Sansing McPherson, an Alabama native, moved to Hilton Head in 2002 from New Jersey. Her novel, Sweat Sisters, relates the highs and lows of teachers in a NJ middle school. http://www.sansingmcpherson.com
By Sansing McPherson
The sound of a speeding car on the country road sent Patrick Clark sprawling into a thicket of waxmyrtle and saw palmettos. A blue BMW slowed down, turned into the entrance of the estate, and stopped at the gatehouse. Patrick crept from the bushes and crouched beside the rear wheel of the Beemer. He heard the conversation exchange and knew he had only seconds to duck into the shrubbery inside the gate before the guests moved on. How much easier if he could just drive through the gate, but he was the wrong Pat Clark. And he drove a battered Honda.
From a gap in the landscaping he gazed down the sloping terrain at the Ferkie estate—a vast tractor-mown lawn, grand old oaks, a lake with a dock—all gilded by slanting sunshine. A clutch of people and dogs cavorted beside the lake where two kayaks and a canoe were racing. Spirited voices drifted from a pool. Up a wide driveway stood a clapboard country house with a rambling porch and dark green shutters. Guest cottages snugged into a grove of trees. Pat could see a couple smooching on a porch. He felt a pang of envy.
He eased away from the gate and waited until the next car distracted the gatekeeper. Hugging the shrubbery, he headed toward the driveway. The big house now hid the lake, but he could still hear shouts from the dock welcoming new arrivals.
The blue Beamer. His own arrival couldn’t compete, not on his social worker’s salary. His stomach sank. Could he fit into this group, no questions as to how he knew the Ferkies?
In a lightning second fiery claws sank into his right leg. A shock sizzled through him. A large tiger-striped cat clung below his knee, yellow eyes boring through him. With a yell Pat tried to remove the cat, but needle sharp teeth sank into his left hand. He kicked to dislodge the feline, to no avail. He could only advance by dragging his leg and the cat with him. A quick glance showed that the gatekeeper hadn’t seen him.
Out of nowhere two boxer dogs bounded toward him. The cat stiffened, gave one last dig into his shin with its hind claws, and charged toward the boxers. As the animals vanished around the corner of the house, Pat pulled up his pants leg to blot bleeding claw marks with his bandana. Neat bloody pinholes peppered his nicest pair of khakis.
But no cat would deter him from the mission Patricia had thrust upon him. From his jacket pocket he took the cream-colored invitation to this houseparty with Pat Clark lettered in calligraphy and an address just one digit off from his own. He trotted up the front steps, and rang the bell. A silver-haired man in a black vest opened the door with a smile.
“I’m Taylor Pitts, and you must be …?”
“Pat Clark, from the cruise with John and Jennifer.” He produced the invitation.
“Of course.” The man took the envelope, consulted a list, and gave a little laugh. “With a name like yours, one can’t tell whether to expect a male or female.”
“Happens all the time,” Pat said and gazed around. The word foyer didn’t have enough letters to describe this room—a red Oriental rug, laquered armoire, vast hunt board with a huge vase of magnolias reflected in a gilt-framed mirror. His entire condo would fit here.
“A minor adjustment to your room assignment, and I’ll show you to your quarters.”
Minor adjustment? Damn. John and Jennifer might remember Patricia better than she realized. He’d have to stay sober this weekend. It had been three months since his last bender, when he’d awoken slumped behind the wheel of his car, still parked in front of Lawrence Polk’s condo, clothes disheveled, jackhammer headache, garbage-can taste in his mouth, and the faint scent of roses from somewhere. If the kids he mentored could see him …
Leaving his pack in his room, Pat went down the hall to the bathroom. He cleaned his wounds but found only enough bandages for his leg, not his hand. He’d worry about the little blood spots on his slacks later. He ambled out to the back porch to find his hosts. Patricia had shown him photos of John and Jennifer from the cruise.
“Don’t worry,” she had assured him last week. “They stayed so drunk on that trip, they don’t know me from Captain Ahab. If they look suspicious, just say your name is Clark Parker.”
“Why Clark Parker?”
“He was a steward we joked around with. When Jennifer got wasted, she called everybody Clark Parker. A running joke. Now go have fun. And remember your mission.”
“Wish I knew what the mission looks like.”
“Clare is Jennifer’s sister. There’s a strong resemblance.”
