Chapter 1

I can't explain it, but I began seeing widowed men all over Poughkeepsie, dressed in well-cut suits on weekdays and in beautifully muted plaid shirts on the weekend.  They would be buying food in tiny quantities at the new upscale grocer, or browsing informational magazines (fly fishing, photography, woodworking) over a cup of coffee (black) at the chain bookstore south of town.  I found them attractive, in a buttoned-down way that wouldn't have caught my eye twenty or thirty years earlier.
        How could I know there wasn't a wife waiting at home or shopping for an item in the next aisle?  The widowers had a fieldmark of sorts--what I would call an overall grayness of complexion and manner of being.  The effect struck me as a form of public grieving, like the obsidian jewelry that Victorians would wear after the death of a loved one. 
        I went out to dinner with a few of the widowers.  They scrupulously avoided touching me, as if they'd made a deathbed vow to refrain from carnal experience of any kind.  "Sorry," one said when he accidentally bumped my breast with an elbow, and I had the creepy feeling he wasn't speaking to me.
        The widowers were reluctant to say much about their recent lives, which of course was understandable given what they'd been through.  It was left to me to imagine these men occupying corner offices in vaguely named firms, then driving home to silent Tudors and Capes.  The flowerbeds would be abandoned, the shrubbery out of control.  No pets.  The kids off at good colleges or embarking on promising careers.  Nothing much going on in the kitchen.  On every surface of the home, an embalming layer of dust.  Neglect had been allowed to gather in corners and now it was annexing entire rooms to which doors were never opened.
                                  
Weston Clay was the most promising of the bunch.  I liked to tell old friends that I'd picked up Wes at a nursing home outside of town, although that's not quite how it happened.  He would park his little anonymous car up the road from my house, then stride by purposefully as if on a fitness walk.  But there had been others before him and I wasn't fooled.  He was looking for me.
          What I mean is, Wes was hoping to glimpse the woman he assumed I was--Helene Lystra, a second-lead actress of the forties and early fifties.  It was Helene's house, after all, and Helene's turquoise Jaguar in the port-cochère.  Over the years I'd been mistaken for her at least a dozen times.  People would rediscover Helene from her old movies on television and tribute sites on the Internet, one of which I hosted in a casual way.  They'd learn she lived on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie.  And, like Wes, they came searching for the house.  If they happened to glimpse this rather tall older woman with an outdated pageboy, they assumed they'd found Helene.  But Helene Lystra had been fuller in the face and figure--a voluptuary in full bloom--whereas on my very best days I had the generic good looks of women you see modeling eyeglasses.
        I'd spotted Wes walking past a couple of times that October, and one afternoon while raking leaves I decided to set him straight.  When I called out a hello, he acted surprised to hear a voice, even though I was in plain sight and not ten yards away.  He approached me slowly and leading with one hip.  Like a toreador, I thought, trim and professionally cautious.
        I said, "Nice day for a walk," which it wasn't particularly.  The weather had turned cold and damp, and Wes's nose was threatening to run.  When he patted the pockets of his sports jacket, I handed him a pack of tissues.
        "Thank you," he said, not quite looking at me.  "So, you wouldn't by any chance be Miss--"
        "That's right.  She's not at home presently."
        He nodded.  I thought he seemed relieved. 
        "Miss Lystra is ailing," I said.  "You could send her a card at the Tapscott Home."  I gave him the address.  That's more than I offered the other snoops, but something set Wes apart.  He had that odd pairing of youthful energy and middle-aged fussiness that marked him as a professor. 
        "Thanks for your help," he said.  "I work just up the road."
        "Vassar?"
        "Correct.  History."  He reached to shake my hand while pointing in the direction of the college with the other hand.  I pretended to be confused and grasped the pointing finger.  A silly stunt, and he wasn't laughing.
        "I attended," I said.  "And dropped out.  To work as Ms. Lystra's private secretary."
        "I see.  And that would have been--"
        "A remarkably long time ago."        

I began seeing Wes at Tapscott.  He would be arriving with flowers or leaving with a stricken look.  It was a safe guess that he had fallen for the Helene Lystra of Hollywood and couldn't reconcile those deathless noir images with the sweetly addled woman who never got out of her hospital bed. A once-beautiful woman who, with her hooded eyes, square jaw, and mouth drawn in a thin line of discomfort, had come to look remarkably like George Washington.
        Our first conversations were in the lobby, shouting at each other over the roar of television sets that apparently were never turned off.  I learned that he had lost his wife, Betsy, to a rare ailment she'd picked up while accompanying him on a sabbatical year in Laos.  It seemed that this tragedy might have softened him up for his schoolboy crush on Helene. 
        We soon fell into the habit of leaving Tapscott together and stopping off at the Acropolis Diner on Main Street.  I enjoyed getting disoriented on caffeine as I listened to his reasonable speech and looked across the table at his nicely composed face.  Wes's features were so perfectly symmetrical that I'd find myself glancing from one eye to the other, one cheek to the other, in the way that you restlessly scan a sheet of postage stamps for some slight variation.  (I should add that when Wes happened to turn his head, the profile view suggested a different sort of man, his twice-broken nose like the one jarring line in an otherwise unremarkable curriculum vitae.) 
        A woman might not label Dr. Weston Clay as ravishingly handsome, but she'd have trouble detailing the reasons why.  I was particularly drawn to his strong jaw line, blued by dark whiskers below the skin.  His irises were an indeterminate color, hazel shading toward olive green.  He kept his hair longish on the sides, as Vassar's entire male faculty at the time seemed compelled to do.
        These weren't extraordinary details.  What set Wes apart was his attentiveness, unblinking and somehow lavish.  He was that rare thing among men, a skilled listener, deftly inserting the occasional request for elaboration.  Talking with Wes could be mildly exhilarating, the way late-night conversations with girlfriends had been on sleepovers.
        We were getting along well enough in the clatter and glare of the Acropolis that I wondered how the two of us might do in a more intimate setting.  We began adjourning to Mother Tempesta's, last of the old-time spaghetti joints in downtown Poughkeepsie.  The food was simple and plentiful, the wine sweet and amiably bad.  The owners' grandchildren waited table, laughing and calling out as they ran through the warren of dimly lit booths.
        At first I luxuriated in Wes's attentiveness.  I might have found it tinglingly romantic, but I came to suspect that Wes was looking through me to another woman, if not a phalanx of other women.  Prettier, younger, and better educated, my only advantage being that I happened to be alive and Wes's favorites all seemed to reside in the hereafter.  Betsy.  Helene.  And those other actresses he doted on.  Margaret Sullavan, Gloria Graham, Jean Arthur.  A virtual harem of angels immune to aging, to committing social gaffs, to making tepid conversation.
        I learned that a fascination with Helene had come over Wes like the flu.  He'd harvested nuggets of incidental information about her in the patient way that a prospector pans for gold.  Her birthplace, blood type, putative bust measurement, siblings' names and death dates.  He collected videos of her movies and had assembled a scrapbook of clipped reviews.  He even had managed to acquire a metallic, cone-breasted costume that Helene was supposed to have worn in The Amazing Magnetron.  When he asked me to come over to his house to verify that it was hers, I said he must be kidding.  But it seemed that Wes never kidded, unless his entire persona was a vastly complex joke on me, and I guessed that wasn't the case. 
        As with the other widowers, Wes rarely mentioned his wife.  When he did part with a memory or an anecdote, his accounts were short and oddly impersonal.  Stranger still, the words sometimes were accompanied by nonlingual sounds.  At first I thought that the barely audible squeals and pops issued from the ancient church pews that served as benches at Tempesta's.  It was several evenings before I realized that these were the far-off, tectonic groans of a grieving person in the process of realignment.  Clinically speaking, something was going on with Wes's mandibular joints, but he said nothing of that at the time.
        Mostly, Wes talked about trains--obscure trains that crept through lonely landscapes, their existence as tentative as that of endangered birds.  Whenever he could get away from the college, he went off riding trains in Bolivia, Darjeeling, Tunisia, the quaint coaches overflowing with singing, brightly dressed locals who carried chickens in valise-sized crates of bamboo.  Or so I imagined, because when Wes showed me a handsomely bound album of his travel photos, there were no people whatsoever.  Roughly half the shots showed small locomotives, looking like hairless burros.  The rest were extreme closeups of peasant foods, the shapes glutinous and somehow threatening.
                                        
When friends asked about this new man in my life, I found myself embellishing Wes's personality in order to make my accounts more interesting.  A brooding Rochester, a Woody Allen nebbish.  A complex man of many facets.  In fact, Wes so far had revealed only one remarkable facet to speak of, his attentiveness. 
        I thought that conversation alone might be enough to sustain us as a couple, given our ages.  I was sixty-one, and Wes two years younger.  After all, most couples at this stage of life engage each other primarily with words.  And Wes and I were snowed in by drifts of talk.  Our relationship, not a year old, had arrived at a mildly pleasant plateau.  Jump-ship time, Helene would say.  A woman needed to abandon an affair before the tendrils of habit could develop into dependency, and I believed at the time that Helene had lived true to her maxim.  Her only long-term man friend had been a married Poughkeepsie lawyer, Ralph Snow, and their entire four-decade affair seemed to have been conducted over the well-set tables of expensive restaurants an hour's drive away from prying eyes.  
        I did keep meeting Wes in hopes that something--a hormonal spike, an alignment of the planets, hard liquor--would nudge me up at least to the level of overt fondness.  At Tempesta's, I tried switching from my usual glass or two of the house red to a couple of Old Fashioneds.  That only had the effect of making Wes seem even more reasonable.  I resorted to imagining that his wife was still alive, locked away in a mental institution after he coldly and systematically loosened her grasp of reality.  He then had returned from his sabbatical with the story that Betsy had died abroad, freeing himself to indulge in affairs back at home.  But Wes was anything but a rogue, making this fantasy impossible to sustain.
        Wes continued to listen patiently to my patter, no matter how mundane.  Gardening, the cats, my latest ailment.  I tried describing the series of paintings underway in my studio, but the work had stalled when Helene moved to Tapscott and now there was little to report.  Whenever I sputtered into silence, I could count on Wes to rescue me with politely probing questions.
                                        
"I'm curious about your past assignations," he began one evening at Tempesta's.
        "I beg your pardon. "
        "Men that meant something to you.  I'm sure there've been many, but how about the significant ones that your thoughts return to?  If I'm not being too intrusive."
        "Intrude ahead.  I only hesitate because I'm afraid you'll think I'm a dud.  There really isn't much to report."
        "I find that hard to believe."
        "All right then," I said in a hag's torn voice, "we'll scroll back through the decades.  The seventies, the sixties, the fifties--." 
         "Start with the most recent."
        "Recent?  I suppose that would have to be Aristotle Campi.  A roofer I found attractive for about fifteen minutes."
        "Roofer," repeated Wes.  "What was he like?"
        "I'd prefer to skip him," I said. 
        "But now you've made me curious.  How would you describe him?"
        "About six-one.  Dark complected.  Violent."
        "You must be joking.  Why would you want someone like that around?"
        "Let's try another question.  I don't care for this one."  
        Wes fussed with his silverware.  "All right, then.  Who engaged you the most deeply?"
        I tapped my temple and pretended to be browsing my memories, but in fact I was still thinking about the roofer.  For two weeks, Aristo had clambered over my house like a large bat in his black Lycra biker's shorts and rock climbing booties.  His partner was laid up, he said, and I'd offered to move slates from a flatbed truck to the lift on the scaffolding.  Like a dopey five-year-old, I actually thought he needed my help, when in fact he was after something else.  And like a dopey thirteen-year-old, I pretended I had no idea what that something might be, on the chance that it might happen.  I was damned fortunate that when Aristo Campy moved in on me like a panzer division, the event took place at the end of the workday, when the two of us were at ground level and not on a mansard roof with a slithery drop on all sides. 
        "You still with me?" Wes asked.
        "Right.  You want to know who engaged me most deeply."
        "And who have you come up with?"
        "I suppose that might be Theodore Anderson.  Ted, he was known as.  A farmer.  Blondish.  Six-one also, or maybe not.  I can't exactly recall what he looked like.  All I get are these third- or fourth-generation memories.  You know, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.  Grainy, surreal.  Right now I'm picturing his nose, but it's sort of migrating across his cheek--."  And in fact I was having trouble just then, Aristo's flushed and meaty face only stubbornly yielding way to the clean-cut geometry of Ted's Nordic good looks.
        "Was he courting you?"
        "Hardly.  We went on picnic, Wes."
        "So, where did he take you?"
"Romantically?  Or no, you mean geographically.  All I remember is that it was a pleasant spot on the side of a hill.  Not far outside a funny little town somewhere in the central part of the state.  The weather was like today, cool and invigorating--"
This was not a memory that I tapped often, that I was quick to share.  Certain recollections are as fragile as peony pedals, bruised by handling, and I took care that the details I still could summon from the day with Ted remained somewhat fresh.  That evening at Tempesta's, I kept it vague and dreamy rather than part with specifics.
"So much for the atmospheric conditions," Wes said.  "What else?"
"I'm trying to tune in what happened and all I get is a wash of colors.  Those absolutely unpaintable greens of spring, those warm but delicate and almost edible greens.  The numinous greens of a salad right out of the garden--."
"I believe you mean 'luminous,' Dulcie.  Unless you're speaking of a salad as being mysterious in a spiritual sense."
"I suppose I've had a few salads like that, but okay, luminous.  Glowing.  Like everything looked a couple of weeks ago, when the newly burst leaves were flushed with pinks and lavenders.  You try to catch that effect with pigment and you end up with goose poop.  Anyway, where was I?"
"On a slope of some sort."
"Right.  We plunked ourselves down at the edge of this fairytale forest overlooking a meadow.  The grass was long and loppy and fragrant.  Waving in the breeze."  I moved my arms like a Balinese dancer, to the amusement of a ten-year-old waiter who happened to be rushing past our booth.
Wes contrived a smile, but he looked troubled by this news of a nebulous lover.  "Sounds nice," he said.
"I do seem to remember that the bluebirds were two to a tree, that the meadow was flecked with ladyslipper orchids, that there was the good bubblegum scent of wisteria.  Although it might just have been starlings and pretty weeds.  And Ted chewing Double Bubble."
Wes weighed my words, studied my expression, and decided it was appropriate to laugh.  He did so, and I joined him.  That was all I said about Ted Anderson on this particular evening, and all I planned on saying.  I'd learned there was no way of explaining how one man, over the course of a few pleasant hours, had become my gold standard, my unapproachable ideal.   When I tried talking about Ted with old college friends at our annual get-togethers for lunch, I managed to give them the impression that I'd invented him as an excuse for rarely settling into relationships that lasted longer than a week.  Maybe they thought I was a non-practicing lesbian.  Or asexual.  Or a chronic wallflower.  Only the third of these had some truth to it. 
        I saw a therapist for a time.  She asked about my love life and I told her about Ted with so much enthusiasm that she got the impression he was a hot number I'd just met. 
        "You're talking about a single day thirty-plus years ago?" the woman exclaimed after I'd set her straight.  She allowed a muttered "No way" to drop from her lips.  And since that was about all she had to say, I spent the remainder of what was to be my last session talking about something I'd read in a self-help paperback, that Ted seemed to be what the author termed a "curative fantasy."  I explained that I summoned him whenever a romantic urge threatened to take me into dicey territory.  He was reconstituted, handsome and gallant.  The current beau could be no match, and I was spared the clutter and disappointment of a prolonged relationship.   
        The book went on to call this strategy a crippling defense, but I didn't mention that to my therapist.  I considered myself fortunate, not wounded.  If I was destined to have just one profound relationship in this life, and for a matter of hours, then so be it.  Ted had saturated me with a sense of love and lovemaking as they might be in this life-inseminated me, so to speak, because this feeling proceeded to gestate and flourish within me.  My scattershot affairs in the years that followed only reinforced the conviction that I had witnessed, early on, a moment of untrammeled perfection. 
        Am I describing nothing more than a well-worn schoolgirl crush?  Maybe so, and that would explain why I didn't want to subject my relationship with Ted to a daylight examination by my college friends, much less to Wes's cool-eyed analysis over drinks at Tempesta's.  But scenes barely glimpsed can have great staying power.  They can become sharper and more fully resolved over time, and so it had been with Ted.  He was always there for me, ready to step out of a dream and into the sticky particulars of the moment.  And his currency, his value, undoubtedly was inflated by the fact that Helene Lystra had found him to be the one man worth throwing herself at-or so I believed at the time.
        "I've lost you again," Wes said.  He looked dejected, as if I'd stood him up on a date, and in effect that's just what was happening.
        "Sorry," I said.  I did my best to appear rueful and could feel my eyebrows sloping up precipitously.  Which, I knew from rehearsing expressions in the mirror, compressed my forehead into unpleasant corrugations, so I dropped the effort.  "But it's your fault, you know.  Prying into my distant past."
        "The roofer doesn't sound too distant.  He sounds imminent.  And he evidently stirred up some sentiment in you that I can't."
        Sentiment.  How like Wes to come up with that bland euphemism for lust, desire.  I wouldn't have been completely surprised if he'd come out with estrus.
        "If he stirred up anything, Wes, it was sediment, not sentiment."
        Wes laughed wanly, not bothering to summon a smile.  He signaled for our check.
                                        
