The notice arrived sometime this morning. It lay on the scuffed parquet floor for hours before Fay could muster the courage to open it. With the support of anonymous neighbors, the super had been lobbying management for years: “They’re loud and uncouth,” he claimed, “they come and go at all hours of the night.” Thankfully, his accusations didn’t have any teeth, so his pleas fell on deaf ears. But now it seemed the super had gotten through to management. Fay couldn’t imagine how.
She was worrying the letter’s folds when Larry trudged through the sagging door. While he waved his wand with a flourish, the grimace he tried to hide told Fay the tutu was chafing again. “Morning, Angel,” he wheezed, lips stretched back in a stained grin. Larry’d been doing the rounds since that quack at the clinic had slapped her with the prognosis. It was grim. Her condition was deteriorating each day, and they could afford neither treatment nor second opinions. While Larry donned the requisite garb each night before setting out, Fay still hadn’t accustomed herself to it. They both agreed he looked ridiculous.
The wings, though, were even more outlandish. Every night, Fay had to coax Larry into three feet of twisted coat hangers and papier-mâché. Bizarre as they seemed, the wings were essential to the illusion. Larry was, after all, attempting to fill her shoes; Fay wanted him to look as true to life as possible. Beyond their absurd appearance, the bulk and avoirdupois of the wings made them cumbersome.
Dentures lolling in a glass of water beside her, Fay ignored the letter on her lap for a moment, grinning at Larry through the frame of her fingers. “Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” she announced, gums flapping.
“Ha!” Larry laughed, still out of breath from his climb up the three flights. Though he’d cut back, he was still a pack-a-day man. “Ha-ha!” he chuckled, and the wings on his shoulders shook and swayed. His mirth soon devolved into a fit of hacking. When the spasms had run their course, Larry slipped a Lucky Strike between his lips, lighting it with a match he found on the bureau.
Wincing with each slow footfall, Fay tottered over and helped him out of the awkward contraption. The pain was in her back, up around the shoulder blades where the wings had once been. For a small fortune, the hack surgeons had made quick work of them, yet their ghost-presence haunted her. Sometimes she could still feel them, gossamer and fluttery and shimmering. Yet these days what she felt most was the throbbing ache of their absence; it was a pain none of those glossy purple pills could ever relieve. They couldn’t afford the medication anyway.
Squinting through the smoke, Larry lifted his silver lamé sack an inch or two. “What do they do with them all?” he wondered. “I’m just an old geezer in a fairy suit. A cheap imitation. I’m not half the sprite you once were.” They stood together by the bureau, staring through each other. A pall fell over the room. “One thing’s for sure. The good ole days have come and gone.”
It was a truth neither of them, these days, could ignore. Everywhere they turned, each direction they looked, it was staring them square in the face. Stubbing out his half-smoked butt, Larry coughed and scowled. Fay knew he needed breakfast, though she’d forgotten to get his eggs started. The notice had distracted her. She’d read and reread it, but the words didn’t seem to register.
Larry lit another smoke and said, “What you got there?”
The letter snapped like old bones in her hands. Between Larry’s arrival and the constant pain, Fay hadn’t even realized she was still holding it.
“This?” She feigned confusion. “Nothing.”
“It couldn’t be that bad.”
Fay’s silence filled the smoky space between them.
“It is that bad, huh?” He padded toward the tattered La-Z-Boy. “Then I should sit down.”
“I’ll get you some coffee,” said Fay.
She passed him the letter before slipping into the kitchenette. She expected angry shouting. While she waited at the counter, cradling the chipped mug, for so long the coffee went cold, Larry didn’t say a word. He was re-reading the notice when she stepped back into the room. La-Z-Boy reclined, he had his turquoise legs stretched out before him. The tutu was crushed beneath his bulk; sequins shimmered in the dirty yellow light.
