Authors: Don Winston
Not that she was close to Clay’s parents. They’d only met a couple times, back at Yale: Homecoming her sophomore year and then again at Graduation, both over dinner at Mory’s. They never spent holidays together, much less vacations or quick visits. They weren’t at the wedding. Claire herself didn’t go––wasn’t asked––to Dean’s memorial, although she did send flowers and received a thank-you note, signed by both.
Clay’s father, once a lowly gear,
amassed an unconscionable fortune on his way up to running The Machine. Such wealth in one lifetime rarely came clean. That he came from nothing––in
, of all places––only fueled his critics more. Without taking sides, Claire hoped they had the decency for a time-out with their barbs after the tragedy last November.
But she wouldn’t know, since she and Clay lived a removed, independent life. Until now.
“That’s a tricky family you’re getting sucked into,” Martha had warned for years, but she didn’t today, because she’d been proved right. She refilled her own glass and let Claire convince herself.
“Clay was ready for a change,” Claire said. “And I…have to support him. We’re a team, you know?” Martha nodded.
the first time his parents have paid much attention to him,” she mused. “But that never bothered him before.”
“At some point, we all grow up a little,” Claire continued. Martha shrug-nodded.
“And let’s face it,” she said, “it’s not like his art career was really taking off.” Martha glanced about the walls without comment.
“Oh, shut up, Martha!”
“Relax, Bitch! I’m psyched you’re here,” she said. “Relieved, actually.”
“And who am I to talk?” she added. “I wouldn’t turn down Charles Manson at this point. You know, I joined the fucking DAR just for its Singles Night?”
“Don’t transfer to Chicago,” Claire begged. “I just got here. I
“I’ve already dated the five straight men in this town,” Martha said. “And I have doubts about two of them.”
“Don’t you have a blind date tonight?”
“If that were
true, I might stand a chance.” Martha inspected her bags in the microwave door.
“Hey!” she said, turning back. “You two should join us!”
“Double-date,” Martha insisted. “We’re good like that.”
“We have plans,” Claire said.
“The Union Club,” Claire said simply.
Martha collapsed to the floor, flailed with drama.
“Oh my God,” she said, her eyes frozen upward. “You’ve already joined the Union Club.”
“No no no…,” Claire protested.
Martha sprang up. “You don’t understand.
gets in the Union. Half its
can’t get in!”
“We’re not members,” Claire said. “Clay’s parents are taking us.”
“I see,” Martha sucked her front teeth once. “In-law night. Is
why you’re not drinking?”
Claire looked at her full champagne. Back at Martha. She took a breath and held it.
“Well…” she exhaled.
Martha squealed first.
• • •
“Let’s wait, Clay. Please. It’s too early.”
“Relax. When did you get superstitious?”
“Can you slow down?” Claire said. “Or at least send a Sherpa to help me?”
The steep incline up Nob Hill was murder in her heels. Clay had offered to drop her off, but she didn’t want to wait alone while he looked for a street spot. Apparently his muscle car wasn’t suitable for the club’s private lot. God save their cranky parking brake on the hill.
“We’re late,” Clay said, normally a non-concern. And normally Claire didn’t change outfits three times, the root of their lateness. They were both a-wonk tonight.
“I just don’t want a big deal until we’re absolutely….Ack!”
Claire stood on one foot, her broken heel clinging by one nail.
“Clay, we have to go back. I have to change.”
“They’re waiting,” he said.
“How am I going to explain this?” She hobbled up/down in a circle.
“Polio?” he suggested.
“That’s not funny,” Claire said, and Clay said, “Yes it is. And so are you.”
The piggyback ride both embarrassed and relieved her. They’d been pecking at each other more the past couple weeks––rushed, disorienting weeks with Big Change on the other side. It had zapped their humor. Clay’s gallumping carriage was playful and helpful, traits that typically came easy to him. Claire held on tight.
“Good evening,” she nodded at an older couple heading into the Masonic Auditorium on the corner, for a touring performance of “Henry IV.” They smiled and “Good evening”-ed back.
“You cool from here?” Clay asked at the summit, as the sidewalk leveled out.
Claire looked ahead.
“Good God,” she said. “Is that it?” A pointless question.
The Union Club stood sentry on top of the hill, a Beaux Arts dark mansion on the border of a grassy space. It hugged the edge, away from the public playground, separated by an ornate, round, alive fountain. It was lit from within by dozens of windows, each glowing through shrouding sheers.
“Yes’m,” Clay said, Dickens-like. “Where I spent much of me youth.”
“Well, that explains a lot,” she replied in earnest, instantly wishing she’d made it a quip.
Ringing the square stood taller residential buildings, a massive church, the familiar and very grand Fairmont Hotel, its bank of international flags snapping in unison above the porte-cochere.
The Union Club was the smallest building on Nob Hill, and it dwarfed the rest.
“Not yet,” Claire said, still clinging. “Closer.”
He waited for the cable car to clang past, tourists pressed against the far side, and carried her across California Street.
“You gonna sit on my lap during dinner, too?” he asked, and she said, “Just to the front door,” and giddy-upped him. They passed the surrounding low stone wall with swirling, bronze railing––fishes or dragons or sea monsters, hard to tell at night. The stone wall matched the manor walls, which matched the portico, the window moldings, the roof railing, the two flanking wings, the four streaming chimneys––all reddish-brown, serious and stately. A lavish monolith.
Neoclassical, Claire recalled from her one architecture class in college. Palladian windows. The square columns either Doric or Ionic, she could never keep them straight. Definitely not the leafy Corinthian. There were neither sign, awning, nor welcome mat. Other than the light-shrouding windows, a burnished lantern above the portico cast the only glow, dim-watted at that. The mansion stood silent, hiding its life within. Or not.
“You sure it’s open tonight?” she asked, as he mounted the reddish-brown stone stairs, two at a time. She looked up at the dark, silent door. “Is Lurch gonna answer?”
Clay unshouldered her, and she scanned the hedge lining the stairs. “What are you looking for?” he said. “Doesn’t Cousin Itt hide in the bushes?” she asked.
“You’re awfully breezy tonight,” he joked. “Did Martha get you tipsy?” Claire tee-hee’d and opened the bronze mailbox and peered inside. “Why, good
, Thing! Thank you for your kind invitation.” She shook the imaginary hand.
“You rang?” a man asked from the front door. Claire shut the mailbox and stood upright on one foot.
“Allen!” Clay said, handshaking/shoulder-clasping the smiling man with doorman hat and doorman coat. “Welcome back, Clay,” Allen said. “Your parents asked me to keep a lookout.”
“A pleasure, Claire,” he said, taking her hand, tipping his hat at their introduction. “I was joking about the Lurch thing,” Claire apologized. “Not at all,” he smiled. “I
felt a bit ooky today.”
Claire laughed and clarified quickly, “And Clay was joking about the tipsy.” Allen nodded, blank, and Claire added, “I’m totally sober.” Allen, still blank, said, “That’s good!”
“I don’t think he heard me,” Clay said
, and Claire said, “Oh!”, and Allen held open the glass-windowed wooden door into the vestibule. “Let’s get you inside, why not?”
A low, beeping alarm sounded as they crossed the threshold.
“We check our…cell phone?” Claire asked, when sent to the coat room just inside. A powerful black man outfitted like Allen, but without hat, sat behind the counter and smiled warmly, expecting her.
“The club discourages business.” He nodded in agreement, almost in apology, at her confusion. He wore a wedding ring and had the kind, knowing face of a father. Claire wondered how many, how young, and how unfortunate their father worked night hours. “We’ll take good care of it.”
He took her coat and phone, both of which Clay had left at home. She held out her hand for the claim ticket, and when none came, she pulled back and wrapped her pashmina around her shoulder, an involuntary correction. The man grinned and placed her phone in a cubbyhole along the wall. “Safe and sound.” he assured her. “Oh, I know,” Claire said quickly. She nodded and turned to go and collapsed on her broken heel, catching on the counter.
“Sorry,” she said, smiling, but freshly concerned. “That hill…” The man held out his own hand. “May I?”
He surgically superglued the heel with an at-the-ready tube and held it tight to set. “You aren’t the first lady to limp in here,” he chuckled. She strapped her shoe back on, and he added, “Just go easy until after dinner. Then tear up the dance floor.”
“Claire honey,” Clay called from the vestibule. “This evening?”
“Thank you,” she said, glance-checking her savior’s name tag, “Jess.” She slid a folded five-dollar tip across the counter.
“My pleasure, Claire,” Jess replied, politely sliding it back.
She turned and laughed. “How…do you know my name?” Jess laughed, too, and said, “Welcome to the Union.”
Allen held open the door of solid oak. Claire and Clay walked through it.
ON WINSTON grew up in Nashville and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Don Winston on
S’wanee: A Paranoid Thriller