Rainey Royal excerpt
By Dylan Landis
Soho Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Let Her Come Dancing All Afire,
Rapture and the Fiercest Love,
I Know What Makes You Come Alive,
Keep My Hands from Stealing,
All They Had Together,
How It Saved Her,
Fly or Die,
Thank You for Trying,
LET HER COME DANCING ALL AFIRE
The patron saint against temptation sits straight-backed in an Italian convent as if mortised into her chair, and she is dead, dead, dead. Her name is Saint Catherine of Bologna, and nuns have been lighting candles at her feet since Columbus asked Isabella for those ships.
Rainey Royal, in the reading room of the New York Public Library, peers at the photo in the book so closely she can smell the paper. Her shiny hair spills over the page. Saint Catherine is not just about temptation: she's the patroness of artists, for Chrissake—just what Rainey needs. She thinks they could be sisters, five hundred years apart. Rainey is an artist, and she embodies temptation.
Wisps of smoke from centuries of candles, she reads, have stained Saint Catherine's hands and face mahogany. In the photo, the saint wears a gargantuan habit, her nut-colored fingers laced in her lap. Rainey wears a halter top and holds a dry clay egg in one hand and a silver teaspoon in the other.
While she reads, she burnishes the egg with the back of the spoon on her lap.
In her mind, Rainey lifts the musty black fabric. She looks up Saint Catherine's legs. She sees this: not an old lady's crinkles but the lucent flesh of a fourteen-year-old virgin. One morning, Cath walked out on her rich foster family, with its tutors and grooms, and offered herself to the nuns.
In the cloister, Cath will never listen at night for the marquis padding toward her through chilled marble halls.
Why Cath endured that setup at all is because her own father sent her there, to serve the marquis's daughter. There's always a man, right? So there's always a problem in the house.
It is October 1972, and the problem in Rainey's house is Gordy, who tucks her in. Gordy is the best friend of her father, Howard. She remembers this: hugging her knees on the stairs one night, listening to the grown-ups in the Greenwich Village townhouse where she was born and where Gordy has lived forever. Her mother, Linda, came and went from both bedrooms without embarrassment, so Rainey grew up thinking all married ladies had sleepovers. Downstairs that evening her father said, "Gordy and I share everything." Then a pause, and Howard's voice again, lower, a tone she understood even before kindergarten: "Except for the Steinway, my friend, everything," and then rising laughter.
No one wrote anything about Cath's mother in the book. No one talks about Linda Royal either, even when Rainey asks.
In the library, she reads how Cath and the marquis's daughter grew up studying at the same table. When Cath walked behind her mistress in the gardens, their silk gowns swished like running water. That's because Cath was given the daughter's lavish hand-me-downs with barely yellowed armpits. Rainey can see it.
Plus Cath got unlimited paper and inks, being good at painting animals and the faces of saints.
"I found her," said Rainey, causing all the library people at the long table to look up. With precise little bursts, she rips out the page on Saint Cath. The woman across from her, tracing a map onto onionskin, yelps.
"Oh, relax," says Rainey. She packs up her egg and her spoon and the folded page and strides down the staircase and out into an autumn rain.
Rainey is fourteen, just a girl trying to get from the entry hall of the townhouse to her pink room on the third floor when her father, Howard, thumps the sofa in that sit down, baby way.
She stops, rain-soaked, in the foyer. The place is too quiet. Not an acolyte in sight. Did he send them upstairs to their own rooms or out for pizza? Usually the first floor is packed with young musicians. Some are students, some strays, but Howard Royal only brings home the best. Three days ago he found two brilliant cellist chicks—found, thinks Rainey, like shining orphans. The girls have been ensconced in his bedroom. Like he's really going to jam with cellos. Half the acolytes are guys, who supply part-time money and part-time girlfriends and revere Howard in an appropriately oblique manner. When someone new shows up, they say things like, "What's your ax, baby?" But half are girls who play celestial music and give celestial blowjobs and can't believe they get to jam and party and live in the extra bedrooms of, oh my God, Howard Royal.
Rainey hasn't heard the place this silent in centuries.
Howard's at one end of the parlor sofa, clamping a beer between socked feet and a clarinet between his knees. He's adjusting the reed. "C'mere, baby," he says. "Isn't it amazing? We're alone."
On West Tenth Street, alone means three people: Rainey, her father, and Gordy, who lounges on the far sofa arm refractive as a patch of snow, from his long, milk-colored hair to his alabaster hands. His jeans are white, too, and he parks a damp white Ked on the upholstery. Gordy Vine is not and never has been an acolyte. He is a horn player and the best musical technician in the house—even Howard says it. But Howard has the charisma. Gordy claims to be albino, but his eyes are green. He pretends to be unaware of Rainey by keeping his head down. He pretends he is not getting sidewalk crud on the brocade. He pretends to edit penciled notes in a spiral-bound score.
He turned thirty-nine last month.
Rainey shifts in the foyer. "What?"
She has a stolen saint in her backpack. Her egg is stolen, too; it is supposed to live on the Studio Art windowsill at school. She holds out her arms to show the damage she will do the upholstery. "I'm soaking wet."
She regrets this instantly. Gordy's attention, like a draft from a threshold, wafts toward her. He doesn't even have to raise his head. Howard blows on the clarinet's mouthpiece, looks puzzled, and says, "Sounds like fish frying." Not much about her father's jazz makes sense to Rainey.
"Get your shoe off Lala's sofa," she says. Lala is Howard's mother. She owns the house, but she lives in an old folks' home uptown. Some days Rainey can talk to Gordy any way she wants.
Gordy smiles. The Ked remains. "Rainey," he says softly. Even his voice sounds albino. Rainey thinks of white plaster walls, licked by the painter's brush.
"I sent the acolytes out to collect sounds," says Howard, as if sounds were lost quarters that winked from gutters. "Sit, Daughter."
She drops her pack, collaborates noisily with a folding chair in the parlor, and sits on it backward while Howard watches with pleased amusement. She smells his body oil: sandalwood.
"That school psychologist called again today," he says, "but I think she's on the wrong track. What do you think?"
Rainey flinches and looks to the ceiling cherubs for strength. The ceiling cherubs are three plaster angels who cavort around a trio of bare bulbs. Their ax used to be the chandelier, but last month Sotheby's Parke-Bernet took it away. The house is shedding its sweetest parts like lost earrings; in return, electricity keeps humming, pizzas keep arriving, and Rainey keeps going to Urban Day.
"Are we getting a new chandelier?"
"Do you know why the school psychologist called again?"
"No." Rainey stares off into the kitchen, willing the refrigerator to disgorge a glass of milk.
"I think you do."
"She's full of shit. Can I go now?"
"Look at me, Daughter." He smiles as if indulging her. "It's important to be candid about these things."
Gordy's not-looking at her is now so intense he might as well shine flashlights in her eyes.
Howard, and the smile, persist. "So tell us why the school psychologist is talking about you engaging with the male teachers."
The school psychologist always peels and eats an orange while she and Rainey talk. The scent comes back to Rainey in a rush. It is the scent of denial, the innocence that slides over her when Florence, the psychologist, asks how she feels about her mother, her father, the torments she dreams up for that Levinson girl.
Extricating herself gracefully from a straddled folding chair could be problematic.
"Screw you." She knocks over the metal chair as she stands and elbows one of the new cellos, so she barely has to hear her father say under the clatter, Oh, you can do better than your old dad.
Sometimes Rainey has to share her room—a ginger operation, a kind of Howard trick.
It is one year after the onset of the blue and white pills. They are prescription, but Howard Royal gets them from a doctor friend and dispenses them daily from packs of twenty-eight. Rainey doesn't need them, but he doesn't believe her. Three weeks white, one week blue—he gives her one every morning with a glass of milk and waits until she swallows. He says things like "That's my girl" and "Because, sweetheart, with maturity comes responsibility."
And it is a year after the summer of Jean-Luc Ponty, when her father had Gordy take her one night to hear Ponty play in Central Park, and Gordy steered her under some trees. She was still thirteen. "You radiate power and light," Gordy told her on the grass. But he is always saying shit like that. It was the only time he lost control, and they still didn't go all the way.
It is 4:00 P.M. on a Friday, and Rainey takes a savage bite of Gordy's grilled cheese. He has been making grilled cheese the way she likes it—and rice pudding and chocolate egg creams—for as long as she remembers.
Howard smiles her up and down. "Sweetheart, your room—"
"Tina is sleeping over Friday and Saturday in my room."
Tina is Rainey's best friend. They smoke pot on the roof and take turns reading Howard's pornography aloud to each other. Rainey is positive her mother, whose cool elegance she remembers as seeming somehow beyond sex, never read these books.
"Then Sunday," says Howard. "My brilliant young cellists are in need of your floor. Just for a few days. Open your heart."
She has seen the new cellists, always together—giggling on the stairs or leaving Howard's room. They could be sisters, their faces like two porcelain cups, but one girl is shaped like a cello and one more like a bow.
"My heart?" says Rainey. "My heart is a cell in which candles burn at the feet of Saint Catherine of Bologna." Language is the only turf on which she can stand with her father and joust. Occasionally it works.
"Well, then I pity you," says Howard.
"When the fuck do I get my privacy back?" says Rainey. "Where am I supposed to do my homework?"
What she really wants to know is, where is the place beneath a girl's armpit that the back ends and the side begins? She can share her pink room with strangers, but tell her this: Is there a region between back and breast that can, in a proper back rub, be considered neutral?
"Be creative," says Howard.
What if it doesn't feel neutral?
"Be creative and be adaptable."
Gordy says nothing. His language with Rainey is often nonverbal. For example, the way he has been tucking her in the past couple of years: sitting on the edge of her bed without moving and sometimes stroking her long hair, as if he were the father and she were the little girl. The hair stroking makes her feel so porous and ashamed that she pretends to be asleep. She has no idea if Howard knows; he sleeps on the second floor, and Gordy and Rainey share the third. What would Howard even say? He strokes your hair—and? She wonders if Linda knew before she left last year. Gordy never says it is a secret, yet she senses that her silence is required. She has not told anyone but Tina. Often she wishes she had not.
Rainey would like to ask Tina a few things when she comes over, though she won't. For example: Do Tina's body parts meet clearly at dotted lines, like pink and green states on a gas-station map? Where does she get her God-given ability to not give a fuck?
And what can Rainey draw from Cath's first miracle, performed after death and underground? The nun's corpse exuded a scent so sweet and strong it rose through the soil and drew all of Bologna to her grave. Rainey can see it: every morning, men and women gather at the mound of earth, inhale deeply, and drop to their knees. All day the perfume clings to them. The grave smells like tea-rose oil!
No, the priest says, what you smell is Easter lily, the flower of Christ—but he is wrong. It's tea rose, the scent of power and coiled-up sex, an oily perfume in a little brown bottle. It's the perfume mothers leave behind when they split, that daughters rub between their toes to someday drive men wild. And after eighteen days, according to the book, the mourners get kind of manic. They love and desire their dead, sweet-smelling virgins even more than they hate and desire whores. They have to see. So they dig her up. The women and girls dig very carefully, scraping with silver spoons.
Late October sunlight slants through shuddering leaves, angling low into the windows. Rainey does her homework sprawled on her pink carpet—when she does it. More often she goes to the museum after school, pulling out a sketchpad, dropping her army pack with its straps and buckles noisily on the floor.
People look up. People always look up. She radiates power and light.
"Have you seen her notebooks?" Howard demands when he is summoned to the school. Rainey looks at him gratefully. They sit across a conference table from two teachers and the principal. It's a cool school. Everyone wears jeans except the janitor. Even the principal wears jeans. Howard calls him Dave. When he calls the science teacher Honor he gives her a long, private smile, as if a waiter were even now carrying in a silver tray set for two. "Her real notebooks, Dave, the ones she draws in. Do you people not know an artist when you see one?"
He pulls a pack of Kools from his shirt pocket, flashing a large watch that Rainey loves, smacks the pack on his hand, and flicks a cigarette toward her. Shocked, obedient, she pulls it out. Next to the cigarette, tucked farther down in the pack, she sees a joint.
"For one thing," says Honor Brennan, and looks sharply at Rainey's unlit cigarette. There seem to be so many things, Rainey thinks.
Rainey does not smoke menthol, and students can't smoke inside the school, and she knows Howard knows this. He lights his own cigarette. She waves the lighter away.
"Come on," says Howard, holding the flame. "Don't be afraid. Regulations are just words on paper." Dave looks at the smoke and coughs. He is wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. It is not impressing anyone, thinks Rainey.
She glances at her teachers, hesitates. "My thumb is burning," says Howard. She can hear what he doesn't say, too. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. She leans into the lighter and inhales.
"This is highly unorthodox," says Dave.
"Even artists go to college," says the English teacher, Zach Moreno, softly.
"By definition, the artist lives outside of society," says Howard, "and mirrors it to itself, whether he goes to college or not. I'm an adjunct, personally, and this is what I teach. Are you noticing any lack of intelligence in my daughter? You're not? Then—ladies, gentlemen—are we really here to discuss a few missed pages of homework for a girl who spends every afternoon in a museum?"
"She could go to art school," says Dave. "There's RISD. There's Cooper Union if she can get in. But she needs the grades."
"What are you grading?" Howard blows a stream of smoke past Dave's head. "I think you should ask yourselves this," he says. "Why does your art teacher ask a girl who can't stay out of the Met to rub an egg with a spoon?"
Friday night Rainey and Tina decide to get high. No occasion—just that Howard and Gordy are playing the Vanguard, with most of the acolytes in tow; just that two months into school Rainey is bored sick. The government is based on a tripartite system, and she's supposed to care about this why, exactly? She's in love with Studio Art; it's got Rapidograph pens, and Rainey can draw anything—Ophelia drowning, Icarus falling, Janis Joplin lusciously dead from smack, with that fabulous throat—but Mr. Knecht assigned some weird shit. They had to form eggs out of raw clay, let them dry for two weeks, and then polish them in an endless, circular motion with the backs of teaspoons.
School did not provide the teaspoons. Rainey took one of Lala's spoons, an English antique sterling spoon that shows a leaping hart. She knows the difference between a leaping hart, which she draws surrounded by William Morris–like leaves, and a leaping heart, which she draws interpretively. Sometimes she draws it so interpretively she has to tear the picture out of her notebook and rip it into little strips and throw them out in different trash cans on her way to school.
Excerpted from Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. Copyright © 2014 Dylan Landis. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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