Excerpt for The Secret Life of Violet Grant

Vivian, 1964
New York City


I nearly missed that card from the post office, stuck up as it was against the side of the mail slot. Just imagine. Of such little accidents is history made.


I’d moved into the apartment only a week ago, and I didn’t know all the little tricks yet: the way the water collects in a slight depression below the bottom step on rainy days, causing you to slip on the chipped marble tiles if you aren’t careful; the way the butcher’s boy steps inside the superintendent’s apartment at five-fifteen on Wednesday afternoons, when the super’s shift runs late at the cigar factory, and spends twenty minutes jiggling his sausage with the super’s wife while the chops sit unguarded in the vestibule.


And—this is important, now—the way postcards have a habit of sticking to the side of the mail slot, just out of view if you’re bending to retrieve your mail instead of crouching all the way down, as I did that Friday evening after work, not wanting to soil my new coat on the perpetually filthy floor.


But luck or fate or God intervened. My fingers found the postcard, even if my eyes didn’t. And though I tossed the mail on the table when I burst into the apartment and didn’t sort through it all until late Saturday morning, wrapped in my dressing gown, drinking a filthy concoction of tomato juice and the-devil-knew-what to counteract the several martinis and one neat Scotch I’d drunk the night before, not even I, Vivian Schuyler, could elude the wicked ways of the higher powers forever.


Mind you, I’m not here to complain.


“What’s that?” asked my roommate, Sally, from the sofa, such as it was. The dear little tart appeared even more horizontally inclined than I did. My face was merely sallow; hers was chartreuse.


“Card from the post office.” I turned it over in my hand. “There’s a parcel waiting.”


“For you or for me?”


“For me.”


“Well, thank God for that, anyway.”


I looked at the card. I looked at the clock. I had twenty-three minutes until the post office on West Tenth Street closed for the weekend. My hair was unbrushed, my face bare, my mouth still coated in a sticky film of hangover and tomato juice.


On the other hand: a parcel. Who could resist a parcel? A mysterious one, yet. All sorts of brown-paper possibilities danced in my head. Too early for Christmas, too late for my twenty-first birthday (too late for my twenty-second, if you’re going to split hairs), too uncharacteristic to come from my parents. But there it was, misspelled in cheap purple ink: Miss Vivien Schuyler, 52 Christopher Street, apt. 5C, New York City. I’d been here only a week. Who would have mailed me a parcel already? Perhaps my great-aunt Julie, submitting a housewarming gift? In which case I’d have to skedaddle on down to the P.O. hasty-posty before somebody there drank my parcel.


The clock again. Twenty-two minutes.


“If you’re going,” said Sally, hand draped over her eyes, “you’d better go now.”


Of such little choices is history made.


. . .


I DARTED INTO the post office building at eight minutes to twelve— yes, my dears, I have good reason to remember the exact time of arrival— shook off the rain from my umbrella, and caught my sinking heart at the last instant. The place was crammed. not only crammed, but wet. not only wet, but stinking wet: sour wool overlaid by piss overlaid by cigarettes. I folded my umbrella and joined the line behind a blond-haired man in blue surgical scrubs. This was new York, after all: you took the smell and the humanity—oh, the humanity!—as part of the whole sublime package.


Well, all right.


Amendment: You didn’t have to take the smell and the humanity and the ratty Greenwich Village apartment with the horny butcher’s boy on Wednesday afternoons and the beautifully alcoholic roommate who might just pick up the occasional weekend client to keep body and Givenchy together. Not if you were Miss Vivian Schuyler, late of Park Avenue and East Hampton, even later of Bryn Mawr College of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. In fact, you courted astonishment and not a little scorn by so choosing. Picture us all, the affectionate Schuylers, lounging about the breakfast table with our eggs and Bloody Marys at eleven o’clock in the morning, as the summer sun melts like honey through the windows and the uniformed maid delivers a fresh batch of toast to absorb the arsenic.


Mums (lovingly): You aren’t really going to take that filthy job at the magazine, are you?


Me: Why, yes. I really am.


Dadums (tenderly): Only bitches work, Vivian.


So it was my own fault that I found myself standing there in the piss-scented post office on West Tenth Street, with my elegant Schuyler nose pressed up between the shoulder blades of the blue scrubs in front of me. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Could not accept my gilded lot. Could not turn this unearned Schuyler privilege into the least necessary degree of satisfaction.


And less satisfied by the moment, really, as the clock counted down to quitting time and the clerks showed no signs of hurry and the line showed no sign of advancing. The foot-shifting began. The man behind me swore and lit a cigarette. Someone let loose a theatrical sigh. I inched my nose a little deeper toward the olfactory oasis of the blue scrubs, because this man at least smelled of disinfectant instead of piss, and blond was my favorite color.


A customer left the counter. The first man in line launched himself toward the clerk. The rest of us took a united step forward.


Except the man in blue scrubs. His brown leather feet remained planted, but I realized this only after I’d thrust myself into the center of his back and knocked him right smack down to the stained linoleum.


“I’m so sorry,” I said, holding out my hand. He looked up at me and blinked, like my childhood dog Quincy used to do when roused unexpectedly from his after-breakfast beauty snooze. “My word. Were you asleep?”


He ignored my hand and rose to his feet. “Looks that way.”


“I’m very sorry. Are you all right?”


“Yes, thanks.” That was all. He turned and faced front.


Well, I would have dropped it right there, but the man was eye-wateringly handsome, stop-in-your-tracks handsome, Paul Newman handsome, sunny blue eyes and sunny blond hair, and this was New York, where you took your opportunities wherever you found them. “Ah. You must be an intern or a resident, or whatever they are. Saint Vincent’s, is it? I’ve heard they keep you poor boys up three days at a stretch. Are you sure you’re all right?”


“Yes.” Taciturn. But he was blushing, right the way up his sweet sunny neck.


“Unless you’re narcoleptic,” I went on. “It’s fine, really. You can admit it. My second cousin Richard was like that. He fell asleep at his own wedding, right there at the altar. The organist was so rattled she switched from the Wedding March to the death March.”


The old pregnant pause. Someone stifled a laugh behind me. I thought I’d overplayed my hand, and then:


“He did not.”


Nice voice. Sort of Bing Crosby with a bass chord.


“Did too. We had to sprinkle him with holy water to wake him up, and by sprinkle I mean tip-turn the whole basin over his head. He’s the only one in the family to have been baptized twice.”


The counter shed two more people. We were cooking now. I glanced at the lopsided black-and-white clock on the wall: two minutes to twelve. Blue Scrubs still wasn’t looking at me, but I could see from his sturdy jaw—lanterns, psht—he was trying very hard not to smile.


“Hence his nickname, Holy Dick,” I said.


“Give it up, lady,” muttered the man behind me.


“And then there’s my aunt Mildred. You can’t wake her up at all. She settled in for an afternoon nap once and didn’t come downstairs again until bridge the next day.”


No answer.


“So, during the night, we switched the furniture in her room with the red bordello set in the attic,” I said, undaunted. “She was so shaken, she led an unsupported ace against a suit contract.”


The neck above the blue scrubs was now as red as tomato bisque, minus the oyster crackers. He lifted one hand to his mouth and coughed delicately.


“We called her Aunt van Winkle.”


The shoulder blades shivered.


“I’m just trying to tell you, you have no cause for embarrassment for your little disorder,” I said. “These things can happen to anyone.”


“Next,” said a counter clerk, eminently bored.


Blue Scrubs leapt forward. My time was up.


I looked regretfully down the row of counter stations and saw, to my dismay, that all except one were now fronted by malicious little engraved signs reading COUNTER CLOSED.


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