It was quiet on Acorn Lane last Thursday, the day Carolyn Condit flew home, one day ahead of her husband. Down the street from her pretty, one-story beige house -- the one with the "No Trespassing" sign planted in the front lawn smack in the middle of some red flowers -- one neighbor watered her sun-scorched grass and another cleaned the bed of his truck. Around the corner and down the street, elderly couples slid into Naugahyde booths and ordered the ravioli lunch special at Peach Tree Restaurant, where Carolyn used to get breakfast with her in-laws.

Carolyn was coming home that day from Washington, where she had spent much of the previous month with her husband, Rep. Gary Condit, as details of his affair with missing intern Chandra Levy -- and with others -- became the talk of the nation. Gary was interviewed by investigators four times; Carolyn met with FBI agents once. Camera crews had crowded the sidewalk outside their Adams Morgan apartment as the Levy family demanded answers and no one seemed to have any truth to offer, save for the fact that Chandra had been intimately involved with Carolyn Condit's husband.

Back in Ceres last Thursday, though, all seemed peaceful in Carolyn's world -- and this is her world, the place where she has lived, full time, while her spouse commutes between his district and Washington. The Condits' son, Chad, 33, lives a few blocks away on Myrtlewood Drive, which makes it easy for Carolyn to spend time with her grandchildren. Her in-laws are only a few minutes away.

Here, it is easy to see Carolyn as her neighbors and friends describe her -- the beloved wife of the local congressman, the woman who hand-delivers flowers to sick constituents and drives elderly shut-ins to the grocery store. "She's an angel," says one local shopkeeper.

And now she is also the nation's most famously scorned wife.

Less than 24 hours after Carolyn returned to Ceres, Acorn Lane was clogged with television trucks and cable lines and microphone-toting reporters, all hoping to capture Gary upon his return home. Neighbors fumed and passersby shouted opinions as cars slowly tried to navigate the choked road without knocking down curious children astride bicycles or technicians juggling cell phones and beepers in the searing summer heat.

Gary never appeared that day -- not in his driveway and not at his district office in nearby Modesto, which was also staked out by reporters. He remains secluded, as does his wife, who declined, through family spokesperson Marina Ein, to comment for this story. According to their attorneys, the Condit family -- including Chad and daughter Cadee, who lives in Sacramento -- are taking some time alone to do some "family healing."

The Health Issue

"Carolyn is soooo misrepresented," moans Pam Hoover, a Modesto shop owner who has known Carolyn for years. "I just feel like no one has an accurate view of who she really is. Some of the things they're saying are just terrible."

Like the thumbs. Carolyn Condit, 53, is an extremely private woman, and, like her husband, she has refused to grant interviews during this difficult period. Truth is, Carolyn rarely did interviews -- or public appearances -- even before her husband's personal life became a national obsession. It isn't in her nature, friends and acquaintances say.

So people make stuff up. But in a saga rife with insinuation and innuendo, perhaps the most ludicrous of all rumors is one that started on the Internet and spread to office water coolers nationwide:

Carolyn Condit has no thumbs.

There is not a speck of truth to this assertion -- it's quite laughable, really. On the serious side, though, the nature of Carolyn's health has become a much-discussed topic for a reason: Several people say her husband has suggested -- to other women, to House colleagues, to Hill staffers -- that Carolyn is sickly and that her condition is the justification for his relationships outside the marriage.

Levy's aunt, Linda Zamsky, says her niece told her that Gary's wife "never comes to visit him because she's sickly." Anne Marie Smith, the United Airlines flight attendant who has alleged an affair with Condit, has said repeatedly that the Democratic congressman told her his wife was ill.

"When I first met him," Smith said in a telephone call to "Larry King Live" last week, "I asked him if he was married, and he said yes. But he said, 'My wife's very ill.' She supposedly has encephalitis of the brain. And he said that their relationship was more of a friendship. He really, you know, cared about her, but he stayed with her more or less to take care of her."

And in political circles in Washington -- where Carolyn rarely visited -- the supposed state of Carolyn's health was no secret.

"I was told early on that his wife was ill, and that he went out," Rep. Dave Dreier (R-Calif.) told Newsweek. "I'd heard she'd been ill for 30 years. This is a guy who's active, and if his wife can't do much of anything with him, that's sad and unfortunate, and if he ends up seeing other women, it couldn't come as a humongous shock."

This portrait of Carolyn as an invalid is an exaggeration at best. She has, according to several friends, suffered with migraine headaches since her childhood, headaches that also caused painful nerve problems at times. But of the first words people use when asked to describe her is "bubbly" or "active." Hoover refers to her as a "live wire."

"The media has made her out to be some kind of invalid, and it wasn't like that," says Janet Pagano, who went to high school with Carolyn in Tulsa. "She was really a sweet, lively girl who sometimes got headaches."

