“Is there anything we can do to help her? In a way that she won’t lose her social security or Medicare? She’s old and she doesn’t have too many years left.”
I ask Max about the woman and what she needs. I’ve never requested anything from her. Our interactions have been passive. Her frown sits impertinently in the middle of her forehead like an iron wall. She appears unsure on how to move forward, which seems unusual for her. It’s possible that I’ve misread this within her. She’s never struck me as a woman that’s unsure of herself or how to proceed on anything.
Quiet for several minutes, her face softens slightly, understanding; the wall opens. “I’ll have someone take care of it, Willa.”
I turn to leave then look back to her. “Is this usually how this works?”
“How what works?”
“Rich people come to someone like you to make their problems go away?”
She frowns. “You mean because I’m Jewish?”
My eyes widen. “Um, no…no. I didn’t mean…you’re Jewish?”
She rolls her eyes. “Relax. I know what you meant and yes, pretty much,” she says quietly.
“What an easy life y’all must lead.”
“Easy?” She laughs into a sigh. “No, not really. We get to do things like this for others to make their lives easier.” She motions towards the chair. “Sit down, Willa. I need to discuss some business with you.”
I hesitate. “What business could you possibly have with me?” I ask puzzled.
“I need signatures from you on a few documents. I have Ali’s. I need yours.” She pushes papers towards me.
I sign without reading then escape to somewhere without people and responsibilities. Avoiding the others for a few days is easy enough in this place. All except Ali; we’re never far from one another. She doesn’t exhaust me or demand anything from me. At least nothing I am incapable or unwilling to give. She doesn’t ceaselessly talk interrupting my thought process or endlessly expect me to be something I’m not.
The house, a massive thirty-five-thousand square foot accessory seldom used, squats on a one hundred acre point of this southern state’s largest lake. The stealth-like staff hover in the shadows and refuse to meet my eyes when I unearth one. It’s almost a game of hide and seek. Their orders are to avoid encounters with us, the guests, as we’re in mourning and not to be disturbed unless requested. The guests have been given use of the property indefinitely. The owner of the estate—a caricature of wealth and pomposity and a known con man despite his now famous title and responsibility that he uses more as a brand than a duty—is a family friend of a friend—that incestuous group of billionaires—and wants us to feel like his home is our home. Shocking, I know. I’d found myself here after Nik—I stop what I’m thinking and deviate from the thought of twisted metals and the flash of a brilliant smile.
I’m not a fan of the owner or any of their ilk and I take great pleasure in avoiding those types. The Wests, however, want to be different and unexpected. They hanker to shatter the one percent conventions while befriending other one percenters and exploiting them by any means to feed their endgame—whatever that is. All this and they’re still embraced by those they loathe. Not embraced, more like nuzzled, sometimes without their consent.
I’ve watched the duplicity of their friends from just outside the circle. I’ve marveled at their ability to use diplomacy and political nuance towards those that have no care for others beyond themselves and their property. Rich white people with nary a care in the world other than the fit of their suits, the square footage of their mansions, and how far and fast their private jets can travel.
I’ve never liked rich people—till I met Nik and his family. Then again, I’m still trying to like them.
The chair is a reader’s chair. More like a settee—camel colored, soft, plush with big fat arms and a sturdy wide back—it sits low and deep like a nook, and molds and caresses my body when I crawl and curl into it with my book and cocoa brown lavender scented chenille blanket. Large enough to sit a few offensive front-lineman, the chair sits near the tall windows facing the endless flatness of water and an all-day sun that accents the area from dawn to dusk. I delve into the pages of another world hoping to forget about mine when Grace appears with two cups of tea, steam curling into the rays of sun like a specter. I close my book and take the hot cup without comment or expression.
Grace has never been one to skimp at tea, another rare and expensive beverage and commodity in decline. She rejects the bag tea for actual organic fair trade loose-leaf tea—as fair trade as anything can be nowadays. One of a few extravagant pleasures in life, she says. After an atypical start to our relationship many years ago, we’ve awkwardly bonded—as much as you can bond with Grace West—over many cups of sharp black tea—her favorite.
