The Women | Chapter 12 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER 2: MIRIAM AGONISTES
None of the doctors could help her in Los Angeles or the provincial outpost of San Diego either, little people all of them, sniveling types, handwringers, an army of effete bald-headed men in spectacles who were mortified of the law—as if this law had any more right to exist than Prohibition, because who was the federal government to dictate what people could and couldn’t do with their own bodies, their own minds, their personal needs and wants and compulsions? Were they going to regulate needs, then? Dole them out? Tax them? Miriam13 was so furious, so burned up and blistered with the outrage of it that she must have been overly severe with the cabman—the driver with his hat cocked back on his head and his trace of a Valentino mustache—because when they got to the border at Tijuana, he stopped the car, turned round in the seat and demanded payment in full. Insolently. Out of insolent little pig’s eyes. “This is as far as I go,” he said, and she couldn’t place his accent.
She was immovable. She felt her face concretize, the pores sealing up, the muscles round her mouth and eyes going to stone. “Nonsense,” she spat. “Drive on.”
There was a customs man standing off to the left of the car, a slouching congenital idiot with a lazy eye and bad teeth, and he’d already showed them his smile and waved them on—no searches here, no passports required—and he was giving her a curious look now. As if he’d seen everything in his day, every sort of indecision and cataclysm, women four and five months gone heading down to la clínica for the procedure that would make them right again, rumrunners with their empty trucks, day-trippers and ethnologists and rock collectors, but this, this was a new wrinkle altogether.
“No,” he said, “no more,” and he shoved his way out of the car and tried to pull open the back door, but she held fast to the handle. “Get out,” he insisted and it gave her a small pulse of pleasure to hear the tremor in his voice. The war was already won.
“I won’t,” she said just to savor the words on her lips. “Now, I’ve paid you to take me to Tijuana, and I won’t budge until you fulfill your end of the bargain.” She looked round her in growing outrage: the customs man, a river of Mexicans in pajamas and serapes, mules, dogs, Indian eyes, Indian hair, dust, muck, filth, the street vendors and beggars in their cutaway rags—and hanging over it all the heat, the impossible punishing heat that stewed the odor of decay till she could barely breathe. “Move on,” she demanded.
He saw the look in her eyes, saw the way her face had set, and he didn’t even try to Jew her out of an extra two bits, as any of the rest of them would—he just shrugged, climbed back into the cab and put the car in gear. A moment later they were lurching down the rutted streets, the human circus of Mexican poverty unfolding outside the window like a mural in a moving picture. She was uncomfortable, feeling the heat, dizzy from the stench—she’d sweated through her undergarments and the seat of her dress, and her hair was gummy beneath her parrot-green silk caftan, which she’d chosen expressly to bring out the color of her eyes. But there was no one here to care about the color of her eyes. Just peasants—campesinos, isn’t that what they called them? And what was pharmacy? A cognate: farmacia, wasn’t it? She consulted the Spanish/English phrasebook in her purse and found the term under the heading “Useful Phrases”: ¿Donde está la farmacia?
There was a dog dead beside the road, the carcass swollen beneath a second skin of insects, people strolling by as if it were some sort of monument, as if it had been molded of brass and put there by the town council to honor canine achievement. The cab lurched again, in and out of a rut, and the dog was gone. “The farmacia,” she said, the cords tightening in her throat. “Take me to the farmacia, the first one you see. Quickly, quickly.”
He didn’t seem to have heard her, so she repeated herself. A scorched minute blistered by. There were birds now, some sort of Mexican birds, exploding up from the road—pigeons, Mexican pigeons. “The farmacia, ” she said, and she was beginning to feel desperate, all her outrage evaporated in the face of the hopelessness of this place, these peasants, this driver—and he was American, of some sort, a legitimate cabbie from San Diego who’d agreed on a legitimate price here and back, half paid in advance, half when she was restored to her hotel on Coronado Island where the sea breezes stirred themselves each afternoon to neutralize the heat. Peasants she knew. Peasants she’d dealt with in Paris, where they were alternately surly and unctuous, and Tokyo, where they bowed to the floor and laughed behind your back, but these people frightened her. It was dangerous here. She could sense it. See it, see it with her own eyes. Prostitutes. Drunks. That man there—staggering as if he were riding an invisible donkey, his eyes red as some demon’s, staring belligerently through the window at her. And there—another unconscious in the dirt and no more a concern than the dog in his jacket of flies. She was about to open her mouth again, about to say she’d had enough, forget it, he could take her back and away from all this, this chaos and filth and the ungodly stink, when the car abruptly came to a halt. “What?” she said. “What is it?”
