Book Excerpt: The Wrong Kind of Woman by Sarah McCraw Crow

Chapter One

November 1970 Westfield, New Hampshire
OLIVER DIED THE SUNDAY after Thanksgiving, the air heavy with snow that hadn’t fallen yet. His last words to Virginia were “Tacks, Ginny? Do we have any tacks?”
That morning at breakfast, their daughter, Rebecca, had complained about her eggs—runny and gross, she said. Also, the whole neighborhood already had their Christmas lights up, and why didn’t they ever have outside lights? Virginia tuned her out; at thirteen, Rebecca had reached the age of comparison, noticing where her classmates’ families went on vacation, what kinds of cars they drove. But Oliver agreed about the lights, and after eating his own breakfast and Rebecca’s rejected eggs, he drove off to the hardware store to buy heavy-duty Christmas lights.
Back at home, Oliver called Virginia out onto the front porch, where he and Rebecca had looped strings of colored lights around the handrails on either side of the steps. Virginia waved at their neighbor Gerda across the street— on her own front porch, Gerda knelt next to a pile of balsam branches, arranging them into two planters—as Rebecca and Oliver described their lighting scheme. Rebecca’s cheeks had gone ruddy in the New Hampshire cold, as Oliver’s had; Rebecca had his red-gold hair too.
“Up one side and down the other,” Rebecca said. “Like they do at Molly’s house—”
“Tacks, Ginny? Do we have any tacks?” Oliver interrupted. In no time, he’d lost patience with this project, judging by the familiar set of his jaw, the frown lines corrugating his forehead.
A few minutes later, box of nails and hammer in hand, Virginia saw Oliver’s booted feet splayed out on the walk, those old work boots he’d bought on their honeymoon in Germany a lifetime ago. “Do you have to lie down like that to—” she began, while Rebecca squeezed out from between the porch and the overgrown rhododendron.
“Dad?” Rebecca’s voice pitched upward. “Daddy!”
Virginia slowly took in that Oliver was lying half on the lawn, half on the brick walk, one hand clutching the end of a light string. Had he fallen? It made no sense, him just lying there on the ground like that, and she hurtled down the porch steps. Oliver’s eyes had rolled back so only the whites showed. But he’d just asked for tacks, and she hadn’t had time to ask if nails would work instead. She crouched, put her mouth to his and tried to breathe for him. Something was happening, yes, maybe now he would turn out to be just resting, and in a minute he’d sit up and laugh with disbelief.
Next to her, Rebecca shook Oliver’s shoulder, pounded on it. “Dad! You fainted! Wake up—”
“Go call the operator,” Virginia said. “Tell them we need an ambulance, tell them it’s an emergency, a heart attack, Becca! Run!” Rebecca ran.
Virginia put her ear to Oliver’s chest, listening. A flurry of movement: Gerda was suddenly at her side, kneeling, and Eileen from next door, then Rebecca, gasping or maybe sobbing. Virginia felt herself being pulled out of the way as the ambulance backed into the driveway and the two para- medics bent close. They too breathed for Oliver, pressed on his chest while counting, then lifted him gently onto the backboard and up into the ambulance.
She didn’t notice that she was holding Rebecca’s hand on her one side and Eileen’s hand on the other, and that Gerda had slung a protective arm around Rebecca. She barely noticed when Eileen bundled her and Rebecca into the car without a coat or purse. She didn’t notice the snow that had started to fall, first snow of the season. Later, that absence of snow came back to her, when the image of Oliver lying on the bare ground, uncushioned even by snow, wouldn’t leave her.

