I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
The patron saint against temptation sits straight-backed in an Italian convent as if mortised into her chair, and she is dead, dead, dead. Her name is Saint Catherine of Bologna, and nuns have been lighting candles at her feet since Columbus asked Isabella for those ships.
Rainey Royal, in the reading room of the New York Public Library, peers at the photo in the book so closely she can smell the paper. Her shiny hair spills over the page. Saint Catherine is not just about temptation: She’s the patroness of artists, for Chrissake—just what Rainey needs. She thinks they could be sisters, 500 years apart. Rainey is an artist, and she embodiestemptation.
Wisps of smoke from centuries of candles, she reads, have stained Saint Catherine’s hands and face mahogany. In the photo, the saint wears a gargantuan habit, her nut-colored fingers laced in her lap. Rainey wears a halter top, and holds a dry clay egg in one hand and a silver teaspoon in the other.
While she reads, she burnishes the egg with the back of the spoon in her lap.
In her mind, Rainey lifts the musty black fabric. She looks up Saint Catherine’s legs. She sees this: not an old lady’s crinkles, but the lucent flesh of a fourteen-year-old virgin. One morning, Cath walked out on her rich foster family, with its tutors and grooms, and offered herself to the nuns.
In the cloister, Cath will never listen at night for the Marquis padding toward her through chilled marble halls.
Why Cath endured that set-up at all is because her own father sent her there, to serve the Marquis’s daughter. There’s always a man, right? So there’s always a problem in the house.
It is October, 1974, and the problem in Rainey’s particular house is Gordy, who tucks her in. Gordy is the best friend of her father, Howard. She remembers this: hugging her knees on the stairs one night, listening to the grownups in the Greenwich Village townhouse where she was born and where Gordy has lived forever. Her mother, Linda, came and went from both bedrooms without embarrassment, so Rainey grew up thinking all married ladies had sleepovers. Downstairs that evening her father said, “Gordy and I share everything.” Then a pause, and Howard’s voice again, lower, a tone she understood even before kindergarten: “Except for the Steinway, my friend, everything,” and then rising laughter.
No one wrote anything about Cath’s mother in the book. No one talks about Linda Royal either, even when Rainey asks.
In the library, she reads how Cath and the Marquis’s daughter grew up studying at the same table. When Cath walked behind her mistress in the gardens, their silk gowns swished like running water. That’s because Cath was given the daughter’s lavish hand-me-downs with barely yellowed armpits. Rainey can see it.
Plus Cath got unlimited paper and inks, being good at painting animals and the faces of saints.
“I found her,” says Rainey, causing all the library people at the long table to look up. “What?” she says. “What? I found my goddamn saint.”
With precise little bursts, she rips out the page on Saint Cath. The woman across from her, tracing a map onto onionskin, yelps.
“Oh, relax,” says Rainey. She packs up her egg and her spoon and the folded page and strides down the staircase and out into an autumn rain.
* * *
Rainey is fourteen, just a girl trying to get from the entry hall of the townhouse to her pink room on the third floor when her father, Howard, thumps the sofa in that sit-down-baby way.
She stops, rain-soaked in the foyer. The place is too quiet. Not an acolyte in sight. Did he send them upstairs to their own rooms, or out for pizza? Usually the first floor is packed with young musicians. Some are students, some strays, but Howard Royal only brings home the best. Three days ago he found two brilliant Chinese cellist chicks—found, thinks Rainey, like shining orphans. The girls have been ensconced in his bedroom. Like he’s really going to jam with cellos. Half the acolytes are guys, who supply part-time money and part-time girlfriends and revere Howard in an appropriately oblique manner. When someone new shows up to jam they say things like, “What’s your axe, baby?” But half are girls who play celestial music and give celestial blowjobs and can’t believe they get to jam and party and live in the extra bedrooms of, oh my God, Howard Royal.
Rainey hasn’t heard the place this silent in centuries.
