Authors: Marsha Qualey
Tags: #Literary Fiction
Leigh watched the hand, puzzled, until she spotted a massive oak tree on the lawn. He was tracing its lines in the air.
“It’s the last chance I have to leave something behind,” he said. “The money men have ruined everything. Bought every set of balls in Congress and erased all the good things we did. Mental health. Arts. Veterans.” He rested his head on a hand and closed his eyes. Within moments his breathing was coming in noisy, even puffs.
Leigh reached over to the coffee service and poured a cup, then took a scone and settled in to wait.
“Get anything done?” Geneva said. She motioned to a counter, and Leigh set the tray down.
“Not really. First he got me to talk way too much about myself, then he fell asleep. He’s still out. I thought I may as well sneak away and settle into my room.”
Geneva speed-sliced through an onion and then tossed the knife into the sink. She wiped her hands on a towel that was draped through the handle of the oven door. “He’s so good at that. The listening, I mean. I grew up in Red Wing, upriver? I moved away to go to school, but then I went back and was living there with my mom after I dropped out of college. Anyway, one day about three years ago I came down here to the shoe outlet and he was in there buying socks. An ex-vice president of the United States buying his own socks! The outlet sells really good ones, by the way. I recognized him and didn’t see any reason not to say hi so I did and I swear that within ninety seconds I was telling him the story of my life and when I was done with that he offered me this job. Did you notice how he looks at you like you were some sort of miracle?”
“He’s curious, that’s obvious. And a talented sleeper. He went out so fast, I almost wondered if something had happened.”
Geneva nodded. “That’s how it goes. He can fall asleep like that.” She snapped her fingers. “I should warn you that except for an hour or so every morning and during meals and cocktail hour, he’s mostly sleeping. So you’re pretty much on your own with this book you’re not ghostwriting. He won’t be awake enough to be much help.” She reached for the handset of a baby monitor and wedged it into a pocket. “C’mon, I’ll show you to your place.”
“Everyone calls it the cottage. I call it a pain in the ass, mostly because it took me forever to clean. I’m not blaming you, sorry. It hadn’t been opened or used in years. When I have my own house, it will be new construction, I’ll tell you that. He had the electrician and plumber in, so all that’s good to go. The phone works, which you’ll need because for some reason this house is a cellphone dead zone. Cable hook-ups went in there behind the desk, so you’ve got TV and broadband. He thought you’d need the Internet for research. It’s so dark in here. All the trees. I couldn’t stand staying in this place, I know that; I need sunshine.”
“I thought he doesn’t like spending money on repairs.”
Geneva made a face. “Not on the big house, he doesn’t. But he got all excited about opening this place. There are two bedrooms. One with a view of trees and one with a view of different trees. Screens are new, which will save you from being eaten alive when the mosquitoes hatch, which will be any minute. You’ve come too late for the mayfly invasion; be grateful for that. Fridge is new. He had me get a few things like coffee and juice and a couple bottles of Glenlivet, which he found out from his friend Mr. Thompson was your brand. You’ll want to go shopping. Not that I bet you’ll do much cooking because the gas stove would have been old when my grandma was born, and let me tell you it is a pain to light the oven. I always have plenty of food up in the big house, though, so you don’t have to worry about that. I’d be happy for the company. Which I suppose is obvious from the way I’m going on.” Geneva made a face and pressed her stomach.
“Are you okay?”
“Just getting kicked. Do you have kids?”
“A daughter, sixteen. She lives with her father.”
Geneva paused like most people did when they heard that. Leigh could see the inevitable question on her face: A teenaged girl, living with the father—what’s the story behind that? The young woman held her question though. She just nodded and then led the way out of the kitchen back to the small living room. “Like most of the furniture and things in here, this desk is original to the house. It was built for a woman, so maybe you’ll be comfortable working at it. The lamp’s new, and so is the wiring. And—”
Leigh laid a hand on Geneva’s shoulder as she brushed past her, eyes fixed on a painting that hung over the desk that stood in a narrow alcove just off the living room. Her index finger hovered in the air inches from the name in the corner of the canvas. Matisse.
“Don’t worry,” Geneva said. “It’s a copy. He owns the original, though; it’s in his oldest daughter’s apartment in New York. I guess it used to be in here, right in that spot. His granddad got it in Paris even before Terry was born. Terry had the copy done last spring. Some New York artist did it.”
“It’s beautiful,” Leigh murmured, her eyes fixed on the painting. “He didn’t have to do all this. I could have stayed in the big house or gotten an apartment. If I’d known, I’d have told him not to bother. I’m sorry you’ve had so much extra to do.”
“Oh, I bitch, but it’s been a nice change.” Geneva smiled. “Some of the worker guys have been pretty cute, so that’s been fun.” She patted her stomach. “Not that I’m doing anything but window shopping these days.” She pulled out the desk chair and sat down. “River’s that way,” she pointed. “You can walk there from here. I’ve heard that there used to be a path, but I wouldn’t try to find it because there’s a nasty razor wire fence going all the way around the woods to stop people from wandering in.”
Leigh touched a blue vase on the mantel. “You said this cottage was built for a woman. Housekeeper?”
Geneva fiddled with the intercom. “I guess you’ve got some family history to learn before you start writing.” She smiled. “Oops. Before you start filing papers. Terry’s granddad, the one who got the painting in Paris? He built the cottage for a mistress. He left all the trees so she’d be out of sight from the wife. No one was fooled, of course. But at least that way the family could pretend the lover didn’t exist. There used to be a separate drive that the mistress would use, but it got overgrown. Now you have to park by the big house and walk in. That wouldn’t have worked for her, of course, to be so close to the house and the wife. The mistress was a doctor and she was always coming and going to see patients. Well, that’s how it goes in the books, the part about visiting patients, that is. There’s nothing about lovers and wives, of course.”
Geneva stretched her legs out and rested her hands on her belly. “Holy moly. You really haven’t learned the story about this cottage? You don’t even know that much about this place and the family?”
Leigh shook her head. “I’ve been reading about the vice president, but I’ve focused on the last part of his career.”
Geneva laughed. “That sweet son of a bitch; I guess he’s having some fun with you. Damn, the baby’s awake; see you later.”
Leigh slumped in a chair and closed her eyes, letting the quiet seep in and overspread the lingering echo of the young housekeeper’s raucous cheer.
What was the story about this cottage? Was it haunted by the spirit of the mistress? The betrayed wife? Nothing in his first memoir had mentioned the cottage, much less the grandfather’s doctor-mistress. So much for his claims of honesty for his book.
She went to the kitchen and opened cupboards until she found the Glenlivet. It was barely noon, true. But here she was in Pepin, Minnesota, about to start on the vain-glorious memoir for yet another rich old man. Why be cautious?
She and Timmy Thompson had always started the normal working day with a short one, a detail she was pretty certain Timmy had shared with his old friend Terry as well as the name of her brand of Scotch. What else had he told his old friend? Had he mentioned how Mrs. Thompson’s initial delight in Leigh’s presence had soured to a consuming jealousy that might have been a good part of the reason her Thanksgiving stroke two years ago was an instant knockout?
Had Timmy told his old pal that Leigh had always rebuffed his still-smooth moves? Had Timmy Thompson, that relentless liar, been truthful about that?
She might have met Terry the day of Mrs. Thompson’s funeral, but the children had asked her to not attend the lunch after the service.
“We know there was nothing going on,” Timmy Junior had mumbled as his four sisters stood behind him and glared, “but it would be best if you weren’t there. And now that mother’s not in the house, perhaps you shouldn’t be either. Surely you can work with him over the phone?”
So she’d packed up, gone home to her apartment in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and finished the book. Then Timmy passed her on to his friend George Hutton, who’d recommend her to Harry Towne. Each of those jobs had been completed under the watchful eye of a suspicious wife. So yes, Leigh thought as she pulled a tumbler out of the cupboard, Timmy probably had lied about getting her into bed.
