The hangover was from either liquor or depression. Probably both. They came as a pair, the L and the D, like a vaudeville act. They came especially during an Iowa winter, and especially during that horrible winter through which Marlene was suffering. The baby was six months dead and buried. Gary had driven off in the sedan with no signs of returning. Money was tight and getting tighter. Marlene had canceled the cable television but had not worked out how to reconnect the rabbit ears.
At 11:11 in the morning, an odd time, the telephone rang. Marlene would have stayed in bed had it not been for the answering machine, which had the nasty habit of working as it was supposed to. The machine would pick up on the fifth ring, then chirp cheerful words of welcome from her happy, pre-recorded self, then the yammering from the caller, and then the incessant beeping that announced a call.
The answering machine was a big pain in the ass.
After Marlene successfully negotiated the refuse scattered from bedroom to kitchen (old magazines, a tipped-over ottoman, broken parts from baby toys that Marlene denied existed) she picked up on the fourth ring and managed a hello.
“Ms. Holiday, please,” said a woman’s voice.
“Hahl-uh-DAH-lay,” corrected Marlene. Her last name, courtesy of Gary, was Hajledaleigh.
“Would you please stand by for Mr. Towers?”
Next came a snippet of a popular song from the radio, followed by a male voice almost as musical.
“Mary, good morning to you, this is Tom Towers at St. Cue Publishing here in the Los Angeles office. How are you today?”
Marlene wondered why she hadn’t slammed down the receiver, her typical response to both wrong numbers and pointless gibberish. The best answer she could muster was that she had suffered to take the call, and the act of slamming took so much effort. Her head kept a-throb, throb, throbbing. She fingered a butt from an ashtray and fumbled for the matchbook she kept in the pocket of her nightgown. A cup of cold coffee lay just out of reach.
“Los Angeles,” she mumbled. “Really?”
“Mary, thanks for snail mailing that charming brochure of yours. I took your advice and rang up Siggy, and he just raves about you.”
“Bob Sigourney, your old boss at Harcourt and my old partner from the book swamps. Am I the last of the coelacanths who calls him Siggy? We go way back, us two fossils. I mean way back. We mucked the mud and got pressed into petroleum together, put that in your geology crib notes.”
“Uh, this is a joke, right? Oh, damn,” said Marlene as she burned her finger with a lit match. She tried to pinpoint the nature of the L and the extent of the D from the night before. Clearly they had been something fierce.
“Heck no, I’m deathly serious,” sang the caller. “Siggy just loves you, and that’s good enough for this headless horseman. Listen, Mary, let me fast forward to the featured presentation. I need an experienced outfit like yours to handle a correlations project. Are you free?”
That last word struck a chord. Of all the adjectives that Marlene considered for describing her life, free was last on the list.
“You mean, like, for work?”
“You’re even sharper than advertised, Miss Mary. Or is it Missus?”
Marlene had come to hate that question. Fortunately the caller pressed onward, albeit unintelligbly.
“We just published new K-6 textbooks for math and science, complete with TE, PE, ancillaries, tech. We need correlations to the California standards, of course, but we figured why not also do New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri—you know, the usual suspects. Interested?”
“Listen, Mister, um–”
“Call me Tom, please. Mr. Towers is my father, not me. When I retire to Palm Springs and play golf every morning and drink dry martinis after the ninth hole, then you can call me mister.”
“Really, I think you dialed the wrong—“
“My budget is ninety-eight thousand for the whole project,” said Tom Towers.
Marlene opened her mouth but did not speak for several, very weighty moments.
“Ninety-eight thousand,” she repeated. “You mean dollars, don’t you?”
“Of United States mintage. No imitations, no forgeries,” said Tom Towers, and he laughed his happy chuckle again. “How about I overnight you the books and e-mail you the spreadsheets? You let me know if you’re in or out. I’d love for you to take on the whole project, but I’ll settle for half or even a quarter.”
“Uh, sure. Yeah. Let’s go for it.”
“I’ll transfer you to my assistant. Hey, Mary, it was wonderful to talk to you. I mean that, I really do. We’ll be in touch.”
After another round of upbeat music, the assistant returned to the line. Politely the woman recited Marlene’s mailing address, social security number, e-mail, and assorted other details, which, as she confirmed, she was reading off Marlene’s resumé. Marlene again broached the subject of Mary Holiday and mistaken identity.
“There’s no mistake, Miss Holiday,” said the assistant.
“Hahl-uh-DAH-lay,” corrected Marlene.
“Mr. Towers explicitly asked for you,” said the assistant, “and you’re the person I contacted.”
“I know that,” said Marlene.
After Marlene hung up the phone, she staggered about the apartment initially in random directions, eventually returning to the bedroom. Her hangover, perhaps piqued at the competition, resumed pounding. With some effort, Marlene fell back asleep.
The next morning a carton arrived from Los Angeles, California, despite the address label reading ‘Mary Holiday’ on the first line, and ‘Mary Holiday and Associates’ on the second.
For five months, Marlene Hajledaleigh of Des Moines, Iowa, had bounced from one job to the next, none of them especially lucrative or interesting. Typically she was fired for arriving late or for leaving too early, or for days of not showing up at all. Over the months Marlene had filled application forms and shipped out resumes and queried any number of companies, job boards, career services, and temporary agencies. It at least was conceivable that one of her efforts had reached the Los Angeles offices of the St. Cue Publishing Company, not that she could remember contacting them deliberately.
Despite the spate of binge drinking, scattered and disheartening employment, and general anti-social behavior, Marlene did not think of herself as a failure, a drunk, a loser, or—the ultimate label of the unforgiven—white trash. She merely was going through a rough patch.
She still lived in the house into which her putative husband had whisked her shortly after they were married. The house was a brick and clapboard affair with a tight roof above and crabgrass all around, nestled on a zero-acre tract in an unfashionable neighborhood. Marlene’s paychecks (such as they were) and an insurance settlement (such as it was) sufficed to cover the mortgage, groceries, bus fare, and booze. Yet Marlene regularly dipped into savings for anything extra, and always there loomed something extra. The savings would not hold for much longer.
Curiously, some of the cable television still came through, although hardly the channels people paid for. On days when she was not working Marlene spent much of her time nursing cold beers and switching from one inane broadcast to another—the endless weather report, the meetings of the school board and city government, the hawking of cheap jewelry, the reruns of game shows from years gone by. When not watching television she hopscotched the Internet, sometimes pausing to read the electronic mail sent by vendors of pharmaceuticals, vacation clubs, financial fraud, and the like. She also exchanged short messages with strangers. Months ago she had busted the key for the letter ‘e’ on the keyboard, and the jagged remains hurt her left index finger when she typed such words as ‘esteemed,’ ‘escape,’ and ‘electricity,’ and for this and other reasons they were words she avoided.
Although Marlene had grown up not far from Des Moines, all of her close friends had scattered across the country, which meant they weren’t close any more. When her mother trailer-parked to Florida, no family remained nearby, either.
Marlene dearly wished to discuss Tom Towers and his improbable job offer with someone, anyone, and wound up engaging WileyC, as he called himself in the online chatroom.
“A publishing guy call’d out of th’ blu and offr’d 98 thousand to work for him,” she typed.
“You go, girl,” WileyC typed back.
“It’s mistakn idntity. Th’ guy thinks I’m sombody I’m not.”
“So who R U?”
“Marln,” typed Marlene.
“R U hot & horny, Marln?”
“Muzzle it,” she answered, wincing slightly at the end of ‘muzzle.’
Marlene unpacked the huge carton from St. Cue Publishing. Inside were a half dozen mathematics textbooks and a half dozen science textbooks, all for elementary school students. The cover for the kindergarten math book featured pictures of a ducky and a horsey, both holding signs with numbers on them. The interior pages were splayed in cute illustrations and counting exercises. Lessons for the other grades progressed in complexity. By sixth grade, children were instructed to calculate the speeds of trains, carry the 2 in long division, and divide pizzas into unnatural numbers of slices.
Packed into an envelope of its own was an official-looking contract on heavy-bond paper, written to the firm of Mary Holiday and Associates for the sum of $98,000. A handwritten message on a post-it note proclaimed that Mary was welcome to accept a lesser sum for less work, if she so chose, and was initialed TT.
When Marlene accessed her electronic mail she found a document entitled “Instructions” along with several spreadsheets. Marlene had never seen electronic spreadsheets before and only vaguely understood the concept. Complicating matters was the academic language. A typical entry, in a file entitled “California Math Grade 2”, read as follows:
CA 1.2 Use the commutative and associative rules to simplify mental calculations and to check results.
Marlene was about ready to unplug the computer and toss the textbooks in the dumpster when she looked up “commutative rule” in the index of the second grade textbook. It referred her to pages 154 to 155, where drawings displayed a cartoon monkey dropping coconuts from a tree. The lesson was that 2 coconuts plus 3 coconuts was an identical addition to 3 coconuts plus 2 coconuts. The next two pages taught the associative rule, which was that 2 plus 3 plus 4 coconuts yielded the same result in any order of addition.
Into the spreadsheet, in the space next to the entry labeled CA 1.2, Marlene entered the appropriate page numbers from the textbook. The next line of the spreadsheet was labeled CA 1.3 and concerned the proper use of parentheses in mathematical computation, which Marlene found explained on pages 160 to 163.
Several hours later, after a few fits and starts, Marlene had progressed through nearly two dozen entries for California second graders, covering a small but significant fraction of the St. Cue mathematics textbook. When the telephone rang, Marlene readied herself for another conversation with Tom Towers, but instead it was her mother in Florida, which was much worse.
“Hi dear, how’s my favorite daughter?”
Marlene was an only child.
“How are Gary and little Sonya?”
“They’re fine, too.”
“You never send photographs of the family,” said Marlene’s mother. “I can only guess what Sonya looks like these days.”
“She looks great, Mom.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Um, she’s sleeping now.”
“Every time I call she’s sleeping.”
Marlene shifted from one foot to the next.
“Two-year-olds sleep a lot, I guess.”
“You gonna visit soon?”
“Oh sure,” said Marlene. “We’re thinking of flying down next month.”
“You said that last month. Let me know when you’re coming, I’ll borrow the sofa sleeper from the neighbor. You should bring your own sheets, though. I don’t have enough sheets.”
“I got a new job,” said Marlene. “I’m doing a correlations project for St. Cue Publishing.”
“What’s a correlations project?”
“I match pages in textbooks to the teaching goals of the states. I do it all on computer.”
“Sounds awful. You have time for work and taking care of the house and Sonya too?”
Marlene took in the living room and kitchen. The couch and coffee table were littered with old pizza crusts and empty beer bottles. The sink was overflowing with dirty dishes, nearly spilling onto the overflowing laundry hamper. The only clean picture came from the television, which was showing an old game show. Well-dressed happy people, bright lights and spinning wheels.
“We’re fine, Mom,” said Marlene. “So how are you?”
Into the night Marlene worked on her correlations, wading hip-deep into numerators and denominators, place values and decimal points, diameters and circumferences, all presented dryly and formally in the official documents and humorously and engagingly in the textbooks. She continued the project all the next morning and into the afternoon. The work proved cumbersome and tedious, made more so when unfamiliar vocabulary detoured her to the dictionary. Marlene also peaked at the standards for New York and New Jersey, then for Pennsylvania and Ohio–and some of those states looked far more complicated than California.
But no matter. Every entry into the spreadsheet meant she was that much further along, which meant that much more money.
Assuming, of course, that the whole thing was legitimate.
Marlene had not thought much about mathematics since leaving high school, and she struggled to remember its purpose. Yet as she slowly gained expertise in a math curriculum for young children, she began appreciating its nuances and subtleties. Add 2 coconuts to 7 coconuts, and you really do get 9 coconuts, no matter how you count them. Connect the opposing corners of a rectangle really does yield two right triangles, each the same size and shape.
It all made sense, on its own terms.
When she finished with the California standards for second grade, she e-mailed the spreadsheet back to Tom Towers. Two hours later arrived his reply.
Hiya Miss Mary: Wow! That’s EXACTIMENTO what we needed, done RAPIDO RAPIDO which is VUNDERBAR. (When yer done with math I’ll sic you on foreign language books. Ha!) Will you and your compadres take on the entire project, all 8 states? When can you finish? Yer humble servant, Tom T of St. Q
Marlene replied quickly that she would take on all the states and could complete them within three months. She would do the mathematics books first, then the science. She also asked if she could send an invoice for the work completed by the end of the week. Soon thereafter, Tom Towers replied in the affirmative.
At 11:11 that night, after correlating textbook lessons for several hours with little interruption and no alcohol, Marlene, almost in passing, heard Gene Rayburn, the affable host of “The Match Game”, speak to her directly.
“Please welcome our next contestant, Marlene Hajledaleigh from Des Moines, Iowa,” said Gene Rayburn.
Marlene raised her head.
“Did I pronounce your last name correctly, Marlene?”
“Oh yes,” Marlene said brightly. She was seated in the contestants’ booth, dressed very smartly, her face made-up professionally as befitting network television of the 1970s.
“Tell us about your life in Des Moines, Marlene.”
Gene Rayburn thrust his trademark pencil-necked microphone into Marlene’s face.
“I am 34 years old and my life is a disaster,” said Marlene. “My husband abandoned me after the baby was electrocuted.”
The audience applauded warmly.
By the end of the week, Marlene had plowed through the second grade mathematics textbook for six of the states, and she had forayed into the third grade book as well. She began the habit of invoicing St. Cue every Friday.
When the first check arrived in the mail, Marlene called a cleaning service and had them over that afternoon. They steam-cleaned the carpet and mopped the kitchen floor with ammonia and scrubbed all the food scraps from the dishes. When they left, Marlene hitched a ride in their van to the Merle Hay shopping mall, where she bought several new outfits and a new winter coat and a pair of shoes that struck her fancy. She hired a cab for the trip home. After paying a few bills, a hearty sum remained to salt away.
On the advice of a billboard for a gymnasium, Marlene began working out every morning. After fixing a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and orange juice, she jogged out the door and kept on going, making it only down the street at first, but soon lasting down the street and back, then once around the block, then all the way to and from the park. One of her neighbors, a nice-enough divorced dad who worked as a fire inspector for the city, began joining her on occasion. They exchanged a few breathless words, then jogged quietly—not quite as a couple, not quite in solitude—before silently parting.
The bulk of Marlene’s day, of course, was spent in front of the computer, textbook opened on her lap, fingers rabbiting over the number pad of the keyboard. Marlene also kept the television on, if only for background noise.
“We have a new cashew in the nuthouse! Please welcome Mary Holiday!”
The audience applauded, they hooted and hollered. Marlene found herself not in the contestant’s chair, but in the sixth slot in the panel of celebrities. To her right was Richard Dawson, the smarmy Brit who kissed all the pretty girls who came within reach, and he was smiling jovially at Marlene and clapping in her honor. Doing the same were Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly, and there was Fannie Flagg, whom Marlene liked especially. Marlene waved and bowed politely.
“Now what have you been up to, Mary?” asked Gene Rayburn once the applause had died down
“I’m 34 years old and my life is a disaster,” spoke Marlene carefully into the microphone. “My husband left me after the baby was electro—“
A loud buzzer sounded. Someone yelled “Cut!” while the hot lights dimmed. No music played, the audience seemed to disappear. Assistants and go-fers appeared from the wings and began scurrying across the set, attending to one duty or another. Marlene eventually noticed a man wearing a V-necked blazer not fully covering the long hairs on his chest, while a headset loosely tamed his frizzy gray hair on top. The man clearly was the director, and Marlene understood his name to be Tom Towers. He walked up to her.
“Hey, Miss Mary, kiddo,” he said, draping one arm across her shoulder and pulling her close. “Listen, you’re not this Marlene-my-life-is-a-disaster person, that’s not why we’re paying you the big money. You’re Mary Holiday, star of stage and screen, a big celebrity. Got it? Now let’s get it right next time.”
Marlene nodded dumbly while Tom Towers lightly punched her shoulder, clearly a playful gesture. One of the go-fers sidled up to Mr. Towers and whispered something in his ear.
“Short break, people!” he yelled.
To Marlene’s right, Richard Dawson was reclining lazily, blowing smoke rings from a cigarette. He was wearing a loud suit and a tie wider than the Mississippi.
“Tell me, darlin’,” he said between puffs. “You seem like a forthright, upstanding lady. Why haven’t you told your mama about your husband running off and the baby dying and all?”
Marlene had an answer ready for that question, in fact she had been readying the answer for months. The answer was that she was waiting for the right moment, that it was too difficult news to tell over the telephone. Yet the words she actually spoke did not surprise her, not in the slightest.
“So long as I don’t tell my mother, I can pretend none of it ever happened.”
The celebrities said “ahhh” almost in unison, and Richard Dawson smiled knowingly.
“You gotta let your mama cry with you,” said Fannie Flagg. “You owe it to the both of you.”
“Horrible things happen sometimes,” said Charles Nelson Reilly in his fruity voice. “It’s just life, you know.”
“Are you a homosexual?” asked Marlene.
“You better believe it, sister,” said Reilly. He untied his pink neckerchief and flung it at her.
“Oh behave,” warbled Brett Somers. On the show, Brett and Charles bickered like an old married couple. In real life, Brett was married to actor Jack Klugman, who had played Oscar Madison on “The Odd Couple.”
From off stage, the director counted down the seconds, the lights came up again, and the celebrity panel readied themselves once more.
“So, Mary Holiday,” said Gene Rayburn, picking up exactly from before, “tell us what you’ve been up to these days.”
“I’m co-starring in a new situation comedy with McLean Stevenson,” said Marlene. “We’re on Thursdays at nine.”
“And what character do you play?”
“I’m the wacky neighbor!” replied Marlene, and she made a funny face.
The audience laughed appreciatively.
Meanwhile, a new contestant had quietly taken his seat in the booth across the stage. It was Gary.
Marlene almost rose from her chair and ran up to him, but stopped herself. She was a celebrity and he was a civilian, and the two camps could interact only in special circumstances. Instead she stayed seated and peered nervously at him. He seemed not to notice her.
“Time for the first question,” said Gene Rayburn, and he began reading from a card. “’After the baby died, Gary left Marlene because he was…blank!’”
The funky interlude music began playing. All of the celebrities began writing their answers on index cards.
“Now Mary,” said Gene Rayburn, “your job is to write a word or phrase that fills the blank in that sentence.”
“Goodness gracious, she knows that,” said Brett Somers. “The woman’s been watching the reruns for months.”
“Well, I’m just trying to help,” said Gene, phonying up peevishness. He would die just before the turn of the century.
“That’s right, you’re just doing your job,” said Fannie Flagg. Fannie would go on to write best-selling novels.
All of the celebrities finished, and the music stopped.
“Mr. Contestant,” said Gene Rayburn, “what’s your response to: After the baby died, Gary left Marlene because he was ….”
“A big jerk,” said Gary. The audience applauded and hollered, and the announcer smiled. Everyone clearly thought this was an excellent answer.
“Hey, I wrote ‘big jerk’ too!” said Ed Asner, the first celebrity on the panel. A green light lit next to Ed’s name, and a sound effect rang a cheery ‘ping’. Gary clapped his hands and smiled.
“Count me in,” said Brett Somers, who revealed a card that read ‘a big jerk’ in her especially sloppy handwriting.
“El jerk-o mucho grande!” said Charles Nelson Reilly, The audience cheered and laughed.
“Oh, a truly big jerk,” said Fannie Flagg.
“Huge, huge jerk!” said Richard Dawson.
Thus all eyes were on Mary Holiday, the last celebrity of the panel. Gary’s eyes were on her, too. One more match and he would win the game.
“I wrote, ‘scared’,” said Marlene, and she turned over her index card. The audience turned silent, so did all the people on the set.
“Gary left because he was scared, scared out of his mind,” she continued, wiping away a tear or two. “That’s all.”
Every morning Gary woke up, showered, then filled the tub with warm water and Mister Bubble soap suds. He undressed Sonya and plopped her in the bath. That was the routine. Sonya loved baths. She liked splashing with rubber ducks and squeeze bottles and other toys. Gary supervised while he brushed his teeth and combed and dried his hair.
That morning Sonya stood up and babbled a few words that Gary took to mean she wanted to get out, which was unusual. He smiled and said to wait a minute, he was still fixing himself up, when Sonya reached up for the cord to the electric hair dryer just as Gary was turning on the switch. She yanked harder than he expected, and the hair dryer dropped suddenly into the water.
There was a hissing of smoke and the acrid stink of a burnt electric motor. The lights went out, not that Gary noticed because it was daytime and sunlight was streaming through the windows. Gary at first cursed the ruined hair dryer and the busted fuse—it was an old house, it still used fuses—when it dawned on him that his daughter was slumped over the edge of the tub, face to the tiled floor, silent and motionless.
When Marlene arrived from the kitchen, she saw Gary frantically pressing on Sonya’s chest, alternating with breathing into her blue-tinged mouth. In between he yelled that she could call an ambulance, call 9-1-1. Marlene left the room and did what she was told. She tried not to think too much.
The ambulance arrived almost instantly, it seemed, but not soon enough. After an initial flurry of activity, the emergency team somberly went about their business, which included draping the body with a bedsheet, one of Sonya’s, a very nice one that featured embossed stitching of a little girl kissing a frog.
They placed the body so covered on a stretcher, then carried it into the ambulance, Gary and Marlene falling behind at a respectful distance.
For the rest of the morning, an angrier Sun would not have climbed the sky, an Earth of justice would neither revolve nor rotate, the stars would freeze in the firmament, spelling words of mourning when viewed from the proper perspective. Instead, lights flashed, buzzers buzzed, and invisible waves of electromagnetism danced through the ether. A few, a precious few, carried messages of hope and comfort.