“Yeah, so, anyway,” says Jo, “I just figured, I mean, you and Becker, you were there at the start, you know?” A drag from the cigarette in her hand. “Maybe you got something going on, I don’t know. Give me a call, okay? I, ah, I promise, I’ll stop leaving messages.”
The phone in her hand is little and glossy and black. On the screen a photo, herself and Ysabel cheek to cheek, Ysabel’s hand at the upturned collar of her white coat, black curls trapped lopping over it, looking sidelong smiling almost at Jo eyes crinkled smiling wide and directly into the camera she’s holding up before them, her arm blurrily out of focus at the bottom of the shot. Her hair short and brown and tufted up every which way. Streetlight behind them a dark building somewhere outside at night. The phone’s clock over their heads says 27:29. Monday, November 21. She thumbs the power button on its face and it goes dark. Sits back on the little balcony, looks up at the featureless grey-white sky past the awning above. In the empty intersection below stoplights click from yellow to red, red to green. Dark windows in the big tan building across the street, only the letters saying Fred Meyer lit up on the sign that hangs down the front of it. One last pull at the cigarette, then she leans over, lets it fall from her fingers through the grated floor of the balcony to the sidewalk below.
In through the window. She leaves her leather jacket sprawled over the mattress on the floor, drops the phone on it. At the foot of the mattress a yawning steamer trunk, rumpled clothing, jeans, T-shirts, most of them black, spilling over the sides. A couple of wooden crates, one upended, more clothing, shoes, a pair of big black boots. The white-painted floor ends abruptly on two sides, opening out into the airy white room beyond, tall and narrow windows one after another down the length of it. No railing about that edge, just the uprights of a ladder leaning there against it, leading down into the room. By the ladder a scabbard plain and black, throat and chape of beaten metal the color of a thundercloud, the hilt of the sword within simple and straight, wrapped in wire, the guard of it a glittering net of wire and worked steel knots. Jo toes off her shoes, peels off her sweatshirt, goes to unbutton her jeans but stops a moment, her thumb, her palm against her belly bare, pale, unmarked between navel and waistband.
She comes down the ladder in sweatpants and a black tank top, barefoot, sword in hand. Down the length of the room past the red jacuzzi she draws the sword, lays the scabbard on the long dark table, takes up her stance, right foot before her left, sword up at an angle before her, free hand pulled in close against her chest. Stepping up, stepping back, swinging the blade slowly in parries up, to the left, low, to the right. A long low lunge, a slow thrust, that free hand dropping back in a fist, pulling herself back upright, blade up again, free hand once more tucked against her chest. Again the parries, bare feet shuffling and thumping on the white plank floor.
Jo straightens, shakes out her arms, works her head back and forth. Behind her one hand on a high-backed chair a skinny girl barely wrapped in a brief brown towel, dark hair a wet rope slung over a shoulder. “I didn’t know anyone was up here,” says Jo, taking up her stance again.
“I was taking a bath,” says the girl. “I like long baths.”
“You weren’t,” says Jo, looking back at the jacuzzi, “there’s no tub in there.” Past it the sink bolted to the wall, the white door paned with frosted glass.
“Sure there is,” says the girl, with a smirk. Jo shrugs, turns to her blade, her feet shuffling, thumping, parry, parry, lunge and recover. “Sometimes,” says the girl. “Your other hand’s supposed to be up and back when you do that.”
“You’re a fencing coach, is that it?” The sword held straight out before her now. “That’s why,” her wrist rolls whipping the blade to the right then snapping back in line, “the Duke’s keeping you around?” To the left. The tip of it trembling, just.
“It’s how they do it in the movies,” says the girl.
“Movies,” says Jo. Whip and snap, whip and snap.
The girl’s walking along the other side of the table, squeezing water from her hair. “You’re jealous,” she says, looking back over a bare shoulder.
“How old are you,” says Jo, “like, fourteen?”
The girl undoes the towel and says, “Older than you, child,” sweeping it off. “Older by far.” Catching up her wet hair in it, twisting it deftly into a turban, patting it into shape up atop her scrawny neck. “You shouldn’t worry about the Duke,” she says. Jo snaps the tip of the sword to the left and trembling back. “He’s far too in love with shades of grey for the likes of me. I’m all loud colors and bright noises and I need a heart as cold as a deep black tarn that’s only fed on snow – ”
“Jesus, Lauren, do I look like I care!” snaps Jo. Throwing her foot forward into another lunge, free hand flung back. Wobbling as she straightens, free hand tucked against her chest. The girl raps her knuckles on the table, turns, hand on her hip, walks away toward the unmade sofa bed off in the corner. “I don’t know why you bother,” she says. “Six weeks, six months, six years,” pawing through a tangle of sheets and discarded clothing she comes up with a pair of underwear. “It wouldn’t be enough.” Yanking them up her legs. “Six decades wouldn’t be enough.”