The 'Good Girl' & the Rebel

Carolyn Berry grew up in Tulsa, the oldest of three children in an upper-middle-class family. Her father owned a discount designer clothing shop called Spot Bargain, and Carolyn was considered one of the best dressed, and more popular, girls in high school.

Her friends were the children of Tulsa's well-established and affluent families, and she moved easily among them. For her 16th birthday, her parents gave her a white Dodge Dart convertible; a year later, they bought her another new convertible, remembers a friend.

Carolyn is mostly remembered as a traditional, Southern girl of an earlier era -- a fun-loving member of the Pep Club devoid of career ambitions. "Boys just fell in her wake," said Rebecca Weinstein, one of her closest friends at the time. "She didn't do anything to encourage them. She was magnificently beautiful and kind. She could have had anyone she wanted in Tulsa."

But by her junior year, Carolyn had settled not on the scion of an oil family but on a Baptist minister's rebellious son, who lived on the modest side of town. Gary Condit was neither a star athlete nor a class officer at Nathan Hale High School -- but he had a presence. He was a good-looking, swashbuckling operator whom girls chased and who pushed the acceptable decorum standards of his era. He also liked to drive fast cars, which got him into trouble with the law.

Tulsa court records show that on three occasions in 1966, when Condit -- now 53 -- was a teenager, the police cited him for traffic violations; in all three cases, he failed to appear in court. Arrest warrants were issued, and records show he pled guilty in two cases and was fined.

A year later Condit was arrested by Tulsa police for recklessly driving a yellow 1967 model Corvette at 3:53 a.m. That time he was arrested on the spot and the car was impounded. Condit was later convicted.

"He was definitely on the edge for the time," said one of Carolyn's friends from Hale. "He hung around with the faster guys who drank and smoked. . . . Carolyn was what we called a 'good girl.' "

Carolyn and Gary dated throughout their junior year at Hale, and before their senior year, each transferred to a different school. Condit went to another public school, East Central High, from which he graduated in 1966. Carolyn returned to Bishop Kelley, where she had spent her freshman year. Although she never directly told her friends why she left Hale, it was widely assumed that her parents were trying to put distance between her and Condit. But by all accounts, the couple was undeterred.

"I just remember her asking me to drive her to meet Gary one day," said one girlfriend who requested that her name not be used, "and I vaguely recall that she couldn't take her own car because she didn't want her parents to know where she was going."

Her friends say they did not see much of Carolyn after graduation in 1966, but knew that she was still dating Gary, who had enrolled at the University of Tulsa. On Jan. 18 of the following year, Gary and Carolyn drove to neighboring Ottawa County and were married by a justice of the peace. Men were required to be 21 to marry in Oklahoma without parental consent at that time (women had to be 18), but Gary inflated his age from 19 to 25 on the marriage application.

The teenage couple moved into a garage apartment in a decent Tulsa neighborhood and Chad Condit, their first child, was born that summer. He was still an infant when the newlyweds followed Gary's father, Adrian, to Ceres, where he moved to be a part of a ministry.

For years, Carolyn's friends said she would always write and call when she came through Tulsa, but they lost touch with her in the mid-'90s when her mother moved from Tulsa to Florida. After that, there was little news of Carolyn -- until the scandal broke.

'She Deserves Better'

Feelings are split toward Condit these days in "Condit Country," a district where he has easily won reelection since first entering Congress in 1989. Some support him, unequivocally. Some dislike his personal behavior but support his record in the community and think he still is a good congressman. And some think his career is finished and vow never to vote for him again.

There is no divide in popular opinion, though, when it comes to Carolyn: She is adored. Everyone has a glowing story to tell about Carolyn. Pam Hoover remembers sharing with her the frustrations of coping with her brother's manic depression, and finding Carolyn to be one of her most sympathetic listeners. Lupe Murillo, who owns a local plant nursery, remembers Carolyn helping get the child of one his friends a better school placement.

"She's one of the most caring people I've ever known," says Frank Cardenas, co-owner of Sole Saver, a shoe-repair shop where Carolyn would drop off Gary's wingtips. She "always knew the names of all the children" who played in the shop's vestibule.

As the scandal has mounted, residents of Ceres have grown extremely protective of the family. Neighbors decline to talk to reporters and beseech journalists to "just leave that poor, sweet woman alone," as one put it last week. "She deserves better," the woman said, before turning her back.

Everyone loves her, and everyone feels sorry for her now.

"It has to be hard to see your husband trashed like that all the time on the TV," says Stella Mitsopoulos, who owns the Peach Tree and belongs to a women's service organization, the Soroptomist Club, with Carolyn. "He has his faults. Does he deserve it? I'm sure he probably does. But for her? His children? His dad and mom? Do they deserve that? No."

As the spotlight has focused on reports of Condit's various extramarital affairs, his campaign-fund spending has come under scrutiny. In this decade, Condit has spent more than $50,000 on gifts, entertainment and flowers for constituents. It is legal to purchase gifts for constituents and is a practice used by many members of Congress.

His Federal Election Commission expenditure reports show multiple purchases in thousands of dollars from flower shops and gift shops, such as Rumors in San Francisco and Elegant Accents in Modesto. But the owners of these stores were amused when asked about the legitimacy of the expenditures.

"The truth of the matter is he's not our customer," said Shirley Tan of Rumors. "She's our customer." That would be Mrs. Condit.

The same answer came from Hoover at Elegant Accents and Lupe Murillo at Murillo's Nursery: Their customer is not Gary Condit, but his wife.

Carolyn does not hold a paid job. She has, instead, turned herself into something of a local ambassador for her husband, adding a personal touch to acts usually performed by congressional staffers or aides. In addition to hand-delivering flower arrangements, she was known for browsing in Rumors and Elegant Accents with a list of events that require gifts -- weddings, special anniversaries, key birthdays -- which she crossed off as she selected items.

"When she walked into the store, she lit the room up," Hoover says. "She was very friendly, very personable, very bubbly -- and very caring. She liked to talk about her husband. She'd say, 'Oh, he's on the plane all the time, he's away all the time,' but she never said anything negative. She talked about him like they were best friends."

Turning a Blind Eye?

Whenever Vincent Flammini, Gary Condit's longtime driver, stopped by the Condit house in the morning before an airport run to San Francisco, Carolyn would invite him in. For coffee. For polite conversation. Just to see how he was doing or listen to his heartbreak over a relationship gone bad. That was her nature.

And when Carolyn talked, she had one favorite subject: her husband.

"She adored Gary, and she was always saying things like 'He's so cute, he's so darling,' " remembers Flammini, who had a falling out with the congressman a year ago. "I'd tell her: 'Oh, Carolyn, he ain't all that.' And she'd always answer: 'Oh, he is, too.' It broke my heart sometimes to see her say how much she loved him when I knew what was going on. But her whole life is Gary. Gary and those grandkids."

Flammini has done the talk show circuit, talked to everyone from major newspapers to the Star tabloid. He has had unkind things to say about his former employer -- and has spoken about the philandering beyond Levy -- but he softens visibly when the topic is Carolyn. And he is quick to make one point very clear: Carolyn Condit didn't think she was in a loveless marriage.

"She had her son there, her grandchildren there, her husband flying back every weekend," Flammini says. "She loved her world, and she loved Gary and she wasn't going to believe anything that would threaten that."

For a long time, several Ceres residents say, there had been rumors about Gary and other women outside town. Carolyn, says one friend who asked not to be named, seemed to want to ignore them. Even those who admit to not knowing Carolyn well enough to be privvy to her inner thoughts always sensed she just didn't want to know.

"She reminded me of Jackie O, in a way," says Mitsopoulos. "She's always neat, beautiful, so perfectly dressed. She was so involved with her kids -- that's her focus, her kids and her friends. She's always held her head up and seemed not to care about what's going on outside of that. She's like Jackie O, like that."

Mitsopoulos pauses for a moment, then smiles, almost sadly.

"Only Carolyn's husband got caught with his pants down and Jackie's never did."

So what now? Late Thursday, when Carolyn Condit returned to Ceres, her father-in-law backed a large white Ford pickup truck into her driveway and loaded it with an assortment of United Van Lines moving boxes. With an unidentified companion, he then drove to a local mini-storage facility, where Condit's office has rented space. He unloaded the boxes and returned to his son's home.

It is unclear what was in those boxes. Perhaps it was something as simple as campaign materials. Condit spokesperson Ein declined to answer any questions about them. What is certain, though, is that if the boxes had been moved one day later, when cameras and reporters were once again camped out in front of the house, it would have ignited a fury of speculation. Nothing is simple in Carolyn's world anymore.

A number of her old friends from Tulsa say they have written her recently to express their sorrow at the turn of events and to offer support. Last week, one girlfriend from Bishop Kelley High, Jacque Thomas, received a reply.

It has been a "nightmare," Carolyn wrote.

Staff writers James Grimaldi, Lois Romano, Petula Dvorak and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report. Romano reported from Tulsa, the others from Washington.Carolyn Condit three years ago at a Fourth of July parade in Modesto, Calif., where she remains an immensely popular figure.Mrs. Condit, shown in a Christmas card photo with her congressman husband Gary and daughter Cadee,

has seen her world turned upside down by the Chandra

Levy case.Gary Condit with son Chad, daughter Cadee and wife Carolyn after he won a seat in the California Assembly in 1982. Below, Carolyn Berry as a sophomore in a photo from the 1965 Nathan Hale High School yearbook.