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book cover for Acts of Kindness Acts Of Kindness
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

He got up so abruptly she was startled. Was it a joke? He got up, made a strange, awful sound. And then there was motion, falling. He threw out his hands, falling; his body hitting the mike, the boom swinging, catching her in the throat. An instant of blinding pain. And then she was falling, too.

For weeks after, lying in the hospital bed, she kept remembering over and over thinking it had been a joke. Clowning around. But no joke. It had all been real. Not a joke, a nightmare. And everything, everything was ended in just thirty or forty seconds. She couldn't seem to make herself accept that fact, kept turning her head as best she could every time someone came into the room. Expecting it to be him. It never was. It was never going to be. He was dead. But still her eyes kept searching the empty doorway. As if he might be there but her vision had, in some way, been impaired and she simply wasn't able to see him. But he was there.

People from the film company came, with stricken eyes and ineptly articulated expressions of sympathy. Appearing embarrassed. And Leonard came and sat down in the chair beside the bed, held her hand. He looked as if someone had struck him between the eyes some time before and the pain of the blow was just now beginning to register. He said, "Gene, I know it really isn't the time to talk about this. But it has to be talked about sometime. Just so ... We've had people from the insurance company all over us. And Workmens' Compensation people. Claims people. Investigators. The press. There's no question it was an on-the-job accident. So, the thing is, you'll be compensated. Probably for life. It seems so goddamned crass, having to talk about this to you now. But it's got to be done. I thought you should know."

She watched his face, his mouth; hearing his words, finding what he had to say quite incredible. Like some incomprehensible foreign science fiction film. Like something she might have been dubbing. Putting dialogue to some lunatic space scene. Putting her voice into the mouth of some foreign actress whose gestures, face, and body were in no way related to the voice Gene was giving her.

Leonard went on at some length about the settlement, the compensation, the probable lifetime income she'd receive for having been rendered permanently unfit to pursue her profession. And she lay watching him, waiting for him to talk about Bill. Waiting tensely, knowing that would be next. He and Leonard had been best friends. Leonard had been there, in the booth, seen it all. She wondered how Leonard viewed it when he reran it all in his mind. Did he see it the same way she did? With Bill struggling up out of the chair, throwing out his hands, falling. And the boom whipping around through the air like a sword, or a club.

"I still don't believe it," Leonard said, looking down at his hands. "The whole thing ... Who knew?" he said, looking up at her. His expression so pained she felt very sorry for him. "Did you know?" he went on, not expecting an answer, knowing she couldn't give one. He wouldn't have waited in any case. Bent on delivering his particular perspective. "Forty-two years old. There wasn't a damned thing wrong with the man!"

No, that was true. She turned her eyes away, staring at the wall. Thinking, There wasn't a thing wrong with him. Nothing. He was so good it had to have been something I dreamed. People like that don't live, don't keep on living. Of course not.

"I'm sorry," Leonard said helplessly. "I'm so goddamned sorry! If you need anything, anything I can do for you, let me know." He reached over to place his hand on hers. She looked down at his hand. She could see he was touching her, but she couldn't feel it. Her eyes felt so dry. Too dry. They moved with difficulty, watching him. "I'll be back," he said, getting up, buttoning his overcoat. "I wish I could say something that would make this better," he said, feeling monstrously frustrated, inadequate. "Or do something. I'll be back," he said again, helplessly. And bent to kiss her forehead before going away. She didn't feel the kiss either. She was only aware of his aftershave and his lapel brushing against her cheek. And then she was aware of his absence.

She had far too much time for thinking, lying there in that hospital bed. Weeks. Night and day. The silence, the thinking, broken by the intermittent arrivals and departures of specialists, nurses, technicians. People coming and going, serious faces always intact. Even their professional, intended-to-be-heartening smiles serious. They scarcely interfered with her thinking. There wasn't anything they could do, in any case. They made that clear in their apologetic fashion.

In a matter of minutes losing someone she'd loved, a career she'd worked hard to build and the ability ever to speak above a whisper. Irreparable damage to the larynx. And scars on her throat. From the tracheotomy and the surgery, the failed attempt to reconstruct her larynx. Reduced now to a peach pit in her throat. A peach pit that, when she first tried, produced a hissing whisper and felt as if it was scratching the interior of her throat.

"You're just out of practice," they told her. "It's been a while since you've used those muscles. Keep talking, the pain'll go away."

