Churchill made a brief, impatient gesture to indicate it was of no importance, and settled back in his chair. I dampened his hair and combed it carefully. As I cut his hair in careful layers, I saw the moment when the medication took effect. The harsh lines of his face relaxed, and his eyes lost their glazed brightness.
"This is the first actual haircut I've ever given you," I remarked. "Finally I can list you
on my resume.
He chuckled. "How long have you worked at Zenko's? Four years?"
"What's he paying you?"
Mildly surprised by the question. I considered telling him it was none of his business. But there was hardly any reason to keep it a secret from him. "Twenty-four a year," I said, "not including tips."
"My assistant got fifty a year."
"That's a lot of money. I bet he had to work his tail off for it."
"Not really. He ran some errands, kept my schedule, made phone calls, typed on my book. That kind of stuff."
"You're writing another book?"
He nodded. "Mostly investment strategies. But part of it is autobiographical. I write some pages in longhand, others I dictate into a recorder. My assistant types it all into the computer."
"It would be a lot more efficient if you typed it yourself." I combed his hair back again, searching for the natural line of his part.
"Some things I'm too old to learn. Typing is one of them."
"So hire a temp."
"I don't want a temp. I want someone I know. Someone I trust."
Our gazes met in the mirror, and I realized what he was working up to. Good Lord, I thought. A frown of concentration wove across my forehead. I sank to my haunches, hunting for the right angles, my scissors making precise snips around his head. "I'm a hairstylist," I said without looking at him, "not a secretary. And once I leave Zenko, that door is closed for good. I can't go back."
"It's not a short-term offer," Churchill countered in a relaxed manner that gave me an inkling of what a smart business negotiator he must have been. "There's lots of work around here. Liberty. Most of it will challenge you a hell of a lot more than fooling with people's cuticles. Now, settle your feathers—there's nothing wrong with your job, and you do it well—"
"—but you could learn a lot from me. I'm still a ways out from retirement, and I've got a lot to get done. I need help from someone I can depend on."
I laughed incredulously and picked up the electric clippers. "What makes you think you can depend on me?"
"You're not a quitter," he said. "You stick with things. You meet life head-on. That counts a hell of a lot more than typing skills."
"You say that now. But you haven't seen my typing."
"You'll pick it up."
I shook my head slowly. "So you're too old to learn your way around a keyboard, but I'm not?"
I gave him an exasperated smile and turned on the clippers. Their insistent buzz forestalled further conversation.
It was obvious Churchill needed someone a lot more qualified than me. Minor errands I could do. But making calls on his behalf, helping with his book, interacting even in small ways with the people in his sphere.. .1 would be out of my depth.
At the same time I was surprised to discover a stirring of ambition. How many college graduates with their tasseled caps and crisp new diplomas would kill for a chance like this? It was an opportunity that wouldn't come again.
I worked on Churchill's hair, tilting his head down, shaping carefully. Eventually I turned the clippers off and began to brush the shorn hair from his neck. "What if it didn't work out?" I heard myself ask. "Would I get a couple weeks' notice?"
"Plenty of advance notice." he said, "and a good severance package. But it's going to work out."
"What about health insurance?"
"I'll put you and Carrington on the same policy as my own family."
Except for the WIC vaccinations, I'd had to pay for every medical and health expense Carrington and I had ever had. We'd been lucky, healthwise. But every cough, cold, or ear infection, every minor problem that could turn into a major problem had nearly killed me with worry. I wanted a white plastic card with a group number in my wallet. I wanted it so badly my fists knotted.
"You write out a list of what you want," Churchill said. "I'm not going to peck over the details. You know me. You know I'll be fair. There's only one nonnegotiable."
"What's that?" I still found it difficult to believe we were even having this conversation.
"I want you and Carrington to live here."
There was not one thing I could say. I just stared at him.
