Pippa had to admit, she liked the house.
This was one of the newer units, they were told. Dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, microwave, electric oven, all new. Carpeting, new. Septic tank. Roof. Yet the floor of the basement had a crack in the concrete, and some of the grouting between the tiles in the bathroom was turning dark with mold. Signs of decay, like in an old mouth with gleaming caps glued over the stumps, Pippa thought. She wondered how many people had died in this house. Marigold Village, retirement community: a prelude to heaven. This place had everything: swimming pool, restaurants, mini-mall, gas station, health food store, yoga classes, tennis courts, nursing staff. There was an on-call grief counselor, two marriage counselors, a sex therapist, and an herbalist. Book club, camera club, garden club, model boatbuilding club. You never had to leave. Pippa and Herb had first encountered Marigold Village when returning to their Long Island beach house from a lunch party in Connecticut twenty years earlier, when Pippa was just past thirty, Herb sixty. Herb had taken a wrong turn, and they found themselves on a narrow, winding road lined with clusters of dun-colored, single-story houses. It was five o’clock in April; the late afternoon light cast a golden filter over the perfectly maintained lawns. The houses looked identical; a hive of numbered mailboxes stood at the end of each shared driveway. Some of the numbers were in the thousands. Herb had been confident that a couple of left turns and a right would put them back on the main road, but every turn he made seemed to suck them deeper into the development.
“It’s like one of those fairy tales,” Pippa said.
“What fairy tales?” Herb asked, exasperation in his voice. Pippa was always seeing poetry in everything. Leave it to her to turn getting lost in a housing development into something out of the Brothers Grimm.
“You know,” she said, “where the children enter the forest, and everything shifts, all the landmarks magically change, and they get lost, and then there’s usually a witch of some kind.” The trees rose to hide the last of the sun. The light went dull.
“At least a witch could give us directions,” Herb grumbled, turning the steering wheel. His massive hands made it look like a toy.
“I think we passed that fountain before,” she said, looking back.
A futile twenty minutes later, they found themselves at the Marigold gas station. A friendly teen in a navy blue uniform showed them the way out. It was so simple: two rights and a left. Herb couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured it out. Days later, when they heard Marigold Village was a retirement community, they laughed. Wrinkle Village, it was called by the locals. “We were lost for so long,” Herb would say when telling the story, “we almost had to retire there.”
That story got the biggest laugh yet at the housewarming party Pippa threw on their third Saturday in Marigold Village. Many of their dearest friends were there to quizzically usher in their new life in the development.
Sam Shapiro, an angular, balding man in his fifties, was probably the finest fiction writer in the country. The massive advance Herb had shelled out for his last novel had made the papers. He stood up and raised his glass to Herb and Pippa, his words firing out of him rapidly, in staggered clusters.
“We all know Herb Lee can be a bastard, but he’s usually right. He hates self-pity more than anything, in writing and in life. That makes him a great editor, and a damn tough human being. I can’t believe you’re eighty, Herb. I guess that means I’m not thirty-five anymore. But I tell you. When it comes to words, Herb’s instincts are pitch-perfect. With women, not so much. I think we all know what I’m talking about.” Uneasy laughter rippled through the group, and one man guffawed. Sam continued: “So when he first told me he was going to marry Pippa, I thought, Here we go again! She seemed like … radioactive jam. Sweet, but deadly. Herb, however, disregarding my advice, followed his nose, as usual—a significant nose, I might add, not one of these trivial little noses we see all over town these days—and somehow he ended up with the most spectacular woman. I’ve known Pippa Lee for a quarter of a century, but I’ll never really know her. She’s a mystery, a cipher, something nearly extinct these days: a person not controlled by ambition or greed or a crass need for attention, but by a desire to experience life completely and to make life a little easier for the people around her. Pippa has nobility. Pippa has style.”
