They hadn’t been to this part of Connecticut in forty years, not since their undergrad days after the war. The geography looked different from the car window: the hills flatter, the river thinner, the clouds stringy when once they had bloomed. Frank had taken over the wheel after lunch in New Haven, and as he rounded a one-time farm stand—now a 7-Eleven—Violet glimpsed the turrets of the castle on the hill and felt that old chord twang.
“There it is,” she said.
“Hello, old place,” Frank said.
He took the hard turn onto the road beyond the gas station, the softer turn onto the rutted country lane, and they were passing through the open gates.
“Remember to breathe,” Frank said on the drawbridge.
Violet laughed. “You can tell?”
“You’re trying to strangle your purse.”
Laurence and Betty waited on the steps; he wore a silk smoking jacket and she was holding a tray of martinis. They had merely rented the castle for the weekend to celebrate Laurence’s sixtieth birthday, but they looked right at home. Laurence waved and pointed to indicate that Frank should park next to a marble gargoyle that squatted in a bed of pansies, the only addition Violet had noted thus far on the grounds. The front gates had been the same burnished brass; the squat caretaker’s cottage still hid behind tall privet, and here, the castle loomed into that same patch of sky.
“Hallo, hallo,” Laurence said, crunching across the gravel as Violet and Frank got out of the car. “Leave the bags. We’ll get them later.” He pulled Frank into a back-thumping hug, Betty two steps behind.
“You look wonderful, Betts,” Frank said and kissed her offered cheek. It was true. Betty had never looked better. Post-chemo, her once-straight hair had grown in springy and her new breasts were full and perky.
“Thank you, Mr. Doctor.” She lifted the tray to offer a martini. “Outshone as usual by your darling wife.”
Still standing by the car door, Violet smiled, then approached. She and Betty exchanged air kisses.
“Nice that they refilled the moat,” she said, as the four of them mounted the steps.
“It’s stocked with trout,” Laurence said. “The men can fish while the women dish.” He stopped under the portico. “You ready for this? It only took four decades to get us inside.”
Not a drinker, Violet took a long sip of her martini. The dull pain of nostalgia had begun to saw its way through her apprehension. In the 1950s, the four of them had stood in front of these same oak doors, carved with cats and vines, a mouse hidden under a leaf that Violet herself had discovered. She found it again now, frozen in a polyurethane glaze.
“Here goes,” Laurence said. He pushed open the door. “Feast your eyes.”
The great hall was poorly lit by the two windows and electric sconces that cast a spooky glow. Tapestries hung on the wood-paneled walls, rife with knights, maidens, and steeds—Violet guessed second-wave Italian Renaissance. A suit of armor stood in an alcove under the staircase: German, she assumed, from the Maximilian fluting. Her expert eye assessed the damage. Before taking her current position as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, she had inventoried the medieval collections of the Walters Museum.
“The new owners went classic castle, as you can see,” Betty said.
“It’s like we’re in old-timey France,” Laurence said. “And we don’t even have to deal with the French.”
“It’s really something,” Violet said tightly. “What happened to the original woodwork?”
“Riddled with termites, apparently,” Betty said.
Violet could feel them crunching away at her heart, those termites. The very point of this castle, its wittiness when it was built in the 1920s, had been that the ancient-looking, pseudo-European exterior hid an art-deco, American interior. Now everything was totally seamless and totally wrong.
“Go help Frank with the bags, Laure.” Betty took the empty glasses from Frank and Violet. “Let’s let these two get washed up and changed. Then it’s party time, as the kids say. You boys can go fishing and I’ll show Violet around.”
In their third-floor bedroom (“Look for a surprise!” Betty whispered before leaving), Frank hugged Violet. “You’re holding up great.”
“What are we supposed to wash, exactly? Do you see a sink in this room? And what does she want us to change into?”
“I think she was being metaphorical.”
Violet unzipped her suitcase and unpacked. A taxidermied boar’s head watched her from above a stone fireplace. She set Laurence’s present—a bronze replica of Rodin’s The Thinker, mantled in tissue paper—next to the bed. Even with her discount at the BMA shop, she had spent five times what she usually would on that present, and she had no idea if Laurence would like it.
On a gigantic armoire, a piece of paper had been taped. open me, it read, so she did. Inside the armoire hung two kaftans in gray silk, bathing suits tucked into terrycloth robes, and his and hers sailors’ outfits: navy pants and white and blue striped tee shirts, neck scarves hooked over the hangers. Frank laughed. “That’s the surprise,” he said. “That Betty. Costumes! Which do you think we’re supposed to wear now?”
“Kaftans, I guess,” Violet said.
She stripped off her shorts and tee shirt and pulled the kaftan over her head. Already, she was starting to hate herself: the ogre of the castle, internally rolling her eyes at everything, disparaging the décor. As Frank finished unpacking, she walked out a set of French doors, flanked by mulberry velvet curtains, onto the balcony. Below, where there once had been lawn, lay a gigantic pool surrounded by Doric columns. It seemed to be striving for Roman. Down the hill, the Connecticut River chugged toward New Haven. In the 1950s, students at Yale, the four of them had often picnicked on that vanquished grass, under the boarded-up castle. One languid afternoon, Betty wove dandelion crowns for Laurence and Frank and dandelion necklaces for Violet and herself; already she had been applying her artistic skills to the domestic, already men were kings and women adornments.
“What do you think?” Betty called as Violet and Frank came down the stairs. “Comfy, right? They’re the thing in Vegas this summer, not just for the hippies anymore.” She and Laurence had also changed into kaftans. “Did you figure out what we’re doing with the sailor suits?”
“Tennis?” Violet said.
“Off we go,” Laurence said to Frank. He handed him one of the fishing poles under his arm. “Betts has given us an hour to catch dinner.”
Violet followed Betty around the first floor of the castle—more gilded frames, armor, and tapestries—and into the kitchen.
“We’ve planned a surprise for tomorrow’s meal,” Betty said, “but I told Laurence I’m cooking your first night. I haven’t made dinner for you two in years. When was the last time? Summer ’86? ’87?”
“It was delicious,” Violet said. “Coq au vin, maybe.”
“Yes, those would have been my coq au vin days.”
Betty had disappeared into a butler’s pantry and came out with an armful of pans. “You should go flop by the pool or take a stroll.”
“I’ll help you.”
“You’re here to relax. But you can sit and catch me up while I prep. The girl should be here soon with the groceries.”
The girl, when she rang the doorbell, turned out to be a thirtyish woman named Mona with a painfully jutting clavicle and twigs for legs. Her hair looked unwashed, still molded on one side into what might have been a ponytail. She’d parked her dinged-up Mustang next to Frank and Violet’s car. A baby slept in the back seat.
“Don’t leave your little one in the heat,” Betty said.
“Oh, I wasn’t gonna,” Mona said. She set the bags on the threshold.
“I think she might be a heroin addict,” Betty told Violet as they took the groceries to the kitchen. “So stringy skinny. And she doesn’t dust the corners of anything. For the price Laurence is paying, you’d think the staff would be up to snuff. You sit down now.” She unpacked a bag, tsking at each item. “I ask for potatoes and she brings me sweet potatoes. I ask for cream and she brings me half and half.” She held up the carton and shook her head quickly, as if trying to cast a spider from her hair. “So much for dinner.”
“We don’t mind,” Violet said. “We’re just glad to be with you.”
“I’ll improvise,” Betty said, not seeming to have heard. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll call it scalloped Southern potatoes and Laurence won’t know the difference!”
From a Shaker chair with gilded slats, Violet watched Betty scrub the potatoes. The sink was an immense porcelain basin set in what looked like a dresser. Copper pots and pans dangled over their heads. On Betty talked, quickly, as if Violet were making her nervous.
“The fellow who owns this place is a broker in Manhattan,” she said. “Remarried, wanted a weekend home with the new wife. Bought the property, fixed it all up. Then she left him. For her personal trainer! Now he doesn’t know what to do with the property, so he rents it out. I got the whole story from the realtor on the phone.”
“I take it the wife was an antiquer,” Violet said.
Betty laughed. “You’ve been very sweet, withholding your opinion. But Laurence thinks it’s gorgeous. And he wasn’t celebrating his sixtieth with anyone else, anywhere else.”
Violet decided to leap. “I’m thrilled to see you healthy, Betty. I wished—I really wanted to be there, to help out in some way.”
“I’m perfectly fine.” Betty was laying potato slices on the bottom of a baking dish. “Always was. And like I told you at the time, we were just swimming in casseroles.”
Violet felt the slap of rejection. Betty hadn’t been fine at all. Her diagnosis had been bleak and her treatments brutal. A year ago, she had been bald, nauseated, jaundiced, and unable to leave her bed. After the first surgery, Violet had offered to fly out for a weekend, to stay in a hotel, to offer support. “No, no,” Betty had said. “I absolutely refuse to let you trouble yourself.” So, instead, Violet sent a bouquet of lilies. Meanwhile, Laurence called Frank every week, sobbing drunkenly into the phone.
Violet watched Betty sprinkle cheddar on the potatoes. She wanted to ask her if she still cried in the closet, as she’d done when they were roommates at Yale. “Had to chase off some rain clouds,” Betty would say when she came out. Violet had never asked Betty what she was crying about. She, too, had been raised to think of emotions as dirty secrets.
It was her turn to break the silence. “You really are a trooper.”
“Pshaw,” Betty said. “I’m worried about Laurence, though.” She salted the potatoes. “He blames himself that I got sick in the first place. He thinks it’s because of the mine. How many times did I even visit the place? He’s spent loads more time there. Way more exposure than me. But you know Laurence and his magical thinking. He only said it the one time when we first got the diagnosis, but I think that’s what’s still keeping him up nights. You never get rid of that Catholic guilt. I told him to talk to Frank about it while you two are here. Get a scientific opinion.”
