Misfortune
By Nancy Geary
Published by Warner Books 
July 2001; 0-446-52753-X; 368 pages

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Misfortune by Nancy GearyI couldn't have picked a better day for her to die. I like the idea of July Fourth, the Day of Independence. Tonight, fireworks will explode against the blackened sky in bursts of green, red, blue, and gold. Sparklers will sizzle while I celebrate in private the true liberation. As years pass and I advance toward my own death, the anniversaries of this day will sustain me.

I wonder if she will know it is her last breath. I wonder whether she will experience the agony of dying, of squarely facing her own mortality, of realizing what she has done, what pain she has caused, or whether it will all be over so soon that she will remain in ignorant bliss. I'll never know, but I will forever wonder what she feels as she collapses. Does she have a single regret?

I've never seen the inside of a morgue, that place where she'll be stored along with all the other unlucky souls. She wouldn't like the motley company, but death is democratic. It doesn't much care who you were, where you came from, or what you did. No one gets to be special.

There will be an autopsy. Certainly her death is a surprise. But if I've done everything right, the medical examiner will be disappointed. He'll find no poisons, lesions, evidence of violence. Her death will be declared an accident.
Only I know otherwise.

Alone, I content myself with the knowledge that I am right to have done what I've done. I know that. My hatred is unambiguous. The depths of my pleasure at her death are unfathomable. The world is a better place without her.

Wednesday, May 20

Why am I the only one willing to admit what we're all thinking?" Clio Pratt's voice filled the rectangular sunroom. The afternoon heat through the rows of mullioned windows baked the terra-cotta tiled floor. She leaned forward, rested her elbows on the tabletop, and clasped her fingers. Her eyes scanned the faces of the five men and women seated around her.

"Henry Lewis does not belong here."

Gail Davis, a middle-aged woman with platinum hair tied back from her face with a grosgrain bow, averted Clio's gaze. Gail played with the clasp on the shell-shaped earring that she had removed from her left earlobe. She looked out the window at the expanse of grass tennis courts and listened to the spray of the sprinkler system watering the acres of green. Her pulse rose by several beats per minute.

The six people seated around the table constituted the Membership Committee of the Fair Lawn Country Club, a private tennis establishment situated on twenty-six acres in Southampton, on the south fork of Long Island, New York. The sprawling shingled clubhouse with its weathered porch and adjacent rose garden, thirty-six grass tennis courts, and renovated health club provided an idyllic setting for its more than five hundred member families to pass summer days. The Pro Shop offered fashionable tennis attire emblazoned with the club's logo, an interlocked monogram, for which the only acceptable method of payment was a house charge. Less athletic members could play croquet or run up healthy bar tabs from Pimm's Cup with celery or vodka Southsides mottled with mint.

 

On this particular Wednesday, the Membership Committee gathered for the last time before the official start of the summer season, the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Gail looked down at the stack of folders in front of her, material that she had distributed to members of the committee well in advance. Each one represented a family, couples who had spent all winter lobbying other members for approval, gathering recommendations, and endearing themselves. Gail knew that many would be disappointed with the outcome of this meeting and would have to reapply the following fall, if at all.

"Henry is a respectable man. He and Louise come with impeccable credentials," George Welch, the committee's vice president, countered. "If I could be so bold, I might add that Louise's parents have been members here for longer than you." He shifted in the wicker armchair.

The overhead fan slowly circulated humid air.

"I tend to agree with George," said Wallace Lovejoy, revealing a hint of a British accent. Wallace ran his fingers through his shock of white hair as he glanced down at the pages in front of him filled with personal information on Henry Lewis. "Look, Henry's mortgages are low on both the house here as well as the city apartment. His girls are in private schools." He lifted his eyes and removed his half-glasses. "He's a first-rate cardiac surgeon. His wife couldn't be more gracious, or pleasant to be around. I've never heard one word of financial instability, marital infidelity, anything unsavory. What more do we want?"

The room was quiet.

"And how many times have you and Maggie included the Lewises in your summer entertaining schedule?" Clio asked. It was no secret to the assembled group that the Lovejoys socialized with a more diverse crowd than most. They had been known to attend at least one Greek Orthodox wedding, as well as several Bar Mitzvahs, to travel as far as East Hampton for a lively cocktail party, and even to mingle with the new money, those who had gravitated to eastern Long Island in recent years complete with armed security guards and indoor media centers.

"That's not the point," George said, defending Wallace.

Wallace inhaled, looked down, and appeared to search for a crack in the tiled floor. "We haven't had the pleasure, but I've run into Henry at numerous professional functions."

"I see," Clio said.

"But I expect this summer to be different. We really do like the Lewises, would like to see more of them, socially, I mean."

"Why don't we vote?" Gail spoke up. "We've all had ample opportunity to review his file, to meet with him. What else is there to do?" Gail glanced at her thin gold wristwatch. As secretary to the Membership Committee, it was Gail's job to move through the entire agenda in a timely manner, count and record the vote, and issue notifications of the committee's decision. In situations like this, she wished she had never been appointed to the position. She liked neither dissension nor debate. At the time of her appointment, though, the committee considered only females appropriate for the position, and of the women members, she was an ideal candidate. She had built a successful interior design business, personally selecting tissue box covers, coordinated bed skirts, coffee mugs, and other intimate details of most homes in the area. Her social calendar was filled months in advance. She was a lively conversationalist, never burdened a dinner companion with bad news or complaints, and remembered promptly to write thank-you notes.

