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Authors: Rachel Pastan

Alena: A Novel

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A
LSO
BY
R
ACHEL
P
ASTAN

Lady of the Snakes

This Side of Married

RIVERHEAD BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

Copyright © 2014 by Rachel Pastan

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pastan, Rachel.

Alena : a novel / Rachel Pastan.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-698-14160-5

1. Art museum curators—Fiction. 2. Women—Fiction. 3. Cape Cod (Mass.)—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Du Maurier, Daphne, 1907–1989. Rebecca. II. Title.

PS3616.A865A43 2014 2013030316

813'.6—dc23

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, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

For Anna and Bess

Contents

Also by Rachel Pastan

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

 

Acknowledgments

It was as though she who had arranged this room had said: “This I will have, and this, and this,” taking piece by piece from the treasures in Manderley each object that pleased her best, ignoring the second-rate, the mediocre, laying her hand with sure and certain instinct only upon the best.

—D
APHNE
DU
M
AURIER
,
Rebecca

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

—S
YLVIA
P
LATH
, “L
ADY
L
AZARUS

1.

L
AST NIGHT
I
DREAMED
of Nauquasset again. It was dusk. Somewhere beyond the scrubby hills, full of brambles and beach plums and pine trees bent and twisted by the sea wind like old men, the sun was going down over the bay. From where I stood on the sandy shoulder of the two-lane highway I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the damp chill take hold of the afternoon. The light faded from clear gold to misty gray, the way everything fades there: the shingled houses, and the wooden docks, and the leathery skin of the Cape Cod women who live their lives in an abrasive broth of salt and sun. Whose brows furrow early from so much squinting against the light.

There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides. Suddenly the gates began to swing from the two great weathered posts, the lovely gates by Simeon Wexler that Bernard commissioned right at the beginning. Each plank of silvery wood was carved with reliefs of animals, stratum by stratum: starfish and conch along the bottom, fish in the row above, deer and foxes, cats and porcupines at chest level, and along the top, six feet up, the birds of the local woods and seashore, ospreys, finches, swallows, and sandpipers, along with many other species I didn’t recognize. I was never much of a naturalist, having early on turned my eye to art. (Though this has changed in recent years, along with so much else, so that today I can follow a path up a Napa hillside and turn to note a swallowtail butterfly or a red-shafted flicker, and even Bernard can be persuaded to admire a hummingbird balanced in midair above the swaying bee balm in his own small garden.)

Those gates were the first thing I loved about Nauquasset, the first night Bernard brought me there, and in the dream I was jubilant at seeing them again. I put out my hand, half to run my fingers along the contours of an alert field mouse carved into the wood and half to push open the gate. But as I touched it, I saw that the shadows had tricked me. The gate sagged, splintered and defaced, from weary posts held together with iron chains. I cried out in sorrow even as—it being a dream—I passed like water through the barrier and found myself on the other side, walking, as I had so many times, up the rutted lane.

The first quarter mile or so was paved, though the color of the old asphalt had faded to a pale gray. Cracks and potholes fragmented the surface so that it looked in the gathering dusk like a road of rippled water cutting through the pale scrub and dune grass and poison ivy, like a mockery of the bright path moonlight makes on the bay. Then abruptly the shattered pavement ended and the lane changed to crushed shell glinting white against the dull beige of the sand. Even when the Nauk was at its peak, the lane, rising and falling among the dunes, was kept primitive and rough like most of the roads leading out to the bay. When it rained, huge muddy puddles gaped, and visitors in BMWs skirted them gamely—or else wished they’d thought to take their Range Rovers instead. Even in fine weather the pricey underbellies bumped and scraped, and sand got into the upholstery. Repeat visitors learned to leave their cars in the dirt lot by the road and walk. The way rose and fell, rose and fell. After the second rise you could hear the sea. It poured itself onto the breast of the shore and then drew back—gave itself and drew back. It would not stay, and it would not keep away, so that the unhappy shore could never possess, could never forget. Or maybe it was the shore’s pale indifference that drove the sea wild, so that every so often she whipped herself into a hurricane or a nor’easter, wreaking her vengeance indiscriminately. Just so, an artist, ignored too long by a callous world, may break into brilliance, or flame up into cynical stuntsmanship, or drop herself like a stone down the dark well of despair.

Once contained by gardeners and muscled maintenance men, the scrub was growing wild. Long arms of bayberry reached in every direction, and the thick trunks of the low pines were as wide around as a man could reach. The sprawling, spreading brush encroached on the road, and the arrowwood and the rugosa roses had grown in my absence to a monstrous size, massing in two high walls of dense foliage. The restless wind rattled the dry leaves, and the crickets sang their elegy to summer. On I walked, my feet slipping in the sand, the grass that grew along the central hump in the lane tickling my bare legs, the sound and smell of the sea leading me on. Pinpricks of stars broke out suddenly in the sky, then were covered over by scudding clouds and strange shadows that might have been night birds or just-awakened bats. And then I rounded a bend and ascended the final rise, and there was the Nauk before me: the long shingled building with its great windows facing the sea. For half a moment time seemed to coil inward like a spring, present and past, dream and reality coming together so that I felt I was seeing the place for the first time again: its serene yet lively beauty, its strange angular shapes made almost natural by the vernacular shingle, the copper weathervane in the shape of a mermaid with a spoon and fork for arms and pert triangular breasts, pointing steadily out to sea.

