Book Club

Book Club

On the posting board at the Darien Library there was a flyer. It said:

‘Local Women’s Book Club forming. Educate yourself, read one book per month, discuss it with other Fairfield County homemakers just like you. Call Miranda at 747-0312 for details.’

Helen wasn’t certain that she qualified. Was there a qualification? She waited until the day before to decide, then had a pleasant conversation with Miranda Newton who, it turned out, was almost a neighbor. The final motivating factor, other than her five-year-old, Seth, driving her crazy, was that Helen could walk. She read The Scarlet Letter in a day. She found the house, steadied herself as she walked up the driveway. It won’t be so bad, she thought, just an evening about literature. I could use that. Sheldon doesn’t have time to read, and I’m sick of children’s books. She threw her chewing gum into the hedges lining the sidewalk, rang the door chimes, then panicked when she could hear the laughter inside. A tall gracious- looking woman answered the door. She wore a fashionably striped pantsuit and was smoking a Benson and Hedges cigarette. A cloud of smoke swirled around her as she spoke, as if she’d inhaled on her way to the door. “You must be Helen,” she said. Welcome! I’m Miranda Newton. Come in, come in.” She gestured grandly. Helen stepped into the house, which was impressive in scale, open and modern looking. As she entered the fully occupied living room, she guessed most people had arrived. There was a vacant spot at one end of a couch, so she plopped down quickly, smoothing her pants. As Helen was introduced around, she noticed that four of the eight ladies were expecting, well, perhaps five. The smell of smoke was disgusting. “Well, when I want to get back at Frank,” Miranda was saying, “I just mis-match his socks. I roll a white one inside a brown one so that he’ll have to wear socks that don’t match with his Brooks Brothers suits. So far he hasn’t noticed. He dresses in the dark!” “Oh, Miranda,” said the ample-bodied woman at the other end of the sofa. She wore a red and white polka dot dress. “I only wish I was that nice. I just throw George’s dirty clothes into his side of the closet. Especially those sweaty gym clothes. Ugh.” She shuddered. “They’re disgusting.” Her haircut was an a-line bob, shorter in the back and sloping toward her chin. In fact, Helen noticed that most of her face did. “I know what you mean, Yvette,” said Penny, an overdressed lady across the room. “I can’t stand sweaty, filthy, smelly clothes. Men can be such pigs.” She spoke with dramatic gestures, and Helen thought she resembled a hooker in her excessive Chanel. “Well, Nigel certainly is. I put gloves on while I do laundry, and I can tell you, I’m this close,” she measured with her thumb and forefinger, “to getting one of those Mexican people, a personal helper just for the laundry.” Uh oh, Helen thought, this isn’t a meeting to discuss books at all. It’s one of those ‘pick apart your marriage’ meetings. She was still pondering this when the woman next to her spoke. “Helen, is it?” She nodded. “Is this your first Book Club meeting?” “Yes,” Helen said, observing her. She was small, with an adorable haircut which seemed to spin her hair in a multitude of directions. Was her name Daphne? Her steely blue eyes seemed warm, made Helen uncomfortable. Penny continued, “I swear with Women’s Lib and all, I still cannot comprehend why we get stuck with all these tasks: laundry, cleaning, pretty much raising the kids, cooking.” “My god, you’d think you were on welfare or something! Hire somebody, hire a staff,” said Miranda, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another. “You have the resources, for chrissakes. Don’t just sit there and bitch about it.” “What about you, dear?” asked Yvette, who looked about ready to have her baby any second. She made breathing look uncomfortable. Helen stared at the protruding stomach and felt her own baby turn its position for the umpteenth time that day. Involuntarily Helen’s hand rested on her stomach. She struggled to find her voice. “I actually enjoy doing laundry,” she squeaked. “What?” nearly everyone in the room said. “Please excuse me, I’ve remembered something in the kitchen,” Miranda said. “I like it, too,” Daphne said, nudging her. Helen nodded, feeling a familiar knot in her stomach. But at the same time she felt good about being on her own, away from Seth’s neediness and Sheldon. He was probably snoring on the couch by now. It