A longing in her eyes beckons. I pull my blanket aside indicating for her to sit down under the covers. She does carefully and cautiously. After situating herself opposite me and tucking the blanket firmly around our legs, her unduly warm pliable body pressed into the corner, she gazes out towards the water and lets out a deep sigh. “This place is beautiful. It’s a shame this view cannot be shared.” Another deep sigh escapes before taking a sip and a pause, she continues. “The privileged have appropriated the beauty of earth exploited it leaving the rest to wither in the rot.” She shakes her head tsk-tsking, sipping more tea.
Grace, in her sixties, is unequaled—so they say. A humanitarian, feminist, and a brilliant medical scientist, she is an enigma to those who don’t know her; one of those grey-area bad feminists where meta-ethical moral relative pragmatism prevails. Another proud member of the lippy bitch club and the matriarch of the West family, an antipode of the typical rich, she prefers—demands—anonymity and privacy. Trust and transparency ebbs the closer you get until you’re in the clear, which takes a while; seven years on and Ali and I had only gained a small portion of that trust in the last couple of years.
Her prestige—having come by it through rumors of cryptic deeds and unconventional means—remains unknown to the world although the myths circulating are dark and legendary. A celebrity in part from her mysterious and shocking past—a biography I’ll relay eventually—and her famous and successful actor son, a product of her polyamorous relationships with long time partners Parker Mitchell West and Grayson Merrick West—both adopted Grace’s surname as their own—as well as the wealth of the family through the West Foundation, she embraces obscurity and the mysteries around her abound. Her work classified, open to only a few, casual family talk prohibits discussing the topic. Nik avoided the subject completely. I asked him once why and he said because people wouldn’t understand—a few would, but most would not. While I found it all mysterious and fascinating and the extreme evasiveness used to deflect peculiar, I respected their wishes. My curiosity often gets the better of me and I went delving into the gossipy shadows of the internet where nay an iota could be found besides the ridiculous gossip and conspiracies of the tabloids; those same ones that had me having Nik and Alison’s love child and other ridiculous headlines. These nonexistent internet rumors and presence was unusual and preposterous to me at first; eventually, I came to honor and welcome having seen the devastating toll notoriety can take on acquaintances, myself notwithstanding.
Given the work the West Foundation does, most of it unknown to the public, I had a vague idea from the various nuanced conversations we’ve had over the years: bioengineering and biotechnology, genetics, genomics, evolutionary biology, genetic engineering, molecular biology and engineering, nanotechnology, obstetrics, gynecology, endocrinology, virology, and reproductive endocrinology and infertility; all specializing on the female body and a strong emphasis on what contributions the male body has to offer a female society, which I found immensely fascinating—and somewhat dubious. I finally recognized the urgency of the operation as time advanced, but was skeptical of some of the more nefarious rumors.
I converged on what I gathered around her while relishing the mystery and the humanity of it all outright, ignoring and avoiding some of the more dark and dangerous whispers—the ones that tend to make people scoff and squirm in their seats. I admired her knowledge, the vast scope of her wisdom, her history, and the links she would go to help women especially in these unpredictable times.
Especially now. Most especially now.
Alison broached the idea of finding out more about the Wests and their foundation. I told her to let them have their privacy. This was back when I was younger, more naive, and feeling the brunt of people probing my own privacy. Alison went diving into it anyways. What she found, she never said, and I never asked. She seemed to side-eye and fancy them more afterwards to a most snarkish, devilish glee. That both reassured and concerned me as Ali’s dark side could be most insidious.
Grace—pragmatic in her grief and mourning on the loss of her only child—savors my presence of late. Her awkward attempts at intimacy with me and Alison would be seen to most as amusing and impersonal. I’ve come to appreciate the sincerity in these minuscule actions towards us. Like Grace, my grief and mourning are of a different animal and not of the average person.
