Saturday, October 15, 2011
1337 Luna Drive, a large rambling home, situated atop 20 acres, needs much TLC, having, over the past 10 years, fallen into disrepair. Formerly known as the Bradford Mansion, this home is currently owned by the d'Angelo family. The late Vito d'Angelo, who passed away in 1955 due to accidental circumstances (foul play suspected, but never proved), was founder and owner of d'Angelo Construction, taken over and operated by d'Angelo's widow Rose and now owned by the Sinclair family. The d'Angelo family recently (within the last 60 years) acquired their wealth through sheer determination and hard work; the former grandeur of this property is still evident, but, sadly, the value of this property lies solely in its choice location.
1339 Luna Drive, the famous Fordham mansion, situated atop 22 acres, is also for sale, owned by the well-regarded Fordham family, local philanthropists, community glitterati, and Red Cross supporters. Dr. Markham, a well-known gynecologist, was killed in action in 1953 during the Korean Conflict. Mrs. Markham Fordham, having recently moved into assisted living, is anxious to sell. This finely appointed home has been kept in impeccable shape and to this day remains in absolute move-in condition.
Although owned by two different families, these homes, both situated in close proximity to each other atop Luna Hill (which has recently been zoned commercial), would be best purchased by one buyer. The commercial possibilities could be endless, which is why these properties are being highlighted together.
Over the years, it has been said that Luna Hill had been split in half by two diverse families, the North side owned by the new money d'Angelos and the South by the established Fordhams. It is not known why these two homes were built, both in 1889, so close to each other.
Local lore says that these two homes were built in this manner because Morris Markham, great-grandfather to Dr. Markham Fordham, wanted to keep his mistress Mary Bradford (who never married) and her father Samuel close by.
Mrs. Fordham denies this account, noting that the home had been built for Mary's father as payment for an old debt, occurring at a time when the Fordham fortune had been vastly diminished. In her book, The Baby Doc of Luna Hill, Mrs. Fordham confirms the second story.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
About 20 years ago, I wrote a novel and titled it Stratum (Seriously).
It was supposed to be a "literary novel," populated by complex characters, filled with angst, unhappiness, family secrets.
All were deeply flawed and terribly complicated.
Unfortunately, they were also humorless and somewhat unrealistic.
That didn't stop me from submitting excerpts of Stratum to Goddard College as part of my application for the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program.
In late 1991, despite my work's major flaws, I was accepted into the program (I graduated in 1994).
Armed with a hard copy and floppy disk (no World Wide Web back in those days) of my flawed novel, I arrived for my first day as a new MFA'er, ready to "fix" my manuscript.
"Um, no," said my advisor. "I suggest you start a new work from scratch."
Okay, I got the implicit message: the manuscript sucked.
No way, no how could this mess ever be considered a "literary" work, no matter how much surgery was done on it.
I was crushed; back in those days, I actually cared what the literary establishment thought (current attitude: "Pound sand"), so I soldiered on and wrote a new deeply flawed novel.
I filed Stratum away--both hard copy and floppy disk--where the book has languished ever since, and I pretty much forgot about it.
Then about three weeks ago, I was perusing Godaddy's domain name auction site, looking for nothing in particular, except for high-paying keyword domains for bargain-basement prices, when I saw it: LunaDrive.com.
I don't know why, but the term hit me right between the eyes. From a commercial standpoint, it's a crap name with zilch monetary value, but I wanted it anyway.
In the domain name biz, buying loads of crap names will send you to poorhouse fast, a fact that has taken me years to learn (still learning, but getting better), but I wanted this name--I just didn't know why.
I stalked the domain for days:
Surprise, surprise: in the last hour of the auction, no bids had been placed on it. While it's true that savvy domainers try to avoid eyeballs by waiting until the last minute to place bids, in my heart, I knew I was the only person in the world who wanted this name, but I still didn't know why.
I was about ready to let the name go into the BIN category, when, suddenly, I knew why this domain was important.
I placed my bid.
No surprise: having no competition, I won Lunadrive.com.
Luna Drive would be the new title of Stratum. Not only does the book have a shiny new title, but it will also be re-purposed, already started with Chapter 1 (maybe--I'm not ruling out switching chapters around) Bird Watcher of Luna Drive.
