Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Carnegie Hill

A Novel

Jonathan Vatner

Thomas Dunne Books




Unsure of the proper attire for a co-op board meeting, Pepper decided to err on the side of stuffiness. She settled on a heather-gray skirt-suit with matching cloche, a raw-silk blouse, nude hose and heels, and a three-carat diamond choker that Rick had given her the past Valentine’s Day, two months after they met. He was possibly the most successful asset manager under forty in New York, and he loved to spend money on her. She didn’t need it, but she also didn’t mind it.

Pepper had been dressing up a lot lately. It was a shortcut to looking mature, even if she didn’t feel that way. Despite being on the verge of thirty-three, she still felt like a teenager on the inside. Maybe it was because she’d lived at home until a few months ago. Or because she’d never had a job that felt like a career. Or because she wasn’t married yet, unlike most of her friends, including her younger sister, Maisie. Or because she didn’t have sturdy opinions about politics and religion and everything else that people argued about. Or because she still used her parents’ credit card and resented them for giving her advice. She didn’t know how other people grew up; she was in therapy with Dr. Riffler to figure that out, but in almost three years, she’d gotten nowhere. She hoped that her new life with Rick in the Chelmsford Arms would speed things up.

Among the fears her mother had instilled in her—forgetting to wash off her makeup at night, eating more than a bite of dessert, airing too many opinions in mixed company—one of the biggest was the fear of arriving at a gathering empty-handed, so she perused the bottles in Rick’s commercial-grade wine refrigerator, his main contribution to their shared life. Even though he earned a good living as a wealth manager, his furniture had been a pastiche of sidewalk and Craigslist finds and the detritus of former roommates, and all his books were ragged and swollen as if they’d been laundered. But he invested in wine, sometimes spending thousands on a bottle at auction, and she liked scanning the labels in search of a tempting vintage. The whites were kept at forty-five degrees on the left-hand side, the reds at fifty-eight degrees on the right. Anything from the top two rows was for everyday drinking or hostess gifts. The middle rows were dedicated to a gradient of special occasions: holidays on top and birthdays toward the bottom. She’d never seen him open a bottle from the very bottom row, ancient Bordeaux with inscrutable, handwritten labels. Their musty secrecy gave her a chill.

Pepper chose a Sauvignon Blanc from the top row and ran it by Rick, who was drinking a chocolate protein shake one determined gulp at a time while replying to Facebook messages, probably from people he’d met once in person and then had become bosom buddies with online. He was kind to everyone: his two thousand Facebook “friends,” strangers in elevators and in restaurants, even telemarketers, panhandlers, and street poets. The truth was that his effusive friendliness often annoyed her. He couldn’t meet someone without trying to charm them.

“Okay if I take this to the meeting?” she asked, showing Rick the label.

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” he said. He was so handsome—a dark wave of smooth, gelled hair, powerful nose, dimpled chin—she could barely look at him without getting wobbly. He didn’t quite have the face of a model or actor, but diet and exercise, styling and attention to detail amplified his inborn gifts. For better or worse, he knew exactly how good he looked. “It’s like eating a pear off the tree, with just a hint of cat piss. They’re gonna splooge.”

“Maybe I should pick a different one, then—you know, save them the dry-cleaning bill.”

“They’re going to do it anyway when they see you. You look fucking amazing,” he said, and kissed her neck. She kissed his neck, too, and then they were making out in the middle of the kitchen. Part of her wanted to skip the meeting to make love; only when she met Rick did she discover that sex didn’t have to be a tepid, churning affair. But he’d still be in the mood when she got back. She could nudge him awake at three in the morning, and he’d be ready to go.

“Is the hat too much?” she asked, angling her face away. “I mean, I’m not leaving the building.”

“The hat makes the outfit. It says, ‘Bow before me, mortals.’” He palmed her butt.

“Perfect. I was going for Penelopia, Goddess of the Co-op.” Pepper’s given name was Penelope, but she didn’t feel quite mature enough to fill out such a roomy name. Since moving into the Chelmsford Arms, however, she’d been introducing herself with all four syllables. Her nickname was better suited to a little girl, or maybe a bunny.

Rick shook his fist. “Ruler of the Assessment and Creator of Bylaws.”

“Wielder of the Signatory Pen and the Construction Shovel.” She raised her arms over her head, untucking her blouse. She quickly tucked it back in.

“Your glory shines upon the preferred vendors.”

She kissed him one last time, touched up her lipstick, and headed for Patricia Cooper’s apartment ten minutes early, propelled by a gust of anticipation.

* * *

A rickety black woman in a white blouse answered the door and invited Pepper into the dining room.

“Are you Patricia?” Pepper asked.

The woman laughed and touched the back of her head, smoothing her straightened salt-and-pepper hair. “Oh, no. Isn’t that something!” She left the room.

The real Patricia, in an embroidered silk robe and burgundy velvet slippers, stood in the dining room, gripping a scroll-back upholstered chair with her clawlike hands. She had small, sharp eyes and a cloud of hair dyed reddish brown, and the way she angled her face downward reminded Pepper of her mother’s habitual glare. A chatty Pomeranian with a crazed smile danced a semicircle around Patricia.

“Ms. Bradford! You’re the first to arrive,” Patricia half exclaimed, speaking through her teeth as though her jaw were wired shut. She pried the wine from Pepper’s hands and clutched it to her chest. “Thank you, dear.”

“Am I too early?” She felt a lingering embarrassment about having mistaken that other woman, who was probably some kind of helper, for the president of the board.

“Not at all. The others will arrive shortly.” She motioned for Pepper to sit at the table, draped with an elegant white tablecloth, with seven clipboards set like place mats, and deposited the wine in her kitchen without offering to pour a glass. A well-stocked brass bar cart stood in the corner of the dining room, dust frosting the bottles.

“I’m pleased you’ve decided to join us,” Patricia said, wiping her hands against her thighs as though to clean off the evidence of absconding with the bottle. “We need more young people willing to stand up and represent the best interests of our storied building. It’s a vital job that must not be taken for granted.”

