The Seacoast Folk Arts Council held their summer potluck party the following Saturday. Bob and Lucy picked me at eleven o’clock that morning, as we had arranged. We went in Bob’s red Triumph. I sat in the tiny back seat surrounded by giant bowls of coleslaw and Lucy’s homemade chili, each covered with saran wrap, with an old tablecloth over all to keep it warm and dust-free. On the floor next to these stood a canvas tote bag containing two bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, wrapped in a bath towel to keep them from rattling. These wines constituted Bob’s contribution to the culinary effort. My job was to make sure nothing spilled while he flew down Route 101 in the jerky little car at well past the speed limit, shifting gears and popping the clutch like some self-drawn caricature of a British race car driver. He was wearing his kilt.
The party was held in the home of Joan and Jerry Cotburn in Stratham, a few miles outside of Portsmouth. It had no specific starting time so one couldn’t say we were late, but by the time we arrived, so many vehicles occupied the long gravel drive at the side of the house that we barely managed to squeeze the Triumph onto a grassy spot just off the road. The Cotburns lived in an immense, white clapboard farm house, with a porch along one side and more than a dozen rooms. It had started life as an early Victorian New England saltbox, but multiple room additions over the years had robbed it of any unified sense of style. A barn once stood nearby, having long since given way to a spacious lawn at the rear of the house. Three men were grilling sausages and burgers near the back door. The aroma of sizzling meat and the smell of the warm sun on the grass filled my senses and picked up my appetite.
Lucy and I carefully lifted our crockery out of the car while Bob went on ahead with his wine. I thought he looked rather comical strutting across the lawn with his knees hanging out and his kilt flouncing from side to side behind him. A short stairway at the back of the house led to an old keeping room that had been converted into a den. Inside, some of the women were arranging covered dishes on a pair of long folding tables that looked like they’d been borrowed from a church. Joan Cotburn made space for our bowls and we exchanged names.
“My son, David, has started cooking Mexican food,” she said. “It’s his latest creative project. Help yourself to chips and salsa.”
The air smelled strongly of grilled tortillas and spices.
“Anne’s new to the area,” said Lucy. “She’s interested in Scottish music.”
“Not that new,” I said. “I’ve lived in Portsmouth a for a year. And I like all kinds of music. I was hoping to meet some people.”
“You came to the right place,” said Joan. “David is studying the Celtic harp. I’m going to ask him to play for us later on, if I can tear him away from the kitchen. I’ll have to introduce you.”
Her voice was warm and open, but her face showed no suggestion of a smile. Her eyes never left the table as she spoke. Joan Cotburn was an attractive woman of medium height, fifty-seven years old, with coarse, close-cropped grey hair. While she didn’t give the impression of being athletic per se, she obviously kept herself in good enough physical condition to wear the clothes of her son’s generation.
Bob came into the den with his two bottles of wine, looking for a corkscrew. “I know you ladies would rather have white wine,” he said, “but this ought to go better with that cheese on the table over there.”
“What makes you think I’d rather have white wine?” I said, indulging a sudden urge to spar with him. “I mean, I’ve been known to drink a decent bottle of Chardonnay more often than I should, but that’s only because the reds that really satisfy me are typically beyond my means.”
“Well, you’ll have to try this, then,” he said. “Lucy likes white wine. I just assumed, uh …” He looked around the room. “Have you got any good wine glasses, Joan?”
“Right there by the flowers,” she said.
“Uh, of course. Splendid,” he said.
I shot him a glance.
“Here’s the corkscrew,” said Joan. “Could you please open the wine over there?” She pointed to the opposite end of the table, out of our way.
Bob moved across the room. I watched as he wiped the bottles with the towel he’d found lying on the table nearby and cut the caps with a pocket knife. One by one he extracted the corks. With quick, staccato snorts, he sniffed each one carefully. “No problems with either of these,” he said loudly enough that I thought everyone in the room could hear. He wiped the necks of the bottles a second time and ceremoniously poured out half a glassful of one of them. He took a sip, then pursed his lips and slurped the wine noisily. “Good,” he said. He filled his glass a little fuller and ambled off toward the front of the house, muttering something about the current vintage.
“Do you mind if I have a glass of that?” I said, motioning to a magnum bottle of inexpensive Chardonnay. I wasn’t going to touch Bob’s wine for anything.
“Help yourself,” said Joan.
“I think I’ll join you,” said Lucy. “We can sip our wine and look around to see who’s here. Most of the important people in the Seacoast folk scene come to these parties. There are a lot of people I’d like you to meet.”
Joan returned to the kitchen and we began moving through the crowded house. Lucy introduced me to one cluster of people after another, most of whom were involved in music, dance, crafts or storytelling in some way. Many of her friends were Scottish country dancers and those were the people with whom we spent the most time. She seemed especially intrigued by a tall, grizzled man with a mild Scottish accent. Lucy introduced him as a famous country dance instructor. We stood around for a quarter of an hour listening to him talk. His students and admirers flocked around him like chicks around a mother hen, charmed by every terse phrase he uttered, but I found him tight-lipped and scruffy. Other than Bob, he was the only man at the party who wore a kilt. Birds of a feather, I thought. This whirlwind of new names and faces went on for some time. At first I felt exciting to be meeting so many fresh and fascinating people, but before long I grew weary of the constant inquirendo of What do you do for a living? and What’s your family name? by rooms full of pretentious people all bent on proving how Scottish they were, which clan they belonged to or how many names they could recite from the Seacoast social register.
A while later we found ourselves in Cotburn’s dining room. In the center stood an expensive-looking cherry table surrounded by guests and half-eaten plates. Along the wall was a fine oak buffet, spread with more food and appetizers. A smart-looking couple around the age of thirty approached from behind as Lucy and I eyed the hors d’oeuvres.
“How nice to see you, Roger,” she said at the top of her vocal range. “Anne, this is Roger Handsworth. He’s a member of the Council.” Lucy beamed from ear to ear as if she was in the presence of a great Scottish fiddler. “It’s been so long since I’ve run into you. When was it? The annual meeting last October, wasn’t it? I don’t believe I know your friend.”
He introduced her as Maureen Fischer.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” said Maureen. She gave a broad smile, but as she took my hand, she cocked her head to one side. I took this as a gesture of condescension.
“Anne has left the big city of New York to live with us country folk here in New Hampshire,” Lucy said. I watched the movement of her eyes as she kept trying to divert Roger’s attention to herself.
“Westchester County, actually,” I said. “White Plains. I seldom visited the city. I’ve lived way out in the suburbs most of my life. Just a poor shopkeeper’s daughter, good peasant stock, nothing scandalous in my background, no midnight rambles in town or unwanted offspring to repent of.” I grinned as I tried to keep a buoyant expression in my voice. Where did Lucy get the idea I was a city slicker out to experience the gentile pleasures of life in the provinces?
“I have an uncle in New Rochelle,” Maureen said. “I go to visit him once or twice a year. What did you do there?”
“Went to school and worked in my father’s shop. He’s a florist. I was vice president in charge of waiting on customers.” Mild giggles broke out. I proceeded to answer the usual innocuous questions about my job, where I lived and the like. Talking with them, I discovered that Roger owned a house in one of the newer sections of Portsmouth, less than two miles from my own home. Maureen had a condo in Dover. They both worked for a trust company in Newington.
“That’s how we met,” said Maureen. “Our offices are across from one another. Roger manages small corporate and individual investment funds and I service client accounts.”
Lucy kept her attention riveted on Roger.
“An investment banker?” I said.
“Yes,” said Roger.
“A friend of mine, Roy Nellis, was an investment banker before he started his own business,” I said.
“Do you know Roy?” said Roger. “I used to run into him all the time at the bank. He’s a brilliant financier. Used to manage some pretty large Boston accounts. Got tired of the rat race, I guess. I understand he’s doing pretty well on his own.”
To my surprise, Roger and Maureen were gracious, down-to-earth people, free of Scottish affectation or feigned solidarity with the working class. The air around them quickly filled with the scents of Armani and Chanel, stronger than the smell of sizzling tortillas coming from the kitchen.
Roger wore grey slacks and a pinstriped oxford cloth shirt. His brown wing-tip shoes looked out of place in a house full of people in sneakers and hiking boots. He was almost Jack Miller’s height and weight, though not as athletic in build, with neatly trimmed, brown hair, just beginning to frost with grey. Looking at him, I thought if Jack was the kind of man with whom one dreamed of having an affair, Roger was the kind one could marry, if one had the opportunity to get his attention. He wasn’t particularly lovely to look at. His nose was large and a bit too broad, and his hair was starting to thin in front, but in a wholesome sort of way, he looked desirable. His hair and shoes made him seem older and more distinguished than his years, but the father-figure type appealed to me just enough that I had little difficulty desiring him in other ways as well. The feeling grew the longer I remained near him. Then my heart sank as I considered the socio-economic gulf that likely lay between us.
Maureen had on a crisp, white blouse and a dark red, knee-length skirt made of a nubby material that looked as passé as it did expensive. Her pearls were obviously genuine. To me, she radiated with the unmistakable image of a well-paid, responsible professional, definitely in Roger’s class. She was a woman of breeding as well. I supposed she might have descended from some wealthy old New England family, carrying on the family tradition of success in a new, gender-liberated way. I envied her advantages, financial and social, but I had to wonder how well I could fit into her world. Next to her, I felt like a country cousin in my calico jumper, but I couldn’t imagine myself working in a bank either, so I let it ride. She didn’t seem to notice that there might be any difference at all between us.
After a few minutes, Roger caught sight of one of his Folk Arts Council friends and he moved off to the back part of the house. Maureen stayed behind.
“It’s so nice to have a chance to talk to you,” Lucy said to her. “Have you known Roger long? He’s never mentioned you to me.”
“We’ve worked together for a few years,” she said. “He’s been a great help to me in my career. He’s taught me a lot.”
I was more curious to know what he might’ve taught her after hours.
“I’ve know him since he was a boy,” said Lucy. “I’ve grown very fond of him over the years. I used to babysit for him when I was in college. He was such an intelligent boy. He almost made valedictorian of his class at Portsmouth High School. Missed it by one ‘A’. We were so disappointed.”
Lucy then proceeded to ask her one question after another about her background and her level of friendship with Roger. It sounded as if she was attempting to discover whether or not she was good enough for him, to find some chink in her armor. Maureen appeared unaffected by this interrogation, answering each one of Lucy’s questions with a smile without giving anything away. I listened without saying a word, hoping to glean some useful information about Roger. The longer Lucy continued, the more I felt a kinship of embarrassment for Maureen. They the envy returned and I was secretly glad she was getting the third degree.
I made my excuses and followed some other guests away toward the food tables. David Cotburn emerged from the kitchen just ahead of me with a fresh pan of enchiladas. He was wearing floral print, heat-proof mittens and a white chef’s hat and apron that made him look contrived and silly, like one of those TV show cooks who never makes a mess or suffers defeat in the kitchen. The enticing aroma of fried food filled the hallway. Back in the den the tables had been relaid with white linen. They were laden with a half-dozen salads, my coleslaw, Lucy’s chili, tortellini, hot casseroles of every description, two large platters of cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches, a full wheel of brie that was already two-thirds eaten and David’s Mexican fare. There were three different styles of baked beans and a platter piled high with sausages and burgers from the grill outside. Several new bottles of wine had appeared and someone had brought homemade sourdough bread. The mounds of food were overwhelming, to say the least.
“Help yourself, Anne.” I turned to see Roger, who had come up behind me. “The plates and silverware are over there by the TV table.”
I scrambled for something to say. “I hope you’re not mad at me for leaving Maureen alone with Lucy. They started bringing out the food and I couldn’t wait. I haven’t eaten since last night.”
Roger smiled. “Why should I be mad?”
“Lucy’s so, you know, so inquisitive. I mean, she’s a nice person and all, but to be honest, she can’t seem to keep her nose out of other people’s business.”
“Don’t worry about it. She won’t get anything out of Maureen.”
“I guess not.” Our eyes met and I returned his smile.
“Have you tried the prosciutto? It’s really excellent. I wonder who brought it. It’s as good as the stuff I get at Goldi’s Deli.”
“I’m deciding on whether to load up on cold cuts and bread or take a chance on the Mexican,” I said. “What do you suggest?”
“I think the Mexican will be pretty tame, but I’m sticking with the cold cuts.” he covered a paper plate with a layer of assorted meats and cheeses, topping it off with olives and a slice of French bread. “How do you know Lucy?”
“I met her at a High Street Players rehearsal a week and a half ago.”
“That’s her theatre group, right?”
“Yep. They’re trying to get me to join up. I’m not sure I want to. You’re not into the theatre, are you?”
“I enjoy a good show once in a while. Maureen likes the theatre. But acting never appealed to me. Takes a certain kind of individual, I suppose. I don’t think I could ever be convincing as anyone but myself. What about you?”
“It does look like fun. Might be a good way to meet people and all that. It’s probably more difficult than it looks. To do it right, I mean.”
“Maybe you should try it. Get a bit part or work as an extra to get your feet wet. Then if you don’t like it you can quit without upsetting anyone.”
“The director talks like he wants to make me a star.”
“Well, there you go,” he said and smiled. “Ever been to Hackmatack in Dover? They put on some good productions. All local talent. Maybe you could catch a show there sometime and see what it’s all about.”
I hadn’t been there but my heart ached for him to ask me to go with him. Roger’s voice had a soothing, almost dreamlike quality and once more the scent of Armani competed with the smell of the food. I longed to know what was going on between him and Maureen. He seemed so together, so calmly in charge, a little like Jack Miller, but without Jack’s carefree, brassy manner and studied languor. I wondered Roger might be like on a date, with the wing-tip shoes and striped tie in the closet at home and a pair of sneakers and an old shirt in their place. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to find out.
“How did you get into the Folk Arts Council,” I said, trying to move the conversation forward. “I mean, you don’t seem like the artsy sort of person.” Careful, I thought, don’t drop the candle while straining to look inside the well.
I paid my fifteen bucks,” he said and laughed a little. “It’s not a big deal to get in. Lucy could nominate you. Seriously, I like folk music. American and English, as well as Scottish.”
More smiles. “Me, too.”
“And I guess I’m just a little envious of the artist’s life. Being active in the Council gives me a way to be around the kind of people who do art, without having to do it myself. Does that make any sense?”
“I like being around artists, too, I guess. Speaks to some unexpressed longing in my soul, or something.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
The back door slammed. At the sound of rustling plastic grocery bags, I turned to see Martha Crowley coming up behind me.
“How are you, Roger? What a gorgeous table. What’s for dinner?” Martha’s piercing contralto rang out over the room like a police siren. We hugged. She smelled of Castile soap and face powder, like she did the first time I met her. She wore a voluminous, green bouclé caftan that looked far too heavy to be comfortable for a summertime garden party. It hung from her shoulders and swung like a pendulum as she walked. On the left, above her breast, she wore a silver kilt pin bearing the coat of arms of Clan Gordon. I immediately thought of Lucy.
“Did you just get here?” I said.
“Spent the whole morning stacking wood. Then I took a nap. Got some good kindling from my neighbor across the road. Try my three-bean salad, Anne. I’m famous for it. I always bring it to the potlucks.” She dropped a stainless steel bowl on the table and began eyeing the casseroles. A wave of revulsion accompanied the unveiling of Martha’s creation as she peeled away the aluminum foil that covered it. Three-bean salad was one of the few dishes that actually made me gag, just to think about it.
“I thought I might try the Mexican food,” I said, “though Roger might succeed in changing my mind.”
Roger looked my way and grinned. “You should eat whatever you want.”
“I don’t eat Mexican food,” Martha said. “I can’t take the heavy spices and I can’t eat dairy products. That stuff’s loaded with cheese.” She had a dinner plate in her hand and waved it about in the air as she spoke.
“It looks pretty good to me,” I said. “I’m going to dig in.”
Martha filled her plate with baked ham, coleslaw and a large helping of her three-bean salad. The Folk Arts Council potluck was the first time two weeks I’d spoken to her outside the crowded buzz of her singles group, but I’d already spent enough time with her to develop a good sense of congeniality. Martha was a short, stocky woman with streaked, ash-blonde hair and a sallow complexion, accentuated all the more by a liberal application of blush. From her accent, I assumed she’d been raised in Massachusetts. Her maiden name was Di Stefano. Where the Scottish clan association fit into her family tree escaped me, but it was a connection she never tired of claiming whenever she was among people of Scottish descent. Her personality was ebullient and excited, suggesting nervousness or even anxiety. She spoke continually of the theatre, dancing, folk music, anything having to do with the arts, anything to do with men. She had a peculiar way of bouncing as she spoke, as if she hoped to lend extra credence to her words by the gesture.
I first met Martha at a contra dance. It was on a Friday evening at the Madbury Town Hall. I was sitting on the sidelines, stewing about the lack of interested dance partners, when she came padding across the floor. We exchanged names and talked a while and I began feeling better. She invited me to her singles group meeting. Later she asked me to come along to the Nellis’s Memorial Day weekend party, which she hosting with Karen. I felt I owed Martha something for her kindness that night, something I could never repay except by reciprocating her friendship.
One by one the remaining guests filed into the den, piled their plates with food and adjourned in twos and threes to various parts of the house. After everyone around had finished, David Cotburn came into the living room with his father to receive congratulations for his culinary conquest. He was still wearing that silly white apron, though he’d removed the chef’s hat, revealing a thinning head of fine, straight blonde hair, worn in a bowl haircut. It made him look like a school boy from a television commercial for pre-sweetened breakfast cereal. David took after his mother in all respects except for her affability and her hormones. Bob MacPherson wasn’t too sure about the hormones. “My wife thinks he’s the greatest thing since Turlough O’Carolan,” he said leaning over to me, “but I think he’s a little fairy. I can’t understand what went wrong. She’ll probably try to fix you up with him.” Next to his father he looked like an adopted child, with his small, unwhiskered, almost girlish face. In his kilt, with a little more hair on his head, he’d have just about passed for female.
Everyone in the house had gathered to hear David play by the time he returned with his harp a short while later. Without the chef’s apron, his knees stuck out like the balls on a pawn broker’s sign beneath his camp shorts. David Cotburn was somewhat of a local star. He’d won several competitions throughout New England and being the only male folk harper with any recognized talent in New Hampshire made him seem larger than life to many of the people at the party. He sat down on an armless chair with his back to the audience and squirmed about before putting his hands to the strings. He played four or five tunes to loud applause. Bob and Lucy stood next to me during this little concert.
“Isn’t David great?” Lucy said after he’d finished playing. “I just love the sound of his harp.”
“What’s so great about David Cotburn?” I said. “He can hardly get through a tune without shaking.”
“It’s just nerves. He’s worked awfully hard at his music. You have to give him credit, Anne. I think you’d like him. He’s just about your age.”
I thought of Bob’s earlier comment and shuddered. “I doubt it. I’m twenty-seven. He doesn’t look a day over eighteen. Besides, I’ve already met the man of my dreams.”
“Oh? Here at the party?” Lucy spoke in an offhand manner, but I knew she was bating me. “Who is it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Roger, of course.”
“Do you like Roger?”
“He’s got my attention. I just wish I knew what the deal was with Maureen Fischer.”
“From what I can gather, I don’t think they’re all that close.”
“That’s not the way it looks to me. She makes it sound like they’re practically engaged. Haven’t you noticed the way she looks at him?”
“It’s a pose, don’t you think? She just likes to talk. I wouldn’t put too much importance on what she says where Roger is concerned. There’s no ring or anything.”
“But she seems to know all about him. Maybe they haven’t bothered with a ring. Lots of people don’t nowadays.”
Lucy looked away for a moment. Bob had been following our conversation back and forth with his eyes, his arms folded across his chest in a mildly censorious pose. He took out his pipe, filled it with tobacco and began fidgeting with it, poking it with his index finger and sucking on it.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, turning back to me.
“What do you mean?”
“About Roger, silly. I’ll talk to him, see what I can find out. I know lots of people.”
“You aren’t going to say anything about me, I hope.”
“No, no, of course not. Not in so many words. Just catch up with him a bit, find out what his plans are. I’m sure he’ll be frank with me. I can probably get his number from Joan Cotburn.”
“I hope you’ve had enough to eat,” said Bob.
“Yes, plenty, thank you,” I said.
“We wouldn’t want a guest of the Seacoast Folk Arts Council to go home hungry.” He reinserted the unlit pipe into his mouth.
Bob’s coarse manner irritated me as I though about Roger. I speculated about what kind of relationship he had with Maureen, whether their level of involvement was casual enough to breach. There was the simple question of accessibility. He saw her every day at work, while I didn’t know if I would ever see either of them again. I thought of joining the Folk Arts Council. Lucy would only be too happy to help with that. I could only imagine what their combined incomes might be. And then I saw myself for what I was, a young woman with no apparent prospects, a non-achiever in their eyes, if not in my own. What were my chances, really? A shopkeeper’s daughter from White Plains, New York who barely got through liberal arts college would be no contest for a smooth-faced banker with an MBA, poised for advancement into the upper echelons of management, just at the time the corporate world was looking for women to promote. I didn’t see how I could possibly challenge Maureen for his attention unless she lacked something that he needed, something I could supply. What was it? How could I find a way into his heart?
I thought about these things all the way back to town, surprising myself with the strength of my newfound obsession. I hardly said a word to Bob or Lucy. Blowing along in Bob’s Triumph, I noted that same sense of urgency in my life, that same fresh willingness to take chances I’d felt in the car with Karen Nellis two weeks earlier. Only now it had an object on which to focus its energy. If I was too independent-minded, to free spirited to ever perform at Maureen’s level on the corporate playing field, I was sure I could keep a man like Roger at home, given half the chance.