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They left Virginia in the soft blush of the summer dawn, the Camaro crammed to the roof with suitcases, string-tied cartons, TV, stereo, a two-foot stack of LPs, and Claire's IBM Selectric in its vinyl shroud. April rode beside her tucked down sullen and silent in the bucket seat with her arms folded, uninterested in the sights along I-95.
They crossed the empty four-lane bridge into Washington, where the Lincoln Memorial glowed lambent in the wash of the rising sun. The city hadn't wakened yet, not quite; the broad avenues were as free as superhighways, and Claire drove out Constitution with the needle dancing on the high side of fifty-five. They swung around the Capitol, Claire's last view of it, looming flagrant and serene and outsized even in this city of shrines, of monuments and temples. Power and secrets, Claire thought. Yes, that's what was hidden, locked, inside all that marble vastness, the only currency that mattered. Power and secrets -- like the gold in Fort Knox. She pushed in the dashboard lighter and felt down between the seats for her cigarettes.
April wrinkled her nose. "Already?" she said.
"You bet," Claire said. She drew the gentle, savory smoke down through herself, felt it take hold in her bloodstream, restful as liquor.
"I hate it when you smoke in the car," April said.
"I know," Claire said.
She tried not to look at the marble fortress of the Old Senate Office Building as they passed it on their left where Constitution rode up past the Capitol and the park. A Capitol policeman in dark blue stood at the top of the corner steps with his hands behind him, staring out into the new light. He didn't notice how fast the Camaro was moving, or didn't care. Not at 5 A.M. Claire thought of the lofty cave-dim corridors with their lustrous wood doors, their muted echoes and whispered voices, and everywhere the heady sensation, the quiet thrill, of history being made all around you, day to day, moment to moment.
"The smoke gets in my clothes," April said.
"Grandma's got a washer," Claire said.
"It doesn't get the smoke out."
"April, don't be a pain," Claire said.
"It isn't fair."
"Don't expect life to be fair," Claire said.
April sighed. "What are you going to tell Grandma?" she said.
"About what?" Claire said.
"You know what. Leaving like this."
"I'll tell her what I told her over the phone."
"That won't cut it. Not in person."
"It'll have to," Claire said.
The park and Capitol were behind them now, the giant dome bathed in the clean, sweet light above the trees, dropping out of sight off the rearview mirror, gone. Pretty soon the colored neighborhoods began, dingy brick houses with rickety-looking front porches. Black, you were supposed to say now. Black power, black pride. Black is beautiful.
"She'll bug you till you tell her," April said.
"Can we talk about something else?" Claire said.
"Ezra says I have a right to know."
"Ezra ought to mind his own business."
"I asked his opinion," April said.
"You do know," Claire said. "I'm sick of Washington. The politics. How many times do I have to say it?"
"You don't leave in three days because you're sick of a place. Ezra agrees."
"Ezra's a nice boy," Claire said, "but he ought to mind his own business."
"I am his business."
"I'm sorry about Ezra. You know that."
"I'll never see him again," April said.
"Sure you will."
"Don't use that expression," Claire said. She crushed out her cigarette in the pullout ashtray on the dash and thought immediately of lighting up another. In three days she hadn't slept much, existing on coffee and cigarettes and the savage desire to leave this place forever, to be back north where she belonged, if it could be said that she belonged anywhere.
"You swear all the time," April said.
"I'm the grown-up," Claire said.
"Are we going to fight all the way to Boston?" Claire said.
"We're not fighting," April said, "we're discussing."
They were on I-95 again, wide and empty and white in the hardening morning light. On either side the land lay low and rolling under the gin-clear air, the building heat.
"How do you like the car?" Claire said.
April shrugged. "It's okay."
"Better than the VW, huh?"
"I hated the VW," April said.
Claire had bought the Camaro two days ago through an ad in the Post. It was a '65, yellow with a black-vinyl roof, 42,000 miles on the dash. A rash expenditure: $1,500, but Claire had the money and didn't know when she would again. Then she'd unloaded the Volkswagen at a used-car lot in Silver Spring, taking what the man had offered, $500, not bothering to try to dicker him up.
"You'll be driving it soon," Claire said. "Less than a year."
April didn't answer. She wasn't interested yet in a truce. She had no interest, either, in cars or learning to drive. Cars were a boys' thing, though Claire had learned to drive when she was fourteen, receiving private lessons from her boyfriend at the time, Tommy Riordan, in his father's snub-nosed Chevrolet. Tommy's father was over in Germany helping the good guys finish the war Hitler had started when she, Claire, was still a little girl. A war that had a logic in it that anyone could see, not like Vietnam.
"That's another thing," April said.
"The car. Why'd we get a new one?"
"Did you want to drive eleven hours squeezed inside a VW bug?"
April shrugged her shrug. "We could have."
"April, I want to remind you of something. You hated Fairlington. You told me that a million times."
"I didn't hate Ezra."
"There'll be other boys."
"I don't want other boys."
Claire turned on the radio, found Feliciano's "Light My Fire." It was all over the airwaves that summer. "You will," she said, "believe me."
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't," April said.
The sun climbed higher up the blue dome of the sky and the highways came alive with their heavy summer traffic -- families on the move, trucks, and Greyhound buses. The roads now gave back a dull, persistent glare while car chrome flashed and glinted till Claire's eyes hurt, even under dark glasses. Have I ever been this tired? she wondered. And later: What happens next? And where? She smoked cigarette after cigarette and brought out a large coffee each time they stopped for food or gas or to use the ladies'.
In New Jersey, in the noise and hurry and swelter of the Turnpike, April looked up from the book she was reading. "Mom? What did Senator Mallory say when you told him you were quitting?"
Claire kept her gaze pinned to the road. "I didn't tell Senator Mallory."
"You didn't say good-bye?"
"I didn't see him."
"I never went back to the office. The AA came over to the apartment. Mark Fairchild. You were at school."
"Why didn't you go back?"
"I didn't want to see the senator again."
"He did something, April. I didn't want to work for him anymore. I didn't want to see him."
April thought a moment. "Did he want to see you?"
"I don't know. I doubt it."
"What did he do that was so awful?"
"I can't tell you, sweetheart. I can't tell Grandma, either."
"You can tell your own daughter."
"Not now. Maybe sometime."
"'Sometime' means never."
"No, 'sometime' means 'sometime.' Hand me a Kleenex, will you?"
"You aren't going to cry, are you?"
"I don't think so."
April doubled down and found Claire's purse on the floor. She rummaged around in the purse and dug out the Kleenex and passed a wad of tissues to Claire. Claire placed them in her lap.
"Want to pull over?" April said.
"I'm all right," Claire said.
"Because I don't want to have an accident."
"I don't either," Claire said.
. . .
She knew it wouldn't be easy holding off her mother. What was ever easy with Violet O'Brien?
"I just quit, Ma," Claire said. "I had some trouble I don't want to talk about."
They'd washed and stacked the dishes. April was upstairs lying on the double bed in the guest room reading a book. Daylight lingered at the windows, golden where it struck the high trees and slanted rooftops.
"What kind of trouble?" her mother said.
"Did you hear me say I didn't want to talk about it?"
"Give me a hint," her mother said. "What'd you do, get caught screwing somebody in the office?"
Claire blushed hard and didn't look at her. "Ma," she said. "Jesus."
"Well, it must be something like that, they throw you out on your ass without giving you notice."
"I told you, Ma. I'm the one that quit."
Her mother got up, put the kettle on to boil, and sat down again at the little drop-leaf table. She lit a cigarette and crossed her legs, sitting sideways to the table. She still had good legs. She still had boyfriends, Claire knew, till she drove them away with her nagging.
"What about April?" she said.
"What about her?"
"You took her out of school?"
"There's two weeks left, Ma. She's getting all A's."
"It's illegal to take a kid out of school."
"What are they going to do, put me in jail?"
"Why not let your daughter finish school?"
"I'm done talking about it, Ma."
"Well, you must have screwed up royally, is all I can say. Best job you ever had. A frigging senator, Clairie. Bigger than Teddy Kennedy. Big as Jack was when he was a senator, God rest his soul."
