The Girls From Mapleton (Excerpt)

The Girls From Mapleton (an excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)

At her therapist’s urging, Andrea had arranged a reunion with her childhood friends, but now she thought she’d made a disastrous mistake. It was one thing to talk about the past with an objective shrink in a wood-paneled office, but to bring it out in the open for the first time with the others felt like incising an infected wound without anesthesia. Yet, this might be the only way to achieve closure. And to her surprise, Barbara and Chris had responded to her e-mail immediately and were due to arrive soon.

With shaking hands, Andrea unwrapped the sandwiches she’d bought from a convenience store a block from the hotel where she was staying. They were simple sandwiches – salami and baloney with American cheese, the type that the working class families of Mapleton usually ate for lunch.

Andrea walked to the ice machine in the hallway of the dingy hotel, Mapleton’s finest, and filled a bucket. She listened to the thunking of the cubes as they hit the bottom. The drink choices she’d chosen were orange and coke sodas, just like they used to drink as kids. At the last minute, she’d added a bottle of vodka just in case it was needed.

Returning to the room, she felt feverish and pressed a cube to her forehead. She then walked to the window and opened it. For a moment she thought she heard the whoops and squeals of children playing street games. She shivered. But not a soul was in sight. The sounds of a bygone era echoed in her head every time she looked through a window on to a city street. Easing the window shut, she wished she could close out the chilling memories as easily.

Andrea had never expected to return to Mapleton, a fatigued and gray town. The recent death of her mother brought her back to dispose of the house and a few dreary belongings. 

After the cremation Andrea had the ashes shipped to her home to avoid a funeral. She wanted to finish the business end of dying by telephone with the realtor, but, after much thought, she reluctantly decided to take her therapist’s advice – try to reconnect with the friends that she had not seen since high school graduation fifteen years ago

After reaching a point of desperation, she needed to diminish the roiling pain that often gripped her without provocation and when she thought she was most distracted. Even though she had come seeking closure, a trendy word that Andrea had misgivings about, in her heart she didn’t think it possible.

Sure that the dark memories would never fully be erased, she sought only to lessen the rage that cut her off from being a full participant in the world. She didn’t know how to love. 

Not a day went by where she didn’t think about what had happened. The unrelenting images of the past clobbered her much like post-traumatic stress syndrome. Work provided the only escape, and she threw herself into her law cases with a vengeance.

Andrea set out the plastic forks and paper plates on the cocktail table in the sitting area and popped the cardboard lids of coleslaw and potato salad. Not exactly New York chic to which she’d become accustomed, but she hoped that reinventing foods from childhood would somehow invoke the forbidden topic. She now questioned her own ability to bring it up. Besides, eating in a diner in Mapleton and seeing the townspeople’s faces etched with futility would have dragged her down into the abyss she often visited.

Then Andrea noticed a black spot on the wall. Instantly, she dampened a napkin in the ice bucket and quickly rubbed it off. In a sweat, she heard a timid knock on the door. Andrea paced in front of the door for several seconds. Finally, she opened it and saw Barbara.

“I’m so happy you came,” Andrea said. Barbara’s girth had thickened and her skin coarsened, but the face within the face resembled the kid she had known so well.

Barbara gave her the slightest smile, but her forehead furrowed. She walked in tentatively, and then stopped. “I was quite surprised when I got your invitation. It’s been so long, although I am glad to see you. You look great. New York is good for you, huh?” She shuffled her feet.

“Yes, but sometimes it can be a tough city.” Andrea motioned for her to sit before Barbara turned tail and ran. She had a momentary image of Barbara as a skinny kid handing out flyers for her father’s church, advertising the next fire and brimstone Sunday sermon. As a really young kid, Andrea had been riveted to her seat as Barbara’s father raged about sinners going to hell. Although Andrea didn’t quite understand all the words she caught the terrifying tone of his voice.

Andrea offered Barbara a plate. She took it gingerly and looked over the heaping platter, selecting a bologna sandwich. Then she poured orange soda into a plastic cup. It reminded Andrea of the times when Barbara, Chris and she played in the back yard of the church while their parents shook hands with the preacher and then chatted with the other congregants. Sometimes it took an hour or more, and the girls picnicked on the lunch prepared by their parents.

Dinner With the Mob (Excerpt)

Dinner With the Mob (an excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)

When I received the invitation to Grace’s dinner party, I was warned by my husband, Martin, to watch what I said. I am known for verbal tactlessness when it comes to white collar fraud which baffles me. Whenever I come head-to-head with this kind of criminality I tend to go off-the-charts about it. White collar crime, to me, is not a victimless crime. It hurts everyone – those who got ripped off and the general population that pays higher prices, costlier fees and increased insurance rates to make up for the theft. There was no getting out of going to the party. All of the attendees were Martin’s life insurance clients.

Lately, we’d seen several friends and neighbors involved in perpetrating scams – doctors, lawyers and business men – that were carted off to jail for various illegal maneuvers. It seems inconceivable that I know so many people who have gotten in trouble with the law. I grew up in a poor neighborhood where we had respect for all professionals, even the real estate broker held a place of high esteem.

Some of the people that had turned crooked didn’t surprise me. But Jake, my husband’s good friend, did catch me off-guard. His revelation had me doing a double take, and I still reeled from the news. He always seemed so kind and philanthropic, but had recently been indicted on Federal racketeering charges. It included theft, mail-fraud and RICO, the law that ensnared the Mafia. He admitted to Martin he was as good as convicted because they had all the evidence. For some time now, he’d been in the cross-hairs of the FBI. After pleading guilty, he would be sentenced and then head off to what he hoped would be a minimum security prison. He was being given a send-off at Grace’s party. How wonderful.