He started the quest. A Frisbee landed at his feet as he left the porch, and the boxers bounded up again. He scratched their ears gratefully and threw the Frisbee back toward the group, advancing with an amiable grin masking the lump in his throat.
I hate this, he thought as he smiled and said, “Pat Clark,” shaking hands with a small, freckled redhead.
“Hi, cutie,” she exclaimed and kissed his cheek. “Love that little tatoo on your hand.”
“It’s a cat bite,” he said. She laughed hysterically.
He worked through the crowd towards platinum blonde Jennifer, who held an empty bottle of Corona. He snagged a new bottle from a cooler and made a bold move.
“Jennifer!” he exclaimed, embracing her. “You look mahvelous, dahling. More beautiful than on the cruise.”
She looked perplexed.
“I brought you another Corona. No lime, see? Just how you like it.” He thrust it into her hand. “Where’s John? I’ve been dying to see y’all again.”
“He’s …” Her eyes were a mix of blurry and baffled. “… over there.” She looked relieved.
Pat gave her shoulders another hug and moved on to encounter John Ferkie, the young gazillionaire heir to the Ferkie fortune.
“Damn if I’m not too drunk to remember your name,” said John, sounding quite sober.
“Pat Clark,” said Pat. “Or Clark Parker, depending on how drunk you are.”
John Ferkie howled. “Ah, yes, from the cruise. We had a hell of a time, didn’t we? But say, what happened to your hand?”
“Encounter with a hostile cat coming in.”
John chuckled. “Tyrone does stalk his territory. If it gets infected and you want to sue, I can recommend a good lawyer.” He handed Pat a business card. It read, John Ferkie, Attorney at Law. Personal Injury.
“Thanks, counselor.” Pat gave a wry laugh and recalled what Patricia had told him about the hosts.
John and Jennifer Ferkie, two thirty-something attorneys, had the means and the leisure to entertain large groups of friends for long weekends, weekends marinated in fine wines and margaritas, basted by sunshine, larded by gourmet foods, and fortified by swimming, boating, tennis, and lawn games. 😊
John Ferkie fell heir to the grand estate by virtue of two things—being an only child, and being totally charming. As a tow-headed toddler, he enthralled his maiden Aunt Celeste with dimpled smiles and rosebud kisses. Fresh out of college, he donned the travel wardrobe she bought him and accompanied her on cruises, his manners as impeccable as his blond, tuxedoed handsomeness. Aunt Celeste never loved anyone as much as she loved her nephew.
Pat moved to a group romping with the amiable boxers.
“Whose dogs?” he asked.
“I think they’re Clare’s,” somebody answered.
“Clare doesn’t have dogs,” someone else said.
The name got Pat’s attention. “Where is Clare anyway?”
“I saw her at the boathouse,” a woman said. He slipped away in that direction.
Why had he let Patricia talk him into this? But he knew. He was crazy about Patricia, longed to impress her. He would have married her the day they met, two Pat Clarks trading misdelivered mail. Unfortunately, when she had come by one Saturday to swap mail, he was smashed. Her disapproving look made him ashamed. Besides, she was engaged to Sheldon, who was probably on the short list for a damn Nobel Prize.
“Would you consider bigamy?” Pat asked when it was clear she wasn’t leaving Sheldon for a some-time lush.
“No, but I’ll pair you up with someone perfect for you. She’s just precious. You can meet her this weekend if you’ll use my invitation to the Ferkie’s house.”
“You’re crazy. They’d notice.”
“The Ferkies don’t know me very well. They stayed snockered the whole cruise. It’s Jennifer’s sister Clare I want you to meet. She wasn’t on the cruise, but I know her from pilates—small-world connection.”
“So why don’t you go yourself?”
“Not my group of people, heavy drinkers. And I’d rather be with Sheldon.”
“So why should I want to go in your place?” Aside from currying Patricia’s favor.
“To meet Clare. But you can’t use the main gate. The gatekeeper’s my cousin, another coincidence that let me wedge into the Ferkies’ set. You’ll have to sneak in.”
So here he was, stalking somebody’s sister on a gazillionaire’s estate, the bizarrest kind of blind date. At last he spied a pretty blonde by the tennis courts. Maybe Clare?
Pat headed that way, but a bell clanged. Taylor Pitts spoke over a speaker announcing a Lowcountry boil picnic on the side lawn. Pat tried to maneuver toward the pretty woman’s table, but it filled before he got near. He couldn’t even study her face because she sat with her back to him. He opened a beer and sat down with people he hoped had not been on the cruise. They gave him a riotous welcome and involved him in tequila shots.
When they rolled themselves out of their chairs after dinner and he turned to look for the blonde, the trees spun around his head. Her table was empty. His new friends pulled him into a limbo challenge. He was feeling cocky as one of the final three until he pulled a muscle in his back. He begged off and limped inside to his room.
Self-loathing followed him up the stairs. He wanted to lie down and die on the thick oriental carpet in the upstairs hall. To the right he saw a young woman enter one of the bedrooms. Female laughter spilled into the hall.
Women’s quarters, he thought.Too bad he couldn’t think of a smooth party-crashing line. Too bad he felt like death. He turned left toward his own room, tugged off his clothes, and crashed into bed.
Two a.m. His back ached, his cat scratches throbbed, his head pulsed. He was parched, dry as dust. He crept to the bathroom on the male hall, where light shone around the edges of the door. Someone was retching inside. Desperate, he staggered to the women’s hall where a door stood ajar with a dim night light glowing from within. Bathroom for sure.
Suddenly a shadowy tiger-striped form hissed at him from the doorway. Tyrone. The cat appeared to crouch for a spring, and Patrick barged into the nearest room.
A pale blonde, propped up in bed, looked up in alarm from her book. Her expression went from shock and indignation to a wry smile.
“So it IS you,” she said.
“Me? Have we met before?”
She laughed. “And I knew you were the boxer type.”
“Oh, the boxers don’t belong to me.”
“Then whose are you wearing?”
He looked down, blushing. “No, I meant the dogs. A killer cat chased me here. See my leg? And my hand? He did this when I first arrived. And he’s out there now, lurking in the hall.”
“Show me your scratches.” She slid from under the covers. She wore short pink pajamas with tiny rosebuds, like his little sister used to wear. She smelled like roses.
She took his hand with a soft touch and led him into a bathroom.
“How do you rate an ensuite bath when the rest of us have to share?”
“I’m Jennifer’s sister. This is my room when I visit.”
“You’re Clare?” He felt gaga. Patricia was right. She was adorable.
“So now at last you know my name. I knew yours already, Patrick.”
“You know me? I don’t … remember you. God, I feel like a troll, forgetting somebody like you. When were we introduced?”
“At a party. You might not remember.”
She washed his scratches and put soothing ointment on, gave him water, and put two aspirin into his palm before asking, “What brought you here?”
“Patricia Clark told me to come look for you.”
“Patricia? How do you know her?”
“We live in the same condo complex. We both go by the name Pat Clark, and our mail keeps getting misdelivered. I got her invitation to this party. She told me to keep it and go myself. How the hell do you and I know each other?”
“Lawrence Polk’s party.”
He slapped his hand over his face. “I was so wasted. I only remember waking up in my car, dehydrated and dying.” Horror froze his face. “Oh my god! You were there?”
“Yes, and we had a good time together. A very good time.” She smiled and led him back into the bedroom, patting her bed for him to sit by her. “Before you got plastered, you were so cute and cuddly and told me about how you mentor at-risk kids. I was smitten.”
“A very good time, huh?”
“Until you got drunk, but you were terribly sweet.” She rested her head on his shoulder.
He felt flustered. “I apologize for barging in like this. I promise I didn’t come to hit on you. I didn’t even know this was your room. I was running from a cat …”
“Tyrone is territorial.”
“So … you were smitten by a lowly social worker?”
“I’m a lowly substance abuse counelor,” she said. “But I really hoped you’d call me. I gave you my number.”
His face fell. “I guess I lost it. I’m such a jerk, getting drunk in front of you again. I mean, you dealing with hard-line drunks every day. Patricia thought we should get together, but now … you’ll never want to go out with me again.” He hung his head.
“You really are sweet,” she patted his shoulder. “We could date awhile, see if we get along sober.”
A little grin hit his face. “I’m good with that. I’d stay sober for you. So I better get back to my room?”
A meow sounded from the hall. A striped cat tail switched under the door.
“Oh no! I can’t!”
“Then you’ll have to stay here,” she said, rubbing her nose against his.
Wait until he told Patricia!
Or … had Patricia set this all up?