was the first evening she had been on her own since… well, she couldn’t remember when. “It’s the warm feeling I get when I’m folding the clothes,” Daphne added. “Okay, that part, I agree,” Penny said. Helen glanced around the room. It was vast with two-story ceilings and a huge fieldstone fireplace that took up an entire wall. The furniture was straight from an Ethan Allen showroom, the decorations a little cluttered, with too many knick-knacks collecting dust. Helen wiped her nose, self-consciously. Miranda arrived with a plate full of brownies, took one, then passed them around. She sat in the oversized chair by the fireplace; Helen wondered if it was usually Frank’s chair. Miranda took a long drag on her cigarette, then said to no one in particular, “So, what did you think of the book?” Helen noticed that the smoke mostly came out of her nose, like a fire- breathing dragon. “Which one was it?” Penny asked. “The Scarlet Letter,” replied Miranda, fetching her copy from the mantel and showing it to the group. “I found it entirely too maudlin, the whole focus on death. Dreary!” said Francie, taking a bite of her brownie and continuing while she chewed. “But, I adored the protagonist. I just love the name, Hester. And the town reminded me a lot of Darien.” “Interesting Francie, because I had the opposite reaction,” said Yvette. “I thought it was too predictable, especially with that whole pregnancy and adultery business. And I felt like the death obsession was redeeming, fascinating almost. We’re such a death- phobic culture. Brownie?” She took two, then held the plate out to Helen, who drew back, self-conscious. No-one else had been offered the plate aloud as it passed, but she felt all eyes on her now, especially Yvette’s. “How about you, Helene?” “It’s Helen,” she said, a bit abruptly. She passed the plate, noticing the red and green holiday snowflake pattern as more brownies were taken. “I think Hester seemed very real. And her decision to have the child seemed to be because she had no other recourse.” As she spoke, she felt suddenly close to tears, and blinked her eyes two or three times rapidly. Daphne, sitting closest on the sofa, whispered, “Helen, are you all right?” Helen nodded and smiled, pallid. “It’s just that,” her voice cracked and she got up from the couch. She thought she was going to be sick. “I’m sorry, Miranda, but I need to use your facilities.” “Oh,” said Penny. “Everything okay?” asked Francie as Helen passed quickly by. Miranda jumped up and escorted Helen down the hall, saying, “There, there,” and “It’s all right, it’s just down here.” Helen shut the door and turned the fan on and burst into tears, silent wracking sobs that went on for what felt like an hour. I can’t do this, I can’t handle this, she kept whispering to herself. This is supposed to be fun, a book club, isn’t it? Oh god, oh god. I have nothing in common with these people. Or any, for that matter. How the hell do I get out of here? Then she remembered the vial in her purse. She reached in for two Valiums and swallowed them hastily. As she reapplied her Lancôme makeup, her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the medicine chest. There were over a dozen vials containing a cornucopia of pills. She took two Nembutal (the vial said Frank Newton) and four Valium (Miranda’s, nearly full) and slipped them into her purse. She wiped the two vials with a hand towel like a fugitive, wiping away any traces of fingerprints. She almost giggled, but then heard Miranda ask, “Helen, are you okay in there?” She moved further away from the door. “I’ll be right out!” When she arrived back in the living room, Yvette said, “We thought you fell in!” All Helen had to do, as she knew, was pat her stomach and say, “Baby stuff.” And everyone ah’d and oh’d, then baby talk occupied the entire rest of the two hours. Hester Prynne would have been about as thrilled as Helen was. Once the Valium kicked in, everything was less sharp. Penny was less vile. Yvette slightly less repulsive. Daphne less daunting. Miranda’s smoking even became a game in which Helen saw figures in the hovering smoke as it accumulated in the room. When she arrived home, Helen woke Sheldon, who’d dozed on the sofa. Yet despite her tales of how the night evolved, and Sheldon commenting that she seemed happier than he’d seen her in a long time, she would never attend a Book Club meeting again. Besides, next month Yvette was hosting, and she lived in Rowayton, too far away for Helen to walk.]]>

Bag a Brit

Bag a Brit

‘Risk new friendships’ was number seven on Maureen’s list. But she still hadn’t mastered number one- Bag a Brit! Maureen had been in London over a week without any luck at all of meeting that one Prince Harry. How she adored him, searched for him during her Tower of London tour, scanned the patrons of the Tate Gallery, scouring faces (and other body parts) for just the right fellow. After high tea at her hotel, Cadigan Gardens, she called her best friend, Tallie, in New York. “It’s my last night here, and all I’ve had is tea and crumpets with some nervous fellow named Shlomo.” “Maureen, you have to go to one of the infamous London pubs.” “But which one? How would I know?” She pinned her long blonde hair atop her head. “Hang on,” Tallie said. Maureen paced, glancing into her gilded hotel mirror. She noticed circles under her eyes, the grey showing at her roots. Her recent divorce had taken its toll. “Are you there?” Tallie asked. “Yes.” “Got a pen?” “Hang on.” Maureen walked to the hotel desk, opened a drawer to find appliqued stationery with a logo and a pen with same. She sat down at the desk. “Okay, ready.” “Try Charrington’s or The King’s Arm, or The Globe. Ask your concierge at the Gardens for the addresses, but supply the pub names with plenty of time before you leave the hotel.” Maureen scribbled the names. “Thanks, Tal, but how did you ever find the names?” “I dug out my postcard from Roger’s last visit. I have them all in the same box in my closet.” Maureen gasped. “Roger? As in, Roger Bennington?” Tallie hadn’t mentioned his name since Tallie had broken up with him. “The only Roger I know.” Maureen twirled a lock of hair that had fallen to her shoulder. “Is he in London now?” “I believe he is, would you like his London number?” Would I? Maureen looked her her list again. Bag a Brit was number one. Would tonight wipe that from her list for good? “Sure.”]]>

A Secret About a Secret

A Secret About a Secret

The room that Amelia had wanted to teach her photography course at the New School was not available, so she had to use the smaller studio. She’d arrived in Manhattan early that Saturday, and closed all of the folding chairs, setting them against the back wall. She opened her notebook and took out several of her nude photos and posted the images in various places on the walls. She remembered to place blackout paper on the glass window of the door to ensure privacy. On the blackboard behind the dias, she scrawled ‘Welcome’ and below that, a Diane Arbus quotation.

