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Genre – Historical / Psychological Mystery
Rating – PG13
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The Angry Woman Suite
Resentment and Freedom: Elyse Bowden Grayson, born 1950
Wilheim Lange (Papa): grandfather
Bean Bowden Grayson: sister
Rose Bowden: paternal aunt
Diana Bowden Grayson: mother
Francis Grayson: stepfather; music prodigy
Aidan Madsen: mentor
Fame and Intemperance: Francis Grayson, born 1928
Lear Grayson: grandfather
Elizabeth Grayson: grandmother
Magdalene Grayson: mother
Stella Grayson: aunt
Lothian Grayson: aunt
Aidan Madsen: mentor; historian; musician
Diana Bowden Grayson: wife
Elena Fitzgerald: lover; singer
Buster Carlyle: friend; musician
Isolation and Reparation: Aidan Madsen, born 1880
Lear Grayson: business associate; Francis’ maternal grandfather
Magdalene Grayson: Lear’s daughter; Aidan’s love interest; Francis’ mother
Lothian and Stella Grayson: Lear’s daughters
Francis Grayson: Lear’s grandson; Aidan’s second prodigy
Matthew Waterston: artist; friend; business associate
Sahar Witherspoon Waterston: Matthew’s wife
Jamie Witherspoon Waterston: Matthew and Sahar’s son; Aidan’s first prodigy
It is said that love is comfort, and that comfort comes from recognition of the beloved. Papa was the first to tell me this, and if it’s even a little bit true, then I took my comfort for granted, not realizing that one can’t truly appreciate the beloved until one yearns for the comfort to be returned. Even now, when I can’t sleep at night, when I can’t slow the speeding of my heart, when I can’t stop the replaying of what-if’s in my head, I take myself back to that place where cabbage roses dance on walls and my beloved reigns supreme; where I am queen of his heart and he is my comfort, and then and only then do I feel safe.
You’d think it would be enough, being able to conjure up at least a measure of my old, first love. Yet for a long while it wasn’t. Because I was incapable of stanching the nagging questions about my second, almost greater love. Questioning why Francis hadn’t seen the truth of it like Papa had; that the streak I’d struggled with hadn’t been born of badness; that badness wasn’t an intrinsic part of me like my eyes being blue.
But Francis, unfortunately, hadn’t been able to see through things the way Papa had, and that was because Francis had rarely felt safe. You could see it in the way Francis’ eyes got doubtful taking in a room, and the way he was always biting down on his lower lip. The way it looked as if he was always trying to keep himself from crying.
My mother worked days at the PX at Mather, the Air Force base outside Sacramento, and my grandmother and Aunt Rose worked night shifts and slept during the day. That meant it was my grandfather—everybody called him Papa—many years older than my grandmother, and retired, who took care of me. And Bean, too. But my sister Bean, who’d been christened Beatrice Nadine, and called Bea for about two seconds after she was born and then Bean forever after, was still a baby back in the mid-1950's, two years old to my five, and not of much use yet, so it was Papa who was everything: he was my first love. My comfort. He was my playmate and teacher, quick with stories about the little people, quicker to laugh, and even quicker at games, particularly chess and pinochle. He was logical and strategic, and played from the center, something he believed made all the difference in the world, and he was also extremely patient and good-natured. A gentle man, an industrious man, the hardest-working man I’d ever know, he was the one who kept our house going, doing all the cooking and cleaning and lining every inch of dead space—walls, ceilings, cabinets, shelves, trash cans, lampshades, even jars—with pale green paper stamped with those lovely yellow cabbage roses.
Almost better than anything else, though, Papa had known what made people tick. Figuring people out, especially the “dense and complicated” ones, was Papa’s favorite game, ranking even higher than chess and pinochle. And that was because Papa liked stretching a natural talent he had for seeing right through people’s skins, straight onto their pretensions and delusions. For instance, he’d always known me better than I’d known myself, and he’d always been able to see right through Francis. Papa had always known what made Francis tick.
I was proud of my grandfather—and not just because Papa had x-ray vision, looking through people right and left. But also because Papa didn’t look like the grandfathers in my picture books: he wasn’t short, fat, or bald. My grandfather was tall and slim, with muscular arms and shoulders, and lots of blond hair like mine. He told me it was because he’d grown up on a farm that he was so strong, and that after coming to America he’d been in the U.S. cavalry, which helped keep him strong, stationed in San Diego, where he’d hunted down a terribly wicked person called Pancho Villa, outside Arizona. This was during the time of the Great War, and Papa’s heavily accented voice always went solemn when talking about this war in Europe. That’s because it was a huge sorrow he hadn’t been able to go on account of having been born in Germany, where his better-marksmen cousins still lived. Meaning it would’ve been stupider than shit for him to go all the way back to Europe just to get his ass shot off by family, when, Papa said, “I’ve got Familie here willing to shoot my ass off.”
And that’s what I mean. Anyone with a half a brain could see the logic to Papa’s thinking.
My mother and Aunt Rose had many friends, and on the nights that Aunt Rose didn’t have to work, and she and my mother didn’t go out nightclubbing, our little house was filled with strangers and cigarette smoke and jokes I didn’t get; and although I liked it best when it was just family home together, I took Mother and Aunt Rose’s guests in grudging stride, tagging them as dense and complicated subjects for Papa to practice looking straight through. For example, Mother’s friend Ron Leroy was full of shit, talking like he had the world on a string, when anyone with the smarts of a hat rack could see he didn’t know his butt hole from a gopher hole. I giggled nervously when Papa whispered that one in my ear, afraid Mother might overhear. Mother didn’t like nasty talk, and saying “shit,” not to mention “butt hole,” was nasty talk in her book. That nervous laughter, Papa said, smiling. Always watch for that nervous laughter and shifty eyes, checking to see if anyone else is believing their shit. Shifty eyes are a sure, dead giveaway, check.
Betty Harris, Papa whispered next, was dating a wino, and even though she tried kidding herself, she knew, deep down, he was a drunk, but she certainly didn’t want anyone else knowing what she knew. What she wanted was everyone to see her date as a good-time Charlie, meaning no harm. Besides, everyone knew nothing disgusted Betty more than an insensitive scene-stealer. She said so often enough. And Betty was a good judge of character. She said that almost as often as she said Charlie was a man from the right side of the tracks.
Never believe anything anyone says about him or herself was what Papa had to say about Betty Harris. Because when people are talking about themselves they’re generally telling you who and what they wish they were, or what they think you want to hear, not diddly about themselves at all. And, really, they can’t tell you diddly, Papa said, because most people really do not know squat about themselves. People like Betty were ostriches, in for a lifetime of hiding things from themselves, check.
Merv Allen, though, was a prince of a fellow, a real listener, a good game player. He didn’t tell you diddly, which was just fine, because Merv Allen knew diddly squat didn’t count much for winning at games. Merv Allen wanted to beat the game and he would, Papa predicted, because Merv knew that defining the adversary, keeping things to yourself, and letting go of pre-conceived ideas always revealed the weak link, the upper hand, the checkmate.
“Tell everyone you can see right through them,” I’d beg Papa. “It’ll be such a hoot!”
“Ah, Elyse, mein Liebling,” my grandfather would always answer the same way, “you are again not paying attention. I will tell you one more time: I am right only with myself. You must understand I win only in my own mind. Siehst du? When you are right with yourself, it is not necessary to tell the whole world what you think you know.”
Which was the hardest part of playing games, the part I didn’t particularly cotton to, this having to keep one’s brilliance all to one’s self. Not that I would’ve wanted in a million years to be like Betty Harris, yakking people up and boring them silly, and being so dense as to not even know I was doing it. No, what I really wanted was to beat everybody at their own games, but I wanted to do it nicely, like Papa always did. And then I wanted to tell my opponents I’d been on to them since their opening moves. Not to be snotty.
But just because I could.
My mother’s most prized possession was an upright piano she’d bought secondhand. She played beautifully, self-taught, and on those real hot Sacramento nights when we threw the whole house open and let in the smell of jasmine, I sat on Papa’s lap, on our old mohair couch, head against his chest, watching my pretty mother smile and laugh; listening to her music, to Aunt Rose leading our company in singing off-key, and to my grandfather’s heartbeat, taking in deep gulps of his smell, content as if I had good sense.
Looking back, I can’t help wondering if any part of me had sensed that contentment was fickle, coming and going at whim.
I don’t remember the exact night my second daddy joined in on the music, blowing his trumpet, accompanying Mother on piano. I called him Uncle Francis back then. I called all Mother and Aunt Rose’s friends Uncle or Aunt Something-or-other. I still have snapshots from that time, the kind that look as if they’ve been edged with pinking shears, and there’s one of me with Francis, taken after he stopped being my uncle and became my daddy. I know it was taken before Francis became my daddy, because we’re both smiling.
Which meant Francis’ nerves were not yet shot.
Papa loved teasing my grandmother until she hollered; and although he told her stories like he did with me, the stories he told her had more cuss words in them. Grandma, though, could keep up with Papa in the cussing department. When Papa begged Grandma not to smoke, she told him to shut the fuck up, that if she didn’t smoke she’d only get fatter. She was a nurse who worked the hospital graveyard, so with her patients mostly asleep, she wasn’t on her feet much—and Grandma was gargantuan, I’ll give you that. Fat as Papa was slender—but the nice part about being gargantuan, I thought, was that the skin on a fat person’s face stayed near as fine and smooth as Bean’s butt. Fat people didn’t get wrinkly like regular people.
My aunt, who worked in a nightclub, wasn’t nearly as fat as Grandma, but she had Grandma’s same smooth, lovely skin. And when Grandma and Aunt Rose sat at our kitchen table in those early morning hours, in nightgowns, unwinding after working all night, before going to bed to sleep the day away, hair up in pin curls, big bosoms hanging loose and low, playing cards, smoking and hollering, my mother was the one who stood out. Which wasn’t just because my mother was reed-slender with nice high bosoms, or that she was invariably dressed to the nines—and I mean invariably—or that her long dark hair was always just so. No, it was because my mother had beautiful olive-colored skin instead of Grandma and Aunt Rose’s alabaster skin, and she had a look: “Like majesty,” Papa described it, or as Grandma put it, like Mother would prefer choking to death on her own spit before hollering. Mother didn’t actually say she was Queen of the Nile (what Aunt Rose called her): she didn’t have to. Mother’s disdain for the way we lived had a whole life of its own, needing no words, reverberating throughout our kitchen louder than any yelling, shining straight through those fancy outfits of hers she sewed together late into the night.
“Diana,” Grandma would sniff between pinochle hands, cigarette dangling from her lips, this salvo saved for right after Mother was out the door for work, “is a lady. Her shit don’t stink.”
My mother was also a great magazine reader, but Grandma and Aunt Rose read dirty books (Mother said), like “Tropic of Cancer,” and Mother said I was not to go anywhere near their reading material, nor was I to say “damn” just because Grandmother and Aunt Rose did. It was a poor choice of words. And neither was I to go outside without getting dressed first. Until Mother laid down that particular law, it had never occurred to me that getting dressed was a prerequisite for the day. Papa hadn’t mentioned it, and Grandma and Aunt Rose thought nothing of being in bathrobes when people dropped by. In fact, my grandmother was never fully dressed, with brassiere, stockings and shoes on, until she put on her starched nurse’s uniform for work, just as I was going to bed. But ladies, Mother whispered behind our bedroom door, did not get their days and nights mixed up even if it was—no, especially if it was work-related—and neither did they entertain in bathrobes with no lipstick on and hair up in pin curls and bosoms jiggling. They did not smoke standing up, or, God forbid, while walking. They did not pick their teeth with toothpicks, laugh loudly, or drink whiskey out of jelly glasses the way Aunt Rose did, or talk about men all the time, also like Aunt Rose. It said so in those magazines Mother read aloud to me and Bean, as if Bean understood any of this, the same magazines that stipulated the arts of keeping one’s voice well-modulated, the wearing of hats and gloves, what constituted attractive color schemes and table settings, and how many fingertip towels were to be in a well-stocked linen closet. I was pretty sure we didn’t have a linen closet, let alone fingertip towels, but I thought my mother the smartest thing on God’s green earth, knowing so much.
“Not to say your grandmother and Aunt Rose aren’t the real McCoy,” Mother would say, tossing her head and making her dark hair ripple. “Because they are the real McCoy, Elyse. But they show a certain lack of rearing. Now don’t ever tell them I said that,” Mother warned. “It would only hurt Grandma and Aunt Rose’s feelings and that’s not the point. The point is, Elyse, we are not trash.”
My mother told me she’d met Francis before he met her. When I said that sounded silly, Mother said it wasn’t, cross her heart. Francis Grayson had been the country’s most famous bandleader, and everyone in the world had known who he was.
“Uncle Francis, er, Daddy Francis … was famous? Like Santa Claus, you mean?”
“Just ‘Daddy,’ Elyse. Not Daddy Francis. And, yes, pretty much like Santa Claus. Your daddy was very, very famous. Daddy was a star, Elyse. A huge star.”
One night, Mother said, she and Aunt Rose had gone to see Daddy’s orchestra play at the Memorial Auditorium, and it was there, after the show, that they’d been introduced. Properly introduced, Mother stressed. Daddy had invited her and Aunt Rose to dinner, but something had come up and instead of dinner, Daddy had left town.
“Well, then, how’d you and Daddy meet again?”
Some years later, Mother explained, Daddy had joined the Air Force to avoid the draft and he’d been sent to the air base in Sacramento, where, coincidentally, Mother worked. “One night Rose and I went to a dance on the base—oh, this was a year or so after your father …” Mother’s unfinished sentence hung in thin air. She always got sad at the mention of my real father—but she pulled herself together. Her eyes even went dreamy. “Your daddy looked at me, and I looked at him and we both knew. The music started, our song. Your daddy held his arms out and we began to dance. It was glorious! Oh, Elyse, I mean to always dance!”
“Was Daddy very handsome?” I asked, sure we were playing fairytales. My mother was excellent at fairytales. She’d even given me, her idealized firstborn, what she considered a princess name: Elyse Aurora Bowden. Which had to be hard on poor Bean Bowden, though Bean never said so. But that was my sister for you: Bean never was much for talking, or games.
Mother had succeeded in telling me a serious story once, and it was the one about Daddy not being my real father come home. Which of course Papa had already told me. My real father’s name was Stephen Eric, and he was never coming home. Stephen Eric was Bean’s real father, too. But Stephen Eric had died just before Bean had been born, of leukemia. My big, fat grandma was Stephen Eric’s mother, and Aunt Rose was his sister.
“Which makes Grandma my mother-in-law and stepmother,” Mother said. “But Papa is my real father. Do you understand, Elyse? Your grandparents were married to other people before they married each other. Grandma and Papa got married when Stephen Eric and Rose and I were teenagers.” Mother had kissed my forehead with great fanfare, as if I were the most precious thing in the world, even more precious than those princesses in the fairytales she spoke of, who lived in secret silver places that held no loss.
“But … what about your real mother?” I’d asked. “Did she die like my real father died?”
“No. She … left. When I was a little girl. Papa raised me by himself, until he married Grandma. Look, Elyse, some things are unpleasant—there’s no point talking about them.”
I’d no problem with Papa and Grandma having gotten married; that seemed pretty regular, my grandparents being married to each other. And I’d no memory of my tragic real father, although I imagined I must’ve missed Stephen Eric very much when he died. I imagined him as being just like Papa, and I imagined him hating having to leave me behind. But I also imagined it easing Stephen Eric somewhat, knowing he was leaving me and my mother and the new baby in good hands, to my grandparents and Aunt Rose. And, really, it had worked out so well, the timing, what with Papa just retired from the railroad and looking for a new place to hang his and Grandma’s hats, and me and Mother newly alone in the house Stephen Eric had bought just before dying.
“Was Daddy Francis very handsome?” I asked again. “When you met him?” I knew the answer. I only asked because Mother liked the question. “Except for his shorter ear, I mean.”
“Just ‘Daddy.’ And, yes, your daddy was the handsomest man in the world. And there’s nothing wrong with your daddy’s ear. Please don’t bring that up again. Now, Elyse, there’s something else we need to talk about. I think it best if we keep talk of your real father to ourselves. Otherwise, where we’re going, people might think I’ve been divorced and, well … divorce is unacceptable—”
“Besides, having to explain about your real father makes me sad. And it makes your daddy feel funny. Francis Grayson is your father now,” she added with authority. “He’s letting you use his name and I expect you’ll show the proper gratitude. We owe your daddy everything, getting us out of this hell-hole.”
I looked around. I didn’t understand “hell-hole.” Our house was colorful, and Papa had worked hard papering everything with yellow roses. But I did understand these two things: divorce was terrible, like getting the mumps. And my mother wanted me to swear never to tell about Stephen Eric being my real father. She wanted me to pretend to the world that Daddy Francis was my real father. Which was fine enough: it took nothing away from me, living a fairytale to put a smile on my whisper-soft mother’s beautiful face. In fact, I felt benevolent granting Mother her wish, and so I sealed Stephen Eric inside a place in my heart, in a new and hastily structured place reserved for safekeeping rare, unused things, things too important to toss away.
“You never know,” Papa always said, “the things you’ll find a use for. Never, ever throw anything away, mein Liebes. Never, ever, ever.”
Another thing Papa always said was that I wasn’t picky enough about people, the way I went right up to strangers and sat myself down in their laps. He didn’t say this critical-like, because Papa was never critical, just matter-of-fact. Although at the start of things, Francis had been merely an afterthought, another face, another uncle, in Mother and Aunt Rose’s crowd, he’d let me sit on his lap whenever he’d visited, and he’d made Mother laugh and show her dimples and dip her head so that her dark hair rippled, and so of course I’d accepted Francis, no questions asked.
It was a whirlwind thing. One minute Francis was one of my fly-by-night uncles, and the next he had Mother in Reno, marrying her. He moved into our house and made Papa turn quiet, and Bean and I, who’d shared a room with Mother, sleep on the living room couch instead, wedged together like sardines. He was staying. A month later, my new daddy got orders. The Air Force said we had to live in Biloxi, Mississippi. I didn’t understand that my grandparents and Aunt Rose weren’t coming with me to Biloxi. I didn’t understand even when Papa helped Francis load the car with all our things and none of his or Grandma’s or Aunt Rose’s. I didn’t understand until Papa hugged me tight and his voice turned shaky.
“Süsses Mädchen, you will be brave. A year is not a long time. And you will have grand adventure in Mississippi. You will remember everything and tell me of your grand adventure, nein?” I gave a little cry, suddenly understanding.
Papa said quickly, “Listen, Elyse, nothing is black and white in this world, even though we try very hard to make it so. Verstehst du?”
“No,” I moaned.
Papa tried again. “Life is like a ship, Elyse. Sometimes it blows forward, sometimes back. But just when you think your life is sinking, someone rows into the harbor and tosses oranges onto your deck.”
I stopped crying. “Oranges?”
“When I was a boy coming to America, nearly everyone on our ship got sick. We weren’t allowed to dock. It looked bad for us. But when the other German settlers got word of our predicament, they rowed out, bringing bags of oranges with them. They tossed the oranges onto our deck.”
“The oranges made you better?”
“Viel besser. And most of us got well. We made it to shore. And you will make it too, Elyse. Now, chin up. There’s a brave girl.”
I hiccoughed, trying not to cry. Grandma said she wanted to hold me, so Papa passed me to her and I put my cheek against one of Grandma’s arms and watched my tears roll down the notched white fat of it.
“Well, that’s it,” I heard Daddy say for what had to be the billionth time. He rechecked the ropes that held our tarp-covered suitcases and boxes to the top of the car, also for the billionth time, then held out his arms. Grandma handed me over. My immediate future didn’t include choice. “I’ll do right by her,” Daddy promised. “And Bean, too.”
I looked at Papa, beseeching him, but his narrowed eyes were on Daddy, not me, trying to see through Daddy’s “dense and complicated.” I could tell Daddy saw Papa’s disapproving look, because I turned my head just in time to see Daddy’s lips go thin. Thinking Daddy might cry because Papa had hurt his feelings without meaning to, I instinctively put a hand on Daddy’s cheek. “Daddy—” I started, but Mother, using her impatient voice, interrupted, telling Daddy to put me down.
I watched longingly out the back window of the car, until Aunt Rose waving her white hankie disappeared from sight, until my fat grandmother was reduced to a mere speck, until Papa was non-existent—and then I wailed. I wailed with a vengeance. I wailed like nobody had ever wailed before. I keened, rocking back and forth, arms clasped tight around my middle, as if to hold my broken pieces together.
“Let her cry,” Daddy said tenderly some time later, after I’d shuddered into exhausted mewling and Mother had begun sighing her exasperated sigh. Daddy patted her hand. “It’ll work out, Diana. It’s for the best. You’ll see.”
It was then, at Daddy’s tender tone—a gentle man’s voice, a voice that led me to believe he understood—that my heart gravitated toward Daddy and I began to love him, really love him, even while still loving Papa; and it was also then that I resolved to have a grand adventure, not yet understanding that Mississippi is a world apart from California, and that missing people, one in particular, their smells and cussing and a hollering that sounds like love, is not a straightforward thing. Missing someone is a crazy-quilt kind of thing: acceptance one piece, but right above the acceptance patch is another patch, this one made of grief, plus two more grief patches over at the side rising up to slap you down—generally right after you’ve got yourself convinced you’ve figured out the gist of life’s pattern.
And neither did I understand, then, that men could be so different from one another. It took me a long time to work that one out. Probably until Aidan Madsen, the man who brought me oranges and books, was firmly entrenched in my life. Which was about the same time I understood that the crazy patches on my quilt were outnumbered by the saner ones.
And that I would survive.