Monte Carlo, says the sign, Pizza, Steaks, the lettering scratched and fading from the filthy windows of the corner storefront. Down the block the other storefront’s boarded over with graffiti’d plywood, a rust-raddled chain knotted about the handles of its big double door, under the skeletal frame of a grand awning that once sheltered the sidewalk. Between the two storefronts a demure door painted a brown that melts into the brickwork, and small black squares of tin nailed above it, each printed with a brassy numeral, 1018. It’s opening, a man’s stepping out, blue and white track suit, running shoes, locking the door, looking up in time to see the woman headed past the Monte Carlo window, around the corner, brown coat, pale bloom of hair.
Quickly after her, around that corner. Letters flaking from a side window above say Live Music Every Nite. The street slopes down, and past the brick the looming blue-grey bulk of a warehouse, long windows high above that stretch between concrete pillars, square panes painted over white or caked with old dust or smashed out, jagged shadowed holes, and the wall beneath illegible with graffiti. A fence has been slapped up against the wall, tipped poles canted drunkenly, an old worn sign hung from the mesh that says Wilson Properties in blocky type. She’s maybe a quarter of the way down the length of it, leaning a shoulder against the ringing, squealing fence as she pushes the mesh away from the pole, sharp cut ends of it bright clean sparks. “Hey!” he yells. “Hey! You can’t go in there!”
“I assure you,” she calls back, “it’s easy enough. I’ve but to lift my foot,” and she does, straddling the mesh, careful of the white paper bag in the one hand, the cup-carrier in the other, and three tall white paper cups. A door’s cut into the wall above her, three feet up or so, a brief shelf of threshold jutting beneath.
“You’re trespassing,” he says, coming down the sidewalk. “We don’t want any squatters – ”
“I may be outlaw,” she says, leaning over to set the bag and the cups on the threshold, “but I do no trespass.” The sheepskin collar of her coat turned about about her frothy cloud of white-gold hair.
“Yeah, well, we, can,” sputtering, standing there, looking about, the warehouse, her, the empty street. He’s taller than he seems with that stoop, his dwindling brown hair buzzed close, tipped here and there with silver. “Look,” he says. “You can’t – it’s dangerous. This building – ”
“There’s no danger,” she says, a gesture toward the paper bag, the cups. “It’s but breakfast, for those who wait within. You may join us, if you like, but we’d need to fetch more coffee – or tea, perhaps?”
“I’m not,” he says, “I don’t. I’d rather, not, call the cops.”
“Of course not,” she says. “Would you speak with the owner?” Reaching up and over she knocks on the door, the metal of it booming. “She likes chai lattes.”
“I, I don’t,” he says, stepping back. “Just, keep it quiet. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Who does,” she says, as he turns, walking away, jogging away. The door above her opens, groaning. Long black hair dangling loose, pale bare knees smudged, baggy white T-shirt scrawled with handwritten letters that say The Giggling Mountebanks. “Hey,” says Gloria Monday. “Who the hell was that?”
Marfisa shrugs. “Neighbors,” she says, hauling herself through the gap in the fence.
Wrapped in a white towel Chrissie laughing barges into the room and hurls herself on the bed as Ysabel stately swans in after, short white robe loosely draped. Rolling over and over again, Chrissie in the muted sunlight, the towel falling away from her pale bare back, laughter stilling with a sigh. “Why do you have to go see your brother,” she says.
“He’s the King,” says Ysabel, opening a drawer, rummaging through filmy, frothy stuff.
“I don’t play that game,” says Chrissie.
“When you’re with me,” says Ysabel, laying out bits of cream satin edged with brown lace, “you do.”
“But why today,” says Chrissie. “Why Thursday.” Yellow hair wetly burnished about her face.
“Merely a coincidence,” says Ysabel, undoing the belt of her robe. “The one has nothing to do with the other.”
“God, you’re lovely,” says Chrissie.
“Don’t,” says Ysabel, laying the robe over the foot of the bed.
“It’s a woman, isn’t it,” says Chrissie, chin in her hand.
“Thursday. It’s a woman,” says Chrissie, as Ysabel bends over to step into her underpants. “And you go to see her, once a week, every week. I bet you let her say the ell-word.”
“This isn’t funny, you know,” says Ysabel, opening the doors of an armoire.
“I’m not the funny one.”
“But you are in a mood.” Ysabel lays out a sweater the color of wheat, or oats.
“Triste est omne animal post coitum,” says Chrissie, tipping over, on her back, “but not with you. Never with you. With you I feel,” knees up, arms up, stretching for the ceiling. “Carbonated? Effervescent.”
“Every animal,” says Ysabel, laying out a lacy white skirt, “but the cock, and woman.”
“Well.” Chrissie tips her head back, chin up, looking at Ysabel upside-down. “If you’re going to spoil the mood with context.”
Ysabel sits on the bed beside her. “You’re chattering,” she says. Slipping the lace-edged straps of the bra up her arms. “What is it you’re not talking about. Is it Davies? Is he pushing you?”
