After You: A Novel

After You: A Novel

by Annie Garrett

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Overview

It begins with a postcard from Riley Brackett's wife to Clare McClendon, informing her that Riley has been in a serious accident and lost his memory of everything but her and the summer they spent together when Clare was seventeen. Could Clare come to Maine? Perhaps seeing her will cause Riley to recall his wife and two children, and the intervening years. Clare, who is dealing with a faltering marriage and her mother-in-law's cancer, agrees to the request against her better judgment. For Riley, things are now as they once were, and though Clare at first resists, she is soon caught up herself - in a way, as lost as he. With commitments to other people in their lives, there is no second chance for love - or is there? Annie Garrett ventures into Sue Miller and Elizabeth Berg territory with this moving novel about memory and its romantic, healing force in the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312246044
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/15/1999
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Annie Garrett is the author of After You.


Annie Garrett is the pen name of a successful celebrity journalist who has written for Entertainment Weekly and New York magazine. Her first novel, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, was published by St. Martin's Press in 1996. The author lives with her husband in Maine. Later books include After You and Because I Wanted You.

Read an Excerpt

After You

A Novel


By Annie Garrett

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1998 Annie Garrett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-24604-4


CHAPTER 1

It began with a postcard. But it was the timing of the card's arrival that mattered, that old crux. When Clare was single and working as a news assistant in the city, she and JoJo had sometimes consoled one another over failed romances by eating chocolate on a bench in Central Park and by telling each other that it was just the timing that was off for this one. Another time, this one would've worked. Clare hadn't really believed it though. Back then, she and JoJo were putting in twelve-hour days but were still making only enough money to share a third-floor walk-up where often they dragged in after midnight and ate cold sesame noodles off paper plates and then soaked themselves in succession in the clawfoot tub that stood on a platform in the middle of the kitchen. Their shoulders and necks ached. "Stress bruises," they called the pain, saying it came from the everyday exercise of stroking too many egos higher up.

Clare wanted desperately then to believe in the rescue of timing, that some day, some hour, some minute, the planets would line up or the sun would shine from just the right angle or the moon would hold her good fortune in the cup of its waxing or waning. But she had already seen enough to believe instead that she and JoJo were merely saying or doing or eating anything that would make them feel better. Once, when their brownie fell on the ground under a park bench, they had actually brushed off the ants and eaten it, mad for its chemical jolt of approximated love. So Clare had thought that blaming the timing was one of those hollow but supposedly palliative things that people did. It was like saying that someone who had just died of cancer was better off—"freed from suffering"—when actually the poor woman would have been better off never to have found that lump in her breast and never to have had the doctor confirm the worst and never to have sickened until her hair fell out and never to have planned her own funeral, complete with Iris Dement singing "My Life." A swift death was about as much compensation for a long happy life as a brownie was for love.

But years later, when Clare called JoJo and told her to cancel whatever professional lunch plans she had programmed into her pocket computer—on that afternoon when she met JoJo at the midtown sushi restaurant where the waiter automatically knew to bring them two Diet Cokes with lemon, low-sodium soy sauce, extra wasabi, extra ginger, and a fork for JoJo, when Clare finally told her oldest, dearest friend about the postcard—Clare admitted that the powerful thing about it, more than what it said or where it came from or who had sent it, was when it had come: the timing.

"What, you had PMS?" JoJo had cracked.

"Worse," Clare had assured her. Much worse.


* * *

The postcard had slipped from the mailman's fingers and had fallen through the brass mail slot into their little house, far upriver from the city. It landed on the hardwood floor that gleamed at the edges of the Persian rugs, landed as the ceiling fan thumped lazily but steadily, as the hollyhocks and delphiniums bloomed headily along the fence. It slid away from the catalogs that had been folded around it, away from the envelopes. It slid with the whisper of a swish and lodged under one leg of the old pharmacist's desk where Michael paid the bills. Just like other postcards on other days.

But on this day, Clare's eyes were puffed and sore from a night of crying. On this day, Michael was out of her reach, and her own inner resources had been spent by working five months straight, seven days a week, covering the trial of a movie star accused of molesting his wife's thirteen-year-old sister. Clare had been given time off to recover from the ordeal, which had taken her to the West Coast, where she had been expected to do live coverage for the network's late news show in L.A., as well as the early one in New York. She had lived on Starbucks and next to no sleep and on snatched phone calls to Michael. And, as it turned out, that had suited her fine. Now that it was over and she was home at last, she had too much time to think, and sometimes, when she was sunk in that thinking, she went and stood in front of the mirror and opened her blouse and made herself look, made herself listen to her worst thoughts. Maybe still. But when?

As the mail fell through the slot, she was standing in front of the mirror that way. Her stronger half was rebuking the weaker for not doing something healthy. For not weeding the tomato patch. For not deadheading the roses. For not taking a book out onto the porch and snuggling up in the rocking chair she and Michael had found for sale by the road in Vermont, the rocking chair where she had sworn she would someday sit and watch the Hudson go by and reread every Jane Austen novel and then every word of the fragments. If ever, now was a day to begin. Sense and Sensibility was on the shelf. The trial of the movie star was over. He was free. Her own personal trials were over now, by a year, and she too was free. Or so they told her, assured her. But she knew, measuring herself in the mirror, that she would never be free. Because she would never be sure.

"It was a pure pity party," was how she later explained it to JoJo as she tried to tweeze a sesame seed out of the soy sauce.

"You should've called me," JoJo said, through a mouthful of yellowtail. "You had my itinerary, didn't you?"

"My life is one should've after the other," Clare reminded her.


* * *

The mailman's footfalls on the porch that day had startled Clare, and she had hurriedly buttoned her shirt, as though she'd been caught poking around in somebody else's lingerie drawer. Her first thought was to ignore the mail, let it lie. There would likely be a reminder from Dr. Bladoe's office about her upcoming appointment to undergo the battery of quarterly tests. She couldn't face that, and there was no one else she could stand to hear from just now. Even the prospect of a postcard from JoJo's African safari honeymoon offered no comfort. She was feeling that raw.

But by the next thought, she had decided maybe Michael had sent something. Maybe he might have found a way to squeeze in a note from the chaos of his parents' house, might have known she needed one of the little haikus that he sometimes scratched out on coffee-shop napkins and left on her pillow. Or maybe there would be a flower like the pansy he had pressed dry and sent to the hotel in L.A., alone in its envelope, no words necessary. And so she walked into the front room and reached for the pile of mail.

The postcard snagged her peripheral vision, and she bent again. It was from Maine. The picture on the front was of a lobster. Underneath, was printed one word: LOBSTUH. She grinned and said it out loud, suspecting that Michael might have found the card among his mother's things and had sent it as a joke, knowing so well what would make her smile.

The Maine accent was one of the things Clare had immediately loved when, at age seventeen, she had arrived for the one summer she spent Down East. She loved how open-sounding the accent was, as though the tongue were a screen door that swung on a tight hinge, in and out on each word. Of course, hers had been the odd accent, the foreign one on that coast. Her own inflections, or lack thereof, must have seemed flat as the Minnesota prairie to the locals she met. But theirs seemed so marvelous to her that she repeated whole phrases when she heard them, took them into her own mouth, swung them on her own tongue. People slipped looks at her from under their eyelashes, and it took her a while to discern that they were often insulted. They were so reserved she found it difficult to read them the way she could read the people back home, and when she finally figured out that they felt hurt by what she had thought was homage to their speech, she was appalled. She had been quoting them back to herself like Keats or Shakespeare, and they had thought she was cruelly parroting them. That was the summer she began to learn that she did not unerringly move through the world, that she did not always discern black from white. That lesson happened in little things and big.

She was in Maine to spend the summer with her aunt Fran and uncle Tig. Her parents had sent her away, they said, to enjoy herself. But Clare knew that it was because her mother was dying. They didn't tell her that at the time, of course. They gave her the trip as a treat, announced it to her in grand and generous terms. So she was immediately suspicious. Such a gift was too out of character for her thrifty, steadfast parents. It only raised the stakes of her anxiety. "I think I'll stay home," she had said. But her father had ignored her, and her mother was too weak to do anything but stroke her hair and say, "Oh, Clare, think of the ocean."

As the date for her leave-taking approached, Clare had thrown books at the wall between her room and the room where her mother napped for long periods of each day. At bedtime, Clare sobbed into her pillow, vowing not to go but to chain herself to the oak tree that grew by the kitchen deck.

"Clare," Dad had said on the worst night, standing over her bed with his hands knotted up so tightly that his knuckles were white. "You have to learn to control your feelings. You're old enough now."

"How come you don't cry?" she had accused him.

After a long minute, he told her, "It doesn't do you any good to carry on. And it only makes it harder on Mom."

"I can't leave her," Clare said. "What if ..."

"It's better you go," he preempted. "Better for you. Mom and I agree."

But Clare wasn't sure her mother did agree. The day Clare was to leave for the airport, her mother got up for breakfast and rubbed blusher onto her cheeks. The pink makeup over her pale skin looked like a clown's paint. Her voice was bright too, ringing falsely. Still, Clare kept watching her mother as she moved the food around on her plate. She couldn't take her eyes off her. What if? What if?

Her mother was staring out the bay window at the birds on the feeder when Clare carried her suitcase downstairs. "Bye, Mom," she said, bending to kiss her.

"Have a good time, dear," her mother said sunnily. "Give my love to Aunt Fran." She never turned her head to look fully at Clare. In fact, she turned away, returned her gaze to the birds.

Aunt Fran was her mother's sister. Clare knew her only from occasional family Christmases and the rare summer reunion. Fran had married a navy airman, Uncle Tig, who was gruff and tight with his tongue and deceptively hale-chested. As a pilot, he had flown all over the world until a faulty coronary valve grounded him, and then he was too heartbroken to go far from his last base in Brunswick, Maine. He spoke little. In fact, when he picked Clare up at the airport in Boston and drove the five hours north, he said exactly eight words. "Let me get that," about her bag, and later when her stomach growled, "Fran is making supper." That was that.

Fran had written home to her sister that Tig's only solace since leaving the military was gardening, which didn't seem manly enough work at all—until Clare saw him do it. He hoisted out roots with a tractor and double-dug beds with a pickax and hauled in truckloads of stinking seaweed and manure and fish bones. He had taught himself the chemistry of soil and sun and water, and had coaxed up an Eden in the yard of his little cape. With his garden as his sole recommendation, one of the old summer families on the Hill had come to Tig and asked him to be caretaker at their estate.

The Prentisses of Manhattan and Sky Hill lived almost in the Atlantic, so far out on the peninsula was their summer place. It was called Last Look, and the house stood on a knoll that dropped on one side through tumbled boulders to the sea. On the other side, it was lapped by gardens that cascaded downhill and then finally trickled off into paths winding into the pine groves and birch woodlands that stretched for some ninety acres. Nestled at the edge of the woods was the caretaker's cottage, which was made of the same round rocks that had gone into the low wall surrounding the estate. Even this cottage had large windows and rooms that were cool and spacious under low ceilings. Its woodwork was carved. Its fireplace was deep. And there were two Ionic columns between the front parlor and the dining room. The Prentisses had always been generous with what they called "their people."

The evening Clare had arrived to stay in the gable room upstairs at the caretaker's cottage, the Prentisses had sent down a plate of gingersnaps from their kitchen and asked to have Clare come up the next morning, "after her journey had worn off." Tig had smirked when his wife read the note aloud, and Clare had asked, "What? What?"

"Nothing," Aunt Fran had said, at which Tig smirked again.

Clare had pressed, and her aunt had finally smiled and said, "Mrs. Prentiss likes to take charge of every little detail."

"And I'm a detail?"

Aunt Fran had only grinned.

All that had made Clare anxious about meeting the family in the mansion. In her small midwestern hometown, no one was openly rich. That would be unseemly. In fact, when Clare had once lamented that her friend Penny was too poor even to get a twist cone at the Dairy Queen with the rest of the kids, her father had shaken his head and said, "Her granddaddy has more money squirreled away than probably anyone else in town." So having no direct experience with the wealthy and having formed her ideas about them solely on what she had seen on television and at the movies, Clare was surprised by the genuine flesh-and-blood version.

Mrs. Prentiss herself was not at all what Clare expected. True, the grounds of Last Look were kept as immaculately as her Great-Aunt Mabel's parlor back home, and true, the house itself was a marvel of fine fabrics and beveled glass and hand-oiled wood. Clare had never actually seen a wall painted red before. But Mrs. Prentiss did not fit the rest of the picture. She usually wore a lavender sweater that was soiled on the elbows and unraveling at the left wrist, and her blond hair was short and curled around her ears in a mussed way. She did wear pearl stud earrings, but this one elegance was offset by shabby shorts and canvas sneakers. Often, Mrs. Prentiss climbed around on the shore rocks or rowed herself across the cove in a dinghy or went tramping through the woods, and most always, she had a book with her. She "ate books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," her husband was fond of saying, and when Mrs. Prentiss found out that Clare also loved to read, she mentioned her name to the librarian in town, who soon hired the girl to shelve books and paste in card pockets and look after the children during story hour on Wednesday afternoons. Then, so Clare could easily get herself to the job, Mrs. Prentiss loaned her a red bicycle outgrown by a granddaughter named Elizabeth who was touring Europe that summer.

The ride back up the promontory road and into the village was two miles and much too short for Clare. She had never seen the ocean before coming to Maine. Now, every day, it was to her left and to her right as she pedaled inland off the narrow point. The water glittered through the trees. She could smell it, taste the salt in its perpetual gusts, and there was hardly a day going home, when she came to the rock bridge that ran across an incised cove, that she could resist stopping for a minute and sitting with her legs hanging over the side. It was a good place to think, there with her eyes looking deep into the clear water or far out to sea, where she could see the fringed islands knobbing up green.

There on the bridge, she thought about her mother, picked out a memory and concentrated on bringing it back in all detail: Mom standing over the range wearing only her bra and cutoff jeans because it was summer and she was canning pickles. The water bubbled like notes of music around the jars in the enamel kettle, and Mom hummed "Oklahoma"—except when she scorched her fingers and spat out a "damn." And when Clare crawled out of the shade of the kitchen table and laid her cheek against her mother's tanned thigh, the skin was cool and smooth and solid. The skin smelled like rising bread dough.

That was what she had been thinking about when she met Riley. "One shove and you're over," he said, coming up behind her in a red and rusted pickup truck that was so old it was all humps and had no straight edges or angles. He let it idle, smoking out its tailpipe.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from After You by Annie Garrett. Copyright © 1998 Annie Garrett. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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