Grace - Under Pressure
Grace Purdy Pease felt driven to consider intercession. Because while being called a thermocouple by Gordon Beatie Leighton, II upon completion of a particularly frenzied bedding one Thursday evening some years ago had been all very well, witty even - something GBL II certainly was - it simply would no longer suffice. Just as a word to the wise had never sufficed with Gord. This she knew. No, she was going to have to track the man down. Get behind his legal representatives and confront him in person. Intercede. There just was no more avoiding the issue.
The issue? Oh, well. That would be, both literally and figuratively, their son, Gordon Beatie Leighton III. Only, of course, he didn’t possess his father’s name legally. Because he’d been born Out of Wedlock. What an awful expression, she thought. What an awful word, wedlock. Make the hesitant about taking that step even more so.
She’d named Gordie “Gordon Beatie Leighton III Pease. Pease being her surname. She’d named him that because the name did belong to Gordie and she’d added her name because Gordie belonged to her. The whole father’s name, including the III, was also because she knew otherwise she might very well chicken out on telling Gordie the truth about his being a by-blow. Another awful word. She figured if his name was horrendously long and he was forced to spell it all out for school she’d be forced to tell him. About his father. Because he’d ask. About that name. Just as soon as he did, she would tell him. In a way that would allow him to love himself. And his father. And her.
She had to admit further that she’d named him the way she had because she knew just how badly it would get up his father’s lovely patrician nose. She always knew that if Gord ever decided Gordie was his son and heir instead of his by-blow, he’d make a concerted attempt to claim him as his own. The eccentric naming would, she devoutly hoped, make it clear that she had something to say in that. In fact, a great deal to say. About all of it.
She sighed, heavily. She knew Gord could make a very good case for having custody of Gordie. She’d always known that she and Gordie were walking on the train tracks. She’d just hoped she’d be able to pull them both off in time and in a way that there’d be no damage.
It was certainly true that Gord was able to offer all she could not. He was of the upper social tier. Silver spoon in his mouth. Now most successful in business. So, moneyed. Very moneyed. Inherited and earned. While Grace? Well, Grace was not. Leave it at that. But for all their differences, they had had an uncanny ability to please each other. As if programmed for each other. But when they’d managed to create Gordie-to-be? Their differences made all the difference. She wanted to be a parent, to have a child. Gord had wanted nothing to do with it. Until now. Now, he’d been reminded that he was a father and for some reason now he was choosing to pursue fatherhood. In the person of their son. Her son.
All because of a picture that first appeared in the Squamtec free newspaper, Quiet Times, four years ago when Gordie was almost two. And now, all this time later, it had been picked up by USA Today, first as part of a front page feature and then on USATODAY twitter, with Gordie’s picture providing visual contrast to the three feet of snow that hit New England early in December and was now packed in frozen banks on streets and roadways all over those states. Go figure!
The picture was of Gordie wobbling down to the edge of the water where little wavelets were breaking. And of her, right behind him, bending over, arms spread wide, just shy of Gordie’s sturdy body, ready to catch him if he started to take a header. A local amateur had snapped the picture. When asked permission to print it in Quiet Times, Grace had said sure, if she could have a copy.
It was an exceptional shot. Amateur or not, the photographer was the kind that let you so far in you could smell the ozone, feel the slap of the waves, squinch the wet sand between your toes, and worry that you might be getting sunburned. It made you grin just to see the way the little kid was all out going for it. Her copy was framed and hung above the kitchen table. She and Gordie would often look at it and tell each other stories about what was happening as the photo was taken or what was going to happen next.
What in fact had happened next was Gordie cutting his toe on a barnacled rock near the pier as they were leaving. Which had been worse, his bleeding or his bawling, was a contest all its own, all the way to the first aid kit at the Life Guard stand. The photographer had submitted her picture to Quiet Times, where it had appeared on the front page under a heading, “Summer Pleasures.”
