What’s a woman to do when her husband loses everything in the stock market . . . then ditches her for his first wife? For Alison Waxman Koff, who up until now has been living the good life in her Connecticut McMansion, the answer is to sell her furs and starts doing her own nails. But that isn’t enough to stave off foreclosure, so she falls back on her one marketable skill: housecleaning . . .
Secretly becoming a maid-for-hire, she piles her Windex, Fantastik, and vacuum into her Porsche and finds her first client: a sleazy celebrity biographer. But after her only customer is killed, Alison’s run of bad luck gets even worse as she becomes a suspect herself . . .
“What’s so great about Heller’s writing is her wit.” —The Plain Dealer
“Will be enjoyed by fans of Susan Isaacs’s After All These Years and Judith Viorst’s Murdering Mr. Monti.” —Library Journal
“A bright, lively comedy that zips right along.” —Booklist
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On October 19, 1987, while I was sitting in Monsieur Mark's Beauty Salon having my legs waxed, my nails polished, and my hair blown dry, the stock market crashed.
Of course, I didn't find out about it until later in the day, when my husband, Sandy, appeared in my bathroom, just as I was stepping into a nice hot Jacuzzi, and delivered the bulletin that we were broke. Just like that. Monday morning we had money, Monday night we did not. Monday morning I was a suburban princess on her way to a manicure, Monday night I was a desperate woman on her way to losing her husband, her home, and her job — and to becoming a murder suspect, of all things. What a difference a day makes.
I remember Black Monday as if it were last Monday. Black Monday. Stock Market Crash Monday. Say Goodbye to the Good Life Monday. Sandy had been speculating in the market on margin and had left himself exposed to potentially big losses if the market were to crash, which, of course, it did on that fateful October day.
"It's gone!" Sandy had yelled, grabbing me by my bare shoulders as I stood knee-deep in swirling hot water.
"What's gone?" I asked, looking down over my nakedness to make sure I hadn't lost one of my body parts.
"Everything." He sat on the edge of the tub with his head in his hands and mumbled something.
"I can't hear you," I said. The motor of the Jacuzzi was drowning him out.
"Our money's gone," he said and began to sob.
I had never seen Sandy cry, so I was more than a bit alarmed. "What do you mean, 'Our money's gone'? Tell me what happened."
"The stock market crashed, that's what happened. We lost it. There's nothing left."
"How can that be?"
"It just is. And what is, is." Sandy had taken a course in est in the mid- seventies and resorted to est-speak whenever he was under stress.
"But Sandy, all our money isn't in the stock market. We have Money Market Funds and Treasury Bills and IRA accounts."
"Not anymore. I converted all of that to stocks months ago."
"You what?" Suddenly, I thought I might hurl my lunch right into the Jacuzzi. All our money was in the stock market? The stock market crashed? We were broke? It was too much to bear. Quick! A joke! A joke! When in pain, make a joke, Alison. That's always been your credo. Think of something amusing to make it all go away. Crack yourself up so you won't have to feel anything. "Sandy," I ventured. "What's the definition of an economic advisor?" My husband gave me a disbelieving stare. "Someone who wanted to get into accounting, but didn't have the personality." I waited for him to get the joke. He didn't; he looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. But I hadn't lost my mind, just my money. Sandy's money. The very money I'd married him for.
"Alison," he said as patiently as possible, realizing how traumatized I must be to tell a joke at a time like this. "It's true. All our money was in the market, and the market crashed today. Try to deal with it. Like I am."
I took a few slow, deep breaths. "Okay. Okay. I'm calm. I'm rational. So tell me: why on earth did you put all our money in the stock market?"
"You never complained about the way I managed our money in the past."
"And I'm not complaining now. I'm just trying to 'deal with it,' as you say. So tell me why you put everything we had in the stock market."
"Because I was doing well in the market. I was making money for us — so much money that I decided to put our assets where I could really keep an eye on them."
"But Sandy, you're not an investment banker. You're a retailer. You sell clothes and shoes and underwear." My husband ran Koff's, our town's biggest and oldest department store.
"Yeah, but all the guys are in the market now, Alison. Look at Bert Gorman and Alan Lutz. Bert may be a dermatologist but he calls his own trades. So does Alan and he's a dentist. It's not that big a deal."
"Not that big a deal? You tell me you've lost all our money and it's not that big a deal?" My face was flushed and my legs were numb from standing in the hot Jacuzzi water for so long. I climbed out of the tub and wrapped myself in one of the Adrienne Vittadini bath towels I'd bought at Bloomingdale's. Then I waited for Sandy to say something psychological, something est-like, the way he usually did when there was trouble.
"All right. I fucked up," he said finally. "But I'm owning up to it. I'm getting in touch with my pain, my guilt, and my shame. In fact, I'm getting so in touch with my shame that I've decided we should leave town. I can't face people whispering about me in restaurants."
"Leave Layton? You must be kidding." A rural yet sophisticated Connecticut town nestled along the shores of the Long Island Sound, about an hour and fifteen minutes from Manhattan, Layton had been my home all my life. "We can't leave Layton, Sandy. We live here. Our parents live here. And what about your job at Koff's? The store's a Layton institution. A gold mine. So don't worry. You'll make our money back in no time."
"Haven't you heard a word I said, Alison? The stock market went under! You think the store won't go under next? You think people will have money to spend on designer clothes now? Come on, kid. Get real."
I was real, kid. That was the problem. Try as I might, I couldn't escape the awful reality that our "abundant life," as my favorite magazine Town & Country called it, was about to be over.
Of course, Sandy was right when he predicted that the stock market crash would turn Koff's business to shit. Thanks to a skittish economy and an even more skittish consumer, his income from Koff's fell off dramatically. So did his spirits. He became utterly despondent over the downturn his finances had taken, and his despondency sent him back into therapy with Dr. Weinblatt, the psychologist he'd consulted when his first marriage broke up.
Apparently, Dr. Weinblatt made Sandy nostalgic for the good old days of that first marriage, because ten months after Black Monday stripped me of whatever sense of security I had, Sandy announced he was leaving me for his first wife.
It happened on a Tuesday night in August, an evening I came to call Black Tuesday. Sandy and I were having Chinese take-out food for dinner. We always had Chinese takeout food for dinner on Tuesday nights because Tuesday was Sandy's therapy night. Some husbands have their bowling nights; my husband had his therapy night.
Sandy preferred eating at home after therapy. He said he felt too "exposed" after his sessions with Dr. Weinblatt to go to a restaurant where people would be scrutinizing his every move. Sandy suffered not only from an aversion to being scrutinized, but from a delusion that people in restaurants found him interesting enough to scrutinize.
There was a decent Chinese restaurant right next door to Dr. Weinblatt's office, so our routine on Tuesday nights was for Sandy to stop at the Golden Lotus before his session, place our order, pick up the food after his fifty minutes with Dr. Weinblatt, and bring it home.
"Home" was an 18-room, 7,200-square-foot brick Georgian colonial. No, the house didn't have water views, but it was considered one of Layton's prime properties because of its four-plus acres and numerous outbuildings — "dependencies," the realtors called them. They consisted of a guest cottage, staff apartment, and party barn, none of which we had used in months, as we no longer had any guests, staff, or parties.
When we bought the house in 1984, Sandy suggested we name it. "All estates have names," he assured me. I was skeptical. I thought it was pretentious for a nouveau riche Jewish couple named Alison and Sandy Koff to try and act like old-money WASPs, who routinely gave their houses names like "The Hedges," "Harmony Hill," or "Tranquility." But we kicked around some possibilities one night and I started to get into the whole thing. Eventually, we settled on "Maplebark Manor," a name that gave the century-old maple trees on the property the respect and recognition they deserved.
Maplebark Manor was decorated in Greed-Is-Good Eighties style. In other words, we spent an obscene amount of money on a well-known New York decorator, who made us feel so insecure about our taste in furnishings that we allowed him to transform our home into the chintz capital of the United States. Nancy Reagan created the slogan "Just Say No" for people who are tempted by drug pushers, but I think it's equally appropriate for clients who are intimidated by their decorators.
Despite all the chintz, the house had many wonderful features — spacious bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and fireplace; baronial, high- ceilinged "public" rooms; and an enormous, eat-in kitchen, which, after our $50,000 renovation, boasted sparkling new floors, cabinets, counter tops, and state-of-the-art appliances but was supposed to look like it had been that way for generations. The room I loved most was on the second floor. It had once been used as a children's wing, but we converted it into a large office for me. We had decided to postpone having children until we were older. I was thirty- four when we bought the house and Sandy had just turned forty — old enough, you're probably thinking, but the trend among driven, I-want-what-I- want-when-I-want-it couples of the eighties was to wait until their child- bearing years were just about over, then try their overachieving hardest to get pregnant, become incensed when they couldn't, divert the thousands of dollars they'd been spending on their houses, clothes, and cars to in vitro fertilization and fertility drugs (don't let anyone tell you the drug of the eighties was cocaine — it was Clomid), and then, when nothing worked, drive themselves even crazier trying to decide what to do next: adopt, join a Big Brother/Big Sister program, forget about children altogether or take a soothing trip to the Caribbean to think about all of the above.
The room that was now my office faced south, was flooded with sunshine most of the day, and overlooked our swimming pool, tennis court, and gardens. It was in this room that I wrote articles about celebrities. I was a freelance writer whose work appeared in the Layton Community Times, a twice-weekly newspaper serving the residents of Layton and neighboring towns.
Big deal, you're probably thinking. So she writes for a dinky local paper. What kind of celebrities could she possibly get to interview?
Plenty, I promise you. First of all, Layton has its very own community playhouse that does revivals of the best Broadway shows, and I was the reporter who covered all the openings and interviewed all the stars. Second of all, Layton is home to dozens of famous people — movie stars, TV personalities, writers, rock stars, you name it — most of whom are only too happy to plug their latest ventures.
It was in my capacity as celebrity reporter for The Layton Community Times that I met Sandy Koff — Sanford Joshua Koff, the son of the Koff behind Koff's Department Store, a retailer who was around long before the Gaps and Benettons came to town. The occasion for my interview with Sandy was the announcement in March of 1983 that his father was retiring and turning over complete control of the store to Sandy.
I looked forward to our meeting because I'd heard Sandy was newly divorced. I was newly divorced myself and living in the two-bedroom condo I had shared with my first husband, Roger, who had left me and his medical practice to become a G.O. at Club Med. Roger's father owned a button business in Long Island and was very rich. As a result, Roger was very rich, which was why he could afford to become a doctor and then decide not to.
The day I met Sandy was a good hair day; my shoulder-length, brown locks, which have a tendency to frizz, had not done so. I remember looking at myself in the mirror that morning and thinking, Not too shabby, Alison.
Actually, I'm not bad-looking. I'm thin (size 6) but not profoundly flat- chested (size 34B), am of average height (5'5"), and have remarkably even features for a Jewish person (no hook nose). I have a raspy voice, big brown eyes, and freckles across my nose. People say I look like the actress Karen Allen, which means that I also look like the actresses Brooke Adams and Margot Kidder, because Karen Allen, Brooke Adams, and Margot Kidder look the same.
My interview with Sandy took place in his office on the second floor of Koff's Department Store.
"Nice to meet you," he said, getting up from his chair and stepping around his big desk to greet me. I could tell he was checking out my outfit and wondering if I'd bought it at Koff's.
I explained the nature of my article to Sandy and we chatted about his plans for the store. I sensed that he was a very sincere person because of all the psychological things he said during our first forty-five minutes together. Psychological things like: "I've been struggling to get in touch with my conflicts about surpassing my father." And: "I have a primal urge to succeed as well as a subconscious wish to sabotage my success." Not having had much exposure to psychology, I assumed that people who spoke in psychological terms were more open and trustworthy than people who didn't. And, God knows, after having been raised by a mother whose idea of openness was never telling people her real age, and after having been married to a man whose idea of trust was leaving it to his secretary to tell me he was divorcing me, I was in the market for an open and trustworthy person.
I responded positively to Sandy's appearance, too. He had a nice smile, with big white teeth that positively shone — a smile that broke up his long, thin, somber, Stan Laurel face and gave it some warmth. He also had a long, thin nose, long, thin fingers that had little black hairs growing around the knuckles and were manicured, and a long, thin body. As a matter of fact, everything about Sandy Koff was long and thin, except his very dark hair, which was short and thin, and his penis, which was long and fat. (More on that later.) He wasn't your basic leading man, but I found him attractive in a Tony- Perkins-with-a-receding-hairline sort of way. I was particularly taken with his Adam's apple, which bobbed up and down with such ferocity that I couldn't take my eyes off it.
The other thing I noticed about Sandy that first day was how tan he was for the middle of March. He told me that he had just come back from Malliouhana, the resort in the Caribbean that used to be a little-known hideaway for sleek and sophisticated Europeans but was now, after being featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," the vacation-spot-of-the-moment for the Rolex set, i.e. suburban doctors, lawyers, and garmentos. If you were on the beach at Malliouhana and yelled, "Is anyone here named Irving?," every man in the place would say yes.
Sandy and I started dating right after that meeting in his office. He took me to lunch. He took me to dinner. He took me to sporting events. He took me to romantic little inns in Vermont. He introduced me to his friends. He introduced me to his parents. He even introduced me to his "physical catalyst," which is what he called his personal trainer, who came to his house three mornings a week and showed him how to pump iron. Before I knew it, we had memorized each other's phone number and given each other intimate little nicknames (my name for Sandy was Basset, because he reminded me of a basset hound; his name for me was Allergy, because the word sounded like Alison and because I apparently got under his skin like a pesky rash). Before I knew it, we had told each other juicy and disgusting things about our first spouses. Before I knew it, we had grown comfortable with each other, especially in bed: I no longer slept in the nude, he no longer asked me to sleep in the nude; I no longer acted as if I enjoyed giving him a blow job, he no longer acted as if he didn't notice that I didn't enjoy giving him a blow job. Before we knew it, we were an eighties couple in love.
What about passion, you ask? I wasn't looking for passion then. I just wanted some certainty in my life — some guarantee that the man I married was loaded. This I learned from my mother, who told me over and over that a man wasn't to be trusted unless he had money; that he wasn't worthy of respect unless he had money; that he certainly wasn't marriage material unless he had money — preferably inherited and earned. After years of such brainwashing, the best I could deduce about men was that it was okay to harbor a secret sexual attraction for a gas station attendant as long as the guy you married owned the pumps.
So I married Sandy Koff, who had money, in 1984. He seemed very happy. So did my mother. Two out of three was pretty good, I thought, which tells you something about my level of expectation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Clean Sweep"
Copyright © 1994 Jane Heller.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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