They do a little blow before going over, Hoxford the famous defense attorney and the girl who calls herself Jessie. He’s been with her once or twice already and finds her amusing, amusing enough he’s asked for her specifically this time around.
She has straight blonde hair that reaches halfway down her back, which is standard issue for one of his dates, as are the regular features and flawless complexion. What kills him is her voice, low and a little squeaky like a pubescent boy’s. There’s a film actress has a voice like that whose name Hoxford can never remember.
The other thing he likes about this Jessie is the look she gives him a) whenever she says something startling, or b) whenever he says something nice to her. A steady sidelong look, as is she’s summing him up. As if on the verge of trusting him but not able to convince herself that’s such a great idea.
They’re in his condo on Front Street, up near the top of the building. The sun is setting, and the living room window gives them a view of the Toronto Islands and the empty expanse of Lake Ontario beyond.
Hoxford cuts two lines on a mirror in a gilded frame, one of the antiques he’s managed to salvage from his divorce. In the mirror, his face looks drawn and baggy-eyed, as if gravity more than age is to blame. While he chops and arranges the powder, he tells her where they’re going.
“ A guy named Donald Dambois. Hadn’t seen him in twenty years, then I wind up standing behind him in line at Sam’s. I recognized him immediately, big bear of a guy with a messy looking beard. But I notice the whole time we’re talking he’s staring at the CDs in my hands. I had what, five or six, and I could tell he was embarrassed because he only had one. Stupid, isn’t it, to get worked up about something like that? I felt sorry for him, quite frankly.”
“How do you know what he was thinking?” she says. “Maybe you were imagining it.”
“He was staring at my hands and blushing. I wasn’t imagining that his cheeks turned red.”
As soon as they do the coke, he doesn’t want to go. He feels like staying in his apartment all night and getting really ripped with this girl who never agrees with anything he says. He wonders if that’s part of her act, if they’ve worked up a profile on him at the service, and that is something they’ve told her to do—to contradict his every word. The truth is he doesn’t care if the attitude is real or fake; he just enjoys being with her. He leans back against the cushions of the couch and drapes one arm along the top. With his fingers he can play with her hair.
“We were in residence together at university. For nine months, we slept in the same room. When we went to bed at night, we’d talk in the dark as we were drifting off to sleep.”
He makes a conducting motion in the air with his hand to give her a sense of drift.
“We’d tell each other our dreams, our fears, what we really thought about the other people we knew. It was easy with the lights out, in our separate beds. Easy to be honest. I don’t think I’ve ever unburdened myself like that to anyone since, not even my wife.”
“One reason you’re not married anymore.”
She’s giving him that look now and it makes him smile. People, especially women, tell him he has a nice smile. It makes him seem kind, they say.
Hoxford stands up, and Jessie remains seated on the couch. She won’t say it, but he can tell she wants more coke. He goes into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator, which is empty except for a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a giftwrapped bottle of Montrachet. He brings the wine back into the living room and hands it to her.
“You give them this. It will look better than for me to be the bearer of such an expensive gift. Less embarrassing for my old friend.”
Hoxford has arrived at the point in his career when he can charge his clients a fee even he thinks borders on the obscene. Despite the alimony and child support, he still has lots of money, and he’s learned how to hide it and make it work for him. Donald Dambois does something with books, editing or translating them. He was always good with languages but never understood a thing about money. Hoxford supposes Donald might make one-tenth, if that, of his own annual income.
Halfway down, the elevator stops and an older man and woman in evening dress step in, spicing the air with perfume and talcum powder. The woman ignores Hoxford and the girl, but the man, who has a flesh-colored hearing aid in one ear, gives Jessie an appraising look. As he turns his back, he grimaces. Hoxford is buzzing from the coke and can’t stop talking. He raises his voice a little to ensure that the old man will be able to hear.
“I knew his wife too. The most beautiful woman I ever laid eyes on, absolutely ravishing. And it wasn’t just me who thought so. Every man she met fell in love with her immediately. Comical in a way, the effect she had. I watched her walk down Bay Street one day near Bloor. She literally stopped traffic and she wasn’t doing anything more than strolling along, minding her own business. Twenty years old, in the full bloom of youth, and nobody could resist her.”
“Could you resist her?” says Jessie.
“Oh, I didn’t even try. In fact, you could say I broke her in for him.”
The elderly woman blinks when he says that. The man with the hearing aid turns to look at him, and it’s satisfying to see that his face has gone pale. For a moment, he thinks the man will spit on him. Then the elevator doors open, and he takes Jessie by the elbow and pushes past without asking to be excused.
It’s one of the first fine evenings in May and what Hoxford likes to call the magical hour of dusk. In spite of the mild weather, he prefers to keep the windows of the Lexus up and the air conditioner on low. They have to cross the viaduct to get into the east end of the city. One wing of the suicide-prevention fence has already gone up; when the other is in place, the bridge will look like some elongated angel getting ready to soar. He wonders how many people made use of the unfledged angel to send themselves soaring into the next world. Where will Toronto’s terminally depressed go now that their favorite launching pad has been denied them? Jessie pushes in the lighter and takes a cigarette out of her purse.
“I just want one before we get there.”
“Are you nervous? There’s no need to be.”
“He didn’t actually invite you over, did he?”
The lighter clicks. She presses it to her cigarette, and he gets a whiff of toasted tobacco. She lets the smoke drift out her nose.
“I had to insist,” he tells her. “I had to talk him into it. But when I called this afternoon to confirm, he was fine. Listen, this won’t take long. Dinner, coffee—then we’re out of there. Maybe hear some music afterwards.”
“Why did you insist when you could tell he didn’t want to?”
“It’s not him, actually; it’s his wife I want to see.”
“Did you really fuck her?”
“Look, why do you have to be so crude?”
He keeps his voice even when he says that, but the words alone are enough to shut her up. She smiles and snorts to indicate she couldn’t care less whether he thinks she’s crude or not, but he can tell the thrust has hit home. She presses the window button and drops her half-finished cigarette into the slipstream, then folds her arms and looks straight ahead.
Hoxford is enjoying himself. He feels certain the evening can only get better from his point of view. Now that he’s cast Jessie off in a manner of speaking, he decides to reel her back in again.
“Remember that girl from Afghanistan who was on the cover of National Geographic? The one with the mesmerizing eyes?”
“Of course. They just went back to try and find her again.”
“Exactly. That’s the kind of beauty this guy’s wife had when I knew her—she was unbelievable. The only difference was that Estella had a kind of tenderness in her face that wasn’t there with the girl in the magazine. They found her, you know. Did you see what she looks like today?”
“Like an old woman,” says Jessie.
“In her early thirties, but her face has turned hard like a piece of stone, and the beauty’s completely washed out. This is what comes from a life of unrelieved brutality. Did you see what they had the idiocy to ask? They asked if she was happy!”
Jessie laughs. She has a softly honking kind of laugh, unforced and easy on the ear.
“She told them she’d never been happy,” says Hoxford. “Maybe once, on her wedding day, but that was it. What an incredible story.”
“And this is how you feel about this woman, Estella? Like we’re not going there just for dinner. We’re on some kind of expedition in search of lost beauty.”
“That’s exactly how I feel. It’s uncanny, you know. Sometimes I think you’re able to read my mind. Before I speak, you already know what I’m going to say.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he watches her struggle to suppress a smile. To cover her happiness, she says the first thing that pops into her head.
“They have kids, this couple?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Then he allows some unbridled emotion into his voice.
“Who gives a shit whether they have kids or not?” he says. “We’re not going there to see their kids.”
She gives him a goggle-eyed look.
“I was just wondering.”
And with that she turns her head to stare out the window the rest of the way.
