The smell would not go away. They knew what it was, but there was nothing they could do, and people were coming over. They’d cleaned. They’d disinfected. They’d made many a bleach flambé. Rand had sprayed aerosol disinfectants, and Maddy had yelled at him about toxicity before burning all the incense she could find in the backs of their cluttered drawers and moving on to sage. Theirs was a neighborhood with an overabundance of organic-scented-product shops, but before the week was up, Maddy had exhausted these resources and had moved on to the West Indians on West Fourth Street, the Amish at Columbus Circle, and finally a woman named Mrs. Choi who lived in an eighth-floor walk-up on a nameless street down in Chinatown. Rand and Maddy hadn’t banked on the smell lasting this long. It was a smell too rotten to pinpoint—a sulfuric amalgam that could only be described as revolting. They’d each believed it would fade, certainly in time for today.
They could pinpoint exactly when it started. Last Saturday, Rand and Maddy rented out their backyard garden to the New York Times Magazine. They were fortunate to live in a desirable West Tenth Street townhouse, and they often rented it out—commercials in the sunny kitchen, independent feature films—it was, at least for Rand, kind of like giving a party; they’d always given good parties. Rand and Maddy had been giving parties for years. Also, no matter how they looked at it, the pay was too good to refuse. Sometimes, also, they were in the shoots—Rand, loping kindly in a flannel shirt sipping coffee for Folgers, or sleek in a suit sipping martinis; they loved Rand, the photographers did, and he always acted surprised, looking up from his crossword, from his conversation with the caterer—I’m sorry, Me? On camera? And then there was Maddy, with that dyed cherry hair at forty-one—a look created on her fortieth birthday as an adios to auditioning—a big punky personal fuck-you to her constant attempt at versatility—a look she couldn’t pull off the way she did when she was twenty, a look that had long since morphed into a phase beyond which she couldn’t quite move. There was Maddy always out of focus or in the background, which was (as she always made a point of saying) absolutely her preference. Believe it or not—she’d said to one director after he (it was always a he) had given a particularly irritating and snazzy apologetic smile—I’ve lent this face to a fair share of commercials over the years, and this must be hard for you to imagine, I know, but the glamour has worn pretty thin.
The Times shoot that last weekend was called “Asphalt Garden,” and it featured an up-and-coming West Village chef grilling lobsters and painting them sumptuously with butter. The smoke from the grill was the color of oysters against a bluish haze of sky. The chef stood six foot one—a milk-blond named Signe who was getting famous for her fish and was calm, so remarkably calm. There were ficus trees brought in through the foyer, a teakwood table, celadon plates, linen napkins, and the models actually ate.
The models weren’t real models but rather “real people,” a collection of citizens who’d never in a million years actually be convening anywhere outside of a New York Times Style Section photo shoot. Posing as if it were the most natural phenomenon imaginable, that they were all hanging out eating lobster and getting hammered together, were: an aging musical theater legend, a young, beautiful biracial couple who “worked in film,” a cranky film critic, and an actress big as a house who performed the expected embarrassing antics—grabbing the crotch of the young filmmaker, telling the Aussie photographer that if he made her look fat, she’d sue. Everyone ate—sucking juice from the legs, cracking open the claws—and began knocking back bottles of chilled Sancerre well before eleven a.m. The concept for the shoot was an urban garden party, and it ended up, frankly, as an almost embarrassingly debauched affair. It was over ninety degrees, and people were thirsty. The actress went home after a round of laughter had sent her bursting over into tears. The young couple and the PAs smoked weed in the laundry room. It began to rain, and everyone came inside and became very comfortable very quickly, and the producer (a British den mother type named Stevie) mixed pitchers upon pitchers of Pimms. Rand and Maddy left the crew to clean up and, trusting they wouldn’t be robbed, went around the corner with Stevie after the rain had finished and the others had all gone home. They drank beer and listened to Stevie tell embarrassing stories about famous people—the insanity, the demands—and then one story about her two young boys, who were living with their father across the sea. The story was affecting—it involved one of the boys wetting his bed each night for a year—and neither Rand nor Maddy had known quite what to say. After hugging her good-bye and putting her in a cab, they had walked the short walk home, speculating.
