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Authors: Kitty Burns Florey

Real Life

BOOK: Real Life
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Family Matters

Chez Cordelia

The Garden Path

Real Life

A Novel

Kitty Burns Florey

To Kate,

for invaluable assistance and a million cups of tea,

and with special thanks to

Bob Bechtold

Henry Berliner

Jane Cushman

Lily Forbush

Sara Kane

Karen Kleinerman

Carol Resnick

Richard Russo

Jane Wilson

and to Ken and Natalie

Part One


When it became obvious that Dorothea's nephew Hugo was going to be moving in with her, she rummaged through the boxes of junk on her closet shelf and under her bed and finally found what she was looking for: the newspaper clipping about Iris's death.
A subheading read

Dorrie hadn't thought about Iris in years. The clipping was beige and brittle; the tape where she'd joined the two parts was yellow and had lost its stickum. There was a hazy picture—high school yearbook, probably: black sweater and pearls, and the beautiful smile. That was
—Phineas's girl, dead at nineteen. And
was Hugo.

She had met Iris twice. The first time, Phineas had brought her over to Dorrie's apartment; Dorrie was just out of college, living in one room in New Haven. She answered the door in her bathrobe. It was Sunday night,
The New York Times
was spread all over the room, and Dorrie was drinking Harveys Bristol Cream.

She hadn't expected Phineas or the teen-age girlfriend she'd been hearing rumors of (her mother called Iris Phineas's chippie). She had half thought, without much hope, that the ring at the door meant the return of Mark, the man she had been in love with for a year, who had left for the West Coast a month before—had imagined finding him on the doorstep, arms outstretched, ready to admit that San Diego was hell, he couldn't live without her, she must marry him instantly.

And there was Phineas with his monkey grin, and beside him a hugely pregnant girl who looked about fifteen and was so absurdly, perfectly beautiful, like a turn-of-the-century china doll in a museum, that she was almost grotesque. Or so Dorrie thought when she opened the door.

She didn't want to offer them her expensive and stingily hoarded sherry, but Phineas picked up the bottle, whistled, and said, with the unamused snicker that preceded nearly everything he uttered, “Will you look at what these bimbos with the college degrees can afford to drink.” He took two glasses from the cupboard and poured. “Hot shit,” he said, as if it were a toast, and raised his glass to no one in particular.

They stayed half an hour and finished the bottle while Phineas told Dorrie about his job in a car wash. His boss was a jerk, the work was crappy, the pay was piss-poor, and Phineas wasn't going to waste much more of his time in that shit-hole, that was for sure: a prophetic statement, as it turned out. “I
thought it was time you met old Iris,” Phineas said as they left.

Iris hadn't said a word, just smiled and drank, with one hand resting impersonally on her vast stomach. “Good luck, Iris,” Dorrie said at the door, and Iris said, “Oh—thanks,” as if she'd just noticed Dorrie's existence. And then she added, politely, with a strained smile, “I'm so glad I finally met you, Dorrie,” in a small, squeaky voice that sounded seldom used. On an impulse, Dorrie gave her a quick hug: God, to be put in this predicament by Phinny—the poor girl … Her cheek was cool as clay, her stomach harder than a basketball. Her hair smelled of something Dorrie couldn't place right away; it came to her later: marijuana smoke.

Then, on Thanksgiving, Phineas was due for dinner at his parents' house with Iris and the baby. When Dorrie arrived (late on purpose), Phineas was storming around the living room saying, “Jesus Christ,” and “Goddamn shit.”

“You ought to sign up for a vocabulary-building course, Phinny,” Dorrie said, taking off her coat. She kissed her mother, then her father. They were standing together silently by the piano, she in an apron, he holding a teddy bear by one leg, both of them wearing the cowed looks that only Phineas could produce. Iris sat in the wing chair nursing the baby under a tea towel. Dorrie imagined her mother running to get the towel when Iris opened her blouse. Iris wore a flowered shirt, her blond hair was in braids around her head, her eyes were blue and her cheeks pink. If tears hadn't been running down her face she would have looked like a Mary Cassatt madonna.

“Nobody asked for your goddamn opinion, either,” Phineas said to Dorrie, then whirled around and said, “Fuck it, goddamn shit, I don't have to take any of this,” and headed for the door. Iris buttoned up her shirt—they all had a glimpse of pearly breast, rose-red nipple—and followed him, weeping. Phineas stormed out without another word, but Iris paused in front of Dorrie and held the baby up, a fat pink object with a milky chin who resembled neither her nor Phineas. “Hugo,” Iris said, and smiled through the tears. Hugo took one look at his aunt and howled.

“Don't forget Pooh.” Dorrie's father offered the bear.

“Oh, Mr. Gilbert,” said Iris, her eyes filling again.

“Dad,” he said, and his wife chimed in with “And Mom.”

“I'm so sorry about this,” Iris wailed, and left. Phineas was gunning the motor, Hugo was screaming, and Dorrie's mother, in the doorway, began to sniffle.

“What's he mad at?” Dorrie asked. The car pulled away, and the lull left behind was like the silence after a bombing raid.

“He's on something,” her father said. “Again.”

“I think they both are,” Mrs. Gilbert said through her handkerchief. “Oh, that baby, that poor little thing.”

“Is Phineas still planning to marry her?”

“That's what your mother wanted to know.”

“That's what started him off, Dorrie,” her mother said, weeping. “I don't know where he gets that language. Oh, I don't know, I don't know what to do.”

They ate the cold Thanksgiving dinner and tried to cheer up: a familiar scene. Holidays had always keyed Phineas up to his worst pitch, arousing crazily unreal expectations in his parents of happy families at peace around the groaning board. Holidays had never been cause for celebration.

Nor did they improve. By Christmas, Phineas was in jail for selling heroin, and by the Christmas after that Iris was dead.

And Hugo, the pink, bawling baby: Hugo was sent first to Iris's twin sister, Rose, who lived in a country slum with her children—two at that time, but there were four by the time Phineas was dead. When Hugo was eight, Dorrie's parents adopted him. First his grandmother died, then four years later his grandfather. That was when Dorrie inherited Hugo, along with her father's house and his collection of books on Victorian life and literature.

She put the house on the market right away. She felt no connection with it. It was the house of her father's old age, of Hugo's childhood. The repository of her own growing up had already been sold, when her mother died and her father retired and, with Hugo, moved away from the shore and his memories—inland, near Hartford. The new house was in a desirable school district and wasn't hard to sell. Its contents (minus the books), from the rusty bread box and the ancient Hoover to the rolltop desk and her mother's piano, were sold at auction. Then the library—or so Dorrie still called it, although the cartons containing her father's books were still in the attic of the new house, unpacked. She sorted through them for three days, and kept for herself a calf-bound set of George Eliot, Trollope in the Everyman edition, a few biographies and art books, and (surprise!) a collection of photographs of naked women, c. 1880. She unloaded the rest on a smirking rare-book dealer who handed her a check for three hundred dollars as if he'd put something over on her, so that she racked her memory for days trying to recall what in her father's collection of brittle-paged volumes of literary criticism and history and obscure Victorian novels could have been worth anything. The book dealer's smirk seemed the culmination of something—a lifetime of being cheated?—and it bothered her unreasonably.

She was left with the prospect of Hugo. She took him in because she was all he had. He had no parents, and with his grandfather's death no grandparents—no relatives at all, that anyone knew of. Rose had disappeared—though even Dorrie, who God knows didn't want Hugo herself, couldn't have sent him back to Rose. Dorrie had gone with her parents to retrieve Hugo and had vivid memories of Rose's tumbledown trailer, the stink and the filth, the empty beer bottles, and Rose's vast backside swaying like the padded panniers on an Elizabethan gown. And it had been her father's wish that she be responsible for the boy, if necessary. She had promised—a vow that meant nothing to her. Why should it? Her father had been only sixty-seven on his last birthday, and spry. He liked to boast that he'd never been sick in his life except for Asian flu in 1956. His wife would have knocked on wood and said, “Don't tempt fate,” and Martin Gilbert would have replied, “Nonsense,” but sure enough fate intervened with a swift, fatal heart attack one spring evening and dropped Hugo into his aunt's life.

He boarded with his friend David Wylie until the school year ended in June, and then David's family delivered him to Dorrie on their way to the Cape. Dorrie didn't like to ask why Hugo couldn't go with them; she rehearsed a dozen ways of offering them money to keep Hugo for the summer and rejected all of them as cold and peculiar sounding. In the end, she could think of no alternative to the delighted smiles, the carefree small talk, the happy wave to the Wylies' departing car. And there was Hugo: short, verging on overweight, looking curiously like old photographs of her father, and grinning at her expectantly.

He arrived nearly bare of possessions. He didn't own a book, didn't have anything resembling a hobby, not even sports equipment. He brought only himself, plus a spare pair of jeans, a suit that had belonged to Dorrie's father and was too long in the leg (Hugo had worn it to the funeral, with sneakers), and a duffel bag full of dirty clothes he expected Dorrie to wash, an assumption that affronted her. She was his legal guardian, his only relative, but she hardly knew the boy, and his presence in her house was disorienting, as if it were a stranger's house she had wandered into. Life seemed impossibly skewed and out of focus with this fat little fourteen-year-old sitting in her favorite chair.

“Why should I wash your dirty clothes for you?” she asked, and the exasperated question emerged so automatically, as if it had been waiting there for its chance to pounce, that she knew exasperation would be one of the motifs of the boy's residence with her. Her heart sank. “Who do you think I am?”

“My surrogate mother,” Hugo replied, completely serious.

“The hell I am,” she said, and marched him down to the cellar, where the washing machine was.

Dorrie was a potter by trade. At thirty-eight, she made her living by it, and had done so for five years. Not a sumptuous living, but one that supplied her with what she needed. She didn't need much. Just after her brother's death—that had been nearly six years ago—she had bought her house, an old and undistinguished little farmhouse with a pond and an acre of land on a back road in East Latimer, a town tucked next to Rhode Island in the northeast right angle of Connecticut: depressed country, cheap and down at the heels and isolated. Her friend Rachel Nye suggested Dorrie call the house Erewhon, and addressed her letters that way. Dorrie's last lover, Teddy, after a long drive from Hartford, said (coming up the walk grinning, with a bottle of wine in each hand), “Why didn't you tell me this place was way the hell out in Bumfuck, Egypt?”

She liked its isolation, and took pride in the complicated directions to the place. “What's it near?” people would call up and ask her desperately, pondering the tangle of back roads they were expected to follow. “It's not near anything,” Dorrie would say into the phone, laughing, and then, seriously, pretending to be helpful, “Actually it's about halfway between Lemuel Forks and the Marsden River—well, creek really, Marsden Creek—and it's on Little Falls Pond. You can't miss it,” and her giggle would spill over.

People did find it, of course. They came to her shop to buy what she made, and they came for lessons in her studio, though she did less teaching now that her things brought more money. And she ventured forth herself, to Providence and Boston, where her pots were sold on consignment in shops, and to the three or four best craft shows in the area. But she preferred, increasingly, to be alone in her little house. She thought of her solitariness as something that had been forced on her at an early age—like piano lessons, or creamed codfish—that she had come to appreciate.

BOOK: Real Life
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