They offered to send a car. Willa refused; she hated being driven. The people sent to fetch her inevitably took upon themselves her entertainment through chatter, which in turn obliged her to hold up her end just when she felt least sociable. Far better to make her own way in peace. That afternoon, she drove to the station and took the Metro-North from Chappaqua into Grand Central station. Mid-December, and already it was snowing; all the more reason to be glad she wasn't driving. There were delays, and the ride took fifty minutes, which she spent working on her speech. Despairing over it, really, reading it again and again with growing horror. It was the same talk she'd given last year when her book had come out in hardcover, but now every line reeked of irony.
Willa knew she shouldn't be doing this. She wasn't ready; it was too soon. But Judy Trumpledore had gotten on her case -- Do you good; about time you got off your butt -- and it was pointless arguing with Judy. It wasn't that she didn't know the meaning of the word "no" -- she was an editor, after all -- it was that she tended not to hear it.
In Ardsley, a man entered the train and sat beside her, though there were plenty of empty seats available. Wall Street type, presently morphing from lean and hungry to fat and smug; married, without a doubt. Willa looked him square in the face. "I wouldn't sit there if I were you."
This remark seemed to encourage rather than deter him. "Why not?" he asked, flashing dimples that, amortized over a lifetime, must have been worth a thousand lays.
"They say it's not contagious, but who the hell knows?"
She got her seat back. Returned to her speech, slashing and cutting. Too bad she couldn't cut it all. Be calm, she ordered herself, and obediently took a few deep breaths. Leaning her head against the cold glass, she repeated Judy's words like a mantra: "Never underestimate the human capacity for self-absorption." Willa's story was four months old, longer than the memory span of the average New Yorker.
At Grand Central she took the number 4 downtown express to Union Square. It was Willa's conviction that no one could say he knew a city who did not know its underground. She saw the subway as the city's circulatory system, its veins and arteries; the passengers as platelets. She took pride in her ability (the product of a good memory and a misspent youth) to navigate the subways, which she continued to do long after the need was gone. Simon had hated it. "My clients ride the subway," he would say, as if that in itself were sufficient reason for his wife to avoid it. Willa had spared his feelings by not telling him.
She emerged from the subway into a blast of cold air and a dazzle of white. A thin blanket of snow covered Union Square, and more was falling: thick, slow flakes that landed on her eyelashes and the hair that streamed out from under her brimmed hat. No one's going to come out in this, she thought, and her spirits lifted.
The signing was at a small, independent bookstore called Illuminations, a popular spot for Village residents as well as NYU students, among whom, according to Judy, a Compton-Burnett cult had blossomed. Turning a corner onto East Fourteenth Street, Willa was confronted by a plate-glass window full of her books, not just the new one but the two earlier biographies as well, dozens of copies in hardcover and paperback, along with a blowup of the cover of her latest, Family Secrets: The Poison Pen Novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Beside it was also a poster-size portrait of the book's author.
Willa cringed at the photo and tugged the brim of her hat down over her face. That god-awful glam shot. Judy had made her do it. The only good thing about it was that it looked nothing like her, so no one ever recognized her from her jacket picture. They'd posed her to look like the heroine of some soppy romance: standing barefoot on a windswept jetty, long dress blowing, hair tousled, nothing but sky and sea behind her. Simon had loved it; so he'd said. Kept a framed copy on his desk, faced outward. Simon had been very supportive of her career. Whenever they went out, he'd introduce her as "my wife, the authoress." Writer, she'd told him, again and again. Author if you must. "Authoress" is patronizing and archaic. And he'd promise to remember, but the next time he introduced her, he'd say it again: my wife, the authoress.
Judy was standing just inside the revolving door, peering out with a worried look. When she spotted Willa, her face lit up and she waved. Willa stepped into the revolving door. As it opened into the store, she heard a babble of voices and glimpsed a dense knot of people milling about with wineglasses in their hands. Panic seized her; she kept turning and emerged back on the sidewalk.
Judy followed her out. "What are you, nuts? It's freezing out here."
"I can't do it, Judy."
Judith Trumpledore, publisher of Trumpledore Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, was a short woman, expensively dressed, with a figure that at their age bespoke considerable effort. She had wavy black hair, sharp features, intelligent gray eyes, and a nannylike certitude. "Sure you can," she said, seizing Willa's arm with a grip of iron. "It's like riding a bike. Where'd you come from, anyway? I didn't see a taxi."
"I took the subway to Union Square. You don't understand: The speech is a disaster."
"The subway? Jesus, Willa, I said we'd send a car."
"What's the big deal? We always used to." Back when they were roommates, she meant, before Willa's marriage and Judy's ascension up the ranks; back when they were both newly minted editorial assistants at Harrow Books.
"And Nathan's was our favorite restaurant. That was then, this is now." Judy was still holding Willa's arm, as if afraid she would bolt.
Willa stared through the plate glass at the crowd inside. There must have been fifty customers in the store, which made no sense at all. Through pure luck, which occasionally runs good as well as bad, the publication of Family Secrets had coincided with a reissuing of several of Compton-Burnett's out-of-print novels; consequently her own book had been widely and generously reviewed. Nevertheless, literary biographies are hardly the sort of books that attract crowds; there couldn't be this many people in New York who'd even read Ivy Compton-Burnett, much less a book about her. "Who are they all?" she asked.
"Friends, fans, a bunch from NYU. I told you, Compton-Burnett's hot."
"Did you publicize this thing?"
Judy laughed at her accusatory tone. "Guilty. We ran an ad in the Times and sent invitations to some friends of yours. This may come as a shock, my dear, but most writers like publicity. They have the odd notion that it sells books."
"It's not that I'm not grateful. It's just -- "
"Enough, Willa. Let's go. Chin up, chest out, march."
Inside, someone took her coat, and someone else produced a glass of wine. Judy hovered by her side, but by now there was no need; Willa had made the switch to full authorial mode. Many faces were familiar: there were colleagues of Simon, as well as people from Harrow Books, where she'd worked, and HarperCollins, where her books had been published. Some of them had been to the funeral; none of them had seen her since. "How are you?" they all asked. There was concern but also, unmistakably, curiosity. Willa hid behind a Plexiglas smile and moved quickly from one to another.
Manny Schultz, her literary agent, emerged from the crowd to envelop her in a massive bear hug. He smelled of wool and snow and pipe tobacco. Willa was amazed to see him. Publicity was the publisher's concern, and Manny made a point of never going to his authors' appearances. "If I crave pontification," he would say, "I'll listen to the pope."
"What are you doing here?" she said.
"If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed. You owe me a book, my sweet, and I will have it."
"You should twirl your mustache when you say that."
"I don't have a mustache."
"Then you should cultivate one."
He smiled but stayed the course. "Are you working?"
"Of course." She looked past his shoulder at the rear of the shop, where a podium and some thirty chairs had been set up. Most of these were taken; booksellers were hastily adding more. "Excuse me, Manny, I think they're ready for me. You played me," she said in a different voice to Judy as they moved off. "It's a goddamn coming-out party."
"You had to come out sometime," said Judy, practical as always. "Are you working?"
"I meant to slink out. This is a freak show."
"It's a show of friendship and support. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?"
"I've never understood that expression. If someone gave me a horse, first thing I'd do would be to check its teeth."
"You've been reading too much Compton-Burnett," Judy said, and handed her over to the owner of the store, a tall, thin, flustered man whose name Willa had missed.
She sat in the front row, smiling politely throughout his introduction, as if he were speaking of someone else. The usual inaccuracies, things puffed up to sound so much grander than they were. "Formerly an editor at Harrow Books, Ms. Scott began her series of remarkable literary biographies when she moved to the country. Publishing's loss was literature's gain." Assistant editor was as far as she'd gotten, one step above entry level for well-brought-up girls with Ivy League credentials. She'd been noticed, though, given books to edit, and slated for promotion until her pregnancy grew evident; and that was the end of that. Publishing, it was often said, is a great field for women; childless women is what they meant, though that usually went unsaid. Judy Trumpledore stayed single and chose her lovers judiciously. She got a promotion; Willa got a baby shower.
Her salary was a pittance and likely to remain so. Simon's practice was thriving, and ever since she'd gotten pregnant he'd been agitating to leave the city. Growing up in suburbia, Willa had vowed never to return. But she never went back to Harrow after her maternity leave, and six months after Chloe was born, they moved into their first house, a small Victorian in Chappaqua, a twenty-minute drive from where Willa had grown up.
A burst of applause; she'd missed her cue. The owner looked at her expectantly. Willa rose and made her way to the podium. She adjusted the mike, opened her folder, and raised her eyes to the audience. Every seat was taken, and there were people standing on the edges and half hidden among the stacks. A sea of faces, familiar and half familiar, studied her through eyes opaque with hidden thoughts, dense with speculation. Willa's poise shattered; suddenly she could not bear to be looked at in this knowing way. Then Judy caught her eye, and something in her look reminded Willa of who she was and made it possible to begin.
"Ivy Compton-Burnett took to novel writing relatively late in life, at the age of forty, when she burst forth onto a stage dominated by contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf and Anthony Powell. Critics were astounded by her work, scandalized, enthralled. 'Aeschylus, transposed into the key of Jane Austen,' the London Times wrote. She was compared to a surgeon, her novels to scalpels, but in fact her method was more akin to vivisection than to surgery. Compton-Burnett sliced into living families and laid them bare; they, like severed worms still ignorant of their plight, continued to go about their business while the writer went about hers.
"Her specimens were upper-class Elizabethan families of the utmost outward gentility, but what she exhumed from beneath that surface gentility would bring a blush to the cheeks of Harold Robbins. Incest, adultery, blackmail, matricide, patricide, infanticide -- everything, practically, but genocide. Events on a large scale didn't interest Compton-Burnett, who lived through two world wars without ever feeling the need to incorporate them into her fiction. Or not directly, at least. She was interested in power, without a doubt; totalitarian power and its various abuses were her life's study. But she was drawn to work on small, exquisite canvasses."
She paused for a sip of water. The next page was full of angry blue slashes. Already Willa had strayed into dangerous waters. Somewhere out there Simon's colleagues were sitting, two of his partners and his secretary. Faithful Minty, who must have known: How dare she show her face?
"Her view of human nature was not benign. Compton-Burnett believed that most of us would succumb to strong temptation, that many did, and that the great majority got away with it. 'There are signs that strange things happen,' she told one interviewer, 'though they do not emerge....We know much less of each other than we think.'"
Willa soldiered on, somehow got through it. The audience was kind, the Q and A that followed blessedly brief. The usual questions: "How do you choose your subjects?" ("I don't; they choose me.") "How many hours a day do you write?" ("Since both my editor and agent are here today, I'd have to say between twelve and fourteen.") And so on. Then it was all over but the book signing. Willa sat behind an oak table piled high with copies of Family Secrets. Beside her, a young bookseller asked names and opened books for her to sign. Willa used a simple blue Bic. The gold Cartier pen Simon had given her on the occasion of her first book signing was at home in its box. Someday she would give it to Chloe.
Simon's secretary, Minty, third in line, fixed her with a wet-eyed look that brought out the beagle in her long, lugubrious face. "Willa, my dear."
"Hello, Minty," Willa said, briskly yet with an air of having only just remembered her name. Minty got not only a signature but also an inscription, a quote from Compton-Burnett: "'It is better to talk honestly.'"
She signed the next book, and the next. After a while she stopped looking up. "Who would you like it signed to?" she heard the bookseller ask for the twentieth time.
A man's voice replied, a voice so tantalizingly familiar that a chill ran through her. "To the fool on the hill," the voice said. Willa looked up. The man before her was a stranger until he smiled; the moment she saw that cocky smile, she knew him. "Patrick," she cried, thrusting out her hand; the table was between them.
"Hello, Willa. Lovely as ever, I see."
He was older, of course, and better dressed than she'd ever known him to be, in a tweed jacket, sweater, and khakis. Fine lines radiated from the corners of his eyes, but the eyes themselves were unchanged, full of mischief. His hair was shorter but still dark, with the same stray forelock slanted across his forehead.
"This is a surprise," she said, and felt herself blush. He laughed, and her numbed heart contracted in a spasm of yearning for the old Patrick, the old Beacon Hill gang. More than friends, they were the gold standard against which all subsequent friendships had been gauged and found wanting.
He'd wanted to surprise her, he said. He'd planned it that way. "From the moment I saw the ad in the Times, I anticipated this meeting."
"What if I hadn't known you?"
"Impossible," he replied with perfect confidence.
"It's been a long time."
"You proved me right yourself. And people don't change that much."
No, she thought, we just get to know them better. So Compton-Burnett said, in one of the passages Willa had blue-lined in her speech: "Familiarity breeds contempt, and ought to breed it. It is through familiarity that we get to know each other."
The people behind Patrick were growing restless. The little bookseller placed an open book before her, and Willa bent to the task. "To Patrick," she wrote, "nobody's fool." That part was easy, but how to sign it? Love? For a man she hadn't seen in ages, had never even known as a man, but only as a charming, feckless boy? Fondly? That was cold. Finally she signed it "Your Willa," and felt the blood rush to her cheeks as she held it out to him.
But instead of taking the book, he grasped her wrist. His hand was warm, or hers cold. "I'm taking you out after this." Although it was a statement, not an invitation, something in his look as he waited for her answer recalled her old power over him.
Willa glanced aside. Judy and Manny were beside the podium, heads canted together, talking intently. They meant to take her somewhere and double-team her. She turned back to Patrick, who had not budged, though the line exerted its pressure.
"I'd like that," she said.
Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Rogan