But the driver—was he Italian, was that it?14—merely pointed a finger. It took her a moment, and then she saw the sign, black script, freehand, on a white background: FARMACIA. She gathered up her purse and the cloth bag she’d brought along, leaned over the front seat and commanded her voice long enough to say, “You wait, now,” and then she was out on the street and the sun hit her like an axe. Five steps, a wooden walk, and then the door and the bell that announced her even as the cab jumped into gear and shot away from the curb with a crunch of tires and a rat-tat-tat of exhaust. She felt the fear seize her then, a cold hand laid on the back of her neck. She was going to die here, she was sure of it, lost and abandoned in a place where her French was no use to her or her Southern charm either—and her children would never know, her friends, Frank . . . no obsequies, no sepulcher, nothing. She’d be like that dog lying bloated at the side of the road . . .
At that moment—as the bell sounded and the door swung back and she stood there frozen while the taxi receded down the street—two women in mantillas came up the walk behind her, their black hair braided and their eyes ducking away from hers, and what did they want? They wanted to go through the door, that was it, and she was in their way and they were waiting for her. Politely. Respectfully. She came to her senses then, murmured an apology (illogically, in French: Pardon) and stepped into the store. It was close and dark, hotter even—if that was possible—than the street outside. Slowly, as her eyes began to adjust, the features of the place started to take on shape. There were jars everywhere, a cornucopia of jars, and in the jars various dried herbs and potions, and there were folded browning sheaves of plants suspended from the ceiling to dry, the smell of them musty and bitter and sweet all at once. And the counter. The counter behind which stood a man identical to the spineless physicians and pharmacists of Los Angeles and San Diego counties, right down to the spectacles and the bald dome of his head, except that his skin was the color of the varnish on a very old chest of drawers—and what was that in the jar at his elbow, chicken’s feet? She thought of the apothecary’s shop in Romeo and Juliet, the mad mixer of potions, and what was the word she wanted, the word she’d practiced all the way down here in the cab? Un dormidero, that was it. Un dormidero.
But then the man behind the counter smiled at her, a broad, winning, helpful and welcoming smile—anything can be purchased here, Señora, anything at all, that was what his smile said—and the word flew right out of her head. He said something then, something she didn’t catch and couldn’t be expected to, but the gist of it was obvious: How may I help you?
Feeling better now, feeling herself again—or nearly herself—she straightened up and approached the counter, giving him his smile back even as the two women who’d followed her in browsed among the jars and their mysterious contents. What she said then was contained in a single word, a word she hadn’t had to memorize: “Morfina.”
She watched his eyes. “Do you understand?”
His smile widened. He nodded.
“I want,” she said carefully, “morfina.”
 
She didn’t wait till she was back at the hotel, though certainly that would have been more pleasant, because she’d been feeling ill and run-down and light-headed all morning—and her stomach, her stomach was cramping and her bowels weren’t right and no amount of bicarbonate of soda could even begin to help. The man behind the counter—the little brown pharmacist who’d suddenly become her best friend in the world—had given her what she wanted, all she wanted, the only limiting factor the number of dollars she laid out on the tin countertop, dollars outweighing pesos here (and that was funny, since dollar was some sort of nonsense word as far as she knew and peso was a measure of weight, of gravity itself), and she’d filled her cloth bag with a dozen tubes of morphine sulfate hypodermic tablets (¼ gr.) and ten of the diamorphine hydrochloride (⅙ gr.). And she got herself some new pravazes as well, the needle she carried in her very clever little kit (it was made to resemble an outsized cigarette lighter, with room for two tubes and the hypodermic itself) having become blunted through use and unpleasant in the extreme. When the purchase was completed, the two women in shawls watching her surreptitiously and the pharmacist smiling till she thought his head would burst, she gave him another word, which might have been Spanish—or maybe it was Latin: “Taxi.”