"A vote is premature. Henry Lewis hasn't even had the benefit of a thoughtful debate." George's voice sounded nervous, slightly hysterical for a man practiced in maintaining composure. Beads of perspiration glistened on his sunburned face. He reached into the back pocket of his khaki slacks for a handkerchief and patted his forehead.

"I don't care how charming, how intelligent, or how perfect Henry Lewis is, he doesn't belong here. He doesn't fit in," Clio said.

Gail couldn't bear to hear the words that she knew were coming. She looked again at the time. Nearly five. She needed a drink. For a moment she allowed herself to imagine the taste of a gin and tonic, the feel of a crystal tumbler, the smell of lime.

"What more do I have to say?" Clio continued. "Henry Lewis is black."

"I can't believe I'm listening to this." George rested his forehead in the palms of his hands.

Clio tucked her long dark hair behind one ear. "Oh, please. Don't act so appalled. You don't want a black member in this club any more than I do."

"Henry's race may raise several issues of concern." Jack Von Furst, the committee president, spoke with deliberate calm. An elderly man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and deep walnut eyes, he exuded the charm of a diplomat. Despite the heat, the creases in his linen pants remained crisp. "But I don't think any of us wants this conversation to become inappropriate."

"Inappropriate?" George bellowed. "Is that your characterization? This is the worst prejudice I've ever witnessed. It may come as a surprise to you, but the rich aren't only white and Protestant anymore. Broadening the scope of the membership here is long overdue."

"Let's not get carried away," Jack replied. "The only issue for debate is the eligibility of Henry and Louise Lewis for membership, nothing more. We don't need global condemnations of this committee, or the club."

"Henry is only one example of what's been going on since this club's inception. We exclude everyone who isn't exactly like us. God forbid our worlds wouldn't be as insular as we'd like."

Wallace nodded. Even Gail, who shied away from politics, had to concede that members of the Fair Lawn Country Club came from the narrowest stratum of society. She tried not to admit to herself that she liked the homogeneity, but it did insure a certain decorum, a similar frame of reference. It made her feel safe. True, she experienced occasional pangs of conscience when people she otherwise respected were turned down, most often because they were in the entertainment industry, a euphemism, she knew, for the fact that they were Jewish. In fairness, though, she reminded herself of the changes that had occurred over the last decade. Several second-generation Catholics had children in the morning tennis clinic. An Asian woman, a former model, had been accepted when she married a member. Wasn't that progress?

Besides, Gail reassured herself that the Fair Lawn Country Club's membership simply reflected the demographics of the area. Southampton lay ninety miles west of New York City. A summer bastion for Wall Street tycoons and their families; most flocked to the area surrounding the club, the several square miles between the south side of Montauk Highway and the Atlantic Ocean. Gail dec-orated houses with names, By the Sea, Seven Maples, Point Ashore- all twelve-bedroom homes with wraparound porches that sprouted from manicured lawns. These were people who referred to their rooms as the "great room," the "upstairs drawing room," the "solarium," the "butler's pantry." They communicated by intercom with their guesthouse, poolhouse, and children's wing. Few people cooked their own meals, and nobody did their own dishes. These same people belonged to Fair Lawn. The club's parking areas, like the members' own raked gravel drives, were lined with imported automobiles.

"Louise Lewis's mother and father have been important sponsors of our Fourth of July tennis tournament. They host several of the guest players. They throw the opening reception," George pleaded with the group.

"The tournament, yes. Didn't Louise win one year?" Peter Parker righted himself from his slouched position in an armchair by the window. Round bellied and red faced, he resembled an aging Humpty-Dumpty. Gail, like others who had known him for more than the last decade, remembered his lively sense of humor and boisterous personality, but his heavy drinking now kept him quiet and passive. He rarely had opinions on any of the applicants for membership and tended to vote with the majority. Mention of the summer's showcase event, the Fourth of July member-guest tournament, prompted his interest, perhaps because cocktails flowed earlier than usual on the spectator-filled porch. "She had a great partner, guy from Piping Rock. Can't remember his name."

"Henry is the Bancrofts' son-in-law. Let's not forget who we're talking about." George's voice steadied momentarily. "Louise breezed in as a junior member when she turned twenty-five. I don't remember that there was a single voice of opposition."

"That was before she chose her spouse," Peter muttered, more to himself than the assembled group.

Custom, as well as practice, dictated that children of members became junior members when they attained the age of twenty-five. Junior membership gave them all the rights and privileges of membership at a slightly reduced cost. When junior members married, the newly constituted family had to apply on its own.

"No juniors have been turned down when they came up with their own families, have they?" Wallace turned to Gail as if she might keep track of such statistics.

Gail couldn't be certain, but if her memory served her, no grown children had been denied other than one young man who, as a teenager, had destroyed the men's locker room and been arrested twice for minor drug charges. "I can review the files if you think it matters," Gail replied.

"Wally's point is that we're sending a very clear signal that Henry, and Henry alone, is the problem." George clenched his fist.

"So what?" Clio replied. "I don't want him around. Make him a member, and it won't stop there. We'll have no way to limit whom he brings into the club."

"We could impose specific limitations on his guest privileges," Jack suggested.

"There are considerable restrictions already," Gail offered. "The same person can't come more than twice in one month, or three times in a season. These limitations safeguard against abuse."

"You know as well as I do that Henry is prominent among his people. He'll have friends. We'll be opening the floodgates," Clio replied.

"There is a legitimate issue of whether Henry will be welcome. He is different, and we certainly don't want him to feel isolated," Jack remarked.

