Pete and Killian were divorced on a Thursday afternoon early in November. It was an unremarkable enough day on the face of it. The freeways, the vital circulatory system that made it all possible, were clear and streaming throughout the urban sprawl. The beaches were overcast, with sunshine in the mountains and upper deserts. The temperature registered seventy-seven degrees at the Civic Center, and there was smog in the basin.
The big court building beneath the common pall of haze generated its own temperature of course and, for that matter, its own peculiar climate. As it happened, Cynny Holman was there that same Thursday afternoon, engaged upon a similar though unrelated matter. While Killian was making her way up through the subterranean parking levels, Cynny was already in the courtroom, one of a number of identical wood-paneled boxes which lined the corridors of the building, floor upon floor.
The court was momentarily quiet except for the surreptitious rustle of a newspaper from somewhere among the spectators. The judge coughed softly and turned his chair on the swivel, tilting it a little in order to rest his back.
"You say he was frequently absent from home for several days at a time?"
Cynny was in the witness chair on his right, her hands folded over her purse. She was feeling more nervous than she had expected and kept her eyes fixed upon the well-shaven face above the black robe, avoiding the rows of spectators below. Most of all, she did not want to look at Janet in her chic black-and-white dress, seated erect and alert between the lawyers at the counsel table in front of the bench.
"Yes, that's correct," Cynny said. "It was very upsetting to Mrs. Anderson, naturally. And very difficult and embarrassing for her to try to carry on their normal social life. I remember one occasion, my husband and I attended a dinner party at their home and Mr. Anderson simply didn't appear at all. Mrs. Anderson held up dinner as long as she could, she obviously was upset and under great strain. Finally she made some very feeble sort of explanation that she had reached him by phone and he was detained on business, and she served without him. All through dinner she seemed to be trying not to burst into tears."
Someone departed through the doors at the rear, and there was the sudden sound of intermingled voices and footsteps from the corridor outside, a brief thrust of life into the air-conditioned insularity of the courtroom. The doors swung shut again, and the room hushed. Among the rows of spectators (most of whom were pairs of women bound on a similar errand), a woman murmured to her attorney, and the bailiff stared at her warningly.
"And on occasions when he did appear with her at social gatherings, what was Mr. Anderson's behavior toward his wife?" the judge asked, teetering his chair comfortably.
Cynny looked into his plump face and wondered if this man really could have the least possible interest in learning that. It seemed more likely that through the years he had trained himself not to listen to a single word of this, one more dreary recital of the same clichés and half-truths that he must hear repeated every day that he sat on this bench.
"He behaved very badly," she said in her clear, unhurried voice. "It was really terribly embarrassing. Either he would make a point of ignoring Mrs. Anderson in a cruel, obvious way, or he would say the most cutting and unkind things to her in a humorous -- well, in the guise of humor but it wasn't in the least funny. His attitude in every way, he seemed to be constantly belittling her."
"Belittling," the judge murmured. "Yes."
Have I said the magic word, Cynny wondered. And within her mind the stolid man on the bench was transformed into an IBM card-sorting machine, chastely draped in a black robe and sifting through punch cards with tremendous speed and efficiency for the right combination of clichés to fit the formula. What could the formula be, three cruels plus two tearses, four humiliatings, and one belittle, all equal to one blow struck before witnesses? All the cards flashing back and forth until finally, triumphantly, the last card fell into the last slot, bingo, decree granted! Cynny studied the handles of her black leather purse to refocus.
"I recall one very typical incident that happened at a cocktail party last summer," she said. "Janet, Mrs. Anderson, was standing with four or five other people, she was telling a story, just something amusing that had happened to her that day. She tells such stories very well, she's very witty and entertaining. Mr. Anderson came up behind her all at once while she was talking, she had no idea that he was there. And he began to -- well, to mimic her, a sort of pantomime without any sound, very exaggerated and terribly unkind, waving his hands and tipping his head from side to side, raising and lowering his eyebrows, pretending to be talking very rapidly. Mrs. Anderson finally sensed that something was wrong. She stopped and turned round. Mr. Anderson laughed then in a very sarcastic way and walked off. There were things like that that were very humiliating for her."
Poor Fred, Cynny thought with faint disgust, what a shabby story to repeat to anyone. I like Fred Anderson, I always have. In many ways, he is a much kinder human being than Janet is.
The judge turned back to his desk suddenly, stacking together several papers with an air of finality. "I assume this had a detrimental effect upon Mrs. Anderson's health," he said neutrally. "She cried a great deal and -- "
"Oh, yes," Cynny rushed, with the guilty feeling that she had been cued back to her lines. She was nervous no longer, only a little tired now, the beginnings of a headache behind her eyes, and anxious to be done.
"Mrs. Anderson lost a great deal of weight, she was under a doctor's care. I remember one particular occasion when she telephoned me early this fall, it was the night before her son's birthday actually. Both children were arriving from school the next day, and Mr. Anderson hadn't come home. She was worn out and really quite hysterical. It was very late but I reached her doctor finally, and he came over and gave her sedatives so that she was able to sleep. I would say all this had a very detrimental effect upon her health."
"Yes," the judge murmured. And then he added, with a glance at the counsel table, "If there are no questions, you may step down, Mrs. Holman."
"Thank you, Mrs. Holman."
The uniformed bailiff opened the little swinging gate, and Cynny descended the steps. The younger of Janet's pair of lawyers was on his feet, pulling out the chair for her at the counsel table, and she whispered her thanks, smiling. As she sat down, Janet was just rising in answer to her own summons to the witness stand. The two women exchanged swift looks of commiseration and encouragement. Cynny settled herself in the chair, relieved to be, once more, rejoined with the anonymous aggregate of spectators in the courtroom.
Janet was sworn in and turned expectantly toward the judge, composed and elegant. Cynny listened only long enough to note that Janet was carrying it all off with great style, just the proper mixture of indignation, wry humor, hurt pride, and grief. And then, with a little twinge of distaste, Cynny closed her ears. She sat erect and motionless, hands folded, a small, slim woman in a tweed suit, hatless, smooth, dark hair and a quiet face with traces of humor at the mouth and eyes.
For a time, she watched the court stenographer, a young woman with glasses and elaborately coiffed blond hair, whose fingers flew over her silent little machine. And then her gaze wandered back to the judge in his black robe, seated behind his high desk flanked on either side by the American and California State flags, hanging limp. Had he indeed mastered the trick of listening with one ear so that his mind now roamed over golf scores and stock quotations? Did he long for nothing more complicated at this moment than an Alka-Seltzer and an unhurried trip to the bathroom, or did he ever fall prey to flashes of human curiosity, the nagging desire to cut through all the idiotic verbiage and learn what actually had happened between Fred and Janet or any of the countless other Freds and Janets who appeared before him? How absurd and ridiculous it really was, she thought. Why was it not possible to come here and tell the simple truth of the matter? The simple, unextraordinary truth, that Fred and Janet had -- what? She puzzled over it briefly. Had outlived their period of strong sexual attraction, she supposed, as most married couples did, had substituted other shared interests for it, primarily the rearing of their children. But years pass and children grow older. Married people live separate enough lives at best these days, the points of real contact can become fewer and fewer. If people have not developed a strong need for each other somewhere along the line, what is there finally left to hold them together?
And once that point was reached, she thought wryly, it all became a matter of time and opportunity and individual temperament, didn't it? After all, there were always new sexual attractions, and people never outlive their need to feel important, to love and be loved. Either they limped along together, taking out on each other their resentments at their deprivation, or they found opportunities to satisfy their needs elsewhere, through lovers, children, friends. In this case, it was Fred who, a year or so ago, started an affair with a girl from his office who was fifteen years younger than Janet, a divorcée with two young children. And now they were all here today, primarily because Fred had decided that it was worth the property settlement to him to obtain the divorce and marry this girl. And worth a certain extra generosity in the settlement agreement if Janet would refrain from bringing up her name in court. And there it was. No one's fault really, not Fred's, not Janet's, just the way things happened.
Janet's testimony came to an end just then, and she returned to her place at the table. The judge began examining the documents pertaining to the property settlement, and there was a noticeable sharpening of attention throughout the courtroom. At some point he raised a question that brought both sets of lawyers to their feet, and Janet leaned forward, her face strained, reaching out to Cynny's hand beside her, pointed nails digging hard into Cynny's flesh.
And then it was over. Janet's lawyer turned away from the bench, smiling. He lifted Janet from her chair with a hand beneath her elbow, and Cynny too, propelling them both with him to the doors, while the younger member of the firm packed away papers behind them.
Outside, they were engulfed by the noise and confusion of the wide marble corridor, and the lawyer was saying, "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"You speak for yourself, Ed Hines," Janet said. "It was perfectly ghastly. For a minute there I thought that miserable judge was going to throw out the entire property settlement. I nearly died!"
"Well, I warned you about the judge," the lawyer said genially. "Didn't I tell you that for some reason he's had it in for you girls lately? If your settlement hadn't been nailed down to the last detail, I'd have wrangled a change of calendar, you can be damn sure of that."
"Absolutely ghastly," Janet said again. "Cynny, you were wonderful, darling. The perfect witness."
"She's right, Mrs. Holman," the lawyer said. "You looked damn good. You stayed right to your points, and so did you, Janet. I was proud of you both."
Cynny murmured deprecatingly, her eyes on Janet. She was talking too rapidly, Cynny thought, her eyes too bright, hands moving too quickly as she fumbled inside her purse.
"Here, have one of mine." The lawyer held out the cigarette package to them both.
"Well, thank God it's over, that's all I can say," Janet was saying. "Are there telephones? I promised Mollie I'd phone her the instant this was finished."
The lawyer held the lighter for each of them in turn. "Look, you girls have phone calls to make, and powder your noses and all that. There is an errand I could do upstairs since I'm here anyway. Suppose I meet you in a half hour or so? Then we'll go back to the Pavilion for a drink before we leave for the airport, all right?"
"Marvelous," Janet said. "You don't have to dash off right this minute, do you, Cynny? Please don't."
"No, of course not," Cynny said.
"Do you have change for the telephones?" The lawyer scooped a handful of coins from his trousers pocket as he spoke.
"My God, at this moment I don't know what I've got," Janet said, picking silver from his palm. "I'm so happy this is over that I could dance a fandango right down the hallway!"
"I told you it would be all right, didn't I? Be good now. See you girls in a few minutes." He moved off toward the bank of elevators.
Cynny reached out to Janet's arm. "The phone booths are down here at the end, love. Right outside the ladies'."
"Good." Janet set off so fast that Cynny hurried to keep up with her. "I must call Joan, too, I promised. I'm sorry, darling. Do you mind waiting?"
"Don't be silly! What about the children?"
"No. They know today is the day, but they'll be off at classes and all that. Anyway, I'd rather wait and phone them both from Palm Springs tonight."
"Much better. Look, don't hurry. I don't mind waiting at all."
"Bless you! I mean that, Cynny. I can't tell you how I appreciate all this. I was about to say I'd do the same for you one day, but obviously that's not exactly what I mean, is it? Thank your stars, darling, you have the last happy marriage left in town."
She closed the sectioned glass door of the telephone booth, and Cynny moved away a few steps, out of the flow of traffic. She stood near the wall and smoked her cigarette, watching the comings and goings along the corridor. Relatively few men had business on this floor of the building, aside from the lawyers with their attaché cases who greeted one another jovially. But there was a ceaseless flow of women, women of all sorts and descriptions. Our one true meeting ground, Cynny thought ruefully, we all come here sooner or later, for the one reason or the other. She watched what was obviously a young Hollywood starlet, chic in an expensive suede pantsuit, gliding by on the arm of her handsome, silver-haired attorney. And just behind her, a woman in an ill-fitting pink dress lugging a dirty-faced infant, a gaggle of small children clinging to her skirts. All kinds of women but with one common denominator.
Just then a tall, florid woman in a tight, dark suit moved past Cynny to stand beside her. The woman was accompanied by a lawyer, a small, balding, youngish man who propped one foot against the end of a wooden bench, balancing a legal tablet on his knee.
"Look," he said to the woman softly, "my advice to you is to agree to this."
"But he's taking my daughter away from me," the woman said in a hoarse voice. "That's what it really amounts to."
Cynny stole a look and saw tears running down her cheeks; she quickly averted her eyes.
The lawyer was silent, frowning as he doodled a web of precise black-penciled squares on his pad.
"I didn't tell you this," the woman said finally. "There was a while last spring when I was drinking pretty heavy and going around to bars and -- all that. He'll bring that up against me, won't he?"
"Yes," the lawyer said drily. "I think you'd better be prepared for that."
Cynny could not resist looking once more into the woman's face. The silent tears were running faster now, huge, shining droplets streaking furrows in her heavy makeup.
The lawyer cleared his throat. "It really isn't such a bad arrangement, you know. Your daughter goes to this boarding school up north at his expense, and you share the school holidays. How old is she, nearly fourteen? Well then, in a couple more years she'll be allowed to choose, and by then -- "
"By then it will be too late," the woman said in a flat voice.
"Oh, now -- " he began.
"No," the woman said. "Anyway, by then they'll have her poisoned against me. Him and that damn holier-than-God sister of his!"
Cynny snuffed out her half-smoked cigarette and walked back to the telephone booths. Janet, looking out through the glass, caught her eye and waved, smiling brightly over the black receiver. Cynny smiled in return and stabbed her finger twice into the air, indicating the door of the women's lavatory. Janet nodded.
Inside the big, barren room, there was a constant gurgle of plumbing and a babble of voices above it. Five or six women were already lined before the long mirror over the washbowls, and Cynny waited her turn. She moved to the mirror at last, setting her purse on the stainless steel shelf. For no particular reason, she turned on the water in one of the white sinks, speckled with pink face powder, and washed her hands, lathering them thoroughly with institutional soap.
The room gradually emptied. Cynny, already regretting the clinging reek of the soap, rinsed her hands a second time and scrubbed at them with squares of harsh brown paper toweling. She retouched her lipstick and then moved off, lighting a cigarette from a pack in her purse.
A final pair of women left the room, and Cynny was suddenly aware that she had the lavatory to herself. The noise from the corridor was muffled here, and she welcomed the respite. Her headache had now materialized into a small, dull pain behind her eyes. She wished there were some tactful way to avoid having drinks with Janet and her lawyer, but she could not think of one. The final duty of a conscientious witness. It likely would mean that she would be caught in the thick of the going-home freeway traffic, but there it was. Obviously she could not abandon poor Janet until she was safely on her way to the airport.
Then, in the silence of the lavatory, there came the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting. Cynny looked up, startled, and saw what she had failed to notice before, that one out of the row of gray cubicle doors was closed. The sound of retching came again. So much for the sense of privacy and refuge. A new duty now confronted her.
Oh, hell, she said to herself.
Cynny listened, but there was no further sound. She slowly burrowed her cigarette into the sand in the urn beside her, hoping for some last reprieve. None came, and she moved indecisively toward the cubicle. Just outside the closed door, she listened again and heard a faint gagging, to which her own stomach made a queasy response. Then she heard another sound, a strangulated whispering, a dry, smothered sobbing, but the words distinct, "Oh, Pete, I can't! I can't, I can't! Oh, Pete, Pete!"
After that it was still. Cynny waited for several seconds before she said, "Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?"
There was no answer.
"Are you all right?" Cynny asked again, more urgently.
There was only silence.
Then the toilet flushed. The bolt was thrown back with a clatter, and the gray metal door swung open.
The woman who came out from the cubicle was very young, slender in a smart, plain, dark blue pantsuit. A girl, Cynny thought, who at some other time might even be beautiful, with smooth, shining, leaf brown hair hanging below her shoulders and wide, clear eyes of the same warm color. Now she looked green and ill, perspiration glistening in drops over her face.
"I'm sorry, I thought everyone had gone," Killian said. "That must have been disgusting to listen to. My witness gave me a wild new tranquilizer on top of a lot of wine at lunch, and it didn't mix."
She went to the mirror and began to blot at her face with a piece of tissue, her hands shaking.
It came to Cynny with a pang that this girl, whoever she was, was not so many years older than her own daughter. She followed her, reaching out a hand sympathetically to her shoulder. "Why don't you stretch out on that bench for a minute and I'll go fetch your witness, shall I?"
"It's very good of you," Killian said, "but I don't think it's a terribly practical idea. I'm due in court this minute. And my witness is a man."
Her little metal tube of lipstick shot out of her trembling hands, and Cynny bent to retrieve it from the floor.
"Why do all these women bring other women for witnesses? It must be so dull for them," she said as she took the small gold cylinder that Cynny silently held out to her. She turned back to the mirror and went on talking with what struck Cynny as an irritating bravado.
"Anyway, I had to bring this boy. First he was going to be corespondent, and of course he absolutely adored that. Then my mother spoiled everything by insisting that I be the one to get the divorce, and he was so disappointed that I had to promise him he could be my witness. I don't imagine that will be nearly as much fun, though, do you?"
If this were a child of mine, I'd slap her, Cynny thought, and so she could not quite resist.
"Pete?" she said.
"Not Pete, Robbie." Killian was intent upon her lipstick. "Pete's the one I'm divorcing."
Then she went taut and still. She looked up slowly to meet Cynny's eyes in the mirror. Incredibly, she went still paler, then chalk white, with the pastel lipstick shining upon her mouth like grease.
After a moment, she said harshly, "Leave me alone. I'm all right now. And even if I wasn't, I'd go in there and divorce that son of a bitch if it was the last thing I ever did!"
Cynny opened her mouth to speak again, then thought better of it. She turned away instead and went back into the corridor.
Copyright © 2005 by Leonard Stegman
Maritta Wolff first blazed into the publishing world in 1941, at the age of twenty-two, with what Sinclair Lewis called "the most important novel of the year," Whistle Stop. Five more vibrant bestsellers followed over the next two decades, but her seventh novel was kept secretly hidden -- in her refrigerator -- for the last thirty years of her life. Now, to the great fortune of readers everywhere, Sudden Rain has come out of the fridge, but it is still gloriously frozen in time, and that is part of its beauty. Set in the fall of 1972, it perfectly captures, with expansive emotion and keen observation, the domestic trends of the late '60s and early '70s, doing for the Vietnam-era middle-class what Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road did for 1950s suburbia.
Sudden Rain is a compelling drama and cinematic read that offers great insight into the nature of marriage -- both then and now. The story centers around middle-class couples of three different generations and the ways in which their relationships and home lives are affected by the trends (specifically the rise in divorce and feminism) of the time. In the suburbs around Los Angeles, traditional housewives in their thirties and forties are starting to ask whether they are satisfied by their everyday lives. Meanwhile, at least one young woman in her early twenties feels paralyzed by her options. Tom and Nedith have been married for thirty years, but their union is rooted firmly in the mores of the 1950s: he works hard as an engineer; she stays home; neither is happy. Meanwhile, their son, Pete, has recently split from his wife, Killian, after less than a year of marriage. Their neighbor Cynny sees herself as reasonably happy in her marriage to Jim -- until she has an eye-opening conversation with one of her girlfriends, and begins to stray. Cynny's friend Nancy -- who o looking for fulfillment but stumbles into something so unexpected, it may make everyone in the community reconsider the choices they've made. The novel all takes place in one stormy L.A. weekend, as a literal fog of unrest blows into town and alters these marriages forever.
It's a novel that serves as an unusually revealing mirror of its times. All of Wolff's books were praised for her effortless grasp of human nature and her stunning ear for dialogue -- the ways in which people talk to themselves and to each other -- and this book is no different: it offers a pitch-perfect rendition of the speech and social interactions of three different generations coexisting in 1972. As a vivid distillation of its time and place, Wolff's Sudden Rain is a spellbinding achievement and an exciting discovery.