Maybe the Best Suspense Novel This Year

The Child

By Fiona Barton

Fiona Barton, formerly a newspaper woman, with among her stints time at the hugely popular Daily Mail, probably wondered how she could top her blockbuster The Widow. Don’t know if you’ll think this tops that real gripper, but most certainly you’ll agree The Child is its equal.

Briefly, during a gentrification project, workers turn up the corpse of an infant, baby Alice, or as she comes to be known, The Building Site Baby. Kate Waters, crack reporter for the Daily Post, decides to do a small piece on the grim discovery. That squib gets noticed by two different women: Angela, who believes it is her baby stolen from her at the maternity hospital as an infant; and Emma, who begins to worry that questions will be asked and people will discover the horrible thing she did.

Kate, with the help of cub sidekick Joe, does the initial leg work on the case, before the police become involved. It explodes into a major story involving a nearly three-decade-old child abduction case (Angela), a broken home and apparent lunacy (Emma), and a ring of pedophiles (dastardly landlord and college prof). You’ll think you’ve figured out the case in relatively short order, but don’t get ahead of yourself, buddy. Barton is truly skillful in laying on the twists and turns.

She also, from personal experience, knows how police investigations and investigative reporters work. Her most critical skill, as she teaches Joe, is making people comfortable with her, of encouraging them to treat her as their friend. Naturally, this exposes her to a large degree of emotional involvement with people and their lives. It’s this characteristic that provides The Child a powerful emotional punch, particularly at the end.

You’ll also find the novel interesting for Barton’s treatment of the transition of print media to online. Joe, the young whippersnapper he begins as, learns a lot from her, as do all of us readers.

If you are in the mood for truly gripping suspense, get a copy of Barton’s latest. And then wonder with the rest of us, and herself: How will she top it next time? w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 6: TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (Part 1, 2, and 3)

1

I am alone in our Cranbury house, on my bed, crying uncontrollably. I’ve just devoted the past half-hour to emptying my closet. I was searching for myself, littering the bedroom with reminders of who I had been. Remnants of me ornament the floor, dresser, chair, and my bed; and I am sitting amid every bit of who I was, fingering articles idly, but mostly staring at the dresser mirror, framing me, hardly able to see my reflection through my filmy eyes, really not wishing to look at me, but drawn by the compelling necessity of liking me again.

Hatred consumes me. I hate Volkswagens. I don’t actually despise the car, but what it symbolizes—me as I am now. I am huge. My belly protrudes and I can’t avoid seeing it no matter what I am doing, whether standing, sitting, or lying. It always looms below me and depresses me. I’ve been pregnant for seven months and happy in my state until now, because today I know how Richard really feels about me.

2

This morning, I made his breakfast, as I always do. He appeared at six, as he always does. I sat across from him, as usual staring at the newspaper, which has become a fixture over the past month, as much a part of the kitchen as the clock on the wall, the tick-tock of which was, as usual, the sole sound.

Finally, finished, he rustled the paper, folded it precisely, and set it carefully on the table. He regarded me. He smiled, a cool, mechanical curving of his lips.

He said, “Babe, you know, you’re beginning to remind me of a Volkswagen.”

I replied, startled, “What?”

Rising, he clarified, “Your girth.”

He may as well have bashed my head with the toaster for he could not have knocked me into more of a daze. I sat stock still, aghast. I watched him walk with his plate to the counter, where he set it next to the sink. It was simply too much trouble, or maybe too considerate, or a breach of his definition of duties, to rinse the damn thing and put it in the dishwasher.

Wearing a robotic grin, he strolled to the hall, to the closet for his overcoat. “Come on,” he said, not bothering to look at me, to check my reaction, “I’m joking, Babe.” Then, “You’re not losing your sense of humor, too, I hope.”

Had he glanced my way, he would have seen me reddening, the outward sign my blood pressure was straining my poor tired veins and arteries, already roughed up badly by my pregnancy. He was gone, the door slammed behind him, as I gasped for air and tottered on my chair, fighting to regain control of myself, afraid I’d soon sprawl on the floor, baby injured, maybe fatally, and mother-to-be helpless for hours until the malefactor, my husband, returned to the scene of his insult.

3

Here I am, then, in my bedroom, in my bed, amid my debris.

