Monday, December 14, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 10

Pearls and Roses, chapter 9

A half-year later Monique Boyd walked, leaning on her cane, to the door of her breathtaking apartment high up inside Lake Point Tower. The undressed windows were a wash of blazing blue from the lake and the May sky outside. A birthday sky, though her party was early this year. Inside, the home was all hardwood floors of the warmest polished orange color, glowing in the sun, and gray sofas and chairs with pink and gray plaid throws and pillows placed neatly on them. One splendid chair like a throne sat in cobalt blue majesty in a corner. It bore a perfect, brocaded orange pillow.

Monique opened the door, smiling happily. “Hi, surprise!” Trish laughed out like a bell, for obviously the visit was no surprise – we don’t want to give her a heart attack, the others agreed – and Monique let them all in, holding hands and kissing cheeks with everyone. She would soon be eighty-one.

They filed in smiling and laughing, bearing presents and decked out in their summer best, Trish and Pat and Connie, Mill and Liz and a few others. “Sit down, please, Mrs. Boyd, we’ll do everything,” Pat said, and Monique smiled, “Oh honey, that makes me feel so old. Call me Monique.” She was a delightful old lady. She painted in oils, she dressed wonderfully. Her apartment was a dwelling the likes of which they would never live in themselves. This birthday party, the “fifth annual” they called it, was a tradition they all hoped they would be able to continue for years to come, for her own sake and because they honestly wanted a reason to see this home every year. They always brought the food as well as a few little presents, while Monique had catered for them at least one remarkable item from her favorite French restaurant down the street.

For several years the party had also been a kind of executive meeting pertaining to the Boyd Foundation’s Board staff and project choices for the coming year, and this year again Trish looked forward to being ale to have a productive, leisurely chat with the center of authentic power. There was little point in not dealing directly with the top. Besides, no one really knew how much longer they would have Monique with them, and Trish felt strongly that they should have as much experience of her, personally, as possible, experience of her words, memories, moods, intentions, even of the settings of her home and style. Trish was always disappointed that few employees availed themselves of the opportunity to come and meet Monique like this, on a Sunday, in honor of her birthday for heaven’s sake.

They all sat, except for Pat and Mill and Denise. Trish sat in the cobalt chair which she loved. The three women worked in the kitchen, putting out food on the china with its old-fashioned design of ribbon and calla lilies in yellow, green, and gold. Denise talked and laughed loudly. She was out of place but always tried, a tough-featured, tense woman, effulgently friendly but wounded to the soul every day by the memory of an ex-husband who had once hit her.

“So, eighty-one years young, huh Monique,” Connie opened in her well-meaning, simple way.

“Oh yes, and feeling every minute of it,” Monique laughed.

“No,” came murmurs of laughing protest from the women gathered in the big room. “I hope I’m in as good a shape when I’m sixty, let alone eighty,” Liz said, and Becky added, “I wish I were in as good a shape now.”

They laughed and chatted about nothing, and some got up and drifted about to look politely at Monique’s artworks, her souvenirs of archaeological digs and her few books, all the same and all in the same places they were last year. All were perfectly dusted.

In a few minutes Pat and Mill bought trays out of the kitchen, loaded with canapes and sandwiches and little cakes. A tea kettle whistled. Denise shut off the gas and poured. There was wine, too. Trish had gotten up to help. She carried into the living room the big crystal punch bowl filled up with gold froth and bobbing sherbet and raspberries. She set it down on an Irish linen placemat on the table. Pat hung the little crystal punch cups in their silver hooks all around the rim of the bowl. The tea had steeped, and was brought out. The sun burned higher in the windows. There were bird-of-paradise in a glittering crystal vase. Everything looked lovely.

All the women were gathered now around the table and around Monique, smiling guest of honor in her own home. “Well, my dears, it is lovely,” she said. “I really don’t know what to say, as usual. You are all too sweet.”

“Well, it’s not every day we turn twenty-nine,” Pat said, and they all laughed. “Gracious I’d be happy to turn fifty-nine,” Monique replied. “But I am very happy anyway.”

“Many happy returns,” Trish said, and ladled punch. They helped themselves to the food, especially the elegant restaurant contribution, plump with exactly what they could not tell, certainly garlic and mushrooms, probably Gruyere at ten dollars a pound as well. They gossiped about more nothings, the harmless topics women love (the kind that Peter loved to hear wash over him in a grainy Southern accent), babies, wedding days, driving mishaps, husbands’ chores. It was an eternal, pleasing tableau: it might have been ancient Rome, or perhaps – perhaps – a salon of Ninon’s Paris, only without men. If Alice had been there, she with her current reading about Disraeli would have noticed that no one argued the beautiful Sheridan sisters’ query of the sovereign good. What is the most desirable life? But sometimes she was a smirker, and she was not there.