Jo parries to the right, high, then low, sweeps the blade to the left, parries high, then low again.
A chanted chorus over organ chords from the speakers to either side of the monitor, all I’ve done and all I will do, all I know and all I want to, dissolves into buzzing strummed guitars and over them notes plucked clean and bent in an aching descant. The desk lamp the only light left in the narrow office, except what’s splashed from the half-open door to the break room. Becker shuffles up a stack of handwritten notes, taps them on the desk to even them out. His flannel shirt a faded blue, open over a waffled undershirt. “First thing I don’t get,” he says, “is why you’re bothering to run a poll at all. Everybody knows Beagle hasn’t got a chance.”
“Everybody who’s paying attention,” says Kerr. “And who’s that, in November?” Sitting across the desk from Becker in a chair pulled over from one of the carrel workstations. “A lot can happen in six months. What else?” His shirt brown with wide white stripes, his caramel tie with polka dots in silver and gold.
“Well, I mean, that right there. It’s six months out and you’re spending a fortune on this thing, and it’s, well, it’s,” Becker’s pushing aside a stack of paper, fluttering his fingers over another, tugging free a bundle of typescript bound by a corner staple. “You’re asking about the CRC – ”
“You don’t think that’s a big issue.”
“I don’t see what the mayor’s got to do with it,” says Becker. “It’s all down to regulatory agencies and lawsuits now.” Flipping through the script. “Streetcar spurs, the Yellow line, congestion on I-5, you think it’s transit but then there’s the Timbers and the Trailblazers and major league baseball, the Indigo, the Cyan, the Ladd, demolishing the Lovejoy Ramp, what you think of the NoLo nickname, which, is stupid, by the way – ” Kerr shrugs “ – capping the Tabor reservoirs, how well SoWhat is doing – ”
“So what,” says Kerr.
“South Waterfront,” says Becker. “It’s what they’re calling South Waterfront.”
“And see, I did not know that,” says Kerr. “I’d quote Sun Tzu on the advisability of studying the terrain if I could remember something appropriate.”
“This is one hell of a lot of advisability,” says Becker, tossing the script back onto the desk.
“Sun Tzu,” says Kerr with another shrug. “You have any idea how much money gets spent even on school board elections these days?”
“Well good,” says Becker, “because there’s all the overtime Barshefky Associates gets to charge for going over the survey results every other night with a busybody from the commissioner’s office – ”
“The committee, please, it’s important,” says Kerr, “and are you charging me for this? This conversation? Really?”
“I’m at my desk,” says Becker. “I’m behind a computer.”
“Then by all means let’s decamp. I’ll buy you a drink in lieu of time and a half.”
Becker leans back in his chair. “You mean the committee will buy me a drink.”
“No, me. Cæsar’s wife and all.”
“I – right,” says Becker. “Well. I’d love to, but I’ll have to rain-check. It’s past ten, I’m a fucking pumpkin.” Rubbing the corners of his eyes with a fingertip, pinching the bridge of his nose. “For whatever reason.” Getting to his feet.
“Well tomorrow I have to go to Salem,” says Kerr, pulling on a dark coat, pausing with it bunched up around his arms. “It’s a long shot,” he says, and then he settles the coat on his shoulders. “What are you doing Thursday?”
“Thanksgiving,” says Becker, pulling a heavy raincoat from the coat tree.
“Because, because Huber’s, they do a turkey dinner thing. It’s really, ah, if you’ve never been – it’s the oldest restaurant in town, you know? It’s pretty old skool.”
“Sounds, sounds lovely – ”
“I know, I know, a restaurant on Thanksgiving. But if you’re not going anywhere else, and if you are, I mean, this is maybe the one occasion where I could say, I understand, and genuinely, honestly mean it – ”
“Well, I am,” says Becker, zipping up his coat. “But it’s kind of a party thing?” He leans in to shut off the break room light. “Friend of mine, something to do with her new job. I’m pretty sure I could plus-one you.”
“But it’s me who’s supposed to buy you a drink.”
“Open the door to the lobby,” says Becker, and he snaps off the desk light as Kerr pushes the door open, letting the dim light from out there into the now-dark office. “Let me check,” says Becker. “It’s, I guess it’s a big deal or something. Her boss, I guess he’s this eccentric, rich guy or something, calls it his old accustomed feast.”
