Journalist Constance Graham tries to resolve the many implausible riddles that arise when a family of “angels” (or are they vampires?) war against the industrialization of the human species, in the wake of unexplained, violent murders that rock Stamford, Connecticut.
When the phone rang Fran felt a stinging sensation as her still waking flesh touched the cool, plastic receiver.
“Hello. Is this Ms. Desnoes?” It was a male voice, too polite to be anything other than a sales call.
“Yes, this is she.” Fran was curt, but she didn’t hang up on her caller. A new level of energy required her to take on everything, and then all too often to subvert it. Her appetites had become stronger, coarser, and more independent of herself. As if she were becoming someone generic, whom she really didn’t know.
“Do you live at 270 Hope Street?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you have a United Visa Card?”
“Yes.” Fran was relieved. Miraculously, she already had one. The call was superfluous.
“Good. This call is for people who already have Citibank Visa cards. If you didn’t have one, this call wouldn’t apply to you. May I get the pronunciation of your last name? “Des – no – es?”
“Desnoce,” Fran said.
“Desnoze.” The man was courteous but he had a tin ear. “Ms. Desnoze, do you know that one out of twenty credit card holders loses money, sometimes in the tens and even hundreds of thousands a year, due to credit card fraud?”
“No,” Fran confirmed. “I did not.”
“Don’t you believe that protection for card members from this type of fraud makes sense?”
“I suppose it might make sense.”
“We have a program where you can have insurance against such fraud free for the first ten months. Then you pay only thirty-nine dollars a year. What do you think?”
“It sounds reasonable.” Fran wondered, what was she doing? She would never have said this before. She would have hung up within the first second.
“So will you let me sign you up right now for your first ten months of free insurance?”
The phrase “first ten months of free insurance” stuck in Fran’s mind. The first ten months would be more than enough. She wouldn’t need any months after that.
“Yes,” she said crisply. “Sign me up!”
Fran had been getting gradually more depressed ever since about 1840. Maybe it was a near fatal bout she had had with Asiatic Cholera, although she had been revived with the massaging touch of Noel’s incomparable hands. Then, if anything, life had seemed sweeter for a while afterwards. During this brief time, she enjoyed a wave of optimism.
So, she decided, it wasn’t that particular sickness.
As absurd as it sounded, Fran now believed her recurrent depressions were fueled at least in part by the Industrial Revolution. The odors and sensations she loved, the thoughtful rhythms of life, and all the values that came with these things were bit-by-bit being purged for something else. It wasn’t nature against civilization. Nature and civilization were allied against this something else.
Fran knew she wasn’t alone in noticing this. The Desnoes sometimes talked about it, and then they talked about it to a degree that drove her crazy.
But she, Fran, didn’t just talk about it.
She felt it.
She was consumed by it, much like bad air consumes the dying during a plague.
Then, during the last months her weakness had only gotten worse.
She had seen the darting eyes of Dis Silver and with them she had succumbed to nightmares where she was placed in a world in which everything was created through manufacturing. Mercantile priorities governed not only the marketplace, but the entire landscape right down to minute, cellular forms. A new kind of standardization was taking hold. People were becoming more like bugs. All they cared about was “performance.” And everyone wanted to be measured and quantified.
Long before coming to Stamford, Fran had hiding in terror from this new reality.
But that morning she entered her nightmare willingly—feeling that it was time for a reckoning one way or the other.*
Upon the hour, Fran found herself in Hartigan’s.
She had decided to clothe herself for summer. Here it was May, with June not far behind, and she had nothing to wear. Or actually, she had plenty to wear, but she didn’t have anything new to wear. She decided that she needed to see herself freshly even if it were only for a few minutes.
As she rose upward on the escalators, she saw women in all shapes and sizes, although most were plump, their overfed contours pressing outwards in pleasant lumps. They worried about their scents. They considered their colors.
Fran looked at their soft, white necks and she regressed. She saw them no longer as privileged consumers but as objects to be consumed— as the ultimate food.
Or in other words, dressed to kill.
After Fran descended one of the escalators a heavy woman in a black dress began to spray her with perfume that smelled faintly like excrement.
