RHINEBERRY, a novel

Overture

BROOM-CLEAN

It wasn’t, of course. None of it.  Not the main house,or the garage, or the little barn, or the tool shed.

At first Michael had been angry — taken advantage of.  He and Pru had waited to take possession until the last day before Thanksgiving.  He had wanted to make a celebration of the event, buying a country place that, as the realtors would have it, needed TLC.

The plan was to leave the city in a leisurely way, after the rush north had begun.  They were going to stay Thanksgiving Eve at Pru’s mother’s house in Bedford.  That would satisfy the family holiday requirement.  The next day they would motor farther north, cross the river at Newburgh, do a little light shopping in convenience stores for food supplies and necessities, and arrive at the hilltop acreage noonish.  They would walk the property, then follow that perhaps by  a few hours of lightcleaning.

They could fire up the little hibachi, extracted from their car’s trunk, and with drinks in hand turn the veal steaks they had purloined from Pru’s mother, reveling in their privacy and good fortune.

Michael imagined making love.  They were both enthusiastic love-makers, especially as they traveled, knowing that afterwards they wouldn’t have to remake the bed or air the sheets.  They could dress comfortably and descend to some hotel diningroom, knowing that when they returned upstairs, their room would be pristine once again and, who knew, they might play once more.

If the house were clean, they might make love in every room over the weekend.

Pru was no more practical than her husband, although a little more skeptical of the ways of the world as advertised.  She had held Michael’s hand as he maneuvered their Audi wagon upthe long dirt driveway and as they caught sight of what they hoped would be a home to keep and pass on years later to their children.

At first the place looked much as they remembered, although a little seedier for being unattended for a while, almost inadvertently ominous.  They disembarked and, hand-in-hand, approached the expansive porch that ran below the eyebrows of the colonial four bedroom clapboarded house.

The grass around was dry and dying.  Clouds above swam slowly in a southeast direction.  Pru looked up at the eyebrows above the first floor and imagined them to be scowling in her direction.

From the porch they could see the expanse of the valley below but importantly they could not be seen from the road on which they had traveled, or hear distant neighbors.  Pru felt a tiny tremor at the thought they were more isolated than she recalled.

The porch faced south, into the last of autumn’s sunlight.  There were fruit trees scattered among the scrub and pines on the deeded four acres.  An attempt at a garden could be hazily imagined to the west of  the house, and a tiny rill would be heard after heavy rains.

The hillsides that seemed to escalator up and down from the river’s edge were still dark with changing maples, oak, Norway pine, sycamores and as yet still healthy hemlocks.  Running down to the river were euwanabus and yews, and the remains of a colorful purple invasive species of wild flower.  Only a few chimneys reached out of the green confusion, one or two with whisps of smoke trailing up into the air.

Even to each other Michael and Pru did not refer to their new homestead as a compound but one might in one’s imagination.  The outbuildings flanked the main house, as a tiny armada might a battlehsip.  The barn stood stolidly to the east, only fifty feet away, destined in time to become Michael’s office.  Just behind this was the unattached garage, leaning in the direction of thehouse.  The tool shed hunkered down on the west, its doors padlocked.

What had entranced them both was the opportunity to remake a New England style homestead while they lived in it.  Michael was just thirty-six, and Pru a year younger.  To say that they had been blessed was understaement, although in fact they had worked hard to amasss their nest-egg.  They both fell silent when, with friends, they heard condemnation of Wall Street.

Once the house was properly wired, Pru anticipated keeping her clients happy long-distance, with only the occasional night in New York required. Michael, for his part, could edit and write for his online political magazine via the Internet. And when children arrived, if they could find a good dependable woman to come in each day, they would continue to prosper.

“Well, shit!”  Michael had finally  unlocked the front door and taken a first step over the threshold.  He snapped on the lights, not even thinking how lucky they were to have electricity on call, forgetting that the account had alreadybeen transferred to his name.

He surveyed the livingroom, which was dim with pale soon-to-be-winter sunlight, and cold.  “They just decamped.  Look!  Look at the stuff they left behind!”