“Well, thank you for doing it.… How long have you been…?” She didn’t finish her question, fearing there was something unkind in asking it of such a spectacularly old woman.

“I’ve been president for twenty-two years. Before that, my husband, may he rest in peace, was president for fifteen.”

“Sounds like a dynasty.” Pepper raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t you forget it,” Patricia said with a mirthless laugh. “But to be serious for a moment, I care deeply about the Chelmsford Arms, and I am sure you will feel the same very soon.” She flicked out a heavy cream-colored business card from a pristine white wallet. It read PATRICIA K. COOPER, PRESIDENT, CHELMSFORD ARMS CORPORATION. Her phone number was embossed underneath. “You’ll find that I’m very easy to work with if you remember one thing: the Chelmsford Arms is a cooperative, which means we must all cooperate.” That sounded like a threat.

“Do we all get business cards?” Pepper asked, finding the card a little silly. When would Patricia find occasion to use it, except to brag about her volunteer title?

Patricia narrowed her eyes. “You’re a very funny young woman,” she said, and left the room. Her Pomeranian trotted after her.

* * *

Pepper’s friends had laughed when she told them that she was excited to join the co-op board at her new building. Everyone knew it was a thankless job mired in trivia, and the only people who joined those boards were retirees, cat ladies, and slimeballs angling for special favors. She didn’t care. This was her first apartment that her parents weren’t paying for, the place where she planned on raising her first child with Rick and where she would finally get her life on track, and she wanted to give herself some standing among her neighbors.

She had a good feeling about the building. The Chelmsford Arms had great bones, with high ceilings, elegant layouts, and generous floor plans, and there was very little turnover in the apartments, which meant residents liked it too much to leave. Also, she was falling in love with the neighborhood, Carnegie Hill. She’d grown up in Lenox Hill, also on the Upper East Side but farther south, a neighborhood with better restaurants and bars and more life on the streets. She would have chosen to live there had it not been polluted by proximity to her mother. Rick had pulled for Yorkville, a stone’s throw from the East River and a slightly faster commute to his office on Fifty-third Street, not to mention the promise of the Second Avenue subway line, which, if it ever opened, would improve real estate values. (She suspected that last item was the most appealing one for him.) Touring homes with their broker, though, she developed a special fondness for Carnegie Hill. It bordered Central Park and was within walking distance of several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art—where she and Rick first met, at a holiday benefit for which her mother had bought a ticket but wasn’t in the mood to attend. The leafy streets were quiet, the avenues stocked with charming little boutiques and cafés that were on no tourist’s radar. Carnegie Hill was also renowned for being an excellent place to raise children, home to some of the best schools in the nation. Walking its streets, hope for her future ached within her.

She had another, more practical reason for joining the co-op board: it might lead to a job prospect that wasn’t the same entry-level garbage she’d waded through for the first decade of her working life. Junior account coordinator. Editorial assistant. Legal assistant. Gallery assistant. After college, she’d gotten a job as a publicist for luxury handbag and jewelry brands, quitting six months in because her boss was the stupidest, most vapid woman she had ever met. Then she worked for three years as an assistant at Vanity Fair, garnering a spate of vicious performance reviews. When she followed orders, her boss told her to take initiative. When she took initiative, the woman called her insubordinate. Finally she realized she would never be promoted. The same well-bred last name that had landed her the job also painted her as too spoiled and stuck-up to deserve any real work. And the sad truth was, instead of weathering the abuse and fighting for more responsibility, she quit. No one but her cared if she didn’t have a job. Her parents kept dropping suggestions to try volunteering. “If you’re not paid, you can’t be fired,” her mother once said in her singsong way.

She made copies and organized files at her father’s law firm for a few months, until she was certain she didn’t want to go to law school. Then she answered the phone in her mother’s friend’s third-tier art gallery, specializing in photo-realistic oil paintings of the New York skyline, which to Pepper was basically pornography for tourists. She met Rick the day after she quit, which she took as a sign from the God she didn’t believe in that she’d made the right decision.

For her next job, she was determined to find something that she loved, something that could become a career. But the fact was, she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. She had no marketable skills, unless you counted witty banter and the ability to walk normally in four-inch heels. She did have good taste, which sometimes helped land her a job and always helped her lose it. She didn’t want to be one of those women whose identity was wholly composed of wifehood and motherhood, but at this point, if she could pull that off, it would be a come-from-behind victory.

In contrast, most of her friends were now “senior” this and “executive” that, or else their kids were already in school. Her best friend, Katt, ranked among the top hundred real estate brokers in the city. Maisie was an attorney and was married to an attorney, and any day now, a fleet of Rahul’s mighty sperm would find their way to her eggs, which surely ranked among the plumpest, most fertile eggs in history. Pepper basically liked herself, but when she thought about her life as a whole, she felt like a complete failure. At least the co-op board was something to distract her from the black hole of her achievements.

The board “election” had been puzzling, though. When she and Rick moved into their apartment in July, he left it up to her to appeal to the board for permission to renovate. It was a simple process, once she’d gotten the plans from the architect, and despite her parents’ warnings about having to dole out bribes to get anything done in New York, the approvals were granted promptly, months before the work was to begin. A few days after the renovation was approved, Patricia called her, explaining that a member of the board had stepped down “due to a health issue” and asking if she had any interest in “joining our little family.” She agreed.

Fifteen minutes later, an email arrived from one Douglas McAllahan, “head of the nominating committee of the Chelmsford Arms Corporation,” telling her she had been nominated to the position of board member. When she called him, asking how she should campaign, he laughed and said, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” She heard nothing for a few weeks and assumed she hadn’t won. But then Patricia called to congratulate her.

“Don’t tell me,” Pepper said. “I was running against myself.”

Patricia responded, “You were the best candidate for the job.”

* * *

At 7:25 P.M. the doorbell rang, and Patricia’s helper ushered in a short, frail gentleman in a brown tweed blazer and a Panama hat, which he removed upon entering. Wisps of white hair floated above his head like snowfall, and he carried a dignified air as though he might drop it.

“Letitia, my friend!” the old man said, touching the black woman on the arm. “How has life been treating you?”

“The doctors say I have the heart of a teenager,” Letitia replied with a forceful nod. “How are you? And how is lovely Carol?”

“I’m well. And who can really say with her? She’s indestructible, impenetrable, inscrutable. But she’ll be pleased that you asked.”

“Always nice to see you, Francis,” she said before sliding out of the room. Her bland, vaguely southern manner, and the fact that her sole purpose at this meeting was to open the front door and then vanish, seemed inexplicably hilarious to Pepper, and she snickered.

“What is it?” Francis asked, laughing as if he got the joke. “Did I say something funny?”

“No, it’s … I can’t explain it. I’m Pepper … I mean Penelope Bradford.”

“Of course. I’m Francis Levy.” They shook hands. “You come from quite a family.”

“So I’m told,” she muttered. Though she understood how lucky she was to have money and standing, she bristled when people fawned over her name. She didn’t want to be a novelty, because people who saw her that way never took her seriously.

“I’m sorry if I sounded starstruck,” Francis said. “What matters is that you’re not a minion of the Czarina.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Empress Pat. The Czarina. The Duchess of Carnegie Hill. Whatever you want to call her. She rules with an iron fist.”

She smiled. “I like you already, Francis.” She picked up a bottle of Hennessy from the bar cart and swirled the copper-colored liquid. “Do you think the Czarina will mind if I help myself?”

“That bar cart has been left out at every meeting, but in the thirty-seven years I have served on this board, none of us has been offered a single glass.” He didn’t bother whispering, which put Pepper on edge.

She put the bottle down, and the bar cart tottered, clinking amiably. “Anything else I should know before I come off looking like an idiot?” she asked quietly, scanning the room for a napkin to clean her hands of the sticky dust from the bottle. She resorted to rubbing the edge of the tablecloth between her fingers.

Francis hung his blazer over a chair and sat down. “You’re a perceptive young woman. Let’s see … Patricia Korngold Cooper’s rules of order…”


“Her maiden name. We Jews are legion in this building, though some of us have, shall we say, redecorated our last names. So I take it upon myself to remind her.” Again, he didn’t lower his voice. “As for the rules: we are allowed in this room and the foyer, nowhere else. If you must go to the bathroom, use Letitia’s, off the foyer.”

“So she has to use a separate bathroom?” she whispered, glancing around to make sure no one else could hear.

Francis stifled a laugh. “It’s not like that. Letitia can use whatever bathroom she wants. But she lives here—it’s the bathroom closest to her bedroom.”

“And what exactly is her role?”

“She’s Patricia’s maid.”

“And she answers the door? Isn’t that a little strange?”

Apparently, Francis didn’t find it strange. “I’m sure if she didn’t want to, she wouldn’t have to. She’s worked for the Coopers for her entire adult life—at least fifty years. At this point, she’s practically family.”

That made sense to Pepper, she supposed. Her parents had used the same housekeeper every week for most of Pepper’s life, and though she didn’t quite love Virginia, the woman did feel to Pepper like an aunt. She wondered, though, if Katt would have raised a stink about Patricia’s maid answering the door. Pepper was raised not to discuss sensitive topics with strangers, but Katt called out injustice wherever she saw it, even if it wasn’t there. She constantly posted outrage-inducing articles on Facebook and chaired fund-raisers for Amnesty International when she wasn’t showing a town house to a sultan or a magnate.

When Pepper had told Katt that she was thinking of moving into the Chelmsford Arms, her friend had been a little surprised, because the building was known among real estate brokers for being the whitest co-op in Carnegie Hill. That hadn’t seemed like a reason not to live there, though since she’d moved in, she had noticed that the only nonwhite people were the staff. Even in her family’s small building on Seventy-first and Park, where she had lived the first thirty-two years of her life, there had been a black family, the Thompsons.

“What else?” Pepper asked.

Francis lifted the edge of the tablecloth, revealing a fine table covered in leather padding. “Board members must not write directly on the dining table, even with the protective padding. We write on the clipboards. Patricia’s precious table was crafted by Duncan Phyfe himself and must never be touched by another human hand. You must never pet Helen of Troy—her obnoxious dog. We drink water from the tap, not her precious Mountain Valley Spring Water, the only kind that passes her lips. Oh, and we must always agree with her. But that goes without saying.” He smiled giddily. “That’s about it. The rest is in the bylaws. Be sure to read them, by the by. Those who know the bylaws hold all the cards.” The thick pamphlet of the co-op’s bylaws had been left on her doormat the day after she was elected to the board, and she had skimmed them and absorbed nothing. Maybe she would take another look.

“And if we break the rules?” she asked.

“You won’t be nominated again when your term is over. She directs the nominating committee. In secret, of course.”

“Is that what happened to my predecessor? Patricia said he had a ‘health issue.’”

“No, Elizabeth had overian cancer, and she stepped down in July.” Francis looked crestfallen, and Pepper apologized for crossing a line she hadn’t known was there.

“The truth about the Chelmsford Arms is that we’re an aging community, the oldest in Carnegie Hill,” said Francis. “Our apartments are undervalued, because most wealthy people don’t want to live in a NORC—a naturally occurring retirement community. Which is why everyone here is so excited that you’ve joined the board. We’re hoping you can help attract young families to the building.”

Suddenly her unopposed election to the board made sense. She didn’t love being the token young person, and she wondered how she and Rick hadn’t noticed that they were buying a home in a NORC in the middle of a neighborhood known for its young families. Already her dream of reinvention was beginning to tarnish. On the other hand, if attracting young families would bring more friends for her and Rick, and more children to play with her future children, that seemed worth her effort. Maybe the building, like their apartment, was a fixer-upper.

Patricia’s gilded mantel clock chimed 7:30, and the doorbell rang a few seconds later. All four remaining board members flushed in, as if they had been huddled in the hallway, unwilling to spend an unnecessary second in Patricia’s lair.

As Letitia filled seven water glasses, using, as Francis had promised, a separate green glass bottle for what had to be Patricia’s seat at the head of the table, Pepper weathered a flurry of introductions and handshakes. Chess Kimball, secretary of the board, was a straight-backed financier in his sixties with a pink-and-brown bowtie and not a hair out of place, and who seemed to indicate pleasure by frowning and displeasure with a pained smile. Ardith Delano-Roux was a friendly golden-haired dame whose apparent plastic surgery addiction made it hard for Pepper to shake her hand or look her in the eye. The board treasurer, Dougie McAllahan, a stocky, bald real estate developer in a rumpled blue suit, had big lips like a duck’s bill, a gray soul patch, a diamond stud in his left earlobe, and bulging eyes that made frequent pilgrimage to her breasts. Only after he sat down did she notice that the tendrils of hair encircling his gleaming scalp were gathered into a scraggly ponytail, at which point she understood that he was not married, because no woman would have let him get away with such an appalling hairstyle.

Birdie Hirsch, her next-door neighbor, greeted Pepper last with a sprightly kiss on each cheek. She was wearing an A-line Mondrian dress that suited her perfectly. Pepper couldn’t think of any other sixty-something woman who could pull off such a short hemline, but Birdie possessed the spirit of a twenty-year-old. She was a tiny, sparrowlike woman—the nickname was apt—with the light twang of a French Canadian and boundless energy and an easy laugh. She was a phenomenal cook, unflappably cheerful: the consummate hostess. Her husband, George, was a gentle giant, with a brick of a jaw and more hair than a man in his sixties had any right to. The day after she and Rick moved in, George and Birdie showed up with an ethereal coconut cream pie and regaled them with memories of their years living in Montreal, the kind of memories Pepper was looking forward to creating with Rick.

“I’m getting a double dose of Birdie tonight,” Pepper said, as they had dinner plans for after the meeting.

“I’ve been looking forward to it all day.” Everything Birdie said was either an exclamation or a whispered confession; this was the latter.

At last Patricia returned from hiding, having made up her face and put in pearl earrings, and descended into her chair at the head of the table. Helen of Troy scrambled into her lap, spun around twice, and fell asleep.

“Welcome, all. I hope your Labor Days and whatnot were pleasant enough. Today I’m pleased to introduce our newest member, Ms. Penelope Bradford, daughter of Lewis Bradford, Jr., and Claudia Lindbergh Bradford. Needless to say, we are pleased that she and her fiancé chose to make their home together in our special little building.”

Pepper smiled bashfully. The building was hardly “little”—it took up half the block, and there had to be at least a hundred apartments. But of course Patricia wasn’t speaking literally.

“Welcome, Penelope!” said Ardith, reaching across the table with her liver-spotted hands and touching Pepper on the fingers. Pepper made an effort not to recoil. The woman looked like an alien: translucent skin, inflated lips, and deep-set cat eyes. “What a joy to have another young person on the board, not like these old farts.” She laughed, and Pepper wondered if she considered herself young or if that was part of the joke.

“Our first order of business,” Patricia said, reaching into her soft, faded leather briefcase to withdraw a greeting card, “is to honor Elizabeth, who lost her valiant battle with ovarian cancer last week. I bought this sympathy card for her family.” She gave it to Chess to sign. “The funeral is on Friday, and I think it would be only right to send a bouquet of flowers. All in favor?”

Everybody raised their hands. Pepper, surprised that a vote could happen without warning or circumstance, and not positive she was allowed to weigh in before some kind of swearing-in ceremony, raised her hand last.

“Then I take it no one is opposed. I took the liberty of asking Dougie to look into floral pricing, assuming you would all be in agreement. Dougie, what did you find?”

He removed a folded paper from his pocket. “From Madison Florists, funeral arrangements start at three twenty-nine.”

“They can’t cut us a break, after all the business we’ve given them?” Patricia asked.

“They do the lobby arrangements,” Birdie whispered to Pepper.

“They’re ghastly,” Ardith breathed. “The owner is certifiably color-blind.”

“They’re the premier florist in Carnegie Hill,” Patricia said.

“That appraisal seems biased at best,” grumbled Francis.

Dougie continued, “A website called ProFlowers could do the same bouquet for ninety-nine.”

Patricia thought about this. “Why don’t we spend something like one forty-nine at ProFlowers? We don’t want to seem cheap. Especially since her funeral is at Campbell’s.”

“I was there in July for my ex-husband’s ex-wife, and you could barely get in, those bouquets were so big,” Ardith told Pepper. “When I got home, I found rose petals stuck to my derriere!”

Birdie and Dougie laughed, Chess and Patricia did not, and Francis stared at his clipboard with a show of patience. Pepper smiled, a compromise between laughing and not laughing, so as to alienate the fewest people, and raised her hand. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but my aunt owns a flower studio a block from Campbell’s—it’s called Floresce—and I can tell you, you’re much better off with a local shop. Anything that needs to be sent through the mail is going to die before the funeral begins.”

“Does this aunt of yours do funeral arrangements, Penelope?” Birdie asked as she signed the card.

“All the time,” she said, happy to have found a way to contribute. “And she sources her flowers from an organic farm in Ecuador and designs each bouquet individually. It’s guaranteed to be tasteful.”

“Organic sounds nice,” Birdie said.

“It’s hard to argue with one forty-nine,” said Chess, “especially since our main retail space is still empty.”

“The woman died at forty-seven,” Francis said. “She had intractable pain for the last three months of her life. And now her two teenage sons are going to grow up without a mother. So, please, let’s not buy flowers that are going to wilt before the funeral.”

“Francis, we know,” Dougie said, gently.

