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Chapter One: Things to Do
In the course of one week, Anderton went from unknown lounge singer to Decca recording artist. "One morning me and the kids are having coffee," she told Look magazine in 1961, "and a record producer calls and says he wants to cut a demo. That phone call gave me a whole new life, even though nothing changed."
From Cry Me a River:
The Lives of Pauline Anderton by Desmond Sullivan
Jane Cody kept lists Things To Do, Things To Buy, Bills To Pay, Appointments To Keep but because she knew they provided the kind of irrefutable paper trail that almost always got people into trouble at tawdry junctures in their lives, her lists weren't the literal truth. Some inaccuracies were alibis in case the reminders fell into the wrong hands, while others were there to mislead the people she practically forced to read them. It was a simple system that caused her problems only when she confused the code and started missing dental appointments and showing up at restaurants for imaginary lunches, both of which had happened in the past three weeks. Obviously, she'd been working too hard, unless maybe she hadn't been working enough.
She was sitting at her desk poring over tomorrow's notes to herself to stave off the anxiety attack she could feel brewing in the back of her brain, building in strength like one of the many tropical storms currently approaching adulthood somewhere in the South Atlantic. (The topic of a recent doom-laden conversation on the show she produced: Another Storm of the Century?) It had been a bad morning an argument with her son and a volleyball game of passive-aggressive selflessness with her husband and then the chocolates one of her co-workers had brought in proved disappointing and the carefully arranged plans for this afternoon's taping of the show had started to unravel. At moments like these, she wished she hadn't tried to impress her shrink by agreeing with him that tranquilizers and antidepressants were grossly overprescribed. She was tired of going out of her way to impress Dr. Berman. She was paying him $130 an hour, which ought to be enough to buy his approval, no matter what her opinions.
It was one of those hot, irritating late-August days with the kind of filthy air you wanted to push out of the way. She actually could see or thought she could particles of dust and lead and pollen suspended in the fuzzy air, banging against her window, trying to get in. The Charles River was low and slow-moving there on the other side of Soldiers Field Road, and even the muscular rowing crews pulling their way through the murky green water looked sluggish. When she turned forty last year, Jane finally had been released from envying the physical perfection of youth, an unexpected birthday present and a useful one, too, if you had the misfortune of living in Boston, a city cluttered with colleges and private schools. Throughout her thirties, she'd been plagued by the conviction that she could be as fit and healthy and firm as all those running, rowing twenty-year-olds, if only she put her mind to it. Now she could hide comfortably behind that pathetic but irresistible slogan of defeat: "I think I look pretty good for my age."
Jane's office was on the third floor of the studios of WGTB, one of Boston's public television stations. She was a producer of a thrice-weekly show called Dinner Conversation, a newsy program considered cutting-edge because it was so low-tech retro, and successful because no one had figured out what to put on in its place. The concept couldn't have been more simple: six people were assembled at a round table in a studio made to look like a dining room and asked to discuss a topic in the news. Plates of nicely prepared food and glasses of respectable wine both donated were placed in front of them. The camera was turned on unobtrusively about ten minutes into the conversation and turned off thirty minutes later. There was no host, no moderator, no overarching point of view, and, most important of all, there were no expenses. The key was getting the right six people, something Jane had a special talent for, despite the fact that her at-home dinner parties were often disasters. It had been her inspiration to have an even mix of experts and man-on-the-street types. Half the viewers tuned in to find out what the biochemist from MIT had to say about global warming, and half tuned in to watch the biochemist from MIT get talked into a corner by an amateur weather watcher from one of the area's shabbier suburbs. As long as someone sounded brilliant and someone was made to look foolish, the show played well. Reasonably well. Lately, rumors that Dinner Conversation had reached the end of its life cycle swirled around the studio daily. If you could believe the mean-spirited gossip, some of the interns spent half their time coming up with cute headlines to announce its demise: "The Dinner Party's Over," "Conversation Grinds to a Halt," "Will That Be All?"
The office was eerily quiet this afternoon as it usually was when they were in the middle of a crisis. In two hours they were taping a conversation about a recent plane crash, and one of the guests, a flight attendant, had canceled earlier in the day. Then at noon, a pilot who had agreed to appear and would serve as the authority figure and centerpiece of the discussion called to say he was delayed in Dallas indefinitely. They were left with a couple of windbag travel agents, a friend of one of the other producers whose entire identity revolved around his refusal to fly, and a New Hampshire housewife who claimed to have "died briefly" in an airline disaster several years earlier. As far as Jane was concerned, going on to write best-selling religious tracts in this case, I Met God was ample evidence that death, no matter how short-lived, had not occurred, but as a nervous flier herself, she didn't want to tempt fate by calling the woman's bluff.
