It was, everyone agreed, fanning themselves outside the store or passing in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, unseasonably warm for September. The meeting hall at Baileyville was thick with the smells of lye soap and stale perfume, bodies wedged together in good poplin dresses and summer suits. The heat had permeated even the clapboard walls so that the wood creaked and sighed in protest. Pressed tight behind Bennett as he shuffled his way along the row of packed seats, apologizing as each person rose from their chair with a barely suppressed sigh, Alice swore that she felt the warmth of each body leach into her own as it leaned backward to let them pass.
So sorry. So sorry.
Bennett finally reached two empty seats and Alice, her cheeks glowing with embarrassment, sat down, ignoring the sideways glances of the people around them. Bennett looked down at his lapel, brushing at non-existent lint, then spotted her skirt. “You didn’t change?” he murmured.
“You said we were late.”
“I didn’t mean for you to come out with your house clothes on.”
She had been trying to make cottage pie, to encourage Annie to put something other than Southern food on the table. But the potatoes had gone green, she hadn’t been able to gauge the heat of the range, and the grease had spattered all over her when she dropped the meat onto the griddle. And when Bennett came in looking for her (she had, of course, lost track of time) he could not for the life of him see why she wouldn’t just leave culinary matters to the housekeeper when an important meeting was about to take place.
Alice placed her hand over the largest grease mark on her skirt and resolved to keep it there for the next hour. Because it would be an hour. Or two. Or—Lord help her—three.
Church and meetings. Meetings and church. Sometimes Alice Van Cleve felt as if she had merely swapped one tedious daily pastime for another. That very morning in church Pastor McIntosh had spent almost two hours declaiming the sinners who were apparently plotting ungodly dominance around the little town, and was now fanning himself and looking disturbingly ready to speak again.
“Put your shoes back on,” Bennett murmured. “Someone might see you.”
“It’s this heat,” she said. “They’re English feet. They’re not used to these temperatures.” She felt, rather than saw, her husband’s weary disapproval. But she was too hot and tired to care, and the speaker’s voice had a narcoleptic quality so that she caught only every third word or so—germinating . . . pods . . . chaff . . . paper bags—and found it hard to care much about the rest.
Married life, she had been told, would be an adventure. Travel to a new land! She had married an American, after all. New food! A new culture! New experiences! She had pictured herself in New York, neat in a two-piece suit in bustling restaurants and on crowded sidewalks. She would write home, boasting of her new experiences. Oh, Alice Wright? Wasn’t she the one who married the gorgeous American? Yes, I had a postcard from her—she was at the Metropolitan Opera, or Carnegie Hall . . .
Nobody had warned that it would involve so much small-talk over good china with elderly aunts, so much pointless mending and quilting or, even worse, so many deathly dull sermons. Endless, decades-long sermons and meetings. Oh, but these men did love the sound of their own voices! She felt as if she were being scolded for hours, four times a week.
The Van Cleves had stopped at no fewer than thirteen churches on their way back here, and the only sermon that Alice enjoyed had taken place in Charleston, where the preacher had gone on so long his congregation had lost patience and decided, as one, to “sing him down”—to drown him out with song until he got the message and rather crossly closed his religious shop for the day. His vain attempts to speak over them, as their voices rose and swelled determinedly, had made her giggle.
The congregations of Baileyville, Kentucky, she had observed, seemed disappointingly rapt.
“Just put them back on, Alice. Please.”
She caught the eye of Mrs. Schmidt, in whose parlor she had taken tea two weeks previously, and looked to the front again, trying not to appear too friendly in case she invited her a second time.
“Well, thank you, Hank, for that advice on seed storage. I’m sure you’ve given us a lot to think about.”
As Alice slid her feet into her shoes, the pastor added, “Oh, no, don’t get up, ladies and gentlemen. Mrs. Brady has asked for a moment of your time.”
Alice, now wise to this phrase, slid off her shoes again. A short middle-aged woman moved to the front—the kind her father would have described as “well upholstered,” with the firm padding and solid curves one associated with a quality sofa.
“It’s about the mobile library,” she said, wafting her neck with a white fan and adjusting her hat. “There have been developments that I would like to bring to your attention.
“We are all aware of the—uh—devastating effects the Depression has had on this great country. So much attention has been focused on survival that many other elements of our lives have had to take a backseat. Some of you may be aware of President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s formidable efforts to restore attention to literacy and learning. Well, earlier this week I was privileged to attend a tea with Mrs. Lena Nofcier, chairman of the Library Service for the Kentucky PTA, and she told us that, as part of it, the Works Progress Administration has instituted a system of mobile libraries in several states—and even a couple here in Kentucky. Some of you may have heard about the library they set up over in Harlan County. Yes? Well, it has proven immensely successful. Under the auspices of Mrs. Roosevelt herself and the WPA—”
“She’s an Episcopalian.”
“Roosevelt. She’s an Episcopalian.”
Mrs. Brady’s cheek twitched. “Well, we won’t hold that against her. She’s our First Lady and she is minding to do great things for our country.”
“She should be minding to know her place, not stirring things up everywhere.” A jowly man in a pale linen suit shook his head and gazed around him, seeking agreement.
Across the way, Peggy Foreman leaned forward to adjust her skirt at precisely the moment Alice noticed her, which made it seem that Alice had been staring at her. Peggy scowled and lifted her tiny nose into the air, then muttered something to the girl beside her, who leaned forward to give Alice the same unfriendly look. Alice sat back in her seat, trying to quell the color rising in her cheeks.
Alice, you’re not going to settle in unless you make some friends, Bennett kept telling her, as if she could sway Peggy Foreman and her crew of sour faces.
“Your sweetheart is casting spells in my direction again,” Alice murmured.
“She’s not my sweetheart.”
“Well, she thought she was.”
“I told you. We were just kids. I met you, and . . . well, that’s all history.”
“I wish you’d tell her that.”
He leaned toward her. “Alice, the way you keep hanging back, people are starting to think you’re kind of—stand-offish . . . ”
“I’m English, Bennett. We’re not built to be . . . hospitable.”
“I just think the more you get involved, the better it is for both of us. Pop thinks so, too.”
“Oh. He does, does he?”
“Don’t be like that.”
Mrs. Brady shot them a look. “As I was saying, due to the success of such endeavors in neighboring states, the WPA has released funds to enable us to create our own traveling library here in Lee County.”
Alice stifled a yawn.
• • •
On the credenza at home there was a photograph of Bennett in his baseball uniform. He had just hit a home run, and his face held a look of peculiar intensity and joy, as if at that moment he were experiencing something transcendent. She wished he would look at her like that again.
But when she allowed herself to think about it, Alice Van Cleve realized her marriage had been the culmination of a series of random events, starting with a broken china dog when she and Jenny Fitzwalter had played a game of indoor badminton (it had been raining—what else were they supposed to do?), escalating with the loss of her place at secretarial school due to persistent lateness, and finally her apparently unseemly outburst at her father’s boss during Christmas drinks. (“But he put his hand on my bottom while I was handing around the vol-au-vents!” Alice protested. “Don’t be vulgar, Alice,” her mother said, shuddering.) These three events—with an incident involving her brother Gideon’s friends, too much rum punch, and a ruined carpet (she hadn’t realized the punch contained alcohol! Nobody said!)—had caused her parents to suggest what they called a “period of reflection,” which had amounted to “keeping Alice indoors.” She had heard them talking in the kitchen: “She’s always been that way. She’s like your aunt Harriet,” Father had said dismissively, and Mother had not spoken to him for two whole days, as if the idea of Alice being the product of her genetic line had been so unbearably offensive.
And so, over the long winter, as Gideon went to endless balls and cocktail parties, disappeared for long weekends at friends’ houses, or partied in London, she gradually fell off her friends’ invitation lists, and sat at home, working half-heartedly at scrappy embroidery, her only outings accompanying her mother on visits to elderly relatives or to Women’s Institute gatherings, where the subjects for discussion tended to be cake, flower-arranging and Lives of the Saints—it was as if they were literally trying to bore her to death. She stopped asking Gideon for details after a while as they made her feel worse. Instead she sulked her way through canasta, cheated grumpily at Monopoly, and sat at the kitchen table with her face resting on her forearms as she listened to the wireless, which promised a world far beyond the stifling concerns of her own.
So two months later, when Bennett Van Cleve turned up unexpectedly one Sunday afternoon at the minister’s spring festival—with his American accent, his square jaw and blond hair, carrying with him the scents of a world a million miles from Surrey—frankly he could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame and she would have agreed that moving into a clanging bell-tower was a very fine idea indeed, thank you.
Men tended to stare at Alice, and Bennett was immediately smitten by the elegant young Englishwoman with huge eyes and waved, bobbed blonde hair, whose clear, clipped voice was like nothing he’d ever heard back in Lexington, and who, his father remarked, might as well be a British princess for her exquisite manners and refined way of lifting a teacup. When Alice’s mother revealed that they could claim a duchess in the family through marriage two generations back, the older Van Cleve almost expired with joy. “A duchess? A royal duchess? Oh, Bennett, wouldn’t that have tickled your dear mother?”
Father and son were visiting Europe with an outreach mission of the Combined Ministry of East Kentucky Under God, observing how the faithful worshipped outside America. Mr. Van Cleve had funded several of the attendees, in honor of his late wife, Dolores, as he was prone to announcing during lulls in conversation. He might be a businessman, but it meant nothing, nothing, if it was not done under the auspices of the Lord. Alice thought he seemed a little dismayed by the small and rather un-fervent expressions of religious fervor at St. Mary’s on the Common—and the congregation had certainly been taken aback by Pastor McIntosh’s ebullient roaring about fire and brimstone (poor Mrs. Arbuthnot had had to be escorted through a side door for air). But what the British lacked in piety, Mr. Van Cleve observed, they more than made up for with their churches, their cathedrals and all their history. And wasn’t that a spiritual experience in itself?
Alice and Bennett, meanwhile, were busy with their own, slightly less holy experience. They parted with clutched hands and ardent expressions of affection, the kind heightened by the prospect of imminent separation. They exchanged letters during his stops at Rheims, Barcelona and Madrid. Their exchanges reached a particularly feverish pitch when he reached Rome, and on the way back it was a surprise only to the most disengaged members of the household that Bennett proposed, and Alice, with the alacrity of a bird seeing its cage door swing open, hesitated a whole half-second before she said yes, she would, to her now lovelorn—and rather deliciously tanned—American. Who wouldn’t say yes to a handsome, square-jawed man, who looked at her as if she were made of spun silk? Everyone else had spent the past months looking at her as if she were contaminated.
“Why, you are just perfect,” Bennett would tell her, holding his thumb and forefinger around her narrow wrist as they sat on the swing seat in her parents’ garden, collars up against the breeze and their fathers watched indulgently from the library window, both, for their own reasons, privately relieved about the match. “You’re so delicate and refined. Like a Thoroughbred.” He pronounced it “refahnd.”
“And you’re ridiculously handsome. Like a movie star.”
“Mother would have loved you.” He ran a finger down her cheek. “You’re like a china doll.”
Six months on, Alice was pretty sure he didn’t think of her as a china doll any more.