By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 9, 2011

1. Daily, Before Your Eyes, by Margaret-Love Denman, pp. 1-80

Daily, Before Your EyesChapters 1-3
These won't be my usual blog entries, largely because I know the author. I also knows where she comes from: We both grew up there. So please excuse me if I indulge in some personal recollections, starting with the flashback that begins the novel.

Goldsmith's Department Store
Although the beginning of chapter 1 gives us a time and place -- Mississippi, Early Spring, 1989 -- Denman immediately gives us a flashback to the childhood of her protagonist, Tory Gardiner. Ten-year-old Tory, called Mary Victoria by her mother, is on her way to Memphis to shop: "At Lowenstein's and Goldsmith's." This is exactly what you did if you grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, when Denman and I did. You went with your parents to the two major department stores in downtown Memphis. (They're gone now: Like Gimbel's, Lowenstein's folded, and like Filene's and Marshall Field, Goldsmith's was absorbed into Macy's; it no longer has a downtown store.) From Oxford you went, as Denman observes, "slinging around the curves to Holly Springs, then to Byhalia, and finally into the city." So even though Tory Gardiner lives in a town called Clayton City, we can pretty much identify it as an Oxford-like town in northern Mississippi.

I remember those trips well: The curves we slung around on the way to Holly Springs were on the narrow state highway 7. At Holly Springs you turned northwest on US 78, now I-22, but back then just a somewhat better kept-up highway. Denman, like Mary Victoria, probably spent all her time shopping with her mother; my father and I would finish our part of the shopping and leave my mother in Goldsmith's to continue while we went next door to sit in the big leather chairs in the lobby of the now-vanished Gayoso Hotel. (You couldn't get away with that name today!) The lobby had murals of de Soto discovering the Mississippi River and La Salle founding the first settlement at Memphis. I also remember that my mother had a Charga-Plate from Goldsmith's: a metal precursor of the credit card about the size of a military dog-tag. And that there was a tunnel from the department store to its parking garage lined with merchandise that included "gourmet specialties," the most fascinating one being canned grasshoppers.

Okay, back to the novel. Mary Victoria -- who has one of those characteristically Southern double names, like, um, Margaret Love, whom we always called by both names partly because there was also a Margaret Rose in our class -- makes a decision that very day:
Her life would resemble her mother's, her friends' mothers, and all the women who played bridge in the afternoons, sipping coffee from translucent cups, eating small sandwiches that had no crusts, always leaving at least two bites on the plate. It would, in short, mean being a wife and perhaps a mother, loved, supported, and cared for by a good man. 
We know already that things won't turn out that way.

Natchez Trace Parkway
When the flashback ends and the main narrative begins, Tory is in New Orleans for an art exhibit. She gets a phone call from a hospital in Kosciusko, Mississippi. (Kosciusko, incidentally, is pronounced Kozzy-esko. It's where Oprah Winfrey was born -- a little central Mississippi town on the Natchez Trace Parkway northeast of Jackson.) Her husband, Paul, has been in an automobile accident. So Tory gets in her car and drives north.

Kosciusko Court House
Here and throughout the novel Denman does something wonderfully: She puts us in the moment, not by telling us what Tory is feeling but by showing us what she sees and does. She gives us particulars, even minutiae, of the things that happen around Tory as life goes on. It's the kind of immediacy, the kind of detailed reality that you find in writers like Anne Tyler or John Updike: the reader becomes the character because Denham has imagined not only what Tory is thinking or saying but also the ambiance that surrounds and often informs what she thinks or says.

To put it a little too succinctly, Tory is in a kind of denial at this point. She doesn't confront the possibilities that her husband might have been killed or seriously injured in the accident. And Denman's carefully detailed actuality gives us a sense of Tory floating toward the crisis. There is no panic, no hurry, only a kind of calm, even stoic acceptance of what she will find.

In the hospital there is the usual bureaucratic slowness as she inquires about her husband, though we begin to sense how unsettled Tory really is when she speaks to the nurse at the desk: "Tory's voice wavers a bit toward the last, sounds strange, unfamiliar to her -- impersonal like the air that settles around her." And when she learns that Paul is still in the operating room, the cracks in her composure begin to widen:
"Still in the OR?" Tory repeats. "Does that mean that they're operating on him here? In Kosciusko? Shouldn't we transfer him to Jackson or to New Orleans or something? I mean if he has to have something big done, maybe we should go ahead and call somebody in Jackson. I have several friends from college who are married to surgeons in Jackson. I know several people I could call." Tory fumbles in her purse, looking for her address book. To prove to the nurse that she knows people, other places where she can get help. 
And here we have a key to Tory: the sense of privilege, of knowing the right people, of expecting to be in the right place, the best possible hospital -- not one in some little podunk in the middle of Mississippi.

No need to go on with the summary. Paul dies, and Tory discovers he was not alone in the car. He was with Debbi McCaslin, his court reporter. They had gone to Jackson to take a deposition -- Paul is a successful lawyer. And in his wallet she will find a receipt from the hotel in Jackson: double occupancy. And the picture on his driver's license reminds her of an earlier loss: "Mary Vic looked like him, only a smaller, feminine version. She would have been a pretty young woman by now, twenty-three, maybe married with a child of her own, if things had turned out differently." We will learn that their daughter, Mary Vic, was born with spina bifida. But Denman lets us piece together these details all in due time.

After being informed of Paul's death and making the necessary arrangements, Tory returns to Clayton City where she visits the nursing home where Paul's mother lives and delivers the bad news. Then she faces up to returning to their home. Before she gives in to grief, she checks for something, a wonderfully imagined detail on Denman's part:
There, on top of his shoeshine kit, sits Paul's pillbox. Inside will be the pills that regulated his blood pressure, fought the indigestion that plagued him. Never, never did he leave it out that she might see it. Never would he admit to feeling less than vital, healthy, confident, to being less than able to handle any situation that came his way. And he had left it behind when he went to Jackson, careful that Debbi would not know. That she would only see the strong, self-confident man, sure, easy, and lucky. 
In this one detail we learn almost everything we need to know about the character of Paul Gardiner. And by implication we learn a lot about Tory.

St. Peter's Cemetery, Oxford, Mississippi
The interment takes place "in the older section of St. Peter's." (Once again, Clayton City merges with Oxford, which also has a St. Peter's cemetery. There has earlier been a reference to Paul's mother's old home on North Lamar, which is the main street north of the Oxford courthouse.) "Tory realizes that the stretch of green Astroturf ... under the ten, under the wooden funeral-parlor chairs, under the feet of Paul's friends and associates, covers the grave of Mary Vic." Debbi appears in the crowd at the cemetery, "her arm still in a sling," but "disappears quickly." After the service, Mother Gardiner, who attends in a wheelchair, says the usual thing about "a beautiful service," but Tory replies,
"I suppose. You know, Paul used to joke about how St. Peter's would have been a great putting green."

"Tory!" Mother Gardiner says. "What a thing to say!"

"Well, he did." Tory feels her heels sink into the soft turf. "I guess Paul never figured that he'd ever be here." 
With that bit of humor, the tone of the novel begins to shift, and Tory begins to emerge into her own.

She meets with Paul's law partners about his will and the arrangements to buy out his part of the practice from her. But Tory puzzles them by not cratering to their plans instantly. She tells them she'll "have to think about it" and arranges to come in to the office and clean out his desk. Afterward, of course, she questions her own hesitation: "Tory wonders what she would do with one-third of a law practice. She has no training, no skill, nothing to offer the firm. Of course she'll sell. What else can she do?"

Back home, Tory begins purging the house of Paul, giving his clothes to the Church of the Redeemer Clothes Closet and, at the last minute, adding her wedding dress to the giveaways. She hears the clock in the courthouse chime -- "it hasn't kept good time since 'Whisky' Smith marched through, torched the square, and headed south to Vicksburg." Gen. A.J. Smith did do some damage to Oxford during the Civil War. But it is Mother Gardiner who challenges her:

"Yes, ma'am?"

"I said, what are you going to do?"


"Yes, with your self, with your life?"


"With your life, what are you going to do?" 
And she has to admit that she has no idea. After Mary Vic's death, Paul had refused the idea of having another child, lest it be handicapped. He also refused to take genetic testing or to consider adopting. Tory finally took up art. "She painted late into the nights, even with poor light, until her shoulders ached and her mind was numbed by the profusion of color, the swirl and movement on the canvas. Only then could she fall asleep, exhausted, atoned."

On Monday, in Paul's law office, she finds more evidence of his relationship with Debbi McCaslin, but the most significant thing she finds is a file folder for a case Paul had been drafted for: defense attorney for Theresa Marie Magnarelli, a prostitute accused of murdering her pimp. The file had been opened in 1976 and the last entry in it is a letter, dated March 29, 1989, from Tracy Magnarelli, as Theresa calls herself, now on death row at the state prison at Parchman. She asks for Paul's help, and mentions that she hasn't seen her little girl for thirteen years.
Tory slides the photograph [of Tracy in the file] out again, looks at Theresa Marie Magnarelli, feels her heart tighten for the writer of this desperate letter. Someone else who pinned her hopes on Paul. Someone else left comfortless, defenseless.
The mention of Tracy's daughter stirs Tory's realization that Paul had been working on the case, and achieving considerable celebrity for his role at the trial, while she was with their own daughter, dying in the hospital in Memphis. "Tory sat there as her daughter's life diminished and her husband's expanded, feeling trapped between the two." They had argued about her staying in Memphis, and he visited only when the doctors told them that Mary Vic would only live a few days more. When he talked with the doctors, "Paul's face reflected the gravity of their answers. Tory wondered if that, too, was practiced -- a performance entitled 'The Caring Father.'"
And once again, she is struck by how those few weeks in 1976 defined her life as much as they defined Theresa Marie Magnarelli's. Both of them lost their daughters that year; both had hoped that Paul could help. Both, trapped by their choices, later abandoned. 
She asks Paul's law partners if there is anything to be done for Tracy, but they discourage her. But she persists until they finally give her the name of a lawyer with the Capital Defense Resource Center in Jackson, Jane Fillmore. Tory calls Fillmore, who similarly discourages her. "Tory straightens the telephone cord, pulls hard against the coils, twines them around her fingers.... The black half-circles of the cord alternate around Tory's fingers. A silent black snake curling in and out." Again, another nice touch of immediacy and actuality. Fillmore tells her "the truth is, her case was really political. She's an obvious outsider. Topless dancer from Massachusetts, unwed mother, prostitute, Roman Catholic -- the child's father a black sailor -- none of which brought tears to a Mississippi juror's eye."

McCarty pottery
When Tory suggests that she might visit Tracy, Fillmore discourages her: "'Have you ever been to Parchman, Mrs. Gardiner?' 'No.' Tory thinks she drove by the gates once, when she was on the way to an art show, a McCarty exhibit in Marigold." (This is a touch that only Mississippians or ceramics enthusiasts will appreciate: Lee McCarty and his wife, Pup, were celebrated ceramists with a studio in the tiny Delta town of Merigold -- not Marigold, which is a common error but probably a typo. I have a couple of their pieces -- wedding gifts. Lee McCarty also taught briefly at the high school Denman and I attended.) Fillmore warns her, "It's no afternoon tea party," which is the kind of thing that gets people's backs up, as it does Tory's. She persists, and Fillmore agrees to meet with her in Jackson.

When they meet, Denman adds one of her tiny, vivifying details: "Tory notices that [Fillmore] is left-handed. Somehow she finds that comforting. Mary Vic was left-handed, like Tory's mother." In person, the two women get along somewhat better, and Fillmore confides a detail:
"You see, Mrs. Gardiner, some of Tracy's legal problems go back to the first trial. When your husband was defending her. There were some -- well, some errors, some issues that should have been raised that weren't. And I think Tracy blames him in some ways."
Tory's initial reaction is denial: "My husband practically became a celebrity by the way he handled that case." His mother has scrapbooks full of clippings about him. "Local DA, strong law-and-order man, came across in most of the stories as the bad guy -- Paul as the champion, the underdog, fighting impossible odds. David to the law's Goliath. How could Jane not know this? How could she think that Paul didn't do his best, didn't exhaust every possibility?"

Before she returns home, Tory stops for dinner at the restaurant that Paul and Debbi dined at before the accident. She orders iced tea: "I have to drive home." A week follows before Fillmore calls again to say that she's made contact with Tracy and she agrees to see Tory. They make arrangements for Tracy to call collect from the prison to set up the meeting. Tory drives down to Parchman on the appointed day.
The Delta stretches out before her, and Tory tries to find NPR, twisting the dial back and forth, hoping to find the reassuring voices of Nina Totenberg, Rene Montaigne, someone who speaks of efforts to discover a civilized and ordered world. All she can find is country music or fundamentalist preachers, both loud and disquieting.
At the prison she goes through the meticulous, unnerving process of being admitted. Tracy has been temporarily moved off of death row for the meeting, into the women's section, and when Tory is admitted to the room and Tracy is summoned, one of the inmates calls out, "Whooooo, Trace Chain, somebody here to see you. You didn't tell nobody that you had a fucking rich white bitch coming to see you. Gonna set you free, darlin', gonna set you free."

Tracy, "a small dark girl, frail-looking in this place, stands up." They go and sit on a bed. Tory asks if she remembers Paul.
"He the kinda good-looking guy, came around with the older guy from the court?" Tracy asks.

"Yes, that would have been Paul." Tory smiles, feels pleased in spite of herself.

"Sure, I remember him. Real stuck-up prick!"

Tory waits, feels her face redden. "Oh, well, yes, I guess. That would be my husband.  
They talk about Tracy's health: She has a raw, red spot on her leg but they won't let her go to the infirmary about it. She is resigned to the fact that she will be dead in a couple of months: Her execution is set for July. And when Tory jokes about getting old, Tracy says, "'that's something I won't be learning about.' Tory feels the words hit her like so many accusations, and she is ashamed that she takes her life so lightly." And when Tory says she will try to help, Tracy responds,
"I just don't want any false hope. I don't want to think I've got a chance and then you decide that it's not worth it. After I got my hopes up. That's what your husband did -- told me I had a chance, and then, when I didn't, he lost interest. Wouldn't even fucking answer my letters. Like he could just throw me away, like some piece of shit that he didn't want to think about." ... Tory is rocked by the wave of resentment that fills the space between them.
When she says that she still wants to visit Tracy, Tory begins to cry. "Tracy leans over to the dresser ... to a crocheted cover that resembles a top hat and pulls out a string of toilet paper." And she nods when Tory asks if she can come back.

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