In the Wasp's Nest
Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town, and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut with her husband and two sons. She graduated from Brown University, received an MA in English from King's College, London, and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller, and an antiquarian book-dealer. She now writes full-time, and her stories and poems have recently appeared in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, A cappella Zoo, Cactus Heart, Crack the Spine, Forge, Grey Sparrow Journal, Qwerty, Sanskrit and PANK, amongst others. She can be contacted at Samgrievewriter@icloud.com.
It is spring when she receives the invitation, and the dogwoods are flowering. The envelope bears no stamp, merely a note, By Hand, in the top right-hand corner. Jocasta's other post—the bills from her landscaper, the pool-cleaning company, the piano teacher with the azure eyes—tumbles to the ground. She edges a finger beneath the fold. The card within is of crisp, woven linen. It smells of chrysanthemums tinged, oddly, with the faintest whiff of sulfur.
She has been invited to play tennis at the Old Club, with a board member, a Mr. Worricow, on Tuesday morning the 14th of May at 10 a.m. Based on the quality of her game, a provisional offer of membership might be considered. There are no contact details, and it is less of an invitation, she realizes, than a summoning.
A feeling of faintness sweeps over Jocasta. She lays her head down on the cool metal of the mailbox. The jubilation she had anticipated fails to rise. She is numb, utterly numb with relief.
# # #
The Old Club. She still recalls the moment that the words fell like sparks from Meredith's rufescent mouth and caught the tinder of her want. They had just won a match against Greenwich RC, in which Jocasta, new to the team, performed with her usual assertiveness but without her habitual temper, and she found herself celebrating beneath a pink umbrella, her teammates jabbering around her.
Jocasta sipped her tea. An assortment of sandwiches lay on the table, but to eat them was obviously deemed barbaric, as they sat untouched, their crusts stiffening in the heat. Two rapacious wasps hummed ecstatic over the ham.
"Great job, ladies." Meredith van Heeren was the team captain, her voice as lanky, as meatless, as her body.
I should really point out to her, Jocasta thought, that Kiki is not up to the mark, a 3.5 at best, when Mandy lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
"Apparently she's been asked to join," Jocasta heard her say.
Silence descended. A cloud, full-bellied and obfuscating, sailed over the sun.
"Really?" The team was uniting now, pulling together more effectively than they had on the court.
Mandy nodded. "Nobody has seen her. You know how it is. They get the letter and then that's it. They're gone."
Another pregnant silence. Jocasta could control herself no longer. "Who? Where?" she blurted out.
"Beatrice Causabon," said Meredith. "Owns that huge house up on the Ridge. Anyway, she's been asked to join the Old Club, and that, my dear, is that. You can't ascend any higher. No one ever turns it down."
# # #
Meredith was right. That was that—for Jocasta.
Todd was irked when he heard. "Geez. I've just dropped a hundred grand on Port Judgment, and now you're telling me there is another club you would rather belong to?" His voice sounded muffled through his whitening retainer. Of course he would whine. Getting money out of Todd was always a battle. And yet it was Jocasta's greed that had propelled them to where they were. Even Todd recognized that.
Todd was smart, street-smart, and while he lacked polish, this did not matter for a man. A man with money could be almost as rough as he liked. To make it in this Connecticut town as a woman, however, you had to tread more carefully. You had to change your name to Jocasta. You had to write thank-you cards, and never wear white after Labor Day, and pretend to drink just a little (and never at lunchtime). You volunteered a great deal at school, and played tennis, and wore your tennis clothes during both activities. And everything that went into your mouth was organic, which is why you never, ever gave your husband a blow job because God knows what he ate in the city during the workday. You drove and lunched and groomed, and renovated the house, and kept an eye out for a better one on a better street and nearer the water (which was always pronounced with a capital W), and you joined the board of a charity where you had a colossal fight with a bitch called Muffy over the design of the Give A Dream Summer Ball invitation.
Yes, it was tough being a woman; it was tough at the top.
# # #
Jocasta learned of Port Judgment when she was twenty-two. It was a miserable time of her life. The October previously, she walked out of her childhood home, a ranch on the outskirts of New Brunswick, where the Christmas wreath withered on the door well into March. She'd had enough of mediocrity, she told her parents. This is America. She was going to make her fortune. Her mother, loose-boned and addled by trazodone, did not even get off the sofa when Jocasta slammed the front door and dragged her suitcase down the carpet of wet maple leaves rotting on the path.
America, however, was not quite ready to receive Jocasta. New York turned out to be filthy and prohibitively expensive. She was forced to share a house in Hackensack, spending two hours a day on a bus that disgorged her each morning into the stinking Gehenna of the Port Authority. She found a job in an upscale boutique, standing until her legs ached, racked by boredom. By the evening, she was whittled out, ghostlike, too tired to contemplate the future, contemplate anything other than her desire to get home. And so it was, until one late winter's night. A storm was blowing in, and Jocasta, slumped in her seat on the bus, rested her forehead on the window and watched raindrops slide like tears down the glass.
Somewhere along the journey, a woman boarded. Jocasta barely registered her, did not see the pointed boots, the horn-rimmed glasses, the black and red striped coat, until the stranger sat down in the vacant seat beside her. Jocasta lifted her head. The bus was almost empty.
"Hellish weather." The woman's hair was the blue-black of a raven's wing. She retrieved a magazine from her purse, and Jocasta, glancing at it through slitted eyes, caught the title: Life in Port Judgment.
The woman flicked through the lambent pages. Jocasta—spellbound—felt her breath leave her body. Here was the dream unraveled. That was where she wanted to live. In that perfect town. In that house with its garden effulgent with apple blossom.
The bus stopped, the doors groaned open. The woman put down the magazine, straightened her coat, and walked with grace along the filthy gangway. Her white umbrella unfurled like an orchid in the rain. Jocasta waited until the bus drove off. She picked up the magazine. Finders keepers.
It took her another fifteen years to get to Port Judgment. By then she and Todd were married and the twins were six. She found a house, an eight-thousand-square-foot Georgian on two acres that appealed to Todd's sense of the magnificent and ticked a box for her. She redid the kitchen, installed a pool. And then she set her sights on the town.
# # #
At first, she played fair. They supported every fund-raising event, where Todd bid, drunkenly competitive, and she feigned interest in the charity—from educating orphans in the Democratic Republic of Where the Fuck, to saving sea horses. She dressed the part and rekindled her tennis. She baked Bundts. And then one afternoon, while choosing apples in Trader Joe's, she was overcome by a sense of ennui so engulfing she wanted to bang her head on the ground. It was time to spread her wings.
The tennis team, revised to her specification, made up her coven. Mandy became her henchwoman. Maud, ditchwater dull but highly connected, offered advice. And the additional team members, all pretty, all somebodies, were easily bewitched by Jocasta. They fluttered around her. They built her myth. They spied. They orchestrated campaigns.
Rumors began to spread like weeds through Port Judgment. Invisible, rootless, they fell from whispering mouths into eager ears; they flourished among the magnolia and the tendered lawns and the azalea with their imperial purple flowers. They sprouted in kitchens and in the coffee shops, and blew down the corridors of cyberspace, multiplying and growing more lush with each retelling.
Jocasta had not been invited to a dinner? Well, no more birthday invitations for the hostess's child!
So-and-so said she couldn't stand Jocasta? Suddenly gossip had it So-and-so gave her personal trainer a hand job in her Suburban. And did you know Betty Munroe snorts cocaine? Et cetera, et cetera.
It took five years but by the end of it, Jocasta was at the height of her powers. Life was golden. She woke each morning to shafts of sunlight tumbling through the liquid amber trees outside her windows. The garden thronged with birds. Her children were healthy and, she was gratified to see, successful socially. And Todd, uncouth Todd, bore the blood of Midas in his veins. If it were not for the Old Club and its insurmountable barriers, she believed she might almost be happy.
# # #
The Old Club lay in the most exclusive section of Port Judgment, tucked between an elbow of woodland and the glimmering snare of the Sound. Houses rarely came on the market in the neighborhood, and when they did, they were acquired hastily by the children of existing residents.
Sometimes, Jocasta led a power walk into those desirable acres, bullying her way past the security guard. She and her friends would march down the quiet roads, water bottles gripped in one hand, phones in the other. The very air seemed purer there, the homes as quiet as tombs amidst park-like lawns. They never encountered a soul, not a dog-walker, a gardener, or even a child, and, by the end of their forays, even Jocasta would be reduced to silence.
"I could never live here," declared Mandy.
"I could," she and Maud answered in unison, but it was Maud who continued, a distant look in her eye. "There is something so peaceful about this place. If I had a house here, I don't think I would ever leave. Look at that one." She pointed at a small Colonial tucked into a deep copse of wood. Rhododendrons gathered dark around the door.
Jocasta was overcome by unease. "Todd and I are waiting for the right one to come up on the Water," she said.
The girls nodded. Jocasta would never live in a Colonial. They both knew that.
Sometimes they even detoured past the Old Club. It was nothing to look at from the road. A stone wall, ancient and bordered by foxgloves, shielded the grounds from prying eyes, but through the ivy-covered gate, Jocasta glimpsed a short drive, with a parking lot to the left and a tennis court fence to the right. Occasionally the thwack of a ball was audible, but the players themselves were never seen.
"No one knows who they are," Maud explained. "They only socialize together."
Jocasta peered in. The clubhouse was an ugly sixties building, and beyond that lay the silvery blur of the sea. Port Judgment CC, with its fountains and resplendent beds of tulips, was far more imposing, but against the mystique of the Old Club, it seemed ridiculous, like a pantomime horse beside a thoroughbred.
# # #
And then the unthinkable happened. At the PTA Christmas breakfast, borne in on the back of a foul wind, Beatrice Causabon returned. Had she ever been away? No one was sure. Jocasta, arriving late for the event, felt at once the barometric shift in the air.
A tiny woman in a red and white striped dress stood in the center of a swarm of mothers. As Jocasta approached, she threw her an odd, malicious smile and offered her hand. Jocasta shook it, her own hand magically altered by the contact into something slab-like, fleshy. A feeling of intense revulsion rose up inside her.
"Beatrice Causabon," said the stranger. "Are you new in town?"
How dare she? Jocasta opened her mouth, but to her confusion, not a vowel emerged.
Beatrice raked her face with glittering eyes. "You are Jocasta." It was a statement of fact.
Know thy enemy. The words floated unbidden into Jocasta's mind. She tried to clear her throat. Beatrice smiled once more.
A clattering to their left drew their attention away. Maud was wobbling toward them. Jocasta had never felt so happy to see her friend, and she truly was a friend, she realized. But Maud, despite this sudden elevation in her fortunes, did not even glance at Jocasta. She was holding out a shuddering china cup of coffee. Beatrice took a sip and shuddered. "Damn-it, Maud, have you still not learned to brew?"
Maud's pallid complexion faded further, and a luminescent pearl of sweat emerged on her hairline. Beatrice ignored her. Once again her gaze alighted upon Jocasta, and Jocasta, defiant, glared back. And then Beatrice threw down the gauntlet. "Must run," she said airily. "Having lunch with Mommy at the Old Club. So adorable to meet you!" And she leaned in, pressed her marmorean cheeks against Jocasta's, and, in a flurry, was gone.
A raucous cough leapt out of Jocasta. The entire crowd turned toward her, and then, before she could reassert herself, every woman turned back to their conversations as though she were nothing—a bit of fluff, an ant, a mustard seed.
# # #
Christmas arrived. She and Todd spent a week in Stratton, where the air was so cold it froze as it poured from her mouth, tinkling in minuscule shards to the ground. They socialized with Todd's work colleagues, none of whom had heard of Beatrice Causabon, and by the time they returned home in the New Year, driving down 95 with five feet of snow piled up on each side and the sun unrelenting in the western sky, she had almost forgotten her. It was therefore with some surprise she found her mailbox filled to the brim with catalogues and bills, but not a single invitation.
And that is how the year began: cold and glaring and unfriendly.
# # #
It did not take Jocasta long to realize that she was at war. If she organized a coffee morning, Beatrice Causabon hosted one too, on the same day, at the same time. Jocasta would purchase croissants and polish her silver only to find increasingly fewer women appearing at her door. And when the school issued the new PTA roster, she was appalled to discover it was not her name beside President, but that of Beatrice. She phoned the office to rant, but all the secretary could say was that permanent changes had been made. Jocasta scanned the list, looking for her role, and at last she unearthed it. Book Fair liaison, the most thankless, least glamorous job of all. She phoned the school again. No, there were no other positions available. The president had said she could take it or leave it. She took it, slamming down the phone on the good-bye.
At least Mandy and Maud appeared staunch. On Friday mornings she still found them in their usual seats at Steam, her almond latte waiting for her on the table. She tried to draw them in about Beatrice, but the mere mention of her name seemed to open a ravine between them. All she learned was that Beatrice sprang from a very established Judgment family.
"And the boy on the Mayflower who first sighted Plymouth Rock from his perch in the crow's nest," said Maud.
"And several presidents," added Mandy. "And witch burners. Or is it witches?"
"You will adore her when you get to know her," said Maud.
Jocasta shook her head. "I despise the bitch," she said. "Absolutely detest her."
Maud's eyes bulged blue, and she pressed a bony hand against her lips. "Take it back, Jocasta," she whispered through her fingers. "Take it back."
"Not for my very soul," said Jocasta.
# # #
January, February, March. Jocasta could not sleep. She paced the living room at three in the morning, the barren moonlight glinting on the white mouths of her orchards, on the fields of snow outside. One night, she put on her fur coat and drove into the desolate town. The stoplights flashed amber, and unaccountable animals skittered between the dark buildings. She turned up onto the Ridge, where the great houses stood monolithic against the sky. One of those was Beatrice Causabon's, but she was not sure which. She had written down the address, but the file had vanished from her phone.
Beatrice Causabon haunted her dreams. Jocasta never saw her in daylight, but at night she could not escape her—her striped dress, those white arms, her sinister, glittering eyes.
# # #
And then it was April. The bleak world turned yellow. Daffodils lined the roads, forsythia bloomed maniacally in the hedges. Jocasta spotted Beatrice's car at Whole Foods. Pushing her cart through the Aladdin's cave of vegetables, she kept a wary eye out, but Beatrice was nowhere to be found. And yet, and yet she was everywhere, like a bad smell. Jocasta sensed her—behind the texts she received from her friends, in their cabalistic whispering. One morning no one arrived for tennis practice, not even Maud. Jocasta practiced her serve while she waited, staking out her turf. She was bewildered. Beatrice did not play tennis. Why would she take this from her?
She considered moving towns, starting afresh, but knew Todd would not countenance it. House prices were down—they would lose too much money.
"Perhaps I should leave you then," she said cruelly, to provoke him.
He shrugged. "Whatever."
She could not believe it. Even he had slipped from her grasp. She retired to the bathroom, examined the contents of the medicine cabinet—imagined downing a cocktail of pills, him discovering her, realizing how much he loved her. The fantasy was cheering, but the reality absurd. She was not a loser, and besides, they were both so robustly healthy that all she could find was a bottle of arnica and five baby aspirin.
# # #
And then out of the blue comes the invitation to the Old Club. It is an utter shock.
Is it white flag? She presses the card to her lips, inhales its odd scent. Why now?
# # #
The 14th of May dawns. She arrives at the club early. She waits in her car, only getting out to press the buzzer (how has she not noticed it before?) at exactly 10:00 a.m. The brass button is searing to the touch. A tiny welt appears on her finger.
"Yes." The voice is male, patrician.
She gives her name. The gate swings open, and Jocasta, her heart in her throat, steps over the threshold into a hot rush of air. Mr. Worricow is waiting for her. He wears tennis whites and scarlet sneakers, and his skin is the color of oiled teak. Black hair covers his arms, but his hair and mustache, a clipped affair resting in the cleft of his lip, are gunmetal gray. A cap emblazoned with the words Tony's Pizza sits lightly on his head. Jocasta must work to hide her surprise. She was assuming more Gatsby. Not this.
"Jocasta?" A voice scorched by eons of cigar smoke or too much bellowing.
She extends a shaking hand, but he leaps backward, surprisingly agile, snaps his heels together, and bows.
"You got water? Good. Well, let's get started." His accent is odd. Germanic, she thinks, strained through a cheap part of New York. She has never had an ear for this sort of thing.
They go through a gate onto a court. He extracts a coin from his shorts. She calls heads. It must be a trick throw, for the coin leaps into the air, pauses at eye level, and spins and spins. Her opponent frowns, grabs it, and slaps it on his hand. She sees a tail, forked and scaled.
Mr. Worricow's mouth twists into a little moue. "Bad luck for you," he declares. "But excellent luck for me! You serve first."
Jocasta picks up her racket. She feels light-headed, queasy. The Club is not what she was expecting—not this heat anyway, nor the glare, and especially not him, this nasty little foreigner. Where are the Adirondack chairs? And the iced tea? She was imagining a bit of lawn, an azalea or two. Not this simmering gravel.
She serves first. The ball curves away in flight and just bounces in the box. He lobs it back; he is faster than he looks, and she scrambles to the back of the court but fluffs it.
"My point!" yells her opponent, rudely.
She switches sides, serves again. The ball is long. Mr. Worricow goose-steps in glee. Jocasta inhales deeply. She lines up, but this time she misjudges her throw, for the ball leaps away from her hand, rising and rising like a sulfuric bubble. Her racket descends on nothing.
"Fresh air!" yips Mr. Worricow.
A hot slug of sweat slides down Jocasta's temple. The next serve is in, a solid shot down the middle, but Mr. Worricow darts forward on his bandy knees and taps it with his racket. She watches in dismay as the ball lands in the net, rolls up it, teeters, then plops down on her side.
"Forty to me!"
She cannot believe it. When last did she lose her service game? Her hand is shaking so much that her next ball goes straight into the net. She throws her weight behind her final serve, is aware only momentarily of the perfect impact; then Mr. Worricow darts across the court, the sun blinding off his bared gold teeth. She does not see his return shot barrel toward her head until a millisecond before the strike. When she comes to, she is lying on the ground. Her mouth is full of gravel. She eases herself up. Mr. Worricow is still on the far side of the court, bouncing a ball on his racket. Her head pounds, and an aurora of orange and pink flames across the sky.
She staggers to her feet. To her surprise Mr. Worricow prepares to serve. She cannot bear it. She stumbles to the edge of the court, to the gate, but finds to her confusion that it is padlocked. Poison ivy clambers over the hinges, and the lock is rusted.
"Coo-ee!" calls the horrible, prancing Mr. Worricow from over the net. Jocasta turns back to him on shaking knees. His shadow gambols around his feet, and as he raises his arm to serve, it seems to mutate, elongate, until it looks like a crab—an ibex—or even, she thinks wildly, like a devil with horns.