Girl on the Best Seller List

THE GIRL
ON THE
BEST SELLER
LIST
VIN PACKER

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

One

… and the town sat in the lush hills of the Finger Lakes, sat like an unsightly red pimple on the soft, white back of some sultry and voluptuous woman.

— FROM
Population 12,360

R
OBERTA SHAGLAND
parked her Volkswagen on Genesee Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. She parked in front of The Book Mart. Beside her on the seat was a cellophane-wrapped novel from the Mart’s lending library. It was this book which had come like a sudden avalanche on Cayuta, New York, leaving its populace shaken and angry; this book which had put Cayutians under some merciless microscope, like a community of wiggling amoebas, swimming in stagnancy. It was the woman who wrote this book whom Roberta Shagland hated, and her name was Gloria Wealdon.

Miss Shagland picked the book up and rubbed her fingers along the cellophane, along the author’s name, as though with that motion she could rub out the name.
GLOR-I-A
first —
rubbed out
— then
Weal-don
. Next, the title:
POPULATION 12,360…
. That would leave just the blurb above the title: “… a searing novel of a small town by a daring new writer.” She ran her thumb across those words, then dropped the book in her tote bag on the Volkswagen’s floor. For a moment, she sat behind the wheel watching the people pass back and forth on Genesee…. How many of them were hurt by Gloria Wealdon’s novel; how many angry, amused, disgusted? As much as she wanted to ponder this, she found she was able only to think of Milo Wealdon, Gloria’s husband — big, good-looking, strong, gentle Müo — and of the way he had been maligned in the book.

Miss Shagland had arrived in Cayuta in the middle of January, five months ago. She had come to fill the post left vacant by the sudden demise of Cayuta High’s dietician. A farm-born, awkward and shy woman nearing the end of her twenties, she had come from a horribly confused settlement on the outskirts of ever-expanding Syracuse, New York. It was a settlement that was ugly and treeless and smelly, with the noise and odor and look of growing industry. She had hated the greasy diners near there, the half-dozen used car lots, the junkyard, the smoke, and the new, new — everything about them new — ranch house developments that were all alike — little lawns, hugging the highway, pink or bright blue or lemon yellow, within walking distance of the shopping center with its sleek A&P, drugstore, Five & Ten. Modern and young and obvious and vulgar.

She had come from there to Cayuta in dead winter, so that it did not look as fabulous and amazing as it did now in May, but she had known what Cayuta would look like. In her imagination she had undressed those great hills of their snow like an eager lover in his erotic fantasies; and she had with dreamer’s kisses put the blush of color to all the trees and brush surrounding. She had known that Cayuta would be like so many of the lakeside cities in the Finger Lakes, hiding behind and between huge green mounds. A sudden surprise of glinting blue water, church spires, farm houses dotting the approach; then the city limits sign, the tall Victorian houses with their peaked gables making the new ones in between seem squat and crazy-modern; the immense Norway maples and horse chestnuts ticking the green soft long lawns; and the sprinklers now, turned on at summer’s near-beginning, and at the lake the boats being scraped and painted, their sails airing; all of it — Cayuta. How had Milo Wealdon put it?

“Cayuta,” he had said, “is like a perennial plant. Some plants — the annuals and the biennials — are pretty for a while, but they change and die. Towns are like that too. Cayuta’s not. It’s like a perennial — it stays. It dies down in the winter, but renews its growth again in the spring.”

Milo Wealdon was the physical education teacher at Cayuta High where Roberta Shagland was dietician. Even though she knew him very, very slightly, Miss Shagland knew he was different from any man she had ever met. When he spoke (just those few times, just those precious few times) it was like a poet speaking; still, her nose came just to the level of the huge muscle on his arm, and she had seen him once outside the gym, near the lockers, in shorts, and she had trembled to notice his build; and she had thought about how much a man he looked…. She had thought about that quite a lot.

As if to force the subject from her mind that morning, Roberta Shagland jerked up the Volkswagen’s door handle and got out. The suddenness of her movement caused her to hit her head, and her own “Damn!” made her feel naughty and slightly sophisticated, but she was neither of these. She slipped a dime into the parking meter and walked toward The Book Mart; and she did not even have to look closely at the window to know that there was only one book on display. Twenty-five, thirty, fifty — how many copies of that one book arranged every which way?

She nearly collided with an elderly woman standing near the entrance. A parent. She recognized old Mrs. Waterhouse from out on Grove Street, who still came to P.T.A. meetings though all her children were well into their thirties and had children of their own.

They said hello, but Mrs. Waterhouse had something to add, and Roberta Shagland turned to listen. “I beg your pardon?” she said. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I said if Miss Dare was still with the Mart a thing like this would never have happened.”

“You mean the window display.”

“Miss Dare had taste.”

“I never knew her,” said Miss Shagland.

“She was a fine girl. She wouldn’t have kept that woman’s book in stock!”

Roberta Shagland had often heard Gloria Wealdon described as “That Woman” since the novel’s publication. “That Woman,” Cayutians said, as though her name was a strange one to their ears; as though her name were not worth remembering — the way an irate wife might refer to her husband’s mistress, or the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Union might identify a female barfly. Gloria Wealdon’s name was as well known to Cayutians as cod to Boston, steel to Pittsburgh. It was not a strange name to many outside Cayuta either. People “out of touch” might not have heard the name — pedants, coal miners, expatriates who had suddenly returned from abroad and who wanted to know if she was a murderess, a television star or what? — but most everyone else in the country knew that Gloria Wealdon was synonymous with sex and money, that she had written a novel which the
Times
had called “a feverishly inept exposé of a festering small town,” and that it was selling like knishes in the Catskills.

“I don’t know why anyone would waste their time on such trash,” said old Mrs. Waterhouse.

Roberta Shagland’s tote bag felt suddenly enormously heavy. “Yes,” she murmured. “It mustn’t be a very worthwhile book.”

“When Miss Dare ran The Book Mart, she sold literature. Now look.” Mrs. Waterhouse waved her hand at the display. “Trash!”

“Goodbye, Mrs. Waterhouse,” said Roberta Shagland.

Mrs. Waterhouse nodded, still standing before the window, shaking her head and mumbling angrily.

Inside the Mart, the clerk beamed at Miss Shagland when he saw her take the book from her bag. “We’ve been waiting for this!” he said. “We have a waiting list as long as Genesee Street!”

“I’m sorry if I kept people waiting.”

She was not sorry at all. She felt sorry for Milo Wealdon, and if she had kept other Cayutians from reading his wife’s descriptions of him, she was glad.

The clerk said, “We just got a whole new order of the book in, but you know how people are. People don’t want to buy anything they can borrow for a few cents a day.”

“Yes,” Roberta Shagland said.

“I’m not casting any aspersions on you, Miss Shagland. Don’t get me wrong. On a schoolteacher’s pay, I don’t blame you if you don’t buy books.”

“I buy books. Some books.”

“I always put my foot in my mouth. I didn’t mean anything like that.”

“I just wouldn’t buy this book.”

“It’s pretty exciting though, isn’t it? I mean, someone from right here in Cayuta writing — ” but when he saw that Roberta Shagland was not indicating any enthusiasm, he did not bother to finish the sentence. He took a piece of paper and began to figure.

When he was finished, he looked embarrassed.

“You’ve had this out for some time, Miss Shagland.”

“I know.”

“It seems a shame.”

“Well, how much do I owe you?”

“You had it for ninety-three days, Miss.”

“And that comes to?”

“It comes to $2.79, Miss,” said the clerk. “I mean, you
could
have bought it, just about.”

When Roberta Shagland handed him the three dollars, her hands were trembling. The hiccups came while she was waiting for her change. Unable to bear it, she left the Mart.

“What’s the matter with her?” the clerk said. “She wasn’t even in the book!”

A man buying greeting cards said, “Maybe that’s what’s the matter with her.”

Two

‘What’s the matter with Miles?”

“Listen,” she said. “I don’t love him. I can’t stand him. And the frosting on the cake is that he’s lousy in bed!”

— FROM
Population 12,360

M
ILO WEALDON
stood by the kitchen sink in the small, sky-blue, split-level house on Alden Avenue. He watched his wife hurry along the well-worn shortcut through the fields behind their house. She was on her way to their neighbors, the Fultons. For a coffee klatsch with Fern, she’d said. He had mumbled something about the fact two people couldn’t have a klatsch; a klatsch meant three people or more.

“Jealous because you weren’t asked along?” she’d said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he’d said, “I’m just telling you what a klatsch is. Look it up in the dictionary.”

Gloria had laughed. “You look it up. I’m in a rush.”

He couldn’t find it in the dictionary. He had been so eager to prove to himself that he was right, that he had run for the Webster’s while Gloria was putting her coat on. Now while he watched her go along the path behind their house, he was angry with himself for having tried to find out the definition for klatsch. What did it matter? Why, again, had he been goaded into pettiness?

He continued to watch her until she was out of sight. She had her hair done up in socks — his old ones — and she wore one of his freshly-laundered white shirts, though he had asked her
please,
if she had to wear his shirts, to wear one of the colored ones. The pants were her own, old black frontier pants, which were rapidly being disowned by her hips, thighs and buttocks. As sloppy as she was, Gloria did not like gaining weight. She counted her calories now; she only had 1,000 calories a day that
she
knew about. Milo’s lips tipped in a grin as he recalled fixing her coffee that morning. He had not used saccharin the way she’d thought. He had used two teaspoons of sugar.

• • •

On her feet, Gloria wore those ugly boats — her space shoes, which she had discovered in New York City. They looked grotesque to Milo; prehistoric. His dentist wore them too. Until Gloria had come home with a pair, Dr. Saperstein was the only person in Cayuta, New York, to own them. Milo could not forget that the first time he had ever seen them on Saperstein he had thought that they made good sense. Your feet needed room. Your feet could get like houseplants that are cooped up in containers that don’t give the roots room to grow in. Such plants become pot-bound. Milo had had some Rosary Peas die on him, because he hadn’t given the roots room. He had felt as bad about that as another man might feel about starving a dog…. After Saperstein showed Milo his shoes, Milo had written down the address of a place where they were sold in Syracuse, New York. He had kept it in his wallet for months, before he had decided they were too expensive. When Gloria had unpacked her pair, Milo had explained in a contemptuous way that she had been taken in again; he had said you’ll believe
anything,
won’t you, Glo! Any old thing anyone comes along and tells you.
Space
shoes, migod!

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