“Pale Male” is classic Beattie, that “seamless combination of biting wit and mordant humor, precise irony and consummate cool” the New York Times wrote of her 2010 anthology, The New Yorker Stories, which was selected as one of the newspaper’s ten best books of the year. Read our full bio of Ann Beattie here.
“You can’t be home when people start coming,” Jennifer said to her stepmother. “Nobody wants to be announced like it’s some big thing. Could you at least keep your clothes on so people don’t think you’re part of the sleepover because you’re greeting everybody in a robe, when you could be anywhere else in the entire world, like it’s a party or a masked ball or something?”
Byrd looked over the top of her glasses and dropped the magazine she was reading on the bed. Jennifer’s eyes seemed to be all pupils—the result not of drugs, she supposed, but of the numerous energy-efficient bulbs now glowing in the apartment’s monstrously large ceiling fixture that hung almost directly over Jennifer’s head. The super, who’d replaced the old bulbs that afternoon, had staggered down the ladder almost blinded, as if he’d had an epiphany and changed his mind on the way to Damascus. Byrd still had trouble believing she’d married a man whose first wife had named her only child Jennifer. If she’d had more, they would have been named—as Jennifer’s friends really had been named—Courtney, Allison, and Zoe.
“I could pull the sheet over my head and lie very still the entire night. Come practice with me. We’ll see who can stay perfectly still longest.” Byrd slid lower in the bed, under the sheet, but of course it would not cover her head because Marta had made the bed correctly. Turning into a mummy would also require putting her wet glass of San Pellegrino on the coaster.
“Please, thank you so much, I’m glad we understand each other,” Jennifer said, turning away. Byrd could see that Jennifer wanted to have the courage to pull the door shut. She lacked it.
“Close my door,” Byrd said tiredly. “Please.”
These urban kids fetishized nature. In preschool, they’d observed too many tadpoles morphing in aquariums, become accustomed to white-noise machines mutely gargling the rush of waterfalls all night. Zoe—the first of Jennifer’s guests to arrive—had the distinction of living at 927 5th Avenue, where Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk, had become the media’s darling when he and his mate built a nest above the doorway of an elite building across from Central Park, at first upsetting the tenants but quickly winning everyone’s hearts. The birds were a natural gift; they’d blessed the building’s occupants with their magical presence.
Tonight, Zoe had brought with her a camouflage tent. It popped open like an enormous diaphragm. Of course, these girls wouldn’t know what a diaphragm was. They would have thought it was a Frisbee for a Bichon Frise. The tent had sprung into place in the living room amid laughter, high-fiving, and the toppling of a red vase holding one yellow tulip. The crack lit up like lightning across the coffee table’s glass top. Jennifer and Courtney stared at Byrd, and—inexplicably—Jennifer ran behind her, where she centered her forehead in Byrd’s back, as if chaos had suddenly erupted during a private moment of prayer. When Byrd met Jennifer six years before, the nine-year-old had run behind her father and tried to hide, also. Seeing the cracked glass, Zoe cupped her hands anesthesia-style over her big honker of a nose.
“The crack lit up like lightning across the coffee table’s glass top.”
“Why would you be putting up a tent in the living room, girls?” Byrd asked.
“Byrd, it’s our fault and we’ll pay for it,” Jennifer said.
“Even if you do, I think it’s within my rights to know what the plan was here,” Byrd said, hating how stuffy she sounded. Did they really need a coffee table? Wouldn’t a magazine rack have served the same purpose?
“My parents got it to go to California this summer, and I wanted to try it out,” Zoe said. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Hallaby.”
“I brought glow-in-the-dark stars,” Allison said weakly. “This is so effed up.”
“If we take the table down to the incinerator, maybe your dad won’t notice it’s missing,” Byrd said.
“It’s a perfectly nice table,” Zoe said. Zoe was always good at upsetting herself so that you had to turn all your attention to her.
Jennifer said, “I don’t think the solution is to dump the furniture, Byrd.”
“Well, I do,” Byrd said. “I’ll call Mr. Egil and have him get it out of here. Let you have enough room to sprawl out and enjoy your new homestead.”
“God, you’re like one of those people who’d drag the body out on a tarp, or something,” Jennifer said. “We said sorry. We can get new glass.”
“I just want to go home and think none of it ever happened,” Zoe said.
“I don’t think this requires time travel, Zoe,” Byrd said. “May I join you girls in a cold drink? I made lemonade this afternoon. Then I’ll call Mr. Egil.”
“He’s gone with that St. Bernard,” Jennifer said. “They pay him to walk it about a million times around the block. He was going out when I went down to meet Zoe.”
“ ‘I just want to go home and think none of it ever happened,’ Zoe said.”
Zoe’s parents would not drop her off anywhere if a friend wasn’t there to meet her. Late at night, Zoe’s aunt had been abducted by a so-called security guard when she’d gone back to the office building she worked in to search for her house keys.
“My stars are, like, pathetic now,” Allison said.
Courtney, kneeling silently where she’d sunk onto the Oriental rug the minute the vase hit the glass, did not make eye contact with Byrd, because Byrd was an adult. Also, when any of the parents knew each other from elsewhere—Byrd barely knew Courtney’s mother, because she’d been a sorority girl at UVA and Byrd hadn’t—the children acted as if prior friendships immediately indicated collusion.
“I told Zoe it would be bad luck to put up a tent inside, like opening an umbrella indoors,” Courtney said softly.
“You have all these superstitions that stop you from doing anything fun ever,” Allison said. “You told me not to buy stars! You acted like I was buying a bomb, Courtney.”
“So I guess nobody wants me at their party,” Courtney said, eyes welling with tears. “There’s still time to go home and ride up to Hudson with my sister.” Her knees were red from kneeling. She was the only girl who’d come in a skirt. Since skirts reminded them of their school uniform, they almost never wore them. Which was a shame, Byrd thought, because their bare legs were so lovely.
“Courtney, you’re punishing everybody because Allison said what she thought,” Zoe said, her voice octaves lower than when she’d first spoken. It sounded almost like Zoe was talking into a bottle.
Byrd, barefoot, in her inexcusably saggy green chenille robe, padded toward the kitchen. Jennifer ran to her side, perhaps having finally decided that she should be a good hostess. Byrd was betting Courtney would stay. Zoe seemed to have stabilized. Allison was okay. Allison was always, ultimately, okay. In the kitchen, she took down stemless wine glasses. Silently, as the girls argued and giggled in the living room, Byrd poured. Byrd handed Jennifer a little dish of lime slices, which the girl cut into delicately with a knife and placed on the rims, like someone with newly pierced ears inserting earrings. Trays. Whatever happened to trays? She carried three glasses, Jennifer two. The girls were all smiles when they returned.
“In the kitchen, she took down stemless wine glasses. Silently, as the girls argued and giggled in the living room, Byrd poured.”
From the bedroom, Byrd made the call to Dennis—it was Dennis at the front desk now: when Mr. Egil got back, would he please come remove a piece of broken furniture? “He and his dog friend might have gone to rescue climbers in the Alps, he’s been gone so long, Mrs. Hallaby,” Dennis responded. Three days a week, before coming to work, he was studying “advanced tap.” He said he’d leave a note about the problem for Egil, as he called him, if he, himself, had to go off duty before Mr. Egil returned. Byrd thanked him and hung up, went into the ensuite bathroom only to hear the phone ring again. It would be Dennis. She let it ring as she began to smooth Kiehl’s moisturizer on her face. When she’d been a student, she’d used so many creams and gels, hoping to keep her skin young looking. Now, she’d abandoned them for simple prayer, with the exception of the Kiehl’s. The voice control was turned on. Let the answering machine pick up. But it was John’s doctor! She ran to pick up the receiver, sticky-fingered. A glow-in-the-dark star had adhered to the hem of her robe, as if she’d been walking through celestial brambles.
She was “Mrs. Hallaby” to this man also. This doctor was at least twenty years her senior. The antidepressant had had side effects, so they’d begun tapering John off, but the psychiatrist felt the next medication would work. But John seemed to think that Byrd was coming the next day to get him. Had he found a way to contact her? And was there any truth to that?
He had not. No truth to it.
She would tell him if they’d spoken, wouldn’t she?
She assured the doctor that she hadn’t heard from John. Was the doctor saying that he’d taken a turn for the worse? She hurried to say what she always said: John hadn’t seemed depressed when he told her how much he secretly drank; he knew he needed help. (When he’d first said that he had something important to say, she’d of course assumed he had fallen in love with someone else.) He’d seemed his same stable, reasonable self—except for confessing to being an alcoholic. Which had so surprised her.
She suspected that the doctor wanted to hear her say more so he could judge whether she was telling the truth. She was. She was the only woman in the world who checked her email once a week, and because John knew that—he found her, in so many ways, endearingly old-fashioned; he called her his perfect Southern debutante, though she’d never been that—it would be very unlikely that he’d try to contact her that way. But yes, yes, she’d call back if she was mistaken.