“So he’s a Capulet,” says Kerr.
“Okay,” says Becker, as they head into the lobby.
“You know, she really got a raw deal, Juliet?”
“What, with the suicide and all?”
“No,” says Kerr. “Her name. Juliet Capulet. Must’ve teased her mercilessly on the playground. No wonder she couldn’t wait to get married.”
The black T-shirt he pulls on says The Secret of Madeleine Wool in white letters. “I don’t know.” He gathers up his hair in a tail at the back of his head but lets it fall away through slackened fingers. “I don’t know.” Rings glitter there, an ankh, a snakehead, a skull, some dice. Black paint on the nails, chipped and worn.
“She says don’t bother,” says the woman sitting tailor-fashion on the rumpled bed, a chunky green phone pressed to her ear. “She says you’re fired.” Thick blue legwarmers over neon pink fishnets over lacy black stockings over pale pantyhose, stretched-out underpants in a sort of peachy orange, a red strap riding up over one hip, and her fuzzy pink sweater bunched up by an old stained corset loosely knotted. On her head a bulging patchwork cap the color of confetti.
“Erase it,” he says with a sigh.
“Okay,” she says, taking the phone from her ear.
“Press seven,” he says.
“Right,” she says, and she does. “Okay,” she says, listening, “okay, the next one’s from, it’s from Jo,” and a look passes over his face, pinching his lips, hoisting his cheeks, squeezing his black-rimmed eyes, a look she doesn’t see hunched over on the bed, phone pressed to her ear. “She says,” she’s saying, “she says the Duke’s having a feast,” and “We know, we know,” he mutters, and “she says you’re invited, it’ll be a big thing, maybe a lot of people, maybe you don’t want to come, but you should, no, it’s not like you have to, that’s not what she means, yeah, so, anyway, she just figures you and Becker were there at the start, maybe you have something going on. Call her. She promises to stop leaving messages.” She looks up at him. “That’s it,” she says, and he sighs again. “Seven,” he says.
“Do we go?” he says, kneeling on the bed beside her. The bed is low and wide and takes up most of the little room, jammed in a corner under a window full of rain, all too brightly lit by bare bulbs in a ceiling fixture.
“You’re the one she invited.”
“I’m supposed to go by myself?” He leans down on an elbow there beside her.
“The Duke’s door is open to any and all that night.”
“So,” he says, lying on his side beside her, “we both go? But separately?”
“We could,” she says.
“You still don’t know,” he says, and he covers his face with his hands.
“There’s a lot I don’t know.”
“Like whether or not if I go or not I’ll keep somebody else from getting killed or not.”
“What I do know is the lights,” she says.
“The lights,” he says, looking up from his hands.
“In about five minutes,” she says, “maybe four, Mrs. Theodorakis upstairs will try to run her disposal again, which shares wires with these lights in our room in this building that should have been torn down long before now.” Her voice toneless, staccato, stilted. “The circuit in the basement will break again, which will be enough this time to send a flux of power through a grid that will blow up a grey canister on a pole on the corner, which will stop the flow of power to most of this neighborhood, including the stoplight on Burnside. In the confusion, a milk truck with a cartoon cow painted on the tank will plow into a minivan, instantly killing Piper Dupree and her two-year-old son, Noah – ”
He’s shut off the light. Slumps there by the light switch, forehead against the white wall. “The circuit box isn’t in the basement,” he says.
“It isn’t?” she says brightly.
“It’s in the cabinet in that weird little nook off the kitchen.” He turns around, shoulders against the wall. “I bet the little old lady upstairs isn’t named Mrs. Theodorakis, either.”
“If it isn’t part of the story it gets muddled,” she says. “I told you that. Maybe I made whoever it is that owns this building sleep through the meeting where they were going to sell it to whoever it was who was going to put up the big glass tower instead because I knew we might get to stay here a while and I wanted that to happen. Maybe I haven’t done that yet but I’m going to because I don’t want this place where we were once to be torn down. Right now I just wanted the lights off.” She lies back on the rumpled bed, pink fishnets faintly glowing.
“What are you wearing,” he says.
“You like it?” she says. “I wanted to look sexy.”
“All of that?” he says.
“Really, really sexy.”
And he laughs then, and crawls into the bed with her, and kisses her as she hikes a leg over his hip and kisses him right back.
“Why are you still here,” he says.
“Stupid,” she says, kissing his nose. “I said your part of the story was over.” Reaching up for her cap. “I didn’t say your story was over.”
“Sidesweeper,” written by Fang Island, copyright holder unknown.