Carol J. Verburg ’70 is a freelance author, playwright, and consultant. A storyteller ever since she could talk, Carol spent the 1990s collaborating on theatre projects with the late artist and writer Edward Gorey. Their friendship inspired her novel Croaked: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery and her monograph Edward Gorey Plays Cape Cod, as well as her play Spin, or Twilight of the Bohemians, winner of the 2012 Centenary Stage Women Playwrights’ Series and the 2011 Ashland New Plays Festival. Her international literature collections Ourselves Among Others, Making Contact, and The Environmental Predicament have inspired thousands of college writing students. In her latest novel, Silent Night Violent Night: a Cory Goodwin Mystery (2011, Boom Books), two former Mount Holyoke College comrades-in-arts grapple with the dark side of publishing. Carol shares Chapter One with us below.
As I swung out of Copley Square onto the Mass Pike, the band on my radio swung into “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Desultory snowflakes were drifting through the orange sky like petals. Half an inch, the weatherman predicted. I’d picked this station because Oxbridge, Connecticut, is a three-hour drive from Boston and the rest were all playing Christmas songs.
My dad taught me “Hernando’s Hideaway” longer ago than I care to remember. He’d stand me on his shoes and we’d sing it together as we tangoed across the parquet floor of our Manhattan living room. Dad’s a ballroom virtuoso. As my mom says, he’ll always have that to fall back on when he irks the State of New York into revoking his detective license.
What I hadn’t noticed until now is that Robert Frost wrote “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” to the same tune:
My lit, -tle horse, must think it queer
To stop, without, a farmhouse near . . .
Try getting that out of your head when your alternatives are “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
At Route 128 the projected snowfall rose to an inch. OK, I thought. No problem. Being a media person myself, I’d thrown my heavy boots in the car just in case. I’ve spent enough nights stranded in airports and motels to take weather forecasts with a bag of salt.
Dinner around 7:30, Lilah Darnell—or, rather, Lilah Easton—had told me on the phone. Cocktails whenever you get here. Come early, Cory, OK?—so we can catch up before the horde arrives.
Right. I was still too astonished to grapple with details. Lilah in suburbia? Hostessing a semiformal dinner party? Never mind that this was a fate we’d been groomed for since birth. The core of Lilah’s and my friendship was our vow, copied from Jackie Bouvier (later Kennedy, later Onassis): Never to be a housewife. And now the notorious Delilah, legend of the Ivy League, was happily married to a textbook publisher? Unthinkable! You might as well imagine Jerry Garcia designing neckties, or Bobby Seale writing a cookbook.
It must be fifteen years since I’d seen her. Not often after we left college, in the wake of the Vietnam war. Lilah was my senior sister when I was a freshman: back then, a vast age gap. Over the years we’d become contemporaries. Sisters again, too, evidently, or why would she ferret through the Old Girl Network to find me?
The other question—why was I driving halfway across New England to see her?—had more than one answer. Curiosity, certainly. I’d picked Lilah Darnell for my role model before that term existed. She was bold, brilliant, and beautiful—just the kind of uncommon woman I planned to become at Mount Holyoke College. My second week on campus she electrified the grapevine by dumping Harvard’s class president for a local woodworker. In January she flew to Japan to spend semester break studying calligraphy and the tea ceremony. In March she won a summer apprenticeship at a foundry in Perugia. Her plan after graduation was to become a famous sculptor, start an artists’ commune, and launch a series of international affairs.
With this Amazon for my mentor I flourished. When Lilah sold a terra-cotta demon to a New York collector, I caught a bus to Boston and pitched my first story idea to Phases. While she skied the Alps, I covered the D.C. demonstration against President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. She chiseled, I wrote; she exhibited, I published. Shortly after Phases hired me as a stringer, I received a handmade invitation to her wedding in the East Village. There we sat up half the night promising each other that our love lives would never overshadow our work. Several years later she turned up on my Back Bay doorstep, divorced; praised my series on urban gentrification, bought me a dinner worth a month’s rent, and left me a baggie of ganja from her Jamaican lover. That was the last I’d heard from Lilah until her surprise reappearance in Connecticut.
