By Michelle Huneven
Hardcover, 302 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25.00
The first thing Millicent Hawthorne did after scheduling her surgery was to enroll her daughter Joey in a summer typing class at the local high school. Joey was twelve and had never set foot in a public school, but she'd refused to go to camp that year, and Millicent wanted her occupied.
First-level typing was at the end of a long corridor in a double-sized classroom where hulking blue typewriters with blank keys sat on each desk. A wall of windows overlooked a courtyard of blooming roses.
Although she would not make a single friend among them, Joey was intrigued by her fellow typists, especially the girls with their defiantly short skirts, long, straight hair, and expert makeup. How could they be so easy with one another? They tried to draw Joey into their huddles at the break, then left her alone, for which she was grateful.
Joey was instantly good at typing, surprising herself. She assumed she'd be bored by its lack of content. Typing, she found, was like playing the piano, minus the tones. A-S-D-F-J-K-L-Sem caught in her head like an arcane chant, a secret alphabet. Class got out at eleven fifty-five, and Marlene, the Hawthornes' housekeeper, would be waiting out front in her red VW station wagon. Together, they drove back to the house, where Marlene made crustless ham and butter sandwiches, one of the few things Joey would eat at that time.
The first week Joey was in typing class, her mother had a radical mastectomy. The doctors, claiming success, sent her home. When Joey went in to say hello, Millicent, an athletic six foot one, now seemed like a small, folded-up packet of herself, with eyes so sunken, Joey saw the contours of her skull. Millicent reached out a hand, and Joey, taking it, experienced the curious sensation of having her legs turn into water. The home nurse said she'd fainted, but Joey insisted that she never lost consciousness.
It soon became obvious that something more than pain was impeding Millicent's recovery. She went back into the hospital, and the doctors found a system-wide fungus and a new, invasive form of cancer inher spine.
Because Joey had collapsed after her mother's first surgery, she was not allowed to visit, at least not until Millicent had recovered somewhat. Joey had no doubt this would come to pass, because nobody told her otherwise and because one night her father asked her to help him pick out a gift for her mother's birthday four months away. They decided on an add-a-diamond necklace from the Gump's catalog, clearly a gift for someone with many birthdays to come.
During her fifth, penultimate week of typing, Joey walked out of the old brick high school to find not Marlene, but her tall, dazzling uncle Brice leaning against his Studebaker pickup. Hi, beautiful, he said. Marlene was running an errand, he explained; Joey's father and grandmother were at the hospital. And I, he said, am at your service.
The family had drifted so rapidly into extremity that their long-held rules — no public schools, no discussing problems — had given way like spiderwebs. Thrilled as she was to have her renegade uncle fetch her from school like a common babysitter, Joey knew slippage when she saw it.
Brice was her mother's kid brother. He was twenty-eight and had already burned through his inheritance, more than a million dollars. Joey's father, in rare good humor on the subject, said that it was breathtaking and almost admirable how Brice, in an attempt to recoup the initial heart-stopping losses, had managed to obtain and lose trust money he wasn't even due to receive until he was thirty-five.
Brice was six foot four, with dark gold hair, overly tanned skin, and a nose he referred to as "the big old hook." Joey loved him thoroughly and irrationally and planned to marry him the moment she turned twenty-one and came into her own trust fund. (She'd heard there were states in the Deep South where uncle and niece might wed.) Joey dreamed of restoring Brice to the lifestyle and financial bracket where he rightfully belonged, although she also imagined dispatching her money with the same profligacy with which he'd already flown through his, if only for the sheer, exhilarating blur of it.
Clutching her flat typing manual against her chest, too smitten to speak, Joey climbed into the tobacco-scented cab of the rare Studebaker and Brice drove them to the Bellwood Hotel for lunch.
Joey's parents' best friends, Cal and Peggy Sharp, owned the Bellwood. Cal had inherited it from his father, and did what he could to keep it running in a town where the Sheraton, Hilton, and Doubletree had cornered the convention trade. Cal shut down two floors, rented residential suites to wealthy widows, booked offbeat conventions (rare books dealers, grandfather clock collectors), and housed two private clubs: the Downtown Club, where membership could be purchased, and the more exclusive, invitation only, Mojave Club.
