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“Leo, dammit” – Getting Ready – with All her Heart –

“Leo, dammit,” says Jessie, hands up, blocking his way, and “Oh for pity’s sake,” he says, “it’s my fucking office.” In his blue and brown striped pants and a shirt of creamy gold, open at the throat, a very pointed pair of Persian slippers on his feet.

“She isn’t done,” says Jessie. The room behind her empty but for a big flat wooden desk on four stout legs and a shoulder-high rack on casters hung with dresses in colors that come from flames and dawns, sunstruck bricks, and leaves, just before they fall. A song is playing softly, guitar and piano and a big rubbery bass, on the black Fellini sails, tattered rags that hangs on nails reminds me. A woman in a navy pantsuit’s bent over at an awkward angle, tugging at a zipper in the back of a severely simple gown the color of old bone. Jo’s wriggling her shoulders from the straps, letting the front of it peel away from her chest. “What’s to do?” says the Duke. “That looks fantastic. Like whatshername. With the hair.” He diddles his fingers in front of his face. Jo shoots a look at the Duke, an arm across her breasts. The song’s soaring into a chorus, she had one long pair of eyes, she had one long pair of eyes between her. “Real nineteen-thirties Hollywood glamor thing,” the Duke’s saying.

“There’s a jacket, a bolero jacket with that one,” says the woman in the pantsuit, tugging the gown over Jo’s hips.

“So why are we still talking about this?” says the Duke. “Karen, thanks, I’ll have Sweetloaf run the rest back in a bit, now, if you don’t mind? I need to talk to Jo here, alone.”

“Leo,” says Jessie, curtly, as Karen nods and heads for the door, and “What,” says the Duke. “Is that dress not fantastic?”

“That’s not – ”

“And is five-fifteen not allotted in my schedule for helping Jo to see the light? And am I not already running ten minutes late?”

“Twenty,” mutters Jessie, and “All right then,” says the Duke, gesturing toward the door.

“Actually,” says Jo. “Jessie. If you could stay.” In her black boxer briefs, tugging down her white V-neck T-shirt. Her feet bare.

“I, ah,” says Jessie, and the Duke’s saying “You didn’t, but, okay, sure. Why not. Fine.”

“So this light,” says Jo, and Jessie rolls her eyes, shoving her fists in the pockets of her cardigan, stretching it down and down.

“The light,” says the Duke, sucking his teeth. “Okay. Tonight ain’t what you think it is.”

“What is it I think it is?” says Jo.

“The night you walk out of that house with a Princess on your arm.”

“That’s not,” says Jo, “I wasn’t,” and “Come on,” says the Duke, “tell me. Look me in the eye and tell me. If she takes your hand, if she kisses your cheek and she says to you, Jo, she says Jo, take me with you – what are you gonna do?”

Jo one hand gripping the rack of dresses face hot says, “I made a promise.”

“And so it will be kept,” says the Duke, gently. “Safe and sound, warm and hale. Jo.” A shuffling limp, leaning heavily on his cane, and she looks down. “Jo, look at me.” His hand on her chin, hesitantly, gently tipping it back up. “I could just,” he says, and she lifts her head away with a little jerk and he lets his hand drop, “I could tell you it suits my purposes for you to go, and expect you to put on that dress without another word.” Jessie snorts at that, and the Duke favors her with a sour, sidelong glare. “But I am doing you the signal honor,” he says to Jo, “of explaining myself, a courtesy I rarely ever extend. If she were to walk out of that house with you, tonight. If,” he takes a deep breath, “if the last bond between the Bride and the Queen were broken, and no King were there to take her hand.”

“You’re talking about the coup,” says Jo, and Jessie looks up at that.

“No, no coup. Far worse,” says the Duke, and “Yeah, but, but the stuff,” says Jo, “the turning, the, the,” waving her hand, looking for the word, “the owr. It stops.”

“It’s stopped already,” says the Duke. “We squeeze ourselves dry week after week and nothing but dust comes back. No, I’m talking about it ending. Forever. No more Hive, nor Hawk, nor Hound.” He looks away, a bad taste in his mouth. “It’s started already. I have, Jo, with you, I have nineteen knights gathered beneath my mighty wings. How many came with their bottles to this morning’s Muster?”

“I, ah, so, the King,” says Jo, letting go of the rack, looking over at Jessie, who’s shaking her head. “When does he come back?”

“Once I have sat upon the Throne,” says the Duke, “and stood back up again.”

“Well, okay, so this Throne then,” says Jo. “We have to go find it?”

“It’s not like that,” says Jessie.

“It’s not time,” says the Duke.

“When, when is it gonna be – ”

“I’ve sworn that by the turning of the year I will be King.”

“So that’s, what, a month? A month and a half?”

“Sooner, perhaps.”

“Well what is it we’re waiting for?” says Jo. “What has to happen?”

“Jo,” says Jessie, “just, don’t,” as the Duke says “I will know it when it’s time.”

“It. What it. What are you talking about here – ”

He pounds his cane-tip against the floor. “I’m not ready, Gallowglas.”

“Leo, we’d better,” says Jessie, but Jo’s saying, “You’re not,” as she makes her way down the rack of dresses away from him, one hand brushing their shoulders, straps, hangers clink-clinking against the rail, each other. “Ready.” She stoops, picks up her black jeans, looks at them a moment in her hands. “All of this,” she says, “All, the stoppage. The squeezing. Her being,” shaking out the jeans, “cooped up with her mother, this, all of this, because, Christ.” Looking up at him now with those mud-colored eyes. “You’d better get ready.”

“I swore an oath,” he says. “Before the turning of the – ”

“Your oath!” she cries. “Her wish! Her, vision, or whatever. Herself as Queen. We know it’s going to happen. Why are you even bothering with, she’s – Leo, shit, let’s go. Get it over with. Tonight.”

“Herself as Queen, and you by her side. Is that what she told you? Is that why you flung yourself against the Mooncalfe? You thought for sure you wouldn’t lose? Because of that?”

“I’m here,” says Jo. “I survived.”

“Let’s go, downstairs,” says the Duke. “You jump out in front of a bus. I want to see how her vision saves you then. If we go, tonight, to get it over with, best bring a broom with you, to sweep what’s left of me from the seat for the next candidate.”

“Who’s next?” says Jo, and he laughs. “How quickly I’m thrown over,” he says to Jessie, spreading his arms wide, the cane jaunty in one hand. “Do you see – anyone – else!” he bellows, and drives the cane down to crack against the floor. “Put down those pants, Gallowglas. Take a shower. Have Jessie do something with your hair and your face. Put on that dress. Do these things because it suits my purposes. We leave in an hour and a half.” And he turns away and limps toward the door.

“How?” says Jo, and he stops. “How does it, why risk it? Me?”

“I think you’ll make a decent catalyst,” he says, “provoking and, clarifying, certain actions and reactions. We’ll see how the Queen might back her daughter’s new champion.” His hand on the doorknob. “And I will keep a promise that I made to you: that you might see the Bride, and speak with her.” He opens the door, he nods, he steps through, and pulls it shut behind him.

Jo lets out a sudden blast of breath, shaking her head. “Arrogant,” she says. “Son of a bitch.”

“He’s a Duke, Jo,” says Jessie, scooping back her yellow hair. “What did you expect?”

“Still,” says Jo.

“Where’s the car,” says Ysabel, heading for the front door in a rustle of lace, a clatter of heels, and “Wait,” says Jo, padding after in her slippers, a glitter of spangles, grabbing Ysabel’s arm. “Wait.”

“We’re just going to walk home?” says Ysabel, turning, her hand on Jo’s elbow, her hip, pulling her close, Jo’s hand still on her elbow, her other arm awkward behind Ysabel’s back as Ysabel hugs her tightly, cheek to cheek, her eyes squeezed shut, “Oh, Jo,” she says, then leaning back a little and blinking quickly “They didn’t, they didn’t tell me,” and then as Jo’s saying “I didn’t think so” Ysabel kisses her, quickly, firmly, and then, her hands coming up, Jo’s awkward arm about her waist, she’s stroking Jo’s hair, her forehead against Jo’s, her cheeks wet, she says, “I missed you so much.”

“Yeah,” says Jo.

“You look so, so lovely tonight,” says Ysabel.

“Ysabel, we need to,” says Jo, and Ysabel says “Yes of course” and turns stepping out of the embrace toward the door again, and again Jo catches her hand, “No,” she says, “wait.”

“We should go, now, while they’re distracted,” says Ysabel.

“They’re, they’re done fighting, I think,” says Jo. A muffled bellow from somewhere down the hall behind them. “With the swords, anyway. There’s nowhere to go, Ysabel. I took the Duke up on his offer. I’m staying in his loft, until, I don’t know. Haven’t thought that out.”

“I can stay with you – ”

“Ysabel,” says Jo. “Tell me. All of this. It was about becoming Queen, wasn’t it.”

Ysabel takes in a short sharp breath, then letting it out she smiles just a little and says, “Not at first.”

“Who was gonna be the King?” says Jo, looking down at her hand in Ysabel’s. Their fingers twined. “It wasn’t the Duke.” She doesn’t see Ysabel’s frown, the look she darts sideways, her swallow just before she says, “No one. I don’t need a King.”

“You don’t. But – ”

“There hasn’t been a King for years.”

Jo lets go of Ysabel’s hand. “Yeah, but,” she says. “They seem to think you do.”

“I seem to think they’re wrong. Jo.” She grabs Jo’s hand in both of hers. “All I need, Jo, is a bit of medhu to turn. Once I’ve done it, that’s it, it’s done, and all of mine, and none of hers. We could walk out that door and find some, tonight. Jo, we could try it tonight!”

“I don’t know,” says Jo, “if I could go through that again. If it didn’t work.”

Ysabel pulls her close. “I will be Queen, Jo. I’ve seen it.”

Jo closes her eyes and lays her forehead against Ysabel’s. “Maybe,” she says, “maybe me saying no, maybe waiting for the King to come back, maybe that’s how it is you get to be Queen.”

Ysabel’s grip tightens on Jo’s hand pressed there between them. “You wouldn’t. You’ve just come back to me. You wouldn’t leave me.”

“I don’t know,” says Jo, and Ysabel says “Don’t you trust me? Don’t you believe me?”

Jo’s nose brushing Ysabel’s she opens her mouth to say something, but she doesn’t, she presses it instead against Ysabel’s in a briefly single kiss. “I believe that you believe,” she says, “with all your heart.” Leaning back, stepping back. Letting go. “But you could be wrong.”

“So could they,” says Ysabel.

“I can’t,” says Jo, stepping back again, “I can’t make this decision.”

“You have. You already have.”

“Ysabel,” says Jo, as heels click-clacking Ysabel heads past her down that hall toward the stairs. Jo reaches for her, her sleeve, and Ysabel stops, and turns, her eyes so green, so cold and dry. “Let me go,” she says.

“Here,” says Jo, holding up a piece of paper folded and tucked into a triangle that says Is.

“Is?” says Ysabel, taking it from her.

“It’s from Jessie,” says Jo. “I don’t think she knows how you spell your name.”

“So it’s my consolation prize?” says Ysabel, as she unfolds it, reading it, and her hand starts to wave the note, shake it at Jo, and she says, “She loves me, for what that’s worth. That whatever I want, whatever I decide,” and Ysabel lets the creased note fall to the floor. “She won’t stand in my way,” she says.

“Fuck,” says Jo under her breath as Ysabel walks away, and then, “For what it’s worth,” she says, taking a step after those click-clacking heels, “I’m gonna do, everything I can, anything, to get him on that Throne as soon as fucking possible. I’m gonna – ”

“Imagine my gratitude,” says Ysabel, trudging up the stairs.

“I really don’t want to talk to you,” says Jo around the cigarette in her mouth. She’s sitting tailor-fashion on a little fire-escape balcony high above an empty street, a susurrating patter of gentle wind-blown rain on the awning above her. Across the street a big tan building, windows dark, only the red letters saying Fred Meyer lit up on the sign that hangs down the front of it. She leans forward to tap ash onto the sidewalk below. Wrapped in a puffy white comforter, one foot still in a sequined slipper peeking out there by the railing. Laid beside her on the grated balcony floor a sword in a plain black scabbard to the table, with a throat and chape the color of thunderclouds.

“Mostly I wanted to make sure they got this put in while we were out,” says the Duke, leaning against the sill of the open window behind her, in his dressing gown crowded with paisleys of purple and maroon and gold and brown.

“So this is new,” says Jo.

“Can’t have you traipsing all the way down through this pile to the parking lot every time you want a damn cigarette,” he says. “You really should quit those.”

“Yeah? Anything else I can do, to suit your purposes?”

He’s rubbing his forehead under a flopping lock of brown hair, looking away, down through the grated balcony at the street below. “You could,” he says, “accept an apology.”

Jo shudders then, under the comforter, closing her eyes. “Fuck that,” she says. “I made the decision I made. I’m not about to blame you for it.”

“Was it rough?”

“She hates me now,” says Jo. “I told you. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Do you mind?” says the Duke, on foot in a sheepskin slipper up on the low sill, and Jo shrugs, scoots over, “It’s your place,” she says, pulling the comforter more tightly about herself, careful of the cigarette.

“Yours too, now,” he says, climbing out the window, folding himself grimacing to sit beside her, rubbing his thigh. “What I meant was,” he says, after a moment, “I did a stupid and a foolish thing, to you. I,” and he takes a deep breath, “presumed, upon a trust we didn’t have, a trust that, because of what I’ve done, we may never have.” Looking at his hand, wrapped around the railing before him. “And I’m terribly very sorry for that.”

After, after a gentle pattering moment, Jo leans over to let the half-smoked cigarette fall from her fingers. Tucks her hand under the comforter. “All right,” she says. “Yes. I accept.”

He nods, once. He says, “She’ll get over it.” He looks out at the drifting scrim of rain, looks at her beside him, huddled under the comforter. Wincing, he hauls himself to his feet. “I like it out here,” he says, stepping over the sill, back inside.

“Hey,” says Jo, and he stops there in the window. “One thing. Coffey’s place. Why’d you take me there? How’d you know that’s what I needed?”

He’s smiling his crooked, sidelong smile. “Who doesn’t find sea air restorative?” he says. “Goodnight, Jo.”

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“One Long Pair of Eyes,” written by Robyn Hitchcock, copyright holder unknown.

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