After losing her husband and daughter in an auto accident, 42-year-old Emma flies to Paris, discovers she has a twin brother whose existence she had not known about, and learns that her birth parents weren't the Americans who raised her, but a White Russian film star of the 1920s and a French Stalinist. A story about identity and the shaping function of art, My Life as a Silent Movie presents a vividly rendered world and poses provocative questions on the relationship of art to life.
About the Author
Jesse Lee Kercheval is author of 12 books including Brazil, winner of the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Award; the poetry collection Cinema Muto, winner of the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; and The Alice Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
My Life as a Silent Movie
By Jesse Lee Kercheval
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Jesse Lee Kercheval
All rights reserved.
I am on a plane looking down at the clouds. It could be any country below me, any ocean. Or at least the clouds let me pretend that's true. I remember the first time I looked down from an airplane. I was a little girl, and I was crying because I was leaving France for America. I didn't want to go. I also remember flying back to Paris with my husband and daughter, although that time my daughter was the one who sat by the window and discovered the clouds. And she was laughing. The trip was a family vacation and nothing more. I am trying to pretend I am still on that flight.
It isn't working. But I am going someplace, something I thought I might not do again. I am on my way, I hope, to find family. Family I did not know I had. Living family.
But this story does not really begin on a plane. I don't want to deceive you. It started three weeks ago. With two deaths.
Three weeks ago at six o'clock, I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. It was February, which meant it was already dark. The doorbell rang and sent me running down the stairs two at a time to answer. I thought it was the UPS guy at the door trying to get me to take some electronic gadget that my neighbors—lawyers who were never home—had ordered as a treat for themselves in compensation for their busy lives.
But it was the neighbor. When I opened the door, she grabbed my arm above my elbow, like we were about to have an argument and she was afraid I might punch her in the face. "There's been an accident, Emma," she said. "I saw your car in the intersection—just now, on my way home. I talked to the police."
My car, I realized, our Subaru wagon, had my husband in it. Our daughter, eight, was in it, too, on her way home from her violin lesson.
My neighbor shook my arm.
My husband and daughter had been in the car. Now my neighbor, holding my arm tight, told me they were dead. My daughter who had played the violin. Her dad.
Just like that—I had a life, and then it was gone. I think of this part as a violent cartoon. The neighbor's words hit me like a two by four across my stomach, then smack! on my head. Or maybe something less Warner Brothers, more bloody, more Japanese. A sword in the gut, then swish! A long flying blow to the neck, and my head tumbles through the air and lands in the snow bank just beyond our front steps.
Except that would have been a blessing. To be dead. To be dead like everyone else I loved in this world. In one minute, I went from the forty-two-year-old mom of a happy—I swear to God we were happy—family to a woman who wanted nothing in this life except to be done with it.
Some time goes by here. I don't want to remember anything about what happened next. Or next after next. It was like this blankness:
But with no light like the white of this page. Also, no air.
That night—no, it was after the hospital, in the morning—I took my pillow off my side of the bed where I'd slept with my husband for ten years and got a sleeping bag out of the closet. Then, trailing them behind me, I moved downstairs into the basement apartment in our old Victorian house. We'd rented it to a long string of students, but in the months before my husband died, he'd been working on the bathroom and kitchen, trying to make them less damply peeling linoleum, trying to install tile and charm so we could move up to a better class of tenants. In the meantime, the apartment was empty. No tenant, barely any furniture. I took the pillow and sleeping bag into the dark back bedroom and laid down on the shag-carpeted floor. Except for the funeral, I stayed there.
I couldn't make myself sleep in a bed that would be so cold, so empty, all night every night. I couldn't make myself go into my daughter's room to see if she had left her beloved computer on when she'd left in a tumble for school that last morning any more than I could look at her body when the nurse at the emergency room offered me that grace. I should have. How could I not have looked at her one more time?
The nurse had not offered to let me see my husband, which meant I could guess at his injuries. The SUV that hit them ran the red light at high speed and slammed into the driver's side, into my husband. My daughter had been sitting behind him. I hoped she was flipping through her violin music. I hoped she had not been looking when the SUV came, lights bright in her face, speeding across the dark intersection. In the back seat, my daughter had been safer statistically than my husband, but that hadn't mattered. Our wagon folded in on itself like a fortune cookie, like a metal hand closing into a fist. I saw it in the intersection when my neighbor drove me to the hospital. My family was gone. The ambulance was loading the white-sheeted body of the boy—a teenager—who ran the light and killed them all. Except it wasn't a white sheet. There was too much blood for that.
At the hospital, one of the policemen told me it looked like the boy driving the SUV had been going nearly eighty and had not braked at all. Maybe he had been changing radio stations, not looking, when he ran the red light. Maybe he'd been drunk, but probably not, since it was so early, barely dark. He told me the dead boy was seventeen and had been driving his mother's brand-new Chevrolet Avalanche. He also told me the boy's name, though later I couldn't remember it for the life of me.
The cop said I would probably want to sue. So did one of the nurses and both doctors who came out to talk to me, a pediatrician to tell me my daughter had been pronounced dead on arrival, an internist who gave me the same news about my husband. So many people at the funeral mentioned lawyers and lawsuits that I forgot to keep count, as if money or vengeance would make me glad to be alive.
If I wanted revenge or money, how could I have wanted them from a mother who had also lost a son? Later, I would hear the boy was her only child, also that she was a single mother and a secretary at the college where I taught. I imagined her wanting so badly to go back in time, change her mind about lending him her new SUV, snatch away those damn keys. I wanted that, too. I knew any sympathy she was getting—useless as sympathy might be—would be blackened by the sidelong looks, people thinking, if not saying, the accident was her son's fault and so also her fault. Her son killed a man and his child. What kind of mother was she? He'd seemed an okay kid, but ...
Though it was difficult, I thought that his death might even be harder on her than my deaths were on me. My husband was guiltless. My daughter was as innocent as on the cold winter day she was born. Being me, right then, was unspeakably bad. I couldn't imagine what it felt like being that other mother.
I meant to skip this part, what happened right after and after that. It's worth noting that I had a job, a life outside my family. I taught creative writing at a liberal arts college in this green and rolling part of Indiana where I couldn't walk across campus without half the students saying hello to me, calling out to me by name. I'd always thought I cared about that, about what I did. I found out I didn't. I didn't go to work. I had students who expected me to be there. I wasn't. I had people I worked with and friends who were so good, so worried. I didn't care.
I'll stop now, at this moment when I am lying curled in the sleeping bag in the back bedroom of the downstairs apartment. Just for a little while before I go on to what happened next.CHAPTER 2
When the front door bell rang again, I jumped as if the live wire were wrapped around the red muscles of my heart. It was March, less than three weeks later—no time at all, forever. All around the house, daffodils were poking up that my family would never see. Spring comes, no matter. The door to the basement apartment and the door to the main part of the house were side by side on the front porch. From the apartment, I'd watched neighbors and friends come by with casseroles and leave them on the porch. Sometimes I ate one or put it in the fridge for later. Sometimes I just left them for the worried neighbors to retrieve.
But the bell wasn't a neighbor. It was my Aunt Zinnia at the door, my mother's sister, the woman who my father had always called the Terrible Aunt Z.
She was standing on my front porch with her rolling suitcase. She was dressed in a sleeveless white linen dress, as if she hadn't planned on a cool Hoosier spring. She was a tiny woman with a silvery bowl of hair and a soft Southern accent. She looked helpless; she looked sweet. She was neither. She was a regular storm crow, drawn by bad luck. I'd sent her a note after the funeral, telling her what had happened. Now here she was. I watched as the airport shuttle that had dropped her off pulled away from the curb. "Let me in, Emma," she said, banging on the door. "I'm spending the night."
If my husband had been there, he would have laughed. If my daughter had been here, good girl that she was, she would have hugged her Aunt Z. My daughter had been too young to know all the family stories, to know that though Aunt Z's husband had left her plenty of money, she never stayed at hotels but only at other people's houses. If she had to, she would make it her business to meet someone on the plane, relentless in her search to find something in common. On a two-hour flight to Miami, she once discovered that she and the woman next to her had shared the same gynecologist in Kansas City thirty years earlier, a real sadist who had a twin brother who was also an ob–gyn. How do these things come up in casual conversation, my husband wanted to know. When we lived in France when I was little, Aunt Z—whose late husband was with the State Department then—came so often my father had forbidden my mother to wash her sheets each time she left. A complete waste of water, he'd said, always the frugal one. Not to mention time and soap.
Now I didn't roll my eyes or laugh. There was no audience left for Z but me. No shared jokes in my house anymore. She looked old, as if she were shrinking as well as her family. My mother, her only sister, had died three years earlier, a mere two days after my father. I hadn't seen Aunt Z since my parents' funeral. Aunt Z rattled the doorknob. I let her in. She looked around the bare basement apartment, taking in the echoing rooms. "This is ridiculous," she said. "I'm only here for one night. I am not staying down here. Take me upstairs."
So I did, taking the key out of my purse, pushing our front door open with some difficulty. Letters and condolence cards and unpaid bills had piled up just inside the mail slot. She started inside, and I followed her with her suitcase, stepping on the mail. I didn't want to read any of it.
I took a deep breath before I entered the house. Somehow, though I don't know why, I was expecting chaos. I was expecting thieves to have broken in and ransacked the place. Instead, it was neat as a pin. The carpets all vacuumed, the kitchen gleaming in the last light of the day. Even the framed silent film posters and antique movie cameras my husband collected had been meticulously straightened and dusted. My cleaning person, who came once a month, had been there.
God, I thought. I pushed open the door to my daughter's room. Her clothes—usually on the floor and desk and chair and dresser, clean mixed with dirty—were all washed and hung up or folded away. Her computer screen was dark. I sat down in the dining room and put my head on the freshly waxed table. What kind of check do you leave for a cleaning woman who acts more like a caring mom than you?
"Looks good," Aunt Z said. "Nice carpet." She was pointing under the dining room table at the red, ragged Persian that my husband had brought home last spring from a yard sale. "I have one like it." She paused and bent over to get a closer look. "But mine's much nicer." This was another Aunt Z trademark. She was always praising something—your earrings, your Thanksgiving turkey, your new refrigerator—then just when you were prepared to take the compliment, she would spring the old punch line. Whatever you had was nice, but not as nice as the ones she had, which were antique or 24 karat or brand spanking new. She really was terrible.
My mother, though, had talked to her on the phone every day, including the morning of the day she died. I might have been the one who took my mother and my father to their doctors' appointments and shopping and to my house for dinner on Sundays. I was certainly the one who found her body. But it was Aunt Z who was important enough for my mother to call every morning, even though it was long distance.
Aunt Z was on the move. She was looking at the family pictures on the wall in the long hall to the bathroom. "She looks like a nice girl," she said of my daughter, as if she had never seen her, though she'd met her at my parents' funeral. Aunt Z came back into the living room with a picture of my husband, daughter, and me camping on Lake Michigan. "I'd like a cup of tea," she said. "With honey, not sugar, please. But only if you have fresh bags."
I put on the kettle to boil, put some loose tea in a pot, then came back into the dining room. Nothing in my house was fresh, but it would have to do. Aunt Z was still studying the picture. "You've lost weight," she said, looking at my bathing-suited stomach in the family camping photo, then at me. I glanced at myself in the mirror over the dresser we used as a sideboard and nearly jumped, I was so spooked by what I saw. My hair was a long blonde Rastafarian tangle, and I looked nearly as thin as my daughter, as thin as I had been when I first met my husband. My pants drooped from my hips. The heavy black sweater I was wearing hung on me like the skin of some larger animal. I looked closer. I had cheekbones and hollows under them like in my high school yearbook photo, although my skin was lined in a way it never had been twenty-five years ago. I looked like something awful had happened to me, like a high fashion model on heroin. That thin. It scared me.
A friend once told me that when, during a physical, she asked her doctor's advice on losing weight, he answered, "Get cancer. That's the only way a woman your age is going to lose anything."
My friend had already had a lumpectomy and radiation. "I tried that," she said to him. "Remember?" She told me the story as an example of how stupid and sexist and horrible the doctor was. Also, of how hard it was to lose weight in our forties while feeding and caring for our families.
Now grief looked like the diet of all time. I hadn't been looking after anyone lately, certainly not me. The tea kettle whistled. I brought Aunt Zinnia her cup. She had the family albums out now, frowning over the baby pictures of my daughter. "When they're that little, babies all look alike. I can't even tell a girl from a boy," she said. "Unless they're in the bath, and I can see which has a penis." Aunt Zinnia was eighty-six, four years older than my mother, who would certainly have said "wee-wee" or used a plumbing metaphor like "fixture," but Aunt Zinnia was not one to censor herself. She flipped forward through the birthdays and holidays.
She stopped at a picture from three years ago of my parents' last Christmas. My daughter was posed with my mother under the mistletoe, pecking her grandmother's soft, proffered cheek. Looking at the picture, it was easy to think maybe the physicists who believed time did not exist were right. Surely time was an illusion. This moment was still out there. Every moment was still out there. I imagined them as single frames in a long silent movie.
I touched a finger to my daughter's lightly pink nose. "She looks a little like Mom, don't you think?" I said to Z.
"Like Livinia?" she said, calling my mother by her full name, something only Zinnia did. I suspected this was because Livinia was a fair slant rhyme for Zinnia. My father always called my mother Livvy. "Why would you think she looked like Livinia?"
"Just a little," I said. "Around the eyes." Something about the eyebrows, I thought, the way they arched. My daughter had them arched in the picture, glancing sideways at the camera, trying to keep her eyes open in spite of the flash. My mother had hers arched because she loved being in the center of the picture, loved being seen being loved.
Aunt Z shut the album and looked up at me, clearly flustered. "But they aren't related, not really." She blinked, as if she were having trouble seeing me. "I mean, you do know Livinia wasn't your real mother, don't you? I mean, surely your parents told you that you were adopted? They tried to have children for years, but Livinia could never ..."
Excerpted from My Life as a Silent Movie by Jesse Lee Kercheval. Copyright © 2013 Jesse Lee Kercheval. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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What People are Saying About This
A beautiful, evocative novel. . . Kercheval has that rare ability to bring a number of characters alive simultaneously on the page, to make us care about each one for their quirkiness, their hard luck stories and their equally hard-won wisdom. Readers will embrace this story as it melds the magic of old movies with the redemptive power of family.An original, poignant, and truly irresistible story for our time.
Jesse Lee Kercheval's precise and sharp new novelMy Life as a Silent Movie shows us what happens in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy. Kercheval's prose is as clear as a silent film star's face, and the novel's twists and turns are wonderfully unexpected. Whether in Paris or in Indiana, readers will swoon.
Ms. Kercheval writes with clear economy, establishing a complicated plot with apparent effortlessness, and creating a less than strictly realistic narrative. . . . with sly wit and a wink at conventions that go beyond contemporary realism.
Wildly entertaining, fascinating, and deeply moving, My Life as a Silent Movie will make you fall in love all over again with Paris, the history of silent cinema, and the enduring, mysterious drama of being alive. I did not want it to end.
Provocative and playful,My Life as a Silent Movieis a lean and, yes, cinematic novel about a grief stricken woman who escapes to Paris and soon discovers a series of secrets that both rattle and embolden her. A considerable achievement, this novel grapples with the unpredictable march of history and the way it affects the most intimate parts of our private lives.
Jesse Lee Kercheval brings a poet's precision to this suspenseful story of one woman's journey to find what is left of her family. My Life As A Silent Movie is a brilliant, heartbreaking page-turner.