Stephen Doiron (1st place. Fiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)
Judith Fine would not move, as though she could control everything if she just held herself rigid, and tenaciously stared straight ahead, wedged between a packed suitcase and the car door; by ignoring the window looking out on the Long Island Expressway, and even the seatbelt holding her fast to the rear seat of her father’s Jaguar. She’d stopped listening to the small talk her parents used while they trod water and avoided any frustration with each other. Everything beyond her was proof that she had lost.
Rachel Fine shot a quick glance at her husband, and then turned to call between the seats, over the roadway’s whine. “It’s just two weeks. Besides, you’ll have fun, you won’t even notice we’re gone.” Judith Fine’s body swayed against the suitcase as Robert Fine shifted the car into the passing lane, and shouted at the windshield, “You’ll be back home before you know it.” But it wasn’t their leaving her that upset Judith Fine or that she didn’t believe them; it was that she knew their plan, and knowing it had set her against them for months now.
She’d spent most of May opposing their suggestion of summer camp, a month in the Catskills, just enough time to conclude their new pact; the one she’d discovered by watching them conceal it from their friends; though it never occurred to either of them to hide it from their daughter.
Now, if you live anywhere near the Stadler Arms on New York City’s West 84th Street, or visit Theodore Roosevelt Park on Central Park West, no doubt you already know Robert and Rachel Fine’s only child. The park is Judith Fine’s salon where she holds forth much as her parents guide their guests through an evening soirée at the Stadler Arms. You probably know too that an invitation to one of their affairs, legendary for their urbanity and style, stands as a high prize among Manhattan’s social crowd. Judith Fine, arrantly un-childlike, attends every gathering; though she would tell you, it’s ever the same party no matter how the names vary from month to month.
Those who’ve met her agree that Judith Fine is not so much a beauty as she is the promise of beauty. Her slight, fine boned figure and porcelain skin only exaggerate an élan that shines from large, chocolate-brown eyes, framed by jet-black hair.
Judith Fine’s world avoids most of the children her own age; she’ll tell that too few girls and none of the boys offer any interesting conversation. Instead, she cultivates the older men who come to sun themselves on Roosevelt Park’s benches, to loll in idle dreams or fantasy. There, she introduces herself and wastes no time presenting Mercedes Hinojosa, the Fines’ maid who doubles as the afternoon nanny. Her greeting comes straight at you: her arm, ramrod-straight toward your chest, hand canted the way a comma dangles in a sentence, just as though she were fresh from four years at Wellesley. It is unnerving, at first, that the girl is only ten years old and fresh from the fourth grade at Solomon Schechter School on East 87th street, where everyone agrees that she’s much more mature than her age, and always in command of the moment.
So too her Roosevelt Park quarry, who, having taken an immediate interest in Mercedes Hinojosa, and because Mercedes barely speaks English, hear from our precocious miss of the wonderful pastry at Zabar’s over on Broadway; all of it meant to induce a slow stroll home, as Mercedes fends off clownish passes while Judith Fine slowly sucks the jelly from a sugar-dusted Bismarck. As with all things common or fattening, the Fine household shuns anything like a sugar-dusted, jelly-filled Bismarck, and that makes them ever more wondrous.
Judith Fine doesn’t particularly like being the only child, though she is the only one in her family with that opinion. Rachel Fine is prone to quip, and always with a satirical smirk: “Never again, not with this body,” prompting her guests’ gossip as to why they wanted a child in the first place. But whatever the reason, Judith Fine accepts that she seems to satisfy it, completely.
Aside from their shared social engagements, Robert and Rachel Fine maintain separate worlds for careers that trail well into the evening. Robert Fine’s financial office at Manhattan’s southern tip is a cultural continent away to Judith Fine; she’s visited it only once. Rachel Fine keeps a literary agency on lower Park Avenue, but it houses little more than a desk and telephone; most of her afternoon phone calls originate from any of a dozen theater district restaurants. Still, they are a family, more of a family than any other residents in the Stadler Arms where none of the apartments have regular kids, only visiting kids from some other house in some other city; more than most of the children at the Schecter School, few of whom live among a complete set of parents. It’s always someone else’s Dad in the house, or the occasional invasion by someone else’s kids, ever upsetting the order of things. In this respect, Judith Fine considers herself exceptional; her parents are her own; no strangers and no disruptions. That is, until this spring when all debate or skirmish over opposing guest lists stopped; all catering huddles to sift through menu proposals came to an abrupt end. Until today, when the end began. Judith Fine heard the traffic whine grow as her parents settled into a shared silence harboring private thoughts, and the rhythmic calm seduced Judith Fine’s panic by offering sleep as analgesia.
Judith Fine’s head bobbed onto her chest as she escaped worry’s world, and tried sifting through the mystery waiting for her out on Brompton Road, near the northern tip of Long Island. Everyone knew that the great Judith Hurst had precious little time for anyone save the great Judith Hurst; scant time for her only granddaughter and namesake. Why then had she agreed to this visit, and for two weeks?
Judith Hurst was one of Broadway’s most celebrated actresses, who forbid any conflicting alias such as mother or grandmother in her address. “Please darlings,” she declaims, “such piteous claims. You only use them to shackle me.” Harold Ostendorf had given Judith Hurst all of his attention and most of his money during their thirty-year marriage, yet she never accepted his name, and if asked, feigns shock and explains, “Darling, can you imagine the marquee!”
It was news then, that just one year ago and shortly after Harold’s death, the great Judith Hurst abruptly became a recluse. She cancelled every public audience and shuttered herself in the obscurity of her Eighty-fifth Street rookery, emerging for a month in summer at the Hamptons, and for winter’s cruelest month at the cottage Harold built for her in Palm Beach. Judith Fine has never visited either retreat, and the despair she’d wrestled with all month, shunned any fascination with the prospect.
The Jaguar suddenly lurched to the right, Judith Fine’s head bumped against the doorpost, and her suitcase pressed in on her, waking her. She struggled awake to stretch and stare through the window as the car followed a meandering, rutted road across a shallow, treeless salt marsh, then bounced onto and over a plump, gray sand dune. There, at the dune’s peak, they found an isolated, white, two-story clapboard cottage perched amid a giant hedgerow of sea grape. Here Judith Fine discovered a new opponent, one who quickly unmasked her as nothing more than a child with no voice in adult affairs, and it terrified her.
Robert Fine slowly nosed the car onto an amalgam of sand, grass, and crushed shell forming a path along the south edge of the property before it blended into a circular, brick courtyard, hidden between the eastern face of the cottage and a tall sand dune braced against the ocean shore; it conjured in Judith Fine the illusion of being tossed into the deep end of the pool.
At the far side of the circle, hidden behind a drive-centering fountain, an elderly Black man, in white shirt and black tie, his sleeves rolled to the elbow, slowly worked a chamois across the windshield of a Mercedes Benz sedan. He looked up at their approach, hung his chamois on the sedan’s rearview mirror, and began pacing alongside the Jaguar, tugging at his shirt cuffs in preparation for his shadow role as butler. Judith Fine tried to dissolve the scene, to will herself beyond its unfolding certainty, but the sudden click of a door latch, and her mother’s sigh, prevailed.
“Good afternoon, Miss Judith,” floated to her over the opening passenger door. “So good of you to come and stay with us a while.”
Judith Fine did not want to cooperate; for what seemed the first time in her life, she was unalterably alone, the strangeness overwhelmed and easily subdued her. She had no option but to obey, even though obedience counted the ruins of her world among its spoils.
Judith Fine stood on the brickwork and watched her father mount a narrow porch just as the front door fell away in a silent sweep and a smiling face bent into the opening. The housemaid led them along a short hallway toward a pair of dark, polished wooden doors that opened onto an elegantly appointed salon. Judith Fine followed at a distance, first sensing her parents’ sudden discomfort, then trying to measure whether it signaled a last minute unwillingness to abandon her, and she quickly fanned hope’s dying ember. But then, alone in the room and sharing the silence that stretched each of their masks thin, she recognized it as an all too familiar discomfort with a world not their own. Robert Fine adjusted himself into a high back chair, one of a pair that bracketed the fireplace on the room’s far wall.
“I don’t know why she couldn’t have been on time, this once,” he whispered. “We don’t want to be late.”
Rachel Fine browsed a gallery of photographs along the wall behind a sofa made large by Judith Fine’s effort to grow small into it.
“It’s her way,” Rachel Fine said, as to something pointless or inane. “It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. What makes you think she’d change now?”
“Well…” Robert Fine’s voice disappeared into silence just as the twin doors, closed ceremoniously by the maid, burst open, and Judith Fine stopped breathing. A brilliant whiteness, as though all of one piece, filled the doorway, then swept into the room. Luminescent, ivory-tone skin, elaborately arranged white hair, and layers of flowing, sheer white fabric, moved toward her and overwhelmed her hopelessness.
“Darlings, here you are at last.”
Judith Fine stared open-mouthed as this light paused in front of her, arms outstretched, palms up, as if accepting an offering, and called to her.
“And who do we have here?”
The whiteness bent close to her. “Not the young Judith Fine I expected. Why this girl is almost flawless; are you the same Judith Fine I once knew?”
Judith Fine crowded further into the sofa’s creases, trying to become lost, and, since she no longer had any tether to rely on, she might become lost forever. But the hands gently embraced her shoulders, and coaxed her toward its light.
“Come.” Now the voice came as soft, carefully measured words. “Stand for me so that I may sit; we must look at each other, eye to eye.”
Judith Fine stood, and felt more than saw the vision sweep past her to the sofa. It turned her in place so that the light became a face but unlike any face Judith Fine knew. No feature ended, another simply began; but there was color now, not for color’s sake, only as a suggestion playing against the soft, warming whiteness.
Robert Fine spoke, but it came as if from another room, little more than a mumble beyond an adjacent wall; and her mother too, but the only words Judith Fine understood clearly came from the warm glow only inches from her face, sweet-smelling sounds that washed across her face.
“Yes, you two run along. We are off to become famous to one another,” and a pair of lips plushed softly against Judith Fine’s cheek, just as two arms encircled her, protecting her from whatever harm might exist in any other world. Judith Fine inched herself closer to the voice as it urged her again. “Come now, let’s say farewell to these travelers and we will be off to our own adventures.”
Judith Fine smelled more than saw her mother, and felt the firm touch of her father’s hand brushing the top of her head. She heard words: “Back soon” and “Don’t worry,” but little else; she had reached a farther shore now, and those voices were too distant. And then they were alone at the doorway as the Jaguar slipped from view.
“They’re leaving me,” Judith Fine said, as much to announce the finality as to reach anyone at all.
“Yes, off to the harlequin’s dance,” the voice agreed, then trailed away into the distance, “Content to be nothing more than understudies.” Then, from farther away, it called again, “Come. I have a place where you need never feel alone.”
Judith Fine felt the cloak of aloneness draping itself across her shoulders as the whiteness disappeared at the end of the hall; she ran to join the parade. Halls and stairways unfolded before her like features in a pop-up greeting card until they arrived at a room bursting with racks of clothes, and shelves of shoes; one wall sparkled with fancy ribbons, some in a harmony of color or style, others contradicting one another in rebellious disarray. There, at the center of it all, on a coiled rug of motley fabric they sat, as though they’d boarded a magic flying carpet. Judith Fine watched, but could not focus on the excess of color and texture.
“Now,” The voice whispered as colored cloth fluttered like flags, and then floated hypnotically to the floor. “Let’s not use any of their silly names for us.” The warm breath buffeted Judith Fine’s skin as she tried to breathe and not breathe at the same time. “We shall call ourselves whatever we wish.”
A soft cloth beach hat found its way to her head, and a larger one, a broad-brimmed straw, landed atop the smiling face that now leaned in, wide-eyed. “Do you like to dance?”
Judith Fine drew back at the assault on her vulnerability, while the confusion of color pushed her deep into silence, but the light didn’t wait; instead, it stood and moved off to a farther wall.
“Yes,” the voice sang back. “Music! We should begin with a dance.” And Judith Fine, minding neither question nor answer, simply watched. She heard a button click, then a guitar strum; it paused, as if it too waited for her answer, then took up a quick-paced melody. Fingers fluttered in front of her face, encouraging her. “Come, we will spend our day talking and playing just as they do on Mount Olympus.”
Judith Fine rose, cautiously, and heard the voice from somewhere within the whiteness say that there were no rules, that she might move any way she wished; that there was no right and no wrong; and so she danced, but not as ever before. It was impossible to ignore the joy of spinning and leaping, first quickly, then slowly, in time to the music, floating as if she were no more than a scent on the air, until the music stopped. There, soaked from splashing about in love’s puddle, Judith Fine watched and waited, until fingers trilled again, calling her to a window seat for tales from an opened book; of a place called Olympus, a place filled with sprites, fairies, and enchanted gods with names like Rhea, and Zeus, Demeter, and Persephone. Judith Fine trailed behind the voice as it lead her through another place and time, cautiously abandoning herself to traipse through its garden of delights, that is, until they reached Persephone’s story, and fantasy became a chilling echo of her own reality, and Judith Fine spiraled back into despair. A sudden pall crept over her. Demeter’s daughter had been abducted into the underworld, and called out, helplessly to her mother. There as Demeter searched frantically for her lost child, Judith Fine wept.
They sat at the window for a while and were quiet. Judith Fine rocked in rhythm with hands that lazily brushed her hair, and her mind sifted through the legend of suspicion and deceit in Persephone’s gloomy tale. Then, with less certainty than finality she declared, “My name is Persephone.” The hairbrush paused a moment, then began again.
“Very well,” it said, “and I shall be Rhea, the mother of you all.”
That afternoon they began lessons in powder and hair; of shadow and rouge; and changed costumes three times. On the second morning, after breakfast served in bed, they did not dress until well past ten, and Persephone wore a dress so delicate she had to continually finger it just to prove it was still there. They found a small courtyard for tea in the afternoon, and Rhea told more stories, of different people called Pinter and Simon, and friends she called Glenda and Vanessa.
“Did they live on Olympus too?”
“Oh, no, my dear, they lived in the theater,” Rhea smiled at the small face staring back, open-mouthed, “where they made some of the most beautiful art in the universe.”
They changed again after tea, into long dresses of printed cotton, put on broad-brimmed hats and walked along the shore. Rhea spoke again about the theater and of people so unlike the people Persephone knew.
“No, they’re not like anyone else,” Rhea laughed, “that’s what makes them theater people.” Suddenly, all in one motion, Rhea bent to find the hem of her dress, lifted it, and reached for Persephone’s hand. They hurried to the cottage as Rhea sang back, over the sound of wind and surf, “Yes, that’s it, we must have a theatrical.” Rhea loosed Persephone’s hand at the crest of the dune, made a faster pace into the cottage, straight to her library, to kneel and rummage through boxes along a wall beneath the window. Persephone stood, questioning, at the doorway, watching long white fingers flip across paper tabs wearing words she could not read.
“Yes,” Rhea searched to find Persephone, to wave her close, “this will do perfectly!”
But the voice had changed again, now bell-like and commanding, and it startled Persephone, forced her back a step in apprehension. Rhea rose to move past the startled girl, trailing fluttering fingertips, beckoning her to follow. “Come along,” she ordered, “we’ll use what’s left of the sun to begin. This will be marvelous. I promise.”
