Interweaving the stories of three broken characters, this poignant novel traces the paths of Amelia Geist, Tris Holloway, and Holly Schenck. Amelia, in a lifelong act of penitence and defiance, has remained a virgin and saved herself for Tris, her first love, who abandoned her more than 50 years ago. A few weeks from retirement, Tris lives in the hills above Silicon Valley, trapped within a loveless marriage and shattered by his decision to leave Amelia all those years ago. Their only hope for reconnection is Holly, a single mother without means, who is trying to mend her life while confined to a hospital bed, a victim of her own suicide attempt. The fragmented stories of these individuals are linked by a profound truth and an astonishing connection that transcends the boundaries between this world and the next.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||16 Years|
About the Author
Chris Katsaropoulos has worked as an editor and product manager for major trade and textbook publishers, including Pearson Education and Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including two novels. He lives in Carmel, Indiana.
Read an Excerpt
By Chris Katsaropoulos
Luminis BooksCopyright © 2009 Chris Katsaropoulos
All rights reserved.
Instead Of Skipping out to lunch for half an hour, Holly has to take a walk-in who wants a full cut and color. Holly tries to slip past the front desk and down the stairs, but the insolent girl working the desk calls her over with a smirk and points to the old woman trying to situate herself in one of the sleek, cone-shaped plastic chairs in the waiting area.
"I would've given her to Trent," the girl whispers slyly, "but he has a two o'clock coming." Then she adds what amounts to a warning. "She wants a special."
Holly nods and wonders what she's in for this time. Ever since she started running around with Rick Oester, the bartender at the Midtown Grill, Holly's business has taken a nosedive. She leaves the kids with her mother and stays out late, drinking too much, smoking too much, waiting for Rick to close. Then, when it's 2 a.m., maybe 3, they go out — or, more often, they end up at his place. The next morning, she feels like death warmed over, and the customers notice. She's been late to her morning appointments and missed a few altogether. Now she has big one-hour, two-hour gaps in her book, and this is what she gets: Whatever leftovers wander in off the street.
"How are you?" Holly says, trying to perk up her voice and hide the disappointment in her face. She extends her hand to the old woman, who has found herself trapped by the peculiar ergonomics of the tipped-up cone chair, more an offer of assistance than a greeting. The woman places her hand into Holly's and latches on with a surprisingly forceful grip. The appendage Holly holds in her hand has a curious parchment-like feel to it, as if a small sack of bones has suddenly sprung to life and grasped the first thing that passed by. Holly's initial reaction is to let go, but the old woman's hand clutches at her as she tries to pull away. The cool skin of the hand is thin and papery, the round knobs of the knuckles bulging white as the woman yanks on Holly's arm to hoist herself up.
"My foot fell asleep," she says, gasping from the effort of raising herself. "No circulation. These chairs send all the blood to your ... "she gasps again audibly, as Holly gives her one last tug to get her on her feet, "to your backside."
"I guess they're not built for —" and then she stops short, trying to come up with a kinder way to say old people. The only thing she can think of that doesn't sound offensive is "senior citizens," but the words feel awkward and mean as they come out of her mouth. The woman glances at Holly and lets go of her hand. "I'm Holly, by the way. We're heading over here," she says, striding towards the row of hair-washing sinks lined up beneath the tall picture windows on the far side of the shop. High above their heads, huge, four-spoked ceiling fans slowly churn the air. The heels of Holly's beige pumps click with a solemn purpose on the hardwood floors, adding a staccato beat to the undulating whine of Trent's blow drier as he waves it over the head of his one-thirty. The fronds of the large potted plants quiver from the currents of air circulating around the shop. Holly points to an open basin and watches the woman carefully lower her head into it, resting the base of her skull against the dip where the neck goes.
