Madeline Dare trades New York's gritty streets for the tree–lined avenues of Boulder, Colorado when her husband Dean lands a promising job. Madeline, now a full-time homemaker and mother to beautiful toddler twin girls, has achieved everything she thought she always wanted, but with her husband constantly on the road, she's fighting a losing battle against the Betty Friedan riptide of suburban/maternal exhaustion, angst, and sheer loneliness. A new freelance newspaper gig helps her get her mojo back, but Boulder isn't nearly as tranquil as it seems: there's a serial arsonist at large in the city. As Madeline closes in on the culprit, the fires turn deadly—and the stakes tragically personal. She'll need every ounce of strength and courage she has to keep the flames from reaching her own doorstep, threatening all she holds most dear.
About the Author
Cornelia Read grew up in New York, California, and Hawaii. She is a reformed debutante who currently lives in New Hampshire.
Read an Excerpt
Valley of Ashes
By Cornelia Read
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Cornelia Read
All right reserved.
[A]fter a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other. A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world.
—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
When we first moved to Boulder, I was entirely too happy—a state of being so rare in my experience that I found it rather terrifying.
My twin daughters, Parrish and India, were beautiful, precocious, and brimming with good health. My husband, Dean, was happily successful at his new job and my best, most trusted friend. We lived at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains in a cozy old house on the loveliest street of a charming university town.
The air was fresh, the sky was blue—our yard a lush and maple-shaded green, our mellow brick front porch banked in the early spring with a cobalt-and-amethyst embarrassment of lilac, iris, and grape hyacinth.
Everything I’d ever wanted, not least the fleeting belief that Boulder might heal the halves of me, split since childhood between New York and California.
Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.
We’d lived in Colorado for three months now, and somehow everything about my marriage had shifted. Not in a good way.
Dean traveled a great deal for work, and when he was home he no longer liked me very much.
I didn’t know why, exactly, but it was hard for me to blame him: Most days, I didn’t like me a whole hell of a lot, either.
I was exhausted. And lonely. And really shitty at the whole housewife thing. And just so fucking sad, even though I loved my kids and Dean with great fierceness and should’ve been overjoyed with my fabulous luck, right?
It was just… well, I had this constant creeping terror that I didn’t deserve any of the good parts, that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. That fear wafted across the bottom of everything, like dry-ice mist rippling along the floor of some cheesy horror-movie set.
And also I should’ve been eating nothing but salads and taking up jogging or something. Plus washing my hair more often.
But mostly I really, really wanted to be able to sleep for three straight days.
I often found myself thinking of this French kid, Pascal. We’d met one college summer while I was crashing in Eliot House at Harvard with some pals who were actually attending classes there.
Pascal gave himself an odd punky haircut in his dorm room one day with a razor trimmer before wandering around Boston Common for an afternoon, thereby enduring catcalls of derision from every last roving gang of blue-collar youth.
He used to be cool, Pascal said of himself that night in dining hall, but now they call him “Maggot Head.”
Lately, those words had echoed in my brain every time I looked in the mirror.
Snotty Parisian accent and all.
The Flatirons jut up at the western end of Colorado’s high plains. Boulder’s bookend: a crooked row of five-hundred-foot shark’s teeth, tipped vertical eighty million years ago by the cataclysmic upthrusts that had whelped the Rockies.
You really couldn’t miss them, from any vantage point in town.
I’d only ever lived away from the ocean once before, but this time I was determined not to bitch about it.
I pulled my daughters toward Pearl Street in their little red covered wagon, my throat dry in the thin mile-high air.
We were buffeted, as usual, by random clots of joggers, bikers, and Rollerbladers—obsessive jocks with an o’erweening sense of entitlement being as ubiquitous on the sidewalks of Boulder as those pompous blowhard leveraged-buyout guys and their calcium-deprived blond wives had been in the better restaurants of Manhattan.
I’d let my driver’s license lapse while we lived in New York, but hadn’t been in any great hurry to set up a DMV appointment out here to regain one. Joggers aside, Boulder had a terrific pedestrian culture, and we were only a couple of blocks’ walk from nearly everything one could want downtown. Plus it was sunny 330 days a year here, on average, and I figured having to walk instead of ride most of the time wasn’t going to do my ass any aesthetic harm.
Dean and I usually did big grocery runs on the weekend, and me not driving also meant that he had to pitch in on that front.
The only time it sucked was when he was out of town and I needed supplies in a hurry. I was fighting my way toward Pearl Street just then because my husband was at a sales conference in New Orleans and I’d ripped a giant hole in my very last extant vacuum bag while trying to empty it into the kitchen garbage so I could use it over again.
Not that I was addicted to vacuuming or anything, but my mother was due to arrive around lunchtime in the camper she was driving across the country and my house looked like a complete shithole.
Well, okay, my house usually looked like a complete shithole. I just wanted my mother to think I’d made some progress, on that front at least.
Mom Lewis-and-Clarking from sea to shining sea at the wheel of her little beige secondhand Chinook meant that she and my father were both currently members of what Dad had long ago christened “the In-Car Nation.” As far as I knew, this was the first thing they’d had in common since their 1967 divorce.
For her it was a lark. Dad, meanwhile, lived in his VW van. He was probably the only homeless guy in America to have voted for Reagan. Twice.
It was two days before Parrish and India’s first birthday, hence Mom’s imminence, and I also was expecting my bestest pal Ellis to show up with her own two children the following day.
I was kind of hoping the pair of them could help me figure out what the hell had gone wrong with my marriage. Or, better yet, tell me everything was totally fine and I was just being weird and paranoid for no reason at all, and then maybe let me nap a lot.
The Radio Flyer’s metal handle bit into my palm. I peeked under its little white hooped-canvas roof to make sure the girls remained happily engrossed in their respective fistfuls of soggy Cheese Nips. They grinned up at me, laughing, rosy little cheeks bedizened with orange crumbs.
I had dressed them that morning in brightly contrasting turtlenecks, cotton jumpers, and striped tights—with blue jean jackets and miniature biker boots.
“Sweetness and light,” I said, reaching into the wagon to stroke India’s glossy dark hair and Parrish’s skimpy blond fuzz, then soldiered on across Spruce at Sixteenth.
The sky was a saturated Easter-egg turquoise and it was seventy degrees out even though the sidewalks were edged with snow.
Up here, the sunlight packed a wallop you never found at sea level. Everything looked sharper, cleaner, because there wasn’t as much atmosphere to buffer the rays.
I muscled the wagon up an awkwardly angled curb cut, past a row of newspaper racks. The Daily Camera’s headline praised local firefighters for their quick response when someone torched two cars out on Arapahoe.
I kind of hated the Camera, since I’d sent them my clips and résumé when we first moved here and got a curt and badly xeroxed form-rejection postcard in reply—not even the simple courtesy of “You suck so profoundly we wouldn’t employ your illiterate lack-talent ass if you were the lone hack to survive a pan-galactic nuclear apocalypse, neener neener,” on actual letterhead.
I reached into the next box and grabbed the Boulder New Times, a free weekly that hadn’t yet ruled me out.
Something to live for.
On the off chance I’d ever find employment with these guys, I’d taken to stockpiling issues in a downstairs broom closet.
Ten feet past the bollards demarcating Pearl Street’s pedestrianized stretch, a brand-new red Saab convertible’s tires squealed slowly against the curb: stoner parking. It still had paper dealer plates on, but there was already a MEAN PEOPLE SUCK sticker affixed to the custom ski rack.
The car’s front doors popped open and two dreadlocked, PataGucci-fleeced white boys tumbled onto the sidewalk in a Lilith Fair billow of clove cigarette and patchouli.
The tall kid began torturing passersby with tuneless moans on a nose flute.
His diminutive Trustafarian friend shoved a limp crocheted rainbow skullcap in my face. “Spare change.”
A demand, not a question.
“Dividend checks late again?” I asked, dragging my wagon in a wide arc around his expensively sneakered feet.
“We’re hungry, man,” said the nose flautist.
Parrish squealed with glee and threw two drool-sodden little orange squares onto the sidewalk.
“Cheese Nips,” I said, pointing down. “Enjoy.”
Yeah, so much for that whole not-being-a-bitch thing.
When the girls had first figured out how to crawl in our Manhattan apartment, Dean built them a giant, beautifully constructed playpen “fence” out of dowels and two-by-fours. Out here we put it up around the dining room table and filled it with toys to keep them occupied so I could occasionally try to get grown-up stuff done, like cleaning the rest of the house before Mom arrived.
It was about eight feet square, a nice space for them to toddle around in, not least since the landlord must have gotten a deal on orange-shag wall-to-wall carpeting so there was a cushy landing whenever they wobbled and fell over.
I changed both their diapers, scrubbed off my hands and forearms, made two quesadillas and chopped up some raw broccoli, strapped the girls into their primary-colored plastic booster seats, filled two sippy cups with milk, and started on the piles of dishes in the sink.
When they were done eating, smearing each other with melted cheese, and shot-putting various bits of lunch around the kitchen, I gently sponged their faces, hosed off their drool-and-cheddar-and-banana-slice-decked bibs, picked chunks of greasy tortilla out of their hair, and set them loose in the playpen so I could start sweeping leftover chunks off the kitchen floor (also a disgusting “antique” shade of orange, to match the shag rug and rancid-rust Formica countertops).
I yearned to win some giant Powerball jackpot just so I could buy the place and rip out every speck of orange in it, then pile it up in the dirt-road alley behind our backyard and set it all on fire.
Because the house itself was beautiful—probably built sometime in the teens. It had high ceilings and tall graceful windows and doorways.
There was a solidity to it, as well. This was a house built by people who wanted to stick around. People who’d headed west, maybe, thinking about California, but got to the foot of the Rockies and said to themselves, “You know, this is really pretty damn great right here. Let’s plant a whole lot of graceful shade trees and lay out some generously Euclidean streets and make a life. We’ll have wide porches and deep backyards, and we’ll plant gardens and talk to our neighbors over the side fence. Take our time with things. Maybe start a university.”
I looked through the door to the dining room to check on the girls. They’d both climbed into an empty Pampers carton and were grinning at each other, convulsed with laughter.
The sun was streaming in through the front windows, and as exhausted as I was, I had a sudden gut-shot of pure joy, watching them play together. I grabbed our video camera and recorded a minute of them giggling in the box.
After putting the camera back on its high shelf, I started hosing down the girls’ booster-chair trays in the kitchen sink, the drain of which then backed up and spilled over onto the floor when the washing machine’s rinse cycle emptied.
By the time I’d mopped that up and joined my children in the dining room, lugging the country-blue vacuum cleaner my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas some years earlier, Parrish had taken another massive dump in her diapers, removed them, crawled smack-dab through the middle of the steaming pile of crap, and left a serpentine fecal Hansel-and-Gretel trail crisscrossing the carpet under and around the table.
I dropped the vacuum and ran to grab the kitchen garbage can, a clean diaper, a box of butt-wipes, a roll of paper towels, and the dish soap, then climbed into the playpen.
By this point, Parrish had liberated a fistful of bowel product from the back of her diaper and mashed it against the table’s edge.
“Dude,” I said, snaking an arm around her chubby little waist to pull her away from the burgeoning shit-mural, “contrary to popular opinion, your butt does not make Play-Doh.”
Parrish laughed up at me and tried to grab my hair with her merde-encrusted fists. I captured her wrists in one hand and started the haz-mat remediation with a thick wad of wipes.
Ten minutes later, I had her swabbed down, re-diapered, re-dressed, and sweetly reeking of Eau de Johnson’s-Baby-Whatever, plus all the crap scraped up, the carpet and table sudsed and lathered and rinsed.
I plopped her back down in the playpen, kissed the top of her downy blond head, said, “Good thing you’re cute, sweetness,” and grabbed the vacuum cleaner.
I plugged the damn thing in and got down on my hands and knees to begin assaulting the rest of the ugly rug fronds.
This posture was necessary because our vacuum had about as much sucking power as a pair of asthmatic elves armed with defective crazy straws, so the only way to make it actually pick up dirt and detritus was to remove all accoutrements from the hose-end before scraping it rapidly back and forth across the orange fronds of shag.
The mind-numbing number of hours I’d devoted to this activity had worn down the hose’s plastic tip to a slanty point, like a giant black lipstick.
My mother-in-law vacuumed her entire house every day. And did all the accounting for the family farm. And was generally cheerful, but witty. Which is kind of tough to measure up to.
Especially since I was now lying stomach-down on the floor with both arms shoved on a blind mission into the murky depths beneath our sofa—having already raked out six desiccated baby carrots, two Popsicle sticks, half a sesame bagel, and our missing copy of Velveteen Rabbit (the pages of which appeared to be cemented shut with a thick mortar of hummus). I was just wondering how long it had actually been since I’d last vacuumed, considering the thick ruff of velveteen-ish furry stuff growing along the edges of the petrified hummus, when the doorbell rang.
I caught sight of myself in the front-hall mirror as I stood up to answer it. My skin was gray, my dark blond hair was stringy, and there was a spit-lacquered floret of broccoli affixed to the center of my right eyebrow. Also, I was fatter than I’d ever been in my life by about twenty pounds—and I hadn’t exactly started out as a rail.
I had a second of wistfulness for my misspent youth, the years when all I worried about was scraping up a few bucks to go bar-hopping with my pal Ellis, and there were always drunk old guys mumbling about how I looked like Ingrid Bergman.
“Get a load of you now,” I said to the mirror. “You’d be lucky if they said Ingmar.”
She used to be cool, but now…
The living room behind me still resembled Bourbon Street at dawn on Ash Wednesday—minus the confetti and vomit, at least.
I took a halfhearted swipe at my verdantly cruciferous eyebrow and reached for the doorknob.
My beautiful dark-haired mother danced in off the porch and threw her arms around me. “Oh, Madeline, it’s so good to see you!”
I hugged back with gusto, burbling my gratitude that she was visiting against the side of her neck.
Mom pulled back half a step from our embrace. “Hold still a sec.”
She plucked something from my hair with her fingertips, then threw whatever it was back over her left shoulder toward the lawn.
“That was a lump of shit, I think,” she said. “Did you just change the girls’ diapers?”
Whereupon I nodded and burst into tears.
Do you miss Dean when he’s away, or do you like having your own space?” asked Mom.
We were on our way to the pediatrician’s office with her at the wheel of Dean’s beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.
“It’s hard sometimes,” I said. “But then it always feels like we have new stuff to talk about when he gets home. We’re happy to see each other, you know?”
