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Read an Excerpt from The Book of Essie

A novel about family, religion, and reality TV.

The Book of Essie book cover

On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none. I listen in, though, the way Lissa and I used to before she went away. It was Lissa who discovered the vent in the wall of the laundry room, who realized that you could eavesdrop on everything that was said in the production office if you climbed onto the dryer and put your ear up against the filigreed bronze grate.

The winter Lissa broke her leg, she was fourteen and I was nine. I remember she chose an orange cast that Mother hated and the doctor laughed and said something about Lissa being a firecracker and Mother frowned but didn’t dare to disagree, not with the cameras rolling. I could tell she was worried that the color was too bright, that it would bleed on-screen or at the very least be distracting. It lasted only a second, the withering look she shot my sister as the fiberglass was unwrapped and wound round and round the crack above Lissa’s ankle. But even at nine, I was well versed in Mother’s methods of wordless communication. I knew exactly what to look for, just as I knew to look for the flash of defiance in Lissa’s eyes that was my sister’s only reply.

The doctor signed the cast when he was done and so did all the nurses, then Lissa and I were given Popsicles for the ride home. They were orange, to match the cast, but Mother made us throw them in the trash as soon as we reached the parking lot. She said the sugar would ruin our teeth, but I think really she did it just to punish us, to remind Lissa that she shouldn’t count on the cameras for protection, that they might delay the consequences of her actions but would never entirely prevent them. She needn’t have bothered. It was the first lesson any of us learned.

That cast was the reason it became my job to climb up and report everything the grown-ups said, because Lissa couldn’t do it herself without breaking the only good leg she had left. It’s possible that without that orange cast, Lissa would never have told me about the vent at all, since trusting me was a risk. She might have kept the secret to herself, ferreting away this little piece of knowledge the way she used to hide the chocolate bars she stole from Stahl’s Sweet Shoppe when she stopped in with Becca Twomey on their way home from school. Lissa never bought anything, but Becca was allowed to spend her allowance on whatever she wanted; in any case, that was how it seemed.

Lissa and I, on the other hand, were allowed chocolate only on birthdays and Easter. I always wondered, after she was gone and I found the box of unopened candy under her bed, why she bothered to steal it at all, why she took such a chance. If she had been found out, it wouldn’t have been only Daddy’s paddle she’d have had to contend with. Mother’s silent punishment would have been much worse. It meant something, I realized, that Lissa could sneak the Milky Ways into her bag without Mr. Stahl noticing yet never bring herself to open them. Eating the chocolate, I saw much later on, would have been the thing that made the stealing real.

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***

The dryer is running and slightly warm when I sit on it. It’s a pleasant sensation, but the clang of some sort of metal clip get¬ting thwapped against the drum covers up the sound of the producer speaking on the other side of the wall, so I turn the dryer off. Once the drum has stopped turning, I can hear well enough to make out what Candy is saying. The name fits her. Sweet as sugar but hard enough to break a tooth on. She has been with us since before I was born, since that first Christmas special when Matty was not quite three and my parents had just been told that there would be no more children.

Daddy had spent so much time on television by then you’d have thought it would have come naturally, but Mother said he was as nervous as a pig in a bacon factory the day the new crew started filming. Up until then, the cameras had only been at church, where they were entirely under Daddy’s control. Could he tell then that the balance of power was subtly shifting? In any case, Mother had to force Daddy to let the crew into the house and even then he did this thing where he scratched his wrist incessantly anytime the cameras were pointed at him. Candy’s team did their best to edit this out, to use the close-ups of his pensive expression and his clear blue eyes, but there are a few shots where you can see him moving his fingers back and forth compulsively, as if possessed, like an addict scratching at invisible bugs burrowing just beneath his skin.

Mother stole the show, though, so it didn’t matter. She cried real tears when she revealed their struggles to conceive, their disappointment. She was candid when she confessed that they had always wanted a big family, a brood, a flock to tend and raise up in His grace and light. After all, if children are a gift from God, surely Daddy was deserving of more than just a single blessing since he had made it his life’s work to speak His truth and praise His name even in these darkest days. She sighed and reached out and took my father’s hand then, stilled it, and held it tight to keep him from scratching. With her eyes turned up to the ceiling, the tears welled at first but did not fall. Then Mother looked directly at the camera and breathed something about accepting God’s will and those fat drops rolled right down her tastefully rouged cheeks as if she had control over gravity itself.

That hour-long special probably would have just been a one-off since Daddy said the focus should be on his ministry, not on his family, but on Christmas Eve they found out that Daniel was on the way and people called it an honest-to-God miracle and there was no stopping after that. Nine months later when my brother was born, ten million people tuned in to see it happen. Not the actual moment, of course, but everything leading up to it: the praying, the handholding, the reciting of bits of verse. Then he was lifted, slick and shrieking and still streaked with blood, and Daddy let loose a heartfelt alleluia and a regular tele¬vision phenomenon was born.

***

On the other side of the wall I hear Candy say, “Are you sure?”

To her credit, there is no judgment in her tone—none that I can detect, in any case. Her face might be an entirely different matter, but I cannot see it. I can imagine, though, the near silent signs of disapproval: the slightly downturned lip, the light tap of a perfectly manicured nail on the polished wood surface of the table. Candy has no children, after all. We are all the family she’s got. It’s possible that this feels personal, though I doubt she would ever admit it.

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“I watched her repeat the test myself.”

This is my mother’s voice, smooth and velvety and utterly composed. You would think she was discussing which muffin recipe she might bake for an upcoming church fair, parsing the relative merits of currants and pumpkin spice. She almost sounds bored. The words fall evenly from her lips, with a hint of a drawl that I recognize as an affectation. Like her modest light blue suit and single strand of pearls, this voice is something that has been carefully chosen; cultivated, even. The vocal coach comes once a week on Tuesday mornings and stops by on an as-needed basis to deliver special lozenges if Mother’s throat is sore, which is more often than you would expect. She is forever sipping tea with honey and telling people how exhausting it is, running the household all by herself since Daddy has to conserve his energies for more elevated pursuits. Except she doesn’t really run the household; Candy does. But no one would ever dare tell Mother that.

In the early days, when it was just Daddy’s church services that were being broadcast and before Mother herself was properly a star, they used a voice double for close-ups of Mother standing in the front row during hymns. As the voices of the congregation swelled behind her, Mother would hold her hymnal open at her waist, never looking down at the page but instead keeping her eyes glued to the stained glass window above and behind the altar. She had each and every song in that book memorized, knew even the page numbers by heart. The organist would play a few bars of introduction and then Mother’s mouth would open and shut in rhythm with the music, soundlessly I knew, but it looked for all the world like she was really singing, as if the music itself had her in its thrall.

Then the camera would zoom in even closer and in the version that TIL would broadcast, one voice would be heard rising above the others, a voice like an angel’s, or so Daddy liked to tell his parishioners during coffee hour. This sort of compliment always made Mother blush demurely and shake her head so that the gaggle of old women who followed Daddy around at events like this would transition directly from talking about Mother’s voice to remarking upon how modest she was. No one knew that the voice was not really hers, that it belonged to a music teacher in Cincinnati named Tracey Goldberg. No one knew that Tracey, raising three children all on her own after her husband skipped town with a waitress from Des Moines, had not even read the non-disclosure agreement Candy had handed her, had not stopped to think what sort of lies she would be helping to perpetuate, since signing that single piece of paper meant that she would never again have to worry about how to feed her children.

These days they still dub in Tracey’s voice for the singing, but even the speaking voice that Mother uses now, a voice that she probably thinks of as entirely her own, is a complete work of fiction. This used to make me angry, especially when she was yelling. I used to yell back, to try to push her into revealing her true self, that sharp twinge of Appalachia, the dropped consonants, the seemingly arbitrary vowels, but she never did. Eventually I began to suspect that maybe she had no true self remaining, that it was not just covered up but had been destroyed entirely.

“You watched her?” Candy asks, and here there is a hint of amusement.

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I know she is picturing me on the toilet, skirt hiked up and underwear around my ankles, holding the stick with just the tips of my fingers as I try to pee on it without getting any on myself. As if such a feat were even possible.

“I watched her.”

In truth Mother had turned away once I began to shimmy down my cotton briefs. She hasn’t seen my bum since I was potty trained, I don’t think, and just the idea of that much flesh prob¬ably embarrassed her. But she heard the stream of urine, heard me place the stick on the edge of the sink beside her, watched as it turned blue. A mother’s worst fear, or so some people say. But not my mother’s.

Excerpted from The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir. Copyright © 2018 by Meghan MacLean Weir. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.