Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 11

Pearls and Roses, chapter 10

On a Sunday like that, while Monique-Boyd’s true elites went to the foundress’ birthday party, Alice would have spent part of the day in church. Bethany looked a lot like Peter’s church, bare and beige, and her thoughts as she stared around very much resembled his. She had never seen Fontevrault and so could make no comparisons there, but she had her books, and her disappointments. She was sitting here because Roger Lucas had “called” her, what – sixteen years ago? She was thirty-five. Next month Hunter would turn eighteen. And what man was likely to call her now? Where had the time gone?

She liked Bethany, although sometimes its prayers were not much more satisfying than the old jazzy psalms and enforced hand-holding she had left behind. “We are grains of sand warmed by You on the wide shore of the world.” What had happened to prayer, and to the God who drew up cathedrals out of one era, and made a man call her to prove his existence in another? Perhaps things were better this way. Better this, than thousands of eager throats pouring forth the cry “Deus le volt ” inside a glorious cathedral, and then everyone spilling out into the Poitevin heat to do savage things in the Jewish quarter. Better this, the simplicity of reformed prayers, than to lie prostrate before a monstrance as some bewimpled countess might have done. We are going even further back than that, really, Alice thought. Back to Jerome translating in the dusty heat of Bethlehem perhaps, back to the psalmist himself, born there.

Why the everlasting need to go back? Historical neediness, what could perhaps be more charitably called a rich inner life, still thrummed in her like a rushing river. Perhaps her nature was only romantic, religious and silly. Or maybe she needed to go back precisely because it could not be done, and to inform Alice that a thing could not be done was to wave a red flag in front of a (female) bull. Who else was likely to call her now? The idea of new beginnings, a new man, someday-maybe-perhaps-of-course-it-will-don’t-be-silly, was beginning to wear a bit thin. Maybe you reached a point where you were simply too old, too mature, for new beginnings, and no it wasn’t “a downer” or un-American to say so. Maybe it was the red-flagged truth, and you made the damnable best of it. As the charming, the French Andre Maurois said: once you have made your decision, no regrets!

And yet, and yet – why not? She was only thirty-five. She went to Bethany Reformed, and though it wasn’t medieval it gave her balm, with its steady invitations to join this or teach that, or found a study group about something else. It gave her a small balm even where man was concerned. Enough of them – middle-aged or elderly, married or widowed – paid enough little attentions to her to assuage her outstanding longings. It was like a drug. She suspected it blunted disappointments and appetites that would have sent a braver woman out looking for real succor, for the young and interesting, who avoid religion like the plague, but she accepted the little morsels and their inertia anyway. Maybe that was her prayer. Besides, she had been so busy.

Only once did she come alive enough to reciprocate, after a fashion, the interest of a man, and the situation was so safe and easy that it hardly counted. His name was Roy, and he had a good face and wonderful slightly crooked teeth. They were seated together at a party for the twentieth anniversary of Bethany’s pastor’s ordination, and throughout dinner and entertainment they laughed and talked. Alice had an insupportable impression that he never talked about war movies with his wife like they were doing now, and was therefore savoring a tart treat. When he turned his attention briefly to his elderly mother beside him, she took the opportunity to cross her legs and reveal the slit in her red velvet skirt. He turned back, jolted, and hastily turned away.

It was a most pleasant evening. Within two years, Roy left his wife, after twenty-nine years of marriage. Alice was not such a fool as to think it was because of her, nor did she and Roy have anything else to do with each other. It was only delightful to feel wicked, and look back on the party with a shiver of imaginary triumph. In reality it also reinforced her deepest lessons, that men are off-limits for a reason, and to reciprocate their attentions even in innocence is to play with fire. And she was so busy.

And then Trish and Pat descended on her like pagan goddesses, again, and asked her to do something new. To make a new beginning. They asked her to consider running for the position of Foundation treasurer in the summer’s elections to the new Executive Board. She was utterly delighted, hesitated for form’s sake, and then said yes. She couldn’t wait to tell the people at Bethany, but postponed the announcement, for modesty’s sake, until she had had some experience, or done something really useful in her new position. Maybe in a few months, if the subject came up naturally, she would tell them. She told her family – her mother, father, John and Pam, Dave and Claudia and Jason, and of course Hunter, but did not get, from them, quite the reaction she had wanted. Hunter was only a boy; he was vaguely respectful, but caught in his own world. Her family were also excessively respectful, but otherwise disappointingly halt about it.

