Pictures of the Floating World
Mike wanted to name his restaurant “Tits” after his wife, but friends with sense talked him into “Fasta Pasta.” The trademark dish was “Chicken Wendy”: two boneless breasts sauteed in a garlic and marsala sauce, served on a bed of angel hair and wilted arugula. It was good—Mike’s recipes always were—but I felt like a ghoul whenever I ordered it.
Ellen Smith, one of the cooks, had been murdered Sunday; we’d been close enough that I identified the body. Her mother Lyla hired the agency and the case fell to me. I’d spent the time chasing hot leads that turned to shit when I’d have been better off starting at the restaurant. I called my husband Bob from a phone booth and told him I’d be late.
“You already are,” he snapped.
“Come on, she was my friend.”
“I’m sure you’re all caught up in the investigation.”
“I haven’t had a drop all day—”
“And if you’re going to have another blackout, either come home before it starts or stay wherever you are.”
I hung up on him. Two years ago, I would have called on time and wouldn’t have needed the lecture. I bought a cold sixpack at a liquor store on the Chicago side of Howard Street and drove into dry Evanston.
The hostess seated me at a table in the corner by the window; a red glass candle covered in cheap cotton netting squatted in the center of the red-and-white gingham oilcloth. A chunky blonde waitress wearing a white T-shirt, a little pocketed apron and an air of stained boredom came to the table. “Pasta aglio olio,” I said: garlic and oil; “ugly oleo,” Ellen’d called it. “Hold the water and the beer glass and ask Mike to join me.”
“Andi! You think I don’t know your voice?” he boomed. Mike’d never had a private conversation in his life. His greasy brown hair was so long it ought to have been in a hair net, but he only wore those around health inspectors. With blackheads the size of finishing nails embedded into his nose, he was hardly the picture of a creator of fine cuisine, but the review in Chicago Magazine had said: “Bold, brash and bursting with BIG flavor, the low-rent Fasta Pasta provides the best high-rent value of any of the Davis Street Dinette Set.” I can quote it because it’s on the placemats. He dropped a bread-and-butter basket on the table.
“Go ahead, pretend you remember me.”
“Of course I know you,” he said with an injured look. “You’re the one drank with Ellen all the time.”
“Not all the time. We took breaks so she could work for you to make money to go drinking so she could stand to work for you. Want a beer?”
He dropped into a chair and pulled out his churchkey. Evanston law says employees have to open wine and beer for customers; Mike’s the owner, so he popped two tops. “Hell of a deal,” he said, jowls quivering. “I’m shorthanded. I don’t suppose you’d take pity on an old man and fill in—?”
“You’re not old, you’re not pitiable. Asking a dead woman’s friend to work her shift ’cause you’re too lazy to shake your own frying pan wins you the male chauvinist pig award of the day, Mike.” He threw back his head, opened his mouth wide, showed his fillings, and bellowed.
“You know why I’m here, Mike.”
“I don’t know nothing ’bout Ellen. You want blood from a turnip?”
“Who picked Ellen up when her shift was over? Who did she date? Who did she talk about dating? What magazines did she look at on her lunch break? Was she in a bad mood the last few days?”
“She took the L. We’re too busy to talk about dating and we got no time for bad moods.”
“She never confided in anyone? You’ll say anything.”
“She hung around with one of the other cooks. Marissa. You want I should send her out? You tired of my face?”
“I’m always tired of your face, Mike.” He left, beaming.
Marissa brought the garlic-laced pasta and salad and sat opposite. She was tall and so thin the dozen bangles on her skinny arms threatened to fly off her wrists; she wore more earrings than most people have jewelry. Her ringletted hair, streaked with magenta, was black, glossy and thick; an elastic argued it into a ponytail. A blue bandanna drew attention to her angular face, and her skin gleamed as if she used olive oil as a cosmetic. Like the pasta, she was perfumed with garlic; on her, it was an aphrodisiac. I offered bread and beer.
“I ony just heard,” she said, her voice deep and resonant. She didn’t wear a bra underneath the tight sleeveless T-shirt, and didn’t need one. She lit up and blew a smoke ring. “C’n I smoke?”
“Who’s the last person Ellen dated?”
“What’s dis poysson shit? You inferrin’ she was queer? She had guys alla time. Whad’re ya tryin’ta prove?” It’d been a long time since I heard such archetypal Chicagoese. PIs don’t get nearly the credit they should for keeping straight faces.
I quashed the impulse to say “Nuttin’.” “Nothing, nothing. Who’d she date last?”
“I never met no one.” She was down to less than half a beer. “Girls who work here, dey get phone calls. Lemme talk to Jugs. Lemme talk to Christi. Not her. An’ she never come here ta eat wit’ her boyfriends, even dough we gedda discount on our days off. She din’t care da food was good and cheap.” Mike’d never put a recipe on the menu that wasn’t a star. He was a sleazebag, but a sleazebag who could make you laugh despite your principles and make your tastebuds swoon.
“Did she ever date any of the other workers?”
“Heh, heh, heh. Da ony guy is Charlie, he’s a loser who don’ tink about anyting but his body an’ spends all his free time in da gym. She never went anywhere wit’ any of us, except me. An’ we ony went drinkin’ tree, four times.”
“How come? Didn’t you have anything in common?”
“Common? It don’t take common to get drunk togedder. Nah, our schedules’re mostly staggered so we din’t get off at da same time much.”
“So how’d you know she was always with guys?”
“She talked about ’em, an’ she never put da moves on me. A lezzie worked here a few months ago who was all over Jugs an’ me, an’ Mike finely hadda fire her. I tink Ellen musta treatened her, ’cause she din’t have trouble.” It was more likely that Ellen’d told her that she was taken. I thought of Nora.
I mopped up the last of my sauce with the last of my bread and chewed; after that much garlic I smelled as strongly as Marissa did, but I could no longer tell. “Where were you from 10 PM Saturday to 3 AM Sunday?”
She gave me a slow and easy grin like she’d been practicing for a B movie bitpart all her life. “Fucking.”
“The whole time?”
“I got a new boyfriend, so I guess yeah, da whole time.”
“Heh, heh, heh. You applyin for da job?”
“I’ll need his name and number.”
“Cool, I’m a suspect.” She wrote the information on my steno pad.
“Dotting i’s and crossing t’s,” I said and lit my own cigarette.
“Heh, heh, heh.” Her horsey laugh stuck in my head.
I left cash and tip on the table. “Thanks for your help.” On my way to the kitchen, I glanced back. She was a picture, composed and framed: stretched out with her long legs in the aisle and her left arm across her aproned middle as she finished her beer and cigarette. The image stuck in my head even as her homophobia stuck in my throat.
I found Mike bellowing orders. “I need a name and number.”
“You still here? It’s ass deep in private eyes!” He laughed hard at his own joke.
“Last year you fired somebody. Remember her?”
“’Course.” He scratched his greasy hair as I followed him into his closet-sized office. An old door, a hole where the knob should’ve been, lay across two grey steel filing cabinets and served as a bumpy desk. A legal pad levelled a comptometer with a missing foot and keys flattened by use and age. He sat down heavily enough in the captain’s chair to make stuffing poof out.
He dug in the right-hand cabinet. “I never showed you this.” Private employee records.
I pulled a candy bar from a pocket. “Payday?”
“Shit, no, I’m allergic to nuts. You know that. In fact, can you wait?”
“Sorry, I forgot.” I stashed it and took notes. “Daisy Jo? Is that a Korean name?” Though she’d had little experience, she was paid more than Ellen, who’d started before the restaurant opened.
“ ‘Yo,’ not ‘Joe’, it’s Hungarian.” He blew his nose into a filthy napkin, making a production.
I was curious about the pay. “What’d Daisy look like?”
“Come on, Mike. What color was her hair, did she wear glasses, how tall was she?”
“She had big tits.” And thus deserved more money than Ellen, who’d been six feet tall and scrawny.
“You got room in that alleged brain for anything not boob-related?”
“Uh. Glasses, yes. Blonde. No, light brown.” He sniffed. That didn’t work, so he snorted like a gluehead. He reached into the bottom drawer of the left-hand file cabinet and pulled out a six-ounce bottle of turpenhydrate with codeine: “cough medicine.” He drank it in one gulp and snorted harder. The sound of snot flying backwards at 200 kilometers an hour is not pleasant, but it made him happy: “Ahhhh!” He stood, held a hand level. “There. That tall!”
It was easy to calculate; he’s my height, six-one. “Five feet. Thanks.” He stood too close and the room was too small; he didn’t need an audience for his histrionics so I left.
When I got home at 2200, Bob had hit the sack. I hit the tequila
until I passed out in the living room and had an R. Crumb nightmare:
evil sentient blackheads with slimy, ropy arms destroyed the city with
pimple rays and carried off shrieking women who looked like Marissa.
Even the buildings oozed pus.
I went to the Art Institute for the Utagawa Kuniyoshi exhibition. Squashed and battered by three million Chicagoans crammed into the hallways and galleries, I stood in front of Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton Specter. Mitsukini drew his sword and glared into the face of the house-sized skeleton that loomed over him like a hungry suburbanite over a recalcitrant barbeque. There’s a Ralph Stanley song: oh Death, spare me over to another year.
“Hey. I know youse.”
I looked left. “Sorry—”
“You’re dat PI. Andi, idn’it? I’m Marissa, I work up at Fasta Pasta, in Evanston? Useta work wit Ellen—”
Poor Ellen Smith. “Andi Holmes,” I said. I remembered the last time I’d seen Marissa; she’d been wearing loose cargo pants and a white sleeveless T-shirt with no bra, a blue kerchief over her glossy black hair. Today, she wore a Rosalind Russell suit, charcoal grey pinstriped with white. Her hair curled free and loose and the magenta streaks were gone. Unbandanna’d, it spread wider than her shoulders and halfway down her back. It bounced with every move and she moved to make it bounce. She hadn’t gained a gram in four-and-a-half years. She wasn’t my type, but something about her caught my attention. “Um.” I swallowed. “You look nice.”
The smile grew and grew. “Why, tanks. Tanks! How you been?”
“Good, good. Yourself?”
“Oh, you know. Hey, didya hear Mike died?”
“No! When?” Going alone to the restaurant where Ellen’d worked had hurt too much after her murder’d been solved.
“A week ago Sad’rday,” she said. Her lipstick was a rich dark red, like blood that had been on the sidewalk an hour shy of dry. “He was allergic to lychees. C’n you believe it?”
“Lychees! People are allergic to fruit?”
“’Strue. We had a big potluck at da restaurant an’ Dong Feng—da new Chinese waitress—brought in a bunch of lychee jellies. Mike ate five and an hour later broke out in hives. He couldn’t breathe an’ he fell over an’ we called 911, but he was dead before da ambulance got dere. Ain’t dat da shits?”
“That’s awful. Didn’t he know he was allergic?” The next print was Nichiren Calming the Storm, a mountain-sized wave eating the shore.
“Everybody knew about da nuts, he din’t want ’em in da restaurant, but nobody knew about da lychees. Not even his wife. You remember her?”
I nodded; it’d been years since I’d thought about Chicken Wendy. “What’s going to happen to the place?”
“Oh, Wendy’s gonna keep runnin’ it. She done all the books anyway, it’s no big deal for her ta take over. Dat’s a load off my mind I tell ya, I really need da job.”
“There won’t be any new dishes without Mike.”
“He left lotsa recipes. ’Nuff for years.” Her relief was plain.
“Ah, good. Good. So, you here to see the exhibition? Or are you here for something else?”
Her face glowed. “I love Japanese art. I got books and books and books an’ no placeta put ’em. A boyfriend told me once I got a bad case of wantin’ to know everyting, an’ it’s true, I’m a museum junkie. I got a membership here, and I belong to da Field Museum and da Academy of Sciences, da Oriental Institute, even da Museum of Science an’ Industry.”
I stopped in front of Yoshiwara at Night: brown walls, black sky, two spots of red; lanterns out in the brothel district. She moved close enough I could feel her body heat; I was conscious of her height. At five-eleven, she was too tall for my taste, yet I found myself sneaking sideways peeks. I sniffed. “You ought to quit smoking, you know.”
“Boy, do I know dat. You got any tips?”
“I’d be happy to share them over a drink sometime. If you’re so inclined.”
“I’m ’nclined.” She stuck to me like my shirt, and by the time we got to the last print, Monagaku Shonin Doing Penance under the Waterfall, her arm was through mine. Her businesslike little breast pressed against my triceps. We made an odd pair. I was dressed in jeans, fatigue shirt and a boonie hat with a chin strap; she looked like a junior partner in a high-end law firm and smelled like cigarettes, garlic and olive oil. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it’s difficult to offend my nose: I spent a year in Vietnam, where the US Army disposed of human waste by drenching it in diesel fuel and insecticide and tossing in a match.
When I put my hand on her back to guide her into the gift shop, I felt a little bump where the wool had been rewoven to hide a hole. She smiled at me over her shoulder and helped me choose a big print of the Skeleton Specter. “I got a friend knows how to frame dose up nice,” she said. “Give my name, he’ll take some off.”
“I’ll do that.” I checked my watch. “I’m supposed to meet a friend for a late lunch at the employee cafeteria in the Field Museum.” Time to see how gripping her interest was. “Wanta come? I’ll buy you that drink later.”
“I’d love it. What’s your friend do?”
“She’s the Insect Librarian.” Buttercream walls; bookcases such a deep brown they were almost black, covered by glass doors with innumerable muntins; overhead fans with ten-foot wingspans; potted palms that brushed the coffered ceiling. “Did you drive?”
“I got no car, I take da L.”
I steered her to Miss Emily, my yellow ’67 Mustang convertible, opened the door and she swung in. Her skirt hiked up and flashed all but a couple inches of her long thin legs; there was a run in her pantyhose. She gave me that B movie smile when she saw me look. “Great exhibition, wadn’ it?”
“Kuniyoshi’s good, but I like Hokusai and Hiroshige best. You know, landscapes? Pictures of the Floating World? The Tokkaido Road. He drew too many samurai, not enough landscapes.” I pulled out of the lot onto Michigan Avenue, blended into the thick afternoon traffic. A pair of gulls swept by on their way to the yellow Lake Michigan beaches.
“He’s famous for geishas and courtesans and actors, ya know. But da tenpō reforms da shogunate put out in 1842 banned dose subjects; no more Floating World. Dat left landscapes and samurai, and his landscapes weren’t dat good. Kuniyoshi got caught drawing some geishas an’ hadda pay fines. Den he drew one da shogun tought made fun of him, an’ he got in a lot of trouble, hadda destroy the woodblocks. After dat, he drew nuttin’ but samurai, even dough his heart was wit da actors. He drank a lot an’ died poor.”
“You din’t tell me why you like Japanese prints.”
“I’m a missionary kid; I grew up in Indonesia. Mmmm. And I dated a Nikkei girl.” I left stuff out, but so had she.
***“I can get us in free,” she said.
“No need, Pam’ll meet—there she is.” She stood by the employee elevator dressed in jeans and a maroon cardigan against the air-conditioning. Pam was close to my height, but outweighed me enough to be perfectly proportioned. I started to introduce them. “Pam Rebroff, Marissa—”
“Schickendanz,” finished Marissa with her big toothy grin.
“Marissa, uh, Schickendanz—”
“Go ahead and laugh,” said Marissa. “I do. In high school dey called me Chicken Dance.”
Pam and I didn’t. I said, “We ran into each other at the Kuniyoshi exhibition. She works—”
“I never been back here,” interrupted Marissa.
Pam pushed 3 and said, “ ‘Back here’ is the real museum. The 10% the public sees isn’t always even the best 10%.”
Marissa took only a small plate of infrared-warmed fries from the cafeteria line. “My treat.” I spoke softly, even though Pam was out of earshot. I put a hot beef sandwich with gravy on her tray.
She put it right back, her mouth downturned. “Tanks, but I don’t eat meat.”
“Sorry, I should’ve asked. How about a salad? It’s still my treat.”
She hesitated before dousing a large salad with blue cheese dressing. “I eat free at da restaurant, days I work.” And peanut butter sandwiches at home, if boyfriends were no longer taking her to Fasta Pasta for discounted meals.
We found a table near a window; I sat with my back to the wall, and Marissa sat as close to me as she could. “So, how’d you two meet?” Marissa gave Pam a deeply insincere smile.
Pam’s drink came out her nose. “Andi!”
“Don’t blame me,” I said. “We’re just friends,” I told Marissa. “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”
Pam slugged me on the shoulder. I’d had the forethought to put my own drink on the mahogany table.
“Just friends, heh, heh, heh. I’ll remember dat.” Pam got herself under control before Marissa noticed. “Insect Librarian, huh? I bet dat’s a great job.” Now I knew what stars in the eyes looked like. Marissa peered around. “God, I love museums. I could spend years here.”
Pam glanced over at me. “Uh, it’s better than digging ditches.” Pam’s husband, while a pretty decent guy in most respects, was relentlessly anti-intellectual; he couldn’t see why she needed a degree when he didn’t have one. She had persuaded him by pointing out how much greater her employability was with a degree. It came with an ultimatum: books or him. She chose him—and smuggled her books out to her museum office. She was going to have a hell of a time if she ever lost the position, but for now it was ideal. Ditch-diggers didn’t have offices to fill with bookshelves.
“Pam used to be the secretary at the Anthropology department over at Circle. One of the professors there—”
“RosaBell,” Pam interjected, making the name all one word.
“—had a valuable New Guinea mask stolen. I recovered it for her and met Pam in the process.”
“A professor I loathed took over as department chair when I graduated, so I was lucky to get this job right away,” said Pam. “Uh, and I hate to sound like I’m protesting too much, but we really are just friends.”
“Wink, wink—” Pam smacked my arm again.
“I get it, heh, heh, heh.” Pam laughed too, but it was more at than with Marissa. Full sun fell through the tall windows and shone off the polished mahogany woodwork. Plants dripped off high shelves everywhere. The linoleum floor, laid out in squares of green and ivory, wore a deep thick gloss that spoke of long hours by late-night maintenance crews.
I decided to mix it up; I let my left knee relax until it barely touched Marissa’s. She turned to me and asked, “Hey, din’t you usedta be married?”
“He—died. Aggressive leukemia. March of ’75.”
“Oh, shit. Bummer. I mean—oh, shit.”
“We were already falling apart. My drinking.” I put my hand on hers; except for calluses caused by years of knife use, her skin felt moist and smooth. She returned the gentle pressure, but we were all three out of topics.
Pam walked us to the elevator. Marissa linked her arm through mine; there was no mistaking the territorial breast pressure. Pam’s always known I’m a lesbian, but she’d never been near me during a mating dance. It made her nervous enough to jerk a flyer out of the rack next to the wrought-iron grate over the elevator doors. “Andi, look, here’s an exhibition you’ll want to see.” She thrust it at me as the elevator bell dinged. “See you next week!”
Marissa and I were the only ones in the elevator; the door closed, she grabbed my shirt, I grabbed her neck, we kissed without breathing until we hit floor one. The four men waiting didn’t blink when we came out laughing. “Non-smear lipstick?” I asked in the car, using the rear-view to check my face.
“Yah, I never usedta care,” she said. “You was gonna give me tips.”
“Every time you want a cigarette put something else in your mouth.”
“Oooh,” she said with a kiss. “Come home wit me, I’ll show you some of my—special—art books.”
I meant to ask why she’d seemed so straight in ’74, but the top was down and the wind ran through our hair, making it easy to smile and laugh without words. She put her hand on my leg near the big harbor at Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive, feeling the muscles as I braked and accelerated, and I stopped worrying about the past.
She had a two-room flat with more books than furniture, upstairs from a music store in downtown Evanston, close enough to walk to Fasta Pasta. The un-air-conditioned place smelled like a three-pack a day habit. It was clean and shiny and full of sun from the south-facing windows, but the ashtrays were full and some of the butts had lipstick on them; her last lover hadn’t been gone long. A Chinese dragon made of gold plastic hung on the wall and red paper New Year’s lanterns, decorated with Good Fortune and Long Life characters, dangled from the ceiling. Instead of a TV, she had a framed print of Kuniyoshi’s Miyamoto Musashi and the Big Whale. The floor was covered with grass mats. She even had ukiyo-e in the bathroom.
When she’d said she had books, I’d thought four, five, a dozen. Hardly anyone has more art books than that. Marissa had hundreds, spilling off the concrete-block bookcases, stacked on tables, piled on the sofa and the tatami. “Beer?”
“Two years and 81 days sober,” I said, proud. She didn’t pick up on it; she’d never had to go to AA, never lived in the floating world of bars where all your friends were drunks and all investments short-term and low-yield. Pitchers of beer pissed away in gallons.
She sat me on the couch amidst her books and made me lapsang souchong tea. I’d had no idea so many famous Japanese artists had done so many erotic prints. She emptied ashtrays and washed the few dishes, then disappeared into the bathroom and came out in a kimono. She curled around my legs; I stroked her hair and turned pages until I couldn’t tell the difference between art and life.
She took me to bed and gave me a massage. White elastic showing at the edges told me her underwear had been with her a long time. She straddled me, pushed her wiry pubic hair against my butt; her hands held all the strength their knobby, bony appearance hinted at. She knuckled my spine, kneaded my muscles; I softened and flowed like asphalt on a hot road. “You are so good,” I said.
“I took a course.” Of course.
She noticed my tattoo, a green and orange gecko on the back of my calf, and showed me hers: an anklet of hollyhock mon, done in brown and opaque white. “My last lover. She claimed to be a descendant of da Tokugawas, but everyting she said was a lie.”
I brushed aside the thick black hair to kiss the back of her neck and found a black widow so lifelike I almost slapped it. “My first girlfriend gave me dat,” she said. “No man’s ever touched it.”
“I want her name.” I nibbled the cool dry skin.
“You want another tat? You don’ need it. Where’d you get yours?”
“The Delta.” I would’ve said more, would’ve asked about her past, but her skin made my mouth water. I pulled her to me and licked her like a lollipop. She was such a graceful lover I barely noticed the boniness.
Later, when she was in the bathroom, I prowled the kitchen area. Day-old bread and a giant jar of peanut butter. A couple of beers and a package of Velveeta in the fridge. She couldn’t have fixed an unexpected dinner for a cat. I thought I’d like to plump her up with a night out, once or twice a week. Her bank statement lay on the table; budgeted to the penny. Food, almost non-existent; checks to Green Planet Books and membership renewals took up the quarter that her rent—utilities included—didn’t absorb. A draft to a tarot reader had missed bouncing by a nickel. I ran water into a glass, leaned against the sink; when she returned, I held up the flyer from Pam: Lacquer Arts of Japan: 350 objects of lacquer art from 18th and 19th century Japan. “It opens tomorrow at the Field. We could go in the morning if you have to work.”
“I’m a member, I can get us in free.”
“Countin’ on it.”
At home, which is also my office, I called up Wendy to offer sympathy. “You didn’t see his obit in the Sun Times?”
“Don’t read ’em; I’m not old enough to see the attraction,” I said. “Can I donate to something in his name?”
“It’s your money.” She gave me the name of a halfway house for recovering addicts.
I should have been at peace after such an afternoon; instead, I worried.
In ’74, Marissa’d been straight; I’d told the world the same.
But she had been as guilelessly homophobic as any Southern Baptist.
In ’74, I had floated in a world of guilt, guilt that loomed above like
the skeleton specter; death had freed me from it, or so I’d thought.
What had freed her? What had changed her? I was unable to let
it go. Two years, 81 days; I wanted a drink.
The marble floor that echoed footsteps, the white limestone walls and the indirect lighting made Stanley Field Hall sound and feel as sacred as any cathedral. I stared up at T. Rex’s bones and knew how Mitsukini felt. I’d left my sword at home.
Marissa led the way up the stairs to Hall 32 for the Lacquer Arts exhibit. She wore the same suit she’d worn to see Kuniyoshi. Her high heels tocked; my boots scuffed and thudded. Pam had known I couldn’t resist and Marissa could no more stay away than I could. We admired a tiny, exquisite red lacquer bowl with a bale of golden turtles swimming across its interior. Trays with gilt bevies of quail; inlaid screens with mother-of-pearl and calligraphed bamboo; tsunodaru and sashidaru—sake containers—in black and gold and red. Glorious fish-shaped tsuishi—trays—and match safes everywhere. Daylight spots cookie-cut the darkness like midsummer holes in late-afternoon storm clouds.
One of the nice things about being self-employed is that if I want to spend several hours in the middle of the week drooling over fabulous two-hundred-year-old tchotchkies, I can. When we emerged at last from the exhibit, I felt like I had been meditating underwater for a day; I blinked like a frog.
“I gotta go to work,” said Marissa, pulling me into a nook made of three pillars and winding us together like mating snakes, running her fingers over the skin under my shirt.
“I’ll stick around to decompress. Should I come to Fasta Pasta for dinner?”
“I’ll give you dessert.”
“At the table?”
“Heh, heh, heh. You naughty girl.” I watched her walk away.
To my right was the hall of Pacific Islands; to the left, Tibet. Across the canyon that opened above the main hall were the dinosaurs. I wandered into the hall of gems, then the jades, which blended into flora of the world, where no one cared about the world’s trees but me. I was alone with the marble floor and the silent, ceiling-high glass-walled cases. The long hall smelled of pressed paper and dried leaves. Giant slabs of luscious timber made me lust to surround myself with furniture made from purpleheart, zebrawood, African blackwood, padouk from the Andamans, Brazilian tulipwood, vermilion.
The next hall was full of plastic and silk models of strange plants. Some I’d never seen alive, like Rafflesia—who wants to smell dead meat?—but others, like those from Southeast Asia and Indonesia, I had seen, touched, peeled, eaten. Betelnut, ginkgo, palms of every kind, pattan, nutmeg. Rubber, bamboo, Adenanthera. Pulasan, lychee, longan, cat’s eyes, spiky red rambutan. I remembered the sweet taste of lychee, the cool translucent flesh of longan surrounding the black seed that made them look like their name, dragon’s eyes.
I read the sign. “Distantly related to the ackee tree, all the seeds of these plants contain hypoglycins, water-soluble toxins which can cause vomiting and even death.” That I’d known. “Lychees may be dried within their shells. The sun-dried lychee, known as lychee-nut, was the only form in which lychees were available in America prior to the mid-50s. In taste and texture these are similar to a date. Canned lychees are now readily available.” I read the last line: “Called fruits, they are technically nuts and should not be consumed by those with nut allergies.”
That night, the food at Fasta Pasta was even better than I remembered.
Chicken Wendy was there, so I turned down the discount Marissa offered;
I didn’t want to get her in trouble. After work, I took her to
my place—for dessert.
“I’m named for a town,” she said. “Mom and Dad’s car broke down in Marissa, Illinois, outside St. Louis, and dey hadda get a hotel room. Nuttin’ else to do dere, heh, heh, heh.” She stood up and stretched. “I need some tea.” She padded naked into the kitchen; I watched her dig through the bags, boil water, pour. Lapsang souchong for me and Red Zinger—of course—for her. She stood in the morning light from the tall kitchen windows, limned with dustmotes. She was too tall and slender and bony to be beautiful, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the picture she made. She caught me watching and smiled.
“Get dressed, I’ll cook breakfast,” I said. “Cooking naked’s a chump job.” I made an omelet with goat feta and Vietnamese herbs; she snatched vegetable slices from under the knife, risking fingers. She sat on the stool next to the stove, crunching red and green peppers; all she needed were whiskers and fur to look like a mouse on speed.
I should’ve let it be, but I had to know. “Why’d you kill Mike?”
She let out a kind of squeak. “I din’t.” Her mug trembled.
“You knew he was allergic to nuts. You spend so much time at the Field Museum, I know you know lychees are nuts. As soon as you saw those jellies you knew he’d die, but you kept your mouth shut. Why? What’d he do to you?”
She tossed her teabag, blew on the hot liquid. “It wadn’t what he did ta me, but what he mighta done to others. Others who’da been really hurt.” She sipped, carefully.
“I always thought Mike was harmless. A sleazebag, but—”
“You wouldn’t say dat if it was you he cornered in his office and raped.”
“He wadn’t so bad at first. He’d pat us women on the ass, everybody does dat, but last year, he started—groping. I tought it was just me, but Jugs told me some of the tings he made her do. He was a jerk who turned into an asshole.”
“Tell the police? My word against his? I needed da job, I couldn’t quit.” She put the mug on the table. “I tol’ Wendy what he done. She said he had his tubes tied, I said dat wadn’t da point.” She shrugged. “He can’t rape anybody else now.”
“Couldn’t you’ve quit after he changed? It’s just a cook job—” I stopped breathing. The life went out of her, as if she’d been deflated. “I’m sorry—”
“Dere’s a lot of jobs out there for someone like youse. Not me.”
“But you’re smart!”
“No. I memorize stuff, an’ dis was da ony time in my whole life I ever put two and two together and come up wit anyting but plain ol’ four. You, you’re a detective. You said it; I’m ony a cook, not a chef.” She poured her tea down the drain and found her purse. “What’re you gonna do?”
“You knew something and didn’t speak up. If you hadn’t known it, Mike would’ve died exactly the same way. If I were you, I’d forget you ever knew it.”
“I can’t. Just like you can’t not know I knew.” She went toward the back door; it was closer to the Thorndale station.
“Don’t go. Can’t we work it out?”
She stopped and looked over her shoulder, her hand on the knob. “You can’t.”
“You been deducing stuff about me ever since we ran into each other at da exhibition; you’d radder nose around dan ask. An’ judging me on what you figgered out. Who made you queen a da lesbians?” She yanked the door open, letting in the cool morning air.
“Please,” I said, my voice catching, “I’m sorry.”
“I tought you was different.”
“I thought I was too,” I said, but she was already gone. I
locked up; even though it was barely 1000, I felt like the last one awake
in the Yoshiwara. I wiped my eyes and pinned the Skeleton Specter
without a frame, next to the peeling grey door. I threw breakfast
away and went to my desk to catch up on paperwork, but when I thought for
the seventh time how short the walk was to the liquor store at Ridge and
Ardmore, I looked for a daytime AA meeting.
Something made Pam choose last week’s table. “What happened to Marissa?”
“Didn’t work out. I—wasn’t her type.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. I liked her; I thought you made a cute couple.”
“Yah. Me too.” I used to think sobriety fixed everything.