The door was locked but a sign pressed against the pane read ‘OPEN’, so I pushed my thumb against the buzzer and waited. The window-display – a mass of objects arranged over dark, velvet-covered blocks – was as crowded and glittering as a city skyline. I realised that missing my life in London had begun to feel like a physical wound.
The display was mostly composed of drinking paraphernalia, but there were some decorative pieces too. I liked the silver shakers, with their Art Deco shapes, and the neat sets of cocktail picks with tiny forked tongues. I pictured fat green olives impaled on those glistening shafts, and briny lips at the rim of a martini glass.
In the centre of the display were a pair of candlesticks. I wondered how much they cost. They were very elegant: it was easy to imagine one of them wielded in a gloved hand, or splashed with brains and stashed in a frantic hiding place. Blood is surprisingly hard to get rid of. You have to use cold water first.
The skies were darkening behind me and it was very hot. In England’s capital city, impending storms look beautiful: roiling up between the domes and towers, bewitching sandstone and glass to an eerie pale. Here, they look like yet another irrevocable mistake.
I thought perhaps I should ring the bell again. Through the window I could see that the front room was still empty, but I didn’t feel in any particular hurry. I wasn’t teaching until the afternoon, and the campus was a short walk up the hill. Besides, I could be late again, or ill, or say the baby’s day-care had been cancelled. From the very beginning, my role there had failed to inspire – the faculty was stuffy; the students needy and banal – but now, after almost two whole years, the boredom within me had begun to feel like it was terminal.
The movement of the door startled me because I hadn’t seen anyone come into the room. It opened about a foot, and a man looked down at me through the gap. I looked back at him: there were shocks of grey in the black of his hair, and smooth grooves at the edge of his dark eyes. There was something strange about his mouth – a scar, or some kind of deformity – and I found it hard not to stare.
For some time, neither of us spoke. The hand on the doorframe was wearing a white cotton glove. It remained there, awkward and vaguely offensive, like an ugly sculpture or an unwanted gift. The man himself did not look awkward. His face was entirely impassive. “What do you want?” he asked.
My sudden uncertainty felt absurd. Eventually I said: “I – Well, I suppose I would like to come in and look around this shop.” I sounded, even to my own ears, embarrassingly English. There was no response, so I spoke again. “The sign on this door says that the shop is open.”
“We are open every day apart from Sundays,” said the man. “On Sundays the store is closed.”
I felt the intensity of his gaze and knew that I should probably look elsewhere. “Today is Wednesday,” I said.
The man inclined his head very slightly. He opened the door but remained in the frame so that I had to edge in sideways, unsure of whether to turn toward or away from him, and grotesquely aware of the body beneath my summer dress: the pale thighs stamped with pink striations, the swollen breasts.
I smoothed the dress with my hands, as though to reassure myself that it was actually there, and looked around. The room was small, and scented with beeswax and silver polish and something else which I had smelled before but couldn’t place. I heard the heavy sound of a bolt being drawn behind me, but I carried on looking at the different pieces of furniture, at the frames suspended from the picture rail, and at the objects clustered in locked cabinets along the walls. At a glance, the locks looked reasonably effective.
After the birth, I had started taking things, sliding them under the baby’s blanket in the sterile light of air-conditioned aisles – pointless, ugly things: things I could afford and didn’t want. The baby screamed, a shrill alarm; and once the anti-theft detectors by the door flashed loudly red. The guard, glimpsing the maxi-pack of pads beneath the stroller, waved me hastily away before I could show him the receipt. But the adrenaline had already turned my mouth dry and I thrilled at the sensation – at the novelty of actually feeling.
At home, however, my stash’s garish plastic felt like its own kind of punishment.
I wanted something rare and striking, something I deserved. Something that felt like recompense. The man was still standing behind me. I imagined I felt his gaze on my shoulder-blades, or my hair, or the unfreckled skin at the backs of my knees. The only sounds were my shifting weight on the floorboards and our syncopated breath.
There were a number of glass-topped boxes on the dressers and side-tables in the room, each of them lined in the same dark material, and I moved towards them. They contained corkscrews, ten or so per box, pinned down like butterflies. Each was a different shape. The handle of one had been carved into the head of a snake – a cobra, perhaps. They had all been carefully polished so that their coiled spikes gleamed like wet tarmac.
“A gentleman came in last week,” said the man, suddenly. A deep voice can grow lower still with smoke, or whiskey, or age. “He wanted to know which was the most expensive.”
I turned around. “Which is the most expensive?”
“He bought it,” said the man. “He bought the most expensive one as a gift for his wife.” I supposed it had been made of silver, or perhaps even gold. I thought about these cherished metals whose value derives from their scarcity. After all, nobody really wants what anyone can have.
“It was their anniversary,” the man continued. “Or so the gentleman said.”
The coincidence alarmed me. I thought about the card on my breakfast tray that morning, filled with my husband’s infantile, looping prose, and the locket he had strung about my throat. But aloud I just said: “Oh.”
“He was in a great hurry.” The man’s eyes were level, but his mouth slid around the shapes of the words in strange ways. “He kept his cab waiting outside. The meter must have been running the whole time.”
His eyes were so dark. The more I tried, the more impossible it became to distinguish any iris at all. I pulled my gaze reluctantly from his and looked through the window onto M street where the taxi must have pulled over. A puddle was amassing against the pavement and huge droplets were puncturing its surface. The quickening river would be spilling its muddy rush into the bay. You could hear the sky splitting in its usual way somewhere over Virginia, and I knew the baby would be screaming, interminably, her face screwed tight and purpling, fingernails etching her own palms with tiny scars.
The lights on the wall flickered for a moment but did not go out. “Is there another room?” I asked.
“There is a room at the back,” said the man, and without taking his eyes from me he gestured a gloved hand towards the corner. “There is also a basement.”
The back room was full of vases and mirrors. If there had ever been a window, it had been sealed up brick by brick. What daylight remained fell in a steady, bruised shaft from a skylight – until the lightening struck, and sparks crackled recklessly around the glass.
There was a camera high up in one corner. I wondered how much it could discern through the gloom. I moved my hands behind my back, just to be sure, and then to the pockets of my dress. I thought I heard footfall on the boards above my head, but it may have been the cracking of the sky outside.
I looked around the room. The vases were mostly floral in design, or else smartly geometric. Their glazes glimmered like spilled petrol. When I leaned closer, I could see that many of them were worth thousands of dollars. Some had the finest hairline fractures – as yet unsplit, or else meticulously mended – and these were less expensive, but I preferred them. I raised a hand to the glass and watched each of my fingertips leak a circle of damp. When I took it away, my prints curved as distinctively as contour on a map.
Beneath a massive gilt mirror on the far wall was a long, dark chest with a series of silver bottle-holders on it. They were shaped like the nudes of Titian or Botticelli, poised and fecund, draped by molten hair and scanty wreaths of a fabric that looked as though it was dripping wet. It clung to their pert, unstretched breasts and fleshy bellies, falling apart at shadowy groins to expose their smooth and glossy thighs.
“Those are very rare,” said a sudden voice. My eyes leaped guiltily to the mirror. The man had appeared close behind me. He was holding a candlestick in one hand. I recognised it as one of the silver pair in the window which I had forgotten all about. In the other hand, the man bore a smooth cloth. He stared through the dim air at the reflection of my face. “Henry prides himself on having the finest collection outside of Europe.”
The gratuitous preposition annoyed me, as it always did. I wondered if England still counted here as ‘Europe’, and who Henry was, but I didn’t seem able to summon my voice or pull my gaze from the man’s black eyes in the glass.
“Henry owns this store,” said the man, as though I’d asked aloud. He couldn’t quite enunciate the name and yet he kept on saying it. “These things all belong to Henry.”
“Where is he?” I heard in my question a note of panic. The man just looked at me in the mirror. “I would like to ask him about his collection,” I said, feeling myself grow hot at the lie, or perhaps at something else. I said: “I would like to ask him about these – sculptures.”
“I know all about these women,” said the man. “Would you like me to tell you about them?”
I swallowed. I said: “Why don’t I come back another time? Perhaps when Henry is here.”
It was not what I wanted to say.
The man did not speak. He just looked and looked at my reflection. I knew he was watching the veins coursing along my neck and wrists and ankles: blue fluid beneath thin skin. I thought about the time I had split my knee open, how milky plasma oozed between the stiches, and about all the other leakages and ruptures my body had endured.
“I don’t think that’s what you really want to do,” said the man.
My heart was thrashing against my ribcage. I felt so full of hot blood. “No,” I said. “It isn’t. Not really.”
The man placed the candlestick on a cabinet to his right. He folded the cloth and positioned it beside the candlestick. This seemed to me to take the longest time. I wanted his eyes on my face again, and on my body. I wanted them to drink me up.
I turned and took his hands and slowly peeled off the cotton gloves. He looked at the pale, tell-tale band of skin that looped my fourth finger like markings on a toadstool’s stalk.
We didn’t kiss. Not that time.
I stared into the pitch of his eyes and tried, through the storm’s murky twilight, to make sense of their colour. His fingers ran down my back like the London rain.