Web Extra: Excerpt from “Is This Tomorrow,” by Caroline Leavitt ’74
Caroline Leavitt ’74 grew up in a suburban neighborhood where Jews were scarce and acceptance was even scarcer.
When she moved at age 5 into a modest ranch house on Warwick Avenue in Waltham, Mass., the neighborhood kids came over to meet her. Inexplicably, they began touching her head.
“I thought they were tickling me,” remembers Leavitt, who returned to Waltham recently to promote her 10th novel, “Is This Tomorrow,” excerpted here. “But they were searching for my horns.’”
It was a scene replayed countless times as Leavitt’s generation grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when a veneer of suburban tolerance masked a mistrust of Jews, and Cold War anti-communist sentiment simmered just below the surface.
Entering Brandeis in 1970, Leavitt was both relieved and thrilled to join a welcoming, largely Jewish community that prized intelligence. Still, college life wasn’t always easy for the English major. A fiction-writing class with novelist Alan Lelchuk proved punishing in its own way. A short story she submitted in class received the full weight of Lelchuk’s famously acid style. “He pushed a box of Kleenex toward me when he saw I was crying,” she says.
After her first novel (based on that short story) was published and reviewed in The New York Times, Leavitt sent Lelchuk a copy of the book; he responded by saying he always knew she would succeed. “He made me dig in my heels and show him that he was wrong,” says Leavitt, who sports hand-painted cowboy boots and long jet-black hair.
“Is This Tomorrow” (Algonquin Books, 2013), set in Leavitt’s own Waltham neighborhood, is imbued with the kind of menacing atmosphere she says she experienced. When Ava Lark, a divorced Jewish woman, and her 12-year-old son, Lewis, move into the neighborhood in 1956, suburban calm gives way to gaping suspicion and a deep mystery.
— Laura Gardner, P’12
Excerpt from “Is This Tomorrow”
She came home to find him in her kitchen. She was in no mood, having spent the morning arguing with a lawyer, but there he was, her son’s best friend, Jimmy Rearson, a 12-year-old kid home from school at 3 on a Wednesday afternoon with a crush on her, reading all the ingredients on the back of a Duncan Hines lemon cake mix. She felt a pang for him, a boy so lonely he feigned interest in how many eggs a cake might need.
“How’d you get in here?” Ava asked. No one, except for her, locked doors in the neighborhood. She had her kid wearing a key around his neck like an amulet. Other kids were allowed to run free to wander in and out of everyone else’s houses, something Ava never could quite get used to. It wasn’t that she had anything to steal — truthfully, she had so much less now — but still, there was Brian, miles away, breathing down her neck with a custody threat, telling her he got a lawyer and she’d better get one, too, because he was going to file to revisit their agreement.
“Your lock is easy,” Jimmy said. “All it took was a bit of wire.”
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“Don’t break into my house again,” she said. She didn’t like the way it sounded. Easy to break into. “Lewis is at the dentist,” she said. She had given Lewis money to take a cab (it wouldn’t cost much), and by the time he was finished and safely home, Ava would be at work at the plumbing company, an extra evening shift she couldn’t afford to turn down, only for an hour tonight, typing letters about 14k gold toilets and colored tubs, but even the small extra pay would be something she could tuck in the bank.
“I know. He told me at school. I’m meeting him at my house later.”
Sweat beaded along her back. She’d wasted her whole morning and some of her afternoon running to a lawyer to talk about Brian’s custody threat. It was five years since Brian had left them, barely sending money, barely calling, and even though the divorce had been his idea, all of a sudden he was telling her that she now posed a psychological and physical danger to their son. She had had to scramble to find a lawyer she could afford, a man whose name was actually, ridiculously, John Smith.
She told the lawyer how Brian used to have a drinking problem, and that he had called her drunk a few times. She talked about how he’d abandoned his son — and her — after things at his job went bad. He hadn’t even seen Lewis in nearly five years, so how could he possibly think about wanting custody now? John Smith just leaned back in his chair.
“Circumstances change,” he said. “And so do people. You said he has a full-time job, but you only work part time, which puts him in a more stable financial situation than you. It could look like a better environment for a kid.”
“You’re joking. My environment is just fine.”
“Is it?” He rolled his pen between his fingers. “You said he thinks you have a lot of men coming over. Can you prove you don’t? Can you show that your bills are paid right on time?”
Ava thought of all the bills she kept in a shoebox, the careful way she went through them every month. She had a whole separate bank account of money she was saving so she could buy her house instead of rent it, and she made sure to put something in it every week, even if it was only 10 dollars. “I have savings. I have a house.”
