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In a sparkling novel that calls to mind Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge, Judy Sheehan has written a story full of humor and heart, wisdom and hope, about the rich, often fraught relationship between mothers and their daughters.
A successful theater director in New York, Leigh Majors has worked hard to become more than just “the daughter of the famous Bridie Hart.” But Leigh’s orderly world is turned upside down when she receives a very special birthday gift from her husband: a Broadway-ready play entitled Women in Hats . . . and her overbearing mother demands to play the starring role.
Bridie ruled the red carpet during the golden age of Hollywood, but off-camera, she loved the highball (and her own way) a little too much. Now, as Bridie tries to reinsert herself into Leigh’s life, the estranged pair must work together amid a crazy cast of characters to create what could be Broadway’s next major hit, even as they unearth painful memories from their troubled past. But before the curtain rises, Leigh will discover that the biggest drama of all just may be her own life.
Praise for Judy Sheehan’s . . . And Baby Makes Two
“A gift from the writing gods.” –Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Perceptive, moving, and often comic . . . replete with intrigue, delicious little surprises, and high emotion.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“Sheehan has the magical touch. . . . A wonderfully engaging tale.” –Oklahoma Gazette
From the Trade Paperback edition. less
Random House Publishing Group; April 2008 ISBN 9780345507679 Download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Women in Hats
Author: Judy Sheehan
Her name was Leigh Majors and she was never going to change it. She would not even discuss switching to any of her mother’s names, especially not Hart. So, she endured the same exhausted bionic jokes the press loved to make over and over. But these days, smart critics stopped shoehorning in references to six million dollars, and even stopped padding their word count with her family history.
She was Leigh Majors. She was no longer the daughter of Bridie Hart, America’s most beloved TV mother—Bridie Love, better known as Mother Love. No one seemed to notice that the show had been off the air for fifteen years. The endless reruns were airing somewhere in the world at any hour, keeping it alive for its many fans. Space aliens capturing our satellite signals must assume that we are a warm, nurturing species with questionable fashion sense. And they probably all worship Bridie, the mother of all mothers.
Leigh was no longer the daughter of Frank Majors, the late Broadway director, who was famous and notorious in equal parts. Once a director of glitzy commercial successes, he drank himself into failure after Bridie left him. But he came back for a second act that surprised the New York theater world: he finished up his life in sobriety, doing small-scale, intricate work that bore no resemblance to his boffo box office with Bridie.
No one thought to classify her as the kid sister of Lilly Majors. Lilly, the burgeoning postpunk rock star. Lilly, whose motorcycle spun out of control on the Ventura Highway and broke her. Lilly, who died in the middle of her twenties, just as Leigh was starting hers. No one had tied Leigh with Lilly since their school days, which felt like a shadowy dream.
That was over. Now she was Leigh Majors, for good and ever.
Sometimes actors attempted jokes about her name when they auditioned for her, and when they did, she would smile politely as she wrote “No” on their résumés. She was a good director, but she couldn’t direct past stupid. Over the years, well-intentioned people suggested name changes to her. Perhaps she could use her middle name, Eunice? No, she doubted that she could learn to answer to a different first name. But she did like to point out that her middle initial made her name look, at first glance, like LeighE Majors. And she was damn sure that she would never dishonor her father’s memory by removing his last name. She was Leigh Majors. Done.
And she wasn’t going to hyphenate her name, either. She wasn’t opposed to hyphenated names, as a rule, but her husband’s name was Michael Payne. No hyphenations here. Bad idea.
Her own name felt like such a shallow thought right now. Isn’t that what her actors would dwell on? Isn’t that what her mother would do? Leigh shuddered and went back to work, dismantling the set of her latest show, I Love You, Motherfucker! It was a musical about Tourette’s syndrome, and had been a great success here at her downtown home, Wonderland Theater. But it closed, as all shows do, so Leigh and her cast had to break down the set.
Leigh had been the director-in-residence at Wonderland Theater for three years. The job came to her following a smashing success as Wonderland’s guest director for Medea. She won the hearts and minds of her actors, local critics, and the notoriously hot- tempered artistic director of Wonderland—Kendall Epstein. Most of the people who passed through Wonderland muttered about Kendall’s impossible personality. Leigh found Kendall to be difficult, but very possible.
Striking a set was usually such messy, strenuous work. But not today, not for Leigh. She wasn’t going to lift anything heavier than a coat. She tried to gauge exactly how far along her pregnancy was. Five weeks? Six? Her brain turned to lint when she tried to do math. Maybe it was only four weeks.
