Gian Palmetto, president of the Hotel Pleiades, wants to know why they haven't heard back from their expensive lawyer at Scandon and Atter. Secretary phones secretary late in the day: a family emergency has summoned Ms. Stonds from the office.
Palmetto comes on the line in person--Sorry if Harriet has a personal crisis, but he needs advice, urgently, on how to dislodge a homeless woman from the sidewalk outside his garage. He spoke briefly to Harriet this morning; she promised to get on it. Will Harriet's secretary, for Christ's sake, find someone who knows what steps she's taken? No one knows? Surely Harriet isn't dragging her feet because she thinks the hotel mistreated her sister?
The secretary doesn't think so . . . the police?
Thank you, yes, he's been to the police. The sidewalk being public property the city won't arrest the damned woman for trespassing. The cops could cart her elsewhere, but they won't put her in jail. Someone suggested threats: rough the woman up a bit. Scare her into moving on. He could hardly order a subordinate to do that (wouldn't mind if it happened, but these days he can't order it: some busybody would find his E-mail or report him to the ACLU. And then, phht!--good-bye, career). Gian Palmetto needs other options. Given the three hundred dollars an hour he pays Scandon and Atter for Harriet's advice he'd appreciate a little activity.
"What kind of emergency?" he asks, wanting only to know how soon she'll be back in the office. "I didn't know Harriet had a family."
"The Stonds housekeeper, who's been with them a long time, had a heart attack this afternoon."
Family emergency. This conjures up a child falling from a swing, not a housekeeper with a heart attack. Gian Palmetto is understandably furious when he hangs up. Especially after the report he's received on Harriet's younger sister from the Special Events director. He goes out of his way to find a job for the sorriest specimen who's ever worked at the Pleiades, including dishwashers and laundry maids, and then the lawyer stiffs him because her housekeeper is sick. In the full flood of his anger he dictates a letter to senior partner Leigh Wilton.
Really, few people even at Scandon and Atter knew Harriet had a family. So burnished was her professional armor, so tightly did she keep all personal feelings locked in a remote chest, that her co-workers didn't know she was an orphan, that the housekeeper was as close as she could come to naming a mother. Not for her the chitchat with secretaries or associates on family matters. When Leigh Wilton complained about the lack of direction his children had, and how his two older sons had moved back home, Harriet shook her head in sympathy, but didn't share horror stories of Mara dropping out of Smith, hanging around in her bedroom or at bars, barely holding down a dead-end job at the Pleiades, then getting fired from that.
Yes, the hotel fired Mara, on Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Ephers had her heart attack on Thursday. Before that she'd been in perfect health, aside from the occasional cold.
"We didn't know she had any heart disease," Grandfather Stonds told the cardiologist.
Didn't know she had a heart, Mara muttered to herself. They blamed her, Grandfather and Harriet. What did you do to her, Grandfather demanded, because Mrs. Ephers refused to go to the hospital until the doorman promised her that Mara would be kept out of the apartment until the doctor got home.
"What did she tell you?" Mara yelled at Grandfather, grabbing his arm, shaking it despite his icy anger at her for jarring his operating hand. "Did she give you the letter? Did you see the photograph? Who is it?"
Mara, seeing herself as the ugly lurching Caliban of the Graham Street apartment, secretly agreed she had caused Mephers's illness. Although her getting fired didn't bring on the attack--that only confirmed Mara as a failure, after all. Maybe Mephers's heart beat a little faster, with pleasure at seeing Mara flounder, but that wouldn't cause damage to the muscle.
No, it was Mephers's fury when she found Mara in her room going through her papers. The housekeeper pulled Mara to her feet, slapped her so hard that Mara had a black eye for six days, and then collapsed, clutching her left arm but refusing to cry out. She was eighty: hauling a nineteen-year-old, especially one as big as Mara, was too much exertion for her.
"They weren't her papers," Mara tried to tell her sister. "She had a letter about Grannie from somebody in France. It was written to Mother. And a photograph of a man who looks just like you."
Harriet stared at her. "Mara, I can't believe with Mephers in the hospital, seriously ill, you can have the temerity to make up more stories about Beatrix. You are old enough to stop this kind of playacting."
"It's not--I'm not!" Mara's muddy skin turned mahogany in fury. "Mephers always said we didn't have any pictures or documents or anything about Mother. Well, there was a letter to Mother from someone in France. And that picture, I'm telling you, that picture looked like you in drag!"
