The House on Olive Street (6 page)

BOOK: The House on Olive Street
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“I’ll be better able to help in June,” Beth said. “I have a book due the fifteenth of May. And if you’re living there…”

“I have one due in May and one due in September,” Barbara said.

“Don’t worry, Barbara Ann,” Elly consoled. “This isn’t an obligation. You also have the largest family to contend with. Gabby wouldn’t have expected you to neglect your family or your work.”

“Would you be offended if I didn’t make a full commitment? If I promise to help what little I can? I’ve got to finish that September book…and if I have revisions…”

Sable reached across the deep, white sofa and put a hand over Barbara’s. “Your work and your family come first, Barbara. You have more on your plate than any one of us. Don’t add guilt to it. We already find it hard to believe you can do all you do.”

It wasn’t unusual for Sable to offer warmth and understanding. One of her rare gifts was that she could do that even with someone who, just a few minutes earlier, had been chewing her ass and accusing her of arrogance. But Barbara didn’t take any special note of Sable’s gesture. In fact, she wanted to snap back a question.
Are you going to do that damned conference or aren’t you?
She wisely did not open that subject again. Instead, she nodded.

Eleanor looked at Sable and the eyes of Beth and Barbara followed. “Of course I’ll be there,” Sable said. “I’m not planning any kind of retrospective, but I care about Gabby’s work as much as any of you. Maybe I can get something that’s out of print looked at again. There could be a few bucks added to her estate for the kids.”

“Good,” Elly said. “I’m glad you’re all going to have input. Gabby had more faith in me than I have in myself.
I’ll look at my class schedule, talk to the kids and give you an exact date for when I’m going to open the house.” She sighed. “Maybe in a couple of months, this won’t seem so emotional.”

“Aren’t we going to see each other?” Beth asked, moving to the edge of her chair with a panicked rise to her voice. She was answered by indecisive, mute stares. Her eyes began to water. “Oh God, don’t tell me we’re not going to see each other!”

Elly took off her glasses and began cleaning them with a napkin. “Beth, I don’t feel like critiquing manuscripts. And I’m not very social to begin with.” Her voice sounded tired. Worn. She was feeling her age; her spirit was injured.

“I don’t care! We don’t have to read to each other! Can we have lunch? Dinner? Meet for coffee or something?”

“Oh, Beth, of course,” Sable said quickly, recognizing the fear in the young woman’s voice—another thing she should have foreseen, but in her own grief had not thought of. Elly had the college; Barbara Ann had that brood and many friends—she spent hours on the phone chatting away, long distance—Sable’s life appeared hectic and full, despite the fact that it was filled with many acquaintances and business associates, and no friends. But Beth
them. She had only her husband, and he was often out of town. Her family was in Kansas, and she was so painfully shy. Sable had guessed that Beth’s life with her pilot husband was lacking. Troubled. “We can get together. At least I can, I know that. What would you like to do? Lunch? Dinner one night?”

Beth visibly relaxed. Now that she’d made her panicked plea, she was unable to go the next step, take
control and arrange their meeting. Everyone waited. “Anything,” she said quietly. And everyone knew that someone else would have to decide.

Barbara was tired. She sighed.

Elly was unmotivated. She didn’t want to think anymore.

“Okay,” Sable said, “I’ve got that conference in New York next month…it’s actually three weeks from now. Let’s meet for dinner two weeks from Tuesday. Maybe you can give me some pointers on my speech.” Barbara’s mouth dropped open and she stared at Sable. “Yes, Barbara Ann, I’ll go. You and Elly are both going, so I’ll go. And I’ll be charming. And you can call that friend of yours at her hotel tonight and tell her that you spoke to me and I said I wasn’t expecting anything to come up. Only an emergency would keep me away.”

“Thank God,” Barbara said, hand to her breast. She had been the one, after all, to deliver Sable. She would stand humiliated if Sable suddenly reneged.

“Let’s meet in Fair Oaks anyway, hmm? It’s halfway between me and the rest of you. Beth, pick a place. Let’s have a nice dinner. Let us know where.”

“I’ll have to check Jack’s schedule. You know he likes me to be home when he’s home. He’s gone so much….”

Sable wanted to ask what would happen if she simply made her own plans, without checking with
Instead, she said, “Any evening that week is okay with me, if you need to change it.”

