Thursday, May 4, 2023

Makkai on Serious Parody


Rebecca Makkai on Serious Parody

The author discusses “The Plaza,” her story from the latest issue of the magazine.

Your story “The Plaza” revolves around a young woman from a small town in upstate New York, seduced by a wealthy man from New York City who puts her up at the eponymous hotel. It’s very hard to talk about the story without giving spoilers, so anyone who hasn’t read it yet should stop here! The story is, we gradually realize, a kind of parodic prequel to the children’s-book series “Eloise,” written by Kay Thompson (and illustrated by Hilary Knight). What made you want to imagine Eloise’s possible origins and her mother’s life?

This is probably not the origin story you’d expect: I was kayaking last summer with my AirPods in, listening to Vauhini Vara’s wonderful début novel, “The Immortal King Rao.” She has a plotline about a wealthy father raising his daughter in isolation on an island, ostensibly to protect her—and my initial suspicion was that he secretly had another family. This turned out to be not at all where Vara was going with her story, but I started thinking about a man who might convince his mistress that she and their child needed to stay hidden for their own protection, when really he was only protecting himself. He might put them not on an island but in a penthouse apartment. And then I thought, Wait, I know exactly who that is.

What was it about the “Eloise” books that made you connect them with this particular, somewhat sinister scenario?

In almost all of my work, realism (or at least psychological realism) leads me toward dark places and themes. The original Eloise story is a fantasy, and an enchanting one, but one that belies the actual constraints and subjugations of women’s lives in the nineteen-fifties. As I dug into a more plausible version of the story, with its constantly absent mother, the never-mentioned father, and the child left to be raised by the nanny, the narrative went to some alarming places. When the original art is serious, it makes sense for a parody to be comic. But, when the original is comic, a parody tends to take a more serious, literal tone. The parodic effect lies in the contrast between the tone of the original and the tone of the alternate version.

It takes some time for the inspiration of the story to dawn on the reader. How challenging was it to control the pacing of that realization?

Other than the mention of the Plaza, there’s really nothing in the story for quite a while that would lead you to Eloise. I believe the first (very subtle) clue is the coatrack that Margaret decides to leave in the baby’s room. From there on, certain objects (a baby doll with its arms pulled off) or minor characters (the tutor from Andover) appear that would, I suppose, clue you in if you had “Eloise” memorized and were reading with great care or suspicion. Toward the end of the story, I packed the references in a bit more, and let Eloise announce herself as a character. My aim in all of this was to lead the reader through a realistic and fairly disturbing story of a woman’s lack of agency in the nineteen-fifties, and to signal only quite late in the game that this was the flip side of the fairy tale of the “Eloise” books—the alarming adult reality that a child might be oblivious of.

Although the purpose of the story is, fairly clearly, a skewering of the moral universe of the original book, I needed it to work even for those who didn’t get the reference at all. Early on, I sent it to a friend who I (correctly) assumed wouldn’t “get” it. I was right, and his feedback on “The Plaza” as a freestanding story was helpful.

I can easily imagine this story as a classic movie, in which the plucky small-town girl triumphs over the slick city boy who’s lying to her. But it isn’t that straightforward, in the end, is it? It’s more social commentary than feminist fairy tale.

Exactly. And much of the substance of that social commentary is that the classic fairy tale—the idea of a rich man being the key to freedom, as the prince is in “Cinderella,” for instance—is a lie. Even as Margaret takes some control in the end, she’s still fundamentally imprisoned by Ally’s money and power. At most, she’s bought herself the illusion of freedom, and she’s bought her child a few years of blissful ignorance.

As you say, Margaret triumphs—in that she sees through Alistair’s schemes and wins her financial freedom—but, at the same time, she doesn’t have a very happy life, and she is hardened by it. Is the only winner here the child? Or is the child actually the one who’s lost the most?

I see the child as being the winner only in the moment, in large part because she’s so oblivious of what’s going on. The story ends with Margaret seeing her child as equipped for the world, or at least for a certain kind of life, but I can’t imagine that a child this neglected would have an easy time finding happiness later on.

Did the “Eloise” books mean something to you when you were a child? Did you read them to your own children?

Someone gave me the original book as a birthday present when I was around eight, and I found it riveting but utterly confounding. I grew up believing that spoiled was just about the worst thing you could be, and yet here was this child being celebrated for making an entitled mess of everything. But I also studied every page, the intricacy of the drawings, and I puzzled over references like “married on a shoestring.” I didn’t grow up in New York, so much of the name-dropping and context was lost on me; I had no idea why I should be impressed by these things.

I read a library copy to my own children, and they weren’t all that taken with it. It was when I was reading the book (and a sequel in which Eloise goes to Paris) to my daughters, though, that the parental absence started to feel quite ominous to me. I got more of the jokes, but I also found myself wondering how this version of fifties New York could coexist with, for instance, the desperate fifties New York of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

When you’re drawn to something but it also bothers you deeply, that’s probably when you should write about it.

Your new novel, “I Have Some Questions for You,” is a kind of murder mystery set at a boarding school in New Hampshire, from the nineties to the present day. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap with the world of “The Plaza.” Or is there?

I don’t think there’s much. I first drafted the story this past summer when I was in the midst of copy edits on the new novel, so it was largely my escape from that world. But they’re both thematically about the power that men and the systems they’ve built exert over women and their bodies. And they’re both about women who manage some measure of control. Bodie, my novel’s narrator, has a lot more at her disposal as a modern woman. But Margaret uses what she has. ♦

The Plaza By Rebecca Makkai

The Plaza

A trout fish on a plate surrounded by jewelry.
Illustration by Joana Avillez
Listen to this story

Rebecca Makkai reads.

