Home -> Bookstore -> Grace Notes
a new novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen
The first email was what Grace had come to think of as standard fare: a note of eight or ten lines saying how much the person - in this case one Stephanie Baine - enjoyed and valued Grace's books. She replied, as she always did, thanking Stephanie for taking the time to get in touch and for her kind comments. It was sincere. Grace did appreciate the readers who visited her website and actually made the effort to communicate. Most of the time (based on the site counter at the bottom of the home page) people visited but didn't respond to her invitation to write. It was a phenomenon very similar to bookstore signings, when people would peer at her from around corners but were too intimidated to approach. Something about a live author, someone whose books they'd read, right there in a bookstore in their own town, turned them shy and uncertain. Unless some brave soul marched right up to Grace and started to talk. Then, almost at once, others would follow. But if that first person didn't make the effort, no one would, and Grace would sit for an hour or two, chatting with the store staff while keeping a smile plastered on her face, drinking the coffee they invariably offered and wondering, yet again, why on earth she had agreed to do another signing tour. She hated them, always had. They never changed. The email situation wasn't so very different. Some people clicked on the link and wrote their thoughts on the preaddressed email; the majority chose to visit and leave - the site counter the only clue to their having visited.
Sometimes, staring at the computer screen, Grace wondered about those anonymous visitors. She knew that many of them were abused women who had seen her interviewed on television, or who had read her autobiographical book on the subject. But the largest number of visitors were those who read her fiction. People seemed to find it easier to read about issues within the context of a fictional setting where there was the hope of a happy ending. Everyone wanted a happy ending, even Grace.
The nonfiction audience was quite different, consisting mostly of damaged women and of professionals who found her autobiography a source of insights that no textbook could ever offer - because Grace had been one of the legions of assaulted wives. But she was different. While the majority of battered women stayed on and on, for all sorts of reasons, Grace had escaped three months after the first time Brownie hit her. While he was teaching his Tuesday morning sophomore class, she'd packed up the car and then driven nonstop to her brother Gus's house in Vermont. It had been the one safe place to go, because Brownie, like all bullies, was a coward. And there was no chance that he'd risk confronting Gus, who was bigger and smarter, and who hated men who took their aggressions out on women. He'd disliked Brownie from the moment he'd met him, saying to her, "Be careful, Gracie. I've got a bad feeling about this guy."
The first time it happened, Grace was too angry and too ashamed to tell anyone, especially her older brother. And Brownie was filled with remorse, arriving home the next afternoon with a box of Grace's favorite dark chocolates. She no longer trusted him, but she wanted to believe that his suddenly backhanding her in the middle of very pedestrian conversation was an aberration. For weeks after it happened she marveled at the speed and suddenness of the blow that had come out of nowhere, accompanied by a torrent of enraged shouts, followed by Brownie stomping out of the house. Yet six weeks later it happened again. No warning, and wham! This time she surprised herself with the speed and suddenness of her own reaction. She hit him back, hard. A mistake. The subsequent kicks and blows and incoherent shouts hadn't stopped until she was curled into an agonized knot on the living room floor while, upstairs, the baby howled as if she'd seen and heard it all. When it was over, Brownie had gone stomping out of the house, just the way he had the time before.
And after classes the following day, he came home once more bearing gifts and apologies. She ignored him and his box of long-stemmed roses. Enraged and scarcely able to move, she was already planning her escape from this man who'd sworn since Nicola's birth seven months before that he'd never let her go. "I love you. You and Nicky belong to me," he said over and over. He meant it. And she believed him - just not in the way she had at the outset. Now she understood that he was one of the deranged types she read about so often in the papers; someone who went to the home of his estranged wife/fiancée/girlfriend and killed her and anyone else who happened to be around; someone who'd see Grace dead before he let her go. She'd become his possession, a chattel. Humiliation closed her throat every time she thought of having to confess (to anyone) that she'd married an attractive, articulate, educated, psychotic batterer.