“Taxi,” he repeated, as if she’d just supplied the one term that would make his life complete. “Taxi, sí,” and he shouted something toward a tumbled nest of straw baskets where a striped Mexican blanket concealed a doorway behind the counter. In the next moment, a boy with his eyes still asleep emerged, took one look at her and ran out into the street shouting the magic word.
The driver knew not a syllable of English, but San Diego was not an Anglican designation and the dollars she waved at him immediately bridged any difficulties of interpretation. The sun hammered her briefly and then she was in the back of the car, everyone grinning now—the pharmacist and the two customers who’d followed her out into the street, the boy and the taxi driver and even the random passerby, a whole world of dedicated grinning. The door shut on her, the car a Tin Lizzie, a flivver, a rattrap of the worst and flimsiest construction—and ancient, the first sedan ever made—but it had a roof, and, apparently, an engine. The thing jolted and bumped as if it were pitching headlong down the side of a cliff, the smells assaulted her all over again, the heat crouched atop her, right under the caftan (and she wouldn’t take it off, wouldn’t show her hair and the sweat and the fright she must have been), but none of that mattered for long because immediately she was dissolving a tablet in water and drawing it into her pravaz and between bumps finding a vein high up on her right thigh beneath the rolled-up sweat-soaked hem of her dress.
After that, the breezes blew and the smells dissipated. The man at the border waved them on without a second glance, the world took on a metallic sheen—the sheen of the high seas as seen from a deck chair on the SS Paris—and she wasn’t in Mexico anymore. She wasn’t in the bleached brown desert of San Diego either, not on land at all. She was on a cruise, perched high up on the rail with the wind in her face and the birds wheeling overhead, on her way back to France.
 
As it turned out, she didn’t get to Paris that year or the following year either. She went up to San Francisco for a while, but the place bored her—too far out of the way, too cold, too bright, what with the sun painted like a thin layer of glue over all those rows of gingerbread houses Frank would have hated till he ground his teeth to dust—and then she came back to Los Angeles for an extended stay with Leora Tisdell,15 who’d just lost her husband. For a while, through the spring and into the summer of 1925, she set up a kiln in the back of Leora’s guesthouse and with her friend’s encouragement she began to work in clay again, just to see if she could recover her eye. (Leora had artistic aspirations of her own, and now, as she put it, that she was out from under the heel of her husband, she meant to do up California in oils.)
In the first week, Miriam produced a bust of Leora and Leora produced a portrait of Miriam. The portrait was meant to be naturalistic but it was so ineptly done it might have been an abstract by Picasso or Miró, and the only feeling Miriam derived from it was sadness. “You know, don’t you, that when I was in Paris I concentrated on distinct parts of the human body rather than busts, because they’re so utterly conventional, and I worked almost exclusively in marble,” Miriam told her friend one afternoon as they sipped Singapore slings and sat regarding the clay bust, which, in retrospect, could have been worked a bit more around the nose and the orbits of the eyes and hadn’t really taken the glaze well at all. “I had a pair of folded hands accepted for the permanent collection in the Louvre, you know,” she added, and the thought buoyed her, took her off her friend’s sofa, out of the house and Los Angeles with its irritating faux-Spanish décor and drooping palms and all the way back to the day she first walked through the doors of the museum and saw them there, her hands, mounted for display, and people—Parisians—gathered there to admire them. It was a towering moment, fueled by the Singapore sling cocktail and the dose of morfina she’d taken for her digestion and to control the tremor that had begun to recur in the back of her neck—all along her spine, really—but the sensation didn’t last. A few days later she took a cast of Leora’s hands, with the thought of buying a block of Carrara marble and getting back into the game, doing something significant and lasting, but the impulse seemed to fade as the sun rose and set and rose again and again and again till it burned all the ambition out of her.
