Critic-editor Emile Capouya once remarked “that he was bowled over…by the fact that there was no trace of self-pity” in Lora Williams’ (pen name of Jolita Rouson) novel Nike (Schocken, 1984). She herself always claimed that she made a deliberate effort to avoid this common pitfall among authors who write about themselves. During the last decade of her life (she was found dead in her New York apartment in January, 1993) she became a close friend of Jack Lindeman’s through his own long-standing association with novelist-translator Guy Daniels. After a memorial dinner in her favorite restaurant on Fourth Avenue her youngest daughter, Jessamy, suggested that Mr. Lindeman take on her mother’s last unfinished novel “F-Train” and try to make something publishable of the loose-leaf collection of notes and outlines, and the result thus far is the following remarkable short story “Sophie.”
The low yellow sports car, its black leather roof strapped down, screeched to a stop before the stoop of the darkened house (one of five sister houses, each containing fifteen railroad apartments, tub in the kitchen, built on 25′ x 100′ lots, examplars of prize-winning design a century before in a competition for model tenements, forming a low red brick front in the block of gleaming white apartment towers). In the car, over the engine’s purr, Sophie Piper gasped soft fragments of the tender, elaborate goodnight she had rehearsed during the silent drive from Atlantic City, words she prayed would entice from her lover reassurance of their being together on the coming evening (the practical side of her nature unquenchable, they were after all giving a party at his place, they had invited everyone). Crow–shortened by him from Crowell–rigid, stared at the street ahead. Heavy tornado weather oppressive in her heart, Sophie got out of the car, but before she gained her footing on the sidewalk, Crow-car, one carapace with angry red rear eyes, seemed to lash at her cruelly as it swung away sharp and nasty, seemed to twich its smug, tucked-under rear, and screamed, furious and mean, down the empty street, making a right against the light at First Avenue.
He might as well have thrown her to the sidewalk, bruised, crumpled, even a corpse, people did that in New York.
“But he didn’t.” She scanned the flat horizon in her heart for the funnel of the tornado.
“I am on my own two feet.”
She pushed open the front door–no funnel, only a small flame of fury, where had that come from? A spark of white in her mail box. She unlocked it, pulled out the one envelope. From her agency. She let herself in the inner door, walked the low-lit hall, and climbed the five steep flights to her apartment. Her short white linen skirt bound her thighs as she climbed, perfect legs, tanned and bare, pulled her sandalled feet upward. She was at all times aware of how she moved and might appear to an observer; if as now there was no observer, there was herself to check the reflection in the stairwell windows. The oversized blue shirt belted low over her hips looked immaculate in the weak light from the landings. Her hair, massy, uncombed, the color of a lion’s mane, bumped on her shoulders. Crow did not approve of her doing anything with her hair. Her face, dry of tears, was clean of makeup. Crow did not approve of makeup. These disapprovals and prohibitions, this particular white man’s purdah, hard as they were on a pretty girl, she complied with like a convert so long as he did not mock into extinction the possibility of marriage, even children, so long as she could dream that he would bring an end to her worry about money.
In her apartment she switched on the kitchen light. She was worn out. She let the heavy shoulder bag fall to the floor, and took down from a shelf above the lidded tub a wine glass, and from the huge, all but empty refrigerator an opened bottle of white wine and filled the glass. She tucked the bottle under her arm, picked up the glass and with her other hand dragged her bag by the strap into the only other room of the apartment (aside from a cubicle containing the toilet two steep steps high she had made quaint with violet paint and a lace shawl folded and tacked over the tiny window) and sat down on a daybed in the light from the kitchen. She placed the glass on the wicker coffee table and turned on the lamp near the bed. Her barred windows onto the fire escape were open, the night air freshened her rooms.
She replayed the evening in her mind.
She had always wanted to go to Atlantic City and earlier that day, no, yesterday–she uttered a little cry, yesterday had already become one of those days that was only yesterday but seemed like years ago–yesterday, then, she had Crow set out. They had planned it for a week. They would take a room at a hotel overlooking the ocean, they would have seafood for supper, and after supper they’d visit the gambling rooms just to look on but then they’d go back to the beach, they would never be out of sight of the beach with the Atlantic rolling in.
The ride had been really great. She had felt really cool in that fantastic car, with the top down, her hair blowing all about, the little white skirt riding high, the radio blasting the rock stations. She switched the stations to avoid the commercials. Crow seemed proud of her, other cars were overtaking them just to get a look at her, he said, while he drove steady and cool along. What was it he said: Yes–”Yours is the face that wrecked a thousand cars.” The way he used his voice, deep, almost dramatic, but real, cool: “Helen of the Turnpike.” She bit her lip. It didn’t sound that great now that she repeated it to herself. Just the fact that he, probably, meant it as a compliment? Oh, she didn’t know.
She sipped her wine.
In Atlantic City there really were all the big hotels and the beach and that huge Atlantic like she dreamed. They parked the car and walked on the beach. She ran around collecting shells and took off her sandals and waded in the wash of the surf and he laughed with her, though he didn’t take his shoes off and kept jumping out of reach of the water.
She thought now of his brooding face which so deeply moved her, how it was softened by laughter, when she laughed, but especially when he laughed in a way she could interpret as tender, she always on the lookout for that tenderness, she liked the way he called her sometimes Girl, and sometimes, Woman. Or was it part of an act? Why think now of that nutty remark made by that nutty girl, she didn’t know her, it was before her and Crow’s time together, but Crow had told her, who said of his intense face “You must be on drugs or something to look like that.” I mean, Sophie thought, they just smoked a little pot, not all the time.
It was sunset and they had the beach pretty much to themselves. She loved him. He was very rich. A real Cezanne in his parents’ guest room. A big painting. And he was serious about his work, documentary filmmaking. She did not always understand what the films were about, they were abstract, like one time in the middle of some fast grim footage taken on the subway and speeded up, he kept interflashing that bit of film he’d taken in Oklahoma when they had gone to see her folks, a real nothing film, blue sky, green flat field cut by a small clean stream, just one of the spots near her house that she had loved since she was a kid, one of those private spots. But a theater chain in town had just the other day had accepted one of his films for showing along with the feature film, that theater behind Bloomingdale’s. She was in that film. She had played, quite well, a tart. Their talk about marrying “one day” was quite abstract, too, now that she thought about it, because of his Work. She was certain he capitalized the word in his mind. In her mind it was in huge block letters. His work came first for now.
They found a restaurant overlooking the beach and she had lobster, he had shrimp, they had a bottle of white wine, and it was all delicious, and then they picked their hotel for the most garish outdoor lighting, and hardly able to contain their laughter, they checked in and were shown their room. He reached for her the moment the door closed behind the bellboy, turned off the light and pulled her toward the huge bed. “I mean,” this was the hundredth time that night she had thought this thought, “we’ve made love so many times it wasn’t like….” And had she not thought all along, the trip to Atlantic City was “for the ocean,” not “for sex.” The breakers rolling in, the salt spray, the salt sea, the sea winds, the sea sky. She had always had sex with him whenever he wanted it, and many times there were other things on her mind. She had hoped, although she could not express this wish to him, that Atlantic City would be pure, just the ocean, as if they were two children.
She murmured, “No, Crow, dear, no, I have my period.” He–did he push her?–dropped her, so she fell beside the bed. He strode around the room in a rage while she scrambled up to sit on the edge of the bed. “What d’you mean you got your period? You haven’t been complaining of cramps or anything, like you usually do.” This amazed her, for like many people she was unaware that she ever complained about anything. “I was looking forward to–” she started to say. In the gold gleams of the exterior lighting which flashed around the room overlooking the sea, he seemed to explode. She was real cool, yah, blouse buttoned low, thighs pushing and swaying to the murderous beat of that exhausted rock, that frustrated beat that won’t–cannot–climax and cannot stop, bored, boring, unending foreplay, (he was actually saying, no, screaming these words!), urgent with unguent, a fetish off on the wrong foot, that guy with his guitar a pubescent partisan machine-gunning the crowd, howling, Come, damn it, come, will you never come, fake it, for Chrissake. He kept moving in and out of the flashing lights from outside. And she remembered now how then, horribly, she had wanted to laugh: he looked just like the oldtime villain in a silent movie and she recalled the classic line: “Curses, foiled again!” and she said to herself as though she could read it on an old screen, “The curse has foiled him again!” But now he was recapping their arrival in Atlantic City and–and her running around the beach like a goddamned commercial, cute as hell, and cracking her lobster and lapping her wine, how she went along all week with Atlantic City when allatime she knew she’d get her period. At last he said, “Get up, we’re getting outta here,” and she had to run to keep up with him leaving the room and through the lobby, running after him all the way to the car. He drove in a fury way over the speed limit and never said another word to her all night.
She took a deep sip of the wine, shook her head. She remembered that poem from school about the beach and the mermaids singing and how this fussy, depressed man reckons they will not sing to him. Well. Maybe the mermaids were singing a song for the time of the moon when all the mermaids have their period and their song is a lay–That’s right, Crow, a lay of mortal man and the words are (oh, she could see it, sunlight in the seaspray) “we do not think he will sing to us.”
Why should she have told him before they went, what difference did it make? It was not their first time, it was not a big deal. She once read in a book the lady says no, they will not meet that night, she has her period. The man (who happens to be younger than the woman, just like Crow was younger, seven years younger, she was going to be 35 in one month, nobody knew that, she looked so much younger and had such great bones as they kept telling her, thank God she had had the sense to find at least one right lie and to stick by it. Just as nobody knew that she had been married twice, the first time at 16 to get away from her mother, and the next time, oh God, with what simplicity, what simple compulsion, had she got up and gone with that astronaut as dark as space itself, nor was anybody in this town ever going to find out)–anyway, in the book the man says that’s all the more reason they will meet, a woman needs someone with her then more than at other times. But this was in a book by John Braine, she remembered his name, and may not have really happened or may have been what he later wished he really had said at some such time in his life. Oh, who knows?
She remembered the envelope and looked for it in her bag, not there. She went to the kitchen, there it was in the middle of the kitchen floor, and she took it into the front room. She raised her head, the night was so still, not a sound from First Avenue, but she heard something, a howl of such longing, she had never heard anything like it before. She was certain in her bones it was not a dog, and it couldn’t be a wolf here in Manhattan; she had never heard a wolf anyway. She bent her attention to the envelope, ripping it open and tugging out a short letter. A check fell in her lap, from her agency. Payment for the modelling job of a month ago. That crazy whirlwind job, she’d almost died when she got it, her first big break, a huge spread for Vogue, all the international issues, too. It had been a rush of airports, vans, and makeup men, fast food gulped on the run, a blur of crumbling backgrounds. Two other models with her, she was glad of their company, two other girls to share the misery and craziness of it all. The magazine should be out soon and there she would be, Sophie, in McFadden’s rose-red pleated silk against the cliffs of Petra, Sophie sulking in Givenchy’s gored coat on the raked sands of of the bullring at Granada, Sophie with painted eyes in the Lascaux caves staring out of Maximilian’s furs, Sophie in….She had wondered what Crow would make of all these pictures. There had been a lot of makeup and some really crazy hairstyles. She picked up the check and held it to the lamplight, blinked. It was made out to her, Sophie Piper, in the amount of $27,000. She had never dreamed of having that much money.
She stood up and went to the kitchen sink to look at her face in the mirror above it. Her beauty made her shaky. It had been of no use in Atlantic City. She stared at herself, repeating aloud “$27,000!” She would never had dared ask for that much. Stupid, she told herself, that is why you’ve got an agency. She left the mirror, but returned to it, again and again, like a child who cannot believe the wonderful gift it has received at Christmas.
At last she sat back on the bed. Crow just had to see this check. She could command a higher price than he ever dreamed. He was always cashing small checks for her. She would just ask him real cool to cash this one for her and watch his face. She laughed for the first time in hours and hours, and could hardly wait for the next evening. I mean, she thought, we’re giving this party and he didn’t tell me not to come. In fact, she knew he was expecting her the crawl back to him. She would take the F train like she had done hundreds of times out to that firehouse he had bought in Brooklyn that he had fixed up really beautiful, he would be over his snit by then, and she would ask him to cash this little check for her and then she–
And then–What was she thinking? And then I will say goodbye, flashed across her mind. And then, flashing, flashing, the scenes of sulks and tears, of frets and quarrels, flashing by, and she thought, why, we have been each other’s full time job. How many tears because he was not someone else? Everything else the same, the money, the Cezanne, but someone else? She stood up and slowly took off and folded her clothes, found a nightgown, and folded back the covers of the day couch. She turned off the light and sat in the dark, sipping the wine. In her mind she saw the green fields and blue skies of her home town in Oklahoma where she knew everyone and they knew her. $27,000 would bring her home first class. Even her mother would have to admit she was worth something, not just all selfishness and vanity, maybe there would be no more slamming doors. She would get her own place, maybe in the town or maybe in Tulsa and visit home a lot, she could do that now. she had always believed that with the simple passing of the complicated years she would one day just be mature, wise. That long howl again! That howl of yearning filled her with hopelessness. She listened, but all was silence, she could not even hear any traffic on First Avenue. Funny, what carried on the night airs. Would she ever know, she wondered, would she ever be grown up, would there ever be a time of peace, of–maturity, yes, just plain end-of-it-all maturity for her that could ease the guilts and misinterpretations that existed in and still spoke from the past.
She thought of Alice, who ran her agency. Alice with her black hair cut like the actress Louise Brooks Crow showed her a photo of, almost spit curls, didn’t they call them, and her big broad smile and appraising brown eyes with laughlines and bags. She could talk to Alice, she often talked to Alice, and Alice had said something once, what was it? Yes, Alice had looked at her long and said, “Crow is not the only rich young man in the world.”
She would see Alice tomorrow. There was bound to be more work when people saw her photographs in Vogue, all those editions. She picked up the folded letter the check had slipped from. Yes, Alice wrote, “Another neat job coming in, call me.”
Moonlight filled her room. Her face was still as she finished the wine. She was again the cool cashier at the checkout counter of her life, carefully adding her reserves that would carry her safely past the faithlessness of men and women also. Her features sharpened. She aged decades in the moonlight. Hers was the thin face of the woman on the wagon bench, alift, pterodactylian, ever westward jolting, the hungry face of the itinerant worshipper, eyes beaming in a ceaseless scan for that before which she could prostrate herself, and at long last find homestead beneath the sky, and set up house, unpack the linens and the muffin pans.