- About the Book
- About the Author
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- I Opening Nights
- Chapter One
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- Chapter Seven
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- Chapter Thirteen
- Chapter Fourteen
- Chapter Fifteen
- II Belinda’s Belindas
- Chapter Sixteen
- Chapter Seventeen
- Chapter Eighteen
- Chapter Nineteen
- Chapter Twenty
- Chapter Twenty-one
- Chapter Twenty-two
- III Death and the Ruffians
- Chapter Twenty-three
- Chapter Twenty-four
- Chapter Twenty-five
- Chapter Twenty-six
- Chapter Twenty-seven
- Chapter Twenty-eight
- Chapter Twenty-nine
- Chapter Thirty
- Chapter Thirty-one
- Chapter Thirty-two
- IV The Last of the Ruffians
- Chapter Thirty-three
- Chapter Thirty-four
- Chapter Thirty-five
- Chapter Thirty-six
- Chapter Thirty-seven
- Chapter Thirty-eight
- Chapter Thirty-nine
- Chapter Forty
- Chapter Forty-one
- Chapter Forty-two
- Chapter Forty-three
- Looking for more suspense?
- Begin Reading
About the Book
At the apex of the New York art world, murder is the newest fad.
Harry and Sally, Belinda and Jack - two couples, four best friends. Inseparable since college, they stay close through their twenties and thirties, as they make their way to the top of the New York arts scene. Harry is a playwright, Jack a novelist, Belinda a painter, and Sally, well, Sally has always been happy just to be Harry’s wife. But as Harry and Belinda’s careers take off, Jack’s stalls. Unable to complete a second novel, his attitude becomes poisonous, even violent, until Belinda is forced to throw him out of their beautiful loft apartment. Single again for the first time in decades, she finds that in a city full of wolves, her husband may have the sharpest teeth.
As summer heat chokes New York, its most chic addresses are about to be drenched in the bluest blood the city has to offer.
“One of the most robust and intelligent thriller writers of the past two decades.” - Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Thomas Gifford (1937–2000) was a bestselling author of thriller novels. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, he moved to Minnesota after graduating from Harvard. After eight years as a traveling textbook salesman, he wrote Benchwarmer Bob (1974), a biography of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Bob Lurtsema. The Wind Chill Factor (1975), a novel about dark dealings among ex-Nazis, introduced John Cooper, a character Gifford would revisit in The First Sacrifice (1994). The Wind Chill Factor was one of several books Gifford set in and around Minneapolis.
Gifford won an Edgar Award nomination for The Cavanaugh Quest (1976). The Glendower Legacy (1978), a story about an academic who discovers that George Washington may have been a British spy, was adapted for the film Dirty Tricks (1981), starring Elliott Gould. In the 1980s Gifford wrote suspense novels under the pen names Thomas Maxwell and Dana Clarins. In 1996 he moved back to Dubuque to renovate his childhood home. He died of cancer in 2000.
I DREAMED THAT NIGHT OF THE times we were happiest.
A long time ago, the four of us piled into Jack’s beat-up old convertible—the sun overhead and the wind in our faces and the radio on loud. Petula Clark going downtown. The Fab Four … God, it was a long time ago.
But it was fresh in my dreams.
We were young again and Jack and I had just come back from our honeymoon. Sally and Harry were taking us into the country, antiquing country, to find us the perfect wedding present. The four of us, young and never happier.
Jack and Belinda. Harry and Sally. Some idiot at Harvard, drunk in the Eliot House courtyard, had called us the Fab Four. Very funny at the time.
Jack had always laughed at my fascination with fortune cookies. He always told the waiter to skip the fortune cookies, and I’d have to interrupt and make a big deal out of it. Jack told me I might as well live my life by the horoscopes in Cosmo. That struck Sally and me as terribly funny, since Cosmo’s horoscope was one of our main sources of inspiration.
Sally was very good at decisions. It was her nature, and when thwarted in the execution of her master plans she was not a good sport. Which, there was no denying, made her such an asset to the girls’ field hockey team at Mount Holyoke. Which also made her the best kind of best friend, because she’d die for you or kill for you once she’d stamped you with her approval.
And when she set out to find the perfect wedding present she wasn’t about to be thwarted. Period.
She found it all right. That was what my dream was about. We were looking for it again on that weekend excursion to the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
She found it in the dusty back room of a general store that had once been a livery stable. The wheel-of-fortune had been shrouded under horse blankets for a hundred years, maybe more. Perhaps it had belonged to a traveling medicine show, or a circus, or a Gypsy caravan, along about the time of the Civil War. Maybe livery bills had gone unpaid and maybe a taciturn Dutchman had impounded the wheel as security against the day when the debt would finally be erased. And maybe that day never came and generations had passed and finally no one even knew that the wheel with all its fortunes sat hidden in the junk room.
