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Authors: Ashley Warlick

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BOOK: The Arrangement
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She watched the first pale bands blue the sky outside her window.

She whispered, “Can you hear it yet?”

“Aren’t we too far from town?”

“Listen,” she said. “You can still hear it.”

Together, they strained their ears for the tinny peal of joy on the trumpet. Mary Frances could feel her chest filling with anxiety, all that was to come in the months ahead.

“I love you, Al,” she whispered, and he said he loved her too.

Laurel Canyon, California

1935

W
hen they arrived, the driveway was empty. They stepped into the foyer, found a note on the table by the telephone: Gigi had a screen test this afternoon, and then an event at the studio until late. They should make themselves at home. Mary Frances’s relief was all too clear.

“Are you all right, dear?” Al said. “You aren’t sick, are you?”

“The car was too stuffy. I’ll be fine.”

She looked down the long hallway to the bedrooms. She wondered how long she would have to stay in this house before Tim was the second or third thing she thought about when she looked down that hall, before that night faded entirely.

There was another letter for them on the hall table, propped against a vase of chrysanthemums as big as baseballs. Tim’s handwriting was slanted and loopy, elegant, familiar. Mary Frances reached for the envelope, thinking of his blue ink across her pages. If she wrote him back tonight—though that would be ridiculous, desperate, what would she talk about, his empty house, his wife?—if she wrote him back tonight, there might be a reply by Saturday.

She handed the letter to Al, and he tucked it away into his breast pocket, left her standing in the hall.

She lit a cigarette. Her hands were shaking. She looked out the sidelights at the Chrysler parked in the driveway, everything they needed packed into the back, their lives, their boxes and bags. There was almost nothing they could not leave behind. Damn California, damn all of this.

There was no ashtray in the hall. She could not stop shaking.

“You want a drink?” she called. “Al?”

“A drink? Now?”

“Or not.” She could get one herself; she was perfectly capable.

The kitchen was big and white, a refrigerator hulking in the corner. She opened the door to a gasp of ripe air, ice furred on the freezer box: a quart of milk, two eggs, a sack of oranges with a Christmas greeting printed on the label. She quickly closed the door again. It was almost as though she’d made a knot in time. She was going through Tim’s house to find something to do, something to start and finish and direct herself upon, but all she kept coming up against was how there would be no Tim here, not anymore, not to eat these oranges or peel these eggs or make her a goddamn drink.

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Al leaned against the counter, chewing on a swizzle stick.

“Where’d you get that?” she said.

“Tim’s studio. He’s got a whole collection of them.”

“Are you going to work in the studio?”

“I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t know.”

Al said this heavily, as though she were asking some kind
of existential question instead of a logistical one, and maybe she was. It remained to be seen which of them would lay claim to the space and time and materials of being a writer. Something had changed when Mary Frances got paid for her article about Laguna, but neither of them had said what, or how.

Al left the swizzle stick on the counter, went back out to the car, and brought their suitcases inside.

Later that evening he stacked all Tim’s canvases to face the walls of the studio, their framed backs to him, cleared a space on the worktable, and opened the case of his typewriter. His manuscript to the left, clean paper to the right, his notebook open and ready, but Al stood at the window, looking out.

He could not stop thinking of his father, the cathode ray treatments; his mother said the skin on his neck was sloughing away. When Al was a child, he’d had scarlet fever; when his mother lifted him from the bed, the skin from underneath his arms came off in sheets, and he could not remember a greater pain—surely he’d felt one, but now his mind was working to find something empathetic in his father’s illness and would not budge.

Nobody knew, really, what happened inside the human body. It wasn’t as if mucking around in there taught us anything more than what we could see, the parts moving, beating, holding everything together. It was a glorious design, perhaps impenetrable. And yet everything the doctors could think of to cure his father’s cancer was virtually invisible.

He sometimes thought
The Ghost in the Underblows
had begun like that. Al would arrive at the Café de Paris after morning classes, order his cassis, and sit to write. He wrote
until his fingers cramped, and the poem was always pushing, grabbing all his thoughts for itself, and you couldn’t see it, but god, it ate time. He would look up from the page to find his cassis untouched, the lunch hour come and gone, and he would run back to Mary Frances.

She would have something waiting for him in the little tin oven, and after lunch he would kiss her—the passion, too, it came from the poem, from the lunch, from the streets outside their tiny rooms that were as old as the first streets ever made by man—and he would promise to come straight home from afternoon classes, straight home. She would cling to his hand, laughing, telling him to hurry, telling him to write some more.

He had not felt that way in a long time, and he had no idea if he ever would again.

He reached into his breast pocket and took out Tim’s letter. He was planning to leave Delaware this summer for a trip through England. He needed to clear his mind, he said. Shake off the darker perspective. Such a luxury, Al thought, to be able to leave your life behind and keep leaving it.

The letter was also for Mary Frances. Tim asked for her essays so that he might show them to his older sister, Claire. Tim and Claire had written and illustrated a half-dozen children’s books together before she’d moved on to Harper and a string of novels you could find in any bookshop across the country. Tim thought Claire might be of help in finding Mary Frances a publisher for her work.

Al stared out the window of the studio, into the scalloped landscape of the backyard. He needed a new perspective, because lately all he was thinking about was money and how he
didn’t have it, his father and how he was dying, his ardor and how it had dried up. He had time, three weeks before tutoring began, he had paper and ribbon for his typewriter and space, a wife who didn’t ask much of him. That had been his hope in the beginning of their marriage; Mary Frances was always able to entertain herself. He had admired that once, but it seemed suspect now.

He shut out the light in the studio. The door was cracked to the hall bathroom, and inside, Mary Frances readied herself for bed, her hair held back from her face with a ribbon, cold cream white along her jawline. She bent to fill her palms with water, the curve of her hip silhouetted in the sheer fabric of her nightgown, and he wanted to press himself against her, to feel all that humid, furtive rush he remembered from those afternoons in France. He stood watching her a long time, but nothing came to him.

*   *   *

Mary Frances woke to a great banging racket. It took her a moment to find herself in the darkness, the unfamiliar room and the sounds coming from corners she could not place. She tilted her watch from the nightstand; it was two a.m.

She rolled over. Al’s eyes caught hers before he pretended to be asleep again, and so she had no choice but to go, as she always would have, and see what was the matter with Gigi.

The kitchen was a crime scene. The refrigerator door stood open and dripping, a tempered glass container of leftover yellowness shattered on the floor, puddles of soapy water, ammonia. The faucet was running, overspilling a bucket placed beneath the spout, but Gigi sat at the table in a pretty
pink dress, high heels, her hair waved back from her face as though she were preparing for an evening’s entertainments, not just returning from them. She was smoking a cigarette, tapping her ash into a tented gum wrapper on the cherry print cloth.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s all right. I was up.” Mary Frances bent to pick up the pieces of glass at her feet. The yellowness on the floor was thick and curdled.

“I’ll get that,” Gigi said. “I’m just so clumsy tonight.”

But she sat with her hands clasped against her pink skirt, her stagy poise pronounced enough to read across the room. Mary Frances caught a bank of perfume: verbena, lemon, heavy flowers. Gigi thanked her for coming to her rescue.

“I think this will be exciting. Don’t you?” she said. “Like a pajama party. It was Timmy’s idea, of course, but immediately I could see the bright side. I owe you a great deal.”

“Oh. Al and I are happy to help.”

“But you”—Gigi reached out and put a hand to her arm—“you have made this so much easier.”

“Given time, everything gets easier.”

Gigi smiled. “Please. Make yourself at home.”

Mary Frances wished she would not say that again; this was not her home. But now it wasn’t Gigi’s either. Her perfume was overwhelming, and Mary Frances went to shut off the faucet. She pulled two juice glasses from the cabinet. She reached into a cabinet beside the sink for a pint of apple brandy that had been tucked away under the dishtowels, and from the pantry, a sleeve of Saltine crackers, a tin of pâté.

“I see Gloria visits here, too,” she said.

“With her strange bottles and jars of, I don’t know, stuff. What is that anyway?”


Alouette, gentille Alouette
. It’s skylark.”

Gigi propped her brow on the heel of her hand. Her cigarette was out. Mary Frances poured her a short brandy, herself a larger one.

“You’re so smart, Mary Frances. Just so
smart
. The glasses, the food—you know where everything is, how to find just what you’re looking for in my house.”

Mary Frances felt the blood in her face; she could not stop it. Gigi drew on the dead cigarette, then studied the unlit end, her expression horribly opaque.

“In my house, for goodness sake,” she said.

Mary Frances knew she ought to apologize, to thank her for her discretion or maybe burst into tears, but her mind had turned cold and quick in another direction. Gigi knew, she would tell others, and the truth would run like a ladder in a stocking. It was only a matter of time, and if there was a shape Mary Frances wanted this to take, the time was now.

“I can’t stop thinking about him,” Mary Frances said.

Gigi came fast across the table, her face bleary and willful and no longer remote, coming up on her elbows, the pink bodice of her dress gaping open. She upset the glasses, brandy rolling and dripping to the floor, and took both Mary Frances’s hands into her own.

“You know it’s not that you did what you did, right? Whatever you did. Whatever you did . . .” Gigi was shaking her head. “If I wanted him, I’d still have him. I could have him back.”

“But you don’t.”

Gigi laughed sharply. “What are you talking about?”

“Want him. You don’t.”

Gigi smirked at the overturned glasses, her scripted moment already spilled out.

“I feel sorry for you,” she said. She pushed herself up and away, the swish of silk and the taps of her heels steady down the dark hall.

Mary Frances looked at the mess on the table, the mess on the floor. She was sure Gigi did feel sorry for her, and angry and betrayed, but also exposed, frightened, and passionately distracted herself. Someplace in all that, Mary Frances thought she could find her sympathy. At the least, her sense of pragmatism. If Gigi sought revenge with Al, she and Al would leave her here alone, and this little arrangement to save her standing at the studio would fail; but Mary Frances knew the most dangerous thing she could do would be to say so. She balled up the cherry print cloth, took the bucket from the sink, found the mop. If she didn’t do it now, she had the feeling it would just be waiting for her in the morning.

*   *   *

Driving down the canyon, she passed men walking the berm of the highway, their caps pulled low against the florid sunrise, their hands in their pockets. The radio went on and on about the hitchhikers, the police officers dispatched to the state line to keep the tides back, but that didn’t seem to change the fact that people were there, and needed work, and would walk to where they thought they could get it if nobody would give them a ride. Still, Mary Frances couldn’t stop. She was alone, and this wasn’t Whittier, where everybody knew her father.

The city pushed itself out of the valley, a sleek web of
boulevards and date palms and oleander, insistent, overdressed, a city like a nervous widow. She drove slowly, circling, the streets still empty of cars.

The farmer’s market was on Third and Fairfax; it gave off the stink of cows. There were knots of people, the kind who bartered for bruised tomatoes, neck bones and pork rind, their rosy children clinging to their skirts. Men leaned against the open tailgates of their trucks, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, dogs circling, and low clouds overhead, blackening with rain. She could not shop in a place like this without thinking of Dijon.

The way Al lost himself, first to his studies, then to his teaching job, his poem, she had lost herself in those market stalls, her lists, her basket clutched in her hand, her endless questions of what to do with how much. In that, Al had been the perfect companion, her fellow traveler.

The market smelled of hay and roasted nuts; she bought a newspaper cone of almonds from a woman stirring them over an open fire. She bought thick sandy leeks, a rope of garlic and a pound of tomatoes; she bought a long
batard
of sourdough bread, a dozen bluish speckled eggs, a jar of cream, because now she had a refrigerator and could keep such things for more than an hour or two. She lifted the paper lid of the cream and tasted it, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand; she remembered the pillowy clouds of Gruyère grated onto her piece of waxed paper at Les Halles, the cheese maker young and handsome and milk-fed himself; he tried to teach her the French for being in love with him:
mon cocotte, mon chouchou, ma petit lapin
,
Madame, s’il vous plaît.

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