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Joseph Olshan is an award-winning American novelist whose works include Cloudland, The Conversion, Nightswimmer, and The Sound of Heaven. His critically acclaimed first novel, Clara's Heart, was the winner of the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and subsequently the basis for a motion picture starring Academy Award–winner Whoopi Goldberg. A former book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Olshan has written extensively for numerous publications including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Times (London), the Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine, and Entertainment Weekly. Once a professor of creative writing at New York University, Olshan currently lives in Vermont. His work has been translated into sixteen languages.
Clara mayfield had always thought: I don't care how many other beauty parlors open up in Flatbush, they could never run Blanche out of business. But here it was four o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon and the salon deserted as if the customers had evacuated a stink. Now it was just Blanche and Clara sitting on the gashed vinyl chairs next to a washing stand. Clara stared at the pink cone heads of the hair-driers, none of which was operating, half of which were broken. A dozen pairs of hair shears lay gleaming next to each empty hair-dressing station. Only a few years ago you'd have to call days ahead to get a Wednesday-afternoon appointment. Hard to believe, but once upon a time Blanche's Beauty seemed like the center of Brooklyn.
But now, despite the All Beauty Half Price sign in the window, Blanche had been unable to get back her former customers who had been lured to other establishments where younger beauticians spent hours weaving strands of artificial hair into fine long braids and dreadlocks. 'I can't conceive of it,' Clara was saying. 'Nobody wants hot comb again. And you the best hot comb in Brooklyn.'
'Me fingers just can't plait hair like some o' dem,' Blanche replied, glancing wearily at the peeling orange-and-red-tulip wallpaper that matched her beautician's smock. Part East Indian, Blanche's gentle but care-worn face always reminded Clara of the spirit faces you'd see at the Muslim shrines in Kingston. Could the reason why Blanche's Beauty was failing also have to do with some of the 'quick and fast' old girls retiring? Seemed that they'd all returned to their home towns in Jamaica: Lydia to her sea cottage in Aracabessa; Felicia to her children in Port Maria; and Doris Williams to a cliff house in Spanish Town. Nobody to labrish and run jokes robbed the fun of getting hair done. Clara certainly understood the pull of the island and sometimes dreamed of skylarking to sweet Jamaica herself. But now she was collecting social security and qualified for Medicare and could afford to live simply in retirement.
Noticing that Clara was carrying her red suitcase, Blanche said, 'So where you gone to now?'
'To Vermont. To see me boi.'
'Finally! Just so you know it cold up dere. All year long.' Blanche was shaking her head. 'Not like here. Vermont cold like Toronto. Prepare.' She flashed a gold-tooth smile.
'Is awright, me have his muddar's coat,' Clara said, patting the mink that lay on the gashed vinyl chair next to her.
The coat had seen better years and was now a bit bedraggled, coming apart at the seams. Blanche looked at it askance and scoffed, 'Cha Clara. Must be twenty years ole, dat. Soon will look like a muskrat.'
Clara shrugged and said, 'Got me trew a whole heap a winters.'
'And you mean to say dem fanatics don't 'cost you in de street?'
'No, man. Dem wouldn't cus out a black. One white lady say something to me once. I tell her I happy to give up me mink coat if she well want to buy me a new one. Since I don't have no money. That kept her shutters shut.'
Blanche clapped her hands. 'Lawd God, ya mouth certainly do ' She left her sentence unfinished. There was a moment of jittery silence and then, 'So, Clara, what happen him dis time?'
Clara shook her head, feeling the shadow of concern crossing the conversation like a boat driven by a dark wind. She fought back a surge of bitterness. 'Sounds depressed when I talk to him.'
'Again? For shame. At least him have plenty money.'
This annoyed Clara, who scoffed, 'What a way money? Money don't matter. I don't want him in de hospital again. No sir, every time him gone into hospital, him comes out worst.'
Blanche had a baffled look on her face. 'Clara,' she said. 'You na find it strange ya whole life intertwined wid dese Jewish boys?'
'So what I must do? Clear off because they not family? You love people, don't care. After all, I don't see my own.'
'Me na judge,' Blanche said, sweeping up a pile of several-year-old fashion magazines and throwing them in a nearby trash bin. She dusted her hands together.
Clara glanced at her watch. 'Well, sweet darling, me must high tail.' The train was leaving from Penn Station in less than two hours. You could never rely on subways. She stood up.
The two women hugged and Blanche said, 'Come straight to me when you get back. I well want to hear how everything turn out.'
'Yes sir. Me will come straight.'
As Clara passed out of the shop, she took one last backward glance around the Beauty. Truthfully, it was looking shopworn and sad. If Blanche could only nice it up, Clara thought, she might find business improved. Oh, to think how things turn out. If Blanche finally closed down, Clara resolved not to patronize any of the new salons. 'Do me own wigs,' she muttered to herself as she walked out into the wide boulevard.
It was early October, and along the windy streets the golden leaves of locust trees gathered wind and shimmered. As she walked to the subway, Clara remembered how she used to meet Will Kaplan at the station and escort him back to her apartment. People would always stare. In her neighborhood, the only time black and white ever seemed to mix was as couples. An elderly black woman and a young white man didn't add up. No sir.
She was seventy-five years old but many people took her for sixty. Her face betrayed no lines, although of late it was looking a bit drawn. She had lost some weight in the last few years and her stomach had grown smaller and harder like a lump. Strangely she'd begun losing weight after retiring from taking care of the last elderly woman, who ended up being only eight years older than she was. Now that Clara was staying at home she wasn't active and yet she found herself dropping pounds. Blanche had urged her to check this out 'wid de doctor', but Clara had no use for such an idea. 'Clear off dem doctors from me,' she muttered to herself as she walked down the cement stairs into the train station. 'You leave dem to go straight to hospital. Then come out hospital sicker than when you first gone in. Cha, me ne have no use fe doctors!'
Her subway train finally arrived and she stepped aboard, finding it stifling and crowded. Two young men sitting side by side, listening to headphones, nodded their heads to what Clara imagined was probably tinny rap music. She glowered at them until one stood up and offered his seat. She sat down, resting her bottom on the boundary between both seats, turned to the standing boy and remarked, 'Dese new trains dem make for Japanese, that's why only small people can fit them.' But he was unable to hear her over the din of his Walkman, and she ended up shaking her head at this inadvertent rudeness.
She hated traveling and dreaded the long journey that remained. But she had to do it, because nobody else would. Will Kaplan hardly ever saw his parents, and time had proven that he was unable to rely upon them so easily in a pinch. 'God spare, at least it's not AIDS or anything like dat,' Clara consoled herself. In her residential nursing practice, she'd taken care of several dying men and had grown fond of them. Each death had been difficult to witness, like watching a clock fast-forward. Whereas the old ladies—their lives had at least reached a point where every extra day was icing on the cake.
When he called her a few days ago, Will had told her he was supposed to have been on the jumbo-jet that crashed off Long Island but had changed his plans at the last minute.
'Masse me God!' Clara had cried out when he told her.
She wouldn't divulge, but the night before the crash Clara had dreamed that a stray dog had come into her apartment, begging for food. She rummaged her kitchen for a tin of meat, but couldn't find any, and each time she opened one of the cupboards to look, water came sluicing out. Her apartment filled up with water, and Clara, who couldn't swim, began to drown. The dog swam away and left her there. When she'd woken up the next morning and heard about the crash into the sea, she wondered if her dream had something to do with it. But she didn't say anything to Will who had always distrusted her claim to dreams that signified.
After he told her about the plane she didn't hear from him for three days; he usually phoned her at least once a day.
When she finally reached him, he had sounded strange and distracted and said he hadn't left his apartment since they'd last spoken. This mood alarmed Clara, who easily remembered an earlier time of his life after his older brother died in an accident when Will had trouble leaving the house.
'And all this start with the plane crashing?'
'Yes and no,' he said. 'It's complicated.'
'What you mean, complicated? Explain. Me not a stupid kind of person, ya know.'
He agreed with her and then went quiet. 'Why don't you come and visit me,' he suggested finally. 'And we'll talk about it.'
The winds began inside her head, the seas angry and waves pitching like the devil. Clara didn't want to go anywhere near to where his brother, Danny, died. She steadied herself before saying, 'You know I don't want to come up there.'
'I just invited you in the past. Now, I'm asking you.'
'But what is it, child? Tell me, na. Cha man, I don't like it when you keep me a stranger,' Clara complained.
'We'll have plenty of time to discuss it.'
Memories of the death came howling back like Furies and Clara was peeved at them. She bore their lament for a few moments and then forced herself to say, 'Alright. But once I there, me don't want you dragging me anywhere I don't want to go.'
'Yeah, yeah.' He sounded unconvinced.
'You heard what I said? Since you not deaf!'
'By the way, bring warm clothes. The temperature can dip this time of year. I don't want you to complain that I didn't warn you beforehand.'
'I'll carry come bring ya muddar's coat.'
Will managed to laugh and remark that she still had 'that old war horse'.
'Don't want to hear nothing about dat coat,' she told him. The coat came in handy, especially in winter when the boiler broke down in her building and there was no heat for several days. 'If it vex you, have a new one—better be mink—waiting on me for when I get there.'
It took her longer than she calculated to get to Penn Station, and when Clara finally found the Amtrak terminal and scanned the departures monitor she discovered with a start that the train bound for Montreal was already boarding. 'Jesus love a how this could be?' She addressed the monitor and then scurried toward the gate indicated, trotting down the moving escalator, waving her ticket at the conductor. 'Custom class, where it is?' she asked breathlessly. She'd accepted Will's offer to buy her a 'first-class' train ticket when he told her that in 'first class' she would be able to plug in her mini-television. As the conductor motioned her to the front of the train, she called back, 'I was told it have electric.'
'When the sockets work,' the man said.
'They better,' Clara said as she bustled. 'Not gwan miss me stories.'
'Don't worry, Clara, I have a satellite dish.' Will had calmed her fears that her stories might not be broadcast in the sticks of Vermont.
She found the proper car, chose an empty row of seats and plopped down, placing her red suitcase next to her. She fished a bag of mint jellybeans out of the torn pocket of the mink coat, unzipped her red suitcase and brought out her TV. Resting the TV on the suitcase, which in turn she balanced on her knees, she plugged it into the socket that was provided and then plugged in the earphones. 'My, my, de trains gettin' fancy so till,' she remarked to herself when she gleefully noted the television's power light switching on. But then, greeted by snow on the tiny screen, she tssked. Glancing at her watch, Clara figured that if the train left on time and cleared the Manhattan underground she might just be able to catch Search for Tomorrow from the beginning.CHAPTER 2
Before we'd ever met, I had only known part of Marie Claire Arcenaux's story, but what I'd heard was enough to make me realize we would have something in common: that she was a mother estranged from her children, and I was a child estranged from my parents.
We were all set to fly over to Italy together and travel in Europe for three weeks when I heard from a friend of mine, also a rare map-dealer, who told me that a seventeenth- century map of the world with beautiful marginalia was being sold at auction. Coincidentally, the auction was being held in Venice just a few days before Marie and I were due to arrive. And when I called to ask if I might change my flight and meet her there, an appalled silence fell on the other end of the line, while she no doubt imagined herself crossing the Atlantic for the first time alone. Marie was petrified of flying.
'I guess, at least I'll have Max with me,' she said finally with false cheer. Max was a Cairn terrier, small enough to be held on her lap. I heard her silver bracelets softly clattering on the other end of the line; Marie often fidgeted while she spoke on the phone. 'It's only, what seven hours to cross the Atlantic?'
I reminded her that it was a night flight and she'd probably be able to sleep a lot of the way.
'If Max lets me. Knowing him, he'll be vying for everybody's attention. I have a window seat, don't I?' she asked. 'I must have.'
I told her I'd have to look but thought that I had an aisle.
'Well, I'm sure we're sitting next to each other,' she said in a tremor.
Before this I had never understood the depth of her fear—it was now clear to me that she was afraid of flying alone. I asked if she wanted to change her ticket and fly over with me a few days earlier.
'It'll cost a fortune to change it so late in the game.'
'Don't worry, I'll pay for it, Marie.'
'I don't want you to do that. Besides, you've got your business to attend to, Will,' she said a bit stiffly. 'I'm sure I'll be in the way.'
'I can manage my business. I didn't realize how much you hated flying.'
'I try not to talk about it and probably should just go as we planned. Sweat it out on my own.'
I offered her a few of my tranquilizers and she laughed and said it was going to take more than a few. 'I tell you, Will,' she confided. 'Moments like these make me want to start smoking again. Sometimes, I think: Why not? We all have to die of something.'
