We begin with a girl and end with an old woman. The challenge will be to make her a story, although, in truth, we have our doubts about stories, which miss so many interesting details because they tend not to be recursive, don’t double back to pick up things that fell out of their pockets and ought to be known, things we would pause to recount parenthetically in conversations, or as footnotes, or as surprise additions to the dramatis personae who somehow don’t “fit.” This could be the strength of novels and deficiency of short stories. But who has time for novels anymore? Two thousand words and done. Subway ride over. Bath cold. Battery running low.
Laura Hudson Chatterjee is seventeen, American, raised in New York, her father a Bengali-born and Oxford-trained proctologist, her mother a descendent of Henry Hudson the explorer, and her brother the one who had the controversial and still unique sex change in order to banish the testosterone that was feeding his life threatening prostate cancer. Henry Hudson Chatterjee was his name (we’ll get to why “was” instead of “is.”) He survived as Henrietta, a plumpish savant who got jobs in politics and museums through connections and then romantically partnered with the ex-wife of one of his powerful political bosses. They took their lesbianism seriously. It was like pouring half a glass of water into another half a glass of water. Very full.
Laura is a girl who always seems to be looking over her shoulder, not in fear but in expectation. She’s going to be on the tall side like her father. But then he dies when she is eighteen, so this is a fact about Laura. Fatherlessness opens things up for many girls. In her case there are a number of volunteer substitutes, all of whom she manages to elude because she dislikes the very idea of a father. Hers was imperious, stiff, rude, and not a sexist with a heart of gold. At his funeral the loneliness and vulnerability she feels is having lost the opportunity to look forward to him dying some day. “People can be shits,” he told her once, having taken a drop too many, “and I know I’m one of them because I didn’t have the courage to be myself. If I were you, I’d consider dropping Chatterjee as a last name and go with Hudson, Laura Hudson. It sounds better, don’t you think? I mean here in New York. If you went to Calcutta, you’d never survive. People would expect you to know something about the Chatterjees, and you wouldn’t know a thing. Here, okay, I know it’s fashionable to be half from somewhere else, but not there, and even here it gets old fast. Don’t make up some story about your ancestors and peddle it around, how they haunt and speak to you, and you must make a pilgrimage. Rubbish. That’s what I like about V.S. Naipaul, he gets the rubbish right. Read him? No, I didn’t suppose so.”
She goes to Cornell, unlike the rest of the family who attend Columbia/Barnard or Oxford, and already is so attracted to birds that she becomes an ornithologist. Birds have come into her life on Block Island, where she has one set of friends. Another set of friends belongs to the Athletic Club. And there are school friends and rogue intruders. One is supposedly an Australian trucker taking a break in the States. She is convinced he is “the one” until she goes with a friend to Waterville, Maine one summer and meets her goofy, charming brother. His naked body when he is doing pull-ups in the barn turns her inside out. She sheds her clothes and grabs the beam beside him. When they drop down, she gives him her virginity. The horses understand. They’ve seen him pull this one before.
No matter. Her body, ultimately five nine, broad shouldered, slender breasted, capped by a healthy grin of a smile and thick brown hair, attracts others. But she values her inquisitive, retentive mind more than her looks and is disappointed when she realizes men generally do not like women who expect interesting things of them.
We know, by the time she is twenty-four, that Laura may never marry. We know she has a cabin in the Adirondacks and a beach house she can freely use on Block Island and that there are relatively few interesting birds in New York City, and the ones there are have largely been “taken,” as it were. They’re documentary stars. They think they’re human. The five borough African grey parrot count already has been established. It’s 2100. They live in lofts, condos, grocery stores and car repair garages.
Inevitably Laura is going to become physically tough from hiking and climbing, and she is going to be permanently sun- and wind-burnished and she adapts well to spells of solitude. Research grants and a part-time teaching job in a college close to the lower Connecticut River estuary keep her going. She becomes an excellent painter of birds. Her work sells. She is twenty-nine now, and there is a flurry about her work which is a distinctive mixture of the naturalistic and the expressive.
But then she does marry. This is a mistake from the first week. Of all people, Laura makes him feel trapped. Wandering, self-directed Laura.
Three years later she has a baby named Zack and no husband. Carries Zack everywhere as long as she can and eats sweet potatoes, beans, pasta, and eggs to save money while making the decision to raise him in the Adirondacks, although putting up with elementary school in the Adirondacks is grim. She compensates by working hard with him on reading and drawing and starting him on the curriculum of an undergraduate naturalist at age four.
It is not a nonissue that she never marries again. Zack comes first, but there are men she has learned how to calibrate to her needs and expectations. Not looking over her shoulder anymore. Looking straight ahead.
When Zack takes to hunting, it’s a shock. He shoots squirrels, fox, deer, and bear, eschewing birds in deference to her, but no man ever disappoints Laura more than Zack, not even her father. He’s deliberately obtuse around her. Plays dumber the smarter he becomes. Once he has a truck, he’s impossible to keep watch over. Army bound. Killed in Afghanistan. Thereafter hunting season blasts in the woods twist in her bones like wood screws. He is buried in a place only she knows, having dug the grave herself.
When Henrietta’s lover dies, she becomes Laura’s cabin mate. Henrietta has known a lot of people, many more than Laura, and they will visit, and there will be the element of disbelief that such intelligent, well-educated and even worldly people would live in a cabin that isn’t, despite what people expect and want for them, really a lodge. Didn’t their mother leave them anything? No, she did not. Nothing fell out of her pocket. It was empty when she expired.
Laura is fifty-seven now. Her hips have spread but she still wears jeans well. She sits on the edge of her single bed and yanks them on from where she dropped them the night before. These days she’s illustrating books. There’s a market for books that capture feelings most people have but cannot express. Laura’s illustrations do that for them. She works a good part of the day on the second floor, which is a loft studio with two sky lights.
After she’s studied photographs of a bird, she makes sketches, and after the sketches, she paints. Through the day, dumpy Henrietta brings her snacks and looks at her work and murmurs both approval and disapproval. Henrietta is almost twenty years older than Laura, and there is no ignoring her reactions. She may know more than anyone on earth because she will admit to remembering what she thought as a man.
Eventually Henrietta slips on the rocks while going down to the creek where she likes to meditate. She hits her head and dies, and Laura faces the fact that she cannot invite all of Henrietta’s friends to the cabin for a memorial.
Manhattan becomes the place, then. Laura is no stranger there—she has a following in the publishing and art worlds—and Henrietta never lost the cachet of her sex transformation or significant jobs in politics and museums, so people, all kinds of people, more than two hundred come to the memorial and want to console Laura and invite her for a meal or a walk in the park and generally be kind.
Laura has inherited Henrietta’s semi-abandoned apartment and is 64 and uses it because she can’t otherwise keep up with the work thrown her way in New York. Even back in the city, she retains that nature girl way about her, the sun- and wind-parched skin, the strong hands, the habit of seeing scenes in people’s eyes that they want her to paint: dunes, a riverscape, a red tail hawk on a power line surveying a purplish field of dry grass for quarry. They tell her it’s poetry. She must write it down. She makes a face. What is it about people who can’t think without words? This weekend she is going up to the cabin. That’s poetry. Liberating Zack’s truck from of the city and parking it forever by his hidden grave, that’s poetry.
But she looks at her fingers and wonders about splitting wood. They’ve grown soft. And she thinks about her energy level. Does she really want to drive that far? What about an early dinner, a little too much wine, and maybe a man who diffidently will let her know what men want women to know?
She finds that last thought trite, but it is precisely her indifference to men in their sixties that keeps them coming. Now, after all these years, they dare to be interesting. That’s not easy but she lets them try, and tonight this man recites passages from Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and it works.
So we are going to see a late in life affair blossom and burn for a dozen years and then his death in Sloan Kettering.
We are going to see Laura come out on the sidewalk and choose to amble a few blocks by herself before hailing a cab, and then we are going to see Laura begin to cry and the driver look at her in the rear view mirror and not mistake her for a mental case.
She’s a beautiful old woman, her white hair thick and braided, her face partially covered by her tree root fingers, but only partially because she is unabashed about meeting the cabbie’s eyes in the rear view mirror with her own. She wants to see him see what appalls her: she is not through yet. She will live on. And eventually she will tell him where she wants to go.
Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary short fiction writers in America with more than ninety stories in print and online literary journals. His new novel is Suffer the Children. He lives in North Carolina after a diplomatic career that took him to Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East.