She glanced at her watch and there were only fifteen minutes before the class began. Where were the students? She’d confirmed that there were actually twelve participants registered, but this was New York. Everyone was on a limited time budget. She stretched her arms above her head, wondering if her model would arrive on time. She forgot to confirm Keri, but did speak with her a week prior. Her notes said she was a dancer and very comfortable with nude modeling. Amelia only hoped that would be the case. The last time she’d attended a photography course in a Stamford gallery, the model had frozen at the last minute when she realized there were six people who would end up with her naked photos. During the next ten minutes, nearly all of the registered students had arrived. They sat on variously placed mats, blankets, and pillows which Amelia had spread out on the floor. She estimated the range of ages, and tried to figure out if there were any perverts among the three guys in the group. It didn’t seem that way. When it turned 10:00 a.m., she greeted the students. After her brief introduction she turned to the board behind her. “One of my mentors and among the most inspiring photographers is Diane Arbus. She started in fashion photography with her husband. But as their relationship dissolved, slowly she turned to booking her own gigs. Her work is highly original and very unusual. She once said this quote that I wrote on the board in a rare interview.” Amelia turned and gestured toward the blackboard behind her. “Would someone volunteer to read it?” When no one raised their hand, she joked, “Don’t everyone jump to volunteer at once!” Finally a willowy towheaded woman sitting close-by said, “Okay, I will.” She read the quote. “A photograph is a secret about a secret…the more you know it tells you, the less you know…” “Thanks. So, you see about thirty photographs placed around the room, all taken by yours truly. You’ll choose one, and take out a piece of paper and see if you can answer the question that Diane proposes: Determine what your chosen image tells the viewer. And what possible secrets remain? If you have any difficulty getting started, call me over and I’ll help you. You’ll have about ten minutes for this. Any questions?” A prematurely balding man raised his hand. “I didn’t bring a pen or paper.” “There’s a pile of them on that desk behind you. Anyone else? Okay, go!” The students rose, and began selecting their images. She glanced at her watch and just as she wondered about the model, a woman arrived at the door. “Amelia?” she asked. “Yes, are you late for the course?” “No, I’m here for Keri. She chickened out.” “Oh, great,” Amelia muttered. “What the hell am I going to do without a model?” “Well, I thought you might be able to use me? I’m Lindsay.” Amelia was confused. She thought this woman was just there to inform her about Keri’s absence. She nodded. Amelia summed her up as Lindsay took off her backpack. She was tall, possibly five ten, extremely skinny. She wore a Danskin wraparound burgundy skirt and camisole top, her jet black hair was in a simple bun. Her skin was alabaster and Amelia worried that it might be too white for regular speed daytime photos, but there wasn’t really another option. “Okay, if you’re willing, Lindsay, while the students are all working on a warm-up for the next five minutes or so, let me go over some stuff with you. First of all, I’ll need you to sign a release form.” “Release form?” “School policy, straight up stuff.” Amelia handed the form to her. “Read it and sign on the bottom.” Lindsay handed the signed form back to Amelia. “It’s a little chilly in here.” “Well, you’re in luck. There’s a space heater and also once we get to work, the temperature will heat up, I guarantee it.” Amelia smiled. “Can I take a Polaroid or two of you before we begin?” “Sure.” “And, I just have to ask, did Keri mention anything about your job?” Lindsay nodded. “So, you’re cool with total nudity?” Amelia asked. “Yes.” Amelia got out her Polaroid camera. “No birthmarks?” “Just on the bottom of my foot.” “No skin rashes or anything I need to know about in advance?” Lindsay shook her head no. “Okay. Thanks.” She placed her hand on Lindsay’s shoulder, then took a couple of photos.  “Also, thanks, in advance, for supporting my ideas about the beauty of the human form.” “Huh?” “Never mind.” Models! She turned to the rest of the class. “Okay, everybody, wrap up your notes within the next minute or two, and we’ll discuss your observations.” She turned back to Lindsay. “You can get comfortable, relax.” Lindsay glanced around the spare room. “Got anything to eat?” Amelia shook her head no. “Sorry. Did you bring something to read?” “No.” “Well, I won’t need you for another ten or fifteen minutes.” She thought about asking her to walk around the block a couple of times, but feared Lindsay would disappear into thin air. “There’s a Vogue magazine in my bag over there if you get bored.”]]>

Mountain Lake

Mountain Lake

The trees had turned spectacular colors since our last visit; buttery yellow oaks, shimmering crimson maples. There didn’t seem to be any space left green. “I think we hit the peak of foliage season,” Charlie mused. We were on the trail leading to the upper boat landing. The ferns glistened with morning dew.  As we rounded the last curve, Charlie, who was leading, suddenly stopped. I did too, beside him. From a high knoll, we took in the expansive view: Mt. Marcy rose in the far distance, the curvaceous, colorful Adirondack range beckoned. A loon sounded, that strange noise that instantly made me feel alone, despite Charlie’s presence. The morning sun was already hot in the eastern sky. But looking west, I noticed dark clouds that looked like they could be trouble if they came closer. I licked my finger, and held it up, tried to gauge which way the wind was blowing, like Dad used to.  I had no clue, it was oddly still. “Look,” I pointed, “there’s a family of mergansers near the canoe.” Charlie nodded, smiling. He loved nature possibly more than I, fought the land management company when our squatter’s rights were challenged. He’d argued that the land had been in our family since Grandpa Howl was 20. “No commercial timber company deserves to profit from such pristine land,” he’d said at the time. “Have you ever seen such a gorgeous lake?” Charlie said. I look sideways, he was wearing one of my Dad’s favorite hats, a trucker’s cap: Fly Rod Shop, Stowe, Vermont. There was a rainbow trout drawn on the front. Since Dad passed in 2002, Charlie had slowly morphed into shades of him. Used his hats, smoked his tipparillo’s (keeps the bugs away!) and fished with his favorite fly rods. We continued to walk toward the point, the pungeant scent of decaying leaves and the familiar sound of the water lapping against our boat registered. We spooked the family of ducks. They beat it down the lakeshore, making a huge ruckus that made us chuckle. “You’d have thought we were dangerous,” Charlie chuckled. I placed the oars into our Criss-craft canoe. “The lake is so still this morning,” I noticed. “It’s almost haunting.” A loon echoed my remark, the fog lifted in sinewy shapes. “Why don’t you get in and I’ll push us out a short distance. The water is really shallow at the shore.” “Okay!” Charlie said. His agile body bounded onto the deck. He angled his feet into the canoe. “Go slow, Chuck,” I cautioned. “She’s easy to tip.” I wasn’t sure what significance that would have, not until later that afternoon, miles from our cabin,  when the Nor’easter would surprise us. But for now, as I glided the canoe away from our cabin, the stove reflecting the glint of the morning sun creeping through the fog, I thought, life is good! Bits of memorabilia traipsed through my mind: the first time Dad and I canoed from Tippet Point, the aluminum canoe in which my sister, Debbie, and I were stuck during an electrical storm on Tupper Lake. “Look! There’s that loon!” Charlie squealed. And I felt his boyish enthusiasm, admired his zest for life, a thousand times more magnified than mine.]]>

The Arrest

The Arrest

Word of the arrest spread quickly. Word of any news spread like wildfire, faster than an airborne virus in a town the size of Monticello, Marjorie mused. Just leave, she thought, follow your intuition. Get the hell outta Dodge. It would be easy enough. Or would it? She paced in the kitchen, up and down the black and white tiled floor. Back and forth. She wondered if they’d tapped her telephone. Decided to use her cell to phone her sister in Montana. She took three deep breaths before dialing. “I’m coming for a visit,” Marjorie told Madge. She peeked through a corner of the kitchen curtains. The police were still parked there. And some news van with its insignia labeled on the side. “You’re what?” Madge asked, her nasal tone grating on Marjorie through the telephone. “Driving out, leaving tonight.” Marjorie looked in the hall mirror, noticed the two dark circles under her eyes. She walked toward the bedroom, intending to lay down. Instead she stood in the doorway, stared at the bed. How could she be so stupid, she thought. “Oh.” Madge paused. “Are you sure you can leave, so…so-” “I’m sure, “ Marjorie nodded. “Yes, I have to get away.” She sat on the living room sofa, counted the bills from a tan envelope in her purse. “But, why so sudden?” Madge asked. “Are you in trouble again?” It was the way she said again that grated on Marjorie. “No, it’s not me,” she said. Two hundred dollars. That ought to be enough. She tucked the envelope back into her purse. “Is it Mitch?” Madge asked. Marjorie wrestled with an answer. Wanted to lie, didn’t want to admit the truth, even to herself. “He didn’t hit you again, did he?” Madge’s voice sounded angry. “No.” Marjorie fell silent. Should I tell her? Maybe I shouldn’t. Oh what the hell. The rest of the town of Monticello knew. And it was better coming from her twin sister than some tacky news story. “He was arrested, Madge.” “Arrested?” Madge nearly shouted. “Arrested?” she repeated. “Oh, heavens to Betsy.” “Yeah,” Marjorie said. “It sucks.” “What was it this time? DWI?” Marge guessed. “Or did he beat somebody up at Barbers?” Here we go, Marjorie thought. She closed her eyes. “It’s porn.” There was a pause. “Marge? Are you there?”]]>