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“Le Trash Blanc?” – Not her man – Something, Anything, It – Very simple questions –

“Le Trash Blanc?” says Jo.

“Go on,” says Ysabel. “For another fifty cents you get a can of beer.”

Jo shrugs. “Why not.”

“Demi-vegan,” says Ysabel, handing their menus up to the waitress. “And a glass of the Bordelet sydre doux.”

The room is dimly lit and red. Jo and Ysabel sit side-by-side on a low couch under the front window. Over a ringing cocktail-hour piano and a lonely trumpet an unearthly chorus is singing Dare no harienu, daiya no kokoro tsumetai watashi no. Past the closely packed tables toward the back there’s an open kitchen, where a goatee’d man pours batter on a hot griddle, swirling it in a circle with a wide flat paddle. “Ah,” says Ysabel. She’s wearing black jeans and a tight white T-shirt. A black leather jacket rustling with fringe slumps on the couch next to her. “This is nice.”

“Yeah,” says Jo. “We’re under twenty bucks, with booze.” She’s wearing baggy brown cords and a blue and orange rugby shirt, her mismatched Chuck Taylors perched on the edge of the coffee table in front of them. One black, one white, the toe swaddled in grubby duct tape.

“What I meant was,” Ysabel’s saying, “it’s just about been a week since you challenged Roland. And in all that time, we haven’t really had much of a chance to sit down and – ”

“Eat out?” says Jo.

“Don’t,” says Ysabel, quietly. Jo looks down at her hands in her lap, reaches for the glass of water on the table between her feet. Sips. “You think you can spring for dessert?” says Ysabel.

“We’ll see,” says Jo.

“We could split one,” says Ysabel. “The lemon-ginger. And a cup of coffee. That’s it. I swear.”

“We’ll see,” says Jo.

Donna tenshi mo akogare sasayaki mo, the chorus is singing. Otoko no ainado todoki wa shinai, todoki wa shinai.

“So what’s your life like when I’m not interrupting it?” says Ysabel. The waitress in her periwinkle dress sets a glass of cider and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the low table.

“You’ve pretty much seen it,” says Jo. “Work. Home. Sleep. Every now and then I order a pizza.”

“Yes, but,” says Ysabel. “I mean, friends. You were out with some last Saturday – Becker, and, well, that funny little goth – ”

“Guthrie,” says Jo, shrugging, leaning forward, popping the top on the can of beer. “And Becker, yeah. Friends from work. I’ve known Becker maybe, what, eight months? He’s kinda turning into an asshole, now that he’s been promoted.” She grins as she pours the beer into an empty glass. “Which is what we were celebrating last week, his promotion, I mean. Not his assholishness.”

Ysabel lays one thin arm along the back of the sofa. “And what about anybody else?”

“What about them?” says Jo.

“You know,” says Ysabel. “Is there? Anyone in particular?”

“Well,” says Jo, the glass of pale beer in her hand. “There used to be.”

Her hand up by her temple, toying with her thick dark tangled curls, Ysabel smiles. “Does this anyone have a name?”

“Frankie,” says Jo. “And, I mean, it’s over. It’s definitely over. It ended badly.” She takes a long drink of beer. “So,” she says, setting the glass down.

“So?” says Ysabel.

“So,” says Jo, shrugging. “It’s over. So I guess the answer is there isn’t.”

“And Christian?” says Ysabel.

“Christian?” says Jo. “No. I mean, what? We just – ”

“How did you get to know him?” says Ysabel.

“He was one of the first people I met when I moved here,” says Jo, looking sidelong at Ysabel. “About four years ago.”

Ysabel sips her cider. “He just,” she says, “doesn’t seem like the sort of person you’d, well. Know.”

“Yeah, well,” says Jo, “he was. Okay? For a while there – I did some stupid stuff, and some stupid stuff happened. And Christian is a wild guy, you know? But, if you’re a friend, he’s there. Period.” She smiles. “It was cool, seeing him again.”

“Stupid stuff?” says Ysabel, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah,” says Jo. “Which is why these days I go to work, and I come home, to my apartment, and every now and then I order a pizza.”

Ysabel nods a little at that.

“Of course,” says Jo, “your man Vincent doesn’t think that’ll do me a bit of good.”

“Vincent?” says Ysabel.

“He says no matter what, I’m always going to be looking for trouble. Looking for a fight.” She grins a little at herself. “I guess I proved that last week.”

“He’s not ‘my man,’” says Ysabel.

“He isn’t?” says Jo.

“I’ve never actually met Vincent Erne,” says Ysabel. “What’s he like?”

“He talks too much,” says Jo.

“Chin up! Up!” snaps Vincent.

Jo at the other end of the mirror-walled room spins around. “What the fuck?” she says. “I’m walking. Like you said.”

“You’re walking, all right,” he says. The metal hook at the end of his left arm clacks in a dismissive snap. “You’re walking like a goddamn kid. Like you’re going to detention. Like your mother just called you home for supper and you want the whole world to know you hate collard greens.” He’s gliding down the dark, tape-marked floor, jabbing at her with his thin, knobby forefinger. “Boo. Fucking. Hoo.” Jo’s spreading her arms, staring at him, her mouth open in dismay, in anger. “What?” he says, circling her. “What? Come on. Let me have it.” Jo’s mouth tightens. “Whaddaya got? Come on.” Her hand squeezes into a fist and opens up again. “Well? What are you gonna do about it, huh? Come on!” Leaning back to one side Jo throws the heel of her hand at his face.

He catches it easily.

“You have nothing,” he says.

She tries to jerk her hand free. He holds it there in the air between them, his fingers tightening about her wrist.

“You have nothing,” he says again, “and everybody knows it. So you curl up tightly about it and when somebody tries to poke you to see what’s what, all you can do is take that someone’s head off. So go on. Take my head off.”

Jo jerks her arm again, trying to throw her hips into it, and when he hauls her hand back up between them she shoves the motion into her shoulder, lunging at him. He blocks her with his beige prosthetic arm. Then he lets go, stepping back.

“You walk into a roomful of gentry like that,” he says, shaking his head.

“What the fuck is this?” snarls Jo.

“These are people who would as soon gut you and leave you for dead as take your lunch money,” says Vincent. “You walk into a room, full of nothing, like that, you won’t walk out.” Turning away he walks back down the long room toward the lit end. “Now walk like you have something,” he calls over his shoulder. “Walk like you mean it.”

“I killed one of them,” she says.

“No,” he says, standing there under the light at the other end of the room. “No, you did not. The Chariot did. And he wasn’t gentry. He was just Tommy Rawhead. Mothers used his name to scare their kids. ‘Get up to bed, or Rawhead and Bloody Bones will eat! You! Up!’” Vincent shakes his head. “And then some idiot got it into his head he’s going after the Bride, and Tommy got in the middle of it, and you stuck your foot in when you were told to stay put, and this is what you thought you were bringing to the table?”

Jo’s looking down at her boots.

“Luckily, it’s all about appearance,” he says. “If you look like you have it, then you have it. That is the secret, my dear. Plain and simple. If you walk into a room with the Bride on your arm and you look like you have it, no one is going to poke you to find out otherwise.”

“So,” says Jo, “what do I – ”

“Walk towards me,” says Vincent. “By the time you get here, I want to believe you have something. Anything. It.”

Jo takes a deep breath. Squares her shoulders. Looks him straight in the eye. The light’s shining off his forehead, the tip of his nose. His hand held loosely at his side, waiting.

She starts walking, striding down the dark floor toward him. He sighs. Looks away, at the floor-to-ceiling mirror running down the wall. Heads toward her suddenly. She falters as he circles behind her, takes her shoulders in his hand, the butt of his prosthesis, turning her to face the mirror. “Look,” he says, leaning over her shoulder. “Look at yourself. Look. What do you have? What do you have to be proud of?”

Jo’s face in the mirror is slack. The line of her nose is the only sharp thing about it. Shadows pool in her cheeks and smudge the skin under her eyes. Her lips parted, just. Taking a breath. “What is it?” he says. “At the end of the day, what can you look back on and say, I did that? Find that thing. Find it and let it fill you up so you can walk with your shoulders back and your chin up and your head high. Find it so you can look them in the eye and they will see that you are a person to be reckoned with. Find it and show it to them, and you won’t have to prove it.” Jo closes her eyes. Swallows. “But you have to find it, Jo.”

She opens her eyes, looking down at his hand. “Please,” she says. “Get your hand off my shoulder.”

Vincent backs away a couple of steps. “Walk,” he says. “Go on. Down to the end of the room and back again. Go.”

“So what about you?” says Jo, leaning forward to fork up a mouthful of crêpe.

“Me?” says Ysabel, polishing off her cider. It’s too much me, a woman’s singing breathily over a weepy steel guitar, and not enough of the people I wanna be.

“Yeah,” says Jo. “Do you have a particular anyone?”

Nine ninety-nine, sings the woman, pretty good wine, a beautiful time. Ysabel smiles. “No,” she says. “I never have.”

“Never,” says Jo.

“I can’t,” says Ysabel. She leans back, toying with the fringe of the jacket beside her. “I’m the Princess,” she says. “The Bride. I can’t.”

“So this Bride business is, I mean, it’s literal?” says Jo. “You’re going to get married?”

“To the King,” says Ysabel. “When he returns. So I suppose there is a particular anyone, after all.” She leans forward, picking up her fork to chase a last bit of black bean paste.

“What’s he like?” says Jo.

“I don’t know,” says Ysabel. “No one knows who the King will be, or when he will come.” She looks back at Jo. “Which might be why someone was trying so very hard to talk to me Wednesday. Perhaps he thinks it works the same backwards as forwards – if he were to marry me,” and she licks the last bite from her fork.

“He’d become King,” says Jo.

“And it might very well work that way,” says Ysabel. “But until then,” she shrugs. “I can’t.”

“Now,” says Jo, “when you say ‘never,’ do you mean – ”

“I think I mean it’s none of your business.”

“Yeah, but. Never?”

“Did you want to split a crêpe for dessert?” says Ysabel.

The phone rings, so he picks it up. “Hello,” he says, tucking it between his ear and his shoulder, picking up the knife. “I, uh,” he says, crunching a garlic clove under the flat of the blade. “Look,” he says. “It’s a Sunday, for God’s sake. You people shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, I understand,” says Ysabel into her telephone headset. “But this isn’t a sales call. It’s just a survey, sir. We only want to ask you how satisfied you are with various financial products and services. It’ll only take five or six minutes of your time, tops, and you’ll be helping a bank do a better job of giving its customers what they want. Perhaps your bank. Look at it as a good deed for the day.”

“Yeah, well,” he says, peeling the paper from the clove, “I don’t think.”

“And you should understand, sir, that we don’t know who you are. Your phone number was randomly generated. I wouldn’t know you from Adam, sir, if I were to bump into you on the street. So.” She swivels in her chair, looking out of her carrel along the length of the narrow office with its indecisive cream walls. A couple of spaces down, Jo is hunched over her phone, making some emphatic point with her hands. Guthrie’s hanging up his phone. The woman with the wattle under her chin is headed for the kitchen, on a break. Becker at his desk, holding a handset to his ear, monitoring someone’s call. “With that in mind,” says Ysabel, “do you think you might want me?”

“I, uh.” His brown hair is shaggy, and has enough grey in it to look dusty as well as unkempt. He holds the knife in one hand, looking down at a jumble of unpeeled garlic cloves. “What?” he says.

“Would you want to answer my questions?”

“I,” he says.

“Keep in mind, they’re very simple. It’ll only take five or six minutes of your time. For instance: do you find me desirable?”

“I’m married,” he says. Putting the knife down on the counter.

“Doesn’t matter for the purposes of this survey,” says Ysabel. She’s looking at her gold-painted nails. At his desk Becker’s looking up, at her, frowning. “How would you rate me, on a scale of one to ten, one being lowest, and ten being highest?”

“A ten,” he says. “I thought you said this was about financial – ”

“It’s about how satisfied you are,” says Ysabel. Becker’s making slashing gestures across his throat at her. “How satisfied do you think you’d be with me?” Becker’s getting up from behind his desk. “Would you say very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?”

“Oh,” he says, looking across the kitchen at a woman typing on a laptop on a little desk in an alcove under a crowded bookshelf. “Very satisfied. But – Hello? Hello?”

Ysabel stands as Becker takes his finger off the disconnect button. “What the hell was that?” he says.

“I was,” says Ysabel, “flirting. Trying to keep him interested in doing the survey.”

“That wasn’t flirting,” says Becker. “That was – weird.”

Ysabel shrugs.

“Don’t do that,” says Becker. “You do that again, I’ll have to pull you off the phones. Okay? There’s just an hour left in the shift – ” Ysabel’s hanging her headset up in the carrel, squatting to pick up a little purse from the floor under her desk. “What are you,” says Becker.

“Leaving,” says Ysabel. “I’m bored, and I’d almost certainly do it again. I’m saving you the trouble.”

“What’s up?” says Jo, standing there behind Becker.

“Get back on the phone,” says Becker.

“Shut the fuck up,” says Jo. “Ysabel?”

“Don’t,” says Becker.

“I’m going,” says Ysabel. “I’m done.”

“Don’t talk,” says Becker.

“Let me get my jacket,” says Jo.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” says Becker. People are looking up from their phones. “Jo, sit down. Ysabel, just head over to the Little Conference Room. I’ll meet you there in a minute.”

“I think,” says Ysabel, “I would be very dissatisfied with that.”

“That doesn’t matter,” says Becker. quietly. Not looking at either of them.

“Back the fuck off,” says Jo, yanking her jacket off the back of her chair. Shutting off her computer.

“Don’t you leave,” says Becker.

“If you’re throwing her out,” says Jo, “I have to go with her. You know that.”

“I’m not – ” says Becker. “Sit the fuck down, Jo. Ysabel – ”

“Or what?” says Jo. “You’ll fire me?” She pulls on her jacket. “Come on.”

“What the hell,” says Becker, there in the middle of the aisle of kelly green carrels.

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Song of the Black Lizard” written by Isao Tomita, copyright holder unknown. “It’s Party Time” written by Lisa Germano, ©2003.