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Authors: Ashley Warlick

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BOOK: The Arrangement
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*   *   *

When Al found her in the kitchen the next morning, all the cookbooks were open, and Mary Frances sat disheveled amongst the stacks of them with ink on her cheek, making notes. He crouched down, and she startled.

“Sorry, sorry.” He held out his hands. He looked happy, or was he making fun of her?

She closed her notebook, pulling her bathrobe tighter around her waist. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said.

Al spun a cookbook to read it, the cover open to an old inscription: “Improve each shining hour.”

“My grandmother’s. Her brother gave it to her on her wedding day.”

“Another little essay for Tim?” he said.

She shrugged. “They’re not really
for
Tim. Tim reads them. You could read them, too.”

Al held her eyes a moment longer, then stood. She remained looking at the crease in his charcoal pants. She felt he was about to pass his judgment, and she would not bow her head for it.

“We should go out for dinner tonight,” he said. “Why don’t I make a reservation in town? Why don’t you put on something pretty? Would you like that?”

“Yes. I’d like that.”

“Of course you would.”

She knew there was no money for this kind of evening, no money but what Rex had given her, but she couldn’t come out with that now without causing a fight.

Then in Al’s fingertips, there was a clean white envelope,
slit at the top, addressed to MFK Fisher. “This came yesterday,” he said.

She tore into it.
Westways
had paid her thirty-five dollars for the story about Laguna, more money than she’d ever made in a month. She sprang into Al’s arms, and he was laughing too.

“We’ll go shopping,” she said. “I want to spend it all on treats for us. And Mother and Rex. Oh, this is so good, Al. Just perfect.”

“MFK Fisher,” he said, looking at the check in her hand.

“Thirty-five dollars,” she said.

He searched her face again, wanting something she couldn’t find to give him. “I’ll get a bath right now,” she said, and she stacked her books back in their basket.

She was excited to go out, Sardi’s perhaps, they could call Gloria and Mr. Sheekman. She felt like a party. She had been paid.

She washed quickly and slipped back into her robe, “Stormy Weather” on the radio,
keeps raining all the time
. She went back into the bedroom to get dressed, and in her bare feet, Al didn’t hear her coming.

There he was before the bed, his fists cocked on his hips and his feet astride, as if he were surveying a field just planted. The box and wrapping lay on the floor at his feet, the new russet dress draped across the coverlet, the skirt fanned, the slender tie looped into a bow. She watched him rub the back of his neck. What was he thinking about?

She crept back down the hallway how she’d come and took a pair of stockings from the basket of folded laundry in the kitchen. She’d wear something else tonight.

After a pleasant dinner out and another glass of wine by the fire, after Al read to her from
Crime and Punishment
and she knit the gusset on a sock she wanted to have ready for David’s Christmas present, after the whole evening passed easily, she returned to the bedroom and found the dress box where she’d left it in her closet. The dress and the tissue were folded back inside; Al had left no sign that things were ever otherwise.

*   *   *

Al packed his books into his satchel and cleared the last of his papers from the desk. The light was still good outside, and it wasn’t too cold. He could take the long way back to the house at Eagle Rock for the last time.

The dean had personally extended his apologies. It was a matter of numbers, the economy at large; Al was a fine teacher, adored by his students, respected by his colleagues, a valuable asset to Occidental. Al had known the conversation was coming, and he thanked the dean, asked about his plans for the holidays, spoke of the time he would have now for his own work. The dean was almost certain there would be a place for him in the fall, and Al hoped that was true. As the man walked away, Al ticked the months by in his head.

He had a tutoring job for the spring and summer; there were lines of men in Los Angeles waiting for jobs, for houses, for loaves of bread. He was lucky to have what he had. There would be the drama in Laurel Canyon, surely a drain on his time and patience. In the end, he would be grateful for this flexibility. He bent to check the drawers of the desk, and there was a knock at the door.

“Professor Fisher?”

It was a girl from his lecture, Miss Prescott; he tried to remember her first name but could not. The conversation would be a formal one. She clutched a composition book against her chest.

“I just had a question for you. About my essay on Keats?”

“Certainly, Miss Prescott.”

She handed him the essay, and he skimmed it, not one he had graded himself. He started to explain that his wife often made comments on his compositions in his lecture classes when he realized it wasn’t Mary Frances’s handwriting in the margins. It wasn’t a woman’s handwriting, at all.