She was feeling vaguely out of sorts—betwixt and between, that was it—thinking she might go to her daughter, Norma, in Chicago, or maybe back up to San Francisco for a few days, or Mexico, down the coast somewhere, where it was clean and you could get a decent meal that wasn’t all wrapped up in those half-burned little pancakes they seemed to serve with everything, even steak, when a man came to the door asking for her. Leora’s servant—a Chinese in a white coat and faintly greasy black tie—found her in the yard, where she was stretched out on a chaise longue beside the pool reading La Noire idole16 for the third time. She put on a wrap and padded barefoot through the dark corridors to the front door.
The man was nobody she knew—ferret-faced, lithe as a twig, with an insinuating expression. “Yes?” she said, looking down at him from beneath the high conical towel she’d wrapped round her hair.
“Maude Miriam Noel Wright?” he said, his shoulders slithering inside his jacket as if he were molting, a twitch at the left corner of his mouth.
“Yes,” she said, and she was going to add “I am she” or “I’m her,” she couldn’t decide which, when he handed her a finger-smudged envelope, turned abruptly on one heel the instant she took it from him and sauntered off down the walk.
Inside was a divorce summons and attached notice stating that Frank Lloyd Wright had initiated proceedings against her on grounds of desertion. That was it, nothing more. No explanation, no word from him, no prior warning or even the most cursory and two-faced attempt at reconciliation. And what did she feel—in that moment, the towel wrapped round her head, her toes clenching the abrasive hemp of the doormat and her right hand held out rigid before her, the black type of the summons staring back at her as if each letter were a miniature face and each face reduced suddenly to a pair of spitting lips? Rage, that was what. Not disappointment, not surprise, not heartbreak, but just that: rage.
Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.
Before she knew what she was doing she’d balled the summons in her fist and she was tearing it to pieces and flinging those pieces—sad defeated little flakes of paper like shed skin—into the flowerbed. She was in the house next, not the main house but the bungalow out back, and she had a lamp in her hand—Leora’s lamp, a hand-me-down, rubbish from the rubbish shop, no antique—and she was methodically beating it against the white plaster wall. Which was crumbling, right there before her, in an accumulating avalanche of white powder.
It was Leora who discovered her—she must have been crying out, the Chinese popping his head in the door like a jack-in-the-box and in the next moment Leora rushing into the room and calling out her name over and over, as if to remind her who she was, to bring her back, and it was as if she’d been transported out of her body, her mind flying off to cling to some hidden perch and her muscles working all on their own. The lamp was of brass. It clanged and clanged till it was a bell tolling for the dead, Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! She remembered Leora throwing her arms around her—restraining her—and Leora’s emollient voice pouring like syrup into her ear. And then they were on the couch together, the Chinese hurrying off to mix a shaker of martinis because this was an emergency, that much was clear—the lamp destroyed, the wall rutted and gouged and blood spattered there too and Miriam with her skinned knuckles and the straps of her swimming costume slipped down her shoulders and the wrap come loose so that her breasts swung free—but Miriam was sobbing so convulsively she couldn’t tell her friend what had happened. And when she tried, when she fought to get the words out, the shame of it overwhelmed her. Frank—the man she loved, her husband—was casting her aside. For a long while Leora just held her, murmuring, “Hush, hush now,” and finally the martinis were there—the beaded shaker, the delicate stem of the glass, the olive skewered on a toothpick—and Miriam felt the calm descend like the curtain falling at the end of a play.
She took the cocktail and downed it in two gulps. Tears clouded her eyes. “Frank,” she began, “Frank, he—”
“You’ve got to be strong,” Leora said, and who could blame her if her first thought was morbid? “At his age, well these things have to be expected . . . Lord knows, I should know. And Dwight lingered, that was the worst of it.”
“No, no, you don’t understand—Frank’s divorcing me.”
Five minutes later, the Chinese was out in the flowerbed, recovering the fragments of the summons. Which, after a second martini, they painstakingly reconstructed as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. The first thing, they both agreed, even before calling Frank, was to write the judge in the case and insist, or rather plead, that she wanted a reconciliation, that she loved her husband still, that their separation was temporary—for her health, just till she recovered her health—and she’d never even dreamed of divorce. Leora helped her with the letter, which ran to three pages, typed, and immediately she felt better. She thought she might like to put something on her stomach—veal chops, mashed potatoes, haricots verts (the Chinese really was a marvelous cook)—and then she went to the telephone. Or no, she took up the telephone as if it were a weapon, a sword she could wield with a single hand and still manage to draw blood at a distance of two thousand miles, eight o’clock in California—ten there, just when he’d be in the studio, lost to the world over his drawings, unless he was having one of his musical nights amidst the foreign toadies and kiss-ups he’d surrounded himself with.
The operator got her the number and her heart began to race as she waited for the connection to be made. There was a sound of static, a soft mechanical buzz, and then a voice she didn’t recognize—a man’s voice—came at her out of the ether: “Hello?”
“I want Frank,” she said and she wished now she’d taken a shot to calm her nerves. She was wrought up all over again, the tension tearing at her till she felt as if she were reliving the shock of that first moment at the door when that little man, that fleck of human detritus, had handed her the summons—
“Yes?” the voice said. “Who is this?”
“Miriam. His wife. And who the hell are you?”
“Uh . . . sorry.” The phone was muffled; someone was whispering. “One moment, please.”
Frank came on the line then and his voice was bluff and businesslike. “Yes, Miriam, hello. What can I do for you?”
She couldn’t contain herself, the air ratcheting up out of her lungs and tearing at her throat as if she’d swallowed a pneumatic pump: “Criminal!” she shrieked. “Weasel! You, you fucking vermin! How dare you treat me like this? Really, how dare you!?”
“Miriam,” he said. And he might have said something to calm her, something in the soft priestly tones he used when he was being holier-than-thou, which was about eighty percent of the time, but she didn’t hear him, didn’t want to hear him.
“Shit!” she shouted. “Shit! You think you can cast me off like some whore, some, some bitch you’ve used for your pleasure and got enough of, is that what you think? Because if you do—”
There was more, a whole lot more, and tears too—she couldn’t help it, she was only human and this was the lowest, dirtiest thing that anybody had ever done to her—and he tried to be meliorative and soft but the sound of him, the smugness, the finality in his voice, just turned all her jets on high till he began to harden and the connection was suddenly, violently, broken.
 
In the morning, once she’d bathed and done her hair and used her pravaz to spread its creeping warmth even to her toes and fingertips and numb her to whatever the day might bring (and yes, she’d hidden her kit from Frank as much as possible and from Leora too, not that she was ashamed or in danger of becoming a morphinomane or anything of that nature, but because her medicines were private, her own affair and no one else’s, no matter how close they were—or had been), she sat down with Leora over breakfast and they both agreed that she needed a lawyer of her own. Frank had a lawyer. Why shouldn’t she have one? How many women had they both known who’d been tossed out in the street like so much baggage and without a dime to their names? Or a nickel? Not even a nickel.
After breakfast she went back out to the bungalow and used the telephone to make an appointment for that afternoon with Wilson Siddons Barker III, an attorney who specialized in divorce cases and came highly recommended by any number of people Leora knew. She spent a long while on her face and clothes—the better part of the morning—finally selecting a spring suit of her own design, an all-wool Poiret twill in navy with a silk peau de cygne lining, and her blue velvet cape and turban to match. She completed the outfit with her pearls and lorgnette along with two strings of jet beads and a diamond brooch her mother had bequeathed her. “Oh, my, my,” Leora said when she had a look at her, “you are a marvel.”
“You think the brooch is too much?” she said, surveying herself in the full-length mirror in the front hall.
Leora had taken some care with her dress too and she did have style, no doubt about it. She wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Miriam herself was, but then Miriam could carry it off in a way Leora never could—and yet still she had to admit her friend looked terrific in mauve crepe de chine and a bob hat with a spray of pheasant feathers that trailed prettily over one shoulder. “No, no,” Leora murmured, her lips pursed and her eyes fixed on her. “You want to make an impression.”
