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Authors: Julie Hecht

The Unprofessionals

BOOK: The Unprofessionals
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2008 by Julie Hecht

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department,
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

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IMON
& S
CHUSTER
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hecht, Julie.
   The unprofessionals: a novel / Julie Hecht.
      p. cm.
    1. Eccentrics and eccentricities—Fiction.   2. Women photographers—Fiction.   3. Middle-aged women—Fiction.   4. Women drug addicts—Fiction.   5. Heroin abuse—Fiction.   6. Friendship—Fiction.   7. Young men—Fiction.   8. Telephone—Fiction.   9. Psychological fiction.   I. Title.
PS3558.E29U57   2008
813'.54—dc22          200823657

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-7890-1
ISBN-10: 1-4165-7890-0

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For Nick

THE UNPROFESSIONALS
AN EVENING IN WINTER

I
T WAS
the second month of living without a soul and I was getting used to the feeling. The obliteration of the self had begun two years before—probably it had begun many years before—but now I was at the brink of being seriously over forty-nine and it was coming to fruition.

I saw every mistake I'd made, also the flaws in my character as well as my bone structure, and the combination of the two was deadly, forcing me to drag around the empty shell of a human form like the lost shadows of Peter Pan and Wendy, or Casper the ghost. I dragged this around with my new lack of self and missing soul each day.

Unlike a number of movie stars, I lacked the will to add false cheekbones. There is one early stage of the face falling in that gives the face owner the appearance of having bone structure, but I had acknowledged a while before this newest episode of emptiness and nothingness that the stage of slight structure had already passed, leaving the decline to a face that looked like a soft, still-unformed pancake, nothing more.

Sometimes, passing in front of a mirror, before I'd learned to avoid the dastardly objects, I'd seen the beginning of the pancake effect, and a few times this made me laugh out loud. Not the mad laugh of a woman in an asylum, as in the movie
Spellbound,
but a laugh of disbelief, of incredulousness that this could be happening to me. What had I done to deserve it?

I'd never smoked or drunk alcoholic beverages. I'd taken no drugs. I'd avoided the sun after I found out about it at age thirty—too late. I tried to practice yoga and walked many miles every day. I'd been a vegetarian since birth, and then a vegan as soon as possible after that.

It had to have been the bad thoughts. It must have been my low opinion of my mother's middle-aged face, my not having had the smallest inkling that this same facial decline might lie in store for me—it must have been that for which I was being punished. Also the damage done by the years of forced milk drinking during childhood. This was only the outside—I'd read that damage to the innards begins after infancy. I pictured plaque deposits starting in first grade, when my mother was among those who paid milk money to the teacher so the little cartons of the thick liquid would be delivered to the classroom, where the unsuspecting children would have to drink it.

 

FOR WEEKS,
or years, I'd wished that I had someone to talk to. My closest friend, a twenty-one-year-old boy, was away in rehab for heroin addiction.

My other friends were a group of narcissists or anxiety-depressives. Not that they were in any kind of organized group of people who knew who the others were. The narcissists were too narcissistic to care about anyone else and the anxious ones were too anxious to think about anyone but themselves. I was married to a man who liked to say, “You knew when you married me that I didn't talk.”

 

I'D HAD
one good day—or was it just a good few minutes—plus a grand finale that followed: the drive home from the discount drugstore with a bag of Xanax, a bag of chocolate, and, on the brighter side, a bag of Dr. Scholl's gel-and-foam innersoles. At the time I still had the high hopes of walking farther and farther each day.

It was exactly the right time of night to be at the discount drugstore—eight-thirty—too late for children to be running around crying or demanding, in Spanish, candy and plastic toy-like objects, but not close enough to the nine
P.M.
closing for me to be thrown out before I could gather up all the medium-green Reach toothbrushes with firm bristles.

I had developed one bond with Patrick Buchanan, a man whose every sentence used to infuriate me: I wanted to hear English spoken by cashiers and customers. At least I wanted the cashiers to stop speaking Spanish to each other and help the customers at the counter.

“Good evening, may I help you?” I never heard that. I had heard David Letterman say that when he was a grocery-bagger youth at a supermarket, he used to say “Hello” and “Thank you.” He complained during his shows that the clerks and baggers no longer spoke to or even made eye contact with customers. He didn't mention the Spanish. The more Spanish I heard, the more enraged I became. I knew this was another new, bad thing about myself.

I had all the time I needed to look through the Dr. Scholl's innersoles and as I was studying a new light-pink rubbery kind with a miniature waffle pattern I heard a woman's voice say, “Don't get those. They're terrible.”

Since I had lived without a mother's advice for many years, I was startled to hear anyone say anything like this to me. I couldn't remember the last thing my mother had told me to get or not get.

“Get Electrasol,” she had told me about a dish-washing powder after I was married. “It's far superior,” she added with a conviction that was a waste of her intelligence. I'd taken the advice and had bought Electrasol ever after, except for an experiment in switching to Ecover, the ecologically preferred brand. When Ecover didn't remove tea stains from cups, I had to go back to the chlorinated Electrasol. I felt bad every time I reached for the box.

Some weeks earlier, I'd been dismayed to find that the Electrasol corporation had fiddled with the original formula and created a blue “Dual Action” product to replace the single-action white powder. The odor of the blue powder almost knocked me out when I opened the little metal spout on the box. I remember gasping for breath as I staggered out of the cleanser aisle.

When I looked up at the woman who was giving me the innersole advice at the drugstore, I was alarmed. I had seen her on other nights in the half hour before closing time at this drugstore, as well as at the supermarket late at night. Often she and I were the only two customers in either store.

She was around fifty, or even older. She had long black hair, too long for her age, too long even for age forty, long black hair halfway down her back, or maybe hanging a few inches lower than the shoulders of her black leather jacket. Yes, black. Black, the darkest and deadliest of the colors. She was dressed head to toe in this color, yet she thought she should speak to me.

She wore a black T-shirt underneath the black jacket and tight black pants, too tight for her ten pounds of overweight, and to top all this off she wore black shoes—high-heeled shoes—black pumps, they may still be called. I had no way of knowing, since I was no longer reading fashion magazines, even in doctors' waiting rooms. Walking and climbing magazines were my choices.

On her face she wore a load of makeup—black eye makeup for eyebrows and eyeliner, tan powder with liquid face makeup underneath, and then—a final brutal shock to my delicate system—she was wearing bright red lipstick.

I was still weak from the night before, when I'd almost passed out in the cleanser section at the supermarket after stepping into the aisle without even opening the spout on a box of dish-washing powder. The collected chemical fumes from all the detergent boxes were somehow seeping out into the air and I had to flee without even trying to hold my breath long enough to dash up the aisle to get some sponges.

 

I LOOKED
up at the face, the whole personage of the woman customer who had taken it upon herself to advise me about the innersoles, and this is what she said: “You can feel the little square sections on the soles of your feet.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Get these,” she said, pointing to the plain white foam style.

“They wear out too fast,” I said, beginning to feel the shock of being in a conversation with her.

“But they're better,” she said. “Get more and replace them.”

Apparently she hadn't seen the environmental segment of the program,
Pinnacle,
I had just watched on TV—it was about getting less. A carpet-company executive had become environmentally responsible after reading a book on the subject—it was “a knife in his heart,” or some such dramatic phrase. “I was guilty,” he said.

Then he figured out a way to make his carpets last ten years, and during the ten years his company would service and repair the carpets, and when they were beyond repair he'd take them away and recycle them. A gigantic machine was shown grinding up old carpets and spewing out bits of gray and black rubbery stuff into another machine or bin to make more carpets.

The case of Dr. Scholl's in regard to the topic of recycling was as yet unknown to CNN's
Pinnacle
viewers. I pictured the mounds of worn-out and discarded foam shoe pads in a landfill in New Jersey filled with all kinds of garbage, or at the town dump in Nantucket, where a special dome had to be built to keep the ever-expanding waste and accompanying fumes away from the homes of the many new million-and billionaires and their moors-encroaching real estate development. Since almost all of Nantucket was for sale, the land near the dump had some of the best views of the once-beautiful island.

“Oh, okay,” I said to the woman in all black. “That's a good idea.”

Why hadn't I thought of it myself? I was trying to be ecologically correct. As she finally left—reluctantly, and with a steady and beady-eyed glance at my hand to make sure I wasn't keeping the pink soles—I began to wonder what it was about my appearance that made such a person think she might speak to me and give advice.

I was wearing a big old khaki cotton jacket with a blue-and-green-plaid lining and an older green corduroy skirt with dark green cotton leggings and two-tone green New Balance hiking sneakers. Underneath the coat I had on a worn-out white cotton shirt and an unraveling beige cashmere V-neck cardigan I'd gotten from Scotland before all the good plain things disappeared from stores.

My husband had stopped criticizing or even mentioning that I wore this skirt, shirt, and sweater, or others just like these, every day. I lived in fear that he might mention the subject, but I guessed he'd given up on that after he'd realized that my mental condition couldn't take the burden of any clothes buying.

My hair, I was horrified to notice as I passed the sunglasses-display drugstore mirror, was almost platinum blond, with pieces sticking out from having more and more highlights added in an attempt to lighten and cheer up the area around the pancake face. My skin was pale and white, and the tiny bit of makeup I had on it served only to even out the whiteness instead of enlivening it. The cheek-color makeup had faded away and the no-flake mascara had flaked off during a long hike to the ocean from the snow-covered conservation land, which was rated one of the five most beautiful conservation areas in America.

The summer look was worse, I remembered, when I recalled the initial horror with which I'd viewed my image in a mirror near the product section of a haircutting parlor in Nantucket the summer before. At first I didn't realize the person was myself, or my former self, or the physical form in which the former self had once resided. My beige linen skirt was wrinkled and worn thin from Clorox-washing, my white linen shirt ill-fitting and smashed, and my hair already too light, strawlike, and unkempt. When I saw this image, I left the parlor immediately.

The owner had looked at my hair the week before and said as a reprimand, “Condition is part of color.” I reminded him that his partner had done the color.

“But Jim did the highlights,” I said. “Tell him.”

He looked at me over the top of his yellow-framed reading glasses. No apology was made. That's the world now, or a microcosm of it. One person ruins your hair, the partner publicly criticizes it and has no embarrassment upon hearing the truth. “Jim's the culprit,” I wanted to add, but feared the matter would get out of hand.

When I first went to Nantucket, in the 1960s, there were no haircutting parlors of this kind—no waxing, massaging, or seaweed facials. The seaweed was in the sea. At the grocery store there wasn't even any Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, now out-done by hundreds of other mustards. People had to bring their own De Cecco pasta—that, too, now passé. Back then, Ronzoni and Buitoni were the only brands in the two food stores.

At that time everyone else had wrecked hair and rumpled clothing. In the present era I thought I must have been an eye-sore amidst the crowds whose place of spiritual origin was
W
magazine. During this time I wandered without a soul, not knowing or understanding what I had lost.

The feeble attempt at organizing the shell of the self showed in the mirror that day—I could see that even in the geographical place where I'd once fit into the landscape, my inner self was gone, and this fragment floated in nothingness.

Didn't I have anything better to do than ask the price of a Muguet des Bois aromatherapy candle every week to make sure that sixty dollars was what I'd heard? Because my senses were acute, as my friend the recovering heroin addict had pointed out when he said, “You have to develop a protective barrier,” and I knew the aroma of the lily of the valley would help me more than a drug. There had to be a way to get some of that fragrance. The dusting powder was what I really wanted and had been searching for since age fifteen, when an inferior, cheap American brand was all that I could find.

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