Decent People by Phyllis Green
Nancy, unaware that her life would change in the next few minutes, made herself comfortable in the pink chintz-covered chaise in the middle of her green and white striped bedroom. A cashmere throw, white as January snow, lay across her tanned legs like a languid angora cat and the book in her lap was open to the first page of Anita Brookner’s Incidents in the Rue Laugier. Nancy had just finished reading that page when Bee, her housekeeper with the singular blonde braid, whom Nancy playfully called my personal concierge, tapped at the bedroom door and announced that two policemen had come to the house to speak with her. A shaft of sunlight framed Bee’s face then flew like a cormorant down her magenta blouse and white slacks.
“Oh Bee,” Nancy sighed, “I just plopped down. Please bring them here and some tea and cinnamon rolls too. Thanks, dear.”
Nancy bookmarked the page and placed the book on her walnut side table. She loved Brookner’s books especially the ones where the main character, usually a woman, took long walks through London’s streets. Nancy loved to walk. She straightened the bodice of her pale pink dressing gown and fluffed at her brown and slightly gray curls brushing them away from her neck as their length was beginning to annoy. She supposed the police were there to either thank her for recent contributions or to ask for more. “It never ends,” she thought. Still she smiled because she knew she was fortunate in life with enough money to share with those who needed it.
In the time it took to drink one-half cup of Earl Grey in the blue and white embossed Queens Ware Wedgwood and eat one tiny bite of Safeway’s cinnamon roll Nancy learned that Stuart, her sixty-year-old husband, Director of the Art Museum and prominent society fundraiser, was dead. He had had a heart attack in the apartment of a nineteen-year-old girl after performing a sex act. He had apparently known the girl for eight months and been supplying her with cash so she could go to Beauty School and open a salon.
I must be composed, Nancy thought. A young girl! I must be like Kitty Maule in Providence when she learned Maurice Bishop and the young Miss Fairchild had paired off leaving her dream of marrying Maurice in shatters.
“I lacked the information, thought Kitty, trying to control her trembling hands. Quite simply I lacked the information.”
The officers had been very gentle. They also, as best they could, let it be known that a newspaper reporter had followed the police and ambulance to the scene and she could probably expect to see a report of her husband’s circumstances of death in next day’s paper because Stuart was such an important person in society.
Officers Murphy and Montez bowed slightly as they left her room.
When Nancy found composure and formed an idea of how to proceed she phoned Leah, Stuart’s assistant at the Art Museum.
“Stuart’s dead.” Nancy said calmly. “I need you now.”
When Nancy explained how Stuart’s died, Leah looked as shaken as if she had just survived a tornado. She had been Stuart’s assistant for twenty years. She could handle the richest clients in town. She could twist them around her fingers just like Stuart. She had learned all the games from him and she knew she could handle the job of Director but she damn well knew the powers that be would not even let her interview for it. Well, she’d be damned if she be the next Director’s assistant. She would move across the country if necessary and get a chance; surely someone would give her an opportunity to become Director. Leah smoothed the jacket and slacks of her silk black Pendleton suit, took a deep breath and then she began to counsel Nancy.
“First sincere condolences,” she said without an ounce of empathy. “Now let’s consider various routes. For your and the Museum’s sake perhaps a quiet invitation-only very small service, not announced in the paper, very private, very sedate.”
“Absolutely not!” Nancy exclaimed. “I want the biggest god-damned party you can arrange and I want it held right there in the Great Hall of the Art Museum and I want all the big players to attend and all the colleagues and all my friends.”
“Presently,” Leah explained, “as you know, we have that retrospective going on—the artists who were students of or influenced by Howard Pyle, uh…the Wyeths of course, N.C., Andrew, the sisters, Jamie, and Schoonover, the Delawarean, who shared a studio with N.C. and then…”
Nancy broke in, “I don’t care what retrospective is going on, quit babbling, just get me the best damn décor, food you could die for, lots of Bombay Sapphire, a dance band but no dancing. I want them there just to play the old romantic songs like I WANT A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE and I LOVE YOU FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS and I want someone to read the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” because it wasn’t gentle at all apparently. It was bang bang bang and then the elephant sat on his chest and he couldn’t stop coughing and gurgling and it squeezed his heart and arteries and lungs and became so unbearable that maybe Stuart thought he was being punished or maybe he thought he was dying and before God could answer him, he did die. I want the celebration to be a hullabaloo. And Leah, the reporter who is doing the expose in tomorrow’s paper, seat him next to me!”
