Monday, April 7, 2008

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 1

On the day before New Year’s Eve – a Saturday, an odd, empty day, very cold, a working day, yet schoolchildren home, the glittering spicy opulence of Thanksgiving and Christmas over, sleek black and silver midnight New Year’s Eve parties still to come – while the ghastly letter had been doing its work among the studio employees, Trish called Alice at home at nine o’clock in the morning to ask if she could come over and show her something.

Alice thought this sounded suspicious, but not terribly threatening. Hunter lay still asleep in his bedroom, and her two little nieces, Jill and Polly, had been dropped off at eight-thirty to spend the morning while Pam worked a short shift at the hospital. If flute-voiced Trish wanted to come over right now and talk business, Alice could hardly vouch for any undistracted quality of reception. Still, if she had something to say, maybe it would be best to get it over with.

"After I got your letter," Trish said on the phone, "I stayed up all night last night writing a pamphlet, really just for my own sake, my own good feelings, and I was just wondering, if you’re not busy, if I could come over and show it to you."
"Oh. Well, yes, I suppose so."
"Really? You’re not busy?"
"No, nothing is happening here. You can come over. Don’t mind my house."
"Oh, I don’t care about that. Okay, great! Great. I have some things to do in your neighborhood anyway so I’ll be over in a little bit."

Alice hung up the phone feeling apprehensive but not panic-stricken. Trish did not sound as sulfurous as Pat had on the phone last night ("I am quite upset"). Perhaps this indicated that, even if they had compared notes by now, which surely they had, Trish at least planned to behave more softly, even felt more softly, than her stentorian friend did.

Ah, the letter, the ghastly letter. Alice had written a letter, only two typed pages, explaining all that had happened during the company’s field trip to splendid medieval France earlier in the month, only two weeks ago, in fact. Hard to believe that only two weeks ago this very morning, she had been sitting with Liz in a hushed closed French cafe, all polished wood and gleaming glassware, facing a man and grimly, professionally agreeing that "this must never happen again in Chinon." Chinon, home of many French kings.

There had been trouble. There was a party at the cafe, which had gotten out of hand. The police were nearly – nearly – called. There had been confusion. Some of the company’s employees had already flown home early, so very high-placed staff had not been present to take responsibility for the mess. Nobody better than Alice had been there to take responsibility. She had gone, with Liz, and apologized to the man in the cafe, and following that she had written an open letter, addressed to the whole company, all about the mess. In it she explained, really with great love, that all their current difficulties had a few deep roots which she knew they could prune when they got home. It was, she explained lovingly, all their own fault. Everything lay in their neglect of the bylaws, and everything could be rectified by returning to the bylaws.

How Alice loved that word. She had been the type who tries to form a secret club in the fourth grade, giving every Mary and Sally code names, casebooks, and passwords. Or perhaps most fourth graders are like that and Alice had simply never grown up. Anyway the marvelous word bylaws, encountered in adulthood, now sounded so right, so professional, cool and knowing. To think that there was a way, simply by writing down laws, to ensure that everything would run fairly and smoothly for everyone indefinitely, even after the author of the laws died ... it was like a miracle of human nature. One of the few, possibly excepting art, and they had seen that in France, too. In transports, she had signed off the letter "thanking everyone in advance for their cooperation," and had sent it out. That was just after they had returned, about ten days ago now.
Who knows? Perhaps there was something in the ground of medieval France as well, which percolated up through her shoes as she stood there, reviving her, reviving the clubby fourth-grader, or poisoning the adult, making of her a plant transplanted to freakishly rich soil. They had been filming restoration work at Fontevrault, the great abbey where once Eleanor of Aquitaine had sheltered, and where she lies buried; they had stayed in the town of Chinon, where exists still the well at which Joan of Arc mounted her horse. People have lived and died here, Alice did not so much think as feel, feel through her eyes and through the cool breath of French air against her skin. People have believed grand things here, obeyed grand ideas. See how small we are, in comparison? Oh, not worse people, she didn’t mean that, she only meant – see? We are part of a grand story, not of our own making. We did not write the first chapter – the bylaws, you might put it – and so we have a duty not to write the last, just as we have a duty not to change the master’s theme. Do you see? We are a splendid part of the whole, but not the whole. Could anyone understand?

It, the letter, her ideas, her excitement, clubbiness, did not go over well. That is, it apparently was not going over well, if Alice’s two first reckonings were any indication. Pat had telephoned the night before last ("I am quite upset"), and now here came Trish. The women had seen only criticism, and had gone mad. But perhaps not. She must not underestimate people. Be fair. Perhaps everything would be all right.

As she fussed about her apartment brushing her hair and arranging pillows, Alice wondered what the "pamphlet" Trish had made was all about. "For my own good feelings," she had said. Perhaps it would be all right. Perhaps Trish agreed with her. She was no fool. Perhaps her pamphlet would say yes, we have operated rather peculiarly for years, and yes we really ought to include all our staff in the decisions we make, and yes it’s true there is a waterfront restoration project in St. Louis that might be very interesting, as much or moreso than the beautiful feminine abbey at Fontevrault, and far more in keeping with our mandate. As for the party in the cafe in Chinon, well, we should recall that Europe is different. Nor would we likely have gotten by with that kind of behavior even here. Perhaps we should plan more carefully, more professionally, the ways we represent the studio and the foundation abroad. Perhaps we should not go abroad. Maybe, Alice’s fancy flew, she had an ally in her campaign to shape the foundation back into the mold in which Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had cast it years ago. She knew Trish had always made a great deal of loving and knowing Monique Boyd. And this had not been her first trip to France, certainly. Perhaps something grand and medieval had percolated up through her shoes, too. In fact she had bought shoes there. Why wouldn’t an intelligent woman want to do what the Boyds had long ago said their foundation should do? Perhaps she had only forgotten for a moment, and would be glad to remember. Respect was a part of adulthood.

Alice, wandering excitedly thus, put the few breakfast dishes in the sink and then made her bed. She did not intend to clean house thoroughly for a friend on such short notice. "Don’t mind my house" was the code for that. Didn’t they all guffaw at Pie Night about the humiliating state of domestic deshabille in which unexpected company invariably found them? She was sure Trish would understand. After all, this was a Saturday and the day before New Year’s Eve. Her son was sleeping in and she was babysitting toddlers. They had known each other for years. It wouldn’t matter.

Hunter had in fact just roused himself and stumbled to the kitchen table with a bowl of dry cereal and a spoon when the doorbell rang. Jilly and Polly bolted upright from the living room floor where they were sitting coloring and cried in unison, "Who is it! Who is it! Mom-ee!"

"No, it’s not Mommy," Alice smiled as she opened the kitchen door to the tiny sunroom entrance. Trish had already let herself in and stood there off-balance, scuffing off her boots. She looked up and saw the anxious little girls crowding around Alice’s legs and understood the situation instantly.

"Oh! No, I’m not Mommy," she said, her lovely laugh striking, in that bell-like way it had, against her fine square teeth. Alice led her into the kitchen where she took off her winter things and piled them on a chair. Already Alice felt something forbidding. Trish, a mother of little girls herself, did not ask who the little girls were, and therefore Alice did not explain. She said only, "I don’t know if you know my son, Hunter. He’s, uh, on vacation," but beyond saying "Hi" with a strange pursed smile, Trish did not acknowledge him either, or the motherly humor by which Alice thus tried to excuse his pajamas and his hair. Most likely Miranda and Rory were already up and dressed and at piano lessons by now.

"Well," Trish began, finishing arranging her clothes. She did not sit down. "I think we all agree you made a mistake. And I’m sure by now you agree too." She reached out, a little hunched, and touched Alice’s arm, smiling pursely again.
All Alice’s fancies of camaraderie evaporated. So it was going to be a fight, and in her own home, too. "No, I don’t," she said.

Trish was shocked. In the pause, she fought for self-control.
"Okay. Then I think you owe us all an apology, especially those of us on the Board."
Trish looked down and grimaced as if with regret that Alice was not the lady, not even the woman, she had believed her. Hunter stared at them both with his mouth open. The little girls stood rooted to the floor.

"Well. Here’s what I have to show you." Trish soldiered on as well as she could. She rummaged in a leather satchel and took out a sheet of nice thick paper, folded in thirds, stamped in bright colors. It was covered on all sides with close black printing and bore the Boyd Foundation logo on its folded front. Her shoulders remained hunched, as if she were going to bend over a school-child’s desk. Her look was brittle, adult. She took a breath, and her voice declamatory.

"In my experience dealing with people in all sorts of situations, you know, work, teaching, with the Mayor’s office, Girl Scouts, whatever," she said – and Alice bitterly, and somewhat unfairly, mentally translated this. ‘I am a sophisticated woman, I have a degree in art, my husband is a wealthy business owner and a village trustee. We have a big house. I didn’t have children until I was thirty, and their names are Miranda and Rory. They are perfect. I didn’t get pregnant in high school and then get married and divorced and have their grandparents raise them. And then enter the studio’s employ through data processing. My life has been orderly and beautiful. I have a voice like a flute, and many friends ....’

"I always try to approach people in a positive way," Trish was saying. Alice was now in the depths of a fencing match, prepared to commit nothing of herself while non-committally assenting to Trish’s autobiographical remarks one phrase at a time. This was her guest, incredible as it seemed. I try to deal with people in a positive way. Very well, point noted.
"Of course," she answered.
The little girls began to stir. Jill wandered around the corner towards the stove, Polly ventured into Alice’s bedroom. A light sprang up in the bedroom closet, the same closet where, for lack of space, Alice hung her good winter coat on a pole above the cat’s litter pan. Which needed scooping, Alice remembered. While Trish talked they moved out into the living room. Alice did not dream of offering her tea or coffee. They were already that far along.

"So here is what I did last night. I did this just for myself, because I needed to remember that we are good people, and we do good work. Dan said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’ and I said, ‘No, I want to finish this.’ I put together this pamphlet, which I want to copy and distribute at the studio Tuesday morning. And I’ll leave this copy with you."
Hunter had gotten up from the table and carried his bowl to the kitchen sink. As he walked he glanced hard at Trish. Then Alice heard a thunk from the closet and said, "Hang on, I’m babysitting a little girl who likes cats but I’m not sure she realizes they’re real and they’ll bite back if they’re annoyed. Let me just see what she’s doing."
"Oh, okay." Trish’s dogs, Samoyeds, never bit.
Alice went into her room and found that everything was all right. Polly was already lying on the bed on her stomach, looking at a book. She left her alone and returned to the living room.

"And I made a list of the things we have done. As a foundation, with Monique Boyd’s money. The good things. We have kept within our bylaws, we have filmed in America, we conduct open business meetings, we have received plaques and thank-yous from all kinds of preservation societies, government offices, we’ve had letters from the Peabody people ...."

Alice cocked her head and made a show of looking at the pamphlet. Now where was Jill? Near the stove? Could she reach the burners? The list of ‘good things’ was impressive indeed, especially broken down, as Trish had done it, into the smallest possible components. Their constant parties and Pie Nights stood proudly under "Intra-office Social and Support Functions," modestly leaving room for plain, bold "Business Meetings" to have pride of place on the pamphlet’s important inside left flap. In the middle spread stood a long list of all the wonderful restoration projects the studio had filmed in America early on, when Frank Boyd was still well in charge of things. Before he got sick, and the women took over, and Europe, Canada, Mexico beckoned. But who knew that? There really was very little for Alice to say in rebuttal to a woman who had compiled a sketch of the foundation’s almost twenty-year history and so did indeed have printed proof, right now, of all the good things it had done, while habits of obedience to petty rules had unraveled, to no one’s recorded detriment. If the point of the compilation was to make Alice look foolish in front of people who did not share her love of ordered clubbiness, or did not care to detect the upshot of certain changes, then the point was well taken. Her views on the dangerous slovenliness of their procedures at the moment, however admirably backed once by Mrs. Boyd and by those cool professional bylaws, seemed as chaff in the wind – an American wind – compared to proof that they worked hard and had a great deal to be proud of. Hunter in the kitchen was extremely quiet. Or had he left? Could she hear the stove, if need be? Where was Jill?