Holly steps to the back of the basin, looking at the woman's tired upside down face from a great height. From this vantage point, the normal geometry of the face is inverted, giving Holly precisely what she wants — the true picture of what she has to work with, the hair separate from the nose, the mouth, the eyes; an entity unto itself. She makes a quick assessment before the wash: faded blond tinged by gray, a respectable cut with layers feathering back over the ears, collar length — maybe a bit too long for a woman this old. How old is she really? Holly wonders. It's not the kind of question she can ask directly, and that's the problem with picking up these strays off the street. With her regulars, she can work with a known quantity, rejoin the conversation in mid-beat from the previous appointment — "How are the kids? Oh, a new dog? What kind? How sweet." There's more effort with a walk-in, finding out what they like and don't like in their cut, making small talk about the weather. Long periods of silence such as this.
"So," Holly says, staring into the upside down eyes of the old woman, "what are we doing here today?"
"My name's Amelia," the old lady says. "I had trouble finding this place, upstairs and all. One of my dear friends said you could help."
A referral — it's been a while since she's had one of those. As she's been losing her stockpile of regulars, she's also been losing the people they recommend her to. She reaches down and touches the woman's hair lightly, getting a feel for it before she washes.
"Really?" Holly says. "What's your friend's name?"
"Dolores," the old woman says. "Dolores King."
Holly sifts through a list of names, faces, customers she has or once had, even friends of customers, and finds that the name means nothing to her. Then she realizes: Dolores King didn't refer Amelia to Holly. The girl at the desk said she would have given her to Trent.
"Dolores told me this place has the best beauticians in town." Holly nearly laughs to hear her use such an old-fashioned word. "About a year ago, the lady who used to do my hair — did it for more than twenty years — passed away. Since then, I've tried a lot of places, but no one can get it right. The color is off somehow, the length of the bangs is never right. Then I tell them it's wrong and they look at me like I'm some kind of crazy old coot."
Amelia glances up at Holly with a kind of stern defiance, as if to rebuke all the other haircutters who have given her poor cuts. Holly touches her hair again, gently lifting it away from the compartment of the sink and letting it fall strand by strand. She still has plenty to work with, not thinning like she sees in many women Amelia's age. Lots of hair, but very fine, like the angel hair in the hollow center of the ornament they used to cautiously place on the top bough of the Christmas tree when she was a child. The light catches each filament as they fall away from her hand: silver, white, gray, gold. No roots, not a trace of auburn or black. Clearly, there's been some coloring, but it's hard to tell how much.
"Oh, you're not crazy," Holly says. "You just want what you want."
"Can you help me? I'm looking for something ... special. My fiftieth high school reunion is tomorrow night."
"And you want to look great. Let's wash up here, and you can tell me all about it."
Holly starts the water from the jet nozzle at the end of the hose and adjusts the temperature to warm the water. Then she soaks Amelia's hair, transforming it from a fine halo of golden gray into a limp solid mass that hangs from her head, dark and slick. She spurts a glob of fragrant shampoo into her palm and plies it onto Amelia's glimmering head, massaging the scalp, working her fingers into the hair. In all the years she's been cutting hair for a living, Holly has never tired of this part of the job. Weaving her fingers into the heavy, wet hair of her customer, she lowers her voice and murmurs a reassurance that everything will be okay, she will take care of her. She can feel the tension ease out of this woman as her eyes close and she slumps lower in the reclining black leather chair. Once again in this second-story shop high above ground, the inexorable force of gravity pulls Amelia's body towards the earth. Holly's fingertips press into the contours of Amelia's skull, massaging the scalp, exploring the interlocking bones of the crown. She works her way around to the sides of the head, probing the soft areas around the temples. In the hidden pockets behind each ear, a knob of bone protrudes and there are paired clefts, indentations where the plastic earpieces of Amelia's glasses have worn their way into the soft bone over the decades, two groovelike canyons. Our bodies are surprisingly pliant, conforming themselves to the forces that mold us day by day, year after year. Holly's hand wends its way across the top of my head, pressing hard, now doing something with the water, squirting another glob of shampoo or maybe conditioner. This time it smells like cocoanuts, like a tropical drink with chemicals from a perm someone else is getting mixed in, tingling at the top of my head and down my back. It hurts where this hard sink presses into my neck. If she doesn't stop soon, I will have to tell her, but it feels so good where she massages that I don't want it to be over. I'd come back to this woman again just to have her wash my hair this way, but I doubt if she can cut it as well as Claire used to. No one else has been able to, why should she? Dolores says this shop is the best, so maybe this Holly will be as good as Claire was, but will you ever see me Tris? We could meet at the show, at the five o'clock show like we used to, or I could see you at the lunch counter at Haag's and have a soda, you know there's no point in avoiding me any longer. We could be together again, the way it was before. We could see each other every day, but you have to come now.
They say they're going to tear the Lyceum down, Tris. It's not a big hotel and theater anymore, now a boarding house for old people like us. They say they're going to knock it down with a big wrecking ball, crumbling to a pile of dust, the whole wonderful thing falling into itself, all the beautiful carpets and the walls inside, the pastel walls cracking into a pile of dust and rubble. They're going to knock it all down and then the phone is ringing, playing a tune. Her hands went away, digging in her pocket. "Hang on a sec," the phone is playing a tune.
The fan twirls up by the ceiling, and it's cold in here with my hair wet. The frond of the potted plant waves at me, "No Mom, I can't tell him to forget it ... That's fine, if you insist on screwing up my life again, you've done it so many times before. Well, how can I ever repay you for that? ... No, you go ahead. I'll find someone else to watch them." She clicks the phone shut and twirls around behind me, her face high up, her chin, and the dark holes of her nose release a heavy sigh. She stares ahead at the empty space above me not looking down, not doing anything, filled with rage. "What's the matter?"
she says, tilting her head back and peering up at Holly from the dark confines of the sink. Holly doesn't want this old woman to be here, doesn't want her prying into her problems, her battles with her mother. For an instant, the old woman in the sink has become her mother, the head that stares up at her is the same as the fearful, reprimanding head of her mother, a sink full of shoulds and do's and don'ts calling up to her from somewhere in the depths of her soul, telling her what she must do and berating her when she doesn't obey the commands. Though the voice that floats up to her is meant to be helpful, it fills her with dread, eats away at the thin membrane that protects the innermost part of her from the outside. Then, a wheel in her head turns a notch, and she knows she must answer the question.
"Nothing really," Holly says. "Babysitter problem." She grabs a fistful of the woman's hair and squeezes, ringing the water out.
"You sound upset." The whites of the old woman's eyes rotate further back into their sockets. Trying to get a better look at Holly. "Is there any way I can help?"
You could shut up and go away, Holly thinks. She squeezes the hair tighter and imagines herself starting to pull, yanking the head down. If you pulled on the wet rope of hair hard enough, you could easily snap a person's neck against the fulcrum created by the smooth lip of the sink. The skin on Amelia's face looks like parchment, like the high-resolution color x-ray pictures of a mummy she saw in a news magazine recently, layers of papery parchment the color of a grocery sack bronzed with great age. The reedy lips move almost imperceptibly, the tongue still remarkably pink behind yellowed teeth and flaring gums, blowing puffs of stale breath, forming another set of words.
"If you need a babysitter," the old woman says, "perhaps I can help you. You have kids that need watching, and I've got nothing but time on my hands."
The words are so incongruous with the images flitting through Holly's head that it takes a moment for Holly to process what she's saying. She has never left her two girls with anyone but her mother. And as vexing as her mother can be, Holly feels confident that nothing bad will happen to the girls at her mother's house. Plus, leaving them there frees her to stay out all night if she wants. Her implacable need for Rick injects itself into her thinking, races through the air above their heads like the swift shadow of a jet plane on its way to the point where it will meet with the jet itself on the runway when the plane touches down.
