Love After Hours : Chapter One

There is an unwritten law in Manhattan offices that the person who has been dismissed be shunned, but that the person who leaves of his own will, having neither need nor desire for moral or alcoholic support, be feted by his associates at a gala luncheon. It was in observance of the latter rite that a group of men and women met in the lobby of the Waterford Building promptly at noon on a cloudy Friday in May 1970. The guest of honor was Nadine Osgood, departing editor of True Affairs, and the destination was the Gold Rail Restaurant.

Ordinarily, when such an exalted personage as the editor of one of the magazines in the Waterford chain left, he was wined and dined at Sardi's, but the circumstances surrounding Nadine Osgood's departure were not ordinary. Unlike her predecessors, Nadine was not leaving the company for an executive slot in a public-relations firm, or for an executive position on a magazine different from any Waterford published, one devoted to a newly discovered vital interest of the American public-macramé, transcendental meditation, Japanese flower arrangements. Nadine was going over to Intimate Experiences, True Affairs' biggest competitor, where she would be paid a very handsome salary to use her thorough knowledge of her former magazine to knock it off the newsstands.

In short, Nadine Osgood was a Judas. But the rituals of a publishing office being more rigid than the loyalty and tractability of its personnel, even a Judas must be taken to lunch. Certain lines were drawn, however: The memo that had been circulated as an invitation specified that the luncheon was to be an "intimate" one-a rather unfortunate choice of words-meaning that only a few persons were being asked because the company would frown upon Nadine's being given a rousing send-off; Jason Bart, Waterford's editorial director, who always represented The Company at such events, let it be known that he had a long-standing previous engagement for root-canal therapy; and the Gold Rail, a good restaurant, but one of a chain of many like it, was substituted for Sardi's, which is unique, not to mention much more expensive.

The party included the five members of Nadine Osgood's editorial staff, the beauty editor of Waterford's women's magazines, and the editors-in-chief of Virile, Real, Modern Movies, and American Health Ways. The editors of the company's paperback-book divisions-too exalted-and minor magazines-not exalted enough-had not been asked.

There were some in attendance who might have cast a cloud over the festivities: Terri Ainsworth, an associate editor on True Affairs, who resented having been passed over for promotion in the general upheaval that resulted in the wake of Nadine's departure; Neil Mennen of Modern Movies, who had been kicking himself lately for having turned down an offer similar to Nadine's less than a year before; and Cameron Eckhart, editor of Real, who always took it upon himself to assume the outlook of The Company on matters of employee loyalty. They didn't stand a chance. Their reservation melted under the magic of the martinis, and, like the others in the group, they soon found themselves eager to make the most of an excuse to enjoy a three-hour lunch. Besides, the genuine good spirits that Nadine Osgood and Gwendolyn Hadley, her successor to the editorship of True Affairs, so obviously felt about the turn of events that had brought them both good fortune seemed almost contagious.

As usual at any gathering attended by Bill Saxon, Virile's vigorous editor, laughter bounced around the table. By the time the happy group was ready to head back to the office at three-fifteen, Terri Ainsworth had flirted coquettishly with all males present (including the waiter), and Nolan West, editor of American Health Ways, true to form, was thoroughly sloshed. As for the others, all faces were flushed, and all eyes were bright.

As they waited for the elevator in the lobby of the Waterford Building, Nolan put an unsteady arm around Nadine and gave her a resounding kiss.

"I can't remember when I've had so much fun," he slurred. "You must come back and leave us again soon."

Nadine joined in the general laughter as all present heartily agreed.

Two telephone messages awaited Gwendolyn Hadley when she returned to her desk. The first read: "1:30. Your father called. Please stop at the store on your way home." The second: "1:35. Your mother called. Don't bother to stop at the store."

Gwen balled them up and tossed them into her wastebasket. It was an old story to her-the daily battle royal her folks had about her father's drinking-and she refused to let it penetrate the heady glow of excitement she was feeling.

Propping her feet on an open drawer, she settled down to the pile of manuscripts on her desk. The little crease between her eyebrows deepened as she tried to force herself to concentrate. Though her height was only an inch or two more than that of the average woman, her long, shapely legs and slender body gave her the appearance of being much taller. Her auburn hair, worn in a short, fluffy bob, offset the angularity of her straight nose, high cheekbones, and slightly pointed chin. The sharp contours of her face had deprived her of any aura of prettiness in girlhood, only to bestow upon her a much more lasting gift in maturity; the severe-looking girl of twenty had matured into an extremely attractive woman of thirty-one.

