But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Rainey locks herself into the ladies’ room of the Madison Gardens coffee shop, not far from the Met. It’s perfect: a little bathroom just for one. She slings her heavy pack over the doorknob and pulls out a glass pillar candle she decorated herself for the patroness of artists, Saint Catherine of Bologna.
Lights the candle, wobbly on the sink, with her last cardboard match. Strips off the t-shirt she stayed up all night in. Slicks under her arms with soap.
Cath, I need five minutes in this grotty bathroom. She slips a plastic razor from a pocket of her pack. You can do that. And let old Mr. Lipschitz love my work, and let him maybe give me a place to live and let him have, like, zero libido.
She shaves the left pit. Someone rattles the knob.
Rainey cruises through the right pit, leans over the sink and washes her hair with the green bathroom soap. This is what she wants Mr. Lipschitz to smell: soap and tea-rose oil. Not leather jacket and sweat. Not that she left the townhouse unshowered at five in the morning after a fight with her father, who had just returned from playing a gig.
She’s only eighteen but it’s partly her house. It’s hers in trust but her father is trustee. Her father’s acolytes, the guys, anyway, they look at her like she’s wearing a sign that says, “Nail me, baby.” Her father smiles beneficently over them all, and live jazz pours out of the house and he is hot shit, he is Howard Royal—no one questions him. Last night she found a girl acolyte sprawled on her pink bed, making actual jazz come out of her junior-high flute. The girl’s enormous duffel bag was propped against the dressing table. This kind of shit was always Howard’s doing. The girl wouldn’t leave so Rainey waited up for Howard till almost sunrise. He came home with an arm draped around Reba, who had bongos between her legs in Union Square till Howard lured her indoors.
His fingertips dangled low.
“The casa’s a little full, sweetheart,” he said, when Rainey demanded her room to herself. “Grab a sleeping bag. Or duke it out.” His middle finger brushed Reba’s nipple, and a spark flew out and caught Rainey in the eye.
The knob of the ladies’ room turns again. Rainey has an interview in twenty minutes—she looked at the restaurant clock—with an old man who might commission a tapestry.
“Hang on,” she says. She ties a turquoise scarf around her wet hair and slicks Vaseline on her eyelids and lips. Shine, she loves shine. Men have eyed the shine on her since she was a kid. They are, all of them, so full of shit. But this is not a problem she would bring to Saint Catherine of Bologna. Cath scorned temptation and the worldly state. She was all about the art.
Loud knocking. “Hello, there are three of us out here?” Rainey had cut ahead of a lady in slingbacks, and right through the paint-chipped door she can see her, how her hat matches her gloves. On the Upper East Side it is the hour of church; it is the hour of brunch. Rainey skipped dinner, and she is too broke for breakfast. And she’s forgotten her perfume.
Without perfume she’s stripped of her powers. She passes her wrists quickly over the candle flame, prays Saint Cath, anoint me. I make you all these pretty things. It’s true, Cath could perfume her own flesh from molecules of nothing, a miracle she performed after death instead of rotting, and Rainey believes she smelled of tea rose, the scent of mothers.
New knock. Male. Some serious knuckle in it.
“What?” she says. “I’m not feeling too well.”
Brilliant—in a coffee-shop bathroom, not feeling well means junkie, it means needles jamming the plumbing. She swipes on deodorant, lifts one foot to the sink, starts dry-shaving her leg—and accidentally rocks the glass-pillar candle. It falls with dreamlike lassitude, then explodes. Shrapnel everywhere.
Hard banging, and a male voice. “Whatever dope you’re doing in there, sister, you got five seconds before this door opens.”
In five seconds she opens it herself. She’s wearing a low-necked, gauzy black tee on which she’s painted the face of Saint Cath in gold. Be resplendent, she thinks. Glass glitters at her feet. Her lips part. Her eyelids shine and she stares at the manager. His eyes flare with a look that needs one of those long German names that would mean something like anger braided with lust.
