Acclaimed author Roxana Robinson’s collection runs the gamut of emotion, with characters facing shifting family dynamics and moments of personal crisis: marriage and remarriage, the delights and struggles of raising children, the lure of illicit romance, and the bitter acrimony of divorce. Robinson draws her characters—including disaffected stepchildren, seemingly well-meaning in-laws, and adult children coping with aging parents—with compassion and a deep understanding of the heart’s capacity for pain, hope, and growth.
“Second Chances” examines the complications of arranging a Thanksgiving dinner in a family of second marriages, former spouses, and stepchildren, where connections are tenuous at best and spiteful and destructive at worst. In “Graduation,” a woman dreads attending her son’s boarding-school festivities, where she will see the vindictive ex-husband she hasn’t spoken to in years. And another mother finds her own desires threatened by her young daughter’s blossoming independence in “Daughter.”
Through the nuanced experiences of the complex and flawed characters in her debut story collection, Robinson expertly probes the universal complexities of friendship and forgiveness, love and devotion, separation and reunion, echoing the wit and grace of John Cheever, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Glimpse of Scarlet
And Other Stories
By Roxana Robinson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Roxana Robinson
All rights reserved.
During the Second World War, the American Friends' Service Committee gave my mother the name of a Polish woman whose family needed help. My mother wrote to her in English and sent her a parcel of clothes. Anna replied with pages of closely written blue script, in Polish. With it, in another hand, was a stilted and awkward English translation, full of formal, old-fashioned phrases. Anna's letters ended always, shockingly, "I give you hot kisses."
There were five children in our family, and nine in Anna's. Our mothers were of an age. They kept each other informed, though there were different milestones. My mother wrote about graduations, commencements; Anna had more exotic news: baptisms, first Holy Communion, saints' days, weddings. Sometimes — rarely — Anna sent us photographs, and we pored over the faces of the family we all knew. This was Zygmunt, who now wore, I could see, the torn green sweater I had outgrown, passed down to me third-hand, the hole in the elbow concealed by an innocent hand: these brilliant black eyes, awkward knees, cropped bristly blond hair. This was Margareta, the high forehead, square shoulders, soft, long ringlets. Anna's husband, Andrzej, looked, with his faintly pointed ears and questioning eyebrows, as though he were on the verge of a smile, but Anna was stern, her jawline strict. They faced the camera bravely, those black-and-white faces: set and solemn for the moment of record, their mouths firm, their eyes challenged, gleaming, their bodies frontal, backs straight, as though they were responding to some question about themselves. Here we are.
At Christmas, at Easter, Anna sent a Communion wafer in a small envelope. Thin, brittle, a translucent white, it had an image impressed onto its fragile surface. Propped on a shelf in our kitchen, the wafer was always surrounded by the artifacts of our more casual lurid life: photographs of our family, for example, snapshots, us lolling about; maybe the wafer would stand next to a small radio stuck there in a hurry, full of cant and chat.
For us, the wafer was as exotic as some Eastern amulet: Quakers have no such magic things. The wafer lay on our shelf pale and mysterious, the secret strength of it rising, spreading invisibly through our lives, faint and serene, subtle as scent. Once I ate one in secret, holding that faint, chalky presence on my tongue, pressing it, melting it, against the roof of my mouth, waiting, my eyes closed, breath held, for some mystical transference from Anna's life to mine.
Anna's letters were full of gratitude. We were not rich, and most of the clothes we sent were secondhand. I was secretly embarrassed for her, that she should be so pleased to receive things that were so patently out-of-date, so visibly used. In spite of those sober black-and-white faces, those careful poses, challenged eyes, I had my own vision of Polish life. It was brightly colored, full of fat blond braids, cottages warm with cooking, glittering officers on wild-eyed horses, red-stitched blouses, strange skies full of stars I did not know. Those frail white wafers were symbols of that other life, made up of syllables I could not speak. I give you hot kisses!
Now one of Anna's children has arrived in America, and my mother calls me. It is Janusc, which sounds like Yanoosh. I remember him. Solemn, quizzical, large-eyed, he stood crookedly against his mother, wearing a sailor suit, short pants, neat collar. Nineteen forty-seven. He is now a house painter, and my mother wants me to hire him. Where would he stay, I ask. He'd stay with you, she says, it would be easy. But I don't speak Polish, I say, anxious. I think of mealtimes with this strange man, who will not be wearing a sailor suit now: I think of explaining spackle, latex paint, the dishwasher.
Janusc is staying with a cousin, who calls me. He speaks good English, and is very soothing. Janusc will be no trouble, he says, don't worry. Just give him a room and a TV and he'll be no trouble. I have no answer. It bothers me that we talk about Janusc as though he were a beast, an invalid, as it bothered me when we laughed at those stilted, awkward English phrases.
When Janusc arrives we all smile widely at each other, we shake hands ceremoniously. The cousin stays, while we go over the painting to be done, then says good-bye. Janusc is small, my own height, with a creased, narrow, mournful face. He wears heavy sandals, and a short plaid gray coat that ends above his knees. His hair, his eyes, the cast of his skin are gray. With his grieving eyes and quiet face he looks Polish; his somber coloring and old-fashioned clothes make him look like someone in a photograph taken during the war, Eastern Europe. We have seen that look.
Janusc settles down to work at once, changing into soft, worn jeans and an old shirt. He moves quietly, a gentle shuffle from time to time is all I hear, but he goes at our raddled walls up on the third floor with great determination. We believe we have conversations with each other; that is, we each speak long and complicated sentences in our own languages, with much smiling and gesturing, but there is no way to determine that we are even talking about the same subject: I ask if he is ready for lunch, he answers that he will need more primer for the moldings. We believe that we understand what the other says, but this is not always so: poor Janusc paints the bathroom three times, in different colors, because of a mistake; mine, not his. I learn some useful words from his battered red dictionary: yes, no, please, thank you, more, sorry, beautiful. The sounds are strange and unmanageable. Janusc has his own set of strange words: ceiling, paint, milk, bread, dog, and tea-China.
At dinner, Janusc comes down in clean clothes, washed and shining. He sits with my husband, my daughter, and me at the small maple table in the kitchen, watching us with concentration if we try to speak to him, looking politely elsewhere if we do not. One night, after a bottle of red wine has been emptied by the three of us, he brings down photographs: his parents, his wife, Anna and the whole family when he was five, Anna and Andrzej today. They are all pictures I have seen, of course, and, sitting next to Janusc beneath the glowing lamp in my kitchen, I am as delighted to see them in his hands, at my table, now, as though we had suddenly broken through the barrier of speech, and our words and thoughts flowed in a limpid rush from one to the other of us. These faces are all old friends of mine. Have they not all sent me hot kisses?
Janusc hands me a photograph of himself in a dark suit, standing stiffly next to a woman in a white dress, with a cloudy white veil about her head. Nineteen sixty-two, Janusc says, I think, in a soft, sliding Polish. He traces the numbers slowly on the tablecloth: one, nine, six, two. Tak, tak, I say, nodding vigorously, yes, yes. He has given me all I need to know, these two solemn faces, the moment, the date. I point to the face of his wife, who has melting, slanting black eyes, and a wistful expression. Ladne, I say, beautiful. Janusc smiles, a shift which transforms his face entirely from its somber verticality. It becomes imp-like, the mouth a deep V, the corners of the eyes slanting suddenly upward.
During the day it is difficult to remember that Janusc is in the house. He is quiet, there on the third floor, crouching on his knees now, filling in the cracks between the floor-boards. I work at my drawing board on the second floor, in silence. At intervals we meet in the kitchen, or I go upstairs to him with a mug of tea-China and a slice of bread. He likes my bread, and I find myself baking three times a week, instead of once.
I am pleased to have him in my house: I wish I could send him back to Poland with some of our space, some of our vivid colors, the warmth of the house. I no longer believe that life in Poland is made up of those embroidered reds and complicated dances. Janusc and his family have had difficult times. I wonder what he thinks of us here. I find myself embarrassed at our casual plenty, at the huge quantities of food, of stuff, I seem to buy for our small family. Janusc himself is modest in his appetites, he eats and drinks sparingly.
But it is more than food. If the truth be known — and it will be known to someone who lives in your house, whose days are spent silently in your rooms — I do not use my time as well as I ought. Janusc never stops working, but I spend, listening to him sanding and scrubbing up there, some time staring out the window. And the time I spend working — I am doing a series of still lifes in pastel, a set of white bowls that change endlessly with the light, the shifting of the shadows and mysterious arrangings of colors that fall across them — but is this work? I hear the floorboards above me creak. And worse, Janusc sees my cleaning lady come in to scrub out my tubs, and one Saturday night he sees a woman come in to serve at a dinner party. He sees me leaving the house with my tennis racquet: I smile, and point to the clock to tell him when I will be back. But I am embarrassed.
I do not think he knows that I go running, I have tried to conceal this altogether. It seems indefensible, while most of the world hoards calories and energy, to be so arrogant, so deliberate in their dispersal. I sneak out of the house to run, going down the driveway with the dog in a casual, longstrided walk in case he is working near an upstairs window, not breaking into a run until I am down the road, already into the woods.
Now, this morning, there is a heavy snowfall. The landscape, when we wake up, has been transformed: virgin, mysterious, alluring. To her utter bliss, my daughter's school has been canceled, though my husband's trains are running. He leaves, and she and I settle down, still in our nightgowns, with our breakfast, in the window seat in my bedroom, to watch the snow outside. It falls like white lace handkerchiefs, in huge, dreamy flakes. On the third floor, Janusc has begun on the door frames and moldings.
At midday we decide to go out. The wind has dropped, and though the snow is still falling, the sky has lightened. I call up the stairs. "Janusc!" I say, and beckon. "Photograph!" Janusc understands me at once, and nods soberly. "Okay," he says, and begins to tidy up. When he comes down, my daughter and I are dressing; it is twenty degrees. My daughter puts on thick blue snow pants, green parka, knitted cap; I wear my parka and goatskin boots. I hand Janusc a wool cap and my husband's down jacket. I offer him boots, to go over his sandals, but he shakes his head. He asks me something about the cap, but I shrug and smile, I do not understand. Outside, I turn, and see that he is putting on the knitted cap in front of the back door, the glass in its top half reflects his earnest face. He is adjusting the cap, pulling the top half of it down, making sure that its character is reflecting its bearer's, that its curves are Polish, its creases Januscian.
Outside in the snow, giddiness rises. Loose, limpid whiteness surrounds us, insistent and confounding. It is drifting down improbably — from the sky itself!
"Over there," I call, and I gesture for Janusc and my daughter to stand by the back door. I run back, away from them, clasping the camera clumsily to my chest. My goatskin boots thud through the heavy snow, its soft density yielding slowly, cumbrously, against my legs. I climb the slanting stone steps and crouch beneath the bare little crab apple tree so that I can get the whole house in, the two of them at the back door. I want the whole house as a backdrop: I want Janusc to be able to take this back with him, proof that he was a part of all this, to show that there has been some bridge between our lives. And I want to implicate him: If Anna looks at our farmhouse and purses her lips with disapproval — three stories, for only three people? — I want her to see that Janusc had lived there with us, he had his own room in our house.
And I have color film in the camera, and I have given Janusc my husband's bluebird-colored parka, so that no matter what Janusc presents me with in the picture, no matter how earnest, how solemn, how dour he shows himself, he will not be in black and white. Some transference will have taken place. And while I cannot defend idleness, frivolity, arrogance, opulence, I do defend the bright colors of our life, I defend whatever grace we have achieved. And perhaps, when they see Janusc in this brilliant blue, before the house he is living in himself, they might forgive us our idleness, our arrogance: they will see that Janusc himself has taken on our wild hues, for this moment.
I squat in the snow, taking off the lens cap, adjusting dials and meters. When I see the figures through the tiny silvery window, at first I do not understand. Janusc has crouched to the ground. I think perhaps he is adjusting his shoe, but he is saying something to my daughter, and I see first one of her padded blue legs and then the other appear on either side of his face. She is sitting on his shoulders, and he rises quickly, with great ease, like a dancer. He stands very straight and graceful against the white clapboards of the house, the dreamy snow shifting past him in the still air. Janusc, in my husband's huge blue parka, raises his arms, holding them out straight at shoulder height, proudly, palms up; so does my daughter.
Their two faces, framed in woolen curves, are neatly stacked one above the other, and with the raising of their arms, as though this were a sign, they both smile: brilliant, brilliant smiles, their arms lifted in that regal gesture, signifying, perhaps, merely great delight in being there, at that particular moment, before our white farmhouse, in that snow-muffled landscape, their bodies bold and vivid patterns against the frail white translucence that surrounds them, merely great delight: joy. I give you hot kisses.CHAPTER 2
THE TIME FOR KISSING
My mother never calls me, so I call her. I make the call on Sunday nights. She answers right away, and I know exactly where she is. She spends Sunday evenings in what is called the library, though it only has two bookcases in it, and those hold more plates than books. Mother sits in the flowered chintz armchair, which matches the curtains. Bacon the dog is lying on his green pillow next to her feet. The walnut table beside my mother holds an ashtray, a small porcelain Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and her drink, which is Scotch. Next to her chair is a standing lamp, and her feet are up on the upholstered footstool, which also matches the curtains. On her lap is the newspaper, which is folded back to the TV section. She is holding a cigarette in one hand, and the TV remote controller in the other. When the telephone rings she is interrupted.
"Hello, Mother?" I say.
"Who's this?" she asks warily, unwilling to commit herself.
"It's me," I say, "Susannah."
"Oh, yes," she says, and if I say nothing, she pulls herself together and adds, "hello."
"How are you doing?" I ask.
"Fine," she says, faintly peevish.
Mother is seventy-one years old, and has lived alone since Harry died three years ago. When he retired they began spending most of their time in Southampton. They sold the big shingled house on the beach, where we spent our summers as children, and moved to this smaller one behind high privet hedges. When Harry died Mother sold the apartment in New York as well. At first she planned to spend a night or two in New York during the winter, but now she hardly ever does.
"What have you been up to?" I ask, "anything exciting?"
"I don't know what you call exciting," she says, touchy. "We had the Garden Club meeting on Wednesday. There was a bridge party at Wah-Wah's on Thursday. That's about it."
"How was the Garden Club meeting?"
"All right. Though I don't know how Bambi Johnson got herself elected president, the woman is the very worst executive I've ever heard of. Most of the members won't speak to her any more. She ruined the benefit last year, single, handedly."
"Well, at least she's good at something," I offer, but Mother won't have it.
"Good at what? What do you mean?"
"Ruining the benefit," I say, but I know she won't laugh, and she doesn't. My mother suspects my offerings. There is a pause, and I have the feeling that she has turned the television set back on, low, so I won't hear it.
"Do you want me to call you back?" I ask.
Excerpted from A Glimpse of Scarlet by Roxana Robinson. Copyright © 1991 Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- The Time for Kissing
- A Glimpse of Scarlet
- Second Chances
- Night Vision
- Charity Dance
- Tears Before Bedtime
- Friendship in a Foreign Country
- Getting On
- About the Author
- Copyright Page