their parents tried to intervene, but nothing they said or did would get Ivy to talk to her sister, or get Violet to stop her hysterics. She was no longer performing for her parents or even talking to her friends in school. Her existence had become pure misery, as nothing mattered but getting Ivy to speak to her again.
It was torture, pure torture. And little Violet knew that she had only herself to blame. The misery of self-loathing took root in her tender psyche and began to flourish. She was a horrible girl who had said a horrible thing, and now she was suffering horrible consequences.
One night, about three months later, as Violet lay in bed, her mother stroked her forehead and told her that if she left Ivy alone, she would come around.
“She will?” Violet said.
And so that’s what she did. For the next two days, Violet didn’t say a word to Ivy, and barely spoke at all to her parents.
Then, on the following day, a miracle happened. Violet was rummaging through the kitchen drawers, trying to find the Scotch tape she needed to complete a school project, when she heard a single word: “Here.”
She looked up and saw her sister holding out her hand, the roll of Scotch tape resting on her palm like a peace offering.
And that was it. Within days, their relationship was back to normal, except for one thing—Violet promised herself she would never make a wisecrack again.
It was hard only for the first year or so. But every time she slipped, Ivy punished her with icy silence, and so Violet learned to keep it all locked inside a cold vault of shame. For a while, she missed the attention she used to get from the grown-ups. But even that paled in comparison to the joy of being back in Ivy’s good graces.
Of course, as she matured and Ivy’s flaws, shortcomings, and human frailties became clear to her, Violet stopped worshipping her sister as a goddess and they became friends on the equal, if sometimes rocky, footing of adulthood. Still, the fear of her own verbal power never diminished. And although a grown-up Violet was well aware that this single childhood trauma had been the cause of her social anxiety, her fears persisted.