Carissa and I had come from the summer cotillion that I had been forced to attend. I say “forced” because no bloke wants to attend a cotillion, which involves a monkey suit, pre-cotillion purchases of chrysanthemums bound in satin ribbon and treacherous pins and the need to stay sober enough to remain gentlemanly yet wittily charming at all times, even when being asked questions that rake through scabbed-over ego ulcerations such as, “So what do you do for a living, Bob?”
By the end of the evening I had acquitted myself well—except for a miniscule tear in a strategic piece of red lace, my fault though not through a boorish gesture but the unfortunate snag of a cufflink as I removed her wrap. “Don’t worry, Bobby baby,” Carissa said. “It can be mended.”
“I’ll buy you a new one,” I said, and she smiled gently because Bob actually can’t put together enough change for a domestic beer during happy hour.
I dropped Carissa off at the family compound at Elkins Lake and went to mine, where I found a woman about my age sitting in the living room with my parents. Nobody was drunk, so I figured she must be a newcomer to the neighborhood. She jumped to her feet as soon as I walked in, still in my suit and tie. The bright gleam in her eye said she was happy to see me, yet I noticed right away she was wearing a big rock and platinum band on her ring finger.
“Yes, he is very handsome,” my mother said, “but he doesn’t have a job and no prospects, and despite all you see here, he’s not independently wealthy.”
So, maybe they were drunk.
“Mom, I have a girlfriend,” I said and then I smiled at the new neighbor. “And you’re married.”
The woman blushed and extended her hand. She wore a yellow floral dress with a retro full skirt, she had bobbed red hair, brown eyes, and a golden brown tan. She looked like a perky girl detective, like she must have driven up in a roadster. “Jennifer Wisocki,” she said.
“She doesn’t look Japanese and neither does her husband,” my dad said.
“I bet Wisocki is Polish,” I said, while she beamed at me in a way I was accustomed to. It was usually followed by, “Oh, you have such cute dimples,” to which I responded, “Yes, but they’re a bitch to shave.”
“Jennifer has just moved down here with her husband. He has a job at the college,” my mother said.
“We love it here,” Jennifer said. “We’ve met so many nice people.”
My dad snorted. My mother elbowed him in the ribs. Jennifer’s eyes were still on mine, so I pulled another smile from the reserve of cotillion charm still left in me. “I’m glad.”
Then Jennifer left. I went upstairs to hang up my suit and then I came back downstairs for a glass of water. Mother was at the kitchen table working a crossword puzzle.
“How was the cotillion?”
“Don’t ever do that to me again.”
“How did Carissa like it?”
“She loved it.”
“She has money, Bob,” Mom said. “You do whatever she wants. If she likes cotillions, you like cotillions.”
“Ma, I want to take care of her, not the other way around,” I said, swallowing a Xanax.
“You’d better get cracking, Bob,” said my father, standing in the threshold in his PJs. “That Carissa has the longest legs I’ve ever seen.” Looking at me over my mother’s head bent over the crossword puzzle, he nodded at me significantly. “Your mother’s very long waisted,” he said, putting his hands on his own hips. “Little short legs.”
“You two are disgusting,” my mother said.
“So, you met a new friend,” I said.
“You sure Wisocki isn’t Japanese?” my father said.
“What’s her story?” I said.
“She’s thirty-seven. Used to make good money herself but left it so she could come here with her husband. From Dallas. Two little boys. She’s a Baptist. I don’t know about him. If he’s Polish, I guess he’s Catholic, right?” Mom said, never looking up. “Renting a place around the corner from the Mondays until they can buy. What’s a three-letter word for ‘anger’?”
“Ire,” I said. “I-R-E.”
“Oh, I knew that.”
That was back in August. We didn’t see Jennifer Wisocki again until the week after Labor Day when she returned the plate my mother used to deliver brownies to her boys on their first day of school. But Mom wasn’t home, just Carissa and I. We were lounging in the shade of the backyard with the water mister blowing on us, and we invited Jennifer in for Chianti and antipasto. She was nothing like the woman I met on cotillion night. The playful gleam in her eyes, the flowery extravagance of her presence was gone, withered.
“This is very nice. So unexpected,” she said and smiled wanly. “And you’re such a gorgeous couple.”
Carissa cut her eyes over the bowl of her wine glass at me and gave me a look uniquely hers, one that conveys warm, silky and secret streams of carnality. I’m sure Jennifer never noticed, but I had to cross my legs. “So, Jenn. How’s it going?”
Jennifer’s wholesome freckled face crumpled, and we were afraid she might cry.
“We can’t find a house to buy. They’re all ridiculously over priced for the space and condition they’re in. The schools are terrible. My boys are repeating work they had in Dallas this time last year. It’s like they’ve both been held back a grade. There’s no good place to buy groceries. I can’t find a job. My doctor asked me what church we went to and then got irritated when I wouldn’t tell him. Nobody ever asked us that in Dallas. What does that mean? If we don’t go to his church he won’t treat us? And we’ve switched congregations twice. The first two someone said something horrible, and one time it was the pastor himself. And they wanted to make sure we knew who to vote for in the local election in November. At church! And we’re not even registered to vote yet.”
“Welcome to Huntsville,” I said.
“How do people like you live here?” Jennifer said, and then she did cry, two crystal orbs rolling down the tanned and prominent cheekbones of her girl detective face.
“Get her a tissue,” Carissa said, and I jumped up, grateful to have a chore that would take me away for a moment.
I was conflicted, of course, having been born and raised in Huntsville, having missed these tall pines, spring wildflowers and the drawl of soft voices when away in cold, hard places like Boston and New York. But I knew exactly what Jennifer had run into.
Carissa met me in the kitchen as I was rushing back with a box of tissues. “Don’t try to recruit her,” she said urgently.
“Naysayers,” Carissa said. “She’s also met George Russell.”
“Crap,” I said.
“Don’t talk shit about anyone, don’t call anyone a crook, a liar or a hater,” Carissa said. “Just be sweet and follow my lead.”
We rejoined our guest, who was still weeping. “Tell him what you just told me,” Carissa said, pouring Jennifer another glass of Chianti.
“Oh, well, I was just telling Carissa that my husband and I were invited to a party and [this older lady] pulled me aside. We had a wonderful chat for a few minutes and I really liked her. She seemed very smart and on top of things, a real go-getter. I wanted to sign up for whatever she needed me to do. Then she started telling me about how Huntsville was infested with evil people and that Richard and I must stay away from them at all costs. She didn’t say ‘or else,’ but she might as well have.”
Of course, Carissa and I knew who this lady was and I bet you do, too.
“I kept asking her which people she meant and what they did that made them so evil.” Jennifer’s eyes welled again and she dabbed at them with tissue. “She told me about this horrible man—this crazy George Russell person—who makes pornography about young girls being stabbed to death and their bodies eaten. So I just about died when I finally ran into him. He looked down the front of my dress and then asked me to be in one of his movies. Just like Mrs.— said he would.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, and Carissa patted Jennifer’s shoulder.
“ Mrs.— said this man was in control of a group of zombies who do terrible things to anyone who tries to run for office or start a new business. They make up things about you and call and email you to tell you if you don’t stop, it will only get worse. And they’re growing all the time. They’re evil, she said. Pure evil. And they can only be stopped if the good people here stay away from them, far, far away. So Richard and I, of course, we want to be good people, too. So we thought we’d stick close to Mrs.— and her people. Go to the doctor’s office they told us to go to. Have lunch or dinner with who we’re supposed to. But it all started feeling very ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ And then one night Richard and I got a sitter and met some of his students at [a certain bar]. A few days later I got an invitation to one of the ladies’ clubs and, without even thinking, I mentioned that we’d been to that [bar].
‘Oh, no!’ they said. ‘You can’t be seen in there. That’s one of their strongholds, the evil people.’ I just laughed it off and said something about not seeing anyone with horns and a forked tail in there, but these women didn’t think it was funny at all, and I haven’t been invited back.
“Then yesterday one of the professors called Richard an asshole when he caught him explaining eminent domain to a group of students and accused him of hating veterans. But Richard fought in the first Gulf War and his dad died in Vietnam. The guy said, ‘Look, you’d better pick sides quick in this town or we’ll pick them for you.’ Pick sides? I just don’t understand!”
It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut as Jennifer sobbed a few seconds more. Then she dried her eyes and looked off into the sunny backyard where the lawn sprinklers were going full blast just like the water mister despite a third month of water restrictions.
“It’s like being invited in for cake when the choice is ‘or death,’ ” Jennifer said. “Tea and cake or death? We’re moving to The Woodlands.”
“Oh, no. I hope you don’t do that,” Carissa said. “We need nice, normal people to move here and stay.”
“That’s right, Jenn,” I said. “You should stand up for yourself. Socialize with whomever you want to wherever you want to. Pick your own doctor and your own church.”
Jennifer lifted her chin defiantly. “You’re right. I should.”
“That’s the spirit,” I said. “Put campaign signs in your yard. Vote for whoever you want to. Write letters to the editor, speak up at public meetings. It’s your right as an American cit—”
“Wait a minute,” Jennifer said, her eyes widening in sudden recognition. “Oh, my God, I haven’t been sitting here with—. You’re not—. You’re mother isn’t—? And you’re father, he’s not—?” She jumped to her feet. “Oh, shit! You’re him! The evil son!”
And then Jennifer almost tripped over the barbecue pit to get to the sliding glass door, which—thankfully—gave me time to throw it open before she burst through it and cut herself to pieces. Carissa and I watched her stumble through the house and out the front door. Too bad for her it was still daylight.
Carissa smacked me upside the head.
“Nice job, Patrick Henry,” she said. “We almost got one.”