Pippa’s lips compressed slightly, her brow furrowed in a private signal of disapproval. She wanted him to glorify Herb, not her. Sam’s quick bird’s glance rested on her for a moment; reading her signal, he smiled and went on. “And Herb had the sense to recognize her for what she was, when it was damn hard to tell. So he can’t be all bad. I drink to a man who, even at this late stage of his career, remains entirely unpredictable. I can’t decide what I think of your choice to move from Gramercy Park to Marigold Village, Herb. If it’s humble, or practical, or perverse. But as long as Pippa keeps making that butterflied lamb, I’ll even caddie for you, if that’s what it comes to.”
“I don’t think you’d be much of a caddie, Sam,” said Herb, his mouth creasing into a lopsided grin, as it did whenever he made a crack.
“Never underestimate a hungry Jew!” called out Sam Shapiro.
“I think it’s sort of amazing,” said a hurt, adenoidal voice. Moira Dulles was a poet who had been living with Sam for the past few years. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, at Herb’s feet. “I mean, you left everything behind. Pippa, you are so courageous to just get up and go, start a new life …”
Pippa watched her fragile friend with concern. She hoped Sam didn’t hear the tears in her voice. “It feels free,” said Pippa. “No more big households to take care of.”
“Don’t wreck my illusions,” said Sam. “You are the icon of the Artist’s Wife: placid, giving, intelligent, beautiful. Great cook. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” Moira Dulles gave him a black look, which he ignored. “And Herb doesn’t even deserve her, he’s not an artist. I never thought of that before! The one true artist’s wife left in the modern world, and she goes to a publisher!” He cackled, then scraped his breath in with a donkey’s bray.
“She wasn’t like that when I married her,” said Herb. “I tamed her.”
“Oh, shut up.” Pippa smiled, drifting into the kitchen and wondering if Sam was teasing Herb too hard. Ben, Pippa and Herb’s son, was scouring the roasting tin, glancing up at the party through the hatch that looked out on the dining area. Still in law school, he already had the bad posture and good-natured pessimism of a middle-aged man. He scrutinized his mother through round, professorial glasses.
“I hope Herb is okay,” Pippa said, lighting a small blowtorch and turning it on fifteen pots of crème brûlée. The layer of sugar on each one bubbled and darkened to the color of molasses.
“Mom, he’s fine. Nothing could put a dent in his ego.”
“That’s what you think.”
“It’s you I’m worried about.”
“Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart.”
“Your problem is, you’re too adaptable. The adaptable cipher.” Pippa patted Ben’s arm. He was always protecting her from harm, whether she wanted him to or not. In the next room, Herb was talking intently to Sam, hunched forward in his chair. He was still so handsome, Pippa thought. Eighty years old with a full head of hair, his own teeth. When was it all going to implode?
“You should do it, too,” he was telling Sam. “If you manage to get old. I recommend it. Turned my whole life into cash. Giving it to them in increments. Otherwise it takes years for the estate to be processed, and then the state takes half.”
“I thought you loved paying taxes!” interjected Don Sexton, a screenwriter whose elongated vowels made him sound like he belonged in The Philadelphia Story.
“That’s right!” said Phyllis, his sharp-witted wife. “You always said you wished the government would tax more.”
“I’m not funding this fucking war,” Herb said.
“Ah—so it comes down to ethics, after all,” said Sam. “I was rooting for perversity, myself.”
“Stop boiling it all down,” growled Herb. But he was enjoying being kidded. Pippa suddenly adored Sam Shapiro. He was hitting just the right tone of jocular disrespect with Herb. She had been so worried that people would start to act differently now that the invincible man was in an old people’s facility. Treating it like a crazy joke—that was just the thing. The great Herb Lee, heroic owner of one of the last independent publishing houses in the country, virile champion of the Great American Novel—admitting to being old. It seemed unreal to everyone in that room. His frailty made their own middle age palpable. They were up next.