“That,” says Chrissie, kneeling up behind her, taking hold of the bra-straps, “would be the jay-word.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Ysabel, as Chrissie hooks the bra closed.
“Let’s talk about your secret lover, then. Or is it lovers.” Chrissie lies back against the pillows, watching as Ysabel takes up the skirt, bends down to pull it on. “A whole harem of beautiful women, bewitched by your terrible curse.”
“You’ve decided, haven’t you.” Ysabel bunches up a long white sock, slips it over her foot. “You’re going to do his movies, his videos.” Pulls it up and up, smoothing it over her knee. “You’re going to do what he wants,” she says, bunching up the other. “Not what you want.”
“It’s a one-time deal,” says Chrissie, with a sigh, “that gets us money, and an opportunity, to – ”
“Oh, those are Ettie’s talking points,” says Ysabel, looking back over her shoulder. “She’s the funny one.”
“It’s a man, isn’t it. Your shameful Thursday secret is a man!” Chrissie sits up, leans close, “Does it even work on men?” she says. “I mean, if you have to want to ask,” but then Ysabel’s kissing her, hard, arms about her crushing tight and eyes squeezed shut.
“Shut up,” says Ysabel, after.
“You want to ask right now, don’t you,” murmurs Chrissie, lips on skin. “What would happen, if you did? What would I say, do you think.”
“Why should I?” says Ysabel, and a hissing suck of breath. “Now that I know you’re not after my money,” and Chrissie laughs into Ysabel’s kiss.
Canvases upright, leaned against walls, against crates, against the worktable and the pillar, a staggered circle of them in the glare of the trouble light dangled overhead. She’s sitting in the middle of them all, yellow blouse and a houndstooth skirt, black tights, brown hair unskeined about her shoulders. Leaning forward for a bite of burrito, then pushing her glasses, narrow, black-rimmed, back up her nose. Figures splashed across those canvases, form and motion scribbled blackly, redly slashed, swoops of arms and hands, shoulders, clavicles, breasts, the lines gone sleekly slender up along throats, jaws, noses, and in each is caught a single look, quite still, those sole green eyes that gaze out, sidelong or direct, uptipped or a downward regard from each sliver of a moment frozen, and above around about them all the mad wild tangles of hair, curls and spills and splatters of black paint crusted, strobe-lit, jump-cut, scattered dance. Another bite. A white paper cup, lifted, and she blows at the steam lofting up from a notch in the lid. A sip.
“See, well, I mean, it’s, it’s,” says Gloria Monday, off to one side, behind a canvas, out of the light. “It’s not, it’s, it’s just,” shaking her head, “it’s just not.”
“She cut her hair,” says Marfisa, sitting up on the walkway in the meagre daylight, a paperback in her hand.
“Yeah, I know, we know, she cut her hair,” says Gloria.
“There’s something here,” says the woman sitting in the middle of all those canvases. “It’s just,” looking about, “there’s, ten of them? Twelve?”
“Fourteen,” says Gloria.
“There’s gonna be more,” says Gloria. “There was gonna be more.”
“More,” says the woman, sitting in the middle of them all. One last bite of burrito. “Well. It’s – relentless.”
“Relentless,” says Gloria, flatly. “That’s, that’s not a good word.”
“Perhaps if you,” daubing her lips with a napkin, “winnowed it down? To three, or four,” and she pushes herself to her feet, brushing dust from her tights. Gloria’s stepping out from behind the canvases, into the ring of them, bare feet shuffling, “No,” she’s saying, “you don’t, it’s got to be,” turning about, including them all with a sweep of her arm, “all of them, every, it’s, it’s,” hands to her head, black hair shining in the harsh light. “Anna, I told you. The music, the lights, the way she, looked, right at me, and, well, you know?” Lowering her hands, an irritated, empty gesture. “Right?”
“She stepped close,” says Anna, quietly. “In her mother’s garden. She asked me, and I, answered, and brought her five hundred dollars, and a bus schedule.”
“And ever since,” says Gloria. “You close your eyes.”
“I see her,” says Anna.
“Over and over,” says Gloria.
“You should’ve slept with her,” says Marfisa, turning a page in her book.
“It’s not like that,” snarls Gloria, wheeling about.
“Worked for me,” says Marfisa, without looking up.
“The hell it did,” mutters Gloria.
“Unrelenting,” says Anna, her hand on Gloria’s arm.
“Yes!” says Gloria, turning back. “Relentless! So.” A kick at the dust. “Yeah.”
“I can see it,” says Anna, “but I know what I’m looking at. Some things – ”
“This is how it is!” cries Gloria. “This! This is how it has to be!”
“Some things,” says Anna. “They have to be said, but it doesn’t mean they’re meant to be heard. That they can be heard.”
“So,” says Gloria, and a deep breath. “Okay.” Throwing out a hand, clamping it about the top of the nearest canvas. “So fuck it,” she says, and tips it over falling face-down to the floor, smack.
“Gloria!” cries Anna. “You said you wanted to do more. So. Do more. Try again, try something – Gloria!”
“I can’t!” wails Gloria, tipping another, whack and a billow of dust, grabbing another, “the whole point,” yank, topple, crack, “is I don’t have the money to do any more,” and Anna seizes her arm, “Please, don’t,” but Gloria shakes herself loose, grabs another, “was to see if I could raise money,” yank and slam, “by maybe selling these damn things,” and again, toppling, but Anna with a lunge catches it, grunting, pushing it back upright. “Gloria,” she says. “The point isn’t to sell the paintings. The point is to raise money. Right?”
“You have a better fucking idea?” says Gloria, with a half-hearted kick at a fallen canvas.
“I might,” says Anna.
Marfisa turns another page.
“Let’s hear some love,” the booming voice, as she mounts the shadowed stage, “for the one, the only, Starling!” and a piano riff rumbles from the speakers, left-handed, low, a whoop or two, someone’s clapping. Red and black wrestling boots laced up her calves and jagged oblongs black and red that cover her breasts, her belly, her buttocks and thighs, and as that riff circles itself she plants her feet, lifts up a wooden guitar body, a red flying vee, and with a windmilling swing of her arm as the lights flare mimes a strike at the strings. A power chord roars through the speakers, guitar and drums overwhelming the piano. More whoops. The music settles into a thumping march and she struts three steps to the edge of the stage, spins about swinging the guitar over her head, drops to a squat, throttling the neck of it between her knees, I don’t wanna let another minute get by, a woman’s singing, but she’s looking out over the thin audience, they’re slipping through our fingers but we’re ready to fly, men here and there, a man and a woman at that table, she has pink hair, two more men crowding close to the stage, heartily young, bills creased about their beefy fingers, bills already littering the stage like so many crisp little tents. Standing to spin again, swinging about, and when the morning arrives, it’ll all be gone, two more, three more men there, a woman pulling out a chair, shapeless in a green coat, at the bar a woman leaning forward, blond hair cut short, ordering a drink. It’s time to put up or shut up, singing out over the speakers, or to pick up the pace, and the Starling dances.
“Urban Restoration Squad,” she says, handset of an old desk phone to her ear. Sitting up. “I can do that for you, actually,” she says, but brightly chipper, highly pitched. “What’s the name? Jessie, yes, Jessie Vitaly. Yes.” Her long blond hair, her plain white blouse, the top two buttons of it left undone. “Jessie’s been with us for, for three months, yes. Since January fifth. Fourth. January fourth. Yes.” Looking about the little office, a couple of desks in opposite corners, shelf of binders and file folders, printer on its podium, nothing stirring in the doorway to the back room. “I’m afraid,” she says, clamping the handset between shoulder and ear, “it’s policy merely to confirm, ah,” reaching down, under her desk, “the period of employment.” At her feet a stuffed brown gym bag, and resting atop it a clamshell phone, charging. “Is there anything else?” She unplugs it. “Anything I can, no, thank you. Thank you. Goodbye!” Straightening, hanging up the desk phone. Unfolding the cell phone, laying it on her desk by her keyboard. A stylized hawk’s head, red and black, fills its little screen, and numbers along the top of it, 3/22, 11:17. “Hey,” says someone, from back there in the back room. “Jessie, how the hell do I,” but “Just a second,” she calls back, staring intently at the phone.
It lights up, buzzing, a burst of tinny music, whistling synthesized strings that gyrate about a splashing high-hat. She snaps it up, tapping the big green button on its keypad, “Hello?” she says. “This is Jessie.” Her voice pitched low now, softer, rounder. “Yeah,” she says, “no, yeah, we still are. Of course.” Turning about in her chair, looking out the big bay window behind her, the glass taped over with posters and flyers. “Well, yes, the, ah, the landlord, of our, our previous occupancy? Apartment.” Outside the corner, the sidewalk. “He, ah,” she’s saying, “well. He’s dead. He died. So. That’s, I mean, why we’re moving. So. It would be, hard.” The empty street, wet with rain. Over across the way a pile of a brick building, three or four storeys, huge high windows dark. “Yes. You did? Good. And everything’s?” She’s nodding. “Good.” Sitting back in her chair. “We can, the, yes. First, last, security, yes, we can, yes. Saturday, we can have that for you. But I was wondering, if,” leaning forward, “the keys, if we could,” listening, nodding. Looking down. “Saturday. No, that’s fine. Thank you. No, thank you. Thank you.”
She closes the phone. Closes her eyes. A little smile, and a sigh.
“Jessie,” that voice from the back room. “Can you tell me why the hell this piece of shit machine can’t open a simple PDF?”
“Because it’s a piece of shit,” says Jessie, leaning down, plugging the cell phone back in, setting it back on the gym bag. “Send it over to me, I’ll print it for you, or whatever.”
“I just want the damn thing to open the damn files without making a big production, you know?”
“We probably just need to download something, or update something else,” she says. “Hey, Nelson. You mind if I take an early lunch?”
“Just, fix this damn thing first.”
“Right,” says Jessie, getting to her feet.