From an ardently admired, award-winning writer – captivating new stories of love lost and regained. In her first book of short fiction since Various Antidotes, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Joanna Scott offers a group of tales that compellingly demonstrate her special gift for capturing the breathtaking tension found even in life's quietest moments.
At the seaside wedding of two lovers kept apart by the caprices of fate, a doting uncle observes the happy couple while his errant brother – the father of the bride – struggles to free himself from a locked bathroom across town. A young woman arrives in Jazz Age New York with stars in her eyes and only a few coins in her pocket, but when she strikes up an unlikely relationship with her boss at Woolworth's, she is confronted with the unsettling reality of her situation.
A bright businessman is content with the spoils of a prosperous young career, until his car breaks down in a country town, upsetting his entire view. These are among the lives that Joanna Scott luminously and indelibly conjures in Everybody Loves Somebody.
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Everybody Loves Somebody
By Joanna Scott
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Joanna Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHEAVEN AND HELL
On a July day in 1919, beneath the blue dome of the summer sky, the guests watched from the base of a hillock as a young woman was joined in marriage to the man she thought she'd lost forever in the war.
Do you- She does. Do you- He does.
Lazy waves lapped and sucked at the rocks below. Seagulls floated on tilted wings over the gazebo, where a five-piece band was waiting to play. A dog down at the far end of the beach plunged into the water to retrieve a stick thrown by a boy who had grown bored with the ceremony and wandered away. A soft breeze rustled through the dry leaves of hawthorn bushes.
After the exchange of vows, the bride and groom stood unmoving in front of the pastor for such a length of time that some of the guests began to wonder if the young couple knew what to do next. Then the bride reached for the groom's hands, together they lifted the lace veil, and as they turned their lips met perfectly, pressing together in a kiss that two years earlier no one thought would be possible. That this kiss almost didn't happen was enough to draw the assembled guests together in shared relief. At last, Gwendolyn Martin and Clive Crawford were husband and wife.
Unfortunately, Tom Martin, father of the bride, was missing the great event, his absence a result of bad luck so typical that he almost relished his despair, since itreinforced his sense that he couldn't help what he did. The fact that he wasn't where he wanted to be at that moment would eventually become an addition to his long list of mishaps, his entire life being a sequence of contests with fate that he kept losing, but not without a struggle. To prove that he didn't give up easily he slammed the weight of his whole body against the bathroom door. But the door was made of sturdy oak, and with the newfangled bolt irreparably jammed, Tom was stuck inside the bathroom rubbing the darkening bruise on his shoulder while his only daughter married her true love.
Seated on wooden chairs arranged in rows along the relatively flat part of Madison Point, the guests were happy to watch for as long as the kiss would last, which, with the bride and groom clamped greedily together, was turning out to last longer than the usual kiss to mark a union, longer than any wedding kiss anyone had ever witnessed, longer than it had taken the couple to say their vows, and, at this rate, longer than the entirety of the preceding ceremony.
The pastor, rotund Father Gaffner, kept his head slightly bent, his posture suggesting infinite patience, making it impossible to guess how long it would take until he intervened. Apparently, he saw no reason to intervene. He would let the bride and groom go on kissing for as long as they pleased while the guests watched with growing awe that any kiss could last this long-long enough to turn the remarkable event into something that would become the stuff of legend. Gwen and Clive had begun kissing and would keep kissing. In that other dimension where the miraculous future of their love had been born, they would never stop kissing.
Keep kissing, Gwen's uncle Hugo wanted to urge. Break the record of kissing. Kiss through the day, dear Gwen and Clive. Kiss through the night. Kiss for as long as it takes cause and effect to be reversed and all the damage that has ever been done to be undone. Kiss away Clive's blindness. Kiss away the memories of war. Kiss away death. Keep kissing until the end of the world, or at least until the arrival of Tom, that scoundrel of a younger brother who had made Hugo's life difficult for all of his fifty-one years.
Where was Tom? Not where he was supposed to be, of course. Tom had never been where he was supposed to be. When he was a boy, he could be counted on to drift from whatever game he'd started to play. As a man, he drifted from job to job and woman to woman. And as a father, he had just drifted away.
Hugo couldn't know that his brother had spent the morning locked in the bathroom of a seaside inn, where he was treating himself to a hefty dose of self-pity. If he were a better man, Tom thought, he'd accept that the only thing left for him to do was put the revolver to his chest and pull the trigger. Click. If only he had a revolver. He had a toothbrush and Arm & Hammer paste. He had Pepto-Bismol. He was ready. No, he wasn't ready and wouldn't be ready until he'd been given the chance to improve his predicament. Even if he were entirely blameless for everything that had gone wrong, he knew himself as well as Hugo knew him and would have readily admitted that he was a selfish man. He was also sunken-eyed, yellow-haired, white-whiskered, and hungry for meat after being locked in the bathroom in room number 4 of the Tuckett Beach Inn for hours-days, it seemed to Tom, or at least long enough to miss his daughter's wedding.
