Stephanie and Bennie had lived in Crandale a year before they were invited to a party. It wasn’t a place that warmed easily to strangers. They’d known that going in and hadn’t cared — they had their own friends. But it wore on Stephanie more than she’d expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again?
How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.
During that first winter in town, the sister of one of Bennie’s artists sponsored them for membership to the Crandale Country Club. After a process only slightly more complicated than applying for citizenship, they were admitted in late June. They arrived at the club on their first day carrying bathing suits and towels, not realizing that the CCC (as it was known) provided its own monochromatic towels to reduce the cacophony of poolside color. In the ladies’ locker room, Stephanie passed one of the blondes whose children went to Chris’s school, and for the first time she got an actual “Hello,” her own appearance in two separate locations having apparently fulfilled some triangulation Kathy required as proof of personhood. That was her name: Kathy. Stephanie had known it from the beginning.
Kathy was carrying a tennis racket. She wore a tiny white dress beneath which white tennis shorts, hardly more than underpants, were just visible. Her prodigious childbearing had left no mark on her narrow waist and well-tanned biceps. Her shining hair was in a tight ponytail, stray wisps secured with gold bobby pins.
Stephanie changed into her bathing suit and met Bennie and Chris near the snack bar. As they stood there uncertainly, holding their colorful towels, Stephanie recognized a distant thop, thop
of tennis balls. The sound induced a swoon of nostalgia. Like Bennie, she came from nowhere, but a different type of nowhere — his was the urban nowhere of Daly City, California, where his parents had worked to a point of total absence while a weary grandmother raised Bennie and his four sisters. But Stephanie hailed from suburban, midwestern nowhere, and there had been a club whose snack bar served thin, greasy burgers rather than salade niçoise with fresh seared tuna, like this one, but where tennis had been played on sun-cracked courts, and where Stephanie had achieved a certain greatness at around age thirteen. She hadn’t played since.
At the end of that first day, dopey from sun, they’d showered, changed back into their clothes, and sat on a flagstone terrace where a pianist rolled out harmless melodies on a shining upright. The sun was beginning to set. Chris tumbled on some nearby grass with two girls from his kindergarten class. Bennie and Stephanie sipped gin and tonics and watched the fireflies. “So this is what it’s like,” Bennie said.
A number of possible replies occurred to Stephanie: allusions to the fact that they still didn’t know anyone; her suspicion that there wasn’t anyone worth knowing. But she let them pass. It was Bennie who had chosen Crandale, and in some deep way Stephanie understood why: they’d flown in private jets to islands owned by rock stars, but this country club was the farthest distance Bennie had traveled from the dark-eyed grandmother in Daly City. He’d sold his record label last year; how better to mark success than by going to a place where you didn’t belong?
Stephanie took Bennie’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “Maybe I’ll buy a tennis racket,” she said.
The party invitation came three weeks later. The host, a hedge fund manager known as Duck, had invited them after learning that Bennie had discovered the Conduits, Duck’s favorite rock group, and released their albums. Stephanie had found the two deep in conversation by the pool when she returned from her first tennis lesson. “I wish they’d get back together,” Duck mused. “Whatever happened to that spastic guitarist?”
“Bosco? He’s still recording,” Bennie said tactfully. “His new album will be out in a couple of months: A to B
. His solo work is more interior.” He left out the part about Bosco being obese, alcoholic, and cancer-ridden. He was their oldest friend.
Stephanie had perched on the edge of Bennie’s deck chair, flushed because she’d hit well, her topspin still intact, her serve slicingly clear. She’d noticed one or two blond heads pausing by the court to watch and had been proud of how different she looked from these women: her cropped dark hair and tattoo of a Minoan octopus encompassing one calf, her several chunky rings. Although it was also true that she’d bought a tennis dress for the occasion, slim and white, tiny white shorts underneath: the first white garment Stephanie had owned in her adult life.
At the cocktail party, she spotted Kathy — who else? — across a crowded expanse of terrace. As she was wondering whether she would again merit an actual hello or be downgraded to a crabbed Who are you?
smile, Kathy caught Stephanie’s eye and began moving toward her. Introductions were made. Kathy’s husband, Clay, wore seersucker shorts and a pink oxford shirt, an ensemble that might have seemed ironic on a different sort of person. Kathy wore classic navy, setting off the bright blue of her eyes. Stephanie sensed Bennie’s gaze lingering on Kathy and felt herself to go tense — a residual spasm of unease that passed as quickly as his attention (he was now talking to Clay). Kathy’s blond hair hung loose, still bobbypinned at the sides. Stephanie wondered idly how many bobby pins the woman went through in a week.
