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Authors: Marsha Qualey

Tags: #Literary Fiction

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BOOK: Venom and the River
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A woman and child walked into the playground. The woman waited while the girl skipped from swing to swing to swing, pushing the flat green boards into motion one by one. When she reached the slide she sat for a moment on the lip before falling back with her thin, bare arms raised above her head.

Leigh smiled, feeling the heat of the sun-soaked metal and the contagious, drowsy torpor of long school-free days. She checked the date on her watch. Emily’s summer vacation started tomorrow. Some vacation: riding camp, mission trip to Mexico, tennis camp, a one-week SAT prep program, three weeks at Hilton Head with the newly blended family and the stepmother’s parents.

I can’t come to Minnesota. There just isn’t time.

The entire summer? Not one goddam long weekend the whole summer?

Well forgive me for having a life. Maybe next year, okay? I promise I’ll visit whatever new hiding place you’ve found. And you should watch your language, Mother.

Leigh turned angrily toward the door and banged the knocker down on the dark wood that was striped with peeling yellow varnish. Ten o’clock, he’d told her ten o’clock so why didn’t anyone answer? She looked over her shoulder at her car parked on the edge of the circular crushed-stone driveway. A bit of rust. Some dents. One hundred and nine thousand miles, which wasn’t that much, really. It was a Toyota, after all. Plenty of life left in it, more than enough for a quick, no-turning-back-now drive to South Carolina for an unannounced visit. If they didn’t open this door in ten seconds, maybe that’s what she’d do. To hell with the job, the money, Mr. Doesn’t-answer-his-door Vice-President.

Suddenly the girl in the park slid down onto the sand at the bottom of the slide, picked herself up, and tore toward her mother. What happened? Leigh wondered. What fright or worry or command or desire made her run like that?

What had she desired at that age? What did she want now?

Leigh stared at the mother and child hugging and knew the answer: to be there, ready, when Emily came running.

Behind her, locks and bolts clicked and slid into place. “Just a sec!” a woman shouted. “It’s kind of stuck. Would you mind kicking it down at the bottom right corner?”

Leigh kicked.

A young pregnant woman scowled at the door as it swung open. A fat baby rested on her hip. She stroked its back with her free hand and said, “You’ll have to get used to things not working. He has so much money, you know? But he won’t fix things. Anyway, you’ll want to use the kitchen door when you come and go. I’ll show you where that is. Sorry you had to wait. I heard the knocking the first time, but I was feeding the baby and he’s just getting used to drinking out of a bottle instead of me and I didn’t want to interrupt him. Come on in, Terry’s all ready for you. He’s pretty excited.”

“I’m Leigh Burton.”

“I figured you were. We’re not expecting anyone else. I’m Geneva, his cook and whatever.” She smiled. “Not that sort of whatever, okay?” She motioned Leigh in with her head, then pushed the door closed with her foot, giving it a second, harder shove with her free hip to put it securely in place. “And neither baby’s his, okay? The one in my arms or the one due to slide out in October. Neither one—no matter what you might hear from anyone in town. That would be something for you to put in his memoirs, though, wouldn’t it? Probably worth a whole chapter: The ancient statesman and his fertile young wench.”

Leigh hoped her face showed nothing. “I’m here to help with his papers, not a memoir.”

“Good grief, I clean the guy’s bathroom and I change his sheets. He doesn’t hide anything from me.” Geneva shook her head. “I’ll play along if we have to. I guess that’s how it is with a ghostwriter, you can never admit anything.”

Leigh fixed a smile.

Geneva rolled her eyes. “I hope you get paid extra for the lying. If you get tired of it, you don’t have to keep it up with me, okay? Like I said, there’s nothing I don’t know.”

“Then you probably know what room I’ll be using. Should I bring in my suitcase?”

Geneva shook her head. The baby tilted back and shook his, then giggled and sank against his mother’s arm. “You aren’t staying in the house.”

Leigh frowned. “The vice president said I’d have a place here.”

“You’ve got a place all right, but not in the house. I’ll show you later, when Terry and Tucker are napping.” She kissed the curly crown of the baby’s head. “This is Tucker. He’ll be one at the end of next month, the day before Terry turns ninety. Ever met a vice president before?”