She didn't think she cared. Bill was dead. And gone. Buried. He might have been someone she'd dreamed one night. Dreamed over a course of nights for over three years.

"But you're very lucky," the doctor assured her. "The baby's fine."

She just stared at him, wondering if he realized how much of a fool he was. She knew precisely how the baby was. That quiet lump of tissues sitting up there in between her pelvic bones. Safely protected by her body. And surely they didn't think she'd let absolutely everything be taken away? Did they think she'd lost her reason along with her ability to speak audibly? Nothing was going to happen to the baby. Unless she had to die. And there seemed no possibility of that happening, they told her.

"You're just fine," the doctor said. "You'll be able to leave here next week."

She thought about her apartment. About Bill's things in the apartment. And was suddenly panic-stricken. Knowing she couldn't possibly go back there and face Bill's clothes, his books, his cologne and his luggage, his shoes, his razor. She couldn't. And used that hurtful peach pit to catch the nurse's attention, to ask for pencil and paper. Writing down the number, asking the nurse to call Leonard. Who came very quickly, looking frightened as if there was something terminal she planned to say to him. He sat in the chair beside the bed and watched her hand moving over the page, nervously waiting to see what she was writing. She tore the page off the notepad and thrust it at him. She'd written, "Take my keys. Go to the apartment. Bill's things. Please. Take them away!"

Her eyes were round, apprehensive as she watched him read. He folded the page in half, pushed it into his coat pocket, asking, "Where are your keys? I'll take care of it."

She didn't want him to hear how she sounded, so pointed at the bedside table and he opened the drawer, removed her bag, and handed it to her. She fished around inside, found the keys, and gave them to him.

"I've got to be out of town for a few days," he said, holding her hand. "I'll be back next week to take you home."

She forgot herself and started to cry, even the crying possessed of a frighteningly mechanical sound. Like a toy might sound weeping. Leonard moved to the side of the bed and put his arms around her, stroking her, saying, "I know, I know. Don't worry. I'll take care of everything. And I'll be back next week to take you out of here."

He moved to go and she clung to him, needing him there for just a few more moments. Terrified of facing the future that would begin next week. A future so empty it was like gazing into a mirror and finding no reflection there. Nothing. Blank glass.

She cried long after he'd gone. With her hand wedged into her mouth, her teeth biting down. Feeling the pain. Wanting for a few minutes to close her eyes and find herself gone as Bill was gone, as her voice was gone, her life. Was gone.

She sat down in the living room after Leonard had left and tried to think. Tried to think in spite of the flow of images parading past her eyes. Bill sitting over there on the arm of the chair with a cup of coffee, reading the Times from front to back. Bill in the kitchen mixing drinks, talking to her from one room to the next. The place was tainted, crawling with memories. Just as this mass of assembling tissues would soon begin crawling inside her.

I've got to get out of here! she thought, frightened by the oppressive images, by her sudden powerlessness. Too vulnerable. Something might happen. A mugger. Someone. And she couldn't scream, couldn't speak above a whisper. New York wasn't a place for someone like her to live now. Not someone who couldn't scream.

She felt like screaming. Sat there, closed her eyes, and tried to scream. Blood vessels in her head feeling on the verge of bursting, trying so hard to scream. Nothing. A wheezing animal sound when she wanted to shatter the windows, the mirror with the scream she could feel inside her.

Get out! Got to got out! Get away, right away, all the way away!

Where? How?

Go home? To what? To her father, her sister and brother-in-law, the farm. No! That was gone. She couldn't go back to that. Not now. Away, yes. Somewhere. Where?

Oh God! How had all this happened? Why? They'd been so happy. Too happy. Dangerous to be that happy, to have everything going so well, so successfully, so happily. Dangerous. She got up and went into the bedroom. Stopped. A steel fist pounding her in the belly, seeing the bed, hearing nighttime whispers, laughter. Got to get out of here! She threw open the closet door, dragged out her bags, placed them open on the bed. No wait! The furniture, the paintings and photographs, the books, the stereo. Madness to leave all these things, simply walk away. Think!

She sat down on the end of the bed, fists clenched, looking around slowly. There must be a plan, logic. You can't just fly out of here, run away. Think! Where to go? Somewhere new, somewhere clean and utterly free of familiar signs, memories. It came to her. Of course. Bill's home town. Three-plus years of hearing him talk about it. And visits there. To go see the house he'd grown up in. And the cemetery where his parents were buried. Far enough away. Yet close somehow. She'd go there, find a place.