Then the moon sailed out from behind the tattered clouds, and I saw that the place was abandoned. The roof was stove in, the glass shattered, even the walls blown away in places, revealing the studs and beams. The building looked like a wrecked ship sitting high up on that long dune, a rich merchant vessel perhaps, whose cargo of spices or gold had been doomed from the start.

Of course, Nauquasset has been lost to me for a long time now, if it was ever mine. It has been years since I stood looking up at its silvered shingles, its sloped roof, the blue bay and the paler blue sky beyond extending the picture, framing it, so that on a sunny day or a quiet, moonlit night you felt there could be no more peaceful place in the world.

These days Bernard and I run a little gallery in Russian Hill: estate work mostly, with a focus on the Bay Area Figurative School. Not for us any longer the drama of the living artist with her hopes and dreams, her anxieties and insecurities and unpredictable demands. We deal exclusively in the work of the dead. You can buy a moody Elmer Bischoff from us, or a tender Diebenkorn, or a bold Joan Brown. I live in a small apartment with a view of this very different bay, and Bernard has a bungalow in Sausalito. Even after all that happened, he likes to take the ferry to work. He has recovered his fondness for boats.

In the mornings I stop at the French bakery halfway up the hill and pick up café au lait and rolls, and we have breakfast together in the office before the gallery opens. Bernard has grown stouter. His head is completely silver now, and he has acquired a moustache. His resemblance to a walrus is striking, but he seems happy enough. As am I: happy enough. Happier, perhaps, than I have ever been.

If Bernard has lovers, he keeps it to himself. As for me, I have a man I see from time to time. He travels a great deal for his job, but when he’s in town, he calls and I make him dinner, which we eat on my little Pacific-facing balcony, and then we go to bed. As love affairs go, it’s not remarkable, but it suits me. I’m always happy when his name pops up on my caller ID, but I’m equally glad to wave good-bye in the morning and head up the hill, where Bernard will be cursing at his email. I’ll look over the papers and read out to him any item of interest from the
Chronicle
or the
Times
. We particularly enjoy reading about the bad behavior of our colleagues: suspected of trafficking in suspiciously acquired art, or carrying on too public an affair with the wife of a famous painter. An article about tax fraud can cheer us for a whole morning. For ours is a world of sharks and scorpions, and we are a pair of dull, ethical fools who—everyone says so—could make a lot more money than we do. Which is no doubt true. But what would we do with more money? Bernard, after all, spent most of his life practically drowning in wealth, and I have everything I want. Truly I do. I have escaped that naïve, idealistic, anxious young woman, my former self, neurotically devoted to Art like a novice nun to God. Debasement and ambition are two sides of the same heavy coin, but I have changed currencies. I have shed my chrysalis and become—not a butterfly, but a happy moth, fluttering my brown wings peacefully through the dusk. And here is Bernard with me, though too heavy to be a fellow moth, perhaps. Make him a possum then, ambling along under the yellow moon while I flit just above his ear. It’s a peaceful, pleasant, predictable life, as long as we avoid the hypnotic dazzle of the freeway lights.

And, of course, we both follow the auction prices. We keep a special eye out for those names who used to show at Nauquasset, some of which now belong to superstars within the hermetic, looking-glass world of contemporary art. And then at ten, Scarlet jangles open the door, music leaking from her earbuds, wearing something outrageous we can tut over admiringly: a low-cut sheath of fuchsia lamé, a high-necked vintage dress of patched and faded lace, a form-fitting asymmetrical jumpsuit studded with safety pins and chains. I used to think she frequented secret midnight boutiques and underground seamstresses, but now I know she buys it all on the internet. Every month or two, as well, she radically rethinks her hair, altering its color and its shape, still young enough to believe a person can actually change. Or maybe she’s just enjoying herself.

Best of all is when she has a new tattoo to show us, an addition to the bright menagerie spreading across her back. We cluck and scold at the irrevocability of what she’s doing to her young, beautiful body—as though that weren’t exactly the point—but we always admire the work. She has a fetching, bright-faced monkey on her shoulder blade that made me take the name and number of her tattooist—tattoo artist, she says—but of course I never called. Scarlet keeps us entertained. She makes us laugh. In return, we pet her and fuss over her and give her advice to which she pretends not to listen. She’s wonderful with the customers. What does she think of us, two eccentrics growing slowly older in a business better suited to the young? Does she suspect we might have once done things, wanted things—things for which we were willing to risk everything? How does she describe us to her friends, those hipster graffiti artists, vegans, performance poets, and app designers with whom she texts all day?

Probably she doesn’t talk about us at all.

BOOK: Alena: A Novel
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