“So, where are we going this year, my dears?” Monique asked.

“Oh, you mean the company?” Trish answered.

Monique nodded, and Trish swallowed a mouthful and emerged from behind her napkin. “We have a lot of great plans,” she began. “I think you’ll approve. We’re finishing up work on the film of the Mexico City project, you know, the opera house that was designed partly by an American architect? And then we have two projects we’d like to concentrate on the rest of the year. We want to keep filming the Browder houses in Cape Cod and in the Carolinas. Charlie says he thinks Browder built in Quebec City, too, so we voted to investigate that.” Trish’s rich voice, very clear from the throat, her liveliness and precision in speaking entranced them all.

“Yes, I remember. And next year? Has anything been broached?”

“Well, yes, the Board noted some recommendations, but of course the incoming Board will have to approve or disapprove as they see fit. We recommend another recruiting visit to Columbia College next year, and as far as possible projects go, we recommend a base study of Portugal. Of all places. Apparently there is some American architect who has written the fundamental, absolute history of Portugal in this century. I forget his name, but he is, I guess, just incredibly well-known. We want to find out if this might be an avenue worth exploring.”

“It sounds a little far afield to me,” Monique said.

“Oh it is, definitely,” Trish said, “but I only want our research department to look into it. I read about him in an article in the Atlantic. He is supposed to be some giant whom the Portuguese worship and we don’t even know. But what else we have going on is, a robber-baron mansion falling down in San Francisco, and then there’s a project involving Mary Cassatt’s house which I really think we should not pass up. It’s being refurbished by her town. They’re bringing it back to exactly the way it looked when she lived there.”

“This is in Paris?” Monique asked.

“No, strangely enough. Apparently she had a house in some little town which was a retreat then, but is now sort of grimy and industrial. That’s why it’s such a godsend that the city fathers are fixing it up. I forget the name.” She turned to Pat, hoping – but not admitting to herself even in her depths that she hoped – that by truthfully denying the house was “in” Paris, she could avoid mention of how near it was to Paris. It might be anywhere: America perhaps. (Anyway Mary Cassatt was an American.) Pat, however, missed the subtlety.

“One of those French words that has ten vowels and an x at the end,” she said.

“And does Bob know about it?”

“Yes. All this is pending his approval and the new Board’s too, naturally,” Trish answered. “But at any rate we have a lot of ideas in the pipeline.”

“You certainly do,” Monique smiled. “And who will run for the new Board?”

“Oh. Well, that’s something else we can talk about, that is if you don’t mind all this talking shop on your birthday.”

“Hey, what better time, right Monique?” Denise laughed hoarsely. “I’ll talk shop anytime ” Denise had run her own knock-off cosmetics business for a year, was a success, and loved it like nothing else in her life. A few of the women rolled their eyes, and hoped they were not about to get an update on the fortunes and services of Domenica Fragrances, Trademark, Incorporated.

“Not at all,” Monique said.

“Well, Pat and I, and Connie, we’re all on the nominating committee – aren’t we? – hey, does this constitute a quorum?” Trish looked around at everyone cheerfully.

“Works for me,” Pat laughed.

“Well. Anyway, we thought we would ask a few new people to consider running for the Board. We try to start sounding people out before the summer picnic, so we don’t just pounce on them in the middle of a party when being an ‘officer’ – I hate that word, honestly, it sounds so evil – is the last thing on anybody’s mind.”

“And when they’re so drunk, they’ll say yes to anything,” Mill blurted.

“So we thought we would sound out maybe Charlie for a change, and maybe Louisa, although I don’t think she’d be interested, and we thought we’d try Alice.”

“Oh yes,” Monique said. She thought swiftly, but could not place either Charlie or Louisa. “She is such a nice girl. I’m sure she would do well.”

“Yes, you know sometimes it’s the quiet people who have new ideas. She’s done a good job with the newsletter so far. Some of her quotes are a bit literary for me, but then that’s just her. We thought with her experience we could ask her to run for treasurer. It wouldn’t give her a whole lot of authority, and she would have Bob Boyd overseeing her every step of the way, so it wouldn’t be too scary. And I think she’s pretty level-headed. She might be good.”

“Oh yes, that’s a very important position.”

“You sign everything but our paychecks, don’t you?” Mill asked.

