My secret is not for show, not yet, my uterus no more on display than my kidney or my spleen. I am a private person, my feelings hard to plumb, and has Jimmy ever asked? He cares that I’m a pretty thing, that I eat what’s on my plate, that I listen to his crazy stories and, more of a stretch, that I believe them. What he sees when he greets me at the door—small smile on my lips, simple wave of my right hand, noisy sparkles from the charm bracelet I consent to wear—seems to be his regular girl, and I have never wanted to be anything else. Jimmy wipes his hands on his apron, takes my wrist and pulls me close, and I, seduced by his wide smile, nearly spill my secret in happiness, forgetting that my happiness must wait its turn.
Jimmy nudges me toward the dining room. He puts his hands over my eyes. A dozen odors decorate the air, and I name them. Lemon, garlic, and butter are easy to pick out. Hazelnut. Fennel. Lavender. I even pick out mahogany and orange oil: my fingernails have dug into the dining room table’s grain before.
Jimmy whispers the details of tonight’s feast. Oysters. Pate. Chevre. Golden rustic bread. Wild salmon filleted by a jackknife. Fava beans scented with fennel. Honey wine to clear the palate, and a lavender cake for dessert, with silver charms swimming in the glaze, which I will be expected to lick clean. Each dish tells a story, and as Jimmy’s hands slide down to my waist, knotting my pink dress in his thick knuckles, I hear about Turkish markets, Napa wineries, Italian truck farms upstate. The stories end in a silver shop in Buenos Aires, where an old tinker in Gitano garb sells demitasse cups of coffee and dishes of candied pistachios. My eyes closed, I can picture it all. Leaning into Jimmy’s arms, I’ll take this ride. Jimmy whispers, “Open your eyes.”
The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again.It’s pure bull. How many favors does Jimmy owe, how many kitchen doors has he begged from, how many chefs and waiters pity my sad, sweet boy as much as I do? His goodwill spent, how many lies must he cook up? The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again. I don’t know where Jimmy gets his money. I don’t know all his debts and obligations, but I know his stories, the ones he’s laid on me. And I know that I love my boy.
We gaze at the table. “Well?” he asks.
I try to see how I’ll fit among this crowded array, my head and shoulders bumping against the butter plate, the fingerbowls of jasmine water, the salt cellars, the salad and bread and cravat of cool honey wine, the salmon filet. How does my secret fit among his tales?
He says, “Tonight I have a special surprise.”
My charm bracelet jingles as I bring my hand to my belly, the pull on my wrist not so heavy as to weigh me down. “So do I, Jimmy.”
Soon it will be plain. Soon he’ll parade me around the old places along the ocean road that still grant him a tab, handing out Swishers and yelling “Look what I did!” But not yet. I keep my secret jammed under my tongue. Last night I dreamed that I opened my lips to tell, but before I could say a word, the ocean spilled into my mouth.
Jimmy pulls out my chair. He lifts my dress from my skin. I prepare to be filled.
* * *
I want to tell him everything. I would begin with a memory: when I was old enough to be alone on the beach, I came upon a body, a woman in a pretty blue dress, her face placid with eternal sleep, wet hair stuck to pale skin. My kindness was to take the stones from her skirts and to sing a lullaby until the next wave floated the cold, pretty woman away. That night, I slept with those stones hugged to my belly, and I dreamed of carrying them in golden light with no shadow. I awoke to the starry night drifting on my bedspread, the ocean pacing outside my window, and I went back to my dream. I knew what it meant: that I could lighten anyone’s load, that there was space in my heart for sadness, that anguish was something I could receive as a still ocean received a pebble tossed by a child. Since then, I have taken Jimmy’s hand, I have eaten Jimmy’s food, I have listened to his thousand lies. He comes back from Newfoundland or Panama or Dubai, comes back from somewhere, and adds to my bracelet’s jingling charms. I have felt his tongue in my mouth, his dick in my crotch, his simmering seed inside. His gifts I have taken to be kind, but do I expect anything back? His arms around me? Clenched hands that I unknot again and again? Any gift he places around my wrist, on my lips, champagne on my tongue, I take, not with gratitude but with quiescence, waiting for him to whisper, Thank you, on my cheek. The hand that clenches my hair more firmly than I’d like: thank you. The fucking: thank you. His weight against my pelvis. I’ll bear him up. I’ll fatten like an onion for him. I want to tell him You’re welcome. But he is the one who must start the conversation. Thank you.
* * *
He feeds me oysters on a tiny barbed fork and daubs the lemon juice from my chin. A crust of bread follows, and a swipe of patè. Jimmy’s hand closes my lips around a bite. He raises a wine glass to my mouth, sweetness swimming in my nose until he takes the glass away. He lifts me from the chair to the table, my fingers finding the beveled edge to grip. He offers a slice of pear and goat cheese, and it’s delicious, and when he offers another, and another, I realize he’s feeding me to clear space on the table to lay me down. Jimmy slices the salmon fillet, gathers the tender flakes. His fingers find my mouth. I suck off the lemony juice in time to receive a morsel from his other hand. And another from the first. And another. Jimmy spins a story from the boats, the year in Dutch Harbor on the Bering Sea with the Russian crew. He recites twelve Russian words for fuck. I listen for my chance, a silence long enough for my story. Jimmy’s so close, he’s whispering, and I smell his words, and wine on his breath, and garlic and lemon on his lips. He gathers my hair in a greasy fist and lays me back. My head settles among noisy plates. I want to cry his name, but his fingers drop fava beans into my mouth. The sweep of dishes and silver. The sputter of beeswax candles. Wet spots bloom on my back. Bits of sauce stick to my skin. Utensils I cannot identify dig into my sharp bones. My fingers find mahogany grain, and I press hard, dig my nails in, tiny dents that a millionaire’s wife will puzzle over when she returns.
* * *
When Jimmy was a boy, his dad owned a joint in Greenwich Village. The grill was behind the bar, and Jimmy’s dad held forth, and people came to watch the sizzling action and to raise a glass to the man blackening New York steaks and spinning yarns about the meals he had cooked for kings and queens. People crammed tips in the jar, and the tips were not for the skinny punk in the t-shirt who shifted greasy plates from the polished walnut bar into a grey plastic tub. Jimmy’s life was prep work during the day, dishes during the evening, and a mop in the middle of the night. When Jimmy turned sixteen, his dad, manning the grill and rattling two skillets in each hand, did not even pause his story to note his son’s apron hanging on a hook, the tip jar cleaned out, the back door swinging in the night. Maybe he expected it. Jimmy did what he had to do. Maybe his dad had done the same. I cannot say Jimmy misses the old man. His rootlessness has only become another story. He fended for himself out of dumpsters behind four-star restaurants in Manhattan. He worked his way across the country, cooking in a dozen kitchens, always volunteering to lock up, then sleeping in darkened booths after the rest of the staff had gone home. When he reached California, he cooked in the Army. After they caught him fencing sides of beef, he cooked in the clink. He’s worked both sides of the Bering Sea. He can banter in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Greek. Too many times, I’ve heard about the night in Panama, the fever brought on by the odd pinched bottle, the cobwebbed brew, smelling of anise, that tempted his tongue. Every story ends in a fight, a bitter parting with someone who did him wrong, and Jimmy forging out on his own, with pockets empty and head held high. It’s been an easy life, he claims. Plenty of folks leave doors ajar, dumpsters unlocked, delivery trucks untended; Jimmy is not the only soul walking a crooked mile. From the names that decorate his stories, I gather that plenty of pretty girls were willing to take in a pretty boy. Beatrice. Alice. Lyudmila. Melanie. Names as sweet as seventeen kinds of sugar. Honey. Agave. Cane. I don’t mind. It’s my skin he kisses. It’s my wrist he shackles with jingling charms of love, my mouth he feeds, my body that bears his seed. When he shudders with pain at a thousand failures, only I console him. I massage his scars and tattoos. I smooth the tremor in his hands. His trembling lips on my ear whisper stories that I want to believe. Sometimes, when he comes, he whispers my jittery name.
With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him.He’s got big plans, he says. With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him. Riding the mahogany table, Jimmy’s weight upon me, Jimmy’s words crammed into my ear, I do not moan. I grit my teeth and hold on. I swallow back the lemon juice and wine pushing up in my throat.
When it’s over, my Jimmy cries and cries. Above my head, his fist smashes a millionaire’s pretty saucer of goldleaf and pink flowers. I will be the one to pick the shards from the Persian rug. The closest I come to voice, I release my fingers from the edge of the table, stroke Jimmy’s hair, and sing cooing notes, the syllables of his name.
* * *
We met on the beach. I was picking up rainbow-blue mussels, turning them over for the gulls to pick apart, and here’s my pretty boy sitting in the sand. He was wrapped in a blanket. I knew the look on his pretty face: I’d seen that same look when I found the woman’s body on the shore. I pulled Jimmy’s blanket away and removed sixteen stones from his pockets. I said, “Tell me the story that brought you here.” I wanted to lift that burden from him too.
His eyes tested mine for disbelief, but I was busy with my task. Stones from his pockets. Pebbles from his socks. A stone the size of a bread loaf cradled to his belly. After these, I loosened the stones from the hard hunched muscles of his back. I smoothed the knots in his neck. I learned the truth from his tattoos and scars and dusty cheeks etched with tears, and this truth aligned with his words. What a sad life. What a failure. His words, that day, were absolutely true. Except for this: he’s never thanked me for that day. Never spoken Thank you. Never.
* * *
The empty dishes glide easily around the wet table top. Salmon skin scraped clean. Lemon rind squeezed out. Oyster shells rattling in butter and lemon. Bread crust floating in oil and vinegar. My pretty dress is stained seven shades of brown. I gather myself from the tinkling scraps, and I dangle my legs off the table. I wince hard. It should not be pain that stirs in my belly. I should be the happiest girl.
Jimmy has buckled his pants and taken my chair. The final course is a lavender cake on the sideboard, and Jimmy reaches for the cake and brings it around to me. A small thing, no wider that the span of my sticky fingers. Heart-shaped. So sweet and flowery it might dissolve into the air like perfume. I can’t eat it. Maybe it was true that I receive Jimmy’s gifts as the ocean receives a stone, but what happens when the ocean is filled to bursting? I need space for breath to expel my words. This once, I need to unburden myself of my story.
Jimmy strikes a match and lights a candle on the cake. The jittery flame steadies, and Jimmy cups the small, flickering, hopeful thing. He blows out the match. His slow pained exhalation lifts away. I wave my hand through the smoke, rattling my charms. The charms sparkle in the candle’s glow, announcing places I’ve never been. Jimmy holds the cake out to me, and I breathe the smoke. To speak, one must first inhale the sting.
“Jimmy, I have—”
Jimmy’s finger presses my lips. Hush. He makes his pretty girl promise silence. Harder. I bite my lip till it bleeds salt on my tongue.
The candle flickers in Jimmy’s shaky hand.
Jimmy’s chest inhales. His finger presses harder against my lips. With his other hand, he presses the cake platter against my belly. Presses harder. Harder.
If I mouth any words, let them be these: No harm can come to me. No harm can come to the thing inside me. I remember the woman in the water. When I let her go, I told myself she was going to grow wings. She was going to live forever. She was going to stay pretty. She would never cut her hair. Her body would not harden. She was going to hear music, and ocean, and conversations exactly right, ringing with accord, accord, the waves, the waves, and I was not the only one who dreamed perfect dreams, unperturbed by death, and who struggled now to remember them, feeling only the betrayal of my own hard senses. Acid in my mouth. Oil stuck in my hair. Crumbs on my dress. Sticky crotch. Noisy charms on my wrist. I cannot get away from the noise!
I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste.It’s like clenching through a scream. I have borne every tale. I have imagined the weight of seventeen girls’ sugary names in my ear. I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste. Pretty boy.
It is time. I am so close. My sweet boy pressing a cake to my knotting guts, his sad face, his eyes wide, he has to know right now. He has to say nothing at all.
“No, Jimmy, please. I’m not hungry anymore. I’m really full.”
“Damn you, eat the cake.”
“Jimmy. I want to tell you—”
His hands break through the frosting and into the cake. He combs through the cake violently. “Eat this. And this. Eat it.” He keeps going until he finds it—a gold engagement ring—and he holds it to me. “This! This!” A greasy, sweet, shiny this.
His hand shakes. The ring sparkles. “What do you want to tell me? What do you have to say to this? What do you have to say at all?”
“Jimmy.” I begin to sob.
He tells me a story about the Gulf of California. He was working on a cruise ship for a Norwegian line. One night, Jimmy, smoking a cig on the crew’s deck near the water line, saw an orca, marked it by the scars on its dorsal fin, and for two nights Jimmy threw scraps over the side. And Jimmy had friends, a chef’s always got friends, and no one says no to my pretty boy, so he asked around for a harpoon. One night, one single improbable shot went home, and the tension in the line sang with the orca’s anguish and pain. The orca’s spout turned red, and from there it was only a wait for death to take its turn. And when he cut open the orca’s stomach, he found this ring of turning gold. For me.
I take the ring. The story is bull, but the ring’s the real deal, even if it did come from a pawn shop. A glowing hoop that Jimmy’s expansive mind would assay at twenty one carets. I hold the ring up to the light. There’s a small world through there. Twisting the ring, I find words on the inside. Surely they do not say I love you, they do not say his name, not mine, not forever and always. But I’m used to Jimmy crying another girl’s name.
I clench the ring in my fist and look away to hide my tears. Peering through small spaces is not the only way to dream. Jimmy’s eyes track me in the candle light. He mumbles something about gazing at an angel. I slide from the table and try to run, but I stumble. He stumbles after me. We crash.
Jimmy finds the ring in my fist, and he forces it onto a finger.
“Jimmy, please. You’re hurting me.”
Too light and loose on my finger, the ring tests one finger and then another.
“Jimmy, no. I have to tell—”
He jams the ring in my mouth and clamps his hand over my jaw. Words simmer there. A burr. A metal flavor, bitterness mixing with everything I want to say.
* * *
I am not beautiful. I am not brilliant. I’m not a saint. I’m not confident. I’m no more special than any girl who’s dreamed, who’s stayed up late to ponder stars, who’s soaked up promises, and who’s hardened solidly, her feet upon the ground, arms tight around her ribs, for warmth and to have something to hold.
My sweet boy’s head is nestled in my skirt. I look to the French doors for the pale morning sky over the water, but it doesn’t come. They say that someday the light from the farthest stars will be here, and the night will be as bright as day. We won’t dream anymore. I’ll be ready.
Dishes float on the mahogany sea. The dregs of a meal for a queen. I picture the woman’s body drifting on the gray water. And gulls descending, picking over her. And in a way whereby a feeling becomes a knowing, hard and certain, I know there will be no baby. Soon it will expel into the messy world, a bloody discharge sharing space with ragout and oil and wine.
My tongue slides the engagement ring to my cheek like a wad of gum. I clear my throat. This once bear me up. This once let me say my story. This once receive my words.
I take his sleeping heavy hand. Jimmy raises his head. He looks at me and closes his eyes again. He nestles into my skirt. He is already back to his masterful sleep when his mouth mumbles, “Was there something you wanted to say?”
Evan Morgan Williams has published over thirty stories in such magazines as Witness, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and ZYZZYVA. Recent or forthcoming work appears in Digital Americana, J Journal, and Zymbol. The bearer of an ancient, tattered MFA from the University of Montana, he welcomes inquiries: www.evanmorganwilliams.blogspot.com.