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Maureen Howard deepens her inquiry into the meeting place of history and family in this stunning and accessible novel. Isabel Murphy renounced silent-film stardom to raise a family in Rhode Island. Now she is dead at 90 and her children are trying to break free of the lives she has dealt them. Joe, a Jesuit priest, has failed at love and the healing of souls. Stodgy Rita has found late happiness with a gangster who has turned state’s evidence. And Gemma, Isabel’s honorary child, has grown up to experience a strange celebrity as a photographer. A darkly comic story of guilt, love, and forgiveness, The Silver Screen is luminous in its intelligence and empathy.
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Maureen Howard is the author of seven novels, including Grace Abounding, Expensive Habits, and Natural History, all of which were nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has taught at a number of American universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale, and was recently awarded the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Day of the Dead
Methinks we have largely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Sea laps the shore. We need not know what shimmering sea, what pure white sand. Girls frolic— ten, twelve of them. A show, a game? Beach balls in the bright air. They catch and throw flip- wristed, and for no reason at all dash to a rickety wooden bleacher set up on the beach. Arranging themselves for a still shot, arms and legs flutter, won’t be tamed. Amusing pets, all pretty. Some have ribbons round their bobbed hair. Some wear brimless hats molded close to the head, a flirty curl or two escaping. Their bathing suits, belted or sashed, are striped, a few checkered in harlequin patterns. Silly girls laughing, smiling to beat the band. (The band, set to the side, an upright piano, clarinet, mandolin.)
The Bathing Beauties have been rehearsing. Now they romp to the twanging beat of the music, which drowns out the grind of the camera. Play ball, dash for the bleachers, pose in the jersey bathing suits that cling to their delicious bodies. The soft cotton maillot caresses their breasts and thighs. So concealing we find it, these seventy, eighty years later. Look again at the seductive wrapping on the package—bold stripes on the hip, molding of crotch, bouncing buns. See them— window dressing, background, chorus—naughty and nice, harmless girls. They stop, turn suddenly in mid-action. The clarinet bleeps to the end of a phrase.
“She’s a beaut!”
“With the curly black hair.”
“Jeez, Mack, there’s five with curly black hair.”
“The one laughing at us,” says the man in the boater, squinting into the sun. “Girl with the cupcakes, that one.”
From a crude stab of his cigar in her direction the girl knows she is that one and crosses her hands on her breasts, a saint in mock supplication. Then a fellow in a floppy cap reaches for the buckle at her waist, tugs her out of the crowd of ten or twelve or thirteen pretty girls. He is wearing a linen jacket, sweat-stained at the armpits. The boss with the boater, cool in gray Palm Beach suit—vest, watch chain and all. These men might be lawyers, bankers, Chamber of Commerce—any town, any bright summer day.
“Step down,” the boater says to the pretty girl with the black curls. “Walk. What’s the hurry? Turn the head. Give me the eye.” She pulls a sultry pout, sashays slowly through the sand. “Peachy.” Then from the fellow sweltering in white linen, “What’s your name?”
In the brittle sunlight, her voice rings out mellow and clear, “I am Isabel Maher.”
She is given instructions. A palm tree and a cabana are set next to the bleachers.
“Take it again, girls.”
Pretty girls romp while the band struts its stuff to their tune. They make a run for the clattering wooden bleachers, pose for the picture while the vixen breaks away, away from the fun, and slowly, lips puckered, makes her way toward the famous clown who has been lolling all this time under a beach umbrella held aloft by a lackey. He is rumpled, waddling—so accomplished a fat fool in his antics, America laughs till it cries.
Chin up, Isabel Maher gives him the eye.
Father Joe in the Shadow Box
My mother thinks me wise. Let her believe it. Stooped with age, Bel cocks her head like a curious bird to meet my encouraging smile, the professional smile of a priest—hopeful, indulgent. The bold young woman who rents a house down the lane calls her the old lady. Each day I steal out of my boyhood bed, dress at dawn for the morning walk, my sister already fussing in the kitchen. It is Rita’s pleasure to re-create the pancakes and muffins of our childhood while I march smartly down the lane with the prop of my worn leather breviary, as though I might read the morning office, supplications and prayers committed to memory a half-century ago.
“Visiting the old lady?” a wisp of a girl in a scrap of bathing suit asked my first day home, still calling it home. She balanced awkwardly on the rim of a deck chair, greasing her thighs and belly to protect her pale flesh from the first rays of the sun. It promised to be a scorcher, the air heavy, humid.
“Visiting.” I passed quickly on, but not before a strap fell, disclosing the white hemisphere of her breast with its pole of brown nipple. For a moment I wished that I wore the Roman collar, not to disapprove the flaunting of her body, to scold her with a clerical look. She is not permitted in her cheery, childish voice to call my mother the old lady. Yet how true—Bel’s sparse white hair, swollen blue veins, odor of stale rose water—essence of old lady bent to the ground as though to seek out the comforts of the grave. But when would this girl frying in the sun have seen her? My mother is always at home now. If she tends a flower, throws crumbs to the birds, she cannot be spied on behind the tall privet hedge closing our house from the world. A house long guarded by our private ways.
It is my illusion that, set in our roles, my mother and her children will go on as we have forever. My visits to this hillock of New England which looks out to Narragansett Bay are the occasion for stories of the past repeated so often they might be told by the faded wallpaper or deadwood of kitchen table. Was it the hurricane of ’38 or tidal wave of ’54 swept our picket fence into the sea? The Irish setter or blind terrier wrestled the Christmas turkey off its platter? The hard winter of measles or mumps? Adrift in uncertainty, we prattle each day of my visit as though silence is forbidden us. We are sure of one thing. Our stories begin in this house—Bel in labor, clutching the bedpost while my father, who sold insurance against death and disaster, changed a flat tire on the Ford. The past had no preface to the blistering summer day on which, with the help of a neighbor, I was born to Isabel Murphy while her husband stood by with a spanner wrench in his good hand—his left arm, wounded in the Great War, hanging limp at his side.
But I must take the giant step forward. I came round the hedge on this, the third day of my visit, tripped on the crumbling cement path. My sister was at the open door, still and speechless. “What?” I asked. The flesh around Rita’s eyes pale and soft, the defenseless look of the shortsighted without glasses. “What is it?”
The bulk of her blocked my way, though I saw past her to the stairs—to the mirror reflecting the empty hall above and a ray of sun with dust motes churning to no purpose. Finally, she stood aside, my little sister grown bottom-heavy as a giant pear. I knew that I must run upstairs, see myself for a fleeting moment—a gray-headed man with the high forehead that once defined me as brilliant. I must steal down the hall past the tidy room they keep as a shrine for my visits, past my sister’s virginal room with its stuffed panda propped on the bed, souvenir of some festive night in her youth, past the gleaming bathroom scoured clean of our bodily functions, past the hall window that frames our view of the sea, the sun on the water blinding this Summer day, flags rippling on the promenade. My desperate journey to the room where Bel lay, mouth in a slack smile, gaze strangely bright— looking at last upon her Maker.
The body still warm. With faint hope, I turned to Rita, who looked on from the hall, then came to the bed lightly with the tiptoe steps of a heavy woman defying gravity. We found no words for this dreaded occasion. I turned to my sister, knowing she often attended to the dead. With a sweep of her hand Rita drew our mother’s eyelids shut, then presented me with one of the mysteries of our childhood, the black leather box, the death kit of last rites that lived in a cupboard behind the sheets and towels of daily life. I made a stab at my priestly duties, turning down the coverlet to anoint the extremities of the body, the eyes and the mouth with holy oil, mumbling prayers half remembered. My mother lay straight in death, no longer bowed by the weight of years.
As I pulled the window shade, my eyes smarted at the glittering day, an unlikely setting for sorrow. Stunned, our silence heavy, prolonged. “A blessing,” I said at last, “to leave us in her sleep.” Rather too quickly, Rita surveyed our mother’s closet, pulling out a Sunday dress and dainty shoes for the body’s presentation. I had not forgotten that as a physical therapist my sister went from house to hovuse of the infirm and aged, the dying, though I had never seen her at her efficient work.
“She went peacefully,” I said. “Bel left us in the night.”
“Not at all. She called your name, but you were off on your morning stroll.”
“Called my name?”
Rita attempting our mother’s two-noted bleat, her sweet clarion call reining me in when I wandered as a child. When my sister speaks up for herself—it is not often—her eyes blink behind thick glasses, her neck mottles with red splotches. “You didn’t wonder why she wasn’t up and about?”
For years I had not wondered at anything in that house. True, each day, as I headed out on my morning walk, I saw our mother perched on her kitchen stool already awaiting my return, when she presented her withered cheek for my kiss, eager for my every word.
“Now, then,” Rita said, “the arrangements.”
The arrangements were to carry us through the next days. Casket, flowers, mass, burial. Our mother was well over ninety, the date of her birth uncertain. Not a friend left to mourn her, but she was always a woman alone. More than a privet hedge grown beyond clipping set Bel apart from this town. At the wake, two women from the agency who assigned my sister the rounds of her practical mercy were in attendance, and a parade of ghosts from the past—the aged boys and girls we had gone to school with. All now strangers to me. Father, they say as I listen to tales of their children and grandchildren, their divorces and ailments. I can’t bear their deference. They are not curious about my work, the daily grind of a schoolteacher. These shuffling men I’d run bases with, coy housewives I’d kissed in the back seat of my father’s car had their scripted response to my black suit and the legend they will not give up on—that I had left them behind for the higher calling— though we sweated as one beast in the close living room with the television pushed out of the way for the casket.
Bel lay prettified in her white velvet nest. When my father died, she wrote to me. I buried Murph from the house. We do not rent a commercial parlor.
A sturdy woman with sleek black hair, many rings, bracelets, a costume all fringes and gauze, detached herself from the hushed sippers of Rita’s iced tea. “Just think,” she said, “your mother was toddling about before the First World War.” Boldly sipping a glass of whiskey, she held out a hand with scarlet nails, “Gemma Riccardi. You took me to the prom.”
“Gemma!” I was about to say something foolish, tell her she was lovely as ever, when the first noisy crackle preceded the shrieking trajectory of a rocket. Fireworks on the promenade. With our many arrangements, we’d lost track of the day. Night had descended on the Fourth of July.
“What a send-off.” Gemma’s laugh rumbled across the silent room. “Bel would have loved it.”
“The bombs bursting in air,” I sang.
We sang, Gemma and Joe: “O’er the la-aand of the free . . .”
And that is how Father Joseph Murphy, S.J., disgraced himself at his mother’s wake. But let me tell you, we had all turned to the open windows. Bottles of wine and the Irish were brought forth from the sideboard, plastic glasses handed round. Some of the old school chums were already out the door. The lane that runs by our house has always been the best vantage point from which to view the patriotic display, the burst of colors across the heavens in a spectacle of lights. Somehow I was to blame for this pleasure, had given my blessing to the breathless wonder of the mourners. The women from Rita’s agency of good works climbed up on the high hood of their recreational vehicle, but I noticed that my sister was not with us. I ran to the house thinking she kept solitary vigil with the dead.
My mother lay alone in the parlor with abandoned sandwiches and crumpled napkins, at peace in her repose. All the embalmer’s art could not mar the beauty of ivory brow, strong sweep of jaw, defiant tilt of her delicate chin. Gone, gone away, recalling the times when she stood apart, dreamy and distant—even in sunlight—the laundry basket held aloft as if our socks and underwear flattened by the mangle were bounty she presented to her gods; or she might walk from us to touch the bark of a tree, kneel to a powdery anthill, caress a shard of beach glass, a rubbery frond of seaweed. Come back—I wanted to cry in those moments of childish despair—back to me. She never heard. When she turned with a blink of her agate eyes, turned to us—her children, her husband—it seemed she must remember to step through the frame, breathe in our everyday air. Carapace of old lady, where did you go? Mysterious in her coffin as the iridescent shell of a dung beetle in a museum case, scarab of the redemptive afterlife. That’s the embroidery of memory. I am only certain that I stood alone mopping my brow in the dreadful heat, punishing myself with the final distance of her death, when the phone rang.
The phone rang in the kitchen. A great pity I picked up. Rita chatting with a man.
“They’ll soon be gone,” she said.
“Not soon enough.”
Vulgar endearments—pet names, wet kisses.
“Sitting on your bed?” the man asked, and in the husky whisper of seduction began an intimate scan of the washstand, marble-top bureau, the looming wardrobe and collection of girlish trifles which adorn my sister’s room. The stuffed panda not excluded from his prurient tour.
Apocalyptic finale to the fireworks. Burst upon burst of hosannas. It was then Rita told this fellow of the unlikely scene. His guttural laugh. Well, who would believe it?
“And the holy father?”
“He’s out there with the rest.”
“Don’t call me,” he said. “You have the instructions.”
“It’s you shouldn’t call me.”
Ever so softly I lay the receiver in its cradle and returned to the casket, head bowed as if in prayer. Well, I said, here are your precious children—a fraud and a sneak. God knows it’s not your fault. For a moment I wanted to laugh at Rita’s kisses, as we laughed gently at her failed projects— baking, knitting—but the bitter scrape of her words was a harsh note never heard. The mourners, shuffling with shame, turned to the house, looking to say a last word to the bereaved, and there was Rita hustling downstairs, out the front door to receive their final condolences. In the distance a band played a Sousa march, the one we sang when we were kids—Be kind to your web-footed friends. For a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Only Gemma Riccardi poked her head in the door, bracelets jangling, to say in a sodden slur, “Schorry, so schorry.”
My lips were sealed. I said nothing to my sister as we tidied the parlor, nothing of the treachery I’d overheard.
Rita said, “Wasn’t it awful about the fireworks? And you with that Gemma Riccardi?”
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