Dangerous, a novel

Monday, 25 January, Year 13 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

This re-write of the old Dangerous/Hell's Woman story came about in the usual way -- one merry day about a week agoi I wondered outloud within Hannah's earshot why exactly would the man be so idiotic as to not use his woman in dealing with the other woman ?

It's a complete waste, isn't it ? If you had a horse and ran into some dirt you wanted moved, you'd tie the horse to the dirt and spur it, neh ? If you had a hammer and encountered a nail, would you try and pretend it's a thumb tack, like this idiot ? So if you run into some whore why the everloving wouldn't you use your fiance to deal with her ? I know I do, now why don't you ?!

We talked about it briefly, and then I went to bed ; I woke up early, with the first rays of the Sun, and with a clear idea of what exactly will happen.ii The two fall for each other, of course, and well... the rest's details. So I wrote up the entirety of the dialogue, as you can see it now (indeed some minor corrections occured hence, but negligibly minor indeed, a fraction of a percent at most) excepting the final chunk (the reporter on the phone) and the ante-penultimate (the banker guy). These fragments came to me the next morning ; but before that rolled around she woke up, and in harem convened was treated to the greatest challenge of her life so far : Master said unto her "Hey... would you like to write a novel with me ?"

For let it be known and trumpeted across the lands -- this is the life of the slave, the true life of the true slave. You wake one day and you are called, and it's always squarely outside of the reasonable, the reasonably expected, the what you thought might happen.

She confirmed that indeed, she'd like nothing better, either to do or to die trying, and thus I set her to write me the prose to go with my dialogue. She worked the whole day diligently, and then before she went to bed we had a good screaming match to the petrification of the haremesque youth, over how impossible her slight rewrites, adjustments and colorizations made everything. The screaming done we went into detailed reading, like the Talmud, and three passes through the actual rub behind what seemed like complete disaster was pinpointed -- truly, it was one single sentence that had an impersonal tone and an improperly universalized domain, its vagueness suggesting the contrary of the intended meaning ; along with it another one sentence further down needed some slight tightening, and voila! The complete disaster that seemed to loom over five thousand words and metonymically the whole project was fixed by altering something like a quarter dozen! Such are the benefits of careful reading after an exhaustingly satisfying screaming match with one's own, wholly & thoroughly owned, and therefore educated, women.

Work then proceeded, with flows and ebbs, scandals flaring and then reducing, in parallel : she'd carry on writing in the prose, I'd re-write what she had written as she went. Then once she was done and I caught up with her we sat down for a final read of the whole thing, and... here it is, read for yourself.iii

Oh, there was also the one time when, a pleasant Sunday evening, as I read through the glorious scene of Gail's masturbation (as written by her, before my own, quite slight, re-writing pass) I got excited and went over, where my women found themselves working at decorating for Christmas in the nude (such is the the harem life) and had the author suck me kneeling while the unicorn stood and we kissed and then bend her over a table and fucked her cunt, and then bent her over another table and fucked her asshole (I have tables of different heights conveniently spread across the domain) and then took a shower and then got out of the shower, took them both to bed, had the author handcuffed to the headrest while I played with her clit, there's this great position with her over you, like she's a violin in your hands, you'll have to try this sometime for yourself to believe itiv ; all the while the unicorn suckling on my penis and kissing the auctorial cunt at intervals. And then I fucked the author, still cuffed to the post. And then I went on with my life.

But anyways, we digress. Here it is :


The night in New York belongs to the city, each night as tonight. Other places the night belongs to the silence, to inky hues of layered darkness, to the silvery glaze or cheesy effluvia of that solitary, disinterested Moon above. Other places the night belongs to low whispers, to lovers, assassins... to hopes or dreams or music, an old rangaine, wailing its notes of despair as tired prostitutes trot their revolutions on the trottoir. Other places, faraway places, no place at all. The buildings, like so many bejeweled baguettes, melding together towards mean streets and narrow boulevards enforce the City out of the space that everywhere else'd have stood all around. New York absorbs its surroundings in its porous, endless succession of interleaved positive and negative space, oscillating, supporting an electricity subtle, geometric, intoxicating. The streets, grand conductors of unknown vibration, a hollow for the listless and the purposeful alike to pass through without shadow, mere pilgrims without any echo at all. Against the reduced depths of the sky the East River sighs its respite. Between its regrets and the pavements the bright lights of Broadway blink, worn and impatient, telegraphing outlines for everything, from the largest of billboards to the most modest of playbills holding on in the backstreets. Beneath the names of plays and of people vying and clawing for life, the life of the type in the breath of the hype, cars roll by, sealing the street's luminous glory in gleaming reflections of chrome. It's always been a feedback loop, attracting everyone to this sacred cowpath, inspiring some few, expiring some others, forever to be known and remembered by its forceful defects.

People come to start something new, to kill something old, to touch something in, deep, of themselves all the same. Roger Farnsworth came for the shortcut to the gentlemen's club, his regular evening's haunt. Mr. Farnsworth was a practical man and as gaining Times Square's always going to be a push through and struggle at certain times he deliberatedly preferred meleeing with Broadway's own fauna over the available alternatives. He could of course have his car, but then poor old Tom (his driver) would be stuck in the traffic an hour and ten for a modest progress of nine blocks -- the worst part of it being that for the greater proportion of that hour poor old Tom'd be stuck in the presence of Roger Farnsworth himself. How's a working man to be comfortable and at ease like that ? Mr Farnsworth could as well take a cab, but in all honesty if he was going to make a working man ill at ease for something towards an hour he much preferred doing it to his own than some unknown. The walk only took ten, twelve minutes at the leisurest ; there could be other paths, of course, but somehow the refuse of the spirit, the banana peels and fishwaters of the mind seemed greatly preferrable to their genuine, natural and quite sticky counterparts. Their respective manipulators, also. Besides, as he told poor old Tom, as he did every time he went on his walk, the lights of Broadway make rather an ideal garnish for something somewhat like a drink, coincidentally the only way drinks could be had at a time that loudly proclaimed temperance and intemperately delivered sole chintz.

On he strolled to the club, eyelids half closed. Roger was envisioning already, with an eagerness almost akin to enthusiasm, the armchairs upholstered in plush, the canapes and banquettes in their distinctive patterns so reassuringly familiar, the finely cut crystal tumblers, their happy, discreet melodies of fulfillment, the soft yielding of handwoven carpet underfoot -- and the rumble, to be tossed among his friends, good old boys who could always be counted upon to be trading at least two or three layers past the cheap vinylin skin of everyday things. Surgeons only let the patients onto the operating table one at a time, to avoid overwhelm. The club similarily kept the man in the street out in the street, where he belongs. The man in the street may be alright from a distance, but there's always fewer surgeon's hands at hand than there's tumours, cysts and formations beneath the parchment skin of the crowd. One at a time, and the length of the time to be established by anyone but that one.

Roger was alighting with gingerly care, his heavy frame making a point of even the slightest incline, when out of the corner of his eye he saw her. Or at the least thought he saw her. It was a look, an impression, something recalling a look already impressed upon his mind, from long ago. He saw the slanted eyes, full of the self-determination of fury -- or were they slightly less than quite full, by now? A crease of brow, a certain anger ready to pounce into unmitigated joy playing about the corners of her mouth. He took a few tentative steps after her. Hesitantly laying his sizable palm on her shockingly chickenbone shoulder, he begged for his pardon out of the startled woman turned to face him. Perhaps it was her pardon he was begging. Either way, he inquired if he may be so bold as to inquire whether she is indeed Joyce Heath. The actress.

The eyes made slits at him, two casemate openings being readied for protracted naval kindnesses, the sort intended for delivery by artillery, mortar and howitzer. Audibly invisible shrapnel came instantly, made of piercing scowl and elaborately plain denial. No she is not. Mr Farnsworth, the older, portly gentleman who had been slowly thawing into being merely Roger over the past five or six minutes, recoiled at the suddenness of the push, withdrew back into himself, shouldered the onslaught under his own fortifications made of costume just-so, with hat this way and jacket the other way and everything else. If people didn't throw bombs people wouldn't need so much armor, heavy, hefty, inconvenient to carry around. It only exists for fear, but then from fear to fear successively betrayed... Roger assured the actress he's made a mistake, folded his natural impulse under the white flag of elaborately social plainess and turned about. He shuffled despondently towards the threshold of the club, and thereupon soon congratulated himself on having finally reached friendly shores.

His regular set looked up and welcomed Roger to the fold.

"How are you, Mr Farnsworth?"
"Evening, Roger."
"Sit, sit. Please."

"Anthony," Roger sent towards the fast-approaching waiter, as if to meet him half way, "a Sidecar, with just a splash more brandy than strictly necessary."
Horace Elsworth's eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly. Mr Elsworth was a respected enterologist, the medical profession continuing into our present age the glorious traditions of the ancient Haruspex. Although his claims were more limitedly modest than it was previously common, nevertheless he regularily took it upon himself to predict future events on the basis of examinations of entrails, or sometimes reversed himself and attempted to predict the future of entrails on the basis of an examination of events.
"I expect you do know what the thing they call brandy does to your liver these days, Roger."
"Yes," Roger offered in exchange, "That's why I stopped drinking alleged port and turned my full attentions to supposed brandy. The complaints of one's liver are far less conspicuous than those of his nose."
"At least to begin with."

The drink arrived; Roger took a tentative sip, and, finding its effects rather as expected strong enough to overpower its drawbacks commenced more trusting draughts. He cleared his throat. Everyone looked up as though in anticipation of some shocking, or perhaps mildly interesting, or maybe at least not thoroughly mildewy news.

"Do you chaps remember an actress by the name of Joyce Heath?"
Acknowledgement came vocal, guttural and in the general. Yes everyone quite remembered, quite very well remembered the "greatest actress" of a few season past. Old men forget, perhaps, but not just yet. Not quite so fast as the man in the street, not quite so efortlessly fast. Duse they remembered still so then why not Heath.
"I'll always remember her as Camille... Sappho."
Mr. Bellows' eyes gave off a muted sparkle. "I saw her only once, but I'll never forget her. What a vitally tempestuous creature she was!"

Mr. Eldridge tented his fingers, this being his well known trademark sign of an opinion already well-formed, yet about to be presented as a novel introspection. For many years Mr. Eldridge had graced the halls of a certain University with his even speech and thorouhgly considered discourse, and frankly speaking he didn't see any serious impediment retirement should have to put in the way of that well upkept, thoroughly improved and often dredged spring within. He coughed slightly and begun. "It's amazing how strongly a powerful personality can project itself over the footlights. It seems as if everything else on Earth dulls the character in conveying it, while the stage alone amplifies it. The image for instance of the owner of a railroad does emerge through the workings of his bureaucrats and engineers, somewhat still visible, but indeed quite pale, thoroughly distorted, muchly enlarged but greatly thinned so to speak, and the more enlarged doubly, trebly so thinned. Silent Cal is somewhat manifested in the meanderings of that swamp down South, but not nearly so much as'd do any credit to the least gifted sketch in pencil come out of the hand of a lady so young as to not yet have been introduced to society."

He stopped, and oversaw his audience with the grandeur of gesture and such generosity of spirit deep within as of an old fisherman surveying his familiar stretch of shore. Yes, they were well hooked, leaning in, waiting for him to continue. And continue indeed he did, for their benefit, for everyone's contenment, for honest and unadulterated love of mankind. "Just so it went in centuries long past, such as when Wilmot said of his king 'Onward he rolls, from whore to whore. A merry monarch, fabulous and poor, whose word no man relies on, for he's not saying foolish things, nor ever doing wise ones', the same king aptly replied that indeed, his words still he retained his own while his actions long were subsumed by his ministry. Yet on the stage even the slightest talent comes to a lot more than its fair share'd promise in any other human endeavour or entreprise, as if the theatre itself works as a kind of concave mirror, collecting the energies of a thousand disparate eyes scattered among the audience, amplyfing the modest beatings of a thousand asynchronous, distinct hearts, collecting it all and without much loss towards the spotlight, to project upon the woman speaking -- for it always must be a woman -- such bounty and such excess of raw power of human emotion as is bound to fry her alive, if invisibly. It's little wonder the poor scapegoats don't long survive the experience, and never with their spleens intact."

The party exhaled in unison as Eldridge's eyes seemed to come back to the room, regarding them.

"Indeed their spleens seem to complain of the mistreatment even less than one's liver. At least to begin with," ventured Roger, a flighty little flame in his eye, dancing and gesturing its playful scorch towards Horace. It's scarcely credible how small installments fire can be had in, especially if the point's practiced for. The same exact one thing that lightened London of its whole city underneath and St. Paul's of any burden in the skies can also come in slivers so thin as to escape casual inspection, it can be invisibly subdivided to almost nothingness... and yet, utmost diminutive it always stays utterly the same.

Mr. Bellows, also Donald or simply Don to his close friends, yet still too young to follow (or care if he did), continued on his track. "That night I was in the rear of the theater. Yet couldn't have been closer if I'd held her in my arms."
Horace, loaded with a response to Roger sadly too lengthy to be made good on the spot still couldn't quite contain himself. "Perhaps more... intoxicating, if not closer."
"Oh do be quiet," came the entreaty, the faintest frosting of irritation on its edge, "and let the gentleman confess." Mr. Mervyn Dell, a Wall Street man just like Mr Farnsworth himself, but in his youth a military man, and carrying over through three decade's career in the City something of the brashness earned in the field, in years long before everyone had ample opportunity to do the very same.

Donald felt a trace of something like bashfulness trickle over his ticker, but he quickly willed it away. "Joyce Heath never knew it, but she prompted me to make a decision that recast the course of my entire life. The career my family had planned, all but arranged for me in Wall Street... that I discarded. All it took me was one sleepless night to undo their many, countless ones. The urge to create, irrepressible, suddenly overcame me, and I fear I have yet to recover. I soon gave up writing because it quickly became apparent I couldn't write, and music because even sooner it was obvious I couldn't ever play. My only, at best moderate easement is drawing, on which doubtful basis three years in Paris taught me... if not exactly defeat, then certainly the virtues of that sort of temperance young wives call 'compromise'. I still had enough of the urge left to try architecture, and..."

Roger let loose the evening's scoop like an inured player might say "Gin." A momentuous pronouncement to all without the measure of experience. "I saw her tonight, just as I came in." he said.
"No ?!"
Roger nodded. "Dowdy, down and out. Ashamed of being Joyce Heath enough to deny her own name."

Donald gazed into his half-drawn glass. Nearby, seated at the bar and eavesdropping politely from the exact distance such is to be done, a certain Mr. Nathan kept an eye on his paper and half an ear or so on the ongoing conversation. He was reading the print before him for what must've been the twelfth time, despite its circulation being only an hour old by then, at the very most.

"What's the matter, Mr Nathan?" asked the tender, "Isn't the Highball right?"
"Uhm... oh, the Highball. Yes, perfect. Why?"
"Well, you looked as if something perhaps tasted or smelled bad."
"I would rather you hadn't mentioned that." The man folded his paper and fanned his face with it. "I was reading my own column."

"Jean!" Mervyn called, looking round to seek out the source of the sudden draft. "We want to ask you something."
As the man walked over he smoothed a palm across his temple with studied irreverence.
"Yes, it's a toupee."
"No, it's about that actress." Mervyn spoke through his ersatz slush.
"You'll be the first to know when she says yes. You do read the Set, don't you ?" Mr. Nathan, who was sometimes George but almost never Jean made as if to shove off to some greater den of spectator's prattle, when Donald all but pulled at his coat-hems.
"What about Joyce Heath? She was a star."

She readily recalled to Mr. Nathan's mind. "Ah, sparkling Miss Heath. She was too brilliant, too startling for a star." he sunk one hand into his coat-pocket, and brushed a broad stroke against the air with his other, as though to paint her portrait better. "She was a comet. A comet which appeared suddenly, fell spectacularly, and disappeared completely. That, gentlemen, is a metaphor. One of the great actresses in general ; and of Joyce Heath in most peculiar particular."
"That's why I can not read his column," Mr Eldridge said, unable to choose his course between shaking his head or his fist. "He writes that way, too!"

Horace went into his ample warehouse of professional deadpan stares, picked one at random and put it on. "The finest salad of choice words. Though tell us George, whatever happened to her?"
"She's disappeared. Dematerialized, dissolved. Gone. There's nothing ex-er than an ex-actress."
Donald furrowed his brows. "But... how?"
"Fantastic as it may sound... a jinx." George paused and willed his audience to bate their breath. "One she put on other people."
"A jinx?" Donald's incredulity rung like brass. Surely someone who took himself so seriously as Mr. Nathan certainly appears to couldn't also be frivolous enough to believe in jinxes?

George had no objection whatsoever to taking the opportunity of gracing the group with his superior grasp of thespian history.
"It started when her leading man was shot dead, his blood splattered on her very gown one opening night. From then on, everyone associated with her was haunted by failures, divorces, suicides and scandals. That's right. She practically lived on the front page, but not at all like the perennial admired maidens. Full woman, ripe, dangerous, a killer but indirect, poisonous. At first, she laughed at the superstition. Then she believed it. Then... Well, last time I saw her, three or four years ago, she was struggling to somehow escape a contract for a cheap Vaudeville tour, halfway through. A terrible Southern Summer, I was uninspired enough to visit Mencken down in Tennessee. I ran into her modest billing there by sheer coincidence, their publicist evidently as thorough as'd befit something along the lines of a rural wedding. She was worn, hopeless. Then she vanished. Like the magician's beauty." he unclasped his hands and sent his slender fingers flitting through the air as though to suggest a mysterious evaporation of butterflies.
Donald frowned. "Sounds almost unbelievable, doesn't it."
"But it happened," retorted George, quick to throw the weight of his person behind the lofty vistas of his description.

"Well, I've got to break into a trot if I want to change and pick up Gail in time. We have a dinner date." Donald smiled wanly.
"The Lindens?"
"The Lindens."
A silent groan propagated through the shifted seating of the group.
"I think they get most of their guests from the tomb of Ramses The Second." proposed Roger.
"There's quite a few valuable Civil War relics among them, too!"
Donald smiled, nodded and departed before his group decided if they'll move on to a discussion of ancient or more recent history. They did neither, of course, the immutable rule of all clubs being that conversation must always follow the recently departed. Roger's downcast gaze met what was left of the ice cubes in his drink. "A clever boy, that."
"They say one of the best architects in the country," provided Mr Elsworth.
"With his reputation, Gail's considerable endowments not to mention her ready mastery of Schieffelin family connections... yeah, the old boy'll come out alright."
"What's here meant by endowments, I must say..." A flurry of wriggling eyebrows broke out amongst the men.
"I've yet to see the man who can say no to her." sutured Horace.
"By which way," said Mr. Eldridge, "when are they to be married?"
"It hasn't been arranged, yet." Roger nodded knowingly as he spoke.
"How do you know?"
"Mrs Farnsworth hasn't heard."
"Maybe they're keeping it a secret?"
"What, from my wife?" Roger laughed. "Impossible."

~ * ~

Donald happily took in the gentle notes of violet and rose as he passed the fresh bouquets placed here and there along the wainscotting that lead to his top-floor apartment. He relished the thought of changing into a welcoming pair of loafers, of a fresh, newly-pressed shirt, and of Gail for dinner. The image of the actress as brought back to his mind faded quickly, to match the ruin of her actual person, at least if what had been alleged stood for fact. When he opened the door he found his manservant even quicker on the draw than usual.

"Good evening, Cato."
"Good evening and welcome home sir." came the response, like ricochet off the beaming, diminutive Philipino.
"I'm late, Cato. You'd better draw me a bath, lay out my dinner jacket and... never mind the bath."

The charm of a voice as pleasant as if sieved through ten thousand earnest smiles splashed up to his ears. "Did you ever try putting celluloid fish in the tub to entice him into it, Cato?"
"Gail! How long have you been waiting here ?"
"I finished early, so I came over to save you the bother of driving out to get me."
She was always lovely, and moreso that night, her hair just-so, and yet effortless, a plunging gown suggesting all manner of timely untyings at her shoulders and about her waist. As she approached him he lost himself, as he oft did, in the nameless potpourri of painted fingertips and razor-straight lipstick, all vanilla and bergamot, soft skin backlit somehow like golden ricepaper. He wanted, he deeply urged to feel her skin -- but then, he knew, they'd end up being much later than could possibly pass for polite.

"You're a goddess. My god I could kiss you! Uh, Cato .. stew up a cocktail."
"I don't want a cocktail, thank you."
"Well, some hors d'oeuvres, Cato."
"They'll spoil my dinner..."
He was determined to please her with something other than his wanton carnal urge, but she seemed hell-bent on bringing things right back round to the front of his trousers, which he was meanwhile zipping, stepping into his evening suit.
"Cato, you fix the young lady a ham sandwich whether she wants it or not."
She smiled slyly. He adjusted his collar and spun towards her, presenting himself.
"What do you think?"
"That I love you."
She eyed him, following the sharp creases of his pants, then up over his arms and to his neck. Her gaze fell over the curve of his ear, and she fondled her earring. She twisted it, the golden spur biting into the soft flesh of her earlobe, and for a moment she felt herself echoed in him, or else him in herself. She flooded with the want, stronger than anything, to prove the point of their indivisibility, in flesh and blood. He said, "Well, I'm pretty fond of myself this evening. The bank is going to make the building loan."
"Ah Don! Excellent!"
Her smile gave its frisky curl over to the unabashed lines of pride.
"Miraculous is the word. All I have to do is put a hundred thousand in escrow."
"They could let you have the land now." She had, as always, an eagle eye out for his interests, despite -- perhaps because of, the fact that he didn't need it.

"I'm not so worried about that side of it. They need money more desperately than anyone, they'll come out alright."

It wasn't a cathartic pep-talk; he was, she knew by verified experience, truly, effortlessly assured of the righteousness of his decisions, and of the weight of his determination. It was a pleasure to witness the ease with which he conducted himself, in business as in everything else, where most others would have worn and worried themselves into drink, and death eventually. She was truly happy for him -- for his success as means to the true delight, the firmness of his confidence.
"Just think of really starting on the estates! After dreaming about them for years."
"I know exactly how they're going to look. Unless I fall down, they'll be the most beautiful estates in the whole country. And I can't fall down. I've worked too hard, I've waited too long to flop."

Gail's eyes glazed over with that particular joy of watching plans break forth, branch out, and begin to yield true fruit. "It seems as though it's all really going to come through, doesn't it."
"I'd say we have everything, young lady!"
"And best of all, we have us." She moved closer.
"Especially I have you. Gail, I don't think I'd trade you for a million in bullion. And I haven't even put you to work in earnest yet!"
"That's a flattering thought..."
He hooked a hand, fresh-cuffed at the wrist, around her vanishing waist.
"You think I couldn't sniff a certain dainty little satin glove ? Somebody sent somebody to talk to a board member or two, or three. That was the prettiest change of banking mind I ever did see, and doubly so for being toward me!" At this, Gail blushed a little.
"How could I not, Don ? I love you so."
Though they'd been looking into one another's eyes throughout, in that moment they seemed to find some still wider window between them, as though a curtain had been lifted, revealing her to him, and him to her. Gail inhaled sharply at the rush of it; Don pressed himself toward her, seeking out her lips.

Cato burst through the double doors brandishing a silver tray.
"Ham sandwich, please?"
Gail tore herself from Don's embrace, and, regarding the sandwich doubtfully, raised a slender piece of crust only to pout impetuously. "No mustard."
"No mustard?!"
She shrugged her shoulders, as if to suggest no sandwich could possibly be considered while lacking so crucial a condiment. "No mustard."
"Cato," growled Don, "go look for some mustard. If you find any and dare bring it in here, you'll go out looking like the fastest-moving hot-dog in Manhattan."
The manservant rushed out as swiftly as he'd entered. Gail turned round and found the man's annoyance rapidly fading out, to be replaced by that familiar selfless grin.
"I'm ecstatic."
"Why?" she wanted to hear him tell her more about herself, about his attraction, about their future.
"Because, darling, I have very good business sense."
"You ineffable cad, you." Gail envisioned an evening of feeding each other ham sandwiches, hors d'oevres, and cocktails in the nude until completely stuffed, her especially.
"You adorable darling, you."
She shook off the image. "Darling, hurry and get dressed, or we'll be late for the Lindens."
Don frowned. "Can't we get out of it somehow?"
"No, we cannot. You'll meet a lot of people there who can afford to buy your houses."
"People who go to the Lindens don't need houses, they need tombs."

Gail laughed, throatily and with her eyes rolled back deep in her head. It was his favorite way, manner and kind of her countless such ways, manners and kinds. "Nevertheless."
He thought a moment. Then he uttered, firm, deliberate, crushing almost "Gail, I want you to do something for me."
"Yes Don ?"
"I want you to go down on your knees before me, Gail. Right now."
"I want you to go down on your knees and pledge yourself, to be my servant. To be obedient. Submissive, always reined in... I want you to rein yourself in, Gail, and give your reins into my hand yourself. Completely."
His voice hadn't exactly changed, yet it resounded incomparably manly, somehow. It was as though his happiness had twice intensified and amplified his voice, so that it seemed to thunder down at her from all points above, and at once.
"I... Don, I am a woman, I'm not... I'm not... a slave."
The voice left no space in the room for her protestations. "I want you to be my slave. More than that : I want you to be a woman that makes herself my slave."
Gail's breathless admiration of him lingered, fixed upon her features ; yet her pupils shrank in what Don thought must be the first display of fear he'd ever seen in her.
"Please." It wasn't exactly a command, nor quite a suggestion, either. He wasn't asking or demanding of her -- he was opening himself, in a way and to a place she'd never seen before. She wondered if it had always existed, waiting to be revealed, or if it were just now somehow born. She yearned to cover him with kisses and say yes, yes, to give him everything, all that he asked for, more than he asked for or could ever be asked at all ; but as so often in her life before curiosity first had the upper hand on her.
"But... why ?"
"Because I've never met anyone I loved so much, Gail. I don't think I ever will. I don't think I can." Though she wasn't sure she entirely understood the relation, she understood his heart, and that was all she really needed, or for that matter wanted.
"I... I'd do anything for you."
"I know. It is the greatest thing, the greatest thing I know, never before heard of or imagined, because it's unimaginable, plain and simply unimaginable. I wouldn't trade you for the world, and I want to squeeze you for everything you're worth. Every last bit and drop and sliver of it. I want it thorough, I want it complete. I want to enslave you, Gail. Literally."
She was, if not enslaved yet, enraptured for sure. Confused still, and in far greater measure terrified, but enraptured all the same. Gail's delicate mouth trembled as she spoke. "Like one of those poor colored girls, living their lives deep down in the South so many years ago ?"
"Much moreso. I want to train you, I want you to train yourself, every day, every moment, to be my slave."
She thought a while, or at least thought was the placeholder she used to explain the furious racing of ideas and objections in her head. Her eyes traveled from Don's, to his hands, to the sole of his crossed foot, back to his eyes again. Eventually, half-audible, she uttered, "How would that go, Don ?"
The immediacy of his answer shook her. "Call me sir."
"Sir Don ?!" She suddenly wondered what Cato would think.
"No, just call me sir when we're alone. It's little things like this, they'll build and build on themselves, they'll grow in your fertile bosom, they'll shape and support your love and they'll change you, Gail." He walked round the room knotting and unknotting his knuckles, popping them nervously, one by one. He seemed to be traversing with his feet a map his mind had already seen and followed many times. "They'll change you forever, little by little. They'll build on themselves and make you my slave. When you think of me, think of me as the rider, riding you. Think of yourself, the mare, bit in your mouth. Think it, between your teeth, holding your great big jaws slighlty ajar. Think it, right over your tongue." Suddenly he turned and his eyes pierced hers. "Think yourself ready to go, whichever way I pull, gladly, joyously, like you are. Think of yourself as my slave and let that thought wash everything else out of you."
She was as liquid, barely able to keep herself upright. "Oh... sir."
He approached, but stopped short of where he knew she wanted him. Every part of her body, and, he knew, her mind, was pointed towards him, open to him, willing him to come to her and take what he wanted. She wanted to hurt for him, to feel the ache of her love and the desire that never quenched no matter how close they became spread over her being and into her life. Consumed by her passion -- that was the only way she wanted to experience passion at all, otherwise what was there to distinguish one fancy from the next, truly? She bit her lip."That's right," he purred at her, "Suck all that poison in your mind and let it course and seep everywhere through."
"But will I... will I... may I still live ? Like this ?"
"Why sure. For everyone, for the whole world you're still Gail Schieffelin, heiress, and socialite, sparkling conversationalist and sharp tongued wit, and everything else." His hand popcorn-flashed in a cascade before her, splaying at her manifestations in the working world. "But for me..."
She said it without hesitation, as though she too had something buried in her that had been waiting to be revealed, now bounding out. "A whore."
She knew she was supposed to be ashamed, but she wasn't, not in the slightest. She only hoped against all hope she won't be scorned and cast off now that she was all laid out. "That is the word. Isn't it ? Sir ?"
He looked at her a long, honeydropped moment, giving no clue as to whether he'd jump in and join her. But of course he would! Before she could make her wide eyes any wider in beseechment, his voice delivered her: "A whore, used, for money. A slut, enjoyed, for pleasure. An impudent harlot, beyond fresh, perfectly capable of taking anything, inside, and making it hers and of herself. Everything. Every thing."
She pulled herself over the side of her seat, nearly tipping it over as she tried to extend her neck towards his distant, outstretched hand. On the very edge of balance she reached it, and stroked herself against the friendly but unmoving palm. "Our secret," she said.
"I won't tell if you won't."

~ * ~

Extracting oneself from a dinner party is an accomplishment far from trivial, indeed outside the reach of a preponderence of the social elite. This is necessarily true, for if it weren't, there wouldn't ever have existed such a thing as the dinner party in the first place ; to the casual, inexperienced amateur the problem presents a flawless, armored facade without chink or pore : one can not leave who has already arrived, and one should always arrive who has confirmed, and one must confirm if one accepted, except if one has a good reason, which are in short supply and besides, if such a thing as a credible reason were available one shouldn't have accepted in the first place. It is, in other words, exceedingly simple to not be invited to a society dinner party, at all or ever again ; leaving such a party without prejudice to future invitations, however... that's another matter.

The enforcement of these theoretical interlockings is observed in practice (and with the greatest care) by a specially bred class of guardians, conceivably produced through the application of the loins of Cerberus upon the buttocks of Argus of antiquity (though in reality merely the result of devoted Motherhood, doting upon one or more daughters of marriageable age). The dinner party may be universally boring to everyone there present ; but only a fraction of the participants make an equitable distribution of this boredom the chief mission of their own salvation. Yet through exquisite application of such tackles and lures as Pallas herself may only to her own chosen suggest Gail triumphed in her designs, and whisked her beloved Don the fuck out of there -- though not before both spending some of life's precious substance towards the watching of their own descent into ever more listless, mortified moods, hour succeeding hour like years of famine upon months of draught, visibly greying so-and-sos all about chattering endlessly. Mrs. Solliloquy had read a very interesting piece on the thirty-fourth vessel to cross the Panama Canal, though she couldn't quite remember its name, its origin or destination, or anything pertinent about its crew. Across the table Mrs Periphrase belaboured graciously towards the hopeless end of a sentence she had by all appearances begun on a different occasion, a different day, perhaps a different year -- explanatory interludes interrupted in turn by ever growing tides of ellipsed divagations in turn fragmented by impactions of grammatically sound substance of clear linguistic origin and no obvious purpose or voir dire. Towards another end of the blighted room Mrs Colophon provided an endless outpour of brief adnotations and commentary in a potpourri of subjects disjointed beyond compare yet dissonantly rhyming at odd ends in cacophonic splendour. Altogether the aventure, a brave exploration of Man's intrinsically absurd fate, rather efortlessly and without particular design put dedicated authors' atempts to render the situation for the stage into childish play. Oh poor Adamov, Artaud, Eluard, Ionesco, Jarry, Vitrac et al, if only you had known!

Before his eventual liberation Mr Bellows nevertheless did have good (if not necessarily enviable) occasion to roll out some of the more unexpected features of his planned estates to a group of gentlemen rapt for politeness' sake, though their assorted inquiries betrayed if not necessarily disinterest in the architect's own project certainly a shocking lack of familiarity with the notion of a building in the first place, along with a plurality of other basic concepts borne of general human experience with habitation upon the land. While spinning her complex web Gail dared look at him from time to time, judging his remnant stamina as ever drained by the stultifying if necessary pleasantries, and praying the saints of war, bloodshed and rebellion for his benefit. She lent an ear to Riccardo Martin as he tried in vain to relate to the party something of the serenity he felt when singing on the stage ; but Mrs. Linden's frequent interruptions to inquire whether the man knew Carruso, or whether whichever production, event or occurence to which Martin tried to refer had had Carruso involved in some capacity deflated him to the point that the booming tenor was eventually plain silent.

Now and again a voice amongst the mercenaries chimed in with a defective pun or a piece of stale novelty ; but as the courses progressed from canapes to meat dishes, from salads to sautees, through entremets and into cheeses, coffees, cordials, and cakes, Gail's patient, careful needlework took shape and... off they went! Behind them, abandoned to their fate, the other amorous and therefore animated elements of the crowd on their own lookout for an excusable retreat. Rebuffed in their amateurish, ill-considered gambits, plied with biscuits and fruits in retribution, the bravest, least experienced in their doomed circle turned to suggestions of feeling unwell. These in turn had to be abandoned as quickly as deployed, upon the gracious hosts seeming readiness to open untold bounties of medicine chests and cabinets, plus spare bedrooms to let alone the poor private physicians, no doubt asleep though doubtlessly the very best, each and every one of their abundance assuredly the best in their field, you know. Reportedly at some later point Mr. Martin stated plainly that he was leaving, and through this unthinkable if apparently quite workable expedient found his way back to his own freedom, the only other one so blassed, his highly admired trade (and presumed proximity to Caruso) perhaps sufficient pavise for the circumstance.

As Gail delicately arranged Don's coat outside the threshold, they heard what was very distinctly not the Lindens' cat.
Gail wuff'd in rebuttal.
"Me-e-e-yaow!" came the retort. Twas Ted, the ready perpetrator of the Irish goodbye on the frequent occasion of many such an tangling affair, his regularly easy-going nature and perdurant topping of desirable bachelor lists on account of his father's peerage across the channel and his uncle's substantial holdings in the City (not to mention his own, effectual and well maintained disinterest in the particular sacrament of union) allowing him liberties no one else comparably enjoyed. Yet Ted stood unimpressed, to his own self constantly true, and always to be counted upon for quick laugh or a fast favor. He shook his head in disbelief as he rounded the hedge towards them.

