There is no straight way
to tell this. We were finally all too gone. It was a wild, looping, crazy thing,
like some dithyramb to Dionysus.
The whirl of many-colored dresses under the many-starred sky. And I, crouched
at the center like a black crow in a rainstorm. Oh, sure, we came to it straight
enough. Or, at least, thats what we thought.
* * *
I had just had my eighteenth birthday and was full of myself. After all, I had
polished up my prerequisite social skills, lost my virginity a couple of times,
and been accepted into Columbia, full-scholarship. Was I not mature? Was I not
ready to take on the world? Was I not the merry-makings of a first-class pompous
ass? So when Jackson called to ask if I wanted to drive down with him to Sandy
Sheridans coming-out party, I gave him my best young cynics guffaw.
You want me to do what?
It’ll be a gas.
The lethal kind.
The flowers of maidenhood will be there.
With their jaws locked.
Well, the Ox is coming anyhow, he slipped in casually. That got my
attention. After all, the Ox was something to be reckoned withstarting
center and already the bulwark of the Colgate line in his freshman year.
You’re kidding. You got the Ox to go?
Howd you pull that off?
The mans into culture. Thats why hes the Ox. Yes, the Ox was large,
the Ox was mighty, but that was not the true reason behind the name. Ox also
sang tenor in the glee club and played piano with a sophisticated touchDebussy
and Chopin preludes and etudes. Ox was, in fact, short for Oxymoron.
And shell be there. She. I knew too well who she was, even though
I hadnt seen her since that summer when I was fifteen. Felicia Bonatti, the
ache in my heart. Fé, the unfulfilled promise of paradise.
Hey, shes bosoms with Sandy.
Youre not just playing me?
She would never let Sandy down.
But Ill need a dinner jacket or something. Tux, cummerbund.
Screw that. A suits fine. Ox and I are going in suits.
And that is how Jackson tipped the balance and persuaded me to drive down from
Massachusetts with him to the Sheridans on the Hudson River.
* * *
There must have been close to fifty cars parked up along the side of the steep,
narrow lanea nice mix of Jags, Mercedes, Audis and Beemers. We had to
climb most of it on foot and were breaking a sweat by the time we got to the
top. It was warm for May, even this late in the day, and clouds of gnats danced
like fairies in the late sunlight.
Because of the tall box hedge, we could barely see inside. But the place looked
rich all rightbig trees, broad lawns. Dance music from a small band
drifted from somewhere below. In the distance, we could make out some of the
guests standing in little groups, half-hidden in the violet shade, backlit by
the shimmering river lightmannequins from Saks and Brooks in flowing
gowns, dinner jackets, and tuxedoes. Thats when the Ox freaked.
Fuck you, Jackson, he hissed in a low voice.
Big deal, Jackson shrugged. So they overdressed.
You did say suits, I said. I distinctly remember,
So what am I, a fortune teller? Ive been to these things in everything
from a sports jacket to a dinner jacket. Its no big deal. Believe me, some
probably be here in tails. But the Ox shook his head, his face flushed,
and nervous droplets broke out across his forehead.
Well look like fucking idiots.
Just remember whos coming out and youll feel a whole lot better, Jackson
Id feel better crawling under a bush. Thinking of the Ox trying
to hide under anything was ludicrous. But there he remainedall six-foot-five
of him, frozen like a scared kid in the shadows of the hedge. So we left him
* * *
The Sheridan house was one of those palatial brick and ivy-clad affairs, set
down by God among spotless lawns, manicured bushes, and stately oaks, approached
past massive iron gates along a curving, white, crushed-rock drive. Its slate
roof and leaded windows glinting through the foliage, lent a European presence
to imply not only that this came from a great deal of money, but that this particular
money was very old money, seasoned by a lot of blue blood. It even sported a folly in
a copse of dogwoodsa few broken arches that were supposed to be from
some ancient monastery, I supposed. Following Jackson through those gates and
up that drive, our black shoes crunching on the crushed rock, I got my first
case of nerves.
The Ox does have a point, I mumbled to myself. Blue serge feels
a little tacky right now. I had had this same feeling beforethree
years beforeentering the Sheridans beach house on the Cape with Fé.
I thought I had lost that feeling. Now it was back full-strength and my bravado
was slipping badly. This was, after all, the kind of party I would never have
been invited to. And now Jackson was smuggling me in like some wetback into Texas.
He was part of their crowdArthur Jackson of the Boston Jacksons. I was
still Charlie Frank of the Brockton Franksonly son of a tool and dye
maker, sporting bargain apparel from Filenes.
