Even though he was hosting a gathering of family and friends in the tree-shaded backyard of his Cambridge home, George Marquand, the Eldridge Stillwell Professor of Economic Theory at Harvard University, looked every inch the grim-faced lawman in a wild frontier town as he raised his right arm and held it straight out from his shoulder. Then, after extending his index finger and cocking his right thumb, he made a noise, kapow, which was supposed to sound as if he had indeed fired a gun. His hand jumped slightly from the recoil of the weapon, but a second later, his hand now steadied, he cocked his thumb again and fired another shot. Once more, he made the kapow sound. This time he brought his index finger to his lips and blew smoke away from the barrel of his figurative gun before slipping it back into its holster. Only then did he rearrange the frowns and creases of his long, lean face into a grin.
About l5 feet away from Marquand, half reclining in a lawn chair that was placed just inside the shade of a willow tree, was his intended target, his friend, Connie Bathgate. She, like Marquand, was in her early sixties, but artful tinting of her blonde hair made her look somewhat younger. Connie’s prominent cheek bones, plus two face lifts, pulled the skin of her face so tight that her smile was limited to a slight upward curve of her upper lip when Marquand aimed his gun at her. But once he fired, she exploded with laughter, simultaneously tossing back her head and slapping her right hand over her chest, as if she had taken a direct hit.
Most of the people in Marquand’s backyard missed out on his exchange with Connie since many of them, their backs to the action, were lined up at the two grills where Jay Slocumbe and Harold Haynes, Marquand’s two sons-in-law, were cooking and serving hamburgers. Almost as many people, with plates in their hands, were picking and choosing from bowls of various salads that had been placed on a table near the grills. There was also the distraction that came from Marquand’s four preschool age grandsons, all of whom were chasing each other in an aimless pattern, snaking in and around the legs of the adults.
Standing behind the table that held the salads were Julia, the oldest of Marquand’s three children, and Marshall, the youngest. Marshall, who had graduated a few days before from Johns Hopkins Medical School—and was the honoree of this gathering—happened to be refilling the bowl of pasta salad when he saw his father aim and fire. He managed to continue with what he was doing, even though his eyes were fixed on his father. He then looked in Julia’s direction, apparently anticipating some explanation from her about what he had seen. But before Julia said anything, she moved a few steps closer to Marshall so she could speak to him without anyone else hearing what she said.
"My guess is that it’s something sexual," she said, her voice barely above a whisper, "but I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask. I’ve seen him do it a couple of other times when they’ve been together. He’ll be standing there, and all at once, he goes into that routine, complete with the silly sound he makes when he fires his so-called gun. Then, comes that goofy grin on his face. Each time, she reacts in the same way."
Julia was the Marquand sibling who most resembled her father. She was almost as tall as he was, just as slender, and like her father, at least her father pre-Connie, she did not smile readily. In Julia’s case, her salt-and-pepper hair, pulled back into a loosely-held together bun, also made her look as if she dared anyone to say anything that might cause her to grin.
Julia’s younger sister, Gail, who was as tall as her sister but by no means slender, happened to be passing by when Julia was theorizing to Marshall about their father’s gunplay. Gail, laughing, had a glass of wine in one hand, and as she drew closer to Marshall and Julia, she held her other hand by her hip, somewhat concealing her extended index finger. She, too, made a kapow sound, but one that was much more subdued than that made by her father.
Julia, with no more than a glance at Gail, hurried off just then to retrieve her two sons. Both boys had attached themselves to their grandfather’s long legs and were trying to detain him as he made his way towards a lawn chair next to Connie.
As Julia went off after her sons, she brushed past Gail, and although it wasn’t necessary, Gail drew back, giving Julia far more room than she needed. With her broad shoulders and big hips, Gail’s move was not particularly graceful. Marshall, in fact, had to reach out and steady her by grabbing onto her elbow. When he did so, Gail, still looking towards Julia, said, "Isn’t she her mother’s daughter, though? A living, breathing bitch on wheels."
Marshall neatly sidestepped Gail’s comment about Julia by asking her a question. "Do you have any idea," he asked, "what’s behind father’s Wyatt Earp routine?"
"No," said Gail, pausing for a moment to sip from her glass of wine. "And it doesn’t particularly matter to me, either. All I know is that he looks happier than I’ve ever seen him, certainly much happier than he was in all the years he and mother were snarling at each other. Julia, of course, doesn’t agree, but that’s Julia. It bugs the hell out of her that father might be enjoying himself. I take the opposite tack, of course. I love the idea that father’s acting like a school boy in love. As for Connie, God bless her. She’s helped father tap into a part of himself he never knew existed until he met her."
Gail’s answer struck Marshall as being somewhat simplistic, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to dispute her, not when he looked over and saw his father seated next to Connie. Julia had herded her two boys away from their grandfather, and now he and Connie, smiling broadly, had their hands linked across the space between their two chairs.
The party his father threw for him provided Marshall with his first chance to meet Connie Bathgate. A few months before, in a brief phone call, his father had told him about Connie, doing so in that same matter-of-fact manner he brought to his exacting analyses of economic data. First came the essential facts. Connie was a widow. She was roughly his age, and she was the first woman he had seen on a regular basis in the seven years he had been divorced. Then, quite uncharacteristically, his father admitted that he was incapable of fully describing all the things about Connie that made her so attractive to him.
"You know that phrase, lighten up?" he said. "One way or another, I suppose that’s what various people have been advising me to do for years—even if they never put it that way. But along comes Connie, and all of a sudden I understand what people have been trying to tell me. Even that may not convey exactly what I mean, but I’m sure your two sisters will provide you with additional details. Please take into account, however, their innate biases, and if you’re like me, you won’t take too seriously what either one of them has to say."
Marshall was not surprised, then, when his sisters’ response to Connie seemed but an extension of their divergent points of view about their parents’ divorce.
"I’m only sorry that father hadn’t met and married someone like Connie in the first place" Gail said, when reporting to Marshall on their father’s new girl friend. Gail was the Marquand sibling who had proposed, in all seriousness, to host a week-long party when her mother, after leaving her father, moved from Cambridge to a tiny town in the Berkshires.
"I suppose it’s every man’s right to make a fool of himself if he wants," Julia told Marshall, in giving her initial assessment of Connie. "But it drives me batty when I run into father’s friends and I see the smile that comes over their faces at the mention of his name. They might as well be asking, ‘So how’s your father now that he’s taken up with that floozie?’"
An opportunity for Gail and Julia to amplify their observations about Connie, and to receive, in turn, Marshall’s impressions of her, came as the party was breaking up. The departure of guests was hastened when Connie received a distress call from her sister, Ida, who was somewhat older than Connie and in frail health. Ida was having some difficulty breathing and wanted Connie to take her to the hospital. Marquand was more anxious than Connie about her sister’s condition. He fleetingly bade farewell to the remaining guests, explaining briefly why he and Connie had to leave, but then found himself waiting in his car while Connie, somewhat more slowly, circulated among the few remaining guests, telling each of them how much she had enjoyed meeting them. Connie took even more time saying goodbye to the Marquand children, gripping their hands in hers while assuring them what a lovely time she had had at the party.
Marshall noticed that Gail, with considerable ease, turned Connie’s handshake into an embrace, while Julia maintained a distance that ruled out the possibility of any contact beyond a perfunctory handshake. Marshall didn’t need anything more than that to know it might be wiser if he volunteered to handle the cleaning up chores by himself. His sisters, however, could not be dissuaded from staying on to help out. Julia, in fact, had already arranged to have her husband drive Gail’s husband and her two boys home. Marshall tried to object, but Julia and Gail, paying no attention to him, were already rounding up their children and bundling them into the rear of Jay Slocumbe’s mini van.
Marshall and Julia helped bring the remaining food into the kitchen, where Gail, an array of plastic containers before her, was sorting out what to put away and what to discard. Marshall and Julia, then turned their attention to the backyard itself, bundling up the trash and folding and stacking the chairs and tables their father had rented. It was while stacking the chairs that Julia directed her first question to Marshall.
"So, in 50 words or less," she said, "what’s your initial impression of her?"
Marshall, fully expecting that question, said, "I’d say there’s definitely a cause-and-effect relationship. In fact, it seems to be exactly that—a cause-and-effect relationship from the way they’ve taken to each other."
"You get an A for being succinct," Julia said, "but an F for candor since you didn’t answer my question."
"I don’t pretend to be an expert on these things, but maybe there’s some truth to that saying about opposites being attracted to each other."
"That may be so, but not in this case. My own theory is that Connie and father aren’t as different as you might think. Only now he’s reached a point in his life when he doesn’t have to care as much as he once did about what people think of him. So now we see at last the real George Marquand—and just how comfortable he is with the Connies of the world. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have been caught dead with someone who looked like a tart. Then, mother served his purposes quite well, thank you."
Just then, Gail, leaning over the front porch rail, gave out with a whistle that approximated the song of a phoebe. It was a whistle that George Marquand had devised as the "signal" to be used when any of the Marquands lost track of each other.
When Marshall and Julia turned towards Gail, she was holding in one hand a bottle of champagne.
"Don’t you think it’s time to take a break?" she said, wiggling the bottle back and forth.
Given a choice, Marshall was far more interested in Gail’s suggestion than in hearing what Julia had to say about Connie. He turned immediately and headed towards the front porch while Julia took a moment to store another bag of garbage next to the garage. A few minutes later, when she climbed the stairs to the front porch, Julia pointedly refused the glass of champagne Gail was pouring for her. Instead, she went inside the house to get herself some water.
"What’s the story on Ida?" Marshall said to Gail, as she poured him a glass of champagne. "Connie seemed rather casual about responding to someone who said she couldn’t breathe."
"That’s just it," said Gail. "Apparently, there’s always some question about whether Ida’s sick or simply looking for attention. And that probably has something to do with the living arrangement she and Connie have. Ida was the one who inherited the family homestead, a great big ark of a place near the ocean in Winthrop. Connie, once she became a widow, moved in with her. Whether Connie did that out of compassion or for financial reasons, I don’t know. Either way, though, it seems to have been a mistake since Ida, from what I can gather, tends to be a bit possessive about her younger sister."
Gail managed to hold her glass of champagne steady while flopping back onto a hammock that took up half of the porch on one side of the entrance to the house. When she did so, there was a clatter of sorts and the hammock rocked back and forth, and for a moment it looked as if the hammock might tip over before Gail was finally settled in. The dress Gail wore, with layers of gauzy material, was of her own design. So, too, were her necklace and ring. The jewelry was made of highly polished and metal and was oversized, so much so that Gail’s ring, for example, would have covered most of the finger of anyone with hands smaller than hers.
Julia came out the front door just in time to hear the last part of what Gail had said about Ida.
"I’d go farther than that," Julia said. "I think Ida simply serves as a convenient excuse for them. It’s all so silly, but you’ll see, when father gets back, probably tomorrow morning, he’ll have this story about how he and Connie stayed up half the night taking care of Ida."
"You’ll never give him the benefit of the doubt, will you?" Gail said.
"Perhaps I would if he didn’t insist on playing these little games."
"Such as?" Marshall said, seating himself on the steps of the front porch.
"Start with the story of how he met Connie," Julia said. "I refuse to believe that this great romance grew out of a chance meeting between two people who were in the process of buying a new car and ended up chatting with each other because they just happened to pick out the identical model. You know what’s wrong with that story? One, father is probably the worlds least ‘chattiest’ human being—particularly when he’s in the process of buying a car. I was with him once when he bought a car. He told the salesman what he wanted, spelled it out in such detail that the transaction was over and done with minutes after we had walked through the door. So I can’t see him striking up a conversation with a woman he didn’t know, and then—and this is what really gets me—inviting her to dinner. That same evening no less. Personally, I think Connie is someone father found through some dating service. More to the point, I have no doubt that however he found Connie, whether he ran an ad himself, or answered one, she’s exactly the kind of woman he was seeking."
"Keep working at it," Gail said, "and you’ll make Connie into some street walker he picked up."
"I haven’t said anything like that, haven’t even hinted at it," Julia said. "But as I was telling Marshall a few minutes ago, I happen to think that father and Connie are more alike than anyone thinks. Frankly, I think Connie’s done us all a favor. She’s revealed a part of father—his inner horniness if you pardon the expression—we never would have known about if he hadn’t met her."
"So what’s wrong with horniness?" Gail said, pulling herself up so that she could reach across to the table holding the bottle of champagne. Once she refilled her glass, she said, "The famously taciturn and dour George Marquand is finally learning to enjoy himself, and to that I say, cheers." Gail then raised her glass and took a drink.
"I suppose if I drank enough champagne I might begin to see things the same way," Julia said, addressing her remarks towards Marshall.
Marshall, who had no intention of saying anything that favored either of his sisters, thought he had found a safe middle ground by raising again a question about the shots his father had fired at Connie.
"I still don’t get his kapow routine."
"Oh, that’s simple," Gail said. "I call it a Zorba moment. It’s a warm day in June, not a cloud in the sky, and here you are surrounded by your family and friends all honoring you son, the new doctor. And best of all you have a chance to show off your new girl friend—and you’re in love, or at least you feel something stirring in you that’s unlike anything you’ve felt before. All of that should lead you to explode in some kind of dance, some mad fandango, but you’re not a person who does that. So the best thing you can do is turn towards your girlfriend and do something silly, something that barely begins to convey all this emotion welling up inside of you."
"Either way, dancing like Zorba, or firing his make-believe gun, he’s making an ass of himself," Julia said.
"Oh, why don’t you lighten up," Gail said, getting out of the hammock and walking towards the front door of the house. "Excuse me, while I go pee."
"You’ll have to drive her home," Julia told Marshall, as soon as Gail entered the house.
"But she’s got her car here. How do we get it back to her house?"
"Harold will bike over tomorrow and pick it up. It won’t be the first time he’s had to go off the next day to fetch her car because somebody had to drive her home."
At the same time, Julia walked over to the small table and grabbed the bottle of champagne Gail had been drinking from. She then stood over the porch rail and poured out some of its contents.
"She’s already had enough," she said to Marshall.
That was a serious miscalculation by Julia because as soon as Gail returned and refilled her glass, she noticed immediately that the bottle was almost empty. Without saying anything, she went back into the house, slamming the door behind her. A moment later, Julia and Marshall heard the pop of a new bottle of champagne being opened. When Gail, holding the bottle by its neck, came back onto the porch, she said, "I would ask any do-gooders and/or Prohibitionists to keep their fucking hands off my champagne if you please."
This time, when Gail laid back on the hammock her skirt parted so that the underside of her thighs were showing.
"Could you please cover yourself?" Julia said.
Gail had to swing her legs back onto the floor to rearrange her dress. Once she had done that and was once again lying down, she directed a question at Julia.
"Do you really dislike Connie, or do you simply feel it isn’t right for father to be seeing someone like her?"
"Quite frankly, at first I disliked her, but I got over that more quickly than I thought I would. Now, what I can’t stand is the silliness. I don’t want my children seeing their grandfather make a fool of himself because quote, he’s in love, unquote."
"Plus you don’t like the possibility that he might get serious enough to marry Connie and cut her in on some of his dough," Gail said.
"I’d like to think we could discuss this without the two of you getting into something like that," Marshall said. For the first time, there was a hint of impatience in Marshall’s voice.
"No, no, what Gail said is entirely legitimate," said Julia. "And I’m not ashamed to admit that that thought has crossed my mind. Look, father has children and grandchildren he should take into consideration—
"So it is the money," Gail said.
"And I suppose with you—and with Harold—you don’t care at all about the money."
"Well, that comes as welcome news. I had no idea that you and Harold were in a position where it made little difference whether you inherited money or not."
Just then the phone inside the house rang and Julia left the front porch to answer it. A moment later, she came back to announce that her father had called to say Ida was feeling better.
"Did he say when he’d be home?" Marshall asked.
"That’s not the sort of question I ask," Julia said.
"Well, let me restate it. Does he usually stay over?"
"Ah, ah, that’s where Ida comes into the picture," Gail said. "Ida gets upset if father stays too late. And she goes absolutely bananas if Connie stays here. It’s wild, isn’t it?" Gail then let out a laugh, and rocking her body back and forth a couple of times, she said, "Kapow, kapow."
"The whole thing is so pathetic," Julia said, as she reached into her hand bag for her car keys. "Two people on the verge of old age acting as if they’re teenagers."
With that, Julia announced that it was time for her to leave. Marshall got up from the top step and said, "All in all, it was quite a party, don’t you think?"
"Yes, it was" Julia said, flinging one arm around Marshall’s shoulder and shaking his hand at the same time. Then, speaking softly so that Gail couldn’t hear her, she added, "Remember, what I said. Make sure you drive her home, even if she doesn’t want you to."
Julia, as she left, waved half-heartedly at Gail, and Gail, once Julia’s back was turned, responded with a wave of her middle finger.
A moment later, when Julia had driven away, Gail asked Marshall, "Now that the dragon lady’s gone, why don’t you give me your take on Connie."
"She obviously cheers him up," Marshall said.
"That’s it?" Gail said.
"I have nothing against her personally, but I’m not crazy about the way she seems to have made father into something he’s not. Let’s face it, love him or hate him, George Marquand was unmistakably one of a kind. Irascible, stern, unyielding, a royal pain, some people would say."
"Well, speaking for myself, I’d say father’s redemption began the day he knew enough to get out of his god awful marriage"
"Call me a romantic," Marshall said, "but I had a certain fondness for father as nature intended him to be. Remember the time we were in a restaurant and he had the waiter move our table because we were seated near a woman who had this hideous laugh, a laugh, by the way, that’s a lot like Connie’s. And then after we moved—when mother was asking him beneath her breath to stop making such a fuss—he went right on doing it, making sure everyone in the restaurant knew that we had moved because he couldn’t stand the woman’s loud laugh."
"No thanks," Gail said, "I’m all for father as he is these days, sappy and in love."
Gail, swinging her legs out of the hammock, got to her feet and began looking for her handbag. Apparently she was getting ready to leave, but before she did, she poured herself another glass of champagne.
"You know, you and Julia missed out on the worst of it," Marshall said. "Once you two were away at school, he and mother went at it nonstop. It didn’t matter to them whether I was present or not. In fact, they acted most of the time as if I didn’t exist."
"That’s because they figured it didn’t bother you as much as it did Julia and me. Actually, they probably held back when Julia and I were still here because they were afraid we’d jump into the fray. And jump in, we would. I can assure you of that."
"If they were upstairs, I’d go downstairs to get away from them. If they were downstairs, I’d go upstairs. I finally came up with a solution even better than that. I would climb out my bedroom window and scoot along the roof of the breezeway to get to the window that’s in the upstairs of the garage. You know the old sofa that’s in there? I’d stay there until they quieted down. I actually used to sleep there, particularly in good weather."
"I’m absolutely certain that something terrible would have happened to father if they hadn’t split up," Gail said.
"I think they were so loud and vehement because they wanted me to be the witness who could verify which one was at fault when that explosion finally took place."
"Well, I better leave before father gets back," said Gail, pouring the remaining contents of the champagne bottle into her glass. "The last time I was here he gave me a little lecture about drinking too much. I think Julia put him up to it."
"I’ll drive you home," Marshall said.
"I assume you’re acting on orders from Julia," Gail said, "and while that’s usually enough to put me in a foul mood, this time I’ll go along, mostly because you’re someone I like."
When Marshall returned from driving Gail home, the only parking space he could find was three blocks away from his house. The route he followed to walk back home took him to the rear door of his house, and as he entered the small foyer off the kitchen, he heard his father’s voice, followed by Connie’s unmistakable laugh. Instinctively, Marshall came to a halt and stood for a moment in the foyer off the kitchen. He wasn’t sure he wanted to walk in on his father and Connie without any warning. He was ready, in fact, to go back out and come in through the front door since that would give his father and Connie more adequate notice of his arrival. But before he could do that his father not only entered the kitchen but appeared to be in the middle of a conversation concerning Marshall.
"Forget about Marshall," he said to Connie, who apparently followed him into the kitchen. "He’s probably already in bed, trying to catch up on all that sleep he’s missed these past four years."
Now, Marshall had no choice but to press up against the wall of the darkened foyer, literally squeezing himself into an indentation where coats and hats and rain gear were hung.
"You know what I think?" Connie said. "I think you’re pushing me to stay over just because Marshall’s here."
"Sure," she said, "nothing like the old man showing his son that he’s got a little life left in him."
Marshall heard his father laugh when Connie said that.
"You might have a point there," he replied, "but that hadn’t crossed my mind. To tell you the truth, I don’t think that’s ever crossed Marshall’s mind, either. He’s not like his sisters, certainly not the least bit like Julia, that harpy."
"I actually thought Julia was rather friendly today," said Connie, after deciding she wanted cranberry juice instead of orange.
"She was civil," his father said, "which for her is far more than I usually expect. The problem with Julia, of course, is that she’s too much like her mother, judgmental as hell and always ready to let you know exactly what she thinks."
Connie and his father then left the kitchen and went back into the living room. The moment they did, Marshall went out the rear door, taking great care to close the door quietly behind himself. About his next move he had no doubt. He went around to the front of the house and circled behind his father’s car to arrive at the garage. The garage door was closed, but there was a rear door, one that was usually so difficult to open that it was never locked. Marshall had to shove hard and then shove again before the rear door budged. Then, kicking the door with his foot, he was able to get it open wide enough to enter. Upstairs, the sofa bed was still in the same place it had always been. So too was the trunk containing the sleeping bag that Marshall used to cover himself with when he slept on the sofa.
In the morning, just before eight o’clock Marshall heard his father and Connie drive away. He fell asleep again, and when he woke up an hour or so later, he saw that his father’s car was back in the driveway. Marshall then went over to the window, stepped out onto the roof of the breezeway and walked, crouched over, to the window leading to his bedroom. Back in the house, he showered and then dressed. When he went downstairs, his father, who had eaten breakfast, was seated at the kitchen table, reading the morning paper.
"I guess I was sound sleep when you got home," he told his father. "I never heard you come in."
"Oh, it was a late night," his father said. "It must have been one o’clock or so before we got Ida settled down. She gets herself in such a state. I don’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have Connie standing by."
"Connie can handle her?"
"Marshall, my boy, that only begins to explain Connie’s charms. I could elucidate further, but that would take me most of the day, and even then, I’m not sure I could get across all those things about Connie that I adore."
"It’s obvious you care deeply about her, and vice versa"
"Julia, of course, has her back up about it, which is par for the course with Julia. Gail, from what I can judge, seems to like Connie, but then again, she would only because Julia doesn’t."
"Oh, I’d say it’s genuine on Gail’s part—and likewise, for Julia."
"Your mother has a nickname for you, you know. Switzerland. I’ve never liked it, but she used to call you that because you were so intent on being absolutely neutral."
"That doesn’t strike me as being particularly complimentary."
"Well, for what it’s worth, I never held it against you that you tried not to take sides. And in keeping with that spirit, let me withdraw the question I asked about Connie. You’re free to think what you want about her. And so am I. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I think I’ll go upstairs to take a little nap. The late hours I keep with Connie can do a helluva job on a guy my age."