Today, I’m offering a peek at my new historical novel, tentatively titled Curtain, inspired partly by Colm Toíbín’s fine book, Nora Webster. If you care to comment, I’d be happy to know whether what I’ve written here would tempt you to read more.
It’s April 1937, and Jeff Messer has missed the funeral of his closest friend, Broadway playwright Brendan Moore, by staying too long in Europe. Back in New York, Jeff apologizes, but Anna, Brendan’s widow, is too hurt to listen, and she’s furious that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosemary, takes Jeff’s side and tortures her at every opportunity. But Rosemary is convinced that her beloved father’s last play is the only thing that stands between the Moores and the relief line, and that Jeff, who directed all of Dad’s hits, must stage this one. However, no one knows that the play evokes a secret from a terrible chapter in Jeff’s life that may even get him killed.
Can these people find it in their hearts to see the others’ pain and grief–and is the play the thing to make it happen?
Anna was out, talking to the lawyer about Dad’s will, and would be gone an hour or two, easy. It was Friday morning, and Rosemary would return to school Monday, wearing this same black dress, most likely. Now was the time, before routine trapped her.
She ventured toward her parents’ bedroom and stopped, as if the heavy, white door, open a crack, were warning her to take care. She’d have to want to widen that passageway, an act of commission.
Rosemary reached toward the cut-glass doorknob, whose facets had used to make her imagine an immense diamond, too big to wear, only to draw back. She pictured faces challenging her in hurt or anger, voices calling her a hypocrite. Not just Anna, but her aunts and uncles, even her friends, anyone whose questions she’d ever rebuffed to protect a secret. This was her parents’ private place. Anna didn’t come into her room without permission, certainly not to snoop when Rosemary wasn’t there. The girl knew that because nothing had ever been disturbed, whether on her desk, in or atop her bureau, or anywhere else. So she’d never trespass the other way. Except that Dad’s legacy was a special case and maybe their best chance to stay off relief. And she, Rosemary, seemed to be the only one to recognize this vital fact. She grasped the doorknob and pushed gently, making sure to note the precise angle the door had made.
The phone rang in the living room. Rosemary ignored it.
Anna had stopped wearing perfume, so the room no longer smelled like lilac. In fact, aside from the ghost of Dad’s Camels, fainter and fainter over time, the only odor came from cabbage cooking upstairs, a scent Rosemary loathed. Cabbage was cheap, so she didn’t hold it against the Bartons, who were struggling, like so many. But she wrinkled her nose just the same, and it struck her: Aren’t we struggling too? No cabbage had shown up yet, but if the rest of 1937 was like the first few months. . . .
She shook her head violently, because she had a job to do, which didn’t include feeling sorry for herself, and stepped into the room. Just crossing that boundary made her hold her breath, as if she expected Anna to leap from the closet and say, “I got you, you little sneak.”
The phone continued to ring. It happened so often these days, like a tired song that repeated the same note over and over until you wanted to scream.
The closet remained closed, and nobody leaped anywhere. Emboldened, Rosemary went further, stood directly beneath the globe light fixture that hung over the foot of the double bed with its pale blue bedspread. The bed she’d been conceived in, most likely.
What a creepy thought. She’d been having thoughts like that recently, imagining her parents creating her. She hoped it didn’t mean she was perverted, wondering about stuff like that. But she couldn’t help it. Had they enjoyed it? Equally? Or had it hurt, for Anna? Something told Rosemary it hadn’t, but still, Anna had never gotten pregnant again. Rosemary would have liked a younger sibling, preferably a brother who’d be sweet and adoring and vulnerable and look up to her. Maybe Anna had wanted another child too. Both she and Dad had come from large families, so having only one child themselves was very different for them. Though the condolence visit from her aunts and uncles had proven having siblings was a hit-and-miss thing. God, what if she’d had a little brother like Uncle Timothy? Disgusting.
The phone stopped ringing, thank God. Now she could think better.
Where did they keep the script? More exactly, where had Dad left it, and had Anna moved it? If she hadn’t moved it, maybe . . .
Dad’s Underwood, covered up like a canary’s empty cage, stood on a table in the corner, out of the way. Tears came. Never again would he tap-tap the keys at the kitchen table, humming and chuckling as he wrote, while a cigarette burned in the ashtray.
Quietly, as if Anna could hear–as if Dad could see and disapprove–she slid open his top dresser drawer and listened carefully for a key in the front door. If Anna caught her, Rosemary could always say she was looking for memories of Dad, and she probably wouldn’t even have to fake her tears, which would silence Anna like a piece of tape over her mouth. But all she saw were Dad’s shirts, laundered, pressed, and folded, like he was about to wear them, his handkerchiefs, and cuff links. His watch. A packet of letters, tied with ribbon. Rosemary reached out, then mentally slapped her hand. She didn’t have time for that, and besides, reading them would really be snooping. She might feel guilty for that, and she didn’t want to do anything she couldn’t excuse. Though Anna had behaved really badly.