“No thank you,” Fran said.
“It’s Bain d’Or.” The lady spoke in Scarsdale French. “Shower of gold. It’s the house special. We’re selling it for thirty percent off.” The woman stared at Fran and Fran stared right back and the woman flinched.
Fran rose again on the escalator, realizing that she was still wearing her black evening dress, the one she had on the other morning at breakfast after she had worn it for three days solid.
She had even slept in it.
Now she wanted something a woman could die in without seeming funereal.
A poplin skirt. Or maybe a madras dress. A cotton jersey polo in grapefruit pink. Or how about an oversize dress in Capri that reversed to reef? Or a nice floral tank dress?
This last made the most sense. It was very spring-like and, it was already May.
Fran picked a salesgirl in the sporty section of the store—a young, black woman with a kind smile. She reminded Fran of Nubian royalty with her almond eyes.
“Can I help you?” the salesgirl asked with the sun in her face.
“Yes. Yes you can. I’m looking for spring and summer clothes. I’d like to start with just one outfit. But I’m open to anything.”
“Something for the spring?”
“Spring and summer.”
“Something for today?”
The unseasonable heat must have clued in the salesgirl to the immediacy of the situation.
Just then a man pushed against them. He did it in a non-confrontational way, like someone who had lost his balance on a bus.
Fran knew this man many times over. He was the generic camp follower for the wrong camp. And now this wrong camp, devoted neither to nature nor civilization but to something else, seemed to be especially wrong. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been such a bad man under most circumstances.
He was so used to being self-conscious that he had achieved a kind of poise. Fran could tell all this by his gestures and by the way he stared at both her and the salesgirl. His eyes peeked in and out of Fran’s direction. He fondled his wedding ring.
Fran knew that the one he wanted was her.
“I’m looking for a turtleneck for my friend’s wife. It’s her birthday and she likes to go out on their boat.” He wasn’t even a good liar. He was really shopping for his wife, but he didn’t want to publicize it. “I want to get her something she’ll be comfortable wearing on the water.”
“Well,” the salesgirl said pleasantly. “I have a customer right now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man nodded.
Fran noticed that he was wearing a pale blue cotton T-shirt, beige chinos and white sneakers. He wasn’t wearing socks, but he should have.
“The turtlenecks are over there if you want to look.” The salesgirl pointed. There they were, stacked up by size in all those catalog colors—natural, white, chili, yam, wine, cactus, ink and, Fran’s favorite of the day, stone.
Then the salesgirl turned her eyes back to Fran.
“I was thinking of a dress, something in a floral pattern, but I’m willing to look at anything,” Fran explained.
The first item she saw was a chiffon tee and skirt.
“Very simple, very sheer,” said the salesgirl. “It suits you!”
Fran studied herself in the mirror. “It makes me look like I think I’m still a teenager.”
“It does make you look incredibly young!” The salesgirl was beaming with sincerity.
In spite of herself, Fran felt flattered, but flattery was hardly the point.
“I’m sorry. It’s not what I want.”
Fran retreated into the changing room to try on a long series of things, but she already knew she would pick the floral dress with white-and-yellow daisies and a pale blue background. It would have looked unsophisticated on an unsophisticated person, but it would look fine on her.
She put on the dress—a kind of farewell treat.
Then she walked out of the changing room and into the rest of Hartigan’s.
The salesgirl sized up Fran in her new dress.
So did the middle-aged gentleman dressed in white sneakers and beige pants.
“It’s perfect! It’s beautiful!” the Nubian said, aglow like the Nile at sunrise.
“I am not trying to look beautiful. I am trying to die,” Fran said, but she spoke so charmingly that the salesgirl only smiled, as if it were all a joke.
“No need to die. This dress will help you forget your troubles. Whenever you wear this, you’ll feel like a new person!”
Fran noticed that the man, who was now pouring his way through a different stack of turtlenecks, was still looking at her with the kind of gaze you see in the movies heralding an encounter. The new choice of colors he faced were chili, white, oatmeal heather, surf, yam, cactus, nut, chambray, indigo heather.
Fran wondered, what kind of colors were those?
“What do you think my friend’s wife would like?” the man asked. He was probably just over fifty. He rubbed his arm against Fran. He smelled of cheap cologne. He wanted to be nice, but he didn’t know how. “Which color would you like if you were her?”
“But I’m not her, am I?”
“What color would you like? If you were buying this? That’s my only question.”
That was definitely NOT his only question. It was barely a prelude.
“Indigo heather. That’s for me,” Fran said barely containing her laughter. “I’ve always been a fan of indigo heather!”
The middle-aged gentleman stopped and pondered. “Indigo heather” took some time to digest. “Yes,” he said. “That’s what I’ll get. What a cheerful color!”
The Nubian squinted. She knew she would have two sales in spite of being abused—the man had put his hand fleetingly on her ass and then removed it as if he had just been off balance.
He followed Fran out of the store like a dog.
Fran led him through beer mugs and corkscrews and coffee makers. She led him through wine glasses and walking sticks with owls on top. She led him through nifty little leather purses that looked like Pocahontas had made them while she was still in Kindergarten. She led him to the parking lot and then to her car.
It had two doors and the seats could go back.
“Get in,” she said.
The man did.
“I have a wife and a mistress,” he said out of sheer amazement. “But I would give them both up for you!” And then he pinched Fran on the breast.
“Where are we going?” he asked as they drove out of the lot.
“Exit six,” Fran said. “I will take you to where there is nothing.”
The man looked at her. He seemed excited.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“We’re going to a place that’s nothing.” Fran said definitively.
The man began to squirm in his seat.
“It’s a good place to go when you want to forget,” Fran explained.
The man repeated his proposal as if it were relevant to the notion of ‘forgetting.’ “I would give them both up for you.”
Fran could tell, he wanted her to grab his cock. He could hardly control himself. He stared out the window with wide, blue eyes. He was like a child hoping to be force-fed candy.
He fondled Fran’s breast again with an incidental motion as if he were really reaching for a baseball.
“I have a lot of resources,” he suggested. “I can give you anything you want.”
This depressed Fran. It wasn’t exactly the right tone.
Fran found the cul-de-sac where they once used to sell an odd assortment of lawn ornaments, including free standing Buddha’s, but which was now just cement.
No one was there.
“I can tell that you need to be fucked!” The man stated as if he had just heard it as a revelation in therapy. “I can tell that it’s been a long time for you.”
As banal as his proposition was, Fran had already decided that she would let him try to have his way—that was the whole idea. That was why she had decided to let him follow her like a dog into the afterlife.
His wrists were very stiff. She remembered the little tags inside his collar. He had an erection that protruded from his trousers like an awkward tuber.
He pushed up her new dress and tore off her panties and buried it into her as quickly as he could manage. The he pumped at her against the seat.
He came quickly sweating and huffing in his off-key, crooner’s voice.
After ejaculating, he put his head down beside hers to catch his breath.
Fran was glad that he wouldn’t repeat such a depressing act in the future.
When she pulled her knife across his neck, she must have become incredible to behold because his eyes spread into amazed surrender. He gasped while his arms pumped into the air and against the dashboard. He seemed to be hurrying against time, which was always insufficient.
Always insufficient. It was Fran’s Law of Insufficiency.
After several seconds he sank upon her shoulder like a lamb.
Fran held him. The man’s burial, his entire future as a corporeal entity, was in her hands. The old days of knights and martyrs were gone. And now here was this poor, middle-aged man leaning on top of her with his spiffy clothes.
She didn’t even know his name.
Yet he, too, seemed to be waiting for her to change. He, too, was oppressing her like her family—”Fran change! Fran heal! Fran get better! We cannot move without you.”
In contrast, Fran finally saw a clear road ahead.
She thought of Constance and, according to Georges, the “Voltarian nature” of her journalistic enterprise. She hoped that Constance Graham would have understood her final act—if she’d been able to witness it through her own eyes.
Fran walked to the side of the car, opened the gas cap and dropped a match inside. She leaned against the car to embrace the flames as they burst into the pale, blue sky making a sea of light and pain. And then she made herself remember the Cathars, and their last brave deaths at the pinnacle of Montségur.