Fiction

Virginia

James Salter

In a mauve, flowered gown that bared one plump shoulder and impatiently kicking at the dogs, Liz Bohannon opened the door. She had been a deity once and was still beautiful. As Amussen kissed her, she said, “Darling, I thought it was you.” To Vivian and her new husband, she said, “I’m so glad you could come.”

To Bowman she held out a surprisingly small hand that bore a large emerald ring.

“I was in the study, paying bills. Is it going to snow? It feels like it. How was your Christmas?” she asked Amussen.

She continued pushing away the importuning dogs, one small and white, the other a Dalmatian.

“Ours was quiet,” she went on. “You haven’t been here before, have you?” she said to Bowman. “The house was built originally in 1838, but it’s burned down twice, the last time in the middle of the night while I was sleeping.”

She held Bowman’s hand. He felt a kind of thrill. “What shall I call you? Philip? Phil?”

She had beautiful features, now a little small for the face that for years had allowed her to say and do whatever she liked, that and the money. She was loved, derided, and known as the most dishonest horsewoman in the business, banned at Saratoga where she had once bought back two of her own horses at auction, which was strictly prohibited. Keeping Bowman’s hand in hers, she led the way in as she talked, speaking to Amussen.

“I was paying bills. My God, this place costs a fortune to run. It costs more to run when I’m away than when I’m here, can you believe that? No one to watch. I’ve just about made up my mind to sell it.”

“Sell it?” said Amussen.

“Move to Florida,” she said. “Live with the Jews. Vivian, you look so beautiful.”

They went into the study, where the walls were a dark green and covered with pictures of horses, paintings and photographs.

“This is my favorite room,” she said. “Don’t you like these pictures? That one there,” she said pointing, “is Khartoum—I loved that horse—I wouldn’t part with it for anything. When the house burned in 1944, I ran out in the middle of the night with nothing but my mink coat and that painting. That was all I had.”

“Woody won’t eat!” a voice called from another room.

“Who?”

“Woody.”

A man with his hair combed in a careful wave came to the doorway. He was wearing a V-neck sweater and lizard shoes. He had a look of feigned concern on his face.

“Go tell Willa,” Liz said.

“She’s the one who told me.”

“Travis, you don’t know these people. This is my husband, Travis,” Liz said. “I married someone from the backyard. Everybody knows you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway, don’t you, sweetheart?” she said lovingly.

“You mean I didn’t come from a rich family?”

“That’s for certain.”

“Perfection pays off,” he said with a practiced smile.

Travis Gates was a lieutenant colonel in the air force but with something vaguely fraudulent about him. He’d been in China during the war and liked to use Chinese expressions, Ding hao, he would say. He was her third husband. The first, Ted Bohannon, had been rich, his family owned newspapers and copper mines. Liz had been twenty, careless and sure of herself, the marriage was the event of the year. They had already slept together at a friend’s house in Georgetown and were wildly in love. They were invited and traveled everywhere, to California, Europe, the Far East. It was during the Depression and photographs of them in the papers, on shipboard or at the track, were an anodyne, a reminder of life as it had been and might be. They also went a number of times to Silver Hill to visit Laura, Liz’s younger sister, who worked as a club singer, usually on a small stage in a white or beaded dress, and was also an alcoholic. She took the cure at Silver Hill every few years.

One night during the war, the three of them were stranded in New York when there was trouble with the car. The hotels were all full but because Ted knew the manager they were able to get a room at the Westbury. They had to sleep three in the bed. In the middle of the night Liz woke up to find her husband doing something with her sister who had the nightgown up under her armpits. It was the tenth year of the marriage that had begun to be stale anyway, and that night marked the end.

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