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Minnemingo Review

Curtains                                                                                                         Gretchen Rockwell

       Sipping from the glass of wine she had just poured for him, the woman let his words settle into the chasm of silence between them. The glass was elegantly crafted, delicate diamond facets and lacy patterns circling its fine rim. She lifted it to the light as she swallowed slowly, letting the burgundy flickers dance over her features as she spoke.
       “Do you remember opening these on our wedding day?” she asked, and the well-dressed man standing behind her heaved an exasperated sigh. She did not let him speak, however, reminiscing, “You looked so handsome in your coat and tails, and everyone was admiring my dress . . . So many well-wishers, so many blessings.” Her face shuttered and she set the crystal goblet down hard on the cherry end table, next to the fine decanter filled with the remaining red wine. “They’d all be very surprised to see us now, I’m sure. Don’t you think, sweetheart?”
       The man clenched his fists, his cuffs riding up to expose a cheap wristwatch that did not match the silver cuff links in his jacket sleeves. “Clara—”
       “Don’t ‘Clara’ me!” she snapped, whirling on him as if he were a snake about to strike. “What more was I supposed to do for you, George? For fifteen years I’ve helped to cook your meals, clean your house, iron your suits—I’ve stood by you in your work, and I’ve been everything a perfect little wife should be, even when you wouldn’t give me the children I wanted. I’ve never complained. And now you’re deciding to leave me for a girl,” she spluttered in her fury, “nearly half your age? And you think somehow I should be happy about this decision of yours? Where does it leave me, you philandering bastard?” A few curls were askew, tilting over her furious features and threatening to catch in her immaculate lipstick.
       He reached out almost tenderly as if to brush them aside, his face placating as he said, “Now, Clara,” in a somewhat patronizing tone, but she shook her head decisively.
       “Not this time, George. This time, you can’t beg, or buy, or force my forgiveness. I cannot and will not condone this little affaire of yours—and if you insist on continuing it I will have no choice but to . . . take steps to prevent it.” This last was delivered with a faint smile.
       His eyes narrowed, and his rather handsome, though lined face went from pleasant to menacing in a matter of seconds. “You wouldn’t.”
       “Try and stop me,” she said coolly, chin jutting out as she crossed her arms, a perfect picture: her hair pulled back into a controlled bun, wearing a silk shirtwaist and woolen brown skirt, her makeup perfect; she was only thirty-five or so and quite beautiful, and five to ten years separated her from her husband. The hard edges now forming up her face did not soften as she confronted her older husband: five inches taller and a bit gray around the temples, dressed in a sharp suit and a tie that had been pulled loose in frustration over the course of their conversation. His powerful fingertips fiddled with the thick watch chain pinned to his waistcoat and disappearing into his left pocket; he glared at her defiant face, but neither of them backed down.
       Unbeknownst to either of them, an elderly woman dressed in black had appeared in the study door near George’s bookshelves, feather duster and polishing cloth grasped tightly in over-competent fingers. Her eyes moved between the couple, and she shook her hoary, white-capped head as she watched the standoff, though it was unclear for which one she felt disapproval.
       George finally hissed quietly, running a strong hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, and broke their locked stares. “Well, then,” he said, slowly, walking over to the table to pour himself a glass of wine, since she had taken his. As he downed the glass in a few quick swallows, the tension left his shoulders to coil through the rest of his body, as if about to spring. “If that’s the way you’re going to be about it, I suppose I really don’t have a choice, do I?” His voice was calm, but there was an underlying menace in it that had Clara turning away from him. Her wedding ring flashed in the soft light of the drawing room as she took two wary backward steps.
       “George . . .” Her voice shook as she said her husband’s name, although she seemed to instantly regret it.
       He turned on her in a shockingly fast motion, and his smile was all teeth as he toyed with the wine glass, suddenly tiny and fragile in his large hand. “Yes, dear?”
       Before she could speak, the doorbell rang from another room. Both of them turned instantly towards the source of the noise. The elderly housekeeper turned away and vanished into the shadows. Voices were heard from outside the room: the staid tones of their butler, and a younger, dynamic voice answering him. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to get my car out of the ditch till morning. Not with all that rain . . .”
       The butler came through the hall first, nodding slightly to the couple, who both appeared relaxed and pleasant, as if nothing had happened a few moments before. He ushered in a young man in his mid-thirties who was dressed nicely, if not expensively, and completely drenched. The change in Clara’s posture was evident; she straightened slightly. Her husband watched her coolly from his leisurely sprawl in the armchair, a dark smile tugging at his lips.
       “Good heavens!” Clara said. “It must be raining cats and dogs out there!” Behind her, George’s eyebrow lifted languidly, and his smile deepened. “I’m Clara Finch, and this is my husband George.” She grimaced as she crossed the room to help him out of his coat, continuing, “I heard what you were saying in the hall—sound carries around this old house—and you are welcome to spend the night here until your car is able to be retrieved. I don’t think anyone will be able to get it out tonight. Not in this storm.” She handed the soaked coat to the butler, who took it and impassively retired from the room.
       Their guest protested. “No, I really couldn’t, Mrs. Finch. I don’t want to impose or be a burden . . .” His eyes fell on George and stayed there for a long moment. George made no move to get up, and the man made no move to attempt to shake his hand. The man appeared to come to some kind of decision. “I suppose,” he said, eyes finally returning to Clara, “that it would be rude to ignore your generous hospitality. One night only, though, Mrs. Finch, I insist.” He smiled at her. “My name is Julian Clark, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”
       “Well, let’s get you out of those cold things, and then we can get on to the main event,” Clara said, her smile smoky and directed solely at Julian. She froze as if what she had just done had sunk in, her face going slightly blank. In the armchair, George let out an explosive cough. Julian had choked a little bit at her words and obvious smile, and seemed to be fighting a cough much like George’s.

