To the Birdhouseby Cathleen Schine
Newlywed Alice Brody appears to have the perfect life. The one fly in the ointment is her mother's detestable boyfriend, Louie Scifo: champion of incredibly bad taste and a bona fide stalker. After Alice's mother cuts him loose, Louie's determination to win back her love casts Alice's whole family into disarray. So Alice embarks on a mission to rid her mother of… See more details below
Newlywed Alice Brody appears to have the perfect life. The one fly in the ointment is her mother's detestable boyfriend, Louie Scifo: champion of incredibly bad taste and a bona fide stalker. After Alice's mother cuts him loose, Louie's determination to win back her love casts Alice's whole family into disarray. So Alice embarks on a mission to rid her mother of Louie once and for all, in this rambunctious comedy of manners that is at once "dizzying, hilarious, authentic, and original" (Washington Post Book World).
“Schine has a delicious sense of humor….She has given us delightfully quirky characters who deserve a permanent place in the pantheon of comic creations.” The New York Times
“Cathleen Schine is a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen. She has written an elegantly comic novel.” People
“Who else but Cathleen Schine can graft a delicate comedy of manners onto a slapstick farce with such unerring poise and wit? A novel that manages to be this funny is an achievement; one that also possesses grace and depth is a rare bird indeed.” Chicago Tribune
“A very modern comedy that skewers family life with heart and wit.” New York magazine
“Funny…joyful…wonderful.” The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
Nothing sounded more
Nothing sounded more inviting to her than settling down. Settling down would be like curling up; it would be like stretching out: it would be comfortable. After circling around a few times, like an Irish setter on the rug before the hearth, she would give a sigh, wag her tail, and then, in a delirious descent toward calm and stability, she would settle down. Alice Brody was getting married.
She was marrying a tall, distracted man named Peter Eiger. Alice was a generous person, in her way, and so it occurred to her that many other people should settle down and get married to tall, distracted men, too. She wanted other people to be as happy and contented as she now planned to be, and she was determined to help them and not to rest until she had succeeded. Still a little startled by her own good fortune, Alice looked around her like a farmer who’s struck oil and decides to clean up the tacky little town nearby. She would build a movie theater and a new jail. There would be sidewalks.
The prime candidate for reconstruction was her mother, who now stood buttoning Alice’s wedding dress up the back and smiling for the photographer who had come in to record the preparations. When the photographer was finished, Brenda Brody looked in the mirror and saw herself, pink and smiling, with several fat, turquoise-colored curlers bobbing and swinging from her hair.
“Hmm,” she said.
Alice was happy and had decided her mother must be made happy, too. But how could she be? Alice still couldn’t believe, not really, that her mother had a boyfriend like Louie Scifo.
“Don’t you dare invite him to my wedding,” she had said.
“Of course you don’t mean that, dear,” her mother said mildly. “It would be too inconsiderate to me.”
Alice had long since despaired of helping her father find happiness. He had, first of all, divorced her mother, but worse, he had taken it on himself to marry someone else—someone not at all like Peter.
Holding her father’s arm, Alice walked down the aisle of the wood-paneled room. This was the Yale Club, her father’s favorite institution, preferred by far to the university itself. Boolah, Boolah, she thought happily and looked up at Dad for an instant. They both turned their heads, trying not to giggle stupidly. She looked toward the rows of guests and saw her grandmother sniffling into a lace handkerchief. The night Alice’s grandmother met Peter, she had pulled Alice into another room while everyone ate dessert, and said, “So? so?” Months later, when Alice told her she and Peter were getting married, her grandmother hugged and kissed Alice and clapped her hands and said, “Oh! Oh! I’m so happy and please God don’t let him turn out like that malekhamoves your father he should go to hell the dirty bitch what he did to my Brenda,” with a happy grin on her soft, white face.
Alice stood beside Peter and listened to the rabbi talking, without hearing what he said. The rabbi’s first wife had committed suicide, she remembered. From the corner of her eye she could see Peter in profile, could see his long, narrow face and the high brow that was always just a little creased, so that Peter seemed to be permanently thinking. She had first realized she was in love with Peter when she noticed she was consistently giving him the largest portions of good things to eat.
After the ceremony, Alice stood in a row of relatives shaking hands with other relatives. Her mother was next to her, and next to her mother, her father. Alice looked at them, for a moment remembering what an uncomfortable couple they had made.
“Now you can go dance the first dance, dear,” her mother said when everyone had wandered into the grand, sparkling dining room. “Go with Peter.”
“It’s too embarrassing,” Alice said.
“You only have to dance if you want to,” said her father, which almost made Alice want to. “After all, this is your day.” Her father patted her hand, then made a low, strangled sound, covered his eyes suddenly, and walked away, his shoulders shaking.
Alice’s mother continued to lecture her on the necessity of a first dance. She told her she was probably a repressed exhibitionist and would have to seek professional help after the reception. Brenda was a child psychologist.
“Yes, Mom,” Alice said. She was watching a small, rather gaunt man who had appeared at a table near them. He placed something in the centerpiece, then dashed away to the next table, where he repeated the procedure.
Louie Scifo Lives, Alice thought. She had not noticed him before. Now she watched as he moved quickly around the room, compact and horrifyingly efficient, sweeping from table to table with wiry, vigorous force. He was not young, and his hair, which was long and luxuriant, emphasized the signs of age in his face. He kept pushing it back with both hands, like a teenage girl. His round eyes were moist, the whites not white at all, but tan, like a horse’s eyes.
Alice walked over to the table and parted the flowers. She saw a small white card, a business card, tucked among the blossoms. She picked it up and read aloud: “Scifo Art Gallery Including TOP Jewels and Gems,” and then Brenda’s address.
“That Louie!” Brenda said. She laughed. Then she called to her son and his girlfriend, a Japanese graduate student spending a year at Columbia. “Yuki, come sit with us. Willie, tell your sister to dance.”
“Why do you think he’s putting his business card in all the flowers?” Peter asked. Louie was making his way around the room, from table to table.
“Is this American custom?” asked Willie’s girlfriend.
Alice buried her face in her hands.
Her mother seemed not to have heard. “Dance, Alice,” she said, as if she were training a puppy. “Dance.”
* * *
Alice danced with Peter as best she could. She had refused to attend Westport’s dance classes for young ladies and gentlemen. “And now I must pay the price,” she said.
Peter had been to dancing school, and he said, “Just shuffle your feet.”
Alice put her face against his shoulder, shuffled her feet, and felt content. She realized she had been smiling for over an hour. The grin just stayed on her face, stretching her mouth, and it was beginning to hurt. “Peter,” she said dreamily from his shoulder, “I’d like to kill my mother.”
Louie Scifo was making his way across the dance floor, and Alice could tell he was headed directly for her, like a guided missile, although he made several detours and loop-the-loops, swooping toward people with his arms outstretched.
“Good, that’s good,” he said reassuringly to the band, embracing the accordion player.
“Quick,” Alice said, “dance over there,” and Peter directed her smoothly in the direction of the buffet table.
“Behave, Alice,” he said.
“Dance with your mother,” Louie was saying to Alice’s brother.
Alice didn’t want to behave. She wanted Louie to behave, which meant, in her mind, to go home.
“That’s beautiful,” Louie was saying to Peter’s parents, who were dancing cheek to cheek. “Just beautiful.”
Louie shook hands with several people, threw his arms around an elderly man as he introduced himself, and continued his approach.
“Dance with your mother,” she heard him say to someone she didn’t recognize.
“Dance with your mother,” he said to Peter, appearing beside him. “Allow me to cut in and hold your most lovely bride in my lonely arms. Dance with your mother.”
“I think Alice is supposed to dance the second dance with her father,” Peter said. “Isn’t that the tradition?”
Alice looked up at him gratefully, although she suspected his motives were mixed. She had told him earlier that she would not dance with her father because he paid her mother insufficient alimony and was from Canada.
“Far be it from me,” Louie was saying, holding up his hands and stepping back.
Alice glanced around the room in search of her father and spotted him carrying two glasses of champagne toward an empty table. Nearby, his new wife, Patricia, danced with a tall, skinny, bored-looking boy, her son, Charles. One of the reasons her father had married Patricia, Alice thought, was that she came complete with a nine-year-old son, who her father had not had the foresight to realize would inevitably grow up, as in fact he had done. The nine-year-old, now sixteen, sang in a rock band specializing in songs of the sixties, the same songs that had caused her father to cover his face in disgust and anger when Alice, years ago—before they became artifacts of nostalgia—had played them loudly on her record player. It gratified Alice to think of her father suffering in his easy chair as the lanky teenager banged mercilessly on his drums in the basement playroom, singing, “We gotta get outa this place.” Another reason her father had married Patricia, according to Alice’s theory, was that Patricia informed him that the head of state in Canada was the Queen. Alice always pictured Patricia in a tweed suit and sensible shoes, briskly walking her hounds, although Patricia had no hounds (dogs were known to shed).
Alice imagined her with hounds because she thought that’s how her father imagined her, striding along, hearty and very nearly British in the gray drizzle of Vancouver, for the weather there was very British indeed. Dad’s Anglophilia was accepted by Alice the way another daughter might treat a parent’s senility: she gently worked around it, trying not to notice the careful combing of the stiff mustache, smiling indulgently at the proud lectures on parliamentary government or the benefits of commonwealth.
“Yup, that’s certainly the tradition,” Alice said to Louie. But he was already engaged in steering Peter toward his mother. He did turn around long enough to say sternly, “Dance with your father,” and summon Alan Brody with a shout and a wave.
Alice’s father was broad and tall, and dancing with him, Alice could see nothing but the pinstripes of his jacket, his white shirt, and his tie, held in place at the collar with a gold pin. She could feel the small ring that had been his grandfather’s on his finger. The tie he was wearing was an ugly one, which surprised her. She attributed the gold-and-green design to Canadian fashion.
“I was waiting for a waltz,” he said. “I love to waltz.” And then he burst into tears.
Her father was a sentimental sort. When Alice was in the hospital for so long, so many years ago, he had stood by her bedside and cried. When he divorced Brenda, he had cried on the witness stand while testifying to an untidy house. He had probably cried when he’d married Patricia Hum. He had certainly done so when he called the hospital to tell Alice about their wedding, a civil ceremony he found moving in its simplicity. If he did not always pay much attention to the sorrows of others, he certainly felt deeply everything that happened to him. And now, surrounded by his old family and his new, he was probably feeling the loss of Alice and Willie, perhaps even Brenda, and blaming himself, if not for leaving them, then for leaving when he did.
Alice began to cry, too. They stood at the edge of the dance floor while she blew her nose in her father’s handkerchief. When she gave it back, a white crumpled ball, he pushed it into his jacket pocket, cleared his throat, and asked if she remembered standing on his feet to dance as a little girl. He began to weep again.
“You don’t have to feel so guilty, Daddy,” she said magnanimously. On this, her wedding day, she would dispense a pardon. It was only right. He was her father, she was married, and she could remember standing on his feet to dance. She could remember it clearly.
“I don’t feel guilty,” he said.
“Well, you should. You certainly should.”
“But you just said—”
“Never mind, Daddy.” She tried to steer him in a different direction.
“Alice, just follow.”
“Well, let’s dance over there, thataway,” she said. “No, wait a second, what about over here?” But no matter which way she and Alan Brody went, she could see Louie Scifo, smiling, stepping lightly through the crowd, toward her.
“Alice, what’s the matter with you?” her father asked. He stopped altogether and stood, puzzled, and wiped his still damp eyes.
“Nothing,” Alice said. Stalked by Mom’s boyfriend, that’s all, Dad, she thought. A very dignified person for whom I have the greatest respect.
“Your mother’s, um, friend, seems a fine chap,” her father had said to her earlier.
“Yes,” she had said helplessly, covering the hideous blot on her mother’s reputation as best she could. “Yes.”
“There’s Louie’s little bride,” Louie was saying. “May Louie have this dance? Dance with your mother,” he said to Alice’s father.
“She’s dead,” Alice said, and her father began to cry again.
Louie Scifo held one of Alice’s hands; he put his other arm around her waist; he opened his mouth in a wide smile. He wore a diamond pinkie ring that she thought was not only ugly but hot. She wondered if he would tell her to dance with her mother. She hoped so.
“Shall we dance, milady?” he said.
As Louie began patiently to lead her around the room in a waltz, Alice saw him glance at her mother, who was talking to the maître d’.
“You know, Alice, this is your wedding day, the day you become what you might call, what you might call a woman,” Louie said. He stared at Brenda.
Alice wondered if Louie would release her in order to start noisily accusing Brenda of flirting with the help, as was his custom. And why didn’t her mother flirt with the maître d’, she wondered, a pleasant, respectable man in a tuxedo who was gainfully employed. He wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t in a profession, but neither was he dressed in a baby-blue suit and brown patent-leather boots, drunk and placing his hand on Alice’s bottom.
“Now, your mother,” Louie said, still watching Brenda and the maître d’, “she’s a very warm and emotional woman. Passionate, you understand me?”
She removed Louie’s hand and sighed. She wished she could get angry enough with him someday to slap his face or holler at him or spit or throw a stone. But, instead, she merely felt a drifting, enervated dismay. He just didn’t seem possible. Not in her life, with her mother, at her wedding. So she never did much of anything about Louie except avoid him and, occasionally, lecture her mother about him, and then feel bad afterward. Now, dancing with Louie, Alice felt a little guilty at the unhappiness those lectures had caused her mother, although clearly it was Louie’s fault for being objectionable enough to cause Alice to try to turn her mother against him in the first place.
“Thank you for the lovely vase,” she told Louie.
“A lovely vase for a lovely lady,” Louie said, and Alice hoped he would not put his hand back on her behind, although she knew Louie’s occasional pinch or lascivious look had no real intention behind it. He had once given her a clingy nightgown, chosen by her mother, for Christmas, and a card with this message:
To the One I love
Here I’m the Dirty Old Man
I wish I was Young
And gay to see You in this—
You and I with your loveliness
Body and Soul
For you are a lovely Woman
To have a Man
Want you hold you and love you
“He’s sort of a romantic,” Alice’s mother remarked when she read the card.
“Sort of,” said Alice.
* * *
Alice looked unhappily at Louie. He swung her around, saying, “La dolce vita, you catch my drift?” Her chin was well over the top of Louie’s head as they danced, and when she grimaced, he couldn’t tell. Alice grimaced at Peter, who was dancing with his mother.
“See that, see that?” Louie was saying, pointing at the couple. “That Peter, he’s a good boy.”
Alice thought, Yes, he is a good boy. He loomed over his mother, a tiny person whose voice could be heard in far-off provinces. “Don’t neglect your triglycerides, Peter…”
Alice reflected on how much her feet hurt, how they throbbed inside her shoes, a condition she blamed on Louie. At my own wedding, she thought. My own wedding.
She did notice, however, that her own wedding was moving along in spite of her sore feet and her unspeakable dancing partner. Well, good, she thought. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. The band, an accordion, clarinet, and saxophone, alternated between delirious, wailing klezmer, during which people swung themselves around in a sloppy hora, and familiar wedding fox-trots and jitterbugs. Alice wondered if almost everyone her age—everyone but Willie and Peter—had skipped dancing school, for she observed that while the older couples glided and spun during these dances, their children seemed content to stand almost completely still, swaying, as if they were on the deck of a ship, or feeling ill. That was a pleasant thought—that no one else could dance, either. She looked at the table where the buffet was laid out. Most of the activity centered around a gigantic smoked salmon her father had brought with him from British Columbia. But the chafing dishes were doing a pretty brisk business as well, and Alice nodded approvingly, like an attentive shopkeeper. She looked suddenly at Louie Scifo. She had almost forgotten him.
“ ‘I-I-I’ll be seeing you in a-a-all the o-o-old familiar places…’ ” he sang along with the band, winking at Alice’s grandmother as they danced by.
Alice noticed that the Brodys’ neighbor from Westport, Jack Mandell, was walking toward her.
Alice smiled at Jack. Short and solid, Jack walked in bursts—quick explosions of energy that carried him a certain distance, then left him there to stand and recoup before they carried him off again. This had always seemed to Alice to give him an air of bustling importance and power. She had been very fond of him as a child, and also a little afraid.
“May I cut in?” Jack said.
“But of course,” said Louie in an exaggerated French accent.
Alice put her arms around Jack and kissed him. They danced off, starting and stopping like a cold car.
“I thought I should cut in. And then Willie said, you know, with the, with the, with Louie,” he said. “With the dancing.”
“Thank you,” said Alice.
“I thought maybe,” said Jack, who favored somewhat mysterious sentence fragments. “On account of that.”
“With Louie with the dancing,” Alice said. She had known Jack for as long as she could remember.
“That’s what I thought,” Jack said, and Alice put her head on his shoulder, comforted by this unchanging remnant of the past. She thought of all the summers she had spent hanging around the Mandells’ house when their own children, who were older than Alice, were away at camp. She’d felt a happy responsibility toward Jack and Nancy, who were obviously incomplete without their kids, in need of a temporary fill-in, in need of Alice. She used to sit importantly in Jack’s driveway, looking up at him on his ladder, watching his every move as he painted his house. Sometimes, on oppressively hot days, Alice would walk into the Mandells’ house and settle herself into a corner, watching particles of dust drift along beams of sunlight, enthralled by the chill of the air-conditioning. She would sit there, quite still, for hours sometimes, until Jack or his wife, Nancy, came in and jumped at the unexpected sight of the silent child.
Jack was apparently thinking of the same time, because he said, “Remember? With the painting?”
“Yes, I do remember,” Alice said. “Of course I remember.”
Jack and Nancy still lived in Westport, in the same house, the same summer chill. They had always seemed a miraculous couple to Alice, so busy, so completely engaged in the routine of being a family. They were still busy. Every year, Jack climbed his ladder and painted his house white. After work, in the summer twilight, he mowed the lawn, up and down, hour after hour. “It’s relaxing,” he would say, when asked why he mowed a lawn that had been mowed by the gardener that morning. In the winter, with the first flake of snow, you could hear the scraping of Jack’s snow shovel on the paved driveway, back and forth, soothing and seemingly forever. Nancy could still be found standing behind the ironing board, surrounded by piles of freshly laundered towels and shirts and sheets, pushing the iron across the smooth arm of a permanent-press blouse. “It’s so relaxing,” she would say. All summer long, there was ice tea and watermelon and bowls of cherries in the Mandells’ refrigerator. It was a household that never ran out of anything, not even Mallomars.
A friend of Peter’s, a bearded English professor who had devoted his career, as well as a large portion of his conversation, to an emotionally charged campaign to promote the reputation of Wilkie Collins, pushed through the dancers and tapped Jack’s shoulder.
When Jack had sputtered off, he said, “Peter suggested I remove you from the grasp of that person. Your mother’s boyfriend.”
“Jack?” Alice said. She was about to explain when she allowed herself the momentary luxury of imagining that Jack, not Louie, was her mother’s boyfriend. “Yes,” she finally said, “yes. Thank you.”
“I’ve rescued the Woman in White,” he said, beaming.
“Oh, good,” Alice said.
When the dance was over, Alice walked among the tables, making her way over to Willie and Yuki. Willie, who had recently drifted into Ottoman Studies, had mercifully left his fez at home today. He and Yuki had met at Columbia’s School of International Affairs, a name he found uproariously funny. (“Get it? Get it?”)
“I sent Jack to rescue you,” Willie said. “You know, Louie is a big pain. I mean, he tells me to dance with Mom, like I’m not going to dance with Mom at your wedding, I mean, he doesn’t have to tell me to dance with my own mother.”
“Yeah, well, now he’s preoccupied, anyway,” Alice said, and glanced over at Louie, who was dancing with Mom, his face buried in her chest, his hands clutching her waist. Alice was tempted to say something else—“Blech!” for example—but stopped herself.
“Willie is so very ambivalent toward his mother,” Yuki said. “But this is so common ambivalence of Jewish young male. In my studies of—I have told you, Willie, you must read Roth, you must read Malamud, all you read is E. P. Thompson—in my studies this is, this is trope, absolute trope. And now, shall we dance, now?”
Alice sat down at a table with her friend Katie and Katie’s husband, Mike.
“I went to Yale,” Mike said.
“And now you have gone to the Yale Club,” Alice said.
“There is no Florida Institute of Technology Club,” Katie said sadly.
Alice walked toward the table where some of her college friends sat. There was James, a skinny giant in a baggy Italian gray silk suit, red in the face from an acrobatic hora. Her friend Cindy was there with her husband. They were in an unsuccessful rock band and shared each other’s earrings. One of Alice’s friends, her former roommate Caroline, now a struggling actress, had come all the way from L.A. She gleamed with studied, California good health—her smooth, tan skin; her shaggy blond hair; even her dress, which resembled a leotard. Alice hadn’t seen her in years, only spoken to her on the telephone. In fact, she had not remained terribly close to any of her college friends. They had moved back to Cleveland, or they lived too far downtown. But when she and Peter decided to get married, Alice felt a surge of nostalgia for these people, and she was happy to see them now, together at a table, admiring each other and being admired. They used to dress for their cafeteria dinners.
Caroline put her arms around Alice. “A married lady!” she cried. “Soon, a washer-dryer.”
“Yeah,” Alice said. She wanted a washer and a dryer, actually.
“Alice,” Caroline said, leaning closer, whispering, “I can’t look. I don’t want to look interested.”
“Where?” Alice said. “Look where?”
“At that guy, Alice. Alice, who is that guy?”
“You mean Willie?” she asked, pointing. “That’s my brother.” He danced gracefully with Yuki, moving his large feet and towering body as if they were as light as hers. Alice felt a twinge of irritation that her parents had insisted that Willie go to dancing school but had let her off. He’d objected less violently than she had, but still, her parents’ indulgence had left her at a tremendous social disadvantage.
“Not your little brother, Alice. That guy in the blue suit.”
“Dad?” Alice said.
“Light blue, Alice.”
“He’s an agent, isn’t he?” Caroline said. “The truth, Alice.”
Alice sat staring at Louie Scifo. He stood nearby, talking to one of Brenda’s friends. He had glanced over at Alice and Caroline, but now turned his attention back to Miriam.
Through the chatter of the guests, Alice could hear his voice. “I just wanted you to know,” he was saying.
“But cancer of the spine … Oh, Louie! I’m so sorry,” came the answer.
“Yeah,” said Louie.
Louie had taken hold of Miriam’s hand after she began to tremble. He patted her, gently covering, Alice noticed, her diamond bracelet. For a moment, Alice feared he would lift his fingers to reveal nothing on Miriam’s wrist, that, like a conjurer, he would have made the bracelet disappear. But when he let go of Miriam to pull a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, her jewelry was still intact. Alice was a little disappointed.
Miriam stepped back from the cloud of smoke that had gathered around Louie Scifo. “Three months. Only three months,” she said. “Are they absolutely sure?”
“Yeah,” said Louie bravely.
“Oh dear, I don’t know what to say.”
“I knew you would understand,” Louie said. “What with you just having the double mastectomy and all.”
“Alice,” Caroline was saying, “introduce me. Contacts, Alice, are very important. I could, you know, flirt with him.”
“No,” Alice said. “I can’t have it on my conscience.”
Caroline sighed. “He’s married,” she said.
“No,” Alice said. “He’s not married.”
“Well, that’s okay, then,” said Caroline.
“Yes,” Alice said. “That’s okay.”
* * *
Alice found her mother sitting at a table with an ancient aunt who could not see but pretended she could. Her aunt was smoking from a long cigarette holder, and with her bangs and beaded dress, she looked like a flapper, which she had once been. Alice had seen pictures of her perched in a rumble seat. She had never changed her hair—it fell around her face in a short, swingy bob. Alice suspected that her lively manner was a holdover from those days, too, a bright sophistication that was quite out of fashion.
“Why, who’s that sneaking up on us girls?” cried Aunt Beverly when Alice approached the table and coughed to get her mother’s attention.
“Hi, Aunt Beverly. It’s me, Alice,” Alice said. “The bride,” she added.
“Why, Alice, you cheeky thing, sneaking around. Give your aunt a kiss. Your dress is the living end. Pizzazz!” Aunt Beverly said, staring at Brenda and blowing a smoke ring.
“Thank you,” Alice said. “And you look great, too.” Aunt Beverly did look great. She had eliminated the unpleasant possibility of accidently donning clothes in clashing patterns and colors by buying everything in the same becoming shade of blue, which Brenda helped her locate on quarterly shopping expeditions. “Why, it’s as smart as can be, isn’t it?” she would ask, holding out an orange sweater. “Blue is my color!”
“You always look great, Aunt Beverly. Like a teenager. Mom,” Alice said, pulling at her mother’s sleeve, as Aunt Beverly smiled in quiet enjoyment of the compliment. “Mommy! Louie told Miriam he has spine cancer.”
“Breast cancer, dear. She had breast cancer.”
“Mom,” Alice said very slowly, “Louie told Miriam, a woman who has just had a mastectomy, two mastectomies, that he, Louie Scifo, has cancer of the spine.”
“Tsk, tsk,” said Aunt Beverly. “The poor man.”
Brenda shook her head. “Well,” she said after a pause, “I’m surprised he didn’t say he’d had three mastectomies.” She drummed her fingers on the table. The sound was muffled by the white tablecloth. “Louie must be upset about something,” she finally said. But it was Brenda who looked upset.
“And three months to live,” Alice added, encouraged by her mother’s face.
“Tragic!” said Aunt Beverly, blinking.
Brenda stood up. She towered above Alice and Aunt Beverly, her red hair falling on her shoulders; she loomed, large and imposing, like a diva seen from the second row.
“Cancer of the spine?” she muttered, curling her lip in disgust. The only times Alice noticed any real physical resemblance between herself and her mother were those rare moments when her mother’s face twisted into this expression. “Three months to live?” And she walked away.
Aunt Beverly had been gently led off by one of her daughters to have her picture taken, and Alice was left alone at the table. She sat on one chair, her feet up on another. Her voice hadn’t cracked when she said, “I do.” She had tried to put Peter’s ring on his index finger, but after several unsuccessful thrusts and Peter’s ultimate intervention, she had corrected the error and no one had noticed. She hadn’t been overcome by fou rire, or fallen down in a mass of torn lace and snapped high heels. Everyone had been too polite to notice that she couldn’t dance. And her mother seemed to be angry at Louie Scifo. Alice smiled and nodded regally at the guests.
In a rush of goodwill, she smiled at Louie Scifo himself. He had alienated himself from her mother. He was not such a terrible guy.
Louie smiled back and made a sweeping bow. He was standing by the bandleader, the chubby accordionist. Louie put his arm around the man’s shoulders and pointed at Alice, then at himself. Alice supposed he was telling the bandleader that he was the judge who had married the happy couple or that he had flown Alice here in his airplane, having just rescued her from a forest fire on his two-billion-acre estate in the Himalayas. Louie’s actual occupation was unknown. He seemed to have retired from a great many occupations, however. He had been, he said, a stockbroker, a doctor, a pilot. Alice was so pleased that Louie had annoyed her mother that she didn’t think she would have cared if he was telling the accordionist that he was the groom and had condescended to accept Alice—even without a dowry.
Louie smiled at her again, a wide, white smile, and then took the microphone off its stand.
Alice’s smile faded.
That’s what happens when you smile at people, she thought. They sing.
Alice put her feet down on the floor, sat very straight, and studied her hands, which looked to her like someone else’s, with their gleaming red nails manicured for the wedding. She looked around for someone to chat with, but the chairs around her were still empty. She stood up and began to walk to a more crowded part of the room. “I-I-I’ll be seeing you,” Louie sang in a liquid voice. “Yeah! In all the old familiar places.” Louie was embarrassing. More embarrassing than any relative. Didn’t he know any other songs? He broke off with a sob. Alice turned around to watch him.
With a great sweep of his hand, up and then down, dramatically flicking the cord of the microphone, Louie took his bow.
Good God, Alice thought. He seemed to be waiting for applause. What an absurd, nasty little man, crashing her wedding and singing and bowing.
But Louie bowed again, and Alice realized that he was bowing because people were applauding.
Peter came and stood next to her. “Bravo!” he called out. He winked at her.
“You just did that to annoy me. Bravo, indeed.”
“Well, he’s pretty good,” Peter said.
“I heard him,” Alice said. She wondered if Peter was drunk. “Are you drunk?” she asked.
“Well, yes, of course, a little. Aren’t you?”
“Thank you, thank you all, lovely ladies and your lucky gentlemen,” Louie called out, blowing kisses. “And a one, and a two, and a … O! sole meeee-oh…”
Louie finished to more applause.
“You’re crazy,” Alice said to Peter. “Louie’s singing is completely embarrassing.” She looked at Peter, expecting him to argue, but he just stood looking back, smiling happily. She had never seen him in a suit before that day, and he looked terribly handsome to her. One point of his collar had turned up over his lapel a little, and his tie was slightly twisted. She pushed the collar down and watched it spring back.
Alice loved Peter’s looks. He resembled a great, gawky adolescent—all hands and feet and untied shoelaces. His skinny legs in his corduroy Levi’s that had dark blue ink stains on the back pockets; the ratty, army-green T-shirt under the proper button-down Oxford shirt with the ink stain on its pocket; the large sneakers with the worn rubber toes—all these things reminded her of the boys she knew in high school. His neck stretched out in curiosity, up above the puerile clothing, and then his bony face, a craggy peak above the clouds, lofty and grown-up and with the darkest brown eyes she had ever seen.
“You look handsome,” Alice said, pushing the collar down again.
“Yes. You do. And Louie sings okay, sort of, if you like that sort of thing, which, now that we’re married, I hope you will cease to do.” Alice sank down happily into a chair, pleased that she had made this conciliatory gesture. Peter sat beside her and they held hands. She looked at him and marveled that this was really her husband, that she had a husband now with whom she would wake up each morning. The sparrows would chirp outside, a bus would grind its gears, and she would turn over and see this man whom she loved and admired. Then they would have breakfast, and they would not have to fight over the paper, because he always read the sports section first. Then they would do their work, then eat and gossip, then go to bed, and then wake up again. It seemed like a miracle to Alice.
“You’re…” She suddenly became embarrassed, as if they had just met and she were blurting out some intimate bit of information. “A great guy,” she said finally.
Her brother sat down with his girlfriend. “I still say you must read Bernard Malamud, Willie,” she was saying. “Yes, I think so. You have not read him. This I find so extraordinary. Pictures of Fidelman, even? And no Bellow, too!”
Alice’s father appeared and asked if she would pose for a picture with him and his wife and his stepson, Charles. Willie was extracted from the literary admonitions of Yuki, and they all stood in a row. Alice could see Charles squirming in his suit, and her heart went out to him. Dad as a stepfather. Imagine.
“What a lovely celebration,” Dad’s wife, Patricia, said to Alice.
“I’m glad you’re having a good time,” Alice said. She’s not supposed to have a good time, Alice thought, considerably annoyed. She’s supposed to be uncomfortable because my mother’s here, and my grandmother and all my relatives who think she’s a low interloper are here shooting nasty glances her way.
Alice stood between her father and Patricia and watched the waiters clearing off tables. Her wedding was almost over. She smiled at the photographer, who, all evening, had conscientiously climbed aboard chairs or crouched on the floor to say, “That’s it, that’s it, that’s it!” Behind the photographer, Alice’s grandmother glared, clearly outraged at the presumption of her former son-in-law and his present wife.
“Family group, my foot,” Alice heard her say loudly. Behind Grandma, Louie Scifo stood holding a waiter’s arm.
“Those flowers are the property of the Brody-Eiger matrimonial party. Exclusively,” he said.
“Oh, no, sir, their flowers are over there on that table if anyone wants to take them home, although there’s someone’s business card in most of them,” the waiter answered politely. He pointed to a table of vases filled with anemones.
Louie grabbed the pot of chrysanthemums from the waiter. “Hey, you there, Cousin Sylvia—here, take this lovely arrangement, my compliments, you see?”
Alice smiled at the photographer and watched as Louie ran from waiter to waiter, reaching for all the flowers being put out for the next day’s breakfast. She turned and said goodbye to Jack, her Westport neighbor, who told her, “You’ll be very, very.” And then to Aunt Beverly, who pushed her daughters away when they tried to lead her toward Alice. “I’m not senile,” she growled, and reached out to hug Alice, who leaped across the three-foot distance between them just in time to receive her embrace.
When Alice turned back toward Louie Scifo, he was gone and the flowers seemed to have been set up on the tables where they belonged.
Alice and Peter waved goodbye to the photographer, who made them stand in the elevator, although they were planning to leave by the stairs. They walked down to the marble lobby, and she was so tired she barely noticed the snowstorm raging beyond the big doors or the man being escorted out into it by the blue-coated security guards. He clutched two pots of chrysanthemums in his arms and wore a baby-blue suit, but Alice knew it couldn’t be Louie Scifo, because her mother walked right past him without so much as a glance in his direction.
Copyright © 1990 by Cathleen Schine
Meet the Author
Cathleen Schine is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The New Yorkers and The Love Letter, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review.
Cathleen Schine is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, To the Birdhouse, The New Yorkers, and The Love Letter, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She grew up in Westport, Connecticut, and lives in New York City and Venice, California.
- New York, New York, and Venice, California
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- Bridgeport, Connecticut
- B.A., Barnard College, 1976
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is probably the strangest book I have ever read. It rattles on about nothing and is very hard to follow all the rambling and the characters are dull & boring. Do not think I would buy another book by Cathleen Schine.