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Chapter 2:

She took one final look in the mirror, made a last minute adjustment to her hair, then jumped up from her dressing table and hurried for the door. As she strode through the living room, she paused briefly to admire her reflection in the full length mirror which stood between the buffet and the chaise. A fine figure of a woman, she complimented herself, deserving far greater rewards than life had given her up till now. She drew herself up, threw her head back and tossed her lustrous brown locks. Too dazzling, she thought. I’m just too intense. He likes his women quiet and unassuming, mousy even, she thought with disdain. Well, I can conceal only so much. Either he loves me the way I am or else I’ll… she decided she would think about that later.

She moved to the door and struck a pose which she hoped was the right combination of subtle feminine appeal and not so subtle sensuality. She leaned forward to peer through the peephole, just to make sure it was him. She yanked the door open, stuck her head out, and looked up and down the empty hallway. That’s the fourth time this afternoon I’ve done this. She slammed the door then held her ear to it to see if any of her neighbors had heard.

“Truly,” she said aloud, “I am becoming quite vexed.” That sounded properly cultured, she thought. A lady of her refinement should maintain her image even in so tiresome a situation. When Jim had called her that morning, he said he was coming right over, and his voice had a ring of urgency, she remembered. Then he had called and said he wouldn’t be able to come until later that afternoon, but that he very much wanted to talk to her. Last night they had certainly done no talking. What could have happened between last night and this morning that they should talk about? Edith Hughes, she said to herself, was entitled to more than idle conversation, and she would see to it that she got it.

It didn’t matter that she’d only recently succeeded in making Jim a part of her life. Now that he was, she had absolutely no intention of letting him go. Those last few days they had spent together had sealed their relationship as far as she was concerned. He had made certain promises deep in the night, there in the hotel room in Buffalo, and she was determined that his obligation would not fade in the clear light of day in Oakdale. She distractedly fingered the bouquet of gladioli he had brought her last night. Glads – so brilliant, so showy, she thought. So unlike Jim, yet so very right for Edith.

So where was he? This was really becoming too much to bear. She certainly wasn’t about to call his office and not just because her brother might very well be there. In fact, she didn’t really care that much what Chris knew about them. He’d had his chance to give her what she needed in life and he’d chose not to, so now she was just going to have to go after her heart’s desires in her own way. And if Chris didn’t like how she went about it, well that was just too bad, now wasn’t it?

Perhaps she would change her dress. That should kill some time. Anyway, now that it was nearly evening, her light blue floral print was no longer appropriate. What should she choose? She moved to her closet and opened the door. Her theory about housecleaning was that it should be confined to those areas of the apartment that people were likely to see and her closet was not one of those. Her burgundy dress was lying in a heap on the floor, underneath a pair of shoes and a blouse, so there went that idea. Without enthusiasm she began to shuffle through the garments that were still on hangers. Jim’s imminent visit was losing it’s appeal with each passing moment.

Well, she decided with resignation, I’ve got to choose something and I might as well do it now. The grey cocktail dress was a trifle formal and she didn’t want to look as if she considered his visit a special occasion. Wait, she thought, that simple navy sheath I got last month will be just perfect. She slipped it on and moved immediately to her dressing table. Pearls would be an exquisite finishing touch, but should it be a single strand or a double? She was starting to feel a little less anxious now. In fact she began to hope that Jim would be delayed just a few minutes longer.

She settled herself luxuriantly on her stool, as if she had all the time on earth. Her dressing table was her favorite spot in the whole world. She loved the graceful curve of the mirror, the elegant gleam of the glass top, the opulent excess of the rows and rows of bottles and tiny jars that lined the top and the one little shelf. But most of all, she loved the pink ruffle cover. She laughed aloud to think of it, that she, Edith Hughes, loved pink ruffles but it was true. To her they seemed to symbolize everything she desired – beauty and charm, both for herself and her surroundings, as well as affluence, security and most of all, love. In fact, it was only when she sat here at her table, with those ruffles brushing softly against her knees that she felt truly and completely loved.

Jim stood in the hallway for what seemed to him like an eternity, his finger posed over the doorbell. How on earth was he going to handle this? It had seemed so simple this morning. All he had to do was to be straightforward with her, to explain how their affair would affect everyone and why they had to end it. If only he had come over first thing, right after he had awakened, when the memory of his dream was still so fresh and painful. Then the shock of thinking he’d awakened in Edith’s room instead of his own would have pushed him into putting a stop to this foolishness once and for all. Because that’s what it was, pure and simple. It was foolish for a married man to carry on with another woman when he had no intention of doing “the right thing” by her. And in a situation like this, what was the right thing anyway? He had a wife he loved very deeply and a daughter he adored, and if they ever found out about this, it would break their hearts. Poor Claire was fragile enough already and Ellen… He refused to even think about what it would do to that innocent teenager if she ever found out. And find out she would, unless he not only broke off his relationship with Edith, but also convinced her to keep their liaison a secret in the process.

He’d already learned about Edith’s disregard for other people’s feelings, and he did not want another lesson like that. With trepidation he’d agreed she could accompany him to the convention but he made her promise to keep out of sight. She did not do that. When she showed up unannounced at the closing night dinner, he thought he’d have a heart attack right then and there. But she laughed off his concern, blithely assuring him that no one noticed and, even if anyone did, no one cared.

“These are not the 1950’s,” she proclaimed brightly, “not the dark ages! Now Jim, let’s forget about everyone else. Let’s live for the moment and never look back. Let’s just think about us and what we have together and society be damned!”

Somehow, those hundreds of miles away, her words touched a chord deep within him. The world was changing and Jim wanted to change along with it. He was over forty and he’d been with the same woman for nearly half his life. He felt that he was missing something and he didn’t even know what. Life held many mysteries and he had investigated so few of them.

After a staid and proper boyhood in Oakdale, he had gone away to college and then law school at the same university. I was there, in his undergraduate years, that he had met Claire. They had married right after graduation. Together they had moved back to his hometown and had started a family almost immediately, and Jim had gone to work in the law practice owned by his father. His whole life, it seemed, had been planned out for him – everything had been somehow predestined. There had been no surprises – he had never done anything unpredictable. He had been completely devoted to doing what was expected of him, and now he felt trapped.

In the beginning, Claire had been very appealing, like a helpless little puppy. She had depended on him for everything and looked up to him as if he were her father. He had been her whole world, and it had made him feel strong and good and worthwhile. Then Ellen was born. It had been a difficult pregnancy but an even more difficult delivery. For a while there, it was touch and go, but Claire pulled through eventually. It was a few months later that she started to notice the change in her. She became moody, withdrawn and often obsessed with Ellen. Everything had to be just right for that child, and though Jim loved the baby more than he could ever say, he still resented how completely Claire focused on her.

Despite the growing coldness at home, it was years before he even looked at another woman. In fact, his affair with Edith was the only indiscretion in his marriage. And now, that one mistake was threatening to shake his life to it’s very foundation.

Unfortunately, the choice was not as clear cut as it had seemed at dawn, for Edith Hughes was a fascinating woman, the opposite of what he had known for twenty years. She appeared to need no one and to be completely sure of her own self worth. She really did practice what she preached – she charted her own path in life and didn’t care whether anyone else approved or not.

Claire was very different. Vulnerable, quick to feel pain, she cared passionately what her friends and neighbors thought and Jim realized that the anguish this might cause her would be almost more than she could bear. And as for Ellen, although she was a teenager, to him she was still only a baby, with an unformed sense of morality. A revelation like this could destroy her as well. Quite frankly, he had to decide whether or not Edith was worth it.

A typical lawyer’s approach, he thought wryly, to place all the pros on one side and all the cons on the other and then see which one tipped the scales. With relief tinged with regret, he could see what his true feelings were.

He felt his strength returning. He knew what he must do. Jim Lowell had always taken the righteous and noble path and tonight would be no exception. He pressed the doorbell firmly until he was sure the melodic chimes sounded through the apartment.

Claire Lowell picked up the phone on the first ring. Surely it was Jim, just calling to say he’d be home momentarily. It was really getting quite late. “Yes dear,” she said. “Dinner’s almost ready. Will you be here soon?”

“Mummy, it’s me!”

Suddenly Claire realized that Ellen wasn’t home from Penny’s yet, and she hadn’t even noticed. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything but Jim all day. When he woke up this morning, his mood had been so disturbing, so strange, and so full of foreboding somehow. Then he had dashed out of the house without eating breakfast or reading the paper. And she hadn’t heard from him since.

“Is Daddy home? He promised me he’d spend time with me tonight and I can’t wait! When will he be there? Didn’t he tell you?”

“No honey, he didn’t. He’s not here yet but I’m sure he is on his way.” Claire wanted to get this conversation over with as soon as possible. Ellen’s incessant questions were getting on her nerves. She just couldn’t cope with worrying over Jim and trying to assure her daughter that everything was all right at the same time. “I’ll call you when he gets here.”

“Mummy, Mrs. Hughes asked me to stay for dinner and I said no because I thought Daddy would be home but now since he’s not, can I please?”

“Can you what?”

“Stay here for dinner. Please, Mummy.”

“Of course, fine. Call me later. Tomorrow’s Saturday so you don’t need to be in early. Goodbye, dear.” She hung up the phone quickly so that Ellen wouldn’t have a chance to say any more. She just wanted to be alone.

This house is so empty, she thought, and so eerily quiet. She walked slowly into the kitchen and looked around. Everything was just as she left it that morning – newspaper still folded on the table and next to it, coffee cups, napkins, silverware. She still hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch for that matter. She hadn’t really eaten anything for day, not more than a few bites anyway. It was just too much effort. Idly she picked up the paper and opened it to the front page and stood there, rooted to the floor, not wanting to believe what she saw.

Ah, finally. And wouldn’t you know it, just when I was beginning to enjoy being by myself. Edith ran a practiced hand over her hair, arranging it just so, inspected her makeup carefully and made for the door once again. This time it wasn’t a false alarm and she didn’t know if that made her happy or not.

“Jim Lowell, what a surprise!” The offhand tone she affected was as much to benefit her neighbors as it was to put Jim in his place. She closed the door gracefully and automatically modulated her voice to that husky contralto she knew he found so alluring. “I’ve missed you desperately. Where have you been all day?”

Already he felt himself weakening and imagined himself melting into her arms. To be desired so totally by such a woman – it have him that heady feeling he hadn’t experienced since the first time Claire had given herself to him. “Working, Edith,” he said, mustering up all his reserves of self control. “I’ve had a lot to catch up on, a lot of responsibilities.”

“Surely you have time for me,” she purred. “Life isn’t all drudgery.” She moved to the buffet and set up two glasses. “I know just what you need to perk you up. The weekend is coming and I’ve got the perfect way to kick it off.”

He heard the ice clink against the glass, saw the bourbon splash down over the cubes, watched as Edith then held both drinks aloft in her beautifully manicured hands. Yet he said nothing. Languidly she settled into the sofa and held out his drink to him. He sat down beside her.

“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

Her question caught him off guard. Not that it had slipped his mind. He had simply forgotten that he had forewarned her. He took a long pensive sip before speaking. “Us.”

She knew what was coming. He was so duty bound. Not only was he the kind of man who would do right by his wife, but he would also be honest and above board with his mistress. It would almost be cute and endearing if it wasn’t happening to her. She had to do something about this right away.

“I know dear, I’ve wanted to talk about us too.” Her mind was racing. What would he say next? What was it that he needed to hear? She’d just have to take a stab at it. “Jim, you know I care for you a great deal and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. But I feel a little guilty. I feel I’ve led you on and drawn you into a relationship you’re not ready for.” She glanced up at him, demurely she hoped, and saw an almost imperceptible look of relief on his face. She forged ahead confidently.

“If I’m not what you want or there’s something about me you can’t accept,” she said, “then I want you to know that I’ll understand. I won’t do anything to stand in the way of your happiness.” Her voice cracked and she dabbed at an imaginary tear. This is really too corny for words, she thought, but it seemed to be working.

Jim sat up just a little straighter, then reached over and held her. He had never seen Edith quite like this, so delicate and so selfless. Her body quivered slightly in his arms. Soon she would be racked by sobs – he could feel it coming. “Edith,” he begged, “please don’t cry. Just try to listen to what I have to say.”

She sniffed, looked at him with eyes that were bigger and more soulful than he remembered, and snuggled closer to him. “It’s Claire,” he continued. “My place is with her and no matter how much I love you, I can’t abandon her.”

He had never said I love you before and she pounced on it. “Oh Jim, I love you too and to see you torn like this… well, it hurts me more than I can say. Jim, I promise you I won’t make any demands. Just stay with me a little while longer please.” She reached up and drew him closer, then slowly, inexorably, she guided him to her. He didn’t resist.

Jim turned the key in the lock, opened the door and flicked on the front hall light. Had Claire and Ellen gone out? Perhaps they had decided to take in a movie. It couldn’t be so late that they had gone to bed. He left his hat and coat on the banister, his briefcase beside it and headed for the kitchen. He was famished and he hoped Claire had left him something in the refrigerator.

He paused in mid step. Something was wrong. He didn’t think he’d ever heard the house so deathly quiet. The air outside was still – no breeze rustled the curtains. No creaks of the floorboards did he hear, no whir of appliances, no snatches of music drifting down from Ellen’s room at the far end of the upstairs hallway. He tip-toed, afraid to disturb the silence.

At the doorway to the front parlor he stopped. Finally a sound broke the hush. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock – it was the grandfather clock, unnaturally loud as it echoed across the room. All at once he remembered he had been holding his breath and he sighed long and deeply. This day had seen him in both the depths of despair and the heights of ecstasy. He was exhausted, worn out through and through. Too tired to turn on the light, he sank down on the couch in the darkened room, closed his eyes, and began to drift away to that pleasurable place between wakefulness and slumber.


He lurched forward and switched on the table lamp and there, sitting in the small straight-back chair next to the window seat, was Claire. She must have seen him come up the driveway, must have heard him enter the house. And there she was, so quiet and lady-like, her hands folded primly on her lap, he face an unreadable mask. The Oakdale Gazette lay neatly at her feet.

“Jim.” Her voice was quiet, unnaturally calm, yet with a strength he had never heard before. “What is the meaning of this?”

I’m just late dear. I’ve had an awful lot of catching up to do. Those few days in Buffalo really set me back at the office.”

“No.” There could be no mistaking her intensity. “No! I’m not asking you why you are late. I want you to explain something to me. Tell me about this, Jim.” She held up the newspaper.

He dreaded looking. Somewhere inside himself he knew what he would see, and he knew what it meant. He felt sharp twinges of pain up and down his arm and all through his shoulder. The tension was taking it’s toll. He had been right all along. Edith Hughes would only bring him misery. He could see his life crumbling in front of him and he was powerless to stop it.

The photograph swam before his eyes, Damn that woman, he cursed. How could she have done this to him? “Claire,” he said, “I love you, though I don’t expect you to believe me at this particular moment, and I’m going to tell you the truth about Edith and me. I’ve got to get it off my chest.”

“I don’t want the truth! I don’t want the details. I want you to stop. I want you to promise me that you’ll never see her again. I want you to make this up to me, Jim Lowell!” Very agitated, she got up from her chair. “I want you to take me away from Oakdale, far, far away, and I want to make me forget that any of this ever happened. I’ve given my life to you and now I want you to give me yours. You’ve betrayed me – you’ve stuck a knife in my back!” She was shrieking now.

“You’ve humiliated me in front of everyone. How will I ever face my friends? And Nancy, what about Nancy? I can never let her see me again as long as I live!” She paced up and down the rug, oblivious to Jim’s confusion and growing horror.

He stared at her dumbly, her ranting and raving rained down on him and produced no effect at all. He was in shock. He had always known that Claire was inclined to be nervous but he had never let himself think that she could become seriously unbalanced.

“I’m divorcing you! You’re no better than an animal. You have no feelings, no morals, nothing. You don’t deserve me. You deserve a woman from the gutter.” She flung over her shoulder as she rushed out of the room, “And I hope you rot in hell!”

He watched in despair as she disappeared up the stairs – then he turned to gaze at the face of the clock. Damn that thing! It stopped for nothing, just kept ticking along. He felt a sudden urge to smash it and was looking around for an implement when out of the corner of his eye, he noticed someone moving stealthily through the hallway. He wheeled around, half expecting a renewed attack from Claire.

“Daddy.” Poor Ellen was as white as a sheet.

He reached out fro her, his flesh and blood, to comfort her, but she looked at him with loathing.

“Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me, ever again!” The she too was gone.

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