Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Speak Now


A literary thriller from the daughter of James Jones.

$14.95 $11.21

Excerpt from Speak Now

Chapter 1: Refuge

Clara regained consciousness on a train, as if she’d been floating below the surface of a dark, stagnant pond and suddenly broke through to air and light. She blinked and glanced around with aching eyes and recognized the interior of a Metroliner and the blurred landscape rushing by, familiar from myriad trips home to her father’s house. She had no idea what day it was. A businessman across the way was reading a New York Post. She strained to see the date: Friday, March 17, 1995.

She remembered arriving at The Refuge House yesterday at nine a.m., her usual time. Two social workers were standing nose to nose in the hall outside her office, yelling at each other, gesticulating wildly. At The Refuge House, the social workers, including Clara, seemed to take every case study personally. There were fifteen abused women and their children living at The Refuge House, in fifteen apartments of varying sizes. The eight-story building on the Lower East Side had been a sex education center and birthing hospital for poor women in the thirties, organized and funded by a Margaret Sanger organization. It had pock-marked marble floors and high, vaulted ceilings, smoked glass sconces on the walls. The doors were thick and heavy, and intricate circular designs adorned the molding. The entrance onto the street had a metal door, which couldn’t be opened except electronically, by a guard on the inside, who had a surveillance camera. You could keep the bad guys out; but keeping the women in was another matter entirely. As Clara stumbled upon the two social workers arguing, she felt that horrible aching churning feeling in her gut and her mouth went dry, and for a moment she wanted to run home, crawl back in bed, and pull the covers over her head.

As the train surged forward, she checked the floor at her feet and saw that she had no overnight bag, but thankfully she had her handbag. It was behind her back, the long strap crossed over her chest. She pulled the bag around and opened it to see if she still had her wallet. She found it, along with a fifth of vodka and prescription bottles of Percocet and Valium. The bottles were about half full, which didn’t help her since she had no idea how many pills they’d contained the day before. An upswell of nausea forced her to close her eyes and breathe. The train rocked and the world swirled around her and she felt as if she were being tossed inside a dark vortex that was pulling her slowly down.

“What’s going on?” Clara had asked the two social workers.

Tava, who was Refuge’s case manager, and Jackie, a case worker, fell silent and turned to Clara, then began talking at once. They tried to tell her, cutting in on each other with conflicting details. The gist was that last night, Joanne Attanasio, one of Clara’s hand-picked Refuge residents, had broken curfew.

Joanne was from Bensonhurst and had a four-year-old child. Before coming to Refuge, she’d spent two months in the temporary women’s shelter where Clara had found her. Clara had fought for Joanne, requesting special permission to move her name to the top of the waiting list, because Joanne showed special promise. She was strong, determined, focused, and most importantly, she’d been ready to make the break from her violent husband.

But last night, no one knew why, Joanne had left her little girl alone, locked in the apartment, and gone to find her husband. She’d returned only this morning, convinced that her husband really meant to change this time. Tava and Jackie had tried to talk to her, but Joanne was already packing.

Clara and the case workers ran up the stairs. By the rules, Joanne would have to leave, but Clara was trying to think up a way to bend the very rules she’d created in order to keep Refuge a safe and well-oiled machine, a place with the same boundaries and regulations for every resident in the program.

The door to Joanne’s studio was open. She was shoving the last of her toiletries into a stained plastic bag carried over from her days in the shelter, where the homeless had to use clear bags so the contents would be visible to the staff. Clara, forgetting herself, begged Joanne not to go, to reconsider. The little girl stood behind her mother, keening loudly.

Joanne pushed the child away, turned to Clara and the case workers and said, “He promised he’d get a job. And he promised to go back to counseling. He swore to God he’d never hit me again.” Joanne pulled the wailing child by the hand and shouldered past the social workers crowding the narrow hallway. They followed Joanne out into the main hall, where three other doors were now open and women and children peeked out, their expressions curious and afraid.

Tava, Jackie, and Clara followed Joanne along the hall and down a flight of stairs. Clara’s training had taught her to remain calm, non-judgmental, and persuasive in a logical way—but she felt betrayed, almost like a woman who’s just found out her husband is having an affair. She burst into tears. “He’s going to kill you, Joanne. Don’t you understand? He’s going to kill you!”

Joanne turned in the stairwell, looked up with heavy eyes at Clara and the two case workers behind her, and murmured, “He needs me. He says he can’t live without me.”

Clara spun on her heels and fled, past the social workers and back up to her office. She slammed the door and locked it, then sat down behind her desk. Her mouth was so dry her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. I’m overreacting, she thought. I’m out of my mind. In her handbag, she searched for her vial of Valium. For emergencies. She threw two ten-milligram pills into the back of her throat and forced them down with warm Diet Coke from yesterday. Tava knocked on the door, calling to her.

“I’m fine,” Clara answered, her voice shaky. In a few minutes, she began to calm down, the world’s painfully sharp edges beginning to soften. I’m a failure, she thought. I need to get out on the street, get some fresh air. As soon as she was certain that Tava and Jackie had returned to their offices, she grabbed her purse and her coat, and left. She walked three blocks up First Avenue, telling herself that a little air was making all the difference, and turned right abruptly at a sign with a green shamrock that said Sligo Inn. One little drink, she was thinking, and I’ll be all right. The first crisp icy sip of Stoli and immediately relief coursed through her veins. She saw a photo of handsome Yeats above the wall of shiny bottles, and she saw no reason why she shouldn’t stay there for a while. She talked to the old Irish bartender about this and that, and then the blackness closed in.

How many hours had elapsed since then? She figured close to twenty-four.

She saw her reflection in the window, her pale face superimposed upon a long line of conifers speeding past. Her hair was up in a tight ponytail, and she was not wearing yesterday’s casual charcoal-gray linen suit, but jeans and a loose black cotton sweater. How strange, she thought, even in a complete black-out I can dress myself, comb my hair, put on my boots.

Fairville Station, the conductor called out over the loudspeaker. Fairville Station. Well, she was here now and didn’t have a choice, so she stepped off the Metroliner and chose a pay phone from a row on the platform. She was assailed by a wave of nausea so strong that she had to stand perfectly still and breathe slowly for several minutes. She closed one eye in order to press the telephone buttons but her hand was shaking so badly that she dialed the wrong number and had to dig another quarter out of her bag.

In ten minutes Viktor, her father, pulled up in his manually controlled station wagon, with Tyotya Anya in the passenger seat, the shiny steel spokes and rubber wheel of his folded wheelchair visible through the back window. Her father sat in the idling car in the handicapped space at the bottom of the steps while Tyotya Anya climbed quickly to the platform. Her gray eyes were tense with worry, her mouth a thin line.

Tyotya Anya took Clara’s handbag away and gripped her by the upper arm, the way she had when Clara was a little girl in trouble. Her father did not seem to notice that she was stumbling on her way down the steps.

Tyotya Anya opened the back door and shoved Clara in. Viktor was all good humor and lightness, his Russian accent barely noticeable unless you were looking for it. He’d been in the US fifty years. “Clarya, what a surprise! It’s so good to see you, milaya moya.”

As soon as they reached home she told them she didn’t feel well and went upstairs to bed, in her little girl room with a frilly bedspread and her abandoned stuffed animals staring at her with gloomy black eyes.

She tossed and sweated and shook in her childhood bed and listened to her father and Anya downstairs, arguing in Russian.

Tyotya Anya shouted, “Vitya, she needs a doctor. She needs help. This is because of us—”

Her father interrupted in a calm, well-modulated tone: “There’s nothing wrong with Clara. She works too hard. She needs to rest, that’s all. She’s always been high-strung.”

“You know perfectly well she drinks too much. You know perfectly well‹”

“Be quiet, Anya,” Viktor said without rancor.

“No, I will not be quiet. The child needs help, and you and I can’t provide it.”

The child. Clara’s mind laughed ghoulishly. She was almost thirty-five. And helpless as an infant.

“You can try to stop me, Vitya,” Anya said, her voice suddenly dead calm, “but God help me, I’ll knock you right out of your chair.”

Viktor said not another word but wheeled himself into his ground-floor study—also his bedroom since the car accident that had shattered his spine—and slammed the door.

Clara was dimly astonished by Anya’s outburst. Anya’s position in the household had never been clearly spelled out. Viktor and Anya had never been lovers, had never considered it, according to them. Anya was not a wife, nor was she a servant. She was not a blood relative. Yet she played all these roles, deferring to Viktor on all matters concerning Clara.

Clara heard Tyotya Anya muttering in English on the kitchen phone, conspiring with God knows what strangers. Clara didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, much less to fight her. After a little while, she heard Anya calling to Viktor through the study door: “I’m taking her to Pennsylvania in the morning. The Josephine Stillwell Rehabilitation Center.”

Viktor was swearing but Anya went right on, “It’s the best on the East Coast, Vitya. The best. That’s what the man from Alcoholics Anonymous said on the phone.”