I am the size and weight of a small car. I am not even flesh and blood, but a machine laboring at one task, presenting Richard with a child. Here, there, and everywhere is who I was. The sweet, adoring newlywed who capered around Hawaii in coral shorts. The jazzy little girl who danced summer parties in Creek Falls in a red sun dress, staying awake all night talking up gales with Angie and Rosemary. Why did I keep the dress? To remain in touch with myself, my girl self. Maybe I’ve always been this way, a person who lives in the past. With me on the bed is my charcoal suit, remembrance of the teacher I thought I might be, until Richard declared I shouldn’t work, that I had another job ahead of me, more important: wife, nurturer of his career, mother, diminishing myself for the good of the nascent family.

I’m crying over sacrificed ambition, but I am on the verge of laughing, too, at my plight, at Richard, who has inflicted it on me, at myself for allowing him to. I am there in full, the relics of a life hoped for, a story written in department store couture.

Reclining on pillows against the headboard, hiding from the mirror, I ponder Richard’s degradation of me: I am a Volkswagen. But Richard is not joking, for when I review the past several months, the truth is apparent. He has treated me like a car he sometimes tinkers with. He doesn’t make love to my anymore. He works on me. He sees I’m out of tune and he rectifies the problem with a quick fuck. He sees I’m a bit sluggish and he compliments profusely, falsely; it’s like an oil change at the quick lube: efficient and fast, the job done in record time, and cheaply too. I seem dull to him; he buffs with a little gift, dime store jewelry, supermarket flowers, little considerations that aren’t, not really, just items to make him feel good about himself; they have nothing to do with me. For what am I but a machine, a not very cute bug.

My little motor is chugging hard and sending current through the wires of my body, sparking my belts and pulleys, my muscles, and I shift in bed, and I glance unavoidably into the mirror, where I gratefully don’t glimpse myself but, frightfully, see, instead, a nemesis from the past. Julie gloats at me with obscenely red lips, with a lascivious wet tongue clucking against artificially white teeth, head bobbing, eyes wide and bright and moist, mirthful at my expense. I rub my own eyes hard and red and am sick again at myself now reflecting back, a sad, miserable case of blotched skin and snotty nose and bloodshot eyes and rampaging hair. My crimson eyes speak to me and confirm what I know: Richard is cheating on me. I’m not a woman, not the girl he has known since Creek Falls, not a wife, not the soon-to-be mother of his child; I am inanimate, a hunk of matter, blind, he believes, to the obvious.

What a pitiful situation. I’ve suspected him for months. You can’t live with a man like Richard and not know his foibles, especially in the department of sex. Richard is omnivorous and insatiable. Before my pregnancy, I could not keep out of bed, or off the floor, or the dining room table, or the backseat of the car, or any flat surface that presented itself. Indoors, outdoors, Richard craved me. He is—was—a generous lover, a lover of long, lingering kissing and licking and stroking and languorous undulation. He wanted me to be happy, to be filled; he seemed deliciously unselfish, champion of my satisfaction: He wasn’t sated unless I was. Sometimes, I admit, it was simply too much for me, too much of a good thing. I couldn’t keep up, but I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t deprive him of his pleasure, the duality of release and pleasing me. But sometimes I just had to fake satisfaction to keep him happy. There was much I could complain about, but never that Richard did not or would not please me sexually. Until I announced my pregnancy. And even then sex went on and did not diminish until I changed physically. When my belly blossomed, my breasts enlarged, the veins in my legs thrust to the surface; when I metamorphosed into the Volkswagen, sex drove away. And the question plaguing me, the question I work very hard at dodging, the question is: What is Richard doing for sex?

Once, we discussed masturbation. We were at Rider in the student union drinking coffee and talking about everything and nothing. A loud conversation broke out at the next table and vulgarities flew, among them jerk-off artist. It was purely friendly argument and Richard and I laughed along with the debaters. Later, as he walked me to my dorm, as I worried about him in Olsen A atop the coeds on the second floor, I asked, timidly, “Have you ever, you know?”

“Know what?” he asked, innocently, like a fresh-faced who stumbles in on his parents in the throes.

I heat with embarrassment. How could I have asked such an indelicate question, the answer to which I really did not wish to know?

Before I finished the thought, he was following on with, “You mean beat my meat, stroke my pole, whack off, jerk off, pull the putz, that sort of thing?” I had to stop walking and throw my hands over my face to hid from him and his words.

