Watchers Page 24

She hated the new look. When they had turned her to the mirror, she'd seen a pathetic old maid trying to pass for a pretty, vivacious young thing. The styled hair was simply not her. It only emphasized that she was basically a plain, drab woman. She would never be sexy, charming, with-it, or any of the other things that the new hairstyle tried to say she was. It was rather like fastening a brightly colored feather duster to the back end of a turkey and attempting to pass it off as a peacock.

Because she did not want to hurt Travis's feelings, she pretended to like what had been done to her. But that night she washed her hair and brushed it dry, pulling on it until all the so-called style had been tugged from it. Because of the feathering, it did not hang as straight and lank as it had previously, but she did the best with it that she could.

The next day, when Travis picked her up for lunch, he was clearly startled to find that she had reverted to her previous look. However, he said nothing about it, asked no questions. She was so embarrassed and afraid of having hurt his feelings that, for the first couple of hours, she was not able to meet his eyes for more than a second or two at a time.

In spite of her repeated and increasingly vigorous demurrals, Travis insisted On taking her shopping for a new dress, a bright and summery frock that she could wear to dinner at Talk of the Town, a dressy restaurant on West Gutierrez, where he said you could sometimes see some of the movie stars who lived in the area, members of a film colony second only to that in Beverly Hills-Bel Air. They went to an expensive store, where she tried on a score of dresses, modeling each for Travis's reaction, blushing and mortified. The saleswoman seemed genuinely approving of the way everything looked on Nora, and she kept telling Nora that her figure was perfect, but Nora couldn't shake the feeling that the woman was laughing at her.

The dress Travis liked best was from the Diane Freis collection. Nora couldn't deny that it was lovely: predominantly red and gold, though with an almost riotous background of other colors somehow more right in combination than they should have been (which apparently was a trait of Freis's designs). It was exceedingly feminine. On a beautiful woman it would have been a knockout. But it just was not her. Dark colors, shapeless cuts, simple fabrics, no ornamentation whatsoever-that was her style. She tried to tell him what was best for her, explained that she could never wear such a dress as this, but he said, “You look gorgeous in it, really, you look gorgeous.”

She let him buy it. Dear God, she really did. She knew it was a big mistake, was wrong, and that she would never wear it. As the dress was being wrapped, Nora wondered why she had acquiesced, and she realized that, in spite of being mortified, she was flattered to have a man buying clothes for her, to have a man take an interest in her appearance. She never dreamed such a thing would happen to her, and she was overwhelmed.

She couldn't stop blushing. Her heart pounded. She felt dizzy, but it was a good dizziness.

Then, as they were leaving the store, she learned that he had paid five hundred dollars for the dress. Five hundred dollars! She had intended to hang it in the closet and look at it a lot, use it as a starting point for pleasant daydreams, which was all fine and dandy if it had cost fifty dollars, but for five hundred she would have to wear it even if it made her feel ridiculous, even if she did look like a poseur, a scrubwoman pretending to be a princess.

The following evening, during the two hours before Travis was to pick her up and escort her to Talk of the Town, she put the dress on and took it off a half dozen times. She repeatedly sorted through the contents of her closet, searching frantically for something else to wear, something more sensible, but she didn't have anything because she had never before needed clothes for a dressy restaurant.

Scowling at herself in the bathroom mirror, she said, “You look like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.”

She suddenly laughed because she knew she was being too hard on herself. But she couldn't go easier on herself because that was how she felt: like a guy in drag. In this case, feelings were more important than facts, so her laughter quickly soured.

She broke down and cried twice, and considered calling him to cancel their date. But she wanted more than anything to see him, no matter how horribly humiliating the evening was going to be. She used Murine to get the red out of her eyes, and she tried the dress on again-and took it off.

When he arrived at a few minutes past seven, he looked handsome in a dark suit.

Nora was wearing a shapeless blue shift with dark-blue shoes.

He said, “I'll wait.”

She said, “Huh? For what?”

“You know,” he said, meaning, Go change.

The words came out in a nervous rush, and her excuse was limp: “Travis, I'm sorry, this is terrible, I'm so sorry, but I spilled coffee all over the dress.”

