Arrow Books Limited 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA
An imprint of Random Century Group
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First published in the United States by Warner Books, Inc., 1981
Arrow Edition 1990
© 1981 by Warren Adler
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Phototypeset by Input Typesetting Ltd, London SW19 8DR Printed and bound in Great Britain by Courier International Ltd, Tiptree, Essex
ISBN 0 09 9 73570 9
For Page and Clyde
The author is grateful for the cooperation, kindness, and expertise of Barbara and Howard DeFranceaux, Victor Shargi, Viola Drath, Joseph Lyman, and Rose Bailor.
A cold rain whipped across the clapboard facade of the old house, spattering against the panes. Like everyone else in the bone-damp parlor set up theater style with folding wooden-slat seats, the auctioneer raised his gloomy eyes toward the windows, perhaps hoping the gusty rain would shoot out the glass and abort the abysmal performance.
Oliver Rose sat on an aisle seat, a few rows back from the podium, his long legs stretched out on the battered wooden floor. The room was less than half full, no more than thirty people. Behind the auctioneer, strewn around like the aftermath of a bombing, lay the assorted possessions of the family Barker, the last of whom had lived long enough to make some of this junk valuable.
'... it's a genuine Boston rocker,' the auctioneer droned, his voice cracked and pleading as he pointed to a much abused Windsor-style rocking chair. 'Made by Hitchcock, Alford and Company, one of the finest names in chairs.' He looked lugubriously around the silent room, no longer expectant. 'Damn,' he snapped. 'It's a genuine antique.'
'Ten bucks,' a lady's voice crackled. She was sitting in the first row, bundled in a dirty Irish sweater.
'Ten bucks?' the auctioneer protested. 'Look at these tapered back spindles, the scrolled top rail, the shaped seat....'
'All right, twelve-fifty,' the lady huffed. She had been buying most of the furniture offered, and it seemed to Oliver that the auction was being held for her benefit.
'The whole thing stinks,' a voice hissed. It came from a veined Yankee face beside him. 'The rain's mucked it all up. She's got the antique store in Provincetown. She'll get it all for a song and sell it off to the tourists for ten times as much.'
Oliver nodded, clicking his tongue in agreement, knowing that the rain was his ally as well. Most of the tourists who had crowded into Chatham on Thursday and Friday, hoping for a pleasant Memorial Day weekend at the beach, had left by midmorning. At the Breaking Wave, where Oliver was a summer waiter, the dining room for the Sunday lunch looked and felt like an offseason resort, and his tips had matched the mood.
But the weather on Cape Cod, at best, was uncertain. He was used to it. All through Harvard undergraduate school, he had worked summers at the Breaking Wave, amusing himself at the antique auctions on those days he couldn't get to the beach. He was especially fond of those held at the old cottages after the owners had died off Rarely could he afford to buy anything, although occasionally he picked up a Staffordshire figure for a song.
He had grown up being watched over by the four female figures of Staffordshire pearl ware representing the Four Seasons garbed in decollete white robes. They peered out of his mother's dining-room china closet, emblems of his father's war service in England. Once he had broken Spring, which he had removed in a clandestine pre-puberty compulsion to feel the little lady's tits; the figure had slipped out of his hand, and was decapitated on the floor. Always good with his hands, he had done a magnificent glue job and his mother was never the wiser.
Now, as if out of guilt, he had .acquired a modest collection of his own, some common sleeping-child figures and a ubiquitous sailor and his wife and child. He had done a bit of research on the subject as well and, although the figures were comparatively cheap, he suspected that, someday, they would increase in value.
The auctioneer reached for the boxing figure and held it above his head. Then, putting on his glasses, he read from the spec sheet.
'Staffordshire pearl ware. The pugilist Cribb. He was the champion of England in 1809. . . .'
Oliver stiffened. The idiot is breaking the pair, he thought, appalled by the man's ignorance. Cribb was white. There was a black figure as well, Molineaux, an ex-slave who had fought Cribb twice, losing both times. Both pugilists had been immortalized by caricature in drawings, on pottery, and through figures like these. They were always pictured together, facing each other, fists raised.
'Fifteen bucks,' the lady in the first row shouted.
The auctioneer looked at the figure and shrugged. It wasn't, as Oliver knew, a work of art. Merely a souvenir, probably selling for tuppence when first made by an anonymous back-street potter. The auctioneer glared contemptuously at the audience, obviously wanting to hurry the sale.
'I have fifteen,' he croaked. 'Going at fifteen. Do I hear sixteen?'
Oliver raised his hand. The auctioneer smirked, perhaps at Oliver's youth.
'I have sixteen,' the man said, showing a sliver of optimism.
The lady in the dirty Irish sweater turned in her chair. Her face looked like soggy dough; her red-tipped nose was runny.
'Seventeen,' she cackled.
'I have seventeen,' the auctioneer said, his eyes shifting back to Oliver.
Oliver raised eight fingers, clearing his throat as well. The heavy lady huffed and shifted in her chair. Reaching into his pocket, he nervously pulled out his money. He had thirty-seven dollars, representing his total weekend tip income. If he got Cribb, he wanted to have some left for Molineaux.
'Nineteen,' the lady boomed out. A gust of rain spattered against the glass. The auctioneer ignored it, warming to his task. Oliver's heart pounded. 'Bitch,' he muttered.
'Twenty,' he shouted.
'Idiot,' the woman rebuked, turning to fix on him her gaze of utter contempt.
'I have twenty. Twenty once.' The auctioneer, a thin smile of satisfaction growing on his lips as he looked at the woman, raised the gavel. 'Twenty twice.' Oliver held his breath. Down went the gavel. 'Sold.'
'Goddamn,' Oliver muttered, energized by the experience, savoring the flush of victory.
'Well, you beat the old cow,' the Yankee beside him twanged.
The black figure came up a few moments later. Oliver felt his guts tighten. It's a pair, he told himself, pumping his resolution. He peeled off what he had spent on Cribb and tucked the money safely in his pocket, clutching the remaining bills in a sweaty hand. There was only seventeen dollars left.
'This is another Staffordshire pugilist, the fighter Molineaux, a former slave, who boxed in England in the early eighteen hundreds.'
