DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Lela and Anima for beta reading and cyber-handholding. (I know, it sounds so…naughty!)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Coup de Grace
By Vivian Darkbloom
Part VII: World Enough and Time
1. Ashes to the Sea
my heart goes out like a raft
into the endless absence,
down to the starless heavy sea
in the pitch dark.
From cliffs such as these, Janice could imagine Sappho's suicidal fling into the raging sea. It seemed only a minor detail that she sat cross-legged before the Mediterranean and not the Aegean, was on Cyprus and not Lesbos. Unlike the calm waters that graced the covers of travel brochures, the Mediterranean's froth-fire topped brackish waves were fit to claim only those of unrelenting passion—poets and warriors and romantics under the sway of opiates and mysticism, and women, always women, hopelessly in love.
Like Jenny. I always wanted to go mad in the desert. I suppose dying here will have to do.
Jenny had said it squinting amid the creamy blue haze of cigarette smoke. She smoked constantly in those final days, so much so that Janice had forsaken tobacco—perhaps permanently—in all its forms. More consequentially, Janice had also forsaken the temerity of her belief in Jenny's recovery, of her borderline naïve faith in her own prodigious and innate ability to change the course of someone's life, now withered into stubborn, perfunctory numbness, into a routine of tired comfort: You're not going to die.
Ah, Janice. Your obstinacy is the one true constant in this shitty world.
The sun was flat and hard against the sky, a disk of glaring heat that burned away shadows and shades and—if you were young enough, foolish enough, drunk enough—death's irrefutability. But the lacquered black box, dotted with yellow and brownish tansy, which sat at Janice's side, quietly contradicted that. Her detached archaeologist's mind wondered how common the box was in Cypriot funeral rites, how its appearance and shape might vary from region to region. It was pointless to wonder, but many things now seemed pointless.
She sat on a rock, leather jacket pooled about her like mud. She tipped the lid of the box with her forefinger. In the end, it is me. Again. Once again the survivor, once again saying goodbye. She'd performed a similar rite with Harry's ashes—her father's remains had been cast into the Aegean, and now Jennifer Halliwell Davies would find peace in the Mediterranean. I wanted that for you, Jenny. I hope you believed that. I couldn't give it to you, I couldn't give you happiness, I couldn't save your life. I couldn't love you the way you wanted. I am nothing if not consistent in my failures. "Never had the stomach for real compassion," you said. But that was just because I wouldn't make love to you. Wasn't it?
The wind skimmed ash off the open box. Janice crawled onto her knees, lifted the box, and tilted it so that a steady stream of ash was borne upon the current of air, twisting into a gray, incandescent skein that melted into sunlight. It was all gone so quickly she wondered if any ash would actually reach the sea; perhaps some of it would, but perhaps the rest it would be absorbed into the air, into the sun, into everything.
I will not watch the sun set. Not again.
Quickly she turned away, leaving the empty box at the cliff.
Under shade of an ilex, Fayed waited for her, watching with his usual mix of concern and alertness as she gracefully navigated the steep rocky path from the cliff. She was alternately touched and annoyed by his vigilance. A bottle of vodka, in an improvised cooler of ice within a metallic packing tube, also awaited her. Last night they had found the unopened bottle among Jenny's things, and Janice decided it would be perfect for a mini-wake upon the Cyprian cliffs.
At her approach Fayed removed the bottle from its icy cocoon and held it up triumphantly. "You shall do the honors."
She hadn't expected it, but the bottle of Stoli was still perfectly chilled, just the way Jenny had always liked it, had always demanded it so in every grand hotel she'd ever occupied.
She opened the bottle, tilted it back, and let the sun create a kaleidoscope out of the clear glass; a sliver of rainbow seethed along its edge. Maybe if Jenny was in air, she was part of that too. Maybe she would detest being part of such a romantically banal image. But then she'd do anything to be close to vodka, even be part of a fucking rainbow, Janice thought, and that made it all better—as did the long, greedy swig that she took.
When she was done the bottle was half full. I'm such an optimist. "Fayed."
"Yes—darling?" He tacked the endearment on hesitantly, lovingly.
She called me that all the goddamn time, in those clipped British tones. "Well darling, I've never known you just to look"— this, the last time she'd said it, after catching Janice's lusty, idle glance upon a pretty girl with chestnut hair and large blue eyes—the daughter, perhaps, or some other youthful relation of the black-clad crones who worked in the villa.
She handed the bottle back to him. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"It is all right." Fayed took a swig of the clear, shining Stoli, but made a face, as might a child who discovers that the forbidden adult treats so intensely coveted are not always so terribly marvelous.
Janice grinned at this. Mel had a similar negative reaction to her first taste of the stuff; having mistaken a tumbler of vodka for mineral water, she took a generous gulp and promptly doubled over in agony, as if someone had punched her in the stomach.
By the time they returned to the villa it was sunset, the vodka bottle was empty, and a guest awaited them.
Linus Davies sat in the darkening emptiness of a common room, his long legs crossed with the tight anxiety of a praying mantis. In the ethereal dusk the tip of his cigarette glowed almost as much as his pale, knobby ankles, visible in a stretch from the tip of his linen pants to his impeccable brown loafers.
It was so quiet that she could hear the moist parting of his lips as he removed the cigarette.
"Have I missed the party?" The humor that Linus always used to hold the world at bay did not acquit itself well in this situation. The corners of his mouth twitched, his dark eyes desperately tried to gauge her mood.
She swaggered a beeline toward him, sadistically pleased at the subtle stiffening of his posture. Once within range she tossed the empty vodka bottle in his lap. "Go fuck yourself." She passed him and stood before the huge, tantalizing picture window. If she stretched both arms out—as she did now—her fingertips would brush the window's frame on either side, and there, barely balanced by a tenuous grip, she felt as if she were embracing the world that now cascaded from oranges and pinks and blues and gold into darkness.
"I came as soon as I heard," Linus said.
Janice closed her eyes. "Maybe you should have come sooner. Maybe you should have been here all along."
"I suppose I should have, I'm sorry. But I knew you were here. I knew you would take care of her." Linus stared at the cigarette cradled in his hand, as if he didn't know how it got there. "She loved you the best."
"I wasn't her husband."
"That doesn't mean anything," he retorted softly.
"It's got to mean something. It bound you to her. It means you don't let other people clean up when it gets messy."
"It got messy then, did it?" Linus went on the offensive. "Is that all she was to you? A mess to be cleaned up?"
Her voice thickened with rage. "Linus, if there was ever a time not to fuck with me, it's right now." She turned from the window. "At least she meant something to me. What the hell did she mean to you?"
Behind the greasy glaze of his expression, he appeared startled at her reaction, even hurt. "You don't understand, do you? Did you ever? I thought perhaps you did, you knew her so well."
"That was a fiction you both created. I knew how to make her come. That was it." That's not true, an inner voice protested, but her desire to wound momentarily overrode all compassion and truth.
Predictably, he flinched. "You just said she meant something to you."
"A friend. She was a friend."
"A friend whose heart was in her throat when she saw you in Venice after five years, thinking you were dead all that time. And then—" Linus lost his nerve. "And then seeing you with her. But you didn't understand us, did you? You really didn't understand us at all. We were bound together against the world. It was always like that, for both of us. Like brother and sister." His hand trembled as he raised the cigarette to his mouth. "We were—lost children."
"Spare me your bullshit."
"No." Janice lost the fight to keep a tremor out of her voice. "I'm tired."
They were quiet for several minutes. "He's used me to track your movements," Linus finally said. "He—did all along, I suppose."
"I'm sorry. I didn't intend for that to happen."
Yeah. Sorry old boy. She dragged a hand over her face. "It doesn't matter anyway. I'm leaving tomorrow. You're here now. You're in charge of her estate. You can deal with the rest of it—the whole fucking lot."
She started to walk away.
But Linus called to her. "The house is yours now, Janice. She left it to you. Don't you know that?"
She stopped. You must have loved me at some point—didn't you? Jenny had said it, in yet another moment of operatic emotion among the tumult of her final days. She had said "yes" in response to this imperative, but did she lie? Love never entered into any exchange—physical, verbal, or otherwise—during their affair. As much as Janice had craved it during that time, love and its attendant language had been incomprehensible to her.
Was the claiming of her heart simply a matter of who had asked first?
Janice swayed as she turned; the lurching violence of the movement appeared to make Linus nervous and regretful of his impromptu announcement. He did not wish to become a target of that lurking anger, cloaked in a miasma of sweat and alcohol.
"Oh yeah?" she drawled.
Linus confirmed her ownership with a tense nod.
"Well then." She ran a proprietary hand down the smooth wood framing the doorway. "By the time I'm done throwing up, I'll expect you to be out of my fucking house."
2. French Letters
When we dream and when we couple, we embrace phantoms.
For the remainder of his life Fayed wrote to Mel in French. He labored over these letters, dictionary by his side, smeared drafts sloughed off at his feet, disconsolate at the final product and hesitant to cast such wretchedness adrift into the postal seas.
Nonetheless, he always did. Writing, he had confessed to her, was usually easier in English, thanks to tutoring efforts by Harry and later Janice (and which explained his usage of obscenity as a secondary form of punctuation). However, during the time they spent together in Alexandria, he frequently spoke with Mel in French. Because no one else in their small circle was fluent in the language, it effectively created an immediate intimacy between them; it was the beginning of a bond accelerated by his desire to know the woman who had so bewitched his beloved yet cynical friend. Janice's exclusion in it rendered her, inadvertently, as the shining focal point of their triumvirate. And so the writing in French, to his mind, was merely a perpetuation of the bond.
She carried his latest letter around in her purse all day and savored the thought of reading it alone in her office after classes were complete. Around three, she settled behind her desk, in an old chair whose wood was as smooth and faded as bone, ignoring the raucous calls of restless students from the window, and the pleasant cacophony of birds singing.
Mon ami amié, he began.
So I am beloved to you, she thought. How did I manage that? Her eyes scanned ahead, picking apart words and syntax—while smiling with the Zen-like benevolence of the genius toward those far less gifted—and reconstructing them into a flimsy barrier in hopes of keeping thoughts of Janice Covington at a chilly remove from the vicinity of her heart. Perhaps, she thought, that was another reason why he wrote in French: He knew what simple joy she would get out of spontaneously translating a personal letter (Are the mistakes really intentional? After so short a time, do you know me that well?) and how it would be a distraction from what he was really saying: Janice was stubborn, moody, obsessed, and drinking too much. And this is news?
She read on: I plead. I cajole. I beg with her—it is to no avail. She will not write you. This morning I took her into the town and asked her to send you a telegram. She folded her arms like a stubborn child. No doubt you are laughing at me—"You fool, Fayed, wasting your time!"
Someone was rapping gently upon her door.
Yes, Fayed, you are wasting your time. Am I wasting mine as well? She folded the letter and tucked it into a book. "Come in."
