Acclaimed memoirist Binyavanga Wainaina talks about his writing, Africa today and his new life as an openly gay man.
The novel (excerpt below) centers around Rachel and Patty, the daughters of the homicide detective in charge of finding the killer.
As Maynard tells Here & Now, she was inspired to write the story by two sisters who attended her writing workshop, who were the daughters of the late Robert Gaddini, former head of Marin County Homicide.
Gaddini investigated the Trailside Killer, who murdered at least seven people around Mount Tamalpais between 1979 and 1981.
“This is really a novel about sisterhood, and that was inspired by the real relationship of these two sisters,” Maynard said.
The novel also explores the themes Maynard has always been interested in as a writer — mainly, coming of age.
“All of us are profoundly shaped by what happened in those young years, when we feel everything ten times more strongly,” Maynard said. “It’s a theme of my work: adults decades later trying to unravel their youthful experience.”
By Joyce Maynard
A little over thirty years ago, on a June day just before sunset—alone on a mountain in Marin County, California—a man came toward me with a length of piano wire stretched between his hands, and the intention of ending my days. I was fourteen years old, and many others had already died at his hands. Ever since then, I have known what it is to look into a man’s eyes and believe his face is the last thing I will ever see.
I have my sister to thank that I am here to tell what happened that day. Two times, it was my sister who saved me, though I was not able to do the same for my sister.
This is our story.
Nothing much ever happened on the mountain where we lived, growing up, and we didn’t get cable. We were always hoping for a little excitement. So my sister and I made up situations. All we had was time.
One day we decided to see what it felt like to be dead.
If a person’s dead, they don’t feel anything, Patty said. This was Patty for you.
I had a red sweatshirt, the kind with a zipper up the front and a hood and pockets to keep gum. I spread it on a patch of grass on the hillside behind our house, with the sleeves stretched out as if they were a person who’d been run over by a truck—the hood off in a different direction, so as much of the red part showed as possible, like a pool of blood.
Lie there, I told my sister, pointing to a spot in the middle, over the zipper part.
She might disagree, but Patty nearly always did what I told her. If she had questions, she kept them to herself.
I lay down next to her. Close enough so plenty of the red part showed on either side of our bodies.
Don’t move. Don’t let your chest go up and down when you breathe.
Some people would have asked for an explanation, but not Patty. Letting her find out in her own time was part of my idea, and she understood this.
For a long time nothing happened. It was hot that day, but we just lay there.
My nose itches, she said.
Never mind, I told her. Just think about something else. Something interesting.
For me at the time, that would mean Peter Frampton, or the jeans I’d seen at the mall a couple of weeks earlier, that were perfect in every way except the price. And the notebooks I wrote in, where I made up stories I’d read to my sister, that she said were better than Nancy Drew.
For Patty it would be Larry Bird executing a hook shot. Or some dog she liked. Which would be any dog that ever lived.
Did you notice that cloud? she said. It’s shaped like a dachshund.
Who knew how much time passed. Ten minutes? An hour, possibly. Then I spotted it: A vulture, circling above our heads. First one, then two more. They were high up still, but it was plain from where they’d positioned themselves that we were the target. The place they were circling was directly over the spot we lay.
What now? Patty asked me.
Shush. Be still.
Two more birds joined the others. The circle was getting tighter, as if they were zeroing in. They were coming lower too, closer to our bodies.
What if they try to peck our eyes out?
No answer from me. Getting the vultures to spot us was the whole point. My sister should know this, and basically did.
The vultures were swooping lower now, dive-bombing, making this terrible shrieking sound. They were closing in around us. Shrieking not so much at Patty and me, from the sound of it, as at each other. They were fighting over who would get to eat our eyeballs, probably.
Then came one final shriek, not from one of the nearest birds, but one we hadn’t noticed until now, a little further off but zeroing in. He sailed down toward us, body like an arrow, beak and talons aimed at our faces.
I didn’t have to tell my sister what to do. We jumped up screaming, running down the mountain toward our house. No time to claim my sweatshirt even—though later, when the birds were gone, we’d return for it, out of breath and holding each other, screaming. A person could scream as loud as she wanted on the mountain, and it felt good. We were always looking for excuses to scream.
Later again, when we could catch our breath, we lay in our yard going over it all.
I could feel the feathers brush against my arm, I said.
I could feel the wind their wings made when they flapped, blowing over my face, she told me. Like hot breath.
Now you know what it’s like being dead, I told her.
Or not dead yet, just about to be.
This is how I remember it. I could be wrong. I had a big imagination when I was young. I was good at making up stories, and my stories were so good, I even believed them myself sometimes.
And I was always looking for excitement, until I found some.
Part 1: My little pretty one, pretty one
The town where my sister and I grew up lay in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, not far north of San Francisco. The aging housing development where we lived, Morning Glory Court, sat just off an exit of Highway 101, eight miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Buses ran from where we lived to San Francisco—the bridge marking the entrance to that other world, though we also knew, people came there to jump. But for us, the city might as well have been the moon.
Our father had grown up in the city—North Beach, home of the real red sauce, he told us. This was where the hippies had come for the Summer of Love and where Janis Joplin had once walked the streets of the Haight, and cable cars ran, and that crazy Lombard Street snaked past rows of pretty pastel Victorian houses, and where another Patty—Hearst—had walked into a Hibernia Bank one day, a few years back, carrying an M1 Carbine as one of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Later, rock stars started buying houses on the other side of the highway from where our house sat, but back in those days, it wasn’t a fashionable place yet. The day would come when people built high walls around their property and posted signs alerting would-be burglars to the existence of their security systems. But those were still trusting times. Our yards flowed into one another, free of hedges or fences, so girls like us could run from one end of the street to the other without the soles of their Keds once touching asphalt. People moved easily amongst their neighbors, and few locked their doors.
Our house, number 17, was the smallest on the street—two dark little bedrooms, a low-ceilinged living room, and a kitchen the previous owners had decorated with green Formica and matching avocado green appliances, none of which could be counted on to function reliably. The living room was covered in wood paneling, an effect meant to make the place seem cozy, perhaps, though one that hadn’t succeeded.
Our parents had bought the house in 1968, when I was two years old, shortly after my sister’s birth—the best they could manage on a policeman’s salary. My mother said Marin County was a good place for raising children, though our father worked in the city at the time—meaning San Francisco. He was a beat cop then, not yet a detective, and knowing him, he would have liked it that his work took him a ways from home, over that red bridge he loved. It was probably better that way, for a man like him at least, to be off on his own, with the three of us tucked away in that little bungalow while he was off saving people.
These days, nobody could think of building low-income housing in a spot like the one where our place was situated. The land that made up our development would be reserved for six-thousand-square-foot mansions with swimming pools and yards with outdoor kitchens and expensive patio furniture. There would be three-car garages, and the cars in them would be of European design.
But whenever it was (the nineteen-forties probably, after the war) that that the houses were constructed on Morning Glory Court and the neighboring streets (Bluebell, Honeysuckle, Daffodil, and my favorite—named for a contractor’s wife probably—Muriel Lane), a premium had not yet been placed on proximity to open land and views. It was possible back then to have as little money as our family did, and still find yourself in a house that backed up on a few thousand acres of open space. So that whole mountain was our playground. Mine and my sister’s.
For the first five years of her life, Patty barely spoke, except to me. Not that she couldn’t talk. She knew words. She had no speech impediment. She had strong opinions about a lot of things, in fact—not only dogs, and basketball, but also (speaking now of her dislikes) foods that were red, other than marinara sauce, clothes whose labels rubbed her neck, all dresses. She developed, early on, a hearty sense of humor, particularly concerning anything to do with body parts or bathroom activities. Burping never ceased to amuse her. A fart—particularly coming from a well-dressed woman or a man in a suit—sent her right over the top.
But if someone asked her a question—and this included other children besides me, her kindergarten teacher, and our own parents—she said nothing, unless I was there, in which case she’d whisper her response in my ear, leaving it to me to convey to the outside world—the world beyond the unit that consisted of the two of us—what her answer might be. Young as I was, I didn’t know for a long time that other five-year-old girls had a lot to say. I didn’t know this wasn’t how things went with everybody’s little sister.
When we’d go to the bank with our mother, and the teller would ask what flavor of lollipop she’d like, Patty whispered her choice in my ear and I would speak it for her. Green. She ignored it when kids called her Bucktooth, because of her overbite, and on our street, if a boy came up and wanted her toy, she’d hand it to him rather than protest, though if any of these boys had teased me (about my outgrown clothes, my inability to hit a ball in our occasional neighborhood games), she would confront the offender (but silently) with one of our jujitsu moves, learned from our father. Once, when a boy took the seat she’d saved for me at a puppet show our mother had taken us to at the library, she jammed her elbow in his stomach and kicked him for good measure before magnificently sweeping me into the place next to her. All without words.
A person could have thought she was shy, but alone in our room, Patty’s true nature revealed itself, a secret entrusted only to me. This was when she’d break into her panty dance, or imitations of her teacher, Mrs. Eggert, preparing the class for inspection of their bottoms by the school nurse during an outbreak of ringworm, or her particular favorite game of pretending to be a puppy, down on her hands and knees, with her tongue out and her butt wagging an imaginary tail.
My sister could be wild, leaping from the top bunk onto a pile of pillows she’d built for herself that proved to offer insufficient cushion for her landing. I saw the look on her face when she hit the floor, and I knew it had to hurt, but she was never one for crying.
Sometimes speaking for Patty might require nothing more from me than explaining she wanted mustard on her sandwich, or what flavor of ice cream she preferred. She’d let me know in a surprisingly husky voice, so low only I could hear. I’d give voice to her words.
“Patty isn’t that interested in dolls,” I told our mother, when she opened her Christmas present of a Tiny Tears with a layette. “She says this one is really cute and she thinks I’d probably like it. But actually, what Patty would like is a basketball or a baby pig.”
What she really wanted was a dog, of course. Our mother had ruled that one out.
But here was an interesting thing: As little as Patty said in those days, and as quiet as she remained even later, she had the biggest voice. Not high and shrill either, like some girls’, but surprisingly low and resonant, and it carried, to the point where sometimes, our mother said—times we’d be out riding bikes, and having one of our discussions—she’d know Patty was coming home five minutes before she got there. According to our parents, she had been famous for this even as a baby.
“Rachel sounds like a normal kid,” our father said, referring to me. “But when Patty lets out a yell, they can probably hear it all the way to Eureka. It’s a miracle I still have my eardrums.”
A picture of my childhood does not exist for me (I’m speaking of my memory here, not photograph albums, which our mother never got around to making) that doesn’t feature Patty in it. Nearly always, when an image comes to me of the two of us, we have our arms around each other, or her head on my shoulder, or (because she grew tall, young) mine on hers. If the picture was taken after she was six or seven, it’s a safe bet Patty’s mouth will be closed over her teeth. But where I am likely to look worried in the picture, my sister will be smiling.
The term “depression” wasn’t much used then, but I think we both sensed, even early on, that our mother was fragile—that no space or energy existed to deal with more than she already had on her plate. This was the period when our father had gone to night school, working on getting the master’s degree that was his ticket to the rank of detective. From the beginning, when he first joined the police force, his goal had been to work in homicide. He had no interest in parking tickets or petty crimes and robberies. Maybe he’d seen some character of a detective in the movies—William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum—and the image appealed to him. That would be like him: to model himself on a movie hero, only he’d be one in real life.
So he was working double time at that point—days on the job in San Francisco, nights at school—while our mother stayed home with Patty and me. No doubt the hours were tough for him, but it was glamorous too, learning about psychology and forensics, while our mother stayed home with the babies. And knowing our father, he wouldn’t have come running home to her after class was over either. There were probably a few female students at the police academy. There would certainly have been waitresses at the clubs he went to after.
“Your father always liked making women happy,” my mother told me once. No particular harshness in her voice when she said this, just weary resignation, a statement of fact, and I knew it anyway. Maybe, in his odd way, I could see him feeling a responsibility to spread the happiness around. Many women. Made very happy. (For a while, anyway.)
The problem between our parents, maybe, was that of all the women, our mother may have been the only one who appeared immune to our father’s romantic tactics, and for a man accustomed to charming the female population of the entire San Francisco Bay area, this must have taken the wind right out of his sails. Our mother was smarter than almost anyone, for starters. She was also coolly resistant to the seduction of flattery. Honesty she liked. Sweet talk got you no place once you’d committed the offense of betrayal. Lie once and you lost her.
A scene comes to me from when we were very young: my father walking in the house, home from work, and twirling our mother around the kitchen, untying her apron and wrapping his hand around her waist to kiss her hard on the mouth. (Do I remember this? Or have I made up the picture, wanting it to have been this way once? ) He pressed her close against his chest.
“Nice cologne there,” she said, pulling away. “New scent?”
She hardly looked up, just tied her apron back again with this weary look that seemed to say, Don’t waste your time.
After a while he didn’t.
Our father had earned a few medals in his days as a police officer, but it was being a detective that he loved. It was all about psychology, he told us. Reading a person’s character. This was what his own father had done, back in North Beach cutting hair and listening to his customers’ stories. Not so different from what my father did, when he’d bring a criminal into the interrogation room with the goal of getting him to confess.
First you had to understand what made the person tick. Then you got in there, like a watchmaker.
Among the detectives in the Marin Homicide Division—and beyond that, the greater San Francisco Bay area, and probably beyond that too—it was known that nobody was better at breaking down a perpetrator than Anthony Torricelli. “His own mother could have had this secret she swore she was taking to her grave,” his friend Sal told me once. “Ten minutes in the room with Tony, she’d be crying into her hanky that she had sex with the milkman. That’s how good he was.”
Not just good. The best.
One of the skills required of a person if he or she is to be a first class detective, our father told us (he or she, he said; that was like him), was the ability to pay close attention. You had to know the questions to ask, and how to listen well when the answers came. You had to recognize when the person you were talking to was handing you a line, and spot all the things he wasn’t saying too.
But as much as anything else, you had to pick up on all the things, besides the words he handed you (he or she; women could be criminals too after all, as well as objects of worship.)
You had to pick up on a person’s body language. Can they look you in the eye when they say where they were last night? What does it mean that their hand is on their hip, that they keep crossing and uncrossing their legs? Are they picking at their sleeve when they tell you they never heard of some guy named Joe Palooka that sold crack down in Hunters’ Point? Why is it their nails are chewed down to the quick, or past it? Widow Jones might be wearing black, but why is it that three days after the funeral she’s got a hickey on her neck?
(That last observation of our father’s was nothing he ever shared with my sister and me, actually. I overheard that one when he was cutting Sal’s hair, and he was explaining to his friend how he broke a case in which the wife of some banker type got her lover to do him in for the insurance money. What our father forgot sometimes, when we were around, was that at least one of his daughters had inherited the attributes of a good detective herself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: I pay attention.)
My father didn’t stop paying attention when he went off duty either, if he ever went off duty, and I doubt he ever did. Most of all, he paid attention to women, but not in that way some men have, of turning their gaze to the breasts, or sizing up a woman’s rear end and grinning. He listened to what every woman he talked with had to say and seemed to take it seriously. He might like to see her naked, but he would also like to massage her feet or touch the skin on the inside of her wrist. He would ask about her children, if she had them, but he also made it plain that in his eyes, a woman was never simply a mother. She could be eighty, and he would still manage to locate the girl in her. I am not sure he ever met a woman he didn’t look at without picturing how it would be in bed with her.
