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The Holland Suggestions
By John Dunning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 John Dunning
All rights reserved.
TWO SEPARATE FORCES, LONG since banished from my life and buried, returned that fall to put the nightmare in motion. Naturally, at first I tried to push it away, but once it started, there was no stopping it. Judy brought her pressures to the conscious element; my subconscious did the rest. Before I could begin to understand it I was drawn in and found no way to go but straight ahead to the end of it.
Judy's part, limited as it was, provided the initial impetus. It was Judy who first began to ease my mind—then jolted it—into that early critical examination of my past. Though she never asked specifically about the Holland experiments, her interest in her mother was tied directly to the time when Robert Holland and I were taking those long dips into my id. Either I was too blind to see it in its early stages, or my subconscious had screened it out the way psychologists say it sometimes does for self-protection. Later it became too obvious to ignore. The beginning was probably sometime after Judy's fourteenth birthday, and I began to notice it the following year. Suddenly I saw that she was experimenting, and learning many things about her mother from my reactions to her experiments. She's quite a kid, Judy. She looks so much like her mother that I am still startled when she enters a room without warning. Judy has always looked more like Vivian than me; I guess that's her blessing, but it leaves me a strange feeling of sadness and discontent to carry into my middle life. Dull pain, bone deep, that you can never find and snuff out completely. Judy helped bring part of that to the surface.
Teenage girls are a joy. They seem to develop overnight: Now they're kids, and soon there are breasts and curves, and they're testing the old man's reaction to all the artificial lures of womanhood. Judy tried them all, and I let her do it, with one exception, until it had run its course. The exception was orange lipstick. I just hated that, and I told her so. But Judy has always been a sane kid, and I know she would have abandoned it in a week or so anyway. She settled on a subdued makeup that was almost a replica of Vivian's. How she arrived at it I couldn't then guess, but she was developing an amazing instinct for her mother's taste. I thought it had to be instinct, because I knew—wrongly—that she never got any clue to Vivian's character from me. We never talked of Vivian beyond the fact that she had lived and had once been my wife and was Judy's mother. I didn't know where Vivian was and I had no interest in knowing.
I should pause a minute. I've just caught myself in a lie, and if this is to have any value, I guess it should be done without all the little ego-saving games that people always play. In fact, Vivian has always been the most fascinating woman in my life. I would have suppressed my interest in her then, but deep inside me it has never waned. Vivian has affected my relationships with other women through the years, the most recent being my secretary, Sharon Welles. Sharon blames Judy for that, perhaps with good reason, but Judy was merely the manifestation of Vivian. Vivian has always been my millstone. I still do not feel at ease talking about her or even thinking about her beyond those flashes that have passed through my mind several times a day for fifteen years. So when I first noticed Judy's strong resemblance to her mother, when it became so strong that I could not ignore it any more, I began to watch her growth with a morbid brand of depressed fascination. I was eager to write it off as simple mother-to-daughter physical heredity. Now I find my lack of insight into the needs of my growing daughter terrifying. Early in her life, Judy sensed my inhibitions about Vivian and constructed inhibitions of her own. My hangup fed her fantasies, and, in a different way, Vivian became the most fascinating woman in Judy's life too. With her only weapon, her looks, she fought my reluctance to discuss it. With an utter lack of material to go on, Judy reconstructed her mother's image for me. It was a slow process of trial and error. But when I first saw her in one of those 1950s sweaters with her lips touched a pale pink and the hair that she always wore in a bun flowing out behind her, my reaction must have gratified her. I dropped my drink down the front of my shirt.
She refined the image slowly, adding and subtracting touches here and there, but never again did she catch me so unprepared as she had that first time. Gradually I learned to live with the fact that Vivian, in the person of our daughter, whom I also loved very much, had come back to me.
