A year ago U said U was my guy. U was a lying scumbag. U beat me bad. Broke my nose. Now U gonna #die. @GotAGun
Ellie is twenty minutes late, and I stand just inside the doors of the restaurant beside the glass walls of the fireplace trying to appear nonchalant. The hostess gives me a quick look over the rim of her rectangular black glasses and smoothes her sleek asymmetrical black bob.
“Your friend will be here soon?” she says with a slight clip to her voice.
“Any minute. Traffic,” I say.
She gives me a brisk nod and guides a couple into the dining room. Ellie sweeps in, her gold bracelets jangling as she waves to me. She talks into her mobile phone.
“Have to go. Lunching today. Toodles.” She disconnects and gives me a wide, white smile. “Sorry I’m late, darling. It’s been a hellish morning. The decorator never showed up with my swatches. I don’t know how I’m supposed to redo the little parlor without swatches, though I picked out the most gorgeous wallpaper. Donald’s in a snit because it’s three hundred a roll or something, but it’s just amazing. White silk with a very thin ecru stripe. You have to see it.”
“I can’t wait.”
The hostess returns, and Ellie announces that we need our table at once.
“Oh yes, Ma’am,” the hostess says.
I take a breath. Ellie has a way of steam rolling people, but today I don’t mind.
Ellie leans closer once we’re seated. “So, how are you?”
“Oh, damn. That’s my phone. Just hold that thought.”
Ellie pulls out her phone. “Hello, Hello. Oh, yes. I can talk. No, nothing important.”
The waiter comes over to take drink orders. I order a Sauvignon Blanc, and Ellie waves her hand to indicate she’d like the same thing. I sit back as another waiter fills my water glass.
“What is this for?” Ellie holds out her hand and studies her nails, admiring her fresh manicure. I fold my hands together. I could use a manicure. I could treat myself to one so at least my nails would look decent before all my hair falls out.
“Is that right?” Ellie says. “Well, I hate the idea. I don’t want to host anything. Why don’t you ever offer up your house?”
“Well, if you must know. We’re redecorating, and we couldn’t possibly. It’s a tremendous burden. Yes. I have a hard time picking the kids up from school too.”
Ellie smiles at me, and I smile back, trying to look sympathetic. I haven’t even thought about picking up the kids. Who will do that if I’m too nauseated to drive?
“I suppose I’ll have to let Donna get them. Last time Donna drove she nicked the fender of the Mercedes.”
Donna is Ellie’s au pair. I’d like an au pair.
“Well, that would be nice if you want to have them over some time. I’m sure they’d love it. Yes, do stop over and see what we’re doing. We’re opening the pool at the end of the month. It’ll be great.”
I visualize floating in a pool of warm water and try to tune out everything around me, but Ellie’s voice breaks through.
“No. Of course, I’ll be glad to help with the faculty luncheon. I’ll just pull some volunteers together like always.”
I won’t be one of Ellie’s super-reliable volunteers this year. I’ll be getting my monthly chemo treatments starting in two weeks, but why remind her? She’s smiling at me with that anticipatory gleam in her eye while I take another sip of water. The waiter arrives and plunks down our wine. I take a long swallow.
What’s the theme?”
What is the theme? Survival. My youngest is only in fourth grade.
“I think we could do something with yellow and violet. That would be lovely. I’ve just got so much on my plate right now, let me think about it.”
The walls in my doctor’s office are painted soft yellow. He believes yellow is an positive color. He tells me it’s important to keep a positive outlook.
“Well, let me know, dear, and I’ll get back to you.” Ellie clicks off, and says, “Now what were we talking about?”
She frowns. “No. I’m sure there was something else.”
I shake my head. I’ve already swallowed half a glass of wine. “No, Ellie, really. Tell me about you.”
“What d’ya think they’re doin’ up there?” Thelma scratched her head and stared up the road at the big factory at the top of the hill. A big sign read: New American World Hunger Elimination Program—NAWHEP—Keep Out. One side of the building glowed orange-red like the devil himself had come to brew some mischief. The other side loomed dark against the purple gloom of evening. Above a green streak splashed across the sky. God’s paintbrush, she thought. The bright pinpoint of light glowed about the house.