Twenty years ago, I had envisioned this novel as an "important" literary novel, when, in fact, it has pot boiler snark written all over it, full of Flannery O'Connor-esque characters, but not literary at all and a lot more fun.
More like Monk or Desperate Housewives, perhaps a combination of these wacky shows (I especially love Monk...).
Yeah, Monk meets Desperate Housewife...
Okay, okay, I admit it, I find Flannery O'Connor's work, albeit literary, quite delicious, but I'm too lazy to go back and plant all kinds of "symbols" into what will likely be a minor work of fiction.
No longer will I worry (or care) about so-called "literary merit"--I'm just going to have fun and write what I want to write and read, and potential readers can take, or not take, what they want from it.
Funny. When I taught Creative Writing, I always told my students to keep their audience in mind, and for kowtowing to the literary establishment, that may be true.
But I have come full circle: Now I would say,
The hell with it! Write what you want! If it doesn't work out, so what! Put it away, get it out again years later, re-envision and re-write. If it still doesn't work out, so what again!There will be no dragons or vampires in Luna Drive--although I won't rule out revising an existing character (Lizzie) who may think she's a vampire and another character (Irene) who capitalizes on Lizzie's blood lust.
Caveat: if you're writing for a class, you may have to care what your teacher/professor thinks (You know, those pesky grades), but, in the end, it's your work, and once you collect that grade, your ex-mentor can, well, pound sand. Go ahead, prove her wrong about your work! Become rich and famous with that 1,000 page dragon-slaying or vampire saga!
Oh, yeah, that could work...anything involving the moon opens up a lot of vampiric possibilities.
For better or worse, I plan to post my revisions here. I'm not going to worry about publishability or worry what the literary establishment thinks--I'm just going to have fun!
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Ten years and two months after 9/11, the d’Angelo property, 1337 Luna Drive, and its contents go on the auction block. Most locals agree that the auction is probably the most important event in at least a century, creating more buzz than the annual Fair, perhaps the largest money-making auction in Pennsylvania history. Certainly, naysayers are surprised at the turnout since conventional wisdom has always held that November is slow season for high-end auctions.
Antique dealers from at least 25 states are present, on the phone, or online, bidding up the prices way beyond the family’s expectations, creating bidding wars normally unheard of in the county.
Many local legends are being born this day, most of them untrue. After all, for the most part, locals are being outbid on the choicest of antiques.
The property itself is sold to a consortium of buyers who plan to tear down the old 15 room Victorian and build an upscale medical center called Luna Hill.
The very next Halloween, almost a year after the auction, several neighborhood youths will invade the property and throw stones at the structure, shattering almost every window. By the time police arrive, the adolescents will have fled to their own finely appointed homes in the neighborhood.
The consortium will send in a local contractor who will board up the windows and erect a barbed wire fence around the property.
Until Spring 2013, the owners and the Planning Commission will remain deadlocked over the Luna Hill project; the old shell, stripped of its elegant appointments, will wait, weeds proliferating and vacant-property debris accumulating.
Mrs. Markham H. Fordham (nee Miss Helen Knight, descendant of Samuel Knight, one of the founding fathers of Knighton), widow of Dr. Fordham, M.D., can be seen at the auction, carrying a worn portfolio filled with revenge.
She runs her white gloves over the furniture, having been unattended for over a year, pulling back her hand after each swipe across the dusty pieces.
For the first time, Mrs. Fordham can see up close bits and pieces of the d’Angelo’s lives; her binoculars, now obsolete, sit at home on her kitchen counter top. This new vantage point seems strange, distorted, the characters--her contemporary Rose, Rose’s odd daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and Angela, Elizabeth’s daughter--too life-sized, too realistic, and, now, too close for her sensibilities.
The Fordhams and the d’Angelos have always moved in different circles. In fact, when Vito and Rose d’Angelo bought the Bradford estate back in the late 1940's, the entire neighborhood had been thrown into a tizzy at the thought of an ill-mannered Catholic Italian family disturbing their status quo.
Not that anyone said anything--people here are much too civilized for such obvious disdain--but something rankled in the air after that.
