Authors: Alice McDermott
A Bigamist’s Daughter
‘McDermott balances a poignant romanticism with sharp realism in her own crisp and careful writing style’
‘A Bigamist’s Daughter
is rare among recent books about sharp-witted unattached women because it doesn’t succumb to the fancies that growth is everyone’s birthright, and true love is still the best of everything’
‘Riotously funny, poignant, shrewd and often acutely real. Elizabeth Connelly is a new kind of female character. As unique as she is representative, as tough as she is needy, this bigamist’s daughter confronts us with the eighties’ Julia Markus
‘She catches the nuance of memory and uses it to illustrate a lifetime … She captures the world of the vanity press and uses it as a parallel to show how we are all dealing in dreams as we search for happy endings’
‘A masterly and admirable first novel …
A Bigamist’s Daughter
sparkles with crisp language and fine, precise writing … a richly detailed story’
Kansas City Star
‘McDermott’s dark, evocative study perceptively exposes the ambiguities and dangers of modern-day love’
FOR MY PARENTS
She is almost beginning to believe him.
He’s been here for nearly twenty minutes now, sitting across from her on the edge of his seat, his forearms resting on her desk, his hands folded before him, the right hand covering the left, the left a fist that he occasionally taps, ever so lightly, upon the gray steel to give his voice emphasis. His voice is Southern, slow, but with a rising quality that makes her feel it’s being rushed from behind, that something is pushing him to get the story told faster, to get it finished. Perhaps it is only her slow, habitual glances at the clock on the edge of her desk, or the quick sounds of the typewriters outside her office.
But his voice will not be rushed, and his face, that light, open, seemingly featureless face that only very blond people can have, very blond people with pale skin and colorless lashes, remains unchanged.
“He seemed to look different each time we saw him,”
he tells her, reciting.
“Not a difference in weight or dress or disposition, not even the difference that can come over someone at different seasons, but a true, somehow internal difference. At times, he would look kind—God, so kind it made you want to kneel, filled you
with an optimism, a joy, that was almost religious. At other times, he would look fierce, savage, so that you knew if he were to touch you, as we’d seen him touch his wife (who was only one of his wives) and a shopgirl, and even a dog at these times, there would be no humanity in it, no connection of blood and living skin, no recognition. Just weight and direction; the blade of the tractor meeting dry earth.”
He speaks slowly, carefully, and his voice, like his small blue eyes, seems to search the air, the pale sunlight coming from the window behind her, as if some response should be found there. As if each word were a cue.
“One summer we saw him in town. He was driving a gray Mercedes with Montana plates and it was the first any of us had seen of him for nearly a year and a half. He pulled up in that car that was like a flash of black water thrown onto the dry, dusty street, stepped out, and then stood there, seeing no one, but waiting, as if for our vision to clear. He seemed thinner, even taller than we’d remembered him and he wore white duck trousers and a loose white shirt. He was tan and his hair had begun to turn gray.
“He walked slowly into the liquor store, all of us watching him and him knowing we were watching, came out with a bottle, got back into his car and drove out to his home that, as far as any of us knew, he hadn’t seen in the past year and a half. And all of us, despite what we’d been saying when we saw his wife—who was really only one of his wives—moving through us like a whipped dog, despite the pity we’d been giving her, the puzzled shame we thought we’d seen her wearing, despite that, any one of us, man, woman and child, would have sold his soul to have been there in that darkened house on the Fainsburg Road that night, to have been there waiting to receive him.”
Like a medium, he searches the air as he speaks, and although she’s sat at this desk, in this white office, and has listened to the drone of countless other voices, countless other stories (“Do you have a story to tell? Have you ever told yourself: ‘I should write a book?’ Vista Books seeks new authors with manuscripts of all types.”), she has been, in these past twenty minutes, intrigued, interested, verging on belief.
“And the other women, his other wives, whom we could only guess about, only imagine as we waited for him to return to our town again, those women became as real to us as the women who we knew to be his wives, and we always imagined them crying. Crying in different rooms, in different cities, on different days of the week. One, we would say, is fat, with curly hair, and she cries in her kitchen and wipes her eyes with a gingham apron, a small whimper always at her throat. Another is thin, sharp-nosed. She places long, bony fingers over her face and cries sitting on the edge of a cream-colored couch in a darkening living room. Another, we would tell one another, winking, smiling a little, is blond, shapely; she lies flung across her bed, crying with awful, shuddering sobs, one red slipper on the floor, the other still dangling from her polished toes.”
The phone rings, and she almost expects him to make the sound part of his story, the way a dream will sometimes gather the real world into itself and build a meaning around it.
He merely smiles, pulling his lips together, and nods when she says, “Excuse me.”
It’s Ann, her secretary. “Elizabeth, you’ve been in there nearly half an hour,” she says in a low voice. “Do you need to be rescued?”
“Fine.” Elizabeth reaches for her pen. “Give it to me again, slowly.” She notices her movements are sluggish, drowsy.
“Should I give you about fifteen more minutes?” Ann asks.
She nods, writing nonsense, illegibly. She’s not sure she wants to get rid of him so soon, but Ann’s call and her response to it are automatic, cues and stage directions in a scene she knows so well that even to improvise would mean to pick up a pad and a pen and pretend to be writing. “Fine,” she says. “Got it.”
“It’s twenty-five after ten,” Ann tells her. “If he’s not out by ten forty-five, I’ll come in and say there’s a meeting.”
Elizabeth writes, “This is the day that the Lord hath made,” and nods again, wondering where in her mind the phrase came from. “Well, that’s fine,” she says, “but tell them not to start without me.”
Ann laughs a little. “Okay, I’ll tell them.”
She hangs up the phone and stares at the pad. Remnants of Catholic brainwashing or God trying to get a message to her? She scribbles a bit more, as if she has something urgent on her mind, and then looks up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Daniels,” she says. “Please go on.”
He smiles a little, eyes on his hands, and she’s suddenly ashamed, afraid that he’s seen through the phone call. “Well, it’s all in the book,” he says and then, looking up, “Why don’t I just let you read it instead of reciting it to you?” He smiles, a weak smile that somehow reaches to the very corners of his mouth, squaring them. His teeth are small and white and straight, his skin smooth, beardless, his narrow eyes a very light blue. There is, she thinks, something uncomplicated and pleasant about his face.
“Yes,” she says, smiling back at him, placing her hand over the thick yellow envelope before her. “Why don’t I read it first and then we can talk?” She pushed her chair back slightly,
places her hands on its arms. He stands. She stands too, and holds out her hand. “I’ll call you as soon as I’ve read it all. Maybe we can have lunch.”
They shake hands across her desk, above his manuscript in its yellow envelope, and for just one moment she catches a certain facetiousness in his eyes, as if he’s seen through more than the phone call. She suddenly feels like a little girl caught dressed up in her mother’s clothes, gravely playing grown-up. It’s a feeling she often gets when acting the businesswoman around people her own age.
“I’d appreciate that,” he says and smiles again. He is a broad young man, nearly stocky, and as she walks him to the door she notices that he is only an inch or two taller than she. He wears neat khaki pants and a navy-blue blazer. Loafers and no socks. She briefly imagines him naked, but can think only of a pale, rather knotty backside.
“How much longer will you be in New York?” she asks, as they walk down the corridor, the typewriters clicking on either side of them. Ann peers over the green, smoked-glass partition, watching him carefully, as if she suspects he may bolt at any minute, make a run for it back to the office, where he will demand more time. She seems ready to block the door if he dares.
“I have some shopping to do,” he says. “And some old friends to visit. Actually, when I come to New York I usually just stay until I get tired of it. Once I was here about four hours, once for over six months.”
The idle rich. She imagines the price of his contract edging up over the $5,000 mark.
They stand in the small reception room and shake hands. It’s a sleazy room. Dark paneling, brown-and-orange Danish modern furniture, beige linoleum. It’s so much like a front, like the fake offices they used to set up for
often wonders how their “authors” fail to see it. The first time she sat here, when she came up for her interview two years ago, she could think only of illegal abortions and unlicensed electrolysis, of Allen Funt suddenly revealing that nothing is what it seems to be.
As it’s not, in here. Vista Books is a vanity publisher masquerading as a real one. Making the dreams of every would-be writer come true, for a while. And then sending them the bill.
“I’ll call you,” she says to him. “Soon.” They stand looking at each other, smiling somewhat awkwardly. She knows what he’s waiting for. “Tomorrow,” she says, giving it to him.
Now he really smiles. “Great. I hope you like it.”
She reaches for the door and holds it open for him. “I’m sure I will.”
He says, “Have a good day,” and walks out. He has an odd little bounce in his step, and he walks with his hands straight at his sides, like a well-behaved child.
Bonnie, the receptionist, sits behind a small window opposite the door watching her, sucking on a red-and-white straw stuck into a can of grape soda.
“Yuk,” she says as Elizabeth turns back into the room. The straw doesn’t leave her mouth. “He’s a creepy one.” There are bright red pimples spread across her forehead like strawberry jam. She is fat, painfully homely; nasty with homeliness.
“You think so?”
“Yuk,” she says again, and then adds, biting the straw, “Ned wants you in Production.”
She goes the back way, through the stockroom, a large gray area that smells damp and oily like an old garage. There are rows and rows of books, some in opened boxes, some wrapped in brown paper, others piled loosely on metal shelves, their jackets sooty and torn. Hector, the stock boy, is on one of the wooden skids, disco-tap dancing to the music from his
transistor. He waves to her. She waves back. She fights her recurrent fantasy of the entire room in flames.
As she enters Ned’s office, a small, windowless room between the storeroom and the large area where the six members of Vista’s production staff actually work, she can tell this is not going to be a pleasant session. He has a large, sloppy manuscript on the desk before him; judging from his face, it is giving off a terrible odor.
“You signed this book?” he asks.
“The Coy Caitiff?”
She moves to his desk and looks at the title page. “By Blanche Willis. Yes, I signed it. It’s a good contract.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve read it.” His eyes and forehead are small, pushed together, but the rest of his face is wide, long, exaggerated like a cartoon character’s. He’s spent the last ten years with a trade publisher, and after six months at Vista he’s still a little surprised at what goes on at a vanity press.
“I didn’t read the
thing,” she tells him. “But I read some of it. Why?”