“Ah, the hottest man in town!” Webster Edwards greeted his father.
Ivan grimaced but smiled as well as he passed his son and entered the house.
“Hitting on another widow?” Web asked.
“This isn’t funny, son,” Ivan said, shaking out of his overcoat, unwrapping his scarf, and removing his hat and gloves. He looked around carefully before finding a small throw rug on which to stamp his snow-covered boots.
“No, but it could be a lot of fun, couldn’t it? Want a drink?”
“Yes, I do. I’m on my way to Vivien Merrin’s for dinner.”
“In this weather? She must be desperate!”
“Very funny. Where’s the drink?”
“You don’t really need Dutch courage, Dad. You can handle all this.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not a sex symbol.”
“Is that what you are? I thought you were just a middle-aged man, alive and upright, in not bad health, with a little loose change in his pocket and suddenly on the market.”
“All of that is true,” Ivan said. “And I don’t think of myself as any great catch, either. I’m just available.”
Webster poured two fingers of Scotch into a glass and handed it to his father.
“Thanks, son,” Ivan said, sipping.
“I don’t know why you’re so uptight, Dad. You’ve been swimming in these waters for nearly a year. No hungry female has snapped you up yet. It’s all a matter of attitude,” Webster said.
“Well, I certainly don’t feel like Robert Redford,” admitted Ivan. “Even with your mother, I never felt particularly sexy. We were friends, of course, and lovers. But we were used to each other, to each other’s quirks. It’s amazing how endearing those things seem now.”
Webster nodded. “That was then, Dad.” he said. “Now you’re alone, and every solitary woman in Rhineberry has set her cap for you. You need to be able to deflect, if you want to. Of course, if you don’t, that’s another story entirely.”
“I don’t even know about that,” Ivan said rather sorrowfully. “I liked being married, you know. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
“And where does love fit into all this?”
Ivan shrugged. “If one gets lucky, Web, I suppose….”
“So tell me about your drinks date with Mary Robertson.”
Ivan swallowed more Scotch. “Actually, that gave me a lot of confidence. It didn’t go badly at all. I played the honesty card.”
“I would have expected that.”
Ivan had had cocktails with Mary Robertson, a slim, sweet woman of a certain age whose concern for his welfare Ivan felt was absolutely genuine. They’d been standing at a sideboard in her livingroom, making drinks, passing them from hand to hand.
“Relax, Ivan. One drink can’t do much harm.” Mary watched him sip his drink delicately. “You act like a teen-ager, for God’s sakes. I’m not going to ‘try’ anything. Besides, what would be the harm if I did?”
“None, I guess,” said Ivan. “But you might be disappointed.”
“Oh, Ivan, Laura wasn’t, was she?”
“It’s just that—sometimes I…”
“I just don’t know whether…”
Mary sat at the end of a couch, drink in hand. “How can you ever know, darling? How can any of us ever know? I think we should just be grateful we’re not kids anymore. We have the time and the patience to find things out.”
Ivan sat as well, trying not to perch himself out of reach. “The thing is, Mary,” and he took a deep breath, “…there’s something I think you ought to know.”
Mary gave a bright laugh. “Not someone else?” But Ivan didn’t reply. “It’s not something medical, is it?”
“Oh, Mary, I’m not sure we ought even to talk about it.” Ivan had had absolutely no idea of what he would say next.
“Ivan, what is it? Are you ill?”
Ivan shook his head. “It’s just that my therapist…”
Ivan grinned with becoming embarrassment. “Therapist. When Laura died, after that, we had some very helpful sessions. We’ve been able to deal with a lot of different issues.” He sighed. “One of them was sex.”
Mary tried to keep enthusiasm from her voice. “Yes? What about it?”
“It’s confusing, Mary. I want to, you know. I’d really like to, but…” he looked into his lap.
“Oh, poor Ivan! I’m sure it’s just temporary. After all, you’ve lost your wife, your entire last thirty years. It must have been traumatic.”
Ivan nodded sadly, not yet feeling a heel.
“Ivan, I’m truly grateful you confided in me.”
Mary inhaled, sure of herself now, full of misplaced sympathy. She felt really rather grand. “These things happen. To every man. I’m sure your therapist told you that. Your energies deflate. Your attention wanders. Especially when you’ve been through…what you have. I’m so flattered you feel comfortable enough with me to be honest.”
Ivan reached out for one of Mary’s hands as he started to stand. “You’re very understanding, Mary. Laura always thought you were probably the brightest of her friends.”
Mary stood up at the same time, immeasurably pleased. “Oh, no, surely not. It’s just that we’ve known each other so long, Ivan. I care for you, you know.”
Ivan nodded and edged his way towards the front door. Outside, he smiled broadly. Safe! He could handle these assaults; he could handle them very well if he simply took his time.
“I never knew you were such a good actor, Dad,” Webster Edwards said admiringly.
Ivan handed his glass back to his son, who topped it off. “Well, even though I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol, they do. They deserve some care and thoughtfulness, after all.”
“You sound as though you’re fond of all these harpies,” Webster said. “Also, that sounds as though you’re beginning to have a little fun.”
“Guilty,” Ivan admitted.
“Who? Which one? Which ones?”
“We don’t live in a dorm, son. This isn’t warm beer and memories of last night’s grab in the balcony.”
“Well, good for you, old fella. Hell, this is the age of test-flying…anything! You don’t buy a new car without driving it around the block.” Webster laughed. ‘Or even a used one.”
Ivan grinned. “You can make some great deals. The market is glutted.”
“Remember, you don’t get warranties like you used to.”
“Are you referring to age or condition?” Ivan laughed. “I have become a walking Consumer’s Guide. Within my own limits, of course.”
“Of course. But…,” Webster hesitated, “you can still — do it?”
“I believe so,” Ivan said slyly.
“Hey! My old man hustles used cars!”
Ivan was feeling increasingly confident, although also a little uneasy, truth be told. Ivan had laughed to be considered a sex symbol. The old Hollywood line, uttered by some beauteous busty starlet eons ago, came to him instantly. “I don’t want to be a sex symbol, I want to be an actress.”
In his more sober moments, Ivan realized his position was not funny. Alone for the first time in many years, he felt dead in the water. He went daily into his bank to attend to the sorts of affairs a bank president would: setting policy, doing community work, keeping track of the bank’s expansion plans. He lunched with old friends. At the end of the day, he returned to his emptied home, no longer surprised by its lack of warmth and companionship. His son might pick him up for dinner. His daughter, her husband and their four-month old daughter might come for a weekend visit.
One good thing had come of all this, although Ivan had paid a heavy price. After Laura died, he and his son became friends. Previously, they had been father and son, one supportive, the other reluctantly needy. Web had just finished getting his degree and his first job — he knew how lucky he was to be working at all — was teaching poetry not far from Rhineberry at a SUNY campus. It was a field in which Ivan had neither much experience or interest, although it did make him smile to listen to his son speak, since Web had developed a rather entertaining speech pattern — extended metaphors mixed with increasingly fantastic stretches into the might-have-been, or was-and-who-knew?
A new trust existed in their relationship, and a willingness to listen, not to mention a definite leaning towards being courteous and kind.
Everyone Ivan knew had become kind. Many were more than kind. Some were positively eager. Ivan was surrounded by well-meaning women, most of whom had been good friends with his wife. Each seemed to think that she alone could help him in his distress, lighten his load, brighten his days.
“If I were six inches taller, five years younger,” Ivan confided in Webster. “Maybe that’s it, not their ages but mine. I mean, life…hell, sex…love has changed so much since your mother and I were married.”
“Is it the new attitudes that cause the confusion?”
“This all sounds so egotistical,” Ivan laughed weakly. “The thing is, I know these women. I’m the man who knows too much. I mean, late at night, over drinks — you know — I’ve heard almost all about them, their lives, their times with their husbands.”
“You think if you were to make love to one of them, you couldn’t any longer feel comfortable towards her?”
“I think,” Ivan explained, “in a small town, that if I did sleep with one of them…and not the others…I’d be lynched!” He laughed self-consciously. “I’m not even convinced it’s me they want. They just seem to want someone.”
Webster nodded. “If women have been good wives, mothers, lovers, why should all that talent go to waste?” Webster inhaled and decided to go for it. “You know, Dad, you don’t have to fuck unless you want to.”
Ivan turned bright red.
“I know, I know,” Webster half-apologized. “But at least not until it’s appealing and worth something to you. Look, these women may not all expect a trip down the aisle. Some may just want to offer solace. Don’t feel guilty about it. Be yourself. Just get comfortable with yourself.”
“That seems like very simple advice.”
“And therefore, good,” agreed Webster. “Don’t let others make you nervous. If dining at someone’s home seems a trap, go out. See the women you want, but in public. Relieve the pressure you anticipate. Be gentle and courteous and as attractive as you are without necessarily being passive. If you see something, feel something, go with it. Learn to relax. That’s all the new attitudes really are. Common sense and relaxation.”
Ivan grinned. “You don’t say? That’s all?”
Webster laughed. “That’s all. You’re sharp enough to get out of tight spots. You handled Mary Robertson brilliantly.”
Ivan finished his drink and bundled up again against the weather. There was increasing and area-wide hope that the blackout would soon end. Traffic on the roadways was still slight, gasoline mostly unavailable. The temperature out-of-doors was slightly above forty. A few souls even emerged from their homes either just to stand on their front steps smoking in what passed for a tropical breeze, or even to walk a few steps to test their now-rarely used sea-legs.
Vivian Merrin was a tougher bird than Mary Robertson. Tall, distant but commanding, Vivian was used to calling her own shots. The ones she couldn’t – — as when her husband Philip ran off with a woman twenty years younger than she — did not produce panic or sadness. In the end, and Ivan was convinced Vivian felt this way, because Philip had been Vivian’s husband, he was punished more than he would have been ordinarily. Making Vivian, of course, triumphant yet dignified when he was caught by a halyard and flipped overboard during an America’s Cup race, never to be found again.
Vivian Merrin was a beautiful, diffident, forbidding figure to her contemporaries. She was also not very much liked. She treated her friends as servants, perhaps not meaning to, perhaps not even realizing she did so.
Philip Merrin had built an enormous, imposing, yet tasteful stone house overlooking the Hudson, complete with a boathouse at water’s edge, and outbuildings for storage, workshops, exercise. He had also erected a widow’s dower house, although he never referred to it in those terms, into which Vivian moved upon his death. Cannily, she sold the larger home for several million dollars.
Always well dressed, elegant, soft-spoken, Vivian gave the impression of being descended from a long line of silent but deadly consorts in middle Europe’s early nineteenth century. She became inadvertently — no, nothing was inadvertent with Vivian, Ivan amended as he drove — the authority in Rhineberry on manners, clothing, entertaining, politics, philanthropy.
Ivan wondered whether this blackout would have inconvenienced her at all. He doubted it. While others might be siphoning gasoline from their neighbors’ cars, Vivian would have installed a gigantic industrial-sized back-up generator and without guilt of any sort would have paid exorbitantly to get what extra fuel she needed. Ivan never for a moment doubted that her home would be warm and comfortable, regardless how others in Rhineberry might suffer under veiny but cold electric blankets, or even under old Army-issue ones in a shelter somewhere.
Rhineberry was adjusting to its isolation. People were finding ways of making do. Public shelters filled slowly, people at first reluctant to admit that life had overwhelmed their resources and hating to be seen, or even imagined, as needy. Families moved in with families, friends moved in with generated friends. Some people were making money, as in the days of Prohibition, by running batteries and foodstuffs into towns along the river. No one seemed to miss a daily newspaper.
The streets and alleys of Rhineberry were cleared of each night’s snowfall, mounds and drifts often reaching the eight to ten foot level, shoveled or plowed, where the snow froze in its new positions. Often people could not open their front doors or even, on a day that promised a break in the frigid and determined front that continually descended from Canada, open a window.
Not everyone, Ivan had heard, was making do. There was that retired dairy farmer who lived alone perhaps ten or twelve miles west of town, an old man set in his ways and unknown to most although not to Ivan whose bank had been underwriting the man’s efforts for years. Fearing he had been forgotten, running perilously low on supplies, he had skied resourcefully one midnight through the fields and hillsides that led up to Rhineberry’s hospital, clearly hoping for assistance. He had been shot by armed guards at the hospital’s perimeter. True, he made it into the safety and security of the hospital, but he also died there.
Vivian’s front door was pulled open by an overcoated woman who also wore a stocking cap, gloves, and knee-high leather boots. “Thank you, dear,” Vivian called unseen from another room.
Ivan smiled politely at ‘dear’ and watched as she picked her way down a slight icy slope towards an old Japanese sedan. “Hello?” he called, pulling the door shut behind him. “Vivian?”
Vivian materialized in an archway of the entry. “Ivan” she said as though confirming his reality. She held out a be-ringed hand, and then a second one, as she took a step towards him. “It’s good of you to visit shut-ins in this weather.”
Ivan laughed companionably. “It’s not out of the kindness of my heart,” he said lightly. “I expect to be fed.”
Vivian clasped her hands in front of her body. Her silvered-brown hair was cut longish, nearly sitting on her shoulder blades. The blades themselves were visible, completely, as she was wearing a nonseasonal ensemble: a gray flannel hostess gown, cut deeply in front, topped at the shoulders by an Nepalese cashmere shawl of pale green. The heat from the livingroom behind her made the hallway nearly tropical.
“My goodness,” said Ivan, “it feels as though we’re in Jamaica. And you look lovely, Vivian.”
Vivian lowered her eyes in acknowledgment before reaching out for Ivan’s hand to lead him into a livingroom suite that resembled nothing so much as a room in Charles Foster Kane’s aerie.
“I let Mary go,” Vivian said meaningfully. “It’s unfair to keep servants longer than you need, and in this weather. Really, I am perfectly capable of serving us myself.”
Ivan looked at the fireplace, which divided the reception area from a diningroom, blazing away heartily. “What a wonderful weather-tight hide-away you have, Vivian.”
“It is, isn’t it?” she agreed easily. “Can you make your own drink?”
Ivan could and did, and one for his hostess, before seating himself at the end of an overly plush divan on the back of which lay three or four more cashmere throws. “Cheers,” he offered.
Vivian raised her glass.
The pre-prandial conversation was light and general between them. The weather, of course, and the blackout; Vivian’s sister, Valerie, the “bad girl” of the family — and Ivan’s wife’s favorite therefore; the general state of Rhineberry mid-crisis. A second drink was made.
Ivan was perfectly happy to be led to inconsequential chatter by his hostess, avoiding the occasional barbed comment about one friend or another although not avoiding looking at Vivian’s rather splendid breasts, the tops of which shifted alluringly as she spoke and gestured.
As Ivan provided Vivian with a listener for her points of view, nearly all personal as opposed to political, he also remembered to ask leading but non-threatening questions along the way. Without particularly meaning to, Ivan had slipped into his bank-president persona, which was both comfortable and well-practiced. And having done so, he could concentrate on how he felt about Vivian’s attire and what presumably it might lead to. More importantly, how did he feel about that distant moment? Was he comfortable with its immanence? Would that moment be welcomed if it arrived? Would this be how and with whom he would step again into the conjugal world?
After dinner, Vivian returned from a distant serving pantry carrying coffee on a tray of demi-tasse cups with sugar, and milk. And while she had protested that she spent too much time worrying over what her sister did and did not do, and to whom, she was still on the same treadmill.
“I can’t imagine she did that on purpose,” Ivan said.
“I would hate to think so, but really, I do.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong, Vivian. Val’s a very caring person.”
Vivian snickered unpleasantly. “As so many men have good reason to know. Would you care for coffee, Ivan?”
Ivan stood suddenly at his place. “I’d love it, if you’ll excuse me for just a moment.”
He exited towards a distant bathroom, leaving Vivian to sit patiently, calmly, securely. She smiled to herself. After a long moment, she leaned forward, having, it seemed, made a decision.
She sat at the edge of her chair and began to wriggle out of the top of her dress, letting it fall to her waist. She looked down to examine her breasts with pleasure. Hearing Ivan return, she straightened, put an arm atop the table, and waited patiently.
Ivan re-entered the dining salon, rubbing his hands. Without looking at Vivian, he pulled out his chair and sat again. “You have such a beautiful home, Vivian. It must give you so much pl…”
There was no way he could pretend not to notice. At first he wanted to laugh, but his good manners overcame the urge. What should a gentleman do? It was clear what Vivian expected.
Vivian was motionless, expectant. Her face was highly colored and quite lovely if a bit over-confident.
“You know, Laura and I never had the patience to search out, to really collect good pieces the way you and Philip did.”
Vivian waited for Ivan’s reaction.
“I suppose we had a little less to spend, what with the kids and all, you know.” He took a large breath. “This is wonderful coffee, Vivian.”
Vivian reached slowly for her coffee, thereby hiding at least one breast.
“I suppose you have to make a choice when you’re young, don’t you think? With kids, you just know where all the money’s going to go: schools, summer camps, clothes for God’s sakes…”
Vivian raised her other hand, wrapping both around the warmth of her coffee cup.
“…and you never know when an arm is going to break, or someone needs braces, or should be sent off to camp…”