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Clad in boxers patterned with glow-in-the-dark pumpkins and a Garfield "Easy Rider" tank top, clothing belonging to her daughter Fiona, Prudence stood, two mornings later, before her open refrigerator, unable to fend off the realization that something in her life was off-kilter. Incontestable evidence presented itself in the one egg, two heels of twelve-grain bread, bag of rubbery carrots, and sad knob of old butter. Outside the icebox and inside her head (that overcrowded, bony box) lurked the reluctant awareness that (a) she did not have money to buy groceries, (b) she would not be paid for three more weeks, and (c) while she had been busy helping others, no one had thought to help her. Entrenched within Prudence's moral foundation was a certain unchecked generosity, a self-destructive impulse toward charity. Give, woman, give, to the headstrong, plunging world . . . At fourteen, Prudence Parker had copied down this anonymous quote in her diary, a virtue thereafter subscribed to and left unexamined, a virtue leaving her, decades later, feeding others while starving herself. Martyrdom, an incremental, dishonest way to die.
Scrambling her solitary egg, toasting both grainy heels, Prudence mentally calculated the credit remaining on her card. Her penury, even to herself, was scarcely credible. She was a teacher at a community college, wasn't she? She lived in a reasonably attractive home with a brick fireplace and a newly fiberglassed swimming pool, didn't she? Aside from the cavernous icebox, the refrigerator busy chilling nothing, there were no outward, visible signs of monetary distress. Even Prudence had overlooked her own plight until there was no food, no money, and her daughter, Fiona, was due home, set to begin her senior year in high school. Since Prudence and Powell's divorce eight years before, Fiona had spent summers with her father in Taos, always flying home the day before school started. Eight summers of the same wrenching farewells and queer, ensuing silence, driving home from the airport without her child, the gradual adjustment to solitude, until, just as she'd developed a mostly pleasant routine, when silence no longer felt adversarial, the summer passed and Prudence had to re-adapt, make room for Fiona's return.
According to her late father's Pragmatic Book of Life, one should never admit budget failure. A person should cut out one's tongue rather than confess the deep embarrassment of fiscal idiocy. Thus it was with little discernible enthusiasm she plucked the day's mail from its black metal box, tossing plant, clothing and cookware catalogs and past-due bills into the trash, pausing only to tear open a large lilac envelope hand-addressed in violet ink, a masculine scrawl. Inside, a formal invitation to Mildred Crawley's home for afternoon tea. Tea, just for sharing toilet tissue? Prudence checked the address. Camelback Mountain. Her body began its low-pitched dowsing thrum, not in response to a library book, but simply from holding the blowsy, empurpled signature of a romance writer in her hand.
Mineral monstrosity! Luxe behemoth! A few scant hours after receiving her invitation, Prudence paused in her little two-toned, sunbaked Nash Rambler, hands on the steering wheel, neck craned up at the red rock castle gouged imposingly into one flank of Camelback Mountain, twin turrets jutting out, rugged, frank statements of penile aggression. She was only halfway up the winding ascent, a vertiginous climb steeper than the parking spiral at the Phoenix airport. After a series of hairpin turns, she arrived at the top, counting six garages built into the bottom layer of the castle. She parked in the pencil-thin shade of a dying saguaro, walked across a wooden drawbridge, a dry, rocky, waterless moat, and knocked on a massive timbered door fit for giants, a fee-fi-fo-fummish door. Ushered into the castle by a grim-faced old toad wearing a starched white nurse's uniform, Prudence trailed the toad's squeaking rubber shoes down a vast, parqueted hallway into a large circular, cavernous room with round recessed windows set high along one wall. In the center of this dank, echoey rotunda noised an impressive, deafening waterfall, backlit with gel lights, green, red, yellow and blue sweeps of garish color passing in monotonous rhythm across a botanical jungle suggestive of the Pleistocene era. With neither fanfare nor courtesy, Prudence was seated at a small garden table made of white, floridly patterned wrought iron. The nurse squeaked off, and moments later the boxy creature Prudence remembered meeting in the Tempe library's handicapped bathroom stood before her, extending a broad hand with its fleet of dark hairs and vampire-sharp glue-on nails. Outfitted in a maroon silk smoking jacket, black silk pajama bottoms and sleek black slippers, sparse, snowy hair cropped close to the skull, Mildred Crawley was incontestibly, inarguably, a man.
"Delightful of you to arrive on such peremptory notice, Ms. Parker." The familiar chalky enunciations. "What you see"here Mildred (Prudence knew no other name) gave a lordly, operatic gesture with silk-robed arms"is my recompense for helping lonely female souls, one page at a time, one book at a time, one series at a time, find asylum from mundane and otherwise socially wretched lives. Casa Crawley has twelve bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, a fully outfitted dungeon, an Olympic-size pool along with a spa for twenty. I admit to hedonism, gluttony and a sybaritic excess of lovers who have kept pace with my literary output, a boy for every book, not intentional in the least. Until she died at noon on Secretary's Day, 1992, my mother, Glorianna Jean, lived here with me. And as melodramatically as the truth may fall upon your unassuming, innocent ears, Ms. Parker, I have not long to live myself, less than six months. Perhaps only three. The Mildred Crawley you see before you, nee Digby Deeds, totters on the last of her pathetic, shopworn legs."
Colors swept like klieg lights across her host's face, turning it jaundiced, sickly green, hellish-lit or moody blue by turns. He scraped back a dainty iron chair and sat fussily down just as the nurse trundled in a tea cart, the kind Prudence associated with five-star hotels, fully linened and loaded with tea sandwiches, French pastries and a silver tea service. Ravenous, Prudence heaped her plate as Digby began his story, after helping himself to nothing but a cup of green tea and a paper-thin slice of kiwi which he left untouched. "Twenty-five years ago, on a drunken dare, I dashed out my first Mildred Crawley romance, Beauty, Her Dark Beast, a mere lark, with my partner, Edgar, who has been irredeemably and unforgivably dead, leaving all the drudgery to me, for more than ten years now. Beauty was a positive horse plop of cliches, a monstrous success, manna for the booboisie, that apt coinage of Mencken's. I found myself shackled to my nom de plume, Mildred Crawley, having accepted a wildly lucrative contract for the Savage Love series, to be followed by the Savage Dream and Savage Passion series, a ride straight to the top, where I have lived, in outrageous splendor, ever since. My newest agent, a dreadful little fellow who insists on wearing fruit-colored leisure suits, induced me to appear at your quaint little bibliothequesales, he insisted, were dipping, and I owed my readers, no less than semper fi, one of my rare appearances. Meeting you in a public toilet, Ms. Parker, was worth every misery of that arduous afternoon, even perhaps the divinely ordained reason for my appearance. To be perfectly blunt, I have been seeking an heir. Someone to complete the final forty plots of my Savage Passion series. And like a Hollywood starlet discovered waitressing at a drugstore counter or checking hats at the Ritz, I feel in my dying bones that I have discovered you, Prudence Parker. My starlet. My heir."
"How flattering," Prudence mumbled. How ludicrous, she thought.
"I further confess, when I emerged from that nasty stall and saw you, so manque, with a certain irresistible je ne sais quoi look of genteel, Bronte-esque poverty about you, it was as if you had emerged, full-blown, from my dreams."
Prudence bent down to retrieve her linen napkin from the floor where it had slipped from her lap. I looked manque, she thought, because I was blind. The man is mad.
After they had eaten, or rather after Prudence had hoovered up every single cucumber and shrimp paste sandwich, giving mumbled answers to Digby's few questions about herself between mouthfuls, he led her up a steep, winding marble staircase to his author's turret, a circular chamber with a panoramic view of Phoenix, cloaked in its usual sulfuric caul of bilious, industrialized air.
"Following Balzac's lead, though spared his genius, I wear a white silk robe, drink strong black coffee and write from midnight to dawn, five days a week. I finish each of my books in ninety days; an utterly methodical, cold-blooded process. Because of failing health, my output, in the past year, has declined significantly. What I have done instead, to amuse myself as well as pave the gold brick road for my heir or heiressperhaps you, Ms. Parkeris to draw up plots, detailed plots, blueprints, for forty additional novels. This will require someone to simply fill in the blanks, someone, after I am cast out into the cosmos, to carry on the Crawley name. I know little of your personal life, Ms. Parker, but judging from the fact that you were alone in a library on a Saturday evening, and further judging from the look of your car"they stood staring out a deeply recessed turret window at Prudence's faded aqua and beige Rambler"this may be welcome news. Each of my books earns an advance of ten and royalties of upwards of twenty thousand dollars. And though what I view as destiny you may view as bizarre happenstance, a chance encounter in a toilet stall, the figures may still impress you. It is equally true you may, at this very moment, be scrambling for an excuse to escape." He peered at her. "Are you?"
What about the dungeon? Fully outfitted. What was that about? Prudence felt anxiety mixed with greed over such dangled sums of money, an overall giddiness, perplexity, a bungled sense of wonder. As she often did in crisis, she heard her mother's voiceNothing's free in this world, Prune, don't be a naive Nancy!
"I don't quite know what to think. I"
Just then the bashing, assaultive sound of heavy metal music leapt up the spiraled staircase. Wearily, Digby brushed a sallow hand over the top of his white cropped hair. "He'll be the death of me, I know it."
"Hardly. Let's trudge down, shall we?"
"Therron is a fledgling Navajo poet," Digby's voice floated backward as Prudence trailed him down the staircase. "An exquisite piece of human furniture. He is with me for my fortune, and pretends, not very convincingly, otherwise." In a living room the size of a resort lobby, its oak floor saturated with animal skins and pelts, its polished rosewood walls studded with mounted heads of game animals, moose, deer, elk, and an entire family of molting javelina, they stood gazing out one of several velvet-swagged, leaded windows watching a copper-skinned young man, completely naked, with stylishly short bleached hair swan-dive into an Olympic-size pool. "Therron is the only one to have gone completely aquatic," sighed Digby. "He is the perfect one-night stand. One night after another."
"Couldn't he write your series for you?"
"He's a fledgling poet, my dear. Taking on the Mildred Crawley mantle would be tantamount to suicide. Stabbing himself to death with his own pen."
It was dusk by the time Prudence trawled back down the mountain, having ended her visit by thanking Digby but refusing his generous offer. How could she possibly churn out such dreck, color in the stiff plot points of romance, betray her own aesthetics? Digby simply urged Prudence to give herself time, to sleep, as it were, on his offer. Not wishing to insult the wishes of a dying man, Prudence found herself exiting Casa Crawley with a heap of Crawley romances, both hardback and paper, sliding about in the backseat (having been shouldered out by taciturn Therron, clad in nothing but the electric blue Speedo he'd hastily snapped on, Prudence assumed, for her sake). The only way she could consider carrying on Digby's Savage Passion series was if it were a secret pact between themand if, like Digby, she could learn to flip out romances, fast as hotcakes, in the middle of the night. What was it he had said? Crawley's Foolproof Formula for Best-Selling Romance: four sex scenes per book, understanding that emotional intimacy is far more dangerous than physical contact, and on the final page of every Crawley romance, the woman always, always, wins.