I finally figured out why they all wanted life insurance. It connected to the suspicion that the fraudsters usually kept large amounts of ill-gotten cash in numbered accounts on off-shore islands. In the event that they died and the IRS wanted to attach property for unpaid taxes, the beneficiaries could argue that they were left no money or property. They only had the policy benefits on which to live and maintain their old life-style. Of course, they had access to those hidden accounts that were hard for police authorities to trace.

One notable reason for the party was a welcome home for Mark, Grace’s husband. Mark, a lawyer, who had just completed a three-year sentence at Allenwood Minimum Security Prison, went away because of a high-profile auto accident insurance scam. He was also disbarred. In addition, Jake was getting the royal treatment for – I don’t know what. Did they think it was sad he got caught? I found it to be our justice system working the way it should. The embossed invite had been quite upbeat – like, let’s give our terrific friends our very best wishes. Not my wishes, thank you.

Martin and I dressed in regulation style, dressy-casual. The outfit I wore was studied nonchalance and expensive – it was reserved for parties given by Martin’s wealthy clients, many of whom now wore numbers in their mug shots. I’d learned to make my outward appearance fit in to the group’s expectations while my mind took off to another sphere. There were no shared values with those people. Not that my values were terrific. I like money, but I was proud of my husband who got it with hard work, the honest way.

Besides, I wasn’t the most popular person among my suburbanite acquaintances – far from it. I didn’t like the cookie-cutter life demanded in the suburbs. Everyone was expected to behave in a certain, prescribed way and talk about their most recent luxury acquisitions. My most valuable recent purchase was for some great sable brushes for oil painting, but no one was interested.

My art work took me to off-beat realms and gatherings where one had the chance to expand their worlds and vision through interesting conversations. Martin knew I had difficulties finding common threads with the people we would meet up with tonight. Whenever I said something I thought was funny, Martin would be the only one laughing. But I played the part of the suburban wife as best I could. My husband’s career was dominated by these people.

We arrived for dinner at Grace and Mark’s mini-mansion on an acre of land in a posh suburban location. It wasn’t exactly a huge MacMansion but it came close. It was nestled in a luxurious lush garden that surrounded the house and in the back a rolling hill was covered with thick-bladed, carpet-like grass. Inside, the expensive chrome and leather furniture was off-set by antique reproductions.

The home decorations could only be summed up as lavish, expensive, designer-eclectic style that could be found in other MacMansions. In the large foyer with the curved grand staircase stood a dictionary stand, holding a Who’s Who in America opened to the page with the Mark’s biography, published just before he went off. Mark and Jake were golfing buddies. I noticed the two men, one out of prison and one just going in, huddled in a corner engrossed in an animated conversation. They had a lot in common besides golf.

About a dozen people showed up for cocktails. Some women were dressed to the teeth and decked out with all their jewels.

I had two glasses of chardonnay and felt tipsy by the time we were called to the dinner table. They seated Jake next to me and Martin sat across from me. I noticed my husband’s lips quivering slightly, and I knew he was nervous about me opening my big mouth. I gave him an assuring wink and a plastic smile, but could tell he was not convinced about my promise to behave. Neither was I.

After bringing out huge platters of food, a hired server stood at the ready, filling glasses of wine and water the instant one took a sip. Five or six simultaneous conversations kept up a loud hum of chatter.

“How’s it going, Barb,” Jake asked.

“I’m okay. How are you? Are you handling the situation all right?”

“Not really. Jail is not exactly what I had in mind for myself.”

Tough boogers. It’s what you deserve. Here was a perfect opportunity to ask – why would a man born to wealth, who had inherited a fabulous business and never wanted for one thing his entire life, commit fraud. Jake underreported his income by millions of dollars and knowingly sold defective food products made in China that seriously sickened hundreds of people before the recall.

I decided to hold my tongue and not deliver one of my underappreciated lectures on morality. I loved Martin for tolerating some of my outlandish behavior, my unpredictable outbursts of railing against dishonesty and hypocrisy. Tonight, I owed him my politically correct behavior.

The energy level of buzzing increased. I focused on my plate with a vertical mound of poached sole, sprigs of rosemary, broccoli florets and hearts of palm au gratin. On the side was a noodle basket filled with buttered green beans.

This was a grand send off for a man about to eat crappy prison food. I kept quiet and continued chewing. When the apricot soufflé arrived, I promptly vaporized it. I felt quite good for having kept myself in check through the entire dinner.

Grace’s new Haitian maid shimmied by us with clear disdain and cleared the table. We retired to the library that had three walls lined with gorgeous, burnished oak bookshelves. There were hundreds of books, many of them classics. I noticed they were new, dusted and, obviously, never read. Grace had told me her decorator had selected them.

Coffee was served by Ms. Haiti with the same indifference. I smiled directly at her, and she gave me a quick, warm grin, her eyes glinted humorously. That was the brightest moment of the night, by far.

I couldn’t hide behind the delicious food and inane chatter any more. Feeling exposed, I wracked my brain for comfort zone topics. I sat next to Grace and spoke of her talent for gourmet cooking. Martin fish-eyed me as though I’d introduced the compliment to pave the way for a sermon. I ignored him and continued my flow of chatter about Grace’s culinary skills.

“I catered the dinner,” Grace said, unsmiling. “I was too tired to cook. I had to go up to the prison to pick Mark up yesterday.”

What could I say? I turned to Jake, who had seated himself beside me again. What did he want from me? He knew my feelings. Jake clutched an unlit cigar in his stubby fingers.