Aneurysm. A ruptured aneurysm, a balloon that had burst, sending a wave of blood into Oliver’s brain. A subarachnoid hemorrhage. She said all those new words about a thousand times, along with more familiar words: bleed and blood and brain. Rips and tears. One in a million. Sitting at the kitchen table, Rebecca next to her and the coiled phone cord stretched taut around both of them, Virginia called one disbelieving person after another, repeated all those words to her mother, her sister Marnie, Oliver’s brother, Oliver’s department chair, the people in her address book, the people in his.
At President Weissman’s house five days later, Virginia kept hold of Rebecca. Rebecca had stayed close, sleeping in the middle of Virginia and Oliver’s bed as if she were little and sleepwalking again, her shruggy new adolescent self forgotten. They’d turned into a sudden team of two, each one circling, like moons, around the other.
Oliver’s department chair had talked Virginia into a reception at President Weissman’s house, a campus funeral. In the house’s central hall, Virginia’s mother clutched at her arm, murmuring about the lovely Christmas decorations, those balsam garlands and that enormous twinkling tree, and how they never got the fragrant balsam trees in Norfolk, did they, only the Fraser firs—
“Let’s go look at the Christmas tree, Grandmomma.” Rebecca took her grandmother’s hand as they moved away. What a grown-up thing to do, Virginia thought, glad for the release from Momma and her chatter.
“Wine?” Virginia’s sister Marnie said, folding her hand around a glass. Virginia nodded and took a sip. Marnie stayed next to her as one person and another came close to say something complimentary about Oliver, what a wonderful teacher he’d been and a great young historian, an influential member of the Clarendon community. And his clarinet, what would they do without Oliver’s tremendous clarinet playing? The church service had been lovely, hadn’t it? He sure would have loved that jazz trio.
She heard herself answering normally, as if this one small thing had gone wrong, except now she found herself in a tunnel, everyone else echoing and far away. Out of a clutch of Clarendon boys, identical in their khakis and blue blazers, their too-long hair curling behind their ears, one stepped forward. Sam, a student in her tiny fall seminar, the Italian Baroque.
“I—I just wanted to say…” Sam faltered. “But he was a great teacher, and even more in the band—” The student- faculty jazz band, he meant.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said. “I appreciate that.” She watched him retreat to his group. Someone had arranged for Sam and a couple of other Clarendon boys to play during the reception, and she hadn’t noticed until now.
“How ’bout we sit, hon.” Marnie steered her to a couch. “I’m going to check on Becca and Momma and June—” the oldest of Virginia’s two sisters “—and then I’ll be right back.”
“Right.” Virginia half listened to the conversation around her, people in little clumps with their sherries and whiskeys. Mainframe, new era, she heard. Then well, but Nixon, and a few problems with the vets on campus. She picked up President Weissman’s voice, reminiscing about the vets on campus after the war thirty years ago. “Changed the place for the better, I think,” President Weissman said. “A seriousness of purpose.” And she could hear Louise Walsh arguing with someone about the teach-in that should have happened last spring.
Maybe Oliver would appreciate being treated like a dignitary. Maybe he’d be pleased at the turnout, all the faculty and students who’d shown up at the Congregational Church at lunchtime on a Friday. Probably he wished he could put Louise in her place about the teach-in. Virginia needed to find Rebecca, and she needed to make sure Momma hadn’t collapsed out of holiday party–funeral confusion. But now Louise Walsh loomed over her in a shape- less black suit, and she stood up again to shake Louise’s hand. “I just want to say how sorry I am,” Louise said. “I truly admired his teaching and—everything else. We’re all going to miss him.”
“Thank you, Louise.” Virginia considered returning the compliment, to say that Oliver had admired Louise too. Louise had tenure, the only woman in the history department, the only woman at Clarendon, to be tenured. Lou- ise had been a thorn in Oliver’s side, the person Oliver had complained about the most. Louise was one of the four women on faculty at Clarendon; the Gang of Four, Oliver and the others had called them.
Outside the long windows, a handful of college boys tossed a football on a fraternity lawn across the street, one skidding in the snow as he caught the ball. Someone had spray-painted wobbly blue peace signs on the frat’s white clapboard wall, probably after Kent State. But the Clarendon boys were rarely political; they were athletic: in their baggy wool trousers, they ran, skied, hiked, went gliding off the college’s ski jump, human rockets on long skis. They built a tremendous bonfire on the Clarendon green in the fall, enormous snow sculptures in the winter. They stumbled home drunk, singing. Their limbs seemed loosely attached to their bodies. Oliver had once been one of those boys.
“Come on, pay attention,” Marnie said, and she propelled Virginia toward President Weissman, who took Virginia’s hands.
“I cannot begin to express all my sympathy and sad- ness.” President Weissman’s eyes were magnified behind his glasses. “Our firmament has lost a star.” He kissed her on the cheek, pulling a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, so she could wipe her eyes and nose again.

