Authors: Suzanne Berne
George had offered to drive them both to the hearing. He was a little drunk, she realized, but so was she, so they climbed into his sports car, an old green MG with rusted wheel wells; it stank of damp socks and cold French fries despite the pine-tree-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
“I need to appeal more to women,” he was saying as he released the clutch.
Margaret watched as George reversed expertly out of her driveway. His own competence seemed to calm him and he began to talk more reasonably.
“Women buy books. Thirty- to fifty-year-olds, that's the demographic.”
He was thinking of adding a female rabbi baseball fan to his plot, a character who solves religious crimes with her poodle and falls in love with Moses Finkle despite recognizing that he's dead and therefore likely, among other drawbacks, to be impotent.
“A regular putz, in other words.”
“You think I'm kidding,” he added as they reached the street.
“You don't have to write a book like that,” she said quietly.
But George's voice had begun to rise once more. “Kugel the poodle. Kugel barks whenever the rabbi is on the right track with one of her religious crimes. The Kugel Krime Kaper. That's what I'll call it. Women love books about romance and dogs. I'll write a whole series. Pink covers with dog bones in the shape of a heart.
“Whaddya think?” he said savagely, turning on her. “Is it a sell?”
Lit by the dashboard lights, his face was ghastly, exhausted, like that of someone who had been wandering for hours in a vast, dark parking lot hunting for his car, resigned to never finding it, yet knowing it was there. And at that moment, as she gazed back at him with pity and dismay, something enormous and white reared up in the window behind his head. Its nails clicked against the window, its breath fogged the glass. Behind it on the black road stood another creature. Smaller, darker, with eyes that glowed yellow in the headlights.
By the time she screamed whatever she'd seen was gone.
“What? What?” George swerved to the right and jolted the car up over the curb a few yards from her driveway, sideswiping a rhododendron bush.
“Nothing,” she said, clutching her hands together. “Nothing, nothing.”
Then, before he could ask her anything else, she leaned across the emergency brake and, in full view of whatever might be out there, kissed George Wechsler hard on the mouth.
rs. Elizabeth Beale had been born in
the house at 36 Endicott Road, overlooking the park, and there she lived still, at seventy-nine. Built by Mrs. Beale's father, president for thirty years of the Littlefield Savings & Loan, the house was a lofty white Greek Revival with two Doric columns, situated in such a way as to suggest that the park was
park, a demesne, and that any visitors were either guests or trespassers.
In this house Mrs. Beale raised her own children, Tina and Fred, with her husband, Dr. Beale, an ophthalmologist, a tall, quiet man with a tonsure of brown hair who wore black horn-rimmed glasses that were in style during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of his few enthusiasms had been new dress shirtsâhe'd liked their smellâand he had bought so many that even now a stack of new shirts remained in his bureau drawers, shrouded in plastic. Otherwise he was modest to a fault, often apologizing for offenses no one else noticed, like leaving a closet door ajar. For the past ten years his widow had lived in her big white house alone.
Then, six months ago, Tina left her husbandâleft him with the house on Leverett Circle and their twin teenage boysâand asked if she could move in with her mother.
“I'm done with taking care of everyone. Let George be in charge for a while.”
Mrs. Beale, as she was known to everyone, sometimes even herself, had welcomed her daughter back into the house, though she did not endorse the idea of women leaving their families, and worried about the effect their mother's defection would have on her grandsons. She also worried about the loss of privacy sharing her house would entail. She, too, had once taken care of “everyone,” and though she missed her children when they left home for college, she found other concerns to occupy her. For two decades she had contributed a monthly gardening column to the
and she chaired the Baldwin Park Garden Collective, an administrative burden that carried with it remonstrations with gardeners whose tomato plants went unstaked and their zucchini unharvested. She had also taken as her personal mission the protection of the park that stretched beyond her windows. A mission that required daily visits to look for litterbugs, teenagers smoking marijuana in the woods, and unaccompanied dogs and children. When she encountered human malefactors, she addressed them with hushed disapproval (“I believe you have discarded a gum wrapper”), which she realized was more unsettling than if she had shouted. She also realized that the sight of her battered panama hat and wraparound sunglasses often inspired a frenzy of weeding in the community gardens.
She had a handsome, predatory nose and long, pale, flat, weathered cheeks; she looked something like a trout and also something like Margaret Thatcher, though she smiled more frequently than either, displaying long, crowded teeth; altogether her face had a rather daunting charm. She was aware of herself as a charismatic figure on Endicott Road, not entirely popular, but respected. Especially now that she was leading the battle against the proposed off-leash dog run at the park. A ruinous idea, as she had remarked to her neighbors. The park was a haven, not a kennel. Out of this conviction she had conceived last spring of posting signs where dog people tended to gather. Reminders that the park did not belong to them, no matter what they might think. But then someone else had taken up her idea and begun posting crude, threatening signs. Not what she would have written.
And now dogs poisoned left and right, the park turning into a no-man's-land. Horrible, horrible. Ban dogs from the park altogether, for their own good, that was the only answer. She'd devoted her latest column to outlining this position; tonight she planned to defend it in front of the board of aldermen.
If only having Tina in the house wasn't such a strain and a distraction. Tina was so unpredictable, in a way Mrs. Beale recalled from Tina's adolescence: fogs of brooding alternating with spells of sultry good cheer, alternating with frosty petulance. Also self-indulgent: she turned up the heat, left on the lights. Bottles of chardonnay crowded the refrigerator door where Mrs. Beale liked to keep her Lactaid milk. Peculiar foods lined the shelves: yogurts and a green vitamin powder that Tina mixed with orange juice and drank at breakfast. Mrs. Beale's own daily breakfast was an apple, of which she consumed even the core, and a glass of milk. She did, however, allow herself a finger of Scotch every evening. Sometimes two.
Worst were visits from Tina's new beau, whom Mrs. Beale could only bring herself to refer to as the Hairy Man. He wore musky cologne and jackets with Nehru collars. He had big white teeth and a thicket of black hair on his head. He had hair even on the backs of his hands, like a werewolf. Last week he snuck up behind her while she was reading the paper at the dining room table and put his paws around her
. To get her to loosen up, he said. She'd almost had a coronary.
With all the recent upset she found herself missing her husband. Several times since Tina's arrival, Mrs. Beale had opened a shirt package in his dresser. Took out the shirt, shook it. Breathed in a whiff of starch.
She'd even found herself missing George. Two weeks ago he'd stopped by to fix a gutter that had become detached from the side of the house, said he noticed it while out for a walk. Tina, however, was adamant that she was relieved to be free of George. A monster of self-involvement. A narcissist. Talked about himself ad nauseam. Didn't help enough with the boys. She'd had to do all the planning for their bar mitzvahs, for instance, even though George was the one who was Jewish. Never mind that it was Tina who insisted on the bar mitzvahs, George claiming to be agnostic. “They need something spiritual,” Tina had said at the time. “This is a frightening world.”
Mrs. Beale was fond of her grandsons, but she could not detect anything spiritual about them after their bar mitzvahs. If anything they seemed somewhat more material, having received a good deal of money and several electronic gadgets apiece as rewards for those Sunday mornings spent at Hebrew School.
Final indictment of George: selfish in bed.
“Performance issues,” confided Tina one recent evening when they were sitting at the kitchen table, Tina drinking wine, Mrs. Beale nursing a mug of warm milk, while rain smacked against the windowpanes and the radiators clanked. “So you'd think he'd be willing to try something else. I've got needs, too. But I can count on two hands in all the years we were together that he agreed toâ”
“Please,” Mrs. Beale said in a small voice.
Tina shook back her lion-colored hair. “Oh, come on, Mother. Do you even know what I'm talking about? Don't be such a prude.”
Mrs. Beale looked deeply into her mug. She had become adept over the years at knowing certain things while simultaneously not knowing them, especially when it came to her own flesh and blood. (Fred, after all, lived with a man.) But she was not stupid or a prude. She knew that people desired things and each other, and if she had largely put aside such desires herself it did not mean that she condemned them. But it was also true that she had become slightly afraid of Tina and her needs, which lately seemed to Mrs. Beale rapacious and unreasonable and threatening to the rights of those around her. Twice in the last two weeks Tina had mentioned that her mother “might want to think about moving someplace smaller one of these days.” An apartment in Avalon Towers, for instance.
Tonight Tina was off somewhere,
thank goodness, after leaving a wineglass on the kitchen counter instead of washing it and setting it on the drainboard. This evening, very soon, in fact, Mrs. Beale would be speaking at the town hall. Accordingly, she had two fingers of Scotch while sitting at the kitchen table. At twenty to seven, buttoned into her Burberry trench coat, a Liberty scarf knotted at her neck, she was waiting under the fan light above her front door for her friend Sybil Forrest, who at quarter to seven pulled up in her moss-colored Audi.
“Look at my sedum,” Mrs. Beale commanded from the steps. “Still blooming. Should have died back ages ago.”
“I forgot to take my blood pressure medication,” shouted Sybil, opening her door and emerging partway from the car. “I don't know if I should go to this hearing.”
The week before, Mrs. Beale, Sybil, and four others had filed their proposal with the Littlefield Parks Commission to ban all dogs from the park.
“It will be an opportunity to clarify our views, that's all.” Mrs. Beale settled herself into the front seat of Sybil's car. Sybil was wearing her raccoon coat, a relic from her days of attending YaleâHarvard games, trotted out for important occasions, otherwise hung in a closet strewn with mothballs.
Stoically, Mrs. Beale lowered her window. “And in
view, people have become far too indulgent,” she continued. “Especially with dogs. I saw one in a raincoat yesterday, and four little rain boots.”
“Is that what you're going to say at the hearing?”
“No, I'm simply going to remind everyone that the park was designed for people and nature. For
to enjoy nature.”
“Good luck with that,” said Sybil.
“Of course poisoning dogs is terrible and I urge the police to do everything in their power to catch the perpetrator. But none of this mayhem would have happened if dogs were kept leashed.”
“Well,” said Sybil, “I think it's scary.”
“I do not believe in giving in to fear.” Mrs. Beale fingered the knot of her Liberty scarf. “Or to dogs.”
At the municipal parking lot, they had to circle twice before discovering a spot by the Dumpsters. Above them loomed Town Hall, a turreted granite building that resembled a Bavarian keep. The camphorous smell of Sybil's raccoon coat had made Mrs. Beale queasy, and as she climbed out of the car she took several deep breaths of chilly air. Gazing at Sybil in her pelts, she could not help feeling as if she were about to face a barbarous uprising.
Once inside, the two women
followed signs to the downstairs meeting hall, a wide, bare room lit by fluorescent lights. At the far end, a low wooden dais was furnished with a long table and padded swivel chairs; below, rows of folding metal chairs were already almost filled. As she scanned the hall, Mrs. Beale recognized many people without remembering who they were, and then she caught sight of George. He was at the front of the hall beside a slender blond woman who seemed to be unwell; she had a hand on her forehead and was very pale. Mrs. Beale had forgotten that one of the poisoned dogs had belonged to George, a huge, smelly, white, drooling dog that used to shed all over the furniture. She tried to catch his eye, intending to give him a brief wave, neither friendly nor unfriendly, but George was talking to the blonde and did not look up.