“Correction: You rent the house. You don’t own it. And banks don’t like giving mortgages to women.”
“But I will own it,” Ava said stiffly. She thought of how hard it had been to convince the realtor to rent her the house, how he kept asking her if there was a man who could co-sign the lease. She might have to fight to get a bank to give her a mortgage, but fight she would.
“But you don’t own it now. And if you can’t prove your finances are sound, we may have a problem. How’s your son doing? Does he have friends? Is he doing all right in school?” He shuffled papers on his desk, but she knew, suddenly, that he wasn’t going to be able to help her, and she knew she was still going to have to pay him for his time. “You want to think about all this, Mrs. Lark,” he said.
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She came home feeling sick, her head splitting like a seam. She had to get to work, and worry hung on her like a too-heavy winter coat.
“Mrs. Lark.” She looked over, and Jimmy was shifting his weight from foot to foot, staring at her again. She was a grown woman with grown-up problems, and suddenly she was in no mood for Jimmy’s quiet devotion, for the way his eyes followed her around the room.
“Lewis will be home soon from the dentist,” she said. “You can wait for him at your house.”
The lawyer had asked her if Lewis had friends. Most of the other kids kept their distance, but maybe that was because Lewis was so smart. He could have been skipped ahead two grades if he didn’t keep bringing home bad marks in school. The teachers kept telling her how he wasn’t living up to his potential, that he kept disrupting the class with his questions. “His job is to listen,” one teacher told Ava.
It made her feel panicked because what would become of him if he couldn’t get to college? There was no family business for Lewis to go into, no money to cushion him. The thought of him having to nickel and dime it the way she did made her want to weep, and she’d be damned if she let him join the Army. With college, he could have a profession.
He had good friends, Jimmy and Rose. The Three Mouseketeers, they called themselves, from that Mickey Mouse Club program they all watched on her temperamental little black-and-white Zenith, banging on the top of the set to stop the vertical hold from swimming. Jimmy and Lewis were now in Miss Calisi’s sixth-grade class at Northeast Elementary. Rose, at 13, went to MacArthur Junior High on Lexington Street, but different schools didn’t stop them from playing together. They walked to the Star Market to check out the magazines and toys. They wasted time at Brigham’s, sugaring up on raspberry lime rickeys. It was a relief because she had worried so much about Lewis finding friends. “You know this isn’t a Jewish neighborhood,” the realtor had told Ava when he first showed her the rental house. He had tried to show her all these crummy little apartments, but she had moved twice already from apartments in Watertown. She wanted something that felt like hers. She wanted a house.
She was so thrilled when Lewis had found Jimmy and Rose. Of course, they would be together, the only kids on the block without fathers and with single mothers. Ava was grateful, too, that Dot Rearson didn’t share the same prejudices as some of the other parents. Oh, Ava had heard the remarks. Divorced and Jewish, what a combo platter. “You killed Christ,” one neighborhood kid had told her as he ran across her front lawn, and Ava had stood there, shaken. When Lewis was in third grade, he had come home with an F on a test, and she was about to yell at him when she saw all the questions were about Mary, Jesus and Joseph. She had gone up to talk to Mr. Powers, the principal, but all he said to her was, “I understand your people’s sensitivity,” like it was her fault.
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Well, these kids were lucky to have one another. Jimmy was loyal to Lewis, and you didn’t have to be a genius to see Rose was besotted. She followed Lewis around, her head cocked as if she were waiting for him to say something to her. He hadn’t noticed a thing. Ava, though, had watched, and all she could think was, You poor darling.
Look at all of them, this round of wrongheaded love. Jimmy in love with her, and Rose in love with Lewis. Lewis yearning for his father, jumping every time the phone rang or the mail came, and Brian in love with himself. And what about Ava’s love life? You have all those men, Brian had accused. He heard them in the background when he called, he insisted. He said someone he knew from Boston had seen Ava out on the town one too many times, dressed skimpily, with her shoulders and her bosom hanging out, and was that a way for a mother to act? “My pal said you looked drunk,” Brian had insisted.
Ava didn’t drink. And if she had men, it wasn’t long before they realized that Lewis was part of the deal and they didn’t want to be fathering someone else’s kid. They soon learned that, despite her curvy hips, Ava wasn’t advertising anything, and the kind of relationship she was looking for ended up with a ring.
Tonight, her latest and longest boyfriend, Jake, was coming over, taking Lewis and her to Brigham’s for ice cream. They’d been dating three months already. Still, she had told Jake not to expect much, because when she had told Lewis about meeting Jake, he had said nothing, but had gone to his room and shut his door. “We’ll get along fine,” Jake had said. Usually, she never let Lewis meet the men she saw, not until she felt sure about them, and that didn’t happen often, if ever. But Jake was different. He was the polar opposite of Brian, which had drawn her to him. Maybe he didn’t look as good on paper because he was a jazz musician and he didn’t have the steady job Brian had had, the money, but he was easy-going. Kind. He actually seemed to like and appreciate her just the way she was.
She glanced at Jimmy. How could she not understand such loneliness when she felt it herself?
“If you give me a moment, I can walk you home,” she said, glancing at her watch. It was nearly 4. It would take her 45 minutes to drive into Boston to work because of the traffic. She reached for her newspaper, glancing at the headlines. Communists and the pale baked-potato face of Eisenhower warning everyone about nuclear disaster. We have to be safe; we have to be safe. She had seen Khrushchev on the TV news ranting about Stalin, and all she had thought of was Lewis when he was 5 and how he had had a tantrum in the middle of Better Dresses in Filene’s because he was tired of shopping. The kids had duck-and-cover drills at school, curling up under their desks, their hands over their heads, waiting out a fake nuclear attack until the teachers gave the all-clear signal, and Ava couldn’t see how anyone would know it was all clear when radiation was invisible, and, anyway, couldn’t it chew right through a desk, let alone a person?
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Jimmy looked out the window. “I can make it home myself. You can watch me from the window. I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I’ll walk out with you,” she said. Last week, she had heard the neighborhood women gossiping about a man hanging around the playground at school, staring so intently at the kids that a teacher had strode over to find out what he wanted, but the man had sprinted into the woods. The week before, the Waltham News Tribune had reported a car had swerved onto a curb in Belmont and frightened a little girl. A man had tried to grab her, but she ran away. The kids seemed riled up by the news, especially Jimmy, who kept asking Ava how much faster could a man run than a child? What if the man was in a car? “What do they do to you when they have you?”
“That’s not going to happen, so don’t you even think it,” Ava told him.
“We should watch our kids better,” Ava had insisted to the other neighbors, but one of the neighborhood women had narrowed her eyes at Ava. “It wasn’t one of your boyfriends looking for you, was it, Ava?”
“That’s not what her boyfriends are after,” someone smirked, and they all laughed, except for Ava.
Well, things had calmed down. This is a safe neighborhood, people said, a good neighborhood. There were no more reports, and if she still felt uneasy it was probably because all the gossip always seemed to lead to yours truly, Ava Lark, no thank-you very much.
“Come on, out we go,” she said. She led Jimmy outside, and then she locked up the house. (Fine! Let her be the only one to lock her door!)
It was so unseasonably hot. Everything looked wilted and spoiled in the heat. The tarry road buckled from the sun. She glanced over at Jimmy’s house. His mother, Dot, was widowed, and Ava knew that that was considered a step up from divorce, like it wasn’t really Dot’s fault that her husband had keeled over from a heart attack while mowing the lawn. Rose was only 3 and Jimmy barely 2 when it happened. Dot had told her that her husband had an insurance policy so large she would never have to work. The neighbors brought casseroles for weeks. They still invited Dot and her kids to dinner and to backyard barbecues, but when they found out Ava was divorced, they didn’t invite her to any of the soirees.
“Where is everyone?” Ava wondered aloud. Why was everything so empty and still, as if the air itself had stopped in place?
“Our Lady’s, probably,” Jimmy said. “The church carnival. My mom went with a bunch of neighbors, but you couldn’t get me there if you stuck bamboo shoots under my fingernails.” And then Ava remembered driving by the little parking lot by the church over on Trapelo, seeing the crowds, the tables. “My mom won’t be back until after the church supper.”
Jimmy stared into the street for a moment. “Bye!” he said, and then he ran, all arms and pumping legs, her son’s best friend in the world. She was shamed to think that sometimes he was the best company she had. She watched Jimmy sprint out of her house. He tore out across her lawn, crossed the street and veered to the left toward his home, two houses down, a blue ranch house with red shutters. When he got to the door, he turned and waved with both hands, grinning.
Later, that’s what she told the police. How happy he was. How he smiled.
Copyright by Caroline Leavitt. Adapted from “Is This Tomorrow” (2013), published by Algonquin Books.