When she wasn't being Vivian, Judy was going through all the perils of adolescence. Boys flocked around, and she was in and out of love more times than I thought possible in a school year. We had some very frank talks that year, the kind that most girls have with their mothers, but I think I handled them well. I strived for an open, honest relationship built on mutual respect, and it seemed complete in every aspect except where Vivian was concerned. Judy's spirit is strong, but her mind is reasonable. I could always guide her, but never boss her, and I think she knew that, though she never put it to a test. My strongest influence over her will always be the value she places on my respect. I hope I can keep that forever, though I have to admit I have occasionally abused it. The Vivian problem seemed to be our only serious hangup. I saw to it that Judy understood about sex at an early age, yet I never failed to marvel at how much solid information she picked up on her own. Street-level sex education in action. When she turned sixteen I suspected that she was going deeper into sexual experimentation than I wanted her to be, and the object of my suspicion—a pimply right guard on the football team—was hardly the man you always hope your daughter will someday bring home. I suspected he was into pot, a rumor I picked up third-hand through the parental grapevine. But I found out how reliable the grapevine was when half the varsity football team was arrested for marijuana possession and Judy's pizza-faced hero was not among them. When the cops came crashing through the door, he and Judy were at the movies.
Naturally, she dropped him just as my doubts were beginning to subside.
The second element in the Holland story began on the same day that the first came to a head.
I awoke that morning two hours before the alarm went off. Beyond my bedroom window there was not even a hint of light, yet instantly I was awake and peering through the darkness for some explanation of what had awakened me. I lay there for several minutes, then turned back my blanket and sat on the edge of the bed. Some noise had done it; I was certain of that, because normally, when the house is quiet, I am a sound sleeper. I did hear a noise; sharp, clicking, like the closing of a door in the lower part of the house. I got up and moved to the door, then peeped out into the hall. At the end of the hallway Judy's door stood open, and the small nightlamp at the head of her bed was on. I moved quietly to the head of the stairs, looked into her room and, satisfied that she was not there, went downstairs. A light was on in the kitchen, and there was a half-finished glass of milk on the table. The back door stood open a crack; it does that unless you slam it hard. I stood just inside the doorway and looked outside. Judy was sitting alone in my backyard workshop. The inside of the workshop was dark, but I could clearly see the round whiteness of her face as she sat at my work table and looked out through the window. I stepped outside and felt the cold night air penetrate my pajamas. The walk across the back lawn was short, less than twenty yards, and I knew that she would see me approach and would already be deciding whether to tell me what was troubling her.
But she didn't see me at all. She was so engrossed in thought that I came right up to the toolshed door without revealing my presence. I was about to speak to her when something held me back: some instinct perhaps, a feeling that my voice would be a gross violation of her privacy. I stopped then and took a step backward. My mind filled with conflicting thoughts. Later I could ask her about it, if that was the proper thing to do. Then I heard her say the word mother. My heart beat faster. She said her mother's name, Vivian, and, in a whisper, words that sounded like "somehow he's got to realize ..." I took two more involuntary steps backward, turned, and walked quickly back to the house.
It was disturbing as hell. I waited for her in the kitchen, watching her intermittently from the window. For more than an hour she did not move. When at last she did come out of the shed I hurried upstairs to avoid embarrassment for both of us. I fell into my bed and lay there until the alarm went off, then got up to shower and shave. As always, she had breakfast ready when I came down, but she did not eat with me.
"I've got to run," she said. "I've got an early test and I need the library time for studying."
She kissed my cheek as she brushed past, and the door slammed as she went out. I walked to the front door and watched her walk away, briskly, as though she were racing the first bell. I went back to the kitchen and thought it through over a second cup of coffee. The conclusion was inescapable: Judy was going through an identity crisis, Vivian was at the root of it and I had promoted it by making Vivian our household Mata Hari.
The question was, what should be done about it now? Without doubt it would all have to come out, but how and when? Soon. Movement and action always helped relieve emotional logjams; I had seen it work many times. I went upstairs. She had closed the door to her room, as always, but I turned the knob and pushed it open. The bed was unmade, and several copies of teen magazines were scattered across the floor. Just as I had seen it three hours ago. I stepped into the room, feeling immediately guilty for violating her sanctuary. But never mind that; I justified it under the righteous cloak of parental concern. I did not touch anything; I did not pry, unless just being there was prying, as I suspect it was. I just walked through the room, stepping carefully around the magazines, and had myself a good look. It was the first time I had ever gone into her room without an invitation, and rightfully, I felt like a prowler.
Since I was a prowler, then, I let my eyes prowl across the top of her bureau. There were lipsticks and a cologne bottle and a few snapshots of Judy and her boyfriends, and one of me. At the end of her bureau lay her lock-up diary, apparently locked, but if she had left without putting it away, perhaps she had neglected to lock it as well. All the answers to my sudden questions would be there, just the turn of a hairpin away; but under no circumstances could I do that. I did not touch it, did not even go near it. In fact, I had just decided that I had already overstepped the rights of parental concern and was turning to leave when I saw, in a corner, the small stack of canvas paintings she had done for art class. Something about that first one caught my eye; it was not one I had seen before, though I had assumed that she always showed me her work. I moved up for a closer look. Yes, it was a new one: a faceless woman standing in a fog, with a deeper blue that might have been a river running behind her. The painting had a ghostly, morbid quality that I hated at once. Her signature was in the lower right corner, with the date below it. The painting was two years old, and I had never seen it.
I flipped back the canvas to look at the painting behind it. This one I knew well; it was the seascape that had won first prize in the freshman competition two years ago. Behind that was another new one, a full-face portrait of Vivian. It was so real and so good that I was truly shocked. It was called Self Portrait by J. Ryan. That was a relief, but when I looked at it again, the relief dissolved. She had painted a small mole over the right cheekbone, where Vivian had always had a mole but where she, Judy, never had. I stood there looking at it for a long time, remembering small things about Vivian that I had put out of my mind years before. In almost every respect the portrait more closely resembled Vivian, just twenty-one years old the last time I had seen her, than it did her sixteen-year-old daughter. I studied it for so long that I had to rush to work; only as I was backing my car out of the garage did I remember my morning schedule of the vital meeting with the boss and an important new contract.
Harper Brothers Construction Company is located in the valley, on the far side of town. The company actually is owned by Al Harper, who bought out his brothers Joe and Vic more than twenty years ago, when all were struggling young builders. Nobody is struggling anymore. Al has grown fat and prosperous, and he pays his employees well. At least, I've got no kick. For a contractor located in a medium-sized semi-Southern town, Al Harper has done all right. He's still a hustler, and he gets plenty of jobs away from the big outfits in Richmond and even in Washington, D.C. But I'll write Al's success story some other time. After my initial reaction to the lateness of the hour, my thoughts came back to personal matters. Before I was halfway across town I had made a decision: The time had come, was long overdue, to get everything about Vivian out in the open. By now I had no doubt that what I was observing was an early symptom of something unhealthy, and it bothered me more the longer I thought about it. Tonight; I would start it tonight: throw out the subject myself and see where it led us. Perhaps that was all that was needed; maybe it would resolve itself. Judy's reaction would tell me everything. If she accepted it, we were still on solid ground. If she withdrew, we might be in trouble. That might mean that what I was observing was not an early symptom, but some advanced indication of her identity involvement with her mother. It was not a thought to start a big day with.
I pulled into the Harper parking lot just behind Sharon Welles. Sharon had parked near the door and was walking briskly into the office before my car had even stopped. Her aloofness was almost part of my life; after all, our little cold war had been going on for almost a year, and there was no reason for her to change tactics now. I shrugged it off, got out, and went through the main office. The working offices at Harper are along a narrow corridor that leads from the showroom to the shop; mine was at the end of the corridor, a two-room job that allowed me to keep a door between Sharon and me. These days, that had to be a plus. I walked through without speaking. She was turned away from me, as always, this time ostensibly looking through the filing cabinet for some document, so there was no need for any morning greeting between us. She would fake it like that until we got through the unpleasant business of beginning the day; then the momentum of the job would carry us through to the end. Sharon played an excellent woman scorned.
With the door closed between us I loosened my tie, hung up my coat, and sat down at my desk. The phone rang immediately.
"Jim? Al Harper."
"Al. You been trying to reach me?"
"Just once; no sweat. Look, we'll have to postpone our meeting this morning. I've got to fly to Richmond."
"If you want to, but I can handle it."
"I'd like to be there. I've already called them and moved it back to next week, okay? So just hang tough till I get back."
That was that. I had blocked out the whole morning for the meeting, and now I had nothing on my agenda until one. I sat at my desk, doodling on my notepad, for about half an hour. Then Sharon came in with the morning mail and the coffee. As usual, we had nothing to say. She poured my coffee, then put a stack of mail on my desk and left, with a malignant glare at the portrait of Judy in my bookcase. That annoyed me; it always had, but there was no way I could thin the bad blood between Judy and Sharon now. So I would have to live with it or find myself a new secretary. Often I thought that that might be the best answer for both of us.
Excerpted from The Holland Suggestions by John Dunning. Copyright © 1975 John Dunning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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