Chapter Fifteen – The Invisible Worm
No one in the upstairs hall, but downstairs she encountered Mickey. Mickey wore a velvet smoking jacket and a string tie. He enfolded her in a warm hug. In spite of his age, bay window avoirdupois and burned Chia Pet perm, Persey knew they were cousins beneath the skin. Outsiders, that’s what they were. The pair had no chance to exchange a single sentence before the pocket doors of Babe’s bookless library slid open and Babe herself appeared.
“Oh, there you are, Mickey,” she said, chastising freely as if they were alone, “Did you really have to wear that tie? String ties are déclassé. Zip?” She presented her back, scarred red from surgery. Mickey obediently zipped up the tissue of gold lamé.
“We’re about to sit down to dinner and the wine is overdue for opening. We need to let it breathe. Even wine needs oxygen! Make an effort, for God’s sake.”
“We” was Mickey. It was always Mickey Babe had not lost the ability to open a wine bottle, or manipulate that neo-Victorian gadget Persey thought resembled nothing so much as a gynecological instrument of torture. Help, help, the wine is suffocating, thought Persey, smothering a laugh. Hurry, we must give it mouth- to-mouth.
Babe led the charge into the dining room, heels clicking on parquet. Mickey, who never complained about the tasks she gave him or registered displeasure covertly or overtly, submitted the bottle’s neck to the wrought-iron guillotine.
“You’re so pale, Persey,” said her mother-in-law critically.
Persey jumped, having almost forgotten she was a participant in this scene and not simply an observer. So this was what it felt like to be a ghost, all eyes and memory; without ties or responsibility. It was not unpleasant.
“I don’t care for this so-called “natural” look,” Babe nattered on. “What’s natural these days? If we were “natural” we’d be hairy cave dwellers. We’re far beyond that. You need all the help you can get, poor thing.” She pinched Persey’s cheek: hard. And sighed.
“It’s as if you have no blood in you.”
As Persey gazed into the back of Babe’s eyes, looking for Bruce, what she saw was the older woman’s expression deepen into triumph.
“Maybe you’re pregnant! That’s one of the signs of early pregnancy, you know, a certain peakedness. Feeling queasy? I know I couldn’t keep anything down. Forget the bloom of pregnancy! I looked like hell for nine long months. How are you sleeping?”
“Horribly,” said Persey. The truth was easiest, but did not make for charming dinner conversation. Stomachs, then bed. Civilized converse should be better disguised. She missed Bish.
“Well, I don’t think it would hurt to take an Ambien. Or if you like, I can call Dr. Zu and have him make you up some tea.”
Persey doubted Dr. Zu was an insomnia expert for a woman he had never seen. Babe’s determination to stave off ill health and old age with an army of chiropractors, acupuncturists and naturopaths appeared nonsensical; whatever was ordered by one was probably cancelled by the next. Maybe the “doctor” title wasn’t an honorific, but a mistranslation. Probably Chinese for wizard.
Babe herself was looking a bit run-down. But at least the chatelaine, though haggard beneath her maquillage, seemed to have plenty of energy left. After making sure Mickey performed his duties she allowed Persey to eddy in her wake as they wended their way kitchen-wards.
Persey found Babe’s kitchen an oppressively sterile chamber. Surely a kitchen should be a warm cocoon of comfort, but Babe’s resembled an icy prison where food was tortured to death. Perhaps the glossy white and stainless steel surfaces conflated food with medicine, or was nutrition another subject to be disciplined and dominated?
Queasy? Maybe she was. Persey had to cover her eyes because the black and white checkerboard floor seemed to shift beneath her feet. Babe opened up the massive Sub Zero and set out bowls of white gazpacho.
“Persey, sliver me some almonds, please?” she requested. Persey obediently inserted nuts into the silver crusher while Babe sprinkled cheese on the salads.
Jarod, invader disguised as guest, pushed the swing doors out of his way and swiveled his dark eyebeams appreciatively towards Persey. He was dressed all in black, but if “bereaved husband” was the look he was going for, a knife belt and a tight, body shirt with sleeves rolled up to expose his tats were spoiling the effect. Persey turned her back on him. He wouldn’t dare solicit her in front of Babe. But it was Babe he spoke to.
