Madena, upstate New York. Like any other small town, everybody keeps an eye on everybody else's business without recognizing the secrets that connect them. The wheelchair-bound Celeste conjures up lives from what she sees and thinks she sees while peering through binoculars from her kitchen fan vent. Fifteen-year old Persephone trades sex for tattoo sessions that get her high and help her forget her girlfriend doesn't love her. Theo was the high-school bad boy who couldn't have the respectable girl he adored from afar, but now, sitting behind the counter of the last video store in town, worries wretchedly about the restless daughter he never understood. Natalie, trying to grasp the last shreds of respectability, would do anything to forget the baby she gave up long ago, including betray her husband and son. Celeste, longing to connect, combines truth with fantasy, intervenes and interferes, finally understanding that things have gone terribly wrong and that she stands at the heart of disaster. Connected Underneath is a lyrical, scalpel-keen dissection of the ties that bind and of those that dissolve.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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By Linda Legters
Lethe PressCopyright © 2016 Linda Legters
All rights reserved.
I'VE KNOWN THESE people all of my life, and still what happened here in Madena frightens me. I'll tell you everything, even the parts that might be — there, already: I've hardly begun and I'm already lying — I'll try not to skip anything, not even the parts that were my fault.
Union Street splits downtown like a red brick artery splitting two halves of a brain. The western sphere where Theo and Natalie lived as kids sidles up to the railroad station and the tracks connecting New York City and points south with Albany and points north. The eastern half slopes down from Union, where the four or five blocks of original houses, once grand, the industrialists' and the bankers', are now all duplexes and multi-family rentals; Theo came to live in one of these with his wife, who soon left, and his adopted daughter, Persephone. Then, sloping down more steeply, are the subdivisions and cul-de-sacs with newer streets and fresher houses, where Natalie, now married with a son, lives next door to me, Celeste, the woman with the wheelchair.
The big, old-fashioned St. Mark's Catholic Church with its tall, tall steeple hovers high above Union. Beneath it, their thrift store, where young girls and my aide Agnes like to shop. Next is the movie theater, closed for years, Catch Me if You Can still on the marquee, the m and f and second c missing; and the hardware store with wooden floors and dusty bins of nails and duct tape and fading boxes of small appliances like coffee pots that everybody can buy cheaper at Wal-Mart north of town, although Eddie and his son still put watering cans and wheelbarrows out on the sidewalk in the summer, and shovels and bags of salt in the winter, always hopeful; then, the bridal shop; Sally, the proprietor, never needs one of the dresses she sells, but it it's not hard to imagine her trying them on alone, at night, after locking the front door.
Next is the post office, with the famous fading mural of the town in its industrial heyday, and the creaky A&P with aisles barely big enough for the new double-wide carts, and always smelling like years and years of overripe fruit. Beyond that, Mr. Harricomb the lawyer's office, and the Greek pizzeria, where kids go to buy thick slices for a couple dollars. Across the street, on the eastern side, a gas station, full serve, the old high school, set back, all stately and brick and more grand than anything else on the street, now set up for senior citizens, and there's a free clinic, and the town's rec department where kids come to sign up for Little League. Next, a scrap of a park with a memorial statue for some war, the deli, the florist, green and delicious regardless of the season; the barber, the bakery, and Delphi's Video, Theo's place, the last of its kind in the Hudson Valley, nearly the last in all of New York State. I've always been a faithful customer.
Just north of the old school and the gas station, around the corner, heading west uphill, are smaller, shabbier shops: the tarot card reader, the shoe repair, and Billie's tattoo parlor. And on the outskirts, a circle of handsome old factory buildings, mostly empty now.
As all stories do, this one started decades before the events in this book. But the moment after which nothing was the same came eighteen years ago.CHAPTER 2
ON THE THIRD day of his junior year, Theo — Theodorus Messex — fell in love. He expected Natalie Brankovich, vivid, a freshman, to be popular — turned out not so much — but he was the guy who had a motorcycle instead of a car, the one who wore his black leather vest all summer, the one who would sneak out for a smoke between classes, and then get the doors locked on him by the gym teacher so he couldn't get back in. Theo thought he could appeal to Natalie's dark side; he'd heard all girls had one, some part of themselves attracted to bad boys, even though he didn't really think of himself as bad, but Natalie's sides were more secretive than dark, not the same thing, so she wouldn't be seen on the back of his motorcycle, and certainly wouldn't go out with him. Other guys like basketball star Mike Teague got to take her for rides in their cars; Theo was from the wrong side of town, her side, and she wanted a different side.
After a while, though, after she'd found her place in the high school scenario, she consented to talk to him, as long as they were away from school, out of sight, on his back stoop. He shouldn't have settled, should have told her what was what, but he didn't feel good about their side of town, either; he couldn't blame her for wanting to get away from paint-peeling porches and drunks in shop doorways and wheelless, sometimes doorless cars with smashed windshields parked on cement blocks, as if anybody was ever really going to come by to fix them. Theo was the only one she really talked to back then, and she mostly talked about how much she wanted to get out, although she could never say what she wanted to get out to; but, Theo thought, at least she was planning ahead, even if not very far.
