If you have come this far, why, I thank you. Here's the rest of it. The whole thing is by now about ten years old. I did submit it to many publishers and agencies, but had no buyers. After the fortieth rejection, I stopped counting -- and submitting. November 8, 2010.
Wednesday Alice and Trish decided to go interview Peter at a lab where he could show them models and experiments on the abbey’s restoration which he had devised himself. That was fine, Alice was thrilled, but it dawned on her too – and perhaps she had a very suspicious nature – that everyone else, Trish, Pat, Lily, Mill, Charlie, had all been extremely busy yesterday, while she had been sent about on simple errands that seemed to her, as she remembered their shop talk last night, almost calculated to keep her from doing anything really vital by comparison. She had not been assigned much that could not be handily lost or edited out later. She had come in late to find things already done. And even going to interview Professor Shepstone, while it definitely was work a bit more central to the project, would nevertheless keep her at Trish’s side like a lap dog. Was she being watched, kept to heel? How absurd.
Anyway the morning’s work was so pleasant that she was quickly ready to forgive everybody everything that had ever been done in the world. That morning, for a start, she learned what it required for another human being to interfere with Trish’s plans and get away with it: it required that he be a man, an Englishman, and a scholar.
They met him at the archives, once again, and he flicked his cigarette away and shook hands, smiling at Alice. She was perspiring across her back again. “Ah. It’s a pleasure,” he said, and she turned hot in the face as well. He proposed that before he would show them any of his models and devices, he would take them out to the old abbey and let them see exactly what the problem was. Trish had not counted on this, not now, and Alice watched her squirm under someone else’s plans, a man’s plans, who had no interest in them or their agendas. “I’d love to,” Alice put in bravely, which was true, though she knew what weight her views normally held with Trish. If Pat were here, they might not go. Two against one.
They went. They climbed into Peter’s rented car – Alice delicately took the backseat – and he drove them along the country winter roads to the gray abbey. They parked and got out of the car, with still cameras and notebooks in hand, and looked up to find that the spell of strange, sad dignity the ruins cast was already working upon them.
“Wow, how beautiful,” Trish breathed, though the place was not beautiful, exactly.
“How old is it?” Alice asked.
“Founded by a hermit in just about 1100,” Peter answered.
“Wow. So it was, what – a church, and a convent, as well?” Trish said.
“It was a lot of different things. It was founded as a double monastery, monks in one building and nuns in another. The nuns were to have all the best of it and an abbess ran the community. The monks had to answer to her.”
“Really,” Trish smiled, “right smack in the Middle Ages?”
“Right smack in the Middle Ages. Everybody lived here. They had to make everything they needed. Food, wine, medicine, clothes. The gardens are the best preserved, or I should say reconstructed, sections of the abbey. I wish it were high summer, you would have liked to see them then. They had living quarters, places for guests or the poor, a leper hospital – “
“My God, a leper hospital? In Europe?”
“Oh yes,” Peter said in mid-gesture, “kitchens, cellars, refectory.” Alice knew what a refectory was but wondered if she should politely ask, for Trish’s sake. She kept quiet. For his part, like a gentleman he ignored the reddish billows of Alice’s hair, and her face turning a little ruddy in the chill, and the shape of her beneath yesterday’s purple knit dress. They all walked, their steps crunching the gravel. “Here is the abbey church, which is where our problem is.”
“So what did these women actually do?” Trish asked.
“Prayed,” Peter said.
“Prayed. Okay. And made their own stuff. Anything else?”
He looked at her kindly, groping for thought. “In 1100, that was probably enough,” he said. “Shall I show you our problem?”
They walked around the grounds to the great puddle outside the church wall, surrounded still by stakes and yellow tapes, but also now by earth-moving equipment and stacks of big white pipes.
“Those look for all the world like the sewer lines my husband puts underneath streets back in Naperville,” Trish said. “Am I far wrong?”
“Not far at all,” Peter said.
“And nobody thought of doing that in 1100?” Alice asked.
“Even if they had, not many precautions can last nine hundred years,” he said. “We’re lucky in a way that our biggest problem here is as routine as this. The church has seen worse abuse. It was a jail for close to a couple hundred years. They added another whole floor in it, right in the nave – just laid out flooring right out from the midpoint of the walls’ height, in mid air, so they could have a second story for the prisoners. You can still see where the new floor was anchored to the walls.”
“Lord,” Alice said. “Our old medieval nuns would have had coronaries at that.”
“Yes. Luckily they were long gone by then. The last abbess fled during the Revolution, I think.”
“And what’s here now?” Trish asked. “Anything? Is it used for anything?”
“I’m not sure but I believe the order has actually been re-constituted from here and has made new foundations elsewhere in the country. But these buildings, no. It’s a monument of French history and a tourist attraction. Which is not at all a bad thing to be. That’s why I got a call asking me to please come and help clear up this puddle.” The women smiled at him.
“So you’re totally in charge of the whole thing?” Trish asked. “All this is your doing?”
He shook his head. “I serve on the commission. I’ve still got a couple of ideas that I think are correct, but that I also think may be voted down by my colleagues in a few days.”
“Really? Will that ruin things?”
“Not necessarily. It will slow the work down in my opinion, but – no. No, I’m not in charge.”
They toured, slowly still, the rest of the abbey grounds. Alice hesitated before speaking, but then she said, as if she would have said the same even were Peter not here, “Imagine living your entire life right here. I mean in 1100. Imagine vowing that you would never leave, and then staying here and praying – like you say – forever. Until you die and you’re buried here.”
“Did they do that?” Trish asked.
“Oh, I think so. They followed the same routine, day after day. One third of the day for work, one third for prayer, one third for – what was it?” she asked Peter.
“Rest?” Trish laughed.
“Study,” Peter said. “St. Benedict’s Rule.”
“That’s right, study,” Alice said. “Not a bad life, really. Sometimes it seems a lot more dignified than running around grubbing for money the way we have to, or being a woman cop or something.”
Again he searched his thoughts. “It may have seemed just as much an ordinary choice for most of these women. Not so dignified as all that. And some were only sent here because someone else, some man, wanted them out of the way. A lot may have come because it was the only way not to starve.”
“Or because they were lepers,” Trish put in.
“True,” Alice nodded. “The more things change, I suppose. Still. It must have been quite interesting having Eleanor of Aquitaine as your abbess or whatever she was. These ladies were not exactly country bumpkins, were they.”
“No indeed,” Peter said.
“It seems hard to believe I’m here.”
“Had you ... dreamed of coming, or something?” Trish asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said, and laughed. “Maybe I have. My own little church is so dull. Not like this.”
When they had seen enough they climbed back into Peter’s car and returned to Chinon, to the archives again, where a small lab in an unused room had been hastily set up for Peter and the other members of the commission to perform experiments and demonstrations for the city fathers, in pursuance of their separate theories on how best to repair Fontevrault. He let them into the lab with his own key, turned on the lights and retrieved some things from a cabinet while Trish set up a camera on a tripod and Alice fiddled with a clipboard and papers and a pen. A feeling of slow-dawning triumph grew in her. If Trish had kept her by her side so that she could keep an eye on her, look what good it had done. But she should not be mean. Trish was a lovely person, really. If she had known about the potty little lectures on Isaiah, or the dances with lieutenant-governors at charity gatherings, she might have foreseen that tiger cubs do sometimes grow into tigers, no matter how much they are watched. No, Trish didn’t know.
“Okay, I think we’re ready,” Trish said, pushing a little of her flaxen hair behind her ears. “Tell me about ... Fontevrault!” and she laughed, bell-like and happy. The camera was running.
Peter had a darling – there was no other word for it, Alice thought – model of the abbey church already positioned in an acrylic tray full of sand. Evidently he was going to show the television audience how puddles form. Where did he get the doll-house model? It struck her once again, as it had in the sunny room with Marguerite yesterday, that they were not doing anything new and had not in any way ‘discovered’ this man. He was not some rumpled, bashful scholar, and this was not some little project. He was accustomed to being interviewed, accustomed to being the local expert, as Marguerite was accustomed to laying out the same medieval necrologies in front of the same amateur Americans, erstwhile secretaries promoted to the quality of ‘research staff,’ Foundation Board member for heaven’s sake. Peter must be accustomed, indeed, to having total strangers like Frank Boyd approach him at university symposiums and ask him, essentially, what’s new. The French government, or somebody, had models, visuals in fact, ready for him to work with. How many other television crews of panting women – there might be no other word for that, too – would get the abbey tour and the doll house model in its acrylic tray this week? Suddenly Alice felt tricked, and idiotic.
Meanwhile Trish had been asking him what Alice knew were standard general-reader questions, and he had been replying smoothly and graciously, almost but not quite rehearsed. Normally she should have been jotting notes, but he spoke so well that she knew this bit of film could be used as such, almost without editing. Even when he had said everything, it seemed too soon to shut down. They had done very little work this morning, surely. Only the atmosphere in the little room was strangely prickly.
“Okay!” Trish said. “Great. That’s great. Let’s pack this up and take it home and then we’ll meet everybody else and see what they’ve got. Okay?” she smiled at Alice.
“Sure,” Alice answered.
Peter had given all his attention to Trish for the interview. Now he got up while she packed and locked, and came toward Alice. “I hope I’ve been useful,” he said.
“I’m sure you have. Very.”
“Did your guardian angel give you some more help yesterday?”
“Oh yes. She showed me more than we could ever use, really. An hour of film is not that much. You’d be surprised how little we actually need to make one. How much gets wasted. But she was very helpful. As you are. I was spying on you yesterday afternoon, as well, I should tell you.”
“Yes, I had an assignment to film the meeting at the archives. It took me forever to find you. I – “ she trailed off, not wanting to say what was idiotically next on her lips, ‘I had forgotten what you looked like,’ or ‘You’re so nondescript,’ neither of which were true.
“At any rate I hope I won’t end up on the cutting room floor, as they say.”
“Oh, you won’t. I don’t think you have to worry about that. You may be the lodestar of the whole project, you know. It’s a great asset to have an English-speaking person with credentials explain everything.”
“Is that why I’m being taken to the carnival tomorrow?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Trish said, “Be right back,” and left, smiling again and carrying half the equipment that Alice should have been helping with.
“I’m told it will look very authentic if I stand near the river at carnival time and explain how the abbey was built in the middle ages, and by whom, and so on.”
“Good Lord. It hardly seems necessary. Do you mind?”
“It’ll be picturesque enough. I don’t mind. Television is about pictures, you know. Just as much as the stained glass windows in the cathedrals. Different ages, different media. But it’s a way of showing the truth.”
“Still. I hope it’s not an imposition on you. I hope you don’t feel silly. I had no idea you’d been asked to do something so – well, sort of cheesy.” Please God, that would not get back to Trish and Pat, for it was the height of negativity. But this was more important. This man was a scholar.
“I don’t feel silly. Will you be coming?”
She stood with her arms akimbo and her hands on her hips, speculating at the floor. “I wasn’t told about it, I know that,” she said by way of an answer. “They divvy up the jobs, you know. There’s plenty to do.”
“They divvy up without consulting you.”
“Not exactly, but close.” Her smile turned awkward. “You must realize I’m the problem child of the class.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s true. But it’s a long, dull story.”
“And?” He sat down on the desk to listen to her. Her heart thundered.
“Oh, it’s nothing. A catfight.” She began to gather up her things. “I made the mistake not long ago of pointing out that our little non-profit corporation spends a lot of money on business lunches and takes a lot of trips to Europe when we’re supposed to have a mandate to film only in America.”
“That sounds familiar. You know I met Mr. Boyd once.”
“Oh, I know. I heard. That’s half the reason we’re here. He spoke to you, therefore we get to ignore his bylaws and come to France, surprise surprise, for another fun vacation. Nobody wanted to hear about interviewing guys from the Army Corps of Engineers outside some worm-ridden fort in Wyoming, when we could come to France and talk to you instead. So I’m in the doghouse ever since.”
“It can’t be too uncomfortable. You’re here. In a French doghouse.”
“Yes. You’re right. If I had any consistency I’d stay home and be moral, but then why should I miss things when they’re going to go, regardless, and nobody cares if the IRS audits us tomorrow morning? We all could be out of a job at any time for all I know. I wanted to see Eleanor’s abbey.” Thank God Trish was not here listening to this.
“No point being Achilles in the tent, in other words.”
“Something like that,” she grinned.
Trish’s footsteps could be heard down the hall. “Oh dear,” Alice said. “Nature calls,” and she instantly felt ashamed although Peter grinned, too. She packed up the few papers and satchel that Trish had left behind. He stood looking at her with his hands in his pockets and the little abbey in the acrylic box teetering in its sand behind him. “I hope you can come tomorrow anyway.”
She smiled, utterly eviscerated. “I’ll see what I can do,” she breathed. Trish entered the room. They gathered up the rest of their things, shook hands with him, and left.
“Trish. Must he go to this idiotic carnival?” Alice leaned over and spoke sotto voce, as if they were on common ground now that they had been alone with him.
“Well, why wouldn’t he?”
“I just don’t see the point. It has nothing to do with architecture.”
“We’re looking for local color. Dr. Spellman says this is one of the oldest continuous fairs in France and that it’s very pertinent to the lives the nuns once led in the abbey. We only want a few minutes of film. Not much more than we’ll get from what you found in the archives yourself, with those books. I think the fair would be at least as interesting as that.”
“You told me to find that.”
“Yes, I know. And now we’ve found this. And I think it will be useful, too.”
Alice shook her head. “But what exactly are you going to have him do? All he has to offer is his knowledge – “
“Yes. I would say that’s quite a bit to offer.”
“Of course. But all he needs to do for us is talk. What are you going to do, have him talk in front of this carnival? Because it’s there? I mean, are we going to film him walking around eating bonbons or something? Besides, what if it rains?”
Trish looked at her, puzzled as usual. “I don’t think it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. We went to the grounds this morning, just now, and it didn’t rain.”
Alice pursed her lips. What she meant was that it was degrading to him to plop this man in front of – what? a Ferris wheel? Or make him pretend to choose silks at a medieval booth? – and then ask him to talk about masonry-stress and clays. It was degrading, but if it was going to be done, she wanted to go.
“I don’t think he minds,” Trish was saying now. “He said yes.”
Alice nodded. “He’s a very nice man.”
“He may not be saying it just to be nice. How many soils engineers get to be on American television?” The bell-like laugh rang out. “He may be having a great time.”
“Naperville public television,” Alice muttered.
“Not necessarily. We think this is shaping up into a great project and we have put some feelers out to Chicago and to WGBH Boston. He could go places with us.” Again, the laugh.
“Oh, I think he’s at the place,” Alice said. “I don’t think he needs any help from us.”
“No, and I don’t think we need any help from him,” Trish said automatically. “But if he’s agreed to help us out, then fine. If he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t do it. He can take care of himself.”
Yes, and he wants me there, you fool, Alice thought, as the conversation dwindled down, as they all seemed to do, towards another Trishian victory. How did she do it? She simply had a bright hard wall of brilliance, moveable, which she turned like the angel’s fiery sword outside the Garden of Eden, this way and that, to face at anyone who questioned her. And she was an adept, a satisfied one, at watching people retreat. She was an adept at savoring the feeling that she had just prevented a calamity and perhaps taught a brutal person a lesson in grace to boot.
If he went, it would be on the next day, Thursday. This Wednesday afternoon Trish sent a different crew back to Fontevrault, to do more filming of the puddle and the construction equipment, the work underway amid the peering tourists. More staff scattered off to interview other members of the commission, in English of course. Pat and Louisa spent the afternoon working again with Dr. Spellman, who seemed to Alice’s perceptions to be monopolizing more and more of their attention. Linda Spellman was dark and handsome and loved the camera, loved the breath of fame which comes so rarely to a historian specializing in the diet of medieval French nuns. In fact, so great was the hand she was having in the direction of the project that this afternoon Trish, Liz, Lily, and Alice went out into the countryside – on a wild goose chase, Alice thought – to film scenes that Linda Spellman had told them were germane to their topic: a solitary gray tower, overlooking a river, where Eleanor of Aquitaine had reputedly once taken shelter on a stormy night late in some one of her eleven pregnancies, and then a little hillock of some sort where, so the food historian claimed, the foundations of a Roman camp could be made out where spelt, or barley or something significant, had first been introduced into western France. Or was this southern France? Or maybe it was potatoes, by a commune of nineteenth-century women anarchists. Trish couldn’t quite remember but she knew Dr. Spellman knew. Alice was disgusted.
But the afternoon was sunny, and the sights conducive to all sorts of the usual private reflections about what it must have looked like, been like in the days when women wore long gowns all the time. And Peter had said, I hope you can come. She remembered his profile under her camera’s lens, like a warrior unconcerned with women. Like a great king, the deepest, locked, solitary chamber of whose soul contains nothing but one woman.
It had been a long time since Alice had been in love with Tim, and Tim, bless his heart, in those days had not been a man. She sat back in the car, quietly, when they were finished filming Dr. Spellman’s suggested towers and spelt-fields, and all during that drive back to the Hostellerie, she thought she could feel their hearts, hers and Peter’s, streaming into each other. How strange to think a man is thinking about you. It was possible. It did happen. In the backseat she treated herself to a flamboyant vision of what would happen if she and Peter did in the next three days become, if only in their own exquisite and respectful and intellectual way, something to talk about.
“So,” she could imagine Trish saying with soft brightness, “I hear you’re having a fling.” Trish would regret the word, a little, the instant it left her mouth, which was unusual for her. She had an English great-uncle and had been to London herself, and so perhaps she only resented the sensation of Alice poaching on her possessions, as she hated the fact of Alice’s having talked to Monique about rules. Well, she would be sorry then, and would not go down that route. That still left a serious issue to discuss.
“I wouldn’t call it a fling. We go home in three days,” Alice would answer.
“Well, okay, a friendship then.”
“Friendship, yes. Very temporary.”
“That’s great! That’s great.” Yes, that was right. Everything with Trish was just great. She was always positive. “He’s very nice. I thought so when I first spoke to him. I’m just concerned that whatever you are pursuing in your own time – which you don’t have much of – you know, that it doesn’t have a negative effect on your work or on anybody else’s I think that’s reasonable.”
“Of course, I understand.”
“For instance, we have a great chance to feature Dr. Spellman on this project, and I don’t want her to be forgotten. If you judge that Peter Shepstone has gotten pretty much his share of our time” – but then this would assume that Alice even in her fantasies had more authority than she had – “or that his comments can be fleshed out with her prospective, then now would be the time for you to get another crew together and go help do that while we can. I mean she has some fascinating insights on this whole era.”
Alice would feel, did feel, that she stood with her scholar-friend on a mountaintop high above this earnest little woman who made TV shows, and had a handsome pockmarked face and a cap of perfectly casual flaxen hair.
“I had thought so, too, at first,” she would answer, “but the more I listen to her and hear about her from Pat, the more I think we’re not doing ourselves any favors by featuring her too much. I’m afraid she’s just going to come off as the token woman on this tape.”
“Yes. She’s not that interesting. The men working here have incredible educations, history, engineering, architecture, soil, masonry – you name it, they know it.
All she talks about is how the twelfth century was an age of faith. I knew that much. And how the people who built the abbey weren’t very bright and so that’s why it’s got a puddle. Things like that.”
“Wow. Okay. Could you possibly put that in a little bit more positive way?”
“I don’t see what’s positive about it. If you want to feature her once, talking about medieval food, that’s fine, but otherwise I think she’s no asset. I’m thinking of the public’s perception of the film and the studio, really. Didn’t you say we’re putting out feelers to WGBH? She’s going to look like the token woman. The men are far more interesting.”
There would be a little shaft of silence. “Well, interesting to you, yes, but not everybody is like you. Not everyone is going to see the ‘token woman’ where you do.”
“That’s true, of course.”
“Her education, for one thing, is every bit on a par with anyone else’s here. It’s far better than mine.”
“Oh, I doubt that, really. If that were true she would have been asked to participate in these forums the way the men have. Peter Shepstone was plucked right from Imperial College, for God’s sake. Somebody knew him. You knew where he was from. I wish I had, it’s embarrassing to be so ignorant.” Even Alice’s fantasies were honest. She did have a gift for treating women with an infuriating comradeliness just when they felt they could slap her face. “The only reason we know about Spellman is because she’s Mrs. Boyd’s great-niece or whatever,” she would finish. And Trish would take a deep breath.
“Well, anyway, we’re getting off the track,” she would say.
Alice would laugh. “Yes, I agree.”
“Okay, well, I’ll follow up with interviewing Dr. Spellman the rest of the week, and then in the meantime before we go let’s get some exteriors, okay? The river, the town. Do you want to be in charge of that?”
“Sure. And the carnival?”
“No, we’re not doing that after all.” Or maybe, “That’s all set.” And Alice would be uninvited to it.
They would part with tight smiles. Such a scene, ridiculous really, would probably do nothing but insure that Dr. Spellman would in the end get three times as much camera time as anyone else, three times more than she already had. How silly. Alice scolded herself that she mustn’t invent situations and then get angry and blame people for what went on in her own head, and besides – she really remained unassigned to see Peter at the carnival tomorrow. Her heart fell. What did it matter, anyhow, if his heart did stream into hers? Wasn’t he married? Her heart fell, with his in it.
Wednesday evening the staff ate dinner at the Hostellerie, the group split up perforce into two different tables because the little restaurant could not accommodate a table of ten at once. Louisa, Denise, Liz, Lily, and Charlie all found themselves together at a decent distance from the other table. Liz mentioned how chummy Trish and Alice seemed to be; now they were eating together, and there was Mill and there was Pat among them too. Rumors of pained executive board meetings before the trip had gotten around. So had the expression ‘to calm her down.’
“Well, maybe things are better,” Denise said. “I really wouldn’t know what goes on with the swells.”
“You know, something like this came up a long time ago,” Louisa said. “Elizabeth Karol went to Monique about it, too. Straight to the top.”
“What came up?” Liz asked.
“Who’s Elizabeth Karol?” Charlie chimed in.
“Oh, she worked here ages ago. She was on the Board, too, for a while. We were doing something wrong, I don’t know what – “
“Spending too much money on parties?” Denise asked.
“No, I remember what it was,” Lily said. “She didn’t like the employees of the two parts of the company drifting around doing each other’s jobs. We used to go to each other’s meetings, and camera people would do fund-raising and vice versa.”
“Just like now, in other words,” Charlie said, and the women laughed. “So what’s the problem?”
“My question exactly,” Louisa laughed.
“The more things change ...” Denise left the proverb unfinished, as she left most of her sentences unfinished, relying on her tone of voice and the glint of her eyes to make clear her thoughts.
“Right. Anyway Elizabeth went to Monique and told her what was going on and Monique got really mad and we had to straighten up. I remember Monique saying ‘This is my baby and I’m going to rock it.’ She was always much more a stickler for the rules than Mr. Boyd ever was.”
“Well, so what’s the deal now?”
“I don’t know. Alice is really into the bylaws, I guess. She doesn’t want us to do anything. We’re supposed to stay in America, and have these really complicated election procedures that last for months, and we’re not supposed to discuss things at Pie Night.”
“We can’t talk at Pie Night?” Denise did not exactly scream this, but she could snarl with insouciant obnoxiousness when she chose.
Louisa laughed. “Well, not business decisions, anyway.”
“None of this is going to fly.”
Louisa shrugged. “I don’t know. Alice said somebody told her, ‘You’re a leader, so lead.’ That’s what she wants to do.”
“Who told her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” Liz offered. “It is a lot of family money sunk in this outfit, isn’t it.”
“Oh yeah. But I just remember that Elizabeth wrote this really nasty letter to the whole staff and then she left. It seems like whenever this kind of thing happens, there’s an explosion.”
Charlie said, “That doesn’t say much about the way the company is run. What is Mrs. Boyd, anyway, over eighty?”
Louisa nodded. Before she could speak again, Liz said, “That’s right, I remember that. Beth was kind of eased out, wasn’t she? I remember she used the word ‘incest’ in her letter. It was totally bizarre.”
“Oh yeah,” Louisa had an odd laugh, quick whinnying intakes of the breath. “Everybody remembers that. I don’t even know what the rest of it was about, but she used the word – was it incest? Incestuous, that’s it. Of course after that it didn’t matter what else she said. People pretty much freaked out at that.”
“Can’t say that I blame them,” Charlie threw back the last of his wine.
“So what’s going to happen now?”
“I don’t know. They seem to be getting along all right.”
“No gunshots or anything.”
“Yeah, no gunshots.”
“I still feel sorry for anybody going up against either one of them. Especially Pat. My sister-in-law worked with her through my niece’s Girl Scout troop and she said, ‘Wait until you have to deal with her. Just wait.’”
“What does that mean?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I want to find out.”
“Oh, she’s a challenge, I’ll grant that,” Louisa said, though in truth, at six feet herself, she feared nothing. And they passed on to other topics.
While they were still sitting there Patty came in, wrapped in her bright new French scarf. She found her way to their table, all out of breath. “I picked up a fax from the front desk,” she said. “Monique Boyd died.”
“Oh my God!” everyone said together.
“Should we go home?”
“Heart attack. I have to go tell Trish.” She threaded her way to the other table and soon was rewarded by muffled gasps.
“Wow. That’s a shame. But I don’t see the point of going home,” Lily turned to Liz. “We’ve invested a lot of money in this job.”
“No kidding, it’d be foolish to leave it undone now.”
“But who’s there for the funeral?”
“Well, Bob Boyd would be, the grandchildren. All her friends. Who are still left. Of course everybody on staff who’s not here would go. I would hope.”
“Half the Board is here.”
“Yeah, that’s awkward. But I’m sure we’ll send an arrangement or something.”
“Well, I guess this throws a wrench into the Paris plans,” Denise said.
They all gaped at her. “Cool,” Charlie said, and Lily asked, “We were going to Paris? Since when?”
“It would have been fun,” Denise answered. “Mill told me about it. We thought it would be really nice to have one day in Paris at the end of our trip. Peter Shepdude or whoever he is, and Dr. Spellman, are both going home pretty soon and France closes up on weekends, and our flight leaves from there anyway. We were going to have a nice farewell party. Be a bit tacky now, wouldn’t it?”
“I guess so.”
“Where was it going to be?”
“I don’t know. It’s this club outside Paris. Mill says you just drive around and get lost near the airport and you can’t miss it. She says it’s a fabulous place. Love it, love it.”
“That sounds like Mill,” Louisa laughed.
“Well well,” Charlie said after a silence. “Anybody here besides me think we’re going to be collecting unemployment checks pretty soon?”
They stared at him. “No. Why?”
“Is Bob Boyd going to keep this company running now that both his parents are gone?”
There was another silence. Liz finally said, “Oh, I don’t see why not. Why wouldn’t he?”
Charlie shrugged. “He just doesn’t seem like the happiest camper in the world, that’s all. What’s it like to fall heir to a family business? Suppose that wasn’t what you wanted to do? His sister wasn’t made to take over the store.”
This was more depressing and far more frightening than news of the death of an eighty-one-year-old lady. Besides, there was a scraping of chairs as the women – the swells – rose from the other table. “Well,” Louisa said. “Let’s hope not,” as they all got up too.
They paid the check in glum quiet and returned to the hotel foyer, very humanly to seek out the companionship of their own after even this mildly affecting news. The other party, Alice’s dinner party, paid their bill in turn – separate checks, which Alice could see made the waiter set his jaw in annoyance – and trooped in after them. They stood gathered all around the front desk, quite obnoxiously, Alice thought, for then any other guests had to squeeze by. Everyone carried on a dozen longstanding conversations at once. Alice thought soon somebody would make a speech. It was not her place to do so. And what of the bylaws and all her little election reforms now? With Monique, her greatest moral prop was gone. The carnival tomorrow, Peter .... Would they all have to go home? Would she be required never to see him again, because an old lady had died? And yet a week ago she had not known him. Her attention wandered.
“Well well, sad news,” and “A good long life, anyway,” someone said. Someone murmured agreement. The pretty brown doors from the dining room swung open again and Trish and Pat entered the foyer together. That was strange. Alice had not realized they were not with everyone all along. They must have lagged behind in the dining room, still fussing over the bill. Everyone had happened to make a semicircle and they walked into it as onto a stage.
“Well, wow, that was a shock,” Trish said. “We sent an arrangement of bird-of-paradise and yellow roses to the home. Pat and I are thinking of going back early.”
“And that trip to Paris is obviously cancelled,” Pat blurted out in her rusted-whisky laugh. Alice was too at sea even to put her eyebrows up at this before Pat, nodding toward Trish, continued in her usual commandant’s drawl, “I think we all should.”
“We all should go home?” someone asked, while any regret Alice had felt about the death of Monique who had recently been kind to her evaporated into thrumming anger at these two principessas. So, now they all had to go home? Without a shred of discussion? Herself, as well? How did they dare? How did they dare everything? And the expense of a flower arrangement, and bird-of-paradise for a death – how did they know Monique or anybody liked bird-of-paradise? Maybe someone who had worked here for ten or fifteen years, someone quiet and decent, might have known that Monique hated those and liked snowdrops instead. The expense of it should have been discussed by the Board present, quickly, perfunctorily, even here. Oh yes, that was petty now, she fumed. Everyone would think so. She could not dream of mentioning it. How was it that strong people always got their way? Simply because they acted, that was all. They acted under any and all circumstances, and under any and all circumstances, they did not give a damn. Perhaps some of the others had noticed their brass too. Perhaps, by not mentioning her qualms Alice could feel for a moment she was somehow communicating with the rest of the group secretly, conspiratorially, under Pat and Trish’s very noses. But no. That idea was as silly as any. Strong people also get their way because nobody else gives a damn either.
“We’ll leave a lot of work undone here if we all go back now,” Liz said carefully. Now Alice’s heart leaped up. God! Somebody was going to protest against going home, at least. The various women exchanged glances and Charlie watched them all.
“Not necessarily,” Pat said. “We know that after this week both Professor Shepstone and Dr. Spellman are leaving and they won’t be back working until long after the holidays. We are scheduled to leave this weekend anyway. If we leave right now, all we’ll miss is shooting some exteriors of some kind of Renaissance fair or something tomorrow, which we were thinking of canceling anyway.”
“Yeah, that might have been kind of lame,” Trish laughed, flutelike again despite her bereavement.
“Right. We’ve done all the interviews we can right now and there is no work of any kind scheduled at the abbey grounds, nothing we haven’t already gotten, until later in the winter. Professor Shepstone told us that. If we come back in February as we planned, we can pick up where we left off with both our professional sources, and we can all still make the effort of returning home for Monique’s funeral now, which I think is very important.”
“Yeah, but the big vote of the commission on whether or not to follow this guy’s recommendations – I mean, to the limit – is tomorrow, isn’t it?” Louisa said. “Or Friday? Don’t we want to stay and find out what happened? There’s no point planning to come back in February at all if they vote down his biggest ideas.”
This is a Board meeting, Alice shouted at them in her head. So this is a Board meeting and almost none of the lot of you belong here. Yet without Louisa’s courage, irregularly offered, there would be no whiff of disobedience in the air. Baby steps.
Trish looked puzzled but respectful. “Well. But if they vote for his ideas or not, we can always hear about that and plan accordingly. We don’t need to be here, especially if they vote no.” She laughed a little. “We can’t very well tape the committee voting ‘no,’ and then make a five-minute film about how the beautiful abbey of Fontevrault was not after all restored exactly the way Frank Boyd’s friend wanted it to be. Or as fast as he wanted it to be,” and a few of the others laughed a little with her.
“Then why are we here?” Alice asked. She meant to sound sympathetic, ruefully probing their collective guilt. Trish heard an accusation.
“We’re here because the chances are just as good that the restoration commission will vote ‘yes’ after all, and we’ll be able to make a beautiful film about an architectural project that was dear to Frank Boyd’s heart and that might be a very nice posthumous tribute to Monique. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a Peabody for her in time for her birthday anniversary next June. We just don’t particularly need to film the five-second yes vote.” That was Pat, who had also heard an accusation.
“But it might be very nice to catch,” Liz said. “And that Dr. Brizzolara is a riot. I’ve got an appointment with him for Friday morning. Who knows how long he’ll be around? At least one of us could stay.”
“Not to mention we could do tons more exterior shots around here. Especially if they get some snow between now and then. It’s so beautiful here. Has anybody seen Joan of Arc’s well?”
“Well. That’s true,” Trish wavered. She looked at Pat. “Okay. Suppose some of us stay, and all those who want to go back for the funeral, can go back. I’m definitely going.” She had made it an issue of private piety before Pat could contribute anything more.
I’m not, Alice thought. As it turned out only Mill joined them in their return home. She was a blunt woman but kind-hearted to her core, and fond of elderly ladies. She went back, out of respectful memory of all the birthday parties at Monique’s Gold Coast apartment. Besides, she knew the way to the airport and so they would be able to take back one of the rented cars without fussing, in their mourning, with a strange European man in a taxi.
That was Wednesday night. They had been in Chinon three and a half days. Out of respect for Monique’s death, and for the half-quarrel in the foyer just now, the work still underway was scaled back a bit. Trish and Pat were busy, for the time left to them, arranging a new flight home – the earliest and cheapest they could get after all departed on Saturday morning, which they hoped would bring them home in time for the last hours of the wake Saturday night – giving out instructions to the rest of the staff, and also arranging for a little party in the Hostellerie’s restaurant for Friday night, as a way for the staff to say au revoir, for the moment, to France. Although their plans to have a free Saturday in Paris, and then go to the nightclub Mill knew, had been spoiled, they did not want everyone’s memories of work here to turn out unrelievedly glum.
And of all people, they let Alice go and film the commission’s vote, the disputed ‘yes’ vote, at the town’s archives on Thursday morning. That was very kind of them. Alice was filled with warmth and a little shame at their kindness, and reflected as well how very decent it was of them to return early expressly in Monique’s honor. In fact, her reflections slowed her down as she walked to her little assignment that Thursday. Theoretically they all could go at least to the funeral, couldn’t they? Trish was mistaken to say “We’re going home early for the funeral.” They would go to the wake first, the last day of it, then would follow the interregnum of Sunday, and then the funeral Monday. The rest of the staff’s normal scheduled flight left Sunday and what with the time gained in traveling west, they too would arrive home only that evening. It would remain to be seen who would then bestir themselves to pay their last respects to Monique at the funeral proper the next day. Alice could still be a bit stunted, a bit selfishly adolescent at times; it came as a sudden disappointment to realize that her presence on another continent, now, would not reasonably excuse her from her duty in Naperville in four days. Perhaps she had better remember to go.
From the moment she entered, again, the gallery of the paneled room she seemed to know and love, her heart thundered and her camera shook with new weight. He caught sight of her right away, and smiled, and she grinned stupidly. And of course the vote of the commission was yes, oui, we will preserve Fontevrault entirely the way the English scholar thinks best. Now he was in charge. It was only going on eleven o’clock when it was all over. Peter turned to her, again, in the gallery. She was very professionally beginning to pack things away, as if she had a host of things to do. But of course she glanced. He took his hands out of his pockets, made a pantomime of drinking something from a cup and saucer, tapped his watch, and cocked his head almost shyly at her. She mimed confusion, and was confused.
They met outside. “There’s a little cafe in Chinon that serves a proper English tea, four o’clock on Thursdays,” he said. They faced each other in the December sunshine that seemed to warm them as hot as June. “Why don’t you join me. I understand you go home soon.”
Who told him that? “You’re very kind.” She was more terrified than happy, when it came to it. “I would love to.”
“It will be simple for you to find,” he said, suddenly the departing professional – there was actually an elderly man plucking at his elbow – with a busy schedule. “Leave your hotel – it’s the Hostellerie, isn’t it? – and go about five or six shops directly downhill on the right. I’ll look for you.”
“All right. Congratulations, by the way. I think I understood ‘oui.’”
He smiled. “Yes, you did. Thank you.” They separated.
She returned to the hotel in time to see Trish laughing out, “Bye,” breathless with exertion, hauling her suitcase out the door and piling it into the trunk of the little French car. Mill was fiddling with the keys and talking, making large extravagant gestures, to Charlie. Pat was standing talking to Denise and Lily and Liz. Why weren’t they working? She was the only one working. The small medieval town hurried by all about them, well-dressed women, little green and orange cars. From the top of this narrow street they could look down the cobblestones, past the shops towards the square where the well stood, out of sight just now, at which Joan of Arc used to mount her horse. At their backs and around the corner the cobbled streets twisted up toward the summit of the ruined castle, where Joan the peasant girl had recognized her feckless dauphin in a crowd, thus proving that she was indeed sent to him by heavenly voices. It was the same castle, for that matter, which Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband, King Henry of England, liked best of all he owned, close to three hundred years before that.
“Good grief, are you leaving already?” Alice asked.
“Oh no, not yet,” Trish said. “We’re just packing up this car to make sure everything fits. So did they vote?”
“Oh, yes. ‘Oui,’ I mean, they voted to do what ...Peter suggests. So now he is in charge.”
Trish gazed at her seriously. “Are you sure? You understood it?”
“I think I did. Anyway, I ran into him afterward, on the sidewalk just now, and congratulated him about it and he said so. It is yes.”
“Okay. Well, after I get this packed I’m going to arrange a few things at the desk and then we’re – some of us – taking a field trip with Linda Spellman. Charlie and Liz are going to stick around and go over the books. What do you want to do?”
“Oh. Well, I’m the treasurer, I’d better help Charlie. I’m going out a little later and that way I’ll be around to go through my junk afterward and see if I have something to wear.”
“Oh! Wow. Where are you going?”
“An interview with Peter Shepstone, of all things.”
“Oh. Aren’t we sort of ... done with that?”
Alice was petrified but thought, if they can arrange days in Paris without a blush then I can do this. “I don’t think so, really. He suggested it to me” – that was true – “and I think we’ve barely scratched the surface with him. I’d like to hear what he has to say just one more time. Maybe I’ll get some new details.”
Trish pulled the suitcase into the little car’s hatch. Alice waited.
“So are you filming this interview?” Trish asked, squinting at her.
She closed the trunk. “Oh. Well, it sounds like more of the same. But you should come out with us more, anyway. You’d like the field trip we’re doing today. Are you going to – “
“I know, I know,” Alice broke in. “I feel like I’ve been indoors twenty-four hours straight for days.”
“Are you going to the party?”
“We reserved the hotel restaurant for tomorrow night. Pat and Mill and I can’t go, we’ll be on our way, but we’d like a head count for who else is going to be there.”
“Oh, I doubt it. I’m pretty tired.”
“Okay.” Trish smiled tightly, but less tightly, perhaps, than usual. It was as if an invisible wall of glass shards reared to the sky between them precisely because they were so alike.
This conversation had only taken the time Alice needed to walk up to the hotel, slow down a little, say hello afterwards to a few of the others gathered there, and then open the door and duck inside. She wanted to think about Peter, and to find something decent to wear to tea. And now that she had promised, she must remember to sit with Charlie and Liz over the books for a while this afternoon. High time she did, really.
High time indeed. She made her way to her own shared room, let herself in, fetched her manila folder of treasurer’s papers and then left in search of Charlie, come down from his solitary garret and already busy with calculators and receipts with Liz in one of the common, women’s rooms. What a fool she had been. How much had she missed? How much was she still the ignorant little nineteen-year-old secretary, and who told Peter the things he knew, and when? She did not seem privy to important information now, treasurer or no, but whose fault was that? What of the party, all arranged for, not a word to her, of course? And what had she as treasurer done for five months except watch other people stop payment on checks she had signed, and then obey further orders? The simplest things never occurred to her. Responsibility, initiative, never occurred to her, although she was a responsible person when given commands. That must be how they arranged to send flowers home – they thought of it, they took initiative. She, for her part, had Monique’s three-page letter in the bottom of her suitcase along with the contraband bylaws, and had thought that the very height of secrecy and cunning. “You’ve got to decide whether or not this is a power struggle, and if it is, whether you want to opt out of it or not.” Who cared? The documents in the bottom of her suitcase whispered as if from another age. A necrology.
She had a brief vision of herself putting a stop to the little party Friday night – those two would be gone, wouldn’t they – but knew also that, if she tried it, the heavens would fall. Imagine the long plane ride home with six unhappy or at least surprised people. Imagine Trish and Pat finding out she had spoiled their little comfort at their foundress’ death. She must allow for people’s emotions. They wanted a party.
She spent the rest of the afternoon with Charlie and Liz and the budget, tried to concentrate and did learn a lot that he should have known already. At a quarter to four she looked at her watch and announced, “Good Lord, I have to go. I’m interviewing Dr. Shepstone in fifteen minutes.”
They both looked up. “Need a camera guy?” Charlie asked.
“Naw. This is just information, not a show.” Liz tossed her the keys to the remaining rental car. Alice caught them and took them, too embarrassed to explain that she didn’t need them.
She rushed downstairs and pushed out the pretty brown doors, never having bothered to change her clothes after all. She had not even walked far enough to think a thought before Peter smiled at her suddenly, from the cafe window five doors down the street. He beckoned her. When she went in, shaking, she did not even have to hunt for his table with reference to the window and the street, whose axes were already confused in her mind. He met her at the door. They sat down, and after a greeting and an awkward silence found their first common ground in the most powerful personalities they knew.
“Oh, they contacted you about it? I was hoping they wouldn’t leave you high and dry.”
“Yes, they’re very professional. Very considerate.” She nodded. A waiter arrived and brought pots and cups, double-tiered trays of sandwiches, scones, cream, and jams. “Wow,” Alice said. “Actual leaves in a pot and everything. I’m used to a teabag next to a cup of warm water. It’s terrible.”
The waiter turned to her, startled, and she flushed, apologized, and assured him everything was lovely.
“The carnival is actually not so spectacular,” he went on. “It wouldn’t even have provided very nice visuals. You were smart to give it a miss.”
She smiled while they made up their tea. “I’m afraid that while the cat’s away, the mice have decided to play anyway. Don’t tell anybody I said that. We’ve all pretty much taken the rest of the week off, I think. Actually we haven’t done much else besides eat, I swear. Today is shot, and tomorrow night there’s a party at the hotel, and then Saturday I suppose France shuts down, and we go home on Sunday morning. I wonder why we’re here.”
He nodded. “That still leaves a lot of time when the mice could be working. Not that I’m criticizing, of course.”
“No, I understand. Yes, you’re right, it does. But we’ve been given no instructions. We – “
“Nobody really dares make a move without those two, do they?”
She gazed down at her tea. “No, generally not. I suppose it’s that way in any workplace. Do you find you’re at other people’s beck and call?”
“Not so much,” he mused. “I have to wait for bureaucratic officials to make basic decisions sometimes, or for an election to be over. Forms have to be stamped in triplicate for things that have already been done. But that’s government. That’s nothing personal. Otherwise, in my real job, I’m my own master. Thank God.”
“I envy you.”
He regretted his speech. “So. How is the tea?”
“And you go home when? Sunday?”
“You’ll be glad to see your family.”
“Yes. You will, too, I am sure. Don’t you go home soon also?”
“I hope my family won’t be in the process of being added to while I’ve been gone. I have a horror of being told I’ll be a grandmother before too long.”
“Don’t go so white,” she laughed. “I have a son who’s eighteen. You know what they’re like.”
“Ah yes. What’s his name?”
“And don’t laugh. Hunter. He’s a wonderful boy, but I sometimes wonder what I was thinking when I named him.”
“It’s quite dignified. Is it a family name?”
“No. I just thought it was cool. I was seventeen. And he has a girlfriend now.” She shook her head just like Trish. “It’s me all over again. Hence my worry.”
A small silence fell between them. He began to say, “I’m sure – “ and then Alice blurted, “His dad is not in the picture.”
“I’m sorry.” Neither one moved, but for the first time she looked for and saw his wedding ring.
While she was composing her face into the correct lines for a woman having a pleasant tea in a foreign city with an older married man whose temporary professional acquaintance she found perfectly cool and nondescript, she treated herself to unbridled visions of the two of them in the dark cramped passageways of the little medieval hotel – of exposed throats and gaping mouths, of breath and hands and her blouse pulling up from her jeans, of her skin. He was so handsome. But not exactly that. She mustn’t get excited. He was sixty. Only he had a face “honest and courageous,” as Dickens would say, and his face was here, right across from hers in a small wood-paneled tea room in a French town in December, a plain, darkening December afternoon, with people passing by outside. When would she ever come here again? Who would have imagined she would ever be here? And he was married? All right. That was his wife’s good fortune.
“You look like the cat that’s had the cream.”
“Do I? I’m sorry,” she smiled and came back to the surface. “It’s been a long week. You know, my mother once had this ‘coffee party,’ she called it. It was a deliberate thing. She and my dad had friends over and she made coffee and things, but then when people wanted seconds she just filled their coffee cups with more hot water. And when they asked if they could help her make a fresh pot, you know, like she was tired or confused or something? – she said oh no, she would do it. But then she just poured hot water over the old grounds in the pot and served that. Some of their friends started to get upset. Finally she asked everyone’s attention and made a speech about how this is the way tea drinkers are treated, and no coffee-drinker would ever tolerate it. Then she made more coffee, really, and they ended up having a nice party.”
“Good Lord. What an extraordinary woman. Your father must love her very much.”
She burst out laughing. “Yes, they stayed together, if that’s what you mean. I used to think that was the coolest story, but the older I get the more obnoxious I think it was of my mom to do that. Why is it that women who are impossible always get to be ‘strong’ or ‘fiery’? And the rest of us are churchmice?”
“I don’t think you’re a churchmouse.”
“Thank you. I’ll broadcast that opinion when I get home.”
He almost, but did not quite touch the back of her hand. “Little mice don’t have sons named Hunter at seventeen. And a mother who gives coffee parties.”
She groped for a reply, and could not look at him. “I’ll broadcast that as well.”
They sat in silence. He looked out at the little town beginning to glitter with winter lights. “Suppose after this we walk out a bit?” he said. She agreed. In a little more than an hour they sidled out of their places and left.
And walked. They walked about the warren of the town’s pretty dark streets, just slick with winter moisture, past the little shops she had not noticed, around the corners of surprising numbers of churches whose bricks and mortar she imagined had been laid by God knew what hands on what summer day many medieval generations ago. If only she could hear the pop of horses’ hooves; but in its place she bent her head and listened to Peter talk.
He talked about his work, and he piled up in Alice’s mind the conviction that here was a man who was serious and worthwhile because he took his work seriously. Therefore people, outsiders, took him seriously. She was right about him. Foreign governments plucked him by reputation direct from Imperial College to buttress their collapsing tourist attractions, priceless ones. He could just about name his own price when it came to that, and yet he worked in such a lofty sphere that he need not bother to do it. He had written seven books. No one at Monique-Boyd, she felt sure, had the slightest appreciation for what they were dealing with in him. Thank God she had always been so idiotically well-read. She could at least keep up with most of his references that were not purely scientific.
At length he walked her back to the Hostellerie, and her heart pounded and face fevered with panic at what on earth was to happen now. Nothing, of course. They were cool professionals, pleasant, detached. A man and a woman, civilized. A series of awkward pictures flashed themselves again upon Alice’s mind – bidding each other goodbye in the public street or in the tiny lobby or on the second-floor landing with its view of the castle of Chinon, Eleanor’s castle, through the little gothic window – shaped by what hand, peered through by what eyes? – or in the passageway outside her room, or God forbid, in the room. She unconsciously shook her head in a silent pause and he noticed it, and she knew it and felt too stupid for the earth to bear. There were people all about the busy medieval streets. They faced each other.
“Do you know Tours?” he asked.
“Tours. The bigger town near here. There is a beautiful little opera house there and I’ve been given two tickets for tomorrow night. I don’t want to seem forward, Alice, but it is supposed to be a splendid production and it seems pointless that two adults should not see it simply because a hundred years ago some people in a novel would have talked. Elaine can’t rush over here from London to see it and neither can Hunter. Would you care to come with me? If you’d rather not, please say so. I understand.”
Peace and, somehow, adulthood indeed flooded her. “That sounds very interesting,” she said. “I would love to.”
“Good. It’s a bit of a drive and they absolutely do not let you in late. Suppose I call for you at about six-thirty. Eat something beforehand, it’s a long one.”
“That’s fine,” she said. They shook hands, and parted old friends.
Alice asked at the front desk for her room’s key but was told that everyone was upstairs anyway. She went up, feeling pleased with everyone in the world. She entered the room to find it full of lights, plastic cups, scattered clothes, and laughter.
“How fabulous. I wish I was staying,” Mill said.
“All right! Party time,” Denise shouted, laughing.
“When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” Liz said, and Lily answered, “Are you kidding? They arranged it.”
“Hi guys,” Alice said. “Arranged what?”
Mill twisted around to look up at her. “Big bash at the hotel restaurant tomorrow night. Because we can’t go to Paris. You going?”
“Oh, yes, Trish told me about that. Goody, that’s all we need,” Alice grimaced. “I’m sure the IRS would be thrilled to hear about the research we need to do on a Friday night at the hotel’s restaurant. Why not Paris, why not Crazy Horse with all the naked women?”
They all looked at her. It was just about the longest speech she had ever been heard to make, and no one except Mill had ever heard of Crazy Horse. As usual Mill came to the rescue of an awkward soul.
“Oh, it’ll be fun. I’m sure the IRS won’t care about a little hotel dining room. They’ll all be in bed by nine. Go on, you’ll have a good time.”
“Actually, I’m sure you’ll have fun, but I shouldn’t talk about the IRS,” Alice said. “I’m going to an opera anyway.”
“Cool, my God, where? With who?”
“Peter Shepstone. You know, the resident expert.”
“How nice,” Mill said, and returned to her paper cup.
“Yes. The city fathers apparently give him these little perks whenever they feel like it and there’s an opera tomorrow night in Tours that he wants to go to. And of course since his wife can’t go and Hunter can’t go and we’re leaving Sunday, well, off we go.”
“Fabulous. Yes, I’d skip the little party, too, in that case.”
Thursday night Alice slept gloriously. Friday morning after breakfast the staff met in full conclave in one of the hotel rooms to discuss the field trip with Dr. Spellman yesterday, as well as the next week’s work and the end-of-year reviews. Alice maintained the impression that the thrust of the little medieval film project was going to be entirely changed to become a family tribute to Monique, Frank, and their highly interesting step-granddaughter, the feminist food historian. Fontevrault for its own sake, the puddle, the vanished monks and nuns, the chants and duchesses, prayers and queens, were well on their way to a second oblivion. The modern world obtruded; everybody had things they cared about more. Trish had already set up an appointment for the return of the first rental car – Mill driving – tonight at Orly. The deadline of departure ate up her afternoon. She packed and re-packed her carry-on bag. Pat and Mill made telephone calls to Naperville. Psychologically they were already at least in-flight, if not home.
Alice, waiting for 6:30, waiting for the time to make her excuses and go eat before that, walked once more in Chinon after the mid-morning conclave. It was her last full day in the town, for she would not count the day of her own packing and preparation Saturday. She walked in the square where stood the ancient well at which Joan of Arc had mounted her horse. It remained an incredible image, as unreal as a cartoon in her mind. But because the well had not changed in almost six hundred years and she, Alice, was here now, it seemed just as logical that Joan of Arc should have just mounted and gone away now. ‘You just missed her,’ Alice felt someone ought to explain to her, you just missed, - what? A piece of history, the sight of an interesting and noble woman. Maybe Joan once stopped for a night of ordered prayer at Fontevrault.
Stupid. She knew her thoughts were getting mawkish but she had seen one or two French films in her life, in amongst all the idiotic reading, and so she flattered herself that she was simply doing something very soulful now, very piquant and petulant, in taking the croissants and cheeses, and a bottle of wine she had just bought, back up to the hotel room she shared with three other women (please God, they’d be out), to brood and be difficult, very French, and have a personality, before a married man took her to the opera. So few people have personalities, it seemed.
In fact the women were out. Liz and Denise had asked the car keys from her in what she considered a pointed manner that morning. It did not dawn on her until then that she had possessed them all afternoon yesterday and yet had, in the end, not used the car. What must they have thought when thy saw the group’s only remaining car – for the other was crammed with Trish’s and Pat’s and Mill’s things and could hardly be used – parked mute on the French street, and knew that Alice was God knew where with the keys? “Interviewing Peter Shepstone,” yes. They asked no other questions, however, and she was too embarrassed even to offer explanations or apologize. For the short time left to her now after her walk she stayed in the empty room and looked at the bylaws and Monique’s letter, and then threw them both aside and remained just locked in, looking out the window and imagining the medieval town. Smoke from burning Joan must have drifted over it once. But no, that was Rouen. Well surely it was somebody else, then.
Five-thirty arrived to find her facing her end of the meagerly stocked clothes closet. What could she possibly wear to the opera? What a fool she had been to agree to go. She had packed practically nothing nice. She heard laughter and footsteps in the hallway. Having been on her own all afternoon, she braced herself now to explain this to women who considered solitude, most of the time –unless you were getting away from your kids and said so – neurotic and unacceptable.
The doorknob shook around the key. They entered, Trish and Liz and Denise and Lily. The voices of the others could be heard in the next room. Alice stretched a little on her feet, pretending she had just gotten up from a nap and was only considering clothes as an afterthought.
“Almost time! Do you have something to wear to the opera?” Trish asked right away.
“Well, woo woo,” Denise said, grinning. “Since when are we going to the opera?”
Alice could not help smiling (but how did Trish know, know everything? Had they all been in the room yesterday, after her tea? Surely Denise had been ...they must all talk to each other). “Oh, since Mr. Expert asked me if I’d like to, yesterday,” she said. “Peter Shepstone, the guy we’ve been interviewing.” She propped her hands on her hips and resumed looking at the closet while she spoke. “So where is your party? Right downstairs?”
They were all moving about the room opening suitcases and changing clothes and freshening makeup. Liz had already altered and brightened her whole face and transformed her entire outfit without leaving anyone’s presence for a minute. Alice always marveled at women’s abilities to become professionally pretty, professionally ready, at a moment’s notice. When they were serious, they made things happen. But now they were all listening acutely to her as well.
“Yes, Trish reserved half the restaurant for us at seven. God knows what that cost,” Denise said. A revelation flashed upon ignorant naive Alice. Why yes, it must have cost a little gratuity to set the place aside just for them. How did she dare, dare everything? And yet, who cared?
“We’ll probably move on afterwards,” Lily said. “I’m not comfortable with hogging the place like that. There are other guests here. I mean, it’s so imperialist.”
Alice smiled at Lily, in wonderment and a little love. The word imperialist was quite a mouthful among them. It would have been quite a mouthful even for her. “That’s probably a good idea,” she said, assuming that ‘we’ll move on’ must mean they would return to their rooms after dinner and go to sleep.
“So when did he ask you?” Rough-and-ready Denise kept it up. Alice stopped her, but only by grinning as widely as she was.
“My goodness, don’t get excited. He’s married and he gets free tickets to cultural events because they’re all so grateful to him for clearing up puddles and stuff. That’s all. And I don’t have a thing to wear. They probably won’t let me in.”
“I have a black skirt you could borrow,” Pat said, suddenly appearing from nowhere and leaning in the doorway.
“That would look nice,” Trish said. “It would be long on you, but it would look formal. Hasn’t Mill got that gray brocade scarf, too?”
“Probably. Wait,” Pat answered, and turned away to walk to the other room And thus the feminine swirl of preparation began to fly generously around Alice, and she received an object lesson in these women’s fundamental decency. “I never go anywhere without one of my husband’s big white shirts,” Trish said, and she lent Alice that, starched and pressed as only Trish would have insisted. Pat also owned a big red glass brooch, which she brought back from the other room along with the skirt and scarf. Meanwhile Denise and Alice fussed over what to do about a wrap for the winter night. Pat went back to her room again and found her big black coat, which she brought back and laid on a bed. Alice was only just struggling into her shoes, the only item for the night which was her own. Trish, whose education, Alice shamefacedly recalled, had been in art, arranged the scarf and the red pin around her shoulders with a grace that Alice could not have mustered herself. From three or four unpromising workday wardrobes, Alice found herself, at almost six-thirty, decently turned out.
Pat surveyed her, breaking into that rusted-whisky laugh. “Well, I’d say we can pull ourselves together when the devil drives, can’t we?”
“Not bad, I must admit,” Alice said.
She was awestruck at their efforts on her behalf. They were more than welcome to their party now. So this was what it meant to be a woman. She had absolutely no business going out on a date with a married man, a professional interview subject, during what was supposed to be a business trip. It may have been a Friday evening, and the foundress may have just died and their work may have been pretty well concluded for the moment, but still Alice knew this was wildly irregular and she knew, angrily within herself, that if Trish or Pat had done the obvious and forbidden it, she would have obeyed them and not gone. They would have been well within their rights. Technically the thing probably deserved to get her fired.
But they were women – all except Charlie, who was here earning his paycheck and, like a man, wisely did not care about or interfere with anything else going on around him. At the moment he was nowhere to be seen. Probably in his garret room. They were women, long accustomed to organizing irregular little parties themselves. In Alice tonight they simply saw a woman about to have a fundamental experience. She was about to go out in public with a relatively strange man at his invitation. The details did not matter and were her own affair. The situation was very temporary anyway and therefore constituted no great moral crisis – an important consideration, after all, for they were all still Americans. What mattered was that she was excited about it and wanted to acquit herself well and look good. She desired to be happy, and above all else the women of Monique-Boyd wanted to help people, especially other women, be happy. So they helped her dress. Frankly she would not have bothered to do the same for them and probably would not have been asked. She had always assumed women looked after themselves in their giddy way. Now they had looked after her. What a wretch she was.
“I can’t thank you enough, really,” she said. She supposed they expected hugs. Before anyone could move, Peter appeared just outside the room and then entered. He had not stopped to wait in the foyer but had actually come up for her. He stood there, a sudden immense rush of black in his evening clothes. Everyone gaped at him. “Wow,” Denise whispered, loud. Alice turned and embraced two or three of them blindly. They all said good night and Peter smiled and took her away without touching her.
Pat and Trish and Mill then finished their packing, and after more goodbye hugs soon left for the airport and their flight home early the next morning. The others went to the hotel dining room, reserved for them at seven.
Tours was a bit of a drive away. They chatted in the car, easily, professionally. At the opera house they found their red plush seats, sat down, and looked around. Alice compared herself in surreptitious glances to all the French women and thought that she was possibly not quite the thing, but close enough not to be an eyesore. What a good thing it was to have friends.
“I know you should do your homework before something like this,” she began after a silence. “But I’m afraid I didn’t. What exactly are we seeing?”
“Francesca da Rimini.”
“I’m not sure I’ve heard of it. What’s it about? Boy meets girl?”
He nodded. “Boy meets girl, and then girl marries – let me think – girl marries boy’s brother with boy as proxy, though she thought she was marrying boy in the first place. So now boy and girl are in-laws and the brother she married is awful. And they all live in the same castle and everything is very star-crossed and tormented.”
“Oh dear. And are they all stabbed in the end?”
He laughed. “Yes, actually, in this one I think they are.” He looked at her. “Where shall we go afterward?”
“Does one go somewhere afterward?”
“Oh, I should think so. We’ll be hungry. Our tenor is known for his huge meals at two and three in the morning, after the performance and after he has signed all the ladies’ programs backstage.”
“Well, if it is the custom. I don’t suppose this is the tenor who is supposed to be having a fling with ... somebody. I read the gossip magazines feverishly, you know, so some of this is beginning to come back to me.”
“Indeed he is,” Peter nodded. “This is them.”
“Really? Her too? The soprano? Well well. And where are the wife and the husband?”
“Not lurking in the wings with daggers at any rate, I hope,” Peter whispered as the lights went down. “No, that would be too operatic,” she hissed back, and the last she saw of him was his silvered profile smiling in the dark.
It was an extraordinary thing to be alone in the dark, within touching distance in the dark, with this man. She hardly paid much attention to the opera, at first, for thinking about this. She remembered the first few times she and Tim, years ago, had learned that it was all right to touch each other. Each couple in the world goes through this – each couple that are in love, she corrected herself scrupulously. Of course it’s not the same for the poor Arab girls, or perhaps the Chinese or Indians, sent off at eleven to marry their eighty-year-old cousins and that’s that. But for the ones who choose their fate – and then sometimes un-choose it, she corrected herself again, wryly, scrupulously – there is no more delicious sensation in the world than the first hesitating touches, sent out from a void of experience (we’ve never touched) into another void of fear and routine and cold, working day manners. We’ve never touched. What if she slaps me? What if he thinks I’m a whore? What if he hopes I am? I want to see what will happen. I want to touch.
Alice sitting beside Peter endured the added, dreadful thrill of knowing he was married and that she was on a business trip and was going home in a day. He was going home in less than a day. She was still well-read. She knew, or thought she knew from reading European books, that American women were considered notoriously incapable of the short, unencumbered but splendid affairs such as Europeans love. An American woman still expects to be earnestly courted and married, as she did, at sixteen. What must it feel like not to bother about that? What must it feel like for two handsome people to have a pleasure because they can, and it’s not the end of the world and no one will be any the worse or wiser? If their elbows brushed right now, if she slipped off her shoe and slowly put one stockinged foot up his trouser leg, if she laid one small hand on his thigh, in total darkness – who would ever care? Absurdly now, words from a long forgotten high school teacher came back to her. “May as well live a little. You’re dead a long time.” And what might happen next?
She did not do it. It would have been an absurd mistake. He was deeply absorbed in the opera. Even as distracted as she was, Alice could also sense from the beginning the acute thrill, the sharp-eyed respect that rocketed silently from one to another of the audience, surging in waves from the front of the house to the back and then forward again, as all watched the great tenor go through his paces, and watched themselves historically watching him. The great and, if gossip could be believed, the adulterous tenor. Why on earth had he been cast opposite his inamorata? How awkward, how shocking, Alice thought. And then she thought, how stupid you are. This is Europe. Maybe they like being cast together. Anyway look at this packed house. Who wouldn’t pay good money to see this? And, although she was not yet quite well-read enough to know it, truthfully few pieces in the repertoire could be as illustrative of the excitements of real-life sin as this one. Francesca da Rimini is about an adultery that is purer than marriage because the two sinners – the two sufferers – not only are in love, but thought they were going to marry, and go through a wedding ceremony in which the bride must suffer the handsome groom to stand proxy for his malevolent brother. Francesca and Paolo were real people and Dante, their near-contemporary, put them in hell – in the Inferno – for a purpose, but it is to be doubted whether the composer Zandonai, nineteenth-century romantic, intended them to be judged so sternly. There are great scenes here, long wordless looks and pained, formal greetings, and in the opera house at Tours now there were splendid sets and rich costumes. Everything seemed to take place in fine stone rooms hung with tapestries, with arched Gothic windows looking out across warm, sunlit landscapes. The tenor wore masculine blue cloaks, and the soprano, feminine, embroidered medieval green. She was very beautiful, and about the same age as he was, which Alice found satisfying, and somehow serious. When the twenty-minute lovers’ duet of Act III began –
“Bienvenuto,” Welcome, my lord and brother-in-law – the menacing music and the singers’ acting caused the audience, in a body, practically to stop breathing. “’Lo serra fra le braccia e lungamente lo bacia in boca,’” she presses him in her arms and kisses him long on the mouth, the soprano finished quietly, as her Francesca knelt listlessly amid the folds of her medieval green gown at the far side of the table and its open book. In this scene the lovers read together about medieval Guinevere and Lancelot, adulterers. The moment was gorgeous, meaningful in triplicate. Her face showed tear streaks under the lights. She was a superb, a cruelly manipulative actress, or at any rate she had become one. She had so positioned herself on the stage that the tenor had to cover a lot of ground, while the music wandered in bewilderment and then crashed into love, to get across the stage and kiss her before his next line. It looked as if he would have to half-lift her up off her knees for this, and at his age, too. If the rumors swirling about them were true, she made this look as if he were desperately kissing her, Margot. If they were not true, she had made him work very hard just to put his back to the house. He was angry, his face darker than makeup. Alice, watching, guessed what was coming.
He kissed her, and the house exploded in an ovation. Peter and Alice were on their feet, too.
After it was over they drove in silence to a little restaurant in town to eat. It took a long time to recover from what they had just seen. They discussed the performance, haltingly, but for her that discussion was perfunctory, and Peter could see it. It was not going to bring her back to earth. Maybe she had never left it. For all her sophistication, and they both thought she had some, the experience of an opera had not touched her. Heaven and earth had not met. She was on her mettle, a little, through physical contact with him, but that was all. When it came to the things really circulating in her head, it was daily life that concerned her, and other women. She was an American. To come down to earth, or to bring him down to it, she had to discuss that, and he was disappointed.
And yet she dwelled upon, she annoyed him with, her small workplace concerns precisely because they also felt remote from her tonight. As remote as opera, comic opera perhaps. She knew she risked boring this sophisticated scholar, but he had asked about herself, and she was still so filled with love tonight at the way they had all helped her dress that she felt calm enough to summarize other things, old and far-off things. Maybe she felt calm enough now to give up old harshnesses, old and silly obsessions. She wanted to appear a complete and interesting woman for him, and the only way she could think of to do that – thinking while she talked, which is hard to do – was to display for him, perhaps, the crabbed little creature she once had been, and very recently too. Bylaws, indeed. Not that she had been wrong about them. She was no more wrong about them than all the French bureaucrats were wrong without whom Peter himself could not his do work. He understood that, and said so. But imagine marrying that dreadful man by proxy and then being stabbed. And in reality Francesca and Paolo lived long enough to have a few children, didn’t they? Peter had read that somewhere, and told her about it.
She spoke slowly, haltingly when it was her turn, not knowing how to give him the impression that while it might not seem so at first glance, she was different. And she talked about herself because she had long read that Europeans consider personal questions rude. Far be it from her to ask personal questions of him, and be rude. She hoped he would understand.
Escorting her back to the hostellerie in the small hours of the next morning, Peter paused with her beneath a cobbled archway. It was dark, cold, quiet. They faced each other. He kept one hand in his pocket and suddenly, softly reached out and ruffled the other one through her hair. Don’t be impressed, it’s bottled, she was going to blurt, but mercifully held her tongue.
“Speaking of being oneself. Capital O,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
He looked at her over his glasses, and she began to laugh. “Thank God I don’t say half what I really think,” she went on. “I’d have been killed long ago.”
“No, I won’t allow that.” Both hands were back in his pockets now. “You know, you should have been a medievalist, my dear. Those ages would have known what you mean by submitting to the discipline of an order.”
“Sure, because they were all starving.”
“Maybe.” The words ‘my dear’ seemed to swim right there, like a liquid fish between them.
“So what do I do?”
“I don’t know. If things have changed as much as you say, then you’re all friends and there’s no need to do anything. Otherwise – I don’t know. Either you leave. Or they leave. Or you make changes and they stay and lose the game. Or things remain as they are and you stay, and you lose the game.”
She was unthinkingly leaning toward him, shivering. “I hate it all. What a mess. Aggressive people have no idea how weird they are. They just blaze through life, going into convulsions when they are not obeyed fast enough.”
“Uh-huh.” She looked up at him. In the cold they kissed, a long time. It was very glorious, and if she were truly French she would have been simply thrilled. If they were truly French they would have gone to bed. “No games,” Alice once read a French boy’s quote in a book about a year in a lycee. “If you kiss a girl, you go to bed with her.”
But it was also very frightening. They separated, smiled, and each went, regretfully but as if impelled, home.
Alice eventually fell asleep amusing herself, in her scrupulous way, making up some coherent story to preface an affair that was not going to happen and that she was even a little relieved would not happen. She didn’t think she could stand the stress. Always, always it meant playing with fire. And the fire never warmed anything, never cooked anything, she thought sleepily. Spinning the story helped bring sleep on, helped soothe the stinging in her lips which she felt surely must glow in the dark. She wouldn’t have wished ill upon his wife anyway, God knew. She had no power over his wife, but in its jumbled hasty plot her story necessarily included him being discreetly widowered. It did no harm now. Then they were together in some dark hall, softly lit here and there by candlelight thrown from open rooms, not unlike the cobbled archway, but warmer. Logically, what would come next? Imagine marrying him. She had a vision of the two of them having an argument in some dark English pub (he was sixty), and Hunter trying to acclimate himself to an English school. What a pity she could tell no one, tell no woman. Their respect for her might fly upwards.
From a far distance the phone rang, a strange European ring, two in a row. Two more, two more. Two more. She struggled awake. It was day. From the other beds Louisa and Liz stirred also. It rang again. Who could possibly call them here, now, at – was that seven-thirty Saturday morning? Had the opera only just ended a few hours ago? And oh, yes – she had been kissed.
Alice answered. It was Lily. “Lily? How are you?”
“Not good.” People never say that to each other, not at seven-thirty in the morning. She had visions of rape, death, car crashes. “Have you talked to anybody?” Lily asked.
“Well, the party got a little wild.”
The party. Oh yes, the party. Alice was fully awake. What, now that they needed a man, they consulted her? “Oh God. What happened?”
“There was all kinds of screaming. Denise was nuts. They just about trashed the bar and the police were almost called.”
Alice went cold. This was Europe. She was embarrassed for her countrywomen and also saw in her mind dank French torture cells, put there by her high school reading of The Day of the Jackal.
“Good God. What happened?”
“I don’t know. I left early and I missed it all. But I talked to Patty and Charlie and they both think somebody needs to apologize this morning.”
“All this was downstairs? I came up at about three, I think. I didn’t notice anything.”
“No, they had dinner there and then moved on to this bar in town. Denise had a few Stolis and started talking to a couple of local men, and then somebody made some crack about America and it just got really stupid really fast. We’re going to have to pay for the damage. I know that.”
“How could six women cause this kind of trouble? Four of us were gone.”
“Five women. Plus Charlie. You know how loud we can be when we’re partying. Plus they ran into some Marines on leave.”
“Our Marines, or French marines?”
“Oh my God.” Alice held her forehead, aware that Liz and Louisa were looking at her. “Well. You see? This is why the bylaws say ‘no parties.’ No Europe.”
“I guess so. Anyway you’re the only Board member left who didn’t go home early for the funeral and they say they want to talk to you. One of us would have had to talk to these people anyway.”
“Who wants to talk to me?”
“The bar owner.”
“Oh my God. All right, I’ll talk to him. Well well, good morning. This should be fun.” Lily laughed shortly. “Yes, good morning. Charlie says he’ll go with you and Liz said she might, too.”
Thank God, Alice thought. “All right. We can do this. What about Denise? I suppose she better not come, huh?”
“Denise needs to stay away from everybody.” They said goodbye and hung up.
Alice looked at the others. Louisa, the six-foot farm girl, was up and half-dressed. “Well. Wild night last night, I hear,” Alice said, and Louisa, pulling on a boot, answered, “Oh yeah.”
“What happened? Did you see all this?” As she spoke Alice reflected, and resented, that her own evening with Peter, innocent as it was, was stale news now.
“I got out of there at about midnight, before the screaming started. But I knew Denise was getting pretty tanked up.”
“She was getting tanked up even at dinner,” Liz said.
“She’s a gem, isn’t she,” Alice said. The three women sat a minute in the quiet. “What about Charlie?” Alice resumed. “Wasn’t he there, couldn’t he have said something to her?”
“What’s Charlie going to say to Denise?” Louisa asked, softly, for her.
“What’s anybody going to say to her?”
“Besides, I don’t think he stuck around too long, either. After he got the rug shampooer he pretty much called it a night.”
“The rug shampooer?” Alice stared at Louisa, and they all relaxed and began to laugh. “The rug shampooer. Terrific. This should be good.” She gathered her last fresh clothes and went to take a shower.
While locked in the privacy of the bathroom Alice thought that in fact this situation for her personally might not be too bad. She would face the novel experience of apologizing to Europeans for something she had not done, she who had always prided herself on her quiet sophistication and gentility. And in front of a man. Another Peter – Peter – but with no stress of the other kind. She could show them, perhaps what an American lady was. They did exist. For some reason she was thinking of Pat with her big laugh, but Pat was innocent, she had missed all this too. And had trusted her, Alice, with her lovely red glass brooch. Lord have mercy, where was it? She fumbled at her neck in the shower, then cast her mind back and remembered with relief that it was on the nightstand near the phone.
In half an hour Alice went out to breakfast with them, which she had not done all week. Present were Charlie and Liz, Louisa and Lily and Patty. Only Denise did not come. They avoided the hotel’s dining room and ventured out into town to find a spot where they were, they hoped, still unknown. They were all subdued at first, and Alice had the strange, almost triumphant feeling of a clear conscience mixed with the moral authority of the cavalry come to rescue.
“So what are you going to do?” Liz asked.
“I think after breakfast when we get back to the hotel I’ll call the bar where all this happened and just see what they want. Maybe they’ll be satisfied with an apology over the phone. I hope so.”
From across the round table Patty whipped out her cell phone and leaned over to hand it to Alice. She was smiling gaily, always glad to be the helper, the problem solver. She was immensely proud, like Denise, of owning her own business in addition to her job at Monique-Boyd. “Here you go,” she laughed. “Call now.”
Alice absolutely hated this kind of spontaneity. She hated people who bawl out something first and think later. There is nothing with which to combat their good intentions, nor ever any good reason not to “just do it now.” Yet people like that always helped everyone else make fools of themselves, or upset some perfectly reasonable routine. Years ago when Hunter was a toddler Alice had a friend, also a young mother, who would come to visit on a Saturday afternoon, and then leap up and say “Let’s go get the kids ice cream!” perhaps half an hour before dinnertime. And a meal that Alice or her mother or mother-in-law had worked at for two hours would go by the board while Hunter and little Troy would drop their play and come running, shouting “Ice cream! Ice cream!” Or, “Do the kids want to watch TV?” some well-meaning adult would say, on a gorgeous summer afternoon when all the cousins were gathered at Uncle Dave’s house for a picnic. And all the kids would drop their balls and bats and shout “Yes! Yes!” while the sun shone and the trees swirled in the warm summer sky, and all the healthy children trooped down into dank basement to look at the flickering box. There went another piece of life gone, more plain contentment truncated because some fool had to be obeyed. Somebody who otherwise lived in a constant state of torpor had to “just do it now.”
The last thing Alice wanted to do now was to start telephoning Europeans and apologizing right here in this cafe in front of everybody. What a jerk Patty was. Did American cell phones work in Europe? What was the number of the bar? Had Patty thought of these things, do happy spontaneous people ever think of these things? Alice had planned to wait for the breakfast-table conversation to turn to the actual events of the party (for it would have looked a bit smug, a bit inquisitorial for her, clear of conscience, to bring the subject up herself), to ask them all exactly where this place was and to suggest that perhaps one or two of them could simply walk there this morning – yes now, spontaneously for once – and speak to the owner in person. That would take courage, and it would look well, and it would give them a chance to determine if the place was even open for business, or apologies. Europeans were very fond of their days off and their privacy, she knew. Surely the chances were slim that anyone would answer a phone call right this minute anyway, so early this morning. Yet there was the phone in the successful businesswoman’s outstretched hand. All Alice’s slow, nineteenth-century plans, twelfth-century plans for that matter, gone phut. There was no reason not to take the phone except cowardice, and everyone could see it.
Lord, how Alice hated – well, no, not really. Perhaps she only hated herself, at this awkward moment. She smiled an iron smile as she took the phone. “Do we even know their number?” she asked.
“So you call Information,” Patty answered. “411.”
“They don’t have that here,” Lily laughed in disgust.
“How do you know?” Patty shot at her. “How do you know until you try?”
Patty’s everlasting mantra. That quote and that attitude had gotten her her business, Alice supposed. No wonder she believed in it.
Alice bitterly and desperately punched in 411, trusting that Patty was as ignorant as she seemed and that she would get nothing but static. She did. Then there was a ringing sound and worse static, and Alice took the phone away from her ear. “I can’t hear a thing. I’m not sure you want to pay a bill next month for all this static,” she said. She handed back the phone. “I think we should just go back to the hotel and get the number and the place’s operating hours. I can’t imagine anyone being there for us on a Saturday morning anyway.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Lily said. Lily was surprisingly supportive, Alice thought, considering that she and Denise had been fast friends for years. Then for a second Alice wondered why on earth, with cell phones at the ready, the departed Trish and Pat had not been notified of all this, and relayed instructions about it from a flying jet. That must have been how they ordered bird-of-paradise and yellow roses “for the home” so quickly after hearing of Monique’s death Wednesday night. Of course, they must have brought cell phones ....
“I agree,” Louisa said, and Alice recalled herself to the present and thanked God that she would be spared her task right now, right this spontaneous moment. And just think, here it was Saturday morning in Chinon. In forty-eight hours they would be home. Thank God. And Peter, tea, the opera, the house roaring with applause and tears at Paolo’s kiss – it seemed another life, a true life when she had been an adult with a kind man who was justifiably bored by petty, workplace, women’s things.
They paid their separate breakfast checks and walked back to the Hostellerie. Alice got the number of the fateful bar from the pretty young clerk at the desk, amid many ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’. She was about to retreat to her room to make her call when the young lady said, “You may use this phone.” Louisa and Lily, Charlie and Liz were still gathered about. Patty had gone upstairs.
“Oh, thank you,” Alice said. She carefully dialed the strange French number, a set of half a dozen paired digits. When the line picked up at the other end – within two rings, as if someone were waiting – she explained herself with a calm that surprised her even as she listened to herself.
“All right,” the fine quiet French voice said, and then, pointedly: “When would you like to come here?”
“We are free right now, if that is convenient.”
“That is fine,” he said. “You know where we are located?”
“Oh yes. We’ll be there very shortly.”
“Thank you. Good bye.”
“Good-bye.” It flew into her head to say ‘Merci,’ but she blessedly restrained herself. She hung up and turned to her waiting friends.
“Well?” someone said.
“He’s ready for us to come and see him right now.”
“Yikes,” Louisa muttered. “Well, who’s going?”
“Me, obviously,” Alice said.
“I’ll go,” Liz said, and added, “I was on the Board last year. I think the two of us is enough. This is an apology, not a delegation. The fewer there are of us, the quicker it might be over.”
“Smart thinking,” Louisa laughed, and Charlie agreed. “You’re right,” he said to Liz. Alice’s temper flared at him, now, too. Bad enough that he, who “might go,” had apparently opted out. Charlie was such a nice man and he barely spoke two words to her, ever. Now that she was going into the lion’s den he had to turn to another woman and say openly, admiringly, You’re right. You, not her; her, not me. She swallowed everything and sighed for their attention.
“Well, shall we get this over with? Do we know where this place is?”
“Oh, I know. Who could forget,” Liz replied. They said good-bye and set off, really rather jauntily, through the Hostellerie’s pretty carved brown doors.
The man attached to the quiet firm voice at Le Nenuphar (‘water lily,’ how beautiful, coincidental) turned out to be elderly and, there was no other word for him but rumpled, like a gentle head librarian in a white beard and sweater-vest. He greeted Liz and Alice kindly and showed them around the spotless bar, even letting off a joke or two about current world events that the harried employees of Monique-Boyd had not kept pace with while they were busy in Chinon filming medieval things and thinking about their own problems. At length the three of them sat down at a beautiful table polished to the color of cognac. Both women were too nervous to notice much more in the warm gloom. Liz carried away a vague impression of some dark art, and etched mirrors up high. Alice only felt her heart pounding at the suddenly ridiculous vision of herself apologizing to another adult she had never seen before. The occasion had never arisen. Was this really she, her former self, coping with this situation? Why, she used to be sixteen, she used to be ten. How idiotic to think that what happens when we were ten is the only basis of reality in life. But, sometimes, there it is. What would her old math teacher Mrs. Denovo say?
The interview went very well, but the situation last night had obviously been serious and it was serious still. Alice concentrated heavily on the man’s phrases so that she could remember and repeat them, so that anything that was done or said afterward would have his authority, not hers. Someone “could not make himself heard above the din,” he was saying, “would have had her arrested for assault if he had been there,” “almost called the police,” “cannot happen again in Chinon,” “no one of any authority there to take responsibility. You were not there.” He looked at her. Alice was highly frightened by this last. True, she was probably the highest ranking Board member still in Europe, and she had not gone to the party. But what did he mean by ‘you were not there to take responsibility,’ was that good or bad? Did he fault her absence, or did he mean that he understood she was not there and did not blame her personally for what happened? Dear God, there was something in the bylaws, wasn’t it true, about a Board member being present to sign a waiver at every public gathering. Perhaps she was in serious trouble, but she had not delivered the official apology yet and this gentleman was so kind and mild. Perhaps there was hope. If she ended up in a prison, in the Conciergerie, if she ended up fired, she of all people for this of all reasons, well, she would face it. Before the apology, as it sunk in upon them how dreadful the night had been, and that it had not all been Denise’s fault, Alice, desperate to be mature and agreeable, said something trite about Pavlov’s dog. We don’t mean any harm, we’re just automatically loud and thoughtless at parties, was what she meant. Liz was nervous enough to say something equally trite about birds of a feather flocking together. Now was the time to rectify those expressions, too.
She folded her hands and said it, with the perfect combination of sincerity, remorse, and dignity. “Your apology is accepted,” he said, and Alice was if possible more embarrassed by the formality of that than by her own words. The rest of the interview passed in pleasantries, and within half an hour of entering the bar, Liz and Alice were back out in Chinon’s rough streets, and it was still December of the same year. Saturday, December 16th. Trish’s descent upon her on another Saturday, pretty pamphlet in hand, the day before New Year’s Eve, was two weeks away.
“Good Lord, there was nothing wrong with the place,” Liz breathed. “Did you see that tiny nick in the chair he showed us? I could barely see it. I was embarrassed for him.”
“Well, Charlie did a lot of cleaning up himself, didn’t he? Didn’t you say he and some other guy had gone out and opened up the guy’s hardware store to get a vacuum or a sander or something?”
“Rug-shampooer, I heard.”
“Rug-shampooer, that’s it.”
“But even then they couldn’t have done that much in an hour, or whatever it was. We were all back at the hotel by one. I think there wasn’t the kind of damage he was implying. It sure looked okay to me.”
“True, it looked nice,” Alice agreed. “Well, maybe he got a bit carried away.” She was so relieved the morning’s work was over, and so grateful to Liz for accompanying her on her mission, that she was willing to go along, for fellowship now, with her apparently instantly cavalier assessment of the affair. But the truth was that she now inwardly sang with the belief that a high personage – that man – in his disinterestedness and anonymity not much below God, had just confirmed everything that had ever been written or said or understood or forgotten about any bylaws ever created at any time. They were all of them children who had suddenly been exposed to adults. Now they really must obey the bylaws. As for Peter, and Paolo, well, never mind that now. Yes, they had begun to teach her, last night, to be a better woman and get away from her own petty self, but reality had resurfaced, and a mighty serious one it was. She must be petty and take care of things one more day, and then she would soar beyond, with women, with Dante, with the strong. This was why rules existed, to free you for that. Adults knew.
They chatted a little more on their walk back to the hotel. “Denise is a total asshole,” her friend Liz said once, and Alice took heart that perhaps her reaction was not so cavalier after all. She took heart at the confidence. Normally her co-workers did not reveal much to her, certainly not about their other, truer friendships.
They returned to the rest of the staff, who were all drifting in and out of the hostellerie in ones and twos, packing, shopping, ticking off inventories of equipment, sharing out the last use of the rental car before returning it tomorrow morning. People stopped and spoke to them, alone or as a pair. Both women conveyed the seriousness and the success of the morning’s apology. Alice always mentioned the word “police.” There was grim shock and quiet in everyone’s reactions. Denise still made herself very scarce.
And Alice went upstairs to the room and began writing the letter. Maturity, shock, fear, responsibility, and love all suffused her. She determined to write out, for everyone, all that had happened, what she and Liz had done, the reputation their company had just garnered in Chinon, and what they as decent people ought to do about it. Everyone had a right to know what had happened. She certainly would never be so mean as to mention Denise’s name in connection with this, it was not that kind of letter. It was not a letter of recrimination or spite. She did not want to give anyone any orders. What she felt, most of all, was love. She loved this company, loved these people, her friends, her peers. She loved and was grateful for the position of authority, even a little authority, with which she had been entrusted. True that she had been rather close-mouthed for years, but how could she have ever hoped to compete with them, she the child bride, the divorcee, the mother of an eighteen-year-old giant, while they were all billowy with experience and happiness, graduate degrees, honeymoons in Barbados with lawyers, and first pregnancies at thirty and thirty-five? Now she would come out and show her love and concern for all of them. Perhaps she had privately sniffed at their inadequacies in the past. Perhaps she had privately harrumphed that they did not know Isaiah, and would only blink at her opening her lectures to potty little social action groups – well populated by men – with Pindar. Now her days of dumb judgement were past, she was sorry about them, she wanted to be a better woman, and in crisis she would open herself and write to them as what they were, adult, intelligent women who loved this company too, were horrified by what it had done, and wanted to make amends by bringing everything back to what Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had ever wanted it to be. Now she, Alice, would stop eternally thinking about herself and guarding herself. She would join the human family through shouldering the risks of opinion and decisiveness. As they did, when they canceled her checks for Luxor, for example.
“After the problems at the party at Nenuphar on Friday night,” she began – should she just say “the bar,” or should she mention its name? Did the French word sound pretentious? No, she would use it. They were all intelligent women. It was a lovely name. They would know and remember what the bar was called, and besides, there was that shade of difference between the idea of a bar, any old bar – Bottoms Up in Naperville, on the frontage road near 101st Street and the expressway, for example – and a specific place with a lovely name, a history, an outraged owner, a local and loyal clientele. This was Europe, and it would have been the same if they were in Japan or China. They were not at home. This was serious, and the women would know that, too. Don’t talk down to people, Alice told herself as she struggled with every sentence, every word. Call it what it was.
“After the problems” – that was all, just problems. Not Denise, not liquor, not chatting up strange men, no mention of assault charges, or of a manager who could not make himself heard above the din. No mention of herself not being present, and not having signed the waiver that the bylaws would have required, not that such a thing would carry any weight legally abroad, anyway. Alice smirked a little to herself. If she was going to let Denise off easy, she intended to let herself off, too, a little. Mr. Boyd had never foreseen that they would set foot outside the United States. He imagined waivers being needed for insurance purposes in case Monique and the staff should give a tiny reception in an airless room one day, and a newspaper reporter should feel faint, or someone in a wheelchair be unable to get in. Not this.
Not this. Alice puzzled over her letter all Saturday afternoon, while the packing and locking up went on around her, all Saturday night and all day Sunday. On Saturday night she dreamed of Peter. It was an unimpressive dream, in which they just talked, and nothing eerie happened except that they were seated at a long table eating a big dinner with a dozen other people. As she was helping load up the rental car in the cold of early Sunday – Monique’s funeral was tomorrow, wasn’t it – she stopped and realized that if he had kept to his schedule Peter must have gone home yesterday. Without saying goodbye. How nice it would have been if he had come to say goodbye. Everyone would have seen it. Remember when he had come for her in his black tuxedo Friday night? Ah well. The memory of what happened between them just about balanced out her regret that no one knew about it. While she, perforce, knew all their problems, these women, from everlastingly listening. He and Elaine had been married, what would it be, perhaps forty years. She had no rights.
As they traveled to the airport the whole French landscape took on that distant look that places get when you know they shall carry on in time and space, with all their people and cars and restaurants and children as usual, but you are going home, and will soon see an entirely different panorama before you, through the windows of planes and home and all. They stopped to eat, they changed money and used the bathrooms. They talked and laughed about anything else except the Party. Denise had come out, and was again shameless. That is, Denise was still alive.
Alice still puzzled out her letter, minute by minute, heartbeat by heartbeat. She wanted to be tactful, loving, yet obvious. “The relations between the two parts of the company have become totally incestuous,” she wrote. “Obviously, we have no way of knowing ... I’ve been in touch with representatives of other foundations – Cooper, Steele – and they have expressed considerable surprise ... the future of the Boyd Foundation is going to depend on radical change in all of us ... in all honesty, we do tend to treat the company as a private European travel agency ... most 501 (c) (3) corporations do not ignore their bylaws ... I don’t think we are incapable ... it might behoove us ... practically been forbidden to return to an entire French town where we still need to do a great deal of work if a large (though illegal) investment of time and money is not to be written off. But maybe it should be.
“It has been a rather tumultuous year ... I would like to thank everyone in advance ... understanding and good will .... Changing may be hard at first, but nothing would be as hard as thinking we are too busy having fun to serve the public whom we are supposed to help educate and entertain through this – not our own – organization and its money.”
So she puzzled and struggled over every word. She herself had worked sixteen years at Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation – and the hyphenated illegality “Monique-Boyd” would not appear in her letter, that Alice knew, tact or no tact – without saying boo about the glorious bylaws. But now they mattered. They always had, and she must gently and lovingly make people see that. Her own remorse would scream from the pages, that would be obvious to a blind man. It was not her intention to frighten anyone, but only to be honest and to help. The future bloomed before her, dark or bright depending on what they would all do now.
She worked even on the plane, and told the truth when Liz or Lily or even Denise asked what she was working on. “Oh, it’s just a letter I think I’ll put out with the newsletter when we get back,” she said. “That was quite a shindig at that bar on Friday night, and I just want everyone to know what happened and, you know, what’s going on. It was pretty serious. I wouldn’t want anyone to think things were being hushed up, or to feel out of it.” Her questioners nodded, and moved away. No one objected.
Peter returned to Elaine. It was not that a little of the desperate attitudes spawned by memories of Fred – live, finally: seduce a woman – did not remain with him, and it was not that Alice failed to excite him. It was not even so much, he thought ruefully with his chin in his hand as the train sped home through the Chunnel (under that sea which so many seasick twelfth-century ladies crossed in their absurd little round boats), it was not even so much that he had had a sudden resurgence of morality, and had remembered he was a married man. No, it was only that Alice struck him as at once dully innocent, and yet altogether spoken for, and that it was therefore wrong to intrude on her when her development was not complete.
How utterly silly. At thirty-five, or whatever she was, her development ought to be complete. Who was it who said that Americans do not seem to reach the age of majority until the mid-thirties? Perhaps he had just learned how true that was. And then she was extremely pre-occupied. The opera seemed not to have touched her at all. Oh, she was ready to be kissed afterward, certainly, and he had thoroughly enjoyed one of the nicer five-minute spans in his life. But to talk about music or libretto, about phrasing or technique, would have been out of the question. To talk about the twelfth century, the despair of thwarted love, darkness, poetry, would have been out of the question. She was a valiant and a decidedly well-read woman. That was a great deal, and that was all.
He smiled at his own reflection in the dark window, recalling her pleasant chatter, her well-constructed sentences. American woman, going on mostly about American Woman. Someone must have told her that one does not technically, in polite circles or at leisure, discuss work. Not a word about Fontevrault, or himself.
He gave himself over, arriving home that night, as usual to glorious London – how this place would feed her, really – and then to his home, complete with siting room dressed in actual pink flowered wall paper and decked with Elaine’s collection of porcelain pug dogs. He gave himself over, contentedly, to his wife.
Alice and the staff arrived home on Sunday afternoon. The flight west, when a single day seems to have two noons, was only slightly less surreal than the previous week’s flight east had been, when two days have an hour’s night. At length she walked into the cream-walled farmhouse apartment, hugged Hunter to her, and privately swore that she would never go anywhere again. Not for anyone. The fearsome excitement of her letter filled her in unexpected washes and waves, and one ran into her now, manfully overlapping the sudden pang of regret and stupidity and near weeping she felt at the thought of him. A better woman would have stayed and pursued him, probably. Probably she was very cold. No, she was not. She loved, and had important work to do.
It happened that Sunday night, the public television station showed Now, Voyager, in which sheltered Bette Davis falls in love with married and attractive Paul Henreid. “I was a cad to make you care for me and then leave you to get over it as best you could,” he says to her in the train station. Alice, sitting beside Hunter, nodded imperceptibly at the screen. Still, that was hardly fair and she knew it. (“What’s the female form for your word?” Bette asks in return. “I knew you were married and I walked into this with my eyes wide open.”) Also true. But then where would be her, Alice’s, box of camellias from New York, every week – every day? Would Peter send them? Stop it, she told herself. I’m tired. I’m busy.
Monday morning at work she told Trish and Pat the outlines of the story. They each grimaced when she mentioned “the police almost being called.” She also gave them back their borrowed things, including especially the red glass brooch. Then she finished her letter, trembling, on Monday night and sent it out, trembling, but filled with joy and some confidence, with the January newsletter – early – the very next day, Tuesday December 19th. A few people had been asking about it. In the midst of all this she forgot to attend Monique’s funeral. Except for the very slight pall from that, everyone’s life at work that week was as regular and pleasant as ever.
Christmas passed, with its brief busy respite, a respite for her but not for Trish and Pat, busy mothers of little girls who were Snow Queens and elves and Girl Scout carolers and top servers on the pre-varsity volleyball team. On the Thursday night after Christmas, Alice’s phone rang. It was the 28th of December, two days before Trish would come to her in outrage on the day before New Year’s Eve, and lecture her on her shortcomings with the children crouched in the tangled wires behind a television set.
It was Pat. “Have you got a minute?” she asked, and when Alice said yes, innocently, the business of emotionally cashiering her from Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation began.
“I just read your letter and I am quite upset about it,” Pat said, her voice louder than usual. “You had absolutely no business in opening up this can of worms at this time. I am totally offended and I don’t think I’m the only one.”
Here in a few seconds Alice suffered, again, the shock of her life. She had never been genuinely rebuked before, not even in old arguments with Tim, not even by the church receptionist who had doubted her need to rush into marriage. All the more reason, then, not to show shock – already she had her wits about her to that extent – not to give the enemy, Pat, that victory. But how exceedingly strange. Already the letter, her effort of love, had led to war. She had to command herself, was tempted to do it audibly: this is what they call a “fight.” Be calm.
“Offended by what?”
“Well, by what do you think?” Pat laughed her big, rusted metal and whisky laugh. “I am offended by all this talk about change, and how bad we are, and that the police were almost called. There was no reason to put that in.”
“They almost were called, Pat!”
“Don’t yell at me, Alice!”
“Anyway I don’t know that that’s true. I’ve talked to some people who were there and they told me the bar staff were very rude to us.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have blamed them. The bar owner said he could not make himself heard above the din.”
“I don’t know that,” Pat repeated. Alice rushed on, “And besides, the gist of my letter, I hope, was that perhaps we need to see to it that we are never in such a position again.”
“I can assure you that if I had known you were writing something like this, you would never have been in the position of sending it out. I would have seen to that. You should have consulted the rest of the Board.”
“Why? To be shut up?”
“No – “
“I felt this was an emergency and I was the only Board member left in Europe to deal with this.”
“You were not. Lily was there, and she could have – “
“Lily didn’t say Boo. She’s the one who called me at 7:30 in the morning basically to ask what the hell to do. And she was at the party and didn’t stop that. I had the distinct impression that it was all on my plate.”
“Well, you may have been wrong about that, Alice.”
“I doubt it.”
“There was no need to then write this letter and tell everyone every gory detail. We have thirty employees, Alice, and five were at the party. Five.”
“Six. Don’t forget Charlie.”
“Okay, six. And now everybody knows this bizarre story. Everyone’s gotten the scolding.”
“Well, who should know? Just the cool people? If the IRS closes us down, won’t it affect everybody? I felt everyone had a right to know what happened. Otherwise, all we would have heard would have been, ‘Well why wasn’t I told about this?’ This is the Boyd Foundation, this is not our private club where only the cool people get to know what’s going on.”
“Okay, that’s totally unnecessary. We appreciate that you were left having to go and apologize to this man for something you were not involved in. We certainly salute you for that. And probably Lily should have gone with you. Probably Denise should have.”
“I didn’t say a word about Denise.”
“ – but you had no business to write about all these changes we all have to make,” – the aggressive, declamatory lilt had come into Pat’s voice – “and how we’re all doing everything wrong – “
“I never said that. What I suggested is that if we adhered to our bylaws this never would have happened. We never would have gone to Europe to do a European project and we wouldn’t spend our time organizing parties every third day. This is not our foundation, this is the Boyd Foundation.” Alice had the thick binder of the bylaws in her mind’s eye as she spoke. For the moment, since she had evidently stirred some passions, she assumed that the words “Boyd Foundation” would magically convey, to anyone, her own passions: the grandeur of discipline, the joy of crinkly pages and colored-tabbed dividers, of outlines and responsibility and subpoints, the joy and awe – for her – of prescribed order streaming into its own future, and the comfort of guidance and belonging it can bring. A presumption of shared knowledge, perhaps shared passions, is one of the occupational hazards of the amateur scholar.
Pat saw only an impossible, destructive woman who used to be well-controlled and who now hated them all. “Yes, it is the Boyd Foundation,” she agreed, “and it is made up of people who are just as dedicated to it and just as concerned about it as you are.”
“Right, so that if the people in an organization wish it to operate in a certain way, and they are not hurting anyone, then that is the way it should be done.”
“No, that is not the way it should be done. It – “
“Because this is Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation. We did not create this – “
“We have been operating fully legally for years – “
“Oh, that’s ridiculous.”
“ – and no one has the authority to change that on her own.”
“That’s ridiculous. Trips to Europe and perpetual parties are not legal. And the bylaws give any staff member – not just me, mind you – the authority to bring irregularities to the attention of the authorities. Can you imagine nice little Becky doing this? She could if she wanted to.”
“She wouldn’t. She’s a nice person. Anyway, like what authorities do you mean? The cops?”
“Like Bob Boyd, for instance. This is his livelihood. It’s all our livelihoods.”
“Uh-huh, Bob Boyd who has signed every check that’s been put in front of him for twenty years. I would say that is approval from the authorities.”
“I would say not. The bylaws exist so that even high-up people who perhaps make mistakes can be brought back to the guidelines. And keep the company out of legal trouble.”
“Oh wow. Have you told him that?” Pat laughed.
“No. Have you?”
Pat laughed again. “No! Nor do I intend to.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Because I am not willing to tamper with a situation where good, honest people are working very hard and performing an excellent service for the public, which is exactly what the bylaws also tell us to do.”
“Okay, so what’s the problem? Why do we need change?”
(Change! The most vicious word, it seemed, in the whole language, certainly in the letter, the cause of the trouble, the word that exploded so horribly in Trish’s and Pat’s heads, the word that spewed out on them like garbage, beyond profanity. Change, changes, we have to change. But everything is fine! We’re all fine! What was it that terrified them? Their own lives were full of change. They had each moved in the space of a year or so. They took big vacations. Their husbands wanted more children. Trish’s attic roof had caved in during a thunderstorm last summer and she and Dan were in the process of suing their neighbors for having enormous trees which dropped all their leaves on their roof year after year, and prevented it from ever drying properly and probably rotted the shingles and whole structure. Trish wondered if maybe, the lawsuit aside, they could ask the woman who sold the house to them to buy it back from them.)
“That depends. This is the Boyd Foundation.”
“Okay. Depends on what?” Pat laughed again, and that laugh, which made Alice feel Pat regarded her as a dull child slowly coming round through tutoring, destroyed what was left of her temper.
“It depends on which people want the organization to operate in which way. We can’t just decide these things. This is the Boyd Foundation.”
“Bingo, Alice, you can’t just decide these things on your own!”
“I have not,” Alice said, softly, delicately. “I have exposed things the way they should be done. This is the Boyd Foundation. We can’t just be exempt from rules because we’re women. The bylaws make things very clear. I’ve contacted people from other non-profit corporations who are flabbergasted at the way we operate. I think I’ve told you that. One woman at Mellon specifically asked me if we’re not afraid of being audited.”
“Well, I don’t know that that’s true.”
“It is true.”
“Okay, my point is that an organization that is doing good work, and has always done good work, should support and be supported by the efforts of the people in it.”
Alice had a hand pressed to her brow, executive style. “This – the – Boyd – Foundation.”
“When we went to Europe to film and research the abbey of Fontevrault, we were supporting a project that Mr. Boyd himself was interested in. He hired me years ago specifically to research it with this in mind.”
“Certainly. He hired you to research it. In – case – he – might – be – wrong. I don’t think he hired you, or any of us, to find an excuse to do things outside the bylaws as often as possible. This is the Boyd Foundation. Not to mention all the parties.”
In the midst of all this Alice had a sudden vision, an emotional one, of Peter in the majestic gray buildings of London, having conversations with professionals, men, who did not argue. Not like this. How long had this gone on?
“Yes, Alice, it is the Boyd Foundation. And we do not have parties every third day and we did not deserve, any of us, the letter you sent out this week. And this will not happen again because I don’t intend that it will.”
“Pat, this is the Boyd Foundation!” Alice flailed. What part of this didn’t the woman understand?
“We are going to discuss this at our next Board meeting and we re going to see that this never happens again.”
“This is – “
“Okay, I think we’re going around in circles here.”
“I agree.” Alice sat in a chair with her head in her hand, but grinned at the floor.
“I’ll see you at the next meeting. Or at work.”
They both slammed their receivers down. Hunter had been in the living room watching TV all this time. Forty-five minutes. He looked up at her while she passed and she made a face of cheerful mockery at him, then went into the bathroom and endured a terrible bout of looseness. She felt she had held up well, all things considered. Not only was this her first rebuke and she was not naturally combative at all – only the curse of loving to write, alas! – but in addition this was the first time she had ever experienced the cold aggression of rebuke over the telephone. Over the phone, as if she were a company and had delivered a bad product.
They discussed it at the next Board meeting, which happened to be held at Alice’s apartment. She was determined not to be afraid, even though a small voice inside her, far from expressing fear, seemed to say, “You have every right to forbid these people your home for the rest of their lives.” There was a rebuke they would not understand. Much too old-fashioned, Pindaresque. They would only see fear. So she hosted the meeting, and it turned out to be the most rule-infested they had ever conducted. There was little for Alice to argue about this time. The baby steps were growing larger. Trish bought several copies of that beautiful new brochure she had stayed up late creating “just for my own good feelings,” the night before she visited Alice. At the meeting therefore they spent a great deal of time, Alice and Trish and Pat and Lily and Mill, going over it, polishing its language and adding more historic compliments to the organization.
“ ‘We should be proud of our work,’” Trish began by reading it aloud to them, and Lily disappointed Alice very much – Lily who had called her helplessly at 7:30 on a French Saturday morning – by instantly jumping in and adding, “ ‘No, say we are proud.’”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Pat agreed, tapping her finger on the table, and Mill and Trish went into ecstasies too. “ ‘We are proud.’ Yes.” And the meeting went on from there. They voted to explore a few American projects. There was no laughter. What kind of a woman, Trish wondered bitterly, kills laughter? Destroys social situations? All situations are social, that is, potentially pleasant. Most of the two hours was spent in making sure Alice, in her own home, understood they were cleaning up her muck. She provided tea but no food.
And one meeting hardly completed the cashiering. Shortly afterward Alice began to get inklings of which way, and how fast, the fuse burned. Trish and Pat considered it their duty to protect the staff, the feminine staff, from her and her cheesy masculine paranoiac disciplines, and amid all their various types of contacts – phone calls, Pie Night – they must have found time to reach everyone. She got phone calls from obscure people, Becky, Pilar, churchmice who said “Yes, Pat called me,” or “Trish told me.” Since when did the elites ever telephone Becky? Connie called one Sunday to ask about the entire affair. Alice spoke to her so graciously that she then telephoned her surprise to Lily, who telephoned that back to Alice. “’I couldn’t believe it. She was so nice to me!’” Lily quoted her, and Alice laughed and said, “Why yes, I don’t even have fangs and claws!”
Even newcomers had been initiated. Alice noticed as the winter passed that even new hires, two in January, one in February, avoided her politely in the lunchroom and at the company Valentine’s Day party. When this first dawned on her, she scolded herself for thinking so ill of innocent people who probably did not know or care about tiffs in Europe months, or tiffs at Board meetings weeks, earlier. Yet when strange behaviors persisted, when her fellow employees, some of the veteran ones and all of the newer ones, found reason to get up and leave two or three rooms in succession as she entered each, following them in slow oblivion, when the Board planned the traditional progressive dinner in February and everyone happily ate hors d’oeuvres at one house and a main course an another and a dessert an another, but only Mill came to Alice’s apartment for cognac and bonbons, Alice realized that these women had been reached, instructed. They were communicating with her in the most serious way they knew how. They certainly would have taken it very seriously if they had been on the receiving end of such a message, even one that looked far less damning than this. They would have sought alliances, they would have quit. Alice did not think of doing these things. She was still that innocent. And she was still thinking. How was she to try to impose bylaws on them now? (For she still tried, a little, after the return from Europe, to go on conducting real business meetings with the six or seven good little souls in attendance, all of whom knew that the newsletter had again been handed out and decisions taken at Pie Night the night before.) Quite a paradox.
“Why don’t you just quit, Mom?” Hunter asked at dinner one night.
“I could, dear,” Alice said hurriedly, “but why should I? Why shouldn’t they? I like my job and I’m only trying to get them to do things the way we should legally. It’s not a private club that we all invented. I’m not out to get anybody.”
Hunter nodded and said nothing. He knew this had become a matter of pride, or something, with his mother. Indeed it had, and she knew it and resented it but pressed on for the moment anyway. All she could imagine was Trish and Pat in some French cafe years later, and their expressions of puzzled pity at the recollection of her own poor, twitching self, and their lucky but thoroughly justified and well-executed escape from her joyless rules.
At one more Pie Night which she summoned the nerve, or the interest, to attend – she could always officially, reasonably stop going to them, because they were not legal – she watched Trish furiously summon the manager of the restaurant to their table because her place- setting lacked a teaspoon. She and Patty looked at each other open-mouthed at the other end of the table. Patty leaned over. (When the women were out of Trish’s and Pat’s earshot, they still talked to her.) “Tell me that wasn’t about a spoon,” she hissed, and Alice gloated back, “It was about a spoon.” Then she ate her pie in silence, smiling only a little. No, she could never do that. She was not strong.
She was not strong, but she thought perhaps she was learning. She was remembering grand opera, and men, and perhaps trying to be nicer to people. All that may have meant was that she had spent more time on the phone with women in this winter than she ever had in her life before. She knew that this was how they maintained their friendships and so she thought perhaps now she was finally doing what she ought to have done long ago, unbending, taking time, learning to get along and be a friend. And yet she would put back the phone after talking with someone, and rub her red, sore ear in the quiet, and it would seem she could not remember what the last fifty minutes’ conversation had been about. She still hadn’t got the feel of it right. Her co-workers still quietly rolled their eyes, got up, and left tables if she let slip an unguarded, masculine phrase. ‘Carved in stone’ was one. “Of course we can do that,” she said agreeably once. “Nothing’s carved in stone.”
A return to Fontevrault for more filming was postponed from April to July, without her knowledge. When she did learn about it, in her imagination she dissolved again into Peter’s kiss, into his mouth under the dark arch. Should she try to go? There seemed hardly any prospect more horrible than that. Would he be there? But what if the women said the bylaws said she could not go? Would it be a relief?
“July. I thought it was April.”
“I heard July.”
“Oh. Well, obviously I wouldn’t know.”
As spring approached she realized, from telephone calls and eavesdropping, that even the friendliest of them not only endured Pie Night with Trish and Pat but also actively pursued a social life with them outside work entirely. They went to concerts, they went to basketball games together. That, finally, seemed a moral statement. Defeat was on its way to being self-abuse as well. She began to feel perhaps she would soon have enough.
Peter briefly, harmlessly changed his mind, as human beings will. An envelope arrived in Alice’s mail in March. Her name, typed. British stamps. It couldn’t be. She pulled one sheet from the envelope. It unfolded, and read, “Write me.” Like a guttering candle, her confidence and her enthusiasm for what she was beginning to refer to, in her thoughts, as the Eternal Subject flared up again. She wrote him the whole story, five pages, typed. She also included a copy of the letter. All of it entailed a special trip to the post office for air mail stamps, an errand which had to wait until she was free on a Saturday. In spite of her initial confidence this wait gave her time to think twice about whether she really should tell him all this after all. Was it women’s nonsense? Was she herself ghastly, and Trish and Pat the sacred rule flouters, merely doing what any calm man of the world would approve of? Or was she in fact a weakling, giving up too soon? It had only been three months since the French party, almost four.
Too late. The bulky package slid irretrievably into the mailbox. She would tell him. If they had been a married couple, she would have told him. There was no reason he should not know.
He got the bulky package and read it all, but through one thing and another, mostly the passage of time, he never replied. He thought the letter was distasteful, arrogant, and did not know how to be truthful and affectionate about it at the same time. He did dream up good phrases by which to write to her, but it seemed he never had a pen with him to write them down as they occurred, and then with time he forgot most of them and devised new ones which were not right. Not as fresh, not as delicate. One day he and Elaine watched an opera on television. Carmen. “Why did Fate put her in my path?” Don Jose asks, and Peter nodded imperceptibly at the screen. He smiled, too, as he had at his own reflection in the train window. He imagined racing into the nave of Fontevrault’s church at the moment of some unforeseen collapse and finding her there, shouting and taking her hand and pulling her to safety and kissing her in the roiling dust. But he didn’t answer her letter.
In April, he stood in the mud – not dust – outside the abbey watching the work. One of his better friends on this project was an elderly Italian scientist, all wrinkles and debonair clothes. Whenever their expertise called them together, as it had again here, they shook hands with pleasure. He was among the few in whom Peter had confided anything about his brother.
This afternoon they stood in the mud watching the work. All was proceeding well. Yet he was waiting; he had the sense of being only half-present. Dr. Brizzolara said nothing for a while. He too was thinking of the vanished American film crew, and of their promise to return this month and see what had been done. He looked forward to this with unabashed eagerness. A gaggle of women all forty and more years his junior, asking him questions, giving him the chance to show off his English and his wardrobe for a mass audience, for posterity, delighted him in just the grandfatherly way they thought it did. He was old enough to joke about his harmlessness and mean it. At seventy, it might still have been too painful.
He leaned toward Peter. “I must admit,” he said, “even more than I am interested in our glorious project here, at the moment, I am looking forward to the return of our friends from abroad, with their cameras.”
Peter smiled. “Yes. Livens things up a bit, doesn’t it?”
“It is terrible, how the medium corrupts us all. Show the human being, show the professor-doctor a camera, tell him that inside it, he will be seen by everyone and live forever, and in short order he becomes a monkey. Well, why not? I shudder to think what I have said already. I kept referring to the abbey as ‘she.’ I almost hope they will cut most of it, is that the word?”
“I’m afraid so. Still, it’s good someone is recording all this. That’s what the medium is for.”
“Yes, and the computer models and the website and so on. Have you seen it? They already show the poor abbey sinking into the puddle on that one, did you know? Very impressive.”
“You don’t think they get in the way?”
“The women? Oh, I don’t think so.” He grinned sideways at Peter. “Are women ever in the way?” And Peter grinned back.
“Anyway, monkeys, all of us. Look how we are talking about them now. If they did not get in our way sufficiently, we would seek them out.”
“And do we seek them out because they are doing important work, or because they are attractive younger women?”
The old doctor laughed. “Ah-hah! Silly question. Honesty abounds. But no, we are not totally mercenary. There are a few dull young men behind the cameras or doing errands, aren’t there?”
“Not that I noticed. They are certainly not in charge.”
“True. Well, they wouldn’t be, would they.”
Peter crossed his arms. “I did like Alice.”
“Alice. Blond? Very tall?”
“Redhead. Wears purple.”
“Ah, yes. Rather nice. Gentile.”
“I think she’s rather lost among the lot of them.”
“Lost? In what way?”
“I’m not quite sure of all the details. She has tried to make them run a tighter ship, as they say, and they don’t like it.”
“Dear me. Has she the authority to run tighter ships?”
“She claims she has. She claims they should never have come here in the first place.”
“Then I don’t like her.”
Peter laughed, long and relaxed. Of course the human spirit – in the sense of mood and temptation, not anything lofty – is a volatile thing. If Alice had appeared at his elbow now he would have been glad, and the whole thing would have begun, physically, all over again. But now he laughed.
“I only don’t like to see her ostracized,” he resumed. “I don’t like to see anyone ostracized.”
“And has she been?”
“She says people walk out of rooms when she enters.”
“Gracious. So serious. You know what Hemingway said about them?”
“Probably his finest story. ‘The hardest in the world, the ....’ Let me see, ‘the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive.’ Rather unsympathetic. I’m not sure we should trust him. But perhaps Alice would like to hear it.”
“I don’t have the impression she wants to be involved in any of it anymore.”
“You talk to her often?”
“No. We’ve written once.”
“You don’t send the e-mail?”
“No. Not old-fashioned enough.”
“Well. Speaking of harmless, so am I. I said this to our friends when they were making me up one day. Can you imagine?”
“You were made up for the cameras? I wasn’t.”
“You are twenty-five year younger than me. Or maybe they forgot. But for me, yes, why not? They say the face is too pallid without it. I told them all how pretty they were without makeup and then I said, they need not worry about my having any designs on them, because at my age, I cannot do anything about my designs. And do you know, your friend Alice was the only one who said something different.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that was good to know. You understand? She paid tribute to what used to be. If I may say so. What might have been. Or so I imagined. I thought it was ... subtle, very tactless.”
“Yes! I’m sorry. Tactful. You have good taste, my friend. Tell Elaine I say so.” The old man moved off, swinging his cane.
Alice was stung by remorse and fury that he did not reply to her package. In it was her revelation, her guts. If he did not reply to it, then maybe it was awful. Maybe the women were all right, all of them, about her and everything. Well, well, who knew? With a little time she thanked God he had not replied, and dreaded what he might still say if he did. She began to hope against hope that he had never even received it. But then what would he think of her ignoring his plaintive ‘Write me?’ What did he think? It was so dreadfully important to know what people thought. She was not strong.
One day in late April she went to visit her parents. Her father remarked how tired she looked. “Oh, it’s work,” she shrugged. “It’s such a bore.”
“Oh really? What happened?” he asked. He meant, like a careful scholar in his slurry monotone, to ask what exactly was new now. Her mother, who was listening and remembered everything and understood everything, butted in, “Are these the women who came to tell you how dreadful you are on Christmas or whenever it was?”
“That was one of them,” Alice said, smiling. “Now it appears to be all of them. I’ve actually had people leave rooms when I enter them. I mean a lot of them. I’m thinking of looking for something else. Cripes, I’ve been there since I was nineteen.”
“Oh yes, I remember. You’re sure you’re not imagining things?” her father asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Her mother said flatly, “You cannot deal with women. I know I learned that at work. If you don’t find the magic formula to get into their little circle, they will not accommodate you. There was an article about teen-age bullying in the paper just the other day. It’s the girls who do it worse than the boys. Boys have a fistfight and get it over with. Girls carry on for years, and they’re just mean. Evil.”
Alice’s father began to bend a severe look on her, but she rushed on, “Yes, yes, I know, but what would you call it?”
“No, no, they’re not that,” Alice said. “Not quite. But I certainly put their backs up in a way I never expected. They’re very frightened of any hint of ... formality, or maybe judgement, I suppose.”
“That may be human nature,” her father said.
She shrugged again. “I suppose so.” She paused and fingered the tablecloth. “I guess the truth is I don’t have any women friends so I had no business trying to act like I knew what they would tolerate. I didn’t know.”
“I don’t have any women friends either,” her mother announced, busy out in the kitchen. “Don’t feel bad.”
Alice smiled quickly toward her, and then continued. “I just thought it was obvious to a blind man that ...” she stopped, oppressed suddenly by the sour feeling that she was boring her parents. Maybe she was a bore. She took refuge in a generality. “I don’t know. The idea that women get to get by with things because we’re all secretly good and nurturing and above it all just annoys the hell out of me.” She rose and brought her cup and plate out to the kitchen.
“Whatever became of the guy you had to apologize to because of that party in Paris?” her mother asked. “I would say that wasn’t a figment of anybody’s imagination,” she called pointedly to her husband.
“No, true. That was serious,” he agreed, opening a newspaper.
“Oh, he’s out of the picture,” Alice said. “I would hope to God that if we do go back there, we would avoid that place like the plague. But you never know. They may all want to go back, plus get a discount on their next party.” They all laughed. Alice wanted very much to be able to tell them about Peter, but what was there to tell? I am loved – or was?
“Do you think you’ve been able to make any improvements?” Pamela asked, and Alice, turning from the sink, leaned back against it and folded her arms. She shook her head. “No. All I’ve done is make a few crappy little business meetings really awkward. And I stopped doing the newsletter and now it’s one side of one page and they took out my dumb little almanac. That’s about all.”
“Oh, I liked that! That was nice,” Pamela protested, and her father said, “I did too.”
“Oh-well,” she said, in exactly the tone and with exactly the gesture that she had often seen Denise or Lily or even Pat adopt. Then, as a kind of experiment in generosity, she brightened and led the conversation into other areas. They talked about the weather, the news, and about John and Pam expecting another baby, a little brother for Jilly and Polly. Alice secretly wanted her parents to revert to the Eternal Subject of their own accord, but they did not. From this she augured that it really was, objectively, a bore, or at any rate that it had enough of the appearance of boredom for her parents to play along with her in the game of dropping the subject. Trish and Pat probably would have said it was a bore from the start. So there was another victory for them. Still, after a several-hours’ visit, she drove home with the salutary image in her mind of herself, grown woman Who Has Gotten Over Something, or pretends to have done and so helps herself get over it almost as speedily as if the pretense were real. What if she could keep this up for quite a while? What if she could move beyond them all, really, into the realm of I Don’t Care? Was that a victory, or was it mere flight? Imagine genuinely not caring. Imagine being free.
She began to search the want ads for a new job.
There was a Pie Night at the Muse as usual in May, and Trish and Pat, and Lily and Liz and Denise and Louisa and Patty and Connie all discussed, in their turn, the Eternal Subject. They were not mean-spirited. It cropped up naturally because they were discussing Fontevrault. With eight people present, the conversation was scattershot. One group of four spoke privately, as did the other. Then occasionally one or two individuals called remarks across to the other group, or to an individual in it.
“I’m not sure we should even go back in July.”
“All our filming has been in winter. We could liven things up if we show it in summer, you know, green trees, blue sky. This is a tourist destination, after all. We could show why it attracts tourists.”
“But suppose we miss something important going on before July? We said we’d go back in April and we didn’t do that.”
“Oh my God. What do the bylaws say?” This was from Denise, and it made most of them laugh.
“God knows. Anyway from what that Shepstone guy told me, the work is all going to look quite a bit the same right now. We can’t show mile after mile of film of soil extraction.”
“Is Alice still going on about that? The rules-and-regulations thing?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve been able to get her calmed down about that. Thank God.”
“She was so by-the-book. She didn’t want us to do anything.”
“Oh God. Don’t get me started. I will never get over the way she treated me. I was so hurt.”
“Yeah, you know we’re not supposed to be here.”
“Ooh, I’m scared.”
“How did she treat you?”
“Just ... she was so rude. She was so rude.”
“Speaking of miles of soil extraction. I’m still not sure we should even go back in July. Or at all.”
“I don’t care, as long as we don’t go with her.”
Liz blew smoke. “I thought the whole thing was as dull as tombs from the beginning.”
“As dull as what?”
“Do you think she’d go? She was Miss Prissy Rules, maybe she wouldn’t go.”
“I don’t know.”
“Dull as tombs. Whatever, sorry. My grandmother used to say it. Boring.”
“We’ve invested a lot of time and money into it.”
“So write it off as a business expense. All we’re getting is a lot of film about a puddle and interviews with the chick who does nuns’ food. Medieval nuns. How lame.”
“You may be right. That guy Shepstone gave me a pain anyway.”
“He liked Alice.”
“He would. They’re birds of a feather. Did you see her last almanac-thing before she quit doing the newsletter? Some anniversary of a battle or something? My God, this is a place of business. Who could give a shit?”
“Well. Okay. Are we going back to Fontevrault? At all?”
“Why not give it to the steering committee and let them make a recommendation?”
“Or Bob Boyd.”
“I don’t think Bob Boyd has a pulse.”
“The steering committee? Who’s that?”
“It’s okay! It’s in the bylaws,” and they laughed. “Because we care about this organization,” Trish mimicked, and Denise said, “Yeah. Cripes, if that’s the way she cares about people then I hope she never cares about me.”
“But who’s on the committee?”
“Pat, me, Mill ...”
“Oh. I didn’t hear about this. Can anybody be on it?”
“Well,” Trish donned a puzzled and respectful expression, so routine with her that she might have kept it in a box. “We’ve generally always had three people on it. That’s just the way we’ve always worked.”
“No time like the present,” Pat drawled in a warning sing-song.
Trish glanced at her, and then back. “Well, yeah. I guess. Okay.” She laughed, and said, “Welcome to the steering committee!”
“All right! So if we don’t go back to France, where do we go?”
“Uh ... I really don’t know. I suppose we could take a look at our most recent agenda, and see what else we were thinking of.”
“Go ask Alice.” More laughter.
“Wasn’t there a song like that?”
“Oh, no. She is not in charge of where we’re going. She’ll have us out in Fort Nowhere, Montana, because the bylaws say so.”
“I thought she was getting pretty calmed down?”
“Yeah, but I don’t trust her. We’ve only got one more month on the Board together and I’m just doing damage control until then.” Trish shuddered. “I was so hurt.”
“Do you think she’ll run for a position again?”
“I’m shocked! With our improper election procedures? Do you think she’d run again? I’m shocked!”
“I don’t think she will.”
“I don’t know. I hope not, for your sakes. I know I’m not being on it again. I can’t take the risk.”
“Me neither. I’d quit first,” Pat said, surprising everyone. “People can only do what they can do,” she added. She often said that.
While they talked they failed to notice a middle-aged couple in a nearby booth, who had grown quiet and grim. The woman traced circles on her placemat with one finger and the man held his coffee cup to his lips but did not drink. As the talk ranged on, he put his cup down, got up without looking at his wife, and approached the two tables of laughing women.
“Ladies,” his deep voice jolted them all. They looked up to see a middle-aged man, with neat, dark brown hair and a long fine face, a little puckered and worn but handsome, standing there. He already had his wallet out. Briefly he looked around them, not at them but counting heads as he thumbed out bills. In a moment he laid out eighty dollars, in twenties and tens, on the table. He put his wallet back and finally looked at a few of them, at their faces.
“Your dessert is paid for provided you stop talking about Alice Gorecki.” He turned and walked away.
They all stared at each other, rigid with humiliation, not for themselves but for him. The cafe seemed suddenly to have turned dark, as if a thunderstorm were mounting inside it. “Yow,” Liz finally breathed. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh well,” Trish tried to laugh.
The man, Harry, was a friend of Alice’s from old and comfortable, and comforting, Bethany Reformed. For months Alice had spoken very little there about her work problems, just as she never told anyone at work about the small triumphs and attentions of Bethany. The two worlds, never very mixable, seemed utterly separate now. To tell the people at Monique-Boyd that she was – she hoped – well-thought of at church would only add to her reputation for ego, besides being irrelevant. To tell the people at Bethany that her co-workers found her brutish, a horse, seemed unwise. She went to prayers as usual, and took comfort in asking after other people’s news, and in the angrier psalms. “The hounds of Bashan surround me.” But how silly. After beginning her job search, she walked away one Sunday fairly serene from a service. Harry joined her on her way to the coffee machine in the social hall. “So, what’s new,” he said to her, walking beside her in his slow-hipped, almost sailor’s roll.
She had known him so long that they could communicate without preliminaries. In a split second she decided – for who was sure of anything, what was consistency? – on one last confession. One last time.
“Not much,” she grinned, pouring her coffee. She stirred it, black, and then spoke. “Have you ever done something you thought was completely tactful, and then it turns out you’ve offended masses of people?”
A slow smile spread across his face, and he looked at her, obliquely. They laughed. Yes, he had, and she had seen him do it. Someone else came up to them and wanted coffee and to ask the news, too. They dropped the subject.
Monique-Boyd did not go back to Chinon, not even in July. They canceled the entire project. The old abbey stood mute, firmly planted, like a gray-haired woman under the arcing sun and passing seasons, French clouds, French trees, French shade. The tourists came, busloads full of mostly Anglo-American women delighted to walk the grounds where Eleanor had walked, to fancy themselves the wife of a king, moving in wimple and habit through the monastery gardens, plucking hellebore and timothy for medicine. The church and kitchens stood, empty shells. Memories of torches and banners, of busy-ness and life and, no doubt, Eleanor’s shrieking royal children, filled the walls to bursting but did not make a sound. Peter and Dr. Brizzolara and the rest of the commission dried the puddle. Joan of Arc’s well still stood in Chinon as she had left it, hard by the Hostellerie and Le Nenuphar, that place quietly recovering from its American guests of the previous year.
Trish was upset that Pie Night anyway because everywhere she turned, it seemed lately, there was some man popping up as if out of a trap to harass and cajole her, or merely be obtuse. It wasn’t Alice anymore, she was getting a little tired of the eternal subject anyway. There was just tension everywhere, it seemed. The principal of Eads, her daughters’ school, had been totally unsympathetic when she complained about the rules of the spelling bee that Rory had lost. It was annoying and embarrassing to her to look into the face of a handsome professional man only a little older than she was, who spent every working day presiding over a horde of women and children, like a lion over a pride, and who looked her full in the face as if she were just another one. He didn’t agree to hold another spelling bee and he did not change the rules for next year, either.
And then there was Father Mike at the church, too. There was nothing particularly wrong with him, it was just that he had delivered an Easter Sunday homily, one month ago, that Trish considered very inappropriate, very joyless, for the season. Trish loved Easter. It had nearly ruined the whole day. And then the sight of poor Father himself served to remind her of the day she had sought him out, last winter, because she was angry over some silly argument with a woman who was not even a friend. What a fool she had been. She looked at Father Mike each Sunday in church and felt that every time he saw her, he must think only of that, too. Perhaps really he did not, but she felt, absurdly, that he did. She asked Dan if he wanted to join a different church. He said No, why?
She and Dan had also recently had it out on the subject of more children. He would insist on knowing the why of this. Changing churches – or not – was a subject he could let drop, but for this he desired talk. He could not simply wait for her birthdays to pass in slim and veiled changelessness, and accept gradually that she wanted, anticipated no change. He must know. So they discussed everything, the discussion growing slowly more awkward, so it seemed to her, as it became more evident that they could discuss it until the end of time and it would make no difference. The decision lay with her and her mind was made up. She felt cruel and deceptive, listening to him persuade, and wearing her face of puzzled good manners. She remembered the excited attentions and youthfulness of pregnancy, remembered the pride of a new baby. None of these sensations are duplicated in any other way. For a short time he swayed her, and she let it show, or allowed a facsimile of it to show. Then she felt twice as devious when she was forced to track back, and shake her head with finality, and say no. She had good practical reasons for it, the best one being the difficulty of affording college for more than two children. But Dan was angry.
And then to top her pique came the strange man who barged in on their group at the Muse and vulgarly laid down money at the mention of Alice’s name. God knew who he was. Not her father, surely, he was too young for that, but his sudden irruption forced Trish to realize she had never met Alice’s parents, never met her son, knew nothing about her actually. She didn’t care about that, but never before had she realized how dangerous such ignorance might prove in public. Having been reared on etiquette, this lapse alarmed her. Who would have imagined somebody else, out in public, would know Alice? None of them at Pie Night had even mentioned her last name. They might have been discussing any Alice. And they were seated near the back of the restaurant and had not been terribly loud. Yet someone had heard them – a man – and had come over and defended her.
That very night while she was driving home, Trish indulged in a series of pictures and made-up dialogue in her head. She imagined Alice giving two weeks’ notice, saying very beautifully and sweetly, “Oh yes, I’m moving to England. Remember Peter, the soils engineer from Chinon, you know, the abbey project? We’re getting married. Yes. Yes, in July. Thank you.”
It took only a second. She shook herself. People speak of children, especially, “having a good imagination” if they draw a bright picture, but what adult ever confides in another the time he spends living out whole lives in his head? What adult wants to admit it to himself, and anyway is it good to do this, frequently, rarely, at all? Can it be prevented, controlled? How much of our minds used to be taken up with more legitimate amusements, our own healthy interpretations of literature and poetry – Eleanor would have listened to troubadours – that is now wound around with one long and very predigested movie? Trish had once heard a psychiatrist on a talk show say that people far too often catch themselves on a “hook” of anger and resentment that is entirely composed of the fearful scenarios they allow to fester in their heads. Is this good or bad?
“Your son got a bad grade on an assignment,” she could still hear the psychiatrist’s words, as if the television were playing in the car with her. “You’re afraid he might go on drugs. Not even that he is on them, but that he might.” She could hear the audience’s laughter. “You’ve already got him addicted, in rehab, and plea-bargaining with the judge for a reduced jail sentence, when all along the reality is that he flunked one assignment! Okay? Why did he flunk? Maybe he’s stupid!” Trish smiled at the thought of the audience’s loud laughter. “The point is, you have hooked yourself on something that isn’t even real, and it’s giving you ulcers and it’s driving you crazy. Like you haven’t got enough to drive you crazy. And it won’t help you solve the littlest, real problem. Get off the hook.” Loud applause.
She pulled into her driveway after that Pie Night, smiling broadly. In the time it took her to park the car, get out, lock the garage and find her house keys, she had nevertheless almost unwittingly gone through a second series of pictures in her head. She imagined Alice walking down a hall at work months from now, next winter perhaps, and overhearing many voices, whisky-throated laughter among them, mixed in with her own flutey tones that seemed to break and tinkle so cleanly against her lovely arced teeth.
“Oh my God, you’re kidding! She went there looking for him? Did he even know who she was?”
“No. Would you?”
“Would you drag your son out of his first year of college and go hunting some guy in a foreign country, who may or may not remember you from a film crew in some jerkwater town in France the previous year?”
“Oh my God. I thought you meant they had had a fight and that’s why she came back.”
“That too.” More laughter. “Wouldn’t you?”
“God. She was so by-the-book.” No, wait – that was reality. Somebody just now at Pie Night had said that.
Trish shook her head. Poor Alice. Then she let herself into her beautiful house.
` Pat also told Joe, as the late spring progressed into early summer, that she would not agree to adopt a child. All her old reasons against it still stood – there was too much false and forced about it – although her imagination had been working unusually hard, too, and she did sometimes think with pleasure about adopting a little Chinese girl. Perhaps that would be wonderful. There was something totally truthful and exotic about that. One could have an exquisitely alien and beautiful creature in one’s life while also rescuing a healthy, pointlessly discarded treasure and showing one cared about the world, about women’s rights. Pat imagined a lovely and delicate Chinese daughter named Pearl, or Song.