“Scram,” he says.
He reaches for her arm and she tries to wrench away, but he escorts her past a line of staring women and out into the sun.
From the living room of the Lipschitz apartment, she hears a door close far off with a chocolaty thump. She hears footfalls that speak of Persian carpets. It’s Fifth Avenue. To get this far she’s been scrutinized by two doormen, an elevator man, the housekeeper.
The man who limps into the room is thin and angular as a branch snapped off a winter tree. His eyes are ice-blue. He catches her in deliberate scrutiny of a little Impressionist landscape hanging by a grand piano—a Steinway, like her father’s, which she knows better than to even brush up against. She’s chosen the landscape because it hangs in a place of honor. “You’re the artist?” he says in some kind of accent.
She forces herself not to brush invisible leaves from her skirt, takes a measured half-second to tear herself from the painting, and beams at him. He holds an ebony cane topped with a silver dog’s head whose nose thrusts through his fist. He’s dressed up—a suit, a tie. Church and brunch again, though with a name like Lipschitz, who knows about church.
“I brought a sample of my work,” she says.
She opens her army pack, which in this peach-colored room has all the presence of a burlap sack, and pulls out a white satin bag. The bag is cinched shut with a black grosgrain ribbon, flawlessly tied, and holds something the size of a gallon of milk. She cradles it in two hands like an offering, and waits. Inhaling, she smells tea-rose oil wafting from her wrists. Cath is restoring her powers.
He looks at her with startled gray eyes as if surprised to find a girl in his apartment, wet hair trailing down as if she’d walked in from the sea.
“Vonnie Gardner says you want to take a scissors to Eleanor’s things,” he says.
But he knew. He asked her to come. He saw the tapestry she designed and sewed for his friend Mrs. Gardner, and examined it a long time where it hung on the wall. Mrs. Gardner wrote this in a letter to Rainey, which she found stepped-on in Howard’s foyer. Mrs. Gardner wrote that Mr. Lipschitz seemed to examine aspects of her late husband in all the intersections of the tapestry, in the buttons and fabrics, in the photograph fragments stitched down with gold thread, in the cufflinks and snippets of shirting—collar points and even buttonholes—worked with exquisite neatness into a pattern of Rainey’s own devising. Rainey loves patterns, she loves kaleidoscopes; she loves butterfly wings arranged in mandalas under glass, and she loves rose windows in cathedrals, all the intricate designs of nature and man that make a closed system.
“Allen looked at it so long,” Mrs. Gardner wrote, “I offered him your name. It took him a while to understand that I was talking about memorializing Eleanor.”
Rainey’s stomach makes an inappropriate noise.
“Mr. Lipschitz,” she says, “I won’t cut up any materials you don’t desire me to use.” She lets the words desire me hang in the air with the dust motes, but they don’t seem to register. “This is a tapestry I made for another gentleman. May I open it?”
She follows him into the dining room, extracts the rolled-up cloth from its white silk sleeve, and unfurls it on a table of inlaid wood: her pattern on his pattern. Mr. Lipschitz stands near her, lean and old and elegant in his black suit.
Rainey wonders what that fine, dark wool would look like in a tapestry. She never says memory quilt, though she thinks it. She says two months, roughly and five hundred dollars, which pays for a room in a women’s residence and a lot of fruit. When the right moment comes, she will ask to work where the beloved lived. If the person is rich, she might ask about an extra bedroom. If the person is rich and lonely, it can be a balm and a novelty to have a young artist stay.
Rainey knows the secret of stepping very, very close to a man without actually moving her body, and she does that now. She sniffs: he smells nothing like an old man, rather a bit like eucalyptus. Eleanor must have chosen it. She wonders if he is aware of his own patterns: the mosaic of book spines behind glass doors; a bracelet of landscape paintings circling the room. Around the table, the backs of dining chairs swoop and curve in heart-like shapes.