"It isn't so hot when you get to know it," Claire said.
"You didn't seem to mind it. I mean, how bad can it be, you spend ten years down there?"
"Eight," Claire said.
"You look thin," her mother said. "You been sick?"
"I haven't slept in three nights."
The kettle began to whistle. Violet unfolded herself from the spindle-backed chair. She went to the counter and spooned instant coffee into a mug, standing small and willowy with a hip swayed out. Claire watched her. She seemed to have shrunk over the years, to have withered, but she had a fineness of neck and waist and ankle, a sexy slouch, that won and held men's interest until the poor bastards got fed up with taking orders. But another would always appear.
Violet lifted the steaming kettle and poured. "You want some of this?" she said.
"I drink any more coffee, I'll be up peeing all night," Claire said.
Violet sat down with her coffee. She recrossed her legs.
"Tell me this," she said. "They give you decent severance?"
"No," Claire said.
"What's 'no' mean?"
"It means I didn't get any."
Her mother looked at her. She reached for her smoking cigarette and shook her head. "This gets worse and worse," she said.
"I didn't want any," Claire said.
"Just like you didn't want any child support from Scott."
"Something like that," Claire said.
"They screw you up the old wazoo and you let 'em off free."
"I don't want their money," Claire said.
"Just a little saint, aren't you?"
"No," Claire said. "I'm not a saint."
"I got every penny I could out of your father."
"I'm not saying you shouldn't have."
"You take what they owe you. Think of April before you act so proud."
"I support April just fine."
"She looks like hell, by the way."
"She ever brush her hair?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Sure she does. She's got a boyfriend now. She's paying more attention to herself."
"She isn't paying enough."
"In three, four years April's going to be beautiful. It's all going to come together for her."
"Who's the boyfriend?"
Claire shrugged. "Just some scrawny kid. Name's Ezra. He plays the violin."
"Ezra. Must be Jewish."
"I don't know. Ezra Teller. Maybe."
"I dated a Jewish guy one time. It wasn't so bad, actually."
"Ma, for Christ sake."
"Well, it wasn't."
"I'm going to bed," Claire said. "I got about three hours last night."
"What are you going to do, Clairie? Where you going to go? You're almost forty years old, do you realize that?"
"I realize it."
"Be a secretary again, I guess. Right back where you were eight years ago."
"I was a secretary in Washington," Claire said.
"You weren't a secretary."
"Yeah, I was."
"You weren't a secretary secretary."
"I know what I was," Claire said.
"There was a difference," her mother said. "Don't tell me there wasn't."
There was a difference, all right. Claire watched her mother shoot out a cloud of blue smoke and drop forward to rub out her cigarette. In the pale, rouged face Claire couldn't see any trace of what a mother was supposed to be feeling at a time like this, only censure, a moody impatience. She wondered if Violet really wanted her to succeed or if maybe this was better, the punishment Claire deserved for a lifetime of sassing and disregarding her mother.
"I'll be okay," Claire said. "There's always somebody can use a secretary."
"When you going to start looking?"
"Soon, Ma. Don't worry."
"I'm not worrying. I was just wondering how long you'll be staying."
"Ma, I've been driving all day. I can't think straight."
"I go out sometimes, you know."
"I expect you to," Claire said.
"Just so you know," Violet said.
. . .
Her mother's house was a frame two-story in a quiet crime-free neighborhood an easy walk from the last stop on the T, which Violet rode into the city two or three times a week to shop or have lunch with a couple of friends left over from the days when they were all married. Violet had bought the house out of her alimony. Claire's father had paid through the nose for his sins and had gone on paying. The nice car, the color TV, the clothes. Fortunately, Richie O'Brien knew how to make money, if nothing else. He'd begun as a derrick operator, had become a partner in the business and then full owner when the other man went to prison for giving kickbacks to elected officials. Richie had done very well as sole proprietor. He'd sold the business a few years ago and headed for Florida.
"Does he ever come up here?" Claire said.
"If he does, I don't know about it," Violet said.
"Are Joey and Kevin in touch with him?"
"You'd have to ask them."
"How're they doing?"
"You ought to go see 'em."