We were at a convenience store one time. Buying cigarettes, his usual Lucky Strikes.
“Don’t move,” he said to the woman behind the counter, with a sudden urgency that may have left her thinking this was a stick-up.
He reached over the counter towards the side of her face, and for a moment his hand seemed almost to disappear in her hair. When it emerged he was holding an earring. So small you had to wonder how he had ever spotted it.
“The back must have fallen off,” he said. “I didn’t want you to lose it.”
She just stood there then, with the small gold cross in one hand, the other reaching for her naked lobe.
“Don’t expect to find a guy like him, when you start dating,” one of the waitresses told me one night when he had taken us out to Marin Joe’s—our regular tradition. “Because there aren’t many like that.”
Our mother would have said this was good news.
He had a gift for hair, inherited from his father, and he loved brushing ours. He cut hair like a professional—using his dead father’s scissors.
“Sometimes I think I should have been a hairdresser,” he said—though in fact he could never have settled for that. “A man could do a lot worse than spend his days with his fingers running through women’s hair. Instead of chasing down a bunch of low-life mutts.”
First came the shampoo in our sink. He’d test the water with his wrist before he poured it over us, and when he lathered our heads, it was more like a massage. He used a special brand, with peppermint, that made the skin on your scalp tingle. All my life I’ve looked for that shampoo.
He put a record on. Dino, probably, but it might be Tony Bennett or Sinatra, and he might sing along, though never when he got to the cutting part, where all his concentration was required. That and a steady hand.
He set a chair in the yard. When we were little, he carried out whichever one of us he was working on that day, with a towel around our shoulders. The way he stepped back to study us was as if he was an artist, and we were his artwork. Then he began to cut.
He could sing like Dean Martin, to my ears at least, and he knew all the words to the songs, including the Italian ones.
There was a thing he did for us, a trick he could perform, that no other human being I ever met has known how to re-create. Something so strange and amazing, just describing it is difficult.
You’d be sitting on the couch next to him. The person sitting there would be me, or my sister. Maybe he’d done this once for our mother, but if so, that day was long past.
Then he’d pull a hair from the top of your head, so swiftly it never hurt. My sister and I kept our hair long, from when we were little. So he had plenty to work with. And black, like his.
You never knew when he might do this. You’d be sitting there watching TV next to him, or reading, and there’d be this sharp little tug at your scalp, no more than a pin prick. Then you’d look over at him, sitting next to you, and he’d be twirling this hair between his fingers. They moved so fast I never understood how he could do this. But after a few minutes, he’d hold your arm out in front of you and on your skin— olive colored like his—he’d set this creation he’d made that looked exactly like a spider. Made out of your hair.
It never worked to ask for a spider. Months might pass, that he didn’t come up with one for you, and then he did. They were so tiny and delicate, it was impossible to hold onto one. Just breathing could make it blow away. Or when he exhaled his cigarette smoke.
The first time he made a spider and I lost it, I cried. “Don’t worry baby,” he said. “There’s plenty more of those in your future.” For a surprisingly long time, that’s how I thought my life would be—men would perform magic for me— and for a longer time, that’s how I thought it should be, even when it wasn’t.
Years later—in my twenties, when I met a man I thought, briefly, that I’d marry, I asked him if he knew how to make spiders.
“Spiders?” he said. He had no idea what I was talking about.
“You know, out of my hair.” I actually thought for a long time that this must be something all men did for the women they loved. Their daughters or their girlfriends or their wives.
But it was only my father who did that. The only person ever who did that, in the history of the world, possibly.
Patty and I adored our father, simple as that. Young as we were, back then, he taught us to wrestle and instructed us in self-defense moves to protect against the unwelcome advances of the boyfriends he told us would pursue us tirelessly all our lives. But he also ran us bubble baths and lit candles for us when we got in the tub. He put on Sinatra and taught us to slow dance, with our toes resting on his shiny black shoes.