Howard’s at one end of the parlor sofa, clamping a beer between socked feet and a clarinet between his knees. He’s adjusting the reed. “C’mere, baby,” he says. “Isn’t it amazing? We’re alone.”
On West 10th Street, alone means three people: Rainey, her father, and Gordy, who lounges on the far sofa arm refractive as a patch of snow, from his long, milk-colored hair to his alabaster hands. His jeans are white too, and he parks a damp white Ked on the upholstery. Gordy is not and never has been an acolyte. He is a horn player and the best musical technician in the house—even Howard says it. But Howard has the charisma. Gordy says he is albino but his eyes are green. He pretends to be unaware of Rainey by keeping his head down. He pretends he is not getting sidewalk crud on the brocade. He pretends to edit penciled notes in a spiral-bound score.
He turned thirty-nine last month.
Rainey shifts in the foyer. “What?”
She has a stolen saint in her backpack. Her egg is stolen too; it is supposed to live on the Studio Art windowsill at school. She holds out her arms to show the damage she will do the upholstery. “I’m soaking wet.”
She regrets this instantly. Gordy’s attention, like a draft from a threshold, wafts toward her. He doesn’t even have to raise his head. Howard blows on the clarinet’s mouthpiece, looks puzzled and says, “Sounds like fish frying.” Not much about her father’s jazz makes sense to Rainey.
“Get your shoe off Lala’s sofa,” she says. Lala is her grandmother. She owns the house, but she lives in an old folks’ home uptown. Some days Rainey can talk to Gordy any way she wants.
He smiles. The Ked remains. “Rainey,” he says softly. Even his voice sounds albino. Rainey thinks of white plaster walls, licked by the painter’s brush.
“I sent the acolytes out to collect sounds,” says Howard, as if sounds were lost quarters that winked from gutters. “Sit, daughter.”
She drops her pack on the floor, collaborates noisily with a metal folding chair in the parlor, and sits on it backward while Howard watches with pleased amusement. She smells his body oil: sandalwood.
“That school psychologist called again today,” he says, “but I think she’s on the wrong track. What do you think?”
Rainey flinches and looks to the ceiling cherubs for strength. The ceiling cherubs are three plaster angels who cavort around a trio of bare bulbs. Their axe used to be the chandelier, but last month Sotheby’s took it away. The house is shedding its sweetest parts like lost earrings; in return, electricity keeps humming, pizzas keep arriving, and Rainey keeps going to Urban Day.
“Are we getting a new chandelier?”
“Do you know why the school psychologist called again?”
“No.” Rainey stares off into the kitchen, willing the refrigerator to disgorge a glass of milk.
“I think you do.”
“She’s full of shit. Can I go now?”
“Look at me, daughter.” He smiles as if indulging her. “It’s important to be candid about these things.”
Gordy’s not-looking at her is now so intense he might as well shine flashlights in her eyes.
Howard, and the smile, persist. “So tell us why the school psychologist is talking about you engaging with the male teachers.”
The school psychologist always peels and eats an orange while she and Rainey talk. The scent comes back to Rainey in a rush. It is the scent of denial, the innocence that slides over her when Florence, the psychologist, asks how she feels about her mother, her father, the torments she dreams up for that Levinson girl.
Rainey remembers that extricating herself gracefully from a straddled folding chair could be problematic.
“Screw you.” She knocks over the metal chair as she stands and elbows one of the new cellos, so she barely has to hear her father say under the clatter, Oh, you can do better than your old dad.
* * *
Sometimes Rainey has to share her room—a ginger operation, a kind of Howard trick.
It is one year after the onset of the blue and white pills. They are prescription, but Howard Royal gets them from a doctor-friend and dispenses them daily from packs of twenty-eight in his room. Rainey doesn’t need them, but he doesn’t believe her. Three weeks white, one week blue—he gives her one every morning with a glass of milk, and waits until she swallows. He says things like “That’s my girl” and “Because, sweetheart, with maturity comes responsibility.”
And it is a year after the summer of Jean-Luc Ponty, when her father had Gordy take her one night to hear Ponty play in Central Park and Gordy steered her under some trees. She was still thirteen. “You radiate power and light,” Gordy told her on the grass. But he is always saying shit like that. It was the only time he lost control and they still didn’t go all the way.
It is 4PM on a Friday, and Rainey, in the fullness of fourteen, takes a savage bite of Gordy’s grilled cheese. He has been making grilled cheese the way she likes it—and rice pudding and chocolate egg creams—for as long as she remembers.
Howard smiles her up and down. “Sweetheart, your room …. ”
“Tina is sleeping over Friday and Saturday in my room.”
Tina is Rainey’s best friend. They smoke pot on the roof and take turns reading Howard’s pornography aloud to each other. Rainey is positive her mother, whose cool elegance she remembers as seeming somehow beyond sex, never read these books.
“Then Sunday,” says Howard. “My brilliant young cellists are in need of your floor. Just for a few days. Open your heart.”
She has seen the new cellists, always together—giggling on the stairs, or leaving Howard’s room. They could be sisters, their faces like two porcelain cups, but one girl is shaped like a cello and one more like a bow.
“My heart?” says Rainey. “My heart is a cell in which candles burn at the feet of Saint Catherine of Bologna.” Language is the only turf on which she can stand with her father and joust. Occasionally it works.
“Well, then I pity you,” says Howard.
“When the fuck do I get my privacy back?” says Rainey. “Where am I supposed to do my homework?”
What she really wants to know is, where is the place beneath a girl’s armpit that the back ends and the side begins. She can share her pink room with strangers, but tell her this: is there a region between back and breast that can, in a proper backrub, be considered neutral?
“Be creative,” says Howard.
What if it doesn’t feel neutral?
“Be creative and be adaptable.”
Gordy says virtually nothing. His language with Rainey is nonverbal. For example, the way he has been tucking her in the past couple of years: sitting on the edge of her bed without moving and sometimes stroking her long hair, as if he were the father and she were the little girl. The hair-stroking makes her feel so porous and ashamed that she pretends to be asleep. She has no idea if Howard knows; he sleeps on the second floor and Gordy and Rainey share the third. What would Howard say? He strokes your hair—and? That’s it? She wonders if Linda, her mother, knew before she left last year. Gordy never says it is a secret, yet she senses that her silence is required. She has not told anyone but Tina. Often she wishes she had not.
Rainey would like to ask Tina a few things when she comes over, though she will not. For example: Do Tina’s body parts meet clearly at dotted lines, like pink and green states on a gas-station map? Where does she get that God-given ability to not give a fuck?
And what can Rainey draw from Cath’s first miracle, performed after death and underground? The nun’s corpse exuded a scent so sweet and strong it rose through the soil, and drew all of Bologna to her grave. Rainey can see it: Every morning, men and women gather at the mound of earth, inhale deeply, and drop to their knees. All day the perfume clings to them. The grave smells like tea-rose oil!
No, the priest says, what you smell is Easter lily, the flower of Christ—but he is wrong. It’s tea rose, the scent of power and coiled-up sex, an oily perfume in a little brown bottle. It’s the perfume mothers leave behind when they split, that daughters rub between their toes to someday drive men wild. And after eighteen days, according to the book, the mourners get kind of manic. They love and desire their dead, sweet-smelling virgins even more than they hate and desire whores. They have to see. So they dig her up. The women and girls dig very carefully, scraping with silver spoons.
* * *
Late October and amber sunlight filters through shuddering leaves, angling low into the townhouse windows. Rainey does her homework sprawled on her fuscia carpet—when she does it. More often she goes to the museum after school, pulling out a sketchpad, dropping her army pack with its straps and buckles noisily on the floor.
People look up. People always look up. She radiates power and light.
