Winter Light

    Reed Hearne

Janet smoothed her nylons getting out of the car, flipped her hair and smiled up at the tightly muscled parking attendant. Thanks to her spray-happy hairdresser, her locks didn't toss but swayed like a bell. He snatched her keys and ran into the street to call after a gang of friends surfing the long traffic island down the hill. His lingo, volleyed over a swoosh of cars, (nollieflip, hellipop, railslider, fakies) made her remember high school girls with perfect straight hair and little boy hips who laughed at her frizzy curls and said she sounded like a Mod Squad reject using words like groovy and far out. How neurotic was she to feel snubbed by an overgrown boy that turned child's play into a lifestyle, never mind a language? At the top of the steps a familiar and more congenial world beckoned beyond the bronze doors. Those terminally cool wastrels probably bought cheap home permanents now and dreamed of going out to a lunch like this.

"Lost tickets are fifty bucks, Lady" he slapped one into her hand, "and the church don't validate."

'Lady' was gruesome but 'church', impaled her. Palate weary San Franciscans didn't easily embrace new restaurants. Terroir blended glamour and sophistication with arousing irreverence. Even before it opened, Janet chose it to host the Winter Gala, her first Chair on a major benefit. It was a big gamble and the valet reminded her that some would never forget its history as a Catholic church.

It was all she could do to stay focussed. The jewelry shopping at Shreve & Co. derailed when Gwen steered Maia to the earrings that Janet hunted down weeks before to impress Maia with her good taste. Snowflakes of white gold and diamonds, they perfectly echoed Maia's silver hair. Then, Maia's chauffeur came down with the flu. Again Gwen screwed up and offered her a lift in her two seat Jag. The plan had been for Janet to make her entrance with Maia. Her own mistake was to bring Rolph, the gossipy florist, to her first planning session at the restaurant. The maitre d', Douglas, clung to Rolph like lint on velvet. The Ballet fund-raiser was a benefit coup for a novice like Janet, worthy of the great humanitarian women who were never talked about except in hushed tones of respect and awe. Without Maia, tallest among those pillars, beside her, she would now have to remind Douglas of who she was. If she learned anything from Maia, it was greatness never begs for honor.

The reception desk was an elevated gazebo of dark wood carved into Byzantine relief, easily identified as the former pulpit. From his tower, Douglas launched guests down the aisle as if they were planes stacked on a runway. He enjoyed his altitude and only lowered himself for very special guests. Janet was excited to see Terroir so popular but the women all clamoring to check their furs disturbed her. Had she worn her new coat-and she would have had she known every other plan to impress Maia would fail-she certainly wouldn't fob it off on St. Peter to stash in a dark closet.

Did little tin God just smile and wave-at her? She couldn't look over her shoulder. He was climbing down. Praise Jesus, maybe she made an impression after all.

Ensconced at her table in the center of the room she avoided catching anyone's eye. What a fraud she is they must all be thinking. She stretched and posed her fingers, twisted her rings and scrutinized her manicure. Douglas nearly plowed her down to slobber over that pair of fat-sucked Junior Leaguers. She knew women kept a secret eye on the door to monitor levels of VIP treatment. When he discovered Maia's name on her reservation he backpedaled furiously but the damage was done. Any minute, with Gwen in tow, Maia would billow into the room, the Hermés scarf and gold chair pin, her single prop and signature.

She fantasized her perfect entrance with Maia flaunting the Russian sable that would now have to wait until the Winter Gala. It screamed style without a whisper of parvenu. It would carry them both through the room. Heads would turn, and Maia, whose charm left society reporters scrambling for new accolades, would reflect the adoration back over her devotees. Unfortunately Gwen would arrive with Maia, a shark trailing a tuna boat.

What was keeping them? The waiter wouldn't stay away forever.

"Good afternoon, Ma'am. Do you care for a drink while you're waiting?"

She cared to slam a double martini but Maia didn't drink. What was it with attractive men addressing her as an old matron? She couldn't look at him through her shame and brushed him away with her hand.

His black slacks persisted at the edge of the table.

"Are you all right?" he boomed.

She scowled at his indiscretion.

He didn't flinch; his eyes mirrored hers above a smile propped wide to cover his ass.

"I asked if I might bring you something?"

"And I said, no!" She wanted to crawl under the table but tripped over an old memory. "I'm waiting for friends." She knew that smile.

She dropped her advantage so he fired an ace. "Yes, that's clear. It's surprising how many guests in the same situation demand attention regardless. It's difficult with the noise to hear every flick of a wrist." His upturned nose led a full pirouette and he sailed into the kitchen. Across the room a gilded mirror telegraphed back his rolling eyes and silent scream.

His mockery of deference had once been an expression of boyish charm. Even sun polished bangs in retreat to a frosty fringe didn't age him. He didn't recognize her; but that was understandable. Her mother's ghost appeared in passing shop windows with increasing frequency.

"This poor dear hasn't learned the cross-town shortcuts," announced the imperial yet benevolent voice of Maia Reston referring to Gwen.

The oxygen had already returned to the room and everyone was settling back into overstuffed chairs and conversation. The artful carriage, the perfected humility, the doyenne's entrance-she missed it thinking of a boy who flipped his bangs with a similar finesse.

Incapable of subtlety, Gwen scanned the room. "Everyone will see us. The priest stood in front of the altar here."

Janet winced inside but learned from her mentor never to show it. Maia had the grace of selective hearing. Indiscretions and social blunders flew past her ears like a tropical breeze. Gwen, she simply ignored.

Janet and Gwen had husbands who were board members at the same hospital, shared grants, and played an occasional nine holes. Their chronic absence forged a bond that weathered years of Gwen's drinking as the wives volunteered for a string of charities. Until she met Maia at a museum luncheon, it never occurred to Janet that fundraising could be a vocation. Maia was a technician, practitioner of a science as exacting as her husband's medicine or precious baseball. Though she was rich as God, it wasn't her money but the fortunes at her command that made Maia society's reigning Queen.

Her Majesty was not above giving herself over to the designer's intentions. It was natural to fly into the vaults; peruse the clerestory depiction of California's agricultural bounty; marvel at the sacristy turned exhibition kitchen; then circle back over a congregation of diners to the reception lounge, set off the old nave with wrought iron vines and stacked wine barrels. "Dan Ligrive is a genius," she said. Then, pausing to show she had given the matter full consideration; she pronounced her judgment. "Chef Orba's mother will spin in her grave but everyone must come if only to sanctify their condemnation with curiosity."

Gwen flashed a familiar expression, a wide-eyed blank that said, 'I haven't got a clue what you're talking about but I'd like a drink.'

Janet thought she detected Maia's approval. She ignored Gwen's inability to keep up and added her own well-rehearsed opinion. "The French say without terroir a wine lacks soul. Nurture the earth and you reach toward heaven. The interplay challenges a classical dichotomy."

Maia looked at her watch then around for the waiter. Janet's notions consigned to the silent wind.

The waiter recited a litany of specials and recommendations, repeating it several times to accommodate Gwen's inattention.

"I want a martini," Gwen said, with a lilt, as if more would follow in response to her many questions.

Janet passed from Maia to the waiter to see who would be first to betray lost patience over the embarrassing pause. Maia never faltered.

"Halibut then, well done, with the risotto from the salmon special, minus the cream, garlic and cheese, extra lemon, and sauce on the side?" He'd been through this before.

"No, just the drink," Gwen burbled. "I never eat in the middle of the day."

The waiter looked to Janet-as if he could be stopped-but quickly turned away. "I understand perfectly." His modulated voice dropped sarcasm off in molten gobs. "The lucky ones are nourished by an afternoon of conversation."

Gwen smiled sweetly while Janet wondered if she ever understood one word said to her. Maia ordered quickly, giving the waiter no chance to interrupt further. His thinly veiled venom hadn't gone unnoticed; but it didn't captivate her. She dispatched him, posthaste, and deftly changed the subject.