"Gretchen and I both need someone at the house," he explained. "I'm in a wheelchair, and even after I'm out of it, I'll have a hitch in my get-along. And Gretchen's been having some problems lately, including memory loss. She claims she's going back to her own house someday, but the truth is she's here for good. I want someone to keep track of her appointments as well as mine. I don't want it to be some stranger." His eyes were shrewd, his voice easy. "You can come and go as you please. Have the run of the place. Treat it like your own home. Send Carrington to River Oaks Elementary. There's eight free guest rooms upstairs—you can each take your pick."
"But I can't just uproot Carrington like that.. .change her home, her school.. .not when I have no idea if this would work out or not."
"If you're asking for a guarantee. I can't give you one. All I can promise is we'll do our best."
"She's not even ten yet. Do you understand what it would be like, having her in the house? Little girls are noisy. Messy. They get into—"
"I've had four children," he said, "including a daughter. I know what eight-year-olds are like." A calculated pause. "Tell you what, we'll hire a language tutor to come here twice a week. And maybe Carrington will want piano lessons. There's a Steinway downstairs no one ever touches. Does she like to swim?...I'll have a slide put in at the pool. We'll throw her a big swim party on her birthday."
"Churchill." I muttered, "what the hell are you doing?"
"I'm trying to make you an offer you can't refuse."
I was afraid he had done exactly that.
"Say yes," he said, "and everybody wins."
"What if I say no?"
"We're still friends. And the offer stands." He shrugged slightly and indicated his wheelchair with a sweep of his hands. "Pretty obvious I'm not going nowhere."
"I..." I raked my fingers through my hair. "I need to give this some thought."
"Take as long as you need." He gave me an amiable smile. "Before you decide anything, why don't you bring Carrington here to get a look at the place?"
"When?" I asked dazedly.
"Tonight for supper. Go pick her up from her after-school program and bring her here. Gage and Jack are coming. You'll want to meet them."
It had never occurred to me to want to meet Churchill's children. His life and mine had always been strictly separate, and the mingling of their elements made me uneasy. Somewhere along the way I had absorbed the notion that some people belonged in trailer parks and some people belonged in mansions. My concept of upward mobility had its limits.
But did I want to impose those same limits on Carrington? What would happen if I exposed her to a life so different from the one she had always known? It was like bringing Cinderella to the ball in a coach and sending her back in the pumpkin. Cinderella had been a pretty good sport about it; but I wasn't sure Carrington would be so complacent. And actually. I didn't want her to be.
As I might have expected, Carrington had gotten extra dirty that day. She had grass stains on the knees of her jeans and splotches of poster paint down the front of her T-shirt. I picked her up at the door of her classroom and steered her into the nearest girls' room. Quickly I wiped her face and ears with paper towels, and brushed the tangles from her ponytail. When she asked why I was trying to make her look nicer, I explained we were going to dinner at a friend's house, and she'd better be on her best behavior or else.
"What's the 'or else'?" she asked, as always, and I pretended not to hear.
Carrington erupted with squeals of delight when she saw the gated estate. She insisted on climbing out of her seat to push the buttons through my open window while I read the code to her. For some reason it pleased me that Carrington was too young to be intimidated by the lavish surroundings. She rang the doorbell five times before I could stop her, and mugged for the security camera, and bounced on her heels until her light-up sneakers flashed like emergency signals.
This time an elderly housekeeper answered the door. She made Churchill and Gretchen look like teenagers. Her face was so gnarled and grooved she reminded me of one of those dried-up apple dolls with the tufts of white cotton for hair. The bright black buttons of her eyes were set behind glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. She had a Brazos Bottom accent that swallowed up her words as soon as they came out. We introduced ourselves, and she said her name was Cecily or Cissy, I couldn't tell which.
Then Gretchen appeared. Churchill had come downstairs in the elevator, she said, and he was waiting for us in the family room. She looked over Carrington and reached out to cup her face in her hands. "What a beautiful girl, what a treasure." she exclaimed. "You call me Aunt Gretchen, honey."
Carrington giggled and played with the hem of her paint-splotched shirt. "I like your rings," she said, staring at Gretchen's glittering fingers. "Can I try one on?"
"Carrington—" I began to scold.
"Of course you can," Gretchen exclaimed. "But first let's go in to see Uncle Churchill."
The two of them went hand in hand down a hallway, and I followed close behind. "Did Churchill tell you what he and I talked about?" I asked Gretchen.
"Yes, he did," she said over her shoulder.
"What do you think about it?"
"I think it would be a fine thine for all of us. With Ava eone and the children away, the house is too quiet."
We passed rooms with lofty ceilings and tall windows hung with silk and velvet and tea-stained lace. The walnut floors were scattered with Oriental rugs and clusters of antique furniture, everything done in muted shades of red, gold, and cream. Someone in the house loved books—there were built-in bookcases everywhere, filled from top to bottom. It smelled good in the house, like lemon oil and wax and antique vellum.
The family room was big enough to host an auto show, with walk-in fireplaces set on opposite walls. A circular table occupied the center, bearing a massive fresh flower arrangement of white hydrangea, yellow and red roses, and spikes of yellow freesia. Churchill was at a seating cluster on one side of the room, beneath a big sepia-toned picture of a tall-masted sailing ship. A pair of men rose from their chairs as we approached, an old-fashioned courtesy. I didn't look at either of them. My attention was riveted on Carrington as she approached the wheelchair.
They shook hands solemnly. I couldn't see my sister's face, but I saw Churchill's. He fixed her with an unblinking stare. I was puzzled by the emotions that crossed his face: wonder, pleasure, sadness. He looked away and cleared his throat hard. But when his gaze returned to my sister, his expression was clear, and I thought maybe I had imagined the moment.
They began to chat like old friends. Carrington, who was often shy, was describing how fast she could roller-skate down the hallway if roller-skating was allowed in the house, and asking the name of the horse that broke his leg. and telling him about art class and how her best friend, Susan, accidentally spilled blue poster paint on her desk.
While they talked. I dragged my attention to the pair of men standing beside their chairs. After having heard about Churchill's offspring over a period of years. I experienced a mild jolt to have them abruptly made real.
Despite my affection for Churchill, it had not escaped me that he'd been a demanding father. He had admitted to being overzealous in his efforts to make certain his three sons and his daughter did not become the soft, spoiled children of privilege he had seen in other wealthy families. They were brought up to work hard, achieve the goals he set, live up to their obligations. As a parent Churchill had been spare in his rewards, tough in his punishments.
Churchill had wrestled with life, taken some hard blows, and he expected that from his children too. They had been raised to excel in academics and sports, to challenge themselves in every aspect of their lives. Since Churchill had a horror of laziness or a sense of entitlement, any flicker of it had been extinguished beneath his booted foot. He had been the easiest on Haven, the only daughter and the baby of the family. He'd been toughest on the oldest, Gage, the only child by his first wife.
After listening to Churchill's stories about his children. I had found it easy to discern that the greatest pride and highest expectations were reserved for Gage. At age twelve, while attending an elite boarding school. Gage had risked his life to help save other students in his dorm. A fire had broken out in the third-floor lounge one night, and there had been no sprinklers in the building. According to Churchill, Gage had stayed behind to make certain every student had been awakened and got out. He'd been the last to leave and had barely made it out, suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns. I found the story telling, and Churchill's comment on it even more so. "He only did what I would have expected of him." Churchill had said. "What anyone in the family would have done." In other words, saving people from a burning building was no big deal for a Travis, barely worthy of notice.
Gage had gone on to graduate from UT and Harvard Business School, and now did double duty working at Churchill's investment firm and also at his own company. The other Travis sons had followed their own pursuits. I had wondered if it had been Gage's choice to work for his father, or whether he had simply stepped into the place he had been expected to fill. And if he nurtured a secret grievance about having to live under the considerable burden of Churchill's expectations.
The younger of the two brothers came forward and introduced himself as Jack. He had a firm grip and an easy smile. His eyes were the color of black coffee, twinkling against the sun-chapped complexion of an avid outdoorsman.
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