The Body in the Cast
Hollywood has come to town -- and Faith Fairchild has to feed it! Hired to cater meals for the movie crew that is filming a modern-day version of The Scarlet Letter in the tiny New England village of Aleford, Faith is eager to treat the talented tantrum-throwers to the best of her culinary delights. But an accusation that her famous Black Bean Soup is poison has left a bad taste in Faith's mouth. Her exploration into the source of the nasty slander leads the amateur investigator behind the scenes to a shocking off-camera murder. And suddely more than Faith's reputation is at stake -- her life itself could end up on the cutting room floor.
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October 14, 1993
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Excerpt from The Body in the Cast by Katherine Hall Page
The Body in the Cast
The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import.
Aleford, Massachusetts, was reeling--literally. Not only was an actual Hollywood movie crew in town filming a modern version of The Scarlet Letter but Walter Wetherell had abruptly resigned from the Board of Selectmen, igniting a fierce three-way contest for the vacant seat.
And, as if these were not enough, Town Meeting was in session, with all its attendant intrigue: loyalties and grudges handed down from one generation to the next; back-room political maneuvers; and immediate front-room protests. Never before had the dismally bleak month of March seemed so bright. March--when the possibility of a crisp white snowfall was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as another tax increase from Beacon Hill. March--when only the young, or perennially foolish, talked about smelling spring in the air and the imminent arrival of daffodils. March--whether accompanied by lions or lambs, a month to get through.
Over at the First Parish parsonage, the Reverend Thomas Fairchild and his wife, Faith, were adapting themselves to thenewest member of their family, Amy Elisabeth. It had been Baby Girl Fairchild for about twenty-four hours following her birth the previous September as Tom and Faith battled it out, albeit with velvet gloves. Faith had counted on a dramatic pose in the hospital bed, fresh from her labor, to win the day. It didn't. She was forced to give in on Sophie, with all its sweet little French schoolgirl connotations, but rallied to demand that Tom abandon Marian, after his mother. A nice woman, to be sure, yet what would Faith's own mother, Jane, have to say? The remote and absurd possibility that Faith might be forced to have another baby to keep both grandmothers happy had presented a singularly grueling specter at the moment. For a while, it appeared agreement might be reached on Victoria, or Victoire (Faith persisted), but both parents eventually concurred that it might not be clear whose victory and over what, since it wasn't even clear to Tom and Faith themselves. Faith's escape from a crazed kidnapper in a French farmhouse during the fourth month of pregnancy? Or, Faith's suggestion, the whole less than enjoyable experience of childbirth itself? A memory any number of friends had assured her grew dim with time. And this had proved to be the case--somewhat. Ben's birth three and a half years earlier had receded to a far distant shore, then instantly crashed forward into total recall the moment her water broke.
They had finally settled on Amy, but Faith perversely decided to hold out for the French spelling, Aim�e, to almost a bitter end. It was only when Tom sang "Once in Love with Amy" for the hundredth time, firmly declaring Ray Bolger wasn't immortalizing an Aim�e, that Faith gave in. She pulled her last punch and salvaged the European s instead of z in Elisabeth, and the family turned to more important things like nibbling the baby's toes and wondering how fingernails could be so tiny.
Faith Sibley Fairchild had not always lived in Aleford, a fact she no longer blurted out insistently when introduced but that she nevertheless managed to subtly work into the conversation--suchwas the increasing wisdom that age, and life in a small village, conferred. She had grown up in Manhattan, established herself as one of the hottest caterers in town as an adult, and reluctantly left after she realized the sole way she could have her cake and eat it was to move north, marry Tom, and make sure she had a decent stove.
The institution of the ministry was not foreign to her. Both her father and grandfather were men of the cloth. It was this familiarity with parish life during her formative years that made her swear an oath with her sister, Hope, one year younger. Neither would marry men working for any "higher authority" than someone with a name on the door and a Bigelow on the floor. The girls went so far as to avoid dates with Matthews, Marks, Lukes, and Johns for a time, until this became counterproductive when Hope fell for a particularly attractive bond salesman named Luke at work. Still, she married a Quentin, an MBA, not an MDiv, and lived up to her side of the bargain. It was Faith who fell from grace when she met Tom, sans dog collar, at a wedding she was catering, not realizing he had performed the ceremony until it was too late.
Almost five years had passed. Faith had become a bit more used to Aleford and Aleford to Faith. However, she still suffered frequent longings for the sound of taxi horns blaring, the sight of blue-and-yellow Sabrett's umbrellas protecting spicy dogs and kraut, and the aroma of Bergdorf's fragrance counters. You could take the girl out of the city, but you couldn't take the city out of the girl. Her stylish New York clothes and penchant for Woody Allen movies were no longer hot topics for the early coffee and muffin crowd at the Minuteman Caf�. If she was talked about, and she was, the conversation now tended toward her knack for both finding corpses and subsequently solving the crimes.
But old habits die hard in places like Aleford, and stalwarts like Millicent Revere McKinley, a descendant of a distant cousin of Paul Revere and the pillar of the DAR, Aleford Historical Society, and WCTU, regarded Faith's sleuthingabilities as child's play compared with Millicent's own encyclopedic knowledge of the life and crimes of every Aleford inhabitant for the last fifty years. This knowledge was gleaned in a variety of ways, the predominant being her daily hawk-eyed observations from a perch in the front bay window of ye olde ancestral Colonial house, happily located directly across from the village green and with a clear view down Battle Road, Aleford's main street. No, Miss McKinley, thank you, was not interested in Faith's supposed abilities pertaining either to detection or cuisine. Millicent clung to her initial impression; to do otherwise would have suggested uncertainty, or worse--whimsicality--and she chose to dwell on the peccadilloes of a person from "away." Her attitude was made manifest by audible sighs, especially where two or three were gathered, followed by the words "Poor Reverend Fairchild."
When Faith reopened her catering business, Have Faith, after Christmas in the former home of Yankee Doodle Kitchens, Millicent added, "And her poor neglected little children" to the litany, smiling a gentle, mournful smile before moving on to the next audience.
"Honestly, Tom, I should be used to her after all this time, but she still gets under my skin," Faith exploded one evening after the neglected children had been read to, cuddled, and generally spoiled rotten before drifting off to sleep. "It's a Gordian knot and I'm all thumbs. If I hadn't started the business again and had stayed home all day with Amy, dear as she is, I'd be a crazy woman by now. Or let's say crazier. On the other hand, working makes me feel guilty about leaving her, even for short periods. And I know the house is suffering."
"I'd rather have you sane--or are we saying saner? Besides, you've done everything you can to be with Ben and Amy as much as possible." Tom looked around the living room from the depths of the large down-cushioned sofa, a comfy legacy bequeathed by one of his predecessors. "The house looks fine--and so, Mrs. Fairchild, do you." Faith was conveniently near and he drew her into his arms.
"I suppose you're right," she said contentedly. "Anyway, the flowers help." Faith had placed pots of bright tulips and freesia she'd forced, so as to distract the eye from whatever might be out of place or in need of cleaning. It was a trick she had learned from her Aunt Chat: "Put plenty of flowers around, keep the silver shiny, and no one will ever know how many dust bunnies are under your bed."
While letting some of the housework slide, although she was managing to keep the bunnies from reproducing at too rapid a rate, Faith did everything guilt-ridden moms everywhere do to minimize the time away from the kids. She may even have gone overboard, she'd thought on more than one occasion, longing for a moment alone. It was getting hard to remember the last time she'd had a shower more than three minutes long, and a soak in a perfumed tub seemed like a chapter from somebody else's life.
Yankee Doodle's premises had needed some remodeling, so Faith had had a carpeted play area installed at one end of the huge space, complete with Jolly Jumper, playpen, shelves for toys, and a small table and chairs. Most days, the baby came to work with her. Just as the books said, second child Amy Elisabeth was easier, settling placidly into two long naps and food at reasonable hours, except for that very early morning demand for mother's milk--now! Ben was at nursery school through lunch and spent the afternoon with Faith or, when she was pressed, in day care with Arlene Maclean, mother of Ben's beloved friend, Lizzie. Arlene also took Amy at times. Arlene didn't smoke, wasn't noticeably psychotic, and, if Lizzie was proof, knew what was what in the Raising Nice, Obedient, Yet Interesting Children department--a department Faith still felt much less familiar with than, say, Better Dresses at Bloomie's.
It had been an enormous amount of work starting the business in the new locale, far from her former suppliers and staff. She'd been discouraged almost to the point of giving up when Niki Constantine, a young Johnson and Wales graduate fresh from washing pots at Biba's, one of Boston's culinary shrines,strode confidently in to be interviewed for the job of Faith's assistant. Niki had grown up in nearby Watertown. Her parents still operated a bakery there. She nibbled all day, tasting constantly, and never seemed to put an ounce on her wiry frame. Her tight, short black curls had a few streaks of premature gray and she brought an air of serious professionalism to the job that matched Faith's own.
They soon became a team: two ambitious, hardworking women who were often convulsed in laughter, as when Niki presented Faith with a tray of spectacularly fallen individual souffl�s Grand Marnier, declaiming in solemn tones, "They just couldn't keep it up." Niki also tended to answer "Food is my life" in a deceptive deadpan to most queries.
So, all was well, or at least this is what Faith optimistically told Tom, and herself, whenever she returned home at the end of a particularly long day. Amy was benefiting from having a contented mom, not to mention the purees of artichoke hearts and spoonfuls of p�t� de foie de volaille avec champignons the baby gobbled down with significantly greater gusto than she brought to Gerber's fare. Ben was the same, munching chocolate madeleines and milk as his after-school snack. And there were stretches when Faith wasn't working much at all and packed the kids up for enriching trips into town or dragged them along on much-neglected parish calls. She was, after all, a minister's wife. And she knew her duties.