By Worcester I was glad I’d brought those boots. The petals had escalated to confetti. Crossing the state line I spotted the yellow lights of a snowplow. Possible four to six inches, announced the radio. I called Lilah to warn her I might be late, and scratched my plan of stopping in Hartford for gas and coffee.
But I, have pro, -mises to keep,
And miles, to go, before I sleep!
Past Hartford the traction got tricky. My little horse—an old VW beetle, restored over the years like the Tin Woodman—progressed down Route 84 in a series of glides. As the snow thickened, Friday night’s rush-hour traffic had thinned. The forecasters now were issuing stern travelers’ advisories.
I peered through the troop of tiny kamikazes hurling themselves at my windshield; picked out a truck with bright lights and lots of tires, and pulled in behind it.
Lilah’s directions depended on spotting landmarks: bank, mall, Burger King. Maybe I’d better call her again at Oxbridge . . .
But I didn’t make it to Oxbridge.
The balance tipped a few miles before my exit. I’d been too busy keeping my wheels in the truck’s tracks to notice how much the weather had worsened. Now I glanced at my gas gauge and saw I should have filled up in Hartford after all. While I was taking that in, the truck pulled left to pass a van—the only other vehicle in sight. I started to follow and felt the VW skitter like a water drop on a griddle.
My stomach crowded my esophagus as I tucked in tight behind the van. You get used to navigating strange roads in rented cars, losing your way and finding it again, and you get cocky. You forget that travel holds greater dangers than arriving after check-in.
At the Oxbridge exit I bid the van a reluctant good-by and inched onto the snow-lined ramp. The next thirty seconds were predictable: The VW took off downhill like a kid on a playground slide. We skidded past a guard rail, twirled across the road, and landed nose first in a snowbank.
The radio was playing “Blue Christmas.” Otherwise the world had gone silent. Snow fell past my headlights, beautiful and implacable.
I surveyed the area. No bank, no mall, no Burger King. All I could see beyond my car was a distant glow where the highway must be.
I called Lilah’s home number, twice, and got nothing. I tried her cell phone and got voice mail. My emergency road service regretted that due to unusually heavy call volume, all representatives were currently helping other customers.
I switched off the radio and pulled on my boots.
My husband, Larry, laughed when he found the bag of kitty litter I keep in my trunk. (He could afford to; he drives a Jaguar.) Later I would take a moment to savor his chagrin when he found out how right I was. Not now. For now I didn’t dare think about Larry or vindication or the painful thinness of my driving gloves or why I keep refusing to buy a new car or anything else but getting out of here.
There was already half an inch of snow on my roof. Another round of phone calls produced the same results. Now what? Stay iglooed in the VW all night, or risk a potentially futile (or fatal) search through the storm for help?
I found a window scraper under my seat. I dug snow away from my wheels. If my flashlight batteries would only hold out till I finished . . . I’d dimmed the headlights and lit a flare but left the engine running. With the gas gauge on E, I couldn’t take the chance that, once stopped, it wouldn’t start again.
Not that any of these decisions were conscious. My brain had downshifted some time ago. All my energy was in my fingers.
I chopped. I scraped. I scooped. I cursed. I felt like an archeologist trying to extricate a mammoth from a glacier. Fresh snow refilled the holes I dug and blew into my eyes and mouth. Though my feet ached with cold, inside my coat I was sweating. How many eons had I been here? How many seconds till the motor died?
Then lights, and the rumble of an approaching car.
Don’t even think it, Cory. He’d be a fool to pull over. His only hope on this sloped, slippery road is to keep going.
He didn’t pull over but up. “Hey!” A laconic baritone. “You need some help?”
“Yeah,” I croaked.
It took me half a minute to reconnect my brain. Meanwhile my knight-errant had emerged from his car (a vintage white Lincoln Continental) and inspected the damage.
Given that he wore a dark sheepskin coat, fur hat, and fur-lined leather gloves, I couldn’t tell much about him but that he was a few inches taller than me—five-ten, maybe—and not apparently short of funds. His manner was friendly, comradely even, without the smarminess one comes to expect from roadside rescuers.
“Got any rope?” he asked, as matter-of-factly as if this were a ranch and we had calves to brand.
I nodded. The key was still in the trunk. I opened it and fished out the heavyweight line I keep coiled beside the kitty litter in case of emergency.
He twirled the end approvingly. “Yippie-i-o-ki-ay! Now, if we tie this to both bumpers—”
“Not enough traction. You’ll slide right off the road.”
“Take a closer look.”
I peered at his face—about my age, clean-shaven, distinctly handsome under the hat—before I realized he meant the Lincoln.
“I made them put on chains when I rented this sucker.” He looped the rope through his bumper. “And is that cat litter? Oh, hell, podner, we’re all set!”
He was right. Two false starts, a hearty heave, and the VW was back on the road.
We untied the rope. Now that my brain was revving up again, I noticed that my hands were numb and trembling. The right one had blood on it. Where were my gloves? There, on the snowbank next to my flashlight. Oh, lord, how could I possibly find the Eastons’ house in this zombie state? Was I even fit to drive?
A moot question. Rule Number Three of the freelance journalist: What is necessary can be managed. If it can’t be managed, it’s not necessary.
“Where are you going?”
“Oxbridge,” I answered; and added with unreasoning hope, “Bruce and Lilah Easton’s. It’s off Old Mill Road, wherever that is.”
“You haven’t been there before?”
“No.” Glancing around for something to wipe my hands on, I found a tissue in my coat pocket; and only then registered his change in tone. “Do you know them?”
For a moment he seemed undecided. “I did,” he said at last. “In another lifetime.”
Cocooned as we were between two pairs of headlights, my fists thawing in my pockets, snow sparkling all around us like glitter, this struck me as a reasonable statement. “That’s when I knew Lilah. We went to college together. I haven’t seen her in—oh, eons.”
He nodded as if reassured. “You can follow me. It’s on my way. What’s your name?”
“Cordelia Thorne.” I held out my hand.
“OK, Ms. Thorne.” He rubbed my chilled fingers between his palms. “Now it’s your turn to play good fairy. Don’t mention me at Eastons’. Not to them, their guests, nobody. OK?”
“Sure . . . but who is it I’m not mentioning?”
He grinned back at me—sardonically, I thought, though all I could see was the tip of his nose, a medium-thin mouth, and a square chin. Without a word he climbed into his car.
“Hey, wait! At least let me say thanks!”
As he gunned the Lincoln into a skidding takeoff he powered down his window. “Hi-yo Silver!” he hollered through the snow. “Awaaay!”
Between the snowstorm and the darkness, there wasn’t a chance I’d have found the Eastons’ mailbox on my own. They’d plowed their driveway (or had it plowed) up to the road. I idled there in the mouth of safety and waved to my nameless rescuer as he patched out in another cloud of snow.
This is going to be a hard story not to tell, I thought. How will I explain . . . ? But when I looked at my watch I discovered that, thanks to the missed coffee break in Hartford, I wasn’t even late enough to apologize.
The Eastons’ driveway wound through woods and across a field. Along the verge stood wrought-iron street lamps, each hung with a holly wreath. On any other night I’d have paused to admire the view: snow draping hedges and trees like cheesecloth, the lawn an unstained sweep of white sloping down toward twinkling house lights. Maybe that’s why I accepted this invitation, I reflected; because Lilah as a pillar of the country-club set must be seen to be believed.
On the phone her conspiratorial tone had assured me we were still allies. Only the world had changed. Protest marches were out, pragmatism was in. The Cold War had followed the Age of Aquarius into history, with the dot-com boom on its heels. Walt Disney, that kindly gentleman, had morphed into a mega-corporation. No one cared if China stayed red as long as it went green. OK, a revolution is not a dinner party, no Mudd Club or CBGB; but everybody has to eat, and with America’s supermarkets stocking fresh bean sprouts and soy sauce, basmati rice, salsa, and couscous, at least our quest to imagine all the people sharing all the world had made headway.
Her husband, Bruce, said Lilah, was president and publisher of Communicore’s Higher Education Group. I wouldn’t have envisioned college textbooks as a plush line of work; but Bruce Easton, I learned when I nosed around, was pushing the envelope.
Bruce’s most inspired coup was reviving the Caxton Press imprint. (This from Phases’ business editor.) During the post-World War II science boom, Caxton was the cutting-edge publisher of science books. Over the next half-century, as a succession of larger companies gobbled up it and then each other, its star faded to barely a twinkle. Bruce Easton revived it just long enough to rebrand it. He signed prestigious (though expensive) textbook contracts with a dozen Nobel science laureates and hopefuls. Then he folded Caxton Press back into Communicore except for its logo, which survived as a highly coveted decoration on the spines of selected titles.
Well, you figure, big deal. Textbooks: what could be duller? Not so. Suppose that the eminent Professor X wants to write a book about physics. If he aims it at a general audience, his publisher has to convince thousands of bookstore managers and Amazon browsers that fractals and string theory are a better way to spend $34.95 than pizza and a movie. On the other hand, if Professor X aims his book at college freshmen, his publisher can sell a hundred, five hundred, even a thousand copies at a crack, for a sum that once would have covered a year’s tuition, just by persuading fellow professors to require it for their classes. And that market rolls over every semester.
My Phases informant put it another way. “It’s big bucks, Cory, which means power, which means politics. Big fish eat little fish, and when the little fish are gone, the big fish start chomping each other’s tails.”
“What sort of fish is Bruce Easton?”
“Bruce Easton,” he replied unhesitatingly, “is a piranha.”
As the wife of a corporate honcho myself, I understood he meant it as a compliment. Nor was I surprised. Lilah had indicated on the phone how drastically her taste in husbands had changed since the previous one. Numero Uno, as she called him, was a fellow sculptor living in a drafty SoHo loft whose kitchen comprised a tiny porcelain sink, a hot plate, and an avocado tree growing out of a toilet. OK when you’re young and dedicated, said Lilah with crisp finality, but I’m not anymore. Can you believe?—suddenly there I was at gallery openings, lusting after pin-striped suits and calfskin attaché cases!
Believe, yes. Empathize . . . well, not so much. On the surface my story sounded like an echo: a summer romance in Paris with a fellow writer who turned out to be Larry Thorne of Thorne Cosmetics. Au revoir to pastis and cahiers on the Boul’ Mich’; hello to lattes and laptops on Charles Street! But when Larry set aside his novel two years ago to accept a vice-presidency, and I agreed to quit journalism and teach prep school, our marriage imploded. Only after a roller-coaster series of breakups and reconciliations had we vowed to find common ground. I would share my husband with the family firm, and he would share his wife with Phases. Some public functions he’d have to attend alone; but when I wasn’t on the road I’d go with him, and I’d wear cosmetics.
Lilah’s reappearance in my life couldn’t have been timelier. If she could thrive in a mixed marriage, so could I. Even comparing notes on the phone made our schoolgirl sisterhood feel like a prophecy. Bruce’s Mercedes, Larry’s Jaguar. Their house in Connecticut, ours on Beacon Hill. Lilah’s work with Planned Parenthood and the Parks Commission, mine with Oxfam and the Opera Company.
I was about to ask how she and Bruce dealt with the dual-identity issue (Larry calls my office the Bat Cave) when Lilah said practically: “But let me tell you why I called.”
Among the Eastons’ noblesse oblige gestures on behalf of Communicore was their annual Christmas party. A-list authors and staff were invited out to the Connecticut house for a sumptuous dinner, after which they helped Bruce and Lilah decorate their tree. This year’s guest of honor was Professor Henry Howrigan of Harvard, whose forthcoming biology textbook promised to keep the company in paper clips for the next decade.
“Not my best subject, biology, as you may recall! You know how these corporate parties are, anyway. So I’m thinking, Oh, gawd, another night of bone-crushing tedium, and suddenly I flashed on that interview you did with Henry a few years ago. Remember—when Harvard threw their snit-fit about commercializing academic research? I loved what you wrote, Cory. I mean, it was so him, I could literally hear his voice. So I thought, Perfect! Cory knows Henry, she knows science, and publishing—she can come keep me company!”
Friday the twentieth. Larry would be at Thorne Cosmetics’ northwest regional sales meeting in Seattle. His mother had already proposed that I donate my empty Saturday to the sachets-and-potholders booth at her church’s Christmas fair.
As for Harvard and Henry Howrigan, I’d heard a new snit-fit was brewing which threatened to defoliate the groves of academe. Over what? That was the six-figure question. No one in the local media could find out—not even Rik Green’s hand-picked cadre of campus spies. When it comes to stonewalling, Harvard is four hundred years ahead of the rest of us.
“So I tracked you down through the alumnae office, and I’m phoning instead of writing so you can’t say no. The guests all leave after dinner, then we’re on our own. There’s a marvelous little museum here, and a new bistro I’ve been dying to try—”
“Lilah,” I interrupted.
“—or actually it’s more of a tearoom; and the annual Christmas walk—”
“You know I’d love to see you. But what’s this about? I mean . . . why now? After so long? Ten days before Christmas?”
Three seconds while she chose a tack. Three more to pick the words for it. When she finally answered, I thought she was changing the subject.
“Cory! How are your parents these days?”
“Fine. We’re spending New Year’s with them.”
“Your mother, the fearless traveler! And is your dad still a—what’s it called?—private investigator?”
“Right.” Was there a method to this meandering?
“We all had such a crush on him. Fathers’ Weekend, lining up to dance with Cory’s dad!” She managed a chuckle. “It’s so perfect you went into journalism. Don’t you think? Even back then, how you’d jump into any kind of a problem—algebra, or who stole whose lab report—that nobody else could solve, and bingo!”
“Lilah, what are you getting at?”
There was a tiny pause. “Oh, gawd. Who knows? Nothing.”
“Is there a problem you want me to—?”
“No, no. I just meant— Oh, you know. Old times! ‘We shall overcome’ and all that. Our glorious carefree youth!”
No, I reflected; of course there was no problem. When you’ve got money, status, education, charm, and every other imaginable asset, the one thing you’re not entitled to is problems.
“So you will come, Cory, won’t you? Since you know my heart will be utterly broken . . .”
She was always like that. She’d play a card at bridge and wheedle her opponents into letting her take it back. She’d hand in papers three days late and still get better grades than those of us who’d sat up all night typing.
“Lilah,” I had to ask, “have you cut your hair?”
“Cory! No! Never. Have you?”
“No way. I wear it up a lot, but all I ever cut is the tips.”
“Me too. Bruce would kill me.” She giggled. “Men are so primitive about women’s hair! Oh, and Cory, I have to ask: Is it true what I heard? You ran off with a rock star? I mean, not to pry, but— Are you and Larry still—?”
In clearing that up—yes, we were, and whatever she’d heard was much exaggerated—we established without further discussion that I would come to her Christmas party.
Not for a minute did I believe all Lilah wanted from me was company for a nostalgia trip. However, I knew better than to think I could find out more by asking her. Back when people used to mix us up because of our long auburn hair, I was known as the straight one and Lilah as the kinky one.
The steps leading up to the house were flagstones, swept recently but refilling fast. I’d followed the driveway past the drift-deep front walk and around to this side door. Servants’ entrance? Not unless the servants drove a BMW. I liked what I could see of the house, slung between woods at this end and a hill at the other as if it belonged here.
No one answered my knock. I wasn’t in the mood to stand in any more falling snow, especially holding my suitcase, so I opened the door and stepped inside.
I was at the sports end of a long hall neatly stacked with skis, tennis racquets, volleyball nets, and a washer and dryer. At the laundry end stood a woman with her hand on the door frame, speaking to someone behind her. She wore a sweater patterned on a medieval tapestry: one whippet rampant and another couchant on a field of sienna edged with forest green. Her loose-cut pants were the same moleskin color as the dogs and looked virginal, as if they’d never touched human flesh till she lifted them from tissue paper.
But it was her hair I recognized: a reckless coppery cascade that tumbled down her shoulders and took me back instantly to art history class. Jo, James Whistler’s wild Irish mistress.
“Cory!” Her arms flung open. “Oh, gawd, am I glad to see you!”