* * *
Their entrance was bigger than my entire house, with a great wooden door and
brass knocker heavy enough to let you know only people of some importance should
consider entering. But before we could lift it, the door swung open and a large
butler stood there, sizing us up like some over-the-hill bouncer, balding and
heavyset, squeezed into a smart gray uniform, with white gloves to lend him
Oh, right, Jackson said, fumbling through his pockets. The butler
didnt budge. It was clear he thought we might not be the right sort. Finally
Jackson pulled out his invitation and announced in a loud voice, Arthur
Jackson from Boston. And this is my good friend Charleslike the river.
Before the butler could pass further judgment, a booming voice called out from
the deep foyer, Arthur, my boy, come here, wonderful to see you. He
was big and broad-shouldered, white-haired and florid, his solid paunch pushing
a stiff white shirt out over a scarlet cummerbund, his arms open wide in welcome,
a tall drink in one hand, a glowing cigarette in the other. The woman beside
him seemed as reserved as he was outgoing, in a dark blue dress with pearl earrings
and a single strand of pearls around her neck. I could see she had once had great
beauty, but was now wearing herself out in the battle to keep it. Her tired eyes
and fragile hands overshadowed the warm smile and kind welcoming voice.
My, it’s nice of you to come all this way, Arthur. How are your dear
parents? It’s been almost a year. Then she looked at me questioningly. Hello,
do I know you, young man?
Only from the Cape, I said, which was a lie. I had never seen her
or her husband before. But I knew their beach house all right. Fé had
been staying there that summer.
Charlies Back Bay, Jackson went on, doing a quick geographic stretch
to the south and tossing me my social safety net.
Nice people, Bostonians, she said, eyeing my suit.
The champagnes right around through the French doors, Mr. Sheridan
said, a hearty smoker’s gravel to his voice.
Do make yourselves at home, boys, Mrs. Sheridan called softly from
Home was not quite what I would have called it. Museum, perhaps. Other than its
grand size, this mansion bore little resemblance to the Sheridans rambling summer
home on the Cape. This was something a Morgan might have builta Frick
or a Rockefeller. It held the slight scent of cinnamon tea, like some old clipper
ship. The high-ceilinged rooms were very formal, with crystal chandeliers and
French antiques. I couldnt help staring at the portraits in the drawing room.
Hey, that’s a Copley, isn’t it?
Like the square? Jackson vamped.
You think these are family?
Maybe. The old man’s big on ancestry. Adams or Mather or Alden, I
You mean, the Speak for yourself, John Aldens?
I mean old and stiff as floorboards.
* * *
We worked our way through a grand salon, deep in Persians, with velvet settees,
chairs designed to make you sit up straight, and a marble mantle over a fireplace
big enough to house the Continental Army. Beside it, framed in gold, hung the
portrait of a tall, elegantly dressed man standing deep in chiaroscuro, an overcoat
over his left arm, the glow of a cigarette in his right hand. Had I seen it before?
Across the length of that room, in the solarium, under the primitive painting
of a gray lady in a white cap who refused to smile because her teeth were gone,
Sandy stood pink and blossoming from her green satin gown, surrounded by a bevy
of girls in white, like bridesmaids at a wedding. Her blue eyes glistened and
she gave us a desperate smile, as if she was being auctioned off against her
will. Her blonde hair was drawn up on top of her head, twined with apple blossoms
and showing off a short, pudgy neck.
Hi, Jackson. Thank God you came, she said in a low, throaty voice.
It was amazing how such a seductive sound could come from such an unprepossessing
figure. A girl without vanity. And you, Charlie? This is really nice.
So you’re being outed, Jackson said.
Any excuse for a party, she laughed. You know Daddy.
You look great, Sandy, I said.Really. No matter what
anybody might say, I had to like her, standing there as if she was enjoying this
silly anachronism. I bet she could have smiled through any humiliation.
And I know why you came, Charlie.
I wouldn’t want to miss this, I said.
I know shell be glad to see you too. She winked knowingly. Jackson
grabbed my arm and steered me out through the French doors.
You think she knows I wasnt invited? I asked.
Not a chance. Short-term memorys gone.
* * *
Tuxedoed men loomed before us with silver trays loaded with champagne flutes.
We grabbed a couple, threw them down and took two more. The white marble balustrade
along the wide brick veranda commanded a broad view of the great river and the
Palisades beyond. The small society band was playing something very old, something
maybe Sinatra might have sung, but the electric guitar was wailing like it was
a cover from Cream.
The veranda overlooked a brightly lit swimming pool that overlooked red clay
tennis courts that overlooked a line of poplars and then the town far below.
The first streetlights were just coming on down there.
Drink up, Jackson said.Thisll take care of any lingering
* * *
A gang of willowy boys in tartan cummerbunds and bow ties were leaning against
the railing as if it belonged to them.
You serious? Its really her third coming out? one asked. He looked
too young to be in college.
You have to give it to him, a friend said. Old boy keeps trying.
I hate to say it, but even money has its limits.
Sandys the limit all right. They all had a chuckle over that.
Pride of Princeton, I bet, Jackson said.