Pepper took the card and wrote, “My heartfelt condolences for your loss” in small, tidy cursive in a tract of blank space. Then Francis took the card and began to write.

Smiling clearly did not come naturally to Patricia, and it made her look like a cross between a child and a madwoman. “Here’s what I think. Ms. Bradford, if your aunt owns the shop, then it seems to me that you have a conflict of interest, and you should recuse yourself from this matter. Being a member of the board does not give you the right to hand out favors to family and friends. We are a serious organization with a strict ethical code.”

A blistering heat billowed up into Pepper’s face as shame tugged downward into her belly. It was the same impotent rage she often felt toward her mother, fury that ended in obedience as if she were restrained by a choke chain.

“Now, Francis,” Patricia continued, “we will mark your objection. Unless anyone else objects, we will go with ProFlowers.” She raised her eyebrows at everyone in turn, as if challenging them to object.

Dougie opened the card. “Christ, Francis, write a book, why don’t you.”

“What I had to say couldn’t be reduced to a prepackaged sentiment,” Francis said.

“All the good sayings are taken. ‘Deepest sympathy.’ ‘My heartfelt condolences.’ ‘You are in my thoughts.’ What the hell am I supposed to write?”

“‘You’re in my prayers’?” Ardith offered.

“But I’m an atheist.”

“Atheists can pray, too.” Her eyes widened, but the rest of her face remained dead. Pepper wasn’t sure what expression she was attempting.

“How about, ‘You are loved’?” Francis said.

“They’ll think I’m some kind of fairy.”

Francis stiffened. “You asked for suggestions.”

“I’ve got it,” Dougie said. “‘She’s in a better place now.’”

“I doubt her husband and children would agree with that,” Francis said, examining his fingernails, which were clean and trim.

“‘Everything happens for a reason’?” Birdie offered.

“You might as well tell them she deserved to die.”

Pepper saw that Francis was right, if a little harsh.

Dougie thought for a moment longer and said, “‘My profound condolences.’ Wait, is it ‘on your loss’ or ‘for your loss’? Or ‘on the occasion of your loss’?”

“‘For,’ I think,” said Chess.

He stuffed the card into the envelope and tossed it in front of Patricia. “Next time, I sign first.”

Patricia put the card away and tightened both her robe and her squint. “Moving on. We have two applications for the purchase of apartments. Let’s do the easier one first. This is from good old Cliff Barron in 6C. He wants to buy 6B from Mona Frickendorf, a three-bedroom for three-point-eight million. Cliff and Lorna are setting up a place for their children, who will be coming home from college within the next few years. He also put in a request to combine the two apartments once the sale goes through—the plans are enclosed. I thought you all might enjoy reviewing his current financials.”

Patricia passed a three-ring binder to each board member. Dougie opened his first and guffawed. “No, I don’t think it will be much of an issue. Prequalified!” This woke Helen of Troy, who hopped onto the table and pawed at the tablecloth until Patricia, by means of kissing sounds and hand motions, managed to coax it back into her lap.

Birdie shook her head as she flipped through her binder. “He’s a serial CEO,” she whispered to Pepper. “No one needs this much money.”

“Are we going to let him combine apartments, just like that?” Francis asked. “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea, Patricia.”

“We can’t have too many five-and six-bedroom apartments,” Chess said. “They attract the wealthy families that are coming to Carnegie Hill in droves.”

“What happens if the economy turns again and those apartments go vacant?” Francis asked. “Who’s going to be able to afford the maintenance on six bedrooms? What is that, twelve thousand a month?”

Finally, Pepper opened her binder. The first page of the application listed Mr. Barron’s monthly net income, after projected maintenance fees and other expenses were taken out: $1.1 million. On the second page, his total assets: $184 million. Pepper felt as if she’d seen him naked. Was this how they’d talked about her and Rick when they sent in their board package? She flipped through the rest of the pages, past his tax returns, his bank statements, and dozens of pages of various other statements for all his holdings. It was like watching a vivisection. She desperately wanted a glass of wine and was no longer amused that Patricia hadn’t opened the bottle she’d brought. She eyed the bar cart; maybe it would be okay to ask for a splash of something.

“The relevant numbers are in the first few pages,” Patricia said to Pepper.

“I can see that,” she snapped.

After everyone had digested the data, Patricia called a vote, and everyone, including Francis, approved the transaction. Pepper raised her hand, too, though she couldn’t have cared less whether or not this sale went through. Lots of New Yorkers seemed to Pepper like overgrown children playing Monopoly. She’d gotten herself excited about the board, but now she wondered if her position should have been given to someone who worshipped money.

Patricia picked up another stack of binders. “Let’s discuss the other applicant. A markedly different story. Tiffany White is a single woman of thirty-eight years, looking at 2H, a modest one-bedroom for one-point-six million.”

Chess shivered. “The H line.”

“It’s north-facing,” Dougie explained to Pepper. “Those lower floors are like a dungeon.”

Pepper and Rick’s apartment, 12G, faced northeast and swallowed oceans of light in the mornings but was dark the rest of the day. It occurred to her that people might shiver at that line, too.

“She does come with a glowing reference from none other than the Drs. Hightower, but I’ll let the financials speak for themselves.”

“The Hightowers are marquee shareholders in the building,” Francis explained. “They’re pediatric oncologists at Mount Sinai.”

Chess frowned as he flipped pages. “What does this woman do?”

“She’s a bookkeeper.” A grin crept into Patricia’s lips. “I believe she came into a small inheritance. And I do mean small.

“A bookkeeper!” Dougie shouted, red-faced. “What’s next, a Walmart greeter?” Everyone laughed except Francis. This time, Pepper knew not to laugh.

“The Hightowers think she’s God’s gift to mankind,” Chess observed. “I see she used to work for them.”

“She has a dachshund,” said Patricia as if she’d smelled something rancid.

“They have the most minuscule bladders,” Ardith said. “That little rat dog will be doing its business all over the lobby rugs.”

“Especially if she has to walk all the way from the H line!” Dougie said with a chortle that flung a worm of saliva onto the table.

“Who was in 2H before?” asked Birdie, flipping through the binder.

“It was Maria Ferrazzi,” Francis replied. “Heart attack. Her family stopped talking to her after she refused to go into a home. Nobody found her until after she’d begun to decompose. The neighbors were complaining of the smell.”

“Please, Francis,” Chess said.

“I’m just giving you the facts.”

Whether Francis loved death or hated it, it was a strange obsession, maybe a kind of thrill. Pepper had to be careful around unhappy people: she could pick up their misery like a cold.

She opened the binder reluctantly. The two magic numbers were Tiffany’s $3,400 net monthly income and $2.5 million in assets, enough to buy the apartment in cash and have plenty left over, and more than Rick had in savings, to be honest. She flipped further into her board package, past the financial statements to the copious reference letters. Her pastor at an AME church, Crystal Burton, wrote in glowing terms about Tiffany’s generosity and faith. So this woman was black. She also lived in Harlem. Maybe it was the presence of Patricia’s maid, now dusting an urn in the living room—did the woman really have to clean at night?—or the way they were laughing about Tiffany, but Pepper understood that the absence of minorities in the building was no accident. Sitting around Patricia’s table, letting this nasty shrew boss her around like her mother did, this evidence of unfairness bothered her in a way such things never had before.

“Do we even need to vote?” Dougie asked, smirking.

“She can easily afford the maintenance,” Francis said. “I don’t see what you’re insinuating. I’d like to meet her.”

“She’s not secure,” Patricia said. “We can’t accept people who aren’t sure bets.”

“And why is she not secure?” Francis asked.

“Because her income isn’t high enough. She’d spend almost half of it on maintenance.”

“What’s your income, Patricia?” Birdie asked.

Pepper nearly gasped at Birdie’s boldness. Growing up, money was not discussed, along with politics and religion. But no one else around the table seemed alarmed. After a moment, Patricia said, “I assure you, I can afford to stay as long as I wish.”

“Birdie,” Chess said, “she doesn’t make enough to live here.”

“I think we should bring her in,” Pepper said, mostly to defy Patricia. “You guys were saying you want younger people in this building. She seems ideal to me.”

Patricia clapped twice to quiet the room; it felt like a personal reprimand. Helen of Troy stirred and nestled deeper into her lap. “We have a responsibility to our shareholders not to endanger the building’s value. Her postclosing reserves are, to put it charitably, wanting. If our maintenance costs increase, or if, God forbid, we need to levy an assessment, she would be broke in no time. We must be conservative with our decisions. Although I’m sure she’s a very nice person, I can’t in good conscience recommend that we accept her.”

“Can’t we give her a little leeway, because she’s, you know, African American?” Pepper asked.

Francis widened his eyes at her, either in surprise or warning.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant, dear,” Patricia said, and Pepper felt as if she’d been slapped. “We make decisions strictly on numbers and reputation. It is patently illegal to discuss any protected class in this setting. Now, all in favor of accepting Ms. White’s petition … based on her financials and references alone?”

Birdie and Pepper raised their hands. Francis smiled feebly at Pepper and raised his too.

“Francis, I thought better of you,” Patricia said. “All opposed?”

The other hands went up.

“Four to three,” Patricia said. “Sorry, Ms. White. Moving on—”

“So that’s it?” Pepper asked. “No more discussion?”

Patricia slid her glasses down her nose and glared at Pepper. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as a bleeding heart.”

Bile lapped at Pepper’s throat. “I’m not.”

Patricia arched her eyebrows and glared at Pepper exactly as Claudia Bradford did in her cruelest moments. “Don’t worry; we don’t discriminate based on political inclination. We simply need to maintain hard heads when sorting through the applicants. I think I speak for all of us when I say we would like to improve our building’s diversity. But that doesn’t mean we can bring in just anyone off the street. We have a serious responsibility to our shareholders to keep our property values going up, Ms. Bradford.”

Pepper understood that Patricia had no use for a Penelope, only a Ms. Bradford—“daughter of Lewis Bradford, Jr., and Claudia Lindbergh Bradford”—if she was to increase the building’s value. She wondered if all of them, even Francis, saw her as a “marquee shareholder.” She was being used, and she felt foolish for not seeing it before. Her anger made her hyper-aware of the untouchable table in front of her, penning her in, and the untouchable bar cart, leering from the corner. If she didn’t get up, she thought she might burst.

Bearing the blunt gaze of the entire board, she pushed back her chair, took four long steps to the bar cart, picked up the bottle of Hennessy, and filled a glass to the top, splashing a little on the oriental rug. Francis grinned wickedly. Pepper sat down, crossed her legs, and took a dainty sip. The room was silent except for the ticking of Patricia’s mantel clock. Inside Pepper’s head, she was screaming.

* * *

Pepper rushed out of Patricia’s apartment the second the meeting ended. Unwilling to stand in the elevator with any of those monsters, she hurried down the stairs and through the lobby toward the back elevator bank. She didn’t even want to talk to Birdie.

“Penelope!” Francis called, catching up to her as she waited for an elevator. “Just a moment!”

She spun toward him, dizzy from the alcohol. “What do you people want from me?” He recoiled like a street urchin, and she regretted snapping at him. He was, after all, a decent man.

“You were brilliant! I’ve been longing for that to happen for years.”

“One more minute and I really think I would have stabbed her.”

“It’s all very funny, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t find it funny at all.”

“You will. There’s a certain comical repetition you’ll grow to appreciate. Especially if you read Kafka.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of other people who would have a great time being reprimanded by that horrible woman.”

They stepped into the elevator. Francis pressed 5 for himself and 12 for her. She didn’t like that all of them—maybe the entire building—knew where she lived. She felt nauseatingly visible.

“I know, she’s monstrous,” Francis said. “And Chess and Dougie, too. But you have to stay. It’s vital that we build a constituency of real, feeling human beings, or else the building will fall to the plutocrats.”

“I’m sorry, but the whole thing makes me sick.”

The doors opened at Francis’s floor, and he stood with one foot in the elevator, the other in the hall. “I’ll put all my cards on the table. You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone, but I am building a coalition to oust her. Elections are in January. Please say you’ll stay until then. I need you.”

He looked desperate. It would have been easy just to quit the board and avoid Patricia. But she didn’t want to give up on a potentially meaningful role just because a venomous old biddy bossed her around. Her whole adult life, she’d dropped jobs and boyfriends the minute she faced the slightest obstacle. Here was a chance to see something through. “I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you!” His shaking hands reached halfway toward her, as though he wanted to embrace her but didn’t have the courage. He stepped out, and the doors closed between them.

When she shut her eyes, the abrupt whirl from the cognac nearly thrust her to the floor. And still she had to rally through dinner with the Hirsches.

* * *

Pepper admired Rick’s silhouetted profile as he drove through the long, tidy colonnade of prestige buildings on Park Avenue. She knew she was pretty enough to get by—she was slim with long, blond hair and big green eyes—but her friends agreed he was in a league unto himself. Part of her feared that he’d wise up and leave her, but he felt like her soul mate, to the extent that she believed in fated love. Birdie and George made marriage look easy; Pepper’s parents, on the other hand, had never fought when Pepper was a child, but they divorced the minute Maisie graduated from college, as though they’d planned it for years and kept it secret. Mostly Pepper felt relief when she looked at Rick, that she had found the right person before she was too old to have children. Claudia had once let it drop that when you tried to have a baby after you turned thirty-five, doctors called it a “geriatric pregnancy.” Pepper had wasted her most fertile years at rooftop parties, on vacations to trendy islands, and in a series of miserable jobs and four long-term relationships whose breakups were predictable to everyone but her. Even if she got pregnant on the honeymoon, she’d be thirty-four when she gave birth. That sounded old.

“How did the wine go over?” Rick asked.

“The president liked it so much she kept it,” she said. “Maybe she thought it was some kind of bribe?”

“I’m sure she thought it was a gift,” Birdie said from the backseat. “She thinks the world should be kissing her rump for the work she does.”

“I did wonder how seven people were going to split one bottle,” Pepper said. “I’d assumed everyone would bring something and we’d have a little picnic.”

Birdie chuckled at that.

“Babe, you must have had something,” Rick said, glancing at her. “I can smell it on you.”

“I helped myself to some of her cognac.” She hadn’t meant to down the whole glass, but she’d needed to distract herself from her anger. “I think it may have upset Empress Pat.” She giggled, finding it hard to stop.

“It was certainly bold,” said Birdie, who clearly didn’t approve of Pepper’s appropriation of the bar cart.

“I don’t get it,” Rick said. “What happened?”

She twisted in her seat to address all of them at once. George couldn’t fit in the back seat without having to hunch, in stark contrast to his wife, who could have ridden in his pocket. “There was a nice single lady who wanted to buy an apartment,” Pepper said, “and everybody was pretending that they were deciding based on her ‘financials,’ but I’m pretty sure they rejected her because she’s black.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rick said.

“Well, it surprised me,” she said. “I mean, they were pretty bad.”

“I assumed they were rejecting her because she was single,” Birdie said. “But I agree with you, Penelope—I didn’t like the way they were talking about her.”

“Single people were always red flags,” George said, staring out the window. He had served on the co-op board for decades; Birdie had recently taken his seat for a reason they didn’t specify.

He’d been sullen all night; Pepper told herself that he was probably just a gloomy person, and that she wasn’t to blame.

“With minorities, it was just that the few applicants we got were never good,” he said.

Considering how Tiffany’s application had been dismissed, Pepper wondered if some of the minority applicants weren’t as bad as he thought.

“George, tell Penelope some of your stories about those buffoons,” Birdie said. “Didn’t one of Dougie McAllahan’s friends-for-hire walk in on a meeting once?”

George grunted. “That was decades ago.”

“Come on, George, you’re such a wonderful storyteller. Tell us what happened.”

He glared at her. “Why don’t you tell that one, since you love it so much?”

She widened her eyes at Pepper, as if to say, “Look what I have to put up with,” and Pepper realized that they had wandered into a fight. She turned to face forward in her seat.

“It was a college boy dressed up as a girl,” Birdie said. “Dougie likes every dish in the buffet: boys that look like girls, girls that look like boys, boys on leashes, twins, you name it.”

“Really?” Pepper asked. “He seemed so … conventional.”

“We put up good appearances, don’t we? Dougie was caught in bed with a fifteen-year-old girl once and nearly went to prison. But a few million dollars later, the girl’s family forgot it ever happened. I’m not sure that girl ever forgot, though.” She sighed.

“But as for the board meeting,” Birdie continued, with a vehemence that implied a habit of forgetting to finish her stories, “this young hustler gets the time wrong for the appointment, and Dougie’s chef thinks he’s an intern, a girl intern, and sends him to the board meeting! The boy comes in and says in this squeaky voice, ‘I’m looking for Sir Douglas?’ And Dougie gently escorts him out and plays him off as a nephew. But here’s the best part. When Patricia starts up the meeting again, the first thing out of her mouth is about not wanting to ‘deviant from the agenda’!” Everyone but George laughed. It gave Pepper some satisfaction to know that Dougie had been humiliated.

“I’m not sure it happened exactly like that,” said George.

“Then why don’t you tell it next time?” Birdie snapped.

They fell silent. Pepper watched Rick’s big, confident hands turn the steering wheel onto Fifty-eighth Street and up to the curb of the restaurant. He gave the keys to the valet, slipping him a twenty and asking him to take special care of the car; he leased a new BMW every other year and was anxious about the slightest nick. Pepper got out of the car and wobbled upright, her vision swimming.

The restaurant took up three stories of a well-kept town house that could have been someone’s home. There was no sign that it was a restaurant at all, not the name on the door or a menu in the window, and yet the city’s gourmands had descended upon the place like cats hearing the can opener. Birdie had wanted to try it because it had received a three-star review in The New York Times—she had eaten at every three- and four-star restaurant in the city since 1988 and didn’t want to break her streak. It had been nearly impossible to book a table, though; after six Mondays of calling at noon on the dot, she had only managed to squeeze them in at nine thirty on a Tuesday.

The interior was decorated like a farmhouse, with exposed raw-wood beams in the ceiling and bundles of twigs hanging from the walls and sprouting out of human-sized urns. A taxidermic bear head looked out, panic-stricken, on the dining room, above a hearth with a crackling fire. Servers in black T-shirts and jeans raced along the invisible grid between tables like well-mannered robots. Grandeur was passé, Pepper knew. Foodies didn’t want marble columns or gilded chargers; they wanted to experience life on a farm—without having to till a field or birth a goat, of course.

“Welcome,” the slender, motherly maître d’ said with warmth but no enthusiasm, all alertness and control.

Their table wasn’t ready, so they squeezed in at the bar, made from a tree trunk cut in half lengthwise and lacquered to a high shine. Birdie had been excited to try a cocktail with anise hyssop, lavender, and gin; George ordered a Tom Collins; Rick asked for a single-malt Scotch, neat; and Pepper, afraid to drink any more that night, ordered a Pellegrino.

While the bartender juggled bottle, shaker, and soda gun, Pepper’s eye was drawn toward a sharply dressed black couple in their fifties who had just walked in. The man’s mustache covered a wide upper lip, and the woman had long, straightened hair and wore sparkly green eye shadow. The man took off his trilby and, unbuttoning his coat, said to the maître d’, “Two for dinner.” He must not have realized that one couldn’t just walk into a happening restaurant and expect to be served, even on a Tuesday night. Maybe they were tourists. Pepper moved closer so that she could hear.

The maître d’ smiled empathically. “I’m sorry, but we have no availability at all tonight. We do leave our bar area open to walk-ins, and you’re welcome to wait as long as you like, but I don’t foresee anything opening up there, either. It tends to get even more crowded as the night goes on, unfortunately.”

The man looked around the restaurant. “I see open tables everywhere. Can’t we sit at one of those? We’ll be in and out.”

“I’m afraid those are reserved for our ten and ten-thirty seatings,” she said. “I’d be happy to recommend a few places nearby, if you’d like.”

It bothered Pepper that not one other black person was in the restaurant, neither patron nor employee. The servers were all white, the busboys Hispanic. When she was a child, her mother had told her that minorities avoided this part of the Upper East Side because they wanted to live with “their own,” and Pepper had passively believed that. But after sitting around Patricia’s table and watching them reject a worthy black applicant, she felt complicit in something ugly.

The Cognac reached up to her brain and gave it a spin.

“We’ll be leaving the bar in a minute,” Pepper said to the black man. “I think you guys could squeeze in.”

He looked at his wife, or maybe girlfriend, and shrugged. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s very kind.”

She led them over to the bar, her hope draining away. The crowd was two and three people deep, and only three placemats were set out for diners, all of whom had their check. Even if the bartender served the couple, they’d be crowded the whole time. “Can we make some space for these folks?” she asked Rick. “They couldn’t get a table.”

“Uhh, sure,” Rick said, stepping away from the bar with his Scotch and handing a slim glass of sparkling water to Pepper.

“You have to call Monday at noon, and keep trying until you reach someone,” Birdie told the black couple. “That’s the only way.”

“We didn’t think it’d be a problem if we came late enough,” the woman said, crossing her arms tightly. She made a helpless face at her husband.

As soon as George and Birdie evacuated the bar, others flooded in to take their places. Pepper couldn’t very well stand there like Moses parting the Red Sea, but it upset her that these people wouldn’t get to eat at the restaurant. The alcohol was rumbling in her belly and filling her head with squishy heat.

She approached the maître d’. “Hi, sorry to bother you, but I couldn’t help overhearing that you couldn’t seat these nice people. I know you have an extra table in there somewhere in case a VIP walks in, and probably two more because people ate faster than you expected. Can’t you make an exception?”

If the maître d’ was annoyed, she hid it expertly. She let out an art-gallery laugh. “My waiting list is twenty names long. If I squeezed in these fine citizens, it wouldn’t be fair to any of the people who were here before.” She addressed the black man, who now seemed anxious to leave. “If you show up at five sharp any day but Saturday, you’ll very likely get a quiet meal at the bar. I regret that it’s not possible tonight, but I hope you’ll come back soon.”

The couple approached the door and fastened their coats.

“Maybe I can convince our friends to give you our table,” Pepper said.

“That’s very kind,” the man said, “but we couldn’t accept that.”

“Can I at least buy you a drink? They have really interesting cocktails.”

The man’s face held a combination of annoyance and fatigue. “Have a nice night.” The two of them left.

She could feel Rick touching the small of her back, trying to help her through whatever disaster she’d cultivated. “You have a beautiful heart,” he whispered.

The maître d’ hugged four oversized menus to her chest. “Hirsch, party of four? Right this way.” She pivoted and strode into the dining room.

They walked past diners regaling one another with stories, past plates of meat and fish, past the fire, its embers breathing light and dark, and Pepper began to cry. In came a familiar loneliness as old as she was, maybe older. Her mother scolding her for her curiosity. Her sister in her own world, incapable of understanding Pepper’s mute sorrow. She hated herself for being so breakable.

The maître d’ ushered them to a table in the center of the room, crowded with a precise topography of napkins, silverware, chargers, and glasses. She pulled out a chair for Birdie and helped her push it back in, then did the same for Pepper. She presented everyone an open menu and said, with her trademark smile that gave nothing away and let nothing in, “I do hope you enjoy our fall menu. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can provide.” Then she walked away, and Birdie raised her glass for the first toast of the night.

Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Vatner