Little Fires Everywhere (10 page)

Lexie, for her part, was satisfied with Mia's explanation. “Ironic, isn't it,” she said as they left the kitchen, shrugging, and Pearl let it go without even bothering to tell her that that wasn't what
ironic
meant. She was happy to let the matter drop. On the drive home, and for the rest of the evening, her mother was strangely silent, and she regretted ever bringing it up. Pearl had always been aware of money—in their circumstances, how could she not?—but she had never before contemplated what it must have been like for her mother with an infant, trying to scrape by. She wondered what else her mother had done to survive—so that they both could survive—those early years. She had never in her life gone to bed without Mia coming to kiss her good night, but that night she did, and Mia sat in the living room in a puddle of light, her face still shut, lost in thought.

The following morning, Pearl was relieved when she came into the kitchen and Mia was there, making toast as usual, and carrying on as if the previous day had not happened. But the matter of the photograph lingered in the air like a bad smell, and Pearl tucked her questions into the back corner of her mind and resolved to say nothing more about it, at least for now.

“Should I make some tea?” she asked.

Izzy, however, was determined to find answers. It was clear this photograph held some secret about Mia, and she promised herself that she would unravel it. As a freshman, she had no free periods, but she devoted several
lunch periods to research in the library. She looked up Pauline Hawthorne in the card catalog and found a few books on art history. Apparently she had been quite well known. “A pioneer of modern American photography,” one book called her. Another called her “Cindy Sherman before Cindy Sherman was Cindy Sherman.” (At this point Izzy took a brief detour to look up Cindy Sherman, and spent so long perusing her photographs she was nearly late to class.)

Pauline Hawthorne's work, she learned, was known for its immediacy and its intimacy, for interrogating images of femininity and identity. “Pauline Hawthorne paved the way for me and other women photographers,” Cindy Sherman herself said in one profile. Izzy pored over the reproductions of her photographs: her favorite was a shot of a housewife and her daughter on a swing, the child kicking her legs so hard the chains bent in an arc, defying gravity, the woman's arms outstretched as if to push her child away or desperate to pull her back. The photos stirred feelings she couldn't quite frame in words, and this, she decided, must mean they were true works of art.

She combed every entry for Pauline Hawthorne she'd found in the card catalog until she had accumulated the basic facts of her life: born in 1947 in New Jersey, attended Garden State College, exhibited her first works in New York City in 1970, had her first solo show in 1972. Her photographs, Izzy learned, had been some of the most sought after in the 1970s. The encyclopedia entry had a photograph of Pauline Hawthorne herself, a slender woman with large dark eyes and silvery hair in a no-nonsense bob. She looked like someone's math teacher.

Pauline Hawthorne, she learned, had died of brain cancer in 1982. Izzy settled herself at one of the two computers in the library, waited for the modem to connect, and typed Pauline's name into AltaVista. She found more photographs—the Getty had one, MoMA had three; a few
articles analyzing her work; an obituary from the
New York Times.
Nothing else. She tried the public library, both branches, found a few more photography books and several articles on microfiche, but they added nothing new. What was the connection between Pauline Hawthorne and Mia? Perhaps Mia had simply been a model, like she said; maybe she'd just happened to sit for Pauline Hawthorne. This did not satisfy Izzy, who felt this was an improbable coincidence.

At last she turned to the only source she could think of: her mother. Her mother was a journalist, at least in name. True, her mother mostly covered small stories, but journalists found things out. They had connections, they had ways of researching that weren't accessible to just anyone. From early childhood, Izzy had been fiercely, stubbornly independent; she refused to ask for help with anything. Only the deep hunger to unravel this mysterious photograph could have convinced her to approach her mother.

“Mom,” she said one evening, after several days of fruitless research. “Can you help me with something?”

Mrs. Richardson listened, as usual with Izzy, with only half her attention. A pressing deadline was looming, for a story on the Nature Center's annual plant sale.

“Izzy, this photo probably isn't even of Pearl's mother. It could be anyone. Someone who looks like her. I'm sure it's just a coincidence.”

“It's not,” Izzy insisted. “Pearl knew it was her mother and I saw it, too. Would you just look into it? Call the museum or something. See what you can find out. Please.” She had never been good at wheedling—she'd always felt flattery was a form of lying—but she wanted this so badly. “I'm sure you can figure it out. You're a
reporter
.”

Mrs. Richardson gave in. “All right,” she said. “I'll see what I can find out. But it'll have to wait until after this deadline. I have to file this story by tomorrow.

“It'll probably be nothing, you know,” she added, as Izzy danced toward the door with barely suppressed glee.

Izzy's words—
You're a reporter
—had touched her mother's pride like a finger pressed into an old bruise. Mrs. Richardson had wanted to be a journalist her entire life, long before the aptitude tests their guidance counselor had administered in high school. “Journalists,” she explained in a civics speech about dream careers, “chronicle our everyday lives. They reveal truths and information that the public deserves to know, and they provide a record for posterity, so that future generations can learn from our mistakes and improve upon our achievements.” For as long as she could remember, her own mother had always been busy with some committee or other, advocating for more school funding, more equity, more fairness, and bringing her young daughter along. “Change doesn't just happen,” her mother had always said, echoing the Shaker motto. “It has to be planned.” In history class, when young Elena had learned the term
noblesse oblige,
she'd understood it at once. Journalism, to Mrs. Richardson, seemed such a noble calling, one where you could do good from within the system, and in her mind she envisioned a mix of Nellie Bly and Lois Lane. After working on the school paper for four years—and working her way up to coeditor in chief by senior year—this seemed not only possible, but inevitable.

