From the author of the Claire DeWitt series: This “witty and poignant” novel of a woman moving on to a new stage of life, as her mother does the same (Rocky Mountain News).
Mary Forrest is in her late twenties and comes from a literary family—her widowed mother still runs a prominent journal and shows up at Manhattan book parties packed with writers and intellectuals. Decades ago, Evelyn Forrest faced the kind of harassment that would make headlines in later times, but now her daughter works in publishing in an era that’s a little easier for women. Yet, young Mary is about to face some challenges of her own.
Evelyn’s memory has been giving her problems—like “going home” to the place on Twelfth Street where she hasn’t lived since 1977. As Mary tries to support her mother, she struggles with personal relationships, and discovers that a coworker is brazenly trying to steal her job. At an astrological reading that she got as a birthday gift, a psychic explained that this is Mary’s Saturn Return year, her twenty-ninth; the year that the planet Saturn returns to exact spot it was in when she was born. It presages a time of change, and the last painful struggle before finally entering genuine adulthood. So far, it appears to be an accurate prediction . . .
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When I was seven, my father killed himself. He woke up one morning in 1977 and swallowed a bottle of Valium that my mother's doctor, ironically, had prescribed to help her cope with with the stress of my father's depression. Well, the Valium helped with the stress, all right. You could almost say those pills solved the whole problem.
No one had told my mother that the pills could be fatal (although someone, obviously, had told my father), and as a result she hasn't trusted doctors since. So it was a few months after she started losing her memory before she relented and made an appointment with Dr. Snyder on Park Avenue. It's nothing, Dr Snyder assured her You're not young anymore, and this is what we expect to see at your age, a little memory loss. Everyone takes it hard.
She tried not to take it hard. Two months later she came home from work to 105 East Twelfth Street and her house key wouldn't work. She tried another key. Stuck It wasn't until she tried every key on her ring, twice, that she remembered she hadn't lived on Twelfth Street since 1977 She went back up to Dr. Snyder on Park Avenue. Now, Dr. Snyder said, we'll run some tests. It's normal, it's natural, it's just a smidgen more than we expect to see at this age, it's progressing a little more rapidly than we would like and so we'll run some tests, we'll run some very expensive tests and we'll see.
Evelyn, my mother, mentioned the visits to Dr. Snyder offhandedly during one of our monthly phone calls, as regular as the full moon. I didn't know what to say so I asked, lamely, why she didn't tell me earlier
"I didn't want you to worry," she said. "They said maybe it's my circulation, so I'm taking some pills Herbs That should help. It's probably nothing, I just — well, I thought I should tell you I thought you should know what's going on. It's probably nothing."
It was definitely not nothing If it was nothing she wouldn't have told me about it. I asked if there was anything I could do
"Actually," she said, "there is something I'd like you do." The slight Brooklyn accent my mother had when I was a girl has, without my father's WASPy Connecticut influence, thickened a little every year since he died. Now she speaks from her throat with drawn-out vowels and hard ts and you would never know, listening to her, that she moved to Manhattan in 1961 She said "We're having the holiday party at work in a few weeks and I'd like you to come. Just in case — well, you know. In case I need some help."
No, this is not nothing
Dr Snyder said, we'll see. Now my mother tries to get a dead person on the phone once a week and has twice more tried to go home to Twelfth Street and we haven't seen anything. Thousands of dollars worth of blood tests and neurological exams and we actually see less; one month ago we saw a world of possibilities: we saw vitamin deficiencies, Alzheimer's; psychiatric disorders; alcohol abuse; drug abuse; blood-sugar conditions, brain tumors, head injury, encephalitis. Now almost every diagnosis Dr Snyder and his team can think of has been eliminated, and we see nothing at all.CHAPTER 2
At eight o'clock on a Thursday night in December I'm in my office, changing from black slacks and a black sweater into a vintage black wool minidress when Crystal, the head cleaning woman on the night shift, comes into my office for a cigarette. Crystal is somewhere between forty and fifty, and you can read the lines on her face like a palm; dope, tricks, time inside — each year in The Life has left an impression And she's still pretty enough, with her tinted blond hair and blue eyes and perfect little figure, that it's a shock to see her in a powder-blue poly-blend uniform and cheap white pumps
"Zip me up," I ask
Crystal makes a face, annoyed to be held back from her Newports for even a minute, but she obliges.
