Once upon a time, a few decades ago in a decadent state in the Pacific Northwest, there was a short-lived revolution. But our noble country doesn’t care much for losers (not to mention liberals and libbers), however much they rave about supporting the underdog. While the movement was still propelled by enthusiasm and initiative, it looked like it might take the entire country with it. But when the women gave up, gave in and just plain quit, the whole exciting affair was forgotten pretty quickly. Memories are short in this Mecca of mobility.
I have been delegated to refresh memories and create new myths — or, in other words, to tell the story. The names have been changed to protect the guilty and to protect myself from libel suits; the truly innocent don’t need that kind of protection. Those with longer memories may vaguely recall the incidents which serve as the climax of this narrative. If their recollections diverge from my telling of the tale all I can say is, I’m in control here. The story isn’t mine, but I put it together.
Perhaps to some this will all seem like an imaginary garden which doesn’t even have green toads going for it, but I hope those concerned will forgive me for coloring things up a bit.
This book is dedicated to all those whose jokes and adventures I’ve stolen and then haven’t told right, especially the members of the “dirty dozen.”
What does a woman want?
Women are the weaker sex — so tradition has it. Which would probably mean that they are at a certain disadvantage in the war between the sexes. But why then all the panic through the ages? Women were the heiresses of Eve, tempted and temptress, loose and lascivious, leading men into sin. Women were witches, bitches, agents of the devil and household tyrants; which was almost the same thing in the middle ages, enough to get them burned one way or the other.
Women are the weaker sex. Frailty, thy name is woman. Women have no willpower, they can be seduced at the drop of a hat, getting carried away by passions that are much weaker than those of man, because woman is weaker. Which is why the feminine virtues are rather shallow — as is woman, of course. Passivity and piety and purity were the main ingredients of a woman’s nature a century ago, and the contradiction didn’t seem to bother the Victorians that despite their natural purity, these paragons fell in droves, littering the streets with examples of tarnished virtue to be cleaned up by the likes of Jack the Ripper.
Women are the weaker sex. They aren’t as single-minded as men, they lack the power, the drive of the male. Women come slowly — if they come at all. But when they do come, they come like a cement truck screeching downhill, which makes their arrival rather difficult to overlook. And when they don’t quite make it, they sure are good at faking it.
So maybe women don’t always finish what they set out to do, but they have fun trying. Sometimes getting something started is accomplishment enough.
It all started with a woman.…
In which a brilliant lady of extraordinary proportions barges in on the scene.
Portland, Oregon, 1985
Portlandia arrived in her future home by ship. As she left the barge, she was swamped by thousands of umbrellaed admirers who wanted nothing more than to touch the hand she held with such a compassionate gesture before her. I wish I could have been there — it was a reception fit for a queen. Even the sun briefly left its habitual October haven of clouds in honor of the occasion. She glowed. She gleamed. She lumbered down the street in all her shining splendor, stopping breaths and stopping traffic. As she made her way to the decorative pastel cube where she would be the crowning glory, her unrelenting gaudiness endeared her to the hearts of the masses who turned out for her arrival. The crowd packed along the short six blocks between the river and the fifteen-story, multi-colored jukebox, officially known as the Portland Building, amounted to about twenty thousand. She was a success.
From their vantage point on the corner of 5th and Madison, Lyssa and her friends had an excellent view of the royal entrance. Roxana was busy taking pictures the whole time, undeterred by the drizzle, but Lyssa remained a passive spectator, her tape recorder hanging unused on a strap over her shoulder. Hampered neither by machinery nor any official purpose, Deborah was obviously just along as a spectator.
Lyssa watched the six-ton lady approach, inspired in spite of herself. Portlandia’s four-story stature couldn’t compete with the skyscrapers, but her colossal copper presence, radiant and outrageous, seemed to dwarf everything in sight. Lyssa was surprised at her own enthusiasm: she thought of herself as someone with taste, and this utterly monumental figure was utterly tasteless. Although to judge by the crowds, persevering despite the drizzle, quite a few people were letting themselves get carried away by the statue’s flamboyance. Portlandia’s exaggerated enormity was endearing. Lyssa liked the idea of the oversized woman dominating one of the main downtown buildings, even dominating downtown itself; it gave her a sense of power, as if the gleaming, gold-hued figure reflected on Lyssa herself, as if Portlandia could inspire her to become just as conspicuous.
