Roxana Robinson

The Things I Didn‘t Know

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from Roxana Robinson’s “The Secret Societies,” published in New Haven Noir.

The Alison Ricks archive is at Yale, in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It’s a couple of hours from New York, and on the way up the Merritt Parkway I went over what I knew.

Alison Ricks had been born in 1924, in Cornwall, Connecticut. She’d gone to college but hadn’t finished. She went to Italy after the war, worked in Naples for NATO, and began writing fiction. She moved back to New York, worked for another government organization, and kept on writing fiction. At some point she left New York for London, where she’d spent the last forty years of her life. What had she done? She’d stopped writing for the New Yorker around 1980. What had happened after that?

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I figured this would take two years to write. My agent and Jake had worked out a pretty good contract, with an advance that would be big enough to live on if I didn’t eat. The commute to New Haven wasn’t bad, and I figured I could get my magazine to send me on a story to London, where I could do some more research. Jake had heard that Jeanetta had gotten a huge advance, but I put that out of my head. Mine would be first and best.

I got off the highway in New Haven, and almost at once I was in quiet, tree-lined academe. The buildings were neo-Gothic, made of gray stone with small mullioned windows, as though we were suddenly in fifteenth-century England. I found the Beinecke, then began looking for a parking lot. I drove around through the maddeningly one-way streets, farther and farther from the library, until I found a small private lot on Trumbull Street.

Walking back, I passed a one-story brownstone building, massive and closed, built like a tomb. It had a flat facade with three blank arches, a Latin motto inscribed over them. There were no windows, and the door was sealed shut. I thought it was one of the student secret societies; it felt like a reminder of all the things I didn’t know.

The Beinecke is a pale stone tower set back from the street by an open courtyard, and as I walked across the flagstones I could hear my footsteps echo. I wondered what secrets I would find. I wondered if Jeanetta Wareham was already there.

Inside the building, it was like a church. The walls were made of translucent alabaster, and the light glowed through them, cool and elegant. People spoke in hushed tones and moved slowly.

I went down to register as a researcher. I’d done part of this online. The young woman at the desk was Asian, with black hair in a bowl cut. I gave her my name, and when I told her who I was working on, she glanced up at me.

“Alison Ricks?”

“That’s right,” I said.

She said nothing more, and I wondered if she had just checked in Jeanetta Wareham. I knew what Wareham looked like; I’d found a picture online. Short black hair and big teeth—too big—and small, close-set eyes, like a wolverine’s. Now I glanced around for her, but the only other person I saw was a young man walking toward the staff office. The hall was silent.

They checked my ID and took my photograph and explained how it worked, and what the rules were. Where the material is brought to you, how long you can use it, what the restrictions are. You can’t bring pens or markers into the reading room, or, really, anything at all but your laptop. There are lockers, where you leave everything but your computer. These libraries don’t take chances: someone must once have slipped some priceless letters into a briefcase, because now everyone is monitored and there are security guards at the doors.

I put in my requests and went in to wait in the reading room. It was a beautiful space, just below ground level, with a long wall of plate glass that looks into a sunken stone courtyard, empty and serene. In the room were eight long wooden tables. No one else was there, but on one table, on the far side of the room, was an open laptop with papers beside it.

When my material arrived, I opened the heavy cardboard box and took out the first folder. I was entering into Alison Ricks’s life.

Excerpted from “The Secret Societies” by Roxana Robinson, copyright 2017 Roxana Robinson, included in the anthology New Haven Noir edited by Amy Bloom. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books.

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