After a short discussion of possibilities, Sable was called into the kitchen to sign off on the caterers. Barbara Ann and Beth were heading out the kitchen door. Elly lingered, waiting for Sable to conclude her business. When she finally closed the door on the caterers and
turned to Elly, the older woman seemed to sag as she leaned against the kitchen counter.

“I’m worried about you,” Sable said. “This has really taken its toll.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m tougher than I look.”

“Those were beautiful words you said for her. Will you do that for me someday?”

Elly seemed to deflate. She let out a whoosh of air and her face took on more lines. “I hope to God that never becomes necessary! I don’t plan to outlast you, too!”

“Well, in the event you do, promise me there will be no biography.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Why would I? You’re writing your own life. Listen, I have something for you. I didn’t say anything because there were no individual letters for Beth or Barbara Ann.” Wearily, she pushed herself off the counter and headed back for the living room. Eleanor did not walk so much as clomp. Once there, she simply reached to the floor to retrieve her heavy purse from where she’d left it. She flung the strap over her shoulder before digging around in it. She presented an envelope.

“Did you read it?” Sable asked.

“No. It was sealed. In with her vital papers, like mine. I asked Don to let me give it to you personally. You know, because they didn’t get one.”

“Do you want to wait a minute? So I can show it to you?”

“How do you know you’ll want to? It might say something like, ‘Be sure to trick Elly into taking her Geritol every day.’ No, not now. I’m exhausted by Gabby’s last wishes. Funny, she never asked much in life. I’ve got to get going. It’s a long drive.”

“You can stay the night if you’d like.”

Elly, who was never demonstrative, patted Sable’s cheek. “Thank you, dear. But no. I want my own bed.”

“Elly, I had some trouble here today.” The older woman’s eyes widened briefly. She hadn’t any idea. “I had my security guy here, serving drinks. I had no idea what to expect. Most of these people were complete strangers to me. And I don’t usually open my house to so many. I found a reporter in my office. He snuck in on the pretense of attending Gabby’s memorial, and went into my closed office. He had a tiny little camera. He was taking pictures of the inside of my house.”

“Oh God,” Elly said in sympathy. “The rigors of fame.”

“I guess that’s what made me testy, made me behave as though I was threatening not to attend Barbara Ann’s stupid conference. I couldn’t believe it.”

Elly shook her head. “Sable, I’m not surprised. I’m sorry, but not surprised. You’ve insulated yourself so well that, while you’re safe from one kind of crackpot, you draw the attention of those god-awful starmongers. You’ve let yourself become too damn mysterious. And unattainable. By not pandering to them at all, you’re a challenge. They’re looking for a story.”

“What do you suggest I do?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “This is not my area of expertise. Ask your publicist? Sic your lawyers on him? I just don’t know.” Eleanor’s eyes were droopy; she licked her dry lips. Sable felt panicked by what appeared to be Elly’s deterioration. Eleanor was failing, looking sixty-eight instead of fifty-eight, and Sable needed her. “I’ve got to go home,” Elly said. “Call me if you think there’s any way I can help.”

“Call me,” Sable said, “if there’s any way I can help you.”

“Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do for me. Like Gabby used to say, ‘When I’m tired, sad and heartbroken, I take a rest and then I come back into myself and maybe write about it.’”

“She said that about him, didn’t she, Elly? John Shelby. When she quit traveling the world, it wasn’t because she was done with that kind of writing. It was because she knew she’d never have the man she loved, wasn’t it?”

“It was all of it. She told him that she’d had enough, that she needed to be home with her children and couldn’t stomach any more heartbreaking stories, that she couldn’t maintain her low profile so that his wife wouldn’t catch on. She had delivered him an ultimatum—to make good on his promises, or end the affair. That was the note on which they left it. You can imagine her pain. Which she bore alone, he having been married with children.”

“You were there. She wasn’t alone.”

“I was very little help, I’m afraid. Who would listen to an old spinster’s advice on the pain of lost love? I only hope I can persevere as well as Gabby did.”

“You haven’t been tempted…to…you know—”

“Drink? Oh Sable, you pure soul. I’m tempted all the time. Ninety percent of the time drinking worked tolerably well for me. It was that goddamned ten percent that got me into trouble. But don’t worry. I won’t drink. I don’t think they distilled enough gin last year to numb the loneliness Gabby’s left me with. And you? How are you dealing with this?”

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I never feel anything but fear. It’s the only emotion I can actually identify. I’m afraid without her.” Sable shrugged. “I was afraid before. And now I’m afraid of one more thing.”

Eleanor gave a wan smile. “I know. And I don’t imagine we’re the only two. I’ll call you within the week to find out about our dinner plans.”

Sable stood in the kitchen for a long time after Elly left, looking at the precious script of Gabby’s hand on the envelope. There was a light tapping at the kitchen door and Jeff Petross let himself in. “Everyone’s gone and we checked the grounds. How you doin’?”

“Tired. But okay.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that little wimp we threw outta here. I mean, you don’t have to worry that he’ll come back. I can stay over….”

“No, no. I’m sure you have better things to do.”

He shrugged. “I’m free. If you’d feel better. I know sometimes you feel unsafe. You don’t have to have a reason. It’s hell being all edgy. Better you should sleep.”

“Thanks, but I’ll just lock up.”

“You have my cell number if you change your mind. Want me to check around inside?”

She gave a sheepish shrug, she wouldn’t mind. He smiled and walked past her, into the house. She waited in the kitchen. She could hear him in the distance, opening and closing windows and doors. It was a big house; it took him ten minutes.

Sable knew, had known for three years, that Jeff had some unspoken tender feelings toward her. He took care of her as though she were more than just another client. His eyes were soft when he talked to her and occasionally he would give her arm a squeeze of reassurance. He made himself personally available to her every need, armed her with his personal cell number, encouraged her to rely on him and had long ago worked it into the conversation that he was unmarried and not seeing anyone. He took care that his behavior was pro
fessional and proper; he never made any advances. But she knew. He knew she knew. And there had been times she’d been tempted to find out for herself just how deep his feelings ran, despite the fact that she did not trust men and felt she had no room in her life for a romantic relationship.

But not tonight of all nights. Not while Gabby’s letter waited.

“Everything’s secure, Sable,” he said.

“I really appreciate that you do this yourself, Jeff. I know you could just send one of your guys.”

“I consider this job one of my perks,” he said, smiling again. “Try to get some rest. You don’t look tired, but I can imagine.”

“I also appreciate that you never make me feel foolish,” she said.

“I don’t think you are. Like I told you, I’ll stay over if it will help you sleep better.”

She shook her head. “You’re a nice guy, Jeff.”

“You’re a nice lady, Sable. Lock this one here and you’re all set.”

Sable saved the letter for a while. She locked the door, assured herself that Dorothy and Art’s light was on in their little cottage, retired to her upstairs suite and slowly peeled off her beige silk suit. She got into bed before opening the letter. She could see it wasn’t very long. And it was dated September 19, four years old.

Dear Sable,

I hope it’s been so long that you’ve forgotten the day. We met, the five of us, and Barbara Ann was particularly tenacious in her questions about your life, your past and the history of our friendship. You and Elly and I had a brief discussion—which
verged on an argument. The subject was your invented past. I wondered if it was good for you to carry around the weight of all that pretending. But you were adamant as usual. You said something I just can’t let go. You said, “I’m better as I am than as I was.”

No one on earth admires Sable Tennet more than I do, but there’s something I want you to know. I admire that smart little Helen, too. You may have filed down some rough edges and refined your character, but you haven’t created a whole new person. You only think you have.

I love you like a mother, sister, godmother, best friend. I love what you’ve done with your life, your work, your ambition, your spirit. But I don’t love what you’ve done with your history, Helen. You can’t wipe people out like that. Without the guts, smarts and strength of Helen, you could not have written as the hope of so many women readers.

I hope that by keeping Helen hidden you don’t bring yourself undue pain. Helen deserves your respect and gratitude. Releasing her could help and inspire others.

You are by far the warmest, most sensitive, most generous person alive, and you keep it secret. Only Elly and I know a fraction of what you’ve really accomplished in your life. Please, be generous to yourself. Give yourself your due. Take pride not only in who you’ve become, but where you’ve come from. Be yourself. Your wonderful self.

With deepest love,

BOOK: The House on Olive Street
9.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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