Excerpt from Double Happiness

Pelican Song

I was the kind of thirty-year-old who had only recently left adolescence behind. I was mostly a modern dancer. I rehearsed, I went to class. I worked the concession stand in an art-movie theater where actors and filmmakers ushered. A novelist with strong powers of concentration manned the ticket booth. I had a studio apartment in Gramercy Park that looked out on an ivied brick wall. When I wanted to get out of the city I would take the bus to visit my mother in central Jersey. My mother was far along into her second marriage. She and her husband had built a house in an abandoned peach orchard with the proceeds from the sale of my childhood home and his antique-car-supply boutique. They acted as their own general contractors and saved a lot of money. Now that the house was finished they had their collective eye open for an investment scheme.

Like the ticket taker, the man my mother married was really a novelist. My mother created an author’s den for him in the upper portion of their beautiful new house. She decorated it with my lost father’s old desk, very attractive and manly with brass inlays, and his leather chair. Everything faced out over the inground swimming pool and the putting green, and beyond that to the old orchard and then the woods. Couldn’t be more inspiring, everyone said.

My mother, always interested in words, took seriously, in a way lost to the world with my generation, the role of helpmate. She typed her husband’s manuscripts, judiciously editing them as she went along. She served lunch on a tray, left atop a small marble pedestal outside the den door. And she checked the mailbox at the end of the long drive for the latest news from his literary agent. If there was another rejection waiting, she prepared the gentlest delivery.

At the art-movie theater in the West Village we took failure for granted. In the house in the orchard the stakes were much higher. Each time a rejection letter came, though often flattering, even encouraging, it represented an enormous blow to the whole enterprise. Even so, I decided to try my own hand at fiction writing. I joined a group. I wrote one-paragraph stories that I liked to read out loud to my mother over her kitchen speakerphone while she was preparing the meals that went upstairs. For Christmas that year, my mother’s husband gave me a lovely, quite serious pen, with a kind note folded inside the box. But at the movie theater no one allowed my ministories any more importance than my modern dance performances. My biggest obstacle to respect, however, had to do with men.

I had an odd figure for a modern dancer. Rubenesque, my composer boyfriend called my body when pressed for compliments. This was long before I found the tiny crimson panties tucked beneath his buckwheat pillow. I also heard him say Rembrandt. My mother, it’s worth noting, took figures very seriously. I often felt this was another feature of her generation, like the typing and the meals on trays. In my time, I believed, a body could be different and still be okay. But when the composer mentioned Botero, I lost confidence.

After the panty disclosure, I started seeing a painting student. He ushered part-time and still lived with his parents on the Upper East Side. His beard had developed only under his mouth and nose so far, and though born at New York Hospital he spoke with an English accent. Some days I’d meet him after class at Cooper Union. He was a freshman. I felt like his nanny waiting at the curb. But he was understanding, in a way I think was more intense because he was still living at home, when I began getting the late-night phone calls from my mother.

The calls started some time after the Christmas I received the pen. I’d come by myself for the holiday; the painter had his own plans with his mother and father. I stayed Christmas night in the guest suite next to the writing den. My presents made a nice pile at the foot of the bed, and I must have slept late, because when I got up the sun was high over the snow-covered putting green and I could smell coffee long past its first perc wafting from the room next door. My mother’s husband tended to stay all day in the writing den so I didn’t change out of my pajamas, just went downstairs to find my mother and scare up some breakfast.

At the foot of the stairs I heard a loud bang. My mother was a big redecorator, so I assumed she was moving a sofa, and then I heard a louder bang, more like a chest of drawers against a wall. Voices like growls could only be the television tuned to a low volume, so as not to disturb the writing process.

I took a quick look at the manger display my mother had set out in the foyer—sweet, a big part of my childhood. Even the hay was arranged nicely and all the ceramic farm animals had pleasant shapes. I heard the word cunt quite distinctly from the kitchen and turned my head. The chest of drawers banged against a wall one more time. My mother had painted an old heavy cabinet with white enamel, and I thought—without really thinking—she might be wrestling it into place.

But then I felt a strange fear that buckled my legs as I rounded the corner into the kitchen and found my mother backed against the wall, her husband pressed up hard against her, his face purple. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and when they both turned to look at me, my mother laughed but with an odd kind of disdain. She pushed her husband off her. He said something about coffee and left the room through the dining-room door.

I didn’t know what to ask, and my head hurt as if it were my skull that had been bounced. My mother attended to her hair. She coughed and smiled. Lifted a hand and her eyebrows as if to curtail the next obvious thing I might say, and walked past me through the door I’d entered to meet her husband at the manger. But he’d beaten her to the foyer and was already upstairs, walking slowly—I could hear him above me—down the long book-lined hallway to the writing den.

My mother’s husband didn’t just want to write novels, he wanted to write best sellers. At the art-movie theater we understood what he would never believe, which was that no one— we liked to talk in terms of multiple lightning strikes; we weren’t entirely original in this—got the recognition they deserved. We tended to read, perform, and scrutinize, often with devastating candor, each other’s work. We were envious, back-biting, and deeply critical, even scathing and destructive during lag-time discussions in our polyester smocks. We were lucky though. We had a context, and we had an audience, and there were more than two of us. When things got too painful we switched our shifts. My mother and her husband only had each other, in a house that they’d built to be so graceful and accommodating they’d never have to leave it.

When my mother called me on Valentine’s Day eve from the local Hilton, which she said was perfectly charming, two towns away from their home, I was surprised, but not entirely. She just wanted me to know where she was in case I needed her. She was fine. Her husband was working very hard and wanted a little privacy. Did I think cranberry velvet seat cushions would be pretty in the dining room? I had no opinion on this, and wrote down her room number at the Hilton. The next afternoon she called to say she was home and sending me something special. A beautiful dictionary arrived in a day or so inscribed with love from the two of them.

I was a little worried about my mother, but I had romantic problems of my own. I may have underestimated the maturity level of the painting student because he was such a fine kisser, and his drawings were intricate and intelligent. For Valentine’s Day he wrote my name in pink rose petals on the covered stoop of my apartment building and then lay down naked there in the cold, but not snowy, night, and waited for me to come home from the art-movie theater. He was very slender, and the chill he caught kept him out of classes for two full months. His parents didn’t appreciate my sickroom visits. The housekeeper looked genuinely alarmed to see a robust thirty-year-old teetering at the end of his trundle bed, so we communicated by late-night phone calls, which his mother listened to, breathing with complete audibility, on the extension. He couldn’t wait until he’d gotten through art school so that he could just make his own money and leave. It was oppressive and he had the courage to say so.

My painter friend was still malingering when my mother’s husband’s father died. An old bear, someone who felt cruelty was power. And in a way it was. No holiday was ever complete until old Sven had dialed in to ridicule the hopes of his aging son. Novelist-smovelist, his voice boomed through the kitchen over the speakerphone like he was actually making sense.

Just unplug the bastard, I suggested. And though my mother cast a weary eye when I said such things, her husband ignored me. He did this in a noble way that suggested strong men listen to the ravings of their fathers.

But it turned out I was a prophet. Old Sven’s brain blew a gasket early in the new year. My mother’s husband, who had power of attorney, pulled the plug in record time. And so, during the first big holiday gathering without Sven, the Easter egg hunt, there was a peculiar silence. And everyone, I could sense, believed this was somehow my fault.

My mother called me after that to change our Mother’s Day plans. Why didn’t I come to the Hilton? she said. There was a great indoor pool, and a sauna. I could share her suite and we could have a really good time. Because it was an unusually mild spring in the West Village, I was able to get the weekend off. Who wanted to go to the movies when cherry blossoms were sprinkling café tables?

I took the bus to Freehold. My mother was waiting in her little blue sport Caddy, wearing wraparound sunglasses from the seventies. Traditionally she liked to leap out of the car and hug me like I’d just finished my first full day at preschool, but today, and maybe she was anxious to show me the pool, she just started the engine and waved her left hand. I dipped down into the passenger bucket and took a good look before speaking. It wasn’t just the sling, it was the way she didn’t seem able to turn her head. And when she lifted her free hand to the wheel it was swollen like a mitt, her knuckles strafed with red slashes.

Even facing straight ahead she could still issue the look not to say anything. You want to wait until we’re at the Hilton? I said. She laughed. We weren’t going to the Hilton, it turned out. We were staying with a friend, Faye, who had lent my mother, for the purpose of this holiday visit, the guest cottage on her waterfront property. You’ll love this, she said, you’ve always loved the water. I couldn’t remember loving the water, but was sure my mother was right.

Faye had problems of her own. Her thieving ex-husband had run off with the golf club locker-room attendant she’d over-tipped for years. It was disgusting! Even so, Faye had taken time to fill the larder and the bar at the guest cottage, and she let it be known, before going off to the lawyer to skewer her lousy ex, that if my mother’s husband put one foot on her property he’d regret it. My mother sighed, and smiled her gratitude. But when the sound of Faye’s MG died out, my mother explained that Faye was consumed by rage. It was a terrible, wasteful shame.

Faye’s cottage had twin chaises that looked out from the veranda to the bay. In the early evening light, sailboats bumped and tilted around delicate crescent waves. The sun went down, turning everything pink for a while, and my mother’s face behind her sunglasses looked a little less distorted. She told me there’d been a particularly harsh rejection letter that week, and now the novel was dead. Which novel? I asked. I knew there had been several. My mother was quiet. A small boat tacked back straight into the last sliver of sun. Mom?

Maybe all of them. It’s possible.

I was quiet, out of respect, but then said, Sometimes people just feel that way. I told her the story of despair and renewal at the movie theater. An actor-usher who’d met Francis Ford Coppola at the McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue was now a night intern at his literary magazine. Who knows what will happen next? And he’d just about given up! And what about my own friend whose oppressive home environment and fevers cut his art down to bare scratches for a while? Second runner-up in the Cooper Union Gesture Drawing Competition last Monday! And what about me?

Sweetheart, you’re a dreamer. She gave me a one-cornered close-mouthed smile that was a dead ringer for her husband’s. I’d seen this smile before, trotted out for this very subject. Her husband was a professional. It was different. They weren’t children.

Well, I’m not exactly a child, either, I said. But I was, her nonreply said. And this came down to the checks she sent me, and the cash gifts, and the winter coats and boots I got for nearly every birthday, and the microwave and the matched living-room set. And the arrangement she’d made years ago with my co-op board and with Con Ed. I paid for my own transportation and food out of the paycheck from the art-movie theater, but the rest, as everyone who came to my mother’s house knew, and about which old Sven had been particularly vocal, basically came from my allowance. Meanwhile, my mother’s smug friends’ children were busy working out plans for third babies and second homes. Even Faye had a daughter with a time-share in Aspen.

The financial side of pursuing our art wasn’t subject to the deep truth-telling we otherwise advocated at the movie theater. I liked to quote Virginia Woolf to myself, now that I was leaning toward fiction, about the five-hundred pounds and the lonely room. Was there some caveat about not getting that from your mother?

My mother gently pressed her vodka collins up against her face and squinted at the dark water. The reflection of the tiki torches looked like jellyfish wriggling on the black surface.

Maybe you’d like to hear my new story?

Darling, you’ll wreck your eyes reading in the dark.

It’s short, I’ll recite it!

Oh, bunny. Well.

But then the gunshot revs of Faye’s MG sounded in the gravel beside the guest cottage. Did I imagine my mother’s relief? There, suddenly, was Faye, hopping mad, sucker punching the hydrangea. The scum had married the locker-room floozy. Could we believe it? My mother was lovely and magnanimous. Something like this, she knew, could never happen to her. She said sweet, smart things that made Faye laugh.

I was still thinking about my story, maybe Faye would like to hear it? My mother offered to mix some healing martinis. But Faye said she’d do it herself. With that hand—she tipped her perky head at my mother’s sling—they’d be slugging down pure vermouth. At this, Faye and my mother made little mews with their mouths at the same time, and I was startled that my mother could be so friendly, so intimate, with a female who wasn’t me. This seemed new.

But the biggest news, along with the disastrous rejection letter, was that old Sven had done something naughty with his will. Faye and my mother hunkered down, stem glasses balanced in the air, to talk it over. It turned out he’d left an enormous chunk to the Author’s Guild! And on a cruel Post-it, in a scrawly hand, he’d written to my mother’s husband: For your colleagues, thought you’d be pleased.

He wasn’t, my mother said, and Faye slid her an appreciative glance. Both drained their glasses, and I offered again to recite my story. Sweetness, they drawled out in tandem, then collapsed into giggles. Unstoppable giggles, they bent their sculptural coifs over slim, extended legs and roared. Oh god. Darling, my mother tried, and then waved her swollen hand quickly as if shooing a mosquito, and Faye laughed harder still. Finally, Faye stood and coughed to say she’d handle this. Though her eyes were still weeping with laughter, her mouth looked somber. My angel, she addressed me, and my mother kept her face tilted down. Don’t you think your mother has had just about enough literature for today? I’d say, really, enough for a lifetime? Yes?

Oh, Faye, stop, my mother said. Sweetie, I’ll hear your story in the car tomorrow, um? Faye, stop it. Then I can really concentrate. Okay?

That’s okay.

Good girl, said Faye.

Sweetheart, my mother sighed.

Don’t worry about it.

Well, maybe when it’s a little longer than a paragraph you’ll send it to me and I can take a good hard look.

It’s supposed to be a paragraph.

Faye smirked, and now that it was really dark outside, my mother took off her sunglasses and gave her a serious look. But that communication was lost because my mother’s eyes were so swollen, so deeply purpled and bruised even in the dim light of the tiki torches, that Faye stopped laughing and put down her stem glass.

I’m calling Lou, said Faye. Lou was her scum of an ex-husband. But he was also an orthopedic surgeon. My mother said, Absolutely not. But Faye plugged her ears with soft-looking fingers and marched straight into the guesthouse. Lou arrived within fifteen minutes. He and Faye were surprisingly cordial for two people who hated each other’s guts. Lou remembered me fondly from golf-club brunches when I was a child and then forgot me completely while he dressed my mother’s wounds in the surgical light of Faye’s guest dressing room. He gave my mother a sedative. In the morning she was very tired, so Faye drove me to the bus.

I had to work that afternoon at the movie theater and my mother had urged me to go. Don’t worry, my mother said. She was incredibly sleepy. Don’t worry, Faye said. Don’t worry, said the painter when I told him on the phone.

Soon after that, my legs began to give out spontaneously; I didn’t even have to think about my mother. My legs would wobble out of the blue and then hip, knee, ankle would collapse in a ripple. It made it tricky to walk. The steps down to the subway, which I was obliged to take from Gramercy Park to the movie theater, became a challenge. This wouldn’t have been that big a deal, since I was already making the transition from modern dance to fiction writing, but I did have one last performance scheduled at the famous White Columns. My “Pelican Song,” old Sven had called it over the speakerphone at Christmas. His last pronouncement, as it turned out. My mother and her husband had always planned to attend. They’d sent a giant check to the choreographer during his holiday fund-raiser. And he’d tacked on a three-minute solo at the end of the piece, “Wings of Love,” for me. Now the performance was minutes away. And my sudden leg-melts were trying the patience of even this well-funded choreographer.

I decided to address my condition by writing about it. Master the problem by making it conscious. So I began work on a full-scale paragraph to describe what I understood about my mother and her husband. This was more difficult than I’d guessed. In my mother’s husband’s novels, the women, I knew from several brief glances over the years, had fabulous, surprisingly active nipples, and insatiable appetites for very straight-ahead penis-worshipping sex acts. In my paragraph, there was sex, certainly, but of a different order.

The two weeks between my Mother’s Day visit and the performance were terrible. The worry, the rehearsals, the distress of composition (I began, oddly, to sympathize about this with my mother’s husband). And the rain. Every single day. I was forced to work double shifts pouring bagged popcorn into the pretend popper unit. Everyone in the West Village was coming to the movies, it seemed. By the time I got home each night, it was late, and the phone at Faye’s guest cottage rang and rang.

My painter finally recovered enough to spend a night of love on my air mattress. We jiggled and drooled and painted our chests with Nutella. When the phone blared after midnight we assumed it was his mother, who’d insisted on taking my number. But the answering machine speaker played out an echoing voice in the little room that, even without words, only crying, I knew was my own mother instead. I scrambled to pluck up the receiver. Wait, wait, I said. Hello?

She was still there, breathing hard, whimpering, Darling? And now I felt my sternum shudder and give. Where are you? I asked.

At home. She was locked in her bathroom, the one with the pinwheel wallpaper, the Jacuzzi tub, and the pocket door she had long debated: solid core or green glass? I could hear, even behind her harsh breathing, the bang of a fist against the swirly maple she’d finally picked and a muffled growl just like old Sven warming up for his holiday message. It’s locked, she said. I listened. The window, she said. And I thought hard. The window opened onto a trellis that reached down to a patio which bounded the putting green. If she pushed her pelvis— she didn’t like that word; hips then, I said, keep your hips close to the wall of the house. She could probably shimmy down.

That’s crazy, said the painter, and laughed. (That laugh ended our relationship.) Flush the toilet, I said in a whisper, as if her husband could hear me, flush before you open the latch. I would get the next bus to Freehold. Just walk into town, can you do that?

Of course, she said, putting me in my place. If she could get out the window, she’d see me there. He called me a sick, rotting cunt? she said, as a question, as if reviewing whether she was making the right move.

Well, you’re not, I said. Be careful of your feet. There might be broken glass.

Sweetheart, she whispered, for goodness sake.

My mother was a woman who dressed for bed. When the bus pulled in at the all-night diner in Freehold I scanned beyond the parking lot for where her cream satin peignoir might be flitting through the holly bushes. The exhaust-smelling heat of the bus had made the Nutella gluey. My sleep T-shirt stuck to my chest. I backed down the exit steps, uncertain. The bus driver stared at me. Eyes on the road, you pervert, I barked, then felt ashamed. My mother would be ashamed, too, if she’d heard me.

I had a coat for her and some shoes. Sneakers are for athletes, she always maintained. So I carried my only pair of black sling-backs and a lovely silk overcoat she’d given me, but no money. I’d borrowed the fare from the painter. Now, I realized, as the bus chugged away and the quiet settled in, that my mother probably didn’t have much cash on her, either. Didn’t matter. First I’d find her, and then, once she was appropriately dressed, we’d hitchhike our way to Faye’s guest cottage.

Was it an hour? It’s hard to know in the dark. But eventually, when she didn’t show up, I began the long walk past the cornfields to her house. I was shivering though the weather was balmy, and I was hungry. Each lumpy-looking shadow made me afraid I might find her lying by the side of the road like some fallen animal. But I didn’t find her. When I came to the end of her drive the house was lit as if for a holiday party. The button lights glowed to trace the curve of the the drive through the fragrant peach trees. The deep porch, its long planters thick with ivy and juniper, was aglow. It seemed every room was lit: the writer’s den, the guest suite, all the reception rooms, the master bedroom. Around back the garage doors were flung open as if the party might flood into its bays. The blue Caddy my mother liked to drive was parked close to the mudroom door, but the Mercedes, her husband’s staid sedan, was missing. I didn’t need to go inside the house to know she wasn’t there.

Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes

My dearest heart, my mother wrote to me. You’ll find it strange, I know, but we’ve flown away to try again. It’s difficult for a writer, maybe for any true artist, to make a good life here. Old Sven was kinder to you than to his own son, as you will see from the enclosed. I love you more than anything, always have, always will.

My birth date was penciled on the envelope. A bonded courier slid it beneath my door. The letter was typed and unsigned. The bank check was for a hundred-thousand dollars.

The house in the orchard was sold by old Sven’s personal lawyer in a private auction. He phoned me about furniture and, of course, the manger, but I didn’t want anything. This lawyer tells me from time to time, when I press, that they are both fine, they are in a quiet place now, they just need a little peace. He tells me that my mother sends her best love, as though she’s right there waiting on another extension. Sometimes I think my mother is still looking for me. She just doesn’t recognize me in my suit and leather shoes. Sometimes I scan the back pages of books. I pay close attention to long murder mysteries with women as dispensable, secondary characters. I read the acknowledgments, especially of the authors with phony-sounding names, hoping he will have the courage someday to say how amazing she was, how beautiful, and how she made everything, absolutely everything, possible.

Copyright © 2010 by Mary-Beth Hughes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

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