Clever Grace, resourceful Grace, combative younger sister of the big, but ever-pacific, August Loring the Third, was stuck in a decrepit rented house in a small college town in Pennsylvania with a thirty-four-year-old associate history professor who, with no warning, started taking his fists and boots to her. The shame of it was almost worse than the beatings. That someone as supposedly intelligent as she was, a young woman who'd graduated Summa Cum Laude and had published a dozen articles and short stories in major magazines while still in college, was stupid enough to marry a barbarian, was galling, mortifying. At twenty-three, she'd thought she'd known it all. At nearly twenty-six, she realized that she knew nothing, that she'd been arrogantly living a schoolgirl's fantasy.
So, no matter what Brownie said (and he even wept while delivering his abject apologies after that second attack), she wasn't going to be blackmailed or threatened or cajoled into staying. She was smart enough to be frightened by the man's irrationality, by his violent mood swings, and by the lust he displayed in the aftermath of his attacks, through which she suffered in compliant silence. She wasn't about to say or do anything that might set him off again.
Two weeks later, when the bruises had faded to a sickly yellow and she could take a deep breath without stabbing rib pain, she'd crammed as much as she could into the old Pinto, belted Nicola into the infant seat and ran to her brother. To his credit and her abiding gratitude, Gus didn't say a word. He opened the door, took one look at her, then held her for several long moments, before coming out to unload the car while she got the baby settled in one of the spare bedrooms in Gus's rambling Victorian house.
After countless phone calls, when Gus simply put down the receiver upon hearing his voice, Brownie wrote threatening letters, which Grace threw, unopened, into the trash. Two years later, Brownie divorced her. And that was the end. Except that she couldn't seem to get past the experience. It haunted her sleep; the scenes replayed themselves every time she even thought about the man she'd married. Finally, she wrote it all down in order both to understand it and to be rid of it. Then, satisfied that she'd accomplished that, she sent it off to her agent in New York who called a week later to say, "This is a very important book, Grace." Miles had sounded atypically subdued. "I'm going to auction it." He paused, then said, "I had no idea. I'm truly sorry. Truly sorry." Within a month it had been bought for more than twice the advances she'd previously received. "Whatever else you do, my dear, you will always be remembered for this book," Miles said. "I'm proud to be associated with it, with you."
Hit or Miss was an immediate best-seller. It was, she and Miles agreed, a combination of luck and timing; a subject being aired at just the right moment. Reviewers praised her courage and honesty (she disagreed with the comments about her courage; it was what she'd had to do in order to absolve herself of the lingering sense that she'd somehow instigated the violence, even though intellectually she knew she hadn't - emotionally her guilt and self-blame remained intact for a very long time), and complimented her on the sensitive clarity of her writing.
Her talk-radio and television appearances generated even more sales because no one expected her to be funny. She couldn't help it. Never able to resist an opening, she'd toss off some observation or a self-deprecating comment. They also didn't expect her to be small, or pretty, or easily conversational. "I don't get out much," she told interviewers. It was the truth, but they laughed merrily, relieved at the effortlessness with which they got through what they'd feared would be a tough six- or seven-minute slog over touchy terrain with an angry, humorless woman.
Grace learned quickly how to make those segments count - getting out information about shelters, about breaking the abuse cycle, about freedom. She felt she was somehow repaying the huge debt she owed her brother when she met with groups of women from every conceivable level of the social/ economic/racial spectrum, to talk about their experiences and to encourage them to take their children, if they had them, and get away before it was too late.
Finally, after two and a half years of speaking out on the issue, she was suffering from sensory overload. Too many terrible tales; too many bruised, all-but-broken women; too much sorrow; too many deaths; too few happy endings. She had no desire to be thought of as a professional victim, obsessed with what she'd experienced. It was time to go back to being a mother and a novelist, to living her quiet life in the huge converted attic of her brother's house that was her selfcontained sanctuary: office, sitting room, bedroom and bathroom. There was even a small kitchen area fitted into the middle one of the three dormers at the front of the house. It consisted of a four-foot-wide countertop upon which sat an electric kettle, a toaster oven, a box of cutlery, and a few plates and mugs. Below the counter was a small refrigerator next to a stool upon which she sometimes sat while she drank a cup of tea and read a book or a magazine, or simply gazed out the window down at High Street three stories below. Up here, contained within the white-painted walls, with a usually gentle light entering from the north-facing skylight, in an uncluttered area she'd furnished with sleekly modern but comfortable furniture, Grace felt safe. At night, she could sit in her bed, which was positioned against the far wall directly opposite the door, and gaze directly up at the night sky.
The second email from Stephanie Baine read:
"Is it really you? Or does someone else answer your email for you? If you do answer your own email, there's something I'd like to discuss with you."
Grace knew at once that Stephanie was in trouble. Secrecy was all-important to abused women. Their greatest fear was of having it be known that they were being beaten or verbally assaulted, and that people would blame them for being such pathetic losers.
Grace replied at once, saying, "I answer my own email. And no one else reads it. Feel free to write to me."
And so it began.
Certain moments - the hammer swinging back before beginning its descent; the bloodied knife taking aim; the glowing tip of a cigarette coming toward her in the darkness - played and replayed until she was sick with renewed terror. It just wouldn't end. And her husband, that odious obsessive, was determined never to allow it to end.
For some reason, in her head she kept hearing Dinah Washington singing plaintively, over and over, "Where are you? Where have you gone without me? I thought you cared about me. Where are you?"
Sitting alone, she'd find herself whispering the lyrics along with Dinah.
In the almost twenty-two years since Grace had fled from her abusive husband, two things had changed significantly. The first was what had happened to the publishing industry. As she'd predicted long before - based on what she sawand heard and read - the smaller, independent houses had vanished, swallowed up by a few corporate giants. And those giants altered forever the way books were published and sold. An editor could no longer make the decision to buy a book and run unilaterally with that decision. Now, everything was decided by committee; profit-and-loss projections and marketability determined whether or not a book could be purchased - regardless of its merits. Prime shelf-space was purchased, and product-placement was the order of the day, whether it was the latest brand of cereal, or a new book. Publishing had become just another, often soulless, bottom-line business.
For Grace, having seen the whole thing evolve, her joy in being a writer was all but gone. There was something too frustrating about dealing, even one-step-removed, with people who couldn't answer the simplest question without first having to consult others, and with having to do battle (via Miles, her war-weary agent) to retain her electronic rights, among many other things. The spontaneity, the excitement had died. She likely would have quit writing books altogether, venturing instead into creating short pieces for a number of websites that had approached her (one even offered to give her an advice column, which was hugely tempting), had it not been for the second change: Gus's being diagnosed ten years earlier, at the age of forty-eight, with rheumatoid arthritis, and his immediate and utter capitulation to the disease.
She would never have believed that her loquaciously witty, tenured, English professor brother would accept a diagnosis as a life sentence. But he did. He became his disease. It defined who he was; it dictated the terms of his life; it curtailed his career, his activities and friendships, his thinking, even his range of motion. Ten years later, Gus was, despite her initial and periodic intervention, as close as dammit to a complete cripple. And in very short order Grace had become a caregiver.
Darling Gus had been the best ballroom dancer most women had ever encountered. A physical man, effortlessly gifted at most sports, particularly tennis, he gradually gave up all but the most minimal movement. Because it hurt. And despite all of Grace's best efforts at logic, reason, cajoling, even bullying, her brother wouldn't do anything that heightened the pain that took hold of his joints - elbows, ankles, and knees in particular - and steadily pushed them into impossibly contorted positions. Finally, the once towering, hefty yet remarkably agile Gus was an agonized assemblage of parts gone awry. His once wide shoulders and powerful arms and legs were now those of someone decades older, narrowed and spindly. Frail, always physically off balance, yet mentally undiminished, Gus required almost full-time care. He could be left alone for a few hours during the day, and for most of the night. By default, the night became Grace's only free time, because Gus needed no assistance once he was in bed. (A plastic urinal was close at hand, if required.) But they couldn't manage without help during the day.