Neither had siblings; she became something of a sister. Whenever she messed up, shoplifted, or left the scene of a fender bender, Theo stuck by her. And he stuck by her while she recovered from Mike Teague, if she ever did, the lanky, blond athlete, basketball and track, who lived in a big, big house off Sugar Street. Theo even took in the baby Teague never knew about, the baby her parents refused to let her keep. Theo gathered the little girl in his arms the day she was born, named her Persephone, and raised her mostly alone, Natalie soon off to marry Doug Zander, from Utica, who brought her over to my side of town. She managed to pledge the only people who knew, her parents and Theo, to secrecy. But the Teague episode was hard on Theo from beginning to end. He felt brotherly, and protective, and had come to want a family so badly by then that he not only married the first woman who would have him, but rescued Natalie's child from anonymous adoption, only to have Natalie cut herself off from Theo, and her daughter, the day Doug asked her to marry him.
Theo, his new family tenuous and tiny, worried himself into illness that the baby he called Seph would grow up to leave him, not in some ordinary way, for college, or to get married, but in some dramatic, frightening way.
Then, last spring, soon after she turned fifteen, Seph began disappearing for hours at a time. She never had any explanation, and she never seemed content. Theo blamed himself for her unhappiness, certain he'd missed the clues, had failed to understand her; he cursed himself for marrying the wrong woman, for not talking to the right people, living in the right house, or the right town, for never saying the right words, or turning the right corner. Seph gave him his first truly deep scare one night last April, when, after locking up Delphi's for the night, Theo headed out to have a beer with his friend Carver, while she said she was on her way to a movie up at the Cineplex. "Home by ten," she said. But, no, not the movies. Billie's tattoo parlor.
* * *
PERSEPHONE NEVER KISSED Billie, but would lift her skirt. He was sweet, gentle, swift, so it never seemed like a very big deal, not even the first time, the time that drew blood. And only when there was blood did she feel she'd done anything worthwhile, worthy, worth it. Piercing was okay, that stiff dry pain, but there was never enough blood. Tattoos, though, came in large smooth patches of her skin bubbling under the ratatat tat, rags nearby, always sterile, Billie claimed, to wipe away her blood, rags she watched for, rags that piled up. Leading up to this, Billie would clear a space, brush aside scraps of paper with his designs scribbled on them, coffee cups, phone messages, the phone, and she would stand with her back to the counter, lean on her palms on the counter's edge and raise her body up with a little lithe jump to position her hips, her thighs on the edge of his counter, where he would like to woo her, nuzzle, say sweet things, make love in the true sense, but, yes, she was young, but also oddly uninterested, didn't buy it, didn't get it, she said, said skip all that, said she didn't care, said she didn't understand why screwing was such a big deal, not much involved, not the way Billie did it anyway, didn't even look at him (although he looked at her, loved her), he thought (feared) she read the posters on the wall behind his head. She was growing up, talked about leaving Madena, would stop needing him for his skills, his willingness, and would probably regret both the screwing and the tattoos, but, that night, she wanted a lizard.
Billie pulled out. "Want a beer?" he asked.
"Why a lizard?"
She shrugged, didn't say it was because she'd seen the flicker of one earlier, when she was with Krista in the clearing near the train station; the sizzle of the surprise gave her a thrill from the ground up. She'd straddle the barber's chair, curve her back towards the needles, the way she curved her body toward Krista's, and, rising up toward Billie's art, immerse herself in privacy. She lifted the cool brown rim of the bottle to her lips. The chair ... like the barber's where she got her hair razored off and she'd read somewhere how the red and white swirls on the old fashioned barber poles — the barber shop near Delphi's still had one, although it didn't work — represented the job barbers used to have, bloodletting, where they methodically cut forearms and let the patient bleed, thinking all they had to do was let the demons out. Killed George Washington and who knows who else. But it must have worked enough times to keep the practice going. She thought of that, how it must have worked. Like those old skulls with boreholes in them, they drilled through skull bones (no ether, no lidocaine, no anesthesiologists then) convinced that this would let out headaches and, possibly, insanity. Maybe it did. Maybe we've fallen behind not doing it any longer. She sometimes felt all her problems would be solved if only someone could relieve the pressure in her head. Sometimes she lay awake in the night imagining a fine-bore drill making a small silent hole that allowed the bad parts of her brain to leak out. During what millennium did they stop drilling skulls? What made surgeons and barbers stop draining blood out of veins and capillaries? Is this when they started relying on leeches? The barber pole near her dad's had faded to pink. Billie's drawn design would fill with bubbles of her red almost black red blood. Soon she'd have a green flickering lizard.
