Tuesday, August 12, 2008

For Your Consideration: "Hungry Enough" by Cornelia Read

Several stories from A Hell of a Woman (edited by Megan Abbott, Busted Flush Press) have been included in anthologies (Sandra Scoppettone's "Everybody Loves Somebody (A Prisoner of Memory: And 24 of the Years Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Gorman and Greenburg) or nominated for various awards as the best fiction of the year ("Uncle" by Daniel Woodrell {Anthony and Edgar awards}. Cornelia Read's Story "Hungry Enough" is nominated for a Shamus Award.

Busted Flush Press has allowed me to share Cornelia Read's story here. Cornelia Read has written a bit of back story for us.

The Backstory to “Hungry Enough”

By Cornelia Read

When the awesomely talented Megan Abbott asked me if I’d like to contribute a story for the Hell of a Woman Anthology she’d be editing for Busted Flush Press, I was a little freaked out. Deeply honored to be asked, of course, but all the same kind of terrified since I hadn’t written any short fiction since sophomore year in college—twenty-odd years ago.

The assignment was to take a female character who would’ve made a sideline cameo in traditional noir fiction and give her center stage--a directive that sat well with my long-held “why the hell can’t girls be in the treehouse, too?” political credo.

But then, what to write? As usual when this question crops up in my life, I made some coffee and went back to bed with a good book, in order to distract myself from the yawning maw of my inner creative abyss.

Not a few mornings-in-bed-with-coffee later, a line of dialogue drifted into my head, a phrase my mother has often effervescently uttered at parties: “I absolutely adore driving drunk!”

Those words were followed shortly thereafter by the rejoinder of my friend Katy Foster: “Of course you do. Because it’s so damn easy.”

And I had a snapshot of the woman who’d said all that in one go—a gorgeous blonde in a pale-blue Mercedes convertible, driving through LA in the late Fifties with her best brunette friend beside her. They’d just had a birthday luncheon of martinis somewhere... and then I remembered Hillary Huber, the brilliant voice actor who has read both my novels for Blackstone Audio, telling me I had to come to LA so she and a friend could take me to lunch at Musso and Frank’s, because it was the perfect old-school upscale noir kind of place to have martinis when in that fair city.

So I’m still in bed with my coffee at this point, propped up against this big window with every available pillow behind me, just kind of watching the scene unfold. I could hear the two women’s voices, watch lines of palm trees drift past as Kay-Kay the blonde drives lazily up So-Cal boulevards.

I could see her clearly—the kind of pneumatic-but-wasp-waisted woman Dior made so much of with his New Look, and who would shortly be irrevocably knocked from the altar by the likes of Twiggy and Veruschka.

I knew Kay-Kay’s car was a gift from her rich-producer husband, in a color she would never have picked for herself, but he hadn’t asked her because it was a surprise offering of contrition--one he’d wanted her to find in their driveway with a jaunty bow across its dewy hood one recent morning.

I knew just how she’d met the husband, too... straight out of a story Michael Dougherty (my first-of-four stepfathers) often used to tell about a former secretary who’d worked for him in LA during the late Fifties, when he did PR for Johnny Carson and Edward R. Murrow and other denizens of the then-nascent medium of television.

Michael’s secretary had walked up to the edge of a palatial turquoise-hued swimming hole in Bel-Air in her bikini and heels, pointed at the man adrift on a raft at the water’s center, and said, “Hey you... out of the pool!” An action which resulted in the man’s sending his third wife to Reno, some four days later.

Thus, Kay-Kay.

And her friend, the brunette Julia? Sharp-tongued, too smart for an LA starlet... one guest spot on Perry Mason to her credit... recently reduced to taking a secretarial job with a private eye named Philip Mumble-Mumble in the down-at-heels Cahuenga Building....

Suddenly I saw her as an earlier incarnation of Charis Nuti-di-Biasi, my great friend from boarding school who looked, even at just-fifteen, like a Florentine Catherine Deneuve.

Charis had tried the starlet thing herself in LA in the early Eighties. She used to call me late at night twice a year or so to regale me with tales of the sheet of plate glass suspended above Sylvester Stallone’s bed and the uses to which it was put, or Catherine Oxenberg’s having slipped a large wedge of Camembert into her purse at an Oscar party for a later-night session of solo binge-and-purge, or the large circular chamber in Wilt Chamberlin’s house whose floor was unexpectedly a water-bed (apparently known far and wide as his “Do-It Room.”)

She had asked me once, around two a.m. during the course of such a call (me in some rust-belt town back east, sweltering out the summer dark... Syracuse? Pittsfield?), whether I thought she’d ever be famous.

“You’re beautiful, of course,” I’d answered.

“Of course, Nicky,” she said, using my boarding-school name. “But?”

“You’re not hungry enough.”

"What does that even mean,” she asked, “hungry enough?”

“If this doesn’t work out for you, you’ll just go to London or Paris or marry one of those boys who’s always pestering you about it. And you’re up against a thousand-thousand girls who don’t have anything else to fall back on—no Greyhound ticket home.”

To which she replied, “Fuck off, Nicky,” before bursting into peals of Marlboro-edged laughter.


“Hungry Enough”

by Cornelia Read

I absolutely adore driving drunk,” said Kay. “It’s so damn

The top was down on her little two-seater Mercedes—one of

those burnished days, after a week of rain.

She surprised me by careening right onto Hollywood Boulevard,

off Cherokee.

“Darling girl,” I protested, “the Cahuenga Building went

that-a-way. I’m an hour late as it is.”

The wind was ruining our hair.

She plucked a strand of platinum from her lipstick. “One

tiny stop, Julia. I have a few things for you at the house.”

Kay’d offered me birthday lunch at Chasen’s, her treat. I held

out for Musso and Frank’s so I had the option of walking back

to work.

“You gave me your solemn oath,” I said. “Only reason I

agreed to that fifth martini.”

“Wouldn’t you rather arrive sober than punctual?”

“I need this job, Kay.”

“You need a husband, Julia,” she said. “You’re twenty-five

years old.”

“I seem to recall having already suffered through this lecture.

Somewhere between cocktails three and four.”

“Honey,” she said, “it’s practically 1960 and you’re dying on

the goddamn vine.”

“I happen to like the vine. Marvelous view. Fee fi fo fum, et

cetera, et cetera . . .”

“Three years in Los Angeles, and what do you have to show

for it?”

I had one ingénue turn on Perry Mason and a succession of

glossy headshots to show for it, as Kay knew perfectly well. She,

meanwhile, had a rich producer husband.

“Another Greyhound bus pulls into this town every five

minutes,” she continued, “packed to the gills with fresh-faced

little mantraps—”

“—I cannot believe you’re willing to be seen driving this tacky

thing,” I said. “Powder blue with white upholstery?”

“Says she who takes dictation from the man in a powder blue

suit,” said Kay. “Promise me you’re not sleeping with him. He

wears socks with clocks on them, for chrissakes.”

“Promise me this color scheme wasn’t your idea.”

“Of course not. I found it in the driveway last week, complete

with jaunty bow over the hood. Another little kiss-and-make-up

incentive from Kenneth.”

Kenneth, her rich producer husband, snared last year at

a Sunday brunch swim party in Bel-Air. He’d been sunning

himself on a raft in the water’s shallow end. Kay sauntered up in

a bathing suit and heels, crooked one finger, and said, “Hey you,

out of the pool.”

Tuesday morning, his third wife chartered a plane to Reno.

I caught her eye in the rear-view mirror. “Darling, this car

practically shouts divorcée—”

“—A girl can dream, can’t she?”

“For chrissake, Kay-Kay,” I said, “If you’re that unhappy, why

not leave him?”

“Because I finally have some leverage, Julia, now that I’ve

seen what that plate glass is for.”

This was an inch-thick slab suspended above their bed on

golden cables. Kay had recently discovered her husband lying

beneath the transparent platform while baby-oiled young blond

men wrestled one another atop it. Defecation earned them bigger

tips at the end of the night.

“Did I tell you,” she said, “that he actually thought I’d go

down on him while those appalling creatures moiled around in

their own filth?”

“Whereupon you told him he was out of his ever-loving

mind and stalked out of the room,” I replied, leaving out the part

about how she showed up at my place that night with a bottle of

Seconal, already half-consumed.

She turned to flash me a grin, then held up her wrist to flash

something blue-white, flawless, and far more enduring. “Look

what arrived with my breakfast tray, just this morning.”

“Harry Winston?”

“Cartier,” she said. “He’s learning.”

She hauled the wheel left again, shooting us down a

palm-tree-lined boulevard.

I shrugged. “So you’ll put up with it. You’re one of the wives


“This year,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. “And whose job it is to swab down the sheet

of glass, afterwards?”

“Search me,” she said, “but I hope to hell it’s that little shit


Carstairs was Kenneth’s secretary—a snippy little man

who was still quite blond, possibly British, and ten years past

earning his keep unclothed. He and Kay loathed one another.

Trying to get him fired was her primary form of entertainment,

after shopping.

We pulled up to a stoplight. The man in the Cadillac next to

us wrenched his neck, getting an eyeful of Kay.

She ignored him with intent, one sly finger twisting the pearls

at her neck. “I’m not ever going to be goddamn famous, now, am


“’Course you won’t,” I said. “Fame is reserved for those freshfaced

little man-traps who can’t go home on the Greyhound.”

“I’m better looking.”

“Fairest one of all,” I said. “But you aren’t hungry enough.

You never were.”

“And you’re too goddamn smart.”

“Have to be,” I said. “I’m a goddamn brunette.”

“Mere lack of will. Doesn’t mean a life sentence.”

“I prefer that collar and cuffs match, thanks ever so.”

She stomped on the brakes and swerved right, bringing the

car’s powder-blue nose to a halt six inches shy of her driveway’s

cast-iron gates.

A uniformed flunky sprinted forth to swing them wide.

Kay checked her makeup in the side mirror, ignoring the

man’s salute.

She punched the gas before he was quite out of the way,

spraying his shins with gravel.

I looked back and waved, mouthing a belated “thank you.”

“I’m serious about your future,” said Kay. “Had we but

known at Barnard you’d end up mooning over some cut-rate


“—or that you’d end up playing beard for the man you


She laughed at that, rich golden peals that trailed behind us

till the end of her curving drive.

“What a monstrous pile it is,” Kay said, cutting her eyes at

the Deco-Moorish façade she lived behind.

She walked away from the Mercedes without bothering to

close her door.

Someone would take care of it. Someone always did.

“I’ve got to call my service,” she said, as we walked inside, our

heels clicking against marble and echoing back from the domed

entry ceiling.

“Why the hell do you have a service?”

“Because Carstairs manages to lose every message intended

for me.”

She peeled off her white gloves, tossing them in the general

direction of a gilt-slathered side table. I kept mine on.

“I can’t stay all afternoon, Kay.”

“Go upstairs to my dressing room,” she said. “I’ve laid out

some things for you to try on.”

“I don’t need your clothes.”

“I spent the morning with that little woman at Bullock’s,

picking out a few ‘delightful frocks’ for delivery here in your size.

Allow me that one small pleasure.”

“And if I should happen to come upon Kenneth, ogling

something untoward above your marital bed?”

“Tiptoe past without making a fuss. I’ll throw in a fur”

“For chrissake, Kay.”

And solemnly swear you won’t have to kiss my ass for

a week.”

“Make it two.”

“Greedy guts,” she said, as I started up the stairs.

As it turned out, her husband couldn’t have ogled anything

at all.

There wasn’t much left of his face, after the slab of glass had

swung down to catch him under the chin.

The pair of golden cables at its footboard-end had given out.

The closer one lay curled along the carpet at my feet. Three of its

four strands had been neatly sliced, the last left to fray until it


Kenneth wouldn’t have seen it coming, nor would his pack

of wrestling boys. There were four sockets in the ceiling, little

brass-lined portholes cut into the plaster. Two were now empty.

The cables had been severed up in the attic, out of sight.

I lifted the phone on Kay’s side of the bed, pressed the second

line’s unlit button, and dialed GLEnview 7537.

There was a click before my employer picked up on the third

ring, grumbling.

“Philip?” I said. “I know I should have been back hours


“—This is why I never wanted a secretary,” he cut in. “Too

much damn trouble.”

“It gets worse. I’d like to take you up on your offer of a

birthday gift, after all.”

“A little late to have something engraved.”

“I’m with Kay. We need your help with a bit of a situation.”

He took down her address when I explained what that

situation was.

“Twenty minutes,” he said. “Promise me you won’t touch


“I’m wearing gloves,” I said.

“That’s my girl.”

Philip rang off, but I kept the receiver to my ear.

“Don’t hang up just yet, Carstairs,” I said. “Have Kay wait for

me on the terrace. Fix her a drink so she’ll stay put.”

He exhaled.

I knew he hadn’t yet called the police. The scent of ammonia

was still too heavy in the room.

“After that,” I said, “Come back up here with fresh rags. You

missed a spot on the glass.”

Philip walked into the library an hour later. I’d sent him

upstairs alone.

“Happy birthday,” he said, “though I’ll hold off on wishing

you any returns of the day.”

The room was all Gothic walnut, excised whole from some

down-at-heel peer’s estate—the dozen muddy portraits of

faithful dogs and dead grouse included.

Carstairs made sure there was always a fire in the grate, air

conditioning calibrated to offset its heat as needed.

“Nasty little scene to stumble across, upstairs,” said Philip.

“Horrible,” I said.

“Has it hit you yet?” he asked.

I shook my head.

He took my hand in both of his. Pressed it a bit too hard.

“It will,” he said, “and I want you sitting down when

it does.”

He glanced over at Kay, stretched out asleep on a leather sofa.

“Your friend seems to be bearing up rather well.”

“I made her take a Seconal.”

“Only one?”

“We had gin for lunch.”

I let him pull me toward the fireplace.

“You’re shaking.” He put an arm around my waist, lowered

me gently into a wing chair, then sat in its mate a few feet away.

“The boys are gone?” I asked.

“Carstairs handled it. He’s had some practice.”

“And you’re sure they won’t say anything?

“Would you, Julia?”

I looked at the fire. “Of course not.”

He nodded. “I’ve told him to phone Kay’s doctor. Then the

police. Then her lawyer.”

My hands got jittery in my lap. “Philip, she didn’t do this.”

“I’m happy to believe that,” he said. “You may have a bit

more trouble convincing the detectives.”

My gloves felt wet.

He looked at his watch. “Tell them that the pair of you came

by the office before she brought you here. That was a little after

two. I gave you the rest of the afternoon off.”

“A little after two,” I said. “What time did we get here?”

“You don’t know. You called me the moment you found him,

of course. I told you to let me handle it from there.”

“Kenneth keeps some decent Scotch in that desk, if you’d like.”

He shook his head. “Tell me how long you’ve known about

the state of Kay’s marriage.”

“A month. Something like that.”

“And how long had she known, before confiding in you?”

“Less than an hour. She drove straight to my apartment that


He thought about that. “Four weeks ago, Sunday?”

“I suppose it was.”

“You called in sick the next day.”

“I apologize for that, Philip.”

“No need,” he said.

“We were up all night.” I looked to make sure Kay was still

asleep. “She had a miscarriage.”

“How far along?”

“Not very. She hadn’t told Kenneth yet.”

“Did she want the baby?”

“Even after she walked in on him,” I said. “Maybe more.”

“She thought it would help?”

“Women so often do, don’t they?”

“I’m happy to report I have no personal experience in that


“Lucky you,” I said.

He rose from his chair and walked behind it. “What do you

really think—was it Kay, or was it Carstairs?”

“I’ve already told you what I really think.”

“So you have,” he said.

“For God’s sake, Philip, can you imagine Kay with a hacksaw?”

“I can’t imagine Kay filing her own nails.”

And she’s been with me since morning.”

“I doubt it was done today,” he said. “Could have been any

time over the last month.”

“All the more reason it had to be Carstairs, then.”

“Not sure I’m following your logic.”

“Philip, Kay sleeps in that bed—”

“—Still? You’re sure about that?”

“I am,” I said. “Yes.”

“Any proof other than your say-so that she hadn’t set up camp

down the hall?” he asked. “Under the circumstances, one might

presume she’d have wanted to ix-nay the arbor of connubial bliss

with a stout ten-foot pole. Can’t imagine they’re short of alternate

quarters, given the size of this place.”

“Kay takes breakfast in bed every morning. Dry toast, black

coffee, and half a grapefruit—broiled. I’m sure someone on staff

could verify finding her there.”

“Even so,” he said, “those last strands looked strong enough

to hold, as long as nobody put extra weight on the glass.”

“But what if they hadn’t been strong enough, despite

appearances to the contrary? Philip, there’s no way she could

have been certain. The glass might’ve just as easily killed Kay and

Kenneth both, while they slept.”

“I suppose so.”

He crossed his arms and leaned on the top of his chair,

looking at the fire.

“Kay would have done it this morning, if at all,” I said. “You

know I’m right.”

“And you’ll tell the police she’s been with you since breakfast?

Helping out at the office?”

“She was at Bullock’s,” I said, “choosing dresses for me.”

“Which left Kenneth free to pursue outside interests for

several hours. Safe to say he had Carstairs make the arrangements,

without help from the rest of staff. Boys delivered quietly at the

service entrance, shuttled upstairs with none the wiser?”

“Carstairs must have brought the things from Bullock’s

upstairs himself,” I said. “He wouldn’t have let anyone else

through to Kay’s dressing room.”

“Ducks in a row for Kay, then,” said Philip. “Unless this was

an elaborate suicide, Carstairs takes the rap.”

It all hit me then—the bulldozed pulp of Kenneth’s face and

everything else, straight through to that moment.

I thought I would be sick,

right there on the rug.

Philip wandered over to Kay, still asleep on the sofa.

“We’ll make sure the police get a good look at her hands,” he

said. “Not a mark on them, and severing that cable must have

been a bear.”

He turned back toward me.

I peeled off my gloves and raised both hands, turning them

slowly for his inspection, front to back.

Philip tried not to look relieved.

“I’ll bring Carstairs in here,” he said. “Make sure he’s trussed

up and ready to go.”

He was wrong, of course. The cables had been a cinch to cut,

four weeks ago Monday.

I’d chipped the polish on one fingernail, but the second fresh

coat of red had been dry a good hour before Kay woke up, back

in my apartment.

She’d have done the same to keep me from harm: without

question, without hesitation and without my knowledge. Kay is

my oldest friend, as I am hers. We take care not to burden each

other with the onus of gratitude.

Conscience now clear in that regard, I turned from the fire to

watch her sleep—my hands still, my nausea at bay.

Philip paused in the doorway, one foot across the threshold.

We both heard the siren in the distance.

“Wouldn’t hurt the appearance of things if you cried a little,”

he said, not looking back. “Plenty of time before they get all the

way up the drive."


David Cranmer said...

I loved the dialogue. Very well done.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Certainly is.

Cornelia Read said...

Thanks, you guys. And thanks for posting it all, Patti.

Keith Raffel said...

I'm going to be VERY careful next time I talk to Cornelia.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Always a good policy when you around writers. Keep all good dialog to yourself.