When the birds started singing, Ellen incorporated them into her dream. She was in a large dining room with French doors opening onto an enormous backyard. Around a long table was a family that resembled her own, but somehow was not. The children wanted to know if they would be allowed to keep the ship, a full-size schooner, that was sitting in the backyard, yet Ellen knew the real question was whether or not the husband, and he looked a lot like Paul, would continue to have an affair. She knew this in the dream.
Birds perched on the ship’s riggings, chirping and singing to the people in the house, Keep the ship, Keep the ship. Surrounded by leafy trees in late summer green, the ship was in full sail, white sheets billowing and snapping in the wind.
Inside the dream house, a beautiful woman began fussing with a flower arrangement on the table. The man who was almost Paul asked her to stop, but she kept on, kept rearranging the long fronds and cattails reaching straight up out of the vase and the flowers and vines cascading over its edge. Ellen had a dreadful feeling that this woman had been in the house a long time, and then someone told her, Ellen, standing in a corner of the room, that her breasts were perfect.
The birds on the ship became louder and then, suddenly, Ellen was awake. It took her a moment to realize that the birds were not on a ship at all, but in the trees outside her window. With her eyes still closed, she put a hand to her breasts and tried to remember every detail of the dream, the arrangement of the room, the color of the flowers. She was quiet a few moments, breathing lightly, her stomach rising and falling against her nightgown. It was a cool spring, but she kept only a single sheet on the bed. She slept on her back and did not like too much weight pressing on her toes; it made her feel as if she were being pulled into the grave.
Ellen was not a writer who relied much on her dreams, but occasionally she found things of use in them. Twice she’d found characters and once the opening of a novella: Julia’s analyst told her that love, hate, and envy were the primary colors of emotion; everything else was mixed from them. She had read interviews with writers who revealed that they wrote down their dreams every day as a way of getting into difficult material. Apparently they mined their dreams—Ellen sometimes pictured them wearing hard hats, yellow—believing that the best writing came from a place they did not have waking access to. This was not a process Ellen cared to know more about. She did not talk about writing that way.
With dawn came rain, a steady hush against the screens of her bedroom. She felt there was something in her dream she wanted to remember, but it was eluding her. She listened to the birds moving about in the rain-soaked bushes near the house, a flutter of wings against wet leaves, some scattered drops on the windowsill. Every so often, she heard a few clipped notes. Was it a song born of impatience or sadness, she wondered? If the rain kept up, her front walk would be covered with half-drowned worms in a few hours. Perhaps the birds were singing out of anticipation, she thought, and in that instant she remembered what had been dancing around the edge of her consciousness. It was not from the dream. Pressing her palms to her stomach to ease the rising nausea, she opened her eyes. Today her photograph would be taken.
In the past six months, Ellen Renwick’s latest novel had won several of the country’s most prestigious prizes. First, the National Book Critics Circle Award in an excruciating ceremony in New York, which she attended with her editor. She had invited Paul, had hoped he would come. They were friends now, all these years later, but he had had a prior commitment and couldn’t leave San Francisco. At the reception, she’d met her agent for the first time, although he’d been her agent for ten years, and while he gripped his sweating gin and tonic, she realized that all those fuzzy, disorienting conversations they’d had were not the fault of the phone lines from New York to Seattle. Then the PEN/Faulkner, a ceremony in Washington, D.C. that had been surprisingly pleasant. She had not wanted to attend, but when she learned she must in order to receive the prize money, she had asked her son and daughter to accompany her. Her editor was again there, and her publicist, wearing a ridiculous red dress. Ellen had read the beginning of a story she found amusing, but was sure others wouldn’t, as her reviews typically concentrated on the sadness and despair of her work. Much to her pleasure, the audience laughed. She tried to trust the reader when she was writing, but it was good to have some hard evidence after so many years of blind faith. The last was the National Book Award. This ceremony she had not attended, despite her publisher’s best efforts: they would put her up in the Waldorf Astoria, they would pay for an extra night, they would fly her first class. Somehow she managed to withstand the pressure. When she won, her editor accepted the award and made a short speech on her behalf.
The real problem was not the awards, however; it was the publicity. She’d won her share of grants over the years, grants that brought in enough money so she only had to teach part-time, but never awards that brought with them recognition in the form of interviews and photographs. Suddenly reporters wanted to spend the day with her, wanted to walk on her beloved streets and beaches, setting the scene for intimate revelations about her life of writing. They wanted to visit the places in her stories, and when she accompanied them, they scribbled down her every word, breathless for aphorisms and deep insight. They pressed her with questions about what it had felt like, years and years of writing stories and novels, raising two children practically alone. When did she write? Did she have a particular schedule? So-and-so sharpened twelve pencils every morning. What did she do?