In the middle of these uplifting meditations, she heard Roxana announce, “God, is she ugly!” as she took another picture.
Deborah laughed, but Lyssa responded with characteristic seriousness. “Objectively, yes. But there’s something about her that I find irresistible.”
“Are you into baroque suddenly?” Roxana asked.
“Her gaudiness seems so honest somehow. She definitely isn’t hampered by any false shyness about calling attention to herself.”
“You do have a point there,” Roxana conceded with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Well, perhaps with time she’ll grow on me, but at the moment I just think she’s an enormous example of bad taste.”
“You seem to belong to the minority,” Deborah pointed out, smile wide as she watched the cheering masses.
“I know. These crowds are incredible.” Roxana focused her camera on a policeman as he reached up furtively to caress the underside of one gleaming thigh hovering above his head.
“I don’t know why you should detest her so,” Deborah said, mischief in her eye. “You make quite a splash with your appearance, too.”
“Yes, but I do it with taste,” Roxana replied with a withering look.
Lyssa looked from Deb to Roxy and back uneasily; she had difficulty at times distinguishing which jokes were joke-jokes and which were get-your-goat jokes.
Deborah only laughed.
It was open to debate whether Roxana made her splash with any more taste than the statue. She was loud and bright and artificial, Elizabeth Taylor-style, her face heavy on the makeup, her fingers heavy on the rings, and her hair jet-black except near the part, where the natural gray showed. Roxana may not have stood out in a crowd like Portlandia did, but the dimensions involved made comparisons difficult. She definitely stood out more than Lyssa and Deborah, who both favored less ornate outfits.
“She won’t be this gaudy forever, you know, if that’s any comfort,” Deborah pointed out. “A few years at most and she’ll lose that glow.”
“What a shame,” Lyssa said.
“And a few more years and she’ll probably turn green,” Roxana predicted. “Can you imagine how that will look with that building as backdrop?” she asked, shuddering.
By the time Portlandia arrived at her future pedestal, the drizzle had let up. Slowly thousands of umbrellas were closed one after another in waves through the crowd like dominoes falling, one of the most pleasant communal experiences Oregon has to offer. The patience of the spectators had finally been rewarded, and they uttered a muffled cheer, whether for the change in the weather or the arrival of their new monumental mascot was unclear.
Deborah, for one, seemed to think it was for the statue. “I can’t believe the enthusiasm,” she said, shaking her head, her eyes bright with enjoyment.
“And all for a work of art!” Lyssa exclaimed.
“You call that art?” Roxana asked.
“It’s a graven image,” Deborah said, trying to keep a straight face. “There are no goddesses in the protestant hierarchy, so the repressed urge to worship the feminine has to come out somewhere.”
Roxana laughed. “It’s no wonder the critics don’t always take you seriously, Deb, when you can’t do it yourself!”
“I know,” Deborah admitted. “It’s a congenital weakness. But just look at her, Roxana.”
“I’m looking, unfortunately.”
“She may be four stories now,” Deborah continued, steadfastly ignoring Roxana’s interruption, “but how big do you think she would be if she stood up? She practically inspires to worship.”
“I’m an atheist.”
Deborah was right, though, Portlandia had the dimensions of a goddess. As she crouched in the streets of the city, huge and bright and female, it was hard to imagine what her connection with commerce was. She looked like she would be more appropriate on a pagan temple.
“Hey, there are Myrine, Lily, and Mercy with the boys,” Lyssa said, pointing and waving.
“Ah, the poet,” Deborah said.
“Because Lyssa’s publishing her poems,” Roxana threw in.
Deborah shrugged and smiled. “We all have to start somewhere.”
“And Cutting Edges is the bottom rung,” Roxana said.
Lyssa gave her a worried look. She knew Roxy envied Deborah her success as an “artist”; Deborah could make a living from her creative efforts, Roxana couldn’t. Deborah’s novels regularly negotiated the thin line between the serious and the trivial, but there was one thing to be said for them — they sold. Roxana took bleak black and white photographs of bare breasts and door frames and organized exhibitions of her work that too few visited. She had to work for the magazine Lyssa ran to keep her in paste and pasta.
“You two are impossible,” she said, laughing hesitantly and waving in Mercy’s direction again. Lyssa had a soft, noncommittal laugh which she usually didn’t make use of unless someone else laughed first.
“You’re not going to attract their attention in this crowd,” Roxana predicted. “And besides, I’m sure Mercy wouldn’t be able to get the boys away from their front row position anyway.” She aimed her camera at their friend, whose copper curls seemed to reflect the glow of the statue, and took a series of shots just as Mercy was lifting her youngest son up to touch a massive finger. “That’s going to be good,” she added.
“So at least you admit that Portlandia’s photogenic,” Lyssa said.
“Oh, I think Mercy’s much more photogenic than she is. I’ve certainly never seen Mercy with such a vacuous expression on her face.”
“Well, you’re right about the expression,” agreed Lyssa, mustering Portlandia’s face critically. Even at a distance, it seemed to be bearing down on them. “But, you know, not even that can diminish my growing affection for her. She grabs the imagination, Roxy!”
“Not mine. But I think I’m going a little farther back to get some shots of her being hoisted to her new home now that the triumphal procession is almost over. She’s too huge to get all in one piece from here.”
“Well, don’t let your disgust ruin the pictures you take,” Lyssa admonished her. “I’m counting on you!”
“If it’s the monumental and magnificent that you’re into these days, then I’m sure they’ll be just right,” Roxana said, as she turned to put a greater distance between herself and the figure she so obviously detested.
“I see a colleague of mine over there that you should try to get a hold of if you get the chance,” said Deborah, pointing to a man in a white suit half a block away who came into view as they made their way through the crowds. “I wonder what he’s doing out here in the boondocks?”
“Maybe he’s gracing our occasion?” Lyssa hazarded.
“Then we really have an event on our hands.” An event was certainly what they had, but it was nothing compared with what was still to unfold beneath Portlandia’s impassive gaze.
* * *
Mercy Kennedy Flunk, thirty-one-year-old professor and housewife, had a harried expression on her plump face as she tried to keep Bruce and Bennie from getting trampled. Lilith and Myrine, somewhat younger than Mercy, were assisting with somewhat more humor, but then, neither of them had children yet. The typical sarcastic seriousness of Myrine’s freckled face was lightened by the smile inspired by the kids’ antics, while Lily, less sedate than her tall friend, was laughing constantly at the stunts Bruce and Bennie were pulling. Lily was a teacher, and she was good with kids. But even with all the friendship in the world, Mercy was starting to get a little fed up; Bruce and Bennie were doing their best to provide the appreciative audience with as many opportunities for laughter as possible.
“Oh, Lily, you kook,” Mercy said. “If you don’t calm down, you know the kids never will!”
“Hi!” Lyssa said, as she and Deborah squeezed through to them.
Mercy’s face lit up when she saw Deborah. Fame hadn’t taken the friendliness out of Deborah. Her eyes in the middle of all the laugh lines were the jolliest blue Mercy had ever seen. The successful authors Mercy had previously met all seemed overly full of themselves — even the homegrown ones. But Deborah looked like she was laughing continuously at the comedy going on around her, and was quite capable of laughing at herself as well.
“Hi, Lyssa,” Mercy said. “Looks like you’re here on business.”
“Actually, I haven’t gotten started on the business yet,” she said, patting her tape recorder. “It’s all been fun until now. Deborah and I have been debating the merits of a goddess-figure in our midst — and irritating Roxana.”
Mercy laughed. “I can imagine.”
“I haven’t made the introductions yet, have I?” Lyssa said, waving a hand at Deborah. “This is Deborah Dobell. Deb; Lilith and Myrine. Mercy you’ve met. But where’s Diana?”
“Probably making music,” Lily replied.
“And what about Matt?” Lyssa asked Myrine. “Didn’t he feel like coming to Portland for the event?”
“Oh, he’s up in the trees,” Myrine said casually, as if that were a perfectly normal place to be.
“Poor Matt!” Lily said. “The way it’s been raining on Portlandia’s parade, it’s probably been raining on Matt too!”
“Up in the trees?” Lyssa repeated. “If you’d said up in the clouds, I would hardly have been surprised. But up in the trees?”
“You mean you’re not informed, Lyssa?” Lily asked with her characteristic laugh, a sudden explosion fizzling out in a trail of giggles. “He’s tree-sitting!”
“Is that anything like babysitting?” Deborah asked.
“Seeing as it’s a form of social and environmental protest, the parallels are few,” Myrine replied.
“But tree-sitting isn’t allowed by Utopia Now,” Lyssa protested. “It’s illegal.”
“Matt got fed up with legal activism,” Myrine said. “He’s gone over to SOFT.”
“And you? You in SOFT now too?” Lyssa asked in a tone of vague concern.
Myrine smiled and shook her head.
“Save Our Forests Today,” Mercy explained to Deborah, who was looking puzzled but amused.
“I must admit, I feel rather ignorant. I don’t keep up on these movements as I sometimes think I should,” Deborah said ruefully.
“Lyssa does more than enough for all of us,” Lily said, the admiration obvious in her voice.
“I don’t keep up on these things much either,” Mercy admitted.
“You must keep busy enough as it is, though, teaching, raising kids, and writing poetry on the side,” Deborah replied.
Mercy was a bit taken aback that the Famous Person remembered so much about her. “Oh, I don’t do that often,” she protested.
“Maybe you should do it more,” Deborah said with a smile and a nod of her silver-gray head. “So, are you enjoying the apparent worship of a graven female image too?”
“Oh, definitely. But so are these guys, and I doubt if worship has anything to do with their enjoyment,” Mercy replied, running her hands through their hair.
“Aw, Mom, cut it out,” the oldest said, jerking his head away.
“Worship?” Myrine said. “More like slavish adoration.” Lily laughed. Lily always laughed. She was manic even in her depressions.
“Worship, adoration, same difference. But why is she female? Why isn’t she an old fart on a horse?” Deborah surprised everyone into joining Lily in her laughter. Fame wasn’t supposed to talk that way.
“I hope you’re not going to hold your speech again,” Lyssa protested mildly.
“Don’t you have work to do?” Deborah asked, a teasing smile lurking in her eyes and the corner of her mouth.
Lyssa nodded. “I do. I guess I’d better get started. I have to get my interviews before the crowd disperses.”
“I’m sure that will be a while,” Deborah said.
“I don’t want to miss our celebrity either, remember?” Lyssa said as she moved away. “Stay right there — I’ll be back. And don’t torture them too much with lectures. They can always come to the official one if they want to hear you.”
“You’re giving a lecture?” Mercy asked Deborah. “What’s it about?”
“I’m not quite sure yet. I’m starting backward, with the moral of the story.”
“And that is?”
Deborah gave her a brilliant grin. “If we want to change our lives, we have to change the myths.”
Mercy smiled and nodded.
* * *
Lyssa began to attract her own crowd in the midst of the masses with the help of a microphone. The publicity hungry animal was drawn irresistibly to her small black instrument, and she had no trouble finding guinea pigs.
“How do you like the new symbol of our city?” she asked, sticking her microphone at one hovering, attentive face.
The face beamed. “She’s colossal!”
“Do you think the statue is an appropriate decoration for the building?”
Another face answered, and Lyssa turned her mike in that direction. “I don’t know if she’s appropriate, exactly, but she might make the eyesore less painful.”
Lyssa smiled and several people in the crowd laughed.
“She was commissioned to represent the Lady of Commerce,” Lyssa continued. “Do you think she symbolizes commerce?”
“She doesn’t look like she has anything to do with it.”
“What does she symbolize to you?” she asked the crowd at large.
“The spirit of the city.”
“And what is that precisely?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Generosity?”
“No government agency is generous,” a long-haired youth protested, and the crowd chuckled in agreement.
Lyssa joined diffidently in the laughter. “Then what do you think she symbolizes?” she asked.
“Portland’s pompous pretensions.”
“But the figure itself?” Lyssa insisted.
