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Raw Green Peas – three Questions only – “Subparagraphs and shit” – Tarnish –

Raw green peas at the bottom of a teacup set to one side of the scarred linoleum counter. A fat red candle slumped in on itself guttering in a pool of melted wax, a couple of blue-tipped matches scattered before it. A blackened matchstick smoking in a shot glass blazoned with a Tlingit eagle. An old key blurred by rust, a splintery chopstick, a damp bus transfer in a plastic pot that says Oxygen Bleach Cleanser. A threadbare little rabbit on a leash of string nibbles at a page ripped from a pornographic magazine. More pages spread across the linoleum, lozenges of skin like brushed suede, like toasted caramel, like slick beige plastic. Gauze like drying sea-foam, lace like rotten ice, black vinyl shining tight. “Salt,” says the woman sitting at the counter. The rabbit-string tied about her wrist. She flicks her head from side to side and wrinkles her nose. “Dried sweat.” Hunched inside a sweater the color of flour, a floppy black hat pulled low over her yellow hair. Under the brim her eyes squint milkily.

“Okay,” says the man sitting on the stool across from her. His coat is long and camel-colored. A derby reddish brown in one gloved hand, his other on a soft brown briefcase flat on the counter, buckles undone. A wooden cane leans against the counter, its handle a stern, rough-hewn hawk.

“Sea air,” she says, “and bleach, and. Jelly?” That head-flick again, annoyed. “Old socks. Corn chips.”

“Suggestive,” he says. “First question, then?” She nods once, sharply. “How old are they?”

She shrugs, hat-brim dipping to meet her shoulder. “Old and old, Leo. Twenty-two days? Twenty-three?” On the wall behind her a number of paintings, one of spaceships on black velvet rigged with blinking lights, one with a shimmering tumble of light suggesting a waterfall behind translucent plastic. The tinny whine of its little motor in the silence. He sets the derby on the counter next to the briefcase. “Not old at all for a magazine,” he says then, “not especially.” Tugging his gloves off a finger at a time. “But old and old indeed for a bit of byblow.”

“I didn’t say it was byblow,” she says, tugging the rabbit’s string.

“Didn’t ask,” he says, stirring the pages about. “Three weeks ago the Princess and her guardian were attacked on a MAX train that came to a stop about a chain away from where this bag was finally found.”

“Finally?” says the woman, rubbing the rabbit’s nose.

“I didn’t hear the details at first, didn’t bug me for a while, I’ve been busy. Duke stuff. So Northeast went for somebody. So Northeast got distracted and didn’t go hard. Happens all the time. Right?” He tugs one of the pages from the spread. “Only Northeast has plenty and plenty of monsters. Northeast doesn’t need to make ugly hollow men from dried jizz and bad dreams.” On the page in his hand a woman lying back tight orange jacket unzipped short skirt flipped over her belly dark stockings gartered halfway up her long long thighs striped underwear stretched taut between spread knees. “This is wizard-stuff. Witch-stuff. Red-blooded fool-stuff.”

“You get three questions,” she says, hauling the rabbit into her lap. “Not a lecture.”

“I’m not the only one can put two and two together on this, Miss Cheney. Of course, most of them will think I commissioned the hit.” He lays the page back on the counter. “I tell the Queen to make the Gallowglas a knight, she says no, this thing happens, the Gallowglas steps up. Voila! Her royal hand is forced. Looks nice and neat to the politically unsophisticated.”

Her eyelid trembling she says, “You’re trying to clear your name.”

“Haven’t the chance of a hope in hell, there,” he says. “But forget the two shits I could give what people are saying. I want to know what they’re doing. Second question. Who’s touched this bag but me?”

Her mouth jumps open, snaps shut. The rabbit starts squirming. She leans over to let it down from her lap. “I couldn’t say,” she says, straightening.

“You couldn’t say,” says the Duke. “Well. There’s a number of reasons maybe why you couldn’t. You failed, say. It’s beyond you. Or you can, but. You’re under a geas. It violates the strictures of a promise you’ve made to someone else.” His elbows on the counter, his chin in his hands. “The moment I ask whether or which, there’s my third question. At least it’s not like you could’ve, and chose not to, papered it over with rhetoric – ” He smiles. “I almost said ‘right?’ then, with a questioning lilt like that. Boy, that would’ve been stupid.”

“Ask your third question,” she says, hat-brim hiding her eyes and her nose but not her soured mouth.

“What have you got in your pockets?” says the Duke.

She tips that floppy black hat back, her milky stare aimed squarely at him. Reaches down shifting her bulky sweater to dig into a pocket and come up hand closed around something she carefully places on the flesh-colored pages. Lifts her hand away. A little toy car, silver and green, sheened with weak afternoon light strained through the tall dusty windows behind him.

