The Lonely Polygamist By Brady Udall Hardcover, 602 pages W.W. Norton & Co. List price: $26.95
Out in the bright lights and noise, Golden was overcome by a wave of dizziness, and suddenly felt vulnerable again. He wished he'd taken more time in the closet to gather himself, to prepare a defense. As he climbed the stairs, a gang of children pulsing around him like a school of fish, he decided he wanted it over with. No more faking it. He would offer no apologies or excuses. He would place himself at their mercy.
The wives were gathered in the upstairs kitchen, all three of them, just as Clifton had said. Golden had installed the upstairs kitchen so Nola and Rose-Sharon would have the option of cooking for and feeding their families separately. Not much more than a galley kitchen, it turned out to be too small for even one of their families, and was used only when the kitchen downstairs couldn’t accommodate the cooking and cleaning for several dozen people. Slowly, Rose-Sharon was converting it into what Golden thought of as Estrogen Ground Zero: its drawers were filled with tools of womanly crafts, of knitting and needlepoint and tole painting. On every available section of wall space were hung portraits of kittens and poodles and elaborate framed embroideries that declared BLESS THIS HOUSE and LOVE IS SPOKEN HERE. Macrame and beadwork dangled from the ceiling, and the countertops and windowsills were decorated with doilies and little pincushions in the shapes of smiling tomatoes and plump snowmen. The air was thick with rose-petal potpourri and lilac-scented candles, and Rose-of-Sharon had recently plastered the walls with daisy wallpaper so bright it made Golden feel like he was in a room full of popping flashbulbs.
Golden tried to make sense of their conversation, but the constant hiss of water in the sink made the voices blur into one another. His back pressed to the wall, he performed a maneuver that involved craning his neck and holding his head at an extreme angle so he could eyeball the situation without being spotted. Rose-of-Sharon was at the table, sucking on her shirt collar, carefully mapping out a new quilt on a sheet of graph paper. Nola and Trish were out of sight, probably standing at the sink.
Golden took a moment to deliver two generous squirts of Afrin nasal spray into each of his nostrils. All his life he'd had the bad habit of sneezing when he was nervous -- anxiety and dread would build like a physical pressure inside his head, and the slightest itch or irritation of the nasal cavity would trigger a great, ripping sneeze, the sound of which could make children cry and adults recoil as if a grenade had gone off. The spray was the only thing he'd found that kept the sneezing in check, he wanted to make sure he didn't give his position away until he was absolutely ready.
He gave himself a quick once-over and found his bootlaces untied, his shirt untucked, and the back of his left hand covered with a residue of barbecue sauce and dog slobber. Doomed, he tied his laces, patted at his hair, and tried to wrestle his shirttail into the tops of his jeans until he gave up, nearly yanking his shirt clean off in a spasm of frustration. The heck with it. No more stalling, we was going in. He started forward, paused, stepped back to check his zipper.
One more toot of nasal spray, one more breath mint for good luck, and he was ready. In was he considered to be an act of reckless bravery, he strode into the kitchen, put his hand on Rose-of-Sharon's shoulder, and, with all the confidence he could muster, croaked, "Hello, girls."
Nola and Trish, who were indeed standing together at the sink in a rising curtain of steam, did not turn around. Rose-of-Sharon's shoulder, soft and pliant when he first touched it, now felt like something made of wood. Trish cast a quick, nervous glance back at him and Nola fished a basting pan out of the dishwater, went to town on it with a ball of steel wool.
"Sorry I'm so late," Golden said. "Had to wait two hours for the darn electrician --"
Rose-of-Sharon slipped from under his hand, ducking, and went to the drawer next to the stove, where she began sorting a collection of embroidered hot pads and oven mitts. Such an act of hostility, even one so mild, was so unlike her that for a few moments Golden's hand hovered in midair as if he really couldn't believe there wasn't a woman's shoulder positioned firmly beneath it.
Now all three women had their backs to him and in the sudden silence of that room he knew that minty breath and tied bootlaces weren't going to make a bit of difference. The wives waited for him to say something but his tongue hung in his mouth like a hunk of old bread. He sat down at the table. Unaccountably, he needed to pee again.
"I've been looking for you downstairs," he said. "The kids didn't know where you were."
There was a drawn-out silence, broken by the clank of dished, the whang of a cookie sheet. Finally, Nola sighed. In a tone that sounded, if you didn't know any better, quite jolly, she said, "Hey, girls, we've been discovered! Ha ha! Wives ahoy!"
Nola could always be counted on to break the silence; she simply didn't have the capacity to keep quiet for long. She was a bosomy, wide-bodied woman with a barroom laugh and a small, pouting mouth of a child. Rose-of-Sharon had her younger sister's freckled skin and pale green eyes, but that was where the similarities ended. She was long-boned and big-jointed, and he face was handsome, sometimes pretty if the shadows fell across it the right way, but her face almost always took a back seat to her hair, which was done in a new style nearly every week. She and Nola ran the Virgin County Academy of Hair Design in town. Nola, the head stylist, used Rose-of-Sharon as a sort of hairstyle guinea pig, and, if the style came out well, a walking advertisement for the academy. Tonight Rose-of-Sharon's hair was done up in a way that made golden think of the word milk-maid. The sisters had shared Bog House for the entire eleven years of its existence and Golden had never once seen them argue or disagree.
"You're mad at me," Golden said. "Why don't you yell and get it over with? Throw a plate at me? Something?"
"We're not going to yell at you," Trish said.
"Oh, we'll see about that," Nola said. "And if we hadn't just taken the trouble to was all these dishes you might have gotten that plate you were asking about." She stepped back from the sink and whapped Golden across the shoulder with a dish towel. Nola was always whacking him with something or other, usually as demonstration of her affection for him, but this dish towel had more of a sting to it than he was used to. He rubbed his shoulder and wondered if everybody in the house was going to take a shot at him before the night was out.
"Nola," Rose-of-Sharon said. By the tremor in her voice, he could tell she was about to cry. Golden hoped it was because she felt bad about turning her back on him; he needed any scrap of sympathy he could get.
"I'm sorry," Golden said. "I'm real, real…sorry. Terribly. About everything."
"Sorry's nice," Nola said. "Real, real sorry, oh that's pretty good too. But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to leave it where it is or are you gonna make us haul it out back and break it up into kindling?"
Golden looked up. "Kindling?"
"Or maybe we could put it out in the Spooners' pasture," Trish said. "That way their mangy cows could have a seat when they get tired of standing around looking stupid."
All three women laughed, each in her particular way. Nola, loud and hooting; Rose-of-Sharon with her hand clapped over her mouth; Trish, like an evil witch in an old black-and-white movie: eee-eee-eeeeeeeeee. Golden had nothing to do but sit at the table with his mouth half open.
Excerpted from The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Copyright 2010 by Brady Udall. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.