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A low, smooth male voice infiltrated my sleep. The voice told me: "Virginity is making a comeback. Polls taken on high-school and college campuses find ..."
I opened my eyes and turned off the radio. Sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at my unshaven legs and the chipped red nail polish on my toenails, I waited for my usual morning sadness to slowly disappear. Ever since I was a little girl I have experienced a sense of loss upon awakening. I think of this loss, this sadness, as a bridge of melancholy which I must cross to get from the comforting darkness of unconsciousness to the painful light of morning.
Since this was the morning of my thirty-fifth birthday, and I'd just been told by the radio that virginity was making a comeback, I knew my sadness was going to linger. My breasts felt heavy. How could these two little things feel so burdensome? Gravity. And how was it possible for virginity to make a comeback?!
The telephone rang. It had to be my mother, who lives in Versailles, Ohio, on a street called Main. She would be calling to wish me a happy birthday, and to announce, not for the first time, that I was now a mature woman who must face the fact that not everyone can be a success in Los Angeles. Please come home.
I found the telephone under yesterday's clothes. "Hello?"
"Miss Maggie Hill, please."
"Ellis Kenilworth here." Kenilworth was my current temporary employer. "Would you mind coming in earlier this morning? Say, around nine o'clock instead of ten?" His cool, educated voice was frayed with tension. "I will be meeting with a Roger Valcovich, and it's imperative that you be here."
"Is something wrong, Mr. Kenilworth?"
"For the first time, I'm trying to make things right. Miss Hill, I've grown to respect you over the short period of time we've worked together. I hope that feeling is mutual."
"It is." I did respect Kenilworth. He was a true gentleman. In fact, he was the only gentleman I knew. His manners and courtesies were extended with admiration, not with a pat on the head.
"And I always felt, if need be, I could rely on your discretion," he said.
"Good. Nine o'clock, then. Goodbye."
In my family, discretion meant that you kept your goddamn mouth shut. I hung up the phone. His choice of the word "imperative" was odd. For the last three months I'd been working out of Kenilworth's mansion in Pasadena. I put his handwritten inventories of his coin collection into his brand-new computer. It was one of my easier temporary jobs. There was nothing imperative about it.
I stared at my own computer. It was delicately stacked and balanced on the short, narrow bar top that separates my tiny kitchen from my tiny living-bedroom. The monitor was blank faced, the floppy disks empty. I was a writer. I had written one novel, which was published to overwhelming silence. I looked at my watch. It was eight o'clock. No time to shave my legs. Again.
Heading toward the bathroom, I flipped on the television. Jane and Bryant were sitting on the NBC sofa, looking all shiny faced and spruced up. Before I turned on the shower, I heard Jane bouncily announce that her next set of guests were Mr. J. L. Henderson, a wife beater; Mrs. Alice Henderson, his twenty-year victim; and Dr. Arnold Meitzer, psychologist. But first ...
Warm water ... soap ... Maybe I could wash virginity back into my life. I shut my eyes.
There was the image of my ex-husband, Neil. He was no wife beater. I was no victim. And yet ... all that shared pain. Why did I marry a policeman? Do not go over this again, Maggie. Oh, hell, what are birthdays for if not to review your past failures and torture yourself with those failures? Almost as much fun as picking a pimple. I married him because I thought I needed his sense of structure, his authority, his knowledge of right and wrong. I immediately rebelled against all he had to offer me. Confusing me. Confusing him.
I had liked his impersonal way of having sex. We didn't make love. We fucked. But then he had an impersonal affair, and I discovered just how very personal betrayal can be.
I got out of the shower and opened the door to let the steam out of my windowless bathroom. I heard Bryant declare that New York was going to let the local stations tell the viewers what was happening in their part of the country. I always thought that was really nice of New York. They didn't have to let us know what was going on.
I dried off the mirror. Serious dark-brown eyes looked at serious dark-brown eyes. High cheekbones reflected high cheekbones. My hair, the same color as my eyes, was cut just below my defiant chin. My nose avoided being cute by turning slightly down instead of up. I would have opted for cute. My mouth secretly embarrassed me: the lips were full and looked as if they were waiting for kisses. Men always looked at my mouth first. Rubbing cream into my face, which I knew didn't do a damn thing, I decided there wasn't time to blow-dry my hair.
Back in the living-bedroom, I struggled into control-top panty hose, trying not to work up a sweat. A blond young man with a smirk appeared on the TV. He told me he was David Dunn. He had his eye on L.A. But first ...
I searched through my dresser for a forty-five-dollar French bra. I'd just bought it. I couldn't afford it. A pure white lacy strap gleamed among the twisted mass of panty hose, slips, scarfs, sweaters, and underwear. The top of my dresser was strewn with makeup, costume jewelry, paperback books, notes to myself, dirty underwear, and my grandmother's rosary. This wasn't the dresser of a thirty-five-year-old woman. This dresser looked like it belonged to a fifteen-year-old girl. My sadness was deepening into depression.
