The House on Olive Street (2 page)

BOOK: The House on Olive Street
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Barbara’s round cheeks were flushed as she ap
proached the gathering at the planter box. She held a wad of crumpled papers in one hand and a brightly wrapped birthday gift and purse in the other. Without taking any note of the prevailing mood, she put down the gift and purse and began to sift through the papers, her expression irate. “Bobby’s car,” she said. “He’s taking a test for trade school and wanted a reliable car. Look at this. Speeding, failure to yield, failure to stop and discordant behavior. Court date is tomorrow… I wonder if he’ll need a reliable car? And what the hell is discordant behavior?”

“From what you know of that particular young man, what do you imagine that means?” Elly asked, poking her sopping hankie under the rims of her eyeglasses again.

“He probably called the police officer a dickhead,” Barbara Ann admitted. “Elly, what’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“Barbara,” Sable said, grabbing her upper arm as if to keep her from running away. “It’s Gabby. We found her. She’s dead.”

“What?!”

The papers fluttered out of Barbara’s hands.

“I know. It seems impossible, but it’s true. She’s been dead for a while.”

“Several hours at least,” Eleanor said. “Probably since last night.”

“It seems to be natural, if death can be natural on your fiftieth birthday,” Sable added.

Beth had not yet made eye contact with Barbara. A tiny breeze blew through the front yard and one of the tickets tumbled over itself, threatening to get away. Beth pushed herself off the planter box and retrieved them all, muttering, “You’ll probably need these,” in a soft, absent tone.

“This isn’t funny,” Barbara said.

The sound of sirens could be heard. “Damn fools,” Elly muttered.

“It’s not a joke, Barbara. It’s true. Elly called the police.”

“The
police?

“I think it’s what you do,” Elly said. “They might frown on us making a direct call to the mortuary.” She looked up at Sable suddenly. “Jesus, are we going to have to call a funeral parlor?”

“Maybe Don will do that. Or David. Let’s wait and see.”

“I’ve got to see her,” Barbara said, lighting off for the house.

Sable, quick as a fox, had her arm. “Wait a minute. Wait for the police. We’d better not be poking around in there until they’ve had a look. You never know.”

“But you said natural…”

“Yes, well, there didn’t seem to be anything suspicious,” Elly said. “Except that Gabby is dead. And Daisy is sitting vigil at her side.”

“But she can’t be,” Barbara said, trying to talk some reason into the rest of them. “She’s in perfect health. She’s never even had the flu.”

They all looked at her, watching the flood of realization slowly wash over her as it had each one of them. Her cheeks grew pale, her nose pink, and her eyes glistened.

“Nonetheless,” Elly said.

“Well, did you try to resuscitate her?” Barbara demanded in an impatient, tear-filled voice.

“Barbara, she’s ice-cold,” Elly said.

“And there’s a smell,” Sable added.

“Well, she can’t be,” Barbara insisted. “There’s been some mistake.” She shook herself free of Sable’s grasp
and, with her back straight, stomped toward the opened front door.

“Let her go,” Elly said wearily. “You just don’t tell Barbara Ann she can’t fix it. She has to see for herself.”

 

They were a writers’ group, they told the police. Close friends drawn together because of their shared avocation. Eleanor, an academic who wrote nonfiction and reviews, had known Gabby very closely for twenty-two years. It took her a while to count them in her head. Sable, rich and famous for writing women’s fiction, stumbled and hesitated before she claimed to have known Gabby for at least ten years. Barbara Ann, a seasoned series romance writer, reported eight years and Beth, author of mysteries, said six. They gave their home addresses and phone numbers. Gabby had talked to at least one of them every day. Eleanor was the last of the group to speak to her.

Cowards all, they were relieved when the police agreed to notify Gabby’s ex-husband, Dr. Donald Marshall, who would then notify his children. None of them said anything. All of them were thinking the same thing. Don was in constant conflict with his children—his grown children. What little relationship they had had been held together by Gabby.

The matter of carrying away the dead took an enormous amount of time, much of it wasted. The EMTs came first, not believing Elly’s report. The police came next and then they called the detectives. The detectives called the coroner. The coroner called for a transport vehicle and announced that there would be an autopsy. The detectives, quiet, depressed, middle-aged men wearing terrible ties, advised that they saw no signs of foul play but would seal up the house in anticipation of the
coroner’s report. The women were asked not to walk around in there.

Eleanor went directly inside. No one attempted to stop her, if they even noticed her. She had always looked like an anonymous older woman—plain, stern and un-approachable. She went into the kitchen and pushed the button on the answering machine, amazed that the police, who were supposedly looking for the time of death or signs of foul play, hadn’t yet listened to the messages.

Hi Gabby.
Don.
Are we on for tomorrow night? Dinner? It’s your birthday so you pick the time and place. Call my girl at the office and give her the message. I’m thinking around seven…maybe Christopher’s? I’ll meet you. Oh, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, do you think you could pick up my shirts on your way? And remember the briefcase you took to the shoe repair for me? Think that’ll be ready yet?

He hadn’t gotten much better at letting her pick the time and place, Elly thought. You could hardly blame Don, she reminded herself, if Gabby allowed him to take advantage of her. Gabby would argue that she was most willing, under the circumstances. The circumstances being that Gabby shamelessly manipulated Don into taking care of any financial need she had. Gabby had told the group that she planned to hit Don up for a new transmission at her birthday dinner, and predicted that Don would say, “You can just take it to my guy.” Don had a girl for this, a guy for that, a lot of people to do things for him.

One of the police detectives was suddenly beside Eleanor. She glanced at him.

Well, I should have known you were out.
Gabby’s mother.
Why else would you forget to even call me on
what you know is the most difficult day of the year for me? I would have expected more from you. Don’t call me now—it’s too late. I’m going to the club with Martin and pretend that nothing is wrong.

This would be pitiful and heartrending if Ceola weren’t so comically self-absorbed. They laughed with Gabby out of respect. Ceola had lost her fourth husband, the one she claimed to have loved the most, the day before Gabby’s sixteenth birthday. So long ago. Likely, it was the same date on which Gabby had died. Ceola would typically wait until very late on the fifteenth of April for Gabby to call to console her on her annual day of grieving, something she was keeping secret from Martin, her seventh or eighth husband. Sometime in June, Ceola would remember that Gabby had had a birthday and send her a fifty-dollar check.

Mom? Are you there?
Sarah, tearful.
Well, it’s probably better that you’re out—I was just going to dump on you anyway and I really shouldn’t the day before your birthday. You must be so sick of me! But, anyway, don’t call me back tonight—it’s already eleven and I’m going to try to get some sleep. Justin’s been out all night and I’m so mad I could kill him. But I won’t kill him until after I talk to you. Love you, Mom. Talk to you tomorrow.

Sarah had dropped out of college and married a grease monkey when she was nineteen, the chief reason for her estrangement from her father. Justin and Sarah had had their first child, despite their financial woes, six months ago. To add misfortune to misery, the baby had Down’s syndrome. The marriage, Gabby had reported, became continually more strained.

No more messages. The detective unplugged the machine and took it with him. A little late, in Elly’s opinion.

“Do you know the people on that recording?” he asked Eleanor.

“Her ex-husband, her mother and her daughter.”

“Her ex-husband?”

“Yes.”

“He was taking her out to dinner for her birthday? And he wanted her to pick up his laundry?”

“Gabby was a remarkable woman,” Eleanor said.

“I’ll say,” the detective replied. “You have a key for this front door?”

“That’s how I got in,” Eleanor said, weary of this man’s stupidity.

“Okay, then let’s lock her up.”

She peered at him over the top of her glasses. “And the dog?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. Can you take the dog?”

Elly shook her head and walked away from him, the power having returned to her step. The heels of her flat brown shoes hit the floor with their usual purposefulness. “Thank God she
wasn’t
murdered,” she muttered. “Come on, Daisy,” she called, heading for the door.

Daisy rose tiredly, reluctantly, her collar and tags jingling as she followed Eleanor. They exited and waited for the detectives so the door could be locked. Beth and Barbara hugged each other in the street, saying goodbye. Sable stood by her car, the groceries returned to the trunk.

Elly didn’t have anything more to say, certainly no more goodbyes. She walked to Sable’s Mercedes and opened the door to the backseat. “Come on, Daisy,” she called. The dog walked lazily across the lawn and then bounded into the backseat beside Dorothy. Dorothy made a face of utter disgust and slid as far away from the dog as she could. Her eyes behind her wire-rimmed
glasses widened to saucers and her little bit of a chin withdrew even more. She must cook and clean like a dream for Sable to put up with this shit, Elly thought. Sable had fired people for forgetting to sharpen the pencils. But if anyone could match nasty scowl for nasty scowl with Dorothy, it was Eleanor. She leaned into the car before getting in and glowered at the housekeeper. “Everything all right?” she inquired in a tone that clearly forbade reply. The housekeeper backed her chin yet farther into her skull. “Good,” Elly confirmed, positioning herself in the front seat and closing the door.

Sable backed out of the driveway. Just as they were about to drive past the house and away, Elly touched Sable’s cashmere sleeve. She said nothing, but Sable brought the car to a stop in front of Gabby’s house.

They all lived in a wide circle around Gabby and had always met here. Gabby had lived in this house for twenty-five years. She’d raised her children here. Gabby and Don had built the house on Olive Street when the children were babies. After the divorce, Gabby began having guests, writer friends from all around the country, and she slowly began to realize that she’d turned her home into a sort of writers’ retreat. To Elly, Sable, Barbara Ann and Beth, this house had become a second home. A refuge. In good weather they gathered on the covered redwood deck. The backyard was dense with trees and the Sierra Nevadas rose in the east. When the weather was inclement, they met in the kitchen, spread around the large antique oak table. On winter evenings they would light a fire and recline in Gabby’s overstuffed chairs or against large pillows in the family room. But it was always here. This house and Gabby had welcomed them, embraced and encouraged them, celebrated with them, commiserated with them. And some to-die-for gossip had been traded here.

They’d tried meeting in other places, but it hadn’t worked. The women were uncomfortable in Sable’s plush, white manse, being served off a tray by the kitchen witch; it made them feel rigid and starched. Elly’s little house, as if designed for an old maid school-teacher, was piled with the indulgence of thirty years of books and papers. Barbara Ann couldn’t tame her wild beasts long enough for them to talk, much less read their works in progress. Her husband invariably blustered into the kitchen, bearlike, dirty from a hard day and growling sweetly, “What’s for dinner, darlin’?” even though it was obvious no one was hovering over the stove. And with Beth it wasn’t the size of her town house, per se, though it was uncomfortably small. It was more that one never knew when her commercial airline pilot husband would be in residence. If Jack Mahoney was home, Beth waited on him like a geisha, and seemed nervous the whole time, as if the presence of her friends might disturb him.

Gabby’s house was the kind you could drop into anytime. There were very few rules: you shouldn’t wake her too early, never leave the toilet-paper roller empty, and if you want something special to eat or drink, you had to bring it. Otherwise, she wanted people around her. Sarah and David still called them Aunt Elly and Aunt Sable—Barbara Ann and Beth having come along too late to become aunts. Even holidays, from the Fourth of July to Christmas, found the place a haven for family and friends. Since Beth’s husband traveled often and both Elly and Sable were unmarried, it was only Barbara Ann who was booked for all family occasions. Gabby’s had become a writers’ house, a women’s house. They had somehow managed to keep each other pumped up and productive despite the fact that no two of them wrote in
the same genre…or perhaps it was that very diversity that kept them stimulated and interested in one anothers’ work. And their mutual support had gone far beyond their works; they shored each other up through every personal crisis of their daily lives.

The house on Olive Street, Elly assumed, would be sold. And the friends, altogether too different to be close friends in the first place, would scatter without Gabby to hold them together.

“I don’t even want to think what all we’re losing today,” Elly said.

“Looks like you’re stuck with me,” Sable consoled.

Elly peered at her over the top of her glasses. “But look at what
you’re
stuck with.”

TWO

S
able didn’t speak to Dorothy after they dropped off Elly and the dog. She left her in the backseat, clutching her purse like someone was about to steal it, and drove in silence all the way back to Hidden Valley, forty miles from Elly’s. Sable had always taken extra pains to treat Dorothy companionably, something she hadn’t done for other employees, but her efforts went unrewarded. The woman never responded.

Sable had hired Arthur and Dorothy, a retired couple, four years ago. In addition to a little house on her property, she gave them a good salary and benefits. Arthur was sweet, handy with the yard and simple household repairs, friendly and a little too talkative. He often voiced his appreciation for this arrangement. Arthur was not the greatest gardener and handyman, but he was kind. Dorothy, by comparison, was the best housekeeper and cook she’d ever had. It was a challenge to find a speck of dust, a smear or smudge. But Dorothy did not stretch herself. There was nothing extra to be got from the woman. She frowned from morning to night; she rarely spoke; she never said thank you—not even for gifts. On those evenings when Sable told Dorothy she was not
very hungry and would fix herself some salad later in the evening, Dorothy would nod and walk away. Sable did not once venture to the refrigerator to find that a salad had been thoughtfully prepared for her.

Sable parked in the drive behind her house. She popped the trunk and left Dorothy to worry about all the grocery sacks by herself. She grabbed her purse, slammed her car door and stomped toward the house. “She was my best friend,” she said aloud to herself. “To not even offer condolences is just fucking cruel.” Sable decided then, for the hundredth time, that she was going to fire them. Too bad about sweet old Art, but she’d had enough of that sourpuss. “Why couldn’t I have hired a goddamn Hazel? Why the hell do I even try with her?”

She entered the house through the kitchen, the shining white kitchen. The house spread softly before her—thick white carpet, flashes of rose, violet, steel-gray, a tiny dash of soft blue and pale peach. And glass, lots of glass. Her house sat on a foothill lakeshore lot so that the great room and dining room, where she entertained guests, faced the lake. There were French doors along the lakeside wall that led to the deck, and from the deck there were stairs and walks that led down across the plush, manicured lawn to the lake. The back of the house contained the kitchen, laundry and a large, pleasant room that Sable could not bring herself to identify as a family room. All this faced the back property—yard, patio, pool, spa and sauna, guest house and Arthur and Dorothy’s cottage. There were two guest rooms in the main house divided by a bath on the east end. The private drive came around the lake and up the west side of the house toward the detached five-port garage and ample parking area. Double doors led into a foyer in front of the open staircase to the second floor. Flagstone paths
led around the house to the lakeside entrances or to the poolside entrances. Too many doors to be locked at night, but a glorious openness by day.

Sable did all her living upstairs. At the top of the stairs to the right were twin offices—hers facing the lake, her secretary’s facing the pool. Between them was a roomy powder room. To the left was her bedroom suite, though it was almost a small apartment. There was the king-size bed and rosewood bureaus, a sitting area comprising settee, two chairs with ottomans, cocktail table and wall unit of television, VCR, stereo and wet bar. There was a master bath in which Sable could serve tea for ten should she desire, complete with sunken Roman shower, deep whirlpool tub, commode and bidet, massive closet and chaise lounge. She could rest between brushing her teeth and picking out her shoes. And of course, decks, furnished with chairs, tables and chaises, stretched the length of the second story, both poolside and lakeside.

It had been hard to find an architect to create the house from Sable’s vision—a fantasy she had begun putting together in her head twenty years ago. It had sometimes been the vision of the house, to which she kept mentally adding rooms and furniture, that had gotten her through the hard times. The many, many hard times in her secret past.

No use thinking about that now. She went to her secretary’s office. Sable had expected to be at Gabby’s all day and told Virginia she could have that time off. She ignored the pile of faxes and the blinking message light. It was only her business line anyway.

Before leaving Gabby’s house, bereavement duty had been divided among the women. Eleanor was to speak to family members—Don, Sarah and David, Gabby’s
mother, Ceola. Plus she would take care of Daisy temporarily and help with funeral arrangements. Barbara Ann was to call all the writers’ organizations she knew Gabby to be active in. Beth, the shyest of them all, would go to work on writing obituaries to be released to publications from local newspapers to national writers’ and booksellers’ periodicals. Sable was to call editors and agents.

Sable was perfect for the job. Her fame was such that there wasn’t an editor or agent in New York for whom she would have to leave a message. Anyone within fifty feet of a phone would take her call.

She began flipping through her Blackberry, calling Gabby’s last agent first. Then the last editor with whom Gabby had worked. And then it began to snowball. Odd that Sable hadn’t foreseen this; Gabby was both well-known and well liked in publishing. Although she’d never reached bestseller status, her works were respected, her reviews had been good and she was highly regarded as a bright, talented professional. Gabby’s reputation in New York was sterling. In her twenty years and twenty titles—five nonfiction and fifteen novels—Gabby had worked with some of the industry leaders. On each call she made, Sable was given the names of two more people to be notified, many of them publishers and presidents. As the California clock ticked on and business in New York wound to a close, she was given home phone numbers or extensions to bypass the publishers’ switchboards. Naturally, everyone wanted updated information—the cause of her death, the date and place of the funeral, et cetera, something Virginia could follow up later.

It was five o’clock when she found she couldn’t go on. Her mouth was dry and her insides were cramped.
She hadn’t eaten anything all day and hadn’t paused in her telephoning even long enough to get herself a cold drink. Of course, Dorothy wouldn’t trudge up the stairs to ask if there was anything she needed. Sable dragged herself wearily away from the desk and down the stairs to the kitchen—the spotless kitchen. She browsed through the refrigerator; it was stuffed with the groceries for the brunch, including the champagne.

She hit the intercom button and waited for Dorothy’s dry response from the cottage. “Yes?”

“Do you suppose you could make me something to eat? I’m quite done in from notifying people of my best friend’s death.”

“Yes.” Not “Yes, dear,” or “Yes, ma’am” or even “Yes, you bitch.”

“I’m going to take a shower. I’ll eat in the kitchen. In thirty minutes.”

It was precisely a half hour later that Sable descended again. She wore satin lounging pajamas and silk slippers, chic even when in mourning. She entered the kitchen to find that Dorothy was already gone, her chore finished for the time being. There on the table, perfectly appointed for one, was a brunch. The woman had prepared the goddamned brunch food. If it wasn’t bad enough that this was to be her dead friend’s meal, how about the fact that this food—cream, eggs, cheese, sausage, mushrooms, melon and strawberries—had been sitting in the trunk of the car for two or three hours? Was she trying to kill Sable, or merely wound her emotionally?

Sable felt an ache in her throat but would not cry. Ever since the last time she had really cried, when crying had almost killed her, she’d vowed that she would never cry that hard again. Never. It was too dangerous. Too futile.

She left the brunch on the table and heated up a can
of chicken noodle soup. She poured it into a bowl, leaving the can conspicuously on the counter for Dorothy to find and ponder. She grabbed the box of saltines, a diet soda, and took her dinner on a tray to her suite.
Goddamn her, goddamn her, why does she hate me so?
she asked herself as she trudged back up the stairs.
I’ve been good to her. Kind. Patient. What do I have to do? What right has she to hate me so?

Her legal name was Sable Tennet, because she’d had it changed in court, but that was not the name she was born with. Only Elly and Gabby knew that, and now Gabby was gone. Elly would never tell. Sable had threatened her once and Elly said, “Why would I tell anyone? Secrets don’t intrigue me.”

Sable had met Gabby and Eleanor long ago, way before it had ever occurred to Sable to write her way out of her misery. Way before Sable bottomed out and ran away from everyone and everything. The only two people who knew her before and after were Elly and Gabby. Sable lived in constant fear of someone finding out who she really was and where she really came from, before she worked her way up.

Worked her way up indeed. She’d gone from a poor girl with a GED and one accidental year of college—where she’d met Gabby and Eleanor—to a world-famous novelist. She wrote fast—stories with emotional sting and happy endings. Women in trouble could identify with lonely heroines who were desperate, the odds being they would never get the job/money/recognition/man. She was a fixture on the
New York Times
list; she was now worth millions. Her books were printed in more languages than she knew existed. She had rich friends, knew celebrities and socialites. She dined with famous actors, sports stars, publishers and producers.
She had taken meetings on yachts, rested with friends in Nice between books and flown to Monte Carlo for dinner. She was much more than a writer. She was a star.

And alone. The golden ones she partied with were not her friends, they were business acquaintances. They helped her reputation and appearance. With Gabby gone, so was the one person who had loved her unconditionally, had never been jealous of her success—nor fooled by it either. Gabby, the nurturer and admirer and true soul mate, had known the facts of all that Sable had endured to get what she’d gotten. Gabby had respected her even though she was pretty sure she didn’t deserve it. That was something she would never have again. No one, not even Elly, knew the extent of what Sable had lost today. Everyone else had people, it seemed. Barbara Ann had her husband and children, Beth had her husband and large, extended family, and Elly had her friends and colleagues from the college.

So on the evening of Gabby’s death, Sable sat in her bedroom suite alone. She indulged in two vodkas, exactly, to take the edge off her internal pain. Fearing alcohol, she only partook with the greatest of care. She would not need the drinks if she could only cry, and loosen the coils of grief inside her. But it wouldn’t come. Never again.

She would have liked to talk to Eleanor, but couldn’t bear to hear the older woman handle this in her flat, direct manner. It would be even worse if Sable found Eleanor crumbling; Sable might fall into the deep ravine of pain as well, and perhaps this time not claw her way back up. It was better, she thought, to imagine Eleanor coping than to know the truth.

She sipped her vodkas and thought about her life before and during her relationship with Gabby. She
eventually slept from 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. She was in her kitchen for breakfast—showered, short blond hair perfectly styled, makeup tasteful, decked in tan slacks of light wool and crisply starched white blouse—at 7:00 a.m. She had examined her reflection and knew she did not even look tired. Dorothy had appointed the kitchen table for one. A plate and cereal bowl stood ready and Dorothy was busy at the sink, not looking at her, not saying anything, awaiting further instructions.

“It’s a damn good thing I didn’t see Gabby’s brunch on my plate again this morning, Dorothy, or I’d have chewed your ass good,” she said, the very first time she’d ever taken that tone with the grumpy housekeeper.

Dorothy stiffened as though she’d been knocked against the sink.

“I think fixing me the brunch that was to be prepared for my best friend’s birthday was damned insensitive of you, Dorothy. You might want to think about my feelings once in a while. There’s more to this job than dusting and vacuuming, you know. I am a human being.”

All this was said without looking at her. Sable spoke while staring at her empty bowl. She was not a retiring person by any means and had reamed a few asses in New York in her day, but there was something about the housekeeper that held her at bay, that she wanted to beat, or win over. There was a reason why she put up with Dorothy, though it displeased her, though she wouldn’t indulge another human with so much patience.

Finally, softly, “Would you like me to throw away the brunch food?” Dorothy asked.

“Yes. Or take it for you and Art. Just be sensitive for once. I’m tired of your nasty attitude. And bring me the cornflakes, please.”

It made Sable feel much better to have been firm.
Elated, in fact. She abandoned plans of firing them. She’d coach Dorothy, teach her common courtesy. Wipe that goddamn scowl off her face.

Dorothy was very, very much like Sable’s mother had been. A soured, bitter victim who thought only of herself and how abused she was by everyone around her. Dorothy even looked a little like Sable’s mother. Sable would recognize the likeness even better if Dorothy were lying on the sofa, blitzed, moaning about how badly men treated her or how unfair her boss had been or what a bad lot in life she’d gotten with a kid to raise alone. Poor me, poor me, poor me, while she did nothing to make her life better or love and nurture her child. Or her grandchild. But with Dorothy, her grim countenance present in her constant industry, Sable could only tell how alike they were in their unhappy eyes, their meanly set mouths, their silent, mistreated air. Sable put up with this in Dorothy because in a way, if she could change Dorothy, cure her, get her to show some love and compassion, it would be like succeeding with her mother.

She ate her breakfast in silence and when she finished and stood from the table, she looked at Dorothy. Dorothy did not turn from her chore of pulling the brunch food out of the refrigerator until Sable cleared her throat. Sable threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin. She’d try the next lesson with eye contact. “From now on, Dorothy, I would like you to speak to me as if you can abide my presence. You’ll say good morning. You’ll say good night. We’ll start with those two things and see how you handle them. And you’ll say them pleasantly, kindly, as though you actually give a shit whether I live or die.”

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