They live in Riverdale, Donald Dambois and his wife Estella. Hoxford can’t remember what her maiden name was, though he’d known it well at one time. How he hates Riverdale, this depressing neighborhood that’s somehow transformed itself into one of the hottest real estate markets in the city. It always seems dark to him there, with the same kind of darkness a forest has. And the houses, no matter how big and imposing, always have a dingy, ramshackle look.
The street he’s looking for is lined with cars, so Hoxford has to park a couple of blocks away and they walk over. He in his leather bomber and Jessie in leather skirt, ice-blue stockings, and a possum jacket she’s dug out of some rag-and-bone shop on King Street. Her spiked heels scrape the sidewalk as they stride along, and a young mother pushing a pram moves to one side to let them pass. Hoxford can see a baby crying, waving its tiny fists. Jessie begins to sing. A lullaby, but not so much to the baby, because she goes on singing when they’re well past the pram. She’s really singing to him, to Hoxford, her john.
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Her singing voice is flat and husky, but that she should even try Hoxford finds amusing. No, gratifying might be a better way of putting it.
“The enduring charms of Sir Paul,” he says.
“Thomas Dekker, actually. From the sixteenth century. Sir Paul’s a real kleptomaniac when it comes to song lyrics. For this, he just provided the musical setting.”
The first time they went to bed and once the sex was over, she made him a bet for fifty dollars. Completely coked out, she was sitting with her back against the headboard and the sheet pulled up to cover her breasts. She held one fist in the air with index finger extended and moved it back and forth, as if underlining her words for emphasis.
“Give me the first line of any English poem, and I’ll tell you the title and who wrote it.”
“What kind of a game is this,” he said.
“It’s a game I like to play.”
The moving finger underlined the sentence.
“But how do you know?”
“That I know any poems at all?”
She stared at him without saying anything. He could tell she wasn’t stumped. She was just taking her time answering.
“Well, you read. There’s at least one book in every room in this apartment, including the kitchen and the shitter. So—fifty bucks says you can’t stump me.”
He did read, if only because it gave him an advantage in court. In training himself as a young lawyer, he’d found there was nothing like a well-timed quote from Shakespeare or Milton or Frost to turn a juror’s head. But it surprised him she’d noticed the books. He had no bookshelves because he didn’t like the clutter they attract. Often when he’d finished with a book, he threw it out. Or if he thought it might be useful for reference, he put it in a banker’s box in his storage area.
That night he played her game for a while and then pretended to grow bored with it all. Actually, he was dumbfounded. She nailed every single poem, even one of the more obscure sonnets from the Astrophel and Stella sequence.
“Quite the trick,” he said as she was leaving, and handed her the extra fifty-dollar bill, red and crisp. She grinned and licked her lips when she took it from him.
The door opens as soon as Hoxford knocks, as if they’ve been waiting in the foyer. Three of them standing there with arms around each other, Donald, Estella, and a kid who looks to be six or seven years old. All three are smiling, as much, he thinks, to encourage each other as to greet their visitors. Estella’s hair, which had been lush and black as midnight, has gone grey before its time, and not just in streaks but completely. It has a brittle look. So does her face, which bears all the long-term and contradictory marks of pride, resignation, courage, and depression.
“Hello you two,” says Donald.
Estella and the boy make what can only be described as signs of welcome. They’re both stone deaf.
Hoxford doesn’t trust himself to look at Jessie until he’s shaken Donald’s hand and kissed Estella on both cheeks. He introduces Jessie as a friend of his. It’s amusing to see that for the first time in their acquaintance he’s managed to engineer a situation in which she feels perplexed, uncertain of what to do next. And now—the real payoff—Donald and Estella perceive Jessie’s surprise and realize Hoxford hasn’t prepared her. They’re embarrassed for Jessie’s sake, and this intensifies Jessie’s own embarrassment, but it also mitigates their dismay that Hoxford would bring a girl like her to their home, because they can see at once what she is. The waves of discomfort wash back and forth, but Hoxford himself remains unperturbed, taking from the others’ difficulties the exquisite pleasure of the connoisseur. The only wrinkle to his satisfaction is the little boy, who can’t take his eyes off Jessie. He stares at her so intently Hoxford wonders if a kid that young can already feel something like lust for a beautiful woman.
