published in Natural
published in Richard Peabody, ed., Grace
and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2004) (c) Copyright C.M.
Mayo. All rights reserved.
NOW that she
was writing a novel,
Consuelo Kennedy had become exquisitely sensitive to noise. But
today, on this summer morning of her seventh month in Washington,
it was the stink of burning fruit that woke her. "Something's
burning," Nick said, sitting bolt upright in their bed.
"Something is definitely burning." He sniffed loudly,
moving his nose around like a dog. Consuelo had been dreaming
a delicious dream, something about Tom Cruise dreaming about
her, and a sofa-sized and pillowy (if strangely tasteless) marshmallow,
but already it was fading poof, like a wisp up a chimney.
"It's pie," Consuelo said crossly. She touched the
ring in her eyebrow, which was a little bit sore from the way
she'd been sleeping on it.
"No kidding." Consuelo stretched her arms long and
lazy like a cat, and yawned. She was half Mexican but with the
pale and moon-like face of a model in a photograph by Horst.
Little in her life of twenty-nine years seemed to have perturbed
her; had she been a pond, she would have been hidden deep in
a thicket, her surface mirror-like over the pile of rocks that
lay scattered along the bottom, slowly accumulating silt.
"I don't like it," Nick said.
Consuelo wrinkled her nose. "It's just spill-over onto the
oven pan." She yawned again. This was the Watergate; all
kinds of smells seeped in with the airconditioning cooking
curry, burnt toast. Just last Tuesday the neighbor had forgotten
a terriyake squab in the oven when she went to have her hair
permed. ("Oh, diddly!" Mrs. Tuttle had said when Consuelo
found her, the service door to her kitchen flung open, flagging
her apron to clear the air into the hallway.)
Nick was up and wriggling out of his undershorts. "Well,"
he said, still sniffing suspiciously. The whole bedroom stank.
"Don't crack your coconut," Consuelo muttered, but
Nick couldn't hear her; he was already in the bathroom.
Nick was quick in the mornings, splash boom bah, as she liked
to make fun of him. All of a sudden, there he'd be, leaning over
her for his good-bye kiss, holding his Hermès tie to his
chest, his face razored smooth and bay leaf-fresh. "Ciao,"
he'd say. "Save the world," she'd say, because Nick
worked in Project Evaluation at the World Bank today a
sewage treatment for San Salvador, tomorrow a hydroelectric plant
for Nicaragua. For two years straight Nick had crunched the numbers
for the new superhighway out of Mexico City, which was where
they'd met in a bar and though that sounded sleazy to
say, it was La Sirena, a cutting-edge cool kind of bar (faux
ostrich leather banquettes, Louis Armstrong rasping on the sound
system, geometric little cucumber and ginger-seared ahi tapas)
where Consuelo's photographs of the Revillagigedo Islands were
displayed, each one framed and halogen spot-lit on lipstick-red
"That's a place to check out," Nick had said, gazing
at the one over the bar.
She had been entranced by this gringo, so slim in his suit, the
sharp famished-Tartar planes of his face. His jaw flexed as he
crunched a mouthful of ice.
"That's the Revillagigedos," Consuelo had offered,
and because she'd sucked down a couple of glasses of jérez,
she rather too voluptuously rolled the "r" Rrrrrr-vee-ah-hee-hay-dos.
"Just kidding." It had started like that. And then
zup here she was, living with him for seven months
already in Washington.
"Ciao," Nick said.
"Save the world," Consuelo said.
"I don't like that smell," he said. He had his briefcase
in his hand.
"Well," she said, her cheek heavy as a stone on the
pillow, "I wouldn't bottle and sell it."
So warmly coccooned in the down-filled duvet, there was nothing
more tempting than to sleep just a little bit longer. Every morning
after Nick left, the urge came upon her like a spell. The room
remained dark (Nick left the curtains closed); blue quiet enfolded
the building like a thick felt blanket. When she'd first moved
into Nick's apartment, she'd been startled by this quiet. After
all, the Watergate was walking distance to the White House and
right on the expressway along the Potomac. As for the celebrities
who lived here (somehow, she'd associated them with sparklers,
party crackers, whoopee cushions), other than Senator Dudley,
and the bottle-blonde woman named Springer whose picture she'd
happened to recognize in Architectural Digest, she'd no idea
who they were. Older people lived in the Watergate mostly, slow-moving
dowagers with helmet hair-dos, their husbands (if they still
had them) shuffling downstairs in cardigan sweaters on errands
to the pharmacy.
As for any noise, across the hall, there was a pug that would
let out an indignant yip when he wanted his walk; and next door,
the Tuttles might leave their tea kettle to whistle for a few
(excruciatingly long) minutes at a time. Now and then, an airplane
or a helicopter would roar over the river on the way to National
Airport or Andrews Air Force Base. Otherwise there was only a
muffled zizz of traffic along the river, and the airconditioner's
faint, soothing thrummmmmmm.
She pulled the pillow over her head.
She'd grown so weary with photography the clamorous weddings,
the bar mitzvahs, not to mention the likes of a lingerie catalogue
that featured black-laced red satin teddies ("muévete
el brazo," move your arm, she kept having to tell the model,
to hide the tracks). The highlight of her career in Mexico
though the word "career" struck her as unnecessarily
sharp, like trying to portion out flan with a knife had
been the shoot in the Revillagigedo Islands. Rigoberto Castro,
the shopping mall magnate, had sent her out there along with
a tuna fish spotter's helicopter. (A squirrely man who fancied
ascots, Castro reminded her of Fred Astaire but on three pots
of cold coffee. He'd oohed and aahed over her prints, then for
six months she'd called and called, leaving messages with
his increasingly testy secretary he wouldn't cut a check.)
They were gorgeous photographs, damn it, so gorgeous they didn't
look real. Two hundred and fifty miles off the end of the Baja
California peninsula, the Revillagigedos appeared suddenly up
out of the carpet of the sea, spires and soaring arches of sun-shocked
volcanic rock. Her own memories were even more strange and wonderful
than her photographs. On the shore of one of the islands
a mountain of ash like a slab of cake thousands of bits
of pumice tumbled against each other in the surf, making a noise
like children humming. Her cameras around her neck, Consuelo
had waded into that sea, which was warm as bathwater, the little
rocks, light like sponges, dancing and tickling around her ankles.
She'd made friends with a visiting marine biologist named Sofía
von Holtman and together they camped on a beach of crushed moon-white
shells, they climbed a mountain of raw rock the color of blood,
and one afternoon, with SCUBA gear, Consuelo and Sofia rode on
the backs of giant manta rays. Fast the manta rays swam, their
hides soft like gloves, their wings working through the water
with long, elegant curls.
Nothing after the Revillagigedos could compare. And the shoot
had been a fluke, this rich man's whim. Back in Mexico City,
though she'd lent prints to La Sirena, the only business she
could muster was the same stale stuff: weddings, bar mitzvahs,
more weddings. A men's tie catalogue (every one of them polyester).
Oh, the lace curl of a shell-strewn shore, swirls of chocolate
lava, the rush and spume of surf against sun-dazzled rock: to
see the Revillagigedos there, spot-lit on the lipstick-red lacquered
walls of that dark and noise-addled bar: they taunted her, glassed-over
portals. Above the swinging door to the ladies toilet: a magnificent
frigate bird aloft in blue. Had she, Consuelo Kennedy, really
taken that, or had it been a dream? She'd felt so trapped then,
as if she'd been closed into a room that was filling with smoke.
But she'd had to keep working and working because the thing was,
she'd sunk every peso of her savings into her studio and state-of-the-art
equipment until, one night while she was knocking back
a beer in La Sirena with Nick, someone jimmied the lock on the
door by the fire escape and carried off the cameras, zoom lens,
the lamps and booms and tripods, even the umbrella diffuser with
the kink in the latch so she could never get it to close, even
the pans, even the paper. Her space was cleared of everything
but shadows. And there, on the floor, the rime of dust outlining
where her equipment had been. And a wadded up yellow candy-wrapper.
She kicked it.
"Sunk costs are sunk," Nick said with a shoulder-padded
shrug. That was Project Evaluation lingo, something he'd said
to her the first night they'd met in La Sirena. It meant that
you could sink a couple of hundred million bucks into an electric
plant, and if it turned out you'd built it on the wrong hill,
you walked away.
