The night before Ellen went shopping with Pat, she dreamed she was gazing at a painting that created the illusion of a portal opening upon a grove of citrus trees. Within it a naked goddess tossed grain to a large rose-colored bird. Awakening alone in a room so banal it made her weep, she dressed for the day without enthusiasm.
Ellen has never liked Pat. A child of inherited wealth, Pat is addicted to the buying and selling of properties. The neighborhood is rife with seedy real estate made over into Tuscan villas. Everywhere you look, unedifying brass kokopellis tirelessly tootle on a glut of green. Weird Vietnam vets and old folks too stunned to answer a doorbell have been swapped for earnest acrobats of both sexes. They canter past at all hours accompanied by dogs the size of Hondas sporting alpaca leg warmers. Sundays their gimlet-eyed brats shriek from atop toy castles constructed of Indonesian teak.
Because she dislikes Pat, it makes little or no sense that Ellen accepts her invitation to join her shopping. Against her better instincts and before she can change her mind, she is belted into Pat’s SUV and already alienated. Today Pat’s glazed lips are unfamiliarly swollen, her hair thrashing with extensions, and her contacts tiger agate.
“Enhancement,” Pat confides huskily in response to Ellen’s eyeballing, “is the name of the game.” Ellen, who thinks she is referring to a TV program, wonders: “What’s it like?”
“Great!” says Pat. “Why settle for less than better?”
“I’m so out of it!” Ellen acknowledges with a small, self-depreciating laugh. “I thought best was good enough.”
“Don’t be a fool!” Pat scolds her. “Best can always be bested! Lamb chops, pesto, Super Tuscans, sex—” She laughs with all her teeth. “Yes, sex can be better! Look in the box. In the back seat.”
With difficulty, Ellen twists around, and reaching, feels something notched and carved. A bone whistle? A slip of oiled wood? Claws are they? Teeth! She recoils with horror.
“Uzbek sex toys!” Pat carols, careening into Wormwood’s vast parking lot.
There is a line, maybe 300 people, waiting for Wormwood to open. Her bosom enhanced with Ralph Lauren counterfeit squash blossoms, Pat marches past them, Ellen in tow and already breathless. Knocking on the great glass doors, Pat manages to get someone’s attention.
“We’re here!” she shouts gaily, “with All International. You must let us in!” Scowling, a salesclerk shakes his head no, but Pat, her steel tempered with honey, insists. “We have an appointment with the manager,” she gyrates, “and we’re already a little late! Please?” she wheedles, “please? Please?” When the door opens, she gives his hand a squeeze. A moment later they are wading in a sea of leather sofas, all indigo blue.
“Truth is the consequences,” Pat dogmatizes, “especially of lies. We are here,” she insists, impatient with Ellen’s troubled look, “right where we should be. On top of the food chain.”
“Here with All International,” Ellen snorts as Pat surges on.
“Stop it, Ellen,” Pat says. “Stop being a nincompoop. In a minute the doors will open and those bitches out there will tear the place apart. If we’re not on our toes, El, we’ll miss out on the one marvelous thing.” They are surrounded by recliners, and because Ellen continues to look unconvinced, Pat assures her: “There is always one marvelous thing.”
A low roar swells and overtakes them. All at once Wormwood is thick and fast with women, some piloting anxious-looking infants on wheels.
“Shit.” Pat snarls. They are making their way around archipelagos of Welsh coffee tables. “Fuck them,” she says. “Fuck THAT!” And she bolts.
“What is it?” Ellen calls after her. “What’s wrong?” Pat has taken off in a dead heat toward a faux antique Roman birdcage over six feet high. Butter yellow and well greased with gold leaf, it glitters. Beside it, a clerk with a nervous disorder fumbles with a credit card.
“You can’t have that!” Pat shouts at a startled brunette, handsome and dappled with freckles; “Sorry! But the cage is ours. Take a look,” she tells the clerk, “it has a ‘hold’ ticket on it.” Swimming in his red jacket, the geriatric clerk appears dazed.
“There was,” the brunette speaks evenly, “no hold on this.” Ellen thinks she is lovely, with an open, ironical face.
“Yes there was,” Pat lies breezily. “I put a hold on it last night. For All International.”
“You can take your All International,” the woman says kindly, “and shove it. You and your wimpy sidekick.”
Mortified, Ellen cringes. She likes the other woman. Likes her bangs, her hazel eyes, her freckles and her spunk. l am a wimp, she thinks. Or I wouldn’t be here. Tagging along with Pat! She looks into the woman’s face and smiles.
“What’s All International anyway?” the woman asks her, almost tenderly. “I doubt it’s real!” Leaning close to Ellen she whispers: “I don’t think your friend is, either.”
“She isn’t,” Ellen returns her whisper.
“Give her back her credit card,” Pat directs the old codger. “Do it.”
“I’m Magda,” the woman tells Ellen, and thrillingly touches her wrist there where the pulse quickens.
“I’m waiting!” Pat says, beginning to look scary, “For you to give her back her card! Stop clutching it! For god’s sake!”
“You are being abused,” Magda tells the clerk, “by a mythomaniac. Don’t let yourself be pushed around like that. A man your age!”
Ellen thinks the clerk must be 80, at least. Like so many elderly Americans forced into servitude, he is stuck together with denture glue and surgical bolts. He has recently recovered from a hip replacement he could not afford. He cannot recall who saw the cage first; he can barely remember his own name.
“Hugo,” Pat says, reading his breast pocket, “you remember me. I came in last night before closing and told you to put a hold on the bird cage. You remember me. Hugo.”
Hugo considers this. Hugo is, after all, his name. Yet he is frightened. His hands are shaking.
“Don’t let her persecute you,” Ellen says.
“Fuck you!” Pat shouts. “Fuck you, Ellen! Fucking traitor!”
“I have birds, Hugo,” Magda tells him. “Thirty Australian Zebra finches. Each one has a name. And when one begins to sing, all the others join in. Zebra finches sing in syncopation. They’ve been doing so for tens of thousands of years. My birds will find their happiness in this cage—but only if you say so, Hugo. It’s up to you.” The clerk studies the bird cage with real intensity. “This woman—she’ll make a phone booth out of it, a urinal—who knows what? Please, Hugo. Be kind. Process my card.”
“Screw her, Hugo!” Pat explodes, “the sentimental twat! Screw her, goddamnit!”
“Hey!” says Hugo.
Pat presses her card upon him, but he pulls himself together, straightening his jacket and balancing on his elevator shoes.
“Now, now . . .” he offers. An ancient fire is stirring in Hugo’s hollow chest. In his distant youth he was a missionary, and once convinced a head hunter to embrace the greater Power. He begins to process Magda’s card.
“Hugo,” says Pat. “What the fuck?”
“I’m a Mormon.” Hugo says this with dignity.
“What?” Pat barks, now totally out of control, “what the fuck does that have to do with this transaction? I’ll tell you what it has to do with this transaction! Not a fucking thing!”
“I’m a Mormon,” Hugo repeats, his teeth all arattle, “and I am offended by your manner, Ma’am. My name is Hugo,” he tells Magda, who nods and signs the receipt.
“Shit,” says Pat. “Fuck this.” Stomping off she leaves a stench of sulphur and White Diamonds in her wake. “Fuck you, Ellen!” she shouts as she eclipses, “I’ll never take you shopping again.”
Later that evening as they lie together sweetly entwined, Ellen asks Magda where her birds are.
“What birds, Pussycat?” Magda yawns, and languorous, stretches.
“The finches,” Ellen says. “The thirty synchronized finches.”
“I have no finches,” Magda tells her.
“What’s the cage for, then?” Ellen laughs, heartily amused.
“For you, little one,” Magda says, taking Ellen’s lower lip between her teeth gently. “To curl up in at your leisure like a cat. Like a cat that has eaten up all the little birds one by one. Their feathers, their feet, their tiny skulls.”
“Yes!” Ellen purrs her approval. “And each and every one of those birds is named Pat.”
—Rikki Ducornet is the author of seven novels, including The Fan Maker’s Inquisition, an LA Times Book of the Year, and The Jade Cabinet, runner up for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. She received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 2004. Also a visual artist, she has illustrated the work of Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges.