portion of the artwork for William Reese Hamilton's fiction

Sans Merci
William Reese Hamilton

There is no straight way to tell this. We were finally all too gone. It was a wild, looping, crazy thing, like some dithyramb to Dionysus. The whirl of many-colored dresses under the many-starred sky. And I, crouched at the center like a black crow in a rainstorm. Oh, sure, we came to it straight enough. Or, at least, that’s what we thought.

* * *

I had just had my eighteenth birthday and was full of myself. After all, I had polished up my prerequisite social skills, lost my virginity a couple of times, and been accepted into Columbia, full-scholarship. Was I not mature? Was I not ready to take on the world? Was I not the merry-makings of a first-class pompous ass? So when Jackson called to ask if I wanted to drive down with him to Sandy Sheridan’s coming-out party, I gave him my best young cynic’s guffaw.

“You want me to do what?”

“It’ll be a gas.”

“The lethal kind.”

“The flowers of maidenhood will be there.”

“With their jaws locked.”

“Well, the Ox is coming anyhow,“ he slipped in casually. That got my attention. After all, the Ox was something to be reckoned with—starting center and already the bulwark of the Colgate line in his freshman year.

“You’re kidding. You got the Ox to go?”

“The same.”

“How’d you pull that off?”

“The man’s into culture. That’s why he’s the Ox.” Yes, the Ox was large, the Ox was mighty, but that was not the true reason behind the name. Ox also sang tenor in the glee club and played piano with a sophisticated touch—Debussy and Chopin preludes and etudes. Ox was, in fact, short for Oxymoron.

“Tempting, but …”

“And she’ll be there.” She. I knew too well who she was, even though I hadn’t seen her since that summer when I was fifteen. Felicia Bonatti, the ache in my heart. Fé, the unfulfilled promise of paradise.

“You sure?”

“Hey, she’s bosoms with Sandy.”

“You’re not just playing me?”

“She would never let Sandy down.”

“But I’ll need a dinner jacket or something. Tux, cummerbund.”

“Screw that. A suit’s fine. Ox and I are going in suits.”

And that is how Jackson tipped the balance and persuaded me to drive down from Massachusetts with him to the Sheridans’ on the Hudson River.

* * *

There must have been close to fifty cars parked up along the side of the steep, narrow lane—a nice mix of Jags, Mercedes, Audis and Beemers. We had to climb most of it on foot and were breaking a sweat by the time we got to the top. It was warm for May, even this late in the day, and clouds of gnats danced like fairies in the late sunlight.

Because of the tall box hedge, we could barely see inside. But the place looked rich all right—big trees, broad lawns. Dance music from a small band drifted from somewhere below. In the distance, we could make out some of the guests standing in little groups, half-hidden in the violet shade, backlit by the shimmering river light—mannequins from Saks and Brooks in flowing gowns, dinner jackets, and tuxedoes. That’s when the Ox freaked.

“Fuck you, Jackson,” he hissed in a low voice.

“Big deal,” Jackson shrugged. “So they overdressed.”

“You did say suits,” I said. “I distinctly remember, suits are fine.”

“So what am I, a fortune teller? I’ve been to these things in everything from a sports jacket to a dinner jacket. It’s no big deal. Believe me, some clown’ll probably be here in tails.” But the Ox shook his head, his face flushed, and nervous droplets broke out across his forehead.

“We’ll look like fucking idiots.”

“Just remember who’s coming out and you’ll feel a whole lot better,” Jackson smirked.

“I’d feel better crawling under a bush.” Thinking of the Ox trying to hide under anything was ludicrous. But there he remained—all six-foot-five of him, frozen like a scared kid in the shadows of the hedge. So we left him there.

* * *

The Sheridan house was one of those palatial brick and ivy-clad affairs, set down by God among spotless lawns, manicured bushes, and stately oaks, approached past massive iron gates along a curving, white, crushed-rock drive. Its slate roof and leaded windows glinting through the foliage, lent a European presence to imply not only that this came from a great deal of money, but that this particular money was very old money, seasoned by a lot of blue blood. It even sported a “folly” in a copse of dogwoods—a few broken arches that were supposed to be from some ancient monastery, I supposed. Following Jackson through those gates and up that drive, our black shoes crunching on the crushed rock, I got my first case of nerves.

“The Ox does have a point,” I mumbled to myself. “Blue serge feels a little tacky right now.” I had had this same feeling before—three years before—entering the Sheridans’ beach house on the Cape with Fé. I thought I had lost that feeling. Now it was back full-strength and my bravado was slipping badly. This was, after all, the kind of party I would never have been invited to. And now Jackson was smuggling me in like some wetback into Texas. He was part of their crowd—Arthur Jackson of the Boston Jacksons. I was still Charlie Frank of the Brockton Franks—only son of a tool and dye maker, sporting bargain apparel from Filene’s.

* * *

Their entrance was bigger than my entire house, with a great wooden door and brass knocker heavy enough to let you know only people of some importance should consider entering. But before we could lift it, the door swung open and a large butler stood there, sizing us up like some over-the-hill bouncer, balding and heavyset, squeezed into a smart gray uniform, with white gloves to lend him some respectability.

