Authors: Ann Beattie
“Flatly a brilliant concoction.… Like Jane Austen, Beattie rides the surface of her characters’ lives with an amazing agility.… She’s funnier now than ever.”
— BEVERLY LOWRY
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
“Through Beattie’s agency we are brought within sufficient sympathetic distance that our empathy is engaged. And that is how most good writing begins to achieve the level of literature.”
— RICHARD FORD ESQUIRE
“This shrewd and entertaining novel is finally about getting a handle on adulthood. Beattie’s sense of timing doesn’t fail her—she makes you care for her characters at just the right moment, and care a lot.”
“Ann Beattie has filed yet another anthropologist’s report on a certain part of America, warts and all. Every bit of it is good entertainment—especially the warts.”
— THE CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER
“She stunningly captures the horror and beauty of life.”
— ANN TYLER
THE DETROIT NEWS
“Her considerable intelligence, sharp eye, and arch humor rips into media madness and the so-called glamour professions.”
— VANITY FAIR
Also by Ann Beattie
Chilly Scenes of Winter
Secrets and Surprises
Falling in Place
The Burning House
Copyright © 1985 by Irony & Pity, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1985.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., and A. P. Watt Ltd., for permission to reprint an excerpt from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. From
The Poems of W. B. Yeats
, edited by Richard J. Finneran: Copyright 1924 by Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., renewed 1952 by Bertha Georgie Yeats; and from
The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats
, Macmillan London Ltd. Reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., and A. P. Watt Ltd. as agent for Michael B. Yeats and Macmillan London Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reprint. Originally published: New York: Random House, 1985.
PS3552.E177L.6 1986 813′.54 85-40866
For John Baer Train
music was appropriate, although Hildon thought this particular version of the song was a downer: Barbra Streisand, singing “Happy Days.” His wife, Maureen, was listening to it to rev herself up for the party. The magazine Hildon had started two summers ago,
, had become the hit of
New York, and today was the day of the annual party. Maureen was the hostess, and as she moved around the backyard, placing conch shells on the tables, she smiled to herself. It was a perfect Vermont day—the last day of June—and she was about to stage another perfect party.
The only thing that galled her was that she had to invite Lucy Spenser. Not only was she sure that Lucy and Hildon were lovers, but she knew that Hildon had only married her when he despaired of Lucy’s ever leaving Les Whitehall. Hildon, of course, denied the affair. “She’s my oldest friend,” he had said to her. “Why don’t you try to understand the notion of friendship?”
Maureen liked to give parties with motifs, and although Hildon’s staff did not deserve such pleasure, she decided on clever parties so that she, at least, would be amused. This time Maureen wore a sarong tied tightly above her hipbone. She served shrimp and lobster. Instead of a tablecloth, she draped an old tennis net over the long metal table. The paper napkins were patterned with little goldfish, swimming with happy smiles. She set out blue plastic bottles of sea salt and put on a record of the sounds of the ocean. The wine was Entre-Deux-Mers. Before everyone showed up, Maureen stretched out on the grass to survey the backyard. She smiled with contentment:
Maureen the mermaid. Her hair was in a braid, clipped with a barrette in the shape of a blue starfish.
Matt Smith, the new publisher—the magazine had just been sold, and at a handsome profit—was the first to show up. He was a few minutes early. Hildon was still inside, showering. She poured Matt a glass of wine and paid a lot of attention to him. He was the new boss. As she poured, Maureen beamed her best summer smile.
“Take a sip. Do you like it?” she said.
“I tell you, Maureen, to me, wine is crushed grapes. What I like best is that you don’t have to spit out the seeds.”
She laughed, pretending that he meant this as an amusing remark.
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“Come on, Matt,” she said, running her finger around the edge of the wineglass. “You aren’t discriminating?”
“I discriminate enough to know who means most to me. I mean most to me. I always did say that a man has to know how to play his cards in this world, and sometimes he’d better realize that the best game is solitaire.”
Nigel, the photographer, had arrived, and Hildon was talking to him in front of the kitchen door. Hildon accentuated his handsomeness by appearing to be very casual. The shorts he wore were permanently yellowed from swimming in the crater lake. The cotton shirt was custom-made and cost $75. As Maureen watched, Lucy pulled into the driveway and hopped out of the car. She had on turquoise shorts, white running shoes, and a white halter top. It was perfect. Everything Lucy wore and did was perfect. Even Lucy’s lover’s departure had been perfect: dramatic, unexpected, the quintessential abandonment. The column Lucy wrote was also perfect; it was exactly the right endeavor for the society girl who wanted to stay sour. Hildon and Lucy greeted each other by touching their hands to the other’s biceps. Lucy had a way of looking around, taking it all in very quickly, as if hidden cameras were photographing her, every firefly a potential flashbulb. She saw Maureen and lit up with a flawlessly false smile. If Maureen had been Lucy’s orthodontist, she would have been proud.
Lucy scampered across the grass, doing one of the many things that drove Maureen crazy. Two, actually, as soon as she spoke. Running like a faerie, on tiptoes, was bad enough, thirty years out of ballet class, but her polite dismissal of Maureen was even harder to take.
“Are you giving another one of your perfect parties?” Lucy called. Everyone but Lucy had the good sense not to ask rhetorical questions unless they were directed to dogs or babies.
“Of course I am,” Maureen said.
Lucy shimmered. She acted a little like that woman, whatever her name was, whom the Great Gatsby had been in love with.
“Look at how beautiful everything is,” Lucy said.
Maureen swept her eyes over the party. She had fallen into Lucy’s trap—she had let Lucy point out to her what was beautiful, even though she had spent the day creating it.
A boy from the high school had come to videotape the party. Maureen had had her doubts about that, but Hildon had made her feel downright paranoid. “No one will even notice,” he had said. “They’ll just continue to party. The kid needs to practice taping a crowd. It’s not going to interfere with anything.” How did Hildon meet all these people who wanted something from him? She found it hard to believe that he spent as much time working as he said he did; he must have encouraged these people—suggested that he had a lot to give, that he was very loose. No one would think that Hildon, so casual he seemed not to have the power necessary to grasp his gin and tonic, had that very morning called the shirtmaker in New Haven to rant and rave about the imperfection of the collars.
Lucy moved off, to faerie skip to Nigel. He held his arms open to receive her. Nigel had the ability to turn any conversation into an interrogation. Like an analyst, Nigel, when asked what he thought about something, would either ask why you asked the question or what you yourself thought. It was possible that Nigel never thought anything. He was talking to some woman Maureen had not met. The woman seemed a little drunk. She was trying to remember the punch line of a joke about a nun who stole a jet plane and the penguin who waved
her in for a landing. When she couldn’t remember how the joke ended, Nigel put his arm around Lucy and began to tell a joke about an Indian chief. He did a very extravagant imitation of the chief, puffing up his chest and changing his voice to an impossibly low register whenever he spoke in the chief’s voice. “Oh, I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” the woman said, clasping her hands. Nigel and Lucy smiled at her. “It’s that … it isn’t the nun who’s in the jet plane, but the penguin, and …” Nigel exhaled. He waited a few beats, politely, then puffed up and continued his own joke, as if the woman had not spoken.
“You know,” Noonan said, clapping his hand around Maureen’s shoulder and taking her by surprise, so that she jumped, “the last party I came to, when you didn’t offer me the leftovers the way you usually do, I stole half a wheel of cheddar that was on one of the tables. I put it under my jacket and took it home. Did you know that?”
“I had no idea,” Maureen said.
“I grated it and made soup,” he said. “You know—that excited me, taking that big piece of cheese. I could have bought it in a store and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but all the time I was grating it, I felt so excited I couldn’t stop grinning. If anybody’d seen me, they’d have thought I was a crazy person. And you know what? When I was a schoolboy, I used to steal things from the drugstore near my house, and it gave me the same lift.”
Nigel was trying to write down the woman’s telephone number, but she couldn’t remember the last two digits. She put her shoulder bag on the ground and began to rummage through it. “I know I have it in here,” she said. “Just give me a minute, and I’m sure I can find it.” She dumped the contents onto the grass. Maureen saw three brushes and several wallets. There was also either a jump rope or a piece of clothesline. Nigel bent and began to examine the contents of the bag, fascinated: a flashlight, a notebook, a large-beaked blue plastic duck.