Laura Rider's Masterpiece
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2009 Hamilton, Jane
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780446538954
JUST BECAUSE LAURA RIDER HAD NO CHILDREN DIDN’T mean her husband was a homosexual, but the people of Hartley, Wisconsin, believed he was, and no babies seemed to them proof. They also could tell by his heavy-lidded eyes that were sweetly tapered, his thick dark lashes, his corkscrew curls, his skinny legs and the springy walk, and the fact that he often looked dreamily off in thought, as if he were trying to see over the rainbow. In the municipal chambers at a public meeting, a town councilman had once said that Charlie Rider needed a shot of testosterone. It was a mystery to Laura that in Hartley, population thirty-seven hundred, people who had never been to a gay-pride parade or seen any cake boys that they knew of outside of TV actors, were so sure about Charlie. She assumed that, like any place, the town was laced with fairies, not visible to the naked eye, but Charlie, she could testify, was not one of them. Laura herself had not been to a pride parade, but her personal experience included her flamboyant uncle Will, her outrageous cousin Stephen, her theatrical playfellow Bubby from the old neighborhood, and also Cousin Angie, who had tried to shock them all by having a lesbian phase in college. No one in the family, it turned out, cared.
Mrs. Charles Rider was the one qualified to set the residents straight about her husband, not because of her expertise with her various beloved queens, but because of her long life so far with the man himself. Make no mistake, Laura would have liked to say, Charlie Rider was crazy about women. Charlie was not squeamish. Charlie, if they must know, worshipped the pudendum. She wanted to lambaste the town, to tell them that the cruelty he had endured through his school years had been grossly misplaced. In the bedroom he was not only at the ready, always, he was tender, appreciative, unabashed, and, incidentally, flexible. A night with Charlie was equivalent, both for burning calories and in the matter of muscle groups, to doing the complete regime of the Bowflex Home Gym. Charlie emphatically was not fag, swisher, fembo, Miss Nancy, chum chum, or any of the other names he’d been called since second grade. It had always impressed Laura that a town that thought it had so few gays had so many labels for the aberration that was supposedly her husband.
The real problem was that, after twelve years of marriage, Laura had become permanently tired of his enthusiasm. She’d realized that if you gave an inch you were in for the mile, that if you were even occasionally available he assumed the welcome mat was always on the stoop. She disliked the whole charade of fatigue or preoccupation, but she hated, too, how the pressure of his need had jumbled not only her body but her brain. She was losing her mind, losing her ability to stay focused and organized. When he hung around her study after dinner, when his sighs seemed to blow through the house, she knew she’d have to give up her beautiful, well-thought-out plan for a productive evening. And for what? Come morning, there he’d be, eyeball to her eyeball, fresh, apparently, as a daisy, as if months, not hours, had passed since the last full-body slimnastic routine.
Both before and after she’d quit sleeping with him, she’d read articles and books about sexual fatigue. There were features in women’s magazines, often with photographs of bombed-out wives, shoulders sagging, bags under the eyes, sitting on perfectly made beds. Laura understood that she was among millions, that she was another casualty in what was clearly a national epidemic. She had explained it to Charlie as kindly as she could, saying that, just as a horse has a finite number of jumps in her, so Laura had used up her quota.
“No more jumping?” he said. “Not ever?”
“I can’t,” Laura said. “I love you, but I can’t.”
“What if we take down a few of the fences on the course? Lower the bars? Shorten the moat by the boxwoods? How—how about trying a—”
“I’m sorry,” Laura said, and in the moment she did feel a little rueful. “Charlie, I am sorry, but can’t you see? I’m out to pasture.”
Her secret fear about this new phase of their life was that, without his one superb talent, which, she granted, had given her hours of pleasure and even, she would say, fulfillment—without that contribution to the household, she wondered if he actually had all that much else to offer, if he would prove to be worthless. What a terrible thought! She didn’t mean it. But might he be like a quarterback who, once retired, didn’t have the smarts to buy a restaurant chain or a fitness club? When such ideas, unpoliced, crept up on her, she strenuously defended Charlie to herself. He had a multitude of virtues: his help to her in their business, his sunny nature, his ability to make jokes about catastrophes, his flights of fancy, and the fact that when they made up stories together about, for instance, their own cats, they were so united in their invention it was as if they inhabited the same brain.
Aside from the Riders’ separate bedrooms, there were several details about Laura that the people of Hartley would have thought they had no need to consider. They knew she was artistic with plants, but landscape and horticulture were subjects they believed a girl could learn about by looking at seed catalogues. They did not know that she had lived with her sister for a year, and nearly every day gone to the University Library to study garden books. Also, she read novels, a habit none of her friends, and no one in the family, shared. It was a quirk her sisters would think was an affectation—Laura, the community-college dropout, trying to show off. It was because of this imagined censure on Laura’s part that she was sensitive about—and, indeed, embarrassed by her hobby. No one knew that she had read every single one of the TV Book Club novels; that is to say, she read them all until the format changed, until the show featured only dead authors. Laura had stopped cold the summer the nation of viewers were to read three books by William Faulkner. She quit after thirty pages of the first for reasons she believed that anyone interested in a comprehensible story-line could understand.
In addition to her secret pleasure in reading, Laura enjoyed writing. Nothing serious or big or personal, no journal stuffed between the mattresses, no shoe box filled with smudged pages, no amazing blog that had made her famous in cyberspace. She was satisfied with a small stage, and had nearly enough bliss using her talents to take care of the correspondence for the landscape business she and Charlie owned. She prided herself on the connections she made with her customers through her e-mails and the newsletters, communications that were general and at the same time, it seemed to her, confiding. It is to my great surprise that my delphiniums still keep coming up, year after year. This method of relationship was far more gratifying to her than speaking by phone or in person. For one thing, she was an entirely different Laura on the screen; she liked herself far better in print. It was curious, that she was so much more interesting and witty and sure when no other human being was present, when the correspondent was nothing but an idea. She wondered what it meant, that she could only be her ultimate self when she was alone.
“Shhhhh,” she’d begin like a prayer when she entertained her most private fantasy, a vision, a gauzy thing she had never mentioned to anyone. Where she used to fantasize about certain professional men and also about getting a collie, this innermost dream did not flicker, did not fade. The strength of her yearning for it had only grown as the years passed. She would lie on her bed in the spare room where she slept, and close her eyes, and she’d see herself sitting in a wing chair in a long pale skirt, and a cashmere cardigan lightly studded with moth holes. Charlie would say, if she had ever told him, that she was having a past-life experience, a life in which she did not, with utmost care, seal away her sweaters in the cedar chest. In her vision there was usually a cup of tea on the table, and a burning cigarette in a flowered china ashtray, not that she had ever really smoked. How could she describe this castle in the air to anyone? How could she explain how comforting this abiding image was to her? She saw herself being still and thinking. That was it; that was the fantasy. Although she did not know anyone who was a reader, although she’d spent her childhood watching television, and now Nick at Nite was often on until midnight in the Rider house, Laura wanted, in a dress that came to her ankles and in robin’s-egg-blue high-heeled leather Mary Janes, to be an author.
The first time the dream took on real shape, the first time there was an object in her mind’s eye, a material thing, pages wrapped in a rose-colored dust jacket, soft and dense as velvet, was the evening she not only met, but spoke to Jenna Faroli in the basement of the Hartley Public Library. Jenna Faroli! The host of the Milwaukee Public Radio Jenna Faroli Show. Jenna Faroli, the single famous person in the town of Hartley, not counting Tom Lawler, who’d been voted off after three episodes of Survivor; a Mrs. America contestant; and a grandmother who had raised marijuana for her grandson, a dowager who had had to serve time.
Jenna Faroli’s husband, Frank Voden, was a judge on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and though he was prominent, certainly, and important, no one would have cared about him if he hadn’t had his lustrous wife. The pair had recently moved to Hartley, midway between Frank’s court in Madison and the radio station in Milwaukee, in an effort to secure privacy and quiet. Hartley residents tended to be conservative, and yet Laura had noticed a bragging tone in their complaints about the judge. Charlie, in a flash of wisdom, had explained this by saying that the Faroli-Vodens, even if they were leftist fucknuts, were now Hartley’s own.
Whatever people thought of Frank Voden was of little interest to Laura. Jenna Faroli, she was sure, was universally loved by her listeners. Because to listen to Jenna was to love her. There were subtle noises she made when she was speaking—nothing as vulgar as lip smacking, but rather, what sounded like the softest parting of her lips, such delicately made plosives. You could hear her smile, the creases of it; you could hear how she must be leaning toward her guest if he was in the studio; you could hear the sweet urgency of her curiosity. She was an intellectual, someone with range, someone with breadth of knowledge. One morning she might talk with Jane Goodall, and the next a potentially dull person like Alan Greenspan, and the day after, David Bowie. She was able to make even the Federal Reserve interesting, because she knew that somewhere deep within every subject was the land mine of human relations. Laura had analyzed Jenna’s method and had concluded that Jenna could find the story in any topic because she understood that there was no such thing as happiness in the middle of the narrative. Narrative, as a matter of fact, was a word that Laura had learned from the great JF. It didn’t matter if she was interviewing Sharon Stone or a half-dead senator, or a doctor specializing in cancer of the gums, or the man who had caught the largest fish in the state of Wisconsin. Jenna Faroli seemed able to see into anyone’s life and so ask questions that articulated a problem the guest might not even know he had. For some time, she had not been a household name outside of Milwaukee Public Radio’s fame, outside of that small circle of the brainy, but five or so years before, the show had been syndicated, and Jenna Faroli’s voice now rippled out into the nation.
Laura first met her the night she took eighteen potted plants, old and new favorites, to the Hartley Garden Club. The rumor had started a week before: Jenna Faroli was going to join. Laura was going to stand before the twenty-five members, the Hartley High Society, women to whom she would forever be in service. They had asked that she explain the virtues and care of each perennial, and she also planned to show them a crafty way of cheering up a room with container gardens in galvanized-steel buckets wrapped in sticky floral shelf paper and ribbon. As Charlie had said, “They love that shit.”
The Hartley ladies, with their garden club and book club, Friends of the Library, and their college-bound children, had no idea how pretty Laura Rider, through the years, had improved herself, how a decade before, for instance, she had started listening to public radio because an older woman employee, a crank, had insisted upon it in the greenhouse. When Laura listened to authors talking about their books she could actually feel her mind, the ant colony of it, the bustle and movement up there, the building of tunnels, the carrying of food. Her brain, she knew, was improving itself of its own accord.
She had never said a word to anyone about how she considered Jenna Faroli to be her teacher. Charlie, maybe, sensed her infatuation, but not, surely, the extent of it. Here was another essential part of Laura Rider that she could not speak about. No one would understand the solace and the thrill of that phantom place, 90.4 FM, made possible by a bandwidth, made possible by waves as long as a football field. From ten every morning until noon she imagined that she and Jenna were alone in a sunlit room—yes, just the two of them. Laura was at a child’s desk, with the top that lifts, and the deep well inside for crayons and neatly stacked workbooks. Laura, obedient and shining. How she loved slipping into the dream, master and pupil bathed in the warmth of their mutual regard. The idea, though, that in real life she might be in the same small room with Jenna at the garden club filled her with such excitement and such dread she had to pull over twice on the way in order to steady her breathing, and once for fear she might throw up.
Under any circumstances it is surprising and sometimes disappointing, and even unnerving, to see a radio personality, particularly after feeling intimate with the voice, that voice which seems the whole of the person. Laura, unfortunately, had identified Jenna at the grocery store a month earlier and so already had had the shock. She was prepared for the disjunction, for the fact that Jenna was not, as she had imagined, a woman with an ample bosom in a cream-colored suit, a knot of blond hair at her nape, milky skin down her throat, and medium-sized pearls glowing in her ears. Jenna in the flesh was awkwardly tall, flat-chested, dark-haired, and her large wide feet, in her sensible shoes, were duckishly turned out. She was nothing like the beauty her rich, warm voice suggested. Laura had thought how unfair it was that in the twenty-first century, when so much help is available, smart women were still often not attractive, and yet, on the other hand, Jenna didn’t seem to make much effort. She had looked as if she’d taken no care at all, a smudge of lipstick on her shapeless mouth, and two black lines, also smeared, under her small gray eyes. The makeup did nothing to highlight what may have been her best features. She wore silky sack clothing, the sort made for women who have given up. Laura had wondered if it was possible—could it be?—that Jenna had even the smallest inferiority complex when it came to her appearance. How strange that would be, and yet Laura’s love for her would be redoubled if it were true. The more she thought about it, the more she realized how awful it would have been if Jenna were beautiful, how much more terrifying it would have been if Laura had to stand before the Jenna Faroli of her imagination, a woman who was mythically glamorous as well as knowledgeable, wise, articulate, kind, and deep.
