Authors: David Samuel Levinson
Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence
DAVID SAMUEL LEVINSON
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL 2013
To my family, especially to my grandparents, Stephen and Mimi FÃ¼rthâ
Ich vermisse euch.
Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it; innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
The Quiet American,
To publish, and not only to publish, but to succeed, to excel, without shaking the right hands or attending the right parties, to publish without osculating the right derrieres, or browning one's noseâhere is how a writer ought to go about his business, if his business is writing and not arriving.
Words Travel Fast,
In Medias Res
We thought ourselves good people who lived good lives. Some of us had lived in the town for generations and had never considered leaving. Many of us, though, had relocated there from the city, in the process learning what it was like to desert the place we loved, longed for, and hated. Winslow wasn't a big town and couldn't offer the charms of Manhattan, nothing as remarkable as the rooftops at twilight or Central Park in the rain. While many of us had grown sick of the city's neon signs and glass towers, many others of us put up photos to remind ourselves daily of what we missed.
No one came to Winslow looking for variety: we had one museum, the Finch; a community theater, the Vortex; and only a handful of restaurants, outstanding though they were. Two blocks long, Broad Street consisted of Page Turners, the local bookstore; Mayfair Cinema; Custard's Last Stand; a barbershop; a launderette; and Einstein's Video & Arcade. Not far from thereânothing was that farâwas Breedlove Hardware; College Breads; Maddox Cafe; and Tint, the bar and restaurant connected to the historic Tweed & Twining Arms hotel. Then there was the heart of the town, Winslow College, giving reason to the place, the lure that had drawn many of us there, to teach and to study.
Some who came were either running from combative or cheating spouses, while others were just running. Some ended up staying; others gave it six months or less before the moving trucks arrived and took them away. We saw the trucks and shook our heads. “You haven't given it enough time,” we said. “One more day!” One more day, though, might become one more year, and those who fled already had grown tired of the things they'd initially come for, the quiet, the cordial hellos in the morning and the good-evenings at night. Those who didn't last wanted what we didn't have and could never offerâinvisibility.
I knew this only because, once, I had been one of them. I, too, had come there from the city but not to escape the barrage of sirens and chattering crowdsâthings I'd cherished, at least in memory. I came to Winslow out of love; I followed my heart.
That was years ago now. For the first year, I hated our house and the town and my heart for luring me there. Yes, my life in the city might have been stressful and chaotic, but it had also been blessed. There was spontaneity, and there were friends and dancing and cocktail parties. I liked parties back then, when I was younger. It was an exciting time. I thought about myself as a writer, filled with promise. Promise, though, has a way of never happening, and much of what followed was painful, though not nearly as painful as this story I'm about to tell.
“The action of any good story,” Wyatt used to say, “always begins in the middle.”
This story, my story, however, began long before the events in Winslow, before I met Antonia Lively. It began long before Henry Swallow moved to town. Although it's my story, it began in 1968, set in motion by two brothers in a cabin in the woods. I didn't know any of this until later, though. I didn't know any of this until I'd read Antonia's novel and gradually wove each individual story togetherâthe brothers Linwood and Royal's, Henry's, Antonia's, Wyatt's, Catherine's, mineâinto this one, ours.
Wyatt also used to say there weren't any fixed rules in writing. I know now, though, that you have to learn the rules first before you can break them. Learn about voice, plot, and point of view. Learn about imagery, setting, and character. Learn all of these thingsâthen let the story dictate how it wants to be told, and never get in the way, because it's not about you, the writer. It's about the relationship between the story and the reader. Give the reader a good story, and he'll forgive just about everything else.
I spent years reading through Henry's criticism and Wyatt's lectures, absorbing and learning these rules of theirs. This story is the result. If I am a writer, it is because I had no other choice. If I tell this story well, if it rings true, it's because all of our voices that summer and, over time, became one. The reader, though, will be the judge. For now, this story's as close to the truth as I can get, and that, I'm afraid, will simply have to do.
The King and Queen of Letters
Red Wine, Black Coffee
The best place to begin is right in the middle, on that hot June afternoon, as Catherine struggled through her yard. In one hand, she lugged a bag of groceries; in the other, a heavy bag of books. Exhausted and grumpy from another long shift at the bookstore, on her feet all day, she couldn't wait to set the bags down; the runny French cheese and her favorite wine were calling her name as usual. More than this, she couldn't wait to get out of her heels, put on her bathing suit, and swim some laps in the pool. The sun blazed through the trees, the air as miasmic as ever. Another summer in Winslow, she thought glumly. Blow, winds, blow. But there weren't any winds, only the monstrous heat and an absolute stagnation, as if the entire world had stopped turning. Everything sparkled with dust and crackled in earnest. Every step she took through the brittle grass reminded her of how long they'd gone without rain. Revelation is at hand, people said, though Catherine didn't believe in omens or doomsayers, even less in the meteorologists, whose predictions for a break in the weather had dried up along with the town's hope. They were living through the longest, most abject heat wave on record.
As sweat dripped down her arms, the house shimmered before her, and for a moment Wyatt was back at the door, already hurrying to help with the bags. There was Wyatt, her husband, her love, rising out of the dust and heat. She'd heard that it was possible for the heat to play such nasty tricks on people, and when she realized that she'd called out his name, she cursed herself. Deflating, she became who she was againâCatherine Strayed, his thirty-nine-year-old widow. Again, she felt Wyatt's absence acutely, as sure as the weight of the bags in her hands. Books, cheese, wineâthe precious cargo that carried her through.
Inside the sanctuary of the shuttered house, the idea of fall settled around her. Fall, months awayâwhen the quality of light shifted from an incessant, blaring yellow to a muted, lustrous gold, when the students returned and with them a kind of liveliness, an energizing optimism that floated in the cooler air, when life resumed, and with it came the possibility of loveâfresh, unmarried faculty faces, divorcÃ©s, widowers. It was like this every fall; she took another deep gulping breath, inhaling hope. While most people she knew looked forward to spring, Catherine looked forward to fall, the drops in temperature, the change in the light and leaves.
In the house, she set the bag of books down, collected the flurry of mail scattered across the hardwood floor, then slid out of her heels and damp sundress, comfortably naked except for her bra and underwear. A narrow hallway connected the sitting room with the kitchen, and she hurried through it, cradling the groceries in her arms, the mail pressed under her arm. In the kitchen, she placed the mail on the table, the wine in the cupboard, then removed the cheese and opened the refrigerator, leaning into the cold. She shut her pale green eyes, and let the frosted air creep over her, the sweat drying gradually. She was happy to be home.
On the counter at her back, the answering machine flashed red, noting a single message. She was in no rush to check the machine, knowing the caller was Jane. Jane, one of her best friends. Jane, who felt compelled to remind her of tonight's dinner at Maddox Cafe, even though they'd been meeting there every Wednesday night for years. Catherine knew these calls were well intentioned, yet she resented them anyway, as she had the calls and visits those first few weeks after Wyatt's death, when Jane showed up at the house unannounced. Then, she'd brought food, movies, playing cards, and more concern than Catherine knew what to do with. Sweet, yes, but wholly unnecessary. You can't be alone, Jane had said. Can't, or won't, be? Catherine had asked. She never turned Jane away, because they were friends and because she understood her welfare was more important to Jane than it was to herself.
A year and a half ago, that's when it happened. She'd been standing in almost the same spot, gazing disappointedly into the empty refrigerator, wondering where Wyatt wasâhe'd been gone all dayâand why he hadn't bothered to buy the groceries. After all, it was his turn, she'd thought. She'd seen him drive off that morning, the sky leaden and threatening snow. The snow had comeâthat time, just as they'd predictedâand it was snowing still as she slammed the refrigerator shut, going for her boots, parka, and purse in the other room. She was putting on the boots, when there were heavy footfalls on the porch, and the irritation she had felt evaporated. She went to the door, expecting Wyatt, his arms loaded down with everything on the list she'd madeâmilk, cheese, wine, fish, tampons, toilet paperâthese things they'd needed.
It wasn't Wyatt but an officer of the law, and Catherine suddenly understood, without having to be told, that moments like theseâa missing husband, a blizzard, a policemanâwere sometimes as unavoidable and unaccountable as love itself.
Since then, there'd been winter in its dread and dreariness, and the spring had passed and the summer and the fall, followed by another winter, another spring; and here it was summer again, all spent without him.
Now Catherine sipped a glass of wine and nibbled at a plate of cheese and crackers while she riffled through the mail. There were the usual bills, and the odd letter to Wyatt, the occasional piece of fan mail. It still surprised and, yes, infuriated her, that he continued to get these letters, because it seemed to her a real fan would have kept better track of him, would have heard about his death. The letters were always sweet, and said the same things, the writers mostly young women, who praised Wyatt's novel, even as they went on to ask the inevitableâAre you single? Had he been there, he and Catherine would have had a great laugh. He wasn't there, though, and God, how she missed him.
With a steak knife, Catherine sliced open the bills and set them aside before picking up the powder pink envelope. She turned it over in her fingers, noting the return address in Des Moines, Iowa. She pictured the lonely young woman holding Wyatt's novel, her excitement as she flipped the pages, never wanting to put it down. It was that kind of book, a page-turner, something to fall in love with, and it cheered her to know Wyatt had found his way to this stranger. Wasn't that the true test of success? For most people maybe, but not for Wyatt, who couldn't help comparing the minor strides he'd made with the larger and, as he often declared, less-deserving strides of others. The disparity tormented him.
And it also tormented me, she thought, just as the silence was broken, and she heard a series of insistent knocks accompanied by a loud hello. It was the kind of thing that happened on occasion: the random Jehovah's Witness, a Girl Scout in pigtails, friends showing up to check on her. At one time, there'd also been a troop of reporters from as far away as Buffalo, all of them trying to piece out the story of Wyatt's death. She didn't speak to any of them. Yet even as she slammed the door in their faces, she'd wanted to say, “You vultures. Where were you when he was alive?”
Catherine sat still, hoping the woman at the door would take the hint and go away. Instead, she knocked again, louder, harder, her hellos echoing through the house again, filling the silent rooms. Still, Catherine did not move, did not breathe, clutching the letter in one hand, the wineglass in the other. Go away, she thought. Please just go away.
Yes, there'd been reporters at one time, and photographers, even a news van stationed in front of the house. There'd been the click of cameras when she left for work in the morning and again when she returned at night. What right did they have to intrude? For whatâto pry the details of Wyatt's last days out of her? For weeks they came, until the story, like any other, finally faded, and the journalists, reporters, and news teams turned to fresher, more grisly tales. Even after they'd forgotten the story, however, their awful, ugly rumors and insinuations lingered, for a time making even leaving the house to go to work unbearable.
As the intruder called out another hello, Catherine concentrated on the letter, the perfumed pink paper and the slanted blue words, the curlicues, the misspellings, all of it blurring the longer she focused, the longer she held her breath. What did this stranger want? What had any of them wanted but the story of their lives, Catherine's life with Wyatt, and then the story of a life that continued without him?
Go away, she thought again, but then realized this time she'd said it out loudâshouted itâand she dropped the letter and took a gulp of wine. The knocking stopped, and then the afternoon again fell into silence, as it had the afternoon a year and a half ago when she'd opened the door and the world changed. Today Catherine didn't have time for an unexpected visitor, whoever she might be; she had the girls in less than an hour.
Since the woman had obviously heard her, and she herself couldn't stomach rudeness of any kind, Catherine rose grudgingly and passed through the late afternoon sunlight that flooded the room, highlighting the streaks and scuffs Wyatt's life and hers had left over the years. He was there, in the finely knifed crosshatches on the counter, the concentrically ringed stains on the blond-wood kitchen table, the fanned, spidery cracks in the kitchen window he'd slammed shut the day before he disappeared. He wasn't just there, of course: he was everywhere. As she made her way to the door, through the dim, hushed hallway that led to the sitting room, still full of what they used to joke was their starter furniture, she smelled the cigarette smoke in the air and all at once felt more alone than she had in months.
She'd been a heavy smoker from junior high well into graduate school. It was how she'd crammed for midterms and handled twenty-page essays, and it was how she'd met Wyatt that wintry day in Penn Station back in 1981, when you could still smoke everywhere. If she'd been paying more attention, they might never have met, but she hadn't been paying attention: while rummaging through her purse, she'd brushed Wyatt's sleeve with the tip of her cigarette. She apologized and wiped away the smudge with her finger. “Attractive women shouldn't smoke,” he'd said, waving away a gray plume. Am I attractive? she'd wanted to ask.
Both her mother and father had been career smokers, and if it hadn't been for Wyatt, who refused to see her if she didn't quit, she suspected she would have been a career smoker, too, until her death.
Now, as she went into her bedroom and slid into a sundress, then made her way to the front door, which was open as usual on these hot summer days, she wanted nothing more than to finish her glass of wine and take a drag on a cigarette, specifically the cigarette that hung casually from the glossy lips of the girl who was peering through the screen door. Though Catherine recognized her instantly, she'd never met Antonia Livelyâthis young woman who'd written the celebrated short story, “Vitreous China,” this young woman whose much trumpeted debut novel was coming out in early July.
For the last couple of weeks, Catherine had caught glimpses of her about town, sometimes on a bench in the park, her head in a book, sometimes just idling outside one of the shops on Broad Street. She came into Page Turners once, last week, rummaged the used-book bin, picked up a frayed copy of Wyatt's novel,
The Last Cigarette,
read the first page, replaced it, and left the store without a word. Whenever Catherine saw her, wherever she saw her, Antonia was usually dressed in loose-fitting halter tops and thigh-high shorts, and was never without a cigarette, somehow pulling it all off gracefully, as only the young can.
That liquid-hot afternoon, Antonia was less made up than she'd been in the photograph accompanying the brief interview in last month's
but traces of that girl were still apparent in the pink-smudged cheekbones and metallic green eye shadow. She was tall, thin-limbed and seemed so young that, for a moment, Catherine was taken back to her own youth, when she, too, had had the courage to go around in skimpy shorts and tight blouses. There was something else, though, something garish, even sad about Antonia's getupâit was too self-conscious. She was trying too hard to be provocative and alluring, which merely called attention to one simple fact: she wasn't beautiful. No, she wasn't beautiful; striking, maybe even exotic, but not beautiful. The cigarette only made her less so.
Had Catherine known her, she might have scolded her, saying, “Cigarettes kill, or haven't you heard?” It had always been her experience that girls like this, who thought smoking made them seem more mysterious and adult, would go on smoking because that's what they did whether you worried about them or not. For a moment, it looked as if Antonia were about to fling her cigarette to the curb (a natural inclination in the city, a revolting one in Winslow), but then she thought better of it and asked Catherine if she had an ashtray. She pointed to a barren terra-cotta flowerpot, which, until recently, had housed a pink begonia, another casualty to the summer's abominable heat. Antonia took one final drag, then planted the cigarette in the loose, dry earth.
Although the habit was disgusting, smoking seemed to suit her, Catherine thought, and was a part of an idea she had of herselfâthe lonely writer in the lonely world. Catherine couldn't help but notice, however, the awkward way she'd held the cigarette, as if she couldn't quite understand how it had gotten in her fingers. This should not have surprised her, since the girl's entire manner was awkward.
“I've seen you before. You work in the bookstore, right?” she asked. Nodding, Catherine introduced herself. “I'm Antonia,” the girl said in response. She smiled, her lips pulled tight over her small, gray teeth. Catherine let her into the house without another word but felt as if it were Antonia inviting her inside and not the other way around. Antonia apologized for disturbing her and took great care to compliment the house, a polite yet needless gesture, Catherine thought, knowing the house's shortcomings. Once inside, Antonia removed her sandals, a winning gesture that left Catherine wondering how the girl knew she didn't allow shoes in the house. (This, too, went back to Wyatt and his need for absolute silence whenever he was working. Although she hated the sight of her big feet, Catherine had gone barefoot in the house anyway, just something else she did out of love and respect for him.) “I'd like to see the whole place, if that's all right,” Antonia said.