A bloodstained pillowcase greeted her when her eyes finally opened. Sleeping so soundly, with her knees tucked under her chin and arms wrapped tightly around her calves like a newborn, all balled up, Renny awoke with such a start, sending her head crashing onto her knees, her teeth sank into her lower lip that there was blood on her pillow when she awoke. Blood as red as…Stop!
A symphony of sounds, throbbing like a kettledrum, trumpeted an impending migraine; she felt the crescendo behind her eyes. Pressing her fingers to her eyelids, she wondered what possessed her to take a nap in the middle of the day, and then realized it was, quite possibly the three martinis she had at lunch; three martinis followed by a nap! Listening to the drums sound a tribal beat in her brain, Renny’s tongue traced the split in her lip and she tasted blood. What a pretty picture she would be…Happy anniversary, darling!…at dinner with David. Why on earth…For God’s sake, Irene!…did she have three martinis at lunch and then taken a nap? Irene Seaton Charles stretched and yawned, restless and beaten, beneath the silken goose down duvet.
Casting a frail pink glow all about the bedroom, the afternoon sun…Late afternoon, Renny! LATE!…pranced through sheer draperies embroidered in roses. Delicate pink roses like those on the dress she had worn…Renny bolted upright and stared at the curtains as if seeing them for the first time. Roses--her mother’s favorite flower--stitched into the gauzy fabric covering the windows. Why roses? But then why three martinis and bloody rosebuds on her pillow sham?
Lurching out of bed like a drunken…Mother…sailor, Renny raced from window to window, shoving the diaphanous roses behind the heavier, plain pink and cream draperies. Her fingers worked like mad to curtain those god-awful flowers while her mind flooded with possible solutions: plantation shutters, white shades; something, anything other than roses, to block the sun. No need to redo the entire room, she would simply order shutters.
And it would make David happy, at least. He had only recently received the bill for the new wallpaper and chandelier in the dining room; the new table and chairs. How angry he had been, standing in the doorway holding a wadded invoice in his hand, staring at the massive table of inlaid woods, then looking at her. David, shaking his head, eyeing the Chinese wallpaper—a satin covering of bamboo—glaring at her.
But what did he expect? The Humphries redecorated their entire home last spring, and Dean Humphries earned less than half David’s salary. What would people think if Anne and Dean Humphries could remodel, refurnish and redecorate their entire home, while David Seaton had a coronary over some wallpaper and a few chairs? Renny would keep this one simple; plantation shutters and no more roses!
Tying a silk kimono about her waist, the cacophony in her head dissipating a bit, Renny wandered out of her room to stand at the head of the stairs, utterly motionless, and listening. She reveled in silence; no ticking clocks or humming appliances. No husband; no children. No one. This afternoon, however, there was some noise; a snip-snip-snip felt in the soles of her feet. The metallic clipping reminded her of the shears Mother used when she wanted to fill the house with flowers so Grandmother…. Renny’s toes curled at the memory, and her nails clipped the Oriental rug. The ache smacked the backside of her eyes, revealing all manner of dreadful visions and recollections.
Images of another house, alone, at the edge of the sea, flooded her vision, and just as she was about to float off to that place, as her mind sought to propel her back to a house she’d vowed never again to set foot in, she heard something more. Music was playing down there, and someone singing; Mother used to do that when she…. Billie Holiday singing: What A Little Moonlight Can Do. It was all too much; the snipping, music, singing…it couldn’t be…it can’t be. Then again, there was more than just music and tinny snipping rising up the stairs. There was also a smell—the aroma of fresh coffee. The wonderful scent shooed away the bitter thoughts. Renny was in her own home, far from… She was still safe.
Marta…Not my Mother!…was downstairs singing in the kitchen. Renny had the muted memory, saw the black-and-white blur, of careening through the house, high on gin and vermouth, as Marta ran the vacuum. Reeling upstairs, she remembered shouting to the woman to keep quiet. And…Bless her!…she had; she’d made coffee, too, with fresh beans from Coffee Works on the Boulevard. Marta knew Missus Charles would need a cup or two to cleanse her head of the spins and aches brought on by a three-martini lunch.
Releasing a voluminous breath of air—one she had held for several minutes—Renny lazily descended the stairs, running her hand over the banister and bringing it away smeared with dust. This wouldn’t do at all; what would people think? Renny stood taller, more rigid, the lady of the house, and marched into the kitchen.
Sipping her own cup of coffee, and humming along to the jazz standard playing on the radio, Marta was indeed hard at work. The center island, covered in newspaper, was awash in a sea of flowers. The shutters were open, allowing the sun to vault off the pool and inundate the room. Renny waited for her eyes to acclimate to this unexpected burst of brilliance and when she squinted, and saw what Marta was, in fact, doing, a shriek flew from her mouth, chasing the sun away.
“What are you doing?” She roared. Marta was cutting roses! Bouquet upon bouquet of those goddamned flowers sat in the sink, and she had already filled two vases with roses! Renny’s howling rattled the crystal stemware dangling above the wine bar and the echo bounced from the granite countertops to the stainless steel refrigerator. “What in the hell are you doing?”
All at once Marta paled, and her forehead sprouted beads of sweat like the expansive windshield of a luxury car on an icy morning. And even though she was what people might politely call large, this frenzied outburst from Renny pushed Marta back to the wall. She instantly lowered her eyes, neurotically wiped her hands on the denim smock she wore to clean. When Missus Charles—never Renny—asked her to serve, Marta wore the more traditional outfit: a severe black dress with white collar and cuffs, and a simple apron tied to her ample waist. Missus Charles liked things just so…. What would people think? But today Marta, dressed in denim, already fingerprinted with dew, and looking as mortified as a schoolgirl caught shoplifting a lipstick, was simply in to do some cleaning. She held her gaze to the floor and muttered. “I thought I’d do the flowers now, while you slept and finish the vacuuming—.”
“That isn’t what I meant, Marta.” Renny tried to calm down when she saw how badly she had frightened the other woman. However, after that nightmare, finding the room filled with those…“I didn’t mean to scream, but why…roses?”
“Ma’am?” Marta frowned weakly. “You’ve always had roses in spring…ever since I came to work for you. You said you liked the white ones and since tonight is so special…”
“Get rid of them, Marta. You should have asked first.”
“Ma’am? I did.” Marta clasped her pudgy hands together and water fell from them to splatter the terra cotta floor. Tying her stubby fingers into tiny nooses she, at last, looked at Missus Charles. Marta had known since her first day, since the first of five interviews, that Irene Charles was an angry woman, though for the life of her she couldn’t figure out why. She had a beautiful home, a husband worth a fortune and two impeccably well-mannered children. Marta wondered what was missing from Missus Charles’ life because nothing ever pleased her. Irene Charles had a subdued anger; she was more frigid stares or tapping fingers on a tabletop, than angry words. A stern nod to signal dismissal. Lips clenched into a smile, as a kind of thanks. Marta had never understood Irene Charles, and today was no exception.
“We discussed it last week, ma’am. You said roses would be fine if Heller’s had—.”
Leaning on the counter, Renny covered her face with her hands. A whistle of air escaped her fingertips. She seemed so unsteady, either from the drink or God knows what, that Marta thought she might topple over. Yet, when Renny pulled her hands away the anger was gone and the rage sucked back inside. She actually smiled at her housekeeper; a sweet, almost apologetic grin.
“I thought they were doing the pool today.” Renny said indifferently, keeping her eyes on Marta, away from the roses.
“No, ma’am. Not until Wednesday, I—.”
“Fine.” Renny cut her off. She turned and collected a bouquet of roses from the island, tossing them into the sink with the uncut blossoms. “Good.” Sweeping the whole bundle—roses, stems, thorns and blooms, into her arms—she strode to the patio door. Weighed down by the flowery perfume, she turned her head from the scent and raised her right foot; tossing her slipper off her foot, she then kicked it beneath a sofa. Renny never wore it again.
“Wonderful!” Lifting her leg, the kimono David had given her riding high on her thigh revealing a muscular tanned leg, her arms bursting with roses, Renny used a toe to unlatch the sliding door. Then, her foot flat against the handle, her back pressed to the counter, she shoved the door open. “Perfect.” The slider rattled, aluminum thunderclaps, and Renny stepped onto the brick patio. Gazing at the sun-dappled pool and, above it, a vague blue sky that promised to send summer along soon…Better days…Renny dumped more than two hundred dollars of white roses into the pool. Some floated; most sank.
“Lovely.” A peculiar smile on her face, Renny came back into the kitchen. Ignoring Marta, she grabbed a bottle of wine, a zinfandel from David Berkeley’s, she thought, as she left the room. The phone began to ring as she climbed the stairs and she called down, in a voice as empty as the crystal vases in the sink, “That’s my private line, Marta. Let it ring. But do call Heller’s and have more flowers sent out. Something tropical, I think. Orchids! Only the best.”