Extricating the bra, I heard the name Roger Valcovich. I faced the television. A puffy man encased in a beige suit sat behind a functional-looking desk. His round little hands were folded tightly in front of him. Except for the potted fern, they were the only objects on the desk. He talked carefully into the camera.
"Even if you have a prior drunk-driving conviction, we can help. Whatever your legal needs, the law offices of Roger Valcovich are here for you." He tilted his oblong head toward the camera. Curly silver-gray hair caught the light and twinkled. "I'm Roger Valcovich. I can help. Remember, justice does not have to cost a high price." Small lips inched into a frozen smile.
Coincidence—there had to be more than one Roger Valcovich in Los Angeles. Ellis Kenilworth used a very conservative, expensive lawyer. He certainly wouldn't be using an ambulance chaser who had to advertise. I was feeling uneasy. Kenilworth had never involved me in a meeting before, imperative or not.
I turned off the television and finished dressing. Black skirt. Pink shirt. Black patent sling-backs. Black-and-pink tweed jacket with big shoulder pads. Shoulder pads make me feel less melancholy. They also make me look like I don't have a neck. You can't have everything.
I grabbed my grandmother's rosary. She's eighty-five but thinks she's a hundred and helps Willard with the weather on the "Today" show. I took a paperback of Madame Bovary and, along with my rosary, dropped it into my leather sack of a purse. I was reading Bovary for the third time. I understood why she had to kill herself. But I kept hoping.
I turned on the phone machine, a small lamp by the bed, and the radio. I found the classical station. It was the only kind of music my landlady let me play all day. Maybe if I get robbed the classical music will soothe the burglar and he won't vandalize the place.
I stepped outside my tan stucco apartment. The architecture was third world. Locking my door, I made the mistake of taking a deep breath. The smell of burritos, swimming-pool chlorine, exhaust, and early-morning coffee brewing at the 7-Eleven across the street, violated my body. I had not come out to Los Angeles to live in the San Fernando Valley. That was not part of the dream. But the rent was cheaper on this side of the hill, and that was part of reality. Another failure to torture myself with.
Maneuvering my Honda east on the Ventura Freeway, I rolled back the sun roof so my hair could dry. The radio rocked. I loved being alone in my car. I loved driving. My Honda was the only thing in my life I had control over.
I kept thinking about virginity making a comeback. What form would she take? She wouldn't dare return in the bowed and draped form of the Blessed Mother. Virginity wasn't coming back because she was sacred or moral. No. Virginity was traipsing back into our lives like an old ex-movie queen. Big tits jiggling. Flabby hips swaying. A thin halo of platinum hair. Diseased pink flesh stuffed in hourglass white.
"I'm back in town, big boys," she'd coo, scared to death.CHAPTER 2
The poor and the old wealthy are living closer together in Pasadena—at least what remains of the old wealthy. Most of their mansions have been crushed by quick money. Condominiums, gated for the safe life, have been erected in their place. The surviving mansions grace wide, shady streets which run parallel to wide, shady streets dotted with shabby bungalows and disintegrating apartment houses. But no matter how the city changes, Pasadena has a highly polished Calvinistic shine that will never tarnish. It produces Rose Queens with the same hardworking enthusiasm with which it produces a new civic center.
I turned down a street lined with aged oak trees and parked in front of the Kenilworth home. It was a large two-story white house with an elegant veranda sweeping across the entire length of its façade. Steps cascaded from the center of the veranda onto a spread of lawn that made me think of picnics and croquet and ladies in white linen dresses. Nine chimneys jutted from the roof. Smoke drifted from only one: the fireplace in the mother's bedroom always burned. A narrow strip of asphalt ran alongside the house under an ornate portico. The driveway was a begrudging afterthought to the endurance of the automobile. No iron gates, no attack dogs, no video cameras protected this house. The Kenilworth mansion displayed itself openly to all who passed by. I admired this unguarded house. It wasn't boldly displaying wealth; it was defiantly displaying continuity, survival. I didn't know the Kenilworths well enough to know what survival had cost them. But at this moment in my life, when I was contemplating the return of virginity, why shouldn't I believe in the basic goodness of big white houses?
I made my way up to the veranda and the giant square of a solid mahogany door and rang the bell.
Holding a bone-china coffee cup splattered with red roses, Sutton, Ellis's younger brother, let me into the white marble foyer. Pale blue eyes widened. "My, you're early this morning!"
"Who's in there with Ellis?" He tried to look disinterested, but his reddish-blond brows arched.
I wasn't sure if my discretion included the family, so I changed the subject. "How's your mother?" I asked.
"In her sitting room, by the fire, drinking tea and warm milk. Beautiful as an angel. You're looking even more attractive this morning, if that's possible."
"Thanks." Our eyes flirted.
Sutton had once been a very handsome man. His hair was still wavy sun-blond, and he carried himself with a certain specialness that beautiful people possess. But time had smoothed the jaggedness of his features, turning his beauty soft. When he smiled, as he did now, the sharpness of youth shone through. Sutton and I had a relationship based on flirtation. The boundaries were tacitly understood: winks, innuendos, admiring looks, and the touching of hands on arms were allowed; nothing more. I don't know how that sometimes happens between men and women, but it does. And it's fun.
Cupping his hand under my elbow, he made a grand display of promenading me across the foyer toward the office door. The heels of my sling-back shoes made tippity-tap noises on the marble floor. Tippity-tap. It was a vulnerable sound. Tippity-tap. A female sound. Tippity-tap. Tippity-tap. The sound of thirty-five.
"It's my birthday," I blurted. Oh, hell, someone should know that it wasn't just another day.
"I hate birthdays. They always make me wish I'd never been born," he replied.
As we passed the open double mahogany doors to the library, Judith Kenilworth, sitting on a rose damask sofa by a silver tea set, raised her blond patrician head from the Los Angeles Times and stared at me. I smiled. She didn't. She had never smiled at me in three months. But I kept trying.
Sutton deposited me in front of the office door. Leaning close, he whispered, "Happy birthday, Maggie. If I were my own man I'd spend my nights trying to seduce you."
"Whose man are you?" I asked, half seriously, half flirting.
"You know where sister and I are breakfasting if Ellis needs us," he said, ignoring the question. "But he never does need us, does he?" He turned and sauntered away as the large, shadowy American clock, which stood in the gliding curve of an august stairway, began to discreetly chime nine. I always felt that the clock was embarrassed to break the silence of this stately home by its boorish mechanical need to tell time.
I opened the door to the office. Ellis Kenilworth stood as I entered the room. He performed his manners as easily as my ex opened a beer can. He had never been as handsome as Sutton; he had also not gone soft. His features were hawk-like. In contrast to their sharpness, his hazel eyes were gentle and seemed to focus more on what he was thinking than on what he was actually seeing. His lean body was clad, as usual, in gray slacks, cashmere blue blazer, button-down shirt, and muted striped tie.
"Miss Hill, this is Mr. Valcovich."
It was him—the star of law and television. He didn't get the hint from Kenilworth and stand. Instead, he nestled his rump back into a green leather chair and waved a round, chubby hand laden with two huge gold rings at me. The rings had not appeared in his commercial.
I sat at my desk, which was opposite Kenilworth's. He sat down, not looking at Valcovich. There was an awkward silence which I'm sure only Kenilworth and I felt. Finally I spoke.
"Saw you on television this morning."
"Which commercial did you see?!" I thought he was going to leap up and demand I let him sign an autograph.
"Something about drunk driving."
"That's a great one. 'Justice doesn't have to cost a high price.'" He beamed: Kenilworth's cheeks flushed. He still couldn't look at him. And I couldn't figure out what he was doing here. Kenilworth's faraway eyes attempted to focus on mine. He ran his hand over his ash-blond hair. I was in the land of the blonds—the real blonds that come in various shades.
"Mr. Valcovich has just helped me draft a codicil. I want you to type it and then witness it."
"I've never typed a codicil."
The star of law and television grabbed his legal-size yellow pad and slapped it onto my desk. "Just type it as I've written it. If you can't make out a word, don't guess. Ask."
"And when you have finished, Miss Hill, please pay Mr. Valcovich three thousand dollars, cash, from the safe."
"Three thousand dollars!" I don't like to see people get taken, no matter how much money they have. I couldn't help myself. I turned on Valcovich. "I thought you said justice was cheap!"
"This has nothing to do with justice. And I think you're out of place, little lady."
"Miss Hill, please," Kenilworth said.
"If my secretary talked like that she'd be out on her ass."
"Ass?!" It was my turn to slap the legal tablet on the desk.
"Mr. Valcovich, that is enough!" Kenilworth almost raised his voice. "Miss Hill, please proceed."
"Do I make a copy?" I asked.
Valcovich leaned forward. "I should have a copy."
"That's very unusual ..."
"I have paid you an outrageous sum because I want you to do exactly as I wish. You will not have a copy. You will not talk to any member of my family. And when you leave here, that is the last I will see of you."
Valcovich leaned back and crossed his legs. "Whatever you say, Mr. Kenilworth."
As I put the paper in the typewriter, Kenilworth swiveled around in his chair and stared out the floor-to-ceiling arched window that overlooked his beloved sculpture garden. The garden ran the entire length of the property. Hedges and bushes were cut and sculpted into clapping seals, jumping fish, diving birds. A dark green dog walked on his hind feet while a bushy green cat curled into sleep. There were even a unicorn, a Pegasus, and the American eagle carrying an unfurled flag in his beak. Being all in green, the eagle and the flag lost some of their patriotic stirring. But the garden itself was awe inspiring.
Excerpted from The Mother Shadow by Melodie Johnson Howe. Copyright © 1989 Melodie Johnson Howe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Posted March 2, 2014
Posted March 14, 2014
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