"Their wives give me a pain in the ass," Violet said.
"Me, too," Claire said.
"That Angela. Little wop princess. I'd like to shoot her sometimes."
Claire smiled. "I wonder how Daddy likes Angela."
"He probably does, knowing him."
"He still sends me a present every Christmas," Claire said.
"Me, too," Violet said. "Every month I get a present from him."
"You shouldn't gloat, Ma."
"He asked for it," her mother said.
"I know that," Claire said.
. . .
The two kids she'd hired turned up in the U-Haul with her furniture as promised and lugged it uncomplaining down the narrow, treacherous stairs to the cellar, knocking the leg off an end table and a knob off the frame of Claire's double bed. She paid and tipped them for carrying the furniture down the stairs, then followed them to the U-Haul return. She waited while they dropped the truck off, then drove them to Logan for a 10 P.M. flight back to Washington. They'd left at daybreak this morning, hadn't even brought toothbrushes.
"You guys are amazing," Claire said.
They apologized for the breakage and Claire told them not to worry about it.
"Where'd you find those kids?" Violet said.
"American University. I put an ad on the bulletin board."
"They looked like hippies."
"So what?" Claire said.
"They looked like drug addicts."
It was exhausting living with Violet. Like being in a place where the wind never stopped blowing, never stopped worrying at you. Claire wondered if her father had made Violet that way, had aroused the sleeping mistral with his neglect and infidelities.
She bought the Globe and studied the want ads. Every day she saw five or six jobs she could get even without a reference from Bob Mallory's office. She could get them just by showing up for the interview and crossing her legs where they could be seen, provided the employer was a man. You can always screw your way up the ladder, Mark said. You'll always have that, won't you, Claire?
She held off.
On the fourth night she sat again with her mother at the drop-leaf table while the dishes dried in the rack and the sun went down behind the trees and utility poles and peaked rooftops. Upstairs, April talked long-distance with Ezra Teller, her voice a smoke-thin murmur through the flooring.
"What's the point if she's never going to see him again?" Violet said.
"I'll pay for the call if that's what you're worried about," Claire said.
"You better save your money," her mother said.
"Ma, listen to me. I'm going to drive down to the Cape tomorrow."
"Look for a job."
"On the Cape?"
"What's wrong with that? I want to try someplace new."
"Not some hick town on the Cape," her mother said.
r"I need a change, Ma."
"You think what happened to you in Washington won't happen on the Cape?"
"I know it won't."
"You going to tell me what it was?"
"Someday, Ma. Not now."
"Someday I'll be dead."
"I'll tell you before that."
"I'm your mother, Clairie. I'm your goddamn mother."
"Someday I'll tell you," Claire said.
. . .
Then God, luck, fate -- whatever you wished to call it -- took a hand. In the morning her car wouldn't start. Her new Camaro. She cursed it. The man had said the battery was brand-new. She cursed him, too.
There wasn't any good reason not to call the garage and get a late start or even go tomorrow, and Claire almost did. She got out of the car and stood in the blue-gray early-morning shadows listening to the traffic sough by over on the highway, thinking. Dew glistened on the dark green grass; Claire thought she could smell it, like sweet white wine. She filled her lungs with the summer morning air. She looked to the south, toward the Cape, and above the still treetops saw a sky that was as soft and bright as blue silk. She relocked the Camaro.
April and Violet were still asleep. Claire went quietly into the house and left them a note on the kitchen table. She walked to the subway, rode a train into the city, and got on a bus.
And stepped down two hours later at a little bus station of white-painted brick in a cul-de-sac, an open expanse of warped and bleaching asphalt with woods running uphill beyond, the new leaves pale green in the clean light of June. There were, she saw, rusted railroad tracks passing between the depot and the woods. Weeds and baby pitch pines wriggled up through the cinders between the rotting splintered ties.
Beside the tracks on the same side as the bus station, sharing with it this quiet sunny space in a kind of partnership, crouched a low white-shingle building with Irish-green shutters and an elm tree towering over it like an umbrella. Above the door a sign in Gothic letters: THE COVENANT. A newspaper office. Claire studied it, crouched there in its elm shade across the uneven, often-patched blacktop where the buses maneuvered in their comings and goings, then went into the depot, to the ladies' room, thinking about what she might do in a newspaper office.