When she hung up, she walked to the window and looked out over the skyline. The city’s pink haze floated like the prettiest area in a Rothko painting. The spires and rooftop water tanks, the bits of neon, the vertical blinds open in the new hotel … it was drag-queen New York, all made up, counting on the same appreciative audience every night: the audience that liked impersonation better than originality; the people who believed in campy homage rather than looking toward the future: if it could speak, it would say, “Don’t you dare not smile; don’t you dare not love me.”
When she met John, she’d just graduated from Virginia, where she’d been an art history major, and had a summer job as the hostess at a SoHo restaurant: Byrd Rose Gilcrest, from Louisville, Kentucky. She’d gone to spend the summer with her cousin Bruce in New York, who let her sleep on the futon in exchange for cleaning the apartment and lying to his mother by telling her he dated girls. Soon everything changed: she didn’t see so much of her cousin, and she began staying at John’s. Such a dream of a bed John had slept in—pillow-topped, king-sized, the white duvet a happily settled cloud. Now the bed she’d first slept in with John had become her bed, too, though he was somewhere else, lost in the cosmos. Since she liked stars and the night sky, why didn’t she still take late night walks? Didn’t people do that, to sort out their thoughts? John had told her he was an alcoholic; it was the unspoken reason why his first marriage had failed. The reason he kept losing his cell phone, so many things, his own shirts, lost between the dry cleaners and home. And then, of course, he’d lost (in the cab, though he couldn’t swear he’d taken a cab) her favorite dress, the one her mother had sent her from a shop in Barracks Road. She’d burst into tears when John came home without it: not that, not the prescription he was supposed to pick up, not with the pizza he’d promised, either. She’d been entirely oblivious to his drinking problem. She’d really thought he liked poisonous little mints that stung your tongue. She’d never thought about how often he brushed his teeth.
A knock came on the door. She got up, surprised that the girls had fallen quiet. Feet protruded from the tent. The glow from within was probably an iPad. She opened the door and saw Dennis, wearing his improvised uniform of black jeans, white shirt, string tie, and thrift-store black jacket.
“I can do it myself. What exactly is broken, Mrs. Hallaby?” he asked.
“It’s the coffee table. The glass is broken, but I want the whole thing out of here. It’s heavy, Dennis.”
“You want me to put it in the storage room and call somebody to repair it?”
“I just want it to disappear. Like it was never here.”
“Coffee table do something to offend you, Mrs. H.?”
They stood looking at it. “Well, if you don’t mind, I might keep it for a while in storage,” he said, frowning at the glass.
“Prince Charming?” came a high-pitched squeak from the tent. “Shut up, retard!” Jennifer said. The legs protruded further, feet kicked. There was laughter. A foot pushed into the tent’s side.
“No, just Dennis, from the front desk,” he said. “Story of my life.” If he thought the tent was unusual, he didn’t let on. He had perfect New York manners, which much resembled Southern manners: you just took care not to notice.
“Mrs. H., I’m going to bring a cart in. Just a sec,” he said, turning and walking down the corridor.
“Somebody thinks Dennis is cute because somebody likes older men,” Byrd heard Jennifer say.
“I do not,” Courtney said. “He’s the doorman, Jennifer!”
“Shut up, stupid Cinderella with your size-nine feet.”
“You think every man you meet is going to be your prince,” Jennifer sneered.
“Okay,” Dennis said, returning. He had to bend over to pull the table on the dolly. Where had that old thing come from? Dennis always found a way to accomplish whatever he wanted. Everything but move out of his mother’s apartment in Queens, Byrd though sympathetically.
“No problem,” Dennis said, sliding the glass slowly onto the dolly. “I’ll get rid of this so nobody gets hurt, then come back for the base. Okay,” he said, agreeing with himself.
“Dennis!” somebody squealed in falsetto, inside the tent. The sound of a hand muffling a mouth was audible, almost a slap.
Dennis shook his head at Byrd. She stood aside so he could swivel the dolly. Out it went. He returned five minutes later for the rest and wrestled it out in his arms, sway-backed, legs wide apart to stay balanced.
Byrd thought she should not tuck a twenty in his jacket pocket but put the money in an envelope and give it to him later, like a proper thank-you. They were both Southern. He knew she would do the right thing. She thanked him sincerely and promised to cause him no more trouble that night.
“That all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun,” he stage-whispered over his shoulder as he left. She smiled, but couldn’t place it: Shakespeare? Dennis had recently been in an off-off-Broadway production of The Tempest. Or was it some nursery rhyme?
She returned to her bedroom. When John wasn’t home, she never closed the blinds. She often looked at the sky from a horizontal position, so that its non-black, tinged with pink, gave the illusion of being contained in her windows. She was glad the girls were having their sleepover. It made her more sure that Jennifer wouldn’t jump into her bed in the middle of the night, which of course she never criticized her for. These nightmares tended to come on nights when she had a test in school the next day, Byrd had noticed. It would be another week before they could visit John again. This time they’d take the train—an adventure. (It also might inhibit Jennifer, who’d been hysterical returning to New York after the last visit—so much so that Byrd had had to pull off the highway twice. “It didn’t look like him. He’s getting fat. His face was a mask,” Jennifer had sobbed.)
Quiet, quiet. Could they all be exhausted? Overachieving, self-absorbed Zoe? Insecure, immature Allison? Courtney, her assertiveness undercut by whiplash self-doubt? Jennifer … how would the other girls see Jennifer? They might resent her, because she was by far the prettiest. A pretty half orphan, Byrd thought. Because Jennifer’s mother had all but disappeared in Rome, and now her father had had to go away, which left her with only Byrd, who was nobody, really. Was that the way Byrd still thought of herself? That had been what she’d told her cousin Bruce, after the first amazing weekend she’d spent with John. She’d said, “We were in his friend’s private plane, flying to Aspen, and we had champagne and ice cream for dinner, and we all got in the outdoor hot tub. The bedroom was painted with black lacquer. What would he want with a nobody?”
“Mrs. Hallaby?” came a voice at the door, lightly tapping.
“What?” Byrd said, rising, her robe suddenly tied very tightly, so that she almost could not sit up at all, as if someone had tied a tourniquet around her.
“Would you read us a ghost story?”
It was Allison. Childish Allison. Or maybe mature Allison, making an effort to include her. If that was the case, she must certainly go out and read to them if that was what they wanted.
The tent’s roof was covered with Allison’s not exactly radiant stars. The girls were all so thin—that was how so many could fit in one tent. The plan was to open the flap and have Byrd read a tale from Edgar Allan Poe. Not Stephen King? She was touched when Poe’s book was put in her hand. Poe was to Stephen King as diaphragm was to pill. The girls scrambled for comfort before she began.
“Did you know that every year, on the anniversary of Poe’s death, a mysterious stranger leaves three roses on his grave?” Byrd asked. “No one sees the person come or go, but the flowers are always there. He’s buried in Baltimore. He was so young when he died. I don’t think anyone can say for sure what he died of, though he lived a terrible life.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly Byrd saw herself as Zoe must have seen her: yet another adult who wasn’t sticking to the plan, who thought she’d found a coded way to talk to them about what she thought was important.
“I think I heard about that Poe thing on The Wire,” Courtney said, as Byrd opened the book and began reading aloud one of her favorites.
Hours later, Allison came to her door and turned the glass doorknob without even a modest tap first, to say, “Is Courtney here?” These sleepovers were always a pain: muffins made at 3 a.m.; cell phones ringing with music from Sweeney Todd in the middle of the night.
“Go back to sleep,” Bird mumbled.
“She’s not anywhere,” Allison said. “I got up to pee, and I can’t find her.”
“She’s probably sleeping somewhere comfortable,” Byrd said. But by now she was awake. Her robe was on the bedpost, but she left it there. She pulled on one of John’s old shirts thrown on what was usually his side of the bed. She followed Allison out of the room.
“She wasn’t in the tent when I got up, and she wasn’t anywhere else, either,” Allison said tremulously.
They tiptoed through the living room. Byrd supposed that this might be one of those times that having a seven-room apartment was not an advantage. There was a tiny room off the kitchen that Byrd thought Courtney must be sleeping in. It had been a pantry, but the shelves had been taken out when the kitchen was remodeled. Byrd had decided not to replace them, but to put a tiny desk in there. She could almost see Courtney curled up beneath it, on the super-thick rug.
Next, Byrd pulled back the Marimekko shower curtain in the long, thin bathroom. She opened the linen closet, the one Marta was always saying needed rearranging. Courtney was not among the closet’s contents. She looked in Jennifer’s bedroom. She looked in the guest bedroom, where the broken grandfather clock sat next to the broken NordicTrac. Geodes sparkled from a little plastic shelf on the otherwise empty wall. There’d been an Alex Katz painting in the room, but it had sold a year ago at Sotheby’s. If she hadn’t known John collected geodes, how would she have known he drank at work?
“She has to be here. She wouldn’t have gone with her sister, would she? Remember that she was—”
Byrd thought to look at the chain on the front door. She almost ran down the corridor, an odd lightness making her aware of her ribs. Courtney had let herself out. She’d slipped the chain and gone. They’d been sleeping in an unlocked apartment. Well, thank God somebody was at the desk. She pushed the intercom button. “Yesssss,” came Mr. Egil’s sleepy voice.
“One of Jennifer’s friends!” she said. “Did you see—” she lost her voice.
“She’s asleep with RX,” he said. “She came down and wanted to talk. We took RX for a walk. Dr. Miller had an emergency and went straight from some party to the hospital, and Mrs. M. doesn’t want the dog in the apartment. Gosh, I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hallaby. I never thought you’d be awake at 4:30.”
“She’s in the lobby,” Byrd said dully to Allison, who was biting her cuticles. “She’s with the doorman.”
“Why?” Allison said. It was almost a wail.
“Be quiet!” Jennifer said, coming into the hallway.
“Courtney left the apartment and left the door unlocked, too. It scared the hell out of us,” Byrd said. “You know where Courtney thinks it’s okay to be? On the floor in the lobby, curled up asleep with a dog. She is never to spend the night here again, ever. Now go get her and bring her upstairs.”
“I thought she was dead,” Allison said.
“Don’t stand there with that expression on your face,” Byrd said. “I said to go downstairs, Jennifer, and bring back your irresponsible friend. Do you see how upset Allison is?”
“Courtney’s pretty upset, herself, because she’s pregnant,” Jennifer replied.
“I don’t care if she’s pregnant!” Allison shrieked. “She wants to make everybody take care of her all the time, she just wants to have whatever she wants the minute she wants it, and she doesn’t care about any of us, you either, Jennifer. She told me she was thinking about killing herself, and I thought she did.” Tears rolled down Allison’s face. “You’re the one who thinks she’s so great.”
“Courtney is pregnant? Do her parents know?” Byrd said.
“Her sister does,” Jennifer said. “You don’t have to go ballistic just because you got scared, Allison. You’re worried all the time whether Courtney likes me more than you, and she does, but so what? So what, Allison?”
“Stop it!” Byrd said. “Jennifer, whatever is going on with Courtney, I’m telling you to go bring her back.”
“Why, so you can be another adult who tells her she’s stupid? Is that what you think she needs? Lemonade,” Jennifer said, almost spitting out the last word.
“What’s happening?” Zoe said, stumbling out to the hallway.
“Zoe,” Byrd said, “Courtney left the apartment without permission, and she’s in the lobby. This is your sleepover, not the doorman’s. Since neither of her friends is willing to go get her, apparently, you can do it. Please,” she added, a few seconds too late.
“I should get Courtney? What’s really going on?”
“Zoe, someday you will make a great lawyer, but please do as I ask. What’s really going on is that I want to tell Courtney how much her actions upset me, and then I want to go back to bed.”
“I was the one who noticed she was missing,” Allison said.
“Allison, you’re such a tattletale,” Jennifer said. She turned and stomped down the hall in her Snoopy nightgown. All the time she’d been talking, Byrd had been looking at Snoopy, on top of his doghouse, writing: IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT.
“Jennifer’s mean,” Allison said to Byrd. “I don’t think it’s only Courtney who won’t come to a sleepover again. That will be impossible for me, too.”
Jennifer was out the door. For once, Zoe had nothing to say. Which pleased Byrd, because she didn’t think she had it in her to say one rational, consoling word to the girl. Did she have the energy to thank Allison for having alerted her that Courtney was missing? As for Jennifer, she’d explain, once her friends had gone, that when she told her to do something, which she so rarely did, she expected her to do it. If Bryd wasn’t in charge, who was? Jennifer’s father?
Who at that moment stood in the doorway, his shirttail hanging out, a key held between thumb and first finger: John, wearing ill-fitting slacks and a shirt Byrd had never seen, holding the hand of his daughter, whose other hand held the hand of a yawning Courtney. Nearby hovered Mr. Egil. John was unsteady, his bloodshot eyes glowing beneath a cut on his forehead smeared with dried blood. He raised his hand, touched his lips, and blew her a kiss. Even RX walked in, trailing his thick leash, drool at the corners of his mouth like melting stalactites. They continued forward, as if by fixing their eyes on her and staring her down they could arrest her thoughts: What is John doing here? What am I doing here? Who’s to take care of the fledglings?