“The Chariot,” says the Duke. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“It’s not what you think,” says Miss Cheney.

“Didn’t ask,” he says, setting the toy car to one side, scooping up the pages limp and slick, heavily awkward. “I find it’s best when consulting an oracle to know what you want to know going in. Saves on sleepless nights afterwards, whittering over ambiguities.”

“You’d know more,” she says, head ducked again, “if you’d asked anything else with your third question. The tenth word on page twenty three, sixth book from the end. The name of my rabbit. When next you’ll see the Bodach Glas,” and the Duke says “Don’t” as he’s stuffing pages into the briefcase, and she says “Who’ll win the duel between the Axe and the Gallowglas,” as the Duke’s saying “Don’t even make a,” and then he stops, one hand still holding the briefcase open. Frowning he says, “The who the what now?”

“Come back Monday,” says Jo as the elevator doors close. “Monday’s the fucking day.” One hand carrying a long thin bundle wrapped in towels. The other’s holding a foil-wrapped burrito in a red-and-white check paper boat.

“The Samani’s not till midnight,” says Ysabel, nibbling on a salad roll wrapped in rice paper.

“Great,” says Jo. “Plenty of time for a pep talk before I stand up and get myself killed.”

“It’s not like you were going to learn that much in the next few days,” says Ysabel. “What?” The elevator doors open and Jo stomps out and down the orange-carpeted hall. “You’ll be fine,” says Ysabel, following after. “You have to trust me on this.”

Jo’s unlocking the apartment door, burrito in her other hand, bundle leaning against the wall. “I don’t have a problem trusting you,” she says, opening the door. “It’s my lizard brain.” Looking back at Ysabel. “Gets all fight-or-flight just thinking about it.” Stepping in her leading foot slips forward suddenly and she falls back on her butt.

“You okay?” says Ysabel.

Jo sits up still holding the paper boat, inside it still the huge burrito wrapped in foil. “Ow,” she says. On the floor a manila envelope with a label that says JO MAGUIRE 407. “The fuck?” says Jo, climbing to her feet.

Ysabel squeezes past her there in the little hallway kitchen, out into the main room past the glass-topped café table to crank open the window. Sits on the floor tapping a cigarette against a gold cigarette case. Still in the kitchen Jo’s tugging a binder-clipped bundle of paper from the envelope, peeling up the first page or two with one hand, picking at the foil wrapping her burrito with the other. Ysabel lights her cigarette, then leans back to breathe smoke out the window, smoothing the stiff pleats of her corduroy skirt.

“Well,” says Jo, letting the pages fall from her hand. “Shit. Turns out you aren’t a houseguest. Turns out you’re a member of my household. And because I didn’t inform them of a change in the size of my household, they have no choice but to revoke my housing voucher.”

“We weren’t supposed to get that,” says Ysabel. “Don’t worry about it.”

Jo looks over at her, eyebrows up. “We weren’t supposed to get this.”

“Yeah, he said there was plenty of time yet to stop the notice going out and there shouldn’t be any hiccups. I guess he was wrong about – ”

“Would ‘he’ be,” says Jo, flipping up a couple of pages, “Tim Carroll?”

“Yes,” says Ysabel.

“Who’s no longer employed in a management capacity at the Gretchen Kafoury Commons?” says Jo.

“Well,” says Ysabel, sitting up, “okay, but he gave his word. And he wrote it all out and gave me a copy. I didn’t want to worry you, is – ”

“That’d be,” says Jo, flipping to another page, “the agreement should in no way be considered binding, and then it goes on to list all the, the things it’s in violation of.” She flips up another page, and another. “Subparagraphs and shit. It’s an impressive list.” She looks up from the document. “What the hell did you do to this guy?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “I – ”

“Christ, it never occurred to me I had to tell you not to talk to the fucking landlord about how you live here. I never thought you’d even see them without me around. Hell, that you even had the slightest idea what they were for.”

“Do we need to,” says Ysabel, leaning forward, “leave? Now?”

“Thirty days,” says Jo, stuffing the document back into the envelope. “Gonna be one hell of a Thanksgiving.”

“Well, then, there’s time,” says Ysabel, standing, flicking her cigarette out the window. “I just need to, I guess, talk to whomever’s his boss – ”

“You need to not, okay? Just,” both hands on her head pushing her short hair back, “don’t. Okay?”

“Jo, I can fix this,” says Ysabel.

“How?” says Jo, throwing her hands in the air. “You gonna do somebody else what you did to Carroll that got him fired? That stirred up all this,” picking up the envelope, “shit?” Dropping it to the counter again. “Is that how you’re gonna fix it?” Ysabel’s looking down, away, hands useless at her sides. “Make another goddamn wish maybe?” Ysabel slams her eyes shut, and her hands ball into fists.

“Tell him to stay down,” says the man kneeling in the shadows.

“Stay down, Mike,” says the very small woman standing by the gunmetal desk. Her face worn, her cheeks round and ruddy even in the dim light from the reading lamp on the desk.

“Not,” a groan from the shadowed floor, a bubbling cough, and then “not a problem.”

“I don’t understand, sir,” says the very small woman. A thin chain about her neck holds a pair of spectacles she lifts and fits over her eyes. “What offense have we caused?”

Something small and glinting arcs from the kneeling man that she catches awkwardly against her chest, a small glass jar, empty, filmed with some whitish residue. The spectacles fall from her eyes. She pinches the bridge of her nose. Sets the jar on the desk by the overflowing in-box. “You must be running low,” says the kneeling man. “Send for a bucket, to catch what’s spilling from him.” He shifts, lifts an arm a wet sound slicing his hand in the light from the desk lamp, grubby fingerless bicycle glove, heavy golden pommel a sword gleaming swiveling in the light to point at her and sink back into the shadows again.

“I imagine you laughed long and loud together when she came to you with this,” she says, “and told you what I thought I’d planned with her. But then you went and poured it straightaway into the Queen’s pots. We’re all running low these days, and watery-weak, and sour, waiting for a King who hasn’t come.”

“The Princess did not laugh at you, Soames,” says the kneeling man. “The Princess is, naïve.” Shifting, standing, his face rising up into the light. “That jar was empty when I found it.” His hair a close-cropped white-blond fuzz. About his neck a pair of blue and white headphones.

“Then she turned it,” whispers the Soames, hands clasped before her face.

Roland shakes his head. “It went bad on her. I had to cut it out.”

“You – ” Her face gone blank, head pulling back and up as her shoulders sag. “You could have destroyed her. You may well have crippled her.”

“Then there will one day be another Princess,” says Roland. “But had she been found poisoned? Or had your mad plan worked, and she’d turned it on her own, usurped the Queen – ”

“A Queen who’s let this city starve,” says the Soames, suddenly fierce.

“You’d rather see it ablaze?” says Roland.

And as suddenly she sags again. “I suppose, then,” she says, “it’s to be exile for us both.” She picks up the small glass jar, turns it over in her hands. Roland in that slice of light says nothing. “Oh,” says the Soames, setting the jar back on the desk. “Of course. You’d have to clap the Princess in irons, too. Whatever treason we’ve committed’s just as much on her head.” One hand up in a fist before her mouth. “There’ll be a fire, won’t there. We’ll have been tragically trapped by the blaze. Working late, as we were, no one else to hear our cries for help.”

“I must make certain, first,” says Roland, looking down at the shadowed floor, taking a step back, and another. “Your name is Open Mike, isn’t it.” Both hands on the hilt of his sword.

“Yeah,” says Mike from the floor.

“Forgive me, Open Mike,” says Roland, lifting his sword above his head.

Mike retches. Something splatters. Both of the Soames’ hands up over her mouth. “Fuck you, boss,” says Mike.

Roland brings the sword down in a sudden savage chop.

The Soames shakily says “Tell me, sir. Will you next go to burn down the Axe’s house, and strike her brother’s head from his shoulders? She has tarnished more than the Bride’s name in the eyes of the King, if he ever does come back – ”

“Would you have those as your last thoughts, Soames?” says Roland, straightening.

“No,” says the Soames, “no,” and then as he tightens both hands on the hilt of his sword, “I had a dream, last night. Tell me, sir, are you young enough that you have always slept, and dreamed?” Roland doesn’t nod. He doesn’t shake his head. “I can remember when we didn’t need such things,” she says. “When I have them they are so terribly vivid, but so weightless, so inconsequential – last night I was somehow back in my little mountain hut. I could see the colors of the mismatched glazes of the tiles pressed into the mud walls so very clearly. Someone was serving me chestnut cakes hot from the griddle. Wrapped in wet leaves the way we used to, to keep them from scorching. Over and over they dropped to the table before me, and I peeled them and gobbled them, down every one.”

When she does not say anything more, Roland says, “Stand to the side of the desk there, Soames Nell. And lift your chin.”

“I should have known,” she says, her words just loud enough to be heard. “They are the blandest things you can imagine, with not even a pinch of salt to be found.” She steps away from the desk, hands at her sides, head high. Not looking at him. “But how I’ve missed the taste.”

“My blade is sharp, and I am strong,” says Roland. “If you do not flinch, it will be clean and quick.” Lifting his sword, arms back and to one side. “Forgive me.”

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M.E.Traylor    14 August 2010    #

Wow. These last two scenes are really powerful. The way the “neighbors” talk about their memories is riveting.

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