Summer Reading 2016: Beneath the Sunny Surface of Suburbia
The life of an everyday New Jersey family is transformed by a tragic vacation accident
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book -- from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.
Nancy Star’s fifth novel is the story of the Tangles, a New Jersey family of four children, and begins in their Essex County home where the family lives what seems from the outside to be a mostly contented suburban life. But a tragic seashore accident on Martha’s Vineyard upends all that, leading to a family torn apart and ultimately reconciled to what happened that day and to the relationships forever changed in its aftermath.
Star, who lives in Montclair, is the author of four previous novels: “Carpool Diem,” “Up Next,” “Now This,” and “Buried Lives.” Her nonfiction has appeared in “The New York Times,” “Family Circle,” and “Diversion” magazine. “Sisters One, Two, Three” will be published in January, 2017, and can be preordered now.
Ginger had no idea she was in trouble until her sister Mimi woke her up and told her so. This was not unusual. One or the other of the Tangle children — there were four in all — was often in trouble and Mimi was usually the one who knew why. If birth order had counted, it would have been Ginger, the eldest, who dished out the secrets of the world. But in the Tangle house, order came and went in fits and starts. Chaos was far more reliable.
“It’s because you’re thirteen,” Mimi told her, adding a quick “Happy birthday!” before turning serious again. “Thirteen — everyone knows — is bad luck. So when you turn thirteen? Bad luck for a whole year. Nothing you can do.” Information delivered, she darted across the hall to share this alarming announcement with Charlie, their eight-year-old brother, and Callie, the youngest sister, age six.
Now that her bedroom door was open, Ginger could hear the low growl of her mother Glory’s voice on attack followed by the riled-up pitch of her father Solly’s reply. The fight was a loud one, which was good news. The quiet fights were trickier. Sometimes the only tipoff was an onion smell, Solly’s sighs filling up whatever room he was in with the sour gas of his agitated gut. With the noisy fights Ginger could scope it out and decide what was best, a targeted interruption or a keep-behind-a-closed-door distance. But it was impossible to know what was best with a fight she didn’t even know was going on.
Mimi, done with sharing her news flash about Ginger’s bad luck, skipped into their room, grabbed her pad, got in bed, and resumed her early morning project, making a birthday card. At least that’s what she said she was doing. To Ginger, it seemed more like an excuse to crumple paper into balls, which she then tossed against walls, window, ceiling, and floor.
A stray ball bounced onto Ginger’s chest. She was about to complain when her morning dream flashed back. “You were in my dream,” she told Mimi. “You were with me in the kitchen and I was asking Mom if this year, for my birthday, instead of presents I could get my own room. Nothing personal,” she told her sister.
Mimi shrugged—she didn’t care—and then lobbed another mistake under Ginger’s bed.
Ginger took the paper ball on her chest and crumpled it hard, making it smaller. “Then the kitchen turned into the basement and you weren’t there anymore. I was alone and something was crawling on me and I couldn’t see what it was and I couldn’t get it off and I wanted to go back to the kitchen but the stairs vanished and I was stuck.” She glanced over to see what Mimi made of this, but Mimi had vanished too. A moment later Ginger heard her clomping up the stairs, followed by the sharp click of her mother’s heels on the floor in the hall.
“No,” Glory was saying. “Gingie’s not getting her own room and you’re not getting her presents.” She swept in wearing a fickle smile. “Happy birthday, your highness. Care to explain where I’m supposed to procure a private bedchamber for you?”
There was no point defending herself. It was a dream would not change her mother’s response. Their house had three bedrooms, two parents, four kids. There was no attic, and the basement—dirt floor, crackled concrete walls—was unheated. It was the same in every other house on their block, modest Capes with a token patch of lawn that all the fathers mowed in a ballet of synchronized home improvement every Saturday morning, just as every June they celebrated summer by perfuming the air with tar as they walked up their driveways, buckets in hand, brushing on sealant to cover up cracks.