Jenna would have occasion to remember that first meeting with Mrs. Rider. She remembered Laura’s apparent sweetness, the moussey drenched look of the blond curls that framed her face, the rosy blush, and the way she’d demurely lowered her eyes and then, as if in that shy moment she’d given herself a pep talk, she’d lifted her graceful head and gazed directly at Jenna. There was the charm, too, of the library’s basement, the glossy salmon-colored paint on the cement floor, the faux-wood paneling, the case of trophies suspended from the ceiling, relics from a long-ago Hartley triumph. Jenna had come to the garden club because she did not want to seem standoffish in her new community, and because she did mean to plant a bed of flowers. She had come even though she despised clubs, especially those that were sure to attract no one but women.
She sized up the group in her first glance. The members were the upper crust, the wives of doctors and lawyers from the surrounding area, or perhaps, she thought, the Hartley women were themselves professional. It was hard to tell. They had good dye jobs, the silver and golden blond streaked through the gray, and many of them wore pleated slacks and matching jackets, and flats on their feet, their arms jangling with bracelets, all of it meant to seem casual. They were standing in tight clusters, as they may well have done on the school yard in seventh grade. Jenna had learned to be careful of her own sex, and although she appreciated a woman’s easy intimacy in the studio, off the air she admired restraint. Off the air she longed for reticence. In the library basement she went straight to Laura’s display, to the table of virgin’s bower, crested iris, lenten rose, and lungwort.
“How lovely,” she murmured, bending over the blooms. She wanted a sweep of beauty in her yard, however that could be had. Often her listeners were eager to meet her, but when they did they stared, trying to put voice and face together, which, Jenna knew, was a struggle.
Laura had squatted down to get her box of brochures from under the table, and when she stood up, there, right in front of her, was her idol. In spite of her rich fantasy life, she had never imagined the first seconds, the introductory moment. “Ha!” was what came out of her mouth on a sharp inhale.
Jenna remembered first thinking that Laura Rider was trying to make the mental leap, trying to square the fact of Jenna’s unruly hair, the ungainly figure, with the disembodied silky voice. Or did the woman have a fever? Her color was high, her wide blue eyes were glassy, her puffy lips parted in a small o. “Are you all right?” Jenna said, reaching across, touching Laura’s forearm.
“Me?” Laura breathed. What she’d give for a second chance, and yet she idiotically said again, “Me?”
Jenna couldn’t help admiring the style of the plant woman, a contrast to the constrained beige uniforms of the garden club members. Laura Rider was wearing a straight denim dress with a toothy shiny zipper down the front as if in mockery—or was it in homage to a farmer’s coveralls? She had boldly cinched it at the waist with a wide leather belt in the muted soft purple of liver. On her the effect was somehow both elegant and humorous.
“It seems warm in here,” Jenna said, “and I was only yesterday with someone who fainted. So now I suppose I’m afraid everyone I see is going to keel over, one by one, all these ladies collapsing. Imagine the sound of those bracelets at the same time hitting the floor, the point of impact.”
Laura burst out laughing, her hands clapped to her mouth. She had grown up in Casey, the next town to the west, and she, the upstart from the rival high school, had dated the brothers of some of these women.
“Is that shock or glee?” Jenna asked, leaning into the table as if the better to see for herself.