Ellen had told her publicist on several occasions that she didn’t want to do any more interviews, but the publicist kept calling, tireless, relentless, and in possession of a seemingly endless list of reasons why interviews were a good idea. The list was based on the concept of good coverage. Ellen understood theoretically what this meant, but whenever the phrase was used she couldn’t help picturing a large cloak pulled over portions of the map. If the publicist told her that an interview with an NPR affiliate station in Atlanta would give her good coverage in the Southeast, in her mind’s eye Ellen saw Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and the Florida panhandle go dark. It made her uncomfortable, but somehow on the phone with the publicist, she would find herself agreeing to more.
“So he’ll call you at home tomorrow just before ten A. M. your time,” the publicist had said just a few days ago, after Ellen’s last ultimatum.
And Ellen had repeated, “Ten a.m. my time,” while trying to press the number ten into a piece of paper with her fingernail.
Ellen knew very little about her publicist. She thought she might be 23 or 24, came from somewhere in New England, and had been an English major. That whenever she was asked what on earth had possessed her to become a book publicist, she said, with a studied mixture of candor and enthusiasm, “Because I love the world of books.” She had a bright, happy voice unless she was trying to be persuasive or sincere. Then she toned it down and her vowels lengthened and her diction became more precise. The effect was that of a faint accent, sort of faux British, Ellen thought. The publicist at the publisher Ellen had had before this one had spoken the same way, leading Ellen to believe that the affectation was endemic.
“The interview will be an hour,” the publicist continued.
“An hour?” Ellen interrupted. “I thought it would be 30 minutes.”
“Well, he may not need the whole hour. You can tell him in the beginning that you would like to limit the interview to 30 minutes, but this is for Tincture, the Seattle magazine that just gave you the prize. It’ll be great local coverage. Why not see how the conversation goes?”
Ellen sank back into the sofa; she knew how it would go. If the reporter was good and managed to draw things out of her, she would talk for two hours and spend the next week replaying the interview in her head, assessing each sentence to see if she had revealed too much. If he was bad, she would spend the week worrying that the piece would be poorly written.
“He’s going to tape the interview. Is that okay?” the publicist asked. “You won’t notice anything. Maybe a few clicks and beeps over the phone. I just wanted you to know.”
“Fine,” Ellen said. She took a deep breath. “But this is hard for me. It affects my writing.”
“No. The whole thing. The interview, answering questions . . .”
“Oh, Ellen, I know. But think of your books. Each piece like this reaches so many potential new readers. And think of the readers who already know your work. Now they want to know about you.”
Ellen and the publicist had had this conversation more times than either cared to remember. In New York, Ellen was sure, the publicist was leaning forward on her desk, supporting the whole weight of her head with one palm. On the opposite coast, Ellen was nervously tearing at the piece of paper with the ghostly ten, wracking her mind for some new way to tell her publicist she didn’t want to do any more interviews.
“But why should they know about me? Why isn’t my writing enough?”
“Ellen, the business has changed. This is what writers do now. To support their work. You write your wonderful stories and novels and when the books are published, you send them into the world with publicity.”
“I send my work into the world with all the energy I have. I don’t have anything left for publicity.”
“But think about all the bookstores and the hundreds of new books released every month. Anything you can do to bring your book to the front will help it sell.”
There was a pause; Ellen never thought of her books selling. She imagined them held, the pages turned. The publicist must have sensed this for she drew in her breath quickly and added, “I mean to bring it into the hands, into the lives, of new readers.”
“Will they have to take a photograph?”
“I haven’t heard anything. I don’t think so.”
Ellen closed her eyes in relief. Through the phone receiver, she heard the small sound of a siren wailing in New York. “There’s an emergency,” she said without thinking.
“Yes, I guess… wait, what?” the publicist said.
“I hear a siren.”
“Oh, that? That’s not an emergency. The president’s in town and that’s the motorcade. You can tell from the lack of urgency in the beats.”
“Lack of urgency,” Ellen repeated. “I like that.”
“You can hear him going around the city like that all day. You get used to it.”
Ellen braced herself. “Okay, well, after this interview I don’t think I’ll do any more for a while. Just a short break. So I can get some work done.”
“That’s fine. But remember, Ellen. With these awards you’ve won in the news right now, we can really get your name out there. Let’s see what develops.” They hung up quickly, each telling the other to take care.
