THREE YEARS EARLIER
“Who was that?” Madam’s voice came around the corner from her dressing room and sounded hopeful. God knows, we could use a little joy around this house at the moment.
I hung up the phone.
I lacked both the heart and the guts to tell her it was the bank. My paycheck had bounced. Again. What some would call my spinelessness, but which I preferred to regard as amenability, has ceased to concern me. I am what I am. And, in fact, I think it is this ability to be amenable, my willingness to play second fiddle, to hold the towel for the victor or the vanquished, to soldier on — loyal, steadfast, and true — that makes me a good servant. Perhaps even a great one. “Wrong number,” I answered.
It was a perfect country morning. Sunlight filtered through the lacy branches of the dense hardwoods that towered over the house and down the hill. The trees were now mostly bare after a spectacular Virginia autumn and gave a glimpse of the clear, sharp sky. The sun had forced a velvety mist from the heavy dew that blanketed the fields overnight, and the woods beyond, where the ground was wet and cobwebby, thick with fallen leaves. All the night creatures had retired, leaving only an occasional red fox scurrying home to its den, turning his turf over to the few remaining songbirds and our herd of pet white-tailed deer. The mist was bright and patchy. It danced over the meadow and flirted with the trees before vanishing into thin air. Sometimes, especially on silent mornings such as this, I found our forest as magical as that of Titania and Oberon, where little was what it seemed.
Much like our illusory life, filled with phonies of little substance, pursued by others who would go to any extent to join this fake, glittery world. A world where people appear to have unlimited time, money, and happiness. A world of danger and hidden traps ... of silly, vain, reckless flatterers. A world of sophisticated fools. But, I mused — enjoying the moment of quiet as I gathered up Madam’s breakfast tray — they were our fools and their vanity paid our bills. So who was I to judge? And frankly, today, with our finances in the state they’re in, we could use another fool or two.
I watched three of the white-tails — a young stag with furry antlers just budding from his head and two wide-eyed does — tentatively enter the meadow, their black noses shiny, ears and tails twitching, their footprints as distinctive in the dew as if it were snow.
“The deer are here,” I said.
“I can’t imagine what they think they’re going to find to eat until that hay’s delivered — they’ve already inhaled every leaf on the property. Did you get a good price on it?”
“Pretty fair.” See what I mean? We’re down to worrying about the price of hay.
It had been a rough few months. Madam’s mother had died and — in a letter delivered from her lawyers the day after her death — informed Madam that her mother had left the bulk of her estate, which consisted primarily of her gigantic, demented, and wildly overvalued paintings, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This upset Madam so much she locked herself in her room for two days and refused to attend her own mother’s funeral, a massive blow-out at the Musee d’Orsay. I went, just so I could report the details, in case she asked. Which she did the minute I returned to the Place Vauban apartment where her mother had lived and painted for forty years, and where Madam had grown up, the only child of Constanza di Fidelio, one of the Twentieth Century’s most famous painters, and her late husband, Rubirosa.
Constanza was a raving mad, lunatic bitch. She had been cruel and jealous, and, in most people’s opinions, maybe even borderline psychotic. She ran her studio like an old-fashioned opium den where any and every mind-altering substance known to mankind was not only available, but bountiful. People came and went around the clock, eating, sleeping, and fornicating whenever and wherever the urge overtook them. For my Madam, it must have been like growing up in Bedlam, so I didn’t find it at all surprising that now, as an equally famous, much-in-demand portrait artist, she was a little off-beam, a little cockeyed herself. Who wouldn’t be, under the circumstances? And me? I loved her in spite of, because of, her vulnerabilities.
We’d been back stateside, at Madam’s small farm in Middleburg, Virginia, for several weeks, struggling to keep up appearances. She’d counted on more from her mother, but actually, to tell the truth, I myself wasn’t a bit surprised at the mean-spirited inheritance: the Paris studio and a handful of minor works, which — if Madam sold them judiciously — could help bridge the span between what she made and what she spent.
The few works Constanza had previously given her daughter as gifts during their occasional periods of reconciliation, and that hung in our house — the Zodiac
s, twelve separate works that when hung together theoretically made up a single piece, although I personally could never figure them out, and Andromeda,
a gigantic, ochre-colored mess — were copies. Fakes. Madam had sold the originals before they’d even made it through the front door, spending the money on mortgage payments and gardenias.
We’d been living without a net for quite a while. What we needed was a rich man. She kept herself in tip-top shape but who’s kidding who: time was running out.
“I’ll be out in the studio, Nigel,” she said, entering the bedroom in her work uniform: a loose linen shirt over a Lycra body-stocking — today’s was black — and soft leather ballet slippers.
Madam is what we refer to in England as an “exotic,” with looks that teetered just on this side of good, a coin-toss that had landed in her favor. Her coal-black hair that, but for chance, could have been drab and coarse, was instead thick and wavy, and today, instead of being pulled tightly into a chignon and hidden under a cluster of gardenias, it tumbled in a ponytail mid-way down her back. And her eyes — wide, unreadable, so dark a blue they were almost black — were heavily hooded and slightly tilted. With five seconds more or less gestation, they could have been heavy, lethargic, froggy eyes. Instead, they shone with intelligence and always glittered just a little on this side of danger. Her mouth, full-lipped, always ready to laugh or cry, would have been wrecked by a set of perfect teeth and we would have been robbed of her slightly gap-toothed smile. She was as lush and volatile and alluring as a gypsy.
I’ve never been too clear on where her father, Rubirosa, who died when she was a child, came from. Some days he was portrayed as an Argentinean playboy, others as a Mexican freedom fighter, and still others as a Philippine lumber baron. Whatever he was, he was swarthy and there had been a good deal of money involved. Now all gone, of course, pissed out the window into the Place Vauban by Constanza’s stream of needy lovers.
Little wonder that Madam herself was a keg of nitro that pulsed like an African drum. She was wild and unpredictable, funny and charming, morose and maudlin, bold and direct, timid and withdrawn. The only qualities she had not inherited from her mother, as far as I could tell, were cruelty and vindictiveness. In fact, she was just the opposite: Madam was way too easily manipulated, she had far too much need to be liked and far too little confidence in her own strengths. In my opinion, she was a perfect candidate for Multiple Personality Disorder, but, according to my Family Medical Reference Guide, which I kept with me at all times, she did not exhibit any of the symptoms — fragmentation, delusions, detachment, and so forth. Not yet, anyhow. As it was, she could have been the poster girl for Bipolar Disorder, complete Manic-Depressive lunacy, but of course when she went for her annual physical, she was as normal as pie. I think a little Lithium would have helped her a lot, but then again, it probably would have stolen her talent. So I kept my mouth shut and soldiered on, ready as always to catch her at the fall.
She had been born in France, named Jacqueline in honor of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis), and educated from the seventh grade on in America, at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Virginia. So when she was in America, she was American. In France, French. In Bolivia, Bolivian. And so forth. Of everywhere, and yet, nowhere. A true exotic.
An exotic with all the good humor of a bear with sore toenails. My Madam, who could charm the birds out of the trees if she wanted to, had — as I mentioned — been in a ghastly mood since her mother died and left all her money to the museum. This bad humor was exacerbated by the fact that Madam was locked into a sick affair with a rogue named Ryder McCormick, one of her own late mother’s long-time lovers. Ever since Madam entered puberty, there had been an unrelenting sexual undercurrent between them — dark and forbidden — never satisfied, never consummated until those final, endless days of Constanza’s life when, as she lay on her deathbed, eaten alive by lung cancer, contorted with pain and unable to move, her lover and her daughter surrendered to their passion, fucking each other insatiably right outside her door.
Ryder McCormick, with his bloody good looks and that bloody glass eye that glittered as hard and cold as ice, was bad news. His charm and manners were polished and flawless. He was elegant, graceful, overpowering, and had the sort of domineering effect on men and women that dared them to challenge him because he had no money of his own. He was a sycophant and he was the first to admit it — proud of the fact that he had always been a kept man.