“Oh, right,” Jackson said, fumbling through his pockets. The butler didn’t budge. It was clear he thought we might not be the right sort. Finally Jackson pulled out his invitation and announced in a loud voice, “Arthur Jackson from Boston. And this is my good friend Charles—like the river.”

Before the butler could pass further judgment, a booming voice called out from the deep foyer, “Arthur, my boy, come here, wonderful to see you.” He was big and broad-shouldered, white-haired and florid, his solid paunch pushing a stiff white shirt out over a scarlet cummerbund, his arms open wide in welcome, a tall drink in one hand, a glowing cigarette in the other. The woman beside him seemed as reserved as he was outgoing, in a dark blue dress with pearl earrings and a single strand of pearls around her neck. I could see she had once had great beauty, but was now wearing herself out in the battle to keep it. Her tired eyes and fragile hands overshadowed the warm smile and kind welcoming voice.

“My, it’s nice of you to come all this way, Arthur. How are your dear parents? It’s been almost a year.” Then she looked at me questioningly. “Hello, do I know you, young man?”

“Only from the Cape,” I said, which was a lie. I had never seen her or her husband before. But I knew their beach house all right. Fé had been staying there that summer.

“Charlie’s Back Bay,” Jackson went on, doing a quick geographic stretch to the south and tossing me my social safety net.

“Nice people, Bostonians,” she said, eyeing my suit.

“The champagne’s right around through the French doors,” Mr. Sheridan said, a hearty smoker’s gravel to his voice.

“Do make yourselves at home, boys,” Mrs. Sheridan called softly from behind.

Home was not quite what I would have called it. Museum, perhaps. Other than its grand size, this mansion bore little resemblance to the Sheridan’s rambling summer home on the Cape. This was something a Morgan might have built—a Frick or a Rockefeller. It held the slight scent of cinnamon tea, like some old clipper ship. The high-ceilinged rooms were very formal, with crystal chandeliers and French antiques. I couldn’t help staring at the portraits in the drawing room.

“Hey, that’s a Copley, isn’t it?”

“Like the square?” Jackson vamped.

“You think these are family?”

“Maybe. The old man’s big on ancestry. Adams or Mather or Alden, I think.”

“You mean, the ‘Speak for yourself, John’ Aldens?”

“I mean old and stiff as floorboards.”

* * *

We worked our way through a grand salon, deep in Persians, with velvet settees, chairs designed to make you sit up straight, and a marble mantle over a fireplace big enough to house the Continental Army. Beside it, framed in gold, hung the portrait of a tall, elegantly dressed man standing deep in chiaroscuro, an overcoat over his left arm, the glow of a cigarette in his right hand. Had I seen it before?

Across the length of that room, in the solarium, under the primitive painting of a gray lady in a white cap who refused to smile because her teeth were gone, Sandy stood pink and blossoming from her green satin gown, surrounded by a bevy of girls in white, like bridesmaids at a wedding. Her blue eyes glistened and she gave us a desperate smile, as if she was being auctioned off against her will. Her blonde hair was drawn up on top of her head, twined with apple blossoms and showing off a short, pudgy neck.

“Hi, Jackson. Thank God you came,” she said in a low, throaty voice. It was amazing how such a seductive sound could come from such an unprepossessing figure. A girl without vanity. “And you, Charlie? This is really nice.”

“So you’re being outed,” Jackson said.

“Any excuse for a party,” she laughed. “You know Daddy.”

“You look great, Sandy,” I said.“Really.” No matter what anybody might say, I had to like her, standing there as if she was enjoying this silly anachronism. I bet she could have smiled through any humiliation.

“And I know why you came, Charlie.”

“I wouldn’t want to miss this,” I said.

“I know she’ll be glad to see you too.” She winked knowingly. Jackson grabbed my arm and steered me out through the French doors.

“You think she knows I wasn’t invited?” I asked.

“Not a chance. Short-term memory’s gone.”

* * *

Tuxedoed men loomed before us with silver trays loaded with champagne flutes. We grabbed a couple, threw them down and took two more. The white marble balustrade along the wide brick veranda commanded a broad view of the great river and the Palisades beyond. The small society band was playing something very old, something maybe Sinatra might have sung, but the electric guitar was wailing like it was a cover from Cream.

The veranda overlooked a brightly lit swimming pool that overlooked red clay tennis courts that overlooked a line of poplars and then the town far below. The first streetlights were just coming on down there.

“Drink up,” Jackson said.“This’ll take care of any lingering embarrassment.”

* * *

A gang of willowy boys in tartan cummerbunds and bow ties were leaning against the railing as if it belonged to them.

“You serious? It’s really her third coming out?” one asked. He looked too young to be in college.

“You have to give it to him,” a friend said. “Old boy keeps trying.”

“I hate to say it, but even money has its limits.”

“Sandy’s the limit all right.” They all had a chuckle over that.

“Pride of Princeton, I bet,” Jackson said.

“I think they’re still in high school,” I said, but he didn’t seem to be listening.

“The old man went there, and his son Whitney. God knows how many umpty-ump generations. We’re probably the only ones here who aren’t Princes.”

Jackson was going to Tufts in the fall, and took exception to Ivy League caché. I wondered why. He knew as well as I did that these guys were pretty much like the rest of us—a cross-section of jocks and nerds who talked about flicks and football, booze and broads. Only on a slightly more privileged level.

“You know what you are?” I said. “You’re what they call a reverse snob.”

“Hey, my dad went to Yale—Skull and Bones and all,” Jackson said. “Can’t understand why his son doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps.”

I stared down at the darkening river, trying to figure how many ingots of gold it took to live like this.

* * *

After five flutes, I was beginning to float a little, looking around for some sign of Fé. But I still felt edgy, exposed.

“Let’s go find the Ox,” I said. “It’s getting dark enough so even he’ll feel incognito.”

“Sure. They’ll take him for a tree or a hill.”

“He must be pawing the turf by now.”

“Let’s wait. If we’re lucky he’ll come crashing through the hedge like a bull elephant. It’ll scare the shit out of everybody and liven up this party.”

A last golden light from the west had spread across the river and turned its waters, through some ancient alchemy, into burnished metal. The only thing disturbing its solidity was a tug pushing a long barge north, etching a precise V in the surface. It silenced us. This is why people want money, I thought, to view the world from great heights. To the south, a line of headlights had stalled in heavy traffic, strung like beads across the darkening Hudson, on the long bridge to New Jersey.

* * *
“Check this out,” I nudged Jackson.

He was short and frail and standing alone, staring owl-like at us through thick-lenses. His dark hair was carefully parted and slicked back with mousse. The sparse makings of a mustache floated over his thin-lipped mouth. He was, I think, the only person there in tails.

“What did I tell you,” Jackson snorted, as the boy approached with a disdainful smile, holding his champagne glass as if he were about to propose a toast.

“Pardon me,” he said. “But I see by our attire that we are diametrically opposed.”

We looked at him, then at each other and burst out laughing.

“Princeton, right?” I said, pointing at his tails.

“Of course. But where might you be from?”

“From?” Maybe I was a little too sensitive on the subject. “Oh no, we’re the mechanics. Dropped by to fix Sandy’s little Alfa Romeo.”

“Really,” he said, no longer looking at us. “My, that is democratic.” And he wandered off with a bemused look, probably to congratulate the Sheridans on their expansive sense of humanity. Was that thunder I heard, rumbling far to the north?

A tall elegant girl, dark as the dusk, stood near us, with a long white dress, fine corn rows, and the wisp of a smile spreading across lovely white teeth.

“He’s our Princeton cliché,” she said.

“And are you a true Princess?” Jackson said.

“Straight out of Camden, New Jersey.”

“Friend of the family?” I asked.


“My, what are the Ivies coming to,” Jackson said, taking her hand and giving her a courtly bow.

* * *

When Jackson felt it was dark enough, we slipped through a side gate and found the Ox where we had left him, still huddled against the hedge, slapping his big hands together in anxiety.

“Where the hell you guys been?”

“Jesus, Ox, you’re an embarrassment.”

“Everybody’s talking about the hulk by the hedge.”

“Very funny.”

“Here, big fellow. I’ve got something for your nerves,” Jackson said and pulled a champagne bottle out from under his jacket.

“Where’s the glass? I can’t drink champagne without a glass.”

“Try. Just remember to lift your little finger.” The Ox grabbed it and chugged it down without a breath. “Hey, Charlie, isn’t he supposed to say thank you?”

“Thanks would be nice.”

“I think a thank you is required.” Instead, the Ox grinned broadly at us, foam dripping off his lip.

* * *

“Fé’s got the disc jockey from Studio 54 here,” the girl in red was saying.

“My God, does she know everyone?” said the lilac dress.

“But wasn’t she with that group that got kicked out of 54?” the pink dress asked.

“Yeah, but nobody blamed her. It was that crazy vet she was with. The one with the diamond in his nose.”

“I think I hear a bit of envy going around,” a small dark girl in a tight black thing said.

“Envy? Just because she goes to all the in places with all the most fabulous dates. Why should we envy her?”

“Remember that beautiful boy from Chinatown who fell trying to climb up to her dorm window?”

“Almost killed himself.”

“And ruined his lovely red silk shirt, too.”

“And who else gets to go bare-boating with some guy from Harvard Law?”

“All the way to Tobago.”

“All the way is right.”

“I can’t wait for that disco to start,” said the red dress. “This band is the pits. Sounds like some cruise ship.”

“Where are you girls from?” I asked.

“Sarah Lawrence. And you?”


“How come we don’t know you?”

“Well, it’s a pretty big party,” I said. “Sandy’s got a lot of friends.”

“How do you know her?”

“From the Cape. I came down with Jackson, the one dancing over there to the bad music. And the Ox, the big one by the bar.”

“And who are you?”

“I’m Charlie.”

The small dark one in the black dress led me away from the others.”The Charlie?“ she asked.

“Well, I don’t know about the ‘the,’ but I am definitely Charlie Frank.”

“Hi,“ she said. “I’m Karen Sinauer.” She was quite lovely, with the tight body of a dancer, dark eyes, and a sweet smile.

“That’s a cool name, Sinauer.”

“Yeah, yeah, breeder of a million jokes. Please don’t add any. We actually had a girl in our school named Sexauer. She took the heat off me. Someone called up our school once and asked if they had a Sexauer there. Our headmistress answered, ‘Hell no, we don’t even have time for a coffee break.’”

“My kind of school.”

“Well, Long Island, you know,” she said. Then she looked up, studying me. “Hey, are you Jewish?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, momentarily puzzled. “Oh, you mean like Anne and Otto. No, I’m afraid we’re just plain German. At least that’s what my dad says.”

“But you’re definitely the Charlie. Fé’s Charlie.”

“She claiming ownership?”

“You should hear.”
* * *

The next I saw the Ox, he was oozing confidence and standing beside Mr. Sheridan, in a crowd of dinner jackets by the great fireplace, listening to the voice of experience. I think he was the only one there the old man had to look up to. There was a slight squint to our host’s eyes, as if he were peering through a haze, and his words were starting to slur. They were talking serious stocks and bonds, preparing themselves for entry into Wall Street.

“By all means, take those courses—finance, economics—get those grades. But make sure you socialize, boys. Friends. Contacts. That’s what will last.”

“And your firm, sir, what exactly are you looking for?” asked the Ox.

“What any brokerage house worth its salt looks for. Bright young men with presence and charm. And, of course, the right connections. The word you hear nowadays is ‘network.’ But what does that truly mean? Knowing the right people. You’ll all do fine. Come see me when you’re ready.”

I was behind them, studying the life-size portrait of that swank gentleman, dressed to the nines for his evening on the town. And with growing amazement, I detected the famous butterfly on the right side of the canvas—little more than a highlighted smudge of gray—the seemingly subtle yet not-so-discreet signature of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Damn, a Copley and a Whistler in the same house. But there was something uncanny about this painting. The subject was younger, true, but so close to Mr. Sheridan, he could have been his twin. It was as if that figure had stepped out of the gold Victorian frame into this very room and began pontificating. He even held his cigarette the same way—between his middle fingers, so he could use the index. I did a quick mental calculation—two generations?

“You learn anything?” I asked the Ox.

“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully. “Even rich old brokers get drunk.”

Jackson showed up, a smiling blonde in sweeping silver on his arm.

“I see you guys haven’t been handicapped by your attire,” he said.

“I’ve gotten a few long looks down the nose,” I told him.

“And you big fella, how you making out?”

“Sheridan tells me I have a job in his firm when I grow up.”

“That’s a scary thought.”

* * *

Mr. Sheridan leaned on the marble balustrade next to me, staring out at the dark river and the three-quarter moon rising in the east. He shook the cubes in his glass, as if asking for a refill from a bartender.

“It’s something, isn’t it,” he sighed heavily. “You can’t buy a scene like that.”

“But you did invest in the right perspective, sir.” Sober, I might have kept my mouth shut. He chuckled softly and looked me in the face, trying to focus.

“You crashed, didn’t you?” he said.


“Came without an invite.” He placed his heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

“Like an alien from another world,“ I admitted.

“That’s the stuff.”

“Not quite the right stuff.”

“A rebel, like my daughter.”

“Sandy’s quite a girl,” I said.

“If only she were prettier. More like Felicia.” I was surprised that he used that particular name. But, as Jackson said, they had been close a long time.

“She’ll do all right, sir.”

“Pretty isn’t all. Young ones don’t always see that.”

“She’ll do fine.”

“She’s got the stuff.”

“Where’s Mrs. Sheridan, sir? I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“In bed, probably. She doesn’t care for these affairs, thinks they’re barbaric.”

“It’s one hell of a party.”

“Doesn’t understand networking.” He gave me a warm, fatherly look. “That’s what drives the market, my boy.” And he drifted off, angling unsteadily back toward the lights of his house.

* * *

Sandy and I were walking near a great copper beech, its gray skin gleaming in the moonlight. The Hudson stretched darkly between silver hills. To the north, a dark cloud had just blanked out the Dipper. The guests were dancing on the veranda, or necking and groping in the shadows, impatient for the dinner and disco to begin. And I was wondering why I was still pursuing a childish dream that now seemed further away than ever. I had felt so confident up in Massachusetts. And I had lost it so quickly?

“You must be very popular to have so many people come to your party,” I said absently.

She looked disconcerted, as if she had just discovered a special truth. “You don’t understand, do you?”

“Understand what?”

“This is really Daddy’s party. These are kids of clients, or potential clients. They’re here to be wowed.”

I took her hand and looked into her plain blonde face. “Wow,” I mouthed. She stared back at me, plainly amazed by my provincial innocence. Then I noticed that she was looking at my mouth. Why my mouth? And I smiled.

“Well, finally,” she cried out, looking down at the veranda, where Fé was making her magical moonlight entrance. And I must admit, it got me. Good God! “She walks in beauty like the night,” Byron sang in my memory. Taller than I remembered, more graceful, in a flowing, moss green, gauzy thing, clinging yet floating, long and bare-backed and breast-adoring, her long dark hair flowing with it. Wow, indeed. I shrank into myself.

But who was that guy she was with? So blond he was almost albino, but with a classic face—Michelangelo’s David, I was thinking, right down to those damn sculpted curls. And I saw that under his dinner jacket, his proportions were classic too, with everything tailored by the right tailor to show it off. Others turned and looked—you had to look—as the two walked by with that natural assurance, something I could never own, something that came from the security of money and family and a lot of luck in the gene pool.

“Who is he?” I asked Sandy.

“He’s from Yale. Dives for the swim team.”

“I’ll bet he’s good too.”

“Oh, yes. Daniel is good. And he knows it.” I caught something in her voice. Disdain? Jealousy? But of whom, I wondered, Fé or the guy?

* * *

“Why don’t you go talk to her?” the Ox asked.

“We talk.”


“She calls sometimes.”

“Really, how did she get your number?”

“I don’t know, maybe Jackson or his sister. She called the other night to talk about Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov scared her, she said. You know, Crime and Punishment. She said she dreamed about him, woke up sweating. And she wanted to talk about what I was reading—Le Rouge et le Noir.”

“So, you read a lot.”

“Yeah, I guess. I guess that’s what I do. Anyway, I told her this part about the poor boy, Julien Sorel, trying to conquer this wealthy older woman and how he has to psych himself up just to take her hand, like every shaky kid trying to make his first night move. Pretty hilarious. She thought it sounded very romantic. She didn’t say silly or sexy, she said, very romantic.”

“So why don’t you go talk to her now?”

“That guy, I guess. I’ll talk to her later.”

* * *

It was all damask tablecloths and silver candelabras, their light flickering off crystal goblets and large porcelain plates with a red and gold family crest on the lip. Oysters something, probably Rockefeller, followed by some kind of hunter’s soup and Beef Wellington. Oh, and a nice Bordeaux, I’m pretty sure. It’s not too clear. Nothing was too clear by then. We were seated at one end—Sandy and Fé and Daniel, Jackson and his silver girl, the Ox, Sinauer and I.

I was having a problem looking at Fé, barely glimpsing the color of her mouth and the light dancing off the gold earrings in the shadow of her dark hair, wondering if she still smelled like the sea. But I was able to study Daniel some and found him condescending. What I had at first perceived as graceful I now saw as flawed by its perfection, lacking warmth. And I noticed that the blue of his eyes was not a strong or clear blue, but washed pale as if he had spent too much time underwater.

“So, I hear you dive, Daniel,” I ventured.

“I was runner-up at the New Englands this year,” he announced proudly.

“What’s your best dive? Your killer?” Ox asked.

Daniel was studying it, about to say something like “double back flip” or “one-and-half gainer,” I suppose, when Jackson murmured, “Muff.” Then everything went still for a second and when I looked at Fé she was looking straight back at me with those wonderful green eyes and a little smile edging her lips.

“Well, Jackson, I see a year at Belmont Hill hasn’t done anything for your social skills,” Daniel said to the table at large.

“Muff,” I picked up. “Is that as satisfying as say, a gainer?”

“Pardon me, but I seem to have fallen among a whole tribe of recessive genes,” Daniel said with just the right collegiate chill.

“Is that like back breeding?” I asked.

“I presume that’s supposed to be a scientific term?”

“Yes, or in some cases, it might be a matter of social position,” I said. The smile on her lips was dancing now.

Social position?” Jackson asked.

“Back breeding,” Sandy mused. “You know, I think my family has been practicing that for a long, long time.” And that made everyone but Daniel laugh out loud.

* * *

A flagstone path led us to a large Victorian shingled building hidden from the house by a hillock, just a fringe of stars above us now, with clouds covering everything to the north, and a few bursts of lightning blossoming out into the darkness. Over the broad open doors, The Abbey—1876, was carved into the lintel. What had it been back then, a place for special gatherings? Prayer meetings, perhaps, or amusements, plays, concerts. Certainly dances, but not like this one.

Inside there was the outer-space disco whoosh of sound and light, loud and bright enough to numb me. Felicia and her minions had strung pulsing lights up to one of those cliché disco balls, spraying its shower of broken images all around us like a merry-go-round. On a raised stage, the disc jockey was having his way with Donna Summer, Barry White, the Village People, and a string of other tired hits and near-hits, melded over and under each other, to dance and drink and smoke and do coke to. Whether or not he was from 54 or not, I’ll never know, but the Abbey was working hard to approximate and the cloud of pot was thick enough so you didn’t have to hold the joint to get the effect. There at the heart of the writhing crowd, Fé and Daniel were dancing with all the grace of the sailing moon. And there was the Ox, bumping and grinding alongside Sandy’s twist and twirl. I, the devotee of Dylan, the Boss, and the Dead (usually alone with them on headphones in my cramped bedroom), resisted entering.

“Don’t you dance?” Sinauer asked me from the shadows.

“Not to this,” I said. “But I can still talk.”

“Just look how graceful she is.” She was staring at Felicia with open awe. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”

“So I’ve been told.”

“And wicked too,” she laughed. “One bitch at college calls her ‘the Fé One, Mademoiselle Outré.’ She’s so damn great at this stuff. Crazy stuff to get everybody going.”


“Like getting the disc jockey from 54. Who knows if it’s true, but it makes everybody go, ‘Yeah!’ And jump starts the night. Like what she did for Jennie Beaver.”


“Beaver. Cross my heart. A girl at college on the academic edge, clinging to her last barely passing grade.”

“Yes, I think I know the type.”

“Beaver comes back from the most dreamy weekend with a guy she’s absolutely mad over only to find out that she’s completely forgotten the all-important exam in medieval history, Monday at ten. In other words, tomorrow. Hasn’t studied a lick, cracked a book, looked at a note.”

“Just a slight memory lapse.”

“And now—much too late—she panics, runs around pulling her hair, whining. If I flunk this one, I’ll be out on my ass.”

“Oh, Jenny.”

“So she turns to prayer, magic, superstition. And runs straight to the Fé One.”

“You make her sound like a witch.”

“No way. Getting Beaver out of this exam is a block party, a huge event for the whole dorm. As only Fé can orchestrate. ‘Do you promise to go through to the end?’ she asks. ‘I’ll just die if I have to take that exam,’ Jenny begs. So Fé sends out emissaries to the second floor, the third floor, every floor. Agents scour the rooms for all the right equipment.”

“What equipment?”

“Blotters, bars of soap, scarves, sweats, caps. The works. By next morning, crack of dawn, everybody who is anybody is out in the halls, lining the stairs. Even girls from other dorms are there.”

“Sounds outré enough.”

“Like voodoo maybe? Just listen. Blotters for inside the sneakers. Two layers of sweats, t-shirt under that, and a bar of soap under each arm. A scarf wrapped around her neck and a knit cap pulled down over her ears to keep any heat from escaping out the top. Six in the morning is zero hour, no breakfast allowed, definitely no juice, water, or coffee. The crowd of girls cheers her on as she runs the gauntlet up and down the stairs, three flights up, three flights down, for half an hour, until dripping wet, every ounce of moisture sucked out of her body, she’s stopped, stripped, toweled off, and shipped to the infirmary in a wretched little smock. She’s definitely hot and very shaky. Diagnosis by the worried nurse: spiking fever of 102. Prescription by the doctor: two days bed rest with plenty of juices, teas, and soups. Voilá, Beaver is saved.”

“Where the hell does Fé get this stuff?”

“Only certain guys know these things.”

“So how’s Jenny Beaver doing?” I asked.

“Few weeks ago she took the makeup and flunked it cold. I guess Jenny just isn’t cut out for medieval history. Or much else our college offers. She’s now, as our Dean of Women is so fond of saying, Sarah Lawrence history.”

When I looked back into the light, they were slow dancing to prayers, while Blondie did the “Fade Away and Radiate” thing, with the Ox towering over them like the high priest at a sacrifice. I headed back to the house, with a wind starting to blow hard through the tall trees and thunder bouncing down the valley. I wanted to check something out and I figured this was my chance.

* * *

As I passed through the dining room, I was feeling sober enough, but as if I had entered a dream and wasn’t in control of where I was going. I was surprised nobody had picked up yet. The table was still full of used dishes and crystal and at the end Mr. Sheridan had passed out in his chair, his head on the table. I thought how strange for someone to give a party to impress people and then pass out at his own dinner.

But what I wanted to see was in the grand salon. It was dark in there, except for a few discreet spots illuminating pictures. On the wall perpendicular to the fireplace was the large canvas I had returned for. I had only glimpsed it in passing earlier, but something about it had caught my attention. It was the oil of a woman playing a piano. However, the focus was really on two little seven- or eight-year-old girls, a blonde and a brunette, in white dresses with black leggings, seated on the carpet under the piano, lit as if by sunlight from a far window. The blonde was in profile, looking up at the woman, who was in shadow. The little brunette was looking straight out at me. And I knew her. I had seen her before, in a framed photograph at the Sheridan summer home on Cape Cod—Felicia, the radiant child, between her handsome parents. On the bottom right of this painting was the signature, John S. Sargent. That made my head spin. I had seen some Sargents at the Gardner Museum in Boston. I liked his Flamenco painting –guitarists, a dancer and a sweeping shadow across a rough wall. But although the painting I was looking at reminded me of a Sargent I had seen in a book, I had never come across this one before. I looked closely at that little girl. And as I was studying her lovely face, the curl of her dark hair, the entwined fingers of her little hands, the soft crook of her leg, I sensed her beside me, felt her heat, smelled her sweet perspiration. She placed a soft, damp hand in mine.

“Who is she, your grandmother?” I asked. “She looks just like you.”

“You like it,” she said in her small, shy voice.

“Like it? I just about jumped out of my skin. First a Copley, then that Whistler, now this.” I was looking at her now and she seemed to be holding back a smile.

“How close did you look at the Whistler?”

“Pretty close. The butterfly signature is very subtle.”

“Come back,” she said, guiding me. “Look again.”

“It’s weird. I thought I was looking at Sandy’s dad.”

“Anything else?”

“Even that way he holds his cigarette. It’s freaky.”

“What’s that over his pocket?” I looked closer at where she was pointing. He was wearing two medals, disks of gold or bronze dangling from blue-and-white-striped ribbons. They were very subtle, partially obscured by shadow, but I recognized them. Yes, I had seen them before. My father kept his in a box, tucked away in a drawer. The U.N. chose that particular baby blue because that color doesn’t exist on any nation’s flag, he had told me.

“Korean War? That means …” It dawned on me slowly. “Jesus, it’s a fucking forgery.”

“No, a game. A visual game.”

“Tell that to the judge.”

“It’ll only be a forgery if someone wants to sell it someday.”

“But why?”

“You know how many wealthy people would like to have their portraits painted by Whistler or Sargent? You know what they’ll pay?”

“But who paints it so well?”

“My father.”

“I thought you told me he was in import and export.”

“That too.”

“Why doesn’t he just sign his own damn name?”

“You know that wouldn’t work, Charlie. They’re not just paying for the portrait, they’re buying the signature.”

You hear about love at first sight, and even at that moment I was holding my first vision of Fé rising from the surf on Cape Cod, but it wasn’t only that. It was love at first smell, first taste, first touch, and I was holding onto all of them at once, so tight they made my knees weak. She was standing there beside me, Sargent’s dream child. Forgery? Visual game? I swear that if she had asked me right then to rob a bank or sail away to Antarctica, I would have said, “Sure.”

* * *

The noise hit us like a wave before we had reached the solarium. Shrieks of laughter, shouts of joy—the sound of collective insanity, like a pack of dogs around a bitch in heat. How do these things start? Jackson told me later it was one stoned guy grabbing a plate off the dining room table. The Ox was sure it must have been the whole mix of drugs and booze. I felt it was something more—everybody trying too hard to live up to what they had heard about Studio 54.

And now it had become a competition—everyone out to see who could toss his plate the farthest. A few of the large platters reached the back of the tennis courts, bouncing with a muffled thud on the brightly lit red clay. But most of them never made it past the pool area, slicing into the bright water or smashing on the surrounding tiles. My pedestrian brain was just clear enough to ask itself how much porcelain like that cost? Girls were tossing crystal goblets and flutes into the pool like coins into Trevi Fountain. And then the skies broke open with an apocalyptic downpour and great bolts of lightning crashing all along the ridge. No one cared. They went on with their game. Until the Ox and Sandy came up out of the shadows, half her lipstick smeared across his face.

“Jesus, you wimps,” he yelled, grabbing the plate from the boy in tails. “You’re a joke.” He took off his soaked jacket and set himself by the balustrade. He was the Olympic statue poised for heroics. He balanced himself, rocked gently into momentum, then spun like a pro in the box, and with a loud exhaled grunt, flung the large plate like a toy into the night, beyond the pool, the tennis courts, the poplars, and the light. There was not a sound, not a movement. They stood in silent stupor. Finally, shyly, one tall upperclassman approached Sandy, holding his plate out to her, I thought to apologize.

“Pardon me, Sandy, but we were wondering, is this the Sheridan family crest?” he asked. She stared at him in disgust, looking as if she might spit on him, her green dress stuck to her body like a wind-swept flag across a figurehead.

“Sheridan’s Irish, you dunce. That’s the crest of the Aldens of England.”

* * *

The cry was long and guttural.“Fé!” And again, “Fé!” There was desperation in it, pain and rage, cracking like minor thunder through the night. And it came from Daniel, weaving toward us along the flagstone path from the Abbey.

“Fucker’s gone,” someone said. “Coke, I’ll bet.”

“I think he’s trying out for that guy in Streetcar,” Jackson said.

“Stella works better,” I said. “It needs the two syllables.” I felt Fé shift behind me, out of Daniel’s sight.

“Where the hell are you, Fé?” he cried out. “You bitch.” Like all of us, he was drenched, his beautifully tailored tux sagging and misshapen, his bleached hair matted across his forehead, his face twisted in self-pity. He was weeping now, mumbling to himself. “The whore ditched me,” he stage-whispered. “Me.” Then again, loud and bleak, “Fé!”

“Easy, Daniel,” someone said. “Nice and easy.” Daniel answered by yanking off his jacket, tearing off his tie, ripping open his shirt, throwing off his suspenders and dropping his trousers. He looked more like Buster Keaton than that marble David now, standing before us in black shoes, black socks, and white boxer shorts printed with bright blue Yale bulldogs, like the bad opening to some black-and-white porno flick. Then he shucked his shoes, socks and shorts, and opened his arms wide to the heavens.

“What am I?” he screamed. “Swiss cheese?”

“I think it’s chopped liver,” Jackson corrected.

“Is that a silly schlong I spy?” Sinauer pointed. “Most definitely chopped liver.” But in his drug-drenched mind, Daniel had something more to prove. To Fé? To himself? To all of us? Who the hell knew? He vaulted agilely onto the balustrade, his toes caressing its marble edge. We were impressed. He stood straight, stared into the storm, concentrating hard, his brow furrowed, his jaw clenched. No tears now, only rain and wind and the killer dive. It was a swan—a nice poetic choice—and I must say he gained excellent elevation, considering the conditions. He stretched out beautifully, cleared the distance to the pool nicely and knifed into the bright waters with barely a ripple.

It was definitely a killer dive, but what Daniel had not taken into account was the depth of this particular pool. Sober, any good diver would have tested that first. And even though touching bottom would not have usually been a problem for him, this bottom was covered in splintered crystal, so when he broke the surface proudly and gave us his cry of victory, his hands were already dripping blood and his nose showed a nasty gash. But Daniel was beyond pain, even as he grasped the sides of the aluminum ladder, climbed out of the pool, and stepped onto more shattered glass. Several of us tried to stumble down to help him, to save him from himself, but the Sheridans’ bouncer-butler, clad casually now in black and orange Princeton sweats, reached him first. He lifted the dazed diver onto his shoulder like a rag doll and carried him up to the house. Daniel was quiet now, in shock probably, and the butler carefully wrapped his hands and feet in damask table linen, draped his wet jacket over his shoulders and twisted a tablecloth around his waist like a towel.

“Keep it covered, young man,” he said sternly and trundled him off to the nearest emergency room in the family Rolls.

* * *

The storm swept southeast, leaving the dome above us a deep iridescent blue, dancing with stars. I spread my blue serge jacket out for her on wet dogwood petals under the arches of the Sheridan’s folly. But the ground was sopping and when I lay beside her, I felt it seep through my shirt and pants. She rolled toward me and put her hand on my chest.

“Tell me about Julien Sorel, Charlie,” she said in a sad voice. Her wet hair had curled into beautiful ringlets.“Tell me about Julien and Madame de Rênal.”

“Tell me about the rabbits, George,” I teased.

“You’re cruel, but I’ll tell you something anyway. It’s what I tell my friends. Charlie Frank is the best kisser I ever met.”

“You tell your friends.”

“Haven’t they all been begging you?”

“I was wondering what they were after.”

“You kissed like you were on fire and afraid you might burn me. Even with your tongue, it was like you were tasting something hot.”

“I was in a dream and rudely interrupted.”

“I can’t stand how most boys kiss. Like they want to eat my face. No play of lips, no gentle touch of tongues.”

“I wanted to make love to you like that. They say snails can go for hours. That’s how I wanted it.”

“Maybe I was wrong to stop. Kiss me now like that.” For a long time I said nothing. Then I recited something instead, from a poem I had memorized with her in mind—“La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

          “She took me to her elfin grot,
          And there she wept and sighed full sore;
          And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
          With kisses four.”

“I’ll buy that kind any time,” she said. “What is it?”

“It’s Keats.”

“Then kiss me like Keats.”

Who knows what it was about? Booze or fear of rejection, rich kids or clever forgeries. Who knows? Most likely it was some kind of misplaced teenage revenge, a tit for tat for what she did to me on the Cape. None of it was clear, is all I know.

“No,” I said. “I might want to kiss you, I might want it badly, but I’m too drunk. Ask me when I’m just a little high and my head’s swimming with you. Just you and not the booze.” I took her hand and held it to my lips.

“You care that much?”

“Maybe.” I ran my tongue lightly along her little finger. “But I want you to know something. I’m not taking the dive for you, that’s all.”

“Oh, Charlie, he didn’t do it for me. He did it because he was high on coke and thought he was Superman. He did it to make a spectacle. Don’t confuse the two.”

“I just want you to know I wouldn’t do that for anyone.” She brought her face close and ran a moist hand down the side of my face.

“And I wanted this party to be so special,” she sighed.

“I’m just glad I don’t have to clean up.”

“And Sara’s dying,” she said, her face as cool as marble in the starlight.


“Mrs. Sheridan has cancer. Nobody knows. Sandy doesn’t even know yet.”

“How do you know?”

“He wants my father to paint her nude. Something in watercolor—a Bonnard maybe. Something loose and full of light.”
* * *

On the way home in the car, all of us too wasted to be driving anywhere, let alone to Massachusetts, Jackson said, “You know what I think, Charlie? I think you’re afraid of success.”

“Kid just thinks too much,Ox philosophized. “Like in football, you think too much, someone puts you on your ass.”

The light was breaking in the East, but I was still lost in night thoughts, remembering the gold earring gleaming in the shadow of her hair and how I had kissed her there once, her skin moist and tasting slightly of the sea. And I thought about Mr. Sheridan passed out at the end of his dining table, about his strange desire to have a watercolor by Bonnard of his nude wife. No matter how beautiful the painting might be, it would always be a well of sadness.

William Reese Hamilton’s Comments

When I was in college—I think it was my junior year—I became fascinated by Shostakovich’s Fifth. I sat there listening to it over and over until finally I asked a friend to listen and tell me what was going on. He said the thing was it never reached a climax. It built and built but never really resolved itself. Wow, I said, like life.

There are five Charlie/Fé stories so far and I wish them many more. I like the yearning, the striving for the unattainable, and the illusions layered over hidden realities.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 32 | Spring 2011