The following is from Mary-Beth Hughes’s The Loved Ones. Hughes is the author of Wavemaker II, a New York Times Notable Book and the collection Double Happiness. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, and A Public Space.
Nick Devlin leaned into the gilded mirror and focused, wiped his hair back with one hand, rubbed his eyes. A wince played then vanished and he tucked in his shirttails. By tomorrow evening Billy Byron and company would be in Paris and he’d be flying home to the States. Sheldon Walpole was already making his way into the suite’s drawing room, a bottom-heavy glide as if to keep him upright and forward moving. Nick almost laughed. How did Sheldon ever get into the beauty business? How did anyone, really? In his case, of course, it was Lionel, like everything else. So benign, promised Lionel, all fantasy, the easiest pitch in the world. That’s what he’d said about uranium, too: who doesn’t want to be in on the absolute essence? You’re giving them the reins to the world, the universe. But it turned out he’d given only the illusion of the reins. The rest was a suspended sentence.
Lately Lionel was saying, Now this is supposed to be an illusion. It’s makeup, for chrissakes. Make-believe is the whole point.
For a very long time Nick refused to take his calls. Even now he kept low and Lionel seemed to be backing off. Life is long, Lionel said. I can wait.
* * * *
This is what Nick might try to remember; the rest would fall away. His thumb pressed down lightly into her split. The hair around was cut short and very fair, unaltered as far as he could tell, even the shape of her cunt looked simple, though if he pulled his attention back, he’d see something had been done to invite a camera. But he kept close to the movement of his hand, the dark pink beneath the hay blond. Then her face. He kept his hand still, his thumb suspended almost, just the slightest press holding still, his eyes watched her belly rise and fall, rise and fall, and her breasts too small to change shape on her chest, small and round and mauve at the nipples, a lipstick color. Her throat, a soft chin, eyes ready to change in a breath kept their focus and he saw her before the ambition of the night and all she had to gain; he saw her surprise, and in that surprise a sadness, as if with him she’d lost and now the rest would be hard negotiation.
No, you’re fine he wanted to tell her. You’re all right. Then he lifted his hand, brushed the sides of her hips, flipped her right over and felt the weight in her body shift down, and there were shouts all around them, and laughter, and she kept quiet, but then her face turned sideways as he went into her and kept going, her eyes open and livid with a learned expression. If this was all performance he could help, and lifted her higher to him, so he was standing straight up, tilting back, and her rump something on a lever he could maneuver. Back and forth, the howling all around him, the laughter, her face gone now, she balanced on her elbows, head hanging down; he couldn’t see her anymore. He slid her back down on the gold satin bed, held one foot for a moment. She laughed; this was a game and now she was winning and besides she was high. She sat up and dusted the tops of her round pretty thighs. She was very high and laughing. This would get her somewhere and he turned toward the door, ignoring the slaps on his shoulders, the laughter, the shoving. He zipped his trousers.
* * * *
He’d left his drink somewhere. He’d stick with vodka; it was the only way to get through. It didn’t disturb anything. Jean understood what he meant. He wasn’t looking for obliteration, or even amplification, more a bridge. That’s all. A very small plan. His drink was by the lamp next to Sheldon Walpole. Sheldon’s suit trousers draped over the lampshade made a blocky dramatic shadow across Sheldon’s downcast face. Nick plucked up his drink and took a warm sip. Formaldehyde and toasting damp wool made a foul aroma. Sheldon sat in full tie, cuff links in place and a pair of oxford blue boxer shorts that even in the gloom showed the ironed crease.
Tandy, Nick thought. Sheldon’s wife had done it herself. He could see her unprotected face bent to pressing each line straight and true. Sheldon was trembling, and in the shouts all around, the thumping roar like boys at a game, Nick saw where this was going. He looked back to the pair of silky beds, the four girls, one standing now. Wobbling on her tiptoes a necktie wrapped around one thigh, she turned her back to them and made a deep bow. Oh! Fucking brilliant, was anything ever more brilliant, they shouted. Fucking arrest me.
Nick caught the trousers off the table lamp and tossed them to Sheldon. Come on, he said. Let’s go meet our maker. He took another sip. Did you heat up my drink? He let it sit on his tongue and watched Sheldon shake his head.
Chop-chop, said Nick, pointing to the Gucci loafers under the ottoman. Shoes. Wait. Trousers first.
Sheldon fumbled at his belt as if he’d been struck blind.
There they are, said Nick, pointing to the shoes again. A crash behind them as the vice-president of sales went tumbling into the nightstand. Oy! He gripped the girl with the blond hair by the ankles as if she were the railing of a ship tossed at sea. Jesus, Jesus, he called. Her eyes were on the ceiling, smart look in place. Oy! The girl wobbling on her tiptoes gave the VP a single limp lash on his broad pink backside with the necktie then curtsied for the screaming executives. A dancer, had to be, if she could keep her balance on the soft and busy bed. Nick watched her do it again. Lash, curtsy. Now Sheldon was standing. We’re staying?
Going, said Nick. Absolutely. Ice?
In the other room?
Sheldon gave a gray smile. Let Nick proceed him into the small blue vestibule that led to the oversatined yellow glare of Billy’s sitting room. Sheldon covered his mouth. Irving Slater shouted out from somewhere inside the glow, Party over?
Here you go. Nick held Sheldon’s jacket. Too many stingers, deadly things. Come on, one arm, now one more. Sheldon placed himself into the sleeves and shrugged. Too much movement all at once made him sway. Dizzy, he gripped the marble edge of a decorative half table.
Cleaning up for Mother, boys? Irving Slater’s voice rode the ripples of yellow and saffron and cerulean beyond. The Saudis love color. Reminds them of something or other Billy had explained.
This was the suite reserved for Saudi royalty, and not any subtier either. Only the top ultimate Saudis and Billy Byron stayed in this suite. Otherwise, the hotel scours it three times a day and lets it sit. The rightness of this arrangement almost pleased him. Still there were quiet talks under way about getting the Saudis their own suite, for fuck’s sake. But for now, some priceless art smuggled out of Riyadh made for table talk.
Sheldon made a swift dive into a wing chair then pushed himself upright; he had the look of a thrift banker from Nebraska supporting a grateful farming community. Even smashed, his face revealed an open reasoned optimism, so out of step with Irving Slater who curled deeper into a love seat to better examine the fresh arrivals. Billy sat wide-legged and shiny in the only straight-backed chair.
Nick was surprised to find himself in the same room with Irving Slater. Usually they were orchestrated far apart, different suites, different countries. Nick knew from Lionel that Irving was the holdout, the burr, the one who went down to Centre Street on his own initiative and had copies made of all the court records, kept Billy back from a fancy dress ball at the Pierre to go over all the charges. Imagine, Lionel said with a laugh. Billy in full plumage—he’s the rooster of course, they’re honoring Frank Perdue!—listening to Irving whine out the particulars. The car waited over an hour, had to circle the block ten times. By the time Billy made his big entrance the toasts were long in the fidgeting stage. No one was happy.
Who told you this, Nick wanted to know, and Lionel made a joke about needing to smooth some large feathers. All myth, all self-flattery. That was Lionel from day one. Their mother called him the dauphin. And what about me, what am I Nick wanted to know. You’re the treasure, said his mother. Pure gold, this little heart, and touched him the way she always did, the most tentative pat against his small chest.
Oh Christ. But she had been gone a long time now. Very good luck, said Nick and for once Lionel didn’t correct him. And now Lionel was creating a myth about Nick: That Irving was still waiting when Billy came home from the ball. Billy scratching at the hives his feathers created up the back of his neck, in the crook of each elbow, behind his knees, in the inner thighs where the red tights already chafed. Billy, suffering, cried out: It’s all a sack of lies! Irving could burn that pile of manure and get out. Just like that. Irving Slater out on the sidewalk, his soggy crap useless.
Nick thought if it did happen, it was a moment’s work in the middle of a day. Irving might slip a clipping from a newspaper, no sweaty bribing of a moribund clerk downtown, just a quick column, something to implicate him, and Billy had waved it away. Forget it. Forget it. And probably Billy had, but Irving Slater stayed on it. Used the word felon in creative ways, suggested a lipstick: Scarlet Felon; fragrance: My Felonious Heart; blush: Melon Felony. Until Billy would look up and say, What gives? You’re not making sense.
Irving Slater had nothing to do with creative; he was finance and legal and he spearheaded these in-suite entertainments wherever Billy went. Irving was the wrangler. Nick knew all about them; Lionel had told him. What’s so difficult? I think you know what to do. Pretty simple.
But it wasn’t simple. Here was Sheldon looking green in a room that smelled of lemons and oranges. For Billy’s health. All the vitamin C kept him virile and vital, warded off the scurvy of his youth. But even the best of all tailors couldn’t disguise the bandy legs and the odd foreshortening of his frame. He’d cultivated a reputation for being insatiable—anyone with a pulse—but for Billy these parties, which were identical at Claridge’s or the Okura, it scarcely mattered. It all happened offstage. The shouts and grunts muffled behind heavy doors like a storm still far away. And that was the point: vicinity. Billy wanted the action where he could feel it. The rest was personal and private. He was a highly private man he told everyone. Here at Claridge’s they hung a sign on the suite door that said private. So satisfying. It was why he stayed here, those little brass screws tightened all the way in. All for him. Details. And that’s what he was saying to Sheldon Walpole now. As if no one had ever said the word before, his face alight with the thought. One right detail was all it took to define a woman’s self-worth. What had Sheldon learned just now Billy wanted to know. In there, he tipped his large head toward the bedroom. And Irving smiled as Sheldon sank lower into the down of the wing chair.
Well, I’d say I noticed something important about blushing.
Blushing? Irving was pleased; this would be idiotic.
Yes, we’re all talking about apples all the time you know, said Sheldon. And Billy nodded.
But something else is happening under all the pink.
We’re talking mottling, right, laughed Irving.
No, I’m thinking iridescence. Why not?
Done it, said Irving.
Not really, said Nick.
What would you know, said Irving.
A lot, said Billy. More than you’d think. Look at that face, he said to Irving, pointing to Nick. I don’t need him to have a brain, too, but he does. So let’s listen, for once.
It’s Sheldon’s idea.
Right, said Billy, looking at Nick. So what’s he telling me. We’re thinking color when we should be thinking glow.
Like the worm? said Irving.
Glow. Glow, said Billy. Glow-glow. Like Go-go. Hmm.
I was thinking a feather applicator, said Sheldon, all one piece, maybe a rotation device to reveal and retract.
You’re disgusting, said Irving.
Reveal and retract. Billy was thinking, nodding. But a feather? No, won’t work. You’ll get the powder stuck on the first try. Forget it.
Make it synthetic. Coat it in silicone. It will trace the cheek with iridescent powder so subtle it looks like a lover’s flush. It’s a great idea. Nick put his cigarette down to trace the feather’s movement with two fingers.
That’s it, Sheldon said, nodding. That’s right.
And I say it’s crapola, said Billy.
Fucking moronic, said Billy. And you, you say it’s good? He pointed at Nick; his hand trembled.
Then get the fuck out of my sight.
Okay, good night, said Nick, standing. Come on, Sheldon. Give me a lift.
You don’t need a lift. Didn’t I just cosign a lease for someplace a block away from here? Did you get this, Irving? Our new marketing manager needs Ike’s old pad on Grosvenor Square. General Nick here. General Nick needs a lift to headquarters. Billy rolled an orange between his palms, setting off the scent in the overheated room. Why a lift? Tell the truth.
Then I need guidance. Come on, Sheldon.
All right, all right, said Billy. Irving, get those girls out of there, and call housekeeping. What are you running here?
We’ll see you at nine, Billy. Sheldon was hoisting himself out of the yellow cushions.
You’ll see me when you see me. Irving, I’m not putting a finger in that room until it’s been turned over. I mean scoured. But Irving was already in the vestibule knocking on the bedroom door and the laughter inside went quiet.
Ciao, said Nick and held open the door for Sheldon. Billy brought the orange to his nose and sniffed. Some chemical here, he said. It’s like they don’t know what fruit is in this country.
* * * *
The Europa Hotel on Grosvenor Square with its discreet satisfying side entrance was midway between Claridge’s and the flat Nick had found with Lionel’s help. Sheldon had picked the most protected spot at the end of the long polished bar, on the suede high-backed bar stools with a half wall between the lounge and his body. No one could wrap an unexpected arm about his hunched shoulders, or even see him without being seen first. The stools were a great concession to the Americans down the block, configured here like plush reading chairs on stilts. Sheldon’s chin was lit from beneath by a votive. Steely jaw, the stuff of a fifties cartoon hero.
Tandy in good health? said Nick. Happy with the new digs?
Sure, Sheldon took a long draw on the new drink set before him. Smiled at Nick, nose flattened crooked in a way that invited the confidence of other men. That’s what had caught Billy’s eye, no doubt. The pugilist’s face and a short smart track record at Max Factor. Otherwise Sheldon’s sudden elevation to president UK-Europe was inexplicable. To you, Nick, said Sheldon, knocking a thick knuckle against the rim of his lowered glass, giving Nick the up-down assessment that was pure Billy. A crotch to crown gaze followed by a visible score, usually below what was hoped. But here, Sheldon brightened and said, You’ll do just fine.
You’ll teach me. That’s what I’m here for, to learn from you.
If you say so.
Nick laughed, signaled the barman, pulled on the front of his hair. Sheldon was drunk. Soon they’d both be home.
Do this for me, said Sheldon.
Anything. Nick kept pulling on his hair.
Give me a high sign.
I mean it. I want an advance warning. When you’re about to tear me down, just tell me, so Tandy doesn’t end up heartbroken. None of this is her fault. You get that, right? She didn’t do anything to deserve what’s happening.
Nothing is happening. I’m a trainee.
And a liar, and a con. You think no one reads the paper around here. Is this a joke.
Nick gave a sideways hand gesture canceling his drink. I don’t know about you, but I’m done. I’m gonna grab some z’s. Sticking around?
Sure. Sticking around. That’s it.
Okay, Sheldon. Nick didn’t pat the raised shoulders, just perused the empty dining room behind the half wall. Suede banquettes. He leaned across the bar for a light, then signed the chit from the bartender. Whatever he wants, said Nick, then left without saying good-bye. Already forgotten, he knew that, Sheldon would be sheepish and curious in the morning. Besides, Sheldon wasn’t saying anything that Irving Slater didn’t repeat daily.
Ignore the idiots. That was Lionel’s advice. But what would Lionel know about that.
He liked this walk. Dead of the night, no one on the streets, the wild quiet of the place still surprised him. Middle of London and you could hear the treetops shiver in a breeze and breathe in the damp sour scent of those branches in the dark. At three in the morning his footsteps were the only ones on the square. He approached the fanning marble steps to his door and felt for the key, enormous thing.
He should have brought Sheldon home and let him sleep it off. Such an honorable guy, Nick thought. What the hell was he doing here?
He’d finally asked him tonight, and Sheldon just laughed. Tell me this, Sheldon said. Did he do the three-part knock?
Is this a joke? Don’t know it.
You know it. Sheldon took a deep long sip of his drink, something lingering and unguarded.
We should go, said Nick.
Not done. But it was the old three. They can’t help themselves. Like a fairy tale. Billy meets you by chance, or maybe it’s Irving and whoever it is says he has an instinct. Right?
Nick smiled; actually it was Lionel who’d talked about instinct.
They make an offer, pro forma. You turn it down. Back it comes, not doubled but close. You’re flattered, but what the fuck, you don’t return the call. Is this all sounding like a song you know? Time goes by. Some messages, invitations, tickets, you feel good because you’ve checked them out and you’ve learned, because it is such common knowledge the busboys at Schraffts know, these guys are running a revolving door, that Billy spits out talent like a bad nut. So you’re settled. It’s just weather. But then comes the third: Clifford shows up with the car at your door and he’s taking you to Billy’s house. You’ve heard about this place and just for the story you go. Instead of the big drawing room or the library you’re taken to a third-floor kitchen. Something Billy and Bunny use to heat up warm milk in the night, just the two of them. You’re in a very private place. You see Bunny’s headband on the counter, and some knitting she’s left behind. And Billy is fucking with the coffee basket. Some cheap normal electric thing, nothing like the equipment you know is downstairs, and he’s nearly having a heart attack getting the plug in the wall. You show him and he’s awash with gratitude. You’ve never seen the guy so vulnerable and it shocks you a little. Have I got this right?
Nick looked in the mirror at the room behind them, all the banquettes long empty now. The copper shaded lamps still flickering. He had it completely right. Down to the coffee basket.
Got it, don’t I. He tells you his wife usually makes the coffee. They’ve got three live-in help, but this is their sanctuary; this is where she poaches his egg every morning. You sit at the round table where his son, the race-car driver, learned to play Scrabble. He tells you what a shambles everything is, a total mare’s nest. He gives you a few particulars, no names. And you sip the shitty coffee you’ve just helped make and you give him an idea. You watch the lines on his face reassemble themselves. You’ve transformed him. Your insight has changed if not everything, then certainly enough. He starts talking about the ground up. He wants you selling lipstick in Macy’s on an executive salary. He drinks the whole cup down and pours another. So happy. He’s never met anyone like you. All he can do is sit back and wonder. You’re a natural—a natural wonder. He’s going to name something after you; just give him a minute.
Okay, okay. Nick pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
And then Billy’s got a cramp in his leg, and though he’d love to talk all night, he hasn’t met a brain like yours in this lifetime.
Clifford shows up in the little kitchen like the leg cramp deployed a buzzer. Yeah, yeah, Clifford, Billy says. It’s nothing. But he’s rubbing that skinny leg like it’s broken and you say you’ll talk to him later and put your cup down. Look around for the sink. No, no, smart and compassionate, what a combination.
Sheldon’s lips are shiny. He stares at the back of his hand.
And I have street smarts, Nick says.
Street smarts! My fucking god. Street smarts? You are the messiah. Sheldon’s cough sticks in his throat. He lights a Dunhill to calm it down.
Just so you know, he says, puffing his lips on the exhale, the good-bye has a pattern, too. That’s all I’m saying. The game speeds up like you wouldn’t believe. I won’t see it coming, because no one does, but you will. That’s how it works. So I’m just saying, give me the nod. Can you do that?
Nick took a cigarette for himself. No, if you’re right, I’ll do it. I’ll tell you.
See? His faith is justified. Billy’s right about you, a decent guy. Who gives a hoot what Irving says.
Hoot? Nick laughs. You sound like my grandmother.
Irving wouldn’t know a scam if his grandmother was on the inside.
From THE LOVED ONES. Used with permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 2015 by Mary-Beth Hughes.