Pat didn’t understand right away what Yolande Culp wanted to talk to her about. She didn’t even realize that Yolande wanted to talk. She never had before.
“We can talk at the flower show,” Yolande had said with a significant roll of her eyes toward the front seat of the LinkAge company car, where the capped driver sat muffled in silent deference.
Yolande never did talk much. Sometimes she caught her breath as if she’d thought of something to say, but then decided to save it for a more deserving audience. It did not occur to Pat that Yolande might want to discuss anything in particular. She assumed that Yolande meant Pat could ease up on the flow of chatter for the moment. Yolande, whose husband had sponsored Pat’s in his rapid rise through the company, had always expected to be entertained. Pat didn’t mind. Although she preferred to speak to a person who would tell anecdotes, who would be indiscreet, who would interrupt, and who would top her own confessions with more damning ones, she never minded having to speak for two.
Besides, she was designing a garden for Yolande, so the trip made a certain amount of sense. If Yolande had an ulterior motive, it seemed obvious and mild; she wanted a free docent for the Philadelphia Flower Show. Pat was going full throttle by the time the women made their way through the first of the garden rooms illustrating the theme “English Ingenuity.” At the Cottage Garden exhibit she cried, “Look at that peony! The white one! My God, those blossoms are the size of babies’ heads! All those folds are going to make me weep! Do you know how many flowers they must have gone through to make this one beautiful specimen? How many flowers they cooled and heated and wrapped and lit up all through the night? How many flowers they nearly asphyxiated with great plumes of carbon dioxide? How many flowers they pumped full of fertilizer, flushed out with water, then pumped up again! It’s staggering! The mind boggles!” Her voice swooped like an excited starling through the upper ranges of her register.
It was March, and the LinkAge driver had had to navigate through a light snow on the two-hour trip from northern New Jersey, but this peony was already as big as a plant in a science fiction movie. Forty-four-year-old Pat cantilevered herself over the side of the exhibit for a better view. “Wires,” she said. “I should have known. Those huge blossoms are being held up by wires. See? They look like nooses!” For a moment she let her tongue loll and her head droop as if just she’d just been hanged, then she snapped back to her usual effervescent self. “Staking would never have been enough!”
By design, a cottage garden’s plantings are overabundant and disorganized, checked only by nature, so here nothing reined in its excess. The clematis vines sagged precipitously under their heavy blooms. The delphiniums were as big as baseball bats. The roses were the size of boxing gloves. Even more bizarrely, these summer flowers were intermingled with earlier spring blossoms—narcissus, creeping phlox, grape hyacinth.
“I wanted to be sure we could talk in private,” said Yolande. “You can’t be too careful.”
The literal meaning of this was so improbable that Pat blinked, waiting for Yolande to explain herself. When she did not, Pat said, “It can be exhilarating to try to do something so contrary to nature. Don’t you see? Spring and summer flowers together—it’s like seeing Lillie Langtry on the same stage as Elizabeth Taylor!”
The only trouble was, forced plants were weak, and their flowers, short-lived. Few would survive the show.
“This is a particularly important time for all of us,” said Yolande.
For the first time Pat took a good look at her companion. Yolande gleamed and glinted as a trophy wife should—skin, hair, and teeth all comparable to white gold catching the sun. Her only flaw, if you could call it that, was to appear a bit preserved. She may have been twenty years younger than her husband, Neil, but that made her Pat’s age. In fact Yolande didn’t look all that different from Pat, who was also a bottle blonde (going on ten years now), who also wore sleek black microfiber pants, and who was also still this side of overripe. Yolande was so fully convinced of her own worth, however, that it was hard to forget her price tag when you were with her.
“Important?” said Pat. “Really?”
“How is Frank bearing up?” said Yolande.
“He’s fine,” said Pat, her interest waning. Frank was Pat’s husband. Everybody loved Frank Foy. He might be an accountant, but he did know how to enjoy himself. He loved to drink expensive wine, as the Foys often did with the Culps, loved to haul a wine bottle around by its neck, loved to hound Pat about the produce, loved to joke about the finest china, the best glassware, the thickest linen, loved to boast and flirt, loved to talk big and make impractical plans, loved to put on a good display.
But Yolande evidently wanted to talk company politics, which bored Pat to death. It was hard to get too terrifically excited about a CFO’s retirement (even if it had been Neil Culp’s) or the ensuing SEC investigation (which Frank swore would be just pro forma).
“I have an idea,” said Pat. “We will build height into your garden. Just here and there. If everything’s tall, it won’t work. We’ll put in a few giant alliums, and the eye will be forced to travel up at each one. ‘Things are looking up,’ right? Isn’t that what people say when things are improving? You don’t want a faint-hearted so-so garden. You want a garden that goes up, that says yes. That says it over and over: yes, yes, yes.”
“Yes plants” instead of “yes men.” Pat loved the notion; she hadn’t got so carried away in ages. But her words died as she found herself backing into a ten-foot, four-layer birthday cake made of moss. The edges were packed with thick lines of yellow chrysanthemums designed to look like flower chains squeezed from an icing tube. Bright red gladiola candles sprouted from each layer. A cheesy nightmare, in other words, but great fun.
Startled by the cake, she was at a temporary loss for words and so could hear footsteps on the other side. The general public hadn’t been allowed in yet, but exhibitors were everywhere, scrambling to finish before opening day. These footsteps sounded more linear than that, though, and they were heading straight for Yolande and Pat. Yolande had been let in early because she was rich; maybe a fund-raiser from the horticultural society was checking up on them.
“Do you know what Frank said to the SEC?” asked Yolande.
The SEC? Pat probably would have answered this as best she could—and with her full attention at last—but a voice came floating out: “Pat,” it said, oddly familiar, smooth, and husky, the sort of contralto used to sell perfume. And emerging from behind the cake was no scantily clad young lady. It was . . . Oliver Gregoire.
“I can’t believe it!” cried Pat. Talk about “yes men”. Oliver, who worked for her husband, was king of them. But you couldn’t dislike him for it. You couldn’t dislike him at all. How delightful to see a friend in this place.
“Pat, dear,” said Oliver, leaning over her protectively. He was over six feet tall and as wide as a door, but his was a gentle bulk. He had an endearing lisp, and his eyes melted with interest at whatever you were saying. He was also openly gay, making him such a wild card in corporate life that anything was acceptable from him.
Pat already felt lighter about the shoulders and through the back. Given Oliver’s highly cultivated courtier role, he was bound to take over some of Pat’s responsibility for entertaining Yolande, who said, “What are you doing here?” It was clearly a warning. Maybe she was guarding against requests for favors. Since Oliver had gone to a lot of trouble to run into her, he must want something pretty special.
“I was seeing a client in Philadelphia,” said Oliver blandly. “And I know a couple of the judges here at the flower show.”
Of course he did. Oliver knew everyone.
“Pat and I were having a talk,” said Yolande.
“Yes?” said Oliver.
“Lovely,” said Oliver. “And how’s your family?” he asked Pat.
Pat was not unhappy to be spared the “talk” with Yolande, but it struck her as odd that Oliver would ignore the wife of Neil Culp. “Ruby spends her time trolling for killers on the Internet,” said Pat gaily. She probably should have started off with her older daughter, Rose, who was off at Princeton, but sometimes it was hard for Pat to believe that she was related to such a straight arrow.
“And Frank? How is your wonderful husband getting along?” asked Oliver.
“Ruby had a dream that Frank showed up at her school wearing a coconut bra,” said Pat, whose voice had a great range. For her earlier stream of horticultural chatter her voice had been high and musical. Now it was deep, with plenty of vibrato, almost guttural.
Oliver seemed to have forgotten all about asking after Yolande’s family (and Neil had been on the cover of CFO Magazine). “I want to get a leather jacket like Frank’s,” he said.
“Don’t forget the Austrian accent,” said Pat. Frank often adopted one for humorous effect.
“I think Pat has the perfect life,” said Oliver.
“She’s paid to plant flowers,” he said. That was one way to look at it, Pat supposed. “She has a daredevil for a husband.” Naturally Pat was very fond of Frank, but, really, daredevil? He was an accountant. “She has a daughter who’s premed at Princeton.” No mention of young Ruby this time, but at least Rose could always patch her back up, no matter what happened. “She has enough money that she can tell everybody to go to hell.”
“Not yet,” said Pat, looking at Yolande speculatively. “I wonder how much that would be.”
But this was certainly not when Yolande would rejoin the conversation. The richest person in any group is always the deafest when the subject of money comes up.
Oliver was delighted. “I’ve tried to figure it out,” he said, shaking his head. “The number keeps getting bigger.”
They had wandered over to the Black and White Garden, highlight of the show. Enclosed in a severe square of boxwood were eddies of black and white blossoms. Violet-black irises. Purple-black hollyhocks. White foxglove spikes barnacled with little pink-tongued bells. Huge white pompom hydrangeas. The dark plum–colored ‘Black Jewel’ tulip, with its shark-toothed petals.
“How fabulous!” cried Pat. “Weeping forms are so out, they’re back in again, if you know what I mean.” She indicated a small umbrella-shaped tree cascading feathery white flowers and talked even faster. “But grafts usually go wrong. And it’s hard to get a tree to bud this early. If it doesn’t, it’s roasted on a spit, turned to keep it an even green.”
Oliver did not even pretend to look at the tree. All of his attention was on Pat. “I find the company is rife with rumors,” he said. “Don’t you?”
“What rumors?” said Pat. He couldn’t be referring to the rumors about the resignation of Yolande’s husband, no matter how topsy-turvy the day had become. “Are they interesting rumors? It seems to me that rumors used to be a lot better, back when people believed in sin. Just like mystery novels were. I want to hear about love and lust and crimes in high places!”