Literary Agent Scott Gould of RLR Associates describes OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES as “Juno for the seventies.” I’d say that’s pretty spot on. Seventeen year old Queenie, the novel’s pregnant protagonist, has been sent away from her humble roots to live with a wealthy family for the duration, and when their troubled son arrives home from college unexpectedly, things get even dicier. In this excerpt, Queenie’s friend is visiting, and she’s brought a not-so-hidden agenda with her.
Ellison looks beautiful, what a surprise. I hate her. Her hair is newly trimmed, all blunt and thick and glossy. She flops it around constantly. She is in a hyper mood, pretending to be glad to see me, but I know she is shocked by my appearance. I am very pregnant now.
We are sitting with our legs in the pool when Hobie comes out. He is barefoot and bare-chested, wearing cutoff jeans and carrying a six-pack. He glances our way and keeps walking, heading for the garage.
“Hi,” I call. He waves half-assedly, not looking at us. “He’s shy,” I assure Ellison, embarrassed.
“BULLSHIT, he’s not shy,” Ellison proclaims in a carrying tone.
“SHHH!” I tell her sharply, but it’s too late, he’s heard her.
He slouches over. “I’m VERY shy,” he says to Ellison.
She squints up at him. “Sure you are,” she says. “You’re shy just like I’m shy.”
“Oh,” he says. “Are you shy too? I like that in a woman.” Ellison starts to smile. I never noticed how big her teeth are. Big and white, like the Cheshire Cat. She’s all teeth. She stands up in one smooth move. Water sprays in droplets as she swings her tanned legs out of the pool. She sticks out her hand to him.
“Ellison,” she says. “How you doing?” He takes her hand, holds it a minute. When he lets it drop I can almost see little firecrack-y sparks hanging in the air between them.
“I’m going down to the beach,” he tells us. “Wanna come?” He scuffs the grass with his bare foot. “We might take the boat out later, I don’t know.”
“Cool,” Ellison says, opening up her cat smile. She adjusts her white bikini top to address the swell of her boobs more effectively. He’s into it, I can tell.
It’s a desert hot day, clear and dry. The water off the dock is flat and glassy. It laps gently against the pilings. Green tendrils of seaweed and algae cling to the scarred wood. I sit with my legs crossed on the warmed planks, holding my round belly like a Buddha, looking out on the still water.
Hobie’s horrible friend with the frizzy hair and big ass is already here. He fusses with the small outboard, ignoring Ellison and me. His name is Marshall. Or is it Mitchell?
“Did you hear about Jim Morrison?” Hobie asks Marshall/Mitchell.
“Yeah, man,” he answers, still not bothering to glance our way. “Bummer.”
“What happened to Jim Morrison?” I ask.
“Dead,” Hobie says. “In Paris. They think it was a heart attack or something.”
“Yeah, RIGHT,” Ellison says drily. “I’m sure.”
“No, really,” Hobie tells her. “I mean, he drank and shit, and maybe more — no, likely more, but he was there with a purpose, you know? He wasn’t just partying. He had a project. He was into the symbolist poets.”
I haven’t got a clue what he’s talking about. But Ellison surprises me. “I love Baudelaire,” she says to Hobie.
His eyes light up. “Yeah?” he asks her. “No shit. He’s one of my favorites. Les Fleurs du Mal. ‘La sottise, l’erreur, le peche, la lesine…our sins are stubborn, our repentance faint.’ Remember that one?”
Ellison tilts her face to the sun, presses a palm against one perfect breast, sighs deeply. “Chills!” she gasps. “Oh, my God! ‘Folly, depravity, greed, mortal sin, invade our souls and rack our flesh!'”
I glance at her. She’s openly relishing his approval. Funny, she’s never talked about poetry to me.
“Hey, Marshall,” Hobie calls. “We good to go?” He smiles at Ellison. “‘This is your invitation to the voyage.'”
She answers him instantly, and though I’ve pretty much forged only failure in my three years of French instruction, to my ear it sounds like almost perfect pronunciation. “‘La, tout n’est qu’ordre et beaute, luxe, calme et volupte.'”
“Mais, oui, Little Sister,” Hobie says. “‘There, all is order, naught amiss, comfort and beauty, calm and bliss.’ Rock it, Charlie B!”
Marshall leaps nimbly out of the boat, ignoring the erudition fiesta. “Wanna trip?” he asks no one in particular.
Hobie laughs. “What you got, man?”
“Windowpane,” Marshall says. “I already ate mine. You ready for this, man?”
“Fuck yeah,” Hobie tells him. “Hit me.”
