Icarus Transfigured by m. l. teague (page 23)

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Chapter Nine, Section Two

Emma whisked him down Broadway at a heady pace. High heels put her dauntingly at eye-level, while her stature and gait made her vintage dress look haute couture. Beyond the trace of henna in her long dark hair, her bohemianism was all but subsumed by a sensibility better described in dog-eared pages of old copies of Vogue. No glaring tattoos labeled her as conventionally counter-culture—not that tattoos would have mattered to ogling men passing by on the sunny sidewalk.

The nonpareil stopped at the corner to pull another sweater from her bag: a black and beaded affair with short white cuffs turned up like calla lilies at the elbow; its prim-and-properness barely dented the eye traffic.

They arrived at a vintage Ford Mercury convertible, lately red in color, but not in the best of conditions. Doubtless its leather cover hood was inoperable, which meant it could only be exhibited on sunny days, and spent every other day under a waterproof tarpaulin weighted with bricks. After the shock of it wore off, the vehicle seemed to fit its eclectic owner. Emma had invented her glorious self out of improbable parts, betraying, in his estimation, the best kind of genius.

She opened the backseat of her car to rummage through a vast shoe selection in the floorboard, while he stood at the curbside and watched her sort through heels and sandals with the patience of a man willingly under a spell. Finding a pair of espadrilles to her liking, she switched them out before the two hopped in the vehicle and sped away.

Plastic dinosaurs were epoxied over the glove compartment, and a cowry shell necklace hung along with a crucifix from the rearview mirror. Aloysius looked for a place to park his feet among the diet soda cans and footwear. He situated his long body in the space left him, while she insisted, “This will be fun!”

The graduate student took her new friend to a local Irish pub called The Third Policeman. High-backed wooden booths, painted in red lacquer, jutted along a narrow path from the door; plastic tiffany-knockoff lamps hung precariously low from the smoky ceiling. Emma held on tenaciously to her companion’s arm; he did not resist for fear of losing it. She threw up her hand, and a corresponding gesture came from a table in the corner. Another coffeehouse waitress was seated there, who was recognized as Cleopatra from the party.

Emma formally introduced her. “This is Erica.”

The fellow barista did not bother to stand, but pointed her cigarette at the man like a finger. “Large Latte, Half decaf,” she dubbed him.

Emma pushed Aloysius down beside her friend before sitting across from them. “Erica’s thinking about becoming a lesbian,” she volunteered.

The plucky woman flicked her ash. “Well, it’s not official yet. I’m still waiting on paperwork.”

Erica was low-built and curvaceous. She was attractive in a quintessentially big-boned midwestern way. Her bobbed black hair was tinged with the colors of comic book pages, and her ice blue eye shadow clumped where she squinted out from under thick bangs. While Emma was a rank amateur at cultivated aloofness, she was a seasoned practitioner.

“Are you the one who posted the advertisement for a model at the coffeehouse?” she inquired.

“Yes,” he answered nervously.

“What do you pay per hour?”

Aloysius backtracked. “I haven’t decided, yet. I’m still settling in.”

“Not a lot of money-making opportunities in this town,” she complained.

Aloysius locked eyes with the waiter in a fidget, and inspired by his choice of hamburger and fries, the two ladies ordered the same.

He frowned mockingly at Emma. “I thought you were a vegetarian?”

The graduate student puffed up, informing him, “Most of the time, I am. But today I’m celebrating!”

Erica was peckish. “Kill the fatted calf and break out the fancy tea glasses! I’m starved!” she declared. “What are we celebrating?”

“I paid my rent this month.”

Both women chortled in that synchronized way young women have before their conversation turned to topics of mutual interest between them. This left the infiltrator sidelined until Emma said something that pricked his ears.

“Tanner came by the coffeehouse today to tell me he was awarded the Nadir-Kaufman Scholarship for next year.”

Erica was arid. “I’m sure ‘Jacques the Troll’ won’t be happy about that.”

Aloysius dipped in. “What’s his story, exactly?”

Emma shook her head. “Jacques is the perennial graduate student in the fine arts department. He keeps changing his ‘area of concentration.’ Right now he’s into performance art, and mostly poses in professors’ yards as a kind of protest over the disparate pay rates between faculty and associate instructors.”

Erica was in a mood. “Last year he posed in front of one of the sorority houses, conveniently near a bathroom window. The only thing convincingly ceramic about his performance was his perpetual hard-on.” (The diminutive artist clearly did not impress her.) There was another flick off ashes. “Speaking of freaks, I heard the old wino was killed yesterday at a construction site.”

Emma showed concern. “How?”

“A falling beam or something. I guess his metal detector didn’t give him much of a heads-up.”

“What a horrible way to die!” exclaimed the friend.

Erica snuffed out her cigarette, grunting, “Beats mistaking antifreeze for liquor.”

Emma winced at the caustic humor.

“Here’s the kicker, though,” the gossiper chomped. “Police found a cache of cell phones in his Hefty bag.”

“Where they stolen?” gasped the friend.

Erica shrugged. “Stuff stupid students dropped, probably. They practically shit their parents’ money. Most of them don’t have the sense God gave to a stack of dinner napkins.”

Once food was served, the curt barista practically inhaled hers. Between her rough language and nicotine varnish, Aloysius did not see her being a good influence on Emma. His opinion was already prejudiced by her behavior at the party, and she gave him no reason to amend it. Erica’s counter-culture guise was a defense, which perhaps betrayed insecurity she might have felt about being a college-age female not in college in a college town. This outsider status was likely as much imposed as freely embraced. Regardless, her barbed company was not long suffered. She scoffed down the last of her burger and left, leaving Aloysius to wonder why she came at all. (It might have been to give Emma an excuse to conclude the “date” if lunch did not go well.)

With the friend gone, the meal took on a different character. The talkative grad student continued to pick at her hamburger, eating most of the patty, the pickle, and torn-off bits of the bun. Her plate by the end looked like a child’s subterfuge: a rearrangement of food intended to convince a parent there was somehow less of it. She soon dispensed with the pretense of eating and pulled a stack of photographs from her hand bag. They advanced on every unused inch of tablecloth.

The quality of the artwork was impressive for a student, and Aloysius was never begrudging in his praise for things he liked. The opportunity to play professor also gave him another way of conversing with the young woman. By the time the impromptu critique wound down, table conversation turned casually to topics unrelated to school.

The painter took advantage of proximity and low bar light to study his companion’s face with uncharacteristic abandon. Emma’s skin possessed a delicate translucency, as if Adolphe Bouguereau, the French Salon painter, had built it up in layers of feathery white scumblings. At some point she slipped on her black-rimmed glasses, possibly to lend sophistication to her bubbly chatter, though her youthful turn of mind was not easily masked. She employed her body to accent grammatical flourishes, shifting her weight from hip to hip to insert commas for dependent clauses, and then tilting her head to add a semicolon. There was little artifice in her manner, however. She may have been in college, but her combination of swagger and charm was that of a woman in full command of her talents.

In the course of the extended lunch, Aloysius realized someone over his shoulder succeeded at distracting Emma. Before a plan could be formed to ascertain the source of this distraction, the professor from the party came by the table on his way out with a colleague.

“Emma,” he said in a greeting, glancing at the scattered photographs. (There was a possessive glint in the look he bore her, and insincerity in the smile he threw Aloysius.) “I hope when you feel yourself, you can model for me again.”

Emma’s reaction was cordial, and the two men continued to the door.

“Feeling yourself?” inquired the companion. “Have you been ill?”

“My father died last month after a long illness. I left school for a week.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

With her showy feathers tucked down, the pictures were raked off the table and returned to her bag. She was suddenly younger than he ever could imagine. “And your mother?” he continued.

“We don’t talk much.”

Aloysius approached his next subject cautiously. “Is the man who was just here a teacher of yours?”

Emma fiddled with the clasp on her purse. “His name is Seth Bowles. He helped me get my scholarship. I modeled for him, once.”

The emerging picture was not a good one. Aloysius would not probe further for fear of discovering more than he wanted to know. A gesture was made on her part to grab the bill; he snatched it away.

Emma protested. “I’m putting this on my credit card. This is my treat. I invited you out.”

The painter was adamant, rising with check in hand.

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