Dante Penfield sat at his desk scratching his head. He wore a pink oxford shirt, gray flannel trousers and a pale salmon bow tie. His telephone rang. He didn’t answer it. He hadn’t answered his office phone for six months and he didn’t want to blemish the record. Dante was a man of principle. Besides, he was busy.
Dante was at work on the final scene of his screenplay. He was an avid reader of murder mysteries and his screenplay was a murder mystery, too. It was called The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage.
The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage was the lurid tale of a beautiful young woman who marries a rich, old financier and goes to live with him on an enormous estate in the Hamptons. Daisy is charming and intelligent but she is also ambitious and cold hearted. Her husband is a tightfisted misanthrope who suffers from a heart ailment.
One night Daisy’s husband is found dead in the dark hallway leading to the maids’ quarters. Is it foul play or simply a heart attack? Daisy stands to inherit a fortune so naturally she falls under suspicion, but if she’s guilty of murder she’s planned it well. The police can’t find any evidence against her. There’s a tense interrogation scene at the end of the first reel but Daisy plays it cool as cucumber and the detectives are stymied. It looks like she’ll get off scott free.
At this point the screenplay skips ahead a few months. Now a rich widow, Daisy has transformed herself into a celebrated society hostess and the story picks up during a weekend house party at her newly redecorated estate. Among the many famous guests is Caleb Astor, a handsome young man whom Daisy hopes to bed. Caleb is a brilliant lawyer but, unknown to everyone, he’s also an amateur sleuth. In between boating expeditions and cocktails on the terrace he starts investigating the death of Daisy’s husband. And he slowly figures out that Daisy killed him.
Dante stared at his computer screen and pulled his chin. He’d been trying to figure out how the movie ends for months. The difficulty he faced was this: he’d put so much effort into making Daisy commit the perfect crime that when Caleb the amateur sleuth shows up there’s no smoking gun left to find. The only way Caleb can establish Daisy’s guilt is to trick her into some sort of confession. But how does one trick a beautiful, intelligent woman into confessing murder?
Dante’s telephone rang again. This time he didn’t even hear it. He had found his solution. Inspiration was upon him and he was typing as fast as he could.
On Sunday night all the houseguests eat a big dinner and retire to the living room for coffee. Everyone is slightly drunk. With a twinkle in his eye, Caleb Astor suggests they play a parlor game called I Never. Caleb explains the rules. It’s rather like Truth Or Dare but without the dares. Someone writes down a naughty question on a piece of paper and then everyone else has to answer it: Have you ever had sex in an airplane? Have you ever stolen candy from a shop? That sort of thing.
(The room is filled with laughter. Everyone is happy and lively. It’s Caleb’s turn to start the next round of the game. The amateur sleuth seizes his chance.)
Caleb: (a devilish smile on his face.) The next question is: Have you ever killed your husband? No, I never killed my husband.
(A faint gasp and Daisy’s weekend guests look anxiously around the room at one another.)
Guest 1: I never killed my husband.
Guest 2: I never killed my husband.
Guest 3: I never killed my husband.
(The tension mounts as each guest announces that they have never killed their husband. Close up on Daisy. Sweat is pouring down her face. Finally it is her turn to speak and all eyes focus on her. She breaks down.)
Daisy: Yes, yes, yes! I did it! I killed my husband!
(Two policemen who have been listening in on the game step into the living room and arrest Daisy. Slow pan out across the Long Island Sound. The desperate loneliness of the water. Roll credits.) THE END!!!
Dante was so excited to have finished his screenplay that he threw his fists in the air and let out a short yelp. But then he read over what he had just written and realized there was still a touch of editing left to do. It didn’t quite work to have Caleb say he’d never killed his husband because Caleb was a man and he couldn’t have a husband. The line would have to be changed. Dante replaced “husband” with “spouse,” but it was not a perfect solution. Daisy’s big confession (“Yes, yes, yes! I did it! I killed my spouse!”) no longer carried the same punch. Dante wasn’t sure what to do.
“I’ll have Audrey read it over when I get home,” he said to himself.
This cheered him up for a moment but only for a moment. The thought of Audrey made him sad. Audrey was Dante’s roommate and his best friend. They’d lived together for the last three years but now she was talking about moving to Iowa and he found it depressing to think of life without her. If Audrey left there would be no one fun to talk to anymore. For heaven’s sake, thought Dante, who wants to live in Iowa!
He pushed the subject from his mind and went back to his screenplay.
He was still puzzling over the difference between “spouse” and “husband” when a head popped up over the office partition wall. It was Billy Foster, a go-getting young business type with whom Dante was not entirely simpatico. Billy was smart and motivated and he spoke in a lingo which Dante didn’t understand. Billy was on a learning curve for his skill set; Billy had income-based lifestyle goals in terms of going forward; Billy was all about getting to yes. Billy said:
“When your phone rings, that means it’s for you.”
“I was busy.”
“You never do anything.”
“I’m writing a screenplay.”
“You’re writing a screenplay?” Billy laughed out loud.
“As a matter of fact I just finished the last scene. Want to read it?”
“No,” Billy shook his head and there was a queer look of sympathy in his eyes. “Mr. Bullard wants to see you.”
“I haven’t had my lunch yet. Tell him half an hour.”
“He wants to see you immediately. He’s waiting in his office.”
Mr. Bullard was Dante’s boss and the founder of Bullard & Associates, a commercial real estate firm. His office, overlooking 3rd Avenue, was surprisingly small and plainly furnished for the head of the company. There was no mahogany trim, no leather footrests, no framed oil paintings of horses and ducks; just an old metal desk, some creaky filing cabinets and two uncomfortable chairs. Mr. Bullard was from an old New England family and he didn’t believe in ostentation.
He was sitting at his desk, fiddling with a pencil, when Dante walked in.
“Dante. How are you today?”
“Well, thanks,” said Dante. There was something unusual in Mr. Bullard’s manner. He was nervous.
“Good, good,” said Mr. Bullard. “Have a seat. I’ve called you in because there’s something I want to discuss with you. It has to do you with your career.”
“I get the sense that you’re not happy here.”
Mr. Bullard plowed on.
“No, not happy at all. That’s the feeling I get, and that’s exactly what I told Puff when I saw him at the club last week. He asked me how you were doing and I told him: ‘Not happy, not happy at all.’”
Puff Penfield was Dante’s uncle and he was Mr. Bullard’s silent partner in the real estate business. Puff had an enormous stash and whenever Mr. Bullard needed extra money to get a project off the ground, he called on Puff. The two of them had done well for each other over the years and they’d developed a close working friendship. It was at Puff’s suggestion that Mr. Bullard had hired Dante in the first place. Mr. Bullard continued:
“Your uncle is a clever man, Dante. He’s given me lots of good advice over the years and I’ll never forget something he once said. He said every man ends up spending most of his life at the office, and it’s only bearable if what he does at the office is something he loves.”
That certainly sounded like something Uncle Puff would say. He was a great one for talking about the love of work and the dignity of labor. He liked to say that if fate ever turned against him and he had to become a street sweeper, he’d be the best damn street sweeper you’d ever seen. Puff hadn’t had a real job in more than thirty years.
“Look Dante, the question I’m getting at is this: Do you love commercial real estate? I don’t think you do.”
“Does anyone love commercial real estate?” asked Dante.
“I should hope so.”
“Do you love it?”
Mr. Bullard answered carefully. “I like it a lot.”
“Then you don’t love it?”
“No, but I care about it. I care deeply about it.”
Mr. Bullard folded his arms across his chest as if daring Dante to disbelieve him. Dante was genuinely puzzled. He hadn’t anticipated this discussion and he stared at Mr. Bullard trying to imagine what it meant to care deeply about commercial real estate.
There was an embarrassing silence before Dante realized where the conversation was headed:
“I’m being stupid, aren’t I?”
“A bit,” said Mr. Bullard.
“You’re trying to fire me.”
“I wouldn’t put it like that.”
“You’re asking me to examine other opportunities, then.”
“Yes, I suppose I am. Please don’t take it badly. It’s a matter of being fair to the other employees. You’ve been here for more than six months and you haven’t even lifted a finger. It doesn’t sit well with everyone else. I hope you understand my position.”
“I understand completely.”
“That’s very good of you.” Mr. Bullard brightened. “You know I have a lot of affection for you, Dante. I do. And of course I have the greatest admiration for your Uncle Puff. I wouldn’t like him to think I’m pushing you out the door against your wishes.”
“Not to worry, I’ll tell Puff it was my decision. You needn’t fire me, I’ll resign. I’ll clear out my desk today.”
“No hard feelings?”
“None at all.”
Mr. Bullard relaxed. He stopped fiddling with his pencil. He stood up to shake Dante’s hand. He almost gave him a hug. He said:
“Just out of curiosity, what have you been doing at the office all this time?”
“Writing a screenplay,” said Dante. “Just finished in fact.”
“Want to read it?”
“No thanks,” said Mr. Bullard quickly. “That’s all then. It’s been a pleasure. I’ll see you at the club.”
“At the club,” said Dante.
“And give my best to Puff.”
“Best to Puff.”
Dante closed the office door behind him and Mr. Bullard breathed a sigh of relief. Dante was a decent young man, thought Mr. Bullard, not very bright but very decent indeed. He resolved to do Dante a favor if the opportunity ever arose, even if it was nothing more than buying him lunch at the club.
The club to which both Mr. Bullard and Dante belonged was the Old Money Club.
Of all the private clubs in New York City the Old Money Club was the grandest and the most exclusive. It was older than the Century Club, richer than the Metropolitan Club, and unlike the University Club, it was not choc-a-bloc with foreigners and social climbers. At Old Money it was not enough to be successful and likeable. You had to be the right sort of person.
The Old Money Club was housed in a six story limestone building that sat on the west side of Park Avenue between 53rd and 54th street. It was large – it took up almost half a city block – but to the average passerby, it was easy to miss. There was no banner outside to indicate the existence of a private club and there was no sign on the door. There was only an anonymous dark blue awning with the number 560 painted on it. The awning didn’t bear the club’s name or its emblem because that would be gauche.
The Old Money Club was designed in the 1840’s on the model of an Italian Renaissance Palazzo but it was not architecturally impressive: there were no gargoyles on the cornices and it looked more stolid than ornate. What made the building exceptional was simply that it still existed. It takes money and power to plant a skyscraper in midtown but it takes more of both to resist the temptation to plant one. And the Old Money Club, surrounded on all sides by enormous glass towers, had remained unchanged for over one hundred and fifty years. What else in New York can boast of such longevity? Wallace “Puff” Penfield passed under the dark blue awning and pushed his way through the club’s revolving door.
Puff Penfield was the President of the Old Money Club and he was a stiff, slender man in his sixties. He was tall, with a sharp nose and thin lips, he wore a dark blue pin-striped suit. He had a brown leather briefcase and a copy of the Times tucked under his arm. He smiled as soon as he entered the club. Puff loved Old Money. He felt at home in it.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Penfield, sir.”
Freddie was the doorman at Old Money and he’d been there for at least twenty years. He liked his job, he earned a respectable salary, and when Puff walked in he was flipping through the real estate section of the Daily News, mulling over the purchase of a junior four in the Bronx. Freddie’s daughter had recently graduated City College. He wanted to give her a leg up but he was nervous about making a large investment.
“What’s your opinion of the real estate market, Mr. Penfield? I’m thinking of buying a junior four.”
“Some good bargains in the Bronx.” Puff said this reflexively. He knew little about the Bronx. “It’s for my daughter, sir, she’s just graduated.”
“Always worth considering,” said Puff. “The great thing about buying an apartment, even if the market goes down, you can still live in it.”
Puff gave a Freddy a wink and left him with that piece of wisdom. It tickled Puff to talk investments with Freddie. It was part of what he loved about Old Money.
Outside the club, Puff was a awkward man. He was ill at ease with his social inferiors; he was a snob; and he certainly never spoke to men like Freddie. Inside the club, however, Puff changed. Inside the club he thought of himself as a man of the people, just a regular Joe, and as President, he prided himself on his relations with the staff. He knew all their names, he knew all their wives’ names, and although, intellectually, Puff understood there was a divide between members and employees, in his heart he couldn’t help but feel they were all part of the of the same happy family. Blinded by affection, Puff couldn’t see the distinction between swimming in the club pool and cleaning it.
He climbed the wide staircase (he never took the elevator) up to the changing rooms on the fourth floor. On the way he passed various other members coming down and he greeted each one by name:
All of these exchanges were accompanied by a quick nod and they reflected one of the club’s strongest traditions. Courtesy may be dying outside on the streets, but at Old Money members look out for each other and they will not pass in the hall without some form of greeting, however brief. Puff climbed past the smoking room and the walk-in humidor where the members kept their cigars; past the Pratt Room where club functions were held; past the billiards room and the dining room; past the club bar and the reception room and the oak paneled library.
On the hall leading to the dressing room Puff poked his head into the barber shop.
“Good afternoon, Carlos. I’ll be in for a haircut after my exercise. Have my chit ready.”
Chits were how everything got paid for at Old Money, because it was another of the club’s traditions that no cash could change hands within its walls. Haircuts, drinks and meals were all paid for by chit, and if you wanted to leave a Christmas tip for your favorite employee, you signed a chit for that too.
“Very good, Mr. Penfield,” said Carlos.
Puff flashed thumbs up and continued along towards the dressing room.
The Old Money Club was large and comfortable in all its aspects and the dressing room was no exception. It was more like a lounge than a locker room and in addition to the changing cubicles that lined the walls there were green leather sofas scattered throughout. On one side of the room there was a soda fountain and there was even a collection of dining tables. Many members, especially the older ones, liked to eat lunch in the dressing room.
It might seem strange to order lunch in a dressing room but the great benefit was that you got to eat naked. The freedom of nudity was highly prized at the Old Money Club. Members shaved in the nude, took saunas in the nude and swam in the nude. Although no one was allowed in the club bar without a jacket and tie, there were no such rules on the fourth floor and some of the members lingered for hours in their birthday suits. Titans of the financial world discussed business deals while rubbing ointment on their backsides. Clever young lawyers scanned the pages of the Wall Street Journal with their hairy balls hanging off the edge of their chairs. Every so often it was proposed that women should be admitted to the Old Money Club, but the proposal was always dismissed because the members feared they would be forced to wear trunks in the swimming pool.
Tweedle Barnes, a towel wrapped around his waist, lay dozing on a green leather sofa nearby.
“Hello Tweedle. How’s my Ball Bearer?”
Tweedle was the club Ball Bearer. It was an honorary position which meant that he carried the ballot box from the admissions committee to the President’s lounge on election nights and it earned him a free bottle of scotch twice a year.
Tweedle snorted awake and rubbed his face.
He was an elderly man, possibly in his seventies and he spent his afternoons alternately reading and napping in the club dressing room. He had a patrician’s voice and a marvelous head of silver hair always neatly parted to the side. It was obvious that he had once been very handsome.
Tweedle had been a club member for as long as anyone could remember but he was nonetheless an oddity. No one knew much about him. Some people said he was a failed poet; others believed he suffered from a broken heart; the realists assumed he was a drunk. In any case, he was said to have inherited a fortune and he was widely regarded with affection. He never got in anyone’s way, he was never rude or grumpy, and if you got him on the subject of gardening it turned out he knew more than most.
Shrubs of New England lay open on Tweedle’s stomach. He closed the book and sat upright. He said:
“An interesting fact about holly, Puff.”
“The holly tree. They sing about it at Christmas time.”
“Sharp prickly leaves.”
“Right. Jab yourself and it’ll pierce the skin. The interesting thing about holly is that the leaves are only prickly when the tree is young. It’s a self-protection mechanism. As the tree gets more established, the leaves round out and soften up. An elderly holly tree isn’t prickly at all. It’s perfectly friendly. Do you know any women named Holly?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Pity,” said Tweedle. “There’s a nice story in there somewhere. The sort of thing you could use at a toast on a girl’s fiftieth birthday. Provided, of course, that you know a girl named Holly.” Tweedle lay back down and re-opened his book. “Work up a sweat for me.”
Puff left him to his book.
The top three floors of the Old Money Club were devoted to its athletic facilities. It wasn’t, however, a typical gym. There were no aerobics classes and nothing so plebian as a basketball hoop. There was a small exercise room with free weights and treadmills, but most of the space was given over to games played with a racquet and ball. There were five squash courts and other more exotic games besides. The club had three Court Tennis courts and the only two Racquets courts in North America. Court Tennis is similar to regular tennis except the balls don’t bounce and the scoring is so complicated that very few people understand it. The game of Racquets is even more refined. Racquets is played with wooden balls in a giant slate walled box and it is so exclusive that nobody plays it at all.
Puff himself did not play racquet sports. He was a swimmer. He walked down to the swimming pool and hung his towel over the back of a chair. A few yards away Dick Burkus lay face down on a table getting a massage.
Dick was the head of the admissions committee at the Old Money Club. He was a large man with a fat face and a big belly. He had a hairy chest and a hairy back and though he was mostly bald on top he had bright red curly hair around his temples. He and Puff had known each other since they were small boys. Their fathers had been best friends; they had gone to boarding school and college together; they had settled in New York at the same time; and more than forty years later they still traveled in the same circles and went to the same cocktail parties. But they had never much liked each other. There was a difference of temperament. Puff thought Dick was a show-off, an egotist and a libertine; Dick thought Puff was rigid, stuffy and holier-than-thou.
“Jos Nicols,” said Puff.
“I’m aware of it.”
Jos Nicols was the young member (meaning under 35) who sat on Dick’s admissions committee. Jos had been sent to Europe for three months on business just as the club elections were approaching. Puff was concerned about finding his replacement.
The masseur kneaded his hands into Dick’s fat buttocks.
“I thought Ben Davis would make a good substitute. Clever young man. Banker at Lazard. Seems to know lots of people. I spoke to him last week and he said he’d be happy to fill in. You know it’s very important to have at least one young member on the committee. And not just for form’s sake. It’s the young members who’ll have to live with the decisions and they need a voice in the elections.” Dick was laid out on the massage table in a way that had him staring directly at Puff’s privates. He turned his head to the side.
“It’s my committee Puff, not yours. Tell Ben Davis he’s off the hook. I’ve already decided on a replacement.”
“He’s your nephew. I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Dante is a nice boy but he’s hardly responsible enough to be on the admissions committee.” “All he has to do is show up. That’s nice. Oooohh… A little more on the left shoulder. God I’m turning into an old man.” He looked back at Puff. “Swim your laps and don’t worry about what doesn’t concern you.”
A short while later Dick got up from the massage table and left Puff in the pool. They were both annoyed. It didn’t make the slightest difference who filled in on the admissions committee but Puff and Dick were so fed up with each other these days that they could hardly meet without tempers flaring. It had been this way for years now and the main cause of the ill will between them was something known as the spite pole. The history behind the spite pole requires some explanation.
Besides living within spitting distance of each other in Manhattan, Puff and Dick also lived on neighboring estates close to the water on Long Island. Dick had eight bedrooms on fifty acres, Puff had ten bedrooms on fifty five, and sandwiched between them on a much smaller plot was a cottage (which plays no part in the story of the spite pole) belonging to Dante’s mother. Imagine two Olympic rings with Puff’s estate as one ring, Dick’s as the other, and Dante’s cottage taking up the little space in between where the rings connect.
For the most part Dick and Puff had managed to bump along peacefully as neighbors. They didn’t giggle and share secrets but they both made an effort not to antagonize each other. Then Dick met a freelance journalist named Rebecca Holland. Rebecca was fifteen years younger than Dick and some people called her a gold digger but he fell in love with her. For Dick this presented a problem.
Dick had already been married twice and he was reluctant to get married a third time. There was always the possibility of divorce and divorce was expensive. Nonetheless, Dick wanted Rebecca to live with him as if she were his wife. They shared an apartment in Manhattan but he wanted her to spend the summers with him on Long Island as well. Rebecca wouldn’t go along. She didn’t mind visiting for the occasional weekend but she refused to move out to Long Island for the entire Summer and with good reason.
In the first place Rebecca didn’t wish to give up her freedom if Dick was unwilling to marry her. In the second place, life at Dick’s summer house was sometimes a pain in the neck. The upkeep of the estate required four full time servants: a maid, a cook and two gardeners and they were a cause of constant headaches. Dick was always fighting with them and firing them and trying to settle their internal disputes.
It was tiresome beyond words and Rebecca guessed that if she became the woman of the house, the nasty business of managing Dick’s employees would get passed to her. Rebecca wanted no part of that. She told Dick she’d only be willing to summer on Long Island if he found her a place of her own to escape to if need be. “Fine,” said Dick. There was a large tumbled down garage on his property and Dick proposed to have it renovated for her, turning it into a proper house. Which is when the trouble started with Puff.
Puff disapproved of both Rebecca and the garage renovation. His sense of propriety was offended and his sense of justice was equally stung. According to local law, old garages could only be made into new garages. Turning a garage into a lover’s retreat with kitchen and two baths was in flagrant violation of zoning regulations. Puff brought a complaint before the town council and the council voted against issuing Dick his construction permits. Dick was furious. He vowed revenge and his anger only subsided with the planting of an eighty foot flag pole just on the edge of Puff’s property. It flew a giant American flag that waved night and day.
This was the famous spite pole and it was perfectly placed so as to stand directly in the line of sight between Puff’s favorite terrace chair and a picturesque nineteenth century lighthouse that stood on a rocky ledge across the bay.
When Puff complained about the obstruction to his view, Dick told him to take his complaint to the town council.
“It’s the American flag,” said Dick, in his typically crude fashion, “See if they don’t tell you to stick it up your ass.”
Relations between the two men had been strained ever since.
Puff swam fifty laps. He pulled himself out of the pool and toweled off. He rather hoped that Dick was not still in the dressing room.
Dante and Audrey
“It’s a formal lunch, I have to wear a tie.”
“You don’t have to wear a lime green bow tie.”
“I like bright colors.”
Dante was dressed in white linen trousers, a yellow shirt and a navy blue blazer. He gave Audrey a twirl and she grimaced.
“You’re a handsome young man. You don’t need to dress like a popsicle to create an effect.”
“I do not dress like a popsicle.”
On most matters Dante depended on Audrey’s judgment but he disagreed with her taste in clothes. She had no sense of style.
“I’ll wear the pink,” he said.
He went back to his dressing room and Audrey turned another page of her novel. She was sprawled out sideways in a cozy armchair with her legs dangling over the arm rest. She was a small girl, five foot two inches tall, and she had short, light brown hair and green eyes. She was pretty but she made no effort to emphasize the fact. She never wore eyeshadow and she couldn’t afford expensive clothes. Her favorite outfit was an old pair of blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater.
Audrey was a graduate student. She taught two sections of a survey course in 19th century literature but most of her energy was spent on her masters thesis. She was writing about an English poet named Philip Larkin and she was full of interesting facts about him. Audrey said Larkin used to stammer so badly as a boy that he couldn’t buy a train ticket without going red in the face. He used to write out his destination on a piece of paper rather than try to get the words out. Dante loved tidbits like that. He wasn’t much for poetry but he had a soft spot for Larkin, especially for one of Larkin’s poems about his parents:
They fuck you up your Mum and Dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
Dante and Audrey lived together in his mother’s apartment. Dante’s father (Puff’s brother) was dead. His mother was named Violet and she lived in London with a retired French chef named Gascon. Violet was English. She’d never felt comfortable in New York and she returned to England shortly after her husband died, as soon as Dante was old enough to be sent to boarding school. She wrote him long letters every three months and sent him a case of sherry each year on his birthday.
Dante and his mother loved each other best from a distance but from time to time Violet suffered from fits of parental remorse and she’d work herself into a tizzy worrying that she was a bad mother. If the attack was severe enough she might even fly over for a visit. Dante did his best to discourage these episodes. Fortunately, they’d been on the wane ever since Audrey moved in.
Violet thoroughly approved of Audrey. After all, Audrey was her discovery. Violet met her on a train to Stratford-on-Avon when Audrey was on holiday in England. Violet was in one of her periods of bad-mother worry at the time and Audrey did a good job of calming her fears. When Audrey subsequently let slip that she was moving to Manhattan in the fall, Violet suggested she move in with Dante to the apartment on 89th Street.
“Dante needs someone to look after him,” said Violet.
Audrey’s caretaking duties were never officially spelled out but informally it was understood that she would keep the apartment in order – not much of a chore since Lativia, the housekeeper, came once a week - and make sure the bills got paid – again not a great burden since they were paid with Violet’s money. And in return Audrey got to live rent free in a large four bedroom close to the park.
The deal worked out nicely for everyone. Audrey liked the apartment and Dante liked having her around. Indeed, he would have felt bereft without her. She was his only contact with the great wealth of humanity beyond the upper East Side and she was one of the few people in the world with whom he felt fully at ease. Audrey handled even the most difficult situations with grace and she had a particularly good effect on Dante’s relations with his mother. Violet hadn’t been to visit in ages.
“Have you read this?” said Audrey.
“Paisley Mischief,” said Audrey holding up her novel. Dante adjusted his bow tie in the mirror.
“Hot tamale, isn’t it?”
“I’m surprised there haven’t been any libel suits. It’s a real skewering of your fancy Long Island set. Uncle Puff and the rest. Listen to this.”
Audrey opened the novel to a page she had dog-eared and read out loud:
Charlie Taylor was a fat, balding man with a bulbous nose, sagging cheeks and red curly hair around his temples. He was the quintessential product of an Ivy League education and his brain was perfectly divided between bore and letch. The boring half of Charlie’s brain was used as storage for opinions printed on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal; the lecherous half was like a little black book filled with a long list of names and dates in which Charlie kept track of the where, when and how of every woman he had ever propositioned. He put a little mental asterisk next to the successes and a black mark next to the failures.
The biggest black mark was beside Sarah Davis’ name. Sarah was the wife of Charlie’s college roommate and Charlie was visiting their house in Maine one weekend when she proposed to teach him the art of picking wild mushrooms. After a long walk through the woods, Sarah found a patch of mushrooms and knelt down to pick some. While she was studying the ground, Charlie quickly unfastened his belt and dropped his trousers round his ankles. When Sarah next looked up, Charlie was smiling suggestively with his stiff red pecker poking out from under his enormous belly. She screamed and pushed him away causing Charlie to lose his balance and fall heavily into a patch of poison ivy.
“His testicles,” Sarah Davis later reported to her friends, “Swelled up to the size of beach balls.”
“Charlie Taylor is Dick Burkus, isn’t he?”
“To a tee,” said Dante. “My mother told me that story when I was a teenager. She was laughing so hard she peed her pants.”
“Not so funny for Dick Burkus. He comes off like a horrible goat. Then again, I suppose he is one.”
“Dick’s slowed down a bit these days. He’s got that journalist woman now.”
“The one he wanted to remodel the garage for? I wonder what the attraction is on her side.”
“Hard to say. Money possibly, but you never know. Mysteries of love.”
“I bet Dick’s livid about Paisley Mischief.”
“Oddly enough, he’s not. He’s the one who first recommended I read it. I think he likes to be seen as a rogue. He seems to think it’s funny. Not everyone does though.”
“Puff is outraged. He caught me with a copy of Paisley Mischief in the club library last week and gave me a five minute tirade. He refuses to read it. Says it’s malicious gossip and doesn’t even want it mentioned in his presence. He’s furious at the anonymous author. He says whoever wrote it is a real blankety blank.”
“A blankety blank?
“Just that.” It was an iron rule with Puff that he never used foul language.
Audrey shook her head.
“I’ll bet Puff’s curious who the author is though.”
“We all are.”
“The cover says Anne Smith. I assume that’s an alias. Don’t you have any ideas?”
Dante took a sip of Audrey’s coffee.
“There are two rumors I’ve heard floating around. One possibility is that it was written by a man named Andrew Draper. He rents a cottage from Dolly Smith out in Oyster Bay and the thinking is, since Dolly’s a notorious gossip and Draper’s her tenant, maybe he picked up the juicy bits from her.”
“Andrew Draper plus Dolly Smith. Anne Smith.”
“That’s a little too convenient, don’t you think? Mr. Draper’s probably an accountant.”
“Actually he’s an insurance agent. Retired. Now he collects antiques.”
“I bet he never thought of writing a book in his life. Why not Mrs. Smith herself? If she knows all the gossip maybe she’s the author.”
“Dolly? Not capable of it. She’s a talker not a novelist. She’s an old friend of mother’s and as mother would say, she’s a goose. I don’t think Dolly’s ever read a book, much less written one.”
“So who’s the second suspect?”
“Much more intriguing. Something Aunt Trixie whispered in my ear.” Trixie Penfield was Puff’s wife. “Trixie’s read Paisley Mischief from cover to cover and her guess is that Dick’s girlfriend wrote it.”
“What’s her name again?”
“Rebecca Holland. It makes sense in a way. The dirt in the book could have come from Dick, and Rebecca’s been around long enough to collect plenty of it. Besides, she’s a journalist so she writes for a living. The hard part is figuring out why she’d write such an unflattering portrait of her boyfriend.”
“Mysteries of love,” said Audrey. “Maybe it tickles her to think of Dick being naughty. Maybe it turns her on.”
“Are women really like that?”
“Not mostly. Occasionally they are.”
Dante drank the last of Audrey’s coffee.
“I’ve got to get going. The fund raiser starts at twelve thirty. Will you be home tonight?”
“No. Cecil’s in town. Didn’t you hear his message on the machine? I’m meeting him for an early dinner.”
“Oh. I won’t be back by then.”
Cecil Biddle was a mutual friend. Audrey met him through Violet while on holiday in England and Dante had known him since childhood. Cecil’s mother was an old friend of Violet’s from her Kensington days and his father was an English aristocrat who frittered his money away as a gentleman farmer in Oxfordshire. Cecil himself had a glamorous job in the movie business and he spent most of his time on airplanes. He was tall, charming and handsome. He had jet black hair, clear blue eyes and he was missing the pinkie finger on his left hand. Even sensible girls swooned and the missing pinkie was icing on the cake. It made Cecil appear both tough and vulnerable at the same time. It also gave him endless opportunities to invent stories about the shark that bit it off or the frostbite that nearly killed him.
Dante was a little jealous.
“Say hi to him for me,” he said.
Dante left the room to collect his wallet, keys and watch. He brushed his hair for a final time and gave the knot of his bow tie a last tug. He was halfway out of the apartment when he remembered about The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage.
“Hey, did you get a chance to read the ending of my screenplay?”
“Yes, Dante I did.”
“So, what did you think?”
“I think it’s a really great story leading up to the final scene.”
“You didn’t like it.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you didn’t like it, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. I really didn’t.”
“Oh come on Dante, think for a minute. Here’s Daisy, this clever, sophisticated woman who’s gone to the trouble of figuring out the perfect way to kill her husband. Then all of a sudden she starts playing a game of I Never and she blurts out the confession that’s going to ruin her life: ‘Yes, I killed my spouse!!’”
“You don’t like the word spouse? Me neither. You know I could change it back to husband.”
“It’s more than that.”
“You don’t like the whole idea of the parlor game?”
“Not in the least.”
“I know what you mean,” said Dante. “I was going over it again in my head last night. It did occur to me that the last scene was a bit of a let down. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
“Sorry,” said Audrey.
“But the rest of the screenplay’s alright?”
“Not to worry then. There are lots of pebbles on the beach. I’ll just have to think up a better ending.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Audrey.
“Have fun with Cecil tonight.”
Dante was down the elevator and out on the street by the time the telephone rang. It was Violet calling from London. She said she had some business to attend to in New York and would be flying over within the next few days. Then the line went silent for a moment and Violet took a deep breath:
“I’m terribly worried about Dante.”
“What about him?” said Audrey.
“Do you think he’s practicing safe sex?”
Trixie Prepares for Her Party
The air was crisp, the sky was clear and a warm sun shone down on the large white tent that had been set up on the front lawn of the Penfields’ Long Island home. The weather had cooperated. It was the perfect day for Trixie’s garden party.
Trixie Penfield was eight years younger than her husband and they had married later in life than most people of their generation. Trixie was thirty-two when she met Puff. She was working as an estate tax lawyer and she served as Puff’s advisor when his mother fell ill for the last time. They used to meet for coffee every morning to discuss ways to shelter the inheritance. They discussed other things, too. Trixie’s own mother died young and she seemed to understand Puff’s suffering.
Women lawyers were a rarity in those days so Trixie was something of a maverick. She was also intelligent, energetic and pretty. Puff fell in love with her while they were hammering out the details of a nifty tax avoidance trust and they got married in a quiet ceremony at City Hall shortly after his mother died. Seven months later Trixie gave birth to their only daughter Cat, short for Catherine.
Before Trixie got married her hair was shoulder length and dark brown. Now she had it in a short bob and it was blonde. In some respects marriage had transformed her life. Marriage allowed Trixie to leave the workaday world behind. She’d been a good lawyer but she didn’t miss the practice of law. She was much happier as a wife and hostess.
In other respects, however, Trixie was the same person she’d always been. She was still thin as a stick and she was still pretty. She was as hardworking as ever and she had more energy than a whole Garden Club full of ordinary women. Trixie was known to her friends as a live spark. She prided herself on her willingness to jump right in and get her hands dirty.
At the moment, Trixie was doing just that. She was standing under the party tent barking out orders and she was dressed in her work clothes: black linen trousers, a striped French sailor’s t-shirt (the kind Picasso used to wear) and a cream colored cardigan. She had a string of pearls around her neck. She was supervising the tent’s decoration.
“Es ala y es ala y es ala,” she said.
Trixie was directing three Ecuadorian laborers on the placement of a vast number of flowers and shrubs. Two of the men went off struggling with a potted forsythia, while the third carried some ferns over to the speaker’s podium. He came back empty handed and looked up at Trixie questioningly.
“Moo buena,” she said. “Y es ala, gracias.”
She gave him a pot with an hibiscus in it and pointed off somewhere in the distance. The Ecuadorian nodded and hurried away.
Trixie’s Spanish was weak at best but she enjoyed saying “Gracias.” It gave her a thrill to speak to the workers in their own language. The Ecuadorians themselves did not know that Trixie was speaking Spanish. They thought it was Italian or maybe Polish, but they were too polite to tell her that the job would go more quickly if she just spoke English. It never occurred to Trixie that the nice brown men spoke English.
“Como esta, darling?”
Cat kissed her mother on both cheeks and looked around the tent goggle eyed.
“This is crazy!”
Cat Penfield was one of those few girls who can say “This is crazy!” and really mean it. She was innocent as an empty diary and she had the manner of an excitable puppy. Cat wasn’t the sharpest knife but she was lovable and it was easy to forgive her her failings. She was sweet tempered, easy to please and good to look at. She was very good to look at. She had strawberry blonde hair, hazel eyes, clean skin and a marvelous figure.
Cat wanted to be an actress. She’d been studying for a while now and as a result, the girliest aspects of her character were starting to wear off. She still spoke in exclamation points but she was trying to become more serious. She had started rehearsing one of Lady Macbeth’s monologues (which was giving her fits) and she’d even taken a part in an avant garde play. It was a downtown production organized by a boy in her acting class. It was called Room 421 and Cat played the girlfriend in an unhappy couple.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” said Trixie. It was a simple yellow sun dress.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I was thinking you’d dress up a bit more; it doesn’t matter.” Trixie looked her over again. Cat was gorgeous. “No, it’s perfect dear. It’s just right. Very natural and casual. The best disguise of all. You’ll disarm him.”
Trixie was still considering Cat’s appearance.
“Though maybe you could put on some lipstick. And mascara. It’s no use looking too natural. You can get something out of my dressing table upstairs.”
“There’s a man I want you to meet. He’s coming to the party today.”
Cat stamped her foot. She was too old to have her mother arranging her dates. It wasn’t feminist. Trixie said:
“I’m not talking about a boyfriend, dear. I’m talking about Max. Max Guberstein. He’s a great friend of mine and your father’s. He’s a movie producer and he already knows who you are. He could be helpful to your career. All I’m asking is that you try to make a good impression.”
Cat bit her lip.
“I’m not good at that kind of stuff, Mummy.”
“Nonsense Cat. I’ve seen you at parties and you’re very good at it. Just remember what I’ve always told you.”
Since the time Cat could talk, Trixie had been teaching her how to make herself likable. The formula was admirably simple: small talk, a little flattery, and a large dose of listening. A good listener, said Trixie, will never be cut from the guest list.
“All you’ve got to do is smile your beautiful smile and nod your head from time to time. Mr. Guberstein has been asking after you for months. I’m quite certain he’s going to like you. He’ll think you’re the cat’s pajamas.”
“You think so?”
“I’m sure so. Go on upstairs and freshen up. I have to finish arranging the tent.” The tent had become a whirlwind of activity. In addition to the Ecuadorians with their flower pots there was now a team of caterers rushing about, setting the tables for lunch. One of the caterers was a tall young man with a bleached blonde crew cut and earrings in both ears. His name was Greg and he and another boy were laying down silverware on a table just a few feet to Trixie’s left. Trixie overheard him tell a joke. “How do you fake an orgasm with your boyfriend?”
“Spit on his back!”
Trixie didn’t laugh out loud, her face remained fixed as granite, but she got the joke and she patted herself on the back for being so with it. Some hostesses would have scolded the young man but not Trixie. She was hip like that. She turned to her Ecuadorians and said:
“Ahora el bamboo en el pole.”
Apart from all the flowers and shrubs, there was also a huge pile of bamboo shoots to be dealt with. Trixie’s plan was to wrap the bamboo shoots around the metal tent poles, adding an extra touch of warmth to the atmosphere. It was something she’d seen done at a wedding in Hobe Sound.
The bamboo shoots went up, the Ecuadorians cleared out and the caterers finished arranging the place settings. These were enormously elaborate: tiger striped table cloths, palm fronds for placemats and linen napkins covered in wild animal prints. The name cards were all handwritten on green rice paper and the crowning touch was a small porcelain elephant with the bloom of a white rose gently balanced on its tusks.
The reason behind all the plants and animals was that Trixie’s luncheon had a rain forest theme. It was being given in support of the Balawala Elephant Sanctuary Park in Tanzania.
The Balawala Park was 49,000 acres of pristine wilderness and three years ago, while Puff was off sailing, Trixie went on a camera safari there. She had been deeply moved by the experience. On the one hand there was the fantastic beauty of the elephants, and on the other, the tragic thought that one day soon the noble beasts might all be extinct. When Trixie got back to New York she read a book about wildlife preservation and shortly afterwards she joined the board of directors that financed the Balawala Park.
Trixie was a dedicated fund raiser and she beat the bushes until almost everyone she knew had donated to the cause. Some people gave money because they liked Trixie; others gave because they had causes of their own they wished the Penfields to contribute to; there were even a few people who were genuinely touched by Trixie’s appeal.
Her appeal was that the fate of the African elephant rested on a knife edge, and it was in order to symbolize the precariousness of the situation that she had chosen the small porcelain figurines. The elephant was fragile, the porcelain was fragile, and so was the white rose bud delicately balanced on the figurine’s tusks.
Trixie surveyed the tent approvingly. Everything looked just as she’d hoped. It would be like lunching in the clearing of a jungle. More or less. People don’t eat lobster bisque and rack of lamb in the clearings of jungles, but Trixie was a realist and she knew that she couldn’t ask her friends for $1,000 a plate and serve them chicken salad.
It was twelve o’clock and Trixie went upstairs to change.
As she walked away, Greg, the blonde caterer, studied the décor and made his own assessment. He turned to the girl next to him and said:
“The guests’ll need a fucking machete to get to the buffet.”
Dante drove over the Triboro bridge and east along the Grand Central Parkway. Audrey was right, he thought. It was unlikely that a cunning woman like Daisy would confess to killing her husband during a game of I Never. The ending would have to be scrapped.
A True Lover of Wildlife
Writing a detective story was like solving a puzzle. The difference was that when you wrote a detective story you not only had to find the solution, you also had to invent the puzzle in the first place. Which made it much harder.
Dante reviewed his facts. Daisy’s husband had a weak heart. She killed him by replacing his daily medication with caffeine pills, causing him to die of a heart attack. Is that what happens when you take caffeine pills? Dante wasn’t sure. In any case, the husband was dead and Daisy was going to get away with it unless Caleb Astor, the handsome young amateur sleuth, could find a way to prove her guilt.
Dante pondered the forensic evidence but he didn’t want to get bogged down in medical details. What he really wanted was a blood stained handkerchief.
Was it too late in the game to cut out the heart attack angle and just have Daisy stab her husband in the neck with an old-fashioned knife? Daisy buries the knife but forgets to bury the blood stained clothes. Or better yet, she buries the knife and the clothes, but forgets that she has wiped her hands on a tea towel in the kitchen. Caleb Astor, amateur sleuth, turns out to be a master chef too, and he finds the blood stained tea towel while preparing one of his signature chocolate soufflés. Voila!
After a brief burst of enthusiasm Dante gave up on the idea. It would require too much re-writing, almost the entire screenplay. And hadn’t Audrey said she liked what he’d written so far? Dante was stuck with the apparent heart failure. Goodbye to the bloody tea towel. He was stumped.
Dante turned at the entrance to Puff’s house and drove slowly along the pebble stone driveway up towards the house.
“Hello?” There was no answer. “Hello?”
It was just past noon. Cat was putting on lipstick, Trixie was upstairs getting dressed and Puff wasn’t yet back from the golf course. Dante wandered out to the terrace where the caterers had set up a bar.
“Is it too early for a drink?”
“What would you like?”
“Scotch on the rocks with a splash of water.”
Dante sipped his drink. He remained standing at the bar because there was nowhere else to go.
“What’s for lunch?” asked Dante.
“Lobster bisque, rack of lamb and wild berry tart.”
This exhausted Dante’s supply of conversation so he looked first at his watch and then off into the distance. He raised an eyebrow and puckered his lips slightly, as if to say, Hmmm. This was an habitual pose of his which he often adopted when he felt a touch of social awkwardness. The idea was to convey the impression that he was distracted by some unknown consideration of great import but it rarely fooled anyone.
Dante was still staring into the distance when the second guest arrived. He was a short, coarse looking man whom Dante didn’t recognize. He was dressed in a wool knit shirt and sports coat. He had a large nose, acne scarred cheeks and he was pounding his fist into his palm as he walked. He was frowning and he looked angry. From a distance the man appeared to be talking to himself through clenched teeth. He was not talking to himself, however, he was speaking into a cell phone, the sort that plugs in your ear and dangles under the chin.
“Tell him to go to hell!” the man shouted.
He ripped the cell phone out of his ear and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. He approached the bar:
“Hi,” said Dante. “I’m Dante Penfield.”
“Max Guberstein. I guess I must be early.”
“Have a drink.”
“Club soda with lime,” said Max.
“Don’t you want a proper drink?”
“I don’t drink alcohol.”
“I’m not kidding. It’s a bad habit and it disagrees with me. Makes me ill.”
“Well, then,” said Dante, “There you are.”
“Right. There you are. What did you say your name was again?”
“Dante. Dante Penfield.”
“Any relation to Wallace?”
“Wallace Penfield,” said Max. It was like pulling teeth with this idiot. “The man who owns this house.”
“Wallace? Oh, you mean Puff. Yes, of course, I’m his nephew. I call him Puff, that’s what confused me. Actually, everyone calls him Puff. He prefers it.”
Max frowned. Having met Wallace “Puff” Penfield on three previous occasions, he had heard the nickname before but he didn’t like using it. Max could not believe that anyone would willingly embrace such a nickname. To call oneself Puff was ridiculous, even pathetic in a way. Imagine introducing yourself to a stranger and saying: “Hi, I’m David but everyone calls me Shitforbrains.”
Max changed the subject:
“That’s a big flag Wallace has got there.”
“That’s the spite pole.”
“Long story,” said Dante. “It’s not Puff’s flag. It’s Dick’s. Dick Burkus. He put it up a few years ago but don’t mention it to Puff, he doesn’t like to talk about it. Personally I think it looks rather nice. Adds a bit of color.”
“You spend a lot of time out here?”
“Not anymore. I used to when I was a boy. My mother owns the neighboring cottage. I haven’t been there in ages because it’s closed up. Mother used to rent it out over the summers but now Uncle Puff pays her to keep it empty. He doesn’t like having a group of unknowns living so close by.”
Dante pointed to a spot of trees a few hundreds yards away.
“You can’t see the cottage from here but it’s just down the hill. Great little place. We kept a vegetable garden in the back and I built a tree house in an old elm tree next to my bedroom. It had a trap door to get in and out.”
Max was interested in the spite pole but this last remark proved too much for him. The mention of the tree house killed his patience. He ended the conversation abruptly saying he had some phone calls to make. He walked off without another word. Dante was taken aback and the bartender looked at him sympathetically:
“I used to have a tree house, too.”
Ten minutes later the guests had started to arrive in numbers and the terrace was almost full. Puff was back from the golf course and he’d put on a seersucker suit for the occasion. He was standing by the fountain chatting with Professor Hurston, an expert in species preservation.
“Hurston?” said Puff, rolling the name around on his tongue. It was the opening salvo in a game called Small World, Puff’s favorite. “Where did you go to school? I used to know a George Hurston from Connecticut – St. Paul’s and Princeton, married a woman from Nantucket.”
“My family’s from Kansas,” said the Professor.
“The Kansas Hurstons? I’ve never heard of them. You’re sure you’re not from Connecticut?”
“I’m from Kansas.”
This was no good. Puff was disappointed and he looked at the Professor somewhat warily:
“Well it’s good of you to come. I must get myself a drink.”
Meanwhile Trixie Penfield was standing in the middle of the terrace at the center of a group of five women. All the women were well past fifty but they were all slender and they were all dressed in clothes that could have been worn by girls half their age. Hemlines were a good two inches above the knee (because even after the tummy goes you’ve still got your calves and with a decent pair of stockings you can keep them working for ages) and blouses were cut low enough to show off the hint of cleavage created by a good support bra. The group was composed of two blondes, two brunettes and a redhead. There wasn’t a gray hair in sight, and from a distance the women might have attracted the ogling stares of a college boy. It was only when you got up close that you saw the flaps hanging from the arms and the small scars of the surgeon’s knife under the chin. Nana Johnson, the redhead, had recently recovered from her third face lift. Trixie said she looked much better for it but she was being kind. There’s only so much one can do. Stretching the skin across Nana’s face was like stretching pizza dough across a bongo drum.
The women talked about Paisley Mischief. Nana Johnson said the book was a disgrace.
“Have you read it?” asked Trixie.
“Only in parts.”
Nana had read the book from cover to cover but she didn’t wish to discuss its contents too closely. There was a story in it about an older woman trying, unsuccessfully, to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend. The story was uncomfortably similar to a nasty rumor that had once gone round about Nana herself.
Lala Furstenberg said:
“I don’t know what the fuss is about. I liked the book.”
Lala was a straight arrow. She had never done anything shameful in her life and it didn’t occur to her that her friends had either. Lala was not party to the gossip upon which the book was based, so she was able to enjoy it without misgiving.
“I thought it was good fun. A little far fetched at times but that’s the novelist’s prerogative.”
“The real question is, who wrote it?” This was Pookie Wright. “Trixie says it was Andrew Draper, the man who rents from Dolly Smith.”
“A possibility,” said Trixie.
“What about Rebecca Holland?” said Nana, turning to Trixie. “You know, Dick Burkus’ girlfriend. You told me you thought she might have written it.”
“Well she might have,” said Trixie. “After all she’s a journalist so she must know how to write, but it was just a guess. I haven’t got any inside information. I have no idea who wrote the book and it doesn’t really matter anyway. It’s all in fun. We’re talking about a novel not a murder mystery.”
“It’s a lot more than a novel,” said Pookie.
Pookie didn’t figure in the book so she was eager to discuss it character by character. She suspected that the heroine was based on Trixie herself and certainly the heroine’s husband was strongly reminiscent of Puff, but she was too tactful to inquire directly so she brought up the Charlie Taylor episode instead:
“Remember the man who fell down in the poison ivy? Fat, red hair? He falls over with his pants down and his testicles swell up to the size of beach balls? That happened to Dick Burkus.”
“Dick fell in the poison ivy with his pants down?” Lala looked shocked. Trixie said:
“A novel is a work of fiction. I’m sure whoever wrote the book made most of it up.”
“Ssshhh,” said Nana.
Nana pointed a finger in the direction of the bar. All at once the women turned their heads and saw Rebecca Holland with a glass of white wine in her hand, talking to Petra Zaff. They were talking about Paisley Mischief, too.
“Do you know what I heard?” said Petra in a whisper, “Trixie thinks you wrote the book.”
Rebecca looked surprised.
“Well, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
At that moment Rebecca looked across the terrace and caught Trixie’s eye. Trixie waved and Rebecca wandered over to her.
“We were just talking about you,” said Trixie. “I love your outfit.”
“Thanks,” said Rebecca.
Trixie kissed her warmly on both cheeks while Nana Johnson watched with a cynical eye. Like everyone else, Nana knew about the spite pole and she knew that Puff and Dick were feuding. Consequently, she assumed that Trixie and Rebecca were also at daggers drawn.
Nana was small minded. There was no hint of sham in Trixie’s affectionate greeting. Trixie was her own woman and she refused to let Puff’s peevishness influence her relations with Rebecca. Trixie had a very sensible attitude towards other peoples’ feuds, she ignored them. In the first place Trixie had feuds of her own to keep track of, and in the second place, her world was too small for taking sides. Everyone she knew had disagreements with someone about something and if Trixie allowed herself to dislike all the people her friends disliked she would soon be left without friends altogether. Trixie said:
“So nice of you to come. It’s a pity Dick couldn’t be here but it was awfully good of him to send us a contribution. He’s a brick. You’ll thank him for me, won’t you?” “All for a good cause. He was happy to do it.”
Rebecca was shading the truth. Dick’s sentiment was better summed up by the pithy phrase he used when Rebecca told him she wanted to attend.
It pained Dick to give $1,000 to a park in Africa. He distrusted philanthropy. Every year he gave money to his boarding school but he didn’t like giving money to anyone else. He believed that trying to solve other people’s problems was a waste of time because other people had so many of them. He felt the same way about elephants. They’d always be bitching about something.
But Dick wrote the check anyway because Rebecca insisted and because he knew that her desire to go had nothing to do with African wildlife. Rebecca had two objects in mind. She wanted to pick up the latest chatter about Paisley Mischief and more particularly, she wanted to meet Max Guberstein. Max was a powerful producer in television and the movies and Rebecca wanted to discuss her career with him. She’d written for the glossy magazines for years, but each new article was hard work and you never got much credit for it. She wanted a change and she had a hunch that Max would go out of his way to be helpful. The party was an ideal opportunity for networking.
“Where’s Mr. Guberstein?” she said to Trixie. “Could you point him out to me?”
“Come along. I’ll introduce you.”
Max was at the other end of the terrace. He was sipping his club soda with Cat Penfield on his left and a woman named Budgie Bowles on his right. Both women were taller and more slender than Max and Max was frowning up at them. Budgie spoke with animation. Budgie had just discovered that Max was a movie producer and she was busy telling him about a wonderful idea for a television travel series. The idea had come to her during a visit to the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Budgie sent a photograph of herself in front of the museum back to her elderly mother in Connecticut and on the back of the photograph she wrote, “Me, in Spain!”
“Don’t you think that’s the perfect title for a television series?” said Budgie. “Me, In Spain! It’s kitschy but it really captures the excitement of travel. If it’s popular it could go on for ever. Me, In France! Me, In Scotland!”
Max was not impressed. Me, Up My Own Ass! He was relieved to see Trixie and Rebecca approaching.
Trixie was a practiced hostess and it was the work of only a few seconds for her to draw Cat and Budgie away, leaving Rebecca and Max alone together.
Trixie said to Cat:
“You see, dear, it wasn’t so difficult. What did you talk about?”
“I told him about the play I’m in. Room 421.”
“Was he interested?”
“Oh yes, very. He’s going to send one of his scouts to see me in it. He thinks I have potential.”
“Good for you, honey. You’ve got him wrapped around your little finger.”
“You think so?” asked Cat.
By the time lunch was served Rebecca and Max were already fast friends. They exchanged business cards and Max encouraged her to call whenever she felt like it. He also asked her to pass on his best wishes to Dick.
“You know I’m having dinner with Dick next week. Tell him I’m looking forward to it. I’m a real admirer of his.”
“How sweet,” said Rebecca.
Max sat at the table of honor between Trixie and Cat.
Far away from the table of honor, Dante sat in the back next to Mr. Bullard, his former employer. They ate lobster bisque and rack of lamb, and just as the main course was being cleared Dante whispered in Mr. Bullard’s ear:
“Trouble at five o’clock.”
It was Puff.
“How are you Dante? How’s life in the real estate business?”
“I’m afraid I quit, Uncle Puff.”
“A great loss to us,” put in Mr. Bullard. “But Dante was adamant. I had to let him go.”
Puff cast a reproachful eye. He had reached a stage in life where one of his great pleasures was in helping young men get along and he’d been helping Dante along for years. It annoyed him no end that Dante didn’t seem to appreciate the effort. There is nothing worse than having one’s charity scorned. Puff wanted to give the boy a piece of his mind but fortunately, there wasn’t time. Coffee was served and the speeches were about to start. Puff was called to the podium.
As the first man up, Puff kept it short. He thanked his guests for coming and introduced the luncheon’s main speaker, an eminent zoologist from Columbia University who gave a long and technical talk about gene preservation and species diversification. Then it was Trixie’s turn.
She began by discussing the mythic symbolism of wild animals and segued into the reading of a poem she had written expressly for the occasion. The first stanza went as follows:
In darkest Africa where wild things roam,The poem went on forever and it won a long round of applause at the end but it was unclear whether the guests were clapping for the poem itself or for its having ended. Trixie blushed. She said:
The noble elephant is losing his home,
Day and night he wanders around,
Searching for protected ground.
“Now for what is perhaps the most important part of our gathering today. I want to thank each and every one of you for your contributions to the Balawala Elephant Sanctuary Park. You’ve all been very generous. And I’d especially like to thank Mr. Max Guberstein whose unexpected gift was more than I could have ever hoped possible. Stand up Max.” Max stood up. He sat down again as quickly as possible. “Max is a true lover of wildlife. I’m honored to know him and I know Puff feels the same way. It’s largely thanks to Max that the elephants of Tanzania will be sleeping safely tonight. Thank you, Mr. Guberstein.”
Trixie beamed. There was another long round of applause and then the lunch was over. The guests began to disperse.
Dante lingered over the crumbs of his wild berry tart. Mr. Bullard said: “I hear we’re going to be working together on the admissions committee at the club.”
“Just sitting in temporarily. Dick Burkus asked me to.”
“It’s good to have you on board. I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s going to be an interesting election.”
Vice-President of Max Guberstein’s Bum
To Cecil these were not the symptoms of hangover, they were the symptoms of morning. He tolerated them without complaint because he knew that without three large glasses of whiskey he was incapable of falling asleep. Far better to wake up with dry mouth and a funny tummy than to get out of bed in the morning not having slept at all.
“Cat piss,” said Cecil.
This was an expression he had adopted fairly recently. He’d picked it up from a news report on television. A white schoolgirl in rural Mississippi had described her home town as “pure cat piss.” Cecil had liked the sound of it and now it was the first thing out of his mouth every morning. He didn’t say it in reference to anything in particular, but rather as a candid appraisal of his life in general. Cecil was in the movie business. Cecil wasn’t in the movie business because he loved movies, he was in the movie business because he thought it was the only thing he was fit for. He didn’t have the brains to be a lawyer, or the dedication to be a doctor, or the energy for entrepreneurship. His only merits were a natural grace and a knack for making higher-ups like him, but in the movie business that was plenty. Cecil still couldn’t quite believe it. He’d been working in film for four years and he hadn’t been found out yet.
Cecil worked for MindGone Pictures. His official title was that of Vice-President, but the job wasn’t as impressive as it sounds. The official title didn’t mean much. If you were to ask Cecil what he was in charge of as Vice-President, he would have answered without hesitation: Max Guberstein’s bum.
Max was the President of MindGone Pictures and Cecil was his personal assistant. He was really nothing more than an errand boy. He had a large expense account and he earned a shocking amount of money, but he was paid to be a toady. He carried Max’s briefcase, ordered Max’s lunch, arranged Max’s social life and even, on occasion, cleaned up after Max in the bathroom.
This last humiliation occurred during a dinner with investors at a private home in Lake Tahoe a few months ago. It was a nasty little moment and Cecil preferred not to dwell on it. Max went to the bathroom and when he returned to the dinner table he whispered in Cecil’s ear: “I left some shit stains in the toilet bowl. Take care of it.”
From Max’s point of view the order made perfect sense. If he spent time to clean the toilet himself, his absence might be remarked upon at dinner (“What’s he doing in there?”) On the other hand, if he left the toilet bowl dirty and someone else followed him into the bathroom, then he could be accused of bad manners (“That horrid man who left his mess all over the john!”) To Max the logic was irrefutable and besides, he paid Cecil a great deal of money to take care of such problems.
“Cat piss,” said Cecil again.
His natural optimism was on the fade. He hated his job and worse, he was worried about losing it. By his own calculations he had only two months of employment left, three months tops. This was not because he was a bad errand boy, it was simply in the nature of things. Max disliked people. He was incapable of tolerating anyone for long and he never kept a personal assistant for more than a year.
So Cecil was on the verge of getting fired, and for those who’d served as Vice-President of Max Guberstein’s Bum there were only two distinct paths open to them. The unlucky ones got fired and Max called everyone he knew to say how incompetent they were. The lucky ones also got fired but Max would sometimes help them find another job before saying goodbye. Cecil was eager to say goodbye but he needed Max’s help with that other job.
The phone continued to ring. Cecil sat up in bed, swung his feet onto the floor and rubbed his eyes.
The reason he needed another job was probably on the other end of line. She was an English girl named Penelope and she was Cecil’s girlfriend. They were engaged to be married and they owned a flat together in Kensington. To be more precise, Cecil’s father owned the flat and Penelope lived in it. Cecil dropped in for short visits.
Penelope was a formidable woman. She had blonde hair, porcelain skin and an eye-popping figure which she kept in shape by means of cigarettes, alcohol and yoga. She was nobody’s fool and apart from being beautiful she was sharp, witty and forthright. Cecil admired Penelope but there were drawbacks to marrying her.
To begin with, Penelope spent money and lots of it. It was not sand through an hourglass, nor even water through a sieve, it was wheat gushing out of a grain elevator. Penelope dumped out cash in enormous piles at every chance she got. She wore expensive clothes, threw lavish parties and redecorated constantly. Cecil couldn’t support her on the small income he got from his father and he was unhappy at the thought of having to earn pots and pots just to keep her in stockings.
The other drawback to marrying Penelope was that, despite her charms, she was impossible to live with. At least Cecil thought so. The two of them got on well enough so long as they had the Atlantic Ocean as a buffer, but make them share a house for more than a three day weekend and they were at each other’s throats. If it makes sense to assign blame in such matters, it could be placed on both sides.
Cecil complained that Penelope was stubborn and bossy. She was socially ambitious and she dragged him to endless parties, making him chase after fancy people in whom he had no interest.
Penelope’s complaint was more straightforward. It was Cecil’s habit of sleeping with girls he wasn’t engaged to. He didn’t boast of his conquests, but Penelope guessed at what went on and the thought of it, which pressed upon her whenever Cecil was at home for more than a few days, infuriated her.
Given the state of affairs, Cecil was understandably nervous about marrying Penelope. The only thing that made him more nervous was the thought of breaking up with her. In Cecil’s mind it was a choice between living with a tiger or being eaten by one. Neither choice appealed, which was why he was so keen to line up another job after Max fired him. He needed a job and he needed a job in the United States. Without one, he’d have to go back to London and sort out his life with Penelope. Which was something he’d rather not do.
The phone kept ringing. Cecil rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
Actually, he enjoyed talking to Penelope on the phone. She was full of gossip, she told a good story, and when he ran into a problem she usually offered sound advice. What Cecil was less pleased about was Penelope’s habit of calling so early in the morning. There was the time difference in London to be considered but it was also true that the six a.m. calls were Penelope’s way of figuring out where Cecil had slept and whether he had slept alone.
Fortunately, Cecil had a clean conscience. He’d felt a momentary frisson with Audrey the night before but nothing like a few years ago and nothing had come of it. Cecil put a smile on his face and filled his mind with tenderness. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
“Good morning, sweetie.” There was no response. “Sweetie? Good morning?”
Cecil heard a rough hacking cough and then the sound of someone spitting. There was a slight pause and then a bellowing voice screamed into his ear: “Meeting! Emergency meeting!”
“The meeting isn’t till nine o’clock,” said Cecil.
“Pre-meeting meeting! Extremely important. We need to go over details. I want you here in fifteen minutes.”
“Where are you?”
“Forty five minutes. I just woke up.” Cecil had learned to haggle with Max. Otherwise he’d swallow you whole.
“Half an hour.”
“Half an hour, then.”
Cecil slid out of bed. He showered, shaved and dressed. While brushing his teeth he studied himself in the mirror. His face looked tired, still handsome but less than ideal. Life’s pressures were starting to affect his looks and he cursed Max for waking him up.
Cecil assumed he was being dragged out of bed without cause because one of the trials of working for Max was that, as much as he disliked people in general, he couldn’t stand being alone. In all likelihood there would be nothing to discuss at the pre-meeting meeting and certainly nothing of importance. Odds were that Max was just eating breakfast and since he didn’t like to sit by himself, he wanted someone there to watch him eat. “Cat piss,” said Cecil.
He went downstairs to hail a cab.
Max Guberstein sat at a large round table in the back of the dining room at the Pierre Hotel drinking a cup of herbal tea. Max owned houses in Los Angeles, Colorado and Connecticut but his legal residence was a suite at the Pierre on 5th Avenue and 61st Street. He never bought an apartment in New York because he refused to subject himself to the scrutiny of a co-op board.
Max was approaching sixty. As has been mentioned, he was the President of MindGone Pictures. He produced documentary and feature films for both television and theatrical release and he was, by his own estimation, one of the seven most important independent producers in the country. Variety had recently published rankings that put him at number nine, but Variety got their facts wrong. You can never believe what you read in the press.
Unlike many of his competitors, Max never planned on a career in film. Born in Brooklyn, he was the son of a dry cleaner and when his parents died, both of them in quick succession, Max took over the business. He was in his twenties at the time and he turned a single struggling shop into a profitable chain. Despite the achievement, Max soon grew bored of dry cleaning and began to look about for new ways to invest his money. When a young film director approached him looking to finance a documentary about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Max put up $100,000.
According to the queer standards of the entertainment industry, a film is a success whenever the investors don’t lose their shirts. According to those standards, the Brooklyn Dodgers documentary was a success. The film was sold to television, the director walked off with a check for $40,000, and Max eventually got his $100,000 back along with a two percent return.
At first Max was quite pleased with himself. Then he reconsidered. He had risked a lot of money on the deal and made a grand total of $2,000. The director, his partner, had risked no money of his own and earned $40,000. Max realized that as a movie investor he’d been cast in the sucker’s role. Moreover, he realized that the magic of movies was such that there were thousands of people who were eager to play the same sucker’s role.
The next time the young director came knocking to raise money, Max offered to take over all the film’s finances himself. He would find the investors, he would look after the books and the director would get paid a fair salary to practice his art. In return, Max would keep control of whatever profits were made. The director accepted the arrangement, the second film was made and although the investors lost money, Max himself pocketed a hefty production fee. Since then Max had moved from one triumph to another. His deals had grown ever larger, his projects ever more numerous, but he always avoided paying for anything out of his own pocket and he never let his eye stray from the bottom line.
Max was known for driving a hard bargain. He didn’t waste money and he didn’t waste words. In a business where people tend to lay the butter on with a trowel, Max never gave a dollar’s worth of flattery for a dime’s worth of favors. He did not pat you on the back, he did not gush about your genius, and he did not laugh at your jokes just to make you feel better. As a result he’d won a reputation as a shrewd deal maker. He’d also won a reputation as a miserable human being. Both were more or less true.
Max drank his herbal tea and waited impatiently for the day to begin. He was a restless man and he harbored a certain resentment against anyone who was not awake before dawn. He disliked people who could sleep more than eight hours at a stretch. Max himself could barely manage half that. His anxiety usually got him out of bed at four a.m. and unable to fall back asleep he would pace his rooms like a caged tiger, waiting for the rest of the world to wake up. He especially hated the early morning because he couldn’t make phone calls and to be deprived of making phone calls was, in Max’s view, a form of existential torture. He had his own name for those long hours of phonelessness and he referred to them, somewhat melodramatically, as “the darkness.” It was the period before seven o’clock when no one in either New York or Los Angeles would pick up.
Cecil stood outside the Pierre Hotel smoking a cigarette. He was ten minutes late but he needed to compose himself.
“You smell of cigarettes,” said Max. “Go to the bathroom and wash your face. No wait.” He handed Cecil the key to his suite. “Go upstairs and use my bathroom. While you’re there you can pick up a bit. I want you to write a note to the maid. My shirts need to be cleaned.”
Cecil was gone for ten minutes. When he returned he asked the waiter for a menu. Max waved the waiter away.
“I’ve ordered for you. Mineral water and mixed fruit. Now listen, this is very important.” Max leaned low over the table so that his chin was almost touching the table cloth. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“How’s Penelope? Hasn’t called off the engagement yet?”
Max kept close tabs on his employees and it did no good to tell him to mind his own business. Everything was Max’s business.
“Of course she hasn’t and I’ll tell you why. You make a good living. Money is catnip to the ladies.”
“Sometimes it is,” Cecil’s tone was dry. “Not always.”
There was a fair amount of give and take in Cecil’s relationship with Max. For the most part Cecil felt free to say what he liked. If he was impertinent, even rude, Max didn’t hold it against him. Max himself was pushy and plain spoken, and he admired the same qualities in others. He didn’t respect people who let themselves be steamrolled. Max insisted on winning his points but he didn’t like to win them too easily.
“Crap,” said Max. “Money is catnip to everyone. Do you know what an aphorism is?”
“Here’s an aphorism for you. The difference between comedy and tragedy is this: Comedy is when bad things happen to rich people. Tragedy is when bad things happen to the poor people. What do you think of that?”
“Why did you get me out of bed?”
Max ignored the question: “I want to tell you a joke.”
“I’ve heard it before.”
“Shut up. A Muslim, a Jew and an Episcopalian watch a beautiful woman ride by on a horse. The Muslim says, What a fine horse! The Jew says, What a fine woman! The Episcopalian says, I wonder what her maiden name is?”
“I’m not Episcopalian. I’m English, so I’m Anglican.”
“You’re all the same.”
The waiter brought over a bottle of mineral water and a bowl of mixed fruit. Cecil pushed the bowl away. He said:
“I’d like a Swiss cheese omelet with bacon and white toast. And coffee. Thank you.”
“You’re killing yourself.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. What is this meeting about?”
“Alright, Cecil. Does the name Jack Friend ring a bell?”
“Head of production at SameOld Films.”
“Very good,” said Max. “I spoke to Jack last week, and he told me some interesting news. He’s looking for someone to run one of his subsidiaries.”
“GoldStream Pictures. They make films for television.”
“You’ve got your ear to the ground,” said Max. “No big budgets but the chance to develop your own projects. Sounds like an exciting job. Jack asked if I could recommend anyone for the job.”
“I thought it was something you might be able to do so I gave him your name. Jack wants a meeting with you but I told him he’d have to wait a few weeks. There’s a project you need to wrap up for me before you start looking into other opportunities.”
“What project is that?” Cecil drank his coffee while Max played with his teacup. They looked at each other like poker players trying to decide who held the better cards.
Max said: “Have you ever heard of the Old Money Club?”
“What do you think of it?”
“I don’t think of it. It’s a private men’s club.”
“Wrong,” said Max, “It’s the private men’s club. It’s the most prestigious club in the city. The most exclusive and the hardest to get into.”
Cecil raised an eyebrow. He had nothing against private clubs per se, he was a member of both the Garrick and the Groucho Club in London, but he always felt the social pretensions of Americans to be somewhat absurd. He knew about Old Money but he hardly thought of membership as a great mark of distinction.
“Honestly, Max, it doesn’t strike me as your kind of place.”
Max scowled furiously.
“Why is that? You don’t think I’m Old Money material? Not sophisticated enough? Too unrefined?”
“No,” said Cecil, “I just don’t think you’d like it there.”
“I’ll decide what I like, you little shit. I know what you’re saying. You think I should be content to be a guest in the club dining room. I’m lucky if a friend invites me to a party in the reception hall. God forbid I think I could join. I’m not the right sort of person; I’m just Max Guberstein, presumptuous Jew.”
“Not what I said.”
Max banged his fist on the table.
“You want to know the difference between a WASP and a Jew? A WASP gets out of the shower to piss.”
Cecil responded calmly, “I didn’t know you had friends in the club, that’s all.”
“I do have friends in the club. I have a number of friends. My banker is a member, my broker is a member, my lawyer is a member. My fucking therapist is a member!”
“And now you’re considering joining yourself?”
“Correct,” Max took a breath. “And you, Sir Biddle, are going to help me get in. That’s your project.”
“You might as well ask me to grow bananas in Central Park.” Cecil tried to sound blasé but in fact he was unnerved. Bananas in Central Park might be easier. “It’s not like joining a gym, Max. You don’t just walk in and write a check. The process takes months. Six months at least.”
“I understand what’s involved, thank you. Recommendations, lunches, cocktails. I’m not asking you to start from scratch. I’ve already done most of the work. The Spring elections are just eight days away.”
“Then how can I possibly help?”
“I’ve run into a snag,” said Max. “Let me explain. My election to the club will be decided by the people on the admissions committee, so it’s important for me to know what they’re thinking. Until very recently I could rely on a young man named Jos Nicols to keep me informed, but Mr. Nicols has been sent to France and he no longer sits on the committee.”
“You want me to kidnap Jos Nicols and drag him back to New York?”
“Shut up,” said Max. “I want to you to talk to Mr. Nicols’ replacement on the committee. It turns out he’s a friend of yours.”
“Dante? Are you sure? He is a friend of mine but he’s not the kind of person who gets put on admissions committees. Certainly not at the Old Money Club.”
“I don’t mind,” said Max, “arguing over matters of opinion but I don’t like to be challenged on matters of fact. Dante Penfield is on the admissions committee. I found out last night. I need his help and I need you to make sure I get it. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sorry, understood.” Cecil saw there was no way out of the assignment and resigned himself to it. “What sort of help are we looking for?”
Max sketched out the details.
The admissions process at the Old Money Club was an arduous affair, it really did go on for months. First you got a member to put you up, then you had to be seconded. Then there were letters of recommendation to collect, fourteen in all, followed by tête-à-tête meetings with various members of the club. You had to make nice with everyone but it was the men on the admissions committee who mattered most. They were the only people who actually voted. There were seven of them altogether and their vote had to be unanimous. Max’s analysis of them drew heavily on conversations he’d had with the departed Jos Nicols.
The composition of the committee was as follows:
John Newbury was the most inconsequential member of the admissions committee. Max called him Happy Boy. Newbury was long past boyhood but he was a soft target, a genial fellow who’d never met a man he didn’t like, and he could be relied upon to vote in Max’s favor because he always voted in favor.
Next there was old Mr. Sears, the Pragmatist. Sears wasn’t a natural ally but he liked people who were useful and Max had performed a significant service for his daughter. Max had confidence in Sears.
Then there was a third man, Ben Jentsen, who was also solidly in Max’s camp. Max described Mr. Jentsen somewhat contemptuously as the Bleeding Heart. Jentsen believed in broadening the club’s membership and he supported the candidacy of all Jews, Blacks and foreigners on principle.
After Jentsen, the picture got muddier. Tad Wainwright was the quintessential Old Money man. He was an American version of the retired English Colonel in a drawing room comedy. The Colonel was Groton and Harvard and he cared desperately about what he called a man’s bona fides. When Max met him for dinner the first question he asked was, “Where did you prep?” The Colonel was a potential problem but he was not an independent thinker and Max calculated that if a consensus developed Wainwright would roll over.
The twin keys to developing a consensus were Puff Penfield, the club President, and Dick Burkus the head of the admissions committee. Puff did not sit on the committee but he had a proxy in Mr. Bullard (of Bullard & Associates, Dante’s former employer) who represented his interests. Max was fairly certain of Puff and Mr. Bullard, but he was nervous about Dick Burkus. In any case, he wanted Dante to keep an eye on all three. Max reiterated:
“So really it comes down to two people: Puff Penfield and Dick Burkus. If we can get them, we’ll get the rest. I think I have Puff, I’m less sure of Dick. I haven’t found his Achilles’ heel but I’m working on it. You see, I’m not asking for a miracle. The committee votes at the end of next week and it’s your job to make sure I don’t get turned down.”
“Blackballed,” said Cecil. “People don’t get turned down at the Old Money Club, the word is blackballed. The membership committee vote by putting marbles in a cigar box. A black marble means you don’t get in.”
“I know the terminology,” said Max sharply. “I don’t use it because I think it’s infantile. Blackballed. Makes me spit up.”
After a pause Cecil said:
“Can I ask you a question, Max?”
“Why do you want to join the Old Money Club?”
“Mind your own business.”
“Not even a hint?”
Max closed his eyes for a moment.
“Let’s just say I’m doing an old friend a favor. Don’t ask me again.”
Cecil didn’t press and he finished his breakfast in silence while considering this latest assignment. Max was an intelligent man but he was difficult to work for. Cecil wondered how he might be of use in getting Max elected to the club. Nothing came immediately to mind.
It was not as though one could bribe one’s way in. Despite Max’s belief that money is catnip, there are some things that cannot be bought. Men like Dick Burkus have money enough already and they tend to live by caprice. It was hard to imagine how his arm might be twisted.
“What else do I have to do today?” asked Cecil.
“First we’ve got the Navy Yard investors. We’re meeting here and driving out to Brooklyn.” Max wanted to turn the derelict buildings in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard into a film studio. “Afterwards I’m coming back to the hotel for a nap. I want you to stay in Brooklyn and visit Mrs. Schuler. It’s her birthday so take her some flowers. And tonight you’re going to the theatre. Penfield’s daughter is in a show and I want you to make nice.”
Cecil listened absentmindedly. He wondered whether Penelope had telephoned after he’d left the hotel. He hoped she hadn’t. She didn’t always believe in his early morning meetings. He went outside to smoke another cigarette before the Navy Yard investors arrived.
There were three people in the party of Navy Yard investors. One very important person, one moderately important person, and a lawyer. Max met them in the dining room of the Pierre and afterwards they went out to the street where there were two limousines waiting to take them to Brooklyn.
Max and Cecil took one limousine while the very important investor and his moderately important partner took the other. The lawyer didn’t know what to do. He tried squeezing in with the very important investor but he was shooed away. The cars started to pull away. At the last minute the lawyer dove into the front seat of Max’s limousine. Max ordered the driver to stop and screamed at the top of his lungs:
“My view! You’re blocking my view!”
The lawyer got out and the limousines rolled off. Cecil looked back through the rear window and saw the lawyer running down the street, frantically hailing a cab. Cecil said to Max:
“You’re an awful man.”
Max didn’t flinch.
“He was blocking my view. Now sit up straight and try not to move.”
Cecil did as he was told and Max slumped over on his shoulder and fell fast asleep.
Cecil rang the door bell and Lenore answered it wearing a polyester house dress. Her gray hair was tinted blue and she had a pair of glasses on a chain around her neck. Cecil introduced himself. He said he worked for Max and he apologized for Max’s absence, explaining that he’d been called back to Manhattan at the last minute for an urgent meeting. Lenore didn’t seem to care one way or the other. She just smiled and invited Cecil in for a glass of water.
“Thank you,” said Cecil. “And happy birthday.”
He handed her a floral arrangement he’d bought at the bodega around the corner and pointed to the card. Lenore put on her glasses to read it:
“To Mrs. Schuler, the most wonderful teacher in the world. Best wishes on this special day from your loving student, Max.”
Cecil worried that he’d gone overboard. “Such a considerate boy,” said Lenore, but it was unclear which boy, Max or Cecil, she had in mind. She put the flowers in a vase and asked Cecil to take a seat on the sofa.
“Nice weather,” said Lenore.
Lenore made no response and Cecil’s remark fell into the abyss. He shifted anxiously in his seat. In search of conversation, he settled on the birthday bouquet. “Beautiful isn’t it?” he said brightly. “I wish I knew more about flowers. Can you tell me what the pink ones are? I think they’re carnations but they might be pansies. And the yellow ones are daisies, isn’t that right?”
Lenore answered with a shrug.
“I don’t know from flowers.”
After this setback Cecil gave up, but it turned out Lenore was perfectly capable of making her own conversation. Cecil ceded the floor and she talked about her gout and her arthritis. She talked about a peculiar stomach disorder for which she had coined the term “lower gassiness.” She talked about the second war and her friends who died in it. She talked about her late husband and her children, and when she got up to fetch the photo album, Cecil’s heart fell.
When his buttocks finally went numb Cecil rose to leave, but Lenore wouldn’t let him go. One of the pictures in her photo album had come unglued from the page. It was a picture of Max. Actually it was a group picture of Max’s family taken around the time of his high school graduation. Lenore couldn’t be bothered to glue it back into her scrapbook and she wanted to pass it on as a keepsake. She pressed it into Cecil’s hand. It was a small black and white photograph of four people under an awning outside 740 5th Avenue sometime in the early 1960’s. Max must have been seventeen or eighteen years old. He was standing between his mother and a girl, presumably his sister, who looked about twelve. It was raining and Max’s father was holding an umbrella over his wife’s head. With the exception of the sister everyone looked horribly glum.
“I’ll make sure he gets it,” said Cecil.
He kissed Mrs. Schuler on both cheeks and went out to catch a taxi back to Manhattan. It was late afternoon and he still had to talk to Dante about the elections at Old Money. He hurried up to the apartment on 89th Street.
Cecil slipped off his shoes and put his feet up on the coffee table. He was studying the photograph of Max’s family, and just finishing his first glass of sherry, when Dante got home.
“Hope you don’t mind,” said Cecil. “I told the doorman you were expecting me and he let me up. The front door was unlocked.”
“Less bother that way,” said Dante. “Saves me from forgetting my keys. What are you drinking?”
“Sherry. Very good sherry, actually. Where’d you get it?”
“Present from mother. She sends me a case every year. I used to love it but I’ve gotten out of the habit. No one drinks sherry anymore. People call it a woman’s drink.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that. People talk a lot of rubbish. The best thing is not to pay any attention. Just smile and do as you please. No one ever notices. Here, have a look at this.”
Cecil handed over the photograph.
“What is it?”
“It’s a picture of Max Guberstein and his family. His kindergarten teacher gave it to me.”
“Grim,” said Dante, “Except the girl. Who’s she?”
“Don’t know. Max’s sister, I suppose. It’s odd to think he has a sister. I’ve never heard him mention her. Probably married to a dentist in New Jersey and they don’t speak.”
“Was pretty,” said Cecil. He was feeling philosophical. “She must be at least fifty now and women lose their looks. My father once told me a story about a woman named Lady Cartwright who used to cry whenever she saw an attractive girl. She said it was like looking at a lush green hillside just before the strip miners moved in. Apparently Lady Cartwright had been very beautiful when she was young and it upset her to be reminded of what she’d lost.”
Dante stared at the young girl standing under the awning in the picture and tried to imagine what she would look like as a woman of fifty. His imagination failed him, but the number on the awning rang a bell.
“740 5th Avenue,” said Dante. “That’s where Uncle Puff lives. Is that where Max grew up?”
“Hardly,” said Cecil. “Max is from Brooklyn. Coney Island to be exact. I just came from his old neighborhood. Block after block of row houses with the elevated tracks running right through the middle of everything. It sounds like thunder when the train goes past.”
“What about the picture?”
“The picture must’ve been taken during some ghastly family outing. You know, take the children to Manhattan and show them how the other half lives. I imagine a visit to the museum and plates of cold tongue at some god-awful deli. No wonder they all look miserable.” “Except the sister.”
“Well yes, except her.”
Cecil put the photograph back in his pocket and stood up to get himself another drink. He poured a glass for Dante, too.
“Audrey told me she’s thinking of leaving New York. Is it true?”
“Aren’t you upset?”
Dante grimaced. “Of course, I’m upset. It’s a terrible idea. She says she wants to move to Iowa.”
“Money nonsense. She wants to get a PhD and the University of Iowa has offered her a bigger stipend than she can get in the city.”
“How much bigger?”
“$10,000 a year over five years. That’s $50,000.”
“Couldn’t your mother make up the difference?”
“She could but Audrey would never accept it. I wouldn’t even want to make the suggestion. Audrey’s very independent.”
“Then what are you going to do?” asked Cecil.
“Nothing. I try not to think about it. Audrey doesn’t have to decide for another two months; maybe something will come up.”
“The worst is not,” said Cecil, “So long as one can say, this is worst.”
“Who said that?”
“Shakespeare, I think. I like the sound of it.”
“I don’t see how it fits with Audrey moving to Iowa.”
“It doesn’t really.”
“Then let’s not talk about it,” said Dante, “It’s too depressing. What about you?”
“Cat piss,” said Cecil. “My life is a mess.”
“Oh, everything. Look, I need your help with something, Dante. It’s about Max.”
“You know I met him in the flesh just yesterday. I thought the name sounded familiar. I should warn you though, I don’t think I made the best impression on him.”
“He was at Uncle Puff’s in Long Island. He was there for Trixie’s Africa party. During the speeches she called him a true lover of wildlife. I must say I wouldn’t have picked him for an animal lover.”
“But he must have given a lot of money to Trixie’s elephants. She thanked him especially.”
“I’m sure he gave pots. But it wasn’t to pay for a park in Africa. He was there to butter up your Uncle Puff.”
“I’m not sure that Puff is butterable.”
“Possibly not but that’s the way Max thinks. Grease the wheels.”
“How does Uncle Puff come into it?”
“He’s president of the Old Money Club.”
“What does Max want with Old Money?”
“He’s up for election a week from tomorrow. He wants to get in.”
Dante did not keep up with club gossip so this news came as a shock.
“Why would Max want to join Old Money?”
Cecil threw up his hands.
“He says he’s doing it as a favor to a friend, but that’s absurd. His real motives are yet to be determined. Maybe he’s planning to take up squash, but I doubt it. I suspect Max has a chip on his shoulder. New York’s a small town. Max hates the Old Money crowd but he runs into them all the time. He thinks they’re sneering at him and it pisses him off. He probably wants to join Old Money to rub their noses in it, just to prove that he can. That’s my guess but it’s only a guess. Max’s psychology is not something I’d want to delve into too deeply. The key point is he wants to join the club and he’s told me to make sure he gets in.”
“Then you’re in luck,” said Dante, “Because I’ve just been put on the admissions committee.”
“Exactly. So you’ll have to keep your ears open; this means a lot to me.”
Cecil went on to explain the precariousness of his relationship with Max and the delicate status of his employment. Cecil was sure to get fired soon and he needed Max’s help in order to get another job. He told Dante about his prospects at GoldStream Pictures and also about the dire consequences of ending up on Max’s black list. It was vital that Max get into Old Money.
“If he doesn’t get in he’s going to blame somebody and that somebody is me.”
“Hardly reasonable,” said Dante.
“Not reasonable at all, but there you are. If Max gets angry he’ll kill my chances at GoldStream. I’ll be out of work and I won’t be able to stay in the States. I’ll have to go back to London.”
Cecil paused to let the significance of these last words sink in. Dante put the pieces together.
“If you went back to London you’d have to move back in with Penelope.”
“And you’d have no excuse not to get married.”
“None at all.”
“You can’t break off the engagement?”
“I shiver to think.”
“Because she’d claw your eyes out if you tried.”
“So you understand?”
“And you’ll help me with the club?”
“What do you make of our chances?” asked Cecil.
“I’d say it’s an uphill battle. There aren’t a lot of movie producers in Old Money. Not a lot of Gubersteins either.”
“I agree but there’s got to be a first time for everything. If Max thinks it’s worth a try I have to believe him. He’s not one for tilting at windmills.”
“There’re only seven people on the admissions committee, so it can’t be impossible.”
“Max described it as chiefly a matter of lining up your Uncle Puff with someone named Dick Burkus.”
“Head of the admissions committee,” said Dante. “Max is probably right but it won’t be easy lining them up. Puff and Dick are on bad terms at the moment. If either one pushes too hard for Max, the other might cut him down just out of spite.”
“Hmmm, Max didn’t mention that. Maybe that’s behind the difficulty. For some reason Max thinks he’s got Puff in the bag, but Dick seems to be immune to his charm.”
“Dick is immune to a lot of people’s charm.”
“When’s the next admissions committee meeting?”
“Tomorrow night. Last one before the election.”
“You’ve got to let me know what happens.”
“Good,” said Cecil. He now felt free to move on to pleasanter subjects. “Audrey tells me you’ve written a screenplay?”
“The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage.”
“What’s it about?”
Dante launched into a long and detailed synopsis of the plot. Daisy, Caleb Astor, a game of I Never. Cecil did his best to feign interest. Dante said:
“It’s not finished yet. I still need an ending, but you can read the beginning if you like.”
“I’d love to.”
“Don’t take it badly,” said Cecil. “If everything works out with the Old Money Club I promise to read it as soon as possible. I could even try to persuade Max to buy the rights.”
“How much would he pay?”
“Can’t say exactly, but enough to make it worth your while.”
Dante was immediately taken with the idea of selling his screenplay to Max and he pictured himself sitting in a canvas chair shouting out stage directions through a megaphone: Feeling! Energy! Take two!
The front door opened and Audrey walked in. She dropped her bags down on the floor with a thud.
Cecil waved and Dante asked what she’d been up to.
“Looking for a book,” said Audrey. “All afternoon. Something called The Senior Commoner by Julian Hall. It was Phillip Larkin’s favorite novel and he mentions it in one of his essays. Larkin used to read it again and again whenever he needed a laugh, but now it’s out of print and I can’t find it anywhere. It’s not in any of the New York libraries and I just spent two hours searching for it on the internet. Gone without a trace.”
“Straight to video,” said Cecil.
“I think it’s rather sad,” Audrey went on. “A reminder of mortality in a way. Like sandcastles and cheese soufflés. The book must have been pretty good if it was Larkin’s favorite but it’s disappeared completely. Makes you think poor Julian Hall was wasting his time.”
“The time’s not wasted just because the book goes out of print,” said Cecil.
“No, I suppose you’re right. But you see my point?”
“Anyway, I’d like to read it. I wish I could get hold of a copy.” Audrey sat down on an arm of the sofa and changed the subject. “What have you two been up to? You look like you’ve been plotting to overthrow the government.”
“Max Guberstein is going to buy my screenplay,” said Dante.
“After he gets into the Old Money Club,” Cecil added.
“Wonderful. You can fill me in over dinner. You are taking us out to dinner, aren’t you Cecil?”
Audrey put a hand on Dante’s shoulder. “Listen, there’s something I need to tell you. Your mother phoned yesterday. She’s coming to New York.”
“She didn’t say. She told me she has business in the city, something about cashing in her American assets. But I think there’s more to it than that. She’s back on one of her mother-worry kicks.”
“What’s she worried about?”
Audrey fought back the giggles. “I’m afraid she’s worried about your sex life. She wants to make sure you’re practicing safe sex.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her I don’t know what you do with your lovers.”
“Quite right,” said Cecil. “Dante always keeps his lovers secret. At least I’ve never met any of them.”
“You’re not gay, are you?” asked Cecil.
“Not that I know of.”
“Oh, but you can’t be certain. I once heard an interview with a man who said he didn’t know he was gay until he was forty-five. You’re not even thirty.”
“Yes, well it’s a pity there’s not a test I can take to find out right away.”
“Maybe there is,” said Cecil. “Did you suffer much from constipation as a boy?”
“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Audrey.
“A theory I’m developing. I believe gay men are more likely to suffer constipation as children.”
“Where’d you get that?”
“A friend of mine. He told me he was always constipated until he came out of the closet. Then I read about a similar case in a magazine article.”
“Is it just men or does it work for women too?”
“I have very little knowledge of gay women,” said Cecil.
“I hope you know how silly you sound,” said Audrey.
“It’s only a theory.”
“Can we please talk about something else?” said Dante.
“Sorry,” said Audrey. “I just wanted you to be prepared for when your mother starts quizzing you. But don’t worry, everything will be fine. Violet won’t stay long, she never does. Now what about dinner? Where are we eating?”
“Your choice,” said Cecil grandly, “Compliments of MindGone Pictures. And after dinner we’re going to a show.”
“What sort of show?”
“Something downtown, outré and avant garde. It will be a searing portrayal of passions both good and bad. Joy and sadness mixed in equal proportions. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, the must see drama of the year.”
“Who’s in it?”
“A brilliant young actress, as talented as she is beautiful. Someone bound to be a big star.”
“What’s her name?”
Violet Penfield landed at JFK while Dante, Audrey and Cecil were eating dinner. It was just like her to leave the date of her arrival unannounced. She hated schedules and refused to be tied down by appointments. She fancied she resembled Kierkegaard in this respect. If you invited Kierkegaard to dinner a week in advance he always refused to make a firm commitment on the grounds that 1) the world changes daily 2) he could not predict the future and 3) his own will power was not strong enough to hold to such promises as dinner a week from Tuesday. Violet admired that sort of thinking.
Traveling light, she had no need to wait for her baggage and she sailed through customs and hurried out to catch a taxi into Manhattan.
Violet had not been back to New York in two years and driving along Park Avenue she looked up at the massive buildings in midtown and was reminded of the city’s immense energy. Quite different from London, she thought, like the difference between juice and concentrate. Coming to her on the spur of the moment, this phrase pleased her and she made a mental note of it, intending to use it again.
“What address?” said the taxi driver.
“The corner of 89th Street,” Violet replied.
“Where you from?” asked the driver cheerfully, “You from English? You look like you from English.”
“What on earth does that mean?” said Violet.
“You from English?”
“First time New York?”
“You live Manhattan?”
“Used to, not anymore. I’m visiting my son.”
“Ah, visitor,” said the taxi driver. “In my country we have a saying: a visitor always brings pleasure, if not coming then leaving.”
“That’s not very nice, dear. Where is your country?”
“You know Himalayas?”
“Of course I do. Mountains. Tall and cold.”
“I am from Bangladesh.”
“Not my sort of place,” said Violet. “Yes thanks, just up here on the right. The last awning. That’s lovely. Now if you’ll pop the trunk the doorman can get my case.”
Violet paid the taxi, pointed the doorman to her case and glided into the building. Soon she was in Dante’s apartment, her stockinged feet on the coffee table, drinking a cup of tea and smoking a cigarette. It was seven o’clock in the evening.
“Do you know what I like least about flying?” she said.
Violet spoke out loud although there was no one else in the room. She liked the sound of her own voice and she had a habit of talking to herself in private. She believed it was good practice for talking to others in public. It taught one to speak with authority. She continued her soliloquy:
“My feet swell up and I can never get my shoes back on when I land. What do you think causes the swelling? I’m told it’s the cabin pressure.”
She took a long drag on her cigarette.
“Non-smoking too. All the airlines are non-smoking nowadays. It’s devastating to one’s well being. I must look a wreck.”
Looking a wreck was one of Violet’s common complaints and it wasn’t false modesty. She generally did look a wreck. Whatever physical charms Dante possessed he got from his father not from her. Imagine Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle in a tweed jacket and gray flannel skirt. Violet dressed badly and she was both shorter and rounder than she should be. She blamed her figure on her French boyfriend (a très good cook) but it wasn’t his fault that she was built like a bulldog and certainly he wasn’t to blame for her sense of style. On top of the tweed jackets, Violet wore her hair in a page boy cut which made her look like a wizened ten year old. The effect was so odd that one was almost tempted to laugh but Violet was impervious to comment. She didn’t care a fig what anyone thought of her appearance.
She finished her tea and lit a second cigarette.
Violet had come to New York for two reasons. The first of these was straightforward. Her Frenchman was bored with his retirement and he wanted to open a new restaurant in London. Violet had agreed to finance the project and she was planning to sell the cottage on Long Island in order to raise the cash. The sale could have been managed from overseas but it would go faster with Violet in New York and she needed the money sooner rather than later because Gascon had already signed his lease.
Violet picked up the phone and dialed her brother-in-law. The machine answered.
“Puff, it’s Violet. I’m in New York. I’m selling the cottage and I want to do it quickly. I assume you’re interested in buying it. I’ll think of a time for us to meet and I’ll let you know.”
The second reason behind Violet’s trip was more personal, and as she told Audrey, it had to do with Dante’s sex life. She poured herself a glass of sherry. Violet’s concern with her son’s sex life was something that was brought on by a funeral she attended three weeks ago in London. The son of a close friend had died of AIDS.
“Deeply affecting,” said Violet rehearsing a conversation she wished to have with Dante. “Of course it’s sad when anyone dies but this was especially awful because the young man died of AIDS. His mother didn’t even know he was a homosexual.” She pronounced the word in the funny English way, accenting the first syllable. “She didn’t find out until the very end of his life and naturally she was horrified. Not because he was gay mind you, but because he never told her. Terrible to realize that her son had been hiding this secret from her all his life. Imagine loving someone for so long and then discovering that you hardly knew them at all.”
Violet drank her sherry.
“Young people have to be very careful these days. AIDS affects all sorts, you know. You don’t have to be gay to get it. That’s why you have to practice safe sex. Are you practicing safe sex, Dante?”
Violet was fairly satisfied with her own side of this imaginary conversation but she ran into difficulty when she tried to imagine Dante’s reaction to it. He wouldn’t talk.
“Dante! Listen to me. Are you practicing safe sex?”
Still no response.
“I’m only trying to help,” said Violet. “There’s no reason we can’t discuss this like adults.”
But it was no use. Dante wouldn’t let himself be drawn and the anxiety that had prompted Violet to fly to New York was already starting to look a little foolish. Violet was wise enough to realize that Dante didn’t want to discuss his sex life with her and she couldn’t force him against his will. What’s a mother to do?
“Aren’t children impossible?” Violet said to herself. “Oh well, if Dante wants to talk, he can come to me.”
She went to her suitcase and took out a large box of condoms she had brought with her. She put the condoms in Dante’s bathroom cabinet. Then she took out a pamphlet describing safe sex practices and placed it underneath the socks in the top drawer of Dante’s bureau. Finally she put a copy of a novel titled Jim & Michael in the living room bookcase next to the Webster’s dictionary.
“There. No one can say I haven’t tried.”
Violet was tired. The worst part of flying across the Atlantic was that it threw off her sleep schedule for days. It was not yet nine o’clock but Violet was ready for bed. She made a quick search through Dante’s room to see what sort of books he was reading. She found nothing of interest except the unfinished manuscript of The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage. Violet took it to bed with her and fell asleep right after Daisy’s husband gets murdered.
The Progressive Arts Theater was on 6th street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. You couldn’t tell it was a theater from the outside. There was no marquee and no box office window, only two gray steel doors with a xeroxed flyer taped to one of them. The flyer announced the night’s show. It was called Room 421: Scenes From Life.
Dante, Cecil and Audrey looked for seats in the back. Cecil insisted on sitting in the back because he had been on a number of scouting missions to places like the Progressive Arts and he knew there was a risk of falling asleep. He didn’t like to offend the actors. Dante was also happy to sit in the back because he worried that Cat’s performance might bring on a case of the giggles.
Unfortunately there was no back. The inside of the theater was a large rectangular room with folding chairs laid out on three sides but the chairs went only two rows deep. In the middle of the room there was a sofa and a coffee table, presumably where the action would take place, but there was no raised stage and no stage lighting. Very Swedish. Cecil led the way to the furthest corner of the room and sat down. Dante counted the house.
Forty six people and for the most part it was a young crowd. They all looked like actors. They were dressed in jeans and faded t-shirts and leather jackets. One man had a pierced lip and the two girls on either side of him both had pierced eyebrows. Another girl had a tattoo snaking down her bum which Dante caught a glimpse of when she leaned over to tie her shoe.
Standing out from the crowd was an elderly couple sitting stiffly in the middle of the front row. The woman wore black trousers, a bright pink blouse and diamond earrings. The man wore a dark gray suit. Dante pointed them out to Cecil. It was Trixie and Puff. Puff’s jaw was clenched as if he were quietly counting to ten.
Or ten thousand.
According to the program the show lasted an hour and ten minutes. It consisted of three distinct scenes and ran without intermission. Cat’s scene came last. The program said that all of the scenes had been developed by the actors themselves as part of an acting workshop. The show was not meant to be viewed as a finished product. Like the soul of St. Augustine, it was a work in progress.
The lights flicked off then on again and two young actors, a man and a woman, came out to take their places on the stage. The woman sat on the sofa and the man stood over to one side against a window. It was a rainy Saturday morning at home. They both looked sulky and you knew they were itching for a fight. The woman complained that the man was distant and showed no interest in her problems. He answered that she had too many problems.
Besides, he said, she didn’t give him enough sex. Then the two of them got wrapped in a long and terrible disagreement about the woman’s mother. The woman started to cry:
Man: Shit, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to hurt you.
Woman (through her tears): Do you want to just end it? End it right now?
Man: I don’t know. Do you? Do you want to end it?
Woman (still sniffling): No, I don’t. Not yet.
Man (sadly): Me neither.
Woman: Hey, is it still raining?
Man (staring out the window): Yeah.
The scene ended, the lights went off and two new actors appeared on stage. The second scene was similar to the first except that the girl was prettier and this time she was the one complaining about not getting enough sex. There was a screaming match and then this girl started crying too. There was almost a full minute of silence before she delivered her last line:
Woman: Jesus. So this is love?
The lights went out again. Cecil, who had been resting his eyes, sat up and looked sharp. Audrey couldn’t hold back a grin. Dante felt a thrill run down his spine. “Here we go,” he whispered. Cat Penfield was next.
There had been a lot of four letter words in the first two scenes and Dante was eager to hear what came out of Cat’s mouth. He wondered if Puff had ever heard her curse. Puff abhorred bad language and when the lights came back up Dante snuck a look at him. He was sitting just as stiffly as before, no emotion on his face. You had to admire his stoicism.
Cat took the stage wearing ripped jeans and an oversized t-shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra and her breasts bounced around freely. She was grungy and gorgeous. The actor who played her boyfriend was less attractive. He was fat-faced, shaggy and at least ten years her senior. The scene was delicious. Despite her bohemian outfit, Cat’s sweet excitable voice remained unchanged and she started things off with a bang:
Cat: God damn it!
Man: What the fuck is your problem?
Cat: My problem? It’s not my fucking problem! It’s your fucking problem!
It turned out Cat was pregnant. Her boyfriend told her to have an abortion but she didn’t want to. For twenty minutes they acted out a furious spat. In the end there was a twist and Cat said she wasn’t really pregnant, she was just pretending in order to test her boyfriend’s affection:
Cat (sobbing): And you failed the fucking test!
Man (subdued): You’re right, honey. I failed. I’m sorry.
Cat: That’s all you can say? You fucking failed?
Man: That’s all I can say. I love you and I failed.
A big round of applause and all the actors came out for a bow. Dante said it was the best night of theater he’d seen in years. Audrey agreed. Cecil was stone-faced. To Audrey’s raised eyebrow he responded:
“A brilliant actress and a fine performance. Nice tits.”
After the show the cast and their friends gathered at a bar down the street. Trixie wanted to meet everyone and she dragged Cat around introducing her. Trixie liked meeting young people because it made her feel young herself. Puff didn’t care to feel young. He’d felt out of place in the theater but at least it was quiet and he had somewhere to sit. Standing at the bar he felt completely exposed. He tried to get the bartender’s attention but couldn’t. He had a nasty feeling that people were staring at him and he thought they might be laughing at him. Possibly they were. The sight of his nephew raised his spirits enormously.
“Dante!” he exclaimed.
“Hello Puff,” said Audrey.
Puff didn’t seem to hear her. He’d met Audrey a number of times but he never remembered who she was. Her face looked vaguely familiar but her name was forever lost in the ether. He knew she had something to do with Dante, perhaps his maid or housekeeper, but if so Puff couldn’t understand why the two of them would be out together at night.
“Congratulations on what?” asked Puff.
“Don’t be an idiot, Dante. I’m trying to get myself a drink.”
Cecil called the bartender over and bought everyone drinks.
“Who’s this?” asked Puff.
“Cecil Biddle,” said Dante. “An old friend of mine.”
“Biddle?” said Puff, looking Cecil up and down. “Are you the Philadelphia Biddle’s? Let’s see, I went to college with George Biddle. Class of ’57. I believe he became a doctor, summers in Blue Hill. Also his brother Barton, class of ’59. I don’t know what Barton does.”
“Distant cousins,” said Cecil. “I’ve never met them.”
“Hmphh.” In the game of Small World distant cousins don’t count for much. Puff tried again. “You’ve got an accent. Where are you from?”
“Alright then. Now we’re getting somewhere. There was a Peter Biddle I used to know in London years ago. He ran a shipping company: dark hair, moustache, very attractive wife. Thomasin I think her name was. Peter’s probably sixty by now.”
“Why of course,” said Cecil, “My father’s younger brother.”
Cecil’s father had no brothers but he wanted to give Puff a taste of success. He’d played Small World countless times with men like Puff and he knew what it meant to them.
“See him much?” asked Puff.
“Uncle Peter? No, not since I was a boy.”
“Pity, I’d like to know how he’s doing. I haven’t thought about Peter Biddle in ages. Imagine running into his nephew at a bar like this. Quite remarkable really.”
It wasn’t a complete victory, but the foreign angle was worth a few extra points. Puff blew the whistle and brought the game to an official close.
“Small world, isn’t it?”
“Small world,” said Cecil.
“Small bladder,” said Audrey, though only loud enough for Dante to hear. She went to the bathroom. Dante led the discussion back to Room 421.
“What’s this fascination with four-letter words?” said Puff. “Every line was beep this or beep that. It’s sheer laziness if you ask me. Writers nowadays would rather shock you than tell you something. All the people screaming obscenities just shows they have nothing to say. What a waste of time.”
“I disagree,” said Cecil, “Perhaps it’s not what you’re used to but I thought it was an excellent show. Cat’s performance in particular. She’s a very talented actress.”
“How would you know?”
“I study actors for a living.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m a movie producer. I work for Max Guberstein.”
If it had been anyone else Puff would have taken the opportunity to comment once more on the delightful smallness of the world. Instead he just looked surprised.
“Max told you to come to the play tonight?”
“Yes. He met Cat at your house on Long Island a few days ago. Apparently he was quite taken with her. I can see why. She’s got a real chance to make a career for herself.”
“As an actress?”
“Max wants me to help her find an agent. Then she’ll start getting cast. Here,” said Cecil, “Let me give you my card.”
He reached into his jacket pocket and as he pulled out his wallet the photograph of Max’s family fell out and fluttered to the floor. Puff picked it up and glanced at it.
“Who are these people?”
“It’s a picture of Max’s family,” said Cecil, “Taken sometime in the sixties.”
“Remarkable,” said Puff. He brought the picture right up to his face and studied it closely. “They’re standing outside 740 5th Avenue. That’s my building.”
“That’s what I said,” Dante put in.
Puff ignored him and kept staring at the photograph.
“Do you mind if I hold on to this? I’d like to make a copy of it. There’s someone I want to show it to.”
“Be my guest,” said Cecil.
Puff put the photograph away as Audrey returned from the bathroom. She squeezed in next to Dante.
“Another friend of yours?” asked Puff. “I don’t think we know each other. I’m Puff Penfield, Dante’s uncle.”
“I’m Audrey.” She was tempted to remind him of their many previous meetings but decided against comment.
Trixie and Cat joined the group. Trixie had been flirting with all the young men and her face was flushed. Audrey congratulated Cat on the show.
“Thanks!” said Cat.
Cecil introduced himself to the women, kissing Trixie on both cheeks, then turning his attention to Cat. He looked her up and down admiringly and told her she was marvelous. In no time he had drawn her aside into a private conversation. Audrey watched him at work and rolled her eyes. She pulled on Dante’s sleeve and suggested they go home.
“Well,” said Dante. “I think we’re off.”
“Us too,” said Puff. “Come on Trixie. Cat?”
“If you don’t mind,” said Cecil, “I’d like a few minutes with Cat to discuss business.”
“Let’s let the young people enjoy themselves,” said Trixie.
She put her arm in Puff’s and led him outside. Dante and Audrey followed them a few minutes later leaving Cecil and Cat at the bar. Cecil laid his left hand gently on Cat’s forearm.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
“Sure!” said Cat. She looked down at Cecil’s hand and noticed he only had four fingers. “Goodness, how did you lose your pinkie?”
It was a long story.
“Whash you doing? Let me in. Let me in!”
As Dante and Audrey walked down 6th Street towards the subway they saw an elderly gentleman struggling with a giant black bouncer who was standing guard outside a run down tavern.
“One more drink, jush one,” said the elderly gentleman.
“Go home,” said the bouncer.
The old man took a step away from the door as if to leave then surged suddenly forward. He thrust his two hands into the bouncer’s stomach and pushed with all his might. The black man didn’t budge. He calmly turned the drunk around, lifted him by his armpits and dragged him away from the bar entrance, dropping him on a stoop down the street.
“Where do you live?” said the bouncer. “I’ll get you a taxi.”
The old man didn’t respond and the bouncer went back to the tavern doorway. Now the old man put his head in his hands and made a strange baying noise. Dante and Audrey stopped and stared at him for a moment.
“Hi,” said Dante.
The old man raised his head and straightened his back. He wasn’t an ordinary drunk. He reminded Audrey of Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year. He wore a blue pinstriped suit, a crisp white shirt and a red silk tie. He had a good pair of shoes on his feet and his thick gray hair was neatly parted on the side. His face was weathered with age but he still had fine features and all the gin in his belly gave his cheeks a nice rosy glow. It was Tweedle Barnes.
“Hello Tweedle,” said Dante.
“Sshhh, Dante, sshhh.” He held his hand out to Audrey. “I want to talk to the young lady. Young lady could you help me? I’m trying to get home.”
“Where do you live?”
“That’s part of the problem. I can’t remember. I know I live on the upper east side, but I seem to have forgotten the exact address. Perhaps if you could help me find my wallet, I believe it contains my card.” Tweedle smiled sheepishly and tried to look gallant but he was overcome by the effort and slumped forward into a ball.
“Who is he?” asked Audrey.
“Tweedle Barnes,” said Dante. “He’s a member at Old Money. He’s the ball bearer.”
“Ball bearer?” Audrey shook her head. Everything she learned about the club suggested extravagant male silliness.
“Sort of an honorary position. The ball bearer carries the ballot box from the admissions committee to the President’s lounge on election night. I think Tweedle does it for the free whiskey. He’s rather eccentric but he’s a nice man. What are we going to do with him?”
“We can’t leave him on the sidewalk,” said Audrey. Tweedle was still slumped over in a ball. “You hold up his shoulders and I’ll see if I can find his wallet.”
Searching Tweedle’s pockets Audrey found a total of twenty three dollars scattered about his person. She also found his keys, a packet of breath mints, a map of the Mount Katahdin Baxter State Park in Maine and finally, his wallet. Tweedle’s card said he lived on 81st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. Dante shook him by the shoulders.
“Come on Tweedle, wake up.”
“You live on 81st Street,” said Audrey.
“That’s right, I do.” said Tweedle.
“Can you get home by yourself?”
Tweedle paused to consider. “No, I don’t think I can.”
Dante hailed a cab and they rode uptown together.
“See that place?” said Tweedle, pointing to the building next to his. They were all three standing on 81st street outside his apartment. “That place is a brothel. The sign says it’s a law office but it’s really a brothel. I see men going in and out of there all night long. In the morning I see the girls leaving. I’ve never been to a brothel.”
Tweedle stepped into his entry way. He fumbled with his keys but couldn’t get the lock to turn. He was more sober than he’d been half an hour ago. He had recovered his head but he was still having trouble with his arms and legs. Audrey took the keys and opened the front door.
“Fourth floor,” said Tweedle. There was no elevator so Dante had to drag him up the stairs. “Apartment on the left.”
Audrey unlocked the apartment door and Tweedle staggered inside and fell onto his bed.
“Oh,” said Dante.
Tweedle’s entire apartment was not more than twelve foot square and the single window looked out onto a ventilation shaft. Apart from a narrow bed there were only two pieces of furniture in the room. One was a plain wooden chair with a stack of old gardening magazines piled on it, the other was a bookcase. There was a bathroom but no kitchen. There was a small closet where Tweedle hung his suits, but there was no place for his underwear or socks and these were arranged in piles on the floor. The paint on the walls was peeling and much of the plaster was cracked. A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling.
Tweedle lay on his back on top of his dirty gray sheets and tried to compose himself, crossing his hands on his chest. Audrey lifted his head and slipped a pillow underneath it.
“Stay for a moment,” said Tweedle. Now that he was lying down he felt much better. “Sit down. It’s very nice of you to take me home. Can’t you stay a few minutes?”
“For a little while,” said Audrey. She sat down on the bed next to him. Dante moved the gardening magazines and sat on the chair.
“Do you know what I was thinking just now?,” said Tweedle, “I was thinking how lucky the two of you are. Youth is the greatest thing one can have. I miss it. I miss the pleasure of life. I think the capacity for joy decreases as you get older. Every day you lose a bit of happiness.”
While Tweedle talked Dante browsed the titles in his bookcase. Most of the books were about botany, but they were mixed in with a lot of schoolboy stories. There was a copy of Tom Brown’s School Days next to a book on roses; Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise was jammed up against Soil, Mulch & You.
Tweedle stared up at the ceiling and continued wistfully:
“I’ll give you an example. I’ve been drinking most of my life and when I was young there was nothing I liked better than a spree. At eighteen there was excitement in a bottle of gin. Twenty years later I was still drinking, but the excitement wasn’t the same, it was just a way to stave off boredom. Now I’ve been drinking for almost fifty years and I can’t see anything in it at all. Alcohol just makes me depressed.”
“Why don’t you stop?” said Audrey.
“Habit I suppose. Maybe I should stop. But I get lonely sometimes though. Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“Not really,” said Audrey.
“You’re lucky, I do. I get very lonely sometimes. I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a companion. You know, a girlfriend, someone to share my life with. Friendship, tenderness, comfort from the howling winds. Of course, there are probably drawbacks to living with someone else, but I wouldn’t know.”
“Why not?” said Audrey. “You must’ve had your share of experience.”
“With women? No, I haven’t. Very little of that for me. Not that I wasn’t ever curious, but I never had the drive to see it through. With women you need drive and boldness, two things I lack. I’ve always been slightly afraid of women. I used to get urges all the time, I still do on occasion, but my libido was never strong enough to conquer my fear. So I always ended up by myself. Usually with a drink in my hand and a book on my lap. Boils down to being shy.”
“You don’t seem shy to me.”
“Not always, but I’m shy with women, at least the ones I’m interested in. I don’t know why. It’s just the way I am. You’d think I come from a very prudish family, but I don’t.”
Tweedle recalled a long forgotten story from his youth and laughed. “Do you mind if I tell you a story? It’s slightly off-color.”
“Go ahead,” said Audrey.
Dante wasn’t listening. He’d made a discovery in the bookcase. He’d found The Senior Commoner by Julian Hall, and he was trying to remember why the title sounded familiar. Tweedle went on:
“There was a boy I went to college with and our families used to summer together in Maine. He was a notorious swordsman and he came down with a case of VD. All of us knew about it. I was at a garden party one summer and a group of us were talking about the boy’s bad luck. Some of the group were speculating about who gave it to him. Probably a prostitute. In any case, my sister was at the garden party too. She was sixteen at the time, younger than me, and she overheard part of the conversation. In those days, VD wasn’t something you talked about in mixed company. We were more modest than people are now. My sister overheard what we were talking about and she went bright red in the face and ran away from the party without even saying goodbye. I ran after her and tried to apologize but she wouldn’t talk to me. Then she started crying so I left her alone. I felt quite guilty about it. I honestly thought she ran away from the party because the conversation offended her. Much later I discovered that my sister wasn’t nearly as innocent as I supposed. She wasn’t offended by the discussion of sex. She was upset because she had just slept with the swordsman and that’s how she found out he had the clap. It turned out he’d given it to her as well, poor girl. I had no idea.”
Tweedle’s mouth was dry and he smacked his lips together. Audrey asked if he’d like a glass of water.
“Yes, thank you. There should be a tumbler in the bathroom.” Audrey got up to fetch the tumbler. Tweedle looked over at Dante.
“It’s good of you to sit with me. I’m sorry about the surroundings.”
“It’s not so bad,” said Dante.
Audrey gave Tweedle his glass of water and he drank it.
“Kind of you to say but you needn’t be polite. I’ve never been pleased with it myself. I tell you what, I’d like to live somewhere with grass around me. I’d like to keep a garden and fill it with flowers and vegetables, perhaps a few fruit trees. Have you ever heard of W.H. Hudson? He was a English naturalist. He spent his time writing about plants and dreaming about the open sky but he lived most of his life in a squalid, dirty London street. It must have been torture for him. Sometimes I feel the same way. I’d like to get out of the city.”
“Why don’t you?” asked Dante.
“I thought you had millions. Everyone at Old Money says you’re swimming in it.”
“Yes and it’s quite decent of them really. It’s their way of being friendly. But it’s not true.”
“What about your inheritance?”
“There wasn’t any. My mother left everything in trust. I get a small allowance but it’s barely enough to cover the rent and my club dues.”
Tweedle snuffled and yawned. He was nearing the end of his energies. He closed his eyes and started mumbling to himself. Perhaps he was thinking about his mother’s house in Maine.
After Tweedle fell asleep Dante took his shoes off and loosened his tie. Audrey refilled his water glass and the two of them quietly left the apartment. They remained silent until they got back home.
As soon as Dante stepped inside he smelled the smoke from his mother’s cigarettes. Audrey shrugged.
“She must have come in while we were out.”
“Let’s not to wake her,” whispered Dante.
He tiptoed into his bedroom and closed the door behind him as gently as possible. He put on his pajamas and went to brush his teeth. When he opened the bathroom cabinet to get some toothpaste he found that all of the toiletries had been rearranged to make space for a large box of condoms. Ribbed for her pleasure. Violet was nothing if not considerate.
The Admissions Committee
After a very long day with his mother – spent parrying leading questions about human sexuality and generally trying to persuade her that he could manage his affairs without help (Violet was not convinced) - Dante was relieved to be safe within the oak paneled confines of the Old Money Club. It was six o’clock and all the members of the admissions committee were gathered around a dining table in the Package Room.
The Package Room was a place of special significance to members of the Old Money Club. It got its name during Prohibition when it was used as a liquor vault and in the old days the room’s only door was hidden behind a sliding bookcase in the library. A second door had since been added and the room was now easily accessible, but it still served as a reminder of government’s tendency to overreach.
Standing at the head of the table, Dick Burkus took a sip of whiskey and started in on a long joke about a man who mistakes a penguin for a nun. The rest of the committee listened patiently. On one side of the table, Dante was squeezed between John Newbury (Happy Boy) and Mr. Wainwright (the Colonel); on the other side, Mr. Bullard sat next to Ben Jentsen (the Bleeding Heart) and Mr. Sears (the Pragmatist). Everyone waited for Dick to finish his joke.
“I tolla you,” said Dick - the joke called for an Italian accent, “I tolla you, you fucka the penguin!”
Dick exploded with laughter and gulped down the rest of his whiskey. He looked around the room:
“Well then, everybody’s here. Can I get a motion?”
For reasons unknown, much of club life was governed by Robert’s rules of parliamentary order. And not just the official meetings. You could hardly ask for a drink at the bar without having the request motioned and seconded.
“I motion to begin the meeting,” barked Wainwright.
“Second?” said Dick.
“I second the motion,” said Newbury. Happy Boy rarely voiced an opinion at meetings but he enjoyed seconding the motions.
“Motion seconded,” said Dick. “Let’s eat.” One of the perks of being on the admissions committee was that you got a free meal at each meeting and the first course on tonight’s menu was a country pâté. As the men started in, a matronly waitress in a black and white uniform went around the table pouring red wine. Dick Burkus took a swig of the wine and chomped his food energetically. Little bits of goose liver fell out the sides of his mouth.
Wainwright turned to Dante and flashed him the hairy eyebrow. He really did look like a retired English Colonel.
“Welcome aboard, Dante. You’ve picked a good night to start. Veal chops. Can’t go wrong with a veal chop.”
Dante smiled politely and wondered when the actual committee work would begin. Dick Burkus had a stack of papers beside him but he was busy telling another joke and he appeared in no rush to get to them.
Indeed, there was no rush. The business of the evening was simply to discuss the candidates for admission, but there were only five men up for election in the spring cycle and the committee had already been debating their various merits for almost two months. No one expected any bombshells. Most of the time would be taken up with eating dinner and the remainder would be used to re-hash what was said the week before.
The admissions committee worked at a leisurely pace. Everyone acknowledged that the meetings were much longer and more numerous than was strictly necessary but there were also good reasons for proceeding slowly. For one thing, candidates were more likely to take offense at decisions made in haste. For another thing, the committee understood that the most important personal information often takes time to drip out.
To give an example: some years ago Dick Burkus put up for election a good friend of his named Peter Steel. Six of the seven committee members were in favor of Steele’s admission but the amiable John Newbury was, from the first instant, staunchly opposed. Happy Boy had never opposed a candidate before, and even more curious, he refused to give any reason for his opposition except to say that Steele rubbed him the wrong way. The discussion went on for weeks without reaching a satisfactory consensus. Despite Steele’s many supporters, Newbury consistently threatened to throw the blackball and still he refused to say why.
Finally Dick Burkus threw up his hands:
“You’re not being fair. You can’t blackball a man who’s a friend to all of us without at least giving us a good reason. If you want to stay on this committee you owe us an explanation. What have you got against him?”
Happy Boy gritted his teeth and let it out: “Peter Steele screwed my wife.”
That’s the sort of information worth waiting for.
The waitress brought in the veal chops and Dick Burkus shuffled through his notes.
“First I’d like to thank Dante Penfield for joining the committee. Dante’s sitting in for Jos Nichols as the representative of the young membership and he’ll be voting with us in the elections next week. Thanks for coming Dante.” Dante looked up and put on a serious face. “Now onto the candidates. The first name on the list is Charlie Blister. I don’t think we need spend too much time on him.”
Wainwright made a friendly growling sound:
“Danny Blister’s son,” said the Colonel repeating verbatim what he’d said at the previous meeting, “St. Paul’s, Princeton and Piping Rock. He works at Morgan. I think you’d have to say he’ll be an asset to the club. Good squash player, too.”
All the heads around the table nodded.
“Anything to add, Dante?” asked Dick. Since it was Dante’s first meeting Dick wanted to make an effort to include him.
“Huh?” said Dante, fumbling for something to say.
Dante’s circle of acquaintance was narrow; he knew Charlie Blister only slightly and he didn’t care whether Blister joined the club or not. But that wasn’t an appropriate answer. Dante raised an eyebrow, puckered his lips and looked off into the distance for a moment as if lost in thought. At last he was ready to pronounce Blister a fine fellow indeed, but he didn’t get the chance. Dick had moved on.
The committee worked through the first three candidates in a matter of minutes. The discussion went quickly because all three were assured of getting in. They were young men from good families who had gone to good schools, and they were well bred, friendly and most importantly, they were all under thirty years old.
Although it wasn’t stated policy, an interesting thing about the Old Money Club was that it was much easier to join at the age of twenty five than at the age of fifty five. A blank sheet of paper arouses no passions. The secret to admission was not to have enemies and young men tend to have few of them. Old men had it much harder. Because if you’ve worked in New York for thirty years and you’ve had any sort of success it’s almost certain there are people who hate you for it. And if any of those people happen to be members of the club, you’re done for.
An illustration of this point could be seen in comparing the cases of Charlie Blister, a junior analyst at Morgan, and Derek Cairn, who sat on the bank’s board of directors. Blister was twenty six years old, had done nothing in his life, and would get into the club. Cairn was approaching sixty, was one of the most powerful men on Wall Street, and he was blackballed the previous year on account of a decades old business dispute involving Mr. Sears’ brother-in-law.
Dick Burkus announced the next name up for discussion with a guffaw.
“Darius Vajpayee. Remember it’s dot not teepee.”
Darius’ candidacy was noteworthy because Darius was an Indian. He was the eldest son of a wealthy Bombay family and he had lived in New York since coming to the States as a university student. After graduation he started a successful hedge fund and went on to marry a girl named Sally Thomas. Sally came from a very distinguished New England family and her father, Hammy Thomas, was a long standing member of Old Money. Now Darius wanted to become a member himself.
“What I want to know,” said Wainwright, “Is where did he prep?”
The Colonel clung sentimentally to his boarding school days and he believed that a man’s prep school was the single most important influence on his character.
“Nobody knows,” said Dick. “Somewhere in India, I suppose.”
“Right,” said the Colonel preparing to take a hard line, “Here’s what I say. I had lunch with Mr. Vajpayee and I thought he was a decent man. He wasn’t forthcoming about his business dealings but I don’t hold that against him. What I do hold against him is the high horse he’s riding on. He told me he’s Indian aristocracy, son of a Rajah or something, but I say this isn’t the place for Rajahs. Old Money is for ordinary people like you and me. I don’t want to come to the club worried about being on my best behavior because I might accidentally offend the Prince of Bombay.”
Wainwright’s argument was ingenious. His brain had inverted the facts to make it seem that he was the victim of Mr. Vajpayee’s prejudice rather than the other way round. He continued:
“I’m against it. I’m not saying definitively I’ll blackball, but I’m leaning against it. It’s a slippery slope and Mr. Vajpayee represents the tip of an iceberg. If he joins this year, then next year we will be asking ourselves whether to elect Mr. Vajpayee’s good friend Mr. Sinbad. Where did Sinbad prep? Somewhere in India most likely. We’ll turn ourselves into a United Nations like everything else. Old Money isn’t meant for that. Old Money has a special quality and we ought to preserve it.”
Dick munched on his chop.
Jentsen, who thus far had said nothing at the meeting, took his turn to speak. Jentsen was the man Max described as the Bleeding Heart:
“Let’s not worry so much about where a man preps,” he said. “Mr. Vajpayee is an outstanding candidate. We had dinner together a few weeks ago and I could not have been more impressed. He’s well read and charming. This isn’t a question of slippery slope. Mr. Vajpayee is one man and he’s just the sort of person I want to run into at the club.”
Sears, the Pragmatist, listened patiently then addressed a general question to the table.
“What we need to be asking is what are Mr. Vajpayee’s relations with his father-in-law? How does Hammy Thomas feel about the candidacy?”
The Pragmatist had put his finger on it. This was the central question. Hammy Thomas was extremely well liked at the club and if Hammy pushed hard enough, Mr. Vajpayee could get past Wainwright’s objections. But it was unclear how hard Hammy wanted to push.
“I’ve heard the relationship isn’t ideal,” said Dick. “Of course we know Hammy wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Mr. Vajpayee, but we also know that these letters are sometimes written for public consumption. I’ve heard rumors that Hammy has had private discussions with members that cut the other way.”
Jentsen, the Bleeding Heart, was annoyed by Dick’s tone: “Lots of rumors go around and lots of them aren’t true. The committee shouldn’t base its decisions on rumors.”
Dick let the remark pass.
It wasn’t really a question of rumors. Dick knew what he knew but he chose not to go into detail. What Dick knew was this: Hammy Thomas had cornered him in the locker room and told him point blank that he didn’t want Mr. Vajpayee to get elected.
“You know I had to write that recommendation,” Hammy said, “But I get plenty of Vajpayee on family holidays, I don’t need him at the club, too.”
The dinner plates were cleared and the matronly waitress brought out a Baked Alaska. Coffee was served, along with a sweet dessert wine.
Dick announced the last name on his list.
Dante had let his mind wander during the conversation about Mr. Vajpayee but now he sat up and paid close attention. Jentsen was the first to comment.
“President of MindGone Pictures. Max Guberstein has come from humble beginnings and accomplished a great deal. I’m for him.”
“Humble beginnings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” said the Colonel. “He used to run a dry cleaners.”
Dick had spilled some gravy on his shirt earlier in the evening. Now he pointed to the stain, “Do you think he could get this out?”
“No, but I bet he’d charge you a lot for trying!”
Sears stepped in: “The dry cleaning business was a long time ago. Max is a businessman like the rest of us and he’s a talented one. He’s well connected and he knows people in city government. He could be very useful to the club. I’d be pleased to have Max as a member. He’s a sharp man.”
Everyone at the table was somewhat surprised by this endorsement. Sears was pure blue blood, a snob to rival Wainwright, and in earlier meetings he had been very cool on Max. Now his tune had changed and the other members of the committee wondered why. Sears let them wonder. He felt no need to mention that his daughter had recently opened a bar in Soho and that Max had been instrumental in helping her get a liquor license. Wainwright picked up the thread.
“Too sharp by half,” spluttered the Colonel. “The club doesn’t need sharp men. And frankly, I still don’t understand why Mr. Guberstein is so eager to become a member. He’s lived in New York all his life. If he was Old Money don’t you think he would have tried to join the club twenty years ago? I suspect he’s just looking for another feather to put in his cap. Is that what the club is for? How did he get so interested in Old Money in the first place?”
“He’s a friend of Puff’s,” said Dick. He looked to Mr. Bullard for confirmation. “Isn’t that right?”
“Not just Puff,” said Bullard. “Max has a lot of friends. Don’t forget he’s collected fourteen letters of recommendation from our fellow members and, to my knowledge, no one has written against him.”
Dick wasn’t satisfied. “How much does Puff care about this guy?”
“Puff is strongly behind him. Very strongly.”
“I suppose you’d have to ask Puff,” said Bullard. “But whatever his reasons, he is the club president and I think we owe his opinion a certain respect.”
“Bullard has a point,” said the Colonel, his opposition softening. “The president deserves a voice. What do you think, Dick?”
“I reserve judgment. I’ve only met him once and that was just a handshake. I’m having dinner with him later this week, I’ll make my mind up then.” It was late in the game for Dick to be having his first dinner with Max, but Dick often chose to wait until the last minute before meeting with a controversial candidate. It gave him more power because it meant the rest of the committee had less time to second guess his decisions. Dick nodded towards Dante. “How about you, Dante? Have you met Guberstein yet?”
“Then I want you to join me for dinner with Max. You can help me liquor him up and we’ll see what he’s made of.” Like the ancient Persians, Dick was a great believer in the revelatory power of alcohol. He tossed back his glass of wine. “You never really know a man until you’ve gotten drunk with him.”
Dante remembered his run in with Max at Trixie’s garden party. The prospect of a booze fest was unsettling: “What if Mr. Guberstein doesn’t drink?”
“He doesn’t drink?” exclaimed Wainwright.
“I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t.”
“Bullshit,” said Dick. “Hollywood bullshit.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jentsen. “If a man chooses not to drink that’s perfectly alright with me.”
“Bullshit,” said Dick again. “The only excuse for a teetotaler is alcoholism. As far as I know Guberstein’s not an alcoholic, is he Bullard?”
“No, he’s not,” said Bullard.
“Right,” said Dick. He tuned to Jentsen. “Listen, Old Money is many things but mostly it’s a social club. Part of being social is having a drink. Is that fair? I never want to see the day when I walk into the club bar and find everyone sipping seltzer and Diet Coke. I’m going to buy Guberstein a scotch. If he’s not gracious enough to drink it with me then as far as I’m concerned he’s not gracious enough to be a member.”
“Well put,” said Wainwright.
Jentsen didn’t care to argue the point and there was no further discussion of Max’s candidacy. The meeting dissolved into a general debate about a new congressional proposal for cutting the capital gains tax. Finally Dick clanged a spoon against his empty wine glass.
“Motion to end the meeting!” barked the Colonel.
“I second the motion,” said Happy Boy.
“Thank you,” said Dick. “Motion seconded. The meeting’s over. I’ll see you all at the elections next Tuesday night.”
The chirp of the cell phone next to his ear woke Cecil from a deep sleep. He had spent the last two evenings in the company of Cat Penfield, first at the bar after her performance in Room 421 and the second night at a party given by one of her boarding school classmates. This second party had affected Cecil’s nerves and given him nightmares.
A Pound Of Butter
Cecil dreamt that he and Cat were married to each other. They were walking around Central Park together and every few paces they ran into a young man in a blue blazer who wanted to talk about the stock market. Still dreaming, Cecil found himself on a ski slope in Vermont. For some reason he was stuck in the snow and he waited on the mountainside for what seemed like ages before he saw a man from the ski patrol skiing down to rescue him. The ski patrol man stopped next to Cecil and took off his red ski parka. Underneath the parka he was wearing a blue blazer and instead of helping Cecil down the mountain, he pulled out a bottle of scotch and poured himself a drink.
The cell phone rang again. Cecil was hungover. His head ached and his mouth felt as though he’d swallowed a cup of cake flour. He took a quick look around the hotel room and saw that he was alone. Enormously reassuring. He’d promised himself not to go to bed with Cat at least until after the club elections and so far he’d kept his promise. It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning. Cecil picked up the phone and heard a woman’s voice.
“Good morning, darling. Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can. Hi.”
“I do hope you’re alright. Is Max keeping you busy in New York?” It was Penelope calling from London.
“I’m snowed under,” said Cecil. He never spoke to Penelope without claiming to be inundated with work. He began telling her about Max and the Old Money Club and about the hard work of romancing Cat Penfield.
“Is she pretty darling?”
“Then I’m sure you’re doing fine.” Penelope wanted to move on. “I don’t have all day, dearest. I’m just calling before I go to yoga class. There’s something we have to discuss.”
“What is it?”
Cecil could not remember a Peter. Penelope continued:
“I’m sorry darling, but I’m very cross with you. I’m going to have to be quite firm.”
“The antique shop, darling.” Of course, Peter from the antique shop. Penelope was rabid for him. “I wrote a check last week, darling, and this morning I got a note from Peter in the mail. Do you know what it said?”
“I don’t,” said Cecil.
“Well take a bloody guess, dear! It said insufficient funds! My check was returned to the shop because you never paid my overdraft!”
Cecil clasped his hand to his forehead, “I’m sorry.”
“Of course you’re sorry, darling, but sorry doesn’t wipe a girl’s arse. It’s not very nice for me, is it? You promised you’d take care of the overdraft three weeks ago. Now Peter wants to get paid and he is being quite difficult. He even suggested that I might have to return that gorgeous side table of his that I have in my study. How do you think that makes me feel? It’s awfully irresponsible of you, darling.”
“I promise I’ll take care of it as soon as possible.”
“You know I’m all alone here,” said Penelope. There was a catch in her throat. “I’m struggling to keep the house up all by myself, while you’re busy flirting with pretty girls in New York. The least you could do is keep track of the bank accounts. It’s not right, darling.”
Cecil’s cell phone beeped.
“Hold on a second, I have another call.”
“Cecil!” cried Penelope.
“Hello?” said Cecil.
“Meeting!” bellowed Max. “Penelope?” said Cecil.
“Don’t you dare hang up on me, darling. I’ll be very cross!”
“I have to. It’s Max.” Cecil hung up on her. “Max?”
“I’ve just woken up.”
“Extremely important meeting!”
Cecil’s phoned beeped.
“I’m sorry Max, could you just hold for one moment. Hello?”
It was Penelope.
“I am very cross, darling!”
“I’ll take care of it this afternoon. Tell Peter he’ll have his money by tomorrow.”
“But what about me, darling? I look like a ragamuffin. I need something to wear.” “Whatever you want, I have to go.”
“Well don’t forget. Kisses, darling. You do know I love you?”
“I love you too.” Cecil switched back to the other line. “Max?”
Max had already hung up and the line was dead. Cecil dialed him right back but there was no answer.
“Cat piss,” said Cecil.
There was nothing to do but hurry to the Pierre Hotel at top speed.
Cecil found Max in the dining room, drinking herbal tea and making telephone calls. He stood watching in silence for a while. Max spoke without looking up.
“Never put me on hold again.”
“Good morning, Max.”
“Sit down, you shit.”
This was a term of endearment, it was the signal Max’s anger had passed. Cecil sat down.
“What did you want to see me about?”
“I’ll run the meetings if you don’t mind. You want some breakfast?”
“So, I hear you’ve been enjoying yourself with Cat Penfield? I hear you’ve charmed her off her feet. How was the party last night?” As always, Max had done his homework. Cecil hadn’t told him about the party. “Just remember I want you to play nice, keep it in your pants until after the election. I don’t want Mr. Penfield worried about his daughter’s virtue.”
“Odd man, Puff, isn’t he?” said Cecil. “I met him at Cat’s performance. He was at the bar afterwards.”
“Did you find any friends in common?”
“No, but I invented an uncle named Peter to make him feel better. By the way, Puff has a photograph of yours. It was something Mrs. Schuler gave me when I went to visit. She wanted you to have it, but Puff saw it at the bar and asked if he could hold on to it for a few days. You never told me you had a sister, Max.”
“She’s in the photograph. It’s a picture of your whole family, under an awning on 5th Avenue.”
“And you gave it to Penfield?”
“It was taken outside Puff’s apartment building so he wanted to make a copy of it. He probably has some historical interest in the building. I’m sure he’ll give it back.”
Max closed his eyes. He was an intensely private man and it should have been obvious to Cecil that he wouldn’t want his family photos traded around.
“I have some phone calls to make.”
“In private!” Max screamed. “Out! Get out! Go wait on the street. I’ll have someone fetch you when I’m ready.”
Outside the Pierre, Cecil sat down on a fire hydrant and watched the dog walkers heading off to Central Park. He could never predict Max’s temper and he couldn’t be bothered to guess what had provoked it. Possibly the photograph, but who knows? Working for Max was hellish. Cecil smoked a cigarette. He crossed his fingers and thought about how much better life would be if he got the new job at GoldStream Pictures.
Twenty minutes later a waiter popped his head outside the hotel and told him he could come back in.
“What was that about?” asked Cecil.
“Let’s move on,” Max replied. “I assume you’ve spoken to your friend by now.”
“Dante? Yes, I have.”
“I want to know what happened at the admissions committee. Where did Mr. Bullard come down?”
“Strongly in support, he said Puff very much wants you in.”
“Hmpphh,” grumbled Max, “Let’s hope it sticks. Go on.”
Cecil took out a small note pad and flipped through it.
“Alright, here’s the run down. Newbury didn’t say anything but apparently he never does.”
“Happy Boy,” said Max. “He’s an imbecile.”
“Then you’ve got Jentsen, the Bleeding Heart. He’s on your side and says he admires what you’ve accomplished in life given your humble beginnings.”
“You’ve also got the Pragmatist lined up. Sears said he thinks your connections in city government will be useful to the club. He called you a sharp man.”
“As a compliment?” asked Max.
“Dante thought so.” Cecil could not suppress a smile.
Max did not like Sears calling him sharp. In Max’s mind “sharp” was code for “cunning” and he was very sensitive about the word “cunning” because it was so often tied to one’s Jewishness. Max was willing to admit that he was both cunning and Jewish, but the two had nothing to do with each other and it infuriated him when they were linked together.
“What about Wainwright?”
“The Colonel was outspokenly negative. He doesn’t want sharp men in the club and he doesn’t think you’re Old Money.”
“Asshole,” Max snorted.
“But you still need his vote.”
“Wainwright’s a jellyfish, he swims with the tide. He’ll come along if I get the rest of them. The real concern is Dick Burkus. What did he say?”
“Non-committal. He said he’s reserving judgment on your candidacy until he gets to know you better.”
“I’m having dinner with him Friday night.”
“Presumably what he was referring to. Actually you’re having dinner with two people. Dick asked Dante to come with him. They discussed it at the meeting.”
“Shouldn’t make a difference.”
“No,” said Cecil, “But you’re not going to like what comes next.”
Max raised an eyebrow.
“Dick is planning to get you drunk.”
“I don’t drink,” said Max.
“You may have to. Dick seems to think that drinking is an admissions requirement.”
“Impossible. I haven’t had a drink since I was eighteen years old. Alcohol gives me a rash.”
“Dick said that if you’re not gracious enough to drink scotch with him then you’re not gracious enough to join Old Money. I don’t see any way around it.”
Max was annoyed but he understood that Dick Burkus held all the cards.
“It’s not going to help if I vomit on the tablecloth.”
“I wouldn’t suggest it,” said Cecil. “But there are alternative solutions. I have an aunt, Lady Foster, who was once asked to entertain a group of Soviet diplomats at her home in Somerset. The secret service wanted her to get the Soviets drunk to see if they’d give anything away. The trouble, of course, was that Lady Foster would have to get drunk too and she was a very small woman. Three glasses of vodka and she’d pass out before the Russians even felt tipsy.”
“Is there a point to this story?”
“There is. The secret service told Lady Foster to eat a pound of butter just before her guests showed up. She tried it and she drank everyone under the table without feeling a thing. She woke up the next morning fresh as a daisy.”
“Is this a joke?” asked Max.
“No, it’s absolutely true.”
“Then you can shove it up your ass. I’m not eating a pound of butter.” “I didn’t think you would,” said Cecil. “But I’ve given the matter some thought and I do have one other idea.”
“What is it?”
Cecil told him.
“It better work,” said Max.
Rebecca still paid rent on a small apartment in Chelsea but she kept most of her clothes at Dick’s place on 83rd and Park.
“Sure you don’t want a ride with me?” said Dick.
He was dressed in docksiders, khaki shorts and a pink polo shirt and he was on his way out to Long Island for the day. He had to get his boat back in the water in time for the opening of Yacht Club.
“Seems silly to take two cars. You could drop me off at the house and pick me up after you talk to Draper. We could have lunch on the porch.”
“No thanks,” said Rebecca. “I need my own car. I have to be back in the city by three o’clock to meet Alice Theobold.”
“You really think you’ll get something from her?”
“Well, good luck.” Dick kissed Rebecca on the forehead. “I’m off to the country without you.”
Rebecca smiled. It amused her that Dick always referred to Long Island as “the country.” As if the north shore were a rural wilderness populated by farmers and lumberjacks.
She drank the rest of her coffee and finished reading the paper. Rebecca had a busy day ahead of her. First she had to drive out to Long Island to interview Andrew Draper; then she had to rush back to Manhattan to meet Alice Theobold for an early afternoon drink.
The purpose of both meetings was investigative. For the last month Rebecca had been quietly working on a magazine article about the naughty, tell-all novel Paisley Mischief. She envisioned selling the article to Vanity Fair, possibly The New Yorker. It would be the perfect small world piece, a literary whodunit full of gossip and betrayed friendship, but the key to the article was unmasking the novel’s anonymous author. Rebecca had to know who wrote the book and hence the meetings with Andrew Draper and Alice Theobold. Mr. Draper was the retired insurance agent who collected antiques and rented a cottage from Dolly Smith. He was widely rumored to have written Paisley Mischief and he was one of just two people remaining on Rebecca’s short-list of possible suspects. Alice Theobold was the novel’s publisher.
Rebecca took out her copy of Paisley Mischief and leafed through it again. She had already read it twice through but she wanted to refresh her memory and she paid special attention to the dialogue, noting, among other things, that the characters cursed both frequently and expressively. She wondered what Mr. Draper would sound like in person, and half an hour later she headed out to Long Island to find out.
“Hello?” said Mr. Draper, answering the doorbell.
He sounded faintly girlish and he stood in the doorway wearing baggy blue swim shorts under a white oxford shirt. He was short and fat and he looked about sixty years old. He was holding a silver porringer in his hand.
“Isn’t that pretty,” said Rebecca. “What is it, an ashtray?”
“No, it’s a porringer. For eating porridge. That’s the English word for oatmeal. They used to be given to babies as christening presents. This one was made in the 1890’s.”
“Oh I have much nicer ones inside. You must be Rebecca Holland. Come on in.”
Rebecca had spoken to Mr. Draper on the telephone the day before. She’d introduced herself as a friend of Dolly Smith’s and said she was looking for something unique for Dick’s birthday. She said that she herself knew nothing about antiques but she’d heard that he was an expert and she’d asked for his help in finding an appropriate gift.
“So you’re looking for a birthday present for your boyfriend,” said Mr. Draper. “I suggest we start with a tour of the cottage. I’ll show you what I’ve been collecting, and if anything strikes your fancy, speak up. I’ll tell you where you might be able to buy something similar. Alright?”
“Fine,” said Rebecca.
You wouldn’t think it would take long to tour a cottage but Mr. Draper was an enthusiastic talker. There were only six rooms to see, but each room was so overstuffed with furniture, knickknacks and curios (objets as Mr. Draper called them) that the tour lasted almost an hour. Rebecca’s face was worn out from being frozen in a polite smile and still she had yet to find an opening to discuss Paisley Mischief.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” asked Mr. Draper at the end.
Rebecca said she would, and now she took the bull by the horns. She sat down at the kitchen table and began rummaging through her shoulder bag.
“Dry lips,” she said.
“Can I get you some ointment?”
“No, I’ve got a lip balm in my bag. At least I think I do. I’m sure it’s in here somewhere.”
She took out a pair of sunglasses and an old issue of Vogue. She kept rummaging. She took out a hairbrush and a cell phone and a bottle of Advil. The last thing she pulled out of her bag before finding her lip balm was a copy of Paisley Mischief and she banged it down on the table with an ostentatious thud. Mr. Draper didn’t seem to notice so she held it up and waved it in front of his face.
“Paisley Mischief. Haven’t you read it?”
“I don’t read much,” said Mr. Draper, “I suppose I should but I don’t. I mostly watch television.”
“You’ve never even heard of it?”
“Should I have? What’s it about?”
“It’s a novel,” said Rebecca. “A lot of gossip about Dolly Smith’s friends. Dolly hasn’t mentioned it to you? I thought she would have.”
“Dolly and I talk about antiques. I don’t know her friends.”
“Not even a word about the book?”
“Well,” said Rebecca, “Whoever wrote Paisley Mischief wrote it anonymously and there’s a rumor flying around that you’re the author.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Draper. He didn’t curse, he just clapped his hand over his mouth and blushed. He looked quite as shocked as if he’d been caught with his pants down in church. “Why would anyone think I wrote such a book?”
Rebecca explained that the author’s pen name was Anne Smith. His name was Andrew and he rented from Dolly Smith. Andrew plus Smith, Anne Smith. That’s how the rumor got started.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Mr. Draper. “What does Dolly say about this?”
“I don’t know but I think she’s heard the rumors.”
“Thanks for telling me. I’ll speak to her at once. I wouldn’t want her to think I’d done anything behind her back.”
Driving back to the city Rebecca took a series of mental notes. It was obvious to her that Andrew Draper was not the author of Paisley Mischief but she would use her visit with him in the article anyway. Every good whodunit needs a red herring and Rebecca could get at least 700 words out of the nice man who stuffed his cottage with antiques. The rough draft of a paragraph formed in her head:
Wagging tongues at first suggested it was Andrew Draper who wrote the novel everyone is talking about, but when I spoke to him at his home it was clear that he had nothing to do with it. Mr. Draper is not a novelist. He spends his time watching television and collecting antiques. When I went out to interview him, he answered the door holding a silver porringer in his hand.
Definitely include the porringer, it was a nice touch. Rebecca wondered whether or not to mention in the article that Mr. Draper was homosexual. She decided that it would be unfair, possibly even libelous, to do so. Nonetheless, she might hint at his sexuality indirectly:
Mr. Draper was an old bachelor with a soft round face and a high-pitched, girlish voice. I told him that he was rumored to be the author of Paisley Mischief, and he clapped his hand over his mouth and squealed “Oh!” He could not have been more surprised if I’d asked him to marry me.
Rebecca still didn’t know who wrote Paisley Mischief but she was nonetheless pleased with her morning’s work. Andrew Draper wasn’t charismatic enough to be the star of her article and now she could cross his name off the list of suspects. This meant there was only one name left and if Rebecca got the name right, she’d have a very interesting story to tell indeed. She had no solid proof, of course, only an intuition. It was guesswork based on circumstantial evidence, but if Rebecca was lucky, Alice Theobold would provide the confirmation.
Rebecca met Alice at a quiet bar on Washington Street. Alice had chosen the bar because it was out of the way of the publishing world and she didn’t want her meeting with Rebecca to be talked about.
As the publisher of Paisley Mischief, Alice had pledged to keep the identity of its author a secret. Thus far she had kept her pledge and she was the only person in New York who knew where the royalty checks were sent. But Alice was too good a businesswoman to keep such a secret forever. She knew that a feature article in Vanity Fair would be invaluable publicity and she believed that her duty to sell books trumped her other obligations. She wouldn’t go so far as to name names directly, but she had agreed to the meeting with Rebecca on the tacit understanding that she was willing to be helpful. If Rebecca pointed in the right direction, Alice wasn’t going to put her off course.
“I love your boots,” said Alice.
“Thanks, you look great. Have you lost weight?”
“Why? Do I look too thin?”
The women each ordered a glass of white wine and they started off casually, talking of mutual friends in the publishing business. Alice told a long story about a recently completed merger that had left her old boss without a job.
“Nowadays it’s all money, money, money,” she concluded mournfully, “Nobody cares about literature anymore, everyone talks about product. Sometimes I think I should have left New York ages ago. You know, go up to Maine and be a poet. Suffuse myself with nature.”
“You’d be hanging from the rafters within a week.”
“I probably would,” said Alice, “But it’s a nice idea. What’s new with you?”
“Working as usual.”
“You said you wanted to talk to me about one of the books on my list.”
“That’s right,” said Rebecca taking a sip of wine. “Actually I’m doing research for an article about Paisley Mischief. I’m sure you know it. It’s sort of a roman a cléf about the rich WASPS of New York.”
Alice raised an eyebrow feigning surprise. “Are you part of that set?”
“A friend of mine is so I see it second hand.”
“What did you think of the book?”
“It’s good material for an article,” said Rebecca. “And it’s ruffled a lot of feathers. At the Colony Club they keep it hidden behind Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Some of the members get angry just looking at the cover.”
“It’s very racy in parts.”
“It’s more than just racy. It appears to be based on real characters and real events. That’s what’s gotten everyone riled up.”
“Interesting,” said Alice. “So you’re writing about the storm in the teacup, the truth behind the fiction.”
“More or less,” Rebecca replied. “But as you know the novel is anonymous. The first thing I have to do is figure out who wrote it. Otherwise I don’t have much of an article.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“I have a pretty good idea. Of course, I could be wrong. You know how it is. I don’t want to waste my time chasing a rabbit if I should be looking for a fox. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I suppose you know who the author is?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“But you do know?”
“Good. I’m not asking you to tell me, I just need an indication that I’m on the right track. You don’t have to say a word.”
Alice leaned over the table and spoke just above a whisper:
“What do you suggest?”
Rebecca held up her napkin. “I’m going to write a name down on this napkin. Then I’m going to hand it to you. If I’m right, I want you to put the napkin in your purse. Otherwise you just give it back to me. Okay?”
Alice paused to consider. If Rebecca had already figured out the mystery on her own, then it would be giving nothing away to confirm her suspicions. Alice nodded her head ever so slightly and Rebecca took out a pen and wrote down a name on her napkin.
It was just a hunch but it was a good hunch. Trixie had more friends than anyone and she was well placed to know the stories that made up Paisley Mischief. She was also smart and energetic and she had once been a lawyer so it was no stretch to imagine her writing a novel. Another telling point was that one of the novel’s central figures was married to a character named Reggie “Stuffy” Canbrook, who bore a striking resemblance to Puff. Finally there was the odd fact that Trixie herself was the source of many rumors about the book’s authorship. It was Trixie who started the rumor about Andrew Draper having written the book. And it was Trixie again who had pointed the finger at Rebecca as the possible author. Why would Trixie make such a fuss if not to draw attention away from herself?
Rebecca handed the napkin to Alice and waited on the edge of her seat. Alice looked the napkin and calmly, wordlessly, opened her purse and dropped it inside.
Rebecca had her girl.
Dante rolled over in bed, opened his eyes and listened for sounds of his mother. Silence, thank God. He’d slept in late just so as to have the apartment to himself when he woke up. He had work to do. The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage still needed an ending and Dante needed peace and quiet in which to think of one. He stared up at the ceiling and reviewed his facts.
An Awkward Conversation
As you may recall, the beautiful Daisy murdered her rich husband for his money and Caleb Astor, the handsome young amateur sleuth, was in charge of bringing her to justice. Unfortunately Daisy was proving difficult to catch. She was too clever to be tricked into a confession (the game of I Never – Audrey nixed that) but perhaps, thought Dante, she could be scared into one.
Dante imagined a dark and stormy night. The wind howled and the shutters rattled and the sky was inky black. The enterprising Caleb Astor had come up with a new plan. After midnight, when all the other houseguests were asleep, Caleb dressed himself in a long white sheet and snuck down the hall towards Daisy’s bedroom. The door creaked slightly as he opened it. Daisy was tossing fitfully in her sleep. Caleb walked over to her and slowly waved his arms up and down.
Caleb (eerie voice): Awake! I am the ghost of your dead husband come to exact retribution. You must confess your crime or I will haunt you for the rest of your days. Repent! Confess!
Daisy was meant to wake up in a cold sweat. She’d see her husband’s ghost (Caleb Astor in a white sheet), and be so frightened that she’d confess to the murder and beg for the ghost’s forgiveness. Caleb would tape record the confession, then he’d dramatically pull the sheet off his head to reveal his true identity. At which point Daisy would break down in uncontrollable tears and Caleb would telephone the police.
(Slow pan out across the Long Island Sound. The desperate loneliness of the water. Roll credits.) THE END!!!
That was how it was meant to work, but Daisy refused to cooperate. No matter how hard the wind blew, no matter how much the shutters rattled, Daisy couldn’t be fazed by the sight of Caleb in a white sheet.
Caleb (eerie voice): Awake! I am the ghost of your dead husband come to exact retribution. You must confess your crime or I will haunt you for the rest of your days. Repent! Confess!
Daisy: (angrily) What are you doing in my bedroom young man?
No good at all. Dante re-imagined the scene but this time Daisy got all sexy and started purring like a kitten.
Daisy: (huskily) What are you doing in my bedroom young man?
That didn’t work either. Hmmm.
Dante was about to try again when he was startled out of his reverie by the sound of footsteps in the living room. He froze for a moment and tried to keep absolutely still, but the tension was too much for him.
Quiet as a mouse, Dante got out of bed and crept across his room to listen better. He hoped his mother was on her way out, but he couldn’t tell. He pressed his ear against the door. He thought he heard the sound of someone breathing on the other side; then he heard a soft clearing of the throat. Dante pressed his ear tighter against the door and waited.
A series of deafening knocks exploded into Dante’s eardrum. He jumped backwards, tripped over his feet and fell heavily onto the floor. The bedroom door opened.
“Good morning, mother,” said Dante from the carpet.
“What on Earth?” Violet looked down at him quizzically but refrained from the obvious question. “Get dressed, darling. I’m in the kitchen.”
Dante did as he was told.
“You do sleep late,” said Violet pouring a cup of coffee. “I think you should make more of an effort. Early to bed early to rise.”
Dante took the coffee and added two teaspoons of sugar.
“Now look at this,” said Violet. She was holding up a copy of Jim & Michael, the novel she’d brought with her from London. “I found it in the bookcase and flipped through it last night. It’s about two men who fall in love with each other.”
“You found it in the bookcase?”
“Naturally, darling, next to the dictionary. It’s quite interesting really. It’s about homosexuality and the terrible difficulties young men of that sort face in the modern world.”
Violet spoke in an airy, offhand manner but she was clearly uncomfortable with her subject. Nonetheless, she felt obligated to bring it up and she sensed this might be her last opportunity. She swallowed her discomfort and launched into a long, one-sided discussion of that curious and unpredictable creature, human physical desire.
Dante drank his coffee and for the first time in his life he understood why people like going to the office.
Six months ago, or a week ago, or last Friday for that matter – last Friday, if Dante had been assigned an examination essay on the topic “Drawbacks Of Losing My Employment With Bullard & Associates” he would have run out of material before finishing a single sentence. Today he could have filled up three blue books without pausing for breath. As Violet talked, Dante outlined the benefits of office life in his head:
#1. You get your own desk.
#2. You can work on your screenplay in peace.
#3. Nobody wants to talk about your sex life.
#4. YOUR MOTHER’S NOT THERE!
He put the last point in caps because it was by far the most important. All the other benefits of going to an office flowed from point #4 and were subsidiary to it. If you turned things around, if your mother was at the office – or even if she was back in London - then the whole list made no sense and you were better off at home.
“So you see,” said Violet drawing to a close, “I have nothing against it. Nothing at all. It’s perfectly normal. Even among penguins. They’ve done studies. They tag the penguins and watch who they mate with. Dante, are you listening? Dante!”
“What is it?”
“For heaven’s sake, stop daydreaming. I’ve been blathering on for ages. The least you could do is interrupt me.”
“Sorry, I was thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” Violet had no more to say about penguins and having fulfilled her duty as a mother, she was relieved to move on. Dante didn’t respond, so she repeated her question.
“Thinking about what?”
“Well,” said Violet, “If you won’t talk, I will. What’s this about Audrey moving to Iowa? Why would anyone want to live in Iowa?”
“It has to do with her stipend. She wants to get a doctorate and they’re offering her more money to study in Iowa.”
“But surely you don’t want her to leave.”
“Of course I don’t.”
“Then you must tell her so. I’d be willing to pay the difference in her stipend.”
“Audrey’s too independent. I’m afraid she wouldn’t take it.”
“You’re right about that,” said Violet. “I spoke to her briefly last night and she was quite stroppy. She said she doesn’t like living off other people. Which is childish, in my opinion. Independence is all well and good but there are limits. A woman must never be picky about where her money comes from.”
“Oh mother,” said Dante, “It doesn’t help to criticize.”
“I’m not criticizing,” Violet replied. “I just want her to see reason. But no luck, you’ll have to try talking to her again. Now, what are you doing today? I thought we might go to a museum together.”
“I can’t. I have work to do. I have to finish my screenplay.”
“Right,” said Violet, “The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage. Odd title.”
“I wish you hadn’t read it without my permission.”
“Don’t be so sensitive. There’s no point writing something if no one else gets to read it. Besides, I enjoyed it. The ending doesn’t work but it’s easily salvageable. In fact, I made a few notes. Would you like to see them?”
Dante ignored the offer. “Cecil says I might be able to sell it. Cecil says if we can get his boss into the Old Money Club he’ll buy the rights to my screenplay.”
“I didn’t know Cecil’s boss was in the habit of buying screenplays.”
“He’s a movie producer. Max Guberstein.”
Violet appeared surprised and she was lost in thought for a moment: “How is Cecil?”
“He’s alright. You can ask him yourself if you want. He’s coming over later tonight. I’m having dinner with Max and Dick Burkus at seven o’clock, and Cecil’s meeting me back here afterwards to find out how it went.”
“Why does Cecil care so much about Mr. Guberstein getting into Old Money?”
“Because he needs Max’s help to get a new job. If Cecil can’t find another job he won’t be allowed to stay in America. He’ll have to return to London.”
“But Penelope’s in London.”
“The nail on the head, mother. Cecil would have to move back in with her.”
“He might even have to marry her.”
Nervous as he was for his friend Cecil, Dante was put off by Violet’s exaggerated show of concern. If getting Max into Old Money was Dante’s top priority, getting his mother on a plane back to Heathrow came a close second. And he didn’t want her interest in Cecil to give Violet a reason for sticking around.
“In any case,” said Dante, “There’s nothing you can do to help. It’s more important that you focus on Gascon and his restaurant. You said he’s already signed his lease. You need to get to work on selling the cottage. Have you spoken to Puff yet?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of it. I telephoned Puff this morning and he agreed to my price without so much as a whimper from his thin lips. He’s coming over at ten o’clock Monday to discuss the details. But I don’t expect it to take long.”
“No extended haggling?”
“He wouldn’t dare haggle with me,” said Violet. “The whole thing will be settled by Monday afternoon.”
“And you’re quite sure he’s interested in buying it?”
“Dante, darling, Puff has wanted to buy the cottage for donkey’s ears. He’s not interested, he’s ecstatic.”
Calm As A Monk
“Hi. I need to speak to Trixie.”
“Trixie’s not in. Can I take a message?”
“Yes, you can. Puff, it’s Dolly here. Dolly Smith. I have some very important news and I think you should hear it, too. Are you familiar with a novel called Paisley Mischief?”
Puff furrowed his brow and grunted. “Haven’t read it.”
“It’s a scandalous book.”
“I’d rather not to discuss it.”
“I feel the same way,” said Dolly. In the heat of the emotion she seemed to forget the countless hours she’d already spent talking about Paisley Mischief with her girlfriends. “But now we have to discuss it. I got a visit from Mr. Draper yesterday. Do you know Mr. Draper.”
“He’s my tenant. He told me he’d just come from talking to Rebecca Holland.”
“Dick’s girlfriend,” said Puff.
“She had the nerve to suggest that I was the source for all the dirty gossip in the novel.”
“But you’re not.”
“Certainly I’m not. That’s not the point. The point is, Rebecca’s a journalist and she asked Mr. Draper whether he was the author of Paisley Mischief. If you ask, me she’s planning an article about the book. She didn’t say it in so many words, but it’s the only explanation I can think of. Why else would she be poking around?”
“This isn’t good,” said Puff.
“No, it’s awful. Can you imagine the publicity? We’d have photographers staked out on our front lawns.”
Dolly was actually quite pleased at the thought of photographers on her front lawn but Puff couldn’t see the fun of it. He was thoroughly skaken. It was bad enough that Dick was a coarse bore who put up flag poles where they didn’t belong, but it was unimaginable that he should let his girlfriend publish a magazine article drawing attention to salacious gossip about his friends.
“There won’t be any photographers,” said Puff. “There won’t be any article either. Thanks for calling.”
He hung up with Dolly and immediately dialed Dick’s number. No answer. So Puff put on his jacket, straightened his tie and steamed out of the apartment headed towards the Old Money Club. It was twelve o’clock.
The lunch hour was the busiest time of day at the Old Money Club. Many of the members worked in midtown and some of them ate lunch at the club five days a week. The younger members liked to play a quick game of squash and eat a niçoise salad; the older men might prefer ten minutes on the stationary bike, followed by steak sandwiches or creamed chicken (the creamed chicken was first rate); but for young and old alike Old Money was considered their refuge. It was an island of peace amid the screaming hullabaloo of tense meetings, demanding clients and disgruntled secretaries. And when a member entered the club it was expected that he do so in the spirit of brotherhood, leaving his anger at the door.
Puff, however, was in no mood for brotherhood. He and his anger walked right in together, matching each other stride for stride.
“Where’s Dick Burkus?”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Penfield,” said Freddie.
“Bah. Where is he? Is he here?”
“He is, sir.”
Puff slapped the front desk and sped up the stairs.
On the second floor landing he ran into a small crowd of members waiting to go into lunch.
“Good to see you Puff.”
But Puff was so intent on his mission that he didn’t acknowledge their greetings. Not even the customary nod. It was a serious breach of etiquette and so out of character that very quickly a buzz spread throughout the entire club.
Puff poked his head in the bar. Dick wasn’t there. The library, no. The changing lounge, no. The swimming pool, no. He looked in the exercise room where Mr. Bullard was cheerfully sweating away on a rowing machine.
“Must keep old bodies active.” Mr. Bullard’s back was turned and he failed to catch Puff’s tone. “You know what Jefferson said: a long walk will do more for a man’s happiness than the deepest philosophy.”
“Nonsense. Where’s Dick?”
Mr. Bullard didn’t know and Puff marched on, climbing into the club’s nether regions. He searched the squash courts, the racquets courts, the court tennis courts, but all without success. And by the time he returned to the changing lounge, Puff’s mood had translated itself into a general anxiety felt by every employee in the place. Finally a young Haitian laundry boy brought the crisis to a head:
“Mr. Penfield, sir, I believe Mr. Burkus is in the smoking room.”
The smoking room was a quiet hideaway tucked behind the walk-in humidor and filled with worn leather chairs and enormous crystal ashtrays. It was not much used during the midday rush and the nervous tension that infected the rest of the club had not yet penetrated its walls. Dick Burkus sat by himself, calm as a monk, sucking on one of his favorite cigars. He was idly pondering his upcoming dinner with Max when Puff stormed in.
“What brings you here?” asked Dick.
To Puff, even this simple question sounded outrageous. Here was Dick, deep in the bowels of Old Money, enjoying all the privileges that class and good breeding can bestow, while at the same time he was in cahoots with a tawdry journalist whose aim was to ridicule both class and good breeding alike. Puff flushed crimson and scowled.
“If this is about the admissions committee,” said Dick, “Don’t waste your breath. I’m seeing Max tonight and I’ll make up my own mind. I don’t need your input and I don’t want it.”
“Hush,” said Puff. “This is not about the admissions committee. This is about your nasty little girlfriend, Rebecca Holland.”
“Cool down old man,” said Dick choosing not to take offence.
“I will not cool down. I just found out Rebecca’s writing an article about Paisley Mischief.”
“So what if she is?”
“I won’t stand for it. That book is a disgrace and I refuse to let your girlfriend publicize it in the glossy pages of a national magazine. I’ll have you kicked out of the club.”
“Relax, Puff. Have a seat and stop being an ass. First of all, you know you could never kick me out of the club. Second of all, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“There’s no article?”
“Oh sure, there’s an article. But you shouldn’t be mad at Rebecca, you should be thanking her. I assume you know that Paisley Mischief was written anonymously. Do you have any idea who wrote it?”
“No,” said Puff.
“Well, Rebecca does. She found out from the publisher. She told me about it last night and the only reason she hasn’t told anyone else yet is out of respect for you, out of respect for your feelings.” Dick took a long, slow drag on his cigar. He was enjoying himself. “Listen Puff, I’ve got some bad news for you. It has to do with a mutual friend.”
“Let me put it this way – we’ve all heard the old saw about people who live in glass houses.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s simple,” said Dick. “What I mean is that Rebecca met the publisher of Paisley Mischief yesterday and she asked her who wrote the book. She got the name straight from the publisher’s mouth and I’m sorry to say this, but I have to. The name was Penfield.”
Dante was to meet Max and Dick at Le Petit Chien, a quiet French bistro on Horatio Street. Cecil had suggested the restaurant because he knew the wait staff and because he guessed that Dick, who rarely ventured beyond the Upper East Side, didn’t.
A Friendly Dinner
Dante arrived early. He didn’t want to be the first to sit down so he strolled over to the river and then up through the meat packing district. Dante wasn’t used to the West Village and he was surprised by the number of transvestite prostitutes on the streets. Some of them were quite attractive and you could hardly tell. At one point Dante got caught staring too long at a young Puerto Rican in a skin tight dress. He/she winked and blew Dante a kiss. He blushed and quickened his pace.
When Dante returned to Le Petit Chien, Max and Dick were already at their table. It was a small, dark dining room and they were in the corner, Max with his back to the wall. On the other side of the room Cecil was sitting with a tall brunette. She was very beautiful and they were sharing a bottle of champagne. Dante hadn’t expected to see Cecil but he supposed it was all part of the plan. He wondered what the plan was: How did Max intend to make Dick like him? How would he avoid getting drunk? Dante had asked Cecil these questions the night before, but Cecil had refused to go into detail. Dante’s instructions were simply to act naturally and say as little as possible.
“Dante,” said Max motioning him over to the table. His mood was chipper and welcoming, entirely different than the man Dante met at Trixie’s elephant party.
“You’re late!” cried Dick affably. He beckoned to the waiter. “We’re gonna need some drinks. What are you having Max?”
“Scotch on the rocks.”
“I’ll go along with that. Let’s make it three. Three scotch on the rocks.”
Now that the they were all settled in, Dick spread his hands out in front of him and took a deep cleansing breath.
“Alright Max, I’ll put my cards on the table. I’ve heard a lot about you – not all of it good – but I don’t pay much attention to what other people say. I’ve always made up my own mind and that’s what I intend to do tonight. So let’s just enjoy ourselves and see what happens. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Max.
“So how’d you get interested in Old Money?” asked Dick. “Puff put you up to it, is that right?”
“More or less.”
“I don’t mean to pry but I’m asking because I don’t picture you two together. You and Puff, I mean. I can’t really see you getting along. What do you talk about, for example? Of course, he’s the President of the Club but what do you think of him personally?”
“What do I think of Puff personally?” Max repeated the question in order to give himself time to think. It was very early in the evening but he sensed a trap being laid.
“Do you think he’s a good guy?” said Dick. “Because, I’ll be honest with you, Puff and I aren’t good friends. I’ve known him all my life and I think he’s a pain in the neck. My opinion, if the stick was any further up his ass, he’d be a scarecrow.”
Dick laughed at his own joke. Then he stared hard at Max waiting for a reaction. The aggressive line appeared to be a test of sorts.
“Wallace Penfield is a good man,” said Max firmly. “I’m not going to listen to any crap about him.”
There was a short silence. Dante expected a blustery counter attack from Dick but none came. Instead he was gravely nodding his head.
“I like that. The first rule of Old Money is you have to be able to stick up for your friends. That’s good, Max. You know how I feel about Puff and I was giving you the chance to knife him in the back. Nothing could’ve been easier but you turned it down. I admire that.”
Max looked straight at Dick and said: “When I call you an asshole, I’ll say it to your face.”
“As it should be,” said Dick.
The waiter returned with the scotches. Dick took his drink and raised it in salute. He and Max clinked glasses and Dick threw his head back and guzzled. Dante was nothing but a fly on the wall so he toasted himself and kept his eyes on Max. Max was twirling the ice cubes around in his glass. Was he really going to drink the scotch? He was. Max put the glass to his lips and swallowed a large swig. Then he snorted and let out a loud aahh.
“Hair on your chest,” said Dick.
“On your balls,” said Max.
To Dante it looked like a scene from an old Western: rival gunslingers resolving their differences over a bottle of whiskey. Dick and Max continued drinking scotch after scotch right through dinner and the more they drank, the more a giddy sort of camaraderie blossomed between them. It turned out that Dick and Max had a good deal in common. They were both abrasive men and their shared contempt for the niceties of social discourse bound them together. They talked about money and film and politics, and as they were finishing their steaks the talk turned to women.
“I bet you get incredible girls in the movie business.”
“That depends,” said Max showing vulnerability. “I may be too old for that now.”
“Yeah,” said Dick, “Everyone slows down.”
Just then the tall brunette who’d been sitting with Cecil approached the table:
“Are you Max Guberstein?” Her accent was faintly German. “I’m Natasha. We met last week. I wanted to say hello.”
Natasha bent over to kiss Max’s cheek and as she did so the front of her dress hung open giving Dick an unobstructed view of her small, but marvelously firm and braless breasts.
“Natasha,” said Max, “This is my friend Dick Burkus.”
“I’m happy to meet you, Dick.” She leaned over to kiss him too, letting her dress fall open again. She really did have beautiful breasts. Max patted her on the ass and told her to run along. Then, for the first time all evening, he leaned over towards Dante and addressed him directly:
“What do you think of that?”
“Who is she?” asked Dante.
“Nice girl,” said Max. “She’s a lingerie model, part of a special I’m putting together for HBO. Forty models prancing up and down a catwalk in their underwear and the network is drooling over it. What do you say, Dante, will you be watching the show?”
“I think she’s a very pretty girl.”
“Aha,” said Max, “I have to correct you there. Natasha’s amazing but the most amazing thing about her is that she’s not a girl. Her real name is Paul Wojscicki. Just a tough Polish kid from Greenpoint. The accent’s an act. I doubt she’s ever left the tri-state area in her life.”
Dante’s eyes went wide and he snapped his head around to catch Natasha shimmying out of the restaurant.
Max waited a beat before grinning and slapping Dante on the back: “You’re drunker than I thought, young man. Where’s a Polish boy from Greenpoint going to get tits like that?”
“You mean she’s not a man?” Dante was thoroughly confused.
“Of course not. She’s woman to the bone. And one of the sweetest, most docile girls you’ll ever want to meet.”
Max winked at Dick and Dick laughed out loud. He was still laughing when the waiter came to clear the dinner plates.
“I had you all wrong, Max.”
“Hey,” said Max.
“No,” said Dick. He was drunk and he pressed his point. His face was shining and his speech was beginning to slur. “No, Max, I had you all wrong. I don’t want to mince words. I didn’t anticipate having a good time tonight.” He reached across the table and placed his hand on Max’s forearm. “We’re different Max. You’re a Jew and I’m an old line WASP. My grandfather was living on Park Avenue when your grandfather was still freezing his balls off picking beets in Russia.”
“Poland,” said Max.
“Russia, Poland, whatever. We’re from different worlds. I don’t understand you and you don’t understand me.”
Max fought back a desire to flinch. He understood Dick perfectly, but he held his tongue. Dick wasn’t finished:
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a shit’s worth of difference. We’re all the same in the end, Max. Men are simple creatures. God put us here to eat, drink and screw. The rest is just cant and poses. It’s bullshit.”
“What I’m telling you, I don’t care where you’re from. I’ve been called a lot of names in my time, but I’ve never been called a bigot. I judge people by who they are and how they act. Look at me, Max.”
It was all Max could do not to slap him in the face.
“Look at me,” said Dick. “You’re okay. You’re okay with me. C’mon let’s drink. All of us. You too, Dante.”
The three men banged their glasses together and drained them simultaneously. It was the sixth scotch of the evening and for Dante it was one too many. He’d been keeping up out of politeness but he’d now gone beyond his limit and he was beginning to feel woozy. His mouth was dry and he was thirsty. He was very thirsty. What he wanted was water, but whiskey would have to do and when the waiter came back with the next round of drinks, he snatched a tumbler straight off the tray. “Excuse me,” said the waiter, “That’s Mr. Guberstein’s glass.”
“All the same,” said Dante taking a drink. “Gaw, that’s nice. Not harsh at all. It’s almost sweet. Delicious.”
“Give me that!” said Max.
“No wait,” said Dick. “Is it good? I want to try it. Give it to me.”
Max and Dick thrust their hands out at the same moment, both grabbing for the glass, and Dante gave it to Dick without thinking. Dick sniffed it, took a small sip, and then threw it down in one long swig. A look of extreme puzzlement registered on his face.
“This is apple juice.”
Max remained silent.
He never had any intention of getting into a drinking contest with Dick Burkus and on Cecil’s advice he’d made a special arrangement with the restaurant. When Dick ordered scotch on the rocks he would be served scotch on the rocks; when Max ordered scotch on the rocks he would be served a large glass of apple juice.
“Apple juice, Max. You’ve been drinking apple juice all night.” Dick could hardly believe it. He searched Max’s face for signs of drunkenness but he couldn’t find any. No red cheeks, no blurry eyes, no lazy smile. Max was fresh as a newly starched shirt. “You cunning bastard. You’re sober as a judge.”
Dick’s new found affection for Max died on the spot. He’d never been so insulted in his life. He stood up from the table, threw his napkin down with a flourish and paused only long enough for one parting shot.
“It’ll be a cold day in Hell,” said Dick, “Before you get elected to the Old Money Club.”
The Solution To Your Troubles
“Not well,” Violet corrected him.
“A total disaster, in fact.”
Dante had returned home to find Cecil, Audrey and his mother gathered in the living room waiting for the latest. He told them everything and just as he got to the part about Dick storming off in a rage, Cecil’s cell phone rang.
“Max, I expect.”
Cecil picked up and a river of obscenities flowed out of the receiver. Max was yelling so loudly that the tinny sound of his ravings seemed to take over the entire apartment. Cecil hung up.
“So?” asked Audrey.
“I’ve been fired.” Cecil poured himself more sherry. He felt exhausted. “Blacklisted by Max. Even the secretaries will stop taking my calls. No chance whatever at the job with GoldStream Pictures. Soon my work visa will expire and I won’t be allowed to stay in the States. It’s back to London, I suppose.”
“Absolutely not,” said Violet. “If you go back to London you’d have to move in with Penelope.”
The mention of Penelope’s name reminded Cecil that, on top of his other difficulties, he’d forgotten to put money in her bank account. He put his head in his hands and despaired:
“How am I ever going to survive marriage?”
“Please,” said Audrey. “You’re not going to get married.”
“What else do you suggest? I can’t stay over here without a job and I can’t get a job with Max turned against me. I’m halfway down the aisle already.”
Dante worried that he was to blame. “I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me he was drinking apple juice?”
“It’s not your fault,” Cecil replied.
“Of course it’s not his fault,” Audrey broke in. “And stop being so pathetic.”
Violet spoke more encouragingly. “I’m sure there’s something we can do, there must be. Besides, just because Max can’t get into the Old Money Club, that’s no reason to fire you.”
“You don’t understand. Max isn’t reasonable.”
“Everyone is reasonable, dear,” said Violet. “And I’m sure Max will feel quite differently in the morning after he’s had a good night’s rest. Sleep always helps to restore one’s balance of mind.”
“Max is an insomniac,” said Cecil. “I’d wager my left hand he doesn’t get a good night’s rest, and tomorrow he’ll be even angrier. I’ll be back in London before the week’s out.”
“So what are you serving at the reception?” asked Audrey. “Chicken or fish?”
“Pigs in a bloody blanket,” said Cecil.
“I’d prefer lamb,” said Dante.
“Bother,” said Violet.
Cecil left the apartment feeling hopeless.
And he was quite right about Max’s insomnia. Max didn’t sleep a wink. It was eleven thirty when he phoned to fire Cecil and at four o’clock in the morning he was still wide awake. He’d tried lying down briefly but he’d sweated through his sheets. So he took a shower and got dressed again. And ever since, he’d been pacing back and forth in the darkness of his bedroom. Even for a man accustomed to long nights, it was gruesome.
The Sun was not yet half way across the Atlantic and Max peered out his window into the queer dim light of the New York streets. His face was flushed and he felt his heart pumping like the engine of a freight train. It was fury that kept him up. Fury at the world but also at himself. Max had always sworn never to play the game with men like Dick Burkus. Not because he didn’t know how, but because he thought it was beneath him. And yet his desire to get into Old Money had tempted him to put on the idiot’s persona and pretend to be one of them. It was humiliating, and it was infinitely more humiliating to get caught in the act.
As Max paced back and forth, he relived the dinner again and again in his head. He felt himself reaching for the tumbler. He saw the contempt in Dick’s face when he called him a cunning bastard. Max couldn’t bear it.
There was a package of chocolate pop tarts lying on the floor and Max ripped it open and savagely bit into one. If he had owned a dog he would have kicked it. He felt a burning desire to scream at someone. Cecil was the first person that came to mind but Cecil had already been fired. I’ll unfire him, thought Max, I’ll unfire him just long enough to rip his head off. Then I’ll fire him again. “Telephone!” he cried in the darkness. “Get me a telephone!”
The cell phone was on the nightstand. Max walked over to it while forming the opening lines of his diatribe in his head. He picked up the phone to dial Cecil’s number but he pulled up short. The phone rang of its own accord before he could punch the first key.
Who could be calling him at this hour?
Max was taken aback. He looked at his caller ID but he didn’t recognize the incoming number. He put the phone to his ear without speaking and waited for the voice on the other end of the line. “Hello?” said the voice. “Hello?”
It was a woman’s voice, but not one Max recognized. The voice was a high-pitched warble with a distinctly English flavor. It almost sounded like a man pretending to be a woman, like a drag queen impersonating the Duchess of Marlborough.
“Hello?” said the voice.
“Who’s this?” Max growled.
“I’m looking for Mr. Max Guberstein.”
Max didn’t answer.
“Mr. Guberstein? Can you hear me, darling?”
“I can hear you. Who are you and why are you calling me? Do you realize it’s four o’clock in the morning?”
“Oh dear, I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“You didn’t wake me,” Max responded in a friendlier tone. His anger was subsiding. The simple act of holding a phone to his ear calmed his nerves and he was curious to know who he was talking to.
“How did you get this number?”
“Am I speaking to Max Guberstein?”
“Good then. Cecil Biddle gave me your number. He told me you wake up early, so I thought you wouldn’t mind a call.”
“Who are you?”
“Penfield, Mrs. Penfield.”
Max was losing his patience. He didn’t know who was on the other end of the line but he knew it wasn’t Trixie Penfield. An outrageous thought occurred to him. Was Cecil playing a prank? If so, he would pay for it dearly. There was menace in Max’s voice:
“Cecil, is that you?”
“Calm down, Mr. Guberstein.”
“Who is this?” Max bellowed.
“I already told you,” said the voice sharply. “Mrs. Violet Penfield.”
“That’s right. We’ve not met but I believe you know my son. I’m Dante’s mother.”
After the events at Le Petit Chien, Max wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to Dante’s mother.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Well,” said Violet. “You know I just flew in from London this week and I’m suffering a touch of jet lag. I have been since I got her. I woke up half an hour ago and wild horses couldn’t drag me back to sleep. Cecil told me you’d be up at this hour so I gave you a buzz. There’s an idea I want to talk over. I thought we could meet for a cup of coffee. Maybe take a walk in the park.”
“I don’t take walks in the park,” said Max.
“Nonsense. They’re very good for you.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“I have a proposition. I heard about your trouble with Dick Burkus and I believe I can iron things out. I can help you get into Old Money.”
“Patience, dear. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you. Since you live at the Pierre, we can meet in the dining room. I’m set to go as soon as I hang up. Is ten minutes enough for you?”
“Half an hour,” said Max.
“Fifteen minutes. And don’t be late.”
By the time Max came down from his bedroom, Violet was already seated at his favorite table pouring out two cups of coffee. Except for a lonely waiter the room was deserted, but Violet looked perfectly at home. She seemed so confident and self-assured that Max felt somewhat undone by her presence. It was as though he was stepping into an alternate universe where the normal rules of behavior were turned on their head.
“Violet Penfield?” said Max.
“Very astute. You must be Max. Sit down and have some coffee.”
He didn’t drink coffee but he accepted the cup without comment.
“I’ve ordered us something to nibble. Would you like a croissant?”
“Please,” said Max meekly.
“Wonderful to be up at this hour, isn’t it? One has the whole city to oneself. I came down 5th Avenue to get here and I felt that I owned every block. Should I ask the waiter to bring you some eggs?”
“Just as I thought,” said Violet. “Cecil told me you were gruff and bossy, but I see you have excellent manners. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. I don’t suppose you know where that phrase comes from?”
“It comes from the upholstery trade.”
“Just so. How clever of you.” She took a sip of coffee. “As I understand it, Max, you want to get into the Old Money Club.”
Max hesitated in answering. He had his pride to consider and it was difficult for him to admit there was anything he wanted that he couldn’t take at his leisure.
“You do want to get into the Old Money Club, don’t you?”
“I can’t think why,” said Violet. “They’re a collection of useless bores like any other. But I’m not here to pass judgment, I am here to help. Cecil told me about the apple juice incident. Don’t look so grim, dear. It’s funny when you see it in the right light. Dick tight as a priest while you’re just playing make believe. I picture you slurring like a stage drunk, like Paul Newman in the poker scene from The Sting. More coffee?”
Max declined. Violet topped up her cup.
“I imagine you gave Dick a good shock. And he won’t forgive it lightly. If you don’t find a way to mend fences he’s sure to blackball you at the club. Yes, I’d say the blackball is a certainty. Unless, that is, you take me up on my proposal. Fortunately, I have the solution to your troubles.”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. First I want you to give Cecil his job back. And you must promise to help him get this other job he’s keen on. He said something about an interview at GoldStream Pictures.”
“What’s your proposal?”
“Not so fast, dear. Does Cecil get his job back?”
“Fine,” said Max.
Violet gave him a tart smile.
“Do you have any idea,” she said, “How expensive it is to open a restaurant in London? It’s killing. I know because my friend Gascon is a chef. He’s opening a restaurant and I’ve promised him the capital to get it started. How does a girl raise the money? In my case, she sells a cottage on Long Island. And you, Max, are the lucky man I’ve decided to sell it to.”
“What do I want with a cottage on Long Island?”
“Hmpphhh, I thought you were smarter than that. I’ll explain. My cottage on Long Island lies directly between two large estates. One belongs to Puff Penfield, the other belongs to Dick Burkus, and both men have been after me to sell it for years. You already have Puff’s support at Old Money but you still need to make Dick happy.”
“And?” said Max.
“So here’s what you do. You buy the house from me – at a fair price – and then you arrange to sell it to Dick on condition that you get elected to the club. He can’t possibly refuse. Owning my cottage is a dream come true for Dick. It means that Rebecca, his girlfriend, has no excuse for not spending the summers with him. It also gives him the enormous pleasure of poking a stick in Puff’s eye. Puff has always assumed he’d end up with the cottage and Dick would love to snatch it away. He’d be in your debt forever.”
“Interesting,” said Max.
“Better than a slap on the tits with a wet mackerel,” said Violet. “That’s an expression I picked up from an Australian girl who used to clean my house.”
“This plan of yours could backfire,” said Max. “What if Penfield finds out that I’m selling the cottage to Dick Burkus? Won’t he get upset.”
“Oh very,” said Violet. “But there’s no reason for Puff to know anything. As far as he’s concerned, the cottage belongs to me and I can sell to whomever I wish. If Dick buys it, that’s my business. You’ve got nothing to do with it.”
“How much money are we talking about?”
“Doesn’t matter because it won’t cost you a penny. You buy it from me and you sell it to Dick straightaway after the election. You might even make a profit.”
“I like it.”
“Of course you do, darling.”
“Can we sign the papers today?”
“This afternoon if you like. There’s just one more favor I need to ask of you.”
“We’ve already discussed Cecil’s job but this is something that just occurred to me this morning. My son says that you’re in the business of buying screenplays.”
“You want me to buy a screenplay of yours?”
“Not quite. I want you to commission me to write one. I haven’t started yet, but I have it in my head. It’s based on a novel and I think it’ll translate nicely to the movies.”
“A popular novel?” asked Max. “I’d have to work it out with the publisher before I agree to anything. Someone else probably owns the rights.”
“Not to worry about the rights,” said Violet. “I’ll take care of that.”
“How much do you want for the commission?”
“Whatever you think is fair. Five percent of the gross?”
“Hah!” said Max instinctively.
“Three percent, then. Plus $70,000 up front.”
“Writers don’t get points. It’s a flat fee. I’ll give you $20,000.”
“I thought you wanted to get into Old Money.”
“Damn. Okay, $45,000. But nothing up front. You get paid when you deliver the script.”
“Thank you, Max,” said Violet patting his hand. “I think we’re done then. I’m going for a walk in the park. We can sort through the cottage paperwork after lunch. If you need me before that, you can reach me at home.”
Back at home, Audrey had just left for school and Dante was nursing a headache. He was flipping through the safe sex pamphlet Violet had left in his sock drawer but much of it was beyond his comprehension. The pamphlet advised one to use a latex dam when rimming, but what was a latex dam? And what was rimming? The front door flew open.
“Congratulate me, darling,” said Violet.
“I’ve solved all our difficulties. I met with Mr. Guberstein this morning and while the rest of you were sound asleep, we’ve cut a deal.” Bursting with her own sense of accomplishment, Violet explained the arrangements. “I sell the cottage to Max, then he sells it to Dick. It’s brilliant.”
“What about Puff?” asked Dante.
“Puff can fry ice. He won’t know anything until after the elections are over. Isn’t it glorious? I get the capital for Gascon’s restaurant, Max gets into Old Money, and Cecil gets his job back with good prospects at GoldStream Pictures.”
Dante was delighted. “Good for you, mother. You’ve fixed everything.”
“And I suppose that means there’s nothing left to keep you in New York. It’s been lovely seeing you.”
“You’re sweet, Dante, but actually there’s no point in rushing back. Gascon will be so busy with his new restaurant, he won’t even have time to speak to me. So I thought I might stay for a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“A few months.”
“Months?” Dante was horrified.
“Three or four. It depends. The good thing is, if Audrey leaves for Iowa, you won’t be all by yourself.”
“I like being by myself.”
“Of course you do, darling, but I won’t be in your way. I’ll be very busy with my own affairs. I have work to do.”
“What sort of work?”
Violet’s eyes sparkled: “Max has commissioned me to write a screenplay!”
The next day was a Sunday and on Long Island the birds were just beginning to chirp. The dew was still on the grass and the Sun had not yet burnt through the clouds. It was six thirty in the morning and as usual, Trixie Penfield was already awake. Trixie didn’t believe in sleeping in. She thought it showed weakness of character.
Slipping out of bed, she went down to the kitchen to drink a cup of tea and eat a slice of dry toast. Then she went back upstairs to prepare for the day. She did ten minutes of gentle stretching exercises, followed by five minutes of controlled breathing, and then she took a shower and started her toilet. She washed her face and scrubbed it with an exfoliating cloth; she brushed her hair and plucked her eyebrows; finally, and most importantly, she smothered her entire body in a special revitalizing lotion that she ordered by the case from a shop in Paris. Look after your skin, as she liked to say, and your bills will look after themselves.
By a quarter past seven Trixie was dressed and sitting at the desk in her study hard at work. On her left was a pile of embossed stationary and on her right was a list of sixty names. Trixie was writing thank you notes, and the names belonged to the people who had attended her Balawala Elephant Park luncheon the week before. Penciled in beside each name was a dollar figure indicating how much money had been contributed.
Lala Von Furstenburg gave $2,000. Trixie looked at the name and the dollar amount. She was disappointed in Lala. Only six months ago Trixie had paid $3,000 to attend Lala’s dinner dance in support of the Whitney Museum. Where was Lala’s sense of proportion? Surely the survival of African wildlife was worth more than a black and white photograph of Alan Ginsburg’s penis. Trixie bottled her irritation and wrote:
Lovely to see you at lunch last Saturday. You’re as beautiful as ever and I thank you for your gift to the Balawala Sanctuary. The elephants thank you, too.
Trixie crossed Lala off the list but she still had almost three hours of work in front of her. Sixty names meant sixty thank you notes and unlike Christmas shopping, it wasn’t something she could pawn off on Puff’s secretary. The notes had to be handwritten if they were to convey the right amount of gratitude and since Trixie’s friends knew her handwriting, they had to be handwritten by her. It was tedious work but Trixie didn’t object. In fact, she was happy for the distraction.
An hour later, Trixie was just signing a thank you to Nana Johnson – for a healthy $6,000 – when she heard Puff banging around in the bedroom getting dressed. She put down her pen and listened to his movements. She heard him go downstairs; she heard him ask Elena for a cup of coffee; she heard him sit down in the dining room and start rustling the pages of the New York Times. The routine was so unchanging that she could almost see his lips move as he read the stock listings in the Business section:
“Johnson & Johnson up 15 cents, IBM down 24, Citibank up 12. Should’ve bought more Citibank.”
Trixie knew her husband like the back of her hand. She pictured a pair of gray flannel trousers and a crisp oxford shirt, and the thought of him brought a surge of affection rising into her chest. Trixie liked Puff. He wasn’t the most charming man in the world but she had charm enough of her own and Puff had other merits. He was reliable and loyal and he never made a fuss about the money she spent. She couldn’t ask for much else.
Trixie continued writing thank you notes but she was suddenly interrupted by a sharp noise coming from downstairs. It almost sounded as though Puff had banged his fist against the dining table. Most unlike him. Trixie’s concentration was broken and she couldn’t get it back. She had trouble on her mind.
Trixie was worried about Puff. Never talkative in the best of circumstance, Puff had recently turned almost mute. He wouldn’t respond to conversation; he wouldn’t make conversation of his own; and when Trixie examined the last few days in search of an explanation, she couldn’t help but notice that Puff’s ill humor coincided closely with a disquieting phone call she’d received from Max Guberstein.
“Of course,” thought Trixie.
The subject was bound to come up sooner or later. She’d been meaning to talk to Puff about it for months, but somehow the opportune moment never arose. Now she’d run out of time and the moment was being forced upon her.
Trixie was nervous and she was especially nervous because Puff’s bad temper suggested the worst. She knew that what she had to say might be hard for him to swallow, but she had always harbored the hope that he would rise to the occasion. She had hoped that Puff’s gentlemanly quality, his good manners, would trump whatever bitterness he might feel. She was no longer sure.
Trixie got up from her desk and looked at herself in the mirror. What she saw in her reflection was a model wife. She was diligent, respectable and considerate; she was the mother of Puff’s only child; and she had lovely skin. Thus reassured, Trixie took a deep breath and went downstairs to look for her husband.
She found him sitting outside on the terrace reading a book. He was in a chair facing the bay and right away Trixie took this as a bad sign. It meant that each time Puff looked up he would see the spite pole and Puff only looked at the spite pole when he was contemplating the injustice of the world. Trixie coughed into her hand to get his attention.
“I need to speak to you,” she said.
Puff didn’t respond so she tried again.
“Good morning, darling. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Puff answered frostily.
“What’s that book you’re reading?”
“Don’t ask inane questions,” answered Puff. “You know very well what I’m reading.”
Puff could be forgiven for his brusqueness because Trixie could, in fact, tell what he was reading. She recognized the jacket cover from a distance. He was reading Paisley Mischief.
“What do you think?” she asked.
Puff was not an emotional man and when he was angry he was more apt to seethe than yell: “I think it’s despicable.”
Trixie was surprised by his vehemence. She didn’t intend to discuss Paisley Mischief and she feared the conversation might run away from her.
“Then let’s not talk about it,” she said. “It’s fiction, sweetie. Just for fun. You shouldn’t let yourself get into a sweat.”
“Hush! You call this fun? Pay me the courtesy of shutting up for a moment and listen to this.” Puff flipped back a few chapters to a page he had dog-eared and read aloud:
Reggie “Stuffy” Canbrook was a tall blue eyed man who held himself ramrod straight at all times. In looks he resembled nothing so much as an embalmed corpse and his conversation was not more lively. He was mesmerizingly dull and even in his most private moments his thoughts never strayed from the tiny world in which he lived. Stuffy Canbrook lived by a script that had not been revised for thirty years. In the first act he asked you where you went to school, where your father went to school and what your mother’s maiden name was. In the second act he’d smile warmly and announce that a cousin of his kept a summer house in the same town where your grandmother vacationed in Maine.
“It’s a small world,” said Stuffy and the curtain would fall.
Stuffy was even more tedious on the subject of money. He’d lower his voice and let out a chuckle: “IBM is down a dollar seventeen since last Tuesday, ha ha.” That was Stuffy’s idea of a joke and it was a wonder he’d escaped boring himself to death.
Stuffy’s wife wasn’t so lucky. She said he was the worst lover she’d ever had, and she’d had plenty.
Puff slammed the book shut and glared at his wife.
“Why do you read the book if it’s going to make you angry?” said Trixie.
“I think you should be answering that question,” said Puff.
“But I have no idea.”
Puff shivered. He was a stoic and if he had to, he could live with a woman who felt a private contempt for him. But he could never live with a woman who mocked him openly, who shouted her contempt out loud, who published her insults in the pages of a book. When Puff read Paisley Mischief he thought about his marriage and felt like he was watching the walls of a great city crumble.
“Do you think it is pleasant to be caricatured like that?”
“My darling,” said Trixie, “Of course it’s not pleasant but I’m sure you’re over-reacting. In the first place Paisley Mischief is just a novel. In the second place Stuffy Canbrook has nothing to do with you. And in the third place you’re not boring and you’re not a bad lover. I think you’re an excellent lover. I’ve always thought so. You’re the sweetest man I know.”
Trixie tried to put her hand on Puff’s shoulder but he bristled and brushed it away.
“No, you can’t whitewash over this Trixie. Words have meaning and once they’re written down they can’t be unwritten. The whole world has read this book and I’m not going to forget it. I’m not saying divorce but I’ll never be able to pretend we’re back to normal.”
“Divorce? Dearest, I don’t understand.”
“You betrayed my trust. After twenty five years of marriage you stabbed me in the back and you did it in public. You wrote a book that makes me the laughing stock of everyone we know. I can forgive a lot but I can’t forgive this.”
Puff held up his copy of Paisley Mischief and waved it in Trixie’s face. She was struck dumb.
“You can’t think I wrote that book.”
“That is exactly what I think,” said Puff.
“But I didn’t!”
“Everyone says you did.”
“Dick Burkus,” said Puff. “And Rebecca Holland.”
“How would they know?”
“Rebecca’s writing a magazine article about it. She got your name directly from the publisher.”
“It’s not impossible, it’s plain as day,” said Puff. “Dick told me all about it. Rebecca met with the publisher and the woman gave her the author’s name straight out. The name was Penfield. What do you say to that?”
“Did Rebecca get a first name?” said Trixie. “There’s more than one Penfield in the world.”
“Are you saying I wrote the book?”
“No, but I promise you, I have absolutely nothing to do with it. You can search my desk if you like. I didn’t write that book.”
“Who did then?”
Puff wanted to believe his wife but he didn’t know how. He stared at Trixie accusingly. Trixie stared back. They were both racking their brains.
“What about Violet?” said Trixie. “She’s a Penfield and she’s not part of our set so she wouldn’t be worried about offending anyone.”
“Violet,” said Puff mulling it over.
“And isn’t it odd that she shows up in New York just when there’s such a furor about this book? I also know she’s an old friend of Dolly Smith’s and they talk on the telephone. That’s probably how she keeps up on the latest gossip.”
“I see,” said Puff, “It makes sense. Violet phones Dolly and then writes it all down in a nasty little book. Damn that woman. Pardon my French. I bet you’re right.” As soon as Trixie mentioned Violet’s name, Puff felt an enormous sense of relief. He wanted very much to believe his wife and now he had a good reason to do so. His scowl melted away and it left him feeling somewhat sheepish.
“I’m sorry Trixie. I’ve behaved badly. I was confused and upset. I got carried away.”
“Never mind.” Trixie was equally relieved. “It’s quite funny in a way. I don’t think I could write a novel to save my life.”
“I don’t suppose you could, dear. I really am sorry. I should never have doubted you. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“Here,” said Puff. He handed Trixie his book. “Get rid of it for me. I don’t want to look at it anymore.”
Trixie took it and turned away. She was about to go inside, but she hesitated on the verge.
“Puff,” she said turning back to face him, “I need to speak to you about something else.”
This was the single thought that kept repeating in Dante’s head as he walked down the long gray corridor on the fourth floor of the humanities building towards Audrey’s office.
It was still Sunday morning and while it was unusual for teaching assistants to hold weekend office hours, the term was coming to a close and Audrey had been so inundated with requests for student conferences that she had agreed to make herself available to anyone who showed up at nine o’clock. This was convenient for Dante because he could never find her when she was at the research library and with his mother in the apartment, it was difficult to talk privately at home.
Having worked late the night before, Audrey was as yet unaware of Violet’s meeting with Max. More to the point, in Dante’s view, she was unaware of the meeting’s horrific outcome. Violet wanted to stay in New York for as long as four months. It couldn’t be allowed to happen. Audrey had to fix things.
“Are you waiting to see Audrey?” asked Dante.
He looked down at a scruffy young woman who was sitting on the floor outside Audrey’s office. She was slumped against the wall, beside a table with a number of wire “in” baskets on it. The “in” baskets corresponded to the various teaching assistants for Professor Houghton’s 19th Literature course, and taped up above the table was a sign indicating that papers were due on Monday. A number of essays had been turned in early.
“You mean Ms. White?” said the girl. She had greasy blonde hair and a pierced nose and she appeared slightly depressed. “Yeah, I’m waiting. Some other guy just went in. I’m next. I’ve got to talk to her about this paper. I haven’t started it yet and I haven’t even thought about starting it. Do you know if she gives extensions?”
Dante didn’t know. The subject had never come up.
“I don’t recognize you. What’s your name?”
“I’m Lisa. You’re not in my section, are you?”
“I came about something else.”
“Jesus,” said Lisa, “I hope I don’t have to be here all morning. I heard Ms. White’s really strict on extensions. If she doesn’t help me out, I’ll have to ask her for help on the paper and get into the whole stupid thing. That could take forever.”
“What’s the topic?”
Lisa pulled a xeroxed sheet from her bag and read it to Dante in a voice that was equal parts disdain and exasperation:
Using specific references to at least three novels on the syllabus, choose a single theme common to each novel and discuss both the similarities and differences in the various authors’ handling of that theme.
“Nightmare,” said Dante. “I’ve never understood about themes.”
“Me neither, but I’ve got to have three thousand words by Monday.” Lisa put her head down and groaned. “I hate this.”
“Don’t get upset.”
“I can’t help it. Even if I get an extension I won’t have time to write anything. I’m a theater major and I’m in a play every night next week. What am I supposed to do?” Dante’s heart went out to the girl and he thought back to his own paper-handing-in days. He remembered feeling just as Lisa felt now. Not much had changed since his near fatal encounter with Professor Virelli’s Italian literature course. Still the same incomprehensible paper topics; still the same anxious students; still the same wire “in” baskets. Dante had an idea.
“Can you keep a secret?” he asked.
“What kind of secret?”
“Ssshhh.” Dante put his finger to his lips. “Normally I wouldn’t recommend this sort of thing, but desperate times call for desperate measures and you look fairly desperate. Stand up for a second.” Lisa stood up. “Take a look at this table and keep your voice down. What do you see?”
“I don’t see anything,” Lisa whispered. “I see a bunch of wire baskets and I see a bunch of papers in them.”
“What are the papers about?”
“Same as I told you before. Pick a single theme and hang yourself on it. So what?” “Observe the number of baskets. There are three different baskets with three different names on them. One basket for each teacher.”
“I don’t get it,” said Lisa.
“Let me demonstrate.” Dante picked an essay out of the basket marked for Mr. Sangstrom. “Whoever wrote this is in Mr. Sangstrom’s section. Do you think Ms. White is going to read it?”
“Why would she?”
“Exactly my point.”
“Oh no, I can’t.”
“You can. It’s easy. I had to do it once. I’m not proud of it, but it worked. The only person I hurt was myself and you’d be surprised how little it hurts.”
“What do I do?”
“Just take a paper, make a quick copy and put it back. After that all you have to do is go home and re-type it.”
“What if Ms. White sees me?”
“She won’t. I have to talk to her about something very important. By the time we’re through, you’ll have your copy and you’ll be gone.”
Lisa ran a hand through her greasy hair and mulled it over. She glanced from Dante to the stack of papers and back. Then she grabbed a essay from Mr. Sangstrom’s basket, stuffed it in her canvas bag and whisked off down the hall just as Audrey’s office door opened.
The boy inside came out and Dante knocked before entering.
“Have you been waiting in the hall?” Audrey smiled to see him. “I didn’t even know you could find this place. Close the door and come in. Is something wrong?”
“Very wrong, Audrey. I need your help. I couldn’t talk to you at home because mother’s around. Do you know she had a meeting with Max Guberstein yesterday?”
He filled her in on the sale of the cottage, and though he tried not to minimize the positive aspects of the deal – Gascon gets his restaurant, Max gets into Old Money, Cecil gets his job back – his main emphasis was on the single overwhelming negative:
“Max has commissioned mother to write a screenplay and she plans to stay in New York. She said she might be here for four months.”
“That’s appalling,” said Audrey.
Audrey looked pensive and twirled a lock of hair around one of her fingers. Dante was pleased that she saw the gravity of the situation.
“Perhaps it’s my fault,” she said. “I should have been paying closer attention. But I’ve had so much teaching to do and I still have to finish my thesis.”
“How’s that going?”
“It’s alright. Want to hear my latest favorite Larkin tidbit? His definition of wealth was someone with enough money to keep drink in the house.”
Just talking to Audrey, cheered Dante up. He felt better already and he now remembered he had good news for her as well as bad.
“That reminds me, I think I can get that book you’re looking for. Remember the drunk we took home the other night, Tweedle Barnes? He had a copy of The Senior Commoner in his bookcase. I asked Tweedle about it and he’d be happy to lend it to you.”
“That’s marvelous, Dante.”
“Not at all.”
“Anyway, back to your mother. You’re quite right about her. You can’t have Violet staying in the apartment for four months. You’d tear your hair out. And personally, I think it’s quite unfair that Max ends up buying her screenplay when it’s you that thought of it first. I’m going to have to give this some thought. Is there anyone else waiting to see me?”
“I was the last in line.”
“Good. We’ll walk home together and we can discuss it on the way. Just give me a minute.”
Audrey tidied her desk and put on her coat. She locked her office and on the way down the hall she stopped at the table and put the papers from her “in” basket into her briefcase. Then she took the papers from Mr. Sangstrom’s basket and put those in her briefcase, too.
“Hold on,” said Dante. “That’s not your pile.”
“It is now. That’s why I’ve been so busy lately. Bill’s got appendicitis and he’s in the hospital for a week. I said I’d take over his section and grade the papers for him.”
“Pity for Bill.” Dante stopped and scratched his forehead. “Sad for myself too, in a way.”
“Why sad for you?”
Dante hesitated: “Have I ever told about the ‘A’ I got in Professor Virelli’s Italian literature course? Yes, I think I have. Well, there was girl waiting in the hall when I got here. She looked like she was suffering writer’s block. Lisa, I think her name was. Greasy blonde hair and a nose ring. Does that sound familiar?”
“Yes, she’s in my section.”
“I’m afraid I gave her some bad advice. I think Lisa needs an extension.”
Audrey understood at once. “You’re very naughty, Dante. Turn around.”
Dante turned around and Audrey gave him short, crisp slap on the bum.
Back on Long Island, the sun was still shining pleasantly but now a cool wind blew onto the terrace and Trixie felt a chill. Her arms broke out in goose bumps.
“I’d better go in,” she said.
Puff beckoned her to stay. “Wait. What is it, Trixie?”
“Later, dear. It’s not important.”
“You might as well tell me now. What is it?”
Trixie felt torn. She knew she had to speak to Puff, but the unanticipated squabble about Paisley Mischief had drained her strength.
“Come back, Trixie.” Puff spoke without malice but with a surprising firmness. “What do you want to talk to me about?”
Trixie stared at the ground: “It’s about Max Guberstein.”
“I got a phone call from Max a few days ago. He told me that you have a photograph of his. You picked it up at the bar after we went to see Cat’s performance. Max said you wanted to keep it in order to make a copy for yourself.”
“I thought it was interesting from a historical perspective. It was taken outside our apartment building in the early sixties.”
“I know,” said Trixie, “But I was wondering whether there wasn’t some other reason you wanted to keep hold of the picture.”
“That’s what I thought. I’ve never known you to take an interest in architecture. I can’t imagine why you’d care what our building looked like forty years ago.”
“I don’t care about the building.”
“Do you have the picture on you?” asked Trixie. “Do you mind if I look at it?”
Puff took the photograph out of his jacket pocket and gave it to her. She studied it for a while. “Max looks more or less the same as he does now.”
“He’s fatter now,” said Puff. “Looks more self-confident, too. Everyone changes when they get older.”
“Do you like him?”
“Not really. Do I have to?”
“No. I don’t much like him myself. I admire him in a lot of ways. He’s very smart and accomplished, but he’s too pushy for my taste. Always has been. Even as a child. I don’t know where he got it from because my father wasn’t like that at all. Max always had a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove he was better than everyone else.”
“I knew lots of boys in prep school who were just the same,” said Puff.
“Do you know why I introduced him to you? I had a sort of romantic notion that the two of you would become friends. I thought if you became friends to start out with, that would make it easier for me to explain the rest. Is that ridiculous?”
“It’s not ridiculous, my love. It’s not ridiculous to want me to be friends with your brother. Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Yes,” answered Trixie. “My brother.”
“You needn’t have worried so much. You could’ve told me sooner.”
“I didn’t know how. It’s been almost twenty five years and the longer I waited the harder it got to tell you. That’s why I asked Max to put himself up for Old Money. I was hoping to do this bit by bit. I thought you’d have less trouble accepting it if he got into the club and you two became friends.”
“Don’t take this badly,” said Puff, “But Max and I are never going to become friends. He’s not my type. I’m not his type either.”
“I wonder if anyone becomes friends with Max. I don’t even know if he has any.” Trixie felt a tear in her eye. “I know all this must come as shock to you. I hope you’re not angry.”
“Sit down,” said Puff. “I have something to confess to you as well. I may not be very bright but I’m not as stupid as some people think. I’ve known most of the story for a long time. Since before we were married in fact. I always knew your maiden name wasn’t Ashton.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t think it was my business.”
“But you’re my husband.”
“If a woman wants to keep a secret, no one has the right to force it out of her.”
“And you married me anyway?”
“Why not?” said Puff. “It wasn’t as though I had hordes of other girls beating down my door. You’re the first woman I was ever close to. I fell in love and you agreed to be my wife. I didn’t care about anything else.”
“What about your mother?” said Trixie, “Didn’t she have any objections?”
“My mother was dying, if you remember. She couldn’t object to anything at all. In any case, mother was full of odd theories about marriage. One of her ideas was that good families are in constant need of new blood. She liked to go on about cross pollination. I think she would’ve been pleased.”
“So how did you first find out? How did you know I wasn’t Trixie Ashton?”
“It wasn’t as complicated as you imagine. You used to have a bookcase in your office at the law firm. I was looking through it one day and I found a copy of Great Expectations that you must have kept from a high school English class. I opened it up and I saw you’d written your name on the inside cover. Bea Guberstein. I could tell it was your handwriting. It looked exactly the same as your other signature, Trixie Ashton. So I tracked down a copy of your high school year book. You told me you graduated in 1957, but there was no record of a Trixie Ashton graduating in 1957. But there was a Bea Guberstein, and she looked a lot like you.”
Trixie sat down in the chair next to Puff.
“So you knew all along that Max was my brother?”
“I couldn’t be certain, but I knew you shared the same last name. I had my suspicions and the photograph only confirmed them. You were a very pretty girl, you know. You looked good as a brunette.”
Trixie studied the picture again. It was so far away, that day her parents dragged her and Max off to Manhattan for a family outing. Max had complained without ceasing all afternoon. He’d gotten into a shouting match with the waiter at the restaurant because his mashed potatoes were cold.
“I still remember it clearly,” said Trixie. “I remember posing under the awning and I remember wishing so hard that I lived in that building on 5th Avenue.”
“Now you do live there.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Can I ask a question?” said Puff, “Why did you change your name?”
Trixie didn’t answer.
“I’m just curious.”
“Truly?” said Trixie. “You really don’t know?”
“I’ve never wanted to change my name,” said Puff.
“That’s because you’re name is Wallace Penfield. Life is different when you’re Bea Guberstein. At least it was thirty years ago. Or at least I thought it was. Maybe I was mistaken, I don’t know. After my parents died, I felt lost. I saw how Max dealt with the world and I didn’t want to be like him. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting. I wanted to start fresh, and that’s what I did.”
“I hope you don’t regret it.”
“No,” said Trixie. “I don’t. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m just glad to finally get it off my chest. In the last few years I’ve started to feel funny about it. It’s as though some part of me was missing, or like I was hiding. I wanted to come out into the open.”
For a brief moment Trixie thought of the girl she once was and she was overcome by nostalgia.
“You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course,” said Puff.
She kissed him lightly on the cheek and her bout of nostalgia was over. She was no longer Bea Guberstein, she was Mrs. Trixie Penfield, and she recovered herself.
“There’s something I need you to do for me, Puff.”
“You have to get Max into the Old Money Club. I know it was me who first wanted him to join, but I can’t pull him back anymore. It’s beyond my control. Max has his heart set on it. He desperately wants to be a member and it would be very awkward if he was blackballed now. He’d be furious. You don’t have to become Max’s friend but you have to help him get into the club. I feel I’m responsible for him.”
“You’re not responsible for anyone but yourself.”
“That’s not what Max will say. His public image is at stake. If he doesn’t get in, he won’t speak to me again.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Puff replied, “I’ve never said a word against Max, but you have to understand, it’s not entirely my decision. I’ll talk to the people on the admissions committee, but there’s still Dick to contend with. There’s nothing I can do about Dick. If he’s against Max, Max won’t get into the club no matter what I say.”
“You’ll try your best?”
“I will, but let’s keep this between ourselves for the time being. There’s no need for people to know Max is your brother and I’d prefer it doesn’t become a topic of conversation right now. It would mean a lot of bothersome questions at the club.”
Trixie stood up and patted her cheeks to bring the color back into them. “It’s been quite a morning. I think I’ll go upstairs and finish writing my thank you notes.”
Trixie went inside and Puff leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms behind his head and gazed out over the water. Suddenly he jumped to his feet as if poked by an electric cattle prod.
“My God!” he cried, “Look!”
Far in the distance Puff could see his cherished lighthouse. The giant American flag on top of the spite pole was waving no more. The top section of the spite pole had already been removed and the rest of it was slowly being dismantled by a small group of laborers who were packing it into a truck.
The Cleaning Lady
Violet was crowing about her screenplay commission while Dante ate a muffin. Lativia, the housekeeper, listened with an air of bemusement, shaking her head from time to time. Audrey was making herself a cup of coffee:
“What’s the name of this novel you’re adapting?”
“That’s rather confidential,” Violet replied.
“Come on, mother. We’ll find out sooner or later,” said Dante.
Violet considered how to respond. Part of her wanted to maintain the mystery but inevitably her excitement and her sense of drama won out. “You’ll never guess, but I’ll tell you. It’s Paisley Mischief. I’m the anonymous author.”
Violet beamed with pride and waited for the applause to begin. But Audrey and Dante were too astonished to speak. Violet grew impatient.
“Well, don’t just sit there. Have you read it? Did you like it?”
“Yes and yes,” said Audrey graciously. “It’s very good.”
“A first rate read,” said Dante.
Violet was curious to know how far her fame extended and she turned to Lativia: “Lativia, darling, have you heard of my book?”
She had not.
“I tell you what though mother,” said Dante, “You’re better off staying anonymous until you get back to England. Lots of people are angry about it. Puff, for instance.”
“Puff!” cried Violet. “Goodness me, what time is it? Puff still thinks he’s coming to discuss the cottage at ten o’clock. We’ve got to clear out. Lativia, darling, could you do me a favor?”
“What do you need?”
“There’s a man coming this morning, my brother-in-law. He wants to buy my cottage, but I’ve already sold it and he mustn’t find out.”
“Oh, because. That’s not important, Lativia, darling. What’s important is that you tell Puff I have an urgent dental appointment and I have to re-schedule. Can you do that?”
Lativia rolled her eyes: “Go on. All of you get out of here so I can start my cleaning.”
Violet and Dante decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum. Audrey put them in a cab on the corner of Madison Avenue and left saying she had to get to work. Then she turned right around and sprinted back to the apartment.
“Lativia, give me your apron.”
“What’s up, honey?”
“I don’t have time to explain. Just give me the apron. You start vacuuming and I’ll do the kitchen.”
When Puff arrived shortly afterwards, the sound of the vacuum drowned out the doorbell and he had to knock long and hard before anyone heard him. Audrey answered the door in her apron, with her hands wet from washing dishes. Puff looked right through her and barged in without waiting to be invited.
“I’m looking for Violet Penfield. I need to speak to Violet.”
Puff was tense. Apart from buying the cottage, he also intended to quiz Violet about the awful novel which had caused him such grief. If she was responsible for it, he meant to make her pay, and as a result there was a certain amount aggression in his manner. Audrey didn’t like his tone of voice.
“Mrs. Penfield is not in,” she said.
“Where is she?”
“I’ll wait until she returns.”
“You can wait in the hallway.”
“I’ll wait wherever I like.”
“Fine. But try not to get in Lativia’s way.”
“Who’s Lativia?” said Puff disdainfully. “And who are you?”
Audrey turned away without answering. Puff went into the living room and sat down on the sofa, crossing his arms in a huff.
With a quiet nod from Audrey, Lativia slowed her movements to a snail’s pace. Puff had to hold his feet in the air for almost a minute while she vacuumed underneath. After a while Audrey came out from the kitchen and started plumping the sofa cushions. Puff moved to an armchair. But the armchair cushions needed plumping too, so Puff had to stand by the mantle. Lativia started singing a Dominican folk song at the top of her lungs and when the song was over Audrey pushed Puff away from the mantle in order to dust it. Finally he lost his patience.
“Where is Mrs. Penfield?”
“I told you, sir, she’s out,” said Audrey. “Perhaps I could give her a message. What did you want to speak to her about?”
“It’s about her cottage,” Puff fumed. “She’s selling it and I want to buy it.”
“Oh, you must be mistaken. Mrs. Penfield said the cottage has already been sold.”
“That can’t be.”
“But it’s true. She sold it to a man named Max.”
“Something to do with a club. After Max gets in he’ll sell the cottage to someone named Dick.”
“I don’t know, sir.”
Puff was stunned into silence. He’d always wanted the cottage and it was inconceivable to him that Dick should get it. Now he understood why the spite pole had been dismantled. It wasn’t a gesture of good will as Dick claimed, it was the opposite. Dick wanted Puff riding high so that when the fall came – when Puff found out he’d lost the cottage – it would hurt all the more.
Puff growled. The fight wasn’t over. If Max wanted to join Old Money, Puff could arrange a blackball just as well as anyone else. It didn’t matter whose brother Max was. This was a piece of real estate that Puff could not afford to lose.
“Young lady,” he said, “I need to be absolutely clear. You say that Mrs. Penfield sold her cottage to Max and Max is intending to sell it to Dick. But Max hasn’t sold it to Dick yet, has he? Am I right?”
“Yes, sir,” said Audrey.
“Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.” Puff took out his wallet and gave her a twenty dollar bill along with his card. “If you send me the name of your cleaning service I’d be happy to recommend it to my friends.”
He left the apartment and hailed a taxi that took him to the Pierre hotel.
The information Puff carried away from Dante’s apartment caused a small revolution in the affairs of almost everyone.
No Sense of Humor
Puff and Dick Burkus were once again at daggers drawn. They were engaged in a full scale war over ownership of Violet’s cottage and the spite pole which had been removed on Sunday morning was quickly re-installed late Monday afternoon.
Max Guberstein wasn’t happy either. He now found himself lodged between Puff’s rock and Dick’s hard place, and when he examined his chances of getting into the Old Money Club, he saw them diminish to nothing. Puff and Dick had each sworn to exact revenge unless Max coughed up the title to the cottage, but since there was only one title and two men wanting it, Max felt he was done for.
Naturally, Max looked for someone to blame and the first person that came to mind was Cecil Biddle. He subjected Cecil to two hours of raging abuse, after which Cecil was fired again and blacklisted for life. Under normal circumstances this would have been enough, but Max still had fury left over so the next person he went after was Violet. He cancelled her commission for the screenplay and put her next to Cecil on his blacklist. But since Violet wasn’t in the movie business, the blacklist was an unsatisfactory punishment, so he made the extra effort of calling Dante’s apartment every twenty minutes to leave rude messages on the answering machine.
Please leave a message at the beep: You bitch!
Please leave a message at the beep: You idiot!
Please leave a message at the beep: You goddamn English cow!
Violet never picked up but there was no doubt she found the messages unsettling. Even more unsettling, however, was a series of messages she received concerning Paisley Mischief. The first of them was from Rebecca Holland, who had now spoken to Trixie and arrived at the inescapable conclusion that Violet was the book’s author:
Hi. Rebecca Holland calling for Violet Penfield. I need to interview you about your novel. Why did you write it anonymously? Any plans for a sequel? Please call.
Rebecca may have thought she had a scoop but Trixie had such a large network of friends that the news was already widespread on Long Island.
Hello Violet. Dolly Smith here. I can just imagine why you’re not answering. This book of yours has caused a rumpus and it shows very poor judgment on your part. Cheap and tawdry in my opinion. How could you do it? I had no idea you were taking notes on our conversations. If I’d had any inkling I never would’ve spoken to you at all. Disgraceful!
There was also a nasty message from Puff and there were even messages from people Violet had never met, people like Nana Johnson:
This is for Violet Penfield. My name is Nana Johnson. How dare you write such a book? I’ll have you know there are legal ramifications to libel. My husband’s firm will be sending you a letter. You should be ashamed!
Violet was at her wit’s end. “Who’s Nana Johnson? I’ve never even heard of her.” “She’s a friend of Trixie’s,” said Dante. “She thinks she’s a character in Paisley Mischief. She’s the woman who tried to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” Violet protested. “How was I to know she wants to sleep with her daughter’s boyfriend? All I did was write a novel. I made it up.”
“You Americans are the most self-serious people in the world. No sense of humor whatever. I can’t stand it.”
Violet was fed up with New York. She had no desire to be hounded by pissy socialites like Nana Johnson and since she already had the money for Gascon’s restaurant, she decided to go home. She packed her bags and kissed Dante goodbye. She took a taxi to Kennedy airport, bought a ticket at the ticket counter and caught the six o’clock flight back to London.
After she left, Dante erased all the messages on the answering machine and unplugged the telephone. Then he collected the condoms from his bathroom, the safe sex pamphlet from his sock drawer and the copy of Jim & Michael from the living room bookcase, and he threw them all into the trash.
Dante heaved a sigh of relief and poured himself a glass of sherry. He kicked off his shoes and threw himself down on the sofa to marvel at the ways of fate.
A short while later there was a knock at the door and Cecil walked in.
“Mother’s just gone back to London,” said Dante. “Have a sherry with me.”
“Cat piss,” said Cecil. “Pure cat piss. Where’s Audrey?”
“Out buying groceries. She’ll be back in a minute.”
“I need to talk to that girl.”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you?” said Cecil, “Audrey was the one who blew Max’s chances at the club. It was Audrey that told Puff about the cottage.”
“She wasn’t even in the house.”
“As far as you know. Think for a minute. Puff comes running down to the Pierre Hotel and says your maid told him about the whole plan. What’s your maid’s name?”
“Right, so Lativia comes to vacuum once a week. How would she know that Dick’s getting the cottage? How would she know that Violet sold it to Max?”
“I never thought of that.”
“Then you’re a ninny,” said Cecil. “Don’t you see? Puff barged in and Audrey pretended she was the maid. She knew Puff wouldn’t recognize her. She gave away the scheme on purpose.”
“Why would she do that?”
Audrey walked in just as Dante finished asking the question.
“Let’s ask her,” said Cecil turning to Audrey. “Why did you tell Puff about Max selling the cottage to Dick?”
“Calm down,” said Audrey dismissively.
“Calm down?” said Cecil. “Have you ever spent a week in the same house as Penelope?”
Audrey remained unflappable. “You’re a good friend, Cecil, but the world does not revolve around you alone. I have to consider Dante, as well. Violet was threatening to live here for the next four months.”
“That’s better than ‘til death do us part.”
“Besides,” Audrey went on, “Do you think it’s fair that Violet gets her screenplay commissioned? Dante has been working on his movie for ages. If Max wants to buy a script he’s going to buy The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage. Otherwise he can go suck eggs.”
“You’re missing the point,” said Cecil. “Max isn’t going to buy any scripts. He just going to ruin my life.”
“Your life isn’t ruined,” said Dante. “You should have more faith in Audrey. I’m sure she has a backup in mind.”
Cecil threw up his hands. “There’s no time left. The election is tomorrow night. Max will get blackballed and next September I’ll be walking down the aisle with Penelope in a white dress.”
“You’d look good in a white dress,” said Audrey.
“That’s not funny.”
“Then stop your whining. You’re not married yet and if you keep your fingers crossed maybe you never will be. Max can still get into the Old Money Club. Stranger things have happened.”
“Unlikely,” said Cecil. His cell phone rang. It was Cat Penfield calling to invite him to dinner. Cecil accepted.
“Dinner with Cat,” he said peevishly. “I’m off to make hay while the sun still shines. And next time I ask for your help, Dante, whack me on the head with a brick.”
“I like him,” said Audrey once Cecil had left, “But he certainly can be tiresome.”
“Don’t be hard on him,” said Dante. “You’ve never met Penelope. You’d feel differently if you had. It’s not surprising he’s out of sorts.”
“But he’s such a defeatist, it’s annoying.”
“Do you really think there’s a chance Max will get into the club?”
“I should have thought it was obvious. Puff and Dick hate him. They both want the cottage but Max can’t sell it twice. And it’s not as though Max can to get into the club on the strength of his personal charm.”
“Well, we’ll see,” said Audrey smiling. “I might just have a chat with Max tomorrow.”
“Can I come?”
“No, I’d better go by myself.”
“It’s top secret?”
“Not even a hint?”
Dante’s stomach was grumbling. He’d skipped lunch in anticipation of stuffing himself at the admissions committee meeting dinner, but looking around the room he noticed the table wasn’t laid. He whispered into Mr. Bullard’s ear.
“Not on election night.”
“But I’m starving.”
“Have some nuts.”
Mr. Bullard pointed him to a side table where a bar had been set up. Dante poured himself a drink and scooped a large handful of mixed nuts out of a glass-lined silver bowl. John Newbury - known to Max as Happy Boy and the great seconder of motions - was putting ice into a tumbler.
“Watch out for the cashews. They’ll give you indigestion.”
“I like cashews.”
“Perhaps they don’t affect you in the same way they do me. They disagree with me. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked the house committee to change the nut mix. I don’t see why we can’t have plain roasted peanuts.”
Tweedle Barnes approached and Happy Boy melted away.
“Good evening, Dante.”
“I saw that friend of yours today. She stopped by to borrow the book you asked me about, The Senior Commoner.”
“Oh good,” said Dante. “I’m sure she’s pleased to get hold of a copy. Nice of you to lend it.”
“No trouble to me. She’s a lovely girl. Smart as a whip, too.”
Now Wainwright broke in on the conversation:
“What’s this? Tweedle’s got a girl?” The Colonel gave Tweedle a condescending pat on the shoulder and continued in his jocular manner. “How’s Mr. Ball Bearer tonight? Ready to collect your bottle? It’s life’s blood to you Tweedle, isn’t it? Pretty cushy appointment if you ask me. Come to our meetings twice a year and walk home with a bottle of Glenlivet. No wonder you’ve been doing it for fifteen years. The only job you could ever keep!”
The Colonel’s joke died and it was followed by an embarrassing silence which only ended when Dick Burkus rapped his knuckles on the dining table to call the meeting to order.
“Good evening gentlemen. Let’s take our places so we can get started.”
The members of the admissions committee arranged themselves in the same way as before. Dante, Newbury and Wainwright sat on one side of the table; Mr. Bullard, Jentsen (the Bleeding Heart) and Sears (the Pragmatist) on the other. Dick sat at the head of the table and Tweedle remained standing, just off to Dick’s left, looking uncharacteristically grave. His face was expressionless, his back was stiff and his head was held high in the air. If he’d been holding a tray you’d have thought he was a butler. It was Tweedle’s customary pose on election nights. He stood at attention as if to indicate the seriousness of the business at hand.
“Welcome to the 152nd spring elections,” Dick announced. The Old Money Club was 156 years old but there were four years during the World Wars when no elections were held. “Can I have a motion?”
“Motion to open the elections,” barked the Colonel.
“I second the motion,” said Happy Boy.
“Thanks,” said Dick. “Now you’re all familiar with the routine. As you know, I’m required to read the rules governing voting procedure before the election begins. If you’ll just bear with me for a minute, I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. Can you hand me the club rules, Tweedle?”
Tweedle stepped over to a bookcase and pulled out the rule book. It was a large volume bound in red leather with the club insignia embossed in gold on the spine. Dick flipped through it searching for the section on voting procedures. He cleared his throat and began to read:
Club Voting Procedures – Chapter Fifteen, Section Six: Twice a year new members may be elected to the club. The President of the admissions committee will announce each candidate in turn. After a short discussion period admissions committee members will place their vote. There is to be no bullying of committee members and each member must respect the decision of his fellows. Voting is done by secret ballot and members vote by placing either a white or black marble in the ballot box. A white marble is a vote for admission, a black marble is a vote against. All committee members must vote on each candidate and all votes in favor of admission must be unanimous. Committee members may not abstain.
After each candidate has been voted on, the Ball Bearer will carry the ballot box to the President’s office. The President must examine the contents of the box in the presence of the Vice-President and the Secretary. The Secretary may thereupon announce the results of the election and the President will inform each candidate of the club’s decision.
“Blah, blah, blah,” said Dick, closing the rule book and pushing it away.
Tweedle pushed it back: “I think you forgot something.”
Apparently this was a joke because a number of the committee members laughed.
“Just testing you, Tweedle,” said Dick. He opened the rule book again and read another short passage:
Club Voting Procedures – Chapter Fifteen, Section Eight: At the close of the elections, the Ball Bearer is entitled to a fifth of whiskey from a distillery of his choice. The bottle will be paid for by the club and the Ball Bearer need not sign a chit.
“Thank you,” said Tweedle decorously. He put the rule book back in the bookcase.
“Any questions?” asked Dick. “Remember, I want to keep things moving along. This is not the time to fight old battles. If you have to comment, keep it brief. Understood? Okay, let’s get started. The first candidate up for election is Charlie Blister, Danny Blister’s son. Can I get a motion to vote?”
“Motion,” said the Colonel.
“I second,” said Happy Boy.
“Motion to vote is seconded.” Dick looked at Dante and told him to stand up. “We do this in order of age, youngest to oldest. You’ll have to get us going.”
“I’ve never done this before. What do I do?”
“Pretty simple,” said Dick. He pointed to the far end of the room where a Chinese screen was set up. “The ballot box is behind the screen, next to bowl of marbles. Pick a marble and put it in the box.”
Dante went behind the screen. In front of him he found a mahogany box the size of a toaster oven and a large silver bowl overflowing with black and white marbles. He poked around for a while trying to figure out how the marbles got in the box. He tried lifting the lid but it was locked. At last he found a small hole drilled through the front of the box that was just big enough to fit a marble. Dante bent over and peeked inside the hole but it was dark. He reached for a marble.
White or black?
Dante hadn’t expected this to be a difficult decision but he was suddenly struck by the strange sense of his own importance. Everyone on the admissions committee expected Charlie Blister to get elected to the club as a matter of course. But it occurred to Dante that all he need do was a drop a black marble through the hole in the box and that expectation would be turned on its head.
Dante picked up a black marble and held it in his hand. It wasn’t that he disliked Charlie Blister, he was simply curious about the exercise of power. He’d never had such a clear chance to decide someone else’s future before and he wanted to know what it felt like.
“What the hell!”
Dick’s voice came booming from the other side of the Chinese screen and Dante was brought back to his senses. He replaced the black marble in the bowl and quickly reached for a white one. He popped it into the ballot box and stepped out from behind the screen.
“Were you growing a beard back there?” said Dick.
“Sorry. I had trouble finding the hole.”
“Don’t tell your girlfriend that. Alright Jentsen. Come on, you’re next.”
As the voting on Charlie Blister proceeded, Dante felt a growing tension. He’d meant to put a white marble in the box, but now he wasn’t sure. He might have grabbed a black one by mistake. It was so easy to get confused. And what if Charlie didn’t get elected? Everyone in the room would remember the long time Dante took casting his vote and they’d blame him for the blackball.
The oldest member on the admissions committee was Sears, the Pragmatist. He was the last to vote and when he stepped out from behind the screen, he carried the ballot box with him and handed it to Tweedle. Dante could hear the marbles rolling around inside and he crossed his fingers that they were all white. Tweedle left the room.
“Tweedle,” said Puff, who was happily ensconced in the President’s office. “Who’s the first candidate?”
“It’s Charlie Blister.”
“Very good. Give me the ballot box.”
Puff unlocked it with a small key he kept in his desk drawer. He opened the top and asked the Vice-President and the Secretary to look inside. After examining the contents it was up to the Secretary to make the official announcement:
“Seven members of the admissions committee and seven white marbles. Charlie Blister is a member of the Old Money Club.”
Puff took out all the marbles, locked the box up again and handed it back to Tweedle, who returned to the admissions committee room and replaced it behind the screen.
The next two votes passed without incident. Mark Sawyer and Billy Simington were both elected to the club and neither result came as a surprise to anyone.
The fourth candidate of the night, however, provided a bit of controversy. The candidate was Darius Vajpayee, the Indian son-in-law of Hammy Thomas. Dick and the Colonel came out firmly against him, but Jentsen, the Bleeding Heart, insisted on making an impassioned speech on his behalf. It was a lost cause. Mr. Vajpayee was not only turned down, he received three black balls, meaning that he was prohibited from becoming a candidate for club membership ever again.
The last man up for election was Max Guberstein, and here too there was a fair amount of discussion. Sears and Jentsen were in favor, Happy Boy chose not express an opinion and Wainwright sat on the fence. After a brief lull in the debate, Dick took the opportunity to speak:
“Before we motion to vote, I’d like to say a few words myself. As you know, I had dinner with Max a few days ago and I promised the committee a report.”
Dante braced himself for a firestorm but Dick showed no strong emotion. His tone was mild, his words were generous.
“I found Max to be excellent company,” said Dick. “He’s a decent man and a smart man. After our dinner together I can honestly say I’d be pleased to have him as a fellow member. I think he’d make a good addition to the club.”
This little speech caught Dante so off guard that one of the nuts he was eating got stuck in his throat, prompting a short fit of coughing.
“It’s the cashews,” Newbury murmured.
“Do we have a motion?” asked Dick.
“Hold on,” said Mr. Bullard. “If I may, I’d like to add a few comments of my own about Max Guberstein. I want the committee to understand that I’m in perfect agreement with Dick. Max would make an excellent addition to the club. And I’m not speaking for myself alone, I’m also speaking for Puff Penfield. Puff asked me to advise the committee that he considers Max a good friend and every bit deserving of membership.”
“Well, well,” spluttered the Colonel. “I must admit, I had my doubts about Guberstein. But if Dick and Puff are squarely behind him, I see no reason not to go along with their judgment. I’m for it.”
“Anyone else?” asked Dick. The room was silent. “Motion?”
“Motion to vote,” said Sears.
“I second the motion,” said Newbury.
Dante’s head was spinning. Audrey, he said to himself, must be a genius. How did she do it? Both Dick and Puff had stood up for Max’s election. What had happened to change their minds?
Were Dante less naive he might have guessed the answer to this question, and the answer had nothing to do with Audrey. It had to do with Violet’s cottage. Dick and Puff were simply posturing. Dick was going to blackball Max, and Mr. Bullard, on Puff’s instructions, was going to do the same. The kind words were entirely insincere. They were only spoken on the assumption that whatever was said at the meeting would eventually get back to Max. Both Dick and Puff still wanted to buy the cottage and each of them was planning to blame the other when Max got rejected at the club.
Dante was still puzzling over the turn of events when he rose from his chair and went behind the Chinese screen to cast his vote. He put a white marble in the ballot box and returned to his seat. The rest of the committee members voted in turn. Sears voted last and afterwards handed the box to Tweedle. Tweedle carried it up to the President’s office.
With the elections almost through, the Vice-President was smoking a cigar while Puff and the club Secretary were chatting amiably about the evils of trade unionism. Tweedle interrupted them.
“The ballot for Max Guberstein.”
“Thank you,” said Puff. “If I’m not mistaken this is the last of the night.”
“Very good then, Mr. Ball Bearer. Here’s to a job well done.”
Puff leant down behind his desk and gave Tweedle a bottle of whiskey. Tweedle opened it and poured himself two fingers. He took a sip and cleared his throat.
“If you don’t mind,” said Tweedle, “I have an announcement of sorts. This will be the last time I drink from the Ball Bearer’s bottle. I want to resign.”
“Tweedle!” Puff exclaimed.
“Why would you do that?” asked the Secretary.
“Because I’m resigning from the club. I’m giving up my membership.”
“You can’t,” said Puff. “You’re an institution.”
“Old Money is the institution. I’m just an old man.”
“But what are you going to do with yourself?”
“I’m going to leave the city,” said Tweedle. “I’m tired. I’ve lived in Manhattan for decades and I’ve never really liked it. I want a change of scenery.”
“Old dogs and new tricks, Tweedle,” said the Secretary wagging his finger.
“I hope that’s not true.”
“Of course it’s not true,” said Puff gently. “We wish you the best of luck. We’ll miss you.”
“Thanks,” said Tweedle. “Can I offer anyone a drink? You might as well accept because I don’t want to take the bottle home.”
“I’m giving up the habit.”
“Give up booze?” said Puff. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Never better,” Tweedle replied.
Puff, the Vice-President and the Secretary stared at Tweedle in disbelief. Then they all stood up to shake his hand. Tweedle gave them each a drink and made a toast to the club.
“Right,” said Puff. “Back to business. The ballot box for Max Guberstein.”
He unlocked the top with his little key and casually flipped open the lid without even bothering to look inside.
“Max Guberstein has been blackballed,” said Puff. He turned to the club Secretary. “Do me a favor. Would you mind calling him in my place? I have a certain relationship with Max and I’d rather not deliver the bad news myself.”
“Hold on,” said the Secretary, “You’ve gotten ahead of yourself.”
“A simple telephone call,” said Puff.
“No, wait,” said the Vice-President peering closely into the ballot box and counting to himself. “Yes, they’re all there. Seven members of the admissions committee and seven white marbles.”
“What?” cried Puff.
The Secretary confirmed the count.
“Seven white marbles,” he said, “Max Guberstein is a member of the Old Money Club.”
Puff snatched the box towards himself and stared down into it. The Secretary was right. Seven white marbles. Max had been elected to the club. Puff looked like he’d been punched in the stomach.
A Perfectly Capable Young Man
A fortnight later, as waiters in tuxedos scurried back and forth with their silver trays passing hors d’oeuvres, Max stood by himself in the corner of the Pratt room nursing a club soda with lime. It was the Old Money Club’s semi-annual dinner for new members and the entire club was present. Close by, Max could hear Charlie Blister and his father talking excitedly with four other men about the results of the most recent court tennis tournament.
And there was not a nerve in Max’s body that felt the slightest urge to join them.
“Max Guberstein!” said Jentsen coming over to shake his hand. “Just wanted to congratulate you. It’s good to have you on board.”
“Thanks,” said Max barely managing to sound friendly. The Bleeding Heart had been useful when Max was up for election but there was no reason to cultivate the friendship further.
“We need more men like you in the club,” said Jentsen. “We need more people with a social conscience, people interested in giving back. I heard about your gift to the Balawala Elephant Park. It was very generous.”
Max sensed where Jentsen was going and gave him a cold stare. Jentsen was undeterred.
“As it happens I have special interest in species conservation myself. Education is the most important thing, we have to get young people involved. Which is why I’m active with ISWI - the Independent Schools Wildlife Initiative. I was hoping you might want to join me on the board of directors.”
Max laughed and Jentsen stiffened:
“It’s a serious matter, Max. We take exotic animals around to boarding schools all over New England. We’re teaching the concept of biodiversity to our next generation of leaders.”
“I’m a movie producer,” said Max. “Not a zoo keeper.”
On the other side of the Pratt Room, Dick Burkus was drinking whiskey and talking to Mr. Bullard.
“I must say the new membership lists came as something of a shock,” said Mr. Bullard.
“You’re telling me.”
Dick chewed his lip and stared over at Max. It was a riddle he couldn’t figure out. In the days since the election Dick had asked himself countless times how he could’ve gotten so confused, how he could’ve put a white marble in the ballot box instead of a black. In all his years on the admissions committee it had never happened before and looking back on election night he still couldn’t believe it. He could see the black marble in his fingertips. He could’ve sworn he put in the box.
“One thing I don’t understand,” said Dick.
“What’s that?” asked Mr. Bullard.
“This is just between us. I know you and Puff have a relationship and I’m not asking you to reveal any secrets. But I’ve known Puff for ages and I’d swear on my life he didn’t want Max Guberstein to get into the club. How come you spoke up for Max at the elections? How come Puff didn’t ask you to blackball him?”
Mr. Bullard pursed his lips. “I suppose I could ask you the same questions.”
Although he was too discreet to discuss it, Mr. Bullard was also deeply puzzled by the election results. Because the fact was, Puff did ask him to blackball Max. And Mr. Bullard had meant to do so. Indeed, he thought he had. Mr. Bullard could picture the black marble in his hand; he could picture himself dropping it into the ballot box.
“Well it’s bullshit if you ask me,” said Dick. He stared hard at Mr. Bullard trying to see behind his eyes, but to no avail. Mr. Bullard wasn’t about to admit anything.
“No use crying over spilt milk,” he said. “What’s done is done and Max is here to stay. The only way to get rid of him now is if he stops paying his dues, and I think that’s unlikely. We might as well make the best of it. I’m going over to say hello. Do you want to come with me?”
“You go ahead,” said Dick.
Max was talking to Dante as Mr. Bullard approached.
“Okay, it’s not a complete pile of garbage but I still have to hire a someone to fix it. First of all, the title is unusable: The Darkness of Daisy’s Back Passage. Are you kidding me?”
“You can change the title,” said Dante.
“You’re goddamn right I can. I bought the option. I can change whatever I want.”
“What else needs fixing?” asked Dante.
“The ending,” said Max. “The ending doesn’t work.”
In Dante’s latest version of the script he’d decided that he liked Daisy too much to convict her of murder, so he turned the story around to make her innocent. In the new version, Daisy’s husband dies of an ordinary heart attack and in the end Caleb Astor realizes as much and asks her to marry him. Max thought this was outrageous.
“You can’t write a murder mystery and then tell me there was no murder. That’s practically breach of contract. If this was a normal deal I’d stop payment on the check. When you write for the movies you have to be fair to the audience.”
Mr. Bullard stepped forward: “So that screenplay of yours worked out, Dante? Good for you.”
“Hi, Mr. Bullard.”
“Hello,” said Mr. Bullard. “And hello to you Max. Let me shake your hand. Welcome to the Old Money Club.”
The new members dinner proceeded far into the night. Cocktails led to dinner which led to wine and coffee and brandy. Speech followed upon speech and toast followed upon toast. With the exception of Max everyone got fairly drunk and Charlie Blister passed out cold in the billiards room at two o’clock in the morning.
By that time, however, Dante had long since gone to bed. Dante went home early because he and Audrey had to fill a moving van and drive it out to Long Island the next day.
There wasn’t much furniture in the little apartment on 81st street and it took less than an hour to pack everything up. Dante and Audrey drove south down 2nd Avenue, over the Queensboro Bridge and along Queens Boulevard onto the Long Island Expressway. When they arrived at Violet’s cottage it was eleven o’clock and Tweedle Barnes was standing in the driveway to greet them. He wore a pair of old denim coveralls and he kissed Audrey lightly on the cheek.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“Like a dream,” said Tweedle. “My first night in the cottage and I felt more comfortable than I have in forty years. I don’t know how to thank you two.”
“Don’t thank me,” said Dante, “It was Audrey’s idea.”
Dante and Tweedle looked at her in open admiration. There was no taking away the fact that she was a very resourceful girl.
“Stop it,” said Audrey.
Dante and Audrey unloaded the moving van with Tweedle telling them where to put everything. The unloading went quickly and afterwards Tweedle made coffee in the kitchen.
“I found an old roto-tiller in the tool shed this morning. If I can fiddle the engine, I could have a vegetable garden planted before the beginning of June. That would give us tomatoes in August. Milk and sugar for either of you? If you don’t mind, I prefer mine warmed up a bit.”
Tweedle reached into a cabinet above the sink and poured a splash of whiskey into his coffee mug.
“I thought you were giving it up,” said Audrey.
“Oh I was, I was. But I couldn’t last past the third day. Didn’t have the will power and besides, it threw my system out of whack. Terrible stomach aches. So I thought, who needs it? Change needn’t be radical. Leaving Manhattan is a big enough step for now.”
They all sat in silence for a while drinking their coffee.
In the middle of the kitchen table was a small glass bowl with two black marbles in it. Dante picked them up and started playing with them absentmindedly. Tweedle smiled:
“Those belong to Max. I saved them for good luck.”
“Just curious,” said Dante. “But how did you get the ballot box open? Did you pick the lock?”
“Nothing as complicated as that. I probably could’ve if I’d had to - it’s only a wooden box – but I didn’t have to. I borrowed the key from Puff’s desk and made a copy of it in the afternoon before the elections started.”
“Nobody found out?”
“If they did, I’m too old to bother about them.”
“And Max didn’t make any fuss about leasing the cottage? Is he making you pay rent?”
“No, Audrey took care of that,” said Tweedle raising his mug to her.
“My pleasure,” said Audrey. She looked at her watch. “We should probably be going. We have to get back to the city to meet the new head of GoldStream Pictures at six o’clock.”
Cecil was flying to Los Angeles the next day but he insisted on taking Audrey and Dante out for a celebration dinner before he left.
“Visit again soon,” said Tweedle.
“We will,” Audrey replied.
She and Dante got in the van and drove west back to Manhattan along the expressway. They dropped off the rental van on 96th street and walked home through the lengthening shadows of late afternoon.
“What’s wrong?” said Audrey.
“I don’t believe you, Dante. You haven’t said a word since we left Tweedle’s. There’s something buzzing in your head, I can tell. What is it?”
Too shy to look Audrey in the face, Dante stared at the sidewalk and tried to collect his thoughts. He felt butterflies in his tummy and when he started to speak he had to make a great effort to prevent his voice from cracking.
“Are you really moving to Iowa?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“But do you want to? Is your heart set on it? I mean, don’t you like it in New York anymore?”
“Don’t be silly, Dante. Of course I like New York. I love it here. But they’re offering me a lot more money to study in Iowa. It doesn’t make sense to turn them down.”
“Because I want to keep studying and in Iowa they’ll pay for my PhD. I couldn’t afford it otherwise.”
“What if you could though?” asked Dante. “What if you could afford to keep studying in New York?”
“But I can’t.”
Dante was silent for a moment.
“You know I got something in the mail from MindGone Pictures last week. It was a check from Max, the option money he paid me for my screenplay. Do you know how much it was for?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It was $45,000,” said Dante. “That’s roughly the same amount of money as the difference between what they’d give you in Iowa and what you’d get if you did your doctorate here.”
“I never properly earned the money,” Dante continued. “You did. If it weren’t for you, Max wouldn’t have bought the screenplay, so really the money should be yours. And if you took it you could stay in New York.”
“I can’t take that money,” said Audrey.
“Oh, but you must. You have to. I’d hate it if you left. I’d fall apart in an instant.”
“You wouldn’t fall apart. You’d do just fine. You’re a perfectly capable young man.”
Dante bowed his head and Audrey felt overcome by tenderness. She refused to cry but she reached out to touch Dante’s hand.
“Won’t you please take the money?” he said.
Audrey wondered what to do. Her pride tempted her to refuse but when she looked in Dante’s eyes she saw that pride is sometimes just another word for stubbornness. It’s a foolish thing and often best ignored.
“I’m very happy where I am,” she said.
“So you’ll you take it?”
Audrey said she would.