Maggie’s Ruse, Chapter One
coming October 2019 from Unsolicited Press
The floor creaked whenever Maggie shifted her weight. The Jimmy Choo stiletto pumps were killing her. Their cherry red leather called her name in the SoHo shoe boutique only an hour before, just after Kyle’s text message urged her to get her lovely butt out the door and down to the gallery for the opening of Luther Galt’s exhibition. That Kyle was gay didn’t lessen her appreciation for his compliment. Kyle knew a good butt when he saw one. At the moment he was across the room, checking out what was on offer.
Luther Galt, on the other hand, hadn’t checked her out once. Her usual gambit, “You’ve been such an inspiration for my own work,” was received with a blank stare. Then he cleared his throat. He was shorter than Maggie by about two inches, another reason she despaired of the shoe choice. Only the other day her mother had complained over the phone that heels had just gotten too high. Maggie didn’t like talking to her mother and did so only to keep the money flowing.
The corner of Galt’s right eye was crusted. His face was acne scarred and littered with broken blood vessels. His nose dripped. Not a prime specimen by any means, and Maggie abandoned her plans to seduce him. She was a poor seducer, truth be told, though she was pretty, thin, and shapely, all things men usually liked, though not as much as they liked it in her twin sister, Marta. Marta was sassy because she was an actress. Or she was an actress because she was sassy. Either way, her muse was louder than Maggie’s, and had pushed her further along the glittery road to success, though she’d appeared in only two plays the whole time they’d been in New York—almost three years. Yet she spoke of herself as a seasoned veteran of the stage in a way that sometimes made Maggie admire her confidence, and other times made her want to scream.
Maggie looped her free arm through Galt’s—in her other hand was a glass of champagne—and begged him to show her his favorite piece.
The Dawn of Time, a muddy mess of brown and green, was at the far end of the gallery, and by the time Galt had escorted her there, the little toe of her right foot was screaming. She reclaimed her arm, removed her shoes, and put them in her huge purple leather purse, after asking Galt to hold her glass for her. He must have assumed she was offering it to him, because he drank it down in one go. The alcohol caused him to flush immediately. He looked at her keenly.
“You strike me as a perceptive young woman. Tell me what you’re devoted to. Artistically, I mean,” he said.
Maggie pulled out the little album she always had with her. She photographed every finished piece, labeled the photos, and put them in chronological order. As she looked over Galt’s shoulder while he flipped slowly through, she realized a sorting by color and subject might have made more sense. Maggie was obsessed with two things—doorframes and empty bottles—which appeared over and over in greater or lesser degrees of abstraction, imbued most often with blues and grays, but sometimes with warmer tones, and even a touch of hot pink now and then. She saw now that the current arrangement was jumbled and didn’t lead the viewer through any progressive understanding. Galt paused over one, a leaning doorframe with exposed hinges, and asked her if the bullseyes she’d included meant she had an interest in Victorian architecture.
“Not really,” she said.
“Pity. In many ways, it represented the pinnacle of design.”
He gave her back the album, then the empty glass, and turned away as his name was called by a tall, white-haired man in a tuxedo with a red scarf thrown rakishly over his shoulder.
Maggie put the glass on the floor and padded her way across the room to find Kyle. He was sitting on a wide windowsill, looking at his phone, and sulking. As she approached, he said, “Darling, you’ve gone native.”
“They don’t fit.”
“Take them back.”
Maggie joined him on the sill. She told him about showing Galt her album, and his lukewarm response.
“You’ve got to get him into your studio,” Kyle said.
“I left, remember?”
She’d been working in a large co-op studio in Chelsea with two other artists. Her assigned part of it was next to a glorious bank of tall, filthy windows. It was a great arrangement. She dropped by a couple of days a week, painted for an hour or two, then went on her way in a state of energized fulfillment. Sometimes Kyle came with one of his flamboyant friends to look at her most recent work and act impressed. Once she brought a gallery owner she’d bought an expensive dinner for. The owner—a tiny women in her sixties with a heavy silver necklace, peered over her bifocals at two canvases depicting empty bottles, all of which were tipped over, and asked if she had a particular fondness for bowling. Maggie took her question in stride, which was made a little easier by the woman really loving her rendition of one doorway within another.
“Have you named it?” the woman—Giselle—asked.
“Call it Inner Child. I might find a place for it.”
Giselle’s gallery on Twenty-Third Street had just been renovated into a modern split-level, light-filled space with cable railings, and a painted concrete floor. The floor color, a pale green, would go perfectly with the aqua hues in Maggie’s painting. The crowd that gathered to admire it would be stylishly dressed, but it was the adoring gaze of one man, standing apart, that she craved most. He’d be tall and unkempt, with a haunted look in his green eyes. His unshaven cheeks gave him a rough air that his passion for art belied. First, he would be her patron, then her lover.
In the end, Giselle had to pass. She’d just arranged a solo exhibit for a French printmaker. Later, if she put together a show that complemented Maggie’s style, she’d be in touch. So much for the spellbound crowd and finding the love of her life.
Not long after, a new artist joined the co-op. Leah was tense, and couldn’t tolerate the music Maggie and the other artist, Luis, like to play when they worked. She said it made it hard for her to concentrate. Maggie and Luis complained. They liked a happy atmosphere. Sometimes they laughed and kidded around. What was the harm? Leah called them a couple of idiots. They went to the manager of the co-op, who turned out to be Leah’s boyfriend, Digger.
Leah was a rare person, he said. Did they realize that? She’d overcome a monstrous childhood by finding a healthy outlet in art. Who were they to compromise her drive for expression? Some people let their demons control them. Leah was confronting hers, and doing pretty damn brilliantly, as far as he could tell. Maggie agreed. Leah was hugely talented. Her abstract pieces blended the wild fury of Pollack with the measured lines of Mondrian.
One night Maggie splattered one of Leah’s canvases with black paint. She had given up on her own work for the day—another doorway with a textured frame and glowing half-moons up and down both sides. The can sat open, just where Leah had left it. It stared at her cruelly. The taunt was unmistakable. The way the paint flew from the bristles of her fat brush and landed with a sloshy thwack was fantastic. The psychic relief that followed cleaned her from the inside out.
At the same moment, Leah was in the bathroom, losing a fetus she hadn’t known she was carrying. Maggie was still holding the paint can when Leah walked gingerly toward her, pale and teary-eyed.
“Call 9-1-1,” she said.
“Look, we don’t need the cops. I did it. You know I did it. I’ll write you a check for whatever you think it was worth.”
The crotch of Leah’s denim overalls was soaked with blood. Maggie instantly felt queasy. She didn’t do well with that sort of thing. Yet she managed to punch in the numbers, and then told Leah to lie down right there on the floor. Maggie draped a cloth over her and offered an old sweater as a pillow. Maggie was overcome with the brutality of what she’d done to the canvas. Waiting for the medics, she broke down crying. Leah told her to shut up.
By the time Leah was on her feet again and back in the studio, Maggie had fled. Her paintings were now stacked against the wall in the apartment she shared with Marta. Marta wasn’t wild about this arrangement. She was cultivating Josh, an aspiring director, and he dropped in now and then for drinks. He tended to get distracted by whatever canvas Maggie had most recently pulled out to agonize over and didn’t listen to Marta’s pitch about what plays they could seek investors for, and what role would be best for her. Marta solicited manuscripts on Twitter, to be sent to a PO Box so her address would remain unknown and unavailable to the legions of disappointed playwrights whose work didn’t fit. She had only about ninety followers, gleaned mostly from other actors she’d met at auditions, using the hashtags #stage #play #theatre. (The British spelling looked more elegant.) After nearly four weeks, she’d gotten only two submissions. One, Lana’s Tree, had been sent by a retired machinist living in Vermont. The tree housed the spirit of Lana’s late husband. Lana sat beneath it, grieving, reminiscing, and the tree communicated by brushing her gently with a low-hanging branch or sending a shiver through its trunk as she leaned morosely against it. The play struck her as a perfect vehicle for her own developing sense of pathos. It was essentially a solo performance.
The other play was favored by Josh. There, a group of oversexed high school students go on a field trip and run amok through the town, drinking, fighting, forming factions until the strongest takes control, even quoting from Lord of The Flies. The last scene had them executing their chaperones in a bloody display. It was poorly written, needed massive editing, and was, predictably, authored by a fifteen-year-old boy in New Jersey whose pen name was Vader. Josh thought Marta could portray the female chaperone perfectly.
She told Maggie to move the paintings into her own room, or to her side of the third bedroom, which they had converted into a giant walk-in closet equipped with an elaborate shelving system. Maggie did neither. She liked the paintings where they were.
One afternoon, she was home alone. She’d just gotten off the phone with another gallery that had passed on Inner Child and four other paintings, all with bottles, one where they were arranged in a circle, as if collectively mourning their empty state. She was twenty-seven years old and going nowhere fast. The keening Irish ballad on the iPod heightened her malaise, and tears welled.
Someone buzzed the intercom. Maggie pressed the button that opened the building’s entry door. She didn’t ask who it was. She didn’t care. This corner of the West Village was fairly safe. A caller might distract her, if only for a few minutes.
She stared at herself in the small mirror in her apartment’s foyer. The mirror was supposed to be a sun, with yellow rays fanning out from its round face. She had pressed colored dots onto some of the rays, making the whole thing seem both childish and innocent. She stuck her tongue out, then relaxed her face, opened her mouth wide, and examined her teeth from several different angles. She and Marta were identical twins, and shared the same features, down to the arrangement of their molars. The lower ones on the right side leaned just a little, but never enough to have warranted braces.
The caller’s knock was more like a whimsical tap. Maggie opened the door. The man was on the short side—only a couple of inches taller than Maggie—compactly built, swarthy, with a perfectly trimmed soul patch of black hair. The suede elbow patches on his tweed jacket would have struck her as ridiculous—even pretentious—if he hadn’t been gorgeous.
