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Tripping over Something in the Dark – Hers also – in the Foyer – he’s Washed dishes – old John Barleycorn –

Tripping over something in the dark, “Shit,” she says, gruffly, and a hollow echoey thump, a clank and a stumbling clatter, a snap of a light switch and there she is, catching a mop handle as it’s leaning out of the mop bucket there by the door, her with her legs bare under the oversized blue sweatshirt that says Brigadoon! Gently setting the mop back against the wall. Brushing back her wine-dark sleep-matted hair. Before her a rack of cubbies stuffed with spray bottles and cartons of light bulbs and bundles of paper towels under looped hanks of orange extension cord. “Leo?” she says, and then in a smaller voice, “Jessie?” Looking at the door behind her, simple, slender, unpaneled, painted brown, a round knob with a cheap gold finish. “I just,” she says. Her hand on the knob. A sharp rush of breath in through her teeth and a jerk of her wrist and she opens the door.

Outside a hall white with sunlight from a window somewhere down the length of it right there by the doorway the buzzing red bulk of a Coke machine.

“Oh, hell,” says Jo. She closes the door. Takes her hand off the knob. Rubs her mouth, her chin. Turns around and around again in the narrow little closet, brushing the overstuffed rack of cubbies, rattling, clank. “Oh hell.” Her hand on the golden knob once more. Twisting it. Letting go. Flexing her fingers she leans her forehead against the jamb. Maybe she says something, muttering, head rocking back and forth until she lifts it away looking about the closet again, taking up the knob a third time, her other hand a fist in the air, laid flat on the wall, reaching for the light switch there under a shelf. She snaps it off. She opens the door.

“The name, Chilli,” says the Duke, coldly. Squatting there on the floor, idly flipping through inked and painted canvasses and sheets of Bristol board stacked against the wall. “And heed its syllables, as they trip from your tongue?”

The man with the big blond beard doesn’t say anything. He isn’t looking at the Duke. He isn’t looking at the man in the brown plaid suit standing to one side of him, rich red hair flopping from a high widow’s peak, he isn’t looking at the big man on the other side, thick arms folded over a broad chest bared under a half-unbuttoned yellow chamois shirt. He’s looking at Jo, there in the doorway, and so are those two men, and the Duke looks up, sees her, and his scowl softens. “Hey,” he says. “What’s, ah, what are you doing here?”

“I was, looking for the kitchen,” she says. “Coffee.” Opening her hand, letting go of the knob, smooth white porcelain hung from hardware dark with age, set in an elaborately paneled door painted white.

“That way,” says the Duke, pointing down the length of the room lined with high shelves, some stuffed with books and comics, some swarming with homunculi, weirdly muscled figures in bright colors roaring at each other, crowded around a little black car with jagged orange trim, a toy helicopter, blue and white, bristling with guns. “Hey,” he says.

“Yeah?” says Jo.

“Close that door? There’s a draft.”

Jo closes the door on a dim white hallway and heads away down the long room, those jumbled shelves angling around a corner, there’s an overstuffed chair striped in candy-apple reds and greens, a matching ottoman, more haphazard stacks of art. “Hattock and horse, man,” the Duke’s saying behind her, “how were you thinking to deal with this quickly and quietly? Hand her your own sword and run yourself at it?” At the end of the room a swinging door, pale blue, a brass plate she pushes open into a cramped kitchen, a sink, a refrigerator, a bit of wood-topped counter beneath a window filled with watery grey light, a couple of gleaming ovens set in the wall, a butcher’s block there before her, a stainless steel carafe to one side. She fishes a mug from the sink, rinses it out, pours coffee from the carafe. Sips, one hand on the counter, looking at the door she’d just come through, at the other door, across the kitchen. Mug in hand she heads around the butcher’s block toward that other door but stops, her hand on the brass plate. Turns back toward the door she’d come through, pushes it open, steps out into an airy white room, the long wall before her lined with tall and narrow windows one after another. Off to one side a red jacuzzi out in the middle of the white plank floor, to the other a long table, some high-backed chairs. Music playing down that end of the room, it won’t make sense right now, a woman’s singing over soaring keys, but you’re still her friend, and then you let her down easy, and those keys are swallowed by a grinding, stuttering beat.

“Oh, hell,” says Jo.

“That you? Jo?” Down the other end past the jacuzzi there’s Jessie, peering around the corner of an alcove, one hand on a ladder leading up to a loft.

“I was,” says Jo, looking back at the swinging door, the sink bolted to the wall beside it, the second door, paned with frosted glass. “I was just in the kitchen?”

“Dang,” says Jessie, stepping out, leaning against the ladder. Looking past Jo at the swinging door. “He’s been telling me he’d get that done for months.” Her yellow hair undone, brushing her bare shoulders. Complicated briefs, black straps criss-crossing her hips, a small panel of sheer black lace. “Actually,” says Jessie, mouth quirking in a sidelong frown, “it’s a little awkward, now I look at it. Two doors right there like that.”

“I think,” says Jo, “I interrupted a meeting or something? And he wanted to get me, out of the way, or, I could come back? If you need to get dressed?”

“What?” says Jessie. “Oh. Sorry. Don’t,” waving a hand, “don’t do that.” Turning back into the alcove. “It’s your place, too, much as it’s mine or,” shooting a look over her shoulder at the other end of the room, “anybody else’s,” at the music chewing up a stuttered chorus of tell her not to get upset, up–second-guessing, tell her down easy. “Typical, how he didn’t even think where he was gonna put you, just, make room, make room, we’ll deal with it later.”

“I guess,” says Jo, following her, the burning heart in a glistering starburst of red and yellow rays at the base of her spine where black straps criss-cross together in a neat little bow, “he thought maybe, I mean, you guys would be staying together more? Or something?”

Jessie stops, a hand on the corner of the alcove. “I haven’t slept with him in almost two months,” she says, and then she steps inside.

“Oh,” says Jo, leaning on the ladder. “I didn’t know.”

“I swear,” calls Jessie, something rustling, a scrape of hangers, “if the two of you would just sit down and talk.”

“We’ve talked,” says Jo. “Actually, he apologized.”

The rustling stops. “Leo Barganax apologized.”

“Yeah,” says Jo.

“It must be love.” Another scrape.

“It’s not exactly something you just say I’m sorry and it goes away,” says Jo to her cup of coffee.

Jessie’s there at the corner again, half in a little black dress that hangs low and loose from her shoulders. “Are you gonna call the cops,” she says.


“Are you gonna call the cops? Because if you aren’t you need to stop using that word.”

“Do I.”

“It’s getting in the way. It’s fucking you up.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Is it.” Jessie heads back into the alcove, tugging and smoothing the dress into place.

“Did,” says Jo, stepping around the corner after her, “did he ever – ”

“No,” snaps Jessie. She’s sitting on the edge of the big white bed, working a foot into a slender high-heeled sandal. “I sure as hell wouldn’t be here if he had. Leo doesn’t, he isn’t,” setting her shod foot on the floor, “he does a lot of stupid, thoughtless things, but not anything like that. That’s just not who he is.”

“Did he ever ask you,” says Jo, one hand on the corner, “if you loved him.”

Jessie looks up, her other shoe in her hand. “Oh,” she says. “I told you, it’s not that kind of. No. No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you love him?”

Jessie works the shoe onto her other foot. “I told you,” she says.

“What do you want, Jessie?”

“What do I want?” Intent on buckling the sandal. “A big comfortable chair surrounded by all the books.” Getting to her feet she resettles the drape of her little black dress. “And nothing left to do but read them.”

“When she’s, when she’s Queen,” says Jo. “I think you should stand in her way. For what it’s worth. I think she wants you to stand in her way.”

Jessie looks over at Jo then, in her Brigadoon! sweatshirt, the yellow mug steaming softly in her hands, and then without a word steps through a narrow sliding door into the closet under the loft, and Jo looks away, an exaggerated wince, a hiss of “Shit” to herself, and then “I’m sorry” she calls after Jessie, “I didn’t, she,” a scrape of a drawer from the closet, a rattle, a scrabble, “she read me the, well she didn’t read it to me, she told me what it, said, when I saw her, at the dinner, when I gave it to her, and I, I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

Jessie comes back out of the closet, chunks of red jade hanging from her ears, a beaded rope of rough red jade in her hands, and says “Can you” as she turns her back to Jo, the folds of that black dress open all the way down to frame the burning heart. Holding up the ends of the necklace. Jo sets her mug on the floor. “What are you,” she says, frowning as she fumbles with the tiny clasp, “getting all dolled up for?”

Jessie looks back over her shoulder with a little smile. Turning when Jo closes the clasp, stepping back. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

“I might get around to putting on some pants in a minute,” says Jo.

“You have no idea what day it is, do you,” says Jessie, and Jo’s face goes slack, eyes flat and wide, mouth falling open, “You’re fucking kidding,” she says, grabbing the ladder, turning back, scooping up the mug of coffee, “I swear to fucking God yesterday was Monday – ”

“Happy Thanksgiving,” says Jessie, as Jo hauls herself up the ladder.

It’s an odd coat he’s wearing, the man on the corner, red and draped in dozens of thick pilly nodules that lightly sway as he leans back to look up at torches glowering under the low dark sky. A sign over dark windows says India Oven, and another says Jambo World Crafts, there by a row of limply dangling flags, a great peace sign stitched to a tie-dyed rainbow field, an American flag, its stars replaced by another peace sign, a hawk stooping through a vertical black bar on a tawny field. The cornerstone beyond is marked with compass and square. Up between green-capped white columns the tall windows on the second floor are filled with red and blue lights softened by gauzy curtains that twitch behind the glass to the dulled thump of half-heard music. He shivers, shoves his hands his pockets, setting those stubby tendrils bobbing as he starts up the steps to the wide white doors.

In the black and white tiled foyer another man, his coat a long one, dark, leans against the wall, watching the phone in his hand. Glancing up he nods at the man in the odd red coat who pauses, one foot cocked on the steel-plated heel of his boot. “Upstairs,” says the man in the dark coat, looking back at his phone. The screen of it filled with tiny figures in ancient bronze armor tumbling through a clear blue sky.

“Yeah?” says the man in the odd red coat. A watch cap’s rolled down over the tops of his ears. His sunken cheeks are dark with a couple of days’ worth of beard. The music’s more clear in here, breaking down the walls of heartache someone’s singing, I’m a carpenter of love and affection.

“Indian place is closed,” says the man in the dark coat. “I assume you’re here for the, uh,” looking up at the ceiling, “feast?” Outside a bus pulls up to the corner, and the man in the dark coat straightens, steps away from the wall. Three or four people getting off the bus, one of them a man in a heavy raincoat, a trilby jammed on his head. The man in the dark coat steps up, leans into the crash bar on the front door pushing it open, beckoning to the man in the trilby who shoulders through the thickening rain up the low steps and inside. “You took the bus,” says the man in the dark coat.

“I took,” says the man taking off his trilby, running a hand through what’s left of his hair, “yes, the bus, my car, my car got stolen – ”

“I would’ve given you,” the man in the dark coat’s saying, “a, stolen.”

“ – about a month back, yeah, it’s a, insurance is being a, I mean, it was a piece of junk anyway but the guy, whoever, he totaled it, and, ah, I can’t, I’m sorry, I, I don’t – ”

“I could have given you a ride,” says the man in the dark coat. “Is all.”

“ – I, yeah, um,” says Becker. Smiling now, a little. “Yeah.”

“Shall we?” says Kerr, looking up as the thumping bass above them melts away into high sharp stabs of guitar over a rattling crash of drums. Becker’s mouth twists in dubiety, an eyebrow quirked. “Hey,” says Kerr. “She’s your friend.”

“Yeah,” says Becker.

Up the stairs on the other side of a humming bright Coke machine a door painted white wedged open on an unlit hall that leads to a long high-ceilinged room hung about with dim lamps shaded blue and red. Torchlight flickers outside the high narrow windows, dappling the surging crowd, I’m hurt and I want you to know a falsetto’s singing, but for others I put on a show, so loud atop the spiking guitar, the thundering drums, the hands thrown up over heads tossing in time.

“This isn’t!” says Kerr, “what I think of!” leaning close, “when I hear the word feast!”

“What?” says Becker, tugging at the zipper of his coat.

“Feast!” says Kerr. “This! is not! a feast!”

Those drums drop out and that guitar smacks into a fat and loose bassline. Someone’s catching Becker by the arm, “Hey!” cries Jo, beaming, a glass in her hand, a blousy black shirt, a tight white vest. “You made it! Guthrie with you?”

“What?” says Becker, unshouldering his coat.

“Guthrie!” says Jo.

“David Kerr!” says Kerr, holding out his hand for a shake, and there’s bongos starting up, na-na, na-na na-na-nah, the crowd around them going wild, laughing, cheering, clapping, from somewhere spotlights swooping, shadows leaping, there on the wall at the other end of the room it’s two in the morning, my beeper’s going off, I’m naked I roll over, enough is enough! “Hi!” says Jo, taking Kerr’s hand, giving it a squeeze.

“You don’t mind?” says Becker.

“Pyrocles,” says Jo.

“What?” says Becker.

Turning away from Kerr, leaning close to Becker, “He’s here,” she says, in his ear. “Pyrocles.”

“Who?” says Becker.

Stepping back, blinking, she doesn’t quite smile. Looks at Kerr again. Those shadows across the room, the cheering, the laughter bouncing over that enormous bass, a couple women with the same severe blond hair strutting arms akimbo up on a table or something, the same fierce frowns on their similarly painted faces as they waggle the enormous jellied dildos sparkling pink and purple strapped to their hips, thwapping at each other in a mock duel, what can I say they can’t stay away from the best cock on the block today, it’s eternally hard, “I was going for a smoke!” says Jo, waving back past them toward the hall.

“Smoke?” says Becker, and Kerr shakes his head. “Jo, I don’t smoke!” says Becker.

“No, how is it outside!” says Jo.

“Raining!” says Becker, and “Terrible!” says Kerr, and Jo rolls her eyes. “I’ll be back in a minute!” she says as she pushes past them, “Coat-check’s over there!” Tossing a hand back toward a long open rack crowded with raincoats and jackets and wraps where that man’s bundling up his odd red coat, white watch cap still on his head. Behind him there’s Jessie in her cocktail dress, and she lays a hand on his arm, and he turns, and smiles to see her.

Down the wide white stairwell to the black and white foyer where Jo pauses a moment, looking out at the rain through the windows in the doors. A cigarette jiggling in her fingers, a silvery lighter winking in her other hand. Somewhere above her everybody roaring from the dee to the eye to the ell to the doe! She turns away from the closed front doors, heads back past the stairs to the restaurant beneath them, a confusion of chairs upended, resting on tables, legs in the air. Up front by the shuttered steam table a couple of tables cleared of chairs and laid with trays and dishes laden with canapés and tapas and zakuski and antipasti and amuse-gueles and a couple of figures in trim black uniforms take up this one or that in one hand or the other and “Hang on, hang on,” a man in a brown plaid suit is saying, turning as they bustle past him, “wait,” he’s saying, “they’re still, they went on early and nobody’s ready for snacks, Christ, Maguire, you seen His Nibs?”

“Not since this kicked off,” says Jo, “and if you see him, Stirrup,” waggling the cigarette in her hand, “I wasn’t here, doing this, okay?”

“Gee,” says the Stirrup. “Thanks.”

Off to the side under the sloping ceiling she lifts a chair from a table and sets it on the floor, drops into it, the lighter in her hand chiming as she clicks it and clicks it again before it strikes. “You look sharp,” says the man behind her as she puffs the cigarette to life.

“Frankie?” she says, and she turns, the smoke winding about her face. She snaps the lighter shut. He’s wearing a plain black T-shirt, black pants, he’s drying his hands on a dirty dishtowel. “Hey,” he says.

“You’re,” says Jo, “what are you – doing here?”

“At this party, that’s open this one night, to whoever?” He looks back over at the plates, the trays, the shuttered steam table, the Stirrup trying earnestly to corral the two men and the woman in trim black uniforms. “The folks who do the catering, they come by Gordon’s most mornings. They needed some help with the dishes tonight. I’ve washed dishes.” The towel balled up in one hand now. His brown hair tied back loosely, face clean-shaven, clean. “They were at that dinner, the other night.”

“Okay,” says Jo.

“His name was Batswool.”

“He what?”

“Batswool. I dunno, it’s Arab or something. The guy got killed while you were eating dinner.” The wadded towel shifts from one hand to the other and back again. “You didn’t know that, did you. His name.”

She takes another drag from the cigarette, then leans down, gently presses the top against the floor, breaking off the coal. Gets to her feet with the snuffed cigarette in her hand. “So what,” he says, backing into the aisle to block her way, “you don’t care, is that it? Why you haven’t done anything?” as she steps right up close to him and low and fast says “You just don’t want to pay off that twenty bucks.”

“The hell I do!” He pushes her back with the toweled fist. She grabs his hand, shoves him to one side against a table scraped against the floor, but she doesn’t move on, she just stands there, and he leans there, and “Yeah” he says, a snorted laugh, “go on, hit me. Everybody knows what you did to Marsh. You woulda put the Prick in the hospital that one time I hadn’t pulled you off him and you even got fucking Abe to back down but this guy kills somebody right in front of you and you just keep eating your soup.”

“You don’t have,” says Jo, quietly, “any idea, what he did to me – ”

“How about what he did to me?” says Frankie, pushing himself upright. “I get it, I do, he’s connected, it’d fuck up your new boyfriend. Right? He’s the one, told you not to do a fucking thing, ’cause otherwise – I’m right, yeah?” It’s an ugly little smile.

Jo walks away.

“He here?” Frankie calls after her. “The freak? Is he upstairs? Dancing?” The flutter of the towel behind her, flung at her as she leaves. “I’ll fuck him up, I will! I swear!” Through the foyer, up the stairs two at a time past trim black uniforms hands full of plates of crackers and cheeses and little puff pastries. Around the corner landing up more stairs into the hall she’s brought up short, there, the humming bright Coke machine, she leans against it. Pounds it, once, with the flat of her hand.

The music, the music’s so loud.

There’s a cup in her hand, a red plastic cup. She lifts it to her mouth but it’s empty. She crumples it and lets it fall to the floor. Someone’s hand on her shoulder. “Jo,” says Jessie in her ear. The cup rattles underfoot as she turns. “You’re going to be out here for a bit?”

“Sorry,” says Jo, shaking her head, nodding. A man behind Jessie, tall and thin, a white cap on his head, a tight T-shirt printed with some baroque siege engine. Jessie’s leaning forward to say “You’re not going back to the room?” and he’s looking with a smile on his narrow face at the small of Jessie’s back.

“No,” says Jo, and then, “have you seen Leo?”

“Sorry,” says Jessie, reaching back with one hand, and the man in the white cap takes it after a moment without looking away from the burning heart in its starburst of red and yellow at the base of her spine. “Thanks, Jo. Thanks.”

Somebody’s growling a chainsaw for your birthday, all the wine you could ever drink over a chugging snarl of guitar, lay you in a bed of cold steel, cover your face with my fine white mask, you spend champagne Saturday on your knees but you’ll never have to beg! It’s not so loud anymore. She’s in a hallway, empty, dark but for a grim red EXIT sign down at the one end. There’s a cup in her hand. It isn’t empty. She takes a drink. She’s leaning against the wall with a door to one side of her and a door to the other, both white, hydraulic hinges folded, waiting, at their tops. Brass push plates, both of them.

The cup’s empty. She looks down at it in her hand, at the singed cigarette in the fingers of her other hand. She leans up off the wall. She tucks the cigarette behind her ear. She pushes open the door to her left.

Walls lined with jumbled shelves of books and comics and toys angle around a corner up ahead where there’s an overstuffed chair striped in candy-apple reds and greens under a goosenecked reading lamp, a matching ottoman, haphazard stacks of canvas and board and glossy glass and plastic frames here and there along the floor. “Now, see,” says someone, the Duke, off around that corner, and Jo smiles and shakes her head and makes her way through the shelves, “that’s what I’m talking about.”

He’s holding an orange behind his back, a tiny half-peeled thing dwarfed by beefy, juice-slick fingers. A leather thong tied about his wrist. His broad back bare, and dark, and muscles ripple as he lifts his shoulders, his black-haired head tipped back on that thick neck. A hiss of breath. His buttocks bare, a pale hand, someone else’s, cupping as they clench, his trousers down about his knees, the wide belt lolling, and Jo stops, says nothing, takes a slow and careful backwards step into a clink of glass, a rustle, a slither of slumping, falling paper, one of the stacks of art is toppling.

That head with its black cap of hair is turning, there’s the corner of a frown, but it’s the Duke down there peering past the naked hip, “Jo,” he says, “I,” but she’s turned, she’s fled, she’s gone.

Table of Contents

“Call Your Girlfriend [Feed Me remix],” written by Robyn and Feed Me, copyright holder unknown. “Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache,” written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, copyright holder unknown. “For Those About to Clown,” mixed by DJ Riko, copyright holder indeterminable. “Best Cock on the Block Today,” written by Bitch and Animal, copyright holder unknown. “My Mask,” written by Mark Givens and John Darnielle, copyright holder unknown.

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