I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
QUAE COLLUM NON HABENT, CAPUT NON MOVENT
[Some have no necks, and so cannot move their heads. Aristotle, Problems. X, 17].
The walls of Ms. Madeleine’s contemporary Lascaux would afford the casual anthropologist no prehistoric lineament of bison, mammoth or spearsman; rather, brash shadings of self-help, fashion, cuisine.
Whole Baskets full of Bits and Scraps,
And Broth enough to fill her Paps,
For well she knew her num’rous Brood,
For want of Milk, wou’d suck her blood.
Within the vertical Dordogne of the Conde Nast building her office hovered like a polished cliffside cave stuck in its seventh story niche. In it, Ms. Madeleine felt protected from whatever gamut of forces might conspire to impose a downward turn on the simple, rising ray of well-wrought fortune shown in her benign professional graph. No number of advancing years or impertinent, aspiring newcomers might hope to dethrone this gallic wonder. With her hewn face, like that of an untottered Easter Island statue, smeared by vandals about the lips with cherry paint, Ms. Madeleine was implacable,ferme, absolutely insurmountable.
As Victor Bonnard crossed the threshold of her office, moist black portfolio tucked underarm, his eye fell upon the very objects they were intended to fall upon. Ms. Madeleine had arranged her office so that all visitors inevitably noted the same symbol-packed array of items, in a structured sequence. No anthropologist, Victor nevertheless easily registered and interpreted this significant strew in one unconscious sweep across the littered room.
He blinked. Even before he spotted the diminutive lioness (who was talking on the telephone, leaning against a bone-white window frame, staring down into the busy midtown street) he noted two oversize fashion sketches, framed, on the wall behind the desk. They were hung eye-level and illuminated by tracklites. Peach, parrish blue, violet, carmine, all in confident scribble. Each was boldly inscribed “pour Maddie bien cordialment Yves.” The high hemlines betrayed the sketches were made early in the Saint Laurent chronology. A litter of shiny photographs and blue pencilled typescripts, always next to be noticed by the train of conferees that chugged in and out of her little den, protected the surface of her chrome-and-glass desk from sunning, scratches, soot, as they covered its entire top. Ms. Madeleine’s appointment book always lay open at the center of the jamboree of jetsam. Two black vinyl and chrome ersatz Aalto chairs were set at angles on the near side of the desk.
He hesitated in the doorway. Impressed, an instantaneous wave of excitement bolted through the nerves down his back. His bowels flexed momentarily with the sudden comprehension the photos he carried under his arm would most likely end up 20 minutes later in the middle of this neglected riot of glossies, unheeded, unpublished, and most of all unpaid for.
He knew all about Ms. Madeleine from the inhouse grapevine. He had seen her only once before; that is, he had glimpsed one cadaverous nyloned calf as it withdrew like an adder’s tail into the black recesses of a stretch limosine.
But if her reputation preceded her, Victor’s preceded him as well. His acumen in the photographic distillation of, say, “tournedos” of lamb (“those delectable little patties girded with bacon and to be served, hot, hot, hot”) or sherried mushroom tartlets was matched only by his taste in and palate for the sexually starved women who worked with him. Every day was open season. Shoe tips seen hiking skirts were a sure sign Victor was in the vicinity. And if, in the end, it was true Vic’s was a rather mediocre brand of cocksmanship (“frankly, Vic, that was un-sa-tis-factory”) the Amazonian climate he labored in was so replete with prey he was often awarded the spoils of a job not necessarily well done.
Ms. Madeleine suddenly glanced up, saw him, waved him in. On her lips a distracted half-smile twitched. With a finick wink Vic plunged, sat. Determined juttedness locked in his lower jaw.
In a display of good-natured male assertiveness Victor now lights a cigarette. Two parallel cylinders of blue-green smoke are forcibly propelled down his nostrils; like ghostly tusks they linger, then drift away. After fishing an ashtray out of the colorful mess of papers on the desk, he flicks a fast ash into it with a snap of rigid flair. Inhaling again, Victor feels at once more relaxed.
Ms. Madeleine’s conversation stops cold. Victor looks up. With a gesture so abruptly made it forces the tender jowls hung from either end of her perennial grimace to jiggle and wag, Ms. Madeleine claps her hand over the receiver. The sequence of vivid bracelets clinks as it spills down the squarish length of her thin forearm, adding percussive urgency to the serpentine hiss that would follow. Simultaneously, her nose curled back, much as a dog’s might were it backed into a corner after a stropping. This in turn hoisted up the fleshy curtain of her lip to reveal two perfect fangs situated at the dead center of Ms. Madeleine’s considerable denticulation.
—No smoking, please, dropped the figurative trousers of Victor’s unassuming confidence.
Vic minced across to the desk in a quick two-step and crushed the freshly lit fag out in the deco ashtray.
—Sorry, came forth gagged.
Ignoring his apology, Ms. Madeleine as suddenly launched again into her telephone conversation, snapping her eyes shut. Her free hand floated in the air, outstretched ever so slightly in Victor’s general direction, fingers splayed.
The hand a mute demand: silence.
Victor read the hand, and its decorative paraphernalia which quaked a bit at the palsied quiver of those liverspotted fingers. Then, slow motion complimenting his own perfect silence, he seated himself once again. Nervously, he unknotted the ties on his portfolio.
Ms. Madeleine ended her telephone conversation with a series of mewls, then popped the receiver into its red cradle and turned swiftly to Victor, the tips of a razor-sharp smile exploring her cheeks. Her blue eyes ran the length of Victor Bonnard appraisingly as he lept to his feet, spilling his portfolio forward onto the floor. Its contents slid smoothly out of the opened end, like butter might down a hot slide.
Ms. Madeleine glides around the desk, seizes her porcelain ashtray, shoves it under the reddening nose of the photographer. —This, young man, is not an ashtray, but a Ken Price. Would it be too much trouble for me to ask you to wash the ash and the butt out of it?