There was a faint knock on Jane's door and Chloe Barnes tentatively stuck her head into the office and gave Jane one of her trembly looks of empathic concern.
"Everything's under control, Chloe. I have several people lined up, I'm just waiting for them to call and confirm."
"You're sure there's nothing I can do?"
Chloe bit down on her lower lip and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, "Poor you." Jane had fallen for this wide-eyed, lip-biting expression for the first few weeks Chloe worked at the station. Then she saw Chloe staring at her with the exact same mixture of worry and pain while Jane was combing her hair in the bathroom mirror and realized it was a young, beautiful woman's pity of a forty-year-old she considered past the point of sexual relevance. Jane would have laughed it off if she hadn't been worrying about the sexual relevance question herself.
Half an hour earlier, Jane had phoned Rosemary Boyle, an old college friend who was in Boston to teach a couple of courses at BU. Rosemary was a self-involved poet, usually a conversational black hole, but last year she'd written a memoir about being a widow, so she could provide an expert opinion on loss, or something equally pertinent and unspecific. Since the publication of Dead Husband, Rosemary was prepared to provide an expert opinion on anything, as long as it helped promote the book. The only thing she wasn't prepared to talk about was the $1.5 million poor Charlie had left her when he died or committed suicide or whatever, and how her wrenching description of intolerable privation had added another few hundred grand to her coffers. Jane still hadn't heard back from her. They could easily do the show with five guests, but four was out of the question.
"David's getting a little worried," Chloe said. "He's wondering if we should get some Harvard people lined up."
"Definitely not!" Jane snapped. "I'm handling this."
Chloe tugged at her lower lip, a sign that Jane had sounded annoyed rather than authoritative, thereby further undercutting herself.
David Trask was the show's executive producer and saw "Harvard people" as the solution to every problem, as if having an endowed chair, whatever that was, was enough to make up for being pretentious and phlegmatic. Why David was communicating through Chloe, instead of talking to her directly, was a question she'd have to ask when she had a free moment. Chloe had come to the station straight out of Wellesley College four months earlier and was, in Jane's opinion, making too much progress too quickly. She was intelligent you couldn't deny her that and so full of energy and ideas you wanted to cap her, like a well, to control the flow.
Chloe was wearing a black suit with a Mandarin collar and bell-bottomed pants, all made out of a tastefully shiny material that probably contained rubber or some other unwholesome, impractical material. No doubt her monthly wardrobe allowance exceeded Jane's mortgage. Her shoes were big lumpy things with immense soles that made her walk with a heavy-footed gait, as if she were about to slap on a pair of skis and hit the slopes, but even they didn't detract from an overall appearance of gorgeous malnourishment that had men throughout the building finding reasons to pass by her desk several times a day. Genetic engineering eventually would produce human beings very much like Chloe: satiny blends of the best physical features of every race with perfectly proportioned faces and figures, human beings with such a scrambled background that racial biases, stereotypes, and quotas were rendered irrelevant in their presence. Her father was a Korean, African-American, Italian lawyer who worked as a diversity consultant for a multinational, and her mother was a former model or dancer or something show-offy, part Colombian, part Chinese, part Native American. Despite all of the advantages wrought by her looks and her upper-middle-class upbringing, Chloe saw the world entirely in terms of villains and victims, and seemed to have equated victimhood with strength and moral superiority in a manner Jane found incoherent, infuriating, and increasingly common among the young people, male and female, who came to the station. The fact that she'd risen to assistant producer in four months didn't seem to register as evidence of her own good fortune. Jane suspected that Chloe, like most college grads of her generation, was bulimic, but there were bloated, premenstrual, post-lunch moments when she envied her even this messy but efficient affliction.
"I can't believe that airline pilot canceled," Chloe said. "We should do a show on people whose lives were ruined by flight cancellations missing job interviews, weddings, important deaths."
"I hate missing important deaths," Jane said. "It ruins your day."
Jane would have gone into a defensive rage if someone had responded to an idea of hers with this kind of sarcasm, but Chloe took it in and decided to make the best of it. "Bad idea?" she asked.
"It needs fine-tuning."
Jane could see Chloe adjusting the knobs already, sharpening the focus and heightening the contrast. She could deal with Chloe's beauty and youth, write them off as superficial advantages which would fade in time, but there was no way to compete with someone willing and eager to actually learn from her own mistakes. She felt like saying, here, take my desk, my office, let's just get this over with right now.
