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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: The Bluest Blood
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Tea Roederer materialized, as if summoned. I hadn’t seen her approach, and she was a lot of woman to have missed. As tall as her husband, and as athletic and fit. They’d both been fished out of the same rich person’s Olympic-sized gene pool. Theodora Roederer was the sort of strong-featured woman called handsome as opposed to pretty, but she didn’t have the hunched self-effacing posture of women who try to minimize their height or plainness. After all, there was no one she needed to please, no cultural ideal she needed to meet. She was married to a descendant of Ben himself, was a zillionaire member of one of the world’s name-brand families. Why would she want to be anything except herself?

Harvey Spiers’ smile was tightly strung. “We came because the wife was eager to dress up, celebrate, be worldly for once. We don’t generally have the time or inclination to be frivolous.”

The Wife looked in anything but a party mood, but I had a new appreciation for why, perhaps, her expression was so unrelentingly tense.

Spiers put his hands out, palms up, in a traditional gesture of mock male-helplessness. “I do as she says.” He winked at Mackenzie. Guy to guy. Loathsome.

“Neddy?” Tea Roederer asked tentatively. Her outfit tonight was again anything but Main-Line dowdy. She wore a silver gown beaded with jet that seemed handed down from a wealthy flapper. It gave her a rakish air with overtones of smoky speakeasies, as did her silky black hair, also old-fashioned, with bangs to the eyebrows and the bob that was a mark of rebellion back in the Twenties.

A student who was a good friend of the Roederers’ son had told me that Tea always wore a wig, and indeed devoted an entire room of the mansion to this strange affectation of hers. Rows of mannequin heads, he said, each wearing a different style and length. I supposed it was an expensive way to never have a bad hair day, and quicker than an in-house stylist.

“Dearest?” she asked. Perhaps because of her costume, and his, the Roederers made me think of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Of course, Neddy and Tea’s idea of fun was less self-centered and alcoholic. Plus, they had more to spend.

“Neddy, dearest?” she said again.

“Forgive me,” he said. “Introductions are due. May I present Miss Pepper.”

“We’ve met—at the library,” she said, with a gracious nod.

I’d noticed the oddities of her speech the other day, too, including the way she said
Her English was not noticeably accented, but perhaps the occasional mispronunciation was due to her multilingual background. Or perhaps it was another larky upper-class whim, like the wig.

“And this is Mr. Mackenzie and…” Neddy paused. “The Reverend Harvey Spiers.”

Tea’s face blanched so that freckles across both cheeks became obvious. She drew herself up and I could almost see breeding kick into overdrive. “Welcome to our home,” she said. However, she nodded only toward Mackenzie and me.

Spiers chuckled, wallowing in their discomfort.

“Fact is,” Reverend Spiers said, “this event is for my son’s school. We do what we can.”

“Your son’s at Philly Prep?” I spoke too brightly, hoping to redirect and defuse the conversation. “I teach English there. Do I know him?”

He squinted. “You the one does the school paper?”

“I’m its advisor.”

“I thought I’d heard your name. Jake’s so wrapped up in that column he writes for you, I worry. Makes his computer obsession worse. People shouldn’t worship machines, spend too much time with them.”

“Your son’s name is Jake?” There was only one boy by that name in the school. But his last name was Ulrich.

“Stepson, technically,” Harvey Spiers said. “However, since his father is in Canada and never sees him, and since I am raising the boy, I sometimes forget that in the eyes of the law, and of nomenclature, I am not considered his actual father.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest…” Good thing I hadn’t tried for a career in the diplomatic corps. I tried to make amends. “Jake’s a wonderful young man.” He was, but he was also a young man I worried about more with each passing day. He was increasingly edgy, defensive, and morose as if something awful were overtaking him. I looked at Harvey Spiers and thought I might be seeing the awful thing possessing Jake.

“Jake Ulrich?” Neddy Roederer asked. “He’s a good friend of Griffin’s. I hadn’t realized he was your…”

Jake was indeed tight with Griffin Roederer, bound by computer nerdhood and low-grade depression. It was confusing and sometimes annoying to converse with either of them, but they understood one another.

