Alene, Iris, Susan and Jill met for drinks once a month at the lounge in the Sorrento Hotel. By agreement, each one of them brought a secret with them, to share openly or by implication. A well rounded Malbec, assorted crudités, fresh bread and then cognac brought them to a peak of confidentialities every month. Some months, these were served with great whooping laughter, other months the four heads pulled together over low tables and they leaned into their secrets. In their twenty years together, they’d told a number of scandalous stories, some romantic ones, some sad and mortal. This year was their first brush with murder.
“What kind of hell would we live in if we all revealed our secrets?” Jill started, while the Mediterranean plate was passed around. She scooped kalamata olives, crusty bread and a roasted bell pepper tapenade onto the small bread plate. Setting it down, she picked up her wine. Looking over the rim of the glass, she assessed the effect of her words on Alene, Iris and Susan. All three of them, hands raised halfway to their mouths, had paused. Eyebrows raised, their faces made one unified statement: Why are we here if not to reveal our secrets? Here at least, if nowhere else? She tipped the glass, and the warm earth tones of the Malbec delivered red for strength. She set the glass down and began again.
“It was right after last month, after Alene wrote that check to Cosmo, remember?” she said. Alene looked around – yes, they remembered, even after the third bottle of wine. Cosmo and his specialty auto body and paint shop. Yes, even now all Alene really remembered was a smell of turpentine and the bright glaring lights and the tattoos on Cosmo’s shoulders and then the hydraulic lift and lower that explained to her forever after the appeal of the low rider. She blushed and picked up a large caper berry with the stem still attached. She put it in her mouth and sucked, watching Jill to see where this story was going.
“At the end of the evening, we said goodbye and said be careful, the roads are wet.” Jill continued. Her voice was flat. Iris picked up her bread knife and cut a thin slice of the chilled butter. She waved the knife at Jill and said, “Yes. Continue.” Jill looked at the knife and touched her throat. They could see a pulse, jittering at the edge of her collarbone, and her face, suddenly strained and strange. A stranger.
Susan pushed her hair behind her ears, attuned to something new.
“Let’s go to my house,” she said. A first. As a group, they’d made the decision to never tell tales where the walls might hear them. She waved down the waiter, paid, and 40 minutes later they had all reconvened in her living room.
“I got home that night and I was lonely. The lights were low and there were no stars.” Jill continued. The women sat clustered on sofas in front of the fire, the flames shaking their faces. I can see our twenty years passing in the flames, thought Susan.
“Wait. Look, I can’t say it. I can’t. Just look.” She pulled a photo out of her purse and handed it to Alene. Alene looked, dropped it suddenly, then picked it up and put it on the table in front of them. They all looked – that familiar face, known and unknown the way the very famous are – and the sudden, shocking realization that he was dead. Barely, freshly, horribly dead.
Her brother, Dennis, was her mother’s favorite. Iris’s hair was red, not blonde. She bit her nails. Her mother’s name was Charlene, and Dennis was a bully and the model for all her future husbands. “Iris-itis” was the nickname given to her by Dennis and his friends when he was fifteen and she was twelve, with big gap-toothed teeth and ink stains on every skirt she owned. When he was sixteen, he tripped on a rock at the edge of a ravine near a half developed sub-division and broke his neck. Two years later he suffocated under the weight of a pillow, an accidental death that Charlene recreated in mixed media non-representational art for the next 15 years, until she died of mixing paint fumes with cigarettes and valium. She passed out and fell face down in a clay piece that was wet and sticky, and never came up for air. Iris went to art school on the insurance, and bought a little studio in a pricy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where she worked when she was not in Seattle. Iris, like her namesake, liked wet, cold climates, and disliked both sunlight and morning.
When Iris first met Susan, they’d been out making the rounds at the espresso cafes that were so much a part of life in the pacific northwest. No point in being a morning person in the far north. Iris had moved there completely at random, getting away from the relentless sun and endless daylight hours of the southwest, and settled into the vampire routines of the northerly climates quite naturally. Eventually, she settled on a job in publishing that allowed her to work afternoon hours, which left night-time for studio work and morning for sleep. She quite liked her pale complexion in the rain forest among the ferns; her red hair lit up the woods like a dangerous flame, a suggestion of things not quite right, ready to erupt, sudden, violent heat pouring down the mountain side.