At the reception, Aunt June kept asking Rebecca if she was doing okay, and did she need anything, and Aunt Marnie kept telling Aunt June to quit bothering Rebecca. Mom looked nothing like her sisters: Aunt Marnie was bulky with short pale hair, Aunt June was petite, her hair almost black, and Mom was in between. Rebecca used to love her aunts’ Tidewater accents, and the way Mom’s old accent would return around her sisters, her vowels stretching out and her voice going up and down the way Aunt June’s and Aunt Marnie’s voices did. Rebecca and Dad liked to tease Mom about her accent, and Mom would say I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t sound anything like June. Or Marnie. But especially not June.
Nothing Rebecca thought made any sense. She couldn’t think about something that she and Dad liked, or didn’t like, or laughed about, because there was no more Dad. Aunt Marnie had helped her finish the Christmas lights, sort of, not the design she and Dad had shared, but just wrapped around the porch bannisters. It looked a little crazy, actually. Mom hadn’t noticed.
“Here’s some cider, honey,” Aunt June said. “How about some cheese and crackers? You need to eat.”
“I’m okay,” Rebecca said. “Thanks,” she remembered to add.
“Have you ever tried surfing?” Aunt June asked. “The boys—” Rebecca’s cousins “—love to surf. They’ll teach you.” “Okay.” Rebecca wanted to say that it was December and there was snow on the ground, so there was no rea- son to talk about surfing. Instead she said that she’d bodysurfed with her cousins at Virginia Beach plenty of times, but she’d never gotten on a surfboard. As far as she could tell, only boys ever went surfing, and the waves at Virginia Beach were never like the waves on Hawaii Five-0. Mostly the boys just sat on their surfboards gazing out at the hazy- white horizon, and at the coal ships and aircraft carriers chugging toward Norfolk.
“You’ll get your chance this summer—I’ll bet you’ll be a natural,” Aunt June said.
Things would keep happening. Winter would happen. There would be more snow, and skiing at the Ski Bowl. The town pond would open for skating and hockey. The snow would melt and it would be spring and summer again. They’d go to Norfolk for a couple of weeks after school let out and Mom would complain about everything down there, and get into a fight with Aunt June, and they’d all go to the beach, and Dad would get the most sunburned, his ears and the tops of his feet burned pink and peely…
“Let’s just step outside into the fresh air for a minute, sweetheart,” Aunt June said, and Rebecca stood up and followed her aunt to the room with all the coats, one hand over her mouth to hold in the latest sob, even after she and Mom had agreed they were all cried out and others would be crying today, but the two of them were all done with crying. She knew that the fresh air wouldn’t help anything.

Excerpted from The Wrong Kind of Woman by Sarah McCraw Crow © 2020 by Sarah McCraw Crow, used with permission by MIRA Books/HarperCollins.

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Book Excerpt: The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

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Margot
2014

Margot’s final conversation with her mother had seemed so uneventful, so ordinary—another choppy bilingual plod. Half-understandable.
Business was slow again today. Even all the Korean businesses downtown are closing.
What did you eat for dinner?
Everyone is going to Target now, the big stores. It costs the same and it’s cleaner.
Margot imagined her brain like a fishing net with the loosest of weaves as she watched the Korean words swim through. She had tried to tighten the net before, but learning another language, especially her mother’s tongue, frustrated her. Why didn’t her mother learn to speak English?
But that last conversation was two weeks ago. And for the past few days, Margot had only one question on her mind: Why didn’t her mother pick up the phone?

****

Since Margot and Miguel had left Portland, the rain had been relentless and wild. Through the windshield wipers and fogged glass, they only caught glimpses of fast food and gas stations, motels and billboards, premium outlets and “family fun centers.” Margot’s hands were stiff from clenching the steering wheel. The rain had started an hour ago, right after they had made a pit stop in north Portland to see the famous 31-foot-tall Paul Bunyan sculpture with his cartoonish smile, red-and-white checkered shirt on his barrel chest, his hands resting on top of an upright axe.
Earlier that morning, Margot had stuffed a backpack and a duffel with a week’s worth of clothes, picked up Miguel from his apartment with two large suitcases and three houseplants, and merged onto the freeway away from Seattle, driving Miguel down for his big move to Los Angeles. They’d stop in Daly City to spend the night at Miguel’s family’s house, which would take about ten hours to get to. At the start of the drive, Miguel had been lively, singing along to “Don’t Stop Believing” and joking about all the men he would meet in LA. But now, almost four hours into the road trip, Miguel was silent with his forehead in his palm, taking deep breaths as if trying hard not to think about anything at all.
“Everything okay?” Margot asked.
“I’m just thinking about my parents.”
“What about your parents?” Margot lowered her foot on the gas.
“Lying to them,” he said.
“About why you’re really moving down to LA?” The rain splashed down like a waterfall. Miguel had taken a job offer at an accounting firm in a location more conducive to his dreams of working in theatre. For the last two years, they had worked together at a nonprofit for people with disabilities. She was as an administrative assistant; he crunched numbers in finance. She would miss him, but she was happy for him, too. He would finally finish writing his play while honing his acting skills with classes at night. “The theatre classes? The plays that you write? The Grindr account?”
“About it all.”
“Do you ever think about telling them?”
“All the time.” He sighed. “But it’s easier this way.”
“Do you think they know?”
“Of course, they do. But…” He brushed his hand through his hair. “Sometimes, agreeing to the same lie is what makes a family family, Margot.”
“Ha. Then what do you call people who agree to the same truth?”
“Uh, scientists?”
She laughed, having expected him to say friends. Gripping the wheel, she caught the sign for Salem.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” she asked.
“I’m okay. We’re gonna stop in Eugene, right?”
“Yeah, should be another hour or so.”
“I’m kinda hungry.” Rustling in his pack on the floor of the backseat, he found an apple, which he rubbed clean with the edge of his shirt. “Want a bite?”
“Not now, thanks.”
His teeth crunched into the flesh, the scent cracking through the odor of wet floor mats and warm vents. Margot was struck by a memory of her mother’s serene face—the downcast eyes above the high cheekbones, the relaxed mouth—as she peeled an apple with a paring knife, conjuring a continuous ribbon of skin. The resulting spiral held the shape of its former life. As a child, Margot would delicately hold this peel like a small animal in the palm of her hand, this proof that her mother could be a kind of magician, an artist who told an origin story through scraps—this is the skin of a fruit, this is its smell, this is its color.
“I hope the weather clears up soon,” Miguel said, interrupting the memory. “It gets pretty narrow and windy for a while. There’s a scary point right at the top of California where the road is just zigzagging while you’re looking down cliffs. It’s like a test to see if you can stay on the road.”
“Oh, God,” Margot said. “Let’s not talk about it anymore.”
As she refocused on the rain-slicked road, the blurred lights, the yellow and white lines like yarn unspooling, Margot thought about her mother who hated driving on the freeway, her mother who no longer answered the phone. Where was her mother?
The windshield wipers squeaked, clearing sheets of rain.
“What about you?” Miguel asked. “Looking forward to seeing your mom? When did you see her last?”
Margot’s stomach dropped. “Last Christmas,” she said. “Actually, I’ve been trying to call her for the past few days to let her know, to let her know that we would be coming down.” Gripping the wheel, she sighed. “I didn’t really want to tell her because I wanted this to be a fun trip, but then I felt bad, so…”
“Is everything okay?”
“She hasn’t been answering the phone.”
“Hmm.” He shifted in his seat. “Maybe her phone battery died?”
“It’s a landline. Both landlines—at work and at home.”
“Maybe she’s on vacation?”
“She never goes on vacation.” The windshield fogged, revealing smudges and streaks, past attempts to wipe it clean. She cranked up the air inside.
“Hasn’t she ever wanted to go somewhere?”
“Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. I don’t know why, but she’s always wanted to go there.”
“It’s a big ol’ crack in the ground, Margot. Why wouldn’t she want to see it? It’s God’s crack.”
“It’s some kind of Korean immigrant rite of passage. National Parks, reasons to wear hats and khaki, stuff like that. It’s like America America.”
“I bet she’s okay,” Miguel said. “Maybe she’s just been busier than usual, right? We’ll be there soon enough.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll call her again when we stop.”
A heaviness expanded inside her chest. She fidgeted with the radio dial but caught only static with an occasional glimpse of a commercial or radio announcer’s voice.
Her mother was fine. They would all be fine.
With Miguel in LA, she’d have more reasons to visit now.
The road lay before them like a peel of fruit. The windshield wipers hacked away the rivers that fell from the sky.

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Excerpted from The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim, Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Jooyoun Kim Published by Park Row Books

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