“Come in, come in—Jesus!” the woman demanded, as if to scold them for not arriving sooner, and led them across a wide foyer into a bright living area that looked out through a bank of windows onto a lush patio and swimming pool. The shadowy look of the house from the outside was a disguise for the brightness inside. It seemed to Henry like an enchantment.
“We can only stay a minute,” Effie said. “We were just on our way to dinner.”
“I can’t believe it’s you,” Clara said, stopping to appraise her. “How long has it been? Five, six years? A lifetime? Who is this?” She placed her hand at the small of Henry’s back. When Effie told her he was her husband, the woman gasped—she had never heard of anything so marvelous—and gripped his hand firmly, painfully. “My God, how do you do? I’m Clara—Clara!”
Effie explained that Clara had been her older cousin Holly’s friend back in the day. On occasion Effie would have to go along with them to the beach or into town, if there wasn’t anyone else to watch her.
“Holly’s friend.” Clara put her hands on her hips. “What a cold bitch you are. I adored this creature,” she said to Henry, and to Effie: “Don’t you remember how much fun we had? But you were so young and impressionable then. And look at you now: a beauty! Married to William Holden, no less!” She laughed, and took hold of Henry’s forearm, and Henry smiled back at her like a fool. “Oh, my belle,” she said, and in a voice like Scarlett O’Hara: “My Effie Mae. That’s what I called you, do you remember?”
“Yes,” Effie said evenly.
“Those were good times, weren’t they? But the years do pass. Sit, sit!”
She directed them to a sofa that faced the back windows and a large fireplace made of slate and what appeared to be loose rocks. It didn’t look stable. The ceiling was open rafters,very high, and two frosted windows in the roof let in more light, and over the foyer, behind them now, an upstairs balcony ran the length of the living area. It was a much larger house than Aunt Lizzie’s, but it felt scattered and haphazard—and at the moment, empty of people.
“What can I get you to drink?” Clara said.
“Oh, we’re fine,” Effie said. “Really, we can’t stay for long.”
“Nonsense. It is cocktail o’clock. You have to stay for a little while. I haven’t seen you in so long, and here you are, like magic, back in this godforsaken place.” She looked at Henry. “What will you have?”
He waited for a cue from Effie, but she only stared at him helplessly. For his part, he was content to stay. “I’ll take anything,” he said.
“Gin and tonic it is!” she cried. “The only suitable drink before dinner.” She swept over to the minibar, and Effie closed her eyes and laid her head back on the sofa. “My God! Effie Moore, right here in Cape May, after all these years.”
“Effie Tarleton,” Effie said.
“That’s right! Oh, it’s all coming back to me now.”
She was a whirlwind, this woman. Henry had never met anyone like her. She was in her early thirties, he guessed, and big, not just physically big but aura big, the way Jayne Mansfield would be big if she could step out of the screen at the drive-in. She was at least as tall as he was, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders, and her breasts seemed always on the verge of falling out of her top. It was an effort not to stare at them.
“But what are you doing here this time of year?” she asked, taking two tall glasses down from a shelf behind the minibar.
Effie lifted her head and reported, as if with regret, that they were on their honeymoon.
“No!” Clara slammed the glasses down, and for a moment Henry thought she was actually angry at them. “You mean you’re newlyweds? You mean you’re on your honeymoon right now?” She turned away from them and shouted, “Mrs. Pavich!”
From an archway that led off the den a voice came back to them, thickly accented and dripping with ennui: “Yes, Mrs. Kirschbaum.”
“I have changed my mind. We will have the carrot cake.” She turned back to Henry and Effie. “But of course you’re newlyweds. You’re glowing—I can see it now.”
Henry smiled at Effie, but Effie kept her eyes fixed on Clara, a taut, neutral expression on her face.
“Well, that settles it: you’re staying for dinner. I can’t imagine where you were thinking of going; it can’t be better than what old Mrs. Pavich is cooking up. Everyone’s down at the beach right now—well, not Richard, of course—but we’re having a party, and you two are going to stay and celebrate with us.”
In his confusion Henry said, “You’re throwing us a party?” and Effie looked at him like he was an idiot indeed.
“Oh, I love him!” Clara said.
“I wish we could stay,” Effie said. “But we’re not here much longer, and we really wanted to see a little more of the town, you know—have dinner, see a movie . . .”
But Clara was rummaging behind the bar. “I hope Mrs. Pavich hasn’t forgotten the ice. We will need a lot of ice.” She stood up straight. “You two just sit there and look perfect and I’ll be back in thirty seconds. I can’t wait to catch up.” She dashed off toward the archway, shouting “Mrs. Pavich!” again.
“Wow,” Henry said. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”
“We’re leaving,” Effie said.
She stood up from the sofa, but Henry took hold of her wrist. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“The one person we run into, and it’s got to be Clara Strauss. Or whatever her name is. She must have snagged a husband.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
She brushed his hand away and looked toward the archway, from which they could hear Clara gleefully lecturing Mrs. Pavich: “This one is for the hollandaise, dear, and this one is for the pepper sauce. Do you see the difference in the spouts?”
“She’s a snot-nosed bully and a harlot,” Effie said. “She’s not a good person.”
Henry laughed. “Come on. Sit down. We’re not just going to walk out on her, I don’t care who she is.”
Effie sat down. “Of all the people— I mean, really. It never occurred to me. She wasn’t here the past couple of times, not since Holly married.” Clara was her cousin Holly’s friend, she explained again. Holly was Uncle George’s eldest daughter from a previous marriage. She was more than a dozen years older than Effie and never took to Aunt Lizzie or to the rest of her new family from Georgia, who were nothing but rubes, as far as she was concerned. The two of them, Holly and Clara, teased and tormented Effie, made fun of her accent, asked where her mammy was, made references to things she couldn’t possibly have understood—she was, what, eight years old?—and laughed at her ignorance. . . .
“What kinds of things?” Henry asked.
She seemed to struggle to find the words. “Like—I don’t know. Like they’d always be drinking and smoking around me, or they’d take boys under the promenade and leave me there on the beach to play with myself.”
“It sounds fun.”
“I was a child, for heaven’s sake.”
Henry smiled. “Well, you’re grown-up and married now. And so is Clara. She seems like she worships you.”
Effie cocked her head and felt the tiny mole behind her ear, a reflex when she was piqued in a certain way. “People don’t change so much.”