The uranium mine. Everything always came back to those ninety acres in the Nevada desert. The source of Betty and Laurence’s fortune and of Violet and Frank’s start to their life in Baltimore. Also, the death blow to Violet’s true friendship with Betty, which had been replaced by this imposter friendship.
“I’m sure Frank will set his mind at ease,” Violet said.
“I’m sure, too. I was telling Susan on the phone last night that you’ve got to hold on to old college friends. Irreplaceable.”
Susan was Betty and Laurence’s daughter, and the mention of her name shifted the conversation to their children. Violet described the progress of her daughter’s PhD, the exploits of her son and son-in-law’s toddler. Betty told her about her other daughter’s new vacation home in Banff. Violet matched Betty’s tone, as if they were singing a duet together. Yes, grandchildren were the best thing. Weren’t they? Yes, they were. Betty nodded and interrogated and put the casserole in the oven. Outside, Laurence and Frank would have settled back into their easy familiarity, which they’d never lost. Violet felt a childish desire to throw a fit. When they were young, she and Betty had brought out the best in each other, and now, they brought out the worst.
In the beginning, it had only been Violet and Betty. They were roommates, students in the School of Fine Arts, the sole undergraduate department at Yale that admitted women. From the first day in their dorm room, when Betty took a box of chocolates out of her suitcase and insisted that Violet eat the one cherry cordial, they were inseparable. The summer of their sophomore year, they spent a month in Paris, wandering museums, reading to each other from Baedeker’s, cooling their feet in fountains, skirts tucked under their knees. They did each other’s nails, and they finished each other’s sentences. Then, junior year, one morning in class, an itch started between Violet’s legs as she stood at her easel, sketching a skeleton. A day later, the itch had bloomed into pain and sitting in a chair made her wince.
“What do you mean ‘down below’?” Betty had asked. She sat cross-legged on the bed across from Violet, who had blurted out her discomfort.
“Below, below,” Violet said.
Betty jumped to her feet. Her face was smeared in applesauce, that season’s beauty trick. “Let me take a peek. I’ve always wanted to see what one looked like.”
“What else are you going to do? Go to the infirmary? They’re all men over there.”
Outrageous and logical. Smart and flighty. Violet had never met a person as contradictory as Betty. She read Kant with her hair in curlers. She wore a different, expensive perfume every day of the week, yet kept a handkerchief of dimes in her purse for the man who slept on New Haven Green. A natural talent in the art studio, she painted gorgeous watercolors that consumed the canvas, swirling lines and bursts of color that reminded Violet of exploding stars. Betty couldn’t even keep a still life still, as one professor lamented. She wavered the lines of flower petals, the lip of a vase, so that whatever she was sketching seemed ready to leap off the table and onto the floor. Living with Betty had allowed Violet to locate her own contradictions: she was Methodist, but she didn’t believe in God. She was quiet, but she could be carried away on gales of giggles. She was prudish, but here she was with her nightgown up and her underwear down, crouched on her bed on all fours.
“You’ve got a red bump,” Betty said. “A red bump on an old man’s mouth. That’s how I’d describe it.”
“What does a red bump mean?” Violet said.
“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”
The next afternoon, at the medical school library, Violet flipped through the Encyclopedia of Skin Disorders as Betty chatted with the student behind the desk. He had let them into the reading room and fetched the book for Violet, even though they weren’t allowed inside. The campus was a labyrinth of off-limits buildings that Betty found ways to infiltrate through charm and manipulation. Recently, she had convinced Violet to dress up in suits and ties to sneak into a Whiffenpoof performance in Battell Chapel.
“Did you find it?” Betty cooed when Violet came back to the desk with the book. In the company of men, Betty’s voice grew wings. She had taken over the minute that they walked into the building, explaining to the student that her friend had a rash on her feet, the condition she and Violet had settled upon in advance.
“I think so.” Violet could feel that she was blushing and so, she saw, was the student, who had the broad shoulders and freckled face of a farm boy, which, it would turn out, he was.
“May I ask if it’s patchy?” he said.
“Sort of,” she stammered.
“You might try bathing your feet in a warm bath with baking soda.”
“Frank here is pre-med,” Betty said. “I’ve invited him to Booze and Bones on Thursday. He’s bringing his roommate.”
Once a week, Betty organized outings with male students in the Grove Street cemetery. She had a theory that this was the ideal location to choose a mate, since Thanatos stirred up Eros. That Thursday, Frank and a gangly boy with a Bronx accent and purple socks showed up with a bottle of gin. As the names on the graves became fuzzy, it became clear who would be matched with whom. Violet and Frank walked the paths, talking, while Betty and Laurence made out behind a mausoleum.
“He comes from nothing,” Betty said about Laurence as they got ready for bed that night, sweeping a strand of hair into a roller, “but such drive. A real Jay Gatsby. And my mouth has never met a tongue like that.”
Often in the years since they’d met, Betty had told Violet that she had no interest in being an artist, art historian, or art teacher. She wanted to be a wife and a mother. She planned to leave Yale at least engaged, as her mother had done. But until that night, and the weeks that followed, Violet hadn’t believed that this would be the case, and certainly not with someone like Laurence.
“He’s too one-dimensional for you,” she told Betty several double dates later, after Laurence had kept the rest of them shivering in the snow while he enthusiastically listed the features of a Rolls Royce parked on the street.
“Multi-dimensional men make bad husbands,” Betty replied matter-of-factly.
Despite her reservations about Laurence, Violet liked him well enough in those early days, because she understood the pained source of his swagger. Laurence, too, was an outsider at Yale, iced out and excluded due to his scholarship status. Immigrants from Sicily, the men of his family were welders, specializing in the construction of skyscrapers. Laurence had spent his high school summers laboring with his father on scaffoldings over Wall Street. Betty called him Spidey and described his work in mythical terms: “Thousands of feet in the air! Can you imagine?” she’d say. Laurence grinned and tugged her close. Maybe he’d been thrice rejected by Skull and Bones and worked in the dining hall twenty hours a week, but his girlfriend wore real pearls and hailed from sunny, seemingly classless California, where Humphrey Bogart once swam in her pool and she grew up riding a horse. Meanwhile, Frank, also a scholarship student, ignored the snubs that plagued his friend. He’d been raised on a cranberry farm in Maine, was quiet and gentle and never showed off. Two months after they’d met, because he kept asking her about her feet, Violet told him that she’d had a hemorrhoid. Instead of laughing or acting awkward, he said, “Is it better now? I can give you the name of a cream.” Violet fell in love with him then.
Over the next year and a half, the inseparable twosome became an inseparable foursome. In the convertible that Betty had driven across the country from L.A, they saw every last covered bridge and waterfall in Connecticut. In Mystic, they strolled by the whalers, eating ice cream cones. And here, on the castle’s grounds—then a state park—they hiked the trails from the main road with sandwiches and bottles of Coke.
The building itself had been closed to the public due to structural issues. Built at the turn of the century by a silent film actor who’d been pushed out of the business by talkies, the castle was three stories high and made of local fieldstone with the rutty texture of barnacles. In his retirement, the actor had become paranoid, absorbing, perhaps, the character of Sherlock Holmes, the role that had granted him his streak of fame. A moat with two alligators shipped in from Florida encircled the castle. A spotlight on the roof cast a beam to the river to scan for intruders. On the first floor, only the one ornate door opened to the exterior. Every interior door in the castle had a unique design, many with trick locks. Other tricks of the castle included a system of mirrors that allowed the actor to spy on his guests, walls shortened to make him look taller, and a secret passageway so he could burst into the dining room during parties.
Their final visit to the grounds took place a month before graduation and a week before their back-to-back weddings in Dwight Chapel. Then Laurence and Betty moved to Las Vegas, where Laurence opened a branch of Betty’s father’s real estate firm. Violet and Frank left for Baltimore so Frank could attend medical school at Johns Hopkins. Violet took a secretarial job to help pay his tuition. Money was tight that first year, and tighter the next. When Violet became pregnant, they discussed whether Frank would need to drop out of school and if they should move to Maine to live with his parents.
One night, Laurence called from Nevada. He was investing in a plot of land for a new housing development outside the city. He convinced Frank to invest as well. It was the only big fight Violet and Frank had in those days. Violet felt that he was risking their security on a gamble and accused him of being under Laurence’s spell. He said it was too late to back out, because he had already promised. Six months later, when ground broke on the development, uranium was discovered. The value of the shares exploded. Frank stayed in medical school. Violet quit her job and enrolled in a PhD in art history. They bought a Queen Anne cottage in Roland Park, three blocks away from Frank’s family practice. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Laurence and Betty, now multimillionaires, built a monstrous house on a private golf course.
For decades, the four of them had kept up with postcard exchanges and the occasional reunion dinner when Laurence had business in the Mid-Atlantic. They attended each other’s children’s weddings. There had been a few trips to Nevada and a week in Tuscany for another milestone birthday—Betty’s fiftieth—the nightly feasts made tasteless by the politics of Betty and Laurence’s Las Vegas friends. Once a month, Laurence and Frank talked on the phone, after which Betty and Violet said a quick hello. Always, in every interaction, hanging over Violet’s head like a gaudy chandelier was this fact: as much as she judged Laurence and Betty’s obnoxious wealth, her own life was inextricably tied to it. Whenever she was with them, she felt like a tenant on their land.
The trout were scrawny and bony and seemed to have a skin disease that rusted their scales. Betty and Violet stood in the kitchen, observing the two fish flopping in a bucket. Frank and Laurence had changed and gone down to the pool.
“They’ll probably taste fine,” Violet said.
“I had the girl get that backup salmon just in case. I think I’ll make a switch. But let’s not tell the boys. They were so proud of their catch.”
Violet dumped the trout back into the moat, while Betty dressed the salmon. Then they left the castle in suits and robes. “Should I grab the key?” Violet asked. It dangled on a string above the door knob.
“No need. The door doesn’t lock automatically. And who’s going to rob us out here?”
Violet followed Betty down the steps to the pool. Betty was wrong—the door could lock automatically. Below the latch was a button that engaged a hidden bolt. Violet knew nineteenth-century locks and keys well, since the Baltimore Museum of Art had a vast collection. But why bother to share this arcana with Betty? She wouldn’t give a fig.
After dinner—the fish swap having gone unnoticed by Laurence—Betty and Violet cleared the table and did the dishes, while Laurence and Frank smoked cigars. Then Laurence put in a VHS cassette that he’d packed, and they all sat around the tv in the parlor. In a deerstalker and cloak, the actor who had built the castle swept along shadowy passageways, lowered a magnifying glass to study the watermark on a letter, nursed his pipe at a window overlooking a cutout of London rooftops. Laurence and Frank fell asleep halfway through the film, but Betty and Violet stayed awake, sitting on either end of the couch, as Betty whispered random questions about the actor’s personal life. “Wasn’t he with that German actress who owned a cheetah?”
Violet whispered back that she wasn’t sure. As the actor flickered on the screen, she remembered their last visit to the castle. She and Betty had brought along easels and canvases. Violet had painted the view from the lawn, the long swoop of the river, the undulating hills. Betty had painted Laurence, who perched on his elbow in front of the castle. For the first time in their friendship, Violet had known that day that her painting was better than Betty’s. But rather than feeling satisfaction, she felt grief. Betty would marry Laurence, whose accent was now barely perceptible. She would hang that tidy, cheerful painting on a wall in a tidy, cheerful life that had nothing to do with Violet.
On the screen, the actor was pursuing a masked villain down a mountain pass. Betty, too, had fallen asleep. Her greatest mystery, Violet thought, looking over at her, was how easily she had managed to give up her own mystery.
In bed later that night, Frank said, “I have to tell you something Laurence said when we were alone at the pool.” His forehead was pinched and mouth unsure: the face he made when he was afraid of Violet’s reaction.
Violet’s stomach seized. “Is her cancer back?”
“No. It’s about the uranium mine.”
“Betty told me Laurence thinks that’s why she got sick.”
“Yes, but not because of the radiation.”
The land deal all those years ago, Frank continued, had been illegal. “Some kind of insider trading. Laurence knew there was uranium when we bought the property. He got a tip from a scientist and paid the guy off.”
“Illegal,” Violet repeated. She felt it physically, the loss of her moral high ground.
“The statute of limitations is long past, so he can’t get into trouble now. He assured me that I wouldn’t have had a problem, since I didn’t know. He feels awful about it, honey. He said it was a dumb mistake and he’s never done it again.”
The night pressed in on Violet from the open window. The river seemed to be rising, filling the room.
“He didn’t need to do it again,” she said. “That mine made him stinking rich. Why is he telling you now?”
“He’s wanted to since Betty’s diagnosis. He thinks lies cause cancer.”
“Then why did she get it instead of him?”
Frank took her hand. “I know. I know. But he was shaken up telling me. He cried. You didn’t notice when you came down to the pool?”
“I thought it was the chlorine.”
“They’ve had a truly brutal time of it this past year.”
“That’s no excuse for what he did forty years ago.” Violet felt clammy. “And let me guess. You told him it was all right, and then he had another drink and ate that fake trout and forgot about it.”
“I didn’t say it was all right. I said I forgave him because he asked me to. What’s the good in doing otherwise? We can’t give back the money.”
“Does Betty know about this?”
Frank shook his head. “You know how they are.”
“So our life is based on corruption. Your career. My career. The kids’ education. Our house. Every book in the study. The living room sofa.”
“We would have ended up figuring things out,” Frank said.
“Would we? Do you remember how stretched we were back then? We might be living on your parents’ cranberry farm right now. Only no. We wouldn’t be living on the farm because the cranberry industry would have collapsed.” She flipped off the covers to cool herself down. “So this is why we’re on this birthday weekend, then. Laurence wanted to dump his nasty secret on you.”
“It’s not only that,” Frank said. “There’s always been real affection. Remember what the four of us were like back then?”
Violet wanted to protest, but she did remember. She could smell it in the breeze from the river. Even in her rage, she could see the four of them in the grass, eating their picnic in the shade of the boarded-up castle that they had all wanted to explore.
The night went poorly. She got up three times to go to the bathroom. The third time, she put on her shoes and left for a walk in the black woods. She was furious about being implicated in an illegality and she was furious that Laurence had told Frank not to tell her. Her marriage didn’t work that way—she didn’t feed her husband salmon and say that it was trout. But what could she do? She wasn’t someone who made scenes, and, at fifty-nine years old, that wasn’t going to change. Plus, she couldn’t make a scene even if she wanted to, because Betty was in the dark about the insider trading. And Laurence, she saw later as the four of them ate breakfast, was indifferent to the fallout of his confession. He gobbled down his eggs hollandaise and made a big deal over “birthday surprise number one,” which turned out to be a private schooner tour of Mystic.
“I refuse to wear mine,” Violet told Frank as he knotted the sailor scarf around his neck. “We aren’t her Barbie dolls.” Downstairs, she told Betty that the pants were too tight and then had to be subjected on the drive to an elaborate explanation of Betty’s “tuna fish diet.”
They spent the morning sailing along the Connecticut coast, Frank and Laurence walking fore and aft to look for whales.
“You feeling okay, sailor?” Betty asked Violet. “Seasick?”
“I didn’t sleep well,” Violet said.
In her blouse and culottes, she felt like a party pooper instead of the subtle protestor that she was trying to be. If Betty noticed her disquiet, Laurence continued to seem completely oblivious. On the car ride home, he put in a cassette of La Traviata and sang, full-lunged, along the country road. By the time they reached the castle, Violet coursed with anger. She said she had a headache and went upstairs while the rest of them played cards. Eventually, Frank came into the room.
“Just one more day,” he said and lay down next to her. She snuggled against him, trying to absorb his calm. Frank was good and he was kind and Laurence had abused his trust. Laurence with his flashy smile and pinkie ring and his fucking sixtieth birthday celebration in this godforsaken, poorly restored castle. Violet wanted to ruin it all. She wanted to make something go wrong. And it was this desire that led her, as they left the house with cocktails that afternoon, to move her forefinger to the hidden latch on the front door and push it to the right.
Immediately, she felt a release. Down by the pool, she helped Betty apply sunscreen to her shoulders. She did a couple of laps. She lay in one of the chairs and closed her eyes. When Laurence announced that he was going to mix another tray of Camparis—the only time he seemed to help out was in fetching drinks—Violet kept her body lax. In the chairs next to hers, Betty and Frank reminisced about Pepe’s original white clam pizza, back when the oven of the New Haven joint was fired by coke.
“The door’s locked,” Laurence said when he returned.
“It doesn’t do that,” Betty said.
Violet continued to feign sleep. Behind her sunglasses, Laurence was far away and upside down, his body out of order from this view: first came the two humps of his knees, then his sunbaked thighs, the curtains of gauzy blue trunks, then the great heave of his belly with a small head and thin arms balanced on top. Lithe, slender Spidey who had once scaled buildings now looked barely capable of climbing a set of stairs.
“But the girl said explicitly that it doesn’t lock automatically,” Betty said.
“I know. That’s why I didn’t take the key.”
Violet gave herself another moment to enjoy Laurence’s irritation and Betty’s befuddlement before drowsily saying, “What’s going on?”
“The front door locked somehow,” Frank told her. “Not supposed to.”
Laurence now looked forlorn. “Franky and I were looking forward to our four o’clock drink.” In a classic maneuver of the borderline alcoholic, he projected his need to imbibe on the people around him.
“Don’t get ruffled,” Betty said. “I’ll get a spare key from Mona.”
“I’ll come,” Violet said.
“Nice to take a walk, anyway,” Betty said as they headed up the stairs from the pool to the gravel drive. Their flip-flops slapped. The river flashed through the trees.
“We can go the route I found this morning,” Violet said. She steered them onto a path, which ran along a honeysuckle-smothered miniature rail trestle, where Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin once rode a miniature train.
“You went out?” Betty said.
“Up at four and into my shoes.”
“You’ve always been so disciplined. Without my trainer, forget it.”
“It’s more about insomnia than discipline,” Violet said.
The trees fanned above. The flip-flops gathered dust from the trail. By the time they rejoined the drive, her sense of victory by the pool was wilting. She felt, in fact, increasingly foolish. She and Betty would get the key to the castle from Mona, and Laurence would be back mixing Camparis in fifteen minutes. And what a silly, petty victory it was, anyway, locking a door.
The gatehouse was just around the bend, built of fieldstone like the castle with a yard cluttered with sun-faded plastic toys.
“I’ll try to be nice,” Betty whispered after she knocked, “but she did say it wouldn’t lock.”
Behind Mona, the house was a dim mess: toys and blankets and bottles strewn everywhere. In a droopy diaper, the baby straddled her hip.
“It can’t be locked,” Mona said once Betty explained what had happened. “Maybe it’s stuck.”
“It seemed pretty locked to my husband,” Betty said. “Could you give us a spare?”
“I don’t know that I have one,” Mona said. “Hang on a second.” She returned with a plastic bag full of iron keys. “I think these are all for the inside doors. But there’s really no way the front door’s locked if you didn’t lock it. I’ll give it a good shove.”
Silent but for the screaming baby who was trying to buck out of his stroller, they walked up the hill. Betty strode in her flip-flops, probably trying to figure out how to tell Laurence that the caretaker seemed to have no extra key to the front door without sending him into the stratosphere. Violet’s feeling of foolishness had morphed into unease. She hadn’t calculated this complication.
At the castle, Mona fiddled with the doorhandle and bumped her shoulder against the door. Betty had offered to hold the baby, who was still writhing and screaming.
“You’re right,” Mona said. “It’s locked. What the hell.”
She tried the keys in the baggie, then tried them again. Calmed, the baby nursed on Betty’s neck. A breeze was stirring from the river, and in the shade of the portico, Violet shivered. She imagined the actor observing the scene from the balcony above, dressed in his Sherlock Holmes costume, smoking his pipe. Who had a motive? Who had the means? The sandy-haired lady in the terrycloth robe. The last hand on the door when the four of them had gone down to the pool. A curator who directed an art museum with a collection of antique locks and keys.
Arching her eyebrows at Violet, Betty shifted the baby onto her other hip. Mona had tried all of the keys twice.
“Shit,” Mona said. “Fuck.”
“My goodness,” Betty said.
“I’m sorry. He’s gonna kill me.”
“Who?” Violet said.
This must be the man who had bought the actor’s property from the state of Connecticut and done the dubious remodel with his straying wife.
“It isn’t your fault,” Violet said. “We’re the ones who left the key inside.”
“I wouldn’t quite say that,” Betty said. “Since we were told it wouldn’t lock.” She was now holding the baby in the air as he wriggled. “Do you have another diaper under that stroller?” she asked Mona. “This one’s leaking.”
The terrycloth that covered Betty’s right hip was soaked.
“Oh my God.” Mona’s face capsized. “I’m sorry. I mess everything up. It’s my fault there’s no spare key for this door.” She rummaged under the stroller. “Mr. Beacon told me to get another one made after I lost the spare last month. I was cleaning and I set it down somewhere and I have no clue what happened to it. The guy who can make those keys is two hours away. I never got to it. This place. It’s endless. Dusting the chandelier takes me half a day. I can’t afford someone to watch Lenny, and he crawls all over the place. The last time I was making up the beds, he got into the fireplace and ate soot.”
“We understand, dear,” Betty said in a voice straining for kindness. “We’re mothers too. I just don’t want him getting a rash in this heat.”
Now Mona was sobbing. It was all too much, she said. Her husband had died in Iraq a year ago, and she didn’t get military spouse benefits because he wasn’t her husband. “Not legally, you know.” This caretaking gig was the third job she’d had in the past nine months. You couldn’t get much without a high school diploma and with a baby. She had already messed up a couple of times, used the wrong cleaning solution on a clawfoot tub and left scratches, lost that spare key. “Mr. Beacon only hired me in the first place because he couldn’t find anyone. Last time, he said, ‘Three strikes and you’re out.’ This will be three.”
Violet watched Mona sob, feeling increasingly awful.
“We could try a locksmith,” she said.
“They’d have to break the lock open. It’s antique, like everything in this goddamn place. It’s probably worth a thousand dollars or something.”
She was right, of course. No locksmith would be able to figure out that lock.
Betty had gone with the baby to a patch of lawn off the porch, and now she returned without her robe, which she had swaddled around the baby’s legs.
“He’ll be happier now,” she said.
“Thank you,” Mona said shakily, taking the baby. “I’ll wash your robe and get it back to you. I’m sorry I broke down like that. He kept me up half the night.” She sniffed. “I’ll go call Mr. Beacon. He’ll send his driver with his set of keys. You’ll all be back in by dinner.”
“Hold on,” Betty said. “We don’t want you to lose your job. My husband might have an idea. He’s a whiz in a crisis. But we’re going to have to think of what to do with the chef.”
“What chef?” Violet said.
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” Betty told her.
At the pool, Laurence floated gloomily in the shallow end, as Frank read a medical journal in a lounger.
“All good?” Laurence called.
“Not really,” Betty called back. “Seems there’s no spare.”
Dripping, glistening, Laurence strode over to them like a pot-bellied peacock. Violet saw him give Mona the once-over and dismiss her as unattractive.
“This poor thing is worried for her job,” Betty told Laurence.
“Let’s think,” Frank said in his doctor’s voice.
“The oysters are here,” Laurence said.
The oysters had arrived with the chef, who had just parked his van by the castle. Violet could see Laurence struggle between his desire to seem magnanimous and his desire for a martini and an iced plate of oysters.
“Let’s have the oysters now,” Violet said. “The rest of the food will keep while we figure this out.”
“Is there a barbeque?” Betty asked Mona, who was holding on to the baby’s big toe with her thumb and index finger as he chewed on her knuckle.
“Would a fire pit do?” she said.
“It’s bouillabaisse, babe,” Laurence said to Betty.
“I’ll go ask the chef if he has a pot,” Betty said. “It’ll be like a camp out.”
“Sounds great,” Violet said.
“Fun,” Frank added.
“And then what?” Laurence said. “We rent a couple of rooms at the Howard Johnson’s in Middletown?” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, doll,” he said to Mona. “You’re going to have to fix this. You’re the only one who can.”
“I know,” Mona said. She was tearing up again.
The chef, in a toque and tunic, came down the steps. Laurence’s mouth tweaked into a smile.
“Can you bring down the oysters right now?” he called.
“Laurence,” Betty said, looking at Mona. “Maybe—”
“It is what it is,” he said.
Frank was looking up at the castle. “We left our bedroom window open. Is there a ladder?”
“I don’t think so,” Mona said.
“Also, you’d break your neck,” Violet said. “It’s three stories up.”
“I’ll go make that call,” Mona said.
“Let me help you get the stroller up the steps,” Frank told her.
Stone-faced, Laurence got back in the water and lay on his back. The chef set out a plate of oysters. “Open a bottle of wine for my husband, would you?” Betty said. Frank called that he was going to see if there were any other ways to get into the castle.
“Your husband is a darling,” Betty said to Violet. “Too bad about that girl, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Violet watched Mona head down the road. “She’ll lose her job,” she said. “And it’s pretty clear she can’t get another one.”
“She’ll end up getting those veterans’ benefits eventually,” Betty said. “Or unemployment. Or something.”
“Things don’t work out for people like her,” Violet said.
Her mind kaleidoscoped with visions of Mona sitting under an overpass with the baby, sleeping on a cot in a shelter. What did any of them know about real poverty, real struggle, real desperation?
“I do feel bad,” Betty said. “I wish I could convince Laurence, but what can I convince him of? We have to get our things out of the house eventually. She’ll be okay.”
Violet looked at Betty, whose pampered face glowed with pep and optimism. She wished that she could go back to a time when she had found these qualities captivating.
“It’s my fault,” she said.
“What’s your fault?”
“I locked us out. That lock has a hidden latch. I pushed it. I’m going to be responsible for ruining the life of that woman and child.”
“What in the world?” Betty said.
“I was angry,” Violet said. “I don’t know. Impulse. Stupid, childish move. Jealousy.”
In uttering that last word, she saw herself with ugly clarity. Maybe Laurence had done something rotten forty years ago, but she had felt something rotten a year ago: schadenfreude over Betty’s illness. Yes, she had wanted to fly out to Las Vegas to help, but she had also wanted to see Betty on her knees. She had wanted to finally be let into the closet. But why would Betty invite her in when Violet had never once knocked?
“You locked us out?” Betty laughed. “You are such a nut.”
“I’m not a nut. I’m like everyone I know. You just know different people now.”
“Fine, then,” Betty said, “not a nut. An asshole.” She kicked off her flip-flops. “Come on,” she said.
Violet followed her up the stairs. “Where are we going?”
“We’re stopping Mona before she makes that call.” Betty ran barefoot down the road. Violet kicked off her own flip-flops and followed.
They spotted Mona halfway down the hill, sobbing, holding the baby and pushing the empty stroller.
“Don’t tell Mr. Beacon,” Betty said breathlessly. “We’re going to fix this.”
“How?” Mona said.
“This gal and I trained our way around Europe when no woman did that. She wrestled down a pickpocket in front of Notre Dame. I won’t even go into how we dealt with the Italian men. We’ll figure it out. But you have got to make that spare key tomorrow.”
“I will,” Mona said. “You’re angels. I’ll wash your robe right now.”
“Don’t bother,” Betty said. “It’s a gift.”
“That was nice of you,” Violet said as they walked away.
“It’s dry clean only,” Betty said. “She’ll probably lose this job anyway, you know. But at least now it won’t be your fault.”
“How exactly are we going to fix this?”
“No idea, but we’d better come up with one fast.”
By the top of the hill, they had it. They’d break open one of the ground-floor windows. Frank would go along with it, and “I’ll promise Laurence a sweet ending tonight to subdue him,” Betty said. They’d tell Mona to call Mr. Beacon and say that the guests had locked their key in the house but instead of coming to her for the spare had drunkenly broken themselves back into the castle. It was a bad plan, but it should work, more or less.
“And if this Mr. Beacon decides to sue us or something, Laurence will get us out of it,” Betty said.
Violet looked up at the castle. “I don’t think he’ll need to.”
At the foot of a wall, Frank stood with Laurence on his shoulders, holding on to Laurence’s ankles. Laurence’s arms were stretched to the railing of the first-floor balcony.
“There’s no way,” Betty said, as Frank started to move up and down. She clenched Violet’s arm. “Like you said, he’ll break his neck. We have to stop them.”
“Wait,” Violet said.
Laurence jumped off Frank’s shoulders, hauling himself onto the balcony, swinging a leg over the railing. Violet and Betty held their breath as he shuffled along the ledge, paused, and reached down.
“Frank’s going with him,” Betty said. “Now they’ll both break their necks.”
“No, they won’t,” Violet said.
She knew she was right. Frank was too smart, and Laurence was too self-centered. The two of them were climbing now, grabbing one jutting fieldstone and then the next, hauling themselves to the second-floor balcony, where they stopped, said something to each other, and looked up at the next run of fieldstones. Betty and Violet watched as they started up the façade toward the open window.
“You were right,” Betty said. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
“Just look at Spidey go,” Violet said.