No one except Hugo would have cared enough to wonder at his absence. The bride didn't even suspect that her father had been invited. To Gwen, Tom was the strange man with tufted ears and a ridiculous handlebar mustache who appeared in her life no more than once a decade. She didn't pretend to feel any familial attachment to him. It was fair to assume that while Gwen stood there kissing Clive, there was no one further from her thoughts than Tom.
The kiss went on and on. The guests stared, their amazement making them simultaneously tense with expectation and confident that such a kiss could only be a deserved reward. The scene was marvelous, unending, and unrepeatable. Just to witness the kiss gave each guest an expansive feeling of worthiness.
And yet it appeared that Tom Martin had decided he had someplace better to be than at Madison Point on this fine summer day. Unless Tom had simply forgotten how to get there. He had last visited the estate when Gwen was eleven, the event preserved by Hugo with his Kodak Brownie in a photograph of Gwen perched on the seat of a bicycle and Tom standing by the front wheel looking as if he'd just realized he'd taken the wrong road and was hopelessly lost.
Damn that Tom. Hugo had even wired money for his brother's train fare from St. Louis. But Tom had probably used the money to travel in the opposite direction. Instead of coming to his daughter's wedding-to begin at noon, promptly, Hugo had added on the invitation to his brother-Tom was probably hundreds of miles away, heading nowhere in particular and inadvertently attaching himself to some new, doomed scheme.
Down on the beach, the dog, a Newfoundland, emerged dripping from the water, the stick clamped between her jaws. The dog's quick shudder was familiar to the boy, who leaped backward to avoid being soaked as the dog shook herself dry. The boy's laughing shriek, though muted by the shushing wind, startled the guests, who weren't ready to be reminded that life was continuing beyond the circle of their assembly. Though none of the guests made any visible move, a rippling unease traveled forward through the rows, passing from one person to another until it finally reached the bride and groom, provoking them to pull slightly away from each other, their minuscule separation dramatic enough to suggest that they were preparing to bring their kiss to an end. The guests continued to stare, savoring this culminating vision of love. The bride and groom had kissed a wonderful kiss and were about to be done, or so the guests thought-mistakenly, as it turned out, for in the next moment the couple fell back toward each other, mouths latched eagerly, for after all they had been through they deserved to kiss and would go on kissing no matter what.
Uncle Hugo admired their defiance. But he had enough foresight to know that eventually the world would intrude. If only he could predict what form the intrusion would take, he'd try to prevent it. Gwen and Clive deserved to kiss for as long as they wanted to kiss. And if they kept on kissing, sooner or later Tom Martin would have to show up.
But Tom couldn't show up unless someone opened the door and let him out. Here he would stay, alone with his thoughts in this tomb of a windowless bathroom, a tub for a coffin, water dripping with torturous irregularity from the faucet. What could he do to improve the situation? His boss at the furniture store in St. Louis would have advised him to make a mental list of ten positive outcomes and ten things that bring him joy. Also, he would have warned him to avoid chocolate, white sugar, mushrooms, and foods that had been preserved, reheated, or fermented. And he definitely should avoid thinking about the wedding he was destined to miss.
It was a wedding as lovely as the guests had predicted it would be. But no one had expected it to be as transfixing as a dream, as deliciously unpredictable. Time itself seemed to have broken from its normal pace and had taken to swooping in reverse then swirling forward like the cottonwood seedlings that blew about in the breeze. In the grip of their fascination, the guests wouldn't have exclaimed if nymphs and satyrs had cavorted across the lawn.
A baby, set down by her mother to crawl between the rows of chairs, chortled happily. Bees flitted in the honeysuckle vines woven through the gazebo's trellis. Down at the beach, the boy wrestled the stick from the jaws of the Newfoundland. Women enjoyed the sunshine warming their shoulders through silk shawls. Men enjoyed the way the breeze rippled the linen of their wide trousers. Even the lemony, thick scent from the mudflats to the south was something to savor, especially when mixed with the perfume of honeysuckle and driftwood and salt. The only melancholy element was the vague sympathy that some guests felt for those who hadn't been invited.
Tom Martin had been invited. It could be, Hugo considered, that Tom had planned to attend but was running late. Though ordinarily Tom couldn't be roused to run. He preferred to walk. Hugo's brother Tom was never in a hurry and considered any commitment an inconvenience.
It seemed that Tom Martin didn't care enough to tolerate the inconvenience of his daughter's wedding. But Hugo cared. He hoped that simply by his being present at this important event, Tom would set in motion what was sure to be a long and difficult process of reconciliation, made more difficult because the two people involved were content with their estrangement. Wasn't it always easier to forget rather than forgive? When Tom had left Carol, Gwen's mother, for another woman, he hadn't even known that she was pregnant. After Gwen was born, it had taken Hugo three months to locate his brother, who was hiding out in Cleveland, and tell him that he had a daughter, an effort that Hugo would allow himself to regret from time to time, though only in secret, along with the agonizing love he secretly felt for Carol, dear Carol, who was never more than grateful to Hugo for offering her and Gwen a haven.