Ginger had heard their New Jersey neighborhood defined as mixed, meaning both policemen and firemen lived there. Neighbors were also teachers and people who sold things, like the man next door, Paul Clarke, who sold rugs, and her father, who owned a toy business selling overstock and seconds, or as Glory put it, junk.
She watched as her mother pondered the privacy issue. “Unless . . . the Clarkes do have that extra room.” This was because, sadly, the Clarkes next door had only one child. “Want me to ask Evelyn if you can move in there?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I didn’t think so.” She pivoted and breezed back to the kitchen where, Ginger knew from Mimi, she was cooking up a birthday surprise.
“If you’ve got any luck at all”—Mimi said while throwing three balled-up sheets of paper against the wall in quick succession—“thirteen will go fast. At sixteen you get a party.”
When the kitchen timer rang, Glory called up that the surprise was ready. Ginger stepped lightly on her way down the stairs so as not to leave prints. She stopped in the foyer to listen to what the argument was about. Consciousness-raising groups again.
“Why shouldn’t I join a group? What are you worried will happen? You think they’ll tell me to kick you out? Or make you clean? Maybe vacuum for once? Do you even know where the vacuum is?”
Ginger hurried to the kitchen and skidded to a stop on the linoleum floor. “Hall closet?
Her father looked up, his brown eyes droopy as a basset hound’s. Glory swiveled and beamed. “Look who’s here.” In one hand she held a long serrated knife, in the other a plate. Her birthday surprise rotation of baked goods was small. None were good, but today’s—date nut loaf—was the booby prize. As usual, the loaf had come out of the tin in pieces, which her mother had tried with modest effort to mush back together into a solid form. The edges were black but Ginger knew, from experience, no matter how burnt the outside, the center would be wet with the taste of rum. Glory extended the offering. “Ta-da!”
“Thank you.” Ginger took the plate, put it down, and smiled. She could smile even while gagging, but Mimi was a wild card. Mimi might decide to pretend to like the date nut loaf, or she might decide to stuff her face and then spit the mush out in her napkin while making retching noises. On a morning like this, when Glory’s mood—Ginger could tell—was brittle, retching noises would not go over well. She scrambled for an idea. “Can I bring this to French class? Did you know Madame Olivier and I have the same birthday? Did you know she loves date nut loaf too?”
“No kidding. What a coincidence.”
Ginger watched carefully to see if she was going to get away with her story. On the plus side, her mother liked the French teacher, who’d complimented her on her accent at parent-teacher night. On the minus side, Ginger had refused her mother’s gift. She held her breath.
The knife went back in the holder. “Bien.” Glory reclaimed the loaf and covered it up with foil. “Voilà.” She handed it back to Ginger. “Pour Madame.” She winked. “That wasn’t bad, by the way. I give it an eight.”
Ginger returned the wink with a halfhearted smile. She had only recently noticed that rating lies on a scale of one to ten was not something other mothers did.
“My turn.” Solly handed Ginger a box. “First on the block, you’re going to be with this one. James Bond Action Pen. Comes with its own pack of Vaper Paper. Runs on invisible ink.”
“Invisible ink,” Glory repeated. “Let me see. That must mean . . . you got a shipment of pens that don’t work. Well done, Emperor of Duds.” In company, Glory boasted that Solly was a toy entrepreneur, but at home she enjoyed needling him with pet names that were far less flattering.
The truth was, in the overstock business there were a lot of duds. Shipments of See ’n Say where the cows went oink. X-Ray Specs with only one lens. Pens with no ink.
“So they have no ink,” Solly said. “Do I make a living? Do you have what you need?”
“Sure, King Con. Whatever you say.”
Solly lumbered out of the kitchen to finish getting ready for work. Glory slid into the chair across from Ginger. “Okay, kiddo. You’re thirteen now. There’s things you need to know.”
Usually, Ginger could feel it when one of her mother’s bursts of confidences was coming on, and she could make it out of the room in time. But now and then she got caught off guard.
“For starters—you can write this down if you want—do not marry someone more than five years older. More than five years, you can get fooled. When I first met your father, he twirled me over to Roseland twice a week. So suave, I thought. Took me everywhere to dance. Even the Savoy, up in Harlem. Rumba, samba, foxtrot—he danced them all like a dream. You know he’s six years older than me, right?” Ginger nodded and Glory nodded too. Then she snapped her fingers. “Abracadabra, twenty years later I wake up, and Mr. Dance Like a Dream has neuromas on both feet and a pair of orthopedic shoes that could fit the Jolly Green Giant.”
Ginger closed her eyes and concentrated on chewing her Cocoa Puffs.
“Look at me, Gingie. You’re thirteen now. Dreamtime’s over.”
Ginger opened her eyes in time to see her mother sweep out of the room to get last licks on her argument before Solly left for work.
The birthday dream of a room of her own must have gotten her mother thinking, because when Ginger came home from school, she saw the first bad luck of her thirteenth year had arrived in the form of a double-decker bunk where Mimi’s bed had been. Callie’s possessions now spilled from the bottom mattress onto the floor of what was suddenly called the Girls’ Room.
“Why does Charlie get his own room?” Mimi asked even though Ginger told her not to.
“Boys and girls ought not to share bedrooms,” Glory explained. “Buck up. You’ll love it. You’ll be up all night whispering secrets. I’m quite sure I’ll regret the whole thing.”
It was useless to complain so Ginger made the best of it with a roll of masking tape and a ruler, which she used to carefully lay down a set of double lines to mark her area. “My side is off-limits,” she announced and then went back to her original afternoon plan, gathering her unruly hair on top of her head in a ponytail and sectioning it around two coffee cans to make it straight.
“You can sleep with me,” Charlie told Callie, who was as unhappy as Ginger with the new arrangement. “You’re still small enough to fit in my bed.”
“Okay, good.” Callie quickly gathered up her collection of stuffed animals. They were dogs mostly, different sizes and breeds. She called them her Arleys, having named them in rhyming tributes to her brother— Barley the Lab, Farley the Beagle, Marley the Schnauzer, and so on. In her old room, every night before bedtime, Callie would line up her Arleys and Charlie would read them a story. But when she asked her new roommate, Mimi, if she’d read to them, Mimi cut her off with a quick, “No. Way.”
Arms full of Arleys, Callie walked out of the Girls’ Room into the hall where Glory was waiting. “No more switching of rooms,” her mother announced, and the subject was closed.
Later that afternoon Ginger noticed a tall stack of plates on the dining room table. But the family ate dinner in the kitchen. She found her mother fluffing the pillows from the purple sofa in the living room. This gave Ginger pause. The sofa, the plum velvet chairs, the piano no one played—the entire living room—was off-limits to them, except when company came.
“The Clarkes,” Glory said, when Ginger asked. She bent down to brush a spot on the lavender plush carpet where the nap went the wrong way. “I thought it would fun, celebrating your birthday with the neighbors. And we have a special guest. Casper Diggans. Evelyn’s brother. Did you meet him? Oh, I forgot. You didn’t work there today.” Ginger had a job as a mother’s helper for Evelyn Clarke. She went over three afternoons a week, but because it was her birthday, Evelyn had given her the day off.
“Mr. Diggans came all the way from Boston. Your father and I went over last night to meet him. Talk about charming. Of course the Curmudgeon of Essex County doesn’t agree. We were there for five minutes—Casper couldn’t have been nicer—but that was enough for Solly Tangle to decide he disapproves. Be a peach, Gingie. Help me move my puzzle upstairs so we can set the table.”
