in which we gather
to discuss Emma
We sat in a circle on Jocelyn’s screened porch at dusk, drinking cold sun tea, surrounded by the smell of her twelve acres of fresh-mowed California grass. There was a very pretty view. The sunset had been a spectacular dash of purple, and now the Berryessa mountains were shadowed in the west. Due south in the springtime, but not the summer, was a stream.
“Just listen to the frogs,” Jocelyn said. We listened. Apparently, somewhere beneath the clamor of her kennel of barking dogs was a chorus of frogs.
She introduced us all to Grigg. He had brought the Gramercy edition of the complete novels, which suggested that Austen was merely a recent whim. We really could not approve of someone who showed up with an obviously new book, of someone who had the complete novels on his lap when only Emma was under discussion. Whenever he first spoke, whatever he said, one of us would have to put him in his place.
This person would not be Bernadette. Though she’d been the one to request girls only, she had the best heart in the world; we weren’t surprised that she was making Grigg welcome. “It’s so lovely to see a man taking an interest in Miss Austen,” she told him. “Delightful to get the male perspective. We’re so pleased that you’re here.” Bernadette never said anything once if it could be said three times. Sometimes this was annoying, but mostly it was restful. When she’d arrived, she seemed to have a large bat hanging over her ear. It was just a leaf, and Jocelyn removed it as they hugged.
Jocelyn had two portable heaters going, and the porch hummed cozily. There were Indian rugs and Spanish-tile floors of a red that might hide dog hair, depending on the breed. There were porcelain lamps in the shape of ginger jars, round and Oriental, and with none of the usual dust on the bulbs, because it was Jocelyn’s house. The lamps were on timers. When it was sufficiently dark out, at the perfect moment, they would snap on all at once like a choir. This hadn’t happened yet, but we were looking forward to it. Maybe someone would be saying something brilliant.
The only wall held a row of photographs-Jocelyn’s dynasty of Ridgebacks, surrounded by their ribbons and pedigrees. Ridgebacks are a matriarchal breed; it’s one of their many attractive features. Put Jocelyn in the alpha position and you have the makings of an advanced civilization.
Queenie of the Serengeti looked down on us, doe eyes and troubled, intelligent brow. It’s hard to capture a dog’s personality in a photograph; dogs suffer more from the flattening than people do, or cats even. Birds photograph well because their spirits are so guarded, and anyway, often the real subject is the tree. But this was a flattering likeness, and Jocelyn had taken it herself.
Beneath Queenie’s picture, her daughter, Sunrise on the Sahara, lay, in the flesh, at our feet. She had only just settled, having spent the first half-hour moving from one of us to the next, puffing hot stagnant-pond smells into our faces, leaving hairs on our pants. She was Jocelyn’s favorite, the only dog allowed inside, although she was not valuable, since she suffered from hyperthyroidism and had had to be spayed. It was a shame she wouldn’t have puppies, Jocelyn said, for she had the sweetest disposition.
Jocelyn had recently spent more than two thousand dollars on vet bills for Sahara. We were glad to hear this; dog breeding, we’d heard, could make a person cruel and calculating. Jocelyn hoped to continue competing her, though the kennel would derive no benefit; it was just that Sahara missed it so. If her gait could be smoothed out-for Ridgebacks it was all about the gait-she could still show, even if she never won. (But Sahara knew when she’d lost; she became subdued and reflective. Sometimes someone was sleeping with the judge and there was nothing to be done about it.) Sahara’s competitive category was Sexually Altered Bitch.
The barking outside ascended into hysteria. Sahara rose and walked stiffly to the screen door, her ridge bristling like a toothbrush.
“Why isn’t Knightley more appealing?” Jocelyn began. “He has so many good qualities. Why don’t I warm to him?”
We could hardly hear her; she had to repeat herself. The conditions were such, really, that we should have been discussing Jack London. . . .
Most of what we knew about Jocelyn came from Sylvia. Little Jocelyn Morgan and little Sylvia Sanchez had met at a Girl Scout camp when they were eleven years old, and they were fifty-something now. They’d both been in the Chippewa cabin, working on their wood-lore badges. They had to make campfires from teepees of kindling, and then cook over them, and then eat what they’d cooked; the requirement wasn’t satisfied unless the Scout cleaned her plate. They had to identify leaves and birds and poisonous mushrooms. As if any one of them would ever eat a mushroom, poisonous or not.
For their final requirement they’d been taken in teams of four to a clearing ten minutes off and left to find their own way back. It wasn’t hard, they’d been given a compass and a hint: The dining hall was southwest of them.
Camp lasted four weeks, and every Sunday Jocelyn’s parents drove up from the city-three and a half hours-to bring her the Sunday funnies. “Everyone liked her anyway,” Sylvia said. This was hard to believe, even for us, and we all liked Jocelyn a ton. “She was attractively ill informed.”
Jocelyn’s parents adored her so, they couldn’t bear to see her unhappy. She’d never been told a story with a sad ending. She knew nothing about DDT or Nazis. She’d been kept out of school during the Cuban missile crisis because her parents didn’t want her learning we had enemies.
“It fell to us Chippewas to tell her about communists,” said Sylvia. “And child molesters. The Holocaust. Serial killers. Menstruation. Escaped lunatics with hooks for hands. The Bomb. What had happened to the real Chippewas.
“Of course, we didn’t have any of it right. What a mash of misinformation we fed her. Still, it was realer than what she got at home. And she was very game, you had to admire her.
“It all came crashing down on the day we had to find our way back to camp. She had this paranoid fantasy that while we were hiking and checking our compass, they were packing up and moving out. That we would come upon the cabin and the dining hall and the latrines, but all the people would be gone. Even more, that there would be dust and spiderwebs and crumbling floorboards. It would be as if the camp had been abandoned for a hundred years. We might have told her too many Twilight Zone plots.
“But here’s the weird part. On the last day, her parents came to pick her up, and on the drive back, they told her that they’d gotten divorced over the summer. In fact, she’d been sent off just for this purpose. All those Sunday drives together bringing the funnies, and they couldn’t actually stand each other. Her dad was living in a hotel in San Francisco and had been the whole month she was gone. ‘I eat all my meals in the hotel restaurant,’ he told her. ‘I just come down for breakfast and order whatever catches my fancy.’ Jocelyn said he made it sound as though that were the only reason he’d moved out, because restaurant eating would be so swell. She felt she’d been traded for shirred eggs.”