by Del Marbrook


  I remember my first faceted bottle of Waterman’s ink. My future shimmered on the ink’s horizon when I looked into it. To hint at my age, it was before the vulgar ballpoint, before I discovered that words dart out from under their assigned meanings—one ignores this at peril, as I ignored my distrust of the word marriage.

I’ve been called a grande dame. Some fool magazine called me the doyenne royale of philanthropists. But I know what I am. I’m a trickster, a gamester of surpassing skill and grace, and this is why I’m sitting in the hauteur of my old age writing.

When certain people enter your life you don’t notice at first that they smell a bit ripe. They seem to bring with them a better order of things. Traders, that’s what they are. They’re going to get you in on something good. They’re a kind of flatulence. Everyone else is less urgent. They encourage you to expect everything will change. When it does (it always does), you’re missing an organ or something.

With the advent of Ariel Rennie I began to look for what might be missing. I knew the Rennies of Manhattan, Southampton and Antibes. She didn’t belong to them. But suddenly she belonged to us, our circle, though none of us seemed to know how. She simply appeared at our Christmas Eve party two years ago, then receptions, openings, formal dinners, soirees in country homes.

Of all the friendships—enchantments, really—that Ariel made under my feral nose that of Alicia Dougherty interested me most. Alicia is on one hand gracious and generous and on the other hand a termagant furioso, and yet suddenly Ariel was attending her like an aide de camp.

Only once very late in our marriage have I made Andrew laugh. We stood in the driveway of our summer home in Rhinebeck last September watching guests arrive for a party and I cried out, “Oh here comes Alicia Dougherty with her starling-daffy walk and her calumny of crows.” I didn’t even bother to look at him. I never do. But when the poor man offered a toast that night his eyes fell unfortunately on Alicia and his words tumulted naughtily into his glass.

Alicia’s attachment to Ariel Rennie confirmed me in my suspicion that Ariel was a soldier of the dark, a term of Renaissance magic that sticks in my mind, as terms tend to do, for I am an encyclopedist. Or, rather—I’ve never had to earn a living, you see—I am an historian of the making of encyclopedias, which means I enjoy myself more in Sumer than Easthampton. As for Ariel, actually I favor interlopers—historians must—because they’re the wheels of progress. Ariel could pilfer objets d’art or their husbands; she could case art collections or collect insider information; what interested me was her style. No, that’s not quite what I wish to say—not her style but the dangerousness of her silences, their glamour.

“What do you make of Ariel Rennie?” I asked Alicia when I had her over for cocktails back in Manhattan.

It’s funny how you can rub shoulders with somebody for years and think you know them and then in an instant watch all your assumptions plop like mousse in your lap. I watched Alicia’s eyes glow like sundown on her hilly shoulders as she poised her answer. I felt like running into the street.

“The fact that her beauty causes facial tics in all but the most predatory men and least narcissistic women came in time to suit her well, and ultimately, I think, it inspired her secret religious life.”

Was this Alicia Dougherty? It sounded like me speaking to peers in a mahoganied room punctuated by green lampshades. Her answer was exquisite. I took away her glass. It was my practice to snocker Alicia as quickly as possible, but now I wanted to hear more.

“Some beautiful women,” she continued, “find the touch of men, to say nothing of their manner, wholly unequal to their own. I believe Ariel found the touch of others distracting, disaffecting perhaps.”

My facile tongue recoiled in its lair and wouldn’t come out.

“Her life is Paulist, her contemplations Cistercian. It’s perfect for a gatecrasher.”

Alicia rose in triumph, glanced down at the rubble of me and decamped.

By Thanksgiving I was stalking Ariel, but she was young and agile, and she was not in the Social Register. I hired Timothy Blackwell and Associates, respected snoops who could audit books as well as shadow miscreants. The bills and reports arrived regularly; information did not. They followed her on March 19th from Clarinda Holmes’s party for the empty-headed author James Winesap. She got into a car driven by Dora Lewin and they went to Dora’s apartment on Jane Street in the Village. That was Sunday night. Tuesday morning a Blackwell operative found it freshly painted and vacant. The landlord said Harris Kaschembahr, the tenant, had been evicted a month earlier. He never heard of Dora Lewin. Why hadn’t that fool Blackwell sent a man there Monday?

Three weeks later Blackwell himself tailed Ariel from a reception up the Henry Hudson Parkway, over the Tappan Zee Bridge, and past Newburgh, only to lose her in a ground fog in the Rondout Valley. But he had the license number of her black BMW, he wrote apologetically. A week later he reported that New York State never issued such a plate, but it would be a Woodstock plate if it had been issued and one never knows about Woodstock, ha, ha, ha. “I do not pay you for a few yuks, Mr. Blackwell,” I told his answering machine. Three weeks messing about Woodstock failed to turn up Ariel or her car, but Blackwell was able to give a good account of a few restaurants.

Blackwell and his gang of gourmands were still dining out on me when we gave an old-fashioned ball just before Christmas to raise money for the American Ballet Theater. We could be sure of competent dancing. I said I was a trickster, didn’t I? Well, one of my tricks, a very successful one, is to seem to appear everywhere for about an hour, touching arms, winking, making everyone comfortable, and then to disappear. That’s all hostesses are good for, an hour or so; after that they’re lost baggage. My habit is to wander about upstairs. By the time guests leave, I’m refreshed enough to convince them they’ll be missed. I grew up in this house. I owe much of my reputation as confidante to its construction. I know which registers and ducts carry sound and from where. The register under a window in the upstairs library confided this piece of intelligence to me the night of the ball:

“Children are magi, Andrew,” Ariel was saying, “and at all costs society tries to knock it out of them. Anyone who finds a children’s circle of pebbles in a wood or a place where a child has buried a sparrow knows it’s holy ground. It’s not like finding a yellow plastic pail.”

Wouldn’t the old goat say anything he could conjure to please the lovely Ariel? His back would be to the fireplace in his study. I imagined her standing behind him, leaning on the mantelpiece. The three of us listened to the logs crackle. Andrew never felt compelled to speak. It was his loveliest trait. He listened with his eyes. Everyone always seems to have Andrew’s attention. It makes life with him bearable. But I thought he was abusing the privilege.

“I myself belong to the predator class, Ariel,” he said at last. He would be swinging his wheelchair around to face her. I was overwhelmed with a sense of myself as snoop. “We prey not as much on the desperate poor,” he continued, “as the pathetically hopeful middle class. They have more money, you see. We do so in the name of competition, the global economy, whatever sounds convincing, but our aim is, as it has always been, to transfer wealth to the Cayman Islands where the do-gooders can’t lay their undeserving hands on it.”

“I see that you see, Andrew, and that you have resigned from the predator class.”

“I have resigned from everything. But I would like to see the circle of pebbles, Ariel, to see it and revere it.”

Hearing this, I choked on my olive in remorse. Something like love poked through my side like a broken rib.

Andrew is a great contraption of a man, his body sectored by casting seams. Our mating was a technological feat. His face looks as if it had been bolted by a tinsmith and always struck me as knightly for that reason. Making our children was like bustling in a laboratory, collegial, proficient. Once we had nothing more to make, we gravitated to our own bedrooms and our private lives.

My father was a rarity of our kind. He would have rather supported a drunken artist in Paris for a son-in-law, as long as the fellow had talent, than a fellow mercantile banker, nor did Andrew Stilwell’s pedigree impress him. Pedigrees have to do with the achievements of predecessors, and my father had seen enough of the world to know that good genes are at best an easily squandered head start. So he insisted that Andrew should have none of my wealth. It was sufficient help, he said, for others to smell it.

“You will forgive me for this, Maddie,” my father said.

“Why should I have to?” I said. There was nothing to forgive. I didn’t know until he was dying that my taciturn father took me to mean that I didn’t think I ever would forgive him. So we had a tearful reunion on his deathbed.

Andrew did very well on the scent of my money. I did even better, so I’m far wealthier than he is, but he’s wealthy enough, and his true wealth—which he had handed over to Ariel so innocently—has eluded me all the years of our marriage. The intelligence I had received up through the ducts of my father’s house ravaged me. I drifted around like a dowser, touching photographs and imperfections in window panes—I saw in them that I was the ghost of the house. But why? There was nothing here I wanted. Nothing had happened to hold me. Nothing. Isn’t that why ghosts haunt, because something, someone holds them?

I went downstairs and stood under the atrium, my hand resting on the newel cap, listening to the orchestra of glasses, the bubbling of conversation and laughter. Ariel had joined the others. Then she came out and with her hands behind her closed the sliding doors on their choreographed gaiety as if she had done it a thousand times. She smiled and I believed that she knew everything that I ever would think. She glided past me. “Shush,” she said, crossing her lips with her forefinger, “your guests are sleeping.” Then she was in the doorway and left. As I watched the snow enfold her in a reverie of egrets’ wings I had the silly notion none of us would see her again.

Del Marbrook's novel, Alice Miller's Room, is published by Online Originals. His latest book is Saracheno is published by Open Book Press and Lanoka Harbor.

Copyright © Del Marbrook, all rights reserved