“Miss Prescott, you’re sure this paper was written for my class?”

“Yes. Yes sir, on Keats.”

Al folded back the cover of the book and saw his name, the room and course number. He stared at it for a long moment.

“I see you made an A,” he said. “What is your question?”

The girl rattled on about a letter Al had read to them in class, one of Fanny Brawne’s, and the significance of their relationship in light of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Al remembered:
My love has made me selfish
, Keats wrote. Selfish. He listened to the girl, told her what she wanted to hear, and sent her on her way. He walked home in the long winter light.

One evening last summer in Laguna, Tim and Gigi had come for dinner, and Mary Frances pulled one of her little essays from her skirt pocket, reading it almost as a toast. It had been a piece about dinner partners, who made for good ones and who did not. Al remembered laughing at her
cleverness. Then later, the meal spent, he found Tim and Mary Frances in the kitchen, the essay in Tim’s hands now, and the two of them bent over it. Tim began speaking, and Mary Frances finished his sentence for him, taking the pen from his hand, scribbling in the margins of her paper. At the time, his only thought had been to open another bottle of wine.

It was dark when he reached the house at Eagle Rock. Mary Frances had the news on the radio, the elections in Czechoslovakia, seventy-four Nazis passing blank ballots. The house smelled of pork fat and sage, dinner that had probably taken all day to cook. When would she have had time to meet with Tim? What did she do with her time when he was not around?

“You’re home,” she said.

“I am.” But this would not be their home much longer.

*   *   *

At Christmas, everyone was at the Ranch: Anne and Sean, David in his school uniform, nearly a soldier, and Norah, the gazelle, the long, lean beauty, Norah! Mary Frances tucked into her room at the top of the wide oak stairs as soon as they could be alone. She wanted to hear everything, and not with Mother or Anne there to arch their brows. Norah was shy at first, her pretty chin tucked against the fall of her hair. There were boys, yes, lots of them, and books, and ideas.

“Oh, Dote,” she said. “I sometimes wish you were always with me. I see this, and this and this, and I think how you would love it. But that’s not very grown up, is it? To always want your sister by your side.”

“I often think about the time you lived with us in France. I never felt like you were the baby.”

Pride puffed in Norah’s voice. “I didn’t either.”

“Are you writing? Mother says you’re writing.”

“Not as much as you.”

Mary Frances flipped onto her stomach and fiddled with the tatted edge of Norah’s pillowcase. Rex had poured the wine freely at dinner, and she felt good and light, like talking with her sister as long as they both could stay awake for it.

“Did you read my article in
Westways
?” she asked.

“Well, of course I did.” Norah turned from the hand mirror like a model in a magazine. Had Mary Frances ever been so flawless? “I read it aloud to my friends at school, and they all wanted to hear more about Laguna. But I started with my stories, the tar on the beach in August, how we’d climb up the rocks with our fried-egg sandwiches, and nothing was quite so good as what you’d written. They wanted to hear you tell it, Dote. And then they wanted to hear you tell it all again.”

Mary Frances fell back into the pillows, laughing.

“I’m sure they did,” Al said.

Nudging the cracked door open, his face had the bleary twitch of too much wine as well. “I love to hear Mary Frances spin her tales. I think she’s the best storyteller in the Kennedy family.”

She pushed up from the bed, searching his expression for something hidden. He was flattering her, and it fit poorly. “Don’t be silly, Al.”

“No. I liked your magazine story. I really did.”

“You must be quite proud,” Norah said.

“Oh, I am. I am.” He sounded tender, and sincere. He put his hand on the doorknob and stepped back, an invitation. “Coming to bed, dear?”

“Yes. In a minute.”

“All right, then.”

But he stood waiting for her, or waiting for her and Norah to begin their talk again. Mary Frances studied the toe of her shoe against the wide plank of the floor, everything suddenly a measurable angle. She knew the right thing to do was to go with Al, but all she wanted was to stay.

“It’s wonderful we’re all together for Christmas again,” Norah said. “Don’t you think?”