In the living room, while they’re all still making their adjustments, Estella takes the two jackets to put away. As she’s walking out, Hoxford sees her stroke the possum fur and press it to her nose. Immediately and against his better judgment, he feels a surge of tenderness for this woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Imbedded in the tenderness, perhaps because it strikes him so unexpectedly, is the faintest hint of fear.
Jessie is crouching on her heels in front of the child.
“What’s your name, buster?” she says.
He spells out something with his fingers and makes an urgent sound in the back of his throat.
“I’m Sean,” says Donald, the translator.
“Oh, that’s a fine Irish name. Is your mum Irish?”
“I don’t think so,” says Donald as Sean signs. “She’s Canadian.”
Jessie laughs and pushes herself upright.
“Well, whatever. I have a sentimental attachment to that name. My first boyfriend’s name was Sean.”
Hoxford can hardly believe his ears. Her first boyfriend was probably a gang-bang.
Estella comes back into the room. She’s signing to her guests, asking what they would like to drink.
“Oh, here, we brought some wine.”
She takes the bottle, presses it to her breast and points at it.
“It’ll be warm by now,” says Hoxford. It’s probably fine, but he would like something stronger for an aperitif.
“Then what would you like?”
Jessie says a Coke, and the boy signs and Donald says, “Me too.”
There is laughter, then the boy points at Jessie and makes a fanning motion with his fingers. Estella laughs in a way that puts Hoxford’s nerves on edge.
“You’re gorgeous,” says Donald to Jessie. There is something in his voice that makes it plain he agrees with Sean’s assessment. “You look just like a peacock.”
Jessie beams. She has the rare quality of knowing how to take a compliment, and it’s clear she finds the little boy charming.
Hoxford steals another look at Estella, whose eyes are flashing between Donald and Jessie. She’s thinner than he remembered, the bloom of youth vanished for good some time ago. She looks a little used up, quite frankly, a trifle worn out. No one would describe her as ravishing now, or as a peacock for that matter. At most, they’d say she’s handsome, and Hoxford has always felt that to be a truly sterile term when applied to a woman.
He still hasn’t said what it is he wants to drink, and when Donald presses him he parries with a laugh. He uses laughter as a weapon, Hoxford does: a) offensively, to ridicule people; b) defensively, to keep them at bay.
“Oh, anything. Whatever you’re having.”
Donald nods at Estella, as if answering a question she asked before their guests arrived. When she goes to make the drinks, they settle themselves, Donald on one sofa and Hoxford and Jessie on another, with the little boy perched on a Windsor chair. As Jessie sits, her skirt does what it was designed to do, it gets out of the way of her thighs. Donald’s face goes as red as that day in the record store.
Jessie and Sean get their Cokes in highball glasses with plenty of ice, and Hoxford and Donald each get two fingers of scotch in an old fashioned glass, neat. Estella hasn’t fixed herself anything. She’s sitting there with folded hands and a bored look, as if attending a concert or religious service.
“Well, I was going to offer a toast,” says Hoxford. “But if you’re not joining us, I’ll refrain.”
She shrugs and makes a wiping motion in front of her face. The meaning is so obvious, Donald doesn’t bother to say anything and for a moment there’s just the silence.
“You don’t care for scotch?” Hoxford persists.
A little exasperated, she holds up both hands and signs.
“I like it,” says Donald, “but it doesn’t like me.”
Getting her into bed had been much easier than Hoxford had thought, and that was the reason why: she turned out to be something of a lush. He’d invited her over for dinner—he had his own apartment by then, the year after he’d been in residence with Donald—and as soon as he saw how quickly she drank her first glass of wine, he knew he was in, in like Flynn.
