by Ken Grimwood


SIX  (continued)


‘Linda? It’s Jeff, Jeff Winston. We met on the beach this afternoon. I –’

‘How the hell did you get this number? I never even told you my last name!’

‘That’s not important. Listen, I’m sending you a recent issue of Business Week. There’s an article about me in there, with a photograph. Page forty-eight. You’ll see I wasn’t lying.’

‘You have my address, too? What kind of stunt is this, anyway? What do you want from me?’

‘I just want to get to know you, and have you get to know me. There’s so much left undone between us, so many wonderful possibilities for –’

‘You’re crazy! I mean it; you’re some kind of psycho!’

‘Linda, I know this has started badly, but just give me the opportunity to explain. Give us the leeway to approach each other in an open, honest manner, to find –’

‘I don’t want to get to know you, whoever the hell you are. And I don’t care if you’re rich, I don’t care if you’re goddamn J. Paul Getty, OK? Just leave … me … alone!’

‘I understand that you’re upset. I know all this must seem very strange to you –’

‘If you call this number again, or if you show up at my house, I’ll call the police. Is that clear enough?’

The phone slammed loudly in Jeff’s ear as she hung up.

He’d been given the chance to relive most of his life; now he’d trade it all for another shot at this day.

The Mirassou Vineyards teemed with pickers working the slopes southeast of San Jose, great buckets of fresh green grapes atop their heads as they wound their way like harvest ants down to the crusher and the presses outside the old cellar. The hills rippled with wide-spaced rows of trellised vines, and here among the masonry buildings the oaks and elms were a splendour of October colours.

Diane had been angry at him all day, and the bucolic setting and arcane intricacies of the winery had done little to appease her. Jeff never should have taken her along with him this morning; he’d thought she might be fascinated, or at least amused, by the two young geniuses, but he was wrong.

‘Hippies, that’s all they were. That tall boy was barefoot, for God’s sake, and the other one looked like a … a Neanderthal!’

‘Their idea has a lot of potential; it doesn’t matter what they looked like.’

‘Well, somebody ought to tell them the sixties are over, if they want to do anything with that silly idea of theirs. I just don’t believe you fell for it, and gave them all that money!’

‘It’s my money, Diane. And I’ve told you before, the business decisions are all mine, too.’

He couldn’t really blame her for the way she’d reacted; without benefit of foresight, the two young men and their garageful of secondhand electronic components would indeed seem unlikely candidates for a spot on the Fortune 500. But within five years that garage in Cupertino, California would be famous, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would prove to be the soundest investment of 1976. Jeff had given them half a million dollars, insisted they follow the advice of a retired young marketing executive from Intel they had recently met, and told them to make whatever they wanted as long as they continued to call it ‘Apple.’ He had let them keep forty-nine per cent of the new enterprise.

‘Who in the world would want a computer in their house? And what makes you think those scruffy boys really know how to make one, anyway?’

‘Let’s drop it, all right?’

Diane went into one of her petulant silences, and Jeff knew the matter wouldn’t really be dropped, not even if she remained silent about it from now on.

He’d married her a year ago, out of convenience if nothing else, soon after he’d turned thirty. She’d been a twenty-three-year-old socialite from Boston, heiress to one of the country’s oldest and largest insurance firms; attractive in a reedy sort of way, and able to handle herself quite well in any gathering where the individual net worths of the participants exceeded seven figures. She and Jeff got along as well as could be expected for two people who had little in common other than their familiarity with money. Now Diane was seven months pregnant, and Jeff had hopes that the child might bring out the best in her, forge a deeper bond between them.

The young blonde woman in the tailored navy suit led them inside the main winery building, to the tasting room in one front corner. Diamond-shaped racks of bottled wine lined the walls, broken by softly lit recesses in which photographs of the vineyards were displayed, along with cut flowers and standing bottles of the Mirassou product. Jeff and Diane stood at the rosewood bar in the centre of the room, accepted ritual sips of Chardonnay.

Linda had, apparently, meant everything she’d said after that disastrous meeting on the beach seven years ago. His letters to her had been returned unopened, and the gifts he’d sent were all refused. After a few months he had finally stopped attempting to contact her, though he added her name to the list of ‘Personal/Priority’ subjects to be kept track of by the clipping service to which he subscribed. That was how he’d learned, in May of 1970, that Linda had married a Houston architect, a widower with two young children. Jeff wished her happiness, but couldn’t help feeling abandoned … by someone who had never known him, as far as she was concerned.

