Alexandra Marshall

Excerpt

The Brass Bed

The dim interior illumination displayed with effect the prized collection-as if fish were either art or artifact-of lungless creatures swimming laps. The building's spine was an enormous cylinder, a wraparound tank many fathoms deep into which scuba divers, who wore their gills on their backs, descended several times a day with food enough, one could suppose, to keep the cannibals who lived there from depleting the exhibit. The New England Aquarium was this night the implausible location of a gala.

Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau had come to Boston to make brief appearances in person and give interviews to talk show hosts whose audiences had far longer attention spans than they themselves did, and of course to raise the money-reparations, really—to keep on exploring how great the disaster was. This "Evening Undersea" was a fund-raiser, and the journalists assigned to cover the event were the only people there who hadn't paid a hundred dollars to attend.

Duncan Jones asked the guy behind him in the press of men and women being given name tag passes for the cash bar, "Not that I'm in favor of not saving the environment, but what about, for instance, unemployment as an issue to raise funds for?" He told his name to a woman dressed in sequins like a mermaid. "From the Globe, " he said. He noticed that she wore a choker made of half shells like the one in Botticelli's Birth of Venus, on which she stands looking not exactly newborn. "That's right," he said, glad there was name recognition of a sort, if that's what it was when she said, "I read the Living pages first, although my husband says it's only for the gossip. I say he can have the presidency and the terrorism and the market. At least Living's for the living." She gave Duncan Jones his name tag, adding an encouraging, "So keep it up."

It was a line he'd used himself in arguments with Jessica, his wife—his future ex-wife now—of what would have been fourteen years. "I work," he'd said, "both for the living and a living, in that order." As opposed, he meant, to her, whose clients were all corporations that did things like make tobacco and investments in apartheid. Duncan answered cheerfully, "OK, I will," as if he'd just made up his mind to keep it up.

It would have been good news to Duncan's longtime boss, who'd had to say to him that morning, "Look, pal, I know what you're going through, believe me, but you also see my problem, don't you? I mean, I got space to fill with writing. How long can I keep on using bigger pictures than I should to cover up for what you say your dog ate on your way to school and similar excuses I'm not buying anymore. What I need, Jones, is copy: words, pal, stuck together into sentences and paragraphs. It's what you used to do all day long, isn't it? Christ, not so many years ago, your children-of-the-busing-crisis series had a good shot at the Pulitzer. It should have won, I know, I said so, but we got another problem now, and it's the opposite one. I hate saying this to you, pal, but you've got to get engaged or take a walk."

It was why unemployment seemed a more important issue even than clean water. What he'd done with Jessica, he'd almost said, was get engaged and take a walk (not that he'd done the walking), so it was a choice between two equals only in the sense that he could not do either one. He couldn't seem to get a charge, no matter how he tried, nor would he contemplate that he could be fired from the only job he'd had since graduate school. Wasn't there an insurance policy that covered crises in employees who would get it back together one of these days? He'd asked his boss this to prove his sense of humor was intact, then answered his own question, "With my luck, though, they'd say, 'This is what an act of God is, and an act of God, as we all know, is not insurable.'"

Duncan asked for a beer at the first bar he came to and went up the ramp that was a bridge over the shark pool. Ordinarily he would not want to lean over the rail and look down, but for a wish for a penny he'd look anywhere they wanted. All I ask for is a story, he wished silently, as if it were a secret. Find me something here to write up, he said as he let another penny go in after the first.

"Hey, big spender," was her greeting. As she indicated to the man who held her by the arm that if he went ahead she'd catch up, Jessica presented Duncan with a cheek.

He kissed it and said, "Of all people." It was what he'd said to her sarcastically a hundred times, but now his real surprise required he say it as it was intended to be said, with real surprise. "I didn't know you cared about conserving the earth's most important resource. Or are you here because these sharks are your clients? Eels I knew you represented."

"I'm not working tonight," she said. Jessica was dressed- unlike the women, who resembled the warm-water fish-more like the penguins, as the men were.

He was wearing a seersucker jacket and a plaid tie with a button-down shirt. "I am."

"I see."

"You look nice, though," he said. It was not a dress he'd ever seen, not that they'd ever gone to dances.

"Is it just this light," she asked, "or are you tan?"

"This light is eerie, isn't it?" If she persisted, he would lie to avoid saying where he'd been.

"Your teeth look so white."

"My teeth are white," Duncan answered, showing them off with a bitter little laugh. He also wouldn't say he'd been to Buffalo over the weekend and not told his parents they'd been separated many months already.

"You look better than you have, is all." Her smile was quite affectionate. "And tan, in this light." Now her smile revealed she knew he'd been away.

He'd lie under oath if he were asked in her presence if he'd ever been to Club Med. How humiliating to have been so openly pathetic as to go the whole week without making notes for a piece that could write itself, "Confessions of a Club Med Dropout." He had been so needy, even poor facsimiles of fun and relaxation worked their magic, and for once he'd concentrated on blues other than his own: the sky, the water.

"Nice to see you," she said.

"You too," he responded. This was no day to say anything to Jessica for which he would need self-esteem.

"I'd better catch up," she explained and pointed vaguely up the ramp to where a crowd of people plastered soft white cheeses on white wafers, shouting small talk over a jazz trio loudly improvising.

Duncan felt, as she went off to join her partner for this dance, as if he were their child and had been left home with the babysitter, as if they were blowing kisses to him as they backed out the door. He ought to have mentioned to her that his mother had sent something she said was a pillow she had needlepointed -it was wrapped up and tied with a frizz of ribbon-to see whether Jessica would volunteer to write his mother one of her nice thank-you cards. It somehow wouldn't be enough for him to tell his mother Jess had liked it fine but had been working awfully hard, which also was why she was never home the times his mother called. And whereas he knew he'd be forced to deal with what the truth was someday, what he needed was still more time to recover from the failure of their marriage.

What he'd liked about Club Med was evidence that there were others even worse off. He'd been raised not to profit or take pleasure from the handicaps of others, but once he declared himself in a state of emergency the rules were different. He hoped desperately he wouldn't have to pay by getting herpes, but it had been reassuring in a fundamental way that he was still a candidate for body contact. He had even been someone's initiator into the wide-open world of multiple orgasms—he was as surprised as she was—after multiple rum punches and a moonlit stroll along the beach that was described in the brochure as "mile-long silvery powder sand" but was what he would call instead the color of spermatozoa. So what if an empire had been built on values he abhorred, or that with his participation he was an accomplice to the exploitation? He needed the reassurance, even if it came from strangers whose names he could not recall except perhaps under hypnosis, which explained his having brought the poster home that said, CLUB MED. THE ANTIDOTE FOR CIVILIZATION, featuring a woman who was nearly nude and offering him all she had and a pineapple.

Now he went to find the tanks of tropical fish like those he had seen on the reef. His advice to would-be writers, journalists or otherwise, was always start from what you know.