She nodded. “I think the hardest thing for me when you kids were little was never feeling like I could finish anything… everything was always interrupted. And then your father would come home from the stock exchange and I was so hungry for what was going on in the world, and I wanted to be told I was doing things right after singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ all day. Just, ‘Goodness, you’ve painted the dining room table—how wonderful!’ But he wouldn’t say anything at all, he’d just read the paper and have a cocktail and grumble through dinner.”
“You guys were so young,” I said. “I mean, babies. No wonder your entire generation got divorced. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to marry the first guy I slept with, just presuming it would all work out.”
“It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t. Mummie and Daddy always seemed fine. I thought all you had to do was get married and then that was it.”
“And cloth diapers,” I said. “I remember you rinsing them out in the toilet, when Trace was a baby.”
“Well, on Long Island we had a diaper man, at least. He took the dirty dipes away and delivered a pile of clean ones every week.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “No Pampers, no Prozac? No fucking way.”
She nodded. “And no birth control. You and Pagan were both products of the rhythm method.”
“Jesus, Mom. I’d’ve had myself committed, just to catch up on sleep.”
She laughed and turned left, into the doctor’s office parking lot. As she looked for a spot, I thought about the end of her marriage to my father.
In 1967, Mom discovered that she was pregnant a third time, and wept, and told Dad she didn’t know how they could handle having another child. There wasn’t enough money, and they were both so exhausted already.
He asked around on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where he was an ill-paid fledgling broker at the time. Someone knew someone who knew where a woman could get an abortion—from a doctor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for four hundred dollars cash.
So Mom drove herself to Kennedy airport in the dark one morning, racked with such bad morning sickness it took her the entire drive and four-hour flight to finish one jelly doughnut. She ate it in little tiny pieces, trying to keep something in her stomach, some sugar in her system, so she wouldn’t throw up.
When she arrived at the doctor’s office, the nurse told her the price had gone up to five hundred.
Mom put her four bills on the doctor’s desk. “This is all I have. Please help me.”
She drove herself from the airport back to our tiny rented house in Jericho, New York, arriving home around midnight—bleeding profusely, doubled over with cramps.
She got into bed carefully, not wanting to wake up my father.
He turned toward her in the darkness as she drew the covers up to her chin.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “If you don’t want to have my child, I don’t want to stay married to you. I’ve packed my bags and I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
I was four years old, my sister two and a half.
In my pediatrician’s parking lot, a gigantic Range Rover finally pulled out of a space.
“No, Mom, really,” I said. “I couldn’t have handled the shit you dealt with when we were little. You’re fucking amazing.”
We sat in the waiting room for twenty-five minutes, then the examining room for another ten before the doctor came in. Mom took the chair and settled Parrish in her lap. I sat up on the crinkly-papered exam table with India.
“Do the girls need shots this time?” she asked.
“Probably. It seems like they have to get a few more every time we come in. Hep B, DTaP, meningitis… endless.”
Mom shivered. “Poor little things.”
The doctor bustled in, clipboard in hand. “Mrs. Bauer?”
Dare, I thought to myself, having kept my maiden name. But it seemed needlessly strident to correct her so I just nodded.
“We’re behind on the girls’ vaccination schedule,” she said. “I’d like to get them caught up today.”
Mom raised an eyebrow at me, having always been a proponent of the “I don’t think that really needs stitches” school of parenting.
“Okay, I guess.” I mean, I didn’t want to leave my children vulnerable to typhoid, or whatever, right?
Parrish wailed in my lap as she got an injection in each arm. I closed my eyes and stroked her hair, whispering shhhh in her ear. “It’s okay, sweetie… It’s okay. All done now.”
India screamed next, struggling in Mom’s lap.
I was just so damn tired. The pitiful sound of both children’s sobs made tears well up in my eyes.
“Now, we find these shots are usually tolerated really well,” said the doctor, “but if the girls have any discomfort tonight, it’s all right to give them a little liquid Tylenol.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
The woman grabbed her clipboard and race-walked out of the room.
“What a bitch,” said Mom in a stage whisper the moment the exam room door had clicked shut.
I snickered despite myself and turned to look at her.
“Oh, Mom… you cried, too?” I said, handing her a wad of Kleenex from the doctor’s stash. “Your mascara’s running.”
“I couldn’t stand it,” she said, sniffling and dabbing at her eyes. “Getting a shot in each arm? Horrible.”
We carried the girls back out to the parking lot. India was asleep before Mom had finished fastening the straps on her car seat.
“Why don’t you go up and take a nap when we get home, Madeline?” said Mom. “You look exhausted.”
“That would be my idea of Nirvana,” I said, right before Parrish projectile-vomited all over me.
I was looking for clean clothes for Parrish once we’d gotten back to the house.
“I’ll do all that,” said Mom. “Don’t be silly.”
“But you shouldn’t have to—”
She took me gently by the shoulders and turned me toward the staircase.
“Go upstairs,” said my mother. “Wash your face. Put on a clean shirt.”
I just stood there for a minute, then glanced back over my shoulder.
Mom had already somehow stripped Parrish down to just a diaper and laid her gently on the sofa. “I think she’s finished throwing up, poor little thing.”
Even so, the cushions beneath her were now miraculously, tautly sheeted with several clean towels.
I shook my head. “How did you get—”
“Go upstairs,” said Mom, shaking a crook’d finger at me. “I’m the mother, and I say so.”
When I reached the landing, I heard her call my name from below.
“Yeah?” I said, peering back down over the banister.
“Turn your dirty clothes inside out and throw them down here once you’ve got them off. I’ll start a load of laundry.”
“And then I think you should run yourself a bath.”
She stepped into sight beneath me. “After that you can go to sleep.”
I bowed to her in gratitude, knocking my forehead three times against the banister.
I’d just gotten out of the bathtub and wrapped myself in a big towel when Mom came upstairs.
“Is Parrish okay?” I asked, reaching back into the tepid water to yank out the plug by its chain.
“I gave her some apple juice and she kept it down. She might go to sleep for a while.”
“Do you think I should take her temperature?”
“I think you should take a nap.”
I padded down the hallway toward Dean’s and my bedroom, my skin not even damp anymore.
“It’s so weird,” I said. “You barely even need towels at this altitude. It’s like going through the dryers at a car wash.”
I put on a bra and pulled a clean T-shirt over my head.
“The clasp broke on these pearls you got from Mummie?” asked Mom, lifting the string of cultured orbs from the jewelry box atop my bureau, my third of what had been her mother’s triple-strand necklace.
“The clasp is fine,” I said, rubbing my wet hair roughly with a towel. “The thread snapped, right near the end where it attaches.”
She nodded. “I’ll take the girls out for a walk later and let you nap. We’ll have a little adventure and find a jewelry store to fix these.”
“You sure Parrish is okay?”
“Just go to sleep for a while.”
I felt so refreshed after the bath I didn’t think I’d drift off, but I blinked my eyes a couple of times and the next time I opened them the bedroom walls were tinted blood orange, reflecting the sunset.
Downstairs, Mom had made dinner for all four of us.
Parrish woke up around three that night, weeping and screaming. She was hot and sweaty and crying as though she were in great pain—or being chased by rabid wolves.
I gave her liquid Tylenol and carried her downstairs and held her as I walked slowly back and forth across the moonlit living room floor. I buried my nose in her sweet, alfalfa-smelling hair as she shrieked in my ear, humming softly until she exhausted herself back to sleep once more.
