Featured Prose | October 24, 2017
Web Exclusive: “The Education of Louise Adams” by Jane Gillette
Today, to celebrate the launch of Jane Gillette’s new book, The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories and the start of the Missouri Review‘s new imprint, Missouri Review Books, we present a never-before-published web exclusive short story. If you like what you read, visit our store to order a copy.
“The Education of Louise Adams”
by Jane Gillette
Dawn didn’t expect the fiftieth reunion to be interesting. She’d avoided all the others, and how could this one be any better now that everyone was almost seventy years old and retired? Only fifty of the 350 graduates would attend, and no one would know what had happened to the others, especially not the 250 who’d enrolled in the fall of 1959 and dropped out before graduation in the spring of 1961, presumably to work on the then-flourishing assembly lines. Thanks to social media, everyone would, however, know who’d succeeded financially in the last fifty years, heroes who were not the beloved basketball stars of Bearcat fame, let alone the five or six academic geniuses who’d gone off to the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, and the downstate Methodist colleges. In fact, the Atlanta real-estate mogul and the inventor of the fast food restaurant coffeemaker had neglected to attend any college whatsoever.
Nor was Dawn convinced otherwise by the list of attendees sent out by the reunion organizer (a nice guy who sold insurance). The list showed a sizable number of elementary and high school teachers, an unsuccessful screenwriter, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer (hard to place on the success ladder), no doctors, and only one lawyer, Louise Crandell. Dawn herself was a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C., recently retired to Florida.
Even after she’d flown to Indianapolis, rented a car, driven upstate for an hour, checked into what used to be the Roberts Hotel, and arrived for the reunion dinner at the Delaware Country Club, she was still wondering why she’d come. For one thing she found most of her classmates impossible to place. Fifty years ago she’d have known their lives to date and confidently predicted their futures. Now she found that she had almost no memory of them, including Louise Crandell, a widow living in New York City who’d gone East to college and law school, practiced a few years, and married three times: first a fellow student, then a successful lawyer from a rival firm, and finally a client so rich he was rumored to be part of the mythological one percent of one percent. Or so went the Facebook gossip, which continued on through the introductory cocktail party at the country club, much of the information flowing from one classmate who’d been a secretary at the law firm in Atlanta where Louise’s last husband, Charlie Crandell, had been a favorite client. Although Facebook was surprised Louise had come to the reunion—certainly she’d never shown up before—Dawn assumed it was possible even rich people get so bored they start thinking back nostalgically to high school when the world is full of possibilities, not just to get rich but to be famous, not just to marry well but to fall extravagantly in love, and of course once she saw Louise standing off in a corner by herself, she remembered the high school version—in a general way. Try as she might, Dawn couldn’t remember anything significant about a girl who’d been smart but not clever, okay-looking but not really pretty, probably a member of all the academic clubs (Book Club, Current Events), but definitely not a cheerleader, and, when you got right down to it, probably not at all popular because she was a nasty bitch with a sharp tongue. Or so the classmate from Atlanta informed everybody. Dawn remembered absolutely nothing of Louise’s cynical wit.
Cocktails ended, dinner was announced, and Dawn discovered she’d been seated at a table reserved for unaccompanied women, right next to Louise—Louise Adams!—whom she cautiously assessed from the corner of her eye. Stylishly cut white hair. Some cosmetic work, although by the time you’re seventy it doesn’t count for much. Plain black dress. Plain black shoes. Black bag without initials. No jewelry to speak of. Nothing really interesting, and Dawn politely asked her—even though she already more or less knew—what she’d been doing for the last fifty years, a question posed as an inquiry about her employment history. Louise readily marched through an impromptu resumé of her various firms, which made no sense to Dawn: Something, Something, and Something, and Something, Something, and Something, and Something, Something, and Something yet again. Happily, Louise added a brief and perfectly understandable marital history, Numbers One, Two, and Three. Dawn answered in kind, and, as the evening dragged on and the unaccompanied ladies consumed glass after glass of chardonnay, Dawn and Louise found themselves enjoying each other, even though Dawn was pretty sure Louise remembered her just as vaguely as she remembered Louise. By the time dessert rolled around they had segued to the lovers of their youth, a topic that seems hilarious the older you get and the further distanced from the specific examples. They were enjoying themselves immensely when Dawn noticed that the rest of the table was unamused. Many of the unaccompanied ladies still lived in the town they’d grown up in and apparently continued to exhibit the strength of character that had kept them from indulging in this familiar cure for boredom. Drugs were never even mentioned. Alcohol was assumed.