If she had the right dance partner, he said, a woman should be able to close her eyes and let him take her anywhere. But steer clear of a man with a limp hand. You want to feel strong pressure on your back, and his hand pressing against yours, as he led. It’s fine if he smells your hair—you want a sensual man—but not his hand on your rear end. And if he doesn’t walk you back to your table after the dance, he’s danced his last with you. Then again, how could a man ever stop dancing with either of the Torricelli girls?
Never let a man disrespect you, he said. You deserve a man who treats you like the queen of the world.
We were not yet six and eight yet when he told us these things. What did we know of love and romance then, or cruelty and rejection? We took his words in anyway, to file for later.
He never yelled at us. He never had to. If one of us had done something we weren’t supposed to, it only took one look from him to stop what we were doing.
Often he worked late, but if he came home early enough, he was the one who’d cook for us. Garlic was always involved—those large, beautiful hands of his finely chopping and sautéing it in good olive oil. He prepared his sauce from scratch, and pasta too, hung up all over the kitchen like laundry, with meatballs made following his father’s recipe. He claimed to speak Italian, and sometimes spewed out foreign-sounding words while he cooked, but at some point we figured out they were made up.
After the meal, if he had to yawn, he’d stretch his arms as wide as possible, open his mouth all the way, and let out a roar. We’d curl up on the couch with him to watch TV—The Rockford Files, his favorite—and he’d rub our feet. When we got tired he’d carry us to bed, one in each strong arm, then sit in the dark and sing to us.
Our mother stayed home mostly, but on his days off, we’d pile in his car (bench seats, before he got the Alfa Romeo) so Patty and I could both snuggle up in the front—and take off on the most winding roads. He drove stick, and took the curves like a race car driver, which made me want to be one.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he said—his regular refrain—as the speedometer reached seventy-five. Of course we never did.
One time he took us to Candlestick Park for a Giants game. “That guy on first?” he said. “Number forty-four? Take a good look at him. For the rest of your life you can tell people you saw Willie McCovey play.”
Once, standing in line with him at the supermarket, a man just ahead of us started giving his wife a hard time, or maybe she was just his girlfriend. “Shut your trap if you know what’s good for you,” the man told her.
Our father stepped out of the line then to face him. “Does it make you feel like a big guy, bullying a woman like that?” he said.
“Listen hard to what I tell you here, girls,” he said after, in the parking lot. “I wouldn’t normally use this language, but you need to hear this plainly: Never let any man give you shit. One stunt like that and you’re out the door.”
He took us on the cable cars, and out to dinner at some grown-up restaurant, not MacDonald’s or Chuck E Cheese. He brought us gardenias, or a 45rpm single he thought we’d like, a ring with our birthstone. One time he took us to a double feature of his two favorite James Bond movies–Thunderball and Goldfinger. That was supposed to be a secret except that when Patty came home, she told our mother she wanted to get a cat and name her Pussy Galore.
Our mother had been, briefly, the object of our father’s adoration, but he moved on early, while she stayed in the same place. Hard to say which one of them gave up on the other first, but it happened, and once it did, there seemed no way back for either of them. Our mother must have seen him slipping away—like a piece of an iceberg that breaks off and drifts out to sea to form a whole new continent—and there was nothing to do about it but stand there and watch him go.
He moved out when I was eight, Patty six. After that he lived in an apartment back in the city, with a hideaway bed for Patty and me when we came to visit, which we hardly ever got to do. We stayed at old number 17, with its small dark rooms and thin walls through which the sound could be heard of cars on the highway, and keeping a secret would have been impossible. It was through those too-thin walls I learned the reason for my father’s departure. A woman of course. Margaret Ann.
Excerpted from the book AFTER HER by Joyce Maynard. Copyright © 2013 by Joyce Maynard. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow.