Excerpt from Private Means


Private Means book cover

The wine finally whittling at the burr of her thoughts, Alice read descriptions and assessed fabric content before selecting her size. Partial to leafy green and navy blue, cautious of dressing as a lamb when she knew she was close to mutton and yet not ready for Eileen Fisher–baggy old lady, her fifty-one years compounded the shopping challenge her considerable height posed. Even if she wasn’t actually buying, the clothes must potentially fit if the process were to give her any satisfaction. The virtual acquisition required less than possession but more than pure abstraction. The clothes and shoes and bags must be plausible purchases were she to decide to purchase them—always a possibility. But not even wine, an empty apartment, the tiresome BBC drama of Brexit unpardonably mixed with the devastating news of another Ebola outbreak overlain with repeated clicks of not-quite-complete acquisition could keep her from thinking about the dog.

How reckless it would be to pay a ransom, even with proof of life. After all, Alice thought, what is a reward for the return of a lost dog but an offering to pay a ransom. Sure, it was an extra inducement to give back a dog someone had found and then decided to keep. What it wasn’t was a way to motivate people to search for the dog. As tempted as she was by the possibility that it would speed Maebelle’s return, Alice feared her engagement in the shadowy economy. Paying a reward would complicate the happy ending she hoped for, clouding the reunion with the moral responsibility for motivating future abductors.

Her very ability to offer the reward when others could not inflamed her well-developed sense of existential hypocrisy, of how claustrophobically fucked the world had become. This claustrophobic feeling, since the girls left in the fall, had driven her to fill her waking moments with work, a realm in which she could apply facts gleaned from her research to arrive at conclusions that would advance knowledge. Knowledge. That seemed to be the one remaining absolute good in her world. The rest was too messy, awful, and complicated to order or contain.

Although Peter had made it clear he thought the ransom a waste of money—although one that he believed would ultimately not be spent and therefore not a waste at all—they could afford the $2,000. (But was it enough?) Peter had been hauling in a steady stream of patients for more than twenty years now, cramming them into neat forty-five-minute blocks from 7 am to 6 pm five days a week. At the current rate of $400 an hour, minus the office rent and malpractice insurance, the take was enough to keep them comfortably afloat. Still, they were not above the woes and sorrows of their intellectual working class as they spent all they had on their European cheese, organic Icelandic yogurt, grass-fed meat, plus mortgage, maintenance, and college tuition. They didn’t even have a country house. Anywhere else they would have been flat rich; in New York City, they got by.

Alice dreamed she had her own money. What a humiliation it was not to contribute to their household income—sometimes she wished she’d never stayed home with the girls or that she’d been more aggressive in keeping up in her field. She’d been burdened by juggling their money even if she didn’t make any of it—Peter refused to log in to their bank accounts just as he refused to discuss bills, savings, or budgets. Even if she could afford the Gucci black leather open-toe heels with their playful silver horse-bit buckle or the Dolce & Gabbana ankle-boot stilettos in camel eel skin she’d added to her basket, where would she wear them? She’d lost track of herself entirely in becoming a thing she’d never dreamt she’d be. As much as the girls were everything to her, it was a dubious title she’d earned: mother. Worse, she’d traded without realizing she was making a lousy bargain. She’d never even know what she’d traded for.

She could have farmed the girls out—practically everyone in New York had a nanny. But she’d chosen not to. Sure, she’d completed her dissertation, she had her PhD—the girls were still infants then—but her progress had slowed as the reality of securing a position in her field grew more remote. Over the years she’d written articles, won a few small grants, all the while circling the big prize: a grant from the EARTH institute at Columbia. Now, the lost dog a distraction, she was behind; she needed to complete the application this year, to rush herself to the market before her insights and data grew stale and irrelevant.

The urgency of it had slammed her the moment she returned from California to settle the girls at Berkeley. Doing it would require unyielding discipline. Maybe she could convince Peter to prescribe the latest antidepressant for her, something that would help her motivation and focus: Cymbalta? Levomilnacipran? Wellbutrin? Was she depressed? She wasn’t sure. Wasn’t everyone? Too bad Peter would never do it.

His father, Dr. Jeremy Nutting, had made the mistake of dispensing drugs to family, diagnosing every relative’s ailment from the flu to broken toes to bi-polar. As a GP he had claimed expertise in all fields, and when it came to his family he didn’t hesitate to deploy his authority to determine the best course. No great harm had been done, but Peter swore he would never wield his authority in the family as his father had, lording prescriptions for Valium over his mother, dispensing antibiotics to the family dog. Alice would have to see her own GP if she wanted any meds, and even then she might be referred to a psychopharmacologist. To hell with it, she thought, pouring herself another glass of wine.

Closing her laptop, she stared out the window toward the Hudson, fixing her gaze on the West Side Highway where a steady stream of cars came into and disappeared from view only to be replaced by more of the same colors and shapes. The numbing flow of vehicles moved north at what she thought of as smoking speed—slow enough to light a cigarette with the window down, the smoke swirling easily around the car’s interior, the burning cigarette resting in the left hand halfway out the driver’s side window. Rising, Alice retrieved the hidden pack of Camel Blues from a pouch in her purse, forced open the heavy window in the living room, and lit up. Smoking quickly, she drew hard between sips of wine, extending her hand out into the humid evening breeze between drags. She had three days to air the place out before Peter returned; she only needed twenty-four hours.

It was the day after losing Maebelle when, passing a bodega on Broadway where she’d been taping up flyers, she’d popped in for a coffee. Standing at the counter, her mind intently focused on looking for Maebelle, her eyes had been attracted by the blue, black, red, green, and silver rows of cigarette packs arrayed neatly behind the register. It was the first pack she’d bought in fifteen years. They weren’t even Camel Lights now—they were Camel Blues. Whatever they were called, maintaining the virtues of her nonsmoking mommy days had no appeal. She’d forgotten how much she missed it. To hell with it, she thought, lighting another off the first.

Indulging herself in a tasty bit of magic as she smoked, she considered the idea that she’d lost Maebelle because she loved her too much—that the loss of her cosmic retribution, punishment of a righteous force for loving the dog as one should only love the divine. Fortunately, Alice didn’t believe in God. If she believed in anything it was quantum physics, which, as it turned out, was an awful lot like believing in God. If Alice needed confirmation of the bizarre and unknowable universe, she’d found it in her work. To be a biophysicist was to admit that the physical world could not be explained; the ordering principles of the universe exceeded the intellectual capacity of the human brain. It was humbling. On the most minute level the physical world defied all laws. String theory was a framework for understanding matter that contradicted physical reality. It was magic—better than any show and entirely incompatible with fixed Newtonian principles of time, space, and movement. Although he never said as much, she suspected Peter viewed her concession to universal disorder as a form of infantile magical thinking and a possible sign of depression.

If only, Alice thought, the loss of the dog were punishment for something. What a relief that would be. As it was, her disappearance was a senseless mistake. No good could come of it, no lesson learned. It was simply another void, leaving her empty and bitter. The patina of stray dog hairs stuck to her pants, blankets, coats, and sweaters, the abandoned food dish, dry water bowl, and leash hanging by the door reminded her of her dead mother’s clothes. Mrs. Foster had amassed a grand wardrobe. It was all Alice’s now, though she could never wear the clothes without feeling she was borrowing them without permission—an impossibility given that her mother had been dead five years. But some essence buried in the fibers of the garments kept Alice from wearing the clothes, as if the warp of time and space was animated by their use, the electrical energy of a body in contact with the fabric bringing her prickly mother back to life.

Back at her desk, she forced her eyes to focus beyond the cars to the broad dark expanse of the river where she followed the line of a massive tanker breaking the glassy surface of the water as it passed lazily downriver. The impotent tanker, propelled by a childish looking red tugboat emblazoned with a giant M, nudged the hulking mass toward the open ocean, working against the incoming pull of the evening tide. As they slid into obscurity she noticed the traffic had stopped.

Gazing at the stopped cars, her wineglass sweating by her side, a tableau of select cars were frozen in view. Alice felt a flash of Peter’s pitiful frustration at being locked in on. Rationally, the worst calamity of the traffic-clogging accident that had any connection to Peter was the rudeness of making their friends wait dinner. No, she told herself, I won’t indulge the ridiculous. It’s not my accident—not Peter’s accident—quite possibly not an accident at all. If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to unlucky strangers.

Alice tried to think nice thoughts for the imagined victims… hoping the injuries weren’t too serious, that nobody had died, that they had excellent insurance. But the persistence of the thought that it could be Peter and worse, much worse, the sickening flash that she wanted it to be Peter, wouldn’t go away. No. Not that. Alice knew the monstrous fantasy was just a crazy reverse psychology trick of the mind when you envision the worst and then think you want something terrible to happen because you think it—the mind’s prohibition against the thought forcing what is feared into the foreground. How many times had she rehearsed the grisly play, imagining Peter or the girls or all three of them, dead? When they were on school buses, city streets, subways, or planes the thought flickered, back again as fast as she could think it away.

Most likely it’s just a system breakdown, thought Alice. One tiny fluctuation in traffic flow—a tailgater braking abruptly, a lousy driver tapping the brakes too frequently, someone going too slowly while texting—creating, as it would, a disproportionately large effect on the whole system. The strength of one tiny variable to change the whole from within was more alchemy than science. Ah well, thought Alice. Peter’s probably already past the bridge, well on his way up the Saw Mill, the slowdown in his wake.

Swallowing another great gulp of wine, Alice pushed her phone aside, as if a few more inches would help her resist the urge to call him. Entering rooms having forgotten why she was there, locking herself out, going out for the day without her phone—these actions resulted from the relentless narrative of what she was thinking frequently, getting in the way of what she was doing—or was supposed to be doing. Except when she was working. When focused on the internal dynamics of a murmuration she could deliberately bring thought and action together.

The complexities of the liquid movement of massive flocks of starlings as they collectively contracted, expanded, and twisted in eerily grandiose order never failed to hold her attention. Alice applied mathematical formulas and computer models in an attempt to explain how the birds coordinated their movements with such astonishing precision. The rapidity of communication between the masses of birds perplexed science. It was a mystery not yet unraveled in spite of the supercomputers that could crunch set upon set of numbers in three dimensions. Alice’s work explained the surprising phenomenon using precise mathematical equations while still leaving a great deal to poetry. Her love of data acted as a countermeasure to the disorder of her messy room, moth-bitten sweater, unwashed hair, slightly redolent armpits, and filthy feet. Maybe that was why the fine balance between chaos and order attracted her as much as it explained her boredom with maintaining the physical details of her environment.

Grabbing a bag of apricots from the counter, she ran a tub and slid in. There was something inexplicably bewitching about eating a dozen apricots while soaking in a tub of cool water. Her sweat leaked into the chilly black water of the unlit bathroom to mingle with the porcelain along with the pits she carelessly dropped like pebbles between her spread legs. She ate the fruit greedily, biting into them one after the other. Some, soft and sweet with juice, made a mess of her chin. Others, tart and hard, came away in chunks, crisp like apples. She was feeling a little crazy but inclined to be more so. She wanted to stay in the bath forever, eating apricots until the tub filled, not with water but with hard little dark-brown stones, rough edged, bits of soft orange fruit clinging to the crevices. As it was, there were just enough to pool together in the bottom of the tub, schooling like fish seeking safety in numbers. Yes, thought Alice, stay forever.

But eventually she grew cold and practical. Slowly fishing the pits out, feeling for each one with her fingertips, she secreted them back in the damp, empty paper bag. Running the warm water, she scrubbed, the shampoo foaming on her scalp gradually displacing the grime of three days’ sweat—New York City sweat—complicated by hot air forced down subway tunnels onto platforms, by sidewalks crowded with tourists who didn’t know how to walk, and by wave upon wave of longing and regret.


Adapted from PRIVATE MEANS (Grove, August 11). Copyright © 2020 by Cree LeFavour.

Cree LeFavour is the author of Lights On, Rats Out and several cookbooks including the James Beard Award-nominated Fish. She has a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Ph.D. in American Studies from NYU. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt from Private Means

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