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Winslow's Wife: Chapter 1

It was already early October, but the black-eyed Susans were still splashing the fields with raucous, exuberant color, proclaiming the joys of a waning summer. They’re weeds, but they’re damn cheerful weeds, and they matched my mood. I was damn cheerful, too. I was on my way to Denver’s Tattered Cover, often described as the best independent bookstore in the country. If nothing else, it certainly counted as the bookstore most frequently mentioned in mystery novels, of which I had read my share and several other people's, too.

This was the day of my "signing." Okay, it wasn’t really a signing in the sense that they advertised my name and whole flocks of people came to experience the nearness of greatness. But I was one of several local authors invited to come and sit at my publisher’s table for a computer book "expo," and my name had been listed in the ad; that made it a legitimate "signing at the Tattered Cover" as far as I was concerned, and as it was likely to be the only signing I’d ever have, I was intent on making the most of it.

For the most part, there seemed to be more authors in attendance than readers. I did manage to charm two people, including one other author, into buying my book and asking me to sign it, and, while I was there, I signed the rest of the Tattered Cover’s inventory, in the wistful hope that this would mean they couldn’t return them. This didn’t take me very long, I’m afraid. Their inventories of the books on the hot programming languages of the day seemed to be considerably larger than their inventory of my book, which was turning out to have an even nichier market than my publisher and I had anticipated. Maybe I should have let them put the "for Dummies" in the title after all. Still, my family was impressed--not that any of them would ever actually read it--and the book boasted a hard cover, too.

After a few hours of sitting with a smile frozen on my face while I watched copies of Java books selling like, well, java, I decided that, short of going out on the street and trying to recruit a claque, I had done as well as I was going to do. With my obligation to my publisher fulfilled, although falling perhaps a little short of their wildest expectations, I meandered through the rest of the store. This was the first time I had been in this new, second location for this venerable institution, cattycorner from the old Union Station in Denver’s now fashionable LoDo (Lower Downtown) district. The designers of the new store had managed to make it as comfortable and inviting as the original store in the Cherry Creek area, exploiting to the maximum the mellow ambiance of the original dark brick warehouse building with its beamed high-ceilinged interior.

Needless to say, I eventually found myself in the mystery section. I had kept my greedy little hands firmly clenched in my pockets until I reached here, but here it was impossible. The only thing to hold me in check was the knowledge that I had to schlep whatever I purchased two long blocks past the ornate Denver railway station to the car. I dismissed the thought that crossed my mind about having the books shipped the thirty-some miles to Boulder. There are some behaviors that are too decadent for even me to consider.

So I was deeply engaged in trying to determine from cover copy which of the several hundred titles before me would most appeal to me (and, since I can never remember titles, which ones I had already read or already had in my as-yet-unread stash) when I heard my name spoken.

"Are you by any chance Lexy Connor?"

"Why, yes, I am," I replied, turning to face an attractive woman about my own age. She wasn’t anyone I knew--I thought. "I’m sorry--should I recognize you?" I learned a long time ago not to pretend that I could remember names or faces.

"Probably not," she answered. "It’s been thirty-seven years, give or take a day or two." And she laughed, a little nervously.

It was the laugh that I recognized. And then many more things--the delicate features, translucent complexion, intense blue eyes, and curly strawberry blond hair, and the elegantly tailored clothes and exquisite grooming.

"For God’s sake, is it Caroline--" and here I groped for a moment, trying to remember what surname I had last known for her.

"Hewitt. It’s Hewitt now." I was pretty sure that wasn’t the name I was looking for, so evidently we had moved beyond husband number two.

"What brings you to Denver?" I asked, as it seemed an unlikely place to find Caroline.

"John has been doing some consulting for one of the companies that is involved in the new football stadium."

"If there is a new football stadium," I said. This was, at the time, an open question.

"That’s true enough. Anyway, I came along for the ride."

"Well, it’s good to see you," I said, with somewhat more enthusiasm than I felt.

"And you, too. It’s been a lot of years."

"How did you recognize me? And you called me ‘Lexy.’" I suddenly realized that, as difficult as she was to recognize, I was surely more so--there being more than twice as much of me as she would remember--and "Lexy" was a nickname I had acquired after I last saw her.

"It was that business in Larchmont last year," she said. "You were all over the newspapers back home."

I had been required to go back to New York’s Westchester County and give testimony in a conspiracy case. In the process, I got my name and picture in the local papers.

"Look," she went on, "I really have to run now, but I would like to get together. We’re renting a townhouse in Cherry Creek--here’s the number--and if you’ll give me a call, we can have lunch." She scribbled a number on the back of an engraved calling card. It occurred to me that she was probably the only one I knew who had real engraved calling cards. With just the name. No tacky things like addresses and phone numbers, and certainly no e-mail address; those you were supposed to know without asking. I had my print-them-yourself business cards, but not an engraved calling card with just my name on it.

She smiled, turned and started off, turned back once more to wave, hesitated a moment as if she were about to change her mind and come back, and then was gone.

She wanted to get together, but I was supposed to call her. Nothing changes. I stuck the card in my pocket. By now, I had lost my enthusiasm for the mystery hunt (not to mention having bagged my quota), so I headed for home.

Home was a small three-bedroom ranch in a suburban tract seven miles east of Boulder, Colorado. I don’t live in Boulder itself because it is too expensive and because, as the self-proclaimed "Fitness Capital of the World," it couldn’t allow me residence and keep the title.

My forty-minute trip home afforded me the opportunity to muse about my encounter with Caroline and her husband’s involvement with the "new" football stadium. Local pundits will from time to time express gratitude that Denver has lost its "Cow Town" image. What they fail to point out is that, in doing so, it has become the quintessential Jock Town.

At the time, Denver was undergoing that peculiar new form of extortion where a football club owner threatens to pull his team out of the city--or sell it to someone else who will--if the city doesn’t want to spend squillions of taxpayer dollars on a new stadium to be used to enrich the football club. There always seems to be another city somewhere waiting with open arms and an empty ultra-stadium, or a willingness to commit to build it. The Denver team had finally broken their jinx and made it all the way to a Super Bowl win, so the stadium funding election now looked more promising than it had for a long time.

We were already coughing up, via a metropolitan area sales tax, the money to cover the costs of building the new baseball stadium to attract an expansion team. Our hockey team, recently liberated from another city, captured the Stanley Cup in its first Denver season and was getting a new facility to play in--this one not at taxpayer expense, but there were almost certainly some city concessions involved. The hockey arena would be shared with our basketball team, which, much to the local dismay, kept adding new meaning to the term "lackluster." It remained to be seen whether the taxpaying public was ready to cry "enough" when it came to a new football stadium.

In fairness, in the last decade or so Denver has built a world-class airport, a new main library of considerable architectural distinction, and an impressive center for the performing arts, and some day I fully intend to see the latter two from some other prospect than battling traffic around the State Capitol. But the city’s major newspaper still runs eight or nine fat sports sections a week against only one skinny Sunday section on books. Even this was a recent improvement--they had contented themselves with just two book pages before--but, to be candid, no one was going to get a hernia, physically or intellectually, from hefting the book section. This wasn’t a problem to me because my tastes in Serious Literature had steadily eroded over the years and I had both Remembrances of Things Past and Churchill’s history of the second world war in reserve should I ever stumble across those tastes again.

My musings then turned to Caroline.

Our friendship, such as it was, hadn’t had much in the way of staying power. Although we had lived in the same neighborhood in Westchester County for years, we didn’t spend any time together until we both dropped out of college and, since most of our other friends were still in school in far-off states, found each other a convenient source of companionship.

Caroline MacKenzie in her early twenties had been enchantingly super-feminine and, although we didn’t know the term in those days, high maintenance. She had been a woman to whom no woman had ever been more important than any man, given to viewing all men who weren’t downright disgusting as candidates for enchantment. She was good at it, too. We got along primarily because it wasn’t my nature to be competitive in that particular game--which was bright on my part, considering that there was no way I could’ve competed in her league.

We might have remained friends to this day if fate hadn’t intervened in the form of a mutual necessity to find an affordable way to move into New York City--Caroline, because of her parents’ opposition to the man she intended to marry (the one thing her mother and I had ever agreed on), and I, because of a desperate need to be the one who made the major decisions in my life. The forced intimacy of the tiny studio apartment in which we set up housekeeping would’ve presented difficulties for people far better-matched than we. Let it suffice to say that, five months later, when she succeeded in altering her parents’ unalterable opposition and moved back home to prepare for her extravagant nuptials at their expense, it was a great relief to both of us, even though I couldn’t afford my sudden solitariness.

I had been one of Caroline’s bridesmaids---mostly because neither one of us could figure out a polite way to withdraw at that point. I remembered ruefully paying for and wearing the apricot satin you’ll-be-able-to-wear-it-to-parties harem-skirted creation with an apricot satin lampshade for the head and dyed-to-match apricot satin shoes. Not any parties I was ever invited to, or at least none that I’d have shown up at.

I saw her once more a few months after the wedding, when she invited me to dinner at their Queens apartment while her husband, with whom I had ceased to be chummy about halfway through our first meeting, was away on a business trip.

Somewhere along the line I learned that that marriage had lasted a handful of years, and that she had remarried.

Ours wasn’t a relationship I was particularly eager to rekindle. Besides, I rarely get up early enough to eat any meal at the time of day that other people find appropriate for lunch.

I was off thinking about something else altogether when the penny dropped--John Hewitt. She was now married to John Hewitt. I remembered John vaguely as someone who was almost always in the company of her older brother, Evan. My strongest impression of him after all these years was that he had been pleasant enough, but hardly a dashing romantic figure. Perhaps Caroline had finally had a sufficiency of those.

 

I had all but forgotten my encounter with Caroline, so I was quite surprised to hear her name again only two days later, and from an entirely unexpected quarter. I was busy dealing with the improbabilities of successfully positioning my new "invisible" nose pads on my glasses without the aid of being able to see what I was doing when the phone rang.

It was my good friend and sometime employer Tally Richard, and after we had caught up with each other’s news, she asked "Are you busy these days?"

"No, it can be safely said that I’m at liberty at the moment. Why, do you know somebody who needs their configuration management system re-engineered? Do you want to put me back on the payroll?"

"I want to put you back on the payroll, but not as a software consultant."

"Oh?" I said. "As what, then?"

"The other thing."

The "other thing" referred to a little job of investigation I had done for Tally a few years back that resulted in reuniting her with her grandfather.

"Don’t tell me you’ve gotten more mysterious notes," I answered.

"No, this one has nothing to do with me," she laughed. "Does the name Caroline MacKenzie or Caroline Hewitt mean anything to you?"

"Yes," I said slowly, drawing out the syllable while I tried to think of a possible connection between Tally and Caroline. "Why? Do you know her?"

"No, I don’t know her, but her husband is a client of mine. He’s an independent management consultant of some sort and he uses one of our laptop models a lot like yours." Tally had made me a gift of the custom mobile laptop I had used during my investigation for her--and upgraded it regularly. Her company, Franklin, Richard & Raines, or FR&R, located in Palo Alto, provided confidential, highly sophisticated corporate-level computer support to individuals.

"Anyway," she went on, "she has a problem, and Grandpa thinks you can help her. Grandpa thinks you hang the moon, you know."

"What does he have to do with it?"

"Grandpa was a very good friend of Caroline’s father, Paul MacKenzie. Caroline went to him for advice."

"What kind of a problem?"

"I don’t know, he didn’t say. Some kind of family problem." Oh swell; I’d had my fill of Caroline’s family long since. "Look, you don’t have to do this. I told Grandpa I’d ask you, but you have no obligations here."

"Well, let me take a look at it, and if I think I can do something, I’ll give it a shot."

"We can’t ask for more than that," she answered.

Drat! I had let my feelings for Tally and her grandfather overcome my distaste for re-engaging with Caroline.

I took Molly, my West Highland White Terrier, for a long walk before I picked up the phone and called Caroline, determined that this was going to be on my terms, not hers. That meant dinner, not lunch, and in Boulder, not Denver. I’ve been told that Boulder boasts more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country and I don’t have any problem believing that. On the other hand, it is far easier to get a lentil burger in Boulder than a really good steak.

I tried to get Caroline to describe her problem on the phone, but she was clearly reluctant to do so. She agreed readily to meet me for dinner that evening in Boulder, and I gave her directions to the restaurant I had chosen, a trendy spot on what I called Boulder’s "Restaurant Row." She made no mention of John joining us, so I didn’t either.

But first I had to stop and replace my invisible nose pads with the old-fashioned visible "flesh-colored"--if one was hospitalized with terminal jaundice--ones. The invisible nose pads looked good (that is to say, you could hardly see them), but the sensation when one took one’s glasses off was roughly like getting up from a vinyl chair on a hot day when you’re wearing shorts. Invisibility turned out to be less important than I’d have thought.

 

 

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