By the time Helen comes in from her run, the first sparks of dawn, pale orange and chilly, are reaching through the bare trees in the backyard. On the other side of the fence, across a gully cut by a thin creek, the neighboring hospital puffs steam into the morning. From its vents and chimneys and pipes, clouds rise, catching light in their curling forms, turning pink and then fading to white. She slides a filter into the coffeemaker, pours in the last of the dark grounds, and leans against the counter. She’s been dizzy since her last mile, and sometimes when she turns her head quickly, her vision takes a moment to catch up: the breakfast table seems to wobble in the corner, and a silver blob resolves itself belatedly into the refrigerator. Call eye doctor,
she scribbles on the grocery list, then adds Folgers
When her daughter came home for winter break, Helen brewed endless pots of coffee; four months of college had turned Abby into a proper addict. She’d become a vegetarian, too, and a quasi- environmentalist, and an earnest proponent of domestic equity. She’d lectured Helen about the necessity of composting and talked at length about “the second shift,” which had something to do with how Helen, like most American women, had to work outside the home as well as make the dinners and do the laundry.
When Helen went to college, there was Mass every day in the chapel and a dress code; one studied European history, geography, and psychology. Two decades later, her daughter is going to classes with names like “Literature of Conscience” and “Gender, Power, and Identity,” in jeans with sagging knees and sloppy, fraying cuffs. She reads books about poverty and oppression, which she discusses in classrooms with the children of the privileged. Abby considers Helen oppressed, though she will admit that, on the scale of cosmic injustices, her mother doesn’t have all that much to complain about.
Helen yearns for her daughter when she’s gone, and she knows that Abby misses her, too. If Helen could, she’d go back to college with Abby–not to learn about poststructuralism or semiology, whatever those are, but just to watch her daughter’s life unfolding. She’d live in a different dorm, of course, or even off campus. But she’d be nearby, for support, and maybe sometimes they could meet for tofu burgers at the student- run café. She knows this is ludicrous, but there is no schooling the heart.
She presses the start button on the coffeemaker, and it begins to make its comforting, burbling noises. The cat stitches itself around her ankles as she stands watching the first drops of coffee fall. Helen nudges her with her toe, but the cat comes back, purring, insistent. “Oh, Pig,” Helen says. “Get a life.”
She rubs her temples–Honestly,
she thinks, maybe I should go lie down again–
and then her thoughts turn to Regina McNamara, one of her favorite and most incorrigible kids, busted yesterday for underage drinking in the city park right next to the police station. Helen has been a counselor at the county juvenile court for almost a decade. She knows all the bad kids and all the formerly bad kids, and every time she pumps her gas or goes to the grocery store she runs into one of the reformed; helping them find jobs is one of her specialties.
The coffeemaker hisses and bubbles. She stares at it, willing it to work faster, and in the corner of her eye there is a strange flash, like that of a lightbulb that has popped and burned out. A second later, there is another flare, a jagged red spark. Her headache intensifies. She puts one hand on the counter and with the other touches her brow. She is alert, wary, and her pulse quickens. She blinks and blinks again, holding on to the old avocado Formica counter that she has meant, for years, to have replaced. The light grows brighter.
There is so much to do–she has to find out Regina’s court date and get Bill Gordon’s transcript and see if she’ll be able to beg him in to Kenyon despite his two turns in juvie (his SAT scores are excellent), and she has to defrost the ground beef for dinner, and she hasn’t called Abby in a whole week– Wait,
she thinks. Wait.
But the light doesn’t wait. The light explodes from a star that suddenly rises up from the kitchen sink. It shines in all the colors she has ever seen and in colors that don’t exist on this earth–colors of nebulae or comets, colors of time and gravity. There is a glow that contains an afterglow; there is a light that eats itself and grows brighter. There is a candle burning in the center of a supernova. The light has arms, fingers, wings. The light is splendid, but there is no word for splendid anymore. A great wonder of anguish washes over her. Her hand slips from the counter and she falls down. The sun climbs the trunks of the trees, and the clouds from the hospital billow and pulse and pull themselves apart in the sky. On the counter in the chilly morning, the coffeemaker fills with weak coffee. There is a prism in the window, and soon it will fling rainbows about the room.
Cupped in its summer valley, ringed by humped blue mountains, the Presidential Hotel rose up like a marooned ocean liner–massive, ornate, and radiantly white. It was five stories tall and, according to the brochure Abby had read, nine hundred feet long, capped with a turreted roof of scarlet tile. It was so spectacular and sudden a vision that Abby, though dulled by hours of dim tree- lined highway, very nearly gasped from the backseat.
“Voilà,” her father said, winking at her in the rearview mirror. “The best hotel in New Hampshire.”
Elliott had been calling it that for months–not, Abby thought, because he knew it to be true but because it drove her crazy, and this amused him. He turned in at the ornate iron gates, and they rumbled up a narrow road beneath vine- wrapped lampposts whose globes flickered with gaslight, past a pond edged by daylilies and tall, whispering grasses to the left, and then a smooth green plane of golf course to the right. The driveway curved alongside manicured lawns and flower beds and big granite boulders positioned as deliberately and artfully as sculptures.
“It looks like that ship–” Abby’s mother said.
“What ship?” the other two asked.
“You know,” she said, “that one . . .” Helen watched out the window as they approached, the hotel looming larger and larger. A flag at the roof ’s highest point seemed to pierce the low- lying clouds.
“Actually, we don’t know,” Abby said.
Through the bars of the headrest, Abby could see the thin, corded column of her mother’s neck and the trailing ends of the bandanna that she wore instead of a wig. In March, doctors had found an astrocytoma in her frontal lobe, which had stretched, tentacle- like, into the temporal. That explained the headaches, the blurred vision, the elusiveness of familiar words; that was what caused the seizures, which had been the first undeniable indications that something was wrong.
She’d had high- dose chemotherapy and a course or two of radiation, all while Abby was away at school, and now, during a brief pause in the treatment–time off for good behavior, Elliott joked–they were taking a vacation. Abby, who wanted her mother to rest up for the next therapeutic onslaught, had been against the idea, but she’d discovered that her opinion counted less than it used to.
Elliott brought the Volkswagen to a rest by the front steps, and the valets lingering beside them uncurled from their slouches and readied themselves to be of service. Helen sat with her purse on her knees, waiting until Elliott came around and reached over her to unbuckle her seat belt. Abby waited, too, enjoying a new and unexpected hopefulness. In a grand place like this, it seemed possible that everything might get a little bit better. She could imagine her father relaxing, her mother feeling stronger, and herself becoming kinder and more attentive. Maybe for a week, she thought, they could all be happy, transformed by the hotel’s elegance and order into superior versions of themselves.
“Are you planning on getting out?” Elliott asked Abby. He hadn’t shaved that morning, so there was an uncharacteristic shadow of stubble along his jawline.
She plucked peanut shells from her lap, dumped them into the ashtray,
and then gathered up her backpack and her copy of The Mill on the Floss,
a book she’d been assigned last term and hadn’t even opened because she’d taken an incomplete for the course. She might have waited still longer–inside the car, inside that moment of lovely anticipation– but her door swung open and a hand presented itself to her, palm up and fingers outstretched. Beyond the hand she could see a maroon coat from waist to neck, with a double row of brass buttons gleaming like coins. She hesitated, and the hand gave a flick of its fingers. Uncertainly, she placed her palm against the other palm. The fingers closed around hers, and she felt herself drawn up into the August afternoon.
The valet had brown hair and large dark eyes, and the faint mustache he was struggling to grow was thin and wispy, like dry moss. His ears stuck out beneath his silly cap–real flappers, her father would say. The valet let go of Abby and shut the door with a smart flourish. “Welcome to the Presidential Hotel,” he said. Then he bowed. Beneath the politeness Abby sensed a fillip of mockery, light and quick as a grace note. It was directed not at her but to
her, as if the ridiculous uniform, with its stiff epaulets and swoops of gold braid, were a joke they could share. He extracted the Hansens’ old Samsonite suitcases and returned to stand quite close to her. “I hope you enjoy your stay,” he said, bowing again.
She was embarrassed by his manners and by the cutoffs she was wearing. Peanut skins still clung to her thighs, and when she brushed them off, they fluttered away like ashes.
The pallid gray glow of the sun through the clouds made the Presidential almost luminescent, and the broad sweep of lawn was green and uniform as baize. A wide veranda set with rocking chairs and wicker couches encircled the hotel, and between its columns, hanging pots of scarlet geraniums were suspended like beautiful, disembodied heads. Another valet took the keys from her father and climbed into their car, which stalled as he attempted to pull away.
“Try second,” Elliott directed, “and go heavy on the clutch.” To the boy next to Abby, he said, “It’s got something against first gear.” He peered at the boy’s name tag. “Dave.”
He’s good with foreign cars, sir,” Dave said.
“Expensive ones, maybe,” said Elliott. He kept his hand cupped around his wife’s elbow.
A breeze blew Abby’s hair into her mouth, and though it was not cool, goose bumps prickled up her arms. Her mother smoothed her shirtfront and pulled her bandanna down a little farther on her forehead. A peacock lurched alongside the hotel, dragging his iridescent train through the grass.
“That’s the Duke,” Dave said, following Abby’s gaze. “The hotel has kept a peacock since 1929. He’s only our third one. They can live like fifty years or something.”
The Duke bobbled toward them on spindly, awkward legs. Occasionally he paused and cocked his head, as if to contemplate the world from a different angle.
“He’s a big one, isn’t he?” Elliott asked.
“Everyone feeds him,” Dave said. “Last week I saw him eat an entire ham sandwich.”
“See, Abby? Even peacocks like deli meats,” her father said. She refrained from rolling her eyes at him.
Flanked by Dave and another uniformed attendant, the Hansens climbed the wide steps, slowly because of Helen. The double doors gave way to a sumptuous, intimidating lobby whose crystal chandeliers were reflected and redoubled in tall gilt- edged mirrors. There were chairs upholstered in pale silks, oil paintings of rocky, monumental landscapes, and red roses spilling like flames from a giant fireplace. A grandfather clock chimed a quarter past the hour, and it stopped the Hansens in their tracks.
“This way, sir,” said Dave. He gestured toward the front desk, a mahogany edifice bookended by tidy potted trees with miniature oranges dangling from their branches.
The lobby was like a period room in a museum, Abby thought, watching a maid in a blue uniform nip a feather duster along a railing. Abby could imagine her literature professor’s allergy to such a monument to a dead, moneyed lifestyle; she could picture her friends’ revulsion at the liveried servants. (“It’s not enough that they’re being paid three- thirty- five an hour, they’ve got to be humiliated with costumes,” her
roommate, Lizzie, would say with all the indignation of a person who had never held a job herself.) Abby understood that the Presidential ought to inspire disgust or, at the very least, a whiff of class indignation, but instead she ran her hand along the smooth polished arm of a chair and felt the pleasure of fantasy: for a week, she was going to live in a castle.
“Helen, your purse,” Elliott said to his wife. “I don’t think the clasp’s shut. Abby, will you help your mother with her purse?”
Abby reached for it, but her mother smiled, shaking her head, and clutched the purse to her hip. On it, an appliquéd red sun set behind purple and blue calico mountains. Helen had made it years ago and had recently begun carrying it again, though it had grown lumpy and faded and was not smart like the purses other women carried. She fumbled with the mother- of- pearl button that fastened it closed. “I’ve got it, honey,” Helen said, but she stopped before she’d worked the shell through the buttonhole. Abby, who did not want to be seen with the purse, did not press the issue.
Elliott loomed above the desk, his big hands resting on the wood.
“Hand- carved?” she heard him ask. The woman behind the desk wore a ruffled white shirt and an obliging expression. “Believe so,” she said. “It’s a beast, isn’t it? Now, here, if I can just get your signature–” A bellhop wheeled some departing guest’s luggage outside, and a woman in a black dress wandered out of a doorway and then turned around and went back in. A breeze moved between the open doors at the front and back of the lobby; the gardenias in their hammered gold planters and the orange trees in their dark glossy pots whispered to each other. A phone rang and was quickly answered.
The woman at the front desk handed Elliott a thick envelope. “Enjoy your stay, Mr. Hansen. Everything you need is inside.”
“I guess there’s a bottle of Tanqueray in there,” Abby heard her father say, and inwardly she cringed: his impulse to joke with clerks and valets and customer service representatives horrified her.
But the woman laughed; she could be charmed. “There’s a copy of the Eagle,
” she offered. “That’s the hotel paper.”
The maid had finished dusting the railing and had moved on to a
marble- topped table. Abby could imagine women in moiré silks swishing through the lobby, and servants bringing letters stamped with wax seals, but there were only her parents, in their cotton pants and tennis shoes.
Elliott turned to the bellhops lingering near the Hansen luggage. “I think we can take it from here, fellas,” he said. “You can go back to making trouble.” He turned to Abby and frowned. “Where’s your mother?” She looked around; somehow Helen had disappeared from the lobby. Abby sighed and put down her backpack–she knew what to do. She checked the women’s bathroom and then jogged down the hallway toward the ballroom, and when she didn’t see her mother there, she turned around and hurried down the other hallway, past the shut doors of the hotel managerial staff. Her father stood by their suitcases with his arms crossed.
Helen couldn’t have gone far, but that didn’t mean she could be trusted to find her way back to them. The doctors had said the brain cancer would affect her behavior–how could it not? But no one really warned a person, Abby thought, peering into the empty dining room. No one ever said: Someday you’ll have to babysit your own mother.
Abby went to the rear of the lobby, past a small bar tucked into the corner where a man was polishing wineglasses, and stepped out onto the back veranda. Its pillars and potted geraniums, an exact mirror of those in the front, framed the distant mountains and the silvery sky. There were Adirondack chairs and wicker couches with chintz cushions, and in them sat tanned people drinking pale wine. The air was warm and soggy as a washcloth.
Abby’s mother was halfway down the porch, leaning over the railing with her purse dangling from her arm. A powder compact had fallen out of it, and as Abby neared, she watched a lipstick drop out and roll slowly over the edge.
Abby took a deep breath. It was hard, it was very hard. Don’t worry,
her mother always said, things are going to get better.
And of course Abby believed her.
“Hey,” Abby called, “your purse–”
Her mother turned to her. She looked frail and small, and her sneakers
were glaringly white, and her shirt had a stain on it from when she’d drunk juice in the car. She never wore makeup anymore; who knew why she still carried it. She held her hands out to Abby.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “it’s so beautiful here.”
Excerpted from Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth. Copyright © 2009 by Emily Chenoweth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.