Authors: Nancy Thayer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
“Alice?” Shirley ran into the room and threw herself down. “Oh, my God, Alice!”
ALICE LAY CURLED ON HER SIDE, UNCONSCIOUS.
“Justin! Call 911! Alice is—I think she’s had a heart attack!” Shirley turned Alice on her back. Alice flopped like a doll. She wasn’t breathing. “Oh, God, oh, Alice!”
Justin was speaking with 911. Shirley shoved the window up and screamed down at the backyard. “Hugh? HUGH! Come up here, please! Alice had a heart attack!”
Startled faces stared up at her from the patio. She dropped to the floor and began CPR on Alice. Shirley’s hands were shaking—her entire body was trembling as if it were about to shatter—but she forced herself to concentrate.
Kneeling, she pinched Alice’s nose tight, covered Alice’s mouth with her own, and blew. Once. Twice. Three times? She couldn’t remember how many times to breathe!
Alice didn’t respond. Shirley put her hands between Alice’s breasts and shoved down hard. Once, twice, three times—she knew she had to do it fifteen times at the rate of one hundred per second, or was it one hundred times at the rate of fifteen per second?
She blew again in Alice’s mouth. Alice had a mole by her left eyebrow. She’d never noticed that before. She moved back to her chest and pumped. Beneath her tangerine chiffon poncho, Alice’s chest remained still.
Suddenly Hugh was there, kneeling next to Shirley. “I’ll pump. You breathe.” He began to count aloud. Quickly they synchronized their efforts.
In a blurry kind of way, Shirley was aware of the others crowding into the room, asking how Alice was, what they could do to help. Justin bent down to unplug his computer, then lifted it off the desk and left the room with it in his arms.
“Mom?” Alan fell to the floor next to his mother. “Is she okay? What can I do?”
“Just give her room to breathe,” Hugh told him. “We’re doing what we can.”
“The ambulance is here!” Faye called.
“She’s got a pulse,” Hugh said.
“Should we stop now?” Shirley asked.
Two EMTs ran into the room.
The closest hospital was Emerson in Concord. The ambulance tore down The Haven’s driveway, siren blaring. The rest of the party followed in various cars. Since Justin had disappeared, Polly tucked Shirley into the back of Hugh’s Range Rover and sat with her, keeping a comforting arm around her.
“Justin was just standing there,” Shirley sobbed. “Just
Hugh spoke up from the front seat. “Not everyone knows how to give CPR.”
“Then he should have yelled out the window like I did. Phoned 911. Run back downstairs and grabbed you.
” Shirley couldn’t stop shaking.
“Take some deep breaths,” Polly told her.
Shirley tried, but her thoughts kept exploding. “And then, when I was giving her CPR, Justin was removing his computer from the room! As if he had something to hide!” She covered her face with her hands and wept.
At the hospital, the Hot Flash friends and their beaux clustered in a waiting room for what felt like an eternity. Shirley repeated her story over and over again, how she’d followed Justin, how sneaky he’d looked, and then how creepily he stood there staring into his study, looking alert and somehow
How Alice had lain unconscious, her face void of her formidable personality.
“If she doesn’t recover, I won’t be able to live with myself,” Shirley whispered.
“She’ll recover,” Faye promised, because anything else was unthinkable.
Hugh returned to the room, a physician in a white coat at his side. Everyone knew at once that Alice hadn’t died—both men were smiling.
“Alice is awake,” the physician informed them. “She suffered a mild cardiac infarction. We have her on an anticoagulant, and we’re going to run some tests on her to find out exactly what the problem is. She’ll be in the hospital for a couple of days at least. Who’s her next of kin?”
“I am!” Shirley cried eagerly, then added honestly, “Well, I feel like I am.”
“I am,” Alan insisted.
“I am,” Gideon bellowed.
The physician smiled. Pointing to Alan, he said, “We need you to sign some forms.” He looked at Shirley. “You must be Shirley. Come with me. She wants to see you. But only for a moment, you understand.”
Enthroned on a high white hospital bed, an oxygen tube snaking into her nose, IVs dripping into her arms, Alice lay beneath white sheets, sleeping.
Alice opened her eyes. Seeing Shirley, she turned her hand over, palm up. Shirley grabbed it with both hands.
“Oh, Alice!” Tears ran down Shirley’s face, plopping on her shirt. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Alice’s face grew serious. “Shirley. Must tell you.” Her voice was whispery, strained. “Justin’s novel? It’s called
It’s—bad. You can’t help him publish it.”
