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Authors: Marsha Qualey

Tags: #Literary Fiction

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BOOK: Venom and the River
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Marti tore a chunk of bread off a baguette. “Very nice diversionary tactic, Leigh, if a little obvious. Our group is The Ida May Turnbull Society. It’s dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Little Girl books and other early feminist literature. You’re laughing again. Need I remind you: I’m a guest, and you should treat me nicely.”

“You’re a guest, and my car is in the shop because of an accident. You said the books were why you majored in literature. Well, you know what, Marti—you sentimental lit majors are why I went into journalism.” Shit, she thought, her hand on her lap immediately snapping closed into a fist, the nails digging into her palm. Stop it. One word, one hint that the vice-president had hired Nancy Taylor Lee as his ghost, and the job was gone.

“Did you?” Marti said softly. “How interesting.”

Leigh’s hand uncurled as they eyed each other. Talons and claws. Why did she feel like Marti was about to use them?

Marti rose and refilled her glass with water from a jug on the counter. She picked up the spoon rest from the range. “Beginning with the fourth book, Maud and Lucy and Laura always took a Christmas shopping trip and bought their mothers’ presents at the same time. In one book Maud gives her mother a spoon rest exactly like this one. Ida May was such a careful writer. Exquisite description of details. Do you miss being a reporter? Maybe not, what with the way it all ended and everything, Nancy Taylor Lee.”

Leigh slumped, every bit of pleasure she’d gotten from the Scotch, the food, the conversation gone. Why had she thought she could keep it a secret? She whispered, “What do you want?”

Marti sat, still holding the spoon rest. Her thumb tapped one of its faded blue flowers. “I need your help, Leigh. I can’t allow Peach to have her way with everything at this convention. It just means too much to some of us to allow that. Lilac-colored decorations and sing-alongs and fashion shows and a Hollywood has-been as the guest of honor. God help us all.”

“Let me guess: You want me to make this place available to the women at the convention.”

“Not the whole crowd. I shudder to think of what Peach would do if she gets back inside, and I definitely hate the thought of a stream of sticky-fingered women traipsing through. Some of them will try to get past you; there should be a guard, the old man’s right about that.”

“So what is it you want?”

“I want you to welcome one guest. She’s a big fan of the books, and we’ve been trying to get her to pay some public attention to them but she’s never cooperated with us. If she could stay here, she’ll come to the convention.”

“Who’s the famous fan?”

“Roberta Garibaldi.”

The knot in her stomach tightened. “Absolutely not.”

Marti narrowed her eyes, drew her arms to her side, and held very still. Talons, Leigh thought. Like a hawk suspended in air just before the plunge to snare its prey.

Marti said “Aren’t you interested in meeting someone who’s won a Pulitzer and written five bestsellers? Intimidating company, I suppose, and not just for a…defrocked journalist. I’ve talked to her, though, and she seems pleasant. She’s very keen on staying here.”

“No. We met long ago and I don’t want to meet again.”

“Worried she might not remember you? Or maybe you’re worried that she will.”

Leigh rose and leaned against the counter, staring out the kitchen window.
That bitch Lanier.

“I know what you’re thinking now, Leigh, and I’d bet a bottle of Glenlivet that—”

“You have no idea what I’m thinking.”

“Tell me.”

When she turned, Marti immediately looked away. Good, Leigh thought. Guilt. She said, “I need this job, Marti. You can’t possibly know how much I need this job.”

“And I need Roberta. She’s already promised to come and I’m not about to disappoint her. She jumped at the chance when she heard where she’d be staying. You won’t lose your job, Leigh. Just help me out here. It will all be very quiet and nice and then she’ll be gone.”

“She’ll recognize me. We met once, back when she was still writing a column for the Hartford
and I was still a reporter. Years ago.”

“And if she does recognize you, we’ll just tell her the story that you’re telling everyone else: You’re getting his papers ready for the historical society.”

“That’s not good enough. She’ll talk. There’s no way that she won’t spread the word about who she discovered hiding out under an assumed name in Pepin, Minnesota.”

“We’ll ask her not to. I bet she’d understand.”

“Are you kidding? To someone like her, someone like me is lower than pond scum. Trust me, Marti. I know what she’ll think, I know what she’ll say, I know what she’ll do because it’s exactly what I’d have done before…” Leigh sat back down. “Screw you, Marti. Screw you big time.” She rubbed her brow. “And if I say no to your little scheme?”

“I call who I need to call and say a few words about the vice president’s ghostwriter and her professional past. He’ll have to sack you. No one will ever publish a piece of nonfiction that you’ve written.”



“I suppose your friends down at the bar know. Dee, and the lovely librarian? The gorgeous boy you took home?”

“No one but me, Leigh. It wouldn’t be much of a secret if I’d spread it around.”

“How did you put it all together? From seeing me at that funeral?”

Marti went to the other room, got her bag, and brought it back to the kitchen. She flipped the flap and pulled out a newspaper folded in half. “When I first saw you two years ago I had no idea who you were, other than Timmy’s rumored afternoon delight. My mother died in May, and I had to move Dad into assisted living. When I was clearing out the house I came across newspaper clippings she’d kept. She was good at that. My father once raised the largest pumpkin in Pennsylvania. One October day it was front page news. So was another story. That one didn’t catch my interest right away; busted journalists are really only interesting to other journalists, I suspect. But the picture grabbed me. I recognized you from seeing you at the funeral. By the time I found this, word had gotten around that there was someone coming to help the Veep with his new book. Didn’t take much to put it together.”

Leigh didn’t bother to take the paper, so Marti read the headline. “‘Pulitzer-winning columnist admits fabricating details.’ Nancy Taylor Lee. Was that a hard name to give up?”

“The name was the least of it.”

“I want this, Leigh Burton.”

Leigh picked up the spoon rest. “The girl gave this to her mother?”


“What book did you say it was in? First? Fifth? The eighty-eighth?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It should matter.” She waved the spoon rest. “You know why?”

“Tell me,” Marti said.

“It’s someone’s life you’re digging up, passing around, and looking at. This was an object of affection, it was real, a gift from a girl to her mother. It’s not a goddam fetish.”

“Three nights, Leigh. That’s all she’ll be staying.” Marti shouldered her bag. “Come on down to Dee’s.”

“I have work to do. Please leave.”

“But we have our deal?”

Leigh nodded, eyes still fixed on the small yellow spoon rest in her hand. “A deal.”


How could she have been so stupid? Leigh set the spoon rest down and cleared the table. C
oq au vin
into the trash, dishes into the sink, Scotch back to the cupboard.

Hadn’t she learned her lesson ten years ago? Lies were a trap. Ambition, survival, the perfect column, a place she and Emily could call home—let desire for something take hold too tightly, and the trap snaps shut. She should have known better.

When did you turn stupid?
Good question. Chase had thrown it at her during their final conversation, which in truth hadn’t been much of a conversation, more like a high-volume one-sided tirade on his part just a few hours before it all hit the fan, before the wires got hold of the two-paragraph item he and his father had decided to run in the
Columbia Observer
and the other papers in the family’s newspaper empire: Observer
columnist admits making up details in Pulitzer-winning series on Ft. Jackson prostitute ring.

She couldn’t have angered and humiliated Chase and his family any more if she’d been part of the ring, which did exist, though that hardly mattered, once it was revealed she’d embellished the stories and filled in some blanks with details that existed only in her own imagination.

The rumors and whispers had grown too loud, and finally Chase had confronted her, and she’d admitted that she’d made-up parts of the award-winning columns. And there were a few others too, she confessed to him, where sometimes she made up people and events and interviews that never existed in order to buttress scant information.

“I’ve never done this before, Chase, I swear. All those years reporting in DC and Chicago, never. There’s something about living here, this place… Why did we come here?”

He’d stood there, horrified, in his perfect gray suit and his crisp white shirt. Oh, god…she could still feel the starch of those shirts under her palm.

He’d stood there, speechless, while she kept talking, confessing, spilling everything. Finally, exhausted, she’d placed her hand on his shirt and said, “Chase, I know this is a mess for the family. Let’s leave Emily with your mother for a few days and you and I go to the beach house and wait until it blows over.”

He’d turned on her then. Slammed his palm against the kitchen counter and kicked a cupboard door and shouted, “You lie to the world and you lie to me and you think we’ll make it better by going to the beach for a few days? Jesus, Nancy. When did you turn stupid?”

When did you turn stupid?
It was the last thing he’d ever said to her. The last time they’d been in the same room. After that, the lawyers, his mother, and two successive wives handled all communication as she was severed from the family, the business, Emily.

After years of good and honest work she’d lied in a few newspaper stories. Her one sin, but it carried the sudden deathly weight of a guillotine.

Part Two


There’s one true thing about a river: You can’t grow up near one, visit one, fish or boat or swim in one and not think of the possibilities that exist somewhere else. Stand on the edge of any river for just a few minutes and you’ll soon be thinking about where the river is headed. What lies downstream. How to escape.

Ida May Turnbull left her hometown when she was eighteen and went east to college. After she’d graduated from Vassar, she lived a year in New York, then four in Paris, where she met and fell in love with a young man from Minneapolis. They hurried into a marriage that lasted three years.

Right after the wedding, before things were going bad, they moved back to Minnesota so he could work in his father’s bank. Ida May spent the first year of the marriage hoping that what she was discovering about her husband wasn’t true. But when he didn’t quit drinking or slapping her or whoring at the roadhouses out by Lake Minnetonka or cruising for boys in the park near his downtown office, she gave up wishing and started plotting her escape.

She spent the remaining years of the marriage writing. In the sunroom at the front of their Minneapolis house that was almost within sight of the Mississippi, she wrote the first of eight novels for children that she ever after claimed were based on her own childhood and adolescence.
Little Girl, Big River
was an immediate success, universally praised for both the fine writing and the pen and ink illustrations by the well-known fashion illustrator Dara Seville. Ida May took the money from that book and ran from the banker’s son to New York. She wrote seven more novels about the young girl named Maud, her best friends Lucy and Laura, and her charmed, happy life as the only child of a young, widowed doctor in a Minnesota town on the Mississippi River.

Ida May Turnbull published the final book in the Little Girl series when she was forty-five. It was the last thing she ever wrote, except for letters to friends and replies to fan mail she received over the next thirty years. The books continued to sell well all that time, and she died a wealthy woman.

A few years after her death her young heir—a goddaughter’s son; Ida May never remarried or had children—became even wealthier than the author could ever have dreamed of when he sold the TV rights to the books and a sentimental series based loosely on the original stories began an eleven-year run. Suddenly there were millions of fans all over the world. Many of them began making pilgrimages to Pepin, expecting it to be exactly like the town in the books, River Valley. When the show at last was cancelled, a group of devotees bought the house that had been used as the home in the television series and donated it to the town of Pepin. It was moved two thousand miles on a flatbed truck (followed the entire way by a caravan of fans) and dedicated as a museum amid much pomp and ceremony on the 100
anniversary of Ida May’s birth.

What no one mentioned during that event, or during any of the regular Little Girl festivals, was that in real life Ida May Turnbull and her mother were not welcome in Pepin and that the close relationship with the two friends that was the backbone of the series was entirely fictional.

BOOK: Venom and the River
2.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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