A REMARKABLE NEW WOMAN AT THE COLLEGE BOOKSHOP HELPS A PROFESSOR--AND THE SON HE NEVER KNEW HE HAD--REALIZE LIFE'S SMALL BLESSINGS
Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing his department's oddball faculty, and caring for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom's brief affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.
Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop's charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner. Her first social interaction since her breakdown, Tom wonders if it's a sign that change is on the horizon--a feeling confirmed when he receives a letter from his former paramour, informing him he'd fathered a son who is heading Tom's way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom's ready or not.
A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings's wonderfully optimistic heart reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined.
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
MARTHA WOODROOF was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.
Read an Excerpt
There she was, as welcome in this insular community as fresh air in a multiplex, a woman who, rumor had it, risked being happy. Tom had heard the most about her from Russell Jacobs, his colleague in the English Department, and now he was looking at her in the flesh, at this tall, slender, dark-haired creature, oddly stylish in her ill-fitting, baggy trousers and white T-shirt.
She stood not twenty feet away from him in the new coffee room, listening attentively to one of a coterie of retired faculty members who, according to Russ, had glommed on to the Book Store’s new assistant director as soon as she’d set foot on campus. For Tom it was a moment to treasure. Here, at this isolated seat of southern learning, where everyone clung to busy-ness as though it were proof of an importance in the larger, more meaningful world, was a person who dared to seem relaxed, as though she had time to draw breath and listen to what someone was saying and even think about it for a moment or two. Imagine that!
Her name, Tom knew, was Rose Callahan, and she’d been hired by Ted Pitts, director of the Book Store, to manage the coffee room and “to re-energize the community’s co-curricular life of the mind through programming in the college bookstore.” Whatever that meant. Over the last couple of years, Ted Pitts had become pleasantly obsessed with what he called “building community.” Everyone applauded his efforts except the college’s new VP of finance, an attractive, fortyish Darden School graduate referred to unaffectionately by the faculty as “the Harpy.”
The new VP had been hired a year ago, when the post-9/11 economy had forced the college to dip into its substantial endowment. Ever since her arrival, the Harpy had worried publicly that such frivolities as Mr. Pitts’s “community building” further eroded the college’s bottom line, which appeared to be the beginning and end of her concerns. Ted Pitts’s hiring of Rose Callahan as assistant director (and community-builder-in-chief) was seen by everyone as open defiance of the Harpy’s clawlike grip on the soul of the college. Much to the faculty’s delight, Ted had always operated with quasi-independence, paying the Book Store’s expenses with textbook sales, reinvesting the profits from trade books, gifts, and coffee sales in his “community building” efforts.
Rose Callahan had been at the college for a full month, usually plenty of time for every detail of a person’s past to be ferreted out and vetted. But, according to Russ (who was the campus gossip coordinator and so would know), there was remarkably little dirt to dish about Rose Callahan. She was thirty-seven and originally from Texas. She was either never married or amicably divorced—Russ wasn’t sure which, only that she appeared to live alone and didn’t seem inclined to bite men’s heads off. She was to move into one of the tumbledown cottages down by the old barn as soon as some busted pipes were repaired; until then she was staying at the College Inn. She had moved down to take the Book Store job from Charlottesville, where she’d managed an independent bookstore on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall for the last two years, reportedly changing the color of its bottom line from red to black with her innovative programming. Rose Callahan could talk about books intelligently, Russ said, including the literature of the eighteenth century, which was Russ’s own domain, and the students had begun pouring out their troubles to her on their first day back from summer break, which had been yesterday. She ate her meals in the dining hall and seemed equally comfortable sitting by herself or with a table of strangers, and she had been sighted walking miles from campus after work hours carrying binoculars, which indicated she was either a spy or a birdwatcher. Russ had thought probably the latter.
“She’s not at all pretty,” Russ had said, leaning over Tom’s desk in that stilted, locker-room way he saved for male colleagues who were part of his regular poker nights. “I mean, her nose has been broken, playing high school basketball, of all things! Next to your beautiful wife, she’d look like Olive Oyl.” Russ, who was long divorced and nearing retirement age, still liked to think of himself as a gay young blade. He’d raised his bushy eyebrows. “She’s remarkably self-contained, if you know what I mean. Everyone on campus is completely intrigued by her, because she’s here all by herself and is still so obviously un-needy. And she never blows her own horn. Never. In fact, Rose Callahan doesn’t talk much about herself at all. I don’t even know whether she has a lover—or if the woman is heterosexual, for that matter. I don’t mean to imply she’s necessarily keeping secrets or anything like that. She simply appears to find other people’s lives more interesting to talk about than her own. But for all her frustrating reserve, Thomas, Rose Callahan’s got something about her that will make the man in you sit up and take notice. Yes, Professor Putnam, even you.”
Tom had laughed at this, his eyes on his cluttered desktop, and thought for perhaps the four-thousandth time what a harmless old ass Russ was. Up until this moment in the Book Store, Tom would have bet his retirement fund there wasn’t enough man left in him to lift its little finger, let alone sit up. But now, there Rose Callahan was, and here he was, alert as a small boy who smells freshly baked cookies.
At that moment Rose looked up and smiled. Something inside Tom heaved and shifted and he thought, channeling his idol: The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service.
And just like that he, Thomas Marvin Putnam—lover of Shakespeare, educated at Amherst College and the University of Virginia, dysfunctionally married for twenty years—was a joyous, carefree child somersaulting down a hill, joining Alice in falling, falling, falling somewhere he had never contemplated going.
* * *
Tom’s impulse was to run, but Marjory had begun plucking at the sleeve of his tweed jacket, her nervous fingers working into the hole under the leather patch that was coming off again.