Sitting with her cradled across my lap for another ten minutes, I gazed at her dear little face in the blue moonlight.
She made a fist and raised her thumb to her mouth, dark lashes grazing her cheeks—so beautiful it made me ache.
Lucky, lucky, lucky. Yes I am.
Most days I woke up brimming with a sudden terror—that I’d forgotten to do essential things, that I’d never make friends in Colorado, that my appearance as an adult in the world was only a thin candy shell hiding a tiny, rattling center of incompetent thirteen-year-old or, worse yet, nothing at all.
That morning I was too tired to care. I came downstairs in my underwear and my favorite black EAT THE RICH skull-and-crossbones T-shirt, toting a just-awakened child on each hip.
Mom was in the kitchen drinking Postum, having already put away last night’s dishes and started a second load of laundry for me.
“Does it bother you if I clean when I’m here?” she asked.
“Are you fucking kidding?” I said, buckling the girls into their seats. “You are the goddess of the world.”
“Daddy used to always straighten the pictures when he and Mummie came to visit. Then he’d polish the silver. Drove me crazy.”
“Well, I kiss the hem of your garment.” I shook my head, starting to slice bananas for Parrish and India. “Besides which, your father was the most anal-retentive man who ever lived.”
I scooped up the bananas. “Whereas I am anal-intentive… I always mean to clean up, but never quite get around to it.”
I knelt down to pile bananas on the girls’ respective little yellow plastic trays along with sturdy dry helpings of Life cereal, then tied on their bibs and let them have at it.
By the time I’d filled two sippy cups with milk, Parrish had half a slice of banana up her nose and was busy mashing the remainder against India’s chubby left cheek.
“Another fine day, my beauties,” I said, patting their silky heads.
Mom put a yellow receipt into my hand. “I forgot to give you this last night. Your pearls should be ready Tuesday. The people in the store were very sweet.”
“Didn’t your mother used to say that you should always make a jeweler restring them while you watch, so they can’t switch any of them out?”
“Only for natural pearls. Doesn’t really matter with cultured,” she said.
I boggled yet again at all the useless knowledge we’d accrued as a family since my four great-grandfathers left their childhood farms for robber-baron ascendancy in textiles, banking, bonds, and shipping, respectively.
We could arrange flowers, navigate deb-party receiving lines, replace divots in polo fields between chukkers, and write charming thank-you notes on good stationery. Fat lot of good any of that did us now, three generations down the pike with everyone broke as shit.
I mean, my poor mother got shoved into the 1960s wearing a hat and gloves and seamed stockings and a Bendel frock, having been educated to gracefully oversee a husband’s household’s staff. Preferably during the reign of Edward VII.
She’d ended up on the outskirts of Big Sur smoking dope in our living room with a lot of Black Panthers—gracefully.
So, okay, I also knew how to get food for striking AFL-CIO farmworkers through a Salinas police line, tie-dye T-shirts, wring every last dime out of any educational institution’s financial-aid office, sing the word-perfect entirety of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and fire off a deeply authentic, heartfelt black-power salute.
But I’d married an alpha farmboy with a fine head for business.
Does that make it sound as though I wanted to be rich again, ride on Dean’s coattails, put a yoke around his neck?
Wrong. I wanted to reboot everything back to scratch, start over, tabula rasa—yes, abso-goddamn-lutely. But the point was to shoot for kindness instead of glory and power and bloodthirsty bullshit this time around. Teamwork. Good talk and sharing books and time to laugh. Long fine dinners around a big table with all the people we loved. Maybe a little safety, comfort, and education for our children. Just enough to go around, to share, to live without being dogged by fear. Give peace a chance.
“What time does Ellis get in?” asked Mom.
“Noon, I think.” I tucked the pearls receipt into my shorts’ pocket and staggered toward my hideously orange kitchen counter to stoke the espresso machine for my own much-needed sustenance.
“Are we picking her up at the airport?” she asked.
“Too many car seats to fit in the Galant, with Hadley and Peregrine. Ellis is renting a mini-van or something.”
A mini-van. Jesus. What the fuck happened to us?
“I can’t imagine her married,” said Mom.
“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “Neither can she.”
“Do you straighten up the house before Dean gets home?” asked Mom, taking another sip of Postum as she surveyed the five overflowing baskets of laundry still listing to starboard alongside the washing machine.
“Sure,” I lied. “Right before I greet him at the door in a freshly starched French maid’s costume and patent-leather thigh boots, bearing a monogrammed sterling shaker of chilled martinis.”
I yawned so hard that tears started leaking down my cheeks, then crossed my arms on the heinous autumnal Formica and slumped down to glare at the trickle of rocket-nectar leaking all too slowly from the espresso machine’s steel teat.
India squealed with glee and threw a piece of banana in my general direction. I left it stuck to the side of my thigh, intent on pouring adequate sugar and milk into a pint glass with my now-finished double espresso.
The washing machine buzzed and Mom started moving wet clothes to the dryer.
“Thank you, dearest Mummie,” I said, toasting her with my flagon of Light Sweet Crude. “You are indeed the bestest ever.”
When Mom had shoved the dryer door closed and hit START, she glanced at my bombed-out living room.
“Madeline,” she said, head shaking slowly, “promise me you’ll never have pets.”
“Wilkommen,” I said some hours later, skipping down the porch steps as Ellis rolled her rented vanlet’s side door open. “Bienvenue. Céad míle fáilte.”
My svelte gamine pal flashed me a wide wicked grin. “How’s tricks?”
“I’m fat, my marriage is tanking, and I want to run away with the circus,” I said. “Which is remarkable because I’ve always despised circuses. You?”
She rolled her green eyes skyward. “I just want to be a widow. Is that so wrong?”
“Scorpio’s in the House of Suckbag again at your place, too?”
Our husbands had been born on the exact same day in 1962, and we’d long since discovered that their sine waves of biorhythmic testiness were perfectly synced.
She unlocked the straps on towheaded little Hadley’s car seat. “We married beneath us.”
“All women do,” I replied, making my way around to the car’s street-side door to release Peregrine.
He was four years old, the spitting image of Ellis, and immediately sank his teeth into the meatiest part of my forearm.
I yanked all appendages beyond reach of the kid’s fangs to check for blood and gore. He’d broken the skin, but only just.
“No worries,” said Ellis. “He’s had his shots for distemper.”
“Imagine my relief.”
She pointed at the back of Mom’s little Chinook camper. “Nice bumper sticker.”
The slogan was affixed beneath a window box brimming with road-weary plastic geraniums: POSSUM, it read, THE OTHER OTHER WHITE MEAT.
“Perfect,” I said.
Hadley laughed, smacking her mother audibly upside the head with a Cookie Monster sippy cup.
Ellis sighed. “Now I know why tigers eat their young.”
We spent the morning of my daughters’ birthday driving north in the mini-van to Rocky Mountain National Park, an expedition cut short when Ellis reached into her diaper bag for a camera and Peregrine took the opportunity to bolt away across thin ice toward the thawed center of a pond.
The surface gave way when he was fifteen feet from shore, Ellis already sprinting toward him, smashing through the frozen surface up to her knees with each frantic stride.
The frigid water only came up to his waist, thank God.
“That child is a menace,” said Mom once we’d exhaled our panic-stilled breath.
“No shit,” I replied, thankful once again that I’d had girls.
Ellis threw Perry over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry and slogged back toward shore.