Monique nodded, sipping her punch. “And you cast the deciding vote on the Executive Board.”

Trish looked up. There was the smallest silence. “You’re kidding,” she said. “I didn’t know that. I don’t see how. The treasurer? Wouldn’t it be the president?”

“My late husband was so concerned about what would be done with his money in this foundation that at one point he wrote it into our bylaws to give that power to the treasurer. I didn’t think it was necessary, myself.”

“I remember that,” Denise nodded, grinning crookedly always, her glinting pale eyes always thrusting out sideways for assurance, for inclusion. “I remember that from the bylaws we all used to get.”

“It – almost doesn’t make sense,” Trish said slowly, thinking hard how to tread softly with the widow – who perhaps didn’t need it – and still say what she wanted to say. “Why not just – “

“I’m surprised it’s legal,” Pat broke in. She did not fear the widow. “Why not just let the president have presidential powers?” Again she opened her rusted-whisky laugh, like a throttle. “Like every other organization on the planet?”

“Or let the president handle the money?” someone put in.

“Nope, can’t do that,” Mill said. “The president already co-signs the checks. Gotta have a treasurer.”

“Then why ...”

“I don’t get it,” Trish said.

“Nor did I,” Monique closed her eyes deep in her punch cup. “I think he may have been ill already, when he made this decision. And by that time, our lawyer was also our son-in-law. Bob and Chuck never got along too well. We had to – I had to – humor everyone.”

This serious conversation paused, while the light chatter that had resumed among Becky and Liz and Connie and the others continued around the perimeter of the room. “Wow,” Trish said, low to herself.

“Well anyway, we can still ask Alice if she wants to run for that position. I have no problem with her,” Pat said.

“These positions are basically interchangeable anyway. Who cares?” Denise called out from the kitchen, where she was shaking something – was it a cocktail shaker, really? Had she asked permission?

“Do you think she has the experience?” Trish asked, both there at the party in Monique’s sunlit apartment (everyone had the little cakes, and sang happy birthday, and then cleared away the dishes and left in time for Monique to go to the concert with her gentleman friend that night), and in Pat’s car on the way home. Connie and Pat drove all the friends in each of their two cars, and Trish was the last to be dropped off before Pat proceeded home.

“I don’t see why not. It’s just arithmetic, I would think,” Pat answered. “She signs the checks with the president, she comes to Board meetings, she helps balance the books. I can’t believe it’s hugely difficult. The last treasurer wasn’t a CPA or anything, was she?”

“No, that’s true.” Trish had her hand on the door handle. “That bit about the treasurer having presidential prerogatives on the Board, is that weird or what? I can’t believe that’s legal. I thought bylaws for any organization were engraved in stone, like at the United Nations or something. Isn’t a president a president?”

“Okay, well, obviously Mr. Boyd was senile in his declining years,” Pat replied with her big, rusty laugh. “I don’t think it’s legal either. Anyway I wouldn’t call it presidential prerogative. She casts the deciding vote, supposedly. How often have we needed to have anybody do that? We don’t fight.”


“Anyway I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Monique is not all there herself, lately. Did she look odd to you this afternoon?”

“Maybe tired.”

“Way tired.”

“Well, at eighty-one, I’ll be looking tired, too, I suppose,” Trish smiled. She was one of those women who especially pride themselves on the sympathy they have and the care they take of elderly women, aunts, grandmothers, neighbors. And they inherit the jewelry.

“See you tomorrow,” Pat said, and Trish said goodbye and swung out of the car. “So should we ask her?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Trish squinted down into the window. Pat waved goodbye and drove home. Trish walked up the steps into her house and let herself in.

Trish’s perfect, very individual home proved well enough the degree she had earned from the Art Institute. It was a living home, complete with big dogs and children, and children’s art on the walls. Perfect for her did not mean clean lines or open spaces, or trained color schemes of olive and chrome. There were just touches everywhere to show that this woman had education and taste, had been educated above all to trust her own taste and to accept, in an old-world way, previous decisions about the house that could not be altered, not yet. She had not altered the dark, stone-flagged entryway, and had kept the large wooden sculpture near the fireplace. The huge distressed-pine armoire and the cream leather furniture were her own. The kitchen windows, like Monique’s, she left undressed, so that sunlight poured in on the white cabinets and the little round table spread with a pretty cloth in green, pink, yellow, and blue checks run through with gold thread.

