When the phone rings the rumpled blankets jerk and twist and spit out a hand. It fumbles about and finds the alarm clock and slaps the snooze button. The phone rings again. A head pops out, blinking, befuddled. Blond hair cropped close to the skull, a couple of locks here and there left long, dyed black, lank. The phone rings again. She falls on it, half-tumbling off the futon, snatches up the handset. “What,” she croaks.
“Frankie,” she says. She grabs the alarm clock. “Frankie. You have any idea what time it is. It’s – ” peering thickly at the clock, she frowns “ – it’s a quarter of eleven. Fuck.
“Well, my alarm clock didn’t go off. I –
“Frankie, I’d have to catch a bus, I’m gonna be late as – ”
Listening to the chirpy voice on the other end of the line she fumbles about for something in the litter of unopened junk mail and discarded clothing by the futon, comes up with a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “Fine, fine.” She shakes it. It’s empty. “Let me just – yes, Frankie.
“I said I would, dammit.”
Jo Maguire hangs up her phone and puts her face in her hands and takes a deep breath in through her nose. “Fuck,” she says.
It’s raining. Under the bus shelter eyes half-closed leaning against the frame she coughs a thin little cough into a fist she jams back into the pocket of her careworn jacket, army-surplus green. One of her Chuck Taylors is black and the other is white and its toe is held on with duct tape. She wears khakis hacked off below the knee over grubby once-white longjohns. She doesn’t have a hat.
In the window of the salon behind the shelter is an enormous poster filled with a dim watery light that is neither green nor blue. A waifish model wrapped in a white towel floats in the middle of it and looks supremely unconcerned at nothing in particular. Her red-gold hair spreads out behind her and above her, the only source of warmth. About her are gathered little emblematic piles of this or that, a sprig of something herbal, a mound of chalky stuff, a puddle of goo the color of molasses, shavings of some yellowish root or clay. Beneath her dangling feet the words, dripping with photographed water: Reinterpret the day off.
A number fifteen bus pulls up to the stop. Digging in her cavernous pocket for change, Jo ducks through the rain and climbs on.
It’s a thirty-year-old apartment complex, small, maybe eight units in two two-storey buildings making a haphazard U around a small pocket of badly patched parking lot. Yellow siding and peeling brown trim and a sign that says The Bedevere in faded Old West letters. Jo dodges a torrent from a broken downspout and trudges up a flight of cantilevered steps to a second-floor apartment. The door pops open almost as soon as she knocks on it.
“Well?” says a skinny guy, with dark hair down to his shoulders.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” says Jo.
“Yeah, but you want to maybe come in out of the rain?”
Inside it’s dark. One of those ubiquitous halogen torchieres stands unlit in the corner at a slight angle. There’s an old vinyl couch like something out of a dentist’s waiting room and a litter of dirty dishes and take-out boxes on the carpet in front of it. “Hey, uh,” says the skinny guy, kicking an empty 2-liter bottle out of the way, “I hate to ask, but can I bum a smoke?”
“I’m out,” says Jo, in the doorway.
“You’re out.” His voice flat, his head turning to kick a sidelong look at her.
“Yeah, Frankie, I ran out last night and I haven’t had the chance to pick up any more because I had to run all the way across town to find out what the hell you wanted and – ”
“Geeze,” Frankie’s saying, “oh, geeze, Jo, I didn’t mean you had to just run out, I mean, you could have had some coffee or something – ”
“ – or picked up some cigarettes, you know, I mean, it’s not that important – And I’m trying to quit anyway, you know? So maybe it’s a good thing, you know? Maybe you should, maybe think about it too, I – ”
“I’ve got to be at work in ten minutes. Which is a physical impossibility from this side of the river. Can we hurry this up?”
Frankie looks away. “I, uh. Got fired. A week, a week and a half ago.”
The rain is loud through the open door.
“That’s not exactly my problem anymore,” says Jo.
“Don’t,” says Frankie, “don’t be like that. The past few days, I mean, I’ve been trying, you know? Calling people, and looking, but – well, it’s been hard, and I just – ”
“Frankie,” says Jo. “Just stop it.”
“What?” says Frankie.
Jo looks away as he turns to face her there in the gloom. Her hands in her pockets. She takes a deep breath.
“Stop what?” says Frankie.
She lets the breath out, deflating. “What is it you want, Frankie?”
He makes half a chuckle like it’s too much effort to bother finishing. “What, what do I want? I want things to be like they were. You know?” His hands swing up in two arcs before his face, his fingers sketching a little starburst in the air, poof. “And maybe they were only like that for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, but still. I want. I…” His hands drop to his sides, his shoulders slump. “I want a lot of things. What I need, is. What I need is fifty bucks. You know?”
His eyes on hers, hers on his. The rain, falling. She’s the first to look away.
He smiles. A little. Enough to bring out a dimple, there and there.
Leaning against the side of the bus shelter on Morrison and 20th, a wall of greenery behind her, the rain steady. Pulls her hand out of her pocket and shakes down the sleeve of the jacket so she can peer at her watch. 11:35.
“Shit,” says Jo.
She lays her head against the scratched plexiglass. Closes her eyes.
Which is when the rain stops. As she opens her eyes, frowning, the light starts flickering, a little, as if – it’s like the clouds above, the low solid milky grey ceiling, all that is breaking up, scudding away, a movie in fast-motion. Standing, frowning, she ducks her head out, looks up. Her hair shining. A fat drop of water hitting her shoulder unnoticed, sinking in, a dark splotch.
A short man in a dry peppermint seersucker suit comes walking down Morrison, whistling tunelessly, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a small cellophane-wrapped packet with a bright red circle on it. He has ruddy cheeks and a thick brown mustache and a summery straw porkpie hat. Jo looks down at him, her mouth framing a word she isn’t yet speaking, as he shakes the packet once, deftly. A couple of cigarettes leap to attention and he plucks one, offering it to her with a courtly little bow, an exaggerated dip of his head.
“I, uh. Thank you,” says Jo, and then after a moment she reaches up to take it. She smiles. It’s a wrinkled little thing, an off-white ivory color, and it has no filter. She lifts it to her nose to sniff. “Nice,” she says. “Flowery. What’s – ”
But the man in the peppermint seersucker suit isn’t there.
She looks up and down Morrison, steps out to the corner to look along 20th. The daylight is changing again, re-murking. The movie running in reverse as a drop of rain falls striking the puddle that drowns the backed-up storm sewer, and then another and another and another. Jo runs back under the bus shelter. Laughing. The rain coming down as if it had never stopped.
A narrow office on the sixth floor of a building on the west end of downtown has indecisive cream walls interrupted by kelly green carrels, a couple dozen of them set up on top of long folding tables against that wall and the back wall. Each of them has just enough room for a computer screen, a keyboard, a telephone. There’s maybe thirty stations, all told, and just about every seat is full.
“Is there someone home I could speak with? Your mother or father, maybe?”
The front wall has a bulletin board and a doorway into the office kitchen, startlingly white: formica and linoleum and fluorescent lights, refrigerator and white-handled microwave oven.
“Does anyone in your household work for a bank, an insurance company, a financial services company, or a market research firm?”
The other side wall, the one without a line of tables and carrels and dialers working phones, has a couple of tall windows and through them, past the last outriders of downtown’s tall buildings, mostly older brick, a refurbished hotel, a stark new-build apartment block hanging over the highway’s gully, past all that there are the west hills, suddenly close, soaked in shreds of low wet clouds like dirty grey cotton.
“And how would you rate that on a scale of very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?”
Up at the front of the office is a desk, an actual desk with a computer on it and a big harried guy in a lurid red-and-black plaid shirt who’s running his hand through what little of his hair is left as Jo walks in, dripping. “Ahem,” says the big guy, pointedly.