Joey's father, Frank Hawthorne, was on the board of the Mojave Club, and the Hawthornes used the Bellwood as their second residence. Whenever Millicent called in the painters at home — she did that a lot — the Hawthornes moved en masse to the Bellwood's penthouse. And until their large, architecturally significant but deeply flawed glass-and-concrete foothill home had air-conditioning installed, the family sought refuge in those refrigerated rooms during heat waves. Frank and Millicent Hawthorne were both famous for their tempers; each time one or the other stormed out of the house, Joey and her two brothers knew where to find them.
The July day Brice drove Joey to the Bellwood, it was a hundred degrees out, dry and bright and as still as glass.
Brice was not a member of the Mojave Club. He never could've managed dues, even if he'd finagled an invitation. But with Joey trotting alongside, he headed straight into the Mojave dining room with its filigreed columns and mahogany wainscoting. The tables were padded and double clothed, the sterling polished, the water glasses heavy. Huffy, the Mojave's maitre d', glided toward them on the diagonal in an attempt to steer Brice toward a middle table, but Brice sailed past to claim a coveted window booth.
Since returning from his four-year international spending spree last January, Brice had worked for Cal Sharp, who also owned the Lyster apartments on Avalon Street, where Brice was the resident manager and renovator. The Lyster had seen better days, and Brice's job was to reverse its course. Joey's father referred to the four-story faux chateau as "the ever-listing Lyster." Hello there, Brice, he'd greet his brother-in-law. How's life at the ever-listing Lyster?
The waiter brought Brice a beer in a V-shaped pilsner glass and Joey a Coke in a brandy snifter, her preferred glassware of the moment. She was just beginning to wonder what she and Brice would say to each other when she heard her name.
Joey, my girl. Cal Sharp stood over her, tall and important in his silvery suit and matching hair. His wide hand cradled the back of her head. His cologne was sharp, citric; and his other hand, resting on the tablecloth, was perfectly manicured, the nails pink and so smooth. You just missed March and Stan. They were here for breakfast, he said quietly, his grip tightening on her scalp. They'll sure be sorry they missed you.
March was Joey's age, but Stan, two years older, had been her great companion growing up, until he became a tennis star last year. At the Mojave Spring Fling he and Joey had ditched March and climbed up the fire escape to sit, swinging their legs off the side. There, Stan explained that if they were seen together so much at the club, people would think they were boyfriend and girlfriend. And while they would always be friends, he wanted a different kind of girl for a girlfriend, a pretty girl with long blond hair who was also an excellent tennis player.
You doing all right there, sweetheart? Cal murmured, leaning down. Everything okay?
His large male face so close to hers made it impossible to speak. Cal Sharp had never taken such notice of her before. And his eyes were growing red around their rims.
We're all praying for your mom, he said quietly. You know that, we're praying as hard as we can.
Oh. Her mom. That's right.
Most remarkably yet, Cal kissed her forehead. Then he kept his hand on the back of her head and talked to Brice about awnings for the Lyster's south-facing windows.
The waiter brought Brice a small club steak with french fries and Joey a crustless ham and butter sandwich. Joey hadn't been to the Bellwood since rejecting lettuce some days back, and seeing the thin green line dividing the pink meat and the white bread, she slid into what her mother called a fit. Joey never agreed with this term. Wasn't a fit some kind of muscle-flapping thrashing about? Whereas, when faced with the insurmountable, she simply froze for anywhere from a minute to an hour. There was no predicting it. Most episodes were brief, brought on by a food or something mean one of her brothers said. Her mother, who was often the only person to notice, was always enraged by what she felt was Joey's willfulness. But Joey really could do nothing other than wait for the so-called fit to pass, as she did now, with Cal Sharp's large hand cupping her head while he and Brice debated whether to buy striped or solid canvas. Cal, noting her untouched plate, tousled her hair. Forgive me, he said. I'll let you two eat.
Not hungry, baby? Brice said when they were alone. Want some steak?
Joey shook her head. Brice ate a couple of fries and glanced at his watch. I have to make a phone call. I'll be right back.
Alone, Joey pushed her sandwich aside and stole two of Brice's fries. The waiter removed the sandwich and, with a wink, set down a thick glass cup of pineapple sherbet, cold and perfect, tasting like snow.
Soon the waiter took Brice's steak away and returned it wrapped in foil in the shape of a swan. Joey took the swan, signed the check, and went looking for her uncle. He wasn't in any of the phone booths. She told the concierge, If Uncle Brice is looking for me, I'm in the ladies' snooker room.
The women in the Mojave Club used the ladies' book-lined snooker room for meetings. The snooker table was gone, replaced by big, comfortable chairs that pitched you back so far it was hard to get out of them. A large volume devoted to Michelangelo sculptures sat on the coffee table. Joey took this up, intending to continue her ongoing study of male anatomy.
Today, however, she paused at the Pieta, one of the few women in the whole book. Mary wore nunlike robes with beautiful folds and had Jesus' skinny dead body draped across her lap. People always referred to Joey's mother as "statuesque," but here was an actual statue, and it had nothing in common with Millicent Hawthorne. Mary seemed so delicate and calm, completely unlike Millicent, who always looked angry, although she always denied it.
Millicent had never fussed over Joey. She was an impatient mother who brushed Joey's fine hair roughly and tied her shoes and sashes with quick, harsh tugs. The two spent little time together; they never cuddled or confided in each other. Joey, in fact, made it a point to stay out of her mother's way so as not to annoy or inadvertently antagonize her. Yet despite the mutually cultivated wide, empty spaces between them, Joey was connected to her mother as if by a fine silver wire. If her father spoke angrily to Millicent, Joey burst into tears. If her brothers back-talked, Joey bristled in her mother's defense—she would not have been at all surprised to learn that she experienced her mother's feelings more keenly than her mother did. That day when Millicent came home from the hospital and Joey took her hand, Joey had inhaled both the dry, sickly-sweet must of sickness and her mother's terror, and it was more than she could bear.
Joey wandered again past the phone booths and over to the elevators. She pressed the button and considered going up to the roof to stick her feet in the pool, but when the elevator doors opened, out stepped Uncle Brice. Oh! There you are, he said jauntily. What shall we do now? How about a movie?
She wanted to go home, change out of her stupid school clothes. But going to the movies and sitting next to Brice in the dark was irresistible.
The Sound of Music was playing at the Big Oaks Revival House. Brice bought a tub of buttered popcorn, half a pound of Raisinets, and a box of ice-cream bonbons. During the previews he nosed the big old hook through Joey's hair until it rested against her ear. I'll be right back, he whispered, and stacked all the food on her lap.
Joey couldn't concentrate. She was embarrassed by the clumsy way that Julie Andrews ran, and by the fake way the nuns broke into song. She kept turning to see if Brice was coming back. There were only three other people in the theater, two men and an older woman who was eating noisily. Then cool moisture oozed from the box of ice-cream bonbons and some of it went on her skirt. Setting everything down on the sticky floor, Joey left for the ladies' room.
Nobody was in the lobby or at the candy counter. She ran upstairs to the lounge and sponged her skirt with a paper towel. She did not want to see the rest of the movie, but there was nothing to do in the lobby, so she returned to her seat and practiced typing on her knees — transcribing the movie as fast as she could.
The ticket takers and countermen were back at their stations, and still Brice had not come. She studied the movie posters in the lobby until people arrived for the second matinee, and she kept studying them as they stood in line and bought their snacks. When the lobby was empty again, she decided to call both hospitals in town to see if Brice was in an emergency room. Since she had no money with her and was too shy to ask for any, she decided to walk back across town to the Bellwood, where Huffy would let her use the phone, if he wasn't too angry about the steak-filled swan she'd left in the ladies' snooker room.
Joey set off down Green Street in the dusty, late afternoon heat. She'd gone about five blocks when the Studebaker pulled up alongside her. Patsy, Brice's girlfriend, smiled in the passenger seat. Hey there, she said.
The truck's door swung open. Patsy had long yellow-blond hair and long, tanned legs and a wide, happy smile that revealed all her perfect, straight teeth. She taught history at a local college, though Joey's father said she didn't look like any history professor he ever had.
Patsy kissed the side of Joey's head. Hi, kitten, she said. How was the movie? Ridiculous drivel? Yeah.
