Willing Spirits

Willing Spirits

by Phyllis Schieber


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Willing Spirits by Phyllis Schieber

A novel Jodi Picoult calls "beautifully written, full of wit...and heart," from the author of The Sinner's Guide to Confession.

Both teachers in their forties, Jane Hoffman and Gwen Baker have a friendship that has helped them endure. It was Jane who looked after Gwen when her husband left her with two young sons to raise. And when Jane comes home one day unexpectedly and finds her husband in a shameless act of betrayal, she turns to Gwen for support.

Now, tested by additional personal crises, Jane and Gwen face new challenges-as mothers, as daughters, as women. And in the process, they will learn unexpected truths about their friendship-and themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425225851
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/03/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Phyllis Schieber grew up in Washington Heights. She is at work on a new novel.

Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two



More praise for Willing Spirits


Willing Spirits is like a string of pearls—one familiar, fragile moment linked to another and another to form the rope of women’s lives twined together. Beautifully written, full of wit and wisdom and heart—read this one with your mother, your daughter, or your best friend.”—Jodi Picoult


“Women are still from Venus and men from Mars in Schieber’s strong debut, a paean to the healing power and enduring strength of female friendship.”—Publishers Weekly


“What a warm, oh-so-human account of love and women’s friendship! These are women I know, and I’m recommending the book to all my female friends and students.”

Rosemary Daniell, author of Sleeping with Soldiers



Praise for A Sinner’s Guide to Confession

“An absorbing read in its breezy study of friendship, family, and couple relationships . . . In a fast-paced revelation of complicated real life, each friend’s secret becomes an admission leading to ‘confession. ’ A real page-turner.”—Helen Barolini, author of Umbertina


“Phyllis Schieber gets into the hearts and minds of her wonderfully rich and well-rounded characters in a story that touches the readers’ hearts and minds. Smart fiction that makes you think . . . what could be better?”—M.J. Rose, author of The Reincarnationist

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


Copyright © 1998 by Phyllis Schieber.


All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

BERKLEY® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.



Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Schieber, Phyllis.
Willing spirits / Phyllis Schieber.—Berkley trade pbk. ed.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01467-7

1. Female friendship—Fiction. 2. Women teachers—Fiction. 3. Adultery—Fiction.
4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.


PS3569.C48515W55 2008



In memory of
Bette Miller and Polly Miller
My sister, my girl, my friends


I began and finished the first draft of this book in a writing seminar at The New School. During the years I was part of that group, my mentor, Hayes B. Jacobs, never faltered in his unwavering support and enthusiasm for my work. I owe him much.

Much thanks goes to Harvey Klinger, my agent. His reliable judgment, steady good humor, and consistent accessibility have eased my way and reaffirmed my faith in the impossible. I am also indebted to his assistant, Dave Dunton, for always knowing who I am when I phone and for treating me with such genuine courtesy.

I want to thank everyone at William Morrow, especially Claire Wachtel, my editor, who helped shape this book. Thanks also to her assistant, Jessica Baumgardner, for her cheerful diplomacy.

I am grateful to my mother, Henia Schieber, for her devotion and for teaching me early on that little else can take the place of a good book. The spirit of my father, Kurt Schieber, continues to sustain me, and I hold his memory very dear. I would be remiss if I did not thank Anna and Mitchell Yager. They have always treated me as one of their own.

Every day, I give thanks for Isaac. Through him, I understand passion. Because of him, I am never able to lose my sense of perspective for very long. I thank Howard Yager for being part of this joy. And because I have faith in the value of a shared history, I am grateful to him for sharing mine.

Mostly, however, I am indebted to my friends, the women who embrace me with their open hearts. They nourish me with their love and goodwill. I have been blessed to be surrounded by women who indulge my moods, allow my eccentricities, listen to my complaints, and applaud my triumphs. I cannot imagine how I would thrive without any one of them. They never disappoint me.

Chapter One

Jane never knew her mother to tell a lie that would make it seem that life could be anything other than hard or sad, or terribly lonely. The only lies she ever told were really for herself, never for Jane. So Jane fashioned her own lies and used them in much the same way a child stuffs a fisted hand into her mouth to comfort herself until the morning arrives.

As her mother, Dorothy, lay dying of cancer, she assigned the pain a number and a color. “How bad is it, Mother?” Jane had asked. “It’s a ten,” her mother almost always said. “And it’s red. Blood red.” Each time she asked, Jane hoped the answer would be different. But not once did her mother ever say, “It’s a five, and a pale shade of blue.” And Jane still could not forgive her for not wanting to protect her own child.

On the Tuesday afternoon that she arrived home from work and saw Arnold’s car in the driveway, Jane’s elaborate system of denial took over. Even though in all the years they had been married Arnold had never missed a racquetball game, Jane ignored the approaching danger. Just that morning he had complained of a “damned scratchy throat” and accepted the salted water she had brought for him to gargle with. “You’re a good wife,” he had said. Arnold could no longer differentiate between the truth and a lie. It was all one and the same for him. Jane had smiled anyway, more out of habit than anything else.

Later, after it was all over, Jane would go over all the signs she had chosen to ignore. The music coming from the upstairs bedroom. The corkscrew near the stove. The stack of unopened mail. Instead of fitting all the pieces together, she glanced through the bills and advertisements. There was a letter from her cousin Francine, in Wisconsin. Jane went into the front hall for the letter opener. Then she heard the laughter. For a moment, she assured herself that Caroline must be home. But Caroline was away at college and couldn’t be upstairs. And Jane never really believed it could be Caroline.

As Jane climbed the stairs to their bedroom, she wondered what prophetic hand of fate had intervened to stop her from calling out Arnold’s name the minute she turned the key in the door. It might have prevented her from seeing Arnold’s muscled rear end flexed with the effort of satisfying the blonde who was probably less than half Jane’s own age. The girl moaned and clutched at the sheets Jane had changed just that morning. The girl’s eyes were tightly shut. But Jane’s eyes were wide open. They saw her husband’s indifference to anything but his own pleasure. They saw the girl’s willingness to pretend that sleeping with a married man in his own home didn’t matter. Jane leaned against the doorjamb and politely waited for them to finish. The girl let out a series of high-pitched oh!s and then seemed as surprised as Jane always was when Arnold slumped against her in silent completion.

“He isn’t dead,” Jane said, “but it is sort of like making love in a tomb. Don’t you think?”

The girl screamed. Arnold tried to position himself as if to hide her. Jane believed he would have attempted to convince her that the girl wasn’t there if she, poor thing, hadn’t started to vomit all over the bed.

“I feel sick,” the girl said.

“I know the feeling,” Jane said.

The girl couldn’t have been much older than Caroline. Jane actually felt sorry for her.

“Arnold,” Jane said, “I think your guest might need a towel. I’ll just wait downstairs.”

“Jane,” Arnold said. “I want to explain.”

“And I want you to,” Jane said. “I really do. However, right now, there’s an ill young woman in my bed, and I’d like you to take care of things. All right?”

Arnold nodded, suddenly meek and compliant.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Once and for all, she might not be able to find an excuse to stay with Arnold. Jane walked down the stairs. She kept her back straight, and her head high. But she had to hold on to the banister to steady herself.




Jane heard the front door close, waited for the sound of hurried footsteps to disappear, and then looked up as Arnold entered the room. He looked remarkably neat for someone who had been naked just moments before. Not a hair was out of place. The buttons on his white shirt were closed, except for the top two, which he always left open when he wasn’t wearing a tie. Jane wondered why he hadn’t bothered to put his tie back on. Perhaps he felt this was not a formal enough occasion. Even his khaki trousers still held a firm pleat. In fact, his oxblood loafers looked as if he had just stopped for a shine. She folded the letter she had been reading and slipped it back into the envelope.

“Francine says to say hello.”

“Stop it, Jane. This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, but it is, Arnold. I mean, if this had happened to someone else, you’d think it was hysterical. I know you would.”

Arnold ran his fingers through his full head of perfectly graying black hair. He had grown more handsome over the years, and it had served him well.

“Was your game canceled today?” Jane said.

“Yes,” Arnold said.

Jane just knew that he wouldn’t have missed his game—even for a twenty-year-old blonde.

“A student of yours?” Jane said.

“Yes. Well, a former student.”

“She must be Caroline’s age.”

“No,” he said. He blushed deeply. “She’s older. Twenty-five.”

“I see.” Jane folded her hands. “The faculty meeting was canceled,” she said. “That’s why I was home early.”

“First Tuesday of every month,” he said.

“That’s right.”

She couldn’t believe he had actually remembered that bit of information. It didn’t seem that he had ever heard anything she ever said. That’s when it started to hurt. The pain caught her off guard. She weighed it as if someone else were feeling it, but she still could not be her mother. Even now, in the midst of this indignity and anguish, Jane’s response was measured.

“It’s a five and a pale shade of blue,” Jane said. “It’s not too bad.”

“Don’t do this,” Arnold said. He poured himself a glass of mineral water. “You’re not your mother. You don’t have cancer, and you’re not dying.”

Jane slowly forced herself off the stool. She was a small woman and practically had to jump. The stools were too high for her. She had wanted the shorter stools, but he had liked a different set better. “I won’t be comfortable,” she had told Arnold. It was only a matter of an inch and a half, but it was an important inch and a half. “Yes, you will be,” he had said because, clearly, Jane’s discomfort was not as important as the aesthetics of the breakfast nook.

She pulled at her skirt. It had hiked up when she jumped. Arnold’s eyes wandered to her legs. They were fine legs for a woman of her height and age—five-one and forty-four as of last Friday. Arnold reached out a hand to touch her arm. The events of the afternoon had excited him. Being found with another woman. This glimpse of his wife’s black panty hose. He had won Jane over before.

“You’re right,” Jane said. “I’m not my mother. If I was, I would’ve said, ‘It’s a ten. And it’s red. Blood red.’ ”

Her voice had become edged with rage. Even with that warning he did nothing to protect himself against the fist that came crashing into his jaw. He saw it coming. Jane knew he did. It was just like those cartoons in which the tormentor suddenly gets his due. He watches as the object of destruction comes whistling through the sky, but doesn’t have the sense or the dexterity to step out of its path. And then it’s too late.

“Jane!” he said. He put up his arm to shield himself from a second blow and tenderly touched his jaw with his free hand. “What are you doing?”

“That was for the stools,” she said. “Now this is for the girl.”

He blocked her with his arm, and they struggled briefly. She managed to drag her nails along his smooth cheek and leave a gash that made her wonder at her own fury. He shouted her name again and again until it seemed to her that he was calling out to someone else, someone she was supposed to recognize.

“Damn it, Jane, I’m bleeding,” Arnold said. He ran to the sink and splashed his face with cold water. “I swear it never happened before. Listen to me. Please, Jane.”

Jane picked up her briefcase and turned to leave the room.

“I want you out of this house by tonight,” Jane said, “or I have every intention of killing you.”

Arnold pressed his hand against his cheek and shook his head.

“How could you do this to me?” he said.

Jane didn’t answer. Her breath came in hard, short gasps as she strained to regulate her breathing. She didn’t want him to know that the pain had been a ten all along. And it was red, blood red.




Jane stripped the sheets from the bed and threw them on the floor. Arnold had artfully covered the soiled spot with a towel. She lay down on the bare mattress. The room smelled of vomit and good perfume. She listened for Arnold. There was silence. For a moment, she panicked. Then she remembered how it had felt to see him on top of another woman. It had felt like nothing. It had felt like swallowing air to make yourself burp. She had often watched the boys in her third-grade class practice this exercise. Jane tried to take in large gulps of air, but it only made her feel bloated and uncomfortable, as if she were pregnant. Only Gwen had understood about being pregnant. Only Gwen would understand about Arnold.

Nineteen years earlier, Jane had sat in a sweltering auditorium and listened to various administrative staff rephrase their already tired back-to-school speeches from the year before. Next to Jane had sat a woman more beautiful than anyone Jane had ever seen. Gwen’s long, bare legs were crossed and locked at the ankle. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail. Her blue eyes had flickered, but just barely, as a hugely pregnant Jane had taken the seat next to her. The heat in the unair-conditioned auditorium had been unbearable. Sweat poured from Jane’s forehead. Jane would have sworn that Gwen had not even registered her presence as she sat beside her, panting in discomfort. Suddenly, Jane had felt a spray of cologne and then cool air on her hot neck. “I’ve been there twice myself,” Gwen had said. She had folded the printed program for the morning and used it as a fan, which she moved continuously alongside Jane’s flushed face. Gwen had then spoken in a firm whisper that Jane found mesmerizing. “The best thing about being pregnant is not getting your period. My mother used to call it her friend. Now I ask you, who welcomes a friend who visits once a month, rips your guts out, and stays too long?” Jane had laughed out loud, causing heads to whip around. Gwen had continued fanning her and glared at the others as if they were creating a disturbance. That had been their beginning.

Now Jane waited for her to answer the phone.

“Hello?” she said.

“Gwen? Are you busy?”

“I’m grading papers. Are you all right? You sound funny.”

They both still taught, but they were in different schools now. Jane was lucky enough to have remained local, but Gwen had been transferred to a school in Manhattan.

“Funny?” Jane said. “Yes. Well. I guess I feel funny.”

Jane could hear Gwen rustling papers. It pleased her to know that her next words might create a fixed moment in time. It was likely that Gwen would always remember what she was doing when Jane told her the news about Arnold.

“I found Arnold in bed with a woman,” Jane said. “Well, not really a woman. More like an older girl. I threw him out of the house.”

“What did you do with the girl?” Gwen said. “Did you keep her?”

“No,” Jane said. “I let her go.”

“What did you do to him?” Gwen said.

“I punched him. I also scratched his face.”

“Did you hurt him?”

“I think so,” Jane said.

“And what about you?” Gwen said. “Did he hurt you?”

Jane couldn’t speak. Her throat closed. She parted her lips and the tears ran into her mouth. She nodded into the phone.

“I’ll be right over,” Gwen said. “Don’t touch anything.”

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