When it comes to movie critics Violet Epps is a powerhouse voice. Equally unafraid of big Hollywood names and public opinion, her biting reviews are widely quoted.But when it comes to her own life, Violet finds herself unable to speak upparalyzed by crippling social anxiety. When a chance encounter at the famous Algonquin Hotel unleashes the feisty spirit of the long-dead Dorothy Parker, the famous literary critic of the 1920s, Violet thinks she is going crazy. But as the rematerialized Mrs. Parker helps her face her fears, Violet realizes how much she has been missing by keeping quiet. It turns out though, that the shade has problems of her own, not the least of which include equal portions of narcissism and pessimism and the inability to move on to her afterlife.
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Ellen Meister teaches creative writing at Hofstra University School of Continuing Education, and lives on Long Island with her husband and three children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER
ALSO BY ELLEN MEISTER
The Other Life
The Smart One
Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO
IN LOVING MEMORY
The first thing I do in the morning is brush
my teeth and sharpen my tongue.
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER
Violet Epps stood before the maître d’ in the lobby lounge of the Algonquin Hotel, waiting to be noticed. She cleared her throat and he looked up, glancing right past her.
“Who’s next?” he said.
Me, she thought. Me. But before she could summon the courage to get the single syllable across her tongue, a young man behind her spoke up.
“We have a reservation,” he said, putting his arm around the pretty girl at his side. “Dr. Walker.”
Doctor my ass, Violet thought. Guy was maybe twenty-three years old, probably a waiter who just walked over from his afternoon class at the Actors Studio.
Violet closed her eyes and tried to find the gumption she needed to speak up and tell the maître d’ she was there first. But as usual, social anxiety paralyzed her vocal cords. Too bad she couldn’t channel Dorothy Parker the way she did at work.
Violet Epps was a thirty-seven-year-old movie critic whose withering zingers were inspired by the famous wit who had made the Algonquin Hotel her home for many years. Dorothy Parker was Violet’s hero, and not just for her scathing reviews, clever jokes, quotable poetry, and insightful short stories but for her potent social courage. The diminutive Mrs. Parker, as she was often called, was so commanding that even her friends thought of her as larger than life.
So far, Violet had been successful in summoning her muse only when writing her movie reviews. In her personal life, she was held captive by her own timidity. Today, she hoped, would be different. She was meeting her boyfriend, Carl, for dinner, and needed to tell him it was over. She had tried this once before—just a few weeks ago—and failed. Worse, Carl had made a strong case that the only problem with their relationship was that they didn’t spend enough time with each other. He even managed to convince her that if they were together more he would drink less. And so she caved, agreeing to let him move in with her. In two short days it would be happening. Everything in the “apartment” he rented in the basement of his parents’ home would be loaded into a U-Haul and moved to her house.
As the maître d’ led the young couple to their table, Violet glanced inside her oversized handbag, where a tiny bundle of fur lay sleeping. It was Woollcott, a funny-looking little dog who had survived the car crash that killed her sister and brother-in-law. Violet had petitioned for temporary custody of her thirteen-year-old niece, who had also survived the accident, but wound up with the dog.
Violet knew that Dorothy Parker, whose most famous quotes were uttered right here in this room, would have made a glib joke about the trade-off. After all, it was life’s most painful events that brought out Mrs. Parker’s famously wicked sense of humor—like the time she responded to an unwanted pregnancy by saying, That’s what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard.
Violet gave Woollcott a pat. He was, she had discovered, a mellow companion who had a calming effect on her nerves. That was why she had decided to sneak him into this meeting with Carl; if she couldn’t channel Dorothy Parker from the hallowed walls of the Algonquin Hotel, at least she had this little dog to help steady her.
A grab from behind gave Violet a start. It was Carl. She pulled his hands from her waist.
“Hey, babe,” he said. “Where’s our table? Didn’t you tell them who you were?”
“You scared me,” she said.
“But I was just horsing around.”
Violet sighed. What did one thing have to do with the other? Surely she was entitled to be startled regardless of the intent.
But that was Carl. He was so sure he never did anything wrong that you couldn’t suggest otherwise without feeling like you had done something truly villainous.
Violet shook her head. This relationship was not just dead. It was starting to rot.
