Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
A GOOD BOOK – PART 1
“Hurry up Sy! We’ll be late, Ruthie hollered from the hallway, as she threw on her wool coat.
The last time they arrived late at a book signing at Sophie’s Choice, to hear Isabel Allende read from her latest release, they’d ended up by the front door with biting cold wind attacking the back of their necks every time someone entered or left the building. Sophie’s was there favorite literary hangout among the plethora of bookstores in their academically diverse college town. It was named after the owner, Sophie Thompson, who had taken her sister’s advice and appropriated the familiar title.
“Sy!” she yelled again, just as he turned the corner from the upstairs bedroom and descended the aging wooden stairs, which squeaked like asthmatic mice with every step.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” he grinned, still tucking in his shirt. “You’d rather I go naked?!”
Ruthie’s lips parted slightly as she watched her husband of thirty-four years. He walked with a slight limp from his hip surgery the previous summer.
“Damn,” she thought. He looks good.”
She waited until he reached the last step, stood on her toes and shared her thoughts by planting a kiss on his familiar weathered lips and giving him a squeeze around his hips. When their mouths parted he kissed her slightly rouged cheeks and put his large fingers through her shoulder-length wavy gray hair.
As he snapped his tan parka, he asked, “Who is this we’re seeing again?”
“Hooks?” he rolled questionably across his tongue, while holding the screen door open for Ruthie to lock the door. She put her arm in his as they walked towards there eighties Plymouth. “Isn’t she that environmental fiction writer you like so much?”
“No,” Ruthie said, waiting for him to unlock the car door. “You’re thinking of Barbara Kingsolver.”
Sy opened her door.
“Thanks Hon,” she said, as she sat on the old torn leather seat.
Sy went around the front, climbed in, patted the dashboard for good luck and turned the ignition.
“Still purrs like a kitten,” he said sweetly for the ten-thousandth time.
They drove out of the gravel driveway, down Chestnut Street, towards town on the straight and narrow two-lane road they had driven their kids and step-kids to school and themselves to and from work for thirty years. This was Sy’s second marriage. He had two children from his previous marriage and he and Ruthie had purposefully created one of their own.
The next in kin had all flown the coup long ago and kept in touch with their “old folks” with fluctuating degrees of attention, based on their needs and/or personality. The one constant connection with their offspring was their children’s children. They had three of these grandchildren, two by birth and one adopted, to whom they were severely devoted and unashamedly tethered.
“Alice Hooks is a writer of romantic feminist fiction,” Ruthie explained. “The book she’s reading from tonight is Close Encounters. It was nominated for The National Book Award last year.”
“Sort of like Gloria Steinem falling in love with Steven Spielberg?”
“I knew you’d say something like that,” Ruthie sighed. “I just knew it.”
“Well,” Sy replied, still grinning at his own joke, “I had to say it then didn’t I? I don’t want to destroy your expectations or diminish your superior powers of Elementary Spiritual Perceptions.”
Ruthie gently slapped his leg with the back of her hand.
“Far from it,” she smiled. “Close Encounters is about a woman called Maya. She’s an anthropologist and professor, who circumnavigates the globe on research expeditions. While studying antiquities and cultures she also searches for a man who is willing to practice feminism in bed, as well as at work. Every time she thinks she’s found her mate, he starts to subtly or blatantly manipulate her and splits when he doesn’t get what he thinks he wants.” Ruthie sighed noticeably.
Sy’s smile had vanished. He gazed straight ahead, as if he was a student driver concentrating on not making a mistake. As they reached the city limits he said, “Well?”
“Does she ever find the man of her dreams?”
Ruthie’s left hand rested gently on Sy’s thigh. She could feel his hamstrings tighten with each step on the gas peddle. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t finished it yet.” She smiled and squeezed Sy’s leg. “But I’ve found mine.”
Sy was flooded with relief by Ruthie’s re-assuring words. He had always helped raise the kids, cleaned and cooked at home and believed that women and men should be respected for their character not their gender. He was beginning to look forward to hearing this Hook’s lady.
The parking lot at Sophie’s Choice was full.
“I knew it,” Ruthie admonished. “Will have to park on the street.”
Sy found a spot a block away. They walked briskly to the entrance and to their surprise, saw two empty chairs in the far back. They made their way to the metal folding chairs, used their coats as cushions to sit on and caught their breath. Sy took in the crowd and noticed that only two other men were in attendance, re-confirming his enlightened attitude.
Their timing was impeccable. Just as they had taken their seats the introductions were completed and the author, to much applause and a few jubilant trills of sisterly welcome, stepped up to the podium.
Sy was mortified. Not only did Alice Hooks not look like the radical feminist he had envisioned, but she was not Alice Hooks. The woman he saw standing before the crowd, waiting respectfully for the applause to subside, was Alice Hawkins, the woman he’d been in love with in college.
“I can’t believe this,” he proclaimed, while his eyes remained riveted to the wet lips and long neck he had once kissed so passionately.
“She must have changed her name,” he whispered to Ruthie. “I knew her when she was Alice Hawkins.”
“Shhhh,” she replied.
Sy was eternally grateful that they were late and ended up in the back row. “I wonder if she would still recognize me?”He pondered. “I doubt it,” he answered himself. “I was nothing to her.”
As Alice began reading from her book Sy couldn’t push aside the gut feeling that her personal life and thus his own, was being laid bare for public consumption. He was undoubtedly one of the men she had based her story on.
“He raised his sweaty head from the pillow,” Alice read, “and practically spit in Refina’s face.” Alice glanced at the audience over the top of her designer glasses, then returned to the words on the page. “’You aren’t worth it,” he said coldly and turned away. You don’t understand.’
‘Understand what?’ she pleaded.
‘Me. You’ll never understand me.’
Rafina replied, ‘I understand you all to well.’
‘See!’ he yelled, with a trembling voice, as he got out from under the rumpled bedsheets and put on his bathrobe. ‘You’ve never liked me!’ He pouted, retreating to the bathroom. She slipped on her nightshirt and followed.
‘There’s no pleasing you,’ she said, standing in the doorway as he pissed away his anger. ‘Whatever I do isn’t enough. You always want me to be different.’
He shook off the last drops, tied his bathrobe and walked past her as if she were part of the door frame.
‘Lies,’ he whispered. ‘All lies.’ She watched him zip up his pants. ‘How often have I told you I love you?!’ he said accusingly.
‘Yeah,’ she agreed. ‘How often and when?’ He stopped tucking in his shirt and stared blankly. ‘Whenever I get physical, is when,’ she stated. ‘When I act like your sexual puppet, is when. Whenever I do things I don’t really want to do out of fear I’ll lose you. And you know what?’ He put on his watch and started towards the door. ‘I’m going to lose you anyway.’ She wiped her fingers on her nightshirt, as if she was trying to rub out the memory of his touch. ‘I don’t need that kind of love.’
‘See ya Refina,’ he said, turning. ‘I hope you enjoy being alone. You’re so damn controlling and manipulating nobody could ever put up with you.’
‘Don’t project your crap on me!’ she shouted, as the door careened open and he disappeared down the hall of the old city hotel.
Refina stared through the door at the empty hallway and concluded, ‘I’d rather screw myself then let that fool think he’s loving me.’”
After the reading Ruthie wanted to get her book autographed, but Sy lied and said, “It’s late honey. I’m a little tired.”
She looked at the long line and the clock, hesitated, then reluctantly agreed.
Sy deftly guided them towards the door, along the far side of the exuberant crowd that had cheered Ms. Hooks with a robust standing ovation.