A nurse entered the room. “Ladies? What are we doing to get the patient agitated?”
“Alice.” Shirley bent close to her friend. “Don’t worry. I promise you, Justin Quale and his novel are on their way out of my life.”
“But—” Alice struggled to explain.
“Tell me the details later. I know all I need to know now.”
“How—?” Alice’s face creased anxiously.
Frantically, Shirley wondered how she could reassure her. “Justin gave The Hemingway Group ten thousand dollars this spring. I mailed them a check for ten thousand more last week. First thing in the morning, I’m calling the bank and canceling the check. Next thing, I’m throwing all his stuff out on the lawn.”
Alice smiled and relaxed into the pillows. “Sorry, kiddo.”
“I love you, Alice!” Shirley bent down and kissed her friend. “I’ll spend the night here.”
“Tell Alan and Gideon I’m okay.” Alice closed her eyes. “Just really tired.”
The other members of the Hot Flash Club volunteered to come with her, but Shirley insisted she needed to do this herself. So they arranged a schedule for sitting with Alice—Gideon and Alan would spend the night at the hospital; Polly and Faye would arrive early in the morning to take over; Marilyn would relieve them in the afternoon; and Shirley would join Marilyn whenever she was through with Justin.
Through with Justin.
When Shirley returned from the hospital, it was almost midnight. Someone had brought the food in from the patio, but empty plates and glasses were still scattered outside and the kitchen was in chaos. She checked her answering machine—perhaps Justin had phoned to ask how Alice was—but there were no messages.
Glad to have a use for her nervous energy, Shirley buzzed in and out the kitchen door, carrying trays of plates, utensils, and used paper napkins in from the patio. She sorted, tossed, rinsed, and stacked, until all that was left to do was turn on the dishwasher.
Its hum was comforting in the huge kitchen. It sounded kind, almost concerned.
“All right, now you’re getting weird on me,” Shirley said aloud, because that’s what Alice would say.
She turned off the lights and set the alarms. She climbed the stairs to her condo—the door was still wide open. She looked in Justin’s study. No Justin. No computer.
Still too restless to sleep, Shirley decided to pack Justin’s clothes. It was a melancholy task, and as she folded his white terry-cloth robe, the tears began.
Perhaps she’d suspected just a
that he didn’t love her. She could believe he’d pretended to because she provided free lodging and food, not to mention funds for the publication of his book.
But she’d never dreamed his novel was titled
! It had to be based on The Haven. Oh, her poor clients would feel so invaded! Was she hopelessly naïve? She brought his robe to her face and sobbed into it, letting it absorb her tears.
The robe smelled so good. It smelled like Justin.
The worst thing, the very worst, was the memory of Justin standing there in the hall, alert,
He’d been looking at Alice, collapsed on the floor, and had not done what any normal person would do. He had not run in to help her. He’d just stood there, watching, as if waiting for her to die.
She sobbed harder, in huge, heaving sobs that produced frightening noises, like some kind of jungle rampage. So what? No one was here to hear her.
That was all right. The pain of his betrayal hurt so much—but it was pain she had to bear alone. She’d never had a baby, but she’d heard other women talking about the agony of labor. Even though husbands, lovers, doctors, nurses, midwives, or coaches were with them, they all had to endure the pain in their bodies alone.
Shirley had to endure this pain alone. She could do it, she thought, if she could consider it a kind of labor, like giving birth to herself—a new and,
dear God, please,
less gullible self.
She woke. Sun streamed in through the windows. She was lying on her bed with Justin’s robe in her arms. Her eyes were swollen and crusty. Her mouth was dry.
Justin leaned in the bedroom doorway, handsome in a crisp white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up over his tanned arms. He looked perfect. Shirley sat up, aware of her own disarray. Wrinkled clothing, hair no doubt sticking up in all directions, skin blotched from sleep.
“Is Alice all right?” Justin asked.
Shirley nodded, yawning. She needed a shower and a gallon of peppermint tea.
“Thank God.” Justin sat down on the bed. “I was so worried.” He tried to pull her into his arms.
“Don’t, Justin.” Wearily, Shirley put both hands on his chest and pushed him away. “Don’t bother pretending. We both know it’s over between us.”
He looked shocked. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, Justin.” She gazed at his handsome, immoral face. “You didn’t try to help Alice. She was dying, and you grabbed your computer and left.”