I think they’re still in high school, I said, but he didnt
seem to be listening.
The old man went there, and his son Whitney. God knows how many umpty-ump
generations. Were probably the only ones here who arent Princes.
Jackson was going to Tufts in the fall, and took exception to Ivy League caché.
I wondered why. He knew as well as I did that these guys were pretty much like
the rest of usa cross-section of jocks and nerds who talked about flicks
and football, booze and broads. Only on a slightly more privileged level.
You know what you are? I said. You’re what they call
a reverse snob.
Hey, my dad went to YaleSkull and Bones and all, Jackson
said. Cant understand why his son doesnt want to follow in
I stared down at the darkening river, trying to figure how many ingots of gold
it took to live like this.
* * *
After five flutes, I was beginning to float a little, looking around for some
sign of Fé. But I still felt edgy, exposed.
Lets go find the Ox, I said. Its getting dark enough
hell feel incognito.
Sure. They’ll take him for a tree or a hill.
He must be pawing the turf by now.
Lets wait. If were lucky hell come crashing through the hedge like a
bull elephant. Itll scare the shit out of everybody and liven up this party.
A last golden light from the west had spread across the river and turned its
waters, through some ancient alchemy, into burnished metal. The only thing disturbing
its solidity was a tug pushing a long barge north, etching a precise V in the
surface. It silenced us. This is why people want money, I thought, to view the
world from great heights. To the south, a line of headlights had stalled in heavy
traffic, strung like beads across the darkening Hudson, on the long bridge to
* * *Check this out, I nudged Jackson.
He was short and frail and standing alone, staring owl-like at us through thick-lenses. His dark hair was carefully parted and slicked back with mousse. The sparse makings of a mustache floated over his thin-lipped mouth. He was, I think, the only person there in tails.
What did I tell you, Jackson snorted, as the boy approached with a disdainful smile, holding his champagne glass as if he were about to propose a toast.
Pardon me, he said. But I see by our attire that we are diametrically opposed.
We looked at him, then at each other and burst out laughing.
Princeton, right? I said, pointing at his tails.
Of course. But where might you be from?
From? Maybe I was a little too sensitive on the subject. Oh no, were the mechanics. Dropped by to fix Sandys little Alfa Romeo.
Really, he said, no longer looking at us. My, that is democratic. And
he wandered off with a bemused look, probably to congratulate the Sheridans on
their expansive sense of humanity. Was that thunder I heard, rumbling far to
A tall elegant girl, dark as the dusk, stood near us, with a long white dress,
fine corn rows, and the wisp of a smile spreading across lovely white teeth.
Hes our Princeton cliché, she said.
And are you a true Princess? Jackson said.
Straight out of Camden, New Jersey.
Friend of the family? I asked.
My, what are the Ivies coming to, Jackson said, taking her hand and
giving her a courtly bow.
* * *
When Jackson felt it was dark enough, we slipped through a side gate and found
the Ox where we had left him, still huddled against the hedge, slapping his big
hands together in anxiety.
Where the hell you guys been?
Jesus, Ox, youre an embarrassment.
Everybodys talking about the hulk by the hedge.
Here, big fellow. Ive got something for your nerves, Jackson said
and pulled a champagne bottle out from under his jacket.
Wheres the glass? I cant drink champagne without a glass.
Try. Just remember to lift your little finger. The Ox grabbed it
and chugged it down without a breath. Hey, Charlie, isnt he supposed
say thank you?
Thanks would be nice.
I think a thank you is required. Instead, the Ox grinned broadly
at us, foam dripping off his lip.
* * *
Fés got the disc jockey from Studio 54 here, the girl in
red was saying.
My God, does she know everyone? said the lilac dress.
But wasnt she with that group that got kicked out of 54? the pink
Yeah, but nobody blamed her. It was that crazy vet she was with. The one
with the diamond in his nose.
I think I hear a bit of envy going around, a small dark girl in a
tight black thing said.
Envy? Just because she goes to all the in places with all the most fabulous dates. Why should we envy her?
Remember that beautiful boy from Chinatown who fell trying to climb up
to her dorm window?
Almost killed himself.
And ruined his lovely red silk shirt, too.
And who else gets to go bare-boating with some guy from Harvard Law?
All the way to Tobago.
All the way is right.
I can’t wait for that disco to start, said the red dress. This
band is the pits. Sounds like some cruise ship.
Where are you girls from? I asked.
Sarah Lawrence. And you?
How come we dont know you?
Well, its a pretty big party, I said. “Sandys got a lot of
How do you know her?
From the Cape. I came down with Jackson, the one dancing over there to
the bad music. And the Ox, the big one by the bar.
And who are you?
The small dark one in the black dress led me away from the others.The Charlie? she
Well, I dont know about the the, but I am definitely Charlie Frank.
