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Authors: Ashley Warlick

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BOOK: The Arrangement
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“Second.”

“You waste your time with someone else’s busywork.”

“You’d do it, if Al asked you to.”

“Ah. Yes. I would.”

And there they were again, at the heart of it. Tim leaned forward, his face unfocused, one square hand folded back against his cheek, idly rolling a marking pen across the tabletop. Her skin prickled, waiting for whatever he had come to say.

“I never told you about the tearoom, did I?” he said.

“No.”

“When Gigi and I first came to California, it had been my thinking to open a
thé dansant
, like she and I had loved in Paris before we married.”

He’d followed Gigi to Paris after her mother had discovered them without their lesson books, Gigi’s braids unraveled and her head in his lap, and it hadn’t mattered that he wanted to marry her. Her parents took her that night. It was a week before Tim could find a way to follow. He was a younger man then, France still fresh in his mind from his tenure in a field hospital, bearing litters, boxing coffins, moving effects from one wet pallet to the next and wasting away from hunger. Since the war, he’d written a novel, he’d taken up and put down his paints, he drank too much to measure, and then one day there was Gigi in her father’s study, her braids and red ribbons, her naughty smile. She hadn’t cared to hide it, or
hadn’t known she should have, too young to conceive of consequences until they struck.

In Paris, the
thé dansant
had been an easy dodge; an afternoon dance sounded wholesome and cultured, even in light of the fact that Latin studies had once seemed wholesome too. Tim met her chaperone at the door with a box of chocolates and a ticket to the talkies, and found himself with two hours of Gigi’s time, whenever he pleased.

She was a beautiful dancer, tiny and lithe. He liked the attention they drew, his hair already white, Gigi barely more than a girl. Her dresses had been her sister’s and hung loose on her frame, her feelings about undergarments ambivalent, and so Tim was left with the velvety rasp of too much fabric beneath his hand, and her wide blue eyes tipped up at him.

“Marry me tomorrow,” he would say. “Marry me tonight.”

She laughed, her eyes slipping closed; everything she did seemed like she was doing it for the very first time. “What’s the hurry? And we have tickets to the opera anyway.”

“We can go to the opera, too, if you like.”

“Oh, yes, Timmy. You come tonight. I’ll sneak away and meet you in the lobby, and you can whisk me off to the catacombs in the cellar. You can keep me prisoner. You can make me sing for you.”

“Will you meet me tonight?”

Gigi laughed. “Of course.”

But she always said that, and there was only so much she could do. The potted palms cast long shadows across the floor of tiled stars, the whole idea of afternoon disappearing in wafts of smoke and La Baker on the phonograph when the
orchestra took their set break. Tim led Gigi to a little table in the darkest corner and a waiter brought their tea, a cart piled high with frosted, jammy tarts. Gigi with her sweet tooth, her mouth tasted of cream. The war dissolved, and France was beautiful again.

It only seemed natural they could do the same in Hollywood.

“At four o’clock,” Tim said, “the band would break and I’d warm a long row of teapots on the bar. These friends of Gigi’s would sit still for tea. It was like watching a herd of gazelles, a school of fish; they changed direction suddenly and held.”

Now his hands hovered above the table, mesmerized.

He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and pulled out Mary Frances’s typescript she’d left the night they spent together, his notes scrawled across the page in blue ink.

“I remembered those gazelles, reading this. That tearoom. What you’ve written is good, and not because you understand history or the importance of Lucullus and what the Romans put in their wine. But because it’s about you.”

He held her gaze.

“A moment in time,” he said. “Arrested, at the table.”

“Thank you,” she said.

But he waved her off, reaching for Al’s papers and the marking pen. “You, write,” he said. “I can do this as well as you can.” He opened the composition on the top of the stack.

Mary Frances closed her eyes, pressing the heels of her hands against them. He spoke so easily of his life with Gigi, and what he made of it, what he’d lost, without shame or
anger, without anything to cloud his story. They weren’t negotiating some new lesson or exercise, but talking like equals. Which part of all this made them equals?

She looked down at his notes, lines underscored and crossed out, the questions he asked: why this and not that, and how much is enough? He urged her to be specific and clear, the fine dots and points of his handwriting filling the pages. But as she reread the essay, it was clear the person on the page was a dim version of her now, Mary Frances from before. She wanted to seem smarter than that, confident and unflappable, and she could seem any way she wanted.

She took out a clean sheet of paper and began again.

The first kitchen she’d known was on Painter Avenue in Whittier, before Rex and Edith moved to the Ranch on the outskirts of town. The first time she’d had that kitchen to herself, her parents gone for the evening in a cloud of smoke and French perfume, her sister Anne left in her care—that first dinner, Mary Frances made eggs.

She conducted the meal from beginning to end, eggs boiled and cracked on the countertop, peeled and sliced into a casserole dish with a measure of her grandmother’s white sauce, a sauce the flavor and consistency of paste. At the last minute, Mary Frances had spotted the curry powder in its dark green tin, and she didn’t think about her grandmother’s recipe anymore but added the curry to the white sauce until the scent of it filled the kitchen.

When they ate, she and Anne, young enough to still wear pinafores, were set on fire. They drank enough milk to make themselves sick, ate enough eggs to escape being scolded for wasting food, but blisters rose inside their lips, and Mary
Frances spent the rest of the evening promising a great deal of chocolate in exchange for Anne’s silence. But she had learned about pride. She learned about respect for things you knew nothing about.

Across the table, Tim leaned over some girl’s musings, his eyes squinted at the paper as though to better discern her point.

“What happened to your tearoom?” she asked.

His face lifted to hers as if she’d struck him.

“I couldn’t keep it going,” he said.

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

He nodded. He seemed to be trying to remember what he’d just been doing, and she felt a stroke of jealousy for Gigi, for the history they’d shared, and the pain it was causing him to lose it.

She stood, began to gather up her things. She felt herself, inexplicably, smiling.

“Mary Frances,” he said. “I need a favor.”

She sat back down. “What now?”

The collar of his shirt was frayed; if he asked, she would mend it. She would throw herself at him again and again until he caught her. She couldn’t stand to feel this way.

“There’s a lunch counter around the corner. I’m famished. Aren’t you famished?

“I can’t think.”

“So we’ll eat something. I’ve done too much thinking myself.”

He unfolded himself from the table and held out his hand for her satchel. His gesture was easy and elegant, but she took his arm and felt her touch go all the way through him, as if he
were made of feathers and air, no more next to her than a ghost.

*   *   *

A few days later, Al took Tim to the station for his train to Delaware and waited with him on the platform. It was the earliest train back east, and all along the platform there were couples parting: mothers and children, men and women, some of whom bore the same studio features as Gigi, near glimpses of her everywhere.

Al reached into his breast pocket for his handkerchief and offered it to Tim.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

Al had never seen a man cry like that before, just the steady fall of tears down his face as though he were standing in the rain. “You have your satchel? You didn’t forget anything? I can send it to you, just let me know.”

Tim put his arm around Al’s shoulders, and Al could feel him catch his balance. He would let him know, Tim said, and Al racked his brain for something else to offer for comfort. He stared out at the empty tracks and let Tim lean his weight on him, neither of them talking now, and the bustle of other people going past. Al had never stood so close to another man for so long before, and it seemed somehow right to do it for Tim. He could not imagine what he must be going through.

The train whistled down the tracks, and Tim turned, putting both damp hands to Al’s face. It was so very cold this morning.

“You don’t need to decide right now,” Tim said. “Think it
over, and drop me a telegram. Talk to Mary Frances. I want all of us to agree.”

“You and I agree,” Al said. He would have said anything. “That’s what matters.”

*   *   *

When Al returned to Eagle Rock, he wouldn’t take off his coat, the morning broken cold and yet to warm, their little house prone to drafts. Mary Frances had made herself three cups of tea, each forgotten in a different room. She put the kettle back on the stove and went to him.

“He was crying,” Al said.

She put her cheek against his shoulder. The coat was his heaviest; he hardly ever wore it anymore. In the lapels, she could smell the chimneys of Dijon.

“Devastated.” Al sounded amazed. “He had nothing with him but a satchel. He’s leaving all his canvases, his paints.”

“When will he be back?”

He didn’t hear her, and she stilled herself against him, mindful of her stroking and patting, her rhythms of distraction. Behind Al’s shoulder was the armchair, the mahogany table, a cup of tea left there. She was no good at waiting.

Al sighed. “He asked a favor of us. Really, it’s a generous offer, but you know Tim, and how he puts things.”

She did. Tim had asked her first. At the lunch counter, neatly devouring a stack of ham sandwiches to the crusts, as though he had not eaten in days. He drank glass after glass of milk, put his head down on the counter, and spoke in the direction of the floor.

“I’m sorry to put you in this position.”

“You don’t have to be so polite. Please.”

“But I do.” Tim cleared his throat. “I need your help.”

“It’s all right,” she said.

“I’ve telegraphed the lawyer in Delaware, and I’ll file papers when I get there, but the process is not quick. Things like this, time is of the essence. If word gets out—”

“I’d never say anything, Tim. Of course not.”

“But the other girls at the studio, they’ll go tattle-telling as soon as they even imagine something is fishy. They’ve all signed morality clauses, very cut and dry. Her contract might survive the divorce, handled quietly enough, but an affair . . .” He laughed here almost, a sound that cut. “Gigi would be one less girl in the next picture.”

He looked at her, and Mary Frances sighed.

“It’s all she’s ever wanted,” he said.

“Not all, evidently.”

“I owe her this much,” he said.

The afternoon grew long outside the window. Mary Frances had to be home soon. She took another sip of her coffee, thick and bitter. He might never return to California. Why would he ever return?

“I’d like your help, too,” she said. “With my book, when the time comes.”

He looked back at the floor, saying of course he would, of course, it would be his pleasure, and she hated herself for asking. It sounded as if she were taking advantage of him, and maybe all of it would come to sound like that. She had seduced a man who was in love with his wife, and everything that happened afterward bore the echo of that fact.

Now in her living room, her conversation with Tim
seemed discrete. She could be here and there, knowing what Al was about to say and at the same time having no idea. She closed her eyes against Al’s shoulder, breathing the damp coal smell of his coat, and long ago in France. Part of her had lived through this already; she was just looping back again.

“Poor Tim,” she said. “Of course.”

They would move into Tim’s house after the holidays, to live with Gigi while Tim sought a divorce quietly back east. They would just say they were keeping her company while Tim was out of town, and no one would suspect otherwise.

“Too,” Al said, “there are some complications.”

“Like?”

“The kind with proper names, I suppose. It’s not my business.”

“None of this is our business, Al.”

“Tim wanted me to ask you. It was important to him that this was amongst friends.”

She wrapped her arms again around his neck. The less space she had to cover, the less hollow she felt.

“The family has a lawyer Tim’s talking to back east, and when the time comes, he and Gigi will just go to Sam Goldwyn and say what’s done is done. Once it’s all over, Goldwyn won’t care anyway.”

“Why would anybody care? It’s not like that’s the worst that happens over there.”

“Mary Frances. It’s still Gigi.”

“But it’s not.” And she realized then how completely she felt this. “It’s not Gigi any longer. It’s just not.”

She sounded as though she were about to cry, and maybe she was. Regardless of what Gigi needed the studio to think,
she was now the person most likely to tell Al everything, if she was bitter, if she wanted revenge. The thought of living with her seemed at once a disaster, and the only way to keep her quiet.

Al patted her back, offering that good people made mistakes, that it was not our place to judge, and Mary Frances let him go on thinking she was upset by yet another of her friends splitting up.

“Come on now,” he said. “Look at the bright side.”

He would be tutoring after the first of the year, the children of the conductor of the Philharmonic, who lived above Laurel Canyon in the hills. Living amongst all those rich neighbors, they might pretend they could afford their lives for once.

“That’s what you like, isn’t it?” He was smiling, but Mary Frances could feel his meaning, the hard feelings underneath.

BOOK: The Arrangement
6.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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