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Vol. 4, No. 2

Fair Warning
by Robert Olen Butler


On that night I sat naked on the edge of my bed, my silk nightshirt laid out beside me, and I thought of Trevor, the silk of his shirt the color of a ripe honeydew, or the color--if green is the color of jealousy--of the pallid twinge I felt when I found Max, in the third year of our relationship, in a restaurant we'd been to together half a dozen times, only this time he had a woman hanging on his arm. He saw me. I saw him. It was lunchtime and I sat down at a table, my back to him, and I ate my lunch alone, which I'd planned to do, and very fast, faster than usual. I loved that Caesar salad and split-pea soup, in spite of the speed, perhaps because of it: I was furious. Only the tiniest bit jealous, surprisingly, but angry. I love to eat when I'm angry. He wouldn't talk about it that night. The one on his arm never argued with him, he said. She was just about as stupid and irrational as he was, he said, thinking, I suppose, that he was being ironic. But even at that moment I thought it was the first truthful thing he'd said in a long time.
    I laid my hand on the nightshirt. The silk was cool and slick and I clenched it with my fingers like a lover's back. And then I let it go. It was Fred's shirt. It had been too big for pasty slender Fred. I looked at it. Periwinkle blue. White oyster buttons. Soft tip collar. Versace. Two hundred and fifty dollars. Who'll start the bidding at nothing? I looked at the shirt and wondered why I hadn't given it away or thrown it away from the negative provenance. But I didn't give a damn about that. It felt good to sleep in. That was a healthy attitude, surely.
    I looked around the room. And my eyes moved to my dresser and found a silver tankard stuffed with an arrangement of dried flowers. I rose and crossed to it and picked it up. It was from Max. The tankard, not the flowers. It was Georgian with a baluster shape and a flared circular foot and a light engraved pattern of flowers and foliate scrolls. He'd been an ignorant gift-giver. Subscriptions and sweaters. I vaguely remembered challenging him about it and he'd bought me this for seven hundred dollars. On eBay, where every grandma and pack rat is her own auction house. And he'd gotten me a glorified beer mug. But I was grateful at the time. He wanted to use it himself, I realized. He said the silver was the only thing that would keep a beer cold in the Georgian era. Yum, he said. But I didn't let him use it even once. I put flowers in his beer mug and I kept it to this moment, standing naked and alone in my bedroom, my face twisted beyond recognition in the reflection in my hand. It was beautiful, this object, really. That's why I kept it. Both these men had vanished forever from this place. Exorcised. The objects they touched--a thing I would push like crazy in an auction if they'd been famous and dead--held not a trace of them. And I felt the chilly creep of panic in my limbs at this thought.
    I put the tankard down and turned away. I crossed to the bed and I lifted this Versace shirt with soft tip collar and I let it fall over my head and down, the silk shimmering against me, and suddenly I felt as if I'd climbed inside Trevor's skin. Can you trust to know a man from a pair of dark eyes? From Chinese food and a child's game played by an adult after a lifetime of quiet pain inflicted by a mother? From the touch of a hand? Inside this draping of silk my body had its own kind of logic. These details are the man, my body reasoned, as surely as the buttons and the stitching and the weave of cloth are this $250 shirt. I raised my paddle and I bid on this man.



How do you assess the value of a thing? There are five major objective standards. The condition: the more nearly perfect, the better. The rarity: the rarer, the better. The size: usually neither too big nor too small. The provenance: the more intense--either good or bad--the better. The authenticity: though a fake may be, to any but an informed eye, indistinguishable from the true object, the world of the auction will cast out the pretender.
    And so I turn my mind now to the fifth night, the Friday night, of my week of assessments in the apartment of the deceased Mrs. Edward Martin, mother of Trevor Martin. On this night he opened the door to the bell and this fifth silk shirt was bloused in the sleeves and open to the third button and his chest was covered with dark down and his smile was so deeply appreciative of my standing there waiting to be let in that I thought for a moment he was about to take me in his arms and kiss me, which I would have readily accepted.
    But he did not. We spent the morning and the first hours of the afternoon working our way around the larger pieces in the foyer, the parlor, the library, the dining room. Then, after I'd assessed a beautiful mahogany three-pedestal dining table with brass paw feet, he said, "You're hungry." He was right. And for the second day in a row he did not even ask what I wanted but went to the phone and ordered my favorite Chinese dishes--though, in all honesty, I would have varied my fare if he'd asked--but I found myself liking his presumption, liking that he should know this domestic detail about me.
    And after we ate, he took me to a small room lined completely with armoires in rosewood and mahogany and walnut, and filling the armoires was everything that could be embroidered--quilts and drapes and cushions and bellows and doilies and on and on, big things and small--and there were Persian rugs stacked knee high in the center of the floor and on top of them sat two open steamer trunks, overflowing with indistinguishable cloth objects all frilled and flowered.
    "I'm surprised at her," I said without thinking. "She's out of control in here."
    "This was my room," Trevor said.
    I turned to him, wanting to take the words back.
    "It didn't look like this," he said, smiling.
    I had a strong impulse now to lean forward and lay my forehead against the triangle of his exposed chest. But I held still. I would not push him into the rest of his life. Then he said, "Let's leave this room for later," and he was moving away. I followed him down the hallway and he paused at a closed door, the only room I hadn't seen. He hesitated, not looking at me, but staring at the door itself as if trying to listen for something on the other side. I quickly sorted out the apartment in my head and I realized that this must have been her bedroom.
    How long had it been since I'd made love? Some months. Too many months. One of the great, largely unacknowledged jokes Nature plays on women--at least this woman--is to increase one's desire for sex while decreasing one's tolerance for boring men. Horny and discriminating is a bad combination, it seems to me. And the situation before me--exceedingly strange though it was shaping up to be--was anything but boring. Still he hesitated.
    I said, "This is hard for you."
    He nodded.
    He opened the door and I had no choice but to step to his side and look in.
    There were probably some pots and pans, a telephone and a commode, some kitchen utensils, that were not Victorian in Mrs. Edward Martin's apartment. But almost nothing else. Except now I was looking at her bed and it was eighteenth-century Italian with a great arched headboard painted pale blue and parcel-gilt, carved with lunettes, and rising at each side was a pale pink pilaster topped not by a finial but by a golden cupid, his bow and arrow aimed at the bed. The smell of lilacs rolled palpably from the room, Trevor put his arm around my shoulders, and some little voice in my head was going, How desperate have you become?
    Then he gave me a quick friendly squeeze and his arm disappeared from around me and he said, "Maybe I'll let you do this room on your own."
    "Right," I said, and I sounded as if I was choking.



An hour later I found him sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee. I sat down across from him.
    We were quiet together for a time, and then he said, "Do you want some coffee?"
    "No," I said. "Thanks."
    He stared into his own cup for a long moment and then he said, "She loved objects."
    "That's clear."
    "My childhood, her adulthood. It was all one," he said softly. "She had a good eye. She knew what she wanted and she knew what it would cost and she was ready to pay it."
    He was saying these things with a tone that sounded like tenderness. On our first evening he'd taken pleasure in my being able to look inside him, but at this moment he seemed opaque. He felt tender about her shopping? But then it made a kind of sense. I, of all people, should understand his mother. I played people like her every day.
    I made my voice go gentle, matching his tone. "What she saw and loved and bought, this was how she said who she was."
    Trevor looked at me and nodded faintly. "Like style. We are what we wear. We are what we hang on our walls. Perhaps you're right. She was talking to me."
    He looked away.
    And I thought: the buying isn't the point; it's that we understand the objects. We love what we understand. And then I averted my eyes from the next logical step. But I can see it now, replaying it all: we love what we understand, and there I sat, understanding Trevor Martin.
    I waited for him to say more but he seemed content with the silence. I was not. I was doing entirely too much thinking. I said, "I've solved your mystery."
    He smiled at me and cocked his head. The smile was reassuring. It was okay to move on.
    I said, "Her pillows--and there are a dozen of them--they all have lilac sachets stuffed inside the cases."
    "Of course. I should have realized. She slept in it."
    I found I was relieved that even in his freedom to search for the source of the scent he had avoided her bedclothes. And he had not made love to me on her bed. These were good and reassuring things. I was free now to relax with my pleasure in the way he lifted his eyebrows each time he sipped his coffee, the way he lifted his chin to enjoy the taste, the way his eyes moved to the right and his mouth bunched up slightly when he grew thoughtful, the way--for the second time--he reached out and laid his hand on mine. I was filled with the details of him. I could sell him for a million bucks. Not that I would. Clearly, part of me was beginning to think he was a keeper.
    When his hand settled on my hand, he said, "I will sleep better tonight because of you."
    I looked at him with a little stutter in my chest. I'd suddenly become what my daddy used to call "cow-simple." It was from his touch. It was from merely the word sleeping. It was stupid but I was having trouble figuring out what he was really trying to say.
    And he let me gape on, as if I was out alone in a field, paused in the middle of chewing my cud, wondering where I was. Then he said, "The mystery. Solved."
    "Of course," I said.



When this fifth work day was done, for the fifth time he walked me to the door and thanked me, rather formally, for all that I was doing. Tonight I stopped and looked into his eyes when he said this. "I've enjoyed your company," I said.
    "And I've enjoyed yours," he said.
    That's all I wanted to say. I turned to go.
    "Amy," he said.
    I turned back and my instinct said this was the time he would take me into his arms. My instinct was wrong. Was this another trend for the forty-year-old woman? Horny, discriminating, and utterly without sexual intuition? He simply said, "I'll see you down."
    We went out the door together and along the hall and I pushed the down button on the elevator and a spark of static electricity bit at my fingertip. That was it, I thought. I've now discharged into the electrical system of the building elevators whatever that was I was feeling a few moments ago.
    The doors opened. We stepped in. The doors closed. We were alone, and maybe the elevators did suck up the charge that was between us, because we descended one floor of the ten we had to go and Trevor reached out and flipped the red switch on the panel and the elevator bounced to a stop and a bell began ringing and he took me in his arms and I leaped up and hooked my legs around him as we kissed. He pressed me against the wall and he did not make a sound.



The next day I leaned into the tinted window of Arthur Gray's limo and faced the rush of trees and light standards and, eventually, industrial parks, along the Long Island Expressway. I never had understood what men saw in lovemaking in a standing position. Though Trevor had been strong enough, certainly, to hold me up without my constantly feeling like I would slip off him. He was silent, but he did not cry out, "Oh Mama," which would have been much worse, under the circumstances. We'd not had a proper date. We'd never even gone out for a meal. But that sounded like my mama talking. I was well fucked and unusually meditative.
    When we were on Highway 27, out among the potato fields and vegetable stands and runs of quaint shops and approaching East Hampton, Arthur finally roused me from going nowhere in my head. He said, "Amy, there's one more item that I want you to put on your list. Okay?"
    "It's the special request I mentioned on your machine." Arthur was shuffling his feet and talking all around something and he'd finally gotten me interested, even suspicious.
    "What are you talking about, Arthur?"
    "A dinner with you."
    "With me?"
    "At Fellini's. In SoHo. They've already donated the meal, with wine. Dinner for two with the most beautiful auctioneer in New York."
    I was silent. This was really troubling for a reason I couldn't quite define.
    "Come on," he said. "Think of the whales."
    "This is for whales? I thought it was for a disease."
    "Whales get diseases, too. The point is that your mystique, which is considerable, is Nichols and Gray's mystique, as well. Give somebody a dandy candlelit dinner. For us. Okay?"
    There was no good reason to say no. I liked whales. I liked Arthur. I liked Nichols and Gray. But there was suddenly a great whale of a fear breaching inside me and falling back with a big splash: I was going to have to sell myself.
    I looked out the window and across a field I saw a cow, standing alone, wondering where the hell she was.

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