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Now available in paperback, Gilchrist's work explores the love that binds generations to each other, the love between parent and child, the power of which is as capable of destruction as it is of creation. In these three interconnecting stories, familiar characters from the Gilchrist canon play out the human comedy with tenderness and ruthlessness.
This is a manuscript that the deceased poet and novelist Anna Hand left in a suitcase in a rented cottage in Beddiford, Maine. She left the suitcase lying on a bed, kissed her lover goodbye, then drove off in a rented car and killed herself in the November sea. She killed herself because she thought it was undignified to die of cancer in a hospital. She was so vain she couldn't bear for anyone to watch her die.
The manuscript was an unwieldy piece, half typed and half written by hand, clipped together with an old-fashioned clipboard of the kind used for theatrical scripts. The first entry was dated 1978, the last, 1984. It began—
If I am going to save Jessie, first I must understand Sheila. She is Jessie's mother. Begin at the beginning. She is mean, destructive, spoiled, dangerous, unprincipled, remorseless, the worst bitch I have ever known. Sheila Jane MacNiece, Hand, Stuart, Rothschild. My father's partner's only child, my brother Daniel's nemesis and ex-wife, my youngest and most beautiful niece's mother.
If I am going to save Jessie I must know how this woman does the things she does. How she gets people in her power, how someone who isn't even beautiful can get men to love her and do her will, men and women, she isn't particular about that, although I don't think she's a lesbian. I don't think she's anything at all where sex is concerned. She told me once years ago on a drunken night that she had never had an orgasm, that Daniel never made her come, that she couldn't come, that it was her fault that she could never come. It won't do it, she said. It just won't do it no matter what we do. It's okay, I told her. Everyone doesn't have to do that. Maybe that's what she is looking for in her madness and her silliness and her buying sprees. That time she bought all that goddamn silly shit with mirrors on it. Everything in the house was covered with those goddamn little mirrors — lamps, her dresses, the walls, ashtrays. There was a new store in Charlotte called 20th Century and she kept buying all those mirrors there. Daniel said she charged forty thousand dollar's worth of furniture that year until even her daddy wouldn't pay the bills. Poor Sheila, she was lame at birth, she had to have those operations, maybe that's what spoiled her, ruined her disposition. Oh, God, don't let Jessie inherit that darkness, that tightness, that tightmouthed hatred and despair. Oh, God damn God for ever getting us mixed up with her to begin with, but we wouldn't have Jessie if we hadn't, so it doesn't matter. Anything was worth it for Jessie. We have Jessie and nothing must take her away from us.
Now, I must remember everything. I must write until I know. I must write down everything I can remember back to the first day she walked into our house carrying her ballet shoe in her hand and threw it into Helen's fishbowl. I must follow every move she ever made in my presence or that I was told about. I must remember everything. If I write down everything that happened in the order that it happened without going off on tangents I will begin to see the pattern. If I can see the pattern I can save Jessie. I must save Jessie. I must do it because maybe no one else can. Sheila is the single most power-mad human being, male or female, that I have ever known. She has already destroyed my baby brother. Next it will be Jessie. She will suck the life blood from her. She will attach that child to her like I have seen her do a dozen people and when she gets through the only way they can live is off her whims. She is capable of anything. She might give Jessie to some director in exchange for a role. She might do anything. God knows if we can undo the damage she's already done, but Jess is only ten years old. If we can get her now we can save her. If we can keep Sheila from taking her to England. Well, I'll testify to anything. I told Daniel I would testify to anything, even under oath.
Meanwhile, I will write it down. The truth. Every single true thing any of us knows about Sheila. Names, dates, places, conversations. I'll go over and see Mrs. MacNiece. I'll take Mr. MacNiece out to lunch and let him paw me. I'll find the wedding pictures. I'll talk to her doctors, find the records. There will be a record and when we see it spread out before us we will know which way to go, know where to begin. Jessie is my heart, my dearest, most precious little child. Slow down, Anna. Begin at the beginning.
It must have been 1955. I was playing paper dolls with Helen. We were making Girl Scout uniforms for the Wonder Woman dolls and Daddy came into the room and said that Mr. MacNiece was bringing his little girl over to play and to be nice to her because Mr. MacNiece was the gravy train we were going to get on and ride.
"Oh, James," my mother said. "Don't tell the children something like that. She's a nice little girl, just Daniel's age. You children can take care of her so we can visit with her parents."
Then she was there and she walked into the room and threw her shoe into Helen's goldfish bowl. "I hate fish," she said. "They're so nasty. They go to the bathroom in their cage."
Then Daniel was brought in to meet her. He was all dressed up in his new Sunday School clothes and she must have thought he was all right because she took him off outside and started bossing him around. And continued to do so for the next thirty years.
A spoiled only child, a rotten spoiled bitch. She did terrible things and we watched them happen. She can't love anyone because her father didn't love her. He can't love anything but money, and she can only love things she cannot have.