“If we’d brought the camper,” said Mom, “I could have wrapped them both up in blankets.”
“The camper has nothing to hook the car seats to, though,” I said. “So we would of course have driven off a cliff on the way home.”
Mom shook her head. “A little time airborne might be just what that boy needs.”
Ellis stepped back onto dry land, Perry already blue-lipped and shaking in her arms.
She looked at me.
My eyes must have mirrored everything so plain in hers: exhaustion, self-recrimination, and the profound gratitude one always feels in the aftermath of sheer-adrenaline maternal terror.
“I have considered calling the child-abuse hotline,” she said. “For tips.”
I gripped her shoulder. “On the bright side, he can’t drive yet.”
“Try telling him that. We’re on our third garage door.”
I opened the van and she bundled Perry into a spare set of warm clothes—claiming not to be a bit cold herself—then posed us all beside the shore for photos with the cracked ice clearly visible behind us.
“Say fromage,” she said, focusing in.
Mom and I smiled and the kids tried to pull away from us.
Ellis said, “Parrish, look at the camera, honey!”
I knelt down.
“Parrish, over here, pretty girl!” said Ellis.
“Pretty!” said India.
Ellis started waving her free hand. “Parrish, sweetie. Look look look.”
I put my arm around my little blond child, gently cupping her cheek with my hand to turn her face forward.
“Got it!” Ellis said, then set the timer and raced over to stand next to me for a full-cast shot.
She pressed her arm against mine, shivering.
“Your lips are blue now,” I said, having a sudden flashback to Mom telling me that same thing when I was little and she thought it was time to come out of the water.
“I don’t mean to be a wuss, but would you guys mind if we went home?” Ellis asked.
“Not at all,” said Mom. “Want me to drive?”
Ellis shook her head. “Actually, I’d love to be up front. Closer to the heater.”
When the kids were locked down in the car, Ellis leaned in toward my ear. “Don’t tell Seamus, okay? I’m so sick of getting yelled at.”
The last time I’d stayed at the monstrous junior-executive house he’d insisted they have built in a soulless cookie-cutter development outside Cincinnati (“great rooms,” granite countertops, sad little fledgling trees held upright by guy wires), Ellis’s flabby, assless, nepotism-anointed corporate-cog lizard-princeling of a husband had spent twenty minutes shrieking at her for buying a bottle of Elmer’s Glue.
“You bought glue?” he’d said, shaking his head. “Jesus Christ, Ellis, what kind of idiot are you? The kids’ll have that smeared into each other’s hair and all over our furniture in a heartbeat.”
She didn’t say a word as he continued berating her. Neither did I.
I’d endured enough spousal tantrums in my own household to know full well that if Ellis hadn’t bought glue, he would’ve attacked her for buying Brussels sprouts, or vitamins, or Scotch tape.
Seamus took my silence as complicity.
“Madeline, you gotta admit the bitch is incredibly stupid,” the shithead said, lipless grin fueled with certainty that I’d consider his scathing, entirely baseless abuse of my dearest friend proof of swoon-inducing virility on his part.
Then he’d fucking winked at me.
I turned my back on the shattered Colorado pond and hooked elbows with Ellis. “Seamus who?”
I made tortellini with a side of hummus for the kids’ lunch and peeled some apples to slice.
When Ellis had changed into dry clothes, she and I washed all four pairs of sticky little hands and got our offspring strapped into their respective mealtime restraint devices.
Mom had gone out to her camper to lie down for a bit, saying she’d be happy to take second shift.
As the kids dug in, Ellis and I leaned back against the orange Formica, winded.
“What would the grown-ups like for lunch?” I asked.
“I’d lapse into a coma.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“After crying for an hour.”
Ellis punched me in the shoulder. “Pussy.”
I shrugged. “Could be worse.”
“Could be Mormons.”
“Twenty kids, no booze?” Ellis shuddered with horror.
“Or caffeine,” I said, handing her a cold can of Diet Coke and opening one for myself. “Plus they’d make us refer to Jell-O as ‘salad.’ ”
“Fuck me gently with a chain saw,” she whispered, voice pitched only the slightest hair above inaudibility.
“Chain saw!” chortled India.
I raised my eyes heavenward. “Do we really have to give up swearing, on top of everything else? It’s the only vice I have left.”
“You forgot sloth,” said Ellis, eyeing my laundry pile.
Peregrine upended his tortellini bowl over Hadley’s head.
His sister took a deep breath and held it, her face amping brighter and brighter crimson as lukewarm butter-and-Parmesan trickled down toward her pale eyebrows.
Ellis gestured balletically toward this tableau with her soda can. “You ever notice how the longer they don’t breathe, the louder they end up screaming?”
“Daily,” I replied.
We knocked back bracing slugs of beverage.
Hadley’s blue eyes went wider, and then she shrieked like an entire mill-town’s worth of lunch-hour steam whistles—all playing at 78 rpm.
“That girl’s got a future in Chinese opera,” I said, when she paused to inhale.
“You’d think the asthma would slow her down.”
Hadley screamed again, louder this time. I figured the neighbors would be trying to remember whether Boulder had fallout shelters.
I swallowed more Diet Coke. “Please tell me your son still naps.”
“Of course he does. I brought duct tape.”
I clinked her soda can with my own. “There is a God.”
“Yeah.” Ellis laughed. “Too bad he’s such a vindictive asshole.”
We ran the kids around the backyard for another half hour so they’d be exhausted enough to sleep—worked like a charm.
Back down in the kitchen with Ellis, I held up two tablespoons and pointed them at the half-Cuisinart-ful of leftover hummus. “Sloppy seconds?”
“They always say we’re supposed to sleep when the kids do.” I said, handing her a spoon.
“Fuck that. My brain’s already atrophied beyond repair.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
We were scraping the sides of the bowl when Mom breezed in.
“I went for a little walk,” she said. “They’re having a graduation fair at the psychic academy. Ten bucks for fifteen minutes. Why don’t I watch the kids while you two go, my treat?”
“Constance,” said Ellis, hugging my mother, “have I told you lately that I love you?”
Free at last, free at last,” said Ellis, as we escaped at a lope toward Pearl Street.
I chimed in with a “Thank God Almighty.”
We were so goofy with liberty that we grabbed hands and started skipping down the sidewalk.
“Have you met anyone cool here yet?” she asked when we’d run out of breath and lapsed back into a walk.
“I’m pretty certain I will never have friends again,” I said. “I’ll just die alone, unknelled, uncoffined, and surrounded by twenty-seven cats.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “Our problem has never been making friends. The hard part’s liking them.”
“You know, I actually enjoy moving—finding the new drugstore, figuring out where to get a decent baguette. But I kind of freeze up about people. It’s like the abyss opens up and I don’t know whether I’m going to be a complete reject geek like I was as a kid in California—”
“Or queen of the universe like you’ve been every fucking place you’ve lived since?”
“So, join a mothers’ group or something. Tiny children—the great equalizer. You’re never short of small talk.”
“Tried it,” I said.
“So what happened?”
“Well, I went in the first week—it was at this community center—and they had a facilitator chick. The kids are all bonking each other over the heads with plastic shovels and shit, and meanwhile she wants us to sit in a circle on the floor and have a ‘sharing’ session about some parenting question of the week, or whatever.”