"Of course a lot of these things are from years ago," Alice said, squinting, trying to salvage some semblance of partnership and mature agreement with this woman. "Two of these, that hotel on the South Side and the Wright house, they were done in the same year, weren’t they? I think we’ve pretty much been in Europe since then."
Trish was only just gathering steam. "No, we have not been in Europe since then. And projects having been done in past years doesn’t mean they cannot be done again, or that they weren’t a part of who we are. And they were not long ago. We are good people, we do good things. We don’t need to change. If you want to approach people in a positive way, you cannot tell them they have to change."

Sweat gathered in Alice’s armpits. Never in ten thousand years would she ever dream of speaking to another human being in a way that was not cordial. Never would she presume to criticize another person to her face. It was not that she was so terribly good and loved humanity. In fact she had few friends. (Perhaps that was why she loved the idea of clubbiness and rules. It provided manufactured friendship, without the bother of knowing people.) But she knew, well, my God, everybody surely knew. You don’t do this. Was Polly still reading? Where was Jill? Did Hunter see her go back near the stove, and would he stop her burning herself to death while she listened to Trish’s lecture? Where was everybody?

"Look, Trish," Alice spoke more bluntly than she ever had before – while wondering how it happened now that she sat low on a couch but Trish towered above her, perched on the couch’s arm – "suppose it’s not me who wants us to change? I’m not asking for your firstborn’s head on a platter. Suppose it was Mrs. Boyd, and it is the IRS, that wants us to change?"
"Monique would have had nothing to do with this. I knew her and she vetted everything." Trish almost waved her hand. "Anyway what do you mean by change? This is what’s bothering everybody. People don’t like change. Change is scary," and she let her bell-like laugh ring out anew. "Do you mean we can’t have Pie Night anymore?"
"Of course not. I don’t have that kind of power. And I agree we have done good things."
"Okay, well, good. We think so too. So you’re saying you don’t want change."
"No, not at all. I think some things have to. Better we make a few alterations than that the IRS does it for us."
"I think that’s highly unlikely." Alice began to speak but Trish went on, "And anyway now I’m scared again. What change do you want?"

How could Alice possibly make Robert’s Rules of Order look attractive compared to Pie Night? They worked for a wonderful company whose employees had so streamlined its operations that it was an absolute pleasure to go to work every Monday morning, that was all. It was a pleasure to do anything there. Now Alice threatened to ruin that end by her absurd new fixation on means which meant nothing to anybody. With her pretty pamphlet and her soft, quizzical look – "What change do you want?" – Trish had swiftly succeeded in making the issue seem to be Alice’s ignorant freakishness and indecision as to what method she preferred to use to destroy them all. She knew this was not "the IRS talking." The IRS had never written her any letters.
Meanwhile, after his long silence Hunter, still in the kitchen, had become very agitated. He paced about creating enough noise for a quiverful of eighteen-year-old boys. Normally he would have been in the shower by now. Instead he had elected – so Alice inferred from the sound of running water and crashing pots and glasses – to wash the dishes. And perhaps he had saved Jill from burning herself to death at the stove, for she now came wandering out into the living room. She sucked one finger and picked her way over the detritus of toys and clothes to the tangle of wires at the back of the television set.

Polly emerged from the bedroom. Alice held out her hand to the child, playing the calm doyenne before this mother of safe-at-home, piano-banging Miranda and Rory, hoping Polly would come to her and not join her sister behind the television. But she did not. She looked at Alice’s outstretched hand. Trish kept talking. Then Polly walked over to Jill and crouched, fascinated, in the wires beside her.

"This is why it’s always so important to be positive, and deal with people in a positive way," Trish was saying. "When you go the other route, when you’re negative, you’re angry, you’re pompous, you don’t consult people, you make decisions on your own, then you just open up a whole can of worms that is just totally unnecessary."
For a while now, Alice had begun to wonder whether it was time to order this woman from her home. She decided not to. The ignorant never know, she recalled a proverb or some Bible quote, how the strong arm of the righteous protects them. Besides, she had to consider her son and even her nieces, and the impression all this would make on them. They were only at the beginning of their lives. (The crashes from the kitchen continued.) Would they, would he, remember that his mother had been afraid to face criticism, and had expelled an unwelcome guest from her home to avoid it? Or would he see that this was all in a day’s work, that you swallow an insufferable woman’s rebuke and move on with a shrug – a Gallic shrug – and a rolled eye? She wanted Hunter to see that this episode was ultimately forgettable, that poor Trish was forgettable, and to be unafraid in his own future.

So she overlooked the string of insults Trish had just fed her, and switched tack. "Ah, dammit," Hunter said from the sink. Had he broken something?
"You know," Alice said, "I have been writing the company newsletter every month for who knows how long. Which I shouldn’t have been, I’ll admit. I don’t intend to anymore. That’s not the Treasurer’s job. But my newsletters have always tended to be chatty. It’s not like people have never seen me put pen to paper before."
"This was beyond chatty. And even your newsletters have gotten a little ...well, that’s another issue. This was unprecedented. When you’re totally negative, when you descend on people with stuff that no one has any reason to know – "
"Like what stuff?"
"Like the party in the cafe in France. There was no reason the whole staff had to know about that. That’s just a complete can of worms. We’re not going to go slinking off with our tail between our legs because of one thing. Pat says she heard they were incredibly rude to us. And then to talk about change on top of that. I think you definitely should have consulted the rest of the Board before you wrote anything.
"Consulted you, and been shut up? I felt it was an emergency."
"Nothing’s that much of an emergency. And no, not shut up. I don’t use negative terms like that." Trish grimaced down again, as if she more and more regretted even knowing this absurd bear of a woman. As if knowing her, following her into her lair in the woods, had made her dirty, had put burrs in her coat and given her bear-breath. "But we could have helped you draft a more positive, productive report. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to help you, to help each other. We’re good people."

The day I need your help you can go fuck a tree, Alice wanted to say, but she was so increasingly stunned that the words, and even their anger and humiliation, did not really form in her mind until hours later. "I don’t doubt we’re good," she said wearily now. Non-committal. The little girls sat behind the television, staring at Trish from the tangle of wires. Hunter stood in the middle of the kitchen, dripping suds from his hands. "Mom," he said. The open pamphlet was still in Trish’s hand.

Their conversation would and must dwindle down like this. No very clear winner, not even to Trish’s mind. She had obtruded into Alice’s home and sat on the arm of the couch, berating her in the name of collective self-esteem but Alice had not expressed even a slight doubt about her action, much less apologized. Draw.

Trish switched on her good cheer, her outdoor face, before leaving. She told Hunter how nice it was to meet him, and wished them all a Happy New Year as she slipped on her boots and sailed out into the cold, not even pausing inside the little sunroom to put on her coat and mittens. She struggled into them, hot, outside her car.

It had all taken a full hour. Alice turned away from the door, rolled her eyes at the young people, and burst out laughing. Somehow the pamphlet was in her hand, and much as she wanted to, she was afraid to throw it in the garbage. What if they found out? She thrust it in the back of the mail caddy on her desk, behind everything else. And she would never forgive this, no matter what any religion said.

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 2

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