Phelan was always onto Sheila. If there was one person Sheila hated more than she hated me, it was Phelan. More about this later.
I keep thinking she is running drugs. Nothing else could account for the house in Switzerland she had for a while and the jewelry. For ignoring Jessie for months on end. Once we didn't hear from her for sixteen months. Jessie didn't know where she was for sixteen months. What else do we need? Maybe she had gone somewhere for help. When the letters came they were from Zurich. And they were soft, soft. Daniel copied them and mailed them to me to see what I thought they meant. It means she's coming for her, I said, and I was right.
When she showed up that time she looked like a recovering addict. So soft, so sweet, so vague. I must make a chart of dates and try to figure out where she was and when. No, I'll go to England and see what I can find out. I'll call Mic and get her to help. Someone will know, someone will have seen her around. We have to find out what she has been doing over there. And then what? Tell Jessie? Say, Well, sweetie, your mother is running dope from Marseilles to Paris and we're lucky, she isn't dead yet. Yeah, well she had to have money for her clothes, you know, her lifestyle your granddaddy got her accustomed to and now won't support anymore.
I ran into a friend of Robert's at a party near Covent Garden who said he knew her. When was that? Last June? He said he had met her at a house party in Scotland, a hunting party. There were drugs everywhere, he told me. Bloody drugs coming out of the walls. We were in a small apartment on the third floor of a building overlooking Covent Garden and he said, "Oh, I ran into your sister-in-law up in Scotland. She's a strange piece of work, isn't she?" "Yes," I said. "She is. I have been wondering where she is." "Well, don't go looking for that one," he said. "You wouldn't be glad you found her."
We cannot allow her to get her hands on Jessie, ever again.
When we were growing up the MacNieces lived in a white brick house on the ninth tee of the Charlotte Driving Club. There was a butler and a houseboy and two gardeners, Widdle and Wee, and they pushed us on the bicycles. Sometimes I would actually let them push me because it seemed so impossible that Sheila let them push her. What a tight world. I don't think I ever saw Sheila once in her life when she wasn't perfectly turned out, dressed and manicured and coiffed. How could she do drugs and stay that neat? They liked to dress her in pink and baby blue and pale yellow. She would come over to our house dressed like that and follow Helen and me around. Stand by the bed while we put our makeup on. "I can't wear it yet," she said. "I look better with just my own skin. Momma says people look like white trash with stuff on their eyes. They look cheap." I remember Helen almost choked on that. Helen couldn't stand Sheila. Well, no one could. I don't think anyone ever really liked her in her life. Except Daniel or whatever man she was concentrating on at the moment. Man or woman, whomever she had decided to capture.
Then how did she do it? They envied her, I suppose. She had those cars and those clothes and all that money to spend. She could have people out to that cold tight white brick house and Wee and Widdle would push them on bikes or, later, wash their cars. Clean their golf clubs, something Niall had done out there one time. But I never heard anyone say they liked her. They said they had to go meet her somewhere or had to go to a party she was having but it wasn't even fascination. It was more like fear. The main thing she inspires in me is fear. When she was five she could make me feel uneasy. As if something bad might happen at any minute.
Trembling on the brink of what? She would point her little operated-on foot and Daniel would bow his head. Maybe he hated her. Maybe what he really wanted to do was kill her. Or maybe he just wanted to conquer her. Any other girl in town would have died for him. They all loved him and plenty of them still do. But he would be out at Sheila's house waiting for her to finish getting dressed. He took her to dances, he escorted her to parties. He was her beau. He belonged to her whenever she wanted him to. Maybe all he really wanted was to make her love him back.
They kept on living in that white brick house on the ninth tee. That same white brick house on the ninth tee, but meanwhile Mr. MacNiece was getting rich as Croesus. He bought up all that land in Mecklenburg County right before they built the airport. He told Daddy to buy some, but Daddy was saving money for our education and was afraid to risk it. That was the beginning of Mr. MacNiece's real money. Then he took the profits from that and bought a television station which no one thought would catch on and then he bought the Charlotte paper and the rest is history, as they say.
Still they stayed in that white house. "We could have a bigger house if we wanted one," Sheila told Momma. We had gone out to spend the afternoon, Helen and Daniel and Momma and I. I've forgotten why. I've forgotten a world where people just went over to visit because someone asked them to. "We could buy one in town closer to everything or have an architect build us one. But we don't want to. We will stay right here in our own house where we are as comfortable as we can be." She raised her hand and Traylor the butler came out onto the patio carrying a tray with a silver coffeepot and little silver containers in the shape of elephants to hold the sugar and cream. There were Belgian cookies and strawberries in a cut-glass bowl. Sheila poured the coffee and held out a cup to mother. She was fourteen years old. Her eyes were as cold as the winter sea.
So two months before the custody trial I went to England to see what I could find out about Sheila. The trial was set for August 20. I had other reasons to go to Europe. My British publisher wanted to publish a selection of my stories and I wanted to help him make the selections. Also, I hadn't been in Scandinavia for a while and I thought I might go to Stockholm and meet my translators. So I could work and see my friends and try to find out what Sheila had been up to in Europe. I was looking for a miracle, I suppose. Someone to walk up to me and say, I bought some dope from Sheila, or, Sheila shot a waitress because the tea was cold.
I arrived in London on a Monday afternoon, wandered around, made phone calls, slept off my jet lag. On Tuesday morning I went out in a taxi to find the place where Sheila lived. It was a ground-floor flat with a walled garden. A note attached to the door instructed delivery people to leave packages with the landlady. I descended the four steps to the yard, walked primly around a hedge and ascended four steps to a red door with a pot of pansies beside an exotic-looking doormat. I knocked, and a woman my mother's age opened the door. "I'm looking for Mrs. Rothschild," I said. "She may be calling herself MacNiece now. She's my sister-in-law. She didn't know I was coming. I just got here."
"She's off on holiday," the woman said. "Would you care to leave a message then?"
"Do you know where she's gone? How long she's gone for? It's important that I find her. I won't be here long, in London. I need to talk to her."
"She wouldn't want me telling her whereabouts, you know."
"I will pay you." I paused, watched her, went on. "I have to find her. I'll pay whatever you think it's worth to tell me where she's gone."
The woman opened the door wider, straightened up, looked me in the eye. "I'll take a note," she said. "You can leave word for her."
"I'm sorry. That was the wrong thing to say. I didn't mean to bribe you. I have to find her, that's all. It's the welfare of a child. I'm the child's aunt. She deserted the child and now she wants it back and I'm over here to spy on her. If you'll let me come in and talk to you I could make you understand. I'm an American writer. My British publishers are Faber and Faber. I'm very respectable, as writers go. If you could tell me where she's gone. I really am her sister-in-law. What name is she using now, by the way? Both were in the directory."
"She calls herself MacNiece. You come on in. I'll see what I can do." She opened the door wider. A face came out from the soft gray hair. She had black button eyes, a wide brow, the sort of pale lustrous skin the British are famous for.
"I appreciate this," I said. "I guess you can see I'm frantic."
"You come on in. I'll hear you out." She led the way into a small cozy room with red upholstered sofas and Indian shawls draped over tables. I told her the story and she listened without interrupting. Then she opened a drawer in a desk and took out a package of American cigarettes and held them out. Viceroys, cigarette of my squandered youth. I hadn't smoked in years but I took the cigarette and the light she offered. She lit mine and then her own and sat down opposite me on a sofa. "I'm Mrs. Archer," she began. "My friends call me Amalie. I'll tell you what I know. She's no favorite of mine, your sister-in-law, that's for certain. Hardly has a word for anyone except to complain about something. Never stops for a soul. She sent a boy packing a while ago who came to wash the windows. Devil's time I had getting him to come back." Amalie inhaled and blew the smoke up into a shaft of light. "I wouldn't want her getting hold of a child of mine. I've seen her kind before, women who go all cold, dry up and hate the world."
"She didn't go cold." I inhaled and added my stream of smoke to Amalie's. They mingled in midair, a microcosm, the birth of clouds. "Sheila was born cold, came out cold from the womb. Well, she's done all the damage she's going to do to my family. It's going to stop."
"Would you care for sherry then? I've got a bottle of amontilado my brother picked up. I've been saving it. No good to drink alone."
"Sure," I said. "I'd love it. That would be fine." So we opened the sherry and poured it into small red glasses and began to talk. Then we went next door to Sheila's flat to look around. There was not much there. It was musty, depressing, bare. It was impossible to imagine Sheila in such a place. "She went off a fortnight ago," Amalie explained. "Had a party one night and the next day they all left. I've cleaned it up since then. She hires a cleaning lady when she's here but she won't trust her with a key."
"I can't imagine why not. There's nothing here."
"There were more things a while back. They were taken off. She's not here as often as she was, back last summer."
I got up and walked around the rooms again. Whatever else this flat meant, it meant Sheila was broke. If she was broke, that explained why she needed Jessie. If she had Jessie, her father would have to give her money. He would never let Jessie live like this. Suddenly I wanted to be outside. I wanted to protect Sheila from this flat. If Sheila lived in a place like this, then we might all be in danger. Danger? How had I come to perceive the world as full of danger? The world is full of beauty and possibility and crazy dazzling people. I stopped at the back door and turned to Amalie. "Let's sit in the garden and finish the sherry," I said. "I never get to talk to real Londoners. I always end up talking to reporters."
"Well, we can't drink it all," she said. "We'd be in hospital if we drank the bottle."
Excerpted from I Cannot Get You Close Enough by Ellen Gilchrist. Copyright © 1990 Ellen Gilchrist. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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