Terry Bancroft had called often when she was working with Timmy and the others on their books. They’d all called each other frequently. Timmy and George and Harry and Rob and one or two others—old friends who’d survived together, each one now pushing or pulling ninety. She had always listened carefully to the one side of the conversation that she could hear, enjoying the banter, the arguing that always ended in laughter, the mellow sadness that accompanied the sharing of news and complaints about health.
Who would she call when there was little time left and not much to do but recall and relive and reshape the past?
“Fuck the pity party,” she said aloud and poured three fingers of Scotch; not exactly a short one, but, clearly, this was not a normal working day.
Leigh poked a finger through the groceries spilling out of the thin plastic bags, searching for the five-dollar bar of imported dark chocolate she’d tossed into the cart as she’d waited in the check-out line. “There you are,” Leigh muttered as she spotted the foil-wrapped extravagance in one of the bags she’d put on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Just as she pulled the broken rectangle out from under a jug of drinking water the Toyota slammed forward and rocked. Leigh’s shoulder hit the steering wheel, and the chocolate bar flew out of her hand as glass sprayed through the car.
She held her breath and waited for pain. Nothing. She shook glass shards off her arm and sat up slowly. No blood. She wiggled fingers; they moved freely. She turned and looked out the rear window. It wasn’t there. All she could see was the looming back end of an SUV, smashed against her Toyota.
A woman in a pale purple dress swung herself down and out of the SUV. Yards of fabric swirled about her legs as she trotted to Leigh’s door. “Oh my goodness!” she shrieked. “I am so sorry!”
Leigh stared at the woman. A tiara. She’d been rear-ended by a woman wearing a tiara.
“I didn’t see you in the car! Are you okay?”
Didn’t see her? What difference would that make? Leigh eased herself out. “I’m okay.” She walked around to the back of the Toyota and slumped against the rear passenger door when she saw the damage.
The woman clasped her hands together. “I don’t know what got into me! I just backed up and kept going. Maybe it was the Lori Line CD; I always feel like dancing when she plays ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’.”
People had gathered and begun commenting.
Car that old, it’s probably totaled.
Leigh pressed her hand against the blue metal.
If the chassis is twisted, you can never get that fixed right.
Leigh tried opening the rear door. It resisted and then groaned as it yielded a few inches.
You’ve done it now, Peach.
Leigh looked at the woman. Peach. A tiara. A dress the color of an Easter egg.
What sort of hell was this?
Peach smiled. “We don’t need to bother with insurance, do we? I’m good for the repairs. Let’s just get it towed to Sonny’s and have him take care of things.”
Leigh’s gaze followed the woman’s hand as it dipped behind the purple bodice into her substantial cleavage and pulled out a cell phone.
Peach giggled. “I know, I know,” she said. “But I
lose it. I’ll pay to have the car fixed or I’ll cash you out, whichever makes more sense.” She turned to one of the bystanders. “Tell her, Soren. Tell her I’m good for it.”
“She’s loaded, honey,” one of the men said. “Don’t worry about that. And you’ve got a passel of witness. I say take her money and don’t mess with the insurance companies, as long as you don’t need a doctor.” The others nodded and murmured agreement.
Leigh surveyed the damaged car again. “I’ll need a ride.”
Peach looked up from her cellphone and smiled. “My pleasure!” She raised a hand to silence her audience. “Sonny, it’s Peach. I’m at Hy-Vee and I’ve had another little crunch and you need to send one of the boys to help us out.” Her free hand shot out and dug into Leigh’s arm. She winked. “I almost forgot,” she whispered. “Welcome to Pepin!”
Peach pressed close as Leigh fumbled with the key to the cottage. “I appreciate the help with the groceries,” Leigh said. “But you can just leave them on the stoop.”
Peach stepped away and peered through the nearest window. “Don’t be silly. After what I did to your car, schlepping a few bags hardly counts as help. I should be cooking and delivering meals!” Her eyes widened and she took a deep breath as the deadbolt shifted. “That’s an idea: meals for a week delivered right to your kitchen table. Or better yet, I could cook them here. I’m a terrific cook. Do you like curry? I do fabulous things with curry. And you’ll be so busy helping the vice president, why should you worry about meals!”