I'd hired a motoscafo to meet her at Marco Polo Airport in Venice. The boat driver was one of those god-like Venetians with black wavy hair and light-green eyes. He wore a yellow rain slicker and drove with cocky confidence through the early morning silence of the city. We motored around the walls of the Aresenal, the boat stopping every so often to navigate the canals at low tide. Something about the boatman, his lustrous hair worn a bit long, reminded me of Peter Arcenaux. Five years in the past, and the hurt sometimes felt newly minted. Pushing aside these rheumy thoughts, I wondered if Marie would also notice the driver's resemblance to her son.
And then waiting at arrivals, craning my neck to spy the familiar dark hooded eyes and bluntly cut mane of her hair swinging forward as she rambled out of customs, towing her luggage, little Max tucked under her arm. But she never appeared, and after the last passenger had staggered into the terminal, I inquired at the ticket desk.
A middle-aged bleached-blonde woman decked out in gaudy gold chains looked Marie's name up on the screen. Her eyes, darting through scrolling lines of computer text, froze on something. When the agent once again fixed her attention on me, her painted features suddenly looked mask-like. She scribbled a number down on a piece of green paper.
'I have no information,' she said in precise English. 'You will have to call this number.'
'What is it?' I said. 'Why do I have to call that number?'
Silent, the ticket agent gaped at me. And just then, a family of Americans brushed past and an adolescent girl said exuberantly, 'Mommie, that man said Flight 609 from New York crashed in the ocean.'
I turned back to the agent, who was still gazing at me, but now her eyes were tearing. And I was hit with a familiar dread, a blip of twenty years past when my brother died.
A wall of fire, a blast of the unreal and my overloaded brain spewed up a newspaper picture I'd seen once of an airplane about to crash in San Diego. Caught in an amateur photographer's lens, the fuselage was angled too steeply for anything but a disaster. And then, even before I could imagine Marie and Max lying in wreckage on the bottom of the ocean floor, I thought of Peter, lying asleep in my arms, long before everything had gone wrong, long before I'd given up on him.
Dazed, I walked outside the terminal into the silvery glare of sunlight on water, into the throng of exuberant tourists. I reached into a pocket for the Klonipen I kept in a metal cylinder. I gobbled down two pills and began frantically to scan the crowd until I spotted the boatman, standing among a group of his Venetian comrades, laughing and backslapping, his dazzling smile.
Excerpted from In Clara's Hands by Joseph Olshan. Copyright © 2001 Joseph Olshan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 30, 2003
I saw some glowing notices of In Clara's Hands while traveling in the UK, where I guess the book has already been published. I picked up a copy and consumed it eagerly while traveling through Europe by train. A note of warning for all of you who are traveling by airplane. This is a wonderful novel, but you might not want to read it while flying; the central event is a plane crash that seems to be loosely based on the crash of TWA flight 800. Anyway, reading the strange review above posted by Kirkus (with which I completely disagree) inspired me to set down my own thoughts about Olshan's latest. First of all, it is beautifully constructed of three stories that in the end are seamlessly woven together. There is a thread of suspense running through the novel which is spun from the question of a whether or not a woman who was supposed to have boarded the airplane that crashed actually got on (her name doesn't appear on the passenger list). Then there is the author's signature character Clara, who starred in his earlier book, Clara's Heart. She is an amazing creation, full bodied, unpredictable, funny, wise and she speaks in this Jamaican patois that is both idiosyncratic and poetic. Teamed up with Will Kaplan (Nightswimmer), whom she took care of when he was a child, she tries to help him unravel the mystery of his friend's disappearance. One of my favorite things about this novel is how Olshan balances the mystery of disappearance with the rest of the action in the book. As he relates the lives of the other characters, the book is propelled along by the reader wanting to know what happened to Marie Claire. Besides Clara, there is also another amazing character in the book, Grace, the daughter of the missing Marie Claire. Grace, who is suffering from cancer, bravely faces her illness with fortitude and wry, fatalistic humor. Even though the reader knows her prognosis isn't good, her scenes manage to be uplifting rather than depressing. Perhaps this is because she seems so strong and her strength commands our admiration. I would highly recommend this book. It's rare to find a writer who spins a good yarn but also draws characters who have real depth.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.