Slouching through the door, grey yoga pants and a hoodie under a ruddy down vest zipped up, hood up, head down. Black gym bag in the one hand and the other a quick wave for the man behind the bar, spiky black hair and a faceful of stubble, skinny arm up to wave back. Drums clatter a sashay under a popping fanfare, that’s when you know you’re close, a woman’s voice, sometimes you gotta work hard for it. Past the bar, the mostly empty tables, the tiny empty stage, brushing the column of chain at the corner of it, a gentle ring that’s swallowed by the blaring horns. A nondescript door in the shadows there, a narrow hall, dark, beyond, at the one end a door half-open on white light, papers piled atop an old grey cabinet, but down the other end a small room painted black so many times the regular lines, the dimples and pocks of the cinderblock walls are softened, blurred, shining in the light of lamps ablaze about a row of mirrors. Squeezing in, behind a woman blending red and blue in a sloppy arc over an eyelid, behind a woman adjusting a bit of white lace, down to a short red velvet chaise against the far wall. Gym bag up on the chaise, unzipped, thrown open, digging through lace and satin, feathery gauze and fringe and stiff black rubber to pull out a plastic sandwich bag, heavy with golden dust, dropped on the counter with the tubes and the bottles and jars.
“Dead out there,” says the woman mascaraing her lashes.
“Thursday morning,” says the woman gathering up her thick blond hair.
Lotion white on a rough palm sprinkled with gold. “I can take the first dance.”
“You’re early,” says the woman checking her ponytail in the mirror, arms and thigh, flank and chest all looped and filigreed with tattoos, the largest a black-letter motto arcing her belly that says Der Bauch lügt nicht!
“Weren’t you on to close tonight?” says the woman brushing her lips a thickly red.
Lotion on fingertips slender, sleek, lifted up under that hood, a sigh. “It’s Thursday.” The hood, pushed back. Black hair cut short, swept up in front, those fingers teasing a tidy stack of curls.
“You cut your hair!” says the woman tugging on a long white boot. “When did you cut your hair?”
“Weeks ago,” says the woman looking over her painted face from this angle, that. “Where have you been.”
“Right there,” she says, “right there right there, right yes there,” on hands and knees her yellow hair severely straight “fuck yes” whipped up and back, “fucking fuck yes there don’t stop don’t stop oh God don’t,” flopping to slap the bunched white comforter, hips humped back against Ysabel kneeling behind her, Ysabel leaning over her, one of Ysabel’s hands on the small of her back, “don’t stop don’t stop,” the other reached under to circle, twist, jiggle and slap, “fuck” a groan and belly heaving toes clenching head reared up and howling out she trembles shivering slumping into Ysabel’s arms about her.
Morning softly grey in the window, clouds closed high above the greening trees, the rooftops black and grey and dark wet red. “God,” a breath of a word, and a laugh, “I love,” she says, and as Ysabel breaks off a kiss to her throat, “Chrissie!” sitting up, alarmed, but yellow hair spread out on the pillows she’s giggling, “this,” she’s saying, “this, I love this, for fuck’s sake.” Reaching up a hand. Ysabel looking away. “You’re so easy to tease.”
“You shouldn’t play games with this,” mutters Ysabel.
“All right,” says Chrissie, sitting up beside her for a kiss, “then,” and another, rolling, licking, “how about,” as Ysabel slowly lays herself down, “this?” her hand at Ysabel’s opening thighs. Breaking off suddenly sitting back, hands on her own knees, “I thought you had to ask,” she says. “I thought you had to ask, before I could answer.” Head at an impish cant. “Do you want to ask? Is that it?”
“What I want,” says Ysabel, and a sigh. “Chrissie,” she says, but then a yelp as Chrissie falls on her, kissing, kissing, “I’m here,” says Chrissie, “right here,” lips at Ysabel’s throat, her chest, the slope of a breast and as Ysabel hisses a nipple, “Chrissie,” she says, “wait, please, it’s not,” her hands on shoulders, a cheek, and “Please nothing,” says Chrissie.
“I have to,” says Ysabel, “oh.”
“You have to oh,” says Chrissie.
“It’s late,” says Ysabel, a grimace, “I must get up, go shower, oh,” and a swallow.
“So like this,” says Chrissie, leaning over. Ysabel slaps at her arm, pushing, “I really must,” she says.
“Go ahead,” says Chrissie, lying back. “I won’t stop you. I’ll just,” stretching up, fingers linked, languorous above her head, “wait here. I’ll keep the oven warm. Till you come back.”
“Chrissie,” says Ysabel.
“All day, if I must.”
“All Thursday,” says Ysabel.
“Oh,” says Chrissie. “Then. I’d better make it quick?” Pouncing on Ysabel’s belly again, Ysabel gasping, laughing, and then “oh” the breath gone fluttery in her mouth, and her hand wrapped about in that yellow hair.
The little jar in her hand, the label of it worn, Villainess Soaps it says, in smudged black type, Jai Mahal White Sugar Body Scrub. Tipping it, peering into it, a faint white curl about the bottom, and otherwise empty. Setting it on the long counter marbled red and black and pocked with sinks at regular intervals under the long mirror empty but for herself, there, and down at the other end a woman wrapped in a blue towel, brushing her dishwater hair.
By the jar, the lid, the inside of it scummed over with a white paste. She pokes it, softly pliable, with a finger, then scoops up carefully precisely half of what is there to stroke one cheek, the other, feathery faded white under her eyes. Rubbing those streaks into her skin with both hands, hesitant at first, swiping up across her forehead, down her chin, her throat. Pale hair swept back, limply damp on her shoulders. Beige bra fuzzed with soft sprung thread. “Nice ink,” says the woman in the blue towel, passing behind her, eyeing the small of her back. She answers with a nod, a brisk tight smile.
Sitting on a bench before a row of lockers, the bottom one before her open, stuffed full, a swollen brown gym bag stood up on one end, a puffy pink and orange parka crammed in beside it. She’s doing up the buttons of a plain white blouse. “He’s crazy,” someone’s saying, “fucked in the head.” Next bench down, an older woman, grey sweats, phone in one hand, towel in the other, wiping her face. “The deposition’s today. He knows it’s today. It can’t be done today,” turning her broad-shouldered back, “there are laws of physics.” Four buttons left on the blouse, then three, she pauses, ducks her head, quick sniff at her armpit. A sigh. Two buttons, left undone.
Hustling across the street in that pink and orange parka, leaning the weight of the gym bag slung from her shoulder. The building behind all sharp brick corners and windows relentless, filled with idle exercise machines. Tucked away over a side door a sign that says 24-Hour Fitness, lit up in reds and blues turned richly weird by the morning gloom. A wheezing bus gathers itself, nose swung wide in a left turn beside her, she skip-hops onto the sidewalk, past the bright island of a gas station. Behind the little convenience store store a narrow parking lot, angled stalls to either side between blank white wall and a length of cyclone fence woven through with pale plastic strips. Halfway down she tries the handle of a boxy blue car only to find it locked. Tipping her head back, a sigh, letting the bag drop to the pavement, she knocks, a gentle tap. Then a pound, banging the side of her fist against the glass, “Luke, goddammit, Luke,” she says, and inside something moves, a chunk, the lock releasing.
She stuffs the gym bag into a backseat jammed with boxes, bags, a hardshell suitcase, loose books and papers shifting, “Shit,” she says. On the driver’s seat a grease-stained paper sack, yellow and red, Go-Go Taquitos, it says. She crumples it, tosses it into the back seat. “What,” says the man slumped in the passenger seat. “I was hungry.”
“Breakfast now means no dinner later,” she says, climbing in behind the wheel.
“You’re getting paid,” he says. A beard, a mustache thick about his mouth, and dark hair dribbled lankly about the shoulders of his warm-up jacket, blue and grey, unzipped over a T-shirt printed with some faded engineering drawing, a feathered wing, its armature. “Friday,” she says to him, holding out a hand. “I get paid Friday. Tomorrow.”
He looks away, frowning, digging around in his pockets. “Tell me,” he says, pressing a key into her palm. “Tell me again.”
“No,” she says, slotting the key in the ignition.
“Jessie,” he says, “dammit, just, tell me something. Tell me something about her. Tell me her name. Say her name. Just, say her name.”
She closes her eyes. He’s gripping the armrest between them, his breath a hasty bellows. “Annabelle,” says Jessie.
“There,” he says, relaxing, “that’s pretty,” as she twists the key, as the engine roars to life.
“Gotta Work,” written by Amerie Mi Marie, Rich Shelton, Loren Hill, Kevin Veney, Isaac Hayes, and David Porter, copyright holder unknown.
Monte Carlo, says the sign, Pizza, Steaks, the lettering scratched and fading from the filthy windows of the corner storefront. Down the block the other storefront’s boarded over with graffiti’d plywood, a rust-raddled chain knotted about the handles of its big double door, under the skeletal frame of a grand awning that once sheltered the sidewalk. Between the two storefronts a demure door painted a brown that melts into the brickwork, and small black squares of tin nailed above it, each printed with a brassy numeral, 1018. It’s opening, a man’s stepping out, blue and white track suit, running shoes, locking the door, looking up in time to see the woman headed past the Monte Carlo window, around the corner, brown coat, pale bloom of hair.
Quickly after her, around that corner. Letters flaking from a side window above say Live Music Every Nite. The street slopes down, and past the brick the looming blue-grey bulk of a warehouse, long windows high above that stretch between concrete pillars, square panes painted over white or caked with old dust or smashed out, jagged shadowed holes, and the wall beneath illegible with graffiti. A fence has been slapped up against the wall, tipped poles canted drunkenly, an old worn sign hung from the mesh that says Wilson Properties in blocky type. She’s maybe a quarter of the way down the length of it, leaning a shoulder against the ringing, squealing fence as she pushes the mesh away from the pole, sharp cut ends of it bright clean sparks. “Hey!” he yells. “Hey! You can’t go in there!”
“I assure you,” she calls back, “it’s easy enough. I’ve but to lift my foot,” and she does, straddling the mesh, careful of the white paper bag in the one hand, the cup-carrier in the other, and three tall white paper cups. A door’s cut into the wall above her, three feet up or so, a brief shelf of threshold jutting beneath.
“You’re trespassing,” he says, coming down the sidewalk. “We don’t want any squatters – ”
“I may be outlaw,” she says, leaning over to set the bag and the cups on the threshold, “but I do no trespass.” The sheepskin collar of her coat turned about about her frothy cloud of white-gold hair.
“Yeah, well, we, can,” sputtering, standing there, looking about, the warehouse, her, the empty street. He’s taller than he seems with that stoop, his dwindling brown hair buzzed close, tipped here and there with silver. “Look,” he says. “You can’t – it’s dangerous. This building – ”
“There’s no danger,” she says, a gesture toward the paper bag, the cups. “It’s but breakfast, for those who wait within. You may join us, if you like, but we’d need to fetch more coffee – or tea, perhaps?”
“I’m not,” he says, “I don’t. I’d rather, not, call the cops.”
“Of course not,” she says. “Would you speak with the owner?” Reaching up and over she knocks on the door, the metal of it booming. “She likes chai lattes.”
“I, I don’t,” he says, stepping back. “Just, keep it quiet. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Who does,” she says, as he turns, walking away, jogging away. The door above her opens, groaning. Long black hair dangling loose, pale bare knees smudged, baggy white T-shirt scrawled with handwritten letters that say The Giggling Mountebanks. “Hey,” says Gloria Monday. “Who the hell was that?”
Marfisa shrugs. “Neighbors,” she says, hauling herself through the gap in the fence.
Wrapped in a white towel Chrissie laughing barges into the room and hurls herself on the bed as Ysabel stately swans in after, short white robe loosely draped. Rolling over and over again, Chrissie in the muted sunlight, the towel falling away from her pale bare back, laughter stilling with a sigh. “Why do you have to go see your brother,” she says.
“He’s the King,” says Ysabel, opening a drawer, rummaging through filmy, frothy stuff.
“I don’t play that game,” says Chrissie.
“When you’re with me,” says Ysabel, laying out bits of cream satin edged with brown lace, “you do.”
“But why today,” says Chrissie. “Why Thursday.” Yellow hair wetly burnished about her face.
“Merely a coincidence,” says Ysabel, undoing the belt of her robe. “The one has nothing to do with the other.”
“God, you’re lovely,” says Chrissie.
“Don’t,” says Ysabel, laying the robe over the foot of the bed.
“It’s a woman, isn’t it,” says Chrissie, chin in her hand.
“Thursday. It’s a woman,” says Chrissie, as Ysabel bends over to step into her underpants. “And you go to see her, once a week, every week. I bet you let her say the ell-word.”
“This isn’t funny, you know,” says Ysabel, opening the doors of an armoire.
“I’m not the funny one.”
“But you are in a mood.” Ysabel lays out a sweater the color of wheat, or oats.
“Triste est omne animal post coitum,” says Chrissie, tipping over, on her back, “but not with you. Never with you. With you I feel,” knees up, arms up, stretching for the ceiling. “Carbonated? Effervescent.”
“Every animal,” says Ysabel, laying out a lacy white skirt, “but the cock, and woman.”
“Well.” Chrissie tips her head back, chin up, looking at Ysabel upside-down. “If you’re going to spoil the mood with context.”
Ysabel sits on the bed beside her. “You’re chattering,” she says. Slipping the lace-edged straps of the bra up her arms. “What is it you’re not talking about. Is it Davies? Is he pushing you?”
“That,” says Chrissie, kneeling up behind her, taking hold of the bra-straps, “would be the jay-word.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Ysabel, as Chrissie hooks the bra closed.
“Let’s talk about your secret lover, then. Or is it lovers.” Chrissie lies back against the pillows, watching as Ysabel takes up the skirt, bends down to pull it on. “A whole harem of beautiful women, bewitched by your terrible curse.”
“You’ve decided, haven’t you.” Ysabel bunches up a long white sock, slips it over her foot. “You’re going to do his movies, his videos.” Pulls it up and up, smoothing it over her knee. “You’re going to do what he wants,” she says, bunching up the other. “Not what you want.”
“It’s a one-time deal,” says Chrissie, with a sigh, “that gets us money, and an opportunity, to – ”
“Oh, those are Ettie’s talking points,” says Ysabel, looking back over her shoulder. “She’s the funny one.”
“It’s a man, isn’t it. Your shameful Thursday secret is a man!” Chrissie sits up, leans close, “Does it even work on men?” she says. “I mean, if you have to want to ask,” but then Ysabel’s kissing her, hard, arms about her crushing tight and eyes squeezed shut.
“Shut up,” says Ysabel, after.
“You want to ask right now, don’t you,” murmurs Chrissie, lips on skin. “What would happen, if you did? What would I say, do you think.”
“Why should I?” says Ysabel, and a hissing suck of breath. “Now that I know you’re not after my money,” and Chrissie laughs into Ysabel’s kiss.
Canvases upright, leaned against walls, against crates, against the worktable and the pillar, a staggered circle of them in the glare of the trouble light dangled overhead. She’s sitting in the middle of them all, yellow blouse and a houndstooth skirt, black tights, brown hair unskeined about her shoulders. Leaning forward for a bite of burrito, then pushing her glasses, narrow, black-rimmed, back up her nose. Figures splashed across those canvases, form and motion scribbled blackly, redly slashed, swoops of arms and hands, shoulders, clavicles, breasts, the lines gone sleekly slender up along throats, jaws, noses, and in each is caught a single look, quite still, those sole green eyes that gaze out, sidelong or direct, uptipped or a downward regard from each sliver of a moment frozen, and above around about them all the mad wild tangles of hair, curls and spills and splatters of black paint crusted, strobe-lit, jump-cut, scattered dance. Another bite. A white paper cup, lifted, and she blows at the steam lofting up from a notch in the lid. A sip.
“See, well, I mean, it’s, it’s,” says Gloria Monday, off to one side, behind a canvas, out of the light. “It’s not, it’s, it’s just,” shaking her head, “it’s just not.”
“She cut her hair,” says Marfisa, sitting up on the walkway in the meagre daylight, a paperback in her hand.
“Yeah, I know, we know, she cut her hair,” says Gloria.
“There’s something here,” says the woman sitting in the middle of all those canvases. “It’s just,” looking about, “there’s, ten of them? Twelve?”
“Fourteen,” says Gloria.
“There’s gonna be more,” says Gloria. “There was gonna be more.”
“More,” says the woman, sitting in the middle of them all. One last bite of burrito. “Well. It’s – relentless.”
“Relentless,” says Gloria, flatly. “That’s, that’s not a good word.”
“Perhaps if you,” daubing her lips with a napkin, “winnowed it down? To three, or four,” and she pushes herself to her feet, brushing dust from her tights. Gloria’s stepping out from behind the canvases, into the ring of them, bare feet shuffling, “No,” she’s saying, “you don’t, it’s got to be,” turning about, including them all with a sweep of her arm, “all of them, every, it’s, it’s,” hands to her head, black hair shining in the harsh light. “Anna, I told you. The music, the lights, the way she, looked, right at me, and, well, you know?” Lowering her hands, an irritated, empty gesture. “Right?”
“She stepped close,” says Anna, quietly. “In her mother’s garden. She asked me, and I, answered, and brought her five hundred dollars, and a bus schedule.”
“And ever since,” says Gloria. “You close your eyes.”
“I see her,” says Anna.
“Over and over,” says Gloria.
“You should’ve slept with her,” says Marfisa, turning a page in her book.
“It’s not like that,” snarls Gloria, wheeling about.
“Worked for me,” says Marfisa, without looking up.
“The hell it did,” mutters Gloria.
“Unrelenting,” says Anna, her hand on Gloria’s arm.
“Yes!” says Gloria, turning back. “Relentless! So.” A kick at the dust. “Yeah.”
“I can see it,” says Anna, “but I know what I’m looking at. Some things – ”
“This is how it is!” cries Gloria. “This! This is how it has to be!”
“Some things,” says Anna. “They have to be said, but it doesn’t mean they’re meant to be heard. That they can be heard.”
“So,” says Gloria, and a deep breath. “Okay.” Throwing out a hand, clamping it about the top of the nearest canvas. “So fuck it,” she says, and tips it over falling face-down to the floor, smack.
“Gloria!” cries Anna. “You said you wanted to do more. So. Do more. Try again, try something – Gloria!”
“I can’t!” wails Gloria, tipping another, whack and a billow of dust, grabbing another, “the whole point,” yank, topple, crack, “is I don’t have the money to do any more,” and Anna seizes her arm, “Please, don’t,” but Gloria shakes herself loose, grabs another, “was to see if I could raise money,” yank and slam, “by maybe selling these damn things,” and again, toppling, but Anna with a lunge catches it, grunting, pushing it back upright. “Gloria,” she says. “The point isn’t to sell the paintings. The point is to raise money. Right?”
“You have a better fucking idea?” says Gloria, with a half-hearted kick at a fallen canvas.
“I might,” says Anna.
Marfisa turns another page.
“Let’s hear some love,” the booming voice, as she mounts the shadowed stage, “for the one, the only, Starling!” and a piano riff rumbles from the speakers, left-handed, low, a whoop or two, someone’s clapping. Red and black wrestling boots laced up her calves and jagged oblongs black and red that cover her breasts, her belly, her buttocks and thighs, and as that riff circles itself she plants her feet, lifts up a wooden guitar body, a red flying vee, and with a windmilling swing of her arm as the lights flare mimes a strike at the strings. A power chord roars through the speakers, guitar and drums overwhelming the piano. More whoops. The music settles into a thumping march and she struts three steps to the edge of the stage, spins about swinging the guitar over her head, drops to a squat, throttling the neck of it between her knees, I don’t wanna let another minute get by, a woman’s singing, but she’s looking out over the thin audience, they’re slipping through our fingers but we’re ready to fly, men here and there, a man and a woman at that table, she has pink hair, two more men crowding close to the stage, heartily young, bills creased about their beefy fingers, bills already littering the stage like so many crisp little tents. Standing to spin again, swinging about, and when the morning arrives, it’ll all be gone, two more, three more men there, a woman pulling out a chair, shapeless in a green coat, at the bar a woman leaning forward, blond hair cut short, ordering a drink. It’s time to put up or shut up, singing out over the speakers, or to pick up the pace, and the Starling dances.
“Urban Restoration Squad,” she says, handset of an old desk phone to her ear. Sitting up. “I can do that for you, actually,” she says, but brightly chipper, highly pitched. “What’s the name? Jessie, yes, Jessie Vitaly. Yes.” Her long blond hair, her plain white blouse, the top two buttons of it left undone. “Jessie’s been with us for, for three months, yes. Since January fifth. Fourth. January fourth. Yes.” Looking about the little office, a couple of desks in opposite corners, shelf of binders and file folders, printer on its podium, nothing stirring in the doorway to the back room. “I’m afraid,” she says, clamping the handset between shoulder and ear, “it’s policy merely to confirm, ah,” reaching down, under her desk, “the period of employment.” At her feet a stuffed brown gym bag, and resting atop it a clamshell phone, charging. “Is there anything else?” She unplugs it. “Anything I can, no, thank you. Thank you. Goodbye!” Straightening, hanging up the desk phone. Unfolding the cell phone, laying it on her desk by her keyboard. A stylized hawk’s head, red and black, fills its little screen, and numbers along the top of it, 3/22, 11:17. “Hey,” says someone, from back there in the back room. “Jessie, how the hell do I,” but “Just a second,” she calls back, staring intently at the phone.
It lights up, buzzing, a burst of tinny music, whistling synthesized strings that gyrate about a splashing high-hat. She snaps it up, tapping the big green button on its keypad, “Hello?” she says. “This is Jessie.” Her voice pitched low now, softer, rounder. “Yeah,” she says, “no, yeah, we still are. Of course.” Turning about in her chair, looking out the big bay window behind her, the glass taped over with posters and flyers. “Well, yes, the, ah, the landlord, of our, our previous occupancy? Apartment.” Outside the corner, the sidewalk. “He, ah,” she’s saying, “well. He’s dead. He died. So. That’s, I mean, why we’re moving. So. It would be, hard.” The empty street, wet with rain. Over across the way a pile of a brick building, three or four storeys, huge high windows dark. “Yes. You did? Good. And everything’s?” She’s nodding. “Good.” Sitting back in her chair. “We can, the, yes. First, last, security, yes, we can, yes. Saturday, we can have that for you. But I was wondering, if,” leaning forward, “the keys, if we could,” listening, nodding. Looking down. “Saturday. No, that’s fine. Thank you. No, thank you. Thank you.”
She closes the phone. Closes her eyes. A little smile, and a sigh.
“Jessie,” that voice from the back room. “Can you tell me why the hell this piece of shit machine can’t open a simple PDF?”
“Because it’s a piece of shit,” says Jessie, leaning down, plugging the cell phone back in, setting it back on the gym bag. “Send it over to me, I’ll print it for you, or whatever.”
“I just want the damn thing to open the damn files without making a big production, you know?”
“We probably just need to download something, or update something else,” she says. “Hey, Nelson. You mind if I take an early lunch?”
“Just, fix this damn thing first.”
“Right,” says Jessie, getting to her feet.
“My sister,” says someone, says Lymond, “gentlemen: Ysabel,” and the rustle and turn in that high wide room of all those regards to her, conversations checked, chins lifted, and glasses, those dark-suited men brushed with bonhomie in little knots and clusters under the great curving wall of glass. The uncertain grey of the clouds beyond, framed by wet black trees. She’s there in the mouth of that room, all in white, hands clasped behind her back, and then, she’s smiling, they’re looking away, back to each other. Murmurs resume.
“So pleased you could come,” says Lymond beside her, smooth white shirt and charcoal slacks, delight in his bulging eyes, one brown, one blue, and his brightly orange hair slicked back.
“I’d thought this was just a simple lunch,” says Ysabel.
“It is,” he says. “There’s food.” A gesture toward a table laden with triangled sandwiches, pinwheeled wraps, chips and crudités. Just past it under the great window a man in a pale blue suit, shoulders brushed by white-gold dreads, one hand jabbing the palm of the other as he makes a forceful point to the woman listening intently, draped in a purple gown iridescent with blues and greens, head wrapped in a fine black scarf. “Something to drink?” says Lymond. He’s taken her arm, he’s squiring her into the room, she’s shaking her nodding head, a shrug, “But,” she says, “a function such as this. Shouldn’t all the court be here?”
“You mean the Gallowglas.” He waves to someone, nods to someone else. “This, this is more of a Westside thing. Don’t you think?”
“All right,” says Ysabel.
He stops, head tipped, brow cocked. “You do know what this is about.”
“I’d thought it was to celebrate phase one,” she says, quietly.
“There’ve been some complications,” he says, softly, and then, raising his voice, “You know Mr. Sogge?”
“This guy!” growls a man in sharp navy. “This guy.” Under his suit coat a heather grey T-shirt, blazoned with a brightly yellow O, and about his chin a scruff of beard too neat to be an afterthought. Clapping Lymond’s shoulder, firmly shaking his hand, “Not only have we finally got the crane up over Park West,” he says, “the Pearl’s back underway. I’m telling you,” turning to Ysabel, “three months in and this year’s already better than all of the last.”
“Your pardon,” says Ysabel, “but I’ve no idea who you are.”
“That’s all right,” says Mr. Sogge. “I had no idea he had a sister.” Abruptly he heads off, into the scrum.
“Was he important?” says Ysabel.
“He’s not,” says Lymond, “irreplaceable. But.” He gestures toward a tiny woman in a nubbled grey suit, laughing with a heavyset man in tweedy browns and greens and a yellow meshback cap. “The mayor’s here,” says Lymond, and then, looking around, “and also Councilman Killian, somewhere, so there’s at least a couple of reporters in the room? Speak carefully.”
Ysabel says, “What’s that?”
Past the table laden with food, another, and laid atop it a city, blank white towers jumbled in a curl of broad blue painted river, and delicate white bridges stitched across it. “Rudy brought it over,” says Lymond, following Ysabel as she makes her way toward it, through the milling crowd. “Sogge. To give our celebration a little focus.”
At the foot of one of those little bridges a bloom of color, towers in red and yellow instead of white, lining a single avenue there at that end of the city. “Focus,” says Ysabel. And then, “The Pearl’s back underway, he said.” Looking up at Lymond beside her, who shrugs and says, “Complications.”
“Beautiful, isn’t she,” says a man over across the corner of it, not too tall, somewhat stout, his dark grey suit shot through with glistening silver.
“Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel. “I hadn’t expected to see you again so soon.”
“I’ve told you, please,” he says. “Feel free to call me Reg.”
“You know each other,” says Lymond.
“Mr. Davies and I have certain interests in common,” says Ysabel, and Reg lets out a snort of laughter.
“I see,” says Lymond.
“I gotta tell you, Lymond,” says Reg, “the Lovejoy Development? A lot of people in this room aren’t happy, if you asked them, honestly, with how long it took you folks to come around. But me?” A gesture over that patch of color. “Gave me a chance to grab a seat at the table. I’m thrilled, I gotta tell you, to be a part of this project.”
“Careful, Ys,” murmurs Lymond, and she spares him a sidelong look as she leans out over the city. “Tell me, Mr. Davies,” she says. “Your seat, at this table. Will you merely consult, on the marketing and such, or do you actually have – what’s the phrase? Skin, in the game.”
“Oh, I’m in,” says Reg.
“Well,” says Lymond, stepping back, “the Guisarme’s arrived, and the Glaive. I should go and welcome them.”
“By all means,” says Ysabel.
“So,” says Reg. “He’s your brother.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel.
“And you’re, what was that? The Queen? That makes him, what, a prince? Duke?”
“The King,” says Ysabel.
“But he’s your brother,” says Reg.
“Yes,” says Ysabel.
“You know, the two of you look nothing alike?”
“He takes after his father,” says Ysabel.
“So this,” he says, turning about in that little office, the two desks, the big bay window taped over with posters and flyers, “is what’s gonna save the city.” His warm-up jacket grey and blue, his navy workpants almost black. “One storefront,” he says, hands up, shoving back his lankly coiled hair. “Two desks.” Blinking broadly, as if trying to clear his eyes of something.
“Nelson’s got his own office,” says Jessie, there by the door, shrugging out of her pink and orange parka.
“Nelson,” he says, scrubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Stiles? Your glorious leader?”
“There’s the board,” says Jessie. “And the volunteers and stuff, but, yeah. Day to day, this is it.”
“You’re fucked,” he says.
“Luke,” she says. “This is the job.” Forcefully, but quietly. “This is what I could get. This is what you wanted me to get.”
“The only thing being saved in here is petty cash,” he says.
“Come on,” she says, stepping toward him. Taking his arm by the elbow. “You go on back to the car. Do, whatever. We just have to make it through tomorrow and Saturday, Saturday we get the keys. Okay?”
“A roof,” he says, pulling himself free. “We have a roof.”
“Someplace to put our stuff, then,” she says, reaching for his arm again, but he shakes her off, throws back his head, “What the fuck are you even doing here?” he blurts. Lurching across the little office toward the shelf full of binders, “Tell me,” he says, bang against that other desk there, “tell me one thing you’re getting done here. Please.”
“Keep your voice down,” says Jessie.
He’s snatched something from the desk, a poster, a mandala in greens and blues and silhouettes ringed below it about a stylized map. Hands Around Portland, it says. Third Annual. “This. You’re doing this.”
“Luke. Put it down. Come on.”
“You’re holding hands.”
“It’s a, it’s to raise awareness, you know? Just, put it down, go on, tonight we can – ”
“Third. Annual,” he says, shaking the poster for emphasis. “Three years, this has been done. Awareness must be pretty fucking high.”
“Actually,” says someone else, a man in the doorway there to the back room, “that’s last year’s poster. So this’ll be the fourth.” Grizzled and jowly, a lump of a nose, tie-dyed T-shirt all reds and purples and a dull grey cardigan. “It’s a symbolic gesture, intended – ”
“Precisely!” roars Luke, slapping the poster back on the desk, and Jessie, wild-eyed, “Luke,” she’s saying, reaching for his arm again, “Luke,” as he rounds on that man in the doorway, “You!” he says. “In here dreaming up gestures to raise awareness so you can then write a grant to beg for the money you need to buy a ticket to the meeting where, if you’re meek and lucky, you might politely get a chance to ask them maybe to think about stopping, just for a minute – they’re always gonna have more than you!”
And after a moment the man in the doorway says, “I’m sorry?”
“Money! They’ll give it to you just to prove that point! You’re never gonna get it done like this,” and the man in the doorway’s shaking his head, “I really think you ought to,” he says, but Luke’s plowed on, “you’ve got to get out there with what you have, with what they, don’t have, you seize something, take what you need, you force the situation, you make them come to you.”
“You really need to go,” says the man in the doorway.
“This was my fucking idea, Nelson,” says Luke. “And you’re fucking it up.”
“Luke!” says Jessie, sharply, and he wheels on her, “Lake!” he snarls, but then he shudders, swallowing, nodding. The man in the doorway’s frowning. He says, again, “You need to go.”
“Yeah,” says Luke. Stepping back. “Okay.” Turning around. Jessie’s backed up against her desk, hands to her face. Luke stalks past her, throws open the door. The jingle of a bell.
It’s darker under the bridge, but not by much. The white SUV slows to a stop, sits a moment, purring idly, before headlamps light up, front tires turn, crackle of gravel as one corner of it tipping up it mounts the curb, the slightest growl of engine, a threat of power, lifting the other corner of it, pause to hike up the rear wheels, rolling out onto the roughly paved lot, wallowing over old rail lines buried in the macadam. Long aisles of pillars to either side hold the length of the bridge above, a gentle slope and then more sharply down to where the buildings shoulder close to either side, where the SUV swerves, lights slicing through the gloom, splashing over pillars, slowing, stops. A sigh as the engine cuts out. After a moment a rear door opens and all in white, Ysabel steps down.
There are things painted on the pillars about her, a wide-eyed owl in a swirl of feathers, clutching ungainly a pen, a black-faced lion awkwardly savaging an antelope, a stoic bust, defaced with yellow paint, under a spray of cartoon bunting, a bird with an elaborate tail perched atop a drawn plinth that says God is Love, and a scroll beneath that says Light Hope Truth April 7 1948.
Behind her the driver’s door opens, a gentle warning chime. A woman climbs out there, hair cropped close and dyed a virulent chartreuse, looking about.
“Behold,” says Ysabel, “the complications.”
“This,” says Ysabel, with a sweep of her white-clad arm, “is what my brother means to give them. To Mister Reginald Davies.” Walking, slowly, down the aisle. “What they will tear away, to make their little towers.” A hand on the corner of a pillar, there by the shoulder of a bearded hermit, wrapped in robes, holding up a sketchy lantern.
The woman steps down from the running board, disappearing behind the spotless bulk of the SUV. When she comes around the back of it, in her yellow track suit piped with white along the sleeves and legs, she’s holding in her hands the long staff of a fauchard. Looking away, down the length of that shadowed nave under the long dark deck of the bridge, the columned aisles to either side, the glisten here and there of old rails, the street’s brief interruption, and there, blocks away, a lone boxcar rusting comfortably. Peering at it, the sickled blade of her fauchard up and ready. Its side a gallery of graffiti, the lowest edge of it rainbow-stained below a spidery great sigil-shape of white.
“Iona?” says Ysabel.
“It’s gone quiet, ma’am,” she says, stepping back, and back again.
Ysabel looks up. Closes her eyes. The air, still, and not even the thrum of tires, the rumble and mewl of engines, the sing-song whistle of crosswalk alerts or the clatter of a bicycle, not the drip and plash and seep of rainfall settling, not the wind, high above, ushering clouds across the unseen sky. “It has,” she says, then the startling clack of her heels striding back toward the SUV. “Let’s go,” she says. “East, over the river to Alberta.” Stepping up onto the running board, pulling herself up, one last look this way, that, the columns, the bridge. “My mothers will want to hear of this.”
“Yes ma’am,” says Iona.
It all goes suddenly blue, and blued she slinks to the front of the stage, sealed in a neoprene wetsuit, blackly sleeved, French cut, and strapped to her thigh a long black knife. Piano vamping from the speakers under a slice of feedback soaring, kettle-thump of drums, the day, that it became, a voice is singing, clear, and she’s swaying gently, floating on the music, the first time that I saw you for the, one hundred fiftieth time, a whoop from the audience, three men, four, crowding the stage, a fifth, and the woman with pink hair, but can you blame me? I was reaching, sings that voice, reaching, halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, and pale arms appear about her, pale hands on her breast, her hip in that blue light, pulling away with a whip that spins her around and about, twirling away from a woman draped in tinsel glimmering, the place, it socked my square-jawed face, the tinseled woman swinging her arms, miming a pull at a rope or a net as the wetsuited Starling whirling on bare feet head back arms wide swings inexorably toward her, yanked with each tug of those glimmering arms till she’s standing before the kneeling woman who grinning licks at her black rubbered crotch, halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, howls and cheers and applause as the music pounds, pounds, pounds, a half dozen men at the bar or more, that older woman at a table, ripped black T-shirt, white hair tousled, woman in a pink cocktail dress brown leather on her shoulders, woman in a red lace camisole looking away, bored, the man beside her staring, gone, gone, I have enough rope when you’re gone, the door’s opening, and someone all in white and short black hair but turning, stepping aside, making way for someone else, another woman taller, longer-legged, straight blond hair, and crumpling the Starling closes her eyes, gone, gone, gone.
Lights above the escalator, set in metal cups, and the ceiling about them sooty from years of incandescent heat. At the top the walls close in about a landing where Gloria Monday, all in black, stops, there between getting off the one escalator, onto the next, under a sign on the wall that says Housewares, and an arrow pointing up. On shelves haphazardly set within a glass case there’s a grey plaster statue of a young girl with chunky grey butterfly wings and a flock of grey plastic ducks, and on the bottom of it a single bucket filled with dusty silk flowers and a fountain to be hung from a wall, lion’s mouth yawning from a molded plaque, by the threadbare greenery of an ersatz topiary pawn, some sort of felted flocking wrapped about a wicker frame. Bracelets clack and jangle as Gloria lifts a hand to press against the glass, “This,” she says, and a chuckle, “is fantastic.”
“Over here,” says Marfisa, eyeing a door the same blank white as the walls.
“Okay,” says Gloria, turning away from the glass case, black skirts swaying.
“Now Anna said,” says Marfisa, “what did Anna say.” Wild pale hair knotted loosely at the nape of her neck, above the collar of her sheepskin coat. “There’ll be a hall. Down it to the end, last on the left, four knocks. Wait to be admitted. Speak to no one else,” and Gloria’s nodding, impatient, “Yeah, yeah,” she says. “But then what.”
“The truth,” says Marfisa. “Close your eyes.”
She’s pulled from the pocket of her coat a plastic baggie, and frowning leans close to Gloria, tipping a bit of golden dust on each purpled eyelid. Turning to sprinkle a pinch on the knob of the door. “Okay,” Gloria says, “so, Mar, do I open ’em now, or,” and then, opening her eyes, “oh.”
The offices are dim. Cubicle walls chin-high, a dingy, nappy brown, black nameplates by each opening, Offa, says one, in straight white sans-serif letters, Financialisation, and Sceatta, Courts Liaison, says another. Denarey. Manypeny. Light warms a cubicle to the right, “Look,” someone’s saying, “the show is incomplete without the three of them. Think of the chords, that Tom and Gary knew! The Stromberbrauch’s been optimized, not only on the Chip-Ebene, but up and down the line, as well,” and Gloria hurries past, hands holding her bracelets still in the creeping hush. Lloyd, says the nameplate by the last cubicle on the left. Accounts. Her knocks against the fabric of it muffled. Someone says, “Come in.”
A woman’s sitting in a black leatherette chair, flipping through an enormous stack of green-and-white fanfold printout next to an old computer terminal, black screen glowing with amber characters. A grey blouse, a soft pink bow knotted under the collar. She pauses, holding a chunk of printout in the air, takes up a clear plastic ruler, lays it along the lines of data. “Suzette Wilson,” she says.
“Ah, actually,” says Gloria, “I’m Gloria Monday? I’d rather, I’d prefer – ”
“As you wish,” says the woman, picking up a mechanical pencil, making a neat notation. “You have no purchases,” she says, setting the pencil aside.
“No,” says Gloria. “Well. I hope to – I want to – ”
“A line of credit, then.”
“Yes,” says Gloria.
“That wasn’t a question,” says the woman. “The first question is this: do you love him?”
“Love,” says Gloria, looking down, lips pursed, on the verge of shaking her head when her eyes widen, her face settles, smoothed over something fierce, and she looks up again to meet the woman’s gaze. “No,” she says. “No. He was a terrible – person.”
“There’s no need to elaborate,” says the woman, jerking the ruler down a line. “The second question,” she says.
“Halfway Across the Atlantic Ocean,” written by Kristeenyoung, ©2009 Test Tube Baby.
Level A, Furniture – the warmth of March – what’s In the Envelope – the Nearest book – “You’re it; That’s all” –
Level A, Furniture, says the sign laid into the floor under her feet, but as she steps off the escalator she isn’t looking over ersatz rooms, each on its island of carpeting, the queen-sized beds heaped with clashing pillows, the rectilinear sofas, all chrome and black leather. Tock and plock of bootheels, her houndstooth skirt, her tan trench coat, she heads off to one side, an alcove there where a couple of full-length mirrors in bulky wood frames are leaned against a wall. Cater-cornered from them a swinging door, lit by a small glass square criss-crossed with chicken-wire. She pushes through it into a service corridor crowded with pallets loaded with stuff, anonymous cardboard boxes swaddled in plastic wrap, patio furniture strapped in teetering stacks. She ducks under an enormous plastic candy cane, barber-striped, sidles past a throne all threadbare velveteen and worn gold-painted wood. Pushes away a stuffed reindeer, its nose an unlit bulb. There, beneath a stretch of dented duct, a portholed door, and beside it a boxy intercom grille, and no button or level or latch. Over the porthole blocky letters, carefully painted, say Boiler Room. She stoops over the grimy yellowed intercom, “Ah,” she says, “Anna Nirdlinger, from Welund Rhythidd, to see Mousely.”
After a moment a squawk from the box, a gabbled squelch in a rising pitch. She leans closer. “Anna,” she says. “Rhythidd? Mousely.” And then, “Mousely.”
Far below, something dings, there’s a groan and a climbing whine of cable, grind and squeak, a clang as light rises to fill the porthole settling as the noises drop with a thump back to a hum. The door sides open, she steps inside. The elevator begins its descent with a cacophonous jerk, and she resettles her narrow, black-rimmed glasses, clutching her shoulder bag close to herself. A deep breath in through her nose.
The elevator opens on a hall lined to either side with roll-top desks, each with a set of tubes hung above, like the pipes of an organ, sleeved in rubberized canvas, cornered and finished in bent metal joints, and all about a loudly rushing wheeze of air. Clerks in striped shirts bend over each of the desks, taking long capsules from tubes, unscrewing them open, looking over pages pulled from within, deftly selecting additional documents from cubbyholes, stiff cardstock, gauzy wodges of onionskin and carbons, crisply laser-printed forms, cream and salmon, goldenrod and lilac, shuffling all together, stapling here, clipping there, stamping with wide forceful but precise swings of their arms. Some bundles rolled up, stuffed back into capsules, sent with a shunt on their way, others neatly dropped in one of the swaying baskets overhead, hung from the chains that trundle down either side, the creak of them lost in the din from the end of the hall. Flat tables there, and big upright computer monitors hooked with snarls of grey-beige cabling to hulking flatbed scanners. White-shirted clerks hands gloved in blue take stacks from baskets, swiftly disassemble them, slap each page and card and form in turn on the glass bed of a scanner, and scrolling bars of light shine along the walls, then up the papers snatched and tossed into the maw of an enormous grinding shredder. A steep flight of stairs lifts up above their racket to a little balcony, where a stolid figure in a long pink dress, a pillbox hat pinned at a distracted angle, looks back down the length of the hall, beckoning to Anna with a white-gloved hand.
Up the stairs and through double doors into a cozy office, richly paneled, warmly lit, armchairs upholstered in floral prints before a polished desk, and one wall almost entirely taken up by a brick fireplace, the mantel of it crowded with sepia-tinged photographs, a graduated gaggle of matryoshka dolls, a vase top-heavy with stargazer lilies, the pink of them shading to blood red. When the white-gloved woman closes the double doors it’s all plunged into silence, and only the merry crackle of the log on the grate. “Some tea, perhaps?” she says, as she steps around behind the desk.
“That would be lovely,” says Anna, taking an armchair, and on the little table beside it more lilies, and a gently steaming china cup.
“Is it beastly without? I imagine it must be beastly.”
“It’s March,” says Anna, sipping her tea.
“They’re getting warmer, though,” says the woman, “aren’t they? Marches?” Smoothing papers in a manila folder laid open before her.
“I suppose?” says Anna. “It’s good to finally meet you, Mousely.”
“There’s no need for flattery,” says the woman, taking up a little grey plastic card which she fits into a squat black machine on her desk, carefully lowering the weighty lid. “Why are you here, Anna.” Pressing a lever on the side of the machine. That lid slams down, a solid chunk.
“Well,” says Anna. “I have recently begun work as a paralegal, with Welund Rhythidd,” and Mousely yanks the lever up again. “Before that, I was amanuensis to the Queen.”
“I know who you are,” says Mousely, lifting the card now embossed with a line of numerals.
“Yes,” says Anna, adjusting her glasses, “well, I do need to learn more of the firm’s operations, and had some time at lunch today.”
“A tour cannot possibly be arranged without some sort of notice,” says Mousely. Careful of her white gloves, she’s squeezing a dollop of something thick and clear from a tube onto the back of the card. “We are terribly busy, as you can see.” Lips pursed, she presses the card precisely, firmly, to a square printed on a piece of paper before her in the folder. “If you’d called ahead, we’d’ve had time to prepare for you.” Folding the paper, a bit clumsy with the stiff weight of the card now glued to it, neatly into thirds. “But perhaps that was the point?”
“This isn’t anything like a surprise inspection,” says Anna.
“Of course not,” says Mousely, slipping the folded paper into a plain white envelope.
“Just a whim.”
“Whimsy, Anna?” She’s moistening the seal of the envelope with a neat little blue sponge. “Not the best of motives, where a bank’s concerned,” but a sudden grinding rush of noise, the double doors opening, a clerk stepping within, a red folder in her blue-gloved hands, nodding once, crisply, as she lays it on the corner of the desk.
“Blast and rot,” says Mousely in the silence that falls as the doors close up again.
“Is there a problem?” says Anna, her eyes on that folder.
“A red jacket,” says Mousely, opening it before her, “takes precedence over all other work, and must be approved at the highest levels.” Lifting pages, looking over forms. “An impressive acquisition, to be sure, but a terrible bother.”
Anna takes in a deep and fortifying breath. “I’d be happy to take it back with me,” she says. “Deliver it to Rhythidd myself. Save you that much, at least.”
Mousely looks up, a little card of glossy black in her white-gloved hands. “Would you,” she says.
A half-dozen dream-catchers dangle before the broad window, and on the sill of it a bright round mirror in an octagonal frame, richly painted red and green. Jessie’s sitting on one end of the couch beneath them, arm up along the back of it, looking out at the street, the dimly sourceless light of a cloudy afternoon. From the front room through that doorway a muttering rumble, a sharp retort, a sighing exhalation. She lays her yellow head on her outstretched arm. She closes her eyes.
“Jessie,” says the man in the doorway, a hand up, rubbing his lump of a nose.
“Yeah.” She sits up, drawing her arm to herself as he sits on the couch beside her. “How are you,” he says.
“I can,” she says, “I can get back to work.”
“I just want to make sure you’re okay,” he says.
“I’m fine, Nelson,” she says. “Thanks. For asking.”
“That, was. Disturbing.” A vague gesture of his hand toward the doorway, the front room beyond. In his other hand a plain white envelope.
“I’m really sorry about that,” she says. “He isn’t usually so agitated, but I guess, we’ve both been under a lot of pressure? It won’t happen again. I swear.”
A slow nod of his grizzled head. “So he’s your boyfriend.”
“We’re, together,” she says.
Another nod, a little higher, a little lower. He still isn’t looking at her, not directly. “Do you,” he says, “need to talk to someone. Some help. There are phone numbers. I can get you a phone number.”
She says, “For what?”
“To, talk?” he says. “If you need it. If it’s gotten to that point. There’s – I know a good shelter.”
“Shelter?” says Jessie, sharply, “we don’t need a,” and then, “oh. Oh, Nelson. No. It’s not like that. He lost his temper, yeah, but like I said, we’ve both been under a lot of stress. I don’t know what set it off. Frustration. But – he’s not violent. It’s not like that.”
“Well,” says Nelson. “Like I say. I can get you a phone number.”
“Is that what’s in the envelope?”
He holds it up, sighing, then hands it over to her. The flap’s unsealed. She peers inside, looks up at him. “You said no checks till Friday.”
“This is a check.”
“It’s the law, Jessie.” He sighs. “When someone’s being separated from employment, by end of business – ”
“You’re firing me,” says Jessie.
Another sigh. “You’re being laid off. I’m sorry, but – ”
“You’re firing me because you think my boyfriend’s beating me.”
“What?” he says, alarmed, looking at her now, beside him. “No,” he says. “No, that’s, no. No no no, no, no.”
“Because that would be wrong,” she says, her voice gone thickly soundless by the end.
Hand up, rubbing his face. Up on his feet, over to the desk. “It’s,” he says, “a question of money. We made a go of it, and, you did a fine job. That’s not an issue. I’ll be happy to write you a glowing recommendation, but the funding, we just, we can’t justify,” but Jessie says, “Shut up,” and he stops, his gesture hung, unfinished. “I swear to God,” she says. “The bullshit.”
“Jessie,” he says.
“I’ve been here three weeks,” she says. “Three weeks. If it was money you wouldn’t’ve hired me in the first place.”
“Jessie, I have to ask you to – ”
“No, you fired me, so, fuck that. Fuck that. He told me you were useless, but my God.”
“He,” says Nelson, and, “you,” and, “what?”
“This check,” she says, “this fucking check, we had such plans.” Crumpling the envelope in her hand. “But we needed the next check, and the one after that, and, well, just, fuck it.”
“What do you mean, he told you. What. He knew my name. I thought you told him.”
“He said you wouldn’t remember,” says Jessie.
“He said. Who said. What is going on, here.”
“I just,” says Jessie, getting up. “I wanted a fucking job.”
The receptionist at the desk looks up, an ornate brass telephone headset clipped to one ear. “Anna,” he says. “I thought you were out today.”
“Had a thing,” she says. “It’s done. Is Rhythidd back?”
“Still in the hills,” says the receiptionist.
“All right,” says Anna, holding her shoulder bag close. “I’ll be here at least till four,” she says. The receptionist nods.
A long and narrow corridor, cream-carpeted, blond paneling to the right, and office doors, slightly ajar, or closed, open carrels to the left, blond desks and cabinets, women typing at computers, and some men. The end of it an acute angle, and a single blond wood door. Her hand on the weighty brass knob of it she’s looking back, along the hall, then down the next continuing sharply back to the left, more offices, more carrels, more typing, muttered phone calls. She opens the door.
An angled office, two shorter walls of dark wood, two longer walls of glass, a wide slab of utterly empty desk and behind it a high-backed chair of pale leather. Closing the door, softly, she pulls from her shoulder bag a folder, red, and a pen. Laying the folder open on the desk she flips through the pages within, pausing to initial here and there, quick bold Rs that finish with a curl. At the end, the penultimate page, a long blank line, and she looks up, adjusts her glasses, the pen hovering. Lowering to touch the line, and a single dot of ink, not quite black, tinted red. She signs, with slow definite strokes. Rhythidd.
Glued to the last page a black card, glossy, embossed with a string of numerals. MasterCard, it says, within interlocking circles of red and orange. Bank of Trebizond. Gloria Monday. Good thru 86/75. She unsticks it from the paper, turns it over, peeling off the last waxy dollop of glue as she steps away from the desk, toward the windows, and the expanse of sky beyond, empty, grey, the dark hills of the city below. She allows herself a briefly satisfied smile.
Clomp of wedge heels into the black room, sweat-sheened tattoos, handful of underwear tossed to the floor, “Starling,” she says, laughing, and the rest of them turn back to their reflections, adjusting the shape of a wet red lip, the fall of dozens of braided extensions, purple as popsicles, fluttering a wad of grey-green bills. “You’re wanted next door,” says the sweating dancer, grabbing a robe from a hook on the wall, “your Thursday regular,” and “Yes,” says the Starling, there at the far end, standing up from the red velvet chaise, sheer négligée held shut by a single bow, and long black fishnet stockings.
“She brought a date,” says the dancer, blotting her brow with a sleeve, and there’s an exaggerated “Ooooh!” from the woman with the lipstick. “I saw,” says the Starling, draping a black cloak over her shoulders as she squeezes her way down the line of them all.
“One of the Limoges sisters,” says the dancer, and a dismissive “Pssht,” from the woman tying up the last of her braids. “I know,” says the Starling.
“How is it you get changed so goddamn fast,” says the woman wrapping up the roll of bills with quick twists of a rubber band. “Like fucking magic, I swear.” The Starling turns up the hood of her cloak, careful of her tiara, and steps out into the unlit hall, toward the muffled beat.
Her long white coat he takes with hands scrubbed pinkly clean, the nails of them buffed, meticulously trimmed. “It’s good to see you again, Chazz,” says Ysabel.
“Oh, but here’s a paradox,” he says, hanging her coat on a hall butler heaped with raincoats and rainshells, all about a speckly mirror. “A poor devil, unable to meet the mark of such a praise, and yet,” with a wry smile, bald head pink and shining, his turtleneck spotlessly black, “your majesty, being her majesty, cannot possibly be wrong.”
“Are they within?” she asks.
“Even so,” he says, with a gesture toward the wide doorway to the side, there, the dim, high-ceilinged room, and the sonorous murmur of someone’s voice. Lamps lit, here and there, against the darkening day, one of them harshly bright at the end of a long table, where a little round man sits tailor-fashion, naked but for a pair of Y-front underpants, reading aloud from a slender paperback, “grabs the nearest book,” he’s saying, “which was, and there are no coincidences, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” Past the table, past the spindle-backed chairs, the man there in the baggy blue coveralls, the woman in a gauzy robe, scrolling through something on her phone, at the end of the room a fire’s dying on the grate, and pulled up close by its sullen ember-light a sofa, brownish pink, and two women sat upon it, leaning back against either arm, outstretched legs entwined under blankets and thick rugs. The one, her long white hair wound up in ruthless braids, snaps green beans, dropping halves and thirds into a colander on her lap, and the ends in a paper bag on the floor. The other, long white hair unbound, drifting, whicks chunks of peel from potatoes with swift flashes of a paring knife. “Mothers,” says Ysabel.
Whick and snap, snap and whick. “Pretending to arrange his apartment,” reads the little round man on the table, “for some purpose other than fucking me,” as Chazz takes one of the spindle-backed chairs and draws it over toward Ysabel. “Might I have a word?” she says, as she sits.
“Our daughter requires something of us,” says the woman, her hair in braids.
“Our Queen demands an audience,” says the woman, her hair undone. Chazz heads around behind them both to stoop by the hearth, taking up a poker, stirring the charred logs. “I read aloud as he rushed back from the bedroom with a plastic laundry hamper,” says the little round man on the table, and Ysabel raises her voice, “I was up in the hills this afternoon. A luncheon, hosted by the King.”
“Dressed like that?” says the woman snapping beans.
“At least her knees are covered,” says the woman peeling potatoes.
“And to find,” the little man’s saying, “a bottle of wine that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge. The concrete content, which sensuous certainty furnishes,” and Ysabel looks over the back of her chair at him and says, “Might we have the room?”
He blinks, lips pursed around an interrupted word. “We’re enjoying this?” says the man in the coveralls.
“It is a free house,” says the woman plucking an errant peel or two from the rug on their lap.
“Go on,” says the woman dropping a handful of bean-ends into the paper bag. “It helps us to work.”
The little man shrugs and nods sort of sideways and takes up his book again. “The, ah, the sensuous certainty, furnishes, which makes this prima facie appear to be the richest kind of knowledge,” and “So,” says Ysabel. “When did you take up scullery work, Mother?”
Neither of those heads look up. Behind her, the voice, droning, “a wealth to which we can as little find any limit when we, ah, traverse its extent,” and then someone else says, “Well, actually, that’s, that’s washing dishes.”
Her chair creaks as Ysabel turns, looking back again, to the man in the baggy coveralls. “Scullery work,” he says. “That’s washing dishes. Chef de plonge. What they’re doing,” and beside him, the woman in the gauzy robe’s looking up from her phone, “they’re legumiers, they prep,” and he’s faltering under her glower, “the vegetables and such, what. I studied.”
“It’s a cooperative house,” says the woman, her hair in braids. “There’s a rota of chores.”
“All must do their part,” says the woman, her hair undone. “Go on. Read on.”
“Ah, yeah, so,” says the little man on the table, “okay, its, ah, extent, in time and space,” and Ysabel closes her eyes, takes in a breath through her nose, and abruptly says, “He means to give them the Ramp. The Lovejoy Ramp.”
“He?” says the woman with the knife. “He who?”
“Our son,” says the woman snapping beans.
“You’re as much me as I.”
“They mean to demolish it!” cries Ysabel. “Wipe it away! Put up towers!”
“So they will.”
“These things happen.”
“They don’t!” snaps Ysabel. “They don’t just happen! They’re done, by men, who might be stopped,” and both those heads of white hair toss back with sudden peals of laughter, delicate titters, hacking cackles, “By whom?” says the one, and “If his majesty has spoken,” the other, catching her breath.
“But you might speak against him,” says Ysabel, leaning forward.
“Well certainly not me.”
“He is the King, your majesty.”
“He has spoken.”
“As if,” says Ysabel, “you never spoke against my father.”
“You have no father.”
“She means the King.”
“No, no, the King Before.”
“She means the Queen!”
“Please,” says Ysabel.
“It is confusing.”
“That there’s the two of us.”
“And not just one.”
“No, no,” says the woman in braids, lifting a hand, three knurled fingers extended. “Instead of three,” and “Mother!” cries Ysabel, but someone’s knocking at the door, outside, someone’s been knocking, Chazz has already gotten to his feet, he’s headed down the length of the table, and the woman with the knife still in her hand says, “You have no mother.”
“We are the Gammer.”
“You are the Queen.”
“There’s no more Bride.”
“Enough,” says Ysabel, but the word is lost in the sudden scuffle out there in the foyer, the yelp, the scrape of chairs, the chiming crash of bottles as the little man leaps from the table, the “Hey!” and “What the hell!” as Chazz stumbles through the doorway, crashing to his knees, turtleneck yoked in the hand he’s reaching up and back, grappling with, the hand of the much larger man in a big black suit, a bright aloha shirt, splashes of blue and yellow and white, and a matted bush of a beard, and brown hair in crimpled eaves that brush his shoulders lifting as he takes in a deep breath, looking about. “I don’t,” his arm jerked as Chazz struggles, “want to hurt anybody,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
Love is the Law, written by Nick Mamatas, ©2013.
Whatever’s playing on the radio dissolves in distorted feedback, a little Ennio Morricone, a little 3 Mustaphas 3, it mutters to itself. She shifts in the driver’s seat, leaning forward, watching the man in the black suit through the side windows of the SUV. Continuing this exotic kick, murmurs the radio, let’s feast our ears on these East African rhythms from the Lagos Music Salon. He’s stepping off the sidewalk, there by the welter of bicycles, heading across the greening yard toward the pink-painted house, climbing the steps to the cramped front porch, a big man, unkempt brown hair and beard. Empty hands, one of them lifted to knock. She frowns. Cocks her head. Sits up behind the wheel. Yesterday she said her prayers and thank yous, coos the radio, morning heat crowding her room and thighs, and she leans down again, looks out the side window. The man in the black suit’s talking to someone in the doorway. Yesterday the rains were rather heavy, sings the radio, and the man in the black suit yanks his elbow back, leans in to throw a punch.
Her brow quirks.
Her hand yanks open the passenger door feet kick off the seat the floorboard into a shallow dive over the sidewalk tuck and roll to come up running yellow blur foot leaping middle step then hitting porch and barreled through the front door left ajar a pushing leap her running shoe slaps the wall a spring momentum lofting over the bannister tumble a flip over heels over head as one hand pulling flash that lights the hallway steps and clutter through the doorway scuffle black suit pink head feet a-thump the floor her blade a whip swung down and back a half-step lunge “Iona!” and the blade-tip stops dead there, an inch, perhaps, from blinking eye. The man in the black suit’s hauled Chazz around, held tight to meet her thrust. “Do you?” he says, voice rough.
“Your pardon, ma’am, Devil,” says Iona, taking one step back. Her sword still up. “I did not recognize the wizard.”
“Everyone, please,” says Ysabel, down at the other end of the dining table. “There’s no need for swords, or shields.” The others beside and behind her, the little man holding his book to his naked chest, the man in the baggy coveralls, the woman in the robe. “Put up yours as well, mother.”
“What, this?” says the woman at the one end of the sofa, white hair wild about her head, and a little silver paring knife in her hand. “What could I possibly do with such a wee point.”
“Let the Devil go,” says Ysabel, to Mr. Keightlinger. “We’ll hear you out.” But as Chazz leans forward into a step away Mr. Keightlinger tugs him back, tightening his grip full of turtleneck, “Good sir!” cries Chazz, with a choke. “You’ve secured our attention. There is no need!”
“You,” says Mr. Keightlinger, over Chazz’s pink bald head, to Ysabel. “You might have something. You might not. I need to know.”
“What might this something be,” says Ysabel.
“You have it, you’ll know.”
“But what if I don’t?”
He shakes his big brown head. “You won’t want to know.”
“Ridiculous!” cries the woman at the other end of the sofa, her white hair done up in braids. “Mother, please,” says Ysabel. Taking a step toward Mr. Keightlinger, toward Chazz, toward Iona wary in the doorway. “Well,” she says. “It’s you who’ve pressed most firmly for this dilemma. How would you see it resolved.”
“I am aware,” growls Mr. Keightlinger, a flick of his free hand, annoyed, and then, “Your shirt. Take it off.”
She stops, halfway along the length of the dining table. The woman in the gauzy robe lifts a hand, opens her mouth as if to say something. “You address,” says Chazz, “a Queen, sir,” and Mr. Keightlinger shakes him, once, “Your sweater,” he growls, “take off your sweater. I need to see. If you have it.”
“Draw, Chazz,” says the woman on the sofa, “Iona, go on. Cut him down. Someone!”
“Gammer Duenna, you will be still,” says Ysabel, and then, to Mr. Keightlinger, “First, you must let him go.”
“He stays in the room,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “Everyone stays in the room.”
“You’d have an audience.”
“Collateral,” says Mr. Keightlinger, pushing Chazz stumbling into the end of the table, crash, and steps past him, down the table, up to her standing quite still, and “Ma’am!” cries Iona, and a stern “Hold!” from Ysabel. “This will be done in a moment.” Mr. Keightlinger doesn’t so much nod as shrug, and she lifts her sweater up and over her head and off.
“Bra,” says Mr. Keightlinger, but she’s already turned her back to him. “You’ll need to undo it,” she says.
Delicate clasp of it pinched by thick fingers pressing her skin, prodding as satin straps fall away. She holds the cups of it in place. “I have never,” says the woman on the sofa, “in all my days,” but turns away from a look from Ysabel. Those fingers, pressing the base of her neck. “Please,” he says, pushing, turning her about before him as she lets the bra fall to the floor. Looks up, away. In the shadows above, just under the ceiling, styrofoam wigstands and mannequin heads crowd along the picture molding, each of them painted, thick lines and curls in red and black, fixed rictuses of joy, wonder, and delight, and here and there a wicked sneer. Those spatulate fingers twisting, paling her skin, she winces, “Surely,” she says, “by now, you know?”
He stops, fingers along her sternum, index snug in clavicle-notch. His small eyes, reddened, squinted, brown, between snag of hair and snarl of beard. “You killed him,” he says, and takes a step back. “Didn’t you.”
She looks at him, then. “I seem to recall swatting something,” she says.
“His name’s yet known,” says Mr. Keightlinger, backing away. “Should’ve finished the job.” Turning to go, past glaring Chazz, Iona stepping aside. The door slammed shut behind him.
The man in the baggy coveralls is the first to make a move, a sound, coughing, and Ysabel snatches up her sweater, shoves herself into it, “Ma’am?” Iona’s saying. “Did he harm you?”
“Frost and blight,” says one of the women on the sofa, and “Blast and rot,” the other. Chazz mutters, “Why is his heart not here in my hand.”
“Shall we go?” says Iona, holding out a hand. “Home?”
“Yes,” says Ysabel, but then, frowning, “no,” she says. “No.”
It’s dark, up under the rafters. She lifts a paper bag over her head, climbs after it, up a brief ladder bolted to the wall, and crouching out onto planks laid across the joists there, a makeshift floor. Far below a pop and splatter, whoops, shrieks of laughter. On her knees she’s striking match, lighting the fat wick of a small brass lamp, setting the glass chimney in place, the light warming about her, her brown coat, her white-gold shock of hair. She drags the bag over, Powell’s, it says, and reaches in to pull out books, thick paperbacks with worn covers and creased, curled spines, star-spattered nightscapes and otherworldly pastels, fiery starships, lumpen aliens, The Romulan Way, Norstrilia, the titles say, Floating Worlds, in sober type, in colorful, wildly shaped logos, Caravan Stars, Titan, Brightness Falls from the Air. She sets to methodically peeling off price tags, little perforated squares of yellow and red, big white UPC labels. Someone says, “Hey,” and she looks up to see Anna, clinging to the ladder. “C’mon down. The champagne’s – not that bad, actually.”
“Come on down,” roars Gloria, somewhere below, laughter in her words.
“I’m putting these away,” says Marfisa, stacking a couple of books by a low wooden box, The Thurb Revolution, The Sardonyx Net, and “So,” says Anna, leaning an elbow on the floorboards. “This is what an outlaw’s lair looks like.” Tucked up close to the rafters, at the flickering edge of the lamplight, a rumpled sleeping bag, some discarded clothing. Leaned against a truss a wooden baseball bat. “I don’t need much,” says Marfisa, stacking up more books.
“Still,” says Anna, “now you can run out to IKEA, get yourself a shelf. Maybe even a bed.”
“She can,” says Marfisa, her back to Anna, a book in either hand.
“And?” says Anna. “Look, Marfisa. At all we got done, together, in a day.”
The sheepskin collar of that coat rises gently, in a sigh, as she sets the last two books with the others. “You gave a pot of money to, her,” she says. “We went shopping. For clothes.”
“And art supplies,” says Anna. “The computer, the champagne – that spark, in her eyes?” A yelp from below, “Ladies, come on! I’m about to fire this thing up!” Anna smiles. “And, also – the books,” she says.
“And you?” says Marfisa, turning about, sitting herself on the floor. “What did you get, from all of this?”
“It’s not the money, Marfisa. It’s not the stuff. Didn’t you feel it? We can help each other.”
Marfisa snorts. “With what,” she says. “We’re just some God-damned fools who said a wrong thing, once, to, to the wrong damned woman.”
“Here we go!” yells Gloria somewhere below, but Anna, stricken, leans her elbows on those planks, “Don’t say that,” she whispers. “It’s more than that. You know it.” Marfisa looks away. “And more than just us,” says Anna, a little more than a whisper now. “There’s others, out there. Left, lost, in the shadows, when she turned her face away.” Reaching out a hand. “We can help them, too.”
Marfisa shifts, leaning away, over toward the low wooden box, there by her books. “Are you ready, Anna, for an outlaw’s life?” Anna draws back her hand, a pinch of a frown. Marfisa moves something from the top of that box, an empty horse’s head, bulging black eyes, flop of a snout. “When the Glaive and the Guisarme find out what you’ve done,” she says, “and for whom,” as she lifts the lid of the box, and a wash of golden light spills up and out to overwhelm that little brass lamp. Anna, blinking, catches her breath. “You’ll want to take some,” says Marfisa. “Against that day.”
“The money, is nothing,” says Anna, her voice gone husky. “The bank gets its due. And I’ve signed his name before, at his request.”
“Your tracks are covered?”
“I shouldn’t,” says Anna, looking up at Marfisa in all that light. “Not yet.”
“Not yet,” says Marfisa. Darkness falls as she lowers the lid.
“It’s just the Montage leftovers,” she says, leaning back against the counter, sweatpants and a white tank top. Over the stove the microwave’s lit up and roaring. “I thought you were going out with Reg.”
“You could’ve asked, is all,” she says, there by the shelf in an oversized sweatshirt, legs bare. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
The gentle chime of a doorbell, and she tips her head, a gesture of that striking nose, “Is that him?”
She shakes her head, blond hair austerely swaying side to side. “Not yet.”
“Well, I’m not expecting anyone,” she says, as the microwave bleeps, goes dark. She turns to open its door.
Rolling her eyes she heads off out of the kitchen across the open living room, dark wood paneling and grey-green shag that softens her peevish stomps. Again the gentle chime, followed almost immediately by a pounding knock on the door she opens to see Ysabel, in her long white coat, and her scowl brightens into a smile. “Hello, darling,” she says.
Ysabel’s looking past her. “Is she at home?” she says.
Smile sours to pout. “You could’ve just called,” she says, and then, calling out, “Chrissie! It’s for you!”
“Hey,” says Chrissie, stepping out of the kitchen, bowl in one hand, fork in the other. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve had a day,” says Ysabel, looking down, away from Chrissie to Ettie there beside her, and then up and back to Chrissie again. “Come out with me,” she says, all at once. “Tonight,” she says. “Right now.”
“All right,” says Chrissie, after a moment.
Dim pink light shimmers pulsing from the drumbeat somewhere else, close pink-painted walls, dingy white carpeting, a low white rumpled couch. A silver pole in the middle of the room, bolted to floor and ceiling, and she steps around it, black cloak purpled in that light, and Ysabel’s long white coat gone pink and shadowed purple, and the spangles of Chrissie’s black dress softened, dulled, her hand in Ysabel’s, looking about the little room. “So,” she says. “This is Thursday?”
That cloak spreads lifting arms to reach for the hood and “Wait,” says Ysabel. “Don’t.”
“I am her majesty’s to command,” says the Starling, horsely hushed.
“Your,” says Chrissie, almost, a breath of a word, looking from the shadowed wings of the cloak to Ysabel eyeing her sidelong from a step away, letting go her hand. “Go on,” she says, to Chrissie. “Look at her.”
“I,” says Chrissie, “I am.”
“No,” says Ysabel. “Go and look at her.”
A smile creeps over Chrissie’s lips. “All right,” she says, stepping back. “I guess I’m her majesty’s – ”
“Don’t,” says Ysabel, sharply.
And Chrissie says, “All right,” and another step back, and then around and past the pole. Leaning down in her brief black dress to look up, into the shadows under the hood, and a glimmer there, pink light shimmering, caught in crystal, on silver filigree. “Ysabel?” she says, a whisper, bare arm reaching up to jolt back as rustling a cloaked arm lifts a hand to meet hers, there, at the edge of the hood, fingers brushing, grasping, drawing back.
“You’re,” says Chrissie, “you’re her – ”
“No,” says the Starling.
“I’ve but a brother,” says Ysabel.
“Is this some kind of a,” says Chrissie, and then, “how,” she says, stepping back, bump against the pole.
“Smoke, and mirrors,” says the Starling. “Powders and creams.”
“I guess,” says Chrissie, “we know you’re not the funny one,” and the Starling frowns.
“Chrissie, please,” says Ysabel. “Look at her, and tell me. Do you – think, she’s,” and the thrumming drums, the half-heard synthesizer stabs. That pink light, pulsing. “Do you,” says Ysabel, as Chrissie’s fingers interlock with the Starling’s, the two of them breathless watching her, the Queen. “Do you want her,” says Ysabel.
The Starling closes her eyes. Chrissie, swallowing, lifts her head, a nod, or possibly a sigh.
Two residential streets, a simple intersection, the pavement of it painted in a great circle, yellows and whites, a sunflower faded by weather and traffic, opening under harshly blue-white streetlights. Houses sit comfortably at three of the corners, windows lit here and there against the fallen night, and at three of the corners there by the sidewalks little kiosks built of scrap lumber and windfall, painted in primary colors dimmed with age. He’s there by the sign that says Central Square, a bulletin board beneath it papered with notecards and flyers and photos, lost dog, Yamaha keytar cheap, web design made easy, paleo prepped 4 you. A beard, a mustache thick about his lips, dark hair lankly brushing the shoulders of his warmup jacket, blue and grey. Out in the intersection, Jessie in her puffy pink and orange parka, yellow hair struck colorless in the close bright light. They’re both looking over the fourth of those four corners, where a new house rises up, sheets of plywood cut around what will one day be doors and windows, paper sheathing wrapped about, yellow and white, and spars and beams of a second storey and a third reaching up, raw lumber pale against the dark night sky.
“There was a gate,” she says. “A red gate, and little lights, strung from the trees. There were more trees.”
“The Bedroom Spared,” he says. “The Second Breakfast Nook. The Singing Room and the Smoking Porch. The Heartstone.”
“All the,” she says, “rugs, everywhere you went there were rugs on top of rugs.”
“We had a Rug Day,” he says. “You had to bring something for the floor to get in. Leo brought a strip of carpet from the airport.”
“Leo,” she says, look over at him on the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. “John,” she says, but then, “no. Michael. Michael John Lake.”
“Luke,” he says, turning away. Heading back down the sidewalk, the cars parked alongside, to a boxy dark sedan. He opens a door and leans in, wrestling with the stuff crammed into the back of it.
She’s frowning as he comes back toward her, a roll of sleeping bag in one hand, a wad of blankets tucked under an arm. “Let’s go,” he says, stepping up onto the curb before the unbuilt house.
“I, uh, Luke,” she says, hurrying after him, “we shouldn’t,” up shaky steps onto a narrow plywood porch. “It’s all right,” he’s saying, as he steps through the empty hole of the front doorway, “I doubt they’ve installed an alarm system yet.”
Inside the darkness thick, abruptly shaped by skeletons of walls, enfilades of two-by-fours limned faintly by the streetlight. “What if someone sees us,” says Jessie, hushed.
“No one saw us,” he says. Over there serrated angles, a couple of stringers hung from ceiling to floor out in the middle of what will be a room, and planks laid atop each deckled edge, a makeshift staircase. Creaking up he does. “Shit,” says Jessie, following after, careful steps in the middle of each board. “We don’t have to stay here,” she says, arms out for balance, the drop to either side.
“I won’t spend another night in that car,” he says, up there somewhere, rustle and thump. He’s tossed the sleeping bag up another floor and he’s stuffing the blankets up after. “The cash,” she’s saying, stepping away from the edge. “We don’t have to save it anymore.” He’s jumped up grabbing the floor above, feet kicking for purchase against a lumber strut. “Little help,” he grunts. She steps up, hands on the seat of his jeans, pushing, “There’s a motel up on Powell,” she says. “Let’s go get a damn room. Sleep in a bed.”
He’s reaching down, and grabs the hand that she holds up. “No,” he says. “We have a plan. We’re sticking to our plan. We’re getting the apartment.” He braces himself to pull, but she’s standing still, “The rent,” she says. “Without a job, there’s no way – ”
“We go on as we mean to go on,” he says.
“But,” she says, and “Do you trust me,” he says.
“Do you believe me,” he says, resettling his grip, and she nods. “Then we go on,” he says, and pulls her up.
Out past the unroofed back of the house restless, lightless trees, stirred by the hissing rush of wind. The starless sky above brushed with light from the city below, and off that way, far off, towering buildings lifted, lit up, and rising among them warning lights winking about the towers of idle cranes. “Look at that,” he murmurs, low and close, there by her ear. “How do you hold hands around something like that.”
“We’re gonna freeze up here,” she says.
“No,” he says. “I’m almost back to myself. Soon,” he says. “Soon.” And then, “Just,” he says, “tell me.”
She turns a little, in his arms, to look at him. “I need to sleep,” she says. “We have to get up stupid early, so nobody sees us sneaking out of – ”
“No one will see us,” he says. “Tell me. Tell me her name.”
And Jessie says, “Isadora.”
“Sariel,” written by John Zorn and Pat Metheny, ©2013 Metheny Group Productions. “Ankara Sundays,” written by Somi, copyright holder unknown. The Romulan Way, written by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood, ©1987 Paramount Pictures. Norstilia, written by Cordwainer Smith, ©1975 Genevieve Linebarger. Floating Worlds, written by Cecilia Holland, ©1975. Caravan Stars, written by Abby Tinker, ©1983. Titan, written by John Varley, ©1979. Brightness Falls from the Air, written by James Tiptree, Jr. ©1985. The Thurb Revolution, written by Alexei Panshin, ©1968. The Sardonyx Net, written by Elizabeth A. Lynn, ©1981.
White towers blank in the lamplight, clustered on the table, a clump of them quite tall at the one end, lowering in the middle, and the one lone tower taller than the rest there at the other end, all spread along the bank of a broad blue curl of river painted along one edge. Delicate bridges of foamcore and thread span the blue, and a little white boat between a couple of them, and at the foot of one, just past the lone tower, a bloom of color, towers and blocks in red and yellow and blue instead of white. In her purple gown she leans over it, her hair wrapped in a fine black scarf. “I’d no idea,” says Lymond behind her, “you could get wine in cans.”
He’s sitting sideways in an overstuffed armchair, the only chair in that wide room, both legs hooked over the one arm, leaning back against the other, and in his hand a plain silver can that says Pinot Gris in clean black simple letters.
“Is his majesty pleased?” she says.
“What, with today?” he says. “Didn’t go too badly, I guess.”
“Better than the wine?”
“Oh,” he chuckles, leaning down to set the can on the floor with exaggerated care. “I’m not about to touch the wine.”
“Your sister,” she says, stepping away from the table, purple gown glimmering blue and green as it sweeps the polished floor, “did not seem too enthused.” The great wall of glass behind her filled up blankly black, struck here and there by reflections of yellow-gold lamplight, pools and whorls of warmth curled up above her and that little white city. His hands in his lap he’s poking at the ragged corner of a thumbnail. “How about you?” he says. “How’s your enthusiasm?”
“Do you really think you can do this?” she says.
“Well of course I do,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter what I think. Does it.”
“But I defer to his majesty’s judgment,” she says.
“Y’know,” he says, swinging his feet down, sitting up, “I gotta tell ya. You evince a remarkable equanimity, for someone who came to this city thinking she’d be Princess, Bride, and Queen.”
“And I may yet,” she says, and he laughs, and claps his hands together. “True!” he says. “Yeah. Failure mode’s pretty good for you, isn’t it.”
“It was a marvelous party,” she says, heading past him in his overstuffed chair. “A good evening, to your majesty.”
“Your highness,” he says.
Up an enclosed, spiraling staircase, the loud rustle of her gown, down a carpeted hall lit dimly yellow, photographs hung to either side, a mountainous cloudscape, a stretch of water dimpled by rain, a fog-shrouded copse. She opens a door at the end of the hall on a room almost entirely filled by a canopy of white netting, hung across a corner, a lamp shining within, and shadows fluttering against it. She closes the door, then undoes a couple of velcro fasteners, lifting a flap of netting, ducking within.
Butterflies, a dozen or more, lilt and lop about, white wings and yellow, black and yellow, black and red and brown and beige, unblinking eye-shapes of orange and black, lighting on the netting, the pillows piled at one end of a narrow bed, her hand, held up before her, and all but wonder smoothed from her expression, and her shining eyes.
On a little table by the bed a plate of cookies, a white cup of ruby tea, a little black notebook, a glossy black phone. She takes up the phone, thumbing through the menus to find a list of missed calls from a number beginning with 313. She sighs, taps the number, holds the phone up to her ear.
“Dina,” she says. “Dina, tell Mother it was just a – ” and she closes her eyes. “Party,” she says. “Yes, Mother. Of course. It was the King’s luncheon, for the mayor, and –
“Well, yes, it did run late.
“Yes, Mother. Did everything – yes. Did everything, arrive? As they said it would?” She absently waves a butterfly brown and gold from the tendrils of steam faint above the cup. “Good,” she says. “Oh, good.” Close by the end of the bed, netting rucked up about it, a glass tank rests atop a wrought-iron stand, and inside two white plastic pots, packed with dirt, and clouds of feathery green fronds on slender stalks. “So much,” she says. “That’s why – yes, Mother. Yes. I will try. I will, yes, I will. Good – goodbye, Mother. Dina? Dina. Is Nadia there? Is she, can she, oh.
“I see. Could you tell her. Would you tell her how much I miss her?
“Tell her how much I miss you all.”
Setting the phone down. Unwinding the black scarf from about her long black hair. Leaning over that glass tank. Caterpillars brown and black inch and hunch, ravenously nibbling the greenery shivering, trembling, but there, and there, hang still, rearmost leg-pairs sealed to branchlets by daubs of white foam, heads dandled in sleepily protective curls. “Oh,” she says, reaching for the notebook. 3/22 she writes, deftly, in blue-black ink. L. lorquini, L. lorquini, R. polynice. Capping the pen, setting the notebook down, she sits, and takes up the cup. A sigh, and a sip of tea.