Three, Leigh thought. And two presidents, two first ladies, and one presidential mistress—though the after-hours bar gossip back then always laid heavy odds that the blonde family friend with the low laugh, Texas drawl, and PhD in comparative lit was in fact the book-loving First Lady’s late night companion.

What would this girl think about that, Leigh wondered. Not that she could share the gossip because Leigh Burton, hack writer for hire and newly arrived in this backwater town in Minnesota, didn’t have several years as a Washington correspondent on her resume and therefore wouldn’t have years of DC facts and gossip and political nuance stored in a well-ordered mental file belonging to an ex-journalist once named Nancy Taylor Lee.

Leigh said, “I saw Hubert Humphrey when I was little and on a family trip to Minneapolis. Long time ago.”

It was a nimble and truthful verbal sleight of hand. Geneva brightened. “He was a friend of Terry’s. He’ll want to hear that. But it’ll get him started talking and you can’t let him ramble too long, especially about the sixties.” She shifted the baby to the other hip and headed down a hall. “His memories wear him out.”

Lucky man, Leigh thought. Mine frighten me.


Terrance Bancroft swayed from side to side as he hovered over piles of papers and photographs spread across a large table in a spacious dining room. Three gooseneck floor lamps were placed around the room, each aimed at the table.

His blue dress shirt was crisply ironed, the silk tie expertly knotted, the cuffs of his sharply pressed gray flannel trousers lightly touched soft leather loafers. But you can’t dress up ninety-year-old hands, Leigh thought as one slowly rose from the old man’s side, moved through the air over the table, then slapped down on a manila folder.

He looked up and smiled. “I liked your revisions of the outline I made, but I think we should start with this instead of the incident at the UN. This will make a perfect first chapter. Krakow Accords.”

“Terry, this is Leigh, but you obviously guessed that.” Geneva handed the baby to him. “I’ll get coffee ready and take it to the study. You two can get acquainted there.”

He expertly set the boy on his hip and positioned an arm around his back. “How about some of those butterscotch scones, Geneva? We’ve got company, after all.”

“She can have some, but you can’t. You had three for breakfast.” Geneva pushed a swinging door with her foot and slipped around it and disappeared.

“What the hell, let me die young,” he called after her. Tucker laughed and shouted, an infant echo of the old man’s yell. As he crowed, he arched his back and nearly tumbled out of the arm. Leigh reached forward. The baby spotted her movement and curled back securely.

“Did you read the last batch of books I sent?” Terrance Bancroft asked.

Leigh nodded. “I brought them with me. When I unpack I’ll—”

He swatted the air with his free hand. “Keep ’em. I won’t reread them. McNamara’s was the worst of the lot, don’t you think? I put up with all their bullshit for fifty years and it was all I could do to read it again in their memoirs. Apologies and lies, that’s all any of their books were. Not mine, Leigh. We’re writing an honest book. Like my first one was. No apologies. No lies.” He sat down heavily in a chair. Tucker immediately lunged for a roll of stamps that had uncurled on the table. The man blew softly across the boy’s head as he extracted stamps from Tucker’s fist.

The baby stared into the old face. Terrance Bancroft looked down, his own wide blue eyes locked on the boy’s. “This is Tucker,” he said. “One of those last-name names. Quite a few of those at prep school when I was young. St. Paul’s. It’s in Connecticut.”

New Hampshire, Leigh thought. You went to college in Connecticut.

“St. Paul’s,” he murmured. “Then Yale. We used to take the train. Rob and Timmy and me. George and Ted would join us in Chicago. Oh, what a party those trips were.” He closed his eyes and returned to a long-ago train ride. The arm around the baby loosened. Tucker instantly sensed the sudden freedom and lunged toward a red pen. Leigh quickly stepped around the table and caught the baby as he tumbled off the lap. Tucker gave her a resigned look as she secured him in her arms.

Geneva pushed through the door. “Coffee’s in the study. Why don’t you two go talk there.”

The former vice president scooped up papers and folders from the table. “Good. We’ll get down to work.”

