In her first novel, Gay Walley weaves two stories into a seamless narrative--a woman's quest for love, and the drunken, vagabond childhood she endured with her father.
Raised on a barstool, Charlee spends her youth drinking in the dark dives of New England and Montreal with a father who flees from woman to woman. As an adult, in one of her father's haunts, she encounters the man whose flaws and attractions will make her face every emotion that confounded her dad. She longs for companionship, but from her father she has learned to trust only her own will and crave solitude. Can she overcome a life of defiant independence and her distrust of affection?
Walley's daring prose style allows the writer to make Charlee's rough but endearing past immediate and vital in her present.
"I often think the truth," Charlee supposes, "was that my father lost me in a card game. He was losing; indeed, he lost everything. The men are all sitting around the bar, and this card game is a secret, all-consuming vice of my father's. He will do anything to keep in the game. And he says, 'Okay, I've got nothing except my daughter. When she's eighteen, you can have her. You can take her and do whatever the hell you like.'"
Populated with tough, brilliant characters who crisscross New England, Strings Attached is a novel about the search for love, about the possibilities and impossibilities of that quest. Walley says, "These searching characters fall away and toward each other, as we do in every love affair, and come to their ultimate truths."
|Publisher:||University Press of Mississippi|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||658 KB|
About the Author
Originally from Canada, Gay Walley is a freelance writer living in New York. Her fiction has appeared in many magazines including Fiction and America One. Strings Attached was a finalist for the Pirate's Alley/Faulkner Award.
Read an Excerpt
"There's a boat coming toward us," screamed Charlee in the car.
Maybe her vision was not so good anyway, because she felt a little sick from the cigar smoke's growing interior fog. It was nighttime. She and her father had been driving all day, they had left Montreal for the back roads of Vermont.
Her father enjoyed going to another country, as he would say, for a drive. He felt sort of powerful, she thought, going through customs, telling the men in their uniforms that he and his daughter were just out for the day. Back that evening. They would be waved through. Her father answered the customs men's questions with a secret smile, his dark eyes unfocused, as if he had something to hide and he dared them to discover it.
Charlee shuddered, sitting beside him, at this smugness her father drove away from the customs with. As if he had fooled them. She shuddered because she knew he was not hiding anything. The smugness was her father's imaginary accomplishment.
There were no other cars on the road. The trees slid by, full, white, and heavy with snow. Charlee and her father had watched the sun occasionally slip through the grey sky, only to finally fall down the car rear window. The snow hadn't let up since they left the second stop.
Her father liked to drive and stop in little canteens, have two quick scotches. "I don't have a drinking problem,' he said, although at ten she had never thought to ask. As far as she was concerned he was a nearly perfect man, difficult and selfish as probably all people must be, but bigand capable of such original things as going to another country for the afternoon, and of having people from all walks of life, in gas stations, bars, customs, businesses, think he was someone special. This solitary man who was above, really, joining in crowds. "You never see me sit," he explained, "like an American, for hours in a bar. I have two scotches and then leave."
Years later, she knew his pattern only served a compulsion never to be known, and years later she added up those stops to twenty-six scotches a day.
They'd stopped six times today. She'd had Cokes, admittedly, but she was the one seeing an ocean liner on the road coming toward them. She cracked the window a bit for air.
"I don't hear any foghorns," her father said, and sort of harrumphed to himself. He brought the cigar back to his mouth and puffed so the sides of his mouth stayed open. Like a fish with gills.
"Daddy, I feel sick."
"All those Shirley Temples, Cokes, and cherries. It'll be a damn sight better when you start drinking real drinks."
"Daddy, I really do feel sick." She put her head back on the seat, her hair felt damp and limp, and her shirt was starting to get wet. Some barmaid, a long time ago, when she had eaten too many oysters and sipped too many pink ladies, had told her to put her head down. She put her head down.
"The boat is passing," he said.
And she slowly raised her head up, opened the window full throttle to help with the clamminess, and fearfully, who cares what happens next, looked out the front windshield.
"Oh, I see," she said, "it's a snow plow."
"The large blades make it look like a boat," he laughed.
She felt that type of dizziness that makes other people's words sound a long muffled way away. She didn't want to hear him. He could, you know, get annoyed at her asking what blades did he mean, weren't they right in front of their bloody eyes? He might tell her she's the one with a drinking problemwhat with seeing boats in the middle of the road. He might use it to elaborate his theory that women have no damn hope of logic, honesty, or common sense. He might forget that she asked and sit in what seemed like pouting silence. He might even drive onto the curb as he explained what the blades do, watching her carefully to see if she understood, as he would say, what the hell he was talking about.
"Yeah." She lay back exhausted. They were silent in the snowy night for what seemed a long time, she lying back on the seat, putting her small face up against the coolness of the car window, he driving confidently and surely on the snowy back roads. "Daddy? Daddy, would you mind putting the cigar out?"
