The club was from another age. So was Mother.
The Woman’s Association of Northern California, Conquistadores Chapter Number XVI, was housed in a sumptuous turn-of-the-century, Beaux-Arts-touched-by-Gothic castle topped by crenellations and turrets, and constructed of massive blocks of mauve-gray Deer Isle granite from a long-dead quarry in Maine. The interior was predictable: somber and dark save for stained-glass windows featuring historical Gold Rush scenes that blew jeweled patches on the walls when the sun shone through. Antique Persian rugs softened well-worn walnut floors, the staircase banister gleamed from decades of polish, thirty-foot ceilings were coffered and rimmed with gold. The ground floor of the building held all the public rooms, the two floors above contained sleeping chambers for the members.
Mother had been a member of the Association for more than fifty years and sometimes slept over in a room far too modest for her. But the fees were nominal, and nostalgia was worth something. Her dinners at the club were frequent. They made her feel special.
They made Davida feel like a freak but she gritted her teeth and indulged Mother’s preferences because the woman was a not-too-healthy eighty.
Most dinners meant Mother and various selections of dear friends, each one of them more than a step out of time. The entire concept of the Association with its genteel Gatsby pretensions would have been anachronistic anywhere. Nowhere was it more absurd than here in Berkeley.
A stroll from the club was the People’s Park, originally conceived as a monument to free speech but reduced to a square block of homeless encampments and ad hoc soup kitchens. Good intentions in the abstract, but the brown rectangle reeked of unwashed bodies and decaying food and on hot days anyone not blessed by nasal congestion kept a wide berth.
Not far from the park was the Gourmet Ghetto, the foodie mecca that typified Berkeley’s mix of hedonism and idealism. And dominating it all, the UC. It was these contrasts that gave the city a unique character, with everything blanketed by a definite Point of View.
Davida loved the city with all its strengths and its foibles. Leftist and proud, she was now part of the system, duly elected state representative from District 14. She loved her district and she loved her constituents. She loved the energy and the electricity of a town stoked by people who cared about issues. So different from her hometown, Sacramento, where dishing dirt was respectable recreation.
And yet, here she was commuting back to the capital.
All for a good cause.
Tonight the dome-roofed, hush-hush dining room was dense with tables dressed with starched linen and sparkling silver and crystal, but shy on diners. Members were dying off and very few women elected to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Davida had joined the Association a few years back because it was politically smart to do so. She knew most of the members as friends of her mother and they enjoyed the attention she paid them. Their monetary contributions were stingy compared to their assets, but at least they gave—more than Davida could say about a lot of her own allegedly altruistic pals.
Tonight, it was just Davida and Mother. Their server handed them menus and Davida and her mother silently scanned tonight’s choices. The entrées, once biased toward steaks and chops, had conceded to present-day realities with more chicken and fish. The food was excellent, Davida had to grant that. In Berkeley, bad food was almost as serious an iniquity as being a Republican.
Mother insisted on flirting with the waiter, an elfin-looking man
in his thirties named Tony who was undoubtedly gay. Mother damn well knew he was gay but she batted her lashes like a moony adolescent.
Tony played his part by smiling and batting back. His lashes outclassed Mother’s—thicker and darker than any man’s deserved to be.
Davida knew Mother was worried, trying to mask it with a false cheer. Still dwelling on the incident.
Though it had seemed like a big deal last week—and certainly demeaning —Davida now had the perspective to see it for what it had been: a stupid prank executed by stupid people.
Eggs. Sticky, repellent, but not dangerous.
Still, Mother brooded as she forked her shrimp cocktail. Davida’s minestrone soup remained untouched because dealing with Mother tightened up her esophagus. If the wall of silence didn’t come down, both of them would end up with indigestion and Davida would leave the club in need of . . . something.
Davida loved her mother, but Lucille Grayson was a supreme pain in the ass. Lucille called Mr. Eyelash over, asked for a refill of Chardonnay and drained it quickly. Maybe alcohol would settle her down.
Tony returned and announced the specials. Mother ordered the blackened Chilean sea bass and Davida opted for the linguini with chicken in vodka and sun-dried tomato sauce. Tony gave a dancer’s bow and sailed away.
“You look good,” said Davida. Not a lie. Lucille maintained clear blue eyes, a sharp nose, prominent chin and strong teeth. Thick, luxuriant hair for an old woman, once auburn, now a gray one shade darker than the club’s granite walls. Davida hoped she’d age as well. Decent odds; she bore an uncanny resemblance to Mother and at forty- three, her own auburn waves lacked a single silver strand.
Mother didn’t answer.
“Your skin looks great,” said Davida.
“It’s the facials,” Mother responded. “When—and if—you go to the spa, ask for Marty.”
“So you say. How long has it been, Davida, since you’ve taken care of your skin?”
“I’ve had other things on my mind.”
“I bought you a certificate.”
“It was a terrific gift, thank you, Mother.”
“It’s a stupid gift if you don’t use it.”
“Mother, it doesn’t have an expiration date. Don’t worry. It’ll get used. If not by me, I’m sure Minette will be happy to indulge.”
Mother’s jaw set. She forced a smile. “No doubt she would be. However, she isn’t my daughter.” She picked up her wineglass and sipped, trying for nonchalance but a trembling lip betrayed her. “You have a little bruise . . . on the apple of your right cheek.”
Davida nodded. “The cover-up must have come off. How bad does it look?”
“Well, darling, you wouldn’t want to face your public like that.”
“True.” Davida smiled. “They might think that you were beating up on me.”
Mother didn’t appreciate the humor. Her eyes misted. “Bastards!”
“I agree.” Davida took the old woman’s hand, the skin nearly translucent, traced with delicate veins the color of a misty sky. “I’m fine. Please don’t worry.”
“Any idea yet who did it?”
“That’s ambiguous and elusive and I’m not the press, Davida. Have the police made any arrests?”
“Not yet. I’ll let you know when it happens.”
“When, not if?”
Davida didn’t answer. A Latino busboy murmured something polite and removed appetizer dishes. Moments later, he returned with the entrées. Davida wondered why, in fine restaurants, the busboys always served the meal. What were the waiters? Food Transport Consultants?
She thanked him in Spanish and swirled a forkful of pasta. “Delicious. How’s your food, Mother?”
“Fine.” Again blue eyes clouded. Lucille looked close to tears.
“What is it, Mother?”
“It could have been bullets.”
“Luckily, it wasn’t. So let’s just enjoy this meal and being together.” Which was an oxymoron because whenever they were together conflict was inevitable.
Mother harrumphed, and then abruptly plastered a smile across her face as she waved across the room to two women who’d just entered.
Darlene MacIntyre and Eunice Meyerhoff. The duo hobbled over to the table, tongues clucking in unison. Darlene was short and pudgy, Eunice tall and severe with impossibly black hair drawn back in a Dragon Lady bun.
Lucille blew air kisses.
“Darling!” Eunice gushed. “How are you?”
“Fabulous, what else? Enjoying a dinner with my busy daughter.”
Eunice turned her eyes to Davida. “Are you all right, honey?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
“That was just terrible!”
Lucille said, “Not to mention frightening.”
Darlene said, “Motherfuckers!”
Davida broke into laughter, but was grateful that the room was empty. “I couldn’t have said it better, Mrs. MacIntyre.” She took a sip of her wine. “Would you two like to join us?”
“We wouldn’t dream of intruding,” Eunice said. “Your mother rarely sees you.”
“Is that what she tells you?”
“All the time, dear.”
Davida shot a mock-stern look at Mother then focused her gaze back to the two old women. “Well, then, it’s lovely to see you both. Enjoy your evening.”
“You, too,” Darlene answered. “And don’t let those assholes get you down.”
When they’d toddled off, Davida said, “I hardly see you?”
Mother reddened slightly. “Eunice is a troublemaker . . . I don’t complain about you chronically, Davida. That battleaxe is smitten with jealousy because her Jane detests her.”
“Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?”
“Hardly, Davida. Eunice sided with Jane’s ex during the last divorce. Though I suppose one can understand her frustration, seeing as it was a third divorce.” Sly smile. “Or perhaps sixth. Or twenty-sixth, I’ve lost count.”
“Third,” Davida said. “I heard about Eunice taking Parker’s side. On top of being tacky and disloyal, it was misguided. Parker Seldey’s a jerk and a maniac.”
“Once upon a time. I hear he has quite the temper.”
“So do I, but that doesn’t concern Eunice. Because he was courtly to her—remembering her birthday, that kind of nonsense.” Lucille sighed. “One’s blood is one’s blood. Still, by the same token, despite Eunice’s quirks, Jane shouldn’t despise her.”
“She’s angry at Eunice, but she doesn’t hate her, Mother. Believe me, I know.”
Jane Meyerhoff had been Davida’s friend since grade school and one of her roomies at the UC. Both had been rebellious teenagers, smoking dope, skipping school, hauled in more than once for petty theft in Sacramento. Stupid self-destructive acts committed because neither girl liked herself.
Jane had carried fifty extra pounds and hated her “summer squash” nose. She starved and vomited the weight off during her freshman year in college, got the nose job as a junior. But old self-images die hard, and Jane had never been comfortable with who she was.
Probably never would be comfortable, Davida decided with some sadness.
She, on the other hand, came to grips with herself well before college. Everything changed a few months before her senior prom when she came out.
Like birthing a child: painful, but you had something to show for it. Coming out meant life was suddenly honest—illuminated by a clean, bright light Davida had never imagined.
She chewed her pasta while glancing across the table. Mother had many faults, but homophobia wasn’t one of them. She’d never given a rat’s ass that her only surviving child was gay.
Perhaps it was because Mother, though resolutely heterosexual, didn’t care for men in general and hated Davida’s father, in specific.
The Honorable Stanford R. Grayson, District Court Judge (ret.), now lived in Sarasota, Florida, where he played golf with a second wife twenty years younger than Lucille. Mother had been thrilled when the old man got re-hitched, for now she had something else to complain about. And Father had step-grandchildren with Mixie, so he ignored Davida and left her all to Lucille.
If Mother ever felt pangs about her lack of grandchildren, she never expressed her longings to Davida.
Mother picked at her food and pushed it around on her plate. “How often do you see Janey?”
“A bit more since she moved to Berkeley.” Davida smiled tightly. “I try to keep in contact with all my old college roomies.”
Mother had wanted her daughter to go to Stanford. Davida insisted on Berkeley. Once there, she’d never really left, working first as an assistant to the mayor, then moving to the capital, where she gofered for Ned Yellin, the most progressive member of the assembly. Ned’s shockingly sudden death from a heart attack had propelled her own career. Now she represented her district with workaholic pride and loved her job.
Although there were days like yesterday that made her wonder why she’d ever shaken the hornet’s nest that was state politics. It was challenge enough to deal with the vagaries of constituents basically in harmony with her views. Working with—and around—her less- enlightened colleagues could be as frustrating as . . . there really wasn’t anything worse.
Less enlightened; her euphemism of the month. Bigoted and biased would be more accurate. Then again, everyone had his own agenda. She certainly had hers and it had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
When she was ten, her older sister Glynnis had finally succumbed to her protracted battle with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare muscle tumor. Davida had loved her sister and watching Glynnis spend her last days confined to a hospital bed, hooked up to tubes, clammy gown wrapped around a sallow, stick-thin body, bleeding from her gums and nose . . .
Glynnis’ blood cells were in steady retreat and there were no new donors to be found.
Stem cells would have saved Glynnis, Davida was convinced of that. How different would things have been for the Grayson family if the scientific community had been funded righteously?
Two and a half years ago, Davida had been heartened when the people voted in an initiative funding a state stem-cell institute. But years later, she was disillusioned and angry: all the institute had accomplished was creating a board of directors and issuing a namby- pamby mission statement.
“Science works gradually” was the excuse. Davida wasn’t buying it. People like Alice had the answer, but Alice hadn’t even been consulted by the new board—Davida’s repeated requests notwithstanding.
She decided she’d waited long enough. Buttressed by a battalion of scientists, doctors, clergy, humanists and genetic sufferers, she went to war every day in Sacramento, laboring to convince her less- enlightened colleagues that a less grandiose but more efficient legislative approach was the answer.
And got precious little for her efforts.
It wasn’t that the stodgy pols really cared about aborted fetuses, because she’d learned that few pols cared about anything other than getting reelected. Though they screamed a good case. Six months into her struggle, she was convinced it was Davida they were rejecting. Because of who she was.
Day after day of wearing out her vocal cords, making deals she really didn’t want to make, wasting hours on mind-numbing meetings. Now eggs in her face, on her blouse . . . right there on the capitol steps, the humiliation.
What a mess—there was a metaphor for you.
Mother’s voice snapped her back to the here and now. Prattling on about dangers lurking around every corner.
According to Lucille, Davida was a major target of every white- supremacist hate group in California, not to mention Bible Belt pro- lifers, hypermacho antigay farmers from the San Joaquin Valley, and, of course, misogynists of every stripe and gender.
She recalled Mother’s first words after the election results were tallied and Davida’s supporters broke into raised-fist cheers in the social hall of the old Finnish church.
Be careful, dear. Don’t get cocky and think because you can get elected here that you’re really popular.
Mother was being her typical negative self, but there was some truth to her admonitions. Davida knew she’d made many enemies, many of whom she had never met.