Title: Coup de Grâce
Author: Elliott Silver
Feedback: Yes, please. ElliottSilver@yahoo.com
Coup de grâce:
Etymology: French coup de grâce, literally, stroke
1 : a deathblow or death shot administered to end the suffering of one mortally wounded
2 : a decisive finishing blow, act, or event
They were in a bar, nameless but overly elegant, the way Parker always liked it, a place she fit in well with chrome angles and sleek leather seats, all sharp surface and no distinct lights but flaring sources of brightness barely able to break the surface of their converging darkness.
Parker had called and he had gone, like always. Jarod hated how good they were at this game, how many endless times they had done it before, the way he couldn’t resist.
But Parker was disastrously beautiful, sculpted into a very short skirt and tall black boots with strikingly thin slivers of heels. In the darkness, she was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever seen, as the attention showed, but her beauty had always best been seen in shadows, nocturnal and tenebrous, when the night was kind to her and dulled the sharpness and tiny lines. She smelled just like he remembered, Chanel on her neck, near her veins, and warm on the insides of her thighs where the spun-lace edges of her garter would be. But she wore a choker of red stones around her neck – they looked like blood. She still knew how to make him flinch.
But Jarod was already blessedly into his third Sapphire martini, having spent the last forty-seven minutes watching Parker, sitting no more than three feet from him, pick and choose her fuck victims with undisguised eyes, taking his gin-soaked olives without asking, snapping each plastic skewer so that he looked up just when she wanted him to, because she could do that perfectly, and had spent a cold lifetime learning just how to break things so they could never quite be put together again, including – she hated, and he knew - herself.
Jazz filtered in, cold and indistinct as the way Parker paid attention.
“What was she like, this blonde of yours?” she asked, almost as if she cared. She was very careful to use past tense. “The one that left you.”
The juniper in his blood swirled viciously as the memories he was trying to drown rushed back in, unsparing as an undertow. Thinking of her, Jarod wished for nightshade, yew, hemlock, or something else dark green and dangerous, something distinctly darker than the relentless brightness of her name.
Lucia, of sparks and splendor, whose name was an island, a martyred saint, and James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, who two syllables held tragedy and tempest and shone regardless.
Lucia, whose favorite time of the year was now, when she was happiest amid the windswept whirl of russet acorns and flame pumpkins, palm-sized Gala harvest apples and leaves on fire, little burning sacrifices of crackle and treefall. Lucia, who knew sadly the world as it had once been and then became, through her stepfather, a British ambassador to all places small, hot, dirty, and nameless, who had dragged her along. Lucia, whose warmth and cordiality came unexpectedly from her Junior League mother, Francie, who spent blissful summers at Lasata and her first two years at Vassar with Jackie Bouvier. Lucia, who loved the bright jingle of stirrups and Pelham bits, the fidget of horseflesh and the smooth leather graining of her Hermes saddle. Lucia, whose left collarbone bore a tracery of hairline fractures from a fall from a fractious horse at Devon, and whose right thigh was a long, blooming scar as beautiful as calligraphy from a bloody fall onto barbed wire during the Middleburg Hunt. Lucia, full of grace and unspoken brilliance, whom he had met head-on in a cramped courtroom, and who had roundly, soundly defeated him, breezily inviting him to make things so easy any time. Lucia, who hadn’t been the least surprised when he took her up on the offer out of the courtroom, but who made him wait to kiss her until the third dinner. Lucia, who made waiting wonderful.
Lucia, who had become as necessary as breath to him, whose touch and lithe movements were everything he wanted to believe in, whose sleeping breath on his chest summed up the entirety of his hopes. Lucia, who had left him here alone because she didn’t know how to lose and refused to learn. Lucia, who was still always right.
Lucia, who was, and would always be, lux – precise Latin for light.
“What was her name?” Parker said it with a careful deliberation, one that she knew hurt all the more, the same tone she used to tell him the names, or faces when she didn’t learn the names, of her other lovers when she returned to him while morning was still dark, the paper yet to be delivered, and her Chanel makeup stained like sin around her eyes.
