Peggy tossed the magazine carelessly on the table and sighed. After staring at it and the rest of the stack it had almost joined for a moment, she rose from the sofa and walked aimlessly about the house, searching for something to occupy herself with. She had been avoiding the club, looking almost desperately for other things she could do to make changes in her life. The magazine had been part of that quest, one of those too glossy fashion things, but she still couldn't really see the point of all the paint and mirrors.
Yesterday she had gone shopping and discovered that she had no idea what sort of clothes to buy to be 'in fashion' these days, and to her surprise when she had decided to try things on she took a size larger than she recalled. That was enough to send her looking for a gym to join, another mistake for sure, the three places she checked out were all pretty much the same. Reception desks manned by impossibly thin and scantily clad young men and women, mazes of bewildering machines that resembled medieval torture devices, and other patrons that didn't look like they had ever really needed a workout and were just there to show off their gorgeous tans and display the latest workout fashion, very similar to the stuff they had for sale at the front desk of course.
In the end, she retreated to the more familiar ground of a bookstore, there she bought the current rage in diet and exercise books, all three of them, and the stack of fashion magazines that now graced her coffee table. The diet books were on her nightstand, she had tried to study them last night but gave up in the end, the advice in them struck her as just plain nutty, she would stick to the methods she understood, cut the calories and get more exercise.
With that thought she realized that she was wasting time, wandering about looking for something to do, and set off to start the program she had planned, beginning with some long walks about town. Last night, when she had thought about this, the first place that came to mind was the park where she used to take her children, it was only a few blocks away but quite large, and walking its paths would be a worthy start on her idea to get more exercise.
The park was much as she recalled from when she had frequented it with her children, perhaps a bit more run down, the bushes needed trimming and apparently no one had picked up the trash in sometime, but otherwise it had changed little. Even the inhabitants were pretty much the same, young mothers pushing carriages or keeping a watchful eye on their children at play while they chatted, a few of the benches occupied by couples and the occasional jogger. Seeing the young mothers chatting she recalled that here she had met and become friends with other neighborhood women, the ones she now avoided, finding she had little in common with them anymore, they avoided her too, like divorce was catching or something. The young mothers here now would soon be gone, replaced perhaps by the female half of the adolescent couples that occupied the benches, the couples in turn replaced by ones now too young to be interested in such things.
Peggy stopped her walk abruptly with that thought. She had never been one to think about such things, and the turn her mind was taking startled her. Pondering the big questions, like the meaning of life, had struck her as silly when she thought of them at all, which was rare. Even choices in life had never really been something that much worried her, in fact they never seemed much like choices at all, she had simply done the expected things, not really pausing to consider that there might be alternatives. She shook her head slightly, trying to shrug off this sudden change in herself and resumed walking at a brisker pace.
"Oh my god, what has happened to you?"
Paulie was sitting across the rickety wooden table, on a teetering chair whose metal legs made a teetering sound, testimony to his restless state of mind. Or ass.
The room was musky and dusty, and of a strange shape, a bit too long and too narrow, and the ceiling too low, giving it an uncomfortable air, which wasn't helped at all by the dirty whitewash on the walls or the painful lack of any windows. It was strange too, right where the walls meet the floor they were dark gray, and that gray slowly faded to white as you went up to the ceiling, then there was an almost white band for a foot or two, then the gray started pervading again, and ruled the ceiling completely. Boots and cigarette smoke, generations of them, had passed through that room. Janice kept speaking quickly, in a concerned, almost motherly soft sort of talk.
"How did you end up here, with all these nasty people? I'm sure you couldn't have done anything wrong, could you? You are simply not that kind."
Paulie was simply looking down, and heaved now and again, his oxen shoulders bent with the invisible and yet overpowering weight of convention.
Janice always was very good in drama class. When she was about as tall as a table she had won the first prize in an acting contest, which took the form of some papers, and some chocolates, and most importantly, oh so very much more importantly, a change around her. People suddenly were looking at her as if she was a sort of a magician, in spite of her age, in spite of her cartilaginous palate, in spite of all the painful outward signs that differentiate the prepubescent from the mature, and yet, she was being treated as a grown up. She always loved that, and it could be presumed it's how and when she grew up. In time she came to understand more about acting, but the understanding was always a means to an end for her. And the end always was that pure, unadulterated pleasure of seeing people relate to what she invents rather than with what is behind it.
"You are not a bad sort, I'm sure there must have been something clouding your judgment. They said all those horrible things about you ! I'm sure it couldn't have been my Paulie there."
Now she was trying to be a hillbilly mother of a lad, a bit on the pretentious side due to sudden affluence, and constantly adjusted her projected persona to fit with unseen clues emanating from the wretched boy sitting across the table. She had an instinct for that, honed in time and with scrupulous efforts beyond the ability of most professional actors, and although she never really understood what she was doing, nor could easily explain it, she always could insert herself in between reality and the minds of her unfortunate victims, the way a virus tricks cells into letting it in, the way parasites mimic the normal comings and goings of their host's internals to secure food and shelter. The way a computer virus works.
It was all so easy for her. The only way she could be spotted would have been by what is called critical thinking. Nobody can be as good as to not make any mistakes whatsoever. All mistakes leave traces. Eventually someone might come along and compare the traces. And in those traces, the portrait of Janice awaited, in negative as the form for a bronze statue. But this could never happen. Janice had the redoutable help of conventions. She could not make it all by herself, but with the safe heaven offered her by what a social norm is, with the understanding of how those work, she could hide herself whenever she was tired, unsure, whenever she would normally have had to make a mistake. She was safe, and nobody could tail her, simply because their mind would be too numbed by the commonalities to be able to even conceive what is going on.
"I really am in trouble now, aren't I?"
Paulie finally spoke, his head still low, his shoulders still bent, the morose air still hanging about his entire person.
Janice gave him a look, as if to say "the gods made you smart, did they?" but kept quiet, and Paulie's downard bent head scarcely made a good observation point. He continued, with a mournful voice.
"There is no way I can get the money for the bond together. I'd have to go talk to Ma, but I can't ask her to come here... if she heard anything of this sort, she'd tell Pa, and then..." the boy shuddered, true terror in his big eyes. In spite of his relative lack of experience, or merit, or virtue, he was definitely versed in cowering, he must have had a great teacher.
"And then he'd come here, would he?" Janice's voice was sweet with empathy.
"Yes!" the boy exclaimed, as if that was the ultimate, most unbridled expression of danger, and horrible things to come.
"So to get out you need to get the money, and you need to get the money to get out?"
"Yes!" his voice was almost a cry, a shriek like a mouse caught in a trap.
"Oh dear, what are you going to do?"
His watery eyes made it plain what he was about to do, and not after a long while, at that.
"Listen, there might be a way. I have a friend, you might be able to get a loan, sort things out."
His hopefull eyes slowly gave way to despondence as she spoke.
"No, my Pa knows all the bankers there are, if I were to take a loan he'd know all about it by supper."
"I didn't mean a bank loan..." Janice was calm, almost serene "This is off the street, no way your father can hear about it."
"Really?" Paulie had a new expression, something that went a lot better with his naive eyebrows and unwrinkled complexion, something joyful.
"Yes, what was the bond set at?"
"One hundred and twenty five thousand." Clouds gathered anew on his narrow forehead.
"Well, if you manage to get it all back within a week, I'm sure it's not going to be more than 135 or 140 thousand." Janice was barely containing the chuckle at the thought she's selling secured bonds at 12% a week... as soon as she has a moment she will have to calculate the annuity on that... pity these silly MLM firms didn't know how to use this sort of credential... their loss.
"Ma always said I'll be getting a share of the selling of the Fairmeadow plot... I hope I'll be able to get something on the spot."
"And then you can finally be out of this horrible place. It doesn't fit you." Janice had a wistfull smile.
"Oh, yes, will you help me?"
"Sure, I'll be off right now to settle it out. You should be home free by nightfall."
"Oh, thank you. You are the only one that really loves me."
"I just hope you won't forget all about me in a few weeks. I just hope you aren't that sort of man."
Paulie tried to speak, but all the excitement was too much for him, no words would come out, just tears, a river of tears flooded his face.
Stepping out of the shower Peggy was feeling pleasantly tired after her brisk walk and rather pleased with herself when the phone started ringing. Wrapped in a fluffy green towel she went to answer it, hoping it was anyone other than Ralph.
"Hi, Peggy. So glad I caught you at home, we have missed you lately." Peggy recognized the voice as Carol, one of the neighborhood women she had been friends with for a long time.
"Oh, hi. Well, I have been trying to keep busy."
"I know it is short notice but if you don't have plans tonight Jerry and I would love to have you for dinner, can you possibly make it?"
Peggy hesitated, the short notice thing sounded odd, her neighborhood group had stopped standing on ceremony like that ages ago, hearing it now only emphasized how much of an outsider she had become. In the end curiosity, and the simple truth that she had nothing better to do won and she accepted the invitation.
Dressing for diner she considered the over polite invitation and decided that if Carol wished to stand on ceremony she would do it one better. Dressed, she went to her pantry and selected a good bottle of wine for a hostess gift, then went and sat quietly on the sofa, waiting so as to time her arrival at exactly the fashionable 10 minutes late.
Carol answered the door with too wide of a smile and too bubbly a greeting which was arrested mid-bubble when Peggy offered the hostess gift she carried. Carol's eyebrows went up, just a hair, and the tone was set, each woman would now play her assigned part.
"Why thank you, how thoughtful."
Peggy inclined her head slightly, acknowledging the thanks, "So sorry to be late my dear, unavoidable delay you know."
"Nonsense dear, your timing is perfect, we were just having cocktails in the livingroom."
Taking the bottle of wine Carol turned to lead the way and Peggy followed as if she didn't know the layout of this house as well as she knew her own.
In the living room Jerry was manning the bar and another couple from their neighborhood group was chatting quietly with a man Peggy did not recognize. So that was it, Peggy was here to fill the odd seat at diner, or God forbid, they were actually trying to fix her up. Peggy swallowed and determined to make the best of it.
She eyed the man while Jerry made introductions, which included way too much personal history, Jerry was either very bad at this or it was a set up, or more likely it was both. According to Jerry this was Nick, his cousin, a Wall Street stock broker, now divorced.
Nick shook her hand and smiled, "I am pleased to meet you." He too was eying her, but not too obviously, in fact Peggy was having trouble finding fault with the man. He was just enough taller than her to make them perfect dance partners, not at all thick around the middle like most men his age and his handshake was firm and confident. Peggy gave him a cautious, noncommittal smile, "likewise, I'm sure."
They continued to eye each other a moment too long and Jerry broke the silence asking her what she would like to drink. With a brief glance Peggy noted that her planned diner companion was drinking white wine and she requested the same. Then they all stood about a bit uncomfortably discussing inconsequential and noncontroversial subjects like the weather, while Carol disappeared into the kitchen to put the final touches on the roast.
Dinner was a lot more formal and lengthy an affair than it was customary in the neighborhood, Carol was apparently really putting on a show for Jerry's cousin and Peggy had a hard time sticking to her new diet without being too obvious about it. She noticed that Nick was also not really consuming very much food and at some point their eyes met over a plate of vegetables with too much butter sauce and understanding passed between them, Peggy smiled in spite to herself and suddenly this was more fun than a chore. She and Nick shared a secret and the neighborhood chatter boxes could knock themselves out with all their silly attempts and it wouldn't matter one bit.
Later, sipping an after diner coffee in the living room Peggy contrived to slip Nick her phone number, knowing that they would see each other again and not wanting to give her erstwhile friends the satisfaction. She took her leave with barely more than a polite nod to Nick and vague promises to see her friends more often in the future.
Nick wasted no time following up on Peggy's lead, in fact the call later that same night was so quick as to be almost rude but the humor in his voice and the excuse that he would only be in town a few days made it okay. They chatted on the phone for almost an hour, something Peggy hadn't done since her high school days, and accepting his invitation for dinner and a movie the following night seemed quite natural at the end of it.
"Course I did."
"You horrible bitch that there's no other!"
Janice was chuckling lieing on her back, and the chuckles sent small ripples through her bare breasts, making the nipples cut strange tiny arabesques in the air.
"Did it work any?"
"Of course. I think I am his new mommy."
"You know, sometimes I wish I had the patience myself."
"You mean the skill."
"It doesn't take any skill, it takes the patience to sit there and pay attention to idiots and act, taking their particular idiocy into consideration."
"Hon, any skill always looks to the innocent bystander as if it takes nothing more than patience, being readily doable by anyone so inclined. It never is so."
"Hmm... you know what? I think I want to take Janiceism classes."
Janice's chuckle turned to laughter, and the nipples were trying to jump off by now.
"Oh, you really know how to satisfy a girl. Completely."
"I'm serious tho. You need to give me lessons."
"Nah, I hate telling you stuff, you interrupt too much..."
"I wont interrupt!"
"And if i could just finish my sentence... I'm not very sure it would help you any. You got your own thing, can't say it doesn't work, why bother?"
"It only works so much."
"Like everything else."
"Yes, but what if one day I'll meet a guy with the most perfect ten inch cock that would only be interested in a mommy?"
"Then I guess you miss out."
"Who can afford to miss out on that?"
"Since you insist. There remains the matter of tuition however."
"What, you wouldn't think of asking tuition of a fellow, would you?"
"Hmm... " Janice was pensive for a moment, then her eye sparked with an idea. A great idea, and idea so great it would part mountains and raise seas.
"I've got it. As long as you lick, I'll talk. This will take care of your pesky interruptions too."
"Alright, but if you talk nonsense I'll make you come."
"Heh.... no stopping now, or I might lose my train of thought."
Peggy was on the verge of cursing, all day she waffled back and forth about this evening's plans, it had seemed just the right thing last night but in the light of day it was a frightening prospect. What did she really know about Nick? At least a dozen different excuses had occurred to her, at least three times she picked up the phone to call it off, and now here she was going through her closet like a teenager. It wasn't really that she had nothing to wear, it was that nothing seemed right.
Finally she stepped back, staring at the closet in exasperation, it looked as if a tornado had been through it by now, the clothes were all out of order, half on hangers, and some had even fallen to the floor and had not yet been retrieved. She sighed, there must be something, and went at it again. She was about to give up and really make that call when she spotted the black dress, she had forgotten she even had that thing, a simple black sheath, she had not worn it in ages. Bought years ago when she sometimes had to go to the occasional party with her ex-husband, it was one of those simple things you can grab at the last moment and it always works. She slipped it on, saying a silent prayer that it would actually still fit. It was perfect, she stepped back and admired herself in the mirror, then noting the time rushed to finish the details, like make-up.
Nick was perfectly punctual, the bell rang at exactly 8. She was nervous when she answered the door but Nick's quick smile and easy laugh quickly banished all her fears. He opened the car door for her in such a natural way she didn't even give the women's lib thing about that a single thought, Nick was like that, his simple straightforwardness and decent manners just made you forget about really unimportant things. On the way to the restaurant he asked if she likes to dance, Peggy said that she used to but hadn't been dancing in so long now she really wasn't sure.
"Well, I checked out what movies were playing and I am afraid the selection is pretty dismal, a Harry Potter and a couple of those karate things is about all there is, would you mind if we tried going dancing after dinner instead?"
"Yuck, Harry Potter, I get enough of that sort of thing with the kids, okay let's try dancing."
They chatted a bit more about movies and found that they had about the same tastes, Peggy was not surprised, with Nick it was like they were on the same frequency. It was not at all like Ralph and the other guys at the club, where she sometimes wondered if they even spoke the same language.
During dinner, sometime between the oysters-on-the-half-shell appetizer and the chocolate mousse desert she started feeling there was really something odd about all this. She couldn't quite figure out what it was and whenever she tried to put her mind to it Nick would start in on some fascinating story or good joke or something else that pulled her attention away from her own thoughts.
After dinner he took her to a small bar that she had never noticed before, it was close to her own neighborhood but the sign was very discreet and the parking lot was not full of the usual hangers around you saw in front of bars. Nick said that he found the place last time he visited his cousin. Inside the music was just loud enough to be enjoyable and the seating included soft sofas, not just the standard tables and chairs. It wasn't empty, there were a few couples scattered about but certainly not enough to make it feel crowded. Nick ordered a nice bottle of wine and they sipped, chatted and danced.
Nick was a good dancer, he led very naturally and Peggy was quickly past whatever fears she had about dancing after such a long time, she really couldn't recall just when she had last danced. The conversation while they sipped the wine was delicious, Nick seemed to know something about everything, but managed not to be obnoxious about it. After a few hours Peggy was yawning in spite of all her attempts to suppress it, she was just not in the habit of late hours and Nick suggested it was time to take her home. At her front door he kissed her politely, almost formally, and said good night, leaving her quite astounded, she had really expected him to want to come in.
At last she was alone with a chance to try and think about whatever it was that had been bothering her since dinner, but she was much too comfortable and tired to put any effort into it and just went straight to bed instead.
"I see. Is there more?"
Janice's gaze was unfocused, as if she was looking very very far way, so far it was not really outside anymore. Which explains why she could attempt it indoors, facing a window through which the sun was setting, ten feet away.
"There might be hon, but I'm spent."
"Awww, why do I even bother with older women."
Janice looked at the impetuous youth, not in the slightest slighted, just smiling faintly and played with the auburn locks on her forehead.
During her lite breakfast the phone rang.
"Hi, this is Nick. I just wanted to tell you what a good time I had last night."
"I had a nice time too, I look forward to seeing you again."
Peggy set the phone down thoughtfully, Nick had manners right out of a dime store romance novel, it was almost impossible not to like him. The ease of this whole date thing had put Peggy in a wonderful mood, brave and confident enough to make up her mind to go back to the club today. Whatever had bothered her during dinner must not have been of any importance, certainly not worth worrying about.
Later at the club Peggy found that the various cups and dishes that had been used the last couple of days were filling the kitchen sink and littering the various tables. If Janice or Frankie had been by, they were not the type to clean up. Manny tended to be a bit of a neat nick, she wondered if he too had not been here or was just not interested in keeping things orderly. She stood there staring at the sink for several minutes, then turned and walked away, really no reason it should always be her job.
Fred was in his office, shuffling papers about the way people do when they want to look busy, otherwise the place was deserted. Peggy went to the shelves and selected a book, not even bothering to look at the title, and took a seat on the end of the sofa to read for a bit, but really mostly just to stay around and see what might happen.
"Don't tell me you actually read that stuff!" Peggy was startled when Frankie addressed her, she had been lost in her own daydreams and not even noticed that someone else had arrived.
Peggy glanced down at the book she was holding and was both annoyed and embarrassed to see that it really was one of those dime store romance novels. Realizing there was no reasonable explanation Peggy closed the book and ignored the statement.
"Hi." Peggy managed, half gulped, trying to smile and not really achieving much more than a very faint attempt. She was fidgety and uncomfortable, which was obvious enough to Frankie that she decided to watch and see what happens. Eventually the even calm gaze became unbearable and Peggy ran (or retreated strategically, depending whom you ask) to find shelter in the small kitchen. She stood there for a few moments, enjoying being by herself and trying to find something to do, so the real reason she was there might be obscured from everybody, and most of all from herself. There is not much one can do in such a small kitchen, and pretty soon the dishes were taking a hot, soapy bath.
Frankie picked up the book, figuring it's spoils of war, and since there was not much else to do, started reading it. It turned out it was a classical work, one of those frame story things, and not as boring as they usually are by a long shot. Before she knew it she was immersed reading.
The story of Giacomo Montestrano
Not very long ago there lived in Padua a young man by the name of Giacomo Montestrano, son of a trader who, after traveling the seven seas with his cargoes of Trobriand spices and Punjabi ivory and Nubian slaves and Greek mead and all the other trade goods merchants favour acquired much gold and silver, and, having it safely deposited in the hands of three or four Lombard houses, decided to come ashore forever and get married so there will be someone to care for him in his old age. He picked Padua, as one who has traveled all the ports of the seas would, and built here a large house, and married the sixth daughter of a very old and noble family that had for three generations poor luck in family heads.
He had but one child by his wife, and died before Giacomo was twelve, of old age, in his warm bed, leaving behind well over five hundred talents of gold in the hands of the bankers, as during the years of his retirement the frugal style one is bound to acquire traveling did not leave him.
Son of an old man and brought up as the inheritor of a large fortune that he might not touch, young Giacommo had just one business in his mind, how to spend as much as one can as soon as it could be done, and nothing else. He had many friends, of the sort one is bound to have when young and rich and idle, and he would treat them royally to hunts, and meals, and parties of all sorts.
One night, returning from a hunt that turned to a campestre party that turned in turn to a wine drinking contest, Giacomo and his good friend Oreste became lost from the others, and found themselves in the middle of unknown forest. Trying to somehow find a place to pass the night safely from the many wolves that prowl the surroundings of Padua they managed to locate a small house, and as luck would have it, the old man that lived there made a few silver coins now and again by giving quarters to lost or weary travelers caught by the nightfall trying to reach the city. It was nothing more than a hovel, with one single room, fireplace in the middle under a hole made in the roof to let the smoke out, two beds on one side in which the old man, his wife and their young daughter would sleep, one bigger and the other smaller, and one bed on the other side kept for the occasional traveler. By the side of the wife's bed there stood a cradle with her smallest, and in all likeliness last child.
As soon as Giacomo saw the young girl, he was burned with endless desire, either because she was indeed very beautiful, or because the wine was still with him. He tossed and turned in his bed, trying to think a means of somehow sampling that budding rose, which had become, in his fancy, the very thing his life depended on.
Eventually, not being able to come up with any plan, and with the courage given by spirits, he decided the thing to do is go and lie down in the girl's bed, and attempt what the Creator intended. Hearing everyone quietly asleep, except for the reassuring snores of the master of the house, he stood up and, moving the cradle from its place next to his companion's bed, so it wouldn't be in the way, and God forbid get trampled on, he went and lay down next to the daughter.
Either by surprise, or wisdom, the girl kept quiet and they could enjoy together the first fruits of paradise. About the time they had just finished the second apple and were resting for the third, the mother of the girl stood up and it chilled the very marrow in Giacomo's bones. But, as it turned out, the woman was only in need of a very humanly release and, still half asleep when she returned, felt around for the cradle and finding it next to Oreste's bed, lay down there.
Oreste, awakened by the unexpected visitor, and seemingly having had natural thoughts of his own in his sleep, lost no time to make the woman welcome, as her husband surely did at some point in the past.
Eventually exhausted and thinking the morning must be close, Giacomo kissed his wife for a night goodbye, and tried to make it back to his bed. Still intoxicated, and drowsy with the night's labours, he had forgotten all about moving the cradle, and went and lay down next to the husband, figuring it must be his friend Oreste, since in the other bed a man and a woman were obviously enjoying the intimacy of marriage.
As youth is never satisfied with success, no matter how complete it is or improbable it might have seemed at the onset, and always wants to share it and make others jealous and envious, he began then telling the story of his adventures to the other man, whom he thought to be his friend.
Awakened by some stranger lieing down in his bed, the husband listened for a short while to the brash descriptions and shameless hyperbolae Giacomo was pouring, and then, burning with rage, began shouting and hollering.
Giacomo was struck with panic, and went quiet, making himself as small as he could in the bed. The wife, hearing her husbands voice from afar, felt around to ensure herself and realised she was in fact in the wrong bed, but wasted no time, instead quickly and quietly went to lie by her daughter. After a few moments, pretending to be drowsy and rising from sleep, she asked her husband what serpent bit him that he would scream the entire house awake. When told what great stories the young Giacomo had to share about the way their daughter passed her night, she candidly replied that none of that can be, having she herself been sleeping with their daughter in the same bed, ever since she had to go out and not wanting to wake him up, and that the travelers must surely be drunk and dreaming.
A story that Giacomo readily accepted, and, begging the pardon of the puzzled husband, went to sleep the rest of the night next to his equally satisfied friend.