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Authors: Kate Hilton

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“It's Will,” he calls.

“Excellent,” says a woman's voice. “We were just beginning to get on each other's nerves.”

We step into a large sitting room bursting with antique furniture and exquisite oil paintings and books and silk carpets and lamps with fringes, and I have a sudden sensation of having passed through the back of the wardrobe into a new world. In the center of the room, there is a large, carved fireplace flanked by two stone dogs, and sitting across from it on either end of a tufted velvet sofa are two women. One is clearly elderly, stout, unsmiling, and glittering with diamonds. The other is younger and slimmer, in a linen sundress with her bare feet curled up under her. “Hello, darling,” says the younger one to Will. “How is your party?”

“Going well, so far,” says Will. “I hope it's not too loud. You're welcome to come down, you know.”

The older lady shudders; the younger laughs. “I think not,” she says. “Who is your friend?”

“This is Sophie,” says Will. “She's a friend of Zoe Hennessy's. She needs a rental for September.” He turns to me. “This is Lillian Parker, my great-aunt,” he says of the younger woman, and then turns to the woman with the diamonds. “And this is my grandmother, Penelope Shannon.”

“Do sit down,” says Lillian. “Would you like some champagne?”

“Sure,” I say. “Thank you, Mrs. Parker.”

“So polite, William,” she says approvingly. “You can go back to the party.” Will turns to go and I stand up to follow him. “Not you, Sophie,” she says. “Do you prefer regular champagne or pink?”

I've never heard champagne described as regular, so I say, “Whatever is open is fine.”

“Pink, then,” she says, and expertly fills a flute. “So,” she says, handing me a glass, “you want to rent one of my rooms?”

“Oh,” I say. “Well, my roommate is moving out, but I didn't realize . . . that is, Will didn't mention that you had a room available.”

“Rascal,” says Penelope. It's the first word she has uttered so far, and she delivers it with what appears to be a great effort.

“Penelope and I were roommates once,” says Lil. “That was many years ago, of course. She is my oldest friend.”

“Attrition,” says Penelope.

“She was rather displeased when I married her brother.”

“Gold digger,” says Penelope, slowly but very clearly.

“All water under the bridge, as you see,” says Lil. She lowers her voice. “Penelope has aphasia since her stroke five years ago.”

“Six,” says Penelope, who obviously has little difficulty with her hearing.

“She can only say a word or two at a time, but she chooses them well. I'm going to show her the room, Pen,” says Lil, rising from the sofa and gesturing to me to follow her.

We walk through a large dining room into a vestibule. “The third floor is a self-contained apartment,” says Lil. “I live here when I'm in town, which is about half the year.” She opens the main door to the apartment and we walk down a grand staircase to the second floor. “There are four
bedrooms on this floor,” she says. “At the moment, I have Will and his friend A.J. in the two rooms at the end of the hall. I wasn't going to take another tenant but I could probably stand to have one more. I told Will that I would consider adding a girl for a civilizing influence.” She walks to the front of the house and opens a door. “Have a peek,” she says.

I step inside and catch my breath. It's twice the size of my current room, dominated by a huge bay window with a window seat perched over a leafy maple tree. There is a heavy wooden canopy bed and a dressing table and armoire, all old and perfectly preserved—not unlike Lil, I'm beginning to realize. “You'll need a desk, but otherwise you should have all the furniture you need,” she says. “So, what do you think?”

“It's amazing,” I say. “But I probably can't afford it. I didn't have a chance to tell Will that I'm on a budget.”

“Could you afford two hundred dollars a month?” she asks. “I think that would be reasonable.”

“Yes,” I say. “I could afford that.” She can't be serious. It's half of what I'm paying to live with Zoe. I'd live with strangers if I could save half of my rent; I'd even live with an engineer. At $200 a month, I might even be able to save enough to go and visit Zoe in Paris in the summer.

“Come back upstairs and finish your champagne,” she says. “One always makes better decisions over champagne.”

We rejoin Penelope in the sitting room, and I settle into an armchair by the fireplace with my glass of pink champagne. “It would be good for those boys to have a girl around,” says Lil. “And you seem a very sensible sort.” She looks at my boots. “More sensible than most, anyway. So, do we have a deal?”

I can't believe my luck. Excitement and relief explode out of me in a very unsophisticated giggle. I blush. “Yes,” I say. “We have a deal.”

“Marvelous,” says Lil. “This will be great fun.”

“Diverting,” says Penelope.

“Most definitely. Diverting,” agrees Lil. “When will you move in?”

CHAPTER FIVE

tuesday, december 3, 2013

When the alarm goes off, I can hardly believe it, and I lie for a few minutes with my eyes closed, willing it not to be true. I've had so little sleep that I feel hungover, shaky and nauseated, and hollowed-out.
Sleep
is the wrong word, really; I haven't slept, I've napped, a string of short and wildly unsatisfying naps, and now I have to get up and face the day. But I'm not going to do it without coffee, so I stagger downstairs.

Jesse is already dressed and sitting at the breakfast bar, alternating between the newspaper and his BlackBerry.

I pour a cup of coffee. “God, that was a terrible night,” I say.

“Agreed.” Jesse barely glances up from the paper.

“Scotty was up, what, twice, three times? I lost track.” This is not, in fact, true. I know exactly how many times Scotty was awake, and for exactly how many minutes each time, which roughly equals the number of minutes that I lay in the dark awake, listening to Jesse snoring and wondering why I was the only one awake, plus the number of minutes that I snuggled upstairs with Scotty, composing bitter speeches in my head about Jesse's failure to wake up for even a token attempt at shared parenting. This is a test, and Jesse has already failed.

“Three o'clock and four-thirty, maybe, but he may have been up before I got home.” If I'm honest, I'm surprised that Jesse can provide an accurate report on Scotty's nocturnal activity, but no less infuriated. I can feel color rising in my cheeks as I realize that Jesse was conscious enough to register the time but couldn't muster the effort to participate.

“I got up with him at midnight,” I say.

“Tough break,” he says.

“Are you mad at me?” I ask.

“No.”

“Because you seem kind of grouchy.”

“Sophie.” Jesse looks exasperated. “I had the same night you did. I'm tired. I am trying to muster enough energy to get through the day. Must we turn this into a referendum on how well we communicate?”

This is totally uncalled-for. “Jesse,” I say in a snarky tone. “That is a far bigger project than I have energy for this morning. I'm simply asking what you're so pissed off about.”

His expression is cool. “If you must know, I'm wondering what possessed you to let Scotty fall asleep on the couch at six o'clock last night. By now, I would have thought that you knew to avoid mistakes like that.”

Now that I've extracted proof of my suspicions, I'm on the offensive. “Well, you weren't here, were you?” I snap. “Scotty fell asleep and I was supposed to wake him up? He's sick. I didn't think the extra rest could hurt.”

“Fine. What's done is done. Let's move on,” he says. “I've got to get going anyway. I have an early meeting. My mother will be here at eight-thirty to watch Scotty for the day.”

I could be furious with him for leaving me alone for the early shift, but I'm too tired to fight and almost pathetically grateful that he has taken control of the childcare arrangements for the day. So I say, “OK. Have a good meeting.” And I lean in for a kiss.

Jesse puts a hand on my shoulder and stops me. “No way, Soph,” he says. “You've been sick for two weeks. The last thing we need is for me to get it too.” He pats my arm. “See you tonight.”

Jesse is right. I am sick. And now I look it, because with Jesse's early departure I didn't have time to shower or put on makeup. Nigel has my number, and today, I fear, it's up—which is why I'm lurking by the garbage cans at the back of the hospital, waiting for the deliveries to start so that I can sneak into the building through the loading dock. The stench of rotting cafeteria waste is gut-wrenching, but the smokers brave it every day, and I can do it for five minutes until the first truck arrives. It occurs to me that if I were a more “integrated” person, which Zoe is always encouraging me to become, I would cling more resolutely to the small amount of dignity that I have left. But then I hear the happy sound of a diesel engine, and I brush away these unpleasant thoughts and concentrate on building a little staircase out of cardboard boxes. As the truck pulls in and the loading-dock door rolls up, I hop from box to box and launch myself off the rim of the nearest Dumpster and over onto the ledge. The receiving clerk gapes, astonished, as I vanish into the bowels of the hospital in a puff of exhaust fumes.

The first sign that something is wrong comes in the elevator. I get a couple of strange looks from the other passengers, one of whom covers her nose and mouth with her hand. I'm still incredibly congested, so I can't confirm it, but the evidence suggests that my morning exploits have had an unexpected consequence. I know I'll get an honest reaction from Joy, who is always enthusiastic about sharing bad news, and I'm not disappointed. She purses her mouth in a little moue of distaste, wrinkles her nose for effect, and says, “What is that revolting smell?”

But she has overplayed her hand, because she has kept me at her desk long enough for me to see that she is in the middle of an epic game of solitaire, and she knows that I know it. So I take full advantage of my upper hand and put a ten-dollar bill in her in-tray. “Could you please do me a favor, Joy?” I ask sweetly. “If you wouldn't mind running down to the pharmacy in the lobby for me and picking up a bottle of Febreze, it would be a big help. I had a mishap taking out the garbage this morning.”

I can see the thought bubble forming above Joy's head with the words I HATE YOU in bold type in the air, but she knows that she has lost this round. She nods curtly, scoops up the money, and stalks off. As I watch her go, I think that a job, like any intense relationship, can go sour even from the most promising beginnings. When the Baxter and I first got together six years ago, it was pretty hot: the Baxter loved my hunger and creativity, and the awards I won for designing its website and magazine, and I loved having a senior title and a staff and a reasonable budget for the first time. Lately, though, I think the novelty may be wearing off for both of us.

Geoff arrives for a morning debrief, which I have scheduled first thing so that there is no way I can bump it. He sniffs cautiously.

“I'm working on it,” I say. Joy reappears with the Febreze, and I mist myself generously from head to toe. “Better?” I ask.

“Much,” he says. “Now you just smell like a suburban sofa.”

“That will have to do,” I say, as the rest of the staff rolls in.

Erica is up first, so that I can try to defuse some of her hostility. She wants approval for the media package she has prepared on a major donation to our new cancer center, and although we aren't doing the official announcement until next week, she has worked herself into quite a frenzy. She wants to start calling reporters to secure their attendance and insists on finalizing the media package today. I'm not in the mood to tell her that the reporters won't commit to coming this early, and even if they do, they'll blow it off the second a bigger story comes in, and that sending the media package too early is almost a guarantee of having it forgotten by next week, so I take ten minutes and lavish praise on what is, in fact, a fairly mediocre effort. And then I ask Albert and Jacob, our fund-raising writers, to present their draft of the Family Care Center proposal, and I gush to them about how inspiring and incredible it is, and who could fail to be moved to give thirty million to build it; I certainly would if I had cash on hand. And for good measure, I tell them how impressed I am with the Annual Fund thank-you letters, which in my opinion raise the bar for stewardship communications in our sector. This is the cornerstone of my management strategy: douse my
resentment with heaping mounds of guilt and then alleviate the guilt by showering employees with unwarranted praise. By the end of the meeting, Erica, Albert, and Jacob are positively glowing, while Geoff looks amused. I ask him to stay behind.

“Too much?” I ask.

He laughs. “I doubt they noticed. Erica's a total narcissist, so I'm sure she took it at face value. And Albert and Jacob are in awe of you, so they were probably touched.”

“Excellent,” I say. “That should tide them over for a couple of days, then. Now, on to more important matters. Any word on the Gala?”

“You still on your BlackBerry diet?” I nod. “Then you have a lot of e-mail traffic to catch up on. But no decisions, not even close. The committee is spinning off in a million different directions. You and Justine are going to have to rein them in, but I think Justine's taken a powder on this one. I was trying to track her down yesterday, but she was keeping a low profile. I'd guess she doesn't have any bright ideas.”

“Perfect,” I say. “Did I mention that this is totally not my job?” Geoff smiles sympathetically. “All right, bright ideas are on us. Janelle and the girls like the songs of the eighties, so let's start there. Category is song titles that can carry off a broader theme.”

“Springsteen, ‘Dancing in the Dark,'” Geoff starts.

“Simple, basic, a good backup,” I say. “Bryan Adams, ‘Summer of '69'?”

“Too confusing. Is it an eighties theme or a sixties theme? What are the ladies going to wear? Certainly not shapeless flowing frocks with love beads.”

“Good point,” I say. “‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight'?”

“Wang Chung? That song was really awful, even back then,” says Geoff. “‘Like a Virgin'?”

Now I'm laughing. “Not an appropriate theme for this group of ladies, Geoff. And while we're at it, let's avoid ‘Bizarre Love Triangle.'”

“Tough crowd,” says Geoff. “I'll come back to it. My brain hurts.”

I give him a wicked smile. “Small price to pay when the work is so meaningful.”

We snicker in unison, and then we both start giggling, and then
guffawing. By the time Geoff gets up to go, I'm slumped in my chair, wiping tears from my eyes.

“You're the best,” I say. “Honestly. I know I laid it on thick with the others today, but I want you to know that, in your case, it's one hundred percent sincere. I have no idea how I would manage without you.”

Geoff blushes so deeply that I can see his scalp glowing. “Um, thanks,” he says, and I remind myself that I should give him this kind of feedback more often. Geoff looks as though he wants to say something else, but instead excuses himself and practically runs out of my office. It's a bit odd, but then again, so is Geoff. There are probably good reasons why he's still single.

I'm tempted to call Will, but I want to check first to see if he's sent an e-mail. Unfortunately, there's no way to open my inbox without triggering an e-mail flood; the members of the Gala committee, it appears, are caught in a terrible reply-all vortex. And they've drifted a long way from songs of the eighties in the past twenty-four hours, proposing and rejecting Mardi Gras (deemed to be insensitive due to the devastation of New Orleans, and offering limited wardrobe possibilities), Beach Party (a thinly veiled excuse for the Pilates crowd to show off their abs, but providing limited wardrobe options for everyone else), Hawaiian Luau (same objections as the Beach Party with the additional downside of terrible music), Mad Men (rejected as too esthetically narrow, and too obviously grasping at coolness), and Beauty and the Beast (an odd suggestion, soundly rejected as creepy, arguably insulting to dates/husbands, and offering little in the way of music that you can dance to). After I've read about fifty messages, I pick up the phone and dial Justine's extension. “I'm deleting the rest of my e-mail,” I say. “I can't stand it anymore. Did they make any decisions?”

“Negative,” says Justine. “The only suggestion with any traction at the moment is the Fashion Week idea, but at this point it's logistically unworkable. The idea is to have a full-on fashion show with a runway, models, and designers showing new collections in the middle of the event, between dinner and dancing. But the timing is all wrong, and even if we weren't months too late to get the designers on board, all of
the fashion weeks will be over by the time we have our event and no one will be interested.”

BOOK: The Hole in the Middle
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ads

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