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“Is it the money?” – What they’re getting – little more than a Closet – Why he’s doing it –

“Is it the money?” says Ysabel.

“What?” says Jo. “No. Pick out anything you want. Whatever. I don’t care.” Clacking dresses from one side of a rack to the other without really looking at them. Her coat of soft and butter-colored leather beaded still with raindrops.

“No,” says Ysabel, “I mean, was the money why,” turning a pair of boots over in her hands, worn brown leather, sharp toes, high heels. “I could have given you whatever you wanted, you know? Whenever. Whenever you wanted it.” She’s wearing a white trench coat unbuttoned over a tight T-shirt dress printed with a blond Batgirl in purple and grey. “Before I gave it all away.” She puts the boots back on the shelf above the rack.

“It,” says Jo. She stops flipping through dresses. “What about whatever we needed? Huh? What about what we needed? All those times I’m giving you shit for buying peach ice teas we couldn’t afford, you ever think of saying oh, hey, wait a minute, here’s twenty bucks I got in my pocket? It.” She pulls something off the rack, a sundress, blue and yellow checks. “What do you think, huh?” Holding it up in front of herself. “Too summery. Yeah.” She slaps it back on the rack. “You did it the one time. You gave Timmo the money for the fake ID. You told him to spend it all in one place. Why’d you tell him that?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“How long did that money last in his pocket? How long before he reaches for it and it’s gone?

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “that card is the same thing.”

“The hell it is,” says Jo. “It’s still right here, in my pocket. Hasn’t turned to dust or ashes or leaves or whatever the hell.”

“What about the – ”

“How long was it in his pocket? How long would it last in mine?” Jo heads to the next rack down, running her hand clack-clack along the hangers.

“It’s just drawings on paper,” says Ysabel. “Easy to make.”

“Easy come, easy go. How long? Timmo didn’t come out yelling after us about ripping him off so it’s at least, what, half an hour? Long enough to buy breakfast, maybe, instead of bitching about cold pizza? Only our waiter goes to settle up and he’s short because one of his twenties ain’t there anymore, gone to moonbeams or cobwebs or whatever the fuck.”

“That card is a promise to pay,” says Ysabel, following after down the line of racks. “But you aren’t going to pay, are you.”

“I hope to hell not,” says Jo.

“So who is? How is that any different?”

“Because it’s all, I don’t know. Between banks. Numbers in a computer. And anyway banks don’t beat the shit out of whoever’s standing next to them when they suddenly figure out their wallet’s lost weight.”

“Is that how it works?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.” Jo holds up a shirtwaist dress in black and grey with pink and white dots here and there. “What do you think. Demure rockabilly?” She shoves the dress back with a rustle. “You wanted to come here. Find whatever it is you want, I don’t care. I’ll go look at some T-shirts maybe.” She turns, heads off down the rack toward the other big room.

“You should talk to him, Jo,” Ysabel calls after her. Jo stops, turns her hand on her hip, that buttery coat falling open over her satiny black slip, her skinny black jeans. “He told you it was because you’re a knight,” says Ysabel.

“It’s my due,” says Jo.

“The Chariot doesn’t have a card like that,” says Ysabel.

“What,” says Jo, walking back down the racks toward her, “he gets by on his charm? I think you’re missing the point. If this card works and so far it has, then we don’t have to. Okay? No more calling people at random to ask what they think about this ballot measure. Or the last time they went to the fucking Pet Depot. Or how happy they are with their checking account. Okay?”

“So it’ll keep us from getting evicted?” says Ysabel.

“He’s working on that too,” says Jo.

“You’ve got to talk to him,” says Ysabel. “What can he possibly do that I couldn’t?”

“Well,” says Jo, “right off the bat I bet he ain’t gonna try to sleep with the night manager.”

Ysabel looks away at that, then starts walking, down the racks, past Jo. “You have to know what you’re getting us into,” she says, heading into the other big room. “Where are you going?” says Jo, trailing after. Past racks of old silk-screened T-shirts and pants, coats and jackets, a display of white knee socks printed up the sides with slogans that say Whisky and Bacon and Kosher and Brooklyn. Past the cash registers, day-glo colored burlesque posters hanging above on the high red walls. “Ysabel?” Past the last rack of clothes, a giant stuffed tiger lounging on the top shelf, pushing through glass doors out into a colorless day soft with rain. Ysabel stops a moment and pulls a crumpled white fedora from under her arm, shakes it out, looks at it in her hands before settling it on her head. Jo grabs her arm. “What the fuck, Ysabel?”

“We’re going to go see the Duke,” says Ysabel. She points down the street, past signs that say Bread and Ink and Bagdad and Naked City and Nick’s Famous Coney Island. “Three blocks,” she says, and she turns and starts walking.

“Ysabel!” calls Jo after her. “Jesus. It’s raining!”

“It’s Portland!” Ysabel calls back. “It’s always raining!” Waiting for a car to turn past her, then stepping out across the side street. “Except in the summer,” she says to herself. “When it goes to the weird desert place.” Jo trotting after her, bare-headed, hands jammed in the pockets of her coat.

Stepping through the propped-open double doors into the black-and-white tiled foyer Jo’s brushing rainwater from her short dark hair. “You cheated,” she says.

Ysabel one white boot already up on the first wide white-painted step doesn’t turn, but stops, one hand on the crown of her white fedora, and says, “That’s a serious accusation.”

“It was all about this. You didn’t want to go shopping at all.”

“This,” says Ysabel, taking off her hat, glancing back over her shoulder. “Of course I wanted to go shopping.”

“And you just happened to take us somewhere a couple blocks away from the Duke’s place.” Jo’s looking about the foyer, the wide staircase, the sign beneath them that says India Oven, the bouquet of tie-dyed T-shirts hanging in the doorway opposite. “This is the Duke’s place?” A man’s ducking under the T-shirts. “Ladies,” he’s saying, “excuse me.” His hair richly red, flopping from a high widow’s peak. “You can’t, ah, you can’t go up there.” His vest a dull brick, his shirt a dingy gold, his knitted tie is brown.

“How was I to know,” Ysabel’s saying, turning now, taking her foot off the step, “you were going to pick a fight about him?” The man with the brown tie’s brought up short, eyes widening, jaw slackening. “Majesty!” he says, and then, quickly, “Highness, no, I – ”

“Highness, good,” says Ysabel, as Jo starts to say “I wasn’t picking a.” Ysabel walks past her, up to the man with the brown tie. “The last person,” she’s saying, “to mistake me for a queen had to give up her sword. Etiquette is so important.”

“Highness,” says the man with the brown tie, and he swallows, “he’s engaged. He’s not to be disturbed.”

“But surely,” says Ysabel, smiling, walking past him, behind him, around him, “he’d not say no to his Princess, nor his paramour.”

“His what?” says Jo.

“Will you say no,” says Ysabel, her hand on his shoulder, “to your Princess?”

And he bites his lip and doesn’t nod, but doesn’t shake his head, either.

“We’ll show ourselves up,” says Ysabel.

The stairs double back and end in a white landing on the second floor that opens through wide double doors on an empty echoing ballroom. A row of folding tables lined with glass pipes in delicately jeweled colors under buzzing fluorescent lights. Jo stands in the doorway looking back and forth between the ballroom and the landing. “Well?” she says.

Ysabel standing by a humming bright Coke machine points to an unmarked white door on the other side of it.

“This?” says Jo. “Are there more stairs, or something? Is this his place? There’s no bell. Do we knock?”

Ysabel shrugs. “Why not open the door and see,” she says, and Jo puts her hand on the faceted glass knob and turns it and opens the door.

The room beyond is little more than a closet and to one side of the door there’s a mop bucket with mop propped inside. In the corner past a rack of cubbies stuffed with spray bottles and cartons of light bulbs and wrapped bundles of paper towels under looped hanks of orange extension cord there’s the Duke in an unbelted dressing gown crowded with paisleys of purple and maroon and gold and brown looking down hair hanging in his eyes at the woman kneeling before him his hands on her head fingers in her shining blond hair undone and splayed down her bare back and down a burning heart in a glistering starburst of red and yellow rays criss-crossed by the black strap of her satiny thong and he’s looking up eyes opening over an opened mouth twisting a slash of a grimace eyes narrowing “Get out!” he roars. “Close the damn door!” The woman sitting back on her heels the bottoms of her bare feet smudged with dirt one hand up before her mouth as Jo slams the door shut. She looks over at Ysabel who’s biting a knuckle and trying not to smile.

“The fuck was that?” says Jo.

A rustle a thump a clatter and footsteps approaching the door from the other side. “You did not just open my door!” says the Duke. “You did not just open my door without knocking or announcing yourself or I will have the Stirrup’s guts for my garters I assure you.”

“I, ah,” says Jo, looking from the door to Ysabel and back again, and Ysabel’s examining the Coke machine now, and Jo scowls. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know. We’ll just, we’ll go, okay? I’m sorry.”

“No, no, no,” says the Duke, and there’s a grinding sliding sound and a sharp clap. “Don’t go, don’t go. You’re fine. Stand over there.”

“What?” says Jo. “Stand where?”

“Not you!” calls the Duke. “Not you. You’re fine. There’s a password. Which I’m gonna impose on the Princess, because she knows it, and she fucking knows she knows it. Okay?” Something on the other side of the door falls with a fluttering crash. “You ready? Highness?”

Ysabel steps back from the Coke machine, her eyes on the doorknob. “Yes,” she says. Jo’s glaring.

“Duncan will be one man,” says the Duke.

“And,” says Ysabel, “Farquahr will be two.”

“Okay,” says the Duke. “Okay.”

“Go on,” says Ysabel.

“Fuck you,” says Jo. “You do it.”

“Okay,” says Ysabel, and she puts her hand on the faceted glass knob and turns it and opens the door and steps through into a dark hallway that opens into a room filled with soft light from tall narrow windows hung with white cloth shades pulled low. The Duke in the middle of the otherwise empty room, his dressing gown belted, his feet bare. “Highness,” he says. “What a surprise. So good of you to come. Don’t look out there.”

Jo reaching for one of the long white shades stops her hand in the air and looks back at him. “It’s still a bit raw,” he says, and he shrugs, his face kiltered with an apologetic smile. “Don’t know what you’d see out there. Highness!” His smile tightens. “How wonderful you’re here. You should have had someone call.”

“It was something of a whim,” says Ysabel.

“She said she wanted to go shopping,” says Jo.

“You had questions about the card,” says Ysabel, and then to the Duke, “What do you think about her coat?”

“It’s nice,” he says, “I like the outfit, it’s – ”

“I think it’s a bit ostentatious,” says Ysabel.

“I did not have questions about the fucking card,” says Jo.

“You wanted to thank him for it, then,” says Ysabel.

“Ysabel you were the one who stalked out of the store all of a sudden and I had to chase you down the street because, because – ”

“Because?” says Ysabel, but Jo doesn’t respond, she’s staring over past Ysabel at the doorway and the Duke’s looking down, rubbing his forehead. Ysabel turns to see the woman in the thong leaning in the doorway, hugging herself, one hand up pushing her slippery blond hair out of her face. “Leo,” she says.

“What a great idea!” cries the Duke. “I’ll find a shirt, you find, some clothes, and we’ll all go together to get some brunch. Okay? My treat.”

The Duke drains the juice from his wineglass, daubs his lips with his thumb, sets the glass on the table, looking across the table at Jo the whole time. She’s looking down at her plate, tearing a bite from a thick slice of bacon specked with crumbs of black pepper. He shakes his head, forks up a bit of omelette. “You really don’t get it,” he says.

“She can be quite oblivious sometimes,” says Ysabel, sipping coffee, sitting next to Jo on the bench before the rain-dappled window.

“What,” says Jo. “It’s good bacon.” She finishes it off, scoops up some scrambled egg. “Anyway I’m not vegetarian.”

“He doesn’t like it,” says the blond woman, swirling a bit of waffle around in a pool of deep purple syrup. “When you eat meat,” she says, popping it into her mouth.

“So?” says Jo.

“Actually,” says the Duke, “it depends.” He turns in his chair, lifts his empty glass, wobbling it at the woman over behind the counter loading up plates of bagels and scones and bialys. “How about you?” he asks Ysabel.

“You’re asking,” she says flatly.

“Why not?”

“What?” says Jo, frowning.

“What what,” says Ysabel. Untouched on the plate before her a couple of bean cakes under poached eggs, a tidy pile of mango salsa to the side. “Follow her needs must I,” she says, almost to herself.

The Duke sits back. “No shit,” he says. Ysabel doesn’t take up her fork, doesn’t sip more coffee. On the dull red wall above them hang calligraphic cartoons, a lowercase d playing itself like a drum, an S playing itself like a bass fiddle. Jo’s looking back and forth between them, and across from her the blond woman in the grey chauffeur’s uniform jacket buttoned up to her throat is finishing off her waffle. “Doesn’t matter,” says the Duke. “You know why I’m doing this?”

“Because you would be King,” says Ysabel.

“I will be King, Princess. And you my Queen.” He leans forward, elbows on the table. “Did you know the Soames had gone?” Ysabel looks up at that, eyes wide, face paling. “You didn’t,” says the Duke.

“What’s her name, Nell?” says Jo. “Where did she,” and then she stops and says, “Oh.”

The woman from behind the counter sets a fresh glass of juice by the Duke. “Anything else?” she says.

“Nearly a week now,” says the Duke, shaking his head. “Offices burnt to the ground, and her and one of her lieutenants inside. Maybe more, who can keep track these days. They went and picked a new one already the other night.” He lifts his glass in a little salute. “Long may he chair.”

“My mother,” says Ysabel, and Jo lifts a hand, holds it hesitating over the fist Ysabel’s made, “would never have – ”

“Which makes it worse,” says the Duke. “Much the worse, if someone else is meting out such fates, and she won’t stop them. Or can’t.”

Ysabel opens her fist, then picks up her fork, and Jo lowers her hand. Ysabel cuts a bite of bean cake and egg, yellow yolk seeping out over her plate. “And so it’s all down to Your Grace,” she says.

“You see anyone else?” says the Duke. “Tell me something, Highness. Why did you go to see the Soames last month?”

“She invited me,” says Ysabel.

The Duke snorts. “And there’s me, always asking the wrong question.” He reaches down into the pocket of the tweed jacket draped over the back of his chair and there’s a slippery rustling sound and he drops a big clear plastic bag in the middle of the table, the mouth of it sealed with a purple zip-lock. Inside in turn maybe a dozen little plastic baggies each twisted tightly about a thimbleful of golden dust, and each even in this weak light glitters through the cloudy layers of plastic. Gold sparks set to dancing in the glasses. “You know what that is, Highness? That’s Southeast there before you, or what of it that’s left. My fabled treasuries and storehouses gape before you.” He lays a hand on the bag. “Not enough to fill your breakfast plate.”

“You are famously profligate,” says Ysabel.

“Is that what they’re calling it,” says the Duke. “Well even a grasshopper might one day learn to husband grain against the coming winter, Highness, but when winter comes every blasted month – ” He lifts his hand away. “Your mother’s late. Again. And yet.” He picks up the bag, hefts it in his hand a moment. “Meet their needs must I.” He tucks it back into the pocket of his jacket. “Come along with me.”

“What?” says Ysabel.

“As I am about my business today. The both of you. Come see what I see as I choose the which of my people might divvy up these last few moths from my wallet.” He looks over his shoulder, catching the attention of an older man weaving between tables with a coffee pot, and he makes a scribbling motion in the air. “Well?” He lays his hand on the hand of the blond woman beside him. “You mind going to get the car, hon? While I settle up?”

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M.E.Traylor    8 September 2010    #

Plot-nessss! I must know about the owr. And the Duke. And Orlando. And what exactly Ysabel did to herself in relation to Jo.

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