She graduated second in her class and had had her choice of colleges: a full ride at Oberlin, a partial scholarship at Denison, acceptances all over the state, from Kenyon to Kent State to Wooster. Her mother had been in favor of Oberlin, had urged her to apply in the first place, but when Elena visited the campus, she'd felt immediately out of place. The coed dorms unsettled her, all the men in their skivvies, the girls in their robes, the knowledge that at any moment a boy might saunter into her room—or worse, the bathroom. On the steps of one building, three long-haired
students in dashikis sat playing slide whistles; across the green, students held up posters in silent protest:
DROP ACID, NOT BOMBS. I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THE PRESIDENT. BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY.
It felt, to Elena, like a foreign country where rules did not reach. She fought the urge to fidget, as if the campus were an itchy sweater.

So she'd headed to Denison the following fall instead, with an ambitious and illustrious future plotted out for herself. On the second day of classes she met Billy Richardson, tall and handsome in the Clark Kent vein, and by the end of the month they were going steady. Chastely they made plans for the future: after graduation, a white wedding in Cleveland, a house in Shaker, lots of children, law school for him, a cub reportership for her—a plan they followed meticulously. Soon after they married and settled into a rented duplex in Shaker, Mr. Richardson started law school and Mrs. Richardson was offered a position as a junior reporter at the
Sun Press
. It was a small paper, focused on local news, and the pay was commensurately low. Still, she decided, it was a promising enough place to start. In time, perhaps, she'd be able to make the jump over to the
Plain Dealer,
Cleveland's “real” newspaper—though of course she'd never want to leave Shaker, could not imagine raising a family anywhere else.

She dutifully covered all the local news conferences, city politics, the regional effects of new regulations on everything from bridges to tree planting, sharing responsibilities with the other junior reporter, Dwight, who was a year younger. It was a good workplace, allowing her to take six weeks of maternity leave after Lexie's birth, then Trip's, then Moody's. By the time Izzy came around, however, Mrs. Richardson found herself still at the
Sun Press
—senior reporter, now, but still relegated to covering the small stories, the small news. Dwight, meanwhile, had moved to Chicago to take a job at the
Tribune.
Was it because of the time she'd taken off, or
the fact—as she was starting to realize—that she had no desire to tunnel into hard stories and bitter tragedies? She would never be quite certain, but the more time passed, the less probable it seemed that she could move elsewhere, and it became a question of chickens and eggs. No one at the
Plain Dealer,
or anywhere else for that matter, seemed to be interested in taking on a reporter nearing forty, with four children and all the attendant obligations, who had never covered a big story, and it didn't matter whether that was the chicken or the egg.

And so she stayed. She focused on the feel-good stories, the complimentary write-ups of progress: the new recycling initiative, the remodeling of the library, the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new playground behind it. She covered the swearing-in of the new city manager (“solemn”) and the Halloween parade (“spirited”), the opening of Half Price Books at Van Aken Center (“a much-needed addition to Shaker's commercial district”), the debate on spraying for gypsy moths (“heated, on both sides”). She reviewed the production of
Grease
at the Unitarian Church and
Guys and Dolls
at the high school: “Rollicking,” she wrote of one; “Sit Down; They're Rocking the Boat!” she wrote of the other. She became known as reliable and for turning in clean copy, if—though no one said it out loud—routine and rather pedestrian and terribly
nice
. Shaker Heights was dependably safe and thus the news, such as it was, was correspondingly dull. Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance. Her house was large; her children safe and happy and well educated. This was, she told herself, the broad strokes of what she had planned out all those years ago.

Izzy's request, however, brought something new. Something intriguing, or at very least interesting. Something perhaps worth investigating at last.

True to her word, Mrs. Richardson filed her story and turned to the mysterious photograph. On a lunch break the next day, she stopped by the museum to see it for herself. Until then, she'd been sure Izzy was just imagining things, but she had been right: it was definitely Mia. In a Pauline Hawthorne photograph! She had heard of Pauline Hawthorne, of course. What was the story here? Mrs. Richardson puzzled over this as she dropped a folded five into the museum's donation box and headed out to her car, genuinely intrigued.

Her first step was to call the art gallery that had lent the photograph to the exhibit. Yes, the owner told her, they'd purchased the photograph in 1982, from a dealer in New York. It had been shortly after Pauline's death, and there had been much excitement in the art world when this previously unknown photograph had been put up for sale. There had been a fierce auction and they'd been thrilled to walk away with it for fifty thousand—really a bargain. Yes, the photograph had been conclusively attributed to Pauline Hawthorne: the dealer had sold many of Pauline's works over the years, and the photograph—the only print, they'd been told—had been signed by Pauline herself on the back. No, the owner of the photograph had been anonymous, but they would be happy to give Mrs. Richardson the name of the art dealer.

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