Not meeting Ms. Madeleine’s glower with his own perturbed squint Victor obediently cupped his hand under the object and left the room. Having counterpointed this retreat with expressions of apology, he made his way down the hall in search of a sink.
Ms. Madeleine, for her part, cast an exaggerated roll of the eye to the ceiling, then began looking through Victor’s photographs. They were spread for several square yards around her office floor. Victor’s images were, as she had been told they would be, “superb.” Here a model lay in splintered glass, head grotesquely thrown back into an unlikely pillow of waxy red anthurium lilies with their obnoxious phallic pistils probing hither, thither, as a cute Welsh corgie licks her white ear, and meantime she decked out in a tuxedo and sparkling at the crux of her dead wrist: a very expensive watch. Burlesque of the crackup of a florist’s truck? Here two very high chic professorial types striding across the leaf-lawned autumnal campus, a knowing coed between. Groundskeeper, poor slob, looks on with saucered eyes wet with envy. Why is there an alligator hightop shoe perched atop those red, pink, brown, and yellow leaves in his basket? Why does the fat handle of his rake point from a distance of ten feet directly at the toothy, tonguey wide open mouth of this hot pubescent? What kind of course could this hunk in gabardine slacks and cashmere jacket possibly teach? Trig?
Ms. Madeleine walked back around her desk and sat down. Soon a meek knock was heard at the door, followed by Victor who returned with the bathed Ken Price. Before he had a chance to rehearse his apologies, Ms. Madeleine, true to the form which had made her famous among colleagues and competitors alike, rasped an unexpected volley of sentences.
—You are Genius, Victor, may I call you Victor?
Victor coughed by way of response, wary of a set-up.
—Pure genius, an artist. I’ve never, I’ve never seen such, such aesthetically pure, sensual, ravishing, divine, sensual, pure work.
Victor sat down, his mouth sufficiently agape to be dry as dust in three breaths.
—Victor, what do you know about monkfish?
—Not much, ma’am.
—You can call me Ms. Madeleine, she purred, pulling an excessively long turquoise cigarette out of the depths of her kid handbag. Well, in a week you will know more about monkfish than any other photographer on god’s earth. Victor sat up straight in his chair: an assignment.
—Now, Victor, do you have a light?
Victor lit her cigarette and with a cheshire grin Ms. Madeleine took a deep drag, blew a smokering into the air, then flicked an ash directly into the damp deco center of the porcelain Price.
—Ugliest fish that ever shat in seaweed, Victor. I want you to make it look gorgeous, delectable, sexy, mouthwatering, the cat’s pajamas.
and Modem Comedies
Harold and Delia Kindle had adjusted to a childless marriage after ten years of unproductive connubial exercise. Intercourse had been practiced with the will of determined olympians yet nothing was engendered in the womb of Delia Kindle. Every sex manual that was stocked on the shelves of the flagship bookstores on Fifth Avenue had been collected and reviewed, from clinically dry and seriously polysyllabic textbooks to coffeetable and cheesecake self-aid bestsellers with glossy diagrams.Varieties of positions were methodically introduced into their nocturnal routine: missionary, spoon, anterior, inverted, sitting, crouched, half lotus, full lotus, standing fore, standing aft; naked, semiclad, dressed. For a month, at the suggestion of her yoga instructor, Delia stood on her head for 15 minutes afterward, allowing for the possibility of gravitational influence over the spermatozoa’s egg hunt.
—Reduces deviation, gives aim, proposed the serene Marvelene Freeman. Delia became adept at smoking her cigarette perched upside down on the bedroom floor. Nothing came of it. It was proposed that Harold’s emission be submitted for evaluation, and his refusal (—Degradation, and I’ll have no part of it!) ended in a marital row that stormed three weeks.
Mundus Alter et Idem
On her 33rd birthday Delia abandoned hope. She would devote herself instead to a career. She applied for and was hired by one of the prestigious if low-paying fashion and leisure slicks which emanate from midtown. Initially one of the secretarial pool, she soon became an editorial assistant and within two years was an assistant editor. Harold sold off their collection of sex manuals, began reading murder mysteries. They became more sociable and surrounded themselves with other childless marrieds. They bought, fixed up a co-op just off Gramercy Park. Friends were had over twice a week to share salmon pâté, sautéed quail à la Mouguin or ossa buco or steamed lobster (Harold relished the guacamole-green tamale, Delia the sweet meat of the knuckle). They spoke of buying a house upstate to get away from stifling August. They strolled the southern end of Central Park, visited the barbary goats and, before he died, the demented polar bear at the zoo. No further word was exchanged, by silent consent, about their failed sex alliance. Time had passed, urges altered, courses panned, shifted. At the end of their little Iliad of unengendering engagement lay a kind of disillusioned resignation that would soon develop into utter celibacy.
Where Vapour is
They had become tired of each other’s human bodies. Delia Kindle’s still smooth belly and ovoid buttocks cast in the false light of a room illumined by the television screen aroused nothing in Harold; his lack of interest was matched by her new detachment. They never argued but proceeded as intelligently jolly automatons might, uncomplaining and open to the prospects that the accelerated space and time continuum Manhattan warmly offered. When Delia climbed into the bed at night, face creamed, she rolled away from the uncertain protean imagery on the television’s screen, dipped her eyes under the covers shielded from the blinking lights and promptly fell into death’s own sleep. When her husband could no longer keep his eyes focussed he would switch the set off and, turning to face the opposite direction, drift into a siren-and-dream-shocked-urban-drowse.
The layout was shot on location.
In this instance “location” translated into a hillside overlooking the Hudson and reddish cliffs, the Palisades, on the New Jersey shores across the whorling brown muck. Assigned to the article by Ms. Madeleine, Bonnard was to provide “pictorial” which would illustrate Delia Kindle’s monkfish recipe for a forthcoming issue. Victor had been laboring with his crew all morning and past lunchtime in the rural field when Delia pulled up in a rented car.
The autumn colors past peak. Chipped and rugged boulders stuck out miscellaneously in the slanted field, backed up to a quilted array of orange sugarmaples, red sumacs, brown horse chestnuts. Chill lodged in the breezeless afternoon. Delia got out of the car and made her way down the field toward a complex mosaic of tripods, camera lights, generator, wires. The camera was trained on a surreal perfection of red-and-white checkered tablecloth spread out over the browning grass.
—Just in time, said Victor, extending one hand to his colleague. The light is just perfect.
It had been determined, in Ms. Madeleine’s office, that fresh whole garlics with goat cheese and peasant bread would accompany the ornate monkfish. A dozen dewy bottles of Gewürztraminer (“one of the spicier German vini which may hold its own against the myriad varieties of old Spain’s gazpacho, that biting pearly emulsion”) were appended to the fictional menu as well. Cream cheese and lemon flan to finish.
Delia directed the arrangement of the garlic dish on the tablecloth. Garlic would be photographed first. The monkfish would arrive in half an hour. The little scenario set, Delia sat upslope and watched Victor and his crew at work. She jotted notes on a yellow legal-sized pad as the session began.
… pentax caresses the bulbous perennial as it sits like a medieval flower in the rich amber lake of olive oil and butter… long quirky very enticing loaves of peasant bread are carefully stacked by our hostess in a fallen faggot aside a colorful bowl heaped with the creamy white cheese so soft … baked bulbs of garlic large as a man’s clenched fist steam cut that clenched fist maybe steam invitingly in the foreground … globose umbels of dull white flowers catch glints of frozen afternoon light the bulbils of garlic dangling artificially beneath … marvelous spathe and dusty keeled leaves show in crisp outline on your perfect autumn day … a fancy braided string of dry whole garlics must be casually laid in the grass astride the tablecloth and next to it the chilled white wine its green bottle sparkling like little drops of mercury in the sharp Fall air… next to this are several uncut cylinders of spicy…
—Did Ms. Madeleine approve that sausage? Delia looked up from her notebook.
—I don’t know, answered Victor, his fingers stopped.
—That sausage has got to go.
A gofer pulls the sausage; the session continues.
… glinting cleaver catching the sun’s ray shows at the back of a picnic basket … (—presumably approved)
… that contains among other items two long stemmed wine glasses and a pair of Leitz binoculars …
Victor’s “signature”—an image-charged object that appeared in every photograph he took: a lady’s single shoe (carelessly abandoned in a moment of untold passion?)—could be seen in the higher grass off to the left of the frame. Delia noticed but disregarded, in her notes, the shoe.
As suddenly as the session began it ended. Lights were extinguished, the field became denser. Victor’s crew began opening bottles of the wine, and at his urging Delia joined them in a glass, awaiting the arrival of the monkfish.
—Well, how did it look? Vic inquired, an apple glow rising in his cheeks from crisp air, the wine.
—It looked great, Delia answered, sipping. Wait until you see this monkfish, though. Have you ever seen one?
—Not outside a church, heralds Victor’s attempt at breaking ice. A smile indicative of this intention segues after his words, quivers on the brown lozenge of his lower lip for an instant then tenderly spins away.
—Tell me, he continues. How is it I’ve never met you before?
Vic’s expression had once again formulated itself into seriousness. Delia could not be certain she had correctly interpreted that tic. She shrugs. He would pose another question.
—How long has Ms. Maddie been … ?
But Victor was not going to get very far just yet. There was a low rumble above, a squeal of brakes in ripe air.
—Looks like our fish friend is showing up, Victor interrupted himself, thinking, in the soft light on the Hudson shore, what would that face look like between my hands in dim light?
The monkfish en piperade (green and red scrumptious peppers … onions so flavorful in their pearly glory … garlic the true royalty among edible flowers … assorted yummy herbs) arrived from a local kitchen, transported to the “al fresco” setting in a company vehicle.
—God christ in heaven, shouted Victor, the hideous visage of the poor dead openmouthed monkfish set out on an enormous silver platter. That’s the most godawful ugly monster I’ve ever seen in my life.
One of Victor’s assistants drew the cork from the another bottle of the Gewürztraminer. As Delia chuckled, the photographer dramatically circled the steaming platter spread with the awesome black-brown yawning fish.
—A living, he finally shrugged, then began to expend rolls of film on the dish. As the air chilled and the sunlight began to thin, the reddish cliffs behind glowed through the brilliant field and over the tired river. Delia continued to concentrate over her yellow pad, sipping wine with the camera crew. She noticed Victor’s socks didn’t match. It struck her as a feature unreliably endearing.
After a time he finishes. His crew quickly strike the multitude of lights, reflectors, tripods, as Victor, rubbing his eyes, maneuvers up the rise and seats himself next to Delia. Dangling at the tips of his long frail fingers is a half finished bottle of the white wine: it sways lazily back and forth, like a plastic pylon caught in the clutches of a swinging toy crane behind glass in an arcade. He sits beside Delia without a word and pours from the bottle first into her glass which rests empty beside her in the grass, then his own. She finishes composing a sentence.
—How are the notes coming?
—Really it’s all the same thing after you’ve written a few of these articles, the same adjectives, same buzzwords. So long as it’s singsongy and sweet, you know.
—I could never write it.
—Well, like you said, it’s a living.
A few seconds of silence followed, giving Victor the time to formulate one of several possible come-on quips. The more veiled the approach, he mulled, the better.
—I’m curious how a girl like you got caught up in the world of the, well, the so-calledcun-tee nast-ees?
In which Bread
is cast upon
The line smacks at once of complex hues complimentary, deprecatory, sexually suggestive, demanding, mildly humorous, dangerous, comradely. It sweeps both speaker and hapless listener-subject into a lonely, lofty world all their own, shrouded, charged with urgency. It posits on Vic’s behalf an insight into the life of the projected victim which, by all evidence, he does not actually possess, but which in most situations is seen by uninitiating recipient as something if not to appreciate, at least to tolerate. It is semantically savvy on a kind of subterranean level in that the penultimate word in the sentence adumbrates Victor’s primary / primal goal (most probably his secondary and tertiary goals as well). The word-play, the off-color pun, with which the sentence terminates surely binds listener/intoner in a lighthearted concupiscent yuck. By characterizing a 33-year-old woman as a “girl” Victor establishes—or at minimum attempts to conjure at a subconscious level—prehistoric masculine dominance. “Caught up …” demonstrates his tender concern over her weakness while the “world …” lingers over the sentence like a psycho-philosophical postulate engraved in a marble Vic-tablet. “The world …” further serves as a reminder to the listener how trifling, how infinitesimal, how ultimately without will she is as a mere element in the cosmographical architecture, the Big Picture. Finally, and not to be disregarded as an insignificant element here, Vic’s opener is, indeed, a question, requiring of the listener some kind of response. This is useful in establishing a deeper contact.
—Oh, I don’t know, comes Delia’s woozy return. This was all Vic needed. Translation of text: I am discontent, and unknowing, my life is a dull vacuity requiring only you to fill it up.
—Well, I know precisely what you mean. Victor runs his free hand across the nape of his neck in a display of immeasurable angst.
—But how, he continues. How did you get into the food and fashion racket, so to speak?
The appended phrase “so to speak” is brilliance: is like the conical paper stick round which cotton-candy is twirled. A bit of fluff but with bite, this affords him possible escape from any stance whatever, thereby consolidating his position as her genial interlocutor since, should he be “misinterpreted” as anything else but Guileless Consociate, he can easily sidestep darkness and leap like a buck into the warm light. Too, “being of a single mind” Victor understands as “a fundamental” in the match of seduction. “So to speak … ” indicates that it is someone else’s query, really—should the respondent take offence—but that it is Victor Bonnard who is addressing the query from an insider’s perspective, assuming the listener appreciates such concerns and is willing to answer.
—I don’t know, Delia hesitates, sensing now a many-layeredness to Vic’s chatter.
—Ahhh, prompts he.
—I just got to a point where my life was slipping away, sort of, and I decided that I wanted to get out into the world and do something positive with myself, she says, thinking How can I possibly say such a silly thing?
Victor refills their glasses, killing the bottle. The lighting technician has already left with some of the equipment, but the gofer and propsman still loiter 50 feet downslope. An impetuous updraft slides in from the Hudson.
Emboldened, Vic waxes serious.
—You have children?
—No, we don’t.
First person plural explodes moistly upon the hillside, pregnant with resistance. It backs Victor off not for a trice. He hears the “No” and flushes warm with anticipation.
—Then you’re a modern professional woman, a baby boomer, in all respects, says the owlish Vic, a snide twitch working at the corner of his mouth.
—I wouldn’t put it like that. I’m happy at what I’m doing here, I don’t know. Why are you asking me all these questions, anyway?
Victor reads his cue with unstudied ease. A fulsome largesse in full swing, he rolls forward on his feet and walks down the hill, swaggering warmly into conference with the two remaining men. Shortly, he climbs back up the rise, a fresh bottle tossed under his arm.
—Just curious, is all, he replies, wily, puppyesque.
Mrs. Kindle examined the material at hand as Victor dug corkscrew into the soft flesh of cork and drew it forth whole, with three quick twists and a seemingly effortless tug. Victor was not unattractive and his solicitude was, if unexpected and curious, a new feature in her very quiet life. He was at this point fairly exuding husky animal robustness, pouring wine, the bottle dangling langorously from his large hand. He was, also, according to Ms. Madeleine, a promising photographer: someone she would have to work with in the future. Polite was the posture she would, at worst, strike, she determined.
—Frankly, Delia, I’m curious about most of the women who work here. It’s a useless hobby of mine.
—How’s that? Delia says, sipping. She finger-combs her hair, puts her pencil behind her ear.
—All these girls are so unhappy it seems to me. Underprivileged backgrounds, overprivileged backgrounds; happy marriages, unhappy marriages. No matter what, there seems to be some kind of, I don’t know what, some kind of anguish lurking behind those scrubbed, underpaid, giggly faces. I don’t put it well. You’re the writer.
Delia shifted her buttocks in the grass.
—I’m not sure of that. Most of the women I know lead pretty satisfying lives, from what I can tell. They like their work alright. There was only a fractional sense of certitude in her voice, as both its volume and pitch fell off by degrees as she neared the end of each thought.
—Well, whatever you say, cooed the gaining Victor whose anticipation had by this juncture jelled into determination.
An ancient sense of danger swelled invisibly within Delia’s poitrine. A nameless excitement that had lain in domestic dormancy for a few years stirred. She would not respond to the last “send” in Victor’s socratian croquet game, but allowed a frank yawn to issue forth from her white lips, and turned to the yellow pad again to reread notes about best procedures used in decapitating a monkfish.
—You think I can catch a ride with you back to the city? Vic asked, propping himself away from her with cowpoke nonchalance. It’ll be easier with all that stuff they’ve got in the other car.
Delia hums without looking up, interpretable as either yes or no.
—We have to take our friend back in, apparently, as well, he added, looking down the hill at the preadamite freak resting on its cooled platter not far from where they sat.
In which certain
For several calculated minutes Victor addressed himself to Delia’s text. Several exchanges of simple information were traded, defusing her anxiety a little. While they conversed he squirmed with Don Juan aplomb on the flat ground and edged, with the instinct of the cougar that had passed its day unsuccessful in the hunt, whose belly squawked and whistled unwilling to scotch prowler’s end, slowly toward his hapless prey. Delia’s breathing became shallower and clipped, her head swirling some with the wine; but she kept her eyes on the now wavering page of notes. The ellipses doubled and redoubled. A car, at the very summit of the slope, could be heard as it was engaged in gear and pulled away. They were left alone. Then a silence ensued punctuated only by the chugging of a gravel barge pushing up toward the Tappan Zee. Delia could make some half-hearted attempt at rebuffing what was obviously about to grow into a full-fledged onslaught, but the fast right hand of Victor was seen to outstrip her sense of propriety. In no time Victor had his comradely arm firmly locked around the waist of Mrs. Kindle: she offered up insufficient resistance when Bonnard slipped his lengthy hand under the lip of her shag sweater and ran it up and down her back.
—Vic? suggested Delia, yanking three complete syllables out of his monosyllabic nickname. Vi-yyy-ic, we can’t do …
Victor removed his hand and proceeded instead to shove his liquid tongue down her shocked but soon receptive throat. Within ten minutes the formerly celibate Delia Kindle was laid out long in the darkening grass of the empty slope screaming softly. Vic, moaning as he rolls on top of her, works her panties down under the drapery of her skirt. As Delia helps him with his trousers they begin to roll one over the other, falteringly, blind, and by a progression of Vic/Delia side-by-side, Delia over Vic, Delia/Vic side-by-side, Vic upon Delia, etc., they leave the glasses, the emptied bottle, legal-sized yellow pad, behind. During this downward roll Vic maintains a tightened lock around the small of her back and by means of a blind pistonlike movement brought about by the dorsal muscles at the base of his lower back he overcomes the odds and enters her. Unrestrained, the celerity with which they progress down the hill increases until both reach the first flames of orgasm while rolling at considerable speed into something which abruptly halts their romantic, indeed their almost cinematographic, progress. Vic pops his head up and discovers he is eye to eye with the gelatinous frown of the huge black monkfish. Toothy, oily, wry, it returns his shocked gaze, resplendent on its bed of cold seaweed, kale, watercress.
With a single rowdy screech he leaps bolt upright, Delia still stretched out on the dewy ground, knees flexed to either side, her skirt more or less tangled about her neck. He takes two steps back then jerks forward, dropkicks the monkfish, an enormous floppy deflated football, with a high-pitched, high volume …
—Ahhhrgg! … several yards down the incline.
The yard-long fish weighed (with stuffing) considerably more than he had anticipated. A lei of kale hangs from the tongue of his shoe. Nonplussed, he reaches the overturned spiny fish in three brisk strides and boots it again, heartily. This time he has measured the strength and velocity of the kick necessary to propel it in an akimbo arc in the air. Garnish flies. The monkfish, deformed paleolithic bag-of-bones, lands with a forlorn thump considerably farther down the hillock, where it then lodges against a stately granite outcropping.
A nautical metaphor
Still swollen amidships, Victor stands, the wind rather taken out of his sails, distorted object of his anger fore, unfulfilled object of his salty passion aft, his rigging an outrageous jumble in the deepening twilight, his nether sails sagging about his calves. The mariner’s star accompanies several of the earliest rising planets in the sky overhead, faint against the still pale yet cerulean blue. In the sheer density of the dim atmosphere a quiet has fallen over the scape, and the wash of the water whiling then whipping its whirling waves on the withering shore is heard. Something that smells of yeast brings Victor back to course; he looks up at Delia who is sitting legs crossed Indian style, her skirt wrapped about her waist, her hair and sweater pastiched with feathery brambles and leaves.
They break into laughter for what else can they do?
Victor waddles up the watercress and seaweed strewn slope pulling his pants up some as he climbs. He drops to his knees before Delia and kisses her, cupping both hands beneath her jaw, fingers splayed under her warm ears. A commuter train speeds by two hundred yards down the hill behind a wooded tangle, its lights cutting into the now blue-black sky. Lights from individual houses twinkle across the wide expanse of the Hudson, from the Palisades upstate.
—That old bitch was right, you know, whispers Victor after a moment.
—That is the ugliest fucking fish that ever shat in seaweed.
Cloves held into a flowerlike skullish bulb by the garlic’s paper sat before them in yellow pools of olive oil, centered at the deepest part of white plates. The white plates, Delia was well aware, were a hangover from her “nouvelle cuisine” days, but she gambled no one would mind. She brought in the freshly baked peasant bread and goat cheese, set them at the center of the hurricane lamp-lit table, then seated herself before her own plate of whole baked garlic.
—Now, hon’, explain how we’re supposed to eat these things, Harold formulated from the head of the table.
Delicate ivory fingers that terminate in perfect gelatin hardened nails now set into the plump white bulb of the garlic; petrified medieval flower. Nimble, knowingly, she peels away layers of burnt-yellow baked papers that hold each clove suspended in its symmetrical axle. Delia pulls loose a clove from the general bulb, then runs it back and forth several times through the pool of salted olive oil on her plate with a single sweeping movement so pure she might have been conducting a largo movement played by some invisible diminutive orchestra.
—You squeeze the clove onto your bread, like so, spread it with your knife, add a little white cheese, so, and here goes nothing.
The guests followed instructions well: an intelligent Manhattan crew. The taste was pungent, salty, unexpectedly nutty. Delia licked the tips of her fingers, then glanced nervously to her right where Victor sat, a drunken grin working his face.
It had been a bad idea, she thought, to invite Victor. The dinner, thrown to celebrate Harold’s most recent promotion, was the first time Delia gambled bringing her lover and husband together. All of Delia’s co-workers had been invited to dinner at the Kindles’s one time or another and Delia felt it might be more suspicious not to invite her collaborator, Mr. Bonnard, over, at least once.
—The guy with the shoe fetish? Oh, shit, Harold smirked, after learning that Bonnard was to be among the dinner guests.
Subsequent to their session in Hastings-on-Hudson, Victor and Delia were assigned to more layouts together. While shooting the likes of salmon quenelles, kidney pie, Caneton Rôti a l’Alsacienne, shad baked in cream (“shad and shad roe are among the noblest products of Spring despite the sad fact shad is loaded with bones … ”), chupe, frog’s legs provencale, feijoada (“national dish of proud Brazil … Viva! …” ), Victor pursued Delia feverishly and with an efficacity that would make Camus’s Juan proud. Delia had succumbed, against her better judgment, to a strong, uncritical infatuation. After sessions, prior to sessions, once during a session; in office, out of office, once in a janitor’s closet, the two continued. While the Argus-like Ms. Madeleine conjectured their collaborations now extended beyond the usual limits, she made no comment since (1) the quality of the work they were producing was OK (2) she had seen it all before.
What Delia could not have anticipated was that Victor would arrive so drunk that the cabdriver had to deposit him bodily on the doorstep. He was buzzed in, and after several minutes found his way to their door. Delia answered, was kissed, was immediately shrouded in the film of alcohol that he gave out. She whispered perhaps he ought to go? but Victor was already through the door and introducing himself to their other other guests. Harold, seeing his wife’s colleague was already well along in a celebratory mood, greeted Victor’s request for a Tanqueray with a frown and a shrug.
Delia seated Victor next to her at the far end of the table, in order to police him. Sitting, only half his body was seen to sway.
by the zozzle
—Fantastic, Betty, the accountant’s wife called out first.
—But it tastes like sesame, or, or something, Peter, the accountant added approvingly. He began assembling another piece.
— Marvelous, began Victor, as he reached for his napkin to harvest the oily salt which deposited on his pouty lower lip. I have a … toast to make.
— Here, here, added Harold Kindle dubiously from his position at the head of the long narrow table.
Victor raised his glass, rolled his eyes up under their lids:—O dura messorum … uhm … oh!: ilia.
The jocular gush blew across the set silver, a candle flame flickered within its cylinder of polished glass. Bonnard underscored his comical latinizing with two healthy rows of teeth.
—All afternoon I worked on … that. Horace.
Harold Kindle inserted a relieved chuckle.
—Ah, Latin, said Peter. Blast Vatican II for ever taking it away from us.
—What does it mean? asked Delia. “Odor of messy” what?
—I’ll be damned if I can remember now, laughed Victor.
—Well, what is it? Betty—whose eyes were the rapturous pale green of a Chinese celadon, an effect produced by her tinted contact lenses— smiled.
—In praise of garlic. Those Romans … loved garlic.
—That’s why Italians love it now.
—Horace who? asked Emma Ylitalo: dateless one with auburn coif, a secretary at Kindle’s office.
An impolite wavelet of guffaws washed her pert query to sea. The group set itself to eating garlic.
—Tell me about our garlic sequel, Vic began, sotto voce, turning toward Delia as the table broke into various conversations.
—Well, said Delia, deciding to maintain appearances. We ought to be ready soon. I hope it’ll come out by October, November at worst, so it’ll still be current.
Her emphatic kurr-ent was translated with ease by Victor: garlic was their potential scoop, was going soon to be in vogue like never before, thanks to the powerbrokering of Ms. Madeleine and the unpredicted success of their monkfish and garlic article. Victor’s face drew up in immediate and concentrated attentiveness: serious professional grandeur illuminated his soft basset eyes.
—We’re the only ones working on garlic, then?
—Don’t I wish, Delia whispered, nodding her head from side to side, with a cynical pout. Everybody’s got a garlic article in the works. Vic leaned in, his pantleg brushing her electric calf.
She continued, ignoring him.—I think my approach to it is going to be different than anybody else’s, though. I’ve gone through the whole history of the plant, from its southwestern Siberian roots to the ancient Egyptians’ worship of them to the whole business of warding off vampires with it, to its medicinal properties, the whole bit.
Again, Bonnard’s leathersoled shoe slid gently across the woollen surface of the rug casually to encounter Delia’s pump then meander away in the direction of the oiled clawfoot of the diningroom table. Delia glanced across the noisy table at her husband. She did not respond to Victor’s poetic gesture.
—Did you know they used to use garlic as a cure for smallpox? Delia said, turning to Peter.
Bonnard sighed loudly, and finished off the Tanqueray he had brought to the table. He then addressed himself to his glass of wine, finishing it at a single throw.
—I understand garlic is a haphrodisiac, he said to no one in particular, lifting the bottle of burgundy and refilling all glasses within immediate reach. Resetting the bottle next to the flickering hurricane lamp, he shifted to his right and addressed Emma Ylitalo. Have you ever heard that?
—No, was emitted quietly.
Delia glanced sidelong at Victor, wondered what to do: his voice was strident, words were occasionally fused one into the next, his ears were a veritable dubonnet.
—Victor? Delia asks.
But Bonnard has not heard her: —Now, dear, to answer your question. Horace is a poet, or … was. A Roman poet, a sodomite if I remember right. Delia herself began to color slightly. Harold’s eyes shifted back and forth from his wife to her colleague. Emma Ylitalo, whose unescorted arrival chez Kindle had not escaped Victor’s notice, was grateful for the attention: she leaned all solicitude, toward Victor’s bronzy-reddening face.
—You read poetry then?
—No, no, hell. A smile, crooked and ambiguous, breaks across his wry face as Delia nudges him under the table. He ignores her, raises his voice a touch more.
—You know what I read? I read Self. Self and House and Garden, People, Penthouse. And Cosmo. Vogue, too. W. Zoom. Vanity Fair. FMR, of course. And, uh, did I already say Us?
—I think so.
—Good, right, he says as Delia gets up from the table, and clears the first course. He continues as she leaves the room:—And, above all I read our own worthy organ of contemporary cuisine and living. Kindle? You read our wonderful magazine?
—I try hard as hell not to, Harold manages, with a frosty smile.
—Well, why not? It’s the legacy of the period, this stuff. Don’t you care about the world we’re all of us so lucky to live in?
—It’s a map of what’s worst in our society.
—Well, my! Vic balloons, pouring himself more wine.
Betty clears her throat, bats her iridescent orbs at Peter; the eyes say:
Petey-Bear, sweetpooh, change the subject.
Peter begins with:—That ass Steinbrenner …
—I mean … but you already know, Harold continues, rising through the winey, violet waters toward the wavering bait. I mean, come on, be honest. This business of leaving a shoe in your pictures …
— … oh, those Mets, Emma purrs, sustaining Peter’s subtle movement.
—What about it? mutters Vic, in a tone more defensive than he had intended.
—It’s barbarous. I mean, here’s this beautiful girl in a 1500-dollar designer dress with the spike of a high-heel driven into her temple, sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood.
Betty’s eyebrows rise. Peter, for the first time, sets his elbows on the table and regards Victor Bonnard with interest.
—It sells clothes.
Victor sights Harold down the stem of his uplifted wineglass. Behind Harold’s head, on the wall, there is a lighting fixture with two arms which, covered in patinated leaves and shaped like a wishbone, extend up to two small lampshades. From where Victor sits these ornate branches appear to grow out of either side of Harold’s head.
—It’s perverted, that’s what it is.
Vic puts his glass down, then cocks a fast insider’s eye at Harold: epiphany, fiat lux.
—Perverted, Vic blurts directly into the ear of adjacent Emma. Don’t be so naive, Har’. Anyway, what do you boys do down on Wall Street that’s so great for mankind?
—I agree … not a lot. But at least perversion and fetishism have nothing to do with stocks trading.
Delia comes in from the kitchen, an enamelled cast-iron casserole of caneton rouennais in hand and is stopped cold at the sight before her. Table of guests silenced; Harold and Victor, beet-cheeked each, squared off, tipsy in their chairs.
—Oh, Delia, sings Vic. Your husband thinks I’m a pervert and a, what, oh, a fehishiss … fehichist…
—Fetishist, deadpans Peter, involuntary.
—How do you like that?
Harold continues to stare at Bonnard.
—Since we’ve gone this far, you want to know what I really think you
—Harold, says Delia, a shouted whisper.
—I think you’re probably a goddamn misogynist fag like 90 percent of the idiots who run around taking pictures of shark livers and mangled models.
—He thinks he’s going to offend me, Vic tells Emma, a leer streaked across his face. What’s your name again, darling?
Emma initiates her answer but before a sound may be produced Delia interrupts:—Dinner.
— … but you know he doesn’t bother me a bit. I know all about him. More than you’d think. He’s just a neutered rooster, a dried up cob over there.
—Jesus! Delia, who is this asshole, anyway, and what is he doing sitting here at my table drinking my wine?
The room topples into a tense hush, as if it had been dropped into a vacuum through an unseen trapdoor and was falling free through space. Delia bursts into tears, proceeds to half drop, half throw the entire scalding contents of the casserole on the rug, before turning and running out the door.
—I think you had better leave now, Harold announces softly to Victor. Excuse me everybody. I’ll be right back. We’ll salvage the evening despite this loudmouth.
—Can I buy you dinner, Emma? Vic manages, the walls and furnishings in the room swaying smoothly before him.
—I don’t think so.
—Oh, come on. Everything’ll be fine here, let’s go.
Delia came upstairs from the street guided under the protective arm of her husband as Victor passed them going downstairs without a word, but accompanied by Emma Ylitalo who, the next morning, when she came into work at Harold’s office, discovered that she had two weeks in which to find a secretarial position with another firm.
When? Mid-December. How is the weather? Season snowless, temperate. Where is Delia? Delia walking around the edge of ornately fenced and gated Gramercy Park. Why is she doing that? Finished with deskwork by midafternoon she had decided to leave early, walk home, breathing the raw sunny air (what copy did she write before leaving? … boeuf bourguignon weighs in well against the cold nights of a tardy winter) which heralded a tardy winter. How was she feeling? She felt odd. Exhausted, nauseous a little, faint. Why doesn’t she sit down for a moment, and rest? There is a good place on those steps, no? Dreamily she sat on the steps of one of the several townhouse walkups along the West end of the square. Head swirled. Head between knees for nausea?
It passed after some minutes. She wiped her forehead with a goose and gander patterned scarf. She continued home, around the park and down Irving Place. Afternoon, evening evaporated. What assurances do we have that she will be all right? Like heat up a flue.
This solemnity of tone hints a predilection in the narrative toward something unfortunate, or sinister, does it not? There is, at least, a sense that something may be about to go wrong. That night when they went to bed she lay on her side as usual, facing the shell white wall of the bedroom. It was then she noticed it. Noticed? what? Cupping her right hand under her abdomen she realized her belly was swollen. Description of protrubance? It’s swell was marked by a completely different tactile feeling than the watery puffiness of menstruation. There was a firmness, most substantial, beneath the smooth skin. She ran her astonished flat hand up and down the length of her belly. Her face went cold.
She would say nothing to her husband. She tried to formulate an image of Victor Bonnard’s face in her memory but she couldn’t. She was clammy, and soon fell asleep. Harold, nodding away before a British dramatization loosely based on the Procne and Philomela myth, flicked off the set and also fell asleep, just before Itys’s fricasseed head was hurled into Tereus’s lap, ruining his tuxedo. Prophesying just what?
Next morning Delia stayed in bed. She had Harold telephone work. After he left for Wall Street she became nauseous again and spent the morning doubled over the bathtub. Symptoms adumbrated indicate obvious condition; had she formulated some response? What does she suspect, and what intend to do? Expectant agitation overtook Delia by afternoon. She decided to keep the matter secret for as long as possible, thereby allowing herself time for an unhurried meditation on the predicament. This baby she would have, even if it was surely the product of Victor Bonnard’s brief intimacies with her. She wept; laughed until she coughed, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror. Why does she decide at that moment that the wallpaper covering the bathroom walls is hideously cockled?
Throughout the end of December, Christmas, New Years, Delia’s belly continued to grow by imperceptible degrees at first and not as quickly as she had thought it might. Is the dilatory quality of fetal growth in this instance seen for the fortunate twist it must surely be, taking into account Harold Kindle’s ignorance of his wife’s condition, a direct result of his having been cuckolded?
A succession of days and nights in the first week of February brought to an end any chance of keeping the secret longer. Faintness and nausea had overcome her. Her legs refused to carry her. Her stomach seemed to ache constantly. The swollen belly was evident now even to Harold who commented that she should see a doctor.
—You mean an obstetrician, gambled Delia, pulling the drapery of her flannel nightgown over her naked body.
—What do you mean, obstetrician! came a hoarse rejoinder. Harold sat up in bed like an aged jack-in-the-box, lit a cigarette, waving smoke in the sharp air as if to protect himself from what was about to come. The mum wrath which had settled like translucent scales across the surface of their domestic ennui now began to shimmer and sparkle like a strange phosphorescence in a stirred saltwater bay.
—I mean obstetrician because if you had any eyes in your head you would see I’m obviously pregnant, Delia hissed in the dim light of the bedroom. I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby.
Harold punched his cigarette into the side of his curling mouth and, yanking the covers back, leaped up, toe-heel-toed across the room where he shut off the television with a gesture so saturated with melodrama it almost made Delia laugh. Had her laughter come would it properly have been considered hysterical?
The silence that followed subdued this temptation completely.
Harold began to pace back and forth from the Belgian armoire to the foot of their bed.
—What baby? choked the astounded marcher, an offended gander chevying downward through soupy fog, honking as it hits the placid surface of an asphalt lot, mistaken at a distance of two hundred feet for a black pond.
—Not your baby. That much you can be sure of, she said, surprised at her own bold calm.
—Then who the hell’s baby is it? he shouted, a hot blush radiating across his face. I mean, what the hell is going on here?
Delia glared at her husband, weighing a possible response, when Harold abruptly left. Doors clapped, inanimate furnishings hurtled in unlit space. Was it a chair that exploded against the calcimine wall on the lower floor of the duplex? Delia listened in horror as he rushed about the downstairs rooms, weeping, and alternatively, screaming. She drew her knees up and folded her arms around them protectively.
The anguish she felt at witnessing her husband hysterical was now mitigated by a sense of newly found strength, resolve. A baby was what she wanted when she married and it was a baby that she would now have despite the marriage. Who would/could prevent her? She would never tell her husband who produced the single sperm which managed to overcome her penelopian egg. She focused on these points but once she felt she had a firm grasp on the drama that reeled before her she noticed that there were no more sounds coming down the hall. Why did the apartment feel so deadly still?
Delia got out of bed. She looked out the window into the empty street but saw no one along the sidewalk. An empty cab with its yellow off-duty sign lit swished by. She went downstairs. Where was he? What did she expect to find? Would he be found on the couch in a stupor?
She found nothing; the front door was ajar. Three days after his loud exodus Harold’s sister telephoned Delia and asked that she forward several of his suits over to Brooklyn, where he was staying. Dutiful, she packed these articles in two boxes and sent them on. She had, in the meantime, telephoned to request a leave of absence from the magazine.
—It’s the wrong time, darling, to relax, Ms. Madeleine purred.
— I’m not relaxing.
—Delia, darling, listen to me.
—You wanted garlic, love, I gave you garlic. Garlic was going to be big and there were half a dozen girls who wanted garlic, a couple of them with more experience than you. But, no, no. You got your garlic. Remember?
—Yes, but …
—Well, garlic had its moment. But it’s a thing of the past now. Now I want you to think aspic, aspic, nothing but aspic. Love, listen to me: Asspikk– ppplease.
Delia had no response.
—I can assign this elsewhere, dear, but I’d much rather …
—I’m pregnant, Delia said.
Why did the pause that followed wordlessly spell out Ms. Madeleine’s reaction to this bit of news? Why, Delia scolded herself, did she ever confide in Ms. Madeleine in the first place about her problems with Harold? Why had she, in September, confessed to Ms. Madeleine about her insipid affair with Victor? Ms. Maddie she hadn’t thought through, had she?
Delia started. Ms. Madeleine was saying she had a call from Paris on another line, couldn’t continue their conversation just now. Delia hung up.
She felt relieved.
The pregnancy was not, however, going well. The morning sickness extended into afternoons and was often the worst at night. She telephoned an obstetrician, made an appointment for the next morning.
That night? Delia in a hot bath of sweat. Her sheets stuck to her thighs and torso. Lips parched, glassy phosphemes crawling across the plane of vision. Delia Kindle was delerious. Moonlight cast a trapezoid on the many angled coverlet where it lay, tossed down on the floor at the foot of the bed. Delia pulled on her belly and was screaming in agony. She dialed the operator, summoned an ambulance. The drivers found her nearly comatose in the foyer of the building. A small group milled around the doorway, watching.
Harold? Harold was startled when his sister awakened him in the middle of the night. He had been dreaming on the couch in the front room, pink light from the lamps on Henry Street playing on his eyelids. A white heifer was chasing him up the craggy cliffside highway overlooking the grey undisturbed shore and float ocean beyond. Were those flying fish singing in unison? What was that face, changing and changing, that drifted out toward the heavy skin of the horizon? Had he become aware during the dream, or was it his sister who informed him that a tumor had been successfully removed from Delia’s abdomen an hour before? How was he able to picture the cancer spreading like a dry fire in his wife’s unsuspecting body? How was it possible he could remember word by word what the surgeon had told him in the waiting room (“Mr. Kindle, now the ovaries are essential to the perpetuation of the race through their production of fertilizable egg cells analogous, if you will, to the testes in males such as, ourselves”)? How exceptionally white Delia’s face was when Harold was allowed to see her. She smelled sweetly of sodium pentathol.
Harold gathered his suits and moved back into Irving Place that same morning. Circumstance notwithstanding wasn’t he happy to be back home? Crises may sometimes bring people together, is it not so? And weren’t the doctors hopeful about Delia’s complete recovery? Hadn’t the biopsy of the tumor shown it to be benign? He would take a couple of days off from work, wouldn’t he? He would visit her. He would take her flowers. Hadn’t Delia smiled at him when he brought her the earlier bouquet?
But what kind of request was this of Delia’s? And what could possibly lead her to believe that Dr. Jacob would carry it out, even though he told her he would see to it right away? She had asked that the tumor be sealed in a jar and bathed in a preservative. Had Dr. Jacob’s knowledge that patients’ occasional outrageous behavior in traumatic situations best be brooked in order that their minds be cleared of further distress—
… (“pathologizing may lead to the making of the soul …”)? Quoting just whom?
Had he heard her right when she instructed him to have a messenger deliver the jar and its contents to the Conde Nast building addressed Attn: Ms. Madeleine, editorial?
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee