Die a little, p.1
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       Die a Little, p.1

           Megan Abbott
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Die a Little

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  For Josh.


  MY WARMEST GRATITUDE to Paul Cirone for all his efforts and conviction, and to Denise Roy for her keen editorial insight and sustaining guidance. To my early and encouraging readers and dear friends, Christine Wilkinson and Alison Levy. To Darcy Lockman, for her friendship and perpetual support. And without whom: Patricia and Philip Abbott, Joshua Abbott, Julie Nichols, Ralph and Janet Nase, and Jeff, Ruth, and Steven Nase. And most of all, to Joshua Gaylord.

  LATER, the things I would think about. Things like this: My brother never wore hats. When we were young, he wouldn’t wear one even to church and my mother and then grandmother would force one on his head. As soon as he could he would tug it off with soft, furtive little boy fingers. They made his head hot, he would say. And he’d palm the hat and run his fingers through his downy blond hair and that would be the end of the hat.

  When he began as a patrolman, he had to wear a cap on duty, but it seemed to him far less hot in California than in the South, and he bore up. After he became a junior investigator for the district attorney, he never wore a hat again. People often commented on it, but I was always glad. Seeing his bristly yellow hair, the same as when he was ten years old, it was a reminder that he still belonged to our family, no matter where we’d move or what new people came into our lives.

  I used to cut my brother’s hair in our kitchen every week. We would drink cola from the bottle and put on music and lay down newspapers, and I would walk around him in my apron and press my hand to his neck and forehead and trim away as he told me about work, about the cases, about the other junior investigators and their stories. About the power-mad D.A. and his shiny-faced toadies. About the brave cops and the crooked ones. About all the witnesses, all his days spent trailing witnesses who always seemed like so much smoke dissolving into the rafters. His days filled with empty apartments, freshly extinguished cigarettes, radios still warm, curtains blowing through open windows, fire escapes still shuddering . . .

  When I finished the cut, I’d hold out the gilt hand mirror from my mother’s old vanity set and he would appraise the job. He never said anything but “That’s it, Sis,” or “You’re the best.” Sometimes, I would see a missed strand, or an uneven ledge over his ear, but he never would. It was always, “Perfect, Sis. You’ve got the touch.”

  • • •

  Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I’d blow them off my fingertips, one by one.

  • • •

  For their honeymoon, just before New Year’s 1954, my brother and his new wife went to Cuba for six days. It was Alice’s idea. Bill happily agreed, though his first choice had been Niagara Falls, as was recommended by most of the other married couples we knew.

  They came back floating on a cloud of their own beauty, their own gorgeous besottedness. It felt vaguely lewd even to look at them. They seemed to be all body. They seemed to be wearing their insides too close to the surface of their skin.

  • • •

  There is a picture of Alice. The photographer—I’m not sure who it was—was ostensibly taking a picture of our godparents, the Conrans, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. But the photographer snapped too late, and Uncle Wendell and Aunt Norma are beginning to exit the frame with the embarrassed elation of those unused to such attention and eager to end it, and what you see instead is Alice’s back.

  She is wearing a demure black silk cocktail dress with a low-cut V in the back, and her alabaster skin is spread across the frame, pillowing out of the silk and curving sharply into her dark hair. The jut of her shoulder blades and the angular tilt of her cocked arm draw the eye irresistibly. So like Alice. She didn’t even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention.

  • • •

  It had all begun not six months before.

  • • •

  My chest felt flooded by my own heart. I could hardly speak, hardly breathe the whole way to the hospital, lights flashing over me, my mind careering. They said, “What is your relation to William King?”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Are you his wife?”

  “What’s wrong with my brother?”

  But he was fine. He was fine. I was running down the hospital corridor, shins aching from my heels hitting the floor so hard. I was running when I heard his voice echoing, laughing, saw his downy, taffy-colored hair, his handsome, stubby-nosed profile, his hand rubbing the back of his head as he sat on a gurney, smeary smile on his face.

  “Lora.” He turned, speaking firmly to calm me, to strip the tight fear from my face. Hand out to grab my arm and stop me from plowing clear into him, he said, “I’m fine. I just hit my head, got knocked out, but I’m fine.”

  “Fine,” I repeated, as if to fix it.

  His jacket over his arm, his collar askew, he had, I noted with a shiver, a break of browning blood on his shirt.

  “Someone hit your car?”

  “Nah. Nearly did, but I swerved out of the way. The driver kept going off the road and into a telephone pole. I stopped to help her, and while I was trying to get her out of her car, another car rear-ended it and knocked us both down. It was some show.”

  He laughed when he said it, which was how I knew the driver was young and pretty, and troubling and helpless, all of which seemed, suddenly to me, to be just what he wanted, what he had been waiting for all along. It happened just like that. I realized it about him just like that, without ever having thought it before.

  “Is she all right?”

  “She had a concussion, but she’s okay. She sprained her wrist trying to break her fall.” He touched his own wrist as he said it, with great delicacy. This gesture confirmed it all.

  “Why did she veer off the road? What was wrong with her?”

  “Wrong? I don’t know. I never even . . .”

  When the sergeant came by to get more details for his report, he told us that the woman, Alice Steele, would be released momentarily. I asked him if she had been drinking, and he said he didn’t think so.

  “No, definitely not. She was completely coherent,” my brother assured us both. The young sergeant respectfully nodded.

  • • •

  Her eyebrows, plucked and curvilinear like a movie star’s, danced around as she spoke: My, how embarrassing—not just embarrassing but unforgivable—her actions were. She never should have been driving after taking a sedative even if it was hours before and never should have been driving on such a crowded road when she was so upset and crying over some complications in her life and with the rush to get to her friend Patsy’s apartment because Patsy’s boyfriend had hit her in the face with an ashtray. And, oh God, she wondered, what had happened to Patsy since she was never able to get there because of the accident. Would Patsy be all right? If there were scars, her modeling career would end in a heartbeat, and that would mean more trouble for Patsy, who’d had more than her share already.

  Watching, listening, I imagined that this would be how this new woman in my brother’s life would always talk, would always be. As it turned out, however, she rarely spoke so hazardously, so immoderately.

  She had a small wound on her forehead, like a scarlet lip. It was this wound, I calculated, that had flowed onto my brother’s shirtfront. A nurse was sewing stitches into it with long, sloping strokes the entire time she spoke to me.

  I tried not to w
atch too closely as the wound transmuted from labial-soft and deep red to a thin, sharp, crosshatched line with only a trace of pucker. The nurse kept murmuring, “Don’t move, don’t move,” as Alice gestured, twisting with every turn of phrase, never wincing, only offering an occasional squint at the inconvenience.

  • • •

  “Lora. Lora King,” I answered.

  “You’re the wife of my knight in shining armor?”

  “No. The sister.”

  “I’m Alice. Alice Steele. You’re smiling.”

  “No. Not at you.”

  “Where is that heroic brother of yours, anyway? Don’t tell me he’s left?”

  “No. He’s here. He’s waiting.”

  A smile appeared quickly and then disappeared, as if she decided it gave away too much. As if she thought I didn’t know.

  The three of us in my sedan. I drove them to Bill’s car, which was unharmed. I knew he would offer to drive her home and he did and they vanished into his sturdy Chevy like circling dangers. Patti Page trilled from the radio of his car as it drove off. I sat and listened until I couldn’t hear it any longer. Then I drove home.

  • • •

  At first, it was the pretext of checking on her recovery.

  Then, it was his friend Alice, who needed a ride to the studio, where she worked in the costume department as a seamstress’s assistant. She lived with a girlfriend named Joan in a rooming house somewhere downtown.

  Then, it was Alice, who had bought him the new tie he wore, with the thin periwinkle stripe.

  Next, it was Alice, with whom he’d had chop suey because he happened to be by the studio around lunchtime.

  At last, it was Alice over for dinner, wearing a gold blouse and heels and bringing a basket of pomegranates spiced with rum.

  I prepared ham with pineapple rings and scalloped potatoes and a bowl of green beans with butter. Alice smoked through the whole meal, sipping elegantly from her glass and seeming to eat but never getting any closer to the bottom of her plate. She listened to my brother avidly, eyes shimmering, and complimented me on everything, her shoe dangling from her foot faintly but ceaselessly. It would be true in all the time I knew Alice that she would never, ever stop moving.

  She asked many questions about our childhood, the different places we’d lived, our favorite homes, how we’d ended up in California and why we’d stayed. She asked me if I enjoyed teaching high school and how we’d found such a lovely house and if we liked living away from downtown Los Angeles. She asked me where I got my hair done and if I sewed and whether I enjoyed having a yard because she had “always lived in apartments and had never had more than a potted plant and no green thumb besides, but who cares about that, tell me instead about how you keep such lovely petunias in this dry weather and does Bill help at all or is he too busy playing cops and robbers,” with a wink and blinding smile toward my rapt brother.

  Five months to the day after they met, they decided to marry. The night they told me, I remember there had been a tug over my eye all day. A persistent twitch that wouldn’t give. Driving to the restaurant to meet them, I feared the twitch would come at the wrong moment and send me headlong into oncoming traffic.

  As I walked in, she was facing my freshly shaved and bright-faced brother, who was all shine and smile. I saw her shoulders rise like a blooming heart out of an hourglass puce-colored dress. He was towering over her, and she was adjusting his pocket square with dainty fingers. From the shimmer lining my dear brother’s face, from the tightness in his eyes, I knew it was long over.

  • • •

  The day before they were married, we moved Alice’s things from the rooming house in which she’d been living for over a year. It was a large place in Bunker Hill, a house that had once been very grand and now had turned shaggy, with a bucket of sand for cigarettes at the foot of its spiraling mahogany staircase.

  Apparently, Bill had been trying to get her to move out since he first visited her there. “I know places like this. I spend days knocking down the doors of places like this,” he had told her. “It’s no place for you.”

  But, according to him, she only laughed and touched his arm and said that he should have seen her last place, in a bungalow court where, the first night she spent there, a man stabbed his girlfriend in the stomach with her knitting needle, or a fork, she couldn’t remember which. “She was all right,” Alice had assured him. “It wasn’t deep.”

  When we helped her pack up, I noticed how many clothes Alice had, and how immaculately she kept them, soft sweaters nestled in stacks of plastic sleeves, hatboxes interlocked like puzzle pieces in the top of her closet, shoes in felt bags, heels stroked in cotton tufts to keep them from being scratched by the hanging shoe tree, dresses with pillowy skirts tamed by sweeping curls of tissue paper or shells of crinkly crepe.

  Alice smiled warmly as I marveled at each glorious confection. She said she accumulated most of the clothes from her work at the studio. The seamstresses were often allowed to take cast-off garments deemed too damaged or too worn. No clothes or costumes were ever supposed to be given away but used over and over until the fabric dissolved like sugar. At a certain point, however, the clothes were passed to the girls, either because the designers could do nothing more with them, or as a favor or trade for extra or special work.

  So after five years of studio work, Alice had accumulated quite an array of repaired clothes, the most glorious being a dress Claudette Colbert had worn, which was nearly impossible to put on or off. It was a delicate black velvet with netting around the neck, and it made Alice’s small chest look positively architectural, like cream alabaster jutting up from her wasp waist.

  • • •

  Our godparents hosted the wedding party after the ceremony at City Hall. The other junior investigators from the D.A.’s office and my fellow teachers from Westridge School for Girls filled the small house.

  No one came from Alice’s family. Her only guests were a few coworkers from the studio, who sat on a corner couch, smoking and straightening their stockings.

  At the time, she said that she had no family to invite, that she was orphaned and alone. She was a native Southern Californian, if there was such a thing. She was born in Santa Monica Hospital to a domestic with Hollywood aspirations and a recently discharged chauffeur. That was all we really knew.

  At the party, my eyes could barely leave her, this woman who had entered our life and planted herself so firmly at its sharp center.

  She buzzed around the party, hovering with large, rain pail eyes, a body compact, pulled taut over every angle, raw-boned, and a few years or a few ounces away from gaunt, ghostly. Her appeal was a kind of thrilling nervous energy, a railrack laugh that split her face in gleaming abandon.

  There was a glamour to her, in her unconventional beauty, in her faintly red-rimmed eyes and the bristly, inky lashes sparking out of them, blinking incessantly, anxiously. Her hair was always perfectly coiffed, always shining and engineered, her lips artfully painted magenta. When she’d turn that black-haired head of hers, a collarbone would pop out disturbingly. She had no curves. She was barely a woman at all, and yet she seemed hopelessly feminine, from her airy walk, her muzzy, bobbing gesticulations, her pointy-toed shoes, and the spangly costume jewelry dangling from her delicate wrists.

  Even though Bill and Alice repeatedly urged me to live with them, I moved into a small apartment while they honeymooned.

  “I can’t imagine you two apart. What is Bill without Lora? Lora without Bill?” Alice would say, dark eyes pounding.

  “I’ll be closer to school. It’ll be easier,” I assured them, packing up the chocolate-colored figured rug, white and rose chairs, and rough cream drapes of our living room, the heavy dining room table we’d had since children, the blond bedroom set my grandparents had given me upon my graduating teachers’ college.

  I moved to a one-bedroom on Pasadena’s west side, as Bill and Alice prepared to move from our duplex to a pretty new ranch house in
tonier South Pasadena. They bought it with Bill’s savings, borrowing against his pension.

  It was strange at first. Bill and I had lived together for so long, not just as children but always. As I polished the dining room set, wedged uncomfortably in the corner of the living room of my new apartment, I remembered a thousand evenings spent at the round, knotty table, long nights when I was studying for my certification and Bill was at the police academy. He always wanted to work for the district attorney. He wasn’t joining the force because it was in the family (it wasn’t), like so many of the others, and he wasn’t doing it because he wanted to see action, to be a tough guy. He did it out of a larger purpose that he would never say outright but that I could feel in everything he said, every look he gave as we drove through the city, as we saw the things one can see in a city, driving through, watching, watching everything.

  Now, rubbing a soft cloth over each knot in the table, I could nearly picture us seated there, books spread out, coffeepot warm. He would rub his eyes, run a finger under his collar, sometimes pass me a grin like “Lora, look at us, look how devoted we are, look how alike we are, we’re the same, really.”

  And we were. Taking notes, furrowing our brows, our necks curled, craned, sore, and aching, and yet exhilarated, our whole lives beginning and everything waiting for us.

  Before my brother met Alice, there were always women telling me, “I can’t believe your brother’s not married” or “How is it no woman has snatched him up yet?” I never really knew how to answer.

  He could have married anyone.

  And he had girlfriends, but it never really led anywhere. When I first started teaching, he dated Margie Reichert, the sister of his partner. Tiny with fluffy hair and empty eyes, Margie had the vaguely tubercular look of a child-woman. She often ran into minor troubles generally instigated by her shyness, her difficulty in speaking up before it was too late. When Bill discovered Margie was paying for utilities on her small apartment, in violation of her lease, he spoke with the landlord and ensured Margie receive a refund for the months of bills she’d paid. When Margie’s boss at Rush’s Department Store fired her for stealing, Bill quickly learned the other salesgirls were using Margie to conceal their own shortchanging. Soon enough, Margie had her job back.

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