"Mephers is really ill, Mara. Don't go bothering me with stuff about Beatrix. Mephers is the only mother I ever had, or you, for that matter. You should be worrying about whether she's going to get well, not making up stories about Beatrix and France. If Mephers hadn't been worrying about you she wouldn't have been vulnerable to an attack."
Mara gasped at the injustice of Harriet's accusation. "Worrying about me? She never worried about me a day in her life. When I came home on Wednesday I found her in my room, reading my journal."
Harriet gave her most tight-lipped, Mrs. Ephers-imitation smile. "You came home drunk after being fired. I heard about it from the president of the Pleiades Hotel. Mephers says she was trying to make some order out of the scrap heap you leave in your room--your desk, I might point out, looks like an ill-run recycling center--when you came in and started screaming at her. You may well have fancied Mephers was reading your journal as a drunken hallucination. The less said on the subject the better."
Grandfather said Hilda couldn't rest comfortably until she knew her privacy would be inviolate during her absence. The building super brought a locksmith up to the apartment and supervised the installation of a new dead bolt in the fat oak door to Mrs. Ephers's room. The super gave duplicate keys to Grandfather and Harriet, shook his head sadly at Mara, with whom he used to share Snickers bars in his basement apartment while they watched the Cubs, and left.
No one wanted to hear Mara's version of events. Yes, she had been fired. Yes, she was drinking at lunch. She hated the job, hated the stupid way they had to answer the phone: "Hotel Pleiades, soaring to new heights, how may I help you?" hated clients who screamed because centerpieces held daisies instead of chrysanthemums, hated having to say "I'm sorry you're disappointed, ma'am: the daisies are so bright and fresh, and the florist tells me the only mums we could get now would be wilted," when she wanted to pick up the centerpiece and brain the carp-faced woman. She hated above all the pointlessness of her own life, and often persuaded one of the waiters to bring her a double bourbon to brace her for the afternoon.
It was two-thirty when Mara had her termination interview. Two-hour lunches were not part of the job description for junior assistants in the Special Events office. You've been warned twice, as a courtesy to Ms. Stonds, the personnel director said, we have no choice now but to let you go. Turn in your pass, collect a week's pay in lieu of notice.
Home, because she didn't know where else to go. Entering stealthily, hoping to avoid Mrs. Ephers, still able at eighty to hear the cleaning woman break a cup in the kitchen while lying down for her afternoon nap.
The housekeeper was in Mara's room, making use of Mara's absence at work to hunt out her journal and read it. When Mara crept in the two stared at each other in shock. Mara gasped and backed away. She left the apartment and didn't reappear until three the next morning, when the household was asleep.
Mrs. Ephers took especial pleasure in rousing her at seven that day. "You're going to be late for work, miss, if you don't get going."
"Mind your own damned business for a change," Mara said, turning over.
"None of that from you, young lady." The housekeeper marched to the bed and shook Mara. "Do you want me to bring in your grandfather?"
Mara pictured the doctor as a battering ram, wielded by Mephers to shove her out of bed. "I've been fired. I have no job to go to. Why don't you race into the dining room and share the news with him? Then the two of you can exclaim how I'm just like Beatrix, you knew it all along, you should have put me in foster care instead of lavishing all your warmth and sweetness on such an unpromising specimen."
The doctor summoned Mara to his study after breakfast. I'm going to overlook your shocking language to Hilda. I'm most disappointed in you, young lady, for getting fired. What do you propose to do with yourself? You know I'm not going to support you forever. I learned my lesson with your mother. No, young lady, I don't want to hear anything about Harriet: she was an orphan just like you, but she's made the most of her opportunities. If you want to go back to college, just say the word: I'm sure we can find a school, a good school, that will let you start over again. After all, you don't lack for intelligence. But otherwise you must find another job by the end of the month.
Or what, Mara wondered? Or Grandfather would throw her out? Would she join the woman at the wall on Underground Wacker?
Mara dressed and went to the coffee shop across the street from the apartment. She had the seasick feeling that comes from too much wine and too little sleep. Her hands shook as she carried the large bowl of coffee to a stool by the window.