Show her what we got for her, said Brice, and Patsy handed Joey a tiny black velvet box.
Inside was a necklace — a small oval glass pendant on a thin gold chain, with matching oval earrings. All three ovals contained the same picture: the black silhouette of a palm tree and grass shack set against an orange sunset — exactly the South Sea paradise where, Joey imagined, Brice used to live.
Here, Patsy said. I'll fasten it. Her long nails grazed Joey's neck. Look, Patsy said, and parted Joey's blouse at the neck so Brice could see the pendant. You're prettier every day, Patsy said. Isn't she, Brice?
Brice said, I've been in love with Joey since the day she was born.
Were they drunk? Both held bottles of beer between their knees.
Darn, Brice. Her ears aren't pierced. Well, that's easy enough. Patsy threw an arm around Joey's shoulder. We'll exchange these for the unpierced kind.
Or I could get my ears pierced, Joey said. She'd asked to have them done this summer, but her mother said pierced ears were primitive and low-class.
Patsy squeezed her shoulder. They were driving east now, away from the Bellwood, school, home, everyplace Joey knew. Aren't we going to my house? she asked.
I have to stop in at work, said Brice.
He pulled up before the four-story white building, with its skinny turrets and pointy roof. Ah, said Joey, the ever-listing Lyster.
Brice and Patsy burst out laughing. We know whose daughter she is, Brice said.
You girls go on up, said Brice, I'll be there in a minute.
Brice's apartment on the fourth floor had high ceilings, dark polished floors, and almost no furniture, just a few old rugs and some large pillows covered in strange, coarsely woven fabrics.
He's so damn Zen, your uncle, Patsy said, and drew Joey into the kitchen, where there was a table and actual chairs. Sit, she said, Let's see what's to drink.
Joey still held the black velvet box. She opened it and looked at the earrings. Mother promised I could get my ears pierced this summer, she said.
Oh, baby. Patsy touched Joey's cheek. So sorry your mom's so sick.
Yeah, Joey said. And now I'll never get my ears pierced.
Oh, you will. You just walk into any jeweler's, they have a gun, and bang! it's done, said Patsy. I'd pierce them myself right now if Brice had a needle.
Maybe he does, said Joey. I bet he has a needle somewhere.
Patsy gave her a long, compassionate look. Well, let's just see.
In Brice's bedroom, Patsy rummaged in his dresser drawers, taking out several brown bottles whose labels she read intently. Is this what I think it is? she said, looking at a small gray packet. Eureka! she cried. A sewing kit!
Back in the kitchen, Patsy pulled an Olympia from the refrigerator. There's no Coke, she said, but here. She poured beer into a tumbler.
This will help you relax.
Will it hurt a lot? Joey asked.
Just for a second, like getting a shot. Maybe a little worse. Patsy shook half a dozen triangular orange pills from one bottle onto the white enamel tabletop, then a whole rain of tiny yellow pills from the second bottle. Oh, aren't these so teeny and sweet? she said, and, putting her finger on a yellow pill, dragged it from the pile. Using a paring knife, she cut it into two crumblike pieces. Here, she said, giving Joey the smaller piece. This'll take the edge off any pain.
Patsy swept all the pills into her hand and dumped them into a side pocket of her purse, then took the bottles away and returned with rubbing alcohol, cotton, and a bar of soap. Just pretend it's a tetanus shot, she said.
I don't mind shots, Joey said.
Patsy wrapped two ice cubes in a dish towel for Joey to numb her ear. Turning on a gas burner, Patsy held a needle in its flame until the needle glowed red-orange. She swabbed first the needle, then Joey's ear with alcohol. My roommates and I did this in college, she said, and snuggled the bar of Ivory behind Joey's earlobe. Ready?
Pasty jabbed the needle through the lobe and into the soap. Joey heard a sound like rustling paper, followed by a sudden rushing in her head. Patsy pulled the soap away, and Joey's eyes flooded with tears. Her body temperature shot up. Her entire skin was suddenly stretched tight. And then came the pain. Her ear stung as if a bee with a thick stinger was stinging it without end.
