(This Sample Sunday excerpt is from a novel-in-progress as yet untitled)
When Janine Tobias opened her door, I could tell I wasn't going to interest her one bit. Janine only responded to her ilk: high maintenance people. She barely said hello.
We left a highly polished (dangerous) foyer of Mexican tile and went up a few steps to a living room that was bare except for a flashy sectional sofa and a flat plasma television on the wall. The adjacent dining room had a card table with four metal fold up chairs.
"I know what you're thinking," said Janine.
In a million years she couldn't have known what I was thinking. Having caught a look at myself in the hall mirror, I was thinking that I was definitely going to have my eyes done. Peter, who cuts my hair, always pulls up on the side of my eyes and says: you're a quarter of an inch away from having a new lease on life. What does that mean? Are we all just renters in this vale of tears?
"You're wondering why my house isn't furnished," Janine said, exposing the supposed contents of my mind. "John and I have very definite opinions about decor and he hasn't had the time to go shopping with me."
"I like the look of empty space," I said truthfully
"You don't have to be polite," she said dully. "This place looks like hell."
If I didn't have to be polite, I could tell you right now that you have the kind of coloring that makes the skin fall apart at forty and you'd better take some charm lessons because petulance can only be tolerated when accompanied by spectacular good looks. "I'm not being polite," I said.
She led the way to a clinically clean kitchen and offered to make me a cup of instant coffee. I accepted and that annoyed her further. Having put on business clothes and make-up, I wanted to get something out of the visit before she made up some lame excuse to get me out of there. When she put the water to boil and her back was to me, I said, "Did you poison Charlene Gibbons' dog?"
She whirled around with such vehemence, her sweater brushed the stove and I worried it had caught fire. "What the hell is that supposed to mean." I had been in her house less than five minutes and she had said "hell' twice. "I wanted to know if you poisoned Tiffany. I think you signed your sweater on the range." She looked down and reacted to the brownish swath etched into her pullover.
She held her temples with index fingers for the next remark. "You're not going to get far in this neighborhood with an attitude like that. In the first place, the dog was hit by a car. And why would I want to poison that high strung pretentious mutt?"
"I wouldn't know why but Charlene has hired me to find out."
"She told you I was involved?"
"Nothing of the sort. She thinks the dog was poisoned before it was hit by the car and she wants me to investigate."
"Then why come here?"
"This is a small community and the women socialize. I thought you might know of someone who has some resentment against Charlene. She implied that some of the women feel envious of the healthy income she enjoys."
Janine turned off the burner and faced me with a look so murderous, I recoiled.
"I've never heard such horsecrap in my life. Charlie Gibbons is an illiterate moron who makes money in ways that would interest the police. Charlene decorates her house by the pound. My mother would have called the Gibbons white trash. The sorriest day of my life is the day we bought this house. Roxbury Commons. Huh. They got that right. The most common scum in the world come here to roost. This is not the life I planned for myself, believe me. The day I'm envious of that twit Charlene is the day they sell confetti at funerals."
I was pleasantly surprised by the metaphor. I would have expected her to say something like '...is the day Martha Stewart serves Kool Aid and baloney.’ "Why not move?"
She looked at me with pity. "Please. As if we could. We bought at the top of the market and we've already taken a home equity loan. We couldn't recoup what we still owe on the mortgage."
"What did you pay?"
"Four seventy-eight." I tried not to react. I had paid less than half that although my house was small and not new.
"What did you pay?"
"Four." I lied. If I had told her what I really paid, two eighty six, she might have hit me.
She looked so woeful and defeated, I felt sorry for her. Janine had not bargained for this when she was queen of the lunch table at Port Washington High School. She wasn't equipped to deal with disappointment but I knew if I offered sympathy, she'd be insulted. With all her problems, she considered herself way better off than me. What was it, I wondered? My outfit? Body landuage? The ten extra pounds? Weight is destiny and anyone who tells you it isn't, is lying.
"See? Prices are going down already." Her voice was high with urgency.
I pressed my advantage while she was pissed off. People spill their guts when they're angry. "What sort of life did you plan for yourself?"
"Way more upscale than this. I was brought up with real money. And class. We lived in Locust Valley. I went to Dennison."
I sucked my breath in acknowledgement of her attendance at Dennison, whatever it was. Then, I changed the subject. "Charlie Gibbons doesn't own a tool and die company in Islandia?" I asked innocently.
"He does but the kind of money those two dribble away has got to be under the table cash. There must be something else going on." She moved the pot of water to the back of the stove. "I don't have time for coffee. I've got work to do."
"You work at home?"
"You work outside?"
"You planned to rearrange the living room?"
She went and stood by the door. "I'm not in a sociable mood."
"I understand," I said and retraced my steps to the entrance.
I wasn't going to waste my outfit and make-up. When I left Janine's I walked to my office in the village. This may sound childish but I like Gus to see me in business attire. It had taken a real leap of faith for him to rent me the space. Gus' work of auto restoration is grueling and demanding. The results have to be perfect and there's no bs factor. He was a good role model and I wanted him to think well of me.