Kit Reed is a prolific and highly-respected American writer of what has been referred to by many as “transgenre” fiction. Her most recent releases include her latest novel, Son of Destruction (Severn House), and her career-spanning collection of selected short stories, The Story Until Now (Wesleyan UP). Other books include her novels Enclave, J. Eden, and Thinner Than Thou, which won an ALA Alex Award. Her 2011 short story collection, What Wolves Know, was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, and another collection, Weird Women, Wired Women, was nominated for the Tiptree Award. A Guggenheim Fellow and the first American recipient of a five-year literary grant from the Abraham Woursell Foundation, Reed is Resident Writer at Wesleyan University. The following story, “Special,” was originally published by The Kenyon Review and later collected in What Wolves Know. It can most currently be found in The Story Until Now. – The Editors
Ashley Famous is coming to town and we’re all excited and a little apprehensive. This is the last unspoiled village on the Hudson, one of those quiet places where nobody important ever comes, and the last thing we want is gawking disciples trampling our flower beds, to say nothing of gift shops and roadside shrines popping up all along Route 9. Still we get the shivers, thinking, Ashley Famous. Here.
Bill Anthony says although she’s world renowned it’s in a good way, no YouTube antics to embarrass us, no scandal, no paparazzi implied, she can only bring honor to Schuylerton. “Think people like us, but with the sheen of greatness”– Bill actually said that!– “when all she wants is to blend in and disappear.” Well, she’s picked the right place. We all mind our own business here.
She writes those sexy little books about God, so crowds collect like flies on a road kill because, who wouldn’t want to touch the hand that’s been in touch with God? People do it, but not people you know. She can walk down our streets undisturbed, although when Gloria saw her out in front of Tazewell’s Realty that first day, she could swear the woman had look at me written all over her.
Of course Gloria is not our most reliable witness. Even though she’s a published writer, she is not all that popular, while Ashley Famous has all those fans driving her into seclusion. They follow her everywhere with misty eyes and wide, wet smiles. Bill says everybody has a cross and this is hers.
Our Reverend Anthony wrote a book about her, which is how they got friends. Bill fought his way to the platform when she got that medal, waving the book with her picture on the front. “Oh,” she shouted, “how lovely,” but by that time fans were stampeding like a herd of leeches and Bill had to rescue her. She thanked him with the saddest smile and said, “Sometimes you just get tired.”
The thing is, if you’ve touched the hand and God just happens to drop in on you, the last thing He wants is to fight off gangs of rapt admirers, Bill says, so she’s going into seclusion– here!
Bill is dean over at the college so he stepped up and invited her, to do what, we aren’t certain, but there you are.
She’s bought the Eversons’ boathouse which is odd, since we will do anything to keep our houses in the family; we owe it to our children to say nothing of the generations that came before, but you’d have to be one of us to understand. We’re not pointing any fingers, but this is the first piece of riverfront property to pass out of family hands in two centuries and Grant didn’t consult Bunk Schuyler at Historical Preservation before he sold.
Never mind. Schuylerton could use a little pizzaz, and it is well known that celebrities like Ashley Famous have creative, fascinating friends who would probably love a weekend in the country, especially with summer coming on. She’ll want to invite gangs of poets and artists, who are bound to be more exciting than certain people around here, which will definitely perk up our social lives. We can’t wait to be invited– that is, if she takes to us.
The question is, where to start with her? We won’t intrude and we never, ever overstep– no screen captures in the IGA parking lot, we promise, no cellphone shots at Luther’s Drug Store even though we’re dying for our friends to know. Uninvited drop-ins and cold calls are out; when a person’s keeping the line open for God, who are we to interrupt? We don’t go where we’re not invited and our kind doesn’t gawk, it’s just not done.
When we do meet her we’ll be discreet, we will! Guess what. We have a secret. Guess what. It’s you.
Oh, but she said something odd to Jack Tazewell when he was showing the boathouse. “I think the most interesting things in the world are sex and religion, don’t you?”
So, should we lock up our husbands or what?
We don’t mean to fret, but if we happen to run into her, is it all right to say hello?
It’s hard to know. But we are looking forward to meeting her, however it comes about, Ms. Famous and whichever husband she has this time around. We hear that there have been several, but never mind. We’re very forgiving here. We’d let you into our hearts quicker than we’d let you into our homes.