"What's with the getup?" she asks.
"My mother's throwing a party." Zipped, I sit at my desk with a makeup kit and a compact. "I'm supposed to be there at eight thirty "
"No, worse That's why I'm going It's a work party. She's worried she might have another episode." I like the word episode It turns my mother's illness into a vague malady from a Jacqueline Susann novel, and I don't have to think about the specifics Crystal props herself up on the credenza under the window and lights up.
"What does she do again?" Crystal asks "She works at a magazine?"
"The doctors know anything?"
"They don't know"
"They never know. So listen to this: Tony's in jail"
Tony is Crystal's on-again, off-again boyfriend of seven years. They used to sell crack together in Brooklyn in the eighties They were just friends, back then
"Transporting stolen property. It's bullshit Someone owed him a little something, they gave him a gold ring Gave it to him." She shrugs. This is everyday for her; it's raining, broke a nail, boyfriend in jail
"When's he getting out?"
She shrugs again "When his goddammned lawyer gets to work already."
"Give me a cigarette "
She tosses the pack at me and I light up, blowing smoke toward the window. I thought I had given up smoking three years ago Now, somehow, they've sneaked back in, and a few times a week I'm shocked to see that I've got a cigarette in my hand and I'm puffing away. And I'm loving it
* * *
My mother, Evelyn Forrest, is the editor and publisher of GV, short for the Greenwich Village Review. Every year they throw a bang-up holiday party at Sid Cohen's house on Perry Street Sid is a contributing editor to GV and a close friend of my mother's; when I was a teenager I suspected they were having an affair In the living room in the house on Perry Street, Evelyn is sitting by the fireplace with Allison High-smith, my mother's lawyer and best friend, and two women I don't know. One is an awkward girl who I guess is a GV intern, the other is a woman in a fuschia silk shantung suit who's deeply involved with her portable phone Evelyn and Allison are dressed like twins; black skirts, black sweaters, dark hose, gray hair cut into a layered bob.
I kiss Evelyn and Allison and they introduce me to the intern, Lisa. We shake hands. She's so wide-eyed and excited to be here I think she might faint Evelyn tells me that the woman in pink, who's still on the phone, is Kerri May. I knew she looked familiar, with her bobbed black hair and thoroughbred legs crossed high on the thigh. Kerri May is the editor-in-chief of the fattest, glossiest women's magazine on the newsstands.
After the introductions are made Evelyn starts where she left off, telling the intern the story of the founding of GV, "Michael — Mary's father — was wasting his time at Columbia," my mother tells her "He got his Ph.D in 'sixty-three and he liked teaching all right, but that wasn't his main thing. His main thing was his writing, and reading new writers, and teaching took time away from that. No one was writing like him back then. His first big book was Hamsun.
It wasn't just what Michael found out about Hamsun — how he first got involved with the Nazis, his childhood, his affairs with men — it was how he looked at it. It was different then. You were either a pop biographer, you wrote about the sex and the booze and the money, or you were a literary biographer, and you wrote about the books. This was how people wrote about writers No one put it all together in the way that Michael did: Eastern influences, metaphysics, Hamsun's nutritional problems, Jewish mysticism, everything. If it wasn't for him, no one would remember Knut Hamsun today. Nobody Of course, Hamsun's family hated the book.
"Anyway, Michael had been publishing in the journals, too. This one piece, which grew out of the Hamsun book, Literature of the Nazis, was a big deal. Very controversial So a few months after Hamsun came out, an editor from Bluebird, I think it was Sy Singleton, talked to him about expanding the Nazi thing into a book. So here he was doing all this brilliant work, but it was all about the past Dead people. Meanwhile, our friend Justin Oakes was writing these amazing stories about Sufis and tarot card readers, and they were just sitting there. Melanie Minkowitz was doing all this work with prostitutes in Venezuela — no one would touch it with a ten- foot pole. And of course there was Michael's own work — he was pissed off at the butcher job the guys at The Cowton Review had done on his article on cancer in the literary imagination.
"By then his father had died and we had plenty of money. So we quit our jobs, got a few of his students to work as interns, and set up the parlor of the house on Twelfth Street as an office. We got hundreds of submissions. And it was different then, not like today, when every schmuck with a word processor calls himself a writer. We got submissions from Joseph Mitchell, from Kingsley Amis, Ken Kesey, everybody. That's how popular Michael was then."
What my mother leaves out of the story is that it was she who, after my father died, turned an unprofitable literary quarterly into a an income-producing monthly.
"My God, Evelyn. Oh!" cries Kerri May, now off the phone. As soon as the words are out of her mouth her phone rings again. "Hello ... No, I'm at a party now ... A book party ... Evelyn Forrest ... Yes, yes I've got to go. Now." She disconnects and looks at me with small black eyes. "Now, Mary," she says, "forgive me for being absolutely shocked by your existence."
"You knew I had a daughter," Evelyn says
"Well of course, but I expected a child I expected a child running around with pimples on her face in Tommy Hilfiger jeans, not this absolutely beautiful young woman. So Mary, tell me all about yourself Oh!"
Her phone is ringing again. It's still in her hand "Hello ... No, I'm at a party ... A book party ..."
Evelyn and Allison are laughing. "Kerri used to work for us," Evelyn says. "You knew that." Did I? Maybe. "This is before you were born I think she left right after I got pregnant with you."
"That was the best job I ever had," says Kerri, disconnecting her phone. "Your parents had put a card up in the employment office at Sarah Lawrence. I didn't get paid but I got a stipend for transportation and lunch, thirteen dollars a week or something like that. I had moved to New York from Chicago the year before, I had just gotten divorced, I was twenty years old. My God, I was on the top of the world.
I knew who Michael was, of course, Hamsun was the first book I read when I came to New York City. I remember his picture on the back of the book, such a looker And Evelyn — what a knockout. Now look at you, you're beautiful. You look so much like them."
"Oh, it's the truth. Knockouts, all of you. Now your mother — I had never met anyone like your mother before. Here was this woman" — she takes Evelyn's hand — "in nineteen seventy, who had come from Brooklyn, which was back then even worse than Chicago, and had somehow managed to snag the guy, the job, and the house. And she was barely thirty! What an inspiration "
"Oh stop," Evelyn says, smiling "You only loved us so much because before you came to GV you'd worked for Mike McAllen, when The Hammer moved to Chicago."
"Mike McAllen!" The three women squeal and make disgusted faces. You would think Mike McAllen was their third-period gym teacher The party has filled up as we've been talking and a few people turn around to stare.
"Who's Mike McAllen?" asks the intern. I'm glad she asked first.
"He was the editor of The Hammer, the literary journal," says Evelyn "You know who he is," she says to me "I worked for him when he was still in New York, when was that, 'sixty-six?"
I do know, now that she's jogged my memory When Evelyn got her master's degree from Columbia she thought she'd be offered a tenure track position in the English Department. She wasn't. No women were. She taught freshman comp at Radcliffe for one semester and then left to work at The Hammer, where the male editors, once they saw her, quickly demoted her from editorial assistant to coffee girl Pretty women just weren't editors.
"That was how we met," says Allison, her voice as dry as a martini "I did some work for Mike, this was before I knew what an asshole he was. He needed to restructure from a partnership to a corporation I remember your mother when she worked for him. All the men in there, which was everyone except for the bookkeeper, were tripping over themselves to get to her "
"Now, Allison," says my mother, "you make it sound like a good thing I spent half my time getting lunches and dry cleaning and the other half running away from Mike and the other guys. And they all knew Michael, too!"
"The Hammer was big," Allison explains to the intern "Mike was a big deal back then. If you wanted to work with them, publish with them, or just not be on their shit list, you had to get along with Mike. It wasn't like today, when every kid who works at a copy shop has a little zine. There were very few places anyone interested in really cutting-edge writing could work, back then, and The Hammer was one of them."
"It's true," my mother says, gesturing with a cigarette. "When he fired me —"
"Why did he fire you?" asks Lisa, incredulous that Evelyn Forrest could be fired
"Because I wouldn't, you know, sleep with him. Or even give him a blow job. He used to always say just a blow job, like it was nothing at all."
"That's awful!" cries Lisa.
Allison and Kerri laugh. "Honey," Kerri says, "this was a different era There was no such thing as sexual harassment. There was put out or get out"
"You know what he said when he fired me," Evelyn tells Lisa "He said, 'Evelyn, I don't think you have the capacity to make a career in literature'"
"Oh my God'"
"So what did you say?"
"I said you think so, you shithead? You miserable fuck. One of these days you're going to eat those words, you son-of-a-bitch You'll see."
Everyone laughs except Evelyn "It's funny now," she says, "but at the time, you know, I had no belief at all in what I was saying I just wanted to piss him off. GV was just an idea Michael and I had been talking about, maybe starting a journal someday It was all talk, I had no confidence that it would really happen. I thought he was probably right"
"Where is he now?" asks Lisa.
"Oh, he's still at the same place on Twenty-third street," Evelyn tells her "No, Evelyn," Allison says, "Mike's dead. He died in what, 'eighty-nine?"
"'Eighty-eight," Kerri says "Colon cancer He was only sixty"
"That poor pathetic man"
Everyone, even Kerri, is morose now. I excuse myself to the bar for a scotch and soda. Not only had I thought I was a nonsmoker, until recently I had also been operating under the delusion that I was a light drinker. Now I don't want to leave the bar until I've got at least a few complete cocktails in me. A woman I know from Wilson Books, a publisher I used to work for, comes over for a little small talk. A man I know from Trout Filagree, another publisher I worked for, comes by and I flirt with him for a few cigarettes I'm wondering how soon I can leave when I feel a tap at my shoulder. I turn around to a man about my own age, a suit with a perfect smile and short hair.
"Mary," he says "Mary Forrest"
I smile. He knows my name, which counts for something, and the small wheels of my brain are in motion: not work, not college ...
"Marcus Sparks," he says with his big perfect smile "From St. Elizabeth's. My sister was in the class above you, I was the year below."
"Marcus. Marcus. Oh, of course, oh my God, Marcus How the hell are you?" My ex-best friend Suzie's brother An image comes into my head of Marcus, age sixteen or so, hanging around in front of school with four or five other boys with ponytails in polo shirts and cargo pants I hated them for their ponytails. I thought squares like them didn't have the right to long hair. But that was twelve years ago, and now I'm bored enough to be happy to see him.
"Good," Marcus says "You know I was thinking about you, thinking you might be here I knew Evelyn was your mother."
"Yes. Yes she is You work in publishing?"
"Yep Assistant director of marketing, Penmore Press. How about you?"
"I work for Intelligentsia," I tell him "Online bookseller."
"I can't believe it, I buy all my books from them You still writing?"
"No, not for a while now How's that crazy sister of yours?"
"She passed away. She died of a drug overdose Two years ago."
"I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
"No. It's okay. It wasn't a shock."
I don't know what that means. I don't know how death in any form can not be a shock.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Saturn's Return To New York"
Copyright © 2001 Sara Gran.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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