Thirty-Three Swoonsby Martha Cooley
- "The Archivist, Martha Cooley's first novel, was a national bestseller and a "New York Times Notable Book.- With the assurance, complexity, and depth of a work by Bulgakov, DeLillo, or Poe, Martha Cooley's extraordinary second novel is further evidence that she is one of the most gifted writers at work today.
- Little, Brown and Company
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By Martha Cooley
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Martha Cooley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA BITTER medicinal smell, something like iodine. Then a sudden clearing, blankness in my nostrils. And then jasmine, gorgeously subtle at first but soon heavy, pungent, fetid: as if jasmine blossoms were rotting, as if rottenness itself underlay the fragrance, lending a brown tinge to the blossoms.
And now a murky iron odor, reminding me of something. I can't find the name for it. Images flicker across my closed eyelids. A city, not American, someplace in Eastern Europe. Sarajevo? No, this city is grander, imperial, with massive buildings-St. Petersburg, it must be St. Petersburg. Yes, the Winter Palace. I smell wet wool and sweat and excitement. There's a crowd in the palace square, I'm in the midst of thousands of people. We're participants in one of those vast spectacles Russians used to stage on the streets during the Revolution: reenactments of battles, with ordinary citizens playing the roles of Bolsheviks and Czarists, and soldiers playing themselves.
I hear the roar of artillery, rifles, handguns. People are shouting all around me; a great rocket soars upward, its noise deafening. Then a hush. Everyone begins fervently singing the "Internationale" while five-pointed red stars light up above the palace. A red banner appears behind it, fierce yet jolly.
The lights begin to dim. Now I see a man, tall and slender, taking a bow on a platform erected at one end of the square. Captured by a spotlight, he's wearing a black cape; although his eyes are masked, the rest of his face is very pale. A large placard, suspended by ropes, drops down behind him. It appears to be an advertisement for a play. The man in the cape points at it enthusiastically, then calls out to the spectators.
Announcing Columbine's Scarf, he proclaims. Ladies and gentlemen, my theater troupe performs this marvelous drama so strangely, you won't recognize the original! We've got a real band with a conductor, and action right in the audience-involving you, dear spectator! Come see it!
A clown emerges from beneath the platform. Clambering onto the stage, his movements jerky and awkward, he joins the caped man. Together they make vulgar gestures and goofy faces, to widespread laughter. Then a vast, all-white curtain falls, concealing the entire platform and square.
A teenaged boy slouches onto the forestage. He is wearing a black trench coat and a mask, and he's joined by another boy, another, another; they run in circles, a blur of trench coats and masks. Above them flaps a large black banner lettered in white. WELCOME TO COLUMBINE, it reads.
The caped man reappears, pushing his way through a slit in the white curtain. He's waving frantically, trying to get the boys' attention. Please, don't do it! he cries. No more death!
Then I see my father, directly behind the caped man. Apparently unconcerned with what is happening around him, he produces a large bottle of perfume, opens it, and sprinkles its contents on the curtain. Once again I smell the sharp odor of decaying jasmine.
The caped man inhales deeply, then begins to smile-knowingly, it seems. Something in his expression suggests he's been waiting for this very moment. Moving to one side of the forestage, he turns to face the opposite side, tosses off his cape, raises his arms above his head, and initiates a graceful, swift cartwheel, then another, another, unhesitatingly.
Sorrow! he exclaims as he travels head over heels across the stage. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow! His rhythms are perfectly synchronized, yet his speech and movements are entirely at odds, which makes the overall effect indefinably compelling-light and urgent at once. Watching, I know I've never witnessed anything like it.
The man cartwheels off into the wings. Alone now, Jordan pulls a book of matches from his pocket. He strikes one and holds it to the curtain, which bursts into a dense, silvery mist that evaporates-poof!-and is instantly gone, along with everything else. My eyes open.
THE PALM of my left hand was brick red and sticky. I sat up in bed, peering at it.
It seemed I'd reopened the cut bisecting the pad of my thumb, and it had bled during the night. There were spots on my sheets, a delicate trail of them.
I got out of bed, rinsed my hand, put ointment on the cut, and bandaged it tightly. Then I regarded my eyes in the mirror. The taupe-colored skin below them was just a little puffy. Not bad, given how fitfully I'd slept.
I blinked, remembering the iron odor. Yes, the smell of blood: my thumb.
And gunfire, something called Columbine-I must've been dreaming about the shootings at that high school in Colorado. But wasn't this dream taking place somewhere else? A public square, a massive open-air stage. A scent, too. And Jordan, yes-what the hell was he doing there?
I've always been a lively dreamer. Normally my dreams are strung-together nonsense, each episode like a crazy quilt or a spilled set of puzzle pieces. None of the edges fit together right; the composition is semi-coherent at best. But this particular dream was different. It had the feel of a real-life event, and Jordan was in it-a most abnormal occurrence. I hadn't dreamed of my father before. Ever.
AS I was fixing breakfast, the dream temporarily forgotten, my phone rang. I was surprised to hear Danny's voice.
"You up?" she asked.
"Sure," I replied. It wasn't Danny's habit to phone me first thing on a Sunday morning, though that didn't mean she had something important to tell me. She might simply feel like chatting. Or hearing me chat. Talk as blotting paper, something to soak up spills of feeling.
Her mother-my cousin, Eve Pell-had died two months earlier, without warning, after contracting bacterial meningitis. Since then Danny's moods had become difficult to gauge. Some days she'd call me repeatedly, gabbling about trivia, as if she were the most empty-headed twenty-five-year-old alive and her mother's death hadn't affected her in the least. Other days I'd hear nothing from her, leave messages at her office, and get no callback. I'd start worrying, wondering if she was holed up in her apartment in Brooklyn, not eating, refusing all contact. One day she'd shown up at my shop and begun to heave things around. She didn't break anything, and I managed to calm her down, but the episode revealed how shaky her hold was. I wondered how she was able to get through a day on the job without coming unstuck.
"You by any chance going to your shop today?" she asked.
"I am, actually," I said. Normally I don't work on Sundays. But I had things to catch up on, and the weather forecast was dour.
"I'm having my coffee now. What's up?"
"Just wondering if I might stop by later for a little visit."
"Like when?" Something in Danny's tone was putting me on alert.
"After I leave here. Say, five-thirty." Now I realized she was calling from her workplace, a graphic-design firm on Seventh Avenue. I could hear background chatter, several early-bird colleagues conversing in the hallway.
"Sure," I said. "But you're at work now? Why on a Sunday?"
"Oh, everyone's here. We all had to come in for this big project that's way behind schedule. Total mismanagement. Welcome to the world of design."
"You get paid extra for this?"
"Everything else all right?"
"All right," she echoed neutrally. Not for the first time, I was conscious of how much her voice resembled her mother's. The same pitch, the same rough timbre, just this side of gravelly. Since my cousin's death I'd had a few uncanny experiences of answering my phone and thinking Eve before registering the reality of her daughter on the other end.
"Don't be staring at any walls, okay?" I said, aiming for a spot between jokiness and concern.
"I've got tons to do here," Danny responded evenly. "Actually it's been good to be busy with something other than Mom's closets." She paused, then added: "I've packed up the last of her stuff, by the way. All I have to do now is ask Sam if he'll cart some boxes to the Salvation Army. Then the whole thing's behind me."
"Good," I said. "So I'll catch you at the end of the day."
I HUNG up the phone and finished my coffee, contemplating Danny's call.
The whole thing. She'd been referring, of course, to the process of emptying first her mother's gardening store and then Eve's rent-stabilized apartment. The latter task had turned into more of an ordeal than it should have, thanks to Eve's landlord. Though I'd paid him for an extra half month to give Danny more time, he'd been hounding her relentlessly since her mother's death. One evening he'd threatened to toss any remaining possessions out the back window and into the alley.
That focused my own pent-up anger. After staging a fight with him in the building's dingy lobby, I'd used one of Eve's keys to score a series of long gashes across the front door of her apartment. "Art for art's sake," I'd said to Danny, happy to make her laugh.
So the clearing-out job was done, yet the whole thing, as Danny called it, wasn't behind her-couldn't possibly be. It was still unspooling, a chain of improbabilities whose initiating event had been that most ordinary of complaints, a headache. With astonishing swiftness, Eve's symptoms-a pounding head and stiff neck-had been followed by delirium, coma, a spreading purplish rash, and blood poisoning, which was what had ultimately killed her. Wham, one doctor at the hospital had said (not realizing I was eavesdropping) to another, a young intern. Seventy-two hours, man! Never saw anything like it.