Dawn’s sense of this disapproval provoked another whispered question: “How did you manage to get out of here?”
“Oh, my mother,” answered Louise. “She was determined I was going to marry rich—locally rich—and she figured I needed a fancy education to make up for my lack of beauty.”
“But you failed. At the locally rich thing!” laughed Dawn, and suddenly Louise was sober, almost dour.
“It was the big failure of my life. Because I didn’t want to leave. I really didn’t. I knew I lived in the most interesting place on earth, and I desperately wanted to marry someone local and spend my whole life here. And then somehow I got disconnected and,” she resumed her good humor with a laugh, “I never found anyone local who wanted to marry me.”
“Why did you want to stay put?” questioned Dawn, whose own departure was the most intelligent thing she’d ever done.
“Because I knew the most complicated, intelligent people in the world lived right here, people who knew what to expect from life and how to deal with its slender rewards as well as its well-deserved blows, and I knew that if I stayed here, I’d learn the truth about reality. And if I left. . . ?” Louise wavered.
“The Truth about Reality? How did you come up with that idea?” Dawn asked, and Louise explained she hadn’t discovered it on her own.
“An old woman who was born and raised here taught me that our town was home to the most sophisticated people on the face of the planet. And I believed her completely even though I knew Indianapolis was probably the farthest she’d ever travelled.”
“What was her name?” Dawn asked in disbelief.
“Bessie Mae Donovan. God rest her soul.”
“Oh, my God! I know her!” Dawn all but jumped out of her seat. “Well, I knew her. We lived next door to her on Wysor Street when I was about seven years old. Wasn’t her husband chief of police? I remember they were serious Catholics. She had a picture of the Virgin Mary in her living room. She subscribed to True Detective magazine. She had a wire-haired terrier named Mischief and she gave me a puppy named Mischief’s Whiskers. I remember her living room and her dog and how her husband shot off his gun in the driveway every Fourth of July. But I don’t remember any complicated, intelligent, sophisticated people hanging around the house.”
And that’s when Louise explained how Bessie Mae Donovan had taught her about people who knew the truth about life “because they’d learned it right here in Muncie,” Muncie, Indiana, with its population of 50,000, its car and canning jar factories, its teachers college, and the Middletown studies that had made it famous in academic circles all over the world.
“Well, okay,” granted Dawn. “But how in the world did you meet her? The Bessie Mae I knew certainly wasn’t. . . what? Head of Extracurricular Studies in the Truth of Life.”
It turned out to be a story Louise was eager to tell. Her father was an accountant at Ball Brothers while her mother stayed home with the children. They were careful with money, never taking exotic vacations or belonging to the country club (although her father played golf anywhere he was asked). Still, despite their thrift, the thought of putting three children through college kept them up at night. So her mother went back to Ball State, finished up her elementary education degree and, because she was a mature adult and her husband well-respected in the community, got a wonderful job running fundraising efforts at the college. The only problem was that her children were still at home, the boys, nine and eleven, attending Emerson Elementary and Louise in her first year at McKinley Junior High. All the churches had good summer programs, so that problem was solved, but what to do during the school year? Most working mothers would have given each child a house key and strict instructions to go home immediately after school, eat a cookie, drink a glass of milk, and watch television for an hour or two until Mom arrived home to get dinner started. But Louise’s parents were ambitious. They knew unsupervised children can’t be counted on to do what’s best for them. Instead they watch television nonstop, talk with their friends on the phone, and pretty soon get the notion they can go outside and play basketball in the alley and completely ignore their homework so they never get into the good colleges that lead to successful careers for the not-really-brilliant boys and rich marriages for the not-very-pretty girl.
