With love to my wife Lynn Harnett,
who gave me the story,
and to my cousin FBI Special Agent James McCarty,
who could be Randall Shane
Thanks to Sandra Aitken and Peggy Ruggieri, two
of the best gown-makers in the known universe,
for helping Jane Garner establish her business.
Kids Like Balloons
Ricky Lang dreams of his three children. Sometimes they are dressed in white cotton nightshirts emblazoned with cartoons from the Magic Kingdom. Goofy and Mickey and various ducks. Sometimes the children appear to be wearing garments made of light, glowing with an intensity that makes his eyes hurt. Sometimes the two girls float above the ground, grinning like mischievous angels while his son, four-year-old Tyler, tugs at his sisters as if they are wayward balloons. Making a game of pulling them down.
Sleeping or waking, it does not matter, he dreams of the children. For instance at this very moment he’s wide-awake, lounging in the hot, hushed shade of his tiki hut, staring at the glistening blue water in his brand-new swimming pool. Sipping on a tall iced tea and wondering why the water looks like Ty-D-bowl, the same bright color, and all the while his three children stand in a row on the far side of the pool. Dressed in their bathing suits, of course. All three of them waiting for his signal. His permission to enter the water. Waiting so patiently.
The children can’t be there, he knows that.
“Myla!” he bellows. “Get out here!”
Myla hurries out of the house. Slim brown legs, wears little white shorts low on her slender hips and a Victoria’s Secret cami top he purchased online. She’s barefoot, balancing a tray laden with sandwiches and salsa chips.
They’ve been together for two months, more or less, and she wants to please him. Nothing pleases Ricky, but she keeps trying.
“Hurry up, woman!”
Myla is barely twenty, has little experience with powerful men. Her big eyes always register a little fear at the sound of his voice, which is just the way he likes it.
“Never mind the food,” he says. “Hit the pool.”
“Swim,” Ricky says. “In the water.”
“We’re going to swim?” asks Myla, confused. A few minutes ago he was demanding lunch at ten in the morning, not exactly lunchtime.
“Not me. You. Go change.”
Myla carefully sets down the tray. Smiles at Ricky and then licks a tiny daub of mayonnaise from the side of her hand, delicately, like a cat tonguing its pretty paw. “What should I wear?”
“Whatever,” Ricky says. “Use the cabana. Hurry.”
Without a word, Myla hurries away, heading for the striped cabana. She looks pleased and hopeful, as if of the true belief that obeying his command, this particular command, will make him happy.
Ricky stares at the plate of sandwiches. Normally he’s a man of vast appetites, but not this morning. The faintly salty odor of albacore tuna and finely chopped celery makes him feel slightly queasy.
A few minutes later she emerges from the cabana wearing the latest itsy-bitsy-teeny bikini. Juicy, that’s what it says on her butt, in big white letters. Ricky likes the idea that he gets to read her ass—that’s why he selected this particular item—but at the moment sex is the furthest thing from his mind. Normally he can’t be around Myla for ten minutes without getting the urge, but today he has other things rattling around inside his head.
Myla executes a lithe pirouette, showing off her new swimsuit.
“Yeah, baby. Get in the pool. Swim.”
Myla lowers herself to the edge of the swimming pool, gingerly, because the tiles are hot. She’s not much of a swimmer, and this is how she enters the pool, by slipping cautiously into the chemical-blue water, no splashing. Ricky likes to dive, belly flop, get things wet. Not Myla.
Very careful girl. Ricky isn’t sure if he really likes careful, not for the long term, but for the moment she’ll do.
“Go on,” he urges. “Swim.”
She smiles, bright and nervous, and then begins to dog-paddle. Carefully, so as not to wet her hair. Ricky waits until she’s halfway through the first lap before checking to see if the children have gone.
He sighs. The muscles in his shoulders and his gut unclench.
“Like this, Ricky?” Myla calls from the pool.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Good.”
It worked. Myla pushed his children back into the dream. Wherever dreams are supposed to go when you’re awake, that’s where the children went. Which is good, because seeing them there all in a row, ready to jump in the pool at his command, it made him want to scream.
He picks up a triangle of sandwich, eats. Delicious. The sense of relief pervades every fiber of his body. He begins to think clearly, and among the thoughts is the nugget of a plan. A plan of action. Something that must be done. Something long overdue.
After a while Myla calls out from the pool. “Ricky? Can I stop now, Ricky?”
“Nah,” he says, not looking. “Keep swimming.”
1. The Girl On The Crotch Rocket
It all starts to go wrong one perfect, early summer evening on the Hempstead Turnpike. That’s when something pulls on the secret thread that holds my life together, and starts the great unraveling.
I don’t know it at the time, of course. I think all is well, that I’m holding things together, as always. Okay, Kelly and I have been fighting a lot lately, but that’s what happens with teenagers, right? All I have to do is stick to my guns, keep on being an involved parent, paying attention to my willful daughter, and everything will come out fine. Right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Normally I try to avoid the turnpike at peak traffic hours, but this time there’d been no choice. Mrs. Haley Tanner wanted a third fitting for the wedding party, and when Haley calls, you drop whatever and respond. She and her new husband are hosting her stepdaughter’s very lavish wedding—nine tents, two bands, three caterers—at their Oyster Bay estate, and she’s worried the bridesmaids may have put on a pound or two. Despite her obnoxious habit of summoning people at the very last possible moment, Haley is actually sort of likable, in a nervous, insecure, please-help-me way. So worried she’s going to do the wrong thing, make a mistake, and demonstrate to Stanley J. Tanner that he chose the wrong trophy wife. Turns out she’s his second trophy wife. Stanley, CEO of Tanner Holdings, ditched the original trophy wife not long after Haley served him broiled cashew halibut at Scalicious, a trendy little fish café in Montauk. At the time Haley was “staying with friends” while she waited tables, which meant she was paying two hundred a week to sleep on the floor. So nabbing Stanley Tanner was a very big deal. Haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Tanner in person myself—he seems to live in his Lear—but just looking at Haley, you know he’s a breast man. Which is fine. A man has to focus on something, right? Why not something that reminds him, however unconsciously, of his mother? As my friend Fern always says, what’s the harm?