They were there for the Book Store’s first annual “Teaching English Afternoon.” As Rose’s inaugural program, its astute purpose was to bring the college’s English Department faculty and current majors together with area high school English teachers and their best students, who were potential majors.
The event, which had been a howling success for Admissions, was winding down. All other members of the English Department had left, but Marjory, who hadn’t wanted to come, was now refusing to leave. “There’s the new assistant director,” she whispered. “Let’s go over and introduce ourselves.”
“Not now,” Tom hissed, wondering that his riotously pounding heart did not burst through the front of his jacket and flop down on the display of new books spread out before them; wondering that his knees didn’t buckle; wondering that he just stood there, probably still looking like the tall, dull, inoffensive, pleasant full professor of English that he was. But it was too late. Rose Callahan had excused herself from the retired faculty member and was coming toward them, her hand held out to Marjory. Her voice was warm and slightly twangy. “I’m Rose Callahan, and I’m new at the Book Store. I don’t think we’ve met.”
Tom saw with astonishment that Marjory was charmed into momentary sanity. She never shook hands anymore. Since his regrettable affair with a poet, she’d developed wild phobias about germs and obscure diseases. Yet she shook hands with Rose Callahan and spoke to her as pleasantly as you please. “I’m Marjory Putnam, and this is my husband, Tom. He’s in the English Department.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Marjory,” Rose said, taking a moment to focus on this fragile, nervous woman, standing there buttoned up to the chin in inappropriately immature flowered chintz. Tom was grateful for this small courtesy paid to Marjory. But he was even more grateful when Rose, at last, turned to him. “Rose Callahan,” she said simply, holding out her hand to him. “You must be a colleague of Russell Jacobs.”
Her touch was cool, her hand unusually long-fingered and strong. Her handshake conveyed conviction and hardiness, both considered suspect feminine traits on this campus where some young women still wore strings of real pearls with their designer jeans. Tom felt a small jolt as their palms connected. Rose looked down at their hands with an expression he could not read. “Yes,” he said. “I am.” He intended to say something else, something witty about Russ, but not another word came out of his mouth.
There was an infinitesimal pause before Rose said to Marjory, “Russell has been very nice to me.” Tom noticed she was much taller than Marjory, who only came up to his own heart. For an instant, Tom saw his wife the way he’d first seen her, as an exquisite china doll, immensely chippable. It was, perhaps, the most accurate read he could have taken of her.
“Oh,” Marjory said, battling nervousness again, looking down and picking at the clasp of her purse. Marjory was profoundly uncomfortable around Russ. He was too confident for her by half.
Rose smiled, but then thinking about Russ made most people other than Marjory smile. Rose turned to Tom again. “Russell has introduced me to a dizzying number of people and told me all about them.” Now their eyes were meeting. Rose Callahan’s eyes were truly blue, Paul Newman blue, and as he looked into them her whole being seemed to glow, as though she herself generated light.
The Bard, ever present in Tom’s head and ever willing to think the right words when he could not, pointed out that light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile. “Yes,” he managed. “Russ is the self-proclaimed social maven around here.” Tom was pleased with himself for using the word “maven” and then immediately uncomfortable with feeling pleased. It had been years since he’d been concerned about the impression he was making on anyone. The back of Tom’s neck began to itch unbearably, and his left middle toe threatened to cramp. He wished he’d remembered to get a haircut. His brown hair became a mass of rampaging cowlicks when he put off going to the barber.
Marjory stirred by his side, letting off an unusual little pop of energy. “Why don’t you come have supper with us this Friday night, Rose? We’ll celebrate getting through the first week of having the students back. We live right on campus, and we’d love to have you, wouldn’t we, Tom?”
Tom stopped staring at Rose Callahan and turned to stare at his wife. Marjory hadn’t issued a social invitation in ten years. Was she drunk at three o’clock in the afternoon? Had she taken too many of her happy pills? A decade ago, his wife had sunk into pathological timidity and indecisiveness, especially around strange women.
“Wouldn’t we, Tom?” Marjory repeated, as calmly as though there were nothing at all unusual about what she’d said.
“Of course.” The words came out rather louder than Tom would have wished. He turned back to Rose Callahan, feeling a rush of almost adolescent despair. She would think he was a dolt now, for sure. One of those moldy academics who can’t really function in any world other than the one inside his own head. “Do come,” he said, hearing himself, with just those two words, sound as though he were begging.
“I’d love to,” she said, smiling at Marjory. “It’s so nice of you to ask me.”
It was as though some of Rose Callahan’s calm, some of her sanity, had flowed into Marjory by osmosis. This was the longest social interaction Tom could remember his wife having in years. “Good,” she said. “Shall we say seven o’clock? We live at the very end of Faculty Row—the big, square brick house that’s a bit set back from the rest. My mother lives with us, and I’m sure she’ll want to join us.”
“How very nice. It will be a treat to eat dinner again in a real house with a real family for a change,” Rose said, sounding as though the prospect of spending an evening with Marjory’s mother really did fill her with pleasurable expectation. Of course, rumor could work both ways, and the stories Rose would have heard about his mother-in-law might have intrigued her. “I’ll see you on Friday, then, if not before,” Rose said to Marjory. Then she turned to Tom again. “You know,” she said, almost shyly, “I’ve decided to go back to school and finish my degree, and I’m signed up for one of your classes—Shakespeare 402 that meets on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons?”
The light was there again, flaring out as though someone had set off a Roman candle behind Rose Callahan’s head. “Oh,” Tom said. His heart did another flop, and his left middle toe seized up like an oil-less engine. “It meets from two thirty until four forty-five tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Rose Callahan smiled again, still shy, and added, “Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
Tom looked quickly at his wife to see if she minded this. Marjory had been known to start keening like an Irish mother if he so much as nodded to another woman at a party. But Marjory was smiling as though she were as normal as the next person.
* * *
Rose leaned against the archway that separated the coffee room from the main part of the Book Store and watched the Putnams leave. She’d been at the college for three weeks and three days and had already heard a lot about Marjory Putnam, particularly from Russell Jacobs. Everyone had said Marjory was very peculiar, but no one had said a word about how lovely she was. Or that she was so friendly. To be fair to the gossipers, Marjory was obviously a tad high-strung. There had been real effort behind her friendliness, as though it were rusty or in disrepair. And Marjory’s fingers had begun to hop around like grasshoppers in the folds of her dress when Russell’s name had come up. But those two things, on their own, didn’t have to mean Marjory Putnam was peculiar, only that she was shy and the thought of bombastic Russell Jacobs made her nervous.
As Rose watched from her archway, the Putnams stopped abruptly beside one of the many glass shelves of knickknacks in the Book Store’s front room. The two of them stood there, whispering together; or rather Professor Putnam whispered while Marjory lowered her head, wrung her hands, and listened. Professor Putnam then put a hand on his wife’s arm in an obvious attempt to get her moving again, but Marjory shook her head like an obstinate child, took a step away from him, and turned back to look at Rose. Her body had gone rigid as a poker, and her face was a blank. She didn’t wave, but Rose did wave at her, and in response Marjory lifted her hand and held it in the air. The two stood looking at each other, and Rose felt something protective rear up inside her and attach itself to the other woman. She would have sworn Marjory recognized this, for she nodded once and smiled for a beat of Rose’s heart. She then went back to staring. Only it wasn’t a simple stare. It was the stare of a blind woman who sees with her entire being, senses things beyond what other people are capable of noticing.
She’s been potty for years, Russell had said, with absolutely no compunction about branding someone Rose had never met as a loony. You can ask anyone, Rose, my dear. Everyone has Marjory stories to tell. Anyone except for Tom would have fled years ago. But Professor Putnam is our campus Boy Scout, our token nice guy. The only man I know who can act truly selflessly. Although God only knows what the man feels. I’m sure he’d like to murder Marjory sometime, just for an hour’s freedom from worrying about her.
Marjory remained wooden and still for perhaps ten more beats of Rose’s heart, wearing anxious fragility like a sandwich board: I apologize for everything I do. Perhaps Marjory Putnam knew exactly how people talked about her and thought it entirely her fault that they did? This thought made Rose want to rear back and punch the next person who told her a story about Marjory—who would probably be Russell Jacobs—in the nose.
Now, finally, Professor Putnam put a hand gently on his wife’s arm again, and this time Marjory allowed herself to be turned back. The Putnams were again on the march, and Rose saw with real regret that lovely Marjory was beginning to act more as advertised, leading her husband on an awkward zigzag course through the Book Store that was only vaguely canted toward the front door. She was like a two-year-old, drawn to every colorful knickknack she passed. And still Professor Putnam managed to smile bravely at everyone they passed, as well as smile and nod at whatever his wife was saying, his expression as set and pleasant as a bobbing-head doll’s.
Rose stood there in the archway and watched them, watched all the pitying looks that passed among other faculty members and the suppressed student giggles, and found that she’d stopped concentrating on lovely Marjory and begun, instead, to study Professor Putnam. Rose didn’t usually admire people who lived obviously muddled lives, but something about this man, about the way he made no effort to distance himself from his wife’s noticeably odd behavior, pinged her well-defended heart. Rose, who never hesitated to change or move on if life got complicated, began to wonder if this man might have a kind of remarkable bravery. Might he be one of the rare few who had the courage to accept—without malice—other people exactly as they were, even when this meant he found himself joined for life with Marjory?
Rose folded her arms and sighed. She had never inspired anything like such loyalty from another person—except her mother, Mavis, of course. Nor had she given it. Rose hated the infrequent occasions when the impermanence of her own life left her feeling vaguely distressed instead of gloriously freewheeling. And that was exactly how Professor Putnam’s dealings with his damaged wife were making her feel.
Mavis Callahan, who was never without a theory, especially about her only child, said that Rose, who was brave in every other way, had always been a coward when it came to accepting anything she didn’t have a complete handle on. Mavis said that Rose always kept one foot out the door of wherever she was so as to be ready to move on if things got confusing. Mavis would go on to say that this was not really Rose’s fault, it was the way she’d been raised. But, Mavis would add, she herself had finally managed to stick somewhere, and so Rose, God willing and the crik don’t rise—one of Mavis’s all-purpose sayings—probably had enough guts to stick somewhere, someday, as well. Her daughter was no coward, Mavis would always end with a flourish, just challenged in the acceptance department. The way she, Mavis, had been for the first forty-some years of her life. Before she’d come nose-to-nose with her professor and realized she’d better develop some staying power if she didn’t want to screw up her last best chance to have a real permanent mailing address.
Her professor …
“So you’ve finally met the redoubtable Putnams, man and wife,” said a voice at Rose’s elbow.
Rose turned to find Iris Benson, standing too close as usual. It was, Rose suspected, a way for her to launch any interaction as an offensive. According to Russ, Iris Benson loved all confrontation, great and small.
Rose calmly stepped away from her archway and moved back to a comfortable speaking distance. “Hello, Iris. How are you?”
Iris Benson was dressed in the color of her namesake flower, in purple from head to toe. This, too, was as usual. Iris would never be called pretty by anyone, but Rose found her quite theatrically handsome—which was certainly appropriate since she’d tried for a career as an actress during a decade of regional rep and summer stock before retreating to graduate school. Iris had wild red hair, green eyes, a strong nose, and high cheekbones that were always blushed a bright pink. All these were assembled around, and within, a delicate, heart-shaped face. She was, Rose thought, a valentine delivering a call to battle. Rose liked talking to Iris, but then, as Mavis Callahan’s daughter, she would be drawn to anyone with rough edges. I like talking to someone who’s a bit of an adventure, Rose had heard her mother say often enough from behind whatever bar Mavis was tending.
“How am I?” Iris frowned and looked fiercely at something over Rose’s left shoulder. “I’m not sure. But then I don’t suppose you really care.” She looked accusingly at Rose.
“I don’t really have time to care now,” Rose said, calmly looking back at her and smiling. “I’m hosting an event.”
Was it her imagination or did Iris Benson flush slightly under all that blusher? “I’m sorry,” Iris said unexpectedly. “That was rude. And I have no call to be rude to you. Yet.” With that, she turned around and stalked away.
It was like Iris to attack, unlike her to apologize. Was she all right? Rose wondered. And if she weren’t all right, why should she, who’d been here such a short time, be suckered into caring? Surely Iris had real friends who liked caring about her? Then again, and here Rose loosed another sigh, perhaps not. Being Iris’s friend would be a prickly business.
A student sitting with a group at one of the tables behind her let out a shriek, which was followed by a flood of giggles from the whole group. They would be laughing at someone, of course; that was what students did. Compassion bloomed late in most people. Rose turned her back on them and allowed herself a quick break from socializing to straighten bookshelves. Books were the main reason Rose worked in bookstores, for no matter how chaotic and strange the worlds in them might be, it would always be a finite chaos, one in which you could safely immerse yourself without getting stuck. It was so different from the low-keyed, never-ending, creeping chaos of real life.
She gave a matched set of Emerson a vigorous push, so it was no longer hanging over the edge of its shelf. The simple truth was now what the simple truth had always been: Reality, with all its attendant complexities—i.e., other people—was inescapable. As Mavis had put it to her sodden customers, “Real life, darling, is the only game in town.”
* * *
His mother-in-law, Agnes Tattle, paid Tom a rare visit that night in his office. He’d escaped upstairs right after dinner, announcing he had to make final notes for tomorrow’s inaugural meeting of his Shakespeare class. The one thing Tom remained clear about was that he was morally bound to teach as effectively as possible. Just because his home life might be difficult, that did not relieve him of the responsibility to keep things in the classroom fresh and interesting. If he wasn’t engaged by what he was saying, how could he expect anyone else to be?
Tom had indeed made some notes about the BBC production of Midsummer Night’s Dream with Helen Mirren as Titania. (My Oberon! What visions have I seen! Methought I was enamoured of an ass.) When Agnes arrived, though, he discovered he’d begun doodling roses.
“What the hell is wrong with Marjory?” Agnes demanded in her froggy voice. She’d smoked unfiltered Camels for decades, then quit cold turkey when she’d moved in with them, as her son-in-law was allergic to smoke.
Tom’s office was on the third floor of the house in what was really a still-unfinished attic. The rough room he’d fashioned for himself under the eaves was hot as hell in the summer and cold as a deep freeze in the winter. The college would have insulated it fully for him if he’d asked, but he never had. He had no wish to turn it into a comfortable room in which his wife and mother-in-law might want to visit him more regularly. As the years crept by, he was turning more and more into Greta Garbo, vanting to be alone. Agnes glared at him from the doorway, dabbing at her damp face with a Kleenex she’d fished out of what she called her “reticule,” a kind of at-home fabric purse she carried with her from room to room. “It’s hot as hell up here,” she said crossly. “I don’t understand why you don’t work on the second floor where it’s air-conditioned.”
“What was that you asked about Marjory?” Tom ignored her comment about the heat. She said the same thing every time she came up here. Tom liked his mother-in-law. She’d been molded by the lingering effects of the Depression and World War II with all their deprivations and opportunities for soldiering through. Oddly enough, she had graduated from this very college back in the mid-fifties, magna cum laude in mathematics of all things.
Agnes never complained about the big things—such as her daughter’s chronic mental illness or her own considerable holdings in Enron—just the little ones, such as the location of his office. She had moved in with them when Marjory had gotten bad enough to need a keeper. Tom hadn’t asked for her help. What would he have said—your daughter’s gone completely crazy at last? It’s my fault because I had a stupid, three-week affair, but I still can’t cope? Nine years ago, Agnes had simply shown up with a suitcase and announced she was there to stay for a while. Tom would be eternally grateful to her, even though she had a bossy side that gave him one more reason to flee to his attic.
Agnes came a step or two into the low-ceilinged room, looking around as though she’d never been there before and didn’t see any reason ever to come again, another ritual of visitation. “I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with Marjory?’ She’s down in the kitchen baking macaroons.”
Tom was not above enjoying a chance to shock. He leaned back in his chair, tented his hands, and carefully composed his face into its mildest expression. “Your daughter has invited company for dinner on Friday. The macaroons must be for dessert. If I remember right, they have to age for a day or two to reach their full potential.”
Agnes was satisfactorily bamboozled. She stared at her son-in-law openmouthed for perhaps ten seconds. Then she turned and very slowly removed a pile of books from the only other chair in the room and sat down. “What the hell is going on?”
Tom shrugged. “Got me,” he said, quite cheerfully. “Rose Callahan, the new assistant director of the Book Store, introduced herself this afternoon, and before you could say Jack Robinson, Marjory had asked her to dinner on Friday.”
“Was she drunk?” Agnes asked, leaning forward, still whispering. “I don’t see how she could have been. I watched her all afternoon until you took her to the Book Store. As far as I could tell, she spent the whole time sitting at the table in the sunroom working on her goddamn scrapbooks.” Marjory’s scrapbooks were picture books of her rampaging pathology. She bought and read piles of women’s and self-help magazines, cutting out articles about such things as “How to Keep Your Long-Term Partner Interested in Your Mind” and “Ten Steps to Staying Young Forever” and pasted them into an endless succession of photo albums. Agnes had wanted to make her daughter give up such nonsense years ago, but Dr. Simms, her psychiatrist, had forbidden her to intervene. The updated scrapbooks went off with Marjory to Charlottesville for her twice-weekly appointments with the good doctor, her only allowed solo trips these days. Privately, Tom thought, his wife’s psychiatrist must be bored out of his tree spending two hours a week with Marjory rehashing her husband’s one, ten-year-old, three-week-long transgression. The scrapbooks at least gave him something new to look at.
Tom shook his head. “She seemed perfectly sober to me,” he said. “Maybe Dr. Simms changed her medication and found something that actually helps?”
“Nope,” Agnes said, sitting back. “No such luck.”
Tom shrugged again. “Well then,” he said, “the impetus for the invitation and the resulting macaroons remains a mystery.”
Agnes narrowed her eyes and looked at him. She was, Tom knew, his committed partner in this mess. They had these moments of closeness, when Tom felt, in some cockeyed way, that he and Agnes were man and wife, and Marjory was their hopelessly dependent child. Agnes Tattle was the only person he’d ever met who was strong enough to look life right in the eye and spit. It must be the mathematics in her background. Such courageous realism certainly didn’t come from the study of English literature.
“Well, I’ll be!” Agnes sighed and got up to go. At the door, she turned around and looked at him again. There really was nothing else for them to discuss. Marjory was a custodial issue between them, not a source of pleasant conversation. “I’m going to go down, unlock the Scotch, and have a drink. May I bring you one?”
“No thanks,” Tom said. Had Agnes noticed the roses he’d doodled? She was looking at him with her usual inscrutable glare. If anyone could read minds, it was Agnes Tattle.
“Well then, Professor. I’ll leave you with your mail.”
The envelope Agnes withdrew from her reticule was small, lavender, and self-consciously feminine. It was addressed in brown ink, postmarked New Orleans, and the return address was confined to the initials R.T. Agnes looked Tom squarely in the eye as she handed it to him. “This came registered mail today. I beat Marjory to the door, which is probably just as well.”
And then, before Tom could so much as blink, she was gone.
* * *
There was no need to tear open the small envelope. He had all evening to revisit one of the most boneheaded mistakes he had ever made.
Tom Putnam’s affair had been with a visiting poet, Retesia Turnball; another wispy, dreamy woman, much like Marjory when he’d first met her, barely connected enough to the here and now to grocery shop. Retesia, who had been quite a good poet, had written a lot about her Nordic ancestry. What Tom mainly remembered about her was how pale she was.
Retesia had been in residence at the college for exactly one month, laboring doggedly with a few overly self-involved students at turning angst into words. At the time, she had been newly widowed and grieving desperately, and Tom had just been desperate—desperate for life, for a meaningful connection with another human being—and so he’d ignored his usual overriding caution and had sex with Retesia a half-dozen times on the couch in her office. Then she was gone, never to be heard from again until now, and it had been he who was grieving—not so much for Retesia as for everything he’d wanted her to be.
Why, Tom wondered, had he been so attracted to unhappy women in those days? Unhappiness repelled him now. He’d had enough of it.
He’d written Retesia one letter, just a chatty compilation of college happenings, which he’d never mailed, but hadn’t thrown away either. Marjory had found it a month later. Even though there was nothing in the letter that hinted he and Retesia had been lovers, his wife’s decompensation, which had been proceeding for years at a sedate pace, had quickly accelerated.
Within two months she was officially Mad as a Hatter.
Tom hadn’t had sex or a normal, intimate conversation with a woman since. His punishment for his transgression was to live life as a caged eunuch. Why hadn’t he at least strayed with a woman who made him laugh? Why had he picked another struggling soul who, like Marjory, cried out for rescuing?
Marjory. His wife. What a sad woman she was and had probably always been. But when he’d married her, he was sure their marriage would make all the difference in her life. She was so lovely and so lost, this girl child of the emphatic Agnes and her flyboy husband, who had flown off into the skies of Del Rio on an air force training mission and never come back. Some kind of engine failure, the family was told. Just pfft, a fireball, and he was gone.
Agnes had evidently loved her flyboy passionately, for she’d remained fiercely single ever since. The flyboy had left her—his then just-pregnant wife—with a nice slice of family money, a pretty Charlottesville house, and an extended family of overbearing in-laws with stultifying ideas about femininity. Agnes had declined to join her mother-in-law’s garden club and had instead taken herself off to the UVA law school, rising to be editor of the Law Review and graduating third in her class. According to Agnes, her mother-in-law had been appalled.
After graduation, Lawyer Tattle had quickly become the champion of middle-aged women who’d been dumped by their husbands, delighting in making the bastards pay through the nose for their disloyalty. Marjory—a physically frail child—had spent her formative years listening to her mother’s tales of browbeating unfaithful men and prodding unassertive women to buck up and not take no for an answer. Tom had met his future wife during his first year in grad school at UVA. Marjory had been a lovely, pathologically shy graduate of this same women’s college, already within shouting distance of thirty, back home living with Agnes, without an inkling of how to survive on her own. He’d been introduced to her at some Legal Aid shindig. What he was doing there, Tom could never remember, but he did remember meeting Marjory for the first time. She had stood before him shyly, lovely as spring’s first daffodil, a dribble of punch spilled down her buttoned-up white blouse, while over the PA Fontella Bass had belted out “Rescue Me.”
What he’d learned most painfully over the next quarter of a century was that you cannot do that. One human being, with the best will and intentions in the world, cannot fix what is wrong with someone else. There was enough left of Marjory to cling, but not to connect. Tom picked up his pen and absently doodled another rose. The past was always there, wasn’t it? Waiting to be sorted out and connected to the present. He must have been terribly lonely when he’d met Marjory—grad school had been so different from the easy, boys’ club atmosphere of Amherst. He’d slept with a few women in college, but they were all from Mount Holyoke and could jolly well take care of themselves. His Achilles’ heel, back in that lonely year, had been a wish to feel special, not just another likable Joe in the crowd. His collegiate longing to help save the world had somehow perverted itself into a longing to save another person.
Agnes had tried to tell him before the wedding that her daughter was not marriage material. She’d sat him down and—as direct in this as in everything—said there was something missing in Marjory that neither she nor the doctors seemed to be able to do anything about. With the accumulated wisdom of twenty years behind him, however, Tom had politely but firmly told Agnes and her advice to take a hike. The truth was—Tom could see this plainly now, sitting at his desk in this dim, hot attic—that he’d been a little lost himself in those days; another sheltered intellectual trying to figure out how to live. And so he’d constructed the convenient fantasy that two straws, if bound together, would make an adequate broom.
Agnes had been right, of course. The marriage had been a mess from the get-go. Marjory had been frightened of sex, frightened of being with people, frightened of being left alone and abandoned. Tom frowned and stabbed his latest rose with the point of his pen. It was so easy to see now that he should have gotten out during the first year when it was obvious to all—and most importantly to himself—that whatever was wrong with Marjory was not his fault. But she’d been so lovely and so desperate, she’d told him over and over again how hard she was trying, and so he’d stayed that year and the next and the next, and then it was hard not to feel that some of her troubles were indeed his fault.
Tom stared out the small, dark dormer window at the great blank sky. Whatever, as his current crop of students would say. There was no point in fuming now about the gods’ need of a good black joke at humankind’s expense. As Van Morrison had put it: It ain’t why, why, why, why, why; it just is. If it weren’t for Agnes, Tom sometimes thought—giving in to his latent penchant for melodrama after a couple of late-night Scotches—he would have hanged himself up here in the attic just to have done something different with his day. The truth was he had made a muddle of his life and there was nothing he could do about it.
The small square lavender envelope in his hand felt hot to the touch. What the hell. A letter was just a letter. Why not read it now and get on with it, whatever it was.
I know this will probably be a big surprise, but I hope it will not be an unwelcome one. You are the father of a ten-year-old boy named Henry. On his tenth birthday, which was three weeks ago, I informed Henry of this as well. He had long wanted to know who his father is, but I had held back the information to make it a kind of rite of passage for him when he turned ten.
My life has changed completely in the past few years, and is now much more satisfying and exciting. The change was triggered by my realization that poetry is for losers. I started writing romance novels instead and I have been extremely successful. I write under a pseudonym (which is now also my legal name) that you do not need to know.
Anyway, my agent and publisher have put together a three-month world “lecture” tour, and rather than coming with me, Henry has decided to come and live with you.
We both thought it would be best just to surprise you, so I’m putting your son on a train from New Orleans that will arrive in Charlottesville at 7:09 A.M. on Monday, September 5.
Don’t try to find me. I have most definitely moved on with my life. I will be in touch at the end of the tour or shortly thereafter.
Give my best to Marjory.
Tom gripped the small piece of paper and stared down at the hand that was doing the gripping. He’d taken in nothing after the second sentence, the one that announced he’d fathered a boy named Henry. It took tremendous effort for him to unstick his mind enough to spew forth anything, which naturally turned out to be a couple of comforting lines from Shakespeare.
It is a pretty mocking of the life. And nature must obey necessity.
Could Retesia possibly be making this up? Was there any reason to doubt this bombshell?
No, there really wasn’t. For a poet, Retesia was strangely lacking in imagination. If she said he had a son, he had a son.
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
A child! His child.
Something deep inside Tom began elbowing its way to the front of his crowded consciousness, and that something seemed, unexpectedly, to be excited.
He focused on the letter again. What didn’t seem at all like Retesia was the brown ink and lavender paper. She’d had, as he remembered it, a real thing for Emily Post, who, as an etiquettarian, made Ms. Manners look casual. But whether or not the notepaper and ink were customary for Retesia, the letter had to be from her, because he, she, Marjory, and Russell (to whom he’d impulsively confided just after Marjory had found the ridiculous letter) were the only people in the world who knew that he and she had done what it takes to produce a child.
Someone else was coming up the stairs. Tom immediately stuffed the letter into his chair cushions and waited. It wasn’t Agnes; the steps were far too hesitant. From their sound, Tom would have thought it was Marjory, but he couldn’t remember the last time she’d been up here. Marjory always referred to his “office” in verbal quotation marks, as though its real purposes in his life were well known and unmentionable. Why, oh why, thought Tom, enduring a wave of defeat, did Marjory have to be so relentlessly unstable? Who knew what she’d do once Henry showed up?
Without thinking, Tom picked up the legal pad with its doodled roses and turned it over on his desk. His daydreams of the afternoon had taken place in another lifetime.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us! It was Marjory. Tom was up in an instant. “Come in!” he sang out, too heartily. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
Marjory had a damaged person’s ability to read another’s reaction, and she shrank back before the mild blast of his greeting. One of her hands began pinching the flesh on the back of the other.
“I know I’m interrupting,” she said.
“No, you’re not,” Tom said, reining in the last shred of heartiness. He forced himself to walk slowly and carefully over to his wife, approaching her as he might a wounded bird fluttering on the grass. When he got within range, he gently lifted his arm and touched the hand that was doing the picking. “Come over and sit down. Please.”
He drew her over to the chair. Marjory’s eyes stayed on the floor, following the progress of her own feet. She perched on the seat’s edge. Even in the dim light, Tom could see she’d carefully applied fresh makeup for this visit. When he released her hand, it immediately began dancing within the folds of her skirt.
Tom sat down in his desk chair and slowly rolled around to face her. There was absolutely no point in feigning chitchat. His wife would not have come up here without some serious purpose. It took too much effort. “Yes,” he said, in his kindest voice. “Did you need something, my dear?”
Marjory’s eyes drifted upward until she looked him straight in the eye. She spoke in a rush. “I just wanted to say that I like Rose Callahan very much, and I think she will make a nice friend for both of us. I think she needs friends as well.” Her words sounded rehearsed, as though she’d written them down and memorized them once the macaroons were in the oven.
“I beg your pardon?” Tom was stunned. For Marjory, other women were threats, not nice friends.
Marjory dutifully repeated herself. “I wanted to say I like Rose Callahan very much. I think she will make a nice friend for both of us. And I think she needs friends as well.” Then, wonder of wonders, she smiled—truly smiled—at him and added, “I’m glad she’s coming to dinner. I thought I would make spaghetti.”
This outpouring was perhaps the biggest, pleasantest bombshell Marjory had lobbed during their last, long decade together. His wife was trying to tell him something tremendously important, he was sure of it; much more important than that she was making spaghetti. But whatever did she mean by saying she thought Rose Callahan needed friends? That, Tom thought, was preposterous. Rose Callahan was obviously as quietly self-sufficient as they came. Besides, everyone on campus seemed to have taken to her immediately.
Marjory was still looking at him, her eyes uncharacteristically focused.
What now? Tom thought. “Yes, my dear?”
“I’m glad you like her,” she said. “And I want you to know I understand completely about…” Here Marjory faltered. Her eyes drifted down until she seemed to be talking to Tom’s third shirt button. “About that other thing.” The words came out in an almost unintelligible mumble.
Tom had no idea what she meant. Had she finally forgiven him for his affair with Retesia? “What was that? I’m not quite sure I understand your meaning?”
Marjory’s hands were back among the folds of her skirt, her eyes on her hands. “It was nothing. The important things I wanted to say were about this afternoon and about the spaghetti.”
It occurred to Tom that something truly significant must have passed between his wife and Rose Callahan earlier today. It had to have been when Marjory stopped and mulishly insisted on turning back. He’d been quite cross with her at the time; all he’d wanted was to get out of there before Marjory became Marjory again. He’d wanted Rose Callahan to think—just for a little while—that they were a normal couple living a normal life. “Spaghetti would be lovely,” he said, deciding to concentrate on less disturbing issues.
Marjory stood up. She’d either said all she needed to say or she’d run out of courage to say more. “I’ll leave you, then,” she said, whispering again. “I know you have a lot of work to do.” And with that she scuttled out the door and was gone. Tom listened to her creep back down the stairs and shut the door at the bottom of the attic steps. The house was once again as quiet as though it were uninhabited. Over the silence, he heard a faint aria wafting in through the small open window. Lost love, set to music. It came from the neighbors, a nice, childless couple, both in the Music Department, who were in the throes of fertility counseling.
Tom sat for quite a while staring at the blank doorway. He tried and failed to grasp that he was the father of a ten-year-old son. He tried and failed to wonder if his wife had somehow figured this out. His mind resolutely remained as blank as the doorway—a state with which Tom was familiar and quite comfortable. It came on when he needed a rest from bewilderment and had nothing orderly to think about. It was a signal he should give up trying to sort things out, at least for a while. What was there to sort out, anyway? He couldn’t, no matter what it did to Marjory or to himself, tell a ten-year-old boy that his father didn’t want anything to do with him. Even though Retesia’s letter had not sounded at all like the wispy poet he remembered, Henry was relentlessly on his way. Tomorrow, he, Tom, would get up, go to class as though life were, quote-unquote “normal,” then come home and dump the whole mess in Agnes’s capable lap.
There was also no point in trying to fathom Marjory’s visit. It would remain forever a source of indecipherable wonderment. But Tom couldn’t help wondering about Marjory’s extraordinary statement about Rose Callahan needing friends. He remembered a similarly oddball statement she’d once made about Russ. Out of the blue, Marjory had looked up from her scrapbook one evening and said, “Russell has secrets, you know. It’s why he is the way he is.” Then she’d calmly gone back to cutting out an article from Glamour. Marjory had also from time to time made such extreme statements about other people, all of which except—so far—the one about Russ had turned out to be astoundingly accurate. It was as though other people’s inner workings gave off a scent that only Marjory could smell.
The faint aria changed to a faint duet that was much more joyous in tone. Perhaps the lost love had been found again? Tom stopped staring at the blank doorway and swiveled around to stare out the square, blank window. A bead of sweat ran off his chin and plummeted down onto the back of the legal pad. The small sound startled him out of his suspended state. He turned the pad back over and looked at his doodled roses. They were old-fashioned single roses, the kind you could find in the garden at Monticello, graceful, curving stems ending in clusters of simple blooms. They would smell of apples and fresh air and romance.
Rose. Rose Callahan. Russ was right, she wasn’t pretty. She was a Modigliani painting; her face, too long; her nose, too crooked; her hair—to use his favorite word gleaned from the novels of Patrick O’Brian—all ahoo. But there was nothing pinched or mean or petty in her unpretty face. She had an aliveness, a presentness, that had reached out and shaken a hopeful part of him awake that had been snoozing for decades. With one chance encounter, quirky Rose Callahan had beamed herself into the center of his heart.
Her smiling face danced across Tom’s notebook page, looking out from under her cloud of hair, not at him, but at Marjory. No one had bothered to be truly kind to Marjory in years. It was hardly worth the trouble. Marjory would take whatever anyone said to her and turn it into an embarrassment. But Marjory had responded to Rose’s kindness with a properly phrased invitation. Would Marjory’s propriety last through the dinner? Probably not. But perhaps they all owed Marjory the right to try one more time. Part of him remained fiercely protective of his wife against everything but his own despair. And somehow whatever errant shots Marjory let fly, Tom was sure that Rose Callahan would be no less kind to her than she’d been in the Book Store.
Tom took his pen and carefully sketched another flower. Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell …
Copyright © 2014 by Martha Woodroof
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A special thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. SMALL BLESSINGS, speaks for itself in this quirky debut novel, which is quiet entertaining, with its array of colorful and flawed characters. (with some Shakespeare mixed in for added pleasure). Image, the setting: Tom Putnam, a professor in a small Virginia women's college leading a boring life due to the demands from home and his disturbed and miserable wife. This guy deserves a break! Between his emotionally disturbed wife, Marjory and his feisty mother in law, Agnes – sure he cannot wait to get to class. However, he feels guilt, so sucks up and resides in misery, as his wife’s condition is partly due to her discovery of his brief affair with a visiting poetess, Retesia. His mother in law warned him not to marry Marjory and why didn’t he listen, long ago. His luck is about to change. His wife dies in a car accident and he learns he has a son (from this brief affair more than ten years ago)—shocker! He is relieved with the news of his wife’s death, more like a release and a relief. It also meant hope, as his past twenty-three years of marriage--and now it was over. No chance of redemption, or so he thinks. Blessing come in small packages, when little Henry arrives with only one change of clothes, and fifty thousand dollars in cash, as well as a cashier's check for four hundred and fifty thousand dollars! Confusing, the wrong birth date and the ticket stub from Picayune, MS to Charlottesville, not, New Orleans. Who is this little boy? Taking in a lost boy was one thing, but a boy with a half a million dollars was something else. Puzzled by more than the cash, is his name on the birth certificate. (His former brief lover, had sent him a note announcing the arrival of his son she is sending to live with him, as she is now an author and will be going on tour). —surprise from New Orleans. He makes a home for Henry (with the assistance of mother-in-law), and as luck would have it, he falls in love with Rose, the new manager of the college bookstore. OK, what is missing here?? Secrets? No spoilers here – you will have to read this mysterious, funny, crazy, and lovable story to find the answers. Even when things look bleak, you never know what is around the corner. SMALL BLESSINGS will make you cry and laugh out loud—with some risks, secrets, dangers, twists, and long deserved happiness along the way. Excited to connect with this newfound Southern author from Greensboro, NC (having raised my children in Winston-Salem, where they currently reside). The author’s lively personality is reflective throughout the pages of this charming debut novel. Look forward to reading more from Martha Woodroof!
This is a beautiful novel. Well-written prose is symphonic. If you live for a phrase that takes your breath away, treat yourself to some truly exquisite writing by Ms. Woodroof. Quite honestly, I haven't devoured a treat like this one in quite some time. Here is just a taste of her brilliance: "He'd been gone almost half a century, and yet - right now - he seemed more real than any of the subsequent shadows that had wandered through her life claiming to be people." Enjoyable storyline, fun, quirky characters, fabulous writing.
Incredibly written with unexpected turns. The author captured the spirit and actions of a man who has resolved to stay in a miserable marriage so well it resonated with me, even as a woman. The portrayal of several of the unusual characters was spot on.
the characters were to cheer for; the story a surprise; the writing so enjoyable/ I laughed ; very funny, very true to life/ and nice to have a friend that one can depend on.
Thriller? No. Great literature?? No. Nice little story like a tea cozy
What a nice story. I smiled a lot as I read. I look forward to Martha WOodroof's next book.
3.5 Stars Rose Callahan has always been a wanderer, never staying long enough to get too emotionally attached to people. However, when she starts her new job at the college bookstore, the welcoming, quirky individuals pull at her heart. Tom Putnam leads a monotonous life and with the help of his mother-in-law, they try to cope with his wife’s debilitating depression. When a shocking letter arrives, declaring Tom a father of a ten year old son, his world Is about to change forever. How will the people of this small college town cope, as their lives turn upside down? Martha Woodroof challenges readers to think about the qualities that truly make up a family, whether it is love, duty, responsibility or blood. Broken into two distinct parts, the first section is a fast paced action ride, while the second is more descriptive and verbose. There is a strong cast of secondary characters that play a vital part to the story. With a little help from Shakespeare and Harry Potter, readers will dive into the magic of life and the beauty of love. This debut novel will leave readers hoping for more. Notes: This review was written for My Sister's Books. This review was originally posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.
Readers are taken on a sweet ride of human frailties and redemption
Blessings (even small ones) come in many disguises. Sometimes far-reaching predicaments happen in our lives (like they did in this novel to some of the characters), but that doesn’t mean the change will be a train wreck. Even though some of us try hard to be perfect, nobody is perfect. We can be wise but also very foolish. Happiness doesn’t just happen - it is something we have to work at. It’s a lot easier if we believe in blessings that will come our way. This is a down to earth novel with characters that are real, even though it is a book based on fiction. The author does a marvelous job of showing readers how not to squander blessings that are so freely given to us. In a way the author reminds us that when we worship possessions and/or fame over God, we are headed for a fall. But, God is always ready to pick us up and let us blaze another trail. That’s where small blessings come in. Good job Martha. Jeannie Walker (Award-Winning Author) "I Saw the Light" - A True Story of a Near-Death Experience