The Confession Club, page 4
“Oh, please, you know you’re always welcome. It’s your house! Is Matthew out with the kids?”
Maddy hangs her head, crosses her arms. Then looking up, her blue eyes tearful, she says, “We’re taking some time.”
Iris nods slowly. “Want to talk about it?”
“Well…I have to make a cake. Want to help?”
Now Maddy smiles her radiant smile and Iris can’t help but smile back.
“Aprons in the same place as Lucille kept them?” Maddy asks, and Iris says, “The aprons will be in the same place as Lucille kept them forever.”
It’s About Time
“I’m really glad it’s my turn tonight,” says Joanie. “I’ve been wanting to share something for a long time.” She blows out, then takes in a deep breath.
“Wait,” Toots says. “I want to get some coffee. Anyone else?”
“I’ll have some,” Dodie says, and Rosemary says, “I will, too, but it must be decaf. Is it decaf?”
“Yes, it’s decaf,” Toots says. “I made it for Joanie, and checked the can twice.”
“Well, last time we were at your house you said it was decaf and it wasn’t.”
“Oh. Right. Because I put caffeinated in the decaf can.”
“I don’t remember. But this is one hundred percent decaf, honest.”
“You know what?” Rosemary says. “I’ll just have water. Do you have lemon slices?”
“Excuse me,” Joanie says. “I have something I’d really like to say. And I’d appreciate it if you all would stop fiddling around and let me talk.”
Toots, who has risen out of her chair, sits back down.
“I mean, you can get your coffee…” Joanie says.
“Don’t need it,” Toots says. “I’m sorry, Joanie. I apologize. I know how it is when you have something that you want to say, something that you’re maybe even dying to say, but you’re sort of scared, too. Even though all of us here have shared some very personal things. Like remember the time when Gretchen told us about—”
“That confession is over now,” Gretchen says. “We are done with that.”
“Okay,” Toots says. “But my point is that we have all opened ourselves up here in this club. Except for Anne and Leah. They were kind of stingy that way, weren’t they? Like their idea of a confession was to say they forgot to send someone a birthday card. The rest of us have all said things that really…I mean, you share it and—wham!—it’s out there. It can make you feel awfully vulnerable.”
Joanie opens her mouth, but Toots keeps talking.
“Just remember that we are your friends, Joanie, and I’m sure we all understand that it can be hard to say some things.”
“Especially if someone keeps talking,” Gretchen says.
Toots splays her fingers out over her breastbone. “Well, pardon me!”
“Did you get a manicure?” Dodie asks, squinting across the table at Toots. “Did you get that gel polish I told you about?”
Joanie stands. “I’m leaving. You all just stay here and enjoy yourselves. Lock the door when you leave.”
“Wait!” Toots says. “Wait.” She sighs. “I’m sorry. I really am. Please don’t go. I’ll be quiet. We all will. We yield the floor.”
Joanie sits back down and folds her hands on the table. “Okay. I want to start by talking about when my husband cheated on me. I never gave you the details about that.”
Silence at the table.
“I had been suspicious for a long time, but I guess I didn’t really want to know. I just went to my job at the library every day, and came home every night and made dinner. Watched TV with him. Finally, though, I couldn’t take it anymore. One Saturday morning at breakfast I asked him outright, ‘Are you having an affair with Tammy Stuckmeyer?’ She was someone he worked with; they traveled together. And he got all wide-eyed and denied it up and down. So I knew he was. And I just said, ‘Okay,’ and that night he took me out to dinner to my favorite restaurant, a place he otherwise never wanted to go. And my heart was sinking lower and lower the whole time we were there. My stomach hurt so bad I could hardly eat. I kept looking at him and thinking, ‘You have been lying to me for so long.’ And also I was thinking that I was too fat and my nose was ugly and I should have always worn a little foundation, I should have put highlights in my hair, I should have been wittier, more fun, and more carefree.
“The next day, I got…Well, I’m just going to go ahead and say what I believe happened. I got an infusion of strength from the spirit of my daddy, who thought I was God’s gift. I got mad instead of sad and I called a private investigator. But he was so expensive, and I thought, ‘Oh, what do I need him for anyway? I’ll just go and research how those guys work and do the spying myself, and then, if I’m right, I’ll get a divorce.’
“I rented a car so Kevin wouldn’t recognize it, and I drove to his office at five that night, and waited for him to come out. He’d said he had a dinner meeting—he was having dinner meetings to beat the band at that time. He’d call me at the last minute to say he wasn’t coming home. ‘So sorry. Meeting. And don’t wait up.’ And me with the roast beef ready to come out of the oven and the potatoes mashed and the gravy just right. I’d say, ‘Oh, okay then. Well, have a nice dinner! I love you!’ My God. I’m so embarrassed to admit that.”
Gretchen starts to say something and Joanie holds up her hand. “Let me just finish.
“I followed him after he came out, a car length back, and it was easier than I thought it would be. He drove to a townhouse and I saw him go in without knocking. I sat in the car for about fifteen minutes, like they said to do in The Private Investigator’s Handbook. Or maybe it was in one of the other books I looked at. You really can find everything in books! Anyway, after I waited fifteen minutes, pretending I was on my phone so as not to attract any attention, I got out of the car and I walked right into the townhouse. It was very quiet, and then I heard sounds coming from upstairs. I thought of calling out his name, but no, I wanted to catch him right in the act. And I knew from the sounds that they were in the act. I knew those sounds, I knew his sounds, anyway. He…he used to…”
She stops talking and presses her fingers to her mouth, and Gretchen murmurs, “Oh, sweetheart.”
Joanie dabs her napkin at her eyes. But then she uses a mirthful, holding-back tone to say, “He used to go like this when he was coming: ‘Honey. Honey. Oh, honey-honey-honey-honey, OOOOUGH!’ ” She bursts out laughing and all the other women do, too.
“Boy, that felt good!” Joanie says. “Anyway. I went up to the bedroom where the sounds were coming from and I barged in and…Well. You know. She’s naked. Flushed. Her hair all messed up. Him still inside her, and he turns around and I take a photo and I say, ‘Hello. Don’t come home. Not tonight and not ever again. The next time you hear from me will be through a lawyer. And I’m changing the locks as soon as I get home.’
“I went home and called a locksmith. And after the guy left, I wept hard. Howled. And then I made myself a big fat martini with about a thousand olives, I put it in my favorite Snoopy coffee mug, and I put on Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Number 3 really loud, I mean really loud. The next day I called Susie Keener, who, as some of you may know, is a lawyer who has a reputation for being formidable.”
“Killer Keener,” Toots says.
“Yes, I wanted the house. And as you all know, I got it. And I got something else more important, and that’s what I really want to tell you about.
“Now, I know I have a reputation for being kind of rigid sometimes. Oftentimes, I guess. I mean, if I’m sitting with you at a restaurant and the salt and pepper shakers don’t line up, why, I’m going to make them line up. I know it gets on people’s nerves. It gets on my nerves. It’s like some of us create our own prisons for ourselves, we fall into ways
“But I was reading a book a few weeks ago—I like to read first thing in the morning these days, with my coffee. So I was reading the book and I went to take a sip of coffee and I spilled on the book. I got all upset: ‘Now look! I ruined the book! Now I’ll have to buy another one!’ But I calmed down and kept on reading, and the next day, I kind of liked how the page had swollen a little in that spot where I’d spilled the coffee, I liked the tan outline. I liked how it felt beneath my fingers.
“I had never eaten when I was reading, but I started doing that. I got toast crumbs stuck in between two pages, I got a mustard stain on the bottom of another page, and I got a rip in the jacket and repaired it with Scotch tape. And, you know, the book became more lovable to me. Lovable and comfortable and mine. I began dog-earing pages to indicate where I left off. I underlined passages I liked with whatever was closest: pen, pencil, Magic Markers, once even lipstick.”
“Oh, my,” Toots says. “You really went to the dark side. What book was it?”
“It was The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted. Robert Hillman. Beautiful book. You told me about it a while back, Gretchen. And you all know how I used to feel about people defacing books, but listen: It made it my book. It was me being me. I beat the hell out of that book, and it’s now the one that I love the best. It’s like it served as the revelation of Joanie Benson, as though I’d become my favorite toy from when I was a girl, the Visible Woman. The book is full of me. I can smell myself in it. I can see what resonates with me. When I finished it, I put it face-out on my bookshelf. If I ever read it again, and I think I will, I can come to the mustard stain and remember the day when it rained so hard the water ran down my windows like the house was going through a car wash, and I ate a baloney-and-mustard sandwich for lunch. All those marks I made in the book are…well, they’re notes on a life. On my life. And they’re important.
“Do you all know about Samuel Pepys? His diary of the unremarkable?”
“Didn’t I just read an interview with him in the paper?” Dodie asks.
“No, he lived in the 1600s,” Joanie says. “And people at the time just devoured that book. I’ve begun carrying around something he wrote. Want to hear it?”
“Yes!” they all say.
Joanie reaches into her purse and pulls out a page from a yellow legal pad. She unfolds it and reads:
Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.
Mighty proud I am that I am able to have a spare bed for my friends.
Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.
Saw a wedding in the church. It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition.
As happy a man as any in the world, for the whole world seems to smile upon me!
I find my wife hath something in her gizzard, that only waits an opportunity of being provoked to bring up; but I will not, for my content-sake, give it.
She looks up, smiling. “So, see? Turns out I’m glad I’m divorced! And I know it wasn’t exactly right to walk in on them that way, but I’m glad I did it! This is a confession, but I’m not one bit sorry.”
“Hmm,” Toots says. “I’ll bet a lot of us could confess things we did wrong that we’d do again.”
“Like what?” Dodie asks.
Toots pats primly at her mouth with her napkin. “Not my turn,” she says.
Welcome to the Club
At seven-thirty that evening, Maddy comes along with Iris to deliver the Black Cake to Joanie’s club. In the car, she tells Iris she remembers Joanie from when she was head librarian. “I always liked her,” Maddy says. “She was so kind.”