His candle days, he called that time of his life, if only because it seemed like every time he took a girl to bed it was done to candlelight. There were twelve candles on the mantle of the false fireplace the night Estella came over. He got her to help him light them all, like it was a game they were playing. They’d already finished the first bottle of wine by then, and when he turned off the overhead light, the candles flared, shadows conquered the corners of the room, and Estella made an appreciative noise deep in her throat.
He fixed poulet Marengo, a dish that was hard to screw up but never failed to impress. At table, in fact all night long, he did the talking for both of them, and there was very little blank time, very little time when you couldn’t hear his voice going or both of them laughing. Sometimes he would tell a story that she would follow with both hands, as if she were translating for herself. At others he would ask a question and answer it himself, and she would indicate whether she agreed with the answer or not. If not, he would answer it again until he was able to phrase in his own words what she was thinking. By the time they got up from the table to dance, they’d killed three bottles. He hoped she wouldn’t be sick later and then thought, what does it matter if she is?
Estella stood on his shoes in her stockinged feet, and, as much as he could, he moved his feet in time to the music she couldn’t hear—some bitter, depressing ballad by Sarah Vaughan—and she rested her head against his chest so she could feel him humming. When the song was over, he stopped humming, stopped moving his feet, and she went up on tiptoe to be kissed.
Before going into the bedroom, they put out the candles one by one. When she blew at the first, spittle coated her lips, and she gave him a sneaky, sidelong look. He could see how drunk she was. Wait, he said, and opened a cupboard beneath the mantle. He took out two brass snuffers and handed her one. She enjoyed that, pressing the brass cap over the flame and holding it there for a moment. One by one, it got a little darker in the room, the grey smoke rising from each dead candle and fading. There was the heavy smell of burnt wicks, and by the time they were finished it was completely dark. When he took her by the hand, she squeezed so hard it made him realize how frightened she was.
Donald is using the word “indulgence.” Single malts are the one indulgence he permits himself. He goes to tastings and every so often springs for a bottle. The peaty ones are his favorites, just those that nobody else likes very much. Hoxford holds his glass to his nose, and the scent of iodine digs in.
“Scotch and books,” he says.
He means that his host has more than one indulgence. The walls of the living room are lined with bookcases that Donald probably made himself. They’re all stuffed to overflowing and many of the books look like they’re falling apart. The spines are cracked and you can see yellow pages of foolscap sticking out, no doubt covered with Donald’s painstaking notes. How can anybody read like that? thinks Hoxford. Where’s the enjoyment?
“There’s a big difference between an indulgence and a passion,” says Donald.
So, he can feel passion for a book? Paper, ink, and glue—this is all it takes? What about other people? What about women and their living flesh? Book collecting has nothing to do with passion, Hoxford’s sure of that. It’s nothing but an escape from everything passion signifies.
In bed with Estella, he discovered he was the first to get there. This surprised him. He’d assumed anyone so beautiful would be more experienced. There was plenty of blood. In the bathroom mirror, he stared at himself, smearing it up from his groin over his belly. Womanly blood, he thought. She wasn’t a girl anymore, thanks to him. He even tasted it, the blood from her torn hymen, before washing and returning to bed. They had sex again, then fell asleep facing each other, her wine-sour breath on his face. As he was drifting off, he felt her take his hand in both her hands, cupping it, the way a kid would hold a grasshopper or cricket. This is something different, he thought, and then he was off. In the morning, he found his hand still imprisoned. He wondered if this had something to do with her deafness, as if she were stilling an organ of speech, the better to sleep.
Once they were up, it was painful trying to get her to leave, and he avoided her from then on. Not that he didn’t like her, quite the opposite. But really—a deaf girl? And if they had kids, wouldn’t they all be like her? The thought of such need and imperfection was more than he could bear. Better to end it as soon as possible, before the complications multiplied.
“How many children do you have?” says Jessie. She’s looking at the photographs on the mantle above the fireplace.
