Martha Woodroof Small Blessings: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781427244130

Small Blessings: A Novel

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9781427244130: Small Blessings: A Novel
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From debut novelist Martha Woodroof comes an inspiring tale of a small-town college professor, a remarkable new woman at the bookshop, and the ten-year-old son he never knew he had.


Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing the oddball faculty in his department and caring, alongside his formidable mother-in-law, for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom's brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.

Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop's charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner, out of the blue, her first social interaction since her breakdown. Tom wonders if it's a sign that change is on the horizon, a feeling confirmed upon his return home, where he opens a letter from his former paramour, informing him he'd fathered a son who is heading Tom's way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom's ready or not.

Martha Woodroof's Small Blessings is funny, heart-warming and poignant, with a charmingly imperfect cast of cinema-ready characters. Listeners will fall in love with the novel's wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life is veering irrevocably off track, the track changes in ways we never could have imagined.

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About the Author:

MARTHA WOODROOF was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

LORELEI KING has recorded over 200 audiobooks, including several titles from Janet Evanovich's bestselling Stephanie Plum series and Darynda Jones's Charley Davidson series. Her many awards include the 2008 Audie Award for Female Solo Narration for Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, the Radio Times performer of the Year for The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and AudioFile Earphones Awards for Eleven on Top and Twelve Sharp, both by Janet Evanovich. AudioFile also deemed her one of the "Best Voices of 2008."

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

 

There she was, as welcome in this insular community as fresh air in a multiplex, a woman who, rumor had it, risked being happy. Tom had heard the most about her from Russell Jacobs, his colleague in the English Department, and now he was looking at her in the flesh, at this tall, slender, dark-haired creature, oddly stylish in her ill-fitting, baggy trousers and white T-shirt.

She stood not twenty feet away from him in the new coffee room, listening attentively to one of a coterie of retired faculty members who, according to Russ, had glommed on to the Book Store’s new assistant director as soon as she’d set foot on campus. For Tom it was a moment to treasure. Here, at this isolated seat of southern learning, where everyone clung to busy-ness as though it were proof of an importance in the larger, more meaningful world, was a person who dared to seem relaxed, as though she had time to draw breath and listen to what someone was saying and even think about it for a moment or two. Imagine that!

Her name, Tom knew, was Rose Callahan, and she’d been hired by Ted Pitts, director of the Book Store, to manage the coffee room and “to re-energize the community’s co-curricular life of the mind through programming in the college bookstore.” Whatever that meant. Over the last couple of years, Ted Pitts had become pleasantly obsessed with what he called “building community.” Everyone applauded his efforts except the college’s new VP of finance, an attractive, fortyish Darden School graduate referred to unaffectionately by the faculty as “the Harpy.”

The new VP had been hired a year ago, when the post-9/11 economy had forced the college to dip into its substantial endowment. Ever since her arrival, the Harpy had worried publicly that such frivolities as Mr. Pitts’s “community building” further eroded the college’s bottom line, which appeared to be the beginning and end of her concerns. Ted Pitts’s hiring of Rose Callahan as assistant director (and community-builder-in-chief) was seen by everyone as open defiance of the Harpy’s clawlike grip on the soul of the college. Much to the faculty’s delight, Ted had always operated with quasi-independence, paying the Book Store’s expenses with textbook sales, reinvesting the profits from trade books, gifts, and coffee sales in his “community building” efforts.

Rose Callahan had been at the college for a full month, usually plenty of time for every detail of a person’s past to be ferreted out and vetted. But, according to Russ (who was the campus gossip coordinator and so would know), there was remarkably little dirt to dish about Rose Callahan. She was thirty-seven and originally from Texas. She was either never married or amicably divorced—Russ wasn’t sure which, only that she appeared to live alone and didn’t seem inclined to bite men’s heads off. She was to move into one of the tumbledown cottages down by the old barn as soon as some busted pipes were repaired; until then she was staying at the College Inn. She had moved down to take the Book Store job from Charlottesville, where she’d managed an independent bookstore on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall for the last two years, reportedly changing the color of its bottom line from red to black with her innovative programming. Rose Callahan could talk about books intelligently, Russ said, including the literature of the eighteenth century, which was Russ’s own domain, and the students had begun pouring out their troubles to her on their first day back from summer break, which had been yesterday. She ate her meals in the dining hall and seemed equally comfortable sitting by herself or with a table of strangers, and she had been sighted walking miles from campus after work hours carrying binoculars, which indicated she was either a spy or a birdwatcher. Russ had thought probably the latter.

“She’s not at all pretty,” Russ had said, leaning over Tom’s desk in that stilted, locker-room way he saved for male colleagues who were part of his regular poker nights. “I mean, her nose has been broken, playing high school basketball, of all things! Next to your beautiful wife, she’d look like Olive Oyl.” Russ, who was long divorced and nearing retirement age, still liked to think of himself as a gay young blade. He’d raised his bushy eyebrows. “She’s remarkably self-contained, if you know what I mean. Everyone on campus is completely intrigued by her, because she’s here all by herself and is still so obviously un-needy. And she never blows her own horn. Never. In fact, Rose Callahan doesn’t talk much about herself at all. I don’t even know whether she has a lover—or if the woman is heterosexual, for that matter. I don’t mean to imply she’s necessarily keeping secrets or anything like that. She simply appears to find other people’s lives more interesting to talk about than her own. But for all her frustrating reserve, Thomas, Rose Callahan’s got something about her that will make the man in you sit up and take notice. Yes, Professor Putnam, even you.”

Tom had laughed at this, his eyes on his cluttered desktop, and thought for perhaps the four-thousandth time what a harmless old ass Russ was. Up until this moment in the Book Store, Tom would have bet his retirement fund there wasn’t enough man left in him to lift its little finger, let alone sit up. But now, there Rose Callahan was, and here he was, alert as a small boy who smells freshly baked cookies.

At that moment Rose looked up and smiled. Something inside Tom heaved and shifted and he thought, channeling his idol: The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service.

And just like that he, Thomas Marvin Putnam—lover of Shakespeare, educated at Amherst College and the University of Virginia, dysfunctionally married for twenty years—was a joyous, carefree child somersaulting down a hill, joining Alice in falling, falling, falling somewhere he had never contemplated going.

*   *   *

Tom’s impulse was to run, but Marjory had begun plucking at the sleeve of his tweed jacket, her nervous fingers working into the hole under the leather patch that was coming off again.

They were there for the Book Store’s first annual “Teaching English Afternoon.” As Rose’s inaugural program, its astute purpose was to bring the college’s English Department faculty and current majors together with area high school English teachers and their best students, who were potential majors.

The event, which had been a howling success for Admissions, was winding down. All other members of the English Department had left, but Marjory, who hadn’t wanted to come, was now refusing to leave. “There’s the new assistant director,” she whispered. “Let’s go over and introduce ourselves.”

“Not now,” Tom hissed, wondering that his riotously pounding heart did not burst through the front of his jacket and flop down on the display of new books spread out before them; wondering that his knees didn’t buckle; wondering that he just stood there, probably still looking like the tall, dull, inoffensive, pleasant full professor of English that he was. But it was too late. Rose Callahan had excused herself from the retired faculty member and was coming toward them, her hand held out to Marjory. Her voice was warm and slightly twangy. “I’m Rose Callahan, and I’m new at the Book Store. I don’t think we’ve met.”

Tom saw with astonishment that Marjory was charmed into momentary sanity. She never shook hands anymore. Since his regrettable affair with a poet, she’d developed wild phobias about germs and obscure diseases. Yet she shook hands with Rose Callahan and spoke to her as pleasantly as you please. “I’m Marjory Putnam, and this is my husband, Tom. He’s in the English Department.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Marjory,” Rose said, taking a moment to focus on this fragile, nervous woman, standing there buttoned up to the chin in inappropriately immature flowered chintz. Tom was grateful for this small courtesy paid to Marjory. But he was even more grateful when Rose, at last, turned to him. “Rose Callahan,” she said simply, holding out her hand to him. “You must be a colleague of Russell Jacobs.”

Her touch was cool, her hand unusually long-fingered and strong. Her handshake conveyed conviction and hardiness, both considered suspect feminine traits on this campus where some young women still wore strings of real pearls with their designer jeans. Tom felt a small jolt as their palms connected. Rose looked down at their hands with an expression he could not read. “Yes,” he said. “I am.” He intended to say something else, something witty about Russ, but not another word came out of his mouth.

There was an infinitesimal pause before Rose said to Marjory, “Russell has been very nice to me.” Tom noticed she was much taller than Marjory, who only came up to his own heart. For an instant, Tom saw his wife the way he’d first seen her, as an exquisite china doll, immensely chippable. It was, perhaps, the most accurate read he could have taken of her.

“Oh,” Marjory said, battling nervousness again, looking down and picking at the clasp of her purse. Marjory was profoundly uncomfortable around Russ. He was too confident for her by half.

Rose smiled, but then thinking about Russ made most people other than Marjory smile. Rose turned to Tom again. “Russell has introduced me to a dizzying number of people and told me all about them.” Now their eyes were meeting. Rose Callahan’s eyes were truly blue, Paul Newman blue, and as he looked into them her whole being seemed to glow, as though she herself generated light.

The Bard, ever present in Tom’s head and ever willing to think the right words when he could not, pointed out that light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile. “Yes,” he managed. “Russ is the self-proclaimed social maven around here.” Tom was pleased with himself for using the word “maven” and then immediately uncomfortable with feeling pleased. It had been years since he’d been concerned about the impression he was making on anyone. The back of Tom’s neck began to itch unbearably, and his left middle toe threatened to cramp. He wished he’d remembered to get a haircut. His brown hair became a mass of rampaging cowlicks when he put off going to the barber.

Marjory stirred by his side, letting off an unusual little pop of energy. “Why don’t you come have supper with us this Friday night, Rose? We’ll celebrate getting through the first week of having the students back. We live right on campus, and we’d love to have you, wouldn’t we, Tom?”

Tom stopped staring at Rose Callahan and turned to stare at his wife. Marjory hadn’t issued a social invitation in ten years. Was she drunk at three o’clock in the afternoon? Had she taken too many of her happy pills? A decade ago, his wife had sunk into pathological timidity and indecisiveness, especially around strange women.

“Wouldn’t we, Tom?” Marjory repeated, as calmly as though there were nothing at all unusual about what she’d said.

“Of course.” The words came out rather louder than Tom would have wished. He turned back to Rose Callahan, feeling a rush of almost adolescent despair. She would think he was a dolt now, for sure. One of those moldy academics who can’t really function in any world other than the one inside his own head. “Do come,” he said, hearing himself, with just those two words, sound as though he were begging.

“I’d love to,” she said, smiling at Marjory. “It’s so nice of you to ask me.”

It was as though some of Rose Callahan’s calm, some of her sanity, had flowed into Marjory by osmosis. This was the longest social interaction Tom could remember his wife having in years. “Good,” she said. “Shall we say seven o’clock? We live at the very end of Faculty Row—the big, square brick house that’s a bit set back from the rest. My mother lives with us, and I’m sure she’ll want to join us.”

“How very nice. It will be a treat to eat dinner again in a real house with a real family for a change,” Rose said, sounding as though the prospect of spending an evening with Marjory’s mother really did fill her with pleasurable expectation. Of course, rumor could work both ways, and the stories Rose would have heard about his mother-in-law might have intrigued her. “I’ll see you on Friday, then, if not before,” Rose said to Marjory. Then she turned to Tom again. “You know,” she said, almost shyly, “I’ve decided to go back to school and finish my degree, and I’m signed up for one of your classes—Shakespeare 402 that meets on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons?”

The light was there again, flaring out as though someone had set off a Roman candle behind Rose Callahan’s head. “Oh,” Tom said. His heart did another flop, and his left middle toe seized up like an oil-less engine. “It meets from two thirty until four forty-five tomorrow.”

“Yes.” Rose Callahan smiled again, still shy, and added, “Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

Tom looked quickly at his wife to see if she minded this. Marjory had been known to start keening like an Irish mother if he so much as nodded to another woman at a party. But Marjory was smiling as though she were as normal as the next person.

*   *   *

Rose leaned against the archway that separated the coffee room from the main part of the Book Store and watched the Putnams leave. She’d been at the college for three weeks and three days and had already heard a lot about Marjory Putnam, particularly from Russell Jacobs. Everyone had said Marjory was very peculiar, but no one had said a word about how lovely she was. Or that she was so friendly. To be fair to the gossipers, Marjory was obviously a tad high-strung. There had been real effort behind her friendliness, as though it were rusty or in disrepair. And Marjory’s fingers had begun to hop around like grasshoppers in the folds of her dress when Russell’s name had come up. But those two things, on their own, didn’t have to mean Marjory Putnam was peculiar, only that she was shy and the thought of bombastic Russell Jacobs made her nervous.

As Rose watched from her archway, the Putnams stopped abruptly beside one of the many glass shelves of knickknacks in the Book Store’s front room. The two of them stood there, whispering together; or rather Professor Putnam whispered while Marjory lowered her head, wrung her hands, and listened. Professor Putnam then put a hand on his wife’s arm in an obvious attempt to get her moving again, but Marjory shook her head like an obstinate child, took a step away from him, and turned back to look at Rose. Her body had gone rigid as a poker, and her face was a blank. She didn’t wave, but Rose did wave at her, and in response Marjory lifted her hand and held it in the air. The two stood looking at each other, and Rose felt something protective rear up inside her and attach itself to the other woman. She would have sworn Marjory recognized this, for she nodded once and smiled for a beat of Rose’s heart. She then went back to staring. Only it wasn’t a simple stare. It was the stare of a blind woman who sees with her entire being, senses things beyond what other people are capable of noticing.

She’s been potty for years, Russell had said, with absolutely no compunction about branding someone Rose had never met as a loony. You can ask anyone, Rose, my dear. Everyone has Marjory stories to tell. Anyone except for Tom would have fled years ago. But Professor Putnam is our campus Boy Scout, our token nice guy. The only man I know who can act truly selflessly. Although God only knows what the man feels. I’m sure he’d like to murder Marjory sometime, just for an hour’s freedom from...

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