Zeno stretched out his long legs underneath the coffee table and lifted his arms high in the air above his head as long and hard as he could reach until he felt his spine crack and, all over, he tingled with relief. He smiled at a distant memory. The memory of a man he had recently known. Every thought of him delighting his senses.
It was raining with the view of the city hazy and gray. Gradually, his concentration returned. He got back to working on a portfolio of his artwork. The wind had picked up and the rain fell harder by the time Zelta came through the French doors and into the living room gasping with every shuffling step.
In one hand she carried a bag of M&M candies, the other a glass filled with a milkshake. Ceto, the short-hair black cat Zelta always called Blackey, followed in tow with a gay erect tail.
Zeno was about to say good morning but hesitated after seeing pale lipstick shaping her small mouth and soft earth shadow and rouge painting her chalky complexion giving her cheeks an unnatural glow. Her snow-white hair was untangled and brushed neatly into place. She wore a clean blue velvet gown with a flower embroidery knitted above the breast, a striking improvement over the drab flesh-colored robe she had worn previously. He couldn't believe it was the same woman who had managed to look so miserable only a few days ago.
This change, he thought to himself and almost laughed out loud, would horrify Abel upon his return from Charleston.
"How are you today, Mrs. Erikson?" he finally said after she settled into her favorite armchair with a high back and a small fluffy pillow. The chair was closest to a floor lamp and off to the side of the white fireplace mantel with a ticking antique clock and Abel's portrait focused above the fireplace.
"Just fine, young fellow,” she said haughtily. “Thank you," she added and Zeno looked away from her and she placed the glass down on the side table and centered the bag of M&Ms in her lap. "Where is Rosa?" she said looking anxiously around the room.
"Rosa won't be in until the afternoon,” he glimpsed at her and continued his work. “She has a doctor’s appointment. That’s why she's late."
"I hope she'll be all right.”
"She’ll be fine⎯I’m sure."
She reached for the glass with a plastic straw anchored at the top and lifted it to her mouth and, staring straight ahead into a downpour of rain dripping down the terrace glass, she parted her lips and sucked. The sound of sucking and then wheezing startled Ceto, the black cat, underneath the chair and it scouted out between her feet. She got only a glimpse of the cat vanished through the open French doors. She put the glass back down on the table and fidgeted with the seal of the M&Ms until she tore it open violently in her lap. Like a child, she picked out the red and yellow candies and popped first the reds, then the yellows into her mouth and chewed ravenously.
The French doors from the hall into the living room were wide open. This worried her more than the cat always chasing after Thamaus, the other cat, she called Blondie. She sucked in her teeth and thought of Ahab, the second son, expecting he would come rushing through the door into the room at any moment raging about wasted heat being let out into the hall and the bill sky high. Ahab was always complaining about money he never seems to have and needed to buy items she suspected were no good. She leaned forward with her elbows pressing into her thighs and peered at Zeno. She wished he would stop with that picture book right now, get up off of that floor and shut the door before Ahab burst in or that other one (Abel, her first son) returned like hurricane Hazel. Without either of them around the house was calmer. She liked it that way.
She popped more candies into her mouth and thought about the milkshake and how good it had been⎯and how much better it had tasted than the first ones Ahab had made. He had told her Dr. Abagtha prescribed shakes especially for her diet, which was all he ever gave for breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with M&Ms on the side. All this saved on grocery bills and provided more funds for Ahab’s pleasure. "The milkshake was another good one,” she blurted out loud. “Was it you, Rosa or that nurse who made it for me?”
"It was I. Nurse Wilma Hope is out of town. I hope you like strawberry?"
"I love strawberry. It's a good flavor. The milkshake is best I've ever had. I thank you very much."
In the palm of her right hand that was whiter than a sheet, she stared at chocolate candies thinking she had never lived with a Negro before. She consumed the candies until dark chocolate melted down her throat. She swallowed remembering a time when a Negro fellow of any complexion not of white people purity wasn’t allowed to sit alone in the same room with a white woman or even look at her, else he could be lynched or tied down to a stone to drown at the bottom of a creek because his color was wrong...evil. But this one, this young fellow, wasn't evil, wasn’t terribly bad looking. In fact, he didn’t look particularly ethnic of any sort, African or Middle Eastern, and he was handsome and hadn't stolen anything from them. He didn't curse in front of her and didn't have body odor.
Abel certainly appreciated him sniffing behind him like a hound dog. She certainly liked the way he made her shakes. They were the very best. Couldn’t his name very well be Blackey like her cat’s name? He was dark-skin with pretty black skin like Mario’s deep brown skin, her Cuban house gardener from a long time ago in Charleston. Sometimes, she called Mario by his nickname, Blackey. This young fellow’s nickname could be Blackey, too, like Mario. Why she, herself, even had a nickname as a girl given to her by her father. Her father called her Knut short for Peanut because she was his little peanut all of his life.
"I forget your name young fellow,” she said. “What is it again?"
"My name is Zeno. Zeno Elliott"
"Zeno Elliott...” She pondered his first name silently for a long moment.
"Is it with a `Z' like in my own?" She liked his name.
"Yes, it is."
"Well isn't that something. A `Z' like in my name. My name is Zelta, you know with a `Z' as well. Only you’re a handsome young fellow. I'm an old lady no longer so beautiful."
"But I think you are beautiful, Mrs. Erikson. You're an absolute doll."
"I was very beautiful a long time ago,” she grinned remembering horseback riding right by the ocean in Fort Bragg and she smiled and noticed Zeno had stopped fumbling with the picture book and was looking at her with shiny eyes. She blushed like a young courting girl or swore she could have blushed, which was improbable at her age. “Have you not seen the pictures when I was a young woman?”
“Abel has shown them to me. Yes, you were more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe with striking blonde hair down to your shoulders.” And perky breasts he didn’t tell her and smiled remembering the size of Zelta’s breast in a tight fitted sweater in one black and white photograph, and she was radiant like a movie star.
“That was a very long time ago,” she laughed and so did he. Though he didn’t know why he was laughing she was laughing and happy and that made him laugh more because she was so happy and no longer sad.
The telephone rang out in the hall. Zeno placed his portfolio on the table and, still amused by Zelta’s gaiety, got up to go answer the phone.
"So what's new besides your sleeping in until noon every day?" Abel teased him over the line.
"I haven't slept in until noon. Not a single day since you departed for Charleston."
"Have you been painting?"
"Then what have you been doing?"
"I photographed my latest artwork for a new portfolio I'm making. You'll like it. Besides, there's not much else to do here in the rain."
"How long has it been raining?"
"Nonstop all week."
"I hope you didn't forget to pack your rain gear?"
"Actually, I did forget since I thought it never rained in California."
"Well, it does rain in California, my boy. But don't fret; I left enough petty cash in the top drawer of my desk for both you and mother or you can always use one of your cards. Purchase what you or mother might need. How is the mother by the way?"
"Mrs. Erikson is jollier than ever. In fact, you'll be amazed whenever you see her."
"Amazed?” Abel sounded with a tinge of alarm. “What wickedness has she concocted now?"
"Nothing wicked. I'd say it's a change for the better. Would you like to speak to her?"
"That would be most disconcerting, my boy. Don’t be ridiculous.”
"Then how are lofty old Charleston and the gallery?"
"Charleston is all right. As for the gallery I am most impressed with Marcel’s accomplishment. Gallery attendance is up and sales have exceeded my expectation. She's an excellent curator and friend. I trust this woman with my life."
"How is Matthew?”
Any mention of Matthew Rae exasperated Abel and he was breathing hard into the phone when he said, "I've been meaning to tell you all about Matthew Rae."
Zeno’s heart skipped. "He is still working there in the warehouse?"
"Matthew was let go."
"Yes, as in terminated."
"You fired Matthew? But why Abel?"
"Matthew was not only insubordinate but he is white-trash scum. Furthermore, he's a thief. I'm grateful that Dale Savage is so efficient in keeping the books, else Matthew would have gotten away clean-free with thievery."
"Matthew, a thief? I can't believe that. Matthew is not a thief. There must be some kind of mistake. Something Dale did to-"
"Matthew Rae stole from the gallery. It's as simple as that. I have filed criminal charges with the Charleston PD and a warrant has been issued for his arrest-"
"Matthew could go to jail?"
"Matthew will go to prison if I don't destroy him beforehand for what he’s done.”
“What has he actually done, Abel?”
“More than you’ll ever know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, I didn't call home to quarrel or discuss Matthew Rae. I don't really care where he is...except he's out of my life, out of your life, out of both of our lives. I simply called to check in and make sure everything is satisfactory for both you and mother."
"Everything is O.K.,” Zeno said slowly.
"Try not to sound so ecstatic about it, will you?"
"Matthew was like family, Abel. My only connection to my past and the island-"
"Matthew Rae was a lot of other things and part of a past on a backward country island you never gave as much of a goddamn about then, you still don’t now, you never will care and you know it." Abel paused listening to the sound of his breathing on the phone and he got a warm feeling thinking so much about him. "Zeno...” he continued.
“Let’s not argue anymore.”
“I’ve missed you every single day since I've been away...I'd be the happiest man in the universe when I’ve found the right person to run JeE; then we can spend more time together. Just you and I. We can go back to Rome if desire, New York or Venice is so nice right now in November without all the tourists. I love you so much, Zeno, that sometimes it scares me that I could love anyone as much as I love you-"
"Sir, can't we talk about all of this later in person when you’ve come home? There's so much we need to talk about. So much I have to tell you."
"Then we'll talk on Monday. I'll be home late Sunday night. You'll probably be asleep."
"Then Monday. We'll see each other then."
"Yes, Monday. I love you, Zeno Elliott," he whispered from the bottom of his heart, "don't ever forget that."
"Thank you," Zeno whispered back and quickly told Abel good-bye and hung up the phone.
For a long while, he stood in the hall, shaken with memories of Matthew Rae. He knew he could not continue protecting Matthew from Abel's rage without jeopardizing himself and/or losing everything. Perhaps it wouldn't be so terrible if Matthew were caught, arrested, carted off to prison, never to interfere in his life again. There could be only peace with Matthew imprisoned 3,000 miles away.
He started back into the living room where Zelta waited with a silly grin on her face. "That was Abel on the phone," he told her from in the doorway. "He asked about you."
Zelta felt a sudden draft in the room from his shadow and she reached for her shawl on the arm of the chair. She pulled it over her shoulders and stared out the window at the rain beating on the terrace.
Zeno heard footsteps. He turned around and was relieved to see Rosa coming in. Rosa had more patience with Zelta unlike Nurse Hope and especially Abel.
"Is the senora up and about?" Rosa said in a thick Spanish accent.
Zeno looked again at Zelta. So gaunt and tiny in the armchair and it was raining harder. He pulled the doors shut. "She's there in the living room,” he said to Rosa. “We were talking and having a good time until I came out to get the phone. Abel called from Charleston. After I hung up, I told her he asked about her. She turned away as if she didn’t even know me anymore..."
Rosa did a sign of the cross and muttered something in Spanish. "Senora so afraid of the senor, si?"
"I don't understand the reason."
"Maybe it is best you do not know the reason."
"Then you know why there's so much friction between Abel and Mrs. Erikson? Of course, you must know. How long has it been since you were housekeeping here?"
"I’ve been domestic in this house ever since I left my people in Nicaragua four years ago," she said, holding up four fingers as if to double-check her own shaky account of when she first came to America. "I don't know why they argue all the time and hate each other so. I was in the house the day the senor evicted that brother. It was a terrible day like a nightmare. The police came. I so afraid because I do not have all of my papers. I hid in the basement until the house was silent."
"Then you knew Ahab Erikson?"
"I not know him long enough," she said crossing her breasts again. "I not say much to him when I come do the cleaning. He was not nice to me. Always looking at me with the funny eye." She smiled as she spilled out of her blue plastic raincoat.
Zeno blushed and was unable to remember her uniform being that snug before on her plump figure.
She swished over to the closet and removed her rain-cap and hung it up along with her coat. "I go see about the senora now," she looked at him with black penetrating eyes. "You gonna paint me a pretty picture today, senor?"
"I'm not painting anything today," he glimpsed up at the skylight and the rain was coming down like buckets of water hitting the glass.
"Then what you to do today?"
"I'm going upstairs and watch television. I am in need of a distraction.”
"You so young, so handsome, senor. Surely, you find better way to distract yourself than television. Television, like they say in this country, is bubble gum for the eye, si?"
"But I like chewing bubble gum once in a while, Rosa. It keeps me from getting carried away."
"You get carried away easy, si?"
"Let’s just say that when the moon is full, Rosa, there are a very few things I would not try for the hell of it."
“I saw the moon last night above Coit Tower,” Rosa said feeling a fervent sensation in her heart, and she blushed. “It is very full moon.”
"Yup," Zeno nodded and turned and left.
Rosa leaned her shoulder against the door watching him until he disappeared up the spiral stairs and into the master bedroom on the top floor. All the while she waited to wonder why Zeno insisted on wasting his time with the zancarrón anyway? Abel was a rich senor but a no good-for-nothing diablo!
Eagerly she waited in secret to bestow her passion upon the trueno who would soon know that she was truly worthy of his affection. And in return, unlike senor Abel, who had broken all of his promises, Zeno would ask her to be his senora and make her legal...