Under the circumstances, Mr. and Mrs. Adams did the best thing possible, which was get a babysitter. For years Bessie Mae Donovan—yes, her husband had been chief of police and they were faithful congregants at St. Lawrence’s—Bessie Mae had worked as secretary for a heating and plumbing contractor who was famous for raising prize bulldogs, a fact somewhat beside the point for Louise since Bessie Mae had left Jones Heating and Plumbing by the time she was hired to watch the Adams children. Retired, nothing to do, husband dead, four boys successfully employed (two in the police department), their wives working, their mothers taking care of the grandchildren, Bessie Mae figured she might as well take on the task of babysitting for the Adams children five afternoons a week. Louise didn’t know how much she’d been paid. Not much probably. In any case she showed up reliably at three, let the kids in the house, made sure they drank their milk and ate their choice of an apple, an orange, or a banana and started in right away on their homework. No TV, no telephone calls, no playing ball in the alley. Well, not at first. After a few weeks the boys were lounging in front of the tube eating Twinkies (secretly smuggled in and handed out for compliant behavior) while Bessie Mae sat at the kitchen table drinking a beer (wrapped in a concealing potholder) and Louise sat across from her, learning why Muncie was the most interesting place on the face of the planet because its citizens were easily the most sophisticated people in the universe because they’d learned the truth about reality.
Right from the first it made sense to Louise that Bessie Mae would know so much about Muncie because Jones Heating was located at the center of downtown, across the street from the courthouse, half a block from the county jail, one block from Walnut Street (the main drag), two blocks from the Elks, and maybe three blocks at most from the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, the Masonic Temple, the American Legion, the Kiwanis Club, and the police department. It was perfectly understandable that since she’d worked at Jones Heating for twenty years, Bessie Mae would know everybody in town, where they lived and worked, and the beliefs as well as the sins that kept them going. It made perfect sense that she would know who people really were, the white males who managed the banks and the national brands like Sears and Penney’s, the Jews (a father Jew, a mother Jew, and a nephew Jew) who owned the local businesses, including all the jewelry stores, the Catholics who provided staff for the fire and police departments as well as the courthouse and City Hall. Strangely enough Bessie Mae knew absolutely nothing about Muncie’s Negroes. It was as if she’d never noticed they existed. But she more than made up for that by her intimate knowledge of every poor white in town, no matter what church they went to, even if it was Protestant.
Yes, Bessie Mae knew everybody in Muncie who’d had an illicit affair, everybody who’d had a bastard, everybody who’d made money doing something sleazy, and, maybe more important, she knew how people tried to hide their boring lives behind all the luxuries that money can buy, enormous houses and fancy furniture, elaborate cars and endless vacations at the lakes that were just as boring as their daily lives. She knew the exact price of all the expensive clothes women bought to disguise their ugliness and all those boats, golf clubs, hunting rifles, and motorcycles men bought to conceal how stupid they were. Yes, she knew exactly who bought what and how much money they wasted on whatever it was. Best of all, Bessie Mae was particularly hard on Muncie’s ministers and priests, who basically dished out a slightly different sort of bullshit from the bankers and lawyers, not to mention the ladies’ magazines and movie magazines and teenage magazines. Crap galore. In short, Bessie Mae carefully taught Louise that love is just a bunch of nonsense and luxurious possessions are just another disguise for meaninglessness and most of what passes for culture is just a way of controlling people by telling them lies. Nothing so bad for people, according to Bessie Mae, as the Family, the Church, and the State.
“A strange message for a Roman Catholic mother of four whose husband was chief of police. But she never preached. Actually she never said anything straight out. She just gave examples, just told stories about everyday people in Muncie, Indiana.”
