Three Stories by Rhonda Waterfall
In his hotel room the director took a mouthful of Scotch, swallowed a Viagra and then headed off to the gala. He pushed past women with diamonds around their necks and stiletto heels under their manicured feet. At the bar he ordered another Scotch and fiddled with the gold links on his French cuffs. Men gathered in corners discussing fishing trips to Chile and starlets they had bedded. The director grabbed two cubes of blue cheese from the tray of a passing waiter. He considered his cholesterol level, ate the cheese and then wiped his meaty lips with rough swipes of a cocktail napkin.
A pixie with a broken wing and limbs like a fawn leaned in against the bar beside him and ordered a glass of Chablis. The director swirled the Scotch in his glass and said, you look like a young Mia Farrow. The pixie yawned and adjusted the ankle strap on her Miu Miu heels. Does that line usually work? she said. She crinkled her nose. He held out a business card and said, I could make you famous. Wow, she said, and sipped from her wine glass. I don’t care if I’m famous. He stuffed the card back into his pocket. Everyone wants to be famous, he said. The pixie shrugged her shoulders and surveyed the room. I think I could love you, the director said, and took her hand. The pixie lit a cigarette. Do you think I want your love? she said. He leaned in close to the pixie. You’re a tiger, he said, just like my first wife.
They went out onto the cobbled street and down a lane and onto a path into the woods. Their breath left frosty wisps in the air. They came to a clearing near a half-frozen pond. Are you in love? the pixie said, and touched him on the mouth. Then she loosened his tie. I’m always in love, he said, and cupped her breasts in his hands. Her dress slipped down over her hips and gathered on the snow around her feet. What do you want? she said. The director unfastened his belt and said, everything. Snowflakes drifted from the sky and melted on their skin. A deer stepped into the clearing and held still for a moment before it turned and darted back into the woods. I want to start over, he said. His heart beat fast and hard in his ears. Whisky-jacks in the trees nuzzled into their breasts and turned their backs. The cold burned the director’s hands and face. He tasted the pixie’s fingers and kissed her neck. He would take her home, marry her and give her credit cards with no limit. The pixie’s flesh grew warm and a blue light suffused the air around them. The director remembered the time he touched Phoebe Dawson in the back of his father’s Pontiac. I love you, he said. The pixie laughed and stirred the snow from the branches of trees.
In the morning the director woke against a snowdrift under a pine tree. His tie was gone, his shirt ripped. He pushed himself up and crunched through fresh snow to the hotel. In the lobby he caught his reflection in a mirrored pillar. His face was smooth, his hair dark and glossy. He ran his hands over his taut, flat stomach. I’m young, he said, I’m young. He went up to his room but his pass card wouldn’t work in the door. At the reception desk they said they didn’t have a room in his name. That’s impossible, he said, and he banged his fist on the counter. He hitched up his pants, which were now several sizes too large for him, and went into the street. The wind whipped up under his jacket and chilled his skin. He stuffed his hands into his empty pockets.
After the funeral, on the beach with a bottle of peach schnapps, Nelson decides that if he marries Tallulah everything will be all right. Tallulah, who spends most of her time in his English 11 class with a lock of honey-coloured hair twirled around her right index finger and her face turned to the window. Yes, only Tallulah can help me, he thinks. I’ll buy a home, move from my beer-stained bachelor pad, toss out my collection of Spiderman comics. Tallulah. Yes, Tallulah. Doubt clouds his thoughts. Her age, fifteen maybe. His age, thirty-six. He slumps to the gravel. I’m going to die alone, he bawls, and then descends into a dead sleep.
There is beach grass clinging to Nelson’s suit when he rushes into class. Sand grates in his shoes. The students are silent. He takes a book off his desk, opens it and sees that he has a dictionary in his hands. He tells his students to write a review of their favourite TV show. In the washroom he rests his forehead against the tile wall and empties his stomach into the sink. For the rest of the class he sits at his desk and pretends to mark papers.
The bell rings. Students get up and leave and new students trundle in. Tallulah drops her textbooks on her desk and falls into her seat. Her face turns toward the window. An outstretched finger dips into the drape of hair framing her face and pulls out a thick lock. She swirls it three times around her finger. Mr. Coup, are you staring at me? Nelson clears his throat, grabs a textbook off his desk and asks if anyone would like to speak to what they believe the overriding theme is in The Handmaid’s Tale. Tallulah turns back to the window. Her sandalled foot swings back and forth. On each inward sweep her heel taps the leg of her chair.
When the bell rings, students snap their books shut and rush for the door. Tallulah slides her books off the edge of her desk and catches them in the crook of her arm. Her yellow skirt swishes behind her. Nelson puts his hand out and calls her name but then doesn’t. He runs to the door. There is the flash of yellow down the hall. He follows her out onto the soccer field. Tallulah sits cross-legged on the grass and makes daisy chains.
Tallulah, Nelson says. He gets down on his knees. Tallulah glances past Nelson’s shoulder at the school; her fingers thread daisy stem through daisy stem. Two boys kick a soccer ball back and forth at the other end of the field. Are you OK, Mr. Coup? Tallulah hands him a wilted daisy. Tallulah, he says, and takes her hand. Would you marry me? She narrows her eyes and starts to stand up, but Nelson pulls her down. For a moment she pushes against his grasp but then she relents. Mr. Coup, you smell bad. I slept on the beach, he says. He pulls a handful of pebbles from his suit pocket and hands one to her. She drops it into the slack of her skirt between her crossed legs. Why did you do that, she says. He tells her that yesterday he went to the funeral of a friend. Tallulah secures a chain of daisies around his wrist and asks how his friend died. A car accident, he says, and drops another pebble in her lap. She hangs a chain of daisies around his neck and says, what about a pre-nup? A pre-nup, he says. A pre-nup, Tallulah says. She sweeps the hair off her shoulder. My dad has one with his new wife. We don’t need a pre-nup, Nelson says. If things turn sour you can have everything I own. I want a cheating clause, she says. If you cheat, I get money. Fine, he says, and suggests that they get together after school. But Tallulah has piano after school, ballet the next day and her math tutor the night after that. When will you have time for me? Nelson says. He drops another pebble in her lap. She tucks daisies behind his ears and says, I want to go to art school. Don’t go, he says. It will do nothing for you. I’ve done enough school for the both of us, he says. He drops the last pebble into her skirt.
The bell rings and the boys pick up their soccer ball and run toward the school. Nelson stands up and shakes out his coat. Sand drifts into Tallulah’s eyes. He runs his hands through his hair. It probably wouldn’t work, he says, and heads across the field toward the school. Daisies sway from his wrists and neck. Daisies tumble out from behind his ears. Tallulah cups her hands over the pebbles in her lap and starts to cry.
In the mind of Phyllis McKay, no two people were more perfect than Aurelia and Jude Art. Phyllis noted all of their comings and goings. The lingering kisses on the front stoop in the mornings. The exotic colours that Aurelia wore, bright pinks, canary yellows. On weekends, the Arts tossed monogrammed suitcases into the back of the SUV and disappeared until Sunday night. Phyllis imagined seaside resorts, bubbling hot tubs, champagne and candles. On nights when she couldn’t sleep, she wanted to creep across the street in her nightdress and watch them through the window.
One afternoon just after the Arts moved in, Aurelia invited Phyllis over for coffee. Phyllis took cupcakes that she had baked herself and topped with butter icing that ran down onto the paper cups. Aurelia placed the tray of cupcakes on her granite kitchen counter and then pulled a plate of cheese and fruit from the fridge. The Arts’ home was furnished in white, the floors made of rare hardwoods from the Amazon. Aurelia asked Phyllis where she liked to holiday. What do you mean? said Phyllis. You know, vacations, said Aurelia. Oh, said Phyllis, and she dropped a piece of brie into her mouth. Aurelia’s chatter eddied in Phyllis’s head. She tried to think of things to say in the brief moments when Aurelia stopped talking. But her mind was devoid of opinion or comment. Aurelia nibbled at her lip and stirred her spoon around in her coffee and then she started chatting about a movie that starred street children from São Paulo.
Aurelia resembled an exotic tidal pool creature in her brilliant orange dress and purple scarf. Phyllis searched for a scarf just like Aurelia’s and found one in a lime-green colour at Sears. She tried to tie the knot in front of the mirror so it would appear jaunty and casual. But each time the knot resembled a tight fist. She tossed the scarf into a drawer, where it remained as a reminder of her appalling lack of sophistication and eighty dollars wasted.
Phyllis waited two weeks before allowing herself to call Aurelia and invite her over for coffee. I would love to, Aurelia said, but I have French class that day. Phyllis suggested another time but again Aurelia said she had already made plans.
Phyllis painted her flowered wallpaper white. She replaced the dark garments in her wardrobe with brightly coloured dresses and wraps. And then she saw an advertisement in the paper for a reconstructive surgeon and called the number.
There were rounds of operations. Cartilage and bone removed and adjusted, skin tightened and lifted, teeth capped and polished. When the bandages came off the surgeon held up a mirror. Phyllis gasped and touched her new cheekbones and her plumped lips. She looked exactly like Aurelia Art.
When Phyllis got home she went across the street and into Aurelia’s backyard and found Aurelia lounging on her patio with a gin and tonic in her hand. Aurelia shielded her eyes from the sun and said, do I know you? It’s Phyllis, Phyllis said, and she explained what she had done. Why? Aurelia asked. Because, Phyllis said. Because. Aurelia got up from the lounge chair, slipped out of her bikini and handed it to Phyllis. Put it on, Aurelia said. Phyllis pulled off her slacks, unbuttoned her blouse and adjusted the bikini straps on her hips and shoulders. Aurelia donned Phyllis’s clothes. I’m going to go now, Aurelia said. She stepped off the patio and headed toward the back fence. Phyllis picked up the gin and tonic and sat down on the lounge chair. Aurelia opened the back gate, stepped into the lane and began to run.