The question irritates Hoxford, and he takes a good shot of the scotch.
“Four including Sean, who’s by far the youngest.”
Sean and Estella are both signing, and then Sean’s hands keep working after his mother’s stop.
“William will graduate from university this year, and his sisters, the twins, have just started. They can all hear perfectly, but Sean and Estella have taught them to sign and they’ve become quite good at it. Especially Marcia. In fact, she wants to work with the hearing impaired after she graduates.”
“Is it?” Hoxford mumbles.
Jessie gives him a warning look. For the first time this evening, the little boy moves his eyes from Jessie to him. For some reason, Hoxford is touched by Jessie’s look, by her concern for social decorum.
“This is an Islay, isn’t it?” he says to Donald.
Sean makes a quick questioning motion with his hand, and Hoxford knows what he is asking without being told. It’s like with French, he can follow the conversation of children but with adults he’s lost.
“What did you say?” says Donald.
“You heard me.”
“I did, but Sean couldn’t make it out. Your mouth hardly moves when you speak, and that makes it difficult to lip-read. Especially when you’re using unfamiliar words.”
Hoxford shrugs to indicate he couldn’t care less. He assumes the kid won’t have any trouble understanding that.
Dinner is lasagna, Caesar salad, and a ready-bake loaf of Italian bread, the sort you find in a supermarket’s freezer. They didn’t go to any trouble, thinks Hoxford. Then as he begins to eat, he’s transported. Not in the sense of having a fine culinary experience, but back in time to the days when he was avoiding Estella, the days when he could have had her for the asking. Whenever people got together back then, lasagna was the meal of choice, the easiest thing to make for a crowd and always the best.
There’s a decent Chianti to go with the food, and even Estella allows herself a glass. The wine puts color in her cheeks, but she still looks old, older than she should. Hoxford finds himself wishing she’d let herself get a little drunk. Maybe then he could recognize something in her face that’s survived from her youth. Maybe then she would look him in the eye, which she’s avoided doing all night.
How enduring shame can be, he thinks. From a lush she’d gone to being an out-and-out slut. He kept track in a notebook he filled with reflections on the different women he’d bedded. From what he was able to determine, in the year after him, she’d been with at least eight different men. That was a lot for anybody. Anybody but a pro like Jessie.
Then the next year, she stopped drinking, stopped fucking around, and her life stabilized. She was shacking up with Donald, and it was obvious to Hoxford—to anyone, really—that the two of them were made for each other. For one thing, Donald was the first of her men to learn sign language. Hoxford knew it was stupid, but as soon as he realized she was happy, he began to want her again. For years he dreamed about her, and in his dreams she could speak perfectly. For some reason that in itself—that she could talk in his dreams—made him understand what an idiot he’d been to turn his back on her.
Hoxford’s plate is empty. He realizes that the dinner talk, which surrounded and included him when they first sat down, has adjusted to his distraction and moved on. The other four are having a high old time without him. Donald has stationed himself at the head of the table, with Estella on his right and Jessie on his left. Sean is beside his mother and Hoxford beside Jessie. Sean’s concentration on Jessie is so intense, it’s as if he’s chainsawed a line across the table, cutting Hoxford out of the conversational round, but this doesn’t bother Hoxford in the least. In fact, it amuses him that this dull, underachieving, middle-class family has allowed itself to be enchanted by a young prostitute.
Sean collects the dinner plates, while Donald makes coffee. Estella has done everything else, and now she’s relaxing. Sean brings her an ashtray and a leather cigarette purse that he opens by pressing a snap. He hands his mother a cigarette, pinching it by the filtered end, and lights it for her, his tongue stuck between his lips in concentration. As she draws back, she smiles her thanks. Finally, Hoxford sees something familiar—or reminiscent might be the better word—in her face, her eyes glazing with pleasure as she inhales. She looks at Jessie and points with her cigarette at the ashtray.
“Yes, I would,” says the younger woman and the two of them laugh, the one so pleasant sounding, the other hampered and abrupt. When Jessie takes a cigarette from her purse, Sean springs up to light it for her. Donald brings in coffee on a tray.
“Lovely,” says Jessie each time he puts a cup on the table. “Lovely” four times, and when Sean gets a glass of milk, “I bet you’d like another Coke instead.”
“No more Coke for Sean. He’s addicted to that stuff, and if he has one after dinner, he won’t go to sleep.”
“Well, I’m a caffeine addict too, Sean,” says Jessie and the boy blushes with pleasure. “Only my beverage of choice is coffee.”
“The last respectable addiction,” says Donald.
“It really is, isn’t it? I’ve noticed that writers, for one, tend to be coffee addicts.”
“Whoever said writers were respectable people?” Hoxford expects to get a laugh from the line, but nobody pays him any mind.
“Do you do any writing yourself?” Donald asks Jessie. His voice has taken on the considerate, careful tone one uses on a first date. Hoxford looks at Estella, who is staring at the ashtray while she smokes but seems to sense what each person is saying.
“Oh, I guess you could say I keep a journal.”
“Really.” Donald gives Hoxford a look. “Well, I’m sure it’s full of interesting material. Who are your journal-keeping mentors, if you don’t mind my asking. I assume Anais Nin, for one?”
“Oh, I suppose,” says Jessie and giggles. “I’ve read Kafka’s journals and John Cheever’s. And the notebooks of Georges Bernanos, the guy who wrote Diary of a Country Priest. If I’ve got to have mentors, I suppose those are them.”
“I’d say they’re some of the best. But I’m surprised to hear that young people still read Bernanos.”
“I don’t know about everybody else, but I do. And talk about a coffee addict. That guy set the standard.”
“Well, I salute you.” Donald raises his cup and sips from it. “When did they finally get around to translating his Cahiers?”
Jessie looks at him before replying. Only Hoxford knows how much she is savoring the moment.
“As far as I know, they haven’t.”
He watches Estella look at her husband from beneath her brow, watches several thoughts play out across Donald’s face before he resigns with a smile and says nothing. Hoxford finds this all highly amusing.
“You really are the eighth wonder of the world,” he tells Jessie.
She gives him that look, the steady, sidelong stare. For a moment, it’s as if they’re the only two people in the room. Then he completes the thought.
“An educated whore.”
Hoxford can see the little boy make that questioning motion with his hand—What did he say? Estella puts her hand over Sean’s and stills it, then brings it to her lap and holds it in both of hers. For the first time all evening, she looks Hoxford in the eye, but there’s nothing for him to see, nothing but indifference and the inability to understand what he’s doing there.
Outside, Jessie refuses to go back to the condo with him. At the same time, she makes it clear she wants her money. Hoxford walks along the street to the car and she pursues, making her demands.
“I haven’t had sex yet,” he reminds her.
“You got your sick, twisted pleasure, though. Plenty of that for one night.”
“Not the physical kind, and that’s what you get paid for.”
She grabs his elbow and pulls him around. It’s dark out now and the haloes of the streetlights are alive with moths and mosquitoes. Jessie jerks her head at a building across the street. It looks like a meeting hall for some sort of evangelical sect, and the lot beside it is empty and unlit.
“What do you want, I should give you a blow-job in the parking lot?”
He waits just long enough to assure himself this is a genuine offer, then produces the pre-arranged wad of cash. Her face has gone flinty with anger and contempt. She snatches the money, and he watches her wobble off down the street on those spiked heels, her shoulders hunched and arms around herself as if to keep from crying. When you think of it, she’ll probably age about as quickly as that girl in Afghanistan, the one who’d never been happy, except maybe on her wedding day. That’s the part that kills Hoxford—the girl said “maybe” even about that.
This story first appeared in The Fiddlehead’s Spring issue, 2004, and it was reprinted in The Journey Prize Stories, 2005.