How well do you think you know your friends?
Nancy invited me into her life, and for a year or so we were close. At first, I found her full of surprises―our backgrounds and personalities were so different―but by the time we parted, I thought I knew her well. When I play back the scenes that comprise my memory of Nancy, I see no clue to what was coming. In the end, she astonished me.
We met at work. It was the early 1980s, and Nancy had just been hired as the computer training manager for a large financial services firm. She was an unusual presence in the computer industry, which was dominated at that time by stolid marketing men and thin, intense engineers. Nancy was pretty, with a round face like a china doll and natural blonde hair in a sculptured page boy. Her eyes were luminous. Men called them her “big baby blues.” She wore pastel suits and her grandmother’s locket on a gold chain around her neck.
I was an outside consultant, hired to guide and support Nancy. My first sight of her was from the doorway of a back room crammed with boxes of equipment. She led me through the chaos and pushed aside a coil of Ethernet cables on her desk to make room for my briefcase. “Please excuse the mess,” she said. “They just moved me in here yesterday.”
Nancy seemed remarkably calm for someone who had been hired to transition 300 partners and staff onto a new computer system, a prospect which most of those people regarded with fear and loathing. She had no experience as a computer training manager, but then almost no one did. I had held the title, but hadn’t developed a training program on the scale― let alone in the disturbed hive of financial analysts―that faced Nancy now. I was nervous.
The training plan I had finished with some pride the night before looked absurdly elaborate and optimistic when I presented it to Nancy. She asked few questions during our walk-through. “This will be very helpful,” she said, putting my fifteen pages in a folder at the top of a stack of papers. She referred to it briefly in our next meeting, but we didn’t discuss it again.
Nancy was a doer. What she seemed to need most from me was approval of what she was doing. “I’m having those new overhead computer projectors installed in the classrooms,” I remember her saying over her shoulder as she erased a whiteboard. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”Yes, it was.
As far as I could tell, Nancy’s staff liked working for her. The computer rooms, atmospherically controlled to keep the machines from overheating, reminded me of a pleasant aquarium where fish nosed about busily and buoyantly. Nancy would pass through, often unnoticed, sometimes drawing a question or two in her wake. One day, I watched her with a new trainer. “Marlene told me you helped her finally understand macros,” she told the young woman. Then, turning to me, “Marlene is the managing partner’s secretary. She has been one of our biggest challenges.” The trainer beamed and darted off to get ready for her next class.
As her later promotion showed, Nancy’s employers were also pleased with her.
“How did you find this place?” I asked. It was our first dinner out together. Nancy had suggested the restaurant―a haven with its white linen tablecloths, oil candles and fresh flowers in tiny vases―where we were to become regulars. “Oh,” she grinned. “I had a date here with a very sweet man. But he’s much too young for me.”
I was startled.And flattered. We had been colleagues up to this point. Suddenly we were friends.
“Okay,” I said, “now you have to tell me how old you are.”
She was thirty-seven. I protested that she couldn’t possibly be that old. And besides, thirty-seven wasn’t old, not next to my forty-seven years. And besides that, if the younger man was taken with her… Why not?
“No really,” she said, “it can’t go on. He’s only a few years older than my son. But he’s just so sweet to me and looks so handsome in his uniform.”
I left the inviting topic of the uniformed younger man for later. “You’re a mother!” Nancy looked not just too young but too immaculate for maternity. Like a new engine purring before grit and rust get into the works. “I’ve got kids, too,” I said, “but it sounds like your son is older than my boys. How is that possible?”
It turned out that Nancy was divorced, like me. Working her way back from destitution, like me. “Here’s to the single working mother,” I said, raising my glass of white wine. We clinked.
But Nancy’s divorce story was not like mine. I grew up in the suburbs, got an excellent education, and ran away from it all with a macrobiotic who lived on a small boat and built door frames for a living. As the song went, I was the lady, he was the carpenter. It didn’t work.I ended up hitting him with a bunch of celery before I moved out.
Nancy grew up in a hick town, the daughter of working class parents. During her senior year of high school, she got pregnant, married her boyfriend, Tony, and dropped out to have the baby. They named the baby Frank, after Tony’s hero, Frank Sinatra. Tony joined the town’s police force. He kept his gun under his pillow. When Nancy went back to school at night, Tony became convinced she was cheating on him. He beat her, held his gun to her head. “It was scary. Awful. But it was a long time ago,” Nancy said.
What followed, when she went to Legal Aid and filed for divorce, was almost worse, though she no longer feared Tony’s rages. “I knew he couldn’t hurt me then because it would make him look bad on the force,” she explained. “But everyone in town was on his side.” Her own parents sided with Tony, first when he fought the divorce, and then in court, when he accused Nancy of adultery and laid claim to the child. Her parents ended up getting custody of Frank.
Nancy fled to the nearest city. She waitressed, took computer classes, got her first proper job doing computer work for an accounting office. When she discovered she loved teaching other people in the office how to use computers, she became a computer trainer.
Until Frank turned sixteen, Nancy only saw him on weekends at her parents’ house. At sixteen, he got to choose his home, and he lived with Nancy—until he got married.
“I’m a grandmother,” Nancy cooed.
According to Nancy, they were both advanced for their age. Frank was now a senior technician at a computer store where he had worked since his sophomore year in high school. Meanwhile, he was flying through night courses at the community college. Once he got his IT degree, Nancy figured he could help her with systems projects at the firm. As for Frankie Junior, he had outgrown the tricycle. He was already on a bike with training wheels.
“Nancy always lands on her feet.”
Donna was telling me how Nancy had gotten a good deal on the rental house where she lived, and where I had been invited to a Sunday afternoon barbecue with the family. Frank was due to join us at the barbecue, along with Frankie Junior. Nancy couldn’t wait for me to meet them.
Donna was Nancy’s younger sister, and a surprise in looks and manner. She was deeply tanned, with dark hair hanging down her back over a gigantic t-shirt and short shorts. A lighted cigarette flashed in one hand, and her high-heeled gold sandals slapped the parquet floor as she led me to the living room. “Make yourself at home.” She gestured at the spotless white couch and matching armchairs. “Nancy’ll be right down.” I sank into the couch and listened to Donna’s two kids shouting happily as they hurtled a Frisbee around the back yard.
While waiting for Nancy, I noticed the tricycle parked, or more likely abandoned, in a corner of the living room. How quickly, I thought,my two sons would have trashed the couch and chairs at Frankie Junior’s age. “Did you let him ride in the house?” I asked when she appeared.
“Of course,” she said. “I love having him here! I wish he and Frank would come live with me, but Audrey won’t let Frankie Junior move out of town.”
“Frank’s wife, but they’re separated. She wants a divorce.”
We were interrupted by a commotion at the front door. I had hoped the barbeque would give me a look at the uniformed young man in Nancy’s life, who, I had learned, was an army pal of Donna’s husband, José. However, José arrived at the house alone, out of uniform, with a six-pack of Bud in each hand. He gave me a big, welcoming grin once Donna had taken the beer and the kids had let go of him. “Hey,” he said. “Hope you like ribs. Nancy and Donna make the best!”
José tended the grill; Nancy and Donna brought out platters of food for the picnic table. Each time Nancy whipped by her brother-in-law, he teased her about her popularity among the men on the base. This continued as we ate. She ignored him and kept busy serving the kids and making sure they handed round the condiments to me. When they went back to the Frisbee, Donna leaned forward over the picnic table to whisper in my ear. “We’ve fixed up Nancy with José’s boss. He’s the commanding officer on the base.” Nancy pretended not to notice.
Frank materialized in the kitchen, alone, just as I was saying good-by. From his morose demeanor and his muttered “Hello,” I imagined there had been a quarrel with Audrey about who got Junior over the weekend. Apparently, he had lost.
The last time I saw Frank, at Nancy’s wedding, he looked just as morose.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if I married José’s boss?” Nancy said. We were in our usual restaurant, waiting for our usual split order of chicken caesar salad. “José thinks the world of him. He and Donna have it all worked out: them two, and me and Bob.” Nancy’s baby blues shone in the candlelight. This Bob, I took it, was the commanding officer Donna had whispered about at the barbeque. “When I’m on the base with him, people salute us. For fun. I think they’re glad to see Bob with a date. He was really broken up when his wife left him.”
“You’ve been busy since the barbecue.”
“I just love his children,” she said. “A boy and a girl. Tim and Valerie. And I think they’re fond of me.”
“No doubt. You’re great with kids.”
“I’ve been talking to Donna about taking a trip with her and José to San Diego. Bob’s going to an officers’ conference there.” She lowered her voice. “We think he’s going to get an award.” Then, “Would you like to come with us?”
This was another Nancy surprise. It would never have occurred to me to invite a friend along on a romantic getaway with the new man in my life. That I would be a fifth wheel on the perfect foursome of Donna and José and Nancy and Bob made the invitation even stranger. “I doubt I can get the time from work. And I don’t know if I can arrange for childcare.”
“Please try. It will be so much fun! Bob really wants to meet you. He’ll pay all your expenses.”
Nancy continued to press me over the next few weeks, and I began to think how good it would be to get away from work and kids for a long weekend. I hadn’t had a vacation since my divorce. Besides, I was curious about Nancy’s motives. Did she want to show off her prospective fiancée to me? Or perhaps she wanted an outside opinion of him, one not tainted by family aspirations? I finally said yes, I’d join everyone in San Diego, and pay for myself.
Bob was a tall, approachable man with a hearty voice. If Nancy had asked for my opinion, I would have said something like, “Seems like nice guy.” Fortunately, she didn’t ask.
On my last day, Bob drove Nancy, his kids and me to a tourist spot outside the city. He was proud of his van, a current model, and made sure we all enjoyed the smoothness of its ride and the clarity of its sound system, on which he played non-stop oldies but goodies. Nancy sat in the front beside him, as upright as a virgin on a porch. She agreed with everything he said.
We had lunch and were on our way back to the van, when Bob ushered us toward a bench in a small plaza. “Nancy” he said, “sit down there.” She was confused, wanted to know what was going on. He repeated, with a hint of commander in his voice, “Sit down. I have a surprise. Trust me.” The kids were waved away when they moved forward to sit by her, and the three of us hung around awkwardly, not sure whether to watch or not.
Bob sank to his knees in front of the bench. “Nancy,” he said, “Will you marry me?” I was aware of passersby moving in a semicircle behind us. Nancy could see them grinning at her, on what they assumed to be the happiest day of her life.
“Bob, get up,” she said.
“Not until you say yes.”
“Bob, I can’t talk about this here! Get up!” Another group of people approached. Nancy was trapped between Bob’s knees. “Please,” she hissed, all the while keeping a look on her face that befitted this her happiest day. He rose reluctantly and moved to the side of the bench to let the group pass.
Not a word was said on the ride home; the sound system was silent. Bob let me off at my motel room and, I presume, dropped Nancy at the room she shared with Donna. I left for home that evening, and we didn’t get together until a few weeks later. When I asked how she was feeling about the trip, she only said, “If Bob knew anything at all about me, he would never have embarrassed me in that way.”
The debacle with the army officer was followed soon by another unhappy event in Nancy’s life. The only time I ever saw her in a panic was when she received a phone call in her office about Frank. “I’ve got to go,” she said, “I’m sorry. Okay if I call you to reschedule?”
She called a week later. Frank had been in jail. “It was awful,” she said. “I was afraid he might hang himself.” Audrey’s mother―Frank’s mother-in-law had accused Frank of child molestation; he had been charged and taken to jail.
“She’s mean. She’s a witch.” This was strong language, coming from Nancy. “She hates Frank. She’s the one who broke up the marriage, and now she’s worried they’ll get back together. So she says she saw him molesting Audrey’s niece.”
The police felt they had to take the charge seriously, even though “everybody in town knows Audrey’s mother is a witch.” Nancy had taken four days off from work―an inordinate amount of time for a woman who worked fourteen-hour days, including most Saturdays―to get Frank a lawyer and a psychiatrist. “He was in a terrible state when I got to the jail. The pills have calmed him down.”
I asked how things stood currently. “Frank’s okay. But the witch won’t drop the charges. It’s on hold in the court.”
“Oh Nancy, you don’t deserve this.”
“Well, the good thing is, Frank has moved back in with me.”
Once Nancy’s training program was established at the firm and my consultancy ended, I moved to a different city for a new job. The geographic distance between Nancy and me wasn’t far, but work and family kept us both busy, and after several dinner date postponements, I lost touch with her. About six months had gone by when she called out of the blue to say she was getting married; she needed my address so that she could send me an invitation. Her fiancée’s name was Gerald. He was the Director of Information Technology at a regional college. “He’s very respected in his field,” she told me.
The wedding was held in a chapel in the presence of about twenty people. Nancy was a beautiful bride in a tailored suit of ivory satin. Gerald wore a formal suit with a pin-striped gray vest, which suited his short, round, respectable stature. He looked about fifteen years older than Nancy, but my estimate may have been skewed by premature baldness.
The reception was held at Nancy’s house, where she and Gerald would continue living together. I arrived before the other guests, and Nancy took me upstairs to meet her new husband. He was standing at the window of the master bedroom, looking down at the black limousine that had driven them home from the chapel. “I’m not paying them a dime,” he fumed at Nancy when we entered the room.
“This is the friend I wanted you to meet,” Nancy said.
Gerald turned, gave me a brief stare, and declared, “We ordered white, and it never showed up. We called three times. Finally they sent the black one. I’m sure you noticed we were late to our own wedding.”
“It was a lovely wedding,” I said. “But I can understand how anxious you were when the limo didn’t arrive.”
“I’m going to go tell him to get the hell out of here,” Gerald looked at Nancy. “Let them sue us.”
“I agree,” Nancy said. “It’s outrageous.” As Gerald stomped out of the room, she said, “He wanted it to be perfect for me. We’re really disappointed.”
I left the reception soon afterwards. When I said good-by to Nancy, I knew―as well as anyone can know the future―I wouldn’t see her again. She was on her own with Gerald.
Another six months later, I heard from a colleague at the firm that Nancy had been promoted to the position of Director of Communications Technology. It was a major responsibility, with oversight for all the phone and computer systems, and for the booming budget they entailed. I was happy for Nancy and thought the firm had made a wise choice. She would land them on their feet.
My colleague also mentioned that Gerald, who used to come take Nancy out to lunch or dinner once or twice a week, hadn’t been seen for some time. Nancy attended the firm’s last Christmas party without him.
Two more years had passed when my colleague called again about Nancy. The call was long-distance this time, as I had moved, not just to a city 2,000 miles away, but to a new life that had nothing to do with computer training. I was almost completely out of touch with the old one, which explains why I hadn’t heard the news: Nancy was dead.
Her body had been found in a lake a few miles from the city where we had worked and dined together. They knew it was Nancy from a key on a chain around her neck. According to a short piece on a back page of the local newspaper, she had drowned herself.
The image of the decomposing body clashed with memories of the pert Nancy I had known. “Are they sure?” I said, dully. But I kept seeing the chain, with the locket instead of a key, against the white shell blouse she had worn under her pale pink and blue suits.
“Yes. It was the key to her locker at the halfway house.”
“Oh.” I had a moment of relief. It couldn’t be Nancy. “What halfway house?”
He hesitated. “Then you don’t know about her trial.”
“No. I know nothing. Tell me.”
Nancy had embezzled over a million dollars from the firm. She had been tried, convicted, and imprisoned.
The obituary reported that Nancy had been an exemplary prisoner, respected and well-liked by guards and other inmates. She had continued the work she loved, holding computer classes in prison and then at the halfway house and nearby community centers. Her teaching skills, patience and dedication to her adult students were much valued.
It came as a shock to everyone who knew Nancy that she took her own life.
This is a true story, with some facts changed to protect the innocent, including Nancy, whom I will always remember as a woman who held her head high. I don’t know her motive for stealing, or how she managed to get away with a million dollars before she was caught. Perhaps old newspaper clippings and trial records would answer those questions, but we had been friends, and I don’t want to root around in her grave. Besides, the details are irrelevant. Even if her financial need was great―perhaps for family―Nancy, as I knew her, wouldn’t stoop to embezzlement.
Rosemary Sedgwick, 2016