FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND
The rose garden needed watering. By midday the ground was parched and the fullest, heaviest blooms seemed to be waiting for the wind to rise and scatter all their petals. Impossibly open, already a little seared on their edges, they yielded the last of their beauty to the sun. To be beautiful a few hours more or less, what does it matter to a rose?
As if they had noted the lack of shadow on the old sundial, the birds and the butterflies had all left for their naps. Only one inebriated bee, on his way to the hive, still zigzagged greedily from flower to flower. Then, all was still, save for the perpetual trickling of a fountain: For the last hundred years the trio of bare-breasted naiads had been about to dive into the alabaster pool below, forever ready to frolic, forever unreasonably young and desirable (taunting thirsty roses for all eternity).
And the truth is the fountain really should have been drained and cleaned, but never mind that for now. From the mansion's big parlor casement windows, Dodie glanced down toward the rose garden again and made yet another mental note-she never wrote anything down and it must have been the thirtieth time she reminded herself-to call the landscape guy, remind him the summer people were arriving tomorrow. Dodie sighed. Her husband was supposed to do the watering, but who knew where he was.
The house was ready. She had checked and double-checked the upstairs. There were ten bedrooms. Ten! Although there would only be five tenants, or maybe six if the son came, all the rooms needed to be ready, just in case. All week, during daylight hours, the rooms had been aired, doors and windows wedged open, breezes vigorously communicating, lifting a white piqué curtain here or the corner of a dotted-swiss bedspread there, caressing the matelassé coverlets spread over two chair backs, while on the beds, mattresses and pillows brazenly sprawled, stripped down to their striped ticking. Now each room was done, its door primly closed.
Well, if you weren't super-rich, that's probably what it took, was five of you to rent this place, thought Dodie. I don't know, maybe ten of you. They may have gotten a discount because one of them, Susie Diamond, was a friend of Mr. Durrell's. Or Bennett, as he seemed to think Dodie should call him, though she never would if she could help it. The only thing she knew about Susie Diamond was that she was a costume designer in the theater. Mr. Durrell had been living in Italy for the last ten years, and when he came to New York it was usually to go on a talk show, so he stayed in Manhattan at the Carlyle and never came upstate at all. When they had established their arrangement, a decade ago, Mr. Durrell had explained that he wanted the house kept just so and that he might be back at any time. But he never returned. Dodie thought it was perhaps because the young man who had lived here with him had died, early in the AIDS epidemic, but of course that's not something Mr. Durrell ever mentioned.
One spring, in the course of their quarterly transatlantic phone call, when Mr. Durrell confirmed decisions about upkeep and repairs, Dodie had pointed out that it was difficult for the house to be in really good shape if there was never anyone in it. "Ah," he had said. "Yes."
"Are you going to sell it?" she had asked, baldly. She'd been worried about it and just wanted to get the conversation over with.
"Sell it?" he asked, as if bewildered. "No, of course not. I don't know. Would you like to live there as a caretaker?"
"No," said Dodie. She had already worked this out. It would be too far to get the kids to school and she couldn't trust Joe here, anyway, was the truth. Who knew when he'd go on a bender and trash the place. "No, but thank you very much, Mr. Durrell," she said.
"Please, call me Bennett," he said.
"Thank you, Bennett," she dutifully responded.
"Maybe we'll rent it for the summer," he had said.
"Good idea," said Dodie.
She had assumed nothing would come of the conversation, but, on the contrary, two weeks later Mr. Durrell had called and said a family would be arriving on Memorial Day weekend. Could the house be ready by then?
Two young girls from town had come to help Dodie. She'd had the same ones for three years running now. At the beginning they were real cutie pies, who took instructions well. This year one of them had purple-and-orange hair and the other one was pregnant and Dodie's proportion of the work had risen. They weren't all that interested anyway since, as a rule, the summer tenants had small children, which was a windfall for the girls, who took turns baby-sitting. This year, if Dodie understood correctly, it wasn't a regular family; it was five single people.
Usually it was a mother and one or two or three children. They arrived promptly on Memorial Day to stay for the summer and the husband would come on weekends, bringing guests. This year, for one thing, they'd be coming late, not until the Fourth of July. For another, it was three women and two men, who were all friends but none of them was married, Susie Diamond had told her.
"On some weekends my son may also be there," Susie Diamond had said.
"Will you need baby-sitting?" Dodie had asked.
Susie laughed. She had a very good laugh. Dodie laughed too. "No," Susie said. "My son will be twenty-three in July."
"Oh!" said Dodie. "You don't sound old enough to have such a grown-up child."
Susie laughed again. "Thank you," she said. "What about you? Do you have children?"
"Yes," said Dodie. "Three boys. Eight, six, and four."
"Goodness!" exclaimed Susie.
"But don't worry. They'll be with my mother."
Their deal was that Dodie would come every afternoon on the weekends, to prepare dinner and tidy up. The teenagers would be by during the week-Supposedly! thought Dodie-to help with the heavy cleaning. "Everything will be ready for you," Dodie said. She paused, and then added, "You'll have a wonderful summer." That sort of thing didn't come easily to her, but she felt it was necessary.
Susie laughed again. "Really?" she said. "Yes, you're right, I'm sure we will."
They were more than halfway there. Susie was driving. All three of them had been in excellent moods, summer-is-starting kind of moods, even Kay, but when Susie announced they had just driven past the halfway mark, Kay sighed. Billy noticed and smiled at her. She smiled back.
"What?" said Susie.
"I'm getting hungry," said Billy.
"We just ate," said Susie. At the sound of Susie's voice, the dog barked and unsteadily rose on Kay's lap to stare at Susie.
"Hi, poochie. Hi, sweetheart," said Susie. She stretched her neck toward him, and the dog immediately began to lick her mouth and chin.
"Watch it," said Billy. "You're drifting."
The entire back of the car was so loaded with their summer things that the rear mirror was useless. Though he knew them well, Billy had been flabbergasted by how much the two women had brought with them.
The dog hobbled over across the emergency brake to Susie's lap. He settled down in a more or less perfect circle and Susie set to driving with one hand, so she could pat and caress him with the other.
"The kids get a puppy!" announced Susie, who had this spring developed a strain of humor that consisted of proclaiming topic sentences which might have served as captions for illustrations of nineteenth-century children's books.
Susie had bought the dog, a couple of months ago, on impulse. On her way uptown, striding by a pet shop window on her way to a meeting with a director-she was ambivalent about whether she wanted the job and she was already late-she had happened to have made...