Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Young Adult, #Adult, #Contemporary
In memory of my mother, Jessie
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
“Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”
E LIVED ON THE SHORE OF
AND FOR MANY YEARS
our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters. Our old house followed the curve of the bank, in segments, like a train, each room and screened porch added on, one by one, decade by decade.
When I think of that time, I picture the four of us wading in the shallows, admiring our reflections in the glassy, motionless lake. Then something—a pebble, a raindrop—breaks the surface and shatters the mirror. A ripple reaches the distant bank. Our years of bad luck begin.
That was how Margaret would have thought. My sister was the poet.
I was Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next. Which is how I remember what happened.
But that’s not how it happened at all. One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse that snakes out toward the horizon and spills over into the future.
F ALL THE CLOCKS AND CALENDARS VANISHED
still know when Sunday came. They would still feel that suck of dead air, that hollow vacuum created when time slips behind a curtain, when the minutes quit their orderly tick and ooze away, one by one. Colors are muted, a jellylike haze hovers and blurs the landscape. The phone doesn’t ring, and the rest of the world hides and conspires to pretend that everyone’s baking cookies or watching the game on TV. Then Monday arrives, and the comforting racket starts up all over again.
Even before that Sunday, I was glad to see the day end. It wasn’t that I liked school so much, but the weekends lasted forever. The loneliness, the hours to fill with books, homework, computer, watching old films with my sister, if she was in the mood. Silence, then the Sunday sounds of our house by the lake. My mother playing the piano, my dad’s prehistoric Selectric.
That Sunday, that first Sunday in May, was so warm I couldn’t help wondering: Was it simply a beautiful day, or a symptom of global warming? Even the trees looked uncomfortable, naked and embarrassed, as if they were all simultaneously having that dream in which you look down and realize you’ve forgotten to put on your clothes.
Two Cleopatras in our royal barge, my sister and I reclined and let our little rowboat drift out onto the lake. Margaret arched her shoulders, flung one arm over the side, and trailed her fingertips in the water. It was one of those actressy gestures she’d copied from the classic black-and-white movies to which she was addicted. She liked me to watch them with her, and we were allowed to stay up, because our mother said we would learn more from
Some Like It Hot
than from a year of school. It was often hard to tell what our mother meant, exactly, except that we learned to flutter our lashes and say, “What’s a girl to do?” in breathy little-girl whispers.
One thing Margaret and I had in common was: we could do imitations. We knew whole scenes by heart, like the end of
, when Hardy is killed in a plane crash and then reincarnated as a horse with a black mustache and a bowler hat. Laurel’s so happy to see him he throws his arms around Ollie—that is, the horse possessed by Ollie’s grumpy spirit.
Sometimes Margaret would do a gesture or line and ask me what film it was from. Her silvery laughter was my prize for getting it right. The only rowboat scene I knew was the one in which Montgomery Clift pushes Shelley Winters into the water. And I was pretty certain that wasn’t what Margaret was doing.
Margaret said, “This is heaven.”
I wished I could have been like her instead of the kind of person who said, “Don’t you ever worry about the polar ice caps melting?”
“Debbie Downer,” said Margaret. “Give yourself a break. It’s Sunday, Nico. Take a day off.” Squinting, she aimed her smoke rings so that they encircled the sun like foggy auras.
Margaret had promised our parents she wouldn’t smoke. Mom’s parents and Dad’s father had all died young of smoking-related causes. Both of our parents used to smoke. Their friends had started dying. The new weapon in the arsenal of Mom and Dad’s War on Smoking was some bad news we’d gotten that fall: Margaret had a heart condition. A mild one, but I worried.
She’d fainted the first and last time Mom talked us into doing yoga with her. I still have a photo my father took that day on the lawn, of the three of us doing downward-facing dog or some other mortifying position that, our mother had convinced herself, was helping her arthritis. Margaret, Mom, and I are bent till our heads nearly touch the ground, like those snakes that, Margaret told me, bite their tails and roll after the children they swallow whole. Planted apart for balance, our legs take up most of the photo, downward-facing croquet hoops of descending sizes. What the picture doesn’t show is that, seconds after it was taken, Margaret collapsed in a pile of leaves. At first we’d thought she was joking.