Again he had sought solace in his work. His most recent coup had been the sale, at enormous profit, of his oil fields in Venezuela and Abu Dhabi, and their immediate replacement with similar properties in Alaska and Texas, plus the contracts for a dozen offshore drilling rigs. All deals completed, of course, just before the OPEC sword had fallen.

The women whose company he sought had all been similar, in most respects, to Diane: attractive, well-groomed companions, versed in all the most rarefied of social skills, accomplished, and, on occasion, enthusiastic in bed. Daughters of fortune, a sisterhood of what passed for the American beau monde. Women who knew the ground rules, had understood from birth the boundaries of and obligations attendant upon the holders of great wealth. They were his peers now; they constituted the pool from which he should in all rationality select a mate. His choice of Diane among them had been almost random. She fitted the appropriate criteria. If something greater were eventually to grow of their pairing, well and good … and if not, then at least he had not come to the marriage with unrealistically high expectations.

Jeff cleansed his palate with a bit of cheese and sampled a semisweet Fleuri Blanc. Diane abstained this time, patted her swollen belly by way of explanation.

Maybe the child would make a difference, after all. You never knew.

The plump orange cat skittered across the hardwood floor in a headlong broken-field run good enough to match the best performance of O.J. Simpson. His prey, a shiny yellow satin ribbon, had suffered crippling damage and would soon be shredded if the cat had his way with it.

‘Gretchen!’ Jeff called. ‘Did you know Chumley’s tearing up one of your yellow ribbons?’

‘It’s OK, Daddy,’ his daughter answered from the far corner of the large sitting room, near the window overlooking the Hudson. ‘Ken’s home now, and Chumley and I are helping to celebrate.’

‘When did he get home? Isn’t he still in the hospital in Germany?’

‘Oh, no, Daddy; he told the doctors he wasn’t sick and he had to get home right away. So Barbie sent him a ticket for the Concorde, and he got home before anybody else, and as soon as he walked in the door she cooked him six blueberry muffins and four hot dogs.’

Jeff laughed aloud, and Gretchen shot him the most withering look her wide-eyed five-year-old’s face could muster. ‘They don’t have hot dogs in Iran,’ she explained. ‘Or blueberry muffins, either.’

‘I guess not,’ Jeff said, keeping his expression carefully sombre. ‘I suppose he’d be hungry for American food by now, huh?’

‘’Course he would. Barbie knows how to make him happy.’

The cat darted back in the other direction, batting the tattered ribbon between his paws, then settled on his side in a patch of sunlight to gloat over his conquest, kicking at it in sporadic bursts with his hind legs. Gretchen went back to her own games, absorbed in the alternate reality of the elaborate dollhouse that Jeff had spent more than a year building and expanding to her specifications. The miniature trees in its green felt front yard were now festooned with bright yellow ribbons, and for the past week she’d been following news reports of the end of the hostage crisis with a depth of interest most children invested only in the Saturday-morning cartoon shows. At first Jeff had been concerned about her fascination with the events in Tehran, had wanted to protect her from the potentially traumatizing effects of watching all those rabid mobs chanting ‘Death to the US’; but he’d known the episode would have a peaceful, upbeat conclusion, so he chose to respect his daughter’s precocious grasp of the world and to trust in her emotional resilience.

He loved her to a degree he had not thought possible, found himself simultaneously wanting to shield her from all darkness and share with her all light. Gretchen’s arrival had done nothing to cement his marriage to Diane, who, if anything, seemed to resent the constraints on her life that the child represented. But no matter, Gretchen herself was source and object of all the deep affection he could encompass or imagine.

Jeff watched as she took another ribbon from one of the dollhouse trees, taunted fat old Chumley with it. The cat was tired, didn’t want to play anymore; it put a soft paw entreatingly on Gretchen’s cheek, and she buried her face in its furry golden belly, nuzzling the animal to full contentment. Jeff could hear its purr from across the room, mingled with his daughter’s gentle laughter.

The sun slanted higher through the tall bay windows, fell in brilliant striated beams upon the polished floor where Gretchen snuggled with the cat. This house, this tranquil, wooded place in Dutchess County, was good for her; its serenity was balm for any human soul, young or old, innocent or troubled.

Jeff thought of his old roommate, Martin Bailey. He’d called Martin soon after Gretchen was born, reestablished the contact that had somehow, in this life, been broken for so many years. Jeff hadn’t been able to talk him out of what would prove to be a particularly disastrous marriage, one that had originally led the man to suicide; but he’d made sure Martin had a secure position with Future, Inc., and some excellent stock tips now and then. His friend was divorced again, miserably so, but at least he was alive, and solvent.

Jeff seldom thought of Linda these days, or of his old existence. It was that first life that seemed a dream now; reality was the emotional stalemate with Diane, the blissfulness of being with his daughter, Gretchen, and the mixed blessings of his ever-growing wealth and power. Reality was knowledge and all that it had brought him – good and ill.

The image on the screen was one of pure organic motion: liquid rippling smoothly through curved chambers, expansion and contraction alternating in a perfect, lazy rhythm.

‘… no apparent blockage of either ventricle, as you can see. And, of course, the Holter EKG showed no evidence of tachycardia during the twenty-four hours that you wore it.’

‘So what exactly does all that boil down to?’ Jeff asked.

The cardiologist turned off the video-cassette machine that had been displaying the ultrasonic depiction of Jeff’s heart, and smiled.

‘What it means is that your heart is in as close to perfect condition as any forty-three-year-old American male could hope it to be. So are your lungs, according to the X-rays and the pulmonary-function tests.’

‘Then my life expectancy –’

‘Keep yourself in this kind of shape, and you’ll probably make it to a hundred. Still going to the gym, I take it?’

‘Three times a week.’ Jeff had profited from his anticipation of the late-seventies fitness craze in more ways than one. He not only owned Adidas and Nautilus and the Holiday Health Spa chain; he’d made full use of all their equipment for over a decade.

‘Well, don’t stop,’ the doctor said. ‘I only wish all my patients took such good care of themselves.’

Jeff made small talk for a few more minutes, but his mind was elsewhere: It was on himself at exactly this age, in this same year, yet more than twenty years ago. Himself as a sedentary, overstressed, and slightly overweight executive, clutching his chest and pitching face forward on his desk as the world went blank.

Not this time. This time he’d be fine.

Jeff preferred the comfort of the back room at La Grenouille, but Diane considered even lunch an occasion at which seeing and being seen was of prime importance. So they always ate in the front room, crowded and noisy though it invariably was.

Jeff savoured his poached salmon with tarragon, basil, and mild-vinegar sauce, doing his best to ignore both Diane’s present sulk and the conversations from the tables pressed tightly on either side of them. One couple was discussing marriage, the other divorce. Jeff and Diane’s luncheon talk was somewhere in the middle.

‘You want her to be accepted at Sarah Lawrence, don’t you?’ Diane snapped between bites of bay scallops à la nage.

‘She’s thirteen years old.’ Jeff sighed. ‘The admissions office at Sarah Lawrence doesn’t give a damn what she does at that age.’

‘I was at Concord Academy when I was eleven.’

‘That’s because your parents didn’t give a damn what you did at that age.’

She set down her fork, glared at him. ‘My upbringing is no concern of yours.’

‘But Gretchen’s is.’

‘Then you should want her to have the best possible education, from the beginning.’

One waiter cleared their empty plates away as another approached with the dessert wagon. Jeff took advantage of the interruption to lose himself in the multiple reflections from the restaurant’s many mirrors: the fir-green walls, the crimson banquettes, the splendid floral bouquets that looked freshly cut from a Cézanne landscape.

He knew Diane was less concerned for Gretchen’s education than for her own freedom from daily responsibility. Jeff saw his daughter little enough as it was, and he couldn’t bear the thought of her living two hundred miles from home.

Diane picked crossly at her raspberries in Grand Marnier sauce. ‘I suppose you think it’s all right for her to continue associating with all those little urchins she keeps dragging home from public school.’

‘For Christ’s sake, her school is in Rhinebeck, not the South Bronx. It’s a wonderful environment for her to grow up in.’

‘So is Concord. As I know from personal experience.’