“I’ve seen you on the court,” Kathy said.
“It’s been a while,” Stephanie said. “I’m just getting back into it.”
“We should rally sometime.”
“Sure,” Stephanie said casually, but she felt her heartbeat in her cheeks, and when Clay and Kathy moved on she was beset by a giddiness that shamed her. It was the silliest victory of her life.II
Within a few months, anyone would have said that Stephanie and Kathy were friends. They had a standing tennis date two mornings a week, and they’d become successful doubles partners in an interclub league, playing other blond women in small tennis dresses from nearby towns. There was an easy symmetry to their lives right down to their names — Kath and Steph, Steph and Kath — and their sons, who were in the same first-grade class. Chris and Colin, Colin and Chris; how was it that of all the names Stephanie and Bennie had considered when she was pregnant — Xanadou, Peek-a-boo, Renaldo, Cricket — they’d ended up choosing the single one that melded flawlessly with the innocuous Crandale namescape?
Kathy’s elevated status in the pecking order of local blondes gave Stephanie an easy and neutral entrée, a protected status that absorbed even her short dark hair and tattoos; she was different but okay, exempt from the feral scratching that went on among some others. Stephanie would never have said that she liked
Kathy; Kathy was a Republican, one of those people who used the unforgivable phrase “meant to be” — usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people. She knew little about Stephanie’s life — would surely have been dumbstruck to learn, for example, that the celebrity reporter who had made headlines a few years back by assaulting Kitty Jackson, the young movie star, while interviewing her for Details
magazine, was Stephanie’s older brother, Jules Jones. Occasionally Stephanie wondered whether her friend might understand more than she gave her credit for; I know you hate us,
she imagined Kathy thinking, and we hate you too, and now that we’ve resolved that, let’s go rub out those bitches from Scarsdale
. Stephanie loved the tennis with a ravenous aggression that half embarrassed her; she dreamed about line calls and backhands. Kathy was still the better player, but the margin was shrinking, a fact that seemed to pique and amuse them equally. As partners and opponents, mothers and neighbors, Steph and Kath were seamlessly matched. The only problem was Bennie.
Stephanie hadn’t believed him at first when he’d told her, the summer after the invasion — their second in Crandale — that he felt people giving him odd looks by the pool. She’d assumed he meant women who were admiring the clutch of muscles above his swim trunks, brown and darkly
haired, his wide dark eyes, and she’d snipped, “Since when do you have a problem with being looked at?”
But Bennie hadn’t meant that, and soon Stephanie felt it too: some hesitation or question around her husband. It didn’t seem to bother Bennie deeply; he’d been asked “What kind of name is Salazar?” enough times in his life to be fairly immune to skepticism about his origins and race, and he’d perfected an arsenal of charms to obliterate that skepticism, especially in women.
Around the middle of that second summer, at another hedge-fund-fueled cocktail party, Bennie and Stephanie found themselves chatting, along with Kathy and Clay (or Cardboard, as they secretly called him) and some others, with Bill Duff, a local congressman who had come from a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations. The topic was the presence of Al Qaeda in the New York area. Operatives were present, Bill confided, especially in the outer boroughs, possibly in communication with one another (Stephanie noticed Clay’s pale eyebrows suddenly lift, and
his head gave a single odd jerk, as if he had water in one ear), but the question was: how strong a link did they have to the mother ship — here Bill laughed — because any kook with a grudge could call himself Al Qaeda, but if he lacked money, training, backup (Clay gave another quick head shake, then flicked his eyes at Bennie, to his right), it made no sense to allocate resources . . .
Bill paused midsentence, clearly baffled. Another couple broke in, and Bennie took Stephanie’s arm and moved away. His eyes looked placid, almost sleepy, but his grip hurt her wrist.
They left the party soon after. Bennie paid the babysitter, a sixteen-year-old nicknamed Scooter, and drove her home. He was back before Stephanie had glanced even once at the clock and reflected on Scooter’s prettiness. She heard him setting the burglar alarm; then he thundered up the stairs in a way that made Sylph, the cat, dive under the bed in terror. Stephanie ran from the bedroom and met Bennie at the top of the stairs. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he cried.
“Shh. You’ll wake up Chris.”
“It’s a horror show!”
“That was ugly,” she said, “although Clay’s an extr—"
“Of course not. But he’s one guy.”
“You think everyone in that group didn’t know what was going on?”
Stephanie was afraid that it might be true — had they all known? She wanted Bennie not to think so. “That’s totally paranoid. Even Kathy says—”
“Again! Look at you!”
He stood at the top of the stairs with fists clenched. Stephanie went to him and took him into her arms, and Bennie relaxed against her, almost knocking her over. They held each other until his breathing slowed. Stephanie said softly, “Let’s move.”
Bennie pulled back, startled.
“I mean it,” she said. “I don’t give a shit about these people. It was an experiment, right? Moving to a place like this.”
Bennie didn’t answer. He looked around them at the floors, whose rose parquet designs he’d sanded himself on hands and knees, not trusting whomever they might pay for such intricate work; at the windows in their bedroom door that he’d spent weeks excavating with a razor from under layers of paint; at the stairwell nooks he’d ruminated over, placing one objet
after another inside and adjusting the lights. His father had been an electrician; Bennie could light anything.
move,” he said. “This is my fucking house.”
“Fine. But if it comes to that, I’m saying we can go. Tomorrow. In a month. In a year.”
“I want to die here,” Bennie said.
“Jesus,” Stephanie said, at which point they were stung by sudden, itchy laughter that soon became hysterics, both of them doubled over on the parquet, shushing each other.
So they’d stayed. After that, when Bennie noticed Stephanie putting on her tennis whites in the morning, he’d say, “Going to play with the fascists?” Stephanie knew he wanted her to quit, renounce her partnership with Kathy to protest Cardboard’s bigotry and idiocy. But Stephanie had no intention of quitting. If they were going to live in a place whose social life revolved around a country club, she sure as hell was going to stay on good terms with the woman who guaranteed her easy assimilation. She had no wish to be an outcast like Noreen, their neighbor to the right, who had clanging mannerisms and wore oversize sunglasses, whose hands shook violently — from medication, Stephanie presumed. Noreen had three lovely, anxious children, but none of the women talked to her. She was a ghost. No thank you, Stephanie thought.
In the fall, when the weather cooled, she began arranging her tennis games for later in the day, when Bennie wouldn’t be home to see her change clothes. Now that she was working freelance for La Doll’s PR firm, scheduling Manhattan meetings as she wished, this was easy. It was slightly deceptive, of course, but only through omission — to protect Bennie from knowledge that distressed him. Stephanie never denied having played if he asked. And besides, hadn’t he engaged in his share of deceptions over the years? Didn’t he owe her a few of her own?III
The following spring, Stephanie’s older brother, Jules, was paroled from Attica Correctional Facility and came to live with them. He’d been gone five years, the first on Rikers Island awaiting trial for the attempted rape of Kitty Jackson, another four after the rape charge was dropped (at Kitty Jackson’s request) and he was convicted of kidnapping and aggravated assault — outrageous, given that the starlet had walked into Central Park with Jules of her own free will and sustained not a single injury. In fact, she’d ended up testifying for the defense,
. But the DA had persuaded the jury that Kitty’s support for Jules was a version of Stockholm syndrome. “The fact that she insists on protecting this man is further evidence of how deeply he has hurt her . . . ” Stephanie recalled him intoning at her brother’s trial, which she’d watched over ten agonizing days, trying to look upbeat.
In prison, Jules had seemed to regain the composure he’d lost so spectacularly in the months before the assault. He went on medication for his bipolar disorder and made peace with the end of his marriage engagement. He edited a weekly prison newspaper, and his coverage of the impact of 9/11 on the lives of inmates won him a special citation from OPEN Prison Writing Program. Jules had been allowed to come to New York and receive the award, and Bennie, Stephanie, and her parents had all wept through his halting acceptance speech. He’d taken up basketball, shed his gut, and miraculously overcome his eczema. He seemed ready, finally, to resume the serious journalism career he’d come to New York more than twenty years before to pursue. When the parole board granted his early release, Stephanie and Bennie had joyfully offered to house him while he got back on his feet.
But now, two months after Jules’s arrival, an ominous stasis had set in. He’d had a few interviews early on that he’d approached in a state of sweaty terror, but nothing had come of them. Jules doted on Chris, spending hours while Chris was at school assembling vast cities out of microscopic Lego pieces to surprise him when he returned. But with Stephanie, her brother maintained a sardonic distance, seeming to regard her futile scurrying (this morning, for example, as the three of them rushed toward school and work) with wry bemusement. His hair was straggly and his face looked deflated, sapped in a way that pained Stephanie.
“You driving into the city?” Bennie asked, as Stephanie hustled breakfast plates into the sink.
She wasn’t driving in — yet. As the weather warmed, she’d resumed her morning tennis games with Kathy. But she’d found a clever new way to edit these games out of Bennie’s view; she kept her tennis whites at the club, dressed for work in the morning, kissed him good-bye, then proceeded to the club to change and play. Stephanie minimized the deception by making the lie purely chronological; if Bennie asked where she was going, she always cited an actual meeting that would take place later on that day, so if he inquired in the evening how it had gone, she could answer honestly.