Real estate agents became slack, selling to anyone who had the money.
First it was the Catholics, then the Jews, and now African-Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
So Mrs. Fordham tried making the best of a bad situation by refusing to associate with her new neighbors--even the day when that d’Angelo woman came over and introduced herself about a week after moving in. Mrs. Fordham had been afraid that someone from the Country Club might hear of the visit--guilt by association--so she had sent the neighbor on her way.
To her relief, the d’Angelo woman never bothered her again.
Mrs. Fordham recalls those binoculars almost as clearly as she remembers her wedding day and the birth of her children, two boys and a girl. They were made of brass with gold highlights; most important, they had a 20x zoom feature.
Dr. Fordham, a popular OB GYN man in Knighton, had bought the binoculars for her birthday, shortly after the d’Angelo family had moved in.
“For the races,” he had said at the time, referring to the then-popular sulky races at the Fairgrounds.
The Fordhams went to the races perhaps three or four times, but then Dr. Fordham’s practice expanded, and, besides, he had a lover across town, a 16-year-old girl from Havana, so there was little time for such frills as harness racing.
(Mrs. Fordham knew about her husband’s lover and the abortions he performed over the years on the girl and future lovers, but she was a dutiful wife who knew her place.)
So the binoculars had been put away in the attic, and then forgotten when Dr. Fordham, in a moment of patriotic fervor (and threats from the Cuban girl who, by now, had two children by him), signed up for the Medical Corps in the Army just after Pearl Harbor.
He was sent off to France and promoted to Captain in a M.A.S.H. unit. Mrs. Fordham filled her days by joining the correct Country Club committees devoted to easing the lives of families of less fortunate boys killed overseas.
After the World War II ended, Dr. Fordham returned to his practice and a new lover (the Cuban girl, now a cynical young woman, having snared and married an alcoholic plumber).
It was shortly after the war (Mrs. Fordham could never remember the exact year) when the d’Angelos moved into the Bradford mansion next door, at the top of the hill.
When the Korean conflict broke out, Dr. Fordham re-upped and was sent to another M.A.S.H. unit, this time in South Korea.
For two years, a smattering of letters crossed the Pacific to Knighton--and then in early 1953, stopped altogether.
Soon, two Army officers came to the door and delivered to Mrs. Fordham the news of her husband’s death during a bombing raid on the medical unit.
Mrs. Fordham felt only relief, vowing to never remarry. However, she played the role of grieving widow well, choosing the most elegantly appointed casket she could find (solid cherry wood with 24 carat gold hardware), holding court at the funeral and the gathering afterwards, donating large endowments in her husband’s name to popular causes (The Red Cross, the Policemen’s Benevolent Society, the Beaux Art Foundation), selling the practice (for a handsome sum) to her late husband’s partners, and placing her aging mother-in-law into the best nursing home in town (never seeing her thereafter).
While the city of Knighton honored its late favorite native son for his heroic deeds overseas, Mrs. Fordham arranged through her lawyers to pay off, in exchange for silence, the Cuban woman, her coarse husband, and the two children. They were moved to a new home in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a trust fund set up, a monthly stipend to be paid until Mrs. Fordham’s death--or until they broke silence. Upon her demise, the trust would be paid out to the Cubans in exchange for a signed paper excluding them from further compensation from the estate.
Once the details had been worked out, Mrs. Fordham promptly forgot about those people and turned her attention to the chore of going through her husband’s possessions.
She started with the bedroom closet, ripping suits and shirts off the hangers and folding them into cardboard boxes, which later were sent off to various charities. Then she went through the highboy and chest of drawers. Underclothes she threw away, and letters from him and from the Cuban to him she burned. Safe personal effects she boxed up and saved for the children; questionable ones she threw out.
She continued her sweep through the attic. Oddly enough, her husband had never saved much in that dusty place, just some old notes from medical school, which she saved for her youngest son, who would later follow in his father’s footsteps, himself becoming an OB GYN man, much like his father.
In her search for any of her late husband’s effects she might have missed, Mrs. Fordham rediscovered the long-forgotten binoculars.
She took them out of the box and dusted them off.
At first, she joined the Bird Watching Society at the Country Club, but soon grew weary of the twittering of her fellow dowagers as they spotted the Tufted Titmouse, the Cardinal, or the Oriole.
After all, birds were birds, all basically alike.
One day, she aimed her binoculars out her kitchen window and into the d’Angelo backyard, beginning a 54-year hobby that would end only when Rose d’Angelo went into a nursing home.
The first time occurred in late summer, 1953. A crisp September day. By now, Mrs. Fordham barely left the house except for short excursions to the Country Club. Mostly, she held court to the hundreds of friends who called on her. But on this day, she was alone--the children spending the day away with the nanny and her schedule clear, so she settled on a stool in the kitchen and watched Vito and Rose d’Angelo as they tended to a scraggly maple sapling in the middle of the yard, while their child, a dark-haired boy, crawled between their legs as they worked.
It seemed to Mrs. Fordham that the couple was obsessed with that tree, with their constant pruning, fertilizing, watering, weeding, and fondling of the branches. Yet, the rest of the d’Angelo garden was filled with wild flowers and other weeds, allowed to grow willy-nilly in between rows of sickly tomato and bean plants--and against the house and fence, wherever the mower happened to have missed.
Vito d’Angelo, curly black hair glistening in the sun, took off his shirt, revealing a brown back, wiry build with wide shoulders, jeans riding low on his hips.
Something violent and hot--and unfamiliar--stirred in Mrs. Fordham, and she caught her breath as the man turned around and looked up at her kitchen window. Mrs. Fordham felt her face burning as she set down her binoculars.
Why shouldn’t he look her way?
She was, after all, known in her circle of friends as a natural beauty--a genuine blonde with a flawless complexion and translucent blue eyes. A twenty-two inch waist, small hips, moderately generous bosom, and long slender legs. Before her marriage to Dr. Fordham, she could have had her choice of any young man. However, she never found anyone at the Country Club who could make her feel the way the novels said she should feel, so after college she had set about choosing her mate on a rating system, based on (1) personal wealth, (2) physical attractiveness, and (3) intelligence. She had narrowed the field to three young men--an artist, a banker, and Dr. Fordham--all of them equally rich, handsome, and “in heat,” as she blushingly told her best friend Hilary.
“That’s disgusting, Helen,” the friend said.
“Well, it’s true. They’re all slobbering like large dogs.” She sighed. “I can barely stand the sight of them.”
“Why even bother if you feel that way?”
The future Mrs. Fordham had shrugged. “What else is there in life for a young woman? Besides, I want to have beautiful children.”
Hilary had just shrugged. Later, she moved to Europe and went on to become a dedicated spinster and a poet, somehow, as rumor had it, becoming loosely associated with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein before the latter’s death in 1946.
Mrs. Fordham chose the doctor over the others simply because she had no foolproof way of measuring (3) intelligence. With the artist and the banker, she could never really be certain of intellectual capacity (the artist could have simply been avant garde sans any native talent--anyway, how would she ever know?--and the banker could have achieved his position simply because his father owned the First Bank of Knighton, not because of his financial savvy). The young woman figured that anyone getting through medical school had to be reasonably intelligent.
Later she would learn that her husband had struggled through college and, later, medical school, his father paying bribes at least once a year. Furthermore, he had very unsophisticated tastes, most of them having to do with sexual matters, and that his fascination with his field had more to do with his love of female genitals than any real intellect or desire to heal others. On their wedding night, he had insisted on photographing her genitals from all angles before and after consummation, and one of the items she had found after his death was an illustrated record book describing in clinical terms the genitalia of his patients, even children and babies.
(Helen Fordham placed the book into a galvanized garbage can, dragged it outside, and set fire to the book, watching until every page had turned to ashes; some of them, snapping like gun caps, floated toward the Bradford Mansion.)
Dr. Fordham had been a physically stunning man, tall with thick chestnut hair and green eyes, and yet, Mrs. Fordham had felt nothing physical toward him. Some affection, maybe: he was the father of her lovely children. Still, she often wondered if he had ever made love to his patients (other than the Cuban woman) or whether he had just been content to fondle their private parts (who would ever know if he got in an extra stroke or two during routine examinations?). Certainly, he received little satisfaction from their marriage.
And Mrs. Fordham had always assumed that decent women felt nothing during intercourse. That was the order of things; if men wanted passionate sex, they went outside the marriage for it, and that was perfectly acceptable. Decent women looked the other way and handled resulting crises as they occurred.
But now, only nine months after her husband’s death, she found herself ready to receive a common laborer--albeit up and coming as the owner of the largest construction firm in town--after he simply removed his shirt in his own backyard.
That night in bed, she found herself wrestling with unfamiliar sensations--electrical pulses originating in her sternum, and shooting through her groin, fingertips, toes, and eyes--the d’Angelo man occupying every space of her waking hours and stealing her nighttime ones as well.
As she finally drifted off to sleep, her last thought was of him sneaking into her bedroom and falling upon her, his maleness exploding within her.
The next day, a cloudy one, she was back in the kitchen, looking through the binoculars. The d’Angelos, today without the child, ran through the yard, laughing like savages. He tried to snatch her as she dashed around the maple tree: she, wearing an ordinary green house dress, her long unruly red hair flying behind her, her chest heaving hard, he, bare chested, jeans riding dangerously low on his hips.
She turned around and slowed down; he gained on her. It began to rain, first gently then harder as he hooked his arm around her waist and pulled her down on top of him, and the two began to roll around on the wet ground. Finally, both, wet and muddy, lay flat on their backs, laughing and lapping raindrops from the sky, their clothes clinging shamefully to their bodies. Then, as if on cue, she lifted her dress, he unzipped his fly and raised himself above her and thrust forward.
Mrs. Fordham would never forget the look on Rose d’Angelo’s face as he entered her: a mixture of surprise, pleasure, and unabashed joy as he pushed harder into her. Mrs. Fordham was certain that the little vixen was groaning rather loudly because her mouth was wide open and her eyes closed.
He kept grinding into her for what seemed like a long time, and then they both thrust together, her buttocks suspended in the air, his groin pushing into her groin, and then both falling back to the ground.
Mrs. Fordham put the binoculars back onto the counter top.
“Why, I never,” she said, folding her arms.
Mrs. Fordham immediately arranged for the nanny and the children to spend the next six weeks at the summer place at Cape May.
As soon as they were on their way, she called Vito d’Angelo’s construction firm and inquired about having a carriage house built at the rear of her estate.
“I will pay well,” she told the secretary over the phone, “but I want Mr. d’Angelo himself to design the house.”
The secretary tried explaining that Mr. d’Angelo was a builder, not a designer but that his architects would be happy to draw up a suitable plan.
“It’s Mr. d’Angelo or nothing.”
A week later, Vito d’Angelo called and arranged to meet Mrs. Fordham after dinner.
He arrived dressed in an ill-fitting suit and carrying a large portfolio. He was taller up close than she would have imagined from a distance, and his eyes were blue when she had expected them to be brown. He had tiny laugh lines around his eyes--as if he enjoyed life every minute.
“Evenin’, Mrs. Fordham,” he said, not meeting her eyes.
She had dressed in her blue silk cocktail dress, the one that showed her figure to its best advantage, but still within the realm of good taste.
She could tell that he was trying hard not to stare.
“I’m going to the Country Club after you leave.”
“Oh, well, I can come back tomorrow.”
“No, no, that’s not necessary. It’s not an important party,” she said, motioning for him to come in. “Thank you for coming. I have heard that you’re the best in the business.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m a good builder--honest, too--but I don’t know anything about designing. That’s why I got professionals.” He looked around the living room and sat in a white high-backed chair.
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”
“I brought some basic plans along. Thought maybe we could start from there, but I gotta tell you, anything fancy has got to be approved by my architects.”
“That’s fine,” she said, sitting on a white satin davenport.
The maid wheeled in a cart with two glasses, a full ice bucket, and several decanters. “Would you like a drink?”
“Oh, certainly a small drink...”
“I’m sorry. I don’t drink during working hours.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s after seven.”
“Well, I consider myself working now.”
“I see.” Mrs. Fordham nodded to the maid. “Eartha, you may leave for the evening.”
The maid bowed and said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Well, I think I shall indulge myself,” Mrs. Fordham said, pouring herself a whiskey on the rocks. She drank the whiskey in one swallow and mixed herself another. “Now then, let’s see what you have. Come, sit by me.”
Vito d’Angelo got up from the chair and sat next to her, the portfolio between them.
“As I said, Mrs. Fordham--”
”If you call me Helen, I’ll call you Vito. Makes it so much more amicable, doesn’t it?”
“Think maybe I better come back in the morning...”
Mrs. Fordham pushed the portfolio onto the floor and moved closer to d’Angelo. “I saw you and your wife in the yard the other day.”
Vito turned away, but Mrs. Fordham could see the back of his neck turning red.
“Don’t be embarrassed. It’s quite okay.”
“Look, lady, I’m here about a house, see?”
“Forget the house for now.”
Joe wiped his forehead and looked at his watch. “I gotta go.” He stood up.
She pulled him back on the davenport and put her hand on his leg. “I’m attractive, aren’t I?”
He shifted away. “Look. I love my wife.”
Mrs. Fordham moved up against him. “I’m sure you do.” She slipped her hand between his legs. “Nice.”
Joe grabbed both her hands. “No!”
“You’re a very attractive man.”
He pushed her away. “So that’s it. I’m good for a few laughs but not good enough to live next door.”
“That’s not true!”
“Oh, yeah? What about snubbing my wife? She was just trying to be neighborly, but you didn’t want no part of her.”
“Why, the idea...it was nothing personal.”
“She took it personal.”
“Yeah, I bet you are.”
“I have my reputation to think about.”
He drew in a deep breath. “By God...”
Mrs. Fordham felt the room fill with hatred, a sinewy thing that would have been fatal had it been able to strike, and the power of it scared her as he pushed her onto the floor.
Then the beast attacked, the swipe of a paw striking across her cheek, the force of a fragile skin ripping in shreds, the lunge of a panther falling upon her, maiming and consuming her flesh. Eviscerating...Swallowing...subjugating her essential parts into his own.
Mrs. Fordham did not struggle.
“Bitch!” He leapt up and sprinted out of the house, leaving the portfolio behind.
“Oh, God...” She buried her face into the carpet and lay there sobbing until she fell asleep.
Hours later, Mrs. Fordham arose from the floor and picked up the portfolio, hugging it close to her aching body. She sat on the sofa, poured another drink and then another, and cried and drank until she fell asleep again.
Mrs. Fordham briefly considered calling the police but then decided that the resulting scandal would cause some nasty gossip around the Club. However, she decided to hang onto the portfolio as evidence, just in case the d’Angelo man decided to defile her again. She finally concluded that all people of the d’Angelos’ class were beasts and that to expect anything other than violence from them would be futile.
As if nothing untoward had happened, the d’Angelo man continued chasing his wife and conquering her in their backyard nearly every day, rain or shine, well into October, stopping only when the weather grew too cold.
Still, Mrs. Fordham continued her faithful watch throughout the winter.
The d’Angelos resumed their outside sport in early April, 1955. Every day, Mrs. Fordham sat perched on her stool, looking through her binoculars, and every day, Vito d’Angelo looked up at her kitchen window.
Early May, 1955. A Saturday morning. Mrs. Fordham watched as d’Angelo carried a ladder into the yard and set it against his house.
He took off his shirt, climbed the ladder, and set about to clearing the rain spouting of winter debris--leaves, branches, dead birds. He hadn’t been working long when a large groundhog ambled onto the scene and bumped against the ladder; d’Angelo lost his footing and fell two stories to the ground, the ladder falling on top of him. He appeared to be unconscious.
The groundhog scurried away into the woods behind the d’Angelo property.
Mrs. Fordham did not move from her stool; she continued watching through the binoculars at the still body on the ground: between two clumps of Forget-me-nots, he lay face down, his cowlick blowing in the wind.
During the two hours she kept up her watch, she could not pinpoint the time of death; perhaps it occurred instantaneously, perhaps much later.
What difference did it make? The result was the same: two widows, living side-by-side, two widows whose lives would run a parallel course, never to come together in any significant way. Mrs. Fordham felt as though Rose d’Angelo’s inevitable suffering would somehow atone for her husband’s transgression.
Mrs. Fordham (whose oldest son, by the way, is part of the Luna Hill medical consortium) is curious and, thus, moves about the property without any intention of bidding. Mostly, she looks for an opportune moment to speak with the granddaughter alone--an unpleasant task, to be sure--for there is the matter of the portfolio to be settled, once and for all.
Mrs. Fordham remembers the girl as an extremely thin dark-haired child who spent an inordinate amount of time in the garden with her grandmother, not as the controversial figure who grew up and began writing sacrilegious works--her last book having been denounced by the Knighton Council of Churches as demonic. Mrs. Fordham already has had the unnerving experience of having to speak with the girl over the phone a year and a half before.
Some strange goings-on had been occurring long before that spring day in 2010; sometimes Mrs. Fordham would get out her binoculars and see her neighbor outside, looking up at the clouds and talking to no one in general. That in itself was shocking enough, but when the old woman started running around naked in her backyard, well! Mrs. Fordham complained to the local authorities; they told her that there was nothing they could do since private property was involved.
Besides, the police had asked, how could she see through all those bushes and trees? One young upstart, no doubt a Latino from the wrong side of town, told her that if she wanted to spy on her neighbors sans the nudie show to aim her binoculars on the opposite side.
“Who is your superior?” she had asked the young rebel.
Very politely and without any apparent fear, he told her.
“Well, young man, you can expect a reprimand.”
He just nodded and started to leave.
“Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
“No. In fact, if you like, I’ll file a report.”
Mrs. Fordham had sighed and waved the policemen away. Little help they would be.
And then that May day in 2010: Mrs. Fordham arose, as was her custom, at precisely 7:00 a.m. It was a glorious Saturday morning, and she had planned on leaving for Market at eight. Her son Markham, Jr. and family were coming to dinner that evening, and she knew where she could find a plump chicken at the Market.
Mrs. Fordham was about to step into the bathtub when she heard the screaming outside. She grabbed her robe and binoculars, headed downstairs for the kitchen window, and looked out.
Until the day she passes on, she will never forget the spectacle before her. The d’Angelo woman, naked, was lying flat on her back, her skinny legs scissored around the maple tree, now over 30 feet tall. She had both hands between her legs, doing unspeakable things to herself.
Mrs. Fordham drew in a deep breath and watched for about 10 minutes. When it became obvious that the woman was in some sort of trance and wasn’t about to move on her own, Mrs. Fordham panicked--but still could not bring herself to go to the scene.
Should she call the police?
She decided against it because they would probably ignore her anyway. Besides, it would not look good for the neighborhood should such activities become a matter of public record.
The granddaughter. Perhaps she could get in contact with her through the university. No, that would not do--not on a Saturday. She would have to call the child at her home.
Miss d’Angelo had married into the Sinclair family, to the youngest boy, a never-do-well drug addict. Such a shame, too, because the Sinclairs were well-respected at the Country Club and would always suffer the embarrassment of their son’s activities.
What was that boy’s first name, anyway? She thumbed through an old phone book (damn this internet business) and scanned the column beginning with the name “Samuels”: “Senft,” “Siars,” “Sienfeld,” “Sinclair, Andrew.” Yes, Andrew. Such a pretty little boy, pale complexion, black curly hair, and aqua blue eyes. He used to sit in his father’s lap at the Country Club, playing with old tees and drinking lime cokes, which she suspected had been flavored with rum.
Mrs. Fordham dialed the number, and when a faraway voice answered, she asked for Mrs. Sinclair.
“This is Mrs. Fordham.”
“Your grandmother’s next door neighbor.”
A pause. “I know.”
“I think maybe you should come over. Eh, your grandmother is sprawled out on her back in the backyard.”
“Oh, my God. Is she okay?”
“Well, uh, I don’t really know. I’m not yet dressed, so I could hardly run out there naked...”
The phone slammed in Mrs. Fordham’s ear, the judgmental dial tone replacing Angela Sinclair’s voice.
Mrs. Fordham dressed without bathing and watched through the binoculars as events unfolded.
About five minutes later, two young people--who Mrs. Fordham assumed were Andrew and the granddaughter--ran to Rose d’Angelo’s side. The young man dashed inside the house and returned with a blanket, which he threw over her. Both appeared to be trying to rouse her, apparently without success. The young man managed to pry her legs from the tree and then picked her up, careful to keep the blanket over her. The granddaughter and the husband, old Rose in his arms, went inside the house.
Not even a “thank you,” Mrs. Fordham thought. Well, what could one expect from people not schooled in the finer arts of etiquette? Later, she heard that Rose d’Angelo and Elizabeth, the daughter-in-law, were living with Angela.
Mrs. Fordham often wondered about Elizabeth. Rumor had it that ever since her husband Jared (Rose’s and Vito’s son) had been murdered back in the late 60's, she has not been right in the head. Mrs. Fordham saw her only a few times way back in the early 70's before the d’Angelo maid (only 34 years old) died of a heart attack. (News like that got around fast at the Club; after all, good maids are difficult to find, as Mrs. Fordham found out when her own Eartha finally died after 50 years of service.) It seemed that Elizabeth d’Angelo had gone into seclusion after her husband’s death.
Mrs. Fordham finally sees her opportunity as Angela leaves her grandmother (now in a wheel chair) and mother sitting by themselves and walks over to a young priest with curly sandy hair who has just arrived. They seem to be involved in some intense conversation, but Mrs. Fordham is afraid that she will miss her chance if she doesn’t speak with Angela soon.
The two young people do not even seem to notice her as she approaches them.
“Timothy,” Angela says, lighting up a cigarette. “I just can’t think straight right now. I just settled on the property in West Knighton less than six months ago. And Mother saps up much of my energy. I’ll think about it when I decide what to do about Grandma...”
“I just think it’s time you made a real break, before Andrew...”
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Fordham says.
The girl and the priest both turn red. “Yes?” Angela says, her hand shaking.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Mrs. Sinclair...”
“Yes, of course. Ms. d’Angelo.” Mrs. Fordham slides in between the couple. “May I speak with you alone?”
“And who are you?”
Mrs. Fordham nods toward her estate.
“I see.” She waves the priest away. “I’ll be only a few minutes, Tim. Now, then,” she says as the priest walks toward the mother and grandmother.
“I have something that belongs to your family,” Mrs. Fordham says as she holds out the portfolio.
“What is it?”
“Oh?” Angela takes the portfolio and looks inside. “Looks like drafting plans to me.”
“Indeed. You see, my friendship with your grandfather began the night he left this behind.”
Angela drops the portfolio. “What are you saying?”
Mrs. Fordham raises her chin and looks directly at Angela.
“I don’t believe it!”
Mrs. Fordham shrugs. “That is your privilege.”
“Even so, what of it?”
“Just this: your grandfather’s death was no accident.”
“That’s a filthy, rotten lie! My grandmother loved him!”
Mrs. Fordham takes in a deep breath. “I saw it happen. The ladder was yanked out from under him, and your grandfather died instantly.”
Angela folds her arms. “Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“Dear child! I had my reputation to think about.”
Satisfied, Mrs. Fordham turns around and returns to her mansion, back to her kitchen perch.
Helen Fordham looks through the binoculars as auction buyers carry away their Chippendales and Williamsburg reproductions; they all remind her of ants as they scurry from the auction block to their trucks, burdened with the material encumbrances that their children or their customers’ children will allow others to carry away.
In a few years, maybe sooner, her children will take what they want from her estate and place the rest up for the estate sale.
It’s okay, she thinks. I’m tired anyway.
The d’Angelos have left the auction hours ago; Angela had been visibly upset, at least to Mrs. Fordham, but no one else seemed to notice.
Serves them right. That family had no business moving into this neighborhood.
Good riddance to them.
The auctioneers are packing up their gear; only last buyers and curious onlookers remain.
Some inner city teenagers sift through a heap of junk that nobody wants; one dark-skinned boy picks up the portfolio and looks inside. He dumps the drafting plans onto the ground, kicks them around (presumably looking for money), tucks the portfolio under his arm, and disappears into the woods behind the former d’Angelo estate.
Mrs. Fordham sighs and places the binoculars into the silverware drawer.
Tomorrow she will shop for a more sophisticated pair, perhaps giving the Bird Watching Society at the Club another try.