||I remember my first
faceted bottle of Waterman’s ink. My future shimmered on the
ink’s horizon when I looked into it. To hint at my age, it
was before the vulgar ballpoint, before I discovered that
words dart out from under their assigned meanings—one
ignores this at peril, as I ignored my distrust of the word
I’ve been called a grande dame. Some fool magazine called me
the doyenne royale of philanthropists. But I know what I am.
I’m a trickster, a gamester of surpassing skill and grace,
and this is why I’m sitting in the hauteur of my old age
When certain people enter your life you don’t notice at
first that they smell a bit ripe. They seem to bring with
them a better order of things. Traders, that’s what they
are. They’re going to get you in on something good. They’re
a kind of flatulence. Everyone else is less urgent. They
encourage you to expect everything will change. When it does
(it always does), you’re missing an organ or something.
With the advent of Ariel Rennie I began to look for what
might be missing. I knew the Rennies of Manhattan,
Southampton and Antibes. She didn’t belong to them. But
suddenly she belonged to us, our circle, though none of us
seemed to know how. She simply appeared at our Christmas Eve
party two years ago, then receptions, openings, formal
dinners, soirees in country homes.
Of all the friendships—enchantments, really—that Ariel made
under my feral nose that of Alicia Dougherty interested me
most. Alicia is on one hand gracious and generous and on the
other hand a termagant furioso, and yet suddenly Ariel was
attending her like an aide de camp.
Only once very late in our marriage have I made Andrew
laugh. We stood in the driveway of our summer home in
Rhinebeck last September watching guests arrive for a party
and I cried out, “Oh here comes Alicia Dougherty with her
starling-daffy walk and her calumny of crows.” I didn’t even
bother to look at him. I never do. But when the poor man
offered a toast that night his eyes fell unfortunately on
Alicia and his words tumulted naughtily into his glass.
Alicia’s attachment to Ariel Rennie confirmed me in my
suspicion that Ariel was a soldier of the dark, a term of
Renaissance magic that sticks in my mind, as terms tend to
do, for I am an encyclopedist. Or, rather—I’ve never had to
earn a living, you see—I am an historian of the making of
encyclopedias, which means I enjoy myself more in Sumer than
Easthampton. As for Ariel, actually I favor
interlopers—historians must—because they’re the wheels of
progress. Ariel could pilfer objets d’art or their husbands;
she could case art collections or collect insider
information; what interested me was her style. No, that’s
not quite what I wish to say—not her style but the
dangerousness of her silences, their glamour.
“What do you make of Ariel Rennie?” I asked Alicia when I
had her over for cocktails back in Manhattan.
It’s funny how you can rub shoulders with somebody for years
and think you know them and then in an instant watch all
your assumptions plop like mousse in your lap. I watched
Alicia’s eyes glow like sundown on her hilly shoulders as
she poised her answer. I felt like running into the street.
“The fact that her beauty causes facial tics in all but the
most predatory men and least narcissistic women came in time
to suit her well, and ultimately, I think, it inspired her
secret religious life.”
Was this Alicia Dougherty? It sounded like me speaking to
peers in a mahoganied room punctuated by green lampshades.
Her answer was exquisite. I took away her glass. It was my
practice to snocker Alicia as quickly as possible, but now I
wanted to hear more.
“Some beautiful women,” she continued, “find the touch of
men, to say nothing of their manner, wholly unequal to their
own. I believe Ariel found the touch of others distracting,
My facile tongue recoiled in its lair and wouldn’t come out.
“Her life is Paulist, her contemplations Cistercian. It’s
perfect for a gatecrasher.”
Alicia rose in triumph, glanced down at the rubble of me and
By Thanksgiving I was stalking Ariel, but she was young and
agile, and she was not in the Social Register. I hired
Timothy Blackwell and Associates, respected snoops who could
audit books as well as shadow miscreants. The bills and
reports arrived regularly; information did not. They
followed her on March 19th from Clarinda Holmes’s party for
the empty-headed author James Winesap. She got into a car
driven by Dora Lewin and they went to Dora’s apartment on
Jane Street in the Village. That was Sunday night. Tuesday
morning a Blackwell operative found it freshly painted and
vacant. The landlord said Harris Kaschembahr, the tenant,
had been evicted a month earlier. He never heard of Dora
Lewin. Why hadn’t that fool Blackwell sent a man there
Three weeks later Blackwell himself tailed Ariel from a
reception up the Henry Hudson Parkway, over the Tappan Zee
Bridge, and past Newburgh, only to lose her in a ground fog
in the Rondout Valley. But he had the license number of her
black BMW, he wrote apologetically. A week later he reported
that New York State never issued such a plate, but it would
be a Woodstock plate if it had been issued and one never
knows about Woodstock, ha, ha, ha. “I do not pay you for a
few yuks, Mr. Blackwell,” I told his answering machine.
Three weeks messing about Woodstock failed to turn up Ariel
or her car, but Blackwell was able to give a good account of
a few restaurants.
Blackwell and his gang of gourmands were still dining out on
me when we gave an old-fashioned ball just before Christmas
to raise money for the American Ballet Theater. We could be
sure of competent dancing. I said I was a trickster, didn’t
I? Well, one of my tricks, a very successful one, is to seem
to appear everywhere for about an hour, touching arms,
winking, making everyone comfortable, and then to disappear.
That’s all hostesses are good for, an hour or so; after that
they’re lost baggage. My habit is to wander about upstairs.
By the time guests leave, I’m refreshed enough to convince
them they’ll be missed. I grew up in this house. I owe much
of my reputation as confidante to its construction. I know
which registers and ducts carry sound and from where. The
register under a window in the upstairs library confided
this piece of intelligence to me the night of the ball:
“Children are magi, Andrew,” Ariel was saying, “and at all
costs society tries to knock it out of them. Anyone who
finds a children’s circle of pebbles in a wood or a place
where a child has buried a sparrow knows it’s holy ground.
It’s not like finding a yellow plastic pail.”
Wouldn’t the old goat say anything he could conjure to
please the lovely Ariel? His back would be to the fireplace
in his study. I imagined her standing behind him, leaning on
the mantelpiece. The three of us listened to the logs
crackle. Andrew never felt compelled to speak. It was his
loveliest trait. He listened with his eyes. Everyone always
seems to have Andrew’s attention. It makes life with him
bearable. But I thought he was abusing the privilege.
“I myself belong to the predator class, Ariel,” he said at
last. He would be swinging his wheelchair around to face
her. I was overwhelmed with a sense of myself as snoop. “We
prey not as much on the desperate poor,” he continued, “as
the pathetically hopeful middle class. They have more money,
you see. We do so in the name of competition, the global
economy, whatever sounds convincing, but our aim is, as it
has always been, to transfer wealth to the Cayman Islands
where the do-gooders can’t lay their undeserving hands on
“I see that you see, Andrew, and that you have resigned from
the predator class.”
“I have resigned from everything. But I would like to see
the circle of pebbles, Ariel, to see it and revere it.”
Hearing this, I choked on my olive in remorse. Something
like love poked through my side like a broken rib.
Andrew is a great contraption of a man, his body sectored by
casting seams. Our mating was a technological feat. His face
looks as if it had been bolted by a tinsmith and always
struck me as knightly for that reason. Making our children
was like bustling in a laboratory, collegial, proficient.
Once we had nothing more to make, we gravitated to our own
bedrooms and our private lives.
My father was a rarity of our kind. He would have rather
supported a drunken artist in Paris for a son-in-law, as
long as the fellow had talent, than a fellow mercantile
banker, nor did Andrew Stilwell’s pedigree impress him.
Pedigrees have to do with the achievements of predecessors,
and my father had seen enough of the world to know that good
genes are at best an easily squandered head start. So he
insisted that Andrew should have none of my wealth. It was
sufficient help, he said, for others to smell it.
“You will forgive me for this, Maddie,” my father said.
“Why should I have to?” I said. There was nothing to
forgive. I didn’t know until he was dying that my taciturn
father took me to mean that I didn’t think I ever would
forgive him. So we had a tearful reunion on his deathbed.
Andrew did very well on the scent of my money. I did even
better, so I’m far wealthier than he is, but he’s wealthy
enough, and his true wealth—which he had handed over to
Ariel so innocently—has eluded me all the years of our
marriage. The intelligence I had received up through the
ducts of my father’s house ravaged me. I drifted around like
a dowser, touching photographs and imperfections in window
panes—I saw in them that I was the ghost of the house. But
why? There was nothing here I wanted. Nothing had happened
to hold me. Nothing. Isn’t that why ghosts haunt, because
something, someone holds them?
I went downstairs and stood under the atrium, my hand
resting on the newel cap, listening to the orchestra of
glasses, the bubbling of conversation and laughter. Ariel
had joined the others. Then she came out and with her hands
behind her closed the sliding doors on their choreographed
gaiety as if she had done it a thousand times. She smiled
and I believed that she knew everything that I ever would
think. She glided past me. “Shush,” she said, crossing her
lips with her forefinger, “your guests are sleeping.” Then
she was in the doorway and left. As I watched the snow
enfold her in a reverie of egrets’ wings I had the silly
notion none of us would see her again.
Del Marbrook's novel,
Alice Miller's Room, is published by Online
Originals. His latest book is Saracheno is published
by Open Book Press and Lanoka Harbor.
Del Marbrook, all rights reserved