The smell started the very next morning. Lobster had been grilled in the midst of a true heat wave, in one hundred percent humidity. Chef Signe had also done some funky reductions in their kitchen, and the stove fan was busted; fish heads had lain on the marble countertop for—who knew how long? Rand had called the Times, indignant, and the Times had come and gone, offering free stuff, making snide allusions to personal hygiene. Maddy looked around the immaculate house. She’d been up since six, cleaning. She’d made time to shower and change. Her hair was nicely wet, and her skirt was from India. It moved soft and light against her still-notable legs. She reminded herself to breathe.
“It is exactly as bad as before,” said Rand while sweeping the wide planks of their fine oak floor.
“They’re coming in twenty,” she said.
“I know,” Rand said, “I know.”
* * * *
Rand had money. His ancestors were street names in a major Southern metropolis; his family name was mentioned in conjunction with historic presidential campaigns. His maternal grandfather was the black sheep of the family, an unfamous painter who went in for Expressionism, along with dark-skinned chorus girls, and bought this townhouse in 1933 after getting one pregnant and, to everyone’s surprise, not only marrying her but in time falling deeply in love. Rand’s beautiful tawny mother, Helene, was the product of this marriage, and her weakness was demonic, “misunderstood” tennis players, with whom she rallied each summer on Long Island. She married one named Hugh who came from Locust Valley, who didn’t do much besides make Helene miserable until he left for good when Rand was six. Rand’s grandparents, at this point, had hightailed it to Barbados, and so Rand and his mother moved into the townhouse on West Tenth, and Rand grew up there, with depressive Helene and her morose friends, all of whom were heavy into analysis. Rand went to Collegiate, Rand got laid, he got by, and his mother could never figure out how the boy could be so easy-going, how her kid could enjoy a day more than anyone she ever knew. He studied anthropology at a silly liberal arts school in rural New Hampshire, dropped out, and like a true Manhattan kid, came back to the city to take pictures. He studied photography at NYU while living with different women, one after the other, so he never once needed to look for a place to live. There were abstract plans of traveling through sub-Saharan Africa, but there was also the reality of saying yes to too many invitations, and before he knew it he was twenty-nine and living back in the townhouse. He turned the former maid’s room into a darkroom. He went to clubs at night. At one of those clubs he met Maddy. She came from Utah. She wasn’t Mormon. She was performing in a show at the Kitchen, in which she stood onstage for fifteen minutes and cried.
He had come to see her perform the evening after they’d met, and he hadn’t yet been to sleep. At the time he’d written it off to his sleeplessness, to the harshness of coming down, to the fact that what he was currently doing with his life was caring for his mother, whom he loved too much and who was dying far too young, but as he’d sat among serious strangers dressed both far better and worse than he, Rand had watched this girl—a girl who’d been dancing with a pole before she’d danced with him, a girl whose last name he had just learned from reading the program notes—and, on seeing her under harsh lights, crying—he knew it was a performance piece, he knew it was conceptual and that he was supposed to be perceiving multiple sets of ironies—he had watched this girl and he had wept.
They both enjoyed drugs and museums, campy Italian restaurants, mixed nuts at hotel bars. They were great at doing nothing together, at purely passing time.
* * * *
“Are you nervous?” Rand asked, while unwrapping a stick of gum.
“About the smell?”
“No, not about the smell.”
“He’s only shooting parts of a film here. Possibly. It really has nothing to do with me.”
“It’s not like he’s going to discover me, for godssakes. He’s paying to use our house. It’s not like he’s going to find me tidying the pillows and say, where have you been for all of these years, all throughout my incredibly brilliant career?”
“You don’t have a career.”
* * * *
Maddy had come to New York in 1980, on the run from a guy named Karl Sperry, who pumped gas and played upright bass in her broken and dismal hometown. At least this is what she told everyone. She danced at the Roxy, but she also danced in a musical revue about the bible; she auditioned for everything and never, ever said no. She tended bar and slept erratically and studied method acting. She took her craft seriously for someone who attended class occasionally and got naked often and with very little provocation. She always made it seem as if acting was something that she’d stumbled into, a career path that was mostly accidental (My friend told me to come along to an audition and I was stoned so I went … Some guy came up to me on the street and asked if I wanted to be in a movie …). Although over the course of a week, after watching her watch movies, after observing how she entered a party, how—on the subway, on the streets—she fought her way through crowds—Rand could tell that lazy voice was lying. She was, he decided, scarily ambitious, and Rand, early on, took to calling her Killer. Her perceived recklessness, combined with a fair share of talent, her body (pale and angular, no tits to speak of), her mysterious way of taking up a great deal of space, and her desire to exorcise her past, all made Maddy a perfect candidate for a life in the theater. And she’d had one. She’d played Miss Julie at a reputable theater in Connecticut. She’d worked with Joe Papp. She’d done countless readings in various blackbox theaters with the famous or soon-to-be-famous. Ed Harris had played her boyfriend. Kathy Bates had played her mother (when Ms. Bates was insultingly young to be doing so). She played a hooker in a forgotten Pacino picture. And yes, she’d done commercials. Two Tampax, one douche (there’s something so clean about me, she’d say, in regards to this casting theme, there is something just so darn feminine). But in the past six years, since trying to have a baby, miscarrying, and trying again and again, Maddy had done little more than one spot on Law and Order as another tired whore. Enough of this, she had finally said, and enrolled for her college degree. She was currently majoring in Italian. She enjoyed the concrete nature of verb conjugations, the useless beauty of her course work.
“Shocking,” she’d say, if anyone asked if she missed her old life, “but I actually don’t miss waiting by the phone, worrying about my weight, my age, my body, my clothes, and being rejected daily!” Her smile was brilliant and hard. Rand would watch the uncertain reactions, the shaky nodding laughter.
* * * *
“We’ll just keep them away from the deck,” said Rand. “It’s the worst right by the deck.”
“You’re saying we have to keep them indoors.”
“They’re not going to want to go outside anyway. It’s a hundred degrees out there.”
“This is a man who brought a crew to Death Valley in August for an extremely short scene to achieve a certain ‘authenticity.’”
“Is there, like, a People magazine for Esoteric Thespians? How do you know this crap?”
“I just do. I know everything about this guy, and he’s not going to be daunted by heat.”
“Well, then, maybe he won’t be daunted by the stench of death.”
“Let’s hope so,” Maddy said, jumping as the doorbell rang.
* * * *
The director was taller than Maddy remembered. She’d remembered him as being slight and steely, but here he was—perhaps he’d put on weight?—actually kind of bearish. His hands were large, immaculate, and his eyes were small and bloodshot. She’d heard he’d kicked smoking (he was a notorious smoker, one who’d reportedly been fined numerous times for tampering with airplane fire alarms, who didn’t attend his own premieres because he couldn’t bear to screen a picture without smoking the whole way through), so she wasn’t surprised to see him chewing on some kind of stick. “Licorice root?” she asked, knowingly.
He nodded without smiling. He shook Rand’s hand grudgingly, gave his eyebrows a raise in her direction, and Maddy felt herself transforming into some kind of student dissident. She nodded right back at him, unable to stop the affectations in their tracks—a shrug to advertise just how unfazed she could be, a small round yawn. Before she knew it, she was alone in the kitchen, seriously contemplating a Xanax, having left Rand alone to take over.
“Table,” the director said, and two assistants—a frail boy named Vlad and a prematurely white-haired woman named Glynnis—measured the entry table and took a Polaroid. “Painting,” he said. “Stairs.”
Rand had known he was Russian, but the strength of the accent still surprised him. As far as Rand knew, the director had lived in Los Angeles for roughly thirty years. “Are you shooting today?” Rand said, and the director didn’t respond. “Are you planning on shooting today?”
He waved his hand in front of his face, as if swatting away a gnat.
“He’s not certain,” Glynnis said.
“How can you tell?” Rand said lightly. “Does he speak in code?”
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I’m just trying to get a sense,” he said, laughing, in the way he did when he was tired. “I’m curious.”
“Door,” the director said—the rolling “rrr” so laconic and final. “The knob.”
Glynnis wrinkled her long thin nose in Rand’s direction. “Do you—” she paused briefly before saying, “I’m sorry, but do you smell something funny?”
Rand shook his head and cleared his throat. “I don’t smell anything,” he said, meeting her eye. He noticed her pasty skin color—how it went momentarily pink—and he softened, as he couldn’t help doing, whenever he noticed his effect on women, all women, the homely and the fair.
This one wore no makeup and her eyes were the color of their floor. She looked tired, unremarkable, but all the same he couldn’t help wondering if she had children. He could barely look at a woman past twenty-five without wondering. He guessed at who had them, who wanted them, and who had wanted for so long that the want had turned inwards on itself.
Maddy was sweating and holding her breath because the smell in the kitchen was worse. It was a distracting mystery of feet and dying animals—a mossy, putrid cheese. She didn’t want anyone wandering in, looking for a drink, so she was preparing a pitcher of iced tea to put on the sideboard along with bottles of water. Her late mother-in-law, whom she’d known for less than a year before she died, had kept a pitcher full of strong iced tea in the refrigerator at all times. The first time she saw Helene make iced tea, Maddy had stood smoking a clove cigarette on the kitchen’s deck—ashing in her hand—while Helene rolled lemons on the marble countertop to draw out the juice. She had watched the punk wraith of a girl that Maddy was back then, and she’d asked, Do you think you might want children someday? And Maddy had laughed out loud. She’d laughed because she was nervous, because the house impressed her and Helene was elegant and sad and, at the time, Maddy was neither. She had laughed because not two hours before, after she’d handcuffed Rand to his childhood bedpost, he’d admitted he wanted to marry her. Maddy had laughed because she was nervous, but it came out sounding callous. Helene, no matter how much Maddy chatted with her or looked at old photograph albums, would never get over that laugh, and Maddy knew it. There was not going to be enough time. Maddy could feel Helene’s disappointment that day as she stirred ice cubes into the tea, but Maddy had done nothing but extinguish her cigarette. Rand had dated a model who’d gone to Yale, a Latin teacher; he’d lived with women who were kinder, smaller, smarter than she, women who could discuss local politics, who could cook Indian food, play the cello, enjoy running.
Helene’s disappointment had continued to grow, long after Helene was gone. When Maddy closed her eyes, she could see the disappointment. She saw it as mold on the oil-papered shelves of her own Provo home, mold that grew in the neglected corners, daring someone to clean. The mold/disappointment hovered in a cloud if Maddy flirted with the delivery boy just a tad too enthusiastically, if she slept late, if she didn’t read the paper, didn’t recycle, couldn’t have children.
“Rand?” she called out. She hoped he wasn’t busy asserting his charm and that he was staying out of the director’s way. The director was notoriously mean, and she was oddly protective of Rand sometimes, as if he had somehow missed the day in life when the world handed out self-consciousness. This was a quality that drew people to him but on the odd occasion sent them running. When she first met him, she assumed that access to money was the reason for his lack of inhibition. Then she met some more rich people. “Rand?” she called again; she didn’t want to go out there, carrying the stench with her.
“I’m right here,” he said, standing in the doorway. “Not filming today. From what I can gather, they’re just taking photographs.”
“It smells,” Maddy said, picking up the pitcher. “Can you get those glasses? It seriously smells worse than it did five minutes ago.”
“He’s a real prick, you know. I don’t care how great his films are.”
“I know you don’t.”
“I’m only saying, the man is a total—”
“Well congeniality doesn’t really ever count for shit, now does it?”
Rand shook his head in what was clearly not a response to her question and looked at her a moment too long for her taste. “I know you’re nervous,” he whispered, firmly. “I—I mean, I get it.”
“There are some things that are just true, no matter—look, I can’t help it if he’s such a visionary that I don’t care how he behaves, and I know you think it’s embarrassing that I can actually feel that way. I can’t help it if I’m a little tense because our house smells like death and I’d wanted to impress him. I’m tense—there, I said it. I just want to get through it, okay? We both agreed to do this and for whatever reason—”
“You can help it,” he said, raising his voice before pulling back down to a whisper. “For some reason you want to keep worshipping this asshole. And the bigger the asshole he is, the more respect he’ll be earning with you, right? I’m sorry, but he’s a self-proclaimed anarchist who lives in fucking Malibu who made a few good movies in the seventies. His recent attempts have been lame. You are so fucking talented, you know you are, and I hate how—”
“Can you please get those glasses please?”
When Maddy burst through the kitchen doors with a pitcher of tea and a bowl of fruit, she could smell the stench piercing the plum’s skin the very way she was sure it would pierce her own—seeping through its juicy meat and rendering everything rotten. Rand, behind her, placed glasses on the sideboard. He lined up bottles of Evian.
“If you’re thirsty,” she said in the direction of the director, but only the pale young man responded with a smile. The tired-looking woman was taking notes as the director growled intently. Maddy walked toward him and then just past him—until she was close enough to touch the director’s white and sweat-stained collared shirt—right at the base of the stairs. She saw how he needed to shave the back of his neck, where fuzzy gray hair grew in wisps, and she wondered if the director had no one in his life who’d off-handedly point out this mundane fact, no one who’d feel secure enough to—while jockeying for space at the bathroom sink—take a razor to his sagging skin. It was possible, thought Maddy (white handling the wooden knob of the banister), to make two truly great films, to have a good chance at being remembered long after nearly everyone presently living below Fourteenth Street, and to never have a single person point out how the hair on your neck is unruly and makes you look ragged and old. She caught a glimpse of a handkerchief in his back pocket and a bright pink bulge of what looked like bubblegum, but she couldn’t decipher even one of his words. She had an urge to pickpocket the pack of gum, to take him off guard for even one second and catch his look of surprise, but she turned, instead, and headed up the stairs. As he didn’t even register her presence, she couldn’t exactly bring herself to once again offer him a glass of unsweetened iced tea. A nice cold plum. Water.
By the time she reached the top of the stairs and the director’s voice increased in conviction if not volume, Maddy stopped resisting the urge to allow herself a moment to go the bathroom and check herself again. She told herself that she was checking in order to think straight, to be sanguine, and in order to stop taking everything out on her husband, whose only real flaws stemmed from the fact that he was somehow free of ambition and extremely comfortable with himself. He had dared to relieve her of a desperate need to be—frankly and embarrassingly—a star. He was flawed because, over the years, he’d successfully eradicated her hunger and her drive with his easy-breezy magnetism. She’d met him in a nightclub—he’d had guest passes, free drinks, all kinds of access—and it wasn’t until a little later that she realized that here was a city kid who moved on small town time, and the effect surpassed her expectations of all she’d thought she’d wanted. By the time they were married (in a friend’s Nyack garden) he’d coaxed her out of her calculated friendships and her habit of secretly starving herself. Rand had offered her his love and his money, and at times she truly hated him for how she never stopped saying yes.
Having kids was the one step Maddy had initially resisted, as if motherhood would inevitably represent her final surrender toward being a healthy and temperate person. However, when she finally came upon wanting a baby, the wanting felt nothing close to temperate and the force was so strong that it alone gave her morning sickness, but it became clear, soon after conceiving, that she couldn’t carry a baby anywhere close to term. And later on—when she couldn’t get pregnant and couldn’t get pregnant—when a certain friend suggested that if she didn’t want to move on to more extreme fertility treatments, then maybe Maddy didn’t really want children, and that this was perhaps merely her body’s way of agreeing with her actual desire—Maddy slapped that friend clear across the face. At the time, she wasn’t even sorry.
In the bathroom, she left the lights off. There was adequate sun through the picture window, and in the small and very precise way that is particular to superstition, Maddy had decided it was somehow bad luck to turn on lights while she checked.
It had been three weeks now. Three weeks late. Her underwear was unstained. Her vision was spotted with colored lights—heady-bright, electric—but the sight was undeniable. It was happening now—she knew it—now that they had finally both stopped trying, now that they’d given up hope. She couldn’t help touching the white, clean cotton and believing. The heather-colored bathroom held a dose of the stench that had wafted up through the windows and the floorboards, but for a few moments Maddy smelled nothing and saw nothing but milk and lilies, the brightest moon. She’d been told it would happen this way.
So when she came upon the director and his two wan helpers seated with her husband at the dining room table, she saw their sudden affability as making a strange but perfect kind of sense. Why shouldn’t the director be jovial? Why shouldn’t Rand be sitting next to him and laughing? The fact that the director was bypassing her tea for a shot of what sure looked like Grey Goose—and pouring three more shots for the others—seemed to her like some kind of celebration.
“Ah—” the director said, from his spot at the head of the table, “come.” And his eyes—finally—lit on Maddy. He rubbed his balding pate before patting the seat next to him, then sat back in his chair, a proud patriarch. Clearly, in her absence, something had been decided. “This house,” he continued, while pouring what looked to be exactly one finger of straight vodka into the tall colored glasses, “this is perfect.”
“I’m glad,” said Maddy. “Because you know—”
“This is the house,” the director said somberly, and, if Maddy wasn’t mistaken, she saw the director wink at Rand before putting forth a cough of laughter. “I raise my glass, and, please,” he said, “I’m sick from talking. Tell them, Glynnushka,” he continued, raising his chin toward the mouse of an assistant who Maddy was beginning to suspect was sleeping with the director.
“You see,” began Glynnis, in a precise and vaguely foreign lilt—maybe she looked like the first one, the first sexed-up comrade of his terrible youth—“this is a particularly momentous decision because—”
“Prosit—” Rand said loudly, and then he downed a shot.
To Maddy’s surprise, the director took no offense at Rand’s blatant interruption. He slapped his big hand on the teakwood and bellowed with laughter. “Prosit!” he said. “Fantastic.”
Vlad drained his glass in a near-invisible silence. He didn’t grimace—not even slightly. He looked barely old enough to shave.
Glynnis—snowy-haired, sturdy—continued: “You see,” she looked at Maddy and then at Rand, “this film is very . . . contained—a domestic picture, really—but his vision is . . . it is a nearly surreal claustrophobia.”
“Sounds like a great time,” said Rand. “Sounds like a real box-office hit.” Maddy wished that she could kick him under the table, but he was too far out of reach. And before she could ask about the film, this greatly anticipated project, the preproduction of which—the casting, the script changes—had been, she knew, shrouded in secrecy—
“Son-of-a-bitch,” said the director to no one in particular, and he put his hand on Rand’s shoulder, pouring Rand, and then himself, another shot. “Your husband,” he said, “your husband is something. A handsome comedian. Maybe—what do you think?—maybe I put him in my movie. What do you say, cowboy—he’s like a cowboy, no?”
“Right,” said Rand, “sounds like a plan.” But he was smiling.
Maddy looked down into the colorless, odorless, irritating vodka. This didn’t matter, she told herself, gripping the white cotton tight in her mind. She knew, without looking, that Rand was trying his very best to catch her downcast eyes.
“So this,” the director said, gesturing broadly—up at the slightly cracked paint along the ceiling, at the alabaster deco chandelier—“this is final. Tomorrow we begin. Today we drink.” He labored from his chair to pour everyone another shot.
Glynnis said wearily, “It’s bad luck to refuse.”
When he came to Maddy, the director’s face fell in mock dismay. “So drink up, beauty! Drink your hot water.”
“Sorry,” said Maddy, shaking her head, reigning in competing urges to throw the drink in his face and to flirt with a vengeance.
“I tell you what I tell my friends in Los Angeles: you cannot be an alcoholic, my dear—you’re far too young.”
“Right,” Maddy said, “that’s right. You go on and sit down now. Enjoy our vodka. I’m only sorry I can’t offer you any meat dumplings,” she said, and Rand laughed too hard.
After sitting, he once more said to Maddy, “Okay, you drink now!”
“Is that a command?” Rand asked. “Are you ordering my wife to drink?” His tone was light, and he tossed back another shot. He was beginning to engage (or acted like he was beginning to engage) in a battle fought over centuries between countless drinking companions—usually beginning with joking and ending with self-abasement—for social equality, respect. She realized she wouldn’t have been surprised if Rand was having fun. Through the street-facing windows came disorienting green and silver light of the hottest kind of day. It was light accompanied by a bloated quiet where the sun smothered even the ubiquitous city sounds: a car horn bleating in three short bursts, the shrieks of children playing. I have a secret, thought Maddy.
“I am serious,” said the director, who, after pouring and drinking, topped off Glynnis and Vlad, and topped off Cowboy Rand, whom he indicated with the bottle of vodka. “There is a certain . . . quality to his face—he would look good on the screen.”
“I see what you mean,” said Glynnis.
Vlad nodded steadily.
“I’m not talking anything too radical—there happens to be a character in the script who is mainly silent. I’m so bored, you know, by everyone I see.”
“He’s not an actor,” Maddy said, nearly choking on her words, so breathless and hot in her throat.
The director waved her off. “Who is?”
“I am,” Maddy heard herself say with a voice so free of irony it was almost biblical.
“Well,” said the director, leaning back again, “this I did not know.”
The smell emerged again—a ghost on the air, but there. Rand had forgotten it for a while, surprisingly taken with this pompous man and his inexplicable attentions. Rand had only quoted a bit of Popov in response to something he’d said, and then made some stupid joke about Tolstoy. Rand read a great deal and remembered what he read, and usually no one cared about anything he remembered. He was full of useless facts and minor information, which made him, he supposed, a good dinner companion, if nothing more. And he happened to like the Russians, always had. He hadn’t triedto be winning. And now, here was Maddy, furious. It was when she was furious (he was afraid to ever tell her) that she happened to look her best. All that heat, that nervous energy, gave her pale skin a dangerous sheen, like one of those heroines she used to make fun of while playing around in bed, all flushed and heady with misfortune—Men love hysterical women,she’d whisper, with what he always suspected was a trace of resentment. Poppies for Anna, Lily on laudanum. Oh, Maddy, he thought, oh, please.
She turned to the director. Or maybe she had never looked away. “We met,” she said; she was breathing strangely, deeply. “We met before, you know, years ago.”
The director stuck out his lower lip and shook his head. “No.”
“Yes,” Maddy said, and Rand wondered if she might not be lying. He didn’t know what she was doing, only that she was doing something. Her eyes were wet and her mouth was set. She didn’t fidget. She didn’t drink. “I auditioned for you. It was another picture set in New York—abandoned shipyards, seedy piers—”
“Order,” said Glynnis.
“That’s right,” Maddy said. “That was the name. The reviews were unfair.”
At that, the director waved his hand in front of his face again but resumed listening, patient as a judge. He poured another finger, two fingers more.
“At any rate,” Maddy continued, “I made it pretty far in the auditioning process, and after the second time seeing me, you told me—you told me personally—to come to a location in Red Hook the next day, where some ‘preliminary work’ was being done. And so of course I went. There were no subways that went to Red Hook, and it took me hours to get there because I couldn’t afford a taxi, and the bus system—as you may or may not know—can take quite a while. When I arrived at the address you’d given me, a pier—you’d scribbled it out yourself, I kept the paper for years—there was nothing but a menacing-looking man sawing a box in half. It was early spring, and the polluted water looked beautiful at first—when I still assumed you and your crew were coming. I assumed that I was somehow early and that you’d be along shortly. You were famous, after all; you didn’t need to be on time. You know, I went there in my little outfit, the kind I knew you liked—girlish, impish—I wore black liquid eyeliner, the way I learned from studying your films, and I stood there on that pier in a goddamn plaid shift. I stood in Red Hook for hours and I checked the address and the time over and over again and I stood and you didn’t come and I stopped watching the water because it had somehow become dark much quicker than seemed possible and I was in fucking Red Hook in 1983. I began to wonder if I would ever get home, but when I made it home without being raped or even mugged, I wasn’t even grateful. That is how badly I wanted to be in what turned out to be your most pretentious film to date. I would have done anything. I would have slept with you, I would have done obscene and surprising things; I would have done anything you asked. That is exactly the kind of girl I used to be. And even after you didn’t show, I still thought you’d at least, you know, get an assistant to call and leave a message, but by the time I did get home that night, it was close to midnight, and there were no messages. And when I called the next day and the day after that, no one knew what I was talking about, but nobody I spoke to seemed surprised by my story. I was, needless to say, never called for another audition.” Maddy touched the blue glass before her, but still she didn’t drink. Her voice was low and feral. Rand was afraid to move. “Why do you think that is?” said Maddy. “I mean, why weren’t they surprised?”
“I suppose,” the director countered, leaning forward not one inch, “this is because there are many desperate girls who will try anything to get ahead. I never met you,” he said. “I never did.”
“What—” said Glynnis, cocking her head, “what is that smell? Does anybody else smell that?”
“I don’t think,” Rand said, “I mean, wait one second—I just don’t think—”
“But you did meet me,” Maddy said, in that same tone that was creeping upwards in volume. “You told me I had the quality of a certain Polish actress whose name I never did learn. You told me I was fierce.”
“Fierce,” he said, with a forced laugh. “This I can almost believe. You know,” he said, pouring more vodka before leaning back and looking around, once again, at their home, “despite this supposed shameful behavior of mine, you have done very well for yourself.” He looked right at Maddy and smiled. “You have,” he said, “after all.”
