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"She has zero taste."
"What's that outfit all about? One-way ticket on the Tacky Express."
"Like Roberto Cavalli threw up on her."
"And her apartment . . ." "You've been?"
"No. But the Kincaids have."
"Constance said it looks as if it was decorated by Charles and Wonder."
"Oh, right, the cheesy firm that just did that new Architectural Digest cover from Hades?"
"No. I'm talking Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Only a blind person could select those horrendous fabrics."
"Oh, Joan, you're too much!"
As Wendy Marshall and Joan Coddington reapplied their lipstick and skewered their fellow guests at the Bateses' cocktail party at the Union Club, Melanie Korn sat paralyzed, in earshot but out of view. She had been unlocking the door to her stall in the powder room when she heard her name in the same sentence as the words "cheap," "classless," and "fried hair." She froze. At first she thought they must have been speaking of someone else. But as the duo continued, sharpening their swords and tongues, rendering her a decimated Melanie-kebab before her very ears, the blood slowly crept to her face. With stealth moves, she relocked the door to the stall and crept back to the toilet, where she sat down on the lid and pulled her legs up to her chest so no one would know she was there. She felt like the little boy in Witness, only she was the murder victim.
"I mean, did you see those hideous metal cranes that she gave the Bates as an anniversary gift?" asked Wendy, incredulous. "Ugh! It was like Bangkok exploded in the foyer."
"Tell me about it," said Joan. "The worst."
"Admit it: they look shipped over from some Thai junk shop. You've got to be certifiably insane to buy those."
"Regina said they went right in the trash."
"She couldn't even give them to Goodwill. It would be bad will to rewrap those."
"Poor Arthur. He totally downgraded wives. I don't think he has a clue that Melanie is so déclassé and malelevé. Most men trade up with their second wives."
Trying to avoid Oksana Baiul-style waterfalls of Max Factor, Melanie lifted a quivering finger to her eye. She had thought those cranes were so chic. She'd seen something similar in the Powells' apartment in House Beautiful. And hell, they were expensive.
"Diandra Korn, she was another level entirely."
"A class act."
"I heard Arty was devastated when she bailed."
"I mean, she was the embodiment of refinement. This one will never have it."
"You wouldn't think it would be possible for one person to get everything so wrong. Her nails? The red is like secretary red. So much orange in it."
"Like I said, what do you expect from a pageant queen-turned-stewardess?"
As their laughter mixed with the sound of compacts snapping shut and Judith Lieber bags being reclasped, the two women exited to the dining room in a flurry of silks, gold, and perfume. As Melanie's knees were shaking both from squatting in a full-on Ashtanga yoga position and from sheer humiliation, she rose unsteadily to her feet. She listened again to make extra sure that her pummelers were gone, then walked out to look at herself in the mirror. What was wrong with her outfit? Roberto Cavalli was on Madison! Maybe it was a little tight, but hell, she had the figure for it, didn't she? Her jewelry seemed right--Catherine Zeta Jones had worn this very necklace to the Oscars. Arthur had told her just minutes ago that her hair looked very pretty. No one could accuse her of having roots. Until her spill of tears, her makeup had been perfect. She didn't understand--what was so wrong with her? Why were people snickering behind her back?
As she rinsed her hands, she felt her sorrow morph into fury. That there had been no welcome mat put out when she married Arthur was enough to deal with. She had assumed it was because this social set preferred the status quo. But what had seemed at first to be a few idle comments about how wonderful Arthur's first wife was had cascaded into a tidal wave of glowing superlatives. Everyone--from the ladies who lunch down to the waiter at Payard and even her own butler, Mr. Guffey--seemed to belong to the Diandra Korn Fan Club. The stiletto shoes Melanie had to fill just kept getting bigger. How could she compete? Even Arthur had once said there was "no comparison" between the two.
Melanie finally pulled herself together enough to leave the bathroom with her head held high, but when she saw Joan and Wendy passing before her, she ducked behind a sweeping Brunchwig & Fils patterned curtain. They fluttered by with gale-force velocity, blind to their cowering, shattered eavesdropper. It seemed so harsh that they could be so happy-go-lucky after savaging her evening.
In the car home, Arthur Korn put a comforting hand on his wife's knee.
"Are you okay, sweetie? You've been pretty quiet. Which is not like you, my little chatterbox."
"I'm fine," she said. Somehow she just couldn't bring herself to confide in Arthur and tell him about the Melanie-in-Cuisinart remarks she had overheard.
"Boy, that party was like a casting call for Night of the Living Dead. Boring zombies at every turn. I was dying for an ejector seat. That snob Philip Coddington talking my ear off, with his family crest blazer. Doesn't let anyone else say a word. What was that crest, anyway? It's like Bambi and a tree or something."
"I'm not sure . . ." murmured Melanie.
"It's ridiculous, whatever it was. Looks like the stupid deer is taking a piss in the woods. What's so fancy about that? He's so proud of his moron ancestry."
Melanie was barely listening. She stared out the drizzle-splattered window, lost in her thoughts. She was motionless except for her right thumb furiously moving over her index finger, chipping away the "secretary red" nail polish. And as the Korns' Bentley glided up Park Avenue, piece after piece of fire-engine-colored lacquer fell to the floor.
The phrase was emblazoned on the apron that Madge, the Vances' housekeeper, wore as she made the final preparations for dinner on a breezy Wednesday night in early September. Drew and John, the Vance boys, had given the apron to her last Christmas after being immediately attracted to the lopsided drawing of an almost psychedelic-looking mushroom.
Madge sprinkled sprigs of parsley on the pummeled veal, scooped some Uncle Ben's onto each plate, and added the buttered haricots verts before bringing the tray of food into the dining room.
"So there we are, in this house in Middle-of-Nowhere, Vermont, baked out of our minds," continued Drew, ripping off a piece of his dinner roll. He nodded thanks to Madge as she placed his meal before him.
His father, Morgan, frowned. "You know that marijuana is not only illegal but also very bad for you--kills the brain cells," he said sternly.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, hey, it's nothing our last president didn't do. Anyway, don't be judgmental. It's a really great story," said Drew.
"So then what?" asked John, his younger brother.
"So we're, like, so out of it. The heater is blasting and no one can figure out how to turn it down, so Cynthia and Whitney just take off their shirts. They're just sitting there in their bras--"
"Who are these young ladies?" interrupted their mother, Cordelia.
"You know them--Cynthia Whitaker and Whitney Coddington," said Drew.
"I can't believe they'd be so promiscuous," said Cordelia disdainfully. Madge put a plate in front of Cordelia, who stared at it with surprise, as if astonished that she would be expected to actually consume something.
"Oh, you'd be amazed, Mom. Anyway, can I finish?" asked Drew.
"Yes, get to the end, for chrissakes," said John, shoving rice and string beans into his mouth. "We don't have all night."
"So, finally there's a knock on the door, and we're like, 'Who the hell is that?' and it's a cop! A female one. And she comes in and looks around, she sees all the bongs and empty beer cans and shit like that--"
"Sorry. And she's like, 'Mr. Lewis asked me to check in on you. He was worried about you guys being out here alone. What I see here is a disaster. It's all illegal, you guys are in big trouble, blah blah blah.' "
"Why didn't you tell us about this? You'll need an attorney!" said Morgan with concern. "I should call Sy Hammerman right now--"
"Wait--hold your horses before you spaz! So then some of the girls start crying. They're totally freaking out, we're so screwed. And Carl is, like, shitting, cause he's on probation for that open can of beer in Martha's Vineyard, and suddenly the cop flips on the stereo and starts taking off her clothes!"
"Heavens!" said Cordelia, raising a hand to her chest.
"She was a goddamn stripper!" Drew said, laughing.
"Awesome! Who hired her?" asked John.
"Well, that's the best part--Carl hired her. He wanted to scare the girls into thinking we'd be busted, but he was too stoned to even remember, so he was freaking out more than anyone at first!"
John and Drew burst out laughing. Morgan studied his boys with contempt mixed with envy. In his day, he would never have used profanity in front of his parents. There was such a lack of respect among the younger generation today. On the other hand, Morgan saw very little of his parents when he was growing up, having been shipped off to boarding school in England at the tender age of six, so he was proud and grateful to have an open relationship with his sons. He didn't want to be the severe disciplinarian that his father had been; he remembered that terrified feeling at the dinner table, when it was politics instead of antics. Morgan couldn't even remember his father very well, just that he read the newspaper a lot and was always away on business, amassing the multimillions that now earned enough interest for them to live, fairly comfortably. He was unable to recollect even one happy family dinner. Not one. He and his sisters were usually relegated to the children's dining room while their parents ate in a very far away parlor in their wing of the house. He had much warmer memories of his nanny, Ruth. She had been the one he missed the most when he was away at school. In retrospect, his parents' complete diffidence toward him seemed like a form of stealth cruelty.