Jigsaw puzzles were Glory’s hobby. She built them using upside-down game boards as the base so that if necessary, like tonight, they could be moved. The current puzzle, Big Ben, almost complete, sat on the board of one of Solly’s favorite brainstorms—rebranding a shipment of misprinted Monopoly sets where every property was Jail, into April Fools’ kits.
Ginger carried the puzzle and Glory followed behind, offering details about dinner. “I ordered Chinese. And I have a surprise planned for dessert. But I still need to work out the seating. Can’t put your father next to Mr. Diggans. Maybe I’ll put you between them. That might work.”
“What doesn’t Dad like about him?”
“Beats me.” Glory shrugged. “It started before he met him. Evelyn told me, very nicely, ‘Do not ask my brother about his job.’ Apparently, it’s some kind of secret. I told your father and his nose went right out of joint. Told me that’s a hoity-toity thing to say. Is it hoity-toity to be a spy? That’s what I think he is. Imagine. A spy next door.”
Below them the front door opened. “Hello? Did everyone move away?”
“Yes, Solly,” Glory called down. “We moved. We live on Mars now.”
Solly chuckled. He must have had a good day. There was a moment of silence, and then he called up. “Eleven plates you got on the table? We got eleven people coming?”
“It’s not hard to get to eleven when you start from six,” Glory called and then turned to Ginger. “Will you go down and tell him it’s just the Clarkes, Casper Diggans, and Ivan the Director. That’s all.”
This was a lot of bad news for Solly to take in. Paul Clarke, who he said was a bore with his constant lectures on wall-to-wall carpets; Casper Diggans, who he’d already decided he didn’t like; and Ivan, the director of her mother’s community theater group, who Glory quoted every night at dinner like he was her own personal fortune cookie.
Last night at dinner it was, Ivan says a quiet exit speaks louder than a hundred words. Glory had demonstrated that one, silently gliding out of the kitchen while the family strained to look enthusiastic. Looking neutral was always risky business around Glory, who could decide, in a blink, a darling daydreamer was really a pill. This wasn’t a problem for Callie, with her swoony smile, or for Charlie, who could melt a woman’s heart with his fairy broom eyelashes. Even Mimi got by, with her Shirley Temple dimples. Ginger was another story. According to Glory, Ginger had a long face, not much you can do about that plus eyebrows permanently knit into a worried slant. As for her own face, Glory boasted that people often stopped to say her eyes made Paul Newman’s look gray, though Ginger had never seen that happen—maybe because it never had.
Glory joined them in the kitchen. “Why so glum?”
“Who’s glum?” Solly asked. “I just don’t know why I have to have dinner with the whole neighborhood.”
“It’s just Ivan and the Clarkes and Mr. Diggans. Who I think is darling. Today he volunteered to join the theater group. You know what a hard time we have finding men, Solly.”
“See? That’s what I mean.” Solly tugged off his prescription shoes. “Who comes for a visit and right away joins a group? I don’t trust him. I don’t trust him for a minute.”
“For the love of god.” Glory headed toward the stairs, stepping around the children who’d gathered there to eavesdrop. “I need a vacation from this asylum.”
“What’s wrong with Mr. Diggans?” Mimi asked. “Is he a kidnapper?” They’d recently watched a public service announcement about kidnappers. “Does he drive a black car?” In the commercial a black car slowly cruised down a street while a voice cautioned all children watching to stay alert.
Callie moved closer to Charlie. “Is a kidnapper coming to dinner?”
“Nice going, Solly. Now you’ve got them scared of the neighbors.” Glory continued up the stairs to her bedroom to put on her face.
“Don’t worry.” Solly gave Callie a pat on her head. “Mr. Diggans is not a kidnapper. It’s nothing like that. Nothing to be scared of. Sometimes I meet someone, he rubs me the wrong way. Your mother meets the same person, she thinks he’s peachy keen.” He let out a sigh and disappeared into the den to see what Walter Cronkite had to say, leaving Ginger and her siblings alone with the scent of onions.