Ellen leaned forward and cradled her forehead in her hands. Their conversations always ended with waiting to see what developed. Maybe if she’d been asked to do these things at the beginning of her career, when she was young and lovely; maybe if then, instead of sending her batches of news clips about her books, the edges already yellowing by the time they arrived, they had asked her to do this work of publicity, she could have done it easily, gracefully. But now—now Ellen imagined publicity as a titanic beast, cousin to Virgil’s Rumor. Lowly and fawning at first, she couples with Fame and runs over the earth, her head high in the clouds, her hands microphones clobbering writers into bloody submission.
A day later, the publicist had left a message on Ellen’s machine. When Ellen returned from her daily walk and saw the red light blinking, she was almost certain it was her. Her calls, like sorrows, tended to come in bouts.
Ellen disliked calling her publicist. She tried hard to ward her off by saying things like, “I have only a minute” or “I’m just running out.” In such a rush was she to say these words, she often forgot to say hello or to announce who was calling. But the publicist recognized her voice by now; they’d talked enough since the march of awards had begun.
Ellen knew it would be hard for her to work until she returned the call. “I’m just heading out,” she started quickly, “but I wanted to return
“Ellen? I’m glad you called. I have a question for you. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken about The New York Times photo, and I know I’ve failed to convince you that it’s a fine picture. Good, even. “Ellen was silent. At the mention of the photograph, her pulse had quickened.” I know you hate it, “the publicist conceded.
“It nearly destroyed me. “
“I know. But… . “
“My eyes are half-closed. “
“I understand your concern about your eyes, but it really looks like. . . .”
“It looks like I’m crazy. “
“It does not look like you’re crazy. You were squinting into the sun. “
“We were inside!”
“Well, the flash startled you then… . “There had not been a flash, but Ellen didn’t have the energy to go through the details of that agonizing day.
“My point is, “the publicist went on,” if you don’t want that photo to be used then our best offense is a good defense. If I could send out a photo that you liked, publications would be less likely to search their files. Which brings me to my question. Since it turns out Tincture does want to run a picture of you. . . . “
“You told me they didn’t!”
“Well, the photographer called after we spoke yesterday.”
“You should have said no.”
“I did say no. I said absolutely not, we’re not allowing any more photos.”
Ellen was holding her breath. It seemed the publicist was, too. They’d reached a critical point and both were unsure of the next move. Finally, the publicist continued in a rush of words, and Ellen exhaled in a long slow sigh.
“But you see then I talked to her, her name’s Jennifer Foster, and she was very nice, I think you’d like her, and she convinced me to at least ask you. When I told her that you didn’t like to have your photograph taken, she became very intrigued and started thinking out loud about how she could take the picture to reflect your, um, concerns. She even asked for a copy of your book.”
“Yes. Isn’t that great? She wants to read your work before meeting you. She’s sympathetic to your feelings and really wants to try this. But the decision is completely up to you. I told myself I would not, absolutely not push you into another photo that you don’t want.”
“That’s kind. Thank you,” Ellen said meekly. She knew this would not be the end of the conversation.
“But, Ellen? Will you just think about it? Because I think this would be a great way to get a good picture of you once and for all, something we could substitute for The New York Times photo.”
After she hung up, Ellen had had to lie down. She tried to tell herself that the publicist was well-meaning, that she was just doing her job. But it didn’t matter; she couldn’t forgive her.The New York Times photograph, which she’d been told had to be taken or they would not run the story—and the story had to run for the sake of good coverage—had been a disaster. In addition to the strange look of her eyes, her hair was matted to her forehead. The photographer, a young man whose pale, delicate nostrils flared every time he lowered his camera, had been so intent on getting his precious lighting just right, he didn’t bother to tell her to fix her hair.
She had gone to the bathroom before he arrived, but to her dismay the publicist had come with her. They came out of the stalls at the same time and stood together at the sink counter washing their hands, the publicist talking endlessly about how fast this would be, how simple and painless. She used that word, painless, so lightly, Ellen would remember later. Ellen had dawdled at the sink, vigorously rubbing at an imaginary stain on her hand, hoping the publicist would leave and allow her a few moments alone with the mirror. It was impossible for her to look at herself, to lean forward into the mirror, to check for sleep in her eyes, to smooth her grizzled eyebrows, to rub some color into her cheeks and lick her lips when a young woman, who was attractive in that steely New York way, was standing by her side.
“My hands are cold. I’m just warming them,” she said. In fact, the water had gotten too hot and she had to add cold, which made the water come out too forcefully. It splashed up on her chest.
“There are paper towels over the garbage,” the publicist offered. She was done now and waiting by the door. “I know this photographer pretty well, you know. He photographed one of our other writers a few months ago. He’s really good.”
Ellen imagined that her publicist and the photographer were lovers. She could see them eating in fashionable restaurants, New York hot spots, spending more time looking at their own reflections in every shiny surface than at each other.
“That’s nice,” she said. “I’m almost ready.” She simply couldn’t let the publicist see her pinching her blanched cheeks. She was afraid she would smile conspiratorially—We all need a little help now and then, don’t we?—but underneath would be thinly veiled pity. Please, please leave, she silently begged.
“I brought some cookies, in case you get hungry,” the publicist said.
Ellen gave up. After a few furtive glances at herself while she dried her hands, she turned to the mirror. The fluorescent lights were horribly bright, but she leaned forward and used the moistened part of the brown paper towel to wipe under one eye and dab the tip of her nose. It was a desperate maneuver, and the cardboard smell of the rough paper reminded her of highway rest areas and hospitals. Unseemly, sickly places. She straightened and tossed the towel in the garbage.
“All set?” the publicist asked.
Despite everything that had followed: the so-called painless photographing session that had lasted over an hour; the photographer positioning her between a closed door and a bare wall so that the resulting photograph looked like she was in some kind of cell; the phone calls from friends after the picture was published asking about her health; despite all this, Ellen woke from her nap with the firm conviction to let this woman take her picture. She would get one good photo for her publisher and then she would tell them, Use it or nothing. She would never again submit to a photographer’s lens. She would retreat, just as many male writers before her had done. She thought of the famous reclusive writers: Salinger, Pynchon, to some extent DeLillo. Were there any women writers this reclusive? She couldn’t think of a single one. Was it because she was a woman that she had not been allowed to say no to the photographers? Why did everyone have a right to a woman’s face?
Jennifer Foster, the publicist had told her, would call her at home to arrange a time and place for the photographing. When the call came, Ellen was prepared to use the woman’s first name, so that when the so-called Jennifer introduced herself as “Jenny” in a very young voice, Ellen was caught off-guard. Fortunately, she didn’t have to say much in the first few minutes of the conversation as Jenny was passionately describing how honored she was to be taking Ellen’s photograph. She told her that it was an embarrassment to all who cared about literature in this city that a writer in their midst had gone unrecognized for so long. Everyone was humiliated, Jenny said, that it took three major national awards before Seattle realized she should be honored, a woman, who had been writing for 40 years.
Ellen cleared her throat. “Well, if it must be quantified, and I really don’t understand why it must, it’s closer to 30.More than 30 years would be more accurate.”
So when Tincture decided to give Ellen a special arts achievement prize, the Washington arts council, not to be outdone, Jenny said, checked old files and learned they had given Ellen several grants over the years. A few days ago they had voted to cosponsor the ceremony for the presentation of Tincture’s award, which was why Tincture was extending the piece about her and had added a photograph to its layout. Apparently, Jenny told her, the mayor would be giving a speech—possibly, Jenny had heard, present to Ellen the key to the city.
“I wonder,” Ellen said, “if there even is a key. I bet someone has been told to find out.”
Jenny thought, apparently, that this was a joke for her benefit and laughed long and hard. “Oh, that’s wonderful,” she repeated several times.
As her laughing slowly diminished, Ellen bowed her head. Why was this business full of such young women? It was clear that Jenny was quite young, probably close in age to her publicist. She was quieter now, telling Ellen in sober tones that the publicist had warned her about Ellen’s feelings about photographs.
“I’m sure she told you I’m difficult,” Ellen said matter-of-factly.
“Oh, no,” Jenny protested. “Not at all. She just said you were shy.”
Ellen doubted that the publicist could have limited herself to that, and as Jenny began to relate what she’d heard about The New York Times episode, Ellen imagined instead how her conversation with the publicist had gone. The publicist would have started with shy and timid.Then, as they warmed into each other’s confidence, the publicist’s voice would have stretched and swelled until she was sharing a blend of information and speculation, the two sliding over and around each other with alarming alacrity. Ellen could imagine her saying, “You have to understand, her feelings are . . .extreme.” And, “She has spent her whole life watching other people. She doesn’t like the idea of someone watching her.” Ellen clutched the phone cord. “She’s very difficult,” the publicist might have said. Then, lowering her voice, “She might be,” a luxurious whisper, “agoraphobic.”