The tapestry, which she borrowed back that morning from a widower on Park Avenue, is less than a yard square but heavy. It’s made from a few hundred diamond-shaped cuttings of florals and pastels. Prints spiral loosely down the center, while solid colors stream toward the edges. Rainey does all her sewing by hand—she tells people the feel of the fabric helps guide her through the work—and this is true, but it is also true that she has no sewing machine. At many points where the diamonds of fabric meet, she has stitched buttons, pearls, the face of a ladies’ watch freed from its band, an Eiffel Tower charm, a small key, a locket, and a few snippets from old photographs, their edges pierced by the points of the finest needles.
But it is the center of the piece that draws the eye back: part of a small wedding photo in black and white. She has carefully torn the edge to deckle it, and sewn it to the tapestry using mouse-stitches.
“Your wife’s tapestry might be simpler. It depends on what you tell me about her, what’s in her closet and jewelry box.”
“And I would do with it what?”
“It’s a work of art. It hangs on the wall. You look at it and remember. If it were me I’d light a candle in front of it.”
Mr. Lipschitz fingers one of the pearls.
“It’s good you’re doing that,” she says. “They get dull if no one touches them. The oil on your fingers makes them glow. Did your wife wear pearls?”
He pulls his hand back.
“A Yahrzeit candle you light once a year, Miss Royal.”
Lighting a candle once a year, that’s nothing. When Cath was buried, her flesh exuded the smell of tea rose so powerfully that people gathered at the grave. And when they dug her up after two and a half weeks and found her body still resilient, the nuns took her home to the cloister, sat her up in a chair and lit candles at her feet. Five hundred years of nuns lighting maybe a million votives—that’s devotion. Not this Yahrzeit thing.
“Or you can just look at it and remember her,” she says. She needs a cigarette. She needs a sandwich. She needs a shower with fluffy white towels. “Do you want to see photos of other work?”
“What I want.” He takes a seat at the head of the table. “I want something beautiful like this to give our daughter. Something filled with Eleanor.”
It sounds like a yes—she’s hired, right? She’s sure she’s hired. Cath, I owe you majorly. Maybe it’s why he wore the suit: to meet the artist, to seal the deal. Around her the floorboards gleam darkly, framing ornate rugs.
“Mr. Lipschitz,” she says. “I forgot to eat breakfast.”
“Who forgets to eat?” He picks up a little bell by a crystal candlestick and rings it, and soon after inquiring what she might bring, a woman in white sets down a tray holding a sandwich and milk in a delicate glass. She looks like a nurse. Rainey almost faints with pleasure.
“Thank you,” she says, “for trusting me with your wife’s things. I promise you won’t—”
He puts his hand up. “I get it already. Eat. What do you need from me, to do this thing?”
The sandwich is tuna fish with thinly-sliced cucumber. The bread has no crust. It is perfect.
“I need to choose my own fabrics and objects, though I’ll never use anything you want to save.” She waits. No shock yet. “That includes some jewelry,” she says, and waits some more. “And I would love to do the work in your apartment. If you can accommodate me.” She does not yet say feed me. She does not yet say live in.
He rises like someone presiding. He’s in good shape for an old man. No gut, and no cane when he doesn’t feel like it. “Miss Royal,” he says. “Five hundred dollars I understand, but Vonnie Gardner let you work in her apartment?”
“Actually, she let me stay there. You’d be amazed how much that helps.” It was, in fact, incredibly peaceful at Vonnie Gardner’s, like a hotel room where you had to behave. She waits to see if Mrs. Gardner ever mentioned that in the third week she caught Rainey hanging halfway out the bathroom window smoking a joint, which Rainey persuaded her was an herbal cigarette. Mrs. Gardner made her leave the spare bedroom, though she let her keep working days at the kitchen table.
“Where are the parents?” says Mr. Lipschitz.
Where are they how, she wants to ask: emotionally, geographically, sexually, what? She knows how to smile and talk at the same time, and she does that now. “May I have another glass of milk?” she says.
He rings the bell again, and the woman in white, whose hair, Rainey now sees, is captured in a net that is nearly invisible, inquires and returns with the glass so thin Rainey is afraid to hold it. When she’s finished, Mr. Lipschitz leads her through the kitchen to a small, white-walled room, simple and scrubbed clean. Without sin—Cath would have loved it. Twin bed, white headboard. A small white bureau. One window facing a brown brick wall. Serene and slightly shabby like the barren rooms once meant for staff and now inhabited by her father’s acolytes at the top of the West 10th Street townhouse.
“Beautiful,” says Mr. Lipschitz. “Tell that to the maid. The maid would rather live in Queens.”
The walk to the next bedroom takes them past closed doors and old photographs and bookshelves and art. The hallway seems to keep unrolling. Rainey waits for him to stop, to turn slowly around. Sometimes, after standing too close, men remember the way she says desire, see the shine on her skin; they smell the tea-rose oil and it drives them mad. And she wants to make them feel these things and she wants to hold them off. It’s a delicate balance. It’s a constant calibration.
But Mr. Lipschitz does not turn to her until they arrive at a large, square bedroom, with windows full of park and sky. He steps back so she can enter alone. At the center of the room, she feels a kind of peace settle over her. The walls are upholstered in cornflower blue silk—she touched it, walking in—patterned with swallows and leaves. Underfoot is a blue rug she wants to curl her toes into, and the bed has a blue silk canopy too, gathered and radiating out from the center. Rainey is doing a different kind of calibration now. She is thinking yardage. She is thinking the fabric and workmanship on the canopy alone could have bought her a year of art school. She is thinking Mr. Lipschitz should adopt her.
“Is this where your wife slept?”
“You wanted to see her things, I’m showing you her things.”
“What I meant was,” and she flushes. “If she slept surrounded by this fabric, I wouldn’t mind incorporating some. If you had extra somewhere.”
He shrugs one shoulder. She lets it go.
On the bureau is a black-and-white photo, the old kind that’s nearly sepia, of Mrs. Lipschitz: dark-eyed and with a generous mouth, from about a million years ago. “Boy,” says Rainey. “She was gorgeous.” He looks at her oddly. It’s hard to miss. “May I look in the bureau?”
“Suit yourself.” He watches from the doorway, holding his ebony cane rather than leaning on it.
She’s made six of these tapestries for clients. Her first piece ever was a quilt for herself, about her mother, Linda, who is alive but living on an ashram in Boulder, Colorado. At least she thinks it is an ashram. Sometimes she imagines it is a cult, and that her mother cannot leave. Rainey has only visited her in Boulder twice, though there have been postcards. Linda left her clothes behind, and Rainey believed they were left for her. She rifled her parents’ closet and began to cut: velvet and cotton tunics, Indian print scarves, embroidered jeans, and wrap dresses worn to an office job. Her second tapestry was all paper scraps and photographs, a fragile work of ephemera done with needles so fine she could barely thread them. For now she evokes the dead through fabric and bits of jewelry, and she is good at Tailor of Gloucestor stitchery. She is good at distilling the heart of a person to a tight and complex pattern. The people who hire her are old, and some have aides, or furs, or wheelchairs, or little dogs. She can’t understand what it feels like to be widowed and they can’t understand her work till it’s done.
Five hundred dollars for two months’ work sounds like a lot of money but it never lasts.
Saint Cath, please guide my eyes, she prays, and keep my hands from stealing. She has to pray her prayer, or things from good people end up in her pack, and she hates that about herself.
In the first drawer she finds two old, skinny watches with little square faces. One has diamonds embedded: she won’t ask for that one, but watch faces are highly desirable, detached from their bands—they can always be re-set if the owner has regrets. She puts the watches on the bed in their little white box. She rubs her fingers over vintage slips brimming with lace, and an entire drawer of silk scarves in zinnia colors, as if packets of seeds had burst into bloom in the dark.
Mr. Lipschitz moves into the room. He looks like a crow, perched on a dressing-table chair that is too small for him.
“May I?” She waits for his shrug of permission, and opens the closet. It’s almost a room, for heaven’s sake, with a tiny chandelier, and rods hung one above the other. The clothes are arranged by color like a formal garden.
She turns to him with a broad smile. He makes a spreading gesture with one hand. Take what you like.
Mrs. Lipshitz left the planet without her black wide-brimmed hat, which might yield a cutting of felt, and three speckled feathers at the band. She abandoned a black velvet riding jacket and a cream boucle suit. She gave up a trove of cashmere sweaters, which Rainey raids for their mossy texture, and blouses in fabrics that will swoon to her shears: challis, Egyptian cotton, silk charmeuse.
Rainey steps out with her arms loaded up. Mr. Lipschitz is gone. She lays the clothes on the bed and looks at Eleanor Lipschitz’s blue jewelry box. It has a key sticking out. Jewelry is sensitive. Better to handle it in front of people. She checks both ways down the carpeted hall. “Mr. Lipshitz?”
She runs her hand over the box.
No one’s ever left her alone with jewelry. Mrs. Gardner sat down with her husband’s cufflinks, many of them gold, asked worried questions about how Rainey planned to use them, wept, handed a few pairs over and seized them back. She could not relinquish them till she’d talked awhile. Now twelve cufflinks wink from Leonard Gardner’s tapestry like stars in a stained-glass sky.
She opens the box, standing to one side so that everything she does is visible from the doorway, and begins laying out the contents around the photo of Mrs. Lipschitz.
Of course there are pearls. With women there are always pearls. But Eleanor Lipschitz owned two strands more different than Rainey has ever seen.
For an Eleanor of propriety, a double strand of white Cartier pearls lies crisply in a red silk case.
For a darker, perhaps an artistic Eleanor, a long string of heavy, misshapen black pearls snakes and clicks in a gray suede bag.
Was she one person at night, and another one by day? Rainey covets both necklaces. He will have to sacrifice them. Or parts, at least: Rainey can take a handful of pearls, and the rest can be restrung. This daughter of his may want everything for herself, but the tapestry will not be honest without both Eleanors.
Still waiting for Mr. Lipschitz, she folds the clothes from the closet and arranges everything by color on the bed, the black pearls snaking across an apricot sweater and the white pearls glowing against rose. She wonders if her job has already started, and what she will cut into first. She loves her scissors. She has a pair of French sewing scissors that cost almost twenty dollars, and a pair of adjustable couturier shears that can cut through multiple layers of fabric and would have cost nearly fifty dollars if she hadn’t slipped them into her purse and run.
No one comes, not even the lady in the white dress.
She picks up the riding jacket and holds it up to herself in the mirror. It is beautifully lined and constructed. It makes her hungry all over again.
“Eleanor.” She tastes the name. If she says it fast it sounds prim, like the white pearls, but rolled in the mouth it is sensual, brooding, like the black. She takes a longer look at the photograph. In the picture Mrs. Lipschitz looks about eighteen. She looks, in fact, much like Rainey herself would look if it were the sepia age, not 1975, and she too had a bob. No wonder he stared at me that way, she thinks. The young Mrs. Lipschitz has the same straight dark hair and narrow face, the same chiseled eyes that might be half-Chinese. Her eyebrows are high and arched, as if faintly surprised, and her gaze is intensely focused on something seen only by her. This was not a chick to go all soft for a portrait. She is sexy, despite the high-buttoned white blouse, and she seems to sense her own powers. This gives rise to a familiar feeling that Rainey finds sustaining.
I know her. Black-pearl Eleanor. I can make her tapestry. The hall is still empty. She slips the riding jacket over her hand-painted t-shirt and stands before the full-length mirror. Even with Keds on, she looks sharp.
“Eleanor.” She rolls the name in her mouth, unties her scarf, brushes her still-damp hair with Eleanor’s hairbrush and puts on the feathered hat. Trés glam. She works off her sneakers and slips her bare feet into Chanel pumps.
Whatever you like. That’s what his gesture meant. She holds the black pearls to her neck.
If she were Eleanor, she would wear the Cartier pearls on her wedding day. She would marry a lean young man named Allen who had the world’s ugliest last name, but it would be okay because he wanted to protect and cherish her. He would not make her feel small by quoting Shakespeare in a snide and belittling way like her father does, which seems a wrongful use of art anyway, and when he felt lust it would be in—oh, what does she mean? Context. It would not just be that lupine thing. A few years after the wedding, when she falls for the black pearls on a Tahitian vacation, he will hesitate and say, “You’re not serious, Eleanor? They’re full of lumps,” and he will wonder who, deep inside, his white-pearl wife really is, to be moved near tears by a strand of what looks to him like a bunch of dark, fat, shimmering beans. It will give him a left-out twinge he can never name and never forget. But being Allen Lipschitz, he spends the thousand dollars. To protect and cherish. The sensation around Rainey’s neck is cool and satisfying.
From the doorway he speaks low as if not to startle her. “Don’t take them off.”
Startled, she struggles with the hat and pearls. “I’ve never—I’m not—” And it’s true, she’s never played dress-up before, and she’s not stealing anything right now, and these seem like ridiculous things to have to say.
“I mean it,” he says. “Put them back. Show me.”
She lowers the necklace and picks the hat up off the floor. “Don’t be mad. Her things are so beautiful.”
He looks at the photo and back at her, a little wry. “There is a resemblance.”
“I know,” Rainey says slowly. “That’s why I did it.” It’s a small lie but if she keeps going, it might become the truth. “I thought if I could see her in the mirror, if I could feel like her, it would help me work. Really, I’m sorry.”
“The profile. Let me see.”
She makes a quarter-turn. Mr. Lipschitz stays where he is. Of course if he comes any closer, the mirage might vanish.
“The skirt is wrong.”
“Wow,” said Rainey. “I know. Are you saying you want me to—you won’t flip out?”
“Also the shirt. Wrong.”
She takes a sharp breath. “Okay,” she sings, and steps into the walk-in closet, pulling the door behind her.
Eleanor had lined her closet with white silks at one end, black at the other; peach sweaters here and deep rose there. It would have been easy to dress in the morning if you woke each day knowing who you were. Rainey can’t imagine such confidence. She wakes each day having to harden a new shiny case around a grain of sand. Today she will be Eleanor of the dark hands, see how old Mr. Lipschitz reacts. She steps into a slim black skirt and rose silk blouse unbuttoned just to here. The black pearls she slips inside the open collar, so he’ll glimpse them, rolling tidelike in and over her bust every time she moves. She changes the Chanel shoes for a pair with higher heels.
You’re dressing for games, she warns herself. But games seem to be her particular gift, games and the art. She never asked for any of it.
Rainey steps out, gives him a particular bright smile calibrated to lightly engage, and confronts the mirror. She really does look like the woman in the picture, though the woman in the picture wears her good-girl blouse. Suddenly Rainey feels entitled to ask for things. She turns to Mr. Lipschitz.
His gaze sweeps up and down her body, but to her surprise it lingers on her face. He seems to be searching for something. She can almost feel his throat constrict.
“The hair is wrong,” he finally says. “Can you pin it?”
She hopes he isn’t forgetting about the tapestry and the five hundred dollars, but this is interesting. Presumably this Eleanor had a normal mother who braided her hair and tucked her in at night. Presumably this Eleanor never felt like her father was smiling at her through her clothes. She stands straight so he can see her figure—it’s clear from the photo that Eleanor Lipschitz had that happening too—and braids the damp strands slowly, planning to twine them around and coil them up. Mr. Lipschitz consumes the small movements of her fingers. She bets he loved watching these little rituals.
She doesn’t mean to talk but it just comes out. “My mother braided my hair when I was little.” This is true—she remembers slim, quick hands working behind her, and her mother’s Joan Baez soprano—but it is also true that Linda hated the detangling that came first and finally abdicated the whole post-bath scene, which then fell to Rainey’s father’s best friend, the solicitous Gordy, who lived with them. Gordy would put down his trumpet as if there were no job more important than combing the wet hair of a little girl after her bath, inch by tangled inch. After which he would smooth the hair down her back again and again with his fingers before the braiding could begin.
A tiny sardonic laugh escapes her nose.
She better watch it; she might break the spell.
“Will you put on the watch, please, Miss Royal? No—the diamond watch.”
The watch glitters like it wants to get Rainey in trouble. Her grandmother Lala once had a watch like this. Her father probably sent it to Sotheby’s, with the chandeliers, to keep the house and the acolytes going.
“Is it too much”—Mr. Lipschitz sounds like he has a piece of cracker in his throat—“to ask you to sit in that chair and look out the window?”
Is it too much? Is it too much? To sit at a window, like Eleanor, who got to keep her blue room? She takes her seat in a blue armchair and looks down at Central Park. She watches a lady steer a red perambulator into a playground with pyramids, and stop at a green bench. Mr. Lipschitz lowers himself onto the edge of the bed. Rainey feels herself studied, though not in the way she is used to. Under his eye she feels like an object of great beauty. She senses rather than sees his gaze stop at her glittering wrist.
“A wedding gift,” he says.
It seems better not to speak. A faint floral scent clings to the rose silk blouse. She leans back as she thinks Eleanor might have, arranging herself for a photographer, and fingers the dark pearls as if her mind were elsewhere. She knows her bust is stunning and she knows she has this in common with Eleanor. Once she glances over at Mr. Lipschitz—Allen—and quickly away. It is a private act, the way he’s staring at her. Or maybe he is staring just past her, at the edges of her, to blur the image so the similarities sharpen.
Finally he says, “Use anything you want except the jewelry and watches. They are my daughter’s. I’ll talk to her. The maid will give you a key.”
With a little help from his cane, he stands. But instead of leaving, he sets the cane on the bed. His palms turn toward her, helpless. Around them the room has deepened almost to sapphire, lit by a sinking sun. She feels a curious desire to slip the black pearls back into their dark suede bag and clasp the white strands around her neck instead.
“I need the pearls.” She rises to face him.
He lifts his hands very slightly; she sees the tremor of age. “Miss Royal.”
“I need the pearls to make the tapestry.”
“One time,” he says. “For one minute. Never again.”
“Not all the pearls,” she says carefully. “Your daughter can remake the strands from what’s left. But your wife is in those pearls.”
She looks at him both bent and straight, elegant in his suit, his body spare. His face is wrinkled but his eyes shine dark and frank. He wants something physical, which makes her wary, but he does not precisely want her.
“Think about it,” she says, and goes to him. She puts her arms loosely around him. With his arms he encircles her waist lightly, as if they were about to dance. She holds him so only their shoulders make contact, and smells his clean, eucalyptus scent, and senses the leanness of his neck and chest; and he allows the side of his head to touch the side of hers, and she wonders what it must have felt like to love this man. Like living in a sanctuary, with a steady supply of tuna-fish sandwiches. Is it true there is infidelity in every marriage, as her father once said at one of her parents’ parties? She would like to think that he is wrong as she stands in Mr. Lipschitz’s arms. They hold each other tentatively but firmly. Their letting-go, when it happens, has a slight resistance to it.
Closing his eyes, he thanks her.
“Wait,” says Rainey.
Mr. Lipschitz sways. Rainey takes the ebony cane from the bed and puts the dog-head in his hand.
She could give him something from Eleanor, right now. She moves piles of clothing from the bed to the floor and lies down, kicking the high heels off. “Okay,” she says. Mr. Lipschitz seems deep in meditation, as if studying the floor through his eyelids, still moving side to side but more steadily with his cane. “You can lie next to me if you want,” she says. She can’t say in my arms; instead she says for a little while.
He opens his eyes and stops swaying. “Miss Royal,” he says, “I don’t want any nonsense.”
“I hate nonsense,” says Rainey. “I hate nonsense more than you.”
He sits on the edge of the bed and unlaces his shoes. His socks are tissue-thin and look expensive and clean, and have no odor. He lies flat on the coverlet beside her and looks at the canopy as if he were offering himself up to death.
“Ellie,” he says.
“Allie, give that artist girl my pearls.”
“Please,” he says. “You look like her. You don’t sound like her.”
She takes his hand.
Silence blossoms under the blue-canopy sky. Lying beside him, on her back, Rainey feels his skin cool and dry in hers; she feels the elegant length of his fingers, his knucklebones in their little sacks of flesh. She finds the warm wedding band and rotates it, and he lets her. She senses the molten glow of the black pearls from the pile of clothes on the floor. In her mind she begins Eleanor’s tapestry. It will be bright around the outside with floral colors, but the center will be a full, shadowed moon of dark fabrics: the woman’s private, lunar self.
“My wife had a faultless ear for piano,” he says, still looking straight up at the canopy. “If she heard it, she could play it.”
Rainey turns on her side so she can see him better. When their eyes meet he closes his. Is he embarrassed, or preserving the illusion of Eleanor? The lids are faintly blue, and when she touches them, her fingertips detect the darting motions of tiny fish.
“She played chamber music three days a week,” he says, as if her fingers were not on his eyelids. “But we had our daughter, Joan. I said, A mother does not work.” He clasps his free hand to his forehead, headache-style. “She never played again.”
Rainey looks around at the cornflower silk. She knows she will razor some cuttings off the back of the curtain hem, where nobody will see.
She moves closer and puts her head on his chest. His heart beats with astonishing persistence. She had thought he would smell something like Lala, who traveled in an envelope of powder and old age. Does he pick up the scent of Eleanor’s blouse? She rubs the ancient-looking hand still held in her own. His skin slips easily across the tendons. She examines him closely. Beneath the surface of his face she perceives the outline of his skull.
“Ellie,” says Mr. Lipschitz, “You remember Saturdays?”
“I think so.” She sees his eyelashes gleam.
Rainey blinks rapidly. Which is just nuts. What is there to cry about? She thinks hard about things that will happen next. She will eat tuna-fish sandwiches every day at noon, and drink milk from a glass nearly soap-bubble thin. She will finish the tapestry before Mr. Lipschitz, too, leaves this planet empty-handed. Every morning she will light a candle to Saint Cath in her white room, and some afternoons she will wear Chanel and sit in the slipper chair, watching children at the pyramids in the park. On the blue coverlet, for Allen Lipschitz, she will be memory and she will be flesh; she will be eighty and she will be eighteen.
He opens his eyes. “How should I feel?” He murmurs it almost to himself.
Rainey kneels above him without letting go of his hand.
She looks down directly into his beautiful blue striated irises, and lowers her mouth, which is dry, very lightly onto his. Their lips and tongues do not move. Their gazes connect, and with no nonsense whatsoever they hold quite still.
After about ten seconds she straightens.
“You should feel good,” she says. “I think I’m ready to start.”
Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This (Persea Books). Her second book of fiction, I Know What Makes You Come Alive, is forthcoming from Soho Press. She received a 2010 Fellowship in Prose from the National Endowment for the Arts and lives in New York City.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.