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By Nancy Geary
Warner BooksCopyright © 2001 Nancy Whitman Geary
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI couldn't have picked a better day for her to die. I like the idea of July Fourth, the Day of Independence. Tonight, fireworks will explode against the blackened sky in bursts of green, red, blue, and gold. Sparklers will sizzle while I celebrate in private the true liberation. As years pass and I advance toward my own death, the anniversaries of this day will sustain me.
I wonder if she will know it is her last breath. I wonder whether she will experience the agony of dying, of squarely facing her own mortality, of realizing what she has done, what pain she has caused, or whether it will all be over so soon that she will remain in ignorant bliss. I'll never know, but I will forever wonder what she feels as she collapses. Does she have a single regret?
I've never seen the inside of a morgue, that place where she'll be stored along with all the other unlucky souls. She wouldn't like the motley company, but death is democratic. It doesn't much care who you were, where you came from, or what you did. No one gets to be special.
There will be an autopsy. Certainly her death is a surprise. But if I've done everything right, the medical examiner will be disappointed. He'll find no poisons, lesions, evidence of violence. Her death will be declared an accident. Only I know otherwise.
Alone, I content myself with the knowledge that I am right to have done what I've done. I know that. My hatred is unambiguous. The depths of my pleasure at her death are unfathomable. The world is a better place without her.
Wednesday, May 20
Why am I the only one willing to admit what we're all thinking?" Clio Pratt's voice filled the rectangular sunroom. The afternoon heat through the rows of mullioned windows baked the terra-cotta tiled floor. She leaned forward, rested her elbows on the tabletop, and clasped her fingers. Her eyes scanned the faces of the five men and women seated around her.
"Henry Lewis does not belong here."
Gail Davis, a middle-aged woman with platinum hair tied back from her face with a grosgrain bow, averted Clio's gaze. Gail played with the clasp on the shell-shaped earring that she had removed from her left earlobe. She looked out the window at the expanse of grass tennis courts and listened to the spray of the sprinkler system watering the acres of green. Her pulse rose by several beats per minute.
The six people seated around the table constituted the Membership Committee of the Fair Lawn Country Club, a private tennis establishment situated on twenty-six acres in Southampton, on the south fork of Long Island, New York. The sprawling shingled clubhouse with its weathered porch and adjacent rose garden, thirty-six grass tennis courts, and renovated health club provided an idyllic setting for its more than five hundred member families to pass summer days. The Pro Shop offered fashionable tennis attire emblazoned with the club's logo, an interlocked monogram, for which the only acceptable method of payment was a house charge. Less athletic members could play croquet or run up healthy bar tabs from Pimm's Cup with celery or vodka Southsides mottled with mint.
On this particular Wednesday, the Membership Committee gathered for the last time before the official start of the summer season, the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Gail looked down at the stack of folders in front of her, material that she had distributed to members of the committee well in advance. Each one represented a family, couples who had spent all winter lobbying other members for approval, gathering recommendations, and endearing themselves. Gail knew that many would be disappointed with the outcome of this meeting and would have to reapply the following fall, if at all.
"Henry is a respectable man. He and Louise come with impeccable credentials," George Welch, the committee's vice president, countered. "If I could be so bold, I might add that Louise's parents have been members here for longer than you." He shifted in the wicker armchair.
The overhead fan slowly circulated humid air.
"I tend to agree with George," said Wallace Lovejoy, revealing a hint of a British accent. Wallace ran his fingers through his shock of white hair as he glanced down at the pages in front of him filled with personal information on Henry Lewis. "Look, Henry's mortgages are low on both the house here as well as the city apartment. His girls are in private schools." He lifted his eyes and removed his half-glasses. "He's a first-rate cardiac surgeon. His wife couldn't be more gracious, or pleasant to be around. I've never heard one word of financial instability, marital infidelity, anything unsavory. What more do we want?"
The room was quiet.
"And how many times have you and Maggie included the Lewises in your summer entertaining schedule?" Clio asked. It was no secret to the assembled group that the Lovejoys socialized with a more diverse crowd than most. They had been known to attend at least one Greek Orthodox wedding, as well as several Bar Mitzvahs, to travel as far as East Hampton for a lively cocktail party, and even to mingle with the new money, those who had gravitated to eastern Long Island in recent years complete with armed security guards and indoor media centers.
"That's not the point," George said, defending Wallace.
Wallace inhaled, looked down, and appeared to search for a crack in the tiled floor. "We haven't had the pleasure, but I've run into Henry at numerous professional functions."
"I see," Clio said.
"But I expect this summer to be different. We really do like the Lewises, would like to see more of them, socially, I mean."
"Why don't we vote?" Gail spoke up. "We've all had ample opportunity to review his file, to meet with him. What else is there to do?" Gail glanced at her thin gold wristwatch. As secretary to the Membership Committee, it was Gail's job to move through the entire agenda in a timely manner, count and record the vote, and issue notifications of the committee's decision. In situations like this, she wished she had never been appointed to the position. She liked neither dissension nor debate. At the time of her appointment, though, the committee considered only females appropriate for the position, and of the women members, she was an ideal candidate. She had built a successful interior design business, personally selecting tissue box covers, coordinated bed skirts, coffee mugs, and other intimate details of most homes in the area. Her social calendar was filled months in advance. She was a lively conversationalist, never burdened a dinner companion with bad news or complaints, and remembered promptly to write thank-you notes.
"A vote is premature. Henry Lewis hasn't even had the benefit of a thoughtful debate." George's voice sounded nervous, slightly hysterical for a man practiced in maintaining composure. Beads of perspiration glistened on his sunburned face. He reached into the back pocket of his khaki slacks for a handkerchief and patted his forehead.
"I don't care how charming, how intelligent, or how perfect Henry Lewis is, he doesn't belong here. He doesn't fit in," Clio said.
Gail couldn't bear to hear the words that she knew were coming. She looked again at the time. Nearly five. She needed a drink. For a moment she allowed herself to imagine the taste of a gin and tonic, the feel of a crystal tumbler, the smell of lime.
"What more do I have to say?" Clio continued. "Henry Lewis is black."
"I can't believe I'm listening to this." George rested his forehead in the palms of his hands.
Clio tucked her long dark hair behind one ear. "Oh, please. Don't act so appalled. You don't want a black member in this club any more than I do."
"Henry's race may raise several issues of concern." Jack Von Furst, the committee president, spoke with deliberate calm. An elderly man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and deep walnut eyes, he exuded the charm of a diplomat. Despite the heat, the creases in his linen pants remained crisp. "But I don't think any of us wants this conversation to become inappropriate."
"Inappropriate?" George bellowed. "Is that your characterization? This is the worst prejudice I've ever witnessed. It may come as a surprise to you, but the rich aren't only white and Protestant anymore. Broadening the scope of the membership here is long overdue."
"Let's not get carried away," Jack replied. "The only issue for debate is the eligibility of Henry and Louise Lewis for membership, nothing more. We don't need global condemnations of this committee, or the club."
"Henry is only one example of what's been going on since this club's inception. We exclude everyone who isn't exactly like us. God forbid our worlds wouldn't be as insular as we'd like."
Wallace nodded. Even Gail, who shied away from politics, had to concede that members of the Fair Lawn Country Club came from the narrowest stratum of society. She tried not to admit to herself that she liked the homogeneity, but it did insure a certain decorum, a similar frame of reference. It made her feel safe. True, she experienced occasional pangs of conscience when people she otherwise respected were turned down, most often because they were in the entertainment industry, a euphemism, she knew, for the fact that they were Jewish. In fairness, though, she reminded herself of the changes that had occurred over the last decade. Several second-generation Catholics had children in the morning tennis clinic. An Asian woman, a former model, had been accepted when she married a member. Wasn't that progress?
Besides, Gail reassured herself that the Fair Lawn Country Club's membership simply reflected the demographics of the area. Southampton lay ninety miles west of New York City. A summer bastion for Wall Street tycoons and their families; most flocked to the area surrounding the club, the several square miles between the south side of Montauk Highway and the Atlantic Ocean. Gail dec-orated houses with names, By the Sea, Seven Maples, Point Ashore- all twelve-bedroom homes with wraparound porches that sprouted from manicured lawns. These were people who referred to their rooms as the "great room," the "upstairs drawing room," the "solarium," the "butler's pantry." They communicated by intercom with their guesthouse, poolhouse, and children's wing. Few people cooked their own meals, and nobody did their own dishes. These same people belonged to Fair Lawn. The club's parking areas, like the members' own raked gravel drives, were lined with imported automobiles.
"Louise Lewis's mother and father have been important sponsors of our Fourth of July tennis tournament. They host several of the guest players. They throw the opening reception," George pleaded with the group.
"The tournament, yes. Didn't Louise win one year?" Peter Parker righted himself from his slouched position in an armchair by the window. Round bellied and red faced, he resembled an aging Humpty-Dumpty. Gail, like others who had known him for more than the last decade, remembered his lively sense of humor and boisterous personality, but his heavy drinking now kept him quiet and passive. He rarely had opinions on any of the applicants for membership and tended to vote with the majority. Mention of the summer's showcase event, the Fourth of July member-guest tournament, prompted his interest, perhaps because cocktails flowed earlier than usual on the spectator-filled porch. "She had a great partner, guy from Piping Rock. Can't remember his name."
"Henry is the Bancrofts' son-in-law. Let's not forget who we're talking about." George's voice steadied momentarily. "Louise breezed in as a junior member when she turned twenty-five. I don't remember that there was a single voice of opposition."
"That was before she chose her spouse," Peter muttered, more to himself than the assembled group.
Custom, as well as practice, dictated that children of members became junior members when they attained the age of twenty-five. Junior membership gave them all the rights and privileges of membership at a slightly reduced cost. When junior members married, the newly constituted family had to apply on its own.
"No juniors have been turned down when they came up with their own families, have they?" Wallace turned to Gail as if she might keep track of such statistics.
Gail couldn't be certain, but if her memory served her, no grown children had been denied other than one young man who, as a teenager, had destroyed the men's locker room and been arrested twice for minor drug charges. "I can review the files if you think it matters," Gail replied.
"Wally's point is that we're sending a very clear signal that Henry, and Henry alone, is the problem." George clenched his fist.
"So what?" Clio replied. "I don't want him around. Make him a member, and it won't stop there. We'll have no way to limit whom he brings into the club."
"We could impose specific limitations on his guest privileges," Jack suggested.
"There are considerable restrictions already," Gail offered. "The same person can't come more than twice in one month, or three times in a season. These limitations safeguard against abuse."
"You know as well as I do that Henry is prominent among his people. He'll have friends. We'll be opening the floodgates," Clio replied.
"There is a legitimate issue of whether Henry will be welcome. He is different, and we certainly don't want him to feel isolated," Jack remarked.
"Henry and Louise aren't going to be isolated unless you force them to be," George countered.
"Do we need to consider the possibility of a lawsuit?" Gail tried to remember an article she had read about an all-male undergraduate social club at Harvard University. A woman had sued the Fly, as it was called, claiming that its failure to admit women deprived her of important contacts in the business world. Gail couldn't remember how it had been resolved, but she thought it might be relevant to the discussion.
"Henry doesn't strike me as the type to sue. He's not"-Jack paused to select his word-"militant."
"He bloody well should be." The anger in George propelled him to his feet. "What are we doing?" He looked around for the answer that no one would provide.
"Sit down, George," Jack instructed. "You're not suggesting that Henry be exempt from discussion because of his race, are you?" George did not reply.
"Perhaps we should follow Gail's suggestion and take a vote." Jack exhaled. "Let the majority of the committee determine the outcome, as we always do."
"A vote won't be necessary," Clio announced. "I'm throwing a blackball."
Gail gasped. A blackball trumped any legitimate vote and prevented the candidate from ever seeking membership in the future. That act created a permanent scar that no amount of support could undo.
Excerpted from Misfortune by Nancy Geary Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Whitman Geary. Excerpted by permission.
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