Pay the Piper: A Novel

Pay the Piper: A Novel

by Joan Williams

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497694682
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 12/30/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Joan Williams (1928–2004) was an acclaimed author of short stories and novels, including The Morning and the Evening, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Wintering, a roman à clef based on her relationship with William Faulkner. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, and educated at Bard College in upstate New York, Williams was greatly influenced by the legacy of her mother’s rural Mississippi upbringing and set much of her fiction in that state. Her numerous honors included the John P. Marquand First Novel Award, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Read an Excerpt

Pay the Piper

A Novel

By Joan Williams


Copyright © 1988 Joan Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-9468-2


She felt strange having hidden something in the house. She did not even know why she hid the letter, a perfectly innocuous one from someone she did not know. But that was the whole point, Laurel thought; she had the sensation the man was going to become important to her. Yesterday when she read the letter for the first time, a voice announced to her quite calmly, You're going to marry Hal MacDonald.

That thought made the idea of leaving William—one she had toyed with so long—so much easier, because having something happen that seemed fated, having the letter arrive just now and the possibility arise of meeting someone else, seemed to be what the gods intended—that she leave William and marry Hal. Already she felt that was what she was meant to do, to live back in the region where she was born and to belong to a man close to the soil, and she gazed out at the cold New England spring from her suburban window, thinking how this landscape had never become part of her. Laurel laughed to think she had been around what seemed a whole world, only to return, perhaps, where she had started.

"What's up?" said Rick, coming in, the product of her and William's disparate backgrounds. She turned guiltily. He seemed a young seal, his hair slick and shining from his shower, still wet, and she found herself giving advice that would bore him: "Don't go out in this weather with your head wet." Hearing her mother's caution, which once irritated her, Laurel thought how unintentionally you relived your past. "You'll catch cold," she said.

"Yeah. Yeah." He dabbed at his head with a paper napkin to satisfy her.

His question had meant, what was she doing with all the fancy dishes out, and she told him, "My book group's coming."

"Your bourbon and lettuce leaf club."

He grinned impishly, and so perfect was his mimicry that Laurel was astonished by his perspicuity at thirteen and that he was her own. "Gran's certainly the pot calling the kettle—"

"Mom. I don't want to hear about all that past time. Gran drinking is not the grandmother I've ever known."

"You're right. I'm sorry."

She dished up oatmeal and avoided his face, which the moment he spoke had been clouded. How could she stand here on this April morning, in her large kitchen, in a house in a good neighborhood, and think of breaking up this household and causing this boy so much unhappiness? She had felt queasy waking up and held her breath against the oatmeal's smell while carrying the bowl to Rick. It was sad she could know so positively she was not pregnant. When had she last slept with anybody? That, of course, was her main reason for wanting to leave William—his refusal to have sex; he had gotten it elsewhere until recently, when after a night of confessing transgressions they promised to have no more affairs and to start over with a clean slate. She had tried much harder since then, but when she made a move toward him in bed, he remained far over on his side and with his back toward her. Maybe it was going to take a while to learn a new pattern. She had given up Edward without any effort, except that she really liked him and he helped her enormously with her writing, but nothing was ever going to become of the affair beyond a few afternoons at the New Weston when he came into the city from Princeton.

"Thanks," Rick had said.

"What else am I here for but to wait on men?" Looking at the floor, she added, "And dogs," speaking to the two sitting there and watching for food so hopefully.

"I hope we're not becoming a typical slovenly housewife though, Laurel," Rick said, deepening his voice and drawing down his chin into a face of disapproval.

She laughed and touched the neck of her old robe, drawing it more closely together, though there was not much cleavage to show, sadly. "Listen, brat. A lot of women not only don't get dressed first thing in the morning, they don't get up and fix breakfast, much less real, long-cooking oatmeal."

"I know it. A lot of my friends and their dads eat Cheerios. How come they let their wives get away with that stuff?"

She said in her subdued way, "I suppose other women know how to rule the roost better than I. I'm a patsy. A sucker. And I like being dominated to death." She put one hand atop his head, smiling. "Oh, mutt. Pretty soon we'll be in Mississippi again."

"Yay. I can't wait."

"I feel I owe Dad getting up. He works his tail off to make us a living," she said.

"Did Gran always get up?"

"Yes," Laurel said, which was not a lie: there was only one different quality to her doing it, which Rick need not know. She thought particularly of those times her father set out, a traveling salesman, into dawn, with his breakfast churning in his stomach. She could remember her sense of guilt about being in bed herself, and could see him again in his wool shirt, cord breeches, and high-laced boots and hear his harsh crying across the hallway separating the bedrooms where her parents slept—Kate, are you going to get up and fix my breakfast?—and even so young, she had understood her mother's deliberate delaying to antagonize him, until fear drove her up to slam-bang in the kitchen. His car would roar off with a sound equal to his fury and diminish down city blocks, while she lay buried in her pillow believing she heard it on and on. She was always trying to decide which of them was wrong, with a loneliness she remembered too well.

"Mom, I'm not really hungry. When Dad's not here, I wouldn't mind having cold cereal."

"OK. Eat what you can. I wish you'd told me."

"He's coming back tonight?"


Rick glanced at a paper magnetized to the refrigerator. "I haven't done the list of things he left for me."

Her gaze went there too. "I haven't done all of mine either. But I swept the basement."

"Great. Thanks."

"I was down there doing laundry, so why not. Just don't tell."

"Sorry, Mom," he said, setting his bowl on the floor and apologizing about her wasted time cooking—William would have taught him that, and what would she have become if she hadn't known William?

The older dog, Buff, licked daintily, while a recent acquisition, a bloodhound named Jubal, sat back with reddened eyes waiting his turn. Buff, the matriarch, had let him know this was her territory long before he ever showed up here. Good for you, Buff, Laurel told her silently. "Jubal, you smell terrible."

"The bus!" Rick cried. His chair's legs scraped backward, and the alerted dogs rushed for the door. In the distance air brakes soughed and groaned, though otherwise in the upper-class neighborhood there was no noise for miles, only silence. The yellow school bus had readied itself to climb a hill down the road, and Rick knew how many minutes before it would pass apple trees and arrive almost at his front door. He rushed upstairs to brush his teeth.

Laurel had his jacket, books, and homework, neatly laid out the night before, and handed them over after he clobbered downstairs.


"That's what mothers are for," she said.

"There's a pickup ball game this afternoon."

"You've got to go." Leaning into a cotton picker's basket she'd brought back from Mississippi one summer, she extracted his catcher's mitt.

"I won't get everything on the list done."

Not wishing to be disloyal to William, but thinking there were limits to things, she said, "We'll just have to do our best."

He reached out and lightly flicked her on the arm. "Touch last!" he cried, and bounded into the driveway, laughing back. She shooed him off with a wave that recognized his child's game from the past, when she and William were going out, and Rick dashed about the car windows to see who could touch each other last. As if he never wanted to part, Laurel thought suddenly, near tears. From behind the door's glass panes, she watched till Rick's light jacket bobbed aboard the bus and then, obedient to their day's ritual, Jubal and Buff returned home, having accompanied him.

She looked at the refrigerator and clicked off mentally what she'd accomplished since William left on his business trip to Washington. She'd taken her new skirt to be shortened to the length he'd suggested, and she'd called the fuel company about a leak in the basement and bought an extension cord. But she had not followed his regimen for working out. He had posted how many sit-ups to do daily, keeping her toes attached to something, and a schedule with barbells, their weights increasingly difficult as time went by. She would tell him, for once, she was not going to do what he said; and that's that, she added to herself in her mother's definitive phrase. Jogging was enough for her.

You, William once said, did all right for a little girl from Delton. Marrying into his prestigious family, he had meant, more or less kindly. She certainly agreed, after the background she came from. She carried about her own-epithet: the little girl from Tennessee. Yet she had stacked up a few Brownie points before meeting him and was neither a country tack nor stupid. She'd published two short stories in reputable literary quarterlies; this fact kept William's patrician, stalwart, and productive Bostonian female relatives from relegating her to the dust pile where they cast most Southern women, among the flirty, flighty, and mundane.

She considered her middle-class Southern background, where materialism was success. If only she'd had the nerve, at some point, to tell William's relatives she could at least cook. They pridefully announced they could not boil water for tea. There was fine art on the walls of William's relatives' houses, and fine furniture in them, but still their houses had a sparer, plainer, and more austere look than comparable Southern houses she had known. When his relatives' rugs and upholstering wore out, these things were often left that way, as if from respect; books sat on shelves, with tattered jackets, because someone was always pulling them out to read them. In Delton, one of her friends had her Book-of-the-Month Club books covered in forest-green felt to match the color of her slipcovers; another old friend as he grew successful bought the whole of the Modern Library, though as she gazed at his lined wall, he confessed the only novel he'd read since college was "The Man in the Long Gray Underwear." "Gray Flannel Suit"? she timidly suggested. William's mother and the aunt who helped raise him wore conservative clothes whose hemlines stayed mid-calf no matter what fashion predicted. When Aunt Grace once looked surprised, saying, "You don't speak French?" Laurel replied, "La plume de ma tante," and cringed. For years, she longed for some snappy or devastating reply, but none had yet come. William, when they married, pointed out the difference between baking powder and baking soda, because, coming from the South, she not only had never cooked but had never washed out a pair of underpants for herself until she went to college.

Jubal and Buff could not understand this morning why there were no egg, toast, or bacon scraps. Laurel opened the dishwasher to put in Rick's dish, seeing there dishes from William's last meal, and thought how she had said, "I don't mind cooking your breakfast every morning, but it seems silly since you throw it up."

He had stood there with his briefcase, broad-shouldered in the old tweed jacket he went on wearing generously year after year and watery-eyed from tossing his cookies. "Maybe it's the grease," he had said.

"You're the one who wants your eggs fried in bacon grease," she had reminded him. "But you threw them up scrambled and soft-boiled, too."

Then William had left, and there had seemed some incongruity in a man's going to Washington, D.C., on a business trip for his high-powered company and yet throwing up his breakfast first, day after day, because his new job and his new boss made him nervous. While knowing how dependent she was on William, she believed she had a different strength; she knew she had more guts, because she'd hardly ever thrown up in her life, and then usually for the reason her mother taught her, which was when she'd drunk too much alcohol. Stick your finger down your throat, her mother advised. Recently, William had thrown up one night more terribly than anyone she had ever heard, after being invited by a stepmother he'd never seen to come for dinner in New York and collect some personal effects of his late father's. These things turned out to be quite useless—an engraved, flat, silver cigarette case and diamond cuff links—causing Laurel to wonder at her austere mother-in-law once married to someone as debonair as William Powell. They came home, and William shut himself in the bathroom.

All the time he was being sick, she prayed he might also vomit up all the mystery, pain, and loss, all the guilt, about never seeing again the father who left when William was four. She had determined, early on, she'd never take Rick away when he was small. How could she do it, even now, when William cared almost inordinately about his son? Whenever she thought how awful her parents had been, she was glad at least to have known where she came from.

William had a last faceless memory of his father. Awakened in dampish Dr. Denton's and brought into a room with subdued lamplight, he stood rubbing his eyes, with the rear flap of his sleepers hanging open. Privately, Laurel thought William had projected himself into a Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post, but she had never said so and went on sharing with him that image of himself. William had been taught to say Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa in the French manner, with accent on the final a. She never mentioned that was a long way from Southern pronunciation: which was Momma and Poppa even when similarly spelled; most commonly people said Daddy, even into adulthood. She did not know any Southerners who called their parents Mom and Dad.

"Dear," his mother had said that evening, "your father and I are divorcing. That means we're not going to live in the same house any longer. Please tell me now which of us you'd rather live with."

Understanding only that he wanted to go back to bed, he put his head into his mother's lap, and the die was cast. For a child that age, it was a strange question. But Mrs. Perry was an artist in the grand sense of the word. "My mother the painting machine," William called her. "It's only by accident that she's a person." She was the only woman Laurel had ever known whose career was more important than anything else. But then, she had known few women who did anything besides keep house.

His paternal grandmother had wanted William, and urgently, eagerly, Mrs. Perry would have turned him over at any time. But his father, having lost, refused ever to see William again. "What kind of man could he have been," Laurel said once, "not to see his son. He must have been crazy." Though he tried to agree, William was convinced there had been something wrong with him to have been so abandoned. As a father he invented the relationship between himself and Rick he'd dreamed of as a fatherless child. It was sometimes a little hard on Rick. Once Mrs. Perry confided to Laurel that after divorcing she realized she should never have married at all, and for a moment put her hands over her face. Laurel had wondered what she was thinking. She had been surprised to realize just how locked into convention and its pressures women always had been, for no one could be more intelligent, motivated, strong-willed than Mrs. Perry. Yet she had felt she had to marry and have a child.

They had lived with his Aunt Grace, who spoke fluent French, and always, too, William had the feeling of living in someone else's house, not his own. When she and William bought this second, larger house in the suburbs, where they planned to stay forever, he walked about, a little teary, saying at last he was home. Laurel's eyes had prickled in sympathy, though his insecurity was essentially foreign to her, as she had always lived in her own true house. To think of an emotional man as a sissy was a stereotyped idea, she kept telling herself. But she had to go on fighting her feeling that most highly educated Eastern men she knew were somehow effeminate.

That evening as William came from the bathroom, he blamed his being sick on his stepmother's dinner. She said flatly, "Roast beef, boiled potatoes, and string beans? It wasn't the dinner, it was seeing somebody connected to your father." Then she added, "I'm not sick," which meant nothing since her emotions did not affect her stomach but made her face break out. Once, after Rick's birth, William confided he'd always been sorry she never had morning sickness. She asked, "Why, so you could have it vicariously?" and all he did was nod without shame.

Last night she had made a gelatin salad and this morning, lifting waxed paper, she shook the mold tentatively. The salad seemed jelled, a success; she had only to dread the moment of turning it out onto a platter, praying it stayed whole. She had started the dishwasher, and its sounds made her temples ache. When she asked herself, What is wrong with me, a sinus headache? she knew she was lying. She had a hangover.


Excerpted from Pay the Piper by Joan Williams. Copyright © 1988 Joan Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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