Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (16 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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No Exit Comedy had been THE thing before Crisis Fashion. It

took place in cellars with locked, guarded doors and standup comics

with faces like vultures. Patrons, once they found they were not the evening’s entertainment, would laugh with glee and join the comics

in lashing out at the ones fated to be the victims of savage ridicule.

Julian had tried to find a place there. But as a comic he wasn’t

vicious enough to excite the crowd. And planted among the audience

as a victim, he wasn’t strange or vulnerable enough to bring out the crowd’s bloodlust.

“If there’s something you won’t do for a laugh,” a four-hundred pound comedienne told him, “you got nothing to live for in this business.”

There were many things Julian would not do for a laugh. He

decided to stick to his art.

• 135 •

• Tales That Fairies Tell •

The apartment was empty when he returned, which was the only

good thing that had happened all day. Julian lay on his futon, put his hands over his eyes, and tried not to cry. He was a failure. His father and stepmother lived in a tiny apartment since they’d lost their house and wouldn’t be happy to see him. But there was nowhere and no one

else for him to go back to.

At various times during the year he had shared this apartment,

Julian had brief, separate affairs with both the waitress/composer

and the pedicab driver/dancer. But the waitress didn’t really go for guys and the driver wasn’t all that gay. It turned out the tour guide/

filmmaker could happily accommodate both of them. They formed

an ensemble and tended to ignore Julian.

He was twenty-three with no present and no future. He wasn’t

asleep, so it was in another of the daydream/visions that he saw a

young guy about his age wearing knee pants and a wide, battered

hat. He looked dumb and a bit confused. From a dimly remembered

art history class, Julian guessed the historical period as maybe

seventeenth century.

Then a voice right with him in the apartment said, “The young

man who imagined himself to be my owner.” Julian focused his eyes

and saw Puss before him, standing on his hind legs. The Cat wore—

with considerable panache—ornate leather boots that came up to

his hips, a sheathed sword, and a wide-brimmed cavalier hat with a

white ostrich feather. Julian thought of the Three Musketeers. The

Cat was now the height of a man.

Julian didn’t even ask how the Cat had gotten into the apartment.

He was pretty sure that he’d gone crazy in a kind of baroque-

circa-1700 manner.

“You will not mind my coming in uninvited when I’ve done for

you what I intend. You are an artist, yes?” asked the Cat, “you have drawings, photos, examples of your work?”

Julian shrugged. He indicated the black portfolio case leaning on

the wall next to the futon. Since he was crazed and doomed anyway,

it was easiest to go along with his hallucinations.

• 136 •

• Rick Bowes •

“In your utter despair lies your complete acceptance of fate,” Puss

murmured as he opened the case. “And in that acceptance you will

find your triumph.” Julian watched impassively as the cat pulled out several sketches, some color collages: student work. He also found a headshot or two of the artist.

“These will do and will do nicely,” he announced and tucked them

into a boot.

“Stupid, useless stuff,” Julian looked away.

“Simple! Naïve!! Elegant in their lack of artifice!!!”

Puss strode to the door, turned and bowed. “All this I do in your

service, monsieur.”

Julian heard the door click shut, sank back onto the futon, and fell into the vision-dream again. Except this time he saw it through his

own eyes, felt it with his own skin.

He swam naked in a pond. The trees, the light looked like

something out of a Watteau or Fragonard painting of a formal garden.

It reminded him of nightmares he’d had as a kid of showing up at

school bare-assed.

A carriage pulled up and liveried servants rushed forward, pulled

him out of the water and dressed him in finery. Puss was in the

dream too, cat-sized but wearing the hat and boots and looking very

pleased. Julian remembered the story of the miller’s son and his

magical cat he’d read in his childhood.

3.

Few people on earth, and no one in New York, knew more about the

Politics of Lunch than Angelica Siddons. Some said she attended as

many as four luncheons in a single day. That was just spiteful rumor.

But it was she who decreed where each day’s significant lunch would

be held and who would partake. A recent venue had been a pizza parlor in the Coney Island Safe Zone that had somehow stayed above water

for a hundred years. “A darling little relic,” as a commentator noted.

Anywhere else on Earth, Angelica Siddons would have been a

woman of considerable wealth and some influence. In the Big Apple/

• 137 •

• Tales That Fairies Tell •

Arena she was a goddess and, like any goddess, she could bestow

riches or ruin.

Daughter of billionaires, widow of the last really effective

president of the United States, everyone felt safe in her presence. The bomb detection trucks and cars with armed guards outside whatever

building she was in, the large people always alert and close at hand insured her protection and that of those around her.

The elite and the cameras had followed her to partly submerged

Coney Island, not once or twice, but on half a dozen occasions. By

the time the mobs caught on and followed, Angelica and entourage

no longer found the locale exotic. Unpleasant incidents between

visitors and natives followed. Suicide bombers took out the pizza

parlor. When it was over Coney Island no longer had a safe zone.

By then Angelica Siddons had found other places to lunch. The

most prominent was the radical new Artomat, a combination of

automat and art gallery in Midtown on the West Side. The cuisine

was Western Mediterranean and quite nice in its way.

But the cutting edge of the place was the rows and columns of

glass windows on the walls. Each displayed an art object—a gold

Scythian bracelet, an original Edward Hopper sketch, an exquisite

illustrated eighteenth-century book of fairy tales.

The price of each item was displayed. One pressed an encoded

palm against the window; money was deducted from one’s account.

The window popped open and the object was yours.

Across from Angelica Siddons that day at the Artomat, sat

longtime acquaintance Jack Reynard with his sharp eyes and pointed

face. Beside her was Clemenso, New York’s current exemplar of the

artist/sex object and acclaimed originator of Crisis Fashion.

Around the table, several members of Siddons’ circle chattered on

about a fan one of them had just found behind a glass window and

bought, hoping to impress Angelica, at a rather healthy price. Open, the fan displayed an eighteenth century formal garden at dusk and

a pair of lovers in court dress kissing. Closed, the fan was a sharp dagger.

• 138 •

• Rick Bowes •

It was something the Fox would love, and Reynard did seem

amused. But Clemenso openly sneered at the purchase. Usually

Angelica found his dark and sullen moods amusing as it would then

please her to reassure him of his genius. But earlier that day she’d glanced briefly at Tales the Fairies Tell and found hints of things

unamusing and even tiresome about Clemenso.

His exotic accent made little sense if it was true he came from

New Jersey, and he’d be no genius if the source of his inspiration—in fact, the inventor of Crisis Fashion—was an unattractive boyfriend

he kept carefully hidden (the article hinted at semi-imprisonment).

Reynard the Fox noticed Angelica’s shift in attitude even if Clemenso didn’t.

At that moment neither gossip nor the conversation around her

held Angelica’s attention. She had just become aware of a certain Cat.

Puss walked toward her on his hind legs, more intense and

fascinating than the photos on Tales That Fairies Tell, in his red

leather boots and cavalier hat with a great white feather.

All conversation stopped. The bodyguards stepped forward.

But the Cat halted, swept off his hat and bowed so low to Angelina

Simmons that his head touched his extended leg.

Enchanted, she gestured him forward. Approaching, still bowing,

Puss handed her a small sketch of a young woman under a tree with a

cat beside her. “A gift from my master, the new artist Julian who goes by his own name.” A quick feline glance at Clemenso, who didn’t.

“This reminds him of you and he wishes you to have it, my lady.”

“Why, it’s so . . . ” she glanced briefly at the sketch, then looked at the cat, grasped for the word.

“So honestly simple,” Puss suggested. “That is the way Julian

describes his art. Perhaps ‘simplicity’ is something we should all

embrace.”

Mrs. Siddons looked again at the sketch and asked, “Is the cat you?”

“Perhaps,” he replied, “and perhaps the young lady is you.”

A groan erupted from Clemenso. “This is rubbish,” he said in the

unplaceable accent.

• 139 •

• Tales That Fairies Tell •

Puss caught Angelica Siddons’ expression and both smiled.

She had always known in some corner of her mind that Clemenso

was a fraud. But she’d always assumed he was a more fascinating

fraud.

“This is student work, visual scribbles,” Clemenso said. Puss shook

his head and Mrs. Siddons did the same. Outright plagiarism and the

financial misdeeds hinted at in
TTFT
article went without saying at that moment in this place. But failure to understand that one’s time was over was simply unforgiveable.

Jack Reynard had disappeared from the table without any human

noticing before Angelica invited Puss to sit beside her.

4
.

Julian tried not to worry about hallucinations and nervous breakdown or to panic about what he was going to do next. He’d avoided looking at his phone. But when he opened his palm and saw the number of

messages, Julian sat up.

Many were from names he didn’t know. One of the first was the

tour guide/filmmaker who hardly spoke to him in person.

“IS THIS YOU?” it began. Pasted in was a quote from a recent

Tales That Fairies Tell
update. “Simplicity is today’s meme. And Julian is the name.” With it was the drawing of the girl and the cat.

Other messages followed. One stood out: From Jack Reynard

at Fox Productions. “Your name came up at lunch with Angelica

Siddons,” it read. “Here’s a number if you’re not too busy.”

The Fox, producer of Macabre Dance, on his phone! Julian’s head

spun. How wrong he must have been about Reynard getting him

fired! He called and by chance Jack Reynard turned out to be in the

vicinity. “Be by shortly. I assume you have your portfolio.”

As if drawn by scent or psychic power, Julian’s roommates, the

waitress/composer, the pedicab driver/dancer, even the tour guide/

filmmaker had found his or her way back to the apartment. They

showed him online updates.

The Fairy Godmothers sidebar in
TTFT
indicated The artist

• 140 •

• Rick Bowes •

called Julian, lucky boy, may just have acquired the wondrous Mrs.

Siddons as Godmother and our own Puss as a Fairy Godfather!

As Julian tried to absorb all this, a buzzer sounded; a knock came

at the door and the Fox entered, smiling and red haired. The light was on in the tour guide’s camera as she filmed the arrival. The pedicab driver and the waitress hurried to give him their seats, offered to take his coat. The tall woman, coiled like a whip, who came in with him,

stood at the door and watched everyone.

Only the whimsy was on display that afternoon. The blade was

hidden. Jack Reynard chuckled, “Reminds me of my very first

apartment in the city.” He refused refreshments, only had time to

glance at the images and portfolio.

He appraised, nodded, murmured, “Ah, I see what the Cat saw.”

Julian suddenly remembered Puss. As if he understood that, Jack

Reynard smiled and said, “I ran into him a couple of hours ago. Puss and I are old companions . . . old partners.”

He spread his palm, lifted it, and an image flashed on the wall.

The waitress and the pedicab driver pulled the blinds down. Julian

saw an eighteenth century park, avenues of graceful trees, summer

light, figures in embroidered silk, and women seated on green grass

in the background. It looked like a Watteau landscape, but it was a

photograph.

In the foreground were two figures with elaborate wigs, clothes,

and festive masks. At first glance they were human. But Puss and

Reynard, Cat and Fox, were visible behind the masks if one looked

closer. The glance they shared was predatory, like two pirates

preparing to make everything they saw theirs.

Reynard had chosen a selection of Julian’s work.

“Don’t worry. He’ll expect me to take over as your agent/advisor.”

The Fox made a sign, indicated Julian’s phone. A contract was on the screen. “A simple agreement. Believe me, the Cat will understand.”

His smile was infectious.

Julian had never signed a contract before. In a daze he okayed it.

The figure at the door said a single word and not in English. Suddenly

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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