“Lucia,” he answered simply, as if Parker would never know light was all it took to make a world. Then he got up and left.
The municipal building adjacent to the state’s courthouse was dark except for one burnished light trying vainly to make a difference and still somehow believing it was possible.
He had given up on that idea long before, back when Parker was still coming to him and still leaving.
The courtroom was dark as memory, but Lucia was a single flickering spark. Papers and books sprawled on the table in front of her, as she waged her countless paper wars amid the somber over-polish of faux wood panels and linoleum tiles, the dank smell of nervous sweat and caustic cleaner. Overhead, old fluorescent bulbs hummed louder than the crickets outside, little spindly reminders of crooked legs and whispering wings of another world, another life. And even in the emptiness, stark and bone-weary, she still sat tall and straight, a jagged line of strain evident in the turret-tops of her shoulders and the set tilt of her neck, as if every vertebra was stacked precipitously, and she was afraid and unwilling to bend, to crumble, absolutely unwilling to fall apart, as if will alone could keep her together.
Jarod had found her here before, several times, alone in the emptiness, oblivious to the world not rigidly constructed of law and canon, formulated in brittle onionskin pages and heavy parchment, kept from falling only by the way she chose her words and convinced her juries. Under the rococo ceiling and flickering lights, he would find her, sometimes when she couldn’t find herself, hating and reveling in the molten silence of the room, the whispers and echoes of its old walls, listening reverently as if she might hear something vital, some perfect precedent, something she unquestionably needed to know.
Beads of amber glistened around her throat, set off in the sharp v of her ocher chemise, the dark semi-sweet of her suit. But even in the gem-glisten, her chocolate suit seemed to blend into the furniture, the stands and cheap wood chairs, and even into the darkness, as if some celestial painter had carelessly smudged her lines into the nebulous background, as if anyone could sublimate her to the edges, as if suddenly she might let them, as if she might, unbelievably and catastrophically, stop fighting.
Jarod sat down next to her and they shared the darkness together.
“Why?” he asked after the silence consumed them, burnt their sufferings on a bonfire pyre until they could no longer claim to be martyrs, but simply human.
“You chose,” Lucia said at last and she still didn’t look at him. “It was your choice.”
“There was no choice,” he told her and his voice was hard with pain. All he could see were the tips of her lashes, the outline of her retroussé nose, and the scoring lines etched around the corners of her mouth, the awful evidence of cracking. Even her pale hair was darker here, and almost drab, as if all the shadows of the world had become entangled within her. “You were already gone.”
He reached for her, but even the touch of his hand brought no reaction, as if they had become forced strangers, had never known each other or the way they both had once been comforted by the way his calluses lay on top of the flexing sinews of her knuckles, bump over bone.
“So I was,” she said without waiting, as if it didn’t matter and didn’t hurt, as if she had never lost. Her tone was clipped, as sharp-edged as the metal ‘for sale’ sign Prudential had posted on the heat-dead grass of the lawn of the house she no longer lived in. “I’ve been offered a job with Coyle and Donlan in New York.”
She didn’t wait, but rushed with other things, important detailed things about prospective buyer visits that afternoon, something about a family with children in the big old house they had shared and laughed about their footsteps sounding so lonely, but Jarod didn’t hear them.
If he’d had the courage, Jarod might have said, ‘please’, or ‘don’t’, or maybe even taken her hand again. All he managed was, “why?”
“What did you expect me to do, Jarod?” Her fury was not entirely unexpected, although that didn’t make it hurt any less as her voice echoed against the ceiling like a verdict and she rose and flew away from him as if she might never stop. But then she did, and turned back to him, and Jarod almost wished she hadn’t so that he wouldn’t have had to see what he had done. “Wait patiently at home while you fucked another woman?”