As they ate their apple pie and had seconds, Louise went on to tell Dawn about some of the people she’d learned about from Bessie Mae: Elizabeth Russell, a really fat woman everybody made fun of even though she was one of the most generous donors in town, giving money to everything from the Civic Theater to the YWCA; Laura Pippen, a clerk at the drugstore who used to hang out in Beech Grove Cemetery picking up widowers when they visited the graves of their dead wives and worming money out of them by tearfully explaining that the love of her life, Teddy Carroll, was buried there, right there; and Maury Hole, whose wife Dolores collected imitation jewelry and when she died found out it was all real and sold it for good hard cash and moved to Florida; Mr. and Mrs. Green, who were totally bored with each other until they hired a cleaning lady who invited boyfriends into the house when the Greens were at work and made love with them in the master bedroom, and when the Greens found out about it, their sexual relationship was totally revived, and they gave the cleaning woman a handsome raise; and Mrs. Martin, who saved her marriage by making Mr. Martin pay her a thousand dollars a month to fuck him, just as if she were some really expensive whore, and once he started paying her he found her attractive all over again; Professor Holland out at the college, who criticized his teaching assistant so harshly she jumped out a window and ended up a permanent cripple in a wheelchair and Professor Holland felt so guilty he married her and was always faithful because he really got off on the cripple/paralyzed thing; and Mr. Rowell, who cut off the right hand of this man he hated and nailed it to his living room wall and then one night they found Mr. Rowell dead with five nails hammered into his chest and a bitten-off index finger in his mouth and a month later someone left a severed hand on his grave, one missing a finger, a really mysterious and not-to-be-explained event; and the fat woman on the train, fat because she was nursing a baby, but she’d left the baby at home, so another passenger sucked out her milk, a real favor for both of them because she was suffering and he hadn’t eaten for two days; and the couple who got arrested for doing it behind a bush in one of the city parks and then turned out to be the Dorans, a married couple in their sixties, totally respectable members of the country club, but Mr. Doran couldn’t get it up in bed anymore so they’d taken to the wilderness; and the five men (golfing buddies at the country club) who were all fucking a divorcee and, when she got pregnant and lost the baby, made a vow in the men’s locker room that they would all persist until she conceived again.
Once Louise got started, there was no stopping her, and as soon as the dessert plates were cleared, Dawn led her outside, away from the ongoing party, so she’d be the only one to hear her rant about all these amazing people who could very well be the close relatives of the Muncie Central grads at the surrounding tables. Luckily, Louise was easy to lure outside in part because she seemed to have little interest in their former classmates despite all those claims about the exceptionally sophisticated wisdom of Muncie’s populace. Once outside, Dawn led her over to the swimming pool where the lights were off and the women could sit all but hidden in the darkness, Louise talking on and on, her voice projecting an otherworldly wisdom learned at the feet of a mysterious goddess whose favorite places in Muncie were the Fosdick, the Delaware, and Weinstein’s, which quickly became her own favorite places.
It was important for Dawn to understand that Bessie Mae could have pointed out everybody’s houses and businesses on a map, had one existed, and after a few months of babysitting for the Adams children, she’d even leave the boys in front of the TV with a pile of Twinkies and take Louise for a quick tour of downtown Muncie to show her where things happened, and after a while Louise would sometimes lie about choir practice and walk around downtown just to see exactly what was going on at the Fosdick and the Delaware and Weinstein’s. Usually nothing at all, but that was probably because it was late afternoon. Still, it was important to go look at them because, Louise explained, if she hadn’t seen the places in Muncie where everything took place, she’d never have believed anything Bessie Mae told her.
“There’s nothing like a good solid building to ground history in reality,” Louise explained. “History, gossip, call it what you will.”
Dawn tried to remember what the Fosdick, the Delaware, and Weinstein’s were while Louise began to explain that one of the most important places in Muncie was the Fosdick, a bar three doors down from Jones Heating. Bessie Mae had known Tony, the owner/bartender, from childhood. A really fat guy, popular with everyone, and then he had a stroke. Couldn’t stand up, let alone walk, couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and every once in a while turn over. Which he called moving North or South. His wife, Martha, tried to carry on. You know her, Bessie Mae had reminded Louise. The tall dark thin woman behind the bar? (And eventually Louise did at least know who Martha was because one day she lied about volleyball practice and took off downtown, walking by the Fosdick and staring in the window until Martha appeared. Tony, of course, remained invisible.) Well, Martha was one practical gal, according to Bessie Mae. They lived in a small apartment behind the barroom, and in the alley behind the building Martha had a vegetable garden and a grape arbor and she also raised chickens, and one day when she was setting eggs under her brown hen (because that’s the way you get chickens to hatch from eggs), it occurred to her that Tony was going to waste, just lying there in bed, barely moving North or South. And so she made him promise not to move at all and carefully placed five eggs in each of his armpits where it was so warm and cozy that every one of them hatched. Not a single egg went to waste!