“Have you seen her notebooks?” Howard demands when he is summoned to the school. Rainey looks at him gratefully. They sit across a conference table from two teachers and the principal. It’s a cool school. Everyone wears jeans except the janitor. Even the principal wears jeans. Howard calls the principal Dave, like the kids do, but when he calls the science teacher Honor he gives her a long, private smile, as if a waiter were even now carrying in a silver tray set for two. “Her real notebooks, Dave, the ones she draws in. Do you people not know an artist when you see one?”
He pulls a pack of Kools from his shirt pocket, flashing a large, lunar watch that Rainey loves, smacks the pack on his hand and flicks a cigarette toward her. Shocked, obedient, she pulls it out. Next to the cigarette, tucked further down in the pack, she sees a joint.
“For one thing,” says Honor Brennan. She points at Rainey’s unlit cigarette but stops. There seem to be so many things, Rainey thinks.
Rainey does not smoke menthol, and students can’t smoke inside the school, and she knows Howard knows this. He lights his own cigarette. She waves the lighter away.
“Come on,” says Howard, “Don’t be afraid. Regulations are just words on paper.” Dave looks at the smoke and coughs. He is wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. It is not impressing anyone, thinks Rainey.
She glances at her teachers, hesitates. “My thumb is burning,” says Howard. She can hear what he doesn’t say, too. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. She leans into the lighter and inhales.
“This is highly unorthodox,” says Dave.
“Even artists go to college,” says the English teacher, Zach Moreno, softly.
“By definition, the artist lives outside of society,” says Howard, “and mirrors it to itself, whether he goes to college or not. I’m an adjunct, personally, and this is what I teach. Are you noticing any lack of intelligence in my daughter? You’re not? Then—ladies, gentlemen—are we really here to discuss a few missed pages of homework in a girl who spends every afternoon in a museum?”
“She could go to art school,” says Dave. “There’s RISD. There’s Cooper Union if she can get in. But she needs the grades.”
“What are you grading?” Howard blows a stream of smoke just past Dave’s head. “I think you should ask yourselves this,” he says. “Why does your art teacher ask a girl who can’t stay out of the Met to rub an egg with a spoon?”
* * *
Friday night Rainey and Tina decide to get high. No occasion—just that Howard and Gordy are playing the Vanguard, with most of the acolytes in tow; just that two months into school Rainey is bored sick. The government is based on a tripartite system and she’s supposed to care about this why, exactly? She’s in love with Studio Art, it’s got Rapidograph pens and Rainey can draw anything—Ophelia drowning, Icarus falling, Janis Joplin lusciously dead from smack, with that fabulous throat—but Mr. Knecht assigned some weird shit. They had to form eggs out of raw clay, let them dry for two weeks, and then polish them in an endless, circular motion with the backs of teaspoons.
School did not provide the teaspoons. Rainey took one of Lala’s spoons, an English antique sterling spoon that shows a leaping hart. She knows the difference between a leaping hart, which she draws surrounded by William-Morris-like leaves, and a leaping heart, which she draws interpretively. Sometimes she draws it so interpretively she has to tear the picture out of her notebook and rip it into little strips and throw them out in different trash cans on her way to school.
The egg polishing goes on for two more weeks, consuming entire art periods. Rainey steals her egg from the windowsill and burnishes during French, world religions, and math.
“What’s the fucking point?” says Tina. They are baking their dinner: zucchini muffins. They can’t decide it if it’s better to distribute the whole nickel bag through the batter or roll a couple of joints first.
“My egg is perfect,” says Rainey. “It looks like pewter.”
Aqua threads trail from Lala’s ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking as if it has a secret underwater life. Rainey checks the recipe, then pours a dollop of vanilla into the bowl without measuring.
“Now, see, if he told me to rub an egg on a spoon,” says Tina, in that husky voice Rainey never tires of, “I’d stick the spoon down his throat.”
She turns her back and reaches up for a bag of sugar. Her top rides up, revealing an indented waist that Rainey appreciates because it is necessary that they both be sexy, but revealing, also, a little sash of fat, which Rainey relishes because it is necessary that only one of them have a flawless body.
It is after the time Howard said to her, “Next to Tina, you’re a centerfold—is that why you hang out with her?” and Rainey, thrilled and mortified, choked out that Tina was her best friend, and Howard looked past her at silent Gordy and said, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Tina licks a finger and dips it in the bag of sugar. “You think Gordy might come in our room?”
Rainey thinks about a red-headed oboist she likes to look at across the parlor till he blushes. Howard likes to say he has the only jazz oboist in New York. Rainey is not allowed to bother the acolytes but she can stare. She brains an egg on the edge of the bowl.
Gordy has never come in on sleepovers before—she assumes because she stays up and talks.
“He just checks on me,” she says in a low voice. “He never does anything.”
When Tina laughs it sounds like huh. Rainey suddenly feels grateful to have confessed the hair-stroking, grateful that Tina doesn’t care enough to judge. Maybe Tina intuits the backrubs, which only just started. Tina, caught beneath an overhead light that brings out the hidden cinnamon in her hair, has her moments of beauty and perfect understanding.
“If he comes in,” says Tina, “can we be mean to him?”
“He lives here,” says Rainey, who only knows certain ways of being mean to Gordy.
“You know the kind of mean I mean.” Tina orbits her upper teeth with her tongue as if checking the jewels on a bracelet. They have both perfected the Pearl Drops move.
The words drawing off come faintly to mind—a lightning rod drawing off the fatal bolt; a sister drawing off a bully. A saint, intervening. Is it cool if the person drawing off does not know what she is getting into?
“Stick a knife in his heart for all I care.”
“Whoa,” says Tina. “Fond of the motherfucker, are we?”
* * *
The first time Tina came over, they sat on the pink carpet of Rainey’s pink room, which Rainey thinks of as girlfriend pink, a pink chosen by one of Howard’s ex-lovers to coax Rainey out of a black phase. Kids and acolytes are forever telling Rainey what this pink is like: it is Barbie, it is Pepto-Bismol, it is Bazooka bubble gum. But the first time Tina saw it she said, Oh my God, you live in a vagina, and Rainey said, Fuck you, Tina, and the wary warmth of equals was sealed between them.
It is 4:30 in the morning, half an hour after the Vanguard padlocks up. The door to the townhouse has opened; Rainey hears the young musicians laughing and stairs beginning to creak. She and Tina fake sleep. They have eaten three zucchini muffins each. Come to the dance singing of love—Rainey has memorized the entire verse, but she is sure Saint Cath wrote it with a special, spiritual dance in mind, not the kind where you go under the bleachers with a boy. She breathes as slowly as her lungs will let her. She attempts to seal her skin, starting at the toes and working up. Her flannel nightie is as modest as Cath’s habit. After several minutes she sees, through her eyelashes, a doorway of light slice across Tina’s sleeping bag. She watches Gordy step with agility and night vision into the room and around the bag. He sits on Rainey’s quilt, which she sewed herself, and his weight causes Rainey to tip toward him so their hips touch.
He strokes her hair. She freezes and breathes.
I’m moldering, she thinks. I’m not actually doing anything and I’m moldering. But between her toes she smells of tea-rose oil, and she knows she is responsible for sending scent molecules swimming through some primal part of his brain.
“Eew,” says Tina. “What are you doing?”
“Checking on Rainey,” says Gordy. He rises, though. “Doesn’t someone check on you?” No, thinks Rainey, can’t you tell? No one ever checks on Tina. Somebody feeds her and keeps her clothed but she is an untended soul. Gordy stands so close she can smell club smoke on his jeans; she can smell jazz. “What are you doing?” says Gordy. He sounds genuinely interested.
“Watching you,” says Tina.
Gordy doesn’t speak. Rainey doesn’t move. She wonders if Tina is drawing off now. It feels dangerous. You better stop, she wants to say, but she is faking sleep.
* * *
Rainey loves how she and Tina can sit in certain ways and force certain male teachers to look at them. Sometimes the teachers stammer. Sometimes the armpits of their shirts get dark.
She and Tina have a code for it. They call it The Private Game.
* * *
Tina says, “What do you like, Gordy?”
“I am an honorable man,” says Gordy. But he does not leave.
Rainey imagines herself fragmenting into the Gustav Klimt lady, the one made of glinting squares of color and gold.
“You like giving back massages?” Tina says.
Rainey is sure she has never said a word about Gordy touching her back. He doesn’t do it every time.
It is five hundred years after Cath wrote her poem: Come to the dance singing of love, let her come dancing all afire. Desiring only him who created her and separated her from the dangerous worldly state.
As Rainey imagines it, Cath knew all about dangerous worldly states.
“I never go where I’m not invited,” says Gordy.
Under the heat of her quilt and the domed, dark canopy, Rainey conjures Cath at midnight in the Marquis’s house, faking sleep, waiting for her door to swing slowly open.
“I like back massages.” Tina’s voice is a cat weaving around an ankle. You know the kind of mean I mean. They have never pushed The Private Game this far. Rainey hears the longest unzipping sound in the universe, a sleeping bag, followed by the feathery sound of a T-shirt being pulled up. She opens one eye and sees what Gordy must see: the lunar arc of breast as Tina flips onto her stomach. Not drawing off, thinks Rainey. Drawing in.
“But if you make one move off my back,” says Tina, “it’s over.”
This is followed by the shifting of Gordy’s shape, then silence, rustling. Then silence. Rainey palms the hard, shiny egg under her pillow. She fakes sleep as hard as she can.
Here is Cath’s second miracle performed after death: Though buried unpreserved, her body never molders. Despite eighteen days in the soil it emerges with the flesh resilient and still scented with tea rose.
Undefiled by men, undefiled by death.
“Excuse me.” Tina’s voice is a doorbell chime. “That is not my back.”
Gordy rocks back on his heels. His voice is calm. “What did I do, Miss T? This is a backrub worthy of a saint.”
It is after the time they have both clocked many hours with Florence, the Urban Day psychologist, lying in their sweetest voices. Tina tells Florence what she tells Rainey and the rest of ZIP code 10011 and Planet Earth: that her parents pay her to live with her grandmother because her grandmother has immaculate degeneration and is going blind. Rainey tells Florence that she plays jazz flute. She says her mother calls from the ashram every week and that her father helps with math and cooks bodacious dinners.
They were sent to Florence for staring inappropriately at the male teachers and doing the Pearl Drops thing. “I don’t understand,” Rainey said sweetly. “I’m in trouble for paying attention? And I shouldn’t cross my legs? That’s it?”
“That,” says Tina, “that right there, that’s what I’m talking about. Quit it.”
The quilt on her bed was Rainey’s first. She made it by stitching scraps of Linda’s forsaken Jefferson Airplane T-shirt and Indian print shirts and lacy nighties to a blanket with white satin binding. She cut up a wrap dress Linda wore to her job. No one said she could have the clothes; she just took them from the closet. She doesn’t use blankets anymore; she’s gone to the library. She knows about batting.
Where the quilted bits of Linda intersect, Rainey stitched down left-behind earrings, buttons, torn and lacquered pieces of Kodak photos stolen from Howard’s albums. She spent months on her Tailor-of-Gloucestor sewing.
Through her eyelashes she sees Tina burrow into her sleeping bag. “I don’t want a backrub anymore,” Tina says, and Rainey, still in the womb of the quilt, marvels at the expansion of her own night-vocabulary. Quit it. Don’t want. Anymore.
“You can stop right now,” Tina says, and Rainey repeats to herself, You can stop.
“Yes, my lady.” Gordy stands, his hair almost phosphorescent in the hallway light. His hands are still and pale at his sides, like gloves. Rainey wonders what shade of blue his balls are under his jeans, and decides on cornflower. Blue balls are the point of the entire exercise, the heart of the Pearl Drops thing, the source of all their power.
“Does it hurt yet?” Tina says.
* * *
Sunday, when Rainey comes home from the museum, Howard summons her to the Steinway with a wave. No one puts anything on Howard’s piano: no ashtrays, no sheet music, no beer bottles, no rosin, no Harmon or wolf or buzz-wow mutes, no toilet-paper hash pipes, no framed family photos because it’s never been that kind of house. Fantastic sound is thumping through the parlor, with a heavy back beat that Rainey likes. She stares down the red-haired oboist who flushes and studies his fingering. He spends a lot of time waiting his turn. He reminds her of one of those long-legged birds that take delicate steps with backward-hinged knees. When Howard finally stops playing, Gordy lowers his horn, the snare stops clicking, and finally the winter draperies, which have stood through two summers in mournful dark red columns since Lala’s departure, suck up the last of the sound.
Some of the acolytes stare at her with fascinated and hungry eyes, for she has constant access to Howard Royal, and she is as untouchable to them as a veiled novice.
Rainey opens her arms and rotates slowly. “Come to the dance singing of love,” she says, and feels her power grow. “Let her come dancing all afire.” It was in the book, and now it is in the folds of her burning brain. She does not know what she is trying to provoke. She wants to prove she is protected.
Gordy laughs aloud. The laugh says You are beautiful when you are nuts. Her father says, warningly, “Rainey.” She turns on him a gaze like a shield. Who knew she had a shield in her head and a saint in her pack?
“I hope you cleared your perpetually messy floor. I promised the cellists you’d share. A few days, daughter.” Howard smiles. The electric violinist, Gemma, shivers visibly as if the room has chilled. Everyone knows the cellists could double up with other acolytes. “Be generous,” says Howard softly. He would resemble Christ, Rainey thinks, if his beard did not receive the trimmer and the comb—a father-daughter ritual she could live without.
“So,” she says tightly, “I’ll just go up and move my shit.”
Rainey turns away just as the flautist, Radmila, plays a patter of high notes. It’s water, dropping leaf to leaf through the rainforest canopy: Rainey can see it. Don’t try to understand jazz, Gordy said once: You are jazz. A few times he has whispered, You’re awake, aren’t you?She keeps faking sleep, as if she has left West Tenth and gone far away. Is she saving herself or is she moldering?
Howard’s musicians start touching their instruments again. Rainey, stranded, takes the stairs alone to her pink shell of a room.
It’s too late.
The cello-shaped chick and her friend, kneeling at the bureau, are dropping her clothes piece by piece into two piles on the rug. Keepers, she realizes, and discards. “I don’t think so,” says Rainey, and slams her fist into the open door.
They raise their porcelain faces, fragile and innocent. “We’re just borrowing.”
The friend holds up a T-shirt that Rainey doctored with grommets and lace inserts. “This is gorgeous. He said we could share the room, so we figured … ” Behind her, two cellos bask on the bed.
Rainey stalks in and grabs a cello by the throat. “You want to put that shit back?”
When she and Tina talk like this in the girls’ room at school they can make anyone do anything. But these girls are older. They stare at her, waiting to see what she has in mind for the hostage cello. Rainey jerks it hard. The instruments knock together and hum, and the girls start forward. “Clothes and whatever else you stole,” says Rainey. “Are those my earrings?”
Miss Cello works at her earlobes. “Please may I have my cello?”
“Oh, are we at please now?” says Rainey, buoyed. “If I let it go, will you leave the house?”
Miss Cello tugs a key from her pocket and turns it triumphantly in the air. “Howard Royal gave me this.”
“Cello,” Rainey reminds her.
Miss Cello only pretends to know joy on this earth: Rainey can feel it. Miss Cello keeps her gaze on the ground, on filthy stars of chewing-gum foil and bottle-cap planets. Whereas Cath, dead and in the soil for eighteen days, looked at the earth particles all around her and was awed by every turning molecule.
Rainey drags the cello off the Linda-quilt. It makes a scratching sound across the buttons, and thumps to the rug. The first girl lunges for it and Rainey draws back her foot and says, “I’ll kick it. I really don’t care.” She’s only wearing Converse but the girls freeze in the frosted cupcake that is Rainey’s room. “You can have it in the morning,” she says, “if you don’t steal anything else.” Of course, they have already stolen everything.
She drags her prize into Gordy’s room, pulls it inside, closes the door and considers. Then she looks back out in the hall. Miss Cello is darting down the stairs, and her friend leans out from the doorway of the pink room.
“You should know that Howard does not give a fuck,” says Rainey.
“Seems like Howard doesn’t give a fuck about his daughter, either,” says the friend.
Rainey picks up a yellow ceramic ashtray from Gordy’s bureau and hurls it. It hits the doorframe and falls without breaking. The girl ducks and laughs. Miss Cello bolts back upstairs. “That bitch,” she says, and spots Rainey. Her eyes fill.
“I can’t go to school without my cello,” she says. “Why are you doing this?” If she got centered in that body of hers, she could be a totally different chick. Move like this, Rainey wants to tell her, and you could have men aching to draw a bow across your hips. But Miss Cello doesn’t want power. She wants to feel safe. Rainey sees through the eyes of Cath that she will never be an artist.
“Howard says give it back or get out.” The girl rubs her hands together frantically.
Rainey gazes at her till Miss Cello’s face contorts through several changes of expression. Give it back, or get out—this has to be a lie; Howard has no time for the settling of squabbles. Her mother got out; she sloughed off West 10th Street to find God on the ashram in Boulder, Colorado. Lala descended the stairs weeping, in the arms of two ambulance men. But Rainey will hold fast to her pink room the way Boston ivy grips the sills outside the garden windows.
Heavy footsteps begin an ascent. Gordy’s white-blond head bobs into view. “Raineleh,” says Gordy. He picks up his ashtray, sits on the top step, and stares at her through the spindles, ignoring the cellists. “Are you being a little troublemaker?”
“No.” Rainey wheels around and locks herself in Gordy’s bedroom with the cello. “I’m fucking things up majorly,” she yells through the door.
Sometimes she comes to the dance singing of love and sometimes she is deep in the dangerous worldly state. She is not sure which would be accurate now. When Tina asked Gordy, What do you like? it seemed like a good question. Rainey likes rubbing silver against clay until clay turns to pewter: alchemy.
Gordy’s room smells like socks. Out the window, a tree flips its leaves and shows off their metallic backs. On the floor, the cello lies naked and bright.
Rainey drags it onto the unmade bed. She takes off the diamond ring her mother gave her, the one that belonged to her grandmother, settles herself, and with a sharp edge of the ring begins scratching an image into the instrument’s back. In the hall, people knock and test the doorknob. Safe in the room, Rainey is making art. Through the windows, the sky bruises. Around her, honey-colored dust sifts onto the unwashed sheets.
Five minutes passes, an hour, she has no idea. Voices rise and she ignores them.
When the door flies open with a bang and a shudder, it slams the corner of Gordy’s bureau so that everything on top jitters. Howard, large in the doorway, does not look so Christ-like now. “If you don’t release that goddamn cello, daughter,” he says, “you can get thee to a nunnery for all I care.”
Rainey slips her ring back on, grabs the penknife off Gordy’s night table, and stands on the bed. The cello stands with her. It is her spruce and maple mother. It is her saint against temptation, though she can’t resist testing her hold on the pink room.
Watching Howard, she opens the penknife, slides it against the fingerboard and slits the thickest string. It snaps with a wiry groan. What was the other thing Tina asked that night? Her father crosses the threshold with an angry stride. She is scared, but his anger feels better than when he smiles her up and down. She steps behind the cello but looks him in the eye.
“Does it hurt yet?” she says.
Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked story collection. She has work in Harper’s Magazine and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2014. “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire” is excerpted from her debut novel, Rainey Royal.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.