The chameleon mirror
“I know now that any influence I may have upon the world will be the result of the example I set and not because of my words.” –Henry Miller
On Tuesday night, Fred gave his first dinner party.
Esmeralda, as always, arrived first, early, while Fred was still busy in the kitchen. She came in to greet him with a big hug and a smooch.
“Entertain our guest,” he commanded Ike from his cloud of steam, waving a pair of tongs toward the rest of the house.
Ike and Esmeralda beat a retreat to the living room. As they passed the dining room table, she noticed manila envelopes on each plate with their names in bold black letters.
“Fred’s idea of place settings,” Ike murmured.
“Too bad about Colin, hunh?” she said, making herself comfortable in Fred’s chair. “You know, right? I guess you guys were out last night.”
“No, we know,” Ike said, but in such a way, with his eyes on his feet, that she thought it best to talk about something else.
“I was really happy to meet your girlfriend Sunday night.”
Ike glanced up again. She wasn’t teasing, just smiling happily at him. It was safe to smile back. Ten minutes later, Constantia and Paulette arrived. Ike opened the door for them: Con pecking him on the cheek and saying a clipped “hello” to Esmeralda as she headed, cooing, toward Fred in the kitchen; Paulette pulled Ike close, belly to belly, kissing him hard. Once he was suitably breathless, she shoved the door closed and dropped onto the couch.
“Great boots,” she said to Esmeralda. A squeal of laughter erupted from the kitchen.
Esmeralda lifted a tightly-laced foot. “Thanks. I envy you yours…”
Ike place a hand on the thigh-high suede in question, as Paulette lifted her foot toward Esmeralda, both women turning ankles to admire Esmeralda’s kitten heels and Paulette’s stilettos.
“They comfortable?” Esmeralda asked.
“For me, they are,” Paulette said, patting Ike’s hand.
Constantia appeared in the room again. “Fred wants us at the table now.”
They all stood at once, though Ike kicked both feet from under Paulette, toppling her back into the couch.
“Ha ha,” she said, pointing one of her toes at his crotch.
Wrapping a hand over that insole, Ike reached out a hand to help her up, releasing the foot only when she was vertical again.
“Later,” she whispered, rapping a nail against his lips. Ike grinned at her, and at Constantia, who was staring at them warily.
Esmeralda circled the table looking for her name on the envelopes, settling in between Constantia and Ike. She was thinking about Yule, disappointed that Dakarai Bes had not revealed any great wisdom to them, but had instead drunk a profound amount of elixir and asked a hundred questions about their coven, rituals and creed, about which, of course, she’d been only too happy to oblige. Bes had talked to each of her sisters separately—many had called over the last two days to talk about those conversations —to Fred and his girlfriend, Constantia, a really sweet kid, if obsessively jealous, even to the two giggling teenagers, by whom she’d seemed especially charmed, making them each feel, and she felt it herself, loved and cared for. The only ones Bes had seemed to ignore were Ike and Paulette, who sunk into the corner of the couch together to watch the proceedings, fixed and silent. They were an odd pair: clearly taken with each other, they had neither talked nor twitched a muscle, his arm wrapped around her waist, her head on his shoulder, just as they’d come in the door, just as they’d found the farthest place to huddle, mute and isolated from the group. To be fair, Ike had look stoned, with a dumb-fuck look she’d never seen in him before, and she did think that Paulette startled a bit once, and looked up at Ike, who didn’t notice. Esmeralda had turned to Bes, to see if she was the origin of that aberrant reaction, and she probably was, but whatever transpired, Esmeralda had missed.
Now here they were again, seated beside each other, Paulette in a series of animated gestures that passed for conversation between long-time friends, that is, with Constantia who was seated across the round table from her. A little of what all that portended must have passed to Ike, who somehow managed to draw Constantia’s attention, like a shockwave, first in consternation, and then in laughter. While they grinned at each other, Paulette reached over and squeezed Ike’s hand briefly, which did not escape her friend’s appreciative eye. They must be new lovers.
And then there was Fred.
Constantia was holding court in a wing-back chair, perfectly at ease with Fred busting his ass in the kitchen while she socialized. The other two were like a hinge; they folded and unfolded together, while Fred and Constantia stood opposed, a lover’s tennis match where someone wins and someone loses. Constantia looked the part of the possessive queen, at home in her setting, possibly overdoing it, though she did seem happy. When Fred glanced at her she did not notice, which was sad because she tried so often to catch his eye. Fred, who had been so distraught when they were at odds last month, gave her only a brief peck as he passed. It made Esmeralda uneasy; he was always so demonstrative with her, making her glad that she had been early and this poor kid hadn’t been subjected to the spectacle of a more affectionate greeting than she was accustomed to getting. Well, what they got up to in the kitchen earlier was anyone’s guess, and Constantia was the one who’d be sleeping with Fred tonight, not her. Give to Rome what is Rome’s due. Or something like that.
Constantia picked up her envelope, turned it around, tested the seal with a fingernail. Paulette looked at Ike.
“Do you know what this is?”
Ike called into the kitchen. “Fred, the natives are restless!”
Constantia’s eyes narrowed on him in accusation. “You do know then?”
He stared back at her, his mouth firmly closed. Paulette reached over, grabbed his pinky and yanked it backward.
“Goddamn it,” he hissed, venting from the sudden pain. He fixed Paulette with a brutal stare. “Go ahead, break it. I dare you.”
They stared each other down, but she didn’t let up the pressure.
“Will you kindly not maim my guests?” Fred said mildly as he came in with a tray of chilled champagne glasses. The sparkling crystal and its golden contents distracted his guests.
After handing around the glasses, he raised his own. “I would like to make a toast. This is the last day of Saturnalia, and I am happy to be sharing it with my best friends. Yo, Saturnalia!”
“Yo, Saturnalia!” was echoed back in a chorus of voices and the glasses clinked around and across the table before their contents were sampled. Ike drank his down, causing Fred to retrieve the bottle from the kitchen, which he placed in front of Ike, who refilled and waited.
“It is customary to give gifts during Saturnalia, as Ike and Esmeralda know, and therefore, I plan to make one more gift.” He paused, sipped his champagne appreciatively, admiring its sun-like effervescence. He turned back to the group, looking into the eyes of each one, Ike last of all. They exchanged a sympathetic grimace, and Fred continued.
“What you don’t know is that 17 days ago, I won the Powerball.”
He paused intentionally, and it was good that he did because the uproar warranted it. Constantia was on her feet, mouth hanging open, speechless; Esmeralda had merely gasped, her eyes brimming with tears; while Ike drank off the second glass of champagne. Paulette refilled it, and seemed the only one capable of speech.
“You have got to be shitting me,” she said.
“I shit you not.”
“You’ve won three lotteries in the space of three months?”
“That describes it rather well, yes. Inside those envelopes, you’ll find a lot of fancy legal and financial documents that you’ll want to stash eventually in a safe-deposit box. For now, I can tell you that each one is a gift of approximately one million dollars to do with as you wish.”
With this, Paulette toppled onto Ike’s shoulder, crying hard tears. Esmeralda crushed a hand against her lips to quell a similar outburst, and that hand was shaking. Fred met her eyes and smiled; they’d spoken of the Connor Art Field difficulties, so he had a notion of her plans.
Constantia, who had been glowering at Fred from the moment the bomb dropped, now rounded on him.
“You didn’t tell me!” she said, shoving him in the chest with the heel of her hand. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Fred smiled gently down at her. “It took some time to get this all worked out. Besides, and you’ll all know what I mean soon enough, it can be a little hard to take in at first.”
Ike pulled away from stroking Paulette’s face long enough to say, “Con, he passed out; dropped straight to the floor the moment we knew. I was afraid he’d had a heart attack.”
“We knew. You knew?” Paulette said thickly. Constantia provided back-up with a swift smack to the back of Ike’s head.
“Yeah, I did. Good thing I was with him, too.”
“That’s why you were in Harrisburg…” Paulette said, pulling herself together as the gears in her brain began to mesh again. She swiped at her cheeks and sniffed once to clear the tears.
“That’s why.” He looked down to see her hand once more wrap around his and he folded them together.
Constantia sat down, more confused now than angry. “My God… a million dollars?”
“More or less. It was the smallest Powerball jackpot since 2005, and there were three winners. “
“If I remember the exact figure, you each will receive close to $1,166,015.39.”
“I’d be willing to wager that’s exactly the figure,” Ike said.
“How much you willing to wager?” Paulette challenged, which made everyone laugh at last.
“Anyway,” Fred said. “You’ll need to find a good financial planner or accountant to help you manage this. I have a few suggestions, if you want them. It’s hard to know the right thing when the stakes get so big, but I hope I have not done wrong. Money can ruin people; what I want is to set you free. Please accept my gift to you. Communitas Felix!”
They muttered the toast and drank, and Fred brought in shrimp cocktail. The feasting began.
Ike leaned in toward Paulette. “Please say yes.”
“To what?” She was rewarded by seeing Ike’s face freeze in terror. “Me either, lover,” she said, rubbing his knee. “Let it be. But yes. If Fred’s crazy, I’ll be crazy, too.”
She looked up at Fred. “Thanks. It’s nuts, but it’s cool.”
“What will you do with it?”
“Buy a house maybe, I don’t know…” She thought for a moment. “I think I’ll consider it my “fuck you” money.”
Constantia frowned, turning on Ike. “How about you?”
“Well, I’ve kinda been spending it already. I’m getting ready to build a house—for one of Pauli’s friends.”
“Your dad is going to be sorry he didn’t bring you into the business,” Esmeralda said.
“No he won’t!” Ike and Fred chorused at once.
“Just as well,” Ike added. “Probably best I don’t have any boss at all.”
Constantia finally couldn’t hold it in any more. “I want to go on a cruise! Some place warm so I can lay in the sun, with lots of food and booze, where I’ll be pampered like a princess.” She nibbled at her shrimp cocktail. “You can come, too, Fred.”
“My pleasure,” he said, bowing his shoulders toward her. “Though, for myself, I’d prefer to avoid the packaged Spectacle—perhaps a Caribbean island or southern beach or maybe a windjammer cruise where they teach you to sail…”
Constantia wrinkled up her nose.
“Or Mexico,” Fred suggested. “Fly to Texas and drive down the eastern coast. A road trip.”
Ike was smiling, but Con bit her lip. “Maybe…”
“You are merely having trouble picturing it, but we’d rent a Jeep, put the top down, take it easy, going wherever we wanted. It’s not the destination: it’s the trip. You and I traveling together, seeing a little of the life of the people there…”
Constantia’s eyes had glazed over.
“How about you, Esmeralda?” Ike asked, trying to change the subject. “Something for your girls?”
“I don’t think so. I’ll likely be funding an art installation.”
“You’re an artist?” Con asked, coming back to herself.
“Oh, no! Not me. But I know a deserving one.”
Even Con recognized the light in her eyes, though Esmeralda smiled stiffly, drinking off the last of her champagne.
She felt melancholy seeping in where there had been elation before, but perhaps, when she broke the news to Stewart, the happiness would resurface. Or would it? Maybe she was allowing the discordance of the two lovers in front of her to embody the fear in her own bones. So far, she had not told Monteith that the funding was gone, mainly because she was not yet prepared to believe the project was dead. But if she was going to front the money, which she could well afford to do now, she’d have to tell him the whole story. Would he let her do it? Her heart was telling her no. Monteith was a proud, independent man who would not want to feel beholden to her. If he did, there was no hope of a relationship; if she let the project die, he might never come back to the States, and the attraction would fade away. When she faced it like this, she knew it was hopeless—and always had been. She wished… oh, hell, what did it matter? She would supply the money to build the project; the earth would be lovelier and luckier for one more masterpiece and she’d busy herself with her silly little life. And so it was.
Ike offered to refill her champagne and she let him. The comfort she longed for was to look into the glowing face of Dakarai Bes again. She always knew the right thing to say. The bitter thought that the money offered her neither form of desired solace made her feel for Fred. Poor messed-up revolutionary.
“Oh, certainly you could live on this money, if you act prudently,” Fred was saying, continuing on from whatever she had missed in her reverie. “Regardless, it will allow you to pay debts, buy a house, go back to school, travel, start a business, help someone.”
“What about you?” Esmeralda asked, rejoining the party. “You do have part of it, right?”
“The same as you. I can live on the interest, especially with the house is paid off, but I’ll probably look for some sort of job in the spring.”
“Yeah, to hack off an entirely new set of people,” Ike chuckled.
“Huh! What’s going on with FKRS? They were on KDKA this evening.” Constantia said.
“No kidding? Again?” Ike asked.
“Radnor, Colin Radnor—died in an accident yesterday,” Fred said.
Ike was filling his glass again. “Colin,” he said raising the glass, and promptly drank it down.
“Oh my God!” Constantia squealed, a hand coming up over mouth. Her voice was more hushed when she spoke again. “No, FKRS is bankrupt or something, I think.”
Ike dropped the glass with a loud clatter. “What?!” He looked up at Fred, who promptly turned away. “What the fuck, Fred?”
“As a fiduciary in the matter, there’s nothing I can say.”
“The hell you can’t,” Constantia said, her inner banshee rising. “Goddamn it, Fred! Answer him. Enough with the secrets already.”
“You no longer have a job,” he said, but it was to Esmeralda that he was speaking.
She had to laugh. All the worries were now moot; the project was done. Or was it? Perhaps, just perhaps, she could come in as a benefactor and get the damn thing built, on her own terms. A slow wicked grin spread across her face.
“See?” Con said, “Wasn’t I right when I was afraid you’d lose your job?”
“But that was because of Saturnalia—“
“That’s what I thought it was; all I knew was that you’d lose your job.”
Fred gazed at her with patient amusement. Esmeralda looked up at him, then back at Constantia. “Do you read the future?”
“Read?” she shrugged. “I guess I see it—or feel it—or something.”
“Do you know anything about Tarot?”
“Ooh, no! Can you do them? I’ve always wanted to have my cards done.”
Esmeralda retrieved the cards from her bag and began to explain them to Constantia.
“Hey, Fred,” Ike’s voice cut in urgently. He’d resumed his sentinel post in front of the television. Fred turned from the unsettling vision of Constantia cozying up to Esmeralda for some happy fortune-telling, and sure enough, FKRS was at the top of the hour.
“After 35 years, one of the city’s largest, and arguably most prestigious architecture firms is out of business. The exact reasons are not forthcoming, although coming in the wake of the tragic death of one of the firm’s founders, Colin Radnor, there is a great deal of speculation. Ed Krasnoski made this statement: “It’s a sad day for me to see this firm close its doors. We are proud of the work we have done and have the highest hopes for all our colleagues as they move on in their careers.” He was unwilling to make further comment.”
“Other architects in town were eager to speculate.”
A man with gray hair and wire-frame glasses looked up into the camera. “I heard it was all money-related—you know, bad investment. The market crashed and left them with no working capital, or something.”
A blonde woman with bland good looks appeared on screen, with a microphone thrust toward her face and a subtitle that read Amy Whitley. “Impropriety. Absolutely. IF you know some of the personalities involved you’ll know someone was up to no good.”
“I know her!” Ike said. “She’s a student at CMU, pretty smart, I thought. Who the hell does she know at FKRS?”
“And that one’s Fred…?” Constantia was saying in the background.
“Very likely—unless you’ve been having private communication with some other tall, dark-eyed man,” Esmeralda replied, her voice rife with innuendo.
Fred whipped around to hear more of that, but two new faces appeared on the TV screen, a smiling Asian man in a neat pink dress shirt and a young woman in huge sunglasses that overwhelmed her thin face. Ike didn’t know either of them; when asking their opinion, the reporter mentioned a big firm up on Sixth.
“I heard Amanda Franklin wanted out—without her, they’re nothing,” the man was saying.
The woman leaned toward the microphone that was still aimed at her companion. “Yeah, anyway, I think she’s dating a construction worker.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I saw her!”
Fred shut it off when the next story cued about a fire in Lincoln-Larimer.
“They were arguing with each other, on television!” Fred sputtered. “As if what the news lacks is a dose of so-called reality programming’s socially inept hysteria.”
“Poor Colin Radnor,” Constantia said from the dining room. “I wonder what happened to him?”
Ike and Fred looked at each other.
“An accident,” Ike said.
“The Spectacle eats its own,” Fred concluded. “Consider yourselves warned. Spend to change the world, spend for freedom. Follow your desires; know yourself. Accept the real. That’s what Bes taught me. It’s the best I’ve got.”
Money really didn’t change anything, he realized, watching his friends debate with each other about the news. He gazed down at the cards spread on the dining room table, his eyes falling on one called The Wheel of Fortune. It was only a mirror. The struggle to make your way in a crazy world, facing what you did not, could not understand, none of that changed. It was the way of things, the way of being alive.
And it suited him fine.
Find the beginning of the story here.