Frances first saw Jack in the winter of 1947 at a debutante party. He was with a blond-haired girl whom Frances later found out was his cousin, and who left him alone for most of the evening. He was a lot older than the others, twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and she noticed he walked with the slightest trace of a limp, and perhaps it was this that drew her attention to him. He looked elegant and mysterious with a constant cigarette held low between his fingers, and he didn't dance with anyone but his cousin, otherwise standing at the edge of the floor or at the bar as if the party were somewhat beneath him. From the cut of his clothes and the carelessness and arrogance with which he carried himself, Frances could tell he had money. She herself wasn't a debutante or anything close to one, but she was vivacious and fun and had worked very hard that year, her junior year at Vassar, to get in with the wealthier girls and be invited to their parties.
From then on she looked for Jack wherever she went that season, her heart going a little sour when she didn't see him slouching by the bar or at the edge of the crowd in his elegant clothes. She questioned the other girls about him: he was the only child of a wealthy horse racing family from upstate New York, had been wounded in the war, was shy and not very sociable. When she finally saw him again, at a wedding helping the same cousin out of her coat, she waited till he was by himself at his table before winding her way over, self-conscious and wishing she'd had another glass of champagne.
"You're Daisy's cousin, right?"
He blew out smoke, looked her up and down, gave a thin smile. His brown hair was brushed back from his fine, high forehead and she was smitten by the perfect form of his mouth and nose, the whiteness of his teeth, the faint, mysterious crinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Right," he said. He went on smiling but didn't ask her to sit down.
"I saw you a few weeks ago. You don't seem terribly interested in mixing."
"Maybe I'm not."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she started to walk away, keeping her body in its blue chiffon dress as straight as she could. His voice stopped her. "What's your name?"
"Frances Riley," she said with her back to him, aware of how “Riley” sounded, flat and Irish and ordinary as a potato.
"Well, Frances, I'm Jack." She already knew that, of course, but pretended not to as she turned around and he stuck his cigarette between his lips and held out his hand, squinting against the smoke. "Jack Woolsey," he added.
Six months later they were engaged. It was the second time for Jack, who'd been engaged to a girl named Nancy all during the war. "How do I know you'll stay in love with me?" Frances asked. She hadn't yet met his parents, although preparations for the wedding, which was to take place in a Catholic church on Seventy-Third Street with a reception at the St. Regis afterward, were under full sway. “You don't," Jack said tersely. "You'll just have to go on faith. It's not as if there's a war on."
He'd fought in Normandy, and he often blamed the failure of his relationship with Nancy on coming home with an injury that had left him lame and created in his soul an impatience and bitterness that she hadn’t been able to cope with. Frances was too in love with him to care about these faults in his character; she did, however, worry about his parents, mysterious creatures who seemed to have no interest in meeting their son's new fiancée. "They're busy people," Jack told her. "I promise you. I hardly ever see them myself."
Her father, Kip, exploded when he heard this. He was a burly little Irish man, sixty-five-years old, with snow-white hair and a lilting accent that grew impenetrably thick when he was angry or drunk. "It's that we're Catholics and not hoity-toity like them, that's what it is!" Frances was closer to Kip than to anyone else in the world. He had brought up her and her sister, Peg, virtually single-handedly since their mother, Noreen, was too depressed after six or seven miscarriages to do much more than stare out the window. In recent years he'd made enough money to move the family into a grand house in Prospect Park and enroll the girls in expensive schools, but Frances could still remember, still practically taste in her mouth, the poverty of her childhood, wearing the same clothes every day, shoes that were too small, a tiny, drafty apartment in a mean section of Brooklyn, being left alone all the time with her mother who was crazy and never talked to her or touched her. "It's important to marry well," Kip had intoned as he put her to bed or threw together a dinner on the miserable stove, and Frances had accepted the words almost as a religious tenet. She knew in her blood that “well” meant rich and powerful, and so when she brought Jack home to meet Kip, she felt the sort of triumph and elation an athlete might feel having run the distance against all odds.