At nine she watched Grandfather walk down the street toward the city. It was his pride to walk the two miles to the hospital every morning, even in the bitterest snow. Although seventy-seven, he still put in a full week on surgical consulting and teaching. He'd stopped heading surgical teams when he turned seventy-two, not because he was any less confident, but because he wanted to stop while he still knew his hand was sure.
Mara thought he would die if they made him leave the hospital, even though many of the younger doctors were tired of his heavy authority on their cases. She imagined the funeral, Mrs. Ephers flinging herself into the grave in hysteria, and Beatrix and Selena suddenly appearing, having read about the doctor's demise in the paper. They shared a bottle of champagne with Mara to celebrate and the three went off to live in the south of France.
Darling, we're so sorry we left you with those two gargoyles all these years, Grannie said. Mara couldn't come up with a compelling reason for why her mother and grandmother, happily living together in this scenario, hadn't come for her sooner. Or how to overcome the published reports of Selena's death, although maybe Grandfather had forced the papers to print them--he had a lot of influence in Chicago.
Mara was on her third coffee, shaking now from the combination of caffeine and sleep deprivation, when Mrs. Ephers left the apartment, heading for the market at the hour when fish and produce would be freshest. Mara waited five minutes, in case Mrs. Ephers had forgotten something, not that the perfectly organized iron maiden ever did, and crossed the street again to the apartment.
Raymond, the doorman, who had known her since she was three, smiled and held the lobby door open in a grand gesture. "Not working today, Mara?"
Mara only smiled in return and hurried to the elevator. If Mrs. Ephers thought Mara's journal worth hunting out, maybe it was because she had desperate secrets of her own that she was trying to conceal. That inspiration came to Mara when she was drinking at Corona's, a jazz club on Kinzie, around midnight. What if the housekeeper really was Harriet's mother, for instance? Grandfather and Mephers having a fling in the master bedroom, Harriet conceived when the housekeeper was forty-eight--stranger things have happened.
The elevator opened onto the Stonds's private vestibule. Most people in the eight-story building left their front doors open during the day, figuring that Raymond and the locked elevator were sufficient deterrents even in these difficult times, but Mrs. Ephers believed that was an invitation to theft. Mara undid the locks and stopped in the entry hall to listen. Barbara, the cleaning woman, was busy in the kitchen.
Mara took off her shoes and slipped into the housekeeper's room. This was sacrilege, like jumping rope in the Garden of Gethsemane, for no one was ever allowed into Mrs. Ephers's private room, not even Harriet, unless especially invited. Mara's shiver of excited fear dispelled her seasickness.
Harriet's face stared at Mara, from the wall by the bed where she stood larger than life in her law school robes, from the dresser where she was ice-skating, dancing as the fairy queen in fourth grade, graduating from high school, riding her pony. The doctor joined his granddaughter and Mrs. Ephers on the nightstand at her Smith graduation. Mara wasted precious time searching for herself. Two cabinet photos, one at her own high school graduation, one formally groomed for her fourth birthday, grinning at the camera, wearing a blue velvet dress that she could still remember, the color of Harriet's eyes. Her own longing for blue eyes and cornsilk hair washed over her as if she were four again and fingering the fabric.
"You stupid fool," she whispered to her four-year-old face. "Why were you laughing while you waited to be slapped down, made a fool of?"
She picked up the silver frame, one of her own Christmas gifts to Mrs. Ephers, and put it on the floor where she was going to stomp on it, forgetting for a moment her stocking feet. Fear of Mrs. Ephers, the feeling that the housekeeper would know if she made the slightest mark in the room, let alone removed a picture, made her pick it up and replace it, next to the one of Harriet's tenth birthday party, a crowd of white-clad girls with balloons on the yacht of one of Dr. Stonds's important patients.
A dark-red secretary stood in one corner, its writing surface empty. Mrs. Ephers was no reader--a Bible, an old edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a library biography of Queen Victoria stood rigidly to attention on the windowed shelves.
Mara glanced briefly in the drawers, where Harriet's school reports were neatly laid, next to old books of household accounts. She looked for her own report cards but couldn't find them. Her mouth puckered in hurt. She slammed the drawer shut, took a pin from the cushion on Mrs. Ephers's dressing table and dug a deep scratch along the secretary's glossy writing surface. Take that, you horrid old bag.
Mara slid open the dresser drawers, patted the underwear--white or beige, cotton briefs, formidable brassieres like breastplates--the neat stacks of cardigans
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