The first inkling that movie people were coming to Aleford had been in December, shortly before Christmas, when a tall, thin young man in an olive Joseph Abboud suit and slightly darker topcoat had showed up at Battle Green Realty and asked the startled owner, Louisa May Talcott (her mother had read Little Women over seventy times), whether she could show him some houses. December was a slow month and Louisa May had been engrossed in the latest Charlotte MacLeod mystery when the sleigh bells on the door jangled. She'd looked up, to find her own distorted reflection in the sunglasses her caller had donnedagainst the novel glare of white snow. Politely removing his shades, he explained he wanted to rent a small Cape Cod house, authentic if possible, located on several acres, preferably with lots of trees. It was the work of a moment to drive him out to the Pingree place, a two-hundred-year-old Cape. It had the requisite light-obscuring windows, low ceilings, and small, drafty rooms. The house also abutted a large stretch of conservation land complete with forest, streams, a bog, and several picturesque tumbled-down stone walls. Delighted with the house and its setting, the stranger revealed he was Alan Morris, the assistant director on a new Maxwell Reed movie. Alan shot countless rolls of film, took copious notes, and left a check that turned the visions of sugarplums dancing in Louisa May's head into more palpable goodies under the tree: a laptop computer for husband, Arnold; Nintendo for little Toby; and the cashmere twin set from Talbots she'd long desired for herself.
The Pingrees went to Paris.
The advent of the movie people had occupied center stage throughout December and into February. Aleford dubbed itself L.A. East as it watched the progression of various individuals arrive to scout locations, arrange permits, rent a house for the director, who did not like hotels, and book blocks of rooms for everyone else at a Marriott in nearby Burlington--Aleford itself had but one hostelry, which boasted only three bedrooms. (You did get a mighty delicious breakfast thrown in.) Everything had to be in place well before the March shooting date. But all this, even the helicopter flying low over the conservation land, was firmly relegated to the wings once the news of Walter Wetherell's resignation got out.
While some residents of Aleford had been known to take an interest in national and state politics, particularly during presidential and gubernatorial years, it was local elections that gripped the hearts and minds of the majority. Balloons did not tumble down from the ceiling, nor did smiling, well-groomed red-white-and-blue-clad families grace a podium when candidacieswere declared. But this did not mean there wasn't plenty of hoopla. It merely took a different form. Perhaps a small, discreet notice in the town paper, the Aleford Chronicle, or, better still, a letter to the editor, which didn't cost anything. Then as things heated up, there would be larger ads listing the names of those who endorsed the candidate. Properly studied--and there were few Alefordians who were not adept at the art--the names revealed more about the candidates than any debate or position paper. Once the ads appeared and everyone had figured out who was representing whom, bolder measures would be taken. The tops of cars sprouted signs precariously anchored by bungee cords and the space between front and storm doors filled up with fliers describing the candidates' records all the way back to things like "Winner of the Fifth Grade All-Aleford Spelling Bee."
Campaign mores were as invariable as the flag raising every morning on the green.
In the late fifties, someone had passed out ballpoints with his name emblazoned in gold ink on each and every one, but the general opinion was that he'd gone a little too far--for which he was resoundingly defeated. In a gesture of defiance, or remorse, he moved closer to Boston, where his flamboyant style presumably found a more congenial home.
The first fireworks in the current election had started in February, before any of the candidates were announced.
"Why in tarnation Walter Wetherell thinks he has to resign just because he's having some sort of pig valve put in his heart is beyond me," police chief Charley MacIsaac told Faith one particularly chilly day. He'd formed the habit of dropping in at the caterers now and then for a cup of coffee, and Faith was glad to have him. She missed their morning colloquies at the Minuteman Caf�. She'd been afraid she'd get woefully out of touch when she went back to work, until Charley had solved the problem. Not that he was a chatterbox, but she could usually work the conversation around to what she wanted to know. She didn't even have to try this time. Charley was more than ready to spill his guts.
"I didn't know you were such an ardent supporter of Walter's. I thought you two were at odds over widening Battle Road," Faith commented.
"We are, were, whatever. Somebody's going to get killed on that road. It cuts straight through to Route 2A and if he had gone there at rush hour like I asked, he'd have seen what I was talking about. All his talk about preserving the quality of the community--it's really because it so happens his cousin lives over there. More like preserving the quality of Bob Wetherell's front yard," Charley fumed.
"Then I would have thought you'd be happy Walter is resigning. You might get someone who agrees with you."
"And I might get somebody who doesn't. But I will get somebody I don't know, or maybe do know, which could be worse. And what's sure is, whoever it is, it will be someone who'll be asking a million dumb questions--and the meetings are long enough as they are. No, in this case, I say take the devil you've learned to put up with."
"You just don't like change, Charley. Besides, the poor man can't be expected to perform a selectman's duties while he's recuperating from major heart surgery."
"People pamper themselves too much these days. If there's anyone to feel sorry for in all this, it's the poor damned pig."