“How can they do this to us, Larry?” Fay said. “We’re old and infirm and down at the heels.” Larry shook his head back and forth in sad disbelief. “Where will we go if they kick us out?” she wondered, panic tugging at her voice. “What are we going to do?”
Flailing under the bleak shroud of the present, Fay liked to remember the early years. She and Larry, whose real name was Lars, were fresh off the boat. The world was their oyster, or so they’d been told. Landfall in Amerika: a windfall was just around the corner. All it took was vision and focus, which wasn’t a problem back before cataracts and glaucoma. Everything had been different in those days. Life was easier, simpler, more straightforward. All you needed was drive and determination, plus a little luck and the right connections, and you were on your way to wealth and fame and an ivory castle in the clouds. Happiness, too. But the road to success wasn’t paved with gold, as everyone believed. No. With considerable cajoling from Larry, Fay came to understand that the secret path through the money-grubbing maelstrom was lined with enamel.
Larry snored in his La-Z-Boy. A three inch cherry dangled from his burning Lucky Strike, threatening to melt sequins and Spandex and matted gray chest hair. A soggy mess of runny eggs and cold toast coagulated in a plate on the end table. From the haggard loveseat, Fay seemed to be watching him sleep. Yet her gaze was glassy, her focus elsewhere.
The pixie dust (she remembered) was no delight, but how else was she going to make her rounds? And Larry went to such pains to get it, considering the risks of back-alley negotiations. Those hoods were volatile and unscrupulous: Larry could’ve been killed! So when he brought the unmarked packets home every week, Fay wasn’t about to express her worry. They made a pact before ever setting foot on the S.S. Gencive’s rickety gangplank; who was Fay to renege? Even if it meant she had to abuse controlled substances to achieve the wispy grace that she’d once come by so naturally. Sure, it took a little experimentation: the endless smoking, snorting, and intravenous injection wasn’t easy. But, in the end, all that trial-and-error paid off. Larry’s idea of coating Moonpies with the stuff was a real stroke of genius, never mind excessive sugar intake would rot her teeth.
“It’s not like the Old Country here,” she remembered telling Larry. “The stakes are higher.” They’d known things were going to be different, but not this different. “We’ll need a gimmick,” Larry predicted. But that wasn’t all. Since they weren’t, and would never be, licensed, business deals here had to happen on the sly. The late-night rendezvous, the palm-to-pillow transactions: everything had to be done under the table. As a result, Fay had to be lighter and more agile than ever before. “Everything rests on our shoulders now,” Larry said. “It’s make-or-break, do-or-die.”
One thing was for certain, her work here kept her on her toes. Accustomed to wheeling and dealing in the light of day, Fay wasn’t used to shimmying down drainpipes or creeping along narrow ledges. And she had to learn the arts of jimmying windows and picking locks, too. Chains, double-keyed numbers, deadbolts of all shapes and sizes: sometimes she had to handle eight or ten of them at a time. Such insecurity, which, to Fay, bordered on paranoia, was often even more extreme. In her first few weeks on the job, she had myriad near-misses with mouth-foaming German Shepherds, English bulldogs, and Rottweilers; she also tripped burglar alarms aplenty, drawing the squealing wrath of squad cars by the dozens. And Fay’d heard a thing or two about this place. The people dwelling in these townhouses and condos, these lofts, walk-ups, and suburban split-levels were armed to the teeth. Talk about danger! In the wake of so many mishaps and surprises, Fay began to think she’d bitten off more than she could chew. Yet Larry kept encouraging her. “Occupational hazards,” he explained. “They go with the territory.”
Once Fay’d worked out the kinks, she began to relish her nightly forays. For one, she learned that the dangers weren’t as unpredictable as they had first appeared; in fact, after a month or two, Fay knew what to expect before she ever set foot inside. Skulking in inky shadows, flittering over rooftops, dancing through sleepy murmurs: everything gave her a thrill, a rush, an overwhelming feeling of joie de vivre. She was sinking her teeth into this fairy business, and in no time she’d mastered the once unfamiliar terrain.