Our pediatrician, Dr. Viscott, ran some tests and said that Margaret should eat well, exercise, don’t smoke. That stutter on her heart graph was something they’d keep their eye on.
Margaret knew she could smoke around me. Smoking was the least of the things she trusted me to keep secret.
From across the lake, we heard our mother practicing the spooky Chopin waltz that always made me think of ballroom dance music for ghosts. She kept making mistakes and starting over again. She’d wanted to be a pianist, she’d gone to music school, but she changed her plans when she met my dad and they ran off to be hippies. Margaret had found a snapshot of them picking soybeans on a commune in northern California. Long hair, overalls, bandannas, a Jesus beard on Dad.
For years our mom had had a job writing liner notes for inserts in classical CDs. Now her fingers were sprouting lumps, but still she tried to learn whatever piano piece she was writing about.
“You know what’s crazy?” I said. “Every time you blow a smoke ring, Mom hits a wrong note. Maybe she does have ESP.”
do,” said Margaret.
Our mother often boasted about her mind-reading powers. I think she meant it to scare us out of doing anything she’d disapprove of. She liked to say her own ancestors would have burned her at the stake. Both our parents were the rogue only children of starchy New England families, so naturally they’d fallen extra hard for the whole peace-and-love agenda, even though, by the time they joined, the hippie movement was mostly over. They’d counted on the world becoming one big organic farm, and when that didn’t happen, they’d sort of had to scramble.
Our house had been Mom’s parents’ summer place. She’d inherited it when her father died, just before Margaret was born. Puritan family portraits decorated the upstairs bathroom. Mom thought it was funny to hang them there, but the glowering dead men and women had delayed my toilet training until Dad figured it out and briefly turned their faces to the wall.
“There’s a lot Mom doesn’t know.” Margaret let another smoky ring slip from between her lips. “Okay. Who am I, Nico?”
“The caterpillar from
Alice in Wonderland
“Beautiful,” Margaret said.
I braced myself for the crash that came when Mom made so many mistakes she banged her fist on the piano. Then heavy silence weighed on the air, scooping out a depression I imagined filling with the rattling of Dad’s electric typewriter.
It was pitiful how the computer age had bypassed our father completely. He couldn’t even swipe his card at the supermarket checkout. Margaret and I had to do it for him, while the checkers smiled sweetly and wished we were dead so they could be our handsome father’s wife or girlfriend or daughter. Oddly, Dad’s backwardness was never counted among the traits that Margaret, the lover of everything old—films, jazz songs, vintage postcards and clothes—inherited from him. Margaret said she was born too late, and it did seem a little strange, to live in the twenty-first century and long for the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s.
In our family, everything was neatly divided up. Margaret and Mom were the musical ones. Margaret and Dad were the beauties. Margaret and I were the mimics. Dad and I were the thinkers. I got A’s in math. I liked knowing why things happened and the order in which they occurred. My teachers said that I might be a scientist some day. Or so they learned from the aptitude test they’d made me take in sixth grade. It was true that when I surfed the Web, I liked following the links that led from marine biology to ecological disaster.
No one had ever suggested that Margaret take an aptitude test. Everyone knew she was going to be a singer. My father used to say that he and I always wanted to know what everything meant, but that my mother and Margaret only cared about how it sounded.
Goldengrove, Dad’s bookstore, was on the corner of Main and West Street. His female customers worshipped him, they’d buy anything he suggested. His real ambition was to write. Ever since I could remember, he’d spent evenings and Sundays working on a book about how people in different cultures and eras imagined the end of the world. He said he planned to call it
Eschatology for Dummies
Water kissed the side of the boat.
“Sing something,” I told Margaret. In the fall she was leaving for Oberlin with a full scholarship in music.
“Like what?” she asked, as if she didn’t know.
At the Senior Show, she’d sung “My Funny Valentine.” She’d sung it half-speed, smoky, low. She’d gotten a standing ovation. Mom was the first one out of her seat and the last to stop applauding, even though she hated the song and had lobbied hard against it.
one?” Mom had asked Margaret. “There are plenty of beautiful standards. Sing ‘Little Girl Blue’ if you really want to depress the shit out of everyone, honey. But ‘My Funny Valentine’? Some patronizing jerk telling the poor ugly duckling he doesn’t care if her mouth’s a little weak.
He’s doing her a
her figure isn’t Greek
“What does that mean?” I’d said.
“It means she has a body,” said Mom. “A normal female body.”
Margaret said, “It’s a love song, okay? It’s not what
think love is. Or you, Mom. It’s what one person thinks love is all about.”
?” said Mom. “One
. Don’t kid yourself.”
I didn’t care if Mom liked the song. I’d heard it as a promise. Some boy would come along some day and love me for myself, even if I was unphotographable, or a few pounds overweight. Being somebody’s laughable valentine was better than being no one’s, funny or not.
Margaret eased down her bathing-suit straps to get a head start on her tan. I was wearing the sort of one-piece suit that magazines called slimming. I yanked the elastic over where my white, dimpled thighs popped out.
“Am I fat?” I asked Margaret. “You have to tell me.”
“You’re perfect, Nico.”
I said, “You didn’t look.”
“I don’t have to,” she said. “I know what you look like. I looked like you do when I was your age.”
“You were fat four years ago? I don’t remember that.”
“You. Are. Not. Fat,” said Margaret.
“So what you’re saying,” I asked, though I was pretty sure she wasn’t saying that at all, “is that in four years I’ll look like you?”
“Trust me on this,” Margaret said. “Whether you want to or not.”
People told us we looked alike, but I couldn’t see it. Margaret was the beautiful sister, willowy and blond. The lake breeze carried her perfect smell. She smelled like cookies baking. She claimed it wasn’t perfume. It was her essence, I guessed. I was the pudgy, awkward sister. I still smelled dusty, like a kid.
Our parents had given us the wrong names. Margaret should have been Nico, I should have been anything else. They told us they’d named Margaret after a line in a poem. They claimed they’d just liked the sound of Nico, but I didn’t believe them.
Dad still had his record player and his record collection. That was how Margaret discovered the Velvet Underground and Nico with her chalky, disappointed voice. It was strange how she sounded like Margaret, only hollow and checked-out, and with a foreign accent that made it seem she was learning the words as she sang them.
Margaret had rented, on DVD, a documentary about Nico, and we’d watched the sad story of the German superstar who flamed out after her fifteen minutes of fame. My sister was silent, all the way through. I didn’t like how she sat jackknifed forward, studying, taking lessons.
When I’d asked Mom if they’d named me after
Nico, she’d hesitated, then said, “Do you really think Daddy and I would name our child after some Wagnerian zombie junkie? By the way, that’s another hideous song. Don’t be anyone’s mirror, darling.”
I leaned over and felt the water.
knew that summer wasn’t here.
“Please,” I asked Margaret. “Sing ‘My Funny Valentine.’ Just for me, just once.”
With a crisp, thumb-and-forefinger flick she’d learned from some ’40s detective, Margaret skipped her cigarette across the lake. Then she let her eyelids droop and began to sing.
She always sang it differently, but it was always pure sex. When she sang, “
Stay little valentine, stay
,” it sounded like honey, like grown-up female code-speak for “Please, have sex with me, please.” I’d wondered how she could have sung it like that in front of the whole school, and how the teachers and parents could have given her a standing ovation. Near the end, someone’s disgusting father actually sobbed out loud. Didn’t it cross their minds that she could never have sung it that way unless she was having sex with her boyfriend, Aaron?
Maybe they weren’t applauding Margaret, but rather the chance that someone from Emersonville might have the talent to leave the last place on earth where no one had a cell phone. Ever since 9/11, yuppie families had been fleeing the city, buying houses around the lake. They said they had to get used to it, but they’d learned to love the country: no cell phones, no BlackBerries, a slower way of life. Throughout the civilized world, teenagers lived on their phones and text-messaged from room to room. But the nearest towers were in Albany or Pittsfield, and my sister and I and our friends at school were stuck in a time-warp bubble. No wonder Margaret was obsessed with the past. We lived in it, in a way. Some day, I promised myself, I would move to Boston or New York. Margaret and I could handle the city, even if our parents couldn’t.