Sample text for Gorgeous lies / Martha McPhee.
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THEY LOVED ANTON. Every single one of them. Alice most of all. She was his youngest. Eve loved him. She was his wife. Agnes loved him. She was his ex-wife. Lily loved him. She was his lover. They all loved him. The little beady-eyed preacher woman, the woman who sold ducks, Eve's divorce lawyer who always had a different girl on his arm, the Strange couple from down the road. (That was their name, Strange, and they were strange, with dramatic drawn-out English accents, though they were not English-he a poet and a banker, she an aging actress.) The Furey kids loved him, of course. He was their father. The Cooper girls tried to hate him, but what they really wanted was for him to love them. Love them big and wide and infinitely, like a father. The Cooper girls were not his children.
Once, they had all lived at Chardin-all the children, that is. Long ago in the 1970s. It was called Chardin for the Omega Point, and it was Anton's dream that he could create a home that was a perfect meeting place of the human and the divine: a divine milieu, the setting for a profound and mystical vision of God. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was his preferred philosopher. He upset the Catholic Church, scaring its thinkers into thinking about his attempt to combine evolutionary theory and Christian theology in a seamless whole.
Chardin sprawled on a hill, the highest point in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, blessed with hundred-mile views and lapped by seas of green fields rolling into cornfields and forests with creeks slinking through them. And up there, there was a lot of sky with all its storms and sunshine. In the spring forsythia, magnolia, lilac, and dogwood bloomed. The house had been a hunter's cabin, added on to over the years by Anton and the architect so that wings extended from it, spokelike, sprouting glass rooms and lofts and decks. At one end of the house an indoor swimming pool steamed like the mouth of a dragon, so fiercely you could not see but an inch in front of you. Steam seeped through the cracks in the sliding doors so that that end of the house seemed alive. Anton, who was many things-a philosopher writing a treatise on love, a berry salesman, a dealer in Haitian art, a writer, a Gestalt therapist, a Texan-had wanted the indoor pool as a place to hold therapy sessions.
The architect loved him. They had big dreams for what more they would do to Chardin. Dreams involving silos, Moorish courtyards, a barn, a tower on the barn, an office from which Anton could watch the setting sun. On the roof of this office he would gather all his children and friends to read poetry in the dimming light.
"I need a small pool. Big enough to fit twenty-five people or so and it needs to get pretty hot," Anton said to the architect upon first meeting him. Standing in the architect's living room, he also asked for a whiskey though it wasn't noon. Outside, Anton's turquoise Cadillac languished in the sun, filled with kids. "Scotch," the architect said, because he only had scotch. Slim and handsome, with a quiet voice and a tendency to stroke his bearded chin, he was a precise man with a tidy mind and a tidy house, and in his world people did not drink before six. On Anton's ring finger the architect noticed an enormous turquoise ring. In his world, as well, men did not wear rings. His name was Laurence-pronounced the French way. Anton drank down the scotch and then ushered Laurence into the back of the Cadillac while all the kids crammed up front. Schoolbooks and boys' underwear were everywhere, and as Anton drove fast Laurence flopped this way, then that, picking the underwear off of him. "A pool," Anton said, looking at Laurence in the rearview mirror, "for my therapy sessions. I believe in finding ways to become un-self-conscious." And Laurence nodded and the kids carried on up front. Anton had one hand on the wheel, the other draped over the back of the seat. He piloted the car like a master, suave Texan that he was. The idea of un-self-consciousness floated like a party balloon in the back. Laurence hoped he'd get to this house alive. And he worried. He was a worrier. You could read it on his tightened face. "I don't know," Laurence kept saying, distressed because an indoor pool was never as easy as it seemed, because his beautiful wife was having an affair, because he had four teenage boys and a floundering practice in a tidy little town. "It'll be fine," Anton said into the rearview mirror-smooth Texas accent. And just the way he said it, just the way Anton held him with his eyes, made Laurence feel possibility. As if Anton's eyes opened up for him and allowed him a visit inside, the mix of enthusiasm and wickedness and faith therein beckoning Laurence, seducing Laurence-as if Anton's dreams, sliding off his lips like truth, were large enough to save him, too.
They became fast friends with their elaborate visions for Chardin. Before too long Anton was inviting Laurence to rebirthing ceremonies on the front lawn in which a person ready for rebirth crawled naked through a canal of arching bodies, teaching Laurence one more aspect of un-self-consciousness.
The steam from the pool caused the ivy to thrive. Ivy crept up the walls, nearly covering the house. It crept through some of the windows into some of the rooms, and though it looked beautiful, over the years it caused the walls to rot, the roof to leak, the pipes to crack. Its roots snaked underground and around the sewage pipes, cracking them, too, and on thick July days the faint smell of waste wafted over the yard.
"It'll be all right," Anton promised. He promised that many times over the years-when the waste backed up into the basement bathroom and overflowed onto the basement floor; when water dripped through the ceiling from the roof onto Julia's pink bedspread; when, indeed, the design for an indoor pool proved more difficult than originally thought and the wall between the pool and Jane's room turned to paste and crumbled. "It'll be all right," he promised when they couldn't afford the taxes and the IRS threatened to foreclose on the house, when cops flew low over the cornfields in helicopters to determine if grass was growing there. Grass as in pot, dope, weed, reefer, marijuana. Anton and the kids grew it back then, in the 1970s, and the cops would fly in low to inspect the fields and Anton would shout to all the kids, "The cops are coming!" His beautiful, wicked grin lit up each one of them. They'd scramble out of the house, slithering into the fields to lay waste to the plants. "The cops are coming," exhilaration in his voice and a thrill running through the kids because they knew that they would not get caught. "It's just ditch weed anyway," one kid would say. The cops would come, would circle, that's true. The loud hum of the helicopters teasing the kids as they lay in the fields against the prickly husks and the corn silk. The wind from the helicopters blew over their backs.
"It'll be all right," Anton promised with all the authority of a Texas Ranger-his sideburns curling, his blue eyes squinting, his Texas accent full. He was six generations Texas on his mama's side. The first oil well in Texas blew at Spindletop on January 10, 1901, not far from the site of his great-great-granddaddy Beaumont's farm. Beaumont had been a French trapper, trapped alligators in the bayous and swamps. In 1824 he sold his land to other trappers and farmers and they made the town of Beaumont to honor him, and the town thrived, growing rich on rice and salt and soy and even blueberries and later crawfish from the Neches River before it became an oil mecca. "If only Beaumont hadn't sold the land," Anton would tell the kids, as if great wealth and fortune were just within their grasp. His great-granddaddy was a journalist for the Corsicana Star and one of the few men in Texas who was pro-Union during the Civil War. One hundred and twenty thousand men wore the gray coats and fought for the Confederacy. Just two thousand supported the Union, and most of them were forced to leave the state. But John Darling stayed and made his opinions known. No one was going to throw him out of Texas. "It's the rich man's war and the poor man's fight," he wrote as boys were drafted to fight while slave owners were not required to enlist. Anton's granddaddy was the first in their line to leave Texas. He drove off in a convertible Pierce Arrow with the top down all the way to Hollywood to become the pharmacist to the stars. He bought a movie mogul's mansion and lived his life out there, leaving behind his Catholic-convert wife to die of a female disease and his young daughter, Emma Darling, Anton's mama, to be raised by Ursuline nuns. For the remainder of Darling's life he longed for Texas. Of Texas Texans are proud. It remains in them, the essential ingredient of who they are. That's how it was for Anton, and for the Furey and Cooper kids. Texas became a mythic spot of identity and action, of high-stakes poker where little rich boys lost their daddy's Cadillacs in a game, a country of tall tales where people talked big and lived big and the laws of life elsewhere did not exist.
On March 20, 1930, Anton was born in Corsicana; it was a cool spring morning, very early, very dark, and the air fragrant with first flowers. Winds from the east blew in quietly along with the Great Depression, and Bonnie and Clyde were on the road robbing banks, already capturing many imaginations. But the real significance of this day is that it would later be discovered to be the true birth date of Christ. At Chardin, on this occasion, there would be a celebration: champagne and waltzing and the Serape rug rolled back and toasts to Anton for sharing this with Christ, adding all the more to his power and allure. Anton, big large man that he was, loomed over all the kids-their leader, their guide. They loved him. Whatever the problem, he would say, "We'll figure it out."
"Promise?" the kids would ask. Promise like a ticket to somewhere fabulous, like an answer. Promise, rich beautiful word that it is. Promise. The oath of God to Abraham. That their futures would be safe, clear, understood. Promise like a road map, like insurance. Promise.
"I promise," he would say to them, sipping a glass of whiskey, a flute of champagne. An ascot folded softly at his neck. And they believed him-for a long, long time they believed him.
And the scent of lilac was always stronger than the smell of waste, and the cops were simply on a routine training mission, and the IRS man, all dressed in black, walking up the long driveway with a briefcase in his hand, simply needed help with a flat.
"POP?" ALICE ASKS. It is 1994. Her voice is gentle, but firm with will. She has just graduated from college and is on her way to India on a Fulbright scholarship to study Indian cinema for a year, her life about to open like a flower. "I can't leave unless you say you'll visit." She smiles, giddy with ambition to do good things, contribute herself to the world. "Aim high," her father has always told her. "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
She wants to understand how the dreams of films-Hindu women dancing love dances on broken glass to save their lovers' lives-can lend an entire culture a bit of peace and hope. Traveling movie theaters, screens hitched to the backs of trucks, lighting up a few thousand lives in the countryside. Fairy tales are her belief; her father always taught her to believe in the possibility of the impossible, that fairyland is reasonable, indeed, is common sense.
Anton reclines in his bed, propped against a sea of white pillows. He's an old man, old before his time, aging fast now at sixty-four. Thin and unshaven and weak. His skin is gray. His hair is gray. His tongue is gray. Mysterious cramps dart through his abdomen, crippling darting cramps. Sun streams through the bedroom of windows, and outside is a spectacular late-May day with a breeze and no clouds and everything smells of lilac. The room is thick with the purple branches, the buds like tiny grapes. Alice stands at the edge of the bed, wanting his permission to go, as if permission will heal him, hold him here till she returns. She is a practical, disciplined girl, her father's opposite in many ways. He would tell her fondly that he has had to be extremely undisciplined (credit-card debts, chronic lateness, a smoker of fine Moroccan hash among other things) in order to teach her otherwise. But like her father she also has a great capacity for dreams.
She wears jeans and a T-shirt and baseball cap (her traveling outfit) beneath which is tucked her long walnut hair. She's a strong girl with an energy that makes her seem as though she is always on the verge of erupting-a toughness countered by an exquisite beauty that softens her, eliciting in others the need to protect her. A beauty that emanates aloofness and in that an alluring mystery. Determination lights her face; it's in those fierce gray eyes. Miracles blossom in front of her. Anton sees a glass wall go up, cutting her off from him. He wants to reach through the wall and grab her back. He is beginning to lose his ability to dream. Look at me wasted here, he wants to say. Her voice wraps around him, envelops him with exhilaration and the force of her will. "Say you'll come," she insists.
"Watch out for monkeys, babe," he warns, trying to prop himself up. "They're devilish little creatures. Beguiling. They are not your friends, even if they try to convince you otherwise." He squints a smile, forcing it out between his lips and the pain, a Texas half smile.
"You'll feel better again. You'll even be fat again," she reassures, though somewhere she knows she's bluffing.
That smile of his turns ironic, then hopeless, then boyish. "I was never too fat, babe," he says, accent thickening. "Just healthy." He's bluffing, too, of course. They're both bluffing. They both know, yet neither will concede. He's taught her-endless games of poker. She's sitting on a full house. Just another ace is all she needs. He wants to cheat and give her that ace.
"We'll see a lot when you come." Her eyes warm, changing colors like wet stones, and it's as if she were singing, a lark, a nightingale with the beauty of the world on her tongue. Rossignol, "nightingale" in French, the name of the petit and very dark-skinned man who married him to Eve at the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Eve in her cream silk standing by his side on the balcony. Pigs and chickens and schoolchildren in their uniforms racing on the streets below and the jolly painted buses lumbering along and the old women with paniers of bread balancing on their heads while the Tonton Macoutes keep guard with their AK-47s. He sees the day as if he were there. The ceiling fans move the slow-motion heat and the blessings are read and he kisses the bride. Familiar French songs drift in from far away. That night they'll attend a voodoo ceremony-women dancing wildly to the thump thump of beating drums; men decapitating chickens, painting their bodies with the blood. They'll hike through the mountains to Jacmel, make love in the open; Haitian families will invite them in for a meal, give them a mat to sleep on, a painting for a souvenir, discuss Duvalier and his cure for yaws. The Oloffson was the setting for The Comedians; he and Eve had slept in the Graham Greene suite. The romance and excitement appeared visceral in the heat.
Anton has the urge to tell this story to Alice again, but she is singing already, herself. He winces. The cramp slices through the flesh and muscle of his belly to his back, a well-sharpened knife slipping around in there. He closes his eyes and the lark sings a song colored by painkillers and the approaching dusk and he hears everything she has ever said about India...The full moon suspended over the Apollo Bunder, lighting up the whole of Bombay. Coming to him in opiated clips. That big and brilliant platinum moon, somehow closer, somehow different, more moonish, more spectacular. And the rains come and the heat lifts in a steam to reveal a woman dancing in the center of a giant lotus flower, beckoning her lover to descend from the thin air above, and he arrives tethered to a string. India is one place Anton has never been, one place Alice wants to show him. His love of adventure is a gift he has given to her. He counts the gifts now as if to read her future, glimpse the woman she will become. The gopuram of Madurai sprawling over that insane town. The country roads thick with cars and lorries and bullock carts and festivals celebrating the holy cow, and the fields afire in the evening and the whole world smelling of sugar, and herds of goats, and packs of newborn chicks, and castles, entire towns made of sand, palaces floating in desert lakes, the Ganges at night: pitch black and all the people gone and the river so quiet and big like a beast, a massive sleeping beast-Eliot's strong brown god-and the mist just lifting lightly but hanging on, eerie with the smell of coal fires and of the burning ghats. And the lotus flower closes concealing the lovers and then the petals open and the flower floats on a pond and the woman continues her intricate dance. He imagines Alice, a lark in the latticed windows of the Pink Palace of Jaipur, in the early morning hours at Chardin. How the birds sing, an entire orchestra with their elaborate odes to day. The red earth of Karnataka and the golden sands of Arabian beaches. The flute player in the smoggy streets of Calcutta, the smell of woodsmoke mixed with sunflower and jasmine and apple and orange. "Dad, please come?" she says. Let me sleep, please, babe, let me sleep here awhile. The red-faced and mean and untrustworthy monkeys swinging between the dazzling branches of the banyan trees, rising up the boulder mountain to the place where the monkey god was born.
He opens his eyes and looks at his girl behind the glass and he knows that she will leave, and though he knows it is not rational and though he knows it is not fair or just, he feels betrayed. Don't go, please, he wants to ask of her. Just sit here and let me look at you.
"Do watch out for the monkeys, babe," he says instead, because for only her is he still perfect. He wants to remain that way. "They bite. I don't want to have to come all the way to India to take care of a monkey-bitten daughter," giving her, in this, permission. He rises on the pillows. She leans down and kisses him, holds him tight and kisses him-imagining herself as a monkey-bitten daughter that her father has come to retrieve. He wants to say good-bye simple as that. Have a good time. I'll come. She is just a young girl standing before him, a child who emphatically does not want to grow up. Not yet. Not in this way.
"Don't ever be sentimental, babe. You can be romantic, but never sentimental." He gives her the Texas squint and rubs his belly as if he could massage the pain right out of it like air bubbles in bread dough. "Smoke a good joint for me. Dope's good over there," and from his wallet he gives her a hundred-dollar bill. "For good grass, babe."
She pockets the bill, stuffing it into the front pocket of her jeans as if it were a tissue, feeling light because she knows she's won this hand. "Bring everyone," she says suddenly, greedily even. "What if you all came to visit? That would be fun. Wouldn't that be fun?" She feels like her mother using that word fun. Fun is her mother's word. We will have fun. You're having fun, aren't you? Fun. Fun. Everything fun. Then she imagines them all in India, the whole clan, all eight brothers and sisters and her mother. And she does believe it would be fun and it does seem possible, a matter of logistics-that is all. Her family like a long tail extending from her, trailing after her across the vast, hot expanse of the subcontinent. Marching like a tribe. Fun. The image makes her feel powerful, as if she really did have the ability to make this family whole-perhaps her most certain and central fairy tale.
"They'd never want to come," Anton says, taking the notion seriously.
"Don't be sorry for yourself. And besides, they would," she says brightly. "You know they would."
"You really think so?" he asks, perking up with hope. Hope, like an injection. "What about the Cooper girls? They'd never come." His blue eyes droop, resigned. Sorry for himself indeed.
"That's not true. You know that. Why wouldn't they come?" But then she pauses. Dread seeps inside of her, spreading out like a stain. She sees her three Cooper sisters bickering, faces red with it, as they complain about their childhoods. She paces. Looks around, how neat the room is. Her mother's doing. Afghan folded over back of rocking chair. Books in tidy stacks. Photographs of all the kids-having fun-on all the various family trips. All the ages they have all been. For twenty-five years this family has tried to be a family. She feels tired and wants to leave. For half a year she has been planning this trip. She's spoken with a famous director; he intends to meet her-Sanjay Deep of cinema Deep fame with five hundred films to his credit. She wants to step inside a film, learn the dance, the how-to of lip-synching the songs. She wants to step inside dreams, understand them, explore them, invade them. She looks through the sliding doors to the deck, the yard, the fields, the forests, the deep and distant views of farms and silos and hills and sky. She thinks about the long trip in front of her and of how very far away it will take her from her world and she feels the exuberance of a clean slate and time.
She adjusts her baseball cap, flipping the bill to the back. She has a certain power over Jane and knows that if she convinces Jane to come then Jane will convince Julia who will convince Kate. They are woven together like fabric, inextricable threads.
Anton folds his gray hands at his belly. Very gray against the white sheets, he shuts his eyes. His lips pinch as he eats the pain. No good feeling about this has he, but he will not let her know. Go, he wants to say now. Go quickly.
"They'll come," she says. "For me." She imagines herself as a bridge, the family stepping along her spine. Determined little girl, she's been working this family together since she was pencil-size in her mother's womb, negotiating all their troubles with her extraordinary capacity to be fair. "She'll be a judge someday," her sisters and brothers predict.
Anton holds her. She is warm inside with her plan and everything becomes sweet because there is a plan and there is not yet an explanation for the crippling darting cramps and she will leave. The mystery illness is shrouded in the vast expanse of hope. Hope infused in her simple words, bright and forceful, You will come. (And the family, too!) Hope in her erect stance and her thrilling determination. Foolish hope, corrosive hope. You Will Come.
"I won't go unless you promise."
Gently he squeezes her hand, placing a light kiss on her large forehead, pulling her close, the soft same newborn smell of her as if she still fit into his palm. He sees her blown to India carried by the force of his breath, rising and sinking on its back away from him. "Promise, babe." A commitment, the authority of the Word. His nose stings. His eyes close. "I couldn't go a year without seeing you. It'll be all right."
Copyright © 2002 by Martha McPhee
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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Parent and adult child Fiction, Terminally ill parents Fiction, Father and child Fiction, Communal living Fiction, Stepfamilies Fiction