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A Vulgar Woman


Harry Buschman

(some adult content)

The Wentworth house was the most pretentious house in the neighborhood. It stood on two acres of land in a section of town where no one owned more than half an acre. It was a vulgar house, a house that may have been conceived in beauty and taste, but grew ugly as time passed. I would drive by and imagine that Dorian Gray might have lived in a house like this. A house whose image grew more grotesque every passing year while its owner never changed.

The house was crowned with a red ceramic tile roof in the Spanish hacienda style, where black slate would have been more appropriate. It had fan lighted double front doors with polished brass sconces on either side and a brass lantern that hung from a portico above it. There was a snuck above the portico. You could see it was a phony sun deck. Even though three gaily upholstered lounge chairs stood on it -- rain or shine, there was no access to it from the second floor.

The property was completely enclosed by a chest high Harvard brick fence punctuated every twenty feet by a fluted concrete column with a gold painted ball on the top. The immaculate front lawn was inhabited by plastic fawns and water birds. Plastic rabbits and squirrels played in the topiary. At the entrance and exit to the semi-circular driveway, two lawn footmen, (with their faces painted chalk white) stood guard and offered hitching rings to nonexistent horsemen. There was, in short, a vulgarity about the place that confirmed the vulgarity of the people who lived there.

To be vulgar, a person must be able to choose. A person must have the opportunity to live with beautiful things but choose not to. I had an uncle who ate his meals in his underwear. He did so because his father ate in his underwear before him. My uncle, therefore, having never eaten anywhere but in his father's house, was not vulgar, he was not aware of the choice to eat otherwise. In later years, when he became his union's local representative, he ate in a shirt and a tie.

H. Peter Wentworth's wife, Helen Watts-Wentworth was a vulgar woman, and when she and her husband sat alone under the pink and green umbrella by the side of the pool she asked her husband for the hundredth time why the elite of Oyster Cove avoided them. She was president of the garden club, chair lady of Helping Hand and chief contributor to the underprivileged scholarship fund -- yet she was invariably uninvited to participate in any of their decision making meetings.

The she changed the subject. "It's Thursday, Peter, where do you want to eat?" Thursday was the cook's night out, and under no circumstance would Helen Watts-Wentworth be caught dead in her own kitchen. Furthermore, the cook would give notice if she thought Helen had used it. H. Peter Wentworth had fallen asleep an hour ago. His wide straw hat covered his florid face, and as his stomach rose and fell in the hot afternoon sun, he snored loudly.

"I said it's Thursday, Peter!" She repeated, and rolled up her copy of Cosmo with every intention of hitting him with it. Something in the tone of her voice registered in Peter's unconscious and from thirty five years of living with Helen, he woke with a start.

"The country club'll be fine," he mumbled.

"I feel French! I know you don't like French, and Antoine don't buy his meat from you, but I feel French and I'm gonna eat French .... so there!"

That was that. H. Peter Wentworth really didn't mind French, but Antoine got his meat at Giglio's. Dog's wouldn't eat at Giglio's back door and it was a tribute to Antoine's cooking that, as yet, no one had gotten sick there.

He fanned himself with his hat, life had grown complicated. His name, for instance. When he started out in the wholesale meat business, he was Pete Esposito, the youngest son of Angie Esposito. The best restaurants, the best hotels, all the best got their meat from Angie Esposito down on Fulton Street. It wasn't good enough for Helen. Oh no! It was her idea to change their name and move out here to Oyster Cove. H. Peter 'friggin' Wentworth! Helen wasn't going to have their daughter Stephanie grow up to be no Esposito! No way! .... Where was she, anyway?

"Steph gonna be comin' with us?"

Helen stood up and drank off the dregs of her gin and tonic. Then emptied the soggy lime into the pool. She pulled the muu muu free of the fissures and crevices of her back side.

"Jesus, it's hot," she unrolled her Cosmo and fanned herself with it. "Stephanie is spending the night in the city, she told us this morning. The Whittakers, remember? Upper East Side .... very posh. Gerald Whittaker's on the board of the New York Public Library. Why can't you be something important, Peter?"

Peter gauged the distance between Helen and his foot and her proximity to the edge of the pool. Without a doubt, a well placed push could have toppled her in. A momentary conquest .... an instant of shallow victory. Reparations would quickly follow and outweigh the accomplishment for months to come. What the hell had gotten into this woman he used to love? He knew what it was even if she didn't. We are not Oyster Cove old girl .... we may have more money than our tight assed neighbors, but we are not of the 'manner born'. He loved that phrase, Helen had dragged him into the city to see "Hamlet" with that pansy Englishman last year. In the play he told one of his soldiers that he 'was of the manner born'.

"I could be something, Helen .... but I ain't of the manner born."

"You better get outta the sun, Peter." She picked up the cell phone and punched in the number for Antoines.

"It's Mrs. Wentworth, Antoine .... Oh, he's not, well tell him the Wentworths want the corner table by the door .... 8:30." She hung up and headed for the house, confidant that the corner table was theirs. Should the Pope want it, should the President drop in, if God himself felt French that evening, that particular table in the corner by the door was reserved for Helen Watts-Wentworth. She was, after all, a most vulgar woman.


Just as H. Peter Wentworth struggled to his feet, the cell phone rang.

"Hello Daddy, it's Steph." .... Stephanie never called home unless she was up to something.

"I know Steph, you're spending the night in the city. Helen just told me." This was the third overnighter in three weeks and in the back of his mind he suspected more than an overnighter was in her plans this time .... he was right.

"No, Daddy, the Whittakers are taking off for Westport this evening for the weekend, they've asked me to go with them. I'll be home for some clothes in an hour." She was pulling these weekend deceptions regularly for more than a month now. Well, she was nineteen .... she ought to know how to take care of herself. Helen was making her way through the French doors, fanning herself with Cosmo and still picking her muu muu free of her rump.

He shouted at her, "Steph's comin' home fer clothes .... goin' away for the weekend."

Helen turned, and for a second Peter thought she showed a flicker of concern, but it was quickly replaced with a satisfied smile. "It's great to see her goin' out with nice people .... how's she gettin' here?"

"How you gettin' here, Steph?"

"Spencer's driving me home, then we're going on up to Westport."

"See you." Sure, Spencer he thought, as he put the phone down, Jesus, why do kids think their parents are one step up the bell curve from chimpanzees?

He clicked off the phone, pulled the straw hat down over his bald head and stared across the pool. Life was getting on his nerves. Nobody was who they said they were. You couldn't get the truth out of anybody. This damn house! All the money, all the plastic, all the fruit decorators in the world hadn't made this place a home. Every time his brother Mike came out from the city, he'd say, "What's it witch you, Petey? Elena gotcha' by the cojones er what? When we come out here, me and Rosie can't wait to go home .... everything here is less than a week old." He recalled Mike and Rosie's house in Little Italy with affection, the smell of tomato sauce and oregano. The oven on all the time and the radio playing "Il Trovatore."

That's why he got married. He wanted to live like his brother Mike and Rosie. So he married Elena .... Petey and Elena. Now Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Wentworth. The whole thing was Helen's idea and at that particular period of their married life he would have done anything for Helen. She got the name 'Wentworth' from the back of the plates on their wedding china .... well, if Steph was coming by with her Spencer, he'd better get into something more 'to the manner born' than his baggy old khaki shorts and yesterday's T-shirt.

Helen stood watching Peter from the cool dark interior of the 'music' room. Why did he have to look so "Italian?" Put him in the sun and he looks like a grape farmer, put sun glasses on him and he looks like a Mafioso. He was not Oyster Cove, not by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, it was Peter that kept her and Stephanie from attaining their true potential in Oyster Cove. She ran her fingers over the mirror like surface of the white piano .... it hadn't been played since Stephanie was eleven years old. How sad. The only piece she ever learned was "fur Elise." The yellow stain from Peter's cigar was still slightly visible on the white bench. She would never forgive him for that. She turned to the door as he entered.

"How's she getting here?"

Peter could hardly see in the dark room. He took his sun glasses off and saw Helen by the piano. "How's who gettin' where?"

"Stephanie -- how's she getting here?"

"Oh -- Spencer what's-his-name is drivin' her out, then she says they're goin' on up to Connecticut."

"Good God, they'll be here any minute. Look at us!! Get some Goddamn clothes on!" She headed for the stairs and started up. She turned to see Peter still standing there by the piano. "You deaf or what? Spencer Whittaker will be here and look at you!"

"Yeah, I'm comin', I'm comin' .... but look, Helen, I'm a butcher, remember? I make my livin' cuttin' meat! My name used to be Esposito. So was yours .... Elena Esposito -- nee watcha' call Bonelli! Remember!? I'm not lookin' to bust your bubble, or nuthin' like that, but do you think Spencer Whittaker would get his drawers in a knot if we were gonna see him?"

The outburst had little effect on Helen. She descended a step or two and grabbed Peter's arm violently. She led him like a recalcitrant schoolboy up the stairs.

"How can you be so stupid, Peter? Don't you realize what this means for Stephanie .... for us? The Whittaker family are quality people, they have a box at the opera, they know the Mayor. Stephanie Whittaker, Peter .... don't that ring a bell with you?"

Peter permitted himself to be prodded upstairs. The name Stephanie Whittaker seemed a very long way from Stefania Esposito. Then he considered the concept of Stephanie-Watts-Wentworth-Whittaker, and it struck him like a combination of false faces -- a vision of a quartet of little girls with empty shopping bags at the door on Halloween. He began to laugh uncontrollably.

"Did you have to pick this day -- this day of all days to go out of your mind? Get into that bedroom. Put on something that doesn't make you look like an Italian butcher! Are you gonna ruin Stephanie's life like you ruined mine!!?"

From where Peter stood, he could see himself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the other side of the canopied bed. He stood there naked .... his short, hairy legs .... the bulging belly, and most revealing of all, the scarred red hands and arms from twenty five years of wrestling 200 pound sides of frigid beef from the freezer to the cutting table. The button of his masculinity, now as empty as a surgeon's sympathy, looked back at him like a one-eyed beggar. He sighed and chose his light gray slacks, a buff, loose fitting sport shirt and a nautical jacket of dark blue serge with permanently polished brass buttons. He looked at himself again, "Pipe me aboard, Sir Thomas," he thought, "For I am now of the manner born. But I have been beached on the desolate shore of Oyster Cove .... and I desperately need a mug of your best grog."

Helen was struggling into a print dress a size smaller than it should have been. To keep her strawberry cotton candy hair in place, she had pulled a plastic bag over her head. Peter was struck with an idea .... then he shook his head violently and scolded himself immediately. He'd been drinking too much, the heat perhaps .... no, not the heat, heat doesn't breed such terrible thoughts. Frustration perhaps. Frustration! What did he know about frustration? He was an Italian meat wholesaler dressed up like Captain Andy in "Showboat!" That's what it was!! It was the make-believe! Mardi Gras! Everybody was in false face .... incognito. H. Peter and Helen 'friggin' Wentworth .... the trick and treaters of Oyster Cove. Then there was their daughter Stephanie .... yes Stefania Esposito. No! That wasn't right either. What was her name again? Oh yes, Stephanie Wentworth born in a three room flat on the Lower East Side. Best looking girl in the senior class of Oyster Cove High School .... well, best made up anyway. Sweetheart of Andy Kelly, quarterback of the no-win football team; Helen put a stop to that in a hurry, didn't she ..... "Did you know his father filed for chapter 11?"

The front door slammed downstairs and a familiar voice called up to them, "Ma, Pa, we're here. Come down and meet Spencer."

"We're on, Helen, old girl. How do I look? .... to the manner born, or what?"

"You just better watch your step, Peter. Remember, I go first, don't crowd me .... follow me down the stairs, and take off that Goddamn yachting cap!"

Three steps from the bottom, Helen stopped abruptly. Peter, intent on the distance between them, pulled up in time. From his greater height he could look down upon the entire tableau. Two young women stood at the door .... one black .... one white.

"Spencer, meet my mother and father .... Peter and Helen Wentworth. Ma. Pa. This is Spencer Whittaker."

"I'll be God-damned!" Said Helen

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Said Peter.

Spencer strode to the foot of the stairs and shook Helen's hand vigorously. In a rich contralto voice, totally devoid of ethnicity, she said, "Very pleased to meet both of you, little Stephanie has told me so much about you." She looked at Peter and said, "Do you sail, Mr. Wentworth?"

"No, I don't think so," Peter mumbled from his perch five steps up from the bottom.

"Well," said Stephanie, "come upstairs with me Spence .... help me pick out what you'd like me to wear."

As the girls ran upstairs, Helen and Peter slowly made their way down. Helen sat down heavily on the gilded settee by the phone in the entryway. She seemed to have difficulty catching her breath.

"You never mentioned the Whittakers was black," she moaned.

"Didn't tell you Spencer was a girl neither." Peter shook his head and headed for the liquor cabinet .... it had been building up all day. "Not just a black girl neither, right?"

"Don't say the word .... I'll throw up!" Damn Peter anyway! He must have known the Whittakers were black. Just another one of his cute tricks, damn him! Damn Stephanie too! she must have known what this would do to me. Oh, I'll get back at them all right .... you bet I will. I'll .... I'll ....

As she sat there seething, Peter returned with two large scotches, handed one to Helen and picked up the phone.

"Who are you calling?" Helen fumed as she downed her scotch.

"Antoine? .... Peter Wentworth. That table in the corner by the door? Make that a reservation for four." He turned to Helen, "C'mon old girl, I think it's about time we got to know each other."

©Harry Buschman 1998

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