But how uncomfortable for Jake. To visit here so often that he knew about Tea Roederer’s wigs, and all the while keeping his family identity a secret. Not that I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t volunteer his stepfather’s name in this house.

Griffin was our newspaper’s photographer, a boy who needed a filter between himself and the world. He spoke via computer and saw through a camera lens, but he was also talented, and an asset to
The InkWire.
The paper was another bond between the boys because Jake wrote a monthly column about life aboard a computer.

“I read Jake’s work, too,” Neddy said. “We both do.”

Tea nodded, her eyes fixed on Spiers.

“We’re impressed with your son’s ability to explain esoteric ideas,” Neddy said. “I’m afraid we aren’t nearly as computer literate, and while we prefer ancient communication methods, such as these books, Jake’s articles convinced me that the machine has remarkable research possibilities. His report on that conference that deals with unsolved crimes was revelatory.”

“Don’t like him involved with that machine, is all,” the reverend said.

Neddy Roederer cleared his throat. “Indeed. Well, I’m afraid I’ve been rude to Mr. Mackenzie. He and I were about to discuss this volume and now we must, but I fear you’d find it tedious. Book preservation doesn’t seem a special interest of yours.”

Mackenzie seemed ready to draw a gun he wasn’t carrying.

“Books,” the Reverend Spiers said. “Books are such an incendiary topic.”

At which point, all pretense of civility was put on hold. As was my breath. I waited, expecting anything.

And in the taut silence, heard the crystalline tinkling of bells. Many of them. A summons to dinner, and none too soon. We smiled at each other with relief, and after a bit of casual conversation, we dispersed, leaving the subjects of books and fires to die for lack of oxygen.

The feel of Mackenzie’s tuxedo sleeve reminded me that I was at a party in my bronze gown, that this was my one chance to visit and enjoy Wonderland. I tried to focus on my date, looking so resplendent I nearly had to avert my eyes. I told him so as we walked back into the great central hallway, and I forced everybody else out of my mind.

“A little too museum-quality for me,” Mackenzie whispered, as we once again passed the series of perfect rooms. “I’d like to see their
house. The rooms with the books they read. The ones with family photos and half-done projects and a good sound system and TV.”

“Not me. I know about that kind of room and life. I don’t know about this one.” I chose to believe that the Roederers lived a perfect life in perfect surroundings. And with those thoughts, I slid back into my fantasies and walked into a room that made the library seem a cramped antechamber. The ballroom’s domed ceiling was frescoed. And under the frolicking gods and goddesses were tables laden with hothouse roses, surrounded by gilded chairs. A string quartet played music to dine by. Definitely not the homey spot Mackenzie sought.

I wondered if the Roederers would like Griffin to be privately tutored. At their home. By me.

Why not? Griffin could use extra help, catch-up time. According to the rumors about him, he’d been the child of a young woman who couldn’t get a grip on him or on her life. He’d spent a Dickensian childhood in foster homes, until he ran away at age twelve and became a featured news story somewhere in New England, where the childless, nomadic Roederers had found themselves—and him. They gave the tough and scared street boy who called himself Grief an incredible new life and the new name of Griffin.

Maybe they were now ready to balance their family with a daughter. Say one in her early thirties, close enough to their ages so we could be pals.

My parents would understand. Lord knew my mother spent half her life and energy looking for ways to make me “safe.” She thought the route was through marriage, but how about through a fortune, instead? She wanted the best for me, and this was as close to the best as I was likely to get.

Or if not adoption, maybe I could become their ward. My ninth graders were reading
Jane Eyre,
so the wards of the wealthy were on my mind. Mr. Rochester had one. Why not Mr. Roederer?

“I can’t get over Spiers,” Mackenzie said softly.

I didn’t want to hear. I was having my Cinderella moment, was not at all ready for the pumpkin and the mice again.

“Burnin’ the effigy of your host, then tauntin’ him,” Mackenzie whispered. “What a piece of work.”

Too late. Mackenzie was living in the present, and all too willing to share it with me. My fantasies dissolved, the walls around us thinned to transparency, and the outside world became visible. The palatial splendor surrounding me was suddenly as fragile as the gilded, spindly chairs.

Beyond this point lay monsters. I had been there and seen them.

I deeded enchanted evenings to old musicals and Cinderella.

Sometimes I simply cannot stand reality.


Monday morning is never the emotional highlight of my week, but this one felt particularly daunting. I arrived at school early enough, but the Moral Ecologists arrived still earlier, in time for a grim greeting to the students.

They were arranged in a line down the pavement with blowzy, hard-faced Mother Vivien keeping them in order like a drill sergeant in a muumuu. Several carried placards in the shape of books. The slogan on them was the same as the protestors chanted: “Don’t pollute minds!”

It would be funny if it weren’t appalling. There they were by virtue of guaranteed freedom of speech, using that freedom to deny it to others.

“Don’t pollute minds! Don’t pollute minds!”

With what? Ideas, history, the graces of language? I envisioned their unpolluted minds—empty pools you could see straight through, with never an original thought rippling the waters.

“Shame on you, child molester!” Mother Vivien screamed, as I walked up the entry stairs. “You teach trash! Force it on young victims!”

They weren’t making my job a whole lot easier. Reluctant scholars would be thrilled to be redefined as victims. Vivien’s hatchet face, topped by baby curls, looked desperate to find her way to a headline.

I opted not to grant her wish, so I didn’t exercise my guaranteed freedom of speech.

By the time I was in the building I was in a foul mood, which wasn’t helped by an encounter with Alex Fry in the faculty lounge. One coffee with cynicism. I liked a dash of wry now and then, but Alex made me afraid I’d someday agree with him.

“Know what I think?” he said. I did. He had one central belief from which all others flowed, and it was that as teachers, we were locked in a hopeless undertaking, our every action both futile and meaningless. Alex taught math, because, he said, he preferred numbers to people. He kept his job because he muted his negativity when Havermeyer was around, and also because it was difficult to find math teachers. People whose minds work that way have more lucrative options.

More unsettling than Alex’s philosophy was his conviction that I harbored a secret passion for him. “Let’s go burn those books,” he said. “Get them off our backs before Open House, which will reduce the odds of Havermeyer having a stroke.” He shrugged. “Who’d care? The kids surely wouldn’t. Otherwise, the media’ll swarm around, bye-bye parking spaces, the parents will bitch…”

“Alex, I’m not giving up until I find a principle you believe in.”

He was sitting in a deep, worn upholstered chair, and he now shook the morning paper out, preparatory to reading it. “The principal I believe is Havermeyer. I also believe that he is crazed about the upcoming Open House,” he said from behind the paper. “And furthermore, I believe in getting him off our backs.”

“I agree.”

“Then run away with me,” he said, still masked by the newspaper. “Let’s flee this holding tank and find a place with no kids. No parents. No Havermeyer.”

Running away was tempting. Particularly alluring was the No Parents segment, even though I was deliberately misinterpreting Alex. He meant our students’ parents. I meant my own, although in this case, I could run but not hide. I took my coffee, waved goodbye, and headed for my classroom.

My loving, overbearing parent, the phoning one, had called this morning, early enough to serve as a premature alarm clock. I’d awakened with a jolt and answered with a pounding heart, thinking there must be an emergency.

She made an increasing number of these off-hours calls. My mother was playing footsie with long-distance providers. Let me be blunt: She’d become a phone service slut, accepting checks and perks for going with one, then the other, playing both sides of the street, showing neither loyalty nor fidelity. If they had the money, she had the time.

She considered these dividends a special phone fund, and she called more often, still using the cheapest calling hours and always, even with the best intentions, nagging. Most often about my unmarried, unstable state.

BOOK: The Bluest Blood
2.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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