Chapter 1: Agnes, Philadelphia, March 2000 CHAPTER 1 Agnes, Philadelphia, March 2000
SUCH A PERFECT DAY FOR writing, gray and quiet. But nothing came to her. Not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word worth keeping. Her wastebasket was full. Her pile of index cards was robust. Graph paper covered with diagrams was neatly pinned to a sheet of felt on the wall. But the spot where her stack of usable pages usually accumulated was an empty nest.
This had never happened to her before. Agnes Lee had written six novels and dozens of books for children without hesitation, composing and rewriting and tossing, fearlessly killing her darlings, trusting many more would come along—not to mention volumes of journals and logs secreted in a captain’s trunk in an attic room at the cottage, and lots of articles and essays under various witty pseudonyms. She might rewrite an entire manuscript, but she’d never before been at a loss at this juncture, after her research had produced new material and the time had come to sit down and draft the book. The words had always arrived. Her writing was on tap. All she had to do was pull down on the handle and out it flowed. That fact was at the center of her self-conception. She wrote. If she couldn’t, if the tap was dry, then what?
This sorry state—that was what. She was racing through barrels of Rapidograph ink, and wearing down a new pencil sharpener. Yet her book, her novel, the work that would round out a series written over decades, had garnered a usable word count of zero. All winter, she’d gotten nothing done.
Agnes had lost hope for today, too, but her allotted writing time wasn’t up yet. So she sat. Her rule was five hours, and dammit she’d put in five hours. Habits filled in the fissures of an aging body and mind, and she couldn’t afford to let them go. She’d seen her mother attempt to do a few sit-ups on her deathbed, and though Agnes felt little but a generic filial regard for that soulless snob, in that moment she hoped she’d be as disciplined at the last. She kept an inviolable schedule, afforded by some inheritance and abetted by having had the vocation of writing for the last nearly sixty years. Rarely did she have to compromise for anyone, a privilege she did not take for granted and refused to squander. She was eighty, but she had not slowed down. Just the opposite. Her remaining work was urgent, and she was well aware of working alongside the specter of the unknown moment of her last breath.
Since Mrs. Blundt had placed the mail by Agnes’s place at lunch, and her perusal of several of the items had brought agitation into her controlled small world, she’d been particularly distracted. She paced her room and looked out the window and paced again. She allowed herself to pace into the living room, too, as long as she kept her mind in her work. Mrs. Blundt had bought fragrant lilies and Agnes dropped her nose into their midst, inhaling heaven. She walked to the window next. She had a good view from her third-floor apartment. The brown flora and collapsed grass in Rittenhouse Square hung on with stoic forbearance. People crossing through had scarves in place of faces and bodies obscured by masses of cloth or fur. Every so often they looked up at the sky, and Agnes followed their gaze in search of early flakes. Snow was general all over Ireland. A line from Joyce’s “The Dead.” Her eyes pricked. She rarely cried at life, but certain turns of phrase prompted hot tears to sting her cheeks. She squeezed the bridge of her nose, pinching off the emotion. Blizzard, she thought, a word that cooled her off. A blizzard was predicted that would leave a few inches over Philadelphia. The prospect of a rinsed landscape replete with glistening branches and snowmen in the Square cheered her. Refreshed, she returned to her writing room.
Agnes was well aware she could afford to be moved by snow. Mrs. Blundt, her housekeeper, kept her shelves stocked and the domestic details of her winter life on course. Snow would fall over all the living and the dead, and Agnes would have a couple of days of privacy and silence. Perhaps in that quiet she’d find what she needed to begin. An image; a character’s voice; a sentence that contained a seed from which the next sentence could grow. Something that would open this cage. Writing had been the one place where she had felt—free. And also on Fellowship Point. Always free there.
She pulled the blank pad in front of her. Fifty-three minutes to go. Frustrated, bewildered, she suffered in silence and could complain to no one. She drew a horse and quickly scribbled over it.
She had a bifurcated writing career, both parts successful, but she was only publicly known for the When Nan books. She’d written more than thirty volumes in the series, starting with When Nan Was a Lobsterman in 1965 and most recently When Nan Ran a Wind Farm. They were published under her own name, as they had been from the beginning, when she’d predicted, accurately, that the books would serve as an alibi for all the time she spent alone at her desk, unavailable. The When Nan books allowed her to pretend she was a very slow worker who needed to be left alone. She actually wrote them quickly, in one sitting, after waiting for an idea to present itself whole.
The illustrations took longer, or she took longer with them, because she didn’t really have an innate talent for it and drew many versions before she got one right enough. She’d stuck to her style of pen-and-ink line drawings, but had learned to paint on paper over the years and had eventually gone back and added color to the early books. Children liked the way she showed an emotion with a simple slant of the line representing Nan’s mouth. She’d practiced that line and agreed she was able to milk quite a bit of nuance out of it. In her social circles, her work was treated as a decent hobby for a woman of her ilk. Being a famous children’s book author in her world wasn’t so different from anonymity.
