White lines gleaming, burnished by candlelight, angles that frame her belly, her breasts, her throat and face, her eyes closed below severely straight bangs, long yellow hair gathered by wide white ribbons in hanks over either shoulder. She’s laid back, settled against curves of golden brown, shadowed leg along the pale length of her atop the pillowy comforter, hip and belly, shoulder, dark arm curled about her, laid over that white paint, a brown hand tucked there, just between her thighs. She sighs, tilts up her head. “She’ll come around,” she says.
“Your sister?” says Ysabel, above, behind her. “She seemed fairly adamant.”
“You didn’t even ask the question.”
“It,” says Ysabel, “it isn’t that important, really.”
“How can you say that?” Twisting, squirming about, “No, I meant,” says Ysabel, and then, “careful, you’ll smear,” but “All our life,” she’s saying, “all our life!”
“No!” Chrissie’s sitting up on an elbow, glaring down at her. “No! Even,” she says, “when we used to,” but she blinks, “swim,” she says. “When I.” She looks away. “When she.”
“Used to swim,” says Ysabel. A smudge of white paint there on her breast, and flecked with gold. “But you don’t, anymore? Did you forget?”
“Racing,” says Chrissie, still looking away. “Competitively. We did, we used to, we were, a scholarship. Couldn’t afford college, otherwise.”
After a moment, Ysabel says, “What happened, when you used to swim?”
“Have you, do you swim? Laps, I mean, not a lot of people race.”
“I can,” says Ysabel.
“It’s just, how easy it is, when, there’s, there’s other people, they’re all around, there’s even cheering, sometimes. Announcements, over the,” waving a hand, “PA. But you can shut it all out. It all, goes away. It’s just, you, and the water. For the sprints even, but especially the distance races, and you’re all on your own, cut off, it’s, easy to get, lost,” and a sputter of laughter, at Ysabel’s smile, “I mean, in a pool, but, all those laps? Up to sixty, in a twenty-five meter pool?” Looking away again. “So there’s signs.”
“Signs,” says Ysabel.
“Like a small whiteboard, or these plastic numbers you can swap out, or leaves, you can flop over, to change the number? And you stick it in the water, so you can see, as you’re coming in to the wall, what lap you’re on. So you don’t get lost.” Grinning at herself, but biting her lip. “But. Every race, see? She never missed one. Every time I swam a distance event, an eight hundred, a fifteen, when they let me, no matter what she had to do, she was there. Holding the sign. Keeping track.”
“She didn’t swim?” says Ysabel. “I thought you both swam.”
“It wasn’t fair,” says Chrissie. “It completely wasn’t fair.” Looking down, idly stroking the blurred white paint that slants up past her sternum. “It wasn’t even her pot, it was Jeff’s, but – zero tolerance, you know? She lost the scholarship. She had to drop out.”
“But you stayed.”
“I stayed. Another, I – three semesters. We weren’t going back.”
“But, you did drop out? You stopped swimming.”
A sigh. A kiss. “It bulks up your shoulders, distance swimming. If you don’t keep it up, you lose that. And anyway,” another kiss, “she was, we could, we were making better, well. More, money. Dancing. So.”
“So she’ll come through,” says Chrissie, and lays her head on Ysabel’s breast.
Some time later, she sits up, alone in the wide white bed. Ysabel, in candlelight, wraps herself in a filmy gown, “I didn’t hear Jo come up,” she says.
“What?” says Chrissie.
“I’m going to check on her.”
“Oh.” Chrissie flops back down on the pillows, rolling over. “Jo.” Those white lines carefully skirt an exaggerated lip-print drawn in red ink there, just below her breast. “Don’t worry about the bedclothes,” says Ysabel, “though you could get cleaned up, if you wished?” And she opens the door and steps out, into the hall.