In Rosemary’s head, Anna had been Anna, and not Mom, for exactly eighty-three days, and counting. She’d officially rechristened her the night she’d overheard Anna say out loud that Dad was dying, the first Rosemary had heard of it. She’d never been so angry, felt so betrayed. Her mother had tried to keep her ignorant of the most important thing that had ever happened in their family. How could Anna, a woman who prided herself on the straight dope, who preached honesty, honesty, honesty, lie like that? It was a stupid lie, too, the kind that would show itself sooner or later. But that hadn’t stopped Anna, whose round, angelic face and light, blue eyes could fool you, and the eggshell chin that would crack before the mouth ever uttered a falsehood.
But the very next day, Rosemary had gone to Dad and asked him, point-blank. He’d looked at her with the dark eyes that had already started to shrink into his head, like there was nothing left in life for him to see, and said softly, in a voice that had begun to dry up like old leaves, “Yes. How it hurts to leave you and Mom.”
That conversation, only a few words, was the most precious she’d ever had–and Anna, in her role as Mom, had tried to prevent it.
The memory of Dad’s confession brought more tears. Rosemary turned away so that she wouldn’t cry into his top dresser drawer. Dad would forever be Dad, but, in her own mind, the only place that was truly safe, Mom had become Anna. Out loud, Rosemary would give her what she required, but in her head, she was a rebel, a resister. Anna had forfeited the right to her intimate name because she’d done something so hurtful, so ordinary, so goddamned stupid and insensitive. And to top it off, she’d treated Rosemary, who was sixteen already, like a little kid who wouldn’t know how to handle the news.
She slammed the first drawer shut and flung open the second. Anna might catch her, but she wouldn’t be lied to.
The phone began to ring again. Honestly.
But the second drawer proved no more enlightening, nor the third and last. A great weight seemed to want to drag her lungs down past her waist, as if they’d fail, like Dad’s. She struggled for air, caught her breath gratefully. What if he’d locked it up somewhere, maybe in his filing cabinet? She closed the drawer, checked to see whether she’d moved anything, and dove into the closet.
No luck. The cabinet was locked as tight as J. P. Morgan’s bank vault. Nothing on the floor, either, or wedged onto a shelf up top.
Anna’s dresser? Rosemary drew back. Rummaging there would be like slapping the empress’s face before the court. If she had to, she’d do it, but only as a last resort.
Wait. One more place. She dropped to one knee and lifted the bedspread, fighting off visions of her parents coupling. The sight of the boxes, neatly labeled in dark pencil, made her close her eyes and exhale in triumph. Left, Right; Pinch Me, I’m Dreaming; One of Us Is Crazy; Barrel Over Niagara; Marry Soon, and Often; and the others–the whole works, literally. She sneezed, twice–the boxes were dusty–and found the newest, which wasn’t dusty at all. Interchangeable Parts. Hallelujah.
The phone stopped again.
Rosemary looked over her shoulder, as if she hadn’t already broken the law and could redeem herself, should Anna surprise her. But Anna wasn’t there, nor did her key enter the lock. Rosemary slipped the looseleaf binder out, replaced the box and the bedspread, and spent precious seconds deciding exactly how far open to leave the door. Then she raced into the hallway, and grabbed her coat and hat from the rack.
Call first? Yes. She had to be sure. She went to the living room, lifted the receiver quickly, before anyone else could call, and dialed. Some people, like the Bartons upstairs, had given up their phones to save money. If Anna and Rosemary had to do that, this call might be–but Rosemary wouldn’t think of that.
“Hello?” A man’s voice. The wrong man; the greasy roommate, Harvey.
“Hello, Mr. Mandel. This is Rosemary Moore.” She thought she heard a woman’s voice in the background, a complaint.
“Oh. Oh, yes. I’m sorry about your dad.” He rushed his words, breathing hard.
Rosemary shuddered. Poor Jeff, having to live with someone like that. Mr. Mandel was a teacher, no less. He must have called in sick just to–“Thank you. Is Jeff there?”
“No, he’s out. He said he was going to Chas Parker’s office, and then to Max’s.” Out of the way, so Harvey and his lady friend could have privacy. Did Harvey ever leave so that Jeff could . . .?
“Thanks. Good-bye.” She hung up before he could reply and reentered the hallway.
Chas Parker. Jeff was already arranging to direct another play. Rosemary wasn’t a moment too soon.
As she turned the doorknob, she stopped short. Those boxes under the bed were her siblings. They couldn’t adore anybody, and you couldn’t talk to them or play with them or button their coats for them, and they wouldn’t look up to you. But they were Dad’s children, not Anna’s. There was something to be said for that. And maybe she could care for her latest and last sibling, in a way.
The phone started ringing. The other night, when Anna was in a particularly foul mood, she’d suggested that she and Rosemary stand in Sheridan Square, handing out postcards that read: “I knew/didn’t know Brendan/Mr. Moore well, and/but I’m sorry for your loss. I promise not to waste your time and patience by calling/coming over/reciting righteous platitudes. Signed, _________.”
Dad would have been the first to laugh. Rosemary closed the door firmly on the ringing phone.
© Larry Zuckerman, 2016