“Hey yourself, Becker,” says Jo. “Where’s Mike?”
“Gave two minutes’ notice.” There’s something on the screen that is apparently deeply puzzling to Becker. He frowns at it. “Apparently, Tartt was yelling at him.”
“Tartt’s always yelling at him.”
“This time it actually sank in.”
“Which,” says Jo, “doesn’t explain why you’re sitting in the hot seat.”
Becker looks up with a grin. It’s a sour grin. “Hi, my name is Becker, and I’ll be your supervisor this afternoon.”
“You’re kidding,” says Jo.
Becker’s eyes are back on his screen again. “If there’s a joke, it’s on me, and it’s in terribly poor taste.” He twiddles his mouse, clicks one of its buttons, pokes a couple of keys and definitively stabs Enter with his middle finger.
“You’ve been promoted,” says Jo.
“So it would seem.”
“Well, that’s great! Congratulations!”
“Lucky me. The Peter Principle still works. Look, just sit down and start dialing so my first official act in a supervisory capacity isn’t busting your late ass.” He looks up again. “I just freed up a batch of Central phone numbers. Go bug a little old lady in Duluth, would you?”
“Power’s gone to your head already,” says Jo. “I like it.”
“Shut up and dial,” says Becker.
Jo shrugs off her coat and hangs it on the back of an empty chair. She spins it around so she can straddle it and leans her elbows on the back of the chair and boots up the survey on the computer. As it’s pulling up the first phone number, she settles the phone’s headset over her ears and adjusts the mike. She takes a deep breath.
“I assure you, ma’am,” the thin young man next to her is saying, a thick clump of mascara smeared in the corner of his left eye, his rough-knuckled hands black-nailed and glittering with silver rings – ankhs, skulls, snakeheads, dice – “everything you say is held in the strictest of confidence.” His voice is deep and silky smooth and as gentle as his smile, his little nod hello to Jo. His black T-shirt in white letters says Necrophiliac, M.E. “Your phone number was randomly generated. None of the financial information we gather is in any way associated with your name and address, which we don’t even know, and won’t ever ask for.”
Jo punches her first number into her phone.
“Good evening,” she says, into her mike. “My name is Jo Maguire. I’m calling from Barshefsky Associates, an independent market research firm. We’re not selling anything; I’d just like to ask the person in your household who makes most of the financial decisions a few questions.”
“You think you know what’s going on,” says Becker. “You think you’ve got it sussed.” They’re sitting at the table in the back, in under the balcony by the video poker machines. The jukebox is singing about those strangers who pass through the door and cover your action and go you one more. “I mean,” says Becker, loudly, “sure, you’re overqualified, but you’re underambitious. So you put in the minimal amount of effort. You call out sick often enough so you can kid yourself that you don’t really do this for a, for a living. That you’re really between life-stages or you’re finding yourself, you’re working on your book or getting the band ready or whatever the fuck. It’s just a way station. But. But. You don’t fuck around so much that they have an excuse to fire you, God knows, because you can’t afford to lose this, this job, and you do this, you walk this line, paycheck to paycheck you are the epitome of mediocrity, and what do they have the nerve to do?”
“They promote your ass to supervisor,” says Jo.
“They promote my ass to supervisor,” says Becker. “Why? Why me?”
“Scraping the bottom of the barrel,” says the thin young man with all the rings, dumping a third spoonful of sugar into his coffee.
“Maybe,” says Jo, “Tartt figures you already know all the tricks, so you’re ready for whatever the rest of us will try to pull.”
Becker’s face sours contemplatively. “Tartt’s not that smart,” he says. “Is she? Do you think – ” He smacks his forehead. “Shit. Here we all are getting fucked-up drunk and you people are all going to call out sick tomorrow and expect me to cover for you.”
“He catches on quick,” says the short, older woman with the loose wattle under her chin and the whiskey sour. “For management.”
“I’m not getting drunk,” says the thin young man with all the rings.
“Shut up,” says Becker.
“I will not,” a woman says loudly enough that they all look up. She’s climbing out of the booth by the video poker machines, small black shoes kicking awkwardly at the end of long pearly grey stockings up to a short slip of brownish mushroom grey hemmed with yellowed lace. Black hair glossy in artful tangles swings as she reaches back for her coat.
“Sit down,” says whoever’s still sitting in the booth, and she looks away, and sighs, and then sits.
“Damn,” says the thin man, appreciatively, and then, jerking back, glaring at Jo, “Ow.” Jo smirks over the rim of her glass at him. “For that,” says the thin man, “you owe me dinner.”
Jo downs the last of her rum and Coke and thumps the glass down. “You keep that dream alive,” she says, leaning forward, scooting her chair back.
“You aren’t leaving,” says Becker.
“Bathroom,” says Jo, standing. Grinning. “I’m not nearly drunk enough to pull off an epic hangover tomorrow.”
“You guys,” says Becker, and he sighs, heavily.
Jo snorts a laugh and steps away from the table, turning, colliding with the woman in the mushroom slip, who’s climbed back out of her booth. “Whoops,” says Jo, reaching out, catching the stumbling woman’s upper arm. “Whoa.”
The man who swarms out of the booth isn’t tall but he is lanky, slick green track suit flapping as his long arm quickly plants a bicycle-gloved hand on Jo’s chest. He leans into a shove that sends her pinwheeling into the back table.
“Hey!” barks Becker, as the thin man kicks back his chair, standing.
“Don’t,” says the lanky man in the green track suit. His voice is thin, reedy. He’s young, for all that his hair is silvery white and closely cropped. Green sunglasses with jagged, sporty lenses ride up above his forehead. Blue and white headphones cling to his neck. “Do not touch her.”
“The fuck?” snaps Jo, shaking her head.
“See,” says the little guy in the dark suit. He’s holding a flashlight and a book with some 19th-century-looking man on the cover, all pointed mustaches and ludicrously mesmerizing eyes. “Your problem is your diet.”
“Really,” says the big guy in the dark suit. He’s sitting behind the wheel.
“Yeah,” says the little guy, who’s sitting in the passenger seat. What little hair he has is lankly grey, clustering around his ears and struggling in vain to launch a curl almost precisely midway between his brow and the top of his skull. “The mucus and stuff. Builds up from your diet. Meats and breads and stuff, it gets all, you know. Sticky. Mucus. Clogs up the entire pipe system of the human body.”
The big guy has a beard the color of rich mahogany furniture, bushy enough to bury the knot of his skinny black tie. Most of his hair straining against the leather thong that pulls it taut into a clumsy club of a ponytail. “Mucus,” he says. He wears a pair of classic black sunglasses. The left lens is covered with spidery words painted in white ink.
“Listen to this.” The little guy flips back a couple of pages in the book that doesn’t so much tremble as vibrate, thrum almost, in his jittery hands. “‘We took a trip through northern Italy, walking for 56 hours continuously without sleep or rest or food, only drink. This, after a seven-day fast and then only one meal of two pounds of cherries – ’ Uh…” He turns the page, runs a finger down it. “‘After a 16-hour walk – ’”
“Cherries,” says the big guy.
“Yeah,” says the little guy. “See, he eats only fruit, right? Because it doesn’t have any mucus. Mucus, see? Clogs you up. So. Cherries. Apples. Figs.”
“I hate figs,” says the big guy. “Heads up.”
Halfway down the block out from the door under the red neon sign comes the woman in the mushroom slip, struggling into her camelhair coat. The big guy takes off his sunglasses and opens his door with a popping squonk. The little guy drops the flashlight and the book and fumbles for a pair of sunglasses. The owl’s feather tied to one side hangs them up on his jacket pocket. “Friggetty fuck,” he says. “It’s her?”
