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The Ladies' Manby Elinor Lipman
In the months before Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler, the three Dobbin sisters established their custom of arranging empty glass bottles like bowling pins inside their apartment door. They adopted the idea from Life, from a spread illustrating how women living alone near the crime scenes were petrified and taking precautions. The practice continues decades after the Boston Strangler confessed and died in prison, because the Dobbin sisters are cautious and intelligent women who expect the worst. The last sister to turn in checks the locks, latches the chain, and sets the booby trap of ten near-antique bottles that once held ginger ale, sarsaparilla, and root beer brewed by a defunct soft-drink company.
And what's the harm? It allows three women to sleep peacefully without sedatives, without surprises, and without expensive motion detectors. If Richard Dobbin, their brother, occasionally trips a false alarm, it is viewed as his own fault, his own stubborn resistance to calling ahead. He claims to forget between drop-in visits that they still arrange the bottles nightly. He has a key; he thinks he will slip in, sleep on the couch, leave a note on the kitchen table for the earliest riser, and be welcomed enthusiastically. The chain stops him, but, as designed, the door opens enough to trigger the pandemonium his sisters count on.
"It's me," he yells. "What's going on? It's me."
"Richard," says one, then each of the other sisters, hurrying into their bathrobes. "Let him in. Undo the chain. It's Richard."
"There've been some copycat murders on the north shore," explains Adele, the oldest, turning knobs and unhooking chains. "We've started setting our burglar alarm again."
"Jesus," says Richard, knocking over the last row of standing bottles. "I guess it works."
Adele asks him not to swear in the hallway.
"Can you stay?" asks Lois, the middle sister.
"Think I was popping in for a visit at ten forty-five?" Richard answers.
"Where's Leslie?" asks Kathleen.
"Home," he says, in a way that suggests home was not peaceful when he left.
"Is everything okay?" Kathleen asks.
Always good hostesses, they choose masculine striped sheets and brown towels from the linen closet; one sister disappears down the long central hall in search of a guest pillow and blanket. Kathleen offers to take the daybed and give their taller, bigger brother privacy and a real bed.
They range in age from Adele, fifty-three, to Richard, who is forty-four. No one is currently married or spoken for. Social lives vary from moribund (Adele's) to overactive (Richard's); in his sisters' opinion, he flirts too easily and cohabitates prematurely. Without evaluating their brother's capacity for monogamy, they assume he'd be happier if he settled down.
As for the sisters, it could have been different: There were many beaus in any given year, and a distribution of graces that made no one redheaded sister the most in demand. Adele had brains and the most classically pretty face. Lois had height and good bones, while Kathleen had-still has-wavy hair and the greenest eyes. Outside the immediate family, the unstudied explanation for their shared spinsterhood is what happened to Adele decades ago at age twenty-three: an engagement broken, unceremoniously and unilaterally, by an unsuitable boy
Today they consider themselves career women, with nice clothes and with jobs that provide either satisfaction or high seniority: Adele raises money for public television, Lois works for the Commonwealth, and Kathleen sells lingerie in her own shop downtown. Richard is the family underachiever, which is not acknowledged or even thought, because he is tall and charming, quite good-looking, adds new friends without dropping his old ones from high school or college, owns his own tuxedo, and has been an usher at no fewer than ten buddies' weddings. He delivers subpoenas for a living, and cultivates the understanding that it is a career that straddles law and law enforcement.
So picture the household: three adult sisters and a displaced brother on an unseasonably cold April night with a dusting of snow deposited by a passing squall. Richard will have settled into the den on the daybed, where the sisters usually watch their programs. He's made himself a cheese sandwich with relish on dill-cheese bread, which he doesn't like but eats cheerfully after fixing the TV's tint, which the women never adjust, even if the actors' faces are orange.
The downstairs buzzer rings after the sisters have returned to their rooms. They wait, assuming it is Richard-related, or the buzz of a careless visitor who has hit the wrong bell. In any event, they don't panic or even get out of bed, because Richard, an expert on getting into places where he's not welcome, is there in case of danger. The buzzer rings again, more insistently
"Richard?" Adele calls from her room.
He is watching television, so Adele tries again, louder.
"The door. See who it is."
"Want me to buzz 'em in?"
"You don't buzz anyone in unless you know who it is," says Adele.
"It's probably one of his friends," says Kathleen. "They have a sixth sense about when Richard is visiting."
"It's probably Leslie," Richard says. "I better go down."
Richard puts his shoes on without socks, and takes the elevator to the lobby in his trousers and undershirt. On the other side of the glass door, squinting in from the vestibule, is a man, a stranger, tall, with a high forehead and wavy gray-brown hair. He is tanned, and his shoes are beautifully shined. It seems to Richard that this man with a Burberry raincoat over his arm is both rich and benign, that Richard can open the door and ask if there's been some mistake at this hour; that this is not a copycat murderer.
"Yes?" says Richard.
The man says, "Good evening."
"You rang Three-G?"
"That's us," said Richard. "And you are . . . ?"
"I was hoping to see Adele. If she's in."
"It's late," says Richard. "So why don't you come back in the morning? No, they work in the morning. Give 'em a call after work."
"Richie," says the man, putting out his right hand as if peacemaking were in order. "It's Nash Harvey. I went with Adele a long time ago."
Richard peers into the man's gray eyes, and sees that it is true. "Harvey? Jesus Christ-what, like twenty-five years ago? The guy who disappeared?"
Richard is famously good-natured and optimistic, so he feels only curiosity and mild delight. "Some brothers might punch you in the nose right now. Or worse," he says.
Nash releases Richard's hand.
"Nah," says Richard. "I don't mean me. I was speaking hypothetically."
"Do you think she'll see me?"
"You're a brave man, Harv," says Richard.
"I've been on the West Coast."
"I know," says Richard. "Lois spotted your name on a box in a video store."
The intercom squawks, "Richard?"
"It's okay," he answers.
"Who is it?" asks the voice-Adele's.
"An old friend of mine. Didn't realize the time. He's going to a hotel."
She hesitates then says, "The Holiday Inn on Beacon Street probably has rooms available. Tell him we'd offer him a bed but we're full up."
Nash opens his mouth, presumably to acknowledge the suggestion of hospitality, but Richard releases the button as if it had pricked his flesh.
"Wasn't that her?" asks Nash.
"They all sound alike over the phone."
Nash asks if they all live together, but Richard ignores the question. "Go back up to Beacon," he says, "then right, toward Kenmore, not even a half mile on your left. It's nothing fancy, but it's clean."
Nash asks if they could talk, man to man, tomorrow. Is Richard free for lunch?
Richard says, "My schedule's my own."
"One o'clock. Is Jack and Marion's still open?"
"Gone. Closed at least a dozen years. Maybe more."
Again, "Richard?" squawks from the intercom,
"I'll call you at the hotel," Richard confirms before reassuring Adele that he is on his way up.
On the other side of the country, it is 73 degrees Fahrenheit and still light. Dina Dorsey-Harvey walks her Yorkies on a sidewalk that borders both highway and Pacific Ocean. Nash has gone home to Boston, where the Weather Channel map shows the dark green radar that means snow. Serves him right: Boston. Ridiculous. She hopes he'll have to circle Logan. Or crash. She could accept that, hating him for today's announcement. She'd be a young widow. Technically, a young roommate/lover/relatively longtime companion compared to the fits and starts that were Nash's previous liaisons.
The dogs are sniffing everything with greater interest than usual, and she is letting them. People on walks used to smile at the puppies, but it seems that no one does anymore. Women pushing strollers want Dina to smile at their human babies, whom they consider more compelling, and more of an achievement than owning animals. Runners and in-line skaters are too intent, too self-important with their golden retrievers and Labradors to see Daisy and Tatiana as anything but moving obstacles to be sidestepped.
The separation is less than twelve hours old. Nash had said, upon waking up, "I'm leaving for Boston this morning."
"Good," she had said, still annoyed from a disagreement the night before over her inviting two clients and their husbands, none of whom Nash had met, for dinner.
"It's too late now," Dina had argued. "I can't uninvite them."
"Yes, you can," he said. "Tell them you invited them before you checked with me and I was making my own unilateral plans." He repeated disdainfully, "Clients."
She'd slept in the guest room to make the point that she did not like his taking such a tone with her. Now she realizes that while she slept and worked on an adequate, excuse-Nash had come home with tickets for the South Coast Repertory, which regrettably took precedence over a small, impromptu supper, easily rescheduled-he was packing and calling airlines.
Dina hasn't told anyone yet, nor will she call it a breakup when she does. For a week, maybe two, she can say, "In Boston," and "No, I couldn't get away." She believes it is a mistake, a whim, a vacation. Relationships have dry spots, and you have to crawl along on your belly through the desert until you come to a lush, green, cool valley. She'd read that somewhere. She'd sit this out and let him miss her. Because he would. He wasn't looking for a fling; men looking for flings went to New York or Vegas or Canc?n, not Boston. He'd said it was something more complicated than sex with a thrilling new body; something about breaking the heart of a girl a long time ago who sounded to Dina as if she'd been no fun at all. Maybe an apology in person would fix whatever was wrong with him. He said grouchily that he'd call her when he had a room and a phone, and when he knew himself what he was hoping to find.
Dina walks across the bridge to Balboa Island for a low-fat latte. Inside the narrow coffee bar, she takes her pulse with regard to the blond counterboy's physical attractiveness, and calculates his age as early twenties-too old to be steaming milk for a living; too young for a serious affair, though not out of the question for a one-time vengeful lapse-then commends herself for feeling no twinges, except of loyalty to Nash. She sits on a bench outside the shop and smiles for the first time this day at Daisy and Tatiana, who are begging in tandem for what they must think is frozen yogurt in her paper cup. She doesn't really hate Nash, she concedes after the first sip; maybe she isn't even angry anymore. The blond boy walks outside to tell her she forgot the change from her five, and she says from behind her sunglasses, with her beautiful capped smile and her silver-pink lips, that she meant for him to keep it. She appraises him, as she does all handsome and fit men, as a sperm donor, for the baby Nash refuses to father. This one would give her a baby with platinum-blond hair and skin that tanned, and he wouldn't try to be a father. On the other hand, she'd like a college graduate. She shakes off the thought as fantasy and nonsense, as she always does: Respectable women don't find their sperm donors behind counters on Balboa Island. The doom she has felt since breakfast shifts slightly into what she thinks may be forgiveness. Nash will hear it in my voice when he calls tonight, she thinks. He loves that about me-my inability to hold a grudge.
But nothing is simple: Flying to Boston in business class, Nash meets a woman.
Across the aisle from Nash sits a big-boned woman whose olive skin is smooth, and whose upswept hair is shiny black. Arranged over Cynthia's high, old-fashioned bosom is a fringed stole of burnt-orange wool that Nash takes, at first glance, for an airline blanket. Her high heels are off, and her feet, under frosted stockings, look daintier than expected, and pampered. He had noticed her, her height, chest, and black felt gaucho hat at the gate and had thought, "Italian or Greek. Forty."
Nash is terrible at estimating age. Cynthia has recently turned fifty, and doesn't lie about her age because announcing the truth draws gasps and compliments about her complexion. She is five feet, ten inches tall, of a Lebanese father and French-Canadian mother, born and raised in New Jersey. Nash evaluates her when he thinks she won't notice, and makes the overture as soon as the plane takes off and the glasses of business-class beverages are poured. She is reading. "Business or pleasure?" he asks.
"Business," she says, and returns to the book.
He finds her answer chilly, but at the same time he admires the rebuff. It is in the style of a woman who isn't hungry for attention. He likes her for it, for being content with her lot.
"Forgive me," Nash murmurs, opening his own briefcase. "I won't interrupt again."
The woman lowers her book and pronounces it deadly dull.
"Why bother, then?" offers Nash. "Life is too short."
"The author's a client," says the woman. "I've put it off as long as I could, but I'm meeting him first thing in the morning."
The word client doesn't move him; he hears it too often to be impressed because it is what Dina calls the housewives who pay her to rub their feet. He asks this woman what the book is about, and she says, "Interstates."
"In what respect?"
"Roads. Who built them, why, and where." Cynthia, yet to introduce herself by name, makes a disparaging face.
Nash asks if she is in the book trade.
"The investment trade." She takes a sip from her mimosa, so he takes a sip from his, holding the glass so as to display his ringless left hand.
"You're based on what coast?" he said.
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