“But you’ve got to understand!” Justin sputtered indignantly. “All those people—my work is private—”
“Your work is shit,” Shirley told him. She dropped the robe on the floor and stood up. “We’re through, Justin, and as far as I’m concerned, your work is no longer any concern of mine. I’m stopping the check to The Hemingway Group. And I want you to move out.”
Justin jumped up, genuinely alarmed. “You can’t do that! Shir’, I’m so close to publication!”
“Yeah,” Shirley spat, “publication of a novel called
“Shirley, it’s a work of
“How dumb do you think I am?” Shirley demanded, immediately adding, “No, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”
“Shirley. Please.” He approached her, once again trying to take her in his arms. “Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about
Shirley looked up at his handsome, smug face. Her hesitation sparked triumph in his eyes.
She stepped back. In a firm, level voice, Shirley said, “Justin. Leave. I mean it. Pack your clothes and leave. It’s over.”
He tried to grasp her hand. She wrenched away from him. She hurried into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Sometimes Justin had joined her when she showered, soaping her back, pressing her against the tiles as he kissed her.
Today, she turned the lock on the door and took her shower alone. The sound of the water obscured any pleas he might have tried to make.
The warm water rinsed her clean.
THE TANG OF FALL LANCED THE AIR ON THE FRIDAY night beginning Columbus Day weekend. The five members of the Hot Flash Club hurried from the parking lot into Legal Seafoods, hugging themselves for warmth. The restaurant was crowded, but they were still seated at their favorite table.
“Alice,” Marilyn said, “you look
You, too, Faye. And you, too, Polly.”
The three women glowed. When Faye and Polly had heard about the lifestyle changes Alice’s heart attack was forcing her to make, they had decided to join her, partly for moral support, partly to prevent something similar from happening to them. So they’d all been on the same diet, and attended the same yoga and exercise programs.
“I’ve only lost eight pounds,” Alice said as she unfolded her napkin. “Five in the hospital, three since.”
“But it’s only been six weeks,” Polly reminded her. “We’re supposed to lose it
“Do you feel better?” Shirley asked.
Alice nodded. “I hate to admit it, but I do. I think the exercise and yoga’s helping my arthritis. I’m less stiff.”
having trouble with—” Faye stopped talking because suddenly the waiter was there. When everyone had given her order and the waiter left, she continued.
she whispered. “All these vegetables I’m eating have me as bloated as the Hindenburg. After dinner, you could hang Firestone ads on my side and float me over football stadiums.”
“Me, too!” Polly chimed in. “I never used to have gas, and now I have it all the time! It’s so embarrassing! Especially since the worst time is night, when Hugh and I make love. I’m so busy trying not to pass gas, I can’t enjoy myself!”
Shirley looked thoughtful. “But
aren’t timid about it. They love to let it rip.”
“Men consider farting an art form,” Alice agreed. “I swear, Gideon will walk through the condo to find me, as if he’s presenting me with a gift or performing some kind of symphony.”
Polly laughed. “I know. Hugh does that, too. But it wouldn’t be the same if I did it. It just doesn’t seem
Marilyn nestled her chin in her hand, squinting as she thought. “Perhaps it was once some primitive form of communication. You know how male mammals fight for control of the females? They fight, and bellow, and snort. Well, perhaps the male who could produce the most powerful scent and the most terrifying sound announced his supremacy.”
“In that case, Gideon would win, believe me,” Alice chuckled.
“It’s all natural.” Shirley squeezed the lime slice into her sparkling water. “Your body at work.”
“It’s not just farting,” Faye said. “It’s acid indigestion, too.”
“Hugh likes to speak his belches.” Polly imitated him in a bullfrog rumble.
“I get acid indigestion, too,” Alice told Faye. “It kind of scares me, actually, every time I get heartburn. I mean, I’m afraid I’m having another heart attack.”
Shirley patted Alice’s hand. “Hon, that’s not going to happen. You’re on Plavix. You’re doing everything your doctor advised with lifestyle changes. When you get heartburn, just remind yourself that’s a sign that you’re eating all the great crucifers and fiber that are keeping you healthy and strong.”
Alice shook her head. “It’s hard to think that way when there’s a Bunsen burner flaring up between my breasts.”
“You should get a prescription antacid,” Polly advised her.
!” Alice looked despairing.
“Alice, I take tons of pills.” Faye counted on her fingers as she named them. “Blood pressure medication, which also helps heart arrhythmia. I’ve been on that forever. Cholesterol medication. Aspirin for mild arthritis. Pills for bladder control. Allergy medication during allergy season, which seems to be just about the entire year. Antacids. Vitamins and extra calcium.”
“Is that all?” Shirley was surprised. “I thought you were taking those omega-3 fatty acid supplements I told you about. Really, you should all take them. Didn’t I give you the literature?”
Polly nodded. “We all read it. But I’m like Faye. I hate to depend on so many pills. Doesn’t seem natural.”
“Well, that’s just crazy,” Shirley argued. “That’s like saying you won’t use the phone or drive a car. We’re fortunate that so many researchers are finding supplements that keep us healthy and active.”
Marilyn laughed. “I read there’s a new medication to help stroke victims. It dissolves blood clots, and it comes from the saliva of vampire bats. Isn’t nature amazing?”
Alice shuddered. “That’s just too weird.”
Polly said, “We probably don’t
to know where most of our medicine comes from.”
“If you want to take fewer medications for arthritis,” Shirley advised, “talk to the nutritionist at The Haven. I know certain foods are great anti-inflammatories. Ginger, turmeric, celery. Debbie carries a range of supplements and natural medicines in the shop.”
The waiter set their meals before them—everyone had fish and steamed broccoli.
Alice tasted her salmon. “How’s the shop doing?”
“We’ve still got a limited inventory,” Shirley told her. “We need to work up a complete business plan before we invest in a lot of stock.”
“Speaking of business plans . . .” Faye’s eyes sparkled with merriment.
“What?” Alice demanded. “I can tell by your face this is going to be good.”
“Oh boy.” Polly looked like she was going to crawl under the table.
Faye smirked. “Well, you know, Polly and I talked with several banks about getting a loan to start Havenly Yours. For industrial sewing machines, materials, sal-aries, et cetera.”
“Go on,” Shirley coaxed.
“So our first meeting was yesterday, with Third National in Lincoln . . .”
“Wait! Wait!” Polly interrupted. “Remember, I’ve never done a business meeting before! Tucker used to do all that kind of stuff.”
Faye grinned. “So Polly and I made the appointment. I met Polly at the bank. She looked very efficient in a tidy little cream pantsuit. We were shown into the vice president’s office. Evan Krause. Our age,
“Talks like his jaw’s wired shut,” Polly added. “All the charm of a robot.”
“So we sit down in his terribly serious office and pull out our folders and go over the business plan with him. And Evan doesn’t see one of the figures—” Faye swallowed a snicker.
“—the health benefit package,” Polly added. She was turning red.
“So Polly gets up, leans over his desk, and points to the line in our figures. And as Polly leans over, there’s her rear end staring right at me.” Laughter bubbled up around her words. “And it looks like five or six little brown
are dangling from her bum.”
Marilyn, Shirley, and Alice gawked at Polly. Polly put her napkin over her head.
“I’m thinking what
those things?” Faye put her hands to her heart in mock shock. “They looked like little . . .” She glanced around to be sure no one was near. “. . .
!” She snorted, trying to contain her laughter.
dying of embarrassment,” Polly mumbled behind the napkin.
“So Polly sits down again. But I can’t concentrate. All I can think of are those little brown nuggets and how they could be on the
of her clothing!” She rocked with suppressed laughter. “So she and Ichabod Banker are
at me, which sends me into a hot flash, and then I
can’t think. Oh, Jeez,” Faye interrupted herself. “Just
of it is giving me a hot flash!” She grabbed her water glass and pressed it against her neck.
Polly removed the napkin from her head and carried on. “So to make a long and painful story short, we did not do a very professional job of presenting our business plan. I couldn’t understand why Faye was so scattered. I had to do all the talking, while Faye sat there twitching like she was being inhabited by aliens. So the Robot Banker says he’ll take it under advisement and let us know—”
“And we stand up and Polly leans over to shake his hand.” Faye exploded with laughter. “And I look at her chair, and those five little brown pellets are lying there! Ahahahaha!” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Like she’d laid five little brown eggs!”
Her laughter was contagious. They all howled. It was like junior high.
they?” Marilyn choked out.
“Well, I was nervous, you have to understand!” Polly held out her hands, pleading. “While I was driving to the bank, I ate a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts. For the endorphins for courage and tranquillity. You know! I gobbled them down like mad. I guess some of them fell onto my seat and rolled down and got attached to my trousers.”
“And when she scooted around during our presentation, they brushed off her clothes and got stuck on the fabric of the chair!” Faye finished.
Alice wiped tears from her eyes. “And I thought I had problems when the underwire in my bra broke free when I was in a business meeting.”
Marilyn blew her nose. “So did you get the loan?”
Polly nodded her head eagerly. “We
For some reason, this set them off again. They laughed so hard Alice stuffed her napkin in her mouth to stifle herself and Shirley’s breath turned into little mouse squeals.
Finally, they settled down.
“My stomach hurts,” Faye sighed.
“Why weren’t you there, Alice?” Marilyn asked. “I thought you were doing the accounting for Havenly Yours.”
“She is,” Polly explained. “But her doctors want her to avoid stressful situations. They said she can work at home, or at The Haven, with us, but nowhere else.”
“Which is a shame,” Alice added, “because I could have
“But it’s good for us,” Polly told her, “to learn how to do that sort of thing.” She patted her own shoulder. “I mean, I did manage to stay calm, cool, and collected. I did manage to present the business plan as if I actually had a brain. I’m really proud of myself, Alice, for doing something that’s as easy as breathing for you.”
Marilyn asked, “Alice, are you still allowed to play competitive bridge?”
Alice made a face. “Nope. Too stressful. They want me to wait a few months.”
Polly decided this was a good time to ask her question. She turned to Shirley. “What’s happening with Justin?”
Shirley rolled her eyes. “I haven’t heard from him since the day after the Labor Day picnic.”
“And his book?” Faye asked.
“Not going to happen. When I withdrew the second check and they knew no more money was coming, The Hemingway Group pulled the plug on publication.”
“But what about the first ten thousand dollars Justin gave them?” Polly asked.
“Gone. The Hemingway Group kept that. I knew they would; it was in the contract Justin signed with them.”
“Do you miss him?” Faye asked gently.
“Of course I do!” Shirley’s eyes went moist.
Polly leaned over to give Shirley a little hug. “You’ll meet someone else.”
“I doubt it.” Shirley dug a tissue from her purse and blew her nose. “In fact, I don’t even want to. I’ve decided I’m going to be chaste.”
Alice snorted. “Yeah, right.”
that!” Shirley elbowed Alice.
Faye turned to Marilyn. “How’s Ian?”
Marilyn’s face went blissful.
“It must be hard with him on the other side of the Atlantic,” Polly said.
“It is. I miss him so much. But we e-mail each other several times a day, and we call each other a lot. And actually, since you asked—” Marilyn bit her lip.
Faye read her mind. “You want us to take care of Ruth while you visit him?”
Polly and Faye nodded eagerly. “Sure,” said Faye. “Ruth’s adorable.”
“Oh, you two are so wonderful! I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you!”
“We both want to be bridesmaids at your wedding,” Polly said.
Marilyn’s face fell. “I don’t know if that can ever happen. I mean, his work is in Edinburgh, and mine’s here. Plus, there’s Ruth. She’s doing all right, living with me, but I couldn’t move her to another country; it would be too hard on her.”
The waiter arrived to take their dessert orders. Virtuously, they all ordered fruit bowls.
“While we’re all here,” Faye said, in a more serious voice, “I’d like to discuss something with you all, before we meet with the entire board of directors of The Haven. Polly and Alice and I have been discussing the employee benefit package for Havenly Yours. We think we’ll need to hire six women.”
“After we get it set up, Faye doesn’t want to be involved with the day-to-day business,” Polly told the others.
“I enjoyed making the first round of outfits,” Faye explained. “It was challenging, and it was fun working with Polly. But I really don’t enjoy sewing that much. I couldn’t do it all day. And I wouldn’t be any good, supervising others sewing, but Polly’s made her living as a seamstress. She’d know what to do.”
“So we’re thinking four women at the sewing machines,” Polly continued. “One woman at the cutting table. One to sweep, clean, carry, et cetera. We’ve already talked with some women we’d like to hire.” She looked at Alice, who took over.
“They’re friends of the women who clean The Haven. They’re all Hispanic immigrants, and they’re all young and eager to work. And they all have children.”
“And we thought,” Polly went on, “that since The Haven is so large, it would make sense to have a day-care room for the children. That would mean paying another employee to work as a caregiver, but the salary would be minimum wage.”
“I really believe in having day care on the site.” Alice automatically reverted to corporate-speak. “I was the one who pushed through child care at TransContinent Insurance, and it made an enormous difference to the welfare and productivity of our employees.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Shirley said.