“Can I help?”
“You can wheel this in,” said his hostess, pushing the serving trolley of salads in his direction. She also began loading on the bowls of soup, as if in implicit criticism of Persey’s slower deliberation.
Babe at least was an efficient hostess, Persey thought, especially if you saw dinner parties as a competitive sport. She routinely fed twenty or thirty people with no help at all. Who could she find worthy to offer her help? The invisible immigrants who came in to clean she disparaged as “unpresentable”, and she was without close women friends. Babe had no peers. She seemed to prefer up- and-down relationships.
Maybe she was a tad too efficient, ordering her guests around like a synchronized sports team of which she was coach. On my signal, stand, speak, sit. Applaud. Persey had the grace to feel a little guilty for these thoughts. Look at Babe working so hard, wearing those high heels when her back must be hurting her. Those scars had looked so raw. If this vast house was finally getting to be too much, that would go a long way toward explaining Bruce’s forlorn chamber. It would also make it easier to get the truth out of her.
The dining room was oval in shape; lit only by skylights, a room where dusk was always falling and Babe’s most flattering candlelight always appropriate. The long table was loaded with glass – three wineglasses per plate plus the hurricane lamps – and glittered with Babe’s German black and gold china. The lush green carpet and magnolia wallpaper lent the impression of an elegant forest picnic. There was already a fire in the gas fireplace and Mickey presiding at the bar. Impassively he handed Babe a huge old-fashioned. He had long ago discovered what it took to mellow her out.
“Would you care for a cocktail?” he asked Persey in his formal manner. “I’ll just have a glass of wine.”
“White or red?”
She studied the bottles of breathless red, panting on the sideboard. ”Red, please.”
The wine was Yugoslavian, what the peasants call “bull’s blood”. Warm and oniony, with a high iron content. Reminiscent of the blood she and Roy had licked from one another’s teenage wounds.
Roy himself was last to appear. Babe refused to allow the others take their seats without him, so the guests lounged about the room in an impromptu cocktail party, like characters in a play.
Bruce did not walk in. This could only be beautiful Roy, Persey’s husband, fresh from his shower. In spite of the frost between them, Persey felt a pang of protective love. What a pity he was so perfect still. Was there no time left to start over, or had things gone too far? Could she trust him? Could he trust her?
The sight of those boyish wet curls escaping from behind his ears almost tamed Persey’s raging heart. In the past this was a detail she would personally have corrected, loving his submission beneath her scissors, saving the curls for her private treasure trove.
In spite of his feigned deafness to his mother’s social demands, he had dressed up, glittering in a pearl-buttoned Western shirt and a pair of leather pants he would never spoil by wearing out of doors. His pale eyes beneath their lupine brows sought Persey out and found her where she stood against the wall, her black dress camouflaged against the trunk of a magnolia tree. Clutching her glass of blood-red wine.
Bruce would never look this nervous, thought Persey. Bruce wouldn’t be afraid of me. I’m Roy’s conscience, he knows that he’s done wrong. Mickey came to Roy’s side immediately with a glass of iceless Glenlivet, understanding what he liked. Or needed.
Persey saw Babe war briefly with herself, itching to quell her impulse to rule out her son’s curls.
“Well, then, here we all are,” she sighed. “All together.”
Bluff Mickey raised his own glass. “What shall we drink to?”
Babe regarded him repressively. “It’s a sad occasion,” she warned. “Toasts are inappropriate.”
“Not on my account,” said Jarod, handing over his already empty glass for seconds. “Or Stormee’s. Stormee lived for parties. She couldn’t rest if she knew she’d ruined one.”
Stormee routinely ruined parties, thought Persey, usually with her insistence that every game be played her way. That alone probably killed her.
Babe put an arm over Jarod’s shoulders and personally escorted him to his chair at the hostess’ right.
“You were wise to come to the water,” she told him. “This is the place for people in grief. Stay as long as you like.”