Being too young and having too much in the way of capital assets to qualify for Medicare, his personal health insurance didn't provide coverage for what was considered a chronic condition. So Gus was obliged to pay for every aspect of his care - from the nightmarishly expensive prescription medications, to the cost of physical alterations to the first floor of the house (where Gus now resided; stairs being out of the question): grab bars in the bathroom and a special elevated toilet seat; a walker and a portable, folding wheelchair (for visits to sundry doctors) and a ramp to the front door of the house; large-handled eating utensils, and bibs to catch the inevitable spillage. The search just for shoes and socks that would fit Gus's sadly angled feet was endless. No shoe was wide enough, and only diabetic socks were loose enough to pass over toe joints that jutted to one side while the toes had twisted in the opposite direction. Grace intercepted many of the bills and paid them, as well as the property taxes on the house (telling her brother she needed the tax deduction), and most of the utility bills. It had become considerably easier to make these sleight-of-hand adjustments since Gus had given her a power of attorney two years earlier and she'd taken over managing his money.
She also paid for the home help. And they were very lucky to have the two women whose services were offered with grace and affection. Dolly, who came each morning seven days a week and got Gus up, bathed and dressed for the day, was a fifty-something Jamaican woman; sturdy and handsome, intelligent and sensible, endowed with a lovely sense of humor. Grace invariably smiled at the sound of Dolly's lilting laugh and Gus's responsive quips. Once resigned to the reality of his need for assistance, he gave himself over to Dolly's ministrations, savoring the breakfast trays she carried in from the kitchen and discussing with her everything from editorials in that morning's New York Times to whatever he'd watched on TV the night before. Unflaggingly cheerful, genuinely caring, Dolly treated Gus in a fond, no-nonsense fashion that usually gave him a good start to the day. Unless he was having a flare. Then his groans could be heard throughout the house as Dolly gave him a sponge bath in his bed,rather than giving him a shower while he sat on the special armed seat in the tub.
Flares could last a day or several weeks. They were impossible to predict. Sudden pain lunged inside the man like something wild. His knees swelled with fluid; he hunched into himself, scarcely moving, unable even to read his morning paper or any of the dozens of books stacked on the bedside table and on the bookshelves next to it. His eyes dark-circled and sunken, he asked for Tylenol 3 or Darvocet three or four or five times in the course of a given day; often his maintenance dose of Prednisone would have to be increased by at least five milligrams. And then, just as suddenly as it had come, the flare would end, and Gus would be wondering loudly where his paper was and making mention of the golf, or baseball, or football game that was scheduled on TV or the radio for that day. At four, he'd tune in to All Things Considered on NPR and listen intently until it was time for dinner. Saturday mornings, regardless of his condition, he had to hear Car Talk. ("God, I love these guys! Who ever dreamed an hour-long show about car problems could be this entertaining!") He'd howl with laughter, even at his worst moments. And Sundays, with the Times in a heap at his side, the magazine folded open to the crossword puzzle, which he'd complete later (painfully filling in each blank space with the shaky printing of someone elderly), he'd listen to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. ("The man's a genius, Gracie; best narratives anywhere. I could live without some of the music, but his humor is unrivaled - never mean-spirited, but always right on the money.") Most evenings, Grace and Gus ate dinner together on trays in the living room and caught the nightly network news with Tom Brokaw, and during the commercial breaks Gus would fill her in on items he'd found of interest on All Things Considered.
Six evenings a week (on Sunday nights, Grace helped her brother to the bathroom and then back to his bed where he stubbornly slept in his clothes), Lucia came to reverse the process and get Gus ready for bed. No small feat, since just removing a shirt or sweater (all front opening - pullovers were now out of the question) involved movement of tender, inflamed elbow and shoulder joints that had very little flexibility. As well, there were the attendant illnesses that accompanied the disease and the medications required to address them: kidney problems, opportunistic nonmalignant tumors, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung congestion, loss of teeth, "tissue paper skin" that tore and bled with alarming ease as a result of prolonged use of Prednisone and, on top of everything else, his hearing had started to go. Great care, firm but tender hands, and tremendous patience were needed in dealing with someone whose disease had, according to his rheumatologist, got as bad as it was possible to get.
Younger than Dolly by ten or so years, Lucia was a big woman with a soft voice that still bore traces of her South Carolina roots, even though her family had left the south when Lucia was twelve. She claimed to hate the Vermont winters but she seemed to flourish in the cold, invariably arriving with a grin as she announced the latest forecast. More deferential than Dolly and somewhat less attuned to nuance, Lucia always spoke to Gus as Mr. Loring (Dolly addressed him as Mr. Gus) and their conversations usually centered on matters of local interest and on the weather. He loved and relied on both women but seemed to relish Dolly's company, perhaps because she was closer to him in age.
For Grace, Gus was pretty much a full-time job. While Dolly had taken over the preparation of his breakfast when she'd first come to them three years earlier, it fell to Grace to prepare the other two meals he received. And there were moments when she stood in the huge, airy kitchen (Gus's first project upon buying the place had been to remodel this room - knocking out the pantry wall and removing its shelves and cupboards, to create a space that took up most of the rear of the house), hacking vegetables or slamming pots down on the countertop, muttering away, furious at having had to tear herself away from whatever work was in progress; angry at always being at her brother's beck and call. At those moments, she hated Gus; hated his utter capitulation to the disease, his needs and requests, his lamentable lack of health. Then, inevitably, she'd get hold of herself and stop. Taking a deep breath, she'd stand with her hands braced on the counter and remind herself that Gus hadn't wanted to fall prey to attack by the very white cells that were supposed to help his immune system, not destroy it. His pride had taken a terrible battering; he had to struggle not to succumb daily to the humiliation of being unable even to get to the bathroom without assistance.
No one had asked her to do this. She'd volunteered. Therefore she had no right to complain. Having, yet again, reasoned through her anger, she then got on with the job at hand, more often than not using humor to ease the situation. In a good Bette Davis imitation, she frequently delivered Gus a tray of food, announcing, "Here's ya din-dins!"
"Oh, yummy!" Gus responded brightly every time. "Roasted rat, my favorite!"
They both worked diligently to keep things light, to maintain a level of polite civility. Gus had his own anger, and it erupted over silly things that hadn't anything to do with the real cause of his unhappiness. He'd bellow Grace's name at top volume, demanding to know where this or that was. Hearing him shout, she'd go taut as baling wire, wanting to race down the two flights of stairs from the attic and ask him why the hell he couldn't use the intercom; it was why they'd had it installed. But of course she knew why. Every time he gave way and used one of the many gadgets Grace provided to make things easier for him, he was conceding another measure of defeat. Eventually, he'd take to using the intercom just as he'd taken to using the speakerphone and the walker; just as he'd accepted the daily help of two hefty women who dressed and undressed him, bathed him like some gigantic infant, and cooed over how nice he looked (freshly shaven, or rigged out in newly laundered flannel pajamas). For both Grace and Gus, each day brought new and different compromises, paid for in this realm's coin: anger.
Yet twenty-two-year-old Nicky had no trouble at all dealing with either one of them. She treated her uncle as she always had, calling him Dad and sitting on the foot of his bed to spend an hour, or two, or three bringing him up to speed on her life, asking why he didn't call so-and-so and invite him or her to visit (knowing full well that Gus didn't want any of his former friends or associates to see him in his present condition) and politely accepting his illogical reasons for refusing to return calls or extend invitations. And when Grace was fuming with impatience or anger, storming about the kitchen or stomping up the stairs, Nicky would say, "Chill, Mom. Go for a walk or something. You're taking all this way too personally." It was personal, of course, but Nicky had a gift for defusing moods and situations. She was, in fact, gifted in dealing with people in general. She had her uncle's innate social ease (hence his great success as a teacher) and the kind of paleskinned, dark-haired, fine-featured beauty that would guarantee her an attentive audience. Nicky was kind, generous, smart, and a housekeeping nightmare. Things stayed where she dropped them - on the stairs, in the living room, the kitchen, the floors of the upper hallways, and on every surface of her room. She was chaotically disorganized, could never find herwallet, or her keys, or some item of clothing she just had to wear. She was equally disorganized about money and didn't consider coins or dollar bills actually to be money. So at least once a week, Grace went through the house, collecting Nicky's belongings, sorting them for the wash or the dry cleaners, and culling coins from pockets and purses, even plastic or paper bags from the local markets. She'd convert the resulting (considerable) collection into five- or ten-dollar bills and leave them on Nicky's dresser in her room - which was as typical of Nicky as the living room was of Gus.
Previously Gus's bedroom, Nicky had taken it over five years earlier when Gus could no longer manage the stairs. Grace, her friend Vinnie, along with Gus's friend Jerry had moved all of Gus's things down to what had been the den. Then they'd moved Nicky's furniture from her old room into Gus's far larger one. When everything was in place, the three had congratulated themselves on a job well done. Nicky's new room looked great.
But not for long. Now strings of fairy lights ran around the perimeter at ceiling height and burned night and day; mosquito netting hung in a graceful gauzy sweep above her nevermade bed; books and magazines were everywhere as were mounds of clothing, shoes and underwear. Her ancient teddy bear (one side split and leaking stuffing) and her tattered blankie lay next to her pillow (she often slept with the blankie draped over her head); the armchair was piled high with clothes, school papers-in-progress, more magazines, random shoes, dirty socks and a variety of scarves. The dresser drawers were always partway open, their contents hanging over the rims: lacy bras and thong underwear Grace couldn't conceive of wearing (squirming every time she even thought about it); body stockings and tights, sweaters and blouses and still more scarves. There were trails of burnt incense on the bedside table, along with clots of candle wax. Used tissues were everywhere - except in the wicker waste basket - and every surface, except for the desk, bore a substantial weight of perfume bottles, hair care products and cosmetics. Nicky even put candles on top of her computer monitor.
With a sigh, Grace would spend an hour or more setting the room to rights, but within ten minutes of Nicky's arriving home - outerwear dumped on the floor in the front entryway - the mess would begin accumulating again.
Grace too often felt ready to pitch a screaming fit. That fit was so close to the surface, so nearly palpable that she felt fairly pregnant with it: this ever-swelling entity that lived and grew hourly, daily, weekly, inside her body. This was not what she'd had in mind for her life, she thought regularly. She distinctly remembered having a life, but it had been subsumed under the weight of her brother's needs and her daughter's unheeding carelessness. She longed for time alone, time without the demands of others placed upon it. It was never going to happen. Certainly, matters would improve once Nicky graduated from college in another semester and pursued her dreams of getting into radio or TV production in either Boston or Manhattan, depending on the offers that came in once she started sending out her résumé. If the offers weren't to her liking, she planned to work for a year, then go to graduate school. Either way, she was, she said, "Getting out of Appalachia north." There were moments when Grace thought Nicky's absence would be unbearable; but, at other moments, Grace couldn't wait for her to go. There would be far less for her to do, fewer demands on her time; she might actually get back a facsimile of a life. But in the meantime, turmoil was the order of the day.
In a silent, resigned sweep, Grace would clear the mess (deeply grateful to Velma, who came twice a week to clean the place from top to bottom), and then escape upstairs to her self-contained world at the top of the house to work on the computer for an hour or two, answering email or trying to concentrate on the current novel she had been writing for the last year and a half (and which, she thought with rueful regularity, she might well be writing for the rest of her life if she didn't somehow manage to get a substantial chunk of uninterrupted time).
The computer had replaced the traveling she'd once done, the trips she'd taken to Europe or Asia; the ten-city book tours she'd hated but which, in retrospect, seemed like glorified working vacations. She traveled now on the internet, did any necessary research online when possible, and dealt with a steady flow of email from friends and from readers. The computer, along with the videos she rented weekly to watch with Gus (he loved movies as much as she did, fortunately) were brief, regular holidays she took from her life. Both Gus's body and her life had become grossly distorted things.
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