“Not liking the sound of this so far…”
“No shit,” I said. “And the question that first week was, ‘What is your bedtime ritual,’ which, you know, right away—”
“Exactly, right? So they start going around the circle, and all these women are talking about how the kid picks out three storybooks, and then they have a warmed mug of soy milk, and then they sing lullabies in French and Mandarin, and then they all sleep ‘in the family bed’ and shit—on and fucking on—and I’m starting to freak out.”
“And then they get to you,” she said.
“And then they get to me.”
“So what’d you say?”
“I told the truth: I take my kids upstairs, tuck them into their cribs, say good night, and then shut the door most of the way and drink a goddamn beer in my kitchen.”
“Bet that went over like a lead balloon,” said Ellis.
“Plutonium, more like.” I hopped over a crack in the sidewalk. “I mean, there are some nice people here, but I don’t even know who I am anymore. I know who I used to be—a writer, a survivor, this chick who could think on her feet and stand up for people. I mean, shit… you know, better than anyone.”
“You saved my life,” she said.
“You saved mine.”
We weren’t speaking figuratively.
“So what the hell am I now?” I asked. “A failing housewife? A crappy mother? And we’re the fucking lucky ones—I know this is a life of goddamn privilege. I mean, we have health insurance, I don’t have to waitress at some all-night truckstop diner to feed my kids—”
“Good thing, too, because you were the suckiest waitress who ever lived.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said.
“You’re still you.”
“God help us all.”
“You’re going to make friends here, we’re both going to survive the toddler years. Hey, our marriages might even improve. And someday, we’ll get to become ourselves again.”
I closed my eyes. “That is just so hard for me to believe, right now.”
“You know it’s true,” she said. “I mean, you’re smart, you’re funny, and you’re a total babe.”
“I’m fucking fat.”
“Which has never mattered,” she was kindly quick to say.
“Says the bitch with the body of a Parisian cheerleader. You’re like a twelve-year-old boy with a Mighty Rack, dude.”
“And you’re the only woman I know who still looks hot even when she’s twenty pounds over.”
“Thirty,” I said. “Probably. I’m too scared to get on a scale.”
“I fucking hate you. You could still crook your little finger in any bar in America and have three guys clamoring to fuck you—in a heartbeat.”
“Sure, right after the full-frontal plastic surgery.”
“So you’re a quart low on mojo. You need to get laid.”
I jumped into the air, tapping my hand against a high overhead branch, the way I used to when I was out walking in the woods as a kid. “I imagine that will happen when my Intrepid Spouse gets home. Not that our fucking’s been entirely mojo-building of late.”
“At least your husband doesn’t look like a lizard. Swear to God, I’m tempted to put a bag over my own head just so I don’t have to see Seamus’s reptilian countenance pulling closer at night.”
“So? Screw in the dark.”
“Doesn’t help his technique.”
“Technique,” I said. “I have vague memories of that… lost somewhere back in the mists of prehistory, along with any pretense of foreplay.”
“That bad?” She shook her head in sympathy.
“We’re talking thirty seconds of ass-pawing on his part, max. The rest of it might as well be drive-through. I’m completely on my own in the getting-off department.”
“At least Dean knew how at some point. Swear to God, Lizard Boy is unteachable—not to mention he thinks cunnilingus is an Irish airline.”
“You need a nice thick Lanz nightie.”
“I need a pool boy,” she said.
“Oh, come on, sturdy ramparts of flannel, rendered in a sickeningly twee calico? Nothing puts a man off like preppy sleepwear.”
“Yeah, that’d work. With a Taser.”
“She’s holding out for the pool boy,” I said. “I know that look.”
“Preferably a well-hung seventeen-year-old to give me a good solid thrashing every afternoon, before I have to go cook dinner while watching my husband snatch flies from midair with the otherwise-useless tip of his tongue.”
“Remind me why you married Seamus, again?”
Ellis shrugged. “Health insurance. And dental.”
I burst out laughing.
She cracked up, too. “Thank God the kids look like me, right?”
“Yea,” I said, “verily.”
She threw her arm across my shoulder. “Why couldn’t God have made us dykes, instead of this bullshit?”
“Because he’s a vindictive asshole, remember?”
We were standing in the entryway of the local psychic academy, which resembled the cheapest available Holiday Inn banquet room somewhere outside Indianapolis: bad “fruitwood” paneling, wagon-wheel ceiling fixtures, and giant versions of those plastic chairs we’d had in California grade school—the kind with splayed aluminum Jetson legs and three parallel slots cut down the middle of their injection-molded backs.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” asked Ellis.
I shrugged. “It’s Boulder. You can’t really escape: Every fucking day’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, ad aeternum.”
“I’d prefer the Age of Scorpio,” she replied. “Suckbags and all.”
There were pairs of people scattered around the room, seated to face each other.
A woman with a mass of Pre-Raphaelite red-blond curls approached, wearing a tie-dyed caftan.
“Five bucks she’s wearing pentacle earrings,” whispered Ellis.
“We are so evil. And I have nothing against Wiccans, per se.”
“Not even that bitch in your dorm senior year?” whispered Ellis. “The one who kept leaving bloody feathers outside your room, after you snaked the hot Irish dude right out from under her at the Spinning Wheel on kamikaze night?”
“Not my fault. You’re the one who pulled him over to the table and told me, ‘I brought you a present.’ ”
“Welcome, ladies,” said She-of-the-Caftan, raising her slender arms as she drew nigh. “Blessed be.”
“Back atcha,” said Ellis.
“I’m Becca Tay.” The Caftan Lady smiled. “Are you here for readings?”
Ellis shot me a “psychic” my ass eyebrow.
I kicked her in the ankle. Discreetly.
Not like I didn’t think it was complete horseshit, too, but just for courtesy.
“We are indeed, Becca,” I told the woman. “Thank you.”
She turned to survey the room. “Anthony and Willow are just finishing up. Let me get you squared away,” she said, turning to lead us toward the cashier.
I wanted to make fun of it all, but there was something calming about this lady’s presence. Plus she had amazing hair.
Okay, I really didn’t want to make fun of it. I wanted it to work—all of it.
I was so tired, so bereft, so hungry for comfort that I wanted to believe: in the New Age, in wheatgrass, in something. Pick a card, any card… Kali, Vishnu, Batman-and-Robin.
Was there anything that could relax me enough so I could let go of the wheel for thirty seconds?
No. Of course not. I had long since become utterly fucking incapable of trusting anything beyond the confines of my own tiny black heart.
Too much risk out there. Too much downside. Too much certainty of pain.
I pulled Mom’s twenty from my pocket and fell in line behind Becca Tay as she started across the room, dragging Ellis by the wrist in my wake.
Ellis was placed with Anthony, well across the room from me.
Willow turned out to be a guy—young, with black curly hair and a twitchy Adam’s apple. I sat down on my highly inorganic chair and surveyed the fields and pastures of wrinkled hemp in which he was arrayed.
He lifted his wrists toward me, palms up. “Your hands atop mine, please.”
German. Which explains the black socks and sandals. Which are not really helping me with the whole willing-suspension-of-disbelief thing here.
I laid my palms lightly across his, and he closed his eyes.
Let me just say here that I don’t dismiss all fortune-telling out of hand.
A very kind old man once did a reading of my face, peering into my future and reporting back some deeply scary auguries, all of which proved true in the end. But he’d been taught the knack for it by an old Gypsy woman in the cattle car bearing them both toward Auschwitz—her dying gift, as it shortly turned out.
I’d always figured you couldn’t tap into this stuff without having survived a plunge so deep into the magma of the world’s black depths that everything else was burned away.
But young Herr Willow, no doubt named Helmut or Rolf at birth and now holding my hands in his, looked pretty damn unscathed. Like maybe the worst tragedy he’d ever endured was discovering that his midmorning soy latte had been tainted with an actual dairy product.
I glanced over at Ellis.
Anthony was checking out her tits and she was trying not to smirk. Well, sort of trying.
Willow swallowed audibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork in winter surf.
I felt a wave of compassion for him. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen, and no one would ever mistake him for a well-endowed pool boy.
He yanked his hands out from under mine and shot to his feet, knocking his chair backward to the floor.
“I need grounding! I need grounding!” he screamed, the whites of his eyes showing all the way around each iris.
With that he sprinted for the door, sandals flapping.
Becca the Caftan Lady blocked his egress and gathered him in her arms, pillowing his head against her shoulder.
“Shhh, Willow… shhhhh… it’s all right,” she said, leading him from the room. “Let’s get you some water. You’ve had a long day.”
Jesus, now he was crying. I guess I still had enough Manhattan snark to short out a psychic. Or maybe he’d just sensed my inborn fondness for bacon cheeseburgers.
Oh fucking well.
A tall, thinly bearded brunette guy came in moments later, heading directly for me.
“I’m Jesse,” he said, sitting down in the vacated chair. “I’ll be finishing up for Willow.”
No hand-holding this time. Jesse let his eyes go unfocused, then muttered a few adenoidal niceties about how my life was like a rose, and the earth was our mother, and blah-blah-tofu-flaxseed-blah that I basically tuned out, being still not-a-little freaked by the shrill bedside manner of Karnak Numero Uno, frankly. Other than that, it was stultifying.
“Thanks a lot,” I said, when he’d finally droned to a close. “That was very, um, helpful.”
Jesse nodded, smug. “Go in peace, sister.”
“Jesus,” said Ellis, once we’d escaped the building. “What were you thinking about, the Spanish Inquisition?”
“Pool boys, actually.”
Ellis’s hand popped up for a high-five slap.
I didn’t disappoint her.
But I sure as hell should’ve kept my fingers crossed for a very long time afterward, because the universe was about to chuck a veritable barge-load of shit, sidelong, into the whirling blur of a rather enormous fan.
The blades of which were angled directly toward still-oblivious me.
My front porch pillars were still twined with spiraling green Christmas garlands and strings of unlit-by-day white lights.
“You know,” said Ellis, “it being March, you might want to think about taking down the holiday crap.”
I shook my head. “Fuck that. I’d only have to put it all up again come Thanksgiving.”
“You guys’re going to be here that long?”
“Probably,” I said, kicking a small rock down the sidewalk. “It’s not like I exactly have a choice.”
“Well, it looks like you’re in mourning for Martha Stewart.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I kicked the little rock again, sending it skittering into the snowy grass of my lawn.
A pair of fire engines caterwauled south along Twentieth, belching low plumes of diesel exhaust.
Ellis shook her head. “I can’t believe Dean isn’t here for the girls’ birthday.”
“But Bunny, it’s Pittcon,” I said, quoting my absent spouse, “the premier annual sales event of the global scientific-instrument industry.”
“Sounds like a giant fucking drag.”
“No doubt,” I said, “But they have it this time every year so he’s probably going to miss all our birthdays forever, barring employment catastrophe.”
I peeked into the living room window before we mounted the front porch—no sign of children. “They’re not up yet. Want to sit out here for a while?”
We settled back into the bouncy old metal chairs that had come with the house.
“When should we open the girls’ presents?” asked Ellis.
“After dinner, probably. Once we bring out the cake.”
“When do you want to open your presents?”
“I don’t officially turn thirty-two until Sunday—trying not to think about it.”
“So Dean’s going to miss that, too?”
I stretched out my legs, crossing them at the ankle. “Reply hazy. Ask again later.”
“Shitheel,” she said. “He better come home with a deeply excellent present.”
“T-shirt from the airport, probably. New Orleans if I’m lucky, Denver if I’m not.”
“What’d he get you last year?”
“Sushi delivery and a gold bangle from Tiffany. But I was just back from the hospital, having successfully whelped dual offspring.”
Ellis nodded at that. “Raw fish and good jewelry… commendable.”
“Except for the part about me having called in both orders myself with Dean’s Amex. Which started out as a subsidiary card to mine, by the way.”
“And did you ask his permission first?”
She shook her head, smirking. “Amateur.”
“Dude. I am acquisitive, not floridly delusional.”
A high, thin screech rattled the upstairs windows.
“Hadley,” we sighed in unison, rising slow and weary from our chairs.
Mom produced the candle that had graced my own first-birthday cake: a ladybug-strewn white stub she’d kept in the bottom drawer of her jewelry box for nigh on thirty-one years.
She sank it into a yellow-frosting rosette on Parrish and India’s cake, added a tiny pink grocery-store taper “to grow on,” then lit both wicks with a stout kitchen match while I doused the living room lights.
I looked at my mother’s face in the flickering glow, and pictured the old white-edged snapshot of myself in a high chair with a paper hat on my head as she leaned forward into the frame, slender-armed and laughing, touching another match flame to that ladybug candle’s wick for the first time.
The eighth of March, 1964: my mother not yet turned twenty-five and me in a little blue smocked dress with a white Peter Pan collar, my swinging feet in tiny red socks. The colors have faded long since, but on that square of glossy paper I gaze upward with awe, drinking her in.
And now I watched Mom lift up my daughters’ cake and start walking toward the living room, the door frame briefly illuminated as she stepped through it.
Ellis started snapping pictures, the two of us singing “Happy birth-day Parrish and India” along with Mom before we grown-ups blew out the little teardrops of flame in their honor.
I’d made party hats the week before, tall medieval princess cones of gem-toned poster board.
This was the type of project I got up to during the girls’ naps, basically stuff I do when I have enough energy not to fall asleep on my feet, drooling, but am still goddamned if I’m going to waste a single rare moment of clarity on cleaning the fucking house. Ditto the extensive front-porch Christmas decor.
These things weren’t earth-shattering, by any means, but even the tiniest modicum of creativity made me feel like a human being again. Albeit briefly.
Maybe that’s why I’d left all the crap up on the porch: as testament to even my smallest actual accomplishment in the world above and beyond pushing a vacuum hose back and forth across the orange shag on my hands and knees. Again.
I mean, you vacuum the rug, and it looks like shit again by the next morning. But first-birthday pictures stick around, and I wanted my kids to know full well that they had been adored when they were little.
Parrish’s birthday hat was emerald green with a fat striped bee glued on, its waxed-paper wings glitter-veined. Perry’s was dark sapphire with tinfoil stars, comets, and moons. Ellis’s read GLAMOUR BUNNY in tiny pearls on lavender, Mom’s EMPRESS OF ALL SHE SURVEYS in rhinestones across a faux-ermine-trimmed field of scarlet. Hadley’s was hot pink with leafy vines of lemon-lime sequins, India’s saffron with a jade-colored Buddha seated atop a garnet lotus, the words OM MANE PADME HUM written beneath him in Sanskrit.