Marshall carefully rips a hit off a strip of paper. He nods toward Ellison. “She want any?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Ellison says coldly. She extends her hand, palm up. “Just a half.” She pops the the hit into her mouth, staring dreamily into space. “Bottoms up.”
Hobie looks at me doubtfully. “Did you want to trip?” he asks me.
“Naaah,” I say. I don’t, either. Tripping scares me every time. It’s so unpredictable. The laws of physics and nature are somehow put way off kilter. The effect lingers for days, spookily. Wave your hand in front of your face. Does your moving arm leave transparent trails of itself, in a kind of soundless echo? It’s not supposed to. That’s what I mean by spooky.
We putt-putt far into the Sound. The sun beats down on the water. At length, Marshall cuts the motor. The smell of gasoline mingles with the smells of sea, suntan oil, fish, and sweat. I lean back against a flotation cushion, enjoying the basky warmth, the rhythmic swells making me feel sleepy.
“You in school?” Hobie is asking Ellison.
“In the fall,” she tells him. “It’s just a state school, though. Binghamton. I wanted Bennington or Sarah Lawrence, but my parents didn’t think I could handle creating my own course of study.”
“That’s fine, that’s cool, ” Hobie tells her with easy courtesy. He says to Marshall, “Hey, dude, what’s the deal on this acid. I don’t feel a thing.”
Marshall squats like a toad in the stern, his face to the sun, his eyes invisible behind dark sunglasses. An errant breeze lifts a strand or two of his crimped locks and lets them drop again. “Wait twenty minutes,” he says without inflection.
Ellison stands up suddenly, rocking the boat. “Hey!” Marshall says.
“It’s cool, it’s cool, man,” Hobie says soothingly. “She’s OK.”
Ellison puts a hand lightly on Hobie’s shoulder to steady herself. She unzips her cutoffs and slithers out of them, kicks them away, aiming for Marshall, missing. I laugh. She bends over from the waist, all sinew, reaching for the suntan lotion. “Rub me?” she asks Hobie.
I watch his hand move across her back, stroking. I turn away. The sea laps at the sides of the boat. Hobie says suddenly, “Shit. It just hit me.”
“Wait twenty minutes,” Marshall says. “Prepare the top of your skull for takeoff.”
“God,” Hobie says.
“Did you see God?” I ask.
“Never met the guy,” Hobie answers.
“God is a woman,” Ellison says.
“God is dead,” says Hobie.
“Wait twenty minutes,” Marshall says again, annoyingly.
The boat is moving up and down like a cradle softly rocked. A gull dips and cries overhead, a haunting, lonely sound. The salty air leaves a briny taste on my lips. I run my tongue over it contemplatively. I catch Hobie watching me. His pupils are huge. His blue eyes look almost black. It is impossible to know what he is thinking.
Out of nowhere he says, “Everybody needs a project.” We all look at him.
Marshall reaches into the cooler beside him, pulls out a beer. “Beverage?”
Hobie grabs one for himself, ignoring Marshall, who cracks his, swigs, lets his chin fall to his chest, in a reverie all his own.
“You need a project to stay alive,” Hobie says.
Ellison is smoking a joint and French-braiding her hair, a trick she picked up in the Caribbean; her parents have a house there. The joint dangles from her mouth as she reaches back, tugging and plaiting, tugging and plaiting. She squints her eyes against the smoke. She looks cool and tough. “Jim Morrison’s project didn’t keep HIM alive,” she remarks, mumbling a bit around the spliff.
“Look at that sky,” Hobie says. I glance up. It is a pure sky. The clouds congeal and break apart in shattered wisps, in slow motion, in time lapse.
“The lights, the colors,” Ellison says inanely. She’s not really cool after all; I get it for the first time. It comes as a bit of a shock. All of a sudden Hobie gets up and jumps overboard. He comes to the surface, shaking back his hair, laughing, spitting a mouthful of salt water.
“What a perfect day,” he says. With that, he swims straight away from the boat.
“Don’t leave me alone with these chicks, man,” Marshall calls, without looking up.
“Fuck YOU,” Ellison tells him. “I wonder how he can swim. I’m too fucked up to even THINK of swimming.”
We watch Hobie, out in the blue blue water. He is very far away from the boat already. His head is a bobbing speck. Then it disappears.
I scan the horizon 360 degrees. I can see only water, and faraway sails. A jet leaves a soundless trail across the magic sky. “I don’t see him,” I tell the other two.
Ellison laughs loudly, a raw sound. Coarse, really. “Get OUT.”
