I ducked my head so as to avoid her mocking and fiery gaze.
“Films. I’d like to see Constance Rattigan in Lace Curtains. Last time I saw it, I was five.”
“You sure know how to make old folks feel great. Lace Curtains. Stand back while I load the projector. My pa worked a Kansas City cinema when I was a girl, taught me to run the machines. Still can. I don’t need anyone in this house!”
“Yes, you do. Me. To watch the film.”
“Damn.” She leaped across the pillows and started fiddling with the projector in the back of the parlor. She yanked a can of film off a nearby shelf and deftly began to thread it through the machine. “You’re right. I’ll watch your face watching me.”
While she was busy, humming and adjusting, I turned and stepped out on the low porch above the sands. My eye traveled along from the south, roving the shore, past the front of Constance Rattigan’s property, and on north until . . .
Down by the tideline, I saw something.
There was a man standing there, motionless, or something that looked like a man. And how long he had been there, and whether he had just come in from the surf, I couldn’t say. I couldn’t see if he was wet. He looked naked.
I gasped and glanced quickly inside. Constance Rattigan, whistling between her teeth, was still dickering away at the projector.
A wave fell like a gunshot. I flicked my gaze back. The man was still there, hands at his side, head up, legs apart, almost defiant.
Go away! I wanted to yell. What are you doing here? We’ve done nothing.
Are you sure? was my next thought.
No one deserves to be killed.
A final wave came in behind the shape there on the shore. It broke up into a series of cracked mirrors that fell and seemed to envelop the man. He was erased. When the wave pulled back out he was gone, perhaps running away north along the sands.
Back past the lion cage in the canal, past the canary lady’s empty windows, back past my apartment with its winding-sheet bed.
“Ready?” Constance Rattigan called from inside.
Not really, I thought.
Inside, Constance said, “Come see the old lady made young.”
“You’re not old,” I said.
“No, by God.” She ran around turning off lights and fluffing pillows in the middle of the room. “This health nut’s writing a book, out next year. Underwater gymnastics. Sex at low tide. What bicarbs to take after you eat the local football coach. What, my God. You’re blushing again. What do you know about girls?”
“How many you had?”
“One,” she guessed, and crowed when my head bobbed. “Where is she tonight?”
“When’s she coming back?”
“Miss her? Love her?”
“You want to telephone her and stay on the phone all night so her voice protects you from this dragon lady?”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“Like hell you’re not. You believe in body warmth?”
“Warmth! Sex without sex. Hugs. You can give this old gila monster canned heat without losing virtue. Just hold and hug, spoon fashion. Keep your eyes on the ceiling. That’s where the action is. Films all night until the dawn comes up like Francis X. Bushman’s erection. Sorry. Damn. Come on, son. Let’s hit the sack!”
She sank into the pillows, pulling me after, at the same time stabbing some buttons on a control console imbedded in the floor. The last lights went out. The sixteen-millimeter projector started humming. The ceiling filled with light and shadow.
“Look. How d’you like that?”
She pointed up with her beautiful nose.
Constance Rattigan, twenty-eight years back in time, on the ceiling, lit a cigarette.
Down beside me, the real lady blew smoke.
“Wasn’t I a bitch!” she said.
I woke at dawn not believing where I was. I woke incredibly happy, as if something beautiful had happened in the night. Nothing had, of course, it was just sleeping among so many rich pillows by a woman who smelled like spice cabinets and fine parquetry. She was a lovely chess game carved and set in a store window when you were a kid. She was a freshly built girl’s gym, with only the faintest scent of the noon tennis dust that clings to golden thighs.
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