Kathleen Alcott is the author of three novels, her newest being America Was Hard to Find (Ecco). Her new book tells the stories of Fay Fern and Vincent Kahn, and in doing so considers the cultural watersheds (such as the anti-Vietnam War movement and NASA’s space program) that occurred over pivotal decades of the United States’ recent history. The following is an excerpt from America Was Hard to Find.
Alcott will be in conversation with Managing Editor Oscar Vilallon about her novel at The Bindery in San Francisco on Thursday, May 30.
PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA, 1961-1963
Letters from Charlie, unopened, asked what her plans were, when she might be leaving, why she hadn’t responded, whether it was money she needed, whether it was a car. She kept them in a neat stack on her bureau under the childhood ribbons Claudette had saved and repositioned here on the mirror, reminders as she fell asleep about who they believed her to be. The spelling bee where she had cried hidden in the red velvet wings, the tennis tournament she had won in the middle of a heat wave. I have a child, was the first thing she thought when she woke up, whether she could hear him or not, a slow fear that poured her out of bed. She kept waiting for the news to change.
He held blocks in primary colors, mystified by them, possessive. A banana was a gavel, he commanded the room with his judgment. Who she was didn’t matter, she thought, what she had believed or fought against—the life she had chosen in reaction to her parents’ had ultimately folded her right back into theirs. Claudette spoke to her and to Wright in almost the same voice, asked almost the same questions. What would you like to do today? What would you like to eat?
It was welcome to them, how she was diminished. At the dinner table her paralysis presented as excellent manners, no, yes, either is fine with me, thank you. If she wept over the roast beef, or while sitting out the afternoon on the wraparound porch, they presented her with the baby. A year passed like a matinee she pretended not to have mostly slept through, accepting what had changed and working out the events behind it. He took his first steps in the green-gold grass with the view of the town hung in fog behind him.
She watched television with her father, game shows, the news, an activity that rewarded her muteness, her lack of anything to say. Truth or Consequences, flat riddles posed by a jaunty host to faces as indistinguishable as loaves of white bread. Why was the wife concerned that her husband was a light drinker? Because he’d drink until it was light. Her father laughed at them, slippered feet crossed at the ankles, the same delay as the studio audience. There were commercials that mystified her, the joy of them. Why do girls in love always look so beautiful, the television asked. A woman in plastic twirled to unheard music. It’s because they always walk in the rain. Noxzema.
Her allowance each week was twenty dollars. His first words were a sentence, “No please.” On the last day of July they watched the footage of the partial eclipse, men streaming out of tall buildings in San Francisco holding cereal boxes to their faces. In the fall a black boy enrolled for classes at a college in the South and her father changed the channel on the riots, cars turned over on a lawn before the Doric columns of the lyceum. After a silent dinner, meat loaf shot through with a ribbon of orange cheese, she returned to the couch and changed it back. Her son remained in the dining room, sitting high on a booster and refusing to eat. When James heard what Fay was watching he did not enter, although from the frame of the door he made his dismissal clear, a hand waved in diagonal across his face as if at a bad smell. There was a shot of the governor’s car rolling onto campus, white faces warped in joy at its arrival, and it took her a moment to understand he was there in protest of the student, an Air Force veteran, the grandson of a slave. This event her parents did not discuss, life on land with people, but when the country had prepared for its first orbit they behaved as if in anticipation of a celebrity at their dinner table. Claudette baked in advance, shortbread cookies that looked like rockets.
Her parents stood by her door in the morning, tapping together without rhythm, her son in Claudette’s arms pawing at it, too. They had brought her coffee and she blinked, gathering a robe around her gauzy nightgown as she stood in the door frame. The coverage was already on in the living room, and the sound of it unsettled her, as did the benign smiles of her mother and father, people who had seemed incapable of delight for as long as she had been aware. Cronkite’s voice had never comforted her, that low bleat sounding like someone reporting from the bottom of a pit. A freckled man from Ohio, his face calm and clean, rode an elevator up the tower and boarded the capsule shaped like a badminton birdie. He was to ring the planet, hurtle around it waving bravely. On the enormous Atlas rocket, thirty stories tall and pale as milk, he waited as his audience did for the boom. When it came it disfigured the whole image, filled the frame with smoke, and then the camera struggled to keep up, losing it and finding it, losing it and finding it, the point of the rocket darting in and out until it was a nebulous white shape in a sphere of gray. The image was like a disease seen through a microscope, a vivid, frantic mutation, and all of it, the great furnace of the takeoff and the low human babble and the wind’s dilating of the reporter’s talk, sounded to her like an evil distraction … Has passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressures, the television said. Fay’s parents clapped politely, stunned, unaware of the look on her face. It was the first day their country encircled the earth, and the first day she hated her country.
Something had changed, they knew. She was always leaving her shoes somewhere, then the slippers they offered as corrective. It was a kind of self-neglect that enraged them: barefoot by the refrigerator at midnight, barefoot as she carried him up the stairs, a sideways angle that made him laugh, singing the songs her sister had. As though a solution were just a matter of the right slip-on loafers, Claudette suggested a day in the city, see the Easter displays at the department stores. Wright stayed behind with James, something Claudette suggested, girls’ day out, with a wink her daughter did not acknowledge.
Always get the last word.
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In San Francisco, Fay could not be moved to touch the dresses, hold up the bracelets. Her mother, tired of looking behind to find Fay seated again, reading on a mirrored stool, handed her the car keys. “Why don’t you listen to the radio. I’ll meet you in the garage in two hours,” she said. Dressed as her mother had instructed her, in a just-purchased celery chiffon dress with a high collar and empire waist, she took the first bus she saw.
Against the concave orange plastic seats she was aware how she appeared, how people might imagine her. A young bride glowing between two parts of her life, money in her purse, a collection of Pyrex in her cabinet, some man who knew her childhood nickname with her photo on his desk. There was no way to correct these assumptions, the looks from denim-clad people her own age that went right past her. She committed herself instead to the window, rode the whole way curled around to look out it. On the street from which the bus got its name, Fulton, she pushed the door open. She thought she could see a stretch of green several blocks down, a place where the city opened, and she walked with a hand on her abdomen, her few things in a white leather coin purse swinging at her as she went.
The Victorians she walked under were trimmed like cakes, pinks and blues and violets competing for attention, some with balconies full of plants and others with hand-dyed curtains, and when they let onto the green horizon line of the Panhandle, a long and narrow park you could see across but not around, she was taken by a muted panic, thinking she could not remember the last hour she had spent that was free to her direction of it. She was not in possession of her life, she knew. Suicide crossed her mind like a breeze, nothing that could be helped.
It was the stands of eucalyptus, their smell, and the streets across the park that led in dramatic angles upward, that urged her onto the lawn, where she lay down in a triangle of sun and waited for a thought that was calm enough she could follow it.
Gathered in a loose circle—the girls in linen jumpers and blouses that tied at the neck, the boys with glasses pushed midway up their foreheads, the collars unbuttoned—were a group of students, no older than Fay. She sat five feet away, pretending at contentment. Their scratched leather book bags weighed down foreign newspapers, encircling their talk, one continuous, mutual, angry sentence, elaborating, diverting, returning.
“Special forces, they say—”
“Advisers, they’re calling them, they’re calling people who are terrorizing a country the size of—”
“A country smaller than California—”
“Smaller than California, this nation, and operating pretty much the same since the fifteenth century, and what kind of advice are they giving? Have you ever extracted any wisdom from a chemical that—”
“—kills forests, eviscerates crops that have only served as the primary source of food for hundreds upon hundreds of years, not to mention what kind of—”
“—effect that’s going to have on, oh, people, little kids, babies not born yet, old men trying to live out the rest of their time, and Kennedy meanwhile—”
“—has got a good show we can watch, a dazzling program about celestial exploration that will affirm our country’s inherent valor! He’s our nation’s hope, our nation’s cleft-chinned blue-eyed hope, he’s got a—”
“—beautiful wife so he must be virtuous above all else, for only the good end up with the beautiful.”
There came a collective sighing, reshuffling of papers, and they sat back on their hands or forearms, seeming certain, to Fay, in a way she wanted to be. It was this that moved her, that admitted the boldness required to stand and approach them, looking like she did, a frilly confection, a person who did not belong to herself.
As they looked her over their disdain was a unified front, even their collarbones thrown forward in a way that indicated disapproval.
The boy who had talked the loudest sat up, twisting a dandelion between his thumb and forefinger in quick, angry rotations.
“Actually not a missus at all.” She prepared for the next moment like a swimmer, surveying a distance and committing her breath to mastering it.
“Costume courtesy of a deeply embarrassed maternal figure, a disguise for the mother of a bastard. Fay.” She flashed her left hand, bare of matrimony, waggled it. In the air was the suggestion of the ocean, in the mild temperature the threat it would drop.
They opened around her admission, relaxing their jawlines, tugging their socks up. One canted a hand over his eyes to see her better.
“Given my current incarceration, I’m wondering whether I could borrow one of your newspapers there. I could send it back by—”
“Take it,” someone said.
“Subscribe to it.”
“Get that special jelly and mimeograph it and—”
“Give it to someone else.”
The boy with the tortoiseshell glasses who had called her Mrs. unfolded and refolded the paper, aligning the sections, running a firm index finger down the seams where the crease had loosened.
She waved goodbye, the thing she had asked for held between her ribs and bicep, crossed to the roads she’d admired before, the houses set at forty-five-degree angles, and took Central up to Haight, the strain in her thighs a discomfort that nudged her more awake. Another park waited for her, and it was there she unfolded it, on a plane of grass that followed a sharp incline. The wind that moved the pages almost animated the images, girls bent over rubble, corpses lined up with their shorts around their ankles, men with the waterline at their hips as they crossed the mangrove swamp with a gnarled child on a gurney. Once she saw them they were a part of her, the mosquito netting of the makeshift hospital dropping into the depth of the water, the limp penises of dead men exposed for their families to see.
Saying her name later, crippled at the elbow by shopping bags where she stood in the driveway, her mother rapped on the passenger-side window. Fay stayed as silent as she’d been on the ride home, an artifact behind glass, what happened around her immaterial.
From AMERICA WAS HARD TO FIND by Kathleen Alcott. Copyright 2019 by Kathleen Alcott. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.