Level A, Furniture – the warmth of March – what’s In the Envelope – the Nearest book – “You’re it; That’s all” –
Level A, Furniture, says the sign laid into the floor under her feet, but as she steps off the escalator she isn’t looking over ersatz rooms, each on its island of carpeting, the queen-sized beds heaped with clashing pillows, the rectilinear sofas, all chrome and black leather. Tock and plock of bootheels, her houndstooth skirt, her tan trench coat, she heads off to one side, an alcove there where a couple of full-length mirrors in bulky wood frames are leaned against a wall. Cater-cornered from them a swinging door, lit by a small glass square criss-crossed with chicken-wire. She pushes through it into a service corridor crowded with pallets loaded with stuff, anonymous cardboard boxes swaddled in plastic wrap, patio furniture strapped in teetering stacks. She ducks under an enormous plastic candy cane, barber-striped, sidles past a throne all threadbare velveteen and worn gold-painted wood. Pushes away a stuffed reindeer, its nose an unlit bulb. There, beneath a stretch of dented duct, a portholed door, and beside it a boxy intercom grille, and no button or level or latch. Over the porthole blocky letters, carefully painted, say Boiler Room. She stoops over the grimy yellowed intercom, “Ah,” she says, “Anna Nirdlinger, from Welund Rhythidd, to see Mousely.”
After a moment a squawk from the box, a gabbled squelch in a rising pitch. She leans closer. “Anna,” she says. “Rhythidd? Mousely.” And then, “Mousely.”
Far below, something dings, there’s a groan and a climbing whine of cable, grind and squeak, a clang as light rises to fill the porthole settling as the noises drop with a thump back to a hum. The door sides open, she steps inside. The elevator begins its descent with a cacophonous jerk, and she resettles her narrow, black-rimmed glasses, clutching her shoulder bag close to herself. A deep breath in through her nose.
The elevator opens on a hall lined to either side with roll-top desks, each with a set of tubes hung above, like the pipes of an organ, sleeved in rubberized canvas, cornered and finished in bent metal joints, and all about a loudly rushing wheeze of air. Clerks in striped shirts bend over each of the desks, taking long capsules from tubes, unscrewing them open, looking over pages pulled from within, deftly selecting additional documents from cubbyholes, stiff cardstock, gauzy wodges of onionskin and carbons, crisply laser-printed forms, cream and salmon, goldenrod and lilac, shuffling all together, stapling here, clipping there, stamping with wide forceful but precise swings of their arms. Some bundles rolled up, stuffed back into capsules, sent with a shunt on their way, others neatly dropped in one of the swaying baskets overhead, hung from the chains that trundle down either side, the creak of them lost in the din from the end of the hall. Flat tables there, and big upright computer monitors hooked with snarls of grey-beige cabling to hulking flatbed scanners. White-shirted clerks hands gloved in blue take stacks from baskets, swiftly disassemble them, slap each page and card and form in turn on the glass bed of a scanner, and scrolling bars of light shine along the walls, then up the papers snatched and tossed into the maw of an enormous grinding shredder. A steep flight of stairs lifts up above their racket to a little balcony, where a stolid figure in a long pink dress, a pillbox hat pinned at a distracted angle, looks back down the length of the hall, beckoning to Anna with a white-gloved hand.
Up the stairs and through double doors into a cozy office, richly paneled, warmly lit, armchairs upholstered in floral prints before a polished desk, and one wall almost entirely taken up by a brick fireplace, the mantel of it crowded with sepia-tinged photographs, a graduated gaggle of matryoshka dolls, a vase top-heavy with stargazer lilies, the pink of them shading to blood red. When the white-gloved woman closes the double doors it’s all plunged into silence, and only the merry crackle of the log on the grate. “Some tea, perhaps?” she says, as she steps around behind the desk.
“That would be lovely,” says Anna, taking an armchair, and on the little table beside it more lilies, and a gently steaming china cup.
“Is it beastly without? I imagine it must be beastly.”
“It’s March,” says Anna, sipping her tea.
“They’re getting warmer, though,” says the woman, “aren’t they? Marches?” Smoothing papers in a manila folder laid open before her.
“I suppose?” says Anna. “It’s good to finally meet you, Mousely.”
“There’s no need for flattery,” says the woman, taking up a little grey plastic card which she fits into a squat black machine on her desk, carefully lowering the weighty lid. “Why are you here, Anna.” Pressing a lever on the side of the machine. That lid slams down, a solid chunk.
“Well,” says Anna. “I have recently begun work as a paralegal, with Welund Rhythidd,” and Mousely yanks the lever up again. “Before that, I was amanuensis to the Queen.”
“I know who you are,” says Mousely, lifting the card now embossed with a line of numerals.
“Yes,” says Anna, adjusting her glasses, “well, I do need to learn more of the firm’s operations, and had some time at lunch today.”
“A tour cannot possibly be arranged without some sort of notice,” says Mousely. Careful of her white gloves, she’s squeezing a dollop of something thick and clear from a tube onto the back of the card. “We are terribly busy, as you can see.” Lips pursed, she presses the card precisely, firmly, to a square printed on a piece of paper before her in the folder. “If you’d called ahead, we’d’ve had time to prepare for you.” Folding the paper, a bit clumsy with the stiff weight of the card now glued to it, neatly into thirds. “But perhaps that was the point?”
“This isn’t anything like a surprise inspection,” says Anna.
“Of course not,” says Mousely, slipping the folded paper into a plain white envelope.
“Just a whim.”
“Whimsy, Anna?” She’s moistening the seal of the envelope with a neat little blue sponge. “Not the best of motives, where a bank’s concerned,” but a sudden grinding rush of noise, the double doors opening, a clerk stepping within, a red folder in her blue-gloved hands, nodding once, crisply, as she lays it on the corner of the desk.
“Blast and rot,” says Mousely in the silence that falls as the doors close up again.
“Is there a problem?” says Anna, her eyes on that folder.
“A red jacket,” says Mousely, opening it before her, “takes precedence over all other work, and must be approved at the highest levels.” Lifting pages, looking over forms. “An impressive acquisition, to be sure, but a terrible bother.”
Anna takes in a deep and fortifying breath. “I’d be happy to take it back with me,” she says. “Deliver it to Rhythidd myself. Save you that much, at least.”
Mousely looks up, a little card of glossy black in her white-gloved hands. “Would you,” she says.
A half-dozen dream-catchers dangle before the broad window, and on the sill of it a bright round mirror in an octagonal frame, richly painted red and green. Jessie’s sitting on one end of the couch beneath them, arm up along the back of it, looking out at the street, the dimly sourceless light of a cloudy afternoon. From the front room through that doorway a muttering rumble, a sharp retort, a sighing exhalation. She lays her yellow head on her outstretched arm. She closes her eyes.
“Jessie,” says the man in the doorway, a hand up, rubbing his lump of a nose.
“Yeah.” She sits up, drawing her arm to herself as he sits on the couch beside her. “How are you,” he says.
“I can,” she says, “I can get back to work.”
“I just want to make sure you’re okay,” he says.
“I’m fine, Nelson,” she says. “Thanks. For asking.”
“That, was. Disturbing.” A vague gesture of his hand toward the doorway, the front room beyond. In his other hand a plain white envelope.
“I’m really sorry about that,” she says. “He isn’t usually so agitated, but I guess, we’ve both been under a lot of pressure? It won’t happen again. I swear.”
A slow nod of his grizzled head. “So he’s your boyfriend.”
“We’re, together,” she says.
Another nod, a little higher, a little lower. He still isn’t looking at her, not directly. “Do you,” he says, “need to talk to someone. Some help. There are phone numbers. I can get you a phone number.”
She says, “For what?”
“To, talk?” he says. “If you need it. If it’s gotten to that point. There’s – I know a good shelter.”
“Shelter?” says Jessie, sharply, “we don’t need a,” and then, “oh. Oh, Nelson. No. It’s not like that. He lost his temper, yeah, but like I said, we’ve both been under a lot of stress. I don’t know what set it off. Frustration. But – he’s not violent. It’s not like that.”
“Well,” says Nelson. “Like I say. I can get you a phone number.”
“Is that what’s in the envelope?”
He holds it up, sighing, then hands it over to her. The flap’s unsealed. She peers inside, looks up at him. “You said no checks till Friday.”
“This is a check.”
“It’s the law, Jessie.” He sighs. “When someone’s being separated from employment, by end of business – ”
“You’re firing me,” says Jessie.
Another sigh. “You’re being laid off. I’m sorry, but – ”
“You’re firing me because you think my boyfriend’s beating me.”
“What?” he says, alarmed, looking at her now, beside him. “No,” he says. “No, that’s, no. No no no, no, no.”
“Because that would be wrong,” she says, her voice gone thickly soundless by the end.
Hand up, rubbing his face. Up on his feet, over to the desk. “It’s,” he says, “a question of money. We made a go of it, and, you did a fine job. That’s not an issue. I’ll be happy to write you a glowing recommendation, but the funding, we just, we can’t justify,” but Jessie says, “Shut up,” and he stops, his gesture hung, unfinished. “I swear to God,” she says. “The bullshit.”
“Jessie,” he says.
“I’ve been here three weeks,” she says. “Three weeks. If it was money you wouldn’t’ve hired me in the first place.”
“Jessie, I have to ask you to – ”
“No, you fired me, so, fuck that. Fuck that. He told me you were useless, but my God.”
“He,” says Nelson, and, “you,” and, “what?”
“This check,” she says, “this fucking check, we had such plans.” Crumpling the envelope in her hand. “But we needed the next check, and the one after that, and, well, just, fuck it.”
“What do you mean, he told you. What. He knew my name. I thought you told him.”
“He said you wouldn’t remember,” says Jessie.
“He said. Who said. What is going on, here.”
“I just,” says Jessie, getting up. “I wanted a fucking job.”
The receptionist at the desk looks up, an ornate brass telephone headset clipped to one ear. “Anna,” he says. “I thought you were out today.”
“Had a thing,” she says. “It’s done. Is Rhythidd back?”
“Still in the hills,” says the receiptionist.
“All right,” says Anna, holding her shoulder bag close. “I’ll be here at least till four,” she says. The receptionist nods.
A long and narrow corridor, cream-carpeted, blond paneling to the right, and office doors, slightly ajar, or closed, open carrels to the left, blond desks and cabinets, women typing at computers, and some men. The end of it an acute angle, and a single blond wood door. Her hand on the weighty brass knob of it she’s looking back, along the hall, then down the next continuing sharply back to the left, more offices, more carrels, more typing, muttered phone calls. She opens the door.
An angled office, two shorter walls of dark wood, two longer walls of glass, a wide slab of utterly empty desk and behind it a high-backed chair of pale leather. Closing the door, softly, she pulls from her shoulder bag a folder, red, and a pen. Laying the folder open on the desk she flips through the pages within, pausing to initial here and there, quick bold Rs that finish with a curl. At the end, the penultimate page, a long blank line, and she looks up, adjusts her glasses, the pen hovering. Lowering to touch the line, and a single dot of ink, not quite black, tinted red. She signs, with slow definite strokes. Rhythidd.
Glued to the last page a black card, glossy, embossed with a string of numerals. MasterCard, it says, within interlocking circles of red and orange. Bank of Trebizond. Gloria Monday. Good thru 86/75. She unsticks it from the paper, turns it over, peeling off the last waxy dollop of glue as she steps away from the desk, toward the windows, and the expanse of sky beyond, empty, grey, the dark hills of the city below. She allows herself a briefly satisfied smile.
Clomp of wedge heels into the black room, sweat-sheened tattoos, handful of underwear tossed to the floor, “Starling,” she says, laughing, and the rest of them turn back to their reflections, adjusting the shape of a wet red lip, the fall of dozens of braided extensions, purple as popsicles, fluttering a wad of grey-green bills. “You’re wanted next door,” says the sweating dancer, grabbing a robe from a hook on the wall, “your Thursday regular,” and “Yes,” says the Starling, there at the far end, standing up from the red velvet chaise, sheer négligée held shut by a single bow, and long black fishnet stockings.
“She brought a date,” says the dancer, blotting her brow with a sleeve, and there’s an exaggerated “Ooooh!” from the woman with the lipstick. “I saw,” says the Starling, draping a black cloak over her shoulders as she squeezes her way down the line of them all.
“One of the Limoges sisters,” says the dancer, and a dismissive “Pssht,” from the woman tying up the last of her braids. “I know,” says the Starling.
“How is it you get changed so goddamn fast,” says the woman wrapping up the roll of bills with quick twists of a rubber band. “Like fucking magic, I swear.” The Starling turns up the hood of her cloak, careful of her tiara, and steps out into the unlit hall, toward the muffled beat.
Her long white coat he takes with hands scrubbed pinkly clean, the nails of them buffed, meticulously trimmed. “It’s good to see you again, Chazz,” says Ysabel.
“Oh, but here’s a paradox,” he says, hanging her coat on a hall butler heaped with raincoats and rainshells, all about a speckly mirror. “A poor devil, unable to meet the mark of such a praise, and yet,” with a wry smile, bald head pink and shining, his turtleneck spotlessly black, “your majesty, being her majesty, cannot possibly be wrong.”
“Are they within?” she asks.
“Even so,” he says, with a gesture toward the wide doorway to the side, there, the dim, high-ceilinged room, and the sonorous murmur of someone’s voice. Lamps lit, here and there, against the darkening day, one of them harshly bright at the end of a long table, where a little round man sits tailor-fashion, naked but for a pair of Y-front underpants, reading aloud from a slender paperback, “grabs the nearest book,” he’s saying, “which was, and there are no coincidences, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” Past the table, past the spindle-backed chairs, the man there in the baggy blue coveralls, the woman in a gauzy robe, scrolling through something on her phone, at the end of the room a fire’s dying on the grate, and pulled up close by its sullen ember-light a sofa, brownish pink, and two women sat upon it, leaning back against either arm, outstretched legs entwined under blankets and thick rugs. The one, her long white hair wound up in ruthless braids, snaps green beans, dropping halves and thirds into a colander on her lap, and the ends in a paper bag on the floor. The other, long white hair unbound, drifting, whicks chunks of peel from potatoes with swift flashes of a paring knife. “Mothers,” says Ysabel.
Whick and snap, snap and whick. “Pretending to arrange his apartment,” reads the little round man on the table, “for some purpose other than fucking me,” as Chazz takes one of the spindle-backed chairs and draws it over toward Ysabel. “Might I have a word?” she says, as she sits.
“Our daughter requires something of us,” says the woman, her hair in braids.
“Our Queen demands an audience,” says the woman, her hair undone. Chazz heads around behind them both to stoop by the hearth, taking up a poker, stirring the charred logs. “I read aloud as he rushed back from the bedroom with a plastic laundry hamper,” says the little round man on the table, and Ysabel raises her voice, “I was up in the hills this afternoon. A luncheon, hosted by the King.”
“Dressed like that?” says the woman snapping beans.
“At least her knees are covered,” says the woman peeling potatoes.
“And to find,” the little man’s saying, “a bottle of wine that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge. The concrete content, which sensuous certainty furnishes,” and Ysabel looks over the back of her chair at him and says, “Might we have the room?”
He blinks, lips pursed around an interrupted word. “We’re enjoying this?” says the man in the coveralls.
“It is a free house,” says the woman plucking an errant peel or two from the rug on their lap.
“Go on,” says the woman dropping a handful of bean-ends into the paper bag. “It helps us to work.”
The little man shrugs and nods sort of sideways and takes up his book again. “The, ah, the sensuous certainty, furnishes, which makes this prima facie appear to be the richest kind of knowledge,” and “So,” says Ysabel. “When did you take up scullery work, Mother?”
Neither of those heads look up. Behind her, the voice, droning, “a wealth to which we can as little find any limit when we, ah, traverse its extent,” and then someone else says, “Well, actually, that’s, that’s washing dishes.”
Her chair creaks as Ysabel turns, looking back again, to the man in the baggy coveralls. “Scullery work,” he says. “That’s washing dishes. Chef de plonge. What they’re doing,” and beside him, the woman in the gauzy robe’s looking up from her phone, “they’re legumiers, they prep,” and he’s faltering under her glower, “the vegetables and such, what. I studied.”
“It’s a cooperative house,” says the woman, her hair in braids. “There’s a rota of chores.”
“All must do their part,” says the woman, her hair undone. “Go on. Read on.”
“Ah, yeah, so,” says the little man on the table, “okay, its, ah, extent, in time and space,” and Ysabel closes her eyes, takes in a breath through her nose, and abruptly says, “He means to give them the Ramp. The Lovejoy Ramp.”
“He?” says the woman with the knife. “He who?”
“Our son,” says the woman snapping beans.
“You’re as much me as I.”
“They mean to demolish it!” cries Ysabel. “Wipe it away! Put up towers!”
“So they will.”
“These things happen.”
“They don’t!” snaps Ysabel. “They don’t just happen! They’re done, by men, who might be stopped,” and both those heads of white hair toss back with sudden peals of laughter, delicate titters, hacking cackles, “By whom?” says the one, and “If his majesty has spoken,” the other, catching her breath.
“But you might speak against him,” says Ysabel, leaning forward.
“Well certainly not me.”
“He is the King, your majesty.”
“He has spoken.”
“As if,” says Ysabel, “you never spoke against my father.”
“You have no father.”
“She means the King.”
“No, no, the King Before.”
“She means the Queen!”
“Please,” says Ysabel.
“It is confusing.”
“That there’s the two of us.”
“And not just one.”
“No, no,” says the woman in braids, lifting a hand, three knurled fingers extended. “Instead of three,” and “Mother!” cries Ysabel, but someone’s knocking at the door, outside, someone’s been knocking, Chazz has already gotten to his feet, he’s headed down the length of the table, and the woman with the knife still in her hand says, “You have no mother.”
“We are the Gammer.”
“You are the Queen.”
“There’s no more Bride.”
“Enough,” says Ysabel, but the word is lost in the sudden scuffle out there in the foyer, the yelp, the scrape of chairs, the chiming crash of bottles as the little man leaps from the table, the “Hey!” and “What the hell!” as Chazz stumbles through the doorway, crashing to his knees, turtleneck yoked in the hand he’s reaching up and back, grappling with, the hand of the much larger man in a big black suit, a bright aloha shirt, splashes of blue and yellow and white, and a matted bush of a beard, and brown hair in crimpled eaves that brush his shoulders lifting as he takes in a deep breath, looking about. “I don’t,” his arm jerked as Chazz struggles, “want to hurt anybody,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
Love is the Law, written by Nick Mamatas, ©2013.