The house was big, because Dan had money and they could afford a big house, but it was still cramped into its block among its little neighbors in the ordinary way. Even this problem Trish had managed to solve with thoughtful charm. They were lucky in the great oak trees that stood all around the house and garage and even out the deep driveway. She had kept them, too – many people would not have – permitting all the undergrowth around the trees and under the jutting master bedroom loft to stay as well, and had removed more curtains from the big trapezoid windows on all the rest of the ground floor rooms. The result was a view of greenery in summer, and of tangled brown thickets and snow in winter, that made guests think not of an ordinary house at 2512 Maple Street, but of an exclusive mountain lodge screened from prying eyes by mists and woods.

Perfection and exclusivity were as much a part of her now as ever they had been when she was a student at the Art Institute – or as ever they had been when she was a young girl being driven to elocution lessons by her own lovely mother. Her daughters attended private school of course, not even riding the bus there for Trish’s fear that a school bus was “bully heaven.” They all took wonderful family vacations, to the Caribbean in the winter and to Sea World in the spring – although that trip had not been a great success, as she admitted, laughing to her friends at Pie Night when she got back. “I wanted everything to be too perfect,” she said. “That was a mistake.” They had driven all the way there, and the hair-beading kits which she had bought to keep the girls busy in the car had been used up within the first few hours of driving. “I didn’t think they would be that easy to do,” she said, as Becky commiserated with stories of her own daughter spending a morning completely beading her wispy hair and the beads falling out and bouncing all over. “I know ” Trish laughed, “I know All over the car. We pulled up at Sea World with my daughters wearing cornrows Blond cornrows. Oh God, it was a trip. And the expense Meals alone were absolutely exorbitant. Every little souvenir cup was five dollars. By the time we were packing up to go home on the last night, I was standing in the hotel lobby literally screaming ‘I hate you, Dan, I hate you, I hate you ’ How we all survived is beyond me.”

How were we to survive? she thought now, on a different topic. Maybe Pat was right. Maybe Mr. Boyd was senile in his declining years, and the thing was illegal. And Monique this afternoon: she did not look well. What would happen to the company after she died? Bob Boyd was the most morose-looking man Trish had ever met. She could just picture him selling everything the instant his mother died and he was free to do something else with his life. What must it feel like to fall heir to the family business? What else had he wanted to do? Maybe before long they might all find out, and where would that wonderful workplace, her friendships, and her income be then?

She shook off her mood. Things would work out for her. They always did. She walked into the kitchen and found a pair of notes waiting for her on the table. They were both from Dan. She smiled as she remembered how he always took telephone messages by first asking whoever it was to hold on “while he got a crayon.” This little joke had actually defused a few serious quarrels she might otherwise have had with Girl Scout troop leaders, her children’s teachers, occasionally the school’s handsome principal. The notes now, written in pen in his awful handwriting, told her that he had taken the girls out for ice cream, and that a Mr. Paul Shepstone had called, from Chinon, in France.

What on earth was this? Her feelings were twice as surreal because she knew this would be cleared up in some way, even if it was only a wrong number, but in the meantime it gave her imagination full rein. Had she inherited money from some long-lost French relative? Had a stranger, unbalanced, spotted her one day and determined to deed his villa to her because he had no heirs and she reminded him of a lost love? Was she being recruited, or tested about something? Had an old professor contacted her through a third party, had a daughter won a scholarship?

Before even considering returning the phone call she went down to the basement, switched on the lights, petted one of the dogs, and sat down at the computer. She got on the Internet and found a website for French tourism which led her to another for Chinon, a place she had never heard of. “Les annonces,” “les amusements,” “le folklore,” “les restaurants,” “le shopping.” France roman et gothique; les rois. Fontevrault.

Nothing. She scrolled down to the bottom of the page, intending to give up after this. There at the bottom – “l’archeologie” – was a small photograph of a man perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, and there the name leaped out at her. Shepstone, Peter, not Paul. And who on earth was this? She could not understand the French caption.

She closed down the computer, leaned back in her chair, and thought. The noise of a slammed door and voices came to her from upstairs. Dan and the girls were home. At sea, she went upstairs and greeted them, and then called Pat.

“I just got the most bizarre phone message in the world,” she laughed after Pat answered. “Dan took a call from some guy in France calling me, specifically, but with no information other than to contact him.”


“Well, but here’s the thing. I went on line and I looked up the tourist site for this town he’s calling from, and his picture is there at the bottom of the page.”
“Okay,” Pat repeated, laughing. “So what’s it about?”

“I have no idea. My high school French is too far gone for me to make use of it when I need it. But it’s weird. This guy is on a website involving archaeology at this French town, and he calls me personally, at my home. I mean what is this? Do you think I should call him back?”

“Why not e-mail him first?”

“I would, but he’s got my phone number. He’s not trying to be halfway anonymous, to keep his distance, you know? This is weird.”

“He’s involved in what? Archaeology?”

“Archaeology. I at least understand that. ‘Archeologie’ with an ie instead of a y. It’s the same in French, I’m sure. In Chinon, France.”

Pat reflected a little. “Wait a minute, wait a minute ... I know what this is,” she said. “Chinon.” She pronounced it correctly. “When I was first hired, millions of years ago, one of my jobs was to do research on this old medieval church near there. I’m sure that was the name. Mr. Boyd wanted to find out if there was some kind of American connection – “

“Oh God, poor Mr. Boyd and his connections,” Trish sighed.

“Yes, remember that? It was like his mantra. Anyway I was supposed to find out if we could find any American excuse to do a film about this old cathedral that had water damage or dry rot or something.”

“But what was the point to begin with?”

“The point was that Frank Boyd knew the man who was going to be in charge of the restoration of this church.” Trish could hear Pat busily washing her dishes while she talked. “He was an English guy with a really nice name, you know, like Brougham or Fairfield?” Pat liked to joke about the luck Trish had had in her surnames, from maiden Fairfield to married Markham, while she, maiden Patrice Irene Hamm, went from married and divorced Jones to married Zurick. “Zuu-uurick ” she would laugh.

“Peter Shepstone,” Trish said.

“Yep, that’s it. So they were great pals and Mr. Boyd wanted to have an excuse to be on site and film this guy’s latest work. That’s why I was hired, to find out if that would have been legit.”

“Okay. And was it?”

Pat unloosed, again, her rusted-whisky laugh. “I don’t know. I never quite got that far.”

“What does Peter Shepstone do?”

“Helps restore old churches, I guess. I never found the big connection, and then when Mr. Boyd got really sick and we got really busy, I just kind of dropped the ball.”

“But why would this guy call me? Did you ever talk to him?”

“No. But don’t we have a website with your name on it from when you were president the first time?”

“Well, yeah, we have a website, but I shouldn’t be on it anymore. And why would he go rushing off, I mean how would he even find it unless – “

“It wouldn’t take much. Everything in the world is on-line. You found him.”

“That’s true. Aha, and you know what? I bet I am still on that website because it would have been Caroline’s job to update it and – “

“Caroline quit,” they both said together. “My God, we haven’t updated it since then? We have dropped the ball.” In the tiniest way Trish was stupidly annoyed that Caroline was still able, in her pedestrian way, to smother the fantasy of a villa deeded her by a mysterious European. It seemed her fault, somehow. “Shouldn’t Alice have updated it?”

“I guess she didn’t. Anyway there you have it.”

“Should I call him?” Trish knew Pat would say yes, and she very much wanted to call him anyway.

“Absolutely, why not?”

They hung up. Trish called Peter at seven o’clock that night, and found herself unusually flustered at this strange man’s quiet, confident voice. She identified herself, and then blurted out that Frank Boyd had died some years ago.

“Yes, I know,” Peter said. “Your web page included the little biography of him. I was sorry to learn that.”

“Had you known him well?”

“I met him,” his voice came through muffled, as if he were shifting his position in bed. Trish realized in a flood of embarrassment that seven o’clock in the evening in Naperville meant midnight in London, if not something worse, and while he went on talking about how, just for a lark, he had investigated the Boyd Foundation, to see if perhaps Mr. Boyd was still interested in filming the project that was at last underway at Fontevrault, she thought how on earth to apologize for telephoning him at this ungodly hour. In the end she decided an apology would only make things worse by drawing attention to the offense. So in a few minutes they hung up, Trish scarcely able to remember what they had said or what she had promised she might do. She seemed to remember saying she would “look into it.”

“I was so mortified,” she told Pat a few minutes later, calling her safely at Naperville’s seven-thirty. They both laughed until their cheeks ached. “He’ll just have to think I’m an idiot, that’s all.”

“Well,” Pat offered, “why don’t we pursue this project anyway? It might be good, and Mr. Boyd was interested. It may turn out to be a great thing.”

“What’s going to be the American connection?”

“I don’t know. The founder of the company was interested. This company has been so prestigious for so long that I would think that alone is enough. If Monique approves, or rather Bob, I would say we’re home free.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Trish said. The two friends said good-bye and hung up again, Trish excited and intrigued at the possibility of meeting this man who had telephoned her, and let her call him in the middle of the night without berating her for it, and spoke in a deep muffled voice as if he were shifting position in bed, and did not mind whether she guessed that.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 11

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