The bus was gone when she got back outside. The arriving passengers had all disappeared. She wondered where Main Street was, with its law and insurance offices, its town hall. A taxi waited by the platform where the trains had once dropped riders from Boston and New York. The fat cabdriver leaned back against his car with his arms folded. He looked at Claire, squinting against the sun.
"Take you someplace, ma'am?"
She glanced at him and again regarded the newspaper office. She thought of the Camaro refusing to start this morning and her now standing where she never would have otherwise, face-to-face with this unpretentious little building beside the abandoned railroad tracks where you couldn't miss it getting off the bus, couldn't ignore it.
"I guess not," she told the cabdriver and went across the blacktop cul-de-sac, watched by him, high heels clicking in the stillness.
A receptionist was clipping stories out of a newspaper with a pair of long scissors. She put the scissors down and looked pleasantly up at Claire. She was plump and very short. Round. Her hair was snow-white, close-cut, and frizzy.
"Can I help you?" she said.
"I was wondering if you had any job openings," Claire said.
"Could be," the woman said. "Would you like to talk to John?"
"John would be...?"
"John Hillman. The editor, dear."
"If it isn't any trouble."
"No trouble," the woman said.
She got up and went into another room, swaying as she walked. Claire waited, standing with her purse hung on her shoulder. There were three desks besides the receptionist's, packed in tight. A second woman, plump also but younger, was tallying figures on an adding machine. Two men talked on the telephone. One of them sat hunched over, thin in his white shirt and loosened necktie, scribbling notes with a pencil. The other tilted back leisurely in his chair. He wore an ink-smudged canvas apron. Neither of the men paid any attention to Claire. She could hear a rattle of typewriters in the adjoining room where the receptionist had disappeared, and from a back room a whir and clatter of machinery. Her heart beat fast now, and she wondered if she'd made a mistake coming in here.
The receptionist waddled back in from the side room. Behind her came a dark-haired, balding, thickset man, not tall but big-boned, solid. He moved with deliberate grace. His white shirt looked unironed and his sleeves were rolled and his tie loosened.
"John Hillman," he said, and put out his thick hand.
His grip was strong, brief, impersonal. He took in her face with a glance, then turned and moved in a smooth and weightless-seeming trudge toward the back room. Claire understood she was to follow him and did, walking well behind.
The back room was easily larger than the two front rooms combined. Daylight seemed to stop at the open windows, as if the inside air were too thick, too clamorous and pungent, to admit it through the glass panes and window screens. The pungency was a sour-sweet perfume of oil, solvents, black grease, printer's ink, newsprint, and wood. The noise came from a pair of tall loomlike machines operated by a man each, sitting at a keyboard. Along high workbenches under pallid fluorescent tubes, men were setting type, ramming the blocks of shiny lead in snug with the heels of their hands. The press, idle at the moment, was long and jet-black and primitive-looking, with square-toothed cogwheels and a drive shaft like a locomotive's. A sheet of newsprint ran through it, doubling back on itself.
Claire followed John Hillman into a modern carpeted little room, anomalous in its newness and knotty pine decor, attached to the rear of the building. He closed the door, shutting out the noise, and sat down behind the desk, on which sat a covered typewriter, a telephone, a clean ashtray, and a photograph in a leather frame of a woman kneeling with her arm wrapped affectionately around a collie dog. Claire sat down in the wooden armchair in front of the desk. She unstrapped her purse and placed it in her lap.
"You're looking for a job," Mr. Hillman said.
"What sort of job?"
"Maybe you should look at my résumé before this goes any further," Claire said.
She brought it out of her purse and handed it to him across the desk. He studied it awhile. His broad ruddy face was shadowed in melancholy, as if he were wistful for something long gone or for some promise, perhaps, unkept and forever unattainable. Claire looked out the window across the rusted red-brown tracks to the leaf mosaic of the woods. Mr. Hillman passed the résumé back to her. He folded his arms. He looked out the window.
"I lost a reporter day before yesterday," he said. "A young boy."
