In an attempt to discover why her life hasn’t worked out the way she had hoped it would, Valerie Caldwell returns to the Southern town she left twelve years earlier to visit her old haunts and two friends from her school days, Tess and Mary Grace—much to their alarm and chagrin.
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About the Author
She is the author of four young adult novels, including Skeeball and the Secret of the Universe (1987, Orchard Press), Dixie Storms (1990, HBJ), Fool’s Hill (1992, Bantam), and the mystery House Across the Cove (1995, Bantam). Her previous novels include A Better Place (1992), Close to Home (1997), and A Summons yo New Orleans, all published by Simon & Schuster.
Barbara Hall lives in Pacific Palisades, California, with her daughter Faith.
Read an Excerpt
A Better Place
By Barbara Hall
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Barbara Hall
All rights reserved.
Valerie's marriage died one insignificant evening in early September. It was four years old and had been ailing for some time. The decision to end its life came to her suddenly. She was standing in the den, wondering if she should go for a power walk or collapse in front of the evening game shows. Out of nowhere she became acutely aware that her life was ridiculous, and the effort to deny it had finally exhausted her.
The notion itself was not new. She had suspected the absurdity of her circumstances for a long time. Years, perhaps. But it had never occurred to her with such undeniable clarity. She had never really felt, with such intensity, that slipping into her spandex shorts or hearing the theme music of Jeopardy might actually provoke a mental breakdown.
Still, it was important to be sure that she wasn't overreacting. She walked through the house, checking for things she might miss. To call the place a house was an optimistic exaggeration. It was a tiny, thin-walled bungalow in the hills above Malibu. There was something often described as a breathtaking view from the front of the house—which meant that the Pacific Ocean could be spotted over the roofs of other bungalows. In the early days, this view had enchanted Valerie. It was Malibu, after all, with its spectacular hills and its dramatic fog cradling the rocks against the shoreline. But lately, the view depressed her. The ocean had no calming effect. It looked angry, pitching relentlessly against the bluffs. The surfers bobbed in the waves like shipwreck survivors. The water spit gobs of chemical-infested seaweed onto the dingy sand. Carcinogenic rays of sunlight beat down onto the women in French-cut bikinis. A few yards away, traffic screamed past on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was hard to call Malibu paradise.
The rooms of the house were small and musty-smelling. Their bedroom, which should have been in the front facing the ocean, was in the back next to the kitchen. Her husband had taken the ocean-view master suite as his office. She had not argued at the time. She had confidence in his ability to compose great screenplays in that room, and the sacrifice seemed a noble one.
The third bedroom, a glorified closet, was referred to as Valerie's office. But Valerie had no business to conduct in it, as an actress's life really consisted of sitting next to the phone in any given location. She occasionally allowed herself to think of this room as a nursery, but lately that had depressed her even more. The odds of its being used as such were so remote that neither of them had seriously considered the impracticality of its location—downstairs, next to the laundry room. Even Valerie, whose maternal instincts were anything but well developed, knew that no one would stick their kid in a dank basement. So the sight of that room, littered with all the things they didn't know what to do with, convinced her that her decision was valid. All that remained was the task of telling her husband.
Jason was hunched over the desk in his study, late sunlight spilling across the room, turning it the color of golden ale. He was writing, as he always did, like a sixth-grader, one arm covering his paper to ward off roving eyes. He looked petulant and impish when he wrote, which was one of the reasons Valerie had trouble taking his work seriously. She hadn't been allowed to read anything since his first screenplay, the one which was actually made into a movie. All she really knew of his work was the process. For months he scribbled this way, then suddenly he began tapping on his computer, and finally, without much warning, he was finished.
Pieces of paper were scattered around his feet. Discarded nubs of pencils collected by his elbow like twigs. Jazz music came from some indistinct location, sporadic bleats of a trumpet. Valerie disliked jazz. In fact, she shared few of her husband's interests, which was one of the reasons she found herself in her current predicament.
"Jason," she said with a jolt, realizing why she had always dis liked his name. There was no dignity to it. It was a teenager's name—the first guy on the block to have a ten-speed. It was difficult to approach someone named Jason with a subject such as this and expect it to sustain its importance. But she had no choice. "Jason, I've made a decision."
He held up a forefinger and continued writing.
"I am leaving you."
He put a period at the end of a sentence, covered the legal pad with a sheet of typing paper, and looked at her.
"Where are you going?"
"You are home," he said with flat impatience, as if speaking to an Alzheimer's victim.
"Home to Maddock."
"Oh, here we go. Maddock, Virginia. I don't understand your fascination with that place, Valerie. You've turned it into some Faulkneresque hamlet. It's a backwater. You'll be bored in two days."
She stared at him for a moment, unsure how to proceed. Jason had a talent for making a conversation take a sudden, irrelevant swerve.
"I don't think you understand. I am leaving you."
There was an uncomfortable silence. She thought about walking out then, but she wasn't sure the scene was over. As Jason would say, it had no closure.
Finally he threw his hands up in a gesture of exasperation.
"What do you want me to say? 'Please don't go'?"
Valerie hesitated. This was precisely what she had expected him to say.
"I'll call you from home," she said.
"Why do you keep calling it home?"
"Because it is."
"You've lived in L.A. for fourteen years. You haven't spent more than a long weekend in Maddock in all that time. Yet you're sitting here talking about going home. You're like Scarlett going back to Tara or something. Jesus, it's like Thomas Wolfe time. I can't grasp it."
Valerie felt confused, as usual, wondering how he had managed to steer her miles away from the point. Furthermore, shouldn't he be concerned?
He was staring languidly at her with those tepid brown eyes, the fullness of his lashes making him look dreamy, purposeless. She knew there was an intensity to him—it was one of the first things that attracted her to him, in fact—but it did not reside in his eyes. Surely there was a slow-burning fire of angst or vision or something ... for how else was it possible to explain his behavior? He sat in his study churning out one screenplay after another, which, though they often sold, were never produced. Yet he would not give up. She supposed she should admire his tenacity, but it was starting to look like childish willfulness. A kid who did not understand that the party had ended and everyone wanted him to go home.
"Well, I hope to God he is a genius," Valerie's mother had once remarked. "Otherwise, there is no excuse for him."
Looking at her husband now, she knew it was unlikely that Jason would ever prove himself a genius, and that this was finally the problem. He was a thirty-five-year-old man who made up stories for a living. Who sometimes wore the same shirt for days. Who drank scotch before dark. Who didn't own a suit. Who got lost on his own street. Who occasionally looked at his wife as if she were a complete stranger, some transient who had strayed into his existence. And these things were not indications of a great mind at work but of an average mind that was not working particularly well.
Through the window she could see a patch of ocean, the waves curling and crashing onto the pale sand. Jason's desk was situated so that he had his back to the view, as if he didn't want to know about it. This always raised the question in Valerie's mind as to why he so desperately needed to create in this room. But if she asked, she knew he would be ready with an answer that would make her feel small and incapable of understanding "the process." So she didn't ask. It no longer mattered.
Valerie finally walked away, feeling defeated. Pausing at the door she said, "Don't you even want to know why?"
Jason crossed his arms and shook the hair away from his forehead. It was dark and thick and perfectly straight but for a couple of rebellious curls. His jaw was square and austere. He should have scared her and had at one time.
But no more, she thought sadly.
"I'll tell you why," he said. "You're leaving because you're disappointed. Being married to a screenwriter has not lived up to its promise. You expected to be going to screenings and traveling to exotic locations and eating at Morton's every Monday night. You had no concept of the difficulty of this life. You didn't count on the struggle. Valerie, you're not cut out for hard times."
"And you," she said, "are not cut out for anything else."
She walked away then, with the image of him sitting behind his desk in the brassy sunlight, the smallness of him looming large in her mind.CHAPTER 2
Valerie did not watch the movie on the plane. Her faith in movies had been demolished by Hollywood. Her own brief excursions into extra work had allowed her to see the wires in filmmaking. She knew how many takes had gone into getting those earnest performances. She knew how childish and demanding the stars could be, how they cried on the set or locked themselves in their trailers because of a bad hair day. She knew from experience how tired the extras were, how they were herded around like cattle—their names never learned. Many was the time she'd been referred to as "female atmosphere."
Looking around, Valerie saw the passengers hooked up to their headphones, mesmerized by the images projected in front of them, mouths twitching with smiles of surprise. Not believing in movies made Valerie feel disconnected from the human race.
There was a time when nothing had mattered more to her than movies and the possibility of being in them. There was a time when she had not valued her uncomplicated existence in Maddock, Virginia. Growing up there, she always felt she was being excluded from some exciting social occasion. She was afraid that people in better places might be looking for her, and they would never find her, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the universe.
She had begun in the first grade telling her friends, her teachers, her neighbors, anyone who would listen, that she intended to leave Maddock in search of stardom. No one had laughed it off. It was a serious claim. Her mother even entertained the idea of taking her to see a child psychologist but finally decided against it, as that would have been more problematic in the long run than Valerie's outrageous proclamations. So her parents waited for it to go away. To keep peace, Valerie made her plans in secret. Her insouciance was a result of the private knowledge that nothing she did in Maddock could have lasting consequences. As a result, she spent a charmed and idyllic youth surrounded by people who wanted her or wanted to be like her.
When she got older, she began to notice that most, if not all, the people around her were perfectly content to stay in Maddock. They rarely envisioned vacations farther away than Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Her best friends, Tess and Mary Grace, occasionally fantasized about Florida as if it were some distant, exotic location, where they might, if they played their cards right or married well, be allowed to visit. Valerie sometimes shared with them her dreams of living in a penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, or a waterfront property in Malibu. She spelled out her plans to become famous (starting out as a model, segueing into acting) and they stared at her in awe, as if it took courage just to imagine such things.
Valerie's desire for such a life stayed with her all through high school, and only began to diminish slightly when she fell in love. Joe Deacon, a tall, dark character of Irish extraction with lazy blue eyes, had captured her attention in her senior year in high school. He was raised in Richmond in a background of old money and had inherited a slow and easy aristocratic manner, even though the family fortune had long since disappeared. Joe was a boarding student at Millburn Academy, the military school three blocks from Valerie's house. The school was Maddock's only claim to fame, and its most direct connection to the outside world. Because of Valerie's great curiosity for anything outside of her hometown, she was naturally drawn to Millburn Academy and to the boys who attended. Joe was not the first Millburn student she had dated, but he was the most shining example of what the institution had to offer. He was the personification of Southern aristocracy, down to the fortune that had been frittered away.
Valerie was taken with him. He was handsome and smart and sophisticated. Only his lack of ambition concerned her. He gave lip service to the idea of moving away with her, but she knew his heart wasn't in it.
She had, however, managed to talk him into attending the University of Richmond, the only college of any repute that had accepted her. Their romance endured various temptations, because Valerie was no less noticed at college than she had been in high school. Somehow, Joe's phlegmatic manner, the confidence derived of breeding, had kept her interested and forced her to resist all other advances. Soon she became intrigued with her own feelings. She loved this man enough to question her ambitions.
What do you think you're going to do in Los Angeles? she'd ask herself, lying awake night after night in her dorm room, listening to the distant roar of parties on frat row. To make matters worse, Joe proposed during their junior year. He was an excellent student and, at her urging, was going to apply to law school. Their future together, by comparison, was easy to imagine. He would set up a practice in Richmond, or Maddock if she preferred. They would have money. She wouldn't have to work. They could take as many trips as she wanted to New York or L.A. or Europe. He promised her a honeymoon in Paris.
Her mother was eager to see this match take place. She came to Richmond and took Valerie shopping for wedding dresses. No expense would be spared. They would give her the biggest wedding Maddock had ever seen. Valerie found her resolve weakening at such a pace that her dreams of escape became shadowy, unfocused.
She began to regard them as something belonging to her childhood. Los Angeles offered nothing but an enormous question mark, and the only thing it promised was anonymity. Then, in her senior year, she signed up for Advanced Drama, where she encountered Phil Saxon, the head of the department. He was one of those teachers who collected admirers and inspired an irrational desire to please. He convinced Valerie she was destined for great things. She had a presence, he told her. A room went silent when she began to speak, he said. She became his project. She played Blanche DuBois and Lady Macbeth. Phil Saxon told her no one had ever brought those characters to life as she had, in his entire experience as a teacher.
She did not believe him. But she did believe that there were other places to go, other things to be than a small town lawyer's wife. And Joe helped to reinforce that idea when he started to discuss Myrtle Beach rather than Paris for their honeymoon.
"I'll have a lot of law school bills to pay. We'll need to start saving for a house. And besides, Paris isn't going anywhere. It's survived two world wars."
So Valerie had gone to Los Angeles, and Joe had married some-one else. Shortly after, Phil Saxon had fallen asleep in bed with a lit cigarette and died in the fire. A gifted female drama student had narrowly escaped.
Valerie ordered another Bloody Mary when the stewardess came around because the first two had not eradicated these memories, nor those of Jason. She kept picturing him at the screening, the first time she ever laid eyes on him. In those days she was working as a temporary secretary, taking acting classes, looking for a commercial agent, getting occasional extra work and doing modeling for local department stores. It had seemed like a full life at the time.
Excerpted from A Better Place by Barbara Hall. Copyright © 1994 Barbara Hall. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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