A place to hide. A place where she could have this baby, live with this baby, Bill's baby. How could you die? She burned holes in his pillow with her eyes. How could you die and leave me? Pregnant, without a voice. And scars. She fingered the bright red scar tissue on her throat. How could you die and let all this happen to me?

Angry and hurt and horribly scared. Thirty-three years old, pregnant with no career. The dubious comfort of a lifetime compensatory income. And Bill's money in their joint bank accounts. Very little else. No insurable interest the salesman had told him. "You can't make her a beneficiary. You're not related. Now, if you were married ..." And Bill patiently explaining, "But the minute the divorce becomes final, I'm going to marry her. I've already got a wife. Isn't there some way?"

No way.

Perhaps the first thing she should do is go to the bank, withdraw the money. Yes. That's a good idea. Before someone - his elusive wife, perhaps - came along and tried staking claims on what was hers, Gene's, what Bill had given to her. She jumped up off the bed, grabbed her bag, her coat, her scarf. Went out.

To walk the two blocks over to the bank on Third Avenue and present the teller with a withdrawal slip for the entire balance in the savings account, a check for the balance in the checking account.

"How do you want this?" the teller asked her.

Gene opened her mouth. "Cashier's check," she whispered.


"Cashier's check?"

"Sorry, I can't hear you. How do you want this?"

The look on the teller's face one that said, "This chick's a nut. Why the hell's she whispering?"

She'd cry, start crying. Please, don't let me cry in this place in front of all these people. Forming the words slowly, carefully, everything inside her straining. "Cashier's check."

"Oh! You want a cashier's check!" Smiling brightly, as if she was as pleased Gene was able to get the words out intelligibly as Gene might have been had this been some sort of bizarre contest for defectives. As it was, she lit a cigarette - what further damage could she possibly do? - and nervously tapped her fingers on the counter while the teller checked the balances, did addition, subtraction; canceled the passbook, ascertained there were no outstanding checks on the checking account. Then she got a check, went to the typewriter, and slowly typed it out. Disappeared somewhere to have a bank officer sign it. Then at last passed the check over the counter with a smile, saying, "Have a good day, now."

I should smile, Gene thought, but I can't. I'm sorry. I can't.

She left the bank thinking about the car. That was hers.

"If I can't make you my damned beneficiary," he'd said, "at least I'll put everything I can in your name."

"You don't have to do that," she'd protested. "You really don't."

"Hey, listen," he'd said, softly, in that gently persuasive way she'd never been able to argue with, "just in case something happens. Just in case. You have to have something to go on with."

"I won't listen!"

"You'll listen! Don't be stupid, Gene! There's the baby to consider here, too, if we go ahead with it. And if worse comes to worst, you can always get twelve or fourteen thousand for the car. Then there's the money in the accounts. She'll come popping out of the woodwork if she ever hears I've kicked off. And she'll make goddamned sure she gets everything she can. So I want to make sure there are a few things she can't get. So just shut up and go along with it! Okay?"

Miserable irony. He was always so stinking right about everything. And it was the wife who'd turned up to claim his body, to grieve publicly, to arrange services and the burial.

If she dwelled on the thought, it'd kill her. She wouldn't think about it. She returned to the apartment to write a letter to Leonard, asking him, as one last, very large favor, to dispose of the co-op - also in her name - put everything into storage, and she'd be in touch with him as soon as she found out where she wanted to be.

She couldn't use the intercom to speak with the doorman. He couldn't hear her, kept switching off. So, finally, she went down in the elevator and as slowly and clearly as she could, made him understand that she needed help with her bags; needed the car up from the garage. The relief doorman took over and the regular doorman rode back up to the apartment with her. Sympathizing, saying, "Sure was a nice man. Can't tell you how sorry I am. Won't be the same without him." She wished he'd shut up. Turned to look at him, her eyes telling him to Shut up, shut up! He saw and did.

He helped her load the bags into the car, then closed the trunk and even locked it for her, asking, "Going away for a while, huh?"

She nodded, pressing a twenty-dollar bill into his hand. Amazingly, he didn't want to take it. But she pushed at his hands, shaking her head.

"Not coming back are you?" he said sadly, looking down at the bill, then up at her, watching her shake her head again. "You take good care of yourself," he said. "Okay getting out of here?"

