The Juggler

[excerpt from an unpublished novel]

“Mary,” he said, holding my arm, suddenly serious, “Just one thing.”

“What is it?”

“My friends.  They’re not exactly what you’re used to.”

“Hey, you endured dinner with Grace,” I said.  “I’m sure I can deal with your friends.”

“Oh, they’re nothing like that!  Just, well…”

Creeps, Grace had said.  Kooks.

Then he said suddenly, “You’re beautiful, Mary.  I love you.”  And then, almost to himself, “It’s going to be okay.”

“Sure it is,” I told him.  “How bad could it be?  They’re your friends, right?”

“Right,” he said.  He took a deep breath and smiled gamely.  “Let’s go.”

We came around to the front of the house to a broad veranda.  Four people were out relaxing in its shade.  They all turned to scrutinize us as we approached.  Sitting on the railing was what I assumed at first was a boy, but proved to be a girl when she turned around.  She had repeatedly pierced ears, very closely cropped purple hair, freckles, and braces on her teeth.  She couldn’t have been more than sixteen; likely younger, and wore a sweatshirt which might have been blue once but looked like it had been sprayed with bleach or battery acid.  Her legs were encased in tattered jeans heavily graffitied with black magic marker,  “Hi,” she greeted us with a big, metallic grin.

“Hi, Dil,” Bryon said.  He led me up the steps.

The obvious center of the group was a man sitting in a wooden rocker with his feet up on the railing.  This had to be the lord of the manor.  His eyes narrowed into tight focus on me as we approached.

“Heads up, people,” he said, “Here’s our Bryon with his new friend Mary.  Try not to frighten her.  We understand she’s a bit sheltered.”

“Mary, this is Victor.”  Lord of the manor indeed.  Something about him made me shiver, even though he appeared no more than merely mortal.  Straight black hair neatly styled, dark eyebrows arched wickedly over gypsy eyes.  He wore a gold earring in his left ear and an electric blue polo shirt. Tan and blue plaid shorts showed off darkly furred but excellently shaped legs.  He sat up, his sandaled feet slapping the boards of the porch, and he extended his hand to me.

“Enchanted to meet you,” he said, and before I could react to the extended hand, he gestured with it to the woman next to him who was perched on a stool.  She had faintly greenish bleached blond hair, cut, or rather slashed, in no particular way.  Gauntly thin, her large grey eyes were made even larger by the grotesque overuse of make-up.  “This is Kat,” he said.

Kat regarded me with unconcealed boredom and reached into the folds of her loose, silky, fuchsia and black sun dress to pull out a pack of cigarettes.  A lighter was wedged in its plastic wrapper.

“Kat,” Victor said, “Don’t be tiresome.  Say ‘hello’ at least.”

“Hello,” she said as she lit the cigarette.

“Filthy habit,” Victor sighed.  “I’ve cured her of most of the worst ones, but this she won’t give up.”  The cadences of Victor’s voice were vaguely continental, almost British, or perhaps just ultra Ivy-league upper class.

Kat drew a deep lungful of smoke which she blew upwards, then she methodically tapped the ashes off her cigarette onto Victor’s lap.  He brushed them away without concern.  “Now, now, do stop showing off.”  To me he confided, “She’s just cranky because she hasn’t had a drink yet.  Kat, you must try to behave.  This is Bryon’s guest.”

“She looks like a school teacher,” Kat said.  Her accent made me think New York, maybe Long Island.

“I’m a librarian,” I said, and Kat hooted.

“Hah!  She won’t last an hour!”

“Nonsense!” Victor scoffed.  “I’m sure Bryon prepared her for the experience, didn’t you Bryon?”

“Sort of,” he said glancing uneasily at me.  I flashed them all a game smile.

“I’m looking forward to the weekend,” I said.  “I’m sure it will be a new experience for me.”

“New experience!” Kat said.  “Right!  She’s gonna have a coronary.”

“Come on, guys, stop trying to scare her!” said the girl on the railing.  “Anyway, I’m Dil,” and she offered me a friendly smile.

“Dil,” Victor said, “is a very naughty child who insists on coming over to visit us even though her mother has warned her that we are very bad people who will corrupt her innocent soul.”

“Oh, pul-leeze!” Dil groaned.  “Don’t worry,” she said to me, “This is really a cool place.  You’ll be fine.  My mom doesn’t care if I come over here.  She knows nothing is going to happen to me.”

“Your mother knows nothing of the kind,” Victor said.  “Now then, let us continue our introductions.  To my right here, is Perrin.  Mind your robe, Perrin, if you rise to take a bow.  We wouldn’t want to shock the lady.”  Perrin was reclining on a wooden chaise, wearing a tan terry-cloth bathrobe.  He had light brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard which covered his jaw and looped narrowly over his upper lip, outlining a sensuous mouth.  His hair was thinning over a broad forehead although his face was youthful and unlined.  He would have seemed to be a pleasantly ordinary fellow except that he was, quite unself-consciously, smoking a marijuana cigarette.

“Welcome to the Bedlam Boarding House,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’m delighted to be here.”

“Let us hope that sentiment endures through the weekend,” Victor said.

“I gotta go,” Dil said, jumping down off the porch.  “Nice to meet you,” she said to me, and she grinned at Bryon, flashing him a thumbs-up.

“Don’t you dare try to sneak back here tonight!” Victor shouted after her.  “I’ll not have my party busted for serving minors!”

She turned to flip him the finger, her braces glinting, and went over to a mud-encrusted dirt bike leaning against a tree.  Swinging a leg over the duck-taped seat of the bike, she gunned the engine into life and roared away down a rutted track into the woods.

“She’s trouble,” Perrin said, and he leaned forward to hand Victor the joint.

The screen door opened behind them and a woman with a wild bush of red hair came out, wearing a sequined dress in a frantic pattern of red, white and blue.  It fit her body, which was had all the shapeliness of a potato, with ill-considered snugness.

“Ooh!” she squealed in a squeaky voice, “Is this Corky’s new girlfriend?”

“Gideon!” Victor groaned, “You aren’t wearing that to the party, are you?”

“I like it!” the woman replied petulantly.  “And I’ve got a matching top hat and cane.”

“Christ!  Poor Mary here must think she’s walked onto the set of the Rocky Horror Picture Show!  Do us a favor, Gideon, and take that wretched flag off!”  He took a drag off of the joint and gestured at her with it, exhaling smoke as he spoke.  “She’s got the taste of a twenty dollar whore.”

“Victor would know what a twenty dollar whore tastes like,” Gideon retorted.  Then she beamed at me.  “I’m so glad Corky invited you out!  I’ve been dying to meet you!  He’s talked about nothing else all week.”

“To you, perhaps,” Victor said.  “He didn’t care to mention her to the rest of us until this morning.  One would think he was embarrassed to admit he was dating the town librarian.”

Perrin stifled a snort of laughter.

“Well,” Bryon said, “It all happened kind of fast.”  He was holding my hand so tightly I was afraid he’d cut off circulation.

“It never happens any other way with you, now does it?” Victor said, handing the joint back to Perrin.  “Do be a dear,” he said to Kat, “and fix us a tray of drinks.  We can at least put on the appearance of being civil hosts, can’t we, hmm?”

Kat threw her cigarette off the porch with a gesture of contempt and got up off the stool.  “What do you all want?” she demanded.

“What will it be, Mary?” Victor asked me, “Wine?  Gin and tonic?  A glass of lemonade, perhaps?”

My god, my breakfast had hardly digested.  “Wine would be lovely,” I said.  Alice, I thought, at the Mad Tea Party.  I shall handle all of this with dignity and poise.  “White, if you have it.”

“White, red, and damn near any shade in between,” Victor replied.  “Kat, crack open a bottle of that Chablis I’ve got chilling for tonight.  Shall we all have a glass?  Bryon, you look like a shot of whiskey would be more in order.  Relax, dear boy!  She hasn’t run off yet, and she’s accepted our hospitality.  Bring over another chair or two.  Mary, you are planning to stay for the party aren’t you?  If you survive that, you’ll practically be one of the family.”

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