“I'll wait in here,” he said, walking to the living room archway.

She said, “A whole pot of coffee.”

“Better hurry. Our reservation is for seven-thirty.”

Steeling herself for the amused whispers if not outright laughter of everyone who saw her, telling herself that Travis's opinion was the only one that mattered, she changed into the Diane Freis dress.

She wished she had not undone the hairstyle that Melanie had given her a couple of days ago. Maybe that would help.

No, it would probably just make her look more ludicrous.

When she came downstairs again, Travis smiled at her and said, “You're lovely.”

She didn't know whether the food at Talk of the Town was as good as its reputation or not. She tasted nothing. Later, she could not clearly remember the decor of the place, either, though the faces of the other customers- including the actor Gene Hackman-were burned into her memory because she was certain that, all evening, they were staring at her with amazement and disdain.

In the middle of dinner, evidently well aware of her discomfort, Travis put down his wineglass and leaned toward her and said quietly, “You really do look lovely, Nora, no matter what you think. And if you had the experience to be aware of such things, you'd realize that most of the men in the room are attracted to you.”

But she knew the truth, and she could face it. If men really were staring at her, it was not because she was pretty. People could be expected to stare at a turkey with a feather duster trying to pass itself off as a peacock.

“Without a trace of makeup,” he said, “you look better than any woman in the room.”

No makeup. That was another reason they were staring at her. When a Woman put on a five-hundred-dollar dress to be taken to an expensive restaurant, she made herself look as good as possible with lipstick, eyeliner, makeup, skin blush, and God knew what else. But Nora had never even thought about makeup.

The chocolate mousse dessert, though surely delicious, tasted like library paste to her and repeatedly stuck in her throat.

She and Travis had talked for long hours during the past couple of weeks, and they had found it surprisingly easy to reveal intimate feelings and thoughts to each other. She had learned why he was alone in spite of his good looks and relative wealth, and he had learned why she harbored a low opinion of herself. So when she could not choke down any more of the mousse, when she implored Travis to take her home right away, he said softly, “If there's any justice, Violet Devon is sweating in Hell tonight.”

Shocked, Nora said, “Oh, no. She wasn't that bad.”

All the way home, he was silent, brooding.

When he left her at her door, he insisted she set up a meeting with Garrison Dilworth, who had been her aunt's attorney and now took care of Nora's minor legal business. “From what you've told me,” Travis said, “Dilworth knew your aunt better than anyone, so I'd bet dollars to doughnuts he can tell you things about her that will break this goddamn stranglehold she has on you even from the grave.”

Nora said, “But there're no great dark secrets about Aunt Violet. She was what she appeared to be. She was a very simple woman, really. A sort of sad woman.”

“Sad my ass,” Travis said.

He persisted until she agreed to make the appointment with Garrison Dilworth.

Later, upstairs in her bedroom, when she tried to take off the Diane Freis, she discovered she didn't want to undress. All evening, she had been impatient to get out of that costume, for it had seemed like a costume on her. But now, in retrospect, the evening possessed a warm glow, and she wanted to prolong that glow. Like a sentimental high school girl, she slept in the five-hundred-dollar dress.

Garrison Dilworth's office had been carefully decorated to convey respectability, stability, and reliability. Beautifully detailed oak paneling. Heavy royal-blue drapes hung from brass rods. Shelves full of leather-bound law books. A massive oak desk.

The attorney himself was an intriguing cross between a personification of Dignity and Probity-and Santa Claus. Tall, rather portly, with thick silver hair, past seventy but still working a full week, Garrison favored three-piece suits and subdued ties. In spite of his many years as a Californian, his deep and smooth and cultured voice clearly marked him as a product of the upper-class Eastern circles in which he had been born, raised, and educated. But there was also a decidedly merry twinkle in his eyes, and his smile was quick, warm, altogether Santalike.

He did not distance himself by staying behind his desk, but sat with Nora and Travis in comfortable armchairs around a coffee table on which stood a large Waterford bowl. “I don't know what you came here expecting to learn. There are no secrets about your aunt. No great dark revelations that will change your life-”

“I knew as much,” Nora said. “I'm sorry we've bothered you.”

“Wait,” Travis said. “Let Mr. Dilworth finish.”

The attorney said, “Violet Devon was my client, and an attorney has a responsibility to protect clients' confidences even after their death. At least that's my view, though some in the profession might not feel such a lasting obligation. Of course, as I'm speaking to Violet's closest living relative and heir, I suppose there's little I would choose not to divulge-if in fact there were any secrets to reveal. And I certainly see no moral constraint against my expressing an honest opinion of your aunt. Even attorneys, priests, and doctors are allowed to have opinions of people.” He took a deep breath and frowned. “I never liked her, I thought she was a narrow-minded, totally self-involved woman who was at least slightly . . . well, mentally unstable. And the way she raised you was criminal, Nora. Not abusive in any legal sense that would interest the authorities, but criminal nonetheless. And cruel.”

For as long as Nora could recall, a large knot had seemed to be tied tight inside of her, pinching vital organs and vessels, leaving her tense, restricting the flow of blood and making it necessary for her to live with all her senses damped down, forcing her to struggle along as if she were a machine getting insufficient power. Suddenly, Garrison Dilworth's words untied that knot, and a full, unrestricted current of life rushed through her for the first time.

She had known what Violet Devon had done to her, but knowing was not enough to help her overcome that grim upbringing. She needed to hear her aunt condemned by someone else. Travis had already denounced Violet, and Nora had felt some small release at hearing what he said. But that had not been enough to free her because Travis hadn't known Violet and, therefore, spoke without complete authority. Garrison knew Violet well, however, and his words released Nora from bondage.

She was trembling violently, and tears were trickling down her face, but she was unaware of both conditions until Travis reached out from his chair to put one hand consolingly upon her shoulder. She fumbled in her purse for a handkerchief. “I'm sorry.”

“Dear lady,” Garrison said, “don't apologize for breaking through that iron shell you've been in all your life. This is the first time I've seen you show a strong emotion, the first time I've seen you in any condition other than extreme shyness, and it's lovely to behold.” Turning to Travis, giving Nora time to blot her eyes, he said, “What more did you hope to hear me say?”

“There are some things Nora doesn't know, things she ought to know and that I don't believe would violate even your strict code of client privilege if you were to divulge them.”

“Such as?”

Travis said, “Violet Devon never worked yet lived reasonably well, never in want, and she left enough funds to keep Nora pretty much for the rest of her life, at least as long as Nora stays in that house and lives like a recluse. Where did her money come from?”

“Come from?” Garrison sounded surprised. “Nora knows that, surely.”

“But she doesn't,” Travis said.

Nora looked up and saw Garrison Dilworth staring at her in astonishment. He blinked and said, “Violet's husband was moderately well-to-do. He died quite young, and she inherited everything.”

Nora gaped at him and could barely find sufficient breath to speak. “Husband?”

“George Olmstead,” the attorney said.

“I've never heard that name.”

Garrison blinked rapidly again, as if sand had blown in his face. “She never mentioned a husband?”


“But didn't a neighbor ever mention-”

“We had nothing to do with our neighbors,” Nora said. “Violet didn't approve of them.”

“And in fact,” Garrison said, “now that I think about it, there might have been new neighbors on both sides by the time you came to live with Violet.”

Nora blew her nose and put away her handkerchief. She was still trembling. Her sudden sense of release from bondage had generated powerful emotions, but now they subsided somewhat to make room for curiosity.

“All right?” Travis asked.

She nodded, then stared hard at him and said, “You knew, didn't you? About the husband, I mean. That's why you brought me here.”

“I suspected,” Travis said. “If she'd inherited everything from her parents, she would have mentioned it. The fact that she didn't talk about where the money came from . . . well, it seemed to me to leave only one possibility- a husband, and very likely a husband with whom she'd had troubles. Which made even more sense when you think about how down she was on people in general and on men in particular.”

The attorney was so dismayed and agitated that he could not sit still. He got up and paced past an enormous antique globe that was lighted from within and seemed made of parchment. “I'm flabbergasted. So you never really understood why she was bitterly misanthropic, why she suspected everyone of having her worst interests at heart?”

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