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A Puff of Roses

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987

A medieval folk belief suggests this approach for shedding stray witches encountered upon the road: talk, make them argue with you; keep talking, about what makes no matter. This patter so angers any witch, the belief holds, that her true nature is revealed and she must scuttle off in frenzy.

“So what are you telling me?” John is asking Shelley this a second time. Shelley glares. From where John is standing inside his house and behind his screen door, Shelley’s head seems to glow with an almost supernaturally greenish haze. The screen refracting sunlight couldn’t do that, could it? he asks himself. John, a Kentucky restaurateur unsophisticated in medieval folk beliefs, has, let’s say, a rough feel for fine things. Shelley, unable to rattle John off this one question or even get past his screen door, angrily twists her ruby ring, leaving it ominously inverted before trying once more.

“Just as I told you. I think that you should know what the two of them are up to.”

“I’ve known what the two of them are up to for nearly four months.” John lifts his barren ring finger as proof. “So what are you telling me?” A third time, now. Good, John, good.

But today, Shelley will not be shed. She moves a shiny red nail down her cleavage in primal incantation. Unsophisticated John does not continue with the patter approach as he should, but watches falteringly, finally offering Shelley an afternoon drink and unlatching his screen door.

Now, offering fairy folk and their supernatural kith food or drink is safe, for they usually won’t take it. This is like the immortal line from Bella Lugosi’s Dracula: “I don’t drink . . . wine.” What one can’t or shouldn’t do is take a drink (or any oral ministration, for that matter) from these supernatural ones. Such might enslave an innocent forever. So far then, John is cooking with gas.

Shelley steps into the house, looks around the living room, then follows John into the dining area. She bends back through the arched passageway to make sure—yes, there is still a picture of Sue Anne, John’s estranged wife, sitting on the TV. The TV, of all places, this witch thinks. What taste.

John holds up a decanter of burgundy. “Medoc ‘74,” he tells her. “A special buy for the restaurant.”

“I don’t drink wine,” she answers.

John shrugs and pours himself a glass,

“I’m surprised you still keep a picture of her, John.”

He looks up. He has been preoccupied with running his fingers over the rough cuts of the wine decanter, a wedding present. “I’d rather not talk about her. How’s your new job with the state?”

“Like every promotion in state government. I work less, as you can easily see,” Shelley sweeps her arms to indicate her workday presence in his house, “and I get paid more. The real talk is what you’re doing. I hear you’re negotiating a branch of Columbo’s in Lexington. I assume you’ll run it?”

John lifts his glass in a toast. He can’t but feel proud of his steak house—the informal political chamber of the capital, where a common tobacco farmer might rub with the governor.

“It’s probably the best thing for you. To get out of Frankfort and its memories, that is.” Shelley again moves her fingers down her cleavage. John watches her do so, then leaves his glass of wine and approaches. Shelley leans against the archway. She tilts her head, offering her fine, white neck.

Often, in folk tales, if the witch cannot readily get the unsuspecting knight to blaspheme or drink her potion, she offers her lily-white body. The knight will almost always be on a great pilgrimage in the name of Our Blessed Lady. He will naively think that the lily-white witch before him is a heavenly handmaiden come to relieve all earthly aches and sorrows. Near capitulation, he will accidentally rub his gauntleted hand over an holy image of the Virgin Queen that hangs about his neck. The most Holy Mary, realizing the foibles of flesh, intercedes at this very moment, sending a snorting wild boar to root about the lily-white lady’s long tresses, or a raven to peck her flaxen hair. Either causes the witch to curse evilly and transform into the hag that she really is. As the flabbergasted knight watches, he suddenly notices the sweet scent of roses, Our Blessed Lady’s favorite flower, filling the air as if myriads of petals had cascaded from heaven.

John reaches for Shelley’s neck. John, it should be noted, is not your typical 80’s restaurateur, for he has taken his commitment to wife Sue Ann quite seriously, despite her moving out five months previous. John, with some justice, has excused Sue Anne’s behavior as her frustration with their inability to conceive. He thinks: I love her; she loves me; she will be back. Consequently, this is the first lily-white neck he has touched in those same five months. Nonetheless, he is faltering now. There seems, for him, to be a soft electricity emanating from that lily-white skin. The electricity sizzles. Heavens! As yet there are not even guinea pigs or blackbirds anywhere about.

