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Although award-winning author Michelle Richmond lives in the Richmond District, she writes about Noe Valley with a keen eye for detail.
In her 2008 literary thriller No One You Know, recently released in paperback, Richmond's heroine, Ellie Enderlin, is a Noe Valley native.
"My sister-in-law and her family live on 28th Street, and her house is the one I had in mind for Ellie's [childhood] home," says Richmond.
In the novel, set in present-day San Francisco, Ellie is a 39-year-old woman who has a successful career as a coffee buyer. Still, she remains haunted by the murder of her older sister, Lila, 20 years before. Her thoughts often return to the tragedy, and to her sophomore English professor, Andrew Thorpe, who shocked and disappointed her by writing a "true-crime" book based on the case. Although Lila's killer has never been caught, the man Thorpe accuses in his book, Peter McConnell, proclaims his innocence when Ellie encounters him by chance in Nicaragua. The doubts McConnell raises send Ellie on a search for the truth, which includes confronting the author who betrayed her trust.
In the excerpt below, Ellie visits Thorpe in his Diamond Heights home.
from the novel
No One You Know
BY MICHELLE RICHMOND
I took the stairs to the second floor. I passed a closed door, behind which I could hear him moving around. I turned right and came to a square room equipped with a large metal desk, which was flanked by industrial filing cabinets. The desk was shoved against a large window. Books and papers were everywhere, and the chair was covered with file folders. On top of the desk, anchoring a stack of papers, was a pair of binoculars. The hardwood floor had ring-shaped stains where potted plants once stood. I flipped the light switch, but nothing happened.
Thorpe was walking around, opening and closing drawers. I heard him curse to himself. The fountain gurgled in the courtyard. I leaned over the desk and peered out the window.
There was a steep, wooded hill beside the house. Beyond the hill the streets of Noe Valley glowed vaguely under the automatic lamps. I felt unnerved, but I couldn't pinpoint the source of my discomfort--it was just a vague sensation of something not being quite right. I moved the file folders off the chair, sat down at the desk, and peered down the hill. Midway down, someone had set up a makeshift encampment. The end of a cigarette glowed.
At the bottom of the hill was a fence, and beyond the fence a small playground, and beyond that a narrow street lined with rows of Victorians. There were many such streets in Noe Valley, of course, but I realized with a shiver that this wasn't just any street.
From the house on the corner, I counted down the block until I came to the sixth house on the right. A light burned in an upstairs room. A person appeared in front of the window and stood there, still as a photograph. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes and experienced several seconds of confusion as the binoculars picked up the objects in front of me on the desk, absurdly magnified. I moved them back and forth, finally finding the house, the window. Affixed to the outside frame of the window was a wooden bird feeder, a Victorian house in miniature. I recognized the bird feeder immediately--the small scalloped roof, the little red door--I'd built it from a kit and painted it myself during my freshman year of college. There had been a hummingbird with an iridescent blue throat that came at ten every morning. It was Lila who cleaned the feeder and kept it supplied with nectar. After she died I forgot to fill it, and the hummingbird stopped coming.
I was looking at my old bedroom. Thorpe had a perfect view. The person standing before the window was a woman, not much older than I was, dressed in a pale green bathrobe, arms crossed. She shifted, lifted her arm in a wave. For a moment, I thought she was waving at me. Then I saw the person on the street below her window--a man, waving up at her. I couldn't be sure, but he looked like an old neighbor of mine.
* * *
I sensed him before I heard him. Several seconds passed. I kept waiting for him to announce himself, but he didn't. Finally I turned and saw Thorpe standing in the doorway, watching me. He was wearing a white cable-knit sweater, linen slacks, and leather sandals. His head had been shaved clean, and he smelled of aftershave.
I had witnessed the third transformation of Thorpe in as many days. He looked nothing like the man who had answered the door a half hour before. His demeanor had changed as well. He had a bit of swagger now. The total effect of the clothes, the aftershave, the smooth and gleaming head, was of a man who'd come to take me out to Sunday brunch in Marin.
He walked into the room and looked out the window, down the hill toward my house. For a moment we stood side by side in the darkness. His arm brushed mine, and I moved away from him.
"Bulb's burnt," he said. "Wait here."
In a couple of minutes Thorpe returned. He stood on a chair to remove the light fixture, and handed me the old bulb. I shoved it into the overflowing wastepaper basket and wiped the greasy dust on my jeans.
"How many Marxists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" he asked, as the new bulb flickered to life.
"I give up."
"None. The lightbulb already contains the seeds of its own revolution."
He stood in front of me, hands on his hips, breathing a bit faster from the exertion.
"How long have you lived here?" I asked.
"Almost ten years. Turned out to be a great investment. I got it for $400,000. Last month, the fixer-upper across the street sold for $1.7 million."
"You could cash out, move to the tropics, and take up a life of leisure." I thought of Peter McConnell in Nicaragua, living off the grid. I wondered what he was doing tonight, what he would make of my trek into Diamond Heights to confront the man who had ruined his life.
"Ah, yes," Thorpe said, "but what about my fans?"
"You can write anywhere."
"True, but then it's not really just about the writing, is it? You can write the best book ever, but if you're not around to do interviews, have your picture taken for magazines, show up at the book festivals, then your book is sunk, your readers evaporate, and you're alone with the blank pages."
"Is that why you do it--so you won't be alone?"
"Isn't that ultimately why anyone does anything?" He glanced out the window, then back at me. "Are you seeing anyone?"
"No one in particular."
I didn't like where the conversation was headed, but I wasn't sure how to get it moving in the right direction. I had come here to talk about Peter McConnell, and now I was distracted by the window. I imagined Thorpe sitting at his desk, watching the comings and goings of my childhood home. Until a year before, it would have been my mother he observed pulling out of the garage each weekday morning, my mother he saw traipsing down the street, yoga mat slung over her shoulder, on the way to her Saturday afternoon class. And, of course, every Thursday night, he would have seen me, because every Thursday I came over for dinner. I would arrive at six, and my mother and I would have a glass of wine--either in the living room or on the back deck, depending on the weather.
At six-thirty we would walk to Alice's, where we would order pot stickers, orange chicken, garlic prawns, and bok choy. Around seven-thirty, we would climb the steep hill to the house and stand on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes, saying our good-byes. This had been our routine ever since my father moved out, and unless I was out of town or had something pressing to attend to, I honored the commitment. It was something we counted on, my mother and I.
When she sold the house and moved to Santa Cruz, I had found myself on those Thursday nights feeling completely adrift. It had been such a regular part of my life for so long, I didn't know what to do with myself. Eventually I began filling the newly freed time with classes--Bikram yoga, conversational Russian, Italian cooking, even hip-hop dance--but I always felt out of sync; the only place I wanted to be was in my old neighborhood, with my mother, talking casually about our week. During those Thursday-night dinners with her, I felt I could truly be myself, relaxed, with no need to put up my guard. Knowing that Thorpe had been there, probably watching us from above, cast the whole thing in a different light.
Although the clear view of my house was the most obvious topic, Thorpe simply passed over it as if it did not exist. It was his way, again, of controlling the conversation, so that any dialogue advanced according to his own terms.
"There was a woman I was seeing for a while, a long time ago," Thorpe said. He was sitting on the edge of the desk, legs crossed at the knees, hands resting at his sides, in a posture I remembered from class. "Her name was Florence, I called her Flo. We'd been together for a couple of months when I took her to a dinner party at the home of one of my former colleagues. After dinner we were sitting in the living room having coffee when our host said to Flo, 'Funny, the moment you walked in I thought you looked very familiar, and all night I've been trying to figure it out, and it just hit me. You remind me of a student Andy and I used to have, Ellie Enderlin.'"
All this time, I'd been looking out the window. The light went off in the upstairs room of my childhood home. Thorpe stood and began pacing. Because the room was so small and overcrowded with furniture, he could only go three or four steps before turning around and pacing in the opposite direction. "What I'm trying to say is that I needed you."
Excerpted from No One You Know, a novel by Michelle Richmond. Copyright ©2008 by Michelle Richmond. Published by Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, N.Y. All rights reserved. www.bantamdell.com.
Currently on a book tour for No One You Know, Michelle Richmond will appear in conversation with author Julia Glass at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California Street, on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m. Richmond will also read at a Litquake event on Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m., at the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd Street. To learn more about her work, including the bestselling Year of Fog (2007), go to her website, www.michellerichmond.com.
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