She had known almost immediately that she was pregnant. The physical tenderness, the vague queasiness. She knew before any stick could turn blue. But that morning, as a birthday gift to herself, she indulged in a quick trip to the drugstore and a long visit to the bathroom (the nice one for the audience members, not the icky one for the actors). And when the little stick confirmed her intuition, she allowed herself to be happy. She allowed herself to hope. She allowed herself to whisper, “I’m pregnant.” The joy of that sentence danced over her skin.
She carefully wrapped that blue stick in plastic, then in paper, then in plastic again, and hid it in her large canvas bag. She had been pregnant once before, and too many people had found out entirely too early. Leigh closed her eyes when she remembered how they hid from her after the miscarriage. People were afraid of her, she knew. Afraid of watching that much grief walk through the door. Leigh worked hard to make it okay for them, since she knew that she could never make it okay for herself.
“Are we done? Is everyone going to O’Malley’s?” a tenor called out, to a chorus of approval. But Leigh noticed that her cast and crew had gotten carried away, pulling down the red velvet drapes upstage that they were supposed to leave alone. Leigh found them in a heap, across the lime-green plastic chairs in the front row.
“Leigh? Are you coming?” A needy chorus girl tugged at her. Saying good-bye to her actors was always a wrenching experience that Leigh dreaded. Setting that scene in a bar would only exacerbate the pain. But how could she escape it? Leigh couldn’t think, so she just kept looking at the drapes, calculating how long it would take to rehang them. Someone was watching her, and doing that same calculation. It was James, her stage manager.
“Leigh?” James asked. “Are we rehanging these drapes?”
“Right. Yes.” Was he some kind of mind reader? Throughout rehearsals, he always seemed to know what she needed—a coffee, a sandwich, a break—and now he offered her a way to say good-bye to her actors. By the end of the first week, James recognized Leigh’s early signs of frustration and burnout. Whenever they surfaced, he’d call an extra rehearsal break and take Leigh outside, where they would talk about anything but the play. He had a way of drawing her out that made her feel like telling him too much. After all, he trusted her with stories from his own life, so why shouldn’t she return the trust? Leigh could also think of several times when James called those breaks without any signs of stress or burnout from Leigh, but just so that they could continue their conversation from the previous day. Leigh smiled, remembering how they talked their way through Russian literature and modern politics.
“I’ll be along in a while,” Leigh called out to her actors. She hugged each of them in turn, and kept herself from crying by forcing an extra-broad smile. She would miss them all, even the pain-in-the-ass actors who fought her at every turn. She felt it already. She watched them file out, but her bangs were getting so long, soon they would block her view. Note to self: cut bangs. She looked up at the wisps of hair and still couldn’t determine if her hair was light brown or dark blond. It was a no-color color. She didn’t approve of her hair’s indecisiveness, but she couldn’t bring herself to pay that much attention to her hair, so she blew a gust of breath to push the bangs away from her eyes.
The actors were looking back at her for one last wave good-bye, and Leigh reminded herself to stand up straight. She had always been a tall, angular girl, and was determined not to hide her height by slouching, as so many tall girls did. As a child, she had been so proud that she could reach things all by herself. And besides, James was still here. Was it her imagination, or was he standing up a bit straighter these days, too? Was that because of Leigh?
“Leigh?” James asked. “The drapes?”
Leigh turned and wow. James was right there, so close. He was three inches away from her, which forced her to look into his eyes, such a deep, searching brown. And his hair color matched. Very decisive. Every now and then she got lost in those deep, dark eyes. And she was in serious danger of getting lost just now.
“Let’s get to work,” she answered as she pulled a drape from the front row. The cheap velvet left a blanket of red fuzz all over her black T-shirt and blue jeans, her uniform. James pulled two ladders into place, and they worked together in cool quiet. Their movements synchronized: smooth the drape, hold, staple-gun, smile; smooth, hold, staple-gun, smile.
They both turned as they heard the familiar click-click of boots walking down the center aisle and onto the stage. Kendall always stepped like she meant it. She clucked and sighed when she saw what Leigh and James were doing.
“I knew you people would take the drapes down,” Kendall said. “You don’t have to stay and put them back up. Go home.”
Kendall smiled and shook her head. She was a tiny woman, until you got to know her. She kept her gray and white hair cropped close, and rarely wore makeup on her heart-shaped, feline face. Every year, Kendall’s body got a little rounder, but she squeezed into the same combinations of denim and leather every day.
“It’s your fucking birthday, Leigh.” Kendall’s voice was a throaty rasp. “Go home.”
James smiled, stabbing Leigh with a pang of guilt. She hadn’t told him or anyone in the cast about her birthday. Big hypocrite. She baked cakes for every one of her actors’ birthdays, but concealed her own. And here she was, carrying bigger secrets than her birthday.
“Go on!” Kendall insisted. “Get out of my theater, already. Go.”
Leigh and James left a final drape and headed to the back of the house to retrieve their light coats and heavy bags.
“And Leigh,” Kendall called out. “Happy birthday.”
Leigh smiled, saluted, and gave a quiet “Thank you.” She stopped to check her date book, where the next day’s to-do list was nearly empty. How would she fill the post-show void without a to-do list? Oh, but it was nearly time to reorganize her closet. Leigh cycled through the different closets and storage areas in her apartment as a preventive measure against chaos. The theater kept her busy, but she made the most of the downtime between plays, rehearsals, and production meetings. As she replaced the date book in her large canvas bag, James caught up with her, and the two walked together down Wonderland’s long dark hallway and squinted like vampires against the remains of the early September sunset.
“Walking to the train?” James asked. They had walked together to the train after every rehearsal and performance. He never needed to ask, but he always did. They boarded the train and found two bright orange seats together. James reached into his backpack and handed Leigh a small, flat gift-wrapped package. Curled ribbons had been bent to funny angles in his backpack.
“Hey,” he said. “Happy birthday.” Leigh wished she could stop herself from blushing. “Don’t open it until you get home, okay?” he added.
“You didn’t need to do this. I’m too old for birthdays anyway,” she replied with a mix of flirtation and demure honesty. And with that she lifted her chin and angled her face in a way that she knew would make her look younger. She had learned that trick from her mother.
“That doesn’t sound like you.” James looked genuinely confused.
Was that the first time he had seen her channel her mother? Leigh really wanted to know what would sound like her, but she knew better than to ask that. She spoke to James as if they were at a rehearsal surrounded by gossip-hungry actors, steering away from personal topics. Now she changed the subject and told him what a good job he had done with a complicated show, a challenging cast, and a script that was in a constant state of revision (thanks to her).
The trained lurched forward, pressing Leigh against James. They were minutes from his stop, and Leigh still had everything under control. That tiny secret, that swimming creature in the center of her, helped to put her at ease with James. He was a harmless crush, a by-product of hormonal madness. Any other thought was now, officially, impossible.
“Listen, James. You’ve been absolutely gorgeous.” OH MY GOD, she didn’t really say that, did she? Maybe he hadn’t heard her over the rattle and bang of the moving train. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. Oh, Christ, yes, he had heard her. “I mean, great. You’ve been absolutely the greatest stage manager I’ve worked with. And believe me, I’ve worked with lots.” Leigh thought she sounded like an aging madam at a bordello. “You’re organized, you’re clear, you’re right on time. And that all sounds so pitifully small compared to what I really want to say.”
James stood up. The train was nearing his stop.
“What do you want to say?” he asked.
Leigh shook her head, and James matched her.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I wish . . .”
She stood up, wondering if she could actually kiss him good-bye. They smiled and balanced as the train slowed to a stop. Anything could happen. When the train doors opened, she dared to reach out for his hand. He squeezed her hand, then reached past her hand to touch her cheek. He let his hand rest there while he said, “Me, too.” He kissed her on the forehead, then dashed through the closing doors.
Leigh ordered her pulse to slow down. She should take some time away from Wonderland and let these crazy feelings fade. Let them transform into something more productive. She sat down as she and her fellow passengers hurtled through dark tunnels under the city. Right away, Leigh opened his gift: a box set of Ella Fitzgerald CDs. When did she tell him that Ella was her favorite singer? She couldn’t recall saying it, but she must have.
She found the small note that James had taped to the gift.
To Leigh Majors,
So glad you use your superpowers for good instead of evil.
I’d pay six million dollars to work with you again.
He waited until now to stoop to a joke on her name? Leigh happily noted that James lost points in her universe for this. So much for James.
By the time her train was above Fifty-ninth Street, Leigh was officially relieved that the production crush on James was going to be brought to its proper conclusion, which was a whole lot of nothing. This was the worst temptation she had endured in her six years of marriage, but it was just a crush, and she didn’t act on it. It began as nothing, developed into nothing, and ended as nothing. Done.