In both 1946 and 1947, Margie Bixby was crowned Trout Queen of the Upper Delaware River, an honor she lost in 1948 only because it wouldn’t do for the daughter of the newspaper editor—the editor of the paper that sponsored the pageant—to win three times. Still, she was the undisputed local beauty, a striking girl with a stronger resemblance to the Modiglianis in the library art books than to a dish-soap model. She wasn’t even blond, to the annoyance of those who hopefully lemoned their hair each summer. She had hair like her late mother’s, like dark water you could drown in.

But by twenty-three she’d been noticed with only one boy. Vincent had returned from the European theatre with rashes all over his body, been sent to a sanatorium in Albany, and hadn’t been seen in Stickney since. Rumor had it that the syphilis had collapsed his nose. Another rumor was that Margie and Vincent wrote every day, still in love but destined, like Abelard and Heloise, for a life of longing correspondence. The bit about the nose: unfortunately correct. But they wrote only once a week, and while Margie relayed the town’s gossip, even jokingly began her letters “Dearest Abelard,” they’d never been in love—just fast friends since age five, when they’d built a circus for worms in Vincent’s back-yard mud. Margie had worn his class ring on a necklace to save him from whispers that he was inverted and wouldn’t look twice at a woman—again, true—their couplehood convincing enough that everyone believed he’d caught his disease from a French whore, not from a fellow-soldier.

Still, when Alistair Baldwell rolled into town in the summer of ’48 with five old Yale friends, having been assured that catching trout in Stickney, New York, was like scooping manna from Heaven, there was a beguiling air of tragedy around the hotel waitress. Inquiring about her—he asked the front-desk girl, who was bucktoothed enough that she couldn’t be offended by his preference for Margie—Alistair learned that she’d lost her only love. This was the challenge he needed, the romantic aura that would justify his stooping to seduce a girl in a stained apron. By dinner the second night, Alistair had informed his friends that they were welcome to all the trout in the river; he was there to catch the Trout Queen.

Alistair wasn’t Margie’s first hotel-guest dalliance. It was too easy: the small restaurant and bar right downstairs from the guest rooms, the men who’d never return, the tips they’d leave when they thought they had a chance. But Alistair was the first who dripped wealth. She’d learned to recognize an expensive watch. She’d also learned to sniff out which in a pack of men was the one they all aimed to impress—and she’d never seen men so quick to laugh at a friend’s jokes. To be clear: Margie didn’t seek out rich men. Rather, she understood that these were the ones to avoid, men who’d likely be selfish and incautious lovers. Alistair, though, loped along with his head down, as if embarrassed by his handsomeness. A devious left-side smile, sandy hair that stuck out like straw. She had to stop herself from smoothing it down.

On the fourth night, his friends retired early—perhaps at his direction—and left him at the bar. Margie made him a dry Martini and asked, with a straight face, if he wanted olives in it or trout. When he caught on that she was joking, he laughed and wiped his brow.

He said, “I like a girl who’s smarter than me.”

Up in his room that night, he rubbed a finger under her chin. They sat by the window, drinking water. He’d already kissed her, and they’d danced as he sang “Peg o’ My Heart.” He’d run his hands up her back under her blouse, but hadn’t suggested the bed. She wasn’t about to, either; he seemed to believe her more innocent than she was. He said now, “But you don’t go by Peg. And you’re not a good Margie, either. Why not Margaret?” This struck her, for some reason, as an entirely logical suggestion.

By the time he left Stickney, Alistair was Ally to her, and Margie was Margaret to him. She sneaked out of work the last night to walk with him in the back garden. He said, “If you find yourself in the city, you’ll look me up.”

Margaret confessed that she’d never been to the city. Not the city. Only Binghamton and Albany. She didn’t add that whatever money her father made, and whatever she herself contributed, her brothers quickly drank.

“Then you must come,” he said. “I’ll put you up at the Plaza. I’ll feed you oysters and champagne.”

They’d made love three times by then, and the fact that he still saw her as worthy of champagne was a gift. In the dark at the edge of the woods, he told her things he’d seen in the Pacific, how he’d watched his ship—the U.S.S. Yorktown—go down with the body of his best friend on board. His voice shook; his hands shook. She felt herself hypnotized, heavy-tongued—a charmed snake.

That was July; in August he wrote and included his return address, a suite on Third Avenue. He said it again: “Should you find yourself in the city . . .” So, two weeks later, when her friend Walene quit the front desk and announced that she was taking the bus to visit her aunt in Manhattan, Margaret said she’d join her. She told her father she’d stay with Walene but told Walene no such thing.

The ride took five hours, and the bus station was even grimier than the bus. She needed a shower, but settled on patting herself with water in the rest room. She found her way to Third Avenue, a longer street than she could have dreamed. She spent half her remaining cash on a taxi so that she wouldn’t have to figure out the city buses. The buildings were so tall it hurt her neck.

She’d sent him a postcard, but only two days earlier; she’d likely arrived first. It crossed her mind, as she entered the lobby of a stalwart office building, that he might look at her blankly. That with her hair up like this, with her tired face and travelling bag, she might have to remind him, awkwardly, who she was.

The Baldwell Organization, it turned out, occupied the entire top five floors—and she hadn’t memorized the suite number. She chose the lowest of the floors, figuring that there might be a receptionist there. And indeed there was, a young, pencil-nosed woman who asked if she meant Mr. Baldwell, Jr., or Mr. Baldwell, Sr.

“Junior,” Margaret managed, and then, more confidently, “Alistair.”

The receptionist scanned her as though she’d figured her all out, and picked up the phone. Margaret wondered then if she hadn’t been taken for a ride, if Ally didn’t have women come looking for him every week. He swooped into the room not a minute later, though, and picked Margaret up, swung her around. He introduced her to the receptionist as “a dear friend” and grinned so broadly that Margaret worried it was an act. He said, “Let’s get you some lunch!” and scooted her back out into the heat and grime.

At lunch, in a back booth of an impossibly labyrinthine restaurant, she asked what the Baldwell Organization did. “It’s elaborate and boring,” he said. “Mostly, we own and manage properties.”


