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Off Keck Road

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A Novella

Written by Mona SimpsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mona Simpson


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 16, 2001
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-375-41263-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In this flawless novella, Mona Simpson turns her powers of observation toward characters who, unlike Ann and Adele August in her bestselling Anywhere but Here, choose to stay rather than go.

As a high school student in Green Bay, Bea Maxwell raised money for good causes; later, she became a successful real estate agent and an accomplished knitter. The one thing missing from her life is a romantic relationship. She soon settles comfortably into the role of stylish spinster and do-gooder. Woven into Bea's story are stories of other lifelong residents of Green Bay and the changes time brings to a town and its residents. This pure and simple work once again proves Mona Simpson one of the defining writers of her generation.


Chapter I

Bea Maxwell remembered the first time she'd driven out to see the new part of town. It was 1956 and she was home from college for the winter break. After Christmas, though, she had to get away from the house. Her sister and her sister's entourage had taken over the place. Her sister always traveled with an entourage. And it was still nine days before Bea could return to the sorority in Madison.

Bea had friends from high school, too, quiet girls who were back from other colleges, even a few who had stayed in town, working in the kindergartens or at the hospital or for Kendalls, the big department store, but these were not the people she wanted to see. She needed someone from Madison, to touch that part of her life. So she'd called June Umberhum.

June sounded glad to hear from her. She was going stir-crazy, too, she said.

Just then, someone else came on the line. A farmer's wife June said she'd never even seen, who lived somewhere farther out.

"Well, how much longer are you going to be?" that woman asked.

"Just a jiff," June said.

"Already been on a quarter hour."

After she hung up--rather loudly, Bea thought--they hurried to make their plans.

June wanted downtown. They agreed on Kaap's, for ice cream.

But Wednesday morning, June telephoned. Her brother and his awful girlfriend, Nance, had driven the only car up north. Both her sisters were working. No one could run her in. Bus service from Green Bay didn't reach that far out yet.

Where she lived was not part of the city proper. It was still Prebble, but there was already a motion to incorporate the village into the city charter.

"Probly never happen," June said. "Or when we're forty."

But three days before, Bea had got her own car, a 1956 Oldsmobile Holiday, red, her Christmas present. She could go and fetch June.

On the party line, though, June sounded stingy giving directions.

"I can walk to the highway and meet you somewhere. Or should we just make it another day?"

When Bea insisted she wanted to take the car for a spin anyway, June sighed. "Oh, okay."

It was a bright cold day with a weak blue sky. It wasn't snowing anymore but it had and the white was everywhere, glaring off in planes, making flat surfaces of things ordinarily rounded. Bea wore driving gloves with holes cut out for the knuckles--her other present, from Elaine, although she was sure her mother had picked them and seen that they were gift wrapped--and her mood lifted as she drove past the stately houses, away from the quaint, pretty downtown. The specialty shops (Vander Zanden's Fine Jewelry, Jandrain's Formal and Bridal) had the ravaged feel of the boxes still under the Christmas tree in her own house. She knew their contents.

She heard the regularly spaced girders of the bridge click under her new tires. Once you came down off the ramp on Mason, you passed a number of old buildings that happened to grow up near one another; they were clearly not built to look any way together or to make up a "downtown." There was a cheese factory with a sour smell and a canning plant, with small windows and two large chimneys, operating today, judging from the squiggles of white smoke on the blank sky. They'd reopened already or perhaps the factories didn't close for Christmas, as the small shops did.

Then there was a low bank of brick storefronts; Bea spotted a selection of electric organs, sparkly green and gray, inside one--the Music Mecca, where people also went to take lessons.

She drove farther east on Highway 141, which was what Main Street turned into.

"That road was never any good," Bea's mother would say, and as long as Bea could remember, it had not been.

In 1956, the highway had a junk store, a truly immense dilapidated place that reminded Bea of a banked ship. She could vaguely make out a man inside, carrying a stick, moving amid the dim jumble.

She passed a motel, two-storied, with a slim twirled railing along the top floor. The son of the people who lived there, behind the lobby, had gone to high school with June. He was also the Maxwell's paperboy.

The Starlight Supper Club had a ball revolving on top of a tower, set over the octagonal dining room. There was a drive-in movie theater, which advertised friday night fish fry on a home-painted sign. And of course Kroll's, a rectangular building of yellow and maroon tiles, where teenagers for two generations had gone for malteds and chili dogs. Bea's mother had been taken there on dates, in her youth. "When I was dating" was as clear an era in Bea's mother's life as when she was in grade school or when her own children were still in diapers.

By the time Bea came to the part of the highway that ended June's road, she felt she'd already left town. There was a deep snow over everything, and when she turned onto Keck Road, she had to slow down. It was cleared out by hand. She could see the rows a shovel blade had made, two feet wide.

The city snowplows wouldn't come this far, either. On one corner, there was a white farmhouse, and on the other, a small tavern, pink and gray, that looked like an ordinary house during the daytime. Children's boots drooped on the porch. A little farther up, the plowed middle of the road narrowed, and on top of the icy snow were sprigs of hay.

The road was paved only as far as there were houses, eight in all. From where she was, Bea could see the road ending, and beyond that, fields led down to the railroad tracks.

The houses looked small and hastily built, but the land out here was magnificent. Her mother would have loved to see the trees. A Norway spruce was half again as tall as the tree in front of City Hall, the one lit with candles at the annual Monk's Charity Carol on Christmas Eve.

Sun glittered on crusted snow, a forbidding brightness. Even in the intricate construction of ice and crystals, there was the promise of a green melting, change.

. . .

And everywhere here, there were children, children running, children rolling snowballs, children on lumber they used as toboggans, children jumping off a shed into banks of snow so deep they turned invisible to Bea when they landed.

They seemed scantily dressed and altogether unattended, some downright wild, such as the one swinging from a bare hickory branch, which looked like it could break any minute, some fifteen feet above the snow. That child, like many others, was not wearing mittens.

The claustrophobia Bea had felt since the indoors day of Christmas swept out of her. She rolled down the new car's window (inside the chrome handle, a circle of red leather). This vigor outdoors looked to her like a painting she had seen projected up on the auditorium screen at college, a Brueghel sparked to life.

A thin-ankled, pregnant woman stepped out of one of the small houses, carrying a baby. She walked down the driveway and put a letter in the mailbox, just a few feet away from Bea's car. The baby, with a brown mark on its eyelid, couldn't have been more than a few months old. Could she have been that pregnant again already?

Bea felt like getting out and tromping in the snow. She thought of her cross-country skis leaning in the garage at home.

June, the sorority sweetheart (literally, she was that; Bea had voted for her in Green Bay solidarity), June--who wore a sparkling blue-and-gold sari to the house invitational--lived here! Perhaps she'd been one of these antic children.

Bea would not be invited into June's house, not this time. On the other side of the road, there was a semicircular driveway before a pretty two-story white house. There, under the most spectacular tree Bea had ever seen, June stood like a tiny queen, stamping her feet in fur-trimmed boots.

Her whole body leapt into motion as she opened the door and flew into Bea's new red car.

"Let's go," June said.

From there, they talked a mile a minute--nothing about their Christmases, nothing about their homes, only about people they knew in Madison.

But Bea wondered, in a scant way, as she glanced in her rearview mirror, about to turn onto that bad highway, what would become of these ruddy, unminded children.

Chapter II

In the obituary for Jonas Salk, run by the Green Bay Press Gazette, the wire service reporter said that by 1963, we had wiped out polio in the United States.

Except Shelley. She must have been one of the last people to contract the disease. Now, they said in that same article, polio is coming back again.

Shelley knows the exact day she got it. It was a May Saturday in 1961, the year the oral vaccine was introduced. She was five years old.

On Saturday mornings, Shelley's father would corral the kids, give the wife a chance to rest her feet.

Not that the wife did. She usually went on a long walk with another lady so they could yak, yak, yak. When Shelley's father said this, he'd shake his head to mean he didn't understand it. A favorite joke of his was, "Too bad the two of youse can't get married."

The vaccinations were given in a high school gymnasium, free, over on their side of town.

The gym doubled as the auditorium. At one end of the big room, there was a stage where the nurses stood, injecting for tetanus and passing out small paper cups with the polio vaccine. The front half of the line received the vaccine in sugar cubes, pink or blue, one inside each Dixie cup. After those ran out, the nurses poured a certain measured amount of a sweet liquid. It was all very matter-of-fact. The disposable needles came wrapped in paper, like tampons, packed in square boxes. Beside each nurse was her own wastebasket.

Kids waited in a long line on the part of the floor painted for basketball. Against the wall was a half-built float, a covered wagon, the cloth made of square school-issue toilet paper stuffed into the hexagonal openings of chicken wire. It would take hundreds of hours to fill the wire honeycomb with white paper blossoms.

"Girl work," Shelley's middle brother said with a downturning mouth.

High school girls did it, probably all the while thinking of themselves sitting on top, dressed up as pioneer women or some such thing, waving to a big crowd. Nell Umberhum would most likely be the one to ride on it. And she wouldn't have helped build it, either. She had a paying job already, waitressing at Kroll's.

Shelley's older sister, Kim, drifted over to touch.

They were four children then. Dean hadn't been born yet. He came five years later, a last surprise, and, like a present, he was the one who always was so handsome. Bea Maxwell had been wrong that afternoon in 1956. Shelley's mother's belly still looked full from having been pregnant with Shelley.

She'd been wrong about another thing, too. It was not the first time she'd seen Keck Road. Once, in elementary school, she and her best friend had collected food for the poor. They'd been driven out to hand the grocery bags over to a family in an apricot-colored house with all kinds of junk in the front yard. That time, the street had looked different, terrifying.

It seemed to Shelley and her sister and brothers that they could move about and still keep their place in line. Their mother would've let them. She tried to give them every advantage of being a four-kid family. She believed that small families were sad--in all cases, the result of selfishness or medical tragedy. And she trusted the world to help raise her children. If she'd been there, she would have already been talking to another mother. Her main public service in the world was that--being a mother--and she felt she was a good one.

But her husband stood with his arms folded tight. He didn't want anyone to suppose his kids were cutting in line.

Shelley's brothers signaled to other guys who ran track and to Petey from across the road, standing on his head twenty yards in front of them, next to his mom.

The line moved, but it was so long. Shelley kept looking at her feet, happy because she had new sneakers. She was already as tall as Kim, but two years younger. She got these shoes because she'd grown out of last summer's already. Her goal was to get so that Kim would have to wear her hand-me-downs, even though Shelley was the youngest, a goal she would soon achieve.

Kim tried to step on Shelley's tennies to make marks. Their mother would have noticed, even through her conversation with the other mother, would've turned to say "Stopit," but their dad just lifted a hand, as if they were each equally to blame.

Shelley's feet kept dancing to miss her sister's. So far, she was doing it. Her sneakers were clean.

When they were getting close to the front, three S's away, June Umberhum rushed in with her daughter, Peggy. They all knew Peggy because June often left her with the grandma, and sometimes the grandma paid Kim and Shelley a quarter to keep an eye on her while she did her housework. They watched for June's white Volkswagen coming down Keck Road.

Peggy tiptoed ahead of her mother, but not too far, like dice or jacks thrown from a hand.

She was in white: white shorts, a white top, white anklets, white tennies, and a white bow in her hair. She was only two years old and everything she had on was new.

Looking at her made Shelley not care much anymore about marks on her shoes. They would come anyway, sooner or later. Soon.

When June first returned to Green Bay, their mother had given her their hand-me-downs for Peggy. June had stood by the open door of her white VW (the seats covered in red plaid!) and said, "Oh, thanks. These'll come in handy." But they never once saw Peggy wearing anything of theirs.

Now their mother gave their old clothes to the church.

But June still fascinated them. Especially Kim--who tried to make her own hair curl up at the ends the way June's did. (June probably copied it from an actress on TV.) "I bet she has a standing appointment at the beauty shop," Kim said.

That day in the high school gym, June was wearing sunglasses and high heels and pants. Shelley hadn't ever seen high heels before with pants. And sunglasses! She stood out in the underwater gymnasium light.

She went right up in a movie-star way to their dad and said, "Hi, Tommy," and just started standing with them, her arms crossed like his.
Mona Simpson|Author Q&A

About Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson - Off Keck Road

Photo © Gaspar Tringale

Mona Simpson is the author of Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, and My HollywoodOff Keck Road won the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim grant, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writers’ Award, and, recently, a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Simpson is on the faculty at UCLA and also teaches at Bard College.


Author Q&A

Q: How did Off Keck Road begin?

A: The first image I remember turned out to be the second chapter of the book, when the kids all lined up to get the polio vaccination in the school gym. Another scene I felt early on in the writing of the book is the opening drive, which reads, I hope, with a little of the optimistic lilt of a girl's book--Bea, young in her sparkling car, going to see a new place outside of town. I see that scene--the hopefulness, the innocent brightness, the new shiny car--alongside Shelley's scenes with George, in which the sex is not romantic or particularly familiar. That to me is the truth about my home town, both that innocence and that unglamorous fugitive sensuality which you'll find no record of in any of our national culture.

Q: How did you decide to write a novella rather than a novel?

A: I didn't really. When I started I was just writing, I didn't know what. I thought maybe I was writing a story or something on the scale of a girl's book, that would of course have its dark raw side. I knew I was not writing a girl's book, just a story that might feel and look like one, the shape of one. I think of a girl's book as a kind of fantasy about domestic life. I knew I wasn't writing a novel. I've written three novels and I'm in the middle of a fourth--I know what that feels like and this wasn't it. Maybe it was too much pleasure to be a novel.

Q: Off Keck Road is a story about the costs and rewards of staying in a small town with your family, rather than moving to a major city. What are you saying about small town life?

A: I haven't lived in a small town for any of my grownup life. I left the Wisconsin city I grew up in (itself not exactly a town) when I was a child, and visited only on holidays, often taking a train there or even a Greyhound bus from California. So that small city still holds the reservoir of all my early sights and sounds, the scraps we find our voices out of, the pieces we use again and again in dreams.

Q: Is any part of the book autobiographical?

A: There's one part of the book that's taken entirely and completely from my life. The childhood house I grew up in, my grandmother's white house, the place I still live in my dreams, where I imagine characters live when I read a book, the layout I most associate with a home (bedrooms upstairs after a long hall of closets, eaved ceilings, huge trees with leaves that tick against the panes, a proper living room with grey drapes, a never-used front door, a mysterious adult "den," the downstairs bedroom and the kitchen--the heart of the house) is not there anymore. On the land where it was, with its majestic trees, a Wal-Mart does thriving business. And it's also true that the fire department burned it down and put the fire out, again and again, for practice.

Q: As a writer and mother, how are you juggling these two roles?

I started late and so I'm just at the beginning. I'll let you know. So far not so good. Both matter so much.

Q: What are you working on now?

I'm in the middle of a big novel, called My Hollywood. Sometime after that (which is like saying in my next life) I plan to complete a collection of short stories called Virginity and Other Fictions.

Q: You seem particularly interested in women's lives, in complex relationships between women. Why do these relationships interest you?

A: Well, I suppose the most obvious reason is that I am a woman. But also, and perhaps more importantly, as an artist, I think one naturally gravitates towards the experience or position or gesture or color or articulation that you've felt in life, strongly and even commonly, but not yet seen in art, in my case, in books. Seventy-one years ago, in A Room Of One's Own, Virginia Woolf complained that women in fiction, the great female characters, were only presented in relation to men, not to each other or to work, or to parents or to any number of people or activities women were in fact engaged in, every day. In popular culture, women are still presented thinking about men, dressing for men, judging themselves in relation to men. Perhaps some of this reflects a truth, but there are also other truths we all know of from our lives.

Q: Why are you writing about single women?

A: I don't know, of course, is the truthful answer. Perhaps because I was a single woman, perhaps because I grew up with a single mother, but probably the most likely answer is because that is not at all the life I am living now.

I remember a distinct phase in my life, it lasted many years, when I had no idea, truly no idea how I would ever be able to get married or have a family. I wanted to, I wanted that, I thought, but I literally had no idea how and it seemed almost impossible to get from where I was to that far country of family life. It seemed more than oceans were between us. (Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick . . . .) This was a time when I was a single woman, living in New York, dating unoccasionally. Looking back, most of what I was doing, was working, learning to be a writer, jimmying the supporting-myself side of my life as cleverly as I could, and meeting with friends for coffee in my kitchen, eating fresh made muffins, for lunch or supper, amidst laughter and complaint.