"Like that?" she'd clicked her fingers.
"Yep," he'd said.
And so, flush with insurance money, she decided why not?
to move to Washington with Nick and write a novel.
"Funds are fungible," Nick had said, fast, as if it
were an incantation: funzrfungible. That was another bit o' lingo
she hadn't yet fathomed the point of. It seemed like saying,
for example, flammable stuff can catch fire.
As for that funky smell, well, she thought she thrashed off the
duvet and scrunched her toes into the rug, that's the kind of
bother one puts up with living in an apartment building. At least
there was no one here who would blare their stereo, as in Mexico
City, bloody hell, the neighbor's bass used to drive her mad,
In the bathroom she slipped into Nick's terrycloth robe. Taken
from a businessman's hotel, the once spongy and swam-white terrycloth
was now splotched with coffee and frayed at the sleeves. She
flipped her hair behind her shoulders, stooped down and splashed
water on her face. All the towels were in the hamper; she used
the robe's sleeve as, from the mirror, her eyes gazed back at
her eyes. ("Witch," Nick had whispered in the dim of
La Sirena that night she'd decided to come and live with him.
He'd hooked a strand of her hair with his finger and wound it
around her wrist in a cuff.) How she hated wearing white; this
robe made her skin look moon-pale, and her crow-black hair, falling
down now over the collar in dark hanks, lack lustre.
She should jog, she thought, eat more vegetables. Maybe haul
Nick's bike out for a ride along the river.
(But in that heat?)
Forty-five minutes later she was still in his bathrobe, sipping
a second cup of coffee. She did not particularly care for The
Washington Post; it printed too many comics, all crammed together,
so that she had to hold it up to her face and squint to make
out the words. No matter, she always read "Zippy the Pinhead."
Now she was on "Ann Landers" (and she had yet to read
"Helpful Hints from Heloise" or the horoscopes or the
movie schedule). Her novel or rather, The Novel as it
loomed dimly in the corner of her mind piled the dining
room table, Chapter 1 in a Tower of Pisa-like stack of drafts,
Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 9 and 11 all dusted like Nick's
flea-market oak tabletop itself, as though by some flying gremlin,
with shreds of eraser. Post-Its peeped from the layers of the
scattered stacks, once optimistic flags of lemon-yellow long
faded from the sun that poured in every morning from the balcony.
In the middle of this mess, its black cord drooping over the
end of the table and tangling across the floor, sat the toad-like
interruption of a telephone.
Lovers Lost was The Novel's original title, which Consuelo
now judged too dramatic, lacking art. For two days in April,
she'd called it Far Journeys. Nick had snickered
Far Journeys was the name of a book about out-of-body experiences,
he'd thumbed through it in the Georgetown Barnes & Noble.
Then it came to her in a beautiful dream (she was a bird
soaring over a glassy sea) Lost Horizon, until
Nick told her that was the title of a classic Hollywood movie.
Photography had seemed so simple you point your camera
and click (she used to exaggerate) but coming up with
a title for The Novel was torture, like the writing itself, slow,
so lead-footed slow, as if for each word she had to wade through
an ocean of muck.
It was so far about an American actor named Ned
and a half-Mexican investment banker named Carmen O'Reilly, who
met in a bar in Mexico City, which sounded sleazy to say, but
it was El Tritón, a cutting-edge cool kind of bar (faux
crocodile banquettes, Billy Holiday sweetly moaning on the sound
system, geometric little chèvre and raspberry-smoked shrimp
sushis). Plus they both knew the owner, the heir to a beer bottling
fortune named Roberto Chávez.
So, what? What?
Would Carmen O'Reilly give up her investment banking career (so
chic she looked in her alligator heels and shark-gray Armani
suits) and move to LA but not be able to work because she couldn't
get Tio Sam to slap out the Green Card? (Even if, mangoes to
the U.S. Immigration Service, her granddaddy was a railroad engineer
Unemployed, alone in the apartment all day, surrounded by pots
of dehydrated ferns, Carmen O'Reilly would laze on Ned's pigskin
sofa watching TV, licking up spoonful after spoonful of Chunky
Monkey ice cream. She would grow fatter and fatter, her face
puffing around her eyes, her chin swelling as if it were filled
with sand. Her thighs, striped with stretch marks like welts,
would rub together (in the most annoying way) when she walked.
Until one day and it would be a hot and gritty afternoon
with the pounding of cars on the freeway and a sooty, Raymond
Chandler kind of Santa Ana soughing through the palm trees
Carmen would waddle over to her closet and find that she had
nothing left to wear but... (she would sink to her knees and
sob into her fleshy hands)... a black mu-mu. And so that chapter
ended: She knew her life was rotten like an orange left on the
tree after the harvest. Finally it fell, plunk, on the dirt.
That draft lay deep near the bottom of the pile.
Or, more optimistically, would Ned decide to stay in Mexico City
("Dig the energy," he liked to say with a voice as
smoothly nutty as Chunky Monkey ice cream), and land a role as
a DEA agent in a TV Azteca soap opera?
Nah. She had crumpled that and aimed it at the window: tik.
Next: Consuelo tried flying Carmen and Ned in Roberto Chávez's
Lear Jet to the Revillagigedos. There they came upon an uninhabited
crescent-shaped beach fringed with coconut trees. Such beautiful
coconut trees, snake-slim and lushly feathered, silvered by the
sun and the reflections from the water. They began to build a
hut, setting the moon-white shells so playfully, like
children into the sandy adobe of the walls. Which was,
she realized as soon as she lifted the pen from the paper, like:
Maybe, Consuelo wondered and she raised her frayed sleeve
over the pile of it a tsunami should wash the whole thing
"Sunk costs are sunk," as Carmen O'Reilly would say,
her voice smoky, her eyes batting at Ned over the rim of her
Chunky Monkey ice cream carton ( or tin camp mug?).
When she looked at Ned, who was wearing his DEA agent sunglasses,
what Carmen O'Reilly saw was her own reflection, huge, bloated,
distorted. Like the face of something that slithered through
And then what did Ned say? What? (Water makes things wet?)
Nick hadn't read a word of it. ("Art doesn't light my fire,"
he'd said once. He'd raked his hands into her hair and breathed
into the hollow of her throat: "You do.") What Nick
read, deep in his $4,000 Roche-Bobois tobacco-leather sofa, his
bare feet up on his battered college footlocker of a coffee table,
was the Wall Street Journal, which he loudly rustled, his arms
spread wide, the paper a screen across his face.
Could that stink be burning apples?
Maybe, cherries? Whatever it was, in her mind Consuelo could
see it blackly bubbling, the filling of a pie on the bottom of
Mrs. Tuttle's? oven. Whatever it was, it was giving
her a headache, a dull pinch like two thumbs cratering into the
backs of eyes.
Of course, had there been an actual fire, someone would have
rung the fire department. Still, she considered, it was odd that
a smoke alarm hadn't sounded. When she'd first moved in, an only
slightly over-browned piece of toast (not even a puff of smoke!)
had set Nick's off wailing like a banshee. How it had made her
mitt her hands over her ears and cringe! The instant it stopped
she'd climbed up on the step stool and popped the batteries.
"That's illegal, you know," Nick said. She'd smirked
as she chucked the batteries in the trash. "You gonna arrest
It occurred to
her now to slide open the glass doors to the balcony framed
by Nick's burlap-brown curtains, the sky looked deep and invitingly
clear. But she didn't want to suck in more of that stink. On
an afternoon just last week she'd opened the doors and the stink
of charred meat had whuffed in so strong, the whole scene developed
in her mind like a Polaroid: Mrs. Tuttle in a fetal stroke-victim
curl, and smoking furiously on her stove top, the lump of hamburger.
Consuelo flew to phone the front desk. "Oh," said the
clerk, his voice acid green with condescension. "That's
just a patio barbeque, oh, waaaaay-way up on the 11th floor.
It's been taken care of." Later, she happened to see Mrs.
Tuttle in the elevator and she explained, "It's the negative
pressure, honey. You open your balcony door, your apartment just
sucks the smell right in, whish!" Mrs. Tuttle had waved
her hands at herself like flippers. "You don't know where
in diddly it's coming from."
Consuelo had graduated from the American School in Mexico City;
still, she'd had to phone Nick at the World Bank to ask him,
"What does Mrs. Tuttle mean, where in diddly?'"
He'd laughed and in her mind she could see him, his Greek
God nose high, laughing from deep behind his sternum, the whole
of him even his feet, Italian tassled loafers up on his
desk so smooth and suave like Tom Cruise. Yes, Tom Cruise
deciding the hydraulic fate of the Nicaraguan People. "Hell,"
Nick said when he'd finally caught his breath. "She means,
where in hell."
And this was the smell from hell! But the air conditioning was
so cool, so comfortable. Now, still on the sofa, she held the
corner of The Post with one hand and tipped up the mug for another
swallow of coffee - cold. She'd finished "Hints from Heloise"
(three nifty new uses for aluminum foil), and was about to peruse
her horoscope (Pisces) when, with a toad-like croak, the telephone
rang. It rang again, rrrbit.
The receiver felt at once light and heavy in her hand the way
her zoom lens had felt. (Who was shooting with it now? What scenes?)
"Tenía un presentimiento." It was her
friend the marine biologist Sofia von Holtman, calling from Mexico
City. She'd had a premonition. "Are you alright?"
"Sí," Consuelo made her voice soothing
as a hand laid on a furrowed brow. "De veras,"
Really. The cord of the telephone snaked behind her as she padded
into the kitchen to reheat her coffee. The linoleum felt warm
on her feet. She placed her mug in the microwave. "How's
tricks?" She punched the button for HOT BEVERAGE.
She'd made another field trip to the Revillagigedos, Sofía
said, and just flown back from a conference at UC San Diego.
A professor at the Universidad Nacional, Sofia had published
a long list of articles and three books, no less, the most recent
it would be out in the fall with University of Arizona
Press, she explained on the mating rituals of the blue-footed
Consuelo listened, the phone jammed between her ear and her shoulder,
to the soft patter of Sofía's voice. She planted her elbow
on the counter as she watched her mug in the microwave hum-whirr
around and around and around.
Consuelo could picture Sofia seated at her desk, her pale dishpan
blonde hair tucked behind her ears. Sofía would be wearing
a pastel linen jacket and a tasteful strand of tiny, pearly shells.
Behind her there would be the neat rows of books, the filing
cabinet and the poster PROTEGE A LAS BALLENAS
of the breaching whale with its sun-sparkled muzzle and swollen-looking
eye. Consuelo liked Sofia, she really did; they'd had a grand
time together in the Revillagigedos those months ago. But honestly,
how could anyone get so hepped about those beady-eyed birds?
Blue-footed boobies. They made such a nasty racket, and on that
one island, their guano gag, man, there were carpets of
Oh, she had a hammer of a headache. Careful to avoid the ring
in her eyebrow, she touched her fingertips to her eyelid.
"And your novel?" Sofia asked. Finally.
Consuelo sighed: to even think about The Novel made her stone-heavy
with fatigue. And anyway, could La Profesora Sofia von Holtman
really give a diddly about a cooked-up character named Carmen
O'Reilly? And her gringo actor boyfriend Ned (who just might
Consuelo hadn't yet pinned it down take that gig
playing a DEA agent in a TV Azteca soap)? "I'm not sure
yet where I'm aiming," Consuelo tried to explain it, and
as she did she carried the telephone over to the sofa and she
plopped her body down, whumph on the cushions.
And how was it living in the Watergate? Sofia wanted to know.
"Do you ever see Senator McDudley?"
"On CNN, like the rest of the planet." (Consuelo wasn't
going to mention that she'd gotten into the elevator with Senator
McDudley twice, and both times he'd farted.) "Actually,
the Watergate is very " She was going to say, quiet,
but a thud sounded in the apartment below, thud, thud, and another
THUD. She could feel the vibrations through the cushions.
"Hello?" Sofia said. "Are you there?"
"Caramba." Consuelo sat up. Remodeling, she
explained with another, extravagant sigh. Everyone in the Watergate,
it seemed, was doing it: the granite counter tops, the herringbone
white-oak floors, the Sub-Zero refrigerators. The Post was spattered
with the advertisements. She rolled her eyes. "It'll go
on for an eternity."
"You can use a library, can't you?"
"Yeaaaaah," Consuelo drew limp the word the way the
desk clerk had. She slouched lower into the sofa. It simply fried
her, the idea of hauling around all her papers, the little Post-It
notes and drafts and sketches and ideas, the pencils, the eraser
(like a broken lens cap, the eraser would swim in the depths
of her bag with mint wrappers and metro tickets and wads of tissues.)
But thud! thud! there were other things
to talk about: La Sirena was a Tuscan restaurant now, the Pesto
Presto, had Consuelo heard? They'd collaged the walls with shellacked
basil leaves. (Yes, her photographs were still there, though
that big one with the leaping manta ray, they'd moved it to over
the back door to the parking lot.) Rigoberto Castro's divorce
was all over Reforma, his wife wanted half a billion dollars
and a fifteen million dollar penthouse in New York.
"May she boil his balls," Consuelo said.
"He was such a cabrón, wasn't he?" Sofía
had written the text to go with Consuelo's photographs which
Rigoberto Castro published in a book after he'd edited
it to shreds of tourist-grubbing fluff.
"Cabronsísimo," Consuelo agreed.
Another THUD and the krashshsh of shattering glass.
But Sofia had to run she had a classroom full of students
waiting. "Cuídate," Take care of yourself,
"Besote," Big kiss. Consuelo made a pretty little
smacking sound and with her lips still pinched together, hung
up the phone, clack. She had an urge to kick it. Instead, she
rubbed her foot.
She touched the coffee to her lips: cold. Out the window to the
balcony the sky was ablaze with an empty summer light. Already
it was near noon. Time was flying fast. She felt it passing over
her like the shadow of a bird. But sunk deep into the sofa, her
body dead fish-limp, she'd melded with the cushions. How could
she possibly write? And she detested libraries, they were so
dreary, so full of nose-pickers.
The phone croaked again. "Finally!" Nick sounded agitated.
"What do you mean, finally?"
"Well, what happened?"
"What do you mean, what happened?"
"That burning smell "
Consuelo sniffed. The air stank of burnt sugar, though she now
realized, as she'd been talking with Sofia it had turned acrid
with melting plastic. She clinked her mug down on the coffee
table; the liquid made a little slop over the side.
"Check it out," Nick said. It was the very same tone
of voice, Consuelo thought, that Ned the TV Azteca DEA agent
would use: that black Cadillac down there in the parking lot?
Check it out.
She lowered her voice, to make fun of him: "I'll check it
"Call me back."
"OK. I'll call you back." She pouted the way she did
when he could see it.
She didn't bother to say, save the world.
She ambled over to the sliding door to the balcony for some fresh
air, and it was as she touched the handle that she spotted the
crowd of people, bright dots of color on the grass of the inner
garden, six stories below. She pulled open the door and whush,
in came a blast of summer, billowing in the curtains and sending
the open newspaper on the table zig and zag to the floor. Several
pages of The Novel flew off the table behind it, skittering and
flapping like birds with broken wings. Deep in the apartment,
a door slammed shut.
She recognized some of the people there was the front
desk clerk in his navy-blue jacket, and that bottle-blonde Springer
woman in her white track suit and a turban; and three of the
elderly ladies she always grudged a hello to in the elevator
but whose names she couldn't remember. That pug darted around
their feet, frantic with excitement, bark! Bark! The faces were
looking up right at her, so many moons of worry. Consuelo waved
too serenely, she realized, because no one waved back.
She cinched the bathrobe belt tighter, and she called down over
the railing, her voice Adult Concerned: "What's going on?"
"Oh my God," a woman's voice floated up, thin as a
"Go up to the roof!" Mr. Danforth, the building manager,
made a bullhorn with his hands. "Go now, and use the stairs!
In a flash she was in the hallway. Smoke hovered near the ceiling
in a lacy agitated cloud. She covered her mouth with her sleeve,
sprinted down the hall past the elevators to the stairs, and
dashed up, holding high the hem of the bathrobe, two steps at
a time seventh floor, eighth floor, ninth. On the tenth,
the air still stank of burning plastic, but she could drop the
sleeve and breathe; she climbed more slowly, though still fast,
to the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth. At the roof, she
threw her weight against the bar on the door and it swung open.
Consuelo, her chest heaving, squinted into the glare.
"Oh honey!" Mrs. Tuttle gasped and took a step back.
"Are you all right?"
Behind Mrs. Tuttle stood Mr. Tuttle, his face, ponderous with
jowls, beaded with perspiration. He wore a sweat-soaked Hawaiian
shirt stamped with little pineapples.
"I thought you'd gone downstairs!" Mrs. Tuttle said.
"We would have knocked on your door."
"Where was the fire?" Consuelo addressed Mr. Tuttle,
who regarded her warily from under his scraggly eyebrows. He
shielded his eyes, as if making a salute.
"He's not got his hearing aid in," Mrs. Tuttle said.
"We ran out in such a hurry when the fire trucks came! Mr.
Danforth called the fire department, oh, and a very long time
after he should have. I'm not sure where the fire is, but I'll
wager it's Thelma Chávez's apartment."
"Where is that?" Consuelo hadn't begun to sort out
the names and locations of all Nick's neighbors. She dabbed at
her forehead with the sleeve of the robe.
"Why, it's the apartment directly below yours."
The thudding, the breaking glass that must have been the
firemen! And the warm kitchen floor! A stone of fear plashed
through the surface of her and slowly settled down heavy and
cold in the pit of her stomach.
Mrs. Tuttle was saying, "But it's so hard to tell where
anything's coming from in this building. I figure something was
probably smoldering in there for hours. I'll bet the maid left
something in the toaster oven. Thelma's in Florida, you know."
Consuelo didn't know. She didn't even know who Thelma Chávez
was. She said, "How long have you been up here?"
"Oh my!" said Mrs. Tuttle, fanning herself with her
hand. Her wedding band flashed. "With this sun, we're going
to end up broiled like a pair of lobsters! I'd say at least twenty
Mr. Tuttle boomed: "We have been waiting here for twenty
"Yes, dear." Mrs. Tuttle and made a downward motion
with the flat of her hand that meant, Drop the volume.
Consuelo said, "I didn't hear any sirens."
"That's because you're on the back side of the building,"
Mrs. Tuttle said. "Plus you've got those extra thick glass
doors, and the noise of your airconditioning at full-throttle,
Consuelo brushed a pebble off the sole of her foot. She put her
foot on the hot gravel again; there was nowhere else to put it.
She glared at Mrs. Tuttle's espadrilles. They were the exact
same Pepto-Bismol pink of her skirt. Her hair, the color fake
as shoe polish, looked as if it had been screwed down onto her
head. And those little pearl clip earrings! The badges of the
Mrs. Tuttle was pursing her lips at the ring in Consuelo's
eyebrow, no doubt, and her coffee-stained man's bathrobe, and
her bare feet, and her hair, which was mashed on the side she'd
slept on it. Mrs. Tuttles' right eyebrow lifted up, a little
inverted V: "You weren't still asleep, were you?"
Consuelo coolly focused her gaze. "Yes," she lied.
She hadn't brushed her teeth, either. She ran her tongue over
the front of them. Gritty, they tasted bitter, of coffee. ¿Y
qué? So what? She turned her back and began walking,
gingerly over the gravel, towards the railing at the rim of the
roof. She was curious to see the firemen, what would happen
and if the fire burned into Nick's apartment? ¡Andale!
Ugly curtains, a lot of lousy junk. As for Lovers Lost, Far
Journeys, Lost Horizons, (whatever The Novel was), not a
soul on this planet would miss it certainly not Nick.
He would fret for a moment over his Roche Bobois tobacco-colored
sofa, because it had cost him $4,000, and his suits and his Italian
shoes and his battery-operated rack crammed with who knows how
many dozen Hermès ties (enough anyway that he could have
used the cash to feed a few thousand starving campesinos). He'd
punch his fist into his palm, like a baseball into a mitt, punch,
punch, but then softened up a bit, he would throw his head back,
crazy number-cruncher boy, and huff out a laugh.
"Sunk costs are sunk!" Nick was right! She knew this
in the marrow of her bones.
"Excuse me?" Mrs. Tuttle called to her.
How Consuelo wished she had her camera up here! An airplane had
left a stripe in the sky, like a scrape on the inside of a blue
glazed bowl. There was so little noise; even the cars down on
the expressway were muffled in the distance. Everything seemed
to be happening silently, the flock of starlings wheeling below
in a burst of confetti, the trees shimmering in the oven-hot
air. Just over her head she ducked a gull dove
and then swooped down, towards the great sparkling belt of the
Potomac. In the middle of the river, a white boat cruised towards
Memorial Bridge, its wake trailing behind like the train of a
Yes, she knew how to swallow the world into a lens: the light
dancing on the curve of the river, the gull (yellow legs tucked
against its breast) as it swooped down, those clouds in the distance,
the ones laying low over the trees like shreds of lace, or wisps
of smoke. She had been brilliant in the Revillagigedos, monstrous
with that power. And if, suddenly, she had been drawn down deep
into the sea, to ride for a brief and miraculous moment a manta
ray, here she was in the sky, flung like a fish out of water:
She stood now with her hands curled on the sun-warmed railing.
It was a curious sensation: the air on her face felt so silky
and somehow viscous. Her feet rested lightly on the gravel, as
though she had suddenly lost a great deal of weight. From here
she could see the crowd of her neighbors, far below in the garden.
The Springer woman's turban was a dot like a Q-Tip. And there
was the pug, tiny as a flea, its barks pinpricks of sound. From
a hydrant in the bushes, a hose like an albino python slithered
out and up a ladder. A fireman shouted tiny, tinny voice
"Get back, get back!"
The soles of their shoes crunching loudly, the Tuttles had come
up behind her, but they could not reach her, they could not touch
her the hem of her robe, the heel of her soft gravel-dimpled
foot she was floating up, up and over the railing, higher,
Soon the monuments of the city rose up, the obelisk, the dome,
the great hulking masses of white. Washington was a very green
city she could see that now; it was a sea of green, so
very lush, such a richness that obscured the sidewalks, the people.
Cars moved, wee toys, disappearing into maws of green. A gull
flapped past, so close that her fingers could have brushed its
feathers. Beneath her, a jay: flit of blue. It was so easy to
relax into this air that held her like a womb. Spreading her
arms, she soared. Her hair unfurled behind her, flowing like
water. Soon the belt of the bathrobe came loose. She was moving
towards the center of the Mall now, her shadow flitting over
the runway of grass. After a while she was nearing the
Library of Congress the bathrobe fell open; she rocked
her shoulders, gently, and let it slip from her body. It landed,
as in the arms of a gentle goddess, in the branches of a cherry
Which startled a tourist who happened to have been posing for
"Why d'ya move?" his wife said. Her camera hung from
her swan-like neck on a rainbow strap. She wore a diamond stud
in her nostril, designer sunglasses, spike-heeled alligator sandals,
and a parrot-red T-shirt that clung to her body like a dancer's
leotard. Her name was Carmen O'Reilly. His name was Ned. They'd
flown in from LAX.
"Did you see that?" Ned pointed to what looked like
a towel swagged over the topmost branches of the cherry tree.
"OK then," Carmen said, pointing to a different tree,
"move over there."
"But didn't you see it drop?" Ned was so beautiful,
the way his face registered every nuance of an emotion. He was
up for an Emmy for his role as the rookie cop in a made-for-TV
movie, "DEA: Dead or Alive." But here, in his three-day
beard, a baseball cap and shorts, only a few people had recognized
him. At the Air & Space Museum, a grandmother from Iowa had
asked him to autograph her plane ticket.
"What?" Already the blister on Carmen's bunion was
bleeding. And right now Ned knew it Carmen could've
scarfed down an elephant! (Wasn't this just like Ned? Diddling
around.) She wanted to get going, get the photo and find Bullfeathers.
Senator McDudley they'd sat next to him on the plane
had said that place served gonzo hamburgers and onion rings.
"Come on," she said. "Bust a nut."
"But didn't you?" Ned had heard it drop, he was sure
of it. He craned his neck. He did not see a soul on the roof.