He nodded. “Including the one we’re in right now!” he said, as if it had just occurred to him. “But what I do personally, I invest some of our money.” He explained, over gin rickeys and bacon sandwiches, that he bought dying companies and squeezed out their last juice. He seemed eager for her to understand, anxious to impress.

At the end of lunch she confessed that she had nowhere to stay, and he wagged a finger. “I don’t forget a promise!”

The Plaza: regal bannisters, fairy-tale chandeliers, potted palms, columns, so many stairs, so much wrought iron, arched ceilings like a church. Even the floor was ornate. She’d never felt so underdressed in her life, so aware of her lousy posture and scuffed shoes, so sure she’d be shown a back exit. At the desk, Ally asked for someone by name, and out came a man in a pressed uniform who was “very pleased to see Mr. Baldwell” and promised to “take proper care of the lady.”

“I’ll, of course, part ways here,” Ally said, and then, leaning in for a kiss on the cheek, quietly added, “I’ll come by this evening.”

She barely left the Plaza that week. They ate in the Oak Room; they ordered up. One night, he took her to a play called “Sundown Beach,” at the Belasco Theatre, and she could hardly focus on the show for staring at the audience and wondering if she was sitting properly. But, other than that, it was as if she lived at the hotel. He told her to charge what she needed. She hadn’t brought enough clothes in her small bag, and he had to assure her several times that, yes, he meant dresses, too—the concierge could fetch anything. She appreciated not being handed cash, like a woman of ill repute. Each day, she grew more confident at speaking to Lionel, the friendliest concierge, and saying things like “We’ll put it on the room.” She asked Lionel to find five dresses in a size 2. She tried them on, and although all five fit her—whoever Lionel had sent to Bergdorf’s had a good eye—she felt it would be unseemly to keep more than three.

She watched the way the hotel guests walked, the way the women pinned their shoulders back. She mimicked it in the mirror, practiced it in the lobby. To every uniformed employee she encountered, she barely managed not to say, “I work in a hotel myself!”

She wrote to her father and to Vincent (“Dearest Abelard”) and told both of them how, from her window, she could see kites being flown in the Park. Walene’s aunt surely lived nowhere near Central Park, but what did her father know of the city?

Ally came by at six each night. He never stayed over.

She did wonder if he was married. One morning, she called the Baldwell Organization and told the receptionist, “I have a delivery for Mrs. Alistair Baldwell.”

“You mean Mr. Alistair Baldwell?”

“Well, it’s a lady’s coat.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Cecil Baldwell? Junior isn’t married.”

Angel shows newlydeceased person the very long stairway to heaven.
“The reward is Heaven and a set of well-toned glutes.”
Cartoon by Juan Astasio

“I’ll check my papers,” Margaret said, and hung up.

Did she imagine he’d marry her? Not really. Stranger things had happened. But she knew enough to assume that Baldwells married leggy girls from Wellesley, not hotel waitresses with drunk brothers.

So at the end of the week, when no proposal or desperate vows of love had been offered (“I’m terribly smitten with you” was what he said), she told him that she’d worry her family if she stayed longer, and packed her bag, now stuffed with three extra dresses. He’d given her a simple gold bracelet, and she had the program from the show. He looked at her with beagle-puppy eyes and said he hoped she’d return.

Back in Stickney: Hotel guests who smelled like river water. Men who’d been drinking on boats all day and wanted to keep going. Children with ketchup faces, flinging fried trout on the floor.

A letter from Vincent. “My problem,” he wrote, “is that I’m the wrong shape for the world. The best you can do is figure out what the world wants, and become it. How did I fail so spectacularly?”

Margaret was tired from her trip, and then she was tired from work, and then she began to worry that her tiredness wasn’t the regular kind. Dr. Pomeroy confirmed her suspicions and kindly told her that, since it was early, he could send her to a friend in Binghamton who dealt with this all the time. She shouldn’t wait, he said. She asked if a week would be all right. He nodded. “But no longer.”

A week, though, was time to get to New York and see how Ally felt. And, if he wouldn’t marry her, there were surely helpful doctors in the city, and shouldn’t he be the one to pay? She worried he’d think that she had meant to do this, had set out to trap him. But what did she want with a baby? She watched a mother carry a screaming one out of the restaurant, its vile diaper sagging. Before she left, she wrote to Vincent, asking what she should do. She told him that if he wrote back within the week he should address his letter care of the Plaza.

Ally wasn’t expecting her this time, either; she’d caught the first bus she could. When she appeared at the reception desk, the girl looked annoyed. “He’s at lunch,” she said. “Where should he find you?” Margaret said she’d wait right there, and she did, feeling dizzy even on the sofa.

He didn’t seem thrilled, didn’t swing her around. She told him, quietly, that they needed to talk, and a curtain of understanding descended his face. He took her to the same restaurant, the same back booth.

He said, “We’ll set you up.” She assumed he meant with a doctor, but then he said, “I’ll get you an apartment. A nanny, even. A night nurse.”

“I don’t understand.” He’d said nothing about marriage, or himself, or the two of them. “It sounds as if you’re suggesting I raise a child alone. As an unwed woman.” Surely he could see that she was about to cry. “That’s not something I’d consider.”

“But you don’t mean to —” He waved off an encroaching waiter. “I couldn’t stand that. You know, I’m Catholic.” She hadn’t known, actually. The only Catholics in Stickney were Irish.

“The proper thing to do, in this situation, would be to propose. But I suppose you’re already engaged.”

“Oh—Lord, no,” he said. “I thought I made it clear that I’m enamored of you. I’m sorry I’m not more demonstrative. But no, I can’t—” Now he looked for the waiter, desperate for rescue. Margaret stood to leave.

“Wait,” he said. “Wait. Wait.” He didn’t rise, just picked up his fork and stared at it disconsolately until she sat back down. “When I was fifteen, I was kidnapped. Believe it or not. For ransom. It was terrible, they—I wasn’t tied up, it wasn’t like everyone pictures, but they kicked me around. It was the day after my fifteenth birthday. They got me right outside school.” He paused too long, and Margaret didn’t dare breathe out. “They returned me a week later. Twenty thousand dollars. They’d threatened my mother. My being taken, it nearly killed her. What I’ve always—I told myself long ago that I’d never put anyone in that position. Marrying into my family is marrying a nightmare. Even without the threats.” He reached his hand across the table, and she took it. It felt like a Hollywood film: this place, his faltering voice, this story. What was her role? Not the heroine, not the bride.

She wanted to move on to what this all meant, but he looked so much like a child right then, the scared boy showing through the layers of businessman, naval officer, man about town. She asked how they’d got him in the car (at gunpoint), whether it had made the papers (yes), what his parents had gone through (hell).

He said, “I’ve lived my life trying not to fall for anyone, and then I met you.”

“It’s still so early,” she said. “Sometimes these things simply work themselves out.” With medicinal help, she thought, but didn’t say. “And we can marry and never have children. I won’t mind any threats. I’m not some delicate flower.”

“Listen,” he said. “We’ll marry in secret. I’ll get a priest—he can come to the Plaza. We already have an apartment there. And I’ll keep my place, but I’ll be there all the time. You’ll have everything you want. The baby will have everything. The best schools in the city. And, in a few years, when my old man retires, when the business is mine, I’ll set things up so we can move far away. We’ll find some little town in France. You told me French was your best subject.”

She said, “I couldn’t imagine what to tell my father.” Not that her father had really even noticed her absence her first trip here. She’d left enough stew in the icebox, which was all he cared about.

“It’d be two or three years at most. If you did away with . . . I couldn’t see past it. We couldn’t be together.” He tore off the very edge of the thick paper menu and folded the scrap into a tight circle. He held it out: a ring. “We’ll go to Tiffany’s,” he said. “Or—better, you go, and tell me what you like and I’ll bring it tonight. Anything. The biggest stone they have.”

She’d read a story, once, about a boy proposing with a piece of twine, and she’d always believed it the most romantic thing. Well, she could have it both ways: this paper ring and the shattered boy who held it, plus the diamond ring and the millionaire who’d buy it. It was better than any alternative. She’d tell her father that she’d found secretarial work; she’d figure the rest out later. She accepted the paper ring.

He set her up on the nineteenth floor, in an apartment that had been owned for years by the Baldwell Organization. It was already furnished, with settees and rugs she was afraid of staining.

Ally had two big men carry everything out of one of the bedrooms—everything except a little oak coatrack she liked—and told her that she could decorate it for the baby however she wished. She was to go to Bergdorf’s and make a list, then hand it to the concierge, who’d get it all delivered and assembled. “Even wallpaper,” he said, and she said, “Let’s see first if it’s a boy or a girl.” But she couldn’t think of the thing growing inside her as anything other than it, a parasite tying her to this world.

A wonderful world! Three bedrooms and four other rooms besides! Boxes every day—presents from Ally or things she’d ordered. Towels as soft as rabbit fur. The tiniest clothes for the baby. Dresses for herself, with room for a belly.

One dress she ordered was simple white lace. On a Thursday afternoon, Ally came in a suit and tie, accompanied by a priest with four distinct strips of blond hair covering a bald spot. Ally had pulled in, as witnesses, two bemused busboys who’d now be late for work downstairs. Ally and Margaret held hands as the priest performed a terribly quick ceremony and produced a sheet of paper to sign.

Margaret said, “Don’t we also need a license? Don’t you need my birth certificate?”

The priest looked to Ally as if he had the answer. Ally said, “There are work-arounds. We’ve taken care of it.”

Ally nestled a gold band next to her diamond-and-emerald engagement ring. He couldn’t wear one himself, of course.

Margaret changed into a green silk nipped-waist dress that soon wouldn’t fit, and they went dancing in the Persian Room. Ally stayed the night, but warned her that he could do so only once or twice a week.

On her fifth day in the apartment, a knock on her door. A uniformed employee held a silver tray with an envelope from Vincent’s address, but not in his handwriting. Vincent, the letter said, had taken his own life last month. The writer, a nurse from the sanatorium, thought she’d want to know. The nurse gave no indication of having opened Margaret’s note, but must have, in order to know to reach her here. Not that it mattered. It wouldn’t even matter if this woman wrote to everyone in Stickney about the baby. She lived here now. And Vincent—poor, sweet Vincent—was, what, in the clouds? She wept until she forgot why she was weeping, and then she remembered and started again. She drew a bath in the enormous tub. She sank into the hot water and smoked.

She slept very little and cried all the time, and her face bloated with the rest of her. In November, Ally went to London on business. He came back with ruby earrings she’d have no place to wear. The end of the year was terribly busy, and he couldn’t come by every single day, but he told her that she should go to museums and the theatre. “Lionel can get any tickets you like,” he said.

At Christmas, she almost missed home. Her brothers would be making a drunken mess, but at least she wouldn’t be alone, which she was on Christmas itself—Ally came by on the twenty-third and then spent all of the twenty-sixth with her, presenting her with a duck-shaped rattle for the baby, a crocodile-skin Hermès bag for her.

Just before the holiday, it had occurred to Margaret that she had no cash for tipping the maids or the room-service boys. Even back in Stickney, people gave something extra on Christmas. She figured, on the twenty-sixth, Ally in a good mood as they drank wine by the fire, that it wasn’t too late to ask. She suggested a bank account, one she could write checks from. That scared him; their names couldn’t be linked that way. “But you can charge whatever you want to the hotel,” he said. “I’ve explained.”

“Lionel can’t run out and fetch me an ice cream,” she said. “It’d melt before he got back.”

Ally agreed to leave a hundred dollars a month for small expenses. “Ice-cream money,” he said. “We’ll have a baby made of ice cream.”

The hundred wasn’t enough for all the staff who’d helped her and had been so kind, so discreet. So she hatched a plan and asked Lionel to send someone to Bergdorf’s for ten different silver spoons, each with a separate receipt. She said, “I’ll try them out and see what to order a set of.”

Once she had all ten spoons, she handed each one out, with its receipt. One for the day maid, one for Peter in the elevator, one for the boy who brought breakfast. “Take it right back to the store,” she said. “If they won’t give you cash, get something you like.”

Margaret grew enormous. The Oak Room staff had a betting pool as to when she’d burst. Ally stopped by less often, just twice a week now, always with some excuse for his absence, always with a present. They weren’t sleeping together anymore; she couldn’t stand him seeing her this way. She’d grown comfortable dining solo in the Oak Room, especially now that no one could assume that she was there to pick up men. The irony: she hadn’t wanted a baby, she’d wanted Ally, his company, the way he made her feel important. And here she was alone, with nothing but a giant belly and the sea monster trying to crack her ribs from within.

In April, Ally left for two weeks in Toronto. The doctor had told Margaret to walk for exercise, within reason, so one day she walked all the way down to Madison Square Park and, when her ankles had swollen so much that she couldn’t take another step, went into a tea shop to sit in the window and watch the children heading home from school, women with prams, workers carrying a crate. Then: Ally, walking and laughing with two other men. Dressed for work. She wondered if he’d returned early—but he’d left, or said he was leaving, only two days back. She waited a minute, wondering where all her blood had gone, all her air. Then she walked home, her head full of bees.

The next morning, she called his office and said she was Miss Blankenship, from the Plaza’s billing office. He took the call. She said, “You’re not in Canada.”

“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Lord. Margaret, you didn’t get my note?”

“Your note.”

“My girl left it at the desk. The trip got pushed to Friday. I was hoping to stop by tonight. Can we do that? Can I take you out?”

She wanted to believe him but didn’t want to be a fool. It occurred to her, though, that there was no real difference; her actions would be the same regardless. She wasn’t about to break things off and be left pawning jewelry. She recalled how Vincent had wished he could fit himself to the shape of the world. Well, she could fit herself to the shape of this marriage. So she met Ally for dinner, holding two opposing thoughts: he was a cad or worse, and he loved her absolutely. “Next time you’re at the library,” he said, “find an atlas and pick the town where we’ll live.” He smiled with his eyes, his dimples. His hands were dry and warm.

Her older brother, Milton, wrote that their father had cancer. Well, “canser” was what he wrote. Milton wasn’t dumb; he just didn’t care to be smart. Wouldn’t she come home, Milton asked. If she wasn’t making money, she ought to come, and if she was making money she ought to send it, now that Pop couldn’t work and Milton, a roofer, was working fewer hours so that he could look after him. Their little brother, Eugene, was “useless,” which meant even drunker than Milton. Eugene’s only work was for Pop at the paper, turning in an alleged humor piece once a week.

She considered it. Or, at least, she considered a sort of parachute, what she’d do if everything fell apart here. She’d show up in Stickney with her baby and her ring. She’d say that her husband was abroad, something about the Marshall Plan. Then she’d get a telegram that he’d died. She’d wear black.

She didn’t have a helpful amount of cash to send, but she charged nothing for two weeks and then ordered up a Piaget watch from Saks and sent it to Milton with a note telling him to pawn it. The odds that he’d spend the money on whiskey-and-sodas at the hotel bar were high.

In May, days before the baby was due, Ally had a service send three nannies for her to interview. Margaret found them all intimidating, and simply went with the most experienced—a brawny British woman named Mrs. Webb, who wore bone hairpins and a corset. The woman unpacked her sparse belongings in one afternoon.

It was Mrs. Webb who coached Margaret through the start of labor, then stayed by her hospital bed. Ally, who couldn’t be seen in the fathers’ waiting room, visited once they were home, the baby red and squalling. He held her as if she might explode. Margaret had gone ahead and named her, a name that meant something to her though not to Ally. “It’s a bit old-fashioned,” he said. She did not mention, because he hadn’t asked, that she’d given the baby his last name on the birth certificate. She’d put the father down messily as “Alfred Baldwell”—something she imagined could be amended later, written off as a clerical mistake.

The baby was forever hungry, forever screaming. Margaret tried nursing, but, despite Mrs. Webb’s corrections, the baby didn’t latch. This felt like a profound failure, but also a relief; Margaret could sleep through the night while Mrs. Webb offered a bottle.

The infrequency of Ally’s visits began to embarrass her, as she wondered what Mrs. Webb thought. But Mrs. Webb said next to nothing about it. Once, when Ally had stayed only ten minutes and Margaret was unhideably teary, Mrs. Webb patted her knee. “When a baby begins smiling,” Mrs. Webb said, “a father sits up and takes notice.”

It was true. His visits didn’t increase, but he seemed in the baby’s thrall, as he’d once been in Margaret’s.

The baby grew fast, but instead of growing cuter she grew only louder. Her hair came in, as strawlike as her father’s. “Behold,” Margaret said to Ally, “your untamable mane.” Rashes on the baby’s cheeks made her look angry. When Margaret held her, she cried for Mrs. Webb.

Margaret wrote letters to Vincent that she would send by burning in the fireplace. “Dearest Abelard,” she wrote. “Can you believe I’ve brought another soul onto this wretched planet?”

She wrote letters to Milton, and he wrote back. Pop was worse. Pop was eating some. Pop was too far gone in the head for it to matter if she came back now, but they sure could use some more money.

The leaves began to turn, and it hit Margaret that she’d been in the city for more than a year. She’d have Mrs. Webb rock the baby to sleep and settle her in the pram, and then she’d push the pram to the Park. Mothering the child properly, even if the child wasn’t awake to notice. She never remembered to bring bread for the ducks, but she’d watch others feed them.

Her eye was caught one day by a pallid man and a girl he was trying to impress, one too young for him. He threw bread and attempted to skip stones, and the girl laughed indulgently. Slick strips of blond hair covered the man’s bald spot. Margaret registered as if through thick water: this was the man who’d married her to Ally. He’d worn a priest’s collar then, was in a blue sweater now. Surely priests changed clothes, but the way this man tickled his companion until she shrieked—this was no priest. Maybe a Yale friend of Ally’s. Or some unemployed actor. She strode with the pram right up to the couple. The man looked blank and then, suddenly, horrified.

Margaret said, “What kind of ducks are those?”

“Mallards,” the girl said. “Aren’t they, Billy?”

Four hampers each labeled respectively as only kinda dirty can probably be worn one more time actually dirty and clean...
Cartoon by Emily Flake

The man seemed choked. She was sure now, up close; she recognized his bulbous earlobes. He said, “I suppose.”

Margaret said, “I haven’t seen you since you left the priesthood.”

The girl turned to him, baffled, and, when he didn’t stammer some surprisingly reasonable explanation, Margaret continued down the path. He was welcome to tell his girlfriend that this woman was clearly insane.

All she had to do with Ally was play happy, but any illusions that he’d whisk her off to France had evaporated. At least he was still beautiful. And what other option did she have? She wasn’t a fool if she could fool him back.

She’d previously avoided buying herself very expensive items—a nice coat, yes, but not a diamond bracelet—lest she seem greedy. Now she ordered those things at regular intervals, calculating the pawn value, wondering if she could live off what she owned for five years, ten. Well, it depended what kind of life she needed to buy. It depended if she ever meant to go home and support her brothers and any women unlucky enough to become their brides. That would be expensive in one way. Staying in the city would be expensive in others.

In bed one evening, Ally said, “You know, the purchases do add up. I could write you a budget.”

Instead of arguing, she said, “Oh, that would be wonderful!”

He kissed her forehead, satisfied.

It occurred to her to ask if the library still had issues of the Times from October of 1935, when Ally had been kidnapped. Because perhaps everything he’d ever claimed had been a lie.

He’d said that the kidnapping happened the day after his fifteenth birthday. It took some searching through the already yellowed pages—she realized that she needed the day after the kidnapping—but then look! Just as he’d said! Forced into a gold Buick Phaeton at gunpoint outside Trinity School, twenty-thousand-dollar ransom.

How had she become such an untrusting person? She’d hoarded jewelry for nothing.

She was about to float out of the library when she thought to look for news of Ally’s return, a week later. This search took longer, as she didn’t have a precise date.

Late that afternoon, she found the strangest headline: “baldwell boy home after kidnap hoax.” She read on, mystified and then devastated and then numb. It seemed that Ally and a friend had staged the whole thing. The family delivered the ransom, care of a hired guard, but Ally’s father insisted on watching with binoculars from a car to see it properly collected, and recognized immediately the distinctive gait of Ally’s lifelong friend Robert Warner. Cecil Baldwell directed his driver to follow the car, which they eventually ran off the road near the Harlem Meer. Cecil approached the other car himself, finding Warner at the wheel, Alistair crouched in the back. Ally confessed to his part in the scheme, the paper reported, and no charges were filed, the families being friendly.

Margaret asked a librarian to help her find the roster of the U.S.S. Yorktown. The appendix of a book about the Pacific theatre listed the men on board. No Baldwell. Undoubtedly, Ally had sat out the war at some desk in New Jersey.

Why, of all things, was she laughing? A dry laugh, an angry laugh, but a laugh. It was this: With the worst proved—the man was a common liar—she could stop doubting herself.

That night, she dressed in Jacques Fath and went down to the Persian Room at eleven o’clock. She stood at the bar, angled out toward the crowd, as if she’d lost track of a friend. It wasn’t thirty seconds before a dapper older man approached, asked if he could help her find the cocktail she’d surely misplaced. Why, here it was, right behind the bar, being mixed this very moment, paid for by him. What was her name? In a vaguely French accent, she introduced herself as Marguerite Abelard. She’d never been to New York and was surprised to find it so lively. Was it always so lively?

The days, being empty, sailed emptily by.

There were more men after that first one, men who believed she’d been born in Nice to a distant Vanderbilt cousin, or at least pretended to. Men who couldn’t smell the trout in her blood. She was adept at sneaking them upstairs late at night, past Mrs. Webb’s closed door, the child’s closed door—all those years of practice back in Stickney.

The child was a hellion. Margaret had assumed that Mrs. Webb would put discipline into her, and she certainly tried, but it went right over the child’s head. The child learned to walk. She learned to scream actual words. She was suddenly two, and then three. When she didn’t get her way, she screamed loud enough that neighbors complained to the management. The child ripped the arms off her expensive baby doll. Her hair was wild, an embarrassment.

A letter from Stickney: Pop had passed. Margaret felt, only now, an urgency to return so that he could meet his granddaughter. Impossible and stupid. With Pop gone, Milton wrote, Eugene no longer had a role at the paper. “I worry for him,” he said, as if Milton were in a place to judge. He was playing to her sympathies: he knew that Eugene had been Margaret’s first baby. Born when she was two, he’d let her dress him in ridiculous outfits, listened to her songs. His drunkenness hurt her more than Milton’s. “If you came back,” Milton wrote, “you could keep the house in order so I could work more hours.”

Margaret tore the letter to shreds.

The child was four. She was five. The child wanted everything pink, pink, pink. She poured water down the mail chute. She tangled a fork in her hair; half an hour’s work with mayonnaise to free it. The staff indulged her, giving her sticks of gum, letting her interrupt their work.

Margaret had been just such a child herself, forever talking—but her brothers had kept her busy, and her father had been liberal with the switch. She wasn’t about to provide the child with siblings, and the only discipline Ally exercised was to shake the child off his leg and call for Mrs. Webb to “do something with her.”

The day maid had been at the Plaza for nine years. Margaret began inviting her to sit down for tea, which she wasn’t supposed to do but agreed to occasionally. They talked about her boyfriend and Stalin’s stroke and Richard Burton’s chin. One day, Margaret casually asked, “The woman he put up before me—was she this much trouble?”

“Oh, good Lord,” the maid said. “So much more!”

Margaret thought she might catch herself, retract her words. But she kept talking.

“Of course, she was trouble to him, too. That’s why he had to get her out of New York. She said, Well, he should buy her a house somewhere, and he said, Of course not, you can charge a hotel suite to a company but not some house in the suburbs. His name would be on this woman’s papers and all. Here it’s neat and clean. Baldwell’s the name on the room, and who knows different? So a hotel it had to be, and off to Chicago with her.”

“Was there a child?” Margaret’s voice sounded almost normal.

She shrugged. “She was turning stout when she left, but she ate the sirloin every night, so who’s to say.”

This revelation—that she was one of however many duped women—hit harder than Ally’s other lies. She didn’t need to believe in him, but she needed to believe in herself as singular.

That next morning, as if summoned by her despair, a letter arrived in Eugene’s queasy scrawl. It seemed inevitable in retrospect that Milton, both a roofer and a drunk, would fall to his death. Margaret stared out the window at the Park and waited in vain for grief. Eugene wrote, “Milt always said you might come home. You think you might? Then I can get a job.” As if one thing had any bearing on the other. She imagined moving her child into the empty house with Eugene, their makeshift trio living off pawned earrings. Perhaps Eugene would be the end of her, or perhaps she’d save him. Her baby brother who used to suck her hair. The only person who’d ever needed her.

She called her old boss at the Stickney Inn and persuaded him to give Eugene a job—just a janitorial one for now, but if he worked hard he could be trained as a bellhop. Margaret imagined that he might succeed there. He’d never lost his childhood curls, and out-of-town women might be charmed, might give good tips. “Keep him out of the bar,” she told Mr. Gittings.

Ally came around every week or two, and she tolerated his lovemaking.

On a Friday night, drunk on gin and angry that she wasn’t home when he arrived, angry that she tumbled in after dinner, dressed for someone other than him, he slapped her hard across the face, so hard her lip bled.

She thought, with sad relief, At least he’s not one to use fists.

The next day, he sent her roses.

One of the men she’d met in the Persian Room was a Virginia-born lawyer named Stuart, and thank God the night they’d met she hadn’t used her silly French accent; that would have been too much to keep up. She continued sleeping with him in exchange for legal advice. The question, she explained, was how many women Ally had stashed around the country, how many children he paid for. If they were legally wed, she’d have some share of his money when he died, or if they divorced. But what were the odds that the paper they’d signed was real?

Stuart narrowed his eyes, hesitated. He said, “Do you imagine he’d even let you go? With his child, and all? Men like this . . .”

And the answer sank down her throat. She felt the walls around her, she imagined the lawyers, the detectives. The very real kidnappings a man like Ally could arrange. How had she ever imagined that she was free to leave?

Stuart suggested she ask Ally to include her and the child in his will.

Ally promised that he already had.

Could she see the will?

Well, no, his attorney was travelling in Rome.

Ally bought the child a book of fairy tales, blue leather with gold swirls, rich color illustrations inset. Margaret tried reading to her, but had no patience for her questions, her squirming. So Mrs. Webb read every night instead. From the sitting room, Margaret could hear her low, soothing tone, even if she couldn’t make out the words.

The child’s voice one night, bright and piping: “But it was her castle, too! She could go where she wanted.”

Mrs. Webb murmured something—assent, appeasement.

It must have been “Cinderella.” And the child, this spawn of Baldwells, didn’t care about the true love at the end; she cared only about Cinderella’s newfound wealth, her property holdings.

Later that night, Margaret checked on her sleeping child and opened the book to where Mrs. Webb had left a bookmark.

No. Dear God. Not “Cinderella” but “Bluebeard.” The story of a woman imprisoned by a man, his money, his violence.

She forced herself to laugh. It was so easy to believe you were living in one fairy tale and find yourself smack in the middle of another.

Here was the illustration of Bluebeard’s poor wife. She crept up the stairs in a white gown, looking over her shoulder—candle in one hand, key in the other. Perhaps the artist had made the picture too pretty.

Margaret imagined an artist drawing her own daughter, her hallway rampages, her twenty-story kingdom. She imagined the young girl who might see this picture and believe its implicit lie, think that money could ever buy freedom for a child born female. Well: Wasn’t it, perhaps, better to go through life believing you were Cinderella than knowing you were Bluebeard’s daughter?

Margaret asked if they could send the child to Trinity School, but Ally looked aghast. “She’d be in danger,” he said. “It was right in front of the school that I was taken.” Instead, he hired a tutor, a hapless boy who’d been kicked out of Andover and was spending the year with his parents. The tutor couldn’t control the child, couldn’t even get her to sit. Somehow, the child learned her letters.

Eugene lasted six months at the Stickney Inn before he was fired for mistaking the bag room for the rest room and urinating on a hatbox. This she learned from Mr. Gittings, who sent a letter to apologize for letting Eugene go. “He needs a caretaker,” he wrote, and she imagined him reading the words aloud to his wife, asking if they sounded tactful.

Even if Ally let her, she could not return to Stickney, not to a place where people thought she deserved no better lot in life than babysitting a drunk. But she loved her brother, and the longer she spent away from his adult incarnation the more she remembered him as the child with ticklish feet.

She hit on a solution. She sent him that month’s hundred dollars with explicit instructions for taking the bus to the city. She told him that she’d meet him at the Port Authority on September 7th at 6 p.m. “Do not drink this money!” she wrote. “This is your one and only chance.” She’d force Ally to give him some job in the mailroom, or she’d tell the Plaza he had bellboy experience.

He wrote back saying that he’d be there. She gave all the liquor in her apartment to the boys in the package room.

Caveman hands friend club at cave entrance. Dinosaur hides behind cave.
“Here. The one time you don’t take your club is the one time you’ll need it.”
Cartoon by Michael Maslin

She told herself he might not come. When he didn’t, she was still hopeful enough that she went back the next night in case he’d got the day wrong.

She walked all the way home, each clack of her shoes on the sidewalk sealing something up inside her.

Stickney was gone. Her family, gone.

Well, then.

Ally returned from two months in Johannesburg, and Margaret asked to meet. He showed up with a stuffed elephant. Stuart rose from the sofa to shake his hand, and Ally looked at him with alarm. “My attorney friend,” Margaret said. She said that she’d been worried, had thought about something happening to him in Africa, and wouldn’t it be better if absolutely everything were in writing?

From Ally’s confounded look, the way he glanced out the window as if for help, Margaret guessed that none of his other supposed wives had pulled something like this.

Ally sat, the elephant on his lap. He said, “Where is she?”

“An interesting question,” Stuart said. “Because if we don’t have your paternity on record, do you have any right to visit?”

Margaret said, “You know, I don’t have to stay here. I could move to Chicago, for instance.” She was standing, the line of her eyes a steel beam down to his. She thought he’d be angry, she thought he might produce his own lawyer from his pocket, but he looked ready to wet the chair.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “We can work this out. We can make sure you’re happy.”

A year ago, a month ago, she might have folded. But she was done handing out chances to men who drank them up and pissed them out. She said nothing.

“Jesus, sure, fine, I’ll put it in writing,” Ally said. “If that’s what you need.”

Stuart opened his briefcase. He explained that, if the paternity was in writing, a monthly allowance would need to be, as well. “The marriage certificate won’t be necessary,” he said. “But in the absence of a binding will we’ll need to set up a more formal arrangement for monthly funding here at the Plaza, and a trust for the child.”

Ally found his spine and sat up straighter. “I can’t be sending money off to who knows where,” he said. “I’ll support my daughter as long as she stays right here.”

The child in question barrelled in then, having evaded Mrs. Webb, and leaped into her father’s lap like a cannonball. “Is it for me?” she asked, and grabbed the elephant.

Ally said, “What will you name him?”

“Oh, this is a girl,” the child clarified. “She has no tusks. Her name is Emmeline, and she unfortunately has cholera.”

The child was six. Without asking, Ally bought her a little dog—an ugly, wrinkly creature. It yipped at all hours, made messes on the floor, needed special medicine. At least, Margaret thought, the child would finally have a friend who didn’t work at the Plaza.

Since Ally had signed the papers, he’d put up no pretense of affection toward Margaret, nor she toward him. She wondered if the dog was punishment.

A month later, the child demanded a turtle, of all things, and her father obliged.

She wrote on the walls of her room. In Mrs. Webb’s hours off, the child tornadoed the halls. The child, Margaret realized, had never been to a grocery store. She believed in room service as if it were an atmospheric phenomenon.

Stuart suggested that they vacation in the South of France, without the child. She could have the concierge procure plane tickets and charge them to the room. Her monthly allowance—less than she’d hoped for, but still significant—could cover the rest.

Stuart was perhaps using her, but at least in this case she was the one with the money. When you had money, people might love you for the wrong reasons, but they still loved you. They didn’t pity you, at least.

They spent four weeks in Biarritz, and when they returned she discovered that the child had used up all her lipstick.

She and Stuart travelled to Catalina, Venice, Marrakech. He felt no need to settle down, thank God. She met a viscount and he took her to Rome for a week. When Lionel retired from the concierge desk, she introduced herself to his replacement as the Viscountess Marguerite Abelard, and why wouldn’t he believe her? Even the maids and the bellboys who’d been here all along seemed to have forgotten the accent she’d arrived with, the shabby clothes.

The child tore at her nails, interrupted hotel weddings, climbed her mother like a leech. She was a torrent of words; she could play any grown man like a fiddle.

Wasn’t that all she needed in life? High expectations and a lack of remorse. Astonishment when things didn’t go her way. The universe would fall at her feet.

Margaret wrote Vincent a note and burned it: “You’d be amazed. Well, no. You’d be her victim.”

She saw the child for a week or two at a time, covered her with kisses. She drank earlier in the day. She found reasons to be across the city or across the world.

But wasn’t her work here mostly finished?

She’d done her best. By accident or design, she’d built the girl into the precise monster most capable of surviving this world. ♦

The Plaza

A trout fish on a plate surrounded by jewelry.
Illustration by Joana Avillez
Listen to this story

Rebecca Makkai reads.

In both 1946 and 1947, Margie Bixby was crowned Trout Queen of the Upper Delaware River, an honor she lost in 1948 only because it wouldn’t do for the daughter of the newspaper editor—the editor of the paper that sponsored the pageant—to win three times. Still, she was the undisputed local beauty, a striking girl with a stronger resemblance to the Modiglianis in the library art books than to a dish-soap model. She wasn’t even blond, to the annoyance of those who hopefully lemoned their hair each summer. She had hair like her late mother’s, like dark water you could drown in.

But by twenty-three she’d been noticed with only one boy. Vincent had returned from the European theatre with rashes all over his body, been sent to a sanatorium in Albany, and hadn’t been seen in Stickney since. Rumor had it that the syphilis had collapsed his nose. Another rumor was that Margie and Vincent wrote every day, still in love but destined, like Abelard and Heloise, for a life of longing correspondence. The bit about the nose: unfortunately correct. But they wrote only once a week, and while Margie relayed the town’s gossip, even jokingly began her letters “Dearest Abelard,” they’d never been in love—just fast friends since age five, when they’d built a circus for worms in Vincent’s back-yard mud. Margie had worn his class ring on a necklace to save him from whispers that he was inverted and wouldn’t look twice at a woman—again, true—their couplehood convincing enough that everyone believed he’d caught his disease from a French whore, not from a fellow-soldier.