Cathleen Schine To the Birdhouse

ISBN 13: 9780374278281

To the Birdhouse

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9780374278281: To the Birdhouse
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Alice, a photographer of rare birds, and her maddeningly fastidious mother fight to rid themselves of mom's ex-beau, the unspeakably thuggish Louie Scifo

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About the Author:

Cathleen Schine is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The New Yorkers and The Love Letter, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Nothing sounded more
 
Nothing sounded more inviting to her than settling down. Settling down would be like curling up; it would be like stretching out: it would be comfortable. After circling around a few times, like an Irish setter on the rug before the hearth, she would give a sigh, wag her tail, and then, in a delirious descent toward calm and stability, she would settle down. Alice Brody was getting married.
She was marrying a tall, distracted man named Peter Eiger. Alice was a generous person, in her way, and so it occurred to her that many other people should settle down and get married to tall, distracted men, too. She wanted other people to be as happy and contented as she now planned to be, and she was determined to help them and not to rest until she had succeeded. Still a little startled by her own good fortune, Alice looked around her like a farmer who’s struck oil and decides to clean up the tacky little town nearby. She would build a movie theater and a new jail. There would be sidewalks.
The prime candidate for reconstruction was her mother, who now stood buttoning Alice’s wedding dress up the back and smiling for the photographer who had come in to record the preparations. When the photographer was finished, Brenda Brody looked in the mirror and saw herself, pink and smiling, with several fat, turquoise-colored curlers bobbing and swinging from her hair.
“Hmm,” she said.
Alice was happy and had decided her mother must be made happy, too. But how could she be? Alice still couldn’t believe, not really, that her mother had a boyfriend like Louie Scifo.
“Don’t you dare invite him to my wedding,” she had said.
“Of course you don’t mean that, dear,” her mother said mildly. “It would be too inconsiderate to me.”
Alice had long since despaired of helping her father find happiness. He had, first of all, divorced her mother, but worse, he had taken it on himself to marry someone else—someone not at all like Peter.
Holding her father’s arm, Alice walked down the aisle of the wood-paneled room. This was the Yale Club, her father’s favorite institution, preferred by far to the university itself. Boolah, Boolah, she thought happily and looked up at Dad for an instant. They both turned their heads, trying not to giggle stupidly. She looked toward the rows of guests and saw her grandmother sniffling into a lace handkerchief. The night Alice’s grandmother met Peter, she had pulled Alice into another room while everyone ate dessert, and said, “So? so?” Months later, when Alice told her she and Peter were getting married, her grandmother hugged and kissed Alice and clapped her hands and said, “Oh! Oh! I’m so happy and please God don’t let him turn out like that malekhamoves your father he should go to hell the dirty bitch what he did to my Brenda,” with a happy grin on her soft, white face.
Alice stood beside Peter and listened to the rabbi talking, without hearing what he said. The rabbi’s first wife had committed suicide, she remembered. From the corner of her eye she could see Peter in profile, could see his long, narrow face and the high brow that was always just a little creased, so that Peter seemed to be permanently thinking. She had first realized she was in love with Peter when she noticed she was consistently giving him the largest portions of good things to eat.
After the ceremony, Alice stood in a row of relatives shaking hands with other relatives. Her mother was next to her, and next to her mother, her father. Alice looked at them, for a moment remembering what an uncomfortable couple they had made.
“Now you can go dance the first dance, dear,” her mother said when everyone had wandered into the grand, sparkling dining room. “Go with Peter.”
“It’s too embarrassing,” Alice said.
“You only have to dance if you want to,” said her father, which almost made Alice want to. “After all, this is your day.” Her father patted her hand, then made a low, strangled sound, covered his eyes suddenly, and walked away, his shoulders shaking.
Alice’s mother continued to lecture her on the necessity of a first dance. She told her she was probably a repressed exhibitionist and would have to seek professional help after the reception. Brenda was a child psychologist.
“Yes, Mom,” Alice said. She was watching a small, rather gaunt man who had appeared at a table near them. He placed something in the centerpiece, then dashed away to the next table, where he repeated the procedure.
Louie Scifo Lives, Alice thought. She had not noticed him before. Now she watched as he moved quickly around the room, compact and horrifyingly efficient, sweeping from table to table with wiry, vigorous force. He was not young, and his hair, which was long and luxuriant, emphasized the signs of age in his face. He kept pushing it back with both hands, like a teenage girl. His round eyes were moist, the whites not white at all, but tan, like a horse’s eyes.
Alice walked over to the table and parted the flowers. She saw a small white card, a business card, tucked among the blossoms. She picked it up and read aloud: “Scifo Art Gallery Including TOP Jewels and Gems,” and then Brenda’s address.
“That Louie!” Brenda said. She laughed. Then she called to her son and his girlfriend, a Japanese graduate student spending a year at Columbia. “Yuki, come sit with us. Willie, tell your sister to dance.”
“Why do you think he’s putting his business card in all the flowers?” Peter asked. Louie was making his way around the room, from table to table.
“Is this American custom?” asked Willie’s girlfriend.
Alice buried her face in her hands.
Her mother seemed not to have heard. “Dance, Alice,” she said, as if she were training a puppy. “Dance.”
*   *   *
Alice danced with Peter as best she could. She had refused to attend Westport’s dance classes for young ladies and gentlemen. “And now I must pay the price,” she said.
Peter had been to dancing school, and he said, “Just shuffle your feet.”
Alice put her face against his shoulder, shuffled her feet, and felt content. She realized she had been smiling for over an hour. The grin just stayed on her face, stretching her mouth, and it was beginning to hurt. “Peter,” she said dreamily from his shoulder, “I’d like to kill my mother.”
Louie Scifo was making his way across the dance floor, and Alice could tell he was headed directly for her, like a guided missile, although he made several detours and loop-the-loops, swooping toward people with his arms outstretched.
“Good, that’s good,” he said reassuringly to the band, embracing the accordion player.
“Quick,” Alice said, “dance over there,” and Peter directed her smoothly in the direction of the buffet table.
“Behave, Alice,” he said.
“Dance with your mother,” Louie was saying to Alice’s brother.
Alice didn’t want to behave. She wanted Louie to behave, which meant, in her mind, to go home.
“That’s beautiful,” Louie was saying to Peter’s parents, who were dancing cheek to cheek. “Just beautiful.”
Louie shook hands with several people, threw his arms around an elderly man as he introduced himself, and continued his approach.
“Dance with your mother,” she heard him say to someone she didn’t recognize.
“Dance with your mother,” he said to Peter, appearing beside him. “Allow me to cut in and hold your most lovely bride in my lonely arms. Dance with your mother.”
“I think Alice is supposed to dance the second dance with her father,” Peter said. “Isn’t that the tradition?”
Alice looked up at him gratefully, although she suspected his motives were mixed. She had told him earlier that she would not dance with her father because he paid her mother insufficient alimony and was from Canada.
“Far be it from me,” Louie was saying, holding up his hands and stepping back.
Alice glanced around the room in search of her father and spotted him carrying two glasses of champagne toward an empty table. Nearby, his new wife, Patricia, danced with a tall, skinny, bored-looking boy, her son, Charles. One of the reasons her father had married Patricia, Alice thought, was that she came complete with a nine-year-old son, who her father had not had the foresight to realize would inevitably grow up, as in fact he had done. The nine-year-old, now sixteen, sang in a rock band specializing in songs of the sixties, the same songs that had caused her father to cover his face in disgust and anger when Alice, years ago—before they became artifacts of nostalgia—had played them loudly on her record player. It gratified Alice to think of her father suffering in his easy chair as the lanky teenager banged mercilessly on his drums in the basement playroom, singing, “We gotta get outa this place.” Another reason her father had married Patricia, according to Alice’s theory, was that Patricia informed him that the head of state in Canada was the Queen. Alice always pictured Patricia in a tweed suit and sensible shoes, briskly walking her hounds, although Patricia had no hounds (dogs were known to shed).
Alice imagined her with hounds because she thought that’s how her father imagined her, striding along, hearty and very nearly British in the gray drizzle of Vancouver, for the weather there was very British indeed. Dad’s Anglophilia was accepted by Alice the way another daughter might treat a parent’s senility: she gently worked around it, trying not to notice the careful combing of the stiff mustache, smiling indulgently at the proud lectures on parliamentary government or the benefits of commonwealth.
“Yup, that’s certainly the tradition,” Alice said to Louie. But he was already engaged in steering Peter toward his mother. He did turn around long enough to say sternly, “Dance with your father,” and summon Alan Brody with a shout and a wave.
Alice’s father was broad and tall, and dancing with him, Alice could see nothing but the pinstripes of his jacket, his white shirt, and his tie, held in place at the collar with a gold pin. She could feel the small ring that had been his grandfather’s on his finger. The tie he was wearing was an ugly one, which surprised her. She attributed the gold-and-green design to Canadian fashion.
“I was waiting for a waltz,” he said. “I love to waltz.” And then he burst into tears.
Her father was a sentimental sort. When Alice was in the hospital for so long, so many years ago, he had stood by her bedside and cried. When he divorced Brenda, he had cried on the witness stand while testifying to an untidy house. He had probably cried when he’d married Patricia Hum. He had certainly done so when he called the hospital to tell Alice about their wedding, a civil ceremony he found moving in its simplicity. If he did not always pay much attention to the sorrows of others, he certainly felt deeply everything that happened to him. And now, surrounded by his old family and his new, he was probably feeling the loss of Alice and Willie, perhaps even Brenda, and blaming himself, if not for leaving them, then for leaving when he did.
Alice began to cry, too. They stood at the edge of the dance floor while she blew her nose in her father’s handkerchief. When she gave it back, a white crumpled ball, he pushed it into his jacket pocket, cleared his throat, and asked if she remembered standing on his feet to dance as a little girl. He began to weep again.
“You don’t have to feel so guilty, Daddy,” she said magnanimously. On this, her wedding day, she would dispense a pardon. It was only right. He was her father, she was married, and she could remember standing on his feet to dance. She could remember it clearly.
“I don’t feel guilty,” he said.
“Well, you should. You certainly should.”
“But you just said—”
“Never mind, Daddy.” She tried to steer him in a different direction.
“Alice, just follow.”
“Well, let’s dance over there, thataway,” she said. “No, wait a second, what about over here?” But no matter which way she and Alan Brody went, she could see Louie Scifo, smiling, stepping lightly through the crowd, toward her.
“Alice, what’s the matter with you?” her father asked. He stopped altogether and stood, puzzled, and wiped his still damp eyes.
“Nothing,” Alice said. Stalked by Mom’s boyfriend, that’s all, Dad, she thought. A very dignified person for whom I have the greatest respect.
“Your mother’s, um, friend, seems a fine chap,” her father had said to her earlier.
“Yes,” she had said helplessly, covering the hideous blot on her mother’s reputation as best she could. “Yes.”
“There’s Louie’s little bride,” Louie was saying. “May Louie have this dance? Dance with your mother,” he said to Alice’s father.
“She’s dead,” Alice said, and her father began to cry again.
Louie Scifo held one of Alice’s hands; he put his other arm around her waist; he opened his mouth in a wide smile. He wore a diamond pinkie ring that she thought was not only ugly but hot. She wondered if he would tell her to dance with her mother. She hoped so.
“Shall we dance, milady?” he said.
As Louie began patiently to lead her around the room in a waltz, Alice saw him glance at her mother, who was talking to the maître d’.
“You know, Alice, this is your wedding day, the day you become what you might call, what you might call a woman,” Louie said. He stared at Brenda.
Alice wondered if Louie would release her in order to start noisily accusing Brenda of flirting with the help, as was his custom. And why didn’t her mother flirt with the maître d’, she wondered, a pleasant, respectable man in a tuxedo who was gainfully employed. He wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t in a profession, but neither was he dressed in a baby-blue suit and brown patent-leather boots, drunk and placing his hand on Alice’s bottom.
“Now, your mother,” Louie said, still watching Brenda and the maître d’, “she’s a very warm and emotional woman. Passionate, you understand me?”
She removed Louie’s hand and sighed. She wished she could get angry enough with him someday to slap his face or holler at him or spit or throw a stone. But, instead, she merely felt a drifting, enervated dismay. He just didn’t seem possible. Not in her life, with her mother, at her wedding. So she never did much of anything about Louie except avoid him and, occasionally, lecture her mother about him, and then feel bad afterward. Now, dancing with Louie, Alice felt a little guilty at the unhappiness those lectures had caused her mother, although clearly it was Louie’s fault for being objectionable enough to cause Alice to try to turn her mother against him in the first place.
“Thank you for the lovely vase,” she told Louie.
“A lovely vase for a lovely lady,” Louie said, and Alice hoped he would not put his hand back on her behind, although she knew Louie’s occasional pinch or lascivious look had no real intention behind it. He had once given her a clingy nightgown, chosen by her mother, for Christmas, and a card with this message:
To the One I love
Here I’m the Dirty Old Man
I wish I was Young
And gay to see You in this—
You and I with your loveliness
Body and Soul
For you are a lovely Woman
To have a Man
Want you hold you and love you
—Louie!
“He’s sort of a romantic,” Alice’s mother remarked when she read the card.
“Sort of,” said...

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9780312555092: To the Birdhouse: A Novel

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ISBN 10:  0312555091 ISBN 13:  9780312555092
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9780452276628: To the Birdhouse

Plume, 1996
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