To me Eve's meningitis had arrived as a natural disaster might have-some unannounced tornado stem-winding down an unsuspecting street, everyone looking the other way. And something more was en route, too. I could feel it. Not another death but a shake-up of some sort, necessary and unavoidable, for which no preparation would be possible.
GATHERING MY things for work, I glanced at the Arts section of the paper before shoving it into my bag. Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus, would be coming to Madison Square Garden, and tickets were going on sale that week.
Unlike lots of plays, circus acts are always both funny and sad, sweet and grotesque at once. They're an old art form, after all-old, wise, and playful. I ought to go, I thought. It'd do me good. And I should take Danny. She'd love it.
A switch flipped in my memory: clowns. A dream (had it been only last night?), involving my father in a circuslike performance, outdoors, in a strange city. Not American, perhaps Central European ... Jordan had been doing something with perfume. And there'd been another man, wearing a cape, who'd cartwheeled across the stage. A theater director, I was sure of that. I thought I recognized him, yet couldn't think who he might be.
And the scent in the dream-jasmine, yes, definitely jasmine. But not quite right. A bit off, somehow?
LATER THAT morning, shortly before noon, Stuart and Sam entered my shop at the same moment. Having nearly collided at the door, they were as taken aback as I; I wasn't expecting either of them. They greeted each other cordially.
Stuart I've known thirty-two years. He's short and thin, with large gray eyes and a minimal gray beard. His body's supple and agile, a perfect mime's body. In college in New England, which is where I met him, Stuart was something of a celebrity. He used to hire himself out as a mime for community events and frat parties, and during those four years he made enough money to cover his massive book bills. His dorm room looked like a very cramped library. Books were stacked everywhere but in one corner where Stuart stored his props: top hats, canes, feathers, face paint, and black patent-leather spats.
He still performs occasionally, for friends-never formally. Sometimes I wonder if he's missed his real calling, but Stuart claims he's happier watching a mime than being one. A mime's work is terribly gloom-inducing, he says. That's how Stuart talks. He strings together words that might seem affected coming out of someone else's mouth, but sound entirely natural emerging from his. When he speaks, his hands talk, too. He's got remarkably flexible wrists and broad palms, each with five long snakes attached: his fingers. I've never met a man with nicer nails.
Stuart and I first encountered each other in our college's theater on a cold Saturday in December. That autumn, having worked hard and happily on two productions, I'd decided I wanted to be the theater's props manager for the rest of the year. Normally this job was rotated between two students, but on that afternoon I cornered the director and began lobbying for a change in policy. She was not easily convinced, and we began sparring.
Stuart happened to be waiting around for an audition to begin. Hearing me press my case, he sidled up to the director and began tipping his head from side to side like a slightly manic cuckoo bird. Both the director and I fell silent, at which point Stuart launched into a spot-on pantomime of our debate. We began chuckling at him, no longer contestants but an audience. Winding up his improvisation with a bow, Stuart said: "Give this girl whatever she wants." His voice, which I was hearing for the first time, was as attractively reedy as his body.
"Who is she, anyway?" he added, pointing a sharp forefinger at me while aiming his words at the director. "Camilla Archer?-never heard of her! But I can tell she's good with props. Only a totally obsessive person would hunt you down and harass you right before an audition! Has this girl not heard of an opportune moment?"
Won over, the director relented. That's Stuart: he performs a bit of magic and things change, often for the better. But he's a jouster, and I'm an easy mark for him. "If we were in a spook house at an amusement park," he asked me once, "and you were really scared, and we were holding hands, would you let go of my hand if I ordered you to?" When I shook my head, he jeered, "Of course you would-to prove how brave you are!" I asked him why, in that case, he'd even bother to order me. "Do you have any idea," he retorted, "how appealing you are when you're unnerved?"
SAM SAID something similar to me-I like it when you're flustered-soon after we met. I took this as a good sign, proof of his ability to see behind surfaces.
That was a long time ago. Sam and I met in Eve's gardening store. We lived together for two years, were married for seven, and have been divorced for nine-which means we've been co-orbital, as he puts it, for eighteen years. We both still live in the West Village, and we still co-own my shop, The Fourth Wall, which we opened at the start of our marriage.
Excerpted from Thirty-Three Swoons by Martha Cooley Copyright © 2005 by Martha Cooley. Excerpted by permission.
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Loved this book. Can't wait to read the archivist. It's interesting how Cooley weaves so many different facets of a story together...
Read for book club no one could finish the book it was awful. A big don't bother.