Standing there across from him, her eyes wide and her arms outstretched, she was just as he had first seen her. But now seemed a mocking parody of that time, their nerves flayed raw, her tweed skirt askew, his cheeks unshaven with stubble, a miserably warped time when neither would win. And as their heartbreak bled deeply onto the floor between them, clotted with fury and faltering uncertainty, Jarod thought her suit, her color, to be not sweet like cacao, but bitter as hickory bark, the rough way her temper flared, the awful way her heart was broken.
“No,” Jarod answered her and his honesty now seemed too noble a thing, ugly and hypocritical. “I didn’t expect that at all. Not of you.”
But in the dark room, he knew she hardly believed him, because Parker was between them, a presence unbound by any scripture or logic, any refute or defense she might know and use. That had been his choice and because of it, Lucia’s breath sounded ragged, too many ends come undone, too frayed, lace reduced of magic to only filaments and air.
“I love you too much.”
Lucia smiled at him, such a small, sad smile that it broke all the parts of his heart he hadn’t know weren’t broken. She swept her files and ink-smudged notes into her worn attaché case and rose without faltering because not even Parker could do that as well as her.
His name on her tongue inflected darkly, sadly, like surrender. “I loved you too.”
September broke like a kaleidoscope into a riot of swirling leaves and crisp skies; the air crackled with the sugar-tang of harvest apples and the hull-and-husk smell of yellow cornstalks, fresh-cut from the browning fields.
It was too early for the summer heat to have subsided, though, and the eye-glare bright day sweltered with a vivid intensity as Lucia made her way down the ridged sidewalk to her dusty CRv, dexterously popping the back and swinging in her four bags of groceries, including six of Mama Rose’s flash-fried apple doughnuts, the artery-attacking ones still baked with molasses dark as Southern secrets and real lard, the ones that Jarod had loved so much.
It was with him on her mind, that she saw her across the street, and blinked viciously, as if the image would disappear from her retina. But Parker was still there, her elegant back was curved away from her, her dark hair radiant as a blackbird’s wing as she impatiently roused a little flame and touched it to the end of her cigarette. The long movements of her lacquered fingers were curtly beautiful as if fire was a dark dance she knew too well. In the late Saturday families and tottering elderlies, Parker stood out like a vision. The sun glistened off the deep mulberry of her pantsuit, cut straight and thin to her ankles where the straps of tall heels took over, reflected off her as if even her shadow would stain like blood.
Even the most beautiful things cast a shadow, Lucia thought.
Every last part of her wanted to turn tail on the generations of Southern blood in her veins, get in the bake-oven that was her car, and drive fast enough away so that all that would be left for her would be the god-awful tangles in her long hair and the spiteful edges of dust she would say made her cry.
Instead Lucia jaywalked boldly across the street and went to the woman that had once held Jarod’s heart, like a sacrifice and a trophy, and still did.
Parker watched her come across the asphalt through dark preying eyes that knew the blonde had been there all along. She took her in slowly, the worn grey tee-shirt soft as furniture rags, the blue jeans with red-clay dogprints on it from Mama Rose’s placid Rottweiler, little red petals of life and unconditional love, the blonde hair long and almost silvery like cobwebs, the lovely face and jaw set like granite but smiling like an angel, as if she might almost mean it.
Smoke curled like a lover between them.
“That’s a beautiful ring,” Parker said at last, when the icy idea that this would be interesting fled, when silence finally made her awkward and envy curdled at the other woman’s cool stare. But Parker’s voice was still precise like the way Lucia won her cases, the reason she had been called the lacemaker.
“Thank you, Jarod gave it to me last year on our second anniversary.”
The black opal flared in the sunlight, a little piece of him, a sparkle of darkness and fire between them.
Parker folded her arms across the sleeveless silk sheath and blew a blurred jet of smoke. Traffic snarled behind them, a snatch of brakes and loud voices, the blow of a gutted exhaust startling a flock of Canada geese into the sky in a rush of feathers and beating wings, the hollow bones that defied gravity, the trickling blood that dictated migration.
Small talk rattled their nerves like a zest grater, splashing bitter juice and razor cuts.
“Will you be here long?” Lucia asked, and the question was bold without the mention of Jarod’s name.
Parker shook her head restlessly and the smoldering end of her cigarette flared red as she drew in. Parker watched the blonde unabashedly and in the hidden parts of her secret heart she knew when Jarod made love to this woman, the cheap headboard had never ricocheted off the wall in choking flecks of plaster-dust and the bang-bang-bang of gunshots. This woman had never fucked him as if she could nail him into the mattress, crucify him as if she still believed in guilt or sin. This woman had never hated him for making her come slow and sweet, instead of hard and rough, for taking his time and trying, in vain, to find her heart – if she hadn’t found it, why should he? This woman had never pushed him away while he was still coming inside her and run away in sudden, panic-driven flight from his trembling, catching arms to the bathroom, where even the scalding water couldn’t wash him off her. This woman of silk and the South in front of her had never hated when he collapsed, spent and dizzy, on top of her, and felt stricken and suffocated by his sinewy weight, the stratified way they fit layer into layer. This woman had never shot at him, aimed for that bright red ventricle in his chest where he once said he kept her, and meant to kill him for it. Although, giving Lucia credit, Parker didn’t think the blonde would miss. Lucia did things in ways that she never regretted, which was much more than Parker could say, at thirty-four, for herself.
This other woman had never hated him for loving her.
Parker blew out a pent-up balloon of smoke, and watched the other woman blink, frown, and hold her ground.
In another way and another lifetime, Lucia could have admired the woman Parker was, sleek and sharp and darkly beautiful, the maddening way she wore red and drank Scotch, the devil-may-care way she did things as if nothing ever mattered, not even falling in love. Lucia might even have admired what Parker called independence, the dark lush rooms of her empty house, the cold Christmas morning she shared with no one but a bottle of Balvenie, the hours spent walking out of men’s lives before they woke up and remembered. Lucia might have admired it, if it had not all been a beautiful, tragic lie.
But the woman whose name meant ‘light’ knew it took more than burning things to fill a dark world. In ways Lucia would never explain, it seemed sad to her that Parker didn’t yet know that, know that fire wasn’t everything, that Jarod was her only hope. Maybe she had never lied about everything, if that could suffice as consolation, but only about the things she couldn’t handle, only about love, and that to Lucia, seemed most heartbreaking of all.
“I’m leaving too.” Lucia’s voice broke a sadness of her own, sharing secrets with this dark woman full of fury and sadness, desperate and alone, and more alike than they would ever admit.
Parker drew in past the filter and then ground out the burning remnant beneath her stiletto, her dark hair flaring around her shoulders. It was too easy to see how Jarod loved this woman in front of her. Jarod would love the way the sunshine touched this woman’s hair, reverently and unmercifully, the white-gold way she outshone even sunshine. Parker could well imagine him threading his hands through those cobwebbing strands, learning slowly and indelibly about knots and tangles, the kind that held and the kind that let go. Jarod would love her for the way she stood tall in her bare feet and reached for the sky as if she could bring down the very clouds, any dark sunken things that obscured the light. He would love the way she fought, not dark and dirty, but without seeming to ever move, the shakingly painful grace of waiting and being hurt, of losing pricking battles in hopes of winning a larger war.
Jarod, Parker imagined, must love her unmercifully.
How could she have missed it, Parker wondered, the intricate way he and Lucia bound themselves to one another. She wondered idly when it became too late, because she knew she could still change things irrevocably and unforgivably if she wanted, change everything.
