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Bardwell's Folly by Sandra Hutchison

Bardwell’s Folly

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends November 30, 2016.

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Here’s a short tidbit from later than the first five chapters:

Joe and Dori stood awkwardly in the great room, listening to distant squeals of admiration from Lisa. Robert returned quickly. “She said she wanted to grab a quick shower.”

“Great,” Joe said. “That’ll be at least another twenty minutes.”

“Anyone want another beer?” Robert asked.

“No thanks,” Joe and Dori said in unison. Joe gave her an annoyed look. He didn’t want them to suddenly get along too well, Dori concluded. She withdrew to peer out of the giant bank of windows.

“Something else?” Robert said, head in the refrigerator. “I have water, soda, iced tea. White wine. Red wine.”

Neither she nor Joe responded.

Dori looked at her watch. Now that it was finally growing dark outside, the windows were reflecting the yellow-lit interior of the house. In the reflection she watched Robert open an iced tea, check his own watch, then flounce down on the massive sofa that sat in front of the fireplace. “Anyone want a fire?” he asked.

Joe said, “Don’t you have the air on?”

Robert shrugged. “I can keep it low.” He picked up a remote and flames leapt up, quickly dialed down to embers.

Joe frowned. “So where’s the mood music?”

Robert cocked an eyebrow at him. “You want me to get you in the mood?”

Dori asked, “Do you have another bathroom?”

Robert said, “You’ll find a couple of bathrooms just down the other hall there, between the bedrooms.” He pointed towards the other side of the house. Dori couldn’t help noticing that while he’d escorted Lisa, she was on her own.

“Thanks,” she said, and took off. But as she passed the kitchen and front door she noticed a tiny half bath that was closer and ducked in. She sat down, noting the funky wallpaper with its rainbow trout motif, and realized she could hear the two guys talking quite clearly.

Which meant they could hear her, too. She’d have to try to pee softly. There were some drawbacks to the great room concept. She stealthily unrolled toilet paper, reluctant even to broadcast the clunk-clunk of the roll turning.

She heard Joe say, “You’ve got quite a reputation.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault women throw themselves at me. I don’t know if it’s my stunning good looks, my charming personality, or all that money. And, frankly, I don’t care. I enjoy the ladies, and I make sure they enjoy me. I make no apologies for any of it.”

Damn. Joe was right, Robert was a skank. That was the vibe she’d been getting from him all along, of course, but it was a little disheartening to hear him own it so wholeheartedly.

On the other hand that part about ensuring the ladies enjoyed it intrigued her a bit. No doubt there was something to be said for all that practice.

Also, the size of his instrument bore consideration.

Joe didn’t sound impressed. “Have you shared this philosophy with Dori?”

“I follow a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regards to my philosophy. But you’ve already warned her off, haven’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer, unless it was some visual response Dori couldn’t see.

Robert continued: “What I like about Dori is that she clearly has a mind of her own. She’s more than capable of making her own decisions about what might be fun. I find her very appealing, actually. She might even be a keeper.”

As opposed to the old catch and release? Dori eyed the trout motif on the wallpaper and decided she felt vaguely flattered. She knew she could not compete with Lisa or half the other eligible young women in the world in terms of physical attraction, but apparently all a woman really had to do to fascinate Robert was be unusually uncooperative. She could do that.

Tricks of memory and a beautiful New England autumn

I went away this weekend to visit one of my brothers and his family in Western Massachusetts and deliver some books for appearances I’ll be doing there December 5 at the Greenfield Public Library and in January at World Eye Bookshop. (Greenfield inspired the setting of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.) Along the way I stopped in at an old haunt I’m using in my next novel to see if I was capturing it more or less correctly.

Ha!

I got the ledges themselves right. Here’s how I describe the place. This book is still in rough draft, so I might still change it to be more fictional, since the town it overlooks is going to be a mish-mash of Shelburne Falls, Buckland, Charlemont, and whatever I feel like.

The High Ledges was an Audubon bird sanctuary on a mountainside overlooking Jasper and the Deerfield River. It was notable for Lady Slipper orchids along shady woodland paths and for the rocky ledges with the great view of the valley below. For birds, too, but Dori was no bird watcher. She was not surprised when she drove up to find only one other car in the visitors’ parking lot; it was a place that was tricky to find if you didn’t already know where it was, and the gates would be closing in less than an hour.

The last time I was there I was in my twenties. I remember parking the car and the ledges being a brief stroll away. My first clue was when a gentleman coming down the trail said, “Doing a bit of mountain climbing today?”

“Not any serious mountain climbing,” I said, adding, “I hope.” And no, it was not serious mountain climbing. But it was chilly, damp, and took a good twenty minutes — mostly up hill.

No doubt I’m less fit. (I’m sometimes amazed to contemplate distances I used to cover on an old three-speed bicycle.) I suppose the car parking area might have changed in the interim, too. And I suppose it was still a fairly short walk by hiking standards — not to mention beautiful, with plenty of foliage left to enjoy even if it was a bit past peak.

Thankfully, the view at the ledges was as stunning as I had remembered. This is looking down toward Shelburne Falls and Buckland.

Here’s the view towards Charlemont:

 

When I visited Peterborough, New Hampshire a couple of years ago I had a similar moment of puzzlement and confusion. I had remembered much of the town correctly, especially the diner, when I was writing The Awful Mess. But the bridge and river running through the center of town were not at all what I remembered.

It was the warmest day since she’d arrived in Lawson, New Hampshire, a sunny day in March of 2003, and the Took River was swollen with melted snow. For the first time since Mary had begun these daily walks, there were other people clustered on the Main Street Bridge to watch the river. Uncomfortably conscious that she knew none of them, she considered hurrying past, but told herself that it would be ridiculous and stopped at her usual spot at the bridge railing.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” a man said, and settled in next to her at the railing.

Here’s the actual Main Street bridge in Peterborough. It doesn’t even have a railing! The river was quite sedate, too, though that could be a seasonal issue.

Contoocook River for FBI like my version a little better, frankly. Good thing I write fiction instead of memoir. Has your memory of a favorite place ever turned out to be unreliable?

Two Thanksgiving scenes

I was a little startled to realize, last night, that Thanksgiving looms pretty large in both my books so far, and serves as a significant turning point in the first one. This surprised me a little because I’m not exactly a stickler for holiday traditions. My son and I are happily joining friends for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. Although I regret not being with either my grandkids or my brothers’ families today, I have a little bit of a cold and I am actually very content not driving long distances in uncertain weather, or cooking and cleaning.

These are not the most significant parts of the Thanksgiving events in each book — I don’t want to spoil anything major — but I thought you might enjoy these little excerpts in honor of the holiday.

From The Awful Mess: A Love Story

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryAs Thanksgiving approached, the food pantry got hectic. November was prime time for food collections and for new volunteers, who naturally expected to be given something to do. The generous Thanksgiving boxes, a point of pride and competition among the local churches and civic organizations, had to be organized so that frozen turkeys didn’t defrost, stuffing mix didn’t expire, pies didn’t get squashed, and no one got lost trying to make deliveries.

Mary organized driving maps along sensible car routes for the approximate number of volunteers they expected to show up on delivery day, the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. She and Annie supervised the distribution of lists and boxes. She had just finished checking off one set of boxes into the care of a couple of Catholics, when she turned to find herself facing Winslow.

“Oh, hi.” She tried to ignore the rising heat on her face. “I didn’t see you on the list. Are you here for St. Andrews?”

“No, Chapel on the Hill.” His blue eyes met hers for what seemed like the first time in months. “Dad’s back is bothering him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Here are their boxes” — she walked him over — “and this is where to deliver them.” She handed over the packet with a tight smile. “Tell your Dad I hope he feels better.” She stepped back, anxious to avoid further awkwardness.

He boosted a box into his arms. “You’re not lifting these, I hope.”

“No, not me.” She patted her belly. If he had ever found her attractive, he must be safely past that now. Perhaps that explained the sudden willingness to talk to her again.

“My sister’s arriving tomorrow,” he said.

“Your dad told me she has big news.”

“She’s bringing Carla.”

“Does he know?”

“No.” He frowned and shifted the heavy box over to one hip.

“Don’t you think it might be a good idea to give him a heads up?”

“She didn’t want me to. She says if they have to leave, they will.”

“Well that sounds like a fun holiday for everybody.” Mary was annoyed on Bert’s behalf. “Was this your sister’s idea, or Carla’s?”

“Probably Carla’s. She can be a drama queen.”

“I could tell him, if you want.”

He looked astonished. “You?”

She suddenly realized how far she’d overstepped. There went her face, burning again. “Sorry,” she said wretchedly. “Dumb suggestion.” She turned away, blinking back tears of embarrassment, and stumbled over to another volunteer who looked like he needed direction. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Winslow staring after her. She turned her back and tried to focus on the man in front of her, who was geared out as if he were about to go climb Mount Monadnock.

“Hey, are you okay?” the man asked.

“Hormones,” she said.

The man looked alarmed. She tried to smile. “Which group are you?”

“Unitarian.”

Thankfully, the Unitarian boxes were on the other side from the God’s Chapel on the Hill boxes, over by the Kiwanis boxes. Perhaps Annie had mapped out the boxes by dogma, or lack thereof. Mary helped the Unitarian fellow and then hovered while he carried out one heavy box at a time. Winslow came in and out, too, loading his own boxes. She sensed him looking over at her, but carefully avoided making eye contact until his last box was gone and him with it. Then she checked both sets of boxes off her list and collapsed into a folding chair.

“You okay?” Annie asked, panting a bit herself.

“I’ll be all right.”

“Somebody say something mean to you? Tell me who it is, I’ll fight ’im!”

Mary just shook her head.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

“I thought I might sign up to work the soup kitchen in Keene.”

Annie scowled. “Why don’t you let the once-a-year folks do that? I’m going to have a nice restaurant meal with my home girls. You want to come?”

“Home girls?” Lawson was not exactly a hub of hip urban street culture.

“Other divorced women from my support group. The few of us who don’t have families we want to hang out with on Turkey Day, anyway.”

Mary hesitated. “How expensive is it?”

“Pregnant unemployed food pantry volunteers get to eat free.”

“I can still pay my way!”

Annie laughed. “No you can’t. The restaurant is owned by one of the women in the group. She never lets us pay a dime for the food, just for the service.”

“Well, that sounds lovely, actually. Thank you.”

Annie did a little happy dance. “Excellent! Now everybody’s taken care of.”


From The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.He arrived at three. He hadn’t really wanted to be that punctual. But he’d taken a shower, and shaved, and changed, and changed again. And then he couldn’t think of anything else to do, and it was still only 2:30.

It occurred to him that he should take something, so he drove to Stop n’ Shop. It was closed.

He tried the package store. It was open, of course. He bought a bottle of wine and felt like a grown-up. Elaine hadn’t even had to tell him to do it.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said, and handed over the wine.

“Oh, thank you!” Cassandra looked genuinely pleased. “I hope it goes with turkey. I completely forgot about wine.”

“I think maybe anything goes with turkey,” he said, as if he had a clue, which he didn’t. Elaine would have known what wine went with turkey, or she would have asked the guy in the package store. David sure as hell wasn’t going to ask.

Colin came up to take his jacket. “This is my first Thanksgiving. We don’t do Thanksgiving where I come from.”

“No? Well, and why would you?”

Colin looked unsure whether that was a dig or not. David hadn’t intended it as one, but he enjoyed setting Colin back just a little anyway.

“We do have Guy Fawkes Day in early November,” Colin said. “We light bonfires and set off fireworks and roast bangers on sticks. Bangers are sausages, you see.”

“Sounds like fun,” David said.

“What I don’t understand about this holiday is the football part of it. Not that what you lot play is what I would consider football.”

Colin had already said some variation on this to him at least once a week since he’d met him. “Are you watching the game?” he asked hopefully. He had no actual interest in the day’s games, but having a television on would reduce the pressure to have conversation.

“Good Lord, no,” Colin said. “I did watch some of that parade, though. A bizarre tribal custom if I ever saw one. Huge inflated totems, dizzying drumbeats, virgins displayed like offerings to appease the gods!”

“So where’s Molly?” he asked Cassandra, who looked as if she’d had just about enough of Colin.

“At a football game.” She sounded tense.

“A football game?”

“The Turkey Day game. It’s home this year. Shadbrook vs. East Hadley. I assumed she would be home by now.”

“You see?” Colin says. “More madness. And on a day like this.” He gestured outside, to where the snow was falling more heavily.

“I hope he knows how to drive in this stuff,” Cassandra said.

“He?” David asked.

“Steven. Steven Bishop. A guy she used to know at the local high school. He looks nice enough.” Cassandra didn’t sound too impressed.

“She was very excited,” Colin said. “Our Molly hasn’t gotten out much.”

“I wish she would get home,” Cassandra said. “I’m glad she’s getting out, but I guess I’m really not used to this. Would you like a glass of wine before dinner, David? Or one of Colin’s imported ales?”

“Wine, please.” Yes, by all means, give him a drink. Had she invited him over here on purpose to make sure he knew about Steven? Maybe this was Cassandra’s way of saying it’s over, pathetic man, get on with your life.

x x x

He was glad he’d already downed that first glass when a beat-up old Plymouth pulled up outside. “I think she’s home,” he said.

But she didn’t come in right away. No, she stayed out there in the car with Steven.

Finally, Cassandra opened the door and stepped out onto the stoop. Molly got out of the car. She tried to neaten her hair. She looked so excited and happy. She practically bounced through the accumulated snow to the door.

Despite the ache in his heart, David found it impossible not to think: This is good. This is right and proper. Look at her, isn’t she beautiful?

When she saw him, though, some of that animation drained away. She licked her lips nervously. They looked chapped. Her entire face looked rough and red. He could remember kissing like that, centuries earlier, back when kissing alone was amazing.

“Hello, Molly,” he said, and smiled bravely.

She smiled back. The happiness overspread her face again. She just couldn’t contain it, could she? “I didn’t know you were coming,” she said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“How was the game?” Cassandra asked.

“The game? It was fine.”

“Who won?” Cassandra asked.

Molly opened her mouth, then closed it. “I have no idea.”

Colin chuckled, then patted him on the shoulder and steered him toward the kitchen. “Let’s refill your glass, David.”

 


FYI — The price on The Ribs and Thigh Bones will rise after it’s released Dec. 9, so pre-order before then to save a dollar. Or pre-order because you want to help me make it more visible to other readers (pre-orders really do make a BIG difference). Or … don’t worry about it and go eat some turkey. It’s a holiday! Hope you have a nice one.

More excerpts from The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.(Which is still coming out December 9 and can be pre-ordered here. Outside the US, try this. I’m still waiting for a link to the paperback edition.)

Foul language warning on this one!

Her shelves were filling up again with other books, like those John Jakes Bicentennial paperbacks in which people experienced all the important events of American history between simultaneous orgasms. There was also Anne Frank’s diary and a bunch of depressing Holocaust novels. Sometimes she wondered if she liked to read those because no matter how difficult her life got, she could always think well, at least I’m not in a concentration camp.


The crash was still his downfall. As he’d explained to his psychiatrist, if the plane was a black box in which he might or might not have done all that he could to save his family, all those realities had existed at the same time until the moment someone found him lying unconscious in a field of shade tobacco. He had to live with the version of reality in which they were dead and, at the very least, he was the one who’d put them in that box to begin with. Schrodinger had designed his experiment specifically to either kill the cat or not, and luckily for him it wasn’t a real cat, because if it had been, he’d probably be the most notorious man in the history of physics. But David’s family had been real.

“I’m sorry, what?” the doctor had said. “I’m not following you at all.”

“It’s theoretical physics,” David had said. “Schrodinger’s cat? Very basic stuff I’d expect any college graduate to know. But never mind.”

“Is this level of arrogance normal for you?” the doctor had asked. “If so, I believe you may really be improving.”


“What I don’t understand about this holiday is the football part of it. Not that what you lot play is what I would consider football.”

Colin had already said some variation on this to him at least once a week since he’d met him. “Are you watching the game?” he asked hopefully. He had no actual interest in the day’s games, but having a television on would reduce the pressure to have conversation.

“Good Lord, no,” Colin said. “I did watch some of that parade, though. A bizarre tribal custom if I ever saw one. Huge inflated totems, dizzying drumbeats, virgins displayed like offerings to appease the gods!”

“So where’s Molly?” he asked Cassandra, who looked as if she’d had just about enough of Colin.


MOLLY WISHED Farrah Fawcett would stop smiling. She was clearly out of touch with what was going on in this room. Or maybe she wasn’t – her smile had a kind of gritting-her-teeth quality to it, as if the actress was just possibly being forced to hold that smile under the threat of death. It reminded Molly of the huge, helpless grin on the skeleton in her biology class; she could practically see the white, bleached skull waiting to be revealed under all that perfect hair and skin. But she didn’t want to think about that, anymore than she wanted to be where she was.


If she really insisted on going through with this, it was going to be like making love to a pill bug. One touch in the wrong spot, and she’d curl up into a little ball. Hell, he might, too. How did two pill bugs ever mate? He guessed they had to possess a basic level of pill bug trust, or just be too fucking horny to care.


I think that’s it for free excerpts, except that I might do a couple of future posts with locations and paintings that show up in the book. If you’re on my mailing list, you already got Chapter 3, and you’ll get Chapter 4 and then 5 soon. Also, you’ll get a prequel chapter from The Awful Mess sometime early next month. If you tried to join and didn’t get anything, try again and remember to confirm your subscription.


The Awful Mess ebook will be on sale Oct. 28 – Nov. 4. It’s that title’s first time out through BookBub with the newer cover, and also the first time promoting to multiple retailers rather than just Amazon. I’m very curious to see how it does …  and hopeful it might goose pre-orders on this one.

 

Short excerpts from The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire (Part 1)

I need to build a page of these for the site, so I figure I’ll try to pique your curiosity over the next couple of weeks at the same time. If you want to read Chapters 1 and 2, you can begin here. To peek at Chapters 3, 4, and 5, sign up for my email list here.

EXCERPTS

As with the book, there’s a “bad language and adult themes” warning. There’s nothing explicit here, though.


Molly was not always enthusiastic about her father’s new life, but at least she was part of it. This was more than many kids with divorced parents could say. Besides, she blamed her mother for everything, although she was not above despising her stepmother for things like loving The Six Million Dollar Man and wanting all her bathroom accessories to match.


He watched the hemlock boughs sway overhead and flicked the occasional ant away from his thighs. Would there be grief in the ant hill tonight? Or would the ants just keep doing their ant business, oblivious to their losses? Did ants ever try to lay guilt trips on each other: Hey, asshole, I took a hell of a lot better care of the Queen than you ever did!


Molly gulped down the rest of her punch. She liked the peculiar sensation of warmth it was giving her, the odd little swoop of something like going over a bump in the road and becoming airborne.


“It’s okay to use the phone here, isn’t it?” She had decided it was time to call her dad and bail out of this situation.

“No need, we’re moving on, too,” Kim said. “Gina’s going to take us back, right, Gina?”

“Sure,” Gina said.

“How soon?”

“Soon as we finish Gina’s face. Hey, let’s do yours, too!”

“No, that’s all right,” Molly said quickly. Kim was even less judicious with make-up than she was with criticism of her parents. Gina’s heavily-penciled eyes made her look like a raccoon on the make.


She handed him his mug and sat down next to him.

“Decided to give it a try?” he asked.

She nodded and took a tentative sip – and screwed up her face in disgust. It was so much worse than she’d expected! How could something that smelled so good taste so bad? Still, she took another sip. It wasn’t quite as bad when she knew what to expect.

“A lot of people take it with cream and sugar.”

Why even bother with it in the first place, she wondered? But perhaps it was one of those things adults were just expected to develop a taste for, like Brussels sprouts and oral sex.


David stared at his knees, trying to come up with something that might sound a little more plausible. “My housekeeper has the most wonderful ass,” he blurted, then thought oh fuck. He certainly hadn’t meant to say that.

The other patients sat up, suddenly interested.

“Your housekeeper?” Rob’s eyes glittered.

His face was burning, which wasn’t going to help at all. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Oh yes you did,” Rob said. “Tell us about this housekeeper.”

“There was nothing to tell. I didn’t mean it. She’s only sixteen, for God’s sake.”

Breaths got sucked in all around the circle. “Fucking A,” Arnold said, clearly approving.

“How’d you end up with a sixteen-year-old housekeeper?” another guy from across the circle asked. He sounded envious. “You use a service or something?”

“She was my daughter’s babysitter.”

“Holy crap,” Arnold said. “You want to fuck your dead daughter’s babysitter?”

“I do not! Shut the fuck up!”

Arnold gave him a toothy grin. “Hey, I’m not blaming ya, buddy.”

Timothy sniffed. “You can get thrown in jail for that kind of thing.”

“I would never lay a finger on her,” David said.

“Yet her ass makes life worth living,” Rob said.


Pre-order the book for only $2.99!

A note to friends and fans: If you’re planning to order it someday, your pre-order is absolutely the best way to give this book a good shot at success. All those pre-orders are counted on the day of release, which gives the book a shot at real visibility on Amazon. On the other hand, with purchases trickling in after release, the general public will never know it’s there.

(Also, I will probably increase the price to $3.99 after a time. And this one I don’t dare offer for free, so don’t hold out any hope for that. I’d get too many indignant condemnations from people who download every free book without reading the warnings in the product description.)

For those of you who only read paper, I should have a pre-ordering link up in the next few weeks.

 

 

Chapter Two of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

Continuing on from Chapter One

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.MOLLY HAD BEEN to exactly four funerals before, one for each grandparent. She didn’t know if that was a lot of funerals for a girl of sixteen. But she knew this one was different. Emily and Elaine had already been dead for over three weeks, and there was no hint at all of their earthly remains, assuming there were any left. And, of course, Emily and Elaine had not been old people at the end of full lives, but a young girl and her mother.

“Such a tragedy,” everyone kept saying. It had been repeated so often that Molly now heard the words as if they were capitalized: Such a Tragedy. She had expected to hear plenty of that today and had steeled herself against it, hoping not to become a bawling wreck. What she hadn’t expected was what people were saying about Emily and Elaine once they got past the Such a Tragedy part.

“We’ll never see her learn to ride a bike!” Emily’s grandmother sniffed, then started sobbing outright and hid her face in a handkerchief before someone helped her back to her pew. Molly sat there thinking that Emily had already learned to ride a bike the previous summer. It had been the Bicentennial so they’d purchased red, white, and blue “Spirit of 76!” tassels for Emily’s bike handles. Didn’t this woman ever talk to her granddaughter on the phone? But then she felt mean. After all, Mrs. DeRochemont not only didn’t get to see her granddaughter learn to ride a bike, she would never get to see her ride a bike, ever.

Probably they’d missed so much because they lived all the way over in California, which had to be a very expensive long-distance call. And who was she to judge? All her grandparents were dead. They had excuses.

But her sense that things were off just got worse when they started talking about Elaine. They kept referring to her amazing talent, to her great promise as a poet and painter. Molly had worked for Elaine Asken as a babysitter and mother’s helper for four years, but she’d had no idea she ever wrote poetry, and she’d never seen her paint anything other than the bathroom – a nice sky blue.

Her mother looked as perplexed as she was. Their small town did not lack for artists. Molly’s mother was one herself (the infamous Cassandra Carmichael – yes, that one). She wasn’t shy about bringing it up, either. So how could something like this have never come up in neighborly conversation?

Back at the Asken house, now crowded with mourners trying not to chat too cheerfully over the food, Molly caught her mother examining pale David Asken with suspicion. Her mother had always seemed to like this young family across the street, to consider them the right sort of people, not too old-fashioned or Republican or anything. She particularly approved of the fact that Elaine had a job, teaching English at the local public high school. Now, however, Molly could tell that she suspected Dr. Asken of oppressing all the art out of his wife.

Molly thought it was more likely that her mother had oppressed any mention of art out of Elaine. Cassandra had hit the big time with an installation called Puberty, which had included a life-sized sculpture of Molly, twelve at the time, constructed entirely of tampons and feminine napkins – unused, thank God. This had been such a big hit that her mother had moved on to a series of papier-mâché portraits of women’s private parts she called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Worse, her mother always made sure the local media knew about her new shows, and they delighted in giving full coverage to her exploits.

All this had often made Molly want to curl up in the fetal position in her bed rather than go to school. People assumed Shadbrook was an enlightened town because it was so close to UMass and the other colleges – and plenty of academics did live there. But the other people, the locals – farmers and factory workers and custodians and groundskeepers – wouldn’t be caught dead pretending to like contemporary art. At Shadbrook High School the kids had saluted her mother’s first show by passing her sanitary supplies in class and calling her Tampon Girl. She was grateful when her father took pity and got her transferred into a local boarding school as a day student. At Shadbrook Academy the rich kids thought it was cool to have a mom who was so open-minded about, like, sex, and Molly tried to act as if she thought so, too. She’d already learned the hard way that betraying embarrassment in high school was like jumping into a shark frenzy with a vein open.

But Molly was not particularly open-minded about sex. She was still only sixteen, and she had never felt an overwhelming urge to exchange bodily fluids with any of the boys she knew, even the ones she considered cute. And she didn’t appreciate it when someone assumed she must be hot to trot just because her mother had a bunch of giant vulvas lined up on a shelf in her studio.

Today, though, she was less the crazy feminist artist’s daughter than she was the bereaved babysitter of the dead girl. People were giving her the same watery smiles they were giving Dr. Asken – in her case, probably because her eyes were still red-rimmed with tears from the service (so much for not bawling), or perhaps because she was helping out at the house and therefore seemed to hold some kind of official family status.

Mr. and Mrs. Pizarelli from next door tapped on the glass door off the deck and began to slide it open. Although the Asken house faced busy Federal Street, the driveway was off quiet Brinkley Street, facing Molly’s mother’s house. Only salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses walked all the way around. Mr. Pizarelli bore a huge pan wrapped in aluminum foil while his wife carried a homemade layer cake high up before her like a sacred offering. Molly knew they were going to want more recognition for their efforts than they could get from her, so she quickly went into the living room and pointed Dr. Asken’s sister, Denise, toward the new arrivals.

In the living room, two women she didn’t know were examining the large oils hanging there and Molly suddenly realized that they must be Elaine’s, since they were signed EDR. The two largest paintings were color studies more than anything, but a few were more representational – impressionist scenes of shells or sea oats and dunes. It was the kind of stuff her mother would dismiss as too conventional – sofa art, she might call it, with a sniff.

Molly jumped when Denise grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the kitchen. Although she lived in Minneapolis, Denise had been staying here at the house since shortly after the crash, watching over her brother while he recuperated from his injuries. She leaned in towards Molly’s ear and murmured, “How do you think it’s going?”

What made Denise think she was any judge? “Fine, I guess.”

“I was hoping David would get more involved, but I’m afraid he still has a long way to go.” She sighed unhappily.

After three weeks in the hospital, Dr. Asken still had one arm bandaged all the way from the hand to the elbow and hanging in a sling. The other hand wasn’t bandaged anymore, but it was scarred with pale, puckered trails like birthday cake icing. At rest it curled in on itself like a claw. Except for those injuries it was not really obvious from looking that he had survived a terrible plane crash. There had been fourteen survivors out of eighty-three passengers – or eleven, really, since three had since died from their injuries.

Molly assumed Dr. Asken was suffering – how could he not be? But today, when she’d dared to look, she was mostly struck by how he seemed to not really be there at all.

“Do you think you could stay for a while this afternoon and help me clean up? I’ll pay you, of course.” Denise’s plump face had managed to take on a hollow look, and she had a fine sheen of perspiration over her upper lip. She’d been shepherding people to and away from her brother, putting out food, refreshing drinks and supplying gory details to people who surely already knew what had happened but wanted to hear it all over again from a more authoritative source.

“Yes, I can stay. You don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh, aren’t you sweet.”

Molly sensed a faint touch of contempt there. Did Denise think she was some kind of provincial idiot? But although Molly could use the money, it hadn’t been her primary motivation in her relationship with the Askens for a long time.

This house had been her refuge from the general chaos at home as well as impassioned monologues about the beauty of the female body and the political importance of the female orgasm and other things she just didn’t think a girl should have to discuss with her mother. She had loved Emily because she was a sweet little girl who worshiped her, and she had loved Elaine because she was predictable and steady and kind. She’d loved coming over here into the tranquility of Elaine’s blues and greens, the houseplants that didn’t die from neglect, the sense of order and peace. Just stepping in the door was soothing.

But it was not Elaine and Emily’s house anymore; it was just Dr. Asken’s. And Dr. Asken – Dr. because he had a Ph.D. and taught science at one of the local women’s colleges – had never been anything more to Molly than a tall man with hair just long enough to make her father frown, a man who occasionally appeared, looked mildly embarrassed, and paid her.

In truth, she was not really entirely comfortable that she had been hired to work as Dr. Asken’s housekeeper for the rest of the summer.

She quietly dodged around people in the living room, collecting glasses and dishes, doing her job. But when she was loading the dishwasher and recognized Emily’s favorite juice glass, the one with Cookie Monster on it, she felt tears rise again. She dashed out the door to the front porch, where she could slip down onto the old wicker sofa behind the lilacs and try to get a grip.

Moments later, her mother stuck her head out of the front door. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Are you all right?”

Molly nodded and gave her a surly pout, desperate to head off any serious attempt at comfort. It would only make her cry.

Cassandra sat down next to her and took out a cigarette. “I wonder why she stopped painting,” she said. She took a drag and blew out smoke in a long stream.

Molly coughed. “I wonder why you started smoking.”

Her mom blew out another long stream, and Molly wondered if maybe that was why she had started smoking – the opportunity it provided for dramatic pauses.

“I used to smoke before I got pregnant with you.”

“So you won’t mind if I start now, either?”

Her mother cocked an eyebrow at her and offered her a cigarette.

Molly recoiled.

Her mom smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Another stream. “What do you think of Elaine’s paintings?”

“I didn’t realize they were hers. I like the colors.”

“I see indications of real talent.”

Molly frowned. There was no way would her mother would have said that if Elaine were still alive. Her mother generally dismissed all but most the radical of her contemporaries as “bourgeois hacks,” and there was nothing in Elaine’s work that suggested revolutionary tendencies. Molly said, “Elaine was the warmest, kindest woman I’ve ever known.”

Her mother stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt into the lilac.

Molly thought it took a lot of nerve to toss a butt into a grieving man’s front garden, but then she realized there were no ashtrays on the front porch. Elaine would have thought to put some around. “Let me get an ashtray for you,” she said, and stood up.

“Don’t bother, I’m going home. Are you coming?”

“Denise asked me to help clean up.”

Her mother snorted. She’d taken an instant dislike to Denise. “Well, good luck with that.” She went back through the house, no doubt to do another round of condolences on her way out.

Molly twisted around to peer through the living room window, curious to see how Dr. Asken would react to the second, parting handshake from her mother. People in the room stopped what they were doing to watch her. Molly’s mother was not a beauty – she was a tiny woman, with unusually short, spiky hair and a face that was more interesting than it was pretty – but people did watch her, even people who didn’t know how notorious she was.

But Cassandra Carmichael didn’t get even a flicker of recognition from Dr. Asken. It was the same as the first time he’d shaken their hands, after the service – like someone going through motions he didn’t even know he was making.


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The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

It’s 1977 in a small New England town peppered with academics from the nearby colleges. Physics professor David Asken has just lost his pregnant wife and young daughter. Molly Carmichael is the sixteen-year-old babysitter from across the street, not in any hurry to grow up and eager for almost any refuge from her mother’s notorious art career. Her summer job is to keep house for the recuperating widower, a man who’s quietly planning to end his life as soon as he can drive again. Events will force both of them to grow up the hard way, and it’s their unexpected connection — fraught with potential scandal — that will help them do it. THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE explores the nature of love, and raises the question: Is there ever a time when doing the wrong thing might be exactly right?


There is a code of behavior, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation might be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things?

VIRGINIA WOOLF, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE


 

CHAPTER ONE

WHAT WAS THE POINT OF BEING MARRIED, David thought, if he couldn’t at least have a little company while he was pretending not to be terrified?

Elaine must have been really tired to sleep that way, with her mouth open and drool trailing down her face. He knew she’d hate to be seen like that, which gave him another reason to wake her up. “Honey?” he said, using his thumb to gently rub the drool away.

She opened her eyes and looked blank for just a moment, before a jolt of turbulence made her grip the arm rest. A small, evil part of him was pleased to see his wife the fearless flyer scared for a moment, even if it was only because she hadn’t fully wakened. “They said it was going to get bumpy. And we’re starting our descent, so the seats need to come up.” She’d missed the no-smoking light coming on, which might have cheered her up if the cabin wasn’t already layered with a haze of cigarette smoke.

She pressed the button that straightened her seat, then did the same for their daughter Emily, who slept on in the window seat. Her little face, still a little too pink from the Florida sun, was sweaty with child-sleep, and a few stray strands of hair clung wetly to her forehead.

It was probably just as well she was out, what with the steady shaking they were getting. Either she’d be scared about something neither Mommy nor Daddy could fix, or she’d decide it was fun and he’d know he was the only natural-born weenie in the family.

Was it evil to hope that the next child would take after him a little more? He put a possessive hand on Elaine’s belly, which still wasn’t showing anything that couldn’t be put down to the airline meal. She gave him a tight smile in return, one he easily translated as must you?

He withdrew his hand. She didn’t want him to tell anyone yet – not even total strangers in Florida who didn’t know their names and could hardly run off and share the news with her boss or her mother. He checked to see if the woman who had the opposite row all to herself suddenly had a knowing look on her face, but she was bracing one arm on the seat in front of her and gripping the armrest with the other. Her eyes were closed and her lips were moving – presumably in prayer – but her eyes opened wide at a sudden clanking.

“It’s just the landing gear going down,” he offered, with far more nonchalance than he felt. (Were they really going to try to land in this?) She didn’t look comforted.

Another sharp jolt made someone further up scream. Outside the window a spike of lightning briefly illuminated startlingly high towers of storm clouds and was followed immediately by the crack of thunder. Raindrops began to trail across the window as the lightning began to intensify, its cracks and booms and rumbles and murmurs overlapping so much that David gave up trying to count seconds in order to estimate distance.
Between flashes, the red and yellow glow of the plane’s lights pulsated eerily.

“I thought we were supposed to miss all this bad weather by leaving as late as we did.” Elaine might not be a nervous flier, but she was definitely an irritable one.

“This time of year storms can form pretty quickly.”

“Lovely.” She started checking the seat pockets in front of her and Emily, tidying compulsively as usual. “Should I wake her?”

“She might start singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song again.”

“At least it replaced It’s a Small World.”

“Don’t even mention it!” Elaine wouldn’t be above teasing him with the tune just for kicks, so he quickly added, “She had a good time, didn’t she?”

“That she did,” Elaine said. “She’s not hard to please.”

Unlike you, he thought. What wouldn’t he give just to hear her say he’d done something right? Something like: “Going to Florida was such a great idea, David!” But she just wasn’t given to that kind of thing.

Instead, it seemed to him, long recriminating silences were beginning to replace the easy exchanges they’d once had. He thought they’d each talked and listened in fairly equal measure, back when they were dating and first married. These days, it seemed to him he did more of the talking, and often all he got for it was that tight smile.

Like when he’d come home from the last day of class with these plane tickets.

Aw, fuck it. “Did you enjoy it?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said. “A lot more than I expected to.”

That was an admission, wasn’t it? She hadn’t expected to have fun. She could still be lying about having any, though. “What was your favorite part?”

“Oh, watching Emily get so excited, of course.”

Of course. Emily. Not her.

Not that this vacation hadn’t been a bit of a marathon for him, too. It had been so hot and humid, and the lines so long, and everything so relentlessly, cheerfully commercial. It had also been a lot more expensive than he’d counted on, and just to top it all off, Elaine had begun to have a little morning sickness. It hadn’t really occurred to him until too late that maybe this trip wasn’t the best timing for her.

“You feeling all right?” he asked now. This bouncing around couldn’t be easy on a queasy stomach.

“I’m fine,” she said, as if surprised.

They had to be nearly at the runway by now, surely? He peered outside looking for lights from the ground, and thought he might see a few. This was really very bad weather to be landing in. It wouldn’t even be safe to let them off the plane, not onto those metal steps – though he would be willing to run for it just to get the hell out of this thing.

Another strong jolt punctuated the general shaking. He took Elaine’s hand, then leaned forward and peered at Emily. Her lips were doing that adorable suckling thing. A few rows ahead, a baby started screaming.

“I bet that baby’s ears are bothering it,” Elaine said. “They should give it a bottle.” There was a perceptible increase in conversation, probably as every mother on the plane said some variation of the same thing, while everyone else on board wondered, like him, how long they were going to be trapped on a shaking plane with a screaming baby.

No longer just peppering the windows, the rain could now be heard pounding furiously on the roof.

The engines suddenly roared and the plane lifted steeply up again. The conversations around them stopped dead at this change in the routine. Only the baby continued crying.

David felt the plane straining for altitude even as it continued to buck. With one hand he held on to Elaine’s and with the other he held onto his seat.

Emily whimpered and Elaine pulled her hand away to attend to her, just as the plane suddenly lurched left.

And that was the last thing he remembered of his life before the crash.

———————————————————————————–

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