“You like it? You do? Really?” Miriam felt a flood of satisfaction and for a moment forgot the underlying purpose of all this. They were going to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, yes, but that was just a diversion from the real meat of the day—the interview with the attorney and just what that meant. “You know, this brooch—and the cameo, see the cameo? It’s meant to be the Three Graces, Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia—isn’t that darling? Brilliance, Joy and Bloom. This was all my mother’s and her mother’s before her. My jewelry”—she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and saw a tall regal woman staring back at her, the sort of woman who could fend for herself, fetch attorneys, fight Frank Wright till he was sorry he’d ever been born—“is my one real hedge against the worst. If I have to go begging, at least I’ve got something to fall back on.”
“And the ring? Is that the Cleopatra ring?”
“So legend has it. I don’t know the whole story, nobody does, I suppose, but it had been in my husband’s family—his grandfather had it from a jeweler who’d dealt in all sorts of antiquities, especially Egyptian. It’s supposed to be a scarab, you see? They say Cleopatra wore it as a talisman to keep her lovers faithful.” She laughed. “As if anything could control a man when the urge comes over him. But did you know I almost sold it in Paris when the war broke out? There was a man from the museum there, very charming, very persuasive, but I just couldn’t part with it. And I’m so glad. It’s my most important piece.” A smile now, rueful, a delicate delicious infusion of the lips with blood—and she could see Leora was skeptical, or maybe jealous, maybe that was it. Jealous, but doing her best to hide it. “It’s my ring of vengeance, darling. And don’t you think Frank doesn’t know it.”
As it turned out, William Siddons Barker III was very happy to see her, though he sympathized with what she was going through, of course, and it was a shame, a real shame (she broke down in his office, she couldn’t help herself, even with Leora at her side), and he assured her that he would do everything he could for her. He was true to his word. Through his Chicago associate, Frederick S. Fake,17 he was able to get Frank to drop the suit by threatening to counter-sue on the grounds of physical cruelty—yes, and how would that look in the papers, WORLD FAMOUS ARCHITECT BEATS WIFE—and they moved on from there, very slowly, step by faltering step, toward the inevitable.
It hurt her. Every day it hurt. Who was he to throw her over? She was the prize here, not he. And she wrote him to that effect, letter after letter, alternately damning him and reminding him of the passion they once shared, a passion that towered above the petty loves and conventions of the masses—nine years his mistress18 and never a complaint out of her, or barely, barely a whisper—and she called long distance whenever the rage boiled up in her, just to hear the iron in his voice and listen to his pathetic rationalizations, to berate him and scream and sob and curse over the wire till all the operators’ ears from Los Angeles to Spring Green must have sizzled like fat in a pan.
He was adamant—there could be no reconciliation. There was no question of it. On that he wouldn’t give an inch. Still—and this puzzled her—he went out of his way to be reasonable when it ultimately came down to reaching a compromise. More than reasonable: generous. Him, of all people. Frank, who considered an invoice a kind of memorial only and who wouldn’t pay up even if he had the money right in his pocket and the sheriff was at the door. And when they did finally agree some four months later on a divorce settlement—$10,000 in cash, $250 a month maintenance and a half-interest in Taliesin—he even threw in a bone. She’d always claimed she wanted to go back to Paris, his lawyer told hers—that was his understanding—and he wanted her to know he was amenable to that. So much so that if she would leave for Paris within six weeks of signing the settlement, he would give her an additional one thousand dollars on top and exclusive of everything else, just to help ease her transition.
She thought about that—Paris—the rooms she’d taken over an antiquities dealer on the rue des Saints-Pères, the artists she’d counted among her closest intimates, the bistros, the cafés, the gay life she’d led after Emil had passed on, and she very nearly relented. Paris in winter. Paris for Christmas. The smell of roasting marrons hanging over the streets, the blue-gray light of the afternoon, real life, real food, bouillabaisse, foie gras, les fromages. But there was something going on here she didn’t like, something he was hiding from her. She knew him. She knew the way his mind worked.
What she didn’t know about—not yet—was Olgivanna.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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