Chief MacIsaac was echoing the opinion of most of the town, and for a while Winifred Wetherell did her shopping in Waltham at the Star Market instead of the Shop'n Save. And rather than going to the town library, Walter read all the books he had at home that he'd been meaning to read but didn't actually want to.
The identity of the first candidate to file remained a secret for only the five minutes it took town clerk Lucy Barnes to lock up the office and walk briskly down the street to the Minuteman Caf�. It had been a slow week for Faith and she was actually present at the historic event. She was sharing a table with Pix Miller, her close friend and next-door neighbor, and Amy, the latter delightedly finger-painting with corn muffin crumbs and spit while securely strapped into her Sassy seat.
"There I was, not expecting a thing, when I saw a shadow at the door," related Lucy breathlessly.
Faith knew the door well. She'd copied the list painted on its frosted glass and sent it to her sister, Hope, upon arriving in Aleford as a new bride. Under TOWN CLERK'S OFFICE in impressive bold script, it read: DOG LICENSES, MARRIAGE INTENTIONS, BIRTH CERTIFICATES, DEATH CERTIFICATES, VOTER REGISTRATION, ELECTION INFORMATION, ANNUAL CENSUS, BUSINESS CERTIFICATION, RAFFLES, FISH AND GAME LICENSES, MISCELLANEOUS. It was the last item that had caused Faith the most amusement. What could be left? she wondered.
The town clerk had the attention of the entire caf�.
"Before I had a chance to even think who it might be, the door bangs open and it's ..." Lucy paused; it was her moment. "Alden Spaulding. 'I'm going to be your new selectman,' he says, bold as brass, as usual. 'Give me the papers.' I hadn't expected a please or thank you, and it's a good thing I didn't. Anyway, what are we going to do?"
It was a call to arms.
Alden Spaulding had few friends but some grudging admirers, whose comments took the form of, "Whatever else you may say about Alden, you have to admit the man knows what he's about"--local parlance for "knows how to make a buck." While in his twenties, forty years before, Alden had taken his inheritance and put it all into what was then the novel idea of a duplicating service. Over the years, he had expanded his offerings and locations, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the area. He was the proverbial bridegroom of his work, remaining unencumbered by a wife and family; swooping in without prior notice at one of his branches to see what the laggards were not doing at any time of day or night.
Politically, he was a rabid conservative, so far right as to be out in left field. This would not have been a problem in other election years, but it posed a major difficulty this time around. Aleford's Board of Selectmen was composed of five citizens. Since anyone could remember, putting said recollection somewhereshortly after the Flood, there had always been two liberals, two moderates, and a conservative on the board. Walter Wetherell had been one of the moderates, the swing votes. With two conservatives, the historic balance of power would be altered and, what was worse, would put all the town's major decisions in the hands of the remaining, tie-breaking moderate, Beatrice Hoffman, who could never quite seem to make up her mind.
Chief MacIsaac groaned audibly. If Spaulding was elected, the new cruiser he hoped to get the town to buy as a replacement for the barely operable 1978 Plymouth Gran Fury currently doing duty would be a 1995 or 1996 by the time Bea made up her mind, because of course the vote would be two to two. He could hear her now: "We mustn't be hasty. This decision is too important to be made in a cavalier fashion." Cavalier. Many's the interminable meeting he'd wished someone, dashing or not, would ride in on a big black horse and carry Bea off. That was another thing. They would be meeting continuously, since one session would be ending as the next was called to order. Why the police chief had to be at these things was beyond him, but the forefathers had decided, maybe two hundred years ago, that the law had to be present, and no one was about to change it now.
"Obviously someone has to run against him--and soon. We can't let him remain unopposed." Faith spoke firmly, confident in the knowledge that no one expected her to run--not because as a wife, mother, and businesswoman she obviously didn't have a free moment to work the crowds, but because she had not lived in town the requisite thirty or so years and/or was the product of several generations of Alefordians.
Her stirring words, however, did not have a galvanizing effect on the group in the caf�. Everyone assumed a studied lack of activity and even nonchalance as they looked out the window, toward the ceiling, anywhere save in the direction of Faith's eye.
"Well, perhaps no one here"--the room relaxed and peopledared to sip their coffee once more--"but we have to make an effort to find someone. Any ideas?"
Pix would normally have felt compelled to volunteer, except for the fact that her husband, Sam, had declared heatedly that if she took on one more thing, he was going to incorporate himself and the children as a charity and make her head of the board of directors to force her to stay home at least one night during the week. She did have an idea of someone else, though.
"What about Penelope Bartlett? She's never been on the board, and I can't imagine why not."
"Perfect," cried Lucy Barnes in delight. "No one is more dedicated to Aleford than Penny, and she has so much good common sense. I'm sure she'd do a fine job."
"Perfect," declared Chief MacIsaac, in what Faith would have sworn was a parody, were he given to such things. "Alden will be running against his half sister, someone who hasn't spoken to him in twenty years or so. Should be fun."
"I didn't know Penny Bartlett was Alden Spaulding's half sister," Faith said to Tom that evening as he got ready to leave the house for a session of Town Meeting. He'd been an elected Town Meeting member since he'd arrived at First Parish. He thought it would be a good way to get to know Aleford and its inhabitants. Besides, Fairchilds always sat at their local Town Meetings, guarding their seats and passing them down as lovingly as they did their season's tickets to Celtics games at Boston Garden.
"You really should ask someone else for the details, but I think Alden's mother died when he was about seven or eight and his father married Penny's mother, who was much younger and a neighbor, in rather indecent haste."
"Probably needed someone to cook and do the wash," Faith said.
"I don't think so. He was comfortable, as we New Englanders like to say, and could have hired any number of housekeepers."
"'Comfortable,' which means something akin to rich as Croesus. No, he wouldn't need to cut costs. Maybe he wanted a mother for little Alden. Then again, given the evidence of their offspring, it's probable that the first Mrs. Spaulding wasn't up for the title of Mrs. Congeniality and he may simply have wanted a pleasant spouse."
"Possibly. Penny's mother, his second wife, died long before I came here, but there are plenty of parishioners who remember her, and I've always heard her mentioned with great affection. No one mentions Alden's mother. Since Alden's father was active in the congregation and Alden, too, in his own inimitable way, I'd imagine she must have attended, although perhaps she was an invalid of some sort."
Faith thought they ought to get off the subject of the Bartletts. Alden's participation in the congregation, along with a decent-sized pledge, took the less welcome form of line-by-line sermon critiques and objections to the amount of money spent on social concerns. He seemed to regard his tithe as an entitlement.
"What's on the agenda tonight?" she asked. Faith had no desire to attend Town Meeting, yet she liked to know what was going on. It made the old Tammany Hall look like a Brownie Scout troop.
"The library budget. I could be late, very late. Our friend Alden, who is maintaining a very high pre-election profile these days, has submitted an alternate resolution calling for drastic cuts in staff and hours. He wants the library closed weekends and Wednesdays. The rationale for this being that people read too much and should be out getting some exercise instead, which costs the town nothing. Oh, and he wants to eliminate the library aides and have patrons reshelve their own books when they return them."
"I know we have to cut, but this is ridiculous. Surely no one will vote with him."
"I wish I could be certain. There's a strong feeling in town that spending is out of control, and a sizable contingent seesAlden first and foremost as a successful business manager. These are the people who will vote with--and for--him. Enough philosophizing. We need someone who knows dollars and cents-type stuff. We do have to cut the budget, but not with a machete."
"Have fun. I don't envy you." Faith kissed her husband and sent him off with his shield. She only hoped he would not come home on it.
Aleford had resolutely resisted the blandishments of the local cable television franchise. No one could see the point of paying perfectly good money for extra television channels when they already had more than they wanted to watch. Yet when the company offered to broadcast Town Meeting on its local access station, quite a few heads were turned. No more sitting in the hard seats up in the balcony of the Town Hall, straining to hear what the members below were debating. No more listening to embarrassing stomach rumbles, as no food was allowed in the hall. The cable TV proposal had come up at last year's Town Meeting and lost by a whisker. But with the added incentive of the election--the company had promised to film candidate's forums and live ballot counting--it was sure to pass this time, unless Millicent McKinley could rally a few more Town Meeting members to her camp. The cable proposal, she declared, was one more example of the moral turpitude rapidly creeping into all aspects of everyday life. It was positively indecent to think of such a hallowed tradition as Town Meeting being broadcast to people who might be doing Lord knows what as they watched. She had heard of homes where a television was actually in the bedroom! If someone wanted to know what was going on at Town Meeting, he or she could go to Town Hall just like all the elected members. It was a question of simple equilibrium, she stated. Though people weren't too clear what she meant by the phrase, it sounded good and they didn't doubt her sincerity.
Faith had waited up for Tom and he was late. She'd been reading M. F. K. Fisher's The Gastronomical Me in bed and gotup to get him something to eat when she heard the car pull into the driveway. She'd been stunned when she first learned that they had to sit all those hours without any form of nourishment. "An awful lot of people chew gum," Tom had told her. "Sometimes I look around and feel like I've been put out to pasture with a herd of malcontented cows."
"I'm almost, but not quite, too tired to eat," he said, collapsing at the kitchen table in anticipation.
Faith was mixing beaten eggs, chopped green onion, crisp, smoky bacon, and Parmesan cheese into some spaghetti she'd cooked earlier and set aside. She poured the mixture into a frying pan with some hot olive oil and spread it out to form a large, flat mass. "Did Alden's amendment win?"
"Praise the Lord, no, but he got more votes than I would have expected. I think I'll pay a call on Penelope tomorrow and add my voice to the swelling chorus urging her to run. She looked slightly confused and blushed a couple of times when people passing her to go to the john or whatever leaned down to whisper in her ear. I'd say the campaign to get our Penny to throw her bonnet into the ring is on with a vengeance."
"Nice to know you're not getting too involved in all this, darling." Faith smiled at him as she deftly slid the golden brown frittata onto a plate and flipped it back into the pan to cook on the other side.
Two days later, Penelope Bartlett entered the race, which came as no surprise. The surprise was James Heuneman's appearance at the town clerk's office and his demand for nomination papers the same afternoon.
This time, it was Millicent who carried the news. Faith was beginning to think she should put some tables and chairs in her catering kitchen, since so many people seemed to regard it as an outpost of the Minuteman Caf�. Millicent was ostensibly there to get Faith to sign up to work on Penny Bartlett's campaign.
"A spoiler, plain and simple. James Heuneman knew that Penny intended to run!" Millicent bit down viciously on thelarge oatmeal raisin cookie Faith had the good manners to offer her with a cup of coffee.
"Won't he take votes away from Alden rather than Penny? He's a businessman of some sort, too, isn't he? I would have thought he represented the same constituency."
"He's a lawyer, not that it matters. What he'll do is take votes away from both of them and in all likelihood win. People who think Alden is a little beyond the pale but has some good ideas regarding fiscal matters will vote for James, and people who think Penny is nice but a bit too liberal--not to mention being a woman--will vote for Heuneman, too. That's why we've got to do everything we can to help her get elected. I'm putting you down for leafleting and telephone calls. I don't expect you to hold up a sign with all the children you have." Millicent made it sound as if Faith was the old woman in the shoe or some other wanton.
"But surely, being a woman--and the sole woman to have won the Bronze Musket Award twice in one lifetime--should help her in this day and age." The Bronze Musket Award was given annually to an Aleford citizen who had contributed above and beyond the call of mere duty to the well-being of the town. Recipients were held in special regard, and any citizen given the choice between the tasteful embossed Bronze Musket plaques and the shiny Oscars of the impending Hollywood invasion would not hesitate for a moment to snatch the former.
"This day and age is not so different from that day and age as you may think, Faith. Remember, nobody knows what you're marking on your ballot in the voting booth, and you can say anything you want afterward. It's my opinion the vast majority of the electorate, even in Aleford, still isn't sure about women in office."
Millicent was a constant source of amazement. Faith had never suspected this feminist streak, but upon reflection, it made sense. No one believed more ardently in the power of women, especially as personified by Millicent McKinley, than the lady herself.
"What about Bea Hoffman?" Faith asked. "She got elected."
"She ran unopposed, remember? And the men in town probably figured one female on the board wouldn't make much difference--but two! Why now we're getting dangerously close to a majority!"
"Do you think that's why James is running?"
"Absolutely not. That's about the one thing I am sure about in this election. His wife is an active member of NOW and the Heunemans are the ones who got the recreation department to start the girls' soccer program. James is one of the coaches. No, I can't figure out why he wants to run. It's a complete mystery. He's such a Milquetoast--which could be another reason some people would vote for him. He won't open his mouth, just vote with Bea and keep the board balanced."
Faith had a sudden irrational image of the board as a giant seesaw with slight James Heuneman, pale-faced, his dun-colored hair receding ever backward from his often-furrowed brow, high in the air on one end and Beatrice Hoffman, large, pigeon-breasted, and given to brightly colored poplin shirtwaists, stuck on the ground at the other.
"Well," Faith told her visitor as she fetched the dough that had been rising, gave it a firm punch, and started to knead it--hoping her actions might suggest work to do and a "mustn't keep you" exit line from Millicent--"Tom and I are happy to do whatever we can to help Penny get elected. She has done so much for the town, particularly the children. I still find it hard to believe there would be anyone who wouldn't vote for her."
"Fortunately, she lives in North Aleford, too," Millicent remarked, taking another cookie and, as Faith told her husband later, showing absolutely no inclination to get on her broomstick.
"Why is that fortunate?" Faith gave the dough a resounding smack.
"You know what they're like up there. Then again, how could you? Not being from here, I mean. I don't like to sound catty, especially about my neighbors."
The "especially about my neighbors" part was right, anyway, Faith thought.
"But there is a tendency for the residents of North Aleford to feel they're a teensy bit better than the rest of the town. It's one of the oldest sections--not as old as mine, of course, but old--and the houses are impressive, covering the hill the way they do. Then, of course, they have their own residents' association, which we have to make sure endorses Penny. Remind them how she got them their playground on Whipple Road. Alden lives up there, too--in his father's house. When Penny got married, she moved several streets away and has stayed in that house, even after her husband died. To be sure, no one thought for a moment she'd move back in with Alden. Poor Penny. She has been widowed for a long time. It was a real love match. She's always said she could never find anyone like Francis."
Faith had been to Penny Bartlett's house on several occasions. It was a large Victorian that contradicted Faith's prior association of Victorian houses with crowded, dark rooms, memories of antimacassars and aspidistras still haunting the corners. Penny's house was filled with light. There was stained glass, plenty of odd-shaped windows, and gingerbread trim, but the Bartletts had cleared away the huge trees and monstrous shrubs shadowing the house and let in the sun. The house was painted a warm buttercup yellow, with deep green, almost black, shutters and white trim.
She wanted to ask Millicent why it was a foregone conclusion that Penny wouldn't move back in with her brother. It obviously had something to do with why they didn't speak to each other. Millicent rarely responded to questions, though, preferring to be the recipient of information and choosing what she would share. But the woman had wolfed down two of Faith's cookies and a large mug of coffee. It was worth a try.
"Did Penny and Alden have some sort of quarrel? I've heard they don't speak to one another."
"Yes, I believe I have heard something like that. To be moreprecise, Faith dear--and it is so important to be precise, don't you agree?--Penny doesn't speak to Alden. He's constantly making outrageous remarks in her presence. Howsomever, these things are all ancient history, and we must concentrate on our present goal."
Effectively shut out, as well as reprimanded, Faith could only think to comment, "It's a shame Penny never had any children. She's so wonderful with them."
Millicent looked down at the counter. "Francis Bartlett had some sort of plumbing problem," she said vaguely. Doling out this information as a sop for witholding the rest?
Now how on earth did she find that out? Faith almost found herself asking Miss McKinley, maidenly reticence not withstanding, but to her relief, Millicent stood up abruptly, brushed the crumbs off her plaid Pendleton suit, put on her gloves, and said, "I can't sit here all day chitchatting, my dear." And she left with one last parting glance of annoyance in Faith's direction for having wasted her time, diverting her from her mission.
Faith put the loaves she'd formed to rise again. All in a row, the rounded mounds looked like a series of low foothills. That reminded her of North Aleford. She was well acquainted with the way certain residents of this area of town regarded themselves. Maybe it was living on a hill, like Beacon Hill. Did people who looked down on the rest of the town eventually come to look down on them in other ways? Something about being top dog, top of the heap, king of the hill?
She thought wearily of working on Penny's campaign with Millicent, apparently the self-anointed campaign manager. The election was to be held March 26. If, as she hoped, she got the contract to cater the movie shoot, she'd be in the midst of the job and Tom would have to bear the brunt of the campaign responsibilities. She felt more cheerful. It was true that politics made strange bedfellows, but seldom ones who kicked half the night and hogged the blankets as much as Millicent did.
Faith had catered for shoots in New York, and she was quick to get her name in to Alan Morris. He arranged to come by the kitchens for a tasting later that week on one of his flying visits through town. Faith was ready for him.
"Great," he said, referring perhaps both to the attractive lady in front of him and the mouthful of warm pizzette with pears, brie, and caramelized onions (see recipe on page 273) he'd just swallowed. Faith had let her shining blond hair grow longer over the winter and now it grazed her chin in a simple blunt cut. She'd diligently lost the weight she'd put on in pregnancy, and at thirty-two, she caused as many heads to turn as she had at twenty-two, a fact that, while diminishing somewhat in importance over the years, still didn't bother her in the slightest. After the initial shock of that milestone birthday, her thirtieth, she was enjoying being thirtysomething and firmly believed the best ten years of a woman's life were between thirty-nine and forty, which gave her something to anticipate.
Alan was now speedily devouring a plateful of spinach lasagna with a three-cheese b�chamel sauce, while keeping a close eye on the medley of Have Faith desserts beckoning from the counter next to him: flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis, a steaming fruit gratin�, and crisp dark molasses spice cookies (see recipe on page 274). He smiled. "Max is really going to be happy." From the relief in his voice, it was no secret that keeping Max happy was Alan Morris's most important job.
Max was Maxwell Reed, the director of the film. At fifty-two, he was both a legend and an enigma in Tinseltown. Known as the "New Jersey Fellini," owing to his origins as the son of a wealthy shoe manufacturer from Montclair, Reed made obscure but critically acclaimed films, often in black and white. While he was the subject of a shelfful of biographies and critical studies in Europe, he'd received little recognition in his native land. He took great pains to make it clear this bothered him not at all, but the word on the street was that he needed a bigcommercial success to keep attracting backers. And the movie about to be shot in Aleford had to be it. No matter how much Vincent Canby and The New York Times loved it, if it didn't do at least $9 million in wide release the first weekend, Reed would be yesterday's news for the foreseeable future and could watch his films move from "New and Recommended" to "Cult" in the video stores.
Mercurial, with mood swings so rapid that a sentence could start on an up note and plunge two words later to despair, Max Reed had attracted a group of actors, actresses, and crew who slavishly followed him from film to film, deeming it an honor to work with the master. He rewarded their loyalty with his, making film after film with the same individuals, often playing roles himself, yet never duplicating an effect. His most famous film, Maggot Morning, cast his constant companion, the beautiful Evelyn O'Clair, as an elderly homeless woman. She won an Academy Award for best actress and went on to other roles, keeping herself available, however, for Max's films. Speculation was that fresh from her sizzling triumph for another director in Body Parts, Max wouldn't be hiding Evelyn's attributes under any bushel baskets or behind shopping bags the way he had quite literally in Maggot, as it was called in the trades.
Maxwell Reed was also known for his obsession with security on the set. Often the actors themselves didn't know the name or plot of the movie they were shooting until it was released. He'd broken with custom this time and let it be known he was making a modern reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. The name of the picture was A. He'd also hired two actors who'd never appeared in any of his films previously but who were box-office magic. Over Ty Nants and Evians at the Polo Lounge, heads were nodding just perceptibly--Max was desperate indeed. If he pulled it off, the same nods could later be translated as "I told you so."
The first ringer was Caleb "Cappy" Camson, star of the phenomenally successful TV series "1-800-555-1212" when he was a teenager, later making a graceful transition to films. Histanned, well-developed physique, thick, dark, always slightly touseled curls, and deep brown eyes with the requisite gold flecks guaranteed any movie in which he was cast at least initially large audiences. Cappy had been in the business long enough to know his limitations and ventured from romantic comedy only for a comic romance. But nobody turned down the chance to work with Max Reed--not even Cappy. He'd modified the curls and agreed to less flattering makeup in order to play the role of the tormented young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale.
Max's other orthodox move was to cast Caresse Carroll as Pearl, Hester Prynne's daughter. Eight-year-old Caresse would be playing a major role; it could be a stretch, but Caresse was a pro down to her toenails. At age four, she'd nagged her mother, Jacqueline, into auditioning her for commercials. "I can do that," she'd said, and hadn't looked back. She was the child of choice for a whole string of space alien and horror movies. "It may not be art, but I'm working," she told her mother at six. Currently, the trades labeled her "America's Sweetheart for the Nineties" after her gutsy portrayal of a little girl who saves the family split-level after her parents lose their auto-plant jobs by forming a recycling company that ends up employing most of the town. Caresse didn't have Shirley Temple's dimples or curly hair. In fact, her features were a bit odd--straight, silken white-blond hair and large aquamarine eyes that Caresse was able to fill with tears, flash with fear, or twinkle with delight depending on the script. But it was her smile that was instantly recognizable to millions of Americans. Warm, engaging, it was the kind of smile that, well, gosh darn it, made you just have to smile right back. An eminently bankable smile.
Casting her as Pearl months before, Max planned to use Caresse's pale luminescence to personify the name. The child was a metaphor, he told Caresse and her mother, for the essential innocence of Hester Prynne's act, a jewel beyond price to be worn proudly at her mother's breast, next to the scarletletter of her supposed shame. Hester herself was Everywoman and Pearl, Everychild. Jacqueline and Caresse nodded solemnly when he'd related this to them in his office early in the fall. Neither had the faintest idea what he was talking about, yet, whatever it was, they both had no doubt Caresse could do it.
Max knew Caresse was older than Hawthorne's Pearl, but audiences might find it hard to believe a three-year-old could discourse as eloquently as he'd planned on the meaning of life and existence of God. The director had told his assistant, Alan, that Hawthorne's book was a canvas--a masterpiece--to which they would essentially be adding brushstrokes, such as increasing Pearl's age.
Sitting silently in a chair next to Max since the Carrolls' arrival was Evelyn O'Clair, who would, of course, play the role of Hester Prynne. Max had cast himself as Chillingworth, the older husband who returns after a long absence to find his wife the outcast of the community for the adulterous conception of a child. The director had felt a little awkward explaining all this to Caresse. He wasn't used to children, although he would have to be, since Evelyn was about to give birth, fortunately well before the picture started.
Caresse was getting bored with the meeting. It was a pretty cheesy office, no bar or any evidence of snacks--not even an entertainment system. Just a big desk, a couple of chairs, a couch, and walls that must have been newly painted, since the smell of the stark white paint filled the air. The only thing hanging on them so far was a large calendar. He had a window, though, and a basket of fruit.
Her mother had been the one who was hot to do the movie and was being totally spastic about how lucky Caresse was to work with Maxwell Reed. Caresse herself wasn't so sure about the project. To begin with, the script sucked, a real downer. She'd even tried reading the book but couldn't get past the first page. Her taste in literature ran more to Sweet Valley High, but she knew it wouldn't make a major motion picture. She tried to quell the feeling that accepting this role might not have beenthe best career move by concentrating on the fact that she would be acting with big names for a big name. Caresse looked over at her mother, who was gazing at the director with open adoration. Caresse felt sorry for her. She needed a man. Caresse wouldn't be surprised if the last time Jacqueline had had sex was when she'd conceived her daughter--with whom, Caresse didn't know. It was the one thing Mom would never discuss.
But definitely Jacqueline wasn't getting any. Not that Caresse was anxious for some old fart to enter their lives and start telling her what to do. She'd trained her mother to know her place, and truthfully, Mom didn't really understand the Business.
Enough was enough. Caresse Carroll turned on her famous smile, tossed her shining hair away from her face, and interrupted Max's convoluted explanation. "Don't worry, Mr. Reed, I know all this stuff. See you in March."
"Call me Max," he replied, and the meeting came to an end.
Evelyn had not said a word--not even good-bye.
THE BODY IN THE CAST. Copyright (c) 1993 by Katherine Hall Page. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.