The van der Lindens’ house was distinguished from the others on the street by the creeper that covered half the front, running up to the children’s rooms beneath the eaves, where at night the glow from the sidewalk lamp gave to Number 1064 the depth and shadow of a country settlement, somewhere far away from this tidy urban street. Among the row of new Cadillacs, their tail fins glinting like a rumor of sharks, Charlie van der Linden’s two-tone 1953 Kaiser Manhattan, maroon with a cream roof and a dented rear fender, struck a doubtful, out-of-town note.
The house dominated its plot, the architect having sacrificed half the backyard to the status two extra rooms would bring a man. The lawn that remained was part paved, with a brick barbecue and a basketball hoop left by a previous tenant; at the end of the grass was a child’s metal swing which Charlie had assembled after a summer cookout, to the amusement of his children, who had left it to rust unused. Where its neighbors sank their near-identical roots into the earth, this house gave off an air of transience; and when at night the bedroom lights went off along the street, like candles on an old man’s cake, the lamps in the van der Lindens’ house would often start to blaze again as a party spilled into another room. The guests’ cars were parked along the street as far as Number 1082, home to the Washington correspondent of a French magazine that no one had ever seen.
In their rooms, Louisa and Richard stirred occasionally in their sleep as a shriek of mirth came up the stairs or the gesture of some exuberant raconteur sent a glass shattering on the tiled floor of the hall. If the party wore on too long, Mary would go upstairs to check on them, leaning across their beds, fussing over the blankets and tucking them in; sometimes in the morning the children had a memory of her scent, lipstick, gin, and words of love pressed into their ears and sealed with the touch of her fingers.
That December evening, the van der Lindens were having a party. It was to be their last of the decade and it marked the anniversary of their wedding eleven years earlier in London. It was a change for them to have a private pretext; it was a relief not to have to feign interest in a visiting dignitary, a national day or a harassed politician who was passing through Washington in a daze, uttering solemn pleasantries. The guests were a favored variation of the regular diplomats and journalists; there were one or two neighbors, either the most genial or the ones who would otherwise complain; there was also Weissman, Charlie’s doctor, and his Haitian bride.
“To Scottish national day,” said Charlie, flushed and off-duty as he unscrewed a bottle of scotch and poured three fingers of it over ice for Edward Renshaw, his closest ally at the British Embassy. “Tell me, how’s your economy doing these days?”
“It’s a wreck. Chin-chin.”
Mary van der Linden stood in the sitting room, her dark hair alive in the electric glow of the table lamp behind her. Her doting brown eyes returned to Charlie. Here was the fountain of her happiness, her repeated glances seemed to suggest: erratic, flawed, but, in his way, dependable. Mary’s smile was not a thing anyone could predict; she was not the diplomatic wife in all circumstances. To begin with, she was too shy and found each function a trial of her resolve, but she seemed to have a resource of contentment that was stable, beyond the irritation of the day, and when her smile came from that depth, her face was lit with such serenity that people stopped for a moment to watch.
In the kitchen, Dolores, the resident Puerto Rican maid provided by the Embassy, was cutting Wisconsin cheddar into cubes, then impaling them, with olives, onto plastic cocktail sticks. With these and dishes of pretzels, nuts and clam dip with saltine crackers, she loaded another tray and squeezed her way through the hall.
Charlie put a samba record on the phonograph, took a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket and inhaled the smoke as he gazed upon his party. His face, though flushed by broken capillaries and patchily shaved beneath the chin, retained some youthful beauty; his rumpled hair and sagging tie gave him a schoolboy look that the creeping fleshiness about his jaw had not quite dispelled. He saw Mary, now in the doorway to the hall, and smiled at her. It was a complicit smile which acknowledged the joint effort that their days consisted of—the compromises of the guest list, their shared jokes and fears about this man’s wife and that man’s drinking; the daily division of irksome duties, the labor of managing children and the pleasure of having dispatched them, just in time, to bed. Charlie van der Linden was in trouble, not just with his health, but with his life; yet as he caught his wife’s eye he felt he could postpone a reckoning indefinitely, that three more glasses of scotch, a quiet weekend in the rustic inns of the Shenandoah Valley and maybe some hard thinking would see him clear.
“Who’s that man talking to Mary?” Charlie felt his elbow taken by Edward Renshaw.
“He’s a journalist, I think. I bumped into him this morning at the Spanish Embassy do and he claims we’ve met before somewhere.”
“Let’s go and say hello.”
“Eddie,” said Mary, “this is Frank Renzo. Frank’s in town for a few days.”
“Good to meet you.” Frank Renzo was a tall, lean man, his cropped hair showing the first dust of gray; his accent was from the Midwest, perhaps Chicago.
“Do you need a drink, Frank?” said Charlie.
“No, I already have one.”
“What are you doing in town?” said Edward Renshaw politely.
“Just a piece for my paper. I’m based in New York.”
“Well, enjoy yourself,” said Charlie. “Call if we can do anything to help.”
Mary watched as Charlie left the small group and went toward the bar he had set up in the corner of the room. Normally they hired a barman from the Embassy staff to stand behind the row of liquor bottles, but tonight, as a small gesture of economy, Charlie had taken the task on himself. He scooped more ice cubes into the ornamental bucket from a pail concealed beneath the tablecloth.
“They say the Kennedys are buying a new house on N Street,” said the man from the Post. “Martha knows the Realtor who showed them around. Apparently Jackie was crazy for it.”
“Oh yes?” Charlie poured bourbon over ice and heard it snap. “I thought they were buying Joe Alsop’s.” He felt the scotch beginning to take hold, or rather to relax his grip, as he approached the state of uncritical bonhomie he most enjoyed. He smiled to himself. It was of course an irony that only in these moments of inebriation, these instants of perfect balance, did he have the philosophical poise to see his difficulties in their true perspective and to know that he could one day banish them. For the moment he was alive, and he glowed with the pleasure of these people’s company. At bad times he suspected that the fire was not renewable, that, for their delectation, he was burning away the core of himself; he feared that few of them shared his embrace of the minute, or were even momentarily diverted by his defiance of pettiness and tedium and time passing. He had never reached the lowest point of all, at which he might have wondered whether there was something morbid in his being so solitary in his flight from an unnamed terror.
Feeling as good as he did, generosity surging in his veins, tobacco unfurling in his lungs, he had no choice but to push onward.
“We meet on Wednesdays after we’ve taken the kids to school,” Lauren Williams was telling Frank Renzo. “Then for lunch Kelly makes the appetizer, Mary-Beth or I do the entrée and Katy does the dessert. She does the best desserts you ever tasted.”
“And you always have a project?”
“Sure. Sometimes we just have a book we’ve all read, sometimes we’ll go see a show.”
“And is that all the ladies in your group?”
“Oh, no, there’s more. That’s just the inner circle. We’re usually seven or eight. Mary comes along pretty often.”
“And what does she do?”
“You mean, like, what’s her specialty? Well, she brings wine sometimes. You know, coming from Europe. I don’t know.” Lauren Williams began to laugh. “Katy, what does Mary bring to our group?”
“Mary?” Katy Renshaw, too, looking at Frank’s grave face, began to laugh. “I guess she brings culture. Isn’t that right, Mary?”
“Isn’t what right?” said Mary, turning from another conversation.
“In fact,” said Lauren Williams, “Mary’s writing a book.”
“Charlie always says you are.”
“He has to find an explanation for me.”
Mary went with a tray out into the kitchen, where Dolores was stirring a pan.
“Yes, thank you, Mrs. van der Linden. You happy?”
Mary considered, as she leaned back for a moment with her back to the stove and sipped from the glass of gin and tonic with its clashing ice. Happy . . .
When Louisa was twenty months old, she could talk with the fluency of a child of three or four, yet what was in her mind was quite unformed. On the Home Service in London she had heard the stations of the shipping forecast and talked back to them, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, her head cocked to one side, her concentration earnest. In moments of exalted love, of rapture, Mary believed Louisa’s mind was not empty, but filled with clouds of glory from a previous and purer world. She had spent many weeks in hospital with Louisa while doctors tried to discover the source of some violent allergy. When they eventually came home, they were seldom out of the same room. At bath time, while Mary lay back in the water, the child stood hammering at her mother’s raised and closed knees, demanding to be let into the castle that would be formed by their parting. Once inside, she would ask questions about things that puzzled her: America, for instance: how big it was, how far, how different and then, after a long, considering pause: “Do they have children in America?” Now, at ten years old, she had retained that unworldly grace, though she had been bruised by some encounters with the everyday that would have left no mark on others.
Richard, her brother, felt no such pain. To begin with, Mary had worried that she could not love a second child as much. He was so different from his sister that she was astounded to concede that he had eventually quarried out a comparable place in her affections for himself; by brute persistence he commandeered a territory as rare and irreplaceable as that occupied by Louisa. Perhaps it was the smell of him that first intoxicated Mary, of his neck along the hairline when she lifted him from his cot on her return from an evening out: the faint aroma of honey, calico, half-baked bread, wild strawberries, of warmth itself, was so delightful to inhale that she made excuses to “resettle” him, though it was clear that he was already as tranquil as a sleeping child could be. His fierceness was the opposite of Louisa’s detached and dreamlike curiosity; he wanted the same lunch each day, the same program on the wireless and then, at the same hour, to visit the bathroom where he would sit on the wooden seat, the cat clamped beneath his arm while, with tears rolling over his cheeks, he sang “The Camptown Races.”
Happy, thought Mary, as she folded the apron over the back of the chair and straightened her hair in the mirror over the kitchen counter: maybe not exactly happy, not in the facile way the word itself suggested, but who in these circumstances could not at least be touched from time to time by the ridiculous joy of existing?
Back in the sitting room, beneath the simmering layer of fresh cigarette smoke, Duncan Trench was stabbing his finger at Katy Renshaw, Edward’s American wife. Trench’s huge, slabbed cheeks and small eyes gave him what people called a chub-face, though the color of his complexion always reminded Mary not of fish but of undercooked beef.
“If the Negroes in North Carolina want to sit at the lunch counters all day without being served,” he was saying, “then the storekeeper is quite entitled to use reasonable force to evict them. They’re preventing him from making a living.”
Few people knew what Trench’s job in Chancery entailed, but his manner was seldom diplomatic.
“Sure,” said Frank Renzo, “and he’s preventing them from having lunch.”
“There are plenty of other places they can go.”
“But they want to go to Woolworth’s. They like the sixty-five-cent turkey dinner. You ever try it?”
“No, but that’s not the point. What I’m saying is—”
“You should. It needs some gravy. But, you know, it’s pretty good.”
“By refusing to move they’re preventing customers being served.”
“But they are the customers.”
“You know what I mean.”
Mary could see Duncan Trench’s color go from beef to borscht as she moved swiftly into the group.
“Who’d like another drink?” she said. “Duncan, have you met Kelly Eberstadt? She and her husband have moved into Bethesda and—”
“Did you ever hear of a young man named Emmett Till?” said Frank.
“I don’t believe so,” said Trench, as Mary took his elbow and guided him away.
“You’d have liked him. Your kinda guy.” Frank Renzo watched Trench depart; Katy Renshaw stared down at her shiny shoes for a moment.
“Well,” said Katy, looking up brightly again. “Qué será, será.”
“Nice movie. You like Doris Day?”
“Sure I like Doris Day, though I guess I like jazz even better,” said Frank.