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Authors: Claire McMillan

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

Gilded Age (5 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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Ellie flipped open a book to a page of baby cradles. “Maybe the tribes would want some of it back too? Some of their own heritage?”

“They’re easily outbid at auction by the Gryces.” I heard something strange in his voice then—almost like a taunt. “And other collectors like them,” he finished.

Ellie sighed and snapped the book shut. “Would you mind if I borrowed a few?”

I went back to the kitchen to check my pot. Everything still looked raw.

Jim loaded Ellie down with a depressing-looking pile of books. She happily carried them down the back steps, jingling while she walked, waving and blowing kisses. I found I was actually looking forward to seeing my old friend Ellie in action that upcoming weekend. Ellie on the hunt was always a wonderful spectacle.

• 4 •

The Vegan

J
im and I arrived at the Trenors’ high-concept contemporary house in the midafternoon. The place was inconspicuous in a multimillion-dollar sort of way, carved right into the side of a mountain so that every room had commanding views of the valley and the national forest beyond. We were greeted at the door by the Trenors’ assistant, who took our bags, and their cook, who offered us tea or mulled wine in the enormous entryway that featured a rock-climbing wall, as Gus had lately been taking lessons.

Everyone was out hiking and scheduled to return any minute. I settled things into our room—slate fireplace; rough-hewn furniture that looked like it was made of logs; faded kilims on the floor, each worth a small fortune, I felt sure—and chatted with Jim.

There was a light knock on the door and Ellie came in. She wore a long white cable-knit sweater that gave a clean glow to her face, woolly leggings, and some sort of superior suede moccasin boots that laced up over her knees. The white ribbon from the other day was fraying around her wrist.

“You look amazing,” I said.

She flopped down on the bed made up with crisply ironed, but clearly vintage, Irish linen sheets, thickly monogrammed with the initials of relatives long forgotten. Ellie blew a kiss to Jim, who was rustling around in the closet. He nodded his head up once in acknowledgment and continued rummaging through our bags, looking, I think, for his hiking boots.

“You know who looks amazing?” she asked. “P. G. Gryce. That’s what he’s called now, P. G., not Percy.”

What I remembered of Gryce was a lumbering boy of eighteen with a touch of acne and a sweet smile.

Ellie continued. “He’s out leading a hike with them all now. Looks like a regular mountain man—beard and everything.”

“Beard? I don’t see you with a beard guy.”

“Oh changeable, changeable,” Ellie said, waving a hand. Jim smirked. “Though I kind of like it on him. It’s so Grizzly Adams.”

“Grizzly Adams was not hot,” I said.

“A little beard burn? Frankly I like it rough sometimes.”

“Ladies, I’m going to leave,” Jim said, making an exaggerated reach for the door.

“Oh stay, I’ll behave,” Ellie said. “There are some issues though, and I need your help. Both of you.” She twinkled at Jim, demanding his attention. “Apparently he’s very serious about sustainability, ecology and all that. He’s a vegan.”

“Lord,” Jim said.

“And a teetotaler.”

“A what?” I asked.

“Doesn’t drink.”

“Holy night-night,” I said, lying down next to her on the bed and propping up my head with a lace-trimmed pillow.

“What does that have to do with ecology?” Jim asked.

“He explains it as the ecology of his body. His very fine body, I might add. He doesn’t put anything into it that alters his mind or deadens him to experiencing life.”

“Hence the vegan thing too?” Jim asked.

“That’s a very political and ethical choice. Just ask him about it,” Ellie said. “If you need to fill a conversational gap for a good forty-five minutes or so.”

Jim groaned. My southern husband raised on pork barbecue and country ham had little truck with vegetarians or vegans, whom he viewed as a messianic cult focused on beans. “I’ll steer clear.”

“And so will I,” Ellie said. “Of meat. I won’t be eating any meat, and I don’t want you to act like this is strange for me.” She looked at us both seriously. “I’m not smoking. And please don’t bring up rehab.”

Jim made a skeptical face. “He’s been out living in the world, hasn’t he? He’s got to know people who’ve been in rehab.”

“He’s been a bit sheltered, and it doesn’t need to be the first thing he knows about me. Please, now, you two. You’re my allies.”

We heard people in the foyer below and the excited skittering nails of dogs returning from the hike.

“We should go be social,” Jim said, ushering us both through the door and downstairs.

Gus Trenor welcomed us in his effusive, red-faced way. He kissed my cheek gruffly, almost pulling me over, and heartily shook Jim’s hand. He was buttoned in tight in his high-tech hiking clothes and held a rough walking stick in his hand, which I noticed had rope burns across the knuckles, presumably from his recent rock climbing lesson. Though he was only in his late twenties, the beginnings of middle age spread across his ample torso. At a word from him the dogs quit skittering and sat silently at his feet while the Trenors’ assistant put leashes around their necks to lead them off to the kennel.

P. G. Gryce stood by the door unloading canteens and nature books from a backpack onto a plain Shaker bench. He had indeed changed since high school. His jet-black hair and well-trimmed beard made his blue eyes the more light and startling. His well-muscled form was visible even under the flannel shirt he wore. I had to agree with Ellie; he looked like an appealing modern-day Paul Bunyan.

Julia, clad in tasteful tweeds that enhanced her blond hair, ushered us all into the living room dominated by the cavernous fireplace made
of stones from the river running through their property, complete with an elaborate hob grate with shining brass urns. Julia aspired to interior decorating and had recently started a small company, despite the bad economy. As far as I knew she’d only been hired by Gus’s relatives. This room, this house in fact, was her showcase. She lit a fire and though there was a cook in the kitchen, Julia brought out a little plate with a few Triscuits, a brick of cheddar cheese, and a small dish of Beer Nuts. I couldn’t help but smile. Julia was displaying her midwestern roots. Cocktail hour meant drinks, not spoiling your appetite. No elaborate puffs and piped nibbles here. Everyone but me, Ellie, and P. G. drank Taittinger out of flat water glasses etched with leaves—Julia’s nod to being in the country.

I sat on the cracked leather sofa next to Gus’s sister Viola—a hearty girl who favored her brother in looks. She wore Birkenstocks with her toenails painted sparkly green, slim ripped jeans, and a T-shirt with 100%
RECYCLED FUN
printed on the front of it. I thought it a wry commentary on the Cleveland social scene and smiled. I liked Viola, who was as earnest and giving as Gus was sybaritic and egocentric. She’d called me many times trying to get me involved in civic organizations and boards of trustees. She hosted teas for which the invitation suggested you bring a book or a toy or canned food for the poor, as if she felt she must do penance for the indulgence of hosting a tea party. She was such an interesting contrast to her brother, as they both came from serious family money.

She was unmarried, and Gus was constantly setting her up with his business acquaintances. I kissed her on the cheek when I sat down, and she told me of her latest cause, recycling used baby toys and giving them to destitute mothers—hence the T-shirt.

“The Dorsets are coming up after dinner,” Julia announced to all. I wasn’t surprised; Diana Dorset was one of Julia’s best friends. “And I’ve invited William Selden.” I thought I saw Ellie start when Julia mentioned Selden. It surprised me too. I’d heard rumors that Selden and Diana were involved. Only gossip about bankruptcy flew faster and farther than innuendo of adultery in the Cleveland scandal mill.
But given the unreliability inherent in such talk, it could have been anything—a flirtation, a fascination, an unrequited interest on one side. In any event, I’d stopped hearing about it months ago and assumed it was over. Perhaps Julia invited him up for Viola, but that struck me as odd, as he didn’t seem the right type for her at all.

When we were called into dinner, Julia stage-whispered to me that the cook had once worked for Oprah.

The dining table, made from salvaged lumber, was set with mismatched transferware plates whose patterns showed fox hunting and carriage riding in England, all of them bought in country junk shops, not costing more than a few dollars apiece. The flatware was mismatched too, but heavy and definitely sterling, giving everything the air of wealthy casualness Julia strove for. Two long benches ran down either side of the table—uncomfortable as hell since all, save those seated on the end, had to climb onto the benches and swing their legs under the table. Two magnificent heavy Irish silver candelabras engraved with scrolling leaves and flourishes held six tapers apiece and came from no junk shop I knew.

The cook brought in an immense bowl of some sort of curry—I believe it was chicken—then another bowl with nutty rice pilaf and a little dish of yogurt
raita
. A huge salad of apple and pear and nuts arrived alongside a platter of roasted fennel, eggplant, and squash with rosemary and thyme, and finally a stack of warm pita bread. Each dish was delicious and well executed, but the combination made me queasy, or perhaps that was the pregnancy again. I suspected Julia had been flummoxed by the presence of P. G. and newly vegan Ellie at the table and had the cook make some unplanned vegetable dishes, which resulted in the off-putting cornucopia.

Ellie and P. G. seemed to be on a private date in the midst of our small group. In a conspiracy of approval, everyone around the table kept up a patter of conversation and ignored Ellie and P. G.’s cozy tête-à-tête.

Ellie, in keeping with her new purity, ate little, just a few vegetables; drank nothing; and her cigarettes were absent. They looked well together,
her lushness adding decadence to his spare good looks. Yes, I thought, perhaps Gryce could keep Ellie on the straight and narrow. Boston is duller than New York and more intellectual than Cleveland. With Gryce’s money she’d be at the pinnacle of that town—attending natural history museum benefits, helping her husband with his Native American artifact collection. She’d never worry about money again, that’s for sure.

After dinner, we had settled with cognac and coffee around the fire. Abstemious Ellie was seated promisingly close to P. G., when the Dorsets arrived.

Diana Dorset was a tiny birdlike woman with dark hair and glittering dark eyes. She was dressed in her country clothes, cut close to her svelte body. Some women dress to seduce and some women dress for comfort. Diana dressed for competition. Her clothes always had an aggressive edge of style to them—half the time I rolled my eyes at her obvious effort and half the time I wanted to rip off what she had on and wear it myself.

She worked in development for the art museum and mostly planned their parties and benefits, which was a perfect match for her skills. She added a level of energy wherever she went, as if the evening had now been placed in capable hands and we were all about to have a good time.

Her tall and angular husband, Dan, had a reputation for being wild, though dim, and always up for a party. His mother, Betsy Dorset, with her diamonds, was at the center of the elder generation.

“So we were at the Van Alstynes the other night for dinner,” Diana said after she’d accepted a cup of coffee and sat down. The Dorsets knew everyone. I thought I saw her look at Ellie. The party collectively leaned forward, knowing a good piece of gossip would follow.

“I didn’t know they entertained at all.” This from Julia, who was no doubt calculating how many times she’d hosted the Van Alstynes and wondering why she’d never received a reciprocal invitation. She passed a plate of dark chocolates around after the coffee.

“At the house?” I asked. As I’ve said, I’ve known the Van Alstynes all my life. Cinco now lived on his family’s country estate east of town.

They all turned to me. Everyone knew that I’d dated Cinco off and
on since we were children—everyone but Jim. Things with Cinco had long settled into friendship by the time I’d met my husband.

“Just wondering how the place looks,” I said, reaching for the plate of sweets. The rumor was that his grandfather had spent almost all his money breeding racehorses, and now the family seat was in dire need of repair.

“Like a construction site. Something to do with the foundation,” Diana said. “But it was the strangest thing …”

“Di,” her husband said in a warning tone.

“Given what happened, I don’t think they’d care if everyone knew,” she said to him. And then she turned to the group. “After dinner, they seated us all in the living room with dessert—”

“Who was there?” Julia interrupted, again trying to keep social tabs on why she hadn’t been invited.

Diana paused for a moment.

Ellie surfaced from her cozy conversation with Gryce to toss out to the group, “I was.”

“You didn’t tell us,” I said before I thought about it. It was reflexive. But I suppose it wasn’t too strange that she hadn’t mentioned it. Cleveland was so small that people were discreet about their invitations, lest feelings get inadvertently hurt. I popped a chocolate caramel in my mouth, crumpled the little fluted cup, and passed the plate to Ellie, who waved them off. I gave her a pointed glance. She loved dark chocolate. But she ignored me, trying to engage P. G. again.

Diana continued. “And the usual. The Rezaees, the Gretters, the Babcocks, and a couple I didn’t know.”

“I hear Babcock’s company’s about bankrupt.” This from Gus.

“Well, he wasn’t talking about it at the Van Alstynes’ dinner party,” Diana said. She knew Babcock was bankrupt. She probably knew more than Gus, given that her job at the museum made it imperative she know everyone’s financial situation. “Anyway, they seated us all and handed coffee and dessert around. Then she gave him this look. He came over to her, took her hand, and they told us all they’d be right back. Then they went upstairs.”

BOOK: Gilded Age
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