Gently, he tugged my hands from my face. He was smiles and cheer. “You wanted to know.” I couldn’t decide if he was purposely crude or wickedly funny. I chose to believe the latter. “I learned from the old man the minute I walked in the house with a hard-on, don’t waste the seed.” He observed me closely and my already hot face flamed. “Consequently, Babe, I’ve been a very frustrated young man.”

It hit me like an accusation.

What If You Could Have 4 Lives?

4321

By Paul Auster

Lives You Could Have

Paul Auster explores in great detail the effects a change early on can make in a life. The subject is Archie Ferguson and the change is the burning down of his father’s appliance/furniture store. As Archie himself muses fifty or so pages in, “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now.” The last line is the theme of the novel, a “what if” game played on what is at once a small and large field, these being one man’s life through some turbulent times, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s an interesting thought for the very reason it is unoriginal: nearly everybody wonders what if at some point. Few, however, flesh things out in the extravagant detail you’ll find in 4 3 2 1.

Auster groups Archie’s four possible lives into seven chapters, dividing each chapter into four parts, Archie’s four lives. This can make for some reading challenges. As you might imagine, once you’ve read through a full chapter you have to pick up the thread of Archie’s first life again. Auster thankfully puts in small markers at the start of each to help you orient yourself. Just a guess here, but he’s also anticipated that some readers after the first chapter will decide to simplify things on their own by reading each life straight through. Not a bad strategy for keeping everything straight as Auster cobbles on a coda at the very end which sorts out the real and imagined. The only proviso here: you’ll want to read them in order, that is life one first, etc.

Prepare yourself for lives in great detail. Few of us probably are as introspective as the four Archies, even as a small child, since he is quite a precocious fellow. Archie delves deeply and in detail into home life, all school levels, sports, current events (assassinations, wars, elections, poverty, white flight, etc.), and particularly love and relationships, his own, his parents’, grandparents’, and friends’. No wonder the novel clocks in at 866 pages.

However, because Auster writes deftly, the whole thing moves along at a fairly rapid pace. So, don’t be put off by the massive paragraphs and the long winding sentences. They may appear intimidating, but you’ll find yourself gliding along without much trouble.

Will you like the novel and will you be willing to spend a considerable amount of time with it? You will if the idea of “what if” intrigues you. You will probably pause from time to time to consider your own multiverses. You certainly will if the time periods interest you. Auster does a remarkable job of hitting all the high and low points, a memory jogger for older readers and an introduction to interesting times for younger readers. And, finally, if you click with the fellow who will be with you every minute of the trip, Archie. w/c

A Beautiful Relationship

Suspect

By Robert Crais

It’s been awhile since we’ve read a Crais book, and we’re happy to see he’s lost none of his skill at writing a compelling tale, if this 2013 outing is indicative of his current work. What makes this effort so special is how he is able to portray the developing relationship between Officer Scott James and his K-9 corps dog Maggie. If you have any heart at all, any feeling for your fellow man and for beautiful, loyal, and determined dogs, you’ll find yourself growing misty-eyed in the final moments of the book.

Maggie is an ex-Marine dog. She suffers from the loss of her Marine handler killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, as well as PTSD and wounds in the attack. Officer James also suffers from PTSD and wounds received in a brutal shooting incident, as well as the loss of his partner. They come together at the LAPD canine training facility.

As we follow them learning about each other and developing a trusting relationship, we develop an attachment and affection for their partnership, and, in particular, for Maggie, the best friend a man could ever have. Our education about military and police canines, their almost incredible abilities and their unbreakable loyalty to their handlers, is the real strength of the novel. Crais does a good job of putting us into the mind of Maggie, so much so that by the end we feel as attached to her as Officer James does.

There’s not much more to say, except pick up a copy and discover a crime story with real heart. w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part4)

4

I’d set the oven timer and its ding rouses me from my reverie; and as I revive, the front door opens and I hear the familiar call, “Babe, I’m home.”

My call is rote, already perfunctory from hundreds of repetitions. “In here, Richard.”

I’m placing the plates and utensils on the table and it occurs to me that in many ways my life is like a play: It’s scripted morning to night. Everything we say is like precast dialogue. We have memorized our lines well and spiel them, unvaried, every hour of every day. Like actors, we’ve worked at nuance; each common phrase packs meaning for us—well, for me at least. “Babe, I’m home” is more than a simple, pleasant greeting; rather, it is Richard’s announcement for me to prepare myself for any number of things: He will relate the important events of his day and I should be prepared to listen with rapt attention; he will inquire about how I have spent my day and I should answer with the correct amount of detail, not so much that I bore him, but enough so I assure him I haven’t frittered away my time; he will ask for a progress report on Samantha, sort of like a status update from an employee on the growth of an account. Babe, I’m home alerts me to be on my ready, and tightens the cord of tension in me to the limit of its tensile strength.

I remain in the kitchen taking care of the finishing touches: the salt and pepper (I never seem to season his food to his liking), the napkins (I learned early cloth only when he declared paper low class, though paper is acceptable for breakfast), and our beverages (iced tea only, as he complains soda bloats him and water is tasteless).

In he strolls and I turn. Reacting to the surprise on my face, he quickly says, as if he means it, “I should have called, but it was last minute.”

Last Minute stands next to him, still and expressive as a statue. He is a tall man, thin and angular, his hands bony, his Adam’s apple prominent and protruding offensively. I want to ask Richard if the man is a circus act: He wears bright blue from head to toe. He is in a shirt and tie and they are blue. A hat, a fedora, covers his head, and it is blue. As if this is not sufficiently bizarre, every article of clothing is exactly the same shade. I am confounded as much by the consistency of the man’s blues and as I am at the man’s presence. I want to demand of Richard what he is thinking, why he would invite a stranger into our house unannounced, how he could expect me to accommodate his guest without notice.

Richard focuses on the man and snickers. “Oh-oh, I believe I have committed a grave error.”

The man in blue acknowledges nothing. He appears not to be present in any manner but physical, in my kitchen in form only.

I am unhappy and distressed, and I am waiting for Richard to introduce us. Time passes and Richard’s behavior strikes me as unlike him. For all his faults, he is at least superficially considerate and a keen observer of social form. Yet, the clock ticks away two minutes without introductions.

Finally, I introduce myself; but the man in blue doesn’t acknowledge me.

“He’s the quiet type,” Richard says. “He can talk okay, but he chooses to keep to himself. What’s for dinner?”

“Tuna casserole,” I answer, going to the oven and removing the baking dish. “I hope there’s enough.”

Richard and the man in blue seat themselves at the table. I ask what they would like to drink.

“The usual,” Richard answers.

I serve them ice tea, set the man’s place, and sit. Richard dishes up the tuna casserole. Richard and I eat. The man in blue eats or drinks nothing. Richard and I eat in silence for a few moments, until I can’t stand the quiet any longer.

“Are you from here?” I ask.

He ignores me. In frustration, but nicely, I ask Richard, “Who is your friend?”

Richard praises my tuna casserole profusely, as if I’d fished for a compliment instead of inquired about the mysterious man.

I ask again.

Richard, finally, tells me the man is a job candidate.

Ignoring the man, I ask, “But he doesn’t talk. He hasn’t said a single word since he’s been here.”

“No,” acknowledges Richard, “but he’s an authentic closer. Best closer I ever met.”

Closer scares me.

Richard detects the fright in my eyes. “I mean, Bleu ,here—that’s his name, Bleu, Belair Bleu—Bleu can sell up a storm. He’s a very persuasive fellow, when he wants to be. Isn’t that right, Bleu?”

Belair Bleu remains as he has been the entire time, impassive, the anomalous closer.

Richard clamps an arm around Bleu, who has stood in unison with him, and they start for the doorway. Bleu stops abruptly and Richard falters. Bleu leads Richard to the stove. He whispers in Richard’s ear. Richard nods, and I hear him breathe, “Yes, gas.” Bleu twists a knob. They whisper again. I can’t understand them, until Richard shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.” I can’t control myself. I’m shivering and I form horrid ideas about Bleu, and about Richard, who I find I distrust immensely. I suspect the two of hatching a plot, something evil. I flash on Samantha in her crib, helpless.

I envision her in a roasting pan, and I bolt from the kitchen, by way of the living room to avoid the pair, on my way to the stairs and up to her. But what I see parked in our driveway through the panoramic living room window stops me. It’s an old car, which I assume must belong to Bleu, and it’s familiar. I’ve seen Bleu’s car, but as hard as I try I can’t recall where. I should remember, because the car is distinctive. It is bright blue, like his clothing, the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day. The hood is badly dented in two places in the front and on its surface near the windshield. And the windshield, it’s cracked, fine spider threads spreading from the center where something has struck it. I’m reduced to cold tears partly from fear, and partly from my inability to recall where I have seen Bleu’s car. I know the car. I know remembering is important. But my memory is erased.