“No,” I tell her. “Really. I don’t see him. He’s not there anymore.” I feel a deep unease. The bland blue surface of the water is suddenly ominous. I imagine vast depths, down where the sun won’t reach. I think of rusting hulks, the remnants of wrecks, bones, and rot. Long supple dark fish, with dorsal fins and razor teeth, a tiny cold eye devoid of mercy. All under there. A great gelid mass of seaweed floats by.
Now Marshall is looking around. “Where the fuck is that asshole?” he asks, a rhetorical question.
Ellison lounges against her cushion, her eyes shut. The tip of her nose is pinkening visibly. “I wish I had a sun reflector out here,” she says. “Don’t worry about him. He’s just goofing around.”
“What if he isn’t?” I ask.
“He IS,” Ellison says shortly. “Trust me, I know his type. And he’s bringing my head down.” Then she takes off her top.
“Maybe we should go back to shore,” I tell Marshall. “Maybe we need to get some help.” I am starting to feel a bite of panic. What would I tell Rosemary if Hobie drowned out here? Also, if he drowned would she still let me stay at her house?
Marshall is looking at Ellison’s tits from behind his shades.
“Wait twenty minutes,” Ellison says, and laughs. Marshall laughs too.
“Is there a radio on board?” I ask him. You fat-assed jerk, I add, but silently.
“Uh-uh,” Marshall says. “I don’t even have a compass.” He laughs again, high and silly. “But,” he says grandly, glancing at Ellison for approval. “I DO have my transistor!” He brandishes it triumphantly, adjusting the antenna. He flicks it on, and suddenly there is Jim Morrison’s mannish baritone, exhorting, instructing that we cannot in fact petition the lord with prayer. The dead singer may be right, actually. The sun beats down relentlessly.
I am trying so hard not to slap somebody I end up humiliating myself by starting to cry.
“Oh, no,” Ellison says. “Calm DOWN, OK?” She turns to Marshall. “She does this all the time,” she tells him in a confidential tone, enraging me. It’s not even fucking true.
“I can’t calm down, you idiot,” I tell her. “He could be in trouble out there! Or drowned already!”
The boat lists abruptly to one side, and Hobie’s head and shoulders emerge splashingly from the water. He is looking at me with his new black eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asks me. I can hardly look at him. I am really pissed but really relieved simultaneously; the emotional overload is hard to manage. I catch my breath in choppy gasps, trying to pull myself together. “I thought you were dead,” I tell him.
He hauls himself over the side and into the boat. “I told you he was fine,” Ellison says lackadaisically.
Hobie says, “I was swimming to Europe. I mean, they swim the Channel all the time, right? Why not the whole Atlantic?” He picks up his abandoned beer, takes a sip, spits it out. “Ugh,” he says. “Warm beer.”
“That’s what happens when you wait twenty minutes,” Marshall says with his fool’s giggle.
“I should be over there right now,” Hobie says. “Looking at art in Florence, right about now. Instead I’m eating blotter acid like candy, like…like PEZ. You be the judge. Which is more culturally rewarding?”
Marshall gestures toward Ellison’s naked perfect breasts. “Need I say more?” he inquires.
“I would give anything to go to Europe,” I tell Hobie quietly. I’m still trying to swallow the lump of sadness that keeps rising in my throat, even though Hobie is saved, not drowned, not today anyway. Jesus was a sailor, I am thinking. When he walked upon the water. “You called it right that day,” I say, for Hobie’s ears alone. “Remember? When you said I looked like I could use a vacation, that your parents should send me to Europe instead of you? You were right, Hobie. Damn straight I can use a vacation. I wouldn’t mind a little bit of culturally rewarding for a change.” Hobie turns his matte black eyes on me, about to say something. Whatever it is he keeps to himself. I am grateful.
Marshall pulls the motor back to sputtering life. “Lane was supposed to meet you there, wasn’t she?” he asks Hobie. Hobie nods slowly, looking at no one.
“Who’s Lane?” Ellison asks incuriously.
There is a short silence. The little boat is picking up speed. We leave a choppy wake behind us. I am waiting for his answer with my whole body.
Finally he says, “She’s my girlfriend, I guess.” What do you mean you GUESS, I think instantly.
“What do you mean you guess?” Ellison asks.
After another silence Hobie says, “I guess I don’t know what I mean.”
Back at the dock, I am startled and touched when Hobie holds out a hand for me to grab as I clamber out of the boat, even though I can tell it is an afterthought. I give him a nice smile, but he is so far away from me, on another plane entirely. Ellison and Marshall walk ahead of us to the beach, grappling with the cooler, laughing at nothing.
“What’s the deal with your friend?” I ask Hobie. I am trying to bring him back. He may as well still be out to sea for all the awareness he seems to have of me. “He’s not long on brains, is he?”
He turns on me. “I could have said the same about your friend,” he says. “Correct me if I’m wrong; she takes her top off every chance she gets.” This makes me laugh because it’s so true. “Marshall’s in SDS at Columbia,” Hobie informs me. “That’s how dumb he is.”
I am briefly puzzled. I figure SDS is some kind of honor society, but then I remember. “That’s Students for a Democratic Society,” Hobie says pedantically. “They’re as radical as it gets. Trust me, intellect is part of the price of admission. You have heard of Tom Hayden? And his colleagues from the Chicago Seven?”
“I know what SDS is,” I tell him stiffly. We walk the rest of the way in silence to a crescent of private beach, part of some beach club the Howes belong to. There are tennis courts and acres of rolling lawns. Everybody knows Hobie. A lady in a tennis dress waves at him strenuously as she walks to her car.
“I thought you were in Europe,” she calls.
“I can’t deal with this,” Hobie mutters, smiling and waving back.
No one is on the beach now except for some kids fooling around in the shallows. Marshall has flung a blanket on the sand, ignoring the empty rows of lounge chairs. He and Ellison lay prone, motionless. Hobie sinks to the sand, mopping at his face with a forearm. It is terribly hot. I can feel trickles of sweat running down between my breasts, under my arms. I pick up the bottom of my tee-shirt to wipe my face.
“Where is everybody?” I ask. No one answers. After a minute Hobie gestures vaguely toward the castle-like estate house where the pool is. Huge taupe umbrellas shade the tables and loungers in the orchard area surrounding the pool. American flag bunting festoons the facade of the grand old building. I suddenly realize — it’s the Fourth of July.
“It’s the Fourth of July!” I tell the others. “We should have a cookout!”
“My brain is cooked,” Ellison says, muffled into the crook of her elbow.
Marshall tells her, “That’s because you’re so hot.”
They’re getting on now like nobody’s business. I can tell Marshall wants her. He doesn’t realize she has no interest in him. Not her type. Not nearly cute enough. I feel as if I am sitting in the middle of an arid wasteland with three human vegetables. I get up and stroll down to the water. The beach is set in a protected little cove flanked by stone jetties. The water is listless. The kids are looking for crabs and putting them in plastic buckets.
“Catch anything?” I ask them.
They all look at me like I’m nuts. “Yeah,” one kid finally allows. “We caught a bunch. We’re gonna let them go, though, later.”
“Good,” I say. The water laps at my ankles, bathtub warm. Hobie materializes next to me.
“They’re getting on my nerves,” he reports. “I feel jumpy. There must be a lot of speed in this shit.”
“I’m glad I’m not tripping,” I tell him. “Last time I tripped was last summer. With Ellison, as a matter of fact. She tried to pimp me off to her boyfriend.”
“She has a boyfriend?” Hobie asks.
“She always has a boyfriend,” I tell him with satisfaction. “He was really horny, the one from last summer, but Ellison was still a virgin then. She figured since I wasn’t, that I could take care of him for her.” I laugh without humor. “He was sick of ‘doing everything but’,” I add, wiggling my fingers like quotation marks.
“So did you?”
I can’t tell if he’s just curious or if it really matters to him. “Tell me about Lane,” I say. Now it’s his turn not to answer me. Tit for tat.
We stay on the beach all day. In the evening the air lightens up a little. They are peaking on the acid, except for Marshall, who already has an hour or two ago, and who just keeps saying, “Wait twenty minutes.” Every time he says it Ellison shrieks with laughter. It must be some pretty powerful stuff. She can’t even get up. Now and again she makes an attempt at motion, hitching herself up on all fours, her little rump fetchingly displayed, before she collapses again. Like some horrible little dog, I think disloyally, but with distinct pleasure as well.
Somehow Hobie manages to bring sandwiches and fries and stuff from the clubhouse, though nobody is interested in eating but me. I am nibbling an onion ring, licking my fingers, when I see the first firework explode in the sky. A shower of sparks like shining water drizzles spent into the Sound. I catch my breath. Beside me, I can feel Hobie breathing. He is exuding a trace of his oranges and ocean smell again. I can feel him coming back, slowly. Together we sit in the warm darkness on the blanket, watching colored lights fall into the sea.
DISCLAIMER: Stephanie Silber owns the copyright to the foregoing and gives permission only for the sample herein to be distributed free of charge, and without alteration.