“Marilyn.” Faye’s voice was decisive. “We’re doing it. We’re taking care of Ruth. So make your plans. Two weeks, even more—we’ll all do just fine.”
Marilyn looked radiant. “You are all so wonderful! Oh, wow! I’m so excited!” She looked serious again. “But we’re going to have to break this to Ruth gently. You should all come over to the apartment and visit, so she gets used to you.”
“We can do that,” Faye said. “It’s going to be fun.”
FOURTH OF JULY
THE SUN SHONE DOWN ON A PERFECT DAY: SUNNY, clear, and hot. Divine picnic weather.
Shirley bustled about on the large slate patio off The Haven’s kitchen door, carefully setting, right in the center of each picnic table, a bowl of red, white, and purple-blue petunias with a cute little American flag in the middle. She felt festive in red cropped pants, a blue-and-white striped jersey, and red espadrilles. And her earrings were so clever—they looked like firecrackers!
All around The Haven, the grounds spread like green velvet. The gardener had mowed the grass two days ago, and now, at the far end, by the beginning of the walking path, Justin was stabbing croquet wickets into the ground. They’d already set up the badminton net.
Shirley paused for a moment to gloat.
A few years ago, she’d been lonely and just a hair above down-and-out. Now she was the director of this flourishing business,
living with a literary genius who loved her enough to stop his important work and help her with the humble manual labor of preparing for this party.
It hurt that her friends didn’t trust Justin, but their faith in
encouraged her to have faith in
And he’d worked so hard over the past few months, and accomplished so much! He’d researched and assessed various self-publishing companies, finally choosing The Hemingway Group. Wasn’t that the most elegant name! It gave Shirley shivers. The Hemingway Group was based in Boston, which was an asset, Justin informed her. This company not only knew how to package Justin’s novel, but how to market it. They had contacts with the media. They were planning an extensive publicity campaign for the book’s publication this fall. Justin went in about once a week to meet with Dee Sylvester, who had helped edit the book and was working with graphic artists to create the
cover. She’d promised Justin that this book would explode on the book-reading public, zoom to the top of the bestseller list, and bring editors from New York publishing houses pounding on his door.
Shirley couldn’t wait until the fall!
her friends would come crawling to her with apologies for not believing in Justin. Especially Alice!
Alan and Jennifer strolled up the long drive from their cottage, once the gatehouse for the property. Instead of paying rent, they helped out whenever The Haven had an open house or some event needing food. They’d helped Shirley prepare the food for today’s party, but they were also guests, part of the Hot Flash Club’s extended family. They greeted Shirley with a kiss on the cheek, then set to work.
Alan asked, “Shirley, is the bar good here?”
“That’s fine.” Shirley slid a rubber coaster under one of the tables to level it. “If you want to bring the ice out, I’ll get the glasses.”
They set up the bar, then wheeled out the state-of-the-art barbecue grill. Shirley was a vegetarian, but Alice and the others had protested that not having hamburgers and hot dogs on the Fourth of July was not only bizarre but practically un-American, so of course she gave in. She was also providing a full bar, even though she was a recovering alcoholic. Everyone else enjoyed a beer or wine, or a cool g-and-t; but she didn’t crave the stuff at all these days, when simple air was like nectar.
“Hello!” Polly came around the corner of the building, her boyfriend Hugh following. “Oh, this is beautiful!”
Like Shirley, Polly had red hair, but Shirley kept hers dyed auburn, partly because Justin was so much younger than she, but also because it made her feel she looked less dated when she faced her board of directors. Shirley would never say this, but she was pretty sure she looked younger than Polly, who was letting the white grow in among the red and who also carried more weight than she. Shirley was naturally slender, and years of yoga kept her limber, while Polly was endowed with a more feminine kind of frame, with a substantial bosom and hips. Still, Polly looked lovely in her polka-dot sundress and the straw hat she wore to keep her freckled face from sunburn.
“Hello, Polly! Hello, Hugh!” she called, and the party officially began.
As the sun rolled high in the sky, the guests played croquet and badminton, strolled along the walking paths Shirley had created in the woods, and lounged about on the patio, nibbling appetizers and chatting.
Sometimes Shirley found her new work stultifying: running the spa, dealing with paperwork and administrative details. Just this week, she’d had to listen to Elroy Morris, the buildings and grounds manager, explain why they needed a new septic system—honestly, what could be more boring! And it was so expensive! She’d had to review the insurance with their rep; thank God Alice sat in for that, even if she had taken off right afterward, still too cranky about Justin to spend even a minute alone with Shirley. And then there were the endless problems with staff, illnesses, taxes—sometimes Shirley wanted to pull out her hair. She missed her massage clients, missed the immediate magic of feeling people relax beneath her hands, soothing away their knots and kinks, bringing balm to their souls.
Yet Shirley knew The Haven provided a sanctuary for many more women than she could handle alone. This was a little universe, where women could retreat from the real world, relax, heal, and renew.
Justin was playing badminton with Hugh, so Shirley joined her friends at a picnic table beneath the shade of a striped umbrella. Ruth had come with Faye, which was good for them both, because Carolyn had wanted her father with
for the Fourth of July, so Aubrey wasn’t there. Polly sat next to Alice, and Gideon was on Alice’s other side, so Shirley felt buffered from her critical friend.
Alice was talking with Ruth. “Have you heard from Marilyn?”
Ruth lit up. She looked very cute in her red, white, and blue sweater, with a little matching bow in her white curls. “I have! Just yesterday! She phoned to say she’d arrived in Edinburgh safely. She stayed there a couple of days to get over her jet sag. Then she rented a little car, and drove on the left side of the roads, all the way to Loch Ness! She said she misses you girls terribly.” Ruth counted on her fingers. “She said Shirley would love all the Celtic magic potions and jewelry. Faye and Polly would love all the woolen shops. And Alice, you would have kept her from screaming every time she drove around the traffic circles they call ‘roundabouts’ over there.”
“Sounds like she’s having a wonderful time,” Shirley said. “I’m so happy for her.”
“Shirley?” Alan approached the table. “It’s after five. Shall I start the hamburgers?”
“Not yet. Why don’t you and Jennifer join us for a while?” Shirley looked around. “Where is Jennifer?”
“Oh, she’s, um—” Alan looked nervous. “Putting final touches on a salad, I think. I’ll check.”
Poor Alan, Shirley thought. He loved Jennifer, and Jennifer loved him, and of course he loved his mother, and Alice adored him, but there were tensions between Alice and Jennifer. It was one of the frustrating things about Alice, who seemed perfectly content and comfortable being the only black woman in the Hot Flash Club yet worried that Jennifer, as a white woman, would somehow bring harm to Alice’s son.
Alan went off, swinging his spatula. Alice leaned forward. “Faye, I love your outfit.”
Faye smiled. “Thanks. I made it myself.” She touched the lacy inset on her pale blue tank top. Over it, she wore a gauzy shirt of a darker blue that obscured her plump arms and draped smoothly over her rounded tummy and hips.
“You make most of your clothes, don’t you, Faye?” Polly asked.
Faye nodded. “I do. I designed my own little outfits when I started having hot flashes. I got tired of pulling sweaters off over my head. I knew I needed layers. So I made up patterns for myself: tank top, shirt with short sleeves, jacket with longer sleeves. Of course in this hot weather, I leave off the shirt.”
“And you make them in such wonderful colors,” Shirley said. “And centering the first layer with bits of lace or embroidery like you do is so clever!”
“I wish you’d show me how to make them,” Polly told Faye. “I think I told you, I have boxes of old lace my mother-in-law left me. I want to throw them out, because she was such an evil old queen, but I can’t make myself do it. So they’re just sitting in my sewing room, gathering dust.”
Ruth set her wineglass on the table. Her white curls bobbed on her wobbling little head. “You should team up. Use Polly’s lace and Faye’s designs and make a whole lot of these pretty little outfits. I’ll bet you could sell them and make money.”
Shirley nearly jumped out of her chair. “Oh, my God! You could sell them here at The Haven! Hot Flash clothes!”
” Alice amended.
Polly and Faye looked at each other wide-eyed.
Polly, whose sewing business was on idle, thought:
could use the money! But Faye doesn’t need money.
“Well . . .”
This might be fun, and it would give
me something creative to do, now that I can’t paint.
“Maybe . . .”
Shirley said, “If you two did start a little business, Carolyn would
to see that you’re not about to be driven apart by her machinations.”
Alice looked excited. “I could do the bookkeeping for you. It would be fun for me.”
Faye hesitated. “I don’t know. I like to sew for myself, but I’ve never sewn for anyone else.”
“But I have!” Polly reminded her. “That’s what I
! And just think, wouldn’t we be great models to set the patterns? We’re both plump, and our weight has sunk down around our equatorial zone like that of a lot of women our age—except for you, Shirley—”
“And Marilyn,” Shirley added.
Faye cocked her head, considering. “What if we make them and they don’t sell?”
Polly laughed. “Then we wear them ourselves! We’ll have a fabulous wardrobe!”
Polly’s enthusiasm was contagious. Faye grinned. “All right! Let’s do it!”
Shirley jumped up and hugged Marilyn’s mother. “Ruth, you are a
Ruth beamed. “Well, girls, since it was my idea, I’ll buy the first outfit!”
“Oh, no,” Faye retorted. “Since it was your idea, you get the first one free.”
“Nonsense,” Ruth told her. “You’ll never make any money if you give things away. Right, Alice?”
“As your business manager,” Alice said, “I concur with Ruth.”
From down the road, at a house inhabited by a family of five, came the pop of firecrackers, sounding like applause.
A little later, as the enticing aroma of barbecued burgers floated in the air, Alan announced that dinner was ready. Everyone helped themselves at the long table set with rice salad, potato salad, romaine and endive salad, chickpea salad, and piles of fresh sliced veggies. Alan remained at the grill, cooking more burgers, and Jennifer kept an eye on the food, whisking empty bowls into the kitchen and bringing back refills.
“Enough!” Shirley told Alan. “They’ve all had seconds and thirds. Sit down and eat with us. You two are guests today, not staff!”
“Oh, we’re fine,” Alan told her. “We’ll sit down in a minute.”
“Well, you’d better. Jennifer looks wiped out. Is she sick?”
A strange look of terror flashed over Alan’s face. “She’s fine,” he muttered.
When dark fell, Alan and Jennifer finally pulled up chairs to join everyone else as they waited for the fireworks to begin. Last year, Shirley had noticed that the adjoining town held a fireworks display that bloomed so high in the sky it was easily visible from the grounds of The Haven.
“How perfect is this!” Shirley was so pleased with herself. Everyone was relaxed. They all had a drink in their hands, iced tea, or coffee, or sparkling water. “I think we should toast Alan and Jennifer, our fearless chefs!”
“Hear! Hear!” Gideon said, raising his cup.
“Hoorah and thank you!” cheered Faye.
There was just enough light for Shirley to notice how Alan glanced at Jennifer, who nodded her chin just half an inch.
“Um, this might be a good time,” Alan said, his voice slightly shaky, “for us to make an announcement.”
Shirley clutched her hair with both hands. “Oh, no! You two haven’t gotten a better job somewhere else?” She loved having the two live in the gatehouse; it made The Haven seem more homey.
“Not at all,” Alan assured her. Reaching over, he took Jennifer’s hand in his. “Jennifer and I are going to have a baby in December.” He took a deep breath. “So we got married last week.”
Silence fell. Shirley could hear birds twittering in the trees. In the distance, a motorcycle roared.
Shirley could scarcely summon up the courage to look at Alice. When she did, she saw that Alice wore her implacable, executive,
“Alice?” Faye said softly.
“Alice.” Gideon put a restraining hand on Alice’s arm.
Alice felt paralyzed, but her thoughts were racing. Alan had gotten married without telling her. Without inviting her to attend. They were having a baby, even though they knew how hard life could be for mixed-blood children. And he was announcing this now, in front of everyone, instead of coming to her first? Alice felt betrayed and humiliated. She felt like everyone else thought she was some kind of monster. She was aware of her friends staring at her hard, as if they were using the force of the gaze to press her back in her chair. She wanted to go into a padded room, knock her head against a wall, and scream till her throat was sore.
“I didn’t know about this,” Shirley assured Alice.
“No one did,” Jennifer said. “My parents are furious that I’m living with Alan. They’ll probably disown me now.”
Alice gasped. Jennifer’s parents disapproved of her son? How
they! Alan was a
man, intelligent, hardworking, kindhearted—
Ruth touched Alice’s arm. “Remember.
Squeeze the day.”
“Mom?” Alan interrupted her thoughts. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”