And here's where it always confused her. Here's where she could never trust herself.
She turned to him and he was silently, happily even, stubbing his cigar out.
Slowly she began to feel good again. The dizziness passed. "Why don't you go to sleep if you're tired?" he said.
"Don't you want company while you're driving?"
"You can sleep. I'm used to going for long drives alone."
"I used to do it between marriages. To make myself less lonely. Get in the car and drive somewhere. Talk to the people in the pubs."
Marriages. Charlee couldn't stand his current wife. As far as Charlee could make out, her father couldn't stand her either. "My advice," Charlee said, "is to take long drives while you are married. Right now."
"What do you think we're doing?" he said.
She sank back into the seat, a private sneaky feeling of warmth quickly flooding and just as quickly leaving her, that he had chosen her to go driving with, rather than his wife. Their team was stronger than the other team.
She lay back, content in the car. He would get them back to their house. His thin, brisk, chain-smoking wife would be annoyed they were so late. He would sit down in the living room and drop cigar ash onto the old couch. Charlee would go to her room, without a word to his wife. His wives, for some deck of cards she didn't deal, were never her friends. Barmaids were, a little bit. Nobody really of the grown-up sector. He had the big job. Generally, he was pretty good at it.
And her eyes closed, she had eaten too many cherries, her head fell back onto the car seat, and she dreamed of a big man in a jacket, a man who never took off his jacket, a big man who followed her everywhere, always watching her, sometimes smiling, sometimes just roaming by wherever she was, and he wouldn't go away.
Now I, too, love to drive alone. I am great company to myself when I drive alone. Old friends come to realizations, the dead return as bards on lawn chairs, lovers find each other, and me, with movie-like conviction, all this happens just as the sun is setting, a red sky, and I take my hands off the steering wheel and clap in delight, so positive am I that love and mystery will come to me. I feel young, beautiful, the world is promising and the feeling is so strong that people passing by in their red or black Camaros and Monte Carlos smile at me as if they, too, are sure it will all come to me.
So it was on one of those Sunday evening drives, one of my casual five-hour drives, when I'm moving along, pretty secure in my encapsuled world, that I reached to the back of the car and pulled the picture out of the bag and brought it to the front seat. I propped it up against the passenger door.
It is a child's drawing in charcoal. I found it yesterday in one of my suitcases. I am so impressed with it. My ex-lover drew it when he was a child. It's of his father who scares him. The lines are strong. I brought the picture with me for company, to keep what was between us alive.
Later I put the drawing into a grey envelope and sent it by messenger to my ex-lover's apartment. I wrote a note that said, "I love this drawing. But you should have it. I framed it so it will last. I love you, etc."
I called him and said, "I'm sending you your birthday present. Are you going to be home?"
"Is it alive?" he asked. He sounded truly frightened. He knows I would never do anything purposefully cruel. I winced at this thought because I have done so many things unpurposefully cruel. "Is it an elephant?" he asked.
"Yes. So you better clean up your studio. Have lots of peanuts. They can eat you out of house and home."
"What is it?" I love to hear the child's play in his voice.
"Wait and see," I said. And then Peter's excitement made me sad. After all, it's not a splendid gift. It's a memento, and we are split up. "Well, it's not much really. Just something you should have. Call me when you get it."
I call him before he calls me. I want him to know that I am not playing with him. That I am attentive. But the impulse to call is not attentiveness, even I know that, it's panic.
"Did you get it?"
"You're not offended I returned it to you?" I ask.
"No," he says. "Where's my signature?"
"On the back. You can take it out of the frame, if you want to." I change the subject. "What did you do on your birthday?"
"I worked fourteen hours. Then I went to a restaurant alone and had dinner. It was awful."
I had driven out of town that night on purpose so I would be far away, far from my silent phone. "Why didn't you call me?"
I say nothing. I am silenced. It is true. I feel my body slump in defeat. Doesn't he know I don't want to make hurricanes, that they are our own special combustion? I am capable, like anyone else, of making beauty and peace and love. I am not a bearer of ill winds.
"Well, maybe we'll have a coffee sometime," he says.
I am confused. This is the first time he has said that.
"Did you hear what I said? Would you like to? Have a coffee sometime?" he asks.
I become meek, insensible. "Yes," I squeak out. Not because I am humbled or so grateful for this slight opening of the door. But because he took control. For a second, I do not have the concrete activity of twisting, prostrating myself outside his closed door.
"Yeah, okay," I say, all fogged up. I hang up.
I get a little fire, a slight erotic tingle, when I think to myself, "Oh, he didn't mean it. He said it to get off the phone." I don't know what I will do if he, this man I have longed so painfully for, should call me and ask me out for a coffee.
"I need my allowance," Charlee said to her father. She was sitting next to him at the bar. There were just four stools, it was a bar in a motel, they went there all the time.
"What on earth for?"
"I just do." She knew he would give it to her. He reached into his trousers and gave her a dollar.
She climbed down off the stool and sort of rolled from side to side when she walked, as her father did, into the check-in area where they sold cigarettes, chocolates, and postcards. The concierge could hardly see her, she did not quite reach up to the counter.
"What kind of cigars do you have?" her little voice said.
He was a humorless, small man. He listed them off. "Which is the best one?" she asked.
"The White Owl panatela."
"Two, please," and she pushed her money through the grate. She was short by ten cents, but the man knew that at this point the cigars were getting stale. He pushed the cigars through.
She ran back in and climbed up onto her stool. Her father was big, a lumbering elephant, facing his drink, looking straight ahead. His eyes were focused far off and seemed dark, although their color was a watery blue.
"Daddy, guess what I got?"
He was looking off into space.
"Daddy, Daddy, guess what I got!" she said emphatically.
He turned slowly toward her, just his face, not his body. "What?" he said, slightly annoyed.
And she pulled from behind her back the two cigars. "For you."
"Oh"and he mustered the strength to come right back there to the bar"thank you very much indeed." His watery eyes went blue, not dark, and she gurgled to herself in excitement. You see, she felt nobody could love him more than she could. She would think up hundreds of ways to show him.
"Daddy, Daddy, do you think we'll go soon?"
"Aren't you having a nice time?"
That is how she never learned to know herself. She never heard a question answered. She only heard a question repeated back. She learned this language of deflection, as with any language, by the sound. The language of never thinking out what your answer might be. But, at this age, she tried.
"Kind of. But I don't think so," she said.
But as he said that, he motioned to the barmaid for another drink, which settled the question. She sighed. "What can I do?" she whined.
"Take a walk around the motel," he said.
She didn't like leaving him. It was lonelier. So, she sat there, and studied the barmaid. The barmaid was in a black skirt and black stockings and a white blouse tucked neatly into the skirt. She had dark makeup around her eyes, and her black hair was cut tight around her face. She looked like a barmaid.
"Why do you think my mother left?"
"I have no idea. She's selfish. Has no interest in children."
Charlee was silent.
"Why do you think she really left?"
"I just told you." He tilted the glass up high in the air and Charlee already took for granted the sound of the ice cubes knocking against the empty glass.
"No, you didn't."
He looked over at her. "Do you realize you keep asking that question? Forget it. She's no good. You didn't like her when she was there. You said she was a witch."
"I know," Charlee said petulantly, angry at her secret that that small dark woman didn't seem to like her, "but I still want to know why she wanted to leave us."
"She met a boyfriend. And that's that. End of story. Forget it. She won't come back because I won't have her. And you'll be better off without her."
Charlee was silent, thinking again. He hasn't told her the real reason, she is sure of it. It has to be something very understandable that even she could understand. It's not a boyfriend or something. Mothers don't leave for that. It's something gigantic.
She started to speak. He was lighting his cigar. "Don't ask me again," he said quickly.
Charlee looked furious. Why couldn't she?
"This is a very lovely cigar, darling," he said.
"Do you think it's because she didn't like us?"
"She doesn't like anybody who doesn't think she's bloody wonderful. Do you see what I mean?"
Charlee didn't. "Explain it to me," Charlee said. "Really explain it to me." She wanted him to go on talking, long past the time they were supposed to go home together alone.
"I mean," Charlee said, "I am glad she is gone, you know. I'm only wondering."
The barmaid put another Coke in front of her. "Do you want some peanuts?" said her father.
"Yes." She was hungry. She was always hungry. Especially in the long hours at the bar.
"My advice," he said, "is not to think about it. We are going to be just fine. We're wonderful pals. We can do what the hell we like. I'll take you to interesting places. You'll have friends. I'll eventually meet someone else who can take care of you"
"and it will be very nice. Your mother doesn't like children. So what good is it? Let's enjoy ourselves. We'll take trips. You can tell me things. We'll have each other and you'll see the whole thing will be very good."
Charlee sat there listening, desperate to be carried on a wave of trust, but somehow feeling that the words he was saying weren't enough. She wanted it to be better than this. Yes, she would have her father to herself, she did like that part, but then again, it's lonely when she felt it, "Yes, Daddy, I think you're right. It'll be great just being us two."
Heavily, she took a swallow of her Coke. "There's a good girl," he said, "have a swig of your drink."
They sat in long silence. "You know," he said, "when you were just a fraction of a thing, you used to love to dance on the bar tables. Now, at the ripe old age of five, you're always saying you want to leave. You see how quickly things change?" He was joking, it seemed, trying to get her to laugh, but she did not see what was funny.