Betsy, Nadine Osgood's teenaged secretary, popped her shaggy, frost-tipped blond head into Gwen's office. "Boss lady wants to see you."

Shuddering at the thought that Betsy would now start applying colorful appellations to her, Gwen approached the sacred cubicle, larger than all the others in the department, that was the sanctuary of The Editor. She had never coveted the extra space and extra window, but now they were to be hers. It struck her, as she pushed open the door, that she and Nadine Osgood were finally professional equals-no longer boss and employee, but editor and editor.

True Affairs not being as lucrative a property as Real, the editor was deprived of a carpet and drapes. Aside from the extra window and space, the sole mark of prestige in the room was the executive desk, which was approximately six inches longer and wider than those issued to the other members of the magazine's staff. Nadine was seated behind this expanse of gray steel as Gwen entered, and, as usual, because of her petite figure, gave the impression of a child play-acting in her father's office. It was a fleeting impression, however; no one could come in contact with Nadine Osgood without being struck by her intelligence and competence, without being left a little shaken by the calculating pale-blue eyes that gave the impression that the whole world paraded naked before them.

Nadine had already cleared her desk of her personal belongings, and her pocketbook stood on its vast, empty expanse like a lonely sentinel. "I hate leave-takings," she said, gesturing for Gwen to sit down. "There's no middle ground about them. They're either hypocritical or heartbreaking."

Gwen laughed. "Which category do you fit Waterford into?"

"Waterford into the first. You into the second." Her gaze met Gwen's. "Are you quite sure you won't come with me?" she asked. "I know that I can get you at least as much as they've offered you here for your trial period as editor."

Gwen shook her head.

Nadine leaned across the desk. "I'll admit I'm being selfish. Seven years is a long time, Gwen. We get along well, and we work together well. I'd like to take you with me. But I wouldn't ask you if I thought you were staying because you had a burning desire for all this." She waved a dainty hand around her. "I wouldn't push you, because I can understand that type of desire-I've been driven by it all my life. But I've never recognized its signs in you."

Gwen's gaze swept the cubicle. "I'd be a liar if I didn't admit I was flattered when the job was offered to me. I may not have wanted it a month ago, but I want it now."

"Well, that's it then." Nadine rose, put on her coat, picked up her pocketbook. "I'm going now. I don't want to stay and embarrass everyone by my presence any longer than I have to. Especially Cam Eckhart. You'd think he was old Doc Waterford's bastard son, the way he carries on about loyalty to the company. Don't ever get caught in that line, Gwen. I've been around long enough and worked in enough places to know that employers are loyal only to themselves. Their employees should go and do likewise."

Gwen held up her hand. "Spare me the lecture," she said. "I'm staying only out of loyalty to myself."

Both women laughed, and Nadine took Gwen's hand. Her smile faded, and once more her eyes were searching Gwen's. "It should work the same way outside the office too," she said quietly.

It was the first time in the seven years they'd worked together that the women had come so close to intimacy. They shared an awkward closeness for a moment. And then the moment was gone.

Still smiling, Gwen withdrew her hand. "Let's have lunch together someday soon, Nadine."

"Good idea," Nadine said. Then she laughed. "Whose expense account shall we use?"

"Wouldn't it be great if we could have it charged to Cam Eckhart?"

Nadine laughed again. "I'll call you soon. Good-bye. Good luck."

"Good luck."

Alone, Gwen walked around the cubicle, now opening a file drawer, now leafing through a book in one of the bookcases. The sounds of the outer office floated in-typewriters clacking, phones ringing, secretaries laughing, Bill Saxon booming out in exaltation over a particularly sexy coverline.

She sank into the chair at the desk, trying it for size. It was too high for her. She stood up, twirled it around a few times to lower it, then tried it again. That was better-a perfect fit. It felt right and good, as though she belonged in it. Smiling to herself, she ran her hand over the edge of the desk, then swiveled around to gaze out the window. In the distance, the New Jersey shore was shrouded in smog, but she could still make out the Hudson and the huge orange stacks of a steamer that was pulling out. Then it came over her again, that same slow, sinking feeling that she had experienced in the midst of the excitement of Jason Bart's asking her to be editor-the feeling that life was closing in on her. It had dogged her at unexpected moments ever since. Determined to shake it off, she jumped from the chair and turned to examine the contents of a bookcase.

A sudden gaping silence announce the arrival of five o'clock better than a chiming clock might have done. Gwen started across the room. Before she reached the door, Cameron Eckhart pushed it open and poked his ingratiating head in.

"Say, I've been looking for you. How about a drink to celebrate?"

He came in and closed the door. If Plato was right and heaven is indeed the sphere of ideal forms, Cameron Eckhart was patterned as near as a mortal can be to the one labeled "editor, sophisticated men's magazine." Lean and tall, he always managed to look as though he had just stepped off one of his fashion pages. His ruddy complexion was topped by fashionably long sandy hair, his upper lip and square chin bore one of the few mustaches and beards in America that did not look seedy, pretentious or ridiculous. His mind was patterned after the ideal too. For forty-five years, he had managed to convince himself that he was living in a man's world where women, no matter how intelligent or what their position, were placed solely for man's pleasure.

Gwen shook her head. "Thanks, Cam. But I've already drunk enough today to float a battleship."

"Then surely one more won't hurt."

Because he sounded so sure of himself, she was ready to stand by her refusal. She realized, however, that Cam wouldn't be put off easily. If she refused now, it would only mean having to drink with him some other time. She might as well get it over with. She shrugged. "All right, Cam."

Bill Saxon popped his head in before she got to the door. "How about a celebration?"

Instantly, Gwen brightened. "That's just what Cam was suggesting."

Bill perched on the edge of the desk and took out a cigarette. "Swell. I'll join the party and see to it that you're not seduced."

Cam smiled, but his heart didn't seem to be in it.

Back at her own desk, Gwen pulled out a mirror and ran a comb through her hair. A gray strand caught her eye. She made a motion to pull it out, then checked herself. Why bother? After all, she was thirty-one; she'd have to expect gray hairs now. Unlike Terri Ainsworth, the self-styled office sexpot who had long ago left her twenties behind, Gwen had never attempted to delude herself into believing that she had discovered the fountain of youth.

She slipped the mirror back into her drawer and went out to join the men. She found them waiting at the bank of elevators in the main corridor, Cam in the middle of a long dissertation on reader mail. Bill was lounging against the wall, his eyes sparkling behind his dark-rimmed glasses. Obviously, he'd been at one of his favorite pastimes-baiting Cam.

"Have you fellows stopped bickering long enough to ring for the elevator?"

Bill snapped his fingers and pressed the button with a flourish. "Brilliant suggestion. No wonder they made you an editor. Where to? Nick's?"

"Where else?" she asked.

Ten years ago, when Gwen and Bill and his wife, Shari, had just started at Waterford, they'd been introduced to the dingy little bar and grill just off Seventh Avenue. The drinks there were bad and the food was worse, but years before, ancestral editors, for reasons unknown, but most likely masochistic, had established Nick's as an after-hours headquarters. Headquarters it had remained, being passed down from one generation of editors to the next and accepted by all as a family weakness that has proved to be carried by a dominant gene. Nick retired nine years ago and passed the business on to his son-in-law, Beauregard, who had once taken a six-week extension course in restaurant administration at Cornell University. The keys to the place still cold in his hand, Beauregard washed the street windows, substituted the word restaurant for grille on the sign, and stopped watering the drinks. Horrified Waterfordians shook their heads in dismay and wondered what would happen next. They didn't have long to wait. Six months later, the springs in the booths were repaired, and a massive man named Sam, who could make almost palatable spaghetti, relieved the dishwasher of his cooking duties. But the worst was yet to come: A year later, Beauregard sent his wife to Cornell for the extension course. Within a week of her return, white linen cloths draped every table, it was discovered that Sam was a direct descendent of Lucullus's chef, the restaurant's name was changed to Apollo's Grotto, and a real, honest-to-God imitation olive tree sprang up from the center of the floor overnight. Waterfordians grumbled. They might have to put up with the other renovations, but the restaurant had always been "Nick's" to them, and, olive tree or no olive tree, "Nick's" it would remain.

Beauregard, wearing his perpetual smile and shiny tuxedo, greeted them at the door. The years since he'd been mâitre d' had thickened his waist and thinned his hair, so that now he had to remind himself constantly to hold his stomach in and to tilt his head back and slightly to the right so that his bald spot would not be immediately obvious to the person he was facing. This, coupled with his quick, jerky movements, and his tendency to repeat everything, gave his customers the impression that they were being greeted by a life-size marionette.

"Good evening, good evening," he said, greeting them all by name. "It's been a long time since I've seen you. And you especially, Mr. Eckhart. A long time."

He began leading the way to a table at the back. They exchanged greetings with some Waterford people they passed on the way, waved to Terri Ainsworth, who had corned Neil Mennen at the bar.

"Watch out for the-" Gwen heard a warning voice call out. Then she heard laughter. Turning, she saw Cam, red from beard to hairline, a branch of the plastic olive tree caught in his jacket.

"Why don't you prune this damn thing?" he grated, extricating himself.

For once, Beauregard's smile faded. He went bobbing back to Cam. "I'm so sorry," he said, alternately brushing Cam off and bending the branch upward. "So sorry. Some prankster must have bent this down. I hope no damage was done."

"Only to his ego," Bill said. "He can't sue for that."

"Ah, yes, yes," Beauregard said. He clasped his hands and smiled once more, though the smile was a little weak. Then he led them to their table without further incident.

While they waited for their drinks, Bill whipped a ballpoint pen from his pocket and held it to his mouth as though it were a microphone. "Now that you're officially the editor of True Affairs, tell us, Miss Hadley, what are your plans for the magazine?" He extended the pen toward her.

Playing along, Gwen addressed the pen with mock seriousness: "To make it the best damn confession magazine on the market."

"Kidding aside," Bill said, replacing the pen in his pocket, "what are your plans? Have you decided on any changes?"

"My head has been buzzing with ideas ever since Jason said the job was mine." Leaning forward, she began outlining some of her plans, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks flushed with excitement.

Bill listened attentively, greeting her ideas with enthusiasm. Cam nodded politely, his mind obviously elsewhere.

Their drinks served, Bill raised his Scotch and soda and nodded at Gwen, his eyes warm with affection. "To you. Long may your blue pencil wave."

They drank.

Cam studied his martini. "Well," he said, "this is the first toast I've drunk today that I've meant."

Gwen laughed. "Jealous of Nadine, Cam?" she teased.

"Of course not," he bristled. "I wouldn't want to change places with her. After all, there's such a think as having principles."

"And the fat raise Nadine will get from Intimate is a hell of a good principal, if you ask me," Bill said.

Cam's nostrils flared. "I wouldn't expect you to understand such a thing as loyalty to the company, Bill," he said, "but I'm sure Gwen does."

"My God, Cam! You're in the wrong business. You should be president of a fertilizer company." Bill leaned across the table, laughing. "You really can't believe this loyalty-to-the-company shit! How loyal do you think the company would be to us if anything came up? Just let either of us miss his guarantee a few months in a row, and we'd be out on our asses so fast we wouldn't know what hit us. Do you think that the Brothers Three would give a damn that I have a wife and three kids to support or that you have a wife and seven mistresses?"

Shrugging, Cam sipped his drink. "In an age known for its lack of moral backbone, you fit in well."

Bill's eyes still sparkled behind his glasses. "The long line of secretaries who have been recipients of feels behind filing cabinets would no doubt be happy to testify to your efforts at conformity too."

Gwen was enjoying the argument, but she knew that Cam had had a great deal to drink that day, and she was afraid to let it go too far. "If you two keep it up," she warned them, "I'll pick up my marbles and go home."

Bill spread his hands, palms upward, in a gesture of obedience. "No more fisticuffs," he promised.

Cam picked up his drink.

For a moment, there was silence at the table.

"Now see what you've done?" Bill complained. "There's nothing we can talk about if you won't let us fight."

Almost as though he had received a signal, Beauregard popped over. "Another round?"

"Why not?" Bill said.

Cam hesitated a second, looking at his watch. "I'll have to skip this one. I just have time to make my train." He pushed his chair back. "Good luck, Gwen. Thanks for the drink, Bill. I'll see you both Monday."

It was hard for Bill and Gwen to keep from laughing as they watched Cam make his way to the exit. Bill shook his head. "There goes a smooth operator. If he doesn't get the girl, he won't pay for the drink. You're lucky I'm here. Otherwise, you might have been stuck with the check."

"A price I would have willing paid for getting rid of him." Gwen shuddered slightly. "He's one of the most obnoxious men I know."

Bill's eyebrows shot up. "I'm not madly in love with him myself, but I can't say I find him totally obnoxious."

"No, a man wouldn't. It's his attitude toward women I'm talking about. He thinks we're playthings who couldn't possibly have anything better on our minds than pleasing him. A lot of men think along those lines, but when you find a man as intelligent and as well educated as Cam guilty of it, it's doubly insulting."

"There seem to be a significant number of women around who don't think it's insulting."

"Oh, I don't deny that. He's very attractive, and to many women that's adequate compensation for being treated like something just slightly higher on the evolutionary scale than a pet dog."

"But that's not enough for you."

She shook her head. "You're damn right it's not enough for me."

Bill raised his fresh Scotch and soda. "I'll drink to that," he said.

Terri Ainsworth got up from the bar and walked over to their table. She smiled at Bill, tilting her head at a coquettish angle. Taking a deep breath, she forced her small breasts to strain halfheartedly against the confines of her tight sweater. "Are you coming, Bill?" she asked throatily. "We don't have much time to make our train."

"Fair maiden," Bill said, placing the back of his hand against his brow dramatically, "you must tell the engineer to carry on without me tonight. Business awaits me in the city."

Terri imitated the laugh she had heard Elizabeth Taylor use some twenty years ago. It emerged sounding halfway between a giggle and a croak. "I'll miss you," she said. "Well, have a nice weekend. Good night, Gwen."

They watched her undulating departure. "There," Bill said, an amused smile playing on his lips, "goes the femme fatale of the 5:49. Have you ever watched that gal in action?"

"Constantly. I didn't know she was ever out of it."

"True, true. You, know, I might be flattered by her flirting if it wasn't so indiscriminate. A pox on the day she moved to a town on my line of the Long Island Rail Road! She sits with the same group of guys every morning and night. You have to see it to believe the way she carries on. She seems to think of herself as a combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch. The guys play right along with her, and she never seems to realize that they're laughing at her all the time." He shook his head. "I'm catching another train tonight. After all I had to drink today, I couldn't trust my stomach if I had to be a part of the audience."

"You could always sit in another car."

Bill laughed. "And miss the show? I'm drawn to it like a magnet when she's on the train. I'm like the patient in the dentist's waiting room who keeps looking at the pictures of incurable gum disease in the journals on the tables. Terri fascinates me in the same sick way. She seems to be the incarnation of the spinster Robert Burns wished cursed with eternal desire and damned with endless disappointment."

"Hey!" Gwen chided. "Go easy on us old maids, huh?"

Bill leaned across the table, the laughter suddenly gone from his eyes. "Listen, there's no comparison between you and a dame like Terri. She's an old maid, but you're a woman who just doesn't happen to be married. There's a hell of a big difference."

Gwen bust out laughing. "You should have been born my big brother, Bill. Your lectures are wonderful."

His seriousness vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "Brother!" he boomed. "That's a hell of a compliment if I ever heard one! Now if you wanted me as a lover, I'd be willing to accommodate you, but you'll have to adopt someone else if you want a brother."

"Oh, shut up before you find yourself wearing a whiskey sour over your ear." The threat was far from menacing.

Bill glanced at his watch. "I'll be wearing dinner over my head if I miss that next train. I told Shari I'd be out celebrating with you, but I promised not to be too late."

Gwen slipped into her trench coat while Bill paid for the drinks. They walked outside. The foggy evening seemed fresh compared to the overheated smokiness of Nick's. The rush hour was over but the dinner hour had not yet begun, and the street was nearly deserted. Side by side, they strolled in silence, past the brightly lighted shop windows. Gwen's hands were deep in her pockets, her purse thumping softly and rhythmically against her thigh; Bill held a rolled-up copy of a rival magazine in his right hand, occasionally tapping it against his left.

Gwen had used the word brother in connection with Bill before, and it was true that he and Shari were like brother and sister to her, and she like a sister to them. They had all come to Waterford at about the same time ten years before, but from different backgrounds-Gwen from a public city college, Shari from a private out-of-town one, Bill from a marking-time job with which he'd supported himself while achieving his bachelor's and then his master's degree at night. Though their temperaments and backgrounds had differed, their journalistic dream had been the same. It wasn't the dream that drew them together, however, for the dream was long since outgrown, but their friendship was not. Beneath Bill's bombast, Shari's vivacity, and Gwen's quietness there was a certain sensitivity that they shared.

When Bill and Shari fell in love, their relationship with Gwen hadn't really changed. She had then become their collective friend instead of the friend of each separately. When, soon after their marriage, Shari had left Waterford to pursue her new dream of motherhood, the friendship had remained unaltered. Gwen may have seen her friends less often, but when she did, the old sensitivity, the old understanding, were still there.

To Gwen, Bill and Shari were linked together in her mind as a unit. They were a couple in the true sense of the word, each giving something so fine and vital to the other that it was sometimes difficult to think of them individually. Of the two, perhaps she treasured Bill's friendship more. For it is a rare gift when a man allows a woman to share his thoughts on an equal footing with no strings attached. This worked both ways, of course, and she was aware that Bill valued her openness with him equally.

It was that very communicativeness that prompted him to ask his question now, in his usual brusque way: "What's been eating you lately?"

She stared up at a street lamp, watching it break the fog into tiny particles of light. "If I ever find out, you'll be the second to know."

"Who'll be the first?"


"You can't solve it till you face it."

"Assuming there is a solution."

He shot a quizzical look her way, but evidently sensing her reluctance to talk, dropped the subject.

They walked on in silence. When they reached the subway, Bill jiggled some coins in his pocket. "Care to join me? I'll be a sport and treat."

She shook her head. "Thanks. I think I'll walk a bit."

"Shari's been after me to ask when you're coming out to see us. How about tomorrow?"

"Not tomorrow. Next Saturday maybe."

"No maybe about it. Do you want to get me in trouble? Shari said not to let you be indefinite."

"All right. Next Saturday. Definitely."

"Fine. I'll see you Monday. Good night."

"Good night. Love to Shari and the kids. Thanks for the drinks and the lecture. I needed them both."

"Did they help?"

"Do they ever?"

He extended one lip in the manner of Maurice Chevalier and attempted a Gallic shrug.

Turning her collar up, Gwen continued along the street. The fog was denser now; it clung to her coat and condensed into tiny, sparkling droplets on her hair. She had the feeling she could write her name in it if she tried. Wasn't there something in the Bible about names being writ on water? Well, perhaps hers was destined to be written on fog.

What a whiner I'm turning into! she thought. Hunching her shoulders against the dampness of the evening and the sudden darkness of her thoughts, she made her way to the subway and home to her apartment on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

Her father was dozing over a well-thumbed copy of the National Enquirer when she came in. He was a massive man, well over six feet tall, with feet and hands the size of hams. Often in their childhood, Gwen and her older sister had felt the brute power of those hands against their cheeks in blows that left their ears ringing for days. His face was that of a pugilist, dominated by beetling black brows and a nose whose every bump had been won on the battlefield of barroom floors. Barnabas Hadley was a septuagenarian, and he bore his age as a medal of merit. Indeed, it was probably the only admirable accomplishment of his life. "I'm seventy-two," he was fond of telling everyone he met. He'd curl his massive hand into a fist, bending his arm at the elbow. "Just feel that muscle. Made of iron. I'll be seventy-three come next July eighteen, and never been sick a day in my life." What he always avoided mentioning was that, aside from some sporadic goldbricking as a porter in the Fulton Fish Market, he had never done an honest day's work in his life-a factor that greatly contributed to his longevity and robust health.

He woke as Gwen walked in, His eyes, glassy from sleep, gave him the appearance of an angry bullfrog as they peered from beneath his dark brows. "Where's the beer?"

She slipped out of her wet coat. "Still on the shelf in the store, where it belongs."

"The hell you say!" He curled the fingers of one hand as though they were encompassing the body of a massive bottle. "This is where it belongs. Right here in my hand."

"Dad, please. I'm in no mood to argue-or to put up with one of your beer drunks."

Her mother came bustling out of the kitchen. Agnes Hadley was as small as her husband was large. She had the type of face which, in youth, is considered adorable. As with so many faces in that category, when Agnes's youth had fled, her small, sharply tilted nose and almost nonexistent chin had become pathetically out of place amid the network of wrinkles that led to a shock of white hair.

Agnes had spent her girlhood and youth caring for an ailing father. Barnabas Hadley had come into her life when she was thirty, just a few weeks before her father died. To the shock of relatives, she married him less than a month later, before her father was cold in the grave. Impressed by Barney's big body and big talk, she had married him thinking he would be a steady man who would protect her from the outside world and shield her from making decisions as her father had always done. Impressed by her house and affected speech, Barney had married her thinking she was an heiress who would put him on easy street. They were both poor judges. It wasn't long before Agnes discovered that the only thing steady about her husband was his hand as he lifted a drink or lowered a blow. Barney, in turn, discovered that, her father having lived on a pension that stopped with his death, Agnes's inheritance amounted to sixty-seven dollars and forty-four cents, not to mention a fourteen-carat gold-filled stick pin; the house, he learned, had belonged to Agnes's stepmother and had been her father's for his lifetime only, after which it reverted to his second wife's son. Arguments ensued in which each accused the other of misrepresentation. Variations on that theme had been a daily ritual for forty years. Agnes never left her husband because the thought of being on her own petrified her. Barney never left his wife because he clung to the hope that one day, out of sheer desperation, she'd go out and get a job. Eventually, they became parents and pinned their hopes on their daughters. Barney demanded that the girls grow up as soon as possible so that they could go out and find work. Agnes was more subtle. She smothered the girls with love, constantly reminding them of the excruciating agony she had endured bringing them into the world and of the continuous sacrifices she had made to bring them up; every day brought several reminiscences of the devoted daughter she herself had been. When her propagandizing bore no fruit with Nora, her older daughter, who ran off and married at eighteen, Agnes refused to accept defeat and redoubled her efforts with Gwen.

Now Agnes emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She always wore an apron, tying it around her waist the moment she arose in the morning and never removing it until she was preparing for bed; it gave her the appearance of never having a moment's rest. "Where have you been?" she asked her daughter in a tone that was halfway between an accusation and a whine.

"I told you this morning I might be late."

Agnes ignored the reminder. "You should have called, dear," she chided gently. "I was getting worried."

"A hell of a lot she cares!" Barney growled. "She's too much of a skinflint to buy her father a bottle of beer. Do you think she'd spend a dime on a phone call to you?"

Agnes whirled on her husband, her tongue becoming as sharp as her eyes. "You shut up!" she grated. "If you want your filthy beer so much, go out and work for it."

Growling, Barney brandished a fist at his wife, but only sank deeper into the cushions of the sofa.

Agnes turned back to her daughter, her face immediately resuming its look of injured innocence, her voice returning to its tone of martyrdom. "It's all right, dear. But try to remember to tell me next time. Dad and I ate. You know how he hates to be kept waiting for meals."

"Don't worry about it, Mom. I'll fix something for myself later."

"Nonsense. I'll warm your dinner up now."

"No, please. I don't want anything."

"Of course you do. It will just take a minute."

"Mom, I won't eat it."

Gwen's tone made her mother stop short before going into the kitchen. Agnes wasn't used to being crossed. She turned around, smiling brightly. "Of course you will. I'll have everything ready before you know it."

Gwen began to tremble. "For the love of God, Mom! I don't want to eat!" Though the words rose progressively higher, their volume had been measured with great effort and never increased. "I'm thirty-one years old. If I'm not a competent judge of my appetite by now, I should be in an institution for the mentally retarded."

Great tears welled in Agnes's eyes. Her lower lip began to quiver. She balled the hem of her apron in her hand. "I didn't mean any harm." Her voice was thin and quaking. "Is it so wrong for a mother to want to make sure her child receives proper nutrition and takes care of herself?"

Gwen sighed. She should have known better than to lose control. In a second, she was across the room, consoling her mother. She kept all trace of tension from her voice now. "I'm sorry, Mom. You know I didn't mean it that way. It's just that I'm tired. Let me rest a while. Then you can cook up a storm for me if you want."

Wiping her eyes, Agnes smiled her forgiveness. A delayed victory was a victory nevertheless. Gwen went into her room. The voices of her mother and father suddenly lost in an argument thirty or forty years old followed her. She shut her door on them and lay down on her bed, staring up at her ceiling. Closing her eyes, she tried to rekindle the excitement she had felt earlier in the day-at the luncheon, at Nick's-but the sounds of her parents' quarrel kept intruding. Add to them the sounds that surrounded her at the office-typewriters clacking, phones ringing-and she'd have the sounds of her life. She rolled over and pounded her pillow in frustion. Is this all there is? she thought. Is this all there will ever be?

© 1997-2022 Brett Books/Hy Brett and Barbara Brett
All rights reserved.