“Dunno. Don’ wanna know. It’s scientific business.” Elmer shook his newspaper and hunched over it. “Just want me boiled beef and taters.”
Thelma thought he was beginning to look like an old goat every day. Hair sprouted from his ears, and his shoulders slumped, and his voice had started to take on an annoying whine. “Elmer! Just come look at this.”
Sighing, Elmer stood. He shuffled to the door. “Dang it, Thelma. Can’t a man get any rest?”
“I’ll fetch your beef and taters in a minute,” she said. “Just take a look.”
“Fine.” He threw open the door and stepped outside. The wind began to stir up, and Elmer put his hands up in the air. “Sure is warm tonight,” he yelled. “Shut that door, Thelma. All the dust’ll blow in.”
Thelma closed the door and returned to the window. She wished she could what was happening, but the fine dust whirled in circles. Only that light penetrated the gritty air.
“Oh my,” she gasped before a white light seemed to shoot straight through Elmer and pin him to the ground. Thelma screamed and buried her face in her hands.
When she looked again, Thelma saw that Elmer was gone. She opened the door and ran outside but only an old white goat remained in the spot where Elmer had been standing.
“Elmer?” she said.
“Maaa, Maaa,” the goat bleated.
A man in a black hazmat suit waited in the field as Thelma came panting up.
“We warned you people. We warned you that the area was unsafe. NAWPEP still has kinks to work out.”
Thelma nodded meekly. “Will the effects wear off?”
“We don’t know. Probably not. Will you sell now?”
“I’ll sell, but what about Elmer?”
“We’d better keep Elmer.”
Thelma sighed. “Well, he’s extra. And you better remember to feed him good. He likes his beef and taters.”
The man in the hazmat suit smiled. “Don’t you worry about Elmer, ma’am. We’ll take real good care of him. Why don’t you come with me up to the main building, and we’ll get you your money?”
“Well, if you’re sure.” Thelma looked back at the house. Men in black suits were converging on it. They carried all kinds of strange instruments. It made her uneasy, but she let the man take her arm. “I’m gonna hold on to Elmer here,” she said.
“That’s just fine,” the man said. “We’ll go together.”
Elmer bleated, and Thelma got the strangest feeling she wasn’t coming back. She stared at the bright light and walked towards it.
It’s three in the morning, and you’ve drunk enough that you have that buzz coursing through you. You don’t even mind the shitty electronic music throbbing and pulsing because you’re mellow, and there are lots of people mixing it up on the floor. You settle back and watch because since The Breakup you don’t feel like cruising.
You watch your best friend Katie on the dance floor and think she still looks like a dumbass when she dances, but she’s never figured that out, and you aren’t going to clue her in. Anyway, you’re only a guest, and it’s her party. You’ve been BFF’s since kindergarten.
You pour one more vodka from your private pint into an orange juice and try to ignore the fact that you don’t know anyone here, and most of the people haven’t bothered to learn your name. It’s just a party. Katie’s party. You don’t really mind that she’s ignored you most of the weekend because this is her life, and you’re just visiting. Maybe you haven’t been great company. The Breakup was rough, and maybe you are a little raw deep inside. Funny how Katie used to understand that, but she’s really busy these days. You don’t want to get in the way.
You’re chilling out when the guy Katie has been trying to impress all night sits down next to you and starts to talk to you. You try to ignore his big blue eyes and thick sun streaked hair. He’s majoring in economics but speaks Russian and has minored in history. He tells you he’s not really into partying as much as he used to be.
You say, “I thought you were with Katie.”
“We’re just in class together,” he says. “Econ. What are you studying?”
You tell him archeology and expect him to laugh, but he doesn’t. He starts to talk about Japan and visiting Joman sites, and you find yourself having a real conversation. Some of the heaviness in your chest lifts.
Katie walks over. She is smiling, but you can see by the way her eyes are slightly narrowed that she isn’t happy.
“Why’d you leave the dance floor, Jack?”
Jack shrugs. “I came over to talk to your friend. She was all by herself.”
“That’s ‘cause she’s a loser,” Katie says with a small mean smirk. “She doesn’t even go here. She didn’t get in.”
You don’t say anything because you can’t really believe Katie would say something like that, especially since you never even applied here. But it stings. You’re supposed to be her guest, and it strikes you that this isn’t the first time this weekend she’s acted like an asshole.
A couple of Katie’s housemates come over to get in on the action. They join in on the “She’s a loser chant”, and you just want to get out. You just stand up and tell them to fuck off, and head upstairs. The party continues.
You’ve been sacking out on the floor in Katie’s room, but it’s easy to gather your things. You were planning to leave on the early train tomorrow anyway. You slip out the door and head to the all night dinner four blocks down the street to sober up. You want to cry, but you tell yourself it isn’t worth it. You don’t feel better.
By six in the morning, you have a headache, and you sit at the train station waiting on the six thirty seven train. Your body aches, but you have drunk three cups of coffee, and ate some scrambled eggs and bacon. You’ll survive.
About fifteen minutes ago, you got a text from Katie apologizing for being an asshole, and you’ll probably forgive her because you’ve been best friends since kindergarten. But you know deep inside something has changed. The girl who practically lived at your house, the girl who helped you pick out your first prom dress, the girl who could finish your sentences, that girl could never have treated you like shit and called you a loser. Especially not over a guy.
The announcer calls your train and you head down to board. It doesn’t take long, and soon you’re moving out of the station. Grey light has broken over the countryside. You listen to the click clack of the wheels on the tracks as the train gains momentum.
You rest your head on the cold window and watch the past roll by.
I watch the city people glide over the marble floors, moving from one exhibit to another. The past is enclosed in glass with stuffed animals, fake woods, and a painted background.
“Look, kids,” one father says to his three boys, “there’s an Apache. Think he’s gonna get a buffalo?”
He does not know the difference between an Apache and an Iroquois.
“I think you made the Apache sad,” says the smallest, a blond boy.
“Don’t be silly. He’s wax,” the father says. “Look. There’re some arrow heads over there.”
The boy stands in front of me, and squints at the square legend, his lips moving as he reads. “Iroquois,” he says. “You aren’t an Apache. You lived in New York.” He smiles. “You look very brave. Did your people march on the Trail of Tears?”
I want to reach out to this boy who has come all the way downtown to visit this place, but already his father is returning to reclaim him.
“Come on, David. Come see the arrowheads.”
The boy looks back at me, and waves. I hear him say, “Dad, he’s an Iroquois not an Apache. There’s a difference.”
I want to wave back but can only watch them disappear into the crowd.
That day began still and quiet, like any day in late fall. The empty fields whispered secrets to the bare trees, and we began to gather as the sun crept into the sky. It was pale and weak.
We heard the cart before we saw it. Saw her standing inside stiff and proud. She looked neither right nor left. They set her on the platform and began to chant.
“Burn, witch, burn!”
She laughed even as the fire grew. We heard her cry out, “Curse you and your land.”
Then she was gone, and the fields have been barren since.
Simon had never attended a Writers’ Salon before.
“Do you bring food every week?”
Jill nodded. “Yes. We all bring something. It’s nice really. Gina brings some kind of green salad usually, and Celine contributes chicken salad and excellent bread or sometimes divine raspberry and lemon tarts. We’re never quite sure what Linda will bring. It varies. She’s a real ass kisser. If Andrea mentions something, chances are Linda will bring it the next week. Bob always brings Chinese food, and with Richard, it depends on his mood.”
“And what does Andrea contribute to the feast?”
“She contributes the plates and silverware and the house, of course.”
“Jolly good deal for her then.” Simon wanted to say, “What a crock.”
“Well, she does do all that reading, Simon.”
He cringed at her tone. It was just slightly disapproving, so he nodded. “Well, yes. She does do that.” For a $50 fee. “I’m not trying to disparage her, Jill. I’m just trying to figure out the rules.”
Jill laughed a little. “Oh, Simon. There are no real rules.” She checked herself. “Well, if you really want to get along with Andrea, you can sort of be extra pleasant to her. She likes men.”
“Oh.” Good God. Simon knew this woman was going to be unbearable.
From inside he could hear the barking of dogs before assorted furry bodies began to fling themselves at the screen door.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about Andrea’s babies,” Jill said. “Try to make a fuss over them.”
“It sounds like a pack of rabid mongrels.” Simon liked dogs if they were well behaved and on leashes. He didn’t like dogs that jumped on you and poked their noses into your crotch. Their rude behavior reflected poorly on their owners. These appeared to be a mixed lot: a white Teacup Poodle, three Italian greyhounds, a Jack Russell Terrier, and a Yorkie that looked like moving dust mop.
Jill opened the screen door when a voice from inside called, “Here’s Jill, and she’s brought her friend.”
Simon could quite honestly say he had never met anyone like Andrea LaBelle. She swept toward him in her black beaded caftan, hands outstretched, the tips of her long red nails gleaming in the light. Her arms jingled with sliver bracelets and her fingers sparkled with rings made of amethyst and garnet and peridot. She wore thick false lashes, deep purple eye shadow and layers of powder that sank into the crevices and cracks in her face. Her hair was dyed raven, and her alarming eyebrows shot up into a point before sloping down the side of her head. Simon guessed she was somewhere between seventy and one hundred fifty.
The dogs were jumping on him, climbing his legs, thrusting their noses into his crotch, while he stood there holding out his Brie and crackers like a supplicant. He would have handed over all the money in his wallet if she would call the wretched creatures off of him.
“You must be Simon,” Andrea La Belle said. She jingled closer and relieved him of his offering before planting a kiss on his cheek. “How lovely to meet you. Where has Jillian been hiding you? I want you to sit right by me.”
Simon wanted to sprint for the door. One of the dogs, a greyhound was wrapped around his leg and the Jack Russell tore at the hem of his jeans. When he tried to move, the Jack Russell growled and bared his teeth.
“Silly, Rudy, stop growling. Naughty, Daphne. You’re not a boy, stop humping our guest.” Andrea La Belle clapped her hands. The dogs ignored her. “My babies are a teeny bit spoiled.” She managed to drag Simon to a chair at a long dinning table and shove him into it. Daphne resumed humping his leg.
“Find a seat, Jillian,” Andrea said, and Jillian slid into a seat across from him. She refused to meet his eyes.
He stared at the four people who sat watching the exchange. The woman to his left appeared to be in her early thirties. She had the lithe body of a dancer and plenty of wavy, dark hair she wore pulled into a careless ponytail. Her dark eyes were almond-shaped, and she had a full, sensual mouth. When she shook his hand, she let her fingers linger for a moment. She told him her name was Gina, she was writing a supernatural romance, and she would love to read his aura.
Next to her sat Bob, a balding chap, who sold insurance by day. He hated his job, had a wife and twin boys to support, and all his life he wanted to write. Now he was working on a crime novel about an insurance salesman who suffers a nervous breakdown and begins murdering customers. Bob had the manner of a friendly puppy and seemed delighted to find that Simon was English.
“How ‘bout that,” he said in an awful imitation of a British accent. “A genuine Englishman. I might ‘ave to pick your brain. I was thinking of making one of my victims a Brit.”
“How delightful.” Simon wasn’t at all sure he wanted this fellow or anyone else in the group picking at his brain.
The other male in the group, Richard, sat across the table from Bob, or rather lounged across the table. He sprawled back in his chair watching Simon, his face creased in an expression of disdain and amusement. He was tall and angular with a luxurious mass of gray hair and icy blue eyes.
“Did you grow up in England? Where did you go to school?” Richard threw it out like a challenge. “I’m a Harvard man myself. I’ve already been published. Perhaps you’ve read some of my poetry?”
“Your poetry . . .” Then Simon remembered the awful swill Jillian had shown him. The poem about an old man slipping on the ice, he bloody well remembered that. Snap. Crack goes the bone beneath my skin. Pop as it breaks the parchment surface. It reminded him of a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and the one about the man masturbating as he fantasized about a teenaged girl. Oh, he remembered those poems. “Yes, I did read your work. Jillian showed me. They were memorable.”
Richard gave him a sharp smile. “This is an excellent group here. Most of us have been published.” He turned to Bob who looked away. “Most of us expect to get published.”
“I expect so.” Simon smiled at the woman sitting next to Richard.
She held her hand to her mouth as if she were trying not to laugh. She possessed brilliant green eyes and shortish white hair and seemed a bit older than the other women, though her face was smooth. She didn’t have the tightened look of a woman who had undergone severe plastic surgery, yet her eyes held a certain cynical sagacity that comes from age. When she was younger, she must have been quite lovely because she still possessed an arresting face. She wore no wedding ring, but her fingers flashed with a number of large diamonds and rubies. She wore a deep red cashmere sweater that looked expensive by the heft of the yarn and a heavy gold necklace.
“I am Celine,” she said. “Welcome. I think you’ll be a wonderful addition. Just delightful. Jill talks about you so fondly. You must tell us about your book.”
She gave him a kind smile, and Simon felt a little more at ease.
“Before we talk books, we need to talk about what’s happening in our lives. I’ll go first,” Andrea said. “You see my dear Rudy there. He accidentally bit someone on Friday. It was awful! I didn’t know what to do. This man was threatening to call the police, but fortunately we were able to slip away just in the nick of time. Honestly, Rudy barely broke the skin. Thank God I parked across the street, or that awful man might have gotten my license plates.”
“Was the man teasing Rudy?” Celine’s mouth twisted into a curious half-smile.
“Well, no. But Rudy is so sensitive. Sometimes if someone doesn’t smell right, he just knows to go on alert.” Andrea waved her hand. “He was protecting his mummy.”
Mummy was right, Simon thought. Andrea looked like something an archeologist had dug up a thousand years ago. If she had any words of writerly wisdom to impart, he was William Shakespeare.
The dogs started to bark, and the door banged open. A tall, heavyset woman rushed into the room with a shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Simon had a fleeting impression of a square face, thin lips and intelligent dark eyes. Linda had arrived. She flung herself into a chair opposite Andrea and let out a puff of air that blew her mussed bangs up from her forehead. Everything about her spoke of utility and practicality. Her dark brown hair was cut in a neat bob, her navy blue turtle neck and slacks were good quality, but not ostentatious. She wore a simple gold wedding band on square hands with short unpolished nails.
“Sorry I’m late, but I had to get the kids settled before I left.” She spoke in a loud, direct voice, like one used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
The group had assembled.
I lingered in the doorway and breathed in my memories.
Her room sat on the northeast side of the house overlooking the ocean, and I could smell the salt air wafting through the open balcony doors. It was a chilly room that was light without being sunny. Outside gulls called ceaselessly and in the distance, buoys clanged. The morning mist had burned off, but come evening, the air would be filled with the lonely call of the fog horns.
The room had ecru walls and cream-colored French provincial furniture. A double bed with its blue and white toile duvet sat in the center facing a massive double dresser. Blue curtains danced from the two wide-open balcony doors. On the bureau, neatly arranged, lay a brush, comb and mirror and an ornate silver box filled with a tangle of gold earrings and bracelets. Three sterling frames held photographs: one of me as a child, one of the two of us holding hands, and one of her standing on a balcony, her eyes fixed on some distant point, her lips drawn in an enigmatic smile. A cream colored rug with a pattern of blue flowers stretched over the pale oak floor.
On the far wall a series of built-in shelves held her collection of shells: the great pink conch, the pearlescent nautilus, the fat striated shark eye, down to the lowly clam shell and barnacle.
I stepped into the room and turned to face her nightstand. Her usual assortment of books was neatly piled underneath. She loved to read about ship wrecks and early American history, but her taste was eclectic. One might find the latest best seller or a classic piece of fiction in her pile. Her neatly folded glasses were on top of the table next to a white marble coaster.
Above the bed in nightmare slashes of vivid color hung a portrait of her. Her work, I knew without checking the signature. The woman’s orange lips stretched open in something between a scream or a laugh, her hands ripped at her wild purple and red hair while green blood ran down her arms like tears.
My sister’s portrait of me.
“Lives have been lost, Mr. Richards. It’s an inevitable casualty of the war on terror.”
The jet pinwheels across the deck of the carrier, a twirling flame of destruction. Men cry in agony. Lives are snuffed out like so many candles. Is it better to die in a fireball or of hypothermia in fifty-degree water?
“Naturally, there will be an inquiry into the safety of the aircraft itself. The design. The engineering. The, uh, fuel. You understand what I’m saying. Our firm has been retained to provide the best possible legal defense for NorCom Industries. We expect your full attention to this matter.”
One after another, standing jets ignite on the deck as burning drops of fuel rain down. More green blue flames shoot into the violet sky like fireworks. Metal twists and groans as if the heat is a knife cutting the ship in two. Men leap overboard, their bodies ablaze. The ship is melting.
“The Navy is calling this the worst peacetime disaster at sea ever recorded, but I believe we can turn this situation around.”
Debris litters the surface of the ocean. Waves rise and fall. Black slime covers the water like a shadow.
“Let’s get to work then.”
There are no survivors.
“I don’t like this painting.” Emily stood in front of the copy of Brugegel’s Two Monkey’s and frowned. It hung in Joseph’s study over a comfortable red leather chair next to an arched window.
“Why is that?” Joseph smiled and held out his hands.
Emily shivered. The monkey on the left stared with sorrowful black eyes while the other gazed out of the arched window where the Scheldt River and the city of Antwerp stretched out. But the monkeys themselves sat chained to the windowsill in a darkened room, destined only to stare into the world beyond their solitary prison.
“It seems so cruel.” She went to him and sat on the edge of his chair.
“Ah, but in its day, it might have been considered a pun on the political times of the fourteenth to sixteen centuries. Then there was much “singerie” or monkey tricks for control of the Scheldt. On the right side of the river the count of Flanders was allied with France, but on the left the marquisate of Antwerp was aligned with Germany. In Bruegel’s time, 1562 the Emperor removed all room for maneuvering from his rivals. He chained them, so to speak.”
“I suppose that’s what successful monarchs do.”
“Sometimes one must be ruthless to maintain a kingdom. Yes. That is true.” He stroked her hand. “But it not something for you to worry about.”
“Will you do something for me?”
She leaned closer, her golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, and her deep blue eyes filling slightly. “Will you take the picture down?”
He kissed her hand. “For you? Anything. Consider it gone.”
She flung her arms around him. “I do love you so much.”
“And I you, my dear.” He kissed her and glanced at his watch. “Now, we must get dressed. We cannot be late for a state dinner.” He looked at her and tilted his head. “Wear the blue velvet. It’s particularly becoming, and the diamond necklace.”
“It’s very heavy, Joseph.” Her voice trembled a little.
“Nonetheless. It suits you. And that suits me.” He kissed her again. “Now hurry, my dear.”
She gave him another tremulous smile before she hurried from the room.
Joseph waited for a moment before he stood and walked to the painting and pulled it down from the wall. He would replace it with something else from his cache, something more–what was the word–upbeat. He smiled and carried the picture with him. He told people it was an excellent copy, and they believed him because everyone knew the original sat in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.
It was such a small picture, just 19.8 x 23.2 cm. Freedom and captivity. The two animals formed a perfect spiral from the ring that held their chains to the arch of the window overlooking the flowing river, the cathedral of Antwerp. That was the eternal dance—hope and hopelessness.
Joseph went to the wine cellar, and used the special key to open the door hidden behind a rack of exquisite French burgundy. He descended deep into the bowls of the house.
The two men sat in cells across from each other. They had been proud men once, even handsome men. Now both were stooped and gray. They stared at him with flat red-rimmed eyes.
He didn’t believe in torture. They had light—albeit dim light—water, food. Their waste was removed twice a day. Their clothing was grey, almost like a doctor’s scubs. Easy to remove and clean. Their left ankles were shackled to the floor by substantial iron chains.
He regarded the men. “And how are you, this afternoon?”
Neither man answered. Men without tongues could not talk or plot.
“I have brought you a present. Just for the night. Alas, I cannot afford to leave it here any longer for your enjoyment. But I feel you’ll both appreciate the picture for what it is. My new wife did not, and I will do anything for her, especially now that she bears my child.”
He propped the picture on a ledge. “It’s a reminder. You believed I would spare you because you’re my sons?” Joseph shrugged. “But you forgot I am the master of the game. No more monkey tricks for the two of you.”
He heard strangled sounds that sounded like sobbing as he made his way back up the stairs.