After my newly widowed sister Libby gave birth to her fifth child, she decided to become a goddess.
It takes effort,' she advised me when I went into her bedroom to shake her awake one cold November morning. But it's just what you need, Nora.'
I'm too busy taking care of your family,' I said, passing her the squirming body of her newborn son. When you finish transforming yourself, could you make some peanut butter sandwiches for the kids?'
I can't,' she said, taking the child. I've given up peanut butter as a sacrifice to Placida.'
My goddess within.' Libby began unlacing the ties on one of her exquisitely embroidered nightgowns in preparation of feeding her frantic son his overdue breakfast. Placida is the deity of tranquility, sexual adventure and weight loss.'
I sighed. Libby, you had a baby just five weeks ago. And you can't expect to lose weight without getting out of bed once in a while. Giving up peanut butter is a good start, but if you quit watching all those episodes of Trading Spaces and get some exercise--'
You don't understand the goddess process, Nora.' Libby plumped the lacy pillows around her voluptuous figure and sat back with a beatific smile as the baby clamped on to her breast like a starving Yorkshire piglet. You must open yourself to the possibilities so the goddess may flow from within you. It's a mental path to all kinds of fulfillment. Why, just last night I had an erotic dream about Dr. Phil.'
As she nursed her perfect baby I looked at my demented sister, with her beautiful skin glowing and her hair in a vixenish sort of tangle and her body all soft and glamorously flaunted, as if ready to be ravaged at Versailles by a Bourbon king. The Blackbird white complexion and auburn hair--which had been passed down through the generations, along with a very peculiar family crest and a seventeenth-century Blackbird blunderbuss--looked demure on me but distinctly more erotic on Libby. After childbirth, women weren't supposed to look as if they'd been airbrushed by Playboy's most gifted photographer, but here was Libby looking divine while I felt as if I'd been beaten with a shovel.
I said, If I strangled you with your own nursing bra right now, it would be justifiable homicide.'
I'm re-centering my life!' she cried. Don't rush me! I must gather my cosmic resources, prioritize my most primal joys and learn to validate my sacred inner magic so I can evolve into the goddess of my mysterious potential. Such a powerful psychological makeover takes time.'
Well, the kitchen floor needs a makeover, too. How about using a mop while I'm out?'
She sat up and widened her eyes in pretty dismay. Where are you going? Good heavens, you're not having clandestine morning sex with That Man, are you?'
Although clandestine sex might tempt me I knew I shouldn't leave Libby's children alone in her custody for any reason whatsoever. Sixteen-year-old Rawlins had taken to suspiciously disappearing late at night with a group of friends who collectively had enough body piercings to start a surgical supply store. The thirteen-year-old twins Harcourt and Hilton were closeted in the basement, making a Santa Claus movie that involved bloodcurdling screams every three minutes, and five-year-old Lucy had invented an imaginary friend who graffitied the living room walls with grape jelly when I wasn't vigilant. The baby, who still had not been bestowed with a name by his goddess mother, couldn't bear to be anywhere but in my arms, except when he was trying to deplete his mother's milk supply.
To top everything off, Libby was lactating with more volume than a dairy cow, so one of my jobs was bottling and freezing the overflow to contribute to a breast milk bank at a Philadelphia foster child agency. Which meant there were even more children who depended on me while Libby lolled in postpartum splendor, dreaming of talk-show hosts and cockamamie deities.
I had no time for anything, including clandestine sex.
That Man,' I said, is fishing in Scotland.'
She settled back against her pillows and muttered, Yeah, sure.'
I turned in the doorway. What's that supposed to mean?'
Libby smoothed the fair hair on her baby's head. Honestly, Nora, if you believe your mob-boss boyfriend has gone fishing, I'm marching straight out to find a bridge to sell you.'
Oh, not that again.'
Do I need flip charts to explain it? Michael Abruzzo is a dangerous man mixed up in so many shady businesses--'
That new chain of gas stations,' Libby said promptly. Gas 'n' Grub? They're popping up all over the place.'
What's wrong with selling gasoline and sandwiches? Besides the indigestion?'
They're cash businesses, Nora. Even you must know what that means.'
He's making a living?' I said, tartly, bringing up a sore subject, since my parents blew the last of the Blackbird fortune and sailed off to a tax-evader's paradise where they spent most of their time rehearsing for the weekly mambo contest.
Libby covered her baby's ears lest he learn about high crime at such a tender age. Michael Abruzzo is laundering money.'
Oh, for crying out loud--'
The papers say he's under investigation.'
He's always under investigation. Because of his family, not himself.'
Well, this is a new one, and he's the star of the show. I heard it on the news last night. It's probably why he's fled the country.'
He hasn't fled! He's taking a vacation.'
Think about it, Nora. If you had ill-gotten gains, you'd want a place to pass the dirty money to an unsuspecting public in small batches. That's why he started Gas 'n' Grub. Vanity Fair had a big article about money laundering last month. Pizza shops: now, those are a gold mine for criminals.'
Michael is not a criminal.'
Which I believed most of the time.
He looks like a criminal,' Libby declared. A sexy criminal, I'll admit, with, okay, a sort of fallen-angel magnetism that some women find attractive, but--'
I'm leaving now,' I said before she could go into her riff about consorting with the devil. Somehow I wouldn't mind so much if I actually enjoyed a little consorting, but lately I'd been stuck refereeing her children. I'll be back in two hours.'
Where are you going?'
I told you. I'm covering the hunt breakfast for the newspaper. And Emma's riding, remember?'
Neither of us had quite gotten the hang of my employment yet. Before I was widowed, I'd spent my adult life being married to a doctor and devoting my time to good works and the Junior League, so when the family fortunes evaporated on tropical breezes, I didn't have a respectable resume for job hunting. But an old family friend who owned a Philadelphia newspaper had found me a position as an assistant to the society columnist. The job required me to attend parties and report on clothes, guest lists and the details of so-called high society entertaining. It was work for which I was singularly suited, having been brought up in a tax bracket where the oxygen was very thin and party planning was an art form. I wasn't going to earn a Pulitzer any time soon, but the job helped me pay down the heart-stopping tax debt on Blackbird Farm.
This morning's assignment was the hunt breakfast at an exclusive fox hunting club just off the Main Line. And I needed to be there shortly after sunrise.
Libby eyed me. Are you going to talk to Emma?'
I'm going to try.'
Maybe I should come along.'
I think I can address Emma's situation in a calm and rational manner on my own.'
Are you implying that childbirth has rendered me incapable of rationality?' Libby asked. I'll have you know there are actually studies that prove motherhood makes you smarter. So you have something to look forward to.'
My sister Libby had plans to make everyone's lives perfect. She decided that I only needed children to reach a state of serenity, and she rarely missed an opportunity to remind me of the maternal rewards that awaited me if I paid closer attention to the expiration date on my ovaries.
After five weeks in the household from hell,' I said, I'm having second thoughts about having a family of my own.'
Libby appeared not to hear me. I think I will go along with you this morning.'
You're kidding, right?'
We should present a united front. Yes, I'll definitely come. I have an invitation around here somewhere.' She disconnected her son from his food source and began to burp him while she imagined the party. It might be a nice reentry into the world for me, too. All those handsome men on horseback!' The look in her eye reminded me of a pyromaniac lighting a match.
Don't start, Libby.'
Don't start what?'
Chasing unsuspecting men as if they were helpless rabbits doomed for the stew pot. You're in a hormonal fever right now. You're a danger to society. I'm not taking you with me. Besides, my car will be here in five minutes, and you'll never be ready.'
I'll follow you later,' she said. Run along.'
What about the baby?' The idea of my lactating sister descending on an early morning party made me fear for the safety of my fellow guests. And the rest of the kids?'
She waved me off. There's plenty of my milk in the fridge, so he'll survive. I'll call a neighbor girl to keep an eye on the mayhem. I want to see you in action. You're always stumbling into excitement, and Placida thrives on exciting events. See you there!'
My driver, Reed Shakespeare, was waiting in the driveway in the predawn darkness when I went tearing outside. He worked for the limousine service Michael owned--one of his many businesses--that had been hired by my newspaper to deliver me to assignments. A part-time college student and barely out of his teens, Reed took his job very seriously. Now experienced with my various moods, especially when I was escaping one of my sisters, he calmly handed me a paper cup of tea--skim milk, no sugar, just the way I liked it--along with the morning newspaper for me to read in the backseat. He opened the rear door for me. He hadn't decided to allow me to sit up front yet, and I was determined to prove myself worthy...