“Alcoholics Anonymous! Alcoholics Anonymous! Woman, you’ve lost your mind!” Viktor shouted through the door. But he stayed in his room, and Clara heard nothing more.

At dawn, Tyotya Anya, who had a driver’s license but hadn’t been behind the wheel in close to twenty years, dressed Clara as she had when Clara was a child, wrapped her in a blanket, and practically carried her down the stairs. Clara tried to run but Anya’s grip felt like steel on her arm.

“I’m not going!” Clara shouted. “You can’t make me go! This is all your fault anyway. You’re insane, both of you.”

Viktor opened his door and rolled himself out into the vestibule. Clara turned to stare at him, her face contorted with rage. There were tears streaming from his eyes. The anger, which had felt like a balloon stretched to its limit inside her chest, deflated in one exhalation of breath, and she was left with an unbearable feeling of emptiness.

Tyotya Anya led her out to the old family Buick that no one drove anymore but Clara, when she came home on weekends or holidays. Clara curled herself into a corner of the backseat, wrapped in the blanket. Anya slid in behind the steering wheel but could barely see over the dashboard, her back bent forward and her hands gripping the wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white.

On the highway cars flew past, blaring their horns.

“You’re going to get us killed,” Clara said from the back.

“You’re killing yourself anyway,” replied Tyotya Anya. “A little slower, a little faster, what difference? Me, I am living on stolen time for fifty years. I now realize I am not dying any time soon, so I am looking for a husband. Got any ideas?”

“I tried to fix you up with my neighbor, Mr. Goldman.”

“I never met a nicer old man than that,” Tyotya Anya said.

“He’s two years younger than you.”

They both laughed emptily and fell silent. A wave of nausea swept over Clara and she opened the car window, allowing the cold air to slap against her face. A vague recollection forced itself suddenly upon the screen of her mind and she sat up with a start: She’d been sitting on a bar stool, not at the Sligo Inn but a different bar uptown. A blast of cold air hit her back as the door swung open, and suddenly, there he was, standing just behind her left shoulder like a demon whispering temptations in her ear. Him. Niko. She hated to even think his name. Fragments of their exchange came back to her and a sharp taste of bile rose in the back of her throat. She did not remember his clothes, only his fair hair, tanned face, and intense, shadowy eyes.

Hey, Clarya. His voice lulling, suggestive. Sweet as treacle.

Don’t call me that.

What a coincidence. I was just having a bite at that French place across the street…

With you, Niko, nothing ever happens by coincidence.

Ah, come on, Clara. I have those top-shelf Quaaludes, stamped, you know the ones.

. . . Please go. Or I’ll call the cops.

You’re drunk. They’re not going to listen to you.

They will when I tell them the history.

Clara tried to fill in the holes. What scared her most was that she’d seriously contemplated his offer—for several interminable seconds. Her pull to him at that moment had been stronger than her fear or her fury. She’d been feeling lonely and misunderstood, that her life held no promise, and suddenly he was standing beside her—he who despite all the harm he’d done her, had been the only one in the entire world to understand her, to anticipate her needs and desires, whose love seemed so unequivocal and overpowering it was like a tidal wave, wiping out everything in its path. Ah, to be loved like that . . . She tottered at the edge of that cliff, then stepped back with a jolt. She’d seen over and over again how far women would go, how much they would take, believing till the bitter end, even with a gun pointed at their heads, that it was love.Look at Joanne Attanasio.

She pressed a hand to his chest and pushed him away. Go away, Niko, she said to him. Go away and don’t ever talk to me again.

Then the bar door swung open, letting in another blast of icy air.

Tyotya Anya turned on the windshield wipers and sang in a staccato rhythm as they swung back and forth, Il etait un Petit Navire, a song about a doomed little ship on which the starving crew decides to eat the smallest sailor. French was her other childhood language, which she spoke perfectly, no accent.

After a while, Clara said, “Tyotya Anya, I saw him—”

Anya interrupted, her voice shrill, “Him? You mean . . . Niko? When? Where?”

“The other night. In a bar.”

“Of course, in a bar,” Anya muttered.

“It was by accident,” Clara said.

“Ah, non, certainement pas,” she said. Certainly not. “What did he want?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must never, never speak to him. Do you understand?” Tyotya Anya turned her face completely around and swerved into the right lane, barely missing an oil truck. The driver blared his big horn. “This is no joke. Call the police next time. Call the police. Do you understand?”