Back at home, I glanced up at the roof before going inside.  The top level of Aristo's scaffolding had offered a fine view of the Hudson River valley and, farther off, the surreally perfect lavender triangles of the Catskills.  I'd lingered up there to take it in, and when he offered to share the meager contents of his lunchbox, I went back down to gather us a picnic basket full of leftovers from my refrigerator. 
        As we started to eat, Aristo referred to the part-time girlfriend who'd packed him his lousy lunch as a bitch, spitting out the word.  I should have spoken up to let him know that the term didn't sit well with me.  And I was mildly shocked at myself when I did not.  I allowed the word to hang in the clear, blue sky above Bride's Haven, and in doing so must have signaled something to this man, that I might be pliant, available.  And yet our conversation that lunch hour was as lofty as our perch.  As we looked out over the Hudson River Valley, Artisto Campi chatted confidently about Thomas Cole and the other artists who had devoted themselves to this same landscape.  His declamation had a swagger to it, as if this arcane knowledge were a plumped-up extension of the oversized pecs, shoulders, and biceps on display under his tight white teeshirt, the crisp folds of which betrayed it having been taken out of the package that morning.  Had he dressed up especially for me?  I noticed that he had shaved, down to a line where his chest hair abruptly began, the line demarked so clearly that it was as if he had on a hair dickey, a chest toupee.  At that thought, I began to laugh.  Not my usual throaty guffaw, but a silvery girlish trickle that issued forth along with what seemed to be a pheromone of some sort.  A scent was rising from my person, the simple scent of schoolgirl longing, I suppose, eerily like the Here's My Heart cologne I'd bought in college from the Avon lady who managed the neat trick of bluffing her way into Old Main. 
                                        
I'd hired Aristo to replace the roof's missing slates on the recommendation of Marina Vosburg, a friend I occasionally ran into at the farmers' market outside of Poughkeepsie.  Her divorce had recently come through, and with it, I noticed, she'd begun dressing in a different way.  Provocatively, I told myself, and yet there wasn't an article of clothing, a cosmetic detail, that I could say contributed to that effect.
        "I'll part with his number, but jealously," Marina said.  "It got so that I'd invite him in for a glass of wine at the end of the work day."
        "Sounds a little brazen," I said.  "Risky, even."
        "Oh, there's an edge to the man, no doubt about that.  He's from Cyprus.  I made the mistake of blurting out, 'Then you're Turkish,' and I thought his eyes would burn holes right through me.  He's Greek.  Early fifties, I'm guessing.  Built, kind of unbelievably, so that you can't help stare.  Dimples.  'Virile' is a word I haven't used, probably haven't thought to myself, in years, but-well, I'll call you with his number."
        "Aristo Campi.  The name sounds familiar.  He's single?"
        "I don't know, but you get the idea it wouldn't be an issue, if things should come to that."
        "Things won't," I said, sounding schoolmarmish.  "To me, there's nothing particularly ennobling about living by the sweat of one's brow."
        "So who's talking about ennobling?  He came in at the end of the first day for a glass of water and I nearly fell down when he complimented me on the landscape above the mantelpiece.  He went on a good ten minutes about the Hudson River School.  Church and Cropsey and Cole.  Imagine it.  That's when I refilled his glass."
        Thanks to Marina's buildup, I'd felt nervous when I dialed the number that evening.  I stood there wishing I hadn't been wearing my old quilted housecoat with its coffee stains and worn cuffs, as if my appearance were being transmitted over the wire.
        "Sure, I know your place," Aristo Campi said when I gave my address.  "I help myself to a long look whenever I drive by.  Gorgeous.  Your accent slates are Vermont, I guess you know.  Not from around here.  Those greens, those reds like a grape."
        He called a few days later with an estimate, having gone up to take a look at the roof while I was out.
        "Sounds fair," I said.  "When can you start?"
        He said that his partner was laid up after having slid off a roof slicked with dew.  "But I maybe can get to it next Monday if somebody's around to help schlep slates.  The idea is you take them from the truck to this hand-operated hoist I got on the scaffolding.  Simple."
        "Me?"
        "Sure, you.  Anybody.  Simple.  Heavy but simple."
        I realized, with a small and pleasurable shock, that the man must be picturing me as a younger woman.
        "In fact, you ought to come up and check out your view," he said.  "Unbelievable.  River, mountains, clouds.  The view is worth the price I just quoted you, practically."
        I did climb up, meeting Aristo on the scaffolding each noon.  It was exhilarating, standing there splay legged with the landmarks of my adult life arrayed around me.  I swore I could detect the Earth's slow gyre beneath my feet.  Feeling spacey and vertiginous, I'd let Aristo Campi's words wash over me as he expressed his boundless appreciation for early American landscape painting.  He had visited the sites of many works, he said, bushwhacking up mountains and through swamps in order to witness the craggy views that had inspired his heroes.
        As he spoke, Aristo was looking not at the view but at me.  Not into my eyes, as Wes seemed to feel compelled to do, but scanning my person as if making an appraisal.  Eyes heavy lidded and almost reptilian.  Robert Mitchum eyes.
        Not his best feature, I told myself now as I walked into the house and kicked off my shoes.  Aristo and his kind. I was comforted by the phrase.  A subspecies of shallow, conniving ass-grabbers.  His little lecture about Cole and Cropsey and Church must have been a shtick.  But it had seemed authentic enough to throw me off guard. 
        The afternoon Aristo finished the job, I wrote out a check and invited him to my studio.  He stood just inches from me, close enough that I could feel the day's heat radiating off him.  I could smell the Tiger Balm he spread on his upper lip to keep himself alert while on a roof.  He nattered on competently about the formal aspects of my painting, while expertly guiding me through the initial steps of lovemaking.  Before I knew it-- and I mean that literally-- my blouse was open and his damp teeshirt was on the floor.  There was no kissing because he was still delivering his critique.  All this was accomplished as guilelessly as if he were a docent giving me a museum tour.
         I tried spinning free of Aristo's embrace but he grabbed my arm, hard enough that I knew I had stepped too far.  His lecture faltered, stopped.  And then as if a trap had been sprung, he let go.  Experienced lover that he must have been, Artisto realized with a glance at my face that it was over.  He had pushed this late-middle-aged lady past her limit.  As I turned away and buttoned up, I felt twenty years older.  And terrifically sad. 
        Aristo must not have been quite himself as he left.  On my way to the mailbox that evening I found the check.  It had blown across the lawn and was snared by a shrub.
        Back at the house, I had sifted through a stack of old newspapers, looking for something I vaguely recalled from a month or so before.  I found the single-paragraph item buried on a back page.  A roofer named Gus Plakitis had brought suit against his partner, Aristotle Campi, claiming to have fallen from a scaffold because Campi maliciously shifted his weight.  Plakitis had broken both feet and several ribs.  The article mentioned that Campi was retaining the services of Snow Withim and Garvin, the firm Ralph Snow had cofounded and where he continued to work part time.
        I called Marina, ignored her pleasantries, and asked if she knew about the incident between Aristo and Plakitis.
        "I read about it," she said.  "And frankly I wasn't surprised, considering the way the two of them would stand on top of my house arguing about politics.  Or I assume it was politics.  They were shouting in Greek."
        "I have to wonder why you didn't warn me your roofer was violent."
        "Well, didn't I describe him as loaded and dangerous?"
"Not in those words.  And you might have mentioned that his Cole and Cropsey bullshit is just a ploy to get in a woman's pants."
"Pants?"
"Blouse, actually."
"Well, Jesus Christ.  Sorry, Dulcie, but I guess I credited you with having been around men long enough to handle yourself.  Or am I missing the point?  Is the problem that you don't want to be bothered by any sort of guy, ever?"
        "If you get off on the Aristos of the world, then I'd say you're the one with a problem."
        Marina hung up on me.  For a moment I considered that she might have a point.  Then I put her argument and mine on a mental balance scale, which, after another moment, tipped decidedly in my favor.
        I went outside and taped Aristo's check to the front door.  Then I retreated to the house, locked up, and hid in my bedroom, listening.  I preoccupied myself with old sketchbooks, selecting drawings to matte and frame.  Maybe an hour later, I was feeling hungry and about to venture downstairs to make dinner when I heard a truck pull up the lane.  Like a fool, I got down on all fours and held my breath.  There were footsteps up the walk.  Then a pause, no doubt as Aristo saw the check and pocketed it.
        I was chiding myself for hiding from the man when the banging began.  Aristo evidently was hammering on the front door with his fists.  If it weren't for the twenty-odd shoeboxes stored under the bed, I would have crawled under it.  The racket went on for a good minute.  And then Aristo drove off, fast, spitting gravel down the lane and squealing his tires out on the paved road. 
        A few days later, I found a Thomas Cole hardcover on my doorstep.  New, expensive.  No note.  I opened it to check for an inscription and found that the pages had been hacked to shreds with a razor.
                                        
What was it about Aristo that had attracted me?  Contrary to what I'd told Marina, it might have been something so simple and obvious that he made his living with his hands and brawn.  As had Ted.  As had the men in my family.  Growing up rurally, in an old-order Mennonite community, I came to think of males as powerful, capable, foresquare.  I saw that the tasks on a farm weren't solely a matter of brute strength and bold decisiveness, but often called for delicacy.  I'd seen my father and older brother wrestle with a three-bottom gang plow, throw hay bales I couldn't lift, and pull newborn calves from the breech with a chain.  I also watched as they plucked a queen bee from a skep, tucked tiny seeds in a furrow at perfect intervals, and stuck an investigatory pinky down the throat of a balky carburetor.  And I had looked on admiringly as Aristo wielded his oddly shaped roofer's hammer to perforate and trim and nail slates so brittle that they shattered the only time I tried to mimic his moves. 
        Wes wasn't quite a species apart.  I am sure that the sun's rays would have produced a ruddy tan if he went on his every-other-day jogs without an enormous UV-shielding hat.  He no doubt possessed the normal complement of muscles and tendons, but as with most devoted runners everything other than his legs had come to look vestigial. 
        When given the opportunity, and it hadn't been often, Wes could be a credible lover.  Enthusiastic, if awkward.  As he went about unbuttoning and unzipping, he had the annoying habit of whispering apologies.  It was as if he thought my parents were nearby.  And maybe his parents, as well. 
        I might have teased him about this, but for my part I couldn't shake the conviction that Helene was monitoring our make-out sessions from the great beyond.  It had been her habit to classify men unflatteringly, and her comments about Wes would have been lacerating.
        Whenever either Helene or I went out on a date, the other would wait up for a late-night postmortem of the guy.  Sitting in the breakfast nook, we'd close the curtains against the dark, snack on Ritz crackers and a wheel of cheddar, sip on cheap New York State sherry, and launch into an assessment.  One of us would be dressed and perfumed and in a pinky bloom from having just been kissed and perhaps fondled.  The other drab as a house sparrow, with the virtuous mint-and-rose scent of toothpaste and Pond's cold cream. 
        Helene was unsparing of my escorts, as she called them.  She was quick to spot the ego perched atop a house of cards.  The smile that soon enough would be shedding teeth.  The whiff of effeminacy.  After a half hour of this, the man would be reduced to a shambling supplicant, a buffoon.  And I would sit back and smile, complicit in this nasty business.
        Helene was dead.  She couldn't very well pass judgment on Wes, a man she'd never spoken with.  But I'd picked up the habit of making these gimlet-eyed critiques.  Maybe I felt I owed it to the woman who had been both my mentor and my best friend for my entire adult life.  And maybe I felt I was saving myself, what was left of it in body and spirit, for Ted.    
                                
At Tempesta's, I'd noticed that I could perk up an evening by offering Wes details about Helene Lystra's life.  The upbringing of the socially isolated Helen Leister, on the Indiana farm of semi-literate parents both in their forties at the time of her birth.  Memories of old Hollywood.  The farmhouse and vineyard she'd owned in Sicily.  Wes would become quite animated, indulging in a second or third glass of wine.   I suspect he might even have been mildly aroused. 
        How far would Wes allow his to crush on Helene to develop?  And how far would I go to encourage him?  It was morbidly fascinating to look on as this reasonable professor slipped into his not entirely wholesome preoccupation.  At the same time, didn't I find it reassuring that Wes was distracted by a relationship that, like my fixation over Ted, would go nowhere, would yield nothing?  Perhaps that's all Wes and I needed, all we were able to handle at this point in our lives.  A thinned-down, homeopathic tincture of love that couldn't even be called companionship.
        One Sunday I brought along an envelope in which I'd placed a publicity photo of Helene, an unretouched eight-by-ten.  I watched as Wes took in the feast of details: the sprinkling of freckles, like some sort of musical notation; the scar above one eyebrow; hair growing low at the temples, like a preteen boy's hint of sideburns; cleavage as dramatic as a wound.  All were revealed intimately by the large-format studio camera, as if its German lens had a peculiar appetite for pores and facial down.
        "Gosh," Wes said, obviously unsettled.
        "Keep it," I told him.
        I continued to bring him photos, even though it irritated me to see him handle the things like religious scrolls.  One Sunday, for the hell of it, I put an old photo of myself into an envelope.  It was a test shot from a Manhattan modeling agency, taken when I was nineteen and had gone along with a stunningly attractive college friend, Suki Davidson, for her scheduled shoot.  Suki talked me into slipping into a shirred top, and I did my best to give the camera a smoldering look.  Elbows back, chest out.  Mouth twisted in a precociously world-weary sneer.
        Wes studied the portrait for a long while.  "Remarkable," he said, his voice thickened by some male passion I couldn't identify.  Possessiveness, desire, frustration.  He carefully returned the photo to its envelope.
        "Remarkable?" I said.  "How do you mean?"
        "Just--.  I don't know.  She was a remarkable person, is all."  He smiled, thanked me, and seemed to glow from his side of the booth.
        I'm not sure what I'd hoped to accomplish with my prank.  Maybe that Wes would exclaim, "Why it's you, dear," and somehow his affection would leap from Helene to me, like a parasite abandoning a cold host for a living body.
        One evening I chided him for taking notes on a cocktail napkin after I'd mentioned some trivial item from Helene's past.
        "That's morbid," I said.  "Like that costume you bought."
        "By the way, I had it positively identified."
        "Oh, for Christ's sake.  I don't want to hear about it."
        Wes put away the napkin and pen.  His eye twitched.  His jaw popped, as it tended to when he was on edge, with the moist sound of knuckles being cracked.  I was beginning to feel like a traitor, a double agent at these candlelight dinners.  After all, Wes originally had come looking for Helene Lystra, and here he was bumping knees with Dulcie Ann Moken.          
                      
        
             
Chapter 2

Helene Lystra and I had met after she accepted a position as lecturer in Vassar's theater department.  I was a sophomore from a Pennsylvania farm, my college expenses paid by a great aunt who had broken out of our close-knit Mennonite community.  After marrying a wealthy man, Aunt Ruth began looking for a family member who might be a good candidate for living in the outside world.  She told me how impressed she was with the watercolors I'd been doing of farmland scenes, and I blurted out that I wanted to be an artist--a goal I don't believe I'd settled on until that moment.  Ruth dressed me up, taught me a few manners, and took me on a tour of the Seven Sisters.  I chose Vassar primarily because I was comforted by the sight of the working farm that the school then operated across the road. 
        I first glimpsed Helene while serving cake at a tea for new staff in the lounge of Old Main.  Glimpsed, but didn't recognize.  I'd never seen her films, or any films at all, until leaving our isolated community for Poughkeepsie.  But Helene's appearance and posture set her apart from the faculty in their ill-fitting tweeds.  I recall the out-of-town haircut, the suit cut to show off her bosom, and a complexion so unmarked it seemed to be of a finer stuff than skin.  In those days, the metaphors for attractive people were often electrical--a hundred-watt smile, an incandescent glow--and that's how I saw Helene Lystra at the age of thirty-eight. 
        In spite of the girls clustered around Helene that afternoon, the two of us found a moment to chat.  After the usual pleasantries I launched into a complaint about how my painting had suffered since I'd been stuck in a horrid closet of a dorm room in Old Main, its only window looking out onto the noisy hall.  A week later I got a letter from Helene's agent, offering me a job as personal assistant.  I would room and board at her home overlooking the Hudson.  The hayloft of the carriage house might possibly be outfitted as a painting studio.  And there would be a relaxed month or so each summer at her farmhouse in Sicily.
        I never figured out why Helene picked me, a plowhorse in a stable of thoroughbred young women.  Wes suggested that I had resembled the young Helene just enough that she was reminded of her earlier, happier self.  Or maybe I stood out because I hadn't picked up the studied languor of the others.  Whatever the reason, it was to be a full-time position, requiring me to withdraw from school. 
        I accepted on the spot.  Although I was up to the intellectual challenge of college, I seem to have been physiologically unsuited for it.  On the gross motor level, I hadn't unlearned my lumbering, row-hopping gait in spite of Aunt Ruth's coaching.  People were always asking if I'd twisted an ankle.  The worst of it was that I retained my Pennsylvania Dutch accent.  My tongue refused to negotiate a proper th.  I couldn't manage a long, aspirate oo.  And so on down the list of phonemes and diphthongs and such.  I'd only been in college a month or so when I was overheard saying something about buying a jug of cider, and jug came out like choke, as it will in the remote draws of Berks County.  Soon, I was known to the campus as Choke Moken.
        My suitemates reassured me that I sounded Swedish- exotic, sensually experienced.  But I heard giggles whenever I spoke up in class.  I began skipping and my grades suffered.  I'd been my community's emissary to the big, wide, secular world and it wasn't working.  I quit school without writing Aunt Ruth, without even consulting my friends. 
                                        
A physically imposing older man parked in front of Old Main in a robin's-egg blue Packard convertible and helped me with my suitcases and painting supplies.  He didn't bother to introduce himself.  It wasn't until later that I learned this was Ralph Snow, the Poughkeepsie lawyer who, in spite of being married into a family of Hudson Valley Brahmins, had begun squiring Helene about.  I don't recall him saying a word on the short drive to Helene's house, but his hand did try to get familiar with my thigh as he reached for something on the dashboard.  An antipathy for the man began to form within me that day, and it was to grow as sharp and hard as a bone spur.
       We drove up a tree-lined lane to one of those so-called gothic cottages built along the Hudson before the Civil War.  It was too pretentious to be quaint and not quite monstrous enough to quality as a mansion.  The place was known as Bride's Haven, named by the man who had commissioned its design for his new wife.  Helene had purchased the property just a month before.  I picked up that piece of information from Juliet, a maid about my age who was waiting for me at the port-cochère. 
        She led me up two flights of stairs to a small bedroom at the back of the house.  It was simply appointed, chaste and ascetic in its plainness.  "Like you're a nun," Juliet observed neutrally, and she went on to say that she preferred living at home and having her mother take her to and from work.  She lingered a while, obviously curious about what sort of outfits I'd take from the expensive leather suitcases Aunt Ruth had bought me.  But I waited until she had gone to put my things in a dresser and hang a few items from hooks on the back of the door.  There was no closet.  A tall arch-topped dormer window let in the thin, indifferent October light.
        I sat on the narrow bed, thinking someone would appear to tell me what my job involved.  I was nervous at the prospect of seeing Helene again, even though girls at school had told me that her last film appearances had been forgettable.  She'd been cast as a too-good-to-be-true immigrant mom and a stuffy Main Line aunt, both roles meaning they had to bulk her up trim figure a half-dozen dress sizes.
        After an hour or so, I set off to explore the place on my own, as wary as a prowler.  The doors were open to several empty bedrooms on my floor.  Staff quarters, they seemed to be.  Everything was closed up on the floor below.  One doorway was grander than the rest, surrounded by outsized moldings and a carved cornice with pug-nosed cherubim. The master suite of Bride's Haven, I guessed. 
        The ground floor seemed to be lodged in an earlier time. These were watchful rooms, not unfriendly but reserving judgment.  They smelled of cedar, camphor, wool.  Tall chairs wore their antimacassars like religious vestments.  Ticking mantel clocks made the silence seem profound.
        I was happy to get outside and find that the natural world hadn't somehow reverted to a sepia-toned version of itself.  Flagstone paths led this way and that.  There were neglected vegetable and cutting gardens behind wrought-iron fences, an overgrown grape arbor, a gazebo in need of repair, and peeping from long grass, a cluster of tiny gravestones for what must have been pets.  Scruff.  Lilac.  Pesky.  Little Jo.  At the back of the property was what I took to be the carriage house that had been mentioned as a possible studio. 
        I turned to look back at my new home.  Its stolid construction, of some flinty gray stone, saved the architecture from looking entirely frothy and frivolous.  I doubted the squat walls had any need for buttresses, but there they were, as sturdy as the legs on a field hockey goalie.  A tower perched uncomfortably atop the roof.  It was capped with a weathervane featuring a pumpkin and some sort of fish-- a Hudson River shad, Helene later told me.  Just then a chilly breeze came up, and the big golden fish nosed into it as if alerted to some morsel of whatever shad eat.  I shivered and went back into the house.
        I stood by my bedroom window and waited for word from Helene.  The view was of the Hudson Valley and veiled mountains in the distance.  So it appeared in the late nineteen-fifties.  From that same window over the years, I watched as the fields went fallow and a spindly woods grew up to obscure the landscape.  Helene was to slip away from me in the same gradual way, as Alzheimer's hobbled her mind.  Just as I knew the Hudson was beyond the trees, I took it on faith that some essence of my employer and best friend remained behind her fixed smile.

Helene Lystra died at Tapscott at the age of eighty.  Beyond feeling relief for her sake and grief for mine, I was curious.  Now that the living person had been factored out of my life, what aspects of her might remain deep within me and possibly ineradicable?  It's not that I expected to see Helene manifested as glowing plasma.  My worldview was ploddingly rational and spook-free.  Even in the tradition-bound community where I was raised, ghosts had come to be seen as folklore.  My brothers and I laughed at our grandparents' Old World superstitions about shingling a roof only when the horns of the moon are turned down, or barring menstruating women from the kitchen.
        Still, I waited for a sign that some aspect of Helene, however rarified, had carried over into the present.  After her death, I mooned about the house by day and wandered the grounds at dusk, trying to divine her presence.  I ran her hairbrush through my hair and felt the static charge circling my head like a corona.  I tried on her clothes (with the warming weather I'd made good use of her collection of babydoll pajamas) and even dabbed on her perfume (it had gone bad).  I planted our favorite vegetables and flowers that spring, as if Helene would be here to enjoy them.  I even wondered if our cats, Hodgkin and Hockney, were staring at bare walls for minutes at a time because they were tuning in Helene's ethereal frequency.
        Helene remained illusive.  She was nothing more than an electrical potential that charged certain objects in the house and certain places around the property.  And yet I did pick up the sense that Helene did not care for Wes, even thought they hadn't communicated at Tapscott.  But I couldn't shake this troublesome notion, or neural tickle, or whatever it was. 
        I suggested to Wes that he come to Bride's Haven for dinner the following Sunday instead of meeting at Tempesta's.  This was more of an experiment than a social gesture.  I wanted to know if Helene's admonitions would come on explicit and strong in the rooms where she had spent the second half of her life.
        When Wes arrived, he seemed alert for Helene's presence, too, tiptoeing about the place and reverently murmuring gosh each time we entered a room.  I put a stop to this nonsense by coming close to his ear and whispering "Manderlay" in a frilly Joan Fontaine voice.
        Wes smiled to show that he caught the reference to Hitchcock's Rebecca, then followed with a wince I couldn't interpret.  But the rest of the evening went well and we began taking turns making dinner on Sunday night at each other's houses.  The bustle of cooking, eating, and cleaning up seemed to keep Helene at bay.  Ted, too, remained in the wings.  This turned out to be a pleasant stretch for Wes and me.  Busyness gets a bad rap as a mind-dulling drug for blunting grief, anxiety, and self-criticism.  But it got us through those months without an epic battle.
        Of the two of us, Wes was the more creative in the kitchen, drawing on dishes he'd learned to make on his travels.  I appreciated the food but was uncomfortable at his house.  After Betsy's death, Wes noticed that the manager's cottage of a Victorian-era cemetery had come up for sale, and he bought it rather than continue to live in the home they'd shared.  Its lawns were peopled with old statuary, the worn faces as featureless as bars of soap.  The brick house could have been delightful, given a lighter touch with the decor.  But velvet drapes created a perpetual twilight within, and the previous owner had painted the rooms in mopey maroons and greens.  And Wes had turned the place into something of a shrine to Betsy.  Each room-even the first-floor powder room-- was monitored by formally posed portraits of her.  I suppose that fell within the bounds of reasonable mourning.  But over the weeks, through some peculiar Darwinism of the dead, the photos gradually were being replaced by framed shots I'd given him of Helene.
        "Quite a gallery you've got going here," I remarked one night.  A beam of candlelight picked out one particular shot of Betsy.  She was looking coyly over her shoulder, as if surprised to find herself being photographed.  Cute.  On the pixyish side of beautiful.  With the delicate heart-shaped face that doesn't hold up past middle age.
    We were in the living room, Wes had yet to offer me a cocktail, and I was unsettled by having all of those perfectly mascaraed eyes gazing at us.
        Wes evidently thought I was feeling left out.  "Oh, you'll be up there on the walls, no question." 
        "I guess I'm not in any big rush to join the club," I said.  These were my words, precisely, and they are a fair representation of how off-putting I tended to be around Wes.
        Still, our quiet evenings together were pleasant enough. After dinner, we often watched an old movie from his considerable collection, drinking whatever the cast happened to be knocking back.  For The Big Clock, it was nasty little green Stingers; for The Lady Vanishes, Chartreuse; for Scarlet Street, Rum Collins; for Born Yesterday, rye and ginger ale; for I Know Where I'm Going, gin and Dubonnet; for A Letter to Three Wives, martinis (made with Italian vermouth, Wes having noticed that the drinks in that film are dark in hue).  And then there were Helene's films.  If we were watching Contagion, we had Gibsons.  Hebridean Horror called for Scotch and soda. 
        The beachhead of our relationship alternated between the loveseat in Wes's living room and the couch in what Helene and I had called our screening room. As the opening credits rolled, Wes's arm would begin to snake around my midriff.  Apologetically, if that can be said of a person's limb, and as slowly as the minute hand on a clock.  Our attempts at lovemaking often were spectacularly clumsy and the blame wasn't all Wes's.  Once, snuggling in the dark, I managed to accidentally insert my fingers up his nostrils in the way I used to cradle a ball when bowling at Vassar's Kenyon Hall.  
        I did feel drawn to Wes, in the vague and mildly passionate way that those words suggest.  But the attraction was mixed with anger, an odd combination that I found upsetting.  Not until much later did it occur to me that I was mad at Wes because he happened to have strolled past my home thirty years too late.  Too late for swooning, all-consuming passion.  Too late, certainly, to conceive children.  The next day after seeing Wes, I would be aware of an unidentifiable sadness rising up like the creeping damp from a cellar.  It was if someone dear to me was on a train pulling out of the station and we would never again see each other in this life.  I was the woman on the railroad platform in Brief Encounter, bearing up beautifully as her lover departs forever.  Except that if I'd dared to look closely at the person in the departing coach, I might have seen that it was a child, not a lover, its face just visible above the window ledge.
                                        
Wes wasn't discouraged.  He persisted sweetly, if not ardently.  One Sunday evening at my place, the two of us were doing the dinner dishes and making small talk when, without changing his inflection, he began paying me lavish compliments.  My hair, my sense of humor, my wittiness, my skin tone, all the way down to the childlike perfection of my toes, which at the moment were peeking out from sandals.  Then, reaching the end of an inventory so long it risked becoming comical, he asked me to marry him.
        I had to tell Wes to repeat himself because I couldn't hear clearly over the splashing in the sink.  When I was sure he'd said what he said, I did something that will replay itself in my memory as long as I have my wits.  Like a scrupulous person reluctant to take money for an old car, I responded with an inventory of my own.  Limitations, peculiarities.  I spared no details, emotional or dental or gynecological.  It was an act of prenuptial full disclosure- and I thought I owed as much to the person who had taken Helene's place as my closest friend.  I'd reached the age, after all, in which medical glitches and fixes tend to become a preoccupation.  Yes, I looked stalwart.  I felt good enough, most mornings upon arising.  But I'd come to think of my body as a ragtag corps of loyalist parts and traitor parts, and time was showing their true colors.
        As I disclosed, Wes turned pale.  I shut my mouth, but too late- I had tarnished a thing he loved, a thing that, improbably, remarkably, was me.  A woman whose only notable qualities were nice legs and an independent income.
        Wes's tears were as surprising as a trickle of blood.  I resisted the impulse to blurt out a Ginger Rogers-like, "What I mean is, gosh, yes."  Wes blew his nose.  His jaw made a couple of pops.  And then we were pretty much back to normal.  The offer, and my response, weren't mentioned again by either of us. 
        Although Wes and I no longer embraced with passion, we continued to administer friendly pats on the bonier places.  Elbow, knee, shoulder.  It was as if our mouths and our softer regions had been edited out. 
                                 


Chapter 3
 
Wes and I missed one Sunday dinner together that spring, then two Sundays in a row.  The excuses were Wes's.  He explained that it being the end of the school year, he had papers to read, exams to administer, and grades to calculate.  But my behavior clearly deserved some blame for eroding whatever we'd built together.  Wes's good nature wasn't infinitely malleable.  And he may have suspected that there was no way he could measure up to my picnic lover.  He'd asked about Ted Anderson several times, trying to get a clearer idea of what this person represented.  
        And by chance, Ted no longer was quite so vaporous to me.  I needed a pair of earrings that would go with a blouse I'd just bought, and it occurred to me to have a look in Helene's dresser.  There was a secret panel-- in fact just a small drawer missing a pull--that I had neglected to point out to Helene's great niece when she stopped by the house after the funeral to take away any choice items that caught her eye.  I poked the panel to spring the drawer free.  At the back, nearly obscured by the tangle of hoops, drops, and studs, was a photograph wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief.  An old Polaroid, the blues and reds having migrated so that the scene had a dreamy soft focus, as if it were the record not of a visual event but of a memory.  The expression on the face was difficult to read because the noonday sunlight made sockets of the eyes and cast triangular shadows beneath the nose and cheekbones, the lips and chin.  But you could tell at a glance that this was the confident, take-me-or-leave-me face of a damned good-looking man. 
        "My god," I breathed more than said.  It came back to me in a rush, our afternoon with a picnic basket and a quart of Utica Club in a field rimmed with wildflowers.  Not as a faded postcard view, the way I had described the day to Wes, but vividly.  Not just in full color, but with sounds and scents.  The strength of him, pulling me closer.  Ted.  In the photo he was wearing a button-down shirt, open at the collar.  His face tan, smiling.  Head tilted back as if about to laugh, or maybe just recoiling from the camera's intrusion.  Forty years of fading memories were now snapped into focus, into images clearer than the one in my hand.
        Handsome.  Dreamy, really.  Square jawed, but not so much that he looked overly invested in hunting, working on cars, womanizing.  In fact, the rather generous expanse of forehead suggested a good intellect.  Had he mentioned being a devoted chess player?  An amateur classical musician?  Then the photo caught a reflection and Ted seemed to recede, as if frightened back through the veils of intervening years, back to the hills above the town whose name I'd long ago forgotten.
        Ted nearly had been the end of Helene and me.  As girlfriends sometimes do, we established early on that if either of us fell for a guy, the other would step back.  Allow her face to go slack and gray in the lone woman's version of protective coloration.  We felt this was necessary to living and working together in that house, and to remaining on best terms when traveling.  I was the one who had violated the agreement, going out with Ted just hours after he presumably had spent the better part of a night with Helene.
        The contretemps took place on a summer stock tour that Helene had agreed to because she had no prospects for work.  She was to appear opposite the male lead and tour manager, a Lamont somebody.  I went along at one-quarter salary as wardrobe mistress, also helping Helene memorize her lines--always a difficulty for her, even when filming short scenes.  We were to travel from somewhere in the Midwest to New England, staying in the small-town hotels that had all but given way to motel chains.  Pinched rooms, no air conditioning, no adjoining bath.  Just a big pedestal sink with a single complementary-size bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap and a scratchy hand towel.  The deserted taproom with its rich, pre-war stink, tended by an ancient man wearing a white shirt and bowtie.  The dimly lit restaurant off the lobby, chairs up on most of the tables like flags of defeat, the heavy scent of fryer oil clinging to the lone waitress as she slammed through the padded swinging doors with a tray.
        In each town, Lamont hired a few local men to nail together the flats and rig the lights.  At what turned out to be the fateful stop, Ted was among the pick-up crew.  My first glimpse of him was as he strode across the stage.  He wore a low-slung carpenter belt over his jeans and had the graceful stride of a man who has mastered the many varied jobs necessary to keep a farm running.  When I wasn't unpacking and ironing costumes, I watched him at work.  The photograph confirmed my memory that he was the rare combination of Adonis and pretty boy.
        Lamont's wife, Joan, clearly was smitten at her first, lingering sight.  But Helene acted as though Ted weren't there, and her indifference might have been convincing if it hadn't been for her exaggerated walk, a saunter that I suspect had won her more roles than her somewhat limited repertoire of facial expressions.  She brushed past Ted on some made-up errand and he, to his credit, only smiled to himself and shook his head.  When she returned, there was the same smile, this time shared for an instant with me.  I liked the way he held his ground and wouldn't be baited.  This was new to me, accustomed as I'd been at college to the predatory throngs bussed in from Yale and Williams and West Point. 
        When Helene had gone, Ted came over to me and, without a word, took my hands in his.  Large, calloused hands, almost glovelike.  And yet tender, somehow.  He made a show of inspecting my fingers with mock seriousness.  Then he uttered what I heard as Rynkchek.  I assumed he was introducing himself, this having been the last name of a girl on my floor in Old Main.  So I responded with Moken, whereupon he gave me a quizzical smile, dropped my hands, and went back to his task without another word.  It wasn't until later that afternoon, with those syllables resounding in my mind, that they resolved into a possible rain check.  Meaning that he'd already made arrangements for that evening but wanted to get together with me.  I settled instead on ring check.  It just might have been that he was trying to determine (even if humorously, idly) whether I was engaged or married.  If that in fact was what he'd asked, and I had responded appropriately (Why no-- unsampled goods), the following months might have unfolded in a very different way.  In fact, my life likely would have diverged radically.
        Helene had dinner with the rest of us at the hotel after the first performance, then left without explanation.  We all assumed, gossiping among us, that she must have closed in on Ted, just as she had picked up, then dropped, a couple other guys along the way. 
        It was after the second night's show that she walked out of the theater arm in arm with Ted and in full view.  I felt as though I'd been sucker punched, although I took some comfort in the reactions of the others: there was a good deal of headshaking, not so much because of Helene's waywardness but out of empathy for Ted, who had made fast friends with most of our troupe.
        Helene came back to the hotel at five or so in that half-ebullient, half-sodden state between tipsiness and hangover.  She immediately fell asleep.  When I tapped on her door later that morning to remind her of a lunch-hour meeting with the Lamont, she told me that she had a headache and Lamont could go to hell.

                        [end of sample]
A synopsis of Helene Lystra

Dulcie Moken had dropped out of Vassar back in the 1950s to work as the live-in personal secretary to Helene Lystra, a second-lead actress barely remembered for her film noir roles.  Neither woman married or had a family, preferring to travel freely between Helene's homes in Poughkeepsie, Manhattan, and Sicily.  Now, after Helene's death from complications of Alzheimer's and with the reading of her will, Dulcie finds herself wealthy, freed from a job, and owner of Bride's Haven, Helene's gothic mansion overlooking the Hudson. 

Dulcie's coddled life is interrupted when the widower she is dating, Weston Clay, mentions a curious item from Helene's past.  Wes, a Vassar professor with a near-obsessive interest in Helene's films, says that an author researching the queens of noir has just discovered a discrepancy in Helene's records at the college archives.  It's known that in 1960 Helene had walked off the shoddy set of what was to be her last film, then cabled friends-Dulcie among them-that she would be traveling to her Sicilian farmhouse to brood over her flagging career.  Nearly a year later, she returned to Bride's Haven full of chatty vignettes about Sicilian food and wine and men.  But old receipts and railroad timetables make clear that Helene had been somewhere in the dairy country of central New York State all along.

 Unsettled by this mystery, Dulcie runs through the reasons Helene might have disappeared: drying out at a clinic; taking acting lessons to revive her career; undergoing electroshock treatments for depression; or even seeking a backwoods abortion.  Wes points out that any of these would have been greatly embarrassing to Helene, and he proposes that they go on a weekend road trip to follow her paper trail.  If they can discover why she went away, there'd be a chance to obscure any compromising evidence before the author can sensationalize it in a dishy bestseller.

Dulcie sees the trip as an unhealthy symptom of Wes's fanatical interest in Helene's life.  And Dulcie herself continues to feel oppressed by the presence of the domineering woman who was her mentor as well as her employer.  What's more, she is uncomfortable at the prospect of stopping for the night at some trackside hotel and having Wes follow her up the stairs.  What would she be able to offer him?  For her, sexuality is a half-remembered territory, tropical and lush and remote, like some banana republic she'd last visited in her twenties.  Their few attempts at intimacy have been awkward, comically so.  Dulcie recalls that the last time they trysted, she managed to insert her fingers up Wes's nostrils as if cradling a bowling ball. 

Dulcie reluctantly agrees to the trip and the novel follows the couple as they retrace Helene Lystra's rail journey.  Along the way, they suspect that their mission is being subverted by both the Hollywood biographer and also an old beau of the actress who may want to cover up his relationship with her.  But Dulcie and Wes have brought along their own troubles, and what starts out as a lighthearted Nancy Drew adventure now threatens to undo their relationship.  As the dead actress recedes into the past, they find themselves struggling with the legacy of old loves.  For Wes, it was the wife who became mortally ill while they were on sabbatical in Southeast Asia.  The marriage was coming apart, and he now questions if that is why he did not take her symptoms more seriously.  And Dulcie gradually comes to terms with a man she knew only for one idyllic weekend, long ago-- an upstate farmer who turns out to have been intimately involved with Helene's mysterious year away. 

Birthing these old ghosts into the present proves to be messy and painful.  But by the end of the road trip Dulcie and Wes find that, free from the taint of the past, they now are able to see their way to having a life together.


Here is a sample of the completed novel, along with a synopsis to the right.  Somewhat altered portions have appeared in The Southern Review and Shenandoah (with a Pushcart nomination).