But there was no escaping Sally when her antennae were picking up signals. She found it because she thought the back room “looked spooky.” She peeled back the blankets as if they were the decades of the last century … and there it was. Wiping away the dust, she opened the little door in the back of the pyramidal wooden stand and peered into the compartment, where, she firmly believed, a boy or midget had crouched in order to control the spin of the wheel when such trickery was required. She was always full of theories in those days and they always made sense if you thought about them long enough.
When she had wiped away enough of the caked dust, she had taken a look at the fortune that had been waiting through all the years of darkness. A cackling witch in a pointed black hat, holding a magic wand, giving a haggle-toothed grin, and the faded words:
Yours will be a long and happy life.
It was, Sally had declared, an omen.
For all of us.
That was what I dreamed about that long sweltering night before everything began to go wrong.
WHEN I LOOK BACK ON last summer it’s odd that the first thing I remember isn’t the people who died so horribly or the illusions I’d treasured being irrevocably blown away, not the opening of Harry’s Scoundrels All!, not even my own one-woman show at Claude Leverett’s gallery—no, what I remember is the heat. The ungodly, hellish, unbroken procession of dazzling and exhausting weeks at over ninety degrees when all of us in Manhattan got our wagons in a circle and tried to wait it out. The windows dripped with condensation and air conditioners burned out and Con Ed was on a constant alert, buying extra electricity from any grid that would sell. Your clothing stuck to your damp flesh and you felt dizzy if you tried to exercise. They fried an egg on the dugout roof at Yankee Stadium, and when Baltimore beat the locals a headline in the Post read: “O’s Scald Yanks 4–3 in 13 at 100°!”
The day Sally called with the bad news was a beaut. Air conditioning gives me colds so I was standing at the open window looking down at the sluggish devils wandering along Prince Street like the lost battalion in a French Foreign Legion movie. I was praying for a breeze, sipping iced tea, and absentmindedly spinning the wheel-of-fortune again and again, hearing the click-click-click. It had been a rough several months—getting my work ready for the show I’d wanted all my life, simultaneously watching our marriage of sixteen years pull apart like an old sofa giving way under one too many fat men. Jack had moved out a month or so before, but in spirit the Jack I’d loved and married and made my life with had been running on a kind of personal empty for a long time. Finally he’d gotten so sick of himself, had thrashed himself so thoroughly, that like Rumpelstilskin he’d disappeared. In this case not through the floor but to a tiny flat high on the Upper East Side, where he, like me, must have cried himself to sleep wondering where in the name of God it had all gone so far wrong.
So, sure, it had been a rough period. Just when my work should have been making me happier than ever, the rest of my life got run over by a truck. It happens every day. To somebody else. Which keeps the shrinks and the singles bars and the dependency clinics and the expensive boutiques thriving, I suppose. The balance of nature, something dies and something else lives.
Which is how my mind was running as I felt a big drop of sweat drip off my nose into my glass. You can only stare at people collapsing from the heat for so long, and I was afraid to look at the results obtained from spinning the wheel. The last time I’d given it a try it had stopped at a laughing devil with a three-pronged spade pushing a sailor under the lapping waves. Which I assumed was the wheel’s way of suggesting that ocean travel might be best avoided for the nonce. In any case, I’d had enough of the wheel’s opinion for a while.
Turning back to the loft where we’d lived for all of our married life, it struck me as somehow unfamiliar now that I lived there alone. A vast space of brick and wood, painstakingly restored during spasms of home-improvement mania. Plants everywhere, hanging from beams and upright in lots of pots, explosions of airy Boston ferns and lackadaisical date palms and ficus trees and philodendrons and every other growing thing that had enjoyed a vogue during those years. A skylight overhead, a walk-in fireplace in one wall, lots of old wicker furniture dating from the early days of our marriage when we had combed the countryside in a borrowed truck in search of bargains to fill the place we’d bought so cheap with the proceeds of Jack’s first novel. Bookcases filled to overflowing, threadbare rugs thrown haphazardly about, several easels of various sizes, trestle tables cluttered with the bits and pieces of my work. And in the corner, that wheel-of-fortune with its faded painted fates, the symbols and figures and characters so quaint and innocent in their antiquity, and, for the most part, optimism.
But even with so many accumulated artifacts of our life together it seemed that Jack had been somehow erased, written out of the loft’s history.
It was the proliferation of huge canvases that had erased Jack Stuart.
Some days the guilt consumed me. I missed him at times but I should have missed him more and didn’t, simply couldn’t. I felt as if I’d let the work run rampant, as if I’d let it drive him out. I knew that it hadn’t been that way, but some days just knowing didn’t help. It was feeling that mattered and I couldn’t ignore the feeling of guilt. My God, what kind of monster would connive to gain the space at the expense of her husband’s presence? It was the sort of illogical, nonsensical fear that seems absurd once you get your head on straight. I asked myself: What could have been more natural than to unstack the canvases and get them in view once Jack was gone and I had the loft to myself?
It was the kind of guilt I couldn’t confide even to Sally. We’d been telling each other just about everything for twenty years, but this dark little arabesque of shame I kept to myself. I knew I would always feel love and caring for Jack, no matter what, but I was glad he was gone. Cutting through my own sense of failure and the sixteen years of effort was that glittering blade of relief. And it made me feel like hell.
Sally had her rock of a marriage. Sally and Harry. Harry and Sally. How could I tell her what I felt? How could I expect her to understand?
At times the four of us had seemed like a single entity, everyone in sync, four facets of the same multiperson. And it had been the best, the most secure feeling I could ever have imagined.
And now I had not only let Jack go. I hadn’t given my all to keep him, to hold us together. Jack said all I’d have had to do was ask. He wanted me to ask. And I said, no, it’s best this way, let’s do some hard thinking by ourselves, go ahead …
I was the one who had smashed the curiously crystalline figure with the four faces. I knew it. I was the guilty one and I was having trouble with it.
But it remained unspoken. There was no way to talk it over with Sally. So I was alone with it and we danced around the edges refusing to face up to it, which was, of course, the only way I could get clear of it.
I stood there in the loft, sweating, while the ice melted in the tea, and I let my eyes rove from one canvas to another, trying to inspect them with a hard critical eye. Yet I couldn’t resist them. They cast a spell over me and I couldn’t begin to judge them. Again, they were a part of my most private self—I couldn’t imagine what condition I’d be in when they went on view—and they fascinated me. I didn’t know what the fascination said about me, but I wasn’t very comfortable with it. Still, it was there, inescapable.
They were, each and every one, self-portraits. Parts of me, pieces of me. Huge canvases, filling the loft in all its dimensions.
One Belinda Stuart after another.
I might have been getting a little spaced-out just then. I had that momentary vertigo you sometimes feel in the heat.
The ringing telephone rescued me.
BECAUSE I’M A PAINTER, SALLY has always thought that asking me to visit a gallery is the surest way of guaranteeing my company. The fact is, I’m not particularly interested in killing time that way. I’m afraid of the sponge effect, I guess, the possibility that I might see something that would stick in my mind and come out again in my own work without my quite realizing it. And, too, it can be so humbling to see really fine work, way beyond my estimate of my own, in some other, unknown painter.
But when Sally asked me to a gallery that day I also knew, since she didn’t really give a damn about painting, that there was bound to be something troubling her. I went to the gallery in the East Eighties wondering what the news was going to be, or more exactly, how bad the news was going to be. We were both closing in on forty, and the subject of unidentifiable lumps here and there was becoming more of a fear than it had once been. I suppose that was the news I dreaded most—that Sally was going to tell me she was sick, that there’d been a biopsy, what was coming to be known as the Terms of Endearment Effect. Or it might be Harry’s X rays or God only knew what. I’d managed to make myself fairly nervous by the time I got out of the cab.
But she was her usual self, waiting for me outside. She had long black hair that hung straight, a very pale complexion with high cheekbones and deeply set dark eyes that as she aged gave her face a slightly skull-like quality when she was tired. She looked tired, or worried, but she smiled and said something that made me laugh and I thought maybe I was wrong, after all. She brushed my cheek with hers and I smelled her Lancôme and we went inside to look at pictures.
As it turned out, it was a brilliant show—Stanley Spencer’s earnest, bulbous, mystically benighted figures slogging on through their own wild, tortured imaginations. I lost myself among the paintings, soaking them up the best way, wondering at Spencer’s unique vision. I loved his people, obsessed with religion and heaven and sex, alive in an extraordinary way even if they moved in a kind of supernatural fog the rest of us didn’t seem to notice.
I lost track of Sally and then I saw her at last and I knew I’d been right the first time.
She’d fetched up against a bay window overlooking the street and somebody’s embassy across the way where the flags were hanging limp, at half-mast for some reason. The sun was hot and bright and a fly was banging at the glass trying to get out before he fried in his own juice. The tears running down Sal’s cheeks refracted the light like a spill of so many diamonds.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said, sniffling and trying to smile. “Harry’s in love with another woman.”
As we negotiated the narrow curving stairway down to the entry foyer, she said: “Some woman … I don’t know. Harry.” She repeated his name as if it were foreign to her, a word from another language, which, I suppose, was just about how she must have been feeling.
I led the way to a dark, cool, empty, and trendy little cafe where the lunch crowd was pretty well gone and we could sit inside while looking out at a riot of flowers in the garden. Sally nodded to me when the waiter showed up, sniffled, and I ordered her her usual gin gimlet. Figuring I might need my wits about me, I stuck with iced tea.
She gave me one of her very Sally looks. She somehow managed to blend her own innate arrogance with a helpless, pleading quality: I’d never known the combination in anyone else. And when you coupled it with the stark black-and-white beauty of her features, you had a kind of aristocratic Madonna of the Sorrows that Harry, for one, had found irresistible. Me, too. I wanted to love and protect her, she seemed that vulnerable, but the fact that you knew she might turn on you and give you a flip of haughty airiness gave any relationship with her a tension that bonded you to her like nothing else could have. Her lower lip quivered and at just that moment I’d have done anything to make the hurt go away.
“You must have it wrong,” I said. “You’ve jumped to a silly conclusion based on insufficient evidence—”
“I’m not being silly.” The coal-black eyes flared as if a match had been struck. “Have the grace to treat me like an adult.”
“Of course, I’m sorry, but we both know Harry. He just doesn’t do things like this … this falling in love. He loves you. He’s always loved you—”
“Not exactly, Belinda. Think back—”
“That was in college,” I said, feeling my mouth get dry. “He knew me before he met you and when he met you that was it. You know that.”
She frowned at me, the narrow lips in a tight little vise. “Come on.” The attempt at lightness in her tone fell flat and broke like china. “You met Jack and dropped Harry and when he stopped whimpering and opened his eyes, there I stood with a willing smile and—as I recall—pigtails. It was my regressive pigtail period, wasn’t it?” She suddenly grinned, the real Sally again.
I nodded. “It was indeed, and he’s never looked at another woman since. And he isn’t now, I’d bet on it.”
“He’s not just looking. He’s in love.”
“Tell me,” I said. “Why do you think so?”
She told me.
And it didn’t add up to all that much. A wife’s suspicions, a husband of long standing who wasn’t paying quite the attention he normally did, who wasn’t exactly the same as ever. Flickers of behavior that only a wife would notice. Something going on behind his eyes, a distance in his tone of voice. Harry was so even-tempered, so much a diplomat, so consistent, and now those very qualities which had made him such a good and trustworthy husband were revealing—by their slight rearrangement—his infidelity. Or perhaps it was a contemplated infidelity.
“The thought is not necessarily father to the deed,” I said.
She looked up from her gimlet. “Is that actually an aphorism or did you just make it up?”
“I don’t know. The point is, it’s true. If the thought of illicit sex were the same as the act—well, you figure it out. Remember Jimmy Carter’s heart full of lust? Give Harry a break, Sal. He’s got a show opening in a week. Wouldn’t that alone be enough to throw his behavior off? If tension and nerves can throw me off my menstrual cycle, why can’t the same thing throw Harry off his normal game? I mean, you don’t even have lipstick on a collar—”
“Well, I thought you’d be a bit more sympathetic, a bit more understanding about what a wife can just know—without having to have a courtroom full of evidence …”
I was beginning to wish I’d had a drink. Being sober and rational was not necessarily what this discussion called for.
“Look, a little evidence would help a lot. A sighting at Area with a twenty-year-old secretary or a chorus girl—then you might have a problem—”
“That’s not my idea of a problem!” She gave me the haughty flip and told the waiter to bring another gimlet. “If he wants to sleep with some little tart on the side, I’m grown-up enough to handle it. I’m not making my point, Belinda. I said he’s fallen in love. Not that he’s screwing some nonentity. Screwing nonentities calls for a telltale bit of physical evidence. Falling in love messes up a man’s head in telling ways, and that’s what’s happening to Harry. That’s why I’m worried—no, I’m not worried. I’m … something else. It’s not worry. It runs a lot deeper than that.” She took a deep sip from her fresh gimlet and looked out at the flowers. She looked wistful now. It was amazing the range of emotions she could put on her face without any noticeable rearrangement of her features. I think it was in her eyes. So dark, so deep, with a faintly mad quality when she wanted it there. She had a tendency to speak without really opening her mouth, through her teeth. Like Gloria Steinem. Like Gloria Steinem she was very bright, but unlike her she had chosen never to make a life for herself beyond being Harry Granger’s rich wife. She liked the life. She’d never been one to complain. Maybe that was why I didn’t entirely discount her fears about Harry. She didn’t cry wolf. It just wasn’t like her. So maybe Harry was up to something, after all, though I tried to convince her it wasn’t true.
She watched me from behind those deep dark eyes and then impulsively hugged me, as if to say: I can see through you, my dear, but thanks for trying. …
I WORKED LATE THAT NIGHT but by five o’clock the next morning I couldn’t sleep anymore. The temperature hadn’t gotten much below eighty during the night but now there was a breeze and I couldn’t bear sleeping through it. I took a shower and stood naked in the middle of the loft with only the beginnings of the morning light from the street. I felt almost human. I wasn’t sweating. The oscillating fan on the divider which partitioned off the kitchen area blew at me. I put a Stan Getz tape in the deck and stretched out on an upholstered wicker chaise and watched while the onset of daylight revealed the canvases all around me.
And I saw this Belinda Stuart creature I’d been painting for the past two years.
