For most of the year, there’s almost nothing that can make me leave my home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. But every year at holiday time, I return to the family enclave, an estate in Bratenahl, Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie.
The drive into North Cliff is beautiful in all seasons, but in winter it takes on an especially interesting quality. That’s because, about a football field’s length past the big iron gate, there’s a traffic circle. And in the middle of this, there’s a large fountain with water spouting from the mouths of three naked, chubby, winged babies.
In winter, the water is heated to prevent it from freezing, and when the temperature falls below a certain point, steam begins to issue from the babies’ mouths along with the water, which gives them a sinister ambience I’ve always treasured.
The traffic circle is trisected by three drives: the one from the front gate; the one on the right that leads to the Hall, which is where my Aunt Iris and Uncle Hamilton Winthorp live; and the one on the left that leads to the House, which is where I grew up and which is now mine by inheritance.
The interiors of the House and the Hall are quite different, but the two buildings are nearly identical from the outside. Both are large, fieldstone-faced edifices which sit high above the surrounding terrain and both have broad, deep front porches, the roofs of which are supported by equidistant arches which are also faced with fieldstone. The buildings were designed by my great-grandfather and his three brothers.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving and we had just arrived at the House after the four-hour flight from Sky Harbor and the forty-five-or-so minute drive from Cleveland Hopkins Airport. When I say we, I mean my personal assistant, Fillmore; Richards, our chauffeur and chef; and Margaret, a former employee of my evil Aunt Gazel, hired by me the second Aunt Gazel (or, as I call her, Gazilla) fired her.
I said that Fillmore is my PA. That’s his job description according to me. His job description according to him is gentleman’s personal gentleman. It doesn’t bother him that I’m not a gentleman. I am in fact a young person of the female persuasion. But Fillmore has always taken the liberal view that my failure to be a gentleman is irrelevant.
Oops. I see I’ve strayed from my story already. Getting back to our arrival at North Cliff, then . . . Extensive remodeling was being done on the House at the time. Fillmore and I (but mainly Fillmore) had been long-distance supervising the work for months. When we arrived, Fillmore went straight back to the kitchen, which, at the time, was the center of operations for the work crew, and I ran upstairs to see my newly remodeled bedroom.
The master suite had been completely transformed. Gone were the tired old paneling; the heavy furniture; and the oppressive, light-killing drapes. Now there was new mint-green carpeting, fresh mint-green paint, new furniture (cherry) including a new bed exactly the same as my bed back in 85253, and a new flat-screen television mounted on the wall. My new bedroom looked more like a bedroom in my Paradise Valley house than anything that lived in North Cliff.
I hurried into the bathroom. A wall had been knocked out, doubling the size of the old bathroom. The old fixtures were gone, replaced by a gleaming new Jacuzzi sitting right up in the big new bay window overlooking the gardens and Lake Erie, new sinks, and a new multi-headed shower without walls.
Beyond the bathroom was a spacious new walk-in closet, completely built out, and I was surprised to see that someone, probably one or more of Aunt Iris’s upstairs maids, had arranged all my stuff in there. I was surprised, now that everything didn’t have to be crammed together to fit, how much stuff I had in Cleveland. Huh. I wondered why Fillmore had bothered to pack suitcases for me.
I wandered back into the bedroom, shed my traveling clothes, wiggled into a sweatshirt and jeans, and switched on the new flat screen. I had just stretched out on the bed and was scrolling through the menu when my cell phone started up.
I didn’t recognize the number but I answered it anyway. “Hello?
A throaty, dramatic female voice said, “Melly.”
After you’ve heard that voice a time or two, you recognize it. It was Gloria.
“G-L-O-R-I-A,” I sang. “Gloooo-ria.”
She groaned. I always sing the Gloria song at the beginning of our conversations, and she always groans.
Gloria Dalrymple and I have been BFFs since birth. And in the two-and-a-half years since we finished college, Gloria has become a celebrity. It’s not that she’s ever actually done anything to distinguish herself in any way, except to be born to rich parents who died young, as was I. But the cameras love Gloria, and she loves the cameras. I guess you could say that the Gloria/camera relationship is a match made in heaven.