Head back hunching grunt and tendons stark he’s squatted bare feet flat on the carpet jerking buttocks hands on hips she’s curled beneath him turned about her weight on her shoulders head a-cant and fingers at her red-painted lips legs loosely flopping cooing breathless slapping squeaking pop and slap that freezes suddenly silent, pop-eyed rictus skewed up in a corner of the screen, fishnet foot kicked up, fingers clenched and gripping dimpled flesh of thigh her eyes round in surprise beneath blue-painted lids. “It’s machismo, it what it is,” says the man on the big dark bed. “We’re not supposed to show you this, so we’re gonna prove we’re showing it to you. So throw out any artistry, anything that might come off like a trick, even a simple edit and you’ll go aha, you cut there, you’re hiding something, I got you. Spell’s broken.” His voice pitched to carry across that dim room lit mostly by the skin on the screen. “Nothing’s staged, there’s no attempt to move you, evoke anything, carry you anywhere, because every effort’s bent on making sure you see that these people were moved, went there, beyond any shadow of a doubt. So chuck ’em in a room, shoot whatever happens, there it is,” he lifts a tiny silver remote, “under the lights.” Those bodies lurch into motion, squeal and slap and grunt and smack as the view wheels, freezes again, blur of thigh, rimpled glisten of condom, arc of belly. “I mean, budget, sure. Budget’s a factor. But beyond a certain point,” folding his hands up, behind his head, “budget’s a fucking excuse. If you’ve got something to say, you say it, you work past that, you find a way.” The hair on his head too slickly black, his chest too wispily grey, his belly slack and his lolling cock, his limply legs, his angled feet. “It’s not without its charms,” he says. “But it’s crap. It’s all crap.”
“Even the tasteful, feminist stuff, Reg?” says someone on the other side of the half-open door there, light blazing on white tiles within.
“Crap!” he says, sitting up, tossing the remote clink to the bedside table. “This is, this ought to be,” he’s getting up, he’s crossing the room to that enormously lurid television, “the art of utopia,” he says, and he clicks it off, plunging the room into shadow. A slap of a laugh from behind that half-open door. “No, think about it,” he says, heading toward the bright slice of light on the carpet. “Utopia: you’ve settled your basic physical needs, safety and security all sewn up, you’ve clawed your way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.” The tile white under his feet, smokey grey up the walls, pebbled amber glass of a shower stall. She’s there before the sink, black towel about her hips, and her belly, her breasts, her throat and her face painted with angled swaths of black, sheenly smeared with handfuls of greasy white cream, long yellow hair tied back with a wide black ribbon. “Huh,” he says. “Those really aren’t extensions.”
“Tricks of the trade,” says Ettie, rubbing cream onto her cheek.
“I like it long,” he says. “Where was I. Needs, right, so! You’ve actualized yourself. Transcended yourself. It’s all good! There’s no loss to mourn, no lack to salve – what art do you make, then?”
“Pin-ups and money shots?” she says, daubing her face clean with a grubby white towel. “You’re talking about pornography, Reg. Come on.”
“Haven’t you ever,” he says, “described a dessert, as pornographic?” Stepping close. “Sensual. Pleasures. Evocations of, of those pleasures,” his hands uncertain, “of desire, of fulfillment,” one setting on that hip-slung towel, “do you realize, the pornography we see? Every day?” He leans close. “Menus,” he murmurs. “Catalogs.”
“You’re insane,” she says, rubbing at a stubborn blotch under her ear.
“It’s obscene,” he says, looking down, there, on her side, just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print, cartooned in red, unsmeared with cream or paint. “You missed a spot,” he says, fingertips brushing the kiss but “Don’t!” she jerks about, slapping his hand away. “Sorry,” she says, as he steps back. “I’m sorry, I – ”
“Look,” he says, quite curt, his eyes gone stern. “Whatever it is, between the two of you? Fix it. Because, let’s face it. On your own?” Looking her up and down, her one hand clutching the towel. “You’re talented, sure, you’re good. Very good. But your tits are too small, your legs are too long, you’ve got that nose, and the overall,” waving a hand, “resting bitch gestalt. But together?” Spreading his hands, a shrug. “Together, you’re spectacular.” Stepping back, toward the doorway. “I’m paying for both of you. I’m going to get my money’s worth.”
He steps out, and shuts the door, gently.
Leaned against the fender of a sleek sedan, he’s not too tall, somewhat stout, arms folded in a sleek grey suit, grey shirt, grey tie. Watching a white SUV rumble down the narrow, buckled street under the lights fixed to the deck of the bridge above. It wheels into the space beside him, next to one of the slender, sharp-edged concrete piers. The rear door pops open as the engine cuts off, a high white boot slips out, and a bared pale thigh, brief white shorts and thin gold chains a-dangle, white halter deeply scooped and draped in a loose hood up about the black lines painted framing breasts and throat and cheeks, and straight yellow hair caught up in hanks by wide white ribbons. Coming around the back of the SUV, as tall, as slim, as severe, but dressed instead in black, black boots and shorts, black hood, angled white paint, and something of a smile about her lips.
“What do you think?” says Ysabel, still in the back seat of the SUV.
The man in the grey suit snorts. “Mama Rave and the Ravettes,” he says.
“Darling Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, climbing down out of the SUV. “It is the Montage.” Ivory trousers bell about her ankles, and a long sleeveless tapestry coat, unicorn and maiden in a garden, picked out in colored thread on an ivory field. “Nice shoes,” she says, and he turns a foot, displaying his black and white spectators. “I doubt anyone will notice,” he says. “They’ll all be staring at you.”
“Why else go out, if not to be seen?” says Ysabel, but he’s offering his arm to the woman in white, “Shall we, Ettie?”
“Oh, he’s gotten better at this,” she says, taking his arm.
“He’s paid attention,” says Ysabel.
“You were both trying too hard, in the other direction,” he says, as Chrissie all in black takes his other arm. “Occupational hazard,” she says.
“It’s nice to see you both together again,” he says, as they set out, under the bridge, and then, a moment later, a bit too loud, “I don’t see any deathless paintings down here, at least?”
Ysabel brushes her fingers against the pier they’re passing, sprayed with a tangle of initials in bright orange, and a glyph in red, two dotted eyes cradled in a wide simple smile, and then she steps out into the street, “Look at them!” she cries. Throwing a bare arm up, a sweep of her hand, the slender piers rising abruptly to massive concrete caps that brace the girders of the bridge, thrumming with traffic, far too much weight to be borne up by such stalks. “Would you adorn this, with art? So graceless, so out of proportion – pieces, from a kit, slapped together and on to the next, like any other dreary overpass. Only a generation after the Lovejoy Ramp,” and as she’s speaking, Reg has freed his arms from Ettie and from Chrissie, leaving them on the sidewalk to step out into the street beside her, “and already they’ve forgotten how to listen. As if they know more about the building of bridges than the bridges ever could themselves. And yet,” she says, “even in such a benighted space,” her gesture now toward the corner there, three storeys of red brick building, upper windows dark, but down here in the shadows lamplight warmly shines over benches and small potted plants, muffled music, the laughter of someone stepping out of the door set in the corner of it, under signs that say Montage. “Commerce thrives,” says Ysabel.
“It’s one restaurant,” he says. “The building’s in dire need of restoration. Otherwise?” Looking about. “You-store-it warehouses, wholesale office junk, a parking lot – is that one of yours?”
“An art studio,” says Ysabel, pointing up the street to a low green building behind them, “the wonders that might spring, from soil such as this.”
“Yeah,” says Reg, looking past, across the boulevard beyond, to a pocket of grass, the crook of an onramp, a low tree harshly topped with green by streetlight, deeply shadowed beneath, where a cluster of makeshift tents has been staked and tied together, yellow tarps and blue tarps and plastic sheeting lit up within by flashlights and by camp lanterns, and shadows moving about. “I wonder. Let’s get ourselves inside.”