       Clara gaped like a fish at the two of them for a moment, soundlessly, before bursting out into giggles. At her laughter, the other two men gave in: George snickered from his chair and Julian gave a shout of laughter.
“Dammit!” Clara finally said, straightening, hands on her hips, although the smile was still lighting her face. “Shut up, guys! How the hell am I supposed to keep a straight face if I muff it and you two do that!” There was a general burst of laughter, and the butler and housekeeper entered, grinning. Clara gave them a dirty look too, and the older woman cackled, “On to the main event . . . oh, that’s a keeper.” The housekeeper untied the cap’s strings from under her chin and pulled off her hair, revealing a mussed, dark pixie cut that grazed her makeup-caked cheekbones.
        Clara put her face in her hands, carefully, so she wouldn’t ruin her makeup, and groaned. “All right, all right. I get it.” She sighed deeply, her face growing tight as the mirth faded away. The lights in the room flipped, growing a little bit brighter and losing their rosy hue, and an burly man in his fifties entered the room as he began rolling up his sleeves to the elbows, his face tense and furious.
        “All right, everybody, break it up! We’re on tomorrow, and I need to be convinced that if Mel does somehow screw up the line there that you fellows aren’t going to stop the show.” The girl ducked her head apologetically, face fighting to not crumple, and the director patted her shoulder. “You’re doing fine, hon. I know this is a lot of pressure for you. At the moment, I’m more worried about them,” he said, giving a dour look at “George” and “Julian”: the former had pulled off his mustache and the latter was grumbling about his wet clothing. Mel sighed, grimacing. They, at least, had done this kind of thing before. They could afford to fool around without worrying about their ability, and whether their inexperience would cause the show to tumble apart around their ears if they made a mistake.
       “All right!” the director shouted, causing Mel to wince. She was still not quite used to his barked commands, especially when they came from so close to her ear. “Start again, from this scene, and I want you two to be
mature this time. You’re actors; improvise. Oh, and lose the watch, Jason.”
        The director stepped back, off the set, clapping his hands. As Mel watched, shoulders rigid and breathing labored, the butler and housekeeper vanished through their respective doors, the woman pulling her wig back on and tying the cap, grimacing as a drop of sweat blurred one of her penciled wrinkles. The blonde boy hustled offstage, while the dark-haired one with gray brushed on his hair slipped off his wristwatch and put it in his right pocket, cracking his neck. Mel closed her eyes, exhaling slowly. Then, taking a deep breath, lifting her head and rolling her shoulders back, Clara haughtily stepped onto the stage. From offstage, the voice commanded, “Ready . . . go!” She took another deep breath, back rigid and proud, and poured her husband a glass of wine.