“Am I the only one who can smell it?” asked Glynnis, and Maddy assured her, before rising from her seat, that no, no—she smelled it too. Maddy told the white-haired, tired woman, the assistant, that she’d go and see about it. And—ignoring Rand’s protests, his astonishment, his genuine surprise—she made her way out of the room.
The sunlight and heat were punishing in exactly the way she’d hoped for. She stood breathing in the putrid air while standing on the deck, the very same deck and the very same spot where she’d laughed at Rand’s gentle mother. That afternoon in Red Hook she had felt so lucky, so lucky to have made it to New York City, lucky to be waiting for an important director in a place so far from home. The sky that day had been deep blue—bluer than the ocean that she had seen for the very first time only weeks before, thanks to her roommate “Tan Joanne,” a sweetheart of a speed freak who’d taken Maddy home for Easter on the Jersey Shore.
The sky right now on Tenth Street was the color of pickled ginger, a pale, nearly amniotic pink, and as she walked down the stairs, she knew that she was bleeding. She could feel the blood soaking through her white cotton underwear and onto her Indian skirt, the one Rand had surprised her with—at their hotel in Madras—on an evening during their trip last month. A light rain had been falling, and her fingers had still been covered with the remnants of a mango they’d shared. They still did things like that—surprised each other with gifts neither practical nor lavish. They took a trip to India. There was sex under a ceiling fan, a hit of hashish. And then they’d come home.
And here was the blood, wet between her legs, and here was the brickwork of the patio. She lowered herself down, and the bricks were cooler than she would have thought. She touched the mud-encrusted mortar, the weeds, the stones, and one lone yellow flower. And here was a rusted lantern, the grave of Harry the terrier. One year she’d planted nothing but white flowers that glowed by the light of the moon. They’d had all kinds of dinners, homemade peach ice cream, parties that were talked about even now. There’d been debates and citronella candles burned down to the wick. Other people’s children had fallen asleep surrounded by conversation.
The garden was fecund (hydrangeas, jasmine), but the earth and the flowers were no match for the bleak smell—the direction of which was suddenly very clear—coming from behind the latticework put up beneath the deck, weathered and splintering gray.
Maddy found herself on the ground on her hands and knees, cramping severely as Rand, she imagined, was issuing the director out of the house, insisting there was no way he’d shoot one single scene. As she began to crawl, she scraped her knees and could feel dirt and pebbles adding to the sting. She could no longer breathe through her nose. As she pulled at the latticework it was clear right away that a hole had been made toward the bottom. Maddy began breaking off pieces of the flimsy façade until there was a space just big enough for her to fit through. She was finding a hideout, another one after all this time, all these years away from home. She was a girl from Provo, Utah, with a dead mother and a junkie brother named Bill who still called sometimes for money. She was a woman who hadn’t spoken to her father in over twenty years. The smell was the smell of guts—guts and humidity—and as she saw a slug clinging to a vine, she went over what she’d said to the director. She must have known—she must have—from the minute he walked through the door, just what she’d end up saying. Because she had, when it came right down to it, nothing really to lose. She would have liked to think it mattered whether she was polite or horrible to him, but in the end she knew it didn’t. No matter what kind of smoke and mirrors she’d pulled out for the occasion, no matter how many times she mentioned her career or how many names she dropped, he wasn’t going to be interested. She was a forty-one-year-old woman in decent condition who lived in a beautiful house. She should be, after all, nothing but grateful. It was dark under the deck and hardly bearable—mossy and muddy and crawling with earthworms—until the source of so much trouble became clear, and the smell suddenly paled in comparison.
My God, thought Maddy, and she almost smiled. Sancerre, Stevie, the rain.
One lobster, blackened, pulsing with ants and flies.
One lobster must have crawled—stealthy and strong—with a singular purpose and a dogged pursuit away from Chef Signe’s pile. Here was the smell—the face of the smell—and here Maddy sat in her ruined skirt on the earthworms and the mud, and she watched a blackness that was, on closer inspection, hiding the putrid green and rancid red; it was the blackness of a swarm.
Upstairs, Rand, now alone, poured the rest of the vodka into the kitchen sink. And Rand didn’t call out to Maddy just yet because Rand was crying—crying for his mother the way he did sometimes, though he would never admit this to anyone.
And the bugs buzzed, hovering in a drone, gorging on the mess of what was, no question, an improbable escape.