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A group of friends who have known one another for decades grapples with the realization that they are growing old, attempts to come to terms with the past, and searches for new possibilities in their lives
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Alice Adams, born in Virginia and educated at Radcliffe College, is the author of ten highly praised novels. Her short stories have appeared in twenty-two O. Henry Awards collections and several volumes of Best American Short Stories. She has been the recipient of an Academy and Institute Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ms. Adams' other novels include Superior Women, a New York Times bestseller, Medicine Men, Caroline's Daughters, and Almost Perfect, a New York Times Notable Book, all published by Washington Square Press. She lives in San Francisco.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Often January brings a strange false spring to much of northern California. Meadows and hillside are a violent, promising green, the landscape fairly undulates with green. And the air is pale and blue, deceptively soft, as though in fact there were to be no more winter, never any more rains, or cold.
On such a day, actually New Year's Day of 1985, two people, a man and a woman, can be seen to walk quite unsteadily across a field, on the outskirts of a town called San Sebastian, which is south of San Francisco and some miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Both these walkers, in their long heavy coats, are very tall, and their wobbly gait suggests too much to drink, or possibly some extreme of passion (they could be weak with lust); however, they are in fact neither drunk nor lovers, but simply rather old. And they both have arthritis. Very old friends. And the ground beneath them is very wet indeed.
They are Dudley Venable and Edward Crane, and they are discussing another old friend, Celeste Timberlake, who is recently widowed, her husband, Charles, having died "after a long illness" at the end of the preceding November. And Celeste is acting very odd -- or so her close friends see it.
"Celeste keeps reinventing her life," Edward pontificates, between difficult puffs of breath. "She keeps imagining alternatives. She lives in the past, which is such a mistake." He begins to cough as cautiously he and Dudley pick their way across the treacherous ground.
And with considerably more assurance (they are better at talk) they continue this highly pleasurable discussion of Celeste who -- at her age, and with Charles just dead! -- has taken on, apparently, a suitor, a beau. So far unseen by any of Celeste's close friends, he lives in San Francisco. And what could be described as Celeste's "silliness" in terms of Bill is what startles her friends; she who was always the soul and voice of propriety is now acting very -- well, foolishly.
Regarding Edward with some anxiety -- Dudley is a kind woman, and younger by some five years than he is -- she continues his thought. "Well, yes, of course she does do that, she does live in the past, and reinvents. Or is it a question of finding new parts for herself? Still an actress, sort of? So very much the wife of Charles Timberlake when she was that, and now, God knows. This new person. It does seem a kind of acting out."
"I think it's more the same temperament that led her to act in the first place," Edward manages to say.
"Well, that's true."
Dudley and Edward are by now aware of sounding rather alike as they talk. Both from Boston, originally, they have been friends "forever." What they see less is that to others they even look somewhat alike. Thin but not fragile, strong-boned people, both given to hiking, tennis and summer swims, their skins are similar: now finely wrinkled but "out here in California" (both these transplanted New Englanders still say that) they maintain a constant light tan. But bald Edward, aware of Dudley's short thick gray hair, sees only that, and does not see himself in her at all. And Dudley, once herself a semi-alcoholic, is sure that Edward, with his longtime companion, still drinks too much; it shows in the ruddy color of his nose, his sometimes tremulous hands. Thank God she doesn't look like that, thinks Dudley. To anyone else, however, they could pass for brother and sister.
"In any case," sums up Edward as, by unspoken mutual agreement, they stop for a moment to rest. "In any case it is quite odd, this business of Bill. Somehow the last thing one would have expected."
"Very odd," Dudley agrees, aware that this is a thing she often says, and especially to Edward. "All those years with Charles she was so perfectly his wife."
"Only nineteen years of it, though," reminds Edward, who has lived with his friend Freddy for almost thirty. "And not exactly a girl when they got married."
"Still," says Dudley, "I think those were great years for her. Her favorite role, maybe? The wife of Charles Timberlake? You know she was crazy about him."
"A charming guy, who was not?" murmurs Edward, suddenly sad and feeling, just as suddenly, quite cold. "We all miss him. Dudley, are you cold?"
"Yes, I am."
"How about trying that new place for coffee? It's right down there."
"Would they be open? That would be wonderful, I could use some."
Warmed and cheered and invigorated by the very idea of coffee, Dudley and Edward walk on more quickly now, headed for semi-civilization, for one of the narrow white back roads that wind between the foothill mountains and the sea, that encircle their town. On one of these roads, they have heard, a new "old-fashioned" diner has just been opened.
It is in fact colder now as midafternoon becomes late; it is not only thoughts of Charles and of death that have made Edward feel the chill. Strange clouds, of some shade between dark gray and midnight blue, stretch across the sky like torn rags, and the sky itself has changed from soft blue to some odd non-color, intensely clear and cold, a shining blank.
Dudley, as she much too often does (and she chides herself), is thinking of sex. She is wondering: when Celeste goes off to San Francisco to spend time with this man (Dudley believes his name is Bill), whom she talks about in large, vague but impressive terms -- just what do Celeste and this Bill do? (Assuming that Celeste does in fact spend time in San Francisco with someone named Bill.) And, for that matter, what did Celeste and Charles actually do, along those lines, married as they were in their middle fifties? Just oral sex? Dudley has heard this recommended as a possible course for the old.
Sexual habits are something that you don't know ever, really, about your good friends -- or perhaps nowadays some people do know? They tell each other, and talk about these things?
Dudley only knows (with certainty) what she and her husband, Sam Venable, do in that way, and she smiles to herself, what could be described as a brave, sad smile. Her prayers and incantations, not to mention certain magic potions (commercially scented, and yet authentically magical), certain chemicals, "controlled substances," whatever: she'll try anything. The point is, they still sometimes do it, she and Sam. Not too often, and not always with total success, but still, still, they keep doing it.
Another thing you don't know about your close friends, generally, is what they have, in a medical sense. (This was so much the case with poor sick Charles, so proudly concealing his illness, with of course the adoring contrivance of Celeste.) Dudley continues this monologue in her own mind, Edward being clearly too winded still for conversation. But at their ages, hers and Edward's, and Sam's, and at Celeste's age (she is older than Dudley) -- at all those ages health is quite naturally a prime concern. And they all have something: Dudley has high blood pressure, as well as arthritis, for which she refuses pills, relying instead on exercise and calming thoughts (when she can manage calming thoughts). Sam's pressure is even higher, his cholesterol count not good, and he is overweight. But what do Celeste and, for that matter, Edward have? Freddy is younger; he must be forty-something.
Dudley does not know what Edward has, nor why he coughs like that and has so little breath. And as for Celeste, the oldest of them all, no one has the faintest idea about the state of her health. A positive thinker, Celeste always says that she feels "simply wonderful," and God knows she looks and moves quite wonderfully, with her heavy silver-white hair, her huge brown-black eyes, so dark and brilliant, luminous. Her perfectly erect, small vigorous body.
At that moment Dudley is struck by a new thought that she is unable not to communicate to Edward. "Have you noticed how prudish we are about diseases, all of us?" she asks him. "Especially, uh, cancer? It's sort of the way we were about sex, a long time ago. Something not quite to be mentioned, something very much involving our bodies. Causing a lot of secret speculation."
By way of response Edward frowns, so that Dudley worries again about his cough: could she have said precisely the wrong thing? Can Edward have -- ?
Almost instantly, though, he reassures her. "Well, if you feel the same positive terror that I do every time I go for an examination, I don't mind telling you. Well, really, it's no wonder that we're prudish. I can't tell you the relief, just last week..."
But he looks very glum, and Dudley decides that she has indeed said a wrong thing; besides, she and Edward have never in their fifty-odd years of friendship had a talk about sex. How could they? No more than they could discuss cancer.
In motion again, walking along, they have slowed their pace considerably as the land slopes gently upward. They must crest a small hill before descending, finding the road. A small hill but by this time quite difficult to achieve, so that, once on top, "Ah!" they simultaneously say, with relief: a minor triumph.
Most immediately in their view now are their own houses, and those of their closest friends. Nestled among the nearest hills they can see the bright white narrow Victorian that Freddy and Edward share.
The big wooden house, once termed "contemporary," belonging to Dudley and Sam is hard to see, unless, as these two do, you know its exact location. It has weathered to a silver now that merges with the silvery landscape, as was intended by Sam, a painter.
Always most visible is the house that Celeste and Charles Timberlake fell romantically in love with, on first sight -- to some of their friends, quite inexplicably: an ocher stucco, Italian-style small mansion, with balconies and turrets, vaulted windows -- and a flying flag, which Charles explained as being obscurely Basque in origin. "And very likely, with all the recent ETA terrorism, its obscurity is just as well," Charles in the months before his death was heard to remark. A retired newsman, once a European Time-Life bureau chief, Charles "kept up," in a way that most of his elderly friends, and his wife, did not.
In the other direction, that of the small town of San Sebastian itself, they can just see a small house inhabited by a woman called Polly Blake, a close friend, and in her way a heroine among them all: a mysteriously admirable, if most eccentric woman, with her rattling old bikes, her crazy headscarves, and her rumored large trust fund.
Farther into the distance lies the town, a farming crossroads: a Safeway, a 7-Eleven, a dime store (these particular people still use that term), and three hardware stores, all specializing in various farm supplies. The bulk of the town's population, mostly very poor Mexicans or Portuguese, live in small, bright-painted, mostly peeling one-story houses near the center of town. A few have straggled westward, out toward the coast, and these last are the poorest of all, the desperate, the almost forgotten.
Eastward, between the town and the central valley, Highway 101, there are several quite prosperous farms, herds of cattle and sheep. Thriving orchards, and acres of corn and alfalfa.
But Dudley and Edward from their green hilltop can see neither the town nor the farms and the cottages of the poor. All they can see is more green, brightly flowing across the gentle hills. They see spring, in which they believe.
Just before starting downward on a well-worn, firmer path to the highway, and to the alleged warm diner, their two glances for a moment lock. Affection, concern and a certain wry wit with regard to each other are equally present in their look. It is possible that Edward is more amused by Dudley than she by him. He was quite taken by her notion of prudery as applied first to sex, and then to the truly unmentionable disease -- though at the time of its voicing a variety of private anxieties (sexual, rather than concerned with disease, except that these days the two are so linked, so horribly) was all that kept him from a proper response.
Dudley does find Edward amusing, but she really likes him for quite other, more complicated reasons, perhaps the strongest being the sheer longevity of their connection; she revels in the range of their frame of reference. No need ever to go back and explain anything to Edward; he was probably there.
Edward, even, was the first person to (almost) reconcile her to her name, which especially as a young girl Dudley felt as a mockery: she was so tall then, so skinny and generally sad; she did indeed resemble quite strongly her rich Uncle Dudley, whose name she bore, with ill grace. But, "I think Dudley has considerable style, as names go," said nearsighted, bookish Edward, at the summer camp to which the two of them, awkward adolescents from rich but "progressive" families, had been sent. In Vermont, "about a thousand years ago." At night they would retreat from the campfire into the shadows, the oldest and youngest campers there, those two, while everyone else sat around singing all those horrible songs with great vigor. Dudley then began to like Edward very much. He is much nicer than the other boys, she thought; and the ones who call him a sissy are really jerks.
Later on in her life, Sam's deep-Southern (Louisiana) voice further redeemed her name, making it very beautiful, if multisyllabic.
"And then there is Sara," continues Edward, somewhat later, over hot and exceptionally flavorful coffee.
For along with her love affair with "this Bill," if love affair is what it is, at this time Celeste had proposed to more or less adopt a young woman named Sara, actually her goddaughter, and the true daughter of Celeste's own oldest friend, a woman named Emma, from northern California, where Celeste is also from, somewhere north of here. Emma died; they are vague about just when that was -- some time before Charles's death, they think. Celeste always took the functions of a godmother very seriously; she was always very close to Sara until some sort of trouble arose between Sara and Charles, and Celeste (had she a choice?) took the side of Charles. And Sara, who used to visit long ago, is generally acknowledged to be difficult; she even spent time in a jail, in Mexico, during the sixties.
"We are now to see Celeste in her role as mother," Edward goes on. "She is as you say 'acting out' indeed, all over the place."
"She surely is," agrees Dudley. "But maybe it's all just a form of keeping busy, so as not to brood about Charles?"
"Well, yes, of course, Dud darling. The point is, though, the odd forms of her busyness. Some people just do needlepoint."
Dudley laughs. "Well, yes. But I think really we should all just admire Celeste. You know we always do, au fond." The good coffee has caused her slightly lowered spirits to soar, suddenly: after years of striving to calm these swings of mood Dudley had concluded that she might as well enjoy them. Or that is her conclusion during upward phases. "Worrying over Celeste won't help her at all -- nor us, for that matter. And just think how absolutely furious she'd be if she k...
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Book Description Knopf, 1988. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0394568249
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