The youth glanced back up at the statue. “Actually, she reminds me of an ex-girlfriend of mine. That woman could do anything.”
“And what does she mean to you?” Lyssa asked repeatedly, pointing her mike at one and then another eager face.
“She makes me feel more daring,” one woman said.
“In what way?” Lyssa asked.
“It’s as if she could lend me some of her size, as if just having her around could make me bigger too.”
“That’s interesting,” Lyssa commented, wondering just how many women shared the same reaction.
“I mean, she’s certainly not about to be ignored. She calls attention to herself in a big way. It’s as if she knows she can dictate the terms.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.”
* * *
By the time Lyssa returned to her friends, the technical aspects of the statue’s ascension had finally been worked out. Through it all, Portlandia continued to look bored. That would never change. Even when a few daring souls initiated an action to alleviate female bitterness and male dominance; even when they attempted to lessen the most institutionalized, everyday form of warfare — in short, when they tried to put an end to the war between the sexes; not even that could change the blasé expression on Portlandia’s face.
And so, amid cheers and yelling and enthusiastic applause, Portlandia was hoisted to her pedestal, an indifferent image of the power of some kind of feminine principle which no one could agree on.
Containing a dog and motherly-daughterly discussions, but skipping dinner and dessert.
Lyssa parked her Ford Taurus in the driveway, (she only drove domestic) and leaned her head briefly on the steering wheel. It wasn’t that the day had gone badly, she just didn’t know how well the evening would go. Lyssa was taking her daughter out to dinner. Since Hannah had moved out, Lyssa tried to maintain regular contact, but it seemed to be getting harder every week.
Hannah was going through what could only be described as an exaggerated rebellious phase. Lyssa had a rebellious phase herself once, but she liked to think that hers was justified. Of a repressively traditional nuclear family, she had come of age in the early sixties when change was in the air. She’d already gotten a whiff of it, but the pie itself didn’t interest her until she was married and pregnant with Hannah — named after Hannah Arendt. Lyssa was studying philosophy by that time and learning about the banality of evil. That didn’t suit her idealistic soul for long, however, and in `69 she was in Woodstock supporting Hannah on her hip. Lyssa was there when the imminent birth of a new era had been announced so triumphantly, before it had miscarried and been flushed down the toilet bowl of history.
She had taken off for Eugene in the wake of that cataclysmic experience, emancipating herself and leaving home and husband behind. Then had come Watergate, and then Lyssa, in her idealism, changed majors from philosophy to journalism. A decision which had turned out to be very practical; she could indulge in her weakness for demonstrations and other forms of public insurgence and actually get paid for it.
Unfortunately, the eighties didn’t offer many of those kinds of opportunities. And Lyssa had become an entrepreneur, founding an artsy-fartsy regional magazine with a political edge, successful largely as a result of the detailed schedule of local events and perhaps the inspired personals. Lyssa’s idealism was accompanied by a strong streak of practicality. She had come of age in Woodstock the legend, and now she lived in Woodstock the district, Portland’s haven of comfortable liberalism. The houses were big and old, the lawns were well-tended, and there were very few blacks. Her neighbors believed strongly in helping the disadvantaged, but they didn’t want to live with them. It was better for the crime rate that way.
Lyssa consoled herself that her magazine was an arbiter of political correctness — for those who cared to read the political articles, that is. She wasn’t complaining. The clientele of Cutting Edges consisted of anyone aspiring to “culture” in the area or who wanted to be in on the local scene, and she made it her business to interview any available personality who might be interesting. Freelance work provided for most of the articles, a necessity with their small staff, but Lyssa did the interviews. She liked knowing everyone who was anyone in town, and she liked being known by them. On a small scale, she was even something of a local celebrity herself, a circumstance which assuaged the remnants of youthful longings for fame which she had never quite gotten rid of.
On the whole, life was great, but Hannah was a problem. Lyssa liked to think she was the kind of parent she wished she’d had as a kid; she’d tried to order Hannah around as little as possible, always explaining everything instead. And here was the daughter of her flesh, her single constant companion of the last eighteen years, rebelling against her as if she had been an authoritarian tyrant, refusing to go to college, moving out and taking a menial job as a secretary. Lyssa suspected that Hannah was punishing her for something, but for the life of her she couldn’t figure out what. Of course, it was simply time for Hannah to make her own life. She realized that, she didn’t want to cling. She could be philosophical about it.