Now come on, I gotta get this in, Patsy said. The earring post was thicker than the needle, a thicker stinger yet. Joey tried to pull away, she couldn't help herself, but Patsy held her by the ear. Just give me a minute here, said Patsy.
Ow ow OW, Joey said. Patsy wiggled the earring, her warm, sour breath coming in short, ragged bursts, her eyes wild and, to Joey, terrifying.
Stay still, Jesus Christ, she said sharply, yanking Joey by the ear.
Joey whimpered, and Patsy let go. Okay, okay, she said, try the ice cubes.
They looked at each other, both panting. Joey applied the ice. Cold water ran down her arm.
I'll be fast, Patsy said, and again, terrible stinging and wiggling until Patsy suddenly withdrew. One down, one to go, she said. Let's take a break.
They moved into the living room. Joey was suddenly, deliciously relaxed. She curled up on a cushion and drifted in a glow the same dull yellow as the half pill she'd swallowed. Patsy went to the kitchen and brought back two Olympias. Better shore up for side two, she said, handing Joey a full bottle, then settling down on a cushion beside her. Now you do something for me, okay? she said, stroking Joey's arm. Tell me about Brice's other girlfriends.
Joey tried to think. He used to go with Joan Vashon, she said.
That was before, Patsy said. I mean now.
I thought you were his girlfriend.
Oh, I am. Patsy laughed. Such as it goes. I was just wondering about my compatriots in the cause.
I don't know any of the others, Joey said.
But there are others.
You just said . . .
Oh, I don't know that for sure, said Patsy.
Well, I don't know any others, Joey said.
It could be he likes boys, said Patsy.
Oh, that Brice, Joey said, sounding on purpose like her father. He likes everybody!
Patsy's face froze; then she laughed loudly. That he does, she said. A true omnivore. Preys on everything equally. Okay, sweetness. Patsy tugged on her own ear. Ready for side two? She drained her beer and struggled to her feet. Oops! Gotta pee.
While Patsy was in the bathroom, Joey went to the kitchen table and dug into the side pocket of Patsy's purse until she found another tiny yellow pill. She glanced around for the knife to cut it in two, heard the toilet flush, then stuck the whole thing in her mouth and washed it down with beer.
This time, Patsy said, she'd push the post in right behind the needle, and the second earring did go through with only one long rush of burning pain.
Joey ran to the bathroom mirror. One earring was noticeably higher in the lobe. Behind her, Patsy said, Not bad. Just cock your head to one side, nobody will ever notice.
Brice had to wake them up. Patsy, holding her hands over her eyes, demanded that he take them to the Bellwood for dinner. Brice said it was the Trestle in La Canada or nothing. Move it, he said.
Joey stumbled down the stairs after them, her feet as heavy and unmanageable as bricks. In the truck, she fell back asleep between them, surfacing when Brice shook her. They were in the steak-house parking lot. Did you get her drunk, Pats? he said. Jesus.
They sat in a red leather booth. Brice ordered, and large, squat tumblers of amber whiskey arrived, along with a clear pink Shirley Temple for Joey.
Patsy opened the oversized red menu. I myself am partial to a big ole piece of meat, she said. Aren't I, Brice?
Are you? said Brice.
I like to take a nice wobbly filet and put the whole thing in my mouth . . .
Patsy, Brice said sternly. Cut it out.
She turned to Joey. Uh-oh, she said. We better watch out. Can't make him mad. Or, god knows, he'll go make one of his phone calls.
Joey gazed down at her hands in her lap. Patsy leaned in closer. You ever notice he's never in any phone booth? she said. Ever wonder where he goes when he makes one of his calls? Hard to believe men's rooms are so entertaining.
Keep it up, Patsy, said Brice, and I will leave.
But he winked at Joey, indicating that he and she would hightail it out together. Joey was willing to leave right then and there, and hoped that Brice was calling the waiter over to ask for the check. Another round, my friend, he said.
In the long silence, Joey dozed again. Waking briefly, she spotted a beet slice leaking its pink ink onto white salad dressing; she couldn't get anywhere near such a thing, so sank back into sleep. Next an oval steel platter appeared, with a slab of charred meat, a foil-wrapped potato, and adorable fluted paper cups of chives and sour cream. Joey ate
some potato, but chewing was an effort. Neither Brice nor Patsy was eating either. They sat, closer now, drinking.
Patsy saw Joey looking at her. Hi, gorgeous, she said thickly. You are jus' so gorgeous. She snuggled against Brice. I need another drink, baby.
Even Joey knew another drink was not what was called for—and didn't Brice see that in addition to the glasses they held, there were already whole new drinks on the table? But Brice raised a hand for the waiter, and another round arrived. Joey now had three undrunk Shirley
Temples. She fished out the cherries, ate them, and—although she knew
better, knew her mother would never have tolerated such a thing—lay
down on the booth and slept.
When Joey woke up next, Patsy was grabbing onto her arm so hard it hurt. Ow! Joey cried. Quit it.
Let go of her, Pats, said Brice, who was outside and trying to pull Patsy out as well through the driver's side door. Patsy held on to the steering wheel with her other hand, the one that wasn't gouging Joey's upper arm. No, no, no. Patsy was sobbing. No, Brice. I don't want to go home.
Joey saw then that they were parked in the driveway of Patsy's little white bungalow up in Altadena. Joey had been there once before, with her parents, for Brice's last birthday.
C'mon, Pats, Brice said, softer now. He reached in and, one by one, uncurled Patsy's fingers from the steering wheel. Just when he got all five fingers free, she re-clasped it. This happened two, three, more times, until Brice finally managed to give a good yank at the exact moment all of Patsy's fingers were free. Patsy grabbed onto Joey and pulled her out of the truck as well, and Joey's back hit the running board as she slid down to the ground.
Brice shoved Patsy toward the dark bushes behind them, then grabbed Joey by her torso as if she were a baby, lifted her up, and swung her back into the truck. Joey knew he didn't mean to hurt her, though his fingers dug into her, and she knocked her funny bone against the steering wheel. Ow, ow, Joey cried, and slithered across the bench seat away from him just as Brice slammed the door. Rubbing her elbow, which hurt like crazy, she sat up and watched Brice catch Patsy and hold her in his arms until she stopped trying to get away. He lifted one hand off her back and made a motion to Joey that she understood: lock the truck's door. The button going down sounded like a gunshot.
Brice managed to get Patsy around the front of the truck and up into the house. Lights came on. Joey could see into the living-room window, the white bookshelves, and the big brown wing of an open grand piano. The house was set far back from the street, the front yard was a dark lawn with tall shade trees that seemed like a beautiful park. Joey herself lived with her family six miles out of town on five acres of scrubby chaparral and crumbling granite boulders in a huge, mostly
glass house designed by an architect named Halsop, whose neck Joey's father perpetually yearned to wring. Joey yearned to live in a plain wooden home with a bow window, just like Patsy's, in a neighborhood with big trees and straight streets you could roller-skate on, and next door neighbor kids to play with.
Waiting for Brice to come out, Joey was suddenly, acutely thirsty. She'd get out and go look for a spigot, but if he caught her, Brice might get angry again. So she stretched out on the seat and when she woke up next, the truck was moving, with Brice at the wheel.
Where are we? she asked.
Well, look who's awake.
She saw then that they were driving down Lake Avenue, the city lights shimmering below.
What pills was she on? said Brice. Do you have any idea?
No, Joey said.
You doing okay?
You know what? Brice looked down at her. You're a real good girl.
She assumed that he'd cut west soon to take her home, but he drove through downtown Pasadena to the Bellwood instead. I have to talk to Cal Sharp. Then I'll call someone, he said, and find out what in the hell I'm supposed to do with you.
The Bellwood lobby was deserted except for the new night concierge with the snotty English accent. While Brice went to look for Cal, Joey drank out of the drinking fountain by the ladies' room until her temples throbbed. Using the repeating pine cone pattern on the carpet, she played listless, makeshift hopscotch down a side hall until she came to an unattended housekeeping cart by the service elevators. She helped herself to a foil-wrapped chocolate and one small shampoo. A key sat in the service elevator controls, and just to see what would happen, Joey turned it. The doors opened, so she got in and rode all the way up to the roof. The elevator let her off behind the wet bar by the pool house.
From Blame by Michelle Huneven. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.