The Arizona sun is strong this February afternoon, but all the women are quite cool and comfortable. You might think that they chose the colors of their shorts and sleeveless tops to match the colors of the fruits they are eating: cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew. Their fingernails and toenails are painted in various shades of opalescence: silver, rose, robin’s-egg blue. This is their weekly ritual: water aerobics, a manicure, a pedicure, then lunch (raw fruits, raw vegetables, whey protein–enriched smoothies) in front of one of their wall-sized TVs. Their children are grown; their husbands are somewhere.
They are waiting for the show that is their favorite, and for which they feel a proprietary pride because it started as a local cable show here in their own Brimston and has now gone national. But they knew it when.
“I just love her. I always have.”
“I’m crazy about everything about her.”
“When she goes after someone, I just feel good about things, like the world’s on the right track.”
“Blah blah blah and boo hoo hoo,” they say, imitating Quin’s inflection, toasting each other with their pastel smoothies.
“Good afternoon, lovers of justice. This is Quin Archer. And this is PAYBACK.
“Today’s show exposes a greedy dishonest father, Winston La Marr. He cheated his daughter Cindy of a legacy left by her grandmother and fled the country with a new woman. Cindy’s loving grandmother, Thelma La Marr, Winston’s mother, created a trust to ensure that her granddaughter would always be provided for . . . she particularly wanted Cindy to have a college education. But she was too trusting . . . perhaps not in her right mind . . . and the trust was set up with only herself and Winston as trustees, not Cindy. She felt secure giving Winston the money to invest, and he invested it in what were called ‘bearer bonds.’ Bearer bonds, my friends, are named as they are precisely because anyone holding them in their hand . . . or bearing them . . . can cash them in. And that is precisely what Winston La Marr did. Cashed in the bonds, fled the country, leaving his daughter impoverished.
“We’ve connected with him in this leafy upscale suburb of Philadelphia, an idyllic setting, my friends, I’m sure you all agree. Observe the wide, quiet street, the lush old trees. But I’m here to tell you that for Cindy growing up, life was far from idyllic. She went from living a comfortable middle-class life to being an impoverished child of a working mother—her mother went back to work as a secretary when her husband left and barely made ends meet—so Cindy was the victim and her victimizer went scot-free. Time and the world healed her; she is a brave, brave woman—married for thirty-six years with two lovely daughters and five sweet grandkids—until today. Because we’re here, all of us, you and I, and finally the victim will no longer be a victim but a payee. When she will get her PAYBACK.”
On the screen, dark storm clouds brood. Then from somewhere, from anywhere, a golden arrow pierces the clouds, which part like curtains, revealing shining gold letters: PAYBACK.
The gold letters disappear to reveal the severe face of Quin Archer.
Standing in front of a large white house with out-of-place Colonial pillars, at the crest of a perfect lawn, is a grim-looking woman, possibly in her late fifties. On the right, slumped, stricken, stands a man in at least his eighties. Quin Archer approaches them. The old man bursts into tears. “What I did was terrible; I was the victim of the disease, gambling . . . it’s a disease like cancer or diabetes. You throw away everything valuable, for the disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t forgive me. By the time I got myself together, I couldn’t find you. I tried, I really tried, but you’d moved, your mother remarried, you took her husband’s name. I tried, I really tried. I only wish I could make it up to you somehow.”
Winston La Marr begins weeping.
“You well may shed tears, Mr. La Marr. But until Cindy gets her PAYBACK all I can say is blah blah blah and boo hoo hoo. Tears are not PAYBACK, Mr. La Marr, and this is why we’re here. Because it is time for you to make it up. To pay it back. I’m looking at your beautiful home here . . . and Cindy has provided us with images of the homes she lived in growing up.”
Drab ranch houses on treeless streets appear on the screen, each one more dilapidated, more dispiriting than the last.
“And this is the home Cindy and her husband, Tom, have made a home, through sweat and tears and struggle . . . a home, modest by any standards . . . no pillars for Cindy, no great lawn and majestic trees. So I would say there is
something you could do to make it up to her, because it is obvious that you are enjoying a lifestyle far superior to that of the daughter you abandoned.”
“It’s . . . it’s not mine . . . it’s . . . it’s my wife’s.”
“Let’s see what your wife has to say about all this,” Quin says, walking up the three brick steps to the front door.
She rings the bell insistently, and the door is opened by a tall woman, her hair a stiff tower of copper red, her arms crossed across her large, heavily corseted chest.
“I want you off my property,” the woman says.
“Well, I’m afraid it’s too late for that, as your husband has signed a release.”
“But it’s my property, not his.”
“I think, Mrs. La Marr, that this is not the case. The deed, which we have found, is in both your names.”
The woman tries to close the door, but Quin has wedged her foot against it, so it is impossible.
“Your husband has said that he wishes he could make up to his daughter for the deprivation he caused her. He says that the money is in your name, but I’m sure you’ll see the injustice, Cindy deserves some PAYBACK.”
“Over my dead body.”
“Are you sure you want the scandal of your husband being taken to court, exposed for the thief and cheat he is, his past laid out for everyone to see . . . not just your neighbors, but all the viewers of this show?”
“Marie,” Winston shouts from the bottom of the lawn. “Marie, it’s only right.”
The woman pushes the door against Quin’s foot, and Quin, having no choice, moves her foot away, takes off her high black pump, and rubs her foot with the greatest possible expression of inflicted pain.
“I’ll make it right, Cindy, I swear I’ll make it right,” says Winston La Marr.
Cindy falls into her father’s arms, and weeps. “Everything happens for a reason, Dad.”
“And remember, Cindy,” Quin says. “If your father is unable to make his wife act justly, you have legal recourse. You need not be a victim. You will get PAYBACK, I guarantee it, if you just take your life in your hands, the only life you have, Cindy, the life that your father nearly stole from you—if you use the strength that helped you survive, I guarantee that you will get your PAYBACK.”
Quin Archer turns her back on the embracing father and daughter. “Till next week, then. Remember: Justice may be slow in coming, but together we will bring it home.”
She walks down the hilly lawn to the sidewalk. She looks into the camera with a fierce intensity. “My friends, my real true friends, all of you out here, I’ve never had the courage for this until now. But your love and support have made me feel safe and strong. You see, what I have kept shut inside my heart is the truth that I, too, was a victim. And my victimizer, my betrayer—well, I didn’t have the strength then to confront her, and there was no one to support me—she should have been the one—and so I ran, like so many victims, I ran. Ran into a life of self-destruction, which through so much support and love I was able to turn around. But now, my friends, my community of justice seekers. It’s my turn. I am proud to say that I have helped many to give up the status of victim, and it’s my turn now. You’ve heard me say it: Don’t call yourself the victim, call yourself the OWED. Next week, my friends: you’ll hear my story. Next week my victimizer will be the one to PAY BACK. And remember, my friends, FORGIVENESS WITHOUT
PAYBACK KEEPS A VICTIM IN HIS CHAINS.”
In a trailer parked in front of the brick house, two girls, bright and fleet as birds, dab at Quin Archer’s face with a white towel, leaving on it splotches of makeup the color of a pretzel. “Santa Fe Sunset” is the name of the foundation shade Quin favors. She is proud of her even, youth-bestowing tan, and although people warn her of the danger of tanning beds, she doesn’t listen. She mistrusts all doomsayers and believes that if there are consequences to something, she will find a way around them.
She snaps her fingers for one of the girls to give her a hand mirror. She examines her face with calm satisfaction. With pleasure, she runs her hands over her skin’s firm, wrinkleless texture. She is lean and taut; there is no looseness, no sagging on any part of her body. She wished for years that her eyes were bigger, but now she’s made her small eyes a kind of trademark, emphasizing them with lines of thick black kohl. She worries that perhaps her arms are starting to look ropy, but for now she favors sleeveless sheaths and high heels. She pats with pleasure her signature hair: silver spikes, baffling speculations about her real age.
She applies a thick coating of her signature orange lipstick—“Tangerine Sunrise”—and outlines it with a darker pencil: “Blood Orange.” She swivels around on her chair and says to her two birdlike assistants, who pretend to understand, “Well, that almost didn’t work . . . I hate it when they fall into each other’s arms. Thank God for the wife. But wait and see, girls, this next one, the one I was just talking about. I’m going to nail this one. I’m going to nail her to the wall.”
Copyright © 2020 by Mary Gordon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.