"Okay everyone," Isobel Johnson called to her class as the bell rang. She put her Nalgene bottle down on the desk corner and pushed her black pencil into her falling-out bun. "Books open! Let's talk about Gatsby's drive into the city. Big stuff!" Fifth-period American Lit was usually a highlight, the second of three sections she taught in addition to her two ninth-grade classes. Today though, a weight had settled in Isobel's stomach. Every time she caught herself enjoying her students, she began to wonder which of their parents might have left that voicemail. The words replayed in her head: "Marxist" and "anti-American" and "for the sake of your career."
Certainly, Isobel thought, it wasn't Sarah Smith's mother. Isobel watched Sarah walk to her seat, lean toward Erin Warner and whisper something, her curly brown hair skimming Erin's desktop. They giggled, and Sarah glanced across the room at Andrew Abbott. The two of them had arrived together at the Sadie's dance just as Julia Abbott had said that mean-spirited thing to Isobel. She'd been getting along with the Abbott kids, but clearly that wasn't enough for their mother.
The bell rang then, three beeps from the intercom. Isobel licked her teeth behind her lips and cleared her throat, resisting a sidelong glance at Andrew. "Did anyone have a hankering to start our discussion today?" she asked, quieting the students. Maeve's arm popped up, bent at the elbow.
"Ms. Hollister," she prompted. It couldn't be Maeve's mother, Isobel thought as the girl began to speak. Maeve was invariably enthusiastic, and she'd given Isobel a box of Godiva as she'd left for winter break. Perhaps Mrs. Hollister wasn't friends with Julia Abbott.
"Did anyone notice those eyes on the billboard?" Maeve asked. "Right over Wilson's garage?"
"What a marvelous place to start." Isobel tapped a pencil eraser on Allen Song's desk, and Allen promptly dropped his cellphone into the front of his backpack. Isobel gave him an exasperated stare and looked back at Maeve. "Maeve, tell us," she continued, "what struck you about those eyes?"
"Um, the color, for starters? The blue seemed to create such a..." she paused, looking at the ceiling. Isobel followed her gaze up to the speckled foam tiles wedged in their aluminum grid. "It created such a stark contrast to the brown of Myrtle's dress."
Isobel could always count on Maeve. She took a step away from her desk toward the first row of students, her low heels skimming the thin carpet. "I'm so glad you brought up color," she said. "And why would Fitzgerald want us to notice a contrast at this particular moment?" The front of Allen Song's backpack buzzed. "Allen!" Isobel said, theatrically. "How hard is it just to turn it off?"
"Sorry, Ms. Johnson. It's my mom. She's relentless."
"Your mother is texting you?" Isobel put her hands on her hips. This was typical, actually. Liston Heights parents didn't like to wait until dinner to hear the news of the day. "Doesn't your mom know you're in the most important class?"
"The cast list for Ellis Island is getting posted at 2:30," Allen apologized. "My mom's a little nervous."
"Of course." Isobel's sarcasm elicited a few generous giggles. "Well, to keep her busy for the next forty-five minutes, why don't you ask your mom to construct a theory about the significance of the colors of Jay Gatsby's car?"
"Really?" Allen asked, reaching for his bag.
"No! Just switch it off, would you? Now everyone," she scanned the room, lingering just a half-second longer on Andrew, who looked placid, "what can we say about the colors?"
At lunchtime Julia picked at a blueberry and goat cheese salad. Her phone pinged the arrival of a text from Robin Bergstrom. "Anika says cast list will be posted at 2:30." Julia inhaled sharply and rotated her sterling silver Tiffany bangle, an ages-old gift from her mother, around her wrist.
While Tracy had been busy doing pull-out enrichment projects, Andrew had tried out for every theater production since seventh grade. He'd finally, as a ninth grader, been cast as Ticket Seller #2 in some incomprehensible show about a shipwreck. Still, Julia and Henry had built sets on a Saturday and hosted the end-of-run cast and crew party. The next year, Julia had had her heart set on a speaking role for her son.
Andrew, alas, had won the part of Prop Master. She'd been livid. Nonetheless, she'd gritted her teeth and smiled when John Dittmer, famed Liston Heights theater director, complimented Andrew's impeccable organization on opening night. "He found all the props and costumes we needed!" he gushed. "Even the emerald-green, size-11 pumps!" Of course, it had been Julia herself who scoured every second-hand store in the greater Liston Heights area to get her hands on those hideous shoes for Melissa Young. Who'd ever heard of a high school girl—and a thin one at that!—with size 11 feet? And with an untrained alto? In a lead role?
At the Percys' holiday party that year she'd put a bug in the ear of the Theater Boosters' chair about Melissa Young's faults as a romantic heroine. "She's four inches taller than Allen Song," she'd whisper-shouted. Not to mention, she thought, her enormous feet. "Of course," she clarified, "I'm 100% in favor of a multi-racial lead couple."
This year's musical, 'Ellis Island', had a perfect mid-sized role for Andrew, who had dutifully taken voice and dance lessons every week throughout the summer between his sophomore and junior years. Meanwhile, Julia had ingratiated herself to Allen Song's mother at the juice bar after hot yoga. Vivian Song, the new Board Chair, had breezily offered her the communications position on the Theater Boosters. So this—Andrew's junior year and just in time for college applications—had to be his moment. The part of Inspector Adams had a short vocal solo and several humorous lines. As a senior then, he'd be primed to headline.
Two-thirty couldn't come soon enough.
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE HENNA ARTIST by Alka Joshi.