Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pearls and Roses -- chapter 3

Pearls and Roses, chapter 2

The rest of that Saturday, Alice tried to go about her business as if she had forgotten the minor events of the morning, as if they were worth only a shrug. It would not have occurred to her to go to a clergyman and ask why people are so awful, but she did run the scene through her mind again and again, and the more she considered it the more she wished that sheer, righteous rage had taken possession of her and made her order the woman from her home. Alice was a great one for tamping down instincts Perhaps that was her strongest instinct – to deny that any reaction to anything is ever valid, because you had to consult the other person’s feelings first. Even in a crisis like this, even while she was being berated in her home, Alice’s first feelings ran toward the other person’s heart, assumed the other person’s delicacy of feeling. She felt, inarticulate, while it was going on: this woman must be mortified at having to berate me in front of my unkempt, bed-smelly son, in my unkempt apartment. She must long to get out of here. I’ll bet she regrets coming. I must be kind.

And she controlled herself and the woman left, and only after that, all day, could Alice begin to think as a normal human being again and not as her own assumption-driven, instinct-tamping self. How free and wonderful it must be to have roaring, rage-filled reactions to immediate events. Trish had them, obviously – she came here, Alice thought – and so did Pat ("quite upset"), and look what power rage gave them. The power to act. Alice didn’t feel rage until it was all hours over, by which time the fact of rage’s delay was itself enraging. She had truthfully been more fascinated by Trish as a specimen, and more concerned with Polly and Jill’s safety, than she was outraged by Trish’s causing the whole situation. And there was shock, undoubtedly. The paralysis of shock. Shock at the effrontery of other people’s rage. Where did they get it?

Well, she couldn’t help what she had done. She told herself that at eleven o’clock that day, and at noon and at one, and two-forty and three, and five-fifteen and midnight and beyond. If she had reacted weakly, strongly, badly, or otherwise, it was over now. Now all that remained was to work with this woman beginning again Tuesday morning, and going on indefinitely. And who knows? Perhaps she had wounded Trish much more than Trish let on. Alice enjoyed that thought, and was troubled by it as well. Was that, then, proper rage?

She told Pam the story of Trish’s morning invasion of her house when Pam came to pick up Jill and Polly, and Pam told her husband, Alice’s brother John, and so the family were all ready to hash it out at their customary New Year’s Eve brunch the next day. For the McNamara family it was a delightful afternoon as usual, everything exactly the same as last year and the year before, which is exactly what the family looked forward to. There was the usual champagne, and the mushrooms and pilaf and the perfect roast, and Nan’s vegetables and Claudia’s eggnog cake and Jason’ s eternal contribution of a box of cashews and another of dark-chocolate buttercreams; and everyone circulated easily and excitedly, picking up, without preliminary, the threads of conversations last dropped perhaps at the summer picnic of half a year before, or maybe of the last New Year’s brunch itself. They were a family neither close nor estranged, but simply normal, as far as Alice was concerned. She had not slept much the night before.

"So what’s this about some awful woman who came to your house to yell at you last week?" Alice’s mother asked – coincidentally named Pamela also, though always Pamela and never Pam – while she and three brothers, two sisters-in-law, and their father all sat around the ancient family table.

"Oh! Yes, this was yesterday," Alice corrected her. "Yes, she came to tell me how awful I am. Right in front of Jilly and Polly and Hunter, of course. He was eating cereal."
"What was this dame’s problem?"
"Oh, she had a bee in her bonnet about this letter I wrote about our company’s excursion to Europe. Remember I told you what a disaster that was?"
"Oh yes, didn’t they tell you never to come back or something?"
"Not quite, but it was quite a fiasco and I had to go and apologize to this bar-owner in France whom I had never met and everything. Thank God he spoke English. But I felt like such an imperialist for that, too."

"Don’t you?" Jason put in parenthetically. "I did too, all the time I was in Italy. Asking directions in English and everything."

"Oh, apologizing, you’d be good at that," Mrs. McNamara said, glancing a little sharply at her daughter out of the corner of her eye. "So she didn’t like you apologizing?"

"I don’t think it was that. I think she would have loved for me to apologize to her yesterday. In fact she demanded it, and I said no. In Europe, it had to be done. No, yesterday – I’m not sure what she didn’t like." Alice’s face turned hot as she felt everyone around the table quieting down and paying attention to her. "I think she felt that I had wounded everyone’s self-esteem by explaining what had happened, and how I thought we might be getting a terrible reputation among professional circles."

"And are you?" Dave asked.
"If we’re not, it’s not through lack of trying."
"She asked you to apologize?" John added, also parenthetically. "And you said no?"
"I said no."
"How bad was this letter?" Claudia asked, and their father said, "That’s what I would want to know. How bad could it have been?"

"Apparently horrible, although I thought I was being the soul of tact," Alice said. "I just wrote that we had really, uh, stubbed our toes in Europe this time around and that maybe we should face up to doing things the way our poor old ancient bylaws say we should. If we had been doing that, we never would have been at a party, we never would have been in Europe, to begin with."
"Oh, really," Dave continued. He lowered his head like a bull and stared at her over his glasses.

"Yes, I heard about this party. Mom was telling us one night. The police were called to some bar?"
"Almost, from what I heard. I wasn’t there." I was at the opera with a distinguished older man, she wanted to say. "One of our employees had gotten a few too many under her belt and decided to, well, shake things up, or have a good time, I guess."
"This self-esteem nonsense is going to be the bane of everybody," Alice’s mother said. Alice felt both relief and disappointment at the evident change of subject. "Look at the schools. It’s ruining the schools."
"Oh, I know, but people are raised on it."

Then John spoke, slowly. "Does this lady have kids?"
"Yeah, she has two."
"Did she bring them with? Yesterday?"
Alice shook her head, majestically. "No."
He stared at her, himself the father of the toddlers Jilly and Polly. "So she left her kids at home – what does her husband do? I assume she’s married."
"Oh yes, she’s married. Her husband’s in construction or heating and air conditioning or something. One of those jobs every guy has now, servicing those huge cardboard houses out in the boondocks that only they can afford to live in. I read somewhere that a housing boom feeds on itself like that."
"Really," Dave began with interest, but John resumed, again slowly: "So she left her kids at home, so – how old are they?"
"I’m not sure. Elementary school, I think."
"She left her kids at home so she could come to your house and berate you while you were watching kids. My kids."
John contemplated this as though it were a deep philosophical problem. He took a breath then and said, "That bites. She’s got a nerve. Were my kids good?"

Everyone laughed. "They were fine. Yes, she’s got nerve. It was hilarious in a way. Hunter had just gotten up, and of course he’s got the bleary eyes and the bed hair and everything." Alice’s mother began to laugh. "Meanwhile Polly and Jill are wandering around tripping over things. This lady’s house is always House Beautiful and of course mine’s a disaster – "

"You’ve been to her house?" John interrupted.
"Oh yeah, for meetings and stuff."
"What’s it like?"
She smirked dismissively. "Huge. Gorgeous. She’s in interior arts consulting, so of course there are white leather sofas and all these bizarre paintings all over the walls."
"Art consulting, what does that mean?"
"She teaches people how to – how to – " Alice groped for words, and turned to her mother and Claudia.
"How to arrange furniture, lighting, paint, interior decorating, that kind of thing, right?" Claudia said.
"Oh, so she’s an interior decorator."
"Well, sort of," Alice said, but then wanting to be fair, she went on. "She also teaches classes in fine art, and the history of packaging, how to combine things so they look nice, I guess. That’s her background, anyway. I swear what it amounts to is that she tells people what to do. In their own homes." She wanted the conversation to resume its light and laughing tone.

"So how long did whoo-sie, this dame, stay?" John asked.
"Oh God. Close to an hour."
"Cripes." He looked up at her. "But my kids were good."
"They were fine. They were terrified, but they were fine." Everyone around the table laughed anew. "They ended up crouching behind the TV until she left. I was terrified."
"I think I’d crouch behind the TV, too," Mrs. McNamara said, laughing. "Did you, ah, think of showing this woman the door?"
"I came very close to it."
"I think I would have pointed it out and said, ‘Ah, lady, this works both ways. In and out.’"
"Shoot," Jason spun out carefully, "I would have kicked her down those stairs you’ve got. That’s a good long flight, isn’t it?"

Alice was laughing happily. "Fourteen," she said, "I counted, back when I was carrying a baby up and down them every day."
"Sure. I’d say, ‘Here, bitch, here’s some self-esteem, right here!’" And their mother said, "Oh, Jason!" and everyone laughed. The conversation moved on. No one asked what would happen next. "Anyway. I’m glad you stuck to your guns," Mr. McNamara said privately to Alice later.

The brunch went on until about seven at night, when the family broke up to attend to their various plans for the real, black-and-silver New Year’s Eve. Mr. and Mrs. McNamara looked forward to a safe quiet evening with each other and the television, and savoring the pleasurable memories of the little party just passed. Thank God none of their children had ever yet moved out of town. John and Pam had plans with friends, Jason and Claudia with Claudia’s family. David had a co-worker’s party to go to and even Hunter had somewhere to go. Like her parents, Alice looked forward to the safety and privacy of home. She would relax tonight with her favorite things, a pot of tea, bread and butter, and a fresh book. And her thoughts her own, not Trish’s, she hoped. "Resentment is letting someone you hate live rent-free in your head." She had surely earned better than that.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 4

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