Before dinner, the clothes were brought out. Tomorrow, Milly Marsten was going to a red carpet thing. The red carpet of the year. The nomination had shocked the family, but Milly’s cousin Ruth had been more shocked than the rest. Milly was without levels, thought Ruth, and no one without levels ought to be vastly rewarded for doing practically nothing. And now, dresses were required. It was absurd. The nomination had shocked the world too. Perhaps others noticed that Milly was without levels. Nonetheless, tomorrow there would be photographers, a globe’s worth of watchers, and what Milly wore would be noticed and documented. Because of the red carpet, her family was up from La Jolla, and before anyone could bear to eat, they begged to see the dress.
Milly, who knew how to hold out just long enough not to look too eager, skipped down the long, white hallway, from her powder puff of a living room to her bedroom, where her closet thronged with dresses delivered by Neiman Marcus on Wilshire. The stylist had been there all afternoon and left drained, without a firm decision.
Back to the living room skipped Milly, cradling a stack of silks in candy colors, as well as a strand of something clear and bright. Into the crook of one elbow, she had locked a pair of silver shoes so potently metallic the vamps reflected her pink chin and open mouth, which hung open, panting decorously.
The family from La Jolla roared. “There she is! That’s our star,” said Uncle Gene. Aunt Carol clapped, her fingers spread to keep her coral nails from touching. Cousin Brett, who surfed and kept immaculate cars, banged a knife against the side of his cold Corona. Milly’s mother and father were there too. From Carlsbad to El Cajon, Steve Marsten was as well-known as his daughter, thanks to billboards promising dream homes to well-qualified buyers. Elaine Marsten hosted the necessary fundraisers to wave off any hint of unseemly profiting. Upon Milly’s entrance, her parents bore the brunt of the joy, turning to the others with looks that mouthed, “We know.”
Milly had brought too many dresses. Though the Marsten family money was middle-aged, the youngest child was being born into public glory, and she desired what felt like a long-due attention. Ruth watched as the bright silks slipped from Milly’s arms to the floor, making no stab at catching even one. Such tight, fine weaves, the hems weighted in order to keep the line when posing for photographs. Milly appeared helpless, reaching down to pick up a length of crepe the color of a ripe casaba melon. She held it against her chest. “The style is Grecian,” she said. “My shoulders, you see.” Into the room issued coos, like a dove release. Yes, her shoulders.
“Your fairy wings,” said Aunt Carol.
“Milly has always been an angel,” said Elaine. Brett opened another Corona, the spray darting towards the gown.
“Hey, you!” said Milly, reeling backwards, right into Ruth.
“Ruth, you’re too quiet as usual,” said Uncle Gene. “How often do we have to tell you?”
Ruth was from the other side of the Marsten line, the side that did not look at their girls and see fairy wings, and by her accounting “they” had never told her anything of importance about herself. Ruth lived in Detroit, where life was passing her by. It was Milly’s idea that Ruth should come out to California. The awards season was to be a wedding of sorts, and Milly the bride, taking pity on poor Ruth, whom she deemed rather too old for romance and unfortunately toiling away at a job that wouldn’t interest strangers. Not like Milly’s job, in which absolutely everyone, right down to the bagger at Gelson’s, seemed to be invested. It was only natural that Milly needed attendants to see her through this rite of passage. Steve Marsten had paid for Ruth’s ticket, which struck Ruth as odd. Milly was in the LA Times, for god’s sake. Why shouldn’t she open her wallet for once? But the trip provided an opportunity, and Ruth insinuated herself silently into the scrum of relatives, stepping again into the Old Country of California, watching for her moment.
Ruth had presented herself at the house two days earlier in unimaginative career separates. Milly had greeted her cousin, older than she by a decade, with an airy squeeze. Milly’s gaze had been deprecating in a brisk sweep over Ruth through fresh lash extensions. A spot on Ruth’s jacket looked as though it has been there a long time, confessing a history of dry cleaners vowing to see what they could do. Today, Ruth wore jeans that hit her hips four inches distant from where jeans currently hit the hips of girls in Los Angeles, and the denim the wrong wash. The common line was that Ruth simply would not try.
None of the relatives was to attend the actual awards ceremony, but each was expected to serve anyway, propping Milly up in her big moment. Ruth thought Milly must have people she paid to do that, but could see now that it was familial adoration Milly wanted. Ruth’s wants were more surgical in nature. Without appearing to ask, she hoped to take home with her some portion of the Western Marsten’s millions. As it happened, there was a need in Detroit for “resources” and Ruth had decided to claim them. She’d intended to be accommodating, ingratiating, perhaps even helpful, but the sight of Milly’s deep self-regard and the long memory Milly’s failure to acknowledge a realm outside of her own feelings reared up in Ruth and disgust played across her face. The family was right. She simply would not try.
Ruth fingered the melon crepe Milly still held up to her throat. “You should check on that,” said Ruth. “I don’t think it’s Grecian. It’s more Empire.”
“Really, Ruth, how would you know?” said Elaine.
Ruth crossed her arms across the denim shirt, its snaps cold against her chest. She hadn’t spoken to any of them since she’d left the West for the East years before. Before that, she was just one of the mob at chaotic reunions at the Del on Coronado Island. Now, she was merely washed out and sour. The aunts and uncles and Brett looked at her, those mouths of her youth now older, lined and shut tight against her. She could not be accommodating, ingratiating, or perhaps even helpful to those who had never suffered. They hadn’t earned their comfort, so Ruth wished to deny them whatever shred she might have given.
The aunts, the uncles, and Brett returned to Milly, whose agitation at being forgotten for a moment in favor of anyone else filled the room like a gas. Panic pulled at Milly’s mouth until Brett said, “You’ll win. Everyone says so.”
“Everyone,” said Ruth, though it was clear her opinion was no longer wanted.
Ruth leaned backwards against a set of scrolled door handles. “Let’s get out of here,” the handles said. Ruth reached behind her, pushed down, and backed out of the white, padded living room and onto the cold stone apron beyond. Milly wasn’t looking at her. No one was. And yet, to turn away from the scene, Ruth knew would call attention to her. It was an irony to which she was acutely attuned. Her face brought little recognition, but her back rang alarm bells.
Once outside in the cool, welcoming dark, amid the sweet smell of night-blooming jasmine, Ruth exhaled. “Those fuckers,” she said aloud.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said a languid male voice.
Someone was sitting on a lounger by the pool. Across the flagstones, Ruth could make out a sloping back, framed by the scintillating lights of the basin below. A cigarette burned in the dark. The slope and cigarette turned towards her.
“Oh, I didn’t know anyone was out here,” she said. “I’m sorry you heard that. I’m sure I won’t feel that way in the morning.”
“How lucky for you,” said the man. “I’m sure I will feel the same, and I’ll feel it while I walk amongst them, my big, white teeth leading the parade.” Ruth walked towards the voice. It was familiar.
“You’re the agent, aren’t you?”
“I’m the agent all right, but the agent of what? Certainly not revolution. Perhaps of fear.” The “fear” was drawn out. He seemed to relish his own line reading.
Ruth stopped a few feet from the lounger. The agent turned his face directly towards her, catching a weakened shaft of light from the living room. In it, she could see the expression of a man who seemed devoutly sad. He was younger than his voice implied, and his back was not domed and hunched by age, but was instead mounded by thick sweaters tied around his neck. Winter in the San Fernando Valley saw warm middays followed by chilly sundowns, where the sudden drops in temperature each evening left condensation on the hoods of cars and turned the grass too wet and cold for bare feet. Athletically swathed, the agent looked like a Venetian water taxi driver, or the picture of a college boy from the 1920s. On the ground sat an empty highball glass. And there, thought Ruth, is where he talks over his true feelings about the family of his now most-important client, probably of the client herself. They were all there to take care of Milly, weren’t they? Even Ruth, who walked the shaky bridge between two halves of a family barely kept alive by a diet of bad memories.
Ruth’s father was Carl, the younger brother of Gene and Steve. When Ruth’s Grandfather Marsten had died, there’d been an extended court battle over the will, and a valuable piece of land that was rightfully Carl’s had been seized, legally speaking, by Steve. Gene had not objected, which meant he was for it. The case dragged on to the last cufflink of the estate, and when it was over, The Other Side—her side—was out. Shit out of luck, truth be told. Ruth awoke one night to the sound of a smashed glass and her father shouting a fierce, “Damn it all.” Ruth’s mother sent a letter to her sisters-in law: “Theft between brothers is still theft.” Then, silence. The East Coast wing still had its own small fortune at that point, though nothing to compare with the Western wing. Then came the Crash and awful “oh eight.” Four years later, Milly’s overnight triumph appeared to come with an additional boon for Ruth in the form of the opening of a long-closed door.
“Do you like the dress?” said Ruth.
“She looks like a goddamned goddess,” said the agent.
“Of course she does,” said Ruth. “She’s Milly.” Then, “I’m the cousin, Ruth.” The agent exhaled a long white jet of smoke.
“I know who you are,” he said, over his shoulder. “Trust me, I’ve heard all about it.” The voice was weary, but kind, almost conspiratorial. The “darling” was implied. “I just can’t figure out what you’re doing here after the way they treated you.”
“I’m here for Milly, of course.”
“Oh, well, then I’m here for Milly too,” said the agent, and he laughed thickly. “You’re definitely not the actress of the family.” Through the window, the object of their mutual dedication was visible modeling another dress, this one sequined and all wrong for her. By now, friends had joined the family, and Milly strolled up and down in front of a gallery of unbroken gazes.
“She’s the youngest,” said Ruth. “She doesn’t remember the court case.”
“Yes,” said the agent. “The court case. The Crash. And here you are, on the other side of wealth.”
“You’re not going to give me that crap about there being no man so poor as the man who was once rich, are you?”
“No, darling. I’m not,” said the agent, but he looked at her straight on with a comprehending sorrow that said it anyway.
Ruth thought it was time she was getting back to Milly. It wouldn’t do to appear ungrateful for her uncle’s kindness. She could hear it now: “We flew her out, all expenses paid, and she spent the whole time in the back yard.” The affront. So like that side.
But it was outside where she felt safest. In there, machine guns on swivels. They could turn on you in an instant and you’d have no chance.
“Don’t worry, Ruth, I’ve seen it a thousand times. Hell, it’s happened to me twice. I’m on the upswing now, though, and I’m going to make sure this time I hang onto whatever I get.” Ruth’s side would have no such upswing. Lose your money too late and there’s no earning it back. Maybe such miracles occured in Los Angeles, but not in Michigan, where paychecks are earned, often in cents. She didn’t care about herself. The unfashionable jeans were only a problem out here, and she would be back in a middle seat on the Uncle Steve Express the day after tomorrow. It was her parents that she came for. The bridge she built only needed to hold their weight. “Lost it all in an afternoon, didn’t you?” said the agent. Ruth had not moved.
The agent seemed to know a great deal. Ruth supposed it was his business to know these kinds of details. Two hours, actually, was all it had taken for the old life to be wiped away on a receding tide of falling shares. It was a tsunami in reverse, a great wave rushing away from land, sucking with it homes, cars, furniture, marriages. Anything that held value was ripped from their collective hands. Art auctioned, jewelry sold (“Thank God we thought to buy gold when we could.”), policies and trusts cashed in. It all came to enough for one frugal year in the old house, and after that, there were Ruth’s parents and unmarried Ruth, crowded into an apartment with no laundry room. Ruth had scolded her mother for buying nicer tea than they could afford, and forbade name-brand soap, new towels, and department store makeup. There was, in fact, to be no spending not authorized by Ruth. She would learn and then teach them to be poor. “The next person who asks me for money gets it in the neck,” she’d declared one day over boiled spaghetti. It was a form of violence, and her mother had laid her cheek against the tiny kitchen table and cried like a wounded animal.
“I’m going in,” said Ruth. Fresh anxiety had arisen, mingling with the scent of smoke and jasmine. “You coming?”
“Sure,” said the agent. “We’ve all got bills to pay.”
Inside, Ruth learned the agent’s name, Anselm Cope. Obviously fake. There was a vogue in Hollywood for vaguely European names to accompany faces that were clearly forged in Costa Mesa or Cerritos. Under the light of Milly’s dandelion fluff of a chandelier, Cope was revealed to be stout, well made and, as billed, toothy. He looked a good Hollywood 45, which meant he was anywhere between 37 and 60. But he seemed to know a little too much about the San Clemente life of Richard Nixon for a younger man, and Ruth nailed him at 58.
The melon gown had been left alone for a moment on an ample chair. Cope lifted the hem with a bored gesture only Ruth saw before he turned to the room, a prosperous smile breaking through fleeting cloud cover.
“The cover of People, I promise. This is the dress. Don’t even think about any of these,” he said, pointing at a white couch holding the refracted colors of six, ten, twelve—who could count?—silk or satin or chiffon pieces. Milly seemed to vault across the living room so as not to miss the solar flare of attention.
“You think so?” she said. “I always do what Anselm says,” she announced to the room. “And look where it’s gotten me!” Milly giggled, pleased with her dryness. “I wasn’t sure I should play Lucy. So angry and tough, you know? It was a big risk. But Anselm said I had to do it, like, had to, and I trusted him. Can you believe I’ve never even gone to an awards show and now I’m nominated?” The angel wings of her shoulders heaved slightly, catching a gentle updraft. Ruth felt a resurgence of an unwillingness to “try.” Sudden fame was hardly a hardship to Milly, though Ruth allowed that decency demanded her cousin affect the pose of an awed humilis cloud for another week.
In fairness, Milly’s nomination had caught her unprepared. It was a small part in a smaller movie. Cope had taken her on in a mortifying package deal with a more successful actress in order to survive a grisly merger between agencies. Naturally, the famous actress had fired him as soon as possible in a blazing scene in which Cope had never stopped smiling, leaving him with Milly and her three TV guest spots and two seasons on a procedural. But she had a look, and the part of Lucy crackled with self-regard. Cope knew she could pull it off.
Including Cope, Milly’s elegant little house, flocked in white and ringed by fragrant blossoms, was now bursting with more than a dozen personnel whose sole care was to affirm her good fortune. Before long, entertainment arrived in the form of Chinese takeout delivered from Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. Mr. Chow, more kin to Faberge eggs than to the neighborhood Szechuan restaurants of suburban Michigan, struck just the right note. One did have to know something to think of Mr. Chow, though Milly had fretted over its popularity with Europeans. (“Like, who ever reads about them?”) Ruth glimpsed a delicate paper receipt signed and abandoned to the floor. Over a thousand dollars had gone into this display of good taste. Milly was a quick study. If tonight were to be written up in a magazine, and Milly ardently wished for that bump of good press, she could hold her head up about each detail, even her generosity to the unremarkable cousin.
The center of the party shifted into the dining room instinctually, a single-celled organism to feed on electrons. Elaine opened the containers, her nails clicking against the thin wire handles. Across a wide, wooden table, gold-rimmed plates were set out, polished cutlery spread like a fan, glassware set out piece by piece, the music of money tinkling and trilling under her fingertips. “How’s your mom and dad?” Uncle Gene called out to Ruth, who stood opposite him in what felt like another country. Between them sat dozens of white paper jewel boxes holding the hot food. Ruth had marveled at the cunning little oven in which it the dinner had arrived. No one suffers here, she thought. Small spots appeared on the boxes where the oil was beginning to saturate the paper. Uncle Gene knew full fucking well how her parents were.
“You know them,” said Ruth. “Keeping busy.” She smiled. Keeping busy clipping coupons and stinting on heat. It was clear to her that no one was supposed to feel sorry for the Detroit Marstens. They’d had a good run. But good luck in one part of life is not fair compensation for rotten luck in another. Or is it? The Crash had introduced an awesome conviction by those not affected that there’d been some correct meting out of justice. If you suffered losses, you probably deserved to. If you’d ridden it out okay, then you were probably smarter than those who didn’t. “God, let it be true,” the winners may well have prayed. The Crash was not a plague, an illness anyone could catch. It was a great national comeuppance that targeted the weak, or so the thinking went, and America showed herself off handsomely, adorned for a lucky few.
“It’s too bad your folks couldn’t make the trip out,” said Uncle Gene. “I know your mother’s arthritis is a problem.” Ah, the alibi. The cover. That’s right, arthritis keeps the Eastern Marstens at home, not ill feelings or cost.
“Yes, it’s too bad,” said Ruth. It was all too bad. Just too, too bad. A trip to kneel before Milly and the self-contained contentment of these people? What about eyeglasses, the dentist, medications, gas, food, heat, air conditioning, and something here and there that wrapped them in dignity? A night out, a lipstick not from the drugstore, the freedom to buy gifts. Her father talked about the past, but Ruth knew that what he wanted most was to send flowers, or take his wife out, in the present.
The crowd had now vacated the dining room as one, carrying filled plates into the living room beyond, where they nestled into chairs, alit onto the raised hearth of the fireplace, and folded against each other in fluty laughter. Milly’s bone china, just out of its boxes from Bloomingdale’s, rang under light taps of cutlery, and happy voices burbled into a steady stream of chatter. Cope’s composed laugh rose high and silvery above the talk. A little ways out to sea, the dining room floated like a distant ship.
Ruth was alone with Uncle Gene. She looked down at the boxes, imagining the care taken with each one. Feeding the rich must be a precious task, she thought. “How could you do it?” she said. She did not mean to say that. What she had wanted to say was, “Help us. Won’t you please help us?” But the question was out now. “No details,” her father had instructed. “We don’t go around dropping our pants in public.” Gene leaned on the table. Ruth smelled fried rice and greens.
“This was a family matter,” said Gene. “You know that.” As if Ruth were not also family. But perhaps she wasn’t. She heard the cutting and scraping from the living room, and Cope presiding, like a chief surgeon. These people, who were they? Not hers, none of them. “Besides,” said Gene. “You weren’t there.”
“I remember all of it,” said Ruth.
“I’m not talking about the trial,” said Gene. “When we were kids. When the money was new.” He shifted his weight onto his knuckles, causing the table to creak. “There are stories, but they don’t touch it. It was worse than you’ve heard. Your grandparents turned us out into the snow because we forgot to place our shoes side by side. And that was a good day. When they drank, it was worse. We went to summer camp one year, and when we returned, they’d moved and it took us two weeks to find them. I had my tonsils out when I was ten. They put me in an apartment, alone, to recover. My mother didn’t want a sick child around. A maid visited once a day. She smacked me for crying and left ten dollars on the bureau. Ah, this is old stuff.”
“The case, the land…”
“No, no, no, it all had to go,” said Gene.
“But my father got nothing,” said Ruth.
“Oh, no,” said Gene. “He got.” His face shifted. Gone was the warmth of sunny Southern California counties. Vanished was the whiff of sea froth that attended Gene, Steve, Elaine, Carol, and most of all Brett, who smelled of surfboard wax and weed. As the warmth fled, the wintry whiteness of Milly’s house bore down on Ruth.
Music started up in the living room, a hit song. Almost immediately, a golden tone sounded. The doorbell. Before any of the party could open the door, an actor Ruth recognized let himself in, admitting even more happiness into the house. Milly shrieked her delight. The actor was to be her date for the awards tomorrow. Fame now lived here. The music grew louder.
Ruth listened to her uncle, and as she listened, she set the terrors of his childhood against the terrors of her parents’ old age. He stared straight ahead, as if those terrors of sixty years ago were projected onto the wall behind her. She turned, but the wall held only a framed replica of a print by Audubon. The Snowy Heron.
“What did my father get?” asked Ruth.
“Them,” he said. “He got them. For him, they had a heart. I could never figure out why, because he was such a little shit. But he was the youngest, the smallest, the smartest. He looked like her, our mother, and your grandfather could not raise a hand to him. Steve and me, we got other stuff. Not a heart. You know what I’m saying?”
No, they had not gotten a heart.
“If you came to ask for money, I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you. We’re here for Milly, you see. And you should be nicer to your cousin. She needs you on her big night.”
Ruth slid her fingers along the edge of the dining table. She hadn’t noticed before how smooth the grain was, and how deeply red its mahogany. Milly recognized the table as the same one she’d sat at for much of her life at family holidays. This table was all Marsten, and therefore as much hers as it was Milly’s. The table showed that she had a right to be there. She belonged. And she knew things that those young, beautiful, written-about friends of Milly’s—all of them as recent to her life as the nomination—didn’t and couldn’t, even if they cared to. Surely that had value. This must be worth something. In this world, she possessed so little. There were no pieces of fine furniture for her. No parties. No home of her own to invite ordinary people into. Ruth realized that she was no longer a self. She represented absence, a vacuum of space and time, the dissolution of memory suffered by the loss of your physical place. Suddenly, she was surprised she could be seen at all. But perhaps she wasn’t seen. Perhaps she was invisible and Uncle Gene spoke not to her, but to himself just as her ghost just happened to be passing.
She had not come to save her parents. She had come to save herself. She sought a return to being, to existing, to mattering, and for that she needed money. Her cousin could be forgiven for her belief that Ruth did not care about the notice of others. You only had to look at her for evidence of deep outward disgust. But Milly would be wrong. Her lack of levels would have tricked Milly into too quick an acceptance of a surface truth. Ruth wanted, perhaps even more than Milly did, to choose the frame of her life. She yearned to fill it in with colors and textures, to decorate rooms and collect objects that gave her pleasure and that showed her. It would have been delicious to offer the world something it would like to see. How glorious to feel an admiring gaze resting on her, in no hurry to move on. Ruth wished to be known, and she did not possess the language to ask.
Uncle Gene was summoned by Milly from the living room to “get in here already.” He looked at Ruth with a weak smile, one hand waving lamely, and turned away, walking towards the happy noise beyond, leaving Ruth alone beside the immense table. She felt a deep hunger, as if she hadn’t eaten in days. Longer than days—years perhaps. Nearest to her, level with her out-of-date waistband, sat an open container of chicken. It looked expensive. Fragile, chosen with care, the pieces were cut for consistency, the sinew excised, and battered with deft fingers, each spoonful as rare as opals.
Ruth picked up the box, which was cold and oil-stained, and started to eat, stuffing her mouth until she thought she might choke. When the chicken was gone, she ate the fried rice, and then the sautéed greens, the pork belly, and the egg, working her jaw like a mare, barely swallowing before pushing another heaped fork into her mouth. And as she ate, she counted the cost. Fifty, ninety, two hundred dollars went straight down her throat. She chewed greedily, wordless, tasting money. She would eat the entire fortune, eat them out of house and home, eat more than her fair share. She would eat and eat and swallow until there was nothing left for anyone else. There she is. There’s our star.