And yet still, looking at Lucia standing uncertain and aching in front of her, Parker wanted to believe there would be a time that she would reconsider. She wanted to believe there would come a day when she would abandon her Manolos and Choos and Louboutins to the dark corners of her closet, packed like obsolete treasures in their expensive boxes and cloth bags, and in relief, tread on the soles and heels of her feet, walk flat and unhindered. She wanted to believe there might be a time when she too could walk out into the sunlight untrussed from the slick confines of her Dolce & Gabbana suits, the latest Prada, the newest Versace, when she didn’t have to worry about wrinkle concealer and lash-lengthening mascara. She wanted to believe there might be a day when she would become rusty with ordinariness, when she didn’t reach for her gun at the smallest whisp of sound, when she slept through the night without the tiny blue pills, when her ulcer didn’t burn and Pepto-Bismal wasn’t a food group.
In her heart, she wanted to dream that one day she might walk into life looking very much like the woman in front of her, a woman, who despite everything, still dreamed of what the world might one day be, who lived not as things were, but as they should be. She wanted to believe that she too could be like this blonde woman, who moved like she had the whole of her life in front of her yet, who had a place in the world and someone who loved her. Parker wanted to believe that someday she too could be like this woman Lucia, carelessly confident and recklessly in love, that she too might know light. But the idea was still dark and she couldn’t make Jarod wait his whole life while she became disappointed and found out.
“Will you be coming back?” Lucia asked.
Parker smiled brilliantly because she had always been able to pretend she never got hurt and always got what she wanted.
“Not unless you let him go.”
Parker had been smoking on the bed again when Jarod left her and she let him go, sucking greedily at the stub of tobacco in her lithe fingers, so that the room was lit only by an angry red flare and her enraged hiss when ash fell on her bare skin. In the morning, the sheets would be freckled with dark burn holes, but for now she was naked and cynical, too tired to sleep, refusing Jarod’s persistent offer of a ashtray, or that the comfort of smoke puffing in her lungs might one day be her own undoing.
“She’s leaving, you know.” Parker’s voice rasped between them, but it was more stilted than sultry. Her smoke twined into the dark pockets of his lungs and the old parts of her made him breathe her in, so that she knew there would always be something sharp and sticky of her in the depths of him.
She took another long drag, her movements slow as a spell. Parker had never been more beautiful than she was now in the darkness between them, restless and magnetic, when it would be easy to go to her and forget what he really wanted. But when Jarod turned and looked at her, she didn’t reach for him and in her eyes, he could see that she now remembered their times together with a relish akin to the deepest sorrow, the heart-ripping kind, when the world was new to him and just as she built it, dark, rough, and teeming with shadows and a last hurried gulp of whatever she happened to be drinking. As she lay there silent and in flame, Jarod would think there must have been something they could have said, something trite and meaningless that would have let the silence end between them, some final mercy, but Parker only breathed out smoke. She wouldn’t let him go that easily. She still had that, if nothing else.
He didn’t look back at her as he went to the door, knowing too well what he would see. Her body would be stretched carelessly across the mangled covers, her taut skin sun-dark against the bleach-white of the sheets, darkness pooling over the bony knob of her hip, the channel between her still-high breasts, the planes of her stomach tight with lack of food rather than exercise. Her cigarette would be whittled down to its very nub, the bitter clump of filter, and when he turned around and kissed her, she would taste like hell, but her fingers would take him little and flaccid and knead him until he was thick and heavy. She would yank him to the bed, his pants caught around his knees, his shirt twisted in folds under his armpits, and impale herself on him before she was even really wet. He would gasp and almost choke at the raw friction, the glittering pain that exploded strobe-like behind his eyes, the brilliant numb-burn of a wasp sting, and she would set the pace, too hard and too fast like a speed addict, until he burst from the inside-out.
For the few moments she would slump next to him and he could feel her heart, Jarod would think it would be worth it, that maybe the way her hand rested like a torn butterfly on his chest was how love felt.
“I’ve got to get the pill,” she would mumble and rouse up in a confusion of stiff flesh and jumbled bones, almost like a broken bird, and they would both remember he hadn’t used a condom and she wasn’t on birth control, and sometimes he wondered if she thought love was about side effects, vicious and draining.
Jarod saw all of it, knew how it had been and would always be, and at last, left Parker under the black, but somehow yielding scrutiny of her dark and grateful eyes.