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Now You Know
By Susan Kelly
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Susan Kelly
All rights reserved.
The periods of sleeping—they won't let themselves think it's unconsciousness—have grown longer.
The inert figure in the hospital bed looks far older than her sixty-three years, supported and suspended by a network of plastic tubing entwining her body like tangled yarn, connected to a clicking, flashing, humming monitor with an inhuman life of its own.
They stand by the bed and stroke limp fingers or pass their strong, young fingers over their mother's forehead where, unlike the slack flesh everywhere else, the skin over the skull is taut, plasticlike. Her mouth works occasionally, the tongue moving against dry lips Alice and Allegra and Edie take turns coating with petroleum jelly they squeeze from a crumpled tube. No respirator, they'd agreed. No accordionned tube looking like a vacuum cleaner hose. Just morphine for the pain. If she should swim through the fog of drugs to speak, they want to hear their mother.
It's a warm Sunday in September of 1993. Edie, standing at the foot of the bed, wears a loose pink jumper made of a fabric so thin that her nipples, raised by the constant chill of the hospital, are clearly visible. Occasionally, she unconsciously rubs her breasts, trying to soften the hardness grown uncomfortable. At the window, Alice is wearing a khaki skirt the way her mother taught her, a seasonally-appropriate "transitional cotton." Allegra's ratty, bookstore-logod T-shirt isn't tucked into her jeans, and she leans against the wall and shifts from one leg to the other. The other foot she presses to the cream-colored wall, leaving shadowy mismatched footprints much like those Libba Charles left on the Emerson Seminary wall fifty years earlier.
By now, the nurses waive the visitor regulations. They know the Wilson family drifting in and out of the ICU waiting room where John Wilson sits now with strangers keeping similar vigils, existing on prayer and fast food. A room where the smells of disinfectant and flowers and medicines blend in a singular odor endemic to hospitals. The sterile language of terminal illness has long since become a second language to them. Cancer has been killing Frances Wilson by degrees for more than two years.
She'd been restless since lunch, when Edie brought milkshakes for them all. Caramel, chocolate, strawberry, peach. Allegra attempted a joke about the flavor of glucose. John Wilson didn't touch his, and Alice flushed the thick melted liquid down the toilet. Now, at six, they're hungry again. They've gone on living.
"Take your father home and get something to eat," Libba says, coming into the room. She tugs the pale gray cardigan sweater she'd borrowed from Frances's drawer around her body. "They said nothing would happen tonight."
No one asks for the definition of nothing. The daughters hesitate.
"Ginny Murphy brought lasagne," Alice says. Allegra makes a retching cough and Edie instantly looks up, thinking the noise has come from their mother.
"Fine, then," Libba says, "stay," and leaves them.
As though the curt tone of voice has reached and woken her, Frances Wilson's eyes open.
"Mother?" Edie says.
Allegra and Alice take two steps to the bedside, unconsciously lining up in order of birth. Alice at the pillow, Allegra at her mother's hips, Edie at the sticklike thighs. The cluster of bones that is Frances Wilson's hand, criss-crossed with white adhesive, rises from the sheet.
"Mother?" Edie says again.
Three heads lean toward the wasted figure beneath them. "We're here," Allegra says.
"What is it? Do you want Daddy?" Alice says. "A nurse?"
"Do you need anything?" Edie asks, fitting her hand to her mother's neck.
"Hush," Allegra says. "She's trying to talk."
The piteous eyes take in the three heads leaning toward her and flash with absolute recognition. The daughters wait. "We're here," Allegra says again, gently, and bites her lip.
Their mother's voice is soft too, almost a whisper. But her words are unmistakable. "Look after Libba," she says. "Promise," then closes her eyes.CHAPTER 2
They can't remember a time they haven't known her.
Libba was always there. On Labor Days and July Fourths, an anniversary celebration in August. At their christenings and confirmations and birthdays and graduations and weddings. Stealing their mother, stealing the show. Or she was there for no reason at all. Mostly, in fact, she was there for no reason at all, unless you counted Frances.
She was there before they themselves were. Weekends, when Libba visited Frances and John in White Plains, she slept on the nursery's single bed while an infant Alice slumbered beside her in the crib. Pasted to an early page in Alice's baby album is a card that reads To Alice from her first roommate, your pal Libba Charles. The scribbled, saved memento seems both touching and quaint, except that if you ask Alice, there's never been anything remotely touching or quaint about Libba Charles.
"A piece of work," Alice remembers her father calling Libba.
The note had accompanied Libba's baby gift to Alice, a silver teaspoon. Not a pablum spoon, but a full-sized teaspoon in the Shell and Thread pattern that became Alice's flatware pattern. A choice in which, Alice has remarked more than once, she herself had no choice. "Why did Libba get to decide?" she asked her mother as a child, fingering the shiny spoon, trying even then to unravel her mother's relationship with Libba Charles.
"It wasn't deliberate forever-and-ever," Frances said. "Libba's not that territorial."
Alice grew to doubt this. Libba was territorial about Frances.
And even when she wasn't there, she was there in their mother's references: Libba's books, Libba's ideas, Libba's travels, Libba's pranks.
"LKF," Libba said. "Your mother was so modest she dressed in the closet when we were in college. I never saw her—"
"That'll do, Libba," Frances said.
Ten-year-old Alice looked down at Libba, doing leg lifts on the carpet. "What's LKF?"
"Little known fact," Frances answered from inside the closet. "Is this a valid complaint from someone who jumped naked into a country club swimming pool at a debutante party? Pay attention. You promised me a closet consult."
"Why?" Alice had asked breathlessly, thrilled with the vision, the lawlessness of Libba's outrageousness.
"Somebody dared me to," Libba said without pausing in her exercise. "Je jette the bouclé suit. Too Jackie Kennedy. Next? And that two-piece brown horror. That's an HWC outfit."
"Which you gave me."
"What's 'HWC'?" Alice asked.
"Heavy with child," Frances said, and a look passed between them.
They always talked like this. Around her. Above her. Hopping from subject to subject with their verbal shorthand and abbreviations. Alice had known the two to make written lists of topics they intended to cover because their conversations would veer into so many tangents when they were together after an absence.
In Alice's memory, Libba and Frances talk, endlessly and everywhere: on the terrace, heads thrown back with hilarity; stirring coffee as they talked in the low voices of confidences at the kitchen table; in the den on winter weekends, with four socked soles to the fire and their hair fanned out behind them on the rug, or falling to the side, exposing a pale stripe of neck. Grown women curled and girlish, lazy and laughing.
Frances changed in Libba's company, transformed from my mother to Libba's friend. Her posture and demeanor and features relaxed. She laughed more and minded less. She was prettier, younger. Happier. Alice loved her mother's loosening and, lacking even the vocabulary at seven and eight to describe it, was envious of Libba's transforming power. Alice sensed she herself couldn't effect the same hocus-pocus on her mother no matter how many A's she brought home on her report card.
Allegra's childhood memories of Libba differ from her sister Alice's. With Allegra's birth her parents returned to the South, to North Carolina, and though Libba's weekend visits became less frequent, they became more vivid. Wilder. Louder. The talking and laughing and lounging continued, but in party form.
"Libba's the best kind of houseguest, Alley-oop," Frances said to Allegra. "An old shoe, doesn't require a thing."
But despite the playful nickname, Frances didn't pause in her housework to gently tug Allegra's hair as she said this; didn't smile and wink at her. Because as far as Allegra could tell, Frances was too busy preparing for Libba, who supposedly needed no preparations. Buying unusual foods like avocados and mushroom caps and oyster crackers and toothpicks with colored cellophane hats. Putting flowers in Allegra's room, which she was required to move out of for Libba. Allegra silently disagreed with her mother's assessment of Libba. The Wilson household changed indeed, not only to accommodate Libba, but to revolve around her.
A current crackled through the house when Libba arrived Friday afternoon, and through Frances as well, a current of mischief and merriment that preceded the evening parties. Bedtimes were ignored, chores were left undone, meals were hurried.
"Mommy, ugh," Allegra once complained after cutting into a hastily browned hamburger patty. "I can't eat this. It's still red and squishy."
Libba had leaned over to inspect it. "Looks like a hemorrhoid."
"What's a hemorrhoid?" Allegra had asked, but Libba only shrugged. Not to Allegra's question, but to Frances's laughed objection.
Friday and Saturday nights the house filled with people. Music blared, glasses ringed tables, shoes were abandoned in corners, cigarette butts were stubbed into every conceivable container. Allegra was intoxicated by the swaying creatures in the living room, her mother shuffling off to Buffalo in a long slubbed-silk hostess skirt, Libba doing the Twist. Alice was gone in Allegra's memory, old enough to spend the night with friends while Allegra watched television as late as she wanted in her parents' bedroom. She was shooed from the kitchen table crowded with bottles, marbles of olives and onions, napkins disintegrating with wet, where they mixed concoctions with beautiful names: John's Gee and Tees, fizzy yet clear as water; Frances's amber-tinted Manhattans; Libba's lemonypale Tom Collins. The rosy slush of blender drinks in the summertime, peach and strawberry daiquiris. Allegra had mixed her own drink, tonic and ice with a pretty green accent of lime wedge. Bitter to the tongue, but so entirely grown-up. Now Allegra realizes that those parties were the beginning of her drinking, imitation gin and tonics that with time became pilfered drinks, fully alcoholic.
At one and two in the morning Libba and Frances could be found in the den cluttered with party debris, dopey with fatigue but jawing about one of the dates Libba occasionally brought, wry men full of innuendo and uninterested in Allegra or Alice, and especially not in baby Edie. Or the extra man Frances had invited. "Imports," Libba referred to them.