Hi, she said. I’m Karen Sinauer. She was quite
lovely, with the tight body of a dancer, dark eyes, and a sweet smile.
That’s a cool name, Sinauer.
Yeah, yeah, breeder of a million jokes. Please don’t add any. We
actually had a girl in our school named Sexauer. She took the heat off me. Someone
called up our school once and asked if they had a Sexauer there. Our headmistress
answered, Hell no, we dont even have time for a coffee break.
My kind of school.
Well, Long Island, you know, she said. Then she looked up, studying
me. Hey, are you Jewish?
I don’t think so, I said, momentarily puzzled. Oh, you
mean like Anne and Otto. No, Im afraid were just plain German. At
what my dad says.
But youre definitely the Charlie. Fés Charlie.
She claiming ownership?
You should hear.
* * *
The next I saw the Ox, he was oozing confidence and standing beside Mr. Sheridan,
in a crowd of dinner jackets by the great fireplace, listening to the voice of
experience. I think he was the only one there the old man had to look up to.
There was a slight squint to our hosts eyes, as if he were peering through
a haze, and his words were starting to slur. They were talking serious stocks
bonds, preparing themselves for entry into Wall Street.
By all means, take those coursesfinance, economicsget
those grades. But make sure you socialize, boys. Friends. Contacts. Thats what
And your firm, sir, what exactly are you looking for? asked the Ox.
What any brokerage house worth its salt looks for. Bright young men with
presence and charm. And, of course, the right connections. The word you hear
nowadays is network. But what does that truly mean? Knowing the right people.
Youll all do fine. Come see me when youre ready.
I was behind them, studying the life-size portrait of that swank gentleman, dressed
to the nines for his evening on the town. And with growing amazement, I detected
the famous butterfly on the right side of the canvaslittle more than
a highlighted smudge of graythe seemingly subtle yet not-so-discreet
signature of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Damn, a Copley and a Whistler in
the same house. But there was something uncanny about this painting. The subject
was younger, true, but so close to Mr. Sheridan, he could have been his twin.
It was as if that figure had stepped out of the gold Victorian frame into this
very room and began pontificating. He even held his cigarette the same waybetween
his middle fingers, so he could use the index. I did a quick mental calculationtwo
You learn anything? I asked the Ox.
Yeah, he said thoughtfully. Even rich old brokers get drunk.
Jackson showed up, a smiling blonde in sweeping silver on his arm.
I see you guys havent been handicapped by your attire, he said.
Ive gotten a few long looks down the nose, I told him.
And you big fella, how you making out?
Sheridan tells me I have a job in his firm when I grow up.
Thats a scary thought.
* * *
Mr. Sheridan leaned on the marble balustrade next to me, staring out at the dark
river and the three-quarter moon rising in the east. He shook the cubes in his
glass, as if asking for a refill from a bartender.
Its something, isnt it, he sighed heavily. You
a scene like that.
But you did invest in the right perspective, sir. Sober, I might
have kept my mouth shut. He chuckled softly and looked me in the face, trying
You crashed, didnt you? he said.
Came without an invite. He placed his heavy hand on my shoulder and
Like an alien from another world, I admitted.
Thats the stuff.
Not quite the right stuff.
A rebel, like my daughter.
Sandys quite a girl, I said.
If only she were prettier. More like Felicia. I was surprised that
he used that particular name. But, as Jackson said, they had been close a long
Shell do all right, sir.
Pretty isnt all. Young ones dont always see that.
Shell do fine.
Shes got the stuff.
Wheres Mrs. Sheridan, sir? I havent seen her in a while.
In bed, probably. She doesnt care for these affairs, thinks theyre barbaric.
Its one hell of a party.
Doesnt understand networking. He gave me a warm, fatherly look. Thats
what drives the market, my boy. And he drifted off, angling unsteadily
back toward the lights of his house.
* * *
Sandy and I were walking near a great copper beech, its gray skin gleaming in
the moonlight. The Hudson stretched darkly between silver hills. To the north,
a dark cloud had just blanked out the Dipper. The guests were dancing on the
veranda, or necking and groping in the shadows, impatient for the dinner and
disco to begin. And I was wondering why I was still pursuing a childish dream
that now seemed further away than ever. I had felt so confident up in Massachusetts.
And I had lost it so quickly?
You must be very popular to have so many people come to your party, I
She looked disconcerted, as if she had just discovered a special truth. You
dont understand, do you?
This is really Daddys party. These are kids of clients, or potential clients.
Theyre here to be wowed.
I took her hand and looked into her plain blonde face. Wow, I mouthed.
She stared back at me, plainly amazed by my provincial innocence. Then I noticed
that she was looking at my mouth. Why my mouth? And I smiled.
Well, finally, she cried out, looking down at the veranda, where
Fé was making her magical moonlight entrance. And I must admit, it got
me. Good God! She walks in beauty like the night, Byron sang in my
memory. Taller than I remembered, more graceful, in a flowing, moss green, gauzy
thing, clinging yet floating, long and bare-backed and breast-adoring, her long
dark hair flowing with it. Wow, indeed. I shrank into myself.
But who was that guy she was with? So blond he was almost albino, but with a
classic faceMichelangelos David, I was thinking, right down to those
damn sculpted curls. And I saw that under his dinner jacket, his proportions
were classic too, with everything tailored by the right tailor to show it off.
Others turned and lookedyou had to lookas the two walked by
with that natural assurance, something I could never own, something that came
from the security of money and family and a lot of luck in the gene pool.
Who is he? I asked Sandy.
Hes from Yale. Dives for the swim team.
Ill bet hes good too.
Oh, yes. Daniel is good. And he knows it. I caught something in her
voice. Disdain? Jealousy? But of whom, I wondered, Fé or the guy?
* * *
Why dont you go talk to her? the Ox asked.
She calls sometimes.
Really, how did she get your number?
I dont know, maybe Jackson or his sister. She called the other night to
talk about Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov scared her, she said. You know, Crime
Punishment. She said she dreamed about him, woke up sweating. And she wanted
to talk about what I was readingLe Rouge et le Noir.
So, you read a lot.
Yeah, I guess. I guess thats what I do. Anyway, I told her this part about
the poor boy, Julien Sorel, trying to conquer this wealthy older woman and how
he has to psych himself up just to take her hand, like every shaky kid trying
to make his first night move. Pretty hilarious. She thought it sounded very romantic.
She didnt say silly or sexy, she said, very romantic.
So why dont you go talk to her now?
That guy, I guess. Ill talk to her later.
* * *
It was all damask tablecloths and silver candelabras, their light flickering
off crystal goblets and large porcelain plates with a red and gold family crest
on the lip. Oysters something, probably Rockefeller, followed by some kind of
hunters soup and Beef Wellington. Oh, and a nice Bordeaux, Im pretty
Its not too clear. Nothing was too clear by then. We were seated at one
and Fé and Daniel, Jackson and his silver girl, the Ox, Sinauer and I.
I was having a problem looking at Fé, barely glimpsing the color of her
mouth and the light dancing off the gold earrings in the shadow of her dark hair,
wondering if she still smelled like the sea. But I was able to study Daniel some
and found him condescending. What I had at first perceived as graceful I now
saw as flawed by its perfection, lacking warmth. And I noticed that the blue
of his eyes was not a strong or clear blue, but washed pale as if he had spent
too much time underwater.
So, I hear you dive, Daniel, I ventured.
I was runner-up at the New Englands this year, he announced proudly.
What’s your best dive? Your killer? Ox asked.
Daniel was studying it, about to say something like double back flip or one-and-half
gainer, I suppose, when Jackson murmured, Muff. Then everything
went still for a second and when I looked at Fé she was looking straight
back at me with those wonderful green eyes and a little smile edging her lips.
Well, Jackson, I see a year at Belmont Hill hasnt done anything for your
social skills, Daniel said to the table at large.
Muff, I picked up. Is that as satisfying as say, a gainer?
Pardon me, but I seem to have fallen among a whole tribe of recessive genes, Daniel
said with just the right collegiate chill.
Is that like back breeding? I asked.
I presume thats supposed to be a scientific term?
Yes, or in some cases, it might be a matter of social position, I
said. The smile on her lips was dancing now.
Social position? Jackson asked.
Back breeding, Sandy mused. You know, I think my family has
been practicing that for a long, long time. And that made everyone but
Daniel laugh out loud.
* * *
A flagstone path led us to a large Victorian shingled building hidden from the
house by a hillock, just a fringe of stars above us now, with clouds covering
everything to the north, and a few bursts of lightning blossoming out into the
darkness. Over the broad open doors, The Abbey1876, was carved into
the lintel. What had it been back then, a place for special gatherings? Prayer
meetings, perhaps, or amusements, plays, concerts. Certainly dances, but not
like this one.
Inside there was the outer-space disco whoosh of sound and light, loud and bright
enough to numb me. Felicia and her minions had strung pulsing lights up to one
of those cliché disco balls, spraying its shower of broken images all
around us like a merry-go-round. On a raised stage, the disc jockey was having
his way with Donna Summer, Barry White, the Village People, and a string of other
tired hits and near-hits, melded over and under each other, to dance and drink
and smoke and do coke to. Whether or not he was from 54 or not, Ill never
know, but the Abbey was working hard to approximate and the cloud of pot was
enough so you didnt have to hold the joint to get the effect. There at
of the writhing crowd, Fé and Daniel were dancing with all the grace of
the sailing moon. And there was the Ox, bumping and grinding alongside Sandys
twist and twirl. I, the devotee of Dylan, the Boss, and the Dead (usually alone
with them on headphones in my cramped bedroom), resisted entering.
Dont you dance? Sinauer asked me from the shadows.
Not to this, I said. But I can still talk.
Just look how graceful she is. She was staring at Felicia with open
awe. Isn’t she gorgeous?
So I’ve been told.
And wicked too, she laughed. One bitch at college calls her
the Fé One, Mademoiselle Outré. Shes so damn
great at this stuff.
Crazy stuff to get everybody going.
Like getting the disc jockey from 54. Who knows if its true, but it makes
everybody go, Yeah! And jump starts the night. Like what she did
Beaver. Cross my heart. A girl at college on the academic edge, clinging
to her last barely passing grade.
Yes, I think I know the type.
Beaver comes back from the most dreamy weekend with a guy shes absolutely mad
over only to find out that shes completely forgotten the all-important
in medieval history, Monday at ten. In other words, tomorrow. Hasnt studied
a lick, cracked a book, looked at a note.
Just a slight memory lapse.
And nowmuch too lateshe panics, runs around pulling her
hair, whining. If I flunk this one, Ill be out on my ass.
So she turns to prayer, magic, superstition. And runs straight to the
You make her sound like a witch.
No way. Getting Beaver out of this exam is a block party, a huge event
for the whole dorm. As only Fé can orchestrate. Do you promise to go
through to the end? she asks. Ill just die if I have to take that exam, Jenny
begs. So Fé sends out emissaries to the second floor, the third floor,
every floor. Agents scour the rooms for all the right equipment.
Blotters, bars of soap, scarves, sweats, caps. The works. By next morning,
crack of dawn, everybody who is anybody is out in the halls, lining the stairs.
Even girls from other dorms are there.
Sounds outré enough.
Like voodoo maybe? Just listen. Blotters for inside the sneakers.
Two layers of sweats, t-shirt under that, and a bar of soap under each arm. A
around her neck and a knit cap pulled down over her ears to keep any heat from
escaping out the top. Six in the morning is zero hour, no breakfast allowed,
definitely no juice, water, or coffee. The crowd of girls cheers her on as she
runs the gauntlet up and down the stairs, three flights up, three flights down,
for half an hour, until dripping wet, every ounce of moisture sucked out of her
body, shes stopped, stripped, toweled off, and shipped to the infirmary
wretched little smock. Shes definitely hot and very shaky. Diagnosis by
the worried nurse: spiking fever of 102. Prescription by the doctor: two days
rest with plenty of juices, teas, and soups. Voilá, Beaver is saved.
Where the hell does Fé get this stuff?
Only certain guys know these things.
So how’s Jenny Beaver doing? I asked.
Few weeks ago she took the makeup and flunked it cold. I guess Jenny just
isnt cut out for medieval history. Or much else our college offers. Shes
as our Dean of Women is so fond of saying, Sarah Lawrence history.
When I looked back into the light, they were slow dancing to prayers, while Blondie
did the Fade Away and Radiate thing, with the Ox towering over them
like the high priest at a sacrifice. I headed back to the house, with a wind
starting to blow hard through the tall trees and thunder bouncing down the valley.
I wanted to check something out and I figured this was my chance.
* * *
As I passed through the dining room, I was feeling sober enough, but as if I
had entered a dream and wasn’t in control of where I was going. I was surprised
nobody had picked up yet. The table was still full of used dishes and crystal
and at the end Mr. Sheridan had passed out in his chair, his head on the table.
I thought how strange for someone to give a party to impress people and then
pass out at his own dinner.
But what I wanted to see was in the grand salon. It was dark in there, except
for a few discreet spots illuminating pictures. On the wall perpendicular to
the fireplace was the large canvas I had returned for. I had only glimpsed it
in passing earlier, but something about it had caught my attention. It was the
oil of a woman playing a piano. However, the focus was really on two little seven-
or eight-year-old girls, a blonde and a brunette, in white dresses with black
leggings, seated on the carpet under the piano, lit as if by sunlight from a
far window. The blonde was in profile, looking up at the woman, who was in shadow.
The little brunette was looking straight out at me. And I knew her. I had seen
her before, in a framed photograph at the Sheridan summer home on Cape CodFelicia,
the radiant child, between her handsome parents. On the bottom right of this
painting was the signature, John S. Sargent. That made my head spin. I had seen
some Sargents at the Gardner Museum in Boston. I liked his Flamenco painting –guitarists,
a dancer and a sweeping shadow across a rough wall. But although the painting
I was looking at reminded me of a Sargent I had seen in a book, I had never come
across this one before. I looked closely at that little girl. And as I was studying
her lovely face, the curl of her dark hair, the entwined fingers of her little
hands, the soft crook of her leg, I sensed her beside me, felt her heat, smelled
her sweet perspiration. She placed a soft, damp hand in mine.