Leah arched her heavily mascared eyebrows. “Now Nancy, let’s look at the women who preceded you, more or less, in matters of this sort and how they handled themselves. Take Elliot Spitzer’s wife, and Jenny Sanford, Jackie Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Christie Brinkley, Elin Woods, Hilary, Tipper…”
“Their husbands fooled around, Leah, but they didn’t die in the saddle so I think with all due respect I have to find my own way of doing things. And this word is final. Also I plan on getting blasted to hell and back so book me a nice hotel room downtown that night, maybe the one you and Stuart snuck off to after the 1997 Christmas Party. That would work for me.”
With that Nancy indicated their chat was over and Leah understood that it was. She was reeling from the fact that Nancy knew about her and Stuart. She left patting down her sleek black chignon and cursing herself for letting Stuart charm her into bed that December night. He had never asked her again and that hurt even more. Bastard.
A Grim Fairy Tale
When the man and woman (Mr. Stuart and Miss Nancy) got married they hoped to
have a family but after years of trying they went to a fertility doctor and when they
learned Miss Nancy was barren as a dry creek bed, Mr. Stuart turned into Peter
Rabbit and hopped out of the master bedroom and into the spare. Then he
hopped out of the house and spread his seeds in any furrow he could find. He
hopped through the women in the museum staff, through Miss Nancy’s friends,
through his friend’s wives, hopped a bit with the society women, and finally at age
sixty, hopped into the bed where he died.
So Miss Nancy began to take long walks through her suburb. She took to stopping at Garden Centers and buying concrete cherubim and putti. She would collect them afterwards in the car and when she got home would place them along the pathway to the stream that bordered her back lawn. She gave them names—Alina, Adrienne, Blair, Madeline, Alexander, Gavin, Olivia, Christopher, and as she slowly took the path to the stream she would touch a hand or pat a head. She felt enormous peace sitting on the bench under the tulip tree, reading, and out of the corner of her eye seeing her children playing.
She volunteered, she walked, she shopped, she listened to music, and she had her bed all to herself. She played the façade wife of the Art Museum Director at museum functions. The house atmosphere was polite, if distant. He was not blatant in his conquests. His bedmates seemed to be discreet as far as Nancy knew. Some arrangements she guessed at, if looks across a crowded room lingered too long, but she managed and that’s how her life progressed until she realized she needed to do something more.
That’s when she started The Amanda School named after her identical twin, who had been institutionalized immediately after birth. The parents explained they wanted to give Nancy a normal life not one dominated by the needs of a severely retarded sibling. So Nancy had a pampered childhood yet sometimes she became breathless and verged on panic attacks. When at age three, upon her first visit to the institution, she saw Amanda’s face looked just like her own and she screamed in terror.
Nancy, dressed in her navy and white striped top, navy slacks, and red one inch heels, walked into Stuart’s bedroom and located the girl’s address in his ostrich leather calendar left at the top of the cherry antique dresser. She (who was named Melody) lived in the wrong part of town so Nancy put her little silver revolver in her python Gucci purse. She thought the girl might be one of those tough girls or a punk or she might have a brawny violent pimp. Nancy pictured a black pimp and at the same time wondered if it was politically correct to do so. Would a black pimp be more likely to beat me up than a white pimp? Nancy pondered. She entered the girl’s address in the NAVI and she drove her blue Mercedes as if she were Danica Patrick. The streets got seedier as she neared the little white flag.
She reached the address and as she got out of the car a furry brown rat ran alongside the badly-in-need-of-paint apartments. She found 220. She climbed to the second floor. The door was open and there was a bent screen that would have let any rat, should it so choose, free entry. Nancy rang the bell. A plain sort of girl putting up pin curls in her wispy brown hair came to the door. Her eyes looked red and sore as if she had been rubbing them or crying. The girl sniffled. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for Melody.”
Hardly, Nancy thought. If ever a girl had been named incorrectly it was this girl. A Melody should be petite and blonde and pretty and eating blue cotton candy and holding a red balloon. Nancy watched the girl’s pin curls creep open and bobby pins slip to her shoulders.
“I’m Stuart’s wife,” Nancy announced.
“Oh,” Melody said. “Come in.”
Melody offered Nancy a metal kitchen chair. There was another kitchen chair and the mattress on the linoleum floor. Obviously a studio apartment. A miniature disheveled kitchen. A door to, Nancy supposed, a bathroom. No TV. No radio. Nancy looked at the girl in her blue jean shorts, off-white tee, and bare feet. Another tear rolled down Melody’s cheek at the same pace as an unfurling pin curl. The room was full of shadows that moved like ghosts along the wall. It was a dreary apartment, like the occupant.
“You loved Stuart,” Nancy stated.
“No!” Melody sighed. “I endured him.”
“Then, why the tears?”
“I’m failing out of Beauty School! I just got my test grades.” Melody wiped hair gel on her shorts and bit her lower lip.
“But…” Nancy leaned forward on the metal chair.
“God, he was so old! It was like sleeping with my grandfather!”
A huge dog, mostly white with pink ears and brown dots around the mouth of its square head exploded into the apartment and went right for Nancy’s throat. Melody screamed, “DOWN POOCHIE, DOWN!” Nancy could not scream. The dog’s jaws held her head like pliers. She stealthily reached into her python purse located the little revolver and pulled the trigger. The dog’s grip lessened and released Nancy’s head then Poochie slid in slow motion to the blue and white linoleum like a deflated balloon.
Melody kept screaming and waving her arms. Nancy rubbed her throat and checked to see if her ears were attached. There was blood on her fingers. Nancy found some tissues in her bullet-ridden purse and wiped the blood from her ears and jaw and throat and fingers. Melody stopped screaming.
The two women faced each other on the metal kitchen chairs. A dead dog lay between them.
Nancy clasped the bloody tissues in her right hand. “You killed my husband and I killed your dog,” Nancy said, interpreting the scene calmly as if she were writing an insurance report.
“It’s not my dog,” Melody whispered.
“It’s not my dog. Poochie belongs to a biker named Buster. He lives at 260. He’s mean and he spits and curses and his nose runs. He wears undershirts and dirty jeans and he has a huge key chain. He calls me “Pants on Fire." I’m glad you killed his dog.”
“Is he your pimp?” Nancy asked.
Melody looked puzzled. “Stuart was my pimp,” she muttered. Her eyes closed and her shoulders drooped as if she were a melting candle.
“Oh Lord, he shopped you around?” Nancy put her head in her hands.
“To his friends. I don’t know how I got into this mess.”
The lump of a dog let out a soulful moan or growl.
Melody lifted her feet up to the chair seat and shouted “SHOOT IT AGAIN!”
Nancy took the little gun out of her purse and pointed it at the dog and then she slowly lifted it aiming right for Melody. It would be so easy, she thought. Murder. Suicide. Everyone would understand. But when she saw the alarm in the girl’s face she placed her gun next to the dog’s left ear and fired a bullet into its brain.
“We can put it in a plastic bag and I’ll take it to the dumpster after dark,” Melody advised, with relief in her voice.
We’re conspirators, Nancy thought. “What will happen to you now?” she asked.
“How much did Stuart owe you?”
“Nothing. I gave him a freebie that day.”
Nancy opened her purse and wrote a check.
“Take this,” she said, handing it to Melody. “And also get yourself a haircut or perm at a reputable beauty parlor. After your grades don’t even think of doing it yourself.”
Melody accepted the check.
“Do you want to work?” Nancy asked.
“I own a private school for severely retarded children. The Amanda School, maybe you’ve heard of it. I need a helper. We teach the children to write their names. We teach them how to shop at a grocery store. We teach them how to clean up after themselves when they go to the bathroom. We teach them to stay away from dangerous things and people, actually a lesson you, Melody, should listen to carefully. We teach them safety words and signs. We’re performing songs now like Farmer in the Dell. The animal costumes are adorable. We go on picnics and trips to the zoo. Interested?”
“Here’s the address.” She handed Melody her business card.
“It’s on the bus line. Monday morning. 7:30 a.m.”
“Thank you so much.” Melody managed a smile.
“It’s the least I can do. And I want you to look for a new apartment in a better area.”
“Oh God you are so nice.” Melody reached out as if to hug Nancy but Nancy sensing this stood up and prepared to leave. She didn’t want a chum. Her chums hadn’t served her well. “Let’s get the dog into a plastic bag. I’ll take it to my vet.”
Melody found a black plastic bag.
“It’s too short,” Nancy judged. “We’ll have to cram it in.”
They started with the tail, behind, and back legs, but half the body stuck out and the nails on its back paws sliced through the bag. Still they pushed and shoved but its head lolled around and its slobber touched their clothes and it just plain did not fit.
“Do you have rubber gloves?” Nancy pleaded.
“This isn’t working. Got a garbage can?”
Melody went outside and down the stairs and brought back a silver metal garbage can bigger than herself. When she opened the can she realized she should have dumped it out first. “Oh God, look at this crap.” She turned the can over and dumped it on the linoleum. Pizza boxes everywhere. Tuna cans. Female period paraphernalia. They picked up the dog who they decided weighed fifty pounds alive and one hundred fifty pounds dead and plopped it in the can.
“Did you hear that?” Melody asked.
“I think it’s still alive.”
“Look I only have what, three bullets left?” Nancy exclaimed. “It’s dead, believe me, it’s deader than dead.
“If you say so.”
“Okay, now let’s haul this down.”
When they got to the top of the steps, Nancy’s red heel tripped on a nail and the can went flying. The dog slid out about halfway down and skidded the remaining steps until it reached the dirt with a “Plompf." The garbage can rolled ten feet farther.
“Now it’s dead,” Melody muttered under her breath.
“Get the can,” Nancy yelled, “before everybody sees I shot Buster’s dog!”
But only one thin white-haired woman standing on the second floor balcony smoking, and wearing a green and yellow housedress and pink flip-flops, saw Melody and Nancy stuff the dog back into the garbage can.
“That’s Arlene.” Melody said.
“Can she be trusted?” Nancy asked.
Melody rolled her eyes and shook her head no.
Still Nancy had to ask Arlene to help them lift the can into the trunk of the Mercedes. Arlene was amazingly strong. “I was a longshoreman, well, longshorewoman” Arlene offered.
“Do you know Buster?” Nancy asked.
“He’s my son,” Arlene said.
“Oh,” Nancy said. She shook Arlene’s hand. “Well thanks very much for helping us. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You’re bleeding,” Arlene observed. “Your ear looks like it has a ruby earring.”
Nancy touched her ear and came away with a clot the size of a plum. “I better get home,” she said.
Leah did a bang up job. The Great Hall looked like a fairy forest. She had brought in artificial trees and lit them with hundreds of tiny white lights. There were twenty tables for ten set up in the Great Hall, each with a grand floral bouquet of Stargazer lilies, delphiniums, and baby breath. The tables, with their stark white linen cloths and napkins, held silver candelabras with white candles, white and silver Lenox china, sterling silver Tiffany flatware, Waterford crystal wine glasses and water goblets. The retrospective of renowned oil paintings and illustrations formed the backdrop to this scene. The food catered from the city’s most famous restaurant was: shrimp cocktail, Caesar’s salad, cold water lobster with a saffron sauce over pasta, crisp green beans, sour dough bread, and lemon tart. It was Open Bar and the drinks flowed. The men wore tuxedos and the women stylish black evening dresses. Nancy’s gown was a tomato-red satin, made by Balenciaga.
After dessert the band played TILL THE END OF TIME and the petite vocalist in the royal blue chiffon dress sang “I’ll be there for you to care for you through laughter and through tears, till the end of time…” and Nancy stepped up to the microphone and waited for the song to end and the crowd chatter to fade.
“Thank you for coming tonight to celebrate your colleague’s life,” she said. “As I look around I see the reflections of the candelabra lights bouncing off the beautiful art works on the museum walls, the twinkling trees like an enchanted park, the stunning evening dresses and tuxedos you are wearing, the diamonds and sapphires on your ears and necks and fingers showing me how wealthy you still are even though Stuart thought he got all your money for the Museum!
“I also see the curious stares in my direction, the pity absolutely choking the room, the mockery spiking your conversations and putting mischief in your eyes. I hear you whispering ‘They couldn’t close the casket.’ and other snarky, hilarious things.”
Nancy smiled and held up her glass in a toast.
“To Stuart. And to you who worked with him and slept with him. Sometimes both.”
She took a huge drink of her Bailey’s Irish Crème then brushed back her bangs with her left hand deliberately showing off her wedding and engagement diamonds, not knowing how long she would keep wearing them. Maybe she’d put them away after completing the rabies shots.
She contemplated the room. It was just as gorgeous as she had hoped. The artificial trees with their tiny white lights and the beautiful Pennsylvania and Delaware paintings seemed like memory catchers that would retain this night for history.
“Aren’t we pretty?” Nancy shouted to the crowd. “All dressed up.”
About the Author: A Pushcart prize nominee and Micro Award nominee, Phyllis Green’s stories have been published in Epiphany, Parting Gifts, Prick of the Spindle, The Blue Lake Review, Bluestem, The Sheepshead Review, The Chaffin Journal, Paper Darts, apt, ShatterColors, The Cossack Review, Rougarou, The Examined Life, Hospital Drive, The Greensilk Journal, a drama in Mason’s Road, and upcoming stories in Empirical Magazine and Luna Station Quarterly.