We just haven’t figured out how to let her know she has friends here in Schuylerton.
Beth and Gloria and Jeannie Chandler and I have been going home by the river road after lunch at the club, checking for signs of life. So far all we’ve seen is Grant Everson glowering over his rose bushes as we come through his gate; when he pops up with the hedge clippers we wave our fingers and laugh: la-la, Grant, you’re the one who sold the boathouse, now look. Evanoaks is not your private property now.
Rich as she is, you’d think Ashley Famous would have the boathouse crawling with painters and decorators, God knows those books make millions, but the new mailbox and fresh geraniums in the cut-out truck tire planter are pretty much it. Well, that will all change once we’re friends; we can tell her where to shop for all the best things. If only we’d come upon her planting something in the front yard; if only she’d hear our car in the turnaround and stick her head out the front door to see who’s coming, then we could all smile and wave, hel-looo. Of course she’d wave back and if we caught her smiling we’d pile out of the car and make friends, but we’ve cruised the boathouse four times this week and we haven’t seen a trace.
With anybody else, we’d start with the chess pie or the hot cross buns, but you don’t take food to a star, not even the apple basket from Creech’s Orchards with Elva Creech’s jams and homemade maple sugar leaves; usually casseroles and deep dish pies are great conversation pieces, but even the mocha cheesecake from Tempest’s Teapot is just wrong.
With a best-selling author who can’t stop winning prizes, where do you start? It’s not like Gloria would know.
We hear she’s very reclusive. Maybe she’s like us, stand-offish, but only with people she doesn’t want to know.
We hear she’s a lot of fun at parties, if you can only get her to come.
We hear that sometimes she can get a little wild.
Then why is she so damn difficult, when all we’re trying to do is welcome her to Schuylerton?
Bill warned us that she doesn’t warm up to just anybody, but Bill is infuriatingly smug just because he happened to write a book. We’re not just anybody, which he knows, and if he won’t tell Ashley Famous who we are in this town, then how do we let her know?
Should we sidle up to her in the supermarket and start the discussion about cheeses or tell her which produce to avoid? A few words and she’ll understand who we are. So, can we get friends by showing her the farmers’ market or should we offer her our cleaning lady or should we just come right out in the open and give a party for her?
What if she hates parties and doesn’t want to come?
What if she loves parties and doesn’t want to come?
What if she wants to come, just not to our house?
Would she come if we gave it at the club? Does she really hate parties, and does she know what an honor that would be? Outsiders can live here for generations without seeing the inside of the Schuylerton River Club. Bill says the last thing she wants is to feel crowded and we don’t want to make her self-conscious so it should sound casual, “If you happen to be around,” even though we’re putting on the dog. When she gets to the club and sees how much fun we’re all having she’ll know how lucky she is: we know you’re big and important but in our own way we’re important too. Of course she’ll invite us back, if we can only get her to come.
We could probably start by reading her books, but who has the time? Should we fake it and send her admiring notes? Naturally we’ll have them laid out on our end tables when she comes over and after she notices, of course we’ll ask her to sign– unless that’s gauche. We bought them all, what more does she expect?
Unlike my friends, who dropped theirs in the tub or left them out on the clubhouse porch in the rain, at least I tried. My Richard thought it was foolish, sitting up in bed improving my mind when he thought we should be doing something else, and was it my fault I got bored and fell asleep between the pages, or hers? To tell the truth, her stuff is all too airy-fairy for me– beautiful, but neither here nor there. So it just won’t do to barge up to her on Broad Street with that gooshy Ashley-fan smile, babbling, “I just loved your book.” I hate being false even when it’s working, and if there was a quiz, I’d die.
Mirabile, Stephanie Parrish makes the big breakthrough. Yesterday our Ms. Famous tripped on the old boot scraper outside Fanueil Flowers and all her shopping bags went whoosh, so Stephanie got down and helped her pick up her stuff.
Of course she was grateful, and all the while Stephanie was taking note of the items: which face creams, what shade of lipstick, whose bread; hand-knit sweater from Erdrich’s with those lambs on the front plus, from Ezekiel’s of all things, canned smelts. She thanked Stephanie three times, but that was it. It wasn’t like Ashley Famous invited her back to the boathouse for coffee, or to have lunch at Tempest’s before she headed home.
In fact Beth was the first to speak to her, and it wasn’t exactly a conversation. She saw her in Ezekiel’s, lined up for bagels on Sunday morning just like everybody else but with dark glasses and a kerchief pulled down, so we wouldn’t know. Beth just went right up to her. She smiled as nicely as she could without being smarmy and spoke. “Excuse me, but aren’t you…”
And in the name of Edith Wharton, who used to live around here and I’m sure was a lot more gracious, Ashley Famous said, “No.”
That set us back.
But we have discovered that she is a very sweet person and tremendously vulnerable, which Mariel Edmunds learned when she braved the Hudson in Jake’s little boat after Beth told us about it at brunch. She cut the motor and glided in tactfully, so to look at her, you’d think she was quietly fishing in the marsh and accidentally drifted in without noticing how close she was, which is how she caught our world-class new neighbor weeping out on the end of Grant Everson’s dock.
Well, one thing led to another– empathic grimaces, little waves– and Mariel scooted up the ladder and, respecting her privacy, sat on the end of the dock next to Ms. Famous, but not too close. She stayed quiet as the tomb while they both stared out at the channel until finally the sight of this star sitting there with tears streaming was more than Mariel could bear and she had to ask, “Are you all right?”
Imagine all that and then guess what this person with a brilliant career and gobs of honors and every man she ever wanted revealed in that thrilling, smoky voice she uses on TV. Not a damn thing. She said, “It’s just so beautiful.”
Although she’s not one of our nearest and dearest Mariel is a masterpiece of self-control; without turning a hair she dropped her own voice six feet to wherever Ashley Famous keeps hers and said, “Yes.”
We all know you don’t cry along, it’s hypocritical. Mariel just sat there and Ashley Famous just sat until she got over it and sprang up like a cat after a shower. She went skipping back to the house in her pink sneakers, calling back so carelessly that Mariel couldn’t believe her ears. “Come again.”
Mariel did not gush, “Oh, thank you.” We’re better than that. She put on our best Schuylerton River Club drawl, “But never without calling first.”
So we were in. Well, not all of us and not that minute, but this was the start. Mariel waited a good long time and then she dropped by the boathouse and asked Ashley Famous to the River Club for brunch this Sunday after church, don’t dress up, we’re just country people here.
We’ll all drift into church the way we do every week but we’re a little twitchy: what to wear, what to wear? In addition to his duties at the Episcopal college, where nobody knows what Ashley Famous will be doing for all that money, Bill Anthony is the rector here. When we told him she was coming he said of course, she’d already promised because it was his loaves-and-fishes sermon this week. So we could have seen her up close anyway, and without being beholden to Mariel, but who knew?
Besides if it hadn’t been for Mariel, we wouldn’t know that Ashley Famous and religion are… how did she put it? “Boy, is that a contradiction in terms.”
When she dropped by to invite (“I would have called, but I went off without your number…”) she scoped the boathouse interior, and she’s not part of our foursome but Mariel is very good at detail. Tacky was only the beginning, she moved on to “neo-Goodwill.” Patchwork quilts covering a multitude of sins, she said, inspirational motto painted on velvet, nicely framed and hanging over the fireplace and, oh my God, a pillow needlepointed with the praying hands. Plus, she told us, for an icon, she doesn’t dress very well. She wore more or less what we wear except in all the wrong colors, Mariel said, borderline shabby, who would have guessed? Nothing went with anything else, and that was the least of it.
She positively exuded pheromones, how did Mariel put it? “She may be all about God but she talked like a sailor rolling into a bordello after years at sea, all that with her nice husband sitting right there!”
Indeed, we have to wonder. That tight T-shirt and flowered jeans she wore to church and to the club after, never mind the straw cartwheel hat and pink lizard clutch. She’s the kind who can’t tell when she’s pitifully underdressed, and the husband was cute. Younger, in that obvious way, with a sensitive mouth and cultivated hair. There were so many people on the lawn around Ashley Famous that day, half my friends and all our men fetching this, offering her that, that I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the husband, so I sat down next to him on the porch.
It didn’t take much to draw him out.
A poet, he told me, smoldering nicely, he’s one of those sandy boys who tan so fast that the body hairs shimmer, no question what she saw in him. He’s adorable. I probably shouldn’t have asked where to buy his books but when I saw his face I made up for it by reading the one poem he had tucked in his shirt pocket. Something to occupy him while Ashley holed up in the loft because, he said, and he wasn’t complaining, she needs to get with God before she can face church. It’s clear he adores her but I could see how hard it is for him to write with that big old shadow of greatness looming over him. At the end he invited me to come over and he’d read to me and I promised I would. His name is Archbold, from some fine old family, which is interesting because now that we see her up close it’s clear that Ashley Famous comes from somewhere south of quality. Arch, he said, just call me Arch. Sweet boy, but who knows how soon she will tire of him, or what he will do then.
We think certain thoughts about handsome young men but we always go home to bed with our husbands, most of us, even so. But among our tennis foursome, I alone had been invited, even though it was by Arch and not his first-ever and only wife, at least so far. Whatever happens, he’s entitled, the woman has been married four times.
In fact, Gloria was next to visit, and she wasn’t even invited. Or course Gloria thinks of herself as a fellow professional, which gives her the right. She just bellied up to the door and introduced herself to Ashley Famous, writer to writer as it were, as though they were equals and Ms. Famous had to ask her in. In Schuylerton, maybe they are equals; in local matters Gloria has the edge, but otherwise, no. The prizes alone, money, passionate fans in droves, but it wasn’t very kind of Ms. Famous to point it out.
Which– we finally got it out of Gloria, who is livid– she did. She told it like a sad story, but Gloria knew. Oh, Ashley Famous was dripping with self-pity, but Gloria knew.
She’d have to be drunk out of her mind or beaten senseless not to know. She says a little of both. Too much wine in strong sunlight bouncing off the river, it put her off her guard. She let herself imagine they were friends. Gloria is a giving person so she said kindly, “My contact at Valley TV would love to come talk to you, he’s doing a show on writers living on the Hudson and I thought…”
Then wasn’t she surprised. Gloria was knocking herself out to be helpful, and Ashley Famous rose right up and bit her in the ass.
“I don’t like being famous,” she said, sudden as a slap in the face.
“It’s only local TV.”
It was too late. This Ashley’s voice went back to that deep place. Her face got all pink and she went on like an angry kindergarten teacher explaining to a stupid child. About that time Arch, who had been hovering, faded away like a painter’s wet wash of a failing sky. “I don’t like it at all,” Ashley Famous said to his back, and there were tears standing in her eyes.
Gloria tried for a snappy comeback but all she managed was, “I just thought.” Then she read that face and gave up.
“People keep writing books on me, they’re making a whole movie about my life, they want me to narrate the Bible on PBS; they won’t leave me alone! Everybody wants to send me presents and force me to take their prizes; they all want me to bless them or something, when all I want is to be left alone!”
Gloria was about to go there-there when Ashley Famous got all holy and condescending. “But you wouldn’t understand.”
Gloria blinked the way you do when a strobe light flashes and you have no idea where it’s coming from.
“You wouldn’t know,” she said to Gloria. Unfortunately, that’s true, but she didn’t have to rub it in. “You would have no way of knowing how very, very hard it is to be as famous as me. The things people tell you, the things they ask you to do.”
By the time she was finished laying out the tribulations of a literary icon, she had Gloria backing away on her hands and knees, anything to get out of there. She clamped the insides of her mouth until they bled so she didn’t accidentally apologize for something she hadn’t done, and when she could manage, she stood up. “Oh,” she told Ashley Famous when she could bring herself to speak without screaming, “I would never give him your number without permission.” Then she more or less tugged her forelock and left without ever once losing her temper and telling the truth, which was that she only said it to be nice.
Gloria says that behind all that sacred, holy stuff Ashley Famous is not a nice person, but of course Gloria is biased. People say mean things about Mother Teresa too.
Beth and I are here to tell you that Gloria is wrong. Ms. Famous is an inspiration, as we discover as soon as we and Ashley start spending quality time. I personally have been invited, and I take Beth along to ride post so Arch won’t get in trouble for inviting me.
I just don’t want Ashley to think there’s anything funny going on between her husband and me and there isn’t, attractive as he is. Even though she isn’t expecting us she’s glad to see us because naturally any friend of her Archie’s is a friend of hers but as it turns out, her Arch just left for a reading in New York.
She waves us inside with an industrial-strength smile. It’s bright enough to be seen from the back of any hall and Beth and I can’t help thinking, No wonder everybody loves her because this time, it’s shining for us.
Then we get inside and it’s: Hasn’t she ever heard of Ikea? I mean, Mariel barely scratched the surface here. It’s all about vintage shag rugs in bad colors and milk crates stuffed with magazines and board-and-brick bookcases like kids make in graduate school, which makes me wonder whether all her taste is in her mouth or if she downplays the decor to make Archie feel at home. Jacket photos notwithstanding, Ashley Famous is no kid either, now that we see her up close. But she ushers us in glowing as though she is completely unaware. Then dear God she says, “Things of this world are only things of this world so why bother,” so we know she knows.
She sits us down and brings us steaming cups of Cambric tea which our grandmothers remember vaguely and used to offer when we were small.
You don’t exactly talk to Ashley Famous, you listen, which is how we find out why people fall down and worship her and follow her anywhere. It’s a foregone conclusion, voila, tout suite, when she starts going on in that thrilling voice. Actually, although it’s a little embarrassing, we follow her upstairs into the loft. It’s her meditation room, she says, and somehow the three of us end up sitting on that hard, hard floor in lotus position– or something like it for Beth and me– it’s a little harder for Beth as certain parts of her have begun to spread. We sit facing the new sheetrock wall Arch put up for her and we meditate, or Ashley Famous does, while Beth and I stare at the wall as instructed and try to empty our minds and see into the beyond, which is what she seems to expect. It’s not easy to do when you’re wondering if she’s gone out of her mind and into the Presence while you’re still sitting there worried about how long you can be on this floor in a fixed position without screaming and offending her and whether if you got up and tried to leave, she’d know.
Can you really meditate with us watching?
Still, it is an honor to be hunched in a row like this, contemplating eternity. Imagine, contemplating. Us!
Just being here makes Beth and me feel special, and definitely close to the source– although of what– well, it’s pretty ineffable. We’re only beginners, after all. I guess we’re expected to stare at that wall until we’re cross-eyed, which if you do for long enough actually does move you to a higher plane unless that’s all the blood leaving your head and pooling in your butt. Whatever it is, I could swear that something happened, so when Ashley Famous says, in hushed tones, “Can you feel it?” Beth and I both manage a breathy, “Yes” and for the moment and after we go limp and it stops hurting, we believe.
Then she kind of flows up while Beth and I creak and groan miserably and struggle to our feet, humiliated because we’ve failed. But, how glorious. Whatever we are suffering, Ashley Famous must be mysteriously transcending, because she says, “Wasn’t that wonderful!” and rakes us with that white-light smile.
Ergo, voila, mirabile, we are friends. We’re invited back tomorrow, Ashley says she sees great promise in us, which is borderline divine. I’m sitting right down and reading every one of her books as soon as I get home.
When we come back on Wednesday Arch is there; I can’t help hoping he’ll come up into the loft with us because once I get the hang of this, maybe we can meet on some astral plane. Failing that, I’ll have something good to look at while our minds are traveling out and beyond. But when she asks him, “Are you?” his face shuts up shop, so I know I’m right about them, although Beth doesn’t pick up on it.
Then Arch goes off wherever he goes to write and we’re back on that wretched floor maintaining fixed positions until I think I see paisley lights, unless I’m on the first step to the next level as Ashley promised and my life is about to change. I can’t help it, I have to peek.
Surprise, Beth is peeking too and if you believe in that kind of thing, Ashley Famous looks pretty much transfixed, unless we’re both giddy with hunger because she didn’t give lunch before she sat us down to meditate. It’s like seeing one of those intricate Chinese ivories with the light bulb inside, my God! She looks lit from within, but only for a second. In the next she yips and hits the floor like a felled log. Beth and I are gnawing our knuckles and reaching for our phones when she sits up with her eyes blazing and asks, “Did you see it? Were you there?”
We don’t know what to say, exactly, so we don’t.
“Well,” she says in that breathy tone that enchants thousands, “there you are.”
Who are we to say otherwise?
On the way home Beth says, “Did she just…”
“I don’t know.”
It’s amazing, I am thinking not really but I have to say, “I don’t know!”
“I don’t either,” Beth says, “but wasn’t it grand.” Her voice drops so it’s more a statement than a question, and we leave it there.
We get out of the car feeling somewhat exalted, and go back to our lives. I’d love to tell Richard, but there’s no way to explain it so he’d understand. Instead Beth and I go around feeling special, special, whether because of the experience or because of all Schuylerton society we alone are designated friends of Ashley Famous, it’s hard to say. We don’t talk about it because this is precious and we owe it to Ashley not to tell. Also, it pisses certain people off. Mariel and Stephanie of course, but they were never part of the inner circle. Jeannie because she wasn’t invited, and Gloria for sure.
To make it up to them we decide to give a party at my house, nothing fancy: champagne with Gloria’s crudites and the satays and teriyakes the chef from Kang’s restaurant does on his row of hibachis, Jeannie’s chocolate cheesecake, Japanese lanterns in the woods, and to double-atone for being best friends with her and leaving Jeannie and Gloria and the others outside the loop, I get Arch to make sure Ashley Famous comes.
We do these things so well that naturally she’ll understand this is nothing special, we give beautiful parties all the time. Beth and I are looking out at the terrace just before the first guests come and everything is perfect: glowing hibachis, LED lights winking in the trees and Japanese lanterns glowing in the woods beyond; the peonies are out and I tell her, “Look hard, Beth, so you’ll never forget what this party looks like. We’re going to remember this night for the rest of our lives.”
Ashley and Arch come in late, and look at her! My, isn’t that the transformation? And don’t our men, who had zero interest in the matter until the party, collect like mosquitoes around the bug zapper on a summer night? Where she came to church in a T-shirt and those tawdry flowered jeans, tonight she walks in barefoot in a beautiful diaphanous thing that I swear is by Issy Miyake, and a wreath of gold on her head with bachelors’ buttons woven in. Her hair is flying and she looks like what she is: an ornament to the community, our star.
Instead of pleasing one and all with our own personal famous writer, we’ve alienated quite a few, because the only men who aren’t glued to her are Bill Anthony, who foolishly wore the clerical collar, a turnoff for both of them, apparently, and the fourth Mr. Famous, who stalks the fringes looking every inch the poet, like Lord Byron under a cloud, but without the club foot.
Still it’s a beautiful party, everyone has to agree. Beth and I knock ourselves out running around mingling, pulling outsiders from Hyde Park and Rhinebeck and Red Hook into the circle, mixing up couples with people they already knew; we are a storm, a flame of congeniality that seems to go out as soon as we turn our backs because Ashley Famous is sitting on the steps to the fountain barefoot, holding forth, and that’s where everyone is.
This seems like the time to let Richard know that the gauzy Ms. Famous and I are kindred so I make my way through the throng and say “Ashley, dear!” Then she gives me the strangest look and does a one-two take. Who are you is quickly replaced by a manufactured smile and oddly, since Beth and I are, after all, giving the party– I mean does she not recognize us or what? — -oddly she says, “How lovely, running into you here.” And practically in the same breath Richard– my Richard!– shushes me: “Please, honey. Ashley is in the middle of a joke.”
Not that anybody notices when I storm away. At my back I hear her trilling, “I think the two most interesting things in the world are sex and religion, don’t you?”
Then, what is it the woman said to Bill Anthony, that hooked him and brought all this down on us? Right.
Sometimes you. Just. Get. Tired.
What I hate most is that I’m trying not to feel wounded, but I’m hurt. Feeling perhaps a tad bit guilty, Richard puts an arm around me and tries to pull me back into the social mainstream, but I do what any woman would do. I float out of the mainstream and drift along in the backwaters, among dropped napkins and abandoned plates. One of the Japanese lanterns in the woods has caught fire– nothing serious, it’s May, and too wet to burn long; Kang’s chef is gone and the hibachis have burned out. As I bob along I hear Gloria grumble, “You’d think being famous would be enough,” but I let it pass and drift on in the shallows until I fetch up against Arch, the lonely fourth husband, beached on the bank. I don’t do much. When we collide I plant my fingers on that broad, strong wrist, warm in spite of the fact that the night just turned cool.
I want to draw his attention to the clump of men and ask him, who’s next but in our circle we don’t say the unspeakable and for all I know the poor boy has no idea that his time with Ms. Famous is growing short. I try, “Is she always like this?”
He turns, blinded by misconception and glowing with God knows what. “You mean, radiant?”
“Radiant, yes.” I am too well bred to say, Radiant, no. Voracious.
“Ashley is… Well, Ashley.”
He may be dazzled but he has not moved and my fingers are still on his warm, warm wrist, and I am thinking: well, I’ll show her! I make them curl to make a bracelet for him, like a gift. “Would you like to take a walk?”
Look at our men, all gathering like cultists about to paint themselves blue and perform extreme acts. Look at my women friends, stewing in their own bitter juices. Look at me, bent on subversion, and look at Arch, grinning at me like a dirty boy. “Of course.”
We push off from the ship of fools and head out along the driveway to Mill Road and I have to wonder if she even saw us go; well, when her man comes home smirched and guilty, she will damn well know it. He recites yards of free verse as we walk, and I make appreciative noises and we both feel good enough about ourselves, going along in the moonlight. Then I think: Now, and nudge him until we’re facing so I can take his hands. I tell him, “They aren’t all like her.”
Then, oh! Heedless boy; when he says, “There’s nobody like her,” he is glistening all over again. I’m about to despair when he says, as if to redeem it, “You know, there is one thing.”
This could still go the other way so I leave my answer wide open. “Yes?”
“Ashley isn’t happy here.” He frees one hand and we turn back.
“Oooooh. She isn’t?” When he doesn’t pick up on it I say, “That’s too bad.”
“When she’s unhappy, it makes it hard for me.”
“Unhappy. Hmmm…” I do this carefully, leaving a hole big enough for him to drive a fork lift into, but he doesn’t follow up, he just trudges along even after I prompt him with, “And?” One unkind word and we can start on her.
It’s maddening, walking hand in hand with an attractive kid who is too stupid to know what’s happened to him let alone what’s possible here, and too obtuse to explain why.
The silence drags on until I am forced to say in tones controlled as tightly as I can squeeze them, “What. Ah. What’s gone wrong?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
I hate this. “Is it something we did?”
“In a way. Sort of. Oh, this is embarrassing.”
Right. He has been deputized. I try to make it easy for him. “What is?”
It appears that when you’re the fourth Mr. Ashley Famous, nothing is easy for you. After a struggle he gets it out– well, part of it. “It’s something you haven’t done!”
Try playing twenty questions on a country road in the middle of the night. Make that forty questions. It takes too long, but I manage to ask them all.
As it turns out, Arch isn’t embarrassed; where you or I would be humiliated, fishing on behalf of somebody who doesn’t love you enough to stay by your side at parties, Arch says as though pointing out the obvious, “Your little party is nice and all, but Ashley… She’s very upset.” By this time he is strongly aware that I am done asking polite questions so he explains. “Usually when she comes to a new town people do something special, a concert, a dinner or a dance, something big, in her honor.”
“Right. When Ashley Famous comes to town people get together and throw a great big party for her.”
“Even though she hates parties.”
“Oh, you know Ashley. She only says she does.”
“At the club.”
“Could it be black tie?” Even by moonlight there’s no missing the grateful smile and I still can’t say whether it’s triumph he’s exuding, or relief. “She loves to dress up.”
Oh, we’ll give her a party all right, if that’s what she expects, and it will be the biggest and most beautiful party ever to go down in the annals of the Schulyerton River Club. Before we’re done it will rival the best efforts of the Vanderbilts and the first Roosevelts back in the day, a masterpiece of planning and execution, all in honor of our brand new local celebrity, Welcome, Ashley, now you are one of us, and naturally it will be black tie so the bitch can come in high drag without putting the rest of us in the shade, for we clean up nicely and put on our diamonds for events like this. Then the lovely Ashley Famous can float into the room in her most expensive designer-Whatever, and I hope she has the good grace to blush at Bill Anthony’s welcoming speech, after which she will truly be in our midst, surrounded by admirers, secure in the knowledge that where apparently we’ve been remiss without knowing it, we’re pulling out all the stops, including picking out her name in dwarf roses on top of one of Tempest’s most beautiful cakes. We will show Ashley Famous every way we know how that this whole beautiful, expensive evening is all about her. Before we’re done, she will have drunk from champagne fountains and danced to the Tippy Little orchestra and cracked lobsters in the driveway with the heel of her most elegant shoe; on her big night she will wine and dine and whirl around the dance floor at the center of attention in spite of her reclusive qualities, the cynosure of all eyes, and when that soft pink glow in the sky above the Hudson warns us that sunrise comes next we will by God do what you do for the GOH at any bacchanal; we’ll chase our maiden up into the woods overlooking the River Club and push her backward over a slab of granite and cut out her heart.