“I’m meeting Bosco at ten,” she said. Bosco was the only rocker whose PR she still handled. The meeting was actually at three..
“Bosco, before noon?” Bennie asked. “Was that his idea?”
Stephanie instantly saw her mistake; Bosco spent his nights in an alcoholic fog; the chances of his being conscious at 10:00 a.m. were nil. “I think so,” she said, the act of lying to her husband’s face bringing on a tingly vertigo. “You’re right, though. It’s weird.”
“It’s scary,” Bennie said. He kissed Stephanie good-bye and headed for the door with Chris. “Will you call me after you see him?”
In that moment, Stephanie knew she would cancel her game with Kathy — stand Kathy up, in essence — and drive to Manhattan to meet Bosco at ten. There was no other way.
When they’d gone, Stephanie felt the tension that always seemed to arise when she was alone with Jules, her own unspoken questions about his plans and timetable clashing silently with his armature against them. Beyond Lego assembly, it was hard to know what Jules did all day. Twice Stephanie had come home to find the TV in her bedroom tuned to a porn channel, and this had so disturbed her that she’d asked Bennie to bring the extra set to the guest room, where Jules was staying.
She went upstairs and left a voice mail on Kathy’s cell phone canceling their game. When she returned to the kitchen, Jules was peering out the window of the breakfast nook. “What’s the deal with your neighbor?” he asked.
“Noreen?” Stephanie said. “We think she’s nuts.”
“She’s doing something near your fence.”
Stephanie went to the window. It was true; she glimpsed Noreen’s overbleached ponytail — like a caricature of everyone else’s subtly natural highlights — moving up and down beside the fence. Her giant black sunglasses gave her the cartoonish look of a fly, or a space alien. Stephanie shrugged, impatient with Jules for even having the time to fixate on Noreen. “I’ve got to run,” she said.
“Can I hitch a ride to the city?”
Stephanie felt a little rise in her chest. “Of course,” she said. “You have a meeting?”
“Not really. I just feel like getting out.”
As they walked to the car, Jules glanced behind them and said, “I think she’s watching us. Noreen. Through the fence.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“You just let that go on?”
“What can we do? She’s not hurting us. She’s not even on our property.”
“She could be dangerous.”
“Takes one to know one, eh?”
“Not nice,” Jules said.
In the Volvo, Stephanie slipped an advance copy of Bosco’s new album, A to B
, into the CD player out of some sense that in doing so she was strengthening her alibi. Bosco’s recent albums consisted of gnarled little ditties accompanied by a ukulele. It was only out of friendship that Bennie still released them.
“Can I please turn this off?” Jules asked after two songs, then did so before Stephanie had answered. “This is who we’re going to see?”
I thought you were hitching a ride.”
“Can I come with you?” Jules asked. “Please?”
He sounded humble and plaintive: a man with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Stephanie wanted to scream; was this some kind of punishment for lying to Bennie? In the past thirty minutes she’d been forced to cancel a tennis game she was dying to play, piss Kathy off, embark on an invented errand to visit a person who was sure to be unconscious, and now bring her rudderless, hypercritical brother along to witness the demise of her alibi. “I’m not sure how much fun it’ll be,” she said.
That’s okay,” Jules said. “I’m used to not-fun.”
He watched nervously as Stephanie maneuvered from the Hutch onto the Cross Bronx Expressway; being in the car seemed to scare him. When they had fully entered the flow of traffic, he asked, “Are you having an affair?”
Stephanie stared at him. “You’re out of your mind.”
“Watch the road!”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“You seem jumpy. You and Bennie both. Not like I remember you guys.”
Stephanie was stricken. “Bennie seems jumpy?” The old fear rose in her so quickly, like a hand at her throat, despite Bennie’s promise two years ago, when he turned forty, and the fact that she had no reason to doubt him.
“You seem, I don’t know. Polite.”
“Compared to people in prison?”
Jules smiled. “Okay,” he said. “Maybe it’s just the place. Crandale, New York,” he said, elongating the words. I’ll bet it’s crawling with Republicans.”
“About half and half.”
Jules turned to her, incredulous. “Do you socialize
“It happens, Jules.”
“You and Bennie? Hanging out with Republicans
“Are you aware that you’re shouting?”
“Watch the road!” Jules bellowed.
Stephanie did, her hands shaking on the wheel. She felt like turning around and taking her brother back home, but that would involve missing her nonexistent meeting.
“I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down,” Jules said angrily. “Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time they’re talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people . . . And now my rock-and-roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans
. What the fuck!”
Stephanie took a long, calming breath. “What are your plans, Jules?”
“I told you. I want to come with you to and meet this—”
“I mean what are you going to do
There was a long pause. Finally Jules said, “I have no idea.”
Stephanie glanced at him. They’d turned onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, and Jules was looking at the river, his face devoid of energy or hope. She felt a contraction of fear in her chest. “When you first came to New York,” she said, “all those years ago, you were full of ideas.”
Jules snorted. “Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”
“I mean you had a direction.”
He’d graduated from the University of Michigan a couple of years before. One of Stephanie’s freshman suitemates at NYU had left school for treatment of anorexia, and Jules had occupied the girl’s room for three months, wandering the city with a notebook, crashing parties at the Paris Review
. By the time the anorexic returned, he’d gotten himself a job at Harper’s, an apartment on Eighty-first and York, and three roommates — two of whom now edited magazines. The third had won a Pulitzer.
“I don’t get it, Jules,” Stephanie said. “I don’t get what happened to you.”
Jules stared at the glittering skyline of Lower Manhattan without recognition. “I’m like America,” he said.
Stephanie swung around to look at him, unnerved. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Are you off your meds?”
“Our hands are dirty,” Jules said.IV
Stephanie parked in a lot on Sixth Avenue, and she and Jules picked their way into Soho through crowds of shoppers holding room-sized bags from Crate and Barrel. “So. Who the hell is this Bosco person?” Jules asked.
“Remember the Conduits? He was the guitarist.”
Jules stopped walking. “That’s
who we’re going to see? The guy I met at your wedding? The skinny redhead?”
“Yeah, well. He’s changed a little.”
They turned south on Wooster, heading for Canal. Sunlight skipped off the cobblestones, releasing in Stephanie’s mind a pale balloon of memory: shooting the Conduits’ first album cover on this very street, laughing, jittery, Bosco powdering his freckles while the photographer fiddled. The memory mooned her as she rang Bosco’s bell and waited, praying silently: Please don’t be home please don’t answer please.
Then at least the charade part of the day would be over.
No voice on the intercom, just a buzz. Stephanie pushed open the door with a disoriented sense that maybe she had
arranged to meet Bosco at ten. Or had she pressed the wrong bell?
They went in and called for the elevator. It took a long time to descend, grinding inside its tube. “Is that thing healthy?” Jules asked.
“You’re welcome to wait down here.”
“Quit trying to get rid of me.”
Bosco was unrecognizable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of a late-eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska, a hive of redheaded mania who had made Iggy Pop look indolent onstage. More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced that Bosco was having a seizure.
Nowadays he was huge — from medications, he claimed, both post-cancer and antidepressant — but a glance into his trash can nearly always revealed an empty gallon box of Friendship Rocky Road ice cream. His red hair had devolved into a stringy gray ponytail. An unsuccessful hip replacement had left him with the lurching, belly hoisting walk of a refrigerator on a hand truck. Still, he was awake, dressed — even shaven. The blinds of his loft were up and a tinge of shower humidity hung in the air, pleasantly cut by the smell of brewing coffee.
“I was expecting you at three,” Bosco said.
“I thought we said ten,” Stephanie said, looking inside her purse to avoid his gaze. “Did I get the time wrong?”
Bosco was no fool; he knew she was lying. But he was curious, and his curiosity fell naturally on Jules. Stephanie introduced them.
“It’s an honor,” Jules said gravely.
Bosco scrutinized him for signs of irony before shaking his hand.
Stephanie perched on a folding chair near the black leather recliner where Bosco spent the bulk of his time. It was positioned by a dusty window through which the Hudson River and even a bit of Hoboken were visible. Bosco brought Stephanie coffee and then began a juddering immersion into his chair, which suctioned around him in a gelatinous grip. They were meeting to discuss PR for A to B
. Now that Bennie had corporate bosses to answer to, he couldn’t spend a dime on Bosco beyond the cost of producing and shipping his CD. So Bosco paid Stephanie by the hour to act as his publicist and booking agent. These were mostly symbolic titles; he’d been too sick to do much of anything for the last two albums, and his lassitude had been roughly matched by the world’s indifference toward him.
“Whole different story this time,” Bosco began. “I’m going to make you work
, Stephi-babe. This album is going to be my comeback.”
Stephanie assumed he was joking. But he met her gaze evenly from within the folds of black leather.
“Comeback?” she asked.
Jules had been wandering the loft, eyeing the framed gold and platinum Conduit albums paving the walls, the few guitars Bosco hadn’t sold off, and his collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, which he hoarded in pristine glass cases and refused to sell. At the word “comeback,” Stephanie felt her brother’s attention suddenly engage.
“The album’s called A to B
, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.”
Stephanie was too startled to respond.
“I want interviews, features, you name it,” Bosco went on. “Fill up my life with that shit. Let’s document every fucking humiliation. This is reality, right? You don’t look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you’ve had half your guts removed. Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”
Jules had drifted over from across the room. “I’ve never heard that,” he said. “‘Time is a goon?’”
“Would you disagree?” Bosco said, a little challengingly.
There was a pause. “No,” Jules said.
“Look,” Stephanie said, “I love your honesty, Bosco—”
“Don’t give me ‘I love your honesty, Bosco,’ ” he said. “Don’t get all PR-y on me.”
“I’m your publicist,” Stephanie reminded him.
“Yeah, but don’t start believing that shit,” Bosco said. “You’re too old.”
“I was trying to be tactful,” Stephanie said. “The bottom line is, no-one cares that your life has gone to hell, Bosco. It’s a joke that you think this is interesting. If you were still a rock star, it might be, but you aren’t a rock star — you’re a relic.”
“Whoa. That is harsh
,” Jules said.
Bosco laughed. “She’s pissed that I called her old.”
“True,” Stephanie admitted.
Jules looked from one to the other, uneasy. Any kind of conflict seemed to rattle him.
“Look,” Stephanie said, “I can tell you this is a great, innovative idea and let it die on its own, or I can level with you: It’s a ridiculous idea. Nobody cares.”
“You haven’t heard the idea yet,” Bosco said.
Jules carried over a folding chair and sat down. “I want to tour,” Bosco said. “Like I used to, doing all the same stuff onstage. I’m going to move like I moved before, only more so.”
Stephanie put down her cup. She wished Bennie were here; only Bennie could appreciate the depth of self-delusion she was witnessing. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “You want to do a lot of interviews and press around the fact that you’re an ailing and decrepit shadow of your former self. And then you want to do a tour—”
“A national tour.”
“A national tour, performing as if you were
that former self.”
Stephanie took a deep breath. “I see a few problems, Bosco.”
“I thought you might,” he said, winking at Jules. “Shoot.”
“Well, number one, getting a writer interested in this is going to be tough.”
“I’m interested,” Jules said, “and I’m a writer.” God help me
, Stephanie almost said, but restrained herself. She hadn’t heard her brother call himself a writer in many years.
“Okay, so you’ve got one writer interested—”
“He gets everything,” Bosco said. He turned to Jules. “You get everything. Total access. You can watch me take a shit if you want to.”
Jules swallowed. “I’ll think about it.”
“I’m just saying, there are no limits.”
“Okay,” Stephanie began again, “so you’ve—”
“You can film me, too,” Bosco told Jules. “You can make a documentary, if you’re interested.”
Jules was starting to look afraid.
“Can I finish a fucking sentence, here?” Stephanie asked. “You’ve got a writer for this story that will be of no interest to anyone—”
“Can you believe this is my publicist
?” Bosco asked Jules. “Should I fire her?”
“Good luck finding someone else,” Stephanie said. “Now, about the tour.”
Bosco was grinning, sealed inside his glutinous chair that for anyone else would have qualified as a couch. She felt sudden pity for him. “Getting bookings isn’t going to be easy,” she said gently. “I mean, you haven’t toured in a while, you’re not . . . You say you want to perform like before, but . . .” Bosco was laughing in her face, but Stephanie soldiered on. “Physically, you aren’t — I mean, your health . . .” She was dancing around the fact that Bosco wasn’t remotely capable of performing in his old manner, and that trying to do so would kill him — probably sooner rather than later.
“Don’t you get it, Steph?” Bosco finally exploded. “That’s the whole point
. We know the outcome, but we don’t know when, or where, or who will be there when it finally happens. It’s a Suicide Tour.”
Stephanie started to laugh. The idea struck her as inexplicably funny. But Bosco was abruptly serious. “I’m done,” he said. “I’m old, I’m sad — that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame
away — I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art. Now, Lady PR,” he said, gathering up his drooping flesh and leaning toward her, eyes glittering in his overblown head, “you try to tell me no one’s going to be interested in that. Reality TV, hell — it doesn’t get any realer than this. Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?”
He watched Stephanie anxiously: a big, ailing man with one bold idea left, aflame with hope that she would like it. There was a long pause while Stephanie tried to assemble her thoughts.
Jules spoke first: “It’s genius.”
Bosco eyed him tenderly, moved by his own speech and moved to find that Jules was also moved.
“Look, guys,” Stephanie said. She was aware of a perverse flicker of thought in herself: If this idea did, somehow, have legs (which it almost certainly did not — it was crazy, maybe illegal, unsavory to the point of grotesqueness), then she’d want to get a real
writer on it.
“Uh nuh nuh nuh,” Bosco told her, wagging a finger as if she’d spoken this rogue qualm aloud. With sighs and groans and refusals of their offers of help, he heaved himself from his chair, which made small whimpering noises of release, and staggered across the room. He reached a cluttered desk and leaned against it, panting audibly. Then he rummaged for paper and pen.
“What’s your name again?” he called.
“Jules. Jules Jones.”
Bosco wrote for several minutes.
“Okay,” he said, then made his laborious return and handed the paper to Jules. Jules read it aloud: “I, Bosco, of sound mind and body, hereby grant to you, Jules Jones, sole and exclusive media rights to cover the story of my decline and Suicide Tour.”
Bosco’s exertions had left him spent. He sagged against his chair, reeling in breath, his eyes closed. Bosco the demented scarecrow performer appeared spectrally, naughtily in Stephanie’s mind, disowning the morose behemoth before them. A wave of sadness felled her.
Bosco opened his eyes and looked at Jules. “There,” he said. “It’s yours.”
At lunch in MoMA’s sculpture garden, Jules was a man reborn: jazzed, juiced, riffing his thoughts on the newly renovated museum. He’d gone straight to the gift shop and bought a datebook and pen (both covered with Magritte clouds) to record his appointment with Bosco at ten the next morning.
Stephanie ate her turkey wrap and gazed at Picasso’s “She-Goat,” wishing she could share her brother’s elation. It felt impossible, as if Jules’s excitement were being siphoned from inside her, leaving Stephanie drained to the exact degree that he was invigorated. She found herself wishing, inanely, that she hadn’t missed her tennis game.
“What’s the matter?” Jules finally asked, chugging his third cranberry-and-soda. “You seem down.”
“I don’t know,” Stephanie said.
He leaned toward her, her big brother, and Stephanie had a flash of how they’d been as kids, an almost-physical sense of Jules as her protector, her watchdog, coming to her tennis matches and massaging her calves when they cramped. That feeling had been buried under Jules’s chaotic intervening years, but now it pushed back up, warm and vital, sending tears into Stephanie’s eyes.
Her brother looked stunned. “Steph,” he said, taking her hand, “what’s wrong?”
“I feel like everything is ending,” she said.
She was thinking of the old days, as she and Bennie now called them — not just pre-Crandale but premarriage, preparenthood, premoney, prehard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind, when they were still kicking around the Lower East Side with Bosco, going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasipublic, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong— what did they have to worry about? If they didn’t like the result they could go back and start again. And now Bosco was sick,hardly able to move, feverishly planning his death. Was this outcome a freak aberration from natural laws, or was it normal — a thing they should have seen coming? Had they somehow brought it on?
Jules put his arm around her. “If you’d asked me this morning, I would have said we were finished,” he said. “All of us, the whole country — the fucking world. But now I feel the opposite.”
Stephanie knew. She could practically hear the hope sluicing through her brother. “So what’s the answer?” she asked.
“Sure, everything is ending,” Jules said, “but not yet.”V
Stephanie got through her next meeting, with a designer of small patent leather purses; then ignored a warning instinct and stopped by the office. Her boss, La Doll, was on the phone, as always, but she muted the call and yelled to Stephanie, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Stephanie said, startled. She hadn’t even entered the room.
“All good with Purse-Man?” La Doll kept effortless track of her employees’ schedules, even freelancers like Stephanie.
La Doll finished her call, shot some espresso from the krups machine on her desk into her bottomless thimble-sized cup, and called, “Come, Steph.”
Stephanie approached. La Doll was one of those people who seems, even to those who know them well, digitally enhanced: the bright blond bob cut; the predatory lipstick; the roving, algorithmic eyes. “Next time,” she said, “cancel the meeting.”
“I could feel your gloom from the hall,” La Doll said. It’s like having the flu. Don’t expose the clients.”
Stephanie laughed. She had known her boss forever— long enough to know that she was absolutely serious. “God, you’re a bitch,” she said.
La Doll chuckled, already dialing again. “It’s a burden,” she said.
Stephanie drove back to Crandale on her own (Jules had taken the train) to pick up Chris at soccer practice. At seven, her son was still willing to throw his arms around Stephanie after a day apart. She hugged him, breathing the wheaty smell of his hair. “Is Uncle Jules home?” Chris asked. “Was he building anything?”
“Actually, Uncle Jules worked today,” she said, feeling a prick of pride as she said the words. “He was working in the city.”
The day’s vicissitudes had resolved into a single droning wish to talk to Bennie. Stephanie had spoken with Sasha, his assistant, whom she’d long viewed as the gatekeeper of Bennie’s Misbehavior but grown fond of in the past couple of years. Bennie had called on his way home, stuck in traffic, but by then Stephanie wanted to explain it in person. She pictured laughing with Bennie about Bosco and feeling her strange unhappiness lift. One thing she knew: she was finished with lying about the tennis.
Bennie still wasn’t home when she and Chris got back. Jules appeared with a basketball and challenged Chris to a game of horse, and they repaired to the driveway, the garage door shuddering from their blows. The sun was beginning to set.
Bennie finally returned and went straight upstairs to shower. Stephanie put some frozen chicken thighs in warm water to thaw, then followed him up. Steam drifted from the open bathroom door into their bedroom, twirling in the last rays of sun. Stephanie felt like showering, too — they had a double shower with handmade fixtures whose exorbitant price they’d argued over. But Bennie had been adamant.
She kicked off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse, tossing it on the bed with Bennie’s clothes. The contents of his pockets were scattered on the small antique table where he always left them. Stephanie glanced at what was there, an old habit left over from the days when she’d lived in suspicion. Coins, gum wrappers, a parking garage ticket. As she moved away, something stuck to the bottom of her bare foot. She plucked it off — a bobby pin — and headed for the wastebasket. Before dropping it in, she glanced at the pin: generic light gold, identical to bobby pins you’d find in the corners of nearly any Crandale woman’s house. Except her own. Stephanie paused, holding the pin. There were a thousand reasons it could be here — a party they’d had, friends who might have come up to use the bathroom, the cleaning woman — but Stephanie knew whose it was as if she had already known, as if she weren’t discovering the fact but remembering it. She sank onto the bed in her skirt and bra, hot and shivery, blinking from shock. Of course. It took no imagination at all to see how everything had converged: pain; revenge; power; desire. He’d slept with Kathy. Of course.
Stephanie pulled her shirt back on and buttoned it carefully, still holding the bobby pin. She went into the bathroom, searching out Bennie’s lean brown shape through the steam and running water. He hadn’t seen her. And then she stopped, halted by a sense of dreadful familiarity, of knowing everything they would say: the jagged trek from denial to selflacerating apology for Bennie; from rage to bruised acceptance for herself. She had thought they would never make that trek again. Had truly believed it.
She left the bathroom and tossed the pin in the trash. She slipped noiselessly down the front stairs in her bare feet. Jules and Chris were in the kitchen, glugging water from the Brita. Her only thought was of getting away, as if she were carrying a live grenade from inside the house, so that when it exploded, it would destroy just herself.
The sky was electric blue above the trees, but the yard felt dark. Stephanie went to the edge of the lawn and sat, her forehead on her knees.
The grass and soil were still warm from the day. She wanted to cry but she couldn’t. The feeling was too deep.
She lay down, curled on her side in the grass, as if she were shielding the damaged part of herself, or trying to contain the pain that issued from it. Every turn of her thoughts increased her sense of horror, her belief that she couldn’t recover, had no more resources to draw on. Why was this worse than the other times? But it was.
She heard Bennie’s voice from the kitchen: “Steph?”
She got up and staggered into the shrubbery. She and Bennie had planted it together: gladiolis, hosta, black-eyed Susans. She heard stems crunching under her feet, but she didn’t look down. She went all the way to the fence and knelt in the dirt.
“Mom?” Chris’s voice, from upstairs. Stephanie covered her ears.
Then came another voice, so close to Stephanie that she heard it even her hands. It spoke in a whisper: “Hello there.”
It took her a moment to separate this new, nearby voice from the ones inside the house. She felt no fear, only a kind of numb curiosity. “Who’s that?”
Stephanie realized her eyes were shut. She opened them now and
looked through the slats of fence. Amid the shadows she made out Noreen’s white face peeking through from the other side. She’d taken off her sunglasses; Stephanie vaguely noted a pair of skittish eyes. “Hi Noreen,” she said.
“I like to sit in this spot,” Noreen said.
Stephanie wanted to move away, but she couldn’t seem to move. She closed her eyes again. Noreen didn’t speak, and as the minutes passed she seemed to fade into the rummaging breeze and chatter of insects, as if the night itself were alive. Stephanie hunched in the dirt for a long time, or what felt like a long time— maybe it was only a minute. She knelt until the calling started up again— Jules too, his panicked voice careening through the dark. At last she tottered to her feet. In unfolding herself, she felt the painful thing settle deep inside her. Her knees shook from its new,awkward weight.
“Good night, Noreen,” she said as she began picking her way back through the flowers and bushes toward the house.
“Good night,” she faintly heard.