When Chloe left, Jane went back to her lists. Reading through the orderly arrangement of words on paper true, false, and everything in between made her feel more in control of her destiny.
Gerald's gymnastics class 3PM, halfway down the To Do list, was code for taking her six-year-old son to his shrink. She had no hesitation in admitting Gerald was seeing a shrink if anything, telling her friends made her feel like a better, more attentive mother than she quietly feared herself to be but her mother-in-law, who was temporarily installed in their carriage house, would have been horrified at the idea, even though she routinely told Jane, in her oblique way, that she thought Gerald was a peculiar child. In Sarah's view of the world, having a problem was life and attempting to do something about it was self-indulgence. The stoic put up with their God-given afflictions and addictions; the moral weaklings caved in and tried to do something about them.
So to avoid Sarah's scorn, Gerald was dragged off to his gymnastics instructor, Dr. Rose Garitty, M.D., every Wednesday. Poor pudgy, peculiar Gerald. The mere thought of him trying to do somersaults was enough to rend Jane's heart.
"Let's just tell her the truth," Thomas had suggested.
"The truth" was Thomas's solution for everything, which pretty much described her husband's optimistic, kindhearted, one-dimensional view of the world.
Facial 12:30 on the Appointments list was code for her own shrink. Not that she felt any shame about that either, but if Thomas got wind of the fact that she'd started seeing Dr. Berman again, he'd probably ask why, in that wounded way of his, and she might have to explain that for the past year she'd felt a thin crust of boredom forming over the top of their marriage. Or, to be more accurate, she'd begun to feel the thin crust of boredom that had always been over the top of their marriage thickening while she swam in the cold waters below trying to find a hole or an air pocket so she could catch her breath. She wasn't ready to talk openly about that with Dr. Berman, let alone with Thomas. After three months of twice-weekly sessions, she'd gone as far as explaining to the doctor her fears that her career was at a standstill, something she presented as neurotic insecurity, even though she had ample evidence it was true. Discussion of marital concerns would have to wait until she felt more solidly in control of them.
Finish reading Westerly biography. This referred to a book by someone named Desmond Sullivan, a soon-to-be colleague of Thomas's. She'd agreed to read and summarize the thing for her husband weeks ago. Thomas was too busy preparing his courses to read it himself, and too earnest to simply compliment the author with nebulous praise and then drop it. She'd had most of August, but thus far she hadn't done more than scan the index to find references to people who interested her more than the subject himself. The author would be showing up at Deerforth College any day now, and she'd written this little note to herself so Thomas would find it and be reassured that it was only minutes before she completed the tome and gave him her book report.
Up at the top of the Bills To Pay list was Pay Roofer. That stumped her. If she had to guess, she'd say it referred to some petty indulgence she wasn't interested in admitting to. Unless it meant that the person who'd reflashed their chimney six months ago still hadn't been paid. On a separate list, she made a note to look into that one.
When her direct line rang, she pushed the papers to the back of her desk and, assuming it was Rosemary Boyle calling about the show, grabbed the receiver on the first ring. But it wasn't Rosemary. It was Caroline Wade. Or, as Jane had come to think of her, Just Caroline.
"Hi, Jane, it's just me."
Jane appreciated self-deprecation as much as the next person, but only when it was clearly an attention-getting display of false modesty. Caroline's humble whimpers often pointed to actual flaws. But how nice that Dale Barsamian, Jane's ex-husband, had married Caroline instead of a fifteen-year-old beauty queen or a manic overachiever, someone who would have inspired crippling jealousy and made Jane wonder even more acutely if her own second marriage hadn't been a little hasty.
"I'm not getting you at a bad time, am I?" Caroline asked.
"I'm supposed to be doing damage control," Jane said, "so I'd much rather talk with you." Despite her annoying quirks, there was something relaxing about talking with Caroline; she was genuinely kind and thoughtful, and was so modest, you didn't have to engage in conversational one-upmanship with her. Jane often found herself bringing up boring topics she wouldn't dare discuss with someone she wanted to impress. "How are the cats?" she asked.
"All right, I guess. Willie kept me up last night. I don't know what's gotten into him. He's so talkative all of a sudden."
"Really? Has he got anything interesting to say about plane crashes?"
"I didn't mean it literally."
