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ANGEL WITH WHISK BROOM
He always called me "angel face." that was his name for me when we were by ourselves. That was a special thing, from him to me. He'd bring his face down close to mine and say it low. He'd say he wondered where I got it, that angel face. And things like that your husband says to you.
Then all at once it stopped. And before I knew it, it was weeks since I'd heard it. I waited for it to come again and wondered why it didn't. Then that stopped too.
His blue suit was missing from the closet, and that was strange. That was my job, to send things to the cleaner. I worked my way a little deeper in along the hangers. To the left, his side of the closet.
His gray one was missing too, and that was stranger still. Two suits at once? That was all he had, except the one that he was wearing.
If there hadn't already been one or two little things before this it would have been different. It would have been just a case of a couple of his suits gone from the closet. But there had already been one or two little things before this. And that made it something else again.
A lie now and then where there was no reason for a lie. There was the evening he'd spent with one of the fellows, had a few beers too many. No harm in that. I'd told him so. I'd said, "I didn't ask you, Kirk. You're the one is telling me." Then, only a week or so later, when his companion of that particular night happened to be up in our apartment and I laughingly referred to the incident, why did he develop such a blank, puzzled look and give such a cagey, noncommittal answer? Until Kirk gave him a little signal on the side, which I pretended not to see, that seemed to work wonders with his powers of recollection.
Then there was the powder compact. He'd picked it up on the street and left it in the pocket of his overcoat. He saw me looking at it and he told me how he'd happened to find it. People do lose compacts. Even solid gold ones inscribed "To Mia from Craig."
But then, on the very next day after that, no compact any more. I asked him what had become of it. "Oh, I got rid of it," he said offhandedly.
But it had been gold, hadn't it? I tried to suggest.
"Nah," he disabused me. "I thought so too, but I had a jeweler test it for me. It was just gilt metal. So I left it there."
But would they be likely to stamp the symbol "14K" on anything that wasn't gold, as they had on this? I wondered privately. I didn't tell him that I'd glimpsed that on it. I don't know why. When you have an uneasy feeling that happiness is beginning to slip through your fingers you hang on as tightly as you can; you don't give it an added push away from you.
Little things like that, they made this matter of the two suits something else again, at sight.
But more than anything else, no "Angel Face" for weeks now. Only Alberta, that formal Alberta, never previously used, when he had anything to say to me.
They say everyone has to go through it at least once. They say the best is to let it ride, seem not to notice, and it will work itself out. They say. Try and do it sometime—when you're twenty-two and it's your first experience with it.
I'm a coward, I guess. I didn't tell Kirk I'd been to the jeweler where he said he'd left the compact, to try to reclaim it or at least make sure that it wasn't gold and he wasn't cheating Kirk. "What compact?" the jeweler said. "Nobody's been in here with any compact." He might have been lying; I couldn't tell. Maybe I didn't want to know for sure.
What an odd name, Mia, I thought on the way back.
I saw her later. I couldn't tell for sure that it was the same person. It might have been somebody else with the same first name. But it was such a rare name. It seemed impossible that there could be more than just one person in the entire city with just that name. It was a publicity picture on the theatrical page of the evening paper. You know, that sort of thing they use at random to fill up space and not because of any intrinsic news value.
I remember I clipped the thing out, with the sort of morbid curiosity that makes you do those things, and slipped it under the lining paper in the bureau drawer, where no one but me was ever likely to find it.
It mightn't have even been the same person, for all I knew. But that was such an unusual, such a seldom-encountered first name.
I didn't try to talk to him about it. I was afraid to risk it. I buried my head in the sand like an ostrich, hoping it would blow over, go away, I wouldn't have to face it.
And now this business of the suits, and here it was anyway.
I turned away from the closet, white in the face. I went to the storage one in the hall, where he kept his valise empty and unlocked between business trips. I crouched down beside it, and the latch tongues wouldn't open; they were locked. I put my hand through the grip and tried to lift it clear of the floor, and it nearly pulled my arm out of joint, it weighed so much. Everything in it already, ready to go.
I let it down with a clump. It seemed to swim around a little, like a big leather boat, on the lake my eyes made. I said to myself: "It's not what you think. It's just a business trip for the firm." But then why hadn't he told me? He always told me. He always let me do the packing for him.
I wondered when he'd found the time to do it. Probably that very morning; I'd found him up ahead of me. But more than that, even, I wondered how he'd found the heart to do it.
Something I'd once heard came back to me: "They're all cowards about having a parting scene. They'll grapple with an armed burglar barehanded, but there isn't one of them that won't slink out sooner than face a final good-by with a woman."
I found myself by the phone, and I'd just finished dialing his office number. That whispered plea you heard in the waiting silence, that was me. "Make it a business trip. Oh, please, don't let it be anything else."
I asked the big boss's secretary. She was nice. I'd met her once or twice. And, luckily, Kirk didn't happen to be in just then; that gave me the excuse to ask her instead.
"You don't happen to know just how soon he'll be going away again for Mr. Jacobs, do you? I forgot to ask him before he left this morning, and I happened to be going over some of his clothes just now and wondered if I should put them away in tar paper or wait a while in case he needs them to take with him."
I wondered if that sounded as lame to her as it did to me.
"You don't need to worry about that," she said. "He won't be going out again for months to come. Not until late spring. Everything's dead right now. I heard Mr. Jacobs say so yesterday."
It was like something cold trickling into my ear from the receiver. I said a thing or two after that, but it was only sheer momentum that kept me talking; there wasn't really anything more to say.
I didn't even say good-by. She did, in a way. A way that showed she was no fool. Just before she hung up I heard her murmur almost compassionately, "Don't let it get you too much, honey."
I don't remember what I did for a while after that. I think I just sat there on the telephone bench. Then outward movement came back again, slowly at first, in spurts and starts that finally worked themselves up into a flurry of action ending in a crashing exit.
I went in and opened the bureau drawer. I turned back the dust-paper lining and picked up that thing I'd taken out of the papers weeks before.
I knew what she looked like by heart by this time. That scrap of newspaper she was on should have been worn ragged by now, the number of times I'd pulled it out and looked at it when I was alone in the place.
She looked as lovely as only a publicity photograph can make them look. Probably one and a half times as lovely as she really was. She was brunette, as the Rachel powder in the compact had said she would be. Her eyes were wide and languorous, and her lips had a sullen, pouty look. She looked good to stay away from, but then I'm not a man; probably it worked in reverse with them. She was indicating a rose on her shoulder with one slender, upcurved hand. What supported it, the rose, was uncertain. There wasn't a sign of anything, until the lower frame of the picture cut across her just a moment too late. The caption below it read: "Mia Mercer, one of the attractions appearing nightly at Dave Hennessy's Hermitage."
This time I didn't put it back. I hung onto it. I didn't want to hang onto her photograph; it was him I wanted to hang onto. I took it out to the kitchen with me and propped it up against something. I reached blindly all along the uppercase cupboards until I'd located and toppled down that bottle of ceremonial gin of his. I didn't know very much—yet—about the procedure of using it. That was his province, not mine. He was very good at fixing it with things like mint and lemon, but I didn't want cordiality now; I wanted courage. I let out a little into the jigger glass and gulped it down. I thought some plaster had fallen off the ceiling and hit me on the chest for a minute.
I sat there staring at her picture and hating her hard. I let a little more out and gulped that. The plaster didn't hit me this time. I started to feel a slow glow inside me instead. I sat there and stared at her some more.
I guess it was the gin made me decide to do it. It must have been. The gin made everything seem so easy, so plausible. I would have shrunk from it, unstimulated. It would have seemed like something out of East Lynne or Camille. The gin made it seem logical, perfectly natural, and by no means a futile thing to do.
I went in and started to get dressed. Dressed for calling, that is. I took more pains dressing for her than I ever had dressing for him. And yet he was the one I was dressing for, in a roundabout way. I had to be careful. Enemy eyes.
Finally I was ready and I got out fast. I knew if I didn't go quickly I'd never have the nerve to go at all. The two jiggers of gin were wearing off, so I stopped just long enough to gulp a third and last to see me through.
Then I went out and closed the door behind me, and for the first time in four years I didn't give a damn what there was going to be for supper.CHAPTER 2
They'd told me over at that hermitage place that this was where it was. It was one of those remodeled private residences that have been converted into apartments. But of the expensive, not the cheap, variety. It was the type of place that offers extreme privacy. No attendants in the lobby, an automatic elevator. The door was the self-locking kind. Yes, I thought bitterly, she'd want extreme privacy.
I went into the small forward vestibule and found her name beside one of the small door buttons, but before I could put my finger to it a delivery boy bearing an empty box came out. He politely held the door for me, so I got in without having to telegraph my punch and run the risk of being refused admittance from below.
A moment later I was standing before her inner door on the second floor. And now that I was there I wanted to be back home again; I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. By that time the false courage of the double jiggerful of gin had had time to wear off, and I saw this for the preposterous, unlikely to succeed thing it was again. The only reason I didn't turn around and scuttle off again before she had time to come out and confront me was that, now that I was right there outside the door, it seemed senseless not to wait long enough at least to find out if I had the right person or not. I was almost certain I did have by now. I didn't like a remark they'd let drop at that Hermitage place when I'd been there just now. Miss Mercer had turned in her notice only two or three days ago. She was going away on a short vacation, she'd said. Yeah? I thought bitterly. On whose time?
The hopelessness of the thing I was trying to do came over me again. I put my hand distractedly to my forehead and thought, "What do I expect to get from this? What good will it do?"
She was taking a long time to answer. My courage was oozing out of me by the minute. If I had to wait much longer for the showdown I wouldn't be able to open my mouth at all. This was one of those things you had to do at white heat. Once you stopped and let yourself cool off you couldn't go through with it any more. I rang again, longer, harder, louder.
She wasn't in.
I gave the knob a twist only as a symptom of frustration. The door wavered loosely inward an inch or two. It must have been off the latch the whole time. I widened the gap and put my face to it. I could see a strip of room about a foot wide, splashed with a lot of vivid turquoise-blue color.
I cleared my throat. I even spoke aloud. I said, "I beg your pardon?" No one answered.
Not finding her in at the moment emboldened me. I forgot about my recent inclination to retreat. I stepped inside, closed the door softly behind me, stood there for a moment like that, with my hand resting on the knob. Then I lingeringly took it off, and entry was complete.
Enemy territory, I thought.
I took it all in. I thought: "So this is how they live when they—live like this." It was a decorator's job, that outside room. Almost like a stage setting. Swell to look at, from the door like this, but no good for living in. Too florid. It was flooded with this acutely vivid turquoise-blue color: upholstery, carpet, drapes, lamp shades. Either she or the decorator had a passion for it. Then all over, like flecks of blood, there were dabs of vermilion.
I shook my head, not so much in moral condemnation as in common, ordinary, everyday sense of value. It wasn't worth it; it was no bargain; she was being overcharged. My way was the better way of the two; worry about a bill now and then, but at least be able to usher your company out when you felt like it, lock the door after them for the night. Every room, I felt to myself, looking around, ought to have at least one ugly or dilapidated piece of furniture in it. That makes an honest room of it, not a bandbox like this.
I moved a little deeper inward. My own reflection glided unexpectedly across a mirror I hadn't noticed and gave me a guilty little shock, until I'd swerved and recognized myself. I looked out of place here, even in a mirror. The suburbs trespassing on the bright-light belt. Washington Heights taking a peek in on Sutton Place. "Angel Face," he called me. Well, maybe, but a sort of insipid, timid angel right then. Those eyes couldn't have looked mysterious if they'd tried, only sort of—guileless, I suppose you'd call it.
An arched opening into the next room came slipping toward me as I slipped toward it. Through it I could see a section of boudoir, and if the note in here was turquoise blue, the note in there was a sort of lush coral pink. It was drenched with it, even the satin-quilted walls.
I could see the foot of a coral satin chaise longue sticking out, with a rumpled coverlet on it and a discarded bedroom slipper or mule lying under it toe-up. She must have dressed in a hurry.
I shifted back and forth outside there, without going any nearer at first, until I could scan both of the side walls from where I was. There was no one in there. This was just a reflex precaution; I knew I would have been heard and challenged long ago if anyone had been in there.
I lingered outside a moment or two longer. For some strange reason it seemed less reprehensible to be caught trespassing in her living room than to be caught trespassing in the sanctum sanctorum of her boudoir. I roamed aimlessly around, looking over at the door by which I had entered every other moment. I strayed here and there, touching this, tapping that, poising three fingers in tripod formation on something else as I passed by. That was the only outward sign of the tension I was under.
Everything was monogrammed. That seemed to be another fetish of hers. There must have been a time she hadn't had much of anything, and now that she had plenty of everything she had to show whom it belonged to; she couldn't let the observer take it for granted. She'd thought up a symbol of two Ms overlapping one another, so that they looked like a single capital with four downward stems. She must have stayed up all one night to arrive at that brilliant inspiration, I reflected. A sixth-grade school kid could have rigged up something more original in ten minutes flat.
It had been sprinkled around wholesale. My only surprise was it had been left off the steam radiators and windowpanes and such. It was on cigarette boxes and on the cigarettes inside them and on matchsafes and worked into the corners of cushions and—
Suddenly the telephone began to ring someplace right there in the room with me. They use the expression "jumping out of your shoes." I didn't jump out of mine, but if they weren't actually clear of the plushy carpet for a moment they felt as though they were, with the frightened heave I gave.
I stood perfectly still for a minute, waiting for it to quit. It didn't. It kept on and kept on, until finally I couldn't stand it any more. What made it worse was I couldn't locate where it was at first, even by the sound. It was someplace near by, right in the same room with me, but there was no sign of it.
Excerpted from The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich. Copyright © 1943 Cornell Woolrich. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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