Read an Excerpt
A town called Ulster in central New York--west of the Hudson, but still closer to Albany than to Syracuse or Buffalo--prospered briefly in the 1960s and '70s when IBM opened a regional sales division on the site of an old dairy two towns away. Ten minutes off the thruway, the abruptly thriving area wasn't long removed from its earlier life as farm country; most of the old sagging barns were bought up and knocked down to make way for new construction, but a few of the better-preserved ones were left on the vistas to go about the picturesque business of their own slow decline. They stand there today, swaybacked, holes punched in their steep roofs by years of snowfall; and the regional sales division has shut down. Roger Howe was offered a job there, a job that effectively represented the promotion which had not been forthcoming in his four years at the office in Westchester. He and his wife, Kay, with a small relocation allowance from the company and what remained of her inheritance from her father, moved upstate in the fall of 1970, when their son Richard was three years old, and Kay, though she didn't know it at the time, was pregnant with Molly.
The older homes in Ulster were well separated from one another, built for the most part on the apexes of the rolling, stony hills that had led its earliest settlers to hit upon livestock farming as their path of least resistance. A number of the IBM families, though, including the Howes, bought into a new development called Bull's Head, laid out at the wide end of a valley which narrowed toward the bald mountain that gave the venture its name. Roger and Kay, who were both twenty-eight and had never owned a home before, first saw Bull's Head on a Saturday in June, at an open house their realtor had scheduled from the hours of eleven to one. By the end of their first winter, when they had seen how the sunlight disappeared behind the mountain at around two in the afternoon, how the open end of the valley funneled perfectly the noisy, persistent winds that rattled the windows and leaked freely through all the casings, the house itself had become something of a sore subject, any mention of which seemed freighted with recriminations. Kay turned up the thermostat the moment Roger left for work in the morning; if she forgot to turn it down again before he came home, as she sometimes did, there were words. Downtown Ulster was an unplanned bloom of small enterprises--the gas station next to the drugstore next to the bank next to the IGA--which grew out of the town's main intersection but tapered off quickly to open land in every direction. In the evenings, a few minutes before each hour, the television antennas turned silently together like slow propellers atop the roofs in the valley.
A new building had to be erected one summer to hold the lower four grades of the burgeoning elementary school. From her first-grade classroom Molly could watch her brother Richard for forty-five minutes every day through the windows that faced onto the playground, unless the weather was too severe for recess outdoors. Her teacher noticed her staring out the window from time to time, though she didn't guess what the girl was staring at, and when it got too nettlesome she would make Molly bring her desk up to the front of the room for the rest of the day. It was a more effective punishment than she knew, for Molly was not a child who courted attention. She did not like her teacher, who seemed to feel so sorry for herself. The people Molly admired then were the members of her family, and her admiration often took the form of a kind of watchful daydream that she was one of them. At home she could sometimes be found, if Kay was on the phone or otherwise not to be disturbed, staring sleepily into the mirror above her mother's dressing table, or standing in the walk-in closet with her feet in a pair of her father's impossibly wide leather shoes.
Her room was painted white, with white blinds over the window, and a small bright bull's-eye throw rug on the cold wooden floor beside her bed. One wall was painted with a nursery design, the cow jumping over the moon, the laughing dog, the dish running away with the spoon; Kay had meant to stencil the whole bedroom that way, but she had gotten that far and no further. It was one of those subjects the children knew without being told was best not brought up. There was a nightlight shaped like an old gas lantern in the baseboard outlet in the hallway.
Molly was out of school more than most kids, sometimes because she was sick and sometimes only because she felt she might be; it was never difficult to persuade her mother to let her stay home. Kay preferred her daughter's company to the treadmill of housework and beyond that she was cultivating Molly, dreaming of the day her daughter would be old enough to rely on as a kind of ally of perception, to see as her mother saw the great unfairness which lived behind the wasting mundanity of everyday life in that house, in that town; this, Kay believed, was what would save her from going crazy.
Molly's eyes were a pale blue, and their lashes, darker than the auburn shade of her hair, were unusually long. Kay Howe's few Ulster friends, who dropped by in the late mornings to slander their husbands for bringing them there, would stare at Molly in a way which was so invasively adoring that it didn't feel friendly at all, and say to Kay: "The girl is such a beauty. You shouldn't waste it. You shouldn't. She should be on TV."
"You think?" Kay would say, looking at her daughter with a skepticism intended as modesty.
"Oh my God yes. What is she, six? Put it this way. A girl that gorgeous now, in ten years she'll be making your life miserable. Every boy in this town will have his face against that window. So you might as well get some advantage out of it while you can!"
They all laughed, without softening their aggressive faces; Molly played quietly or turned the pages of a book, accustomed to being talked about in her presence. Later, when they were gone, she would climb into the chairs and look for the mysterious pale pink outlines the women's lips had left on their cigarettes.
Then one winter afternoon Kay fanned a dozen photographs of her daughter across the kitchen table, lit a cigarette, and moved them around like a puzzle. There were phone calls in which Molly's name was used, and spelled, and later there would be a trip to Mahoney's for a new dress. Kay wore an odd expression during those phone calls, a reactive, polite, charming expression, as if whoever was on the other end of the phone could see her face. "Auburn," she said into the receiver, suddenly returning Molly's stare. "Blue. Five/thirteen/seventy-one."
A week later, Kay watched from the front porch until the school bus had come for Richard, then went back into the house and began putting on makeup. Molly observed from her parents' bed. When Kay's face was perfect--though there was nonetheless something unsettling, for Molly, in seeing this glamorous nighttime rendering of her mother at eight-thirty in the morning--she turned from the mirror and focused her attention on the girl. An hour later they were driving much too fast to the train station, Kay looking testily from the road to her watch to Molly's rouged, pouting face.
"Other girls love to get all dressed up," Kay said, not in a conciliatory way. "When I was a girl, I begged my mother to help me get all dressed up. I liked looking pretty for other people."
It was true that Molly hated being out of play clothes, and especially hated having her hair manipulated and powder put on her face. But perhaps it was also true what her mother told her--that she was unlike other girls--because when the two-and-a-half-hour train trip was finally over and the secretary at the casting agency opened the door to the room in which they were to wait, there were thirty other girls sitting nicely in pretty dresses with ribbons or bows or combs of some sort in their hair. It was a larger group of girls her own age than Molly had ever been part of before; even birthday parties in Ulster couldn't convene this many children. The room was crowded with folding chairs. The secretary shut the door behind them. There was a good deal of friendly talk in the waiting room--girls to girls, mothers to mothers--but no one moved from her seat. Molly found an empty chair; Kay silently made her get up to smooth out her jumper properly before sitting down again.
Mothers and daughters were called from the room, one pair at a time, and none of them returned. It had never been explained to Molly why exactly she had been brought there--that is, to do what. She grasped only that there was some sort of vague premium placed on looking pretty. Of course, her mother didn't understand the task in much more specific terms herself.
The secretary who had greeted them an hour earlier stuck her head in through the open door.
"Mrs. Howe?" she said, looking all around the room.
They were led down a long hallway and through a door which had taped to it a paper sign reading Maypo. Three men were seated around a small round table covered with papers and photographs; two of them stood to shake Kay's hand. The third, whose left arm was in a sling, just sat and looked discouraged. At one end of the room was a white backdrop with all sorts of large lights pointed at it. The lights had fans blowing on them. Molly had expected to find in this room all the other girls whose names had been called; but she was the only girl there. She began to worry.
"Now, Molly," one of the men said. He was much taller than her father; he squatted down and held her hand. "We're going to take a picture of you. You've had your picture taken before, right?"
She stared at him. He had long sideburns, and his tie was loose. He straightened up, still holding her hand, and began leading her toward the white backdrop, in front of the lights.
"Well, this is a special kind of picture," the man went on. He was kind, but he spoke quickly. "You have to stand here for it to work. Right here. See that bit of tape on the floor? That's perfect, sweetie. Now," he said, backing away from her, "in a few seconds I'm going to say some things, and I want you just to repeat what I say. But you know what? This is all just practice. Just practice. So do your best, but you don't have to be scared. You can look at your mom if you want to."
He was back in his seat by this time. The second man had gotten up and was on one knee in front of the table, holding a big Polaroid camera like the one Molly's grandfather had. Molly was glad to be reminded to look at her mother instead of the strange men or the cameras. Kay stood near the back of the room, her arms folded, smiling weakly.
"You look gorgeous, Molly," the tall man said. "Molly. Molly, look at me for a second. That's it. Now, let's pretend a little. Let's pretend you've just eaten your favorite thing in the whole wide world. What's that?"
After a few seconds went by, Kay said from behind him, "It's pizza."
"Good, thank you," he said, without turning around. "Pizza. So you've just had some pizza, and it was delicious, the best pizza you ever had, but you didn't quite have enough of it. You want some more."
Molly found these difficult circumstances for pretending. She put her hand up to shield her eyes from the lights.
"Put your hand down, please, honey. We'll be through soon, I promise. Now, this particular pizza has a special name, kind of a silly name. It's called Maypo. It's a funny name to say, isn't it? Try saying it. Maypo."
Molly said nothing. She stood still and didn't cry, but for some reason she felt that even if she wanted to she couldn't say anything at all.
"Say, 'I want my Maypo.' You can say it to your mom if you want."
Ordinarily Molly found silence to be a preferred way of hiding, but this time silence itself was playing, quite inadvertently, as an act of disobedience, an accidental exercise of her will. She was only trying to do nothing; still, she saw in their faces and felt in the air of the room that she was doing something wrong. The man with the Polaroid took one more picture, then put the camera on the floor.
The man at the table with his arm in a sling sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, and looked sullenly at the window, which was covered by a shade.
"Okay, just say your name then," said the tall man, still very gentle. "Say--" he picked up a pile of papers--"Say, 'Hello, my name is Molly Howe.' "
Her mother took her for ice cream near Radio City afterwards but didn't say a word to her while she ate it. The train station was almost an hour from Ulster; Molly was hungry again in the car, but she had an intuition that it was not a good time to ask for something. Outside her window, the hard limbs faded into the brown of the hillsides, and before long the headlights in the opposite lanes were all there was to see. Kay checked to make sure the heat was turned up all the way.
When they got home, it was after dark, and Molly's father and brother were watching television. Kay forgot to ask any of them about dinner; she left her coat on the chair in the vestibule and walked quickly upstairs. They all heard the bedroom door click shut. Roger massaged his temple for a moment and then stood up unhurriedly. He believed it was important not to express anger in front of the children; but whenever he was angry it was easy enough to see in his face the vague and upsetting outline of what was left unexpressed. Molly wandered into the living room and sat on the floor. Her parents' muffled voices floated down. After a few minutes, Molly got up, climbed onto the couch, and laid her head on Richard's lap.
"Where were you?" Richard said, still looking at the set.
Richard had his father's black hair and a serious expression that he hadn't inherited from anybody. Toward his younger sister he maintained a kind of benign detachment, responding to her questions with ostentatious patience, never cruel to her but never really emotionally engaged by anything she had to say. Like Molly, his main pleasures were solitary ones. He had, for instance, an electric football game he was given for Christmas; it developed that he would much rather play both sides of the game himself than invite a friend over to oppose him--or, indeed, to go outdoors after school and play football itself. He did well in school but not conspicuously so, was not unathletic, had no sort of stammer or blemish, and yet other children appeared to him principally as a source of hurt. His threshold for this sort of injury was so low that his classmates and neighbors would have been genuinely surprised to learn about the humiliation they caused him. Kay and Roger, when they had run out of other things to disagree about, would disagree about whether there was theoretically a time when a parent should take a book out of a ten-year-old boy's hands and encourage him strongly to go socialize with other children.
The more the Howes argued, the more parties they went to. While Kay got dressed, Roger drove out of the valley to Sennett Hill Road and came back with the babysitter, whose name was Patty. Patty was a teenager whose mannerisms were an object of Molly's fascination: the first thing she did, the moment the door had closed behind Mr. and Mrs. Howe, was to kick off her shoes, wherever she happened to be standing, and go to the kitchen drawer where she knew the cigarettes were kept. Patty had long, perfectly straight blond hair, wristbands made out of some kind of braided rope, and a wardrobe of secondhand jeans she bought at the Salvation Army in Coxsackie. When she was bored, which was most of the time, she liked to draw on her own jeans with a ballpoint pen--peace signs and monochromatic daisies--an undreamt-of bit of disobedience which Molly regarded with esteem. Time in the house with Patty alternated between long periods of equable silence and occasional flashes of an overcompensating harassment: out of nowhere, she could suddenly insist on making brownies, or playing some old board game that Richard had already outgrown. Once she had been their regular babysitter for six months or so, she began to act differently around them, talking to them in a false voice that staked out a zone somewhere between sister and mother--asserting her authority over them, but in such a way that she wanted them to think it was all for their benefit, that their interests really superseded her own.
Often it had to do with what they watched on television. "Don't you think you're a little young for this, mister?" she would chide Richard, who sat Indian-style on the floor in front of the big TV, five minutes into a boring National Geographic special about life on the Nile.
"Aren't you sleepy?" she would say to Molly, right before Dynasty came on. "You must be sleepy. I think it's time for bed."
Molly was almost eight by now, old enough that she didn't really need to be put to bed; all the same, it was different when the last face she saw was Patty's, and she often lay awake until she heard her parents come in, her father starting the car again to drive Patty home, her mother's stockinged feet on the stairs.
Outside the house were other houses in the development that looked just like theirs, divided in Molly's mind into those with children in them and those without; the yards were separated by identical brown split-rail fences. And in the town center, which was reachable by bike, the stores were all interesting in their way--the revolving shelves of wristwatches in the glass case at the drugstore, the velvet ropes at the bank--mysterious at least until you got a little older and the mysteries weren't explained so much as they just dissolved into intelligence. It was enough for her, at that age; but her mother seemed forever to be bringing Molly her jacket and telling her to get in the car, sometimes for a doctor's appointment or a haircut, more often for something that had nothing to do with Molly at all. The car itself was like an absence, the way sleep is an absence, the embodiment of in-between, the blank time and space that connected the events and routines in her life. Wherever they went, the same bare landscape through the cloudy window: pine trees, power lines, roadside gullies filtered by sodden leaves. Molly spent a lot of time in the car with her mother; in that rural setting you soon thought little, even with small children, of driving an hour each way just to visit a friend or to shop somewhere.
One summer Monday, Roger surprised them all by walking through the door, pale and secretive, at three in the afternoon; the whole office had been sent home early because Roger's boss, a man in his fifties, had had a heart attack while introducing the staff to a special guest speaker from Research and Development in Armonk. By the next morning he was dead. From scraps of conversation and tensely veiled references over the next few days, Richard and Molly picked up that their parents were fighting over the question of whether they, the children, should be forced to attend this man's funeral. In the end, Roger's concern for appearances (would his colleagues think him insufficiently respectful? Would they think of him as a man whose children could do as they pleased?) won out, and the kids were dressed up and driven to the funeral home in Oneonta. On the way their mother leaned her coiffed head over the seat and explained that what they were going to was not a funeral, strictly speaking, but a wake, and that they should try their hardest not to act shocked or to say anything at all when they saw their father's boss's casket at the front of the reception room with the lid open and Mr. Murphy in it.
They both did as they were told. At a whispered signal from their mother, Richard and Molly walked slowly up to the casket and knelt on the little upholstered bench, as they had seen those ahead of them do, even though they then had to crane their necks to see inside. Molly was told she had met Mr. Murphy before, but she did not remember it; in any case, the face before her, wearing makeup, smelling of perfume, lying in a frame of satin, with its strange concavity around the mouth, was not one she had ever seen before. She was aware of Richard next to her, his head down and his hands folded, looking very solemn, even close to tears. "Goodbye, Mr. Murphy," he whispered. He was older than she and might well remember meeting this man, Molly thought, maybe even more than once; still, she was puzzled by this evidence of a feeling stronger than muted curiosity. He did not seem to be faking. She folded her own hands and lowered her eyes to the polished side of the casket, watching Richard as well to see when he would stop or what he would do next. She knew that their posture was that of prayer. But she wasn't thinking about anything but the posture itself, and she was still waiting for something to happen when her brother stood up and whispered sternly, "That's enough."