Woken by laughter, Allegra wandered in from her bedroom. "Aren't you going to bed?"
"I'm too tired to go to bed," Frances said. She wasn't answering Allegra, though; she was telling Libba. Allegra felt foolish standing there in her nightgown while Libba and her mother, garbed in hot pinks and fluorescent geometric prints, were draped across furniture.
If party evenings were late, mornings were even later. Libba slept with a machine on the mattress beside her pillow that whirred a hushed drone meant to blot out the shrieks and punches of Saturday cartoons, or Edie's toddling whining. "Shush, girls," Frances would whisper loudly, "Libba works. She comes to rest."
Allegra knows now the hijinks that transpired those nights. The hat parties, when pots and lampshades and ice buckets became bonnets and berets and sombreros. Dirty-themed charades with outrageous cheating; a neighbor's tractor mower hijacked for a midnight joy ride.
For forty-eight hours that current fizzed and burned, until Sunday night when, hoarse and exhausted—hungover, Allegra knows now—Frances was in bed by eight, leaving Allegra bereft and mystified and slightly anxious at losing an adult to sleep before her own bedtime. It was worrisome. Weren't parents supposed to stay up? "Where's Mommy?" she asked her father.
"Already asleep," John Wilson said. "The weekend wore her out."
But Allegra didn't think the weekend had worn out her mother. Allegra believed Libba Charles had worn her out.
Edie doesn't remember the parties; she doesn't remember swapped laughter and secrets on the bed or terrace or sofa. What Edie remembers of Libba is that Frances went away with her, on weekends to the beach or the mountains or weekdays to a conference or to New York or some college in some state Edie had hardly heard of. Libba breezed in and swept up Frances and her luggage, waved from the car, departing and taking Edie's mother with her. Leaving Edie to love her father best, though she was lucky even to have been conceived, much less born after a long and difficult pregnancy.
"My mother's famous friend" was how Edie described Libba Charles to her classmates, using Libba as social currency for playground popularity. If the parties when Libba visited contributed to Allegra's drinking habit, Edie believes she's grown up unanchored and uncommitted because Frances was gone, away with Libba.
Because their mother loved Libba, the three sisters understood they were meant to love Libba, too. But Libba was difficult to love, dryly witty or aloof or puzzlingly adult. Most of all, it was difficult loving someone who siphoned, by her presence, even by her phone calls, love from a person who was supposed to belong to you. Hard to stand on the outside looking in to a relationship in which you seemed superfluous. Easy to resent the person responsible for compromised affection. A person who predated you; who knew more about your mother than you ever would.
But Alice and Allegra and Edie couldn't erase Libba, forget her if they tried. She was singular. A character. A personality. Quick, brash, mercurial, effusive, and impossible to categorize. "A living outrage," John Wilson also called Libba Charles, "wide open."
"What's she like?" people pressed them as adults, having read her books, and the sisters themselves would be hard-pressed to describe this bundle of contradictions.
"Intriguing," Alice once offered, though she has a few more adjectives she'd currently use to describe Libba: thoughtless, caustic. When Alice was a child, Libba thought nothing of correcting her English: "Don't say this girl she hates my guts." "Don't say can't hardly."
"Why isn't Libba married?" Alice once asked her father.
Behind a shield of newspaper, he'd said, "Because she beat the boys at everything. Tennis, studies. Let that be a lesson to you."
From the kitchen Frances amended her husband's answer. "Because she doesn't want to be married." Though she had eventually married, twice; to Sam, a poet and Russell, a book reviewer.
"Mysterious," Allegra said. "Where do you live?" she'd asked Libba, who seemed to come from nowhere. Allegra had never seen a picture of a house, an apartment.
"Web City," Libba answered.
"I'll tell you when you're older." And when Allegra turned sixteen, she had: "Halfway up a spider's ass."
"Complicated," Edie, as usual, hedged. Once a popular, entertaining fixture on the speaking circuit, twenty-five years earlier Libba Charles had abruptly ceased giving any sort of speech or interview or lecture about her life and her writing. But she'd had no qualms about mining personal morsels of her close friend's—and her daughters'—lives for material. "Coarse," Alice would add. "She cussed." Not cursed, the prissy term Frances used, but cussed. "Try this, it'll knock your dick off," Alice had heard Libba say to John as she handed him a martini.
"Lucky," Edie would shake her head. Wherever Libba went, she always managed to see somebody famous: Jackie Kennedy shopping in Saks, Walter Cronkite on an airplane, Paul Newman in a bar.
"Dowdy," Alice said, because Libba dressed in the same ratty clothes every visit. Jeans and men's shirts, madras Bermudas, the same piqué cocktail shift summer after summer.
"Libba's not dowdy," Frances said. "She's so beautiful she doesn't have to bother with what she wears."
Excerpted from Now You Know by Susan Kelly. Copyright © 2007 Susan Kelly. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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