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                                          The Bed
                                      By Nathan Leslie


        Maria Pierce gapes at the quadrangle of precisely stacked red cashmere

turtlenecks, then at the row of gray cashmere turtlenecks on the precipice above, and then

at the row of sky-blue cashmere turtlenecks resting on the pinnacle of the tiered display.

If I were a customer, she thinks, which one would I choose? My eye begins with red,

obviously. Any novice marketer worth his pricing gun would know that. But then it rises

up the ziggurat-like steps to gray, and finally blue. Red is hell. Gray is rock, soil, earth.

But the blue, that is heaven. Yes, Maria thinks, I would purchase from the top.

        Maria repeatedly tugs at the hem of her ivory Marc Jacobs button-down. She

knows this is a nervous habit, but when her boutique is empty she simply can’t help it. It

would be different if the store were crammed with eager customers raising each scrap of

fabric to their collective cheeks, tracing their hands along the cotton weave and silk and

leather and cashmere. Then her mind, and thus her hands, would be busy, deliberately set

into motion. But this is late October: the fall doldrums. The back-to-school fervor has

passed, and the Christmas season has not yet begun. In October, who is thinking clothes?

Maria realizes she still may have another three weeks of this. God love Christmas.

        Arms crossed in boredom, Carly and Jasmine lean against the circular façade that

usually protects the cashiers from the throng. Maria snaps her fingers and hustles Carly to

the front counter. “There’s nothing less appealing to a shopper than an empty store

devoid of salesladies,” she hisses. “We need to meet and greet.” Head cocked into a

stewardess smile, Maria juts both arms out robotically, as if she were measuring an

invisible bolt of corduroy. “Meet and greet. Meet and greet.”
                                                                                              2


       Maria steps across the threshold separating Ave Maria from the mall proper, and

she lifts her eyes to the neon sign above her store. She glances at her watch. 10:15. The

mall is silent, empty. The silence is almost a presence, a fog, eerie and skulking about the

corridors. Think cheerful, Maria tells herself. Upbeat. The lunch crowd will arrive at

11:30, she thinks. At 2:30 school lets out, and by then the store will be hopping. It will.

She tells Carly to get some K.C. and the Sunshine Band on the stereo pronto, some

Donna Summer. Everyone likes disco, Maria thinks. It gets them upbeat, snappy, in the

mood to buy, nostalgic and hopeful, filled with optimism.

       Maria recalls the day when she hired Kelvin Deed to ensconce the storefront in

shimmery black aluminum. Kelvin held his hands in the form of a camera and angled it at

the storefront, left, right, up, down. Now the spark in Deed’s mind is her day-to-day

reality. Strange, Maria thinks. She can mold. She can shape. “Think reptile,” she said. “I

want them to think posh alligator.” She remembers falling in love with Kelvin’s initial

design for the sign itself: a blonde cartoon woman in a strapless red dress, kicking her

head back in joy, clutching two white leather gloves in her right hand and a hat in her left.

“Ave Maria” was scrawled in red cursive across the face of the black background. This

will lure them in, she thought, a worm dangling in pristine waters..

       The phone rings, and Carly answers it after two and a half just as Maria showed

her: assertive and attentive, yet without a trace of desperation.

       “Maria, the phone is for you,” she says. Carly dangles the receiver limply from

her hand and glances at her watch. Jasmine rolls her eyes and blows on her fingernails.

       Maria sashays back to the counter. It is important, she thinks, to show your

employees how to carry themselves, even in slow moments, even when little is at stake.
                                                                                             3


She didn’t arrive at her station in life as a result of some beneficent handout. I made

myself who I am, she thinks. The Carlys and Jasmines of this world are at least ten or

eleven notches below me on the ladder, and they need a positive role model. Not that they

will raise to my level. Of course, the girls are still positioned above the telemarketers, the

housekeepers, the janitors, the KFC cashiers, the stewardesses and, of course, the ingrate

drug abusers and bums. However, one slip and Jasmine and Carly could easily find

themselves scrubbing toilets, Maria thinks. One must live one’s life with dignity. And

where is the dignity in being destitute? Even God doesn’t forgive the poor for their

lethargy and ineptitude. These girls would be wise to pay attention.

       “Ave Maria, may I help you?”

       “Hello sweets.” Hettie. Mother must be finishing her eggs benedict at this hour,

and polishing off the last of her honey-laden tea. Maria can hear her voice in the

background. “Don’t forget the canopy! The canopy!”

       “Yes, yes. Maria, your mother wanted me to call you this morning. You’ll never

believe this.”

       “What? What? I’m absolutely dying to know,” Maria says. She winces at the

sound of her own voice: A bit too screechy, a bit too forced.

       “Well, yes, it’s your sister. You’ll never guess. She has apparently purchased a

quite lavish bed that set her back a pretty penny.”

       “The canopy!” Maria’s mother bellows. “Don’t forget to tell her about the

canopy.”

       “Yes, from what I understand it has four hand-carved posts, and an extremely

gauche red and gold patterned canopy. It is made of an exquisite cherry, stained in the
                                                                                                4


most exotic varnish imaginable, and hand-painted in the most brilliant colors. At any rate,

your mother wanted you to know.”

        “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. That is something else.” Angie is such a

hypocrite, Maria thinks. I can’t wait to see this sullied bed. Angie’s not even married, yet

she still presumes to flaunt her immorality! What a piece of work.

        “Yes, you must. You absolutely must see it,” Hettie says.

        “Have you seen it?”

        “Oh no, Maria. You know, I just missed it.”

        “Has mother seen it?”

        “Not that I know of.”

        “Oh. Oh. I see. Then how do you—”

        “Do you remember Mrs. Derringer? The neighbor across the street from Angie?

She called last night. You wouldn’t believe it. We were in hysterics throughout the

evening. Absolute hysterics. Yes, she saw the delivery come. I’m sure it cost Ralph and

Angie a pretty penny.”

        Maria tugs at the hem of her shirt, and glances at her watch. 10:20. Still empty.

She tells Hettie that she will definitely have to see it, that she must see it, that she will see

it. This will be her pet project.

        I don’t know what I would do if I were Angie, Maria thinks. But then I don’t

think I could be Angie, even if I were Angie. A sex change might be an option, or

hypnotism. If I were Angie, I would certainly go about my life in a more productive and

optimistic manner. Hoisting oneself up the rungs of the ladder simply takes work. I would

adorn myself with Ralph Lauren, purchase a Hermes handbag for starters. Sure, she
                                                                                              5


thinks of herself as a painter, and that’s fine to a certain degree. As a hobby painting is

acceptable, Maria thinks. But, of course, painters are not as highly ranked on the ladder

as proprietors. If they rise to the level of the famous—a Jackson Pollack or Pablo

Picasso—then they would be ranked near the very top. But most painters linger

somewhere around the teacher level, perhaps as far down as administrative assistant.

Proprietors, of course, have the potential to be at the very top rung if they rise to the level

of a Steve Case, a Donald Trump, or a Rupert Murdoch. Though a small proprietor such

as myself is still comfortably within the top sixth of the ladder. This is a comfortable

place to be, Maria thinks: the upper tier.



       The table is set with Lennox fine china, platters and bowls that tease the light

from the gold-leafed chandelier. Angie barely notices the small details any longer: the

polished silver-plated flatware, the pewter candlesticks, the ornate damask. Angie and

Ralph sit side-by-side, feet touching between the rungs of their chair legs. Ralph is a

good man, Angie thinks, one of a kind. Maria and her husband Grant sit opposite and

Angie’s mother sits at the head of the table, as usual.

       “Why don’t we pass the asparagus first?” Her mother hands the crystal boat of

green spears to Maria. Angie slowly lifts a roll from the breadbasket, and passes it to

Ralph. Grant stabs a sliver of ham with his butter knife and drops it on his plate. He plops

a glob of mashed potatoes on the far side of his plate. Angie asks Grant if he can pass the

ham along when he has a chance.

       For the past three years Angie has grown to loathe the Sunday family dinners.

Aside from habit, she’s not sure, in fact, why she still bothers at all. Angie told Ralph
                                                                                              6


once that she goes to fulfill her familial obligations, but she’s not even sure if she

believes that herself. After all, since her father left, her mother has become increasingly

lonely. If it weren’t for Hettie, Angie would almost feel she should invite Mother to move

into the guest bedroom in her house. Even Hettie can only do so much; she is around to

help in the mornings, but Angie wishes her mother would break down and hire a live-in

caretaker. Her mother becomes bitter and cranky when Hettie leaves and the nights are

hard on her.

       The problem Angie has with the Sunday dinners isn’t Mother though—it’s Maria.

Angie notices with increasing frequency that her sister tries to subvert any closeness

between herself and Mom, as if Maria is the only one entitled to have a mother. Even

worse, Angie feels as if Maria’s comments tend to denigrate her own life choices. Maria

always finds a way to squeeze a dig at Angie’s artistic career into the conversation, if not

by her usual strategy of undermining the stature of a famous artist—Chuck Close, Brice

Marsden, Salvador Dali—then by means of an outright condemnation of art itself. Angie

has always told Ralph that if it weren’t for her mother she would never come. “Maria

seems increasingly at odds with me,” she said once. “I don’t know why exactly. It’s as if

she has it out for me for some reason. What did I ever do to her?”

       As the family eats, Grant says that if art were practical, we wouldn’t have a single

thing to look at in museums. Then what? Ralph nods and mentions his trip with Angie to

Florence ten years ago. You want evidence. There’s evidence. Angie hopes this might tip

the balance for once. For Angie, Grant and Ralph help balance the stakes. Finally,

someone is coming to my aid, she thinks—my sort of isolation doesn’t serve anyone.

Ralph shouldn’t be afraid of confrontation, Angie thinks; Maria is simply egging him on,
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and if anyone can put her in her place, Ralph can. She respects him to some degree, and

he’s not her husband.

        Maria rolls a slab of ham in her fork as if she were eating fettuccini Alfredo. She

slides the portion into her mouth, lifting her head like an exotic bird.

        “This conversation rests on the foundation that we actually need art,” Maria says.

“We certainly need food, and shelter. Clothes, of course. But art is a pure luxury isn’t it?

When it comes down to it, is it truly necessary at all?”

        Angie does not want to rush to the defense of her profession if Ralph or Grant will

do it for her; at any rate, since they have less at stake they have a greater chance of

convincing her sister. Maria flips her hair, and pinches one of her ruby earrings between

her thumb and ring finger.

        Ralph shrugs and Grant looks at his wife. Maria tilts her head to him, and taps her

foot.

        “Not necessarily,” he says. “Some art is public, isn’t it? I mean, cathedrals are

considered to be art and people actually used them.”

        “Yes, but who makes cathedrals anymore?”

        “That doesn’t mean they couldn’t,” Grant says, spearing asparagus. “Technically

speaking.” Shrugging, Angie squints at Ralph. At least Grant hasn’t completely given up.

Always the wildcard, Angie thinks. Sometimes he’s aligned with Maria; sometimes he is

content to poke holes in her misguided logic. He could go either way.

        “But they aren’t,” Maria says. “Canvasses smeared in feces, or urine, or just

painted red or black. That’s modern art for you.”

        Angie shakes her head, eyes down into her plate. For a moment she is unsure how
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to reply, not stunned exactly, but certainly startled. “Whoa. I don’t know about that.

That’s a pretty gross generalization, Maria,” Angie says.

        “Who knows?” Grant says. “Everybody is doing their own thing, I guess. It’s all

relative.”

        Angie watches her mother staring straight ahead, swirling her mashed potatoes on

her plate, and slowly spooning them into her mouth. Angie remembers her mother

striking a similar pose of bored neutrality with Maria and her father. Maria has always

been feisty: when Angie was a child her father locked horns with Maria at least once a

week. Her mother would always watch, passively observe the debates without comment.

Angie wonders if secretly her mother hated the spectacle, hated the conflict. If I were her,

Angie thinks, I would have. Yet, what did she do to instill a sense of tranquility? Mother

just clammed up and stewed.

        Angie’s father was normally mild-mannered, except when it came to

argumentation. Angie remembers watching her sister and father debate whether animals,

in principal, have rights. Her father stood by the position that if a greater sense of justice

were instilled in our society regarding animals, our public mores would be enriched and

strengthened. Maria argued that if this were so our entire legal system would become

gummed with cases on poodles and kittens. Toward the conclusion of the argument,

Angie remembers watching her father’s face bubble with frustration. Maria was fearless,

and always held her own. In a way Angie admires her sister’s spunk, though it often

seems to rear its head as spite. And her views are despicable, Angie thinks. That’s the

line in the sand as far as I’m concerned.
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       “I can’t help it if artists are elitist snobs who think they are better than the rest of

society,” Maria says. Grant buries his mouth in his glass of water. He places the glass on

the tablecloth, and runs his finger down the shaft.

       “You know what, let’s just change the subject,” Grant says.

       “Good idea,” Ralph says. Angie watches her mother’s chin lift and, for a moment,

buoy. Angie realizes that during this entire conversation her mother hasn’t said a word.

But then that’s her normal mode of operation: judge in silence, and reserve the bile for a

later time. For a moment Angie catches her mother’s eye—cold and bitter and caustic.

She knows this is why she has always considered herself a Daddy’s girl: where her father

engaged, her mother always seemed distant and remote, disparaging. Angie looks at

Maria, and then back to her mother, but by then her attention has sunk again into her

plate of gravy.



       When Maria spends the day at her boutique she often doesn’t eat. From time to

time she will order a croissant or grilled chicken wrap from the food court, and

occasionally walk around the mall. Sometimes she will inspect the presentations of her

competitors, analyzing the manner in which each one attempts to lure the customer into

the shop—discounts, music, scents, gigantic photos of models in thongs and bikini tops

the size of quarters. On the Wednesday after the Sunday dinner, Maria calls her sister and

without apologizing for a thing, offers to treat her to lunch in the mall the next week.

Maria wants to make a peace offering of sorts, and she has her reasons. She was

concerned that Angie would reject her offer, or at least make an excuse not to show up.
                                                                                           10


But to Maria’s pleasant surprise Angie accepted for the following Thursday. The only

catch: Angie wants to eat lunch outside, not in the mall.

         “No problem at all,” Maria says. “I know of the cutest little Vietnamese restaurant

down the road. Why don’t we meet at Ave Maria, and then I’ll drive us down there? You

have to see the boutique right now. We’re beginning to receive all of our Christmas

stock. This is absolutely the most electrifying time to come to the store. Everything is in

flux.”

         “Sounds fine,” Angie says. “Okay.”

         The next Thursday Maria watches Angie slouch into the store right on time. She

is wearing jeans, sneakers, and a dumpy brown sweater with worn elbows and a green T-

shirt underneath. Maria embraces her sister, and leads her by the arm to meet Carly and

Jasmine. Maria shakes her head internally: Angie looks haggard and frumpy in Ave

Maria’s halogen beams; Maria tells Angie that the boutique does have some great deals

right now in the store (and whispers that she will even offer Angie an additional twenty

percent off all the Prada skirts and Burberry slacks). But Angie shakes her head, saying

that she can’t afford new clothes right now, and that she has plenty to wear as it is. I have

to see this bed, Maria thinks.

         “Nonsense,” Maria says. “You can afford these deals.” Maria points out wool V-

necks and pleated slacks, striped cardigans and bouclé sweaters, and mohair. Maria tells

Angie that she must take advantage of the Marc Jacobs chemise sale. I wish she would

just lighten up, Maria thinks, stop being such a cheapskate for once. But there is no

convincing her. Angie compliments Maria on the store, but says that she’d rather just

have lunch. Maria shrugs: “Fine.”
                                                                                         11


       At Viet House, Maria suggests the chicken pho; they both order small bowls with

summer rolls as an appetizer. At the last minute Maria changes her mind and orders the

pho with tripe instead. “I’m just in a mood,” she says. Angie sticks with water and Maria

orders a glass of wine.

       “What I love about Vietnamese is that it’s just so healthy,” Maria says.

“Everything is always so fresh and zingy. You know? I went to this Malaysian restaurant

recently, but it couldn’t compare. There is something so plain and honest about

Vietnamese.”

       “Yeah,” Angie says.

       When the waiter brings out the summer rolls, Angie asks why Maria invited her

out to lunch.

       “What’s on your mind?” Angie asks.

       Maria twirls her summer roll in the peanut sauce, smiles, and tosses her head

back, melodramatically as if she were in a Breck commercial.

       “Do I need a reason to take my sister out to lunch?”

       “No,” Angie says. “No you don’t. But you have to admit, it is unusual.”

       “Unusual? I suppose. Lots of things are unusual. Snow is unusual in August.

Tigers are unusual roaming the streets of New York. I just felt it had been too long,”

Maria says.

       Angie nods, and sips water from her straw. The waiter fills her glass.

       When the waiter brings the pho to the table, Maria leans forward and whispers

that he must have a thing for Angie. This would be perfect, Maria thinks, someone even
                                                                                            12


lower down on the ladder than Angie. That would illustrate how low her life had sunk.

Embarrassed, Angie smiles and shakes her head, and asks why she says that.

         “He keeps looking at you,” Maria says. “Don’t turn around but he’s looking at

your ass right now.”

         Angie says that the food looks delicious, and they both fill their bowls with bean

sprouts and basil, and Maria squeezes a lime wedge and hot sauce into her bowl. Maria

uses the chopsticks, lifting clumps of noodles and tripe; Angie uses her spoon to sip the

broth.

         “At any rate, I did want to ask you something,” Maria says.

         Angie lifts her eyes from her bowl.

         “You know, ever since I started Ave Maria,” Maria says, “I’ve become a bit

interested in interior design, and general presentation. You know how it is, right?

Anyway, I was wondering if you might like to invite me over to your house, you know,

just to see what you and Ralph have done with it recently. I promise I won’t be picky. I

just like to brainstorm. I’m always open to new ideas for our own house.”

         Maria lifts the glass of wine and watches Angie’s reaction. Maria knows that

Angie doesn’t truly want to go along with this, which made the question perhaps that

much more enjoyable to ask; watching her sister squirm gives Maria an almost irrational

amount of delight. As the question penetrates Angie’s mind, at first Angie’s face is

quizzical and taken-aback, but slowly Maria watches it open, then lighten. Maria

imagines the series of calculations and adjustments on the part of her sister’s brain. Maria

again expects an excuse or at least a delay—she even thinks of some for Angie (dental

appointment, gynecologist)—but knows that ultimately Angie won’t say no. Angie is too
                                                                                              13


steadfast to hold a lengthy grudge. Despite her artistic pretenses, Maria thinks, Angie is

too ethical, too bound by duty.

          “Sure, why not?” Angie says.

          Maria holds her glass of wine aloft, and gestures to Angie to lift her water. Maria

grasps the cuff of Angie’s sweater. They clink glasses, smile, and slowly ease back into

their bowls of pho.



          On the day when Maria is slated to visit, Angie wakes up at five, spending her

early morning scrubbing the oven and mopping the floor. She scours the toilets and

shower. She vacuums and clears cobwebs. She dusts. This is not unusual: in terms of

cleaning, Angie and Ralph naturally tend to procrastinate until an oncoming guest forces

them to acknowledge the obvious and face down dust balls and grime. Still, Angie

actually has a great morning; she enjoys the cleansing power of her own hands. Instead of

slopping paint on a canvas and mucking around in her studio, Angie is able to focus on a

slab of porcelain, or a dusty table. She can feel her efforts amass into a direct and final

result.

          As far as Angie is concerned, the rivalry is a one-sided affair, and always has

been. Angie was six when Maria was born, and couldn’t wait to have a younger sister.

She was an only child until Maria was born; perhaps this is why she loved school—

kindergarten offered company. When Maria was an infant Angie loved to help her mother

take care of her. The role of mother’s helper suited her well; she remembers her mother

telling her that Angie herself was destined to have her own children someday.
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        Angie doubts if Maria was attempting to make amends for the Sunday dinner

argument; more likely she invited herself for material that she could relay to her mother,

and Hettie, and their aunts. Angie has little interest in this sewing circle of petty gossip,

but certainly Maria has heard about the bed by now, Angie thinks. Angie knows the ways

in which her family works.

        In her early twenties, when Angie was in her Buddhist phase, she read that a

negative thought strips twice the energy from he who dwells upon it than from she who

initially expels it. This always stuck with Angie as a dictum to live by; instead of working

herself into a froth, Angie would rather sublimate it into her art. In fact, sometimes she

almost wanted Maria to piss her off; some of her favorite paintings were drafted in a fury.

In an energized whirlwind of anger she would blast The Doors or The Who and immerse

herself into the cauldron of her canvas. Maria might think of Angie’s art as her escape,

but to Angie her art and life are one.

        Still, Angie feels as if she should prepare for Maria’s visit. Partially Angie wishes

Maria would visit in the evening so Ralph could buffer the emotional friction—too much

sublimation is overwhelming, Angie thinks. Angie knows Maria looks down upon the

fifties-era three bedroom house she and Ralph bought fifteen years earlier as a fixer-

upper. Maria’s fifty-eight hundred square foot colonial in the hills is nearly three times as

large as Angie’s. Material possessions are just never a priority to Angie. Her relationship

with Ralph is a priority. Her art career is a priority. But in her view, owning a Mercedes

or a Louis Vuitton handbag are not priorities. There is only one facet of her life where

Angie feels justified in splurging: furniture. A well-crafted stool, or chair, or settee, or
                                                                                              15


bed is in itself a work of art; as an artist she can’t allow herself to throw up her hands,

pile Ikea into the back of her station wagon and call it a day.

       At twelve thirty Maria phones ahead.

       “I’m about fifteen minutes away,” she says. “I’m turning on Route 121. Right on

schedule.”

       “Are you hungry? I could whip up some sandwiches or something.”

       “Sure, that sounds delightful. But don’t go to any trouble. Only if you have some

tuna lying around, or something of that sort.”

       Angie is already prepared: she pre-made pasta salad (penne with sun-dried

tomatoes and cracked green olives), and splayed apple and pear slices and gourmet olives

on a crystal tray in the shape of a pineapple. She made hummus from scratch, and sliced

pita bread into wedges. Angie pours the sparkling apple cider into her best crystal flutes,

and sets the dining room table: hand-knit Guatemalan place mats, russet earthenware,

cloth napkins.

       When Maria arrives, she hugs Angie. Angie usually could do without the fakery

and pretension of embracing, but she plays along. Why not just say hi? Why the constant

emphasis on touch? Angie takes her sister’s jacket (“Ben Sherman,” Maria lilts), and sits

Maria at the head of the table.

       “Look at this spread? You didn’t have to go to this trouble, Ange.” Angie hates

‘Ange,’ as Maria knows. What, does Maria think I’m showing her up because I took time

to prepare a nice lunch?

       “Oh, it was no trouble at all. I mean, you are my sister.”
                                                                                          16


       “Right,” Maria sighs and lifts her fork. “Oh that pasta salad must have cost a

fortune. Giant has a nice deli though.” Angie sits down next to her sister; she can’t

believe how rude her sister can be.

       “What do you mean? It’s—”

       “I mean, I know they have those bonus cards these days, but still. You didn’t have

to go to the trouble. Thanks, Ange.”

       Maria pokes her fork into a slice of tomato, and slides it into her mouth. She rubs

her stomach and throws her head back in sham ecstasy.

       “This. This is so delicious, Ange. Give my regards to the grocery store.”

       “You know, I made this,” Angie seethes. Angie isn’t aggravated that Maria makes

as if she can’t taste the difference between store-bought and homemade (her refined

palate obviously can). Maria knows I made this, Angie thinks. She simply doesn’t want

to acknowledge any effort on my part. Once again, she is purposely digging at my

cooking when I am being hospitable. “I made this.”

       “Oh,” Maria says. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell.”

       Angie decides to change her tack, initiate a topic of conversation, one that might

throw Maria for a loop. Angie would rather argue with Maria than allow her to denigrate

her cooking abilities: this from a woman who doesn’t raise a finger in her own kitchen.

This from a woman who owns a ten thousand dollar Viking stove, but who orders takeout

every night.

       “Have you talked to Daddy recently?”

       Maria exhales deeply, and takes a sip of the sparkling apple cider. She asks Angie

if she has anything stronger—wine perhaps. “No,” Angie lies.
                                                                                                   17


                “Not really? You know, I think he’s really lost his mind now,” Maria says. She

         averts her eyes. Angie leans back in her chair and tries not to allow her defensive posture

         to sneak into the equation.

                “Why do you think that?”

                “The same old. You know,” Maria says. "Why would he possibly want to be

         without Mom? I just can’t rationally understand that.”

                “They were together for forty-one years. That’s a lifetime for some,” Angie says.

“I guess they just changed. The old standard.”

                “I know, I know. It’s just—”

                “Have you been down to see him? I know he wants to be a part of your life.”

                “Don’t start this, Angie. I’ll relate to my father in the manner I’ve always related

         to him. We ignore each other and go about our business. Everyone is happier that way.”

                Angie picks from the sliced apples and pears, and nods. Maria does the same, and

         stares down into her plate. Angie runs ‘The way I’ve always related to him’ in her mind.

         Only since Maria threw the butter knife at him when she was twenty, she thinks. Only

         since she filled her heart with spite for him. Only since she started Ave Maria.

                After dessert—homemade pound cake with a chocolate strawberry glaze—Maria

         asks if she might have the updated tour of the house. “To, you know, see what you’ve

         done with the place,” Maria says.

                “Sure,” Angie says. “That’s the least I can do.”

                Angie walks her through the guest room, and Ralph’s study, and their room—all

         three compact, with low-ceilings. Angie can’t imagine that these rooms seem different at

         all from what they were even five years prior. Angie thinks back to the whirl of purchases
                                                                                              18


that she and Ralph made when they first moved in—aside from drywall, tiling, and paint,

they bought several nice pieces—desks and lamps and sofas and chairs, many of which

they still own and use. Still, aside from the bed, they haven’t bought a single significant

piece of furniture in years.

       As the two sisters walk down the hall past the main bathroom, Maria asks, “Have

you ever thought about building an addition in back?”

       “Well, with the studio already there, space is at a premium, you know. I’d like to

have some yard.”

       “Well, of course you could always condense your studio. Do you really need a

whole room just for painting?”

       Angie can’t believe it—even without their mother’s audience Maria is still intent

on sticking it to her, on showing her up. But Angie is determined not to allow Maria to

rattle her self-worth this time. If I can make it for fifteen minutes longer, Angie thinks,

Maria will leave sated, mission-accomplished, and let her fingers do the walking.

       “How about the master bedroom, Ange? Would it be okay to—”

       “Of course, of course,” Angie says. Let’s get it over with, she thinks. Let the

gossip mill commence its cycle. Let the judgments out. With a slight twirl of her wrist,

Angie turns the doorknob.



       I’ve never seen anything like it, Maria thinks. First and foremost Maria notices

the posts themselves. Each burled walnut post is carved in the shape of a tree trunk, a

serpent snaking and winding its way up the length of the shaft itself. As Maria

approaches the bed she notices the level of detail. Each serpent is painted in a different
                                                                                              19


color—crimson, mustard, black, and azure. And the bark on each trunk is carved in

exquisite detail; each serpent is individualistic, unique. The crimson serpent is adorned

with a diamond-shaped pattern, the azure serpent has wave-like designs rippling down his

belly. What’s more, Maria notices how each post fully complements the others. The bed

is absolutely stunning in that it is asymmetrical, but somehow unified.

        What’s more, Maria notices, in places each trunk is painted with leaves and knots,

as if the posts themselves were alive. As Maria’s eye follows the beautiful wood to the

base, she notices that each trunk is set in a claw of roots. On each base the serpent’s tail

wraps around a root or dangles life-like to the ground. In addition, the artist carved

lizards, even minute wood beetles and centipedes onto the roots themselves. For a

moment Maria is spellbound.

        Still, Angie is such a hypocrite, Maria thinks. Her sister fortifies herself with the

notion that she is above it all, simplified, non-materialistic, hermetic, an artist beyond the

petty concerns of the gaudy bourgeoisie. But here the evidence glaringly paints another

picture, so to speak. Angie is the model of liberal do-gooder wannabeism, Maria thinks.

She strives to be an artist, to fashion the existence of an artist for herself, but scratch the

surface and she is as hollow as the rest of us. In fact, more so. This bed is absolutely

gorgeous, Maria thinks. She has to admit, she’s green with envy. But how much did it set

her and Ralph back? I couldn’t do it. I could never allow myself to be this gauche, Maria

thinks. This is sheer and unadulterated gluttony.

        “Of course this is what Frank Lloyd Wright did,” Angie says.

        “What is?”
                                                                                              20


         “Living life as an art,” Angie says. “Surrounding yourself with beauty to make

your life beautiful. What I’ve been talking about.”

         “Oh, right.” Maria hopes she doesn’t sound sarcastic. She feels simply stunned.

         “Have you been listening?”

         “What?” You can call it whatever you like, Maria thinks, but it’s still a bed that

costs as much as some people pay for a car. Not her, of course. But some people.

         “It’s art with a function,” Angie says. As Angie sits on the bed, illustrating the

sturdiness of the bedsprings, and of the construction of the frame, Maria blinks and looks

away. How functional is it though? Of course, her sister and Ralph wanted to avoid the

clichés of bourgeois suburban life; for them marriage was out. At first, her mother

stopped speaking to Angie. This gave Maria the chance to play “good cop,” though she

agreed with the spirit of her mother’s repulsion. When Maria eventually brokered the

peace between her sister and her mother, Angie was appreciative. Ironically Angie’s

stained morality brought her closer to Maria, for a moment. But to Maria, Angie’s sense

of decency is forever corrupted. How fitting that she should willingly show me the

symbol of her own decadence, Maria thinks. The bed seals the gory fact of Angie’s

putrid, unwedded, “avant-garde,” immoral existence.

         “It has a function alright,” Marie says. The moment the words escape her mouth,

she regrets them. Maria is so careful to keep her judgments to herself; she is immediately

horrified that what she really thinks actually seeps from her lips. Rule number one of

management: let your actions speak for themselves.

         “What do you mean by that, Maria?” Angie says. Maria tugs at the hem of her

shirt.
                                                                                        21


       “You know. Forget it, Angie. This is a stunning bed.”

       Maria read a book that argued that once a person’s character is set by age seven or

eight, they become more or less predictable. From then on a person’s behavior is subject

to forecast and prophesy, but more or less stable. Maria has never seen Angie in such an

aggressive defensive posture. This is unexpected, outside of her personality range, Maria

thinks. Angie slides from the bed, and lifts her head. Arms crossed, she pushes Maria

back, out of the master bedroom, into the hallway.

       “No I don’t know, Maria. It is my beautiful bed. You know? Mine and Ralph’s.”

       “Of course,” Maria says, tugging at her shirt. “I like it. I know that.”

       From the doorway, Maria watches the crimson snake. The black and yellow eyes

seem to follow her. Somehow the artist was able to even capture the texture of the scales

themselves. Truly this is the most amazing bed frame I have ever seen in my life, Maria

thinks. What precision. What craftsmanship. I do almost wish it were mine, Maria thinks.

       “You know what, get the hell out of my house,” Angie says.

       “What did I say? I just said that—”

       “Get out,” Angie screams. Maria backs away, almost tripping over her own feet.

       “What?”

       “I know you, Maria. You don’t impress me.”

       “I’m not sure what I said that—”

       “Get the fuck out of my house,” Angie says.

       “I’m sorry, Angie,” Maria says. “I didn’t mean—”

       “Get out,” Angie says, pushing her back. Maria nearly falls into the table.

       “I’m sorry!”
                                                                                             22


        Maria snatches her jacket, and stumbles outside in a daze. She turns the ignition

and drives away, turns the corner and parks her Lexus around the corner, beyond Angie’s

sight. Her hands are shaking. She doesn’t feel tears coming on; Maria can’t remember the

last time she cried. She doesn’t know what she feels. Shame. Embarrassment. Yes. This

is an unusual sensation, odd. In a strange way, Maria is almost proud of Angie for

standing up for herself. Her heart races. Maria cuts the engine, and crosses her arms.

Staring straight ahead, she sits like this for half an hour, still, blinking, breathing, shaking

her head.



        Angie has had it up to here. She has had it with the insults, with the cattiness, with

the gossip mongering. Before she even cleans the lunch plates, she calls her mother and

tells her. She doesn’t want to maintain family tradition anymore for its own sake. She’s

finished with the entire routine, with the whole ball of wax. Silence. Angie is not sure if

her mother is listening at all, or if she handed the phone to Hettie.

        “Are you finished now?” It is still Angie’s mother. But Angie has nothing left to

say to her. Angie knows she will call later and apologize, that she will go to her mother’s

house again in a week or two. But for now, this feels good, right: she hangs up the phone.

        Angie scrapes the lunch plates, and slips them into the dishwasher. Angie empties

the glasses and places them in the upper rack. It feels good to be done with this, to

expunge the filth from her life. Angie knows she can’t hold a grudge, that there is

something about her that wants to maintain even an inauthentic decency. Still,

temporarily speaking, this feels more than satisfying. This is a moment worth savoring,

she thinks.
                                                                                           23


       After she has wiped down the counters and taken out the garbage, Angie hops in

her car, drives down Route 77 heading west into the hills. The suburban clusters fade, and

the cornfields stretch across the horizon. She sighs and keeps driving. Angie rolls down

her car windows, and feels the cool breeze on her arms and face. She normally likes to

play music when she is in the car, but now she only wants to hear the sound of the car on

the road, the wind whistling, the engine growling. Angie wonders if he is even home.

       Somehow it makes sense that she didn’t call ahead. Her father never was a man

taken to pre-planning or overt organization. When Angie was a child her father thought

the idea of arranging vacation plans six months ahead of time was fascist. Still, in a sense

it doesn’t matter if he’s not home, Angie thinks. She could leave a note. He would

appreciate the exploratory effort regardless. She has a key. She could let herself in, allow

herself to collapse on his sofa by the window, the slanted light darting through the eaves

and bowers.

       After driving for another half an hour Angie pulls onto the narrow driveway

leading back through a stand of pine trees. The gravel pings her car. The sunlight angles

through her passenger seat window. The air smells fresh, and for a moment Angie closes

her eyes. She can imagine her father sitting there with a stack of five or six books, like he

always did when she was a child. He is unshaven, a pen cap in his mouth, and a tall glass

of rum and Coke rests on a battered coffee table near his knees. He leans back and sighs,

digesting some passage from his History of Russia text or his collected works of Yeats.

Angie imagines him nodding at her sudden presence in his room, as if she appeared from

the wallpaper and bookshelves. The sun catches his beard, and the creases in his face. His

canaries twitter in the cage she bought him for his birthday two years ago.
                                                                                          24


        Angie can only picture her father in such a state of calm. He breathes

inconspicuously through his nose, and his mouth is flat and serene. Angie wonders if he

ever confronted her mother in the manner she just did on the phone. More likely Angie

can visualize her father simply walking out the door without a sound, vanishing into a

blurred winter miasma.

        “You are special,” she hears him say. “You and I have something in common, to

the bone.”

        “What is that, Daddy?”

        “You know what this is,” he says. “Do I have to say it?”

        “No,” Angie hears herself say. “I know.”

        She opens her eyes. As if she is outside of herself, Angie watches the car eclipse

the crest of pines, pass the skeletal dogwoods and ash and the cluster of spruce, and settle

in front of her father’s rancher. His red pickup truck is parked under the linden. Through

the thin gauze of curtain Angie watches a shadow inside the house turn, and stand. This is

the way it should be, Angie thinks, as long as it lasts. Then she cuts the engine, and steps

out into the chill.

				
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