*   *   *

Edith set the tone in her kitchen, and she was worried mostly about the geese. Liesl had plucked and trimmed and blanched the birds that morning and then arranged them under an electric fan, blotting the skin with onionskin paper because she swore this was what they did in Chinatown to make the ducks so crispy. Edith had never heard of such nonsense; Mary Frances didn’t care. Liesl liked to be agreed with. She peeled and quartered a mountain of turnips, blotted her geese, and mumbled under her breath. Liesl’s knife was steel and sharp, and Mary Frances had hardly ever seen her without it tucked into the ties of her apron. She would not be going home until after the Kennedys’ dinner was served.

Into goose fat and onions, Mary Frances tipped a bottle of old Madeira wine. There were oranges everywhere; she sliced one and gave it to the baby. She sliced another and dropped it into the pot with the wine, pierced the skin of the geese all over, stuffed their cavities with oranges and thyme branches, and laced the legs closed. Edith put them in the oven. Norah stirred a pot. Outside, Rex and David roasted almonds they’d
gathered from the neighbor’s trees. The sun cast a long beam across the kitchen floor.

Anne sat beside the baby making pomanders, a fistful of cloves and an open tin of Edith’s nougat candy on her lap.

“Careful, Anne. You’ll get sick,” Mary Frances said.

“I won’t.”

“You get sick every year.” Everyone said Anne had inherited their grandmother’s nervous stomach, but Mary Frances suspected it had more to do with self-indulgence than anything passed down. She had an uncanny ability to find and eat vast amounts of sweets. The sugarplums were gone already.

Edith cracked the oven to peek at the geese. “Anne,” she said. “You have Sean to think of.”

“Good lord, Mother.”

Edith looked at her sharply, and Anne put the candy away.

The Kennedys were a large family in celebration, but it had once been larger. Mary Frances caught Edith lingering over Grandmother Hollbrook’s tea service with her cloth, even though Liesl had already polished it once. Her face, reflected in the domed hip of the pot, distorted and wistful with a passing grief. And then upstairs, Anne standing in front of her wedding portrait, the baby wauling at her feet.

“Oh, Sis. Mother ought to take that down.”

“I looked thin, don’t you think? Too thin.”

“You’re thinner now.”

“No. No, I’m not. I’m better now. I feel better.”

Mary Frances was uneasy with the subject. She bent and scooped Sean into her arms, lofting him high, so light, a boy made of birdstuff. He leaned out for his mother, and Anne took him automatically, still looking at the portrait.

“Do you think Sean looks like his father?”

Mary Frances pressed close and kissed her ear. She whispered, “He’s a Kennedy, Sis. All the way.”

Downstairs the front door flung open, the rumble of men, and the house filled with the scent of cedar, Al on the other end of an enormous tree he and David had hacked down. By the time Mary Frances and Anne got there, Rex was already in full admiration, and Edith a high twitch over where to put the thing, the past set aside. She looked at the baby in her sister’s arms—the past, in brand-new form.

And late that night, after the perfect goose—Liesl had been right, the crisp skin like enamel—after midnight carols and children sent to bed, the tinsel hung on the tree and the table set for breakfast, she and Al took the wide oak stairs to the bedroom that had always belonged to her and Anne. They undressed in darkness and said good night.

But Mary Frances couldn’t sleep. She felt Al not sleeping in the bed beside her.

“What is it?” she said.

“I got a letter from Tim today.”

Her back went cold, the part of her closest to him. She said nothing.

“He sounds so desperate. He doesn’t ask about her, doesn’t mention her, but he sounds all the worse for it.”

“He loves her.” It was surprisingly easy to say.

“I just can’t imagine what he’s going through.”

Al was quiet. Mary Frances hoped that was all.

“It is not lost on me,” he whispered. “I’m grateful I can’t imagine it.”

She turned toward Al, his eyes full of devotion. They had
met when they were children, really. They had seen so much through. You could not take that history back and give it to someone else, like trading a part in a play.

She remembered the first time he took her hand on a street corner, tucking her palm into the crook of his arm and holding it there, the way she could feel his heart slamming in his chest. She remembered their train from Cherbourg to Paris, the crumbs of their first baguette scattered across the tablecloth, married three weeks but finally knowing she was married, that her life was about to begin. She remembered the first time he’d looked at her this way, and it was not so long ago, and not so different than now. She only had to make herself remember.

BOOK: The Arrangement
8.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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