There's plenty of stupidity now, the grandniece said, and I know it for what it is. True, Cora conceded, and I'm proud of you for that. But maybe there's some more, and you don't know it's there. Do you know what I'm saying? Honey? To someone who grows up by the stockyards, that smell just smells like air. You don't know what a younger person might someday think of you, and whatever stench we still breathe in without noticing. Listen to me, honey. Please. I'm old now, and this is something I've learned.
After she dropped Viola off, Cora drove back downtown and parked on Douglas, just outside Alan's office. No one looked twice at her as she climbed down from the car. Just two years earlier, one of the most discussed events of the annual Wheat Show was the Parade of Lady Drivers. Even then, the organizers had no trouble finding almost twenty women anxious to display their competence behind the wheels of various cars. Cora had driven the fifth car in the line, Alan sitting proudly beside her.
She had to push hard on the big door to his office, and when she finally managed to open it, she saw and felt why. The big window in the front room was open to the rain-cooled breeze, and a huge electric fan was pointed right at her. On her left, two girls she didn't know sat typing. Alan's secretary stood behind another desk, using both hands to turn the crank on a rotary duplicating machine. When she noticed Cora, she stopped.
"Oh, Mrs. Carlisle! It's nice to see you!"
Cora was aware of a pause in the typing, the typists looking up, taking her in. She was not surprised by their scrutiny. Her husband was a handsome man. Cora smiled at the girls. Both were young, and one was pretty. Neither posed any threat.
"Let me tell him you're here," his secretary said. She wore an ink-stained apron over her dress.
"Oh no," Cora said, glancing at her watch. "Please don't bother him. It's almost five. I'll just wait."
But the door to Alan's office opened. He stuck his head out and smiled. "Darling! I thought I heard your voice. What a lovely surprise!"
He was already walking toward her, arms outstretched, a sight to behold, really, tall and trim in his three-piece suit. He was twelve years older than Cora, but his light brown hair was still full. She glanced at the typists just long enough to see she had their full attention, as if she were the heroine in a silent film. Alan leaned down to kiss her cheek, smelling faintly of a cigar. She thought she heard someone sigh.
"You're damp," he said, using two fingers to touch the brim of her hat. His tone was lightly scolding.
"It's just sprinkling now, but it might start up again." She spoke in a low voice. "I stopped by to see if you wanted a ride home. I didn't mean to interrupt."
It was no bother, he assured her. He introduced her to the typists, praising their skills even as he gently steered her back to his office, his hand on the back of her waist. There were some fellows he wanted her to meet, he said, some new clients from the oil and gas company. Three men stood when she entered, and she greeted them all politely, trying to memorize faces and names. They were pleased to meet her, one said: her husband had spoken so highly of her. Cora feigned surprise, her smile so practiced it seemed real.
And then it was five o'clock, time to go. Alan shook hands with the men, put on his hat, took his umbrella from the stand, and jokingly apologized for having to catch his ride home in a hurry. The men smiled at him, at her. Someone suggested a future get-together.
His wife could call Cora to see what would be a good evening. "That would be lovely," she said.
When they got outside, the rain had indeed grown more serious. He offered to bring the car around to the front, but she insisted she would be fine if he shared his umbrella. They ran to the car together, huddled close, heads lowered. He held open her door and gave her his arm as she climbed up into the passenger seat, his umbrella over her head until she was safe inside.
Excerpted from The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. Copyright © 2012 by Laura Moriarty. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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