They were never quite sure how to respond to each other, outside of absolute crisis. Their parents had raised them never to argue, scarcely even to talk, always to defer to the other, to anyone who was speaking at the moment. You never knew if you might say something that would show you a fool, especially an over-eager, brow-beating, opinionated fool. There was nothing so distasteful as a person holding forth, saying whatever he wanted. Besides, families didn’t disagree with each other. What was the point of getting together if you were going to debate? Skip it. But Alice had gotten a little accustomed to new people and new ways, at Bethany and at Monique-Boyd. She had gotten accustomed to men who were not afraid to say “God,” to women who enthusiastically greeted each other’s stories about childbirth or vacations, or tussles with unsympathetic salesclerks. Now one weekend at her parents’ house, her announcement “I’m going to be the Foundation’s treasurer” was received only with a smothered lurch of uncertainty.

It was not that her parents and brothers didn’t care. They were simply very careful people, and they none of them had been quite able to read Alice’s own attitude as she spoke. This was another function of their upbringing (and the daughters-in-law had learned to take their cues from it, though marveling), and not even a conscious one: just as there was no sight so distasteful as a person holding forth, so there was nothing so dangerous as revealing anything about yourself until you knew how everyone around you would take it. You had to survive. The family would have made excellent hostages. They could not tell, because Alice herself had hedged, whether she was thrilled by her news, or whether it was a chore she had been browbeaten into, and wanted to be encouraged to shed. “Lucky you,” said Mrs. McNamara, assuming the latter, and waited for details which Alice, disgusted, now did not give. Dave did his best with “Oh That’ll be interesting.” And that was all, until crisis.

Still she recovered her equilibrium and signed up, officially, at the company’s summer picnic at a beautiful park in Naperville in June 1998, a month after Monique’s early birthday party. She was now treasurer of the Boyd Foundation. Trish was president, Pat was vice president. They assured her that her new duties would not be beyond her capacities, and said how happy they were at the prospect of working with her. They also said she could still write the newsletter. She had been anxious about this. She did not want to do anything illegal, nor take the secretary’s privileges away from her (Lily didn’t care), but she also greatly enjoyed the newsletter and wanted to continue writing it if she possibly could. Her little added quotes, birthdays and almanacs of interesting historical information had earned her comments from people she had hardly spoken to in sixteen years. She tried to be informative without being threatening. Charlie was her barometer about what to include. Once she almost put in a line from Henry James about how the American woman considers herself ill-used if she cannot buy something new every day – this was after a raucous Pie Night during which they had all laughed themselves sick over their shopping misadventures – but she asked Charlie and he scowled and said, “I don’t think so.” “I didn’t think so, either,” she agreed, disappointed, and put in something else, from Plato. “Of all creatures, the boy is the most unmanageable.” They were all of them mothers, and laughed over their children too at Pie Night. She had a boy herself.

Board meetings, a voice in the company, being singled out for attention – this was all splendid. Alice had always felt a natural aristocrat with her poets and fancies and above all her mother, and the lectures on Isaiah for which her congregation paid her an honorarium that she fondly returned. Sometimes the elderly widowers embraced her afterward and she felt she could walk on the sun. Now she had been asked to join a far different group of what her ex-mother-in-law would have called more “swells.” After the picnic she got a note from Pat, to thank her for giving of her time and to welcome her to the Board, and to advise her of their next meeting. “Fondly,” she had signed it. Alice felt very important. No one in professional life had ever sent her a note signed “fondly” before. It seemed so sophisticated.

The first Board meetings were a riot, even better than Pie Night. They met one evening a month at each other’s houses. Mill was the first hostess. She had served on the Board for three years running and was full of stories of what a tedium the meetings used to be, with Jane or Kandi or Caroline in the group. “You sat there for two hours looking at each other going ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?’ And no food.” This new group delighted in their food. They outdid each other with their goat cheese in raspberry sauce, their margaritas and French chocolate cakes in caramel cages. They laughed and gossiped sometimes for two hours before getting down to the business of planning Monique-Boyd’s next film, or deciding whether a certain issue was worth raising at Pie Night, or signing a batch of checks. The summer flew.

In early September the Mississippi flooded. It did not affect Naperville, Illinois, but it did inundate a town called Luxor, Missouri, whose name in the newspaper caused Alice to sit up and take notice. She was still basking in the novelty of being among the elites, and never failed to look over the newspapers now with, as it were, an added eye, an elite, professional eye, newly trained to spot places and things her company might now be professionally enthusiastic about, thanks to her. Luxor, Luxor Missouri – why was that familiar? She sat with the newspaper and thought. Luxor ... it was the very riverfront town where Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had walked and talked twenty years ago, the place whose decrepit grandeur had inspired them to think they could do something to publicize small-scale architectural treasures like it. Yes, that was it. She had just co-signed a check for a small crew, Charlie and some others, to go back to Luxor and shoot a little bit of film for the retrospective publicity piece they were planning for the company’s twentieth anniversary party at Christmastime. Charlie and his people had not even gone yet. And now the place was floodwaters.

Well, well. Here was a challenge. She thought long and hard about what could be done about this. Here was an opportunity, a terrific one. She sat cross-legged on her couch in her dim night living room, with one thoughtful finger to her pursed lips like some statue of Harpocrates (the Egyptian god of silence – strangely, a boy) spinning plans in her head. Hunter came in to say goodnight, and she smiled and kissed him and went back to her thinking.

Charlie and his crew should certainly keep their plans to go to Luxor and film the place even at flood stage. That was the first thing. It would make for a dramatic fillip to the retrospective – the angry, muddy Mississippi swirling around the place that the Boyds, in all their prescience, had a feeling for even twenty years ago. The Boyds had indeed helped save that quaint part of town first crack out of the box (socialite Peggy had very much liked the film), and then the company had made home-grown restoration as fashionable as it was, at least in this little corner of the world. Now, what about accommodations? Was Charlie’s hotel flooded? If it was, they must find somewhere else for him to stay. Tomorrow morning she must telephone the town and find out what the situation was, and then talk to Charlie and make sure he understood he was still going. If it was safe, of course. Perhaps she had better contact the authorities in the state of Missouri to find out whether it was safe. The next Board meeting was not for five days, and he was due to have gone the day after that. Plenty of time.

And what else? A twentieth-anniversary retrospective of an award-winning company founded in a place that just happens to be a disaster area now ... what about interviewing Monique Boyd herself for this? Was she alert enough? Alice must ask someone – Louisa perhaps – about that. And why couldn’t Charlie find some veteran residents of Luxor and ask them to go on camera with their recollections of the town twenty years ago? And the place must have archives. Perhaps if they hunted they could find something interesting about its history. George Washington slept here, or rather no – Robert E. Lee, more likely. He began his career doing flood-control projects along the Mississippi with the Army Corps of Engineers. Very interesting.

What about a party to celebrate the release of the film when it was completed? Something more than just the annual Christmas party. They could have a gala reception at the company’s headquarters perhaps, or maybe at the Art Institute, in gratitude for all the recruiting trips and all the talented employees whom Monique had hired from the museum’s Film School. Imagine the excellent publicity, and the possibility of attracting more notice and even more potential projects.

Alice’s thinking was going along wonderfully enough, when another thought, like a log of fatwood suddenly bursting into flame amid a cozy little hearth fire, flared up. You know, she told herself, I wonder if I could call a special meeting of the Board to discuss this right away. I think maybe any officer on the Board can do that. This is September. Suppose we want to send Charlie there right now, tomorrow, while the flood looks at its worst. And then suppose we want to get the retrospective filmed and finished and schedule the reception for December. Maybe it could be a Christmastime party after all. The Art Institute would look beautiful then, with the evergreen wreaths around the lions’ necks. I wonder if I could call a special meeting ... or would I seem obnoxious? These are all my ideas, I can’t very well shove them down people’s throats. Although surely no one would object to the idea of a party, or anything which would compliment Mrs. Boyd. I wonder if she knows about the flood? Dear dear ... what should I do what should I do. She thought.

No. She decided at last not to try to call a special meeting. That would be too pushy, making all the Executive Board alter their plans at her summons, and be worried and puzzled for her sake. No, she would suggest her ideas at the next meeting in the ordinary way, and do a little more research of her own in the meantime, so that she could present all her suggestions in the most calm and complete way. And then she could update Charlie before he left and make his job easier, too.

Yes, that was satisfactory. She had done quite a night’s work tonight. She had thought up a new idea, had reasoned how the company could make an artistic profit out of a natural disaster miles away, and had figured out, with a certain shushing of her own ego, how to present her views in a humble, unobtrusive way, a way that she hoped would be agreeable to everyone. And not a thing had changed on the surface. She would simply wait patiently for five days and then bring the richness of herself, of her care for the company – she loved her job – to the next fun Board meeting. What time was it now? Good Lord, eleven-thirty. Too bad she couldn’t be paid overtime for thinking.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 12

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