Tamara Johnssen is pushing thirty and life has taken an unplanned turn: her successful sister, her only living relative, has banished her from Manhattan to the rural crossroads of Dustin in upstate New York. Put under the watch of an attractive, married attorney, Tamara soon finds love and other salvations. Buoyed by her romantic affair and her sister's pocketbook, Tamara gains the confidence to establish a modest art gallery that both engages her gifts and enriches her meager surroundings. When she was seventeen, Tamara was orphaned in a shocking way and controlled by a predatory teacher. In Dustin, her liberation from trauma and bad love begins. Population thirty-nine, the hamlet of Dustin is small in size but large in personalities, including Donna and Iris of the womanart factory specializing in strawberry pot holders; southern transplant Glorine, whose mere voice serves as an antidepressant to Tamara; and Shirley Girt of Girt Real estate, who calls Dustin, "the up-and-coming arts town." Tamara cautiously engages with the hamlet's oddballs and eccentrics, eventually learning important personal lessons from their determination, humor, vitality and heartbreak. These unlikely relationships give her the strength to make peace with her tragic past -- and to finally "stay put" in her present.
Lucia gives an overview of the book:
Full Replacement Value
The local insurance agency was housed in a former ice cream stand at the edge of Highway 6 south of the hamlet of Dustin, New York. All four glass sides as well as the roof were angled slightly -- intentionally, though the angles chosen looked dumb and unprofessional, as if a three-year old had tried and failed to draw a square. It was my plan to get insurance there. First I needed something to insure.
I was turning the old Feed Store into an art gallery -- on a shoestring, a loan from my sister. She was the successful one, a Television Producer in Los Angeles. Once again, she'd jumped at a chance to help me get established somewhere doing something. We were both worried about me. "Incorporate," she said. I did. It took awhile -- I couldn't decide on a name. Being in love seemed to slow everything down. I kept sighing and daydreaming and thinking about the last time and looking forward to the next time. When I thought of a name, I ordered a sign. That took awhiel too. A man had to design the letters, carve them in wood then gild the whole thing. Next on my list was the floor.
The floor was worn and stained and buckled in places, but it was a beautiful floor, made of wide planks of rare red oak. I called up a couple of friends I'd met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who did floors. I offered to trade them the work for a week in the country. We agreed that I would pay their bus fare up and back, cook for them and put them up. They would sand, smooth, fill in the cracks and coat the oak with three layers of polyurethane. We scheduled a week, then they didn't show. This happened twice. The second time, they didn't even call. I drove to Wickley to meet their bus and they didn't get off. I sat there at the bus stop after the bus was gone, looking at the iridescent phallic-shaped oil stain on the concrete in the loading zone.
Back at home, I went through the Yellow Pages. All the local floor guys were busy, too busy to even come by and give me an estimate for months. I dropped the floor project and decided to concentrate on insurance.
My sister told me to insure locally. She said the hometown agent considered you a traitor if you didn't, and if you did, he would really go to bat for you when there was a good-size claim. "Insure everything," my sister said. "I don't want you calling me up for another loan when some farmer walks in, trips over his own shoelaces, ends up in traction, and you get sued."
"Do you really thing that's likely," I said. It was the wrong moment to be sarcastic. A silence hummed in the wires between our coasts -- her way of letting me know she was patiently reviewing past investments in me which had turned out badly -- a car, three years of college tuition, an apartment in New York City.
"Do your only sister a favor, Tamara," she said. "Take yourself seriously for once." I promised her I was serious. I would get insurance.
It was August and too hot to wear anything but shorts. I should have stayed in my cut-offs and flip-flops. I should have driven the three hundred yards down Highway 6 to the insurance agency, but I was new and out of place and I assumed I should look business-like, so I put on a dress and I walked.
To enter the agency was to fill up the only available three square feet of floor space. The air conditioner was loudly generating ice cold air, which had the un-refreshing effect of cooling the cigarette smoke produced by two apparently over-worked agents, man and wife. Their steel desks had been pushed together in the center to form a work island. Around the perimeter were stacks of ancient cartons marked 1976 A - F and so on.
The woman, thin with gray hair, was entering data slowly on a word processor, a fresh cigarette busily burning in a huge chrome ashtray filled with butts. The man, stocky, though equally gray toyed with his cigarette as he poured over a stack of mail. This was Rocky, no doubt. The little red and white sign at the north end of town read: BE SHUR, IN-SURE. SHURBERRY'S STATE FARM INSURANCE. ASK FOR "ROCKY."
"Excuse me," I said, after standing there for several minutes.
Rocky Shurberry checked his wrist watch, took a puff on his cigarette, coughed. Without looking up from the mail, he said in a deep whisky voice, "Helen?" Helen punched in a few more numbers. She reached for the burning cigarette, brought it to her lips and inhaled deeply, replacing it in the ashtray, bullseye, without taking her eyes from the computer screen. If they were both blind, I would have concluded that they were functioning at the optimum.
"Yes?" she said, finally breaking her concentration.
"I'm trying to finish this," she said.
"I'm processing the mail here," he said, shuffling through the stack of four or five items paper-clipped to their envelopes. The telephone rang. Rocky went back to the mail, his brow in three even furrows. Helen leisurely removed a new cigarette from a leather-encased pack, lit it with the tip of the one in the ash tray, and stamped out the butt. The phone was on its fifth ring when she answered.
"Shurberry's State Farm," she said. "Could you hold, please?" She covered the receiver with her hand. "Rocky," she said. "I can't do everything. I've only got two arms and two legs. Now, do you want to take this call or help this girl?"
With a hopeless air, Rocky tossed the mail aside and reached for the phone. Helen removed her narrow-framed glasses and turned to face me at last. "Can I help you?" she asked, though the look on her face said, Can I hurt you.
"I want to get prices," I said and read to Helen from the page of notes I'd taken on the phone with my sister, mentioning fire, theft and full liability coverage, either as a floater or as a second separate policy. Helen's features became steadily more sober and pinched as I read. Rocky interrupted me.
"The Chuzzners," he said to her. "Do they have term?"
She swiveled in her chair to face him. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"I'd get the file myself," he said, "but every time I go over to your side of the office, you snap at me for getting in your way and slowing you down and I don't know what-all."
"Tell them to call back."
"It's an emergency," he said.
"I just hope this isn't the straw that breaks the camel's back," Helen muttered.
This elicited a companion mutter from Rocky, "I'm going to have to get a professional secretary in here," which silenced Helen, though something like hatred was expelled from her ears in palpable streaks.
"Provide the spelling," she ordered.
"Chuzzner. C-H-U-Z-- "
"Write it down."
"Hold on, please," he told the party, laying the phone on the desk, lighting a cigarette. He fished around for a scrap of paper in his nearly empty wastebasket, taking time to read both sides of each scrap. The first piece he selected was too small for his large handwriting -- he only got to the N. The second scrap was large enough both to contain the eight capital letters and to sail through the air, his solution when Helen would not reach for it.
Helen read the scrap. "Ask them the policy number," she said, studying the spelling.
Rocky asked. "They don't know," he reported.
"Tell them they should have the policy number written down by the telephone with all the other emergency numbers, fire, police, doctor, ek-cetra." While Rocky was relaying this information, Helen turned to me and said, "Do people really think we know their policy numbers by heart?"
Rocky began to cough. He held the receiver to his chest to muffle the sound and coughed in a long, loud, entirely personal interlude. Helen watched over the rims of her glasses as if she were timing him. Rocky got out a handkerchief, wiped the moisture from his lips, poked the wet, lumpy thing in a rear pocket. The voice on the line had risen in anger -- I could hear it from where I was standing. "Tell them we can't locate the document presently," Helen said.
Rocky told them. "Never fails," he said, hanging up. "You try to help people and they turn on you."
"It's what I've been telling you for thirty years," she said. There was peace between them on this point. "So who died?"
"Al died?" She and Rocky looked each other through and through, enjoying a private joke of longstanding. "See if you can help her," Helen said as if it were a challenge. "She doesn't know what she wants."
"I do too!" I said. My ears were getting red the way they did when my sister lectured me.
"Hold on, calm down, just relax," Rocky said. He folded his hands on his paperwork and swiveled toward me in his swivel chair. I felt like I was about to receive pastoral counseling. "What is it you need?"
"I want prices. I'm starting an art gallery in the old feed store."
"You're the new girl," Rocky informed me. Girl. I was pushing thirty. "What kind of coverage?" I read again from my page of notes. His expression grew befuddled. "Let me see that," he said, reaching for the paper in my hand. I gave it to him. "Who's writing is this?"
"There is no such thing as a liability floater," he said scornfully. "You get the blanket liability with the policy."
"Who told you we had a liability floater?" Helen asked with indignation.
"My sister," I answered idiotically.
"Look, Miss," Rocky said. "You're going to sell what -- The Mona Lisa?" He and Helen both erupted in long phlegmy laughing fits.
Helen wiped her eyes. "Where is your husband at?" she asked to humiliate me.
"If she had one, she don't no more," Rocky told her. Sinbgle girls never settle the crossroads, I learned from Henry Storey, who owned the antique store next to me.
"Well how did you intend to pay for this insurance?" Helen asked as if only men had money.
"What do you care as long as the premium is paid?" I said.
"We screen everybody," Helen said. "To write a bad policy costs us. And the company don't like to see a lot of bad policies from one agent. Do they Rocky."
"No, they do not," he said without looking up. In the margin of the letter he had drawn the word THEFT in box capitals and was now shading each letter. Perhaps he had wanted to be a commercial artist.
"And what exactly is it you want to insure, anyhow," Helen asked, blinking rapidly to brace herself against the poverty of my reply.
For once, I was ready with a good answer. "My cameras are worth two thousand dollars."
"Two thousand, Helen," Rocky said. Helen stopped blinking and inched toward me between tne desk and the cartons, as if to get closer to that amount of money. "How much rent do you pay Shirley?" she asked.
"Three-fifty a month."
"You should have asked us. We could have done better for you," Helen said. "We know of a few rentals, all better than that place you're in. Do you have an appraisal for the cameras?" "Yes."
"Rocky, you've got to go down there," Helen ordered.
He reared back from his lettering, cocking his head to one side in admiration.
"Well, does she know we close for lunch?" he asked.
"We close at twelve," Helen told me. "Rocky will come down after lunch," Helen said. "He needs to write up your full replacement value."
"Fine," I said. I was free until three. Henry Storey was taking me bottle-digging this afternoon. He had stumbled on a cache of antique garbage buried in a field nearby -- he wouldn't say where. "There's bottle collectors in this town who'd like to get their hands on this stuff," he said. He'd showed me a pale blue-green mason jar recovered from the site, so old there were dozens of tiny bubbles trapped in the glass. "Worth money," he said, holding it up to the light for me.
Rocky and Helen locked up for lunch, climbed into their little nondescript sedan and drove home -- across the highway.
I walked back to the crossroads. I dragged my feet. I felt transparent: a girl with long legs and no history, solemn, detached, unproductive. Frothy, spergy Queen Anne's Lace flowered like fireworks along the ditch.
Back in my gallery, I came to an obvious conclusion: Insurance was premature. I didn't want Rocky in there estimating my full replacement value until the floors were done, the walls were painted and the recessed lighting installed. I looked up the Shurberry residence in the phone book -- no number. I called Information -- they were unlisted. I made a little sign, CLOSED DUE TO HEAT, and taped it to the front door.
I went into my back room, took off the dress and pulled on my cut-offs. I felt like myself again. I made a tomato sandwich, then flopped down on my bed, reached under the pillow for Boz's black worn t-shirt and draped it over my face. I loved his smell. There was a foresty cosmetic element, probably After-Shave, a male element, probably sweat, and there was something invisible and powerfully appealing, the essence of Boz. Three more days before our next motel afternoon. I tossed from side to side, arching my back. I could drive myself crazy this way, but this afternoon, I didn't want to, so I sat up and shook it off.
This, not art, was the real business of my life, this slow, rivetting revelation of a sexual self, unfolded to me tryst by trust by a man who felt the same thing was happening to him. Boz had given me his grandfather's gold pocket watch as a token of love, but because there were people in and around Wickley who actually knew that watch by sight, I wasn't allowed to wear it where it could be seen. True, he was still married. But wasn't a token supposed to be something that could be seen? I needed a gesture from him. I needed to feel sure.
I heard Rocky drive up, knock on the front door, ring the buzzer for a full sixty seconds, pound on the display window, ring the buzzer again, call out, knock on the glass, and finally leave.
Henry came to the back door a little after three. His appearance was always eccentric, but now, with two shovels over his shoulder, a large burlap bag hanging down his back and an old bent-up gray fedora shading his eyes, he looked mythic. "Hey, I want a hat too," I said. He went next door and found a companion fedora that was too big for my head, so he took it and gave me his.
"Do you think you could bring us a beer?" he asked. I stuck a bottle into each of my back pockets. We tramped down the hill behind our stores. The stream bed was low, down to a trickle. We followed it south a ways to the giant culvert under County Route 1, big enough to walk through. It was cool and dark inside. A shallow pool of dark water had collected. Henry edged his way over the stones.
"Know what?" he said, his voice echoing. "Don't slip."
I wasn't paying much attention to where exactly we were going. I climbed the hill behind Henry. He stopped and jabbed his spade into the field and started to dig. There we were, not a hundred feet from the State Farm Insurance office.
Helen saw us first. Her mouth was going a mile a minute as she and Rocky edged their way between the cartons for a better look. My first reflex was to hide. I tried to dig with my back to them, my face in the shadow of the Fedora. I felt as if I'd been playing hooky, as if Rocky might pick up the phone right there and then, and call my sister, saying, "She's goofing off. She's not getting the insurance from me you told her to get."
"What's eating them?" Henry said.
"I just stood them up," I said.
"That's rich, he said. "Oh boy, is that rich. They have even less of a notion than you about how to run a business." He went back to his digging.
Henry unearthed a beautiful cobalt blue bottle, cylindrical, with a silver cap. I found a tiny brown one with half the label still intact: Carter's Little Liver Pills.
I was brushing the dirt off the lip when I saw the red Mercury. Boz was driving slowly by the gallery, hoping for a glimpse of me, his red tail lights brightening with desire with each tap of the brakes. I stood rivetted to the hillside in a state of unwise exhilaration that began in the soles of my feet and ended in the tips of my hair, watching the red car disappear over the hill. I was sure. I opened our beers.
Henry found twenty-eight bottles and I found twelve. Rocky and Helen stayed with us, chain-smoking shoulder to shoulder at the window. Everytime I looked up, Helen's mouth was still going. They looked so flat, gray and stale, trapped in their marriage behind the glass, I felt a rush of tenderness. I hoped the Chuzzners weren't sitting by the phone.
Lucia Nevai is the author of Seriously, a novel, published by Little, Brown. Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Iowa Review, Zoetrope All-Story, the New Yorker, Glimmer Train, and other literary magazines. Her...