Fortunately the hideous expense of foreign adoption put it out of the question. And Joe wanted a son anyway. Checkmate. He was angry, too, but Pat did not fear her husband’s anger. She felt vindicated as well by the story her daughter had told her of the adopted boy in her class that year. He was a Romanian named Draco. He proved to be a wild beast whose adoptive American “parents” had actually sent him “back” or “away.” They could not handle him. He beat up on their real children. He was so ... Romanian. Pat listened to this open-mouthed in horror. Surely it was not true. You could not send a child back, like a pet. But Draco had disappeared from school, that was certain. Before he arrived, the teacher had taken pains to teach the class a few words of Romanian. Draco was to be welcomed, he was to have a taste of American gentleness and good-will after his horrid years in an orphanage, living emotionally as little more than a failed abortion. And now he was gone, to God knew what fate. Pat prayed for that boy every Sunday. Did Joe think they would do any better with a mixed-race ghetto kid? No. She would not adopt.
And during this early summer while Trish looked back fuming on problems with school spelling bees and the handsome, unresponsive principal – while Eleanor, queen and abbess, slept in her stone-flagged abbey and the empty boxes on no one’s July calendar were scribbled over with “Fonte.,” though Peter was there – Pat fumed in her turn over problems with her daughters’ Girl Scout troop, and she and Trish both had problems with each other. Riding the horse, Alice, had become such second nature to them that in a kind of distraction they began to be brusque with each other.
“I can see why he’s divorced,” Trish said of the handsome principal, and Pat put her head on one side and drawled with dull logic, “Well, but ... the one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other, to be fair.” Then the Girl Scouts’ new Council leader, not the troop leader for Pat held that position herself, but the Council leader, forbade all horseback riding forever. The Council leader was anonymous and distant, and had unearthed not only the Scouts’ bylaws but also some appalling insurance-and-liability information.
“You wouldn’t believe how many girls are thinking of quitting because of it,” Pat exclaimed helplessly. “Why drive people away when everything has been fine and there’s never been a problem before?”
Trish listened, but could give small comfort. She could only conceal a shudder. Miranda and Rory were not allowed near horses. Besides, the last time she and Pat had talked, she had made an unthinking remark to Pat’s face warmly supporting people who adopt. She felt bad about hurting her friend’s feelings, and had still not yet figured out how to make it up to her. And when she dropped the spelling-bee story and told other stories pertaining to her children’s school, Pat said, “I’m surprised Miranda and Rory have struggled so this year.” “They’re not struggling,” Trish clipped out.
The five of them, Trish and Pat, Alice and Lily and Mill, had held their Board meetings perfunctorily in February and March and April and May, and then in mid-June they held their last one. Trish glanced casually at the notes Alice was jotting. They had been talking at length about a query the Foundation had received from abroad. Together they had decided to politely reject it, and had given Alice the task of communicating the refusal. “No,” she scribbled simply in her notebook. She was thinking already about how to phrase the letter. Trish saw that hard no and assumed the worst.
“Don’t say no,” she instructed, still glancing sideways. “Put it in a positive way. Say how much we appreciate their interest – .” Alice cut her off with several large nods. “I know,” she said.
In June also Trish and Pat arranged, with bright insistence, to come to Alice’s apartment one Saturday and watch her telephone all the staff members whose names had been proposed as new officers on the incoming Board. “Since we’re the Nominating Committee I guess we may as well do this now,” Trish had said. Alice did not quite understand that, but she was far enough withdrawn from them to let it pass without her customary interior blithering over baby steps. Normally the chair of the Committee – and who else cared to be that this fine year, except Alice? – made these calls just at her convenience, to notify people of their honor, and ask if they would agree to serve. Then, as she telephoned eight numbers under Trish and Pat’s silent gaze, frequently struggling with the attention spans of sleepy night-shift husbands or perplexed babysitters, she understood – as Trish hoped she would not, as Pat did not care whether she did or not – that they watched her in her own home because they did not trust her either to speak to every nominee during the course of a working day, or to call every one of them, out of their sight. They believed she was capable of not notifying nominees she did not like. “Absolutely I don’t trust her,” Pat said later.
“They sat there and watched me make phone calls,” Alice said later to Lily, gleefully, but not entirely gleefully. Lily spread the story, and Alice withdrew completely from all of them.
On looking over the books that summer it seemed to Bob Boyd that his company’s finances were in better shape since his mother had died.
Hunter returned to Eads Elementary twice a week that spring, to finish out the second quarter of the “blow-off” child development class he had signed up for the previous October. Four times during that quarter, for various reasons, Alice drove to the school to pick him up when his day was done. She parked her car, got out, and waited for him near the school’s main entrance, along with the schoolchildren’s mothers. She stood there alone, speaking to none of them, as if the whole burden of bylaws and Europe and hate and – who knows? – the whole truth of her own vicious personality towered above her like the biblical pillar of cloud.
All the little children spilled out the doors around her. It seemed as if she had never been a mother of a little boy, it was all so long ago and she had been so young and worried and unappreciative, so concerned about the baby’s “discipline.” Not to mention the marriage. It is funny how a pregnancy that is treated in hushed tones as a shock and a disaster in its first weeks, can become a simple swelling act that everyone regards with at least a tolerant sigh, and certainly offers the homage of a baby shower, by its last month; and then the baby whose presence is surreal and sometimes agonizing for the shaking seventeen-year-old mother, becomes a plain boy or girl of nine or ten, who does pretty well in school, and takes showers, and wears gym shoes, and has a good idea of where babies come form himself. The piece of information that caused friends and family to gasp – she’s ruined her life, how will she go to college, she could have been anything, she could have been on her way – becomes just another terrific kid. And the mother who could have done anything becomes an ordinary, anonymous, babyless woman working hard and raising (more properly rearing, since corn and pigs are raised) the kid.
Now that he was grown, she took an increasing pleasure in his company, liked being seen beside him. They both looked young. She hoped that people could not be sure at first whether she was his mother or a sister or a young aunt. He would say “Hi Mom” and she would feel very proud. Yes, I’m his mother. Yes, I expelled him from my body when I was seventeen, while everybody was horrified and whispered about him as if he were a blight. And look how grand he is, here he comes, like a prince, polite, handsome, well-adjusted, funny with the little children. Of course if his Catherine follows in my footsteps, I won’t like it either, but things work out.
While she waited to take him home on those four separate days she noticed a good-looking man in baggy trousers and shirt and tie standing around outside the school doors. He paced authoritatively. He beckoned unruly boys to him. He shook hands with fathers and called the fluttery well-dressed teachers, all women of course, by their first names. Alice looked on and realized this must be the principal. They nodded from a distance. He made himself available, didn’t he? She respected that.
More children spilled out the doors. Two young strawberry blondes seemed oddly familiar. Alice knew no one at this school, so she trailed off along the thought that these must remind her of friends from her own childhood, half-forgotten Sallys or Marys, ex-clubmates who might be standing right here beside her now, unrecognizable adults and mothers of more children. Then it dawned on her. Of course, those two girls were Trish’s daughters, weren’t they. They were gray-pale and tense, and exactly resembled their mother. The famous Miranda and Rory. This was their school, and the man was therefore, yes, the handsome principal. That was Mr. Hood, who made all the women flutter. One of the staff at Monique-Boyd, who was it, Mill perhaps, had grown up in his hometown and had known Mr. Hood as a teacher herself. She said that even in sixth grade all the girls agreed he was very interesting. Well, well. One wondered if his wife appreciated him.
Three times of the four that Alice picked up Hunter from Eads that spring, the parking lot became so snarled with automobiles and buses that Mr. Hood himself went out and directed traffic in the street, his tie blowing in the wind. Alice’s car idled a long way back in a snaking line of cars waiting to be released into the clogged street. Mr. Hood would wave up ten or fifteen cars from his lot, and let them go. Then he would hold up his hand and stop the next group, to let the ordinary traffic from the street cross their path. And then he would stop the street traffic again, and resume releasing cars from the school’s lot. Three times, on three days, he held up his hand and halted the school traffic out of his lot just when Alice and Hunter had reached the head of the line to leave. He stopped them right in front of him. Three times, he stopped her. It was pleasant to be silly, and to think that an attractive man had a reason for a little thing he did.
Alice scoured the help wanted ads in the paper. Why don’t you quit, Mom? How strange that one’s child should say something that should have such influence. One’s child. But Hunter was for all practical purposes a man, a fairly disinterested observer, and he had a good mind. He took her to the public library – for he drove, too, now, when she could spare him their only car – and he taught her how to use the Internet to search for a job. “The want ads are okay, Mom, but it’s been a long time since anybody just did that. You’re going to want to say you did this, too.” And she marveled proudly at him, and obeyed.
Spring flushed into an oppressive early summer, and a group of five non-entities prepared to take over the Executive Board at Monique-Boyd. Trish and Pat remained very good friends with the non-entities. (“I’m sure you’ll be a great president,” Trish said.) All the socializing, and all the Pie Nights, continued, and Alice did not dream of going. The ranks had been closed – a military metaphor – and she had been shut out, or shut herself out. Well, why not? If viciousness towered above her like a pillar of cloud, if she was a hunter among innocent gazelles, then she would remove herself from the innocents’ presence. No more fifty-minute telephone conversations with Lily, for any reason, even sympathy. “She just dropped me like a hot potato,” Lily said wonderingly to her real friends.
She wrote her end-of-year Treasurer’s report, and passed on her thick binder, its punched papers full of yellow high-light marks and anxious explanatory scribbles, to the next treasurer. What a fool she must look passing that on, with its precisely detailed information that would look queerer than words to a busy, ordinary woman regarding anything happening six months ago as absurdly ancient. What should she have done, what must they think of her? That summer in a Dear Abby column someone was advised to “put some backbone where you keep that macaroni.” Yes, but what if you are hated and abused when you do?
Soon she was proficient enough to search for jobs on-line alone. To her amazement, and looking like an act of God, a practical one this time, there it was: Eads Elementary School had an opening, beginning with the new school year, experience preferred. Office secretary. Lord have mercy. She grinned widely. Perhaps he had. Lord ... a new job. At the school with the handsome principal, where Trish’s daughters attended. She remembered Trish’s old complaints, and pictured herself in the office next winter, telling the little gray-faced daughters, oh, that they were tardy, or that it was too late to pay for a hot lunch now, but they could have half a cheese sandwich, or something. Lord, did she dare? She had not gotten a new job since she was nineteen. How frightening. Suppose something went wrong, the school closed, or fired her, and she could not pay her rent and ended up on the street? Lord have mercy.
Do I dare? she asked herself, and answered, God help me, yes. She crossed a cusp, another one. You never know how many there will be. She thought, if I had considered all the drawbacks to doing anything I have ever done, having a baby, getting married, getting divorced, my first job, my involvement in my little cause, even Bethany Reformed, anything – if I had considered and obeyed all drawbacks, I never would have stirred out of my parents’ house. She looked back across the cusp. It had all been so exciting, she had meant so well, and Peter, an attractive, older European man, had kissed her beneath an arch in medieval Chinon, after an opera about forbidden love. While she wore borrowed clothes. But now she wondered why she had ever cared. Not about him, no. If he appeared on her doorstep she supposed she would swoon with joy, despite his fearful silence since February. No, only how humiliating to have expended oneself on what was unworthy, but who could tell beforehand what was unworthy? They all believed they had saved something quite worthy, saved it from her, by remaining eternally very much themselves.
She applied for the new job, and got it. The cloud lifted. She said not a word to a soul at Monique-Boyd that summer, not even to Louisa or Lily who had been kindest to her, nor to Pat who seemed less fearsome now – and who was still always laughing – nor to Charlie, who was at least a man and whom she regretted leaving. She gave Bob Boyd her two weeks’ notice in early August and cleared out her desk unobtrusively, a few items at a time. It took the full two weeks. There was an embarrassing moment one lovely summer evening when Louisa came to the farm-house apartment with the wrapped gift that Alice would have received at the banquet for the retiring Board members that night, if she had gone. As a matter of fact she had forgotten about it, though of course she would not have gone anyhow. The gift was a pretty jar of potpourri, in lavender scent, her favorite. Alice was all thankfulness and manners but gave no excuse for failure to attend, did not ask “how it was,” and did not confide to Louisa, even then, her plans to quit. Louisa very kindly inquired about Hunter’s graduation, and Alice described it enthusiastically. Then one Monday morning, late in August, she simply was not there. At what point she was missed, and whatever Bob Boyd chose to say about it, she never knew.
Hunter dropped her off at Eads on his way to his first day of classes at the local junior college. In the office she shook hands with the veteran secretary, and with Nick. He asked her to call him Nick.
She brought a strange wisdom to her job that she could not help noticing in herself, as if she were watching herself even while she followed the veteran secretary about and listened to her instructions. She had been empty at nineteen, listening carefully to job instructions. Now she listened, nodded, and was very full. The secretary, Mrs. Curzon, said, “We’ve always just done this, it’s easier,” or “Technically we’re supposed to file this here, but we just ....” And Alice looked into her kind eyes and thought, believe her. She means it. Write it in calligraphy and hang it on the wall beside Pindar. This is the way they’ve always done things.
In time Hunter married Catherine. One sunny weekend shortly before the wedding he and Alice took a walk around the neighborhood. They rounded a corner and, even in a big place like Naperville, met Pat. “Oh! Hi, Pat,” Alice said, with instinctive, mannerly cheer. Pat said “Hi – .” Alice did not break her stride as she walked on. Hunter glanced back.
“Mom,” he said. “I think she wanted to talk to you.”
She leaned toward him, smiling, as if distracted from grand thoughts, or deafened by a roaring wind. “Really, dear? I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
As luck would have it, Catherine took an entry-level job at Monique-Boyd two years after Alice quit, and so met all the old crowd. She heard a tale or two, a remark blurted out before she could warn them, “That is my mother-in-law,” and leave the room. Catherine put a stop to the worst of it being expounded in her presence, but still innocently reported back to Alice what she did hear. Alice was still the news of the day. “God! She was so by-the-book! You couldn’t do anything!” was still the gist of it.
She also brought home the Monique-Boyd newsletter, reformed and written by Trish. When Alice visited her son and daughter-in-law she saw it on the kitchen table and looked at it for old times’ sake. It was a computerized, one-page affair now, all information in two simple columns with one appropriate clip art decoration, always in the same place, and many exclamation points garnishing everything. No improving quotes, no almanac. A warm, plain, cheery tone, very much in the first person plural – very much ‘we,’ we are good, we are fun. And this remained its format for years, even after Trish gave it up in her turn. All the employees who had known Alice, whose experience supplied who knows how many years of corporate memory, saw to it, perhaps only half-consciously, that proof of Alice’s eradication would endure, exactly as her victor intended it, intact from the year she produced it. New employees, new treasurers did not know this piece of paper had ever been allowed to look any different. They thought there were rules.
Coincidentally the Eads school newsletter did its work of silent communication in turn, too. Alice’s initials stood at the bottom of it. She was only its typist, not its creator. It did not contain, and never would, an almanac of famous and interesting battles. But her initials, ag, in small type, stood beside his, NH, in capitals. After Pat met Catherine at work, and learned from her in general what her mother-in-law was doing these days, she reported it in turn to Trish. That was how they learned things. And Trish, who had not been in the school office to talk to NH for a long time, looked at the initials on her daughters’ school newsletter, and felt realization come upon her in a rush. She turned white.
Occasionally Alice met Mill or Pilar out and about, even in a big place like Naperville, and learned things for herself, learned to looked and listen, entranced. She learned that the women had never gone back to Europe. They had never seen Peter again. Ah well. But there was more – strange things. They knew which thunderstorms had knocked out power in her neighborhood, if not necessarily their own. Someone had seen her pushing Janie’s buggy, and wondered if she had had a baby. (“Remember that guy in France? Well, you never know.”) Catherine, again, corrected that misapprehension. “Oh my God! She’s a grandmother? How great! Congratulations!” Someone had met someone who had seen her, and they said ... no, no. That couldn’t be her. She had dyed her hair since then. Platinum blonde. Oh my God, you’re kidding! Wow. Later someone had seen her out walking her new dog, and they wondered where she had got it.
“It’s a beautiful dog,” Trish said. “I think it’s a Borzoi. I happened to see her when I came up here to the mall one weekend.”
Catherine explained that the dog was a stray which Alice had taken in. She had found him at the park where she walked.
“Oh my God!” Pat burst out, laughing, “the one that was always sitting there looking at people? You’re right, he is beautiful. A great big, I think it was like a wolfhound or something, isn’t it? Russian wolfhound? My daughter had to do a report on dogs.”
“A Russian wolfhound is a Borzoi,” Trish said.
“Joe and I would walk there all the time and see him. We still call it the Dog Park. We used to talk about trying to coax him home, but he was so happy-looking and well-groomed we figured he must belong to somebody.”
“No,” Catherine said. “My mother-in-law said she used to see him there all the time too. And then one day he just got up and followed her. All the way home. So she kept him.”
The unspoken question was whether or not Catherine’s mother-in-law had made an effort to find out if the dog did have owners. But they held their tongue about it, all of them. “Wow. That’s great,” Trish said.
Alice listened, entranced. They were all such busy women, they so prided themselves on their eternal errands and chores. She had forgotten, as she took her walks or pushed her granddaughter’s buggy or played with her regal dun-colored dog, who fell all over himself with love for her and whom she named Roger, how good the chances were that one turquoise minivan out of five on any busy Saturday street would hold a sharp-eyed Monique-Boyd employee. (Originally she had planned to name the dog Pindar, but when she imagined herself calling “Pinnn-darr” in public, or having it announced in the veterinarian’s waiting room, she felt foolish and changed her mind. She chose Roger, smirking a little inwardly, thinking about signs from God – from god? – and about a name that sounded noble and sinister and medieval all in one.)
She had forgotten that thirty busy women constitute a town in themselves, a town within a town. And in their triumph they had not withdrawn from anyone. Naturally they knew all sorts of people, friends of friends, in-laws. Naturally they would talk.
Alice listened, and reflected. The two episodes of being castigated by a fierce and well-intentioned instructress, descended from American clouds, seemed like bookends to her seventeen years of experience at her first workplace, even though the two episodes had occurred mere days apart, much toward the end of her term there, and even though one would have thought she, like any woman, would have been busy enough and well-intentioned enough to consign these episodes to their proper oblivion in time. But they never seemed to go away. Perhaps someday, in great old age, rocking in a nursing home, they would seem like bookends to her whole life. She hoped not.
For a while she thought the lessons she had learned from them were hard and huge. Never reveal personality. Never communicate with women, perhaps with anyone, through the written word. It is considered both cold and presumptuously intimate. Never show enthusiasm for anything outside the self.
Or had it all just been an ugly, pawky drama unworthy of them, every one? At length she realized: since childhood she had imagined herself countess, farm girl, abbess, Eleanor. What she had actually lived – rather like the man making the wrong phone call – was the life of the anonymity expelled from the novitiate for blasphemy, or some other sin. A simple, human thing: but it has been known to happen.