Disgusting, Louise had said. She couldn’t imagine having one chicken, let alone ten of them crawling around in your armpits. No, no, explained Bessie Mae, it wasn’t disgusting. It was wonderful. First of all Tony would feel a little tickle, and then he’d hear a little cheep, and then he’d call Martha, and she’d pluck the chicken out from under the blanket, and pretty soon Tony would only let her put eggs under his left arm so he could use his right hand to pluck out the little critters and sweetly cheep back to them and, yes, fall in love with each little chick, just the way you fall in love when you see your very own baby for the first time. Now, isn’t that wonderful! Loving animals as if they’re humans is something only really civilized folks do. But you mustn’t mention it to anybody because it’s probably illegal to raise chickens inside the city limits, let alone in your armpits. Tony and Martha could get arrested and we wouldn’t want that, would we? Oh, no. Louise promised she’d never say a word. And what do they do with the beloved chicks? Well, explained Bessie Mae, they eat them or sell them to their neighbors to eat. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Muncie’s restaurants have become famous for their free-range fried chicken. And all though junior high and high school and even on her rare trips home from college and law school Louise would walk by the Fosdick and wave to Martha, one of the most sophisticated people in the world, who had somehow managed to connect love with tastiness. And Louise laughed her head off one morning when she heard an old song on the radio, something to the effect of putting all your eggs in one basket. But, strange to say, she never dared go inside the Fosdick and have a drink, even after she turned twenty-one, and she was never fond of chicken, no matter how it was fixed, a distaste that spread to meat in general so that by the time she was thirty she was a vegetarian, not even eating fish.
Bessie Mae loved the Fosdick, where she still went every evening to have a beer with her good friends Tony and Martha, but her favorite bit of gossip was connected to the Delaware Hotel, a stately mansion right across from City Hall and really too fancy for the likes of her. She had explained to Louise one day that for years the Delaware had been Muncie’s only whorehouse, which surprised Louise because even at thirteen she knew that all Muncie’s whorehouses were safely located across the railroad tracks on South Walnut Street at the edge of Shed Town, where the white trash lived. Oh, no, explained Bessie Mae. Those are just bars. The Delaware Hotel is Muncie’s only real whorehouse, the institution that keeps our men from becoming barbarians. And then she explained how every civilized town needs a whorehouse just like they have to have a courthouse and a high school and twenty different churches, and the Delaware Hotel is the place where Muncie’s best men, the civic leaders, the solid citizens, gather every Saturday night to have champagne with the three most sophisticated prostitutes and Mrs. Siddons, the madame. That’s what they call the woman who runs things, Bessie Mae explained. Every Saturday night upstairs in the guest parlor you can find the head of Farmers Union Bank, the mayor, the presidents of Warner Gear and Ball Brothers and Ball State Teachers College, while downstairs in the bar the two other whores entertain all the commonplace fellows—poor whites, Democrats, Bearcat fans, high school dropouts, you know the type. According to Bessie Mae, at one point, many years ago, some citizens who didn’t approve of the Delaware—you know, DAR social climbers—would try to close it down about every six months, until “The Excursion” proved beyond a doubt that the Delaware was absolutely necessary to Muncie, just like the public library and the YMCA and the twenty different churches, and since then nobody has ever tried to shut it down again.
