Channeling Pamela Harriman

April 09, 1997|By Helen Chappell

OYSTERBACK, Md. -- I've got what it takes, but it breaks my heart to give it away. At least that was what I was thinking the other night when I was sitting up late, going over my books.

Now, as we all know there is a rule of thumb; when you have a little extra money in your checking account, something will come along and eat it right up. That little bit of money I had last July? A week later, the car went up and I came out $53 short. It's been a whole year like that, and it looked like my whole profit margin was going to disappear into one of those black holes in space. I've got what it takes, I thought with a sign, but it does break my heart to give it away.

''You're absolutely right, dear,'' said a nasal British voice from the shadows. ''You do have what it takes, and no, you should not give it away!''

I saw the enormous stiffened mass of red hair, the glitter of a thousand diamonds and the fabulous plastic surgery. ''Why,it's the ghost of Pamela Harriman!'' I exclaimed.

The tightened face beneath the enormous mass of red hair sniffed and the chains of gemstones twinkled. ''Well, of course it is, my dear! You don't think Jackie O would show up in a tuppenny town like this, do you? Oh, no, she gets right in! No waiting for St. Jackie of O!'' She fretfully rattled her pearls, peering at me from behind her tightened and tucked skin. ''Oh, no, I'm the one who gets stuck in Limbo!''

Looking for a direction

''Let me guess,'' I suggested. ''You're stuck in hell's waiting room till they figure out which way to send you!''

''Because they say I never did anything for anyone while I was alive!'' she remarked pettishly. ''The nerve!''

''How can they say that?'' I counted on my fingers. ''You did for Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill, Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, Gianni Agnelli, Elie de Rothschild, Leyland Heyward, Averell Harriman again -- Why it would seem to me that you've worked yourself to the bone! Why, you've spent your whole life doing for others!'' I smiled. ''Especially if they were rich and-slash-or powerful men!''

Eyes, as hard and cold as diamonds, flashed. But it takes more than a dead woman to frighten me. I drive a 12 1/2 -year-old car. I rent. I'm self-employed. I'm so poor, people on welfare leave baskets at my door on Christmas. The ghost of a mere grande horizontale scare me? Ha! Enlightenment, however, was dawning.

''You've been assigned as my spirit guide, to help me out!'' I was almost hooting, since rich and powerful men have never done as much as buy me a tiny book, let alone angle me into an ambassadorship, even one in France, a country where they think Mickey Rourke is a great actor -- well, no great loss there, but still . . .

''That's the kind of gratitude I got from my stepchildren,'' Pam's spirit fretted. ''Listen, you lowlife Yank white trash, do you want my damned help or not?'' she snarled.

I gestured her to a seat. ''Let's hear what you've got to say,'' I suggested, serving her a dish of my rhubarb-chocolate mousse parfait, the power of which has been known to soothe down the most ruffled feathers. This, I could tell, was a woman who liked to eat. Name me a woman who doesn't love chocolate! It's the secret bond between the estrogenic. One bite and we were each other's new best friend.

''So, Pam, how did you do it?'' I asked after the second parfait. ''What is your secret? How can I get rich men to do my bidding and buy me great stuff? Or at least a car that runs without breaking down every five yards?''

She dabbed a fleck of rhubarb mousse from her lip. ''Look at me, darling girl. I was neither smart, nor witty nor even especially attractive. And, dear girl, when I landed Leyland and Averell, I was no poulet de printemps! In my dear old London deb days, the Mitford sisters called me Butterball!'' She laughed bad-temperedly, leaning forward. ''But I showed them all!''

''I'll say you did!'' I agreed. ''So how do I get to go about draped in diamonds, mingling with the rich and famous? What's the secret to having my rent pre-paid?''

It's in the mind

''It's not what you think it might be,'' she winked. ''So much of all that'' -- she dismissed sex with a wave of her manicured hand -- ''is in the mind, dear girl. Any bimbo can accomplish that! Oh, no, it's all much more subtle.'' She nibbled delicately, as the spirits do, on a spoonful of parfait.

She also, I noted, pronounced the ''b'' in ''subtle.'' So I knew literacy, alas, had little to do with the secret to clouding the minds of the financially empowered. But I also knew that whatever I had been doing to survive to this point wasn't working, so I was willing to listen up. When faced with two evils, always chose the one you've never tried before.

''Now, dear,'' Pamela leaned forward, so I could smell the dim memory of her hair spray. ''This is the secret, so listen carefully.''

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