Jeff dug into his Peach Charlotte, unable to say what was really on his mind: that he had no intention of seeing Gretchen mature into a clone of her mother. The brittle sophistication, the world-be-damned attitude, greath wealth seen as a birthright, something to be assumed and utterly relied upon. Jeff had acquired his own riches by a stroke of supranormal good fortune and by force of will. Now he wanted to protect his daughter from money’s potentially corrupting influence as much as he wanted her to reap its benefits.

‘We’ll discuss it another time,’ he told Diane.

‘We have to let them know by next Thursday.’

‘Then we’ll discuss it Wednesday.’

That put her into a serious pout, one he knew she could resolve only by a concentrated, almost vicious, splurge at Bergdorf’s and Saks.

He patted his jacket pocket, took out two foil-wrapped tablets of Gelusil. His heart might be in excellent shape, but this life he’d created for himself was playing hell with his digestion.

Gretchen’s slender young fingers moved gracefully over the keyboard, yielding the poignant strains of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise.’ The fat orange cat named Chumley slept sprawled beside her on the piano bench, too old now to frolic with the reckless abandon he once had shown, content merely to be close to her, soothed by the gentle music.

Jeff watched his daughter’s face as she played, her smooth, pale skin surrounded by the dark curls of her hair. There was an intensity to her expression, but it was not caused, he knew, by concentration on the notes or tempo of the piece. Her natural gift for music was such that she never had to struggle to memorize or drill herself on the basics of a composition once she’d played it through the first time. Rather, the look in her eyes was one of transport, of a melding with the wistful melody of the deceptively simple little bagatelle.

She rendered the coda of chords and double notes over a repeated-note pedal point with expert legato, and when she was done she sat silent for several moments, returning from the place the music had taken her. Then she grinned with delight, her eyes those of a playful girl again.

‘Isn’t that pretty?’ Gretchen asked ingenuously, referring only to the beauty of the music itself.

‘Yes,’ Jeff said. ‘Almost as pretty as the pianist.’

‘Oh, Daddy, cut it out.’ She blushed, swung herself coltishly from the bench. ‘I’m gonna have a sandwich. You want one?’

‘No, thanks, honey. I think I’ll wait till dinner. Your mother should be back from the city any time now; when she gets home, tell her I took a walk down by the river, OK?’

‘OK,’ Gretchen called, scampering towards the kitchen. Chumley woke, yawned, and followed her at his own ambling pace.

Jeff stepped outside, walked along the path through the trees. In autumn the corridor of elms was like a half-mile shaft of enveloping flame. Emerging from it, Jeff saw first the broad meadow descending gently towards the Hudson, then the steeper drop a hundred yards to the left where a rocky chain of waterfalls cascaded in the chill. The dramatic entrance to this place never failed to give him a thrill of awe, that such beauty could exist; and of pride, that it was his possession.

He stood now at the crest of the sloping green, contemplating the vista. Two small boats moved quietly down the river beneath the blaze of fall colours on the far side. A trio of young boys ambled along the opposite bank, idly tossing stones into the coursing water. At the top of a rise above them was a stately home, less grand than Jeff’s but still imposing.

In another three months the river would be frozen solid, a great white highway stretching south towards the city and north towards the Adirondacks. The trees would be bereft of leaves, but seldom barren: Snow would lace their branches, and some days even the smallest twigs would be encased in a cylinder of ice, glittering by the millions in the winter sunlight.

This was the land, the very county, that Currier and Ives had mythologized as the American ideal; they’d even sketched this precise view. Standing here, it was easy to believe that all he’d done had been worthwhile. Standing here, or holding Gretchen in his arms, embracing the child he and Linda had once yearned for but could never have.

No, he wouldn’t send his daughter to Concord. This was her home. This was where she belonged until she was old enough to make her own decisions about leaving it. When that day came, he’d support whatever choices she might make, but until then –

Something unseen stabbed his chest, something more painful and powerful than he had ever felt before … except once.

He crumpled to his knees, struggling to remember what day it was, what time it was. His staring eyes took in the autumn scene, the valley that had, an instant before, seemed the very emblem of hope regained and possibilities unbounded. Then he fell on his side, facing away from the river.

Jeff Winston gazed helplessly at the orange-red tunnel of elms that had led him to this meadow of promise and fulfilment, and then he died.

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