What came to be called “The Excursion,” Bessie Mae explained to Louise, came about because Mrs. Siddons had to go to her niece’s christening in Boonville, a little village in the southern part of the state near Evansville, where there are still a lot of Roman Catholics, German mostly but also Irish like Bessie Mae herself, and since Mrs. Siddons didn’t trust any of the girls to run things while she was gone, she just closed the place down and brought all five whores along with her. It was a wild trip. They took the bus, which was a lot of fun because there was a salesman on board who had a big suitcase of garters, and he gave everybody a pair. (They’re these big rubber bands professional women use to hold up their stockings.) And when they got there all six women were treated like guests of honor, sharing bedrooms in Mrs. Siddons’s brother’s house, seated in the front row of St. Dominic’s, and treated to a luxurious dinner after the ceremony. But the best thing was what happened back in Muncie on the Saturday night the Delaware was closed down. Because all those thugs who usually hung out in the downstairs bar wandered around town, drinking out of bottles and throwing them through windows and getting into fights with each other, while the gentlemen who usually gathered upstairs had to stay home with their wives or go to the country club where they discovered they were bored out of their wits. Why didn’t they just go to the movies? Louise asked. And Bessie Mae explained that when she got older Louise would understand there are some things the movies can’t take care of. And certainly when she got older Louise could never walk past the Delaware without thinking that churches are important, and high schools and colleges are terrific, but pity the town that doesn’t have a good whorehouse to keep its male citizens civilized. In fact, after the Delaware closed down in the 1980s, Louise never felt entirely safe walking the streets of downtown Muncie on the rare occasions she came home for a visit. And, knowing the truth of this reality, she forgave her husbands for any sexual sins long before they committed them. And of course her lovers too.
After the Fosdick and the Delaware, Louise’s favorite place, thanks to Bessie Mae, was Weinstein’s Jewelry, which was located next door to the Rivoli movie theater. It was run by Morton Weinstein, best friend of Mr. Jones, Bessie Mae’s boss, who was the one who told Bessie Mae how Sara got her well-deserved comeuppance—a story he undoubtedly acquired from Mr. Weinstein since it was a terrific advertisement (if carefully edited) of Mr. Weinstein’s amazing artistic skill. The Sara of the story was one of snottiest people you could ever be unlucky enough to meet. Her father was some kind of manager at Warner Gear so they lived in Westwood, Muncie’s fanciest neighborhood, and belonged to the Delaware Country Club and Sara went to Burris, the toney semi-private school associated with the college. And then it all ended abruptly. When Sara was in high school her father killed himself because of some financial scandal, probably stealing from the company, and the family was so hard up they couldn’t even afford to send Sara to Ball State, so she married Tom and ended up earning a living as a clerk at Sears while her husband taught fifth grade at McKinley Elementary. Poor as shit when she’d always figured she was better than everybody else and it was her birthright to have a big house in Westwood and belong to the country club, and there she was living in a two-bedroom rental in Shed Town and earning a living ringing up sales at Sears, and one day, out of the blue her husband brought home an invitation to a big party that was being hosted by the Muncie School Board out at the country club. Wasn’t she excited? Well, no. She didn’t even have a decent dress to wear. Okay, Tom could understand that, so he gave her some money he’d been saving up to buy a new fishing rod, and she went to Ball Stores and bought a beautiful dress. But when she got it home and tried it on again, she realized she didn’t have any jewelry to wear with it so she’d probably just look like she was social climbing when she’d spent her youth swimming in the country club pool and playing the country club golf course. Happily it occurred to her that she could borrow something from Polly Mead, her best friend from Burris, who’d married well even though she was flat-chested and not half as pretty as Sara, and, sure enough, Polly said, Choose whatever you want, and as it turned out Sara ended up borrowing the diamond necklace Polly’s husband had given her on their first anniversary. It looked spectacular with the new dress, and Sara really did look beautiful. The Superintendent of Schools was really impressed. And then somewhere on the way home, she lost the necklace. It wasn’t in the bathroom or out on the sidewalk or in the car. Maybe it fell off at the country club. Tom drove back out and looked around, to no avail. It was gone. Weinstein’s was the name on the empty box, so Sara and Tom went to the store the next day, only to have Morton explain that he hadn’t sold a diamond necklace to Polly Mead’s husband. Somehow it had just ended up in one of his boxes. Well, could he make one? Sara wanted to know. A diamond necklace? Sure, Morton said, sure, if you can describe it to me. But diamond necklaces don’t come cheap, he reminded them. Oh, no matter, joked Sara and Tom, and they described what the necklace looked like. They even drew a little picture, and Morton was such a genius—as Mr. Jones explained to Bessie Mae—that the necklace he made looked just like the lost one and when Sara returned it, all full of chatter about how much the Superintendent of Schools had admired it, Polly didn’t notice a thing, Morton was that great a jeweler. Of course the real problem for Sara and Tom was paying Morton for the necklace, which turned out to be a terrible ordeal. They skimped on everything, they worked day and night, they didn’t have children, they worried about getting enough to eat. But finally they paid Morton off, and, comeuppance being what it is, the very day they paid him off Polly Mead came into Sears to buy some cheap underwear—God knows why—and there was Sara, who hated Polly Mead for being rich and owning a diamond necklace. She hated her so much that she told Polly Mead in no uncertain terms how borrowing her fucking diamond necklace had ruined her life. Diamond necklace? said Polly Mead. Yes, I borrowed your diamond necklace and lost it and had a new one made for you, and paying off Morton “The Jew” Weinstein has ruined our lives. Diamond necklace? said Polly. My necklace wasn’t made of real diamonds. Those diamonds were fakes.