Her other series, the Franklin Square novels, were popular and, over time, critically praised. She’d written the first one at age twenty-four, mainly as a way to inoculate herself from succumbing to the fates of her friends—reconfigured as the Franklin Square “girls”—as they married or got jobs. It galled her to see them make themselves smaller in order to fit into the roles available to them. Their talents were subsumed into utility and support. She wanted to show things as they were in great detail, to the end of portraying the absurdity of the setup, even for women who had advantages. In her experience, it was harder for girls who’d grown up as she had to notice exactly when they’d been conscripted into the power structure—it was all so seamless and nice. She had been in danger of it herself, her father being kind and on her side, but she’d noticed from the earliest age the hierarchies that existed in every gathering of people, and she’d had a clear visceral objection. It was her subject, in many variations and permutations.
She didn’t moralize, or preach, or conclude. The project of fiction was in essence dramatic and sought to reveal what a particular person was bound to do under explicit circumstances. It was hard to figure that out, but when she was able to do so, when after she’d thrown out dozens of false attempts she suddenly saw exactly how her girls would act and react, when she was able to make her plots ring the clear bell of inevitability, she’d fulfilled her end of the contract as a writer, and left it to the reader to discover the meaning. She was absolutely sure of her opinions and her worldview and trusted that they were conveyed, palatably, in engrossing plots so that she didn’t have to spell out her positions.
She was a novelist. No one knew.
Her potential first editor in Philadelphia praised her manuscript highly but also dropped a disconcerting remark about Agnes not being able to show her face in Philadelphia after it was published. Agnes hadn’t even thought of the possibility that she’d be ostracized. She’d had the deceptive sensation as she composed the book, figuring it all out for the first time, that she’d been alone with it and that somehow solitude conferred privacy. In hindsight that seemed naive, but it was quite true that as carefully as she’d worked to make the whole puzzle of the book reach a solution at the end, and with what diamond cutter’s tools she’d refined the facets of the paragraphs and made her characters glint under particular lights, it had also not really occurred to her that people would actually read it. As soon as the remark was made, though, it was obvious to her that there was no chance she could be in society and skewer it, too. Without hesitation she asked for the manuscript back and decided to publish under a pseudonym. She had a great time coming up with one, experimenting with every name she’d ever wished for in lieu of Agnes—which ran to the dozens. Finally, she settled on Pauline Schulz.
The name was odd and memorable, and it had served her well. Agnes had often thought of Saint Paul, renamed from Saul of Tarsus, and was moved by picturing him composing his Epistles, writing and crossing out, building convincing arguments to persuade different types around the Mediterranean of Jesus’s messages. No matter that none of it convinced her: she liked his effort and his pseudonym. Likewise, she’d be Pauline Schulz! She sent the manuscript to a different editor in New York under this new name. It sounded tough, like a lady reporter. She’d wanted to tell her sister Elspeth, who was so pure Agnes couldn’t conscience withholding anything from her, but for that very reason it wouldn’t be fair. Elspeth already carried the burdens of many people. Agnes decided if her identity was to be a secret, not one other soul should know about it.
The Franklin Square novels were about five women friends and their activities and travails within the context of politics and civic life. She’d written one book each decade and had managed to maintain her anonymity in spite of increasing efforts to solve the mystery of who Pauline Schulz was. There was speculation that she was a man; a committee; or a series of people. Was the author an outsider looking in? Over the years she’d added Jewish and Italian and African American and a smattering of other Philadelphia characters. Could Pauline be from one of these swaths of the local populace? Agnes had even uncovered a drop of Jewish ancestry for one of her women, which led to a second marriage to a Jewish man and a foray into Reconstructionism, which “Pauline” wrote was as Philadelphia as Quakerism. So was Schulz Jewish? Good question. Was Pauline a man? Agnes laughed when that was proposed. Would any man have written some of the scenes she had? The boredom of days with a toddler, the confounding depression at the responsibility for cleaning a messy room, the injustice of being taken for granted, the perceptions garnered by women’s sensitive backs of being judged for their shapes as they walked away from work meetings, then later those same backs realizing no eyes were scanning them anymore. Physical pain and its fraternal twin, stoicism. The unsuspected inner life and interrupted sense of self. Pauline Schulz had never gotten a letter from a woman who suspected her of being a man.
For the most part she liked being anonymous and hidden and unbeholden to anyone. The only thing she regretted was not being able to do a Paris Review interview. She fantasized about that; she had a lot she wished she could say. But it was a small price for her freedom. As far as the world knew, Agnes Lee was just a children’s book author, devoid of the breadth of observation and social acuity and sharp eye of Pauline Schulz. Her three successive editors hadn’t even known who she really was—they worked with Pauline always via a PO box in Philadelphia. She planned to take her identity with her into a grave on Fellowship Point. After Elspeth died, Agnes had been tempted from time to time to tell her great friend Polly, who chafed at Agnes’s unavailability. Agnes deeply disliked lying to her. It would be fun, too, to have someone know, and transform the constraint of the secret into a shared glance across the room when one of her books came up. Polly would keep the secret, Agnes had no doubt of that, but it would hurt her not to tell Dick, her husband, and Agnes didn’t want to hurt Polly. So she kept on keeping the secret to herself.
Finally her hours ended. She set up a tableau of the day’s mail in the living room and then tried to read until a call came from downstairs that a visitor was on her way up.
“I’ll get it,” Agnes called out, and rushed to open the apartment door before Mrs. Blundt could. Polly Wister—whom Agnes had known and been best friends with for eighty years now, since the cradle—arrived smiling on the threshold.
Agnes regretted having to disturb Polly’s post-orchestra equanimity, but she needed her to match her own sense of purpose. “We have a problem,” Agnes announced, and was gratified when Polly’s pretty face bunched up and her watery blue eyes widened. The cold air that had attached itself to Polly’s red wool coat made its ghostly way across the threshold and gave Agnes a shiver.
“Good day, Mrs. Wister,” said Mrs. Blundt, the housekeeper, from behind Agnes. Her voice trembled.
“What? What is it?” Polly’s gloves lifted to cradle her face, a motion that sent her black handbag down to the crook of her elbow.
Agnes turned around. “Mrs. Blundt, will you take Polly’s things?”
Mrs. Blundt nodded fretfully and Polly slipped out of her sleeves.
“Thank you.” Polly dipped slightly, a remnant of the curtsy they’d learned at school. She’d never learned how to be natural with people who received pay to help her.
Mrs. Blundt retreated to the kitchen and Polly lowered her voice. “Did something happen to her?”
“To her? No, no, no. She’s just upset about— I’ll tell you later. Come in, come in.”
“You have me worried.”
As always Polly’s concern was marbled with an exasperating innocence. As eager as Agnes had been to talk to her, the breadth of her emotional availability was annoying—because it also was how Polly responded to Dick, her husband. Polly dropped everything of her own to take on his agenda. Agnes couldn’t imagine being that cowed.
“I’ll tell thee everything. But let’s get drinks.” She and Polly walked to the bar cart in the living room. Agnes had always been taller than Polly, nearly six feet, though age had subtracted a few inches. She was dressed in jeans, Keds, and an old cashmere sweater, an informality made chic by the intelligence in her green eyes and thin straight mouth. She wore a pair of diamond stud earrings and two of the gold bracelets her father had given her when she turned sixteen; she’d given away the third bracelet long ago. She’d never married and had always seemed fulfilled anyway. She wasn’t pretty like Polly and only rarely glanced in a mirror. She liked her hands, though, and rubbed them with creams all day as she worked at her desk.
The lights were all turned on to counter the gray March afternoon. “We need Scotch,” Agnes said.
“Just one finger for me. Miles to go and so on.”
“How was the concert?”
“So the problem isn’t that bad?”
“It is. But I want to wait until we sit down.”
“I see. Just tell me—did anyone die?”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“I am not ready for another death after Hiram.”
“I know. Speaking of which, I got a letter from Robert today. I saved it to read with you.”
“Oh good, thanks.”
Agnes juggled bottles and ice and finally handed Polly a glass. The white sky was becoming pearly, and the street lamps suddenly punctured the gloaming. The living room was spare but plush, all green and yellow, the furniture simple. A thick lemon carpet ran nearly wall to wall. Polly sighed as she sank into a mint sofa. “It’s so comfortable here,” Polly said. “Unexpected, for you.”
“People change,” Agnes said. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over. You may quote me on that.”
She looked around at her own design for serenity and was pleased Polly liked her efforts. She’d moved to the apartment ten years earlier, at age seventy. Prior to then, she’d lived all her Philadelphia life in the family house on Walnut Street, a building ancient by American standards and owned by the Lees since the mid-1800s. It had been her Philadelphia turtle shell, inseparable from her flesh. Then she’d had a few falls that gave her black eyes, and a few illnesses, mementos of the gross reality that she could no longer take her health for granted. Ease and convenience, qualities for which she’d never had any use, began to make sense. An elevator and a doorman and food that could be delivered up—why not? She sold a great deal of the dark wood from the Walnut Street house and bought new Thomas Moser pieces. Minimalism was her mandate for this last chapter. Whoever was stuck with emptying the apartment after she died would not have much to do. To her way of thinking, that was decent.
Anyway, it wasn’t entirely the case that she’d rid herself of her belongings. She’d had her favorite things shipped to Fellowship Point. Maine was her real home now and had been for forty years. The apartment was for the winter months she spent in Philadelphia, to escape the difficulty of being snowed in at Leeward Cottage. Or so she said to people, weather being an excuse that didn’t arouse curiosity. The real reason she came to Philadelphia every winter was for research. For a few hectic weeks she hauled herself to her clubs and to luncheons and dinner parties, charity events, galleries, and shops, taking notes on what people did and what they hid, in preparation for writing her next novel. She had years of notes for the present book, but dammit. Was it possible that she no longer had the stamina for a novel?
Her whole chest felt strangled and trampled on, but she affected calm for the sake of her agenda. She needed Polly to see things her way.
“So what’s going on? Don’t keep me waiting any longer,” Polly said.
Agnes reached for the Cape Deel Gazette. “This came today. Remember our old friend Hamm Loose?”
“I’d rather not.” Polly took a healthy swig.
“It’s about his son Hamm Loose Jr. and their development company. Read the article here.” She had the paper open to the offending page and handed it over.
“My glasses are in my bag in the hallway,” Polly said.
“Use mine.” Agnes took a pair from a basket on the side table to her left.
Polly put them on. She gave a quick glance around. She wants a mirror, Agnes thought. For God’s sake. The habit of pretty.
“Are they strong enough? Can you see?”
