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46

ALL DAY SATURDAY Fiona fretted over tonight's GRODY party. How had she ever let Brian talk her into inviting Mrs. W to March Madness? And what had possessed Mrs. W to say yes?

Was there any way out of this? Could she pretend to be sick? No; Brian would just escort Mrs. W to the party anyway. And if there was one thing in Fiona's fevered imaginings worse than being at GRODY's March Madness party with Mrs. W at her side, it was the thought of Mrs. W at the party without Fiona beside her, to explain it, to smooth it as much as possible, to shield the woman, if that could be done.

So what could she do to make this not happen? Could she lie to everybody? Lie to Mrs. W that the party had been canceled, lie to Brian that Mrs. W had changed her mind. No; nobody would believe her. Fiona was not at all a good liar — an unfortunate trait in a lawyer — and they'd both see through her at once.

And then, how to explain why she'd lied? Well, she couldn't, could she? She could barely explain it to herself, because it wasn't merely the mismatch of GRODY and Mrs. W, it was more than that, it was…

Brian.

There wasn't anything wrong with Brian, not really. He and Fiona made a very good couple, easygoing, supportive, not demanding. His passion for exotic cookery remained a happy surprise, though somehow not quite as exciting, a teeny bit less of a treat, now that she'd left Feinberg and started a job with normal hours. (She would never mention that to Brian, of course.)

The problem, which she could barely articulate inside her own head because it made her feel guilty, the problem was class. Brian did not come from the same world as Fiona. His people did not live where her people lived, did not school where her people schooled, did not vacation where her people vacationed, did not buy suits — if they bought suits — where her people bought suits. His was a rougher, scruffier, less settled universe of people who hadn't made it, generation after generation, with no prospect for future change. When she was with Brian, Fiona was, in the very slightest way, barely noticeable to the naked eye, slumming.

If she were honest — and she wanted to be — she'd have to admit that her own great-grandfather, Hiram Hemlow, father of her dear grandfather Horace, had come from that same class, the strivers without connections. The stolen chess set might have helped Hiram move up out of the unwashed, but that opportunity was lost.

What had finally made the difference in the Hemlow family was her grandfather Horace, who happened to be an inventive genius. With the prestige and money he made through his inventions he could cut through the nearly invisible barriers of American class, so that the generation after his, the generation of Fiona's father and her aunts and uncles, with money behind them, however fresh, could attend the right schools, move into the right neighborhoods, make the right friends.

The family had moved smoothly into the upper middle class the way it's done in America, not with family, not with history, but with money. And now, a member of barely the third generation at this level, Fiona could look at Brian Clanson and know, with shame and embarrassment but without the slightest question, that he was beneath her.

The knowledge had her tongue-tied, and the further knowledge that she must very soon display Brian to Mrs. W as her chosen escort only made things worse. Mrs. W, as Fiona had every reason to know, was about as class-conscious as anyone she'd ever met. That rambling vitriolic memoir the woman was writing reeked of it. Was Fiona, having acted against her better judgment in a moment of weakness, about to make Mrs. W despise her forever?

Through all of her fretting Brian, of course, remained oblivious, continuing blithely along with his own usual Saturday morning routine, which was to commandeer the big room while he watched the Saturday morning cartoons, an activity he claimed counted as work but which she knew he secretly enjoyed for its own sake, the more childish the better.

Confined to the bedroom with the door closed — it didn't help that much — she paced and worried and searched in vain for a route out of her dilemma, and, finally, a little before eleven, she decided to phone Mrs. W even though she had no idea what she intended to say. But she had to do something, had to start somewhere; perhaps hearing Mrs. W's voice would give her inspiration.

So she sat on the bed, reached for the phone, and it rang. Startled, she picked it up, and heard Mrs. W's voice. "Mrs. W!"

"About this question of costumes," Mrs. W said.

"Mrs. W?"

"I understand, from what you say, many of the partygoers this evening will be in costume."

Oh, she doesn't want to go! Fiona thought, and her heart leaped up: "Oh, yes, Mrs. W, all kinds of costumes!"

"That doesn't much help, Fiona, dear: 'all kinds, you see. What sort of theme does one encounter at these events?"

"Theme?" Arrested development, she thought, but didn't say. "I guess," she said, "I suppose, it's popular culture, I guess, cartoon shows and things like that. And vampires, of course."

"Of course," Mrs. W agreed. "Women, I find," she said, "don't improve in vampire costumes."

"The fangs, you mean."

"That would be part of it. I know you won't be in costume, but your friend — Brian — will he?"

"Oh, yes," Fiona said, trying to sound perky rather than resigned. "The same one every year."

"Really? And would it spoil things to tell?"

"Oh, no. It's Reverend Twisted, that's all."

"I'm sorry."

"A cartoon character," Fiona explained. "From cable, you know. A little raunchy."

"His costume is raunchy?"

"No, the cart— What it is, Mrs. W, he's a mock priest, he blesses all the bad behavior, he loves the sinner and the sin."

"I'm not sure I follow."

Beginning to feel desperate, Fiona said, "The joke is, he's the priest at the orgies, you see."

"And what does he do there?"

"Blesses everybody."

"That's all?"

"Really, yes," Fiona said, realizing she'd never before noticed just how small and toothless a joke the Reverend Twisted actually was.

Mrs. W, calm but dogged, said, "What does he wear in this persona?"

"Well, it's not that— Not that different, really. Just heavy black shoes and a shiny black suit with very wide legs and very wide double-breasted jacket with a bottle of whiskey in the pocket and a kind of white dickey and white makeup on his face and a black hat with a flat brim all the way around." I see.

"It's mostly his expression, really," Fiona tried to explain. "You know, it's a leer, he leers for hours, the next day his jaw is very sore."

"For his art," Mrs. W said, with suspect dryness.

"I suppose. He used to carry a Kama Sutra, you know, the way priests carry a Bible? But he lost it a few years ago and never got another."

"We'll just have to imagine it, then," Mrs. W said. "Thank you, my dear, you may have been of help."

"Oh, I hope so," Fiona said, and hung up, and gave herself over to despair. Mrs. W was definitely coming to the party.


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