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Casebook a novel, p.1
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       Casebook: A novel, p.1

           Mona Simpson
Casebook: A novel


  Anywhere But Here

  The Lost Father

  A Regular Guy

  Off Keck Road

  My Hollywood



  Copyright © 2014 by Mona Simpson

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Simpson, Mona.

  Casebook : a novel / Mona Simpson.

  pages cm

  “This is a Borzoi book”

  ISBN 978-0-385-35141-6 (hardcover) ISBN 978-0-385-35142-3 (eBook)

  1. Family secrets—Fiction. 2. Eavesdropping—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3569.I5117C37 2014

  813’.54—dc23 2014006222

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is coincidental.

  With gratitude to Alexander Allaire for the drawings used in Casebook.

  Jacket photographs by Maria Toutoudaki/

  Stockbyte/Getty Images

  Jacket design by Abby Weintraub


  For Gabriel



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page




  Note to Customer

  1 • Under the Bed

  2 • A Walkie-Talkie

  3 • Faking Sleep

  4 • Eavesdropping

  5 • Guessing Who Left

  6 • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

  7 • A Kind of Suspense

  8 • We Try Harder

  9 • How We Felt

  10 • Behind a Door

  11 • Another Failed Christmas

  12 • In a Drawer

  13 • From the Roof

  14 • The Year of the Mutants

  15 • The Room Not Chosen

  16 • Were You Ever Going to Tell Me?

  17 • The Receiver on My Bed

  18 • Speakerphone

  19 • Silence

  20 • Behind the Futon-Sofa

  21 • A Trip to the Other Economy

  22 • A Basement Below a Doctor’s Office

  23 • Business

  24 • Einstein Was a Great Romantic

  25 • Angeldog

  26 • A Letter Under My Father’s Door

  27 • Are You Still in the Same House?

  28 • A Double Agent

  29 • By the Heating Vent

  30 • The Game in the Front Seat

  31 • A Graph-Paper Contract

  32 • The Sex Diary

  33 • A Fight About Colors

  34 • Our House Had Problems

  35 • A Vent Above the Doctor’s Office

  36 • On the Other Side of the Trees

  37 • My Sisters’ Question

  38 • A Move Without Reason

  39 • Will You Melt?

  40 • The Double

  41 • Overhearing My Own Business

  42 • A Full House and a Borrowed Dog

  43 • The Story of Eli

  44 • Friends of Dorothy

  45 • The Hollywood Spy Shop

  46 • The Yellow Pages Detectives

  47 • Scraps of Paper in the Dresser Drawer

  48 • An Open Laptop

  49 • Not Looking

  50 • Wiretapping

  51 • With the Naked Ear

  52 • A Reconnaissance Mission

  53 • Surveillance

  54 • Is Truth Necessary?

  55 • Deployment

  56 • Then Came the Day

  57 • A Place Beneath the Floor

  58 • Tampering with the U.S. Mail

  59 • Retroactively Chumped

  60 • Flushing Drugs

  61 • A Revenge Plot

  62 • My Sin

  63 • Our Idea of Art

  64 • A Message in a Bubble

  65 • Busted

  66 • Flunking

  67 • Life Goes On, Especially for Other People

  68 • The Unnecessary Lies

  69 • The Sex Journal

  70 • The Last Dog

  71 • The Inevitable Day

  72 • I Touch a Breast

  73 • A Noise in the Night

  74 • A Hummingbird in the Yard

  75 • The Woman Who’d Been Washed and Dried Many Times

  76 • The Right End


  A Note About the Author

  Everything that deceives can be said to enchant.


  Do we not dream of being known, known by our backs, legs, buttocks, shoulders, elbows, hair? Not psychologically recognized, not socially acclaimed, not praised, just nakedly known. Known as a child is by its mother.

  —JOHN BERGER, The Shape of a Pocket

  Yours, always, always.



  The book you now hold in your hands is our first venture into the old long-form technology that our pay-to-print machine in the back room has made possible. The manuscript for this experiment was delivered to me by hand from an employee I first met when he wore board shorts and flip-flops and came into the store to read for free during the long afternoons of summer vacation. He and his pal, you’ve probably by now guessed, are the creators of Two Sleuths, the first breakout seller of Emerald City, our then-fledgling publishing concern. With an advance run of three hundred, the comic book was reprinted ninety-one times and is still shipping at a rate of a hundred copies a month. It has attained the status of a classic. Needless to say, I asked, no, begged, for a sequel. I envisioned a whole series of these called Spyboys. Letters still come for the authors, care of Emerald City Press, and from those even more industrious, to the store, Neverland Comics, asking, What became of the Pet Delivery Boys? Did they grow up? Go to college? Did they find happiness as veterinarians? When the shaggier, pudgy one delivered this thick sheaf of papers, he explained that it was more like a prequel, made by the two of them again, but in a different kind of collaboration. It was written by one, then amended by the other, who brought it here with his Track Changes still fresh. He said he added footnotes and changed the heroine’s name. Given pay-to-print technology, it’s unlikely that this will be their last pass. The original author intends to read it again someday, if he can bear the experience. So it may go back and forth between the two—who don’t live in the same city anymore—writing over each other, changing names to allude to private jokes, adding scenes and taking them out, until they get their story straight or until they grow up, whichever comes last, or never.

  In short, you may not be reading the final version. You’re holding what we have as of today, May 1, 2014.


  Neverland Comics

  Santa Monica, California

  1 • Under the Bed

  I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.

  The first time it happened, I was nine. I’d snaked underneath my parents’ bed when the room was empty to rig up a walkie-talkie. Then they strolled in and flopped down. So I was stuck. Under their bed. Until they got up.

  I’d wanted to eavesdrop on her, not them. She decided m
y life. Just then, the moms were debating weeknight television. I needed, I believed I absolutely needed to understand Survivor. You had to, to talk to people at school. The moms yakked about it for hours in serious voices. The only thing I liked that my mother approved of that year was chess. And every other kid, every single other kid in fourth grade, owned a Game Boy. I thought maybe Charlie’s mom could talk sense into her. She listened to Charlie’s mom.

  On top of the bed, my dad was saying that he didn’t think of her that way anymore either. What way? And why either? I could hardly breathe. The box spring made a gauzy opening to gray dust towers, in globular, fantastic formations. The sound of dribbling somewhere came in through open windows. My dad stood and locked the door from inside, shoving a chair up under the knob. Before, when he did that, I’d always been on the other side. Where I belonged. And it hurt not to move.

  “Down,” my mother said. “Left.” Which meant he was rubbing her back.

  All my life, I’d been aware of him wanting something from her. And of her going sideways in his spotlight, a deer at the sight of a human. The three of us, the originals, were together locked in a room.

  My mom was nice enough looking, for a smart woman. “Pretty for a mathematician,” I’d heard her once say about herself, with an air of apology. Small, with glasses, she was the kind of person you didn’t notice. I’d seen pictures, though, of her holding me as a baby. Then, her hair fell over her cheek and she’d been pretty. My dad was always handsome. Simon’s mom, a jealous type, said that my mother had the best husband, the best job, the best everything. I thought she had the best everything, too. We did. But Simon’s mom never said my mother had the best son.

  The bed went quiet and it seemed then that both my parents were falling asleep. My dad napped weekends.

  Nooo, I begged telepathically, my left leg pinned and needled.

  Plus I really had to pee.

  But my mother, never one to let something go when she could pick it apart, asked if he was attracted to other people. He said he hadn’t ever been, but lately, for the first time, he felt aware of opportunities. He used that word.

  “Like who?”

  I bit the inside of my cheek. I knew my dad: he was about to blab and I couldn’t stop him. And sure enough, idiotically, he named a name. By second grade everyone I knew had understood never to name a name.

  “Holland Emerson,” he said. What kind of name was that? Was she Dutch?

  “Oh,” the Mims said. “You’ve always kind of liked her.”

  “I guess so,” he said, as if he hadn’t thought of it until she told him.

  Then the mattress dipped, like a whale, to squash me, and I scooched over to the other side as the undulation rolled.

  “I didn’t do anything, Reen!”

  She got up. Then I heard the chair fall and him following her out of the room.

  “I’m not going to do anything! You know me!”

  But he’d started it. He’d said opportunities. He’d named a name. I bellied out, skidded to the bathroom, missing the toilet by a blurt. A framed picture of them taken after he’d proposed hung on the wall; her holding the four-inch diamond ring from the party-supply shop. On the silvery photograph, he’d written I promise to always make you unhappy.

  I’d grown up with his jokes.

  By the time I sluffed to the kitchen he sat eating a bowl of Special K. He lifted the box. “Want some?”

  “Don’t fill up.” She stood next to the wall phone. “We’re having the Audreys for dinner.”

  “Tonight?” he said. “Can we cancel? I think I’m coming down with something.”

  “We canceled them twice already.”

  The doorbell rang. It was the dork guy who came to run whenever she called him. He worked for the National Science Foundation and liked to run and talk about fractals.

  Later, the Audreys arrived, all four of them standing clean, like they’d just taken showers. It was strange to see Hector’s hair ridged by a comb. His sister had a snub nose and freckles, but at least there was only one of her.

  She looked at my two sisters for about a second, and then they all ran to the Boops’ room and slammed the door. When they had a friend over, the first thing the Boops did was go to their closet, strip, and exchange clothes. Jules Audrey was a grade older, so the Boops would be vying for her attention. They were all in there now, trying on every single thing the Boops owned in front of the mirror. I’d told my mom a jillion times she should take that mirror down.

  “You’re wearing out the glass,” I called as Hector and I skidded past their door. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the stupidest of you all?”

  “Hard call,” Hector mumbled, hands in his shorts pockets.

  We ate quickly and got excused. Later, we asked for a ride to Blockbuster.

  “We’re just eating dessert,” my mom said.

  They had ice cream with espresso poured over. She said we could have some without the coffee. She gave Hector the larger portion. Hector was skinny, as sidekicks to fat kids usually are. He wore flip-flops and shorts, even in winter, and his legs looked like bug feelers.* She gave him two scoops and me one made to look like two. My mom had liked Hector ever since the time she’d driven us to the Wildlife Waystation when we were seven and he’d pronounced Slobodan Miloševi?; correctly. That same ride, he’d said from the backseat, “My aunt could never drive these turns. My aunt is an alcoholic.”

  The adults sat at the table with coffee cups and the strange-smelling bottles of liquor, the three girls screeched in my sisters’ room, and from the shipwreck of dishes on every counter in the kitchen, Hector and I stood forking pasta straight from the big bowl.

  My mom had strategized, inviting the Audreys. She wanted Hector and me to be friends. She thought I didn’t talk enough to boys at school. Since we’d played chess tournaments at the LA Chess Club above the Men’s Wearhouse in first grade, the Mims had set her sights on Hector. By fourth grade, I liked him, too. That night, I told him about the walkie-talkie under the bed, with rubber bands and electrical tape holding the button down. I wanted to show him, but my dad stayed in their room all through dinner. The Mims had told the Audreys he wasn’t feeling well.

  “How was it?” my dad asked, holding the remote, when everybody finally left.

  “This is the hundred and twenty-sixth day this year we haven’t eaten dinner together,” my mother said. “And it’s only June.”

  * * *

  * Don’t think just because you’ve jumbled up our looks I don’t know when you’re really talking about me.—Hector

  2 • A Walkie-Talkie

  The walkie-talkie didn’t work. I could hear my mom but not the other person. I hadn’t thought of that. And in a lot of conversations, most of what she said was mm-hmm. I hadn’t thought of that either. With us, she said a lot. I had to be completely still so she wouldn’t hear noise through the device. Most of the time, I just heard her moving in her room, singing Joni Mitchell songs, off-key.

  Hector had seen an old phone in his garage. He wanted to try hooking it up as an extension. He liked the idea of spying. He couldn’t watch Survivor either, because they just had an old TV that was broken. His only hope was my house. I held the bottom of the ladder while he reached for the black rotary from behind rusted paint cans. The Audrey garage held treasure. We hauled the heavy phone in his backpack to our place and found a painted-over jack under my bed. I had to pick out crud from the opening, but then we plugged it in and heard a dial tone! We covered the mouthpiece with cotton balls and duct tape. Then Hector thought of Silly Putty. We tore the stuff off, filled the holes, and brushed over it all with my sisters’ nail polish. No matter what, my mother wouldn’t be able to hear us through that. Then, for hours, the phone didn’t ring.

  Finally, we heard talking from her room. The phone still hadn’t rung; she must’ve dialed. I slid in my socks down the hall, lifted the jangly box from under my bed.

  Maybe I don’t inspire love, we heard her say, th
rough static. I’ve never been beautiful.

  I didn’t want Hector hearing that. I wanted my mother to be beautiful.

  We’re as good-looking for women as they are for men. That was Sare, Charlie’s mom. I loved Sare. I’d have recognized her certainty through any static. “Maybe you and I just aren’t great marriage material.”

  That stumped me. I didn’t know what she meant. My parents were better than other people’s parents; I believed that in a way so deep I didn’t think of it as a belief. It seemed a fact. My dad made everyone laugh. My mom stood apart, quieter, with her arms crossed. That was how they fit. The Mims didn’t tell Sare that she’d asked if he felt attracted to anyone else and that he’d named a name. Did my parents not have good sex? The thought streaked through me. I supposed they’d had it twice, at least. (My sisters were twins.)

  I felt miserable, sitting cross-legged, the heavy black receiver leashed by its coil on top of the bed between Hector and me. Sare said that Dale relaxed her. His heart rate was very, very slow. Even though my dad worked long hours, he was beginning to be successful, Sare said. Doesn’t that thrill you a little? My mother thought a moment and then said no, not really. I knew that was true, and it scared me. Why didn’t it thrill her?

  “I think your mom’s pretty beautiful,” Hector said.

  On that August evening, in the year two thousand nothing, those two Los Angeles mothers talked for another hour. About what? Nothing we cared about.

  Where to get the best thermos? Target! Music: Josquin des Prez, Mahalia Jackson, and Lucinda Williams. My mom listened to gospel, but she didn’t believe in God. More hikes, they both agreed they were going to get us to take. Putting on pumps and walking to church every Sunday? Not until those nuns got unshackled from their fucking vows of poverty. Sare said fucking! She was way cooler than my parents.

  Sare was a very smart person who’d never tried anything too hard for her. She had that confidence and that boredom. Charlie had been my first friend. We knew each other through our mothers. The Mims was in awe of what Sare could make: for years, Charlie had a sandbox that took up their whole backyard, with boys crouching all over, running trucks and hoses. My mom wanted to learn from her the how-to of family life. My dad couldn’t understand. Sofia Kovalevsky wasn’t Martha Stewart, he kept saying. I heard that a dozen times before I learned that Kovalevsky was a dead mathematician, not someone they knew. But Sare had some wisdom about ease, an understanding of moving life, the warming and the holding. That never seemed to me unimportant. We were different from other families. My dad had chosen to be. The Mims just was. She couldn’t help it. She probably would rather have been more like everybody else.

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