Then Fay was ambushed in the night. There she was, magic wand in hand, fairy suit sparkling in the weak glow of a nightlight. The goods—two molars and an incisor!—were in the bag. Fay was flattening out a couple wadded-up dollar bills when the boy’s eyes popped open, bugging at her in the dark. Damn! Though always a stickler for detail, Fay’d forgotten to sprinkle the magic powder this time; now look what had happened. She had a situation on her hands, without the slightest inkling what to do. Dousing the kid with pixie dust was mere reflex, a simple survival tactic. Then, wand in one hand, silver sack in the other, Fay bounded out the window and darted off to the cover of shadows.
Fay’d gotten careless: now she’d been spotted! It was a catastrophe, and she knew it. Their business was still a fledgling enterprise; set to take flight, now it was going down in flames. Yet when she came home in tears that night and gave Larry the dirty lowdown, his response caught her off-guard: “That’s just what we wanted!” Fay was flummoxed. “Now we’re in the money!” What was he talking about? When he noticed her bewilderment, Larry said: “Word of mouth, Angel. It’s the best advertising around!”
Dozing, Larry smacked his lips and snorted. His Lucky Strike was out; the cherry was now a spray of ash across his chest; the butt must’ve fallen to the threadbare rug underfoot. Try as she might, Fay couldn’t ignore the pain in her shoulders. Working to get comfortable on the cigarette-burned sofa, Fay gazed at the notice crumpled on Larry’s turquoise lap.
That dirtbag of a super had it in for them from day one. It was no fault of their own, though they should’ve seen it coming. Now, in two short weeks, they were going to be out on the streets, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
“What are we going to do?” Fay wondered aloud. There was no one to reassure her, because, as far as Fay could see, Larry was out cold. These night shifts were taking their toll on him. Yet he must’ve been listening. Rolling over, no easy feat in that third-hand La-Z-Boy, Larry mumbled:
“Don’t worry, Angel. We always think of something.”
The move had been Larry’s idea. Back in the Old Country, they’d been doing just fine. They were buying and selling right out in the open, and business was swift. When they hit a slump, they cashed their subsidy checks to pay bills and buy groceries. It was an easy life. There were no costumes, no late nights, no occupational hazards whatsoever. Sure, it was a local trade, and they weren’t about to break the bank. But they were doing what they loved; not everyone could say that and mean it.
Then, out of nowhere, Larry cooked up this screwball scheme. “It’s fruit ripe for the picking,” he said, capped molars glistering. Just like that, they would pull up stakes and cross the ocean to a new life? Well, what was stopping them? The war was over. They were young and healthy and free. And this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity: there was inflation to consider, after all, and markets could be so volatile. “They’ve got the best dental care in the world,” said Larry, “and their pockets are lined with gold!”
Fay and Larry didn’t know a soul when they hit town. No friends, no place to live, not a clue how to get started. They did have their nest egg, a thick roll of bills wrapped in a fraying rubber band. Capital: it was the grease that made the gears turn. “You just make those house calls, Angel, and let me take care of the rest.” While a little shaky at first, that’s exactly what she did. And Larry was true to his word. Before long, they had buyers, a supply route, and a roof over their heads; somehow, in a very short time, Larry also made a number of key social contacts. Fay and Larry both knew such a network was crucial to their solvency. If they were going to make a go of this crazy plan (and they were: there was no other choice now), they had to have connections.
A dull rap at the door disturbed Fay’s reverie. Probably one of those kids from down the hall. She couldn’t stand Madame Caries, the super’s overlarge live-in, or her brood of illegitimate urchins. If she ignored them, they might go away. Maybe they’d fall out an open window, or down a dark elevator shaft.
Except, they, whoever they were, didn’t go away. Instead, they knocked again. Drool oozing from his mouth, Larry coughed and fluttered his eyelids. All this commotion was disturbing him. He should’ve gone back to the bedroom, instead of passing out in the recliner, but there wasn’t any bedroom. They’d always just taken turns on the Murphy bed. Someone’s fist pounded the flimsy door again, this time with more force. “Jeez, Granny! Hurry up, already! I’m getting long in the tooth out here.”
Fay stepped to the door, wincing. She spun open lock after lock but left the chain fastened. If she’d learned anything in all her years here, it was that tempers flared like blowtorches, and almost everyone carried a loaded firearm. Door cracked, Fay peered into the dingy hallway light, then wished she hadn’t. Maybe it wasn’t one of Madame Caries’ bastard offspring; all the same, it wasn’t anyone she wanted to see, ever again for the rest of her natural life. Standing in the hallway was Valentín.
“Hanging on by the skin of your teeth, huh?”
Fay said nothing. She studied the little jerk’s imperceptible crow’s feet. Valentín was older than her, but he somehow maintained his boyish good looks; there were rumors he was hooked on anti-aging pills, Botox, and plastic surgery. Nothing could be proven, and it made no difference anyway. Fay wished she’d never laid eyes on the greasy little imp. She moved to slam the door in his face, but Valentín wedged it back with a hairy hand. There was no choice: she’d have to talk to him.
“What do you want, Valentín?”
“You know how word gets around,” he said. “Maybe I was in the neighborhood and thought I could do you some good.”
Valentín, she knew, was a pimp who’d whore his little sister if he thought there was a buck in it. To get what he wanted, he’d jab an arrow through your heart and think nothing of it. The thought made her shiver, though it might’ve been her illness; even in muggy heat like this, Fay had a chill most of the time.
“So you need to make rent? Maybe I could use you.” His voice turned unctuous.
“You’d be surprised how many johns go for the blue hairs these days—even a bag of bones like you. I could make it worth your while. What do you say?”
“Drop dead, Valentín.”
“Don’t be too hasty. You wouldn’t want to give up all this—splendor.”
Fay set her jaw.
“In the mean time, why not let Señor Cupido make it all better?”
Fay’s stomach turned as he grabbed his crotch. Somehow, she just managed to wrench the door closed and refasten the deadbolts.
“Think it over, Granny!” said Valentín. “I’ve got cold hard cash. No one but the Love Doctor can ease your pain!”
They’d met that sleazeball along with the rest of the high-rollers. Back then, Valentín put on a good act, dapper and uptown. He’d greeted them at the door in a satin smoking jacket and ascot, ebony cigarette holder clenched between his glistening choppers. “Mr. and Mrs.—What was the name again?” She can still remember the timbre of his voice, the impossible swirl of his tonic’d hair. “Fay and Larry,” Larry announced, a glimmer in his eye. “No Mr. and Ms. nothing. We are Fay and Larry. Kris told you we were coming?” A leer overtook Valentín’s baby face; Fay wondered if the custom-tailored threads were all a front. “Kris? Sure. Right this way.”
The plush carpet of the narrow corridor opened into a room the size of Norway. Huge windows, high ceilings, ebony floors buffed to a slick sheen. Massive, incomprehensible paintings hung the walls in gilded frames; among the sculptures on display, Fay couldn’t make out anything but a few naked torsos.
“So this is a penthouse,” Fay observed, wings aflutter.
“See, Angel? What did I tell you?”
Kris stood chatting with a couple they’d never met. What sounded like idle chitchat was in fact a heated debate: market shares, pork barrels, bulls and bears: Fay didn’t catch more than a few words. A butler—was it?—in a French maid’s costume brought them humongous highballs and cigars as long as babies’ arms. They smoked and drank. All around them, the invitées were chattering, snickering, swilling chilled Veuve-Cliquot like water: purple imps and three-horned demons, fairy godmothers and cackling witches, red-eyed wolves and overweight chickens that cussed a blue streak. All of them dressed to the teeth. Despite the wild array of guests at the party, Fay still felt self-conscious about the gossamer protuberances on her back. Nobody seemed to be paying her any mind, but how could she tell? To distract herself, she stared at a statue of what appeared to be a leprechaun dancing. He was naked. Maybe it was just the Glenfiddich talking, but the sculpture bore a striking resemblance to the little man across the room.
“I see you’re admiring the art,” said Kris.
Through his billowing beard, Fay detected a smile, thick-lipped and prideful.
“That one was modeled after Mr. O’Leary here.”
“Please,” said a short man clad in green velvet. “Call me Seamus.”
At that moment, surrounded by such luxe, Fay would’ve given anything for a giant pot of gold. This was no time for idle reverie, though, because the introductions were already underway. First, Fay and Larry met Mr. O’Leary’s wife, a svelte, scantily-clad Latina called Dama Libertad. But that was only the beginning. They nodded to, shook hands with, or kissy-kissed so many of Mr. Kringle’s friends they couldn’t keep the names straight. There was Pete Cottontayle, Jacques Lanterne, and a tap-dancing turkey called Sal, not to mention all manner of elves, Indians, and vampires whose names Fay didn’t catch. She found it encouraging that most of them seemed well-heeled.
Somehow, everyone she met had already heard about her. “So you’re the fairy,” they said. Or, apropos of nothing, to no one in particular, they announced: “Fay’s in dentistry.” It was unsettling, to be sure. On the other hand, she found it comforting to know that, in Kris, Larry’d met the right man. Her reputation, which she hadn’t yet earned, was already preceding her.
As the night wore on (this one and others: those soirées were all the same), Fay began to sense a masked undercurrent of disdain pooling in every half-smile. “You’re in teeth?” they asked. “Oh, you’ll make a killing!” “Good luck with the dentistry,” they well-wished, slipping off to scare up another drink. Everything sounded sincere and affable; yet Fay understood they were sneering at her. “Upstart,” they must’ve been thinking, “go back to your Viking friends.” While the surface was burnished to a high gloss, deep down, their souls were rotting.
Someone pounded at the door again. “It’s Grand Central this morning,” Fay muttered, frowning. Peering over at tutu-and-sequined Larry, she noticed he was still dead to the world. At least the intrusion wasn’t disturbing his beauty rest: Larry wasn’t cut out for this night shift business. As she hobbled across the worn parquet, Fay wondered who it could be. Maybe the super? Or his hag live-in? She had no idea. She clicked, spun, and unlatched the locks. When she pulled the door open (forgetting, this time, to leave the chain fastened), there was no one. She was staring at nothing but a dank, empty corridor, dull fluorescents sputtering overhead. Fay gazed up the hallway and down, then locked the door and doddered back to the loveseat.
At the outset, everything seemed to bode well: they had capital to invest; vast, almost unending supplies; and scores of potential buyers. Call it beginner’s luck, but, before long, they were off and running, a real sleeper success. Although Kris had been enthusiastic from the start, Seamus, Jacques, and the rest became more and more supercilious as time went on. They could even be scornful. “Those bozos?” Pete remarked at a one party or another. “She’s some kind of a dental nymph. They don’t even have their own holiday! They’ll fall flat on their faces, or my name ain’t Pete Cottontayle.”
Despite all the snooty naysayers (or because of: it was impossible to tell), Fay and Larry made a go of it for a while. Though they might’ve been working themselves to the bone, they were doing what they loved—what in time, if they hunkered down and gritted their teeth, they might grow to love. “Profit margins,” Larry learned to say, “will tell us where we stand.”
Gazing around their cramped apartment, Fay was sure they should’ve stuck to what was working. When (as now) she would don her drugstore bifocals, she bore witness to their failure. For the teeth were everywhere. Their plan had been moving along just fine: goods were rolling out, cash was rolling in. All the same, the numbers weren’t even close to what they’d been anticipating; something had to be done. “Let’s cut out the middleman!” cried Larry. “We’ll take our goods straight to the open market!”
They were both elated. Why hadn’t they thought of this in the first place? It was a brilliant idea, at least in theory. “But who’s going to buy teeth?” Fay wondered. Nobody, that’s who. There was never any doubt: the two of them had known that from the very beginning. “Not to worry, Angel,” Larry said. “I’ve got product ideas galore!”
Larry was a visionary beyond compare. “Why not start with what we know?” he suggested. “Just like back in the Old Country.” That’s when they began making jewelry again: crude necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. The narrow scope minimized production time: all they had to do was bore holes in the enamel with a borrowed drill, then string the canines, incisors, and molars onto cloth, leather, or elastic bands. The varying patterns of size and color were what made each piece interesting and unique. Once they’d been at it a while, they began experimenting. Sometimes they painted the teeth in astrobrights; other times, they lettered them and strung together names, slogans, or one-liners. Head shops and flea-marketeers bought everything at a huge markup.
With the jewelry success came diversification. In the beginning, Fay and Larry kept it simple; necklaces and bracelets blossomed into rings, earrings, and noserings. Their buyers—old hippies, Goth freaks, and voodoo enchanters—gobbled up any idea Fay and Larry threw their way, no matter how eccentric. It’s not that they were rolling in the dough, not yet. But both of them knew they were onto something good. To reach new markets, Fay suggested home decoration might be promising. “Great idea!” Larry said.
So they began ornamenting picture frames with the teeth. They glued them around the edges of coasters and fashioned them into napkin rings. No piece of terracotta within a two mile radius was left unadorned.
When they decided to take matters into their own hands, neither anticipated the toll it would take. Fay, of course, was the show’s front man, flitting hither and fluttering yon, making pillow raids and sprinkling pixie dust; Larry continued to work the business end of the operation, schmoozing, hobnobbing, greasing palms. And now they had new responsibilities: between the toils of production and sales, neither of them was sleeping more than two or three hours at a time. It was exhausting, but at least they were getting some return on their investment.
Then Larry got the grinder. He never told her where it came from; Fay didn’t want to know. The racket it made was awful, like souls screaming in hell, and the neighbors weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure. “It’s the middle of the night, jerkoff! My kids are trying to sleep!” Maybe even worse, it left a fine, powdery film over everything in the apartment: loveseat, kitchen table, Murphy bed. Their clothes and hair were covered with it.
All the same, that spewing grinder got the job done. Their first project grew right out of their last: pottery. Instead of using their catch as decoration, they ground it up into a claylike paste. Then they made plates, mugs, and vases, all of them misshapen. It didn’t matter. The pottery was just a trial-run; with that behind them, they could move on to more lucrative endeavors. After all, Larry’d sunk a chunk of change into the machinery, so they wanted to see the thing produce.
Though Fay was skeptical, Larry decided to stake everything on a pair of ideas. “What’s better for healthy teeth than brushing?” he said. “Abrasion of tooth on tooth is sure to brighten everyone’s smile!” Though the grinder worked hard, Fay and Larry just couldn’t manage to achieve the right consistency; crushing peppermints into the mix didn’t seem to provide the necessary minty zing either. Toothpaste was harder than it looked. They had no proper receptacles for it, anyway, and it was next to impossible to force the goo into the old paint tubes they found in the closet.
The next project was an even bigger doozy. “Milk-tooth milk, Angel!” Larry said. “Just think about it: healthy, nutrient-rich, refreshing. We’ll buy those little gems for next to nothing, liquefy them, then sell them back to the same kiddos at a two-hundred percent markup. The first—and only—batch they produced was just a little chunky. Larry dropped a wad on the custom-designed cartons, and quickie-mart clerks didn’t come as cheap as he’d imagined, but they had to get the product into stores somehow. When reports of lacerated lips and emergency room stomach pumps started trickling in, Fay and Larry both knew they’d have to call it a wash. They stayed off the streets in daylight hours.
Shoulders aching, Fay shifted on the loveseat. The pain was too much, and this flood of memories exacerbated her haggard feeling. A sigh whistled between her slick gums. They’d fought tooth and nail from the very beginning.
Why did it all have to come to this?
Not long after they dumped the milk idea down the drain, Fay’s medical problems began. “It’s my wings,” she complained after a long night of rounds, tears welling. “They’re killing me.” Larry couldn’t bear to see her suffer. The next day, he made an appointment with the only doctor they could afford. The prognosis was dire: something was eating her up from the inside out. They were shaken. After paying the bill in cash, they shuffled out onto the streets, numb and weeping.
Larry convinced her to take some time off. “But we can’t afford it,” Fay said. She was right. As it stood now, they were just eking out a living; the bills had already begun to pile up. Still, he also insisted on getting her the medicine the doc recommended. “How will we pay for it, Larry? We’ve got to eat, too.” Though his eyes betrayed him, his words were confident. “Just you leave that to me, Angel. Just you leave that to me.”
So she did. It was an act of faith, but what other choice did she have? With all the pain, it’s not as if she could make her rounds anymore. There was nothing for it, so she crossed her fingers and hoped for the best. Though his ideas often seemed harebrained to her, Larry had never let her down. Now was no exception. She couldn’t fathom how, but the truth wasn’t long in coming.
Larry was moonlighting.
He kept everything under wraps until, one day, distracted from exhaustion, he forgot to change clothes before coming upstairs. “What are you wearing?” Fay asked. It was a zip-up jumpsuit with a name patch on the chest. That’s when everything came out: janitorial work and shoe shining, newspaper delivery and shifts at the corner service station. Larry was doing anything he could to turn a buck. As the fateful day approached, he even did a little courier work for the pixie dust boys down in the hood. It was quick cash, and they needed it.
Then came the day. There were complications; infection would follow. For Fay, the pain was unbearable. She grimaced, moaned, pawed at her shoulders. The loss was more than she could bear, but what choice did she have? So the day came, and the wings went, gossamer flecks hanging opalescent in mid-air. It was what had to be done.
When it was all over, Larry took her home.
Before Fay recovered, Larry had already begun donning the uniform. Sequined sports bra and tiara of cubic zirconium, turquoise tights, frilly tutu, and ballerina slippers. He had to play the part if he was going to make the rounds. To compete for foundation funds, Larry knew he needed the teeth. “They want the pearly whites for stem cell research,” he explained, forcing a smile. When she figured out what he was up to, Fay suggested he carry her magic wand. She even fashioned the papier-mâché wings when she felt up to it, insisting he wear them. “You’ve got to look as real as possible,” she said. Larry knew there was no other way. “I’ll do what has to be done. We’ve got to get you out of here.”
Larry awoke with a start: “What are we going to do?” The question exploded into the silence. He fumbled a Lucky Strike between his lips and lit it with a fluttering candle.
“Fay?” His voice was trembling. “I’m really scared this time.”
Fay struggled across the cramped room to where he sat. “I don’t know,” she admitted, hand soothing his thin hair. Sweat glistened on his forehead. “I don’t know,” she repeated, forcing a smile. Their gray eyes met. Something glistered for a moment in Fay’s, then faded; soon the tears were gathering in shimmering pools. “Larry,” she said.
“Larry? Give me Valentín’s number.”
He stared back at her, face ashen. “Fay?”
“Write it down for me, Larry.” Frustration masked the sob welling in her throat. “Go on. Before I change my mind.”
He pawed the end table for a scrap of paper and stub of pencil, then, hand shaking, scribbled down a string of numbers. Eyes averted, she slipped it from between his fingers. Then she staggered out into the dank corridor, hot tears searing her cheeks. Jaw set, fists balled, she made her way down the stairs and across the shabby foyer, willing herself toward the public telephone, a black promise gleaming in the dirty fluorescent flicker.
J. T. Townley
J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
Artwork: Natalia Drepina