“Could I freshen up first?” Leigh said. “I’ll be right there.” He nodded and disappeared.

“Bathroom’s this way,” Geneva said, pushing the pantry door again. “Sorry. I should have asked before.”

“I’m fine, actually. I really just wanted to talk for a minute,” Leigh said. “He almost dropped the baby, Geneva. He drifted away and forgot he had him, and Tucker nearly fell off his lap.”

The young woman took her son from Leigh and rested her head on his. She closed her eyes briefly. “Okay,” Geneva whispered. “It’s good you told me.”

Her host didn’t seem to notice when Leigh entered the study. He stood before a massive bookcase that covered a long wall. He pulled out a book and then lowered himself stiffly into a worn easy chair that was clearly the center of his nest. Leigh grimaced as he settled uneasily. Not that many years had passed since his picture would occasionally appear in magazines—a photograph almost always taken on tennis courts or in a rugged outdoor setting with a movie star or model a third his age at his side.

Damn, she thought, noticing the book in his hand. “Mr. Vice President—”

“None of that, Leigh,” he said. “By the time we’re done you’ll know everything about me from the names of my lovers to the smell of my farts. I think that calls for first names, don’t you? Mine’s Terry. And this book you ghosted for my old pal,” he said as he held it aloft, “is a splendid pack of lies.”

It’s what I now do best, she thought.

“Marvelous, every bit of it. Like I said, we don’t want lies in mine, of course. Well, except for the big one: that you’re the writer, not me.”

“You will do the writing, Mr. Vice President. I’ll just—”

He pointed at a chair and she sat down.

“You’ll just what? Channel me?” He shook his head. “When I read this leather-bound load of shit I knew old George Simmons had found himself a first-rate writer to do his lying. It sounds just like him! It was an even better job than what you did with Timmy’s autobiography.”

“I guess I have a way.”

“With rich old men and their egos?” He set the book on a small table beside the chair. “So why do you do it, Leigh?”

Breath and blood ceased to flow for a moment until she realized he’d spoken in present tense. Not, Why
you do it? “Money and security, I guess. I’m a freelance writer; we can’t be too choosy.”

“So you ghost self-published autobiographies for vain old men. There’s nothing better out there?”

He leaned forward, intent, waiting. Suddenly she knew why those models and actresses had looked so happy at his side: The man listened.

“Last month I grossed four thousand, Terry. That’s a really good month for me. I sold the same sermon to thirteen lazy ministers, four knock-off children’s books on national parks I’ve never visited, and three thousand words on the virtues of some bogus food supplements for an online newsletter. That’s what’s out there.” She looked down at her hands. “I enjoy the vain old men I’ve worked with. And now those books have led me here. Your memoir is a real job. One I’ll be proud of.”

“Even if your name isn’t on it?”

We should both hope my name is never anywhere near it, she thought, otherwise your publisher won’t touch it. She said, “Meaningful work and decent money is more than enough for me. It’s time I buy a house. I need a place my daughter will want to visit. She lives with her father.” Leigh closed her eyes. “Stop it,” she whispered under her breath. Giving away too much.

“Won’t come to see you, hey? Don’t be ashamed about having issues with a child. I have them, three times over. We’ll address all my domestic affairs in the book, of course, but, perhaps elliptically, don’t you think? No need to go into my kids’ lives.”

“It’s a political memoir,” Leigh said.

He nodded. “Exactly. They’re worried, though. You should know that and know that they might give you trouble. I told them I hired a ghost this time, and they’re afraid you won’t have scruples about trampling on their privacy. I won’t deny that I like worrying them with it because it keeps them calling and talking to me.” He rubbed his eyes with the butt of his palms and yawned.

“You told them you have a ghost? Was that wise?”

“Why keep it from my kids?”

“Word can get out, Terry. And if it does your publisher might want someone else on the job.”

“The secret’s safe. My kids won’t tell because they’re hoping I give up on it. Leigh, I don’t apologize for my vanity about the writing credit. I wrote the first one, every damn word. This will be the last thing I do and…” He stared out the window. His hand rose and dipped.

BOOK: Venom and the River
7.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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