'Ten bucks,' the lady in the dirty Irish sweater shouted. She did not turn to look behind her. Oliver shouted out, 'Eleven.' Please, he begged in his mind, enjoying the excitement, sensing his surrender to his determination. At the same time, he rebuked himself. He had no business squandering his money.
'Twelve,' a voice chirped from behind him. He turned quickly, startled by this new voice. Two rows behind him, a young girl with long chestnut hair hanging from under a sailor cap smiled primly, a flush on her apple-contoured cheekbones.
'Shit,' Oliver mumbled as the auctioneer responded.
'I have twelve.'
'Twelve-fifty,' the girl shouted without hesitation.
'Don't they know it's a pair?' he whispered to himself, as if their bids were, somehow, a form of vengeance. He held up his fist, in which he clutched the sweaty bills.
'I have thirteen,' the auctioneer called, staring directly at the girl. She's hesitating, Oliver thought.
'Do I hear thirteen-fifty? ... I have fifty - thirteen-fifty,' the auctioneer shouted. Oliver was sure the auctioneer was playing games and scowled at him, then turned and rebuked the girl with his eyes.
'Fourteen,' he growled. His throat was tightening. He felt the tension in his stomach. Damned bitch, he cried inside himself. It made no sense at all to break up the pair. The auctioneer looked toward the girl.
'I have fifteen,' the auctioneer shouted, warming to his task, ignoring the whiplash of rain that pounded against the house. The audience grew restless.
'Sixteen,' Oliver croaked.
'Seventeen,' the girl responded quickly, her voice carrying over the din.
'It's a damned pair,' Oliver shouted, shaking his head. He opened his palm and unrolled the bills, checking the denominations. Seventeen. That was it. Not even small change.
He turned again and looked at the girl. She was calm, almost serene. But there was no mistaking her determination.
'I have seventeen,' the auctioneer said, staring at Oliver, his glare offensive, intimidating.
'Eighteen,' Oliver shouted, his voice crackling. The room seemed to grow quieter. The sound of pounding rain faded. Knowing he hadn't the money, he felt sinister, manipulative. His breath came in short gasps.
'Nineteen,' the girl responded. 'Twenty,' he shot back.
The girl hesitated and a lump rose in his throat. He looked at the girl again. Their eyes met. There was no mistaking the fierceness of her determination.
'Twenty-one,' she snapped.
All right, he decided, nodding, thankful for the reprieve. Tough little bitch, he thought.
'I have twenty-one once.' The auctioneer paused, watching him. Oliver felt his blood rise. So I'm a coward, he told himself, wallowing in his humiliation.
'Twice ...' The auctioneer shrugged. Down went the gavel. 'Sold.'
Oliver sat through the rest of the auction in a funk. Hell, he could have borrowed the money. But why? What was the point? By the end of the auction he had calmed down, and when he went to pay for and collect his figure he confronted her.
'It's a pair,' he said. He must have been eyeing the figure acquisitively because she seemed to draw it closer to her. 'They go together.'
'That's not the way they were sold,' she said, flashing green eyes, widely set, in rebuke.
'He didn't know what he was doing.'
'I liked it,' she said as they walked out of the parlor, huddling in the crowded hall as the group opened umbrellas and prepared to walk into the gusty rain.
'All I had was seventeen bucks. I deliberately bid it up.' He felt foolish and vindictive, telling her that.
'I got carried away,' he added, hoping to blunt his pettiness.
'So did I,' she admitted. 'That's me.' 'Too damned stubborn.' 'My father says tenacious.'
She smiled, showing white, even teeth. The smile warmed him and his antagonism faded. 'Suppose I'd bid it up to a hundred?'
'I was worried you would.' 'You would have gone along?' 'I hate to think about it.'
He returned her smile and moved with her to the doorway.
'Why did you want it?' he asked.
She hesitated, coy now. He sensed the give and take of flirtation.
'It's for one of the girls at the Chatham Arms. I'm a baking assistant for the summer. Her brother's in Golden Gloves. She's one of the maids. Takes a lot of crap. I thought it would be nice. Instead of a tip.'
He was touched, feeling guilty suddenly.
'A shame to break up a pair. Even for a good cause.'
She opened her umbrella and stepped into the rain. He ducked under it, although it didn't do either of them much good.
'Hope you don't mind.'
'I'm a sportsmanlike winner.'
'I'm a lousy loser.'
The Chatham Arms was on the other side of town and they walked through the main street. His hand covered hers as they jointly clutched the umbrella against the wind. The rain came at them horizontally and they finally took refuge in the doorway of a closed toy store.
By then they had traded vital statistics. Her name was Barbara Knowles. She was a student at Boston University. She had wanted to spend the summer as a volunteer for Jack Kennedy to help him win against Nixon, she told him. But she couldn't afford that.
'Anyway, I like baking. It's fun. And the pay's good.'
'Unless you spend it all.' He pointed to the figure wrapped in soggy newspapers.
'You, too.' She laughed and he noticed that her eyes were really hazel and had turned from green to brown in the late-afternoon light.
'I guess I just like old things. They'll be worth more than money someday. Like these figures.' 'You can't eat them.'
'Unfortunately not. Anyway, I'll have to avoid temptation. Better stay away from auctions,' he told her. 'Harvard Law is damned expensive. I start in the fall. My deal with my folks is that they pay tuition and I pay living expenses.'
They were huddled together in the tiny storefront entrance. When she spoke, he felt her warm breath against his cheek. A current, he knew, was passing between them. Something wonderful and mysterious. He felt her response.
'Don't give him away,' he said, sensing his note of pleading. It was, after all, a symbol of their meeting. 'Not yet.'
'It's mine,' She pouted with mock sarcasm, holding it over his head like a club.
'One isn't much good without the other,' he said. 'It's a twosome.'
'I beat you fair and square,' she said.
'Well, the battle isn't over yet,' Oliver whispered, wondering if she had heard his voice above the beat of the rain.
'Not yet,' she agreed, smiling. She had heard him.
Through the dormer window of her third-floor room, Ann saw him open the side door of the garage. Holding his toolbox, he moved over the flagstone walk toward the house. A reddish spear of light from the slipping September sun bounced off the metal tools laid neatly in the box. Starded by the sudden glinting beam, she moved back out of the dormer's niche, her heart pounding.
Hoping that she was out of his field of vision, she watched him pause and reattach a string of English ivy that had fallen from the high cedar fence. The fence formed a backdrop for a line of still-maturing arborvitaes that separated the back garden from the neighbor's.
Seldom could she study him so minutely, free of her self-consciousness and clumsy shyness. Besides, she was certain that Oliver Rose viewed her as a country bumpkin from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, that is, if he ever took the time to assess her seriously.
In his beige corduroys and blue plaid shirt, he looked oddly miscast as a man who worked with his hands most of his spare time. Even in his basement workroom - surrounded by his neatly hung power tools; his nuts, bolts, nails, and screws in little glass containers; his circular saw, lathe, and myriad mechanical gewgaws -he could not shed the image of his regular calling, a Washington lawyer. Or, as he characterized himself: 'Just a plodding barrister.'
The deepening orange light set off his wavy, prematurely salty gray hair, which he still wore long, despite the new convention. His lightly speckled thick mustache and jet-black eyebrows gave him the look of an anglicized Omar Sharif, a resemblance quickly dissipated when his wide smile flashed and his blue eyes caught the right light, giving away his Irish antecedents.
If Oliver could have surmised the extent of her interest, he would have been flattered, of course, but appalled. Ann herself was appalled. The sensation had crept up on her, like the muggers who, she had been warned, prowled the Washington streets. Not here in the Kalorama section, of course, where there were almost as many embassies and legations as private residences and, therefore, fully protected by a vast army of special police. Her newly acquired neighborhood snobbery amused her as she recalled her sense of logic. She was afflicted, she decided, tearing her eyes from the dormer window, with an adolescent crush, an emotional aberration hardly worthy of a twenty-two-year-old woman. She was, after all, despite the warmth of her acceptance in the Roses' household, merely a glorified au pair girl. The label, she knew, was unfair to them. They tried so hard to make her part of the family, and the free room and board, traded for vaguely defined 'services', gave her the wherewithal to pursue her history master's at Georgetown University.
Looking suddenly about her room, she could not repress a joyful giggle as she recalled the flat offer of 'room and board' that had tantalized her in the classified pages of The Washington Post.
Barbara had described each piece of furniture with the confident authority of a museum guide. Ann had no knowledge of antiques. Yet living among these pieces of tangible history piqued her interest and she would wonder how other past lives had fared among these objects.
In one corner of the room was a sleigh bed, circa 1840s; beside it an inlaid-mahogany Empire table on which stood an Art Nouveau Tiffany lamp guarded by a rustic Staffordshire porcelain milkmaid who had wandered in from the downstairs collection. On one wall was a chest-on-chest festooned with intricate ormolu and a French bibliotheque with glass doors. Near the dormer was an English folding desk on which rested a hurricane lamp.
'We get a knee-jerk reaction every time we get near an antique auction,' Barbara explained. 'We're like antique junkies. We even met at one. There's no more room to put things.'
'It's fantastic,' Ann had replied.
'We've been at it for years,' Barbara told her. 'But they say that people who collect never really stop. Maybe we're afraid to . . .' Her voice trailed off as if she were wary of the sudden intimacy. 'Anyway,' she had chirped, recovering her lightness, 'you can commune with all the ghosts of times past.'
'With pleasure,' Ann had said. 'My major is history.'
But if the 'room' part was overwhelming, the 'board' part staggered her. Ann remained endlessly fascinated with the Roses' kitchen.
It was a carpeted rectangle lined with French provincial walnut cabinetry and rough stucco walls, designed to resemble a French country kitchen. Built into the walls were two double sinks, two double ovens - one electric, one gas - a huge refrigerator with an outside , ice-water tap, a matching freezer, and a dishwasher. Also built in were tiers of open shelving filled with cookbooks, botdes, spices, canned goods, pots, pans, plates, jugs, trays, and bowls of various shapes and sizes. Huge drawers containing silver and flatware were fitted below the counter tops. Shiny copper pots and pans hung on hooks in various corners and cubbies. And on the counter tops were a microwave oven, two blenders, a coffee maker, a toaster oven, a warming oven; an inventory that never failed to expand in Ann's eye with each inspection.
In the center of the kitchen was a large rectangular island over which hung a huge hood. Built into the island was another stainless-steel sink, two four-burner stoves - one electric, one gas - an army of utensils, collanders, ladles, spatulas, pans, and more pots hanging from the hood; a wooden box filled with upended knives in slots, a wide marble top built into the cutting-board counter, and an electric kitchen center designed to accommodate a variety of mixing bowls and whatnots.
Remembering her mother's broken-down, noisy refrigerator, the gas stove with a pilot light that never seemed to work, and the chipped and stained porcelain fixtures, Ann felt she had wandered into a fantasy land.
'I cook,' Barbara had announced, the understatement obviously carefully honed from long use. Ann followed her into an alcove that served as a storage pantry and in which was a large, humming, temperature-controlled wine vault.
'We planned and built it together,' Barbara explained to the baffled Ann. 'Oliver's a whiz at fixing and making things. And I've got a degree in plumbing from the school of hard knocks.'
She was, Ann remembered, as eager to make a good impression as Barbara was to be ingratiating. Yes, there was a certain indelibility about their first meeting, despite the confusing, information-packed grand tour.
Barbara had given particularly detailed descriptions of every piece in the dining room.
'Duncan Phyfe,' she said, rapping her knuckles on the shiny table. 'Queen Anne chairs. And that rococo monstrosity is my favorite.' She had pointed to an elaborate candelabrum with room for more than a dozen candles. 'Decadent, don't you think?'
‘I guess they knew things would outlive human beings,' Ann replied, patting a marble-top credenza for emphasis.
At that first meeting, Barbara's curvaceous figure was encased in tight jeans and a T-shirt on which the word hausfrau was stretched tautly over ample bosom, intimidating the statement. She possessed, as a miner's daughter like Ann would observe, Slavic good looks: deep-set hazel eyes, peering cautiously behind apple-contoured cheekbones, under a broad forehead. Her chestnut hair was cut to cascade, like a wild brook, down either side of her head, almost to her broad shoulders, which served as a sturdy crosspiece for her magnificent bosom.
'I'm going pro,' Barbara had announced, as if it were necessary to explain the kitchen. She had flashed a wide, ingenuous smile, growing momentarily wistful. 'Hell, I've got the talent and the facilities. That's for sure.' Her attention had suddenly departed from Ann, as if there were someone else she had to convince. But when her attention came back to Ann again, she explained that she had just sold a batch of her special cassoulet to an embassy in the neighborhood and her pate was becoming a staple at the French Market.
'It's just a humble beginning,' she had said. 'But that's why I need a little help with the kids. Just a watchful eye. A little tidying up. Perhaps some help for me. Nothing heavy. A maid comes in to do the hard stuff. Teenagers need a maternal surrogate when Mom's busy in the kitchen.' She laughed nervously, which, by inference, put Ann at ease, as if illustrating that she wasn't the only one with anxieties about the new arrangement.
As she talked, Ann remembered, she had lifted Mercedes, the spayed Siamese, from one of the upper open shelves, wedged between a can of Crisco and a box of brown sugar. The cat snuggled against her hair and briefly shared an Eskimo kiss before jumping to the floor, scurrying off to a sunny adjoining room that appeared to be filled with plants.
'There's an overgrown standard schnauzer, whose bark is worse than his bite, that you'll meet shortly. He spends the day servicing the local bitches. Mostly, he obeys only Oliver, who says that's because they both share the same drives.' She had flashed her smile again and giggled a throaty, girlish laugh. The reference to men's drives seemed to offer a female bond, and from that moment, sisterly affection began to ferment. Ann's confidence rose. The little exchange seemed to underline that first impression.
Barbara had mentioned in passing that the schnauzer's name was Benny, but it was Eve, their sixteen-year-old daughter, who had explained to Ann the not-so-subtle connection.
'Mercedes-Benz. Of course. I should have caught it immediately.' Ann had actually felt embarrassed.
'No reason to, Ann, really. It's just one of those very inside family things. It was Dad's idea.'
Reticence marked their first encounters. But Ann thought that was understandable, since the assignment of an au pair girl to watch over a sixteen-year-old seemed an insult by definition. Eve's first move was to give Ann the shock treatment.
'I keep my stash of pot behind Louisa May Alcott,' the girl explained as she introduced Ann to her room, the style of which was an obviously deliberate attempt on Eve's part to stem the tide of antiques that had engulfed the house. Every piece in it seemed ruffled with flowery prints except for the pink bookcase and Andy Gibb poster. The inside of the closet was a mess and schoolbooks were scattered under the bed.
'And I'm on the pill,' she said, watching Ann's face for a reaction. Ann's features were calculatingly immobile. She herself wasn't on the pill for two reasons, health and infrequency. She wasn't shocked, although she had made a mental note as to how much lower the starting age was now.
As if to buttress her rebel image, Eve offered Ann a cigarette, then lit up and inhaled deeply.
'Screw cancer.' She shrugged. To Ann, the bravado was a dead giveaway. Eve wasn't a brat at all. Just unsure, like most teenagers ... and adults.
'I don't smoke,' Ann had replied. T chew.'
Eve's giggle, like her mother's, seemed to break the tension.
'Really?' Eve had exclaimed, showing her age.
She was, Ann observed, vulnerable and gawky, still unfleshed and willowy, but with all the promise of inheriting her mother's Slavic sensuousness. With her father's blue eyes and rich, thick hair, she would soon be quite a beauty.
To make it with Eve, Ann knew instinctively, was to find some important way to illustrate her trust in the girl. She detested being so calculating as she searched for opportunities. But it meant a great deal to win Eve's favor, especially in practical terms. The job in the Roses' household was a stroke of luck. Banishment, for whatever reason, would be a personal and financial disaster.
The opportunity arose when Eve flunked math at Sidwell Friends School, a posh private school of Quaker origin for the children of the Washington elite. Eve, too frightened to tell her parents, confided the horror to Ann.
'I've disgraced them,' she cried.
Calming her down, Ann agreed to act as go-between, a role not without its risks. Oliver had been disappointed, but resigned. Barbara had been angry.
'Lack of preparation is a curse,' she had snapped. 'I know.' Ann had learned by then that Barbara had married at nineteen and had dropped out of college.
'I promised them you'd go to summer school if there were no recriminations or bad words,' Ann had announced proudly to Eve, who collapsed in shivery tears. In its way, it was a kind of victory and certainly represented a turning point between them.
'I'll make them proud,' Eve promised, her lips pursing in determination. There was, Ann had discovered, an invisible, fiercely competitive standard loose in the household. She wondered if it was a good thing.
This standard was at its most obvious in twelve-year-old Josh. What he wanted most of all was to be a member of the Sidwell Friends junior-varsity basketball team. She heard his basketball rattling, with irritating punctuality, against the backboard that his father had made in the alley over the double garage.
Like his sister, he, too, was a well-made mixture of his parents' genes: hazel eyes, cheekbones like his mother's, and a space between nose and lip that would surely in late adolescence sprout his father's thick moustache. His hair, sadly, was his mother's chestnut, which meant that he might not grow his father's salty, waved hair. Like Eve, he wore braces and it was a family joke, one of many, that the Roses were an orthodontist's dream.
Ann's relationship with Josh started out vague and unpromising. She had barely any memories of prepubesceht boys, having gone to a Catholic girls' school. To the stern sisters of that establishment, young boys, if they existed at all, were messengers of Satan. To her, Josh was, nevertheless, a challenge to be surmounted.
She found him one day hunched over his basketball on the third-floor landing outside her room. She had been studying and it was obvious when she saw him there, gloomy and distraught, that he had been waiting for her to come upon him 'accidentally.'
'You look like you just lost your best pal,' she had said, standing over him. He was holding the basketball in a tight embrace. He looked up at her, dry-eyed, but with a visible trembling of his lower lip that threatened the total collapse of his pseudo-manly courage. She sat down beside him, noting that he had deliberately left room for her on the step.
'Damned coach,' he said, telescoping the message that he hadn't made the team. It was enough of a signal to set her mind racing to find something reasonably reassuring to say. Providentially, the Johnstown house was on the edge of a school attended mostly by black children.
'Any black kids on the team?' she asked. He held up one finger. 'Get a chance to play with any black kids?' He shrugged, obviously having no idea where she was leading him.
'Go to the schoolyards where the black kids play. Couple months of that and you'll run rings around those lily-white honkies.'
He took the advice, still sulking as he brushed aside her attempted caress of his shoulders. It was weeks later, when he suddenly broke out in black street talk, that she knew he had taken her advice. Pure chance, she had decided, but a definite icebreaker.
The sun was barely visible through the arborvitaes and would soon be hidden behind the cedar fence, leaving a soft hush in the air. From the kitchen two floors below, exotic, mouth-watering odors wafted upward. In the oven, Ann knew, was a crusting cassoulet, layers of simmering goose, pork, lamb, and sausage on a bed of flageolets, bubbling in an essence of garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and other glorious herbs and spices. Cooling on the marble of the kitchen island was, a deep sniff confirmed, a loaf of fluffy banana bread. Barbara was at that moment probably mixing a light salad of greens and mushrooms in the big wooden bowl inundated with the tart oils of a thousand previous concoctions. There would be sliced pate de campagne as well and a chocolate mousse to sweeten the celebration.
God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, Ann thought, prompted by the smells and the delicious knowledge of her treasure chest of family secrets. The festivities were Barbara's original idea to celebrate Eve's summer-school victory, a B-minus in advanced algebra. Ann had spent half the summer sweating over that one with Eve, certain that her effort had lifted the grade by one whole letter jump.
And Oliver had embroidered the victory with his own contribution. He had bought Eve a silver Honda, which, unbeknown to the victorious scholar, lay in wait in the garage next to his prized Ferrari, rarely used but fondled and caressed like a precious baby.
'You mustn't breathe a word,' Oliver had warned. 'Not a word.'
Barbara had come to her that morning with two secrets.
'Josh made the team. But don't tell Oliver. It's a surprise. We'll spring it at dinner.' 'You said two secrets.'
'I just got a hell of an order. Chicken galantine for twenty-four. For the Paks. They're entertaining the French ambassador Tuesday night. Just don't tell Oliver. Let it be my surprise.' Barbara took Ann by the shoulders, looking deeply into her eyes as if they were a mirror. 'You know, I'm going to make it big as a caterer someday. I mean big.'
Eve came into her room sometime later with a further announcement and Ann literally had to turn away to hide her amusement.
'You might think this dinner is for my B-minus, but Dad's got a topper to that. The firm picked up one of those big Fortune Five Hundred clients in New York. But don't tell Mom. He's going to break out the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild '59. When he does that, we're into heavy duty.'
Any more secrets and Ann was certain that she would burst wide open. Surprisingly, she didn't feel left out. She had her little secret, too, reminded of it again as she passed Oliver on the back stairs. He had just come from the sauna that he had built in the basement, complete with adjoining shower. Sometimes the family gathered there. Nakedness was not a hang-up, although in deference to Ann they no longer went about the house without robes, another secret that Josh had confided.
Passing him on the stairs, she turned quickly away as her eyes caught a tantalizing picture. The damp had curled his hair and the terry-cloth V showed a profusion of jet-black body turf down to his navel. She could not bring herself to look below that but she could not ignore the piny scent that his skin exuded, embellishing the exciting aroma of his maleness. Passing him this close, with him in a state of semi-undress, was dizzying.
'Soon,' he said, winking as he passed her. 'I'm going to give Eve the Honda keys at dinner.'
In the kitchen, Barbara was wearing a long mauve velvet at-home dress with a single strand of matched pearls and even Eve had parted for once from her jeans and was wearing a more fitting, preppyish outfit of pleated skirt, blouse, and saddle shoes. As always, when it came to clothes, Ann felt inadequate, despite the fact that she wore one of Barbara's beige slack-suit hand-me-downs, a far cry from the J. C. Penney polyester she had worn that first day.
As if by silent consent, Ann picked up the cooling banana bread and joined the procession to the library, which doubled as a kind of family den. They moved through the marble-floored foyer, over which glistened a huge crystal chandelier, hanging three stories high in x brass-banistered stairwell. From the foyer's corner, a tall clock in an inlaid-mahogany case offered seven chimes to underscore the Roman hour on its dial.
Oliver had built the walnut bookshelves in the library to hold their rows of leather-bound old books. Against a blank wall was a huge, carved nineteenth-century armoire, nine feet high, which he had fitted with shelves that now held an assortment of liquor. On the fireplace mantel was an array of Staffordshire figures. The Staffordshire collection was Oliver's pride and there were more than fifty figures scattered around the house -milkmaids, sailors, Napoleons, Garibaldis, Little Red Riding Hoods, and crude, rosy-cheeked farm boys.
On a marble table in the foyer were displayed what had become the legendary Cribb and Molineaux, poised in their eternal pugilistic confrontation. The story of the Roses' first meeting had been repeated in the household ad infinitum.
Over the library fireplace hung a large English oil, a hunting scene, appropriate to the leather Chesterfield couch and matching chairs in front of it.
It was, Barbara admitted, a mishmash room, but perfect for squatting around a heavy, low oak 'rent table,' on a Sarouk blue-and-red Persian rug, to have Sunday dinners.
'It seems to be the only time we're all together,' Barbara had told her, offering a mysterious, wistful look, disturbingly out of character.
By the time Oliver arrived, with Josh trailing smugly behind, the platters of cassoulet and pate and the big wooden salad bowl had been laid out. An unsuspecting Eve picked at the banana bread and dropped little morsels in her mouth, unaware of the impending surprise.
The family squatted around the table while Oliver, with great ceremony, poured the Lafite-Rothschild '59 into crystal wineglasses. He looked about, offering a cryptic smile, winking at Barbara and lifting his glass.
'Before we dine on this magnificent repast,' he said, savoring the arcane language, 'we must toast this moment of triumph.' He looked at Eve, who smiled broadly, two rougelike puffs of excitement on each apple cheekbone. 'B-minus will not an A make, but it's a hell of a long way from F.' Josh snickered. He always brought home straight A's and was not above teasing his sister on that score. 'And a longer way from H.'
'H?' Eve asked, squinting in bemusement.
'H for Honda,' Oliver said.
'Honda?' Eve looked at the faces around the table in confusion. Oliver raised his glass higher and from his pocket drew out a set of keys and his electronic remote-control garage door opener.
'Just don't hit the Ferrari on your way out.'
'Not if you value your life,' Barbara joked.
Eve squealed with hysterical joy, grabbing her father around the neck, kissing him with passionate gratefulness. She repeated the ritual with Barbara, then with Josh and Ann, finally picking up the keys and garage door-opener and dashing out toward the rear of the house.
'We're spoiling her rotten,' Oliver said when she had gone, bringing the rim of the wineglass to his lips. Everyone followed suit 'But it feels so damned good.'
'We didn't get our first car until three years after we were married,' Barbara said.
'Different times,' Oliver shrugged. 'Why all the hard work if not for this?' He moved his free arm through the air, the gesture taking in all the visible surroundings, including the people.
'I made the team,' Josh said suddenly, as if a bubble had suddenly burst inside him.
'Damn,' Oliver said, putting down his glass and slapping hands in black-jock fashion. 'Bad. Man.' He had picked up some of the jargon from Josh.
'I'll drink to that,' Josh said, lifting his glass and swilling down the expensive wine as if it were Coca-Cola.
They heard the horn blasts of Eve's new Honda, which she had driven around to the front of the house. Gathering at the window, the family waved and Eve sped off in a cloud of carbon monoxide.
'Lucky bitch,' Josh said.
'Well, now it makes it obligatory for you when you hit sixteen,' Oliver said. 'You now have a standard. That's what fatherhood means. Setting standards.' He laughed at his own little joke, then the family regathered around the table.
'There are other family victories to announce,' Barbara said quietly, her eyes smiling in their deep sockets, her full lips curling tremulously over her white teeth. She made her announcement in a flat, somewhat restrained tone, but with a determined flourish. There seemed a disturbing note of bravado in it as well, although Ann felt she was the only one who appeared to notice. Oliver moved closer to Barbara and kissed her on the lips.
'Fantastic,' he said as Ann quickly turned away, annoyed at her sudden burst of jealousy.
'I guess what I have to say is anticlimactic,' Oliver said just as Eve burst through the front door, flushed with joy.
'It runs like a dream. Like a dream,' she cried, squatting beside Ann and squeezing her hand. 'I'm so happy.'
Ann lifted a finger to Eve, in mock rebuke, as Oliver continued.
'Just a new client. More lucre for the family coffers. A huge retainer. My colleagues are quite pleased with my resourcefulness. I'm off to New York tomorrow to seal the deal.'
They exchanged more kisses and soon everybody was digging into the feast, mumbling ecstatically, with full mouths, over Barbara's wonderful cookery, embellished, they all agreed, by the rich taste and bouquet of the '59 Lafite-Rothschild.
Watching them in what she could only characterize as their splendor, Ann could not escape the comparison with her own shabby family, locked in the prison of their tiny wood-frame house in Johnstown. More like Dogpatch, she thought, where the big treat was snaring Polish sausages with a bent fork from a big jug and swilling down six-packs.
The rich cassoulet melted in her mouth as the movie in her mind froze into a single ghastly frame. In it, her mother's swollen body squirmed like jelly in a torn, flowered housecoat as she reclined on a sprung, worn couch in front of the television set, gun-muzzle curlers poised to shoot out Laverne and Shirley, while her father, his beer belly hanging over his belt like jelly mold, added cigar-ash dust to the frayed carpet from which sprouted his Archie Bunker chair.
Suddenly, as if to start the reel moving again, she tapped her wineglass with a silver spoon, the tinkling crystal forcing the silence.
'I can't tell you how much . ..' The words stuck in her throat and she had to clear it and begin again. 'I can't tell you how much it has meant to me to be here with you. You cannot imagine ...' She stumbled again, the images of her past life too vivid for the rush of words. Her gaze washed over each face, even Oliver's, which, surprisingly, she viewed without the earlier shame. 'It's been the most wonderful time of my life. The way you've taken me in and become, for me, my family.' She swallowed hard to hold down a ball of phlegm. 'Such a happy family . ..' She shook her head, too overcome to continue, then searched with her lips to find the rim of the glass, which she tipped, sipping the wine.
What a happy house, she thought, wondering how she had had the good luck to find them.
Oliver felt the first stab of pain just as Mr. Larabee finished talking, a familiarization lecture, really, outlining the company's special problem with the Federal Trade Commission. He had been taking notes on a lined yellow legal pad and now the pencil made jiggling swirls as if it were writing independently. They were sitting around a conference table in the chairman's office in Manhattan and he'd already had more cups of coffee before lunch than was his custom.
At first he tried to dismiss the pain, but when he began to break into a cold sweat, a charge of panic gripped him and he put down his pencil and tried to cover up his discomfort with a cough. Then the chairman began to direct his remarks to Oliver, and the words sounded muffled, incoherent, and far away. He tried to humor the pain away, hoping to extract a laugh from the abysmal predicament. It was everybody's dread to be struck down suddenly in the middle of some important event. Bladder and bowels would void. There would be vomiting and, worst of all, he would be inconveniencing everybody around him, all of whom couldn't care less. And there was the perennial joke about clean underwear just in case, but that usually applied to women.
'You feel all right, Rose?' the chairman asked.
Oliver managed a nod but knew it was unconvincing. Someone poured him a glass of water from a silver pitcher, but he couldn't get it down.
'This is ridiculous,' he whispered.
He was led to a leather couch, and he lay down and managed to open his collar and loosen his tie.
'I'm sure it will pass,' he croaked. That, too, seemed unconvincing. The stabs of pain were becoming an onslaught behind his breastbone.
'His color stinks,' someone said. He felt a hand on his forehead.
'Cold as ice.'
He heard someone say 'ambulance,' and realized suddenly that his sensory powers were becoming numb. His heart seemed ready to break out of his rib cage. His mind raced back and forth in time and memory and he wondered if he was the proverbial drowning man watching his life pass across his mind like a film in quadruple time.
'This is stupid,' he heard himself say, knowing that the words had not been spoken.
'You'll be fine,' Larabee said unctuously. Oliver had detested the man immediately and resented his concern.
I'm only forty, he thought as panic turned to pity, directed inward. He prayed he wouldn't soil his pants, remembering old admonitions from his childhood. There they were, the first signs. What galled him, too, was the lack of planning, and he wondered if he had paid all his insurance premiums. If you died at forty, your family would get a million, the insurance man had assured him, and Oliver had snickered at that, choosing term instead of whole life.
How can I die? he thought. My parents are still living. My grandparents on both sides died in their eighties. Then he counted all the people he would be letting down and that only increased his panic and he wondered if he would soon lose consciousness.
He lost track of time as he lay there. Someone covered him with a blanket but he still felt icy.
'You'll be fine,' the chairman said, his jowly face flushed with either concern or annoyance.
I've blown the first big interview with a new law client, Oliver thought, imagining the reaction of his colleagues in the firm. Poor old Oliver. Sorry son of a bitch. Two antiseptic-smelling, white-jacketed attendants lifted him to a wheeled stretcher, and he saw the oxygen mask coming quickly toward him. He also saw his own finger crooking in front of his eyes, beckoning. Larabee's face came closer.
'Call my wife,' Oliver croaked. The oxygen mask was clapped over his face, and he felt the motion of moving wheels, then the swirl of outdoor sounds and the ear-splitting siren as the ambulance shot forward. An icy stethoscope startled his suddenly bared chest.
'Who knows?' a voice said as the stethoscope was lifted.
'Am I going to die?' he whispered futilely into his mask. He burped and for a moment felt incredibly relieved until the pain started again. His mind had momentarily cleared, then he felt insular again as he pictured Barbara's tearstained face, and Eve's and Josh's, hovering over him, waiting for the exact moment of demise, a death-watch. I've let them down, he rebuked himself.
A flood of letdowns careened down the spillway of his anxiety-ridden mind. Who would feed Benny? Who would turn the wine, care for the orchids, wind the tall mahogany clock? Who would repair the broken appliances, watch over the antiques, the paintings, the Staffordshire figures? And who would tune up the Ferrari? How dare they separate him from his chores, his possessions? The idea was almost as unbearable as the pain.
He felt a pinprick in his arm and soon the pain eased somewhat, and he was floating in space, like an astronaut in a space capsule. Some horrible nightmare nudged at his consciousness. But he couldn't remember it, only that it was horrible. Then he sensed the ground moving under him as the wheels bumped along a corridor. Above him, the ceiling was lined with fluorescent white lights. The glare hurt his eyes.
When they removed the oxygen mask, he whispered again.
'Call my wife. Call Barbara.'
Vaguely, he could feel them hooking him up to something and, in the distance, he heard a rhythmical blip* ping and unfamiliar sounds. Nearby, he could make out whispered voices hovering somewhere in space. If they could get Barbara in time, he knew that everything would be fine. His life depended on Barbara. He would not die if Barbara came.
When he remembered again, the room had darkened; he heard the steady blip and ping of odd sounds, as if he were inside some huge clock, perhaps in the tall mahogany case in his foyer, the pendulum banging in his ears, the complicated works clanking in his head. Memory came and faded. They were on their honeymoon at the Groton Inn, an old, rickety colonial left-over. The dining room always seemed set for tea.
It was too hot for June. The sun baked through the roof and making love was a gritty, unsatisfactory business. She hadn't turned on, not the way she had before they were married, but he had attributed that to the tensions of the wedding, which had been opposed by both sets of parents. He still had two years to go at Harvard Law and she was two years from a degree at Boston University.
'I'll work my way through,' he had told his parents on that nasty spring day on which he had made the dreaded announcement. It wasn't that they were opposed specifically to Barbara, but they couldn't imagine him inhibiting his career by marrying a poor nineteen-year-old girl, saddling himself with responsibility.
'But I love her,' he had protested with surety, as if the words were all that was needed to explain such a radical change of life. He supposed it was their humdrum married life and their exaggerated dreams for him that prompted their opposition and he was gentle with them. A state employee's ambition for his only son was no fragile thing.
'I won't let you down,' he had promised, knowing how hard the money for his education had come. 'But I can't live a single minute more without her.' It was 1961, before all the revolutions, and living together without benefit of legal marriage was still a few years away.
'You're crazy,' his father had said. His mother had simply sat at the kitchen table, hands folded, head bent, and cried.
'And I don't expect you to pay my tuition,' he told them. 'I'm on my own now.' he hesitated. 'With Barbara.'
'Between us, we can make it,' Barbara had assured him.
It had struck her parents even harder, since they were both high-school teachers, and the prospect of her dropping her education appalled them.
'I love him,' she told them. It was still a time when those three little words were glorified as the highest of attainments. To be in love was all. They were, as the saying goes, moonstruck. All he wanted, he remembered, was to touch her, to smell her, to hear her voice.
'I love you more than anything else in the world,' he told her, repetitively, holding her. He was always holding her.
'I would die for you, Oliver,' she had sworn.
Die? His mind cleared with an explosive start.
He could not understand why he was thinking about this, lying there in the darkened room, surprised suddenly by an erection that pressed against the tight cover sheet, showing its outline. Well, I'm not dead yet, he thought, discovering also that the pain was gone. The sedatives or whatever he had been given had made him headachy and drowsy and he hovered in a kind of half-sleep, hearing the voices of professionals exchanging bits of medical information, which, he assumed, were about his own mysterious carcass. At any moment he expected to hear Barbara's heels clicking down the corridor and to feel her cool, soothing touch.
For some reason he began thinking about the Louis XV vitrine cabinet of inlaid tulipwood with its original beveled glass and ornate mounts, signed by Linke, which he had been tempted to buy. It was Barbara who had restrained him and he had argued with her. All the logic was on her side.
'We haven't the room,' she had protested, holding his arm, which twitched as the auctioneer watched his face.
'But it's gorgeous.'
'The house is finished, Oliver.'
She was right, of course, he remembered that the idea of that disturbed him for weeks. Finished? They had been fooling with it for more than ten years, ever since they fell in love with its somewhat seedy facade on its high vantage point overlooking Rock Creek Park, with a magnificent view of the tall, graceful arches of the Calvert Street Bridge. Besides, it was the best neighborhood in town, and in Washington a man was known by his neighborhood.
For years the house had, like quicksand, sucked up every spare sou as they redid its ramshackle interior, room by room.
He dozed fitfully, sensing a moving stretcher, and an endless line of fluorescent lights marching along the ceiling.
'We're going to X-ray,' a black attendant explained. Oliver heard him talking about a ball game in the elevator. Perhaps, he thought, visitors were deliberately being kept from him, and Barbara, nervous and tear-stained, was sitting in some lounge, waiting for the results of the tests. He wanted to ask, 'Am I really dying?' Fearful of the answer, he didn't ask.
He started worrying about his cymbidium orchids, which he had proudly coaxed from their indoor pot beds with loving care and which were now on their way to maturity beside Barbara's hanging forest and clusters of potted African violets and Boston ferns in the sunroom. It had been a challenge to try his hand at such delicate plants.
He also began to worry about Benny, the schnauzer to which he was a deity, proving his obeisance with great delight. Neither Barbara nor the kids could handle him. The tools, too, required maintenance, and the garden. Then there was Barbara's kitchen.. . .
God, don't kill me off yet, he cried within himself.
He was lifted onto a cold, metal, X-ray table and rotated like a chicken on a spit. A white-smocked technician poked at him in a businesslike way, and he heard an intermittent buzz, which, in his clearing mind, he assumed was the sound of the picture-taking process. Why don't I feel pain? he wondered, noting that a clock on die wall read twelve.
'What day is it?'
'Wednesday,' the technician answered.
Later they brought him back to another room, where he was isolated by a screen. They did not hook him up to any mechanical devices, and he noted that his arms and buttocks tingled, apparently from the needle pricks. He slept some more, then was awakened gently by the touch of a cool hand. Blinking his eyes open, he peered into a bespectacled pinkish face.
'You're a lucky bastard, Mr. Rose.'
'I'm not dying?' he whispered.
'Hardly. It's your hiatus hernia. Quite common, really. We thought it was a heart attack and took all the precautionary measures. You had one hell of a gas pain. It sometimes simulates an attack.'
He pushed himself up, feeling a sense of renewed life.
'So I'm born again,' he snapped, feeling the residual aches of the medication and intravenous devices, and a lingering hurt in his chest.
'You never died.'
'Yeah. A lot of people will be disappointed. I'll be the laughingstock of the firm.' He swung his legs over the bed. 'Tell my wife to come in and get me the hell out of here.' He looked at the doctor. 'No offense, but if all you do is come up with a gas pain, you should close up shop.'
The doctor laughed.
'I just talked to your wife and gave her the good news.' 'She's not here?'
'It would have been for naught,' the doctor said.
'I suppose . . .' Oliver said, checking himself. He was entitled to feel insecure.
They brought him his clothes, wallet, keys, money, and briefcase, and he dressed, still feeling shaky. In the hospital lobby he went into a phone booth and called home.
'Oh, Oliver. We're so happy.' It was Ann's voice.
He formed a quick mental picture of her, wheatish hair, light freckles, round face, with a smile that set off deep dimples. He realized suddenly that she was always surreptitiously observing him. Why was she on the phone? he wondered. Where was Barbara?
'I wouldn't recommend it,' he mumbled.
'Barbara's just left. She'll be back in a little while. She's been quite busy on the Pakistan Embassy order.' She hesitated, as if she were debating something more. But nothing came. He was disappointed.
'I'm going to see my client here. But I'll definitely be home tonight. Are the kids okay?'
'Worried sick. I called them at school after the doctor called.'
'Super.' He was about to offer the closing amenities and hang up. 'Ann,' he-said, 'when did they call Barbara? The first time ... I mean.'
'Monday morning. I remember I answered the phone.
Barbara was very disturbed.' He felt the stab of pain again, but it passed quickly, no longer worrying him.
'Well, then ...' He seemed suddenly disoriented, troubled as if by a chess move that he could not dope out, knowing the answer was there. 'Just tell her I'll be home for dinner.'
After he hung up, he looked mutely at the phone box, still trying to understand the vague sense of loss. To put it out of his mind, he called Larabee.
'You gave us quite a scare,' Larabee said. He remembered the unctuousness and the 'just fine' admonitions. It annoyed him to know the man had been right all along.
'You called it,' Oliver said, irritated at his own attempt at ingratiation. But he could not shake the notion that his display of vulnerability, notwithstanding that it was beyond his control, had somehow spoiled his image. In a lawyer a show of weakness could be fatal. He felt the gorge of his own rhetoric rising, and, as if in counterpoint, a burp bubbled out of his chest and into the mouthpiece.
'Hello ...' Larabee said.
'Must be a bad connection,' Oliver said, feeling better psychologically as well.
Later, he came away from the chairman's office with the feeling that he had restored some measure of confidence again, shutting off allusions to his indisposition with quick, almost impolite dispatch.
'Even the doctors felt stupid for making such a fuss,' he lied, closing the subject once and for all.
But on the plane his ordeal reopened itself in his mind and he found himself making doodles on his yellow pad, watching the changing light of a sunset in an incredibly blue sky. What was nagging at him since being discharged was the lingering sense of utter desolation, of total aloneness. He also felt more fear now than when he was in the hospital. It was beyond logic. He had, after all, been grasped, at least figuratively, from the jaws of death. Then why the depression? Why the loneliness? What was wrong?
'Call my wife,' he had whispered to someone. In his memory the words resurfaced as a plea, a drowning man shouting for help. His imagination reversed the roles and he saw himself panicked and hysterical as he dropped everything to fight his way toward Barbara. The images were jumbled. He saw himself swimming through the choppy seas, slogging over shifting desert dunes, clambering upward over jagged rocks, a panorama of heroic acts, just to be near her. Then the fantasy exploded, leaving him empty, betrayed. How dare she not come to his deathbed?
Why had she not come? Barbara asked herself, smirking at her inadvertent double entendre. The boning knife, working in her hand by rote, carefully separated the chicken skin from the neck bone, a crucial step in achieving a perfect boning job. This was her fourth chicken-boning operation that afternoon and her mind had already begun to wander. It wandered into strange places, as if she had little control of her thoughts. She did not often think about sex and was surprised that the subject surfaced in her mind.
He made love to her tenderly, fervently, but lit no fires in her. She was always dutiful, enduring what had become for her a dreary process, barely remembering when such contortions and gymnastics had ever brought her pleasure. He was not, she knew, oblivious of this indifference despite her Academy Award performances.
'Even when it's not so good, it's pretty great,' he told her often, usually after he had calmed from a panting, shivery episode of obvious and sometimes noisy personal pleasure.
'It's there to enjoy, my son,' she had responded, hiding her disappointment behind the light humor. Wisecracks were great truth-hiders. She hadn't really understood her sexual indifference, especially since she was once a firecracker as far as he was concerned. But that was long ago. Then, before their marriage, all she had to do was to touch him to feel all the pops begin inside her.
For years, when considering their marriage, she had