"Mr. Vance? There's an urgent phone call for you," said Madge, standing at the threshold.
Morgan rose quickly. "Thank you--I'll take it in my study. If you'll excuse me, Cord."
Cordelia looked up from her untouched plate. "Of course, dear."
Morgan walked over to her and pecked her on the cheek. "Thank you for dinner. It was wonderful." He left the room.
"Mom, we're outie too," said John.
"Where are you off to?"
"We're going to head downtown to check out Chester's band at Luna Lounge."
"Is that Clark Winthrop's boy?"
"Yes, Mom, and he's twenty-three now. No longer a boy," said John.
"You children are growing up so quickly. Gosh, it seems like just yesterday when I caught you boys running through the apartment throwing water balloons out the window," said Cordelia with a sigh.
"Yeah, Mom, that was yesterday," said Drew.
"You scared the daylights out of poor Mrs. Cockpurse," admonished Cordelia.
"That was hilarious!"
"It cost your father a tidy sum to dry-clean her mink jacket. She had to send it to Maximillian's," she recalled.
"That's 'cause John put Gatorade in his water balloon."
"She shouldn't have been wearing a friggin' fur in September."
"When will you boys grow up?" asked Cordelia, secretly hoping that the answer was never.
"I don't know, Mom," said John, rising. "But thanks for dinner."
"When do you head back to Trinity, John?"
"Well, we'll have to have another family dinner before you go," said Cordelia.
"Sure. Come on, retard."
Drew got up and pecked his mother's cheek.
" 'Bye, Mom, thanks."
The boys left the room and Cordelia stared at their vacant seats. The grand mahogany dining table could comfortably fit twelve, so it looked very empty with just one seated at the head. Cordelia glanced distractedly around the room. The walls had been painted the color of red licorice and featured old Dutch master paintings that had been in Morgan's family for generations. The sideboard was English, George II, as was most of the Vance furniture, which had been both inherited from Cordelia's family and bought at auction, with the occasional purchases from dealers in shows in Maastricht and New York. Silk taffeta curtains reminiscent of turn-of-the-century ball gowns adorned the windows, and an Oriental carpet lined the floor. Mario Buatta had decorated the apartment in the late eighties, and Jerome de Stingol, Cord's best friend in the world, had given it a little "refreshing" just before the millennium. It was a beautiful home, full of exquisite and valuable treasures, treasures that Cordelia and her family had long since ceased to notice.
In fact, Cordelia felt that she could not appreciate anything anymore and that there was nothing to look forward to. It was a strange time. The boys were growing up, Morgan's work was becoming more distracting, charity balls were less interesting: it seemed that life was winding down. She thought about how empty she felt as she distractedly played with her fork. She pushed all of her food to one side of the plate--she had eaten practically nothing at all--and looked down at the delicate rose pattern on the Tiffany china. It was her wedding china. She ran her finger along the gold rim. It had seemed so fancy and elegant when she had registered for it with her mother. Now it had become mere everyday dinner china, nothing special. Funny how things change. Suddenly--she didn't know why--she recalled the words from a song that one of the boys had played over and over again when he was in prep school: "I have become comfortably numb." That said it all.
Meanwhile, across the sixteen-room apartment, Morgan was anything but numb as he clutched the phone in his study. His blood pressure was boiling, and sweat was sliding down his forehead past his graying temples, settling in a pool in his glasses.
"Maria, Maria, just calm down," he whispered into the phone. He glanced nervously through the crack of the door to make sure no one was eavesdropping.
"You want me to fucking calm down?" yelled Maria in her thick Mexican accent. She was calling from the Central Park South apartment that Morgan had recently sublet for her. "Don't you tell me to calm down, mister. My water just broke and I'm here alone! YOU calm your own ass down."
From the Hardcover edition.