Wild Orchids Part 2

But on that long ago day, in our innocence, neither Pat nor I knew of anything "wrong." We just settled back and did the only thing we could do: wait. The phone rang every hour as the houses presented their bids to us and asked us about the other bids.

After each call, we called Pat's father to keep him abreast of every bid increment and every development.

It was an exciting, frightening, exhausting day. Pat and I didn't eat a thing and I suspect that her father didn't either. We wouldn't move inches away from the phone for fear we'd miss something.

At five p.m. it was over and I was told I was to receive a cool million from Simon & Schuster.

How do you celebrate something like that? It was more than we could comprehend. Champagne wasn't enough. This was a life change, and it was too big for either of us to grasp.

We sat at the breakfast table in silence, not sure what to do, and having nothing to say. Pat clasped her hands in front of her, then started examining her fingernails. I picked up a pen from the table and began to color in the o's on the front page of the newspaper.

After several minutes of silence, I looked at Pat and she looked at me. I could hear her thoughts as clearly as if she were saying them aloud. "You call your dad," I said, "and I'll... Uh..." My mind was so blank I couldn't think of what I should do.

"Wait in the car," Pat said, as she called her father to tell him of the deal and that we were on our way to celebrate with him. The thought that Pat and I had shared was that there were three of us in this, not just two, and any celebration we had we had to share with him.

When we got to his house, it was nearly midnight, and we had to park three blocks away because there were so many cars parked on the streets.

"What idiot gives a party on a Tuesday night?" Pat asked, annoyed that we had to walk so far.

We were almost there before we realized that the party was in her dad's house and it was for us. Neither Pat nor I could figure out how he'd done it, but in just six hours Edwin Pendergast had put together a party that will live in history. All the doors of his house were open, but so were the doors of the two houses flanking his, and guests and waiters and caterers were swarming all over the three lots and three houses.

What a party it was! In the wide area created by the three front lawns was a live band playing Big Band-era music, the music Pat's parents loved best.

In front of the band were half a dozen professional dancers dressed in forties costumes swinging to a horn player who had to have been a blood relative of Harry James. Neighbors and people I'd never seen before, aged from eight to eighty, were dancing right along with the professionals. They all shouted h.e.l.los and congratulations when they saw Pat and me, but they were having too good a time to stop dancing.

As Pat and I got close to the front door, we heard other music coming from the back. I grabbed Pat's hand and we ran down the path at the side of the house and there, just behind Pat's mother's rose garden, was another band, this one playing modern rock and roll, and more people were dancing on the combined lawns of two houses.

The backyard of the house on the left of Pat's father's house was enclosed by a high fence. They had a pool, and when we heard laughter coming from the other side of the fence, Pat shouted, "Give me a boost up." I cupped my hands, she put her foot in them, and looked over the top of the fence.

"What's going on?" I shouted above the music. I saw her eyes widen in shock, but she didn't say anything until she was back on the ground.

"Swimming party," she shouted into my ear.

I looked at her in question, silently asking why a swimming party was cause for her look of shock.

"No suits," she shouted up at me. But when I looked about for something to climb on to look over the fence, she grabbed my hand to pull me into her father's house.

It was chaos inside. There were two live bands outside, one in front and one in the back, and with all the windows and doors open on that hot summer night, it was cacophony.

But it worked. The truth was, the clashing bands were just how I felt. I had hungered after being published for as long as I could remember. I used to write comic books when I was a kid. One time when I was staying with a church-going uncle, I wrote a new book to the Bible. All I'd ever wanted all my life was to write stories and have them published-and now it was going to happen.

But I was also scared to death. Maybe this book was a fluke. A onetime accomplishment. It had been based on the needless death of a woman I had come to love. So what was I to write about for the second book?

My wife punched me in the ribs.

"What are you worried about now?" she shouted up at me, obviously disgusted that I couldn't stop even for one night.

"Book two," I yelled back at her. "What do I write about next?"

She knew what I was saying. My success had happened because I'd written about a personal experience. No, I had exposed my personal experience. What else did I have to expose?

Shaking her head at me, Pat took my hand, led me into the downstairs bathroom and locked the door. It was quieter in there and I could hear her.

"Ford Newcombe, you are an idiot," she said. "You have a mother who used you as a weapon for punishment. You have a father who's in prison, and you have eleven uncles who are, each one, vile and despicable. You've had enough bad in your life to supply you with a thousand books."

"Yeah," I said, beginning to smile. Maybe I could write about Uncle Simon and his seven daughters, I thought. Or about my sweet Cousin Miranda who died young, but for whom no one had ever mourned. Why was it that only the bad ones were missed? Was there a nonfiction book in this?

I was brought out of my thoughts by Pat unzipping my pants. "And what are you doing?" I asked, smiling.

"Going down on a millionaire," she said.

"Oh," was all I could say before I closed my eyes and gave myself to her hands and lips.

It was quite a while later that we left the bathroom, and I was ready to party. No more worries. I'd thought of half a dozen personal experiences that I could write about.

We found Pat's father next door in the master bedroom of the house with the swimming pool, and he was dancing so down and dirty that I stood in the doorway and gaped.

"You should have seen him and Mom together," Pat shouted as she slipped under my arm and went to her father. He stopped dancing, exchanged some sentences, ear to mouth, with his daughter, waved at me, then resumed dancing. She returned to me, smiling. "We're spending the night."

Since it was already nearly two A.M., that seemed redundant information, but I nodded, then let Pat pull me out of the bedroom and back downstairs to the neighbor's living room. All the kitchens of the three houses were full of catering people who were filling the dining rooms and backyards with enormous trays full of food. Since neither Pat nor I had eaten much for days, we made up for lost time. I was on my second plate when she told me she was going to say h.e.l.lo to some people. Nodding, I motioned that I was perfectly content to sit quietly in a corner and eat and drink.

The second I saw her skirt disappear around the corner I was up the stairs in a flash. A suitless swimming party! I was pretty sure there was a guest bedroom upstairs where I could look down on the pool. Sure enough, there were about a dozen young adults in the backyard, all beautifully naked, jumping off the diving board and swimming in the clear blue water.

"Amazing, isn't it?" said a voice behind me. I had my foot propped on a window seat, food in hand, and was looking out a wide window down onto the pool.

It was Pat's father and he'd shut the bedroom door behind him so we were in relative quiet.

"What's amazing?" I asked.

"Teenagers today. See the one on the diving board? That's little Janie Hughes. She's only fourteen."

I raised my eyebrows. "Didn't I see her on a tricycle last week?"

He chuckled. "She makes me understand why old men marry young girls. And the boys of the same age make me understand why the girls are attracted to older men."

He had a point. Even though several of the girls had removed their clothes, only one of the boys had. For the most part, the boys were skinny, with bad skin, and they looked scared to death of the girls, so they kept their big, baggy swim trunks on. The one boy who was naked had such a beautiful body, I figured he was probably captain of some local high school sports team. He reminded me of one of my cousins who'd been killed in a car wreck the night of the high school prom. Later, I'd thought that it was as though my cousin had known he was going to die early, because by seventeen he'd been a man, not a gangly boy, but a full-grown man.

"He'll probably die before the year's out," I said, nodding toward the nude Adonis standing at the edge of the pool. I looked at my father-in-law.

"I thought you were blind, or nearly so."

He smiled. "I have an excellent memory."

Since the day I'd cried on his lap, there'd been a closeness between us. I'd never felt close to a man before and what I felt for Pat's father made me understand "male bonding."

"I'm leaving Pat the house," he said.

I put the food down and turned away. Please don't talk of death today, I thought. Not today. Maybe if I said nothing, he'd stop talking.

But he didn't stop. "I haven't said anything to Pat and I don't want you to, but I know I'm finished here on earth. Did you know that I tried to end my life about a month after she died?"

"No," I said, my head turned away, my eyes squeezed shut. And in my vanity I'd thought I was the only one who was truly and deeply grieving for Pat's mother.

"But Martha wouldn't let me die. I think she knew you were to write your book about her and she wanted that. She wanted it for you, and for Pat, and for herself, too. I think she wanted her life to mean something."

I wanted to say all the usual things, that her life had meant something, but hadn't I written a quarter of a million words saying just that? All I could do was nod, still unable to look him in the eyes.

"I know I don't need to tell you this, but I want you to take care of Pat.

She pretends that not being able to have kids isn't important to her, but it is.

When she was eight, after she got out of the hospital, she gave away all her dolls-and she had a roomful of them-and today she won't so much as touch one."

A lump formed in my throat, a lump of guilt. I hadn't noticed that about my wife. The truth was I hadn't spent much time thinking about the accident that took away Pat's fertility. Since I had Pat, it never mattered to me whether or not we had kids. And I'd never thought to ask her how she felt about it.

"Let her help you in this writing thing," he said. "Don't shut her out.

Don't ever think you've become such a big success that you need to get some glitzy agent with a big name. Understand me?"

I still couldn't look at him. Pat and I had been married for years. Why hadn't I noticed the doll-thing? Was I that un.o.bservant? Or had she been hiding it from me? Did she have other secrets?

Pat's father didn't say any more, just put his hand on my shoulder for a moment, then quietly left the room, closing the door behind him. Minutes later a woman came out of the house downstairs by the pool and I recognized Janie Hughes's mother. She shouted at her daughter so loudly I could hear her over two live bands and what had to be five hundred people partying.

Dutifully, Janie wrapped a towel around her beautiful young body, but I saw her glance over her shoulder at the naked athlete as he stepped into his swim trunks.

When the excitement was over, I sat down on the window seat. The plate beside me was still full but I couldn't eat anymore. In essence, a man I loved had just told me he was about to die.

There was a Raggedy Ann doll stuck in the corner of the window seat and I picked it up, looking at the ridiculous face. No matter how much money I made, how much success I had, there were some things-things I really wanted-that I'd never be able to obtain. Never again would I sit at a table with Pat and her parents. Shaking my head, I remembered how I used to think that they were Chosen People who never had bad things happen to them.

When the bedroom door opened, I looked up. "There you are," Pat said.

"I've been looking everywhere for you. This party is for you, you know."

"Can I have little Janie Hughes for my take-home gift?"

"I'll tell her mother you said that."

I put the rag doll in front of my face as though for protection. "No, no, anything but that."

She walked across the room to me. "Come downstairs. People are asking for your autograph."

"Yeah?" I said, pleased and astonished at the same time. I started to put the rag doll back where I found it, but on impulse, I put it against Pat's chest, meaning for her to take it.

Pat jumped back, not touching the doll, and looked as though she might be ill.

Part of me wanted to ask questions, to make her confess. But to confess what? What I already knew? When she walked to the door, she stood there with her back to me, her shoulders heaving as though she'd been running.

I picked the doll up off the floor, put the poor thing back in its corner, walked to my wife, and slid my arm around her shoulders. "What we need is some champagne, and you haven't told me what you want to buy with all the money we are going to get." I put a slight emphasis on the "we."

"A house," she said without hesitation. "Near the sea. Something high up, with a wall of gla.s.s so I can look out and see the waves and watch storms at sea."

I drew in my breath. Years of marriage and I'd learned two secrets about my wife in one night.

"Storms at sea, it is," I said, opening the door, my arm still around her.

"And what about you?" she asked. "Other than Jail Bait Janie, that is."

"If I went to jail, I might get to see Dad." I tightened my grip on her shoulders. "I want book number two," I said honestly.

"Don't worry, I'll help you and so will Dad. Now that Mom's gone, your books will give him something to live for."

I was glad when a blast of music hit us in the face and prevented my making a reply to that, for I was now feeling like this huge, noisy party was not for me but was, instead, a farewell to my father-in-law.

And I was right, for seven weeks later, Pat's father died in his sleep. As I stood in the funeral home looking at his slightly smiling corpse, I thought how he'd done just what my melodramatic relatives did and given away his life in grief.

When Pat's mother died, I was the one who was full of anger, but Pat had held me together. When her father died, she was so full of grief and anger that our doctor wanted her to be hospitalized. There was no room for me to give way, too, so I held us both together. The only time I weakened was when the will was read and I was told that Pat's father had left me his set of German tools.

Pat sold her parents' house and all the contents. If it had been my decision, I would have moved in there, as that house had held some of the best times of my life. But Pat kept only the photos-which she put in a safe-deposit box and never looked at-and sold everything else. The only thing we kept was the box of tools.

For the next dozen years, I wrote and Pat wheeled and dealed. As she said, we were a partnership. I wrote and we edited, then she sold. And she was my first reader. She always told me what she thought of the content of my books, at times being almost brutal. It wasn't easy swallowing my ego, and sometimes we had blazing fights. "Try it my way and see which is better," she once shouted at me. In anger, to show her she was wrong, I rewrote the end of a book to her specification. And she'd been right. Her way was better. After that, I listened more, trusted more.

We didn't buy her house by the sea. For one thing Pat couldn't decide which sea she wanted to live by. And, too, she was fascinated by the idea that as a writer, I could live anywhere in the world, so "we" decided to try out a few places. We ended up moving around a lot.

In all the twelve years, we visited my uncles and where I'd grown up only once. The day before we arrived, I was sick with nerves. Pat tried to laugh me out of it but she couldn't. I was eaten up with wondering how it would be to see all of them again.

"Afraid you'll have to stay?" Pat asked me the night before, and all I could do was gasp, "Yes!"

But I needn't have worried. All my relatives treated me like a celebrity.

They showed up with dog-eared copies of my books and asked me for my autograph. And what was really strange was that they collectively seemed to believe that the moment my first book was accepted for publication, a cloud of amnesia had settled on me. Each and every one of them seemed to believe that I didn't remember anything about my childhood.

Years earlier, I'd visited them. It was after I'd graduated from college, but before I was published, and that time no one had acted as though I remembered nothing. They didn't introduce me to relatives who I'd lived with as a kid. They didn't describe places I'd been to a hundred times. And absolutely no one said, "You won't remember this, but..."

But after I was published, they did. My cousin n.o.ble talked to me as though he'd just met me that morning, and after a couple of hours, I began to wish he'd call me "Buick" as he did when we were kids.

He introduced me to Uncle Clyde as though I'd never met the man. I gave n.o.ble a look he ignored, then made an exaggerated little speech about how I most certainly did remember Uncle Clyde. "Imagine that," the old man said. "Imagine somebody famous like you rememberin' me." I smiled, but I wanted to say, "I have a scar on the back of my calf from where you hit me with your belt buckle so I'm not likely to forget you." But I didn't say that.

n.o.ble put his arm around my shoulders and led me away. "You have to forgive Uncle Clyde," he said quietly. "He lost one of his children a few years back and he ain't been the same since."

Again I looked at n.o.ble as if he were crazy. After Cousin Ronny drowned, n.o.ble and I and four other cousins lit a bonfire in celebration.

n.o.ble said he'd had black eyes since he was four years old, all given to him by Cousin Ronny. I-the creative one-had made a big turtle out of rocks, mud, and sticks, and we'd all pretended to worship it in thanks for taking Cousin Ronny out of our lives.

So when n.o.ble told me about Uncle Clyde's great grief as though it were news, I was sure he was joking. "And we've got the turtle G.o.d to thank for that," I said under my breath.

n.o.ble looked at me as though he didn't know what I was talking about.

"The turtle G.o.d," I said. "Remember? We gave thanks for that turtle that bit Cousin Ronny and-"

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