Persey could scarcely hide a smile. Here was an unconsidered possibility. Why shouldn’t Jarod become Babe’s best friend? Wouldn’t that solve everything? Let him stay here forever. What would Roy think of his buddy as his own stepfather? Let’s offer him up to Babe as a human sacrifice.
“Everyone ready?” Babe touched a button and the sounds of the Flower Duet from Lakmé – her signature tune – swelled from the walls.
Persey placed a bowl of gazpacho on each charger, ignoring Roy who loomed behind, aggressively not helping. Jarod pulled out Babe’s chair, Mickey pulled out Persey’s. There was nothing for Roy to do. After pacing for a moment like a caged lion, he sat down.
“Have I seen that skirt before?” Babe asked her daughter in law. Was the note of disapproval in her voice a product of Persey’s imagination, and if not, what did it imply? Was failure to purchase a new outfit for the occasion a personal insult to the hostess, or was she resentful on Stormee behalf? Hard to know just what to wear to commemorate an unexpected blasting into the netherworld.
She said, “Probably. It’s my favorite one. My only long black skirt.”
Babe laughed explosively. “I think a woman’s entitled to more than one black skirt! Do you know I’ve got twenty pairs of red shoes? I counted.”
“I’m sure there’s something unique about each pair,” suggested Mickey. “This looks delicious, Babe.”
“It’s the memories they hold I cherish,” said Babe, her voice throbbing. “Perhaps that’s a sign of age. But I find I can’t get rid of an item of clothing once I’ve worn it someplace special. I always remember exactly what I was wearing when — whenever anything important happened.”
No one cared to probe that story deeper. Persey tasted the gazpacho. It was wonderful. Her spoon turned up a welcome grape.
Mickey carefully poured each guest half a glass of white wine, then passed the bottle for inspection. Drinking was usually heavy at Babe’s parties; one had to pace oneself. Happy with the nourishing thickness of her red wine, Persey was not likely to savor this new offering.
But she was savvy enough to compliment the hostess on her decorating changes, and there were always decorating changes. Get on her good side.
“You’ve had the ceiling papered!” It was a pale blue paper sprinkled with gauzy silver clouds and gold stars. The gold stars glittered reflections of the candlelight. Babe purred like a kitten.
“Oh, Babe it’s charming.” Persey meant it.
Babe laughed outright with pleasure. “You’ll never believe where I got it. It was on clearance at the Just for Babies outlet – don’t ask me what I was doing there — and so I bought the whole inventory. In hurricane season that damn skylight leaks, but now I have plenty of extra paper if necessary. And do you know those stars are painted in luminous paint, so even without light they still glow?”
“They have to reflect something,” said Roy in his quarrelsome way. “Paint can’t generate light.”
Still the stargazers glanced upwards, entranced.
“I wonder if there are actual constellations represented,” said Mickey, “And if so, which ones.”
“Only the lucky ones,” said Babe. “Virgo and Sagittarius, eh Persey? Someone clever enough to be born beneath the lucky stars.”
Persey blanched. She had a disgusting vision of herself giving birth on this very table, against her will, held down by the others. A “bull’s blood” vision, brewed by this “black” wine. Persey didn’t need the kind of nightmares you have while wakeful. She set it down and picked up the white.
White was better because no one could detect a surreptitious watering. If she kept her wits about her she could snoop when Roy was asleep, check the places she had never been, like basement and garage. Who knew what she might find? As for now, Babe had specifically requested no one ask the central question; why she was she shopping at the Just for Babies outlet, and no one did. But Persey thought she knew.
Could the advent of this mythic child explain Babe’s waning interest in the Legend of Bruce? Maybe Persey should be afraid; if she sought Bruce in garage or basement maybe she would find something even more terrible than his pale ghost; a nursery or an operating room.
“I love a Jeu d’esprit,” Babe sighed. Babe never bothered to translate for those who slept through French class. Her attitude was that you’ve either got it or you haven’t, and if you haven’t got it, pretend like hell. It had always worked for her.
