~This story originally appeared in Whetstone (1993).
Put a telescope to your eye and the world is your oyster. Nebulae descend, asteroids unravel, and the moon becomes your neighbor. But look through a microscope and your luck might not run true. Nematodes become the stuff of horror films. The midge becomes mighty. Glancing thoughts become obsessions. Eons of continental drift become your own personal inability to walk a straight line. Latitude and longitude are no longer harmless theoretical scratches, but your interior landscape that could satiate and surpass a lifetime of questions.
Nigel barely pondered questions of scale. Caught in the Niagara of sensation, the Scylla and Charybdis of detail, he rode out the tide and thought little about consequences.
Living with Fiona and her three brats was a consequence. The last time Nigel got better, he'd looked for new lodgings and ended up at Fiona's, where his position quickly matured from indifferent boarder to brother, and finally, to boyfriend. He knew he had a certain intensity that women found briefly intriguing, although usually it ended up wearing them down, just as it did him. When he’d first moved in, Fiona told him he had a mystique about him, the aura of the driven. But the brief weightlessness of love was no match for the gravitational pull of drugs, doctors, and dementia.
Fiona's house was only a few blocks away from his studio, so the disadvantage of the children was outweighed by the savings in time and transportation. He worked odd hours, but Fiona was a true-blue insomniac, so that frequently dawn found them huddled over beverages in the kitchen, the oatmeal for the babes simmering on the stove. When the kiddies came down for breakfast, Nigel was usually on his way to bed. Fiona cast off into another day of bombarding the children with love and admonitions, bamboozling the boarders into thinking this was the place of their dreams so she could use the full house to pay the mortgage for one more month, and trying to ward off the fatigue that always dogged her just until she gave in, when it persistently refused to translate into sleep. So while Nigel worked himself into a frenzy, had a chat and a cup of tea, then stumbled off to bed, Fiona wallowed in hours of exhausted wakefulness, a bland balance struck between consciousness and death.
One autumn evening, Fiona got the boarder Sean to look after the children, and Nigel treated her to a look at his studio. She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but what she saw was definitely something different. Horses hummed, throbbed, vibrated on the canvasses, they fidgeted, swelled, and twittered, all in horrid shades of blue and brown.
What could she say?
What lovely horses, Fiona sighed.
Though at university she'd dozed through Renaissance Painting, snored fitfully through Masterpieces of the Nineteenth Century, and cut most of Perspectives on Perspective, she knew instantly what she was seeing. It was the work of a madman.
Suddenly everything made sense.
Because she knew the type. Men for whom the walkie-talkie and two-way radio were just so many electronic gadgets, because voices came to them directly without the encumbrance of larynx or ear drum. Those Sons of Sam of sentiment, those Boston Stranglers of emotion, who stalked and taunted their prey, who were now passionate and devoted, now distant and denying, who gave with one hand and took away with the other; those, in short, were the men she loved, her specialty, her raison d’être. She was the philologist of desolation, the osteopathist of anguish. Their souls in torment were music to her ears. What was broken could be fixed. Many's the man who came to her at the end of his rope, in the throes of despair, beyond remedy, ruined, undone; and Fiona, with her dark dreamy eyes, her creamy skin and lips like bruised strawberries, took each one on as a project, browbeating him to admit that he liked himself just a little (even as he hit Fiona, or played cruel tricks on her, or kidded around about birth control, resulting in two miscarriages and three that were the real thing), until he could venture out into the world not tottering, but on his own two feet, four-square, thumbs up, head held high, and then of course Fiona would find herself right back in the middle of her own life, and some emotional radar would lead her to another project, another poor excuse for a man. Once she weaned her babies, a succession of male callers oversaw their first tooth, their first step, their first day at school.
So Fiona could have predicted Nigel. Whereas Nigel had not experienced a succession of Fionas. Fiona was a collector, a connoisseur of Nigels. She had the credentials, while Nigel had only to live his life.
Nigel needed only her nod of faint approval to lecture her about his palette, his technique, his vision. She herself was enough of a visionary to foresee the future, where his talk of technique would descend from the metaphysical and become a crude metaphor. She knew that eventually she would become his inspiration, his gravity, his gyroscope, and that when the process reversed itself, every action sponsoring and creating an equal and opposite reaction, she would become his albatross, his millstone, the stake that narrowly missed his heart, and just as easily as she slipped her way into his life, she would then be excluded.
People are frightened of the energy, he said. There's raw sex there, in that color. The way the blue muddies into the brown. The brush strokes. The movement of the pallet knife.
Yes, I can see that, Fiona murmured. Not that I'm any sort of expert, of course.
But you have an eye, I could see that straight off, Nigel said, peering into her orbs, past the cookware and casseroles, past the bottles and babies' bottoms, past the hunger of love and the habit and the horseplay. We’re as alike as two peas in a pod, he said. Fiona shook her head. We are, he said. You’ll see. It’s intimacy. It’s salvation. It’s death. Fiona shivered. It was beginning.
That night, when, as she did every night after the boarders slurped the soup, sawed at the meat, dunked their bread in the gravy and fought over the scant seconds of dessert, Fiona went into the parlor, shut the door, pushed up the cover on the old Steinway and played her heart out, she noticed out of the corner of her eye as she measured her way through a Bach prelude and fugue that Nigel had opened the door and was now standing beside her. But he didn't say anything, he didn't really watch her; instead he sat down on the window ledge behind her, picked up a picture book on African wildlife from the table, and noisily flipped through the pages. The long and the short of it, the what-all, be-all and end-all of it, the truth of it was, he unnerved her, not listening, attending or appreciating, not silently following the notes on the page or letting his mind wander along the lines of the prelude's almost scientific harmonics, or marveling at the precision drill of her fingers, but blatantly ignoring her, proceeding on a parallel course as if he were in his own room, alone. And so, as her hands marched in quick-step, her wrists supple, each finger agile, independent and strong, each knuckle, tip and tendon performing its assigned task, every tremolo and trill clean and correct, she took on each succeeding prelude and fugue in all the major and minor keys, advancing through them as Bach wrote them in the order of chromatic ascent, wondering as she did so if it were ruder to continue playing or to stop.
And when, with a great sigh Nigel slapped the book shut, tossed it back on the table, and was gone just as unexpectedly as he'd come, not caring one iota what she thought of it all, Fiona continued playing, but without her previous total concentration she skipped beats, retarded triplets, let her sixteenth notes run amok. Nigel was a music spoiler, a destroyer of the complex code of casual audiences everywhere, who were expected to be savvy enough to come, listen, and comment politely. That did not mean, she thought most emphatically, Come, ignore, and walk out in the middle.
She started to notice other things about him. How when he ate, he piled up as much as he could on his plate at a time, jealously hovering over it as if he expected someone else to swipe his meal. He mixed all his foods together, peas with spuds, meat with salad, letting the gravies and dressings and sauces run where they may, mingle where they might. Where he carefully separated his color palette, he almost deliberately mixed his foods, as if to show his scorn for more conventional eaters.
Over the years she had learned a good deal about her boarders from their eating habits. The excessively neat ones who cut bite-sized diagonal slices off their meat and slyly segregated colors and textures were usually stifled and frequently harbored secret talents that never got nurtured or even saw the light of day and often went unused and unnoticed to the grave. The ones who used their fingers to shovel food onto their forks were often generous, but disoriented and undisciplined, never harvesting their abilities completely although every now and then she'd note a flash of brilliance in the stories they told at table, the sketches they left on the napkins, the business deals they claimed to have clinched. They all seemed to have missed their calling, none of them really movers and shakers, because if the truth be known, her boarding house seeming to attract mostly losers. Her veins knotted at this sudden admission.
And when she watched Nigel that night at dinner, as food backed up from the mounds on his plate, as tributaries of vinaigrette turned tide and navy beans cascaded onto the table, she realized that he was probably a bit off, too. Of course there were those paintings, in case she doubted her own judgment.
One day Ike Milton, who seemed to be Nigel’s only friend, dropped by. He was exactly the opposite of Nigel: big, muscular underneath but a bit mushy on top, calm as pudding.
Ike’s church was half a block from Nigel's studio in a still shabby neighborhood that would sooner or later get swept up in urban renewal. The gutters were bent, the white paint peeling, with the net effect that no slightly paranoid parishioner would find this church holier-than-thou. One cold morning years before Nigel first set eyes on Fiona, Nigel was locking up his studio just as Ike’s Sunday sermon was letting out. Nigel glanced down the street, noticed the enormous evangelist pumping parishioners' hands and giving extravagant blessings right there on the sidewalk, and sidled over, some deep-seated but long-ignored inner drive engineering his locomotion. It was beginning to snow and Ike had on no outer coat. Usually his thick winter woolen preaching suit and his own rich-man's blubber kept him warm enough, but the temperature had taken a nosedive that morning and Ike was anxious to head for a warmer clime. So while Nigel interpreted Ike’s ready and magnanimous invitation to enter the inner sanctum of the church and his subsequent generous welcome, as if Nigel were crossing the equator for the first time, as a sign that their friendship was predestined, Ike had no other motive than to raise his body temperature a few measly degrees as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Somehow over the years of their friendship they had reached a truce, each respecting but not entering the other's territory. Nigel didn't convert Ike to the bohemian way of life, and Ike, sorely tempted as he was to tackle head-first this most interesting challenge, this poor man whose animus literally cried out for salvation and direction, tried hard to resist his most natural urge to divide and conquer, to save Nigel's soul.
Usually when Ike visited Nigel, the two disappeared alone into the parlor, but this time Nigel invited Fiona to join them for a coffee. The three of them walked down the block to sit in a cramped red booth in the back of a Chinese restaurant. The place had made the rounds of ethnic groups, and the various countries and continents peeled from the wall in layers: Italian, Mexican, Jamaican, Arabic, African, Asian. This was background. This was ambience, atmosphere. This was the kind of place where Nigel felt most comfortable: unpretentious, begging for business, vaguely institutional.
I won't lie to you, ma'am, Ike told Fiona, holding her hand in his two big paws and gazing at her face like a librarian looking for books to flesh out the Dewey decimal system. I like women. I admire women. I think women are one of God's most intricate, intimate creations.
That Nigel had invited her along was a sure sign that third person had shifted to first. She had slipped into his milieu, she had joined to him like a contact rash, and, short of wearing white gloves and salve to bed, he'd be hard-pressed to escape.
Nigel looked at her, the halo of curls, the aroma of purity, and it was almost unbearable. I'll be back, he said, and left to use the bathroom.
Ike waited till Nigel was out of earshot, cleared his throat and shifted the weight on his great ham hocks of thigh.
That man's falling in love with you, he said. He waited, but Fiona, who was convinced that what he said was true, said nothing.
He's seen a world of trouble. He's known more heartache than men twice his age, men with wives who cheat, children who die from invidious childhood cancers, Ike said. He put a sugar cube on the table, methodically crushed it with a spoon, and drew his initials in it.
Not that I'm suggesting anything, mind you, he sighed, again capturing her hand under his. But I know the good Lord keeps a personal eye on that man's life. That he's even around today is a walking and talking advertisement for the power of prayer.
Ike saw Nigel heading back towards the table and abruptly switched gears, drawing Fiona into collusion. Fiona discreetly pulled her hand away to stir another cube of demerara sugar into her coffee. She didn't like sugar all that much, but it had become a nervous habit after the long nights she spent with Nigel, talking and sipping tea. When sipping became sipping and stirring, it tied her hands to their task and Nigel seemed less of a threat.
Three little ones, is it?
Yes, but not so little anymore, Fiona said. They grow so fast.
She was generally shy around new people, but something about Ike drew her to him, made her want to confess her darkest thoughts, her deepest fears.
And the father? Ike probed.
Three fathers, Fiona faltered. Long gone, I'm afraid. But three sweeter children you'll never find. It's as if…
As if? Ike prompted.
As if their goodness is to make up for all the hell I went through having them. Their rotten daddies. The long labors alone. The financial hardships.
It's a sad thing for me to say of my own gender, but sometimes men create their own beast that they then have difficulty containing. It's a riotous beast, always rutting, always glorying in sex. It's the carnal nature. Some men never get enough, as if their organ is a 30-second shopping spree. It's the money tube at the local glad-handing bar, where the contestant steps into the glass-enclosed cage and has to catch all the dollar bills suddenly blown at him. It's a sin, missus, Ike said, moving his great forehead and piercing eyes so that there was nothing in Fiona's field of vision but him. And yet, I have enough of the beast within myself to know that there is no greater urge outside of a man's love for his God, that man's love for woman is the penultimate truth that can be superseded only by a call to arms by the celestial bugle, an urgent musical telegram from the heavenly fife and drum corps.
Sex has its own accounting, Nigel said. The in and the out, the binary blood beat of person mixing with person, the interchanging of philosophy and bodily fluids.
Fiona looked at her watch. I really must relieve Sean with the children, she said, draining the dregs of her coffee. It's been so nice meeting you, Mister Ike.
Ike took her small hand and kissed it. The pleasure was all mine, madam, he said. Your history reflects all womankind's, and has the smack of parable. In fact, I may use it for a sermon. We must do this again, he smiled, showing his great ivories. Soon.
On their walk back from the restaurant, Fiona hoped desperately that Nigel's heart would maintain its ho-hum rhythm, that their feet would flap in a four-step, one after another after another after another, until they'd paced out the half-mile home, and yet just as much as she hoped, she knew it wouldn't be so, that the horsepower in the hard-on she noticed when they left the restaurant would now rev up like a fine-tuned engine, that the conclusion of their outing would be the inevitable adult one, that the home run Nigel hit wouldn't be one that they could talk about later in ballpark figures.
And so she stopped to smell the roses, the hybrid teas, the pioneers, the polyanthus, the climbers, the creamy yellows, the lavenders, the ruby reds, taking particular notice of aroma and texture, thorns or not, wilt or Japanese beetle, blight and blemish. She told Nigel how she made rose water when she was a little girl, stripping the petals off one by one, the odd and even telling her if she'd ever be in love, drowning them in the water of little-girl dreams, putting the stopper in for a month and then reveling in the faint, sickly sweet smell that turned sour on her skin. But it didn't matter, because it was the process that was important, not the result; the memory, not the rose water itself.
It was comforting to her that their first time would just be a thread in the fabric, not a thing to be held up to scrutiny. It was more like treading water, pulling against gravity, pitting the buoyancy of water against the body's weight. They sneaked into the house so Sean wouldn't hear them and barricaded themselves in the bedroom. Nigel unbuttoned Fiona’s blouse, loosened her bra, and treated each breast like it was a missing person, calling a press conference, holding a family reunion. By the time he worked his way downward, Fiona was in a frenzy, Nigel's organ a drill sergeant under whose command she writhed, whinged and obeyed. His fingers and tongue wandered the maze of her body, aimless but not lackluster, unadvised but not random, a boy scout lost in the woods alone with but his steady backup of moss on the north side of trees, a compass and the night sky to guide him, a tourist in the house of love.
That first time, it was a bit about money, because she knew she could get him to keep on renting the room this way and she was desperate to pay the doctor for Miller's persistent diarrhea, Michelle's constant skin rashes, and Tunney's bout with croup. Christ, she was still paying off the damned cradle cap. And she was enough of a mother to know that money talked. No, money composed sonatinas, symphonettes, lyric operas. Her octaves produced pennies, her scales expected pound notes, her arpeggios demanded the highest denomination allowed by law. Until, that is, little Tunney bellowed for his mother from some godforsaken corner of the first floor, and Fiona whipped on her clothing quickly, flying out the bedroom door.
Nigel barely had time to feel neglected before he realized that he'd better get dressed, too. He didn't know what he was getting into. His testicles, her tits, her juices, his steady-state steady stream, were only the most obvious, the most publicly acknowledged aspects of male-female pleasure and lust. He would give up the last before-dawn hour of work at his studio to hide in the bushes behind the house, watching her hazy early-morning bathroom silhouette as she soaped and shaved her armpits. He would linger beside her when the other boarders were around, just to smell her vapors. He dreamed of the soft, vein-specked skin behind her knees, the curve of the muscle opposite her elbow, the fine blond down that feathered her jawbone. He imagined the places her fingers had touched, the heady aromas that permeated the whorls of her fingertips. He guessed at the number of her eyelashes, right and left, upper and lower lids, as if he were a child at a birthday party. The frictions of finger against finger, hand against thigh, tongue across lips, was almost more than he could bear. Meals were excruciating, an exquisite torment.
Michelle started treating Nigel like any of her other funny uncles. She wrote down conversations between Fiona and Nigel, as she had been doing with all her mother's gentlemen callers since she had learned to write. Because Michelle, by virtue of her age and her talents, wrote rather slowly, tongue dangling ever so slightly from between her lips, dredging syllables and sibilants from one room removed, her accounts of these conversations, when secretly read to Miller at bedtime, had the effect of a recording of a beloved childhood classic that had collected dust and scratches over the years and thus skipped whole sentences and paragraphs. And her accounts became their childhood classics, buzzwords, phrases, clicks and consonants that they whispered to each other in private and giggled over in public, words and noises that they didn't understand but knew required discretion.
It was the same sense of whimsy that had made their mother start naming them after their fathers, not their actual fathers but each other's father once removed. So Michelle's father was a Miller, Miller's father was a Tunney, and Tunney's father was a Patel. Only Michelle escaped the pattern, possibly because she was a girl but more likely because she was born at a time when Fiona could still imagine a normal life, one with 2.5 children, a husband who departed every morning with a briefcase and a kiss, a house in the suburbs with a green lawn and a great huge garden, and nosy neighbors who stopped in for coffee klatches, trading gossip and descending on house after house in weekly, orderly rotation.
Long after Fiona had given up not only her dreams of suburbia but her illusions about normal relationships, an architect called. Somebody has recommended we inspect your house for the historical register, he said. There's a cluster that might be of interest on your block. Saves them at least temporarily from the wrecking ball.
My mother left me this house, Fiona said. It's been in the family three generations. But I'm afraid it needs a few repairs.
Who's calling? Nigel asked, stirring sugar into his tea. Fiona turned away from him.
Come whenever you like. Someone will be here, she said.
A few minutes after she hung up, the phone rang again.
Hang up if it's that damned architect fellow, Nigel growled.
I bloody well won't, Fiona said as she picked up the phone. Yes? Yes, I'd love to, she said into the phone. For seventy-five? At the church?
Nigel poured himself more tea but neglected to hold down the lid. Tea and top collided over the table.
That's most generous, Fiona said. Thank you, Ike. She hung up.
Ike wants me to cater his open house at the church, Fiona said, mopping up the table. No expense spared. He's willing to pay me a rather handsome rate. And here I always thought his was one of those missionary outfits, robbing Peter to pay Paul.
He doesn’t want for anything, Nigel said. His family was filthy rich, and that church is dilapidated just so he can milk his parishioners for more.
It's funny, I almost get the feeling he's trying to save me, somehow, Fiona mused.
Can't he find someone else? Someone more professional?
I've catered before, Fiona said coldly. Maybe not for seventy-five people, but I've been fixing for boarders for years and I've done small parties around the neighborhood. Anyway, I've never heard you complain about the grub here. He's just being nice, doing me a favor. That's all.
You seem to thrive on favors, Nigel retorted. First we have an architect nosing around, apropos of nothing, now out of the blue my own friend makes up this job for you. I'd have to be a fool.
What are you talking about? Fiona asked. What are you driving at? I can't say no. I need the money.
Nigel chewed his words and spat them out. And I don't suppose you need my money too. It's all just money for you, isn't it? I've been a fool. I've been blind.
You like using a toilet that flushes? A sink that drains? That plumber last week cost me real money. Not pie-in-the-sky, take-it-out-of-next-month's-dole-check money. Real cash. When the electricity was on the fritz last month, I didn't catch you replacing the frayed wires. When the furnace went out, who paid the gas man? Who buys the food around here? What do you think I'm spending it on, this great hoard of money you seem to think I have, new dos and duds? The latest in mod cons? The difference between you and me, Nigel, is that I live in the real world. You've never been responsible for anyone or anything but yourself.
I don't want to hear any more of this, Nigel said, beating a hasty retreat out the door. I'm going to the studio, to work on something for which I'm not responsible, like everything else in my life. He banged the door behind him.
Two days later, when Fiona was picking Michelle and Miller up from school and Nigel was keeping an eye on Tunney, the architect rang the doorbell.
What do you want? Nigel greeted him.
I called, about looking at the house. May I come in?
Nigel stepped aside to let him pass, noticing as he did the architect's trendy blond wavy locks and well-tailored suit, contrasting it automatically with his own who-cares haircut and paint-spattered trousers.
Very interesting, the architect said. You've got Doric and Ionic wood piasters. And look at those flamboyant Gothic arches! The bay and bow windows!
They're not mine, Nigel said. They belong to the lady of the house.
Your wife? the architect asked politely.
No, Nigel sulked.
The architect continued his tour of inspection, raving about details, wrapping his tape measure around moldings and taking notes.
Leaded- and stained-glass daylights. Palladian windows. Can I sit down?
Suit yourself, Nigel shrugged.
Sheet-metal cornices at roof levels, the architect noted. What you have in this house, sir, is a veritable wealth of moldings, brackets, dentils, festoons, and other classic detailings.
Get to the point, Nigel said.
I'd like to talk to the owner. I think we should put this place on the historical register. Of course that would mean we'd have to approve any structural changes to the building, the front, the back, the walls, the windows, that sort of thing, the architect said. Can you pass along my card and have the owner call me?
Nigel looked at the card. Adam Wallen, it said. In the corner was a tiny drawing of an ornate front door. Through the door you could just make out a staircase. The whole thing was printed on what looked like a bleached-out blueprint. He thought fleetingly about tearing it up.
If I don't hear from her, I'll call her in a couple days, Adam said, as if reading Nigel's mind. Blindsided by love, Nigel did not take kindly to parlor tricks.
Fiona, laden with mozzarellas, cheddars and longhorns, the bries, provolones and emmanthalers, the goudas, port saluts and havartis of open houses, walked into the kitchen and lay her booty on the counter, piling it against the long crusty French breads, the pungent raisin pumpernickels, the sesame-speckled pitas. Still to come were the salami, the thinly shaved, fat-trimmed-to-her-orders roast beef, the pressed turkey, the pepper-edged pastrami, the cholesterol-raisers and artery-cloggers necessary to any politician or religious man when he pressed the flesh, encouraging that devil-may-care, eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-ye-die, who-gives-a damn flaunting-of-death titillation that was, after all, what organized religion was all about.
Two more loads to go (there were still the yoghurts, sour creams, and flavored mayonnaises to serve as bases for the dips; the celery, carrots, scallions, radishes, turnips, parsnips, broccoli, jicama, and cauliflower to dip in the dips; giant mushrooms and sausages for stuffing; juicy ripe vine-torn tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, cilantro and inoffensive Vidalia onions for the salsa; black-skinned, ripe-for-tonight avocados, fresh-from-the-tropics limes, plum tomatoes and bermuda onions for the guacamole; exotic blue corn chips, pretzels and cheese curls, dry-roasted and salted-and-oiled almonds, peanuts and cashews; the pumpkin seeds and pignolias) and Nigel, instead of helping her, was sitting on a stool in the corner, moping in his cups. She brought in another load and nestled it about the first. The pile of food shifted, raining limes and hot chilies all over the floor.
Nigel, can you lend me a hand? Fiona asked.
Lend you a hand? Nigel repeated bitterly. You mean a hand beside the two that man has laid on you without so much as a protest, without so much as a peep from you?
Nigel, must we go over and over this? Fiona said, righting the tilted tilsit, the fallen tomatoes. I keep telling you, I don't know Adam from Adam.
You don't need to know him from Eve, for all I care, Nigel snarled. It's obvious what's up.
Not to me, Fiona sighed. Think what you like. She went out for the next armful.
You've done me a great turn here, Fiona told Ike at the open house.
No, quite the contrary, Ike replied. You've saved my reputation as a generous host. Your cooking is God's own sweet song. Look at this wonderful turnout, he said, flinging his arms wide enough to encompass the entire neighborhood. No insider connections here. No special strings pulled, no buttons pushed. Just good food and good faith. Just good old-fashioned salvation, dangling like a carrot before the open mouths and hungry hearts of sinners.
We're all hungry for something, Fiona murmured.
The trick is, my dear, that nobody gets something for nothing. You do me a good turn, I do you one. I save a soul, that soul eventually finds me another customer for Jesus. When someone thinks they're doing something just out of the goodness of their heart, that's when all hell breaks loose, forgive my French. Because there's always some ulterior motive. We save someone not just to see them saved, but to spread the word or to accrue points in some heavenly scoreboard for ourselves, so that we come out ahead eventually. Those who think that salvation has no price and no reward, who do it for some over-blown, grandstanding vision of themselves, setting themselves up as false idols when really they're doing it to make themselves feel good or to capture themselves a slave or two, those are the truly evil.
On impulse, Fiona turned her head and there, across the room, standing stock still and staring at her, was Nigel. Ike's words faded as she re-focused her concentration to sight from sound. As she watched him, transfixed, Nigel narrowed his eyes and sent her a look of pure hatred. Fiona put one hand on the table beside her for support as Ike's words pelted her with consonants and diphthongs, steadied herself, then lowered her plate.
Are you all right? Ike asked, concerned.
Yes, I just need some fresh air, she said. I'll be fine.
On the porch, where she sat trying to regain her composure, Nigel materialized beside her.
Trying to leave without me? he asked, his voice reaching an out-of-season, out-of-register range beyond outrage.
I felt lightheaded. I needed air, Fiona said. I love you. You know that, don't you?
Nigel stiffened. He had seen it coming on. When, just moments ago, he ate his cucumber-bedecked, cream-cheese-slathered, olive-garnished hors d'oeuvre, he felt every drop of moisture as it hit his tongue, every atom of aroma, every molecule of taste. He knew it was a danger signal, this heightening of the senses, and yet he persisted in this doomed relationship, even now drawn to Fiona, whose public-domain persona, whose automatic availability to those in need, whose unquestioning, good-natured cheer towards everyone struck such fear into Nigel's heart, because how could she possibly like him best when so many liked her?
Can I paint your portrait? Nigel asked.
Yes, Fiona said, leaning her head back against the pillar to look at him straight on. Yes, you can.
So every day, after she fetched Michelle and Miller from school, Fiona brought the three children over to Nigel's studio where they immersed themselves in watercolors and acrylics and she sat still for hours, afraid to breathe or scratch her nose lest she interfere with genius. Nigel refused to show her the work in progress, slinging an old flowered sheet over it every day when they left. By this act he owned her. He captured the softness of her breath, the smell of her skin, the feel of her soul. She was his salvation, and when she wasn't with him, he sat and stared at her portrait for hours, daydreaming about owning her forever. His heart swelled so large with his obsession that it pushed at the boundaries of his body and hurt him every waking moment, even when he was with her, and sometimes in his dreams.
Weeks later, the portrait was done. They were in the studio alone. In the flush of finishing, Nigel showed Fiona her portrait. She was silent for a few moments, examining her likeness, wondering at the significance of the deep thrusts the palette knife had made in the paint that represented her face.
What's wrong, don't you like it? Nigel asked, on edge.
I like it, Fiona replied carefully. It looks a bit… like a man's face. Almost a bit like yours.
At that moment everything in the room began to pulse at Nigel. The walls quivered, the air beat at him relentlessly. The ceiling seemed to sink. He felt an almost unbearable heat pressing against him. He tore the painting from its easel, slashed it with a knife, and hurled it out the window. He would hear the crash of the glass for hours.
Nigel, my God, what is it? Fiona cried.
But Nigel ran out of the studio, leaving the door open behind him, and she didn't see him again for two days, when he returned home calm but missing his shirt and one shoe.
She's like a siren, molding her song with many measures, causing sleep and shipwreck through the overpowering sweetness of her voice, Ike told Nigel. And the irony of it is, hearing fails last in a drowning man. He loses touch first in his watery grave. He loses taste because of the saltiness of the sea, he loses sight of land even though it stares him in the face. He cannot smell anything but his own approaching death. But he can hear the siren song, and it both saves him and slays him.
What are you saying? asked Nigel.
Women have wings full of death, Ike said. They shake their seaweed hair. They'll feed you and nurse you back to health at the same time they're planning a change of clothing for your casket. In short, he concluded, taking a last huge bite of Fiona's blueberry bread and wiping away the escaped crumbs with his great checkered handkerchief, Stay away from her. She's trouble. She's poison to your system. She'll cause you nothing but heartache and misery.
Perhaps you're right, said Nigel.
Ike shook his head but kept his fear to himself. He foresaw disaster as clearly as he had received his calling.
When Ike left, Nigel stacked the dishes and carried them into the kitchen. Ike was right, women were nothing but the serpent. They'd all been, from Eve to Penelope to Cleopatra to Margaret Thatcher, they were always tempting and teasing and troubling, trying to get you to toe the line at the same time they were doing their best to derail you. Fiona was in a corner of the kitchen, feeding Tunney, but Nigel ignored them.
Stay away from Nigel, Ike told Fiona that night when he phoned. He has no checks and balances, if you know what I mean. He's the original Mr. Look-Ma-No-Hands, teetering on the edge of sanity, fourteen stories up and no safety net in sight. Do yourself a favor and find another boyfriend.
It was your idea in the first place, Fiona pointed out.
I thought you would save him, Ike said softly. Now I'm worried about saving you.
You're probably right, Fiona replied.
I know I'm right, Ike said. It's been proven time and time again. Do what I tell you or I don’t know what will happen. Where you're concerned, that man, sweet and innocent as he is, as loving and likeable as he can be, is a time bomb waiting for the slightest electrical spark to detonate.
Fiona hung up the phone. She checked the children in their beds, tucking Tunney in, gently lifting Miller's left foot back on the mattress, smoothing Michelle's hair, planting a mother's kiss on each forehead. She couldn't change the color of the sky so easily.
You can never forget the past. It nestles against your heart like an extra ventricle.
The next day, Fiona and Nigel tippy-toed past each other in the kitchen, in the hallways, walking as if they'd grown webbed feet. Try as he might to stay out of her way, Nigel found himself drawn to Fiona, always bumping into her as she rummaged in the refrigerator or carried the plates to table, drawn to her by an inner magnet that defied all reason. At supper, Fiona felt only the slightest bit peckish, her appetite done in by her racing thoughts and nervous stomach. The table was laid, the boarders set to, and Fiona presided over the meal with her customary sense of propriety.
May I have the bottled water? she asked politely, wondering what would happen next, because the bottle was closest to Nigel's elbow and he hadn't spoken to her all day.
Nigel picked up the bottle and slammed it down just a few inches beyond her reach. Fiona smiled in steely fashion. That night when she went to do the dishes, she noticed that Nigel had absentmindedly left his freshly scraped plate in the garbage can along with his scraps.
She suspected, over the course of the following week, that Nigel was pumping the children. Whenever Adam came by to look at the house, Nigel became attentive to Michelle and Miller and Tunney. He assembled their cereal in the morning and their Spaghetti-Os at night, and then, gradually gaining confidence, he ventured first into grilled cheeses and frilled eggs over easy, finally branching out into fruit salads and toad-in-the-hole. He wiped the yolk dribbling down Tunney's chin and kissed Miller's fingers burnt from touching the broiler pan instead of the toast. He listened to Michelle's overheard stories, especially when they involved Adam and Fiona.
Michelle fantasized about her mother and the future. She thought architecture sounded like fun, and that an architect for a dad meant playing all day with building blocks and blueprints. Her fantasies and Nigel's fears fuelled each other and festered, hidden just beneath the surface, close enough to feel and taste but not necessarily to name and show. Even Fiona, with her as-the-crow-flies shortcut directly to her children's hearts, didn't realize exactly how much Michelle was making up about her new future life with her mother and a permanent father until it was too late. Miller was a bit confused between permanent father and permanent press, and Tunney was pre-vocal on most complex issues. It remained, then, for Nigel, sullen and hostile and a bird of ill omen to Fiona but buddy to the three children, to turn Fiona's love for him into a shibboleth.
That last night, Adam stopped over for dinner. Fiona realized, seeing the two of them together, that she had been tone-deaf to Nigel's nuances, she had overlooked his peaks and valleys, she had undermined his topography. She resolved to do better. But the meal degenerated into parry and thrust, segueing from red herring to revelation.
You should really replace the wrought iron on the front stairs with something closer to the original, Adam said as he attacked his chicken cacciatore.
Yes, I’d like to, Fiona said.
Do you always do what everyone tells you to do? Nigel hissed. If all your friends jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump too? What happened to the woman who was so hard up?
Embarrassed by Nigel's jealousy, Fiona went out of her way to make Adam feel comfortable. After the boarders scraped their plates and left, Fiona brought out three treasured leaded crystal glasses that had been her mother's and a bottle of tawny port. She poured three careful portions.
To the house, Adam proposed. They drank.
To the death of cheating women, Nigel said, slugging back the rest of his drink. May they always pay the price.
Fiona bolted from the table, white-knuckled, clutching her heirloom as if it were a shield. She rinsed the glass in the sink, and, unaware that her blind fury had travelled throughout her body in such a short period of time, she crushed the glass effortlessly between her fingers. She saw the blood only seconds before the sound of Nigel's glass stem snapping travelled through the air to her.
You always have to be like me, Nigel, don’t you? Fiona said, dabbing at the blood and trying to hide her confusion.
Nigel glared at her and stomped out of the kitchen.
Where are you going? Fiona called after him.
To check on the children, Nigel answered angrily. You're obviously too busy.
Once upstairs, Nigel could hear Fiona laughing with Adam in the kitchen. He imagined Adam touching Fiona casually on her arm, then placing his lips carelessly over hers.
Fiona, show him the gate, Nigel prayed.
He heard nothing for a few moments, then Fiona's musical laugh erupted again. Adam had only wiped the blood from her hand and wrapped it with the dishtowel, but to Nigel’s feverish mind Adam and Fiona were on their way towards matrimony and he was already standing out in the cold.
Heart clanging to a standstill, Nigel kissed Michelle, then Miller. The children barely moved, deep in their dreams.
I'll save you from her, Nigel whispered as his lips brushed Tunney's forehead. A mother who puts herself first. She's not worthy of you.
He took the spare pillow from Michelle's bed and pressed it gently over Tunney's face. There was no noise and barely a struggle. Tunney looked peaceful, even happy. Nigel pressed the pillow over Miller's mouth. His small limbs flailed only briefly.
Nigel looked hard at Michelle, memorizing her features for eternity. Of the three, she looked the most like her mother. The pillow floated to her face almost of its own free will, as if the act were ordained, and hovered over her, trapping all her breath. She had trusted him during her short life, and now her sweet dreams easily led her to heaven. Nigel crawled into the small bed beside her, quietly so as not to disturb her, and held her cautiously in his arms. If he stretched his limbs in any direction, he could touch any corner.
The dead talk whether or not you give them leave. You can hear them whispering to the waves on a lonely winter evening. You can hear them rustling in the leaves and crackling in the wires. Wherever your dead are, they will follow you and talk to you until either you reach an understanding, or you turn and let them lead you to the other world.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Almost twenty years ago I stayed at the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland, for a month. The stags were rutting, the surrounding 450 acres of forest were almost medieval, and the food was divine. One of the other colonists was obsessed with the fact that I was Jewish — he thought “my people” must be bankers (“my people” are anything but) — and I started realizing that he was more than a little bit off when I heard stories about him being carted away in a straitjacket on his last visit. But he was a brilliant painter, so I guess that was why they put up with him. He followed me around the gardens and in the big house and it became kind of creepy, so that I was quite relieved when he finally left. When I returned to Chicago six weeks later, I wrote this story about obsession and a kind of warped sense of salvation.
ABOUT JUDITH COOPER
Judith Cooper lives and works in Chicago in the digital world. Her stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Black Warrior Review and other publications. She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship and several other awards. Her short story, “A Hundred Hands,” received an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train September 2010 Fiction Open. She has been a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. For more information: www.judithcooper.net