Stepping out to the curb in front of the Phoenix airport that November Sunday, Mrs. Albert Strouse, San Francisco matron of impressive age, was met by a welcome shock of heat. There had been a wintry dankness in the wind at home for weeks, which along with the artificial winter of the airplane cabin had settled into her bones. She adjusted her dashing new mango-colored sunglasses and basked.
A young woman in a jacket of a familiar blue appeared beside her. “Mrs. Strouse!””Cassie! How are you, dear?”
“Can’t complain.” Cassie took Rae’s small suitcase and led her to the blue minivan waiting in the No Waiting zone. “You’re my last lady. Do you mind riding up front with me?”
“Delighted. I’m good with a shotgun.”
Cassie held the door while Rae hoisted herself into the front seat.
There were four other passengers already on board, none known to her. They exchanged nods of greeting with her, except for one fat one who either had jet lag or had enjoyed some cocktails on the plane and was slumped in the back with her eyes shut, looking like a failed popover.
Normally Rae Strouse loved a party. Normally Rae Strouse considered three strangers on a bus a festive gathering, but today as the van left the city behind she was just as glad to contemplate the afternoon light on the desert and let The Young behind her get on with their conversation.
The Young were apparently two childhood friends, now separated by husbands and children and distance, taking a week together. They were clucking over the guest list, looking for useful kernels of information, hoping they weren’t going to regret not going to Aruba. New guests were always anxious about how it was going to be.
“Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six. Thirty-six. Well that’s a nice size. Group. That’s a good group,” said the dark one.
“Look, here’s that woman Glenna Leisure. She’s in W all the time.”
“Yes, you know who she is. She’s that one who was a stewardess, she married the leveraged-buyout guy?”
“Is that the one whose co-op got so upset about her Christmas tree?”
They fell silent as the van sped along toward the violet shadows of the Mazatzal Mountains.
“Is your sister coming with you this time?” Cassie asked Rae.
“No, we’re taking a cruise later in the year. Mr. Strouse and I want to show her the Greek Isles.”
“That sounds nice,” said Cassie.
“We’re looking forward to it.”
There was another silence.
“A number of your pals from last time are back,” said Cassie. Rae nodded. She was such an old hand by now that there were almost always guests she knew from earlier visits. She liked that, but even more she liked meeting new ones. It wasn’t so easy at her age to meet new people, and it was important. The old ones kept dying.
The two friends behind her handed the guest list to the third woman, who now remarked, “Mrs. Alan Steadman . . . isn’t that Megan Soule?”
Even Rae turned around at that.
“Megan Soule? You’re kidding!”
“That’s her married name,” said the third guest. The two friends looked at her.
“Megan Soule, omigod, I love her! She was so cute in that movie, with Robin Williams . . . ”
“I saw her in concert once. She was incredible.”
“I’ve heard she’s a really nice person.”
“It says she’s from Aspen.”
“Well she isn’t, but they do have a house there.”
“But she lives in Malibu.”
“Don’t those friends of yours live in Malibu?”
“No, they moved.”
The little van whizzed along over the desert.
“Well, this should be fun,” said the plump blonde, sounding uncertain.
Forty minutes later the little van turned down an unmarked road winding among tall pines. It crossed an arroyo and stopped before a wooden door set in a high stucco wall. The pines cast deep shadows, and the sounds of the highway above and behind them seemed suddenly far away.
The driver rang a heavy brass bell hanging from the doorpost. It had a deep iron peal. Almost at once a young woman appeared through the carved door. Her name tag said jackie.
“Hello, Mrs. Strouse, welcome back,” she said as Rae was handed down from the van. Rae passed through into a courtyard inside the walls, the first cloister. When the little door closed behind the group they seemed suddenly wrapped in stunning silence.
“Oh!” said the blonde. “So quiet . . . ”
It took a moment to become aware that it was not silent at all, but filled with a subtle singing of crickets, of water playing somewhere nearby, of birds, of moving branches. This courtyard was built around a stone pool whose surface reflected trees towering around it.
The foregoing is excerpted from Five Fortunes by Beth R. Gutcheon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022