Caroline could be one of the most curiously dull intelligent people Jane had ever met, not counting everyone at Deerforth College. She had a Ph.D. in English Lit (from Yale, no less) and a law degree from NYU, but she didn't seem to know what to do with either of them. Since marrying Dale five years earlier, she'd devoted herself to studying Sufism. You'd think you could get her to make an interesting comment every once in a while, or at least recognize a joke when she heard one. The one time Jane had had her on the show, she'd made a few embarrassingly dim observations about George Eliot and then sat there eating, something most guests had the common sense to realize was out of the question, no matter how tempting the food looked.
And yet Dale was devoted to her. Jane didn't know whether to envy Caroline or pity her for that. At his worst, Dale was a cad, a liar, and a self-centered, uncommunicative brat. When their divorce had come through, Jane had felt a ripple of elation pass through her body, as if she'd just quit the worst job of her life. The problem was, as soon as she'd untied all the strings that had made Dale's bad qualities so maddening and confining, she was free to see all the good things that had made him so attractive in the first place: his intelligence, his spiky survival skills, and his languorous, louche sexual charms.
Caroline had been yammering on about the cats they had three in an overly detailed way that suggested she was using them to avoid talking about whatever it was that had made her call. When she finally grew silent and sighed wearily and sadly, Jane snapped back to attention, sensing that she was beginning to circle the field in preparation for landing. "Is everything all right, Caroline? You sound a little exhausted."
"Everything's fine. I don't even know why I called. I shouldn't be dragging you into this, it's not fair. I'm going to hang up. I'll call next week." She inhaled sharply, let out two short breaths, and, in a voice that sounded close to tears, said, "You don't have any idea how many times I sat here and dialed your number before I went through with the call. I know you're the last person I should be calling about this. You're the last person, but somehow..."
With anyone else, Jane might have said: What's he done now? But you had to be gentle with Just Caroline; she bruised easily. "If you've been running it through your head for days, it's probably not as bad as you think. I suppose it's about Dale."
"Oh, of course it's about Dale. Everything's about Dale, isn't it?"
"Certainly in his mind," Jane said, wondering why it was so satisfying to be thought of as an expert on the subject of her ex-husband.
"Well..." Caroline paused, and Jane heard her light a cigarette. Caroline had two saving graces: she smoked fiendishly and was insanely aggressive behind the wheel of her ancient Citroën. Without these steam vents, she probably would have blown someone's head off a long time ago, most likely her own. "I don't know why, I don't have any proof, but I'm almost certain Dale's having an affair. I don't know, Jane, maybe he isn't, but he's been acting so strangely these past few weeks. I know you're going to tell me to confront him, but I can't do that. I'm not like you. I wish I were."
Jane had begun to think of "I wish I could be more like you" as a frill people slipped over an insult to dress it up and try to pass it off as a compliment. You're a no-good lying thief. I wish I could be more like you. You're a hateful bitch. Oh, if only I were, too.
"Besides," Caroline went on, "I'm the kind of person people always lie to. I suppose it's something about my face."
No, it was something much deeper and more subtle than her blond, fine-boned beauty and her long-legged, Barbie doll figure, but now was not the time to bring it up. Chloe was pacing in her cinder block shoes just outside Jane's open door and unless Jane swung into action, any action, very soon, Chloe would probably do her the favor of finding a few guests ready to go on camera, making Jane look like a useless fossil.
Still, she couldn't hang up on Caroline until she had the full story. Jane had been married to Dale for six years and had incontrovertible proof of two infidelities and one all-out affair. What surprised her most about Caroline's worries was that they were coming so late into the marriage. "I think you need to take a deep breath and calm down," Jane said. "It sounds to me as if you're jumping ahead and assuming the worst. When you say he's been acting strangely, what do you mean?"
"Strangely. Distant, cut-off."
Jane was stung. Distant and cut-off had been the norm when she and Dale were paired up. Was he really that much more attentive and loving toward Just Caroline? An important part of putting the past in the past is believing that people really can change and that ex-husbands really can't.
"He's probably got too much going on," Jane said. "He's probably involved in some deal he believes the future of the planet depends upon." Dale was a developer, one of those real estate millionaires who destroyed whole neighborhoods with their buildings and then seduced a fawning reporter from the Boston Globe into writing laudatory stories about them because they included an affordable studio apartment for a Haitian family in one of their hundred-unit monstrosities. Now, in what Jane saw as a blatant attempt at acquiring a veneer of glamour, Dale was a principal investor in a grotesquely expensive restaurant set to open in downtown Boston sometime next year. She'd heard about this through her brother, an architect on the project, and had seen it as the first signs of a midlife crisis arriving right on schedule. Restaurant business today, cocaine habit tomorrow.