Moving to a retirement community was the last thing Pippa had expected from Herb, but then again, she had learned to accept swift changes in tack from her husband. Beneath Herb’s steady-handed, unflappable demeanor lurked a profound impulsiveness; he had bought manuscripts, left publishing houses and even marriages with sudden, lurching decisiveness all his life. Pippa knew that Herb trusted his own instincts deeply, to the point of superstition; perhaps that was all he trusted. Once his internal compass needle moved, that was it—something was going to change. So when he came home, laughing, a pamphlet for Marigold Retirement Village in his fist, saying, “This is that place we got lost that time!”—then spent the afternoon flipping through the glossy pages in his study, she sensed something was brewing. In the end, he sold the idea to her as a practical solution: “I’ve got five, ten years at the most. What do we need the beach house for anymore? The kids are gone. Manhattan is a pain in the ass. We’re hemorrhaging money you could use down the line. We liquidate our assets, Pippa, and then when I go, you have most of the money in your pocket. You can travel, buy a small place downtown. If we sell everything, you’ll be free.” But Pippa smelled a whiff of fear in this bluster; Herb had had two heart attacks in the space of a week the previous year. For the six subsequent months, she’d had to do everything for him. He couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs. Now he napped more than he used to, but he was vigorous again, stronger in some ways, what with his nearperfect diet and all the exercise he was doing. But those excruciating days, when sudden, extreme age was foisted on him and Pippa, had made an indelible mark on their lives. Herb was, Pippa knew, terrified of having her become his nurse. Marigold Village was a sort of preemptive strike against decrepitude, cutting to the chase. It was, in fact, pure Herb: he was unsentimental, realistic, and utterly unwilling to be unmanned.
The fact that Sam Shapiro, who had become Herb’s best friend over the past three decades, happened to live fifteen minutes away, was both a boon and a bit of an embarrassment, Pippa knew. Because Sam had followed Herb from one publishing house to another for years before Herb started his own press. Sam had been so loyal to Herb, in fact, that people began to wonder if the great Shapiro needed his editor a little too badly. The air of triumph that Sam exuded upon learning of the move—as if Herb had moved to follow him—irritated Herb, even if he was just ribbing. In all his relationships, Herb was the master, the desired one. To topple this pyramid would shake the foundations of his personality. Pippa watched Sam carefully for any evidence of a shift in the dynamic of the friendship. She, too, needed Herb to maintain his aura of strength. Tending him in the months after his heart attacks had been confusing. She had loved him perhaps more deeply than ever before, but the shape of their relationship had begun to warp in troubling ways. When they met, he had been her rescuer. For him to be dependent on her embarrassed both of them.
So they sold the house in Sag Harbor with its gray shingles, its cozy rooms layered, decade by decade, with paintings, rugs, objects, photographs. The children’s rooms, still cluttered with horse jumping medals and band posters, the expansive master bedroom with its vast bed, the picture window Pippa sat in front of every Sunday, reading the paper or gazing at the birds—the whole of it snapped up one rainy Tuesday by a real estate developer and his wife. The apartment on Gramercy Park went to a couple of childless ophthalmologists. Though Pippa was heartsick to lose these places she had loved, she was surprised to feel released as well. To shed much of what they owned, to be free from superfluity—the impulse had rung out faintly within her for years, like the occasional beep of a cell phone lost deep in an apartment. But it was muffled by the joys, the comforts, the dilemmas of everyday life as a happily married, welloff woman, a dedicated mother, generous hostess, a woman who seemed to those who knew her to be among the most gracious, the kindest, the loveliest, the most unpretentious and most reassuring ladies they had ever met.
Pippa returned to the dining room carrying the tray of crème brûlée. Herb wasn’t meant to have so many eggs and so much fat, but she figured that once in a while he should have what he loved, the way he always had, before the doctors caught up with him. Besides, Pippa loved giving pleasure, and every cook knows that lamb and crème brûlée elicit more sighs at the table than flounder and fruit salad. She watched as the guests broke through the little rinks of caramelized sugar with their spoons, bringing the thick, vanillascented cream into their mouths.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE. Copyright © 2008 by Rebecca Miller. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.