"Henry and Louise aren't going to be isolated unless you force them to be," George countered.

"Do we need to consider the possibility of a lawsuit?" Gail tried to remember an article she had read about an all-male undergraduate social club at Harvard University. A woman had sued the Fly, as it was called, claiming that its failure to admit women deprived her of important contacts in the business world. Gail couldn't remember how it had been resolved, but she thought it might be relevant to the discussion.

"Henry doesn't strike me as the type to sue. He's not"-Jack paused to select his word-"militant."

"He bloody well should be." The anger in George propelled him to his feet. "What are we doing?" He looked around for the answer that no one would provide.

"Sit down, George," Jack instructed. "You're not suggesting that Henry be exempt from discussion because of his race, are you?" George did not reply.

"Perhaps we should follow Gail's suggestion and take a vote." Jack exhaled. "Let the majority of the committee determine the outcome, as we always do."

"A vote won't be necessary," Clio announced. "I'm throwing a blackball."

Gail gasped. A blackball trumped any legitimate vote and prevented the candidate from ever seeking membership in the future. That act created a permanent scar that no amount of support could undo. Although the official club rules gave each member of the committee one blackball to cast per year, in the three years Gail had served as secretary, and for as long as she could remember hearing leaks of the supposedly secret Membership Committee meetings, no one had received such treatment. Even a candidate who had been indicted on charges of tax evasion at the time of his vote was deferred, not blackballed. He pleaded guilty and ended up in prison, a two-year sentence, if she remembered correctly. For a brief moment, Gail's mind wandered, wondering if he would reapply upon his release.

"This is outrageous. You're not even a member of this committee." George's already red face seemed to explode with rage.

"Richard would never do such a thing."

This mention of Clio's husband silenced the group. Richard Pratt had been a member of the committee for more than twenty years. Gail, who served with him for his last two, admired his natural graciousness, his gentility. In retrospect, even his more draconian choices seemed well reasoned.

Gail looked across the table at Jack's pensive expression. She imagined he was racking his brain for snippets of conversation, if any, that he might have had with Richard over the years about race relations, about the issue of whether the Fair Lawn Country Club should be integrated. It was unlikely. Richard was a private man, that Gail knew. In the myriad charitable lunches, cocktail parties, and dinners where their paths had crossed, he rarely gave opinions or discussed personal matters. No one knew why his first marriage to Aurelia Watson, the mother of his two daughters, had ended. He never uttered a bad word, or even a snide remark, about his ex-wife, and rumor had it that his generosity toward her far exceeded his court-imposed obligations. He had been a bachelor for several years, longer than most men of comparable wealth and stature, before he met Clio, his second wife, to whom he had been married now for nearly thirty years. His devotion to her had been apparent from the very start, after they met at a brunch arranged by Jack and his wife, Constance. The look in Richard's eye when he spoke of Clio, the gentle way that he rested his hand on the small of her back when they stood together, the quiet smile that crossed his lips when she entered a room, served as windows to his adoration.

Gail hadn't seen Richard since his stroke the year before. She had heard reports that it had physically incapacitated him almost completely and that his mental acuity remained unpredictable, with periods of lucidity followed by moments of disorientation. Because of his condition, Clio stood in for him on the Fair Lawn Country Club's Membership Committee and its Board of Governors. The allowance of a proxy was an unprecedented gesture. It served as a living tribute, a sign of the deep respect and fondness for Richard that was nearly universally shared.

"I spoke to Richard about it this morning. I'm simply exercising his choice," Clio clarified.

Could Richard Pratt actually have directed such a course of action in the state he was in? If so, did he appreciate what he was doing? Gail looked around at the group of baffled faces.

"Shall we move along?" Clio asked, glancing at her gold wrist-watch. The bang of George's fist on the table reverberated, sending a chill down Gail's spine. She flinched.

George rose from his chair. "I have greatly misjudged you," he said, looking Clio straight in the eye. His voice was low. He appeared to be struggling to steady its quiver. "I urge the members, in light of this development, to abstain. Henry is too good a man to fall victim to your small-mindedness. Abstention of a vote on his application to membership at least gives him an opportunity to reapply. Give Henry Lewis the decency he deserves."

"You are assuming I'll change my mind next year."

"No, I don't expect miracles." George spoke slowly, each word articulated. "I'm merely hoping you won't be here next year."

Clio laughed.

After a few moments of awkward silence but for the creaking of wicker seats as their occupants stirred, Gail spoke. "Do I hear a motion to abstain on the application of Henry and Louise Lewis?" She tried to sound official.

"Yes," George said.

"I'll second," Wallace added.

She sighed in relief. "All right, then." She wanted a gavel to punctuate the decision, but her job as secretary came with no such trappings. Instead, Gail flipped open the next folder in her pile.

"Bruce and Nancy Sullivan."

From opposite sides of the table, George and Clio settled back in their chairs, their stalemate permeating the air. The remaining business transpired quickly. At half-past five, Gail reviewed the accepted applicants, recorded the time, and dismissed the group. There had been no further dissension, no mention of Henry Lewis. She hoped that the entire incident would disappear quickly from the collective memory of the committee.

George Welch stood first. "Good evening, all," he declared as he headed toward the door. Then he stopped and turned to face Clio, who still sat in her chair. "I won't forget this," he warned, hovering above her. "I just hope Henry Lewis can wait long enough to see you gone."

Clio smiled a truly beguiling smile of white teeth and full lips.

"And I thought you liked me."

Paul Murphy opened the screen door to the pub at the Fair Lawn Country Club and stepped inside. He surveyed the rectangular-shaped room with its green-and-black-plaid carpeting, fieldstone fireplace at the far end, and polished wood bar along one side. Three women Paul knew sat at one of the many square tables.

"Hi, Paul," said a thin, freckled thirty-year-old with a long red ponytail.

"Hey," Paul muttered, trying to remember her name. He had given private lessons to her, and each of her three children, once a week for ten weeks last summer, but despite the $6,000 bill he sent, he could recall only her account number: 327.

"When are you starting the ladies' clinic?" she asked.

"When do you want it to start?" He flashed his cater-to-the-clientele smile.

"We'll be out for good at the end of June."

Typical, Paul thought. Fair Lawn Country Club wives and their children moved out from New York City to spend the summer in Southampton once the private schools closed. They left their husbands behind with the choice of a lengthy commute or long weeks alone.

"Well, I guess that's when we'll begin, then. Ladies' clinic wouldn't be the same without you."

"And we want you to give us a real workout," another of the women interrupted. Paul remembered her: Shelby Mueller, with her four-carat yellow diamond ring and ruffled tennis panties. Watching dozens of women in short pleated skirts with tanned legs crouch in the ready position or run after balls had its moments, but he could have gone without the sight of Shelby, one of the few women at the Fair Lawn Country Club who hadn't found some way, whether a personal trainer, an annual month at Canyon Ranch, or liposuction, to get rid of cellulite.

Despite his repulsion, though, catering to Shelby was in Paul's best interest. Last year he had made a quick $20,000 when Frank Mueller, a forty-two-year-old founder of an Internet company, gave him stock shares as a tip for teaching him top-spin and an effective slice backhand. "You gotta have a hundred million to be a player," Frank, a short, balding fellow with thick glasses and a stomach that hung over his monogrammed tennis shorts, had remarked.

"Here's a start." The price per share had risen several hundred points by the end of October, allowing Paul to cash out and splurge on a long-awaited trip to Australia.

"Really make us sweat," the red-haired ponytail remarked. The women giggled.

They got up from the leather-upholstered chairs. "See ya," they chimed.

Paul sighed. Another summer in Southampton.

He pulled himself up onto a bar stool and, instinctively, rubbed at his muscular thighs. He had spent the better part of the day checking net heights and line spacings, then unpacking the boxes of inventory that filled the Pro Shop. As of this Memorial Day weekend, the Fair Lawn Country Club would be swarming with people once again, a sea of starched white sportswear, V-neck cotton sweaters, Tretorn sneakers, and color-coordinated tennis peds.

"What can I get you?" asked Arthur, the bartender.

"Transfusion." The quick fix of grape juice and ginger ale would get his juices flowing. Although, given his fatigue, he craved a beer, club policy prevented employees from drinking on the premises, and he couldn't afford to get in trouble with management so early in the season, when there still was time to find a replacement. Arthur set the glass of purple bubbles in front of him.

"You're the man."

"Any time."

The screen door slammed, and Paul turned to see George Welch enter the bar. He had known George for years. A reasonably skilled athlete, he was much in demand as a doubles player because of his strong serve, aggressive net game, and constant humor. George seemed to regale his partners and opponents alike with stories, jokes, and witty remarks.

George took a seat without acknowledging Paul's presence. His face was red. He unbuttoned his collar and barked, "Get me a vodka. Straight up."

"The Membership Committee meeting's over?" Arthur asked.

"In more ways than one," George replied. His subsequent silence made clear that he did not intend to elaborate on his oblique comment.

Paul took a long sip of his transfusion, then smacked his lips.

"So, will this season be the best ever?"'

Arthur wrinkled his forehead. "Economy's booming. I don't see why not. What do you think?" he asked George, obviously trying to engage their sullen companion in the somewhat idle conversation.

"I don't give a shit, is what I think." George tilted his head back and drained his glass. Then he pushed the empty tumbler toward Arthur, indicating he wanted a refill. Arthur obliged. "Hypocrites. All of them. All of us. I don't know who we're trying to fool," he muttered.

"The meeting went that badly? Who got axed? Don't tell me. Some poor schmuck whose net worth dropped to only ten million."

Paul tried to sound clever, but he knew his attempt was feeble. George glared at him. "What's the news from the winter?" he said, changing the subject.

Arthur jumped in a little too quickly. "Barry Edwards died. His wife donated a marble fountain in his memory for the rose garden. There'll be a dedication in June." He paused, appearing to consider what other information he could share. Although George stared at the bottom of his glass, seemingly not to hear the conversation, Arthur had to avoid gossip in front of members. "Dave Flick bought a yellow Lamborghini. He's driven it over here a couple of times, but no one's been around to see."

"Except for you," Paul said.

"Right." Arthur removed several lemons from a drawer under the sink and began to slice them into thin wedges. "Same old, same old, I guess you could say, huh, George?" George didn't respond.

"What about Richard Pratt?"

Arthur shrugged. "Not much news from what I hear. I guess he's hanging in there." He wiped off the far end of the bar with a damp towel. "Mrs. Pratt's around, though. I saw her earlier this afternoon. Nice lady."

George looked up at the mention of Clio Pratt's name. "She's not," he said matter-of-factly. "And don't let anyone tell you otherwise." Paul was surprised. Although he didn't know Clio Pratt well since she hardly ever took a tennis lesson and didn't come to the ladies' clinic, she seemed friendly when she frequented the Pro Shop.

At least she didn't order him around like some of the women did, demanding sizes and service as though he were the hired help. He wondered whether he should come to her defense but decided against it. It was too early in the season to get embroiled in disputes between members.

Arthur surveyed the bar in search of something to do.

"I could use a change of pace," Paul remarked to fill the awkward silence.

"Couldn't we all," George echoed.

Arthur swept the two empty glasses off the bar and began to rinse them in the sink. "Every summer's a little different," he said without looking up from his task. "And the great thing about unexpected events is that you never know when to expect them."

Frances Pratt heard three honks outside her bedroom window. She glanced in the mirror, ran her fingers through her thick brown curls, and grabbed the cabled cardigan from her bed. Pressing her face to the screen, she called down to Sam Guff, who waited in his blue Jeep Cherokee with the engine idling. "I'm coming." Keys, lights, money, she reminded herself of what she needed. Plus water for the dogs. As she stopped to flick the switch at the threshold, she remembered her lucky gold hoop earrings. Couldn't leave without them. She retrieved the jewelry from a small box on her bureau.

"Bye, guys," Frances said to Felonious and Miss Demeanor, her black mutts, as she quickly rubbed each one behind its ears. As she did, she noticed a slight graying around Felonious's muzzle, a sign of age that she didn't want to see. She had rescued both dogs from the Orient Point animal shelter at four weeks and bottle-fed them for the first month after their mother had been the victim of a young boy's target practice. They had grown to look more like Labrador retrievers with broad faces and square noses than the scrawny puppies she had first brought home. She couldn't imagine life without these dogs, her only roommates.

Frances greeted Sam as she climbed into the seat beside him.

"Feeling lucky?" he asked.

She smiled but said nothing.

Patsy Cline crooned on the radio as they drove the three miles of back roads into the main street of Orient Point. On the north fork of Long Island, a sliver of land jutting out into the sound toward Plum Island, Orient Point was best known for its ferry service to New London, Connecticut. Frances liked its relative quiet. "It's where real people live. People with the same concerns as me. People who do their own laundry." She remembered the speech she had given to Blair, her younger sister, as she justified her decision to settle herself just outside of town in a farmhouse surrounded by potato fields and vineyards. "Orient Point is a great place to live, lots of open space, a four-dollar movie theater, a strawberry festival, a Woolworth's. What more do I want?" Besides, Frances liked the distance from her family. Forty-five miles from Orient Point to Southampton gave her the space she needed. She was alone, but not too far.

As Sam turned the truck into the expanse of concrete that formed the parking lot behind Our Lady of Poland Church, Frances could see that the crowd was bigger than usual. The summer was coming, and with it, Wednesday night bingo grew in popularity. Frances checked her watch: ten minutes until the first game began. For the past seven years, the entire time she had lived in Orient Point, Frances had been coming to the Catholic church on Wednesday evenings to play bingo in the basement. It was her only foray into any house of worship, but she couldn't resist the game. Grand compared with most of the architecture in the surrounding areas, the square brick building had white columns and a marble statue of the Madonna set inside a carved arch to mark its entrance. Since the previous week, Frances noticed that the planters had been filled to overflowing with fuchsia geraniums.

"Mary on the half-shell must like pink," Sam observed under his breath as they approached the Madonna.

"Quiet," Frances whispered back, anxious lest they offend any of the many people who took great pride in Our Lady of Poland. She had heard the parish included more than two hundred families. They followed the hordes inside, waited in line to pay a five-dollar admission fee and purchase one-dollar cards, then settled themselves at one of the many folding tables laid out in rows across the basement. Frances scanned the numbers on the four cards she had bought. Too many duplicates, the cards are too similar, she thought as she glanced over to see if Sam suffered the same problem.

"I'm not trading," he said without looking at her.

"I wasn't asking you to."

"But you were thinking to ask." He smiled.

Frances had met Sam, a forty-three-year-old widower, the first night she had come to play. Sitting beside him, she couldn't help but notice his hazel eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and thick wavy hair. Nor could she avoid staring at his left hand, the thumb, index, and little fingers with two stumps of flesh in between, as he rolled the bingo chips in circles on the table with his palm. At the brief intermission before the final blackout game, she had introduced herself and, exaggerating her reach toward his right side, extended a hand. He hadn't hesitated to shake it.

"Sam Guff," he said, looking her straight in the eye.

By coincidence, he turned out to be her neighbor from across the street. The following week he had offered to drive her. After that their routine was established. Frances now looked forward to their Wednesday evenings, as much for the time spent with him as for the bingo.

"Everybody ready," the master of ceremonies shouted from the podium at the front of the room. Tonight the numbers would be drawn by Abby Flanagan, an elderly woman with thick black glasses and a mole on her cheek that was prominent even from the back of the room. She wore a printed sundress, rolled nylons, and white nurses' shoes.

"Game one is a square. All the B row, all the O row, and the top and bottom of the card."

Frances watched Abby's underarm jiggle as she spun the wheel. The room was quiet.

"B nineteen!"

"N forty-three!"

Sam placed a chip on his card.

Frances felt her heartbeat quicken as the wooden, numbered balls spun in their metal wheel. Why she loved bingo, she could not say, but she justified the hours spent in this windowless basement as a harmless indulgence.

"B seven!"

Richard Pratt had introduced his daughters to bingo thirty-one years ago when he took Frances and Blair to a Sunday night game at the Fair Lawn Country Club. It was one of the many family events offered during July and August. The main room of the clubhouse was emptied of its wicker couches and chairs and replaced by round tables covered in cotton cloths with floral centerpieces. Children between the ages of five and fifteen, the young ones accompanied by parents, the older ones left to their own devices, ate fried chicken, overboiled corn, sweet-potato rolls, and coleslaw off china plates. Frances hadn't been able to eat, her stomach queasy with excitement for the waiters to clear, then distribute bingo cards and ice cream in Dixie cups.

The first time she won, she remembered weaving her way through the tables to the front of the room, then waiting, legs trembling, as the caller checked the numbers on her card against those called. She knew that all eyes were upon her, each child in the audience hoping that she had placed a chip on the wrong number, misheard, so that the game could continue and they still would have a chance. There was no error. The prize, a gift certificate to Lily White's, the only toy store in Southampton, was hers.

"Fanny, she just called G eighty-four." Sam leaned toward her.

"You've got it on both cards. One's in the square."

She focused her attention on the caller as the game progressed.

"Bingo! He's got bingo," a woman shouted from the back corner of the room. A black woman in a green dress with a white lace collar pushed a wheelchair with an elderly man in it. He wore what appeared to be a flannel bathrobe and carried his winning card on his lap. Although his head hung forward, shaking slightly as the woman maneuvered him around the tables and folding chairs, Frances could see his smile.

May 20. She suddenly remembered.

"Frances, it's Clio," the voice at the other end of the telephone had said. It had been nearly three in the morning when the ringing pierced her sound sleep.

"What happened?"

"Your father's in the hospital. He's had a stroke."

She drove the two hours to New York University Medical Center in the foggy darkness, her eyes transfixed on the windshield wipers sweeping rhythmically back and forth over the glass in front of her. Clio waited in the visitors' lounge for the intensive care unit, sitting with her feet tucked under her and a cashmere blanket draped across her lap. Her dark hair was pulled back from her pale face, and her eyes looked sunken. Frances could see her hands tremble as she held a paper cup of tea that had long since cooled.

"How is he?"

"I don't know." Her voice was flat, soft but steady. "They still don't know."

"Have you seen him?"

"Yes. Briefly."

"Was he conscious?"

"I'm not sure he knew I was there."

"I should let Blair know." Frances remembered for the first time since Clio had called that her sister was on a business trip to Japan, selling art to Honda executives for their headquarters.

"I spoke to her. She'll be on the first flight back." Frances could think of nothing else to ask or say. She settled herself on the opposite couch to wait, glancing periodically at a well-worn copy of People that someone had abandoned. The articles on movie stars, rock singers, and celebrity models blurred into a sea of triviality. Clio stared ahead blankly, moving only slightly if voices were heard in the hall. Hours passed.

"We've got a winner," Mrs. Flanagan announced. The crowd clapped politely, then cleared their cards for the next game.

"Are you all right?" Sam asked.

"Yeah. Why?"

"Just wondering. You seem kind of quiet."

"Well, this is hardly the place to chat. This is serious competition." Frances tried to sound lighthearted.

The waiting had stretched for hours. At one point, sometime late in the afternoon, Dr. Handley had appeared. He'd removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

"Richard's had what's called an intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke on the left side of his brain. A blood vessel ruptured and there's been extensive bleeding in the brain tissue. He's still in surgery." Afterward Richard Pratt remained in intensive care, heavily medicated and sedated. He didn't move or speak and opened his eyes only for a second every so often. Clio stood sentinel, rubbing his hand, wiping his face with a warm washcloth, whispering words.Frances couldn't hear, kissing him gently on the cheek. Although Frances offered to spell her, Clio left the hospital for only the briefest intervals to shower and change, returning quickly to resume her post. Frances managed to walk around the block, to stop at a nearby delicatessen for a tuna salad sandwich wrapped in waxed paper along with thick slabs of pickles, to call into the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office to check her messages.

Seated in a vinyl chair by the window, Frances watched as Clio hummed Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly with Me," massaged Richard's feet, and refluffed his pillows several times each hour. Although Frances was moved by Clio's affection, the intimacy she shared with Richard even though he was too ill to notice, her attentiveness left little room for Frances or Blair, who returned from the Far East. Only when Clio left for a brief moment to summon a nurse or make a cup of tea could Frances approach her father's bedside. She stared down at the veins in his eyelids, the gray at his temples, the collarbone protruding from his loosely tied hospital gown. She rested her hand on his shoulder, leaned over close to his ear, and whispered that she loved him. Whatever else had passed between them, in the few moments she had alone these words seemed the only ones worth speaking. The rest didn't matter.

After a week the three women met with Dr. Handley at his office across the street from the hospital. "There's widespread damage to the brain tissue surrounding the site of the rupture. He has virtual total hemiplegia, or paralysis on the right side of his body, his face, his arm, his leg. His motor skills, coordination, and speech are certainly impaired and, I expect, his brain function is, too, although we haven't completed all of our testing."

"Is the damage permanent?" Frances asked.

"It's too early to say what improvements he might make with proper rehabilitation." Only time would tell.

"Fanny, Fanny, you've got a bingo." Sam tapped her arm. Frances looked down at her card where chips made an X through the free space in the center. She forced a smile.

"Pretty great given the odds. Look at the size of this crowd."

Sam's face was animated with excitement he assumed she shared.

"Do me a favor?" Frances asked.

"What?"

"Take it up for me."

Sam looked confused.

"Please." Frances couldn't explain to him that the thought of being watched by this crowd was unbearable. The rush of memories brought on by the anniversary of her father's stroke made her feel vulnerable. At least for tonight, she wanted to hide among the other nonwinners.

"Whatever you say." He nodded, then stood up. Before leaving his place with her card, he bent over and murmured, "Maybe this will be your lucky summer."

Blair Devlin stretched her lean legs on the chaise longue, wiggled her toes, and flopped her head back on the blue-and-white toile pillow. "So, what is it you needed to tell me?" She yawned and twirled a strand of straw-colored hair around one finger. Jake, her husband, sat at a mahogany captain's table in the corner of their bedroom. An array of papers, spreadsheets, and inventory lists covered the polished wood surface in front of him. He couldn't bear to face his wife. He looked again at the ledger numbers in front of him, wishing somehow that they would change, that he had made an error, that the debt would shrink. He prayed for a miracle.

Although the last ten years of Jake Devlin's life had been spent building the Devlin Gallery for Modern Art in Chelsea, the gentrified neighborhood of former warehouses on Manhattan's Lower West Side, he recognized with a mixture of reluctance and pride that Blair was the gallery's biggest asset. She had an eye, a talent for separating mediocre work from true inspiration, and an ability to understand artists. She had been right about their last undertaking, a woman whose odd assortment of oil paintings looked to Jake like the work of a deranged adolescent, a single dried leaf on a silver plate, an assortment of sheet music burned at the edges with a fish skeleton strewn across them, an apple core underneath a wooden table. Blair made sense of the images. "It's a new approach to death, death in its simplest, purest form," she explained. The New Yorker coopted her clever perceptions in a positive review. The show sold out.

Even more important than her interpretive talents, public relations savvy, and social flair, Blair's specialty was sales. She charmed cash out of clients' pockets. Jake chuckled, remembering last Tuesday's $50,000 sale to the plastic bucket manufacturer from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, in town for a hardware convention. The overweight man stuffed into his Nantucket red khakis could hardly stop from drooling as Blair explained the subtleties of an artist's lateral brush stroke by running her fingers across his thigh. Jake might have been jealous had he not loved the money as much as she did.

Although the paperwork in front of him documented every step of the gallery's financial downfall, Jake still couldn't accept that it had happened. He rested his forehead in the palms of his hands. Where had all the money gone? He had taken out a second mortgage on their Central Park West apartment, withheld money from artists whose pieces had been sold months before, and still there wasn't enough to cover the bills. Worst of all, Blair had no idea. At first he convinced himself that he could rectify the problem, but no amount of juggling could remedy the acute situation. Then, he couldn't bear to confess. Each time she took a potential client to the Four Seasons for lunch, sent a bottle of Perrier-Jout to an interested curator, bought an Armani suit for an opening, he wanted to explain that sales had been less than anticipated, that he had cut deals to move inventory, that the expenses of their lives couldn't be sustained. Each time he failed. Her anticipated reaction seemed far more ominous than financial ruin would ever be. That he could not give her everything she wanted negated all that he had accomplished. Jake Devlin took a deep breath and turned to face his wife. He was struck, as always, by her beauty, her shiny hair now billowing over the pillow, her pale complexion, the hue of her full lips. The.slightest shift of her toes, their pale pink polished nails wagging back and forth, was enough to arouse him.

What would she think of him now?

Jake had waited until the last possible moment. In thirty-six hours, with the start of the Memorial Day weekend, Blair planned to settle herself for three months in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in a cottage on the water they had rented for the past several years. Although Sag Harbor on the Peconic Bay lacked the panache of the ocean side, it was a charming town built around a lively marina. Most important, it was still affordable to wannabes who cherished its proximity to the artery of the Hamptons: Route 27. The Devlin Gallery's best clients summered in the Hamptons, and Blair was unwilling to let them slip far from her sight. That left Jake to run the business alone and commute back and forth amid the traffic of the Long Island Expressway every weekend. The Devlin Gallery faced the summer season, historically its slowest time, with a large inventory, little cash, a default notice on its operating loan, a stack of unpaid bills, and several unhappy artists threatening to take their work elsewhere. Tonight was Jake's last chance.

"Well, are you going to say something, or are you just going to sit there?" Blair asked. Her voice teased. "Because I wanted to talk to you about Marco. He's agreed to have us represent him." Marco, an Argentinean sculptor, was Blair's recent obsession. She first had heard of him when the Chicago Tribune reviewed a show of his eight-foot bronze nudes. The article reported that Marco remained unrepresented by any gallery because, according to his interview within, he "failed to find spark, someone who really understands me or my work completely." That had been enough bait for Blair. After their initial contact, she had gone to his Brooklyn studio. Alone. Upon her return, Jake listened to her animated stream of accolades. Blair's mind was made up to lure Marco to the Devlin Gallery.

"Marco says he needs a hundred-thousand-dollar advance, as a show of our commitment to him," Blair continued. "I said that wouldn't be a problem. My concern, though, is that we need more space, probably two thousand square feet, minimum. His work is so gloriously big." Blair seemed oblivious of the rising barometer of her husband's anxiety.

"What do you expect for selling prices?" Jake tried to sound calm, but his voice seemed timid. He wanted to be distracted by indulging her schemes.

"He's still unknown, though that'll change." Blair furrowed her brow. "Maybe seventy-five, eighty thousand."

An $80,000 sales price meant the gallery could take forty in commission minus advertising and other related expenses, Jake calculated. He turned back to his papers, momentarily absorbed in the possibility of a new success.

"Anyway, I invited Marco out to Sag Harbor next week-Tuesday, I think it is-to go over details."

