I turned in the dawn light.
And she was gone.
I heard a wave come along the shore. A cool wind blew in through the open French doors. I sat up. Far out in the dusky waters I saw an arm flash up and down, up and down. Her voice called.
I ran out and dove in and swam halfway to her before I was exhausted. No athlete this. I turned back and sat waiting for her on the shore. She came in at last and stood over me, stark naked this time.
“Christ,” she said, “you didn’t even take off your underwear. What’s happened to modern youth?”
I was staring at her body.
“How you like it? Pretty good for an old empress, huh? Good buzz-um, tight rump, marceled pubic hairs…”
But I had shut my eyes. She giggled. Then she was gone, laughing. She ran up the beach half a mile and came back, having startled only the gulls.
Next thing I knew the smell of coffee blew along the shore, with the scent of fresh toast. When I dragged myself inside she was seated in the kitchen, wearing only the mascara she had painted around her eyes a moment before. Blinking rapidly at me, like some silent screen farm girl, she handed me jam and toast, and draped a napkin daintily over her lap, so as not to offend while I stared and ate. She got strawberry jam on the tip of her left breast. I saw this. She saw me seeing this and said, “Hungry?”
Which made me butter my toast all the faster.
“Good grief, go call Mexico City.”
“Where are you?” demanded Peg’s voice, two thousand miles away.
“In a phone booth, in Venice, and it’s raining,” I said.
“Liar!” said Peg.
And she was right.
And then, quite suddenly, it was over. It was very late, or very early. I felt drunk on life, just because this woman had taken time to play through the hours, talk through the darkness until the sun, way over in the east, beyond the fogs and mists, threatened to appear.
I looked out at the surf and shore. Not a sign of bodies drowned, and no one on the sand to know or not know. I didn’t want to go but I had a full day’s work ahead, writing my stories just three steps ahead of death. A day without writing, I often said, and said it so many times my friends sighed and rolled their eyeballs, a day without writing was a little death. I did not intend to pitch me over the graveyard wall. I would fight all the way with my Underwood Standard which shoots more squarely, if you aim it right, than any rifle ever invented.
“I’ll drive you home,” said Constance Rattigan.
“No, thanks. It’s just three hundred yards down the beach. We’re neighbors.”
“Like hell we are. This place cost two hundred thousand to build in 1920, five million today. What’s your rent? Thirty bucks a month?”
“Okay, neighbor. Hit the sand. Come back some midnight?”
“Often,” I said.
“Often.” She took my two hands in hers, which is to say into the hands of the chauffeur and the maid and the movie queen. She laughed, reading my mind. “You think I’m nuts?”
“I wish the world were like you.”
She shifted gears to avoid the compliment.
“And Fannie? Will she live forever?”
My eyes wet, I nodded.
She kissed me on both cheeks and pushed. “Get outa here.” I jumped from her tiled porch into the sand, ran a step, turned, and said, “Good day, princess.” “Shit,” she said, pleased. I ran away.
Nothing much happened that day. But that night . . .
I woke and glanced at my Mickey Mouse watch, wondering what had pulled me up. I shut my eyes tight and ached my ears, listening.
Rifle fire. Bang, bong and again bang, bong and again bang, down the coast, from the pier.
My God, I thought, the pier’s almost empty and the rifle gallery shut, and who could be out there, middle of the night, yanking the trigger and belling the target?
Bang and bang and the sound of the struck gong. Bang and bong. Again and again. Twelve shots at a time and then twelve more and then twelve more, as if someone had lined up three and then six and then nine rifles and jumped from an empty one to a loaded one without a breath and aimed and fired and fired and fired.
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