"Well," Holly says, calculating, getting down to business, "where do you live? I mean, I usually drop my girls off at my Mom's house — instead of having someone come by." The force of habit, the power of her need, frames her thinking: She wants to leave the girls at someone else's house, as she normally does. In the instant before Amelia answers, she tries to picture where someone like Amelia would live, and the results are not good. She imagines linoleum floors and empty tins of cat food stacked on the kitchen counter. Flock wallpaper and mildewy shag carpet, tinged with the smell of mothballs. A trailer park or an old farmhouse in a cornfield outside of town.
"I'm on the number 8 bus line. East Washington. I take the 8 downtown, and the 15 over here." Then Amelia adds, in a voice lacking any hint of embarrassment. "I don't drive, you see."
Amelia's lips form themselves into a broad, unassuming smile, a pressed shallow arc that reminds Holly of pictures she has seen of FDR's wife smiling in spite of hard times. Holly knows she must choose soon or the offer will be withdrawn, an idea whose sheer absurdity is revealed by gradual exposure to the light of day. The faces of her two girls loom before her, images that have been stylized in her mind's eye from dozens of photographs she has hanging on the walls of her home and mounted in art frames on the table behind this sink in the salon: Jenny and Zoe standing next to a snowman they helped her build, their faces beaming with joy; their first family portrait together, the one with their father still in it; a Polaroid of Jenny from her fourth birthday party, the father no longer there, chocolate icing smeared across her chubby cheeks. And then the shadow of Rick's need darting past, her own need racing to meet it. Holly says "What time can you take them?" as if they are a burden to be unloaded. She twists my hair again to wring the excess water from it. Don't worry. Though I haven't even seen them, they are just as precious to me. I have taken care of children before, and Tris and I were children once together. We played in the yard behind the house in Elmer's garden, we ran behind the big swing, wrestled in the hammock.
"Whenever you need to bring them by. I can give them dinner, if you want." We ran behind the swing and wrestled in the hammock. Tris had his arm around me and Elmer came by, Tris called out and rolled over, his weight tipped the hammock hanging between the two ends of the pole, he tipped it and fell out. She stares down at me with her eyes dazzled, glazed over by her wanting. It's okay, I want to say to her, it's okay for you to want a man. I wanted someone too. I wanted him, but he tipped and fell out. He fell and chipped his tooth, blood spilling across the grass. He fell and I wanted him even more, he fell and he slips the plastic card into the slot, the green light blinks above it, the door yields with a satisfying click, and he is in. The maids have turned the air conditioning down too low, as usual — all these air conditioned spaces he inhabits, airports, rental car buses, hotels, restaurants, convention centers, are chilled to a temperature that's uncomfortable without a sweater, a sports coat, or a long-sleeved shirt, as if the wonder of air conditioning is not self evident without cooling the room to sixty-five degrees. He tosses the overnight bag on the bed and tests it, dropping his weight onto the side edge and bouncing up and down a couple of times — not too bad, firm. Plenty of pillows and several different sizes. He will use some for sleeping on his back, other larger ones for sleeping on his side, propping his head up at just the right angle to avoid getting a stiff neck.
In his years of travel for work he has become a connoisseur of hotel rooms, and though he is not a snob about it, he understands there are certain things that will make the brief segment of his life he is wasting in this rented space more tolerable. He always requests a king instead of two queens, because it means the large faux mahogany or cherry cabinet that holds the television will more likely be situated directly in front of the bed for optimal viewing — again, he avoids the stiff neck because he won't have to turn his head at an awkward angle to see the screen. He always requests non-smoking. There is an iron and ironing board. Wireless internet has become a must as well, though he notes that minibars have become much less frequent denizens of these tight, temporary compartments where he spends a good portion of his life. Too much pilferage? The only reason he can imagine for them to eliminate the profit center that provides the $6.00 cans of beer and $4.00 packages of cancandy he used to enjoy. The obligatory small couch or chair fronted by a coffee table. The work desk and lamp, all furnishings in a comforting traditional style. The print of ducks on the wing or a bland, non-threatening landscape hanging on the otherwise blank walls.
Excerpted from Fragile by Chris Katsaropoulos. Copyright © 2009 Chris Katsaropoulos. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
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