Three more boxes arrived Monday morning. Simone knocked on Cliff’s door and came in. Cliff signed for the purchases and smiled at her hoping she might stay. They’d had manic sex the night she’d arrived, but that was the last of it. Simone winked and closed the door behind her.
A shower was running down the hall. Cliff pictured Cherise’s voluminous auburn curls dampening under the water’s steady stream. The thought roused him from bed, though he dreaded the certain delivery of more packages he had no interest in opening. Leonard would tell him to face it head on, would remind him that the stress of his failed Senate bid was causing the night purchases. Never one to shop, Cliff was now a night fiend, watching infomercials, calling the numbers on the screen, buying anything and everything as he masturbated to the voices of the women taking down his orders. Our minds are our most powerful tools, Leonard would say. Stress can manifest itself in strange ways. Call your wife Monica. Ask her to return home, he would suggest.
But there was no way Cliff could ask anyone, especially Monica, back to the house – not now! Not yet! There were two bedrooms filled with the varied items he’d purchased (a tank of iguanas, designer outerwear for felines, half a dozen mattresses from a discount store upstate, to name just a few), and a third room where he’d begun to stack the unopened boxes, shutting the door and trying to forget them. The pantry overflowed with gourmet onions, spices from Williams-Sonoma, and crock pots, and there was a llama tied out back to the wraparound farmer’s porch. Simone had taken to feeding the animal and walking it around the back yard each day. She’d wanted to take it down the street, but Cliff already had enough to worry about when it came to the neighbors.
And Simone. Cherise. Robbie. Cliff had no idea about the terms of his contract with any of them. Cherise and Simone had come to him, presumably from the same place, because they’d arrived together in matching skirt-suits, Simone in navy and Cherise in green. He’d hoped, upon seeing them, that they would cater to his most creative desires. He got one night out of each of them which was due cause for many fantasies, but that was it. Simone played piano throughout much of the afternoon, made calls on her cell phone, and Cherise, donning a mink robe he’d bought, wandered from room to room with a drink and a book. They slept in guest rooms down the hall from the master and never again had they initiated any interest in him. Except to have him sign for the packages that UPS never stopped carting in.
Robbie had arrived the day before the girls in jeans and a t-shirt, an inch taller than Cliff but thin and weedy. After loosely shaking Cliff’s hand, Robbie had headed through the house and out a rear door. That was the last Cliff had seen of him. Simone mentioned she’d noticed him weaving something near the shed on one of her walks with the llama. Cliff was too embarrassed to ask any of them how they’d come to be there or what was the purpose and length of their stay. He was the man of the house – he had to preserve what respect and decency he could.
He pulled on his slacks and reached for a polo draped across a nearby chair when the phone rang.
“Cliff! My boy!” The voice muffled on the phone. “You answered on the first ring! Congratulations! You’re not sleeping your life away!”
“Yes, yes, of course. Look, I just got a phone call from the folks at A & E.”
Cliff wanted to crawl back under the sheets, return to his imaginary ménage a trois, but he slung his shirt over his bare shoulder and walked into the hall. Sun filtered through the skylight and made Cliff’s eyes tear. He sighed.
“Leo. Listen. No way can a bunch of strangers with cameras and recorders follow me around and poke into my life with stupid touchy-feely questions like you ask me every Thursday.”
“You?” Leonard laughed so loudly Cliff removed the phone from his ear. “You’re dull as a river stone. No, no, your wife!”
“They want to spring an intervention on her.”
“Intervention? She doesn’t do drugs. She doesn’t drink, not even caffeine.” Cliff looked around him. Unopened boxes towered around him. “Hell, she doesn’t even shop. All she does is sit on a yoga mat all day, drinking nasty tea that tastes like twigs and mud.”
“Exactly! They’re starting a new show, just for people like her—perfect!” The phone muffled again, and Cliff could hear Leonard mumbling to someone, as if he had covered the phone with his hand. “Look, gotta go, but the film crew is on its way.”
“But Leonard, I–”
“No buts. Ciao, baby!”
Cliff hung up the phone and wondered what his shrink was really up to. Living in the Valley, the Hollywood sign shining down on his patio, did not help Leonard’s obsession with fame. And why Monica? Sure she could cross her legs behind her head, but what else was she good for, other than draping on his arm while the cameras flashed? And not so good at that, given his disastrous showing at the polls.
Cliff smelled coffee, and that, more than anything, was what he needed. Coffee would soothe him, clear his head of tangled limbs and damp thongs. He turned toward the kitchen and almost fell over a large box. He had to move all these damn packages out of sight and fast.
He struggled to pull his shirt down over his bulging belly, which continued to expand since the end of the campaign. He kicked the large box absently with the toe of his right foot. His toe hurt, but the box didn’t budge. He leaned over to shove it hard against the wall, but before he had a chance to move it, the doorbell rang. Cliff hesitated, still bent over, but neither Simone nor Cherise emerged to see who was at the front door. He straightened, walked to the foyer, and pulled open the door, expecting another delivery man.
Monica stood before him.
In black spike heels she stood an inch taller than Cliff, so he was forced to look up into her face. She had the Barbie doll looks of so many candidates’ wives: perfect Clearasil success story skin, sleek brown hair sprayed into a shoulder-length wave, a small, sharp nose that turned slightly upward, and a crescent-moon mouth encased in bold red lipstick. She wore a Chanel couture suit of creamy wool and silk boucle that clung lightly to her breasts and slim hips. All that was missing from this pageant perfection were the sparkling sea-blue eyes; Monica’s were dark brown, and they flashed with a malicious intelligence.
“Hello, Cliff,” she said, brushing past him into the foyer. And even now after everything that had happened between them, the feeling of her shoulder pressed against his own sent a spark of electricity through his veins. He added her, in his mind, to his Cherise-Simone dream.
She stopped a few steps past him and surveyed the boxes that were stacked haphazardly in the living room and hall. Cliff could feel the heat of his face turning red; he was overcome with humiliation and shame. But just as he opened his mouth to explain, he noticed that Monica didn’t seem surprised.
Cherise appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, her auburn hair shining in the sunlight. The llama baaaahhheed in the yard. Simone must be walking it, Cliff thought. Cherise’s eyes met Monica’s for a moment before she disappeared again toward the aroma of the coffee. Monica turned to face Cliff.
And that’s when the memory poured in like a flood in the desert after a heavy spring rain. He had seen them before – both of them, and together. It had happened way back during his days at Harvard Law, long before Monica had made his knees turn to jelly the night she strolled into that party in Beverly Hills. They had been seated together at an outdoor table in front of the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square.
And he could swear that Simone had been there, too.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Cliff asked, just as the bell rang again.
Leonard came blasting in. There was no camera crew, thank god!
Cherise came out to the living room with a tray of coffee for Cliff, Monica and Leonard.
Leonard hugged Cliff, grabbed his hand and brought him over to the couch. They sat down next to each other.
Soon the room was filled. Simone and Cherise kissed Monica and embraced before the three women sat down across from them.
Robbie was the last to enter with some unknown guy. He was carrying camera equipment. He nodded at the group.
Leonard smiled at Cliff. “Listen, let’s get right to the point. It didn’t work out with the politics, but no one gives a shit about that, anyhow. They never did. They want the inside story. The fall. The demise of a man who once had it all. After this show, you’ll never have to worry about cash again, Cliffy, and you and I will be household names. Hmm? A dream come true, baby. Okay, Robbie, set up the equipment. This will be our last episode, until Cliff gets out of rehab.”
“Gets out? What the hell are you talking about, Leonard?”
“Cliff, listen,” said Monica. “It’s pure genius. Every room in your house has a hidden camera set up. Of course, we’ll have to edit out the masturbation scenes, but the all-night shopping, screaming at the actors on the infomercials, crying on the phone to operators while ordering a dozen mattresses just to keep them on the line. That’s just priceless. And the llama and iguanas were a nice touch. Simone and Cherise will both have cameo appearances. The sex sure wasn’t pretty with your wreck of a body, but we can work the angles to maximize their best features so no one will even notice your rolls. Robbie was in charge of checking footage on the cameras and replacing film when it ran out. We’ve really got a show. This last piece is quite simple. Leonard is going to do the intervention. It would be great if you could put up a fight for the audience. Just think of the times you used to rail on me, honey. That ought to give you some inspiration. Any questions before we roll it?”
“You can’t do this. I never signed anything.”
Simone and Cherise smiled at him. Cliff flashed to all those times they’d shoved papers in his face whenever another package arrived. He’d signed every one of them without a glance.
And he thought politics were brutal? He let out a deep sigh and smoothed back his slightly graying hair. He knew when he was beat. He raised his chin up and jutted it out just like he had before he walked out on stage to give his concession speech, when Simone came forward to apply some make-up to his face. When she finished and the lights were on him, Cliff nodded his head.
“Okay, I’m ready, you assholes. Let’s give the people what they want. Roll ‘em.”
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet:
Kari Nguyen is a two-time prize winner in the Glass Woman Prize, and her writing has been recognized by Glimmer Train, The Binnacle, and New Hampshire Writers Magazine. Her work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Blink-Ink, fwriction:review, and other places. She is the nonfiction editor at Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature. Visit her at karinguyen.wordpress.com, where she writes about things she’s written.
Linda Simoni-Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she also professes, mothers, and gives a damn. Her stories and poem are published or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Scissors and Spackle, MiCrow, The Sun, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Connotation Press, Camroc Press Review, Right Hand Pointing, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW, she works one word at a time towards her MA in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins and two novels-in-progress. In between, when she can’t sleep, she blogs at http://linda-leftbrainwrite.blogspot.com.
Faye Rapoport DesPres earned her MFA from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and magazines including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Hamilton Stone Review, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, Superstition Review, and TOSKA. Her book-length manuscript, a “memoir in essays” titled Message from A Blue Jay, is currently seeking a publisher. Faye’s website is: www.fayerapoportdespres.com
Meg Tuite‘s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press, Implosion and other Stories, Sententia Books (2013) and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.