Heads turn as they make their way through the ochre dining room, chairs scrape here and there, pushed back for better views from long tables laid with white cloths and sparkling glassware, Chrissie and then Ysabel, Ettie, finally Reg, as orders shouted in the open kitchen, scrape and chop, a rush of flame, music loud and someone’s singing ai mambo, mambo Italiano! They’re led to a long table against the far wall, beneath a monochromatic cartoon of the Last Supper. Ettie and Chrissie slip around the end to lay hands on the chairs there, standing, being seen, as Ysabel and Reg sit down across from them, and then they sit themselves, shoulder to shoulder, a regiment of emptied wine bottles lining the shelf above their hoods, the black one, and the white. “Flatiron steak,” says Reg, waving away the menus their server’s trying to hand out, “rare as it’s legal, and a Ross Island iced tea. Girls?”
“Soup, or salad, sir?”
“Skip it,” says Reg, a bit terse. “Girls, what will you have?”
“Hoppin’ John salad,” says Ettie, and “Two forks,” says Chrissie.
“Something to drink?”
Chrissie opens her mouth to say something, but looks to Ettie first. “Water,” says Ettie, and Chrissie, shrugging, nods.
“Pesto mac,” says Ysabel, handing her menu back up, “and surprise me with something that has your vanilla vodka.”
“Splitting a salad?” says Reg, as their server heads off, and “We aren’t hungry,” says Chrissie, and “We’re just here to look pretty,” says Ettie. “Go on, do your business.”
“But you are our business,” says Ysabel.
“Yeah?” says Ettie, but “Look,” says Reg, “I know you’re ducking my calls. You think I’m angry. There’s been skipped appointments, lost opportunities, but remember: I work in a creative industry, too. I understand the process. Sometimes, it takes time. I respect that.”
Ettie says, “You’re about to drop a but, aren’t you,” the both of them looking at him.
“But,” he says, a bit theatrically, as glasses of water are set down, “there’s money at stake, and money to be made. For all of us. That needs to be respected, too.”
“I have, perhaps,” says Ysabel, “been guilty of monopolizing your attentions.” And then, to Reg, “Christienne has been most helpful in getting my foundation off the ground.”
He looks at her, blinks, “Your,” he says, “foundation,” and then he rocks back in his chair with a rumbling wheeze of a laugh, “you are a piece of work, you know that?” he says. “Why the hell can’t you go to your brother and tell him you don’t want the damn thing demolished? He can just, shut it all down! Problem solved. Art saved.”
Smiling just, she says, “But there’s money at stake, Mr. Davies. That must be respected. If I go to him as a sister – now that mother has retired, that would be all that I am. But if a foundation comes to him,” and her drink is set before her, tall, pale yellow, clinking with ice and a bright pink straw, “backed by concerned citizens, members of the arts community, sympathetic stories in the press, some of his own investors,” and she leans forward, for a sip.
“You can’t think you’re the only one I’m meeting with.”
“I do, actually. I do.” Shaking his head, stirring his own drink tall and amber with a purple straw. “Cards on the table,” he says, lifting his glass for a gulp. “I donate some money to your effort to save the Lovejoy Ramp, lend you my name, say something nice in public, and you get out of our way,” he’s looking across to Ettie now, “let us get back to doing what we’d already agreed to do,” and to Chrissie, in her black hood, her white paint, sat across from Ysabel beside him, who lays her hand on his a moment, “The one,” she says, “has nothing to do with the other, and as he’s turning, frowning, “What?” he’s saying, Chrissie leans forward, blurts out, “We don’t want to do it anymore. The photos, the movies,” but Ettie’s saying, “We didn’t say that,” and “we want to do our show,” says Chrissie. “Our way. We can do that, now.”
“Whoa,” says Reg. “Okay?” Spreading his hands, smoothing the waters between them all. “There’s still some misconceptions. This is all, photos, whatever, you’re in charge. If you’d come to one of the meetings I’m setting up for you? The one, Tuesday, came down from Seattle, total punk-hippie chick, Femmerotic, her thing’s called. Totally tasteful. Completely feminist. Nothing you wouldn’t be comfortable with, okay?”
“Comfortable,” says Chrissie, sitting back.
“Nothing’s comfortable, under the lights,” says Ettie, looking to Chrissie beside her, leaning closer, shoulder to shoulder. “You look so pretty when you smile,” she says, and they’re both smiling suddenly, great wide sparkling grins. “Why don’t you put an arm around her,” says Chrissie, and she does. “Oh, that’s great.”
“Put your hand in her lap,” says Ettie, and she does. “Go on, a little higher.”
“You don’t really have to,” says Chrissie, tipping her head back, hood falling, baring her throat, “but it has to look like,” and “Give ’em what they want,” growls Ettie, as Chrissie curls her lips, an exaggerated moue, “Oh!” she says then, sitting up, leaning close. “I know we said you wouldn’t.”
“We’d never ask you to cross a line,” says Ettie, black paint brushing white.
“But if you’d just,” says Chrissie, the tip of her nose just by Ettie’s. “Like you were about to.”
“As if you just did.”
“Just to see.”
“We wouldn’t use it.”
“We wouldn’t have to use it.”
“Just once,” says Ettie, but then Chrissie turns aside, “So long as you’re comfortable,” she says, as Ettie sits back. Chrissie lifts her hood up into place, smoothing the hanks of her yellow hair, and those smiles are gone, and their blue eyes flatly cold. “It doesn’t matter what we say when we shake hands.”
“The photos are all that ever gets seen,” says Ettie.
“If we aren’t the ones calling the shots,” says Chrissie.
“What’s shot is what gets called,” says Ettie. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
“But that’s what I’m talking about!” Reg leans close, both hands on the table. “Did you hear? How quiet it just got, when you were,” and his fist thumps once, a chime of glassware. “Attention was paid! And that kind of, charisma,” he looks back, over his should, and then to them again, “that magnetism, that can be monetized. Hell, it could be weaponized!”
“It will end up pointed,” Chrissie’s saying, but “That’s it, isn’t it,” says Ettie, and “at us,” says Chrissie, looking to her with a questioning frown, but Ettie’s looking at Ysabel. Glaring, even. “That’s the question, isn’t it,” she says, as Ysabel unperturbed looks right back. “That everyone wants to talk about,” says Ettie, “but nobody wants to actually, like, talk about.”
“Everybody?” says Ysabel.
“Do you want to see me,” says Ettie. “Do you want to see more of me. Do you, do you want,” but Ysabel’s shaking her head, waving a hand, “It’s not enough,” she says, “to ask the question. One must attend the answer.”
“Yeah?” says Ettie, shrugging off the hand Chrissie’s laid on her arm. “Well, attend this: no. No, I don’t. You absolutely terrify me.”
Chrissie’s staring, aghast. “Wait,” says Reg, “what?” Ysabel’s lifting her half-drunk glass. “What we call beautiful, we do quiver before it,” she says, and sips.
“Yeah, well, sometimes we quiver because it’s fucking wrong,” says Ettie.
“Would somebody please tell me,” says Reg, but there’s his steak, sizzling, swooped in, set thump before him.
A portrait propped on the mantel there, white beagle spotted black and tan, stood proudly in a field, trees low in the distance and a sky full of brushstroked clouds. The hearth beneath of yellow brick, fire chuckling on the grate, two wingback chairs pulled close before it, upholstered in pale pink with white roses. To one side a fussy credenza topped with cut glass decanters, to the other a low shelf, a single line of books, all of a height, and bound in the same blue leather. He runs a hand along the back of one of the chairs, looks about the room again. The fire shifts, settles, sparks pattering up the flue. His great beard is the color of mahogany, and his little round sunglasses in this uncertain light might well be green or purple.
The door rasps open, there’s the Viscount Agravante, white dreadlocks touched with gold tied back, a salmon dress shirt open at his throat. “Mr. Keightlinger!” he cries. “Of course I remember you. Forgive the delay; I was upstairs, attending to Grandfather.”
“How is he?” says Phil, says Mr. Keightlinger.
“He sleeps,” says Agravante. “Something to drink?”
“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, after a moment. Agravante’s pouring something clear into a glass. “Sit,” he says. “So.” Corking the decanter. “How is Charles.”
“Charles? Was,” says Mr. Keightlinger, “not Lier.” His hand still on the back of the chair. “Lier was a wig.”
“You don’t say,” says Agravante, plucking an ice cube from a bucket. “A wig?”
“Do you have the boon?”
“You haven’t taken your seat,” says Agravante, coming around the other chair. “Are you certain I can’t offer you anything?” He sits. “Tell me, Mr. Keightlinger. Do you have any family?”
“The boon, sir, that was given to you last year. Do you still have it?”
Agravante sips his drink. “I know you are not a rude man. I cannot abide the ill-mannered.” A gesture, toward the other chair. “Please.”
“In my work,” says Mr. Keightlinger, as he sits, “I have been many different people. Some had family. I couldn’t say which were real.”
Agravante lifts his glass, a salute. “You’re a magician, aren’t you. Magicians rarely have family, in my experience. You’d rather wield blessings and curses, than homilize about them.”
“As you say, sir.”
“As I say.” He chuckles, and leans forward to set his glass on the low table between them. “They know you, family, better by far than anyone else, but that knowledge fixes you, holds you fast. It squeezes. And yet,” sitting back in his chair, “when allegiances follow fortune, and philosophies change with the cut of one’s suit, still: one’s family is always one’s family. There’s a comfort to be taken, in that.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Of course. Of course.” The crackle of the fire. His elbows on the arms of the chair, his fingers steepled. “I was to hold the boon, and keep it safe, and undisturbed, until he asked for it again. You,” those fingers tip, point, “are not he.”
“As I said, sir, Lier was, a mask, an illusion – ”
“A wig, yes. Am I not bound by the word I’ve given a wig?” A shrug of those hands. “Perhaps your companion from that evening could resolve this dilemma.”
A rustle of that beard, as his sunglasses turn from the fire to Agravante, the lenses settling, for the moment, on green. “You know where he is.”
“Do I.” He picks up his glass. “As to what was given me, it’s on the mantel,” and there, set before the portrait of the hound, a fiendish little basket-box, “safe,” says Agravante, as Mr. Keightlinger leaps to his feet, “and undisturbed.”
Mr. Keightlinger turns it over in his hands, the dark red wood of it seamless, corners knurled, faces carved with simple, stylized shapes, a mountaintop, a raindrop, a sunburst, a quartered circle. And then he lifts it up and brings it down, crack against the mantel, and up again and down, a splintering crunch. He swallows it up in both his hands, prying with thick fingertips, a grunt, arms trembling, a sudden twist and a snap like a branch, breaking. One of those hands lifts away from the other and in the palm of each a jagged half of basket-box, edges red, the hollowed wood within a smoothly yellow.
“Where is he,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
“Who,” says Agravante, serenely getting to his feet.
“Where!” Thrusting one empty half of the box at him.
“The box was kept safe, and undisturbed,” says Agravante. “As to what was held within,” and a shrug, stepping back as Mr. Keightlinger hurls that half into the fire. “If he does not like what I have done, why, surely he’ll return? To let me know?” The sliding door rasps open. Mr. Keightlinger’s leaned against the mantel, the other half still in his hand. “Do be so good as to show yourself out,” says Agravante.