But no matter how great and long-awaited the sex between them was, something much darker lurked beneath the surface. Some element of Ryder’s personality enabled him to gain a malignant, almost Rasputin-like power over certain people. Constanza had been unable, or at least unwilling, to stand up to him. He had dominated her in a way that demeaned and degraded her and now that mantle had slid as silently and invisibly as toxic fog from mother to daughter. Madam had willingly surrendered the keys to her psyche, unwittingly invited him to come in and become her jailer. And now, barring some cataclysm or catastrophe, it looked as though there would be no escape.
Well, be that as it may, no matter how horrible or wrong it was, it was also none of my knitting. My opinion had not been solicited, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have offered it. Madam’s frequent trysts with Ryder inevitably left her feeling angry, betrayed, empty, guilty, and wanting more. I knew. I was always there for the stormy aftermath — a depth of damage and frustration that exceeded the perennial and pathetic humiliation of the single woman in love with the married man. She careened like a caged canary between the warpath and the love nest. I was the one who jollied her up, playing a few hands of gin or having a cocktail with her in the library while we watched Biography. But her need for him sat there in the room with us.
I prayed for relief.
“And who’s this?” She stopped at the window and frowned, her fists jammed onto her hips. The Yorkies started barking like lunatics.
A dull gray sedan approached down the long gravel driveway. I’d watched enough American television to know no one you ever want to see arrives in a gray sedan. A man and a woman got out.
“I’ll send them away.”
There would be no joy in Middleburg today.2
“Is Jacqueline di Fidelio home?” asked the man, who wore a nondescript dark suit. His brown hair was close-clipped and a small scab had formed on his chin where he’d cut himself shaving. A wall-eyed distortion of my face reflected back at me in his dark glasses, which I assumed he’d left on to avoid eye contact and intimidate me in case I made any trouble, which I could have assured him right there on the spot, I would in no way do. Not me.
He and the woman held up wallets displaying official identifications, which I scrutinized. Agent Romano with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Agent Collier with the Internal Revenue Service.
“Please come in. I’ll inquire if Madam is available.”My paycheck has bounced and now if Madam is about to be arrested and incarcerated,
I thought as I ascended the stairs, one heavy, deliberate step at a time — which, for someone as diminutive and happy as I, was a skill achieved only with years and years of assiduous daily practice — what will I do?
In butler school, my lack of “deliberateness,” my inability to proceed with purposeful dignity, was what kept me back a year. I had too much joie de vivre,
I was too much a terrier to trudge naturally. It had to be browbeaten out of me. I had to be cowed into submission, thudded on the head with a club like a lumbering, dumb beast. Finally, the overtly stated fact that if I did not get with the program, I would not receive my certificate from Lady Atchley’s School — my absolute last chance if I were to avoid going to work for my parole officer’s uncle at his trash collecting business — terrified me to such an extent I immediately wiped the smile off my face and settled properly into the traces. The thought of spending the rest of my life bouncing through Birmingham’s potholed streets as I clutched the slimy handrails of one of those reeking, smoke-belching garbage trucks wearing filthy coveralls and a wide, thick leather belt cinched tight enough to keep my kidneys from rupturing straight out of my body when I picked up heavy barrels of week-old festering chicken parts and dirty diapers, was so indescribably execrable, it scared the wits right out of me. For the rest of my term at Lady Atchley’s, I became as dull and invisible as the rest of my butler mates, to whom being unnoticeable came naturally.
So if these government people were looking for trouble, they were barking up the wrong tree. Life’s underbelly has never been my cup of tea.
Under their cold, imperturbable eyes, my heart and my feet turned to lead. It was all I could do to drag them up the stairs. It was a natural trudge. Lady Atchley would have been proud.
Excerpted from Insatiable by Marne Davis Kellogg. Copyright © 2000 by Marne Davis Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.