After the cake, the girls started opening their presents, a project that required heavy guidance from the rest of us. Parrish kept sticking the bows in her mouth, Perry wept when he tipped his ice cream and cake onto the floor and stepped in it, and Hadley and India pretty much shellacked each other’s hair with frosting while the grown-ups were scraping Perry’s sticky mess out of the shag fronds.
At that point, of course, the phone rang.
“Go ahead, we’ve got this,” said Ellis, shooing me toward the kitchen. “If it’s Dean tell him everything’s under control.”
I got it by the fifth ring.
“Hey Bunny,” said my husband, “how’re the girls?”
“Very happy and slathered with melting ice cream and crumbs,” I replied. “How are you? How’s New Orleans?”
“Exhausting. Sorry I haven’t called before this, but they’ve been running me ragged. I’m just back up in the room for a quick shower and then we’ve got another dinner with clients.”
“Some Cajun place. Which doesn’t exactly narrow it down.”
Perry knocked Hadley over and she started to wail, so I stretched the cord of the kitchen phone as far as it could go out onto the back porch and shut the door behind me.
“I miss you, Intrepid Spouse,” I said.
“Listen, the car’s gonna be downstairs in a second. Did the girls like their presents? What’d we get them, anyway?”
“We” my ass.
“Parrish shoved Where the Wild Things Are into the middle of the birthday cake. I think that’s a thumbs-up.”
He laughed. “I have something great for you. Saw it in the airport and knew you had to have it.”
“I gotta run, kiss the girls for me?”
“Sure thing,” I said. “Have a great time tonight. Knock ’em dead.”
I was talking to the dial tone.
Just as I was walking back into the living room, our doorbell chimed.
I went to answer it, discovering a colleague of Dean’s on our front porch. Nice guy called Cary. We’d had him over to dinner a few times—our first pal in town, really. He and this chick Setsuko, the receptionist, were the only people at Jim’s office I dealt with at all regularly.
Cary and my husband had quickly become biking partners, on the commute to work most days and often recreationally on weekends. Maybe because they were both six-five, evenly matched for racing each other up and down the canyons.
“Hey there,” I said, stepping back from the doorway and waving him inside.
He shook his head, the motion making a hank of dark hair fall across his left eye. “I gotta run home in a minute, just wanted to stop by and wish the girls happy birthday.”
“How come you’re not in New Orleans with the rest of the gang?”
“Someone had to keep the home fires burning.”
“By which you mean Bittler’s being a vindictive asshole again?”
Bittler was Cary’s boss but not, thank God, Dean’s. Nasty little man.
“Exactly,” he said, laughing. “Left me behind with stacks of bullshit paperwork.”
“He’s just jealous… And for chrissake, Cary, it’s cold with this door open. Come inside and meet my mom and my best pal from college. Have a slice of birthday cake.”
“Well, if there’s cake,” he said, stepping into the front hall.
I closed the door. “Let me take your coat.”
“Take these, instead,” he said, producing two presents from behind his back.
They were wrapped in tinfoil, bachelor-style, but he’d sketched a pretty decent Elmo on one package and Big Bird on the other with a black Sharpie.
I took them out of his hands, complimented his artwork, and then stood on tiptoe to give him a peck on the cheek. “You are an awesome friend. Thank you.”
“And you told me you didn’t know anyone here yet,” said Ellis, waving good-bye to Cary from the front porch after he’d wolfed down both his slice of cake and the beer she’d insisted he split with her after that, paperwork or no paperwork.
I laughed. “Fold your tongue back into your mouth, you unrepentant slut.”
“Oh, like you don’t think he’s a hottie.”
“I don’t, actually.”
“Well then,” she said, nodding, “no wonder you’re friends.”
“Mostly he goes biking with Dean.”
“Biking: the new golf,” she said. “Our generation’s excuse to leave your wife alone with the children all weekend.”
Mom and I stood on the front porch the next morning, kissing Ellis and brood good-bye before they headed out for the airport.
“Ciao, my darling—keep those cards and letters coming!” I said as we all broke free and Ellis started down the steps.
She paused, looking back up at me. “Speaking of, madwoman, I think you should try figuring out how to use email. You guys have an account, right?”
“Dean does, I think.”
“I mean, it’s great that you’ve finally started writing letters, but if you upgrade to the cutting-edge technology available to us in the late twentieth century, we could alleviate each other’s suburban angst and alienation without having to buy stamps.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
She blew me a kiss. “That’s all I ask.”
Mom and I kept up our farewell waving until she’d lurched away from the curb in her rented mini-van, homeward-bound.
“That one won’t stay married,” said Mom.
“Oh, come on. Not even for the health insurance?”
Mom laughed. “No way in hell. She’s too much like me.”
Excerpted from Valley of Ashes by Cornelia Read Copyright © 2012 by Cornelia Read. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
I have been on the Cornelia Read bandwagon since her remarkable debut, but even my already ardent admiration didn't prepare me for the heights she could achieve as a writer. Valley of Ashes, like all the Madeline Dare books, is smart and surprising, acknowledging the cumulative power of Madeline's troubled past while daring to suggest an even more challenging future. Riveting and devastating.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was as good as the rest of the Madeline Dare series. I have a feeling it is the last one though and it made me sad. I loved the other books so much and this one I think mirrored stuff that was going on in Cornela Read's personal life. Madeline is adjusting to having twin daughters, living in Colorado, having a husband that is pretty much absent and trying to find herself inside her life. The rawness of the emotions and the reality of the life of a new stay home mom was very well done. I just wish the series would continue and the last chapter sounded like this was it.
Author: Cornelia Read Published By: Grand Central Publishing Age Recommended: Adult Reviewed By: Arlena Dean Book Blog For: GMTA Rating: 5 Review: "Valley Of Ashes" by Cornelia Read was a really excellent mystery read. This novel had my attention from the first page and didn't lose any of it until the last word. I really enjoy this fourth book in the Madeline Dare series in that it brought the reader some fun, dark but yet a well written and even a personal read. For these two people...Dean and Madeline (Maddie/or Bunny) you would have thought that they had it all but that was not the case...for they had two only daughters (twins)..around one, a home that was 'perpetual mess,' money was tight, and a good night of sleep often was out of the question. Then, Madeline is offered a job at the local newspaper as a freelancer where she would critic restaurants. It was then that Madeline gets interested in a series of fires around the area...that come very close in that this story will reveal a series of arson attacks that blows up and the far-reaching effects will lead directly to the front door of Madeline and Dean. This is where I say you must pick up "Valley Of Ashes" to see what mystery comes from this excellent read. "Valley Of Ashes will have a very intriguing ending that will only leave you saying Wow.... I didn't set that coming! And the characters were all so well developed with a 'real psychological insight' only making this read more of a good mystery. If you are looking for a good mystery that has marriage problems,young ones,feeling isolated in a new city, fires being set and even murder... you have come to the right place because "Valley Of Ashes" will take you there...and YES,I would recommend this novel as a excellent read.
It's been two years since we last saw Madeline who is now mother to twin girls and living in Colorado. A part-time job at a local newspaper puts Madeline on the trail of an arsonist and when it hits a little too close to home, all hell breaks loose and Madeline's life is never the same in a mystery that kept me in suspense as this drama unfolded in a reveal that I didn't see coming. Cornelia Read is a genius with the gifted word. Every scene, every word, every action, I was there with Madeline as the circumstance that intruded on her life made her a strong woman that at the conclusion of this gritty and frank novel, I admired.