They had met three years ago at a crafts fair in Stony Brook, Long Island, and Violet was immediately intrigued, as he was the opposite of her rigid ex-husband. Carl McDonald was an artist and looked the part, with a messy mass of long wiry locks, parted in the middle. He was thickset with large hands and bitten nails, which usually had paint embedded deep in the cuticles. Carl had carved out a niche for himself painting nostalgically kitschy designs on small pieces of furniture, and eked out a living selling his work in cramped booths at local shows. Recently, he launched a Web site to try to broaden his customer base.
He was handsome in an offbeat way, and Violet, God help her, loved his disheveled-artist look and the intensity of his dark blue eyes. Yes, he was different, but that was why she felt so immediately electrified. Here was a man with passion—someone who could love. But when they met, she was still on the rebound of her failed marriage and got involved way too soon. What seemed like disarming emotional honesty in the beginning revealed itself to be nothing more than a self-involved kind of neediness. And then there was the drinking.
She leaned in to take a whiff, hoping he hadn’t stopped someplace for a shot or two on his way to meet her. He misinterpreted her body language and responded by kissing her on the mouth with passion more appropriate for a private room than a hotel lobby.
She pushed him away before her body had a chance to react. She was, she believed, too easily stimulated by the smallest touch. “How much did you have to drink?”
“Nothing. Just two little Bud Lights.” He snapped his fingers at the maître d’.
Violet cringed. “Don’t do that,” she whispered. “For God’s sake.”
“Can I help you?” the host asked. He was classically handsome—almost a central-casting version of a maître d’, Violet thought—with dark hair, rigid posture, and a wisp of Middle Eastern accent.
“Reservation for Violet Epps,” Carl said to him, pronouncing her name loudly enough for several diners to overhear. This was typical. He loved having a well-known girlfriend and always thought it was a good idea to use her celebrity to their advantage.
“Yes, of course,” the host answered. “Right this way.”
A few heads turned as they were led to the Round Table Room, which was really just a section in the back of the open lobby. As they made their way past people relaxing in the overstuffed chairs and sofas of the hotel’s famous lounge, Violet heard someone quoting from one of her crankier reviews: The best thing I can say about By the Longhairs is that people who have been given two months to live might be dead before it comes out on DVD.
Violet squirmed. It wasn’t the notoriety that made her uncomfortable. In fact, she liked being cited in newspaper ads and didn’t even mind getting trashed online. But being recognized in public was a horror-film double feature compared to seeing her name in print. She let her hair fall in front of her face.
“Your server will be right with you,” the maître d’ said, as they took their seats.
“Could someone get me a Dewar’s, rocks?” Carl asked.
The host bowed and left. Violet balanced her open bag on her lap and petted Woollcott.
Carl leaned over the table to get a look. “You brought that ugly mutt with you?”
“He’s not ugly,” Violet argued, though she knew she would have a hard time defending that position under cross-examination. He was, without a doubt, one of the oddest-looking dogs she had ever seen. In addition to the dull beige fur that stuck out in every direction, he had a pushed-in snout, round bulgy eyes set too far apart, and a nose and mouth cramped too close together. And though he was her niece’s dog, Violet was the one who had named him. She took one peek at his face and decided he looked like Alexander Woollcott, the famous theater critic of the 1920s and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—the group of wits who met daily for lunch at this very spot.
But unlike his vinegary namesake, this Woollcott was so sweet and docile she considered him the world’s most perfect pet. Without opening his eyes he stuck out his pink tongue and licked her hand. She rubbed his ear.
“I have to talk to you about something,” she said to Carl. “Something important.”
“Is it the garage?” he said. “Because—”
“It’s not the garage.” Ever since she agreed to let him move in, Carl had been badgering her about the detached garage, which he thought would make a perfect studio for him. But it was crammed full of family possessions Violet was not prepared to part with.
“It’s just that there would be so much room in there if we got rid of all that—”
“Carl,” she said, and then hesitated. There was simply no way she was letting him do this. “I can’t—”
“I’ll rent the truck for an extra day and put the stuff in storage myself.”
“Wait,” she said. “Please.” She petted Woollcott again and tried to find the words. She put her head in her hands and mumbled, more to herself than to him, “This isn’t working.”
“What’s the matter? Did I do something wrong? Are you mad about the beer?”
Yes, I’m mad about the beer, she thought. I’m mad that you can always find time to get a buzz on but can never find time to come with me to one of my screenings. I’m mad that it’s always about you and your needs, and never about mine. I’m mad that—
“Because you know I love you,” he said, “right?”
Irrelevant, Violet thought.
“And anyway,” he continued, “I really don’t drink that much.”
“You’re just hung up on the drinking thing.”
I am not.
He reached over and took her hand. “On account of your sister’s accident.”
Okay, so maybe he had a point. She pulled her hand away.
“And what about Delaney?” she asked, referring to her niece.
“What about her?”
“I need a stable environment for her.”
“I know I kind of got off on the wrong foot with her,” he said, “but she’ll warm up to me. I’m great with kids.”
Just say it, she told herself. Three simple words: It’s over, Carl. Then get up and leave. She stroked Woollcott. He picked up his head and looked at her, then gave her hand a lick and went back to sleep. Things were so beautifully simple in a dog’s world. Love, food, slumber.
“This is not...” She paused and swallowed, struggling to finish the sentence as she anticipated his reaction. Please, God, she thought, don’t let him freak out.
“Not what?” he asked.
Violet closed her eyes and tried to summon strength from her surroundings. She imagined the room abuzz with chatter as the members of the Algonquin Round Table ate and drank and traded quips. They were a group of writers and actors who met here for lunch every day for ten years, and their bon mots were printed in newspapers, laughed at over morning coffee, repeated in offices, and celebrated in speakeasies. But the most often quoted of them all was Dorothy Parker. Violet could envision the tiny brunette wedged between the rotund Alexander Woollcott and the very tall Robert Sherwood. And though physically dwarfed by the two men, her presence was gargantuan.
In contrast, Violet did her best to be invisible in a crowd. On the rare occasion that she actually accepted a social invitation, Violet managed to slink her way from the door to the host and back out again without being noticed. And if anyone did happen to spy the lanky woman with the hair in her face, they never would have suspected she was the often-quoted Violet Epps, whose passionate praise shouted from so many full-page movie ads, and whose searing swipes lit up the blogosphere.
Help me, she thought, and envisioned her muse turning her head. Violet looked straight into Dorothy Parker’s eyes, and for a moment the scene was so vivid she could swear she smelled gin and cigarettes. Was it her imagination? She took a deep breath. It was strangely powerful, and yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was smelling history. Where was it coming from? She sniffed her blouse.
“What’s wrong?” Carl asked.
Violet looked around. “Is someone smoking?”
“I don’t smell anything.”
She took another whiff. The scent was gone. Maybe it was her imagination after all.
She leaned back in her seat. When the waiter came with Carl’s scotch and asked her if she wanted something from the bar, Violet pulled her handbag closer and waved him away.
“What were you trying to say before?” Carl asked.
She stared into his drink, thinking about her niece. You can do this, she told herself. Just say it. She swallowed hard, rehearsed the words in her head, asked Dorothy for strength, and then tried to spit it out.
“You,” she said, and choked. C’mon, words.
“Me what?” Carl said.
“I can’t what?”
Violet shut her eyes tight. “You can’t move in this weekend.” There. She did it. She did it, and she wouldn’t back down.
“You want me to postpone the move?”
“Good,” he said. “Because I would probably lose my deposit on the truck.”
“I mean, you can’t move in period.”
He laughed. “Okay, I get it. I won’t pressure you about the garage anymore. At least for now.” He snapped his fingers at the waiter. “Can we see menus, please?”
Violet rubbed her forehead. Please, Dorothy, she thought. Help me out here. Give me something.
She looked up and saw two men approaching their table—the maître d’ and an official-looking man in an expensive suit. The floor shook with their footsteps, and Violet knew she was in trouble. These men were on a mission, and it could be only one thing. The dog. The waiter must have seen him when he delivered Carl’s drink, and now she was busted. Violet knew it would do no good to try to make a case that Dorothy Parker brought her little toy poodle to lunch at the Algonquin almost daily for ten years. They were going to throw her out.
Damn it, Dorothy, she thought. I ask for help and this is what you send?
She quickly threw a cloth napkin over her open bag, her hands trembling. The thought of making a scene terrified her. Please, she thought, let it be over quickly. I’ll just grab my bag and leave.
“Ms. Epps?” the maître d’ said. “I’d like to introduce Barry Beeman, general manager of the Algonquin.”
The suited man thrust his hand at Violet, and she shook it. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “Here at the Algonquin we’re big fans of the reviewer who’s been called ‘the modern Dorothy Parker,’ and we’d be honored to have you sign our priceless guest book.” He leaned over and placed an antique leather-bound volume in front of her.
“Guest book?” she said.
“It belonged to Percy Coates,” he began, a...
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