Ellen released the cord and tried to listen to Jenny. She was saying that she might be able to take the picture in a way that would reflect Ellen’s—and here she seemed to choose her own word carefully— modesty.Maybe through a window. Or a screen door. She might shoot her in profile, or in a concealing hat.
They agreed to meet at the house by the water where Ellen had once lived. Ellen didn’t want her own house photographed and the idea of a public place—a park or hotel lobby were Jenny’s suggestions—made her very nervous, as it did when Jenny kept referring to the meeting as a photo shoot.Before Ellen could hang up, Jenny said she hoped she would take an inspired picture of her, a picture that might work its way into the public consciousness, or at least the literary public’s. That was her goal. In the library, she said, she’d found a collection of photographs of writers, all of which had impressed her: Eudora Welty at her desk, chin defiantly raised to the typewriter; Walker Percy leaning back in bed, a crucifix above his head; E.B.White at a plain wooden bench, a window beside him revealing nothing but water, horizon, and sky.
“Do you know these pictures?” Jenny had asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t,” Ellen had tried to say nicely. “You see, I don’t like author photographs.”
The day of the photographing, Ellen dressed herself carefully. Her dream about Paul and the flowers lingered in her thoughts and she couldn’t eat or work. By late morning, the rain had stopped and she read in her back garden until it was time to leave. Then she drove to the house by the water and parked on the road at the base of the hill.
The little house was where Ellen had lived when she was writing many of her early stories, before Paul, before the children, before the publication of her first book. Now the place was owned by the Washington arts council and a secret committee nominated writers for short residencies. She saw it mentioned all the time in the acknowledgment pages of new books, and she had wondered if the writers who worked there now were sometimes bothered, as she had been, by the relentless crashing of the waves. She wondered if the radiator that heated the single bedroom still hissed and if the bottom middle pane in the window by the desk still rattled in the wind. She had propped a book against it on bad mornings. She remembered that the main room had a fireplace that whistled on windy days. When she started a fire, gusts of wind blew the smoke back down the chimney and into the room. All of her sweaters had carried the smell of those fires for years. The wool ones wore it well; the fragrance of fire blending with the something that was ancient about wool. Sitting at the desk, the sweater smell rising around her, Ellen had thought about wind-blasted sheep on Scottish mountainsides. Breathing deeply, she had imagined them and their Highland attendants standing straight in the wind and she thanked them.
When she reached the back of the house, she looked through the window. Residencies were not awarded this time of year, so the house was unoccupied. Standing outside the back window, Ellen had a straight view through the bedroom into the living room and out the front window of the house. While she was imagining her desk back into its old place, a figure appeared outside the front window. The photographer, Ellen knew immediately, and even younger than she’d imagined. She was standing with her back to the house, her long blond hair actually glowing in the bright sun, Ellen stepped to one side and peered around the window frame. She had butterflies in her stomach doing this, but she wanted to watch her, with the length of the house between them, for just a few minutes before they met.
It was a dramatic afternoon of wind and sun and Jenny, Ellen thought, was throwing herself into it, leaning her head far back, her hair blowing behind her like so much gossamer. What if I’d approached from the front? she thought. Wouldn’t she have been embarrassed?
As if on cue, Jenny opened her eyes and turned toward the front window. Ellen thought Jenny would see her and so she stepped forward and bravely waved, trying to make it look as though she had just this moment arrived at this spot. But then she saw Jenny lean forward, frown a bit, and reach a hand up to straighten her hair. The wind seemed to have wreaked havoc with her part and she was gently tugging long locks back into place. She reached into her bag and retrieved a lipstick. She leaned closer to the window to apply the color. Good god, Ellen said under her breath, stepping again out of view.
She tried to take a deep breath, but could not. This is ridiculous, she said out loud, and stepped back in front of the window. She knocked loudly on the glass and watched as Jenny’s gaze seemed to go beyond her own reflection, through the length of the house, and finally identified Ellen waving outside the back window. She seemed a little flustered. The lipstick disappeared and then she did, leaving the front to meet Ellen at the side of the house.
They shook hands in the bright sun, Ellen holding hers steady, Jenny yanking it up and down. Ellen said, “I thought from your voice on the phone that you were a brunette. And shorter, somehow.”
Jenny seemed taken aback. She smiled timidly and tucked her hair behind one ear. “Oh, well, no. I’ve always had blond hair. I haven’t always been tall, though.” Then, apparently relocating her enthusiasm, she explained, “I really shot up when I was a teenager. My mom always said she wished it could have been my brother. He’s only five six.”
