Famous playwright Craig Towle has decided to return to his New Jersey hometown, a suburb of New York City. He arrives with his world-renowned reputation and a new wife who is half his age. It is the 1950s, and the new couple raises plenty of eyebrows—in particular, those of the narrator, an adolescent girl who is full of observations, but not judgments. At the center of this layered novel is the narrator’s unconventional family and their odd fixation on Towle, which goes beyond his mere celebrity. The secrets of their past and the potential involvement of Towle in the family’s lineage intertwine in a potentially devastating turn.
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By Hortense Calisher
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Hortense Calisher
All rights reserved.
"Craig Towle's married a bobby-soxer," my father said, the evening before my mother left him.
My mother never hushed him when he made remarks about real life, whether or not he made them at the dinner table. For one thing, since he was a lawyer, the harsher points of existence often impinged on him in the way of business, where she could not hope to constrict him or follow him. For another, we lived on one of those streets where the existence of, well, real life, could not hope to be concealed.
It was a street that we younger ones already knew was going to be enshrined in our memories, even if our high school teacher and the movies hadn't already told us so. Although we were not in the Middle West of Middle America but in a New Jersey town just off the rim of commuting New York, and our wide street, not Main Street but one of a half-dozen comfortably like it, had no elms, still its maples were large and almost overarching, and the houses were mostly frame. Because of a certain fraying at one end where the factory workers—carpets, furniture, nothing untidy—had their houses, we would never be the estate section, but we were what was called "well set back." We seemed farther from Jersey's farmtowns now than from the city, but front lawns were pretty large and backyards sometimes surprisingly so. The word "garden" was still for vegetables, though we took magazines that dealt only in the ornamental kind and some of the women were inclining that way. In summer, when all down the evening street every father or elder son made a precise arc with the waterhose—girls did not yet—we knew very well what we were and that somebody should be painting us.
I had already tried that particular scene, in a three-by-four canvas now embarrassing me in my paternal grandmother's back parlor. Though her house and ours had much the same conformation, we had made the double parlor into a living room, where such a local scene would not have suited, and I did not want it there, an awkward testimony to all I hadn't got into it. What that canvas had taught me was that although I lived on a street that prided itself as the height of convention, all its under-layers were perfectly clear to everybody—and my brush had not known how to make this evident. Yet I knew quite well how the street's situation had come about, what with three generations working on it.
Did Mrs. Denby, down at the corner, who no longer slept with her husband and shared her elder daughter's bedroom, really hope to conceal this fact by switching back the best bedspread for the benefit of Sunday drop-ins? Or in her heart of hearts did she know that my younger brother, forever underfoot in her house with his bosom pal, her Pat, would one day innocently reveal the pattern of her life to us? Our own family position, with my long-widowed grandmother still in a house of her own instead of having to come to us, was uncomfortably plain to my friend Phoebe, who lived with hers at the neighborhood's border, in one of the four-room factory cottages. Yet my gran did not live separate only because she had the money to do so. All my mother's women friends, who had to cope with her Southern-belle-gone-slop housekeeping whenever our barn of a place was "opened" for some local function, thought they knew why. As well as that a lawyer whose wife had no live-in maid must not be doing well. While Phoebe's gran, a nurse who had at one time hired out to wrap the dead for a living, knew what had on one occasion appeared in a medical book hopefully not accessible to my family's immediate public (and only fully disclosed to me later): that our gran's youngest sister and lifetime legacy, already in long skirts when my grandfather had moved the family here, and later a large-fingered, noble-nosed lady revered all the way from her charities to her cookie jar as "Aunt Leo," had been physically part man.
We sound unmodern. We were not, even as things go now. Drinks served on those summer porches were cocktails, or at least beer, and there were other signs that we saw looming ahead. We were no longer quite a neighborhood. Too many of the men now had city business connections. The women sometimes had little time-chipping jobs "in town"— our downtown. And the tree-shade was going down.
But as a street we were still what I thought my father meant when he spoke of a business deal as an open-and-shut proposition. Front doors and back, to be crept out of or slammed, windows and porches naked or enclosed, washlines to be ashamed of and love-nest paths between, and the garage door in front of which Denby could be found dead drunk. Plus those candlelit dining rooms that, quite without meaning to, showed the permanent presence of indigent relatives. Or the dark house next door to us, with only a single light on for show, whose blind owners, Mr. and Mrs. Evams, taught the classics in braille for free.
We were simply a group of houses able to be still in control of our connections, three generations of those, however we managed them. Wherever there was a peccadillo, or a virtue, somebody was getting at the root of it. In my painting, I hadn't been able to get that going yet. I had the spirit to do it, but unlike at the Evamses', the blind couple next door, it didn't yet show.
Actually, my father was doing well at the time, but had a mistress in the city who kept us poorer than we ought to have been, in more ways than one. As the saying goes, I "never knew." What is never? Why else was I always measuring?
But that night at the dinner table we could all gossip in a way, if each of us privately. As my father's voice perhaps said, his other woman was of a decent age for a man of his years, and Towle's was not. My mother, who like half the women in town had been in love with Craig Towle since he returned, but unlike them had been successful with him, would have noted this. As for me, if I had a special interest—which my parents' glances now recorded—how could I be blamed? I too was a bobby-soxer.
Craig Towle was everybody's business right out, and what a relief that was. Though very modest about his life since leaving town, he was our native son. Born not twenty blocks away from our house, he had attended my school, though few of the elders on our block had known him, for he had had the luck, as some now saw it, both to be born at the frayed end of our street, and to win a scholarship away from it. A craggy man in his forties with a hospitable face, he didn't seem to mind that we knew even more about him than the newspapers did, for though as the papers said, he might have come back to his roots because he had to, we also knew from him that he hadn't done so until when, divorced, with two children at a Pennsylvania boarding school conveniently nearby, and at far too loose ends for a man of his superior meditations, he had reflected that he still owned a house here, never lived in since his parents' time and now aged into the charming. For unlike our own gawky verandahs and bays, the factory workers' homes, though small, had mostly been of ancient stone or brick, with blistered early-glass panes, wide-board floors and pine rather than hard oak, and if very run-down, cobbled walks.
We in turn didn't mind if he was here to get another play out of us, even if he didn't know that yet. On that score we seem to me now to have been more sophisticated than he. We were proud that, whatever he had become since, he had done it entirely out of what he had started with: us—a few blocks down. We couldn't understand why the newspapers thought he should feel guilty about reporting on his own people, even if he had risen above them. Many of our elders had read his plays in the library. Some had even gone to the theater to check on them, even if they never usually did that sort of thing. If he was supposed to know more than anyone else about our class habits, our moody lower-middle to middle-middle aspirations, and our whole country's sad money based nostalgias—then so did we. Also, though we didn't see him very often, he and we had our contacts, and for a man who could express himself better than most of us he didn't seem to be taking things down in any nasty way, or even to be listening too hard. Not any harder, that is, than us. As Mr. Evams, our blind expert on that, and also a real theatergoer, said keenly to my father: "Towle may allot us a murder or two more than we think we have, or deserve. But certainly no more sex."
So there was no criticism of a professional sort, so to speak, from us.
"He's a man of ideas," Gilbert, our neighbor on the other side, said. As one who had been through all the philosophies allied to the restaurant trade, Gilbert was that himself. "Ideas come to all of us unannounced. But to him more so than to most people. And in his own way. Sure, now he's back in the place he got famous on. That could be a mistake. Maybe we'll correct his viewpoint for him, more than he likes."
I could see my father thought Gilbert was planning to. But Gilbert's own trade made for quick summings-up. "Some people fester about what he's going to say next. About them especially. That's nonsense. One of these days, like an idea—we'll just come to him. The he'll put us all together, like a seven-course dinner." What Gilbert had his eye on, he said, was the property. "Theatrical?" my father said, for Gilbert was getting rich. "No—the Towle house." Towle now and then came alone to the restaurant, Gilbert said, and that was where you could see how a mind worked, even with very little talk. For one thing, he hated what the newspapers said about his being here. Once stuffed a whole Sunday Post into a wastebasket, from which the waitress had retrieved it, because of cigarettes of course. "Whatever he does do on us," Gilbert said, "once he's looked us in the eye he'll find an excuse to move out of here. For good."
"Towle gets out of the restaurant without talking to Gilbert?" my father said when Gilbert had gone. "Wonder how he manages it."
My mother, eating chocolates, had not replied.
Towle and the other town wives? They were either home-birds making crepe-paper costumes for the children at the proper intervals, or else loud, leftover office girls with too much Saturday night flair. Even their husbands could scarcely have imagined anything between them and that "classic-looking man," as he came to be called fraternally in the husbands' own banks and garages and hardware stores. Very friendly he could be, too, but otherwise only seen walking his dogs or his weekending children. A man who whatever he wanted would go out of town for it, the town humbly thought, and indeed Towle was often gone. We assumed from the first that we wouldn't be enough for him in any real-life way. Yet, why then, I wondered, had he had to come back to us to check up?
As my mother said when I asked this, "He's learned to live fast. Now he wants to remember how it is to live slow,"—in the same moment offering me her Whitman Sampler box. She was always generous with what she called her vice, but I had no taste for it. What I wanted were the remarks that came with our chocolate-fests. So I would take a piece, to be as polite as her Southern manners had taught me to be, and I suppose, as circuitous. Whitman's were not her favorites, but the best the drugstore stocked. My father supplied her also from a Hungarian shop in the city, or once in a while a red satin three-decker box from a place called Rosemarie, which she accepted with a special smile. These, I assumed, were his atonement boxes, and cheap at the price. The mistress had probably got another whopping coat or ring; surely she must take full advantage of her position. So did my mother.
All this I knew without being told straight out, though she would not have lied. We handled it peripherally. If she somewhat later remarked that she didn't care for fur coats or was glad she already had her family jewelry—two modest necklaces of pearl and garnet, a pendant and a cameo—I could suspect why. How she actually knew what the mistress might have got, or even had found out there was one—and possibly who—was her concern, though she wouldn't have spied. Even if she hadn't been too "social smart," as she called her Carolina shrewdness, she was too indolent. "I like to indie," she would say, claiming her origin for both the word and the deed. "If the ladies want to sweep out my corners when they come to borrow the house for an occasion—well and good." She was fond of these double phrases. Many people are, but she taught me to listen for the meaning of even the simplest. She really did like to lie on a sofa, read novels, and eat her nut cremes and truffles, even if the novels got short shrift in lieu of her own ruminations. Though these were never offered, people grew to know she had them.
"You went to school with Craig Towle's divorced wife, didn't you?" Gilbert asked my mother on another evening on our porch. "What was she like?"
"Yes, we were at school together," my mother said. Seated as always well back of the elders, I wondered if he felt she had corrected him. People who had gone to boarding school said they "were at" instead of "went to," it seemed. My mother, who had been a day pupil in such a school, in the New England town to which her father had been sent north as branch manager of the mill in his hometown, was the only person of that class of education any of us knew. It was agreed that she did not presume on it, but there it was, accounting for what people said was her style—though I didn't think it did. My mother's style lay in always going ahead with what she wanted to do, which she always saw clearly; it was just lucky she was so relaxed she didn't want to do too much.
"His wife's name was Venice," she said now. "Because she had been conceived there, though her people were from Boston, mostly. Her father didn't have to work, but he did. She said the men in her family generally hung around Harvard. We thought they were professors. She didn't like to say they were trustees. Which was nice of her. I went home with her once. They were required to speak Italian at one meal, French at the next, and as far back as during World War I there had been a scandal because the family had refused to intern its Fraulein. Venice was best at Italian, because of her name. They had a retarded cousin living with them, a boy who looked like a frog, to whom they were very kind. They were very kind to me when it was found I knew nothing about sailing, though we were down at the shore. Dorchester, their summer place. Venice's daddy let me wind things on their sloop. Even at the shore her mother had a bulletin board in the bedroom, on which she wrote her causes and the times for them. Venice said the board back home was even bigger. The beachhouse was very plain, but commodious."
"Commodious" was one of my mother's words. I never heard anybody else use it in conversation.
"What's a Froylein?" I asked.
"Governess. German." My mother laughed. "I asked that too. Back then."
"And what did you do, when they spoke those languages you didn't know?"
"I listened," my mother said pointedly. "Like you back there."
My father, nearest me, reached over to pat my hand. I always listened from the rear, he said—like him. He thought I would likely be a lawyer because of that. I was no painter, he said. He was right. But I was no lawyer either.
"Why didn't they switch to English?" I said. "If they were so kind."
My mother hesitated. That is, she poured more coffee for everyone, and tea for the blind Evamses, whose sense of direction coffee confused. It was a chilly September night, late for porches. No one among us drank liquor on Monday nights. "I think I was a cause," she sighed.
The whole porch tittered. The house was real messy just then; that's why we kept to the porch. But our neighbors on either side never failed to come for their Mondays, an off night, as they called it, when Mr. Evams kept no classes, my father never stayed over in the city, and Gilbert closed the restaurant.
"For God's sake," Gilbert's wife, Luray, said, "the way you tease us fish. You Southerners. What did she look like? Craig Towle's wife."
"Venice? Why, she was tall and rangy. Taller than—than most of the boys. Long hair she never cut, and real crisp features. Fine legs, though she never wore heels. Parties with boys—she simply piled up the hair and wore family earrings. You know the type."
Luray wouldn't, as everybody on the porch knew; still, my mother wasn't being mean. If she was circuitous she always gave full measure. She also had a way of talking like whoever she was talking to. It was said that Craig Towle had the same.
Now—Luray was a sexy talker. A big brassy-hair with a brass tongue, she was vulgar in the warm way that made people think she was soft-hearted, but my mother was of the opinion that Luray might be too busy to be, always changing her waistline as she was, and improving her diamonds, and heading the committees my mother would never join. "A looker? You didn't say."
"Oh yes I did, Luray. Blond eyebrows. No breasts."
Excerpted from The Bobby-Soxer by Hortense Calisher. Copyright © 1986 Hortense Calisher. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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