She was a tall woman with a fair complexion and high, wide cheekbones, a flat forehead: a serious, almost somber face which at thirty-nine retained still a few clues to the pretty little girl she must once have been. Dark blond hair which had once been flaxen, now held by the ancient headband dating from the sixties, hair now tucked behind her ears, hanging straight almost to her shoulders. A straight, conventionally Waspish nose, a long upper lip and a wide mouth, long legs and narrow hips not much wider than they’d been in the old days at Mount Holyoke.
Her appearance was somewhat deceiving since she radiated in the remote features a very now air of self-discipline, self-possession, and lucidity that can so easily strike others as a trifle daunting. She knew that people frequently took a look or two at her and concluded that she was impervious and invulnerable.
Somewhere in her I saw that she was at least as prey to the uncertainties and insecurities of life as anyone else. But not even Jack had ever grasped the truth, Jack who had seen her at the bottomed-out lows and had the best reasons to want to understand. Not even Jack.
Perhaps the eyes were what stood in the way.
There was something in the impulsive, challenging pale green eyes that made you wonder what she must have been like as a girl, twenty years ago, just discovering her own femaleness and its powers. Men who paid attention to such subtleties were bound inevitably to speculate about what toll that challenge must have taken on herself as well as on others, what hearts might lie broken in the wake of those eyes.
Brazen eyes, that’s what Sally had called them.
So much for thinking about yourself in the third person. Maybe it wasn’t altogether healthy to paint pictures of yourself for two years. Inevitably you wound up thinking about yourself too damn much, and that was something I’d never before been interested in doing. Well, it was too late to bellyache about it now. I’d never been one to look awfully closely at things, at life, at relationships. Sally used to tell me I’d missed a lot.
Late into countless college nights Sally had tried to explain her facts of life to me, but I’d never proven a very apt pupil. She had told me that I’d apparently come equipped with a set of psychological blinders to protect me from the rest of the world and its reactions to me. She always told me I was just Belinda wanting to stay that way, but I was bound to learn that was a hopeless goal, an impossibility. And I hadn’t known what to say because I hadn’t known what exactly she was talking about. Life had seemed basically simple to me then.
I had possessed an ability to focus my attention on my purposes, determined to attain them. Sally understood about my single-mindedness, whether it came to doing well in my studies or reading all of C. P Snow or making Jack Stuart a good wife. She understood about the psychological blinders and maybe she had been right.
Maybe without my blinders I’d have been able to see what was coming. Maybe. But then again …
The next time I paid any attention to what time it was, my back was stiff from working and I looked at the big clock on the brick wall and saw that it was four o’clock and the day had been used up. Through the skylight I saw that the sun was gone, replaced by purple clouds. I had once put a great deal of effort into painting clouds. Turner’s clouds with the burnished sunlight behind them were breathtaking, but it was Constable’s way with clouds that I’d found irresistible. The clouds scudding across Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge looming with a swipe of rainbow faded to gray behind it. Finally I’d had to give up the quest; clouds weren’t for me. I never managed one that struck me as the real thing. And these purple ones were plainly impossible. I gave a little prayer for rain.
I wiped the sweat away from my forehead and eyes and took a long look at the painting I’d been working on all day.
Six feet by eight. A woman’s ear, an earring made of a single multicolored African bead, hair tucked behind the ear, the delicate bit of temple where the strands of hair magically begin. I couldn’t define it but I recognized a pervasive eroticism in the depiction, all psychological rather than anatomical. It was rendered with total attention to realistic detail, as if seen under a gigantic magnifying glass.
It wasn’t my ear. It was this other Belinda Stuart’s ear. More real than the reality.
It all came down to connections. Carlyle Leverett who owned the gallery had been a classmate of Jack’s at Choate. They had known each other at Harvard. And it was natural that Carl, having seen my work and—miraculously—having liked it, brought his boyfriend around to see it. That had been several years ago and the boyfriend was the critic Paul Clavell. When I’d exhibited with a group of other painters at a bar in TriBeCa, Clavell had made a point of writing a piece about the show in New York. He had written some nice things about my work and I had thanked Carl. “I only got him there, Mugs,” he’d said. “After that the paintings were on their own. Paul’s favor was going to the bar and looking, that’s all.”
Together they had urged me on, bullied me when necessary, pushed me into growth and change and the development of a vision which was, for better or worse, at least my own. There were blind alleys and catastrophes but they kept at me and finally last winter I showed them what I’d been working on.
Clavell sort of reeled back at the size of them. All huge canvases. All bits and pieces of the nude painter, pore-by-pore detail. He immediately began to think like a critic. And he wrote another piece for an art quarterly in which he told of the development of a painter. Me. He wrote that he was struck by the painter’s state of mind, the extraordinary ability to center upon herself to the exclusion of all else, the magnification that lent a surreal dimension to each piece.
Leverett began badgering me about the one-woman show. He even had a name for it, he said.
He would call it Belinda’s Belindas.
When I looked at the canvases, all I could see was an embarrassing, almost pathetic vulnerability, and some days I would have given anything never to have painted them, never to have felt the imperative to paint them. Anything.
