Authors: Alice Adams
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.
Copyright © 1993 by Alice Adams
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Adams, Alice, [date]
Almost perfect / by Alice Adams.
For G.G. and Larry Green
Edwina and Jack Leggett
with much love
Stella Blake, small and dark, huge-eyed, faintly foreign-looking, scared, walks along the broken sidewalk of an unfamiliar street, in an unnatural warm and reddish October dusk. Potrero Hill, San Francisco.
The houses here are small and undistinguished, mostly stucco, one-story, although a couple have been remodelled and sport new brown shingles and broad, aluminum-sashed windows and bright brass plates on their doors.
The wide street is so empty that Stella wonders, Where is everyone? Is something happening that she doesn’t know about? but then quite suddenly, planted there on the sidewalk in front of her (how can she have got there?) is a tiny black girl, her hair in cornrows and her dress long and purple, old purple, old velvet. A mother’s dress. And this small person, her voice surprisingly
loud, demands of Stella, “Do you know what you’re going to be on Halloween?”
Thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to be tomorrow, or next week, much less on Halloween, Stella simply says, “No. I don’t know.”
“But you have to know.” A tiny scowl. “I be a queen. But I could change my mind. I could. Then I be Michael Jackson.”
“I guess I’d better decide too.”
“Well, you better. Girl, you better had.” And the tiny girl, out of breath and maybe out of bravado too, takes off, running up across a yellowed lawn, disappearing into shadows.
Thinking, It’s true, I really don’t know what I’ll be next week—among other uncertainties, her newspaper job is quite provisional—Stella quite sensibly decides not to make too much of this incident, any more than she would of a random horoscope reading (L
: Do not engage in expensive activities during this period). She will not even tell anyone about it, despite its obvious anecdotal value.
The immediate cause of Stella’s fears and uncertainties is the fact that she is heading toward an interview; her current job includes a lot of interviewing (it is what she is supposed to be good at), and so she should not be frightened—but in this case it is she who is the subject, interviewee rather than interviewer. And the real subject is not herself but her father: Prentice Blake, now dying in Patchen Place, in Greenwich Village. Prentice, a small-time novelist and part-time Stalinist who fought in Spain in the Thirties, was a minor figure himself, but he always knew the important, major figures: Hemingway (of course), and Cummings was a neighbor, Allen Tate, Djuna Barnes—he knew them all. Prentice Blake was known for his great good looks, his “charm,” his love affairs and marriages, rather than for his fiction, or for his war record, which was honorable but slight, as his novels were, full of fairly foolish political monologues.
But the very idea of being questioned about her father, being called to account for him, so to speak, scares Stella badly. She is his only child; the other wives, as Prentice likes to point out, were more careful. Stella’s mother was Delia, known as Prentice’s Mexican beauty—hence Stella’s dark Indian eyes, her slightly exotic look.
She stumbles, retrieves her balance, and wishes she had yielded to the actuality of this weather, rather than to some abstract, eastern notion of fall; she should have worn a cotton dress, or jeans. In her sweater and blazer, wool skirt and high-heeled boots, she is hot, and she must look like some Sixties throwback (which in a sense she feels that she is), and she wonders, What have I dressed for? for
The interviewer, out from New York, has a name that Stella finds promising: Simon Daniels. She likes the sound of it, and she is also impressed (and frightened) by his credentials, his
New York Review—Critical Inquiry—Raritan
status. But: he will be impossibly tall, small-eyed and bucktoothed, and married and/or gay, Stella tells herself, even as she despises the neediness that adds erotic fantasies to a professional courtesy, and she reminds herself that it is nice of her to take the time to talk to him, when she is both busy and loath to talk about her father, who almost never gave her the time of day, as it were. Who will die soon and will not have left her a cent, despite all his talk of her inheritance. She chides herself for this last greedy thought, so ugly, but it is true that Prentice is very bad about money (rebellious son of New England Republicans, given equally to extravagance and to thrift, both in extremes), and it is true too that Stella at this moment is close to broke.
In any case, this is to be a long day: after Simon Daniels she has to go over to North Beach to do an interview of her own, for the paper. Some advertising jerk, Richard Fallon. Or Dallon. She has to check her notes.
Just now the sunset is blazingly reflected in all the windows of Oakland, across the bay, so that dangerous, problematic Oakland, and Berkeley too, are glorious, golden cities, promising everything. Leading eastward.
Simon Daniels, who opens the door several frightening moments after her knock, is indeed very tall. Bald, spectacled, gentle-voiced and reassuringly rumpled. Possibly gay. In any case, very nice; that comes through at once in his small gestures of leading her into the room and in his thanks that she has troubled, taken the time, to come and talk to him.
But the room itself is bare. Some bentwood chairs, a folding table, and a bookcase in which all the spines of the books are dead upright are all that Stella first sees in that room. Presumably there are other rooms, with beds, a kitchen, some human mess, somewhere. Or so Stella hopes.
Simon has said that he is visiting a painter friend. “Jake is more than a little crazy,” he explains, no doubt feeling the shock of her glance at such emptiness. “Have you ever seen his work? The minimalists’ minimalist.” He smiles. “It’s going to be hard on both of us, talking here. I’ll feel like an inquisitor, if not a very grand one, and you’ll feel … I can’t quite imagine.”
“Like a patient.” This quite unintentional remark, once spoken, Stella recognizes as the truth; in her fantasies of visiting a shrink, which she has not so far done, she sits in a bare room with a strange tall man. And talks about her father.
However, as they sit down, facing each other on the hard spare chairs, Simon consciously or not soon dispels this notion—with a great flow of conversation about himself. Which Stella of course recognizes as standard interviewing technique, but she is nevertheless reassured and somewhat seduced, seduced into thinking of him as a trusted old friend.
“My father must have been about the perfect opposite of yours,” announces Simon. “Dr. Dull. Harvard, Harvard Med. Beth Israel internship. A stint in the navy, then marriage to a princess from Beverly Hills, and four happy little children. Pediatrics in Pasadena. Aren’t doctors strange, don’t you think? Such hermetic worlds. And his affection for children borders on the obscene.”
“My father can’t stand children,” Stella tells him, Pavlov-obedient. “I think the competition. That’s one of the things he held against my mother, her having a child.”
“Well, at least he must have been pretty interesting to have around. My father bores me into screaming fits. I’m sure I turned queer just to get his goat.”
Oh. “Well, Prentice could be pretty boring, actually. The same old stories so often, you know. The boasting, which of course got worse as he got older, with less to brag about. The name-drops.” Acute anxiety beats in Stella’s breast as she speaks
of Prentice in this way. But it’s all right, she tells herself. Prentice won’t know (or will he?).
“Did you like it better living in Mexico with your mother?” asks Simon.
“Sort of. But we were pretty broke. Poor is more like it. Prentice didn’t send money when he said he would. And we were in Cuernavaca, among all those rich gringos. My mother’s friends. I really dislike that city.”
“Actually so do I. No traces of the Lowrys, right? Such an odd place for them to have chosen, I’ve always thought.”
“Cuernavaca’s changed a lot. Since I was there, and I’m sure even more since the Thirties, or whenever they were there. But the best part is still those volcanoes. The way you suddenly see them, in different lights.”
And so on.
Simon leads her intelligently with his own confessions and observations, to which Stella adds her own, quite forgetting, as she herself has watched and heard her own interviewees forget, that only one side of this conversation will appear in print.
Indeed, as she might have with a shrink, Stella tells this strange man (but so nice, so seductively nice, intelligent and interested—oh, ever so interested), tells him the tales of later wives and girlfriends of Prentice’s. And what she herself as a child experienced as non-love. As neglect. Disapproval.
“Prentice has a trick of kicking you when you’re down,” says Stella to this new friend. “Of saying something to make you feel a lot worse than you already feel.” She even says, “I really dread his death. One more body blow.”
“He doesn’t exactly have a reputation for kindness. But then I guess being kind was held to be a little sissy in his day.” Simon laughs.
“I guess. He was really concerned with that macho stuff. ‘Not man enough’ was one of his favorite expressions. Or taunts. Even to me. He would say that I wasn’t ‘man enough’ for something. Even when I was little I thought that was sort of odd.”
“Indeed.” He stares at her, and then Simon Daniels says, “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are? No? I didn’t think so. And actually not quite yet; I’d put it about ten years off. Some
women are like that, you know. They just have to wait, sometimes for middle age. But the shape of your forehead—lovely! And those eyes.”
Very embarrassed, Stella finds nothing to say in response to this. She ducks her head, she mutters, “Well, thank you.”
“Well, back to old Prentice. Tell me, when you were a kid, did he talk much about the circumstances of his break with the Party?”
Because she is running a little late, and because, calculatedly or not, Simon Daniels has come across so sympathetically (he even promised to send her the pages in which she figures, a rare professional courtesy), Stella treats herself to a cab, Potrero Hill to North Beach, in the darkening, strangely warm evening.