The insulated splendor of Morrocroft Estates had a certain
artificial exclusiveness, but was no less compelling for that fact. In
the absence of any natural distinction, Morrocroft was, much like the city
of Charlotte itself, entirely dependent upon the creation of a fabricated
As Dr. Stephen Rayfield was waved through the iron gate by the unsmiling
security guard, he was struck by the sheer opulent audacity of the place.
Many of the city's power brokers, including the chancellor of Stephen's
university, resided in enormous homes behind the sturdy brick wall that
encircled Morrocroft, an otherwise flat, nondescript tract of land near
the Southpark shopping mall. Some of these luxe pioneers had migrated from
the more sedate neighborhood of Myers Park, whose majestic old homes still
maintained a historic cachet. Indeed, many of the residents of Myers Park
still effected an upward tilt of their noses whenever the vulgar name of
Morrocroft was uttered in their presence.
While the oak-shaded streets of Myers Park remained a sanctuary of money
and privilege, its antique charm was deficient in one crucial regard. Unlike
the fortress that was Morrocroft, it lacked a wall, that tangible assurance
of bricks and mortar that said clearly and decisively to all intruders,
social or criminal, Keep Out.
Although Stephen had moved to Charlotte almost a year ago, this was his
first visit to his aunt and uncle's home. It was an ornate Italian Renaissance
concoction and was surrounded by a tall iron fence. That Edward and Missy
Harrison required such fortification, in addition to the guarded entrance
of Morrocroft itself, only hinted at the treasures within. Stephen drove
through the open gate into the circular driveway, which was bordered with
boxwoods and a profusion of red and white begonias.
As Stephen ascended the stone steps, his curly brown hair was still wet,
looking as if he had just showered. He had the high cheekbones and broad
forehead of the Scots-Irish Harrisons, heightened by judicious, though
no doubt clandestine, mixing with Cherokee blood some generations back.
The sun was setting, as if on cue. A softening pinkish glow graced the
entry terrace. Stephen studied the carved panels of the double-sided front
doors, which were supposed to be reminiscent of the Ghiberti doors in Florence,
Italy. Rumor had it that his aunt had the sculpted panels specially commissioned
by a Florentine artisan. Missy was known for a dedication to all things
Italian. Such a sensibility for Anglophilic Charlotteans, where references
to Florence typically led to the town in South Carolina, bordered on the
He tapped the green lion's head door knocker. The massive door was promptly
opened by two attendants, a portly man in black tie and a young woman in
a black dress. "Welcome," the young woman said, "Mr. and
Mrs. Harrison are in the library."
Stephen smiled at Aunt Missy's latest affectation, intrigued, impressed
even, by the shameless overreaching of a woman who would actually employ
uniformed attendants for a dinner for ten. He stepped inside a cavernous
foyer and hall. The white marble floors were so gleaming that he could
almost see his reflection as he walked by heavy oak-paneled walls. He proceeded
past the grim portraits of various Harrisons and Gilmores, reverently framed
Gilt surpasses guilt, he thought, mindful of the more unsavory histories
of both clans.
Mr. and Mrs. Edward Harrison stood side by side in the
library, in front of the elaborate stone fireplace. Above the mantel, a
portrait of Missy holding a bouquet of roses loomed in serene contemplation.
The room was furnished in a brown sea of leather chairs and sofas. The
walls were lined with shelves crowded with immaculate boxed sets of books,
which were distinctive for, if not their actual use, their remarkable color
coordination. No doubt mindful of Charlotte's reputation as a cultural
wasteland, Missy had deposited a string quartet in a corner, conveniently
next to the bar. The strains of Puccini wafted unobtrusively about the
room as guests sipped obligatory cocktails.
Missy, smiling effusively, whispered something to her husband as Stephen
paused somewhat hesitantly at the door. Missy looked the picture of regal
comfort in her green silk cocktail dress, which was cut low to highlight
the diamond necklace nestled securely in the crevice of her firmly augmented
"Stephen! How wonderful to see you," Missy exclaimed, rushing
over to the door and hugging him with an enthusiasm notable for its force
if not its sincerity. She took him by the arm and guided him into the room
like a pet of whom she was fond, but not yet decided on keeping. "Edward,
look who's here," she called out to her husband, who was talking now
to an attractive young couple.
"Hey there, pardner," Edward said, taking Stephen's hand in a
firm, assertive grip. "We finally got you over here." Edward
Harrison effected a patient and stoic forbearance, smiling good-naturedly
in his well-tailored, but still somehow ill-fitting suit. Next to the shimmery,
textured blondeness of his wife, his shock of white, wavy hair hinted at
a sort of virginal innocence. Given Stephen's limited but telling education
in the randy nature of southern men, he could only conclude that such a
semblance of purity was surely an illusion.
Edward turned to the couple beside him. "Alice. Bill. I'd like you
to meet my nephew, Dr. Stephen Rayfield. He's a history professor out at
"Assistant professor. Call me Stephen," he said.
"Oh, he's just being modest," Missy interjected. Then, with a
proprietary tone of a satisfied hostess comparing one ornament to another,
Missy added, "Alice and Bill here are transplants from San Francisco.
Alice is a doctor and Bill works for Bank of America." Missy smiled
broadly as she and Edward left to continue their orbit about the room.
"So. History," Alice said. "How do you manage to get those
kids to pay attention? Aren't they all just glued to MTV these days?"
"Oh, absolutely," he replied, "All of my lectures are given
in music video format. I film them the night before."
"Wow," Bill said, "so you can sing too?"
"Sing? No. I can't carry a tune, but neither can anyone on MTV, can
they? An actual melody would only confuse them. I have worked out some
fabulous dance moves though. You should see my Jefferson tango."
One of those awkward, silent intervals ensued, as the newly introduced
trio glanced appraisingly at one another. Stephen assumed that Alice and
Bill Owens were still, as he was, relatively new to the bumpy terrain of
social life in Charlotte. They probably approached events at homes such
as the Harrisons' with the curious gaze, if not attire, of a couple on
safari. Fortyish looking, each retained a lean and athletic form that more
than hinted at their enduring, vaguely sensual, capability for all sorts
of exploration. Given their still youthful attractiveness, not to mention
their esoteric backgrounds, Stephen suspected that they were greatly in
demand, if slightly suspect, among Charlotte hostesses.
Dinner consisted of overcooked seafood risotto and the
compensation of a delightful Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The wine was of
an immaculate vintage and was in no way diminished by Aunt Missy's doomed
efforts to correctly pronounce it.
The guests, reduced to nine as a result of the much commented on absence
of the husband of Frances Bulwark, the textile heiress, earnestly discussed
banking mergers, the athletic struggles of the Panthers, and, in somewhat
more muted tones, escalating crime. There had been another carjacking just
the other day in Providence Plantation, in the very bosom of affluent southeast
"Do you share your aunt's fondness for Italy?" Dr. Alice Owens
whispered to Stephen, lightly touching his hand with her own.
"Oh yes, of course, but not like Aunt Missy. She has, I would say,
a more elevated appreciation for the Italians. My preference is for the
earthier variety. I was just there last summer, backpacking, after finishing
up my dissertation."
"Did you go by yourself?" Alice asked.
"Yes," Stephen said, then winked, "part of the time."
He noticed that her eyes, like his own, were a dark shade of blue.
Alice smiled. "I would guess you don't lack for company for long."
Stephen was about to reply when there was the faint tinkling of a wine
glass, and the table silenced. Missy, her blonde highlights pulled tight
into a helmeted pile, smiled with equal tautness and rose from her seat.
In the Harrison household, one of the modest gestures to feminism was that
Missy always gave the toasts at their parties.
Edward Harrison, with the affected and vacant pose of a campaign wife,
glanced across the table as Missy began to speak, carefully modulating
the deep tones of her menopausal voice. "Everyone, I can't let this
evening go by without thanking you, each and every one of you, for being
here with us tonight, and so I must propose a toast."
She paused a moment, frozen in misty-eyed nostalgia, as if she were already
remembering this evening as a particularly treasured occasion. "A
home is only bricks and mortar and bits of wood. Well, okay, and Brunswig
and Fils fabrics! No offense, Frances," she said, glancing at Frances
Bulwark, whose beleaguered textile empire produced simpler cloth.
"None taken," Mrs. Bulwark said, waving her bejeweled fingers,
no doubt wanting to add that the 'l' in Fils was silent.
"Those are just things," Missy continued, "It is friendship
and family that we treasure. And that is what you all mean to us."
Just as Missy sat down, Mrs. Laura Caldwell raised her glass. Mrs. Caldwell
had the oddly delicate look of a plump Lladro figurine. Everything about
her seemed soft, yet somehow precise and tapered, from the gentle waves
of her jet black hair to the manicured opal smoothness of her fingernails.
She appeared to be a woman for whom nothing, not even her own expanding
girth, should ever be out of its appointed place.
"I would like to thank Missy and Edward for this lovely dinner,"
Laura began. Her husband Andrew, whose resigned slouch and insistent paunch
were his most assertive attributes, stared at the centerpiece of towering
orchids. "They make the world," Laura continued, "which
can be so discouraging these days, a brighter place. Generous. Compassionate..."
She hesitated, searching without success for another adjective. Her somber
expression caused her chin to collapse into multiple waves of doughy flesh.
Then, her expression settled into a resolute smile, tensing the flabbiness
of her face into something perhaps more solid, but, Stephen observed, infinitely
more discouraging. Finally, she concluded, "They enrich our lives
every day. God has blessed us with these dear friends, and we thank Him.
Here's to Missy and Edward."
Stephen lifted his glass along with the others. He tried not to wince at
Mrs. Caldwell's convivial reference to God. He glanced at Alice and Bill,
and was impressed by their noncommittal, but reverent, expression. Stephen
reminded himself that most ot the people at the Harrison table shared,
or at least pretended to share, Laura Caldwell's fervent bond with Jesus.
At the end of the day, Charlotte was still a city of banks and churches.
Praise the Lord.
Tiramisu, inevitably, was served for dessert, along with cappuccinos. Alice
Owens nudged Stephen and said, with just a slight nod to southern womanhood,
"Goodness, I can't tell you how glad I am you were here tonight. It's
such a pleasure meeting you."
"The pleasure is mine," Stephen said, his blue eyes gazing mischievously
at her. He thought he saw Missy glaring at them from her perch at the head
of the table, but decided she was just displeased with the tiramisu. It
probably wasn't a bit like what she had enjoyed in Milan last year.
Stephen would look back at the end of that unforgiving
summer and recall the odd number of guests seated at the enormous mahogany
table that evening in May. Nine. An uneven number. But, there had been
another, unseen guest. A final visitor, heedless of glistening sunsets
or Murano glass, oblivious to ambition or regret, and notable not so much
for entrance as for exit. The spectral presence that eventually arrives
unbidden and unwanted in every life was there that evening at the Harrison
home. And it was quietly, patiently waiting, knowing that the walled fortress
of Morrocroft Estates was not so impregnable after all.