“She is kind,” Iris says. “She’s taken a couple of my classes and she’s always the first one to help anyone who needs it.”
When they pull up outside the house, Iris tells Maddy to sit still until she comes around to take the cake off her lap. It’s rather nice-looking, and smells heavenly. Iris brought along some whipped cream, too, in part to compensate for delivering the cake so late; it took a long time indeed to make it.
Halfway down the walk, they hear the loud sound of women laughing. “What kind of club is this?” Maddy asks, and Iris says, “I think it’s a book club.”
The door has been left ajar, and a note taped to it says, IRIS, COME ON IN!
The women are now engrossed in quiet conversation and Iris motions to Maddy to follow her down the hall to the kitchen. She’ll just drop the cake and whipped cream off and, on the way out, signal to Joanie that it’s there.
She and Maddy are just outside the dining room when they hear a woman say, “It was a first date. I can’t call him for a second date when I farted like that on the first! In the car! It was so awful. Neither one of us said anything. He just cleared his throat and rolled down the window a tiny bit. And I turned up the radio. Like that might help!”
Maddy and Iris look at each other, and then Joanie spies them and says, “Oh, look, girls! Iris is here. Iris Winters? You remember her: Winters Baking School? She brought that complicated cake I was telling you about for dessert. Come on in and say hello, Iris. And who…? Is that Maddy Harris with you? Maddy! Come on in! Sit down and have some cake before you go. We had a couple of no-shows; Anne and Leah had something going on in their retirement home.” Joanie points to the two empty chairs. “I’ll bet you’re dying to see what that cake tastes like.”
“I am curious,” Iris says, putting the cake on the table and then sitting down. “What book are you discussing?”
“Oh, this is not a book club,” Karen Lundgren says. “Newwwwwww.”
“What kind of a club is it?” Iris asks.
No one says anything. But then Joanie comes in with a cake server, plates, and forks. She slices the cake into even pieces and passes it out. Then she says, “Okay, Iris, I heard you ask what kind of club this is. I will confess that we call it Confession Club.”
“We confess things to one another. Things that we did wrong or that we’re ashamed of.”
“Joanie…” Rosemary says. Rosemary is wearing a pretty print tie blouse and has a pastel sweater draped over her shoulders. She has on many bracelets, sparkly earrings. She has highlighted, chin-length hair worn in a loose perm, and she is wearing very skillfully applied makeup. Iris thinks she looks like a mannequin brought to life.
“What, Rosemary?” says Joanie. “Talking about things you’re ashamed of is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I think it sounds sort of wonderful,” Iris says.
“And therapeutic,” Maddy adds. “And anyway, isn’t listening to things like that what good friends do for one another all the time?”
“Not often enough, actually,” Joanie says. And then, licking her fork, “Jeez. This is good.”
Toots leans forward to say loudly, “I run things here just like I run the town council meetings. We take things seriously, and we go into them in depth. Each week, one person shares, and we almost always spend the whole time on just her.”
“Can I join?” Iris asks. She means it as a joke, but now that she’s said it, she realizes she is kind of serious.
No one answers. Joanie sits wide-eyed across from her, her mouth full, and Iris bets she knows what she’s remembering: Iris saying to her, Someday I will call upon you to do a service for me….She’s about to tell Joanie that she’s only kidding, but then Maddy doubles down and says, “I’d like to join, too. For a few weeks, anyway. I’ll be here for at least a few weeks.” She looks over at Iris, shrugs.
Karen, the minister’s wife, says, “Wait. Are you in your fifties, Iris?” She sounds very excited. She pushes up on the sleeves of her striped sweater like she’s getting ready to wash dishes.
“Close. Couple of months.”
“Excuse me,” Rosemary says. “I am fifty-eight.”
“Yeah,” Karen says, “but you said you’re going to say you’re sixty and get it over with. So I’m going to count you as being in your sixties. And, Maddy, you’re what, in your twenties, right?”
“Well, see?” Karen says. “If we let them in, we’ll have the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies represented!”
Gretchen says, “I’ll bet we could get on cable TV. They could film us at my store, and that way no one would have to worry about her private space being invaded. Grace Haddock got on cable TV for her poetry and her poetry isn’t even good!”
“I like her poetry,” says Dodie, delicately plucking something off her tongue. “Why don’t you like it?” She’s wearing a very dramatic white blouse with the collar turned up. Iris thinks she could pass as a faded movie star. That red lipstick!
“I think what we need to talk about is whether we’d like to admit two new people,” Joanie says.
Toots leaps into action. “There is a motion on the floor to admit two new members to our club, which I second even though technically I can’t, as chair. Is there any discussion?”
“Well, this is just happening all too fast for me,” Rosemary says, the color high in her face. She pulls her sweater off her shoulders and lays it across her lap.
“That’s why we have discussion,” Toots says.
Rosemary speaks quietly, looking down as though she is addressing her bosom. “I think we need to talk privately first.”
“It’s okay,” Iris says, and starts to rise out of her chair. But Toots, who is sitting next to her, puts her hand over Iris’s: Stay.