A Few Words From Lilly: Where She Is Now
If you’re reading this then you aren’t where I am, which is dead. I was delivered here a little prematurely courtesy of some mistakes that might, if I’m going to be totally honest here, have something to do with Vixen Red lipstick and the feelings that cluster around it. I’ve been told I have bad judgment but that’s ridiculous. I have excellent judgment—just check the profit margin from Be Your Best Cosmetics.
See? Excellent judgment.
I call my current location Where I Am Now. It’s hard to be more specific because I myself am not real clear about my location. It’s relatively new to me. If I were you I wouldn’t find that very satisfying but it’s all I’ve got. More on this later but you might want to know—I’m not alone here. The dog was here to greet me when I arrived.
My sister Neave is in control of a good deal of what you’ll know, and not know. The thing you should keep in mind the whole time you’re listening to her is that Neave is relentlessly, sometimes dully, honest. Also, she thinks that we live in one place and one time. I now know that isn’t the case. My friend the high-heeled dog explained what he could to me and we left the rest to faith. But Neave, the only relief she gets from this limited view of time and space is books, because when she’s inside a book she goes wherever it says to go.
Neave believes in stepping into a book the way I believed in stepping into the Ritz. Things in the Oak Bar are solid and beautiful. You can smell the leather and the gin and after a martini the men are all more lovely. Lovely, lovely men. At five o’clock Henry rolls around the hors d’oeuvres cart that the Ritz bought from the Oceana after its final cruise, and he arranges a few pickled mushrooms and a smoked oyster on toast for me. Love that man.
I don’t think books did Neavie as much good as the hors d’oeuvres cart did me. Books made her cynical and dreamy both at the same time, which is not in my opinion a useful combination. Look at his suit, she’d say, not in a way that means the suit is a good thing, and why don’t you know any of his friends, but in a way that said what kind of man spends a fortune on a suit? I’d say a very interesting man. Then I’d note that it was possible she was out of her depth. Here it was, right after Armistice Day, I’d say to her, the streets flooded with newly sprung, often handsome soldiers looking for company, and she was spending her Friday nights bent over a cash flow at work or padding around her kitchen making a pie. Reading a book. She’s not ugly but she’s bookish, which is not a real enchanting characteristic in the world I lived in. Nobody writes love poetry to their bookish mistress while she shlumps around making pies.
I can see inside Neave’s head from where I am and I know what she’d say to me even now, even after I died, if she heard me giving dating advice. What do you know? she’d say. You’re dead.
And she’d be right.
Lynn, Massachusetts—My First Job
Lilly and I were Irish twins, born in 1928 and 1927 in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was a sunny, unsteerable, reckless girl and she grew up to be exactly the same kind of woman. I followed in her wake, sometimes smoothly and other times just bumping along behind her in the chop. It didn’t matter—wherever she was going, I was going there too. We grew up kicking each other’s feet in the same bed, eating the same food, taking each other’s side in every scuffle over the occasionally limited resources in the house we grew up in. Long before we launched Be Your Best Cosmetics together we were each other’s first confidante, most inventive playmate, best defense against every evil. But here’s maybe the most important and wonderful thing about her: Lilly didn’t really think evil existed. Of all the reasons I wished I were her, that’s the big one. That blindness was her doing and undoing; mine too, maybe, but not in the same order. That’s why I’m here telling her story and she’s not.
In 1936 I was eight years old and I didn’t know that Hitler had just gotten production of the People’s Car underway. I didn’t know that some of the dirt I dug in the backyard to make roads for Snyder’s toy cars had blown there all the way from Oklahoma in the great dust storms. I didn’t know that the civil war in Cuba continued, or that the Yellow River in China had overflowed at levels that were about to cause millions of people to starve. The whole world was going to hell and I was making dirt roads for Snyder’s metal cars. I was enjoying myself.
Snyder was in the middle, younger than me and older than Janey and the only boy. This made him feel like the odd man out but the fact is, he was odd—not the kind of brother you’d wake up for company in the middle of the night if you had a nightmare. The four of us functioned as a sometimes-cooperative group. I knew that if Lilly and Snyder and I pooled our resources we could get a loaf of bread for seven cents and eat the whole thing in the backyard with slices of Daddy’s tomatoes. Daddy loved his garden and hated his job at General Electric doing something with boilers that we didn’t understand. He’d come home looking flat and dark, go to his garden, and walk back into the house a little lighter. The boiler room made Daddy unhappy but overall I’d say that it was his nature to be irritated or squashed by a good deal that went on around him. It wasn’t just the boiler room.
We knew he wouldn’t miss a few tomatoes as long as we didn’t leave any big bare holes. We foraged in Daddy’s garden and Mom’s pantry like stray dogs. Snyder once stole a jar of our mom’s jam, which he shared when we caught him and threatened to rat him out. We didn’t want to spoil Janey’s dinner so we didn’t tell her about it. Also, she can’t keep secrets. We made a bread and jam picnic in the far back of our property when she was taking a stroll to the end of the block. We love Jane, but she has to be managed. She’s overly transparent, overly cheerful—characteristics you wouldn’t think could get in the way of trust but the fact is, they can.
That year the bubble around my life extended just as far as jam and tomatoes and the seven-cent loaf of bread, and at the time I found that a very workable amount of room in which to live. I was just at the lip of knowing about other bubbles, other worlds, and my brief glimpses outside my little universe were changing me. My schoolbooks were full of tiny-waisted unopinionated mothers making dinner and brothers who were always pleased to lend you their bikes. At a certain point these stories started to feel wrong. This cheerful primer-book world was clearly what the grownups believed I saw or wanted me to see, and I was beginning to feel duped. Worse, I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel duped. I was supposed to feel just like the children in the primers, which was scary because I didn’t. There had to be something wrong, and it seemed to be wrong with me.
I started nosing around for stories about stubborn siblings and disappointed fathers. I’d look around my second grade classroom hoping to find my fellow-students raising eyebrows, looking worried. Nothing—only bent heads, jiggling feet and moving lips, apparently at peace with the view from the second grade primer. No company here. Of course I had Lilly, who I loved completely, and Snyder and Janey, who I would step in front of a bullet for, but someplace deeper down, I was alone.
I did what lots of people like me do: I started haunting the local library. One day I found a book in the Children’s Room about a boy who lived with his parents in an ocean of Wyoming prairie grass. They raised horses. The boy was happy because all the company he needed in the world was his horse. But in a brief scene buried around page 320 where it might go unnoticed, his mother went running into the dark Wyoming winter night after a fight with the boy’s father. She ran miles and miles until she reached the railroad tracks. There she stood, waiting for the night train to shoot through the vast Wyoming prairie where she lived with the things that weren’t enough, with the cold husband and the boy who was obsessed with his horse. She saw people in dining cars lifting glasses of wine, beautifully dressed people in brightly lit car after car, all of rushing by so quickly. She watched them with her whole heart. I could tell that. I couldn’t entirely decode this moment in the story but I knew it was true and real and important. I’d stumbled onto a secret message from the adult world that had slipped past the gates of the Children’s Room. I was scared. I was thrilled.
I hated the children’s room. Our town library was a converted two-story house riddled with wood rot and mediocre donated castoffs. Its Children’s Room was cobbled out of what was once a nursery. The grown-ups who thought that children had smaller feelings and needs than adults had put the “children’s” section in the building’s darkest little rabbit warren. A stuffed dog who looked like he’d known happier times slumped on one of the book shelves. He was alone, no other animal friends or posters of puppies to back him up. A table with a small pile of books was wedged against a wall. Peggy’s Pokey Puppy, Snow White, Cowboys of the Wild West, Mommy and Me Make Cookies, Tickle Tickle.
The librarian thought it was morally important that once children stepped into the library they should be shuffled into this room and made to stay put. She kept her eyes on me, smiling in a cheerful, threatening kind of way and making sure I stayed where I belonged in my little desert of happy endings and cheerful relations with talkative animals. I made three separate attempts on the living room, home to Adult Fiction, and I was turned back every single time.
Mrs. Daniels changed all that. It was Snyder who brought her to me, or me to her, which is more accurate even if it didn’t feel like that. Sometimes after school Snyder delivered groceries and five-dollar bags of coal for Mr. McGarry’s grocery. The only customers who bought five-dollar bags were rich people who didn’t care what it cost and poor people who couldn’t scrape together enough cash to get half-ton deliveries. Mrs. Daniels was one of the rich ones. She was so old that the skin on her arms was sliding off her bones and her eyes weren’t cooperating with her any more. She needed somebody whose eyes still did their duty, because Mrs. Daniels was a reader. That’s how she came to offer Snyder five cents an hour to read to her after school.
Snyder was only vaguely interested in working and not at all interested in sitting for hours with a bony old lady. “I’ve been in her house,” he told us. “She reads trash like Werewolf in Paris and White Collar Girl. She gets Love Pulps with people kissing on the covers.” The idea of getting to read Werewolf in Paris and finding out what a Love Pulp was made something in me come totally alive, never mind the unbelievable sum of five cents an hour.
“Tell her about me,” I said. “Tell her I can do it.”
“You’re no bigger than a potato,” Mrs. Daniels said when I got there. Snyder had walked me over and bolted the moment my feet hit the porch. “What was your brother thinking of to send you to me?”
“He was thinking I would do just fine,” I said. “I’m little but I can read. I’m eight years old,” I added. She gave me a long up-and-down look and handed me a story by Ernest Hemingway in Cosmopoliton Magazine. “Sentences are short in this one,” she said. “Try it out for size.”
“What do you think of Mr. Hemingway?” she asked when I was done. The reading had gone briskly sometimes; lumpily sometimes.
“I think this man who goes fishing in the start of the story is in trouble. I don’t think he’s gonna get out of it, either.”
“Cynical little creature,” she observed. “You mispronounce something in every line.”
“Very well,” she said. “Perhaps you only mispronounced one or two things.”
“I’ll read for free until it’s better if you want. It’ll get better fast with practice, Mrs. Daniels.”
She looked me up and down again. “What if I pay you nothing for weeks?”
“If I’m not reading good, that’s fair.”
“’If I am not reading well,’” she sighed.
Mrs. Daniels called out to her cook Violette and told her to bring cookies. She offered me one. I reached eagerly and then I thought of Snyder, Jane and Lilly, all cookieless.
“What’s wrong, girl?”
“At home if there’s not enough for everybody I shouldn’t take anything.”
“There’s no one here to share with but me,” she replied. She reached forward and lifted the largest cookie from the plate and took a bite. “And I eat what I please.”
“You took the biggest one,” I observed.
“Of course I did. I like cookies.”
“That’s rude,” I told her. “The first person to pick should pick the smallest one.”
“Indeed? Well, I stand corrected. But since I’ve taken a bite out of it I don’t have to put the damn thing back, do I?”
“Swearing’s rude, too.”
“I imagine it is. What did you say your name was?”
“Well, Neave, I thank you for your reading efforts today. I will pay you your five cents and give you a bag with enough cookies in it so you will be able to share with your siblings. How many are there?”
I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what a sibling was, which was embarrassing.
“Your family’s vaguely Irish, isn’t it? How many are there? Twelve?”
“How many what?” I managed.
“Brothers and sisters,” she said, and her voice was friendlier.
“There’s me and Lilly, Jane and Snyder.”
“We can manage that many cookies.”
She gave me a nickel and told me to go to the kitchen and ask Violette for a paper bag of cookies. I stood motionless.
“What is it now?” she asked. Her eyes had drooped closed but she talked to me as if she could see me still standing there shuffling from foot to foot. I studied a hair on her chin. Her fingers drifted to it as if she could feel my eyes on it, and, her own eyes still closed, she plucked it out while I stared.
“Am I coming back?” I managed.
“Do you want to come back?”
I nodded. The skin on her neck crinkled like a turtle’s and one of her eyelids wasn’t doing the same thing as the other one, which I did not like but I wanted to read Werewolves in Paris so badly that I stood my ground. When I want things, I want them badly, and Mrs. Daniels wasn’t the first scary thing I’d stared down. “Very well. Come tomorrow if it’s all right with your mother.”
We only lived four houses away and I ran the distance as if a wild animal armed with machine guns was at my heels. I banged into the house calling for Lilly, and when she came to see what the matter was I made her sit down right there and read something hard with me, something as hard as Werewolves in Paris.
“What are you doing for Mrs. Daniels?” Mom asked me that night at dinner. “You went over there today?”
Something dinged in me, warning me off the subject of books, which could lead to a discussion of my gaining access to Werewolves in Paris or White Collar Girl.
“Carrying things. Sweeping.”
Snyder looked up from his meatloaf but kept his mouth shut.
“Sweeping and carrying what? I thought Mrs. Daniels had a cook in the house who could help her.”
“Well Violette’s a Protestant. And Mrs. Daniels likes someone who knows the rosary to say it with her.”
That whipped my mother’s head around. “Mrs. Daniels is a Catholic?”
I nodded. “It’s just not easy for her to get to church so you don’t see her there.” I could feel my mother’s assessing toe-to-hairline sweep of me. I smiled mildly and looked right back at her. I knew what she was thinking. Rosaries? None of her children took church very seriously but I was the only openly resistant member of the family. I’d been a cranky First Communion candidate, complaining about the classes and the memorizing and the idea that now I was old enough to get in real spiritual trouble. I’d resisted the white gloves I was supposed to wear to mass now that I was old enough and the doily that got pinned on my head every week. I was a pew-kicker and a malcontent. My mother had used those particular words to describe me and they’d stuck in my mind.
“You’re over there for longer than it takes to say a rosary, Missy.”
I’d over-reached. “Well sure. You know I think she really just likes company. She’s very lonely.” This didn’t seem like too much of a lie—simply a different way of looking at things.
My mother considered a little longer. “It’s a worthwhile thing to do if the poor woman’s lonely. You be nice to her. But take no money from Mrs. Daniels unless you’re making yourself useful doing something that needs doing in this world as well as the next. Nobody on earth should pay another person to say a rosary with her. Do you understand?”
I did understand and I indicated this with a puppety nod. Maybe our mother wouldn’t have stopped me from going to Mrs. Daniels’ house if she knew I was heading hip-deep into the land of Adult Fiction but I wasn’t taking that chance. Such a small little lie and besides, I could find something to dust the next time I was in her house and so it wouldn’t even be a lie at all.
I was a bad Catholic but I still had some uneasiness about all this lying. I took it, like I took most of my uneasy feelings, to Lilly.
“Oh, don’t be a ninny. Who cares if Mrs. Daniels likes hearing rosaries or not? Mom’s never going to walk over there and ask her.”
“Nope. She thinks Mrs. Daniels is a little scary. I heard her say it to Mrs. Seifritz.”
Then Lilly said exactly what I needed her to say. “You didn’t do anything wrong. If she gives you more cookies, ask for extras.”
The first afternoon I worked for Mrs. Daniels she started me off on magazine articles and columns. We read what Mrs. Roosevelt had to say in Ladies Home Journal and then she said that was enough reading for today. “I need to stretch. I’m going to tell Violette to bring us a little something,” she said. She stood up and started toward the kitchen. I stood up too and drifted to the part of her bookshelves that held the titles like Werewolves in Paris and White Collar Girl. Mrs. Daniels stopped in her tracks. “Move along, child. Leave that section of the library alone.”
“Will we ever read one of these, Mrs. Daniels?”
“One of the romances? No.”
“You are young, and impressionable.”
“Does something happen to you if you read them?” A rhetorical question—I assumed that something happened to the people who read them or Mrs. Daniels wouldn’t be shooing me away from them.
“The first thing that might happen to you is that people mock you for reading them. They think that women who read romances are idiots. I assure you, they are not.”
“No. They are people who trust that love exists and that it is more powerful than bad logic or bad writing.”
“Why would anybody be against love?”
“On the surface, a reasonable question.”
“I’m not against love,” I offered.
“So you are a devotee of love?” Mrs. Daniels said drily. “One wouldn’t assume that to look at you. But the world is full of hope, isn’t it? It appears in the most unlikely of places.”
The next time we met she set me to The Odyssey, not going in any order but picking out parts she particularly liked. On my first day with Mr. Homer I found the Sirens busy trying to draw Odysseus and his men onto the wreckage-strewn rocks around their island, luring the sailors to destruction with their beautiful voices. Of course Odysseus survives to fight another day, out-tricking the singers by plugging his crew’s ears with wax so they couldn’t hear him howling to be taken closer, closer, to the Sirens in their ring of broken boats.
I knew I was supposed to hate those damn Sirens but I didn’t. I figured that a person takes his chances with Sirens because he wants to—maybe has to. He crosses his fingers and ties himself to a mast and says, keep going, everybody—I’m not missing this—and that made sense to me.