Now, when I look back at it, it was a mostly happy time, both full of hope and full of terror about the future. Two places I went to puncture the dailyness of my life then were artists colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell. At these rural, beautiful retreats I met other artists from New York City, painters who lived in Brooklyn in lofts where they ate and slept and cooked chicken soup as well as painted, or downtown in Tribeca, older women who had godchildren but no children, affairs and friendships but no regular boyfriends. At that time, I was afraid of becoming one of them. A woman artist alone in New York, working but carefully planning weekends to avoid the dread, crossing streets so as not to pass restaurants with outside tables full for brunch. Now, those solitary lives seem to me beautiful and valuable, as profound and as good as any other. Maybe more so. Jane Austen spent her whole life alone and single, writing in her family's busy parlour about romantic love that ended in her books in marriage. Right now, I am living in a roil of family life, in the midst of its exquisite joy and exuberant noise. As much as family life perhaps shimmered as a kind of distant unattainable beauty to Jane Austen, those solitary women's lives of single pursuit shine for me, no less burnished in their lustre for having once been mine.

Q: Why a novella?

Who knows? It just seemed to be the size and shape this piece was, with its central dance of Bea, Shelley and Bill. I've always loved the form. I love Flaubert's A Simple Heart, Tolstoy's novella which is alternately translated as Family Happiness and A Happy Married Life and Chekhov's long stories "The Steppe," "In the Ravine," "A Woman's Kingdom" and "Three Years." I think The Beast in the Jungle is as good as anything else Henry James wrote, which from me is an extremely high compliment. I love Allan Gurganus's A Practical Heart.

In some ways, in the cases of Henry James and Tolstoy and Flaubert these condensed distilled works are their best, the clearest moments of their ample accomplishment. In some ways they deliver the themes and the beauties of the longer novels more concisely, with the additional power of that single-line speed. And yet they never could have written the shorter work without the novels, one feels.

Q: What about the theme of gossip? Does that have to do with your interest in small towns?

A: Well, gossip can make small towns out of big cities, and the kind of closed community small towns provide tends to foster gossip. In cities, people often find those of cohesive community in churches, in work, maybe even in group therapy, certainly in their children's preschools and sports teams. Gossip of course can be as good or bad as the gossiper. Toni Morrison wrote at the end of The Bluest Eye that love is only as good as the lover. Well, kind people gossip kindly, mean people gossip meanly and most of us fall somewhere in between. Bea is meant to be a gossip, that is the role assigned to her as a solitary. Solitary people need specific ways to stay connected to a community.

Q: What does the polio vaccine and Shelley's post polio mean to you?

A: It was my way of exploring chance. To me, that line for vaccinations was one of the universal middle-class experiences. Everyone I knew in my life was there in that line at Prebble High the day I got my polio vaccine, the nice kids and the bullies, the boys we were afraid of, the girls we envied. Of course there was a whole other world of people who were richer and who received inoculations privately in their doctor's office, but that world wasn't my world. I wasn't thinking about it at the time I wrote it, but now there are new raging controversies about inoculations and vaccines, here in California. It says something about the fifties and about that maligned generation's willingness to rise to a public service. The government asked parents to give them their children to test the polio vaccine and everyone did. Now, thousands of parents are deciding not to vaccinate, essentially to enjoy the immunity their children will receive from other children's risk.

Q: What do you think of the contemporary portrayal of single women in popular culture?

A: Seventy-one years ago Virginia Woolf argued that women were too often portrayed only in relation to men. Even now, I think the most common portrayal of single women emphasizes women thinking about men. There's more to most women's lives than discussions of shoes and dates, though you wouldn't necessarily know that watching TV. Women have always taken care of our vulnerable people--our parents and grandparents and our children. There is a quiet heroism to this perpetual common care. Another vision of sexuality.



"Off Keck Road should not be read in public places, against the certainty of tears... Continually moving in a wry, Chekhovian way."
--The Atlantic Monthly

Replace bottom two quotes with this quote alone:
"Showcases the gifts of emotional sympathy and psychological observation that Ms. Simpson used to such enormous effect in Anywhere But Here. In fewer than 200 pages it gives us the shape and texture of two entire lives."
--The New York Times

  • Off Keck Road by Mona Simpson
  • September 11, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780375709067

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