Clavell called the collection “alluring. Clinical and poetic, simultaneously. Startlingly, unquenchably erotic.”
Clavell spoke of “the utter innocence of existential egocentricity.”
Maybe it was true. It was hardly flattering.
But in the end it was pure criticspeak.
The point was, I was still Belinda. As I’d always been.
But that afternoon, after the day’s work, with Sally’s fears of Harry’s loving another woman banging around inside my head, with the unthinkable idea that possibly both our marriages were coming undone lapping at my feet, I remembered Clavell’s observations and I must have had an inkling that deep inside my life some kind of overwound mainspring was beginning to tear loose.
I was still praying for rain when the telephone rang. It was Harry. I’d halfway been expecting the call. It was sure to be about Sally and her accusations of infidelity. We went back such a long way, Harry and I, even longer than Sally and I by a few weeks: he always turned to me when there was any kind of a problem with Sal.
“Well, how are you, Belle?” Harry was the only person who had ever called me Belle.
“Nothing worse than an incipient nervous breakdown over my work, such as it is. Why aren’t you deep in rehearsals?”
“Dinner break. There’s a dress tonight. I can’t eat any dinner, can’t hold anything down.” He laughed weakly.
“I don’t believe that. It’s not the Granger Touch. I believe your image—”
“You should know better. Of course, I wouldn’t admit it to anyone but you. Look, I want to see you. We’ve got to talk.”
“Mmm. I think I know what’s on your mind.”
“Really?” He sounded surprised. “You mean you’ve talked to him?”
“Yes, him. Jack. You remember, surely? Jack Stuart, your husband.”
“Don’t be snotty.”
“Belle, please. I’m not being snotty. I want to talk to you about Jack.”
“What in heaven’s name for?”
“I’m worried about him. No, more accurately, I’m scared for him. Or about him.” He was getting impatient with me. “Anyway, how about tomorrow? Lunch?”
“Can you hold it down?”
“Very funny. I’ll know after the dress tonight. Come by the theater at one, okay? Stage door.” He laughed nervously. “What did you think I was calling about, anyway?”
“I don’t know, Harry. It doesn’t matter. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That’s a girl. I’ll tell you a joke and make you laugh.”
MAYBE I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN Harry’s concern had to relate to Jack. They had been inseparable for so long. Together, best friends, they had formed the nucleus of the Ruffians at Harvard. Harry had conceived the idea of the club, had taken it first to Jack. They had so much in common, beneath their surface differences. So much they could never share with the women in their lives.
In Harry’s mind, Jack and I had always occupied our own compartments, even if there was a connecting door. Jack had doubtless confided a lot about our breakup to Harry and now Harry was going to try to start building a bridge between us again, proving once more that this marriage could indeed be saved. I wondered if Jack had told him about our last time together. I doubted it … but then, they were brother Ruffians and men, and who knew what went through men’s minds?
Jack had come by the loft a week or so ago. He managed to keep forgetting to return the key, and in a way I didn’t blame him, though the idea that there was another key out there besides Sally’s made me nervous. He was living in that little apartment in the East Eighties, yet he retained ties, emotional and material, to the loft. Lots of his possessions remained behind, boxed up, and every so often he’d show up and cart something away.
That night he’d come by ostensibly to change the locks, which were frail and looked easily forcible. But it turned out that he’d forgotten the tools and what he really wanted to do was talk—talk about moving back in for a trial spell and “getting to work on this marriage, kid. We’ve got too much tied up in it to just let it go poof. Come on, Belinda, sit down, have a drink, let’s talk about it. For Chrissake, put down the goddamn brush, relax a minute, and talk to me.”
“I didn’t ask you to leave,” I said. “You thought it was best. Okay. Now I’m not asking you to come back, and this time it’s a two-person decision. There’s no point in forcing it, no point in just yo-yoing back and forth.” I set the brush down, stood back from the table, and mopped away the perspiration with a towel. “You’ve got to give me just the tiniest break,” I said, trying to smile and keep it light. “You know I’ve got to have these canvases ready for the show. It’s important to me, honey, as important as your writing was to you—”
I heard the mistake I’d made but it was too late, I couldn’t get the words back. It was hurtful, a barb he hadn’t deserved, and he’d never believe I’d meant nothing by it.
“Was! That’s just wonderful! I still write, if you hadn’t noticed. It’s just that nobody’s willing to publish it … which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s crap!” His face had turned gray and icy. He was losing it and I didn’t want to see that happen.
“You know I didn’t mean it that way, so why make me the villain? What good does it do? All I’m saying is that I’m under a lot of pressure from now until the show opens—it’s just not a good time to expect me to talk about something so important to both of us.”
“God, you ought to hear yourself.” He was shaking a finger at me, smiling derisively. “Why don’t you just tell the truth? Just say it … the only thing you care about are the paintings of your tits and ass—I mean, the ego at work here is breathtaking. To say nothing of all your new friends—that is, men. They’re sniffing around you like a bitch in heat—”
“This is an awfully silly, awfully tired speech.” I turned my back on him, went back to the worktable, fumbled with junk, and tried to stay calm. Tried not to cry. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t still love him, the way you always love somebody like Jack who had once been strong and had begun to crumble while you watched. “The bitch-in-heat is really beneath you, Jack. You know that’s not me, you know you’re lying. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with your writing. Maybe you can’t deal with the truth. …”
It was a nasty sniping contest. I heard myself and despised myself for getting into it, yet I couldn’t stop. He was jealous both of my work and of my ability to deal with life alone, and I understood—it was the most natural thing in the world. But somewhere things had gone far enough off the rails that we couldn’t get them back on. By this time I didn’t even want to. I just wanted us to stop hurting each other.
He fumed, stomped around the loft, took all the requisite shots at the kind of self-centeredness which would produce such paintings, and told me how that lay at the center of our problems. I listened, trying to busy myself cleaning up my work area.
“Hell, you’re a child, a spoiled child, you’ve never given a flying fuck about anyone else.” He ran through the meaningless litany, as if all the years of happiness and pitching in together on everything had never happened. “You’re a snot-nosed little shit …”
I couldn’t help it: I had to laugh and he laughed too at the absurdity of the whole scene. He found and uncorked a very old bottle of Calvados that Carlyle Leverett had given me as a special present from his own cellar. When I mentioned it, Jack was off again.
“My sweet Jesus, Belinda, Leverett? I mean really! Don’t you remember? Leverett was the Official Fairy of Dunster Street! What the hell do you want him sucking around for? My wife’s a fag hag all of a sudden? I mean, what’s going on here?”
It finally came down to sex.
He wanted me, he said he wanted to muss me up, wipe the Serene Highness bullshit off my face. He grabbed me, yanked at the tank top and pulled it down, and I thought: Girl, stay cool, you don’t want anything really bad to happen here.
He carefully touched one nipple while I stood still, beginning to tremble with either rage or fear, I wasn’t sure which. I locked my eyes on his, willing him not to touch me. But he squeezed my nipple, his jaw clenching in anger. He squeezed until I cried out. I looked away but everywhere I saw my own nakedness, huge, overwhelming, helpless. One canvas after another.
“You want to talk,” I said, adrenaline pumping, “about … saving … this? This marriage?”
“I want you,” he said. “Right now. On the floor, right now, right here. Lie down …”
I could barely hear him. It was as if he were talking to himself. There was something wrong with him.
“You’d have to kill me,” I said.
“Sometimes, I swear to God, I’d like to.”
“Maybe I am, Belinda.” He backed away, miraculously draining tension from the scene. His voice changed, his stance changed. He was Jack again. Or close to being Jack. “I don’t know. Sometimes I want to be inside you so much I think I could kill you, hell, kill somebody. It builds up inside me. Christ, I don’t know … I love you, I want you … then I don’t know, I hate you when you shut me out.” He cocked his head, looked at me from the corner of one dark eye, brushed back the long black hair past his ears. “Sometimes I think I might do something really … bizarre.” He looked around the loft, grinned, licked his dry lips. “What if I took a hammer and knife to your pretty pictures?” He laughed softly.
There was a buzzing behind my eyes, tremors coming from somewhere deep inside me like a psychic earthquake. I didn’t feel myself speaking but I heard the words coming from my lips.
“I’d kill you, Jack.” I wasn’t even aware of how I’d joined the third-rate melodrama. “They’d have to pull me off your corpse if you touched these canvases. …”
I watched him turn pale. He finally looked away.
“Whoever writes your stuff,” he said, “should be shot.”
I sat quietly in one of the big white wicker chairs, listening to the clanking freight elevator descend. I looked at the wheel-of-fortune, afraid to ask it what I should do. Then the heat of the night hit me like a sixteen-ton weight and I realized what we’d just said to each other and I began to cry. I hated myself, not Jack. I felt my composure cracking like an eggshell.
And now Harry was telling me he was worried about dear old Jack.
The truth was, so was I.
WE WENT BACK SUCH A long way, the four of us. Our lives had intertwined so elaborately because Harry and I had gotten together first. It was one of those slightly uncomfortable facts that we’d all dealt with and got past, but Sally’s bringing it up the day we went to the Stanley Spencer show had taken me by surprise. It wasn’t something we’d ever talked about at any length, at least not since undergraduate days at Mount Holyoke. And now Sally said Harry was in love with another woman, and Jack and I had threatened to kill each other, and Harry was worried about Jack. Harry and Jack. Theirs looked like the relationship that would endure. The pals. The Ruffians. …
I lay still in the darkness that night, the pillow warm and damp in the heat, the faint breeze of the old fan turning this way and that. But I couldn’t get to sleep. My mind was racing, trying to freeze the turmoil and alarm I suddenly felt all around me. Childless, parents long dead, the people and the connections I’d counted on for so many years—those with Sally and Harry and Jack—looked like they were shattering, splintering. Even with Sally I no longer felt as open as I once had. I was afraid to tell her everything for fear of what she would think of me. …
At Mount Holyoke I had casually dated a few Harvard men. Then there had been Harry, who looked at life like a master repairman, fixing and tinkering to make it fit his idea of how it should work, never making a loud noise. Harry always said he was a graduate of the Perry Como School of Calm. I had never known anyone who had approached life with such an eye for an angle. He had been terribly grown-up in my eyes and he had been the first man I’d slept with. At a motel not far from Stockbridge. He was very sweet about it. I had been so nervous I couldn’t relax for him. He had gently persevered and at last we’d managed it.
Almost immediately I had perversely begun wondering if he were the genuine article. But I had gone on with him, sleeping with him once in a while when he’d engaged a room at the Parker House and I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing him. Why he put up with such a tense, frightened sex partner I never understood, but I was at an age when I was flattered on the one hand and delighted by my sexual power over him on the other.
And then he’d introduced me in passing to his fellow Ruffian, Jack Stuart. Jack had seemed so much richer in character, free of Harry’s poses and his search for angles, full of his own meaning compared to Harry, who was fun but a bit of a confidence trickster. Jack was. Harry seemed to be. I fell in love. Very hard. And it was nothing like being with Harry. I’d never imagined anything like it. I was sure of that.
Only two men in my life and now I was almost forty. Having slept with two men, Ruffians both.
It meant nothing to me that others thought Jack was handsome. He needn’t have been. He had presence, charisma, and that was just fine. It meant nothing to me that he played football. He didn’t make a big deal out of it. He went to practice, he played on Saturday, and when he carried the ball I hoped those great hulking oafs didn’t fall on him and break him. If anything impressed me beyond his own fiery enthusiasm, it was his writing. I loved to read what he wrote. I was delighted in the widespread assumption that he was destined to be the Class Novelist.
After graduation I went to live in New York. Sally went to Europe for a year. Harry and Jack roomed together, also in New York, and I saw them both constantly, as well as Mike Pierce, another Ruffian. Jack’s novel was published, film rights were sold, we found the loft, got married, and Sally came back from Europe. She took up the love affair with Harry that had pretty well filled her last two years at college—and we went antiquing and found the wheel-of-fortune. A few weeks later Harry and Sally got married, too, out at her parents’ estate at Sag Harbor.
I worked at Pierce and Jacoby, the publishers, Mike’s family firm, as a graphic artist in the art department. My painting was something I worked on when I had the time, almost as if I were embarrassed about it. After all, it was Jack who was destined to be the star of the marriage. My role was to bring in a regular check to keep the ship afloat while he labored mightily to bring forth his second novel.
If I had been more familiar with American literary history I’d have been less surprised, I suppose, at the turn Jack’s young manhood took. He was one of those bright young fellows, praised much in college, who flared like a comet and then disappeared in the darkness as if he’d never been at all. Two years out of Harvard the blush and the cheering that followed the publication of his first novel faded away. The rest, as they say, was silence. I watched while his hopes came to grief; I was helpless to prevent it from happening.
Call it writer’s block or the mysterious loss of the perceptions that had made him such an acute observer of the collegiate comedy which had been the basis of that one novel. Or call it his discovery of the unnerving fact that he had nothing more to say. Whatever he’d had, he’d lost it. He kept writing, but his second and then his third manuscript was rejected by one house after another. And he began to sour.
He took a job at Time as a writer/researcher, then went to J. Walter Thompson as a copywriter, and when his attitude cost him that job, he was bailed out by an old Harvardian and given a job at the Greer School across the Hudson in Jersey’s green, rolling countryside. I tried to help him see the bright side, but merely became one of the enemy in his eyes. Handsome still in a tight, compact way, he was finally showing some age in the lines etched into his face like a road map of disillusionment with life and himself. Perhaps if he’d been a better writer, more truly deranged rather than just fed up with things, he’d have carried his role in literary history right on through to the bullet that would leave the little gray cells all over the loft wall. Instead, he began commuting to the Greer School, which he viewed as a more symbolic form of suicide but, in his darker moments at least, nonetheless final.
I saw him at forty, facing his own set of unavoidable realities and limitations as best he could, but his pride hadn’t gone into hiding along with his writing ability. No, his pride grew in inverse proportion to the esteem in which he and, as it happened, the world at large held his writing. He was too proud to simply adjust, too proud to wait and cultivate the second coming of his talent, too proud to share his vulnerability and fear with me. He remained intelligent and quick-witted, but his festering disappointment and cynicism had destroyed his enthusiasm, disfigured him, and warped me.
As chairman of the English department at Greer he saw his job as a comparatively low-paid dead end, the only dividend being a certain slight prestige among his colleagues.