Rhea disappeared through the cottage door on a line for the beach dune, calling back, “Come along, this is for us.”
It was difficult at first, even though Rhea explained each part of a script; Persephone couldn’t anticipate her part. “They’re like a conversation,” Rhea explained, “You listen as others speak, and speak when it’s your part.” It became easier. It became fun, and soon, it was the part of each day Persephone looked forward to most. They began with Peter Pan, Persephone as Peter, and Rhea as everyone else. Persephone’s delight at first came from the emotions and colors Rhea made using nothing but her voice. Soon though, the story turned real and she was Peter, and knew what it was like to fly.
“You see,” Rhea said. “Just as I promised.”
On the next day, they explored Little Women; they spent the morning in preparation before an afternoon by the sea. They discussed how to dress for each scene, how to arrange their hair, and more importantly, how to offer oneself to the story. The afternoon walk at the shore transformed itself into a world of sidewalks, and porch swings, until, inconsolable at Beth’s death, Rhea had to carry Persephone home.
They lingered long on dessert that evening. “These moments of great passion come to very few of us,” Rhea said, and they both sat silent for a time, neither of them willing to leave the table. Rhea reached to find Persephone’s hand, and drew the girl onto her lap.
“Most people avoid any brush with emotion,” she whispered, as she preened Persephone’s hair about her shoulders. “Even when it is unavoidable, they escape from it as quickly as possible.” Rhea folded the girl in both of her arms and pulled the small body to her own. “Theater people go in search of it, they choose to experience it fully, not once but repeatedly,” Persephone leaned forward slightly so that she might turn to find Rhea’s face. The woman continued. “But, there’s a danger in that.”
Rhea paused and searched Persephone’s face, then deep into her eyes. “If we play with stories, we still must keep one foot firmly in the now,” Rhea explained. “We must not confuse the emotion we feel with what is happening around us. If we can do that, we will remain safe; if not, we can hurt ourselves, deeply.” Rhea nudged the girl from her lap; both of them stood, and Rhea took Persephone’s shoulders. “We must talk about how to do this, or we cannot go on.”
After they dressed for sleep, Persephone clambered into Rhea’s bed, and burrowed close to listen. “Despite what others say,” Rhea began, “life in the theater is never separate from real life. In both of them you must be aware of who you are, what is happening around you, and you must always listen.” Rhea looked down on the young girl to answer an unasked question. “No, few people ever do. Most are too busy working on their own lines; they seldom hear what others say.”
Rhea reached a hand to smooth the bedclothes covering the small form beside her. “By playing a role truly, we may discover pieces of the potential buried deep within us. Discovering this potential is theater’s great adventure.”
Rhea reached to turn out the lamp, and through the dark, continued. “What makes it more exciting is that the best you do today is far from the best you will ever do. Only practice will help you get there. Tomorrow, we will practice.” But, Persephone did not hear this last; she was already asleep, clinging to the warm vibrations flowing through her body.
In the days that followed, they built an outline for a stage using the ocean’s flotsam, then walked through the opening scene of Great Expectations. Rhea demonstrated how to make a proper entrance and, “almost as important,” an exit. They practiced each so often that, were anyone watching from the top of the dune, they might think them but a pair of shorebirds, dancing at the surf’s edge.
At noon, they abandoned the shore for the shade of the dune, and a chaise lounge, to run their lines for the next day. Rhea closed her eyes, reclined, and recited from memory while Persephone read aloud from the script. Rhea smiled as she listened, hearing the amazement at each new emotion, captured, then put away for safekeeping.
And then it came; one morning, just past breakfast. Rachel Fine called to assure them that all was ready; and that she would arrive the next day. Persephone stood near, watching disappointment draw a veil across Rhea’s face. She listened too as the older woman’s voice, slower now, spoke into the phone while fear nibbled at the edges of Judith Fine’s world, again. The call ended quietly; Rhea stood and led the way to the beach. There, lost in silent thought, they simply stood to watch the small surf heave itself, just as silently, ashore.
Persephone hung to the cloth on Rhea’s body, yearning to lose herself in its folds, and there, to release fully, the small stream of tears tracing her eyes. Rhea looked across the sea to the horizon and spoke first. “You don’t belong here,” she said. Persephone dissolved into tears and turned to pull herself deep into the fabric. “You don’t belong anywhere,” Rhea added firmly, and then pushed herself away. “You belong nowhere,” she said, holding Persephone by both shoulders, “and you belong everywhere.”
Rhea sat on the sand and accepted the girl’s crouching form onto her lap, pushing the small head away from her breast to speak to the girl’s eyes. “There is no script written for our life,” she whispered. “We each write it as we go.”
Judith Fine did not want to listen, she did not want to understand; she wanted to lose herself in this woman’s love. But a hand held her back, forced her to sit upright, and brushed away the tears from her face.
“Do you see, child?” Rhea’s eyes held her fixed, searching for understanding. “Our life is just a blank piece of paper, we hold the pencil; we, wittingly or not, each write our own script.”
There, just as Rhea pulled Persephone’s hair away from her eyes, both of the woman’s arms flew skyward, and her body collapsed backward onto the sand. She arched her neck to look back at the startled young girl. “Just don’t forget,” the woman shouted through her laughter, “that the other end also holds the eraser!”
The great Judith Hurst propped herself on an elbow, while Persephone, confused at the sudden change, watched the woman shake her head.
“Well now, can you imagine that,” and looked in on the young girl’s stare to explain. “There have been two students on this beach all along,” and she reached to take Judith Fine by the shoulders, “nothing has to continue if we just let the eraser do its work.”
They lay, together, on the sand as the tide lapped at their toes and Judith Hurst let her hands collapse onto her forehead. “Oh, Persephone,” she said. “I’ve been such a…” she raised her head to stare, “fool.” She drew the girl to her and siphoned a full breath; then, both hands spread toward to the sky, announced. “It’s that simple. If we don’t like the play, we only have to rewrite the script.”
Judith Hurst rose and walked into the surf, splashing the water back onto the child. “We think we’ve been thrown up here on this beach by fate. But it is we who control what we do.” She reached down a hand to raise the girl to her side, and pulled her into an embrace. “There’s never a chance of life imposing its will.”
They walked at the surf’s edge for another hour as the woman explained and the child came to understand, slowly. It was well past noon when they returned to the cottage and prepared for their closing performance.
It was the middle of the morning on the following day when Judith Fine heard the car arrive. She listened to the opening and closing of doors, the soft muffled voices streaming up from the parlor. She only smiled as the maid came to take away her suitcase, and she followed to the foyer, to listen as just beyond the parlor door, Rachel Fine busily listed a number of facts that Judith Fine calculated, but then discarded. Robert now lived downtown, and Rachel had the old apartment so that their Judith might remain at the Schechter school. Rachel’s job might interfere at times when Robert was unavailable. “Would you mind caring for her from time to time?”
“Of course,” Judith Hurst said; there would be no problem. However, she added, she was going back to the stage, performing again, occasionally, if they would have her, and Judith Fine would go with her to watch from the wings. There was a short silence, before Rachel replied, “Well, I’m not….”
Without hesitation, and with a certainty borne not of this moment but from some fertile and resplendent reasoning, Judith Fine pressed both doors open, moved into the space, making her entrance in full cry.
“Mother, we’re so happy you’re here.” She moved deliberately to catch her mother’s hands as they reached out to capture her, drawing them down to the side as she completed her entrance. “We’ve been talking about you the whole morning,” and turned to Judith Hurst, smiling, “haven’t we?” She released her mother’s hands, crossed to embrace Judith Hurst’s cheek, before settling into one of the wingback chairs at the fireplace, and looked to her mother. “Now, tell us everything you’ve been doing, and don’t leave out a thing.”
Stephen Doiron (1st place. Fiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)