I gallop up the stairs and into Samantha’s bedroom and I fall into another world; I cannot comprehend the change. Samantha is there, but not in her crib. She is in her big girl bed, the very bed I sometimes imagine her in when she is older. There she is, now grown, in the bed. The cover, a ubiquitous saccharin princess counterpane, is pulled up to the middle of her stomach, and she is upright, reclining against the backboard. She appears to be eight. She sees me and smiles and hides her mouth with her hands and giggles manically. I watch her and I struggle to breathe. Unexpectedly, the cover near her feet writhes and I hear a squeaky roar.

Samantha reacts to my expression of deepening terror. She squeals, “Mommy, it’s not a real lion. Look.” She yanks the cover to reveal the lump.

A little girl with dark hair in princess pajamas pops up. She exclaims, “Surprise, Mommy, it’s me.”

I blurt, “Me who?”

“Me, Emily,” she shouts, jumping up and down on the bed, to the consternation of Samantha.

My confusion consumes me and instantly I’m afraid I will collapse. I can’t remain a second longer in Samantha’s bedroom, yet I am reluctant to leave for fear Bleu may harm her. But I can’t stay, and I bolt the room to the hilarious shrieks of the girls.

As I cross the threshold into the hallway, the chorus merges into one sustained wail. 

Samantha, infant Samantha.

Her cry compels me to return and scoop her up and flee, but I see Richard and Bleu climbing the stairs. I’m rooted and can only watch them step into the hallway. Richard smiles, but without an ounce of warmth or kindness, like burning ice; it is more grimace, engendered not by worry or concern, but anger. I know Richard’s moods. He is adept at disguising his anger, but I know; I read it in his eyes, in the way he narrows them to reptilian slits; the way the whites grow redolent and slowly blink at me like tired warning lights. He disguises their intent with patter, pretty and soothing.

“Babe, you’re tempting when you are like this. What’s wrong with you, anyway? Let me take you into the bedroom, lie you down. You look like you need to rest.”

I feel naked, exposed, vulnerable, trapped. I turn my head around, swiftly, beyond its normal arc until the strain hurts, hunting for an escape route from Richard and Bleu, who is standing directly behind Richard, inscrutable under his bizarre fedora, yet still managing to transmit rays of menace, like in the old comics, visible, pulsating vectors of threat that vibrate me, rattle me top to bottom with terror.

I have no alternative but to back into Samantha’s room. It’s infant Samantha’s room again and I’m relieved, but terrified too, because I know she is in danger. I must save her and me. She is sleeping. As panicked as I am—my arms and hands tremble, my legs wobble, clammy sweat drenches me, I reach down and tenderly lift her, and she comes to me without a hint of stirring. I can’t decide what to do, so I do what I can, and that is back into the corner farthest from the door and pray for the best.

And I begin to believe my prayers are answered, for the door remains closed, the room empty, except for us, and silent.

After a long while, I creep to the door and, with Samantha settled in the crook of an arm, I open it. I peer out, up and down the hallway. It is clear. I tiptoe into the hallway and over to the stairs. I look down and see nothing. It occurs to me Richard and Bleu could be in our bedroom or Richard’s home office, waiting for me. I decide my best course is down the stairs to the main floor, where I can escape to the outside.

I retreat into the family room, where Samantha has a playpen. If I have to act, I want my arms free—though I have no idea how I will use them, not an inkling of how I will repel their assault. I gently place Samantha in her playpen. She mutters, but remains asleep, for which I sigh with relief.

Now I hear footsteps. They are in the kitchen. I hear a voice buzz. Richard, I assume, is whispering to Bleu. I presume the worst. For reasons I can’t fathom, Richard wishes me harm, just me. What is my offense? Loving him beyond good sense? Bearing him a beautiful daughter? Relinquishing control of my life to him? What crime have I committed against him?

The whispering stops. What are they planning? I am tempted to peek in the kitchen, but I know I can’t, not safely. I find myself staring at Samantha. I know my little girl. She’ll sleep for at least another hour, maybe two. I decide my best option is to flee the house. I hate leaving her, but now, inexplicably, my heart changes and I’m convinced Richard will not hurt her, or allow Bleu to. I am the victim, only me.

I tiptoe to the slider. I pause and listen. I flip the lever to unlock the door. Slowly, I slide it open. Again I wait. The house is silent. I stand and gingerly step outside. I’m sweating into my eyes, and they sting. My muscles are taut. I expect one of them to materialize in front of me and grab me, and the other to seize me from behind.

But neither happens and I dart across the patio. I turn and race down along the side of the house toward the front. Just as I clear the house I see them. Richard and Bleu are loitering near the bright blue car. I stop abruptly and twist my ankle. I yelp in pain. Like somnolent retiles aroused, their heads pop up and they swivel and spot me. I should flee into our neighbor’s house. But what if they aren’t home? Instead, I hobble straight ahead, down our front lawn, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I’m limping as fast as I’m able, but the injury hampers me; the pain increases; I’m grunting and mewling like an animal.

I don’t know where I’m headed. I’m just moving, getting away, when I hear a strange whir behind me. At first it’s low and hardly penetrates the thumping in my ears, the rattle of my chest, the ragged whoosh of my breath. I turn back to see what it is, and I see the unnaturally bright blue car swing out of the driveway and plunge forward after me. I can see Bleu behind the wheel. Richard is on our front lawn. He’s holding Samantha and watching. I want cry out for him to protect our daughter. But I can’t. I have to turn and concentrate on the road and my escape. I must move fast, faster, or Bleu will catch me, and I will add to the dents on the hood of his car.

I hobble until I can’t take another step, until I think my heart will explode. But I don’t have to go any farther, because Bleu has overtaken me, and he is slipping the hood of the blue car under me, and he is scooping me up, and I am bouncing on the hood, into the dents, and skidding into the windshield, adding a new crack, sliding up and over the roof, and bounding off the trunk lid, and landing, crumpled and broken, on the payment. I’m nearly dead but still alive enough for a last vision of my house and Richard with Samantha cradled in his arms entering through the front door.

When a Novel Might be Better as a Series

The People We Hate at the Wedding

By Grant Ginder

For a novel trumpeted in the jacket copy as hilarious, you’ll find the humor sporadic and often deprecating, both self and towards others. But you would probably expect such from a cast of characters, mother Donna, deceased father Bill, son Paul, daughter Alice, and Donna’s daughter from a previous marriage Eloise, who are less than likable (except maybe for Eloise and her overly nice and supremely contented fiancee Ollie). Everybody has issues with each other; everybody has issues with themselves; everybody, except for mellow Ollie, is wildly neurotic. Imagine them together at Eloise’s wedding and you picture something riotously funny or riotously bloody. Regrettably, you’ll not get much of either in the end here. To boot, everything proves too predictable.

The story turns on a deeply held family secret kept by Donna about Paul and his father Bill to protect Paul from a harsh and painful truth, known only by one other person, Eloise. From this stems much of the anger, resentment, and neurotic behavior in the novel. Settings are L.A., St. Charles, IL (you don’t see this much in novels), Philadelphia, London and Dorset. The novel features some explicit sexual scenes not everybody will be happy to encounter, though they are critical to Paul’s story. And sorry to report, but Paul’s tale revolves around some pretty unfortunate gay stereotyping.

In its favor, this is the type of novel that could make a compelling cable or streaming limited series in the hands of the right producers and showrunner, perhaps, if we’re lucky, like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which was very popular in print and on HBO. w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part3)

3

Richard wants to live on a grand scale, and the christening party is a manifestation of his desire for a showy life. He dictated what he wanted, painting his vision in broad strokes, and delegated me to execute it.

Samantha is down and I can get on with my tasks: Arrange for the tent and meet with the caterer.

I phone Rent-All that, as the name advertises, rents everything, from trucks and forklifts to furniture and tents. A man answers. I ask about tents, chairs, and tables, informing him we are holding a christening party in our backyard. I ask about the tent colors. He asks the size, and I am stumped. I want to say, “Big.” But I judge it too vague. I tell him for a party of one hundred or so adults. He advises I rent their extra big tent. I’m happy too, and what colors are available? White and more white is his answer. I know Richard will be unhappy. He wants color, brightness, big and bold; he wants to make a statement; he wants the entire neighborhood to know we are throwing a party and maybe if they are fortunate he will invite them next time; he wants the flyovers to realize they are missing something as they head to or away from New York City. My tone must convey my dissatisfaction, because the man says, “Sorry, white’s it. It’s the season.” I should say I’ll get back to him and check other places. But if it is the season, I might risk forfeiting the big tent.

I panic at the catastrophic prospect. I know Richard will find no tent unacceptable. A plain white tent will upset him, but no tent will infuriate him. He will stare at me, scrutinize me head to toe. He will not utter a word, but his criticism will as pointed as if he’d screamed in my face.

I order the white tent and ask about round tables. Richard specified round tables, as these are more conducive to conversation. However, the man informs me that he has no round tables. It’s the season, you know. Rectangular tables only. I have no choice but to order them. Fortunately, he has chairs. I wonder why, since it is the season for everything else. “Always got plenty of chairs, season or no season.” It’s a small blessing, I guess.

The caterer is easier. It’s the season, but he can accommodate me, if I’m throwing an evening party. I am relieved. Richard wants an evening party; he says it is more sophisticated.

Mercifully, Samantha has slept through the morning and is waking as I finish with the caterer. I go up to her and bring her down to the kitchen. I feed her. I spend the afternoon reading to her, watching her play under her gym. She bats the black and white objects suspended from the bar over her. Then it’s time for her to sleep again. I return her to her crib and return myself to the kitchen to prepare dinner for Richard. When Richard is not on the road, he likes dinner at six. He prefers Samantha sleeping during dinner and for an hour or so after. He explained his reason after Samantha and I had been home a week from the hospital. He felt an awake and sometimes wailing child would not allow us to talk and, later when I was able, to make love after or before dinner. It seemed sensible to me and I agreed. In the beginning, it proved the correct thing to do. The problem came when I discovered Samantha would not always cooperate with what Richard and I wanted, and when Richard startled me with his unreasonable inflexibility. He wanted it his way and nothing less would do. It was his job to earn the money and mine to ensure a peaceful, accommodating home life.

I am shaking my head in disbelief as I finish assembling my tuna-noodle casserole. This is especially for Richard. Casseroles are among his favorites. I have mastered many varieties of the species, employing tuna, chicken, beef, and vegetables; he doesn’t particularly care about the main ingredient, or even the taste I suspect, as long as it is moist, gooey, and salty.

I’m panicked and angry. The panic is transitory, related directly to Samantha’s presence in the house that I’d had all to myself before she arrived, and to the pressure of planning the party to Richard’s specifications. The anger predates Samantha. It has been building and intensifying until it nearly engulfs my days, dampening the love, what had been my hot and irrational passion, for Richard.

How can I permit Richard to rule me as he does? Richard earns the money, and through his efforts is responsible for what we have. I understand and grant him that. But he is inflexibly dominating. It’s not only me he controls; his employees receive the same treatment. To remain Richard’s employee, a person has to perform exactly to his expectations. Deviate a little and he will transfer you, or worse, fire you. He is remorseless and vicious. He admits to it. Conversation with Richard consists of him talking and me listening. And what he talks about, almost exclusively, is work. His work possesses him. He might be home, but he is never away from work; it is in him, there like an extra organ. He expounds constantly on his business philosophy and his method of training and handling his employees. At first, after we had moved to New Jersey, I loved that he would confide in me. But after a short while, listening to him transformed into agony. It’s difficult to bear the repetition; Richard repeats himself terribly. Once I mentioned this tendency of his to him. He regarded me with his disdaining stare for a long, disquieting time. His expression conveyed I was naïve, I knew nothing about business, and it was good I didn’t work. Finally, he said, you have to state what you expect again and again; his experience taught him most people didn’t get it the first time, many not even the second, and those who couldn’t grasp his point the third, those people were gone. For a moment, I thought he was referring to me. But he smiled and I reassured myself it was just more of his business mentality spilling over.

I am angry because I am Richard’s prisoner. True, I can come and go as I please, physically. I can hire a sitter for Samantha, if I choose. I can ask either of our parents to visit us, leave her with them, and takeoff for a weekend, even without Richard. However, I cannot escape him, for he has entrapped my mind. He is in me every minute. What he likes and dislikes. His demands. His voice. He drones in the background, maddening and distracting, like a dull, incessant headache. I believe he is deconstructing me and reassembling the parts of me into a robot, accepting and acting on his command; an automaton striving to execute his orders to his ideal of perfection; but I fail because I am human and I commit errors. Yet, I don’t feel human. Organic is what I am. Living, sentient, capable of low-level thinking, a delta. But not full fledged human, not like Richard.