“It’s her,” says the big guy.
“Persistence,” says the little guy sliding his sunglasses onto his face, owl’s feather dangling to one side, “pays – shit.”
“I see him.”
The door under the red neon sign pops open and out at a stalking half-run comes the lanky man in the green track suit.
“Damn,” says the little guy, one hand brushing the owl’s feather away from his cheek.
“A knight?” says the big guy, pulling himself back into the car.
“Damn,” says the big guy.
“Wait and watch,” says the little guy. “Watch and wait.”
The door under the red neon sign pops open one more time, and out comes Jo Maguire, Becker on her heels, the thin man bringing up the rear.
Halfway to the corner, she’s stopped. His bicycle-gloved hands are on either shoulder, clenched under the faux fox shawl of her coat. “This is none of your concern, miss,” he’s saying. They’re both looking at Jo, who says, “I just made it my concern.”
“She’s going to get our asses kicked, isn’t she,” says the thin man.
“Shut up, Guthrie,” says Becker.
“You do not understand,” the man in the track suit starts to say. The silver stripes down his sleeves and pants shine unearthly in the pinkish orange street light. He wears outlandishly puffy running shoes, strapped and gussetted, spotlessly white.
“I understand just fine,” says Jo. “She said ‘No.’ And that’s it. That’s the end. You let go. You walk away.”
“Is this, this guy bothering you? At all?” says Becker to the woman.
“Yes,” she says, simply, and steps back away down the sidewalk from his hands left hanging there in space.
“Lady – ” he says, stricken.
“Back off,” says Jo.
“Would you like us to walk you somewhere?” says Guthrie. “Bus stop, maybe?”
“Would I,” says the woman, looking down, away. “Would I.”
“Your car, maybe?” says Becker.
“I would,” says the woman, looking up at Jo.
“That’s that,” says Jo.
“Lady,” says the man again, as she says, “There is, you see, a party. I’d like to attend.”
He takes a step closer to her, hands dropping. “Lady, please.”
“Of course,” says Jo, her eyes on the man in the track suit.
“We’d have to walk,” says the woman in the mushroom slip. In the windows of the jewelry shop behind her fantastically encrusted eggs glitter, hard greens and reds, brash golds, in the bright hard beams of little spotlights. “It’s up in Northwest – ten, fifteen minutes away? If any – or all – of you would like to come?”
“I, uh,” Becker starts to say, as the woman smiles at him and says, “I insist. To thank you for your chivalry.”
“We’d love to,” says Jo. Her eyes still on the man in the track suit, who steps back now, hands at his sides. Guthrie shrugs.
“Fuck it,” says Becker, looking at his watch. “I’m calling out sick tomorrow.”
“You are wrong, my lady, to do this,” says the man. “But I will accompany you.”
“Not if ‘my lady’ doesn’t want you to, you won’t,” says Jo.
“Your mother,” he starts to say, as the woman says, “He may tag along. I don’t mind.”
“I cannot leave your side,” he says. Looking back along the cars parked on both sides of the street. The red neon of the sign above the bar’s door gleams from the drops and streaks and puddles of fresh rain on windshields, hoods, chrome trim, the dark wet pavement.
“Shall we?” says the woman in the mushroom slip, brightly.
“Your Gold Teeth II,” written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, ©1975 MCA Music Publishing. Prof. Arnold Ehret’s Mucusless Diet Healing System, written by Arnold Ehret, as quoted in Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, ©1994 Donna Kossy and Feral House.
It’s raining again, pattering softly unseen through the branches of the trees down Everett Street. Candles and Christmas lights wink and flicker from every window of the big white ramshackle house on the corner. The thin young man, Guthrie, pushes open one of the two front doors and staggers onto the porch, letting out a burst of music, a fiddle, sharp popping drums. Rings glitter from his fingers as he points, peering along the front of the house. Frowning. “See?” he says. There’s a woman with stubby dreadlocks and baggy jeans, a plastic cup in either hand, leaning against the half-open front door behind him. “See? Out here the window is there,” and then he drops his unsteady hand, ducking his head back inside. “While in here, it’s further down that way. See? See that?”
“Is it?” she says, holding out a cup for him. He takes it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean.” He frowns.
Inside the big front room the drum kit is set up between the fireplace and the keg. The drummer’s head is ruddy. The singer, or at least a woman in a bulky fisherman’s sweater and jeans who dangles a microphone from one hand, sits on a folding chair on the other side of the fireplace. The fiddler works the room, snarling himself in a jig, his red hair bobbing up above the circle of people stomping along and down again, his bow leaping into the air. There’s someone up in the shadows at the top of the stairs, playing something of a rhythm line on a guitar. “Remind me never to play poker with you,” says Becker in his big plaid shirt, leaning up against the wall, as the woman in the cat’s eye glasses pulls a neat royal flush in hearts from behind his ear.
“You was the one hiding the cards, pal,” she says. “Not me.” She lifts her bangled wrist up, peering at a loosely buckled watch. “Now, if you’ll excuse me – ”
“That’s, ah,” says Becker. “My watch.”
She cranks her eyebrow up higher but smiles a little nonetheless. “You maybe want to keep an eye on it next time,” she says, reaching to take it off.
“I think you’ve maybe got the wrong idea,” says Becker.
The drummer cracks his sticks three times over his head and rattles out a sharp popping parade-ground roll, syncopating as the guitarist sends a carillon lick ringing down the stairwell. The singer smiling twirls her microphone once wrapping the cord around her wrist catching it with a pop and as the fiddle picks up the lick flawlessly she stands and launches a song about how us Amazonians know where we stand, we got kids, we got jobs, why do we need a man? The room roars and kicks into a staggeringly varied assortment of dances. Jo leans against the corner under the stairs and lifts a hand to her mouth to stifle a rather large yawn.
Jo jerks her head to one side. It’s the woman in the mushroom slip, holding two glasses just thicker than a finger and almost as long. She shakes a black curl out of her eyes as she holds up one of the glasses to Jo.
“Well?” says the woman, leaning close to be heard over the music.
“I’m, I’m sorry,” says Jo. “It’s just – you look familiar, somehow. Except I think I’d remember you. If I’d ever met you before, I mean.” She takes the little glass almost full of something pearly shimmering in the dim light, just on the cusp of transparency. Lifts it up and tips half of it down her throat. “Damn,” she says, blinking.
“Good hootch. The booze,” says Jo, in response to the woman’s quizzical look. “Liquor. Moonshine.”
“Our host brews his own.”
“Though he doesn’t use moonshine. Too common. He prefers ingredients less readily available. A maiden’s virtue, say.”
Jo grins and downs the last of her drink. The singer’s singing about boiling up rice in a satellite dish.
“What’s your name?” says Jo.
“Pay your quid, first.”
She’s smiling, the woman. “Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. What are you called.” A slim man in a blue sarong and a white shirt nods to her as he comes down the stairs, which she acknowledges with a quick smile.
“Jo,” says Jo.
“Joe,” says the woman in the mushroom slip. “Joe. A boy’s name?”
“Nah, it’s short for – ”
“Don’t,” says the woman, raising a finger as if to shush her. There’s a short man all in black behind her, talking to the man in the blue sarong.
“You don’t like it, do you.”
“Well, it’s,” Jo shrugs, “it’s kind of a dumb name.”
“So don’t tell me.”
“Okay,” says Jo. “I won’t. So.”
“I’ve paid my quid. Now it’s time for quo.”
“Ysabel,” says the woman in the mushroom slip.
“Ysabel,” says Jo.
“More often than not. He’s still watching me, isn’t he.”
Jo cranes her head a little looking over and past Ysabel’s shoulder. By the front door the fiddler sawing his way between them stands the man in the slick green track suit, running a bicycle-gloved hand over his white-furred scalp. His jagged green racing sunglasses down over his eyes like pieces of broken bottle. “What’s his story?” says Jo.
“What is he, an ex? A stalker? The father of your love-child?”
Ysabel looks down, her lips pursing around a half-swallowed smile. “He watches over me. A protector.”
“I presume,” says a short man, the man all in black, dark-haired, his beard neatly trimmed, a whisper of tamed curls just past stubble along his jawline blending flawlessly into his close-cropped sideburns, “that we are discussing the good Roland, Miss Perry?”
Ysabel turns. He smiles and ducks his head, a little. “You make me a liar, Robin,” she says.
“Never, Miss Perry,” says Robin, sipping from his tall black mug.
“Did I not just tell Jo that most people more often than not call me Ysabel? And up you step as bold as you please to prove it a lie.” She smiles as she says this, sipping from her own thin glass.
One of Robin’s shoulders lifts as his head tips down and away, his eyes looking over to crook a smile at Jo: an elaborately ambiguous shrug. “What she says is true, miss.” Looking up. He is quite short, not even as tall as Jo. “Whatever that may be.” The song clatters to a halt, the drummer rattling his toms with random rolls and fills, the guitarist wandering off quietly down a minor scale, the fiddler scraping a long droning note out of the guts of his fiddle.
“Robin is our host,” says Ysabel.
“Humble host,” says Robin, smiling.
“And this,” says Ysabel, “is Jo. Who rescued me.”
Jo nods. Then shrugs, smiling uncertainly.
“A pleasure, Jo,” says Robin. “Rescued? From what?”
“A dreadfully dull evening,” says Ysabel, frowning a little. Looking up at nothing in particular. A set of pipes has begun to drone somewhere further in the house. Coming closer. The fiddle scrapes into a new note and begins to wrap a slow pulsing melody around the unseen pipes. “Is this..?” says Ysabel.
The corners of Robin’s mouth turn down, arching his little mustache up and out. “I merely asked them to play. I didn’t tell them what.”
The piper, pale, her clotted yellow-white curls swept back from her face, steps a measured march into the front room to the squeezing of her little pipes. The crowd – varied, lycra and fleece, glittered cheeks, khakis and sweaters, army pants and a black sports bra, a floppy mohawk, a tuxedo, a glittering minidress, a bared chest under swirls of bodypaint, pegged jeans and garish T-shirts, Roland’s green and silver tracksuit as he makes his way across the room, sliding through them all standing quietly now, watching, waiting. The singer smiling as the piper slowly picks up the fiddle’s melody over her drone. The drummer wiping sweat out of his face, swigging something from a red plastic cup.
“It is,” says Ysabel, grabbing Jo’s hand. “Come on.”
“What?” says Jo.
“Lady,” says Roland, there beside them, reaching out to almost but not quite take Ysabel’s arm. “It is perhaps time we got you home.”
“Not yet,” says Ysabel, turning her back to him, her hands on Jo’s upper arms. Her eyes closing. “Listen,” she says.
There’s been a shift in the song, gears changed. The guitar ambling forward now in a rickety rhythm line as the melody takes a breath and repeats itself, strong, assured. The drummer waiting, sticks still. Nodding to someone, hey. The singer looks out over the little crowd there in Robin’s front room and lifts her microphone to her lips and says, half-singing, “Along the shore the cloud waves break, the twin suns sink beneath the lake, the shadows lengthen – in Carcosa…”
Jo frowns. “It’s not hooked up.”
Ysabel, her head tipped back, hair hanging heavy as she sways left foot to right and back, her hands still on Jo’s arms, smiles. “What?”
“The microphone,” says Jo.
“Strange is the night where black stars rise and strange moons circle through the skies – but stranger still is lost Carcosa…”
The drums pop then, once. Someone whoops. The piper’s playing two lines over the steady heartbeat of her drone, one marching a slowly quickening lockstep with the grinning fiddle, the other skirling after the guitar, each chasing the other, looking for the monstrous beats to come. The whole room tensely waiting, almost, almost.
“Songs the Hyades shall sing, where flap the tatters of the King, must die unheard in dim Carcosa…”
Jo closes her eyes. Ysabel’s hands fall away. Jo takes a deep breath.
“Song of my soul, my voice is dead – die though, unsung, as tears unshed shall dry and die in lost Carcosa…”
The fiddle and pipes are pruning, boiling the melody down as the guitar and pipes settle and under it all the drone and the threat of the drums.
“In Carcosa… lost Carcosa… dim Carcosa…”
A grizzled man pauses his bobbing head to shove his white-taped black-rimmed glasses back up his nose. Robin pinches off a blissful little smile and downs the last of whatever’s in his mug. A dark girl in patched overalls throws wide her arms her hands swallowed by bulky workgloves. Becker catches his breath and looks eyes shining at the singer as the woman in cat’s eye glasses eases a hand into the hip pocket of his jeans. The dervish melody has spun itself tighter and tighter until it’s almost nothing more than two notes pulsing on-off one-oh in-out da-da as the singer wails. The drummer lifts his sticks and hangs there, waiting.
“In Carcosa… lost Carcosa… dim Carcosa…”
Jo opens her eyes.
That first brontolithic beat unleashes something monstrous. The room whirls snaps leaps kicks stomps into motion, heaving as one with the avalanching rhythm. Jo is in the thick of it now arms high above her head yelling, yelling, Ysabel beside her, head down, hair flying, all of it so loud the music is almost lost, the band redundant all of them, madly now chasing some driving jig just barely out of reach. The fiddler’s spinning widdershins in a circle of tossing people dancing about him, the piper’s on her knees, cheeks blimped, pipes jerking; the guitarist still cannot be seen up in the shadows on the stairs but can most definitely be heard. The singer’s head’s thrown back, microphone lifted high above her, howling the wordless melody up into it, a drawn-out hopeless nameless vowel, and the drummer’s making up for lost time. But Ysabel is gone.
Jo puts out her hand, stumbling, shoved to one side by the grey-haired woman in the Frankie Say T-shirt. Turns against the dancing crowd, bumbling against the lumbering boy with the wispy beard and the black leather trench coat. Ysabel’s there at the foot of the stairs yelling something at Roland whose bicycle-gloved hand is clamped around her upper arm. Jo looks away rolling her eyes and is knocked two staggering steps towards them by the whipcracking arms of the man in the glittering vest. The band suddenly and out of nowhere hits a spattering of notes as one, a clarion, a fanfare, and falls back as suddenly into its churning driving almost-chaos. “Carcosa…” moans the singer, and Jo pushes her way between a woman in a white fur coat and a man whose long brown arms are fishnetted in hot pink. Roland pulls Ysabel after him towards the door. He’s saying something about her mother.
“Do not mention my mother again this night,” snaps Ysabel. “As a favor. To me.”
“Hey,” says Jo. Planting her feet.
Roland purses his lips and looks away from them both. Lets go Ysabel’s arm and she steps back once toward the stairs as he lifts his hand to touch the bridge of his nose lightly, closing his eyes. He peels the green sunglasses from his face and his eyes are mild as he turns them again to Ysabel. “Lady,” he says. “Enough. You have made your point.” He holds out his hand for her to take. “But now we must be off.”
“I’m not here to make a point,” says Ysabel, just barely to be heard over the music. She smiles sweetly. “I’m here to enjoy myself.”
“Okay?” says Jo. “So just go. Leave her – ”
“Who are you?” says Roland.
“What?” says Jo.