And of course Kip approved the match. Why would he not? Jack came from an old, big-money family, had been educated at Princeton, brought up with nursemaids, horses, summers in Maine, was fine-mannered, handsome, smart. His air of reserve, Kip told Frances, probably masked great shyness, which might be natural for an only child who'd grown up with wealthy, distracted parents. On the other hand (and Kip didn't say this to Frances), that Jack had chosen Frances, a Brooklyn girl, when he could have had anyone else, seemed miraculous. Frances was full of life; her glossy black hair and blue, wide-set eyes made people turn and look at her, but she wasn't fine or beautiful, and she had a tendency to become snappish and difficult when things didn't go her way. Of course the bluntness of her manner might be appealing to someone like Jack, but she came from an immigrant family and that was what stopped Kip when he thought about the two of them. Why would a WASP like Jack be willing to forget about breeding and background and marry an unpolished Catholic girl like Frances?
"It's the person that's important, not their religion," Frances snapped. But she had a deep fear that Jack would discover she was not as sophisticated or smart as she seemed and change his mind before she had a chance to marry him. Her father had taught her to stand up straight, shoulders back at all times, so she appeared taller and prouder and more confident about her body than she actually was. Worried that Jack had been attracted by her large breasts and the eager way she kissed him, she refused to sleep with him — that might seem cheap — and she avoided the topic of her mother (who had been put in a sanatorium) and tried to persuade her father to speak a more American English and keep his ebullient nature in check. Her sister was away at boarding school at the time, so she didn't have to worry about her. All she had to do was dress nicely and appear calm and interesting and get through the days without incident, and she accomplished this by staring at the diamond Jack had bought her from Tiffany's and thinking that in those glinting lights she saw the richness of her future.
The morning of the wedding Frances was so sick with anxiety she couldn't get her fingers to hold a cup of coffee without spilling it. She still hadn't met Jack's parents, didn't know, in fact, if they'd be at the wedding or not. It was a hot day in August. Her dress, yards and yards of white satin with a tight bodice and an endless train, twisted around her clammy body like netting around a clump of seaweed. She wanted to push all her chirping, busy-fingered bridesmaids away. Her father was in the liquor business and knew many people, so the church was full to the brim. At the door leading into the sanctuary, one of the ushers, a classmate of Jack's from Andover, whispered, "They're here, third pew on the left."
Frances gripped Kip's arm and forged down the aisle, fighting waves of hysteria. Hats, necks, heads, shoulders swam kaleidoscopically before her, but still she was able to spot Jack's parents: a horsey-looking couple so aloof and icy in their bearing that at least three glacial feet of space separated them from the people on either side. "You're doing fine," Kip murmured when they reached the altar and he lifted the veil. Perspiration trickled beneath the tight skin of her dress, and she wished with all her heart that Kip would stand close beside her like a tree to lean on throughout the ceremony. Instead, her own two feet in thin white satin heels had to hold her up. The priest droned on forever, but she didn't hear a word. Next to her, Jack's face wore a dim smile and when the time came to put the ring on her finger, he slid it down with a force that hurt.
And then it was over. She wobbled back down the aisle on Jack's arm, exhausted, already missing her father. They were to gather in front of the church for photographs and then a horse-drawn carriage would bear the bridal couple through the late afternoon streets to the St. Regis for the reception. If Frances heard whispers about her mother, Noreen, she closed her ears to them. She needed all her emotional strength to smile and stand up straight and make a good impression on Jack's parents.
But when she met them face to face a few minutes later, they were perfectly polite. The mother, Helen, extended her palm and murmured something about what a pleasure this was. She was tall and bony in a soiled, but obviously expensive dress that would have been more suitable for a luncheon than a wedding. The father, Dewitt, sleeker and handsomer than his wife, gave Frances two quick pecks on the cheek and said he was sure she'd be a welcome addition to the family. Silver-haired, with well-tended hands and teeth, in a tuxedo that exactly fit his erect torso, he had the look of a man who thought good wine, a custom-made shirt, a day at the races were far more important than worrying about what his son was up to, or why it was that his new daughter-in-law's mother was absent from the festivities. "The mother's nuts" was what was whispered among the guests on Jack's side. "Violent schizophrenia. She went after the younger daughter with a butcher knife."
Noreen had, in fact, gone after Frances's younger sister Peg — with a paring knife, not a butcher knife. It was Frances, only nine years old, who'd called the police because, from one minute to the next, her mother, usually so docile and quiet, had gone berserk, running through the house with a drawn blade like something out of a horror movie. There'd been no adults present. Poor little Peg was only six at the time. Now she was seventeen, Frances's maid of honor, a sweet but masculine girl with a hint of hair on her upper lip and a zigzag scar on the back of her arm that she always kept hidden beneath long sleeves. Even today, when all the other bridesmaids were bare-shouldered, she wore a sweater over her gown.
"Where's your mother, dear?" Helen Woolsey asked, glancing around her as they stood outside the church.
"She's not well," Frances said. "She had rheumatic fever as a child and now her heart's so bad she has to live quietly in the country."
This was the story they always told about Noreen. Frances could see that Mrs. Woolsey didn't buy it for a second. She peered at Frances speculatively out of sharp, tea-colored eyes and gave a little shrug. "How sad for you," she murmured. The photographer was trying to assemble them for pictures — the bridal couple and Kip and the senior Woolsey’s and Peg. Mrs. Woolsey allowed one photo to be taken before snatching her husband's arm and announcing they had to be off.
"Where to, Mother?" Jack cried.
"We have a dinner."
"A dinner? But the reception's about to start. At the St. Regis."
"Don't think we'll be able to make that," Mrs. Woolsey barked as she descended the church steps, husband in tow. A limousine waited at the curb. She and Dewitt got in and the driver closed the door behind them.
Jack ducked his head and lit a cigarette. "My parents have a busy schedule," he muttered.
Kip's eyes darted from him to Frances, blazing with fury and pity and ferocious love, and for a second Frances thought he would hurl himself down the steps after the departing limousine, waving his fists. Instead he placed an arm around Frances and an arm around Jack. "So do we," he said, and nodded at the photographer to continue.
Though Jack had his own business and wasn't dependent on his parents, he made a point of driving upstate to visit them at least one weekend a month. He would stay overnight — Saturday to Sunday — visits that after the first few times didn't include Frances, who was glad to be spared Helen’s unctuous inquiries. "Mother still tucked away in the country, dear?" Her way of lumping Frances in, by subtle gesture, with the small army of Irish maids that scurried about the place, all eager solicitude in their aprons and frilly white caps.
In the meantime, Frances built a new, wonderful life for herself. With plenty of money at her disposal, she bought and furnished a four-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue. "Four bedrooms?" Jack queried, a little worried by her fixity of purpose, the close, but short-lived attachments she seemed to form with realtors and decorators.
"We'll be having children."
"Yes, but not right away."
"Well, for when we do. I don't want to be moving all the time."
The question of when and how many children they would have had come up fairly often, with Jack growing evasive and Frances, who was eager to start soon, arguing that while she loved him dearly, it was only motherhood that would fulfill her. She truly believed that, and began to obsess on her Catholic upbringing, to wonder if perhaps the church was right in its assertion that the practice of birth control was sinful. A month after they were settled in the new apartment, she misplaced her diaphragm and somehow couldn't bring herself to go to the doctor for a new one. In the next cycle she was pregnant.
Her first child, Harry, was an easy birth. She refused to breastfeed, wanting her figure back, and a nurse was hired to sleep in the same room as the baby and see to all his needs. Even so, Frances appeared to be an enthusiastic mother; when visitors came, there she was with the baby on her lap, and for a long time her conversations were about Harry this and Harry that, his first smile, first words, how adorable he looked in his little sailor suit, how smart he was, talking in sentences before the age of two. A month short of Harry's second birthday, another baby arrived, again a boy, and this time the delivery was not so easy, requiring forceps, the tearing of tender flesh. The baby was named Reynold, Roy for short. Frances was inordinately proud of having two sons. She beamed, her face glowed — but it was a glow that flickered off and on like a traffic light. Beneath the blue shimmer of her eyes was a muddy, low-tide flatness, and if she told the truth, she would have had to admit that she associated Roy, who developed into a whiny, irritating child with damp little touch-everything-fingers, with feelings of pain and embarrassment that never quite seemed to go away.
Eighteen months later she had a third baby, a girl whom she named Caroline and who took two full days clawing her way into the world (in the end Frances had to have a C-section). By now Frances was nearly thirty. Her mother had passed away. Jack was traveling a good deal. Her father still had his liquor business and the house in Prospect Park. For years he’d had a lady friend, a widow whom he never introduced to his daughters, but most of his spare time was spent with Frances in her splendid apartment. With Jack away so much, it soothed Frances to have Kip around and the two were closer than ever. The other daughter, Peg, strange and abrupt-natured, unable to hang onto even the simplest job, lived in Queens with a roommate. She, too, frequently visited Frances, rough housing with the boys, trying to get them out to the park to play ball. Frances herself hardly ever played with the children. She rarely did the most basic things — bathe them, comb their hair, sit with them when they were sick. Caroline was handed straight over to the baby nurse. It's doubtful that Frances ever even burped her, though when visitors came her smile would rise like a yeasty cake in the oven and she'd gush and coo over the baby. But in the depths of her shining blue eyes was a vacancy that her father pretended wasn't there, and that Jack tried to dispel by giving in to her whims: redecorating the apartment for the third time in two years, allowing her a trio — and then a quartet and then a quintet — of yappy Yorkshire terriers that peed and left turds all over the carpets, hiring a manservant to walk the little things and carry packages for Frances and open the door to the silly ladies and faggy gents who came to her frequent lunches.
Nine months after Caroline's birth, Frances wanted to be pregnant again. She'd avoided Jack, but now she began to bother him for sex. He knew the drill; it had been the same with each of the children, a coolness and lack of interest that went on for months followed by heavy heat, sweetness, tender touches that invariably had him drooling and swooning over her on the nights she was most fertile. Her diaphragm would remain in its case in the bathroom drawer. Two weeks later she'd miss her period and a certain smell would make her queasy. The vacant look that had hung around since the last postpartum would be replaced by a dreamy, hopeful expression. She'd feel alive again.
"We can't have another baby, Frances," Jack said this time, pulling away as she rubbed up against him under the sheets.
"Because you're not interested in the babies we have."
She moaned and reached for the drawstring to his pajamas. "Come on, Jack. Fuck me. That's all I want."
That's all he wanted, too. But this time he was wise to her. He steeled himself and fished a condom out of his bedside drawer. "Only if I wear this."
When she saw what he held in his hand, her face went as white as if he was holding a dead rat. "No! That would be wrong!"
"Why? Don't say religion. You're only religious when it suits you."
"I just can't, that's all. I hate those things."
"Then put on your diaphragm."
"My diaphragm hurts."
"Then forget about it."
"Please, Jack." She slid her hand into his pajamas.
He shoved the hand away. "I said forget about it."
She began to cry. He rose from the bed as quickly as if it were filled with scorpions and fled to his son Harry's room to sleep. A few days later, while he was on a business trip in Houston, he had a vasectomy. He didn't tell Frances and from then on made love to her during her fertile periods as if the condom scene had never happened, as if he'd had a change of heart and was as eager as she was to have more babies.
But of course her womb remained empty and the flatness returned to her eyes, always there beneath the surface like dead weeds at the bottom of a bright blue lake. Several years passed before she got up the nerve to consult a doctor, who told her she'd developed fibroids and would probably never conceive again. She was now in her mid-thirties, still vital looking with her strong bones and straight posture. Her life was extremely busy and active, but deep down she saw herself as a failure and potential lunatic, and it was only Kip's constant reassurances that she was nothing like Noreen that saved her from chronic fits of despair. She never knew the real reason her womb had quit on her originated with Jack.
Now that the children were somewhat civilized (Caroline had just turned six), it was de rigueur for them to spend at least one, if not two, weekends a month with their grandparents in the country. The house, which was about a hundred miles north of New York City, was built to resemble a stately English mansion. A private road led to it through half a mile of wildflowers and magnificent trees. Horses grazed in the orchards surrounding the house, and sweet, mysterious smells from the herb garden wafted through the windows and doors. Frances could count on two hands the number of times she had been there since her wedding. Helen still took a sadist's delight in snubbing her, so she always found reasons not to accompany Jack and the children. But on Helen's seventieth birthday there was to be a big dinner, and out of pride and a need to be recognized as Mrs. Jack Woolsey, Frances agreed to go. She wanted her mother-in-law to see what a fine, distinguished lady she had become.
They arrived after lunch on a gloomy Saturday in the beginning of November. A butler rushed down the steps to help Frances remove garment bags from the trunk of the car. In the living room Helen sat by the fire nursing a whiskey, still disheveled from a morning's ride with the local hunt.
"Happy birthday, Mother," Jack sang out as he entered the room.
Helen glared at him. "I'm old, but not bloody deaf." She wore beige britches and a black hunt coat, and her bony face bristled with anger. "Why weren't you here last night?”
It was traditional for the younger Woolsey’s to arrive Friday nights so Jack and the children could be up by dawn to go out with Helen to the freezing barn, toss saddles on a bunch of nervous, keyed-up horses, gallop through trees with branches like guillotines, jump fences and walls that appeared as suddenly as sharks in the water, everyone but Helen having a miserable time.
"Frances wasn't well," Jack said.
Helen kicked off her boots and held her feet out to the fire. She lit a cigarette. "You could have left her at home. She's got that peculiar sister to look after her."
"She wanted to be at your birthday," Jack said, although this was a blatant lie and they both knew it. He poured himself a whiskey and sat down, removing a cigarette from a silver box on the table. A large dog lay on the couch beside him. Another slumbered at his feet. As grand as the house was, all the furniture was nicked and scarred and clawed by dogs. For a moment mother and son smoked in silence. Then Helen said, "Well, she's not going to be happy this evening."
"Why Mother? Who'd you invite?"
"You'll see," Helen said with a sly look.
"Oh come on. Who?"
But Helen just shook her head, and Jack knew better than to push her.
Upstairs Frances was trying to decide what to wear that evening. She had brought three different dresses, two of them dowdy enough to please her mother-in-law, the third a soft blue wool that showed off her pretty legs but hid some of the weight that had stayed with her since her pregnancy with Caroline. In the end she decided on the blue. Her children would eat in the kitchen with the maids, so it didn't matter what they wore. She took a nap, and when she awoke it was dark and she heard the sound of cars pulling up, guests arriving. Jack must have taken his clothes and dressed in a separate room so as not to disturb her. She had a quick bath, slid the dress over her shoulders, put on makeup and jewelry. At thirty-six, she still had the coloring of her youth, dark hair worn in a smart chignon, and light blue eyes that sparkled when she needed them to. Her heavy breasts were definitely closer to her waist than when she had first met Jack, but all in all she thought, screwing a large diamond earring into place, she looked pretty good.
She went downstairs. In the living room smoke hung thick in the air, and a maid was clearing glasses and ashtrays. Everyone had already gone into dinner. Except for one of Helen's large Labradors who followed her down the hall, Frances walked into the dining room unaccompanied, stung to the quick that Jack hadn't come to get her. Two maids circled the table with serving dishes and a butler poured wine. There must have been twenty people there and all seemed to stare at her as Helen said, "Ah, Frances. We thought you were sick, so we didn't set a place for you."
She was put between Jack's cousin, Daisy, and a man named Hitchins who sprayed saliva when he talked and had a laugh like the creak of a rusty hinge. Hitchins sold horse insurance, which was not something Frances particularly wanted to hear about. Nor did she want to hear about Daisy's two daughters, both sick with flu. Further down the table, Jack was deep in conversation with a pale young woman who kept nervously pushing up the baggy sleeves of her sweater to expose strong, smooth-skinned arms and a man's silver watch. "Who's that?" Frances asked Daisy. The woman wore no rings, no jewelry besides the watch.
"Helen's new horse vet."
"Really? She's a little young, isn't she?"
"Yes, but incredibly smart and talented."
On Jack's other side sat an elegant, dark-haired woman in a low-cut suit and tortoise shell glasses pushed to the top of her head. She wore ruby nail polish at the ends of her long fingers and thick gold, ancient Greek rings. Frances had seen her before and it came to her that this was Jack's ex-fiancée, Nancy, who'd been married and divorced and now lived in Paris.
"Looks terrific, doesn't she?" Daisy said, following her gaze.
Frances toyed with an earring. She was the only woman at the table in serious jewelry. "I don't know. Maybe a little thin."
But if Nancy looked thin it was a thinness that men such as Jack liked, the high pretty breasts and narrow waist of a woman who'd never had children, who could move around as she pleased. As Frances secretly watched, Jack slid his hand over Nancy's, gave the long, ruby-nailed fingers a squeeze. Nancy inclined her head toward him, sex and mischief in her face, dark eyes so warm and intimate that for a second Frances's breath caught in her throat. She gulped at her wine, suddenly aware of the fact that no one was speaking to her. The horse insurance man was busy with the person on his other side and so was Daisy, and while laughter and conversation coursed up and down the table, Frances sat high and dry in the midst of it all, utterly isolated and alone.
After dinner she had no one to speak to either. Helen patted the couch beside her for Nancy to come and sit; she had already directed the young vet to take Jack and several others out to the barn to have a look at the swollen hock of one of the horses; and Daisy, who needed to tend to her daughters, had thrown on her coat and beat a hasty departure. The air traveling down the hall from the front door seemed very cold. Frances shivered and found a spot by the fire. "Are you feeling better?" Dewitt inquired and Frances felt as if the three strands of pearls at her neck would strangle her as she answered yes, in fact she was. He didn't say anything more, so she decided to go to the kitchen to check on the children. In there it was swelteringly hot because the ovens were still on. The cook, a fat Irish woman in a hairnet and apron, handed her a glass of water, which she gulped down thankfully. Caroline had already been sent up to bed and the boys were playing some kind of scary game in the cellar. Frances could hear their shrieks of laughter. The cook cleared her throat. "I've been meaning to ask you," she said.
Frances's mind was on her sons. She didn't want to have to go down to the dirty cellar and get them in her nice dress.
"I've been meaning to ask you," the cook said again. She had the remnants of an Irish accent.
Frances forced her attention on the woman, whose sweaty skin was coarse-grained and red. "Yes?"
"Your maiden name was Riley, was it not?"
"And your father's called Kip?"
"That's right. Why?"
"My name was Riley, too."
"Really?" Frances put her glass down on the table. Her skin felt clammy in the blue wool dress.
"My grandfather's brother was Kip Riley. There's a good chance we're related."
"I doubt it. Riley's not an unusual name."
The cook took her empty glass and put it in the sink. "Yes, but you and I have the same eyes now, don't we?"
Frances looked in the cook's face and saw that, though her eyes were ringed with fat, they were the same shape, the same pale powder blue as her own. She ran from the kitchen.
It was hours before Jack came to bed. Frances had gone straight to their room from the kitchen, had lain rigid on top of the sheets in her dress and beautiful pearl choker as a maid ordered the boys to put on their pajamas in the room next door. Still in her dress, she'd listened to the murmur of the boys' voices, the sounds of the party breaking up, cars departing. As silence began gradually to fall over the house, she rose and stripped off her clothes, cursing herself for having forgotten her sleeping pills. She and Jack and the children weren't the only ones spending the night. Earlier she'd seen a maid with an armful of sheets and towels enter a room down the hall, and now she knew without anyone telling her that those sheets and towels were for Nancy.
She pulled on a nightgown, perfumed herself, climbed back into bed. The house was very quiet. She had a notion to sneak down the hall, listen outside Nancy's door, perhaps even go in there and make a scene. The thought of Jack and Nancy's bodies entwined in the dark, moving with an old, familiar rhythm, a regenerated passion, brought on such anger, such jealousy that she growled deep in her throat. For a second she was unable to breathe. She sat up choking, fighting to get air into her lungs. She needed her father! Only the sound of Kip's voice would calm her. With trembling fingers she reached for the phone, dialed the Brooklyn number. It was one in the morning, but Kip never minded being woken by her. At the other end the phone began ringing. She pictured Kip hearing it from the depths of a dream and slowly turning in his bed, snapping on the light. Then she realized he wasn't answering, wasn't there. She let it ring a few more times and hung up. Probably he was with his lady friend. Heavy tears began to roll down her cheeks. She wondered if it was true that she and the cook were related, and if Helen knew and despised her even more for a coarseness, a poverty that would never go away. In her mind her face swelled up till it was the size of the cook's beneath that hideous hairnet and her eyes grew as bulgy, and that was how she saw herself, a fat, ugly serving woman, as the door opened and Jack walked in. Her own perfume was in the air, but she smelled Nancy's, and her body, as it rose from the bed, felt the heat and swelter of the kitchen downstairs and the tingle of ostracism on her skin as she entered the dining room alone, Mrs. Jack Woolsey, who didn't belong there and never had and never would. And although she didn't think this with her mind, she understood in her blood the craziness of her mother as she grabbed a vase of flowers from the desk by the bed and threw it with all her might at Jack.
The vase bounced off Jack's shoulder and crashed to the floor. "Jesus, what's the matter with you?" he yelled. Water and flowers were everywhere.
"You were with her!" Frances screamed. If she'd had a knife she would have slashed his face.
"With who? What are you talking about?" In two steps Jack was across the room, grabbing her by the shoulders, shaking her to stop her hysteria.
"Nancy! You slept with her!"
"Nancy's not here, Frances. Now stop this! Calm down!" He loosened his fingers, began to stroke her as he would a frightened horse.
"She's in the room down the hall. I saw you."
"You saw me?" His voice was soft, amused. "Well, then you must think I'm having a romance with Hitchins. And I have to tell you: he's not my type."
By now he had her on the bed and was caressing her neck and shoulders. She was breathing hard, trembling all over. He slipped off the straps of her nightgown, and she grew still and sat up as straight as she could to minimize the sag of her soft, large breasts. It had been a long time since Jack had seen her naked; usually she undressed in the bathroom and was already under the sheets, lights out, when he came to bed. "Hitchins is in that room down the hall?" she whispered, drawing her stomach in as far as it would go. She couldn't even remember the last time Jack had made love to her.
''Mmm hmmm," Jack murmured. He put his face between her breasts, and slowly pushed her back till she was lying flat on the bed and he was on top of her.
A dog whined and scratched at the door and for some reason that sparked the memory of a warm evening two months ago just after she'd taken a pill to go to sleep, and Jack, returned from a trip to the West Coast, had reached for her under the covers. She must have been dead to the world as he entered her. This time, she thought a little grimly, she would remember the act in perfect detail.
They fell asleep with the light on, and a mess of broken china and dying flowers on the soggy carpet by the door. Frances's nightgown was up around her hips. Jack lay naked, a bruise the size of a baby's fist forming on his shoulder. Just before dawn the phone rang. The ringer was off on the phone by their bed, so they didn't hear it, but Helen did, and she had to come in and step over the scattered pieces of china and clothing and reach over Frances to shake Jack awake. Her white haggard face looked every inch of its seventy years. "Jack!" she shouted, although by now his eyes were open and he was groping for the sheet and trying to sit up and see the clock. "It's Frances! You have to wake her up! Her father's dead."
Kip collapsed of a heart attack as he was crossing his kitchen with a cup of tea. According to the coroner, he was dead a good thirteen hours before anyone found him. Frances screamed as if she were in physical agony when she heard the news. She fell back on the bed, knees drawn to her naked breasts, unaware of who was around her or how her cries might affect the sleeping household. "Slap her for Christ's sake!" Helen hissed at Jack, but he couldn't bring himself to do more than give her a little whack on the shoulder, so Frances lay there howling, clawing at her face in pain, and it was the cook who finally stopped her, applying an ice-cold washcloth to her face and forcing a sedative down her throat. "There, there, poor thing," she crooned with her Irish lilt, and Frances squirmed and stared with horror into the cook's blue eyes until finally the drug overtook her, and she was swept into a thick, black sleep.
Later, in a limousine on the way back to the city, she spoke only in monosyllables. Jack made all the funeral arrangements. The service was held in a Catholic church in Brooklyn, and Frances, veiled in black like Jackie Kennedy, sat between Jack and Peg and didn't say a word to anybody. Peg, sweet and simple-natured as she was, thanked people for their kindness at the reception, but Frances, who took mechanical bites of food off the plate someone handed her, remained utterly silent. It was as if her grief had swallowed her voice and for days she sat like a catatonic, dry-eyed and stunned, staring without interest at her children and the servants and the people who came to visit, doing nothing but dragging herself through the rituals of getting up and going to bed, remaining for hours on the couch with a dog or a magazine on her lap. The holiday spirit grabbing the city didn't affect her any more than loud music erupting from one of the children's rooms or the gray weather out the window or her twelve-year-old son, Harry, who was her favorite, returning from school with a black eye because of a fight with another boy. Inside she was as dead as her father who had been put into the ground beside his wife, Noreen, in a cemetery in Queens.
Out of a sense of delicacy, Jack moved into another room. In the mornings he'd creep in to see how Frances was doing, and she'd turn her head away. She couldn't stand the sound of his breathing, the smell of his hair and cologne, the mere presence of him trying to comfort her.
A month after Kip's death, a lawyer in a cheap brown suit came to the apartment and laid a stack of papers on the coffee table. It was about two weeks before Christmas; the children had been sent to the movies, and Jack had summoned Peg who positioned herself beside Frances on the couch, sweetly taking her sister's hand and peering into the vacant face as someone might peer at the sky for signs of rain or bad weather. Jack sat in a chair across from them, frowning and smoking cigarettes. No one had ever met this lawyer, who placed glasses on the end of his nose and began to read the will in a singsong Brooklyn accent. Before he was halfway through, Frances's face suddenly unfroze and filled with anxiety. "Who the hell are you?" she whispered.
"Your father's lawyer."
"I know that, but where'd he find you?"
"Oh, we go way back."
"Well, you didn't help him much, did you?"
"Jesus, Frances. Let him finish," Jack said. He sounded stern, but it was clear from the way he blew out smoke and stared thoughtfully at Frances that he was pleased that something, even a scumbag lawyer, had finally sparked her to life.
The lawyer droned on and Frances fidgeted and took loud sips of coffee and crossed and uncrossed her legs. Her whole body seemed to be swelling with anger, a thundercloud about to burst. "Did he leave money to Dolores-what's-her-name, his lady friend?" she suddenly interjected.
"Well, then how much is he worth?" Her eyes drilled into the lawyer malevolently, red-rimmed and pale after a month of grieving.
"Well, I'd have to…”
"How much?" Frances persisted.
"Ballpark twenty thousand. That's after his debts are paid off and the house is sold."
For a moment there was utter, shocked silence. Then the storm cloud burst, the typhoon blew, the water surged over the dam. Frances threw her coffee cup at the lawyer and screamed: "My father was brilliant and wealthy! You screwed him! You stole his money and we're gonna get you! Hear that? We're gonna sue the fuckin' pants off you!" The cup banged into the lawyer's knee. Coffee splashed over his pants and shoes. As he flung out his hands to protect himself, Frances exploded into tears that were hotter and grimmer and far more miserable than those she had cried when she first learned of her father's death. Beside her, Peg cowered and began to weep too. "Yeah, we're gonna sue you," she whimpered, the palest imitation of her sister. Jack calmly reached for the papers. "Why don't you let us have a quiet look at these? We'll get back to you in a few days. "
The children could be heard screaming: "Last one in's a rotten egg!" as they raced through the front door of the apartment. "Don't worry," Jack said to Frances who had wiped away her tears and was sitting, glassy-eyed, on the couch. "I'll take care of Peg just like your father did."
"That's good," Frances said tonelessly.
Jack got up and went to the window. "He was eighty years old, Frances. We thought he was sharp, but obviously not enough to keep up with things." He turned back to her and began to pace, limping slightly from his old injury. "We'll invest the money. It'll grow fast."
Peg had gone to the kitchen for a sandwich. Frances rubbed her fingers over the spot where her sister had been sitting and looked around the living room with its velvet drapes and old English furniture as if she didn't quite know where she was.
"Frances?" Jack said.
She didn't answer him.
"It's going to be all right."
She thought of the beauty of her dining room table when it was set with linen and crystal and heavy silver, of her kitchen with its servants and big pantry, of the doorman downstairs and the cabs cruising up and down Park Avenue. She thought of her father taking her to school when she was a little girl, always making sure her hair was neatly combed and that she had on a clean dress. When they had moved into the house in Prospect Park, she and Peg had been assigned separate rooms for the first time in their lives. Kip had led them excitedly through the house, pointing out the thick carpets, the curving stairway, the fireplace with its marble mantel, the luxurious baths and room-sized closets, the tall windows looking out over the park. "Only the best for my girls," he had said joyfully. And she had believed him. She had believed it would be that way the rest of her life.
From across the room Jack said, "Frances?"
She moved her dull eyes in his direction.
"I'll always look after you." His voice sounded sad and full of obligation.
"I know," she said. And she forced herself to switch the light back on in her eyes and sit up straight, just as her father had taught her.