Isn’t that something? said Bessie Mae. Louise wanted to know: Did Polly Mead pay Sara for the necklace? Or did she just give the necklace to Sara and let her try to sell it to someone else? Well, said Bessie Mae, as I recall, Polly Mead was so rich she thought nothing of paying Sara the money for Morton’s real diamond necklace and it was enough for Tom and Sara to buy a three-bedroom house and have a baby. Now, didn’t I tell you Muncie is the home of the most sophisticated people in the world? And throughout junior high and high school and when she came back home during college and law school, Louise would walk by Morton Weinstein’s jewelry shop pretending to look at charm bracelets and strings of fake pearls but really stealing glances at Morton himself, who was so talented a jeweler he could make a necklace out of real diamonds that was indistinguishable from a necklace of fakes. And she always made sure in the years to come that any diamonds her husbands gave her were real diamonds and she was careful never to loan anything to anybody.
On and on Louise babbled until Dawn could hold her tongue no longer. “So, are you using the reunion as an excuse to come back and find out what’s happened to all the sophisticated people in Muncie who learned the truth about reality?”
Louise laughed, “No, I’m not that stupid. I’m taking advantage of the reunion to make myself come back to Muncie and pick up a book my little brother Ben found when he was packing up the house after Mother’s death. She’d left a note on it to the effect that Bessie Mae had wanted for me to have it. It was so precious he refused to send it though the mail.” To prove she was telling the truth, Louise fished a book out of her purse, and the women went back inside so they could get a good look. The book was fairly thick, bound in leather looking a little the worse for wear, more like old tree bark than leather with gold trim and a square yellow name plate inside: a drawing of a man setting type and Property of BESSIE MAE DONOVAN, 400 East Willard Street, Muncie, Indiana—a book of short stories published by P.F. Collier & Son in New York in 1903. It looked well read, as if Bessie Mae had gone through it more than a few times.
Several months later I went down to St Petersburg Beach to visit Dawn, and one afternoon when we were enjoying our martinis out on the deck she told me about the reunion and Louise and Bessie Mae. And, cynical bitch that I am, I couldn’t help asking, “Hadn’t Louise ever come across any of those stories in the outside world? Didn’t she read them in that fancy East Coast college she went to?”
“Well, yes. I guess she’d come across the famous one.”
“Wasn’t she upset when she realized she’d been deceived?” I asked.
“She was a little miffed at first, but now she looks on the whole thing as a stroke of good luck.”
Good luck? I couldn’t help asking, “Have you ever read them?”
“Only the famous one. What about you, Smarty Pants?”
“Only the famous one. But I’ve always meant to read the others, and now I will. I promise I will. Any day now. I really will.”
“We could order them on Amazon. We could probably even get a copy of Bessie Mae’s edition,” Dawn suggested, more than half in jest.
But in the end that’s what we did.
Jane Gillette has published short fiction in a variety of journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hopkins Review, Zyzzyva, and the Missouri Review. She has won a Laurence Prize and an O. Henry Prize and is a past winner of the Missouri Review’s Peden Prize. Her debut story collection, The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories, is out today from Missouri Review Books.
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