Since Nik’s death, Parker and Gray, engulfed in their grief, keeps all of us close with a keen sensitivity and virile protection; thus, the overabundance of security, something that was only moderately annoying before, but since Nik’s death, has recently become a necessity out of self-preservation and survival. The feeling of being targeted has been painted on our foreheads like a bullseye. We are being stalked and hunted in the open, in the crowd, and anywhere we turn by suggestions, innuendos, propaganda, shade, fabrications, fake news, tweets, racism, bigotries, radical ideologies; those things taken seriously not literally. Then it wasn’t even taken seriously, was it? Only afterwards and even then, not sternly.
Nik’s death—ultimately a product of this malignant doublespeak where facts no longer mattered—sits in front of us like a gaping void and vacuum where anything touching it disappears into a slew of imbecilic and clichéd; another series of tropes I hardly wanted to sit through. Here we are. The nuance all but lost; flatly abandoned.
“Max told me about the woman.” She doesn’t say anything for the longest time. “Willa, did Nik ever tell you what I do exactly?”
“And you never asked? I doubt that. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors and the occasional family discussions.” I hesitate before answering taking a sip of tea. She anticipates and answers before I do. “I would. My son didn’t fall for either of you because you’re brainless and submissive.”
I choke on my tea. “Thank you?”
“Don’t be coy. What do you think I do?”
I look into her eyes and the pain hits me. Again, and again, and again. Looking away towards the lake, I take a deep breath and pull a sad smile turning back to her: “He had your eyes.”
A flicker of grief flashes before the coolness closes in around her. She stares me down, not aggressively, but with an intimacy and warmth that plays on her lips in the form of a small smile. “Yes,” she says. “And Gray’s eyes.” She looks back out through the window over the lake waxing nostalgic. “The three of us creating such a child, such a man, such a gift to this world—” I see the shadow of tears. She shakes them off and takes a drink of tea. “I gather you’re shrewd and worthy enough to determine who’s behind the curtain and what she’s doing without exposing all to the vile and the intolerant? I’ve noticed you’ve even assisted in your own way. As inelegantly as you could.” She pauses. “I know that Nikolas’ death has…” She stops, swallows not finishing.
After several long minutes, I reply: “Niky…took a piece of me—of both of us—with him when he died that will never ever grow back. But…he is only a part of our story. He is not the entirety of it. I want to make a difference. This is my only life and I want to make a difference. I know for sure Ali does.”
“Do you have a sense … of duty?”
“Nik’s death was one in a long line of events that will only get worse before it gets better,” she says gazing into the same grim future we’ve all seen before turning her attention back to me. She takes another sip and releases a sigh. “This journey will be dangerous and will change your life forever.”
“That happened when we got involved with Niky and it’s not like we’ve had an easy and painless life.” I say this knowing that she had her minions do an extensive background investigation on the both of us.
She hesitates with a long blank look before continuing. “There were some boxes delivered for you yesterday, I went through some of them,” she says unapologetically. “This woman—her journals are fascinating. Nothing extraordinary, but compelling. Her words, poetry, her ideas are … important, rare in the extreme for someone with her background. Some would say unnatural, I wouldn’t. Especially now.” Grace says staring back out over the water in a meandering fascination. “She’s being transferred to the West Foundation’s main facility by private jet as we speak. We’ll take care of her. We’ll talk more about your role in the Foundation tonight at dinner, over time, and we’ll ask Alison to join us.” She grins and rises. Before walking away, she looks at me. “Sometimes we make choices for other people forced into circumstances not of their choosing. Often we give the voiceless a voice so that eventually they will be free and empowered to make their own choices. We fight for people that are not empowered to fight for themselves.” A pause and the soft shift of her face into a light almost peaceful sorrow nudges me. “And we sacrifice. So much. In the meantime, we make our own hope and distribute it where and whenever we can.” She turns and leaves and I try not to sneer at the rich white woman burdened by the privilege and power of making choices for us all then telling me she’s doing it for our benefit.
The sun descends, embracing the lake, transforming the sky and surroundings gold and pink, I feel the flare of optimism spark the shadows of frost in my heart; the first positive feeling I’ve had in several months.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins