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BILLY AND GILLY
SCREWED. It was, Gillian realized, an obscene word. But it was the word that came to mind. Screwed. It had been, after all, an obscene act. She tried not to think about it. She was driving, floating actually, toward her new house, floating past the freshly butchered lawns dotted with the twisted golden butts that were the year's first fallen leaves, past the homes built low and the swimming pools and the kempt hedges and all the trappings that went into the unincorporated village of King's Neck.
Screwed. The word kept coming back to Gillian Blake. Small wonder. For on that bright first Friday morning of October, Gillian had discovered through relatively traditional methods—specifically through the good offices of the Ace-High Private Investigators, Inc.—that her husband had been spending his every weekday afternoon in an apartment leased by one Phyllis Sammis, a twenty-two-year-old Vassar graduate with stringy hair, gapped teeth, horn-rimmed glasses and peculiarly upright breasts. Gillian Blake had paid the Ace-High people six hundred and seventy-five dollars (including expenses) to learn that William—or Billy, as he was known to the rest of the world, or at least that portion of the world described in certain circles as the Metropolitan Listening Area—had been leaving his office every afternoon at 2:45, taking a taxicab to the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street, walking a half block south, climbing two flights of stairs and entering the apartment rented by Phyllis Sammis, recently hired production assistant on The Billy & Gilly Show.
Now Gillian was floating slowly past the road signs (Stop and Hidden Driveway and Slow Children and Yield and Stop again). Floating. It was this floating feeling that had drawn her to King's Neck in the first place. King's Neck, a boomerang of land twisting out from the mainland into the waters of Long Island Sound. Floating, floating toward the three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car house that was, as the man said, within easy commuting distance (forty-one minutes) of Manhattan and within sight (nine miles, through leaves) of the Connecticut shoreline.
Screwed. It was not so much that William Blake had cheated on Gillian Blake. Nor even that Billy had cheated on Gilly. In a sense, a quite real sense, he had cheated on that portion of the world known as the Metropolitan Listening Area. For William Blake was half of The Billy & Gilly Show, fifty per cent of "New York's Sweethearts of the Air," part of a radio team that five times a week dispensed a blend of controversy, information and ... love. The show, so the announcer said every weekday morning at five seconds past nine, provided "a frank and open look into the reality of marriage in the crucible of modern living."
What held the show together (every poll indicated) was the quality of the marriage, the fact that this was a meeting of minds as well as bodies. The fact that every woman listening (the listenership was eighty-four per cent female) sensed that this was the way marriage should be. In cheating on Gilly, Billy had cheated on an audience that regularly numbered over eight hundred thousand—or at least he had cheated on eighty-four per cent of that audience. It was, when you considered it, an act of breathtaking infidelity.
Floating then into the circular driveway, mashed gravel, one and a half acres, imitation Tudor, water view, $85,000. There were several possibilities. She could, and the thought seemed strangely appealing at the moment, put arsenic in William's morning coffee. She could sue for divorce in any state in the Union and get it, along with a fair share of William Blake's not inconsiderable inheritance. These alternatives were considered, savored, ultimately discarded. The difficulty was that either course of action would mean the demise of The Billy & Gilly Show. And the show was what kept Gilly alive.
The car was parked. The keys were in her purse. Still, Gillian Blake did not move. There was yet another possibility. Gillian Blake could even the score. Absurd? Well, why not? King's Neck could be her laboratory, her testing ground. She could, with the cool detachment of a scientist, gather all the raw data necessary to determine how other marriages were faring "in the crucible of modern living." In the process, Billy would be screwed. Good and screwed.
She stepped from the car then, walked over fresh slate to the front door, past the bogus pillars, through the twin front doors. The clock showed it to be three in the afternoon. William was, if the pattern of the past week held true, mounting the down elevator from his office, mounting the downtown taxi, mounting a mousy twenty-two-year-old girl with remarkable breasts.
Damn Billy! Damn him anyway! But why all this outrage? Gillian realized it was not simply that William Blake had made a mockery of her marriage. Even worse he had made a mockery of her radio show. The show had started as a cliché patterned after a formula that was perfected in the thirties. The thing that had kept it alive was Gillian Blake. And vice versa. It was what defined her, fulfilled her. It was what had saved her marriage this long, and it had quite possibly saved her life.
Gillian did not take full credit for the success of the show, even in her thoughts. It was, after all, a smooth division of labor. Gillian had proved adept at dragooning the squadrons of sociologists, the marriage counselors, the new authors, the broad spectrum of human engineers, onto the show. A few of the guests were clients of William's youthful public relations firm. Billy clarified, condensed, summed up—seldom departing from the role of straight man. Gilly stimulated, interpreted, played devil's advocate.
It had become so much more than a radio program. It had become, in time, an ideal marriage placed on display every morning for eight years, a model marriage that had been celebrated in three national magazines (one cover), a sophisticated blend of two disparate personalities.
Marriage ... show—it had been a curious relationship. When the show had begun, marriage was new. As the show took on a life of its own, the marriage became somehow less alive. Now, Gillian reflected, it was almost as though the relationship had been parasitic, as though the show had begun to suck the life juices from the marriage it honored. It was the show that ate up long hours with a new book; it was the show that had at first determined there would be no children (until William's sterility had been medically established); it was the show that had required the presence of the twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of Vassar. It was the show that prevented Gillian from contemplating such eminently logical solutions as murder or divorce.
Screwed. Gillian let her clothes fall on the dressing room carpet and studied the mirrored full-length portrait of herself. She understood her value to men, had felt their reaction often enough. Guests on the show, construction workers, taxi drivers—they all reacted. And why shouldn't they?
Her skin, the color of India tea at summer's end, flowed nicely over a slender frame. The breasts were small but she wore them well at age twenty-nine. Her legs were superbly designed. The hips, though trim, were deceptively full. Gillian advanced on the mirror, appraised the close-up image. Her long hair was light and now sun-streaked, gathered in a mist around her shoulders. If her lips were a trifle small, they nonetheless served to accentuate the perfectly straight line of her nose. The total effect was a blend of the aristocratic and the sensual.
Gillian turned from the mirror. The mirror, after all, couldn't reflect the most essential attribute of them all. Gillian walked to the bar, made herself a pitcher of martinis, sat drinking, naked in the Eames chair—cold leather against skin, nice. The major quality was something reactive, a chameleon quality that somehow enabled her to transform herself in the eyes of any man. She could become—and she had felt the process often enough to know its validity—pale of skin, full-breasted, intellectual, sexy, aloof. She could be whatever the man happened to be looking for at the moment. She could become any man's dream woman, and somehow accomplish it without relinquishing her own identity.
William had noticed this, had noticed it but never understood it. He had somehow confused it with coquettishness. Whenever a male guest would challenge Gillian, would display an intellectual vigor or simple male virility, Gillian would, as William put it so inadequately, "flutter her fan." William claimed to have developed an emotional radar to his wife's vibrations, but William so often missed the point, mislabeled the process. It was a process of becoming. It existed not in mechanical tricks but in acute sensitivity; it took place not in her physical alterations but in the eye of the beholder.
Hers was a talent that ought to be intensively exploited, thought Gillian, before she fell asleep. It was a deep but disturbed sleep, a heavy buzzing sleep that ended shortly after eight o'clock with the arrival of an unfaithful husband.
"For chrissake, look at yourself," he said. "It's past eight for chrissake."
"That's cute," she said. "Do you do the weather too?"
"I mean it, it's eight-damn-o'clock."
"So it's eight o'clock," she said. "So what?"
"Don't tell me you don't remember. The damn party begins at 8:30. Oh no you don't, don't give me one of those looks. This wasn't my idea. You were the one who told me about it, an end-of-summer blast, remember? Two houses over and one down. The wops. Remember now?"
The details returned to Gillian—of course, the party—and she stood up. Not until that instant did she realize she was still naked. She walked over to William, brushed meaningfully against him, then noticed the fresh lipstick prints on his collar. Those slight red smudges—was it carelessness, stupidity, a Freudian reflection of guilt?—irritated her almost as much as the thought of his infidelity. That bastard.
"We don't have to go to the party," she teased. "We could stay home and ... oh ... christen the new house properly. It's been a long time, Billy."
"We've got to get a move on...."
"But isn't there anything you'd rather do?" she said. "Any little thing I might do for you?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact there is," he said. "One little thing you could do for me is hurry-the-hell-up and get into something decent. It's bad enough we've got to go through this thing. Let's not make it any more complicated than we have to."
But it was complicated, extremely complicated. For at that moment Gillian was settling finally on her plan of action. As she selected her dress for the party—emerald green, high in front, low in back—Gillian found herself shivering. In anticipation.
The only uncomfortable moment of the evening came when their hosts—Mario and Donna Marie Vella—greeted them at the door. Donna Marie was short, stout and faintly mustachioed; she looked as though she might faint dead away at the thought of having the Billy and Gilly in her home. And Mario's introductory act, his welcoming gesture, was to hand William his business card, embossed, indicating that he was the executive officer of both the Bella Mia Olive Oil Company and the Fort Sorrento Construction Company.
"Charmed, I'm sure," William said, as only he could say it.
"We certainly appreciate," Gillian said, stepping on his line, "your inviting us newcomers to your home."
After that, needless to say, matters improved. There was, as Gillian had anticipated, a wide selection of men. Fat, thin, short, tall, introverted, extroverted, dumpy, dashing—the full assortment. She mentally resolved not to rush things. At first she contented herself with remaining beside William, allowing him to squeeze her hand and pat her cheek—doing what he had always done, putting the model marriage on public display. Oh, you electronic lovebird, she thought. William was, in fact, the first subject, the first of the adult males residing in King's Neck to come under Gillian's scrutiny that evening.
He was, she decided, the best looking man in the room. Best looking, in the conventional sense. William had been told in his youth that some day he would be able to serve as a stand-in for Prince Philip. Now, approaching his middle years, he more closely resembled the well-dressed dummies in the Brooks Brothers windows. Bland. But he was still trim (regular workouts at the New York Athletic Club), polished (Princeton), at ease with the mighty (scion of the banking Blakes) and an asset to any gathering. The one apparent flaw was a jawline that lacked definition. Oh, say it—a weak chin.
Before beginning his second drink, William had managed to surround himself with those few people of King's Neck who might qualify as resident intellectuals—such people as Rabbi Joshua Turnbull and lawyer Melvin Corby. There was, too, an outer concentric circle of women, the kind of women who always basked in that invisible light cast by certifiable celebrities.
"And I'll maintain," William was saying, "that without parties such as these, suburbia, per se, would disintegrate before our eyes. These are, after all, not merely social gatherings. They are, in the psychological sense, encounters—they're what we have instead of group therapy. It's my sincere feeling that if everyone in the country would go to just one suburban party a week, psychoanalysis would soon go out of vogue."
Gillian's shrug turned into a shudder. William was doing his Hugh Downs imitation—locating his conversation on the right side of pompous and the wrong side of stuffy. His voice—a narcissistic and mellifluent instrument of torture—was professionally resonant, overwhelmingly smooth, always able to intimidate lesser voices and superior intellects in any gathering. The immediate conversation was more than passingly familiar to Gillian; it was a replay of last Tuesday's radio show. Gillian edged slowly away from the group and her space was filled by a plump and matronly woman with eyes that were devouring William.
Working her way toward the bar in an adjacent room, Gillian paused to take note of the décor. Fake beams that had been scarred by an ineptly wielded claw hammer; tapestried walls; lampshades with fringes; gaudy oil paintings of watery sunsets and Italian hill villages; everything overstuffed and red and silk. Expensive and atrocious.
On her way she met the Goodmans—Marvin and Helene. She walked unannounced into what seemed to be a family quarrel of some duration. Marvin Goodman's voice was raised, and tiny bubbles of perspiration were bursting on his forehead: "Ernie Miklos's wife says she can get by on thirty-five dollars a week—thirty-five dollars a week for food and car." By way of response, Helene Goodman calmly and methodically unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse. Gillian noted a strange phenomenon—as her husband's voice rose, so did her bustline. It led to a lowering of his eyes, a lowering of his voice and finally an end to the discussion.
Then she encountered her next-door neighbors, the Earbrows—Morton and Gloria. Morton's fingernails carried the residue of his day's labors, a colorful mixture of green paint and grease. He was sound asleep. His young wife, Gloria, was holding the attention of a small male audience by explaining precisely how one scraped paint from cement walls, the proper way of cleaning a paint brush, the relative advantages of a Black and Decker five-eighths-inch drill, what steps should be taken to prepare a lawn for a fall seeding—all of this while her husband snored his way into an ever-deepening sleep.
Gillian turned to meet Willoughby Martin and his friend, Hank. Willoughby was saying, "We really must take a drive soon; the foliage in Maine is already changing and before too long it will all just be ... oh ... a riot of color."
And Hank said, "Yes, in a few weeks it should be simply breathtaking."
Then Gillian was introduced to the Madigans—Agnes and Paddy. "Paddy Madigan, the fighter?" she said.
"That's right, dear," Agnes said. "Many think the finest left-handed fighter ever to contend for the light-heavyweight championship of the world."
Gillian then complimented Paddy Madigan on his remarkable physical condition. Paddy said nothing and Agnes did the responding: "Thank you, dear, we still manage to do our morning workouts, summer or winter, makes no difference." Gillian then asked Paddy what business he had entered since his retirement. Again Agnes answered for her husband: "Oh, we just putter around the house these days, doing the gardening and so forth."
At this point, what Gillian wanted was another drink. Before she could reach the bar, Mario Vella, their host for the evening, was standing up on a stool, calling for everyone's attention.
"Quiet, please," Mario said. "Please now, ladies and gentlemen, quiet down now. Tonight, by way of a little entertainment, we have a very special surprise for our neighbors at King's Neck. I have persuaded my very good friend, Johnny Alonga, to come here and favor us with a few of his hit songs."
Gillian was momentarily surprised. Johnny Alonga was a rising young singing star, reportedly Mafia-sponsored, who had sung a song, "A Dying Love," that had been on the charts for over a year. There had not yet been a second hit record. Possibly because Johnny Alonga's syrupy voice made Jerry Vale's seem crisp by comparison.
Excerpted from Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe. Copyright © 1969 Penelope Ashe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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