Claire said nothing.
"Can you spell?" Mr. Hillman said.
"Spell," Claire said. "I think so. Yeah. Sure, I can spell."
"Because that boy couldn't spell. He'd been to the Sorbonne, but he couldn't spell."
"I guess it's hard for some people," Claire said.
"I need a reporter."
"Look, I'm not..."
"For the summer, at least. Longer, if I can get a good one."
"You read my résumé, right?"
"My son's coming home from college tomorrow. He'll work for me till September, but I need someone else. Summer's a busy time."
"I don't have any experience."
"I have to teach all my reporters. I've never had one I didn't have to teach."
"Yeah, but they were reporters to begin with. I'm a secretary."
"Reporters who couldn't spell. Reporters who didn't have any curiosity." He unfolded his beefy arms and pawed a pack of Lucky Strikes from his shirt pocket. He shook a cigarette halfway out and offered it to Claire.
"I have my own, thanks."
He lit it for her, lit his Lucky. He pushed the ashtray halfway across to Claire.
"I need someone right now," he said.
"I just don't know," Claire said.
"I don't need a secretary. I couldn't use one."
"I mean, I'd like to, but like I've been saying, I'm just not..."
"As I've been saying."
"As I've been saying. 'Like' is a preposition."
Claire blushed, then smiled slowly out toward the woods.
"My son's a good reporter," Mr. Hillman said. "Not as good as he thinks he is, but he's good. I never have to tell him anything twice. I tell him once and he remembers."
"Like 'as I've been saying.'"
"If I were you, I'd take the job."
"And you really think I can do it?"
"I'd start you at a hundred dollars a week. We've got a good health plan."
"I'll need a few days."
"The fewer the better."
"Give me three," Claire said recklessly.
"You sure you want to do this?" she said.
"Why not?" he said.
. . .
That night they ate Chinese takeout at the kitchen table. Claire and Violet drank Bud out of the bottle.
"A hundred dollars a week," Violet said. "Why'd you say yes?"
"What was I supposed to say?"
"Tell 'em Lincoln freed the slaves after the Civil War."
"During it," April said.
Violet looked at her. "What?"
"The Emancipation Proclamation was during the Civil War."
"What did I say?" Violet said.
"You said 'after the Civil War.'"
"You read too much, you know that, April?"
"It's what they pay, Ma," Claire said. "Anyway, I've never been a newspaper reporter. I can't expect to start high."
"Higher than that."
"I don't have any experience. I've never written anything that someone didn't dictate to me."
"You tell him that?"
"Of course I told him. I gave him my résumé."
"And he still hired you."
"Well, you better not screw it up, Clairie."
"I don't need to hear that, Ma."
"When are we moving?" April said.
"I told him I could start in three days."
April looked at her. "Three days?"
"Sit up straight, April," Claire said.
"Where you going to live on a hundred dollars a week?" Violet asked.
"I'll find something. I'm going to drive down tomorrow, look around."
"I thought you were going to see Joey and Angela."
"I'll see them another time."
"I don't know, Ma. Sometime."
"Will I have to go back to school?" April said.
"No," Claire said.
"The whole thing's nuts," her mother said. "You'll go crazy in a small town. How you going to meet any men?"
"Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll be lucky."
"May I ask what that means?"
"It isn't at the top of my list right now, that's all."
"It just isn't."
Her mother pushed her plate back. "It just isn't," she said.
"I'm not thinking about men right now, that's all I mean. Let's not make a big deal out of this."
"It won't last," April said.
Claire glanced at her, wondering what she suspected, but April's face was sullen and inscrutable, her head propped on her hand, her eyes lowered.
"You have man trouble down there?" Violet said.
"No, I did not."
"Did she, April?"
April shrugged. "Not that I know of."
"Can we please change the subject?" Claire said.
"Guess we'll have to," Violet said, "if you won't talk about it."
April seemed not to be listening. She played sullenly with her food.
"I'm going to be a newspaper reporter," Claire said. "Will somebody please look happy around here?"
"We're happy, aren't we, April?" Violet said.
"No comment," April said.
Copyright © 2002 by John Hough, Jr.