“She shouldn’t have made him feel bad about his height,” Ellen said. “However, it’s too bad. Short men are generally more insecure.” She smiled.
“Well,” Jenny hesitated, then looked down into her bag. “I picked up the key this morning,” she said cheerfully, holding up a small silver key, and Ellen stepped around her, aiming for the front of the house.
Waiting for Jenny to finish her preparations, amid the zipping and unzipping of bags, the setting out of lenses and lights, Ellen worried about her face. This morning something about her dream had made her feel almost pretty, but now the muscles around her mouth were obeying some other set of commands, twitchy, nervous ones. There was a stiffness in her cheeks, and her upper lip had caught a few times on her dry front teeth. Her eyes were watery, sensitive. Her face seemed all at once to be a set of features in mutiny. She hid this from Jenny as best as she could until she was asked, finally—hadn’t it been hours?—to turn toward the camera.
As she sat in the chair Jenny had positioned, she thought about the small black and white picture that would be the outcome of all this fuss, that would be made glossy and sent to magazines and newspapers all over the country. A postcard bearing her image for the sake of publicity. With every camera click she imagined the product: that one with her face turned, that one with a slight smile, that one looking straight into the lights.
Eventually, Jenny directed her to stand by the window; she was going to go outside and take a picture looking in. Ellen had to admit she liked this idea. Leaning in the window frame, she felt a gust of wind against her face. It carried the sound of voices from the beach. Children, Ellen thought, and she could see that Jenny had heard them, too. They smiled at each other through the loose screen, sharing the idea of children playing, and Ellen wondered if Jenny understood that nothing about the photograph she took in that instant would reveal the truth of those voices. When the picture was done, processed, printed and duplicated, sent into the world, as her publicist was fond of saying, to sell her work, Jenny might one day recall this moment. She would stand with a friend, point to the photo, say, “Just then some children called out from the beach. We heard their voices in the wind,” and the listener would strain for recognition of this fact in the smile on Ellen’s face. Ellen leaned closer to the screen, smelling the weathered metal that held, in tiny squares, the summers past of wind and pollen, the pungent promise of rain.
The cold air of late afternoon chilled them both, and Ellen, in a giddy moment at the end of the photographing, invited Jenny for tea. She didn’t like to have visitors, but her relief made her magnanimous, reckless. They drove back to Ellen’s house in separate cars and were now sitting across from each other in her living room.
“Do you know why writers take photographs with their hands around their faces?” Jenny asked, using her hands to demonstrate several familiar poses. “I’ve seen so many like that. Do you know why it’s so popular?”
“It has to do with how they work,” Ellen said. “Have you ever watched people working in a library? They smell their hands and knead their lips. They rest their pinkies under their noses. They clasp their hands before their faces and let their thumbs duel over their mouths. Libraries are disgusting places if you spend any time watching the inhabitants.” She was pouring the tea and noticed broken leaves in it. “I’m sorry about that,” she said.
“The libraries?” Jenny asked.
“No, the tea leaves.” Oh, why had she asked her to come? Ellen thought. She was breathing unevenly.
“You see,” she said, trying to explain, “they’re working away at something in their minds and at the same time they’re breathing in the smell of their clothes and skin. You can see them smelling. Smelling and thinking. They pull at their lips a while and then lean forward to rest their faces just under the nose between the thumb and forefinger.” She put her teacup down and plucked at this dry stretch of skin on her right hand, showing Jenny.
“It has to do with the need for one’s smell,” she said.
Jenny sat still, her eyes wide. “Smell?”
“It reminds them they’re alive,” Ellen said. “An olfactory memento mori,” she added with pleasure.
But Jenny avoided Ellen’s eyes and reached for her cup. She lifted it quickly, took a messy sip, and when a dribble of tea ran down her chin, she scanned the table for a napkin. There were none. She wiped the tea away, delicately, with the palm of her hand and smiled at the saucer as she set the cup back down. “May I use the bathroom?” she asked sweetly.
Ellen listened for the door to close, then got up to fix a plate of cookies. She was alarming the girl, she thought. From the kitchen, she heard Jenny blow her nose loudly and flush the toilet twice. She hoped she wasn’t crying.
When Jenny rejoined her in the living room, Ellen offered her the cookies, grateful to see no sign of tears. They each took one and for a moment they both chewed, a fact that justified a small space of silence. When the silence went on too long, Ellen swallowed hurriedly.
“Let me show you a different picture of me,” she said and rose. She returned with a large, unframed, black and white photograph. It was printed on heavy paper, and although the corners were bent and softened with age, there was not a single crease or crack in the picture. She placed it on the coffee table facing Jenny.
“How old were you?” Jenny asked as she picked it up, obviously stunned. The portrait was of Ellen’s head and shoulders, the lighting done so that her skin looked like alabaster, dark shadows falling all around her. Her eyebrows were drawn, just thin dark pencil lines, and her hair was swept off her forehead and arranged around her face in shining, precise curls.
“Oh, I don’t remember. I’d like to use it for publicity, but my publishers don’t think it’s appropriate. They say they need something more. I think contemporary is the word they use.”
“It’s beautiful,” Jenny said, carefully putting it back on the table between them. “People don’t make photographs like that any more. Did you mind having your picture taken then, I mean, the way it makes you uncomfortable now?”
Ellen looked down at the picture. “It’s difficult to explain,” she said. It seemed very quiet in the house and she wished briefly that she’d put on music. “If there were no author photographs, authors would have as many faces as they had readers and readers would have only the writing to tell them what they want to know. But in this age of publicity readers flip straight to the jacket flap or to the photograph in the magazine. This is the truth, they think, and they hold the picture up close, like this, to study it better. I’ve seen them in bookstores.” Ellen was holding her hands near her face in the shape of a book. She dropped them to her lap and smiled at Jenny apologetically. “This must seem silly to you, so young and pretty.”
Jenny leaned forward. “But a photograph can be an insight into character,” she said, and her confident tone seemed to surprise her. She laughed nervously.
“I mean, I think you’re underestimating photography. A good photographer should be able to draw out a personality, not just freeze a moment in time. And a good photograph should stand the test of time just like any other work of art. That,” Jenny said, gesturing at the picture on the table, “is beautiful, but, to me, it doesn’t look like who you are now.”
“Well,” Ellen said. It was all so tedious. Why had she even tried to explain? Why were all the young women she knew so hopelessly ignorant?
“You know, I have this friend,” Ellen began. “She’s about my age and we go walking together sometimes. A few weeks ago she was telling me about a man she met at a party in San Francisco. She was very attracted to him and she told me all about him: how he looked, what he was wearing, what they talked about. She doesn’t know that I know him, I know him very well, I was married to him and I know he’s very good looking.
“Then she told me that she could have had an affair with him. She’s married, did I say? She said they had been attracted to each other and she’d been tempted to start an affair. Only the fact that he lived in another city had kept her from doing it. You see, my friend believes she’s beautiful. She thinks starting an affair is something completely within her power.
“I wanted to correct her,” and here Ellen slowed her words. “I wanted to say, ‘No, you’re wrong. You would have to be beautiful to be with him, and you’re not. You are not beautiful.’ But I didn’t, of course.” Ellen held both palms out in a slow movement of remembered pain. “I didn’t.”
Jenny declined a second cup of tea, which Ellen offered after a moment but made no movement to pour. Then Jenny, her cheeks flushed and her smile embarrassed, said she should be getting home and Ellen walked her calmly to the door.
In the days before the magazine came out, Ellen felt good and was sleeping well. She rose early, wrote in the mornings, and took long walks in the afternoons. She started a new story.
One sunny afternoon that week, she rested on a park bench above the bay and happened to notice that everyone walking on the path before her passed through the same bar of sunlight falling between two cedars. All the faces were shrouded in shadow until they entered the slanting beam and then each person was illuminated for just a moment, everyone just the same. To Ellen, it looked like grace. She watched until the shadows lengthened and the sunbeam leveled out and paled. But it was still there on the path, a trace of warm light between shadows. The people coming toward her now had rosy cheeks from the chill night air, and they stepped on the path unaware of the day’s last sunbeam beneath their feet. If they looked anywhere at all they looked up, at the overdone display overhead.
Ellen smiled and felt that somehow this was a sign for her. She hadn’t felt like herself since the publicity had started, pulling her into the spotlight where the givers of awards could make an object of her, a thing of fascination. People were looking at her again, scrutinizing her face, in a way she had forgotten. There was satisfaction in their eyes, but Ellen suspected it had nothing to do with her. It was for themselves. To them, she was the living proof that even an old woman could find public salvation.
When she returned home, the magazine was in her mailbox.
“Jenny? Are you there? It’s Ellen Renwick. The magazine came. I want to talk to you about. . . . You see, I had to close it when I saw the picture. It was devastating. To imagine yourself one way and then. . . . Oh, God, I can’t survive this again. I’m afraid. . . .”
She hung up. She had heard her voice rising, felt her throat tightening, and she would not give her publisher an excuse to call this just another instance of her overreacting to a photograph. She sat quietly, leaning forward for breath, holding the receiver in both hands between her knees. On the floor across the room from her lay the magazine, crumpled and closed. Inside it was one of the pictures Jenny had taken from outside the house. Ellen had seen it only in a flash before hurling the glossy pages away from her. It was awful— the writer Ellen Renwick peeking out from behind a screen, her face horribly broken into patches, scales almost, of sun and shadow. She lifted the receiver to her ear. She was ready to try again, but there was no dial tone. She held the button down until the skin under her nail turned white.
When Jenny’s machine clicked on again, Ellen resumed, her voice almost a whisper. “You see, it’s not me. It might be fine in terms of composition. Is that the word? I don’t know because I don’t know much about photography, but it doesn’t . . .it doesn’t look like me. I can’t even read the interview because I won’t open the magazine again.” Ellen was struggling to maintain control. She was afraid she sounded frantic, but she couldn’t stop.
“It looks like someone who isn’t well, or not right, hiding behind the window frame like that. And the sun broken across my face, why. . . . You see, why would anyone read her books? Are you too young to understand that when people read my work, in their minds they’ll see her? That that is how they’ll remember me?”
Ellen had run out of breath. When she tried to inhale she realized she was crying. “Publicity should have nothing to do with immortality,” she wailed. “Don’t you see? You and the publishers and the newspapers have it all wrong.”
There was a beep. Ellen thought this might mean her message was cut off. Possibly it was a warning. She wiped her eyes and spoke quickly. “I’m afraid you’re a nice girl with lots of equipment and no talent.
“I’m sorry,” she added and slammed the receiver down.
Later, in bed and sleepless, Ellen imagined Jenny calling the publicist, eager for any insight she might have. The publicist would console her. She would speak at length about how Ellen accepted bad reviews with such aplomb, so different from other writers, but that the photographs were impossible for her. Gradually the conversation would dwindle and stall. Finally it would end, the publicist promising to call Jenny if they ever needed a picture of another writer in Seattle.
Jenny, Ellen guessed, would replay the messages many times, each time startled at the anger in Ellen’s voice. She would think about sending a card. She might even consider stopping by to see her, but with each passing week her understanding of what she might apologize for would diminish. She saw Jenny’s life as if in fast forward, filled with parties and photo shoots, dinner out with friends, where she would begin the process of working the story into her life, choosing the dramatic and humorous details she would tell over and over again. A story that would feature her own patience, coyly understate her own talent, and leave the listener wiping away tears of laughter at the idea of Ellen and her odd behavior. Eventually, the messages would be erased.
Ellen remained in bed all the next day. She wouldn’t write for weeks, she knew. Not now, not after this. She spent her time staring at the ceiling, thinking of something she’d once read about the Englishman John Baird, one of the inventors of television. When he was ready to attempt the first ever trans-Atlantic television transmission, he hired an English actress and model, a great beauty as the papers of the day called her. He wanted her, Ellen was sure, because he thought her beauty would make up for any imperfections in the transmission. But the night of the experiment, Baird couldn’t make the equipment work. What did the great beauty do, Ellen wondered, while Baird and his team scurried about? Baird tried again the next night, without the actress and with fewer journalists after the stories of failure the night before, but this time everything was in working order. New York sat silent and waiting across the waves, while in London Baird was frantic for a face to send them. There was no great beauty in the room, only a journalist’s wife, who, Ellen imagined, had come along out of curiosity.
Oh and they had to have a woman, Ellen knew, reaching up to cover her face with her hands. That part was historically and artistically ingrained. The image of woman always went first, cresting centuries of waves on thousands of ships’ bows. So they pulled her out of the crowd and seated her in a chair under the hot bright lights. She sat there for hours while they refined this and that. Finally they got a signal from New York, and everyone in the London laboratory cheered. In New York, they had seen a woman’s face appear out of the crude lines of silver static on a two-inch-square screen; the face of a plain woman three thousand miles away.
Did she smile, or did she not think of it, ante-diluvian as she was. Did she instinctively raise a hand to adjust her hair? Or was she tired and hot, squinting into the white lights? Ellen ached to ask her, the mother of all women who want to believe in the magic of their faces, what she felt at that moment.