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Madison Smartt Bell
Karl, whose name she had not quite caught, repeated the word in a savoring
tone, beryl, as if he weighed upon his tongue a morsel of the
stone it designated. At once she was moved by his air of recognition,
removed some small distance from the mobbed ballroom with its clang
of shouting voices and wedding music fractured by the bad acoustics.
She could feel it in the bottoms of her feet, so powerfully that later,
that same night, she’d let him touch and tongue her secret pearl.
That was unlike her. But what was she like? At the office they called
her, “Ms. Fallsworth,” to be sure. She dressed severely,
as young lawyers must, accenting her good looks by repressing them in
her garments—a tactic she thoroughly understood. There were no
casual Fridays at “Wiley, Craven, Snivel, and Cringe” (as
Karl had rechristened the firm, playing on the actual initials). Sometimes
the joke would surface in the midst of a tedious meeting with some client,
so that she’d have to struggle not to burst into inappropriate
laughter, and often she was truly afraid that she might address the
senior partner, Cranston, as Mr. Craven . . . She was a strawberry blonde,
petite, flat-chested. Karl could lift her and manipulate her like a
doll. She’d worn, the night they met, a sort of doll’s ballgown,
a blue which set off her beryl eyes, skirt extravagantly flared, the
low and square-cut bodice drawing a straight line across the honey-toned
skin of her chest, where someone else might have displayed décolletage.
“You have no breasts,” Karl said, when he peeled
it down—but with fascinated rapture, and she was thrilled, since
all her other lovers, infrequent as they were inept, had passed this
feature over without comment.
Her days were disciplined, nothing like this. Her nights too, usually. She never had the name of a grind—was always popular enough and certainly more than pretty enough. On a good day, more than pretty . . . But she launched herself at a certain target and stayed on trajectory till the target was struck. Summa in politics at Princeton, a somewhat less brilliant record at Columbia Law. She passed the New York bar, soared over it, on her first try. The nights made long with study were now stretched out by work. She did the necessary to keep her life in balance: played a hard fast game of squash three mornings a week before the office, caught a weekend film or play with a college friend or a group of them. On the rare occasions when she danced she did it with enough abandon that it counted as aerobic exercise. She was mostly vegetarian, nonideological; she’d eat bites of chicken and even beef were it served to her in a social situation. She drank socially, no more than that. At night when she got into her bed her mind was clear and she’d position herself behind a boulder, her back covered by some red cliff, imaginary rifle snug in the cradle of her arms, and for fifteen or twenty minutes gun down the men or savages or beasts which vainly assailed the security of her position, and then she slept.
Karl kissed her lingeringly at the stair rail, but Beryl heard the
rumble and galloped down the steps to catch her train. Dash to her apartment
to collect her clothing, then a two-stop ride to the club. She slept,
hanging on her strap, her eyes half open, and thought nothing of Yolanda,
whose image returned to her in flashes like the squash ball rebounding
from the too-white wall: details she hadn’t known she’d
registered, the thigh-high boots, the stamp-sized miniskirt, smell of
smoke blurred by perfume. Of course the girl had to be a streetwalker
in that get-up at that hour, half a block off the Bowery. The black
ball throbbed in the web of her racket, then smashed hard against the
“What got into you today,” her partner said. The game was
over and Beryl, as usual, had won. “I mean, you’re always
hungry, but . . .” Rueful, though he was used to losing, he rubbed
the patch at the back of his head where the bald spot would emerge in
ten years’ time. She only smiled at him enigmatically; the smile
she used to keep such partners at their proper distance. She didn’t
think of Yolanda again till many weeks had passed, perhaps two months,
when things had advanced much faster than she had anticipated and Beryl
found herself debarking from a cab on Karl’s corner, a late night,
a work night, some time after midnight.
“Girlfriend,” and it was like the voice itself had coiled
around her shoulders to draw her in. “Beryl,” Yolanda said,
as if to make things clear. Beryl was startled but not alarmed, even
when Yolanda dexterously plucked a pin from the back of her head, releasing
her hair from the chignon she generally wore to work to fall down over
her shoulders. Yolanda’s fingers were long and slim; they drew
out a lock of the strawberry hair and held it against a snaky black
“I be Y and you be B,” Yolanda said. She was on something, Beryl could see that for sure, but she felt no resistance. Yolanda raised her arm with Beryl’s, palm to palm, elbow to elbow, the flesh of their forearms connected in a firm, magnetic adhesion. There was a tang of sweat and semen in the air and behind it the smell of Chinese garbage discharged by the groceries and noodle shops across Delancey Street toward the glittering lights of the bridge. Crack whore—the phrase arose in Beryl’s mind, but it didn’t seem pejorative; she wasn’t even sure to whom it referred. Plump glossy black against the honey, their joined arms were a ribbon flowing in the street light.
The rush of snare and cymbal pressed all the words together till they blew, breaking into shards of fractured light. Beryl spun on the balls of her bare feet—she’d kicked off the torturing high heels the second she’d walked into the loft. It wasn’t so big, maybe six hundred square feet her eye had automatically measured from the doorway, but now it was space, light and air and sound, room to let her doll’s skirt flare as he twirled her and the music ran faster, faster still. Go with it. He was a reasonable dancer, but she was leading, she was a long way out in front. So very quickly she’d come from that to this: his praises for her body—she wasn’t troubled by the expertise with which he’d laid it bare. First time for her that love had ever felt as good as dancing.
A bad boy. Beryl had seen that right away, more or less at
the same moment that he’d registered whatever he’d discerned
beneath her friction-free surface of good girl. Still, a bad
boy who’d circumscribed himself with certain limits, as she came
to know. Beryl was wary at the start. She made him call first, which
he did promptly. She would not change herself for him, not much, not
permanently. Nor was she fool enough to think she would change him.
Was there so much in him that wanted changing? A bit of a gypsy lifestyle
certainly—and at his age. That late-seventies New Wave record
collection, all the stuff that went so well with coke, even if it was
the CD reissues he played now . . . surely he must be pushing forty,
even past it maybe, as well as he did manage to look ten years younger.
Well, he couldn’t have been so self-destructive, could he? Or
more would show in that much time. She saw no sign of real addiction.
The cocaine was an occasional treat; it didn’t appear every time
she did. He kept a package of Russian cigarettes zip-locked in the freezer
for freshness—he smoked that seldom, only sometimes after sex.
All his vices had such epicurean restraint surrounding them. Beryl liked
that. His drafting table, by the light of the tall, south-facing windows,
was always neat, dust-free, and when he had graphic work he did it with
a meticulousness which she could admire and even almost envy. Just once
there’d been a pistol on the windowsill. Her hand went to it like
a magnet, though it was mostly plastic, surprisingly light when she
picked it up. Beryl had some familiarity with firearms, for her father
collected them in a small way. She’d done some real-life shooting
as a kid, amassed a row of riflery badges from a series of camp summers.
This was different, one of those nine-millimeter murder weapons popular
with gang-bangers, as she knew from law school friends who’d gone
with the DA or the public defender. She handled the gun with sufficient
confidence, keeping it pointed at the gritty window pane, her finger
curled outside the trigger guard, while Karl watched, interested but
not alarmed, his nicely manicured hands composed at the edge of the
The dog’s eyes were golden, its tongue juice red. She compressed
the trigger with extraordinary care. The report was a silent shock between
her ears; the dream door unfurled its inner labia. Yolanda, lying on
her back, compressed the shotgun barrel between her heavy breasts. The
darker, richer chocolate shade of her wide aureolae. May be a little
surgery involved, Karl’s voice reported on the soundtrack.
You know, professional expenses . . . Beryl, on her neighboring
track, could feel his connoisseur’s touch, feathering the small
strawberry of her nipple. Her breath sighed inward. The gun-metal blue
of the shotgun pumped and when it fired, Yolanda turned her face sharply
aside, to catch the sticky burst on her left cheek and lower jaw.
Beryl didn’t see the pistol again. It went unexplained, unmentioned.
Other things too. They ran into people when they went out together:
junkies, musicians, artists, fags. The other women ran from rock chick
to model—some whose good looks might have unnerved Beryl. They
kissed in European fashion, on both cheeks. Beryl never let herself
be bothered. She didn’t mean to throw her weight where the support
could be withdrawn. Those other women always seemed to see her standing
there. They smiled, showing their top teeth only, simpered pleasantly
enough. A few of them made real talk in her direction. Yolanda, whom
she passed often on the street, began to call her Girlfriend with a
capital, in tones that recognized her status and respected it.
Beryl held to her own schedule, much as it had always been. She worked
late several nights a week, kept up her theater dates with friends,
and dated other men sometimes, although they bored her. Throughout all
this, Karl remained constant. He was seldom unavailable to her. Their
pleasure in each other was unflagging. It was a nonintrusive thing.
There was a small and slightly inconvenient matter of a key. Karl said
he only had just one. He’d lost the magic number that would replicate
it. Moreover, there was no doorbell in his building. She’d have
to call on her cell phone, from the cab or the unpropitious street,
where she waited for the key to flutter down, pocketed in a cotton sock
or finger of a glove. One day she noticed a metal tag push-pinned to
the bulletin board where he kept delivery menus and a schedule of graphic
assignments. She memorized the number long enough to jot it down on
the back of a business card. Sure enough it created a key when she took
it to a locksmith, but she didn’t know for sure what door it fit.
She held it secreted in her purse and never tried it in Karl’s
door. After all she’d never keyed him into her apartment—a
place he’d scarcely ever been. But somehow, once she had the key,
the relationship seemed to have stepped to a new level. When had she
used the word relationship for Karl? But maybe she wasn’t
wrong about that, because it was only two or three weeks later that
he popped the box on her: a modest but respectable diamond ringed with
chips of beryl.
They flew to Saint Louis to meet with a passive lack of resistance on the part of Beryl’s mother. Beryl paid for both their tickets and didn’t care. It was her father, right here on East 74th Street, who made trouble. “You’ve known this man for what, six months? He is forty-four years old—Beryl, that’s almost twenty years.”
Still, she hesitated on the threshold. Practical or not, it felt a
little like a trespass. But it was practical, and then she
thought that Karl would never need to know. The key went in and turned
smooth as butter. The inside of the loft was all one space, and Beryl’s
eye flew straight to the rumpled futon. She must have made some sort
of sound, for Karl jerked backward, detaching from the other, darker
body, clawing up the sheet to cover his erection.
Beryl’s hand went to her throat, where she wore Mrs. W’s
ring on a gold elastic cord. The ring pulsed into her hand with her
heartbeat. Karl had sense enough not to try to start talking, though
a blush was spreading from his navel to the roots of his hair. Yolanda
sat up easily, coiling her long braids over her shoulder with one hand.
Beryl watched how her breast lifted with the movement of her arm, and
thought that she must be very good at what she did. Yolanda was looking
at Beryl quite calmly. The petals of the dream door lay open between
her legs and there was an amazing brown warmth in her eyes. It occurred
to Beryl that Karl might not be so essential after all. The heavy ring
pushed harder against the lifeline in her palm. She didn’t know
if it was the end or a beginning.