The insulated splendor of Morrocroft Estates had a certain artificial exclusiveness, but was no less compelling for that fact. In the absence of any natural distinction, Morrocroft was, much like the city of Charlotte itself, entirely dependent upon the creation of a fabricated one.
As Dr. Stephen Rayfield was waved through the iron gate by the unsmiling security guard, he was struck by the sheer opulent audacity of the place. Many of the city's power brokers, including the chancellor of Stephen's university, resided in enormous homes behind the sturdy brick wall that encircled Morrocroft, an otherwise flat, nondescript tract of land near the Southpark shopping mall. Some of these luxe pioneers had migrated from the more sedate neighborhood of Myers Park, whose majestic old homes still maintained a historic cachet. Indeed, many of the residents of Myers Park still effected an upward tilt of their noses whenever the vulgar name of Morrocroft was uttered in their presence.
While the oak-shaded streets of Myers Park remained a sanctuary of money and privilege, its antique charm was deficient in one crucial regard. Unlike the fortress that was Morrocroft, it lacked a wall, that tangible assurance of bricks and mortar that said clearly and decisively to all intruders, social or criminal, Keep Out.
Although Stephen had moved to Charlotte almost a year ago, this was his first visit to his aunt and uncle's home. It was an ornate Italian Renaissance concoction and was surrounded by a tall iron fence. That Edward and Missy Harrison required such fortification, in addition to the guarded entrance of Morrocroft itself, only hinted at the treasures within. Stephen drove through the open gate into the circular driveway, which was bordered with boxwoods and a profusion of red and white begonias.
As Stephen ascended the stone steps, his curly brown hair was still wet, looking as if he had just showered. He had the high cheekbones and broad forehead of the Scots-Irish Harrisons, heightened by judicious, though no doubt clandestine, mixing with Cherokee blood some generations back.
The sun was setting, as if on cue. A softening pinkish glow graced the entry terrace. Stephen studied the carved panels of the double-sided front doors, which were supposed to be reminiscent of the Ghiberti doors in Florence, Italy. Rumor had it that his aunt had the sculpted panels specially commissioned by a Florentine artisan. Missy was known for a dedication to all things Italian. Such a sensibility for Anglophilic Charlotteans, where references to Florence typically led to the town in South Carolina, bordered on the exotic.
He tapped the green lion's head door knocker. The massive door was promptly opened by two attendants, a portly man in black tie and a young woman in a black dress. "Welcome," the young woman said, "Mr. and Mrs. Harrison are in the library."
Stephen smiled at Aunt Missy's latest affectation, intrigued, impressed even, by the shameless overreaching of a woman who would actually employ uniformed attendants for a dinner for ten. He stepped inside a cavernous foyer and hall. The white marble floors were so gleaming that he could almost see his reflection as he walked by heavy oak-paneled walls. He proceeded past the grim portraits of various Harrisons and Gilmores, reverently framed in gilt.
Gilt surpasses guilt, he thought, mindful of the more unsavory histories of both clans.
Mr. and Mrs. Edward Harrison stood side by side in the library, in front of the elaborate stone fireplace. Above the mantel, a portrait of Missy holding a bouquet of roses loomed in serene contemplation. The room was furnished in a brown sea of leather chairs and sofas. The walls were lined with shelves crowded with immaculate boxed sets of books, which were distinctive for, if not their actual use, their remarkable color coordination. No doubt mindful of Charlotte's reputation as a cultural wasteland, Missy had deposited a string quartet in a corner, conveniently next to the bar. The strains of Puccini wafted unobtrusively about the room as guests sipped obligatory cocktails.
Missy, smiling effusively, whispered something to her husband as Stephen paused somewhat hesitantly at the door. Missy looked the picture of regal comfort in her green silk cocktail dress, which was cut low to highlight the diamond necklace nestled securely in the crevice of her firmly augmented breasts.
"Stephen! How wonderful to see you," Missy exclaimed, rushing over to the door and hugging him with an enthusiasm notable for its force if not its sincerity. She took him by the arm and guided him into the room like a pet of whom she was fond, but not yet decided on keeping. "Edward, look who's here," she called out to her husband, who was talking now to an attractive young couple.
"Hey there, pardner," Edward said, taking Stephen's hand in a firm, assertive grip. "We finally got you over here." Edward Harrison effected a patient and stoic forbearance, smiling good-naturedly in his well-tailored, but still somehow ill-fitting suit. Next to the shimmery, textured blondeness of his wife, his shock of white, wavy hair hinted at a sort of virginal innocence. Given Stephen's limited but telling education in the randy nature of southern men, he could only conclude that such a semblance of purity was surely an illusion.
Edward turned to the couple beside him. "Alice. Bill. I'd like you to meet my nephew, Dr. Stephen Rayfield. He's a history professor out at UNCC."
"Assistant professor. Call me Stephen," he said.
"Oh, he's just being modest," Missy interjected. Then, with a proprietary tone of a satisfied hostess comparing one ornament to another, Missy added, "Alice and Bill here are transplants from San Francisco. Alice is a doctor and Bill works for Bank of America." Missy smiled broadly as she and Edward left to continue their orbit about the room.
"So. History," Alice said. "How do you manage to get those kids to pay attention? Aren't they all just glued to MTV these days?"
"Oh, absolutely," he replied, "All of my lectures are given in music video format. I film them the night before."
"Wow," Bill said, "so you can sing too?"
"Sing? No. I can't carry a tune, but neither can anyone on MTV, can they? An actual melody would only confuse them. I have worked out some fabulous dance moves though. You should see my Jefferson tango."
One of those awkward, silent intervals ensued, as the newly introduced trio glanced appraisingly at one another. Stephen assumed that Alice and Bill Owens were still, as he was, relatively new to the bumpy terrain of social life in Charlotte. They probably approached events at homes such as the Harrisons' with the curious gaze, if not attire, of a couple on safari. Fortyish looking, each retained a lean and athletic form that more than hinted at their enduring, vaguely sensual, capability for all sorts of exploration. Given their still youthful attractiveness, not to mention their esoteric backgrounds, Stephen suspected that they were greatly in demand, if slightly suspect, among Charlotte hostesses.
Dinner consisted of overcooked seafood risotto and the compensation of a delightful Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The wine was of an immaculate vintage and was in no way diminished by Aunt Missy's doomed efforts to correctly pronounce it.
The guests, reduced to nine as a result of the much commented on absence of the husband of Frances Bulwark, the textile heiress, earnestly discussed banking mergers, the athletic struggles of the Panthers, and, in somewhat more muted tones, escalating crime. There had been another carjacking just the other day in Providence Plantation, in the very bosom of affluent southeast Charlotte.
"Do you share your aunt's fondness for Italy?" Dr. Alice Owens whispered to Stephen, lightly touching his hand with her own.
"Oh yes, of course, but not like Aunt Missy. She has, I would say, a more elevated appreciation for the Italians. My preference is for the earthier variety. I was just there last summer, backpacking, after finishing up my dissertation."
"Did you go by yourself?" Alice asked.
"Yes," Stephen said, then winked, "part of the time." He noticed that her eyes, like his own, were a dark shade of blue.
Alice smiled. "I would guess you don't lack for company for long."
Stephen was about to reply when there was the faint tinkling of a wine glass, and the table silenced. Missy, her blonde highlights pulled tight into a helmeted pile, smiled with equal tautness and rose from her seat. In the Harrison household, one of the modest gestures to feminism was that Missy always gave the toasts at their parties.
Edward Harrison, with the affected and vacant pose of a campaign wife, glanced across the table as Missy began to speak, carefully modulating the deep tones of her menopausal voice. "Everyone, I can't let this evening go by without thanking you, each and every one of you, for being here with us tonight, and so I must propose a toast."
She paused a moment, frozen in misty-eyed nostalgia, as if she were already remembering this evening as a particularly treasured occasion. "A home is only bricks and mortar and bits of wood. Well, okay, and Brunswig and Fils fabrics! No offense, Frances," she said, glancing at Frances Bulwark, whose beleaguered textile empire produced simpler cloth.
"None taken," Mrs. Bulwark said, waving her bejeweled fingers, no doubt wanting to add that the 'l' in Fils was silent.
"Those are just things," Missy continued, "It is friendship and family that we treasure. And that is what you all mean to us."
Just as Missy sat down, Mrs. Laura Caldwell raised her glass. Mrs. Caldwell had the oddly delicate look of a plump Lladro figurine. Everything about her seemed soft, yet somehow precise and tapered, from the gentle waves of her jet black hair to the manicured opal smoothness of her fingernails. She appeared to be a woman for whom nothing, not even her own expanding girth, should ever be out of its appointed place.
"I would like to thank Missy and Edward for this lovely dinner," Laura began. Her husband Andrew, whose resigned slouch and insistent paunch were his most assertive attributes, stared at the centerpiece of towering orchids. "They make the world," Laura continued, "which can be so discouraging these days, a brighter place. Generous. Compassionate..."
She hesitated, searching without success for another adjective. Her somber expression caused her chin to collapse into multiple waves of doughy flesh. Then, her expression settled into a resolute smile, tensing the flabbiness of her face into something perhaps more solid, but, Stephen observed, infinitely more discouraging. Finally, she concluded, "They enrich our lives every day. God has blessed us with these dear friends, and we thank Him. Here's to Missy and Edward."
Stephen lifted his glass along with the others. He tried not to wince at Mrs. Caldwell's convivial reference to God. He glanced at Alice and Bill, and was impressed by their noncommittal, but reverent, expression. Stephen reminded himself that most ot the people at the Harrison table shared, or at least pretended to share, Laura Caldwell's fervent bond with Jesus. At the end of the day, Charlotte was still a city of banks and churches. Praise the Lord.
Tiramisu, inevitably, was served for dessert, along with cappuccinos. Alice Owens nudged Stephen and said, with just a slight nod to southern womanhood, "Goodness, I can't tell you how glad I am you were here tonight. It's such a pleasure meeting you."
"The pleasure is mine," Stephen said, his blue eyes gazing mischievously at her. He thought he saw Missy glaring at them from her perch at the head of the table, but decided she was just displeased with the tiramisu. It probably wasn't a bit like what she had enjoyed in Milan last year.
Stephen would look back at the end of that unforgiving summer and recall the odd number of guests seated at the enormous mahogany table that evening in May. Nine. An uneven number. But, there had been another, unseen guest. A final visitor, heedless of glistening sunsets or Murano glass, oblivious to ambition or regret, and notable not so much for entrance as for exit. The spectral presence that eventually arrives unbidden and unwanted in every life was there that evening at the Harrison home. And it was quietly, patiently waiting, knowing that the walled fortress of Morrocroft Estates was not so impregnable after all.
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