She nodded.

He tipped his hat to her and went to the service elevator.

She got into the car, started it. Quiet hum of the engine. Telemann oozing from the rear-window speakers. WNCN. She raised the volume, put the car into Drive, drove up the ramp, out into the street. Heading for FDR Drive. Heading eventually for the New York State Thruway. Heading out. Her throat throbbing. As if the sutures were still in place. Touching her throat, fingering the raised ridges of scar tissue. Then readjusting her scarf, covering it all.

She checked into a downtown hotel, looked up a real estate agency in the yellow pages, made a note of the address, checked the location on the map of the city shed bought in a gas station just outside of town, then sat down with a wild thumping in her chest. As if someone or something was chasing after her. As if she'd been running for a long, long time and simply had to stop for a moment, rest, before getting up to start running again.

That was the feeling: flight. And she wasn't at all sure what she was running from. Except perhaps familiar places evoking too many dangerous recollections. She'd violated every rule, everything they'd brought her up to believe. Living with a man who was already married to someone else. Living with him, pregnant with his child. Voluntarily, gladly impregnated. Left now to continue on alone. Old rules of morality circling her head like screeching birds of prey, waiting to swoop down on her, take chunks of her flesh.

But I don't believe any of that, she told herself, looking around the room; looking through the open doorway at the old-fashioned bathroom. I don't believe that. I never did. It didn't work for me. But still. To be single and pregnant. Single with a child who will grow up and have to go to school with other children. Other children with full sets of parents. No.

No. For the sake of this child, I'll be a widow. I am a widow. Legalities, words on paper, mean nothing. Words mumbled over two people, meaning nothing. A widow. Mrs. Elliott. Eugenie Elliott. Place "Mrs." in front of my name and I am, all at once, a socially acceptable commodity.

She wished it were possible for her to take Bill's name. To somehow legally change her name to his. But, thinking about it, it didn't seem worth the trouble involved. And who was there to know her? Who was there to care if her name was simply Gene Elliott, or Mrs. Eugenie Elliott? There was no one to care. Except this child. This child would care. And would someday ask. And she'd answer.

She rested her head against the back of the armchair, thinking about how she might answer. Your father. Your father died. It was an accident He went away one afternoon and took my voice with him. I am thirty-three. In twenty years when you are twenty, I will be fifty-three. In twenty years it will be 1995.

She couldn't imagine it. Not being fifty-three and not having a twenty-year-old child. So far off into the future it scarcely seemed worth considering. The past, though, seemed infinitely worthier of contemplation. A total of three years, four months, and some days. The four months and some days she'd spent falling in love. Being pursued. Adoring every moment of it. So easily persuaded into a "sensible arrangement." All the sense of the arrangement of no consequence because she'd wanted to be with him and everything else was unimportant. Just to be there with him. Awed by him, by his features, his talent and his success, too.

He'd been so high, once upon a time. A star. Of the theater, of films. And slowly on his way down when they'd met. Gradually coming down, aware of it, uncaring. "Less money I have to pay that miserable woman," he'd said, without rancor. The wife received a percentage of his income. It was all written down, documented, filed in some place of authority. Because she'd taken him all the way up there to the top, pushed him up there where he'd thought he wanted to be. And he'd gratefully signed over that lifetime percentage of his earnings. Believing to the last that she'd earned it, deserved it. Then.

Fifteen years later, he'd minded very much and occasionally cursed his generosity, his overblown sense of responsibility. "She's got me locked up, tied down, on ice for the duration. It isn't fair. But at the time, it seemed fair. Part of me still thinks it's fair, in a way. I'm sorry, Gene. But I didn't know I was going to find you."

She hadn't cared about the finances. Didn't care all that much even now. Except that he was gone and never coming back and she was going to have his child. And she'd never be able to tell this child the whole truth about its father. Because everything in print about him included mention of that wife. And that wife wasn't her. What fiction she was going to have to create around the bones of reality. She felt too tired even to think. And her throat ached. She wondered if the pain would ever go away. Closing her eyes, imagining the doctors laying open her throat, playing with the shattered mechanism in there that had been her security, her hoped-for future, her pride.

A farmer's daughter from central Illinois. With a mother frail and filled with limitless, fond aspirations - if not for herself, then for her two daughters. Endowing them with elegant names, filling their heads - trying to - with dreams of magnificent possibilities. A small, dreaming woman with distances in her eyes.

Amelia had, in her teens, taken to ridiculing their mother, forcibly putting down her dreams and fantasies. Amelia waving her big, capable hands, the corners of her mouth tight, saying, "You're living in a dream world and I don't have the time to sit around with you, dreaming. I've got work to do. Somebody around here has got to." Amelia working the farm with the strength and commitment of any man. More. Dismissing her mother and sister and their gentle dreaming with the wave of a roughened, unpretty hand.

But Eugenie ate it with every meal, breathed it with every conversation, grew a hearty distaste for the dirt, the deprivation, the stench of animals and manure. And finally, after her mother died, got to Chicago. To work in the book department, a salesgirl, at Marshall Field's. Reading her way through everything available. Saving her money to go to New York. And in New York, shared an apartment with an on-the-rise actress who one afternoon said, "With your voice you could get into dubbing, voice-overs; make a fortune." And, pure luck, everything clicked. The time right, the place right, all the opportunities failing into line. Within three years establishing herself. Radio commercials, TV. Dubbing. Dubbing an Italian film Bill had made. He was overdubbing himself, all the while smiling across at her. Then he took her to dinner. And then for a drive in the country. After that, he began telephoning at odd hours. To talk. Telling her, "The sound of your voice makes everything mellow, brings me into a quiet place inside me. Something I've been needing so badly."

Flying off to California or to Spain. Every time he came home, the first thing he did was telephone her. Until she knew his schedules, waited for his calls. And, finally, gave herself up to all the feeling he'd generated inside her with his truthfulness and crazy laughter and whimsical observations. Until he dropped dead of a coronary one afternoon and left her broken in too many ways.

She went out to look at houses with Mrs. Whitney, the real estate agent. And looked at the houses, moving back and forth inside herself between anger and despair. At some moments hating Bill for causing all this to happen to her. At other moments, longing for him, missing him so much the ache extended into her elbows, her knees; every joint in her body seized up with grief.

Mrs. Whitney was kind, patient. Lent her full attention to Gene's whispered comments about the houses, and kept finding more and more and more places to look at until weeks had gone by and Gene felt she'd go mad if she had to stay in that stark hotel room very much longer. And Mrs. Whitney said, "I've got a gatehouse. It's really about the last listing I've got to show you. It's a lovely place. The only problem is, there isn't any real property, landwise, that goes with the house. It belongs to an estate and it's on the estate property. And everybody so far has been crazy about the house but not crazy about Mrs. Prewitt who owns it. You'll see what I'm talking about for yourself."

It was a lovely place. A gray stone gatehouse. With two spacious bedrooms. A high-ceilinged living room. A large kitchen, a dining room. Fireplaces in the living room, dining room. Flower beds either side of the front door. The entire place secure behind ten-foot-high wrought-iron gates.

"I want to buy this one," Gene said.

"Everybody does," Mrs. Whitney said tiredly. "Until they get a list of some of the snags."

"Tell me."

"You get the sum total of forty-five feet in every direction. To meet the zoning requirements. But the entire property belonging to the gatehouse is on an easement. Which means Mrs. Prewitt can come marching through here any time she likes. You can't put up anything on the property lines. Like fences or bushes. None of that. We've been through this at least twenty times with her. The bottom line is, if she doesn't like you, she won't sell. So far, she isn't selling. But it's worth a try. Are you willing?"


"Okay. I'll call and try to make an appointment to see her. She may be in a good mood and see us right away. She may be in a snit and make us wait three weeks. Keep your fingers crossed she's in a good mood."

They returned to the hotel and Mrs. Whitney called from there while Gene watched her facial expressions. Sitting in the armchair, smoking a cigarette, suddenly needing to have that gatehouse, having to have it. Mrs. Whitney hung up and smiled. "She'll see us at two-thirty. Come on, let me buy you lunch."

Mrs. Whitney was a nice woman, a caring person. Beyond the call of professionalism. Over lunch, asking, "May I call you by your first name?"



"No. Eugenie. Gene." Why did it still hurt to shape the words, push them out?

"Oh, Gene! My name is Marie. I hate to be inquisitive, but was it an accident?"

Gene nodded.

"That's really too bad," Marie sympathized. Then deftly switched subjects. "I cant imagine anyone choosing to live here after New York. I think living there would be great. Still, each to his own." She chattered on, studying Gene. Wondering about her. Such a potent aura of sadness, it seemed to encase her. A pretty woman. With very long, very thick-looking hair of a rich, chocolate-brown color. Skin too pale. Brown eyes, almost black. A pretty mouth, but uncertain. Her throat always wrapped in a scarf. Marie speculated on what might lie beneath that scarf and decided she didn't want to see or know. But wasn't it a shame?

Mrs. Prewitt.

She looked to be in her early forties but could have been older or younger. A large-eyed blonde. Tall and thin and intense. Possessed of a low, whiskey voice and a surprisingly full mouth that drew Gene's eyes. The shape of her mouth a message, somehow, in itself. And the gray-green eyes. A woman who, but for the intensity and expression, might have been beautiful. Formidable. Yet from moment to moment appearing to waver, as if acting out a role, but unsure of all the dialogue. Gene accepted her invitation to be seated, silently suffering Mrs. Prewitt's intense stare. Wondering what on earth this was all about.

Marie Whitney passed over a sheet of paper upon which was written Gene's offer for the gatehouse. Mrs. Prewitt looked at the paper, then at Gene, asking, "Would you intend to live alone in the gatehouse?"

Gene answered, "Eventually, no."

Sharply, angrily, Mrs. Prewitt said, "Speak up!"

Mrs. Whitney, embarrassed, started to explain, but Mrs. Prewitt shushed her, saying, "Let the woman speak for herself!"

"But she ..."

Mrs. Prewitt glared at her and Marie closed her mouth.

There was a long, heavy silence. Adele Prewitt looked at the woman sitting opposite, wondering why she had the feeling she was going to sell her the house. A feeling of something close to desolation. What was there about her?

Gene wanted the house. And looked back into the gray-green eyes seeing something there it would have been impossible to define. But something. And the shape of her mouth. Gene reached up and unwound her scarf. Mrs. Prewitt's eyes moved to Gene's throat, flickered back to Gene's eyes, the gray-green undergoing the subtlest of changes. A minuscule dilation of the pupils, perhaps.

Marie didn't want to look, did, and felt a sudden dizziness. The scars looked very new, raw. She looked down at her handbag. A terrible moment. Awful. She shouldn't have brought Gene here, inflicted this on her. The silence held. She risked looking up to see the two women staring at each other.

Adele couldn't seem to think for a moment. She had an impulse to get up, cross the room and place her hand on Gene's throat. Touch her. She felt so ashamed of having forced this moment into being she couldn't, for a moment, think of any way out of it. Then, the training falling back into place, said, "Well have tea," and got up, went out to tell Sally to put on the kettle. And stood for a moment, bracing herself on the counter in the kitchen with her eyes closed.

"You okay?" Sally asked.

Adele shook her head, waving Sally away. God! How could I do that? I didn't mean to do that. How did I come to be someone who could be so cruel?

In the living room, Gene readjusted her scarf, crossed her legs, and lit a cigarette,

"You didn't have to do that" Marie Whitney said in an angry undertone. "She's an impossible woman!"

"I want the house," Gene said. Thinking, She isn't at all impossible. "It doesn't matter," she reassured Marie. What the hell matters? she wondered, looking around the vast living room. The only thing that matters is that I can't spend any more time in that hotel room. I'II go insane if I have to.

Mrs. Prewitt returned, sat down, lit a cigarette, crossed very long, slender legs, and stated, "I accept your offer, Mrs. Elliott. I'm sure Mrs. Whitney has told you the terms."

Gene nodded.

"Good. That's settled. Now tell me something," she said cannily, unable to stop herself. "When are you expecting this child?"

"Four and a half months," Gene answered, regarding her with growing interest.

"That's wonderful," Mrs. Prewitt said. And smiled. The smile astonishing.

So that both Gene and Marie Whitney automatically smiled back, at her. Gene wondered for a moment if Mrs. Prewitt wasn't perhaps a little mad. And, being mad, was able to detect it in others. Had, in fact, recognized the madness in Gene herself. Whatever it was, she wanted to spend the entire afternoon here watching this woman change from one face to the next to the next.

The housekeeper brought in a tray with a silver tea service and Mrs. Prewitt busied herself pouring out the tea, her cigarette incongruously bobbing in the corner of her mouth. Squinting against the smoke.

Gene wondered why she had her hair pulled back so severely. It actually looked as if it might be painful. Small ears lying flatly neat against her head. Not a speck of makeup. Her skin absolutely perfect but without any color. As if she was in shock. Or ill.

"Do you work, Mrs. Elliott?" Adele asked, handing across a cup of tea, offering a plate of petits fours. Gene wanted to laugh at the sight of the small, iced cakes. They seemed pathetic. But she took one. She could tell this woman wanted her to. A peace offering?

"No," she answered.

"I see." Adele nodded and sat back, removing the cigarette from her mouth, setting it down on the lip of the ashtray. She'd poured a third cup of tea, but made no move to touch it. "You'll send for your things now. From New York? Is that right?"


"Well, good," Adele said, mystifyingly. She wanted desperately to talk to this woman but felt hampered by the agent's presence. I'm behaving like a fool, she told herself. Noticing a slight tremor in her hands as she retrieved her cigarette from the ashtray and took a hard drag on it.

Marie Whitney couldn't make sense of any of it and wanted to get right to work on the papers before anyone could do any mind-changing. "We really should be getting back now," she said to Gene. "We've kept Mrs. Prewitt quite some time."

"Don't rush us," Adele said quietly. "You're not going to lose your sale. Give the woman a chance to relax, drink her tea. All you people live strung out on such high-tension wires. The rest of us haven't quite your urgency about paperwork and commissions. If you're in a desperate hurry to rush away and start getting it all done, go ahead. I'II see to returning Mrs. Elliott to her hotel. Does that suit you, Mrs. Elliott?" Please understand what I'm saying. I need you to stay. Just for a little while. You're someone ... someone ...

Gene didn't know really what she was doing, but nodded in assent. She didn't really feel like leaving. The thought occurring to her that her mother would have loved this house. It was, in all likelihood, probably the house of all her mother's dreams. Gene suddenly felt comfortable for the first time in months. And was filled with curiosity about this odd woman.

Uncertainly, Marie Whitney got up, saying, "I'll speak to you later then, Gene."

And Gene nodded. Then Mrs. Prewitt got up to see Mrs. Whitney out.

Adele stood a moment after closing the front door, very aware of her heartbeat. The pulses throughout her body. She returned to the living room, at once lit a fresh cigarette and sat down, crossed her legs, and looked again at Gene.

To Gene, it felt as if this woman was studying her inch by inch. Performing a visual dissection. Gene didn't care. The baby shifted. She sat drinking her tea, looking at the room. Not in the least uncomfortable under Mrs. Prewitt's eyes.

"I've gained a reputation with those people for being peculiar, difficult. Probably even crazy. But any behavior that falls outside the normal range of acceptability is suspect. I'm not crazy. Or especially difficult. I'd simply prefer to have the gatehouse go empty than suffer the presence on my property of people I don't care for. To me, that's simply good sense. To the real estate people, it's just short of demented." She picked up the cup of now-cold tea. I'm making myself look worse and worse, she thought. She isn't interested in my philosophical viewpoints. But she stayed. You did stay. It changes the feeling of the entire house, having someone here with me. Someone else other than Sally. Or Lawrence. "Were you a singer or performer of some sort?" she asked incautiously. "I get the feeling that you were."


"Something. You can still speak, make yourself understood. But it seems - devastating to you. It seems evident you required your voice more than most of us."

"You're playing at clairvoyance," Gene said, very relaxed.

"Who knows?" I don't know what I'm doing, Adele thought. Babbling.

"I had a career," Gene admitted. "Doing voice-overs, dubbing." She hadn't spoken this much since the surgery. She was beginning to feel the strain in her throat.

"Oh God!" Adele said softly.

Gene's eyes widened in surprise. The woman looked as if she might actually begin to cry.

"Don't worry about the paperwork," Adele said quickly, doing battle with strange emotions. "Move into the house whenever you want to. It's all newly painted, clean. You saw that. Perhaps," she said, a little breathlessly, "you wouldn't mind if I dropped by from time to time to chat?"

"I won't mind."

"I'll have Elton drive you back to your hotel now, if you're ready."

At the door, they shook hands. Something more about this woman's eyes and the shape of her mouth and the contact of her hand.

"I hope you'll be happy with the house," Adele said.

"Thank you."

Elton was big and black and silent. Gene sat in the rear of the old Rolls Royce feeling caught up in what felt like one of her mother's fantasies. What a strange woman! But it didn't matter. She was tired. And wanted to sleep now.

Order Acts Of Kindness