The question mark’s elaborately arabesqued, a boteh of curlicued ink on the goldenrod tab he holds up, fingers glittering with silver rings, an ankh, a skull, and the nails of them a deep chipped purple. “But where’s the question,” he says, turning it over. Setting it down on the bedspread by the handbill, a slashed sketch of a dancer, and one green dotted eye. “The answer’s pretty clear, tomorrow night, Southeast, Italian Public Market, Gardeners’ and Ranchers’, what does that even, you’re, you’re rubbing off, you rubbed off on me. Ranchers.” He sighs. “Ranchers’ what. No. The question.” He hasn’t looked up yet, his long black hair hung about like curtains. “Where is it, when is it, no. Am I, no, no, not that, not am I going, if it was then the answer.” His black T-shirt says Good-bye Robot Dinosaurs in round white letters. “The answer would be,” he says, looking up. Past the handbill, spread out one atop another a pair of neon green tights, some stockings lacy black but also bright pink fishnets, a tumble of skirts, blue denim and calico patchwork, emerald crinolines, and propped in the corner where the bed’s been jammed a fluffy orange sweater, a yellow slicker, an unlaced corset printed with faux-embroidered flowers. Set atop it all a pink meshback cap, the front and bill of it a hash of pink-and-black camouflage. “You could go,” he says. “You should go. Go on,” he says. “Go. Go.”
Rustle and scrape of cardboard against the floor, stiff paper crinkling, he lays his head back down, dark hair lankly coiling among the cartons, the boxes, the denuded tubes of plastic wrap and tinfoil, jugs and tubs and bottles stood up about him. “Ten years,” he says, “it wasn’t ten. It was three.” Holding up a hand above his face, turning it over, indistinct in the darkness. “The chair,” he says. “The chair. Only fourteen, ever,” lowering his hand, wiping his lips. “Made,” he says. “Was it even three?” A key rattles in a lock, a knob turns, a latch disengaged, his hand slips to his throat where a shadow’s suddenly slashed, dark enough in this light to be red. He sits up, hacking, gagging, “Luke,” Jessie’s saying, she’s there, all white and pink and orange, “Luke, are you okay?” Leaning over him, there in the wide clean curl of aisle through all that sorted trash.
“Yeah?” he says, both hands tentatively pressed to his unblemished throat.
“What were you,” she says, her hand on his shoulder, but then, leaning close, “you found it?”
“Maybe,” he says. “It might be.”
“It’s so close, to the river,” she says. “You said it was Eastside, but this, this is right here, so, close,” looking out over the wide grid of garbage, stretched out to the floor-length curtains there along the wall, and her lips purse, quivering.
“I don’t know for sure,” he says, but her quiver’s become a giggle she’s trying to stuff back in with her hand to her mouth, “What,” he says, “what’s so funny?” and then, “Why are you dressed like that?” Her parka’s fallen open about her white bra, her bared belly. “What have you gone and done,” he says.
“What’d I do?” She pulls a manila-wrapped brick from her parka and tosses it into his lap. He starts back, hands up, “What,” he says, and “Rent,” she says, “a couple weeks’ groceries, at least. That’s what I did.”
The crackle of the glossy clear tape wrapped about it. “Oh,” he says.
“Pretty sure it’s a one-time deal, though.” Her smile’s faded away. “So there’s still work to be done.”
“Well,” he says, “it’s like I told you,” but then he stops. “It wasn’t you, was it.”
“It was her. I told her, that maybe, when you got here, you’d have something for us.”
“Her,” says Jessie, flatly, frowning.
“You look so much alike,” he says. “The makeup – you look, older.” He sets the paper-wrapped brick aside. “Just about her age,” he says. “Just like her. I should’ve known. You would try to pull something like this.”
“Luke,” she says, but he lurches forward, hand up, a finger before her lips, “No,” he says. “Call me Lake.”
“Lake,” she says, still so flat, so seamless and so smooth.
“So I know it’s you,” he says.
“It’s,” she says, “me,” and then, a hitch in her voice, “Lake,” she says, “Luke, Lake,” and a flutter of that laugh returning, uncertainly settling in a mouth that curls in a slowly sidelong smile. “Hi,” she says. “Should’ve known I couldn’t fool you,” and a shake of her head, her yellow hair pale, the flash of glitter about her eyes. “How’s,” she says, and a deep breath, “my sister. How’s,” blink, “Jessie.”
“Your sister,” he says, and his smile’s a gentle, softening thing. “She,” he says, “came along, at just the moment I needed her, and she gives me,” his hand, on her knee, “she gives me just what I need.”
“So that’s the difference,” she says. “I don’t, I don’t give. I take.”
“Take what,” he says, but she pounces tackling toppling him, crumple of cardboard squeak and crackle of plastic crunch she’s kissing him, he tears his mouth away, “The city – ”
“Fuck it,” she snarls, hand tangled in his hair, yanking his head back to bite at his neck, he yelps, he sighs, he whoops as she kisses him, his bearded chin, his mouth, his hands at her shoulders to haul at that parka, she sits up, shrugs it off, tosses it away, crash a taped-together tower of towel rolls and egg cartons, “Luke,” she says, then “Lake, Lake” as he grunts “Lake,” and “no,” she says, “get out of there,” slapping the fingers he’s slipping into her pants.
“I should maybe give,” he says, “if you’re gonna take,” and she laughs. Pushes herself up out of his grasp to loom over him, slinking her hips side to side, thumbs in the waistband of her pants tugging swaying curving over and down, and down, stooping to free this foot, that, in her flat red shoes. “Careful,” he says, but standing athwart his hips she winds up and whips her pants away, and crash an enfilade of plastic bottles, “Shit,” he says, sitting up, looking over, but she grabs the back of his head, fingers twining in his slickly heavy hair, wrenching him around, “Fuck it,” she says, dragging his face to her belly, “go on,” and she closes her eyes as he opens his mouth, as his hands grip her buttocks, sprawl over the glistering rays of red and yellow bursting from the burning heart on the small of her back. Shivering she rocks her hips, shaking out her yellow hair, but he twists his head free, she slaps at him, lets out a seething groan as he pulls away, looks up, his beard askew. “Hey,” he says, and “Dammit!” she snaps, and “She never told me, what do I call you? What’s your name?”
And panting through a churlish snarl, her pink and silvered eyes unsqueezing, opening, she unbites a glossy lip that gathers itself for a disappointed moue, or maybe a smile, she looks away, opens her mouth to say a word she doesn’t speak, shakes it away with a cough of a laugh, “Lake,” she says.
“Tell me,” he says.
“Okay,” she says. Looks back down to him, and all trace of anything gone from her expression. “How about,” she says. “Call me Jezebel.”
That skinny, tattooed arm doesn’t move from across the nondescript door, “Not backstage,” he’s saying, “no, you’re not.”
“I have something to give her,” says Ysabel. Up on the little stage behind her a woman in a silvery bikini’s hanging upside-down from the pole, spinning up and up and a bellowing chorus huffs over skittering handclaps, let them all talk and discuss what they want, until she hikes up her carouselling legs to plant her lucite soles on the ceiling, I’m gonna do what I like, ’cause I’m free! The audience is roaring, stomping, cheering. “Do you know who I am?” says Ysabel, leaning in, looking up.
“Not a dancer,” he says, applauding with everyone else, letting out a piercing whistle. Ysabel in her long white cardigan watches him a moment, looks to the door, then reaches out, opens it, steps through.
A narrow hall, quite dark, the crowd’s roar and the music thumping, dulled, “Hey!” the guy with the skinny, tattooed arms, crashing in after her, grabbing at her, “You can’t come back here!”
She says, “Let. Go.”
A moment there, the two of them, Ysabel’s white-draped arm in his fist dark with ink that sweeps and curls around the wrist, the forearm, twining waves like teeth, like dark flames, like the shadows of the bones beneath. “You can’t come back here!” he says, again, finally. Still holding her arm. “We can’t have any disruptions!” From off down the end of the hall behind her a derisive snort, there’s women in the doorway there, lace and plaid and spangled sequins. “Let go,” says Ysabel, again. The light about them shifts, the door behind him’s opening, “Look, lady,” he’s saying, “I gotta,” but “What is this,” says someone else, gruffly, behind him.
“Sorry, boss,” says the guy with the tattooed arms, shifting his grip on Ysabel’s arm, reaching back for the knob to the nondescript door. “I’ll have her out in a – ”
“Your people need educating, Stirrup,” says Ysabel.
That man back there steps out, not especially tall, his face fleshy, his red hair dark in the shadows flopping from a widow’s peak. “Majesty,” he says, and the tattooed guy whips his head around at that, “Oh you have got to be,” he says, but the man with the widow’s peak doesn’t blink, or shrug, “Jeffers,” he says, “collect your things. Get on home.”
“Aw, boss,” says the tattooed guy, “you can’t fire me. Not over – ”
“Fire you?” says the Stirrup. “Heavens forfend. We’ll call, as soon as the schedule opens up again.”
