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Mourning Glory
by Warren Adler
Kensington, 2001


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First Chapter

"But I can still see the wrinkles," the woman said.

Grace studied the woman's face, the dry, aged-parchment skin tight over the bone structure, pulled back taut like a slingshot. A broad smile, she speculated, would detach it from the skull and shoot it like a Halloween mask over the makeup counter. Grace bit her lip to keep herself from grinning at the bizarre image.

She knew who the woman was by reputation, Mrs. Milton-hyphen-something, a world-class champion shopper. Clerks fawned over her as if she were the Queen of Sheba dispensing largesse to the peons. For a big commission Grace, too, could fawn with the best of them, hating the process but, like the rest of the salesclerks, eager to accept the rewards.

Having never before waited on Mrs. Milton-hyphen-something, she saw the moment as pregnant with income possibilities. Besides, she needed something to take the edge off what had started out to be a very unpromising day.

"Perhaps a bit more of this," Grace said, dabbing at the spidery corner of the woman's eyes with the brush. Even in the flattering stage light of the makeup mirror, carefully wrought to wash away the telltale clues of aging, the skin ruts could not be made to disappear.

A hard and hopeless case, Grace sighed to herself, knowing it would be impossible to satisfy the woman's insistence on appearing, at least in her own mind, wrinkle free. Makeup creates an illusion, she wanted to explain, her standard lecture to women who came to her for either a new look or lessons in the art of beauty enhancement through cosmetics.

For the younger women, the lesson was easier to impart. Besides, with them, she used a more magnified and, therefore, more revealing mirror, one that enlarged the pores. These younger ones who bellied up to her counter all seemed to suffer from rampant insecurity, as if they didn't truly believe in the essential beauty of youth and needed the paints and smears to feel attractive.

Somehow it didn't jibe with the ideal of the modern woman currently in vogue, the contemporary ideal, the confident, independent, able-to-have-it-all female touted in the media. Oh, they were out there, all right, like Mrs. Burns, who managed the store. Grace saw them everywhere, admired their wonderful, cool arrogance, their I-don't-need-a-man-to-make-me whole-and-happy attitude. She granted hopefully that such observations could be an illusion, a false positive, and that, in reality, those cool numbers prancing about were just as insecure as she was. Fat chance.

She knew in her heart exactly where she stood, one among many still barely on the sunny side of forty, an anonymous grunt in the vast army of female also-rans, the powerless majority, stuck in some weird limbo, dismissed by their more successful sisters as congenital losers, who could not, for whatever reasons, respond to the clarion of the gender's call to arms. The truth of the matter was that most of those in the ranks of these defeated battalions, like her, were unlucky, battered by inexplicable circumstances, mismanagement or, perhaps, just too dumb to find the right doors to open. Others were irrevocably stuck in yesterday's female mind-set, hopelessly old-fashioned and totally unaware of the possibilities in the new world.

Ironically, for purposes of social comment, advertising reach and political posturing, her group was statistically in demand. Not like the single females in the fifty-to-seventy category, that army of the divorced and widowed who had walked over the hill to oblivion, the cruelly cast-off, doomed by chronology, aging flesh and diminishing opportunity to a kind of loneliness and sexual limbo.

Her group was always cited as that demographic female baby boomer segment with subcategories like working poor, single mother, marginally educated and, above all, semiskilled. She was all of the above. Translated to class, she figured herself to be lower middle, very lower and, therefore, downwardly mobile, now in speedy descent. Jackie, her daughter, would undoubtedly agree, although for her sake, Grace maintained a razor-thin facade of hopefulness and optimism. By some miracle of genetics she still had her looks and figure. Small comfort since, so far, it hadn't done her much good.

Considering her status, she took some satisfaction in the irony of her occupation. Cosmetics, creating false illusions through facial paint, was, inexplicably and thankfully, exempt from prohibition by the so-called "new woman," a possibility hardly on the agenda of the woman who stood before her.

Women like Mrs. Milton-hyphen-something, well north of sixty with unlimited funds, weren't even pretending to buy the concept of cosmetic beauty enhancement. They wanted camouflage. They were dependent more on the plastic surgeon's knife than the chemist's dubious magic for their attempts to defeat or, at the least, stalemate time's relentless destruction.

"I don't think you know your business," the woman snapped, her head moving on her neck like a puppet's in a desperate attempt to find the wrinkle-smoothing reflection. To make visibility more authentic and truthful, the woman had put on her reading glasses and was squinting unhappily into the mirror.

"I am a graduate cosmetician," Grace said in defense of herself, citing her ninety-day course.

"Big deal," the woman huffed.

"And I've worked here in Palm Beach at Saks Fifth Avenue for three years," Grace countered calmly, pasting her best customer's smile on her lips, hoping to unload the crone's wagons. "I've never had a complaint." She paused, realizing she wasn't making a dent in the woman's unhappiness. "Sometimes cosmetics are designed to bring out a woman's character and tell the story of life well lived."

The woman eyed her suspiciously over her half glasses.

"What does that mean?" she sneered, her lips twisted as if she were having gas pains.

"I was merely commenting that your face shows extraordinary character. There is great beauty in character. After all, you've earned those wrinkles. Why try to hide them?"

"Are you crazy?" the woman said.

"None of these preparations are designed to hide the real you."

"Jesus. Are you trying to say that it's attractive to look like a wrinkled old fart? I don't have to come here for that, lady."

"You're misinterpreting my remark. I only meant . . ."

"I know what you meant."

Just one more nail in the coffin, Grace sighed, listing in her mind the day's toll so far, beginning with her morning battle with Jackie, sixteen years of seething anger and perceived needs. It was growing worse each day. Money for this. Money for that. It was a breakfast staple. Money! Damned money and the shortage thereof. It was the bane of her existence.

Worse, in a life of irony this one had sharp spikes. She had named her daughter after the late Jackie O, as if the name could be an inspiration for taste, gentility, elegance and fine aspirations. Now it seemed like an adolescent myth gone sour. Like her namesake, her Jackie was acquisitive, indiscriminately so. Unfortunately her taste had a split personality. She thirsted for the high end, yet seemed mesmerized by the low end, the lowest end.

"Can I help it if I like beautiful clothes, Mom? You promised that you would get me the Donna Karan when it got reduced."

The Donna Karan plaint was at the root of the latest skirmish on the clothes front. Jackie had seen the outfit one day when she had met Grace at Saks, where she often wandered through the designer clothes areas while waiting for Grace to get off from work. The slacks outfit was priced far out of line for their pocketbook, but Grace had promised that if it got to the sale stage, she would definitely buy it for her with her employee discount, which meant 40 percent off.

She had even begged the salesclerk in designer dresses to downplay it so that it would hang around unsold and be a candidate for reduction. It was on the verge, and Grace calculated that she could get it within the week, which would be a great surprise and, perhaps, a peace offering for Jackie.

This morning, in addition to the ritual of the clothes, it was the never-ending litany of the car. "A car is a must, Mom, an absolute must."

"I thought the Donna Karan was a must."

"That, too."

A "must" was condoms, Grace had countered, reiterating her own litany, which included

getting good enough marks to get into Florida State, which was Jackie's only affordable option for college. Another "must," in Grace's standard lecture, which she had delivered that morning with almost hysterical passion, was realizing one's potential and developing a sense of personal responsibility. This meant, in addition to safe sex, avoiding drugs and booze, bad company and, above all, showing some respect and appreciation for her hardworking efforts to give their lives, despite the obstacles, a semblance of dignity.

Dignity, she had discovered, was a word being used by her with increasing repetitiveness. It was for Grace the ultimate fallback position, the last refuge of the working poor. It was not easy to be dignified living on twenty-five thousand dollars a year before deductions.

"I'm going to be seventeen, Mom," Jackie had reminded her, as if she were about to enter some mythological geographic environment requiring special equipment to survive. "I'm not like the other girls in school. I don't want to be a K mart person for the rest of my life. I am a Saks Fifth Avenue person, not a clerk like you, a potential customer. I am in my heart a Bendel person, a Bonwit, a Cartier and Tiffany person, with a body that craves Valentinos, Versace, Ferragamo, St. Laurent, Givenchy, not Gap, Wal-Mart or K mart. I want expensive things. Not bargain-basement shit. Is it a crime to love nice things? You should be proud of my champagne tastes. You're the one who taught me that. Remember who I was named after."

"Now you're blaming me," Grace said, troubled by her daughter's awesome yearnings and eloquence beyond her years. More and more she was feeling inadequate to Jackie's daily challenges. It was, after all, Grace who had taken her on those window-shopping forays on Worth Avenue, who had subscribed to the fashion magazines that cluttered the apartment.

"Champagne tastes are okay if you have a champagne pocketbook. Which we don't."

"And never will," Jackie snorted.

"Never say never," Grace replied.

"I hate being without," Jackie told her, which was yet another perpetual mantra that she was exposed to on a daily basis.

"We're not exactly without, Jackie," Grace sighed.

"I know, Mom. I do appreciate your twenty-five-dollar weekly allowance," Jackie said sarcastically.

"I'm happy you remembered its source."

"Daddy would if he could."

"Daddy's entire life has been based on wish fulfillment, potential events that never happen."

After six years of divorce, Jason rarely surfaced, except in periods of acute financial desperation. At times, Grace had obliged his entreaties for her daughter's sake.

"Daddy is a dreamer. The world has to make a place for people like him."

"Just as long as it's not with us," Grace shot back with barbed sarcasm. Defending Jason, her ex-husband, was an arrow in Jackie's quiver of annoyances. She had protested vehemently her mother's dropping of the Lombardi name.

"Why would he want to be here with us? Come on, Mom. We live in a dump. Nothing here but losers. And don't be so high-and-mighty about my allowance. I couldn't get by if I didn't have that job in the multiplex."

"I'm doing the best I can."

It was always Grace's last refuge.

"I know. That's what hurts the most, knowing that this is the best you can do."

Weekends Jackie worked as a ticket cashier at the multiplex. Grace had actually increased her allowance so that she could devote more of her time to schoolwork. Financially it was still not enough, and Jackie had to keep her job. Grace was absolutely paranoid about seeing her daughter get into college and, so far, Jackie had barely managed to eke out a passing average.

Grace's disintegrating relationship with her daughter, long on a downhill slide, was now accelerating rapidly. Grace's best efforts, she realized, would never be good enough, not for someone with Jackie's unrealistic expectations. Had Grace planted these ideas in her daughter? Was it wrong to point out the good things in life, to inspire a higher taste level than their pocketbook could afford? Maybe so. Whatever the reason, Grace was losing control over her daughter.

Jackie was too attractive, too sexually precocious, too manipulative and financially ambitious to accept the present condition of her life. Grace had no illusions about where it would lead. Jackie was an explosion waiting to happen, and that morning's confrontation merely reiterated that possibility.

Then, adding insult to the injury of the day, just as a pouting Jackie left for school, Jason, Jackie's father, called from parts unknown with his repetitive plea. "Help me out till I get on my feet, Grace."

She had been particularly harsh. "The only way to get on your feet is to nail them to the ground, Jay. You're a fuck-up. Never call me again. Ever."

Angry, she had slammed the receiver into its cradle.

She had had fifteen years of good looks and empty promises from this brainless mannequin who could conjure up more impossible dreams than Don Quixote. Finally she had shown him the door, shouting, literally "and take your windmills with you." In retrospect, she had come to enjoy that line, which she had heard once in a movie.

Back home in "Ballimer," they were once the golden couple. She, the cute and very popular Grace Sorentino, the barber's daughter, with the jet-black hair, soft pink skin and Wedgwood blue eyes. The movie star look. He, Jason Lombardi, a walking double for Robert Redford. Of course, one didn't make a living being a walking double for Robert Redford, as she was to find out later. And there was limited mileage in being a cute knockout with a great figure. Someone had once said she had a walk that could raise an erection on a dead man. She had taken that as an insult back then. Now, at thirty-eight, she read it as a kind of compliment, although doubtful that the description was still operative. Jason's call had brought back the hated memory of her wasted years.

"Why would he want to be here with us? Come on, Mom. We live in a dump. Nothing here but losers. And don't be so high-and-mighty about my allowance. I couldn't get by if I didn't have that job in the multiplex."

"I'm doing the best I can."

It was always Grace's last refuge.

"I know. That's what hurts the most, knowing that this is the best you can do."

Weekends Jackie worked as a ticket cashier at the multiplex. Grace had actually increased her allowance so that she could devote more of her time to schoolwork. Financially it was still not enough, and Jackie had to keep her job. Grace was absolutely paranoid about seeing her daughter get into college and, so far, Jackie had barely managed to eke out a passing average.

Grace's disintegrating relationship with her daughter, long on a downhill slide, was now accelerating rapidly. Grace's best efforts, she realized, would never be good enough, not for someone with Jackie's unrealistic expectations. Had Grace planted these ideas in her daughter? Was it wrong to point out the good things in life, to inspire a higher taste level than their pocketbook could afford? Maybe so. Whatever the reason, Grace was losing control over her daughter.

Jackie was too attractive, too sexually precocious, too manipulative and financially ambitious to accept the present condition of her life. Grace had no illusions about where it would lead. Jackie was an explosion waiting to happen, and that morning's confrontation merely reiterated that possibility.

Then, adding insult to the injury of the day, just as a pouting Jackie left for school, Jason, Jackie's father, called from parts unknown with his repetitive plea. "Help me out till I get on my feet, Grace."

She had been particularly harsh. "The only way to get on your feet is to nail them to the ground, Jay. You're a fuck-up. Never call me again. Ever."

Angry, she had slammed the receiver into its cradle.

She had had fifteen years of good looks and empty promises from this brainless mannequin who could conjure up more impossible dreams than Don Quixote. Finally she had shown him the door, shouting, literally "and take your windmills with you." In retrospect, she had come to enjoy that line, which she had heard once in a movie.

Back home in "Ballimer," they were once the golden couple. She, the cute and very popular Grace Sorentino, the barber's daughter, with the jet-black hair, soft pink skin and Wedgwood blue eyes. The movie star look. He, Jason Lombardi, a walking double for Robert Redford. Of course, one didn't make a living being a walking double for Robert Redford, as she was to find out later. And there was limited mileage in being a cute knockout with a great figure. Someone had once said she had a walk that could raise an erection on a dead man. She had taken that as an insult back then. Now, at thirty-eight, she read it as a kind of compliment, although doubtful that the description was still operative. Jason's call had brought back the hated memory of her wasted years.

Also that morning, she had learned that her bank balance, hovering somewhere around a paltry eight-hundred dollars, was frozen, lost in computer hell, and she was getting turn-off notices from the telephone and power companies. Taunting her further, she had painfully banged her big toe kicking the ATM machine, which had swallowed her bank card after the third try.

The good news, a highly exaggerated rendition, was that she had just put the monthly car payment for her three-year-old, bottom-of-the-line Volkswagen into the mail, which meant that she had merely one year to go before she owned outright what was destined at that time to be a pile of junk. She had also paid down just enough of her Visa and Master cards to restore her credit, a mixed blessing.

But these were mere details, which ignored the total State of the Union of her life, which was abysmal, not to mention the harsh fact of marching time. Her thirty-ninth birthday was just three months away, an event that promised a day of unrelenting self-pity.

She hated birthdays. Her thirty-fourth, the day she threw Jason out from her bed and board, was supposed to mark a new beginning. It did; the beginning of another phase of the downward spiral. On the horizon, on the cusp of her fortieth year, was yet another harsh reality, the onset of early menopause (she was sure of that) and a future of emotional and financial insecurity.

She'd light the birthday candle in a Twinkie and make a wish for some imagined act of deliverance to lift her out of her marginal existence. After all, she could never allow herself to abandon hope of some miraculous windfall.

"What I meant was," Grace said in a desperate effort to assuage the frowning scarecrow in her pink Armani silk pants outfit and diamond-studded clawlike fingers on the other side of the counter, ". . . that you should lead with your best shot. Play to your strength." It was a thought that barely made sense to her, but somehow, under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate.

"You mean emphasizing my wrinkles and thereby illustrating my character, right? How well I lived my life, right?" Mrs. Milton-hyphen-something said.

"Exactly," Grace said hopefully. "Present to the world an honest look."

"I don't need you for an honest look, lady. I see it every morning in the mirror. What I need you for is to find me a dishonest look, which means hiding my wrinkles."

"I've already tried the best we have to offer," Grace said. "They're too . . ." She was tempted to say "too fucking deep." Instead she added: ". . . well-established."

"Well-established. Good. I like that. Cosmetics were invented to soften and hide them, to make you look better, not worse. To do it right takes talent," the woman sneered sarcastically. "In your case, the talent is missing."

"Perhaps one of my colleagues . . ."

"Colleagues, you call them. That's a good one. Clerks, you mean."

Grace failed to find either the humor or decency in this confrontation with a seventy-plus gnome who had wandered in from creamy Palm Beach's Worth Avenue determined to either find youth in a magic vial or, barring that, validate her alleged superiority by kicking the most accessible and vulnerable unfortunate in her range of motion, which was her, Grace Sorentino, the failed daughter of the barber Carmine and the silent, fanatically devout Mama Rosa, the Sicilian papal groupie from "Ballimer," Maryland.

"You people just don't know what you're doing," the woman said, frowning at her feral image in the mirror.

"It's in the eye of the beholder," Grace said, the pasted smile faltering.

"What is that supposed to mean?" the woman snapped, her face frozen, her eyes still searching for the magic light.

"It means," Grace said, sucking in a deep breath, determined to show a patient, pleasant visage, "that you might be noticing things that others would overlook. We normally don't observe each other with reading glasses."

The woman shook her head in exasperation and looked around the store, filled now with the army of mostly middle-aged bottle blondes with considerable disposable income, relentlessly avoiding the skin's mortal enemy, the ultraviolet ray.

"Do you always insult your customers?" the woman asked. "I detest salesgirls with an attitude."

"I hadn't meant to be . . ."

"Hadn't meant. Hadn't meant. People do atrocious things and then retreat into hadn't-meants," the woman snickered. Beneath her bleached-white look, Grace could detect the hot flush of anger.

Whoa there, Sorentino, Grace cautioned herself, valiantly holding her pasted smile, although her facial muscles were beginning to hurt with the effort.

"I'm sorry," Grace whispered. "There's just so much that can be done with makeup."

"Are you calling me an old crone?" the woman snapped.

"Old is a state of mind," Grace said.

"And crone?"

"You're putting words in my mouth," Grace said, feeling her smile collapse.

The woman's eyes blazed with anger.

"Do you know how much money I spend at Saks?" the woman said. The anger had forced her face to express itself. Nests of wrinkles emerged everywhere. Her skin seemed prunelike.

"I'm not privy to such information," Grace said.

"You needn't be sarcastic," the woman said.

At that point, the woman stood up from the high stool in which she had been sitting, removed her glasses, shook her head and sneered.

"I can't let this arrogance pass," she muttered, turning abruptly and moving through the crowd.

"I need this job, you old cunt," Grace muttered, wondering if anyone had observed the confrontation. She had no idea what she had said to tick off the woman. Not that words were necessary to convey the truth of the encounter. The woman was a miserable, unhappy, frustrated bitch, determined to cause pain. Grace had been as good a target as any. Wrong place, wrong time, she sighed, preparing herself to be figuratively taken out and shot.

She looked through the plate glass at Worth Avenue, that fantasyland of upper-crust consumerism glistening in the late morning sun. How had she wound up here, one of the minions to the wealthy? Jason, her unmourned departed ex, had brought her and Jackie to West Palm Beach to pursue yet another of his irrational certainties, another franchise to oblivion. And so they had remained, left to rot in the tropics, along with the coconuts and seagull droppings.

She had managed to make a marginal living for her and Jackie, mostly at retailing, where she could hustle for commissions and use her personality and good looks to sell.

Unfortunately, this modest selling talent was not effective enough to secure another relationship with a man. She hadn't exactly been a passionate seeker. In this age of the independent woman such yearnings were supposed to be an insult to her gender and, for a time, she had tried to live by that caveat. It was not an attitude that had contributed to her happiness.

The fact was, she had concluded, that most people come in pairs. Wasn't that the immutable law of nature, proof positive being the anatomical construct of the human body, however it had to be rearranged to accommodate same-sex copulation. It was a subject considered every time she reached for the vibrating dildo she kept hidden in the bottom drawer under her heavy northern clothes.

But after five years, with the looming realization that Jackie would be leaving home, hopefully, for college, she had opened herself up to the possibility of another permanent round with a male of the species. The fact was that she hated the idea of preening and detested the various routines of flirtation, the small talk, the dating and mating rituals.

She had made a number of forays into that world, forcing herself to be open to such experiences. She considered herself a lusty woman, and in her years with Jason, especially the early ones, there was a cornucopia of sex.

Trying to be brutally honest on such an intimate subject, she considered herself, at least from a mechanical point of view, a reasonably efficient lay. Not that she had exposed herself to any recent reviews on that subject. Certainly not lately. Jason hadn't voiced many complaints on her performance in that department, although its frequency had diminished considerably over the fifteen years of their marriage. He had simply lost interest.

She concluded finally that the thing she dreaded most was the initial phases of the mating game, the obligatory résumé, the verbal fencing, the various elements of the seduction scenario, the anxiety of-there was no other satisfactory and honest way to describe it-the first fuck, and all initial side issues and embarrassments, the adjustment to the whole range of this new partner's sensory activities, his odors, the sound of his breathing, his body temperature, the observation and necessary inventory of his body parts, the touch of his flesh. And her own exposure to such inspection by him. Such obligatory rituals inhibited promiscuity at her age, which was, she supposed, a blessing and certainly safe. It also threw some mental barriers in the way of flirtation as her imagination cranked out vivid scenarios of this dreaded initial phase. Strictly as a biological necessity, her vibrating dildo catered to her needs. It was a far cry from paradise, but it did the job.

She did manage one casual and lukewarm affair with her then dentist. In the age of AIDS, considering the precautions he took while she was in the dentist's chair, mask and surgical gloves, she felt reasonably safe, although she still insisted that he wear a condom. But the act had been more a validation of her femininity than a passionate experience. Most of the time she hadn't had an orgasm and was reticent about instructing him in the technicalities of her specific construct and the best method to achieve its effect.

The so-called affair lasted for exactly how long it took to put in three new crowns. He did offer a trade-out on future work, but she declined and went to another dentist, a move she had reason to regret. Despite his shortcomings in the sexual area, he was an excellent dentist.

Because of her lackluster and probably indifferent attempt to attract mating possibilities, she determined that she was "unlucky" when it came to men. Perhaps she had simply lost the skills of engagement. She felt incapable or unable to separate the shells from the peanuts. Did men perceive her as a hard case, or uppity, or too challenging or not challenging enough, or unwilling to enter into a relationship? Or all of the above and more?

Why was opportunity passing her by? Why wasn't there the slightest hint of serendipity in her life? Was the mating system itself, like a drain covered with rotting leaves, too clogged with young hard-body competitors to allow for some free flow into the pool for the nearly menopausal set. The fact was that the mating distribution system was patently unfair for a working woman heading in the wrong chronological direction? Yet she still had a good figure, and her face, with her expertise in makeup, could still appear youthful and attractive. Men did look her way, their glance, she sensed, occasionally lingering, as she swung past. But was she perceived as a willing objective? She doubted that.

All right, she conceded, she could tell herself that little white lie that she was liberated and independent enough to do without the comfort of male companionship. But hell, she wanted to be fucked by a live instrument, caressed by manly arms, supportive and supporting. She wanted someone to bounce thoughts and decisions against, wanted someone to help her skirt the minefields, someone strong and loving and manly and loyal, someone to fuss over, who fussed over her, someone to respect, someone to share the burden. Her experience with her ex had given her insight and experience into winners and losers. She could, she believed, if given half a chance, separate the wheat from the chaff.

She considered herself intelligent, if only modestly educated with one year of junior college. Even her most stringent self-assessment gave her a sound sense of curiosity, an excellent sense of humor, a glib tongue. Everybody said she had the gift of gab. She read The New York Times every Sunday and was an avid reader of the Palm Beach Post, which gave her some passing awareness of politics, current events and the entertainment world. No one could call her a dummy. Besides, she knew more about cosmetics and fashion than most people.

People said she was a good conversationalist and men showed what seemed an interest in her, at least in a first encounter. The problem as she saw it was that she found the men she met mostly boring, which led her to wonder what had happened to the gender in the nearly twenty years that had passed since her courtship and marriage. She had concluded that her own lack of interest in them was a turnoff, which the men sensed, and rarely called her for a second date.

Comparing herself to the women who came into the store, she could not understand why she had fallen through the cracks while others of lesser looks and brains and personality had found a secure domestic haven. Something was definitely missing in her strategy. Was she sending out bad vibes? Had repeated discouragement inhibited her social skills? The fault must be hers, she decided.

It was worrisome. It wouldn't be long before the forties arrived. Then what? Would she be heading to the blue hair pastures, her glasses held around her neck by a chain, her jowls drooping lower each year, her neck wrinkling like old parchment, her tits heading downward with the force of gravity, her hips and belly thickening, her morning routine washing down her estrogen replacement pills with orange juice.

It was dangerous to let imagination run away with itself. But there were just too many examples of people left at the post in southern Florida. All it took to set her thoughts going was a trip to any mall where the army of the aging bored marched in endless battalions. It took all her willpower to keep from falling over the edge into heavy depression.

For a while she took refuge in the idea that she was too busy devoting herself to raising Jackie to have any time for a new relationship. But that was a cop-out. Jackie was reaching new levels of worrisome independence by leaps and bounds. She was losing her and knew it.

In a year or two she would consider Grace, except for a marginal financing machine, irrelevant, worthy of lip service but little else. The reality of parenthood was getting through to her hard and fast, the end result would always be the ultimate conclusion that parents loved and worried about their children far more than they could ever love and worry about their parents.

She no longer blamed other people for her failures. She had married in the midst of her first year of junior college, a mistake compounded by a mistake. During her marriage, she had been a bank teller, a secretary, had worked in boutiques and other department stores, but, because of her husband's itchy foot and quixotic view of life, she hadn't been around long enough to make much of a mark. Jason, chasing his own impossible and indefinable dreams, had taken her and Jackie to points north, west and then south. In Florida she had taken a three-month cosmetician's course, had landed this job in the makeup department at Saks Fifth Avenue Palm Beach store and had been slowly building up a modest clientele. The telephone near the register rang and she knew instantly that it would be Pamela Burns, the store manager, on the other end of the line. The gnome had struck.

"Can you see me for a moment, Grace?"

"Of course," Grace replied, reaching unsuccessfully for an optimistic lilt to her tone. She hung up and proceeded on rubbery legs to Mrs. Burns's office.

"Mrs. Milton-Dennison told me you insulted her," Pamela Burns began directly, playing with the triple string of pearls that hung over her pink silk blouse. She was older than Grace, well-groomed, with hawk's eyes that hid behind high cheekbones and jet-black hair parted in the center and brushed straight back. Her lipstick, eye shadow and earrings glistened brightly as they caught the light beams from the staggeringly brilliant sunlight that blasted into the room from a high, round window behind her desk.

"I should have, but I didn't," Grace said. "She was rude and insufferable."

"Customers are never rude and insufferable, Grace," Pamela Burns lectured, talking slowly, enunciating clearly, illustrating her version of how a successful manager deals with anger and recalcitrant personnel, undoubtedly Grace. "Shopping at Saks is either therapy or fantasy fulfillment. But however you define it, there is only one object in mind as far as we're concerned. We check our egos and other unnecessary hubris at the employees' store entrance. We smile. We ingratiate. We flatter. We agree. Our mission, the sole objective of this enterprise, is to move merchandise."

"I move merchandise, Mrs. Burns," Grace declared with a feeble attempt at showing indignation.

"For which you are appropriately commissioned," Mrs. Burns shot back. "At the highest rate allowable in this company."

With commissions, Grace had averaged during her three years with Saks, a sum which, after deductions, barely qualified her for the working poor.

"Mrs. Milton-Dennison is a major consumer of merchandise. It is her addiction. We keep her supplied with the drug she needs."

"Merchandise?"

"Exactly."

Mrs. Burns looked at a paper on her desk and tapped it with long, polished fingernails, which also glistened in the sunbeams.

"Have you any idea what she spent with us last year, Grace?"

"She asked me the same question," Grace murmured.

"And well she should," Mrs. Burns said, lifting her eyes and studying Grace in their hot glare. "Eighty thousand a month."

"That's nearly a million dollars a year," Grace exclaimed, calculating quickly, stunned.

"A world-class movement of merchandise. That old biddy is an industry for us. We pucker on demand."

"Hard to believe . . . she's such a . . ." Grace checked herself. But she hoped her expression would convey her honest characterization of the woman, which was miserable shit.

". . . marvelous, generous, beautiful person," Mrs. Burns said, completing the comment with a sly smile of understanding.

"I gave her my best makeover advice, Mrs. Burns. Unfortunately, there is no product, except perhaps a complete face mask, that could hide her wrinkles."

"If she wants her wrinkles hidden, Grace, then you are charged with finding a way to hide them."

"Believe me, I tried," Grace said. A sob seemed to catch in her throat.

"Apparently not hard enough," Mrs. Burns told her between tight-pursed lips. "She wants you fired."

"Fired? Because I couldn't find a product to hide her wrinkles?"

"Apparently it was also the manner in which you trumpeted your failure."

"I didn't trumpet anything."

"That was your mistake. She needed trumpeting, the flattering kind. You should have trumpeted her assets."

"They escaped my notice."

"Therein lies the nub of the problem, Grace. She craved the licking of her tuchas. This is where she gets it. It is not for nothing that this store is named Saks."

She searched Mrs. Burns's face to find some recognition of the double entendre as a joke. It wasn't apparent. The woman was dead serious.

"Understand the deeper psychological implications of our role here, Grace. Mrs. Milton-Dennison gets off on shopping. This is where she comes to replace the fucking she does not get at home."

"Jesus!"

"I detest this kind of pressure, Grace. It frustrates me and I hate dealing with frustration. My only goal is to make numbers, to increase these numbers year after year. Numbers are what determines my bonus. We are not dealing here with the human equation. Numbers provide the true meaning of our existence. Mrs. Milton-Dennison represents only numbers, Grace. She is a factor here only because she puts a lot of bread into the oven. She is the soul and spirit of the capitalistic machine."

Mrs. Burns's sudden mixing of metaphors was disconcerting. Grace wondered if she should be respectful of Pamela Burns's remarkable candor and realism. The woman was generally admired for "telling it as it is," which was exactly what she was doing now. But to whom? Grace pondered. Certainly not to Mrs. Milton-Dennison. To me, poor impoverished servile loser me.

"I do not like to be forced to grovel before Mammon," Mrs. Burns said, as if reading Grace's mind. She lowered her voice. "We both know what Mrs. Milton-Dennison is." Suddenly no sound came out of her mouth. "A fucking miserable cunt" were the words her lips seemed to have formed. Grace was encouraged by the intimacy.

"A mover of merchandise," Grace said, the fear of firing suddenly diminishing as a possibility. She felt oddly relieved. "Then you're not terminating me," Grace said after a brief pause.

"What would you do if you were being threatened with a million-dollar loss of custom, Grace?"

"It would be like . . ." Grace searched her mind for an adequate image. "Like being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."

"That represents a choice. Mrs. Milton-Dennison didn't give me such a wide range of options."

"So I am fired?"

"I hate to put it that way, Grace. It makes me feel like an instrument of cruelty. I do know your situation Grace. We have to know about our employees in these litigious days."

"Am I or am I not?" Grace said, raising her voice.

Mrs. Burns shook her head. She seemed genuinely grieved, although Grace distrusted the pose. Dissimulation was part of the stock in trade of winners like Mrs. Burns. They wore their bitchery like a badge of honor, proof that their ruthlessness was equal to men's.

"I'm going to give you a bit of advice, Grace," she said, her eyes glazing as she moved her head in the direction of the window, as if she were speaking to the pedestrians along Worth Avenue. "We are in Palm Beach, Florida, the ideal hunting ground for Mr. Big Bucks. In this wasteland, they are everywhere, like pebbles on the beach." She sucked in a deep breath and lowered her voice.

Pamela Burns paused; her nostrils flared, a tiny smile lifted her lips. "Find yourself an older wealthy man, a widower, fresh from the burial ground, someone who in his vulnerability can appreciate a good-looking woman like yourself to share his bed and his fortune. Mostly the latter, of course, although the bed will be the conduit. You should hone your technique in that department, Grace.

"To a successful man of declining years, used to control, that part, man's best friend, is your ally. Pay it special attention. Secure your old age. No one will do it for you. Make yourself a mover of merchandise instead of a mere dispenser. It is better for your tuchas to be a receiver of the pucker than to be obliged to offer it. Seek out and find Mr. Big Bucks."

Grace was stunned and incredulous by the cool cynicism of Mrs. Burns's remarks. She couldn't believe her ears.

"What are you saying, Mrs. Burns?" Grace said, barely able to absorb the information presented. It seemed so out of character, so ruthless and calculating. Mrs. Burns turned her gaze from the window and focused on Grace.

"I'm simply saying find yourself a wealthy man who has just buried his wife."

"A wealthy widower?" Grace muttered, still in disbelieving mode. "A millionaire?"

"My dear girl, millionaire is such a passé term. It no longer connotes serious money. Learn the modern interpretation of numbers. It will open your eyes. Think in terms of a section."

"A section?"

"A hundred mil. You may not make it, but as the poet said, let your reach exceed your grasp. They are out there, believe me."

"Why are you telling me this, Mrs. Burns?"

"Because I am wracked with guilt. I hate doing this to you. I also hate Mrs. Milton-Dennison." She lowered her voice. "Lousy old cunt."

"Is there a guidebook on how one goes about accomplishing this feat?" Grace asked, hoping that Mrs. Burns would get the facetiousness and sneering sarcasm of her remark.

"Published every day," Mrs. Burns shot back without batting an eye. "The obituary columns, Grace. Make it your daily Bible reading."

"You are serious."

"Dead."

Grace, for the moment forgetting her situation, considered the irony implicit in the word.

"Are you saying that I should attend these funerals?"

"Consider it research."

"And then?"

"Assess the situation. Be sure there is money there. Survey the mourners. Evaluate their wealth and lifestyle. If possible, check beforehand. See where they come from. Look at their houses. Make a careful evaluation. Don't make the mistake of choosing a target with anything less than big money. Keep your eye on the ball, then find a way to make contact."

"But why a recent widower?" Grace asked, feeling foolish. The idea seemed preposterous, ghoulish. Here she was in the midst of a personal disaster and she was listening to what seemed like nonsense. Worse, she was asking questions.

"With a long marriage," Mrs. Burns said, expanding on the idea. "Preferably a first wife."

"Why a first wife?"

"Because men in a long marriage are more accustomed to the ministrations of women, Grace. Like horses, they have been broken, domesticated."

Is she playing with me? Grace thought. Despite her misgivings, Grace found herself bizarrely interested, as if the strange idea might divert her mind from this train wreck.

"Are there any other considerations?" Grace asked, thinking: She wants to pull my chain. I'll pull hers. "Is there an age requirement?"

"I'd put a cap of seventy-five on the choices, although the sixties would be better. You run into protective relatives when you go higher in age. And they need less of what a woman has to offer. They figure you are only after that person's money."

"Isn't that the purpose of the exercise?"

"I'm talking time here, Grace. Under seventy-five the lure is still there." Mrs. Burns winked.

"You sound like you've made a thorough study of the subject."

"I have. I found one."

"Mr. Burns?"

"A section?"

"A hundred mil. You may not make it, but as the poet said, let your reach exceed your grasp. They are out there, believe me."

"Why are you telling me this, Mrs. Burns?"

"Because I am wracked with guilt. I hate doing this to you. I also hate Mrs. Milton-Dennison." She lowered her voice. "Lousy old cunt."

"Is there a guidebook on how one goes about accomplishing this feat?" Grace asked, hoping that Mrs. Burns would get the facetiousness and sneering sarcasm of her remark.

"Published every day," Mrs. Burns shot back without batting an eye. "The obituary columns, Grace. Make it your daily Bible reading."

"You are serious."

"Dead."

Grace, for the moment forgetting her situation, considered the irony implicit in the word.

"Are you saying that I should attend these funerals?"

"Consider it research."

"And then?"

"Assess the situation. Be sure there is money there. Survey the mourners. Evaluate their wealth and lifestyle. If possible, check beforehand. See where they come from. Look at their houses. Make a careful evaluation. Don't make the mistake of choosing a target with anything less than big money. Keep your eye on the ball, then find a way to make contact."

"But why a recent widower?" Grace asked, feeling foolish. The idea seemed preposterous, ghoulish. Here she was in the midst of a personal disaster and she was listening to what seemed like nonsense. Worse, she was asking questions.

"With a long marriage," Mrs. Burns said, expanding on the idea. "Preferably a first wife."

"Why a first wife?"

"Because men in a long marriage are more accustomed to the ministrations of women, Grace. Like horses, they have been broken, domesticated."

Is she playing with me? Grace thought. Despite her misgivings, Grace found herself bizarrely interested, as if the strange idea might divert her mind from this train wreck.

"Are there any other considerations?" Grace asked, thinking: She wants to pull my chain. I'll pull hers. "Is there an age requirement?"

"I'd put a cap of seventy-five on the choices, although the sixties would be better. You run into protective relatives when you go higher in age. And they need less of what a woman has to offer. They figure you are only after that person's money."

"Isn't that the purpose of the exercise?"

"I'm talking time here, Grace. Under seventy-five the lure is still there." Mrs. Burns winked.

"You sound like you've made a thorough study of the subject."

"I have. I found one."

"Mr. Burns?"

"Your choice, dear," Mrs. Burns said. "We have lawyers on retainer."

"Do I also lose my employee discount?" Grace asked, thinking of her promise to Jackie.

"When you are no longer an employee, you no longer have an employee discount."

Furious, Grace scribbled her name on the paper, and Mrs. Burns opened a drawer and handed her a check already cut for the amount mentioned. Grace studied the check for a moment, as if to illustrate her distrust, then stood up.

"It's an unfair world, Grace," Mrs. Burns said. "Nevertheless, if Mrs. Milton-Dennison should take her business elsewhere or die, believe me I can make a firm commitment at this moment to give you back your job."

"You are one cold-blooded bitch, Mrs. Burns," Grace said. They exchanged glances, and after a moment of staring each other down, Mrs. Burns nodded.

"I pride myself on that perception," she said.

Grace turned and started toward the door, stopping suddenly when she heard her name called. She turned again and faced the woman behind the desk.

"In the enterprise I suggest, Grace, there is one more caveat. It is fundamental."

Grace looked at the woman, a commanding presence behind her desk. Mrs. Burns lifted her left hand. At first Grace wondered if she was giving her the traditional gesture of contempt.

"Ring around your finger," Mrs. Burns said cheerily. She directed Grace's attention to the glittering diamond marriage band on the finger of her left hand. "This is essential. And beware the prenup, the deal before you get it."

"You make it sound like a sales agreement."

"Now you're getting to the heart of the deal. Especially if he's got kids. They'll guilt him into a tough prenup. Fight it. My advice . . . get him while he's hottest."

"Is this stuff relevant to me? Really, Mrs. Burns. Never."

"Never say never."

Speechless, Grace turned to the door with a heavy heart.

"Last word of wisdom, Grace," Mrs. Burns said. "Never move in before..."

"Before what?"

She lifted her left hand again.

"This," Mrs. Burns said. "Ring around your finger."

"Screw you," Grace muttered.

This woman is off the wall, she thought, slamming the door after her.

Excerpted from Mourning Glory by Warren Adler. Copyright © 2001 by Warren Adler. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permissions.









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