Polly rarely acknowledged Agnes’s little digs. Marriage to Dick Wister and three sons had inured her to teasing.
“Hamm Loose Jr. is large, isn’t he?”
“That’s not the problem. Just read it.”
“No. It already ruined my lunch.”
The story was about the groundbreaking ceremony for a new luxury condominium and marina complex near Deel Town, which was close to her and Polly’s houses on Fellowship Point. The resort was being built by the firm of Loose Properties, owned by Hamm Loose and his sons Hamm Jr. and Terrance, known as Teeter. As Polly read the article, Agnes gazed at her, at first in an attitude of waiting, but then with a sudden objectivity. She rarely stepped back from Polly long enough to see her. Twenty years earlier Polly’s hair had turned all white, the gleaming kind of white that looked ageless and soft. She still wore it either in a headband or barrettes, as she always had. Her skin was relatively smooth, due to her lifelong habit of keeping the sun off her face. She’d had a few basal cell skin cancers removed on her arms, leaving pale spots behind, but she could pass for being in her sixties. Agnes had read once that men liked women who smiled; smiling was Polly’s essence. A good temperament, laughing eyes—easy to be around, as went the compliment of their youth. They spent summers in next-door houses on Fellowship Point and lived within blocks of each other in Philadelphia until Polly moved out to Haverford after her daughter Lydia was born. She’d wanted a backyard for her boys so she could enjoy the baby in peace.
Polly still made her opinions and motives and intentions plainly apparent. She was never confusing or devious or wily. A real Quaker lady, plain and good. When they were girls, Polly was often invited along on other families’ vacations and cruises, and on day trips to see plays in New York or monuments in Washington, D.C. Every teacher at school was glad to have her in the room, even the bluestockings usually resistant to the more social types. Yet for all Polly’s popularity, she was also underestimated, her unflappability interpreted as middling brain power. This wasn’t accurate. Polly was smart, but she didn’t develop her thoughts. Agnes had for a time given her lessons on how to be more penetrating. Polly had listened graciously and carried on being herself.
Odd to have a best friend who was received so effortlessly by the world, when Agnes inadvertently offended more than a few people. So it had always been, and she was used to it—which didn’t make it unremarkable.
Polly laid the paper back onto the coffee table and crossed her arms protectively over her middle. “Darn it! I always loved that spot.”
“I know. That’s bad enough. But how about when Hamm Jr. said he plans to build more resorts on Cape Deel, and that his ideal property is Fellowship Point?” Agnes hammered the point home.
“Sickening! And what about when he said everyone has their price!”
Polly was upset, thrilling Agnes. It was so satisfying to have horror met with horror. “He’s appalling!”
“Like father, like son. I hate them. I don’t hate anybody but them, but I do hate them. How dare he even think about Fellowship Point? It means he has looked around.”
“We know his father looked around.”
Once when Agnes and Polly were fourteen, they’d seen Hamm Loose—Senior, now an old man—and a gang of his pals invade the Sank and shoot an eagle flying back to her nest with food for her cheeping offspring. He’d also kicked gravel at their bare legs on the playground in Deel Town. Polly had tried to understand these actions through the lens of class grievances and the local versus away people conflict, and though Agnes normally adored a good sociological analysis, in this case it was an obfuscation, and she’d gotten Polly back on track by writing a vow for both of them to recite that included preventing Hamm from doing any further harm to Fellowship Point. They pricked their index fingers and pressed them tight to each other’s to seal the deal.
Hamm Loose Jr. was a piece of work, too. When Polly’s boys were young and taking tennis lessons at the Deel Club, Hamm Jr. had found ways to create disturbances when they were serving, and he peed in the showers with gusto. It was outrageous of him to mention Fellowship Point in a newspaper article. Development would destroy the beauty of the place, of course—but more than that, the hallowed thirty-five-acre tip of the peninsula called the Sank (short for “sanctuary”) would become desecrated, and the bird species that had flourished there under the fellowship’s aegis for nearly a hundred and fifty years would scatter and potentially go extinct. Eagles’ nests, including a towering structure built by golden eagles, had been occupied uninterrupted for decades. The thought of yachts and condos displacing those priceless dwellings made Agnes’s heart literally hurt. She had to block the possibility if it was the last thing she did.
A few days earlier, she’d called her lawyer to make certain she had an accurate understanding of how to break the Fellowship Point Association agreement. As she’d thought, Fellowship Point was owned in shares by five families. In each generation one family member held the share. At any time, the agreement could be dissolved if three association members voted to do so. Subsequently the land could be sold or split up more conventionally. The possibility had never before arisen, but circumstances had never been this dire.
Only three families had held a share for a while now. The other two original families had died out and forfeited their shares, which had gone to the remaining shareholders. Two houses had been unoccupied for years and should probably be torn down. Cousin Archie still held WesterLee—his grown children stayed there sometimes, or he loaned it to friends—but he’d built his own house on the other side of the peninsula, a monstrous exercise in why-pay-less. Agnes was sure she could persuade him to break the agreement without much trouble, especially in light of wolves like the Looses sniffing around. The dismantling had to happen while the two old ladies were both breathing and compos mentis. Meaning, ASAP. After Agnes and Polly died, only two people stood to inherit the shares, Polly’s eldest son, James, and Cousin Archie Lee. They loved Fellowship Point, but how much? Did they have a price at which they’d be persuaded to sell? It was a better plan to never tempt them.
“So, Polly. We can’t wait any longer to dissolve the association. I want to start writing to land trusts immediately. You’re with me on this, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. I mean I have to talk to Dick, but yes. I think so, yes.”
Polly’s deference to Dick irritated Agnes, as always, but she let it go and pressed on. “There are different sorts of arrangements that can be made, easements and tax things and so on. I want to make certain that the Sank is protected forever, even when I’m not here.”
“I fully agree.”
“Good. Let’s get this settled this summer. I’ll set up appointments. The land trust people will want to see the place, and we can figure out what’s best.”
“We’re going in June, as usual. When are you going up anyway? You’re here late this year.” Polly looked at her quizzically, as if puzzling something out.
“I’ll go soon.” Agnes changed the subject as swiftly as possible. “Now I’m hungry. Mrs. Blundt!” she called out.
Mrs. Blundt emerged from the kitchen, her hands prayerfully clasped at her waist. She was in her early fifties, ruddy and round, with an open face framed by a nimbus of gray curls.
“Whatever you created smells irresistible,” she said. “Will you please bring it in?” She turned to Polly. “All afternoon the most divine scent has been wafting around the apartment.”
Polly nodded. “I noticed it the second you opened the door. What is it?”
“Zucchini cake with vanilla icing,” said Mrs. Blundt.
“Oooh,” Polly said. “My mouth is watering.”
Mrs. Blundt frowned, turned, and left.
Agnes picked up an envelope from the side table. “Now for Robert’s letter.”
“Me? Or you?”
“You still have my glasses on.”
She handed the envelope to Polly, who sighed as she drew the pages out. “It’s so sad about Hiram,” she said. “Poor Robert. Is he all right?”
“Maybe the letter will tell us.”
Polly frowned. “Can you not tease for five seconds?”
“Sorry. Go ahead,” Agnes said, thinking of her teasing ancestors, especially her father. A handsome man could get away with it.
“Let me get these pages opened…” Polly took a sip and began.
It was good to speak with you the other day. Hearing your voice—well, I felt better. I remember once when a pious visitor expressed shock over you and Polly laughing in the graveyard. “If you can’t laugh at death what can you laugh at?” you barked. I have reminded myself of that these days.
It’s difficult to know how best to mourn—what’s efficient, effective, and honorable. I hit on an answer today. I thought you’d want to hear about it.
I parked my car right off Shore Road at the top of Point Path. It snowed overnight, so the ground was dusted and a light wind blew, rattling the iced branches. I pictured Hiram, and how his gait expressed his essential traits: dignity, caution, sense of purpose. I don’t know where he is now, and I, like you, have never been tempted to subscribe to any notion of an afterlife. I am content to remember him as he was. He was so often on Fellowship Point, even after we moved away. Where better to think of him?
I came to the bottom of the hill and stood at the north end surveying the whole point. I looked straight down the full length of the path to the Sank. From that distance, it appeared as an olive rounded dome that made me wish I could paint. It’s an Arthur Dove, for sure. Then I took a deep breath, and the full feel of the place came to me—the pine scents, the birdcalls, the booming of the rolling ocean. I headed straight down and checked on the eagles’ nests. All looked well, no signs of trespassing or disturbance. I won’t check again until after the eaglets hatch, if any do this year. I walked by the site of the summer camp and all around the shoreline, then back up Point Path. By the graveyard I thought of old friends and older inhabitants of what my father—and yours—called God’s country. Thank you for offering a place for him there, but my mother wants him in her churchyard. His spirit will always be on Fellowship Point in any case.
I’m looking forward to taking this walk together very soon.
Yours as ever, Robert
“What decent men,” Agnes said, “Robert and Hiram both.” She looked up and saw that Polly’s eyes had filled.
Polly wiped at her face. “Will you excuse me a moment?” She stood.
“Use the one in my bedroom. It has a view.”
Polly handed back the letter to Agnes and made her way through the apartment. Agnes skimmed it again. She’d spoken to Robert a week earlier, after Sylvie, her housekeeper at Leeward Cottage, had called her with the news that Hiram Circumstance had dropped dead at seventy-eight. Agnes had known Hiram all her life. He’d lived on Fellowship Point for many years before buying his own house farther up the Cape, which she’d helped him do. He’d been the carpenter and the caretaker and the landscaper, ever reliable, highly competent, and very serious. Agnes trusted Hiram. And she’d liked him so much. He’d treated her with the same respect he’d showed her father when at age forty she took over his share of the association. Her animals had always been happy to see him, either jumping up on or rubbing against his legs, depending on the species. Pets could like the wrong people, she’d seen it, but they loved him for cause. She was pleased that Sylvie had used the phrase dropped dead to describe what happened to Hiram. It enabled Agnes to see him loping down a road, looking up at the high branches or the sky, suddenly jerking downward, crumpling, his straight slate-colored hair shading his eyes, his flannel-lined coat wrinkling, his worn corduroys buckling along with his knees. Hiram dropped dead. Too bad, but at least he hadn’t expired, or passed, or left this world, or gone to his maker, or even had a heart attack. He deserved a straightforward death.
Agnes also trusted Robert, who took after his father, right down to the straight blue merle hair and the cowboy gait. Of the five Circumstance children Agnes had seen in Robert a superior intelligence and had paid for him to go to George School and Penn. He wanted to be a lawyer, but a pot conviction derailed that—Agnes made certain it didn’t interrupt for too long, in spite of the Rockefeller drug laws—and he transferred to Amherst to study landscape architecture. Eventually—after a brief marriage to someone who realized she needed more money in a man—he moved back to Cape Deel and went to work with Hiram, and he expanded the business to include design. He had created the outdoors for many of the swells and the new influx of the money-moving rich and celebrities, and became something of a celebrity himself. Robert was nothing if not loyal, though, and he still took care of the Point. He was in and out of both Agnes’s and Polly’s houses all summer, and he and Dick Wister often had drinks. Fellowship Point relied on him completely. Agnes offered to fly up for the funeral—Polly wanted to go, too—but Robert discouraged it. No sense in coming all that way for ten minutes, when they could think of Hiram from right where they were. “He thinks we’re old,” Agnes told Polly.
“He’s never wrong,” Polly replied, and sighed.
Recently Hiram had been doing some tracking and sleuthing to try to figure out who was harassing the eagles on Cape Deel. Several eagles had disappeared over the past few years, to the point where it was suspicious. Hiram wanted to get to the bottom of it. Agnes told Robert she was certain he would have, and Robert vowed to take over the hunt. He would—
“Here we go,” said Mrs. Blundt. She set the plates on the coffee table. Polly returned a moment later. “I love that painting of the Sank in your bathroom. And look at this! My dinner is ruined.” She sat down and took a bite. “Oh boy. This is dangerous it’s so good.”
“Thank you.” Mrs. Blundt tried to smile but couldn’t manage.
Agnes let the cake melt in her mouth. Every pleasure was heightened lately.
“Are your boys set to shovel your front steps, Mrs. Blundt?” Polly asked.
“If they’re not, they don’t have a mother anymore.” Mrs. Blundt had a habit of shifting to her brogue when speaking of her family.
“Good policy,” Agnes said. “In any case, no need to come over tomorrow. I’ll be fine.”
Mrs. Blundt frowned. “You’re not fine.” She stuck her chin out, as if a jutting jawline entitled her to a breach of boundaries.
“You’re not?” Polly asked. “What’s going on?”
Agnes held up her hand. “Mrs. Blundt, you may go home now. I have enough food to last a month. If I need you tomorrow, I’ll call you.”
“Tell her,” Mrs. Blundt said.
“I’m not going anywhere until you do.”
Mrs. Blundt, who’d overheard phone calls to doctors and taken messages, had pressed Agnes for information. There’d been no further avoiding the conversation.
“What is it?” Polly asked, looking back and forth between them.
Agnes leaned forward. “I am having surgery soon. A lump turned out to be cancer.”
Polly looked at Agnes directly. “Where?”
Agnes pointed to her chest. “They both have to go.”
“You’ve always wanted that,” Polly said, and then, quickly—“Oh no!”
“Ha! That’s the upside, and I’m glad you know it. So you won’t feel sorry for me.”
“I feel very sorry for you. I feel sick—” Polly began to cry. “You’ll stay with me after. I’ll make your rice and greens for you. Oh, Agnes!” She moved next to Agnes on the sofa and took her hand.
“I’ll stay here and so will Mrs. Blundt.”
“I certainly will.” Mrs. Blundt was crying, too. Polly reached out her free hand and Mrs. Blundt took it.
“I won’t need that. But please come visit.” The handholding prompted a nervousness she’d pushed off before now, and she wondered how soon she could disengage.
Polly searched her face. “Are you going to be okay?”
“The doctors won’t give me a straight answer. I have assured them I can handle the truth, but I get the feeling they can’t.” Agnes shrugged. “I’ll do my best. I have work to do. Including settling what will become of the Point.”
“This isn’t the time to think about that. You have to concentrate on your health.”
“It’s precisely the time to think about that. I might die on the table.”
“Oh stop it, Agnes, it’s not funny.”
“I’m not being funny. In fact, I’ve never been more serious. Going under the knife is good for focus. Promise me you’ll preserve the Sank if I’m not here to do it.”
“Of course I promise.” Polly shook her head, sniffling.
“Good. Good. The surgery is first thing Monday. I read that was the best slot, when the docs are at their freshest.”
At the thought, Agnes placed her hands on her breasts. Soon they’d be gone and she’d be a lean blade again, albeit old and rusty. She’d be flat! At last! Again. She’d toss her bras, torture chambers that they were. She only had to get through the next bit.
Agnes looked out the window toward 18th Street, at the old Barclay Hotel, now condominiums. Hamm Loose Jr. would approve, she thought ruefully. She remembered when the building went up. Her father, Lachlan Lee, had loved construction sites, and could be persuaded to go for a walk anytime if the route led to a deep divot in the ground and girders crosshatching empty space. The Barclay was built in the late 1920s. During the months of construction, Lachlan had reached for Agnes’s hand on the doorstep of the house on Walnut Street, and together they’d walked a few blocks to watch the new behemoth rising. People complained about the shadows it would cast, but Lachlan was all for progress. “Presidents will stay there!”
He’d been right about that, and many things. She missed him every day. She’d only loved a few people. Most of those had been dead for a long time now. Soon I too might be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. Joyce again.
This weather. This impending afternoon.
“Remember that crackpot friend of your father’s who had a theory that the magnetism in the mineral rocks of Cape Deel scrambled the cells?” Agnes asked.
Polly glared at her and wiped her eyes.
“Polly!” Agnes patted the tweed-covered knee of her old friend. “There are upsides. Cancer is a conversation stopper. And there are very few conversations I don’t want to stop.”
“Well, what should I say? I can’t feel anything in my breast, which is annoying. I attempt to talk to the doctors plainly, but they’re obsessed with fifty-cent words, like diagnosis and mastectomy—four syllables is a bad sign.”
“We’ll take care of you, won’t we, Mrs. Wister?” Mrs. Blundt blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“Yes. We certainly will.”
Didn’t they remember that they’d already promised that? Agnes longed to move on, but Polly gripped Agnes’s hand so tightly she felt in danger of losing her fingers. That was the other thing, which neither of them knew about—Agnes was determined to finish her final novel before she croaked. Maybe the surgery would slice away her writer’s block.
“Thank you, thank you, I know you will.” Agnes stood, hoping they’d take the hint. Suddenly she was desperate to get back to her desk. “I’ll be fine, really. But I’m a little tired now. The doorman will get you a cab. Mrs. Blundt, will you call downstairs for a cab for Polly?”
After several minutes of entreaties and embraces and assurances Agnes was finally alone again.
As soon as she stepped into her study, she felt relief. Where her bedroom was made sumptuous by snowy duvets over fat quilts and a chaise lounge upholstered in white silk, her aesthetic here was what she thought of as spare inspiration. She’d modeled it on the cells in the Conventi di San Marco in Florence and had a replica of a Fra Angelico fresco painted on each wall by an art student from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her hand was no longer steady enough to do the job herself—not that she’d ever had the skill to copy a master. She was an outsider artist at most, untrained and quirky. An illustrator. She appreciated good paintings, though—who didn’t? Fra Angelico had made her burst into overwhelmed tears when she was on her post-collegiate European tour.
She had a comfortable reading chair, a desk, a few lamps. A computer and a printer. Supplies. If she wanted to look something up, she went to her bedroom, where she kept two cases of books, mainly reference. In her study there was nothing to do but write and think. She’d always wanted just such a simple room, but it took starting from nothing, and acquiring a space devoid of any architectural interest, to do it right. She loved the space and exonerated it from any blame for the fact that her book eluded her. Though if, as she conceived it, the empty room was a true extension of her mind, what it presently reflected was the image of a ghost. Cancer was general all over Agnes’s breasts. She wished she could say that to someone who’d laugh in response. But she knew no such person.
And no one wholly knew her. Her books were independent of her charisma—har har—and literary friendships, as she had none. Franklin Square Seven, the book she presently wasn’t writing, would most likely be the final volume in the series. The Franklin Square women couldn’t get any older than they’d be in this book and still be able to turn a plot. She planned to tie up all remaining questions and leave her characters be. No more traumas and dramas. Peace at last.
She’d been looking forward to this for a very long time, but was presently afraid it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe the series had ended with Book Six, when the Franklins were in their seventies and reluctantly harboring grandchildren and arguing with adult children and taking big trips. The book had been well received, and Pauline had gotten good reviews and lots of mail, but Agnes had finished it with the sense that she was at last on the cusp of a breakthrough, and of ensuring her work be read beyond her death. So far the Franklins had lived their lives, and she’d charted their hopes and travails and the changes in society astutely. In the last volume, she would make her points. Say what she had to say. Offer up her final words of wisdom. That sounded good in theory—who didn’t want the last word?—but the pressure to be profound without being didactic or polemical was daunting, at her age, with no further opportunity to correct herself. She had to get it right. Surely that was part of what was stopping her from getting it at all. Perfectionism. Followed by death.
Which brought her back to Hiram, and Fellowship Point, and Robert’s letter describing his walk around the land honoring his father. She closed her eyes and retraced his steps, starting at the Rookerie where he looked down Point Path toward the Sanctuary and then walking forward, past all the houses sleeping now through the winter—Outer Light, Rock Reed, her own Leeward Cottage. She paused there to look over at the graveyard, the stones flat and imbedded in the earth, barely visible from her vantage point, and then at the Meeting Ground where the ancestors had gathered to affirm their values, and occasionally spoke aloud when moved to do so in their hearts. She walked past Meadowlea and pictured Polly on her terrace, and on past WesterLee, the house her great-grandfather had assigned to his brother, dutifully giving away the best location on the peninsula.
Then into the Sank, the place her father had always called “God’s country” and where Agnes had gone thousands of times to reset her balance and to affirm what was truly important in life. Thirty-three acres of land devoted to the safety of the birds that nested there and the birds that stopped by on their migrations, and to the cultivation of native woodland flora and trees. It wasn’t wild. Hiram and Robert and their crew swept up the needles and pruned back invasive undergrowth and tended the soft paths threaded through the trunks, leading to vistas of deep woods and, in spots, distant islands, and to quiet glens and discreet spots for contemplation or rest. Moose had been spotted there, regrettably not by Agnes, but she kept track of the eagles and had friends among the squirrel families generation after generation. Sometimes she could draw on the beauty so wholeheartedly that she felt as though she had metabolized it, and that it had become an organ inside of her. The next time she was actually among the pines, though, she was apt to be embarrassed that she’d thought she was capable of comprehending what was, by nature, beyond her. Either way, she was determined to keep it safe for the birds, the animals, the flowers, the trees. More than ever, the world needed places free of human notions. She knew what people were like, herself included, and she wanted to make sure the Sank was protected by humans from humans. That would be her great legacy for which she wanted no credit. Anonymity had become ingrained.
She glared at the large manila envelope that had arrived with the mail and pulled out the contents. As she guessed, it was someone’s PhD thesis on the subject of When Nan. Agnes sighed. This one was called “Performing Non-Traditional Gender in the When Nan Oeuvre.” By Mariana Wiccan Styles. Of the University of South Lawrence. Wherever that was.
Wiccan? That couldn’t be real, could it? Or—hippie parents.
When Penn had first asked for her papers, Agnes had laughed. Poor wretch who had to laboriously catalogue her sketches, and notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes. Little had Agnes known that children’s books had become a respectable area of academic inquiry. Every year dozens of requests came in from scholars who wanted to have a look at her papers. Apparently, her character, her protagonist, her heroine, a child called Nan, had become a proto-feminist icon of interest on campus. How could that be? Agnes could see someone eking out a column to that effect that the next morning would be wrapping fish. But a thesis? For which one had to prepare by learning foreign languages and writing rigorous papers on far more heady subjects? Yet the When Nan theses started arriving, and Agnes paged through a few of them, learning all about the symbol systems she’d created, the power structures she’d dismantled, the empowering messages conveyed by Nan’s oblivion to issues of sexual oppression and sexist hierarchies in the workplace.
No one opposed Nan’s personhood.
Her travails were circumstantial, not endemic.
One earnest PhD candidate had noted: “It’s as if Agnes Lee had no awareness whatsoever that women might be considered lesser. She writes as if equality were a fact.” Well, yup. Was that really so unusual? The authors she loved all believed women were equal. She had a shelf of books she reread over and over, and that concept was intrinsic to them all. The difference with her was the blind eye she turned to inequity. Her true feeling was not that women were equal, as that in itself was a comparison, but that they were whole. Wasn’t that indisputable?
All living creatures were whole. End of story. This was one of her earliest understandings of reality, and it had shaped her life.
It wasn’t a sacral belief, but a simple recognition. In consequence, she hadn’t eaten a piece of meat since she was three and a half, she’d never married, and she’d done her best not to impinge. Nan, a perpetual nine-year-old, sprang from that sensibility. She was seen as being an anomaly to her time and place. An ideal. A tomboy who wasn’t role-playing, and far more complicated interpretations that Agnes didn’t have the critical vocabulary to fully get. Agnes had done nothing more than portray what a girl was, beyond interference. It depressed her that her simple creation was seen as being such an oddity.
Now Nan was an industry. There was a Nan doll and a couple of Nan movies. What confounded adults was easily grasped by young girls. Agnes reminded herself of that when the theses oppressed her. In any case, she’d made her peace with being the subject of academic speculation, though she liked to joke that she was going to write a book called When Nan Was Kidnapped by the Academy. “Be flattered,” David Combs, her editor, coaxed her. “It’s a good thing. It’s attention.” As if there were no such thing as bad attention.
Of course, Penn didn’t know she had files of correspondence and reviews having to do with all the writing she’d done under pseudonyms. And they wouldn’t find out, if she could help it. What a nightmare it would be if people sent theses about her Franklin Square series as well.
Poor Polly. This surgery was going to be hard on her.
Agnes had not yet opened the last piece of the day’s mail. The return address was her When Nan publisher, so it was no doubt a chore. Yet she didn’t like work to carry over, so she bit her lip and slit the envelope.
Dear Miss Lee,
My name is Maud Silver. I am the new editorial assistant to David Combs. I will be working on, among other things, the When Nan books, so I am writing to introduce myself to you.
I am so excited about this!
It isn’t an accident that I have this particular position. Your books have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother collected the series beginning when she was a child. She has a first edition of When Nan Climbed Cadillac Mountain. It would be worth a fortune but it’s missing the title page. My fault for eating it! That’s how much I loved it.
My mother was obsessed with the books and says she even wrote her own version of one when she was a girl. She passed her obsession on to me. I was attracted to books, and eventually publishing, because of Nan. I aimed to be David’s assistant so I could work with you and on your behalf. I agree with everything important that has been said about the series, and think a lot more will be written, for many generations. You capture what it’s like to be a girl. You give girls strength to be themselves.
I feel incredibly lucky to have landed exactly where I want to be. It feels like destiny.
I would love to know more about you and about Nan’s origin story. Do you plan to write a memoir?
“No,” Agnes said aloud. “I do not, and I will not.”
She opened the cap of her Rapidograph in preparation for writing about the day. All winter, she’d gotten nothing done. She needed Maine. The salt air. Polly daily. Robert. And the graveyard, where the real Nan had a memorial headstone. That was another secret, and no eager editorial assistant would get it out of her.