Wine was drunk and soup consumed in silence. Roy got up to place an extra log on Mickey’s fire, reminding Mickey of his interloper status. Persey rose and traded soup bowls for majolica salad plates. Mickey took advantage of the momentary busyness to ask Jarod, man-to-man,
“You think they’ll catch that guy?”
“They’ve got quite a few suspects. Just gave one poor bastard a polygraph.”
Persey wondered if this suspect had taken Jarod’s class in How to Fool a Polygraph. According to him it was one of the lessons at Special Forces boot camp. Step on a tack while answering to mess up the baseline. You might not pass, but “inconclusive” was just as good.
“Waiting must be hell,” gasped Babe. “Knowing that he’s out there.”
Hell was nothing to Jarod. “He wants us to catch him. This was a messy, crazy crime. The guy’s a first-timer on the edge.”
His willingness to discuss it sparked Babe’s curiosity.
“Was it some kind of … home invasion, do they think?”
Jarod basked in the dinner table’s full attention. Whore, thought Persey. “Stormee was constantly bringing bozos home, trying to make me jealous.
Just one of the reasons I was filing for divorce.”
Mr. Virtuous! thought Persey. She wondered what it would feel like to stab
him in the eye with her gold-plated salad fork. In just a few short days she had learned so much about becoming homicidal. It’s always closer than we think.
“It’s all about triggers”, Ned would say. Stressors.
“They even suspected me,” Jarod continued while Mickey made a shocked noise and Roy looked bored. “But I have a perfect alibi.”
“It’s terrible,” Babe commiserated. “What a nightmare!”
“Just basic police work,” instructed Jarod. “Start at the center and work outwards in concentric circles, eliminating. Next question, did I hire anybody? They’ll check my accounts, but there won’t be any money transfers.” Jarod grinned smugly. “There won’t be any money period. Such is the life of a public servant.”
Persey wished she could mention there were incentives past money, and to her personal knowledge Jarod reveled in all of them. Call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Secrets, Pain, Humiliation and Blackmail. But she was silent, sorting through her endive, tomato and feta salad as if seeking the invisible worm of Bish’s poem.
“Maybe it’s a revenge killing,” suggested Babe. “You must make lots of enemies in your line of work.”
“I’ve pissed off more than a few people in my time,” agreed Jarod proudly, stroking his mustache. “Most of them were pretty dangerous.”
Like me, thought Persey. You have no idea how dangerous I am.
“I guess they don’t let you investigate your own case,” said Mickey. “Hardly. Bereavement leave til further notice.”
Time on his hands, thought Persey. Great. Just so he stays out of the storage
unit. She prayed he would take Babe up on the offer of a longer visit.
“It’s all this decadence,” spat Babe feverishly. “Our world is deteriorating like
the Fall of the Roman Empire. Anything for a new thrill.”
“Swirling around the bowl,” agreed Mickey.
“We’ve interfered with natural selection, that’s the problem,“ said Roy. “They’re saving babies that are deformed, babies born drug-addicted. Leeches on society. What can they grow up to be?”
That won’t serve as Bruce’s excuse, thought Persey. He was born first. He was the big one. The strong one. Roy – baby Bryan — was the weaker, the deprived one, struggling to catch up. She rose robotically to serve the lamb and rice. She preferred to bustle around. That way who would notice if she didn’t eat? But apparently someone did notice.
“This is why I worry about you bringing a child to term,” said Babe, freezing Persey’s hand in flight. “Take another scoop at least. You need to start taking better care of yourself, honey.”
“I’m just not used to six course meals,” protested Persey.
“Stop worrying, Ma,” said Roy. “Look at those Asian women. No bigger than dolls themselves and they keep popping the babies out.”
“You can’t compare Persey to a slit,” said Jarod. “Those women are born crones.”
Even Babe blanched at this. In fact the group was silenced as Mickey poured out the red wine and passed the bottle around. This wine was old; old enough to be a grandparent. Everyone oohed-and ahhed. Jarod sniffed the cork, like an idiot at a Hugh Hefner after-party.
“The real problem is it seems like the law is on the side of the criminals,” said Mickey, as if glad to change the subject, take the heat off his fellow outsider. “Criminals are getting away with more and more these days.”
“That’s because the barriers to proving a case are so huge,” said Jarod. “Often we know who did something, we just can’t prove it. But in this case, you better believe he won’t get away with it. It doesn’t need to get as far as court. ”
“Gonna get ganked,” said Roy. “Frontier justice.”
In reality he would give the guy a medal for ridding him of Stormee, thought Persey. Probably he had.
Mickey turned to smile at Persey.
“This is delicious,” he said. “Are there apples in here?”
Babe’s grin was beatific. “Persey’s lamb dish is her piece de resistance.” Persey’s first husband, the expert on human appetites, had taught her how to
make this dish. But Persey knew better than to bring him up.
Jarod, flushed with wine and calories, couldn’t leave the subject of murder
“Sometimes even if convicted they go to mental hospitals that are more like
summer camps. The question shouldn’t be whether they’re sane, but whether they’re dangerous. If you ask me, they all belong on death row. ”
“Surely anyone who commits murder is a little bit insane,” contributed Babe. “That ought to be a given. It’s just polluting the process to have all these competing experts. I mean, what’s a jury to think? They’re not scientists. If you have two experts canceling each other out, why bring on either? You’re back at zero, the way I look at it.”
Babe failed to mention her personal, extensive experience of court.
“Executions should be public,” said Roy. “That would put some teeth in deterrence.”
This conversation was certainly a deterrent to a dinner party, thought Persey. Mickey must have thought so too because, earning his keep by main force, he managed to turn the subject to his new boat, and the fun they’d have with it tomorrow.
After dinner was the scheduled excitement of pay-per-view boxing. That meant petits fours and coffee served in the library. Persey was happy to extract herself from the blood fest with an offer to do the dishes. She rose to load the serving trolley.
“Persey’s squeamish,” said Roy, teasingly. “Persey is afraid of blood.”
Persey boiled inside, thinking of her recent finds, but her outside remained cool. Glacial. Fondness hardened to fondant. It was a reflex now; too easy if anything. Would her inner and outer lives ever coalesce?
“Persey needs to think about Persey.” Babe squeezed her daughter-in-law’s shoulder and air-kissed in her general direction. “Do you know, they used to think pregnant women’s fetuses were affected by anything they saw? If the baby was defective, they thought the mother had seen a ghost. I saw my dead twin uncles the week before you boys were born. I wonder if that’s what happened to poor Bruce.”
The “uh-oh” moment, thought Persey. There’s one at every dinner party. Get me out of here. But her hands were full of china and glass.
Roy’s face predictably suffused.
“What a crock of shit,” he said. “Don’t you bring up that name at this table.” Had he forgotten who lived here and who had run away? But Jarod came to
“You saw a ghost?” he asked, really interested. Was he wondering whether
Stormee had the power to come after him?
“I saw them both.” Tears fogged the iridescent whites of her heavily made up
eyes, glistening in the candle shine. “They died in a car crash when I was a child and the caskets had to be closed but there they were, young and whole, standing outside my window, waving at me. But I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”
”They call those old wives’ tales for a reason,” said Roy.
As Persey took his plate, he touched her belly tentatively. Reverently. Persey deliberately spilled gravy on the beloved leather pants, bracing for a fight. To her surprise he threw his napkin over it as if he hadn’t even seen the stain.
Babe commented obliquely,
“When things are so hard to forget, it’s better not to remember them in the first place.”
She mimicked her son’s gesture, brushing Persey’s belly lightly, but not light enough for Mickey to miss it.
“Are we expecting a glad announcement?” he asked cluelessly as Persey swept the dishes out from beneath his nose.
She couldn’t spill food on everyone. She was sick of all of them looking through her to the other person they imagined in her belly.
“Life is full of surprises,” she answered ironically. If she pretended to be pregnant, would that encourage them to leave her alone? She answered her own question. Not for one minute.
Roy and his mother locked eyes voicelessly. Persey turned her back on the pair of them and wheeled the cart into the kitchen. Housework went faster to rock music; so she shifted the radio away from Babe’s usual cacophony of alarmist talking heads. It was a relief having something to do.
She hummed to the music of Savage Garden, one of her favorites:
“Time will be the thief and the fallen king will end up alone.”
The Bird Lady’s tale about the princess who rescued her brothers from life as
swans sprang into her mind unbidden. Under a sentence of silence the princess wove jackets out of nettles. Washing the Black Knight china and the Lalique crystal by hand was not dissimilar, especially if the water was really hot. She didn’t bother with gloves, welcoming the scorching blast to sterilize her rings and nails.
Her period was late, but she couldn’t be pregnant. She had seen too many terrible things. She willed a gush of lubrication between her legs.
She was placing leftovers in Tupperware for Babe to feed to poor Mickey throughout the week when she heard the door open behind her and felt Jarod approach like a darkening fog. Deliberately she refused to turn until she knew he was standing right behind her. She hoped he could not see her shoulders stiffen against his touch. He didn’t know her well enough to tell what she might be thinking; no one did. He planted himself in her path. She dodged around him to open the SubZero and take out the cream.
“You can take in the coffee cart,” she said, not looking at him. Eye contact would give away how much she hated him, and he would take that as a tribute. She had never felt this way about anyone in her life before. If only ideas could become reality, as Ned said, she would willingly have incinerated him right here in Babe’s kitchen. With pleasure she imagined pointing out to the others his smudgy pile of ash.
“In a minute,” said Jarod. He launched himself up on the counter – showing off as usual – unpleasantly close to the dishwasher. If he thought she was going to load it between his oozing thighs he had another think coming. She would defrost the frostless freezer first.
“Roy says you’re pissed at me,” said Jarod.
Finally she turned to face him when a safe number of black and white squares stretched between them. Knights move only two squares at a time; pawns hardly move at all, queens command the field. She was a princess. He couldn’t touch her.
“I think you take advantage of people,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest to keep her heart from leaping out.
There was something odd about his face. He’d clipped the messy tendrils from moustache and beard. For whose benefit had he discarded his usual persona of heavy metal thrasher? It was almost as if he cared what Persey thought of him. Too bad; the kitchen’s unflattering fluorescent lighting lent a unearthed corpse cast to his greenish skin. He was spoiled forever now; ruined. There would be no resurrection.
“Haven’t you ever wanted something so badly you didn’t care what it took to get it?” he asked her.
She did know. She turned away so he couldn’t see the memory of Ned.
“You’re missing your game,” she said coldly, pouring cream in one pitcher and skim in another. The petit fours were cold, but there was a frigid quality to all Babe’s food; sub-zero about described it. No time now to allow them to come up to room temperature. This dinner party needed sugar. Probably they were all sitting in the library jonesing for the rush.
“The first part is worthless,” he told her. “It’s only at the end that it gets interesting.”
Was he talking about boxing? This was one-night-stand Jarod speaking. But why were his eyes still hungry? What more could he want? A frightening notion: he wanted Roy’s wife because he wanted Roy’s life.
“Roy’s not enough for you?” she inquired.
Jarod chuckled. “I like the ladies,” he asserted. “But boys will be boys. I’m a hungry, hungry man. Fast food’s OK if that’s all there is. I’ll take it on the run at a pinch. But everyone prefers a four-star meal.”
Drive-thru sex. He’d described himself. If Roy could see him now, would the scales fall? She feared he was too far gone. She turned her back on Jarod to let him know she was finished with him and began wheeling out the cart herself. As if to comment that he was good for nothing.
That got him off the counter. He pursued her.
“Hey, I’m trying to apologize.” He was touching her now, way too close, her frenzied pounding heart giving her away. She closed her eyes.
“Don’t touch me.”
In a harsh angry whisper he hissed,
“I know what you’re really like, sweetmeat, so don’t pose with me. I been
there. You ain’t above it.”
He had been there the way Kilroy saw Paris. She maneuvered the cart between them and shoved it at him.
“Eat this, hungry man.”