The Days of Summer A Novel
By Jill Barnett
Atria Copyright © 2006 Jill Barnett
All right reserved. ISBN: 0671035355
Warm and motionless nights were natural in LA, a place where so much of life was staged and the weather seldom competed for attention. Here, events and people stood in the limelight. On most nights, somewhere in the city, searchlights panned the sky; tonight, in front of the La Cienega Art Gallery. All the art show regulars were there in force, names from the society pages, old money and new, along with enough existentialist poets and bohemians to fill every coffeehouse from Hollywood to Hermosa Beach.
Well-known art critics chatted about perspective and meaning, debated social message. They adored the artist, a vibrant, exotic woman whose huge canvases had violent splashes of color charging across them, and wrote about her work in effusive terms as bold as the work itself, likening her to the abstract expressionists Pollock and de Kooning. Rachel Espinosa was the darling of the LA art scene, and Rudy Banning's wife.
Rudy came to the show late, after drinking all afternoon. His father was right: he was a sucker -- something that was easier to swallow if he chased it with a bottle of scotch. The searchlights were off when he parked his car outside the gallery. Once inside, he leaned againstthe front door to steady himself.
A milky haze of cigarette smoke hovered over the colorless sea of black berets, gray fedoras, and French twists. In one corner, a small band played an odd arrangement of calypso and jazz -- Harry Belafonte meets Dave Brubeck. The booze flowed, cigarettes were stacked every few feet on tall silver stanchions, and the catering was Catalan -- unusual -- and done to propagate the lie that his wife, Rachel Maria-Teresa Antonia Espinosa, was pure Spanish aristocracy. This was her night, and her stamp was on the whole production.
She stood near the back half of the room, under a canned light and in front of one of her largest and latest pieces, Ginsberg Howls. The crowd milled around her, but most managed to stay a few feet away, as if they were afraid to get too close to such an icon. A newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Times interviewed her, while a staff photographer with rolled-up shirtsleeves circled around her, snapping photos with sharp, blinding flashes.
Rachel turned on for the camera, striking a carefully choreographed pose Rudy had seen before: arm in the air, a martini glass with three cocktail onions in her hand. Tonight she wore bright orange. She knew her place in this room.
Rudy helped himself to a drink from a cocktail tray carried by a passing waiter, then downed the whiskey before he was ten feet away from her. She didn't see him at first, but turned with instinctive suddenness and looked right at him. What passed between them was merely a ghost of what had been -- the days when one look across a room could evaporate everything around them. His wife's expression softened, until he set his empty drink on a passing tray and grabbed another full one, then raised the glass mockingly and drank it as she watched him, her look so carefully controlled.
"Darling!" Rachel said quickly, then turned to the reporter. "Excuse me." She rushed forward hands outstretched. "Rudy!" When he didn't take her hands, she slid her arm through his and moved toward a corner. "You're late."
"Really?" Rudy looked around. "What time was this charade supposed to start?"
"You're drunk. You reek of scotch." She pulled him away from the crowd.
"Are you trying to shove me off into a corner? I'm six foot four. A little hard to hide." Rudy stopped bullishly and turned so she was facing the room. "You crave attention so much. Look. People are staring."
"Stop it!" Her voice was quiet and angry.
"I know, Rachel."
"Of course you know. No one force-fed you half a bottle of scotch." Her deep breath had a tired sound. "Dammit, Rudy. Do you have to ruin everything?"
Her fingers tightened around his arm. Murmurs came from those nearby, and people eased closer.
"I know," he said with emphasis. The music faded and the room quickly grew quiet. Rudy had the laughable thought that if it wasn't a show before, it certainly was one now.
"What are you talking about?"
Apparently lying and persona were all that was left of the woman he'd married. Strange how confronting her felt nothing like he'd imagined. "You want me to shout it? Here? For everyone?" He waved his hand around. "For that reporter, darling?" His breath was shallow, like he'd been running miles. His vision blurred around the edges, and the taste of booze lodged in his throat. "I will shout it to the world. Damn you. Damn you, Rachel!" He threw his drink at the painting behind her, and the glass shattered in a perfectly silent room. He stumbled out the front door into the empty night air. At the curb, he used the car's fin to steady himself, then got inside.
Rachel came running outside. "Rudy!"
He jammed his key in the ignition.
She pulled open the passenger door. "Stop! Wait!"
"Go to hell."
She crawled inside and tried to grab the keys. "Don't leave."
Rudy grabbed her wrist, pulled her across the seat until her face was inches from his. "Get out or I'll drag you with the car." He shoved her away and started the engine.
"No!" She closed her door and reached for the keys again.
His foot on the gas, the car raced down the street, straddling lanes as he struggled for control. Tires screeched behind them, but he didn't give a damn.
"Rudy, stop!" She sounded scared, so he turned the next corner faster. The car fishtailed and he floored it again. She hugged the door and seemed to shrink down into someone who actually looked human, instead of a goddess who painted intricate canvases and saw the world with a mind and eye unlike anyone else's. Ahead the stoplight turned red. He slammed on the brakes so hard she had to brace her hands on the dashboard.
"You're driving like a madman. Pull over and we can talk."
"There it is again, Rachel, that calm voice. Your reasonable tone, so arrogant, as if you are far above the rest of us mere mortals because you don't feel anything."
"I feel. You should know. I feel too much. I know you're upset. We'll talk. Please."
"Upset doesn't even come close to what I am. And it's too fucking late to talk." The light turned green and he floored it.
"Rudy, stop! Please. Think of the boys," she said frantically.
"I am thinking of the boys. What about you? Can you ever think about anyone but you?" He took the next corner so quickly they faced oncoming traffic, honking horns, the sound of skidding tires. A truck swerved to avoid them. It took both of his hands to pull the careening car into his own lane. At the yellow signal, he lifted his foot off the gas to go for the brake, paused, then stomped on the accelerator. He could make it.
"Don't!" Rachel shouted. "It's turning red!"
"Yeah, it is." He took his eyes off the road. "Scared, Rachel? Maybe now you'll feel something." Her whimpering sound made him feel strong. His father was wrong. He wasn't a weak fool. Not anymore. The speedometer needle shimmied toward seventy. The gas pedal was on the floor. He could feel the power of the engine vibrate through the steering wheel right into his hands.
"Oh, God!" Rachel grabbed his arm. "Look out!"
A white station wagon pulled into the intersection.
He stood on the brakes so hard he felt the seat back snap. The skid pulled at the steering wheel, and he could hear tires scream and smell the rubber burn. Blue lettering painted on the side of the station wagon grew huge before his eyes:
Rock and Roll with Jimmy Peyton and the Fireflies
The other driver looked at him in stunned horror, his passengers frantic. One of them had his hands pressed against the side window. A thought hit Rudy with a passive calmness: they were going to die. Rachel grabbed him, screaming. With a horrific bang, her scream faded into a moan. The dashboard came at him, the speedometer needle still shimmying, and everything exploded.
Copyright 2006 by Jill Barnett Stadler
Excerpted from The Days of Summer by Jill Barnett Copyright © 2006 by Jill Barnett. Excerpted by permission.
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