Apart from odd pieces of wooden furniture — chairs, side-tables needing refinishing, scraps of filthy rugs — there were also, in corners, mounds of mouse leavings and cobwebs and busy little ants.  There was an upturned bar stool and a refrigerator in deep need of defrosting and cleaning. A few pictures either resided at the baseboard level or swung unevenly from nails in the walls. Pieces of what may once have been Oriental carpeting were scattered throughout the first floor,all in need of repair andclearning. “Musty” was too kind a label for the air Michael and Pru inhaled.

“We’ll hire someone to cart it all away,” Pru said reasonably.

“But it really burns me,” Michael said.

“I know.  I feel the same way.  But really, Michael, it’s our own fault. We waived…we couldn’t get up for the final inspection.  Maybe we deserve this.”

“That’s why we had an attorney!”

“Still, everything is solvable, doable.  It just needs a little time.”

Pru gave her husband a quick kiss on the cheek and turned them to begin ferrying supplies in from the car outside.

Alerted to t he state of his new campground, Michael followed her out of doors and went from one outbuilding to the next, peering into cluttered darkness, hearing something — rats, perhaps birds, smaller animals —scurry amid the debris left for him to attend.  More furnitutre, garden tools, a gas-powered lawnmower he knew wouldn’t work.  Storm windows in a set leaned against a defunct water-heater.

He heard, through his anger, the sound of Pru’s portable vacuum cleaner.  When he returned, she shouted down to him from above, “Come help me organize the mattresses!”

Dutifully, wondering whether he could sue the realtor or the previous owner, Michael mounted the steep steps upwards to find Pru in a large bedroom on the second floor, smiling brightly at her own handiwork.  “Of course, we’ll need a new bed and mattress,” she said cheerfully, pointing at the scattered slats of a bed frame of cherrywood that sat half-disassembled in shadows near the center of  the room.  The portable air matresses she had brough up from the city lay beside one another, already plump,full of air. “We probablywant to put these on top of another surface,” Pru guessed, “just to be safe. But this whole thing could be worse.  And I’ve already cleared one closet.”

Michael grabbed the end of the striped sheet that was thrown to him and went to work. With a blanket on the floor for protection, pillowcases full,and a comforter extending across both mattresses, the temporary center of their married lives didn’t look half bad.

“I’ll do a quick once-over in the bathroom before we lose all light,” Pru said.  “Why don’t you head back down and sort out the food?”

Of course, the refrigerator hadn’t been cleaned, in years probably, although its light did come on automatically.  Its attached freezer was solid with waste and ice. Happily they had on hand new bottles of Lysol and Fantastik, fresh sponges, unopened Comet, razor blades.

He trekked out to the car again and brought in a cardboard case containing wine and spirits and plastic glasses.  He pulled up his jacket collar against a strengthening northeast wind. Next came the double-bagged groceries. He took ten minutes to wipe down the insides of the refrigerator before depositing anything in it.

Michael was not a chef.  What he knew he learned from Pru, or from recalling things his mother had done in the family kitchen years before.  He did have an adventurous palate, and was wonderful at following recipes, instinctively using spices and peppers to brighten what might otherwise — regardless of how it looked — taste of cardboard.

He wasn’t a tall man, or bulky.  He was fit, as so many of his city colleagues were, denizens of park runs of two hour sessions at a gym.  Like them, he was proud of his”core.”

Also, like most of his friends, he was a confident man. Armed with a cellphone and a Blackberry, he felt he was as current as he needed to be, and if one added a Slate to this electronic toolkit,he could work, read, play with the bestof them.  Despite his own work on the Internet, he had declined to subscribe to Kindle.  He admired a well made, well-written book.

“Need a drink?” he called from the bottom of the stairway.

“I’ll just have a soda,” Pru replied from above.  “It’s too early. And there’s still so much to do.”

Good thing they had brought plastic utensils and paper plates and napkins.  How they’d deal with the veal chops later he hadn’t thought to plan.

“Was there hot water in the sink?” Pru asked, standing beside her husband on the porch at twilight.

Michael nodded.  He wanted to sound upbeat. “Have your drink,” he suggested.  “We’ll set the fire, wash up, and then have our first romantic rendez-vous in our own home.”

“We could,” Pru replied coquettishly.

Neither wondered whether the fireplace flue was clear or caked.

Even at the end of the seaon, the fields that ran away towards the south were vari-colored, some perhaps not gleaned or cut. In the far distance was the Hudson although Rhineberry itself was hidden by thinning copse of fir and maple.

“You know what else we could do?” Michael asked.  “We could have a yard sale. All of this junk would probably appeal to someone, God knows. At least the flower pots.”

“But those we can use,” Pru objected.

“Maybe, but not very much else.”

The afternoon passed quickly: chores were assigned, shoulders hunched to carry and discard, step-ladder leant against a wall to reach the cobwebs in upper corners, around light fixtures.  There was a nearly constant sound of a broom against oak flooring.  Occasionally Michael would stop what he was doing, sigh, wipe his brow, and think about sex.

He turned away from the valley view, walking back into the kitchen where he reached for a fresh bottle of Absolut, smiling to remember a recent evening in Westport with the Wilsons during which half a dozen kinds of vodka had been taste-tested.  All because none of them could believe the ratings in that day’s New York Times which purported to rank Smirnoff as Number One, followed in depressing order by Grey Goose (“clean” the paper judged; Michael judged it tasteless), Stolichnaya (“Forced,” said the Times, “with a surprisingly bitter aftertaste”), Ketel One, Absolut, and half a dozen more Swedish, American,  Polish strains.

There was as yet no clean ice in the refrigerator.  Another taste-test. Michael let the water from the sink’s tap run a moment and then added half an inch to his glass.  He sipped, pleased.

He turned then away from the sinkboard, glass in hand, and stopped dead, nearly dropping his drink.

He couldn’t have seen that!

Carefully, silently, he edged to a window and peered around its frame.

What the hell?

As darkness descended, a six foot toboggan was carried past the front porch, held on either side by a masculine giant’s hands.  It crossed Michael’s vision from left to right,indicating that it might once have made a home in the barn.

Only a few steps behind came a rather hefty women carrying stacked terra cotta flower pots.  She looked to be around forty, perhaps a year or two older, and wore jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt under her windbreaker.  Her hair was cut short and, despite the chill, slightly dampened from her exertions.

Caution made Michael think he should perhaps wait to see what else was being removed from his property.  If he waited, at least he would know with how many people he was dealing.  He pressed his nose to a window pane to look rightwards, trying to spy a pickup or van idling in the driveway, but  saw nothing.  He had heard no motor.

“Pru!” he whispered emphatically.

“What?”

“You’ve got to see this!” Michael whispered again.

He felt Pru’s hand on his shoulder. “Who are they?” she asked.

Michael shrugged,realizing that not only did he not know who these people were — four now, three men and the woman — but that he also felt deeply uneasy about everything that was happening.  Uneasy, hell: he was scared.

“Hey!” Pru yelled suddenly, stepping out onto the porch.

The tableau froze, although no one lowered what he or she was carrying.

“What’s going on here?” Pru demanded. “What’re you doing with our stuff?”

“Your stuff?” said the woman holding the clay pots.

“You heard her, our stuff,” Michael said.

“This is left-over shit,” said a burly man, laying down the toboggan. “Who the fuck are you?”

“We’re the owners of this stuff,” Pru said  firmly.  “We bought the house and everything in it.  You’re stealing our stuff!”

“Honey,” said the woman, “we’re doing you a favor.  You don’t want all this crap.  Not people like you.”

“You don’t know about people like us, or what we might want to keep!” Pru argued quickly. “Besides, you’re trespassing.”

Around the corner of the house suddenly appeared a younger man, one dressed more like what one would have expected on a country weekend: corduroys, good boots, a tweed jacket and gloves.  His hair was dark, thick, blowing in the breeze, and his complexion was clear, sunny, and welcoming. Even his voice we more like a voice Michael and Pru would have heard before.

“You’re quite right,” he said pleasantly. “We are trespassing.  But we didn’t know anyone was here.”

“What difference would that have made?” Michael asked quickly.

“We’d heard that the house had been sold.  And we knew t he MacFarlanes would have left lock, stock and leaky barrel.  We only came up to see what was left, if any of  it was salvageable.”

Michael felt genuine relief to be hearing whole sentences from someone who looked as though he were civilized.  He was also reassured because he sensed that the gang of four paid attention to this slick young fellow, that it was through him the difficulty would be resolved.  He was probably the only member of the gang who’d been to college.  Maybe the first in his family.

“Well,” Michael began, “this may not be the perfect way to meet, but we’re the Amberwoods, Pru and Michael. And that’s our car.”

The group spokesman smiled and nodded and offered no information, no apology.

“We can probably settle all this in no time,” Michael offered.

“Fine,” said the group’s leader.

Michael coughed and did not look back at Pru.  “Here’s a suggestion,” he said. “Why not do one of two things?  First, you could return what you’ve taken so we can see what it is and whether or not it’s anything we’d like to keep.  Secondly, you leave it overnight and come back tomorrow when we’ve had a chance to look over what’s here and decide if we want any of it. Then you might be able to buy it at a very good price, all of it. You’d be doing us a favor, and probably yourselves, too.  You could resell it somewhere.”

The younger man smiled and nodded his head.  “Or we could keep what we already have, and come tomorrow to see what you’re selling.”

“That doesn’t work quite so well for us,” Pru interjected.  “It’s rather pre-emptive and unpleasant.”

“My wife has a point.  How would we know what we’d lost unless we could examine what you’ve taken?”

“Lost?” exclaimed the heavy-set woman. “You haven’t lost a thing.  How could you lose what you never knew you had?  You should be paying us?”

The three men, standing behind the younger one, had said nothing.  Now they nodded their agreement.

“Or we could call the police,” Pru decided.

This statement had no effect on any of the five intruders.

“Well,” said the younger man confidently, “if you want I could have my uncle Bob come up.”

“And he would be — ?” Michael wondered.

“He would be the police.”

Michael nodded.  He should have guessed.

“Here’s a compromise,” said the young fellow, smiling disingenuously. “Why don’t we take what we have and then come back tomorrow, as you suggest, to see what’s left? If there’s stuff we want or need, we’ll pay you a fair price for hauling it all away.”

“I don’t see how that’s a compromise,” Pru said.

“Call it a solution, then,” said the younger man.  “We’d leave now, drive away.  Come back tomorrow, say, around nine.  That give you enough time to look things over?”

Michael could see from Pru’s eyes that she wasn’t satisfied. On the other hand, they were outnumbered, five to two.  They knew little of the countryside, less of its people.  He wanted to bring this episode to an end.

“All right,” he said cheerfully.  “Let’s do that.  Cart what you have already.  Come back at nine and we’ll do business.”

“Very sensible,” agreed the group’s spokesman.  “That would work for us.”

The quartet behind him said nothing.  After a second, each member of the group lifted again what he had been carting away and began to walk down the Amberwood’s drivewayto wherever their car, truck, semi was stashed.

“We’ll have coffee ready for you!” Michael called after them.

“Are you out of your mind?” Pru demanded.

Michael smiled a little. “I don’t think so.  I think we just made a pretty good deal.”

“You do,” Pru said brittlely.  “What, pray, is to keep them from coming at six instead of nine and ripping us off entirely? Have you got a gun I don’t know about?”

Michael refused to be bullied.  “You know about the gun I’ve got, sweetie.  It works.”

“Very cute.   I’m getting out of here.”

“What?”

“Why should I wait around for them to come back, take what they want, do what they want?”

Michael sobered quickly.  “Maybe we should have paid them to take stuff away.”

“Exactly so, oh wise one,” Pru replied.

“Well, we’ll call the cops.”

“Uncle Bob?  Great idea.”

“Other cops.  State police.”

“You don’t think they all know one another?”

“You’ve got a cellphone.  I have.  We’ll use them.  We’ll text a distress signal.”

“On Thanksgiving weekend?  You think people have nothing better to do?”  She pointed at the clouds. “With a storm coming?”

“Well, we could at least take a picture of then. Shit!  I’m going to make a drink.”

“The perfect answer to our problems.”

“So,” Michael said, pouring vodka into a plastic cup, “what would you have me do?”

“Something!” Pru nearly shouted.  “I don’t want to start living up here like this.  I’m not saying I have to be friends with people.  But I sure as hell don’t want to start out being suspicious and angry and a target.”

“Do you think they have a key?”Michael wondered.

“If they don’t,  it won’t matter.  They’ll just come barging in, grab whatever they see, and disappear.  This could go on for years!”

“Not if we put up an electric fence,” Michael said.  “Install cameras and alarms.”

“Apart from the expense, oh wise one,  I don’t want to live as a prisoner in my own home.”

Michael swallowed his vodka in one motion. “Did we make a mistake?”

“No,’ Pru said immediately.  “Not at all.  We just weren’t clued in.  How could we be? Who would have thought we were investing in ‘Deliverance’?”

“That seems a little severe.”

“I’m not spending a night here, Michael, pretending to be comfortable and to sleep when I’ d be awake all night listening for footsteps and tires on the gravel.”

“This isn’t a hotel, Pru, were we can cancel or check out.  We bought this place.”

“And we can sell it just as well.  Just call Claire and tell her.”

“How can you be so cavalier? We looked and looked and fell in love with it.  In an instant, you’re running away?”

“I’ll tell you what I’m not doing,” Pru said,reaching for Michael’s emptied glass to put back in a cardboard carton.  “I’m not going to stay here to protect somebody else’s ‘stuff,’  no matter what it is or how valuable.  If these imbeciles want it, they can have it.  All of it.”

“You’re letting one little incident cloud…”

“Damned right I am.  And I can tell you that an emptied city over the holiday is mighty appealing to me just about now.”

“But…”

“No but.  We can be back in town in two hours.  I don’t care how hard we worked today. As far as I’m concerned, it was charity work. As for the whole Hudson Valley, you can have it.”

“It is beautiful.”

“Michael, for God’s sakes!”

Back in the city, Pru called out for Thai food, bathed, scented herself, and came to her husband just a little tiddly but very ready.

Michael had a headache.

 

 

 

A SOPHISTICATED MAN

 

 

Lola Geary’s one woman show had been announced by Rhineberry’s Community college for Thanksgiving: two nights, film clips and a chance to look at and hear a real movie star.

Wendell Fife, Rhineberry resident for nearly three years, saw the ad in the Rhineberry Journal as he grabbed a sandwich at Beryl Robinson’s place. He had met Lola Geary in the flesh while in California, invited there by the production company that had bought one of his books for television.

Sitting alone at The Cobble, Wendell remembered only one line of dialogue between them. “It’s so good to find someone around here who knows what Porthault is.”

They had spoken more, of course, but this particular line caught and stuck in Wendell’s mind. And one more: “You’re like me. We always have something on the fire.”

The other thing that Wendell was able to recall, apart from Lola’s intensity and her voice — both deep, smokey, seriously seductive — was that he had never had a chance to see Lola in four inch heels. On the set, although she was starring in the piece, she wore sensible shoes, as her character would. Off the set was another matter, or so Wendell had read somewhere. Lola went nowhere in public without complete make-up and four inch heels.

Wendell Fife declined to call what he felt a “fetish.”

What it was, he had told himself for thirty of his forty-two years, was an appreciation of beauty, of the past, of a way of life that seemed now to have all but disappeared.

Certainly winter was its nadir, since women insisted on wearing pants or jeans and boots or, if in the city working, running shoes to get from one place to another. Their real shoes, the ones Wendell focused so intently on were in their backpacks, or their over-sized purses.

Lola Geary rushed onto the stage of Rhineberry’s Community College as though she were entering a birthday party — her own.

Seated in the fourth row, Wendell Fife was reminded of old tapes he had seen of Loretta Young’s appearances on television as she swung through a door on her set, smiling graciously, courageously — most of America knew nothing of her reputed colostomy bag — as her new gown with full skirt barely missed being caught when the door closed behind her.

There was a welcoming burst of applause for Miss Geary, who acknowledged it with wide smiles, deep bows, even a court curtsey.

She emerged from a cut in the curtain behind the giant screen at center-stage, beaming with confidence and feigned surprise, and then, as she strode towards the footlights, she dropped. Just dropped like a stone.

The crowd gasped.

Lola looked up happily, and gave a wink. Then, with agonizing care and very, very slowly, she rose again and to make the point even more strongly, lifted the hem of her long gown just enough to show her ankles and feet encased in four inch heels.

This from a woman of indeterminate years, certainly older than sixty. This in itself made the women in the audience cheer, although Lola had stolen such gymnastics from Joan Collins’ one-woman show in London years before.

Wendell was awestruck as well. A move like that in four inch heels was nearly incredible, not to mention the slow and steady rise from the floor where she had let her hair — a curling, informal mix of black with just a hint of normal gray — graze the stage.

Wendell had standards. If the heel weren’t at least three inches, he didn’t bother to pay attention. Four inches guaranteed minimally one look upwards at the woman’s face. And since Wendell was not a shut-in, or a virgin, when whatever the new style was called came in — wrapped shoes with five or even six inch heels under them — he watched a surprising number of music award shows on television.

Actually, he often reminded himself, it wasn’t the shoes themselves, it was the line and the sex-appeal and the mystery of an elegant foot within them. Not to mention the long delicious expanse above them.

Lola waited patiently for her reception to fade before speaking in what everyone remembered suddenly was a low, husky voice, no-nonsense but always with a hint of something extra in it — extra anticipation, a hint of sex, confidence. She took a position to the side of a giant screen behind her, offering only her better side — for which she was both renowned and reviled in Hollywood — pushing back the panels of her gown.

“As my grandfather would have said, I am humbled,” she said in what was anything but a humble tone of voice. An Academy Award and two Tony nominations made her certain of that line’s effect.

Her grandfather had been a famous architect to whom Lola had not been close. He died as her star ascended, and, truth be told, it made her happy to be the only Geary around with which the world had to contend.

From the fourth row, still warming up from outdoors, Wendell could only hope that his note had been delivered and received with enthusiasm.

Her gestures were broad and positive. Every once in a while during her narrative, the films behind her playing at a level of volume she could overcome with her stories, she liked to pretend she was a tiny little woman with no strength but a good heart. Frequently she rolled her dark brown eyes upwards in a signal of silliness or surprise. Oddly this came off as though she were a geisha.

Familiar and beloved faces appeared behind her. Gregory Peck, Robert Stack, Richard Burton, Paul Newman, and then newer, younger performers as well: Brad Pitt, Steve Martin, Matt Damon. Each clip could not have been more than three minutes long, and, naturally enough, the focus of their brief running time was largely on Miss Lola Geary in a variety of guises, including the madwoman in Paris for which she had not only won her Academy Award but also committed an act on screen she would never in her own life have countenanced: suicide. Anything for a good role, anything for a nomination.

“God, Wendell, what on earth are you doing up here?” Lola greeted him warmly backstage, embracing his shoulders and giving him her best non-air kiss, but on the cheek.

“You got my note, then?”

Lola nodded. “I did, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than have dinner with you.”

“You look wonderful,” Wendell said.

“I know,” Lola said. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t. Although the money’s enticing, and it’s easy. Veronique told me that Greg used to love hitting the road with a show like this. He didn’t have to prepare. Really, he just sat there and answered questions and his fans adored him.”

“So whenever you haven’t anything else that truly grabs you…”

“Which I nearly always do, but you’re right. This is an annuity.”

“Carrying your own set of sheets?” Wendell asked.

Lola’s face calmed, confused. She didn’t remember.

“Never mind,” Wendell said. “It was an old joke.”

At first Lola blanched, but then she laughed lightly, grabbing Wendell’s hands. “It’s so good to see you. Up here in the Hudson Valley. Who would have thought? But I don’t remember you as so tall, so imposing. After all this time,” she mused.

“I made reservations at our one late-night place, a northern Italian spot called ‘Giulia’s,’” Wendell said. “They have a final Thanksgiving night seating.”

“Wonderful! Just give me a few minutes to get out of all this sparkle,” Lola said, beginning then to walk away, a hand trailing behind her in temporary farewell.

Wendell nodded, and watched as Lola pivoted away and then half-ran towards a distant dressing room. Those legs, those shoes!

Wendell really believed they were friends. He had enjoyed her company in California and had been surprised when she wrote him asking for his advice about a play she wanted to do in New York. Wendell had seen it the year before in London. He wrote her his recollections of the event, as well as how the leading lady had played her part.

Lola had been ecstatically grateful for what Wendell had written, and so an exchange, irregular but somehow dependable, began via the US mails. Each tried hard to entertain the other. They compared reactions to films seen, or books read, or plans for travel. Lola wrote of her two daughters, from two separate husbands, their lives both in the cityscape of Los Angeles and on the farm in Australia.

Their dinner continued in much the same way, jovial, needling, sweet and serious. Both had grown up in the Midwest. Lola regaled Wendell with her love affairs, dropping names he recognized and from which vivid tableaux emerged. He couldn’t imagine competing, even after many years, with those men, even though Lola was the first to admit her choices had not always been prime. “I always seemed to go for a supporting actor instead of the star. Hell, sometimes there was just a gorgeous grip or sound man. God, my whole life would have been different if only I could have been a little more sympathetic.”

Afterwards, Wendell drove Lola back to her hotel. Since the evening had progressed so well, neither party wanted it to end quite so soon. Wendell accepted Lola’s invitation for a drink upstairs.

But upstairs, in her suite, Lola had excused herself to get into “something more comfortable,” as she laughingly said. When she returned to the livingroom, she was barefoot.

Of course, Lola had beautiful small feet, elegantly pedicured. They were the feet of a young Chinese maiden, although Lola was twenty years beyond Wendell’s age.

They clinked brandy in shot glasses that had been pulled from the corner bar cabinet, sitting on a velvet couch before the newly lit gasfire.

“Now, tell me,” Lola half-whispered, “what on earth are you doing up here? There must be a woman.”

Wendell blushed.

“Two women?” Lola teased.

“Sophia’s award.”

“She deserved it so,” Lola replied graciously. “But what do you do up here for fun?”

“I work,” Wendell said.

“Just like me, we always have something on the drawing boards.”

Wendell took a sip of his brandy, looking around at the suite. He saw a console in a corner. “Want to dance?” he asked as he stood up and went to its controls.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Wendell found a late-night big band retrospective.

Lola was at his shoulder, her hand already on his left arm. “You can’t possibly remember that music,” she said. “You’re a child.”

“I can and do,” Wendell replied, turning then to embrace Lola with his right arm, holding out his left, into which she placed her own right hand. She stood on tiptoe, her balance perfect atop the shag.

She moved closer to Wendell’s body, even as he began to hum part of the orchestration on the radio.

“God, those days were fun,” Lola whispered into Wendell right ear as a part of her moved even closer to Wendell’s body.

He continued to hum, swimming in the scene of a teen-ager’s dream, dancing with a movie star.

They swayed and dipped and clung to one another. Wendell thought of his high school prom.

“What are you doing here?” Lola demanded suddenly, pulling back from Wendell’s dancing embrace.

Wendell was startled. “Why, dancing with you.”

“I mean, why did you write that note, why have dinner with me?”

Wendell smiled. “Because I like you. I admire your work. We’re friends.”

“Friends!” Lola exhaled dramatically, slipping out of Wendell’s arms, reaching for a package of cigarettes. Wendell could tell there was something on her mind. He watched as she inhaled hugely, then dramatically let the smoke out in a slow stream.

“You invite me to have dinner with you. You hold my hand. You bring me back to my hotel. You have a drink, or two. We turn on the radio and dance. Just what the hell is going on?”

“We’re friends,” Wendell repeated. “We’re getting reacquainted. We’re having fun, or at least I thought we were. I am.”

“That accounts for one of us,” Lola said quickly. “Well,” she said sharply, “I think we can call it a night.”

“What?”

“I said I think this has gone as far as it’s likely to go.”

“But I don’t understand.”

Lola seemed to pause to think before she slapped his face, hard. “Understand that, my young friend!”

“Why would you…?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Lola exhaled.

“Why are you so angry with m…?”

“What do you know about women, Wendell?”

Wendell didn’t know how to reply. “They seem to read my books.”

“Make-believe!” Lola said. “Composites, daydreams, high school stuff. Never mind,” she said exasperatedly. “Never mind. Just get out of here.”

“But…”

“Here’s you coat. Thanks for dinner. Goodbye.”

“But Lola, I thought we were….”

“Well, one of us wasn’t, get it?”

Wendell stood still a moment, holding his overcoat. Lola stared at him angrily.

Ever the gentleman, Wendell nodded once, turned, and left the hotel room.

He got into his car, a northeast wind nearly pushed him into it. There was a change in the weather coming.

But what was that all about? he asked himself as he pulled away from the curb. What did I do?

He remembered her bare feet. He remembered her four inch heels. Just as he was beginning to berate himself, for what cause he was still uncertain, the street lamps went out. No house he passed had lights shining, either.

He drove home in total darkness but for the headlights of an occasional car, and his own.

 

 

 

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