Saturday, August 4
eturning from the bar with a drink in either hand, Louise Eldridge made the mistake of trying to slide through a narrow space between a wall and a cluster of people.
One of them turned and confronted her, his eyes lighting up like a fisherman who'd snagged a trout. “Hey, Louise, you're lookin' good,” said her new neighbor, Mike Cunningham. “And I sure like your bling-bling.” He reached out a hand and fondled the gold chain at the neckline of her sleeveless black dress.
Louise brushed his hand away. “Last time I heard, Mike, a flat gold necklace on a black sheath wasn't âbling-bling.' Now, would you please let me pass?” She took a step away from him, and her rear end bumped into the wall. Trapped.
Cunningham didn't move. They stood eye to eye, she being a tall woman, he, a not-so-tall man. His eyes clamped on her breasts. Steadying the two drinks, Louise considered throwing them into her captor's face. It was a strong face, just short of being jowly, but with good featuresâlanguid brown eyes and a nicely formed nose, most likely the product of a nose job somewhere in his past, she thought. The blown-dry hair, however, was a tribute to juvenility, which she knew was a good thing in plants, but not in people. But clients of a high-priced Washington lawyer might like that blown-dry look. On his finger, Louise noticed, he wore his own bling-bling, a gold pinkie ring set with an eye-catching diamond.
“Get three or four more necklaces,” Cunningham said enthusiastically, “and wear 'em with this one. Then it'll be bling-bling for sure,” once again touching the chain.
She gave him a quick stare, then shoved by, only to bump into a knot of people. The liquid bounced in the glasses and half the contents sloshed onto the flagstone floor.
“Damn,” she murmured, and looked down at the puddle she'd created.
Cunningham stood about eight inches away now, both hands up as if to deny responsibility for the spill. “Now, now,” he said, “don't get mad, Louise. I was just trying to have some fun with you. You take things much too seriously, do you know that?”
Just in time, Louise spied Bill out of the corner of her eye and headed to her husband's side. She didn't want Bill to see Cunningham cornering her. The man had attended his first neighborhood party a couple of months ago, shortly after he moved into the house two doors away from the Eldridges. He seemed pleasant at first, but as the party wore on, he became tiresome. First he teased her about her job as host of the PBS show
Gardening with Nature,
as if there were something inherently humorous about hosting a nationally syndicated TV garden show. Then, to Bill's annoyance, he began to come on to Louise. By the end of the evening, he'd had the nerve to sweep her into his arms, swing her back and give her a big kiss good-bye. Bill had been about to deck him, but Louise managed to talk him out of it.
She intercepted Bill with a smile and handed him his depleted drink.
“Everything all right?” he asked her, sending a suspicious look at the attorney.
“Oh, sure,” she replied. She needed a moment to calm down. They stood in a space in the center of the living room. Ron and Nora Radebaugh's home, like others in woodsy Sylvan Valley, was spare and modern, with lots of floor-to-ceiling windows and a flat roof, a sharp contrast to the prim colonials that populated adjacent northern Virginia neighborhoods. The huge windows were bereft of drapes, serviced instead by nearly invisible blinds that almost disappeared when opened. In this room, Ron and Nora had extended minimalism to a fine art. Two modern white couches, an ottoman or two and half a dozen Charles Eames contour chairs were insufficient to seat the twenty or so guests, so some with tired feet, like Louise, who'd been shoveling dirt in the garden all day, were obliged to stand, or if lucky, lean against a wall.
“I do have to admit,” said Louise in a quiet voice, “the man is a piece of work.”
Bill looked down at her and frowned. “What'd Cunningham say to you?”
Louise paused. How to explain the offensive touch without inflaming her husband? He clutched her arm and said, “Don't tell me he got fresh again. I'm gonna tell him a thing or two.”
“Please don't, Bill,” she said, and blocked his path. “He didn't insult me, he just annoyed me. I shouldn't have mentioned it.” This party was already a bummer, not flowing and filled with goodwill the way a party should. All it needed now was fisticuffs between Bill, a high-level State Department official, and Cunningham, who was with the prestigious firm of Wilson and Sterritt. “Look at him now,” she said lightly. “He's annoying someone else.”
Cunningham had brought his house guest, Lee Downing, a business associate of some kind from Texas. A silver-haired fellow, Downing was shorter and stockier, but as glossy looking as his companion. Now the two of them lounged against a couch and smiled down at a long-legged young woman perched on the couch's edge. She looked back at the men with wide eyes, like a doe contemplating flight from imminent danger.
“Oh, brother,” murmured Bill. “The two of them have pounced on Hilde.” Hilde Brunner was new to the neighborhood. She had come from Europe for an apprenticeship, but Louise wasn't sure from which country. “Mike can't stand the fact that you won't flirt back, so he looks for someone who will.” Bill smiled. “Of course, I can't blame him for coming on to you, or to Hilde... .” He gave the young woman an appreciative glance.
“She's as lovely as our own daughters,” said Louise, noticing how Hilde's long hair, brown with rosy highlights, swung gracefully as she turned her head to and fro. “How old do you suppose she is, twenty? Twenty-two? And yet I don't see anyone besides Mike and his friend acting like horny teenaged boys. Too bad they don't have wives to keep them in line.”
While his silver-haired companion focused his attention elsewhere, Cunningham had slid down onto the couch next to Hilde. Louise sympathized, for she knew Cunninghamâhe wanted to sweep every woman he met off her feet. She could hear Hilde telling Mike how she had come to Sylvan Valley to work as an apprentice to the area's foremost potter, Sarah Swanson. That seemed a safe-enough subject; Louise turned her attention away.
Bill was surveying the crowd. He said, “Parties are supposed to be happy occasions. But I don't see many here who look like they're in a celebrating mood.”
“Except them.” She nodded at the cheerful group she and Bill had been talking to earlier: Frank and Sandy Stern and their next-door neighbors, Roger and Laurie Kendrick. The three couples had joked about how their kids' college tuitions were impoverishing them. Louise had shared details of her kitchen renovation, joking that the addition of new granite and tumbled marble might make her a better cook. They challenged her to invite them over for a meal so they could find out for themselves.
“To become a better cook,” Sandy Stern had dryly replied, with a shake of her red hair, “would require you to use a cookbook other than that one entitled
. I intend to give you one.” They'd all laughed, even Louise, who knew she was a mediocre cook. She'd confided to the group that the old-world look of the marble tiles had inspired her to buy French accessories for the room: a butter dish inscribed with “
,” some dishtowels with the Grand Hotel logo and a heavy milk pitcher with the word “Paris” stenciled on it.
“You're like an American tourist gone overboard, aren't you?” teased Roger Kendrick, peering at her over his eyeglasses. An internationally traveled news correspondent for the
, the scholarly Roger would never deign to buy foreign trinkets, she was sure.
“Don't laugh,” Louise had warned him, “or I won't come through with that dinner.”
As Louise stood companionably with her husband, her gaze passed over the room and settled on a man whose long, oval face was set in a morose pout. “Bill, look at Richard Mougey. What on earth is wrong with him?” Richard, like Bill, worked in the State Department, though until recently this was a cover for his actual job as a CIA operative. Richard languished on a second couch. His petite blond wife, Mary, her wide-skirted dress puffed out attractively beside her, cuddled next to him and held his hand.
“I know what's wrong,” said Bill. “Richard's suffering buyer's remorse.”
“What did he buy?”
“He decided to take early retirement; don't ask me why.”
“Mary doesn't look happy, either,” said Louise, “and Mary is always happy.”
“She's still working at her job in Washington,” said Bill. “I suppose her success is hard on Richard's ego, now that he's retired.”
“What a shame. I always thought a retiring husband should be a moment of great celebration.” She put an arm around Bill so that no one else could hear what she said. “I know what's wrong with Nora,” she said, tilting her head toward their hostess. With her dark hair, flowing mauve-colored caftan and regal manner, Nora Radebaugh was the most striking woman in the room.
Bill chuckled. “ âWhat's wrong with Nora?' We've had to worry about that from the day we met her and Ron. You can sure tell he's a guy with something heavy on his mind.” The handsome host was a very tall, elegant man with a shock of graying hair. He carried out his hostly duties with the air of a dignified servant, not even looking at his wife as he moved about the room. Nor did Nora acknowledge he was there. “Don't tell me it's that same old problem.”
“ 'Fraid so. Ron's refused to go to another of those awareness seminars in California. I thought the first one helped, but now Nora ... Oh, well, maybe someday she'll settle down.”
Bill laughed. “Don't count on it. Poets like Nora are that way. She'll probably still be writing love poetry when she's ninety, if she doesn't throw herself from a bridge onto a frozen river.”
“Bill, that is so unkind, so ...”
“I knowâloathsome. Forgive me. It was a joke. I don't really want or expect her to follow in the shoes of John Berryman.”
“Did John Berryman reallyâ”
“Yep, and it must have been a damned hard landing.”
“Aw, sorry, Louise, no more jokes. Anyway, Nora will recover from whatever's ailing her. She always does.”
Their hostess was crossing the living room to respond to the door chimes. The late guests were the Eldridges' next-door neighbor, Sam Rosen, with whom Louise had spent the entire Saturday afternoon, and his friend Greg Archer.
Sam, a short, dark-haired, friendly-faced man, gave Nora a big hug. Greg, who knew her less well, settled for a handshake. Sam was a congressional aide who had been Louise's gardening buddy for years. Today, they'd labored side by side, double-digging a vegetable garden in a crevice of land that lay on the border between their woodsy yards. Her husband jokingly called the two of them “Mutt and Jeff” when the tall Louise and the shorter Sam toiled together in the soil. Over the years, they had bought gardening equipment together and shared its use. An electric golf cart dubbed the “cartita” and a rototiller were the latest purchases.
Sam's life changed three months ago when Greg moved in with him. Archer was a slim, attractive man with high cheekbones and stylish blond hair, quite a contrast to Sam. This newcomer in Sam's life was not interested in gardens, but preferred collecting antique glass. In a quick flash of compatibility with Louise when they first met, he'd given her an erudite lecture on his collection and she'd shown him the small assemblage that she and Bill had in a wall cabinet in their dining room. But once he'd discovered she and Sam were a devoted gardening duo, Greg had kept his distance from Louise.
Instead of immediately joining the party circuit, the newcomers hovered near the front door, as if they couldn't quite decide whether or not they would stay. They were quietly arguing. “Oh boy,” said Bill, observing the pair, “another disgruntled couple. This party has so many that I fear the situation's reaching criticality.” He turned to Louise. “I hope you didn't make trouble between Sam and Greg.”
“Of course not,” she said. Then she reflected that she and Sam had spent the past two Saturdays together gardening. “I didn't mean to make trouble.”
He took her arm and gave her a tug. “Let's go back to the bar. I need another drink if they're not serving dinner yet.” As they approached the bar, however, they ran into two more neighbors with gloomy expressions. “Uh-oh,” Bill told Louise, “more couples on the rocks. What the heck's going on around here?”
Mort and Sarah Swanson were another Mutt and Jeff pair. He was probably six-foot-six, wide-shouldered and slim, with horn-rimmed glasses and a completely bald head, features that made him look like a wise investment banker or perhaps a college professor. His wife was short and ample, but obviously muscular from years of throwing pots on a wheel. She had gray hair that fell in wisps of curls about her face and was caught in a fat braid down her back. At the moment, her gray eyes seemed to be holding back tears. Mort, mouth turned down at the corners, was pouring himself a glass of orange juice. This was strange behavior for Mort, thought Louise. He normally did not settle for less than a good belt of straight whiskey.