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Authors: Claire McMillan

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #American

Gilded Age (2 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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“God,” mumbled my husband, leaning his shoulder into mine and whispering in my ear. “Typical.”

“You know him?” I whispered.

“That’s Randall Leforte, the lawyer.”

“I should know him?”

“The ambulance chaser. He’s sued the Cleveland Clinic for millions. He’s as rich as Steve Jobs or those Google guys or something now.”

I remembered seeing him on the cover of
magazine as our town’s most eligible bachelor; he was photographed leaning up against his Maserati. Charitable and philanthropic boards all over town were vying to get a piece of his money.

At intermission Eleanor slipped into our box, as I knew she would, hugged me, and hugged my husband, Jim.

“Thank God, you’re here. I thought you might be.” She beamed at us. She’d always liked Jim. Most everyone did. My husband’s background of boarding school, Duke, and investment bank on Wall Street made him enough like a good Cleveland son. Yet his southern accent and manners made him an antebellum exotic. There is nothing certain Clevelanders like more than a whiff of a tattered but glorious past hanging about a person. Luckily that particular southern trait rolled off Jim as languidly as his drawl.

William and Jim led us out of the box to the patrons’ dining room, talking about the Indians in the playoffs.

“So William Selden …,” I breathed behind their backs, fishing.

“You’ve known Selden as long as I have. He’s just a friend.”

“Just a friend?” I asked. “An awfully good-looking friend …”

“An awfully good-looking old friend,” Ellie said with a smile.

We walked into the dark paneled room behind the boxes where
silver samovars of coffee and a bar awaited. I took two gingersnap cookies, their recipe unchanged since 1931, off a Sèvres tray. Ginger is good for nausea and in my condition I’d found a new sweet tooth I hadn’t had before. Eleanor eyed me as she drank black coffee.

“Eating for two,” I said.

“My mom told me. Congrats.” Her tone was flat with disinterest.

“Well, don’t jump up and down or anything,” I said, joking but feeling stung. Ellie, I knew, was not keen on children. But I thought at least she could muster some enthusiasm for me.

She smiled. “Oh, I’m happy for you. You know how I feel.” It was as if she’d said, “That dress looks great on you; I’d never be caught dead in the thing.”

It didn’t satisfy.

“You and Jim will make wonderful parents,” she said listlessly as she scanned the room.

I’d forgotten this part of Ellie in the years since I’d last seen her. She was self-concerned, always had been, in a way that could be annoyingly juvenile. Oddly enough it was also one of the things that made me feel comfortable around her. Ellie made no pretense about who she was or what she thought. Given the Cleveland world I navigated, anyone who was straightforward, even if it was straightforwardly self-centered, was refreshing. You always knew where you stood with her, which is much more than I can say for a good number of people on my contact list. “Tell me about the conductor,” she said.

I swallowed a large bite. “You know I’m a musical illiterate. But everyone says he’s wonderful. Lovely accent—Austrian or something. I heard him interviewed on the radio once—”

“No, no, you know what I mean,” she said in a lowered voice.

I must admit that I laughed in her face. Leave it to Eleanor to be searching out men at the orchestra. Most men in the boxes were married, upwards of sixty, or both. I wondered that she didn’t ask about Randall Leforte, given his obvious interest in her. In any case, she’d zeroed in on the man who’d been in front of her for the last hour, the conductor.

“Married,” I said. “Happily, I think. There’s a child and such.”

Eleanor shrugged and resumed scanning the room. “You know what I kept thinking as I sat there?” she asked. “I kept thinking that all these people, their job is to do something they love. Can you even imagine it? The dedication, the discipline, the practice—you couldn’t do it if you didn’t have passion. And that’s what they get to do with their lives. Something they have real passion for. The passionate life. I wish I had that.”

“Don’t we all,” I said.

“Or to have a skill like that. To be one of the best in the world at something.”

“You’re the best in the world at being fabulous,” I said. I meant it truly, and lightly, but it came out as condescending.

“When’s the last time you felt passion?” she asked a bit aggressively.

I’d touched a nerve. Her questioning the passion in my life was the old bias that escaped Clevelanders have against the Midwest. The assumption was that you couldn’t have passion in Cleveland. It raised my ire a bit, yes. And while I thought this a little provincial, I guess I knew what she was getting at as it related to me. My prospects at the big-five accounting firm where I’d worked before my marriage had never been my life’s passion. Recently, I’d started to feel my marriage and a coming child might help me in this area. Not in a Betty Crocker, Phyllis Schlafly type of way, but in the way that I now had someone I could help along in life, a marriage to invest in. This baby, I hoped, might add to that sense. People say nothing else is important once your child is born, and part of me was banking on this. In any case, I wanted to put Ellie at ease. She’d just returned, and it was the first time I’d seen her since her divorce. I pointed to my waist, just ever so slightly showing, and though I knew it was not what she meant I said, “Well, there was at least one night of passion.”

Eleanor relaxed and laughed. “It seems like no time has passed since last I saw you.”

“That’s how Cleveland is,” I said, smiling, glad the situation was defused.

“It’s good to be back. These last six months have been pretty hard.” She sipped her coffee.

It was then that Jim seemed to materialize at my arm with Randall Leforte in tow and introduced him to Ellie. Something in Jim’s posture made him seem pleased that he could introduce them. Whether he was proud of knowing Ellie or glad to be seen with one of the sharpest litigators in town, I didn’t know.

Leforte smiled wide and moved in close as he took Ellie’s hand. It was fascinating to watch—and I’d been watching since we were children—the pull she had over men. I thought he might bend over her hand and kiss it. He smelled like patchouli, a hippie-ish, slightly dirty smell that didn’t mesh at all with his polished exterior. He clasped her hand and released it, his eyes wandering up and down her body, as if he’d like to do so much more than shake her hand.

Ellie was, of course, aware of the effect she had on Leforte. But it didn’t seem to please her. It seemed to bore her. She was looking for Selden, who was across the room talking to a group of men, each of them old enough to be his father. I felt sure they were discussing the financial state of the orchestra, the need for younger patrons.

“Mahler’s my favorite,” Leforte said, moving in close to Ellie. “Though I prefer

Ellie rocked back and forth on her feet, looking like she was ready to spring for an exit, and I couldn’t figure out why. Leforte was attractive and certainly some chitchat with him wouldn’t hurt.

“You mean his First Symphony?” she asked.

“Yes, I guess I do,” he said in a hearty tone as he shifted closer to her, almost turning his back to me, trying to ease me out of the conversation and gain some privacy until Betsy Dorset interrupted us all.

Betsy Dorset wore trim black pants, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, and a neon green fleece vest—the type bought at sporting goods stores. Pinned to the fleece was the immense Dorset diamond brooch from the turn of the century, valued—so I’d heard—at half a million dollars. With her kind smile, cropped silver hair, and sensible shoes, she was the very model of a new-millennium Cleveland
dowager. Her son, Dan, and I were the same age and had been at school together.

She hugged Jim and me and then made a great fuss over Eleanor, whom she’d known as a baby. Clevelanders of a certain age love few things more than one of their own returning home, and Ellie had the satisfying air of the prodigal about her.

Just as Randall was quietly trying to slip away unnoticed, Betsy demanded an introduction, and Jim obliged.

“Oh, but I know you from your billboard,” Betsy said, shaking his hand.

“Billboard?” Eleanor blurted before she could censor herself.

“Mr. Leforte has a billboard just as you come into downtown on the Innerbelt,” Betsy said to Eleanor. “I must admit it doesn’t do you justice,” she said to Randall. She said it in a flirty, confidential tone, but I knew she’d meant it not at all nicely. She sat on the board of the Cleveland Clinic; I’m sure she’d been forced to deal with Leforte, his clients, and their demands for legal settlements. She knew exactly who he was. “It has your eight-hundred number on it,” she added brightly. “Doesn’t it, Mr. Leforte?”

The chimes rang, calling us back to our seats for the second half of the music. Leforte made a quick exit.

“That man,” Betsy said in a hushed voice as she hugged me goodbye. “Getting rich off hospitals and others’ misfortunes. It’s the height of poor taste.” And she wafted off in a cloud of Joy perfume.

“I’ll come see you next week,” Eleanor said as Selden took her arm to lead her back to the box.

“Come on Wednesday,” I said. “Stay for dinner if you like.” Jim clasped my hand and steered me back to the box with my family’s name painted in swirling gold script over the door. The box my family has occupied since the hall opened in 1931.

• 2 •

The Bungalow

llie accepted Selden’s invitation back to his house for a drink after the concert. He escorted her to her car, taking her the long way around the reflecting pond in front of the art museum, which was blindingly white under spotlights, marking it as a beacon of culture.

“You didn’t have to do this,” she said.

“This isn’t the greatest area at night.”

“You forget I’ve been living in New York.” Though now that Selden mentioned it, she remembered the park nearby had been dicey when she was a girl—rumored to be littered with needles and pipes and other unmentionable trash from furtive liaisons. But earlier this evening, as she’d arrived at Severance Hall, Ellie had seen a bride and groom having their wedding portraits taken right in this very spot. The clean Greek columns of the museum set off the bridal gown perfectly.

As Ellie and Selden rounded on the glowing front of the art museum, passing one of Rodin’s thinkers pondering them from his gleaming spotlight, a young couple emerged from under a low-hanging willow tree: he in a slim suit, thin tie, and black Converse sneakers,
she in cat-eye glasses and a red taffeta dress. The boy was leaning down, intent to hear what the girl was saying, then he whispered in her ear. Lights from the water reflected on his teeth when he smiled, lit up her plump arm as she covered her mouth to laugh.

The gravel paths here were pristinely maintained. The young couple added youthful energy, and what was that feeling Ellie had when she saw them—hope, envy, anticipation? It’d been so long since she’d felt anything; she could hardly remember.

She watched as the boy lifted the girl’s hand and kissed it. Was I ever that young? Ellie wondered as Selden handed her into her car.

She drove slowly over to Selden’s house, giving him time to get there before her. The Heights were alive with evening strollers, dog walkers, fathers hauling garbage cans to the curb. As she drove past one driveway, a woman unloaded pumpkins, probably from the West Side Market, from her car. A kid in a number 23 jersey rode his bike down the sidewalk. A young guy in scrubs with disheveled hair walked with a cell phone lodged between ear and shoulder, a computer bag slung across his body. The sidewalks were busy and bright under the streetlamps. The Heights’ streets didn’t have energy like Manhattan. But a cozy warmth emanated from the neighborhood, as if neighbors might still drop in on one another and leave their calling cards during “at-homes” like people did a hundred years ago.

She parked in front of Selden’s small prairie-style bungalow. Though she could have had her guard up at his suggestive invitation, she didn’t. She’d known Selden from childhood. She knew all the pretty boys. Though she’d spent a few nights comfortably flirting with him in bars or sitting next to him at concerts like the one they’d just attended, she’d never taken him seriously. He was younger and an academic, which only slightly intimidated her and completely deterred her. The academic life was a tough one, almost worse than the military; you never knew where you might have to live. No, Selden had been a pleasant distraction in the pursuit of serious game.

The lawns on Selden’s street set the houses back a good way, making everything feel private. The deep porch wrapped around his one-story
house like a secluded embrace. Walking up the steps, she felt confident she had made the better choice over staying in New York.

He swung the door wide for her, ushering her inside. Selden’s living room had a broad-beamed ceiling and a fireplace tiled in celadon green. He walked here and there, clicking on lamps. He’d furnished the room in what she guessed were thrift store finds—the ratty couch in nubby orange, the white space-age floor lamp arcing over a chrome and glass coffee table—the home of a bohemian and threadbare member of the Rat Pack. A frumpy Queen Anne desk, likely a cast-off from his parents, was littered with a laptop, an iPod, crumpled papers, and a few thick card-stock invitations stuck at random angles under a plastic Magic 8 Ball. Every nice young bachelor had a little untidy stack like that—nice bachelors always being in demand for weddings, birthdays that end in 0, cocktails to meet the new museum curator, and fancy dinner parties.

Selden opened the windows to the crisp night air and the faint scent of burning leaves. Academic books and journals covered the floor near the couch. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, the dim light catching the fine auburn hair on his arm. On a low table next to a reading lamp was a small bouquet of burnt-orange roses in a dented brass urn. He disappeared into the kitchen.

BOOK: Gilded Age
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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