When I’m out in public with Gloria, I’m sort of a celebrity, too. Our cameras caught heiresses Gloria Dalrymple and Melinda Shrop . . . that sort of thing. When I’m not with Gloria, people leave me alone, and that’s the way I prefer it. Unlike my best friend Gloria, I’m not comfortable being a celebrity. Or, in my case, a semi-celebrity.
Gloria said, “Melly.”
“Tell me you’re in Cleveland.”
“I’m in Cleveland.”
“Shut up. You are not.”
“Am so. Just got here.”
“I’m stretched out on my bed getting ready to watch TV. Where are you?”
“I can’t believe it. I didn’t think there was any chance you were in Cleveland already.”
How many times was I going to have to tell her I was before she believed me? “Why? Where are you?”
“Get outta here.”
I hadn’t expected her to come until Christmas. If (if I’m being honest) then.
“I’ll send Spratly. Where will he find you? What airline . . . ”
“I’ll grab a cab. It’ll be faster. Did you eat yet? No, of course not. It’s not time yet. I’m starved.”
Dead air. She was gone before I had a chance to ask her what was wrong. Because something was. I could tell. We’ve been friends since birth. I guess if there’s anyone alive who can hear when there’s tension in Gloria Dalrymple’s voice, it’s me.
I was concerned, but all I could do for now was phone out to Kremnitz at the guardhouse and let him know she was coming. To call him, I needed a land line. I looked all over the bedroom and bathroom and there wasn’t a single one to be found. Oops. Someone had overlooked that little detail at the end of the remodeling.
I found Fillmore in the kitchen. Which, by the way, was a disaster area. The old cabinets and appliances were gone, leaving gaping holes, and the ceiling had been torn out. It looked like the new floor was down, but it was completely covered with some kind of heavy khaki-colored paper to protect it.
As I watched, two guys struggled into the room from the back drive carrying a tall pantry unit. Another guy was fitting a corner cabinet unit into place.
Fillmore seemed to be fascinated by what he was hearing from a rugged-looking young man who stood with his flannel-shirted chest out, his heavy work boots wide apart, a clipboard tucked under one arm, and his thumbs hooked into his tool belt. Richards leaned in, also listening. The young man said something in a low, quiet voice and Richards laughed.
Fillmore looked up and spotted me. He spoke quietly to the flannel-shirted man and they walked over.
“This is Chris Zima, Miss. He’s the contractor who’s been organizing all the work on the house.”
Chris Zima shifted the clipboard he carried to his left hand and shook my hand with his right. His hand was warm and calloused. Blond hair. Light green eyes. Just the suggestion of a blond five o’clock shadow.
Fillmore said, “Mr. Zima was just telling me they finished the natatorium at the end of last week, Miss.”
“I can’t wait to go look.” Before Fillmore could turn away I said, “Fillmore, Gloria Dalrymple just called from the airport.”
On hearing Gloria’s name, every head in the room (except that of the attractive young contractor, who seemed to be absorbed in something on his clipboard) jerked my way.
Someone dropped a hammer.
Someone said, “Gloria Dalrymple?”
“She’s on her way from the airport,” I told Fillmore. “I’m looking for a land line so I can let Kremnitz know she’s coming.”
He looked around, but without real purpose, as if he didn’t hold out hope there might be a land line still lurking in the kitchen somewhere. “Maybe in the library, Miss. No changes have been made in there.”
I followed him through the house to the closed library door. He opened it and reached around the corner to switch on the light. The venerable old library came to life. The most modern thing in the room was the PC Fillmore had set up the first year he came to North Cliff. The second most modern thing was the old black rotary-dial phone which sat on the desk where it’d always been.
I dialed five and Kremnitz, the ancient keeper of the North Cliff gate, answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Kremnitz. This is Melly. I’m calling to let you know Gloria’s on her way. She just called from the airport.”
“Gloria? Well, isn’t that nice. I’ll watch for her.”
That done, I ran upstairs to make sure Gloria’s bedroom had been made over to her specifications. Ever since Gloria sold the house next door where she grew up, she uses that bedroom at my house as her Cleveland headquarters.
I held my breath and crossed my fingers as I opened the door, but I needn’t have worried. It looked great. It was all done in her favorite shades of pale blue and lavender.
I went into the bathroom to check whether the Jacuzzi had been installed. It had. A glance around her walk-in closet showed that hers had been built out almost exactly the same as mine, and that all her possessions had been situated. I was surprised to see that she had almost as much stuff at North Cliff as I did.
Back in the bathroom, I was just checking to make sure there were towels and supplies such as toothbrushes and soap – there weren’t – when a soft clearing of a throat sounded behind me and Fillmore walked in holding in his outstretched arms all the towels and supplies I had just found to be lacking.
He stared at my bare feet. “If I may make a suggestion, Miss. You ought to wear shoes until we’ve had a chance to vacuum thoroughly a few times. You never know where a stray nail or staple may have fallen.”
He put away Gloria’s supplies and headed back to the kitchen. I stopped off in my room to pull on socks and trainers. I whiled away the time watching television, and when I judged it had been about forty minutes, I went downstairs to the library and parked myself at the desk near the front window to wait.
As it turned out, I cut my timing pretty close. No sooner had I sat down than a cab rolled up the driveway. By the time I reached the front door, Gloria was raising her hand to the knocker and the cab was pulling away.
The last time I’d seen her she’d been blond, but Gloria changes hair styles and hair colors the way other people change clothes. Now her hair was black and styled in a dramatic shoulder-length razor cut. I stared at the field stone on either side of her stiletto-heeled boots.
“Where’s your luggage?” I asked, alarmed.
I thought the cab must have driven off with her collection of luggage in its trunk. I was mistaken.
“On its way to LAX, I guess.” She laughed as we hugged. “Remind me to call somebody later and get a trace put on it. This place looks great.”
She brushed past me and turned circles in the middle of the newly-redecorated foyer. I pushed the door closed.
“I love this. It’s so much brighter. Let’s see the great room.”
I hadn’t forgotten the stress I’d heard in her voice during our earlier phone conversation. I wanted to know what was wrong. “Listen, Gloria . . . ”
She walked from furniture grouping to furniture grouping, switching on lamps.
“I can’t believe this is the same house. Look at this place. Look at my arm.” She pushed up the sleeve of her sweater to expose bare arm. “This room used to be so dark and creepy it gave me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Gloria . . . ”
“Is Tyler here yet?”
“I don’t know yet. Gloria . . . ”
“When’s he coming?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Aunt Iris yet. Gloria, what’s . . . ”
“I can’t wait to see him. Call over there and see when he’s coming.”
“Okay, but first . . . ”
“What’d you get Iris for her birthday?”
“It’s this Sunday. You didn’t forget . . . ”
“Of course not, but . . . ”
“So? What’d you get her? I found a really old photograph of Public Square on eBay and had it sent to a place downtown. They’re matting and framing it. Spratly was going to pick it up for me Saturday, but now that I’m here, I’ll go get it myself. You’ll come, right?”
“Sure, but . . . ”
“Great. So what’d you get her?”
“A copy of Craig Ferguson’s autobiography. Fillmore has a Facebook friend who got it autographed at a book signing in New York.”
“Iris likes Craig Ferguson? I didn’t know that.”
“Loves him. Adores him.”
“She doesn’t stay up that late. How does she even know who he is?”
“She records him and watches him after lunch. And she first became a fan because of two words. Drew Carey.”
“Oooh,” she said, as she put Craig Ferguson together with the old Drew Carey Show and then made the Cleveland connection. “Nice.”
“Yeah. I think she’ll like it. But listen, Gloria . . . ”
“Is my room fixed up?”
“Yes. I just checked it. It’s gorgeous. But . . . ”
“Let’s go see it.”
She ran out of the room, across the foyer, and up the stairs. I was about to follow her when Fillmore stepped into the doorway holding out his cell phone.
“Pardon me, Miss. It’s Mrs. Winthorp.”