Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

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“Oh, you don't? You don't want to? Oh, poor Kenny. Why? Is it too upsetting? Too painful? Does it hurt too much? In here? In here? In here?” she screams, pounding her chest, over and over and over again.

nd last but
never least, our Hospital Building Committee's esteemed chairman, Kenneth J. Hammond, and his lovely wife, Nora,” the faux British voice intones over the loudspeaker.

“Spare me,” she whispers, and Ken's jaw clenches. The wide gilt-trimmed doors swing open. Arm in arm they enter the hotel's glittering ballroom, Nora in black silk, hair tightly back from her waxen face, Ken in his tux, pink silk paisley cummerbund and bow tie. Applause quickens as lovable Ken tips an imaginary hat from table to table, his boyish grin, ever the crowd-pleaser. The ice queen smiles, nodding, sore eyes forced wide, stiffly gracious, throat shredded raw from screaming. Even though Ken has assured her Robin and Bob won't be here, her gaze lasers from table to table.

An elderly blonde in a red strapless dress that cuts into her flaccid bosom reaches for Ken's hand. He bends to kiss her bright rouged cheek. A dear old friend of his mother's Nora knows, can't retrieve the name. In these last few days, lobes of memory have been wiped out, bludgeoned by betrayal. Her brain feels bruised.
Nora, you remember Mumma's dear friend, Sissy.
Of course. The Hammonds have a wealth of dear old friends. Of course they do, old family that they are. And Ken, dearest of all, the bastard … son of a bitch. Blood seeps hot into her face. Like his father, whose affairs people still recall with an affection usually heard in the play-by-play reminiscences of old college football games. No, that's just another way of letting him off the hook. She has to guard against that, blaming everyone but him. Ken pulls
out her chair, with a flourish shakes out her napkin, places it in her lap. Everyone laughs.

Stephen and Donald sit across from them. Stephen blows her a kiss and Donald winks. They ignore Ken. But he pretends not to notice. Donald is an anesthesiologist. He and Stephen have been together longer than she's been married. The Coxes are here too, and the Jerrolds, the Whitemans, the Bonds, the usual fund-raising glitterati. Evvie Cox is chairperson of tonight's Hospital Ball, an especially notable event, being the fiftieth. Evvie looks exhausted. Thin and graying, she's recently had a heart attack. People keep coming to the table to tell her how wonderful she looks, how spectacular the ball is, how brave she is. Jack Cox's eyelids thicken with his second martini. Soon, he'll be arguing with someone, waiter, friend, it won't matter.

Joanne Whiteman's nervous chatter begins. “You look great, Nora. But no tan! How long were you there for?”

“Where?” She's trying to catch the waiter's eyes.

“Anguilla.”

“We haven't gone yet. That's Friday.”

“I'll bet you can't wait. Hasn't this been the worst winter, so much snow and everyone coming down with that new flu, Taipei or something, I forget the name. But if it weren't for the house, I'd be on the next plane out of here, but they're just starting the wallpaper, and I don't care what anyone says, but I refuse to try and run things in cyberspace. You can't. There's no way. I mean, you know! It's all part of a bigger picture. You need the lighting and the feel of the room and the whole flow—”

What the hell is she talking about?
“Excuse me, Jo.” She waves. “Waiter!” Does she sound as desperate as she feels? “Waiter!”

Stephen gets up and leans close. “You look gorgeous. As always,” he says with a supportive squeeze of her shoulders and a quick glance at Ken before he wanders off Donald's fat cheeks redden as he watches him go. Abandoned again, she knows how he feels. Stephen, who can never sit still, runs on nerves while Donald is sweet and uncomplaining.

Joanne has Ken's ear now. Her house is one of six on this spring's
Franklin Ladies Historical House Tour. She's in charge of publicity, but with so little money for advertising, she's hoping the
Chronicle
will run a few stories early enough to get the word out. Evvie Cox has just been called out to the welcoming table to verify the identity of some people who've forgotten their tickets.

“As if anyone in their right mind would want to crash this sleepathon,” Christine Jerrold whispers, and Nora laughs. Now with her drink, she feels safer. “Do you like my dress?” Christine asks. She is a tall, large-boned woman with short blonde hair who loves golf, excels at it.

“I do.” Nora pretends to study it. “Haven't you worn something like it before, though?”

“Yes!
This
dress!” Christine laughs. “I've worn the same one to every single Hospital Ball since 'ninety-nine. It's my little protest.”

“That's great, Chris. That's really great.” She smiles. Third year in a row, this same conversation. Her eyes sting. She needs more eyedrops.

The Bonds have been talking over their shoulders to friends at the next table. As they turn back, Nora watches Ken's face brighten, the grin, the twinkling eyes. Bibbi and Hank Bond are Ken's idea of a great couple. Hank has a boat, his own plane, and of course he golfs, plays some racquetball, loves to party, holds his liquor almost as well as Bibbi. Their small perfect teeth gleam in the frame of their deep tans. With their husky voices, short black hair, perky little noses, they might be brother and sister. Cousins, anyway. Maybe they are, she thinks. Maybe that's why these people's blood runs so thin. So shallow. All the years of social incest. Some problem with their daughter, she can't remember what, but that's what happens. Bibbi leans across Hank. “Kenny,” she says, with a consoling pat on his arm. “Thank you,” she adds. And with the quick stab of his glance at Nora, another piece of the puzzle moves into place.

So, they knew, not only knew, but probably covered many times for their sweet Kenny, collaborating with Robin, scheming with him. Her hands writhe in her lap. Her fingers attack one another, picking nails, stripping bits of cuticle until they are raw and sore. Yes. Probably went out together, the two couples. Bibbi would think herself brave, a foil in
the name of love. Yes. All those hot afternoons Ken appeared in Nora's office, was suddenly there, loosening his tie, telling her how Hank had just called to invite them out to the boat for drinks and dinner, last minute, but what the heck. She always had to remind him of the same thing—her seasickness, assuring him he should go ahead. She'd do fine here without him. Are you sure now? he'd ask, the boyish concern barely concealing delight.

“It's this heat. I'm just no good in this heat,” he'd sigh.

“It's not the heat, Kenny, now be honest,” she'd laugh. “You're just not good much after noontime.”

“I know, but don't tell Ollie,” he'd say in a waggish whisper, peeking into the corridor for escape.

She stares at him now, her jaw set. Torn from her moorings, she can't help herself She's been swept off her feet by so powerful a force that there's no fighting it, nothing to hold on to. Nothing fixed. No one to trust. Every event, every memory, every conversation, however innocuous, demands examination, each word and detail culled, dissected in the harsh light of this new terrible knowledge—that for the past four years her husband has been sleeping with another woman. And he will not have it called an affair, refusing to allow her that small security, however painful. Why? Does that make it seem tawdry, beneath him? Does its connotation of brevity and superficiality taint what he and the bitch have shared? While on the other hand, does calling it a relationship invest it with depth and connection? Caring? Love? Around the table mouths open and close, laughing, talking, drinking, smiling.
Boring Nora, always way too serious, well, she finally got her comeuppance, and this soundless screaming, can't they hear the madwoman? Of course they can. They're just pretending, being polite. Mustn't spoil their evening. Their ball. All the expensive dresses. Their delight in one another. Stupid to have come. She doesn't belong here. Never has. Never will.

This morning Drew asked to spend the weekend at his friend Billy's house. He didn't say so, but he wants to escape the bedlam of slamming doors, the sudden tears, Ken's sorrow, her flights into the bathroom, where she runs the shower to drown out the moaning.
Drew's request triggered another memory, the last time he spent the weekend at Billy's. Just this past December. Ken had driven up to Burlington that Friday for a conference of New England newspaper publishers. He called early that evening to say there was a blizzard and rather than risk a treacherous drive back, he'd get a room and leave first thing the next morning. Of course, she said. Good idea. No problem. She should have gone online and checked the weather up in Vermont. Probably still could. She'd need the date. December's telephone bill. He probably drove up there with
her
, the two of them laughing in anticipation of a night together without excuses, making a joke of not having to sneak in, God knows when, and pretend that he'd fallen asleep on the couch, watching television. Thinking back, she is shocked at her blindness.

The glittering din, all these smiling faces, talking at once, the gold and black themed ballroom teeming with people who know that Ken and Robin Gendron … what? How do they put it? Slept together? Had an affair? Not for four years—no, four years is more than that. Four years is commitment. It's love. That's what Ken means by
relationship.

“Smile!” Jimmy Lee has them all pushing their chairs closer to fit in the picture. “You're not smiling, Mrs. Hammond!” Jimmy says from behind his camera.

She tries.

“Better than that, Mrs. Hammond! You look like you've just lost your best friend,” he chides.

Joanne Whiteman glances at Bibbi Bond, who draws a deep breath, ticks her square red nails on the rim of her plate.

The adultery support group, Nora thinks, flashing a wider smile. After the picture, Ken excuses himself and, with frail Evvie on his arm, goes off in search of other ball committee members, Jimmy Lee in their wake, bags of equipment slung from his black leather coat. As the
Chronicle
's front man, Ken is their Kiwanian, their Elk, their Rotarian, their chamber of commerce vice president, their hospital board treasurer, their Boy Scouts board member, their greater Franklin Ecumenical Executive Council member. Ken attends luncheons and
ribbon cuttings, while behind his locked door, Oliver pores over text, and Stephen manages finances. A perfect weave of temperaments.

“Hi, hon. How're you doing?” Bibbi slips into Ken's chair, squeezing her hand with a solicitous smile.

“Fine. Just fine.” She pulls her hand away.

“That was a great picture of you in
Newsweek.”
Bibbi says Letitia Crane wants her to help out at Sojourn House.

“Really?” She's unable to look away from Bibbi's smooth, round face, the bright-eyed, clawing little animal. Robin Gendron's best friend and also prep school classmate of Ken's. The same sympathetic expression he must have sought out when he needed someone to talk to, to share their secret with, so, of course, he would have chosen this bubble of insincerity. Oh, the intrigue of it all, and Bibbi's delight these last four years.

The orchestra is playing “Some Enchanted Evening” as the first few couples begin to dance. The last dishes are being cleared by waitresses in ruffly black aprons. But Donald continues to eat. Free of Stephen's monitoring eyes, he's cutting the prime rib Joanne just passed his way. Nora's plate is gone. She can't remember if she ate anything. Sweat leaks down her ribs, skinny getting skinnier. Her diamonds feel jagged against her throat.

“I've thought about helping out,” Bibbi says between fluttery finger waves and lightning-flash smiles at passing dancers, sweeping by as they reach out to touch the treasured woman. “But I don't think I've quite got the stomach for it. Some things I'd rather not know.” She cringes. “I admire you, though, Nora. Honestly, all that you do there.”

“I don't do anything.” Buoyed by the dreamy quality of her voice, she lifts her empty glass, and their waitress returns with another gin and tonic. “I just provide them with the Hammond family name and see to it they get all the publicity they need. What I am,” she declares between pensive sips, “is Father Grewley's shill … his shield of social importance … if you'll allow the alliteration!” Her laughter is too sudden, and ragged.

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