“Mixed Bag”

Fiction by Rita Plush

Part Two
   There’s a party tonight and Sandy can’t decide what to put on, it’s been months since she’s been out. Oh, she’s been to work . . . it’s work that has saved her. Now 18th-century French bibelots are not only her bread and butter, but her love and lover as well. Now the arms that welcome her belong to a Louis XV chair instead of Milo.  
    Since Milo walked, she hasn’t had the heart for parties. Since then, the only thing she’s had a heart for is Haagen-Dazs, spooned right from the container with the freezer door open. Trying to zip herself into her skinny pants, she sees where the Haag has landed.
    Forget tight pants, she thinks. Forget what’s not right. Wear a skirt and breathe. That long gypsy style, and her red western boots. Milo liked those boots, and he liked her naked in them. For all his neatness and strait-laced ways, there was a little kink in the Master of Mousse.
    She fastens the clasp on a wide, gold mesh Victorian choker, hooks long dangly earrings into her pierced lobes, and makes up her eyes real dramatic. Wavy brown hair tied into a loose knot at the back of her neck, she checks herself out in the mirror. “Hang in there, girlfriend. Hang in.”
     The party, when she gets there, is in full tilt. Live music and lobster tartlets, she expects nothing less from Bev. A model-thin woman of short side-parted hair, and an eclectic taste in art and men, Bev likes to do things in a big way. Sanjay — her third, or is it her fourth? — seems to agree. He amassed a fortune in Dubai, and Bev is slowly de-massing it.
    The daring mix of 20th-century tubular steel, cheek to jowl with ornate carved legs on sumptuous sofas, a little Art Deco — all lacquer work and rounded corners — thrown in, Bev has a knack for putting it all together.  And their ever-expanding art collection — a moody Wyeth, a Warhol banana — is that a Klee? a Kandinsky? — hugs the walls of their Upper West Side digs.
    “Gorgeous is the only word for this place,” Sandy says to her friend when she finds her. “Bauhaus beige meets striped leopard velvet. Only you could make it work. And that outfit!”
    “You like?” Bev strikes a pose in a stretch of black leather slit thigh-high, over smoky black hose and dangerous looking, six-inch red-soled Louboutin heels.
    In her best Billy Crystal, Sandy says, “Maahvelous daahling. You look maahvelous.”
    “So how’s it going?” Bev’s in the know about Milo.
    “I’m still standing.”
    “That, I can see. I mean, seriously.” 
    “Seriously?  Work. Home. Dinner. Sleep. You trying to tell me there’s more to life? Say, I just got in a pair of Coromandel screens,” she offers, not so much to make a sale but to steer the conversation to livelier ground.
    “Love the Coromandel,” Bev gushes. “Very Chanel. Can I send my guy over Monday for a pickup?”
    Need a guy? Go to Bev. Cut your hair? Hook up your cable? She’s got the guy. Sometimes the guy’s a gal — a paperhanger with hands of gold. Poof! went the seams.
    “Monday’s good,” Sandy says. 
    Relaxing into her second glass of wine and the soft jazz of the keyboard player, she leaves Bev chatting it up with her other guests and strolls the large open space, stopping here and there to exchange “Hi how are you,” with those she knows. She spots Sanjay In front of a draped and tasseled window. “Hey . . . nice party.”
    Nehru jacket, tapered Indian-style pants, beaded slippers on his small brown feet, he presses his hands and bows his glossy head. “A pleasure to have you.” His Indian lilt, formal yet with an easy assuring rhythm to it, he moves to the side to let a fellow pass, throwing into full view, showcased on a pedestal in front of the window, a wood sculpture of many moving parts — a good two feet tall and almost as wide over all.
    Laid out like an amusement park ride, a looping, twisting channel carries carved disks, some thin as pastry dough, and spirals made of wood stacked like layers on a party cake that glide up, over, and around the working pulleys and spools below. The components not only move, they speak: tiny gasps and murmurs, soft clicking sounds.
    “I never saw anything like it!” she says to Sanjay.
    “It’s from a new artist Bev discovered. It’s called . . .”
    “Forms,” a voice behind them says.
    She turns and jerks herself to attention, like an office worker in her cubicle caught online by the boss. “Harland!  What are you doing here?”
    “Same as you, I guess. Bev and Sanjay invited me.”
    “You are acquainted?” Sanjay asks.
    “Well, yes,” she says, trying to regain her composure. “Harland does repair work for me. On my antiques,” she explains. “He does my restorations.”
    Sanjay glances appreciatively at the sculpture. “It looks to me that Harland is capable of more than restoration. It looks to me that Harland is taken with innovation.” The little bow, the glossy head.
    Harland smiles amiably.
    Sandy stammers, “Does he mean . . . that you’re the
. . .”
    “Sculptor who did this?” he offers.
    “Your show . . . ,” she moans. “I missed your show. . . .”
    “No worries,” he says, the crinkles in the corners of his eyes faint, but beginning to develop. “I got so involved in the response after the show, I forgot to stop by and finish the job I started for you. I forgot . . . you forgot. That makes us even in my book.” He holds her in the whirl of his gray-blue eyes.
    Flustered, she says. “I had no idea you did this kind of work.”
    Her eyes cast back to the spirals that seem to twist into themselves and then back out, and the disks, with their intricate patterns of lattice and fretwork, a lacery of movement, sound, and form — a wholeness she can’t explain.
    She feels something of her tilting toward Harland. If she were to speak, it would be like breaking a seal on an envelope containing a secret of some kind. Is it the wine? Those long pours of chardonnay and the soft, loose air around her?
    Other guests gather at the pedestal. Men and women, bespoke and bejeweled, alert and engaged as children at a fair, as a red painted ball rolls out of a little wooden door onto the channel and up, up, up . . . onto the uppermost point of the largest spiral, spinning itself as on the finger of a circus clown, till bit by bit, all movements slow, coming finally to a halt, the ball inert, as if part of the spiral itself. The assembled let out a collective, disappointed “Ooh . . .” turn to one another, as if for an answer. 
    Harland steps to the sculpture, reaches in his hand — a big hand to fit so nimbly between pulley and spool — unscrews a covered bushing from a little cage and removes a key from his pocket. Bracing the sculpture gently but firmly with his other hand to keep it from toppling, he winds a spring of some kind, and sets the bushing back in place.
    The spirals turn, the disks travel up and down the shallow grooves. The guests look on.
    “How did you do this?” she breathes, gazing up at him. “What gave you the idea?”
    He makes a beckoning motion with his hand. Together, they step away from the crowd.
    “You know how I love to work with my hands,” he says.    “And there’s something about wood . . . the colors, the different feel and textures.” He rubs his thumb against his middle fingers. “The way a particular wood takes or doesn’t take to a stain. Wood is alive,” he says. “Its grains are like pores on skin. Each piece has its own personality, its own markings and patterns. As for the idea . . . one thing led to another.”   
    “Like us!” she blurts out, then, embarrassed that she’s said too much, “I don’t mean us, you and me, I mean people in general. How we’re all the same, yet so different.”
    He squints, draws back his head as if to put her into clearer focus. “I’d say maple. Definitely maple. But combined with . . .  lacewood.”
    “Maple and lacewood,” he says, as if his reference were clear as day. “Those are the woods you remind me of. Maple, because it’s strong and it polishes up so pretty. Lacewood . . . now that’s a softer wood, more exotic and less available, but it’s got a very unusual grain structure. The two of them combined in a piece. . . .” He nods to himself as if in silent appreciation.
    She’s never been compared to wood — never thought she’d want to be.  She smiles, and she can feel herself light up. He must feel it too. 
    “I’ve been wanting to say that, or something like it, for a while, but I didn’t know how to put it,” he admits.
    “You needn’t have worried,” she says, the sculpture in the background, turning, clicking, breathing. “You put it just right.”

    Rita Plush, an interior designer, lecturer, and writer on the decorative arts, is the author of the novel “Lily Steps Out,” which will be published next month by Penumbra Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including The Alaska Quartely Review and The MacGuffin.