Caroline exhaled luxuriously. "It isn't his work," she said.
"I don't know what to tell you, Caroline. Somehow or other you have to ask him. If he admits to it, at least you'll know where you stand."
"And if he denies it?"
"Then you'll know he's lying."
There was a storm of hissing and yowling in the background, and Caroline squeaked out a halfhearted reproach: "Come on you two, cut it out." Jane could see her, pretty and puffy-eyed, sitting in their sunlit living room surrounded by stacks of books on some obscure, useless topic. Caroline had insisted they buy a modern house in Weston, a Gropius-style box that was ninety percent glass and looked out onto acres of conservation land. What an elegant, cheerful little refuge she'd made for herself, a perfect prison, cats and all, while Dale was off in the city carrying on like a middle-aged adolescent. She felt suddenly protective of Caroline, out there in her glass cage with the miserable cats taking swipes at her. Just Caroline with her degrees and her old-money family and, rumor had it, her barren womb. What a rotten deal for someone like that to be hitched to a cad like Dale. And worse still, what an absolutely wonderful deal for a cad like Dale, married to a trust-funded, well-bred, brainy beauty who was too timid to make him suffer the consequences of his actions.
Chloe stuck her head into Jane's office again and hooked a curtain of dark curls behind her ears. She'd been in the sun recently, and her skin had a wonderful glow, like polished copper; although she appeared to wear no makeup, her eyelids had a metallic shine that Jane found mesmerizing. She gestured toward her watch and then pointed up toward David's floor, not impatiently, but with that annoying pity of hers, as if she were warning Jane that she had ten minutes to save her career.
Jane covered the mouthpiece of the phone. "It's been settled. I'm speaking to our guest right now." Chloe's shoulders dropped with genuine, generous relief. "Close the door, will you?"
There was a satisfying whoosh of air as Chloe sealed her into her office. She'd have to get off and make a round of frantic calls. If Rosemary didn't come through, she'd try to get an air traffic controller they'd had on a couple of times, a bitter man who was full of horror-movie-quality statistics about catastrophes. "I wish there was something I could do for you, Caroline, but I've got so much going on now..."
"This is going to sound terrible, Jane, but I was hoping you might...talk with him."
"Me? Don't be ridiculous."
"Who else could I ask? It's too humiliating to even discuss it with anyone else. I knew you'd understand, having been through this. I know we haven't spent much time together recently, but somehow I've always felt close to you, almost as if you were extended family. Does that make any sense?"
In other words, Dale still talked about her; she'd never doubted it, but it was nice to have confirmation. Everyone wants to be remembered, especially by the people they'd most like to forget. "I'm going to need time to think this over, Caroline."
Not that the idea of calling her ex-husband on yet another round of infidelities didn't have its appeal. In the wake of their divorce, she'd picked up the pieces and made a successful second marriage; she had a child, a husband who was faithful to her, a legitimate career. He was still waist-deep in the same old rut. And here was fresh evidence, just in case either of them ever had had any doubts about it, that his disloyalties during their marriage were not owing to any of her inadequacies. Finally, it was the least she could do for Just Caroline. They'd been in a book group together two centuries ago and had been casual friends since; Jane had always felt partly responsible for introducing Caroline to Dale.
"There's just one thing," Caroline said. "If you do talk with him, I want you to tell me everything."
"Everything, Jane. Promise me."
"I promise you. Why wouldn't I?"
"You don't know how much this means to me. If there's anything I can do for you, please, just call me up and let me know. I have some extra time on my hands now."
It wasn't as if Jane would take her up on it, but she scanned down her lists even so. Caroline might feel better about the imposition and the embarrassment of the situation if she gave something back.
One item on one of the lists leapt out at her. Caroline was a close, fast reader, and it might do her self-esteem some good to put her academic credentials to use.
"I don't suppose you've read a biography of someone named Lewis Westerly by someone named Desmond Sullivan, have you?"
Rosemary Boyle came through. Half an hour before taping was to start, she called the station. Predictably, she dominated the Dinner Conversation by making a series of vague comments that were basically meaningless, but gave the impression of being witty and profound. "Living is losing," she'd said at one point, a comment that silenced the other guests for a full five seconds.
As Jane was about to leave the office, she pulled out a pad of blank paper and started yet another list, this one for things she had to do as soon as she got in tomorrow morning. Call Dale she wrote. But then, thinking better of it, she attacked it with an eraser and changed it to the more ambiguous: Call Roofer.
Copyright © 2001 by by Stephen McCauley