He stepped inside, removed his jacket, and handed it to her.
“You cut your hair,” he said.
Maggie’s free hand went to the back of her neck and felt the feathery tendrils her stoned stylist had labored over two days before.
“I like it,” he said, then walked past her into the living room, where he helped himself to the end of the blue velvet couch she and Marta fought over buying, because Marta had preferred the one in red.
He must be Josh, Marta’s director friend. Who else would feel so at home there? Maggie put his jacket on one hook of the wobbly coat rack next to the sunny mirror. Then she went to the couch, and looked down at that incredibly handsome man, willing him to open his arms and invite her in.
“You got a beer around?” he asked. “I’m off the hard stuff for a while.”
She went into the kitchen and found green cheese, sour milk, and a carton of eggs months past their sell-by date.
“Sorry,” she called out. She returned to find him on his feet studying her canvases, which she’d lined up all around the room.
“Are these new?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I still say she’s pretty good.”
“Maybe you just have no taste.”
“Don’t you like them?”
“I never think about them.”
He studied a dark doorway, leading down a mad purple hallway. It was the last one she painted before vacating the studio. She couldn’t decide if there were something at the end of the passage, something the viewer could identify, or if it were empty, yet luring one further and further in.
“How come I’ve never met her, anyway?” he asked.
“Because I want you all to myself.”
The surprise in his eyes told her that his relationship with Marta wasn’t romantic.
He blushed, then held out his hand. She took it. He looked into her eyes without blinking. Up close he smelled spicy and warm. It was driving her a little nuts.
“Is that why you changed your hair? Because of what I said the other day?” he asked.
“I don’t remember what you said.”
“That you’d have to wear a wig in Lana’s Tree. Because the author is insisting on the lead being short-haired. That’s how he sees her, and that’s how it has to be, assuming we still want the script.”
“I still don’t follow.”
“I said you’d look good that way.”
So, he thinks I’m trying to please him!
She leaned in and put her tongue firmly in his mouth. He tensed, but allowed it, then reciprocated. Minutes later, when Marta opened the door, complaining about how long it took her cab to crawl down Madison Avenue, Maggie and Josh were lying on the couch, kissing furiously.
Marta dropped her shopping bags and squawked, “What the hell?”
Josh jumped up. He gaped at Maggie.
“You’re the sister,” he said.
“You thought she was me?” Marta asked.
“Well, yeah, I mean, shit, you guys look exactly alike.”
Back in high school they used to take one another’s place for the fun of playing a trick on any number of exhausted, burned-out teachers, ruined by years of low pay and bratty students. Nothing bad had ever come of it, really. A phone call home once or twice. Being summoned together to the principal’s office.
“Why didn’t you say something?” Marta asked Maggie, who was now sitting up, pulling her shirt back into place.
“I was going to.”
“Before or after?”
Josh’s eyes filled with shame.
“I can’t handle this right now,” he said.
“Josh,” Marta said.
Then he was gone.
Marta sat down on the couch next to Maggie. She put her hand on her forehead. She leaned back and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she ran her hand over the patch of blue velvet beside her.
“You didn’t even put a towel down first,” she said.
“There wasn’t time.”
Marta shook her head.
“He likes you,” Maggie said.
“Well, isn’t that a good thing?”
“Sure. But I like to time my romances for myself. I wasn’t ready to jump into anything,” she said.
“He’s ready. Go for it. The guy’s lit.”
“Did it ever occur to you that he’s probably super embarrassed by what just happened?”
“Why should he be?”
Because he’d shown his feelings to the wrong woman. Which was what Maggie had had in mind. She’d wanted to know what it would feel like having sex with a man who thought you were someone else. Hardly a lofty ambition.
Thinking about that now, as more people crowded into the gallery, darkened her mood.
Kyle was still staring gloomily at his cell phone.
“Just call him,” she said. She meant Sean, the current boyfriend.
“No way. He’s being a bitch.”
Sean got jealous easily, and Kyle was overt in his admiration of other men, though he swore never to have acted on it. Maggie thought Kyle deserved the cold shoulder he was getting. Flirty people were hard to be in a relationship with. Not that she knew, exactly. She hadn’t had a serious relationship since she was twenty-two, and then it hadn’t lasted longer than one long, humid summer when she was assaulted by mosquitoes, as if the preference they normally had for female blood had been heightened by all the longing and passion coursing through her veins.
“We’re pathetic,” Maggie said.
“Oh, darling. No, we’re not. Just . . . unlucky.”
Luther Galt approached her, with the most charmingly shy expression.
He changed his mind! He likes my work!
She met his eye with a firm, level gaze. She’d be a cool customer. She’d feign disinterest.
He asked where the restroom was. No one else knew, apparently. Maggie didn’t know, either. She suggested he try the coffee house two doors down.
He brought three fingers to his forehead in a teasing salute, then teetered off.