"Hey," she said. "Not my back. My ankle. And make it bigger."
"You sure? Your dad'll see it."
The brown beer bottle rim still felt cool against her lips. "Yeah. I wanna watch this time."
Later, much later, long after the ten o'clock she'd promised her dad she would be home, the lizard safely and deliciously in her skin, she cut through the back alley, and headed home by way of the cross-country team's path that ends at the high school football field; strange sport, cross country, running and running not even fast; why run if not fast? She slipped on the worn and rocky path in her hard black shoes, and followed the far side of the red clay track that circles the grids and goal posts, where, away from street lights, the sky got important, big, wide and black. She followed the distance lines painted white, toe to heel toe to heel marking feet and then yards and ever greater distances until she finally felt free of her own skin, and next she kicked off her shoes and stripped her black blouse and black sleeveless t-shirt from her back, a tapestry of tattoos, and black skirt and black socks, and, stripped down to bare feet and black underwear, the fabric ripped and showing white elastic, her bra straps slipped down, she ran and she ran, fast, cleaving hard cold air, around the track and around the track again, discovering great speed, more than she would have guessed at, and, unable to stop, she circled again, banked corners, her lungs full; goal posts loomed, faded, loomed; empty bleachers cheered.
And next, she stopped, and, bent in half, hands on her knees, chest heaving, heard a train, off in the distance, moaning.
* * *
BY MIDNIGHT, THEO was sure his girl was in trouble. She'd seemed strange all afternoon. Unusually quiet, even for her. Had she really gone to a movie? He should have asked what she was seeing, who was driving. He'd assumed that girl Krista, recently sixteen. He'd tried Seph's cell; it rang in her room. Maybe instead of the movie she talked Krista or, worse, someone else into driving her somewhere, maybe somewhere far, like New York, or up to Albany, where he knew there were bars that didn't care. But she'd liked Grand Central that time he took her on the train to the circus, so, holy shit, maybe New York, and maybe the train. He spun out of control when Krista called also wondering where she was. Alone? The little bag of money in her sock drawer was still there. He'd have felt better if she'd taken it.
By two, Theo had her wandering away from Grand Central, pawing through garbage for something to eat, being looked over by some creepy character. Hands off.
At three, Theo phoned Natalie in her safe little house on her cul-de-sac street. He'd never called her before. Those were the rules. But Seph had never been gone quite this long before, and never in the night. He let the phone ring only once before hanging up. He had little faith in Natalie, but maybe just once she would do something helpful.
He tried again. This time Doug answered. Theo listened to the silence in their house for a moment before hanging up again. Even as a baby, Seph had seemed untethered, maybe because she was motherless, and in a way fatherless with no blood between them. He'd read about how brains were hardwired in ways that no amount of nurturing could change; Seph seemed to be this way. He'd brought her to live on the second floor of the wooden house when she was only three days old; he planned to offer stability, a set of parents, he thought, but when she was put into his arms, part, not all, but part, of hope shrunk; he felt it, and named her Persephone, for change that's inevitable, and the unrelenting threat of loss, but also, and equally, for the possibility of light.
At four in the morning, he ran down the stairs, tripping on the torn carpet he'd told the landlord about; the front door slipped from his fingers and slammed shut, but the downstairs apartment had been empty for months, so there was no one to care. Cool, fresh night air, stars; the heavens felt heavy. The door across the street opened, a man with his dog; neither looked at Theo. Peculiar time for a stroll. A light went on in an upstairs room. The man paused when the dog stopped to pee, lit a cigarette, disappeared around the corner. A cry from some recess off to the left, human, or otherwise. Theo sat on the top step. The man and his dog reappeared. The man tipped his imaginary hat. Theo tipped his back.
Adopted, his wife spat one morning, though the little girl had only tipped over her cup of milk. What are we doing with her? Still, the woman's leaving the next day, by train, to Canada, forever, took him by surprise, as many things did. He was left to explain to his three year old what "adopted" meant; he used adopting a puppy or a kitty to explain, but that was bad, because all she knew was that cats and dogs were dropped off at pounds, she'd seen it on a cartoon, so for a long time that was where she thought she'd come from, maybe still did in some secret place. Where's Mommy?
The upstairs light across the street went out.
All those Halloween witch costumes and Thanksgiving pilgrim plays and Mother's Day teas with Theo doing his best while balancing on tiny chairs. Once, he sat in a circle with the moms wearing their pastels, sandals, and wedding rings, he in his black jeans and black t-shirt and black boots, while tiny sons and daughters read their notes of love, thank you for my favorite cookies, thank you for tucking me in, thank you for daddy — everyone chuckled — and when it was Persephone's turn she said thank you for not gambling anymore. The chuckles ended.
Excerpted from Connected Underneath by Linda Legters. Copyright © 2016 Linda Legters. Excerpted by permission of Lethe Press.
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