Grace’d been delighted when it came out. She’d known she was recognizable. She’d been teased enough about it that summer. But she hadn’t known it was dug out for rerun as winter snows piled so high you couldn’t see to turn onto cross streets and the cold dropped so low that even a full day’s sun melted nothing. She would still be delighted if it weren’t for the letter that came in the mail two days ago. Asking about Gordie. From the II’s attorneys. Trust him to have a firm. Trust him to have a firm whose senior partners wrote and signed the letter.
She sat back and thought about Gord. Had she mentioned he was married? And terrifyingly monied? His family was Wealth. And of course, he’d married Wealth, as well. His marriage was the embodied perfume of limp old money wed to crisp new money. Gord himself was gorgeous. Tall. Rangy. Easy in his body. Blonde shaggy hair. Ashy colored eyes. From early spring to late fall, his skin always tanned. Which made his eyes look surreal. Long limbs. Strong hands with slender supple fingers. Smart. Not just quick or clever, both of which he was, but smart.
One dictionary definition of smart, as applied to intelligence, was “mentally alert.” She’d looked it up once. About him. Much of her attraction to him had been his smarts. She remembered there’d been a whole string of definitions in her Webster-Merriam Dictionary. ‘Forceful activity’ and ‘vigorous strength’ she particularly remembered because of how often they’d known just those things in lovemaking. Words such as ‘witty,’ ‘clever,’ ‘neat’ and ‘trim’ were all under the definition of ‘smart.’ All also applicable to Gord. Of course, ‘sophisticated,’ and ‘characteristic of fashionable society,’ had to be included, too. Both things Grace was not. But Gord? It was as if they’d simply laid him down on the page. It hurt, to see how very different they were.
Now came this threat, in letter form. Implicit but very clear. Not from him personally, of course. From legal representation. Stationery as stiff as the language it contained. Signed by both senior partners. Not one, but two. Just to fight her. With all the other firm associates and junior partners thrown in.
A whole law firm. Masters and Jahnsen. She’d had to snicker. Only it wasn’t funny. Did anyone remember Masters and Johnson? Gord used to quote it to her, in fun, after one of their afternoons together. The high school health teacher mentioned the study once and you’d have thought the sky had fallen. Old and out of date as it was with the practices of high school kids back then, still - the Moorestown parents weren’t about to have that kind of smut taught in their school. She and Gord had laughed remembering that. In view of how they carried on.
Yes, GBL II had been born to wealth and married well, which always was his plan. His wife’s wealth came from Texas ranch money. A woman who delighted in being his social hostess and political ally. Not that he’d ever been interested in politics per se. Just the politics of business. He’d never wanted to leave the East Coast. Liked New England. Liked it so well he’d hung out his shingle right there in Northwood, Massachusetts. Cheek by jowl with Tanglewood. Where he - well, they, had stayed. He and wife, Mary Sutton. Now, a preeminently wealthy and prominent Berkshire couple.
His company, Leighton Ltd., just grew and grew. Like Topsy. His choice of profession having fulfilled all his ambitions. His native talents and abilities taking him right to the top of his field. As both building and landscape architect, his development projects were renown for their simple sleek yet satisfying designs and their innovative environmental/ecological correctness.
Of course he was Leighton, Ltd. Oh, people worked for him. Young up and comers. Trained under him ’til at some point they left. To open their own firms. Or join one of the megaliths. Gord wanted only to design and build and teach what he loved. But all designs developed at Leighton, Ltd. belonged to him and stayed with him. He lived his life at his offices or out of suitcases, with stop-offs for a month or a week or a holiday season at home, while Mary lived her life at home, with one social obligation after another scheduled artfully around her numerous board and committee meetings. And it had worked over ten years now. Successfully. For both of them, it appeared.
Trust The Tooth, as she privately referred to him. Because one of his eyeteeth ever so sweetly overlapped its neighboring incisor. And because his parents could have afforded to have his teeth brought up to the highest Hollywood standard. But he’d refused. Even back then, only eighteen years old, he’d known that being a little less than perfect was smart. Told her so. With an unabashed lack of modesty. “Makes me look more engaging, y’know? I’d look too perfect, otherwise.”
How had she fallen into bed with him? He was smug, he was hard, and he was driven. She’d known that his was a marriage of convenience. And he’d told her that he hadn’t wanted a stable of mistresses. Too orderly in is life for that. He just wanted something on the side with someone he could trust who would be sexually satisfying. And Grace was - well, Grace was there.
While she liked GBL, no hearts were going to be broken. She wasn’t in love or about to fall in love with him. They’d never owed each other anything but every Tuesday afternoon and every other Thursday night. Regular as clockwork. Besides, he was sexy as hell and a wonderful lover. Somehow in bed, he lost all the hard, smug, driven stuff and became the Gord she’d known since they were kids. His wife had accepted the arrangement, too.
For a while Grace wondered why. But if GBL II was driven and successful, the fact that he was also sexy as hell and a damned fine lover hadn’t escaped Mary, and she seemed to’ve made her bargain with the Devil. In return she had a wonderful home, a position in East Coast society, many charitable and social activities and many friends. Did a lot a volunteer work. At which she was very, very good. Raised millions for charities she embraced, many of which Grace happened to believe in as well.
And let’s not leave out the fact that Gord was not only good at what he did, he believed that you could always do well by doing good. You did good work, you asked a fair price, and you would inevitably rise to the top. Of course, that meant you had better run everything yourself. Grace knew that much. Hand over management to someone else and you were asking to be taken. Or to become indebted. Neither were Gord’s style.
It also meant his true love, his true mistress, was the job. Grace understood that for him the marriage to Mary was a case of ‘in like.’ GBL genuinely liked Mary. He knew her shortcomings, as she knew his, and accepted them, as she did his. But he never lost himself in a woman. Grace suspected Mary had been in love with GBL. A lot. She couldn’t have children. GBL’d told Grace that. While he never wanted any. So it wasn’t as if Mary disappointed him. They were both ambitious. Both were used to money and knew how to manage it well. He used it to underwrite his noncommercial ventures and together they used it to support non-profits they found worthwhile. They seemed to enjoy each other’s minds and company. It had worked as well or better than many marriages Grace had witnessed. And her arrangement, hers and Gord’s, had worked well too, for almost five years.
But, why hadn’t it bothered her? Being a mistress? Being with someone else’s husband in that way? It wasn’t that she was dumb. She wasn’t. She’d always been smart. Native smart. Instinctively smart. And school smart. But no intellectual. She was too practical for intellectualism. Or maybe too emotional? Either way, she was certainly far from monied. Her parents were poor but proud. A bad combination. The worst of both. A codependency that, from a distance of time and years could almost be funny, but in the living had been more like chronic skin scalding.
Her parents were pinched and mean with it. She’d remained at home after high school. Unsure what she wanted to do. Working first at the local library, earning little. She’d always loved books, so that was a trade off. And then in a small local bank. She hadn’t had to pay anything to live at home and so was able to save most of what she’d earned. To go to college, she’d said. But hadn’t any real idea of what she wanted to study. That’s when Gord’d come back around.
Oh, they’d known each other most of their lives. All through school. He’d lived in the wealthy part of town. Up on the ridge that rode the length of the promontory that was Moorestown. Her parent’s house almost directly below his. But a fair distance down in mileage and money, to where the poor and poorer homes and a scattering of light manufacturing and factory outlets rode the bottom of the ridge, next to the river.
Gord was three years ahead of her in school. But when you’ve known each other as kids, that kind of knowing never changes. Jimmy Skelton, for instance, would always be someone she’d known since third grade. No matter how old they both got. Or what happened to them. He’d always be the kid who could scare the other kids by rolling his eyes up into his head so only the whites showed - until the day they got stuck like that.
And she was the kid who could whistle through her teeth, piercingly. From the time she was six years old. GBL admired that. He used to cut up the hill to his house from the river, taking the rough path that began right at the back of her yard. He’d heard her whistle one afternoon and had come right back down to ask her to teach him how. He’d been nice like that. No machismo that wouldn’t allow him to learn from a girl. He saw something he wanted and went after it. So they’d always just - known each other. It was a case of ‘from before.’ Before he went away and got famous. Before she stayed home and got stuck in a rut. Before he married.
She’d never been serious with any of the guys she’d dated. There weren’t any that interested her. Certainly not enough to break her heart. She’d be with one for a few months, then she’d stop returning calls and gradually it would die. But she was desperate to get out. Out of her life in Moorestown and out of her family’s house. To go somewhere and do something. She just hadn’t the vaguest idea to where or to do what. So when, late one hot summer night as she’d been leaving a movie alone and GBL had suddenly been there and taken her by the elbow and looked straight into her eyes and without preamble asked her if she would go to bed with him, yes, that night, yes, right then, she’d -- well, she’d just said yes. Which is how it had started.
It was so unexpected. So different from all the rest of her life. So exotic. Later that night, she’d learned from him that he was married. Satisfactorily married, he’d said. He also said that what happened between them that night was a habit he wished to acquire. With her. And only with her. There would be, he said, no others. This was to be a committed relationship, existing solely for sexual intimacy. He wanted her to be with him on a regular schedule unless he was away on business. And he told her why he’d chosen her. Two reasons. He found her sexy and he knew he could trust her.
Grace was far from a beauty. She wasn’t ugly, or plain, or even unattractive. Her features were regular enough. Her figure was good enough. At best she could be called handsome. Grace knew that when she got old she would look more like a man than a woman. She could see it in the pictures of her father’s mother, whom she resembled. But, Grace was sexy. At first, second, even fifth, look she just seemed pleasant enough to look at. Gradually though you realized that the reason you’d gone back to look again all those times was because she made you uncomfortably aware of your sexual orientation. She somehow emitted a silent sexual signal. Of which she had been completely unaware. Over which she had no control. She couldn’t direct, start or stop it. It was its own thing and had its own energy.
Grace knew this about herself only because GBL’d told her. That same night. And so had begun an affair that had lasted just short of five years. Good years. They’d laughed a lot, been silly together, talked dreams together. Until she’d found herself pregnant. When she’d simply announced to him that she was moving away and the relationship was over. When he’d asked her why, she’d said she was going to have a baby and he’d nodded and said he thought she was wise. He never asked about fatherhood. He’d known. He had been right to trust her. It had been a committed relationship.
So, that had been that. She’d asked nothing from him and he’d offered nothing more than good wishes. She’d taken the money she’d saved - an amount that startled her - and moved. To Squamtec. A place she’d been in the summertime. Once or twice with her parents and more often with girlfriends. She liked the feel of the place. She liked that it was right at the shore. And she liked that it was small. And that the community college would take her as a resident at minimal cost.
And, thought Grace, it’s been me and Gordie ever since. Gordie, a lovely little boy. Even Mr. Pitt likes him, she thought. And Mr. P. wasn’t big on children. Well, that was his myth about himself, she corrected her train of thought, as she wasn’t at all sure it was true. She’d never seen him pull away or frown at the occasional tumble of children that would suddenly invade The Athena.
The Athena, used bookstore of long standing, out on Route 78, at the edge of Squamtec, housed in a tall Victorian three story one-time house. The kids that came into The Athena, trailing behind a single parent or older sibling, would most often appear of a chilly overcast or rainy summer afternoon. Tourist season. No, Mr. P. didn’t raise his voice or even look disgruntled about such an invasion. Not even when the children played hide and seek in the stacks or yelled or raced out the front door, letting the screen door bang behind them.
Whenever sticky candy fingers threatened his books, Mr. P. was just suddenly there, a little warm water on a fluffy washcloth and an equally fluffy hand towel for patting dry the hands, and the candies gently removed to be safely secured until reclaimed upon leaving. And of course, the children were always somehow engaged in books just right for them. Never a tear or a tantrum. It could be the way Mr. P. stooped, head bent close, twinkly eyes behind small spectacles that hooked over large ears and balanced on the end of a large nose. Formal. Very formal. Formal but kindly. And firm. And, quite quite old.
Like the way Mr. P. was good with James, son of Grace’s co-worker Ellie. Encouraging him to read, slipping him a book here and there, helping him find good resources for a homework assignment. She suspected, knowing Mr. P. as a frustrated Cupid, he’d even coached James on proper approaches to The Girl Thing, as James referred to it. Ellie wouldn’t be too good with that. She adored her son, but exclusively. Though Grace was sure Ellie and Jax were lovers and had been for the past few years, Ellie just wasn’t a warm woman where men were concerned. Hot. Oh, hot all right. Grace didn’t doubt that. But not warm. Grace always mentally shrugged when she thought of Elie. She’d been kind to Grace since she’d stumbled into the bookstore and Mr. P. had hired her, just like that. A life saver, Mr. P. And a good woman, Ellie - Mr. P.’s right hand.
Grace liked Ellie, but wasn’t ever all the way at ease with her. Ellie made her think of teachers she’d had. Nice, but judgmental. She didn’t discourage friendship, exactly, but it felt like her idea of a friendship would be more a sharing of cultural or business interests than a down and dirty about something like - well, like GBL II and this sudden threat to her and Gordie.
Ellie didn’t really approve of the fact that Grace’d never been married. Well, no, not that. But that Gordie hadn’t a legal father. And she thought Gordie’s name was “some kind of perverted humor or else pure braggadocio.” Grace had had to look that word up to be sure she understood. The dictionary said, ‘empty boasting, arrogant pretension.’ So much for warm! She’d overheard Ellie say it to Mr. P., and Mr. P. of course had murmured, “Ahhh? Ummmmmm.” His way of avoiding animus. ‘Animus.’ Another Ellie word. Meaning hostility or ill feeling. Talk about hostility, it’s also Jung's term for the masculine part of a woman's personality (right back attcha, Ellie).
Mr. P. would always just smooth on by any lurking animus. But Grace hadn’t been stung. Ellie could sting. Like a wasp. Funny, when she was the furthest thing from a WASP, being Cuban-Indian and frequently taken for Black African. Her words could hurt. But she’d had her own battles to fight. And when Grace considered the source of the charge, all she could think in return was, ‘bodacious.’ That was Ellie. A blend of bold and audacious. Beautiful and distant. Hot and spicy. Smart and quick.
Braggadocio, eh? It would take Ellie to be so hung up on being proper to even think something like that. Did she ask? About Gordie’s name? She would never give it that much house room. Another Ellie saying. Telling James not to give so much house room to silly ideas like about playing music like Willie had. Got to be proper. A little snobbishness on Ellie’s part? Grace allowed it. She knew how hard Ellie had had to work to make a good life for herself and James. Seemed a shame that they couldn’t share more, the two of them, Grace and Ellie. Each with a son to raise alone. And Grace had to admit that Gordie’s name was over the top. Maybe she’d have it legally changed. Maybe it’d BE legally changed.
She felt a chill down her neck. She felt sorry for Mrs. Gordon Beatie Leighton, II because being unable to have children felt unutterably sad to her, now that she had Gordie. But Gord had wanted no children. Have no time for that, he’d said. Too busy building. “For what I want in life.” He’d been finishing his second degree at university and already had feelers out for an apprenticeship to those practices he admired or thought he could learn from. No, no children.
And since then he’d certainly succeeded in building his life exactly the way he wanted it. Lots of money, separate from the family. Took nothing more from them than his name, his education and a frugal annual allotment for living while he worked to become Leighton, Ltd. Going to be hard, fighting him for Gordie. Which was what the letter made clear. GBL II now wanted to claim Gordie as his son and heir.
Grace leaned back and contemplated her toes. She’d accomplished things after she’d left Moorestown. Why hadn’t she up and left long before? She shook her head. Part of her had been as if in a coma. Once she’d gotten to Squamtec, she’d just driven through the next six years of her life without looking left or right. Started college, finished freshman year with extra credits towards sophomore year. Had Gordie. Nursed him through the summer and early fall, worked at The Athena, and started classes again in the second semester. Made up the time plus carrying extra courses again, aiming for early graduation. In just three years, she was out with her BS. Went on to get her master’s degree in library science. And was full time at The Athena now. Just ‘til Gordie was settled into school and had mastered being a good student and learning well.
And now, when she’d achieved so much, she wasn’t about to let GBL II take the only other person that mattered to her more than herself. Gordie was a normal grotty seven year old kid. Who didn’t need his life complicated by adults waging a war over him. By having some stranger march up and declare himself “Dad.” Her life was good. She loved her work at The Athena. She loved Mr. Pitt. She respected Ellie. Jax and Sara and Willie were her best buds. And no way was she going to lose any part of it.
Back last October, when Leighton, Ltd. began on the development over at Pinter Lake, across the Squamtec line in Freemont, she’d gotten real antsy. Why, she couldn’t explain. True, GBL was a hands-on guy. He would be around. But she knew very well that the operative word in that sentence was “around.” Because GBL II didn’t like middle class small towns. Would drive fifty miles to find lunch in a place with the right kind of food in the right kind of ambience (Gawd, how she hated that word) and then drive fifty miles back without blinking an eye.
Of course, his cars were always superb - heavy, fast, expensive - the very best. And he loved driving. For him driving was competitive. With the other drivers. With the roads. With his car. To get the best performance out of it. So none of that was hardship to him. When it came to dustbowl or deep south or way out west or way up north, wherever it was that he was sure he couldn’t possibly find what he wanted in dining or sleeping accomodation, he’d fly in and out in his own jet and then take to the car. A man who, when he went for take out, went for take out! She rolled back and guffawed. She sighed. The Tooth had always been able to make her laugh. She’d give him that. But not now. Now she had to take him on and she had to win.
The only ploy that had come to mind for Grace had been to blindside Gord in public. The new Leighton Ltd. development going in at Pinter Lake, where Jax was on crew doing some of the finishing work, was a Joint Venture. Something new for Gord. And Jax had said that Gord was due to walk the property again soon. This time bringing the Joint Venturers with him. Along with Mary as hostess to the Joint Venturers and their wives, who would be staying at The Landing.
Squamtec was an old port town, attractive if a bit run down and seedy in spots, but that only made it more colorful. And certainly it was scenic. The Landing was where the old inn stood. A family business, passed down from generation to generation over the years. Summer folk kept it busy in season and otherwise gourmands from all around were attracted to its excellent dining room.
It’ll do, she could hear Gord saying. It’ll have to. That’s where she’d have her best opportunity to front him. Together with his wife. Have Gordie with her and walk right up. Simply introduce him to “my old friend, from way back when, Mr. Leighton.” Say, “We grew up together, went to the same schools and I taught him to whistle through his teeth.” Say, “Didn’t I, Gord?” And then say, “Gordie, this is Mr. Leighton and his wife, Mary.” Make it personal. And public. Let the chips fall where they might. Grace didn’t fold under pressure. She just got stubborn. And smart. Street smart. Those smarts were telling her to take her fight to the streets. And to Mary. Let Mary meet her. And Gordie. Then let GBL II make the next move.
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