"Gail and I couldn't stand it any longer." Donald sliced the air with his hand.
"Some day we must sit down and you might tell me all about it!" said Ted, in burnished tones of creaking formality. "Being the extra man at a Linden party is like being a spare corpse at a wake." he continued, in his more common laddish voice.
Gail finished straightening Don's collar. "I could kiss you for getting us out of there." he offered in thanks.
Ted attended to his own, straightening it insistently but ineffectually, squarely missing the important points of the activity. "I could too, if you didn't look so much like a horse that threw me once."
Gail brushed the young man's hand off his cuff and made a few quick adjustments herself. "Be exact. There have been so many."
Ted laughed. "Delightful women you take up with. Where away, shrew?"
An idea seized her. "You know what I must do?"
"Steal a water melon?" Ted suggested.
"Get tattooed?" Was Don only half-joking?!
"Paint moustaches on the library lions ?" Ted wasn't joking at all, but earnest as fresh brick wall.
"One of you are bound to say something rude if this goes on much longer. Let's go to the shooting galleries and Honky-Tonks and things!" Gail felt thirsty for a mad dash through a bright and crowded mass, coins tinkling, organ grinders doodling, a good palate cleanser to wash away the dinner's doldrums and usher in what would hopefully be another dose of Don's newfound mastery of the English bondage. She closed her eyes a second, seeing herself an impressed lad "of maritime habits", pressed in service to his Majesty the King Don, against her will, at least at first, roughly, thick ropes and... but then the King would don his crown, and she'd feel...
"A capital idea!" Ted in his usual manner was readily given to anything that smacked even faintly of imprudence, under the flimsiest of pretexts if any could be had at all, or otherwise without as well. "I'll send my driver home, and we'll all go with you in your car."
Donald rebuffed him squarely and immediately. "No you won't. I've got a tough day tomorrow. I want to get up early. I don't want to spend tonight escorting you in, and carrying you out of nightclubs."
The young man feigned hurt. "Say, listen. I've never been carried out of any place in my life. Thrown, yes, but carried... never!"

The cream and chocolate Cord L29 whisked the lovely pair through Manhattan like an angry bee draped in a velvet sash, followed up close by the drunk man's driver, imperturbable. Tom played with handles and yanking at knobs, fidgeting about his car while Don covertly explored the hem of Gail's immaculate crinoline with his occasionally free right hand. The thought of an accident overpowered him, he saw the car running through the dirt, dragging Gail through it, he imagined her blemishless face streaked with mud and minutiously scratched, tiny beads of blood breaking through the filth. A terrible thought.

They reached the intended destination physically undamaged, and forth they ventured, into the blazing flashbulbs and footfall-echoing boardwalks of almost Midtown. The night was a whirlwind. Don won for Gail a comedic stuffed starfish with streamers festooned at its points; she fed him Swedish potatoes drowning in vinegar, something called a Kroska Kartoshka which apparently is an old Viking hero or somesuch. Ted wandered off several times, chasing a skirt flittering in the night wind or trying to pick up the bill on a lone lady's ice cream cone. They drank, they ran from one parlor to the next; they had, as though in retribution for their dinner, pointed, determined, systematic fun.

Arm in arm, laden with tchotchkes, snacks, and side-stitches, the three were hop-skipping over the boards when Don let out the night's first earnest yawn.
"Come on," Gail said, her pulse running faster for the self-denial of it all, "let's not go home."
Ted couldn't object to that ; he prided himself in never having refused such a proposal from a lady yet. "Let's go in there and splash about in some bird's nest soup!" He waved an inebriated arm towards a hole in the wall, naive illustrations of publican paraphenalia liberally drawn around its door and windows, the kind of advertising only drunks and true graffiti afficionadoes could appreciate.

Gail didn't. Instead she pointed her demure nose to a little dive across the street, something that had perhaps passed for a classy joint fifty or so years prior, owing to that period's differing ideas of class and macaroni. But there was nothing in New York, open or not, that Ted wasn't willing to follow her into, and enthusiastically at that. "A harbor for flotsam and jetsam. A bit of O'Henry's!" he exclaimed, his humour buoyed perhaps even more by the vividly present Gail than by any truck with the past gins of a time afore, spirits of ages past imbibed as they were an hour or three hours or even six or nine before.

Donald wanted to simply sit, at least for a moment. Also to keep a more attentive eye on Gail, who through discrete sips of an admixed variety since escaping the Lindens had managed to raise herself to being particularly suggestive. Perhaps she was merely trying to tell him something, something wider than mere words, something of breath beyond the breathing. She'd certainly seemed on the verge of spilling herself out to him earlier, back at the apartment; there was, back then and there, a question in her eyes her lips didn't articulate, her mind perhaps too self-entangled to profess. She had called herself a whore, something as perfectly shocking and out of character as trilling swans, in all probability her first time ever uttering that word. What could it even mean, in the mind as on the lips of a beloved, protected, enclosed heiress, a lovely, earnest girl that's nevertheless lived her entire life sequestered in the cloisters of the Upper East Side ? What could she think of when she thinks of that, what innocent constructions of Operetta and French novelesque romanticism, what notions, what images, how formed and how in turn dispelled ? Did that famous and famously reported quote of Nell Gwyn's inform her ? Which one, perhaps the one discussing a Presbyter's praying daughter ? The one going "Good people, please remember I am the Protestant one ?"

Don's fascination with her ever grew, the fonder for the time spent contemplating its faint, barely perceived edges. He imagined her crawling to him cat-like, her spine curved involuntarily in what, were she a mere animal, 'd be called copulative lordosis. But is she not an animal, mere or otherwise ? Did he not himself tell her to be an animal ? She appeared to him fantastic, half lioness half flying mare, her gigantic hoofclaws ripping at a diminutive foyer carpet as she was mounted, publicly, harshly, painfully, cast iron chain connecting the inwardly spiked collar on her slender neck to his own, grotesquely dilated fist. He'd subdue her with something that felt more like a log, she'd coil in visceral pains inimaginable under him yet uttered, as she'd coil for more, and push and tear at herself with him. Would she know how to present herself like a whore, true and earnest, as anything else she ever did ? Was it in her, was it an inheritance of blood and womanly sweet curve, a heirloom as sweet as dew, as sure as doom, inside her, deeply, undeniably, as part of her as whatever makes her hair grow out fair and her nostrils flare in fright ? Could she beg him, would she open herself, her ankles apart, her legs wide, her thighs wider, would she reach down and open herself with her own fingers to the very threshold of sharp pain and then beg him, implore him to end, to make, to...

Her features then morphed into the diamond-points of pleading, her eyes atear, her breast aheave, her precise lip now pouting, trembling, insecure. A mouth that couldn't help but taste itself, whispering heavily the scripture of determined ends, telling him that she wants to know herself a woman, moaning her fundamental need to the world, a world coincidentally and momentarily limited to just him ; or perhaps not so momentarily, perhaps not coincidentally at all. You're a man, she'd beg of him his own being commensurate with the relentless, aching ache inside. She'd plead and she'd implore, aside of all restraint, astride the thin wall separating the momentary night of reason from the endless insanity of the permanently lost. "Be a man to me, please, please, please...". Don scoffed at his own reverie. He wasn't much given to such passtimes ; even his erstwhile visits among the confused lands of milky sugared water dripping in absynthe seas yielded remarkably little in the vein of the paricular mood of girls, young women, vagabonds and queers. He just didn't daydream, it wasn't him, a stern shake of his head never failed in resetting the inner clockwork closer to the senior Bultitude's vein of preoccupations.

He observed the real Gail, the present Gail, all but jumping up and down like a kid to egg him on to the seedy dive. No, she didn't know how to tell him, how to ask him that certain something. Not yet, anyway. He took her arm. "Let's go in."

It wasn't exactly that the clientele, such as they were, brought down the place. Rather the joint's raw reality gave no counterpoint to the patrons' entrenched lack of charm. A hard-set life-likeness pervaded all, the tumblers not finely cut crystal nor otherwise cut, nor crystal at all. Mere glass, chipped this way or that because of its own history and for no future point, existence as a story in the sense of history rather than in the sense of promise. Every possible furl having been long unfurled there was nothing there left t'unfurl. Paint peeled from the walls, but it wasn't funny. It didn't hint, it didn't mean, it just fell down. There were no pictures hung about the walls, no decoration of any kind, no attempt at representational anything for them to decode, to reinterpret, or to mock. Complete iconoclasm reigned, a heartfeltedly protestant lack of music dominated the din. The absent mirrors, not hung on any walls, made through their absence the acrid smoke a thing quite different from frank Roman smoke, from God's own thing. This here was just smoke, plain in a sense neighbouring on impropriety. Duly made through the plain burning of tobacco, here because it hadn't yet been made to go anywhere else. The waiters sported no accents, no pretense to an accent, no moustaches at all. A few bare bulbs screwed into the focal points of lazy fans, large, dried-out daisies swelling the billows like their smaller version ensconced in an old maid's secret pressbooks of antique recollection. A few tables and chairs, hewn by left-handed axe, polished by misery, presented themselves orderly to inspection. They were kept in line, systematically and regularly returned to good order by the unyielding activity of the unpretentious waiters.

Gail and the men felt yanked to soberiety, as if they had stepped not so much into a watering hole, but rather a reasoned, scientific reconstruction of such a thing, perhaps prepared for an exhibition, maybe in a museum of oddities somewhere. At any moment there could reasonably be expected a throng of schoolchildren be marched in, the place seemed to implicitly promise, a tall, gaunt teacher marshalling their even, systematic trot for the valued introductory explanations : 'Here, children, is a bar, those are people drinking, those are the drinks' and then clarifications, brought about by alien, unfeeling questions, 'No, they don't get paid for being here, they come here of their own volition, yes alcohol is bad for them yes they don't think things through, these are the kinds of things unreasonable people do in places that don't make any sense'. Mommy does not approve, though she tolerates, especially when nobody asks her anything and then only, tedium reconstructed by the tedious out of the stolen means and borrowed ways of normal human beings.
Gail spoke first. "This is practically the Linden's party for poor people."
Then Ted, repressing the urge to elbow the woman a bit. "Whose idea was this?"
One of the waiters intercepted the trio and led them to their table, by his manner and in intention probably the best table in the joint, but in context indistinguishable from all others. It wasn't closer to the absent stage than any other, it wasn't more or less spacious, more or less anything. It was just one of the equidistant equal identical tables in the wonderful world built upon protesting the old, and propositioning the return of logic and especially good sense in the future and bettering mankind. Such bettering as perhaps had been had imperceptible to Donald, he half-proposed they move off to the bar. Gail looked at him and chimed "You'd better sit where he tells you to, dear." her ready, unblinking, almost automatic submission to the insane dictates of the absurd compilation of brokedness worrisome to him.

A man of perfectly blank expression stood at the bar, methodically drying a cloudy short glass. At regular intervals the tender refilled the glass from a bottle in front of the man ; at equally regular intervals the man, taking great care to only touch his own lip against the fifth or so of the glass' lip that had no chips visible on it, dried it again. The combination vaguely brought to mind the gaudy figurines in the medieval towns of Europe, decorating the elaborate medieval clocks held high, aloft, in towers older than this land. The man could just as well have been one of those eternally dipping birds made of glass and ether. He had not greeted them as they sat down. He didn't even raise an eyebrow. He simply went on drying the glass, perfectly capable of looking each in the eye and betraying not one single iota of humor, let alone human recognition. Donald ordered Highballs, converted then to very dry Martinis in turn converted to just gin. The liquid delivered perhaps was even gin, in some context, somewhere. None of three could drink such gin as this gin was, nor could recall a time they last attempted anything in the vein. The car could perhaps in a pinch be made to run on it, but that'd be the limit of its utility to human civilisation, as far as they could tell.

The bartender's wrists appeared the only animated parts of his whole body, as if someone had saved on articulations, and made the whole bulky mess of mostly solid wood. His wrists, the joints that served, against mind and spirit, against a body otherwise unwilling to serve anyone anything. Whether it was the case he'd tried once and failed, or been betrayed, or, as Donald suspected, that he'd never really tried at all but only told himself he had, like an ass pretending to have been at the horse races, it made no practical difference at all. At his first and final sip of the impossible swill, Donald reasoned it would be fairly easy for anyone who spent enough time around the not-a-man and his not-a-drink to become resigned to such a fate for themselves. It is, after all, certainly easier that way.

Gail, for her part, couldn't decide which was worse: the way nobody in the place talked, even while drinking, or the look that'd come over Don's face. Though she'd never seen the like of the dive, she felt it instinctually, as though it were a sort of presence in itself. A dark, deadly presence, something at the end of the line, yes, a den, a pit that ate up people who were so tired or sad they just wanted to keep moving along, the Muselman afore the tide. But they couldn't keep moving, not to the standard of actually going anywhere, because the pit picked them off, tripped them into its bottomless belly, there to be slowly digested bit by bit until they were nothing but spirits left.

"Oh Don," she said, "this is such a depressing place. You can chalk one up against me. I certainly can pick 'em."
He raised his almost-untouched glass at her ironically. "You don't want to stay?"
"No, let's get out of here. Come on."
Just as Don was about to spring up and make with his feet towards the night's second escape from despair, a woman at the far end of the room turned her face towards them, her empty glass unattended in her hand. Mr Bellows instantly recognized, instantly knew that face. That snarl on it imprinted, if of an entirely novel conception, was not a surprising visitor of it but rather a natural continuation, perhaps better said devolution, of the previous, remembered hues and tones of its expression. The woman most resembled an old keepsake taken down from the attic, dusted and worn yet past it all still reminiscent of the ideal object carried in memory even if so thoroughly worn and battered by elementary neglect as to have become almost unrecognizable.

It was the actress. It was Joyce Heath, the very woman he'd been discussing with his set back at the club. Roger really had seen her! What strange force could drag a talent so fine as hers into the dirt, he wondered, only to spur it on to wander about town once thus disheveled? He had to speak to her. He had to find out for himself the nut inside this mystery which everyone else seemed to take so matter-of-factly, like it were an everyday occurence of no consequence and even less interest. People who'd never really been people could be ruined, sure, in the sense of their ever ruin being made outwardly apparent just as it had always dwelled within ; but wasn't a person, once chosen, branded, and verified by talent and ambition, and especially once validated by his own observation and approval, thereby immune to ever falling? She had inspired him, once. In Donald's mind that was good enough reason to inquire after her now, even if it meant further exposing himself to the blessings specific to this little corner of peculiar hell.

Both Gail and Ted were standing, clearly eager to blow the place, but with an indescriptible gesture of his hand they nevertheless decoded he bade and begged them sit back down as he rose to approach the woman's table.
"Wait a minute," he said as he approached vertiginously, thrown at the notion anything in the bar, the lengths of floor included, could keep him far from her an instant longer.

Her pillbox hat was moth ridden and in places otherwise worn or stained, yet sat exactly right on her wobbly head; her gloves stained too, and in dubious shades best not discussed. The woman's dress was an improbable collection of once pricey rags. Though a velvet sash with an enormous rose was still mostly intact the whole assemblage rather betrayed the cousin once removed of a noble house fallen on hard times, a mess of caught seams and baggy spaces, six cents of costume made through the wearing down of yards of fabric at some point sold for sixty dollars to the yard. What was most striking, though, as he reached her table and turned to face her, was the look in Miss Heath's large eyes. Somehow a perfect echo of the ruin laid across and all about her body, her eyes shone as dejectedly as any Donald had ever seen -- no, much moreso, somehow much moreso he thought.

She didn't look up at his approach, nor at his question.
"Do you mind if I sit down?"
Her stooping head tilted towards her empty glass. "Not if you buy a drink."
Donald looked round for a waiter, but realized the human marionette posing for such had left the room, doubtlessly to stalk through some backdoor warehouse of gloom and cheerlessness in their quest of keeping the flow of anticordials running smoothly. He hollered at the bartender: "Two of whatever the lady is drinking," expecting no reply, or else perhaps a shot between the eyes.
Incredibly, Frankenstein answered, in something quite reminescent of Mr. Martin's booming despair earlier : "That'll be straight gin."
Mr Bellows nodded and engaged his index and with it the whole hand in a circular motion denoting activity, mechanical, industrial, "make it turn". He tried to seek out the woman's eyes but they wouldn't meet his. He said, "I've seen you before."
She might've been drunk, but that presented no apparent impediment to the great blender in her head, processing implications, slicing, shredding, repackaging, and delivering the results, a stained satin bow all neatly tied on top: "Which doesn't make us old friends."
Don shrugged off her coolness. "Well you see, one time, I..."
The drinks came, prompting a momentary flurry of activity from the Miss. Upon dispensing of the momentary burden on her glass she regarded him for the first time, though her look betrayed no interest, not even the perception of any novelty. He could've been there for the past fifty or five thousand nights, seated right there, for all the difference it made in her eyes."It really doesn't interest me, if you don't mind. Thanks."
Don could appreciate a woman who drank without the slightest hint of a sour mouth or teary eye, but this was something else. Had she meanwhile joined some longshoreman's union ? "Not at all."
He sighed and thought he'd try again to bring the subject round to his curiosity. "Rather ironical, isn't it?"
She clearly wasn't listening. Instead, she reached out for Don's own dubious double shot, stopping to ask almost as an afterthought, "Are you going to drink that?"
"Haven't you had enough?"
She smiled pertly somehow through the haze of her load, with all the bitter wisdom of a grandmother from hell. "Quite enough."
Donald thought he might just as well allow the cheeky beast to die of her paltry flesh wounds, if she was so determined to do that. He was about to stand and turn his back on her when a strange notion, a most bizarre reinterpretation of the concept of duty stopped him. She must have one last opportunity, exactly and precisely one, that being, irrespective of whether she could or couldn't be talked to, in spite or indifferently of the cause, whether he couldn'd find the common ground speech might spur action from or she could not, regardless of anything she must have her last and properly speaking only chance. If she would follow a command, she could be still redeemed to herself. He wasn't sure he could do anything like that, in fact even the notion of ever trying had not occured to him before ; but he believed himself the equal to work more out of her. Especially if he were to sober her up. The question of finality, then, of its futility or productivity, was not for now, but for another time. The question, the only question for right now was simply, will she do what told ?
"Alright, Miss Heath. If you want another, you'll have to join me at my table over there."
He rose and walked slowly back to Gail and Ted, and as he did he also heard the unmistakable clomp and catastrophe brought out of the sorry excuse for furniture by the woman on his heels. He gained his seat again, and turned; she stumbled towards him like a lamb on new legs.
"What did you say?" She was angry. Or no, he thought, not angry. She was eager. Eager to feed a tiny but indelible hope that someone like him could recognize her in the opaque rottenness of her own rock bottom.
He stood still, straight and upright, and looked into her eyes. "I said Joyce Heath. That's your name, isn't it ?"
His frankness seemed to overwhelm and subdue her. "I..."
"Joyce Heath, the actress." Donald pressed his assault, blithely, forward, overpronouncing her name as though she were to little or too stupid to otherwise understand him.
Miss Heath clutched at the incredulity she usually wore to keep herself from catching the cold of others' mockery, but found it wasn't going on quite right. "Sitting in a dive like this swilling down cheap gin? You must be drunk, too." She watched him from the corner of her eye, to see if he'd bought her disguise. He hadn't.
"No," he said, feigning disinterest in her person, "there isn't much similarity, except in appearance."
The woman fumbled for an excuse. "Lots of people look alike."
He supposed she could keep the pretense going forever, or practically forever anyway, so he gave it up. He'd approach her on her own field instead, and see if there was life left amongst her well tried self-respect.
"Joyce Heath was full of life. I'll never forget the time I saw her. She was playing Juliet. Do you remember the scene where you were told you had to marry the count Paris? And you took the sleeping draught to pretend death until Romeo's return? Your mother kissed you goodnight... And left. Then you began: 'Farewell. God knows when we shall meet again.'"
It worked, in the sense that she permitted it to work. At hearing the cue Joyce entered a trance, a spell of self-abandonment -- or rather, of momentary freedom from her own, alternative flavour of destructive self-abandonment. She made as if she were unable to keep herself from taking over the recitation. After all, these were her lines. Her words. Old Will might have written them down, but as a loan, they were her words borrowed from her, he wrote them on advance, as her own agent, for her use at her leisure. The sweet substance, the peternatural fulfillment offered long ago by art itself to those capable of making themselves into vessel fit for them belonged to her, for having let herself be worked as though of clay into a form that fit without peer or flaw. Nothing could come between her and her lines, the lines she had made her own in that war upon the very phlogiston called theatre, the brutal public ritual upon the stage shared with no other animal.

Her eyes glazed over, her breathing rhythm taken over by the impositions and necessities of recitation like by a pregnancy, she saw her bedroom in the comfortable if unwomane apartments of the Capulets. She saw unseen the night sky winking its spray of friendly stars outside the half-shuttered window. She had given her mother what was perhaps her last good-bye; she lay suspended by a long, perhaps eternal goodbye to so many others. It was agony, yet easily traded to banish the horror of giving her goodbye to Him...
"Farewell. God knows when we shall meet again. A faint, cold fear thrills my veins and almost freezes out the heat of life. I shall call them back to comfort me. Nurse. What should she do here? I needs must act my dismal scene alone. Come vial." She picked up a bemused Ted's half-drunk glass, bringing it uneasily to her lips. "What if this mixture do not work? Shall I, by force, be married to the Count? No. No, this shall... This shall..."

She downed the drink and collapsed shakily towards the table in one fluid movement that'd've been applauded under any other circumstances. They stabilized her on the chair, aided by the waiter, meanwhile reappeared from the shadows. He frowned as he picked up the overturned glass. "Passed out? I'll call the wagon. They'll throw her in the tank until she comes to in the morning." As he walked back towards some ghastly bowel of the place, to clear out a customer who wouldn't be making any more orders Donald hollered him back. "Waiter! I'll take her home."
The man turned on his heel and returned to the table, a grin of superiority slapped onto his face, as if to say to Mr Bellows that he could have much better meat, very conveniently priced also. The ready familiarity of the lower class man who's convinced his social superior's making a mistake, misinvesting his ample resources, standing to make on the deal being cut, worth as it may be more than his whole life, nevertheless a lower ROI than his average to date. "Sure boss. Twenty cents for the drinks and she's yours to take."
Don handed over a dollar.
"Keep the change, boss?"
"Sure, keep it." Donald was positively happy to share and spread around some fat off his bounteous quarry.
Gail, watching all the while with widening eyes, wondered at this yet new side of the man she'd thought she just about owned withal, just about a day ago. She hazarded a poke at Joyce's deadweight shoulder. "What do you mean to do with her ?" A white tooth pressed sharply into Gail's crimson bottom lip, and Don wondered if his girl was passionate enough to show symptoms so early. It wouldn't do. She'd have to learn what jealousy truly was, and what it felt like, and conquer it herself like a dethroned monarch leading strange new forces in plainclothes.
For her part, Gail had bit her lip to keep back the "sir" she'd nearly let loose when she asked him. 'Call him sir when they're alone', he had said. She took it to mean to call him sir when she's humbled like that, when she's besides herself like he made her feel that time. When she feels her hole aching her inside. Yet that's self-evidently not what the spoken word mean. She didn't want to blow it on day one, and she blushed furiously at the thought of how close she'd come to the very edge of shame, of loathsome failure in his eyes.
Don considered the scarlet flush draping itself over Gail's face. "I'll have Mrs Williams put her up, in the country. The fresh air will do her good."
Ted felt awkward for the first time in ages. In a way, it was nice to know he could still be a third wheel, even if it apparently took being a fourth wheel to do it. "I must say, old chap," he cheered, "that's a capital idea! Let's heave-ho her out of here!"

Each man wrestled himself under one of Joyce's arms, and without too much effort they trailed her up the ricketty stairs and out into the fresh night air, while Gail followed behind with dainty, careful steps, as though her presence alone might break something. They stuffed her inside Don's car like a side of beef, then Ted hailed himself a cab, clearly thrilled at having done his part for the war effort, the war apparently to play out between his friend and his girl -- or maybe his friend's old girl and this other new girl? Which really was the old... Ted decided the intricacies'd better be followed in the morning, though he did enjoy the smack of female internecine conflict a damned sight better than any alternative. He then watched from the curb as Don pulled off. He could've sworn that what he saw through the back window was Joyce's ruddy head bobbing right and left as Don's gloved hand slapped Gail in the face. 'How do you like that,' he thought to himself, 'buddy's got more onion-layers than the genuine article!'

~ * ~

The old Quinn farm was a sprawling property sharing a few roads in common with Saugerties, Ulster County, far enough from the city to guarantee peace but still close enough to not feel the pinch of true country provisioning. It had somehow escaped subdivisioning, lotting and partitioning for development, maintaining untouched its stately expanse since the days of Jackson's presidency. Its grounds were ample and ripe for any number of endeavors; when his parents acquired the property from a relative and presented it to Don in celebration of what they'd thought would be his start in the enchanted world of Wall Street finance, the land was still earmarked for common agriculture. Yet it so readily supported so much more, in many ways just like Donald Bellows himself. Some of his first architectural designs had been thrown at the old farmhouse, so that it now evoked a sort of Deco-Saltbox blessed by Queen Anne. Inside that house, and on occasion, weather permitting, as much outside it, among the fields and lawns thereby, the man produced a different sort of livestock; one as easily bought and sold, but developed by entirely different means.

It was vacant, now, except for Mrs. Williams, its steadfast caretaker, who never left a stitch unchecked, or a dish unscrubbed, or a tenant unhumbled, untaunted, unguided. She kept the place in working order, season in and season out, according to her own keen sense of pervasive cosmic order and the proper flow of natural phenomena, bolstered by not a few particularily specific directions from Mr Donald as she called him. She'd woken with the dawn as per her ancient custom and was now fully absorbed in thoroughly loathing the seeing-to of her new charge. The lord of the manor had by all appearances taken in the night before some old and rickety gutter rat by the looks of her, ill behaved out of sheer contempt rather than sheer ignorance. A cantankerous one, she thought, full of fight and clearly off her rocker for the sickening siren's song of liquor. It'd be a challenge to get her to cut her meat right, or at all. Mrs Williams did not wish to think of anything past that. Still, the fancied sight of duty's beacons foremost in her eyes, she trudged up the stairs to the second storey and gingerly opened the guest room's door, but without knocking. The wretch was half-lying in, half-falling out of, bed. Her mess of auburn locks argued amongst itself on her head, and she rubbed her eyes with the exhausted irritation of someone who hadn't expected or much wanted to wake up at all, ever again.

Mrs. Williams offered a dry, "You look poorly."
Joyce smirked at this latest in the seemingly ceaseless volley of prosaic platitudes she was somehow cursed to receive from those she'd just met. "Then it won't surprise you to be told that I feel poorly."
"No. Figuring the wilted-wet condition you arrived in last night..."
Joyce looked around the room. It was quaint enough but still mutedly suggested personality, little mother of pearl inlays on the wooden dresser, handmade lace strewn under the stained-glass lamp, strange implements of sturdy build but no clear purpose hanging from the walls. It wasn't the City; beyond that much, she really couldn't've said. "And just where did I arrive? If I'm not asking you to betray a confidence."
"This is Mr. Bellows' place. He's an architect." Mrs Williams said it with pride, then offered parenthetically, her conversation strained through the filter of much experience with the same few scenes. "One of them fellows that draws pictures. He also has horses, and..." She trailed off, looking over Joyce's minimal figure. "...things."
"Thank you. And I suppose you are Mrs. Bellows? Or are you just one of his architectural designs?"
It was the first time someone had proposed she was so highly married, and it made her feel like an empress or a movie star. The stinger in the second stage passed unnoticed in the buzz. She laughed self-indulgently and brushed her thick hands against the smooth linen of her apron. "I'm Mrs Williams. I keep his house, for when he comes down here weekends. And I oversee... things, for him."

Joyce skipped right past the woman's awkward pauses, caring little for whatever things it was that Mr. Bellows had or apparently needed help overseeing the having or whatever it was. So long as it didn't come in a tall glass it didn't much interest her. "How cozy. And Mr Bellows, where is he?"
"He's having breakfast. If you want to see him, you better look perky, though. I'm not taking just any mangy old dog in to see him."
Ready to spring her trap, cop a drink, and bust back to the comfort of her familiar misery, Joyce didn't register the insult. "Oh, I am looking forward to seeing Mr. Bellows!"
Mrs. Williams sighed. There was so very much work to do, and already the sun was half-way to its zenith. "Take off your clothes." She stepped forward and began tugging at the girl's wrecked duds.
"Stop that. Leave me alone!" Joyce batted away the other's leathery mitts, appalled at the notion she'd be handled by such an indelicate, simple hand, or perhaps recoiling in horror at the recollection of more or less recent experiences of just such handlings.
"House rules, dolly. Stop making such a fuss about it, at your age you should be happy anyone even tells you to, anymore." Mrs. Williams laughed at her own joke. She wasn't used to working on meat that actually attempted to stand its ground, an experience to her about as unexpected as the cow pleading Scripture in the stockyard. Joyce gathered her readily ripping dress about herself and scowled at the old woman fiercely. Several notches above any reasonable volume, she shrieked, "Do you mind leaving me alone!" Mrs. Williams delivered as her sole retort a slap worth two bales of bricks, not very quick but steady as the Earth. Whatever its drawbacks, such measured reply possessed the unarguable virtue of shocking the misfortunate ex-actress into observing waxy flexibility in muted silence. There was no hesitation and no threat -- when Mrs. Williams was asked for a slap she simply delivered it, her arm altogether possibly outweighed the eagerly awaited Miss.
"I wouldn't mind in the slightest. In fact, I'd like nothing more than to leave you well alone. Mr. Bellows has other plans though."
Joyce rubbed her anesthesized jaw and shot confusion while the stores lasted then, finally, resignation, into the woman's eyes. She huffed her bangs over her forehead and held out her arms like a little girl, to be undressed and then dragged off to her captor by this stalwart, immovable farmhand.

~ * ~

By and by Mrs. Williams ventured down the steps and entered the dining room like a doctor bearing expected if unwelcome news. She held her arm out to the door beside her and shrugged apologetically. "Well... she's up, and that's the most can be said for her."

Joyce entered like a sickly hyena approaching an old corpse crowded by luscious young lionesses in their prime. The metaphorical nudity of the stage was one thing, a pungent draught perhaps grown into fondness with experience, at length oft repeated experience ; but this practical, unyieldingly demeaning version was absolutely another. Twenty times she'd clawed her way back up the bannister and towards the guest room, now a haven of luxurious safety and privacy, only to be kicked and pushed back down by Mrs. Williams' indolent hulk. The woman had brushed Joyce's hair in that manner particular to they interested neither in the fashions of coiffure nor the comfort of the heads suffering under their hands. Her hair brushed by an unsympathetic step-aunt, Joyce looked juvenile, comedic, beyond humiliated. The ringlets were frizzy, pulled severely to one side, and held there with an oversided cloissone barrette that Joyce imagined must have been of great military achievement during the war. Her lips had been wrung into an involuntary pout with a stick of rouge that looked to have been swathed over a thousand kissers, all about as reluctant as hers was. Joyce had caught a fleeting glimpse of herself in the mirror as she was ushered out, and the effect was something of poultry plucked from the head down and assaulted about the beak with overripe strawberries.

She eyed Mr Bellows warily, and immediately cast her eyes down, trailing the rich patterns in the old hardwood floor. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other; her right leg heavy with shame, the left with indignation, and not a moment's peace between them. When a few moments had passed and no one seemed ready to throw any tomatoes, Joyce decided to attempt her greatest characterisation yet : to play herself, to give off coolly an unperturbed Miss Joyce Heath, an empress in fine new clothes entirely unconcerned by -- no, entirely unaware of! the potential for disgrace. She looked up as brightly as she could make it and greeted the evil, monstrous man seated again in front of her.
Don dearly appreciated Mrs. Williams' penchant for female humiliation, the more unawares it seemed to be, or perhaps she made it seem to be. "Hohoho... I bet the Mahoney boys are having a parade for you this morning."
Joyce frowned. Mrs Williams ejaculared in surprise "The who ?"
"You never heard of the Mahoney Boys, dear Mrs Williams?" Don crunched at his toast. "You are very fortunate. They're little men with purple beards that play tunes with nail-files on your teeth with one hand while keeping time with mallets inside your head with the other. At the same time they run around your stomach planting jumping beans."
Mrs. Williams' eye widened, then narrowed back again. "You wouldn't be pulling my leg would you Mr. Donald?"
Another minute of exposure to this bumpkin and Joyce was sure she would explode with exasperation. An idea seized her as her eyes passed over the pantry; she opened it, found a half-unfinished bottle of scotch, and with something like a squeak brought down a glass and poured herself a draught. Mrs. Williams bounded to her, snatching glass and bottle out of her hands in one fell swoop. Joyce felt -- and in that moment, certainly looked -- like a child whose stolen cookie had been suddenly snatched away. "Please... Mrs Williams. Please!"
The woman threw over her shoulder, "Shut up, you."
Joyce set her mouth hard against the woman's back as it disappeared out the kitchen door. Then she sauntered over to Don, taking small steps and doing her very best to affect an innocent yet capable and worthy girl. She wasn't hiding anything, she kept her eyes wide and her chin up, and her palms opened towards him in a subtle pantomime of prayer.
"Please, I would like a drink."
"Before breakfast?" Don pretended to consider the matter for the very first time, as Mrs. Williams walked back in, her hands now free. Joyce glowered at her.
"Get me a drink!"
The woman smirked. "That won't get you anywhere. Go beg Mr. Donald for your drink, like a right proper whore. Go on, then."
Joyce turned around and faced Don once more, her mouth a vast horizontal breakdown of complex need seeking simple deliverance. "Please."
But Mrs. Williams was right behind her, pushing a meaty hand on her collarbone, her voice gruff in the other's ear. "What are you standing for ? Get to the floor, it's where you belong anyway."
To the surprise of both, Joyce had no trouble falling to her knees. No trouble whatsoever, she encountered no internal resistence in prostrating herself before the seated man. None at all. It was a part she'd played so many times before, a part she'd done so fine so many times before, and that without even being nearly so thirsty, back then. "Please."
She hadn't ever done it in the nude before. As their eyes met, her parted lips as high as his shoelaces, they both together and at once experienced the most thorough degradation any woman, certainly any woman by the name of Joyce had yet known. The hostile columnists' assaults on her talent, the unkind words on her social habits or her supposed cursing of men, an entire lifetime of clawing a path out of the thick hide of the world were jointly as nothing in the shadows of what now towered above, far above the man and woman both: her willingness to give herself over completely. Like a branch off a bolt of lightning, a second thought illuminated Don -- it wasn't just her willingness, but the raw fact of that giving, made undeniable now. She had the capacity for it, too, evident, manifest. They both knew in that moment that Joyce was unstoppable. It was only a matter of shaping that quality to more productive ends, of damming it away from self destruction, towards something looking more like a garden than a crypt. He tilted his head. "Why do you want a drink so bad, anyway?"
"Because I'd rather be drunk than sober," she said matter-of-factly, searching his face for some sign of reprieve.
Don could deny her all day. "That's quite apparent. It was just as apparent last night."
At these words Joyce's knees jerked from under her, in sharp abandonment, sprawling her on her side on the floor. She groaned but then stood up clumsily. She smoothed her palms over her thighs, as though straightening a dress that wasn't there, to cinch her way back into ladyhood. The touch of her own hands on her skin inspired other feelings, other thoughts, a hot mess that swelled and swelled in her chest as the shadow of certainty grew ever larger in her mind. She had let her guard down the night before. This man was going to add her as a notch on his bedpost, to merely add her as a notch, a byline she could never quite get used to, despite it being more and more common for her. "Last night? Oh, you must be quite proud of your conquest."
She was disgusted with herself. This man might even have been interesting -- she recalled that he'd been gushing about her Juliet -- and there seemed to be something of an artist about him too, amidst his frank and yet somehow warm manner. But she'd spoilt it, she'd spoilt it all by sleeping with him, too drunk even to remember it! "Oh don't bother with alibis! It really doesn't matter."
"Alibis ? What alibis, you are the perfect alibi. Take a look at yourself. Take a good look, you drunken, ill-kept wreck of a woman. The only feeling you can arouse in any healthy man is pity."
It was not a feeling she'd ever wanted to inspire off the stage, and not so often on it, either. Pity, that thing for the helpless, the welcoming domain of the ill-determined, of they that had dreams they couldn't stop yakking about but never really chased. The too bads, the oh wells, the ever so not at all like her, whether she was at the top of her fame or as now, wallowing in the fetid moat about that peak. She didn't care how low she sank or how much she made the world around her sore, pity was not something she was to evoke. "Pity? Pity?! You dare to feel sorry for me! You with your fat little soul and your smug face. Picking your way so cautiously through a pastel existence. Why, I've lived more in a day than you'll ever dare live. Pity for me? That's very funny, when I've never had any for men like you."
Don looked her up and down, feeling her electric defiance in the hairs of his arms standing upended. "You know, just now you are as I imagined you would be."
"Playing a second act speech in the nude ? When you boast to your friends about seeing me here I shouldn't mention that I've become a has-been. A broken, hopeless... ex." Joyce wrapped her arms around herself in that universal gesture of adolescent pain, the urge to shield one's heart, and to keep the chest together, as though without some new support the whole structure would open up and send its parts reeling through a world of hazards. "It would... It will detract frightfully from the glamour of your adventure."
Don breathed in the palpable vulnerability she exuded perhaps despite herself. "Now look here, Miss Heath. The reason I brought you here..."
Joyce clenched her eyes shut. "I know. Because you were sorry for me. You've already said that. Because I could be had for an outlay of about ten cents, and looked like maybe that's a fair price, too. You almost said that also."

She opened her eyes and studied the veracity of his tone as he replied, "As it happens twenty cents was the discount asking price, though I paid the full dollar. But no, neither's actually it. You're here because I was grateful to you for something very important in my life."
"I suppose you always loved the theater." Another one of these, she thought. Maybe he wanted to be a hanger-on, a sort of rehabilitative groupie, ready to save her with plain soda water and bad religion.

"It was more than that. The beauty and fineness of one of your performances moved me so strongly that the whole pattern of my life was altered. I've had plenty to be grateful for, but first I owe you my deepest gratitude."

Gratitude without expectation of recompense from the upper hand, now that was something to which Joyce was accustomed. In fact, it was something Joyce hadn't encountered at all, not ever before. It didn't reconcile with her notions, which perhaps accounts for why she never saw it before ; but she couldn't help but see it now. Everyone ever wants something, even for their emotions, so much so that hearing "thank you" all but guarantees the ancillary "by the way, couldn't you..." on its heels. Everyone who was someone, at least. The wrecks, the deplorable admirers who didn't want something in exchange, or at the very least didn't dare ask were even worse.

Joyce flattered herself that given a choice between the company of hungry tigers or wet noodles, she would prefer the tigers ; she also knew the way out general society has settled upon -- to cop a handicap, do a worse job than you could in truth manage. Then people wouldn't ask for more out of you, indeed they'd leave you well enough alone. Mediocrity is never much disturbed, and so it went for most people, that's how most everyone operated : as they'd learned to from a young age, and had reinforced then by the supposed authority figures around them. Childhood as a race against one's peers, to find a suitable handicap to wear, to measure oneself against the crippling of these others that was for some reason miscalled growth.

She wasn't ever interested, however well it supposedly paid off. Whether she knew who she was wasn't settled, but what she could do -- that, she knew, and she showed it, first and above all else. Yet what of this man, he has his henchwoman molest her, only to profess his gratitude ? Is he deranged ? What does he want, and if indeed he wante something because of what she'd already given... fine! But he'd have to say it. It has to be articulated. Otherwise it would simply never play.

"Why am I naked then ?"
"Pure coincidence. Mrs. Williams runs this little retreat for me, let's say. It's a place of comfort and re-education for young girls. We do have an ample wardrobe, you'll find it quite satisfying I'm sure."
"But I'm not a young girl!"
"Nor do I suspect you're in any need of re-education. Really, I think you'll find your short stay quite pleasant." He shot her with a candy-covered smile.
"So far I find it quite cold." Joyce relaxed as the yoke loosened its tension on her backbone. "Look, I'm shivering."
"A nice hot bath's the best thing for you. And you may take it, too, just as soon as you've had a bite of breakfast." May. He emphasized the word, and she emphasized hearing it. He didn't ask her if she wanted the bath in the first place, she didn't protest that she hated bathing in the mornings. They were working together, working together on her already. Maybe what he wanted from her wasn't anything more than what she wanted from herself: to be it, that, to be what he's making her be. To accept, maybe a little less fitfully, the help of someone else towards the being of herself.

Joyce looked at the man. All 2nd Avenue style, marked around the edges with that ecclecticism people seemed to acquire after their grand European tours. He looked a square. Occasionally talked like one, too. But Joyce could see his shape wasn't so obvious beneath the layers, whether silk or social. Could this unknown figure help her? More pressingly: could she actually let him, allow him to, permit him to, beg as he'll have her beg him to? She felt a spiked chill ripple through her. It certainly seemed the right time to try for it, if ever such a thing is to be tried in earnest. She lifted all semblance of hostility away from her face like a bridal veil. "Then I am humiliated to the point where I must thank you."
Don smiled a slight curl at her. "And do what I say ?"
"Mhmm." Joyce's diaphragm purred out the affirmation without the least bit involving her dirty mouth. Then she felt it burble out of her. "And do as you say."

Breakfast was simple with a pronounced tendency to sublime. One of those country affairs, a thudding of sausages, hams and cheeses, a landslide of animal fats and earthy aromas around whose coarse, jocular edges an abject ignorance of fashion, rather a complete disinterest in city mores conspired to bring back the memory of childhood joys. Mrs. Williams had hotcakes, eggs over easy, even biscuits with gravy all ready to go at the drop of a hat, plus the attendant homemade jams. The fresh-churned butter sang in Joyce's mouth with a round sweetness she hadn't been privy to in years.

Thus eased and fattened she allowed herself be ushered back up the stairs and into a hot steaming bath. She inched herself into the tub like a cat resigning itself, by degrees, to drowning. Eventually, among the suds, she stopped fighting her tooth-and-nail struggle against the overwhelming impression that she was comfortable, devastatingly, obliteratingly comfortable. She began a summary investigation of her toes that continued and amplified, curling them over the tub's porcelain wall, wriggling them with suspicious eyes. What sort of character was she playing at? Wasn't she the woman who killed everything she loved, too ugly and broken to set even one of these ten detestable digits onto a stage? Who did she think she was kidding?

The memory of Mr Bellows' strangeness, along with the caramel sweetness of his recollections of her in a previous life piqued her desire. She truly wanted more. So, so much more. The men who had tried to turn her out before had been fools, all fools -- but this one... He's insane. No sane man would... she slid her feet back beneath the waterline and lit a cigarette. She gave herself up to dreaming. To be fresh again, to be again discovered. To sleep, as if to die, and by that sleep to say goodbye to heart-ache and ten thousand shocks that flesh is natural heir to. A consummation devoutly to be wish'd, perchance as in a dream. Yet in that sleep as it may be what dreams may come, pretense once shuffled off, must give one pause. There indeed lays the respect that makes all the calamities of independent life yet endured by women. For who would bear the whips and scorns, th'oppressing wrong, the proud man's antume biggotry and error, the pangs of despised love, misunderstood expression, the lateness of all recognition, the insolence of the well meaning, many and varied spurns with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something quite like death, slow, self-unknowing...

"Smoking in the bath ?! It clings so much, with all the steam." Mrs. Williams barged in, which both startled Joyce and surprised her not in the least.
"Everything here clings so much." The bather indicated the ranch generally with a curlique of her wrist.
Mrs. Williams began her regular speech. "Restful, isn't it. The whole countryside seems to have found peace. A person could find peace, too."
"No. You only find that in yourself, and when you do, you might as well be dead."
The woman was used to nods, or other faint motions towards acquiescence, or else silence, petrified. Girls never spoke of death. "Dead?"
"Yes, dead. Resting in peace is for tombstones." Joyce's voice as she pronounced "tombstones" was a great booming holler that Mrs. Williams felt crawl up into her own body, taking a terrible seizure of her heart that she couldn't dispel. She crossed herself, and asked, "And for the living?"

"Desire. To want something... Then to tame that desire and live up to every moment of it. And then go on leaving yesterday behind. On and on... higher and higher." Joyce was painting with a wandering finger invisible designs of stairwells on the wall.
"That's..." she wanted to say "beautiful", but something told her it wasn't the right word. What the right word might've been Mrs Williams had no idea, but she expected a meaningful nod might do as well.
Joyce hated elipses. "A frustrated ex-actress reading lines for a small but portly audience."
"You could go back. Talent, real talent doesn't die. Mr. Bellows said you were a star once. I'm sure you can be again."

She looked like a star, too, lounged irreverently in the tub, its full length seemingly made to curve around her advantageously, as her expressive arms played at some inner game to which Mrs. Williams was not at all invited. Her hair, tamed somewhat by the moist heat, fell away from her face in gentle waves that seemed made of cotton brushed through with copper, and the eyes, most of all the eyes, were dreamy and full of concerns that must be, Mrs Williams thought, awfully complicated and important.
"To hell with Mr. Bellows." The insult cut both of them uncomfortably, but Joyce couldn't resist slipping into the form of a bitter woman whose pride had been stripped away of her brutishly. It was like putting on an immaculate silk gown, and Joyce was far too good an actress, far too sensually self-indulgent, to let any silk gowns go unfulfilled.

"Don't say that." Mrs. Williams did not conceive how a creature such as the actress in the tub, so lovely after all, could possibly harbor anything but the wildest most profound love for her revered boss.
"I'm an evil star, a jinx." She recalled something a critic had written about her lo, so many seasons ago. She knew which one, too ; but wouldn't let her mind bring the name up to the surface of her consciousness. She wouldn't give that sniveling worm the satisfaction. Nobody would remember him, soon enough. Nobody! "A comet, really, bringing pestilences unseen upon the land." She looked hard into the old woman's eyes. "You'd better run for your life, Mrs Williams."

"I don't believe in jinxes." City people were all alike, she thought: there was the part that ought to make up a decent, useful person, then all the stuff they kept finding in town to pile on themselves like crows at a peacock banquet. Jinxes now, of all things!
"Two men loved me. Deeply, passionately. They loved me. Those two men are dead. Some other men loved me more cautiously. They're financially ruined. Great shows have folded unexpectedly, inexplicably."
Mrs. Williams nodded politely as she watched the fear, perhaps more fancy than true belief, play over Joyce's features. Then sagely, as only those unaware of beauty when it imbues itself in their speech can ever deliver, "Men die all the time. It's what they do for a living."

"How can I possibly ignore it, when producers won't give me parts!"
Mrs. Williams was about to say something, but just then Don walked in, looking to be in something of a rush. Still, a glance at Joyce's naked, glistening shoulder prompted his closing of the door behind him. "Please," Joyce perked up, "leave it open, thin out the air some."
He let the door open again in a great swing that sent the airy curls on Joyce's head flying. She squealed like a girl and shook her head, willing them back their proper places. Don was clearly not immune to her charms.

Mrs. Williams frowned at the man's somewhat frazzled suit. "Mr. Bellows, you'd better be getting back to town if you want to change your duds."
The smile faded from his face as he said, "You know, there is something in what you say."
"May I come with you ?" Joyce, quickly to the draw, had opened her eyes wide to him.
Mrs. Williams elbowed her in the arm. "May I come with you, sir."
She looked back and forth between her captors, such as they were. The thought of a bit of freedom in which to think things over settled over her like balm. "Please."

Don reached a hand out of his pocket and glanced at the watch on his wrist. He really didn't have much time to wait -- that he didn't have any intention of taking Joyce back today anyway notwithstanding. His eyes danced over the ceiling to and fro as though he were mulling some intricate piece of planning. Then, the face said, he had an idea. "Why don't you stay out the week? No-one will be using the house, you'll have a great time, eat well, get some fresh air, rest and then when I come down Saturday I'll take you in."

"You want me to spend a week here thinking about, building up in my mind the day you finally come to free me ?" Joyce found the notion perverse. So much so that she instantly if silently hoped things would turn out exactly that way.
Donald measured his words like a concerned father. "I think it'd be the best thing for you. The rest and quiet might do you some good, also."

To be held, to be held tight, bound, chained with the golden chain of promise. The future, the hope of being soon set free, the yoke pushing down her neck, the hobble keeping her legs together, her feet restrained. To be sequestered, secreted away, played with, played on, the little side-project of a man she had, she should have had enthralled. To simmer a while in this calm, slow boiling country broth, a thin substance maybe a little less flavorful, decidedly less flammable than she'd have liked. Also less soul-churning -- yes. Squeezing the butter of herself from the froth, the indistinct, insubstantial froth of her days. All this, she wanted ; and all this, she... she might actually let herself need, even. If it was truly going to be offered to her. But if this was just the latest in her string of tragic disappointments?
"Listen Mister, helping me is like shaking hands with the devil. The worst luck in the world."

Donald wondered who or what exactly had put the seal on this woman's otherwise incomprehensible superstition. He half-suspected the culprit might be found in his very club. He duly protested, "But I'm not helping you, Miss. On the contrary, I'm confining you, and quite against your will, to rural boredom." He showed rows and rows of gleaming, pointed teeth. "Nothing but pure torture."
Hadn't she given him ample warning? If he was determined to cast his lot with her, she reasoned, what could she do? She smiled luxuriantly. "This is ridiculous."

"Do you really want to go back to town?" He knew he had her, to do as he pleased with her. Right now Donald pleased to bait her a little, her own pretended reluctance recast as spur. In the interest of time alone he would have prefered the kind of straightforward exchange that supported a busy schedule such as befitted a man in business and on occasion resembled his own, but where was the fun in that? No, the fun is to walk away from the captured woman begging to be allowed to stay, not merely capture her, let alone beg her to stay. That coveted prize, to eye over one's shoulder all the while, to watch resolve fiercely fight and outfight desire, that is the greater joy of he who owns, of he who can indistinctly, indifferently afford to either leave or take what to another is starvation or satiety.
"I don't care!" Joyce tried a string she'd felt laying about the man's ego in the kitchen. "I'll do what you tell me to do." His widening smile told her she'd pulled the right one.

"You wouldn't feel obligated if you stayed, would you?" he asked.
"Why should I? What difference does it make? You kidnapped me, remember ? Bought me for nothing, brought me here unconscious, reaped my modesty and I suspect burned my clothes." she arched an eyebrow towards the heavens as he laughed. "I'm the victim here."
Donald let his eye trail momentarily along that delicious dividing line where the bathwater met Joyce's creampuff skin, dancing just barely above her nipples, then barely below as she lifted herself for him, the sparkles reflecting the light against her smoothness like fireflies behind a muslin screen. He wanted to see bruises there, yes, and bite marks, too. He wanted to put some drama on her decoletage. "You make a very credible victim. So you'll stay ?"

"Yes, yes! I'll stay, please stop asking me questions. I don't want to have to answer any. Go on and boast to your friends about fishing Joyce Heath out of the gutter. Bring me some chains to wear when you come to show me off, too. I'd much rather be chained when on display." She couldn't help but smile, try as she might to hide it under the curve of her jaw, which she presently sank into the soap bubbles.
"I won't mention it, I can assure you of that."
He winked at her, or at least, Joyce thought she saw him wink at her. The more she thought about it, after he'd left, the more she couldn't be sure. She lit another cigarette and felt her muscles release, one by one, untold tides of tension.

On his way out, Donald graciously accepted his hat and coat from the ever-ready hands of Mrs. Williams, who stood smiling at him uneasily. "Better watch her pretty closely," he said, knowing she would whether he instructed her to or not. "She's on the verge of going off the deep end."

~ * ~

Gail's neck was a long ivory peg that held the whole world's bounty of cream, crepe, strawberry, and satin upright in one long diaphanous curve. Draped around it, a stream of pearls neatly described her clavicle, then knotted over her nape and plunged down her back to rest just above her tailbone. This cascade was mirrored on either arm traversing the shoulders, from which fell several strands of glowing, golden beads. She'd run a long white gauze through the pearls about her sternum, bringing either end around her back and passing them once more to the front, where she tied the fabric in a bow beneath her blushing breasts, where the pink of her nipples spread over her skin as if dyed inexpertly. On her hips were two pink roses, connecting silken eggshell panels that flew down her legs in flurries of undulating softness.

Thus she was bound, at least symbolically, her chest and abdomen tied up, pertly and acentuatingly neat. For some inscrutable reason she deemed herself a turkey, denued of all spurious cloth of feather, made ready to be roasted and served for the delight of her lover's palate. She anxiously debated within herself whether he would like her attempted costume, or if her boldness in exploring these things so eminently left outside all discussion amongst the luminaries of her usual society would rub him the wrong way. Would he have run from Mata Hari, she mused, if he had found her unexpectedly gyrating in some grand architects' revue, coiling her fingers and swaying her chest, hips obscenely, unceasingly making plain the way to her pelvis, each pulse indicating without ambiguity her need and will ? No, he would not. Not he, who had insisted on taking that Heath woman home, for all her cheap, drunken debauchery. Clearly Don had a taste for the thicker things, for those hush-hush things stuffed hastily into drawers but kept alive. Those things only ever mentioned by way of clever allusion in the circles Gail knew, but mentioned nevertheless. The circles within which, away from which she imagined herself sashaying, round and round the room in a torpor of heady lasciviousness. What if they saw her just like this ?

Just before Donald arrived she'd pinned several ostrich feathers into her hair, and, perched in front of a mirror, she was practicing moving her head without disturbing their frail filaments too much. As he walked in, her newly-minted apartment key sparkling in his hand, Gail turned swiftly and sent the feathers all aflutter. She cried out in happy surprise.
"Ah, phantom of delight!" Donald's eyes couldn't decide where to look first.
"Just a little thing I thought up myself. How do you like it ?" Gail gave him a studied twirl, ripples and ridges gliding around her milky musculature. The effect had something of a frothy ice cream float, very carnal, undeniably erotic. And yet, Donald thought, also shockingly nive, heartwarmingly innocent somehow. How does that work ? It was perhaps in the way she brought her love's assemblage to him: an offering she didn't herself own well enough yet to really make, but offered all the same, timely without aforethrought. A child bequeathing her home to Santa Claus.

He smiled warmly. "It's the most beautiful thing! All the good parts of being naked and all the advantages of dress brought together. You're talented, you know that ?"
His encouragement whipped her into the acute registers of what up to that point had merely been a frenzy of self-degradation. "Say... call me... say 'you're talented, slut' like that". She approached him more closely with every tentative word that worked its way trippingly from her lips.
"You're talented, slut!"

The ready facility with which he spoke the words thrilled Gail to her core. She stood before him, and reached a languid arm around the back of his neck, draping herself across his stock-straightness as though the fabric of her getup had consumed, reconstructed and ultimately replaced her entire being. "Aaah...," she trilled, "now call me... say..."
He knew the epithet she wanted to hear, or in any case could make a fair guess. "You're talented, whore!"

"Oh...!" she almost said "Oh Don," but his command --the only one he'd really given her so far, and therefore preternaturally weighty-- struck through her speech like a bolt from on high. "Sir." she thought a moment burying her forehead into the cool, smooth shavenness of the space just below his jaw. She inhaled him, the dream of him, a distant fantasy of girlhood now bolstered iron-hard by flesh and will in front of her. How she wanted to yield to him! "My great rider that you are."

Donald gently pushed her round to the crook of his arm, brushing off her hot breath from his neck. He patted her shoulder with the air of a caring grandfather. "What's the cheap harlot been doing?"
Gail sighed and let the blood creep slowly away from its heavy thronging at her extremities. "Shopping." She let her fingers pass over the precious beads at her arms like a heretic stroking the rosary, and frowned, expecting that despite Don's words, she had somehow missed the mark. "Still working on the cheap part, though. How about your grace ?"

He blissfully ignored her disapointment, however palpable. "Getting a check for a small extension job certified. Next week I'll be ready to go in escrow, maybe even sooner."
"Grand, isn't it? And those estates, they're going to be your masterpiece, Don." Sometimes the pride she felt for him seemed as though it would make her insides burst. But she caught herself, and with a quick shake of her head, said, "Sir. I know it." Then, recalling the countless social calls she'd insisted on attending at her parents' that week, and all the many arms she'd taken to the side to intone about Don's project, added: "I've talked to more people that are interested."

It wasn't that the man took Gail's eager attentions to his business for granted. In fact, she delighted him with each new revelation of her natural talent and happy inclination towards its effectual employment. He saw her potential, in outline at least, like some haze of framework for a chateau gazing down upon him from aloft a far-off hill -- the details muddy, unspecific, but the scale quite self-evident regardless. A shocking thing, by far the heaviest, earthiest part of her, a collosal bloc of prehistoric submerged ice following silently a tiny, floral spec of airy effluvia on the open seas but perfectly capable of reorganizing arcipelagoes, slicing through peninsulas or knocking smaller islands out of the way. He suspected that by the time the game is played out her silent hand will have taken the majority of tricks for having held the preponderence of honors. What stroke of luck that he gets to bid and play the contract, keeping all finesse available and therefore turning what'd otherwise played as a 2 or 3 No-Trump into a small or maybe even grand slam!

True as all that was, he still felt her reaching for his acknowledgement. It was only natural, but Donald wasn't given to letting rivers course their way round him; he would dam, he would divert, he would make the water dance exactly as he fancied. In truth Gail still needed plenty of hard work before he could count on her to truly flow usefully for him ; decided as he was to use the filly he seamlessly pretended not to notice the searching of her eyes. Instead he said, neutrally, "Well, they'd better be. When my creditors get through subdividing my shirt there won't be enough left to give your chiffon dream a run for its coverage."
"Stop worrying. And... do I still have to be married a virgin ?" Gail faced him, shocked at herself for putting the question so plainly. It sounded so different from what she had meant in her own head, once spoken outloud. Yet... it was exactly what she meant. Wasn't it ?

"Yes." He would have to deny that searching of her eyes, he saw, in ever widening, deepening riverbeds and bays. He spun her around and slapped a half-hid haunch of creamy flesh. And you can't kiss your king's scepter right now, either."
Gail pouted first, but mustered herself back up, as quick a recovery from man's rejection as anyone could ever dream of. "In that case, how about, you've come to take me to the polo matches? Teddy's playing."
"Ted? You know, I've often wondered why he doesn't use a croquet mallet. He's on the ground most of the game."
"We'll have to hurry up. We've missed the first chuck as it is!" Gail began untying the knot over her abdomen but, catching Donald gaze she threw a faux look of faux scandal on her face and traipsed behind her dressing-screen, peeping up now and then to slant her eyes at him suggestively.

The man forced himself to focus on the finer parts of the room's elegant appointments. What an exquisite vase, he gritted through his head, so entirely unlike that graspable curve where her spine, flanked by serpentine muscle, makes tiny delicate bumps on her skin. A sudden aching friction at the front of his pants insisted Donald's exercise wasn't working. He closed his eyes and considered a more fraternal passtime. "I'll take 4-1 on Teddy's collar bone."

Gail's stilled voice betrayed from opposite the screen just equal his frustration, buried in distant themes. "Nope. But I'll take 2-1 on a rib." To varying degrees of clarity, both shared the same sudden revelation: that no matter how distant they might will their thoughts to go, seemingly everything came back to the budding of their novel relation. For was she not making herself newly, for him, out of him, and was he not showing her the way, their hands together taking from Donald's side a rib, a pound of flesh, and fashioning her afresh thereby, like gods?

The room was silent save for the soft rustling of Gail's various accoutrements. Then the fact of his obligation came to Donald without ceremony. "Oh, lovely, I can't go!"
"Why not?" echoed her plaintive query.
"I've just remembered I've promised to go down to the country this afternoon." He paused, imagining Gail's burgeoning sexuality unleashed upon that fiery specimen at the ranch, or perhaps vice-versa. Will he be equal to the task of Galahading through such wade ? "Should you want to come along ?"

"What's in the country?" she asked. Gail was decidedly a city girl; her love of the lights, the great confounding symphonies of urban noise, the hustle amongst the skyscrapers was like so much oil curling against the watery lures of the rocking chair and the homemade pie. She felt it her well-bred womanly duty to fall to pieces over horses and quiet garden parties now and then, but in her heart Gail nursed the city as equitable metonym of the whole world itself. She coincidentally but predictably never saw much reason to tread outside of the concrete and asphalt patch.

"Rather an interesting case, actually. I uh... " Donald wasn't quite sure how to direct the bomb over Gail's pretty head. "Remember the night that you and I and Teddy sneaked out of the Linden party?"
"Oh, certainly sir. I remember it so vividly! It was the first time I saw the world through my new eyes." Gail stepped out from behind the screen wearing not much more than she'd had on when she went behind it. Her stockings were snug in the straps of a black lace garterbelt, which rose into a corselette further miniaturizing Gail's already diminutive waist. A firm black brassiere pushed her breasts into unnatural but nevertheless fetching architectural lines. Donald gazed at the flossy tuft of golden hair between the lacy tops of her thighs.

"Oh, I forgot... " he grinned, "I promised not to tell."
"It sounds intriguing." She leaned an arm over the dressing screen for support.
"Well it was a peculiar incident."
Gail couldn't stand the game any longer. "May I be told ?"
Donald rose and indicated the chair behind him. He spoke with pauses, as she moved, deliberately allowing her ample time to take in each turn and twist of the sentence knife slowly piercing through her chest, to reach and then to pierce through her very heart. "Of course, slut... Sit down... and spread your legs... and play with yourself... while... I tell... you... all... about... the... other... woman."

Gail's eyes were shaped and sized just like dinner plates, the sort ready for hearthy country servings of healthy large portions. With bated breath and quivers of the lips she repeated the words back to herself, silently at first, s'as to untangle the mess of commands, revelations, and above all implications. She relaxed by degrees in the chair, resting her back ever easier against its backing, running her fingers ever more demandingly over her fronting. Her eyes half closed, she reached with imagination's hands as though opening a mysterious chest whose contents might well have proved catastrophically dangerous but in any case were irresistibly fascinating, as she squeezed together and slowly spread her knees again. Donald turned his back to her and took a leisurely stroll through the room, giving her all the time she'd like to take.

She didn't quite know what to do, at first. She'd touched herself before in that way, but never with an audience, never with full admittance really, buy always under covers, eyes well closed, the factuality of her carnality denied to the self, as in a dream, a secret never to be thought of, never thought out, an alternate mode of existence in many ways akin to sleep. She moaned, deeply, wet, startling herself with the loudness and directness of her own sounds. It's so obvious what she means! She's ready, no, not ready, she's eager for an audience! Gail hazarded a trembling hand towards her breast, to free it, to push the coverings out of their way, to squeeze the nipple hard, too hard but the next pulse not nearly hard enough, to bury her finely filed nails deep, bitingly deep, painfully, deliciously in the tender pink flesh crowning her chest, marking it hers, the upper crown of ripe womanhood. The near, so near presence of a man especially exhilirating, so terrifyingly close to the brink -- but brink of what ? As the fingers of her other hand found a somewhat more relaxed, regular purchase over her tender flesh, she sank down in the chair and willed him to look at her. He did not.

Finally, unsure of how else to go on, her breath sounding to her like old steam engine whistles in crescendo, she tried to prompt him back to speech. "The other... woman... ?"
Though she couldn't see his face, Gail heard the smile in his voice. "Well... women, really."
"Oh." She paused a brief moment, shuddered, and renewed her self-torture by her own hands. "How... how many ?"

Donald rocked from the balls of his feet to his heels, relishing her confused timidity. "A lot. I'd... I'd have to go through... the books."
It seemed to Gail that every sentence Don spoke brought with it fresh waves of humiliation. She had no reason to believe further questions would do anything but add to the daggers he was throwing at her, but she couldn't keep herself from asking anyway. "More than... more than a dozen ?"

Donald laughed openly, wholeheartedly. A trilled, happy laugh, made even rounder by their context, by her disarray, as if rebounding strengthened off her quivering rump, off her nervous thighs struggling against nothing at all. His laugh's made wholier by her predicament, he thought. He carried on, his voice sifted through all the lands ever offered by way of mist and mystery, his pauses ever longer, ever heavier, pregnant with all the langurous possibilities of drizzling pitch. "Oh, certainly. In the past thirteen years, are you kidding me ?" As he paused he heard the shifting walls of her quickening breath behind him. "Closer to a hundred, at the least."

He turned to the side, still not looking at her as he began a slow semicircle towards the back of the room. "I've never told you this before, but I've always run my little cottage as a sort of a... well, my private cathouse." He felt her shock, her expected, implicit, learned disgust perhaps, her tremulant, peaked, excited interest for sure. Her awe, even, as distinct from across the ten-feet distance that divided them as any firestorm. Sexually heightend peripheral awareness reported to his every nerve and in great detail the angry frenzy her hand had broken into between her legs. He was so greatly excited his mouth went dry.
Gail couldn't contrive what she imagined should've been the right thing to say. All dictionaries in the world flew past her eyes, scenes of scorned lovers from plays, tales from books, boys at school stuffed under the mattress, disappointed matronly eyes glaring from the haze of nothing, judging her. She gasped out, "Oh... Don! Sir.... I..."

He reached the back of Gail's chair and treated himself to a full view of her struggling, breathless form. "Nothing big, mind you, and certainly not public. But now and again I'd pick up a little farm girl fresh off the train from the Bowl --" Gently, he reached a hand down to her ear and with unbearable softness tugged on the lobe, letting his finger fall to the line of her jaw, which he traced slowly. "-- or some office girl down on her luck, a cute lamb ran out of the tenements and lost in the city... Even the occasional pretty negress girl." Donald trailed his finger to the base of Gail's neck, and his hand firmly tightened over the girl's pulsing alabaster throat. "Mrs Williams always helped me turn them out and keep them in line."

More than the tickle of his finger and more than the grip of the hand that choked her, Gail felt the man's eyes on her from behind, beating into her every layer, pinning her to this state of complete emergency. "What... ohhh... what happens to them... after..."
"There's men who see to that. They specialize in it, see. They pay a little money and take them off your hands. It's very convenient." Donald's hand was steady over her throat.
"Will you... will I...oooohhhh"
"No." His grip tightened further still, as if to claim the creature under his hand, along the breath --and anything else-- he cared to squeeze out of it.
"I bet... I bet... you say that... to all... all of them." With her less urgently employed hand Gail caressed Donald's, vaguely, faintly attempting to pry some measure of its hold on her away perhaps, that she might have more air, s'as her sweet torture may last the longer still. But he quickly grabbed her by the wrist, and, drawing the hand to the backing of the chair just by her head, held it there forcefully.

"No, actually, I don't," he said.
"What... what do you... say... ohh...what do you say to them." By now Gail had just as little an idea of what she was saying as of what she ought to be saying, or what Don oughtn't or not be saying, to her, to anyone else. Her words came, broken from her desperate throat, as though hidden there by some other long ago and only now inclined to venture out.
"The truth, as they can take it. That there's money in it, which there is, and that they might as well be good at it, which they might. That sort of thing."
"Ohhhh. Oh yeah! That... that sort of thing..."
Donald lowered his own head next to hers, so that his mouth was up against her ear. "So that woman, do you remember her, the drunk ?"

"The... the actress ?" Gail's hand stopped its furious ballet between her thighs a brief moment, recalling the woman, and that look in Don's eyes as he'd noticed her, and that slap she'd received over the whole thing in the back of the car that night. As if entirely aware of her thoughts, Donald released his hold on Gail's neck and struck her hard and fast over the cheek. Tears came into her eyes unbidden as she immediately resumed stroking herself.
"Yes." he said. He let go of Gail's wrist and paced slowly behind her. "She's still there, waiting for me."
The retreat of Don's hands drove her almost as crazy as they had when they'd landed on her. Her face stung as two small tears coursed down her cheeks. "Ohhhh god! Do you... do you... love her ?"

He let a healthy few seconds hang heavy in the air as she begged him for an answer, it seemed, with the whole of her body. Eventually she didn't have anymore fight left in her. Gail reached her limit on rub and collapsed in a writhing, pulsating mess before he could answer "Nah. I do intend to use her, though."
"Use her, sir ?" The thought of her beloved Don making love to some other woman... to this other woman, but not her was too much to bear. Every touch now, each breath, felt truly and utterly sharp, in danger of finding an artery and spilling her irretrievably into hell.

Donald continued his devilish pontification, somewhere behind her ears. "I've bought her for twenty cents. You saw, you were there. I'd like to get my money back."
"But Don!" She straightened in her chair and dared to look over her shoulder at him, where she found his eyes instantly, as though they'd been waiting to receive hers the entire time. "Sir... may I stop ?" she asked.
"If word got out! You can't do such a thing, it can't be worth it. If word got out and you lost out on the loan ?"
"Oh, no, I don't mean anything like that. I just don't think she's read her last line yet, that's all."

Gail climbed so that her knees were bent on the seat of the chair, against which she pressed her tingling, teased skin. She looked at him from over the chair's high backing. "You mean you want to use her, as an actress ?"
"Admitting for a second there is a difference."
"There is, Don. I assure you. I... " Damnit. "Sir. God it'd hard sometimes."
"I know it is, dearest." He sat on a love seat backed against the wall, crossing his legs. He looked at her warmly, and Gail wondered for the first time just how much this man knew that she herself didn't. He said, "It's great to see it in you, just how damned hard it is."

"It's so hard!" Gail wriggled her feet, hung in mid-air, for added emphasis.
"And you're doing it anyway. Aren't you, you cheap slutty tramp."
"Yes, sir!"
"It's most becoming! You're overwhelmingly pretty, but always prettiest when you're winning the struggle with yourself. When you taste your own hard-earned defeat, claimed by your own hand, it's... " Donald searched the carpet for the right word. "It's intoxicating."

"Oh!" Gail blushed furiously from her upholstered perch.
He stood and approached her, placing his open palm on her well-toussled head like a priest softly encouraging a child. "So would you like to come ?"
Gail's eyes flitered over the buttons of Donald's suit, trying to divine the future. "If I do, do I have to..." She looked up and finished her question silently.
"I think--. I-- " she stammered.
"It'll be great whore practice for you." He pinched her cheek.
"It'd be-- it's-- " a deep exhale escaped her, bearing something between frustration and dread in the breath. " --too much."

"Alright," he said, "not like there's any rush, prettiest. You may anticipate that eventual moment a little bit longer, I don't mind."
A sudden panic seized her. "If I don't, will you be home by Sunday?"
His voice was as soothing ointment. "I will be home tonight. You may invite me to breakfast Sunday morning and I'll take you on the golf course, give you a stroke a hole, and beat the pants-- "
Gail smiled in spite of herself, relieved at the promise of a quick return and Don's allusions to a return to normalcy. When certain restoration of the current moment is spotted on the horizon, when evanescent, tremulous wonder's made safe from the fate of wind-carried sparks in the night sky even the deepest trenches of unknown worry besetting the mind lose something of their dreadful terror. She chimed in, her usual silvery chirp almost returned. "We call them slacks."

Donald bent once more towards her face, and looked her dead in the eyes as he said, "You may kiss me."
She kept her eyes open as her lips met his and she opened for him, tasting his hot mouth deeply, wondering how the actress would kiss him, and if he'd kiss her back, like this. She nearly buckled in the anxiety of losing his affection to a more experienced woman, but something about the look in his eyes made her stop the feeling short.

They broke, and she bravely let him walk away. "Goodbye, my great lord and sovereign. And see you Sunday."

~ * ~

As Donald approached the broad red front door of Catty Corner House, his thoughts wandered to the keys slung onto the golden ring that jingled faintly in his pocket. He liked their weight, and liked moreso the sensation of one recently-added. A sort of measure of his progress, he mused, that gentle, agreeable pull that sat just next to what he'd like to feel gently, agreeably pulled. The keys's function was rather symbolic. It was a rare occasion that made the man actually use one. In fact it was a mark of her naivite that Gail had let him go through all the motions at her apartment --usually whoever attended a property of his was so keen on the sound of his footsteps that wherever he went, doors simply opened as he was about to reach the threshold.

It worked no differently here. As Donald's hand ritualistically brushed his pocket, the face of Mrs. Williams appeared, somewhat haggard, in the deep carnelian wake of the front door.

"Good evening, widow Williams."
Her smile couldn't disguise the exhaustion on her face. It was unusual enough for this stout, earthen woman to betray the slightest mote of fatigue. Season in and season out, through all the tantrums and unexpected mess of bringing his distempered finds to heel, Mrs. Williams was the picture of calm, measured country trudging. Her apron was clean, her back was straight, and while maybe a few of her wiry hairs were out of place now and then, her countenance stood perpetually serene.

Tonight she stooped somewhat, and she wrung her apron in her hands as though to hide the manicolored stains peeking out here and there from the folds. Most of all, though, it was her face that told the story of her last few days: creased with worry, sweaty with work, everything off-kilter and pointed somehow downwards under the force of a heavy weight. But she met Donald's eyes regardless, and she asked him,"Staying to dinner Mister Donald? It's pot roast tonight."

"Pot roast?" His concern turned to visions of fall-apart meat and a full belly. For more than a week now his appetite had raced from dishes on his tables to dishes circling round his boudoir, and in truth he hadn't really eaten much of anything in either case. In nearly every quiet moment his body reported that he was overdue for frenzy. "With all those potatoes and carrots and onions around it?"
Mrs. Williams laughed, widening the door and ushering him in, the relief of his familiarity and the charm of his boyish enthusiasm clearly melting some concern of hers into the background. "And turnips."

He wrinkled his face as he moved past her and let the woman take his coat and hat. "Turnips?"
"And what's the matter with turnips? Turnips are good for you. They grow hair on your chest." She pounded a meaty fist against her breast.
Donald tilted his head and followed her to the kitchen, where she set about serving him a plate piled pell-mell with roasted morsels. He forked a turnip and brandished it at her with mock suspicion. "Do you eat them?"

"Sure. Mr. Donald, don't be pesky." The woman poured herself a tiny spec of brandy and leaned her back against the kitchen cabinets as Donald ate. She watched him with pleasure, satisfied with his satisfaction of her cooking in a way that no other satisfaction ever seemed to touch. For his part, Donald ran through the meal rather like a freight train, without hesitation or even much consideration of what he was ingurgitating.
He waved his fork in the air to commemorate a sudden thought. "Speaking of pesky," he said, pausing to attack a piece of roast, "how's the pest I left with you?"

When she didn't immediately anwser, Donald turned around and saw her glass, empty, beside her. The woman grimmaced. "Well, she isn't exactly chatty. You'll get more folksy conversation out of a snowman."
He gave her space, neutral. "Is that a fact." Poor Mrs. Williams had been struggling against the greater will of the girl --the woman, whatever she was, since he'd left. No matter; he'd expected it, and he hoped it'd given the caretaker as much of a dose of humility as she ought to have given her charge. All the better, really, in that it showed there's still life left, pulsing its pulses under all the mange. Besides, however healthy turnips might've been, there was something more medicinal still in the occasional crash and burn of a well-groomed and developed ego. In its regrowth new and better qualities so often are admixed. He full expected Joyce with all her baggage'd make hell of a handful ; but he couldn't have thought himself a halfway decent employer if all the work he had to give was run-of-the-mill easy.

They sat in silence for a short while. Finally, the woman regained her posture enough to dig up from somewhere secret the gumption requisite for bringing the subject round to what she really wanted to talk about. "If I may ask... " He was unaccustomed to Mrs. Williams asking for permission or much of anything else. The very icon of self-sufficiency, this woman knew the ropes and where to step on all terrain. It was a large portion of what made her a valued participant in the mechanics of his private life. Now, apparently, her exposure to Joyce had loosened something, and he realized it was not only Mrs. Williams that'd have to work to get things back in proper order. As the cogwork of his life changed, he would have to, too. He chewed and admired the golden chain of it all.

Mrs. Williams percieved the faintest of nods and so dared to press on with her question. "How old is she ? She seems a lot harder and more... experienced than usual." She bit the inside of her lip, ready to pounce on her own fool heart if the boss judged her unprecedented investigation foolish.
Donald didn't look up from his rapidly disappearing plate. "She's thirty-four."
Mrs. Williams sat down across the table from him, letting herself fall heavily into the seat. "Good heavens!"
He stopped eating suddenly and looked at her steadily. Yes, she had a screw or two coming loose, but he wasn't about to let her fall apart. She needed, he knew, to hear that they weren't making a mistake, and that she wasn't getting out of it. He modulated his voice. Calm, but unmoveable. "You will train her anyway. Just like the others."

"But... nobody will buy this one." That she needed to struggle past this first wall against her doubt made plain for Mr. Bellows just exactly how hard her time with Joyce had really been. He let her vent, in that abbreviated, roundabout way people accustomed to country life tended to do their venting. "Not now," she said, "and not after you're done with her either, not for a cent I'll wager you." She was turning and twisting one hand in another as though guilty for having an opinion. It was something she tried vehemently not to have; impractical, illogical, and of no real benefit to anyone, least of all her. She'd never planted an opinion as though in the garden, to watch it break from that tough crust, the prevailing ideas of the time. She'd never witnessed an opinion changing, opening itself to others' thoughts or bending under the weight of its own fruit. To her, opinions were what made people like Joyce so disagreeable. But then, if her employer thought she was worth the hassle --maybe it mattered just how an opinion was planted, and then it could be even something good.

Donald felt wheels turning across the table. "So they won't buy her. It just means I'll have to sell her in some other way, that's all." For a moment his hands echoed the anxious patterns of Mrs. Williams'. "Just sell her in some other way."
She looked up at him, her thoughts blown out of her like grains in a gust of wind. "But there is no way." What was he thinking, sell her to the circus outright? In a fleeting thought for which she was instantly full of remorse, she worried that time or circumstance had affected Donald poorly, edging him towards a bad decision that'd end up costing him dear. Oh, not over a woman like that, she hoped.

"Anyway, where is she now?"
Mrs. Williams felt a welling, inexplicable urge to keep him safe right there with her, in the kitchen. Like a proud mother, like a lifelong spouse, to shield him under her wing, and keep him warm, oblivious to the world outside and thus invincible, after a fashion. But she was neither of these things; he was a grown man, and she was just old Mrs. Williams, widdow and... she understood on some unspoken level that wholesome dinners and a helping hand around the house fell spectacularly short of what he was all about. "Gone up the hill, towards the old barn."

She was inching herself achingly through something like a loss, he could tell, though it didn't bother him much to find out what she imagined herself losing. She would figure it out, he knew ; that's what she did, a mouse left to the maze and the cheese within, without doubt she'd eventually find it nor much interest in the paths she'd take to get it done. The beauty of her mind to his eye was also the thing that made her so dependable : its simplicity. She was neither stupid nor creative enough to get stupid. "I guess I'd better go and find her."

Mrs. Williams let herself rest a moment on the sturdy pegs of folk wisdom. "It looks like rain to me. That corn of mine has been prophesizing rain for thirty years. Excepting once. And that was my own fault for trimming him." She smiled.

"I'd better hurry then." he rose and sought out his raincoat.

She followed him out of the kitchen like a child anxious at the parting of a parent. "When are you going to fetch her home, Mister Donald?"

"Whenever she wants to go." His roast meanwhile eaten, his raincoat already on... Mrs. Williams was painfully aware of how superfluous she'd become, in that moment, as he spun round to look at her squarely. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing." Unable to meet the frankness of his eyes, she looked at her feet. "I was just... talking. I'll be glad when she's gone, though."

He was becoming impatient. "And why is that, Mrs. Williams ?"

Mrs. Williams steeled herself to say what she had wanted to, the moment she'd let him in the door, or before that, on the phone, if only he'd have called her to check in. "You know Mr. Donald, it's different for a man. But a woman knows an awful lot about another woman. And this one..." He raised his eyebrows. She spat it out. "She's dangerous. A bad woman's got something a good woman ain't. And a good woman is jealous of that something, and afraid of it. I don't know what it is, but... she's got it."

Donald laughed. He found it the height of comedy that it took an older woman to strike fear into the heart of an old one. For all the rhetoric, the supposed threat posed by the youngest didn't work out so well in practice. "You've seen so many women go by, Mrs. Williams. You mean to tell me this is the first bad one ?"

"Girls, Mr. Donald. I've seen so many girls go by, fifteen, sixteen, nineteen... they're not women at that age, just children, not so much different from small boys, burping their mother's milk and soft as the womb. The bad woman hardens in them later, like the beetle out of the worm."

"Sounds to me as if you've been reading some bad translations, Mrs, Williams, but I'll tell you what the real difference is, if you're curious. Because nobody knows more about a woman than a man. A real man." He let her take in the full strength of his presence in the pregnant moment that passed silently between them. It wasn't quite sexual, he knew that plain enough. He didn't care to plumb the depths of whether the old woman still had such inclinations to any specificity of detail ; the summary conclusion was quite enough for him. She was unable in any case to deny the compelling majesty of his self-possession. So he stood there, tall and broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, with determined eyes. He allowed her to observe him like a large and deadly cat admitting the curious, awe-stricken approach of a wildebeast.

"What's that, Mr. Donald?" she asked breathlessly.
"A good woman's afraid to die, see. A bad one isn't."
"And Miss Heath ain't afraid to die ?"

A smile spread over his serious face. "She's afraid, she's plenty afraid. Only, she won't admit it to herself. She plays along as if she weren't, but with her it's just an act. A well played act."
He turned, opened the door, and left her standing on the threshold, whence she called out after him, still coming out of her trance, "If you say so, Mr. Donald! If you say so!"

Mrs. Williams watched the man walk through the silken, whispering thatches of golden grain until she could no longer make out the lines of his figure in the growing gloom. Her hands went back to her apron, and she looked down at it, regarding the stains with a shock of self-consciousness.

"I guess he's right," she said to the stains. "I'm an old fool and getting to be a regular busybody."

Donald felt the old woman's eyes boring into his back as he walked the familiar if unmarked path to the barn. He wasn't in the habit of returning looks just for its own sake nor did he change his ways for this occasion in particular. It had long ago occured to him that no matter which path he chose to take, there would always be a woman -- women, rather, or girls at any rate, watching. Ever since he was a little boy, they'd stand at a distance, huddled together or carefully spaced apart, some admixture of excitement and dread flowing off of each and into the substrate beneath his feet, calling him this way or that, asking, imploring, suggesting... doubtless they all perceived their own effluvia as distinct or at the least distinguishable if not outright the only possible or lone existing ; but he had not yet managed such a hair-splitting achievement, such wonderous parting of the fluid waters as to remark, or remember, any particular such muted call. He remembered Gail, clearly, because she did. He had spotted her in action rather than absorbed in the apparent activity of plain and unadorned existence ; and perhaps if instead of minding her drink like a depressed sailor Joyce had instead more observantly followed the cannons of trivial feminity, their present conundrums'd have never taken place.

And so he walked, as sure of himself as they were fascinatedly unsure of his direction. The afternoon light filtered hazily through the slowly baring trees on either side of him, a yellow leaf now and again lazily falling in arabesque paths to the very ground. Soon the fireflies will begin their fandanguous crepuscular signaling, and then the night would fall ; but not just yet. He listened for her on the wind, half-expecting she's be spending her time reciting inappropriate monologues culled from the eternal greats to a captivated audience of confused squirrels like an Upstate Titania, grandiosely reclining in a lavish eucalyptus bower finished in straw, enchanting donkeys and passing cows from the neighboring farms. All he could make out were the occasional crickets, and the gusting of air through the rapidly fading majority of leaves still holding on to the trunk of life there were only ; but of his saint Joyce of Ass-is-is... not a whisper.

A pleasant half hour's stroll later he reached the very barn in question. The ancient structure, perched atop a solid band of river rock since the days of good king George, its wooden superstructure replaced who knows how many times by who knows how many uncounted hands, lay silent, utterly still. The large plank doors, attached during the last reconstruction (after a hay fire, 1883), stood slightly ajar, betraying gross neglect or perhaps a presence inside, of one unknown to and unfamiliar with old country ways. Donald Bellows stood before the ancient fortification, two feet tall, and took it in. They carried it, by hand, or at the very least loaded it on donkeys and ox-drawn carts, by hand. The river's now a good two miles off, though who even knows back then. A day might mean three trips, maybe at utmost four. The architect's eye rapidly calculated yards and their cubic feet, loads and tolerances, there were months, month after month of hard, tedious labour buried in this foundation, dozens of people served hard labour terms they didn't even know they were convicted to, by whom, or where, or for what crime. The crime of being alive, always and for all time, everywhere and in all places the foremost crime of them all.

He stepped inside, softly, as if walking upon a carpet made of his own thoughts. All along, along there were incidents and accidents, there were... As his eyes adjusted to the deep shade of shadow within, he made out a single, slender foot hanging off a hay bale in the far corner. As he approached, the rest of Joyce appeared, as if she were being penciled in piece by piece : a shapely calf, which he for some reason had expected be half covered by a pair of ragged breeches of the sort people rescued from lengthy sojourns on deserted islands always seem to somehow wear but in reality was bare ; the knee atop it slightly bent, taut white skin giving way to the long immaculate curve of her thigh. To top it all, a short denim skirt with frayed edges, and then the skin began again, the bones of her hips roused suddenly only to fall again into the broad smoothness of her belly. Donald thought about sliding his hand into the recess. It seemed to have been made solely and specifically for that purpose. He wondered what he'd find there.

He followed the line of her to the red and white gingham blouse tied hastily beneath her otherwise unimpeded breast. From the comical puffs of fabric in which her shoulders readily lost themselves, their genuine scrawn forced by circumstance of fabric and construction to misrepresent itself in the robust folds and false thicknesses of country living, her arms flung straight away, over her head, all taut. Joyce's head lay to the side, her closed eyes full of some dream at which he could only guess. Her wrists, extended, caught in a noose, fashioned inexpertly but quite solidly. Joyce, Joyce, little miss Heath... she was playing at captivity with herself! Her hands turning a slight shade of purple attested to her having lain there a good half hour or so. The noose biting into her flesh hadn't been the only one that day, her arms from elbow up covered in little caterpillar trails, some more faded, some still somewhat fresh.

So this is what she's done with herself today, Donald thought, examining the surroundings carefully. Here she comes, finds herself some thick strong rope, yet innocent enough to have not brought any soap along! She ties an end to a solid nail hip-level and fashions the other end into as good a noose as she can manage, after who knows how many false starts, swallowing silently but productively who knows how much frustration at mistaken approaches, of which indeed there's such abundance... There she lays, then figures out to move a bale of hay such that by its roundness she can leverage her own body weight against herself, letting herself be helpless, bound by herself to a helplessness she in herself discovers to exist and whose enjoyment, by herself stirred and in herself enjoyed, she strives to conquer, or at least accept.

He cleared his throat. She didn't stir.
"Miss Heath!" Nothing.
"Miss Heath! Hey..." Her face was moored to the lull of sleep, but her feet began wagging as he raised his volume. Though her eyes were still closed, Donald could tell she's conscious, quite vividly awake in fact, by the faint, nervous blinking of her eyes at his yell.
"Wake up, whore!"
Now certain of having given him a show, she hazarded a slit of one eye towards him, with which she regarded him as one regards a strange new insect in the house: curiously, and with a liberal side of cautious anxiety.
"Oh, it's you," she said, dropping one act for another, and pulling herself wincing, painfully, towards the old barn's splintered support. Once stabilised she turned to smiling, coyly.

"On Saturday, I... I fell asleep. In a bar. It's all coming back to me now." She wiggled a captive elbow towards her mouth, sending her breasts agiggle under their flimsy cover.
"Yes. It's also about to rain. Supposedly it's good sense to come out of it." Donald leaned over her slightly, to breathe in the new scents of her in greater depth. He always liked drying hay, and he didn't mind in the slightest her contribution of apple blossom with perhaps some distant, faint ambergris. Maybe it really was just apples, hay and... He wondered what a female blossom would smell like, were it to exist. Something, he thought, quite very close to this.

"That's merely hearsay." Joyce raised an eyebrow and smiled as the man drew closer as if pulled by some invisible force. She decided to toy with him. "What brings you hereabouts anyway?" she asked, "has my time finally come round?" She dropped her voice and looked at him dead-on, enjoying a moment of pure frankness she knew he didn't trust her well enough yet to take at face value. "Will you rape me now ?"
For all the ambiguity in the air, Donald had no trouble answering. "No."

In her heart of hearts Joyce was slightly bruised, not really by the refusal but very much by his apparent lack of hesitation, suggesting as it did to her that he hadn't even entertained the idea, and wasn't about to, even with it voiced and laid before him, plain as day. She was more used to watching things struggle before she devoured them -- and though she knew she didn't exactly want to devour him, yet old habits disturbed complain, and besides she very much yearned for some indication that she could affect him, if in the slightest of degrees.

She had in fact learned a lot by herself that day, a whole lot of herself, things she knew had always been right there, all along, yet which she somehow never before had the time, the leisure, the opportunity to well enough examine. She knew, directly if unvoicedly, that she'll enjoy very much wallowing in his refusal of her. She raised both legs, knees bent, towards her chest, exposing herself thoroughly, skirt fallen somehow under, uselessly all around. "Please sir," she voiced a plaintive little boy, "please, may I have some more ?" His even gaze, silent, squeaked it out of her "You know I can't do it to myself!"

He reached her face and caressed her hair out of her eyes, a delicate touch, so soft for being without any feeling... or was it ? Was it without any feeling ? She didn't know, she couldn't decide. This wouldn't be the setting of the fall, she thought, that much's for sure. There'd be no scene here. No matter, maybe it was better that way. She felt herself readily eager to submit to him, whichever way, whatever place, and it thrilled her, the terrifying horror of it thrilled her like liquour for the soul. "In that case, would you mind hobbling my feet again before letting my hands go?"

He looked around, and sure enough, a roughly fashioned rope hobble lay about, discarded in the hay her previous exertions had liberated of its binds.
"You wore that all the way to over here ?"
"Yes, sir. That I did." He looked at her, the same silent, steady expression. It made her feel like she's auditioning, auditioning for the greatest part that ever could there be, that she must have, desperately. "I'm trying to break myself in for my new life. How am I doing? What do you say, Master Bellows, can an old horse learn new tricks ?"
"Alright, so I'll let you go and you can put it on yourself again."
"No!" she yelled, in a panic. Her eyes searched his, the urgency of the drowning animating them. "Please," she continued very softly, "Please put it on me. Bind my feet fast with your own hand. Please."

He looked at her, looked over her. Joyce prone, Joyce bound, Joyce offering herself on the bales just like the best of country girls. He thought her delightfully pretty, and he knew he'd satisfy her. He reached over, grabbed the cabaline lariat. Such ancient tool of enforcing good manners in young horses, he thought. Contemporaneous with the older substrate of the very barn, just about. He grabbed her ankles roughly, pulled her brusquely by her legs, like she was just there, not substantially but coincidentally involved, like his whole interest was a matter of a few parts only. Her wrists, and arms, and shoulders suffered under the sudden strain, and she inhaled sharply, then sighed it back out, as wet as the tropics.

He stood over her, and admired her handiwork, and his. She held herself in that impossible position, knees still bent, feet flat facing the heavens, her hair tussled, her lips half parted, tears forming in her eyes. An icon of vulnerability, or as Mrs. Williams had put it, the bad woman. Bad, is she? Bad.
She didn't want out, though it hurt almost everywhere, except in those places that had meanwhile given up on pain. She'd never ask to be released. Instead she'd misdirect, forever, or while the blood pulsing still lasts "May I have my shoes and stockings, please?" she asked, for his refusal. Her please facetious, deliberately constructed for refusal.
He satisfied her on that score as well. "No, I'd rather you walk barefoot back to the house." he said, his face betraying nothing underneath.

Joyce considered the proposed delight and frowned where the game being played required a frown. Hers was as disingenuous as any frown ever could have been or ever was. "That's bound to hurt." He'll take her back to the house, hobbled and barefoot, she thought. That's bound to thrill, and to delight, it's bound to bind her fast, and tight, and well. Bind her to him, it's bound to.
"My idea exactly," he said. Though there was still only a calm, steady expression from Donald, his words and the novelty of them told Joyce that he's the one, the one to lead the dance until the end of time. She knew right then and there that her first deed should she ever have her arms again will be the undoing of the blouse. Let it fall loosely about her, to complement the taut step and tender footing, that'd be just perfect.

He unhooked her wrist noose from its nail, then loosened it on her wrists. She pushed her knees through it on her side, and stood facing him, on tiptoes, her long suffering arms behind her, holding up her skirt.
"Will you unbutton my blouse ?"
He pulled it roughly out of her skirt, all about her, then tore it apart, buttons flying everywhich way. Better that way, Joyce thought. Better that way, it never can be buttoned up again. It'll just flow uselessly about the torso of its wearer, exposing randomly, like a theatrical curtain demented, possessed. Or maybe some dull mind will fix what needs no fixing, like they do.

She gathered her cuban-heeled thigh highs and red pumps with some difficulty, kneeling multiply, feeling behind her gingerly, venting the gingham about her thoroughly. Once she had assembled everything of her previous equippage she gave Donald his right of way and then followed unsteadily toward the barn door. He turned to smile, and spent a moment beholding her, this woman of so many qualms who apparently had none with him. This woman so complex, sophisticated, so ready to soil and scratch the perfect porcelain of her dainty little feet for merely the sake of his fleeting amusement. For the sake of her enduring pleasure in his fleeting amusement. A crack of thunder burst its way through the clouds above them, ending Donald's reverie. He latched the barn door closed as they left ; he decided on taking the long way around, despite the imminent rain.

She moved expertly, not pushing her steps such that the hobble'd sap her balance underfoot, nor taking smaller steps than her circumstances would permit. She had learned her hobble, and she used it exactly to its length, keeping up with his leisurely stroll at great, constant repeated efforts throughout her thighs and buttocks. The tender soles of her feet were another matter, it was plainly obvious she never had attempted the likes of such an adventure ever before. She stepped carefully, leading on tiptoes, pain flushing on her face briefly and clearing out silently, just as soon. She didn't allow herself any womanly luxury willingly, not even as much as a yelp in response to the sharp pain of firm corners trying to lodge themselves in her arch.
"You know, you're looking much better," he said, grabbing her arm after they'd taken a few steps into the chaos of twigs and leaves.

The tension in her voice was fierce, each word seeming to be extracted from some complicated machine that first subjected it to unknown acrobatics. "I've enjoyed this afternoon. Ow. The whole week really. Late breakfasts and ouch!" In disparate patches, Joyce's breathing quickened and grew slack, and all the while her fight for control over herself leaked out involuntarily in little grunts and sounds cut short before they'd been established. "And sleeping in the sun..." she went on, "I'm even enjoying the stabbing in my feet." She only realized it was true as she was saying it, and suddenly the walk seemed markedly easier, as though the pain, now verbally accepted, no longer needed to announce itself so loudly in her head. She giggled at the idea, and it was the giggle of a little girl, of a child first grabbing a fistfull of grass or seeing the first snow. It made Donald's heart race. "It's like playing a sort of a Naiad in the jungle, only... Ow!"

"What's a Naiad?"
"It's some sort of a wood-nymph. I don't rightly know..." She felt a surge of release at admitting her own ignorance, something she was never really asked or pressed to do, therefore something she never really did. It was freeing, she thought, even for something as small and inconsequential as this. She didn't know --and it didn't matter. "I'm not up on my sprites very much lately," she said, painting herself liberally with the irony of it. Like a sow wallowing in sweet scented mud, she thought, and the thought aroused her immensely.

"Hm. Well, I'd say a Naiad becomes you better than a Maenad, in any case." Donald toyed with her fumbling grasp of their subject, amused to see her bring up a thing with him despite knowing she lacked the mastery of it. It seemed to him akin to a dog bringing its master something it imagined would be useful, though it didn't know why.
"Fancy! But what's a Maenad then, if you'd be so good as to remind me?"

"The Bacchantes you've perhaps heard of. Dionysus' drunken madwomen, of great beauty and greater passion, or rather, fury, though the Ancients don't well distinguish." He felt her rapture as she walked, more smoothly now, by his side. He was in turn enraptured by the many tiny changes in her countenance, in her thinking, even. It was a great pinnacle of sweetness, this undeniable, marked metamorphosis that began to take root in women once they truly let themselves go. Once they had truly let themselves be directed, re-drawn and re-made by him. "Carried away by the madness of intoxicating dances, even over the edge of cliffs." he continued.

Joyce thought the idea romantic, but couldn't see herself ever playing such a role. Especially not now, after the great and thorough wringing the past days had exhorted of her body and soul. She was thrilled by the horizon, but the sky above her rained heavy drops of regret and doubt to double the weight of the real ones, now coming steadily. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm simply too tired to be hysterical, and my poor worn feet are much too sore from going barefoot at your cruel command to stand even the suggestion of any dancing, let alone over any cliffs." She fished for a little pity, unprepared for his orthogonal reaction.

Donald wicked the rain off his forehead as he looked at her appreciatively. "Restraint becomes you." The rain seemed to distress her, the mud sucking at her toes adding a new challenge just as she'd overcome the previous. He thought it a beautiful play by nature.
"Oh, god! I got the sermon, might we move on? Or shall we read some Psalms?"
He laughed at her growing irritation. Those who hitched themselves to the bright star of the city seldom stood the rain well. Somehow they always expected to be exempted from the inconvenience of it, as if their metropolitan citizenship implied a sort of universal bubble that ought to appear, inflate, and insulate them from acts of god. "That's quite alright," he said.

Joyce felt the cold water seeping straight through her beyond inadequate duds. It was funny how, even in the midst of the rain's drama, she managed to feel self-conscious in front of him. "I hope you don't mind my borrowing some of the clothes." She felt certain they'd all been ruined, even as she kept the stockings balled in her hand to keep them from just such fate.

Donald didn't bother to examine the state of textile disrepair; the image of her, glistening in the dimming light, her ridiculously foreign reconstruction of a country getup saggily suggesting blue and red slashes over what she wasn't quite yet accustomed to bare to the world floated through his mind without the need to look. "Not at all," he said, "It's what they're for."
"What's that? Lending a spurious appearance of propriety to whores just like me?" She put a little extra punch on the end of her question, watching the line of his shoulders and the back of his head for some sign of shock, maybe not shame outright but being touched somewhere, somewhat, to some degree. Anything, anything at all that could be deemed having won just a smidgeon of her face back, an ever so slight, faint promise of some upper hand. She could then drape that about herself, and not feel quite so entirely vulnerable. With great relief she perceived no reaction whatsoever. Perhaps she'll be vulnerable just like this forevermore.

"You're an actress, I thought."
Joyce mulled the supposed divide. Other than the ease with which "actress" came to the lips of the well-heeled, people talked about the oldest professions in the same adjectives --whether in praise or disdain. "The difference is negligible at the best of times."
"That's a thought." For a brief moment the imagined desire seized him to show her exactly what the difference was. As a purely mental exercise he pictured himself, picking her up on some decrepit street corner, in the wee hours of a misty morning after a long night's work. Her stockings torn, the hem of her dress sticky, a vacant look in her eyes as she handed over a wad of sopping cash she'd by degrees, bill after bill, bull after bull procured for him. But at that point what'd he still want with her ?

Yet she'd procured, that's the word. Just as much by the working of the meat of her, though less because of what she could make it achieve and more because of what others could of themselves see in it and by themselves get out of it. A trifle always, not ever all that much, not all that much even at the best of times. Such tragic waste that would be, and Donald, like all true philistines, was not at all given to tragedy. Too much, too thin, too unlike a good pot roast with its potatoes and turnips on the side. And besides, he had no intention of sharing the thing he would make of her --on stage, yes, look but don't touch, applaud, clap your own hands together and that's all. Behind the stage, she'd be completely his.

They weren't quite there yet. Joyce was still teaching herself the many ways in which her very being, with its multiple, multiplied avenues of escape ubiquitously available, always ready to take her on any whim to freedom scorned, made her the better captive, the more accomplished slave. She harangued crescendo, pretending to an indignation that at that very moment was exactly opposite of her internal life "How many pretty little feet, so, so littler and prettier than mine have these rocks and pebbles poked and bled? Are they landscaped for it, is this an architectural design so subtle it escapes the eye, like the workings of Chicago's plants escape the cow's?" Joyce sought in whichever way better purchase on Donald's emotion, as a certification of the impossibility of her most cherished, most recent dream. Perhaps he could be stung to care ; then she'd know she's doomed to be forever free -- of him, of everything she could be for him, of anything she'd deem worth being at all. Perhaps he could somehow be summoned into caring, and then thereby her oblivion would return.

"Come now!" She'd fallen far enough behind that there was no hope of reading his face. Joyce fancied she'd hit even the slightest bit of nerve with her digging. She sunk her nails in, like an angry wasp poking its caudal needle uselessly at the windowpane glass.
"How many whores have worn this dress before me!" A bolt of lightning went sailing through the spindly tree-trunks not especially far away, flashing a sheet of bright whiteness over her scowling face and wild eyes as she leveled the question --the demand, even-- at him. They both saw the lightning, but neither knew the horror that for a second had been embodied by Joyce's face.

Donald muffled a groan. Why was the matter of precedents always so prominent in women's minds? And why, specifically, the number? He hoped Joyce wasn't intent on doing much with her current line of questioning, lest his interest curdle in the acid broth of irrelevant bickering. "Let's say a dozen and leave it lay."
"A dozen! Most clothes know one body, maybe two in their whole life. Plenty go to the paper mill fresh from the shelves, without having ever known the glory of a fart, the constant bustle of regulated body heat. But, twelve! That's... that's excessive. It's humiliatingly excessive, I haven't myself coated quite so many men."

Donald smiled to himself; Joyce's forthcoming account of her experience, as it came, suddenly struck him as a sort of conduit, a connection easier and more fluid than he'd ever known, through which he could watch the woman watch herself, unshielded by the many layers of subterfuge and egotistical obfuscation that typically plagued his projects, whether they were romantic or not. Maybe this is the true difference between a whore and an actress, he thought, whereas both will bend themselves to the direction of a power to which they've readily given themselves up, the actress can communicate the bending's effects upon her, instantly, while a whore may toil years and still have no clear way to express anything at all.

She'd end up remarkably powerful, he knew, if by her submission he prevailed and working together they made her anew. But she would have to have a great many self-reflections and perceptions pierced. He would have to be thorough, merciless and thorough. She'd be in pain, she'd be in a lot of pain. "I am sorry to perchance disappoint your own expectation of shocking impropriety about yourself." At this, Joyce threw herself into the effort of catching up with him, her fascination getting the better of her tentative if beastly feet and her apparent inability to find a way in which to walk that would convince less rain to roll down the small of her back. "Most water, you know, fresh spring water, fresh rain water, was urine before, in people or in cows or in whatever else." He turned to regard her as she reached his side again. Rain was streaming down her face, dripping from the tip of her nose into her raspberry mouth, which spat it out in disgust at his suggestion. "You're not that new."

"Oh god..."
"You'll survive the shock, and the humiliation." That Joyce didn't necessarily agree with this assessment was overridden by the warm comfort of his apparent confidence in her.
She was quiet a moment, then searched for some way to reciprocate his kind, divulging frankness. "I knew it's the right move to not put on any underwear from those drawers. I... I hope you don't mind?" In truth Joyce wasn't sure whether she was asking if he minded her bareness, or bringing the whole thing up.
"Not at all." She brashly hoped his answer spoke to both possible questions. In the silence that followed, sliced only by the sluicing rainfall, she felt more deeply and truly humiliated than ever in her life before. She felt humbled beyond humbleness, like a revelation. It was hard to be the captive of someone who wasn't actually forcing one to stay, hard to be angry with someone so open and polite. It was hard to exude the rage that seemed bound to the core of her amidst circumstances that couldn't really be blamed for provoking it. Her problem, the thought said as it crept and then swept upon her, wasn't a curse or an accident. It wasn't fate or irony or anything lofty, external, something for which she couldn't possible be held accountable. It was her, merely and simply her, the only truly common element of all her experience to date. And this man knew it just as plain. He had known it, for a while. Joyce felt like a cat, surprised to discover a watcher of her prowl.

"Sorry. I'm sorry, Don." Joyce panted for breath. "I'm trying... I have to try something."
"What do you mean, why?!" The detachment in his tone made the blood rise to her cheeks.
"Exactly that. Why must you try something?" As she fell behind him again, Donald wondered at the symmetry between their conversation and their walk; he led, of course, but it was more than that; he moved steadily, well-equipped and sure of his way, while she flailed in sudden bursts and lulls of emotion and uncertainty.

"What else is there? Just, abandon myself to my fate? Take whatever it is, say thank you very much, and think nothing of it?" Her voice grew faint; Donald gave his leg two solid pats, indicating she'd better come to heel. He was secretly thrilled when she instantly appeared again at his side. "For instance," he said.
"Never!" Neither of them were entirely sure of whether her defiance had more in it than mere theatrical flourish.
"Yet it seems to be working out great for you. In any case much better than the alternative." He placed a warm, flat palm over her back, gently ushering her onwards. It wasn't really anything, Joyce told herself, but somehow in that moment it felt as though it meant the whole world. She forced herself to speak her mind, convinced the habit would sooner or later destroy whatever it was, budding between them.

"Tell me what you intend to use me for," she said, "at least that much, I can have that much. Say so, let me have that much. Please!" She was suddenly desperate, terrified that the answer wouldn't come, or that it would be veiled in lies --worse even, the worst, absolute abject worst: lies he didn't even know were lies.
"Sure, I don't see why not. You promise to not let it go to your head?"
"I swear!" Joyce's heart felt as though it were about to explode. He would answer! Right now! He already knew and it was already settled! And it was good enough it might even go to her head!

"I have a fiance. I love her very much, and she loves me even more." Still racing, the woman's heart seemed suddenly deflated, a child's balloon pricked with a pin and left to its insensible jitterbugs against any attempts to reclaim it. "Oh," she uttered, at length.
"I am enslaving her, and I will humiliate her, with you." He might as well have told her that in Old Greek, which she thought about mentioning, but then, she reasoned, the danger was he might actually be capable of doing exactly as she proposed. Instead, she settled for: "What do you mean?"

"Exactly what you heard."
"But... but why? A slave? Why?" Her voice struck somewhere in between bewilderment and incredulity, he thought. It was more or less what he would have expected, had he expected something in particular.
"Are you familiar with the theory whereby actresses miss out on emotional development, because they, in becoming so good at representing the emotional growth of others, inescapably also become incapable of completing their own? Like a schoolchild who always has the answers ready, whispered in his ear, so he never learns anything?"

They had reached the doorstep, where Mrs. Williams stood, wildly ushering them in. The pair had stopped just before the threshold, Joyce staring up at him, in her last second of exposure entirely oblivious to the pouring elements. Poor Mrs. Williams all but pulled them into the house by force, when it appeared they wouldn't be coming out of the rain on their own power.
"Land's sake," she said, making meagre attempts to somehow slap and pat the rain out of his clothes, plainly ignoring Joyce's few, negligible, meager, well diluted rags. "You're soaking wet!"
Donald smiled at the old woman. "It's all your fault. If you'd used the corn-plaster none of this would've happened."

Mrs. Williams nodded towards the torrents sliding down the windows after having delivered their wind-whipped lashings of ever-increasing fury. "You'd better be going back to town Mr Donald, before you have to go in an ark!"
Joyce's eyes were wide. "Oh, you can't drive back in this rain," she said, almost all in one rushed, pleading syllable.
"And why can't he, may I ask?" Mrs. Williams knitted her brows.
"We have unfinished business. Besideswhich, driving his car on that road will be a good bit like touring in a full bathtub." Joyce directed her protestations against Donald's leaving to her unwilling caretaker, not daring to meet the man's eyes lest she discover some intention of taking off swimming in there.

"You'd better turn down my bed, Mrs Williams." Joyce couldn't help but wriggle her wet toes against the hard, varnished floorboards. "I'll get up early and drive in."

Providential Mrs. Williams had a tub full of hot water ready. It had started, more or less contemporaneously with the first dropplets of sour, cold rain, as a tub full of boiling water. Then it cooled patiently and by degrees, as the two meandered their belaboured way downhill towards it. When they were all finally reunited, the tub had just reached the exactly right temperature to welcome inside itself a plainly shivering Miss Heath. The attentive Mr. Bellows in his turn was muchly restored by the steamy atmosphere thereabouts prevailing ; and by the time the no longer cold yet somehow still shivering Miss Heath was just about the right temperature to receive Mr. Bellows, providential Mrs. Williams provided for her own dismissal quietly, and went to bed.

After their all-encompassing soak, and after devouring the stiflingly abundant country dinner set for them in the bedroom, Donald and Joyce found themselves finally settling into the warm, soft envelope of coziness each had been secretly hoping for ever since the start of the storm. There's a lot to be said for comfort, even if rarely anything is ever said. They were burnished by the sort of thorough fatigue which, in its superlative degree meeting its succuor without restraint or compromise, gives way to a strange second-wind that is at once a deep tiredness and a bright, effervescent energy.

It was in that spirit that he did her again, in the living room this time, earlier the stage of considerable if ineffectual attempts by Joyce to filch some draught of liquor, however modest. She had no such inclinations remaining now. Instead, she found herself quite satisfactorily intoxicated enough in the dim light of the crackling fireplace, under the steady gaze of a man that drove her neither to boredom nor madness. He drove her, simply. Plainly. He drove her at a snail's pace, and with, she imagined, thickly-gloved fingers. All she wanted at that moment was for him to take the gloves off, to drive her properly, or in any case to drive her whichever way harshly is. To race her. To push her, mercilessly, as fast as she could go, faster than that really, ever faster and faster, carreening round curves and losing traction with the oppressing drama of her life over dips and crests.

He had said that he intended to use her to humiliate some other woman --and while she couldn't deny a ball of thread somewhere within was beginning to unravel and tangle itself over the novelty of the notion, the head and heart there present in the room were fully absorbed by simple, mere use. Joyce floated serenely, much too drunk on her irrepressible, afore-unknown desires, finishing that sentence in the mind time and time and yet tiem again. Always in different ways, but none so substantially different as to diverge from the broad theme. From her perch on the edge of the couch she took her new circumstances in, unfocusedly gazing upon it all -- him, the fire, all the peripheries. After what had seemed like an age since the last word spoken, she half-purred, "Listen to that rain."

Donald sat across the couch from her, his head propped on one arm as he swam in the unabashed luxury of his satin dressing robe. Joyce was proudly, wilfully nude. She wallowed resplendently bare, save for a sizable chinchilla muff otherwise untouched since its rightful owner had left it at the ranch, perhaps abandoning it in some great scene Donald had nevertheless by now somehow forgotten. His everything else too exhausted to be any further exercised, he let just his eyes wanderingly feast upon her girlish hips and over the diminutive dimple near her tailbone turned slightly towards him. She had long since stopped blushing, but he still felt something in her circulating hotly, even from several feet away. "You know," he said, "I saw you on the opening night of your Juliet."

She turned her head and gave him her full attention, past any pretentions to slyness. "Oh, did you?"
"I think it was one of your best performances."
"Yes. They say so." It was indeed a compliment she'd been paid many times, both by those who would know and by those who only said it because they had overheard it. They also who imagined it would thrill her enough to make her do something they above all wanted. They never seemed to know that there was no amount of flattery that could possibly talk Joyce into doing something she hadn't already decided to do --for her self-flattery always came first, and loomed largest, and made it seem reasonable to permit herself to do just about anything. Or, at least, that's what she had thought she had told herself. She let the notion that she might've been wrong the whole time trickle down her spine a little, and it shivered.

"Which play would you prefer to do more than any other?" he idly inquired, or perhaps merely appeared to idly inquire.
There was no search for certainty, no pause as though she were being asked to confess a favorite author or color. She did not have to construct a hierarchy on the spot, as he'd expected; she had the answer at the ready almost as if she'd specifically prepared for it. "One I've never done. It's a thing called 'But to Die.' I'd give anything in the world to play it. I wouldn't even have to act it. I could just live it."

Donald felt a rush of pleasure at her certainty, her irreproachable fitness for the thing she liked and did best. "Why hasn't somebody produced it for you?"
Joyce scoffed as the memory of her tribulations re-crystalized amidst the glowing serenity of the room, and of his company. "What," she said, "with the jinx icon of the stage? Don't be silly." she paused, moving her eyes from his own, full of something like regret, she thought, or perhaps contrition, down to his lips, which sat just barely apart, hinting at words she pehraps wanted to hear, touches she maybe wanted to feel. For an instant she was quite certain she'd be happiest shrunk and swallowed by his mouth, a force in pill form that he could use to form the words and attitudes he pleased. She could live there, between his lips, and speak him, kiss him on the palate and under the tongue, be a part of him, secret, invisible. And then maybe one day he'd swallow.

Donald licked his lips and said nothing. Joyce shook off the vision and continued, "But I noticed a very interesting play on your bookshelves."
"Which one?" Donald hadn't perused those shelves in years, and while he didn't remember having much of any plays in the collection --maybe an opus of the bard or some anthology of the Russian giants-- he couldn't swear something in the vein hadn't ended up somehow in there.
"It's called... " Joyce's eyes searched the middle distance. "'Forever Ends at Dawn.'"

"I don't think I've ever read it." In fact, Donald was certain he hadn't. It sounded like the sort of wistful banality he couldn't stand. If he were going to endure it at all in any form, however, he had the only vessel he'd ever permit it to come in sprawled before him.
"It's a beautiful last act." She looked into the fire with half-shut eyes, as though watching something rather distinct from the flames.

"You wouldn't read it to me, would you?" He was more than willing to let her get her way with whatever it was she had in mind ; for plainly obvious enough she had some sort of plan. He realized also as he said it that he wouldn't at all be opposed to hearing her read anything, anything at all, be it everso trite or outright idiotic. He'd gladly listen to her read two years' supply of laundry receipts, or anything else. Still, he was surprised at his own words, as if they came out not impelled by him, from inside, but sucked out by her, from the inside. Is that what they mean by a magnetic personality ?

"Are you..." Joyce turned her head to look at him, pleading, it seemed to him, her innocence, "...sure you would like to hear it?"
"It would be a treat to hear you read." he said, a juvenile sincerity resounding through him, like that of a twelve year old boy asked if he's sure he would like a dog.

She seemed very satisfied, to the point of giddiness even. In a fluid movement as from nowhere, certainly not out of a woman as tired as she must've been and not so long ago been claiming to be, Joyce leaped from the couch and with outstretched finger siphoned a thin book off the uniform wall of competitors. "Well, just the last act then," she conceded. Settled again on the couch, facing him now, her hands tightly clutched the book's sleeve as though there were some deadly precipice beneath her, hungry for its prize. Her eyes first trailed over something written there, then she brought them back up to him with the countenance of an instructor explaining some novel and intricate new concept. "The scene of the play is the French Riviera. The story is about a man and a woman."

Joyce searched his face for warning, a looming, ominous warning. It'd have discouraged her ; she'd have come to heel, immediately. She searched his face for instruction, be it as it may she'd have obeyed it readily. She found only contented, patient attention, stranding her. "She's not a very nice person, but a fascinating one. The man has a wife or a fiancee, I've forgotten which." He gave her nothing she could use. She bit her lip and continued, "With whom he is very much in love. He's intrigued by this woman but quite nobly resists her charms." Joyce no longer dared to find that unsuspecting gaze falling back on her. It was like a ton of lead, an anvil waiting patiently for the right chord to be accidentally messed with. The weight of the world, swimming unseen in a look that wouldn't shape itself, wouldn't show itself so she could recognize it and so at least see it coming. She cast her eye down, coincidentally in the direction of the supposed text. "Here it is... 'Forever Ends at Dawn'. You may find the dialog a bit awkward in spots but I'll... I'll try and make it convincing."

"I've never heard you when you weren't." The woman before him squirmed, unable to contain something, readily sent to involuntary fits by either compliments or calmness, equally as well by a smile or by a blank stare. He enjoyed watching her struggle as much as he enjoyed toying with the idea of freeing her from her self-imposed torment to instead minister to the stubborn erection buried underneath his robe ; but then again why trade her chaffed tribulation for his own ? He was sore, not that it seemed to make a practical difference in the mechanics of physiology. Maybe this is precisely why women are always ready for more, he idly considered.

"Thank you. This scene takes place in the woman's room late at night. The man has to go home in the morning so he... " Joyce's eyes trailed off the page as though she were reading words scrawled on the sofa and traveling down to the floor. "...comes to say goodbye to her. I'll read from here." She closed her eyes, cleared her throat, sat up stock straight, then opened her lids again, leaning towards Donald, the iconic picture of professional concentration. "Richard: 'I had to come and say goodbye and tell you it's been swell knowing you.' Joan: 'I hoped our goodbye would be different from this.' Richard: 'Yes, but you see... there's always...' Joan: 'I know, that other woman, that little girl at the bottom of your heart. Her forevers, that last until death do you part. But Richard... my forever's only until dawn. Take it from me, Richard." Joyce's eyebrows arched heavenwards in rise with her jaw, pointing higher and higher until her neck seemed to be the entirety of her. "Tomorrow is where regrets lie, but there will be no tomorrow for us." Her eyes closed, but still she read on, "Just a tonight, this one tonight, which we steal from no-one. Forever, freely given, readily forgotten, as a dream. A dream which has no part of our trudgy, everday lives. A dream over which we had no control-- " She straightened herself somehow even further, and looked him directly in the eyes. There was no trace of either fear or anguish in her, now, " --and for which we can feel no obligation.'"

For three bars the pair merely sat, regarding one another, quietly. Joyce's breath came heavily, racking her bodily nakedness against the sudden thickness of the night air. Donald allowed his eyes to wander where they would, and as they did he attempted no excuse, no pretext whatever for lingering in just those spaces, just upon those very angles, his gaze driving Joyce's breathing ever faster, ever sharper.

"Is that the end of the play?" he asked after a long while.
"Almost. But let's have some music." She rose and fluttered to the phonograph nestled into an alcove in between bookshelves. Her relief at turning herself from his intensity flooded through her, threatening to make her fall. Nearly as soon as it had come, the vapor of relief vanished. It wasn't true, it wasn't ever there. It was just what she'd have wanted, no, not wanted, not really --she felt his hand on the small of her back again. It didn't usher her towards some direction, as before. Instead, it slowly, evenly slid around her waist, the warm fingers tracing her as they reached around.

"You know," he said, his head mere inches behind hers, "you read that beautifully."
"Now you know." She turned and pressed herself against him, her hands on either side of the collar of his robe. He smelled of bay leaves and of the woods, the broadness of his presence pure salvation, his touch on her spine electric. The pretentiously innocent collection of Poe she had supposedly read her imaginary play from rested helpless where she had set it down ; the similarity of its situation to her own quite striking. How many over-reaching country girls misrepresenting, misperceiving themselves as real ladies in real societies stepped up through empty nightly skies, towards imaginary stars, their eager step supported by imaginary stairs made of the very same pulpy substance ? How many uncounted, countless times were this particular mishod would-be bard's emanations mistook for genuine fulguration, how many apparitions of this particular will-o-whisp provided hollow bladders of discredible substitutes for philosophy, to rescue they who never had in their quest to never find out ?

"Oh, now I know. I didn't know before, but now I finally figured things out." He squinted slyly at her and pressed her into him by her hips, letting her feel the hardness she'd inspired against her belly, raising his head so she could not reach his mouth with hers.
"Please." she exhaled, one long, utterly consuming prayer.
"Are you easy, Joyce ?" He raised a hand and smudged her face with it, digging his thumb into the velvet warmth of her mouth. She sucked it greedily.

When Donald slipped it out of her, she kissed it like a holy relic and whispered, "I'm easy."
"Mmm?" he murmered, trailing his wet thumb down her neck and over her breast, which he cupped roughly, cocking her head with his other hand so she was forced to look at him despite eyes that continually grew timid and sought out the floor. "Just how easy are you?" he asked.

Her words came in disparate pantings as Donald's hands moved over her torso, finally reaching beneath her buttocks and lifting her, legs spread, onto his waist. "All you have to do is whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you?" She gave into the most thorough intoxication she had ever known, sliding wetly down him like a drunk squirrel on a frozen tree trunk. "Just put your lips together, and blow."

The morning light came in thin, crisp, all blue and muted gold, neither revealing nor absconding anything but merely throwing different, somehow colder angles over all. Donald was the first of the pair down the stairs and into the welcoming wafts of the pot-bellied stove, enthroned centrally and above all possible challenge within the kitcheny realm whose only thrall, one Mrs. Williams, had been toiling for hours already.

"Kidneys and bacon and cornbread this morning, Mister Donald," she announced, muted pride wafting about her words, comingling with the offerings of the pots and pans she rather spoke into. The man she served was right there, his stays overnight always seeming to play out in the same way : at first she'd bristle somewhat at the interruption of her tranquil solitude with its silent routines of waiting ; then she'd struggle over what could only be conceived as her worth and value, though neither the terms nor the plainly spoken preoccupation ever found any light in her mind. Finally, settling into a modus vivendi built mostly of enjoying the fruits of her long-honed abilities around the house, her real attachment to Mister Donald would start making itself felt, in corners here and corners there at first, then slowly overpowering, by degrees, like the rising sun. And then he'd go back to his real life, and she'd be alone again, for however long.

Mrs. Williams pushed the curling bacon around in the sizzling frying pan thoughtfully, shifting her not inconsequential weight from one leg to the other. She was who she was; the world still held out there, as it always had. Her earliest impressions of it were the bright blue sky coming in through the square of the log cabin door, so shockingly colorful, fresh and different from the dusk inside ; and then the swaying of cornstalks in the wind. Movement through the seasons followed itself indistinctly, momentary delusions of instantaneous importance flowing and ebbing away with the comings and goings of tides. Maybe this was just another movement through the seasons, her soul just another stalk of corn in the mild breeze.

"That'll do fine." Donald sat himself at her kitchen table in their house on his farm, growing ever more ravenous on an accelerating schedule such that by the time he was actually seated, he was also quite ready for the kind of country breakfast Mrs. Williams reliably dished out: hearty, greasy, unblemished by anything like the vainglorious crisp of vegetables. "The miss down yet?" he inquired, while vivid brushstrokes shot broadly through his mind only to splatter against the canvas of last night. Joyce's pink-tipped breast cresting over the line of her ribs, rising with the fullness of her breath, rising still more to meet his bare skin. Joyce's delicate throat contorted, bulging and spasming as she tried to force her body to swallow him whole, little tears of conflict rushing down her wide-eyed face. Joyce's tiny hands, running over her own body as he directed them with his own, making her his puppet, his plaything, "anything you want me to be," her voice richocheted again in his head. He took a long, deep breath and an even deeper draught of Mrs. Williams' strong black coffee. Joyce had been every bit as satisfying as he'd unwittingly suspected she could be, that feeling churning somewhere between his bowels and his groin when he had first seen her on the stage all those years ago folded and re-fashioned into fresh desires every time she touched it. There was one thing, though, he was sure would never be touched in him --and that was his strict insistence on sleeping, when he actually slept, quite by himself and on his own.

"Not yet. I called her a while ago."

Joyce appeared on the second floor landing just as Mrs. Williams was dismissing the idea of her showing up for breakfast. She was wearing his dressing robe, the most brazen if surely temporary trophy any woman had ever dared have of him. She traipsed down the staircase with all the gliding self-consciousness of a movie star demuring before the cameras. Now and then she snuck a peek at her audience, by shades growing ever more distressed at their apparent lack of bedazzledment.

Donald's face was a blank slate --or maybe, thought Joyce, maybe there was even the slightest hint of derision scattered over it. That derision turned to outright disdain as Donald noticed her, noticing him. After the mutual surrender of the previous night, she knew that he was teasing her. He must be, and she was just the woman, she thought, to tease it back out of him.

"Good morning," he said, with all the affable warmth of a priest presiding over a funeral.
"Rather cruel, aren't you?" Joyce gathered the collar of the silk robe about her neck as though to guard her thoroughly routed innocence. "Well, you might at least have smiled at me as I came down the stairs. Even if it were a lie."
"Eh... " Donald waved her notions and the woman, herself, away in a dismissive swoop of his hand.

Joyce had to gulp down an enormous smile. For all his devotion to architecture, she thought he might actually be something of a savant for drama. Truth be told she was quite eager to turn the dial as high as it would go anyways, as one recently recuperated from a debilitating malady ; and besides, so long as they were playing they might as well have all their fun. She stood and with one sudden, deft motion untied the robe, spreading it like the wings of some great bird, posing contrapposto and with thrust out chest as the satin slid down her arms behind her.

"Does the body of the well used woman look better in the morning light?" she asked, her voice verging on hysteria. "Am I rounder, does my skin look happier than did last night?" Joyce dropped the robe, affecting a series of figures from antique sculpture as she shelled him with rhetoric. "Is my complexion livelier, do I look full of life? Are my breasts swelling, is there a certain contented hue all about?"

Mrs. Williams, still laboring over the stove, was simply horrified. Plain accuplation, the usage of women's bodies by men, at their will and for their own purposes whatever their inscrutable nature, still retained a basic, original sort of modesty to her eye. The frank, deliberate self-display however, the woman willingly eliciting the usage of her body... that crossed a line in her mind that mere defloration, or for that matter rape did not even distantly approach. As far as Mrs. Williams was concerned, pretty little Miss Heath went so far past prostitution as to find herself in a place beyond words, a short road away from miscegenation, bestiality, and riding in with the Apocalypse -- perhaps on a little float, like in a parade.

Donald snapped "Cut it out." at the wanton hussy. He pointed a stern finger back at the chair she'd scuttled away from the table in her exaggerate grandstanding, which she therefore reset to its original standing while bending as improperly and exposing herself as scandalously as she knew how. He finished off his mug of coffee, disinterestedly, or at the very least not letting any interest show.
She sat and let her smile out. "I'm happy!"
"Good for you." offered Donald, evidently not done playing. Joyce regarded him curiously, wondering what prompted or inspired this stubborn insistence on acting out the kind of banal quarrel they seemed naturally destined to never have.

"I don't think this is any time to lie," she said, "Or to speak the truth. Or... " she gave him her very best knowing grin, her eyes looking up at his from well below the fluttering of her lashes, " ...to say anything, in fact." She leaned forward over the table, peering into his empty cup. "May I pour you some coffee?"

Donald shook his head and held a flat hand over the mug, nearly swatting her in the face as he did so. His face was grim.
"Joyce. I hate loose ends. They... they tangle your life, they trip you up."
"Yes, sir." She sat up straight and did her best to seem the ideal student: attentive, curious, obedient.
"Call me Don."
"Yes Don." Joyce wrinkled her brow and pouted as though making a difficult and concerted effort.

"Well you see, last night... I'm sorry I kissed you and said the things I said and... and we did the things we did." Donald was playing tug of war with his own folded hands, just as sternly set before him on the table.
"How very gallant of you to say so." She wondered where exactly this was all going, or rather, she wondered how much of where this'd be going he actually had in him. Knowing a part and acting a part aren't nearly the same thing, at least in practice they aren't.

"No, you don't understand. You see, I'm engaged to someone." The syllables composing this "engaged" found themselves unexpectedly uttered with such portent and gravity they nearly fainted from the shock, while Joyce had to remind herself she was already well aware of the fact. It took her a moment to find something preposterous enough to offer in kind. "And you blame me for that?" she asked.
"No, no. It was unfair to you too. You are so very... " A stream of viable adjectives waltzed through his mind as he tried to find something with which to sting her accordingly. Seductive. Persuasive. Conniving.
"Fascinating. I think it was that." she cut in for him. Ah, the disadvantage of awaiting the best opportunity with open flanks.

He nodded like a child who, not understanding the wrongness of his mistake, will nevertheless accept an adult's explanation with full brunt of emotion in order to make the inquiries stop. "The storm and our nearness made me lose my senses." He paused a moment for effect. "Well, I've got them back this morning, and I'm asking you to forgive me. Also for what I'm saying now if I'm hurting you."

Joyce lost her tenuous grasp on the fun with which the ruse had started. This last suggestion that his mind hadn't been behind the weight of his body on her drove a bitter spear into her stomach. What if after all of this, after her week of soul-searching at his behest, after her real and earnest offer of herself to him, he was going to lift the wool from over her eyes and reveal just another finnicky, fabricated dance to the bedroom ? It'd overtake the experience, in her mind, eating it from inside, leaving behind nothing besides itself to live on in her memory. She couldn't stand it. She couldn't count it in among the others. Straight bile, green and acidic, rose up her throat.

"Hurting me? You delight me. You have the most amazing lack of humor of anyone I've ever known." Joyce's eyes flashed white-hot with fury, the anger in her face shooting out into erratic jerks of her shoulders and into the tips of her seemingly taloned fingers. "I shouldn't laugh at you should I, but I can't help it. You were so awkward that I almost laughed in your face at first. Then it made me quite sick to think that anyone could be stupid enough to be taken in by a lot of old tricks. I thought you might at least be amusing." She sat back in her chair, crossing her arms over herself, the most self-assured, superior air he'd ever seen on a nude woman, Donald thought. She went on, "But you turned out to be dull and stupid and so afraid. Well, you needn't be. I won't mess up your Sunday School romance or hamper your oh-so-nice career. Hurt me? Ha! Get out of here before you give me hysterics!"

Donald smiled inwardly at the sheer insanity of their little domestic scene as much as at the notion that he'd be kicked off his own property by a female guest, who happened to be sitting stark naked in his salon for his benefit and his benefit alone in the first place. Nevertheless, he intended to follow down the rabbit hole as long as he could manage. He wordlessly stood before her, finished with his breakfast and, as far as the women in the kitchen could tell, Joyce, too. Frowning as if gravely disappointed he let himself out, for how long nobody knew for sure. A lifetime's a season and a season's a lifetime, at least in the theatre.

Mrs. Williams, mouth agape, stood motionless, one hand holding her frying pan aloft, hovering uselessly in the air. Her eyes moved incomprehendingly from the kitchen door through which he'd left, still swinging its witness to his presence and subsequent departure, to crushed, obsequious Joyce, her head bobbing between her hands as she pulled her hair numbly, perhaps in an attempt to bottle the confusion and dull, or at least dilute, the pain of the last thirty minutes. Mrs. Williams began to say something five, ten, twenty times, but each time she thought she'd landed on something the something crumbled into nothingness before it could be voiced, whatever it was. Eventually Joyce couldn't stand the woman's eyes passing over her any longer. She rose and ran out of the room, sobbing hysterically on her way up the stairs and back towards the bed, that paragon, she thought, of the greatest joys of life, and so inextricably its greatest traumas.

"Come back here, you useless urchin you!" chased after her Mrs. Williams' all-expressive bellow. Mr. Donald's architectural project had apparently found her voice again, somehow. Much to her own surprise it had very... contundent, very sharp things to say, all the more shockingly sharp for their incredible bluntness. Mrs. Williams was a gentle spirit, firm when circumstances demanded but never mean nor cruel ; or rather, only cruel in the natural manner of life itself, as opposed to the thinner, sharper but ultimately insecure and ineffectual refinements of the city. As she could almost taste her own surprise at her own words, she could most definitely hear sad, bare footsteps falling on the stairs, making the useless urchin's way back to the gallows of her punishment. How many women in her position before confronted this aspect of the country kitchen that men somehow, at least past the earliest segments of life as little boys, never in practice encountered ?

Soon enough a red-eyed Joyce Heath was glaring at her from the doorframe, irepressible sobs wracking her diminutive frame now and again, sending her exposed, stone-hard nipples on arabesque excursions through the air.
"Have you ever been caned yet ?" Mrs Williams inquired, matter-of-factly.
"No Ma'am" came the sheepish reply from she of downcast eyes and well stubbed toes. Truth be told Joyce wouldn't have objected to the most severe of canings right about now. Anything, anything really, to make the pain inside go away, or at the very least go somewhere else for a spell.
"You certainly will be soon enough. A whore such as you are deserves a good caning, and I mean to give you one you will not for as long as you life forget. Carrying on in that shameless manner!" Mrs. Williams couldn't believe her own ears. She had for a long time supervised young womanhood's early, insecure exertions towards finding itself, but her ministrations were always muted, comparatively tame. The force and brunt of her own self, the vigour somehow mustered as by itself, all these were new experiences to her. 'Perhaps this is what it means, to be driven insane', she thought in a secret way, just for herself.
"But Mrs Williams! I have to... I have to be bare. It's the rules." came the whispered, sheepish reply. It struck the addresee as flimsier than unconvincing, a mere going through the motions, sayings of the things to be said such that they've been said, but otherwise making no impression on the speaker, even.
"Doesn't mean you're not a harlot just because it's the rules." came back the landslide, all-obliterating.
"Yes, Ma'am." Joyce bowed, graciously. She was, somehow, deeply grateful to this cinderblock of a woman, for crushing her just so. It was perhaps the most thorough experience of her allegedly well-experienced life, somehow. Perhaps because of Don's priming her all night and setting her ablaze this morning, or perhaps because only a woman can really crush another ; the men too light, too insubstantial to really dent much of anything. Maybe it was just the exhiliration of the moment, the long-awaited coming of the storms to roost. She had always known there'll be hell to pay, one day ; she didn't in the slightest mind that day being today, the scene being this old kitchen. 'Here it is, at long last' she thought to herself. She wanted to jump on Mrs Williams and kiss and hug her for her trouble, for all the trouble that has to be taken yet nobody before bothered to take ; but of course she'd do no such thing.
"Now wash all these dishes, clean the table and sweep. When you're done go stand by your bed and wait for your punishment. That'll teach you."
"Yes, Ma'am." A suddenly pacified Joyce, her mind imbued with dread like a sponge left out in the rain, proceeded to the tasks set out before her with an eagerness that surprised and yet contented her. A thing, to be used, Joyce thought. Not just in the bedroom, not just at night. All day long, day after day and week after week, all the time. Her body, her mind, her every waking moment, used, put to use. Always. Forever. She set before herself a reverie, of forcing herself to dream dreams in service of her Don, even while asleep somehow, and her consciousness melted away with it.

~ * ~

Donald's initial sense of great contentment with their fake breakup began to slowly curdle as he drove away from the ranch. What was he doing, really? On one hand, he thought, it was preposterous to have an affair with an actress and not make scenes with her, a notion just as silly as the proposition that he'd use her womanhood in the universally natural way but ignore the peculiar thing that was her greater gift to the world. Yet on the other hand, if he was going to enjoy the counterplay of his two women, it perhaps behooved him to direct the course of conflict wisely. Maybe that's a skill the tamer of women, the herder of women needs to master before he even attempts to begin. Maybe it's more than just cruel --maybe it's irresponsible outright to create problems where there needn't be any. But could there be such a thing as the problem created out of nothing, ex nihilo nihil fit suspended when it came to troubles ?

Just as he was beginning to entertain the idea of making a broad and heroic U-turn, gunning it back to Joyce for an explanation, for relief rolled in a justification, an old countryman waved him down in front of a small creek crossing. Upon first inspection the meagre bridge looked a little disheveled, but as Donald took it in more focusedly he noticed that indeed a sizable portion was actually missing, the high water of the Esopus lapping at the broken boards. The Hudson itself must be setting up to flood, it occured to him.

Donald stepped out of the car and stood in silence a few minutes, side by side with the countryman, who by the looks of it had been staring at the same broken bridge all morning in just the same way.
"Sorry friend," said the man at last, "but I think you stop here."
"It does seem advisable, doesn't it. How soon do you think you'll have it repaired?"
"Oh, the lumber will be here 'fore noon. I think you ought to get across early this evening." offered the man, countryside frankness resounding through his creaked, old voice. "Too bad you didn't get off last night." he added, the grim sport of the old fronteer still unsquelched, somehow surviving in there alongside everything else.

Donald stiffled a laugh at the remarkable misfit of the would-be clairvoyant. "Yeah," he said, the image of Joyce's naked, trembling form returning to him, calling him back to the ranch. "Too bad." Still, it was out of the question he'd leave Gail entirely in the lurch, especially with her whor'mitzvah so rapidly approaching. "Can one of your men get across and telephone for me from the other side?"
"Why, sure." The man looked around him as though to indicate the great masses of men readily at his disposal for just such an errand. Donald saw nobody, but didn't doubt a crew was strewn about here and there under the trees, chewing haystalks and watching the maple seeds sail lazily down to their earth, while they waited for their truckload of materiel.

"Have him call Miss Schieffelin at Austin 9532." Donald patiently offered to the attentive man's slow note-taking. "Say that Mr. Bellows has been imprescindibly delayed and regretfully won't see her until this evening. And I'd be very much obliged if you let me know the minute I can get across. I'm up at the old Quinn Farm." Donald wasn't quite sure why he insisted on referring to the place by its ancient, all but forgotten name, especially to those not in the know. It was a sort of joke, perhaps, a private little chuckle at the world's expense, like putting five syllable words no workman ever heard before in the message they were to deliver for him. It would ensure they'd go into great detail explaining the nature of the trouble of their own accord, as if whipped invisibly by the incomprehensible construction whose presumable importance was alone open to their intuition. It had its purpose, it wasn't exactly idle vaunting nor anything in that vein at all. But calling it the old Quinn farm... perhaps that was a mitzvah of its own as well. The men would have to look at each other, and ask around, until they found an old man, sitting with his thoughts somewhere, an old man with saint Crispin's cuts upon his arms, an old man who'd be thrilled to be of true and actual service. 'Come on you young lads, and set me down' Donald whistled to himself, because old men forget; yet all shall be forgot.

For his part, the man seemd thrilled enough to have an order that didn't involve a lot of soggy wood. "Yes, sir!" he reported, as soldierly as Don had ever heard before, "First thing." Donald reached out a ten dollar bill to the man's notepad, and nodded at him. The man nodded back, and then the nervous little car turned about.

Blood rose to storm throughout his veins as he sped back, tingling his ankles and rattling through his head like a thousand tiny silver fingerbells. His eyes were shot, his mouth cracked, and dry, his manhood rock hard. Perhaps it was exactly the right way to proceed, he thought. Diluting the problematic nature of problems in a bucket of mere contrivance, such that in dimming their importance, the legitimate claim they might be said to have upon lifes and destinies is dulled such that they may be approached for their mere, for their bare naked selves, instead of being approached from the self-defeating angle of their threatening importance, their concerning effects. Perhaps the deep reason men ordinarily did not get along with women wasn't simply that they didn't know how, but that the way to do it is simply counter-intuitive and that's all.

In any case he wanted to see her contrition. He wanted her to display her contrition for him, if nothing else than just for contrition's sake, like one might want to see a dress on a woman notwithstanding he has no intention of buying, either or both. For all the awe he knew she had him inspire in herself, she'd gotten more than a speck too fresh as she shed historical baggage. He was determined to make her pay for it, and in that currency of self-doubt and self-flagellation that's always best paid out the ears, too!

As he reached the driveway he saw Joyce's ruddy head flash from between the guest bedroom's curtains on the top floor, disappearing before he'd even cut the engine. Mrs. Williams had let herself fall into a deep repose in a rocking chair on the porch, where she snoozed lightly. Donald noticed her unlikely presentation, and thought she must be getting old ; but at the slam of his car door she stood up without skipping a beat and moved to the front door to open it for him.

"Napping mid-day, Mrs. Williams ?" he inquired, somewhat picqued.
"Just thinking to myself, Mr. Donald", she replied as if from under great weight.
"The little miss upstairs ?" he inquired flatly.
"Yes Mr. Donald."
"I hope you made her clean everything herself ?"
"Yes, certainly, Mr. Donald. And sweep, too."
"But Mr. Donald", she pressed on, well bothered, at great pains to refrain from crumpling up her apron in her hand like a worried schoolgirl on oral examination day, "I... I also caned her."
"Good that you did, Mrs. Williams. I have a feeling she well deserved that." he reassured her, sternly but roundly and for the sterness even more effectually.
"You say I did good, Mr. Donald ?"
"Indeed. Did you cane her hard ?"
"Middling. Her first time, she says." To that Donald made no reply, but nodded at his trusted Mrs Williams and left her behind as he climbed up the stairs.

"Don! You did come back! I was praying you would." Joyce's face was wet and red with tears, and yet her expression bore an exuberant joy only obtainable by the instant gratification of one's greatest wish.
"I had to," he said, "You see... " He was going to say, "You see, the bridge was out," but it was so damned predictable it sounded like a continuation of the nonsense over breakfast. So he let her run with it, as he knew she would.
"It doesn't matter why." Joyce's eyes were glazing over. "You did come back, you had to. You didn't end up believing our little impromptu dramolette this morning, did you. Did you?!" She searched his face like she had lost something in it and desperately needed it back.

He let her twist on her own rope gladly. "I guess I had it coming to me," he said, refusing to meet her panicked gaze.
"Oh no! No, no. Please Don. It was a lie. Just acting. You know that." She was looking for her lost prize everywhere about him now, clutching at his shoulders, his wrists, moving her hands to his back, his legs, pushing herself against him urgently.
Donald took a step sideways, breaking her hold on him, then sat himself on her modest bed. A servant girl's bed, the pillow soaked through in a servant girl's tears. Why do they call these maids he could never figure, for they never actually were. Then again it's the Health Ministry as opposed to the Sickly Ministry, is it not. "Let's forget about it," he mumbled.

Joyce squeezed herself into the bed with him, unable or unwilling to leave his side. "We can forget that. But I want you to remember this. I know you have much better than me." At this Don turned and looked at her, amused by her presumption as much as he was pleased at the debasement she'd evidently been working into herself, no doubt preparing for herself ever since he'd told her about his plans. She went on, "And I don't mind it, really I don't. But last night was mine and... And I made it ugly this morning. I'm sorry, I don't know what pushed me that way. I don't want you to think of it that way. Please."

He wondered at this concept, hers. He supposed she would need some basis of belonging to him, some carnal memory in which to keep her devotion to him hotly sparked. But it was dangerous, he knew --dangerous to think of phenomena as having owners, for one thing; and dangerous to imagine anyone could own them but he, himself, for the other. He thought about working the lesson into her with his belt, cris-crossing her tigered hide into a checkered pattern. Something in the earnest pleading of her voice stopped him, and so he only said, "Don't worry about it."

At each new show of succinct coolness from him, Joyce felt ever more frantic to make him understand. To make him believe in her again, and forgive her for running off with the scorching emotion he'd dolloped in her trough so generously earlier. She didn't know how to direct herself, she realized; in the absence of this man who'd turned her from her beeline waltz to hell, she could only identify her part and then play it until she either died or the curtain fell on her. "I have to," she said, "I have to tell you the truth. You've seen me drunk and disgusting. You took me in out of pity. Well, that hurt my pride. I know I deserve to be dragged through my fair share of dirt. And I'm happy, I'm joyous even, to be dragged there by you, with ten thousand horses if that's what it takes. But last night I was exhalted, I was higher than I've ever been, and to hear you apologize for it --well there's no sense in hiding it. It cut me deeply, Don. It cut me so deep and wide it felt like I'd all come pouring out, and I expect I halfway did. Just the thought of it still makes me want to cry."

He reached out and grabbed her hand in his. "I'm sorry." he offered, heartfelt.
She let go of his hand and kneeled in front of him, to look into his eyes from what felt like just the proper vantage. "I'm not!" she said. "I'm glad. Last night was beautiful. Even this morning, for being capable of moving me so much, was beautiful. It will always be beautiful. And now that it's over... " Joyce's mouth kept moving but no sound came.
"It's not over, you silly cunt." Don crossed his legs, watching her writhe in front of him.
"Oh yes, Don. It has to be over. Your career is on the verge of permanent success. You have to have she who can help you. I can't. I wish I could, oh how I wish to God I could. But that's not what I've been doing, not what I've been building for, all these years. They're never coming back. Who knew the toast of Broadway will live to regret her youth wasted and squandered thus! It's just too sad!"

If he hadn't known for certain, for her having told him, that she was no longer acting, Donald'd have thought she made such a martyr as'd be just perfect for the stage. He touched his shoe faintly into her ribcage, right under her left breast. She bent and kissed the tip with almost religious transport. He watched her head from above as she did it, he run his eyes on that trail where deep red hairs stood on opposite sides before he spoke. "Would you stop running off with every thought that comes into your head and calm down?"

But she had plenty more to unload. Her truck had come in 'fore noon as well, and she sent all that piled lumber flying around the room in great melodramatic sobs. It's a funny thing, that for being genuine they were much less believable than her earlier act over breakfast had been. "I wish I'd never seen you," she said. "Never kissed you. Never held you in my arms. Because every time I want it, or even simply remember it, I hate myself. I hate you. I can kill every emotion, I can suspend any state except for this confounded desire to touch you just once more." She sank even lower, her face practically on the floor. "I'm the kind of woman who destroys, not builds. You might as well call me Joyce Death! A crazed, hapless Maenad who... who... who really doesn't want to dance over the cliffs with anyone half as fine as you."

Donald offered his open palm to her, and she humbly placed her heavy head in it, kissing his fingertips as her wet eyelashes fluttered over the skin of his wrist. He stroked her softly. They sat, wordlessly, for a long while, the house dead silent as though afraid of spoiling their repose. Somewhere in the depths of his musing Donald's thoughts rose to the surface and he noticed Joyce had fallen soundly asleep in his hand.

He turned along the couch, resting his calves over its end, propping his head on small pillows at the other end. Her head, now resting between his flank and the seat, let out a liquid series of sighs. He had his arm over her neck, she hid her face under it like a bird underwing, and so arranged together they dozed off.

Though the shimmering gauze of sleep his thoughts swarmed about him, recast as dreams, yet of the same substance as in the day makes thoughts. He was drafting out plans, to build out of them and their connections to each other a house, standing upright in curling winds like so many lines on a blueprint. Load bearing walls, structural soundness, living rooms, extra rooms and trim, comingled with trust and strength of character, worship, humility, wantonness and loyalty, yielding jointly abstract elaborations of things unlike, for which stronger still the hole, the hole within. Houses are holes decked in trim. The ancients built blocks of granite stone for its own sake ; but nowadays the walls, the outside walls are just pretext for the vacuity they trade upon to hide within. An architect builds not walls but spaces, the walls only there as pretext for the spaces to exist, and incidental to them ; after drawing out the relationship time and again on the invisible sheets before his sleeping eye, he inevitably crumpled the endless supple acreage into a tiny ball, to be then torn to pieces and restraigthened, only to the spend up a whole eraser's might redoing all to get something just right.

The all-beloving Sun had reached its zenith, and fallen past it several degrees by the time the world finally gathered its own timbered lines enough, and had arranged them right enough so as to dare interrupt the silent, still figures on the sofa. It came in the shape of a confident knock on the front door ; as from nowhere Mrs. Williams' skirts rustled through the hallways and the parlour. She opened the front door to perceive in the outside gloom the figure of the self-same stout fellow Donald had met earlier in the day, by the washed-out bridge. The man nodded to Mrs. Williams, who answered in kind, ushered him into the parlor and then inquired his business.

"A gent from hereabouts wanted to cross th'Esopus this noon, is that so Ma'am ?" the man standing at his ease proceeded in his sing-songy country manner of speech and composition, methodical. When Mrs. Williams failed to intervene he continued, "Said was from the old Quinn Farm, which is this hereabouts, or not ?"
"Mr. Bellows did try to cross."
"He ask't me to get word the first he can get over, and now he can. He asked for a call sent across, too, which went through alright. There was no message back though."
Mrs. Williams nodded and asked the visitor to wait for just a minute, then she disappeared inside the house. She looked to Donald with raised eyebrows. He nodded at her and said "Offer the fellow a spot of brandy, will you Mrs. Williams." from past Joyce's curled figure, her head rested squarely in his lap. Mrs. Williams went about the task of disposing of the visitor, while Joyce was emerging by a slow, velveteen return to consciousness. She sat suddenly upright at the muffled sounds of distant intruders, unknown voices and mysterious, discreet clangs ; heaving her bare breasts to and fro, between presentment by turns lewd and defiant of herself to the unknown, a sliver of modest withdrawal sandwiched in between now and again. Unable to find peace or righteousness in either posture she yawned and stretched herself, while Donald stood up and straightened his long-suffering jacket. Then he sat back down, stretched an arm around her shoulders, and pushed her back into his lap. She fell in gratefully, no longer, apparently, responsible for her state or its presentation to the world.

"Much obliged," the man said as he was leaving ; Mrs. Williams offer her "Goodnight." and closed the entrance door.
Joyce kneeled on the sofa next to him and asked, "You'll be going now?" She didn't know what response she wanted to hear.
"Yes." he offered, flatly.
Evidently, this wasn't it. "Then you must." she blurted out, taking care to remove all the screens of caution and prudence that offered themselves to her disposal. "Because if you stay, it will be too late. I love you. You may never love me but... you'll find you always come back to me." She looked at her hands. Tiny, entirely unmarked by manual labor, incapable of almost anything. And yet, somehow, capable of wreaking untold, legendary havoc. She half-expected to see them spark. "And each time you return it will cost you more and more until... When you've spent your career, your ambitions, your dreams. Oh, I'm bad for people. I don't mean to be but I can't help myself. So I'm being generous to you, Don. Kind. Kinder than I've ever been to anybody before. But I can't be much longer."

He smiled at her; she ignored the impulse to lean against him and run her fingers over the back of his neck, that soft, corded space where, she fancied, his thoughts began. Instead she rose and crossed her arms before him. "So go. Leave me." Joyce slid her hips hard to the right in what Donald could only interpret as an enormous question mark. "You can leave me, can't you?"
He wondered how it was that this woman, so readily controlled and redirected by him, was nevertheless apparently kicking him out of his own property for the second time in one day. He chuckled and rose beside her, slapping her on the rise of her outstretched hip. "Yeah, I can leave you. It's easy; I just put my lips together, and... blow."

They kissed. It was the lightest, the most infinitessimal kiss that either had ever entered, like a feather's whisper on the lips, and yet it felt a thousand-fold deeper and more passionate for all the space left behind by how they didn't kiss each other. Joyce watched him get his coat and hat all over again, and she clenched her eyes shut as he walked out the door.

~ * ~

The crossing had indeed taken on some new pieces of lumber, and altogether a different appearance than it had earlier in the day. Donald mused as to this strange circumstance whereby the bridge, just as much the bridge as it had aforebeen, nevertheless wasn't much of the same thing, or even similar at all! This new bridge was the bridge in the sense a junior taking over business from the retired senior's "the same" -- in name only, in the limited sense of "made of wood, by people", no more. The new the bridge over the Esopus worked just as well and carried him just as easily over the diminutive waterway as the old bridge had, before its misfortune one dreary night occured ; and no doubt will continue to so carry and convey, until its own misfortune. The place of the bridge will thereupon be filled, after some doing, by a new bridge, that'll still be the bridge over the Esopus, and for it all be just as much the bridge as the river was the river. It flows, all of it, all the time, everywhere. Doesn't it ?

It had still been thinly raining upstate as he left, but as the city neared the sky opened up, and much of Donald's apprehensions cleared away, in lockstep with the storm clouds. He wondered what, after all, was he so thinkative about. Surely he wasn't taking Joyce's premonitions seriously. He didn't have in him enough of the plainly requisite paranoia ; nor did he hold her in such esteem as to imagine her the center of some cosmic play at operatic fate. He supposed, rather he thought it must be supposed that it must be he had something like misgivings at the production about to envelop his fiance.

Lovely Gail, so tender, and so soft. So frail. How will she fare in his experimental production ? He never wrote for girls before, not really. He just allowed some spokes and holes for a herd of them to play with, for a little while. Like kittens, little lost kittens, the extras of uncounted, untold litters whose only alternate life was to be drowned. A year or two are no kind of substantial lifetime, the sprightly, airy harlotry they tasted at his hand no kind of lifelong identity. Those girls will marry, all, and bear, and bore their husbands half to death for sure. Yet what he pushed Gail towards... it was what he wanted, what he plainly utmost desired of her, and for her. He knew that much for certain. More still, it was what he deemed necessary, absolutely and unavoidably necessary. Not just to avoid finding himself stifled in the stolid routine of what passes for respectable married life, perhaps freed now and then in the evenings to harp about his overbearing dipole at some stuffy club, or maybe seek out a molly here and there, but chiefly so she'd stay herself, and remain Gail, in preference of gaining proportions bodily and losing edge mentally until all that's left's closer to a bowl of sweetened rice pudding. Rightness aside, how would Gail stand under it ? How will she strain, and will she break ? How will she chafe, and will she learn to hate him instead of learning how to be truer, clearer to herself ?

As he drove, Donald decided that she'll turn out just fine. She'll simply have to stick together, and that's all there is to it. She certainly seemed willing, and while that wasn't enough on its own, he felt a certainty rise within him that between himself and Joyce there was amply enough and everything needed to make Gail's opening and turning inside-out work out for all involved. It was funny, he thought, that Joyce thought her greatest feats were had while the spotlight shined down on her. He'd believed so, too. As truth turns out she'd prove herself --even if to an audience of but two people-- from behind the curtains on the bedpost.

~ * ~

Brimming with excitement, Donald sped through the breakfast Cato had painstakingly arranged, turning the fastidious filipino's three quarter hour's work into eight minutes or thereabouts enjoyment, such as it was. After leaving the garage he turned his car. Originally he had been gunning it to Gail's directly, to surprise her ; but he drove to his office, to surprise it instead -- and surprising enough it was, at least judging by Betty's quick glances. In the cat's cradle of life and lovemaking of the past week that once respectable institution of daily visitation had seen the least of him, though it deserved better.

He was just flipping through his neglected agenda and settling back into the many intricate contexts of his work when there was a knock on his office door.
"Mr. Bellows." It was Betty, besides herself like a dedicated young maiden at the sight of her dreamed Galahad. Everything about her came with buttons, and pleats, an organized cloud of sharpened pencils and quick-quipped sentences. She regarded him with the brimming emotion of shy, anxious girls affecting in their oppinion no emotion whatsoever. Great poise, he thought, as he looked up from his own notes over something to do with spacing between interior walls and fixtures. It was one of his most excellent innovations, though not yet at that time apparent, to make the inner walls much thinner, rather than thick enough to contain all manner of needful utilities, and let those hang as apliques instead. Who says the wall must be around the pipe, or the vent, why can not walls be just what they are, walls, underneath, with their own function and their own utility, not merely the dumping grounds of all extraneous needs of everything else about a building ?
"Huh?" Donald remembered a nagging feeling something in there wasn't quite enough, but he couldn't quite fish back out exactly what it was. He was sure to find it once he regards the matter with with fresh eyes, he felt certain of it. But for the moment his eyes were all over his desk, his hand kneading his chin.

"Mr. Haynes of United Quarries called many times to ask if you have a decision."
Oh, right, thought Donald, the stoneworks. Will he accept the exclusivity deal and fixed price with the credit letters and conditionals or will he just buy on the market, plain ? Betty's pencil hovered over the pad. It was an important question ; but with the state of the financial market as it stood, he did not want to spend any more time teasing out the advantages and disadvantages of what seemed to him fundamentally a dubious arrangement. Large structured deals make sense in very stable situations, but otherwise their liabilities are too complex to figure out at the onset. If he agrees, that agreement is refinanceable to United Quarries, as unearned income ; but just an obligation on his side, which he will have to finance. He'd be extending credit, or in any case if not outright extending credit pushing monetary supply, in effect marrying his creditors to theirs, and frankly he did not feel like marrying anyone at all.

"Tell him I haven't been able to make up my mind." Betty's face, red in spots, betrayed a habit of breathholding too late extended past childhood. "He said he'd have to have an answer one way or the other. Yes or No." she breathlessly replied.
Where many would have been annoyed at the presumption, Donald appreciated the push. Haynes was a good salesman, his dedication respectable as a thing in itself, his motivation transparently reasonable. Donald realized he couldn't do his best work --or much of any work at all-- for as long as his mind was wrapped up in the plans and details of settling his domestic life. "He's right," he said to his secretary, who was entirely unaware of the momentuous occurrences in her boss' private sphere. "It's got to be Yes or No. Thank you Miss Seals."

The girl knew not to press a matter twice through the fortuitous circumstance that she didn't have it in herself to do so anyways. While she sat in the front office delicately placating Mr. Haynes over the phone, Donald pushed his work papers aside and sat with his head in his hands, thinking. There was no question in his mind that he would marry Gail, just as there was no question that he'd throw Joyce into the bargain. What they'd become later on wasn't entirely clear, but he knew the start would shape it all, hence his hesitation. Between the humiliation, rank uncommonness, and his own fondness for exacting the occasional choice bit of pain, there was no shortage of discomfort or difficulty in the treasure-boxes of experience to be lived that awaited they three. He would have to be patient. He would have to be just, measured --as Donald was painting himself over in his mind with the qualities he thought he'd have to adopt in the coming days, Betty's sharp knock came again to his door. He started.

"Come in."
"Mr. Bellows, Miss Gail." She gestured a crooked elbow towards the front office.
He was instantly overjoyed she had come to see him. He drew the back of his hand over his forehead, wiping away a faint gauze of sweat along with his considered resolutions of the past twenty minutes. There was a breaking-in to be done; he'd have to just do it, delicacy and patience be damned. "Oh," he said, "Well, show her in, Betty. And we'll have coffee."

As Betty's frame withdrew from the doorway, Gail's entered in a rush of excitement and tulle. She beamed at him from beneath a soft pink swirl of a hat. "Why, hello Mr. B! It's about time you were getting back." Her smile faded as she noticed the man's serious countenance, his hair and collar subtly pushed out of their regular place by all the ruminating he'd been doing. She sat in the chair before him, placing a pink gloved hand on the desk. "Don... has something happened?"
"Yes, Gail. Something has happened."
"Well, even if it is all for the worst, it can't be all that bad! You have the best assistant in the whole world, and she'd love nothing more than to help you laugh it off. Or to work it out, whichever it is we're going to do."

She smiled at him with a sweet eagerness conventionally reserved for maidens conniving in their own elopments, all the while tapping her thumb gently against his knuckle, left fisted on his desk. It felt just like a tiny rabbit nuzzle, he thought, a fair companion to the unbearable softness of her heart. Inside she was as if made entirely of silken filaments, this future harlot. All butter-white, fluffed and waving slightly towards the objects of her affection, a peternatural being of straight innocence and pure delicacy. 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley', he thought to himself ; for all his trouble taken in supposed preparation roundly failed to yield the least useful tidbit in actual field.

The problems, as he imagined them, by himself, the solutions which he devised to them, in solitary, spurious Sysiphean solipsism had naught to do, no points of contact at all, no community of substance whatsoever with the actual problems he encountered, nor merited the least suspicion of however remote contact with anything like a workable approach to them. Like maps of other places, perhaps imagined, in any case distant, his notions afore Gail opening the door served not at all to light his way around and about the Gail in the room. He was going to have to be just, measured ; but his impulse ran rather to the soiling of her silken evanescence, he wanted it stained bright, painful, shiny red. Was he to proceed measuredly towards that then, he inquired, sardonically, mocking himself utterly, to a shudder. Justly measure what, reasonable approaches of degree confronted with fundamental problems of kind, gory glory be!

He shook his head, and he remembered that look in her eyes, that look he'd seen on more than one occasion. It told him there was something actually rather solid at the core of all her sweet femininity ; or was it telling him just what he measuredly wanted to hear ? What is the rightly ponderous approach to measure the shortness of a yardstick with shortened yardsticks ? Yet like he wanted to soil her gauze he wanted to meet her core, he wanted to hold her heart in his hand and pulse it for her with his own rythm, he wanted her ribcage remade of steel, burnished and stamped, he wanted her twist to his eye like trees and houses regarded through a drop of dew. He wanted to carve and eat her, smoked, like a suckling pig, and far from not wanting any harm to come to her from that proceeding, he actually did not want any of it to cause any loss to her charmingly imaginary surface. He wanted her burned to a cinder such that not the slightest girly hair on either side of her navel's touched, and he wanted to turn her inside-out like a glove.

"Gail, it will make me so proud to make my wife out of you as it can't be put to words."
She blushed violently, compelled a few times to escape the intensity of his gaze by dipping her face behind her gloved hand. At length she contained herself, hoping to extract from him, at long last, the anxiously-awaited wedding date. All the bells in her head were ringing, but she hoped the unfeeling objectivity of numeric values might cut through the chaos of excitement. "You've decided then?" she whispered, somehow smiling wide at the same time.

"If I could respect you a little less, it would all be very simple, but... I really don't know how. So, this is going to be delicate. Though somehow I know the answer already." As Gail searched his face he felt a rush of something like bashfulness, an alien emotion for him, some disconnected, tucked-away part of his being that only knew its expression in her presence. He stood and straightened himself against the feeling, walking to the office window from which the lives of a million others --dramatic in their own ways, but none quite as deviously designed as his, he wagered-- could be seen playing out in remote miniature.

Gail waited, but the question he seemed to be setting up for her was clearly lost now in the scenes outside, or the ones within him. She reminded the petulant voice in her head that demanded information to be gentle, accomodating. "Sir?" Her voice was nevertheless on the precipice of cracking.

He spoke, once he finally did, still looking out the window. "You know these... things I've been doing to you of late... " he trailed off, leaving Gail imagining moreover all the things he hadn't been doing to her lately, or ever, the things she wanted him to do to her; the things she hoped he was bringing himself to unleash upon her. Her breathing accelerated. When he didn't continue, Gail directed a soft and sultry "Mmm?" at his back, as soft and sultry as she could make it. She worried that it came out more like a wail, but he gave her no reaction to help her weigh the difference.

"I've been... " he started again, "peeling you, let's say. I've so far encouraged your natural inclination to self-exploration towards self-abasement not idly nor out of mere curiosity. It's happily freed you out of skins you've worn since birth, or childhood, or whenever these accumulate, extra layers which can not come with you, once you are mine. It's a sort of purity, I suppose, after a fashion, in the very harsh and uncompromising sense whereby the only reason women are ever dressed on the stage is because they're not good enough actresses to do it nude."

Gail was panting in her chair, by degrees becoming hotter and wetter than she knew what to do with. She wondered why, in the moments of her most desperate desire, he always seemed to have his back to her. But suddenly, he turned. He looked at her, with that same intensity that'd made her shy, and which she now could not break from. She held her breath.
He said, "I confess none of this is something I ever thought about before ; instead it came to me, by degrees, one seemingly insignificant curl that nevertheless wouldn't go away leading to three or six or nine more, and they in turn, interlocking, undispellable. Somewhat like the experience of the gardener who, following a vine ends up by degrees uprooting the local church, if you will. I suppose that's just how insanity works ; but I'm not about to propose you should be first turned to marble, or reconstructed out of masonry. It's not a case of 'Mr. Donald Bellows, the deranged architect, does not see why women should be dressed seeing how neither bridges nor mansions customarily are' but rather the inescapable manifestation of the sound general principle that before dressing for going out, one's well advised to take a bath ; and especially so if they never did before."

She had followed him, too petrified to laugh at the jokes, too flustered, too thoroughly, completely overwhelmed to say much of anything. "Oh." she offered, at long last. It was all she could manage, and she barely managed even that.
He continued, as if her faintness encouraged his speculations "It's the unescapable conclusion of even cursory examination that in most matters of the mind people today proceed exactly like they went about their bodily business in centuries past : there's chemises that weren't removed since first communion underneath breeches that don't come off in years, turning instead into a strange kind of outer skin, like artificial bunions and applique callouses dabbed on with great care, patiently, over time. And so, my lovely Gail, I've decided for you that you shall have a proper scourging."
She found unexpected strength past a thin, gauzy veil of faintedness, and cried out "Yes, please Don! That's exactly what I want myself!" She didn't exactly know why'd she'd want such a thing, nor did it ever occur to her before it might be a thing, to want or otherwise. But the impulse was ungovernable, and indeed in that very moment she and her words were inseparably one : she wanted exactly what he said.

He nodded as if he had expected exactly that reaction, down to the very words and peculiarities of intonation ; then he continued "Up until now your scouring worked itself naturally, so to speak, but it's high time we made it explicit. I can't tell you how glad your eager submission makes me ; but let me tell you that I've also decided I won't be enjoying you alone. Your wedding night will add a whole new dimension to your debasement, something nobody else dares even dream of, too unthinkable to even be forbidden, like growing extra arms or scaling down to the size of a dragonfly."
She looked at him, on the edge of her seat, eyes wide, mouth slightly ajar, her breath arrested, her hands frozen in her lap.
"When after the ceremony," he continued "I'll take your maidenhood and open you up to womanhood, I won't be alone. I'll have another woman there, in bed with me, to help me tame you. To hold you down, to help you coax your own compliance out of yourself. To aid the making of something out of you besides yourself." The side of Donald's mouth curled in a secret smile.

Gail's eyes traveled wildly left and right. She tried to scan the screaming mass of protestations and jubilations that coursed through her head, but there was too much, too much that flew too fast. All she could pick out was the one question, "You mean the actress?"
"Yes," he said, "the actress. I've prepared her for this, too. I've already had my right out of her flesh, and let me tell you--" he stepped towards her, bringing her hands up to him in his own, forcing her head brusquely against his tensed stomach. Gail struggled for air, fought to not implore him to keep talking, to talk faster, to match the speed of feverish thoughts glimpsing and flashing like will-o-wisps in the darkened bog her skull now housed. He let go of her hands and she clasped them against his sides like a shipwrecked woman holding on to the rock that sunk her ship. " --she is truly jealous of you. Because of your youth, because of the great wealth you represent, and even greater ingenuity you bring into the world in your own person. Because of everything you are and everything she now, for the first time, realizes she wishes that she was."

"Oh." Gail's response was muffled, stunted, a big flat cork over a thousand banshee wails, despaired women of endless centuries ago, long dead in an unbroken line, their endless string beadling her blood.
Donald gently stroked the velvet back of Gail's neck. "Because I love you, most of all." he said.
"She knows you do?"
"Of course she knows. And that's not all; she knows a great deal many things you don't even intuit yet. She's much greater than you, wider, experienced, in some places callused in ways I never wish to see on you, in others just so much more in breadth as to make you, in your blossoming, look more like a toy. Because, right now," he said, his hand growing ever firmer on the back of her neck as the blood bloomed into his groin and urged him into hardness, "that's what you are. A little plaything, a bud fighting for sunlight. Awkward, inadequate --everything in you trying to unfurl and become."

"Oh, Don!" Gail's mouth was inches from his erection, and she felt its heat beneath the layers of fabric just as he felt her hot breath falling on him, making him bulge and spasm. He wanted to unzip himself and force her tiny petal mouth down on his shaft until she choked. Instead he worked his own tension out on her neck.
"Yeah." Don's voice was all rasp.
"I... I... Oh Don! I'm so afraid."
The admission made him deeply twitch. "You should be afraid. It's healthy ; but you'll turn out fine."
"I... I don't know, sir. To be with-- under-- to humble myself for another woman-- I just don't know how. I've never, and we've never-- never before!" Gail tried to keep her lips and tongue from touching the hot rise in his trousers, despite the growing feeling that if she didn't touch it, kiss it, see it, she'd absolutely explode.

"Oh, you don't have to humble yourself," he said. "You're to let her humble you. Don't worry, she'll enjoy doing it."
"What if she hates me?" Gail turned her head so that her face buried into the top of Donald's thigh. Though she was barely audible, he let her hide a moment. "What if I'm no good?!" It was the swan song of a little girl, he knew, and in that measure precious, even if destined for blood and butchery. A little girl going away from this world, forever ; floating away to rejoin the stars, sparkling, distant, in the great cold voids. He removed her hat and sent it sailing to his desk. He patted the golden head of hair shaking softly against his leg.
"You'll be tops, my little sugar-snap. You'll be the best whore anyone ever turned out since old Pocohontas walked these lands."
She pulled away from him as a question came more slowly than the rest into the fore of her thoughts: "You've done all this before?"

"Something like it, but not exactly, no. Not with anyone I cared even remotely as much about."
She tried to smile. "I'll be alright?" Her eyes were huge with the hope of reassurance or perhaps doom. Donald felt as gracious and obliging as he ever in his life had. It was his greatest heartswell to tell her, honestly, "I'm sure you will." He counted himself blessed, foremost, for having been the one called upon to make that little speech of one single line for her, right then and there. 'To speak one perfect line and then to die', indeed!

Gail thought to herself that she could muster the will to do just about anything as long as he believed in her. She wanted to lock it somehow into the chambers of her heart, deep, deepest, where she was certain it would let her live against any hardship, ill will or evil circumstance that ever could be conceived or infelicitously by itself arise. "I'll do it, sir," she said, as firm and resolute as all the world's granite. "You know I will, and yes I will."
He paused, basking in the joy of her quite individual, true and personal defiance against all the inherited, received, perpetuated thoughts and inclinations she thought he couldn't see. At length he said, "Ask me for it."
She was startled, as though shaken out of the daydream that her commitment had been enough. Would she ever produce something that was enough for him?, she wondered. If she did, would she even like it?. "Please?" she whispered.

"Say 'Please Master, make her straddle my face while you're pushing yourself into me for the very first time, so I can't breathe."
Gail felt as though her life was soaking through her feet and sopping on the floor. She fell back against her chair and clutched at the armrests. Resolute or not, she'd never considered the physical reality of what Donald was descrying. Poured into plain words it suddenly sounded deplorable. Delightful. Disgusting. Definitely. She had no idea, but it occured to her Donald himself certainly seemed to have a few. It made her feel at once empty and utterly full. "May I... May I..." she struggled for control of herself as her knees spread wide while her hands ran to the steaming, pulsating core of the matter.

"No," he barked, "Say it dry."
"P-- Please Master! Please make her straddle... straddle my face! When... while you're pushing... oh god! While you're pushing yourself into me for the very first time!" It came out haltingly, now too loud, now inaudible, no syllable having much relation to any other. Donald grinned and wondered what, if anything, Betty was making of all this on the other side of the office door.
"So I can't breathe," he said, pointing a stern finger at Gail's face.
"So I can't breathe!"
He continued, "And make me lick and kiss between her legs while you ram into me, always."
"And... oh!" Gail buried her face in her hands, ruining her pristine gloves with streaks of black mascara tears.

"Gail!" he ordered.
She looked up, not really seeing him, nor anything else. But she forced herself to say, "And make me lick her... her horrible... between her whore legs while you ram it into me! Always!"
"Good slut."
"Sir, is that really how our married life will be?" she sniffled.
"I guess we'll wait and see, won't we." As Gail stood up and tried to embrace him, he lightly pushed her off and pointed down at his foot, where she kneeled. She looked up at him from her black-streaked face, the reassurance she'd felt just moments ago suddenly thousands of miles and untold eons away. He raised his eyebrows at her, his finger still pointed at his foot. With closed eyes she sank even deeper, kissing the top of his patent oxford, breathing in its round, sweet scent.

She sighed. "May I... could we practice sometime? Before the wedding, with her?"
"No. I asked you, remember? I asked you and you said no."
"I didn't know what I was saying!" She resisted the urge to pull on his pant leg. For a moment she told herself she had never felt so hopeless, and yet, she thought, each time she thought she was as hopeless as she could be, he found some way to drive it deeper.
"Do remember this for as long as you live, sweetcheeks," he said, "Every missed opportunity is something you'll later regret; the only thing oppressing a woman in her life is the count of times she's said no. They add up, they pile on, every one on top of the other until eventually they get to be enough so you can't bear them anymore."

"Oh, Don!" Gail gave up all pretense to polite and modest conduct as she threw herself onto the floor, crying her heart out as Donald's feet withdrew from beneath her.

~ * ~

Sheffield has a nice office, Donald thought as he took his seat. It wasn't strictly the furniture, though many offices had been quietly moving away from the elaborately carved desks in fine wood of the previous generation. The thin agate lampshades, the brocade upholstery on mahogany backing of the chairs and the sofa, many little details easily overlooked unless one's paying for them all came togather in an opulence that'd have been deemed out of place almost anywhere, and yet it made one feel suprisingly calm, not merely apt but actually inclined to focus on an ennumerable and therefore approachable assortment of problems. Perhaps even take genuine pleasure in the proceedings, god forbid.

The charm of the place came all in echoes, muted but present, as though the office were a space petrified into being out of the reflected murmurs of the intermingled crowds below. Mr. Sheffield continued unperturbed the considerably bourgeois tradition of placing the business offices on the second floor, right above the shop. That in his case his shop was a major Broadway theatre disturbed this arrangement not at all ; or if it did the producer was evidently not privy to it.

Mr. Sheffield sat across his long burledwood desk, a glowing lamp casting something of a halo about his head while his hand silently hovered a pen over some kind of document, perhaps typed out at some point but in the meanwhile scribbled and overscribbled to the point it resembled rather an old soul-selling contract with the devil or some other such demonological incunabula. The very gaunt secretary presiding over a large and somewhat galled collection of mostly young women here and there ambiguously bolstered by either very sad looking elder gentlemen or otherwise younger men suspiciously suggestive of outright tramps by the sheer despair heavy set on their no doubt once fetching faces, as if specifically constructed to evoke Midwestern Supermensch on their way to feeding the gallow birds, whisked him in without uttering a word. Donald attempted a few passes of establishing what commonly passed for courtesy in business, but the most she'd venture was the occasional nod. He sat just as soon as he had enough of standing, and he had been watching the seated man ever since. Donald didn't particularly mind waiting, uncharacteristically. It must be the office, he thought.

Suddenly the man picked up the paper he'd been pouring the most concentrated of efforts into for the past ten minutes at the least -- though Donald could not in fairness say if he hadn't been meditating in that exact manner since eight o clock in the morning, or perhaps since Lent -- crumpled it into a ball with practiced gestures, effectual and economical, unmitigated disgust on his face, and threw it over his shoulder. Donald had no time to digest the unexpected occurence because the man's eyes, eyebrows raised, were upon him. It was time to speak. "Mr Sheffield," he said, "I've come to see you for some advice on producing a play. That's something I know nothing about."
Sheffield smiled serenely. "An angel is a celestial being after death, Mr. Bellows. Before death, he's a sucker."

Along with a litany of directions peppered in misgivings about Sheffield's peculiar manners, Donald's queries about the man had produced ample warning about his quixotic style of rhetorics, perfectly liable to derail the most trite courses of conversation. Donald, however, found it just as charming as the office itself. "Thanks for the warning, Mr. Sheffield. What I seek is a more particular opinion. Do you happen to know of a play called 'But To Die' ?"
Sheffield sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, gazing fondly towards some invisible scene in the air before him to which no one else was invited. "There's no such play." he said, breaking himself from the vision. "There's an absolutely magnificent script, which with the proper lead adequately directed would indeed produce a great play. However, miscast... It would close so fast the third act curtain would snag in the stage door." His laugh trailed off, a whimsical fancy that evidently became too real and macabre in his mind.
"Whom do you see in the lead?" Donald asked, both startled and pleased by the ease with which his interest weaved into conversation with the man. Perhaps he happened to be asking the exactly right question, he thought ; or perhaps architecture was a far more broad field than he had imagined.

Briefly the old story of the old tea ceremony master challenged to a duel by the young samurai flashed through his mind, but before it could form and well explore its relations to the current situation Sheffield nodded, as though acknowledging a question he had long known was coming, one for which he had been preparing himself carefully. "There's only two women who could have done anything with it: Jeanne Eagels and Joyce Heath. But besides her many... " the man frowned at Donald, who was not properly annointed so as to allow intimacy with professional nuances. He searched for a suitably vague description, and, finding it, continued: "...problems Eugenia was just banned, and Joyce is... gone. As close to gone as the living ever get, anyway. So it's probably best if we both forget about it." He reached for his pen, signaling his final word.

Donald jumped in before Sheffield's pen met his hand. "If I were in a position to make both the script and Miss Heath available to you, would you produce it?"
The man regarded him quizzically. Sheffield had seen a lot of strange during his years, enough so to have constructed a vast, outright encyclopaedic knowledge of signs and symptoms. Yet somehow the perfectly agreeable character in front of him failed to trigger any shorthand, like a child who runs through a mile's worth of minefield without managing, somehow, magically, to touch any of the bristles. Who the hell is this Donald Bellows !?

They came at him from all angles : players, writers, old fops, young fops, con men, grifters, bums, tramps, lechers, embezzlers, adulterers, maniacs, geniuses, even Frenchmen. The pettiest handler of a two-bit burlesque act always ready to miscast himself as a potential partner, each in his own mind capable of everything and everyone a Ziegfeld. Everyone's favourite activity, the miscasting of the self, everyone always ready to do themselves injury in that way, along with anyone else who happened to be around at the wrong time. Everyone a magician, with a hat full of tricks that somehow they willed themselves to think no one else could possibly ever be wise to. Everyone always ready to try and take him for a ride on their imaginary train, and just as ready to flail angrily when their private obviousnesses failed to convey. This seemed the very first time, as best he could remember, that someone came to him with their trick neatly folded and presented as such, no misdirection at all. At length, he said, "Mr. Bellows, I have been greatly taken with the script ever since I read it years ago. My reverence for Miss Heath's talent is notorious. But even so I wouldn't hazard upwards to a hundred thousand dollars in defiance of the stage's premiere jinx."

Despite the man's words, Donald felt certain he had him clinched. The echoes about the room promised him so. "Surely an intelligent man such as yourself wouldn't take any stock in that kind of story?" he said, pointedly.
Sheffield fingered his pocketwatch absentmindedly. No one Donald had talked to about the man had known to tell him that this particular habit was a strong signal of Sheffield's coming round to an idea -- but Donald didn't need to be told. The old man smiled. "When pressed to the defense of a large enough chunk of change, even the most absurd of fancies become binding, Mr. Bellows."
The truth was that Donald hadn't for a moment expected to arrange the deal without some fair share of his skin in the game. "Suppose I guarantee the expense bill for the production?"
Sheffield was fully appeased; with the production to come, with the young man himself, with life in general and his in particular. If only all visitors to his office came freely to present him with both their raw tricks on nude display and the complete solutions! Perhaps then he could even be a producer, and something less of a magician. He beamed, "In that case, Mr. Bellows, I would produce and direct it myself!"

"Will you have your lawyer draw up the contract?" Donald asked, rising and shaking the man's firm hand.
"Very well, sir." As Donald turned and began the considerable walk to the office door, Sheffield bellowed, "By the way... do you bite your fingernails?"
Donald turned back towards the desk. "No?!"
Sheffield grinned wolfishly. "You will."

~ * ~

Donald had made his fair share of trips to and from the city and ranch respectively, but at no other point in his life had he driven quite so frequently or furiously along the familiar route as he had in the past weeks. He was beginning to make something like a melodrama out of the little posts and signs along the way; a tree that seemed bare, dull, harbinger of dead things and dead feelings to come was now to him a symbol of patience, of prophesied greatness. He waved to the old man in his overalls, sunken in a rocking chair outside MacKenzie's gas station now, whereas he'd always passed before as though he were a stranger. The road was becoming sutured to his life by degrees; to Gail, to Joyce, to himself, he went, speeding like a madman and weaving around what few cars dared to not get out of his way on sight. Another few weeks of this and he'd be a cinch to win the Rally, if he lives.

As he pulled into the driveway, brakes squealing, his mind wandered quizzically to an alternate world wherein he'd get an old-fashioned stagecoach, standing his women nude afore it, to pull it like horses, in restrictive leather arrangements of a purely utilitarian bent, carefully, calculatedly offering nothing in the way of modesty. They'd urinate just like horses do, which is to say plainly, directly ; then there'd be whips... although, he thought, he wasn't quite prepared for the journey to take several times longer to complete, and besides, their skin would chafe, and what to do about the hooves ? Maybe they could simply lean out the windows of a Dusenberg, he thought, like a pair of prized Great Danes. When they arrived he could take care to have each lick the other's drool from off the outside of the respective door...

His reverie was broken by Joyce, who came bounding out of the house like a child to the tree on Christmas morning, except for the part where she was stark naked, not a stitch of anything on her. She threw her arms around his neck. "You did come!"
"Yeah." He smiled, grabbing her most familiarly under the buttocks while kissing her squarely on the mouth.
"I knew yoo would!" She was so excited she shook him like a ragdoll despite only meaning to carress him.
"Calm down, bitch. Let's go inside, I've only got a minute, I've got to get right back."
"Tonight?" She frowned.
"Yeah." He fastened his arm around her waist and ushered her into the house just as her skin was turning lobster-red from the nipping outside. She kneeled to remove his shoes for him, but he interfered, rolling her around and generally playing with her body underfoot to her giggling excitement.
"Oh, darling!" She hugged him around the knees. She knew she couldn't keep him from wherever it was he wanted to go, but she was nevertheless compelled to make some effort, however infantile, at keeping him near her.

Donald reached down and raised her by the chin to standing. "I want to talk to you, whore."
Joyce let herself be picked up thus, and stood before him wide-eyed. "Yes sir?"
"You and I are both artists, in the sense of flattering ourselves with the same sort of nonsense." Donald rested a hand on the small of her back and brought her gently into the living room, where he sat and patted the cushion next to him. Joyce seated herself, back deliberately very straight, shoulders back, breast pushed forward, lower back bent to support that exposure, hands folded in her lap, eyes downcast. She had read all the household's supply of female comportment manuals, and though not strictly speaking unfamiliar matter she applied it now with a dedication almost indistinguishable from religious zeal. Thus she sat, and waited for what she was sure was going to be some sort of let-down. It always did come eventually.
Donald continued, "Only, I deal in permanence, I make things that outlast their maker. You deal in emotions, moments, things that flame and burn and leave ashes, of nothing remembered." Joyce cocked her head to the side. Maybe she'd lost her knack for predictions. "So we're not exactly the same, I know that. But is there any consistency in the way you feel towards me?"

As soon as she was directed to reflect on the very feelings in question, Joyce felt the heat rising in her body, flushing her face. She placed a hand on Donald's thigh and ran it smoothly to his knee, feeling the broad curve of his muscle and the elegant bones at the joint. She breathed deeply. "Couldn't we talk questions afterwards?"
He placed his hand over hers, folding her small fingers in his own. "We could, but I don't want to. I prefer building with plans." He cocked his chin at her. "Answer me, anyway."

She shook her head as though to fling off her desires, toppling over the thousand voices within that told her how to bite her lip or showed her ephemeral reels of his body driving into hers. She closed her eyes a moment and reopened them, clearer, focused. "Tonight I love you so much that nothing else matters," she said, "-- a love you couldn't kill. But that's tonight. Tomorrow should be the same. I want it to be. But I've been betrayed so often by tomorrows... I don't dare promise that. This is the only honest answer I can give you, though I want to give you so much more!" She sat, and looked at him, and waited. He scanned her eyes as though appraising her thoughts for sale.
"That's a gentleman's answer, Joyce. You're no gentleman."
She nodded. "I'm not lady enough to lie, either."

Donald smiled a flash ; then his mouth quickly resumed its serious, straight line slashed across his face. "No, I guess not." He figured that as long as they were playing it frank, she might as well receive in kind. "I will spend my honeymoon right here, at this ranch."
Joyce's stomach churned, her eyes wide in unmitigated, earnest horror. She was half-packed in her head by the time her lips and tongue managed to get out, "Does that mean that I have to leave?"
He held up an admonishing finger towards her, or rather, towards her inclinations to self-destruction. She blinked, unsure of how to take the news if not to use it to hurt herself. "No," he said, "It means you may not leave. You see, the respectable young lady in question -- a pretty, clever girl of twenty-one Springs and not a torid Summer yet -- she's going to get an education."

"You mean you'll run her like the others? Through this gauntlet here?" Joyce swept the space around her expansively.
Donald smiled. "Exactly."
"Murderer." She squinted her eyes at him in mock accusation.
"Oh, the things you say... " He waved her sentiment away with a swat of the hand.
"Criminal. Assassin!" Joyce doubled-down, tucking her knees under her on the sofa and pointing at him with wide eyes.
He laughed, but fought to keep the theatrics to a minimum. He'd already seen, and not been entirely satisfied with, the results of letting her, and by extension, himself, fully loose. "Right, right. All rape and terror, the poor thing will have to spend some time in the nude and experiment with bisexuality. How ever will she survive the ordeal!"

Joyce thought a moment. "But why?" That she herself had apparently needed some measure of torment and trial to approach anything like a sobered state, she understood; but how would a polished, innocent socialite by all indications need --or even benefit from-- such treatment?
His answer tumbled from his lips immodest and without restraint. "Because of us." She liked the sound of it, us. She let herself drink awhile on the implications she imagined it brought with its voicing, dallying especially in the notion that her presence, and what impact she had upon this man, could in turn produce something life-changing for someone else. She felt huge, powerful, bolder than she'd ever been, a towering monster capable of crushing the entire city in one small pinch of her fingers if she so felt in the slightest inclined. But just as instantly as the feeling announced itself within her, it began to fill her with terror. Wasn't this the same feeling that had led to the bad calls and worse reactions, to every poor decision she'd ever made? She checked herself by focusing not on her, but on this other woman. There wasn't much to go on --she'd have to start building her up, and fast. She started that journey by saying, "All I know about her is, she's stronger than me, certainly than such an us as there may be. For if she weren't, I wouldn't be here. And... you know what? I'm glad I'm weaker." She forced herself to smile, and while trying it on him she imagined she saw something new. "You are too, aren't you? Say you are."

"I don't know that's true." Donald considered the matter briefly. It was possible.
"No, you don't ; though... " she looked at him with plenty of hazard. " ...of course you do, it being what you hope to find out."
Donald shifted in his seat. He flipped through an inner rolodex of parables. "You know the story of the unhappy parents, that died on their children, and had to be buried by them?"
Joyce's pupils became pin-pricks. It was the only indication she would allow to break through the iron doors shut over the fact that she knew such a story because she had lived it. Had he guessed? Was she obliged to tell him? At each wave of screaming vulnerability she hardened herself. She willed him not to notice. She pushed herself to speak the necessary word without collapsing, a sopping blubbering wet rag in his arms. "Yes?"
"Misfortunate as they were, the alternative's a notch or two worse still. Children burying their parents is at least the natural order. Parents burying children..."

Joyce wasn't at all sure she fully followed Donald's argument, besides the obvious 'there's worse alternatives' implication. It was the same humdrum reasoning she'd been given by so many, since childhood, as though the idea of such an inversion were enough to quell the agony of her grief. What was the man suggesting? Joyce cut to the chase; it was the simplest way to cut out all the things she wanted to say, but wouldn't. "I'm not her mother." She allowed herself to raise an eyebrow and worried that it had shot up far too fast, and he would see her.
Donald ignored the apparent thunderstorm gathering in her. He wasn't generally impressed by outpourings of emotion ; it consequently made no sense to be impressed by great repressions of emotion either. "Oh but you will be."

Joyce stood up and walked a tight, havoc-spiked figure eight on the carpet before him. "I'm here. I was here. I didn't even come here, you brought me here." She turned at glared at him. She wasn't feigning anything. "By force!" Joyce raised her hands to the air in exasperation. "And now I must mother the one that's the ruin of everything for me?"
He made a tsking sound with the tip of his tongue, which checked her frenzy. Then he said, unperturbedly, enunciating most clearly, "Rather, you must escape the narrow circles of gentlemanly ideas on ladyship. How the hell's the gaining of a young woman that'll fuck you any sort of loss to you?"

Joyce resumed her walk and searched the carpet for answers. She'll steal you from me, she thought. But she didn't have him, certainly not to the standard of his being stolen from her ; and moreover if anyone could possibly be accused of theft under the circumstances she imagined it'd have to be herself. I don't know how, it'll break me, came the next --but she beat it away easily by herself, in full knowledge that as with any role she was perfectly capable of learning, and thriving. Besideswhich, the things that seemed liable to break her down always and with uncanny regularity turned out the very ones that served her best. She sighed, giving into the truth. "It's caustic to my self-delusions," she said.

Joyce was nodding in agreement before he'd gotten the sentence out: "Which is, indeed, what we are here for."
"I know it, I know." she whined at him. "I know somehow that it's important, too; that it's necessary, and that it's what I want, even if everything on the surface and more than a few layers beneath is staging a wild protest. Will you still like me if I break out in hives?"
Donald had a dreamy look in his eyes as he said, "Drink the cup in, all the way in, and let its poisons run through you."

She liked the way his voice sounded even if the message it delivered somehow seemed markedly more malevolent than malevolence itself. Perhaps he was serious --perhaps he had truly dark things in mind, or worse --or better?-- in store. She tried to sound the depths, albeit tentatively. "You'll make me... you'll have me as your slave. Won't you."
Donald scoffed and nodded towards her, as though by a mere moment's reflection she could easily see the truth of it: "I already do."
Joyce didn't need a mirror for that self-evaluation. It was indeed obvious, even to her, even if she hadn't breathed it into life before. She wasn't used to things being breathed into life without her permission; she was the one who made things up. But then, she figured, she'd given the man a kind of carte blanche when she'd let herself be taken here, and let herself be led into this strange recovery. "I guess you do, don't you. Yes, I guess you long already do," she said finally.

Donald smiled warmly and pointed to the cushion next to him. Joyce sat again. He cleared his throat. "Now, about your career."
"My what now?!" It was the last thing Joyce expected to hear about, especially in the wake of unveiled bondage. Wasn't that, after all, the rather literal end of a career that'd already died a thousand metaphorical deaths? Or maybe he means 'as a cow', perhaps. Maybe that's what he meant by 'bitch', not idle but a deliberate remark. Will she now have to learn to bark ?

"On the stage."
Joyce hadn't even considered that he might've had in mind something outside the house for her to do until he'd specified it as such. She shivered. "Why should you concern yourself with that?" she asked. She wasn't sure whether to be excited, dreadful or contrite. She settled on perplexed.
"Because you don't belong in the audience, whore." The more he referred to her in this manner, and the more she had no reaction to it besides straightening in her seat a little as if dedicatedly if modestly trying to pass muster, the more he liked it, and evidently became intent on further usage. He wondered idly if anyone had ever called her that before, with the same effect, or intent, or at all. In the end he didn't particularly care ; the word, like her, was his, by exclusive if implicit stipulation. "Your place is on the stage. Your emotion, your restlessness, they have beauty and poetry there. Off the stage they'd build up to brutal, beastly horror. Maybe the ruin of us both."

Joyce was struck by the clarity with which this man understood her functioning. More succinctly than she could have ever hoped to explain it herself, he had told her something she already knew, but which she had never perceived in the understanding of others. They seemed to think it was some sort of switch, as though she could simply turn off her expression, her projection, her faculties of very life. Until her being actually burned them they insisted in baselessly believing themselves quite safe. "It has happened before."
He looked at her seriously. "I hope that in the theater you'll find enough release to be content with your domestic subjection." Donald didn't at all mind the prospect of incidentally making the woman also happy, nor did he think it right that such a talent as hers should lie fallow. But bigger and brighter than these glowed the true reason for his bold and unprecedented foray into theatrical production: he knew his house could never function well if he had an out of work actress bouncing around inside it. It was, despite Sheffield's misgivings, the least expensive solution available.

Joyce spoke her instinct, for once unfiltered by any kind of concern or purported reason, as if her physical nudity was contaminating by degrees the workings of her very mind. "Why should I find contentment? I don't want contentment. Let the birds have contentment, let me perish under the yoke. Let me squirm and let myself in my own breast die out." She had given this speech to some unseen idol, a force floating about the room to which she was beholden to recommend herself. In the round, heavy silence that followed she turned a keen eye on Donald, despairingly wondering if she'd gone too far, as if that deeply rooted fear was at the bottom of why she never told anyone anything of herself.
He just shrugged. "No. I want you well alive, and I want domestic tranquility as well."
"They wouldn't let me inside a theater anyway. They'd be afraid it would fall down."

It was at this particular juncture Donald chose to take out the treat he had prepared for her. He placed it squarely on her nose, like a pair of well used socks to delight a well used whore. "You start rehearsing 'But To Die' for George Sheffield on Monday morning."
"What? Me? 'But To Die'? Oh you're mad. Sheffield wouldn't risk it."
"I do expect you'll get the script for it, from him, tomorrow."
Joyce's eyes grew wide and she looked as though suddenly she had been let out of a constricting cage ; but seconds into her newfound freedom she froze. "Sir... " she gasped, "did you put your own money into it?"
Joyce desperately wanted to celebrate, her mind pushed eagerly to immediately begin fantasizing about all the many ways she'd bring out her character for Sheffield. For him, really. She wanted to pick over what she remembered of the script, to tell him everything about the play until his ears fell off bleeding --but all this was wrapped tightly with a cord of dismay. How could she enjoy her heart's wish if it meant the destruction of her heart's duty? "Oh, you fool! You crazy, intoxicated fool! Something will happen. I've told you a million times I'm a jinx."

Donald leaned forward, placing his beloved warm hand upon Joyce's eager inner thigh. He squeezed it, bringing out a tiny yelp of pain from her. "You are no such thing," he said. "You're a great actress. And if you're not, I'll whip you dead." Joyce just stared into his eyes as a solitary tear formed itself in hers and fell down to the ground, unheard. He squeezed her again. "You hear me?"
"I... do."
"You'll be better than you ever were."

But Joyce still couldn't let herself think alongside him. Her thoughts turned to Gail. "Did she... is she... " Joyce fought to find the right way to put it. "Is there any difference between your money and her money?"
"The pretty young heiress and mistress of my house is paying for me to go try live out my dream? And does she know about it, too?" Gail -- by which is meant Joyce -- mindlessly wrung her hands in her lap.
Donald broke them apart with more effort that he'd expected'd be needed and held them on her thighs. "She does not," he said. "You will tell her yourself, when you surrender yourself to her."

Joyce flailed in her constraints; both of his hands, and of his designs for her. She thrashed wildly, the last throes of girlish defiance burning hot before their eternal extinguishment. "I won't! Never! I never will!"
"Of course you won't, never, all that. You'll hold out forever, and the forever'll maybe outlast the dawn. The first dawn, the second dawn, who knows. A few of them at any rate. Maybe a dozen, maybe more. Maybe even as many as the countless cents I paid some waiter to get a drunk old actress out of hock." He held her down tightly as he spoke.
"Murderer! Assassin!" and she bucked, and kicked.
"Just drink the poison deep, and let it course your veins."

She breathed heavily, her exhales arching her back and blowing the hair that'd fallen over her face out comically as she peered at him from behind its billows. "I hate to love you so!"
"If I'm going to enslave Joyce Heath, it's going to be the real Joyce Heath."
"Oh god!" She nodded at him, an unarranged yet plainly understood sign she'd regained herself. Donald released his iron grip from off her wrists. By degrees Joyce let herself wake up to the new world she'd been awoken to. "Think, Don. Going on the stage for the first time in two years, to play. For you. For you and you only, like a nigger minstrel exactly. Owned. Bound. My career, my life maybe, all resting on the success of the one performance. When the lights go out and that curtain goes up... " she clasped her hands together and rolled her eyes to the heavens. "Oh Don, that is being alive!"
"I thought you'd appreciate your predicament."
"I love you, I love you for bringing me back to life. And you are going back to town tonight ?!"
Donald nodded towards the door. "Right away."
"Well, I'm going with you!" She jumped up with her hands on her hips, more jubilant and full of energy than he'd ever seen her.
"To... To leave two years behind." She fell to her knees before him. "Please, may I ? I'll be back tomorrow, on the train. I swear I will."

Donald squinted an eye at her and wondered what was she alluding to. Moreover, what about the resuscitation of her career would make her want to visit the city on the spot ? He had some plain ideas ; but preferred to imagine she'd want to walk Broadway directly. For a moment he worried she'd go harrangue Sheffield, but then it occured to him she was excited, not stupid. He stood and offered her his hand. "Alright."

As soon as she extracted his blessing Joyce unleashed the considerable energy she'd pent up during her stay at the ranch towards egging them both towards the city. She was a fireball arcing hellaciously through the air, her eyes gleaming straight ahead as though seeking out the ideal site for her explosion.

"Faster. Faster!" she leaned into Donald and all but added her tiny foot to the accelerator. He smiled at her, infected by her excitement, as though he'd never made the route before.
"May I go by my apartment?" she asked, kneading her gloved fingers into his shoulder, "To get some clothes of my own?"
It struck Donald as a flimsy pretense, but whether it was an earnest request or not, he didn't particularly care; what he did care about was the apparent residue of my own, something not particularly appropriate for her. Not in her present station, at any rate. Certainly not in the sense of covering her body, good heavens. He squinted "No."

"Darling. If you let me grow a shred of dignity back you can just hurt me all the more later, plucking it back out again." Joyce felt certain of her argument's persuasiveness; she'd certainly rehearsed it in her head often enough to have charmed herself into the idea that it'd work out. But he didn't soften in her grasp. Rather, he seemed to harden all the more, as if by her careful study she'd made the case much more difficult, not easier. She frowned as he said dryily, "Is that a fact."
"Please, let me." she begged. "Please Don, please indulge this poor, humble nigger girl." She climbed to her knees on the car's plush bench upholstery, splaying her hands out in mock reverence. Her voice transformed into the clipped and taffied vowels of southern destitution, her eyes twice or thrice their normal size. "Please allow her the leisure to gut herself right open s'as to make a mighty room for you, and keep it all tidy and trimmed up for later. Please, Massah."

He scoffed and she broke into peals of girlish laughter. He kept an eye on the road and one on her as he asked, suddenly suspicious of her flamboyant exaggeration, "Can you go on in this manner?"
Joyce was an abstract being of sheer conviction. "I could! Forever! That night... when you asked me weeks ago, and I told you I couldn't promise you tomorrows...."
"Funny how completely things can change in a short little span of time," he said, his tone mocking as he let his hand fall on her thigh.
"It tears me up it's so hysterical," she said, matching his derision, relishing thoughly that she'd be the butt of it all. Then she continued, in the deep tones of the humble offering of the self "I can promise you as many tomorrows as you'll have, now. I hope you know that. I love you more than myself, more than enough to give all that's left of them, to you." She traced the fingers that lay on her leg, and her heart raced as she felt the strength of her own need for him to believe her. She wasn't sure he did, but as long as things could change so quickly and completely --maybe in a few more weeks he'd really believe in her, vindicating his hope, validating her soul. She tried not to think about the agonizing wait that even a few weeks' time meant.

A long silence passed as they sped through the darkness, the headlights casting sudden stark light on tree trunks and broken fences. The world seemed to be a succession of stills in black and white and wood, until a creeping tide of city lights built up all along the margins and began its unceasing, eddying approach towards them. At last all the sky was either star or lit skyscraper.

It was Donald who finally spoke. "I will be married the Sunday after your opening on Friday night."
A ripple of panic broke through Joyce. "That Sunday?" Two debuts so close together impendingly threatened to topple her.
"No," Donald said, "The Sunday next. If it were that Sunday I'd have said that Sunday."
Joyce employed a lot longer than seemed reasonable to either of them towards the production of something like a figure. She said shyily, "That is... five weeks from now. So soon?"
The panic returned to Joyce's stomach. "You mean to close me out after ten showings?!" The last thing she wanted was to seem ungrateful, and yet the promise of a show --the show, her show-- that'd end so abruptly, to be absorbed by the unknown kraken of this man's wishes for her corporeality --the thought nearly knocked the wind out of her.
"Ah, no." he reassured her, smiling on her side of his face. "You'll just have to travel, that's all." As he felt her begin to melt again beside him, he threw in, "You can have the car. A driver for it too, if you want. I intend to feed you a steady diet of public applause and private whorship weeks on end. Let's see how big we can inflate that pretty head of yours."
"Oh, Don!" It was just when things seemed to be turning for the worst that they became even greater, in Donald's hands. Joyce laid her head on his shoulder as the buildings like great black butterflies whizzed by, and dreamed.

~ * ~

Donald didn't ask Joyce where she was headed once he dropped the car at his usual garage by the office, nor did she volunteer it. What needed to be said had been ; what needed to be felt was felt. They simply pecked each other on the mouth like an old married couple and went in their opposite directions down the street, the night air dividing them in its pools and alleys of sparkling ink.

Joyce wandered a few aimless blocks before committing to her destination. It was an address she knew well, not far from Broadway, but which she hadn't traipsed in what felt like numerous decades though it had been significantly less than one. The doorman, unchanged, still knew her ; the elevator boy also. Hats tipped as she entered, an unmistakable, breathy hint of "Heath" heard as a whisper in her wake as she traversed the lobby. Finally out on the sixth floor Joyce walked on tip-toes, inaudibly down the dark corridor towards the door with a big brass Six and G hanging over it. Oh how she had hated this walk, back when.

She stood there simply confronting the door a minute, or two, her white glove and an inch of air separating her curled fist from the peeling paint. Every second she dared herself to knock; every second she dared herself to flee and leave off this doomed notion she was afraid she was actually about to entertain. Finally she heard some shuffling on the other side, and the light beneath the door's crack marbled in someone else's presence. The door flung open.
"Joyce! I hoped you'd come like this! So many times! And you have, haven't you?" Her husband's face was as goofily unlovable as she remembered it. His hair as hapless, his cheeks now swept with stubble ; and yet his glistening eyes betrayed honest joy at the sight of her. His eager recognition made her sick to her stomach.

"Yes," she said, looking gingerly past him into the ramshackle apartment. She didn't particularly want to go in, yet it perhaps would be some improvement over lurking in the hallway like this. She could feel ears pressed against the insides of the other doors, surely. "On business." She kept her face stern.
"Come in, come in." The man ushered her inside and walked behind her, hunched and hesitantly tidying up inconsequential messes as though the straightening of an empty can or a finger's worth of dust removed from the radio would mark an important difference. "I rather hate to have you see my quarters." He said apologetically.

Joyce willed herself not to look around the studio once she'd reached the approximate center, but peripheral impressions of its decrepitude still reached her. Ripped, haggard playbills lined either side of the solitary window, rolling away from the cheap wallpaper like old paint. A pluriously dented brass bed frame, no doubt once some kind of showpiece, wailed silently its solitary despair to the side, its mattress not quite straight within, shamelessly exposing the occasional ousted spring. All around the margins of the room the floor was piled with bits of garbage and balled-up newspaper, as if a sort of trash hedge made to keep the world away. Joyce held her hand to her mouth for a moment to collect herself. "Spare yourself any embarrassment, Gordon," she offered, blankly. "I didn't come driven by curiosity."

Amongst the mess Joyce saw a smattering of tributes to her --a dozen pictures framed and set upon a dresser, somehow perfectly polished; a set of scripts for plays she'd done took the top honors on a well-dusted bookshelf. She spotted even an open notebook in which her name was scribbled as on a lit marquee. Between the encroaching madness and fading, evanescent memories of days back when his flattery had been closer to her delight than her detestment, Joyce felt queasy, uneasy on her feet. She walked to a rickety reed chair at the room's only table, knocked some collection of bric-a-brac unexaminedly off the seat, and sat herself in its stead.
The man once called Gordon immediately proferred another. "You'll find this one more comfortable," he said, pushing his delegate towards her.
"I shan't be here long enough to find this one uncomfortable."
He frowned and sat in the elected chair himself, twiddling his thumbs a brief moment before finally settling upon his favorite topic of conversation. "Cigarette?"
"No, thank you." Joyce regarded him coolly as she worked herself towards saying the thing she'd come to say.
Gordon broke in over her gathering resolve. "You still hate me, don't you?"
Joyce sighed. "No Gordon, I don't hate you. There is a certain element of respect in hate. The only feeling I have for you is contempt." For an instant she searched his eyes for understanding --but then she realized she neither expected it nor cared if it ever came. She had finished giving this man second chances long, long ago. Whatever shred of kindness she might feel, she thought, fleeting as it may be, was only for a ghost, an idea, a caricature from within her own mind that had never really come to reside within the sack of bare flesh and pathetic inadequacy sitting before her.

"You are most fortunate." Gordon tented his fingers and rocked himself slightly in his chair. Joyce was long since familiar with his picture-perfect grasp of the sanitarium dweller's comportment, and it had long since ceased to move her. Nevertheless, he went on, "Contempt is much easier to carry in your heart than a love you can't destroy."
The decision to play him up against himself came as of its own. "You do love me, don't you Gordon?" She inquired, eyelids allowed to bat at him ever so slightly.
Gordon kept rocking. "When a man ruins his life for something, it's liable to be pretty real. I'm a bookkeeper now, in the company I used to own. The worst of it is, I can't hate you. I don't suppose you can understand that."
"I never could before. I do now." She inched closer towards his chair with her own, entreatingly. "You see, I love somebody that way too, Gordon."
"Heaven help you." His eyes grew wide and he leaned back, away from her. Far from anything like sympathy, Joyce perceived only horror.

"I don't want to be helped," she said, her brow creasing. Trying to be sweet was a mistake, as it always had been. She hardened herself against the truth. "I came here to beg a man I despise. You can't get any lower than that."
Gordon broke their staring contest and let his thoughts trail over the crooked pictures and posters along the wall. At length he asked, "You want me to divorce you?"
She was thrilled at being excused from voicing the request herself. The hope that he might be amenable sprung forth from his ability to speak of it. For a brief moment Joyce could almost taste her deliverance. "Oh yes, Gordon. Please."
He stood and walked about the room, his back to her. "I've told you time and time again, that I won't and never will. You are my wife. Something you will never be to any other man. Being your husband is the only thing I've got left and I won't lose it! You'll be my wife until the day I die." He walked to the dresser topped with her photographs and chose one, bringing it to his breast, where he hugged it tightly.
"That's not just for you to say", she offered, cautiously.
"You'll never be able to divorce me. Never, never. You haven't any grounds, and you never will."

Joyce tried to get the visage of pure disgust off of her face. It was easy enough to do, but then she found herself having to do it over and over again, somehow. She wasn't entirely sure of her success as she spoke. "Gordon. I know I've ruined your happiness, but don't ruin mine. Please. If it's revenge you want, I'll give it to you." He didn't turn around, but regardless she rose from her chair and sunk to her knees amongst the garbage, raising her hands to him in beseechment. "Look," she said, her voice full of pleading, "I'm on my knees. Look at me! I'm crawling on your dirty rug in this rat trap you inhabit, or perhaps it is more apt to say this rat trap you've been trapped by. I'll do anything. Anything!" She writhed her way over to him and pulled on the legs of his trousers like a helpless little girl. "Gordon! Gordon, look at me. If you want to humiliate me, you know how. Do it, but set me free. Please Gordon. Please, please!" He reached down and batted her hands from off his pants, still refusing to look at her, still cradling her portrait in his arms.
Joyce sunk even lower to the floor and beat it with her fists. "Ohhhh... Oh you cheap, petty bookkeeper, you! Every time I think of those sticky hands of yours touching me, it makes me sick. Sick, do you hear? You are everything that's repulsive to me. Your wife?" She dragged herself back up to standing, brushing bits of aluminum foil and specks of dust from off her comically inadequate schoolgirl outfit. "I've never been a wife to you, you poor, simpering fool. If you had any pride, if you were a man instead of a drooling milksop you'd throw me out and be ashamed to admit that you ever married me!" With a sweaty hand she spun the man around to face her, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. Her eyes brimming with rage she held her hand back from his face for several threatening moments, as if daring him to stop her. He made no move. Joyce squinted her eyes and slapped him hard across his face, sinking in the brief movement enthusiastically every mote of strength she could withall conjure. Besides the loud report it resolved, and released, nothing.

Her chest heaved wildly, her breath coming in short, uncontrollable bursts. How was it that this insensible, unattractive oaf of a man had come to wield so much power over her? Though she intrinsically knew it was her own fault, still she shot furious, overcomposed accusations at the man himself and everyone else she'd known in his company.
"I guess I'm better protected against you than I used to be," he said quietly. "Neither that, nor what you have to say seem to hurt anymore."
"Gordon, Gordon... " she shook him by the shoulders like he were a cigarette machine clutching unreasonably a package no longer its own to hold on to. His head bobbled limply to and fro. "You can't still love me, when you know how I feel about you."
At this, Gordon finally looked in Joyce's eyes again, the faintest shred of a smile returning to his lips. "Yes, I do."
"But you ...?"
"I won't divorce you, no."

"Well Gordon... I guess you were ordained not to live to be happy. Perhaps it is your lot to make the best of what you have and... " Joyce threw a limp arm around to indicate the confused mass of his room "--to try and find contentment, alone, by yourself."
"I guess so." He was barely audible.
"I'm going to leave now; you're never going to see me again." She stood straight and tall, looking at him, waiting for him to say something reproachful. Nothing came. "Is there... is there anything you'd like, before I go?" She wasn't sure why she'd asked. She couldn't get what she wanted, she properly speaking had no interest one way or the other, yet somehow still she felt compelled as if by a higher power to find something, among so much waste and detritus, something however small, perhaps seemingly inconsequential, that could nevertheless be exchanged.
"There is... one thing." Gordon said. "Just one."
"I want you to kiss this bullet for me. That's all I'll ever ask, Joyce, ever again. I want the shot driving your kiss deep, deep into my heart, where it belongs."

She eyed him dispassionately. He had always been melodramatic; yet for all his endless, toilsome self-expenditure towards that kind of fictive idealisation it was a rare occurence he'd stumble on something genuinely workable. Gordon was a failed playwright at heart, forever coming up with overwrought scenes that'd never play, reliably enlisting the worst of actors for the monumentally impossible task : himself. Gordon was, besides his own hack writer, also his own captive, threadbare theatrical company of just one, forever diligently if unhapily applied towards the trying to act out impossible contortions of purple prose ; and reliably failing as miserably as circumstances warranted.

It was so rare for him to actually come up with the juiciest thing that could be said ; and on the spot like that... Joyce couldn't remember the occasion's peer. Indeed it was likely the first time he had stumbled on anything even remotely resembling an idea ; and for his sins when it finally happened to him it wasn't merely workable! No, not merely workable indeed. Superlatively capacituous, something enough to stand toe to toe with the greats. After a lifetime spent losing on the regular small blinds against long odds, Gordon teetered on the brink of blowing out God's own casino. She wondered if he'd actually have the nerve to carry through, to actually play the first good melodrama he'd ever come up with. Something like hope trickled through her --perhaps, in his own way, the milksop could actually help her. As she took stock one final time of his dismal surroundings, thinking the heaps of trash would certainly not miss him, the idea occured to her. She owed him something, as one professional of doom and carnage to another she most definitely owed him something.
"Will you do me the courtesy of waiting 'til midnight? By the phone, as if I were to call? I will not call, of course, but will you wait for it as if I might anyway?"
"Yes... I will."
"Goodbye Gordon. And... good luck."

Joyce held out her hand to him, expecting nothing, but he shook it, and for a fleeting moment they looked into each other's eyes, not as they'd known each other but instead they looked into another's eyes, each one an other, capable at the very least of making this final bargain, to the best benefit of whom neither could tell nor being there who to tell it to.

~ * ~

While Joyce traced the ghost of her earlier walk along the streets, touching on the oddly calming pulse of Broadway, Donald set about straightening his affairs. It seemed to him that with the invasion --coreced as it may have been-- of Joyce into his life, and with the butterfly chain of effects and side-effects coming off it and somehow managing to kiss and touch everything everywhere, from the plans in his head to his plans on graphed paper, he was in imminent danger of making a remarkable mess. Though he could see beauty well enough he had no wish to be so owned by it that he could no longer handle his own two feet on the ground ; so he sequestered himself in his office, easing back into the meticulous particulars of his work just a dandy'd inch into a freshly-ironed, immaculate shirt. It felt right, clean, correct and proper ; Donald felt himself bolstered by his work as it progressed, new confidence and conviction burning white-hot where his edges met the world, making him brilliant, or at least appear so from a distance -- much like the stars' glowing parts aren't the same as their hot parts, silently running the show underneath.

Betty stuck her head through the door, the tip of a pencil visible just beneath her chin, like a sort of floating pendant. "Mr. Elmont is here," she said.

Donald motioned to let him in with a sweep of his hand, and there he was, in the doorframe : a thinned, haggard-looking rendition of the usually collected Mr. Elmont Of The Bank. He was out of breath; his hair was perhaps in spots even improper ; a decidedly sour expression fermenting itself across his face in a process that had clearly started before sunrise, and perhaps even before the restless night preceeding it.

Donald searched for a polite way to convey the terror of Elmont's appearance, and settled on: "What an unexpected surprise ?" the questioning tone of the remark serving its intent admirably well.
"It's important." The man's voice did not match his visage; with a smooth, even tone he pronounced the words, as though he had all the time in the world while all the world's certainty gathered darkly behind him. He sat down uninvited, the easy familiarity of he who indirectly owns the indirect owner of all directness ; but he did not speak.

Donald, foregoing the usual offerings of hospitality under the impression of the other's mommentum, straightened himself, raised his eybrows, focused his attention and neutrally prompted in the most businesslike manner possible, "Yes?"
The same confident and even tone came flowing out. "Bellows, we're unable to make the loan."
Now it was Donald's turn to look disheveled. "Not make it? What?! You can't sell me out. I'm ready to start!" He moved his hands over the neat piles of papers and plans on his desk as though to quantify the mass of his preparations, clearly too large to succumb to whatever nit was biting Elmont's leg.

Elmont crossed his legs and looked down at his crossed hands as though steeling himself against some cursed thing he was obliged to speak. "It is rumored that you put $80,000 in a show that's doomed to fail." He looked up and met Donald's squinting eyes. "Is that correct?"
"Fail?" Donald guffawed at the gall of the grapevine, that chintzy yet apparently immortal device, ever-present and ever-ready to shock and surprise not only through its alacrity, but even more through its far-reaching ability to botch and befoul even the tiniest, most innocent scrap of truth, shredding it into as many piece of misinformation as there were availavble ears to misdirect. Donald waved his rising anger aside, collected some paper before himself in an ordered sheaf, and then continued as one who'd like to move back to business "Are you out of your mind?"

Elmont nodded condescendingly, which might have carried past Donald's rising fury if it weren't for the comical flopping of his misplaced hair that accompanied the motion. His lips trembled as he distinctly ennunciated the words. "It's to star a certain Miss Heath, whose reputation..."
Donald rolled his eyes, and then condensed his rage into something utterable. "These walls around us, Mr. Elmont, they've heard their fair share of ridiculous nonsense -- but this caps all! You mean to tell me there exists a bank in the City so outright silly in its self-conduct, it'll back out of financing the best real estate development deal available this year because of vague whispers of theatrical jinxings and other such supersitious sop giving them cold feet!? And you're misfortunate enough to be involved with them?" Beneath his anger Donald was aware of something quite like pity, ozzing out of somewhere in his thymus. Pity for a man who Donald knew was smart enough to see through the nonsense of his position, a man who had clearly been fighting with himself over making the right choice. Pity for a man who had lost that fight. He wondered who the victors were.

"When pressed to the defense of a large enough chunk of change," said Elmont, more rehearsedly than ever, "even the most absurd fancies become binding, Mr. Bellows. The chunk in question standing in some excess of five million dollars..." A plea of quantity, thought Donald. He silently decided the man was squarely in the wrong field. Perhaps he would have to show Elmont his life-long error himself.
"The matter is at best a technicality," he said.
"We're forced to take advantage of that technicality. The board of directors, most of whom are socially prominent, insist on it."
"What are you talking about? They're socially prominent, so they love Miss Heath." Donald did not let the man's appeals to the faceless and ultimately empty breadth of "we" pass unnoticed. He knew, as he had learned early on in his career, that anyone who spoke in nameless plurals when pressed to explain themselves was a lost cause. But he pressed on his inquisition nevertheless, seduced onwards somehow by the torment written all over Elmont's figure.

"Well... they've heard of her, at any rate. The gentlemen themselves do not often frequent such plays as she'd proffer, I do not think. Their wives, also socially preminent, wouldn't have it." Donald mused that the man looked more like a beaten and badly used marionette than anything else, his voice the only piece of evidence to suggest he might have, at one time, operated liberally by his own hand. His face contorted with his words as though the taste they left in his mouth was real, and really rotten.
"I probably can sue you for backing out at this stage even." Donald rapped his fingers on the desk, tapping out the William Tell overture in accelerated crescendo.
"Indeed. It'd go to an actual damages standard." A guilty look on Elmont's increasingly worn face reinforced the notion he'd already given the possibility a great deal of thought. Or rather, thought Donald, a great deal of worry.

"Meaning that if I borrow someplace else and manage to develop thereby showing there was in fact a profit to be made I also suffered no harm, in not having needed you; whereas if I do not it's probably because there wasn't a profit to be made in the first place, meaning in turn I've suffered no harm, in not having had anything to begin with." Donald allowed the nonsense to stretch out before his eyes for a moment, and admired its neatness of line for what it was. He equally didn't doubt the judge could be found who'd care infinitely more about Elmont's signature on their contract than such contortious subtlety of sophistry ; besideswhich the very gentlemen in question, allegedly too careful to even venture out to see a play, would very likely not relish the incumbent publicity. For what's to stop him taking a full page advert in the Times once the case is filed, as a for instance ?
Such could of course not be said ; but Elmont's appearance became ever more comprehensible through the workings of his speech. His fidgeting suggested he didn't doubt it, either, nor did he fail to appreciate the pregnancy of the situation. He neutrally uttered "That'd be the gist of the case." and then fell silent again.

Donald looked at him frankly for a long, hard moment. Elmont squirmed under the visual scrutiny, shifting in his seat, tenting, knotting, unwinding, and re-twisting his fingers, and yet he held Donald's gaze, something in him apparently incapable of making it to the full instar. Finally Donald spoke, as evenly and clearly as Elmont himself, but with the bodily fortitude to convey absolute self-determination. "You realise, Mr. Elmont, I'll be doing business in the City for years and decades yet to come; but it won't be with any of these socially prominent gentlemen husbands of such socially preminent ladies as their wives. Their social prominence is ill set to long endure such poorly considered and even worse advised courses as they contemplate."
Elmont resumed his nodding and looked outside the office window. He sighed and said, "While I do expect you're right, Mr. Bellows, I suspect the gentlemen in question do not count on that social preminence, or for that matter presence, to long endure anyway."

Donald needed no further proof that Elmont dwelt in full awareness of the folly of his house ; he wondered how exactly could it come to pass that a man so experienced and doubtless competent had nevertheless managed to misinvest himself so thoroughly. In the back of his mind Donald hoped he could one day have drinks with the aging gentleman so as to pick out what had transpired, truly, and by the process shield himself against such wretched dispossession.
He gave the man an open space in which to air his grief, which felt as though at any moment it might come falling out of Elmont's mouth and fill the room with its sudden decompression. But nothing came; Elmont simply rocked himself slightly, nodded in time, and gazed sadly out the window. "Alright," said Donald, "well... thanks for letting me know, Mr. Elmont. I'll just have to borrow somewhere else."

"Well... I hope you will, but I don't think you can. Because they are going to stop you." For an instant Donald was touched by the ruined creature's evident concern for his prosperity. But the concern of the ruined is meaningless, Donald thought. A dialtone on a broken telephone, signifying nothing. Along with disbelief he felt a tiny tear threatening to form in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away and said what must be said to end meetings and move on with one's affairs, sad as the one before him might've been. There was nothing he could do for Elmont, a fact they both knew equally well.

Elmont remained nodding all the while, even as he stood and clumsily moved himself on shaky legs to the door. "Good day, Mr. Bellows," he said as he exited.
Donald spoke to the crack of the man in the gap of the door. "Adieu, Mr. Elmont." He stiffled the urge to add, "I thought I knew thee well."

~ * ~

Meeting what in the common world's eyes passed for her husband without a hair-straightening chaser (five or six shots' worth of domestic gin, from experience) would have seemed an impossible nightmare to Joyce a few months previous ; but somehow the only cloying unpleasantness lingering now, as the days passed on their own while her return to the stage readied as though by itself was something, she realized, mostly like pity. She felt earnestly bad for Gordon. Not bad enough to attend the funeral, but still, too bad that he couldn't find someone of his own to pluck him out of the depths of his self... neglect, perhaps, or rather self-realisation.

Eventually she let this pity too slide off of her, reveling in such newfound ability to actually not care about that which she merely before professed not to care about. Fully invested in her new life, she discovered by degrees but with predictable regularity that all her previous fancies could very well be realised ; and so they were, unyieldingly assuming on the contundency of fact, shelling over the soft vapors of what had been a life imagined, capturing and ensconcing it in the hard matter of sideph and alabaster. Like by magic her mind was eaten up in reading, memorization, rehearsal and research ; and in her days with Gail and Donald, with Donald and Gail. Who was who and what it even was escaping her further and further by the same degrees, large birds of morose feathers flapping their wings through a brightening sky, further and further past a receeding horizon, to brood there, somewhere, unseen, their soft feathers thick with dust, and remonstrance. Those glorious mornings and midnight meetings that reinvented her more than any stage portrayal ever could, or ever had. Between her lovers, the owners of that kennel she now inhabited, chained in there by herself to learn the doing of all her old tricks in a whole new way, between the chaos and turmoil and her return to working life, she hardly knew who she was anymore, for lack of time or interest to play at it. A seriousness like a crimson, interruptible common thread wound through each act and revelation, and she saw in the unbroken twine of fortitude and constancy the woman that she was, and even dared, for the first time in her life, to love it, and notice herself loved right back by it.

One afternoon, crammed between a matinee performance and the expectation that she'd make dinner for everyone -- including the long-suffering Mrs. Williams, whose ham-handed kitchen tips and boxings of the ears had nevertheless worked old clumsy Joyce into near proficiency in the kitchen -- Joyce found herself snuggled in the soft pink embraces of the sweeter half of her divine newlyweds. For a long time they'd laid silent, stroking, half-asleep, a dreamstate of goose down and perfume, oiled skin and painted toes. At last Joyce spoke, moving her mouth around the long subtle dip of white that would've been Gail's waist from any other vantage.

"You know Gail --Say, may I call you Gail ?"
"Anything you want, Headmistress Heath. You can call me what you like, do to me what you like..." She leaned forward slightly, arching her back impossibly and wriggling her ass in a slow but infinite loop. Her eyes were dreamy as she lowered them to half-lids. "You know that by now, don't you?"

Joyce curved her palm around the woman's soft white cheek, turning her fingers to pinch at the reddening flesh. "Yes, but what about with you, rather than to you? Could we look into each other's eyes, in a room without a bed, and could you smile at me, a true smile with no portent? Could we hold hands, and run like urchins through the park, could we skip down to the icecream parlour and share a sundae with no straws, and I'd look up at you and I'd say Gail..."
"You could call me Gay, and then I'd call you Joy." The woman, struggling to keep her carnality contained, couldn't seem to help gnawing a little on her fingernail, looking up at the other from underneath a brow full of impetuous challenge.

"Ha, now there's a misplaced moniker if ever I heard one. I've simply got nothing to do with joy." She regarded Gail with affection, smiling sweetly at her without encouraging her regular, methodical ploys to turn their talking into a tryst. "You, on the other hand... You bring to everyone around you the greatest joy of anyone I've seen. I don't know how you manage it ; you're not even an actress! But through your earnestness --I didn't know it could be done."
Gail was touched by the compliment, and the feeling sublimated her desire into humility and compassion. She straightened her back, looked down at her own small hands, too small it seemed to carry out even the most basic, the most menial tasks without another's help. Her voice was just barely over a whisper as she said, "That's not so much worth the mention. The truth is... well I don't know how you do it either, but you fill me with the most joy I've ever known, and I think you ought to have it for your name. It should mar you, forever, so that you're marked by it, and everyone knows what you have done. Like chocolate on your face, but permanent. You're Joy and that's all there is to it."

A tear built up in Joyce's eye and threatened to spill over. It was genuine for once --one of the few genuine tears ever to come out of her, among a lifelong storm of staged ones. She loved this girl. She knew it --had known it certainly before that moment, and yet now it burst forth, all the clearer, for she was bound as if by god to love an audience that saw through her millefeuille, past the affection and affectation, through musterings and maladaptions, and straight, straight into her misplaced heart. It felt as though, despite standing, delivering, and asking to be seen so many hundreds of times afore, she was only now truly being looked at. She let the tear fall.

"My dear girl...Oh Gay! I love you so."

"I love you too," Gail started, suddenly unable to keep herself from confessing all, "but did you know --it's quite remarkable, really-- did you know at first, and for a while I hated you secretly?"
Joyce flashed a smile and her eyes swept across the room, seeing the absent visages of that vanted legion that hated her also, secretly or no. They were all too familiar in their obscurity. "Oh, I don't doubt it, Gay. I hurt you and I'm sorry."
"Don't be!" Gail felt a flood rising in her, bringing back the tumultuous emotion of their first meetings. "You did so many things to me. I didn't hate you at first. I was just afraid. I was so very afraid of you, from a distance, and in my imagination, even before we met. And then once I felt you, once I began to know you more and more, my fear turned on its heels to hatred. Oh Joy, you'd never believe how much I hated you. I thought it would kill me."
"I can imagine." Joyce silently watched her imaginary audience nod, full of loathing, carried along by the idea.
"Can you? But it's too terrible. Imagine, I hated my own Joy!"

Joyce stood from the couch and described a tangled knot with her slow walk round the living room appurtenances. She creased her forehead, she smoothed it with clammy hand; she frowned, she smirked, and finally she turned to face the girl. "That's just how people are, Gay. I think in truth that's how we're made, all of us, and it's in the end our only real curse. The jinx upon manhood: to each hate one's own joy."

Gail was still writhing in the rawness of her feelings. "But then a whisper came to me, like in a dream. 'She must love him so deeply, to know where I would hurt and hurt me there the most' it said. I hated that even more than I hated you. I hated the knowledge of your love like a grim specter haunting all my dreams. Most of all I hated its undeniable suggestion that perhaps I didn't really hate you at all. Perhaps I just --" She broke through the fog and found Joyce's sympathetic eyes, "wished I were you."

Joyce was incredulous, or something a shade beyond. "Wished you were me?! You, me? That is ridiculous!"
"What's so ridiculous about it?"

Joyce clearly couldn't decide whether to consider the question seriously or fire off the laundry list her instinct cooked up on the spot. She paced this way and that, continually on the verge of speaking, so that she looked almost like a pigeon lost in thought, lovingly strutting the carpet. Finally, she settled on the one true compromise: "He loves you, for one thing."

Gail was ready with her answer. Though she would have sworn for all the world to anyone who asked that she wasn't bright enough to know the intricate cogwork of this woman's mind, she was growing ever more confident she understood the designs of her heart, and somewhere between them she was beginning to trace the network of connections mistifying it all. "Because he thinks I could be you. See, you're you already, and so that's that. But I am not. Maybe it's a matter of not yet, and so maybe one day I could be. That's what he thinks, and that's what makes him love me. You know, that's what men love in girls: the woman they could be, maybe, one day."

Joyce seemed lost in considerations of her own form. Like a newborn, she looked down at her feet, and her eyes wandered up her legs, and to the hands she stretched out by her sides. She turned her head to the mirror on the wall, catching her portrait there; an eyebrow raised, then two. She gazed into her own eyes, asking of them to move her past the mask she wore so expertly, into what this girl could see. Her temples throbbing with the intensity of her stare, she felt the other's hand fall lightly on the back of her neck, and diffusedly the girl's face floated next to hers as Gail rested her head on Joyce's shoulder, watching her watch herself. Yes, she thought, there's something here, something of the same thing, a substance, a soul. The girl was neither her twin nor some distant fascimile. There was not much shared between their features, and yet in that look she felt a spirit not merely united, but inseparable, because it was born in a single forge, and blended into being from its very nature. Neither woman broke the gaze, into themselves, into each other, into the future and the past at once.

"Gay," Joyce whispered, "I had no idea before. Oh, god, I think I'm gonna cry."
"Tell me!" the other's voice surrounded her.
"I think he loves me too. He loves you, but --and, he loves me too."
Gail smiled and turned to look at Joyce directly. "I'm sure he does."
"How do you know?"
"It's obvious!"
"Oh, Gay, it's so much easier to say it's obvious when it's someone else that's being loved. It has to stand to a much lower bar than one employs for her own case, in herself."

Gail played with a fallen ringlet of Joyce's burnished hair. "It's still obvious he loves you, because his love of you has kindled him. For me."
Joyce closed a hand over Gail's, pulling it gently to herself. She held it, pressing her thumb along the undersides of Gail's porcelain fingers, watching the blood move back in the thumb's wake, a heartbeat after it moved on. "I thought you two were in love long before he ran into me." She looked up. "You were at the table there too, weren't you?"

Gail beamed conspiratorially. "Jerry's Joint, Steve's Building, 299 Broadway. Yes, I was. I had a picture made of the very tables, did you know?"
The woman laughed, touched by such frivolous yet deeply familiar sentiment. "I didn't. So then how can you say..."

"He wouldn't marry me." Gail offered. "Not before. We were 'in love', everyone called it that, and we did too, amongst ourselves. But really it was more like an entanglement than an engagement. We were socially bound, mixed-up. He wouldn't actually marry me until he fell in love with you."

Joyce expected herself to feel pity, empathy, anything other than the unabashed joy filling her veins and threatening to burst forth. But no other such feeling came, even as she sensed the smallest twinge of sadnesses remembered on the other's upturned face. She pressed her forehead against Gail's, her nose mirroring the other's. She exhaled a long breath, full of relief, that seemed to go on much longer than anything breathed out by human lung.

"I see it now. Men's hearts cannot be as narrow as all that. There must be space, there must be room for more than just girls in that hard-muscled chamber." She was choking up, now, despite herself. "There must be even the slightest, littlest room for women, too. Or else how could they ever love a girl in the first place?"
"Yes Joy. Yes, you are right."
"Oh, Gay, I'm so happy!" Their bodies joined in silhouette as they embraced, their all mirroring itself. Neither was sure who was comforting and who was being comforted, and neither cared to find out. After a long moment they parted, returning with fresh appetites to the tea service set out on the coffee table. Gail took a lemon petit four and dunked it surreptitiously into her tepid cup of Darjeeling Special Blend. "You think he'll tell you so himself?"

Joyce saw the other's gross misbehaviour and raised her an inexpertly opened sandwich cookie. She scraped the filling off with her teeth, affecting a rabbit, and put the biscuit halves back together again, alternating bunny nibbles with sips of earl grey. Through crumbs she sputtered, "What, that he loves me?"

Gail giggled all the while and nearly spilled her tea. "He never has, so far. Have you noticed this? He'll say it, to me. But not to you!"
"It's true!"
They clinked teacups in subdued cheer, not knowing quite exactly why, but merrier than most who round the world completed such a ritual, that day.

"It must be because it's so obvious. He's deliberate like that. I sometimes think he knows the future, as though things didn't happen to him event by event, but all at once. Just like if he had a building's mock-up laid out before him, but for everything, not just his work. He didn't say it then, he hasn't said it now --but it's not that he doesn't love you." Gail took a long draught of her tea, staring down at it as she drank. "You know, he might be afraid of you."

Joyce set her cup and saucer down, tired of nearly spilling their contents. Once settled, she allowed herself to be shocked. "Afraid? Why should he be afraid of me? You're his wife, and he's not afraid of you. Whereas me, I'm just his slave," she paused thinning her eyes and lips out into a fiery snarl, "I'm just his slave, a creature well below contempt." The final word cut into the air, and seemed to contain, somehow, at least twelve syllables.

"Do you think so?" Now it was Gail who was genuinely afraid.
The snarl left Joyce's face. She grinned girlishly. "Not really. But..."
"You're dangerous, aren't you?" Gail poured the other a fresh cup of tea, urging her to take the cup up again.

Joyce took the cup and drank, regarding the lipstick left on the rim as she pulled it away. It was faint, pink, really too sweet to descry a wound. "I used to be."
"I'll give you odds. I'll give you two to one that after we tell him about us two, he'll confess himself."
"You know what I should like to do? Let's go back there, to Jerry's Joint, right now, and we'll have your picture taken again, but with you and me seated just as we sat."

Gail clapped her hands together in delight. "A capital idea! I'll call and arrange it all right now!"

~ * ~

Donald didn't often go to shows that hadn't yet received their final layer of varnish, perhaps for the same reasons he didn't entertain the notion of future residents coming to see his works under construction. It struck him indistinctly as somehow improper, this viewing of a theatrical performance before it announced itself quite ready for the public eye, something almost like a violation. It was this very quirk of perception that made rehearsals appealing now -- to see Joyce, his plaything, striving towards her eventual show, inasmuch as this was her show... what voluptuousness! The eating of the unripe fig that nevertheless does not deter from the fig's ripening, what exquisite breakage of the natural law.

Donald's thoughts rested squarely with and especially on the woman reading upon the stage, a little comical in her unhemmed costume missing one sleeve as set against sceneboards in various states of final nailings and painting behind her. His. His what ? His everything, really. It was thrilling to watch his thing recite her lines he secured for her, to watch her take on new shapes for a handful audience that in the dark seemed rather comprised entirely of himself. Her and him, which now just meant him -- the sleeveless wonder under couverture so thourough as to stand unimaginable. He turned the concept over in his mind like a penny flipped through the backs of his fingers, over and over, as scene after scene unfolded before his inturned eyes.

They were on the upper deck of some luxurious cruiser crossing the Atlantic, approaching its destination. The script called for rain, he knew that much ; though the stagehands weren't dousing the actors Joyce nevertheless managed to look just as miserable and helpless as if she really were being drenched by as fine a nautical drizzle as ever could be asked for. She didn't look at the man but stared off into something unseen in the distance, and it was clear for Donald in the audience that the thing unseen's unseen for the characters like it is for the audience, counterdistinct from everything else unseen to the audience but very much seen by the characters. For an instant he felt a pang of desire. He wanted to be her steadying point. He was, in fact ; but that didn't seem to matter as much as the urge to see it reflected back at him, from the stage. A vague fantasy of tyings and Gail's vanity coiled like smoke inside his feverish skull.

She spoke, magnificently: "So that's all it's been to you, Charles. Just a ship-board romance."
The man was already near her but somehow moved himself in a way that conveyed a terrible attempt at bridging some invisible gap. "Oh, no it wasn't."
"Oh yes. A knave pretending to be a man telling a girl pretending to be a woman that the moon and ocean aren't the half as lovely as she is, because that knave and that girl happened to find themselves together, pinned down under that moon, improbably held above that ocean, on a rickety raft still yet afloat. Swearing devotion, to pass the time, eternal as the tides, to conquer the ennui between dinner and cocktails. Sweeping the girl off of her feet nevertheless, as it needs must, for she is just a girl, and made to be swept ; yet all to be forgotten in a fortnight. Well, that isn't what it's meant to me! No, Charles. To me it has meant far more. Your every word, your every kiss, your every caress I've treasured, because I've always pretended they belong to the man I really love. That's something for you to forget, if you can."

The man became a picture of crestfallen resignation; Joyce seemed, despite her misery, to reign supreme and serene over the battleground of their dismal affair. Donald imagined they'd have some sort of spotlight upon her to make her shine through the storm, but perhaps not -- perhaps they'd let her do that on her own.
Sheffield croaked, "That's fine." Then, after the faintest of pauses, "How about it, Miss Heath? Too tired to go through that scene again?"
Joyce broke through her character and beamed back at him. "No, I would positively love to."
Her leading man, however, slumped where he stood. "I'm sorry... I've got to beg off. I'm all in. You've too much vitality for me, Miss Heath."

Sheffield nodded at him. "I can barely stand myself... it has to be enough for tonight. No rehearsal tomorrow. We'll run through it again at 10 o'clock Monday. I don't like to work on the day of the night we open, but I just have to hear this song again and I don't know I can wait 'till the performance." Joyce and her director shared a smile across the ocean of theatre seats, then the entire company worked themselves out of their nooks on the stage and retreated to gather their things and straighten their details.
Donald strolled down a few rows and patted the director on the shoulder. "Private matinees, Sheffield? Is that how you squander your investor's funds?"

The man smiled tiredly at him. "Give me a cigarette."
"Sure... what do you think?" Donald lit the Chesterfield in Sheffield's hand. George Sheffield took a long drag and stared off. He said creakily, "I've spent a fortune, and a life on this narrow broad street. 'But To Die' will be my hundred and nineteenth production, you know that? This is the first and no doubt only time I have nerve enough to say I had a hit at the end of a dress rehearsal."
"You're pretty positive."
Sheffield chuckled a beat and swiped a wrinkled hand over his head, sighing. At length he looked up at Donald with a contrition that took the other aback. "I'll buy a piece of it for a hundred thousand. How about it? Name the piece."

Donald furrowed his brow. "Oh, no."
"A fifth, how about that."
Donald ribbed him delicately. "You're not talking to an angel, my dear Sheffield. I'm a sucker. It is my fate to go down with the lovely old ship. Isn't she magnificent?"
Sheffield shook his head and spoke to the toes of his boots, wondering if his foolishness reached all the way down to there. "Even in rehearsal," he said, "it's the greatest performance I have ever seen. With the stimulus of an audience, Monday night ought to make her immortal in the Theater."
Donald nodded sagely. "What about that jinx?"
"Jonah himself couldn't jinx talent like that."

Joyce emerged from backstage transformed back into her streetclothes, her trenchcoat cinched tightly about her body and her face scrubbed clean of the thick outlines of dramatic makeup. The simplicity of her appearance made her bounding happiness somehow broader.
"Like it?" She probed Sheffield through a beaming wide smile.
"Oh, it'll do, I guess. Still needs a lot of work, though."
She turned. "You know, darling... if I could get away to the country and go over this on Sunday... I think I'd get a better perspective." She hooked an arm through Donald's and gazed up at him with eyes that said she knew where his had been as he watched her. "Would you run me up tonight?"

His face broke into a thousand sly lines. "Certainly, not a bad idea." He felt Sheffield watching them hotly. "We'd better get under way," he said.
The old man looked the pair back and forth, his eyes full of questions he couldn't decently voice. "Goodnight then, and keep her out of the poison ivy and the fresh air! I don't want her to open in a whisper."
Joyce shook his hand. "Alright... goodnight!"
Donald waved from behind his back as they walked out of the theatre. "See you Monday, Sheffield!"

~ * ~

"Hello. Give me Rewrite. Eddie? Listen Eddie, get this and don't squeeze it because it will squirt in your eyes. Yeeah, juicy. We have it on good authority that tonight in the Cub Room, Stork Club, 132 West 58th Street, at the table of Donald Bellows, prominent architect engaged in the development of the Watergate apartments, put in the inset, yeah, pencil sketch, funny looking building, says Mater Arte on either side of one of those king's shield things up front. Midtown somewhere. Yeah, it came with their things, it's in there. Alright, Watergate Apartments on the East river at 49th street, that's it. Also present Gail Bellows-Schieffelin, heiress and socialite, they just got married. What's that ? Yeah, check it. Also present Joyce Heath, prominent actress, she's in that Born To Die bit, oh I don't remember, talk to Fats, he knows about the Broadway stuff. He'll tell you, she's big. And George Sheffield, proeminent director yeah he made it, yeah put it all in. No no put it in, you know what he says, how he likes his details. Better put it all in. That's how he likes it Eddie. Mr Leo De Valery, yes Broadway too. Approached with other gentlemen to inquire about acquiring the rights for the show which is now in its whatever week it is and drawing large crowds. Oh I don't know, talk to Fats. Mr De Valery at the head of a syndicate made an offer of five point four million dollars to acquire the rights for the show immediately as well as touring for one year through the United States and the European circuit. Mr. Bellows, the owner of said rights in sole proprietorship look Eddie, I don't care how it's done, that's what Jimmy said. I'm sure he's sure. I don't care how colored he is, he's never gave us a bum steer yet and this one isn't when he starts. Because I talked to him, that's how I know. Mr Bellows informed Mr. De Valery about certain impediments, including that Miss Hearth may not be inclined to tour to which Mr. De Valery asked Miss Heath directly if she is going to abandon the show to which Miss Heath laughed and said she's never abandoned a show yet, they always abandon her all the time. Yes that's what she said. To which Mrs Bellows inquired if Mr. De Valery is contemplating spending enough money to build a very nice house to buy himself the biggest jinx in Broadway history and he apologized if he's ever used that term because there's no such thing. Mr Bellows said another impediment is a purely financial matter, owing to recent misconduct he is not going to engage in any business transactions with any compact that includes the interests of Mssrs Alling, Auchincloss, Delafield, Kalbfleisch, Oelrichs, Ottendorfer, Tuckerman or Schuyler. Everyone was quiet, yes shock, and Mr. Bellows explained that very recently these gentlemen contrived to withdraw support on the flimsiest of grounds for a project in which they had encouraged him in such a manner as obviously calculated to cause the most possible distress no doubt with a premeditated view to forcing his hand to withdraw. Yes. Yeah see what Alley can scare up, I'm sure it's a bank thing, yes probably competition real estate. I told you it's juicy, get your bucket and spade ready and let's dish up some dirt! Yep, looks like it. They're gunning up for a society war this year. We have it exclusive, there was nobody there. I wasn't in there in the first place. I don't know, but it's not going to be Jimmy. Maybe they don't. There's more but nothing important. No Valery assured him none of the named gents is involved. I'll write it up when I come in. Maybe an hour. I don't know. Get on it Eddie, it's four hours to press. Tell the boss too. Maybe we don't have to hold it, I don't know. Yeah I'm on my way, I'll get there as soon as I can. Yeah, bye."

  1. This "week ago" was written down about a month ago. []
  2. Sometime during the 2nd week of December, which is here in the Tropics very much unlike what you'd expect. It's still its own thing, as specifically particular as Temperate December is ; but a different, peculiarly different thing of its own. []
  3. The reason this wasn't published between Christmas and New Year's is that we attempted a "final editing pass", which ran long and tedious. We gave it up, about a fifth in or thereabouts, after spending more time and effort on it than on the whole rest. It wasn't exactly a waste, for a lot has been learned ; but it wasn't good grounds in my judgement to delay publication, and so here we go. I expect an edited version might well appear on the whet later on. []
  4. Writing this was without doubt one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done, and especially so for the woman author being my slave. []
Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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  1. [...] wrote an actual novel with one over New Year's ; and (leaving aside how it's the best fiction item come out since my last [...]

  2. [...] Disgrace, 2017's Zuleika Dobson, 2018s Double Indemnity, 2020s Diary of a baby doll and this year's Dangerous -- excluding the Romanian-language items prior to that date and a bunch of shorter stories in [...]

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