Janet didn't recover so quickly. She heard conversation around her but not distinct words. His name came back to her: Aaron Dunne. East coast, old money, the parents retained Boston connections and didn't bother with Californians. The summer before high school he showed up at Camp Tahoe. The other girls dismissed him for his snotty accent until he passed around a photo of their dreamboat counselor in the shower, snapped through a skylight.

"He's a gem. He must have played a part in your decision to hold the event here, Janet." Maia was reeling her back into the conversation.

"I'm sorry, who's a gem?" She grabbed her water to steady herself. "I'm a little dizzy. I must be hungrier than I thought."

Gwen kicked her under the table.

Maia smiled. "Douglas, Dear."

How did she load that smile with contempt?

"He welcomes everyone as if it was his own home."

'Everyone but me,' Janet thought to herself.

"Without him," Maia went on, "benefactors would think twice about attaching their names to a large event-well-in a place like this."

What was she saying? "He's a maitre d'."

In a rare move, Maia interrupted, "Don't fool yourself." She pursed her lips into uncharacteristic emphasis. "His connections are floating this venture for Dan Ligrive. He's an important ally."

If she wasn't dizzy before, she was now. "You're right, of course." She fumbled for her water again. "He's very attentive."

Gwen, fidgety without a drink, chimed in. "People love this place."

The last thing Janet wanted was Gwen's help.

Maia turned toward the long bar where a battalion of liquor bottles mustered in tight formation below a pastoral stained glass vineyard. "A large benefit becomes political. The commitment reflects on one's company and shareholders."

Aaron Dunne swooped in with Gwen's martini. Janet kept her head down then confessed her fear to Maia. "I thought I'd have more confirmations by now."

Maia's smile bloomed to its broadest beneficence. "I'm sure it will be a success, Dear. However, Charles and I"

Gwen interrupted. "Charles is so great."

Her slurring betrayed secret morning martinis.

"You should let him buy you those earrings." She made a sweeping gesture to tuck a wisp of hair behind Maia's ear. Maia swerved but didn't waver. As Gwen pulled back, she spilled her martini onto her lap.

A course of apologies preceded Gwen's exit to the ladies' room. Maia praised her in a short preface intended to soften the blow of what was to follow. Janet concurred, adhering to the rules of polite gossip.

"All that and sweet as can be." Maia wrapped up the disclaimers and zeroed in. "Still, not everyone is blessed with a good eye. Between us," she leaned in and lowered her voice to a whisper, "those earrings are for boys who dress up on Halloween. I'd feel as if the diamonds were wearing me."

Janet's wheels were snapping gears. She sweated blood hunting down those snowflakes. If Gwen had followed the plan to let Janet discover them, Maia would be commending her exquisite taste. Instinctively she looked toward the exhibition kitchen, the former seat of spiritual guidance. "Gwen means well." She gripped the edge of the table. "But she has atrocious taste."

Maia relaxed into self congratulation then sprang back, as if she'd forgotten something.

Janet felt dirty. To stay afloat in waters so treacherous shebecame Judy Sconfienza. In sixth grade she and Judy were fat pariahs and best friends who left love notes in each other's gym lockers. In seventh grade Judy lost sixty pounds. She used her trust and access to steal Janet's "fat" underwear and run it up the flag pole. After that she was invited to spin-the-bottle parties.

She was about to ask Maia what was left unsaid when Gwen returned.

Maia dropped the bomb. "Our dear friend's niece is getting married the night of your party. I'm afraid we can't get around it."

Gwen reinserted herself with a report of amenities in the ladies' lounge. Maia, temporarily deaf, turned over pages in her appointment book. After moments of crushing silence that sent Gwen flailing for her empty martini, Aaron brought their lunch.

Gwen barked for a refill. Janet and Maia untangled precarious towers of wild field greens. Gwen rattled on about the opera; a topic she knew nothing about save which boxes changed hands due to shifting real estate fortunes. Janet smiled but paid no attention. Her own fortunes were drifting down river and her mind wandered back to Aaron at camp. A boy with every advantage and such a spark. How did he end up fetching plates?