“Who are you, that you should care about this?” He turns to face Jo now, and his eyes are no longer mild. “That she should be a concern to you?” He throws out a hand, encompassing the dancing room. “You don’t belong here. Who are you, to interfere?”
“I don’t know,” says Jo. She shrugs. “I guess I don’t like bullies.”
“I am her guardian!” says Roland. “She is my charge. My responsibility – ”
“You have a funny way of showing it,” says Jo.
“Are you,” says Roland, quiet now under the stomping feet, the roaring band, “impugning my honor?”
Jo snorts. “Honor?”
The band driving up out of nowhere hits its spattered unison again; and again – the syncopated, punch-drunk fanfare. In the moment of silence between the last note driven home and the first whoops from the suddenly motionless dancers the rip of velcro is shockingly loud. As applause breaks out all around them Roland strips the bicycle glove from his right hand and throws it at Jo’s feet.
“Well?” he says.
“Well?” says Jo, frowning.
“What say you?”
“What say me?” says Jo.
“‘What say I,’” says Ysabel. Smiling. “Pick up the glove.”
Jo, still frowning, not taking her eyes off Roland, kneels slowly. Picks up the grubby glove.
“Name your terms,” says Roland.
“Terms,” says Jo. Standing up.
“As the challenged. What weapons? Where? When?”
“Weapons?” says Jo.
“It’s late,” says the little guy in the dark suit, ticking off a point on his fingers. “It’s trying to rain.” He leans against the front of a black car. Meticulous lines of hand-painted white letters whorl up and over the fender. “There’s, what, a half-dozen knights in there?” He begins counting off on his other hand. “The Chariot, of course. The Axe. I’m pretty sure the Mooncalfe. The Mason and the Helm. You said yourself you saw the Shield. And a dozen more in shouting distance.” He looks up, frowning. “Did I mention the rain?”
“Swords,” says the big guy in the dark suit. He stands on the hood of the car, both feet primly within concentric rings of cramped white letters.
“Yes, they have swords,” says the little guy. “That’s another problem right there.”
“They’re bringing out swords.” The big guy peers through a pair of black sunglasses at the ramshackle house on the corner across an intersection clogged with traffic waiting on a red light. The left lens of the sunglasses is covered with spidery words painted in white ink.
“So I have to ask why they’re bringing out swords to find out why they’re bringing out swords?” says the little guy. Somebody’s trunkthumping stereo kicks up a rattling bass line.
“The Chariot has gotten himself into a duel.”
“All the more reason to ske-fuckin’-daddle. It’s the Calfe again, isn’t it.” The light changes. The trunkthumper recedes down the street.
“It’s the girl.”
“The girl.” The little guy looks up, alarmed.
“The girl from the café.”
“You’re shitting me. The Bride? He’s going up against his own goddamn – ”
The big guy looks down at the little guy over the rims of lowered sunglasses.
“Oh,” says the little guy. “The girl. Right. The what, the gutterpunk. That girl.” And then, “Oh,” he says. “Oh.”
“Precisely,” says the big guy, peering at the house on the corner.
“She can’t win,” says the little guy. “There’s no way she can win.”
It starts to rain a little harder.
“Let the record show,” sighs Robin, “that your body has entered the lists to make proof of your appeal, and so your pledges by law are discharged. Will you have grease, ash, and sugar?”
“I will not,” says Roland.
Ysabel leans against Jo, one hand on her shoulder, murmuring in her ear. “Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you. It’s against the rules. He won’t let you hurt him. It’s only a game.”
“And who will stand as your second?” says Robin, looking up at the ceiling.
“I will have none here in that office,” says Roland. Robin nods perfunctorily. A brief flurry of whispers and titters sweeps the room.
“And do you swear,” says Robin, taking a deep breath, “you come no otherwise appointed, with naught but your body and the merits of your quarrel, that you have not any knife, nor any other pointed instrument, or engine small or great, no stone or herb of virtue, no charm, experiment, nor other enchantment by whose power you believe you may the easier overcome your adversary?”
“I do so swear,” says Roland. His eyes calm and mild.
“A game,” says Jo. Swallowing. “Great.”
The party crowd has raggedly ordered itself along the walls, leaving clear an aisle that crosses diagonally from the foot of the stairs where Jo and Ysabel stand to the door into the bright toothpaste-colored kitchen, held open by the piper, sitting on her heels, offering up a bottle of something-or-other to Roland. Robin’s walking down the middle of that aisle toward Jo, passing the barefoot boy in bone-white khakis holding two crossed rapiers on a fat velvet pillow. “Jo Maguire,” he’s saying, “save your honor and come in to your action which you have undertaken this day. Will you have grease, ash, and sugar?”
“She waives them,” says Ysabel. “It’s okay,” she says to Jo. “A formality.”
“And do you swear you come no otherwise appointed, naught but your body and the merits of your quarrel, not any knife nor other pointed instrument, no engine, stone, herb of virtue, no charm, experiment, or other enchantment?”
“Yes?” says Jo, as Ysabel says, “She does.”
“And who stands as your second?”
“I, uh,” says Jo.
“I will,” says Ysabel. Another flurry, of whispers and gasps, and not so brief. Ysabel shrugs. “It’s as good a way to discharge my debt as any.”
“You may choose your blade,” sighs Robin, snapping, and up comes the barefoot boy with the fat velvet pillow. Jo stares at the swords. “They are of a length,” says Robin.
“Yeah, they’re long,” mutters Jo. “And sharp.”
“It’s only a game,” says Ysabel.
“It’s insane,” says Jo.
“Don’t worry,” says Ysabel. “You’ll lose. But he won’t let you hurt him.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” says Jo.
“I told you: he can’t hurt you. It’s against the rules. It’s for honor,” says Ysabel. “Your honor, nothing more. Which you hold lightly enough.” Jo frowns, looking sidelong at Ysabel, who smiles. “Trust me,” she says, as Robin says, “Your blade, Jo Maguire?”
And Jo picks up a sword, looking down at the candlelight and Christmas-light winking and chasing the basket of steel ribbons woven around the hilt. “This is,” she says, “insane.”
“Duelers!” calls Robin from the center of the aisle, and up comes Roland in his green track suit, blue and white headphones still clamped around his neck, planting his soft and spotless white shoes one before the other, his hips edge-on, his left arm up and back, bent so his fingertips brush the air behind his head, the tip of his blade fixed to a point in the air before his eyes. “Salute!” cries Robin. Jo in her plain black T-shirt, her hacked-off khakis, her grubby longjohns, fixes her duct-taped Chuck Taylors one before the other, her left arm back and out, her sword held up before her like a stick. Roland fluidly swirls his wrist and his blade in a circle, his head dipping. Jo nods in return. “Engage!” cries Robin, throwing up his hand, and everyone begins to cheer. Roland lunges. Jo leaps back, stumbling, ducking her head, yelling “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa!” She drops her sword clattering to the floor, arms crossed over her face, crying “You win! You win!”
The cheers wither into whispers and mutters.
“Pick up your blade!” says Roland.
“No!” says Jo. “You win! I yield, I surrender, that’s it. Uncle.” There are giggles at that. A stifled guffaw. Jo peeks out from under her crossed arms. Roland still in his stance has pulled his sword back to fix the tip at that point in the air before his eyes. “Congratulations, big fella,” says Jo. “Way to go.”
“You insulted me,” says Roland, pulling up out of his stance, his arms relaxing, his blade dipping.
“And now I’m leaving,” says Jo. “Deal.” She turns her back. Becker and Guthrie and Ysabel stand waiting at the foot of the stairs. “Where’s my coat?” There’s a collective gasp as she catches herself mid-step. Arms up and out suddenly, grasping at nothing. Frowning, she looks down. The tip of Roland’s blade has ripped a hole in her black T-shirt. A good two inches pokes out of her chest, a little to the left of center. “I,” says Jo.
With a twist and a jerk Roland pulls the blade back out of her body.
Jo turns unsteadily to look back at him. One knee threatens to give but she does not fall. “I,” she says. “Jo?” says Becker. She puts out a hand for something, anything, for balance. It isn’t there.
“Ow,” says Jo. She falls.
The outer office is dark except for the spark of a halogen desk lamp. The woman behind the desk wears a shapeless linen dress and narrow spectacles on a fine chain draped around her neck. She looks up from a yellow legal pad when the big guy in the dark suit opens the outer door. “Mr. Charlock and Mr. Keightlinger,” says the little guy in the dark suit. “To see Mr. Leir.”
“He’s expecting you,” she says.
The inner office is dark except for a white-shaded banker’s lamp shining on a leather-topped desk. On the desk a silver pen and an ivory-handled knife with a wide blade of tarnished bronze. The man looking out the window at the street below has thick, unruly white hair, and wears a white shirt and a white tie. A cigarette is pinched unnoticed between the thumb and forefinger of his pale right hand. The window is open. Up from under the drip of the rain comes the washing susurrus of a street-sweeper.
“Well?” says Mr. Leir. His face is quite young under that white hair.
“Well,” says Mr. Charlock, “the Chariot went and got himself into a duel. With a girl. A mortal girl. Which, well. He lost.”
“Lost,” says Mr. Leir.
“Struck her from behind. Yeah. He lost.”
“There is now,” says Mr. Keightlinger, idly twirling a lock of his beard, “a Gallowglas.”
Mr. Leir looks over his shoulder at them. Frowns. Looks down to discover the cigarette in his hand, which he lifts. Takes a drag, blowing smoke out the window into the rain.
“Well,” he says.
“You,” calls the old woman over her shoulder, her eyes on her fingers running along a brightly lit shelf of orange plastic prescription bottles, “have done a wicked thing.” Finding the one she wants she plucks it down. Wrestling the top off she taps two pills into a mortar. “Sit up straight. You’re indecent.”
Ysabel does not sit up straight. Out in the darker bedroom she’s curled up sideways in a wing-backed chair by the fireplace, her head leaning back against one wing, her legs folded up and tucked against the arm opposite. “You should concentrate on waking her up.” Still in her mushroom-colored slip rucked carelessly up revealing the dark bands at the tops of her pearly stockings. “Assuming you can, of course.”
“Oh, I can,” says the old woman, huffing into the bedroom from the bright white bathroom, holding the marble mortar and pestle in both hands. She wears a heavy pink robe with a tangled garden of tea-roses embroidered on the thick shawl collar. Glossy white hair hangs loose before and behind her shoulders. “She’s just shocky, is all. You’d be yourself, if you was her.”
On the bed pillowed in a deep down comforter lies Jo Maguire, naked, asleep. An old scab mars one knee. The nail of her left big toe is a dead grey ridge. A tattoo down the swell of belly from navel to the edge of dark curled hair, an angular thing, abstract, a suggestion of beak and eyes. Her right arm folded, hand on her chest, fingertips touching a dull red welt just to the left of her breastbone. The old woman sits on the bed beside her brushing a lock of black-dyed hair from Jo’s forehead. “I don’t know why you picked this one,” she says. On the nightstand by the bed is a glass of water. The old woman pours powder from the mortar into the water, which turns several colors too quick to be named. “She’s in your mother’s world, not yours. Or mine.”
“I didn’t pick her,” says Ysabel. Fussing with the lace that hems her slip. “I didn’t do any of this. It all just – ”
“It just happened?” says the old woman.
One of Ysabel’s narrow black shoes dangles half off a twitching foot. The other is on the floor before the wing-backed chair. “Yes,” says Ysabel.
The old woman dips her fingers into the glass of water and then flicks them at Jo’s face. Jo sits up suddenly gulping, the hand at her chest now a fist against that welt. The old woman sets the glass of water on the nightstand and picks up a small jar, a baby food jar with the label half-picked away. Jo doubled over heels kicking left hand clutching the deep soft comforter sucks down a ragged breath and another, her right fist grinding into the welt. There is another welt, larger, more diffuse, as red, on her back. The old woman sniffs the baby food jar and nods, then scoops out a two-fingered dollop viscous and translucent which she plops on the welt on Jo’s back. Jo jerks upright crying out, arms flailing, eyes wild. The old woman shushing her clamps one hand on her shoulder holding her still as she smears the rest of the stuff on the welt on Jo’s breast. Jo screams. Shushing her all the while the old woman holds Jo’s shoulders as Jo kicking tosses her head back hands digging into the comforter firmly in the old woman’s grip. And then with a hitch Jo stops. Opens her eyes. Takes a deep sobbing breath. Sinks forward, curling around herself.
“Fucking hell,” she croaks.
“There there,” says the old woman. “You don’t go through that every day.”
Jo coughs and shivering pulls up one end of the comforter she’s sitting on to wrap herself in. “My clothes,” she says. Coughs again. “Where are my clothes?”
“Burned them, dearie,” says the old woman. “Filthy things. You couldn’t possibly appear before the court in those.”
“There were holes in your shirt,” says Ysabel, who does not look up from the lace in her lap.
“You,” says Jo, seeing Ysabel sitting sideways in the wing-backed chair. “You. You lied. You said he couldn’t hurt me. You said. He – ” Jo frowns. “Stabbed me?”
Ysabel’s looking up and glaring at Jo as “There, there,” says the old woman. “I spoke the truth,” says Ysabel. “Roland made me a liar.” She looks back down at the lace in her lap. “There is,” she says, “a difference. I don’t see what you’re so upset about.”
“You don’t,” says Jo. Huddled under the awkwardly rucked-up comforter. “You don’t see.” Eyes closed. Deep breath. “I was stabbed. You. I have no idea where I am. Where am I?” she says, as the old woman says “There, there.” Jo shakes her head. “What time is it? What do I – need to – I was stabbed. He – ” Another deep breath, and something that’s half a chuckle. “Do you,” says Jo, and swallows, “have any idea how hard it is to find a decent plain black T-shirt for less than ten bucks?”
“You won,” says Ysabel.
“You won,” says Ysabel. “You bested him.”
“It’s true,” says the old woman, peeling back the comforter to peer at Jo’s back. “Struck you from behind – a grievous breach of honor and decorum. To say nothing of your skin.” The welt is gone.
“I won,” says Jo.
“You proved yourself against his honor,” says Ysabel, “and all his offices are forfeit for his blow. Including,” and she looks up to meet Jo’s eyes, “me.”
“Rather, my keeping,” says Ysabel. “He was my guardian. Now you are. I was his charge, his responsibility;” she shrugs. “Now I’m yours.”
Jo closes her eyes, and when she speaks her voice is quiet and steady. “I want my clothes. Any clothes. I want a cigarette. I want some coffee. I want – I want to go home. If you,” and she looks up at Ysabel, her voice rising, “think I am going to go along with this, with this – game – for even one minute, I – I – ”
“Well,” says the old woman, pushing herself with some effort to her feet. “That’s a relief, and I don’t mind saying so.”
“I – ” says Jo, frowning. “You. A relief?”
“Dearie,” says the old woman, leaning against Jo’s shoulder, “we were rather worried you’d accept.”
“An utter disaster,” says the woman with the pince-nez perched at the tip of her nose. She purses her lips. “We may well be forced to raze it to the very ground and start from scratch.” She adjusts her pince-nez with knob-knuckled fingers taloned by sharp black-painted nails. “Perhaps,” she says, “some sort of wig?”
“You are not,” says Jo, “touching my hair.” She’s standing on a faded burgundy footstool wearing a short white chemise, lifting her arms so the old woman in her heavy pink robe can wrap a tape measure about her chest. Ysabel smiles, sitting on her bed in a short white robe, her hair heavily damp, one bare leg crossed over the other.
“Your first address to the Queen should be as ‘Your Majesty,’ which thereafter ought be scaled back to ‘Ma’am.’” The tall man’s narrowly somber face is lit by extravagant gin blossoms appling two-thirds of his nose and his sunken cheeks. His chin is restless behind the high white gateposts of his upturned shirt-collar. “Never avail yourself of that horrid redundancy, ‘Your Royal Majesty’; it smacks of arse-kissery.”
“I’m stumped,” says the old woman, folding the measuring tape into her fist.
“As am I,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“She may well refer to herself via the accepted fiction of the royal ‘we,’ or may just as well stoop to the first-person singular; our Queen is rather charmingly erratic on this point of protocol. She has as yet shown no proclivities toward the third person, for which I suppose we ought give thanks.”
“There is the dress the Princess wore to her cotillion. We could take in the bosom – ”
“Too much crinoline,” tuts the woman with the pince-nez.
“You, however,” says the tall man, “must keep in mind you address not merely a person but the people she rules. When addressing our Queen directly, restrict yourself to the second-person plural: ‘you’ and ‘your’ as decidedly opposed to ‘thou’ and ‘thine.’ I do not,” and his face cracks then into a small wry smile, “anticipate this point, at least, proving difficult for you.”
“Whatever,” says Jo. “Look, I’m not about to turn down a free outfit. But maybe you could keep it simple. You know? Jeans? A pair of pants, a nice shirt?”
“Out of the question,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“Couldn’t possibly, dear,” says the old woman.
“Not before the Queen,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“Actually,” says the tall man, “it’s not entirely without precedent, but I should advise – ”
“The new girl, the amanuensis,” says the old woman, snapping her fingers. “She ought to have a skirt and jacket that – ”
“I think,” says Ysabel, “you’ll find what she’s asking for in my brother’s trunk.”
A moment of silence follows, broken by a quiet “Your brother?” from the woman with the pince-nez.
“Also,” says Ysabel, “a pair of boots.”
The woman in the pince-nez turns abruptly then and mouth moued stalks out the door, followed after another silent moment by the old woman, bustling in her heavy pink robe.
“Thanks,” says Jo.
“Cigarette?” says Ysabel.
“Dear God yes,” says Jo, stepping down off the hassock.
“If I might be permitted to pick up the thread of my instruction from the moment I was forced to leave off?” says the tall man with the narrow face. “When the presence begins, Miss Maguire, you will wait in the back of the room until you specifically are called before our Queen.” Ysabel opens a rattling drawer in a cluttered dresser on spindly legs and roots around, pulling out a small wooden box. “Allow her to direct the conversation where she will; she may well wish to make small talk.” The tall man allows himself another narrow smile. “It is not without precedent.” Ysabel opens the box and plucks out a slim brown cigarette, which she tosses to Jo. “Answer whatever questions she might have with candor, discretion, and wit, and you shall do fine.”
“Clove?” says Jo, sniffing the cigarette.
“We are not entirely unpredictable,” says Ysabel. “Majordomo, if you don’t mind?”
“Actually,” says Jo, “a light?”
The tall man turns his back on them, facing the bay window looking out on a small green yard, a lightening street. Ostentatiously adjusting his black frock coat. “A light?” says Ysabel. “Of course.” She unbelts her robe and lets it fall, then fishes a matchbook out of the wooden box and pads across the room toward Jo. Clear crystal catches the dim light and flashes from the gold pin piercing her navel. The match pops into flame. “Where was I?” the Majordomo is saying. “Yes. She will broach the subject at hand in, ah, whichever way she chooses.” Ysabel smiles as Jo leans forward to touch the cigarette to the match. The cloves crackle as they light. “Said subject, the matter upon which all this hullabaloo hangs, being the question of whether or not you accept the keeping of the Princess.” Ysabel blows out the match and lets it drop, walking back across the room to the dresser as Jo takes a deep crackling drag. “That answer, of course, will be, ‘No.’” Ysabel opens another drawer and pulls something filmy out of it, a handful of lingerie. A teddy. She lifts it over her head and shimmies into it. Tugs it into place. “The Queen will then exile you, and that will be that.” Turns, arching one leg tiptoed bending a little awkwardly to snap the crotch.
Jo, blowing smoke, frowns. “Exile?” she says.
“Of course,” says the Majordomo. “Refusing the office must be taken as an insult. But: the Chariot will be returned to his rightful place. The Princess will once more be held by someone who can keep her. And you will be free to go wherever else you may wish: that, as I said, will be that.”
“Okay,” says Jo.
In the long narrow office with indecisive cream walls and skinny green carrels each with a computer screen and a telephone and most with a waiting or chattering or yawning dialer, Becker sits behind the big desk up at the front, a cup of coffee in one hand, a telephone handset wedged between ear and shoulder. “What I’m seeing,” he says, “is a room where Rob’s here, and TJ, and Dorfman and Denice and Christian’s here. Guthrie’s here. Hell, I’m here. What I’m not seeing, Jo, is you. You aren’t here. Why is that?”
On the edge of Ysabel’s massive dark bed on the deep white comforter sits Jo, wearing a pair of tight black trousers and black knee-high motorcycle boots and an open white shirt with billowy sleeves and a wide flat collar. “Um,” she says, into the gold and ivory handset of a princess phone on a silver tray held by a boy half-swallowed in an off-white tabard edged with gold braid.
“Um?” says Becker.
“Yeah, see, there was this thing. You remember the party? Last night?”
“And the fight?”
“You got into a fight.”
“Yeah. With the guy? In the green suit? You tried to, ah, anyway. I have to sort some stuff out, this morning, which is why I’m running a bit late, and, um. What time is it, anyway?”
“Oh. It’s later than I thought. Um.” Jo frowns. “Can I, just – how did you get this number?”
“From the schedule.”
Jo blinks. “The schedule.”
“Yeah, Jo. We tend to keep all our employees’ phone numbers on the schedule. So we can call them, if they don’t show up for shifts.”
“Oh,” says Jo.
“Are there, are there cops involved? Do you have to see the cops about this fight?”
“What? No. The guy. You remember the guy? Who wouldn’t leave that girl alone? And there was a, um. There were swords?”
Becker rolls his eyes. “Jo, just. Stop. I don’t appreciate being screwed around with like this.”
“I’m not trying,” says Jo.
“If you can’t make it in here by noon, then don’t bother to come in at all today. Okay?”
“Becker, listen to me, I’m not – ” Jo sighs, then reaches up to drop the handset back onto its gilded cradle.
“But five minutes remain until the presence, Princess, Miss Maguire,” says the Majordomo.
“Yeah,” says Jo, “thanks. Could you guys just, ah, leave me alone? For a minute? I mean, not Ysabel, obviously, it’s her room, but – ”
The Majordomo is holding the door open for the woman with the pince-nez, who sweeps out, full burgundy skirts clutched in one black-taloned hand, followed by the pudgy page with the phone on the silver platter. “I will send someone to fetch you both,” says the Majordomo, closing the door behind him.
“Well?” says Ysabel, sliding a dark red chopstick into the base of her ponytail.
“What the fuck is going on?” says Jo, tugging her blousy white shirt closed. “Becker doesn’t remember the duel. At all.”
Ysabel adjusts her tight black blouse, checks the fall of her somber grey skirt in the three-way mirror.
“Well?” says Jo. “He calls my number and reaches me here.” Running a hand through her short, short hair, ruffling the random dark locks. “Are you forwarding my calls or something? And it was daybreak, what, an hour ago? Tops? And now it’s almost noon?” Tugging the shirt again. “What is all this? Who are you people? And how the fuck do I keep this shirt on?”
“The ribbons,” says Ysabel.
“At the bottom. Wrap them around your waist and tie them off.”
“Oh,” says Jo. She reaches for the long ribbons trailing from the shirt’s tails and ties them into a floppy bow over her left hip.
“How’s that?” says Ysabel.
“I feel like a pirate.” Jo looks down. Reaches up to touch the skin between the folds of the blousy shirt still hanging open. “A T-shirt would be nice.” There just to the left of her breastbone. “Or a button, up here. Maybe a bra?”
“I’ve got it,” says Ysabel, stepping into the closet. Coming out with a black vest, the front of it heavy with dense gold embroidery. “Put this on and button it up. You look fine.”
Jo slips into the vest. “Your mother’s a queen,” she says. “And you’re a princess.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel, adjusting the Jo’s collar as Jo begins buttoning the vest.
“The city,” says Ysabel. “Well. This much of it, anyway.”
Jo looks up into Ysabel’s eyes. “So what is this? Some kind of family thing, some kind of old-country thing, like the Mafia? Or gypsies?”
Ysabel steps back. Folds her arms. “‘Who are you people?’” she says with a faintly mocking lilt. “‘What the fuck is going on? What is all this?’”
“Pretty much,” says Jo.
“It’s none of your concern, Jo Maguire.” Ysabel reaches out tuck a wayward black-dyed lock of Jo’s hair behind one ear. Smiling she says, “Just go out there and say no and that will be that. Over and done. As if it had never been.”
“Yeah,” says Jo.
The music wherever it’s coming from shimmers like falling water. Cascades of quiet fluting bells ring changes on a simple theme that’s lost in all its mirroring roundelays. Jo stands to one side of the big back room, eyes closed, listening. Down two shallow steps on a soft white leather jetty of sectional sofa sits a wiry woman all in black with long black hair in glossy, artful tangles. A small black pillbox of a hat cocked at a jaunty angle. The Majordomo leans with some dignity over the back of the sofa to murmur in her ear as a big man straining the shoulders of a shiny blue suit waits patiently. By French doors opening on a small shaded garden stands Ysabel picking at the gauzy curtains. “You,” says Roland, quietly, “are a disgrace.”
Jo opens her eyes. Roland stands beside her, arms folded, his eyes on the Queen all in black. He wears a white shirt and a yellow tie and blue jeans and he looks down at Jo’s gold vest, her blousy white shirt, looks up to meet her eyes. “In those colors,” he says. “Do you know what it takes to wear those colors?” Jo says nothing. “To do what I do? To be what I am?” He does not raise his voice. “You must with shield and rod save yourself from nine spears cast at you all at once. Could you do that? You must shake off the hunt in a forest and come from among the branches unwounded, without a loosened strand of braided hair, and you must while running leap over a branch the height of yourself and stoop under one the height of your knee. You must be able to tune a poem by the rhymes and rhythms that make the worth of it.” His smile is thin. “Can you do any of that?” he asks. “Mortal?”
“Comes now before you,” says the Majordomo then, “Jo Maguire; and your knight, Sir Roland, the Chariot,” and Jo pushes off the wall ahead of Roland, past the big man in his shiny blue suit, his face beaming, on his way up and out, down the shallow steps and around the white sofa to stand before the Queen. Jo frowns, looks over her shoulder to see Ysabel there by the French doors, her hands now clasped behind her back. “Miss Maguire?” says the Queen.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Your Majesty. I just – ”
“The resemblance is remarkable,” says the Queen, her head tilted just so towards the Majordomo’s murmur. “Still. She is my daughter. What else would one expect? Thank you,” she says to the straightening Majordomo. “I trust our Gammer Gerton has you fully recovered?”
“Ah,” says Jo, “yes. Ma’am. Unless there’s some side effect to that goop she used.” Jo reaches up, touches the top button of her vest. Pinches it. Lowers her hand.
“Roland,” says the Queen.
“Your majesty,” says Roland, “I was intemperate – ”
“You were a fool. Were it not for the prowess of your sword, we might grow tired of cleaning up your awkward messes.”
“Ma’am,” says Roland.
“Nonetheless, here we all are, and I have a lunch to attend. Miss Maguire. Through no fault of your own, you find yourself with the charge and office of our daughter’s safety. This is yours to accept or reject.” Wherever it is, the music trickles slowly to a halt, like a wound-down music box. “What say you?”
And Jo says, “Yes.”
The Queen looks up to the Majordomo, whose Adam’s apple bobs in a swallow behind the upturned gateposts of his collar. “You accept,” she says, to Jo.
Jo looks at Roland, who stands unmoving, eyes closed. Ysabel behind her has covered her mouth with her hand. Jo takes a deep breath and looks the Queen directly in her dark, dark eyes. “I accept,” says Jo.
The Queen sighs a short sharp sigh. “Very well.” Roland shakes his head. Behind her upraised hand, Ysabel is smiling.
“What were you thinking?”
Ysabel stands on the sidewalk arms akimboed, angry eyes half-hidden by narrow black sunglasses worn against fitful, threatened afternoon sunlight. Jo still in those black boots, that floppy white shirt, the black-and-gold vest, comes down the steps from the porch of the old green house. “I don’t know,” she says, shifting a big black bag hung from one shoulder. “That you couldn’t possibly fit all those shoes in this bag?”
“This is entirely your fault, Jo Maguire.”
“I had no idea she would kick you out,” says Jo, dropping the heavy bag at Ysabel’s feet.
“Us out,” says Ysabel. “Us. You now have the keeping of me. You can’t very well do that from halfway across town. And you can’t stay here.” She folds her arms, looking down the street. Mouth pinched. “So I go where you go,” she says.
“Lucky me,” snaps Jo.
“We told you how to get out of this, Jo.” Ysabel turns to look at Jo over lowered sunglasses. “You don’t belong here. We showed you the path out.” She pushes the sunglasses back into place. “And you refused to take it. What were you thinking?”
“Maybe that I didn’t want it all to go away,” says Jo. “As if it never was.”
“Lucky,” says Ysabel, “me.”
Jo jerks the heavy black bag up off the sidewalk and slings it from her shoulder. “It’s going to rain,” she says. She starts marching toward the corner. After a moment Ysabel starts after her. “Where are you going?” she says. “Jo?”
“Huh,” says Jo, at the corner. Across the intersection is Robin’s ramshackle house.
“Where are you going?” says Ysabel, catching up with her. The afternoon sunlight is changing, drowning in fits and starts. The trees down Everett Street begin to shiver their leaves.
“You go where I go, right? Well, I’m going to get you a hotel room. Get you situated, and we can maybe start trying to figure out a way to make this right.”
“A hotel room,” says Ysabel. “That’s generous of you. With your ten-dollar T-shirts and your bummed cigarettes.”
There’s a break in the traffic. Jo doesn’t start walking. “You,” she says, “have money. Right? She said. Hopefully.”
Ysabel says nothing.
“Shit,” says Jo. Then, “Your mother. She’s got to come up with something for you – ”
“Do you want to go back in there and ask her for it?”
The light one block up changes, and a wave of traffic starts down the street towards them. The first fat drops of rain are starting to fall.
“Her temper will pass,” says Ysabel, looking back toward the old green house. “They’ll come up with something. Have Roland challenge you, perhaps. And this time, you’ll make sure you lose. Pass the office back to him.”
“Great,” says Jo. “Until then, you can sleep on my futon.”
“What,” says Ysabel, “I don’t get the bed?”
Jo starts laughing.