Leigh folded his note into ever-diminishing squares, press- ing each edge sharply and neatly. Good-bye, James. What would her father have said about James? He would have said, “Beware. Don’t mess around when you’ve got a good thing at home.” That’s what he would have said. Leigh was at least 80 percent sure of that.
It was dark when Leigh finally reached her building. Some days, traveling up and across town felt like traveling to Alaska, and this was such a day. She unlocked the door, and was surprised to find the apartment dark and empty. Michael was out? On her birthday? On her closing night?
She kept the lights off, enjoying the spare simplicity of her home, which was decorated in shades of white, off-white, and eggshell—neutral tones that Leigh found very soothing in a frantic city. The off-white sectional sofa offered the only seating, in clean geometric lines. It was as smooth and perfect as the day she and Michael bought it.
This was her oasis of emptiness. There were no magazines, no newspapers, no plants, no pillows, no souvenirs from trips, no objets d’art. In fact, the only decorations in the living room could be found on top of the fireplace mantel. There, a gallery of family photos sat, all the same size, all in silver frames, each spaced an inch and a half apart. Leigh believed that this spacing gave the eye time to rest and experience each picture. She slipped out of her shoes and padded over to the mantel. One of the pictures appeared to be crooked. Was it crooked when she left for the theater that morning? Impossible. Leigh had to remedy this crookedness immediately. She reached for the offending photo and studied the family parade:
Frank in a tense standoff while directing Brian Dennehy.
Bridie and her third Emmy Award.
Bridie and Lilly on the set of Mother Love. Lilly was only thirteen, but she was so pretty already. Did Lilly ever have any awkward years?
Bridie having a very uneasy luncheon with Nancy Reagan.
Bridie drunk at Leigh’s wedding.
Leigh had too many pictures of her mother because this was Bridie’s favorite Christmas gift to anyone—a framed photo of herself. Bridie. Leigh could lose her smile at the mention of that name. But tonight she kept her smile as she quietly promised the tiny bump in her belly that she would be a better mother than old Mother Love ever was. Not that this was saying much.
But then there was the sepia-toned wedding photo of Leigh and Michael. She looked so serious, while his smile was blind- ing, even in the artfully yellowed photograph. Instead of flowers, she was holding a checkbook. The photographer caught them just as she was writing the last check to the caterer. Leigh Majors paid for her own wedding, declining any of Bridie’s Hollywood money.
But where was Michael now, on her birthday? Oh, why hadn’t she gone to O’Malley’s with her cast? That had to be a better birthday celebration than this empty apartment. This felt pathetic.
Leigh picked up the picture of Bridie and Lilly. It wasn’t her favorite picture of her sister—the favorite wasn’t displayed out here for all the world to see. She kept the best one in her bed- room. That one was a photo of Lilly, age fourteen, with her fingers splayed over cheeks and circling around her eyes. She was Junior Birdman, with ten years to live. Lilly was laughing at the photographer—Frank. That was a much better picture, and somehow it captured Leigh’s father as well as her sister. But Bridie had framed this shot of herself and Lilly for Leigh because it was a damn good shot of Bridie’s own face and legs. Leigh reframed it in silver to match the other photos on the mantel. But yes, Bridie had been a true beauty; even Leigh couldn’t begrudge her that. Leigh shook her head and zeroed in on her mother’s lip-glossy smile, then put the picture down and said, “Yes, but you’re losing your looks, old woman.” She was louder than she had expected to be.
And then, BLAST! The lights came on full and bright, followed by a loud chorus of “SURPRISE!” Entirely too many people had been hiding in the dark of her apartment, waiting to scare her like this. Leigh dropped the picture, and didn’t even register the pain when it landed on her foot.
Michael stepped forward from the crowd. “We gave up on you turning on the lights! We just had to go!” Leigh smiled and shook her head. Everyone must have heard her, but at least her mother wasn’t at the party. No harm, no foul.
“Your mom’s in the dining room!” Michael said quietly in Leigh’s ear.
Shit. Leigh kept fake-smiling as she searched for her shoes. They were hidden behind the crowd. But Michael smiled his blue-white smile, and Leigh had to smile back. Ah, well. Leigh had insulted Bridie. Again.
“Should I go in there?” Leigh asked.
“Have a drink first,” Michael advised. “She’s way ahead of you.” He retrieved the fallen picture, and before Leigh could find a glass or anything to drink, she heard Bridie’s respectable contralto sing out, “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Come visit your mother! Before she loses her looks!”