Jeffers flings Ysabel’s arm away, and a stomp, “Bitch,” he snarls.
“Jeffers,” says the Stirrup.
“Fuck,” says Jeffers, and then the nondescript door swings open on the applause of the crowd, the thumping banging music, the dancer in her silvery bikini, mopping her forehead, and a wad of money in her hand, “Gina!” she yells, bumping into Jeffers, “You’re up!” Turning about, looking about at them all crowded together in the dark and narrow hall, “Shto zhe?” she says, as a woman in a short kilt and a tight white blouse squeezes past Ysabel, the sweaty dancer, glares pointedly at Jeffers in the doorway, and the faltering applause behind him.
“Jeffers,” says the Stirrup again. “If you’re not working, you shouldn’t be backstage. Go on, Gina. The rest of you, get out there, work the room. You too, Rocky.”
“Dammit, Gav,” says the silvery, sweaty dancer, as the woman in the kilt heads out into the club. “I just got done!”
“So I’m sure half the room wants to buy you a drink. Go on.”
A bustle of confusion, then, as they all make way around each other in the narrow hall, heading out one by one past Jeffers watching each of them pass by, into the press of the crowd, the whoops, the sneering jangle of guitars, with their government grants, someone’s crooning, and my IQ, they brought me down to size, academia blues, the door swings shut, thump and dull, and only the two of them left, Ysabel all in white, and the Stirrup in his leather vest, his red tie half undone.
“I’ll only be a moment,” she says.
He says, “As your majesty requires.”
The dressing room is small, the walls of it black, and lamps ablaze about a row of mirrors. At the end there against the far wall, sitting on a short red velvet chaise, the Starling, her black hair short, swept up in front, a tidy stack of curls, and her eyes a startling green. She’s smiling, lips painted lushly gold to match the gold streaked up her arms and daubed about her nipples, and a thick stripe of it down her belly, gleaming against her darkly olived skin.
“I see you’re dressed,” says Ysabel.
“I’m never not, my Queen.”
“The,” says Ysabel, her hand comes up, a cup in the air, “breasts, are maybe a little small?”
“Better for dancing,” says the Starling.
“Is that my problem.”
“I’m certain it’s but mine.” The Starling turns back to her reflection, framed in a clutter of stickers and notes. “I hadn’t thought to see you again so soon.”
“Is it only of a Thursday I’m to see you?”
“Your majesty may see me as you wish,” says the Starling, tilting her chin, lifting a tiny brush to her brow. “I quite enjoyed our weekend.”
“I’ve something for you,” says Ysabel. In her hand a plastic baggie, stuffed with golden dust.
“But,” says the Starling. “I’ve already, I received – I already have, so much.”
“This,” says Ysabel, “is, yours,” setting the baggie on the counter beneath the mirror. “None other’s. No liege to portion it out, no knight to cede it to you. Yours alone.”
“You,” says the Starling. Setting down the brush. Reaching out to stroke the plastic with a gold-nailed finger. “You took. This.” Looking up to Ysabel. “All this came from what you took?”
“It happens, at times,” says Ysabel, looking away. “Such an abundance, at the first few turnings.” Her smile is tight. “This is your banner, Starling. Freedom. Beholden no more, not to anyone.”
“But when it’s gone?”
“Why, then,” says Ysabel, “I’ll, turn you more. Whatever you need. Whenever it’s needed. Think of it, Starling,” she says, stepping close. “You wouldn’t have to dance.”
“I like to dance,” says the Starling, reaching down to her gym bag.
“But you wouldn’t need to,” says Ysabel. “Dance whenever you want, wherever you like.”
“I like it here,” says the Starling, pulling handfuls of darkly filmy stuff from the bag, winding it about. “I like an audience.”
“Then stay, if you like. But because you like, and not because you must.”
She’s draping the smokey stuff about her arms, arranging the fall of it over her lap, “I have never known of a gift so rich,” she says, looking up, and those green, green eyes. “I can’t possibly accept.”
“Of course you can. How could you not?”
She lifts the stuff up along her shoulders, lays it over her breast. “Time passes, my Queen,” she says. “Time was, my liege was the Dagger, when he was Sidney, and he came to me often, in this very room. But time passed, and my allegiance was passed to the Harper, and a better knight, by far, than the Dagger: he came to me only the once.” Her gold-streaked fingers find ties there by her collarbone, and begin neatly to knot them. “And now, but these last two weeks, I am the Stirrup’s,” she says. “And he is as much better a liege than the Harper, as the Harper was the Dagger.” She stands then, the Starling, and the shadowy stuff drapes about her, a gown that falls from her shoulders to brush her feet. “Or as your Duchess, my Queen, is, than the Duke was, before her.” The gold paint beneath it glimmers as she takes a step toward Ysabel, limning curls of breast and belly, shining brightly where the gown parts there about the pout between her thighs. “Time passes,” she says, “and with it, fancies pass. What would become of me, my Queen, if I took up this banner,” a touch, for that golden baggie, “only to find when it had gone that yours had, too?”
“I would, never,” says Ysabel, and then, “as I told you. Whatever you need, whenever – ”
“My lady, I,” says the Starling, loudly, “would always,” more quietly, and a deep breath, “kiss your mouth, when it is turned to me, and pillow your head on my lap, but can you as you stand there answer true, that you do love me?”
“That,” says Ysabel, so quietly, so carefully, “is not a question for you to ask.”
“And this,” says the Starling, pushing the baggie away along the countertop, “is not a gift for me to take.”
She slips past Ysabel then, her loose gown trailing, a wake of smoke, settling a-float about her as she stops in the doorway, looking back to Ysabel unmoved, a hand on the counter by the baggie. “I’m on after Gina,” says the Starling.
Ysabel nods. “Of course.” Taped there to one side of the mirror, larger than the notes about it, a sheet of goldenrod, a handbill, printed with a single scribble of a dancer, and one green-inked dot of an eye. “Your hair,” says Ysabel.
“Ma’am?” says the Starling.
Ysabel turns away from the mirror, all in white, her long white cardigan, her blouse of lawn, and her white jeans. “It should be long,” says Ysabel. “I’d see myself as once I was, and will be again.”
That gown shifting, flowing as she lifts her hands to her hair, those black curls pushed back and back, and down, and down, pushed back and out and up, and tugged, and let to fall then, an artful tangle of curls about her shoulders. “As your majesty wishes,” says the Starling.
The explosion rattles the speakers, and the sound of the door opening’s lost in the din, but he sees her there, turns his head to look, then the rest of him in that bulky grey hoodie that says RCTID. He heads off across the low room columned and beamed in dark wood to where she’s mounting the steps of a grand dark staircase, “Hey,” he says, rat-a-tat of gunfire behind him, “hey, Ellen. Ellen!” and she stops up there, a hand on the railing, looking back, tattoos like a lace of ink about the collar of her sweater. “What the hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?”
“What?” says Ellen, after a moment.
“When he showed up pounding on the door last,” and he stops suddenly, blinking, “last,” he says, again. Another explosion from the television set, and the guy on the beanbag yelps. “Last week?”
“What are you, what are you saying, Dan,” she says. “What the hell.”
“I almost got it” yells the guy on the beanbag, “God damn, man, God damn!”
“Why is he, why was he wearing my shirt, Ellen?” says Dan, but he’s looking away, off at the television screen.
“You want your shirt?” says Ellen. “I’ll go get your fucking shirt.” And up she goes, and up another flight, down a narrow hall beside the stairwell, fingers rap-tapping impatiently on the banister, at the end of the hall a dark doorway, and the next flight up, she steps in, steps up, stops, “Wait,” she says, “who – how?”
A shadow’s sitting on the steps there, swathed in pearly grey, a woman looking up, her dark hair all in tiny screws swept back, pinned up, her big eyes sleepy. Reaching up for the railing bolted to the wall, pulling herself to her feet with a grimace of effort, waiting a moment, pointedly, for Ellen to step back, to clear the doorway.
“Who are you,” says Ellen.
The woman in pearly grey looks back, clutching a bundle of black cloth. “You’re welcome,” she says, her voice at once both rich and hoarse.
“What?” says Ellen, but that woman’s walking away down the hall, along the stairwell, her heavy gait listing to one side. Ellen looks away, up the next staircase, heads up them quickly, up under the very peak of the house. At the end of a cramped hall a door, cut at an angle to fit the slope of the roof, that she opens on a blue room brightly lit, and the only shadows on the clean and gleaming depthless cloudless color of it from the pallet out in the middle, pillowed in white, and the big man stood up naked before it, brown hair in eaves about his head, and the great ruddy beard brushing his brown-furred chest. “Phil,” says Ellen. “Phil, what the fuck. Phil.”
“Ellen,” he says. “I needed time. I am so sorry, but I needed time, and it is so quiet here.”
“Who was that,” she’s saying, stepping into the room, past the aloha shirt left by itself on the floor, “the woman, what’s, what the hell,” and “It’s all right,” he says, “It’s all right. I did it. I did it.”
“Did what?” says Ellen.
“I quit,” says Philip Keightlinger.