His wild streak was seductive but too dangerous for the summer camp girls. A little bourbon was all right but breaking into the drama department to steal a Pirates of Penzance costume was too much, not to mention floating a makeshift catapult off Rubicon Beach during the annual fashion show and lawn party. The last twinkles on the water had gone black when guests reported shooting stars from the dark lake: flaming bags of dog shit peppered the manicured bluff. Janet imagined runway models in the line of fire under a trellis of Japanese lanterns. It seemed clever in retrospect and made her giggle, a realm of art and dreams.

"That's funny," asked Gwen.

The whole room was staring. Two Gothic types of dubious gender were crowding an elderly lady who appeared to be out with her granddaughter. There was a heated discussion but at first Janet only noticed that the lady carried her fur coat into the dining room. For a split second she felt vindicated. Then they started chanting, "Meat is murder! Fur means torture!" Before red paint began to fly; a burly busboy hustled them off.

"I was away somewhere," Janet said, defending herself. "It's not funny. It's horrible."

"You're not safe anywhere," Maia added.

"They should be arrested," said Gwen.

"Monsters," said Janet.

Maia raised her palm. "What are coat checks for?"

Janet felt her pupils dilate. "You don't condone that behavior?"

"Of course not," Maia answered, "the tactics are deplorable. On the other hand, what trappers do to those creatures. I gave all mine away."

"I don't care, I love mine," Gwen said, as if Maia heard her.

"What do you think, Janet?" Maia asked.

'I love fur. So much, I just bought a beautiful coat you'll never see.' She heard the words in her head but couldn't wrap her lips around them. "I think they're inappropriate," she said. As she denied herself for the third time, it occurred to her the alabaster sconces lining the room corresponded to the old stations of the cross.

There was nothing left but to eat and run. She apologized and thanked Maia for a lovely afternoon. She and Gwen would certainly miss her at the Winter Gala.

Gwen looked at Maia then back to Janet with panic in her eyes. "I can't make it either, Janet. Dave insists I go with him to LA. on hospital business."

Even if there was hospital business she didn't know about; Dave never asked Gwen to go on trips. "I'm so sorry," she stood and tossed her napkin down along with any lingering sincerity. "It won't be nearly as fun without the two of you there." Hating them, but herself far more, she kissed them good-bye, one cheek after the other. She wanted to run to someone's shoulder, cry out her woes and be told 'there, there.' Sadly, no angels allowed her to lay down her armor, certainly not her husband. She turned to flee and ran smack into Aaron.

"I'm so sorry," he said, jumping back. He had a message for Maia. "Douglas wants to apologize for the protesters. He'd like to buy lunch as a token for all you've done to bring us the Winter Gala."

Maia smiled benevolently, as if the misunderstanding was only natural. "No," she corrected him. "The credit belongs to Mrs. Gavin."

Aaron grimaced and turned to Gwen, "Of course, Mrs. Gavin."

Gwen, in turn, deflected the worsening situation by nodding toward Janet.

"I was just leaving." Janet pushed by him and headed for the side door. Her plate of pricey weeds left her starving for a chocolate shake and double cheeseburger. After that, it was straight back to the jewelry store.

 Days later, an avalanche of confirmations buried that hellish afternoon in Janet's mind. Despite Maia's insinuations, the new culinary temple was a lightening rod for the Ballet Fund. Dollars poured in, rivaling pledges to the Opera, an unprecedented achievement.

Fencing searchlights from Presidio Heights to Huntington Square summoned the chosen to crimson tongued steps on the night of the big event. It was so cold that snow sightings were the rumor repeatedly disbelieved. Dozens of women bundled themselves in serious fur. Janet insisted, to her husband's surprise, on greeting guests outside the threshold beside the bronze doors. He wrapped around her, burying his face and hands deep into the plush sable. It was more contact than they'd had in weeks, a fantasy of bliss, almost tangible-even if he was just trying to stay warm. Praise overflowed for the stellar event, but also for her coat and magnificent earrings.

Poor Michael. The marriage wasn't much but he gave her an old friend's support when she needed it. She hadn't told him about the earrings-he would never notice-but the coat didn't phase him so she didn't worry. Money for him was points on a scoreboard, a player's statistics. He wanted buying power, not what it bought, and rarely noticed purchases unless the debit incurred a large penalty. He couldn't see the sport in social philanthropy or a reason to admire anyone who did. He counted her among the latter and silently blamed her for coaxing him out of an athletic career and into medical school. Fierce competition, the one attraction to medicine he hadn't predicted, drove him to the top orthopedic practice in professional sports. Still, they both knew he would give it all away for a chance to play first base.

Inside, everyone nattered over the interpretation of this year's theme: Winter Light. In a bold move, the Board of Trustees hired an ad agency to write the fundraising letters and invitations. As explained therein, two off-season beacons of dance culture, the Summer School Program and Modern Dance Series, would fall dark as Monday night without the illuminating patronage of the Winter Gala. Janet initially had a hard time visualizing the concept. What ever happened to Winter in Rio or last year's White on White? The execution humbled her along with everyone.

Prism altered pin spots, situated between high arches of stained glass, took aim on Rolph's topiaries lining the opposite wall. The cast shadows, contoured in rainbow auras, were dancers captured in mid-flight.

"How long before we sit down?" Michael asked.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. A stately woman, moving like a barge through the sea of revelers, opened enough space for her to see through to the entrance. "Go on. The latecomers are dribbling in." She turned to point her husband in the right direction when a sudden gravity swiveled every neck to full alert; as if a herd of gazelles, as a single beast, sniffed the approach of a lion. Their locus of attention: the baronial flourishes of an Hermés scarf secured with a gold chair pin.

Immune to mob mentality, Michael walked away. As the curious tightened circles toward the source of commotion, she moved against them,away from a horrific confrontation over fur and earrings. Unwilling to draw attention calling out for Michael, she broke into a high heeled trot to catch him and in her haste tripped over a marble planter. She bit her lip against the pain, slipped out of the coat, ripped of the diamonds and recklessly tossed them into the deep pocket of the inside lining. "Do me a huge favor," she begged. "Get rid of this thing."

He looked at her as if he'd never seen her before.

"Check it!" She stressed through clenched teeth. "I'll explain later."

"I'm starving," he said. "I hope they feed us soon."

Janet exercised her right to squeeze through to the front of the crowd. There, hanging off Maia's arm and chatting it up with the two largest benefactors on the west coast, was Elaine Scanlon, Eye on the Scene for "V" Magazine. It was a miraculous change of heart on Maia's part and beyond Janet's wildest dreams to receive coverage from a national publication.

"Maia," she sang-almost a stylized animal call. "It's a coup de théâtre." Then she addressed Elaine-as if Maia as a mutual friend made them automatically acquainted. "I don't know how you got her here. I just thank my lucky stars."

"Janet, you're too kind." Maia's response seemed a mixture of reproach and humility as she looked ruefully after the two gentlemen now moving away due to Janet's interruption. "Have you met Liska?"

"I haven't," she said, extending her hand. "Janet Gavin." Liska was the title of Elaine Scanlon's column; a nickname used by her closest friends.

Liska took her hand with a generous smile, "Elaine Scanlon." The tone underlined her proper name. "My niece's wedding was postponed. I don't crash parties but Maia insisted."

"Don't be ridiculous. It's an honor to have you."

The maitre d' tapped her elbow. It was time to begin nudging guests toward their seats. She answered with a face learned moments before: reproach and reassurance.

"I'm sorry we didn't catch you on the church steps," Maia said. "Everyone is talking about it."

It was naive to think Maia wouldn't hear about her sable. Thank God she had too much class to mention it directly. "I hope everyone realizes the Church has moved on," Janet said. "Terroir is a soigné destination now."

Maia became deaf.

"Your taffeta gown is stunning," said Liska. "It was brilliant to unveil it inside and get the benefit of a costume change."

Janet thought it rude to have her motives, apparently transparent, thrown in her face. "Thank you. The fabric is peau de soie."

"Is that what they told you?"

Liska made everyone in her columns look great so what difference did it make if she was nasty in person. "I do enjoy theatrics," Janet declared. Otherwise these events can be comme il faut."

As they strolled into the dining room, Maia talked over Janet; telling Liska of the time she met the Pope in this very room along with Chef Orba's mother. "Doña Orba was dear. Our chapter of The Catholic Daughters sponsored the Pope's mass for the Little Sisters. Their convent is the dormitory now for her son's cooking school."

It was Janet's turn to feign hearing loss. To Liska, she said, "I never imagined "V" would be interested in our Winter Gala."

Doe-eyed sympathy dripped off Liska. "It's so unusual. I wish I could cover it. I'm just passing through on my way to Seattle. The new coffee and computer barons are rattling the timbers of Denny Blaine, the old guard enclave. They're still in their toy phase. Jets and yachts, you know. We want to encourage the few stumbling toward charity."

Janet felt like an idiot but shook her head in agreement.

"I'll be back in the Fall for the re-dedication of the Opera House. The park system has opened Hearst Castle for the party. Maia just found out they've offered her the Chair."

Janet veiled her disappointment in Liska. "Congratulations, Maia. That's fantastic! You and Elaine must join us at our table."

Liska flashed her sad mask again, then pulled away to await Maia's explanation.

We'd love to, she assured Janet, but we're promised to the sponsors of the Opera retrofit.

Janet understood. Their war chest had yet to crack open for her. Of all her guests they had the least to say to her and practically ran away when she barged in on their conversation. As they climbed toward their table on the opposite side of the old choir loft she made a final appeal. "Orba's promised a surprise for dessert. It's so secret he wouldn't tell me one thing about it."

As dinner courses swept in with the tinkling of flatware and out with the rise of muted conversation, Janet and the other wives strained to follow the shoptalk. At the other end of the table, Michael was keeping himself surprisingly entertained. Next to him sat the attractive niece of Dr. Dibble. Dibble became a local celebrity, if not a joke, hawking mold-it-yourself orthotics with TV infomercials. He was the only unmarried member of the Board and rumored to own a stash of ladies' shoes. It didn't bother Janet that Miss Breasts on Skin and Bones was entirely too flirtatious with Michael, a man old enough to be her father, until she realized she was the same little split-tail Douglas trampled her down to fawn over the day of that awful lunch.

She was the perfect excuse to invoke the after dinner custom of host and hostess exchanging seats. In a bid to escalate the drama of her husband's obvious reluctance, Dibble's niece assumed a baby-doll pout before she would let him go. Then-as if it was all in fun-she turned and exuberantly presented herself to Janet. Her name was Candy.

Janet turned away but found herself staring into the backside of another conversation already in progress.

Candy tapped Janet's shoulder undeterred "You're so lucky," she said, eyes wide and stupid. "I hope I have everything you have at your age."

"He'll be dead by then," she muttered.


Janet faced her head on. "I said, if you keep up the surgery you'll never have to be my age." A light went on in the girl's eyes and Janet realized she'd been fighting a one way battle. She almost felt bad until the girl, now fully operational, stepped up to the plate.

"You were smart to take those earrings off." She delivered her line over a bare shoulder. "With so much going on in that outfit. Besides, isn't everything else you're wearing real?"

Alarms went off when she realized her jewels, worth a small fortune, were unsecured in her coat pocket. "My earrings are more authentic and cost more than those things holding your dress up."

The girl backed off. Janet excused herself for a quick descent to retrieve her jewelry but when she stood she saw Chef Orba waving from below.

This was it. She stepped to the balustrade and clinked the room into attention with a fork and goblet. After customary thanks to all the contributors the applause was thunderous. Arrival was at hand. Acceptance at last. Evita on the balcony. She paused to savor it, bask in the triumph. She smiled, waiting for warmth to wash over her. It never came. She tried to summon the way she imagined it would feel but she was only faking it. There was nothing there, no feelings at all. Zero.

Great feelings obviously came to great souls like Maia Reston. Did she think she could put one on like a new dress or a pair of earrings? It was so ridiculous it made her almost giddy.

There was nothing now but to just get on with it "Before Chef Orba unveils his sweet interpretation of our mystifying theme, I'd like to raise a glass to Maia Reston. Kudos Maia on being selected Chair for the Opera Gala. You are the chairwoman's chair." The ovation rose to deafening levels again as the room sprung to its feet. Janet feared the blinking house lights would fail to get everyone back in their seats and it finally took a sustained wink of pitch dark to clear the slate.

To avert panic, an escalating drum roll marshaled attention to the inevitable revelation. Illuminated one by one, a succession of progressively longer, translucent blue, crepe de chine curtains dropped from the ceiling, leading the eye down a steep angle from firmament to floor. A high intensity spot-beam, matching the angle and aimed through the banners, switched on at the last drumbeat. In the center of the room the Chef's dessert creation appeared in a cone of celestial radiance.

A single gingerbread wall, the facade of a small country church, otherwise in desolate ruin, stood resolutely in a field of bare chocolate trees with windblown branches. White chocolate snow gathered in drifts against half buried pews and scattered debris. Over carved marzipan doors, a tracery window of hard candy split the beam into iridescent confetti upon a single rose tree defiant with blooms. A gasp from the direction of Maia's table triggered a ricochet of horror around the room. Janet was astonished. In place of the humiliation she would have expected she found the flood of emotion that previously escaped her. Orba had vision and a strength of conviction to fight the tide. It took a very large soul to create beauty and truth in the absence of appreciation.

The Symphony Conductor delivered a final plea for support as waiters shuttled coffee to far-flung corners. It was her last chance to retrieve those earrings before the final round of 'thank-yous'. It felt naughty to sneak down the same spiral stairs that bishops had climbed, crutching perfumed baggage on the shoulders of altar boys. Between the restaurant and kitchen, a vine-covered passage tunneled out from the myriad details beyond her control and into the frozen night. She skulked beside rough-hewn granite walls back around to the front of the building. The guard's knitted brow when she slipped through heavy curtains drawn over the portico compounded her sense of mischief. She waved away suspicion and rounded the corner to the coat-check room where thick glass once insulated the faithful from wailing babies.

Behind Dutch doors, the hollow tin of a radio played against muted giggling and carrying on. She reined her knuckles in when she noticed a large crack between the shade and the bottom of the window. The urge to spy was irresistible. Douglas was strutting around in imaginary high heels, flopping his wrists like fish on a line for the benefit of someone hidden behind a coat rack. That he was capable of such behavior was no revelation. What surprised her was the shedding of pretense was almost touching.

She was about to interrupt again when the music stopped allowing clear voices to emerge. It was worth another peek.

"We need to hear if someone's coming," said Douglas, momentarily serious.

"I never miss someone coming, Darling." It was Aaron, decked out in her full-length sable. "Veeeeeda," with glistening eyes and motherly concern, he offered upturned palms to Douglas, "I forgive you, Veda. I'll stand by you, you murderous little bitch."

"Mildred Pierce," Douglas answered, unimpressed. "Joan Crawford the waitress slogs her way through grease traps to the top of a restaurant empire wearing sable."

"Too easy," said Aaron, hoisting an eyebrow with his index finger.

"I work this pelt better than Mommie Dearest or Janet Gavin." He took the coat off and slung it over his shoulder.

He knew her name!

"My turn," said Douglas. He grabbed a soiled tablecloth from the laundry bin, draped it around his neck like a scarf, and strolled, taking bows.

"You're missing something," Aaron scolded.

Douglas picked up a small folding chair and held it up to his collarbone. "Do you think it's too much?"

"Maia Reston!" They screamed together, then burst into laughter.

Janet's ankles were cramping but she couldn't turn away.

Aaron walked backwards in front of Douglas doing a Miss America promenade, bowing with clasped hands held aloft in reverence. "Oh Maia, I worship you-even if you sharked the Opera party out from under my nose."

"They were giving it to her?" Douglas asked, dropping out of character.

"Until the old crow made her out to be the Antichrist. Didn't you see how every time she turned a corner she crossed herself. She's a master, made it look like she was trying to hide it, like she couldn't help herself, as if her immortal soul hung in the balance. At the same time she made sure nobody missed it. For the real dirty work she used Liska. Had her asking the bigwigs, 'who does she think she is with all that French, Jackie O? More like Gypsy Rose Lee.' Everyone saw it but her." He trembled, wringing his hands. "I'm so awed your majesty. I fear I've pissed my peau de soie." He spread Janet's coat on the floor before Douglas. "Allow me to spare you walking through my piddle."

"What a fool!" said Douglas. "To give her that toast. I almost wish I warned the silly cow."

Aaron picked up the coat and nuzzled his face into the collar.

"Hey Girl!" Douglas snapped in front of his friend's blank stare.

"Sorry, I went to camp with that cow. I liked her but her friends had her brain in a vice."

"I can't believe you're the same generation."

Again Janet felt nothing. Why didn't she want to strangle Maia? Humiliation and rage were certainly obvious. It was all a revelation of simple shapes. The sky dropped a house to crush her wickedness, leaving lost innocence to float away in golden light. God! How cheesy was that, not to mention right out of the Wizard of Oz? They had her thinking in their clichés.

Aaron's parents must have kicked him to the curb. She couldn't face him? Thanking her guests was out of the question. A sick headache would get her home. Michael could get the coat.

Her detour outside the building seemed ludicrous. She threw open the doors and walked straight into the dining room. A single thought shielded her from poisonous smiles: the servants at this party enjoyed it more than the guests. The possible exception was Dr. Dibble's niece. She lured Michael back across the table and had him nearly hypnotized with heavy breathing. Janet wedged between them and whispered in his ear.

Michael's face read stumped. "Where are your earrings? Candy says they cost a boatload."

'Bitch!' said Janet's eyes. "I'll explain on the way out." She pulled him from the chair. As they walked to the coat-check she apologized for not telling him about the purchase. She didn't like the earrings after all and planned to return them for a refund.

He could barely comprehend that she wanted to bail out on her guests.

"Just be a saint and get the coat," she begged. She wanted to tell him the whole story, what she saw, what it did to her; but she feared his reaction.

Douglas answered Michael's knock. Janet watched from around the corner how easily the refinement slipped back on. After Michael had the coat in hand, the conversation continued-way too long. The smiles and polite parley hardened into something more serious. Michael left the coat draped across the Dutch door and returned with an ominous face.

"No earrings," he stated flatly.

She felt feint. "What do you mean?"

"I looked through the pockets. They're not there. The guy doesn't know anything about it."

She covered her eyes. She recounted, leaving out certain details, what she had seen. The waiter was the one wearing her coat; he must know something.

Cowering behind her husband she watched her fears unravel. Douglas, incapable of dropping his phony outrage called Aaron forward to explain himself. His cheeks burned with shame which fueled Michael's fury more than any concern for jewelry. Michael's instinct was to annihilate a weakened opponent. Aaron swore he knew nothing about earrings.

Douglas said Terroir did not sanction his behavior. "Legally we're not responsible, Dr. Gavin. The waiter will be terminated, of course."

Aaron's look equated Janet with the world that betrayed him.

"I don't care what happens to the little shit," Michael said, locking his chin. "He probably has them stashed where the sun don't shine. No problem opening that to business, eh, buddy?"

Douglas smelled violence and closed the top half of the door. Janet grabbed the coat and dragged Michael outside.

Back where the evening started, they braced themselves into a blast of cold wind. For a while they just tried to remember how to breathe. After too much quiet, Michael grumbled. "I wonder why the queen didn't take your lipstick."

Her lipstick was in her front pocket. In horror, she realized he might not have checked the inside pocket. She used her nails to probe the lining for the hemmed slit. The stitching across the opening, common on new garments to preserve their shape, was intact. The pocket had been and remained inaccessible.

Michael could never imagine himself inside a woman's point of view. If she told him the truth he would only see a person that tossed away diamonds.

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...