Authors: Edna Robinson
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No matter what the clocks and calendars sayâ¦
The years between forty and fifty seem to take one.
From thirty to forty takes two; twenty to thirty, three.
From nine to nineteen takes twenty.
The visions of my mother perched on a black iron chair with a quilted back, in the upstairs “study” of our custom-designed Ed Barnes house, are burned into my childhood memory. The flat-roofed, square-box, unheatable construction, with huge picture windows, no curtains, and a kitchen the size of a closet bore no resemblance to the traditional homes on our dead-end street.
It was my mother's dream house, commissioned after she discovered photographs of Edward Larrabee Barnes's designs in the Museum of Modern Art. Feeling as if she'd found her soul mate, she called him up. Charmed by her guileless admiration, this world-famous architect not only agreed to design our house, but he and my mother collaborated to such an extent that, in my mother's telling of it decades later, they fell in love. But she was married, as was he, and it was probably a fantasy of perfect love anyway. So, she remained a “good girl.”
I can see her now, seemingly in a trance in front of her big, wooden desk, an oversized green and black stoneware cup of black coffee going cold on the side of it, as she alternately pauses and erupts in furious typing. It was the late fifties, and now that I am old enough to be her mother at the time, now that I too am a writer, as well as a book editor, I look back on her strangeness, passion, absence, and burningâalbeit frustratedâambition with painful understanding.
Circa 1957 she wrote a short story, “The Trouble with the Truth,”
that became the first chapter of this novel. When it was published in the 1959 edition of the
New World Writing
book series, selected as one of the “most exciting and original” stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, and John Wain, it seemed as if her fantasy of becoming a successful novelist was at hand. Here is her bio from that publication:
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Edna Robinson was graduated from Northwestern University in 1943. For a few years, after college, she wrote advertising copy, as well as a variety of radio and television shows; she has only recently turned to fiction. She lives in Briarcliff Manor, New York, with her husband and three small children. This is her second published short story.
She soon found an agent, completed the novel that you are about to read, and in a writer's worst nightmare of bad timing, it was optioned by Harper & Row just before
To Kill a Mockingbird
blew the literary world apartâwhereupon her editor dropped the option because there just wasn't room for another period book about a single father with two peculiar children.
Life changed, another baby was born, a marriage exploded, and making a living became my mother's priority. By the seventies, she was sober and stable. By the early eighties, I was living the life I suspect she'd secretly longed for (but would not have liked if she'd had it)âwriting without the constraint of dependentsâand when I found an agent for my own first novel, I insisted she submit her book to him. She handwrote revisions on the yellowing, heavy bond paper with elite type from her manual Olivetti, retyped on her pica-fonted Selectric, photocopied, and when my agent rejected the manuscript,
once again returned it to its crushed brown box. In 1987, my mother and I became partners to write movies after we received a Writers Guild East Foundation Fellowship that I insisted we apply for as a team. Here is the bio she wrote to try to sell our scripts:
Edna Robinson lived all over the U.S. and attended twenty- seven schools. Early on, she wrote for radio soaps and small-town newspapers' “Society News.” Later, in addition to co- heading a company that imported Argentinian Miniature Horses, she wrote comedy material for television, several of the best-known advertising lines [“Navigators of the world since it was flat”; “A kid'll eat the middle of an Oreo firstâ¦”; “Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Cookies”] while on the staff at large and small ad agencies, feature articles for horse magazines and
, children's books for Hallmark, and short stories for adults.
Life changed, jobs changed, sickness came, and on March 26, 1990, my mother succumbed to leukemia and emphysema. She never got to publish this novel, or the one she was working on when she died. She left all her manuscripts to me, and, sadly, the second novel was mostly in her head. But this one survives.
Things are very different from the days when Edna Robinson sat on her black iron chair at her big wooden desk in an unheatable house near the banks of the Hudson River. I now make my living as an editor and, embracing the ways of twenty-first-century book production, I've decided to present my mother's 1957 novelâretyped and editedâto an unknown world of digital readers.
“A fantasy,” she called it. “Oh, Betsy, it's so dated,” she'd say when I asked her about it in the late eighties. “It was what I imagined a good father to be.”
Fantasy, yes. My mother never experienced the kind of love you are about to read. But what a grand story.
We hope you enjoy it.
My father's reason for keeping my brother, Ben, and me with himâthat we were his childrenâwas incomprehensible to our only other living relative, Aunt Catherine Tippet. In the marrow of her well-fleshed and corseted bones, she was convinced that the arrangement was inflicting irremediable harm on us, and that it was another positive indication that Walter Briard, my father, was crazy. Had she been honestly willing to take us into her own home in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and had not Walter Briard's eccentricities been of a variety she feared would reflect unflatteringly on the memory of her poor dead sister Jen, our mother, she would have tried to have him declared unfit.
As it was, she contented herself with the performance of lesser Christian duties. Once each month she wrote a long advisory letter to all of us (on the same day she went over the accounts of her husband Joe's drugstore; “he just never had the luck the others did, in oil”), and once each year she came by bus or trainâGod didn't mean for her to flyâto visit us for four or five days. Since Aunt Catherine was a woman whose remarkable natural alertness was usually devoted to such tasks as making worn-out bath towels into usable washcloths, she must have welcomed these inspection trips with their implicit opportunities for travel. From the time of my birth in 1921 through my first nine years, we lived in twenty different places.
Aunt Catherine reconnoitered, and worried, in at least ten of them.
She'd arrive early in the morning with a cheap black pocketbook full of laxatives and a nervous eye for a messy desk (my father's) or hair that needed washing (mine). Ben, whom she often called “my little businessman” in a complimentary, encouraging way, would vanish and hardly reappear for the remainder of her stay except to eat and sleep. My father, after greeting her with his wrinkliest, most insincere smile, would hear from some long-lost customer he hadn't seen since his expatriate days who suddenly turned up a half-day's drive away and insisted on seeing him daily. Fred, our Welsh houseman, would have to drive him. Fred's bald head and beaked nose with the silver-rimmed glasses perched on it, and his immaculate dress made him appear rather chilly-formal. But in truth, he was warmly sentimental, almost childishly so. He loved to drive my father, had been doing it for thirty years or more, through the decades of my father's bachelorhood, and he would sprint to get the chauffeur's cap he had long ago purchased himself. So I was the one who spent the most time with Aunt Catherine.
Invariably she began our conversations by sympathizing with me. “Lucresse dear, you have
a cross to bear.” She meant, I knew, because her sister Jen had died giving birth to me. Nonetheless, I'd let her go on, hoping she'd tell me more about my mother than that. My hopes were never fulfilled. Aunt Catherine always spoke of a young girl Jen and a young woman Jen. I knew my mother would be about as old as my fatherâthey had married when he was fifty-two and she forty-sixâand I wanted help in visualizing her, with him, when I was a possibility. Eventually, I learned that Aunt Catherine hadn't seen her sister after Jen left Sapulpa, at twenty-one, to study art in New York and subsequently in Paris, where she “met up with” my father.
Our conversations usually ended when, out of an urge to communicate
on a more realistic level, I'd let slip, “When we lived in such-and-such a townâ¦” Aunt Catherine would wave her head and sigh, “That man Walter Briard!” and clam up. I had a vaporish idea why she disapproved of him. It had to do with the word “moral” and what he did for a living and the way we lived.
I'm not sure there is an accurate term to describe what my father did professionally. “Art-objects-investor-dealer-junkshop-keeper” might be near. Or “one-man-mobile-Tiffany & Company-Bettman Archives-Wildenstein Gallery-and any side-street antique-shop” could be nearer. For “father's occupation” on the entrance forms Ben and I brought home one of the times we entered a new school, my father wrote “merchant.” But he was in a whimsical mood, not yet being able to look seriously upon our academic careers. Actually, he had a multitudinous collection of priceless paintings, sculptures, books, gems, and mediocre artifacts that had attracted him during his affluent, roaming young manhood. And at this time in his life, he was engaged in selling these things, piece by piece, for very high prices indeed, to carefully sought clients who happened to reside in widely distant communities across America. Major sales required weeksâin some cases, monthsâof his personal consultation. And so naturally, Ben, Fred, and I went with him.
We never lived in a hotel. My father despised them, having spent so much of his life in them. We thought of our recurrent upheavals as “moving.” A day would come every so oftenâalways a surprise dayâand a crew of bulky men would arrive and pack up everything we owned, except my father's velvet-lined satchel of precious stones. That, my father allowed Ben to carry to the car. Fred oversaw the entire operation like a harried, but very polite, credit manager, and then happily donned his chauffeur's cap and took the wheel of our black, seven-passenger Buick. And we would precede the vans, bulging with household effects and merchandise, to our destination. Sometimes
we would have enough room there for all the stuff. But most times, living room chair space was yielded for crates of Dresden china and Danish glassware and stacks of original editions supported by ornate silver candlesticks and clocks and gilt-framed nudes and landscapes and Chinese flowers. We lived in old, large houses with dozens of dim, badly placed cupboards and in small houses with no closets at all, in dry houses and leaky ones, ones on hilltops and ones in valleys. Some my father rented, others he borrowed. Occasionally, he bought one to resell it later. A few times, because a friend or client talked persuasively of his own projects, after many drinks and conferences with architects, a house was designed just for us. Those always sported a curved staircase with niches at various heights along it for my father's favorite pieces of sculptureâthe ones he didn't intend to sell.
Aunt Catherine saw all this as a haphazard, nomadic, and certainly unhealthy life that was bound to produce criminal offspring (Ben and me) or, at best, adults even more strange than our father.