A Collection of Matchbooks, a short story
1952, the Wayland Manor Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island.
The day is warm and humid, the yellow roses in the park across the street are in full bloom. Eva tugs at the sleeves of her powder-blue silk suit. She’s meeting Neal, the young lawyer she met at a Republican fundraiser last week. Though Eva’s handsome, prep-schooled husband played tennis for Yale and still buys her wonderful presents, she’s lost her passion for him after five children. Neal doesn’t have a dime, but he has smoldering dark eyes and soft, manicured hands. He’s a good talker, very charming, the way he lights her cigarette seems so Continental. Ever since the night Eva ran that girl over with her car after too many glasses of White Star, she’s been looking for a way out. She knows her husband will never let her take the children, that’s what bothers her most.
1953, the Ambassador Hotel, Chicago.
Eva sits in the lobby waiting for Neal. On the train back East from Los Angeles, Neal didn’t sleep more than two hours a night. He’s frantic to make this business deal. Eva’s money can only go so far, and though her mother contributes what she can, Neal’s ego is suffering. Maybe if he didn’t spend so much time playing gin at the Club, he’d do better. His wife really stung him in the divorce, he paid her a lump sum he could ill afford, but he felt so guilty. He was only the second person in his family to divorce, the first was his older sister Nina. She married the guy because her father told her to, so when he started getting weird in the head, she bolted. Has her own dressmaking business back in Providence. She dates the young boarder she took in.
1955, the Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans.
Neal and Eva are stopping over for the night on their way to Savannah. This trip was Eva’s idea, she wanted to revisit her childhood home, show him the house that survived the ’26 hurricane. Her mother grew up there, raised by an aunt. Eva remembers the switchings her nurse gave her for crossing the road by herself. Lilly Mae had a gold tooth in front and wore the most outrageous wigs, red, blonde, honey chestnut. Her bosom was soft, like feather pillows. Eva is disappointed when the hotel can’t give them the Honeymoon Suite. Neal shakes his head, smiles at Eva, pinches her fanny in the elevator on the way up to their room.
1956, annual convention of the California Polled Hereford Association, Berkeley, California.
Neal dances with his daughter, and Eva snipes at how clumsy the girl is. Truth is, she’s gorgeous, and Eva’s feeling old. They got both of Neal’s kids to live with them, Neal’s idea, Eva only wanted sweet little Patrick, not this sullen teenaged girl. She misses her own children dreadfully. Her ex-husband lets them visit in the summer. Still, Eva manages to be kind to Neal’s daughter, she pays for Liza’s boarding school, the very best in the state. Neal had this idea to raise prize Herefords, Eva’s mother thought it was a great idea, so they bought the ranch in Ojai. The cattle women all look the same — brown cheeks, pale orange lipstick. Eva doesn’t fit in, but she doesn’t care. She orders another chilled vodka, downs it in three swallows. Her throat burns, it feels cleansed.
1956, Diamond Jim Moran’s, New Orleans.
Liza’s in the ladies’ room, helping Eva to vomit. Liza wipes Eva’s forehead with a damp towel. The attendant turns away, afraid she’ll start laughing. Eva’s hair flops over her forehead and Liza takes the comb and smoothes it back into her thick French twist. Eva and Neal are on their way home after taking Liza and Patrick to visit their mother in Jacksonville. It was the least Neal could do, considering his ex-wife’s frame of mind. When the children left her, she lost 40 pounds in a month. Liza misses her mother, but doesn’t want to move home. Next summer, she’ll be a debutante.
1959, the Palace Hotel, San Francisco.
Liza’s on break from Mills College, meeting a boy, Ted, for drinks in the lobby. She wanted to go to UCLA, but her father wanted her at a girls’ school. It won’t help. She’ll be pregnant within the year. Ted, the baby’s father, fancies himself a Beatnik. He grew a tiny goatee, sparse but bright red. Liza is getting tired of the same old thing. She sees a woman without legs being pushed in a wheelchair across the lobby. Ted’s right behind, and Liza knows they’ll have sex in the car later. She wonders what it would be like to have no legs to get in the way.
1959, the Luau, Beverly Hills.
Neal’s throwing a reception for Liza after she eloped to Las Vegas. He put a good face on it, announced the wedding in the local paper, but he tried to talk her into an abortion. Liza refused, and Neal thought about having her committed, but Ted talked him out of it. Ted swears he’ll do the right thing, but Neal has a sick feeling. The kid has dollar signs in his eyes, just like Neal at that age. Neal should have listened to his heart, not Ted. He envisions his daughter in a roach-infested apartment on Venice Beach, wearing nothing but black leotards, her enormous belly heaving as she dances to jazz records. He wants to kill someone.
1960, Arnaud’s Restaurant, New Orleans.
Eva and her mother are on their way back out West after a shopping trip to New York. Her mother bought a hat covered with white peacock feathers, and Eva hates it. She wants to strangle her mother, wants her to hurry up and die so Eva can inherit the family money. Eva’s ancestors made their money in shipping, sailing goods up and down the Eastern seaboard, and she is absolutely certain none of them owned slaves. Eva’s mother is a spiritual nut, always falling for some Asian philosophy or another. Next, she’ll run off with the little Mexican gardener, and Eva will have to concoct a suitable cover story. They’ve never been close, not since her mother left for Mexico when Eva was two.
1961, the Redwood Room, Clift Hotel, San Francisco.
Ted and Liza are filing for divorce. Neal is listening to his daughter sob. She thinks Ted needs her, but Neal knows there’s nothing wrong with the kid that a good bank account won’t cure. He had that illness himself. Ted’s refused to work, has taken only art classes instead of working for his MBA like Neal wanted. The baby lives on fried chicken and Pepsi. Still, the little thing is cute — ten months and she walks, no, runs, already. She’s got more of Neal in her than anyone else. Ted’s parents pleaded with Neal not to interfere, but he can’t stand by and watch his daughter worry where her next meal is coming from.
1963, the Seven Seas Restaurant, Miami.
Neal sent the baby to live with his ex-wife, and sent Liza back to school. Liza chose secretarial training, and works in a bank by day, looks for men at night. Liza gets jealous sometimes at how happy her mother is with the baby, but Liza’s not very maternal to begin with. This man she’s involved with is a sailor. She’s never dated someone who didn’t go to college. Even his hands are different.