Beyond the point, whitecaps wrinkled the dark surface of the sound. Seagulls continued to wheel silently overhead. On the beach, the boy waded into the shallow water after the dog. The baby, sitting up in the grass, found an empty nymphal shell of a cicada and fingered it gently. Still standing humbly in front of the kissing couple, Father Gaffner tightened his jaw in a subtle grimace, as though he were suppressing a burp or a chuckle. And buzzing in jerky exploration among the buds of the honeysuckle, the bees kept at their single-minded work.
Tom, in contrast to the bees, was an expert at doing nothing. He could sit on the edge of a filthy blue tub staring at a blue toilet bowl, the air in the bathroom like an August afternoon in St. Louis. He could play the part of the vagabond his brother thought him to be, a man with his slouch hat rolled up in his suitcase, who was never in a hurry. Or rarely in a hurry. Well, sometimes he was in a hurry. Sometimes he got hungry for his breakfast. He was hungry now. Someone, let Tom Martin go! Free him from the prison of his soul, redeem him, make him innocent again, lift him up, open the door to this stinking bathroom, give him beef jerky, ten cents for a pack of cigarettes, and a ride to Madison Point. Believe it or not, he wanted to attend the wedding of his daughter, even if she didn't want him there and greeted him with those icy blue eyes, blaming him for being who he was. But really, as he sat in the sapping warmth of the bathroom, it had begun to seem possible that he was not necessarily equal to his actions. Even if he couldn't undo what he'd done he might be able to avoid repeating his mistakes, his worst mistake being leaving that crackerjack Carol, the first of the many lovers he'd left behind and the one who died before she learned to stop loving him. Carol, Gwen's mother, never enjoyed the luxury of indifference. For the pain he'd caused her, Tom was sorry-sorrier now than ever. With no one but himself for company, he couldn't be distracted from wondering how things would have been different if he'd taken Carol with him when he'd left twenty-three years ago.
Hugo could have told his errant brother what would have been different. If Tom had taken Carol with him, Hugo wouldn't have had the chance to raise Gwen and escort her down the aisle on her wedding day. After all they'd been through together, from Gwen's scarlet fever, her childish tantrums and joys, her engagement to Clive, the war, Clive's disappearance in France, his blindness and slow recovery in a military hospital in Nyons, their reunion, their marriage, Hugo could only be glad that Carol had stayed when Tom left, and that he'd kept his love for her a secret until the end, and beyond. He never had to ask her what she felt for him-he understood that he was like a brother to her. If she'd known he wanted to be more than that, she would have left Madison Point. He would have lost not just her but Gwen and everything that followed, and his life wouldn't be culminating now, despite his brother's absence, or perhaps because of it, in this record-breaking kiss on a perfect July day in 1919, with the guests mesmerized, the seagulls floating like angels overhead, a boy splashing in the water down at the beach, a baby lifting the shell of a cicada to her mouth, and one lone honeybee diving into the roses of the bride's bouquet.
The scene being exactly what Tom was trying not to imagine in the bathroom of the Tuckett Beach Inn. He didn't have to be a genius to guess that his daughter's wedding would include equal parts of beauty and guilelessness, acceptance, risk, ferocity, and resistance. All in the name of love. The daughter of crackerjack Carol wouldn't marry a man she didn't love. Right, Carol? Carol? It was only out of boredom that Tom called Carol-first in a whisper, then with a murmur, then with a shout. But don't think that Tom Martin believed in ghosts. He didn't need metaphysics to be certain that death is the end of life, period. Still, Carol, you could do Tom a little favor and unlock this door, or, short of that, talk to him. He could use the company. Carol, are you there? Carol!
Hugo could have told Tom that it was useless to call Carol, since even if she did exist as a singular entity in the spirit realm-a possibility that Hugo, like his brother, didn't entertain for a moment- surely she wouldn't have left her daughter's wedding just to open the door for a man who had abandoned her twenty-three years ago. Tom was stuck, and Carol was the last person on earth-or elsewhere-who would help him come unstuck.
Yet Hugo knew that it would be just like Tom to lay the fault of his absence with Carol. Go ahead, blame a dead woman for the fact that Tom was missing this kiss of all kisses, love making the burden of expiation as light as a feather, with the guests restored to their primeval nobility by the advantage of their presence here at Madison Point. What? Simply put, Hugo was thinking that this must be similar to Paradise-layers and layers of pure happiness, like pages in a book.
Given the transfixing quality of the scene, it wasn't surprising that no one noticed when the baby, balanced on her pudgy rump between the forest of legs, put the shell of the cicada in her mouth. No one noticed that the seagulls abruptly flew away, one after the other, in the direction of a fishing boat on the horizon. And no one noticed when the boy, who had waded up to his thighs after the Newfoundland, slipped off the edge of a sandy shelf and disappeared into the deep water.
What the guests did notice was the bee. While Gwen and Clive kissed, the bee that had been exploring the bouquet rose from the flowers slowly, like a spider on a thread, hovering for a moment near the bride's shoulders, and then rising toward the buttery sheen of her cheek. Its thorax vibrating hungrily, the bee seemed to search Gwen's skin for a good place to pierce it. Gwen and Clive continued kissing, oblivious, but the guests, along with Uncle Hugo, watched with concern.
Excerpted from Everybody Loves Somebody by Joanna Scott Copyright © 2006 by Joanna Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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