At first she couldn't understand it. On Monday she called a Mover and Shaker. On Tuesday she called a Very Important Person. On Wednesday she called someone who was absolutely Indispensable. And they weren't there.

They were all gone, as if there had been some mysterious plague on the powerful that picked them from their seats like ripe plums.

But, of course, that wasn't it. As their answering machines, organic and inorganic, explained, it was August! They had taken their Wilson T-2000, their Coppertone and run off with Agatha Christie and L. L. Bean. They were on vacation.

This was something she'd always found fascinating. How was it that the people who were most clearly labeled "indispensible" managed to get the most vacation? Was it sleight of hand - or sleight of tongue?

For 11 months of the year, the Movers and Shakers assured everyone that without them the city, the company, indeed the civilization, would cease to function. They convinced clients, constituents and the country that they and they alone were absolutely necessary.

The Wall Street Wizard awed his clients with the notion that his bio-rhythms were uniquely in tune with those of Dow Jones and that, without him, the poor soul would have no future in commodities at all.

The environmentalist was generally believed to hold the fate of the whale and seven assorted wild flowers in the palm of one hand.

The surgeon was regarded - hardly against his will - as the only one in the country to trust with a major alteration.

The government purveyed itself as the safeguard of democracy, and the U.S. Congress convinced citizens that the manufacturing of laws was essential to their health.

They were, for elevent-twelfths of the year, Very Important People. In fact, indispensible.

Yet, at some peak moment in August, the most august of them who range through the halls of Congress and the hallways of corporations could be seen closing up conferences and discontinuing meetings and changing their personal datelines. They headed for the hills. And the shore.

Some of the irreplacable leave us with summer replacements. Some put their work in storage. Others leave it behind like so many tomatoes that will ripen in the garden. They allot picking privileges to the next in line.

Congress deserts. The Secretary of a Department leaves an Undersecretary. The fortunes of Fortune's 500 are put in the hands of half a dozen middle-managers. The psychiatrists leave behind an assortment of midlife crises in the midst of transference. And everywhere, there are secretaries holding down the fort.

While the Movers and Shakers are gone, nothing actually goes wrong. The trains run no later than ever, the sun comes up, children are born, cars are recalled, the Constitution marches on.

This fact, remarkably, in no way diminishes the status of the Very Important People. They return in September to their swivel chairs, their in-baskets and out-baskets, their dictating machines, with small stacks of while-you-were-out messages, carrying every bit of indispensability along with them. Why, don't you know, without them, things would go to hell in a handbasket.

It's really a rather remarkable feat. How do they do it?

Well she, for one, isn't sure. The only Very Important Person she managed to contact as his Cape Cod hideaway put it this way: "What do you mean I'm not indispensable? I am standing right here with someone who finds me totally indispensable."

He was standing in a wet bathing suit in an empty house.