Coming Soon…A New Novel by WA Schwartz
10 February 1963
She stands shivering on the steps outside the flat. It takes a minute for her mind to adjust to the idea he’s physically here. She hadn’t asked him to come, had she? She can’t remember now. Maybe one of the calls went through. A shot of fear hits her. Disorientation. She studies him carefully, making sure he is real. She can see where his coat bunches and strains at the underarms and side seams, how his pale hands disappear from view behind his back. In this light, he might be wearing a straightjacket. He refuses to come inside despite the freezing temperatures.
“This is ridiculous, all these hysterics. I won’t have it. Not again,” Jack says, and Vivienne thinks, yes, he’s real.
He turns as if to leave, and finally, she makes her mouth move; she forces herself to say something.
‘I want you to give me back what you took.”
She senses rather than sees him tense up. “For god’s sake, Vivienne, what are you talking about.”
“My life, Jack. You took everything. How can you not see it?” She is losing control now. Soon she will be screaming.
“You’re doing it again, Vivienne. Acting crazy. Trying to punish me.” He takes one step towards her and gentles his voice. His face glows eerily beneath the gaslights. “Look, you need rest. I can see how tired you are. Dr. H. called me. You’re not sleeping. Go on in. I’ll come round tomorrow. How’s that?”
There are icy tears on her cheeks, but she can’t feel the cold otherwise. “Just tell me something, Jack.”
He sighs heavily. “What is it, Vivienne?”
“Was I wrong?”
“All of it.”
He hesitates for a long time. Then, he turns away just slightly, and as he does so, Vivienne can smell her. The scent is unmistakable.
“Was I ever wrong? All those times you said I was.”
Now he heads down the step and takes a few strides towards his car before looking back. “No, Vivienne. You were never wrong.”
Her boots crack the iced pavement as she heads back up to the flat. Temperatures are slowly rising in London, but the city remains coated in ice, and hills of snow are everywhere. It is quiet. Nearly silent except a faint whirring sound that might be a car in the distance. There is a hazy nimbus of mist over the Primrose neighborhood, and suddenly Vivienne feels a peculiar sense of calm.
She lets the heavy outer door swing all the way shut before making her way upstairs to her sleeping children. There is much to accomplish before morning.
PART ONE: 1938-1941
SPEAKING TO GOD
He died in the fall of 1940, three days before Roosevelt promised not to send our boys to war. He died in Winthrop, Massachusetts, two thousand miles from the country of his birth. He fell into delirium and died babbling in German about murder and bumblebees. There was Mother at his bedside with a cool cloth, whispering, Shh now, Shh, darling, It will be alright. But there were his long legs, gone all dried and scrawny and sticking out of the sheet, like old driftwood, and he died, even though he promised Vivienne, he would not.
Afterward, they called him a presence, the lavender-scented ladies, who floated up and down the hall with their soft gloves and their sticky lips on Mother’s cheek. Oh, Lorah, such a man. He commanded a room; He was a presence. They dabbed at their eyes with sharp red nails and clutched at kerchiefs embroidered stiff with tiny pink roses like blisters. Their whispers like howls, He will be so terribly missed.
Vivienne wandered among the adults in the living room. She felt strangely weightless and sickish hyper-dense as if her body was made of solid iron and still capable of floating free of the earth. No one noticed as she slid between pairs of creased trousers and sleek-stockinged legs. Almost no one. Mrs. Teasdale, an enormously fat woman who’d lost (actually lost, he’d disappeared) her husband a year earlier, caught Vivienne’s eye and stuck out her bottom lip, making a creepy adult sad face. Everyone knew Mrs. Teasdale hated her husband, a skinny, unhappy man with a pock-marked face, who had worked some vague government job and spent every weekend sitting in his front yard drinking coca-colas and glaring at anyone who passed by. Vivienne suspected Mrs. Teasedale had murdered the poor man and hidden him in the basement. Mrs. Teasdale seemed much happier since he’d gone, and it only made sense after all. Vivienne had once suggested her theory to Mother, but Mother told her, never say such things, Vivienne. It’s very rude. Vivienne failed to see how a theory could be rude, but she stopped talking about it anyway. Still, she felt vindicated, looking at Mrs. Teasdale now, with her low-cut dark blue dress and bright lipstick the color of a hibiscus.
Vivienne ignored Mrs. Teasdale’s glance and continued through the crowd. Nobody else acknowledged her, and she welcomed the inattention. She listened as she moved about.
“They took his leg, you know?”
“Oh, how terrible.”
“Above the knee, The thigh. And gangrene. He was home for a time. Before he passed. You know?”
It was true about the leg. Daddy had gone to the hospital and come home without it. Also, curiously without a shoe. Vivienne tried to ask what happened to the one black shoe he’d been wearing on his one good foot when he’d been taken away; A leather Oxford, one of the good pair he wore for teaching at the University. She thought he ought to hold onto them both even though he hadn’t been to the classroom in nearly a year. Mother hadn’t answered. Somehow Vivienne knew not to ask again. Now, she supposed it didn’t matter. What would he do with a shoe? Do, shoe, she thought, do, do, one black shoe, repeating the words to herself several times, amused by the rhyme.
Vivienne took a seat in the dining room on one of the stiff-backed chairs. She dug a fingernail into the cushion, attempting to unravel a tiny cluster of embroidered flowers. Daddy’s mother’s needlework. She died a very long time ago, and the embroidery was thin and faded but stubbornly resistant to final destruction. Vivienne had tried many times. They were uncomfortable chairs. Vivienne and her brother, Beanie (his real name was Bernard, but nobody called him Bernard), were made to sit in the chairs exactly twice a year for long holiday meals. Twice a year was quite enough, but Vivienne sat in one now. After today, she supposed, they’d never use these chairs again. Mother hated cooking those meals. She’d only done it for Daddy.
Friends and neighbors had piled the dining table with food. A big china platter with rolls and slices of ham, decorated all around with red grapes. Some kid had picked off the grapes, smashing them one by one in a long purple row onto the white tablecloth. There was half a lemon pie, much of which was smeared across that end of the table, probably by the grape smashing kid, and a pile of untouched twice-baked potatoes. Probably, nobody could figure out how to eat them since Mother hadn’t put out any extra forks. Also, several casseroles in glass containers, now sticky where food had sloshed over, piles of crackers and cottage cheese, and several bowls of jello in cheerful summer flavors like raspberry and cherry lemonade. Vivienne thought it might be wrong to serve jello when somebody was dead, but she was only eight, so she didn’t really know.
The whole thing made Vivienne sick and sad at the same time. She hadn’t been allowed to the funeral, but this thing, whatever it was, she’d been forced to attend. Mother said it was necessary. It was like a party. A horrible, black, miserable party. And all the people pretending to be sad only they weren’t. Except for the children, the small ones, they weren’t pretending, which was better. Instead, they played chase and hide-n-seek, running in and out of the kitchen, giggling, hands over their mouths, laughing even harder when their parents shushed and shooed them back outside.
Beanie was only five. He’d been put to bed by the sitter. Beanie was lucky. Beanie was called Beanie because his nickname was supposedly Bernie when he was born, but Vivienne pronounced it “Beeeenie!” with enthusiasm, and it stuck. Beanie seemed to like it anyway.
Vivienne watched as Mother moved about the room, dipping her head, listening, smiling, conversing just the right amount of time with each guest, and moving on.
Mother isn’t sad. She hasn’t cried, Vivienne thought. She’ll never cry. She studied Mother a bit longer. Then she pulled a large cloth napkin from the pile folded on the table before her. She spread it out on her lap, then picked it up and dropped it down over her head. The drape of it covered her face, the edge nearly brushing her shoulders—a shroud. For a long time, she sat like that. She concentrated on her thoughts, working to increase their volume until they drowned out the adult words that kept fluttering past the thin folds of fabric, like moths.
Beanie was too small, but Vivienne was big and clever, so Daddy let her do all sorts of things. While her brother had his bath in the evenings if Daddy’s mood was right, Vivienne followed him into his study. She curled in the soft chair beside his desk, in the warm, dark office, listening to the scratch, scratch of his pencil as he marked his students’ papers. Sometimes she would drift into sleep, and when she dreamed, the dreams would be of her father’s red correction pencil drawing soft red Xs across her brain. Sometimes they went to the ocean and swam, and other days Daddy let her visit his bees. Vivienne loved watching him trap them in his big fist. He held them and let her listen to the buzzing; then, he would fling open his hand and let them go.
In the summer, sickness dulled the blue fire in his eyes like a shade crossing out his whole insides. Sometimes he still went to the college, but he stopped bringing home special prizes for Vivienne. A pencil, a neat pink eraser, or an apple, pulling it like a secret from his bag after settling into his chair. Instead, he only lay on the sofa after work, waiting for Mother to bring him ice chips or cups of tomato juice to drink. They no longer visited the ocean together. He did not jump across the salty, churning waves and swim back, Vivienne clinging to his back terrified and gorgeous with her very own Superman.
He wouldn’t see a doctor. Mother begged him, but he refused. He knew what was wrong, he said. Science. He knew science. After all, that’s what he was, a scientist. The diagnosis was evident, and he was doomed. That’s what he said. No doctors! And so, instead, he lay on the sofa and shouted and withered until finally, he could only stay in bed. When he was too weak to refuse, Mother brought the doctor, and finally, Vivienne watched them take her father away, and when he came home, they’d left his leg behind. His shoe and his leg. Four days later, he was dead.
Beneath the napkin, her face grew warm, then too warm. Sweat collected at her temples and began trickling down her forehead, one or two droplets threatening to leap over her brow bone unless she sat perfectly still. She braided all her fingers together and squeezed, pretending she was made of wood. Stone, it was harder than wood,
“Vivienne!” Suddenly, a light, artificially bluish, fell across her face, painful like a slap. She blinked, looked up. Mother stood over her, napkin clenched hard in her fist as if it were alive and might wiggle free. “Vivienne! What are you doing? You look, well, never mind how you look. Just stop.” Then Mother softened a bit and bent forward, cupping Vivienne’s chin in her palm. Her words sounded brittle, like a very thin sugar wafer. The sort that falls apart almost before you can get it into your mouth. “Look, tomorrow, these people will have gone away. You and Beanie will be home to rest. We will all rest. We will go to church. And…” Mother looked around as if her next words were somewhere over her shoulder. “And rest, alright?”
Vivienne nodded. Said nothing. Mother started to walk away and realized she was still holding the napkin. She folded it into halves, then fourths, then, oddly, once more, into another smaller square. Finally, she set it down on the table, gently like it was made of glass. Then, she smoothed her skirt, although Vivienne could see the black fabric had no wrinkles. Mother drew in her breath, then straightened her shoulders, and headed back into the living room. Once Mother was out of sight, Vivienne picked up the carefully folded napkin and shook it open, and plopped it back over her head. You’re wrong, she thought. Tomorrow, I won’t stay at home. I’ll go straight to school. I won’t go to church, and I’ll never speak to god again.