Paul stood stiffly in the doorway. The breeze that accompanied him was more welcomed than he; the ancient radiator in Mel's tiny office still believed it was early March and sputtered on regardless, casting its dry, vengeful heat into the warm spring air. She highly resented the fact that she had to sweat out-of-season.
He frowned. "It's customary in these parts to say 'hello' when you see someone you know."
"I'm sorry," she murmured. For a fleeting moment Mel wished that rudeness came to her as naturally as it did to Janice, and mourned the fact that her instincts were buried under layers of decorum.
"You could have at least returned my calls."
She pressed her fingertips deep into the roughened desk top, as if willing herself to get a splinter. Pain was about the only distraction she had at hand these days. "I don't think that would have been a good idea."
"I know you don't want to see me, but—I was worried about you." His hand curled over the doorknob. "I just wanted to know if you were okay."
Okay. "How can I be okay?" She choked it out. "After what happened?"
"Not what? Not anything serious?" Her voice escalated. She leapt up, motioned him into the office and managed to shut the door without slamming it—but not before catching a glimpse of several interested white faces in the hallway. "I betrayed the only person I ever loved."
"Oh, come on. Besides, you started it."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"For Christ's sake, it was only a kiss!" he exploded.
Her face was blank. "What?"
"It was only a kiss," Paul repeated.
"Yeah." His dark eyes narrowed. "What the hell else did you think it was?"
Mel experienced a simultaneous sense of lightness, of relief, and profound disappointment in her ability to misbehave. Well, you ninny, you've never seduced anyone in your life. She refused to consider that fateful, whiskey-fueled spontaneous combustion with Janice a "seduction," firmly believing that Janice's brain was so thoroughly pickled with Bushmills that she would have bedded down with Eleanor Roosevelt, had the First Lady stopped by to partake of a nightcap.
Warily, Paul leaned against the old desk. "You don't remember anything about that night, do you?"
"When I woke up—it was night—and Lord, my head hurt—"
She ignored him. "I woke up, alone, in my bed." A blush sweetened her pale cheeks, giving her a lovely strawberries-and-cream complexion. "And I wasn't wearing any clothes."
Paul cleared his throat. "Guess I missed the floor show."
"So we didn't—"
"No. When I left you that afternoon, you were on the couch—fully dressed, I might add—snoring your head off. Do you always snore like that?"
"Like what?" she retorted defensively.
"When I was in the army we blew up a bridge in Germany near Aachen. Let's just say exploding dynamite's got nothin' on you."
"It must have been the drink."
"It's okay. You can live with having one little flaw, can't you?" He laughed as she scowled. "No, you can't. You always wanna be perfect. That's—" He trailed off.
"—hard to live with?" she finished softly. "Yes, I know. Maybe that's really why I'm by myself."
Impulsively he grasped her hand and squeezed it. She did not resist; how long had it been since anyone had touched her, affectionately or otherwise? (She discounted the Dean's perfunctory shoulder pats, as if she were nothing more than a stalwart old beagle.) "You have beautiful hands," he murmured, and glanced at her with a peculiar shyness. "I know you don't think that."
"How do you know?" Mel stared accusatively not at him but at her hand: She saw the broad palm and the strong fingers, but not the finely tapered, feminine elegance that characterized them. They lived in a time where, ironically, Janice represented the average woman—in terms of size. The off-the-rack world had not been created for creatures both large and splendid, someone like Mel.
"You're always pulling at the cuffs of your blouses," Paul replied. "Like you're trying to make them look smaller."
"So you've known me long enough to notice all my tricks."
"I'm more observant than you think." He squeezed her hand again, his dark brows knotting in avoidance of her eyes, and plunged ahead with his non-sequitur. "I'm going back to New York."
Why am I surprised? "I—I'll miss you. I'll be lonely." Mel was selfish in her reaction, and hated it. Who am I without someone to adore me? The Lament of the Southern Belle.
Paul smiled wryly. "You still have your post-pubescent coterie of admirers here at the school."
Mel returned his smile. "I suppose so."
"And the Dean."
"I'm afraid to him I'm not so much a person as a long-term investment."
He chuckled and traced a deep furrow that cut through the heart of her palm. It didn't matter if it was a heart line or a life line; because, for her, all lines led to Covington. In terms of revelation, it was nothing new; only now, the truth had finally, sadly settled into his heart.
She broke the straining silence. "What shall you do in New York?"
"'Sides get drunk a lot? I know now I can teach. That's something." He shrugged. "They got schools down there."
"You'll get good recommendations from your department. If you ever need one from someone outside your field, however, I'd be happy to supply one."
"Like a character reference, huh? That'll be useful. 'Mr. Rosenberg always fails to take advantage of drunken women.' It'll get me far."
Mel shook her head.
"At times—you're so much like her."
"I don't think so. You think she would fail to take advantage of a drunken woman?"
She tried not to think about what kind of woman might be succumbing to Janice's charms at the moment. There's being faithful and there's being a fool. God knows when I'll know which one I am. "You make me—almost wish I could love you. That I could be a woman who would really love you."
That's about as close as I'll get.
"Almost." He released her hand; the shock of coolness coursed over her skin.
"Almost." She repeated it before kissing his sandpapered cheek goodbye.
3. A Terrifying Constant
...listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
—C.P. Cavafy, "The God Abandons Antony"
A Long Time Ago
The famous poet surrounded herself with only the most luscious of nymphs. Like a box of candied delicacies or a varied selection of fabrics in a merchant's stall, there was one suited for every taste: A small one, a tall one, a dark one, a pale one. They were all lounging attentively—if such a thing were possible—around the small tiled bath, in a state of heightened awareness and focused with attenuated precision upon the poet who sprawled, alone, in the steaming water before them.
They waited patiently as Sappho, the great poet, spoke to her visitor. "I've had rivals, to be sure. Alcaeus—more formidable as a poet than a lover, I assure you—and Gorgo, and…" Here the poet trailed off. Ruefully she smiled. "Well, suffice it to say, there have been many. But you—you're different. You've always been different. And here you are, standing before me, weighed down with weapons, scars, and legends."
Sappho sighed. The water surrounding her rippled—as did her coterie, each and every one of them anticipating her every move and unfurling into action as the poet lifted forward in the bath. For a woman of her age, she looked quite attractive; the water sheeting off her body, glazing her flesh in a nacreous sheen, probably didn't hurt either. Anticipating Sappho's exit from the pool as Aphrodite's rising from the sea, the blonde fetched Sappho's slippers, the brunette grabbed her gilded robe, the tall one seized a fluffy towel, and the short one refreshed her drink.
Regally oblivious to the activity surrounding her, Sappho continued. "And those stories. All those wonderful stories." Sappho took the cup of wine that the littlest minion—clearly a favorite, as the poet affectionately cupped the girl's bright cheek—offered. "Well, the point I'm trying to make is that while I've felt the occasional twinge of envy and thrill of competition here and there in regard to my peers, you alone are different. What a life you've lived. What things you have written. And the most wondrous, amazing thing of all…"
Sappho sipped her wine, placed it on a table. She tightened the sash of her robe and strolled parallel to the jeweled, cobalt bath until she stood face-to-face with her visitor. Even then, she took a full minute to study the wearily impassive features before her. "…you're still beautiful," sighed Sappho.
Her visitor, Gabrielle of Potedaia, had not moved a muscle during the barrage of compliments. "I did not come here to be seduced." She said it softly, without a hint of recrimination, as a mere statement of fact.
Sappho raised an eyebrow and cast a glance back at her coterie. "Everyone—take note. A change of plans."
The girls tittered on cue. Gabrielle permitted a spectral smile to grace her features.
"No. I know why you're here." Sappho turned to the young women. "Leave us."
The girls, regrettably accustomed to being shooed away when things were getting interesting, filed dejectedly out of the bath, carrying the burden of their sighs bridged upon their backs.
Even alone, in presumably intimate circumstances, Gabrielle's posture remained achingly straight and her bearing sadly formal. Sappho, the great arbiter of desire, had correctly predicted that upon the warrior-bard's arrival on the island, every woman—and no small amount of men either—would go mad for this androgynous beauty, for she coveted the best qualities of the masculine and the feminine: Strength, gentleness, honor, intelligence, sensitivity, beauty. Indeed, how many members of either sex could lay claim to all those qualities?
But her grief was a serum, bitterly thick; an immunity against romance. She stared in puzzlement at the men who laid swords at her feet and at the women who decanted verse into her ear, who nestled flowers in the crooks of her empty arms.
No, Sappho thought sadly, Gabrielle's visit had one purpose only. "Are they ready?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Almost." The poet sipped the last of her wine, tilting the cup to swirl the warm, glistening slush of its dregs. "Gongyla is putting on the finishing touches. You know, I never thought she had it in her. She is a master scribe. Her handwriting is remarkably similar to yours."
"Finishing touches?" Worry rumpled Gabrielle's forehead.
Even though they altered the content of these copied scrolls at Gabrielle's behest, obviously the warrior-bard still worried—quite rightly so, Sappho thought—about the fate of her words. The subterfuge of letters and lines hid a life—her life. "Embellishment." As Sappho continued she paced excitedly, relishing the drama of an invented existence. "We couldn't have a mere religious charlatan rape you in Britannia. He became a demon, who impregnates you with his evil spawn. And it's very pedestrian to have some boring lovesick Amazon poison Xena's son, don't you think? Your unnatural child kills him. What happens after that is—well, it's a little complicated. Let's just say we've all set it up for a very grand scene where Xena drags you behind a horse. It's fabulous."
Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "Gongyla has quite a bloody imagination." Her arms shifted, a barely perceptible movement that Sappho, with her vivid imagination, attributed to a recollection of holding a dead infant.
"I've told her it's unseemly to hold a grudge, but she is still miffed at your rejection. Still, she brings you back from the dead more times that you'll ever care to admit." With her fingertips, the poet delicately traced Gabrielle's cheekbone.
"I have already been back from the dead more times than I care to admit."
The poet smiled; the delicate convergence of lines around her eyes served as confirmation of her age. "It's strange, isn't it? Our fabrications fit so neatly into your unbelievable life. At least you have a sense of humor about it. You have to, don't you?" She turned serious. "And may you come back from the dead one more time," she whispered, "if it comes to that."
"We shouldn't talk of it."
"You're right." Sappho squeezed her friend's shoulder. "Bad luck."
"No," Gabrielle rasped. "I just don't want to talk about it."
"When you asked for my help, I couldn't refuse you. You must have known that. The Warrior Princess tutored you on irresistibility, didn't she? All the same—" She dropped her hand. "—why did you ask me for help? Why not the Librarian at Alexandria?"
"I trust you," Gabrielle replied simply.
"Music to my ears. Almost as good as 'I love you.' But we both know such a declaration is not forthcoming from your lips." Here Sappho paused to change the subject. "Still, the librarian received your real scrolls."
"He'll take care of them. He has a strange reverence for them."
Indignant, the poet raised an eyebrow. "And I don't?"
"I needed your help—on the creative end. To ask more of you is too much. And Alexandria, despite its ties to our land, is outside his realm of power."
"This is madness—to give the God of War your scrolls, even if they are fakes." Sappho stared into the cup, abruptly sat it down. A poet does not barter with her words, even if her life and sanity depends on it. Of course, Sappho thought ruefully, she did not have a vengeful god orchestrating the wrath of the Furies in her direction.
The tenor of Gabrielle's husky voice tore, like an old shift. "It's the only way, I told you. My—bouts of madness, of insomnia will completely stop. The Furies will leave me alone when he has the scrolls. He said then, and only then, will it stop."
"And you believe him?"
Her voice shook even more. "I have no choice. He won't kill me. He needs me. He—" Swallowed tears softened her tone, washing clean the rough path to her heart. "I'm all he has left of her. And he will torture me, and tempt me, as he did her, for the rest of my life. It's a game now, you know. He expects me to cheat him, to deceive him somehow. And I will. And the cycle will begin anew. Pursuit. Resistance. He loves a good fight. It will go on and on. I will die in the arms of a history that keeps turning in and repeating itself."
The nape of Sappho's neck tingled, and she steeled herself against a chill so sudden, so intense that her spine felt as if it had been dislocated in the resultant shudder. This is the last time. Isn't it? You are going to kill yourself somehow. And you're going to take him along with you. I'm not sure how, but you'll manage it. Like Xena, you always have a plan, known only to yourself.
By the gods, how do I stop you?
For once in Sappho's long life, words failed her. "I beg you not to do this," she said softly.
Again Sappho paced, this time not out of excitement, but instead taking the opportunity to turn the tide of some tears that would only distress—and not deter. "You won't ride alone into Amphipolis, will you?"
"I—" Gabrielle looked down, rubbed her forehead. "I have an army." A bitter exhalation of breath—the closest she could come to a laugh—followed this. "I never thought that I, of all people, would have an army to lead."
"You've lead Amazons into battle."
"That seemed different somehow. I knew those I lead. These—men. I don't know them. All of this for the sake of some worthless scrolls. I don't know if it's worth it. They may die. Their lives aren't worth my words."
"Your scrolls will be safe in Alexandria. And even if they are not…" Here the great poet smiled. "Someone, I tell you, will remember us." She reached for Gabrielle's cheek once more.
Gabrielle pushed her face into the outstretched hand, not unlike a feral cat desperately craving affection and contact—affection, and not sex. There had only been a few to offer companionship both affectionate and erotic: A horsewoman of the steppes, a sympathetic courtesan. Few and far between.
Water weakly coursed from the gorgon's head fountain in the bath, drumming onto the moist tile floor, the unrelenting, steady tap a rhythm that seemed to swallow the whole room, a longing that eclipsed every thought and sigh in its march to the inevitable.
Someone will remember.
Dollops of rain rolled off the roof and plunked listlessly against a drain pipe. At daybreak, the noise provided a percussive counterpoint to the muezzin's cries.
Janice, however, slept on, in thrall to dreams, captive to the past.
No. You're not Southern. Go away.
Try as she did to ignore the command, Janice could not ignore the hand upon her shoulder, shaking her violently; like a dog with a bone, it would not let go. Sniffling and grunting, she surrendered and opened her eyes. .
Naima's hand was tangled in the worn gossamer of her sleeveless undershirt. "Hurry."
"What's wrong?" Janice's voice was a sleepy growl.
"You must go."
Even half asleep she noticed the tense, flat line of Naima's normally soft, sensual mouth. "You're a lousy hostess, Naima."
"I am not joking."
Janice noticed that Naima held in her free hand a rucksack—Janice's rucksack.
Uncharacteristically, Naima sighed impatiently. She released Janice and and rifled through the bag for an acceptably clean shirt. "We have word from Cordahi. They are going to arrest you today. They are coming at any moment." She tossed a threadbare white oxford at Janice's chest. Janice caught it, clumsily, as Naima shepherded together boots, hat, and her jacket.
Even groggy with sleep, Janice rapidly buttoned her shirt—a skill acquired from many a hasty departure from many a married (or otherwise coupled) lady's bed. "I thought they were giving up on this arrest thing."
"Apparently not." Naima was lacing up her boots. "There are different charges this time. Stealing from the dig, Cordahi said."
"Christ. I've only been back a week."
"You must climb down from the balcony to the back street. Fayed will be waiting in the truck. He'll take you to the Old Man's house. From there they will take you across the sea—and you'll be safe."
Now Janice stood, dressed and holding her rucksack, yet hesitating in a manner that Naima found curiously childlike and touching. "What—what will happen to you?"
"We shall be fine." With both hands she cradled Janice's neck and kissed her, with a strangely chaste sensuality, upon the lips. "Now go. He's waiting for you."
The tiny balcony with its iron railings could barely fit two people. Janice hesitated, turning back to look at her friend. Naima smiled at her and nodded. It was all the encouragement she needed—until she peered over the edge and her stomach squawked a small protest. It figures their escape plan would involve one of my phobias. Sure enough, the green Ford sat idling on the rainy street below. She tossed her rucksack—and for safe measure, her fedora—three stories down into the flatbed.
She cast one final look at Naima, who again smiled encouragingly. She took a deep breath, grabbed the railing, and swung over.
Hanging from the railing felt somewhat exhilarating, although Janice immediately regretted not thinking about precisely how she was going to get down to the truck. Her feet found the side of the building and she braced herself. She could climb down on the thick vines of ivy and hope that they would support her weight, or she could grope down from the nearby window ledge, finding footing in various crevices and key holes, to another window ledge, and then jump.
Her boot slipped a bit. Struggling for a new foothold, she kicked at the building's stone façade and quite innocently pulverized a chunk of the aging rock. Hmm. Maybe the vines are a safer bet.
She swung from rail to rail until a thicket of ivy was within grasp and tested it with a good hard yank. This shit is probably older than I am. Or so I hope. Here goes nothing. She released the railing and hung for dear life onto the ivy, quickly scaling down the building, and making excellent progress until she hit the second story, at which point the window to her right opened and the old woman who lived on that floor with an extended family of about thirteen leaned out, screaming in Alexandrian patois. Of course, Janice could make out only the obscenities that laced the tirade.
"Yeah, yeah, my mother shit me outta her arsehole. Heard it before, old woman," she growled under her breath.
A flash of movement caught her eye, followed by the force of a blunt object swatting the back of her right thigh.
The old woman was hitting her with a broom.
Janice felt like a reluctant penitent flogged for an unknown sin. "You fucking old bat!" She kicked at the broom while envisioning the telegram that Naima would send Mel: Janice killed by ivy and old woman stop do you really care stop o goddamn o shit stop why am I thinking about you now stop but then stop but then aren't I always thinking about you, no matter where I am, no matter how long we've been apart?
A fourth kick at the broom finally dislodged it from the old lady's hands; it clattered to the sidewalk. By this time she imagined the entire neighborhood was focused on this early-morning drama. It's the pervert who sleeps with other men's women, once again making a timely escape. Janice had no illusions that the community knew every detail of her past; gossip was its lifeblood, pumped and propelled by a ruthless collective memory—it was no surprise that Antoinette Sevier's former husband lived in this neighborhood and probably had told everyone within earshot that he had been cuckolded by the depraved Western she-male being harbored from the authorities by the Jewish cabalist and her husband, a whore's offspring.
By the time she'd climbed down to the first floor level, the Ford suddenly disappeared, tearing off down the alley. What the hell is he doing? Better to be confused on solid ground rather than the side of a building, she thought, so she released the vines and leaped, relying on her innate, catlike ability to fall, with grace, to the earth.
She landed on the cobbled street in a wavering crouch, muscles coiled at the impact; an ache in her thigh gently informed her that she was no longer twenty-five. A dark sedan loitered quietly in front of her, its engine smoldering, breathing its fumes into her face.
The doors on either side of the car flipped open simultaneously and it appeared that the car had miraculously sprouted metallic wings and would fly away. Instead two men got out of the vehicle. They only sent two? Janice felt both vaguely insulted and terribly relieved.
Nonetheless, both men were huge; height-wise, one of them even broke the Mel Pappas barrier and was clearly over six feet tall. The driver, the smaller of the two, held out his hand in a gesture of placation, of appeasement.
She bolted—followed by an outraged cry of "'ey!"—and was out of the alley by the time the car doors slammed shut and the sedan's engine roared in tired dismay. Where the fuck—she gazed down the boulevard. The Ford was two blocks down, the morning sun limning it in a soft glow.
She ran. She did not look back—there was no need to, because she felt the sedan's presence, a lumbering ghost, a malignant Eurydice at her heels, except that she knew looking back would not cause the car to dissolve into the underworld.
Fayed wasn't making it easy; the Ford began to slowly pull away from the curb. Shit. It was probably a good idea, but damn it Fayed I'm not a kid anymore. I don't know if I can catch up to you this time. Her lungs began to burn as she pushed harder into the wind. The euphoria of adrenaline settled over her like a liquid crown, seeping downward through her blood into every muscle, until she wrapped her hand around the Ford's gate, hoisted herself on the rudder, and vaulted, heels over head, into the empty truck bed.
It was just in time—the bullets began to fly.
And it started to rain even harder.
Her hands glided over the slick metal bed. How many times, she thought, had she lain in the back of this truck? Sleeping, dreaming, watching stars? The raindrops tumbling down now seemed to be falling stars, cool pearls pummeling her hot skin. Gratefully, she took this moment of peace before she started to worry once again about Fayed getting shot.
The old metal bed bucked under her as Fayed executed an increasingly dizzying number of hairpin turns; no one knew Alexandria as he did—at least that's what she counted on. The sound of gunfire faded into tinny thunderclaps on the wind, then disappeared into nothing. The Ford gathered speed and, like a battered Pegasus, flew out of Alexandria.
As the Ford grinded up the hill that led to the Old Man's place, Janice watched the landscape strip away the old gaudiness of buildings and minarets and statues until it lay naked beside her, starkly beautiful and faded, smooth and worn as a piece of old mosaic.
Jenny reached out to touch the ochre brilliance of the nimbus surrounding the figure's head.
"Jesus, Jenny!" Ever protective of her great find, of the mosaic that would distinguish her from her father, Janice clapped a hand around her lover's wrist. "Don't touch it!"
Jenny laughed; the ringlets of her hair glowed gold in the lantern's light. "Ah, the truth, at last revealed. You care more for these old things than you do for me, you cur of a Covington!"
"I care—" Unable to lie, Janice let the sentence linger unfinished.
Jenny did not even try to free herself from Janice's iron grasp. "Don't say anything." She pressed her fingertips against Janice's cheek. "Just let me believe otherwise."
She pretended that the wet streaks on her face were rain and not tears. Three months, she thought, since scattering those ashes in the sea. From death to death, each link to her past disintegrated and she felt increasingly unmoored from a personal history that, while burdensome at best, was really all she had. This release could have been liberating—in fact she wished it would be just that—but instead Janice found it terrifying.
What was left? The Work. Shit. Who was left? There was Fayed, of course. And there was Mel. As frightening as liberation from the past may be, the intensity of their bond, defying time, history, reason, was at times even more terrifying.
I miss you. It doesn't stop, does it? It never stops.
The truck lurched to a halt. At the sound of the truck door's opening and closing, she sat up.
Fayed was giggling; it was a nervous habit, and sometimes depending upon her mood she found it either endearing or irritating. Given that he had just possibly saved her life, at the very least prevented her from getting arrested, she opted for the former reaction.
She climbed out of the truck. "You did it."
He couldn't stop laughing. "Ay!" he exclaimed. "I am too old for such excitements."
Janice fell into his arms; her forehead brushed the sharpness of his unshaven cheek. "Thank you," she murmured, so softly that he almost did not hear.
"Did you think," he replied breathlessly, "we would let them take you?"
"No. Never." Her head rested against his collarbone. She thought of Mel—the fragile strength of her broad collarbone, cresting against the whiteness of her skin.
"Listen," he began, "Mustafa will be here soon. He will give you safe passage across the sea. He will arrange everything."
The Cabalist Underground Railroad. It does help to have friends in low places. "What about you? And Naima?"
"We will be fine."
"No." She grabbed her rucksack, rummaging through it frantically, until she found what she wanted.
She tossed a set of keys at him. He caught them in a fumbling grasp that left metal poking between the slats of his fingers, like deadly claws. He knew what the keys were for, if only because he knew her so well. "You cannot."
"I can. It's mine now—and so it's yours too. Jenny would want that." She touched his face, daring to do so with lingering affection—something she had not attempted ever since she was a seventeen-year-old girl foolishly in love with him. "You know it's not safe for you and Naima now. Particularly Naima."
"She will not leave." If possible, she loved the city even more than he.
"She has to. You have to make her leave. Promise me. I can't lose you—either one of you." I can't remember a time when I didn't know you. "'The city will always pursue you.'" Janice smiled weakly as she quoted this beguilingly bleak line of Cavafy's. "She'll have Alexandria in her wherever she goes. And so will you."
Fayed tried to smile, failed, lowered his head.
"Will you promise me?"
He nodded. When he finally regained the courage to look at her again his eyes were damp. "Will you go back to her, back to where you belong?" Finally he smiled—tenderly, while brushing strands of wild gold back from her face.
Janice felt as if still in the truck, taking another wild turn, running away from another crushing inevitability.
Fayed shook her gently. "Will you promise me? This woman of yours—she is your city, your Alexandria. Your exile is pointless. It does not have to be. Go back to her."
In the near distance the desert sand rolled and pitched like the most tumultuous of ocean waves, absorbing the light rain with sinister silence. What have you given me? The sand did not reply, nor would her mind humor her with an imagined response.
"Go," he said again. He wrapped his hand around hers.
It occurred to her that she had nowhere left to go. She was as empty and as casually revealed as the ceaselessly shifting layers of sand.
4. Addict Days
There is the world dimensional for
those untwisted by the love of things
The cabbie was thankful to have an interesting fare gravitate toward him. A day's worth of gray flannel suits made him thank God for the strangely dressed woman—at first he'd thought she was a guy—who threw a worn duffel bag into his welcoming trunk.
As she settled into the back seat and mumbled a Cambridge address, he craned his head to get a good look at her. "Where you comin' from?"
Janice knew she looked peculiar enough to warrant speculation. "New York," she replied. It was true enough—the train she'd just got off had its origin in that city.
"Yeah?" he said, querulously. "You look like you came from the desert or somethin'. You know, like you're one of those whaddya call 'em—"
"Would 'bums' be the correct term that you're looking for?" She smiled wryly.
He liked a woman with a sense of humor. "Naaaaah. You know, an explorer or something, like in the desert."
"I'm—an archaeologist," she said.
There was a strange hesitation hitched to her voice, which made him think she was lying. "No kidding?"
"Where were you?"
"Wow." He whistled, but said nothing in order to give her an opening to discuss the fabled lands. When she didn't, he asked, almost timidly, "Did you find what you were looking for?"
He could see the answer in the weary eyes that stared into the rearview mirror from the backseat. "Not really."
They drove in silence, crossing the glassy calm of the Charles River into Cambridge; wearily angelic, she dozed in the late afternoon sun that streamed through the grimy window.
When he pulled up in front of the address that she had given him, the car's sudden stop woke her. "Here ya go," he announced needlessly.
She handed him a crisp ten. "Keep it."
"Thanks, dollface." Money made him chivalrous and he leapt from the cab to extract her duffel bag from the trunk.
Janice got out as he sat the bag on the curb. "You in a hurry to get back?"
He looked surprised. "Not really. Why?"
"Drive back around here in about fifteen, twenty minutes. I may need your services again." Her mouth set into a grim, tight line.
He did the emotional math. "You got it." Then he smiled and tapped her on the arm with a gentle slap, like a long-lost big brother. "But no offense, sweetheart," he said, his South End accent neatly lopping off the e and the r from the word's second syllable, "I hope I don't see you again. Any guy who turns you away is nuts, I think."
How about any girl? Janice wanted to say, but didn't. She realized, with no small amount of astonishment, that she was simply too tired to be a smart ass.
The cab left her in a puff of exhaust. She shouldered the duffel bag and, as if walking the last mile, shuffled up the sidewalk to the porch. The nascent green trees shivered in a stiff breeze, caught in the grip of spring's mercurial temperatures. While standing on the porch, she remembered that her house keys were buried deep within the bag. It would be easier to ring the bell. Not to mention it would save time—Mel might not even allow her over the threshold. It would be quicker, less painful. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. Nonetheless she stared at the doorbell for a good five minutes before finally committing her thumb to action.
Within seconds a young man opened the door. Quite appropriately, she felt like Odysseus returning to Ithaka and finding the palace overrun with suitors. While on a deeper level she believed Mel to be as true as Penelope, she acknowledged the fact that Penelope certainly lacked a certain temperamental strain that was inimitably, purely Southern Belle. Well fiddle dee dee, Odysseus! The Yankees burned ol' Ithaka to the ground in your absence…but Jesus, Janice thought as she examined the young man at the door, am I replaced that easily? He was clearly a student—although not the kind Mel usually attracted, for his thick body and dull yet wary look screamed football player.
He was shaking his head at her. "Nope, nope, nope. Sorry," he said.
She raised a surprised eyebrow. "Come again?"
"The soup kitchen's three blocks over, near St. Thomas's."
You really shouldn't be surprised, she told herself. You do look every inch a bum. Her shirt was stained, her left pant leg sported a silver dollar-sized hole near the knee, the soles of both boots were cracked. What hair visible from underneath the fedora was limp and greasy. Nonetheless, some righteous indignation took hold—if she was going to be denied entry to this house, by God, it would be by decree of Melinda Pappas and Melinda Pappas only, and not some frat boy. "I'm not looking for the soup kitchen, jackass," she growled.
Fortunately, a friendly face appeared from behind this testosterone apparition. However, it was not Mel, but yet another student—a large young man who gaped at her with unabashed worship. "Dr. Covington!" he shouted with glee and shoved his surly friend out of the doorway thereby granting Janice the opportunity to enter. "Robbie, this is Dr. Covington. She lives here," he hissed to his companion.
The boy named Robbie glared skeptically at Janice. Who glared back and took a decisive step into the house.
"Please ignore him, Doctor," the young man said airily, shutting the door behind them. This friendly fellow was not a jock but the budding intellectual type: tall, portly, blond, and bespectacled, wearing a tweed jacket from which a pocketed pipe peeked out, like a periscope. Janice did recognize him—he was a former student. He now grinned at her shyly, self-consciously. "You probably don't remember me," he began.
Somehow she plucked the name—and all its associations—from the mental archives. "Matthew Spencer," she said. She shook his quivering, jellyfish hand. "How could I forget the author of a paper claiming that the Greek Amazons were in fact Etruscan hermaphrodites?" The essay had been nonsense—yet such brilliant, well-researched nonsense that she had no recourse but to give him a low A for his fanciful effort.
"You remembered!" he burbled with pride. "Gosh, I can't tell you how great it is to have you back. I trust you'll be teaching next semester?"
The question caught her off guard. "I—I'm not sure what my plans are at the moment."
"Oh." Matthew tried to conceal his disappointment. "Well," he forced a laugh, "whatever your plans are, I can't wait to see. We never know what's coming from you."
"This is so very, very true," a familiar voice—its bitter tone languishing in the shade of a Southern drawl—commanded the trio's attention, and all worshipful eyes fell upon Mel, who now entered the increasingly crowded foyer.
As always, Mel looked good, even when blatantly hostile. And as always, Janice's stupid, stubborn heart pounded out a faster beat at the mere sight of her leaning against the wall, arms folded over her chest. Janice knew that she had copied this casual-confident, mistress-of-the-domain pose from watching Errol Flynn dominate Sherwood Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
While star struck by the sudden appearance of his former professor, Matthew Spencer was no fool. The sudden chill in the atmosphere manifested itself in a sense of déjà vu that traversed his well-padded spine. As an intimate witness in his parents' own turbulent marriage, he knew this scene well—the attempted reconciliation after the estrangement, its hesitant, soft notes like the gentle opening of a Beethoven piano sonata, perhaps the very sonata that lay beside the turntable in the living room.
He clapped Robbie roughly upon the shoulder. "We should go," he announced. To his great, not-so-secret pleasure, he thought Dr. Covington shot him a look of gratitude.
"You needn't leave on anyone's account, gentlemen," Mel replied coolly.
Matthew shook his head. "No, Dr. Pappas, we really should be going. We thank you for helping Robbie with his Latin, and I am greatly indebted to you for your guidance on my term paper."
Finally Robbie snapped out of his sulk. "What?" After months of scheming and pleading with Matthew, he had finally managed to snare a tutoring session with the beautiful professor and was already imaging what she would look like with her hair down and the buttons of her blouse carefully undone. Now Matthew was dragging him down the hall and plucking their jackets from a coat rack. "But I haven't—I haven't conjugated anything yet!" he shouted.
"I know precisely what you want to conjugate, you bastard," Matthew muttered as he propelled his friend out the door, where they stood briefly on the porch as they struggled hastily into their coats.
"Sonofabitch," Robbie muttered. "Why did you do that?"
Matthew smoothed his scarf as he tucked it into his overcoat. "You fool. They wanted to be alone." He started down the steps to the sidewalk. "Well, they needed to be alone, that's for sure," he murmured aloud, more to himself than Robbie.
"That's bull." Robbie followed close on his friend's heels, and they both took a broad right turn toward the general direction of the university. "Why would she want to be alone with that—that creature—"
Matthew bristled at this description of his beloved former teacher. "You've never seen Dr. Covington in a skirt, boyo."
"Matthew, you have the strangest taste in broads. You're crazy. Just plain crazy."
"You just don't get it, do you?" Matthew cried, exasperated.
Matthew sighed extravagantly. "They're lovers," he said. Or they were, he thought sadly.
Robbie crinkled his pug nose while simultaneously widening his eyes in disbelief; it had the unfortunate effect of rendering him as a constipated pig. Daumier would have a field day with him. Matthew smirked and quietly enjoyed his little aesthetic joke.
"You're full of shit," Robbie roared. He pointed at the house, his slab of an arm quaking with indignation. "Are you going to tell me that beautiful woman in there is a queer?"
Matthew, scandalized, looked around. He didn't want to be responsible for soiling the reputations of his favorite professors. "Shoosh. Lower your voice."
"Hell," Robbie retorted in a near whisper. "Come on now, Matthew."
Matthew presented his case tersely—the details of which, as he spoke them, made him wonder why he didn't figure it out sooner. "They've lived together for years. They're both well into their thirties, with no suitors in sight. It takes two to tango—or tangle, as the case may be."
The only response Robbie could muster was a silent one, his mouth a vapid o of mute shock.
"Fine. Stand there all night. The garbage men will dispose of you in the morning." Matthew began walking down the street.
"Stop screwing around with me!" Robbie wailed. "MATTHEW!"
Matthew Spencer kept walking, but cast a quick look back at the darkening house and silently wished his old professor good luck.
For she really needed it. Janice touched her lower lip, producing a red smudge on her fingers. She had always suspected—but had hoped, in vain, never to confirm—that Mel would be a good slapper. The head-jarring, ear-ringing, blood-inducing smack across the face that she just got was, indeed, confirmation of her theory.
Still, it was hard to be mad about that, especially now that Mel was slumped in a kitchen chair, one hand covering her eyes, the other tightly clutching her glasses, crying.
Goddamn you, Fayed, why did I let you talk me into this? I just fucking end up hurting her anyway, no matter what I do or what I say. She blotted the lip with her shirt sleeve. "I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry." Sorry. You hit me and I say I'm sorry. It's so wrong it's right. "I'll go," she said softy. "I'm sorry." She turned around. Go. Quickly. Like pulling off a Band-Aid. Go. Just go.
One word, desolate and adrift in a sea of hoarseness and unshed tears, came from Mel. "Don't."
The request, of course, stopped Janice dead in her tracks. Like Orpheus, she was helpless in her compulsion to turn around. Mel was swiping ineffectually at her face with the back of her hand. Janice knew that even if she had a handkerchief, it would be filthy. So instead she retrieved a box of tissues from the living room—right where she knew they would be. It was comforting to know that something hadn't changed.
Mel left the proffered tissues untouched and stared down at her hands. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't—I shouldn't have done that."
Janice too stared at Mel's hands, curled tightly in her lap—and noticed a crimson lane liquidly rounding the bend of her right fist. As if unearthing a fragile artifact, she gently, carefully, pried Mel's fingers away, revealing what could pass as a surrealist painting of a pair of glasses: contorted, empty wire frames and broken lenses digging into a bloody palm.
Janice lived for purpose; nothing fulfilled her as much as having things to do. Here an opportunity presented itself—which it rarely did with the alarmingly healthy Mel—to take care of someone. During the last months with Jenny she discovered she was surprisingly good at it, even if ultimately she had failed her friend. She failed at everything, it seemed, so she pretended it didn't bother her much; and so she clung desperately to this positive, a life raft barely aloft in a sea of negativity.
She marched up the stairs in search of peroxide and gauze. The bathroom's mirror confirmed her haggard looks; she ignored the reflection and opened the medicine cabinet. Her hand strayed over a host of bottles—cold creams, cough medicines, skin lotions, witch hazel, shampoo, a metal tin of band-aids. Everything's here.
Everything in one place.
"Janice." Mel stood in the doorway, red-eyed, blinking, but calmer.
Everything. But what I need. "We used to have peroxide here."
"Never mind that."
"But it was here. I remember buying it. I got it when I bought gauze—"
"I'm all right."
"—because I'm always doing something to myself."
Janice looked at her.
Mel swallowed nervously, even though her blue eyes took on that relentless quality they possessed when in pursuit of knowledge. "You haven't said anything—I haven't given you a chance to, I know—but what about Jenny?"
How does she know about Jenny? Fayed, of course. All those little letters they were exchanging. Christ. I was even jealous. "She's dead." Her hand began another trembling pass of the medicine cabinet and accidentally sent a bottle of witch hazel tumbling into the sink, where it smashed open. When her vision grew blurry she thought she was reacting to the overpowering scent liberated among the crags of broken glass. The ragged gasp tangled in her throat told her otherwise. Crying. I am crying. Worse yet, she was crying in front of Mel. She couldn't remember ever doing that before, ever displaying this weakness that made her squirm whenever confronted with it in others. But in her humiliation a tiny sense of wonder formed, solid and perfect as a pearl—that Mel was here and did not turn away, that she knew precisely what to do and did it: She held Janice, calmly welcoming tears that, Janice thought absurdly, would ruin a perfectly flawless linen blouse.
Later, Janice would think that crying was the emotional equivalent of a car crash. The frantic steering in the act of avoidance only seems to lead to a more destructive crash, and yet when it is done, it is done. With pain comes relief. Everything seems better, if only because it appears that the absolute worst is over.
Her fingertips scrape the stones. He urges her to the truck. You can save them all. Come on, come on. The hotel will blow in five minutes. You can save them, but only if you hurry. The streets are Parisian—there are signs in French—but the rubble, the ruins are pure Berlin. Stolid Germanic row houses flared with black smoke. The gutted Reichstag, its famed pillars tattooed with graffiti.
He climbs in the truck with her and they are careening around street corners, weaving through piles of rubble, stuck with people pounding on the vehicle crying for food, eye level with detritus, a scarlet pack of Dunhills clinging to the side of the heap, her hands shake, the engine sputters, she fumbles with the clutch, he laughs—you really are a prize, aren't you? How many things can you botch in your miserable life?—the streets are a unfamiliar maze, Rue Parnasse is not where it should be, the old whore on the corner is the kindly, plump English nurse who once bandaged her hand after an accident two days after she turned 24—and he is a harpy, winged and vile, pursuing her thoughts, her lungs ache as she drowns in the filth of a bombed out city and the hotel explodes, suddenly it is night and the city is a blur of phosphorous.
He's lighting a cigarette, pleased at her failure. Well, you botched this. You were born to betray yourself. Even when you think you are betraying others.
Is there betrayal in my blood?
He dressed me up like a doll, picking blue silk—the color mocked me and he knew it, it marked my deed, it reminded me of her eyes. He knew it, and he wanted to remind me of it. As if I could really forget. His servants watched, blushing, as he put the clothes on me himself. He said he wanted to know what a Greek woman looked like; perhaps it was blatant yet weak attempt at seduction rather than genuine curiosity. I don't know. I muttered that physically I was not typical of Greek women.
And then Ming Tien laughed, richly, archly derisive. "Oh no," he said. "You're not typical at all. You clothe your black heart prettily—in the guise of love and your precious morality. That you are so ignorant of it makes you more dangerous than a thousand Xenas."
Janice sat up, spewing aching breaths from a throat that was tight and dry. Waking up in a strange bedroom never fazed her much, but at the same time there was something oddly familiar about this one, with its warm, lemony walls, and the simple dresser sitting across from the double bed. Perhaps the familiarity stemmed from the snoring figure next to her—Mel. Janice blinked again. She was in the guest room of her own house. Why, she didn't know. But then—she thought as she rubbed her face—why would Mel want her in the master bedroom again anyway?
She looked at Mel—a curled, crumpled odalisque among the sheets. A bloodied wad of tissue—vulnerably thin and palely red, a dying rose—was in her partly clenched right hand. Damn it, she probably didn't put anything on that.
Her head ached; who would've known that crying, like drinking, could give you a hell of a hangover? Even though Janice could not remember having drunk anything in the past twelve hours, her bladder felt heavy. She swung her legs off the bed and felt a hand upon her arm.
Mel was awake now. "Where are you going?" Her grip was vise-like, her eyes quietly desperate.
"Just—to the bathroom." Janice gently wriggled her arm.
Cautiously, Mel released her.
In the bathroom, the mess in the sink had been not-so-miraculously cleared away. Like most of Western Civilization, Janice valued her time and thought on the great porcelain chair. It seemed like Mel did not want her to leave. That seemed like a good thing. Perhaps Mel just wanted to torture her about everything? Janice was game. Being tortured by Mel handily beat the slow eradication of her sanity and her life in a place like Alexandria.
She flushed the toilet, washed her hands, opened the window. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds, and the trees—which looked almost bare yesterday—seemed ridiculously blossomed and full. Oh, it all looks good to you now, doesn't it? A sedan wandered down the street, the echo of a dog's bark rattled and bounced in the stillness of mid-morning. That's when the epiphany stole upon here, gentle and unassuming, a zephyr of fate. Here. I want to be here.
Will she let me be here? Does she really want me here? She touched the windowpane. Only one way to find out. She returned to the guest room.
Mel sat on the bed, legs drawn up against her chest. Even with wrinkled clothes, slouching stockings, and wildly tousled hair, she was astonishingly beautiful. It was amazing, Janice thought, how some women could wear disarray as if it were just another outfit in their haute couture arsenal. The flaking tissue bandage around her hand—which Mel picked at in anxious irritation—appeared to be just another part, albeit an eccentric one, of the ensemble.
Janice cleared her throat. "You should put something on that."
Mel blinked, startled at the reminder of the injury, then her eyes became hooded and she looked away. "It'll heal fine," she said quietly.
"Yeah." Janice stared at a Persian rug of red and gold; it seemed vaguely familiar. Was that always in here? How I've always been a stranger in a place I called my home. "You always heal quickly."
A darker shadow leapt across Mel's face at this reminder of a part of herself she so hated. "I shouldn't have—"
"You were angry," Janice interrupted gently.
"That doesn't give me the right."
"It doesn't matter." Janice stuffed her hands in her pockets. "I'm sorry too."
Apologies don't suit you, Mel had once said, years ago, after a less catastrophic fight.
"You've nothing to be sorry about."
"I shouldn't have just left you like that."
You've done it before. The thought, unspoken, hung accusingly in the air.
Mel ignored the original circumstance of Janice's departure, and chose to focus on the one positive she could see—Janice's unwavering loyalty (the possibility of infidelity be damned) to someone who needed her. "You took care of her, when no one else would. It's nothing to be sorry or ashamed about."
"Hell of a lot of good it did," Janice said roughly. That wellspring of futility, the bitter aftertaste of the morning's dream, flooded her throat and she closed her eyes and pushed and pushed at phantom despair until she could finally will its ebbing away. "I told you that if I ever left, I would always come back."
"Yes," Mel replied hoarsely, "but I never thought it would hurt this much."
"Neither did I." Janice paused before plummeting gracelessly into the question that would make or break her life. "Do you want me here?"
"My God." Mel looked pained. The light from the window struck her fully in the face and she blinked in confusion at the sun's first rays. "Do you really need to ask that?"
"Nothing is a sure thing in this world, Mel."
"Not even me?"
"Especially not you." How could I ever take for granted something so beautiful, so rare? But I have. I did.
"All right, then," Mel replied softly. "I want you here." Her fingers splayed in invitation over the worn bedspread. "Come here."
It was, in all innocence, the right thing to say, for it reminded Janice of their first night together, so many years ago—she, in a drunken swoon at the edge of Mel's bedroom, sweaty hand clutching a stolen hair clasp in her pocket, waiting, beguiled, lost.
Come here, you said, please please please. You said it over and over as I stood above you, as you pressed your face into my belly, as your touch raged like fire over every inch of me. And now both her skepticism and her knees weakened as she made her way to the bed and sat down; Mel's fingers ran over the rough terrain of her knuckles, reclaiming territory with the contradictorily desperate assurance of pure passion.
"Christ." Janice felt tired. "It can't be this easy, can it?"
Mel released her hand and, as she was always wont to do, commenced combing Janice's hair with her fingers. "I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth right now."
"What day is it?" She was too ashamed to actually ask what month it was; it was either April or May, she was fairly certain of that. Nonetheless, she felt unmoored. Months had gone by—months of nameless, numberless days. Addict Days, Jenny once called it. Days lazily curled one into another, like plumes of smoke. And earlier—in another life it seemed—Harry had called the timeless state spent on excavation sites Dig Time. It was appropriate somehow; they were searching for time as much as anything else. They needed time as much as money. They needed time in order to find time. In the end, Janice thought helplessly, was his addiction any safer, any better than Jenny's had been?
Not surprisingly, Mel failed to see the significance of the question but nonetheless answered it. "Tuesday."
"You must have a class." Janice lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.
"No. Not until afternoon." Mel's fingers continue to weave a spell through her hair.
Janice tried to repress a smile. "You're lying." Her eyelids drooped dangerously and she lay back, feeling—for the first time in months—truly safe.
Mel ignored this. "I'll make you breakfast."
"I'll make the coffee," Janice murmured, just before falling asleep again.
A tentative peace thus brokered, Janice stayed. The semester ended and June arrived; the month, however, decided to bring with it August's oppressive summer heat. A Northern heat wave was somehow more vindictive than a Southern one ever could be, Mel theorized, because Yankees just did not understand heat. It was a sad, inexplicable state of affairs: They expected life and its attendant business to move along as it does in other seasons, that is, to be conducted at a somewhat brisk tempo. No one up here seemed to realize that life should be slower in the summer: Businesses should close suddenly, unpredictably after lunch and stay that way. Stories should be told on the veranda as the lemonade turned into tepid sugar water.
Idiots. With Yankees as a group, Mel was always uncharitable.
Sitting at her desk, she straightened, and a sudden coolness—a faint breeze—channeled itself between her sweaty back and the leather chair. She stared down at the essay she had struggled to write for the last half hour. It was too hot to work, to think, to move, to eat, to make love…don't act as if that's even possible right now, she warned herself. Silently she turned the pen in her hands.
Since Janice's return they shared the house now as uneasy roommates, both afraid to offend. Under different circumstances, it would have amused Mel to see Janice act so painfully polite, to be so self-conscious to the point of shyness and timidity. From the vantage point of sleeping alone in a separate bedroom, however, the situation held very little humor for her. (Janice hadn't moved from the guest room; Mel, puzzled, hadn't really known how to extend an invitation other than appearing in the guest room wearing nothing but stockings and a garter belt, but she unfortunately and wrongly believed that she was getting too old to pull off such a stunt.) Once, and only once, during this time had they made love—after coming home from a movie (Written on the Wind, with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall; while Mel had been unmoved by Bacall's icy beauty, Janice at least had appreciated the actress's fine legs): Nightswimming through the darkened hallway, Janice stumbling into her hands, a muttered apology, and Mel's sudden pining recollection of how perfectly the small of Janice's back fit into her eager grasp. It had been awkward, cautious, not binding—groping in the dark while on the leather couch in the study, Janice's fingers curling into her, a delicious hook. She climaxed too quickly and felt embarrassed afterward, as she always did when driven purely by need.
Like the stale summer air, languidly riled by the ceiling fan, the tired questions chose to rerun themselves in her mind. Is it my fault? For encouraging her to keep searching? Then being angry when she actually wanted to go? She tried to peel back the sweaty blouse away from her skin. Could I blame Alexandria itself? How convenient it would be, to blame a place. Could we blame Italy? Or any of the other places we've ever been?
She sighed, pushed herself away from the desk, and stood up. All those places we've been. Each place was a piece fitting into the mosaic of the life they had shared thus far. The only problem was that a mosaic forms a picture, a design; she had no idea and could obtain no perspective on what the grand scheme of their mosaic might be; she struggled not to snort derisively at entertaining the mere thought of a grand scheme.Does it matter? She wandered over to the open door of the study and settled herself there, leaning against the wooden trim that had been repainted only a week ago. Looking into the dim, cool hallway, she saw the fedora perched atop the coat rack. Her godhead, Mel thought sarcastically.
Nonetheless, it has always been the first thing she looked for when she came through the door—to see the fedora hanging there, or sometimes lying on a table, or a chair. Wherever the hat was, the woman was not far behind. And always, seeing it...Mel mused. It was as if a lamp were turned on, a candle lit: She bloomed in the anticipated presence of Janice, something was ignited within her, and possibilities existed where none had before.
She picked up the fedora, fingers nestled in the crown, thumb running the smooth track of the olive drab brim. It smelled both musty and sweaty. She fought the sudden violent desire to bury her face against it, knowing she might crush the shape beyond repair; the old battered felt was actually quite delicate. Like Janice herself.
Mel returned the hat to its perch and stalked through the hallway, pursued only by a wretched yen for the past and a stream of sweat running down her shoulder blades. When she reached the kitchen she opened the icebox and regarded its spare contents: a couple bottles of Coke—Janice's replacement for cigars and cigarettes (one vice for another, thought Mel, recalling all those childhood warnings about soda pop rotting out one's teeth)—a pitcher of lemonade, some fruit, eggs, potato salad, and leftover fried chicken. Indecisive, she closed the door.
Janice said that she no longer wished to travel—an uncharacteristic euphemism for her work—or to teach. The latter was hardly a surprise to Mel. While Janice was a good teacher, she was clearly uncomfortable in a classroom; her great enthusiasm for the subject only shined through when she successfully battled her own feelings of self-consciousness.
Now that was seemingly past. In order to fill her idle days, Janice worked at a garage—in essence, Mel thought, exchanging one kind of filth for another. And wasting her vast talents—which actually had been her very first thought upon discovering this unfortunate (and, she fervently hoped, temporary) career change.
"Where on earth have you been?"
Much like the juvenile delinquent caught before attaining the safety of his bedroom, Janice stopped short before bolting up the stairs and shoved her hand deep into her pockets. "Nowhere."
"Nowhere." Mel folded her arms. "That's usually what you call a bar or a racetrack."
"Yeah. Well, I ain't been to either," Janice retorted defiantly—although for Mel the shock value of bad grammar had faded long ago.
Mel's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Show me your hands."
Momentarily Janice looked trapped, then recovered herself nicely with a mocking grin. "Gotta catch me first, big girl." She galloped up the stairs.
Mel followed—tiredly. She found Janice in the bathroom, lathering up a pair of very dirty hands, scrubbing carefully with the loving precision of a surgeon. She was just impatient enough that her propriety slipped as she asked the $64,000 question: "Just what the hell have you been up to?"
Janice decided to come clean—both figuratively as well as literally. "I'm working at Jimmy's."
"The garage?" Mel was incredulous.
Janice silenced her with a look and a confirmation. "Yeah. The garage."
She watched Janice's thorough immersion in the task at hand and knew it was hopeless to even attempt to seriously sway her feelings in the matter. These days she spoke frequently of how archaeology had destroyed Harry, how it had alienated him from his wife, how it had left him penniless, reputation-less—and how it slowly, surely killed him.
And so Mel could only attempt a joke. "You—you might as well up and join the circus."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "You know how I feel about clowns, Melinda."
Now she watched as Janice tirelessly pursued yet another home improvement project: cleaning the rain gutters. Janice positioned a ladder against the roof, checked it once, twice, looked up, down, then finally grasped a rung and began climbing.
The longing that caught in Mel's throat took her by surprise; it was the familiar—and not-unusual—twinning of envy and desire. She had long admired Janice's comfort in her own body—her strength, the economical grace of her movements. My God, you are so beautiful. I never really stopped thinking that, did I?
If there was some sort of discernible pattern to the mosaic, was that it? she wondered. It is the one constant, that—despite everything—I remain as helplessly in love with you as I was 15 years ago? I need a drink. I suppose lemonade will do.
She poured a glass of lemonade and sat down at the table. In lieu of a straw she improvised and stirred the beverage with an index finger. It was unladylike in the extreme, but she was too hot to care. Too darn hot. Cole Porter is certainly more accurate than most weather reports.
The screen door slammed, making a noise not unlike a gunshot. In spite of having heard it approximately a thousand times over the course of prior years, Mel jumped.
"I was right," Janice was muttering as she made a beeline for the icebox, "there are a ton of leaves in the rain gutter. You know there's gonna be a shitload of snails in there too, and you might as well say goodbye to your garden if they get loose."
Her back faced Mel. In blatant disregard of whatever the neighbors might think, she wore a sleeveless undershirt tucked sloppily into khakis. The well-worn white cotton obeyed the dictates of Janice's body: It heeded the muscled curves of her shoulders, the pronounced peaks of her shoulder blades, the smooth columns of firm flesh running parallel to the corridor of her spine.
Mel took it as a sign that she thought of her father's uncharacteristically blunt assessment concerning his daughter's hopeless politesse: Sometimes there is such a thing as being too reserved, dear. Especially when you encounter something you want.
She stood too quickly, jostling the kitchen chair, earning a quick concerned glance from Janice, and took an awkward leap toward her quarry. Did Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, Scourge of Rome, Corinth, and so on and so forth, ever have an off day when she waded through space like a love-struck cow? That's what I want to know. Her hands felt clumsy even at idle rest upon Janice's hips, and she stammered out a simile that ended abruptly in mid-formation: "You s-smell like…like…" Sun-ripened grass. Like desire itself. You smell like the eternal desert, still, after all these weeks. It's your own elusive perfume and always I go chasing off after it until I drown in it as a wanderer in a sandstorm.
Silkily twisting in Mel's grasp like a scarf in a wind, Janice turned around. Her old smart-ass grin was back and her dirty, rough hands moved with a maestro's assurance along Mel's body, sliding against her stomach. "…like…snails in a gutter?" The edge of her palm brushed the delicate underside of Mel's breast, then executed a capricious u-turn, heading south. The fabric of Mel's skirt bunched and gathered within her hands, and Mel shivered in a delighted response to this, as if her own skin unraveled, revealing an essence unseen and untouched by anyone.
But that wasn't true. Janice had always plumbed this essence, and apparently, never grew tired of it. "You get more beautiful with every year that goes by. How do you do that?"
"Because—with every year that goes by—I love you more."
"Good answer," Janice approved. Her hand tucked warmly around Mel's neck, guiding her in for a kiss.
The anticipation Mel felt was surprising. Kissing her again—really kissing her again—was the first drink after a long spell of needless sobriety, the needling addiction in the pit of her stomach finally sated, the sweet scary drop of the roller coaster ride.
More than ready for the ride, Mel latched onto Janice's belt buckle. "Now," she whispered.
"I'm a mess," Janice muttered unconvincingly as her thin t-shirt was savagely untucked.
Mel pushed the heel of her palm into soft skin, against the trampoline of abdominal muscle. The contradiction was an aphrodisiac. Nonetheless Mel's mind, ever restless even in the throes of lust, meandered elsewhere. "Are you speaking metaphorically or literally?"
"Oh Christ, you kill me. Both." She gave Mel's hips a pleasantly violent squeeze, which made Mel press and grind against her.
Mel pulled at the delicate swath of cotton at Janice's shoulder and attacked that sweet, firm flesh as if it were a ripe peach. "I don't care," she moaned.
With a finalizing bit of impropriety—not unlike a handshake sealing a business deal—Janice slapped her ass. "Upstairs."
Strange how the neat and tidy hallway suddenly became an obstacle course, how she couldn't get up the stairs fast enough, even taking the steps two at a time—a minor triumph in heels, she thought.
Sex was beautiful, sex was strange, and no matter how old Mel would get, the bewildering intensity of it all, the staggering sum of the emotional and the physical, always threatened to overwhelm her. For a scant few seconds standing alone in her bedroom, she did not feel like an adult woman at the zenith of her beauty and her desirability; nor did she feel as if she'd earned the title that Janice had once anointed her with—a really great fuck ("I've had good fucks, and great fucks, but you're the first really great fuck—now will ya stop whining and do that to me again?"). She was momentarily a clumsy virgin nervously awaiting a harsh deflowering and the shameful aftermath of a blood-soaked sheet.
And passion was a frightening thing too; sex was a dialect in the language of violence. Despite her fondest wishes to the contrary, she knew violence. She also knew that these doubting feelings would soon pass. That the moment Janice stepped into the room everything would fall into place, as it always did. Everything in one place.
Janice now stood, oddly hesitant, in front of the closed door, wavering like a flag planted by an exhausted conquistador.
"Well?" Mel prompted.
Mel sat on the bed, kicked off her heels, and stretched out in what she hoped was an inviting, enticing fashion—the Southern ideal of languid, idle denial. In other words, the perfect tease. "Don't waste time."
Janice didn't. But then, she never did. Within minutes her hands wove a spell, told a tale. If Janice was not a storyteller in the traditional sense, as her ancestors were, she was, perhaps, a sexual storyteller. The invisible lines that her hands traced upon her lover's body hatched fiction, whispers of lives in which Mel took solace, finding in them both reflection and escape: I am a great warrior who surrenders to you and you alone. I die tomorrow. I am a wanderer, a thief stealing upon narrow streets. You are the greatest treasure that I never needed to steal.
I am—Janice's hands formed the perfect cup, bruisingly tender against the curvaceous bounty of her thighs, her ass. Janice's murmured endearments—no less important in their half-heard, barely coherent state—settled in the juncture of thigh and torso, nestled in the folds of her skin, tangled in the dark nexus of her pubic hair.
I am yours. Like a diver Mel arched, pouring forth into this pure pleasure. The initial position was like doing a backstroke—a backstroke into ecstasy. She managed this thought just before going under, just before welcoming the tidal wave of sexual oblivion. Her hands curled into bed sheets that lashed tight across her knuckles and threatened to tear, and remained so entangled until she came. Several times. When finally she released her death grip upon the sheets Janice was more than ready for reciprocation, and Mel was more than pleased to repay these happy debts.
In the afterglow of it all—the late afternoon sun burnishing the room to golden, Technicolor perfection—Mel was reclaimed. The ceiling fan shoved lazy eddies of wind across her tingling skin. Janice was touching and looking at her now with the same absentminded gravity she possessed when studying a map—her fingers literally marking time, time as shown in the scattered loops and lines representative of ancient glories.
Looking. Always looking. And searching. Always searching. That is what you do. But what, I wonder, do you find in me?
Janice placed fingertips in the sacred hollow at the base of Mel's throat. "This is the spot. Right here. A perfect spot, one of many. I could drink a shot of bourbon right here." She'd said that before, Mel realized, some years ago. But where? When? It didn't matter; there was richness in the repetition.
Mel would not quibble with being so loved. "If that's what you want to do," she breathed.
"Considering all the things you've just done to me, it seems rather a mild request."
Janice's fingers traveled further south; her thumb playfully swiped at Mel's navel. Their little stroll ended when Janice greedily cupped Mel's dark sex with an eager hand.
Mel quickly winced, then groaned.
Janice, a connoisseur of groaning, was not fooled into thinking this was a noise denoting pleasure. "That didn't sound good." Gently she removed her hand.
The spirit was willing, but the flesh had been too tenderized. "I'm sore."
"Poor thing. Getting too old for all this excitement, I suspect."
"You little—" It didn't take much to reverse their positions; long ago Mel had realized that whereas Janice was concerned, one could not dominate the unwilling. She settled into Janice's body, into its familiar smooth dunes and sculpted peaks, against muscles surging and deliciously tight against her welcomed weight. She kissed Janice hard. Amid the heedless crash of lips and mouths, her tongue pleasantly shipwrecked in the sweet cove of Janice's mouth, the soreness between her legs was anointed and soothed by renewed slickness.
Janice wrapped a hand in Mel's dark hair; her fingertips burrowed in Mel's scalp. "Do it again."
"Oh God. No."
"Yes," Janice retorted in a growl.
Mel relented slightly, pressed her face into Janice's neck. "Tell me first—what ranking we achieved this time." Would this achieve the stellar perfection of a Venice ranking? Or would Janice be inspired to revise her Cambridge classification ("a solid, run-scoring hit, a DiMaggio single up the pike")? Of course, this time had aspects of their vacation in Mykonos ("an unwinding epic, a meandering marathon, yet no less pleasant because of the meandering, and with no end in sight—kinda like my bullshit metaphors, huh?").
Janice feigned ignorance of her elaborate, frequently improvised system. "Hmm?"
"Performance evaluation. Classification, please."
"Now? You hopeless academic, you," Janice accused.
Janice's lips brushed lightly against the whorls of her ear in half a kiss, half a whispered, blissful benediction: "Venice, Cambridge, New York, Alexandria, London, Mykonos. Everywhere and everything."
The first inkling the Dean had of Covington's return manifested itself in a serious bout of dyspepsia, which lasted so long that he could not blame mere overindulgence in soda water. The second sign was the mellowed mood and relaxed demeanor of his faculty star, Melinda.
The fresh lilacs sitting on the desk in her office were the third indication. Upon first sight of them—with Mel sitting at her desk, so entranced by them that she was allowing a fountain pen to hemorrhage black ink over her fingers—he quoted Whitman from her doorway: "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed/And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."
Yet she hardly was in mourning, he thought; that part of the quote was inappropriate for the situation at hand. But here in the midst of summer, ever-returning spring was now hers.
Startled, she blinked, smiled, wiped her inky hand on a handkerchief. "You've stumped me this time. Frost?"
He smiled. "Whitman."
"She's back, isn't she?"
Mel primped the flowers as if she were a hairdresser with a client. "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
"I see." The Dean attempted to take the bite out of this with a much-used, and thus very well-honed, self-deprecating chuckle.
Mel, however, was not fooled and fixed him with an icy stare—usually reserved for the impudent associate professor of Latin who frequently took her parking spot. "Whatever it is between the two of you—I will not become involved."
He nodded. "Fair enough. You will not be involved. You are not involved. But—"
She raised an eyebrow.
"—your protective streak speaks otherwise."
After this, his wife reported a sighting of a scruffy, familiar blonde figure at Jimmy's Garage—even covered in grease, I'd know that little barbarian anywhere, she had said—the Dean decided to stop by the garage one fine sunny Wednesday after work.
He stood in the grimy underworld as she emerged from the office of the gas station, wiping her hands on a dingy mackerel-colored towel that made his nostrils flare with disgust—first, at the sight of such a filthy rag, then of the thought at how unbearably prissy he'd become in his old age. And to think I once worked in excavation pits—and loved it. As usual she was dressed in men's clothes—drab corduroy work pants and a denim work shirt. It suited her; he had always thought of her beauty as something stripped down, authentic, devoid of convention and artifice. Perhaps like the motor bared under the open hood. You, Janice Covington, may be the only woman alive who would be flattered by a comparison to an engine.
Janice betrayed no sign of recognition. "We're closin'," she announced, tossing the hand rag on a tool chest.
"Good," he retorted. "I wouldn't want to interrupt your work."
"No, but it looks like you're interrupting my going home." She laid a hand on the edge of the Porsche's hood.
"I'd be happy to walk with you."
She shrugged. "It's a long walk, old man."
His hip ached. "Or you could just give me a few minutes of your valuable time."
"She told you I was here, huh?"
"Helen saw you working here, the other week. You should hardly expect your presence to go unnoticed in this town. So you were not given away by your companion. The flowers you sent her did that." He smirked.
She drummed her fingers on the hood of the car. "Being nice has always been my downfall."
"And you do have a reputation for being so very pleasant, don't you?"
Her mouth twitched into a grudging smile.
Nervously, he scratched the back of his neck. It is never easy to talk to you. I thought you would grow out of that. Alas, you've gone from being a difficult girl to a difficult woman. "Since you appreciate brevity, then I shall get straight to the point: I want you back on staff. I want you teaching again."
"Not interested." Absently she stared into the open guts of the Porsche, then reached in and quickly rearranged some plugs.
"Y'know," she said rather pointedly, "I am making more money here."
"You've never struck me as someone interested in making money."
"I got smart. Viva capitalism, baby."
"But what about your work? The work you've done your entire life? The work that you've lived and breathed?"
"That's not me anymore."
She folded arms across her chest, a child-defiant gesture if ever there were one. They stared at each other.
"At the very least, you owe me an explanation," he said quietly. "We have known each other for a very long time. Respect that."
The willful child in her gave way to the weary woman she was. "It's not that I don't appreciate the belief you have in me—and in my work." Her green eyes softened into something that, if he was not mistaken, approached the emotional state of affection. "You backed me up when no one else would." Now she frowned. "But I let you down. The scrolls you have are fakes. I can't find the originals. We had a deal, and I fucked it up. I quit on you, everyone gave you a damn hard time about it, I know. It didn't make you look good to trust me. The only good you got out of the whole mess was Mel."
"She has certainly been worth it."
Reading her jaw twitch as a wish to continue, he remained silent. "See this car?" she asked, tapping the shiny Porsche. Under the hood pipes dipped and curved, wires and plugs glistened darkly. "I took this apart and I put it back together again. Me. All by myself. The guy who owns this brought it in couple days ago, tearin' his hair out, thought it would never run right again. But I've fixed it. I figured it out." She paused. "This is satisfying to me, Gus."
Augustus Finch, Dean of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, blinked. She had never addressed him by his first name, ever. At last, she had breathed life into their history.
"I can put this back together. Before—" She ran a hand along the hood. "I sometimes felt like I tore things apart—my life, my past, my—" Abruptly she closed the hood. "I don't understand history. I don't understand the past. I've tried. But I can't. I can't do it anymore."
"Do you think I—or anyone else for that matter—understand it any better?" He paused. "Do you think your father did?" he asked gently.
"No." Abruptly she slammed shut the hood of the Porsche. "It ate him alive."
"Believe it or not, Janice, you are an important part of history."
"Here comes the bullshit," she muttered.
She glowered at him—albeit respectfully.
"Men like your father and I didn't need degrees when we set out to do what we did—obviously, we needed the basics—not a heap of abbreviations at the ends of our names. If it hadn't been for the war, the opportunity to advance my learning wouldn't have fallen into my lap as it did. But when I was young, when I was starting out—" He smiled and briefly indulged in honey-hued nostalgia: The golden stretch of days had seemed endless then. They spoke of freedom and great discoveries, great things. "In those days, if you wanted to learn how to be an archaeologist, someone gave you a spade, told you to get to work, and marched you onto a field—"
"Like a good soldier," Janice interjected sarcastically.
He bristled. "You have a disdain for the military."
She grinned. "I was in it, remember?"
"And an officer, no less." Amazement colored his tone.
"They were gettin' desperate at that stage, I must admit."
"Regardless," he sighed, "we worked the field, and we loved every bit of it." He touched his mustache. "That's how you started out as well. You love the field. You always have. And I suspect that you always will."
She said nothing.
"But the generation that we teach now—they are different. You are the transition, the link between an old coot like me and these pasty-faced boys who stumble out of here grasping a piece of paper they scarcely know what to do with. They need your passion—and your practicality. They need you."
Janice laughed. "Shit, Gus, you will say anything to get me working for you again. Haven't I paid off that last year of tuition already?"
"I always said I was going to get my money's worth out of you, my girl." The old man smiled. "Besides, you're forgetting about the car."
The thing about Harry Covington was that you never knew when he might show up.
Usually, Gus thought, it was a good thing. It had been a good thing during the Battle at Aisne; he had been lying in bloody mud, waiting for the inevitable, when he felt someone grab his collar and drag him through an obstacle course of death: Sometimes they hit a corpse, or a limb, or an abandoned weapon, and they would slither around these things like bullet-headed earthworms. How they avoided the mines, he never knew, but Harry Covington had a sapper's sixth sense for the ground beneath him, an instinct no doubt derived from his innate skills as an archaeologist. Harry never stopped dragging him until they were on a truck and headed for safer ground.
As Gus sat in the garden of his Cambridge home, smoking his pipe, he saw that familiar swagger emerge from the backdoor of his house; somehow—yet not surprisingly—Harry had got past his wife. No doubt he had Helen rummaging for whiskey.
It was as if the war had been just yesterday—it felt that easy for them. Gus gestured for the bandy-legged Covington to sit.
"Gus." Harry nodded.
"How are you, Harry?"
"What on Earth are you doing in the States? Last I heard you were near Constantinople."
"Yeah. But I need to take care of a few things."
"Ah. Have you found your scrolls yet, then?"
Gus grinned; getting information out of Harry was not always easy, but entertaining nonetheless. Or maybe I am just a masochist.
"How've you been, Gus?"
"Rather well. I'm settling into a new job."
"I heard. Dean of Anthropology and Archaeology. Congratulations."
"Thank you." He paused. "It's a reason for celebration—"
"Helen says you got no bourbon." Harry grinned.
"Sorry, old man."
"Whatever you have will hit the spot, I'm sure."
"Good." Gus straightened a bit. "Now Harry, did you come all the way to drink my liquor in the name of celebrating my promotion?"
"Yeah. Well." Harry licked his lips. "Need a favor, Gus."
I've been waiting a long time to repay you, my friend. "Name it."
He removed his hat and rolled the worn brim of the fedora in his rough hands. "I need you to get my kid into the college."
Gus's bad leg gave a nasty twinge. "What?"
Now Harry rolled his eyes. "Don't play cute. You heard me, Gus. Can you do it?"
"Kid? You—you reproduced?"
"Come on, you know I was married when I was in the service, and the kid—" Harry frowned and scratched his brow. "Well, maybe I forgot to mention the kid." A lot fell through the cracks during the war. He could hardly believe it himself when he returned, two years later, to find his wife thrusting that squat, bewildered little mirror image at him. And don't even act like it isn't yours, Isabel had growled at him. It looks like you, and it makes a hell of a lot of noise like you do too.
"It's a girl, Gus. She's 16."
"A little young."
"She can cut it."
"Let's see: A one-eyed Frenchman who taught her science, Latin, and math. A drunken, defrocked Greek Orthodox priest who taught her Arabic, history, and literature. An Englishmen who forced her to read poetry and tried teachin' her how to play a fiddle—that didn't go over so well."
Later Gus would discover that Janice had broken the violin over her totalitarian tutor's head.
"Wonderful," Gus groaned. He dropped his head into his hands. "You would ask for the impossible, wouldn't you?"
Still piecing together his daughter's dubious curriculum vitae, Harry scratched his jaw. "Oh, and some Syrian, a worker on my site, taught her some astronomy...and all of them tried to seduce her. All of 'em." Harry grumbled and slammed the fedora back on his head. "I'd hoped at least a couple of 'em would've turned out to be fairies."
"So hard to get good help these days, isn't it?"
"Can it. I need your help. I want her to get a proper education. Look, I know I've been bad about it, but she's getting older, and...I want more for her than what I have—more than what I am. Will you do it?"
"Harry, I don't know if I can. I just started this damned job. I have no weight, no authority to drag in some ragamuffin—"
"Hey! She's not just any ragamuffin—she's my ragamuffin."
"Yes, right, but still—"
"I got the money, that ain't a problem."
This gave Gus pause; he was already thinking like a bureaucrat. "What's her name?" he asked, as if it were a deciding factor.
"Janice. I brought her with me, so you could meet her."
"Where is she?"
"Well, she should be—"
Harry was interrupted as Helen rushed out of the house. "Gus," she cried, "the car is gone!"
"Aw, shit." Harry tossed his fedora on the ground.
Gus sighed. Pleased to meet you, Janice Covington. "You pay the first year's tuition in full. Now."
Wariness was now so a part of Janice's natural countenance that it blurred and streaked across her face with the regularity and grave beauty of twilight.
And so on this twilit evening, post-dinner, Mel watched as Janice pinched and massaged her plump lower lip with the aid of thumb and forefinger. This indicated brooding out of the ordinary. Graciously, Mel decided to let her percolate further and obligingly scooped up the dinner dishes, coated with the detritus of pork chops and applesauce.
"I can do those." Janice protested lamely.
"You've been on your feet all day."
"But you cooked."
Mel decided not to confess her dirty little secret: The maid—ostensibly hired for cleaning only—also cooked and left behind prepared dishes in the fridge. Janice had never questioned this miraculous bounty, and Mel saw no reason for her to do so now. "Don't worry. I'll think of some fiendish household chore for you to do."
They were silent for a long time; it was a pleasant torture. Mel washed the dishes and wondered if she could cajole Maria into washing leftover dishes. And then she wondered—
"Gus stopped by the garage."
"You knew, huh?"
"That he was going to speak with you? No." That the old man is absolutely desperate for you to be on faculty again? Yes.
"Well," Mel said while rinsing the sink, and trying to contain the exasperation in her voice, "what did he say?"
"You're going to have to do better than that, darling."
"You know what he wants. He wants me back at the college."
Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Mel turned around. "And you told him—"
"No. I told him no."
They looked at one another.
"Why?" Mel asked softly.
"I'm not doing it anymore. It's not worth it."
"It is. It's worthy work—you've devoted your life to it." In spite of her better instincts, which could not override her sense of duty, especially when it came to Janice, Mel added, "It's what you should be doing."
"Funny, I don't know what the hell I should be doing, how come you know?" Janice snapped. "Or maybe everything looked better when you were hooked up with an archaeologist and not a fucking bum who works at a garage."
Mel breathed icy rage. "Don't dare ever say anything like that to me ever again."
Janice's shoulders slumped; Mel knew that this was about as close to an apology as she would get. "It's a filthy business. I want no part of it anymore." She rose from the table and went outside onto the porch.
It's a filthy business that makes you feel alive, Mel thought. She sighed and tossed the dish towel on the table. Life is a filthy business, is it not? And a strange one too—here I am, living this life with you. You've given me the gift of your presence, your safety. And now I wonder if you would be happier out there—with me, or without me.
She watched Janice through the screen door. During these summer months she had wondered if Janice would ever feel it again—the wanderlust that trailed her, shadowing her life like a wolf. Mel awaited its reemergence all the time, and with a desperate vigilance that teetered into steely paranoia. And now she knew that it had never left Janice, and would never leave her; it had only been obfuscated, altered with the dubious yet diligent alchemy of a master forger concealing the true nature of his work. But now she saw it. Its uneasy stirrings were visible in the way Janice stood now on the porch at dusk, framed in the doorway—her pose not unlike Caspar David Friedrich's wanderer perched at the edge of the ceaselessly changing world, a world where vast promise and unlimited potential could only be matched by intractable realities and terrible beauties.
Note: Anachronism alert! The film Written on the Wind was not released until 1957; hence, the girls couldn't have seen in 1954. Humor me a little on this one, okay?
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