published in Volume 8, Issue 1 on July 1st, 2001
Brandee pretended to be asleep long after the professor rolled out of bed and disappeared down the hall, rehearsing different poses for him to see upon his return. The white cotton sheets wrapped around her breasts and legs, leaving her long waist exposed to the doorway. The loosely coiffed hair, auburn, but black at the roots, wisped around her shoulders.
When he came back, he would probably find some tactful way to send her home, so there were two options: one, seduce him to another hour or two in bed, or take in all the information she wanted while he was gone.
Carefully, she looked at the wall above his bed.
Three of the paintings were Matisse and one was Raoul Dufy, or so the man—Malcolm was his name—had said when they first pushed open the bedroom door and embraced by the mahogany chifforobe. Between last night and this morning, Brandee got him to talk about post-impressionism and classical music, every word she held tight and memorized. The Snail, he’d said, was his favorite Matisse: strange patches of citrus colors and jewel tones, sideways tilts of pink and fuschia, a warped red trapezoid. It didn’t exactly look like a snail to Brandee, but that was after all why she was in his bed in the first place—to learn.
With the man last week, jazz was everything, especially bebop. The man from the time before--a psychiatrist--taught her the difference between Jungian and Freudian dream analysis.
Sometimes during the week when she sat on the naugahyde couch in her cement-block house on Gulch Hill Road, she took notes on what she’d learned, studying the spellings of words like Schizo-affective or Debussy, feeling the sticky, cracked texture of the sofa and imagining a lavender chaise instead. The crossword puzzle magazine that lay ripped and wrinkled on the veneer coffee table could, for a moment, be an Atlantic Monthly. And pretense would get her through till the weekend, when she, sort of like Tony Manero headed out to dance and gyrate in the Brooklyn disco, drove into Atlanta and slinked from bar to bar until she found a man who knew antiques and good art.
To rest her rouged cheeks on crisp linen, to bathe—if the man let her—in a basin without rust stains was worth the dirty weeks assembling boat parts with every other white trash single woman in the county. That’s what she was, but she did not care, since last night she had lived at 12 Walnut Street in a nineteenth century townhouse among Matisse prints and Proust hardbacks.
In fact, as long as Malcolm stayed in the shower, she might have time to read in the leather club chair and stretch her legs onto that thing he called the ottoman.
No, he was coming back to the bedroom now, and Brandee shook her tangled mass of hair to cover whatever wrinkles might show on her face in the diffused sunlight.
"Damn it all," he said, kicking shoes out from under the night table and buttoning his starched white shirt. As he twisted around to feel the pillow for eyeglasses, he stopped and stared at Brandee. "You all right? You got a hangover like mine?"
When she didn’t answer, he continued getting dressed, pulling on a loose pair of dark blue pin-striped trousers and rummaging through the closet for the coordinating jacket.
"Forgot all about Hadley. I gotta be there in no less than thirty minutes."
"You’ll make it," Brandee said, at last, trying to sound both husky and Melanie Hamilton-sweet.
He turned from the closet and looked down at her. He’d suddenly gotten an idea, as he was late and hated walking in late alone.
"Do you want to go with me? We barely have time. I couldn’t wait more than five minutes."
"Hmm. . .sure. Okay," she said, as if she were doing him a favor. Brandee was dressed somehow with two minutes to spare in her makeup and her clothes from the night before, a suggestively fitted cobalt blue dress with an indiscreet crisscross in the back. Her pumps were black and pointed and led the eye up long legs covered in off-black hose. Malcolm and Brandee walked out together looking like a couple, hurrying the mile of sidewalk up Walnut Street to the Church of the Epiphany.
This was good. Very good, Brandee thought. Getting a wedding out of her night with Malcolm was worth all her efforts, not because she thought he’d get any romantic inspiration from it, but because the ceremony would teach her more than a year’s worth of professor nights and lawyer weekends. And for an hour or so, she’d have the only thing she ever wanted: total absorption into culture and refinement, temporary assimilation into good taste. Malcolm was not of importance, except as an escort into ecstasy: the Episcopal wedding.
"Hadley’s finally marrying Margaret Chalfont," he explained, as if he were catching Brandee up on a missed soap opera episode. "They had to wait until her father died—he hated Hadley—but she was almost ready to strangle the old man herself, since she’s thirty seven and she’s been engaged since 1996."
Chalfont is a nice name, Brandee thought. Margaret Chalfont. Margaret Evelyn Chalfont. Or probably Margaret Cornelia Grace Chalfont. I went to the wedding of Margaret Chalfont, don’t you know.
The Church of the Epiphany rose up one block ahead, the arc of its Gothic roofline covered in flocking doves, white shining bows tied with confidence on the curving hand rails at the front doors flung open into the April morning. Brandee breathed deep and felt the air, mysterious and thick, kiss her blushing neck as they approached the place where the sidewalk widened into a courtyard of brown-purple bricks. Women rushed by in pastel, smelling of powdered Estee Lauder, Volvos glided in from the street and parked smartly against the well-swept curb.
For an instant, Brandee hung back as they approached the iron-palisaded courtyard and the sound of organ music piped out onto the lawn, its even steps of symmetrical notes sounding like logic, like order and precision. She looked like a prostitute, she knew, and that’s what she was, conceptually. The boat factory was her employer, but her job description was like that of a whore: go home with men, thrill them, drink from their cups, eat off their plates. This time, she’d gotten even more than that out of it.
"Up we go," Malcolm whispered, his lips pressing against her stiff, moussed hair. "Pretend
you want to be here."
They climbed the five steps up to the bell-towered foyer, drawn further in by the organ’s song
and pulled along in a tide of wedding guests uniformed from a common catalog of dark suits and
belted linen dresses. Malcolm let go her arm, which surprised Brandee, and a strange man in pink-boutonniered black tuxedo held his crooked arm out to her, as if it were a wing he wanted to flap. She was unfamiliar with this custom, if that’s what it was, since in her own church—though she hadn’t been there since she was twenty--people just went on in to weddings and no one accosted them on the way. The tuxedoes there usually matched the bridesmaids’ dresses and were usually powder blue or maroon. The building itself had burned down some years ago, and she couldn’t actually recall the church’s name.
Gulch Hill Freewill Baptist, maybe. Or Southern Baptist. Gulch Hill something Baptist. Now her aunt and the others met in the cafeteria of the county elementary school, or so she’d heard. Not that she had any interest in church. One thing Brandee knew was that she couldn’t waste time with anything that didn’t make her feel good. And that church didn’t do the job. It just didn’t. Last time she’d gone, the service only reminded her how Gulch Hill she really was, just like the rest of the sad old polyestered, leather-faced women with fortress hips and battle-broad shoulders. That’s what church did for people—it showed them who they were. Trash goes to a trash church. White trash sings pathetic, countrified hymns from tacky hymnals. While the Gulch Hill bunch were straightening their clip-on neck ties, she was usually stretched out on a sleigh bed somewhere downtown, with the sound of National Public Radio hovering overhead, while she took in all the information.
So Brandee took the stranger’s arm and trusted him, and she saw with relief that he only walked her up the center aisle halfway, gestured toward an empty pew, and returned her to Malcolm, who had trailed along behind. They settled into their places near the carpeted aisle where already the ushers hastily seated the last guests and retreated down the burgundy carpet to the foyer.
The ceiling was beautiful in the way that Brandee needed things to be beautiful. Sensual and of buttery rich color, blue silken panels with gold fleur-de-lis stencils. Great beams of dark oak timber. Something heavy in her throat thickened, and she breathed in the fragrance of incense from the altar.
Beauty, she realized, is God to me. Beautiful things—the feel of the polished pew behind her shoulders, the intoxication of the incense—these were the Messiah. She had chosen well this time, with Malcolm. He’d helped her meet her beauty quotient this weekend several times over. Maybe if she sat closer to him or even overtly promised him another night, she could stay over again and come back to the church Sunday morning. If he got tired of her by then, he could always sit in a different pew and pretend she was a stranger. Brandee thought she might get to the church early and just listen to the pipe organ. In the Gulch Hill church, they had a piano backed by a snare drum set, but the music hadn’t moved her. Only beautiful things moved her. The preacher back home might as well have spoken Portuguese for all she ever listened to him. He talked with an ugly twang and got his grammar all wrong. She didn’t have time for that. There were only so many weekends—why spend them in polyester? Better to keep life well-ordered, smooth, and refined. Like the hymn the organist had begun to play. Everybody was singing, and Malcolm elbowed her to help him hold the hymnal. But something was coming up the aisle behind her.
One look to her right, and she was lost.
A gleaming cross held by a boy in a flowing white robe seemed to float forward, people bowing their head in respect as it passed their pews.
I bow only to real gold, Brandee thought, worshipful, awed.
Next came the priest in purple vestments, then the choir in twos, singing in silvery vibrato, then banners of purple and green. For a moment, the beauty was almost too great for her to bear and she reached down to steady herself on the pew.
This is it. This is the whole point.
Then the wedding party came, a flower girl in white taffeta, throwing pink rose petals from a tiny wicker basket. Bridesmaids began in lavender organza, their feet in satin slippers. As they glided by, Brandee felt a satisfaction, deep and purring—almost sexual—at their loveliness. Not that she wanted them, not that they could give her pleasure, but their fragile delicacy and the pastel mistiness—it was like witnessing the majesty of the creation of the world. When Margaret Chalfont appeared, and they all stood up to look at her flow toward them, Brandee impulsively reached out for Malcolm’s hand and squeezed it. She cared nothing for this man or even for his physical passion, but God bless him! He had brought her to see this wonder.
And now the Episcopal wedding began. The priest spoke, the people responded. They knelt. They stood up, then sat. Malcolm seemed bored, as if he were drugged and somehow just barely able to keep up. Other faces in the congregation look annoyed and restless. As the priest chanted on, Brandee lifted her eyes up again and let them fall from the ceiling to the altar, taking in the beauty of each object she saw. From the blue and gold silk down to the stained glass window above the altar—pale lilac and rose-colored panels around a translucent baby lamb. Sweet little thing. What did a lamb have to do with church? A dark wooden cross, shining below the window. The altar itself, draped in royal purple, a silver chalice and goblet mirrored in light, sparkling out into the sweet-smelling air.
"This gets so old," Malcolm whispered, putting his hand up to her ear like a friend in the schoolyard. "I’d’ve just gone to the courthouse. Repeat after the judge and sign the papers. Same thing."
"The window," she said to him, a little too loudly. "What does it mean?"
They studied its curves, its slanted frames of rainbow glass.
"It’s a lamb with a drooping head."
"Why is the head bending down? Is it sad?"
Malcolm looked at her sideways and snorted. "Who gives a damn?"
"Are you sad?" Brandee mouthed to the lamb, and she looked harder at its pale ivory form.
The wedding, the priest administering the Eucharist, lifting the silver chalice toward the ceiling, the organza dresses, Malcolm, all seemed to recede backwards into another place. She felt she was inside the window, perhaps between the panes, yet in a space larger than the church sanctuary without. Color moved on all sides, and there began a certain tingling in her feet. Someone was touching her, she knew, because the tingling moved all over her body like fingers caressing the interior of her skin. Now she heard music—not the organ music—but something else vibrating deeper in her bones or perhaps around her head like a halo of sound. Love like a rocket inside her burst into heat and hues of purple and red, coursing through every vein, commanding the heart muscle, overpowering every sense. I love you, she said to the power. I love you, I love you. And it was ecstasy.
This was not beauty—this was more.
Pulling her down impatiently by the arm, Malcolm made her kneel on the velvet knee pad with everyone else. "What’s the matter with you?"
Down lower now, she closed her eyes and she was back in the tingling universe, rockets launching inside her, desire growing more with each rush. She remembered feeling something like this ten years before when she discovered sex, but compared to the rockets that burned yet somehow brought peace, sex had been dull and insignificant. Then there was the thrill of Malcolm’s apartment—the art, the books, the faceted wine decanter, all the things of beauty and culture she worshipped and sought. Yet this was greater.
From a place high and far away or perhaps low and near to the base of her mind, a voice seemed to kiss thoughts and blessings and love to her, and Brandee let the tears go free to run down her cheeks and neck.
Now Malcolm hoisted her up, embarrassed, and made her stand as the organ began its recessional—"Ode to Joy"—and the wedding party moved out in a blur of quick colors and blank faces. The dresses looked pretty, but Brandee found that she did not care for them. The lush wine-colored rug looked like particles of common thread. Statue-like, Brandee waited until the benediction was given, the priest was silent, and the crowds gone quickly to the reception in the Victorian mansion across the street. Humbled, she stood quietly and smiled up into the window, her heart thumping and shaking her chest, tears remaining on her blushed lips.
"Come on," Malcolm said, irritably. "Stop gawking, will you? If it’s so luxurious in here, you can come back and take a historic tour on weekdays. Let’s get going."
When she did not move, he shrugged and left her there, amazed that anyone could be so materialistic.