Tuesday
May072013

The Purple Shells

Meghan L. Dowling


 

Whenever Serena Addison is asked if she is okay the answer is always no, which is never the answer that she gives. From her vantage behind the oak desk in the center of the library she watches a scarecrow—a boy still wearing his pajamas at two o'clock in the afternoon—stick a bony finger in his nasal cavity, scrape something from the damp inside, and slide his hand down the back of the fire-retardant armchair next to his own. Serena Addison is not okay.

 

Serena Addison begins to suspect that if the mauve hard-covered library book isn't exactly predicting her future, it is at least giving her a murky sense of what comes next. In a novel or feature-length film, this realization would bloom slowly and reach its full potential through a series of carefully rendered scenes. The idea, however, hits her flatly at the bottom of page twenty-three of The Purple Shells. The main character, a librarian named Blythe Reed, finds herself inexplicably drawn to a dusty copy of a murder mystery called The Purple Shells. Serena suddenly knows, in a dull thud moment, that reading this book will finally give her the gist of the events surrounding and leading up to her untimely death.

 

1) Functional poverty
2) Single mother
3) Academic scholarship

The confluence of things required Serena Addison to take the city bus to and from school every day as a child. The 222 departed from the concrete slab station at both :37 and :17 minutes past the hour. A Walkman discouraged people from talking to her but left her bored; a book was engaging but wouldn't stop men from asking her what she was reading.

 

Serena Addison is compiling a list of facts as The Purple Shells reveals itself to her.

 

Worthington Library is in the southwest corner of campus. Its long clean lines, sharp angles, and corners come to logical conclusions. Large plates of glass blaze at sunset, punctuate its western face. The library dates from a time when post-war architects riddle the country with modern buildings. Preparations to house the future.

A school called Worthington is the fictional version of Harvard on a television drama from the nineties about a clot of tragically misunderstood teenagers. Worthington is the school that they all desperately want to get in to but, tragically, believe they cannot. From her vantage behind the oak desk in the library, that irony is not lost on Serena Addison. The difficulty is in getting out.

 

First, the scene is set. The year is 1940. A library on the campus of a University close to a city center yet far enough away to have woodsy grounds. Then, the major characters:

            -Blythe Reed: New librarian, early 30s, unmarried, attractive, shy.

            -Susie Bing: Work-study student, early 20s, homely, unobtrusive.

            -Clyde Puce: Microform technician, late 20s, pronounced limp, odd.

It isn't until after the establishing scenes that Blythe Reed learns of her predecessor's grisly fate: crumpled at the base of an iron lamppost on the well-lit footpath behind the library, assailant unknown. With no leads and no family members clamoring for retribution, the case has gone cold. Blythe Reed suspects Clyde, just as the reader is expected to suspect Clyde.

Serena Addison is unsure.

 

Favorite memory: four o'clock in the afternoon, weekday, silent house, rain, wind-whipped wet leaves. Far from the concrete slab station. Discolored kitchen linoleum, an heirloom table, a small white plate, twenty-four semi-sweet chocolate chips; reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, eating chocolate chips one by one by one by

 

Page 12: Blythe Reed is a cycling enthusiast.

 

The men who built those buildings—those libraries and bus stations and behemoths of bureaucracy in government centers—are both enviable and pitiful. The future they prepared never arrived. Their buildings became obsolete. But those men had something to anchor themselves to. Their long clean lines, their slabs of concrete.

They were so utterly sure.

 

Blythe Reed is in danger, enemy as yet unknown. An overwhelming sense of dread haunts the prose describing her making coffee in a stovetop percolator or waiting for a streetcar. Confined within the hard cloth binding, these everyday events are only precursors to disaster.

 

The Purple Shells is not told in flashback; it is completely linear. Blythe Reed dies at the beginning because Serena Addison reads the ending first. It is not read, in this particular instance, as the author intended. The story Serena Addison is reading is not the story that begins on page 3 and ends on page 237. The story Serena Addison is reading begins on page 237, ending unknown. Serena Addison is reading her own story.

 

ex-trap-o-late

verb [trans.]

-extend the application of to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable

-estimate or conclude (something) in this way

-Mathematics: extend (a graph, curve, or range of values) by inferring unknown values from known trends in the data

 

It is peculiar that Blythe Reed is the focus of a murder mystery written in the 1940s. Dime store aficionados would have expected to see The Purple Shells from the perspective of a hard-boiled detective or a cunning newspaperman. A 'Blythe Reed' would be a dame or a damsel in distress.

In this story she is neither.

Blythe Reed is feeble. Blythe Reed waits for things to happen to her. They will not be good things, but Blythe Reed waits for them anyway. Blythe Reed is flimsy. Blythe Reed is unable to take hold of the reins. Blythe Reed is unable to control her future. Blythe Reed is unable to snap out of it.

She is unable.

 

Blythe Reed's coworker—her male coworker—skulks around the stacks and catches her off guard. The language is inflammatory: bulging, staring eyes… protruding tongue… methodically moving back and forth… Still, it is introduced early enough in the story that the coworker-angle is most likely a red herring.

Everything is a red herring.

 

Serena Addison does not have a coworker. Will the threat, therefore, come from without and not from within?

 

Page 173: Blythe Reed rides her bicycle on the winding footpath that passes behind the library, the future site of her death. Blythe Reed is drawn to it. As she nears the library, she sees a man several hundred feet down the path with a tan puppy walking toward her. She should find such a tableaux comforting, but something about it is off. Something in her reptilian brain slithers. Suddenly, she notices: It is not a soft leather strap attached to a matching collar that she sees, but a frayed and knotted rope looped around the puppy's neck. The dog does not appear to be in distress, but

In the moment that Blythe Reed must decide what to do, she convinces herself to ignore her instincts and rides straight toward him.

She sails past the man without incident.

But, still.

 

Fact: The inherent danger or safety of a vehicle is directly proportional to the speed of the vehicle.

            Victim/Attacker                                     Advantage?

            Foot/Foot                                              Attacker

            Foot/Bicycle                                          Attacker

            Bicycle/Car                                            Attacker

            Car/Car                                                 --------

            Car/Bicycle                                            Victim

            Bicycle/Foot                                          Attacker

            Foot/Foot                                              Attacker

The victim rarely has the advantage.

 

Serena Addison had not yet learned to be afraid.

It is a game the girls play: taunting men in the concrete slab central station, blowing kisses. The winner of the game is the first girl to get a man to chase her. The winning girl is supposed to lead the man through the maze of concrete columns in the parking garage, into the busy turnstile area, and to the Metro Police station: Officer, this man is following me…

She is not meant to get turned around in the parking garage and lose her way.

She is not meant to be cornered in the stairwell.

What happens next cannot be considered her fault.

This fact is non-negotiable.

 

It is the early morning footage of November 22, 1963 that is most unbearable: Jackie stepping off the plane in her now-iconic pink suit, smiling and waving, grasping the arm of her handsome husband: The momentary feeling of panic upon viewing this footage, as if being held underwater. The wanting, to cry out: Don't get in that car. You don't know what will happen. But such a warning is made possible only by the certainty of imminent disaster. Serena Addison watches Blythe Reed blunder through the last moments of life and says nothing.

 

The stairwell smelled like piss.

 

Men are not to be trusted, as a general rule. As with anything there are exceptions. There are few exceptions. In a traditional plot twist, it is always the person least suspected—homely little Susie Bing reveals herself to be a librarian-murdering psychopath. But having been trained to spot this device, the person least suspected automatically becomes the person most suspected. It is disorienting.

In life, it can be anyone. Absolutely anyone. There are percentages, however. Some people and some situations are simply more dangerous than others. Blythe Reed should have known that. She should have known. She should have known better than to put her self in harm's way. If only she could have seen the whole board. If only she could have broken with habit. If only she hadn't been so stupid stupid stupid as to think she could outrun him.

The heroine should narrowly escape. The audience should breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Blythe Reed may or may not have taken scalding showers. Even if the author knew this detail, he would not have included it in the story. There were standards of decency then. Seared pink skin is incendiary. It sounds alarms.