Excerpt from White Oleander by Janet Fitch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

White Oleander

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"What goat man?"

"From the wine garden, remember? The grinning Pan, cloven hooves peeping out from under his pants?"

I could see the two of us in the round mirror on the wall, our long hair down, our blue eyes. Norsewomen. When I saw us like this, I could almost remember fishing in cold deep seas, the smell of cod, the charcoal of our fires, our felt boots and our strange alphabet, runes like sticks, a language like the ploughing of fields.

"He stared at me the entire time," she said. "Barry Kolker. Marlene says he's a writer of personal essays." Her fine lips turned into long commas of disapproval. "He was with that actress from The Cactus Garden, Jill Lewis."

Her white hair, like unbleached silk, flowed through the boar bristle brush.

"With that fat goat of a man. Can you imagine?" I knew she couldn't. Beauty was my mother's law, her religion. You could do anything you wanted, as long as you were beautiful, as long as you did things beautifully. If you weren't, you just didn't exist. She had drummed it into my head since I was small. Although I had noticed by now that reality didn't always conform to my mother's ideas.

"Maybe she likes him," I said.

"She must be insane," my mother said, taking the brush away from me and brushing my hair now, bearing down on the scalp hard. "She could have any man she wanted. What could she possibly be thinking?"

She saw him again at her favorite artists' bar downtown with no sign by the tracks. She saw him at a party in Silverlake. Wherever she went, she complained, there he was, the goat man.

I thought it was only coincidence, but one night at a performance space in Santa Monica where we went to watch one of her friends beating on Sparkletts bottles and ranting about the drought, I saw him too, four rows back. He spent the whole time trying to catch her eye. He waved at me and I waved back, low, so she wouldn't see.

After it was over, I wanted to talk to him, but she dragged me out fast. "Don't encourage him," she hissed.

When he turned up at the annual publication party for Cinema Scene, I had to agree that he was following her. It was outside in the courtyard of an old hotel on the Strip. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate. The women wore bare dresses, my mother like a moth in white silk. I threaded my way through the crowd to the hors d'oeuvres table, quickly loaded my purse with things I thought could stand a few hours unrefrigerated — crab claws and asparagus spears, liver in bacon — and there was Barry, piling a plate with shrimp. He saw me, and his eyes immediately swept the crowd for my mother. She was behind me, drinking white wine, gossiping with Miles, the photo editor, a gaunt, stubble-chinned Englishman whose fingers were stained with nicotine. She hadn't seen Barry yet. He started through the crowd toward her. I was close behind him.

"Ingrid," Barry said, penetrating her circle of two. "I've been looking for you." He smiled. Her eyes flicked cruelly over his mustard-colored tie hanging to one side, his brown shirt pulling at the buttons over his stomach, his uneven teeth, the shrimp in his chubby fist. I could hear the icy winds of Sweden, but he didn't seem to feel the chill.

"I've been thinking about you," he said, coming even closer.

"I'd rather you wouldn't," she said.

"You'll change your mind about me," he said. He put his finger alongside his nose, winked at me, and walked on to another group of people, put his arm around a pretty girl, kissed her neck. My mother turned away. That kiss went against everything she believed. In her universe, it simply did not happen.

"You know Barry?" Miles asked.

"Who?" my mother said.

That night, she couldn't sleep. We went down to the apartment pool and swam slow quiet laps under the local stars, the Crab Claw, the Giant Shrimp.

© 1999 by Janet Fitch. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Little,Brown & Co.

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