“You don’t know what I’m thinking!” she exclaimed, reaching down to claim the bottle of vodka in the foot well as the Jaguar slowed into a backed-up lane. “That’s not what it was anyway." she lied, unscrewing the cap. She tried to decide if it was the vehicle or William’s driving that had altered in her estimation, not allowing herself to consider his proximity as the sole source of her distraction. Their association had changed pitch, transmuted from curiosity into the warm, entailing drag of an undertow that pulled ceaselessly toward him, its force augmented by every piece of conversation, private glance and moment that she sat beside him, watching his strange white hand on the gear stick. It seemed disembodied at the end of his sleeve, the dark, shaggy mantle of his black coat suggesting the skin of some alien fruit diametrically at odds with its contents. What she had already seen of those contents in the darkness of the garage returned with disconcerting frequency in spite of her denial, inspiring a smile that she kept toward neighbouring vehicles as they entered the downtown grid. "There is actually something I'm dying to ask you, but I don't know if I should..."
"Who's El Resto del Mundo, and does he wear a mask?” she spluttered as the question broke into a fit of laughter. He ran his tongue over his teeth, gripping the wheel with both hands as he shook his head.
“I’m going to fucking kill Frost.”
“Don’t blame Lilian...” she sighed. “She was only trying to warn me.” Tricolor lights changed over the heads of the pedestrians crowding the corner; they watched her check her eyeliner in her compact mirror then take a long, oblivious draught of vodka, as though she were some spectacle arranged to expedite their boredom. Susan grew conscious of the attention and set the bottle down, but not before someone addressed her from the footpath.
“Hey baby, you wanna suck on something, suck on this shit here!” the stranger recommended, his hand thrust down the front of his red velour pants, to the ebrious amusement of three companions who slapped his shoulders and smirked at her expression, chuckling over the brown paper bags at their chins. William's gaze slid from the tall flame at the end of his cigarette toward the heckler, who lifted his hands and swung them out into a swaggering gesture of contempt. “What, fool? What?” the latter demanded. Before his challenge was concluded William had leapt up onto his seat, across Susan's legs and stood on top of the passenger door with the telescopic baton in his fist, stare full of retinal flash as the offending party stumbled backward into one another. She sat with her arms folded, scowling up at him; he blinked down at her and dropped his arms to his sides in a wordless adjournment, murmuring only as he stepped back over her and sank behind the wheel.
“No mask, then?” Susan inquired dryly.
“Sometimes...” he admitted. “I overreact. Sorry about that.”
"Why didn’t you just blow his head off with your stupid gun?”
“You made me leave it at home.” He smiled at her scowl and took the bottle from her, swigging and then dropping it behind the door panel as they passed a police car. “El Resto wears a patent gimp hood... silver, with lightning bolts. It gives your marks a false sense of security. Frost’s idea.”
They drove south into a more gracious, tree-lined quarter where Georgian columns, artful topiary and wine-coloured awnings imposed an entirely different, but no less insistent atmosphere. Susan watched them slide by with a hand pressed to her frowning forehead as she divined William’s intent.
"You're not trying to take me somewhere nice, are you?" He swung into a private park outside the classical facade of a restaurant infamous for its exclusive policy and she sat unmoving, loath to disembark. “Everyone who works here says the owner is a gobshite and the kitchen's horrible.” she asserted, looking over at him. The valet hesitated at his post then came forward to greet them, reluctance visibly retarding his advance. William intercepted him with a neatly-administered gratuity and held Susan's hand while she untangled her heel from the strap of her handbag. “They won’t let us in...” she whispered, unsuccessfully resisting his attempt to sweep her toward the doorman. “I look like a bag lady and you look like... a gothic wookie.”
“I found this coat at the Hellfire, en fait."
“The Devil probably left it there because it was freaking him out!” she laughed, leaning out from the arm he closed around her waist as though attempting dissociation. “Bondage muppet... let me go! They won't let us in..."
The doorman belied her assertions by admitting them to the foyér, accepting the tip William conveyed without comment. Beyond the guarded portal the décor attempted to preserve the dignity of its antique fundamentals within thickly-lavished luxe, resulting in a stagnant, gold-choked ambiance, oxygen supplanted by gruesome fragrances fuming from the trophy wives and editors awaiting tables. Like stooping falcons they marked the maître d' with dark-ringed stares, subjecting him to their leaden telepathy. The grey-blonde man approached Susan and William in his heavy white shirt as though testing river ice, addressing them in a voice like cold water issued through his nostrils.
“Mr Lamb, I’m afraid we cannot seat you and your guest tonight...”
William interrupted confidentially.
“Let’s skip the shit... this is all Opal La Rue, right?”
The man pursed his lips, turned his back to the other prospective diners and leant from the hip to reply, abandoning his modulation to a low drawl.
“My hands are tied... she says she’s going keep her top shelf clients out of here if you get service.”
“Where’s the owner?”
“Oh he’s in Malibu, trying to dick his ex-wife out of child support.”
“So there’s no real problem...”
“His bitch GF could walk in here at any moment and she is hell in a handbasket before she gets to twisting nutsacks in the kitchen.” the man assured him. William nodded sagely and bestowed another generous token of his appreciation in the act of patting the man's arm. The latter quantified the offering with a quick glance, smiled momentarily and led them into the dining room. “If Opal shows, I can’t have any drama.” he warned, calling in wait staff with a flick of his wrist and seating them toward the rear of the chamber. “You can eat the venison, the pasta won’t hospitalize anybody but the ravioli... not so much. And the amuse-bouche is super cute, but don’t put it in your mouth.”
Susan sat down slowly into her thickly-padded chair. The room wore ponderous doubled drapery and clusters of rotund vintage jardiniers crammed with mounds of coral and ivory peonies; the tables sighed under their lamps and smothering linen, flocked papers and spongy wheaten carpet sealing every surface seamlessly. Against the stew of lukewarm colours William seemed like an artifact transposed from an alternate reality in his narrow black shirt and tie, and she guessed correctly that Lilian had imposed them in an act of promotional sophistry. She brushed the skirt of her melon-pink dress from the sides of her chair, the set of her mouth holding unspoken apprehension. Their waiter appeared at her shoulder.
"Um... can we have vodka, please? A bottle?" she said quietly.
"Perhaps you've seen the wine list, we..."
"I don't really drink wine... just some vodka... whatever you've got thanks. In a carafe." As he retreated she murmured to herself and looked down into her lap, then gazed around the other patrons. For the first time Susan saw the scowls and stares, the half-conscious expressions of suspicion William dragged in his wake, the attention that had followed him to their table outstaying its welcome. “Do you notice people looking anymore?” she whispered, reaching for the carafe when it arrived and pouring for them both. “I think the lady behind you is choking on her breadstick.”
“Not really. I suppose it’s like being a girl and getting used to people staring at your breasts.” he volunteered, downing the glass in one.
“You don’t get used to that.”
"Really? Oh... je vous prie officiellement de m'excuser."
She addressed her own liquor with similar determination. Silence descended as they sat behind their glasses, gazing about themselves and fidgeting; she coughed, surprised to see that he enjoyed no more ease than she did, reminded again of something she had meant to tell him in the car.
"I'm sorry, for what I did with... the um, knife... I'm not the sort of person who goes around stabbing people, usually." Susan leant over the table to convey the verb discreetly. He bowed his own head in reply, keeping his voice low.
"Just so you know for next time, there's an etiquette... anything deeper than the first knuckle and it's two dozen lilies and a cheesecake, minimum, or it's on... blood feud." Her stare persisted beyond the intent of his remark. "Me make joke." he added, at which she sighed; they glanced down at their respective scars, then at each other, the unwitting unison exacerbating their discomfiture. "I'm thinking that at this point we should just get fucked up." he added. They drank together, their smiles returning with the first flush of spiritous relief. "Don't worry about the arm, cloudcheeks... I grabbed you like a crazy gorilla." The vodka's gratifying burn eroded something of the bounds imposed by caution and Susan looked down again into her lap as she composed herself.
"Why don't you have a beard?" The query broke down into a giggle that she was forced to wave away. "Sorry... sorry..."
“I don't need one. See... this is why I don't tell anybody." he sighed. "I don’t know where to start and it all sounds completely fucked when it comes out... I need a montage.”
"Shhh... I can do this..." Susan insisted, waving her laughter away. "How about how old you are? That's an easy one." He hunched his shoulders in a gesture of disinclination. "You must have some idea..."
"I really don't."
"How can you not know?" William looked back at her pensively.
"I couldn't read until the twenties, and I can hardly write my own name now. I can't add up past my fingers and toes."
"Oh for god's sake... so what are you, then? A hundred? Two? If you won't tell me I'll just assume you're... three hundred and twenty six."
William folded his arms across his chest and gave a short cough downward.
"In dog years."
"Reverse dog years..."
"How do you mean dog years? That's one year equals..." Her gaze wandered while she attempted the arithmetic. "No, that would be seven times three hundred and twenty six..."
"Honestly Christabel, my entire life is eighty percent dirt-coloured blur... sitting on a horse waiting to be somewhere else while someone pounds on about banging their cousin at a cherry fair for twenty fucking miles and wondering how sand got in my fucking apple.”
"William, that's a massive lie. So much has happened to you that I can actually see it poking out your ears. But you're not that old." she assured him, returning to the point that continued to exercise her. "You can't be. You'd be the smartest person in the world."
He brightened suddenly, his relief at her assertion undermining it immediately. Knocking a knife from the table with his elbow, he excused himself and stooped to retrieve it; when he did not immediately reappear she leant out with a frown until a hand snaked from the linen and whipped away the piece of paper on her knees. William reversed and settled back into his chair, spreading her page of notes beside his plate and smiling at the questions she had overwritten and underscored, tucking his hair behind his ear.
"Am I a species?" he laughed. "Do I have children? Putain!"
Susan shaded her gaze with her hand.
"I crossed that one out." she complained.
"A species? Er... pass. Illegitimi? I've been warned that it's technically possible, but it's all... you know... perihelion, blood sacrifice, and I'm pretty sure I would have spotted someone cutting the head off a buffalo while I was fucking their sister. What?" he laughed. "You asked..."
"No I didn't..."
William studied her script again.
"Did it smell bad?"
"I mean the past! That's what we're told at school. Can I have that back, please?"
"It stank pretty bad, actually... people, baggage trains, clothing... living in a town was like being wedged in a fucking feltbeater’s armpit. It's not like that in the mountains. But soap is good... I was happy to see it." Turning the page over, he selected another inquiry. "Did women really think men were superior?” Susan’s nose wrinkled as he spoke. "Er... I'm not really a man, and when I think about it, I can't say I've ever felt especially appreciated in a god-like fashion by girls... I run with a bad crowd, though." William's hand went to his pocket before he remembered he was not allowed to smoke. "People haven't really changed. Same shit, different d..."
"What about Hitler?" she interjected. His eyes roved slowly until it became clear that he did not understand the question. "I mean... did you see that coming?"
"Oh... yeah. They're all one guy really, the horde-mongers."
"How do you mean?"
"Vertically challenged, romantically declined and fashion-forward. Whenever I see three hundred people dressed the same way, I pack up my shit before the screaming starts. Except with the Xiongnu... the first you ever heard from them was a hundred fucking onion planters bolting past the front gate, closely followed by fifteen thousand mounted archers. But er... what was the question?"
"What it was like to be a girl, before you could vote or get divorced..." she pressed.
"Like being gay these days. Fine til someone stabs you to death while people stand around chanting that you had it coming.” He refilled their glasses. “Everything came down to location... something that was hilarious in one place got you dunked in pitch ten miles down the road." Scratching his chin, he shrugged, looking for some meaningful summary. "You’re lucky you were born... when was it? Yesterday?” The sound of her laugh relieved him, though he struggled with his tie, loosening the knot against its unaccustomed enclosure.
"You can take it off." Susan grinned.
"I haven't worn one since the fucking boat over here. Frost keeps putting them on me... says I look less feral."
She stowed it in her handbag.
"Where were you coming from?"
"France... lived there on and off for a while, Paris, Gévaudan... hence the parler."
"There aren't that many of you about, are there?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"It's... the way you are, and with your brother. Like there's no one else."
“Well, there's Ed and me... Bede, you met... Nyāti... that’s his better half..." William looked up from his plate as he came to the end of the slender demographic. Her gaze was drawn back to her scars.
"Was this any of them?" she asked, turning her wrist toward him. He took it in his hand and passed a thumb over the pale striations regretfully.
"Honestly, no... I don't know who did that, but when I do, they'll wish they hadn't."
"I don't want more trouble, William, so just... promise me you won't overreact." His difficulty committing to her stipulation prompted her to pick up his hand, transfer it to the carafe and pour for them both once more. Its task complete, she smoothed his fingers out across the linen and employed the vase of flowers to seclude her surreptitious exam. "The first thing I thought to ask was how you ended up like this, because I don't believe you evolved or anything..."
"Christabel, that's a very... somethingist assumption." he complained, wincing faintly as she subjected his digits to a series of arduous mechanical appraisals until she discovered that his nails slid from their beds into thick, hooked curves; they retracted smoothly as she let go and pressed her own hand to her mouth. Their waiter stood clutching a fresh carafe. "Do you want to eat?” William asked. She took up the menu.
“I’ll... I can't um... I'm having trouble thinking..." she admitted. "I'll have the... what is that?” She leant across to point out an item on the list, shifting around the table to sit inside the arm he lifted to accommodate her.
“Three kinds of wild mushrooms in... ah... ahem, cream sauce, and some sort of noodle.” he explained, perusing the french terms.
“Is it very big?” she asked the attendant. “I’m really hungry.” Glancing around, she saw to her dismay that baroque presentation took precedence over portion size. “I’ll have whatever that was, and... do you have trifle?”
“Sort of... a cake in a bowl with jam...”
William shared the man's dubious expression.
“We have a very fine Tiramisu.” the waiter offered.
“Is it very...”
“No. It is not very big. But I will tell the patissier of his mistake.” he hissed.
“Tell him how you lost your fucking tip while you’re there.” William mused. “Nasturtiums and figs. Thanks.”
“You want... flowers?”
“On a plate, with figs.”
They watched the man walk, stiff-necked, back to the kitchen with their orders.
“I’m going to get a gob in my pasta.” Susan predicted, glancing over her shoulder; as soon as he was gone she dragged William's hand out from under the table and resumed her examination, singling out his extraneous finger. "Does it have a name?" she asked of it.
"So go on, then..." she urged. "About why you are."
He emptied his glass again.
T H I S P I E C E C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce