The writings of Richard Kluger
WHIZZIE GILLETTE HAD BEEN FLYING around the house unmanageable all morning, firing her little bow and arrow at Orpheus, her big, slothful cat.
“For all I care right now,” Ginny told joy Russell on the telephone, “she can let Orph have it right between the eyes and skin him for a bathmat.”
“Stout heart,” Joy said in the big-sisterly tone she used talking to Ginny.
“If it were any stouter, I’d have been dead two hours ago. Whizzie’s going to a birthday party this afternoon, so we’ve been practicing musical chairs since nine-thirty.”
“We? Who’s we?”“Whizzie and me.”
“Two-man musical chairs?”
“How does that work?”
“Just like any game of musical chairs – except there’s only one chair.”
“You play the piano, of course?”
“Of course. And occasionally Orph paws out a few notes. But mostly, it’s me.”
“Then who’s Whizzie’s competition?”
“Doesn’t sound fair, exactly.”
“It wasn’t. I’d plunk three notes and zoom! she’d hurl herself into the chair.”
“Mmm, fun. I’ll bet she’ll wow ’em at the party.”
“Either that or be disqualified in the first round,” Ginny said. Joy chimed a laugh.
“Actually,” Ginny said, “I called to tell you I’m retiring Maggie – temporarily at least.”
“But why? I love her dearly.”
“I know. That’s why I thought you ought to be the first to hear.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I think Ken’s getting suspicious. He saw a rough draft of the new article and asked what it was.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Just some notes for a short story. I don’t think he believed it.”
“Why don’t you tell him about Maggie?”
“He wouldn’t appreciate her.”
“I bet he would.”
“No – he’s much too responsible. Besides, he’d probably tell me how many different laws I was breaking and threaten to have me locked up if I didn’t quit it. So I did the article over. Maggie retires in it. And anyway – one conspiracy at a time is enough. This business this afternoon has me sweating bullets.”
“Relax,” Joy said. “It’ll be a breeze.”
Ginny sent Whizzie out to play in the backyard. Then, after darting a look once around the room to see that no spying eyes were stationed in the window, she got her rickety typewriter from the closet and settled it on her lap. From a stuffed compartment on the left side of the desk beside her, she unwedged a double-folded sheet of yellow paper and propped it against a large ball of pale orange wool. Then she took a fresh sheet of white paper from the drawer, wound it into place and copied:
The Tuesday Afternoon County Poetry Circle, at a meeting last Friday morning, voted to disband its regular sessions until further notice.
Mrs. Margaret Bodice-Wight, president of the Poetry Circle, said it was regrettable but that poor attendance forced the curtailment. Only two people, including Mrs. Bodice-Wight, showed up at last week’s meeting.
The Poetry Circle was founded a year ago by Mrs. Bodice Wight in the hope of stirring interest in verse throughout the county. “Our goal has not been realized,” she said with a plucky smile upon adjourning the final session.
At the final meeting, Mrs. Bodice-Wight gave a short talk on “The Uses of Iambic Tetrameter.” She also read two poems. One was “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, a Romantic poet. The other was an original composition of her own titled, “I Pluck the Stem from the Withering Bluebell.” Both were favorably received.
Ginny read it over carefully, an unconscious smile on her moving lips. Satisfied, she addressed an envelope to The Tappan Zee Times, folded the article into it, and then called Whizzie back in to be scrubbed and dressed.
In a pink pinafore and white Swiss blouse appliquéd with a grouping of tiny red flowers, Whizzie bounded on to the front seat of the car and waited for her mother to work up courage enough to start the motor. After a ritualistic pause in which she prayed silently for deliverance, Ginny gave the great growling engine the spark of life. Sweaty fingers locked to the wheel, beady eyes roving the road for stray children and dumb animals, she chugged along the extreme right of Forest Glen Road, practically skimming the shoulder. About three quarters of a mile down the road, she let Whizzie off for her party. “And remember,” she called after her, “don’t sit down till the music stops.”
She followed the snaky road into town, her head full of the imminent end of Maggie Bodice-Wight. Actually, she had had quite enough of Maggie – in her shrunken old dress with meadows of small, faded flowers all over it in lavender, her limp chest ballooning like a wet nurse’s after menopause and the rest of her lumpy shape popping out of its seams in a dozen places. And that house of hers, that dreadful loaf of gingerbread Gothic, all filigreed with balustrades and busy curtains and antimacassars like spider webs creeping up the arms of every chair. But worst of all was Maggie’s mind: a curlicued blob of fat, awash in a sea of jellied consommé. Yes, the time had come to put Maggie out of her misery.
The road doglegged at the venerable Van der Walde sandstone, a monument to colonial craftsmanship called The Yonder House throughout the county for the old stone marker on its lawn that said, still legibly, “Yonder house built A.D. 1768, Peter Van der Walde & kin.” Who lived there now, Ginny had never discovered. Its owners reportedly made a fetish of their privacy. So she had invented names for them and embossed each with a face and conjured bodies to go with the faces. Old Peter himself, an enterprising patroon of enormous paunch, probably still survived, she thought, in one of the rear upstairs rooms – a dear dumpling of a Dutchman, 250 years old or so, who went for long walks along Forest Glen but only at foggy dawns and shadowy dusks, out of deference to the neighborhood.
Past Joy Russell’s house, the road widened and the trees cleared for a stretch, and she saw the valley dropping off to the left and the fan of woods, worn and weary and waiting for the warmth of spring to soften them. There now, where the woods began their climb up the ridge, was Woodland Manor, the colony of new houses bunched on a clearing off Red Hill Road. At the nearer end, on a red clay patch, another section was being put up, the wood bones of the framework pale beside their finished neighbors of sunny lemon and sky blue and raspberry chiffon. Suppose, she thought, considering the identical design of each, suppose she were sitting in one of them noodling with something or other when whoosh! all of a sudden a cyclone came rampaging along like in The Wizard of Oz and sucked her up and around and upside-down in a dreadful spin with everyone else and their squalling babies and dirty dishes and underwear and cars and whipped the whole mess together for a while and then thump! landed it back on the ground. Who would be who, then, and whose house whose? Would Whizzie still be Whizzie or someone else’s then? It was the kind of horrific vision that made her love her own shaggy place and Forest Glen’s mongrel mix of homes all the more.
She passed the North Somerset grade school just as squads of children gushed down the front steps to the parking lot where half a dozen buses herded. Twenty-five or so mothers were scouting through the pack to claim their own. Taking the scene in filled her with the bittersweet prospect of Whizzie’s going off to the school the following fall. The child was such good company, she would miss her, really. Besides, the quick, delicate little thing was sure to be unnerved by the classroom routine and her bouncy spirit flattened by all the jostling. Couldn’t she keep her home the way she was, under a big bell jar, where she’d stay fragile and elfin and pure good? Oh, what idiocy, she thought. She’ll go to school like all the other little people and learn life and catch diseases and get bratty and breasty and wiggly and lipsticky and find someone to love, someone dreadful, and go away with him and make her own babies and stay away, forever probably, till Ken and she got old and died and then she’d miss the funeral.
At the intersection of Red Hill and Kings Highway, she pulled to the side, got out, furtively stuck her letter to The Tappan Zee Times in the mailbox, scooted back behind the wheel and drove off to her rendezvous at the town hall.
Ginny knew Joy Russell too well to ask why she had volunteered to come along on the hateful mission. She was just thankful Joy had come, for with every step through the sterile cinder-block corridors of the town hall, her courage ebbed. By the time they found the tax assessor’s office, she was pale and limp.
“You’re absolutely sure they won’t recognize you?” she asked, hoping for a reprieve at the brink.
“Absolutely,” Joy said. “This is my debut in town hall.”
“Maybe they’ve seen you at School Board meetings – ?”
Joy fixed her with a steely look. “I have been to one School Board meeting in my life – and stayed demurely in the wings throughout. Now march in there and do exactly what Ken asked.”
For an angry red instant, she thought she hated Joy for being so strong and competent. Then quickly the feeling passed, and she knew it was herself she hated for her thousand idiot phobias. She would send them all flying now, the way she had promised Ken. She braced herself, took a short final nibble at her thumbnail, smiled mechanically at Joy – and marched.
“Yes, ladies?” asked the clerk, flipping through a stack of index cards.
“Umm,” Ginny said, “we’re from the League of Women Voters –” It came out sounding more like a question than a barefaced lie.
“Oh, the League,” said the clerk, unfurling horsy teeth that were too large for her kumquat face. “How nice. The League does fine work.”
“Thank you,” said Ginny, voice firming a fraction. “We’re doing a project – we need a few numbers if that would be all right.”
“Of course,” said the clerk. “What sort of numbers?”
Ginny pulled a note pad from her purse. “It’s quite involved, actually. Umm, let’s see now –” She studied the pad with lamby-faced puzzlement. “Well, it says we’re supposed to take a particular neighborhood, you see, and find out the value of all the property in it and how much each property-owner pays in taxes and so forth – and then, let’s see – compare all that business with what it costs for all the services these same people use – you know, like schools and police and roads – things like that.”
Joy tried to look sweet. “Well, that’s what the girls asked us to get – all of them. And I think we’d feel much better about it if we got what they asked us to. You know – we wouldn’t want them to think we were trying to do a slapdash job.” Then her voice hardened. “Unless, of course, you mind. I mean if you’d rather not help us, we can just tell them that –”
“No-no-no,” the clerk chirped, “of course I’ll help. I just didn’t think your project was quite as ambitious as all that.” She pulled a long thin book from under the counter. “Now if you’ll both just sign this register, I’ll go check the block and lot numbers, and we can get right to work.”
“I’m afraid we wouldn’t know about that part of it.”
“You’d have to see the supervisor for a breakdown on costs like those.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m sure you’ll find him helpful.”
Ginny turned to Joy, the first flash of panic pulsing through her. “Ummm, what’ll we do?”
“Suppose we just get the assessment figures here,” Joy said, “and see the supervisor later.”
Ginny looked back at the clerk. “Is that all right?”
“Surely. Now just which area did you want to find out about?” the clerk asked. “Any one at all?”
“No, I think they’ve picked one out for us.” She thumbed through her note pad in feigned search. “Let’s see – it says the Forest Glen area. From Red Hill Road north to the town line.”
“And which part of that would you like?”
“Yes,” the clerk said. “I mean how many pieces of property would you like the figures for? Ten? Twenty? You wouldn’t need more than that, would you?”
Ginny turned to Joy again. “Ummm, would we?”
“I think we would, as I understand the project.”
“Well, how many exactly would you need?”
“All of them,” Joy said.
“All?” The clerk frowned. “There must be a hundred or two hundred homes up there.” She gave her girdle a distressed tug. Wouldn’t one or two blocks be enough?”
“Register?” Ginny said, bottling up a gasp.
“Right on this page here,” said the clerk. “It’s just so we have a record of who’s been in for what.” And she trotted off to the other side of the room.
“What’ll we do?” Ginny whispered, jellying on the spot.
“Sign the register, what else?”
“But then they’ll know who we are.”
“All right,” Joy said, “then make up a name. They don’t care who you are.”
“What name? Mata Hari?”
“That’s good. And I’ll be Martha Washington.”
“Joy!” she squeaked, nearly beside herself. “What’ll I sign?”
“They’ll arrest us!”
“For what – impersonating the dead?” She put a calming hand on Ginny’s arm. “Look, you sign Ann Boleyn. I’ll be Elizabeth Browning.”
Ginny signed Mrs. Henry Boleyn in shaky chicken scratches.
Without glancing at the register, the clerk returned, banged three great books on the counter and, busily fluttering pages, announced that she was ready.
Ginny’s hand was so limp by then it failed to function. Joy discreetly removed the pencil and pad from her grip and began writing as fast as the clerk called off the names and numbers.
In a while, Ginny drifted off, inspecting bulletin boards and maps and trying out the water cooler every now and then. Finally she posted herself on lookout in the open doorway – for whom or what she had not the vaguest notion. But after she had been stationed there about fifteen minutes, Joy heard her give a squeal and looked up. Ginny was flapping her arms in mad semaphore and motioning at her to come. Joy excused herself and hurried to her. Pivoting in little semicircles, Ginny gestured down the hall. Joy poked her head out for a look. There, striding toward them, were four men, two in dark business suits, one in a suede zipper jacket, and leading the way – she had seen his picture in the paper enough times to be sure – Tyson Danneman.
“What’ll we do? What’ll we do?” Ginny gibbered.
Joy pressed her hands to Ginny’s shoulders to keep her from vaulting through the roof. “All right,” she said softly, “you come in here now and pretend you’re on line behind me. Or something like that. So if they come in, too, maybe they’ll decide it’s too long a wait and go away. Got it?” And she gently clamped Ginny’s jaw shut.
Eyes glazed, Ginny trooped in behind her and pretended she was a line. “My friend here has one or two other questions,” Joy told the clerk unblinkingly. “But they can wait till we’re through:”
Ginny waved hello again at her and ducked back behind Joy.
The noise from Danneman’s party echoed louder and louder down the hall. Joy scribbled down the numbers faster than the clerk tolled them off. They were up to the properties just west of the woods when in the men marched. The clerk stopped and looked up, with some relief. “Hello, gentlemen.”
Danneman and Lance Brody brushed by them and moved up against the counter. “Hello, Alice,” said Brody. “How’s everything?”
“Busy at the moment,” she said, turning away from Joy, “but otherwise fine, Mr. Brody. How’s the missus?”
“You know, up to here with the kids,” Brody said. “You know Mr. Danneman here, don’t you, Alice?”
“Well, not formally,” Alice said and flashed her Derby Winner smile.
Joy tried not to look, but he was right beside her, smelling rather powdery and lotiony and not at all unpleasant. She sneaked a peek.
He was wearing a yacht cap with gold-threaded anchors, tilted just a bit off-center, a navy blazer with shiny buttons, and creamy slacks pressed to a cutting edge. His button-down shirt, an offwhite, had no tie, but bunched around the collar was a Paisley ascot, yellowish and red and very clubby. MacArthur sunglasses cloaked his eyes. All together, she thought, he looked marvelously swashbuckling – and just a little bit silly.
“Mr. Danneman and these gentlemen want to look at the rolls for just a minute, Alice,” said Brody.
“Surely,” she said and looked over at Joy. “Would you excuse me for just a moment to help these men?”
Joy’s heart thumped louder than she wanted it to. “I’d rather not,” she said.
The clerk’s smile contracted tartly. “Pardon me?”
“I’d really rather not.”
“We’ve been at it quite a while, you know.”
“I know,” Joy said, “and I’m sorry. But this happens to be important.”
Danneman gave her a practiced once-over, sideways. Then he tipped his hat toward her. “We won’t take more than a minute,” he said cordially. “I promise.”
“I’m sure,” Joy said firmly, “but I’d like to get this over with, if you don’t mind.” Then she glanced away and stared straight ahead, not acknowledging him, and began tapping the pencil against her chin in a show of firmness. “Shall we go on?” she asked Alice.
Brody gave a growl. “This is important, too,” he said. “Very important.”
Danneman threw a chastening look at him and swung around full-face to joy. “These two gentlemen,” he said, still amiably, “have come all the way up here from Philadelphia to look at some land. And now they’d just like to check one or two figures before they have to run for their train. If they don’t get them today, they’ll have to make a special trip back here. Now won’t you please help us for a minute?”
His voice was so reasonably modulated and the request so modest that it was embarrassing to resist. Then it struck her that the Philadelphians could be there for one purpose only – as part of his project to dismember the woods. Her withering resistance suddenly firmed. “We’ve been working very hard here,” she said, “and I don’t think they stay open much longer.” Then, with her heel, she gave Ginny the merest kick.
“Besides,” Ginny said, with superhuman effort, “I’m next.”
The Philadelphians shuffled impatiently. Brody’s head shook with rising annoyance. And Joy kept jiggling her pencil between her fingers and looking straight at Alice as if she fully expected her to start reading off numbers again.
“I don’t mean to sound rude, ladies,” Danneman persisted, “but I assure you this is as important as we say it is. I can’t tell you how much I’d appreciate your letting us have a moment of this good woman’s time – only a moment.”
Joy told herself so much humility had to be insincere. “Some people,” she said with great dignity, “think the League of Women Voters is rather important, too.” And she lifted her chin in defiance.
“For crissakes!” Brody exploded in the background. “The League of Women Voters!”
Danneman wheeled around to pipe him down again. For a while then he strummed his fingers on the counter, lips taut, thinking what to say after three rebuffs. Finally he turned back to Joy and said, still with remarkable calm, “Do you know who I am?”
His look, from what she could see of it through his glasses, was harder now. “You’re evidently some kind of a sailor,” she said.
He kept looking at her, clearly not amused. Then he picked his cap off the counter, gave it a few contemplative twirls and slapped it back on his head. “My name is Danneman,” he said. “I have some property in town.”
“How nice,” she said with a brief nod. “Then you’re not really a sailor, I take it.”
His jaw tensed. “No – not really.”
Without looking up, she said, “Well, whoever you are, I think I’ve made it quite clear that I don’t intend to step aside until I’m finished.”
“Yes – you certainly have.”
She glanced up at him. “Then I suggest you wait your turn. It’s getting late and neither of us is going to get what we want if you insist on being rude.”
“Do you really think I’m being rude?” he asked, still managing to keep his voice low and even.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but then I’ll have to be ruder still. I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re gaining by being so difficult, but these men represent a very large, very fine corporation that wants to buy some land from me and build a plant here. Now that happens to be at least as important as the League of Women Voters, if I may say so. And I think, if you don’t mind – or even if you do – it entitles us to a minute of this woman’s time.”
“It would be only fair,” the clerk said to Joy. “I’ve been with you for quite some time now.”
Joy looked up at her in anger. “The fair thing would be for you to finish up with me before this – this gentleman is taken care of.” She half-turned to Danneman. “And if he were really a gentleman, he wouldn’t have asked to interrupt us in the first place.” She swung back to Alice. “Now shall we continue?”
Brody banged a fist down on the counter. “Let’s cut out all this screwin’ around,” he said. “Is Ed Merrill in, Alice?”
Alice threw up her hands. “He’s out for the day.”
“Oh, great!” Brody snarled. “Tell you what, Alice – just get us the book with Mr. Danneman’s property listed in it and we’ll look up what we want ourselves. How’s that? I’m sure Ed wouldn’t mind, under the circumstances –”
“I’d be happy to,” Alice said, looking more mournful by the second, “but that’s the book this woman is using.”
“What!” Brody howled. “Of all the goddam books, she’s using that one?” He aimed a furious finger at it.
Alice turned up her palms to say that was how it was.
Brody’s florid face ignited. He looked for a moment as if he were going to come over, push Joy away from the book and insert a fist in her stomach for good measure. Danneman intervened for one last try.
“Look,” he said, “could I possibly bribe you – I mean in a nice way?”
“Not possibly,” Joy said.
“I’ll try, anyway,” he said. “I own the country club up at the lake. Now suppose you bring your whole chapter of the League up there some day next week – or any week you’d like – and be our guests for lunch and an afternoon of sailing. It’s warming up now, and I think you’d find it very pleasant. What do you say?”
“That’s very sweet,” Joy said, “and so sincere.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “But playing games is not what the League is for.” Then she looked away, back at Alice. “Thanks, really – but no thanks.”
Danneman yanked his glasses off and looked at her angrily, his gray scoops of eyes narrowed and fierce. Then, without another word, he led his party out the door, wheezing and fuming. They heard Brody shouting in the hall, “That’s a real nasty bitch, that is!”
©2017 Richard Kluger