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IT HAS BEEN CALLED a city of hills, draped with dreams; it has also been called the city of illusions at the end of day. Those who live there call it simply the City, because for them it is the only city. It has a rim called the Embarcadero, where the streets swoop down Russian Hill to meet the Bay; and on one of these streets, called Green Street, Barbara Lavette lived. Her house, like the other houses on Green Street, was built to compensate for the slant of the sidewalk, an old house with a tiny porch and a bay window; but on the third floor of the house, one could look out of the guest room window and see the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and count, if one cared to, at least a dozen white sails skimming before the breeze. In the summertime, when the sun was sinking to the northwest, one could stand at this window and see the sun leisurely departing through the Golden Gate.
Today, on a bright June morning, Barbara Lavette was carefully choosing a costume for her lunch with the mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein. Having run for Congress and lost, Barbara was not unacquainted with women in politics, but she had chosen only two of them for her devotion. Fortunately she had met both, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dianne Feinstein—Mrs. Roosevelt when she visited Dan Lavette's shipyard during the war, an opportunity given to Barbara because Dan Lavette was her father, and Ms. Feinstein during Barbara's run for Congress. They would lunch today at the Redwood Club, a place not unlike the Century Club in New York, where achievement was more highly regarded than wealth.
Costume was important. She thought of gray silk slacks—but decided they were not for the Redwood Club. After all, women were first admitted only a year ago; a black silk skirt six inches below the knee would suit the place better, with a white cotton blouse and a pink cashmere cardigan. Perhaps a scarf as well. The Redwood Club faced the Pacific and they might dine outside.
The Redwood Club was actually built of redwood, a fact that nettled the environmentalists and that had once caused a brief picket line; but that was years ago, and the environmentalists had decided that it was better to let the Club stand, since they had proven their point, than to tear it down and have some other building material used. The dining room had a high-beamed ceiling and a long bar, and the tables were arranged so that the glass windows could be drawn back, leaving the dining area open to the Pacific. Set between Lincoln Park and the Presidio, it was not a long drive from Barbara's house.
Dianne was waiting when Barbara arrived, and she rose to meet her. "You look absolutely beautiful," Dianne said. "You don't age. What's your secret?"
"Luck. I picked some good genes."
"I remember your mother. You look like her, you know."
"More good luck."
Ms. Feinstein was wearing a beige suit. Barbara could not recollect seeing her in anything but a suit. She was a very attractive woman who always seemed to be downplaying the fact that anyone might consider her beautiful.
They ordered white wine before they pored over the menu, then chose crabmeat salads and engaged in small talk. Dianne mentioned that Barbara's son had been chosen for the post of chief of surgery at the hospital, and congratulated her. She appeared to know everything that happened in the City. She turned the talk to Highgate, the winery that had been so much of Barbara's life, asking whether Barbara's nephew, Frederick, were still running it.
"Everyone dreams of owning a vineyard. Freddie's there for life. He wouldn't think of anything else."
"Well, he certainly has done something for California wine. But I didn't ask you here to chat about your remarkable family, as pleasant as that is. Tell me, Barbara, do you still do columns for the Los Angeles World.?"
"Yes, I do. I love it."
"And Carson?" He was the owner and publisher of the World.
"I was sixty-seven this November past. I never believed I could fall in love again, especially with a man I divorced years ago, but it's happened."
"He's married? Forgive me, that's none of my business."
"He is. Not happily."
"Would he let you do a longer piece instead of a column?"
Wondering where this was leading, Barbara nodded. "Ever since my story on El Salvador was mentioned for a Pulitzer, he's been pleading for another. But I'm too old for investigative reporting."
"Good. All the investigating has been done—I have it here with me. Barbara, we're going to take a step that no other major American city has dared to try, and I think we've got the votes to put it through. We're going to ban the possession of handguns in San Francisco."
Surprised, Barbara said, "Even in homes?"
"Everywhere—on the person, in the home. The police are wholeheartedly with us. As I said, we have the votes, except that one or two are a bit shaky. They're under the influence of some L.A. polls, and I want to shake them loose."
"In L.A., the motto is 'A gun in every home.'"
"Barbara, I know that, which is why I want to blast the subject open on the day we vote. They read the L.A. World here. I want to shake them loose with the leading L.A. paper on our side. That might be just the shove they need, and I know what kind of force and passion you can put into a story. Let me give you a few facts."
Dianne rummaged through her portfolio. "Here are just a few statistics: In 1979, handguns killed 8 people in Britain, 48 in Japan, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in West Germany, and 10,728 in the United States. Oh, I am so sick and weary of this murderous plague, and here in San Francisco we can do something about it. I have five solid votes on the Board of Supervisors. The handgun crowd has four, with the National Rifle Association turning handsprings, and I'm pretty sure that we can swing the gentleman on the fence. That will give us a six-to-four majority—and we'll do something no other big city has dared to touch."
"We dreamed of this," Barbara said. "We never thought it could happen."
"It's going to happen, and you can help us make it happen."
"When is the vote? I read something about next week."
"Three days. Can you write it and get it in the paper by then?"
"I think so. You have all the background material?"
"Everything. The vote is Friday. If they can run it in Thursday's World, that would be perfect, and that would give the media time to pick it up and quote from it. Just anticipating what you would say, I spoke to three radio stations. Two of them will read your column, in full, through commuter time."
"Bless you," Barbara said. "My dad used to say that I spend my life spitting into the wind, something no sound sailor does. But sometimes, just sometimes, the wind turns."
"Yes, it does," Dianne agreed.
THAT AFTERNOON, sitting on her desk, Barbara's old Olympia typewriter appeared to welcome her. No word processor for her; she and the ancient Olympia knew each other.
She had just finished a long telephone conversation with Carson, and the idea excited him. "It's about time the City came to its senses," he said. "Build up Dianne in your story. She's a wonderful woman. Tell her I'll give it front page, two columns, with a banner headline. Barbara, this city is an armed camp. Every man and woman in L.A. wants a gun. We run half a dozen ads a day for shooting instruction. You're right on the nose."
"Fifteen, sixteen hundred words—will that do?"
"Write yourself out. If it has to be cut, I'll cut it—very carefully."
"And how are you feeling, dear man?"
"Good. A little stickiness in the chest, but that's the junk food I'm eating—doctor says it's gas—"
"Oh no," Barbara protested.
"I watch my weight, work out every day. I haven't gained an ounce. And I'll be in San Francisco Friday night. Dinner and other things?"
She was still writing at midnight, her desk covered with stacks of material from Dianne's office: details, statistics, homilies. Her back ached, but the material lured her on: who produced handguns, how they were sold, the political power of the National Rifle Association, the technical changes in guns, the handgun machine pistol, handguns and suicide, handguns and family quarrels. How could she leave out the story of how Dan White walked up to Mayor George Moscone, a man Barbara respected and believed in, and deliberately shot him to death with a handgun? And Dianne Feinstein—Carson wanted a lot about her, of course; she won elections, unlike Barbara Lavette.
At three o'clock in the morning Barbara went to the kitchen for her fourth cup of coffee, and at six o'clock, with the gray light of dawn seeping through the blinds, she finished the two-thousand-word piece and fed the sheets into her fax machine, trying desperately to remain awake. The fax machine was a gift from Carson and it was then so unusual that a local magazine had run a story about the only household in San Francisco with a facsimile processor.
Then Barbara climbed the stairs to her bedroom, tired to the point of utter exhaustion. It had been years since she had worked the night through, and she fell asleep almost instantly. At twelve noon the telephone rang four times before she could shake herself awake, pick it up, and respond rationally:
"Felix Colone." Colone was the managing editor of the World, a dyspeptic, skinny little man who had grudgingly accepted Barbara's place as a columnist. "I have to tell you, Ms. Lavette, that we can't run your story. This is a town where every other citizen has a gun—and I'm referring not to the ghetto or the barrio, but to Hancock Park and West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. In so many words, your article projects a policy that will do nothing and only offend."
Taken wholly aback, Barbara shook her head to clear it. There was no use arguing with Felix. "Let me talk to Mr. Devron, Felix," she said coldly.
"You can't. I'm serving in his place. Mr. Devron died last night."
"What!" Then her voice failed her, and she sat for a long moment, staring at the telephone. "What are you saying?" she managed. "Is this some ugly joke?"
There was no sympathy in Colone's hard-edged voice. "Hardly a joke, Ms. Lavette. Mr. Devron had a heart attack after dinner last night. He was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital but they were unable to revive him. He passed away shortly after ten. And by the way, Mrs. Devron gave orders this morning that your column be terminated immediately. If there is anything I can do for you, let me know."
Her hand trembling, Barbara put down the telephone and stared mutely at nothing. She felt the tears begin and she felt the tears on her cheeks, but inside there was only emptiness, as if she, too, had passed away with Carson. Then the anguish boiled into anger. Her Carson could not have died of a heart attack. She knew the man, every inch of his splendid body, every muscle, every reflex. He was the man who had run the decathlon and won the gold in the Olympics. He had been her husband; they were divorced, and after the divorce he fell into a wretched marriage, and then they became lovers. She recalled how he would pick her up in his arms, as if she were a child—and she was no child, but a solidly built woman of five feet and eight inches.
Grief was not new in her life, but this was not simply grief. She was sixty-seven years old; Carson had been a gift of life, as she felt it, the last gift. Her mind raced crazily. Carson's wife had no love for him, but she would not have divorced him or the Devron fortune— which she would have done anything to have without Carson. His death—as Barbara saw it at that awful moment—liberated his wife and took from Barbara all the hope in the world.
She steadied herself as well as she might, found the number of Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, and asked for Dr. Hazelthorpe. He had practiced surgery with her son, Sam, at Mercy Hospital in San Francisco, when they were both residents; and often Sam would bring him to her house for dinner. She got through to the hospital, told them that it was an emergency, and in a few moments was connected with Hazelthorpe in the doctors' dining room.
"Barbara? Yes, of course I remember you. I was going to call you, but I've been in surgery all morning."
Let it be his excuse, Barbara thought, and said to him, almost bluntly, "I love Carson. How did he die? I must know. Carson was strong and healthy. How did he die?"
"Barbara, this happens to men who appear to be in good health—and sometimes to athletes. As I understand it, Mr. Devron came home from his office and went out to run at a nearby track. He did this several evenings a week before dinner. He collapsed at the dinner table, a massive coronary occlusion. He was dead when the ambulance got there."
"Just like that?"
"Yes, that's how it happens."
"Did his wife call the ambulance immediately?"
"She was at their beach cottage. As I understand it, the butler called the ambulance. Mr. Devron was eating alone. They called me when he came here, but there was nothing we could do. It was too late."
Barbara put down the telephone, her hand trembling. It was too late. Everything was too late.
IT WAS AN HOUR AND A HALF LATER that Eloise Levy appeared at the house on Green Street. Eloise was Barbara's dearest and closest friend, but more than that she was a part of the tangled relationship of the Levys and the Lavettes that had begun over eighty years ago, when Dan Lavette and Mark Levy became partners as shipowners. She was a daughter of the Clawson family, as well known in San Francisco as the Lavettes, and she had married Thomas Lavette, Barbara's older brother. She was a gentle, generous woman, and the marriage had been short and cruel. Divorced, she married Adam Levy, Mark's grandson. Her second child, born of her marriage to Adam Levy in 1948, Joshua by name, had fought in the war with Vietnam, lost a leg, and a few years after his return to California, had taken his own life.
She and Barbara were knit, not only by their fondness for each other, but also by the series of tragedies that both of them had endured. Each was privy to the thoughts and hopes of the other, and when Eloise heard of Carson's death on a morning news report, her first thought was to be with Barbara.
Now, when there was no response to her ring, she used the key to the house that Barbara had given her years ago. Inside she called Barbara's name softly and then glanced at the kitchen and Barbara's study, still littered with the books and papers of the night before.
She went up the stairs and to the bedroom, opened the door quietly, and saw Barbara sprawled on the bed in her nightgown, face buried in a pillow. Eloise's immediate fear was that Barbara had taken her own life, although she would have sworn that Barbara could not do such a thing under any circumstances. Her mind flashed back to the day when she and Barbara had found her son Joshua dead, his wrists cut.
Her voice rose in a shriek. "Barbara!"
Barbara stirred, turned over, and sat up, her face tear stained, her eyes bloodshot, her hair in a tangle. Rushing to her side, Eloise embraced her, and for a minute or so, the two women clung to each other.
"What time is it?" Barbara managed to say.
"Almost two." Eloise went to the window and drew back the drapes. Sunlight poured into the room.
"Two o'clock," Barbara whispered. "How did you know?"
"It was on the radio. I drove here as soon as I could. Are you all right?"
"As all right as I'll ever be, I suppose. I need a shower, Ellie. I have to get dressed."
"I'll make some breakfast. You have to eat."
"No, no." Eloise wouldn't have that. They had the closeness of partners in pain. She went to the kitchen and fixed bacon and eggs and brewed fresh coffee. She recalled a weekend that Barbara and Carson had spent at the winery, and the walk the three of them had taken up the long slope to the top of the hill that overlooked Highgate, the long rows of vines stretching down beneath them, and the old, ivy-covered stone buildings of the winery nestling under red tile roofs. Carson was almost ecstatic that afternoon, bemoaning the fate that had tied him to a newspaper rather than to a winery and telling the girls that this is where he was meant to be and live; and certainly he could have done so if ever he'd had the strength to break loose from his family. He and Barbara had been married a few months before, and already their union was fraying at the edges. Yet Eloise remembered what a splendid pair they were— Carson, the Olympic athlete, with his tall, well-tuned body and his thatch of blond hair; and Barbara, long limbed and free striding, five feet, eight inches—the two of them dwarfing Eloise's five feet, three inches, Eloise being a round, gentle little woman who almost had to run to keep up with them. They had been so full of youth and confidence and strength; and now Eloise's hair was white, and Barbara's hair was almost white, and death had come to her again.
Barbara, dressed in old jeans and a brown shirt, looked at the platter of eggs and bacon and buttered toast in dismay. "Dear Ellie, I can't eat. I'll have some coffee."
Excerpted from An Independent Woman by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1997 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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