Who is she, your grandmother? I asked. She looks just like
You like it, she said in her small, shy voice.
Like it? I just about jumped out of my skin. First a Copley, then that
Whistler, now this. I was looking at her now and she seemed to be holding
back a smile.
How close did you look at the Whistler?
Pretty close. The butterfly signature is very subtle.
Come back, she said, guiding me. Look again.
Its weird. I thought I was looking at Sandys dad.
Even that way he holds his cigarette. Its freaky.
What’s that over his pocket? I looked closer at where she was
pointing. He was wearing two medals, disks of gold or bronze dangling from blue-and-white-striped
ribbons. They were very subtle, partially obscured by shadow, but I recognized
them. Yes, I had seen them before. My father kept his in a box, tucked away in
a drawer. The U.N. chose that particular baby blue because that color doesnt
exist on any nations flag, he had told me.
Korean War? That means … It dawned on me slowly. Jesus,
its a fucking forgery.
No, a game. A visual game.
Tell that to the judge.
Itll only be a forgery if someone wants to sell it someday.
You know how many wealthy people would like to have their portraits painted
by Whistler or Sargent? You know what theyll pay?
But who paints it so well?
I thought you told me he was in import and export.
Why doesnt he just sign his own damn name?
You know that wouldnt work, Charlie. Theyre not just paying for the portrait,
theyre buying the signature.
You hear about love at first sight, and even at that moment I was holding my
first vision of Fé rising from the surf on Cape Cod, but it wasnt
that. It was love at first smell, first taste, first touch, and I was holding
onto all of them at once, so tight they made my knees weak. She was standing
there beside me, Sargents dream child. Forgery? Visual game? I swear that
she had asked me right then to rob a bank or sail away to Antarctica, I would
have said, Sure.
* * *
The noise hit us like a wave before we had reached the solarium. Shrieks of
shouts of joythe sound of collective insanity, like a pack of dogs around
a bitch in heat. How do these things start? Jackson told me later it was one
stoned guy grabbing a plate off the dining room table. The Ox was sure it must
have been the whole mix of drugs and booze. I felt it was something moreeverybody
trying too hard to live up to what they had heard about Studio 54.
And now it had become a competitioneveryone out to see who could toss
his plate the farthest. A few of the large platters reached the back of the tennis
courts, bouncing with a muffled thud on the brightly lit red clay. But most of
them never made it past the pool area, slicing into the bright water or smashing
on the surrounding tiles. My pedestrian brain was just clear enough to ask itself
how much porcelain like that cost? Girls were tossing crystal goblets and flutes
into the pool like coins into Trevi Fountain. And then the skies broke open with
an apocalyptic downpour and great bolts of lightning crashing all along the ridge.
No one cared. They went on with their game. Until the Ox and Sandy came up out
of the shadows, half her lipstick smeared across his face.
Jesus, you wimps, he yelled, grabbing the plate from the boy in tails. Youre
a joke. He took off his soaked jacket and set himself by the balustrade.
He was the Olympic statue poised for heroics. He balanced himself, rocked gently
into momentum, then spun like a pro in the box, and with a loud exhaled grunt,
flung the large plate like a toy into the night, beyond the pool, the tennis
courts, the poplars, and the light. There was not a sound, not a movement. They
stood in silent stupor. Finally, shyly, one tall upperclassman approached Sandy,
holding his plate out to her, I thought to apologize.
Pardon me, Sandy, but we were wondering, is this the Sheridan family crest? he
asked. She stared at him in disgust, looking as if she might spit on him, her
green dress stuck to her body like a wind-swept flag across a figurehead.
Sheridans Irish, you dunce. Thats the crest of the Aldens of
* * *
The cry was long and guttural.Fé! And again, Fé! There
was desperation in it, pain and rage, cracking like minor thunder through the
night. And it came from Daniel, weaving toward us along the flagstone path
from the Abbey.
Fucker’s gone, someone said. Coke, Ill bet.
I think hes trying out for that guy in Streetcar, Jackson
Stella works better, I said. It needs the two syllables. I
felt Fé shift behind me, out of Daniels sight.
Where the hell are you, Fé? he cried out. You bitch. Like
all of us, he was drenched, his beautifully tailored tux sagging and misshapen,
his bleached hair matted across his forehead, his face twisted in self-pity.
He was weeping now, mumbling to himself. The whore ditched me, he
stage-whispered. Me. Then again, loud and bleak, Fé!
Easy, Daniel, someone said. Nice and easy. Daniel answered
by yanking off his jacket, tearing off his tie, ripping open his shirt, throwing
off his suspenders and dropping his trousers. He looked more like Buster Keaton
than that marble David now, standing before us in black shoes, black socks,
and white boxer shorts printed with bright blue Yale bulldogs, like the bad opening
to some black-and-white porno flick. Then he shucked his shoes, socks and shorts,
and opened his arms wide to the heavens.
What am I? he screamed. Swiss cheese?
I think its chopped liver, Jackson corrected.
Is that a silly schlong I spy? Sinauer pointed. Most definitely
chopped liver. But in his drug-drenched mind, Daniel had something more
to prove. To Fé? To himself? To all of us? Who the hell knew? He vaulted
agilely onto the balustrade, his toes caressing its marble edge. We were impressed.
He stood straight, stared into the storm, concentrating hard, his brow furrowed,
his jaw clenched. No tears now, only rain and wind and the killer dive. It was
a swana nice poetic choiceand I must say he gained excellent
elevation, considering the conditions. He stretched out beautifully, cleared
the distance to the pool nicely and knifed into the bright waters with barely
It was definitely a killer dive, but what Daniel had not taken into account
was the depth of this particular pool. Sober, any good diver would have tested
first. And even though touching bottom would not have usually been a problem
for him, this bottom was covered in splintered crystal, so when he broke the
surface proudly and gave us his cry of victory, his hands were already dripping
blood and his nose showed a nasty gash. But Daniel was beyond pain, even as
he grasped the sides of the aluminum ladder, climbed out of the pool, and stepped
onto more shattered glass. Several of us tried to stumble down to help him,
save him from himself, but the Sheridans bouncer-butler, clad casually
now in black and orange Princeton sweats, reached him first. He lifted the
onto his shoulder like a rag doll and carried him up to the house. Daniel was
quiet now, in shock probably, and the butler carefully wrapped his hands and
feet in damask table linen, draped his wet jacket over his shoulders and twisted
a tablecloth around his waist like a towel.
Keep it covered, young man, he said sternly and trundled him off
to the nearest emergency room in the family Rolls.
* * *
The storm swept
southeast, leaving the dome above us a deep iridescent blue, dancing with
stars. I spread my blue serge jacket out for her on wet
petals under the arches of the Sheridans folly. But the ground was sopping
when I lay beside her, I felt it seep through my shirt and pants. She rolled
toward me and put her hand on my chest.
Tell me about Julien Sorel, Charlie, she said in a sad voice. Her
wet hair had curled into beautiful ringlets.Tell me about Julien and Madame
Tell me about the rabbits, George, I teased.
Youre cruel, but Ill tell you something anyway. Its what
I tell my friends.
Charlie Frank is the best kisser I ever met.
You tell your friends.
Havent they all been begging you?
I was wondering what they were after.
You kissed like you were on fire and afraid you might burn me. Even with
your tongue, it was like you were tasting something hot.
I was in a dream and rudely interrupted.
I cant stand how most boys kiss. Like they want to eat my face. No
of lips, no gentle touch of tongues.
I wanted to make love to you like that. They say snails can go for hours.
Thats how I wanted it.
Maybe I was wrong to stop. Kiss me now like
that. For a long time I said nothing. Then I recited something instead,
from a poem I had memorized with her in mindLa Belle Dame Sans
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore;
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.
Ill buy that kind any time, she said. What is it?
Then kiss me like Keats.
Who knows what it was about? Booze or fear of rejection, rich kids or clever
forgeries. Who knows? Most likely it was some kind of misplaced teenage revenge,
a tit for tat for what she did to me on the Cape. None of it was clear, is
all I know.
No, I said. I might want to kiss you, I might want it badly,
but I’m too drunk. Ask me when Im just a little high and my heads
swimming with you. Just you and not the booze. I took her hand and
held it to my lips.
You care that much?
Maybe. I ran my tongue lightly along her little finger. But
I want you to know something. Im not taking the dive for you, thats
Oh, Charlie, he didnt do it for me. He did it because he was high on coke
and thought he was Superman. He did it to make a spectacle. Dont confuse
I just want you to know I wouldnt do that for anyone. She brought
her face close and ran a moist hand down the side of my face.
And I wanted this party to be so special, she sighed.
Im just glad I dont have to clean up.
And Saras dying, she said, her face as cool as marble in the
Mrs. Sheridan has cancer. Nobody knows. Sandy doesnt even know yet.
How do you know?
He wants my father to paint her nude. Something in watercolora
Bonnard maybe. Something loose and full of light.
* * *
On the way home in the car, all of us too wasted to be driving anywhere, let
alone to Massachusetts, Jackson said, You know what I think, Charlie? I
think youre afraid of success.
Kid just thinks too much, Ox
philosophized. Like in football,
you think too much, someone puts you on your ass.
The light was breaking in the East, but I was still lost in night thoughts, remembering
the gold earring gleaming in the shadow of her hair and how I had kissed her
there once, her skin moist and tasting slightly of the sea. And I thought about
Mr. Sheridan passed out at the end of his dining table, about his strange desire
to have a watercolor by Bonnard of his nude wife. No matter how beautiful the
painting might be, it would always be a well of sadness.