Clara's Heartby Joseph Olshan
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Originally published to international acclaim and the basis for the beloved film starring Whoopi Goldberg, Joseph Olshan’s prize-winning novel charts the profound, rare friendship between a wise Jamaican woman named Clara and David, a twelve-year-old boy adrift in the wake of his parents’ broken marriage. As the two grow closer, she brings him into her special world of patois and Jamaican beauty parlors and shadowy alliances, and he comes to realize that in her native country Clara has left behind a mystery, which he grows determined to unveil. Heralded as a classic, Clara’s Heart is at once a moving and comical tribute to unconventional love.
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By Joseph Olshan
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Joseph Olshan
All rights reserved.
His younger sister seldom cried those two months she was alive. He remembered her dark shiny ringlets of hair, her red sweating face, the sturdy body of his mother bathing her, wrapping her in white flannel, and the shrieking and howling that filled the house one morning when she would not wake up. His mother's eyes were a Slavic-looking green. He had never seen her weep before.
David was eight years old, confused by this twist of fate, unable to understand the depression his mother fell into over someone who had lived only a small part of his own lifetime. She refused to go out, drawing the curtains in their rambling colonial house, lowering a pall on their lives. Clutching his father by the shrouded windows, she wept for days. At first he was brought to a neighbor's to be kept away from his parents' grief, but he wailed until his mother came to bring him home. He refused to walk, so that she was forced to carry him. He knew he was too old, but he wanted to be younger, to hide himself in the protection of her strong arms. While she was carrying him, he imagined the ground to be hundreds of feet below them, the sky a glittering membrane just beyond his fingertips, beyond which little Edith was floating. He tried to press his lips to his mother's cheeks, but she twisted her head away. It was as if he were responsible for his sister's death.
It wasn't until late one evening when his mother's voice pierced through the depths of his sleep that he began to understand that she, too, felt responsible for Edith's death. Her conversation with his father had been loud enough to travel along the upstairs corridors, through the empty bedrooms where she told David all his brothers and sisters would live.
"Why didn't I check her room? Why didn't I do something?" his mother cried.
"Lee, stop blaming yourself," his father told her.
"But, if I'd just rocked the crib, or maybe even touched her. Anything!" Her voice cracked as she spoke.
"I'm not going to discuss this anymore. You're driving both of us nuts," Bill said.
"You blame me," she said, her voice going low. "I don't care what you say. I know you do."
"How could I possibly blame you?"
David would hear these discussions in the morning before his father left for work and on the weekend when his father left for golfing. His father would look at him and say, "Mother is still unhappy today. Try to play quietly. Try to help her if she cries."
"But what do I do?"
"Put your arms around her and say you love her and that you'll be patient and wait for her to bring you another brother or sister. Now come here and let me rub your head so I'll be lucky playing golf."
"If you're lucky, will you give me some of the money you win?" David asked.
"You little operator," Bill said, mussing David's hair with his knuckles.
Inside the house, where David learned about death, a dusty silence had bloomed. His mother had forbidden the cleaning ladies to come, and the rooms had quickly grown dingy. Dishes speckled with bits of rotting food remained in the kitchen sink for days. She refused to cancel the diaper service, and sometimes he had to answer the door to receive the packages of clean nappies. David brought them to the nursery, which was still unchanged, drawers filled with pink rompers, tall shelves lined with bottles of alcohol and Baby Magic and mineral oil. He would tiptoe inside, still able to smell Edith, who had smelled of Desitin ointment and Ammens powder. He remembered her bottom pink with diaper rash, how she was allowed to suck on his mother and he wasn't. He wondered if at some point she might crawl back from the dimension where she was hiding: back through a crevice in the closet that had given her away to the dark and beyond, something like the world locked inside the emerald band of crystal that rimmed the glass coffee table.
To escape the somber feeling in the house, David would stay in his room. He loved his carpeting. It was shaggy and bright blue like the painted blazer of a toy soldier. He had chosen it himself when the carpet man came. Now it looked ugly. There were bits of notepaper and lint wound in its long threads. He had dripped glue on it when he was pasting cutouts and could no longer comb his fingers through the way he combed them through the hair of their dog, Nipper, who sometimes snapped at him. He loved to turn on his air conditioning and feel cold air blowing in. That winter he put on sweaters and made the room as cool as the refrigerator. He drew pictures: of himself and his parents standing together in the garden, Edith lying near them on a bed of flowers; of the empty crib and basinet and Edith floating above them with an angel's halo. He took his butterfly collection, opened the glass frames, and fingered the tiger-swallowtails and the mourning cloaks and thought of his sister under glass. The powder of butterfly wings smudged on his fingers and he smelled its sweet must and wondered about death.
He'd wait entire mornings for his mother to leave her room. She'd wear her bathrobe and bedroom slippers all day long. He comforted her just as his father requested, but she said little to him in return and would spend the rest of the day walking around the house, raking her fingers through her ratty hair. She'd call her friends from the kitchen phone, wrapping herself in the white cord that stretched all the way to the pantry. While she talked, she took cans of beans and soup and oysters and lined them up on the kitchen table. David thought she was playing dominoes.
To her friends his mother talked about a disaster. Until then, "disaster" had been when cars flew off the highway or planes plunged from the sky or, when David was small, his mother talked in hushes to his father about "missiles" and then rushed to Shopwell to fill grocery baskets with these very cans of beans and soup.
Two weeks after Edith's death, his mother appeared at his bedroom early one morning and ordered him to get up. She told him he could dress himself, which made him feel important. They drove to B. Altman's in nearby White Plains. Going up the escalator, he watched how the ground floor with its six-foot mannequins and scented cosmetic counters fell away in favor of the toddler's department that fit magically into its place. His mother went through the racks and picked out pinafores, tiny Dr. Denton pajamas, and white baby shoes. She asked his opinion about a snowsuit and a jumper. David figured his mother was playing a game until she took out money and paid for the clothing. Then he hoped she had the power to bring Edith back.
His father got home from work late that evening and came through the kitchen door just as David was helping himself to a snack. David was forbidden to eat after dinner and froze in the act of stealing food, his body bathed in the refrigerator light. But as his father lumbered into the kitchen, he didn't seem to care at all that David was eating. It was drizzling and he wore a trench coat belted at the waist, which made his massive athletic shoulders look even wider. "Come here, pal," he said, grabbing David's hands and twirling him around like a top. "What did you do today?"
David shrugged. "Mom took me shopping."
"What you get?"
David peered at his father. A spotlight invaded the room from the garden and made his father loom like a giant. "Didn't get anything."
"Mommy buy herself anything?"
"She bought stuff for Edith."
David heard a pounding in the kitchen and didn't know what it was. Then he realized his father had banged the side of the refrigerator. A moment later his father had opened the metal door he struck, muttering to himself as he removed packages of cold cuts and a block of cheese. He made a quick sandwich without bothering to get a plate—which his mother always insisted upon—and told David to go play in the library before going upstairs to the bedroom.
But David knew something was about to happen. He waited a few moments before sneaking after his father, tiptoeing down the hallway and slipping inside the dark, abandoned nursery, which was right next to his parents' bedroom. "Are you out of your mind?" he heard. "Indulging yourself like that. And taking David with you!"
His mother said something David couldn't make out and then his father replied, "Bullshit! Of course you remember buying it. You're not suffering any lapse. You're just morbid. Morbid!" he yelled.
To David, the word conjured up a woman in a black dress with a bitter taste in her mouth. "Morbid," he would repeat to himself. "You're morbid, you know," he told his mother the next morning when he found her walking aimlessly around the house. She'd been crying; her face was bloated, her cheeks wrinkled as though she had been sleeping on frozen waffles. She had swallowed a yellow pill the neighbor who had looked after him had been urging her to take. The neighbor was one of the people who said, "You've got David now. You've got to be careful how this is going to affect him." His mother locked her room, ran a hot bath, and soaked in billows of suds. Later on, she dried herself off and took a nap. She wore a satin eyeshade to pretend it was night.
After that, his parents seemed to say less and less to each other. His father began to stay longer in Manhattan. David's bedtime would arrive and though he tried to stay awake, he fell asleep waiting for his father to get home. One night his father came home early, but instead of going upstairs to see his mother, he took the cold cuts from the refrigerator, dropping them into his mouth strip by strip as he made his way to the library. David followed him and sat by his legs while he made phone calls to California and to the Orient. His father let him say hello to someone in Australia and David told the person he spoke to that he should visit New York. David asked how long it took this invitation to travel across the world, and the person laughed and said in the voice of a fairy-tale prince, "About the same time it takes for you to blink your eyes."
His father took the phone back, David listening to him talk business language. Maritime was the only word he understood; his father was a maritime lawyer.
Suddenly, his mother was standing in her bathrobe at the doorway. Her face was paler than David had ever seen, her lips trembling, her eyes as troubled as Long Island Sound on those gloomy days when boats were warned. She had seen the light glowing on the telephone up in the bedroom. She motioned for his father to get off the phone, but he shook his head and kept discussing business.
The next morning David's father announced that he and David's mother were going away somewhere. David asked why, and the answer was that his mother needed to rest away from Rye. His parents couldn't take him along; they were going far, to a place where children could not go, because there were no baby-sitters. They arranged for a colored woman to stay with him while they were away. He cried and cried the day they left, pinned behind the dark arms of this strange woman, watching his mother, pale and woozy, hanging on to his father, who was wearing a silly-looking straw hat. A limousine arrived and whisked them away to the airport. Then came five endless weeks during which David was afraid his mother would never get well.CHAPTER 2
"Her baby dead into the crib."
"You mean to say that happen up United States, too?"
"What you talking? If dem don't cure it, it must happen."
The supervisors were handing out piles of freshly laundered sheets to the chambermaids. The linen room was cramped with women and smelled of perspiration and starch. Clara felt weary as she received her stack of whites with their blue border. She hated this job.
"She trouble to look after," another supervisor went on. "Lock up in dat room all day, don't let you come and tidy."
"Which woman you talking?" Clara asked, taking a bottle of spray disinfectant from a shelf.
Ignoring her, the supervisors continued their discussion. "Too pretty a woman, she, to let go her life so."
"Where she locate?" Clara insisted.
"What you mean?" someone asked crossly. "Don't she in your wing?"
"I don't see her."
"What interest you so much?" another woman asked Clara. "Dis one not looking for wisdom."
"Cha, man, don't be nasty," a young maid piped up. "Miss Clara, de lady is in eight-thirty-five."
Clara quickly left the supervisors' quarters. "Go fly to find the white one, fallen angel," one of them muttered after her.
The maids at the Frenchman's Cove no longer approached Clara with their troubles. Her advice had once been sought by everyone, but now the burden fell upon another woman, who was older than she, but not nearly so wise. Everyone in Port Antonio knew what had happened to the lady who used to give advice at the laundry gorge behind the town, her bright voice rising above the sibilance of muslin and colored cloth rubbing on the flat stones. Some said Clara had the strength of the beyond and could fight like a man. Some said she was secretly a Gypsy. The young, who didn't quite understand what had occurred, still revered her. "Dere she go, Miss Clara Mayfield," they would remark whenever they caught sight of her purple turban.
Later on when she put her ear to the door of 835, Clara could distinctly hear water running. "'Ello, clack clack," she called, imitating the door knocker. "Step about, maid is here."
No one answered. She decided to ignore the Do Not Disturb sign and use her passkey.
The voile curtains were pulled shut, billowing softly with the trade winds. Beyond them Clara made out the quivering shadows of palmetto fronds and magnolia leaves. Although there had not yet been maid service, the room was tidied, the bed freshly made. Pastel-colored golf shirts were stacked on the antique dresser, bottles of perfumes and cosmetics arranged in a perfect semicircle on a vanity table. Next to them stood two brass-framed pictures of a little boy and a baby. "Lovely child," Clara muttered aloud as she looked closely at the boy, tsking under her breath when she noticed the baby. She heard dull splashing sounds of someone soaking in a tub.
"Maid is here," she said softly, knocking on the bathroom door.
"Come back later," spoke a hoarse voice from inside. "There's nothing for you to do right now."
"But you have your Do Not Disturb out dere from morning till night."
The woman did not answer.
"And ya not even enjoying the view. At least let me part the curtains."
"Please, no. Just leave them."
"You don't like our island?"
"I haven't seen it."
"For shame," whispered Clara. "These rich ladies have everything dem could ever want and still come to get so glum. She should only bear my life. When this island so lovely she stay inside soaking like a sow."
Defiant, Clara drew back the curtains and flung open the shutters. She walked out on the balcony. A shower had passed overhead only a few minutes before and she could see the dark stain of rain clouds trailing across the green wings of the hotel's far lawns and onto the fairway of the rolling golf course. A procession of plumeria blossoms scattered along the walkways and the air smelled like sour sap. She looked toward the half-moon-shaped bamboo bar near the swimming pool where her husband's old friend Alberga tended drinks. "Alberga certainly do get bald so till," she remarked out loud.
Something disturbed her idleness and she realized it was the lady in the bathroom calling for her. "You still here? You still here?"
"Hold on, coming," Clara called, and then, "you ras," she swore under her breath.
"I have a shaver in that gold lamé toilet case on the vanity table. Could you bring it to me?"
"Yes, ma'am," Clara said.
The bathroom was hot and a head of steam clung to the ceiling. An auburn-haired woman, surrounded by islands of fine suds, was soaking in the tub. She glanced bleakly at Clara, who noticed what looked like bruises below her eyes. Not sleeping well, she thought to herself. The woman had a wide, sensual face and looked vaguely Oriental. Her green eyes were flecked with yellow.
"Thank you," she said, reaching for the razor. Clara watched her lift a leg from the tub and hook it over the porcelain lip. It was a sturdy, muscular leg.
"How come you're inside on such a fine day?" she asked. "You should be playing tennis or golf."
"I hate golf," the woman said. "And there's nobody to play tennis with."
"What you saying? Lots of people leave their name down at the tennis pavilion."
Excerpted from Clara's Heart by Joseph Olshan. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Olshan. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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Meet the Author
Joseph Olshan is the award-winning author of nine novels, the most recent of which, Cloudland (2012), was hailed by the New York Times: “Joseph Olshan has stepped up and hit one for the home team. The bracing clarity of his prose . . . observes the destructive impact [the] killings have on this isolated region.”
Joseph Olshan is an award-winning American novelist whose works include Cloudland, The Conversion, Nightswimmer, and The Sound of Heaven.His critically acclaimed first novel, Clara's Heart, was the winner of the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and subsequently the basis for a motion picture starring Academy Award–winner Whoopi Goldberg. A former book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Olshan has written extensively for numerous publications including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Times (London), the Washington Post,Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine, and Entertainment Weekly. Once a professor of creative writing at New York University, Olshan currently lives in Vermont. His work has been translated into sixteen languages.
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