"Tuesday? But I won't be there."

"Did you want to be? I never expected you would."

"You were planning to negotiate his terms without me?"

"Well, I suppose we can rearrange, although with his schedule, it might be difficult."

"Forget it."

Blair ran her forefinger along her bottom lip. Jake forced himself to continue. "We have to talk. I have a bit of discouraging news. Discouraging isn't accurate. I have bad news." He exhaled, relieved that the words hadn't stuck in his throat. "It's about our finances, or rather the gallery's finances."

"What about them?"

"We don't have enough money."

She laughed and waved a hand toward him. "That's what you always say. Don't be such a worrier."

"Listen to me." The raised volume of his voice surprised him. He took a breath, not wanting to sound panicked. "We have a very real, very large cash shortage. This is serious."

She sat up.

His voice softened. "I don't know how to explain this to you, except to say that our profits don't cover our expenses, not the gallery's expenses and not our living expenses."

"What?"

Her harsh tone triggered a raw nerve and radiated down his spine.

"I'm saying we need a substantial infusion of cash, and we need it soon. We're behind on the lease, our mortgage, our taxes, our bills, you name it." He paused, trying to compose himself. The articulation of all his worries left him with an odd feeling of euphoria and despair. "I'm sorry."

"Arrange to borrow more," she ordered.

"I can't. Believe me, I've tried. The bank won't extend our operating loan. We don't have anything as collateral. Everything is borrowed against alr-"

"That's ridiculous," Blair interrupted. "We've got plenty of equity in our apartment. A second mortgage is tax-deductible anyway." She seemed to dismiss him as an idiot for not thinking of such an obvious solution.

Jake felt sweat moistening the front of his shirt. "I did that already," he almost whispered.

"You what!"

He felt himself gasping for air. "I did that already," he repeated.

"How could you?"

Jake's throat burned. "Blair, listen to me. I had to. Before year end, to pay our taxes."

"I own our house, too. How could the bank agree to loan us money?"

"I signed your name to the application."

"You forged my signature?"

"I assumed it would be short-term, more like a line of credit that I could repay. I didn't want you to worry. I didn't think you would ever have to know." He wanted her to hold him. He needed to feel the touch of her skin, but he didn't dare move. He had never seen her this angry.

"It was my down payment. The equity in the apartment is mine."

"Blair, please."

"What else haven't you told me?"

Jake was silent.

Copyright 2001 by Nancy Whitman Geary
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

A page-turning mystery, a whirlwind tour of the monied enclave of Southampton, Long Island, reminiscent of Philistines at the Hedgerow, and a novel of manners that recalls the works of Edith Wharton, Nancy Geary's debut novel shows us that not even blue blood or cold cash can save you from...

MISFORTUNE

A recluse on Long Island's humbler North Fork, Suffolk County star prosecutor Frances Pratt returns home to Southampton and her dying father. What she finds are friends and family guarding closely held secrets and an overprivileged community unwilling to admit anyone but their own. Though a shrewd and skillful lawyer, she is utterly unprepared for what comes next. In the marbled powder room of the "old money" Fair Lawn Country Club lies the murdered body of her own stepmother, Clio Henshaw Pratt.

Frances takes on the investigation and soon unearths more than a few people who had hated Clio with enough force and venom to murder her. Her sights fix on the respected African-American heart surgeon smarting from Clio's prejudice—the long-faithful partner frozen out of the family investment firm—the highborn idealist whose vision of the Fair Lawn Country Club's future left no room for Clio's snobbery—the dissolute socialite who feared what Clio knew about her husband's suicide—and even somebody closer to Frances than she had ever imagined.

As Frances begins to look beneath the gilded surface of Southampton, she delves into a world of crumbling pretenses, cruel prejudices, and the terrible burdens people bear to "keep up appearances." Ultimately, she discovers that she, as well as everyone in her family, has a fagade. And as she searches for Clio's killer, Frances Pratt will have to face the demons that stand behind them all.

Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews


Reviews

"A stunning debut which should be subtitled An Un-Hampton Novel. Nancy Geary, like Richard North Patterson, writes brilliantly about the world of old money, manners, mores, and morals; an insider's look at genteel society that few Americans have seen or experienced firsthand."
-Nelson DeMille, author of The Lion's Game

"Few writers succeed in describing the world of the American aristocracy or how they truly live. But Nancy Geary has an authentic voice. She knows this world. What a great first novel!"
-Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club

"Nancy Geary's MISFORTUNE is an irresistible read, both because it takes you behind the hedges of blue bloods in the Hamptons and because it's a compelling mystery that keeps you guessing whodunit and whydunit until the final page. A stylish and expert debut."
-Jane Heller, author of Sis Boom Bah

"A riveting tale of privilege, prejudice, and violent death. Haunting, compelling, and beautifully written, Nancy Geary's astonishing first novel reads like a cross between Scott Turow and Edith Wharton. I couldn't put it down."
-Amy Gutman, author of Equivocal Death

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Author

Nancy GearyNancy Geary was born in New York City but was raised in two worlds. She lived in the city with her photographer mother, who instilled in her an appreciation for diversity and creativity. And with her extremely disciplined father in South Hampton who taught her the value of hard work and financial self-sufficiency and gave her the continuity of summer after summer at the private country clubs.

For four years Geary was a prosecutor for the Criminal Bureau of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, a participant in the Attorney General's Urban Violence Strike Force, and for two years an attorney with Choate, Hall & Stewart in Boston.

She recently moved her son and two dogs to a small town and hour from New York City.

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