Laura wasn’t going to look, but she sincerely hoped that the women of Hartley were observing that, of all the people in the room, Jenna Faroli had chosen to talk to Laura Rider. “I, I played basketball at Casey High.” She was speaking through her smile, through her laughter, the words bubbling from her mouth. “I was on the team, the shooting guard, my fifteen minutes of fame, and one time the sister of Cassie Johnson, she’s over by the flag, tried to beat me up after a game.” Shock or glee? Laura was being interviewed by Jenna Faroli! “I almost married Patty Heiderman’s—she’s the one in red—her brother.” Mark Heiderman was the reason Laura had dropped out of community college, escaped to her sister’s, hadn’t shown her face in Hartley for a year. Mark Heiderman had socked her in the stomach when she’d gotten pregnant, and Patty had slain her verbally in public, at the car wash, when she’d found out Laura had had an abortion.
“I’m sure there is so much in the understory of a small town,” Jenna said, “so much a stranger, no matter how long she lives here, can never know. From the outside, though, I tell you, it all looks wonderfully serene. It seems to us like heaven.” She picked up one of Laura’s brochures. “So—you’re not going to faint even if you secretly wish everyone here would, and you sell perennials, and you do landscaping. Prairie Wind Farm.”
“Yes, yes, we do. My husband, my husband, Charlie, Charlie Rider, and I have had the business for—oh my gosh—over ten years.”
Jenna would remember that, too, the first time she heard his name. “Charlie Rider,” she mused. She knew that she shouldn’t bring up the title of a book to this woman, and yet, even as she meant to stop herself, the sentence was floating between them: “Have you ever read Brideshead Revisited?” Why was she asking? Why did she persist in referring to books when it was obvious the listener would not have read them. “Or seen the miniseries?” Jenna added with little optimism.
Although Laura nodded with great enthusiasm, although she grinned hard, she was sure Jenna would be able to tell that she had never heard of it.
“I say so,” Jenna forged on, “because Charles Ryder is the name of the narrator, a blank slate of a young man, very impressionable, who goes up to Oxford. To study there, that is. He becomes captivated—obsessed, really—by nearly everyone in a wealthy Catholic family. He falls in love with the idea of them. He loves them and observes them and chronicles their downfall.”
“My Charlie,” Laura exclaimed, “would do something like that!”
Jenna thrust her nose into the blooms again and said, “How lucky you are to raise such exquisite things.” She had recently decided that, in the balance and in general, she hated people, but in spite of this new self-knowledge, she couldn’t help finding the individual person interesting and often heartbreaking.
“This is our love, Charlie’s and mine. Our real love is the nursery.”
“How lucky,” Jenna repeated. Why had she mentioned Brideshead? She sometimes disliked herself more than she disliked the population at large. Why lecture this stranger about one of her favorite novels, a wonderfully sentimental book about decline, the sorrow of aging, the loss of love, the end of a glorious era for the landed gentry? It was funny, of course it was, the way Laura had so happily said, “My Charlie would do something like that,” without having any idea that the fictional Charles Ryder was actually a colorless, depressed character. Still, how could the name Charlie Rider come up without Jenna’s mentioning Brideshead?
In an effort to redeem herself, she began to talk. “I’m a beginner,” she said, “and so I feel as if I’m here under false pretenses. I don’t have time right now to be a regular member of the club, or go through the Master Gardener course, but I’m dying to make a garden, to do the actual work, to plant—to get back, somehow, to…” She hardly knew what she was trying to explain, an unusual predicament for her. “I want to be outside and have my hands in the dirt, a primal sort of desire, I guess. The idea that a person can make something as fantastic as the pictures in the books I’ve looked at seems preposterous, all that beauty of your own making. With this garden business I feel naïve and ignorant and arrogant, too. As if I think I could become a brain surgeon by reading a manual, or a best-selling novelist because I like books.”
“Not at all!” Laura cried. From the corner of her eye she could see that Patty Heiderman had rotated 180 degrees to stare in her direction. “We can work out a color palette in relation to the shade and the sun in your yard.” Imagine Jenna Faroli at the farm, sitting in the wicker chair in the shed with Laura, the books spread out on the table, the color wheel before them. It was a reversal of the fantasy: Laura, the teacher; Jenna, the student. She was not as ugly as Laura remembered, or maybe she seemed somewhat attractive—handsome was perhaps the word—because she was speaking. Laura could now fully understand why the radio guests revealed themselves to Jenna in the interviews. In person and in a large room, it was just as if Laura were alone in her car with Jenna on the radio, with that voice, the color of it a warm buttery yellow. “There are many hardy varieties,” Laura went on, reaching over to touch Jenna’s arm, the same gesture Jenna had made a few minutes earlier. If it was Patty Heiderman’s gaze that spurred her to this intimacy, so what? “I could guide you, if you came to the farm, if that seemed like a good idea to you. You can learn as you go and at the same time have fun. You can have real pleasure with the basics.”
“Pleasure with the basics,” Jenna murmured.
“I sometimes tell my customers, I say, What did God know about horticulture when He created the Garden? He probably made it with dumb luck, and there were probably plants Eve later dug up and moved around. But even God at a certain point just had to plunge in.”
Laura was always honest up to a point, careful to explain that the learning curve could be expensive if you didn’t have a watering schedule and if you didn’t fertilize your investment. If you had lousy taste—a problem afflicting many of her customers—then you would be blissfully ignorant of the atrocity out back, the mismatched colors and the inevitable silly impatiens thrown in to cover the dying perennials that Laura had painstakingly advised. It was hard to say who were worse, the haughty, demanding Illinois vacationers, or the relaxed Wisconsin women in their oversized appliquéd shirts, bursting out of their Capri pants. Laura wanted to say to Jenna how impossible it was to remain a nice person if you so much as had eyes in your head; Laura was not nearly as kind, she knew, or as generous, as Jenna Faroli.
If she’d been truthful with Jenna, she would have said she was ready to sell the business, chuck the farm, get out while they were having success. Keeping the place watered and weeded and mowed, managing the employees, coming up with workshops, designing new beds, tearing out the old, dealing with the customers whose peonies weren’t the right color—she had had enough. She would have explained to Jenna that the huge sellers at Prairie Wind, the steel buckets wrapped in shelf paper, planted with geraniums and sweet woodruff, were a rip-off at fifty dollars, and she was embarrassed, too, even though they were high-end, by the terra-cotta angels and frogs and owls, the grapevine wreaths, the wind chimes, the plaster birdbaths. The thought of another season made her want to vanish all of a sudden, to drive off, no note left behind. She could breed dogs, maybe, in a new life, in Nova Scotia or British Columbia. She looked into the gray eyes of Jenna Faroli and she silently asked this question: What, Jenna, is my calling? What is my true love?
Laura wanted to tell Jenna how she had worked to improve herself, in spite of quitting William Faulkner. She had, for a time, read the titles in the Hartley Library’s book club. She hadn’t ever gone to the evening meetings, but she had tried to be loyal to the member that was herself. It wasn’t always easy, because in her opinion some of the books were wordy, dull, interminable. Hello! We don’t have all day here! She often couldn’t help thinking that if the hero and heroine had only been able to get ahold of medication there would not have been any occasion for a story. Holden Caulfield would have been fine on Prozac, and ditto for the Professor in his dusty old house, in the dreary Willa Cather novel that she had not been able to finish.
While Jenna was asking her questions about potting soil and pruning, and while Laura was answering in detail, she was imagining that she was telling Jenna the essential facts of her life. She was saying what she’d never say to anyone else; she was saying, “I think, Jenna, I think I want to write a book.” She was sure, if she said so, that Jenna would spur her on, just as Laura was cheering her on about gardening. It occurred to her, in the middle of the discussion of Jenna’s ailing hydrangea, the six in her front yard, that what Laura most wanted to write was a novel about a plain woman who becomes beautiful. A story that finally discovers what a woman needs and wants, and there in the distance is the man who can meet those requirements, the man coming closer and closer to her, the woman’s beauty snapping into focus as he arrives. She shivered even as she was speaking to Jenna about the wonder of mushroom compost. Although Laura Rider was finished with sex, she was not the least bit tired of romance. She looked into the small but knowing and sympathetic eyes of Jenna Faroli, and she said to herself, I want to write a book about love.