Lyssa was very glad she had her work.
She was also glad she had Hades, who came rushing at her, panting and wagging his tail wildly as soon as she entered the house. Hades was a big black beast that Lyssa had picked up as a puppy one Sunday at the Saturday Market. (Oregonians are too iconoclastic to adhere to anything as mundane as days of the week.) He looked mostly Lab, but the straight, pointy ears indicated the addition of something along the lines of German Shepherd.
“So Hades, have a good day chasing away potential robbers and rapists?” Lyssa asked, scratching him behind the ears with one hand and pushing strands of discreetly graying hair back with the other. Faded, unruly wisps were always escaping the bun at the back of her head, no matter how tight she tried to make it.
Hades followed her faithfully to her bedroom at the back of the house, depositing himself at the door and watching her as she changed her cotton blouse for a simple silk one, his tongue hanging out and his tail pounding the floor. Her wish was his command. Of course it would be unfair to compare dogs and daughters, but dogs were definitely the more grateful of the two.
* * *
Just like her mother to know about a dive like this, Hannah thought as they went through what appeared to be a back door, since it was on an alley.
Despite the obscurity of the location, the prices could easily compete with some of the fancier joints in town; the customer obviously paid for the selectivity, since not everyone could find the place. Once inside, they were bombarded with the mellow natural tones of Oregon chic, complete with wobbly wooden tables, uncomfortable cane chairs and tasteful, reticent waiters and waitresses in designer jeans. Lyssa fit in perfectly with her flowing, flowery clothes and big round glasses — a hippie gone professional. The atmosphere during the meal that they chose from their hand-written menus was about as congenial as the cane chairs were comfortable.
Lyssa’s assessment of the dinner was little better than her daughter’s. Hannah rarely looked at her, and when she did, she twisted her mouth up in an intentionally cynical expression. Her attitude was so superior that Lyssa’s patience was wearing thinner than Hannah’s old jeans. Lyssa was doing her best to keep some semblance of a conversation going, but the teenage-adult comments from the other side of the table effectively killed nearly every subject she cared to introduce. When she tried to discuss the evils of Reaganomics, Hannah pointed out that Lyssa was a successful businesswoman herself, so what was she complaining about? When she tried to tell her about Portlandia’s arrival, Hannah said the statue was just an expensive piece of junk and she didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Lyssa did not want to resort to the weather.
“And how’s your new boyfriend?” Lyssa asked casually in her quiet, gravelly voice as they were sitting over the dregs of their wine after dinner. They had ordered some for both of them and gotten away with it, although Lyssa was surprised every time. Eighteen-year-old Hannah still looked dreadfully young to her. Her little girl. Who had insisted on moving out this summer. Not so little.
“Mom, it’s none of your business, you know,” Hannah replied, watching one of the tasteful male behinds go by. With one of her girlfriends, she would have made an audible comment indicating her appreciation to shock him out of his earnestness, but fun of that sort was out of the question.
“Sorry, Hannah. I wasn’t trying to pry. I’m just interested in you and what you’re doing. That’s fairly natural, I think.”
Remnants of a salad choked with alfalfa sprouts and smothered in sesame seed dressing (all natural ingredients) graced the hand-thrown ceramic bowl at Hannah’s elbow. She had eaten the tomatoes and lettuce and distributed the rest evenly around the sides. “Mom, you sound like an understanding mother on a sitcom, did you know that?” Hannah said, playing with the alfalfa sprouts.
“Unfortunately, I don’t watch sitcoms. What do the mothers in sitcoms do when their daughters are hiding their boyfriends from them?”
“What makes you think I’m hiding him from you? Hasn’t it occurred to you that I just might want to live my life on my own finally?”
“Hannah, you sound like the stereotypical rebellious teenager.”
“Okay, Mom, one to one,” Hannah said, smiling at her mother’s comeback. “But I’m still not going to start dragging my boyfriends over for inspection just because you’re worried about your little girl.”
“Sorry if I seem overprotective. But I do worry — about this one at least. He was just so terribly unfriendly when I met you both downtown the other day. That isn’t exactly conducive to a positive impression, you must admit.”
“Would you ladies like dessert?” the waiter asked in that conciliatory way waiters have.
“No thanks,” Hannah snapped. Forgotten were the cute buns. “Look, Mom, we weren’t expecting to run into you, and you’re such a personality and all that, and, I mean, you’re my mom.”
“Well, I still think he could have been friendly. Do mothers by definition belong to the enemy? And to be quite honest, ‘unfriendly’ was putting it mildly. He was looking positively threatening.”
“Mom! How can you say that? Jessie threatening? You don’t even know him!”
Lyssa wondered if Hannah did, and against the urgings of her diplomatic instincts, she asked, “How long have you known him, Hannah?”
Of course it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. Hannah leaned back in her rickety chair and shook her head in irritation. “Longer than you.”
Rather than touching Hannah’s hand as she would have liked, Lyssa merely shrugged her shoulders philosophically. “I should hope so.”
In which Mercy learns the price of publication.
Mercy could hear the boys fighting over their Legos as she turned the chicken over in the pan, but she didn’t go to play umpire. They could fight their battles out themselves. Once upon a time, Mercy vaguely remembered, she had liked to cook. Habit had wrecked that, as it did most things. Now she concentrated on dishes that required a minimum amount of preparation and resulted in a minimum amount of theatricals at the dinner table. Fish sticks would have been perfect, but Mercy didn’t care for them — and for George they were out of the question. He would have had a fit if she’d served fish sticks when he came home from a hard day at the vacuum cleaners.
Turning over the last piece of chicken, Mercy started to sing to herself, a few uplifting lines about being a superwoman. She still felt unusually exhilarated from seeing Deborah Dobell again the other day. Mercy had met famous authors before, but none as friendly and encouraging as Deborah. And then there were the poems Lyssa had published in her magazine. Deborah and poems and Cutting Edges – it felt like a new beginning.
So it was in an unusually inflated mood that Mercy went from the kitchen back into what had once been half of a two-car garage and was now her “study”, where her computer was humming softly to itself, awaiting her arrival.
The wall that George had finally allowed her to put up was thin, and the study was cold in winter, although it seldom went much below the thirties in Portland. In Oregon, the mellow state of mildew, she was more in danger of growing moss between her toes than of freezing to death. Still, the temperature outside was about the same as inside Mercy’s study — cold enough for a native Texan. She wore sweaters. She had a room of her own and she loved it. The study didn’t look like much, but did have an antique desk of massive proportions and books. Two walls full of books.
A number of the books on her shelves were a tribute to George’s influence back when they were freshly in love. George read Saul Bellow and told Mercy he was a philosopher. George read James Joyce and said he was a poet. Mercy read Bellow and Joyce and thought George was brilliant. Back then, George wanted to be a poet too. He wrote poems about clowns and bears and Ferris wheels and gave Mercy lectures on literature while she wrote his papers for him and admired him tremendously. George studied geography for a B.S. so he could get around the language requirement. Mercy took up literature and now she taught it. And she didn’t think much of Bellow or Joyce anymore.
To the casual visitor to Mercy’s study, her collection of books seemed to lack both definite aesthetic standards as well as any kind of organizing principle, but despite that, Mercy nearly always found what she was looking for. It didn’t occur to her that Norman Mailer and Kate Millet might be considered strange shelf-mates. She relegated them to keep company on the shelf with Joyce. On another shelf, E.L. Doctorow and Virginia Woolf were well represented, as were Georgette Heyer, King Arthur and Jorge Luis Borges in English, but not Spanish. Her Texas high school education had gotten lost somewhere along the road. One shelf seemed at first glance to be devoted to women writers, but Hawthorne, Flaubert and Henry James were lurking in their midst. Scattered here and there was the odd book in German, mementos of a junior year abroad, and the even odder book in French, reminiscent of nothing more than repeated attempts to master that language as well. The language of high culture, however, had always seemed to elude her.