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.”
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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,
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
“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
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
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.
“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.
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
“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.”
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
“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,”
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
“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,
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.”
“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
“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.
“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
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
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.
“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
“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.
“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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
“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.