“I can’t,” John says, removing his hand, his gaze falling to the floor. “You were her friend.”

Shelley breathes in. She angrily twists her ruby ring. She breathes out. “I still am, John. But I’m your friend, too. Things happen like that these days. Don’t you watch Dallas?” She laughs breezily, then reaches for his wrist. He feels the electricity surge once more. He falters, then steadys somewhat.

“I have to be at the restaurant in an hour. Let’s talk later. It won’t be busy tonight, so we can talk in the lounge.”

She smiles, brushing her fingers against his hand.

And so the first leg of our knight’s journey belongs to his valor, his purity. He is, though, barely to the outskirts of London, and the woods are surprisingly beset with oak.

*  *  *

Instead of politely honking or waving goodbye to John, Shelley pumps her accelerator three times. She backs out of his driveway, her creamy pale arm resting against her forest green car.

“Slow-headed bastard,” she says to herself as she pulls away.

Shelley allows no music in her Oldsmobile. Music distracts her from the hum of the engine as it synchronizes her plans. Her Oldsmobile begins to purr.

What Shelley concentrates on when she leaves John’s is what she might tell him that evening which would tip the scales out of bitch Sue Anne’s favor. It can’t be something too shocking, she thinks: mild amperage only, and within a month of continual arcing, bitch Sue Anne will be short-circuited. And if she’s short-circuited with John, can the capital crowd be far behind? And HEW? Another promotion in half a year for yours truly, Dame Shelley.

Small potatoes, small potatoes, her Oldsmobile suddenly purrs.

Of course, Kitty. With John boy so hot to trot there’s whole roast waiting in the oven. Shelley’s eyes throw sparks wildly about the car’s interior. But Shelley worries that her news of Frank and Sue Anne’s planned cohabitation hadn’t jolted John all that much. The truth, she thinks, carries ineffectual amperage.

You know that; you know that, her Oldsmobile tells her.

The restaurant, of course. That’s his real baby. She can tell him that Frank and Sue Anne are spreading rumors about Columbo’s going under. Rumors about his over-extension in the Lexington opening. Creditors. Ptomaine.

Patience, patience, comes the car’s purr.

You’re right, Kitty. Shelley pats the dashboard. I won’t tell John any of this directly, I’ll spread rumors at the office in bitch Sue Anne’s name and let idle tongues carry my work like so many relay stations and transformers. Zap! Overload. Power failure.

The Oldsmobile glides obediently across the darkening town of Frankfort.

* * *

We envision a knight as starting each pilgrimage by taking a red rose from his lady love and an amulet from the local shrine of the Blessed Virgin, then holding both close to his heart. John puts on his tie, a maroon and tan paisley that Sue Anne had given him some years before, and clasps it with a full carat diamond tie pin that his mother passed down from her father. John then splashes aftershave on his face and gulps the remainder of the medoc.

There are no surprises at the restaurant: it is a slow Tuesday. “If a lady with green eyes shows up, I’m in the lounge,” he tells his maitre d’hotel.


John stops in surprise. “How did you know?”

“She’s becoming a regular, boss, And you can’t miss those eyes.” His maitre d’hotel gives John a wink, then self-consciously rubs lint off his sports jacket.

It is often difficult for a journeying knight to sort highwaymen from helpful villagers. He must, therefore, employ every sense fully: his smell (Is that waft the decaying iron of blood or the jovial welcome of burgundy?); his hearing (That silken whisper—is it a hand clutching a dirk, or a belly gurgling over a rasher of pork?). Similarly, his taste, his sight, even his touch. How low our knight must stoop! Moreover, it never hurts our boy to trust the mangy cheeks of blind-dog luck to puff the sails of his perspicacity.

As John’s maitre d’hotel brushes the lint off his coat, his hand accidentally rubs over some paper that crinkles. “I can’t believe I almost forgot,” the maitre d’ hôtel says, “Sue Anne called. She left this number for you to phone.”

John takes the paper. He doesn’t recognize the number. So what Shelley says is true. “Thanks, Sam.”

He walks to the lounge and pours himself a drink, indicating to the bartender by hand signals that he will be in the adjacent office.

Once inside, John sits, angry with himself for staring at the phone, for even wanting to return the call at all. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She was supposed to get it all out of her system and come running back. Live for a while in her Cosmo-pad, play bachelorette, but finally run out of gas for the fast lane. We’ve put in 12 years of sharing, after all, John thinks. He calls the number. He hangs up after one ring. He calls. “Sue Anne?” his voice cracks as she answers. He plunks his finger against the rocks glass, even angrier at himself for letting it all show.

“John? John, listen. I’ve broken up with Frank. We were going to move in—stupid. I stopped the movers halfway down the block. It was just too permanent. I mean with us. . . .”

He can’t speak.

“I lost my lease. But I went out and found a gorgeous dump in an hour’s notice. The landlady has four white poodles. Her house doesn’t exactly smell like the dumpster behind the restaurant . . .but close.”

He can’t speak.

“John? I don’t know what I expected you to say: Go to hell, bitch; So what? . . . John?”

“You know I’d never say that.”

“I’m not sure. I mean I’m not sure that you shouldn’t. I guess I’ve changed my . . . I guess I’m the little girl who cried “Wolf!” How old did you say Abraham and Sarah were when they had Isaac?” Her voice cracks in false laughter. “Do you remember telling me that?”

He does. He remembers twisting the wine decanter about, searching for one, just one smooth facet among the acid-etched many to serve as a mock-crystal ball so he could predict a change of fortune. But there was none. So he told Sue Anne about Sarah and Abraham, at 90 years and a 100, respectively; about the vision of the Lord and the birth of Isaac. And Sue Anne had listened politely and taken the decanter in her hands and found the yet much needed crystal ball as she pulled out the decanter’s smooth stopper and held it to the light. “Not one boy, but two,” she had said, “and certainly not named Isaac. And certainly not at 90 and 100, but next year, at 33 and 37. Respectively.” And though they had made love with Biblical vigor, there had been no Isaac. So Sue Anne had set out on her own, for a bastard-son Ishmael.


“Come over. Let’s talk.”


He pauses, remembering Shelley. “Nine o’clock.”

There is a little known account of Gawain, Knight of the Grail, which goes as follows: After years of seeking, Gawain stumbles upon a hideous pink castle whose walls grow with the moss of the surrounding moat. Gawain halooes, halooes until he rasps with the moat’s gasses. “A friend of our Lady and Jesus!” Gawain finally declares as he crosses the drawbridge—whereupon the rotten timbers give way, and his feet and thighs are deeply gashed. He pulls himself out and braves onward, reaching the door to the keep. As he struggles to force the crossbar with the point of his sword, hideous vipers and horny frogs clamber from the moat, slipping their horny poisons through those now bent armor joints to stiffen Gawain turgidly. Sickly, Gawain languishes five days on the drawbridge. On the sixth, a damsel who claims herself virgin prisoner easily lifts the crossbar and tempts him to penetrate and burn the castle. Gawain, at tale’s end, discovers the castle this woman wants him to burn houses the Holy Grail, so he runs his sword through her belly.

Freudian scholars may scoff at the devices of this tale, but its moral is simple: let not the irrelevant sway thine eyes.

When Shelley comes in at seven, John is polishing champagne glasses. His bartender and manager have wisely set their boss to this task after he had begun nervously rearranging tables and chairs around uneasy customers. Now, at seven, the champagne glasses and three Chivas Regals have calmed him somewhat, though he still bursts out excitedly:

“Shelley! The strangest thing—Sue Anne called today.” Clear the air, he thinks.

“To tell you she had moved in with Frank?” Hit hard, hit hard, she thinks.

“No, to tell me all that was off.”

“Fast worker, isn’t she?” Go for the kidneys, she thinks. “I’ll drink to that. A brandy stinger. Didn’t she used to drink those?” Shelley leans into her punch.

John mixes the drink himself, waving his bartender off. He hands it to Shelley.

“Well, did she say what happened?” Shelley asks.

“No, she just said she decided to call it quits.”

“She? Decided?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Six days ago. . . .” Shelley arches her eyebrows and smiles only the faintest of smiles as she sips her drink. “This is good, John, really good. You missed your calling as a bartender.”

“What about “six days ago,” Shelley? What were you going to say?”

Shelley nods back and forth until she sees John’s eyes following her own. Then she calmly studies her drink. “Hump day. Last hump day the office went to Bennigan’s. No offense to Columbo’s.” She looks up.

John shrugs. “And?”

“And everybody got drunk and had a good time as usual. Especially Frank boy.”

“He does that. . . .”

Shelley takes a luxurious, long sip. John watches as her head again begins to sway.

Another tale of Gawain, this one much more widespread than the last, tells of Gawain’s Christmas encounter with the mysterious Green Knight, who offers this fool’s bet: “Any wight in this mead-hall might wield this patiently honed war axe and freely give just one blow to my green neck. In exchange, that same man shall come to my green castle next Christmas so that I might return the favor.” Most of the knights look from the heavy, glinting war axe to the green knight’s thick, hairy, green neck, then lovingly and tenderly pat their own frail verterbrae. Gawain, however, rashly takes the challenge. He easily cuts off this green fellow’s head, but to everyone’s Christmas surprise, the torso bends, gently picks up the head and turns it toward Gawain so it might speak: “Enjoy your dinner. And don’t forget our next Christmas date.” The green head then rides off into the sunset, tucked under the Green Knight’s arm. If you sortie with the Devil, this medieval text appears to insist, you should expect some bad magic coming down.

“So Frank got drunk. . . .” John waits, watching Shelley sip her drink.

“So it was hump day, Frank got drunk, and a college cutie. . . .” Shelley lifts her fingernail from her cheek, leaving a bright red spot in its place. John reaches to rub the spot, but stops, amazed at himself. Shelley avoids his glance by staring at the champagne glasses glistening overhead in their wooden racks. “Look, John, Sue Anne’s business is Sue Anne’s business. I’m sure I don’t know all of its intricacies after she became involved with that man. All I know is that I went out with him once and that was plenty.”

“So Frank was cheating on Sue Anne before they even moved in together.”

Shelley blows bubbles into her drink through a bar straw.

“And she said she was the “little boy who cried wolf.”” John plunks his finger against his glass.

“I’m two-stepping to your waltz, John. What do you mean by that?”

“This afternoon on the phone. Sue Anne said her leaving me was like the little boy crying wolf when there really was no wolf, that she was upset over nothing but things we could eventually work out. Okay, that’s fine. But in the fairy tale, the little girl kept crying wolf didn’t she?”

“You’re mixing your sexes, John. But that is just how my mother told the story. Cry wolf once; you’ll cry it twice. Soon no one will believe or even care. I guess that’s the whole point of the story.” Shelley looks John in the eye. “Take it from a woman, John: you can run a restaurant as easily as you can float Ivory Soap, but you lack some book learning about women, some of the biggy chapters. Did you say Sue Anne was coming here tonight?”

John nods, looking apologetically at his watch. “I guess in an hour.”

Shelley finishes her drink and points to the champagne glasses. “They sparkle, John; they really do. But forget them for the next hour. Check out that book and read those chapters.” Shelley reaches for John’s watch. “Five past.” She runs her finger around the face to indicate an hour. “You’d better speed read.”

“You can stay and talk. Sue Anne doesn’t have any ties on me now.”

“We’ll see about that. Listen, John, do me a favor. I’m mixed up with enough bad news already over at HEW, so I’ve had it with gossip. Tonight was an exception for the benefit of a very good friend.” Shelley blinks and arcs spark, leaving an odor of ozone threading the air. “So do me a favor and yourself a favor. I’m sure Sue Anne will tell you whatever was the real reason behind the breakup, but just let her volunteer it. You say anything to her and you’ve ruined it: she’ll think you’ve been checking on her. Besides, if you ask, you’ll never be sure she would have told you, will you?” Shelley’s hand slips from John’s watch to cover his hand. He feels a tingle. “Do you know that my neck has simply burned ever since you touched me this afternoon?” she says. In answer to John’s cocker spaniel look, Shelley then whispers, “Magic.”

“I. . . .”

“You don’t have to say anything. Don’t say anything. Magic.”

John blushes. One of the regulars sitting across the lounge toasts him with a drink. John nods, then looks to Shelley’s hand covering his own.

“Check that book out. I’ve got the strongest urge to give you a good luck kiss, but I know people are watching.” Shelley blows hotly on her fingertips and touches them to John’s lips. He is surprised by the static shock, and he can taste a musky perfume begin to penetrate.

And so Shelley leaves. To John, her green, green eyes mist with the slightest hint of tears; her Roman nose sounds the slightest whisper of a sniffle; and her gait is as morose as a schoolchild’s on a cardless Valentine’s Day. He stands poised, a gentleman ready to call his wounded lady dove back. . . .

Unbelievable? Nay, all knights are notorious for their stupidity. This is not to be understood in a mean or insulting way, but when one has one’s eyes on the Grail, the forest surrounding it lies unimportantly, despite cul-de-sacs and miring bogs. Besides, as we’ve seen, it’s usual for the lady herself to intercede at just the right moment on the knight’s behalf. In olden times, ravens or pigs could work their magic, but in this atomic age, what could possibly fill the bill?

John had often complained to his bartender, his maitre d’hôtel, his chef, his sous-chef, his garde d’manger, several waitresses, a busboy, and even Sue Anne that the wall between his office and the lobby was irritatingly thin, that he could hear every Tom’s, Dick’s, and Griselda’s conversations through that wall. Soundproof it, boss, nearly everyone had suggested, smartly enough./ Do you hear complaints about the food or service? Sue Anne had asked./ No, customers seem to love both, he answered./ Leave it thin, in case they ever complain. That wall’s your key to the world. Keep it air-thin. And so he had done as his wife suggested.

On seeing Shelley performing her Jimmy Durante slide step, searching each stageplank for that foresworn Calabashian heart, John goes into his office and works up a remarkably self-destructive frame of mind. That bitch Sue Anne. She’s loving me on the rebound of my own rebound. He smells delicious musk lingering about his lips, burning his eyes. I’ll call Shelley tomorrow. No, tonight. He yanks at the out-of-fashion paisley tie Sue Anne had given him.

Shelley, meanwhile, undergoes a full turn of complexion. Jimmy Durante be damned. Morgan le Fay, all hail. She nods to the customer who had toasted John minutes before, and he follows her into the lobby after excusing himself from his three drinking companions.

“Trying to bag some bigger game these days, I see. Frank’s barely a two-pointer compared—” the man nods towards the lounge, implying John.

Shelley smiles. “What, Alex, do you feel that half this property is worth?” She sweeps her hand about her as if it were already polishing the brass rails decorating the lobby.

On the other side of the wall, John stops his unknightly ruminations when he hears Shelley’s voice. His ears tune to her bittersweet song.

“Here, this restaurant?”

John also hears that oddly familiar voice. There is a pause, then the same voice continues.

“I’d say 400 to 425 thousand. He owns about three hundred feet of highway frontage, too, you know. You buying, Shelley?”

“Curious. Just curious.”

“Curious. Of course. But how do you plan to capture said castle? Isn’t yon knight’s heart bounden to his errant lady Sue Anne?”

“Snake tail ointment. Ssssssss. Transferred by static cling to the lips.” Shelley flutters two fingers in the air.

“Ah. You, madam, were born in the wrong age.”

“Not really, Alex, not really. After all, I pay for utilities and use electricity like everyone else.”

On the other side of the wall, John has begun rubbing his diamond tie pin, twisting it about, watching it catch the rays of the office’s single light. As the voices change and shuffle into conversations about filet mignon, country ham, or the proposed property tax, knightly Sir John lifts his paisley tie to his lips and angrily wipes them clean. As he does, an unmistakable scent of roses puffs into, then about, the heavy steakhouse air.


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