Although she didn't see him arrive, Katherine knew Farley was there when she saw the Rothko hanging crookedly on the wall. She politely excused herself from a conversation with a plump woman whose tongue was chasing a straw around the rim of a cocktail glass. She stalked slowly through the crowd with a practiced air of grace. As the guests parted for her, the wives who did not know her personally smiled polite grimaces while watching their husbands out of the corners of their eyes. The husbands were intent on making eye contact with Katherine, so as not to be accused of leering. They all took a hasty sip of their drinks before they turned back to the bristling women on their arms. The women who knew her knew better than to bother with jealousy of their husbands' affection. These women were careful to smile sweetly at Katherine, but they all self-consciously raised their hands to their necks, covering their necklaces. Some of them chose to shade an earring or hide a watch.
They knew Katherine was a private consultant currently employed by Giorgio and Weiss Appraisals. They hired her to handle their more delicate cases that required accurate but informal appraisals of valuable items whose owners were uncooperative. Sometimes a woman would want to quietly determine the value of her husband's estate before a divorce. Other times, she was hired to visit politicians too powerful to risk insulting. Once, she had even been employed by an infamous Mafioso concerned about a client's reliability. She had an unnerving ability to assess an item's value in a glance, and because of her family name and the fact that her husband was the head partner of Edwards, Thomas, and Manley, one of the most reputable law firms in the nation, she was a welcomed guest at any affair.
Katherine didn't see Farley anywhere in the room, but all of the paintings were hanging slightly crooked yet perfectly parallel, like the manicured wake of a large ship slicing through a calm sea. Like the sea, she denied his presence, and paused to straighten each painting as she slowly followed his path. The paintings pointed toward the East Wing, which had been left dark to discourage guests from exploring the mansion. She walked down the hallway, grateful that Farley had enough sense not to visit the cigar room where her husband was doubtless leaning casually before the mantle, his arm resting in front of his row of sporting trophies. She knew none of them were genuine gold.
Blake Edwards was leaning against the mantle, gesturing with a cigar while animatedly telling his nodding companion how he had shot a grizzly through the eye with an arrow. It was one of the few true stories that he told, and he had practiced reciting it so many times, his mind could wander as he spoke. As he described the charge of the enraged bear, Edwards was wondering why his wife hadn't checked in on him yet. Whenever they were entertaining, she would visit the cigar room promptly at ten thirty. She would walk right over to him and kiss him on the cheek, and then she would help herself to a thin, black, Maduro cigar and mingle with the gentleman of merit who had the privilege of being invited to the cigar room. But it was ten thirty, and she wasn't there.
As he focused again on his story, the grizzly had fallen, and he had slit its throat to bleed it before it before it died. That was the end.
A waiter approached Blake's audience, and offered another Scotch. Blake took advantage of his companion's distraction to reach into his pocket for his Blackberry. "10:30 - Katherine visits." He scrolled down. "11:00 - speech to guests." He frowned as he checked his notes. He had wanted to review some of the anecdotes with Katherine before the speech. Blake turned back to his young gentleman, who was wondering about the black powder rifle sharp shooting trophy. Katherine had actually won the trophy, but she had given it to him in exchange for his second place medal. He didn't tell that story.
The story he didn't tell was also the story of how he had met Katherine. When people asked, he told them that they had met on a gondola in Switzerland, but really it was at the Hartford Country Isaac Walton League in Western Maryland. The Hartford County Chapter hosted the national competition for black powder rifles every year. Blake had only purchased his rifle two days before the event, but he had fired 300 shots before the gray dawn of the competition. But in the last round, a woman in frayed jeans and a white linen shirt had bested him.
Katherine had been intrigued by the confident lawyer with the brand new rifle and the fake Rolex. He was tall, and his hair had clearly been intentionally mussed up earlier that morning to give the impression that he was not concerned with personal grooming. He was.
His skin was pale and entirely without scars. His face was distinguished and angular, and Katherine liked his jaw line.
Later that evening, Blake would excuse himself from their dinner to take a phone call. He would leave his Blackberry on the table, and before he returned, Katherine would have learned how he was planning on spending the next three weeks, that he was about to become the head partner of his law firm, and that he was going to find a wife within the month. She crossed off the last item on his checklist. Katherine knew she had found a man constant and predictable enough to live with without too much effort. She was smiling when he returned to the table.
They were married a month later.
Farley stood in front of the bay window on the far wall of the living room. He had left the lights out and was standing with one arm behind his back as he sipped his eggnog. He wanted to look as dignified as possible. Snow was falling lightly; dusting the windswept, ice covered yard and clinging to the frosted windows. He should have noticed the thin line of milk clinging to his upper lip, but he was staring through his reflection at the sky thick with snow. The dense, opaque clouds were comforting. The idea of infinite space was unsettling to Farley. He was a man of limited imagination, and blue skies and the ocean terrified him. So did Katherine.
He didn't hear her quietly fixing the paintings in the room. She stood there, watching him, mildly annoyed by his blatant vulnerability. He didn't look thirty-five. His hair was cropped short, the way it had been his entire life, and although he parted it carefully every morning and slicked his hair back, he could never tame his cowlick. It seemed to be waiting for some maternal force to swoop down with a spit-moistened thumb to press it flat against his skull. He was self-conscious and vain, and was often accused of taking himself and life too seriously. He was wearing his black suit, which she knew he reserved for situations of gravity: attending funerals, New Year's Eve parties, and visiting her.
On New Year's Eve three years ago, Katherine politely excused herself from the ball because she felt faint, blaming her tailor for fitting her dress too tight, but really she felt suffocated by the imitation jewelry and forced levity of the festivities. She also knew that Auld Lang Sine would be sung soon, and she had never been able to tolerate that song. Katherine walked to the hotel bar, vaguely entertaining the possibility of having an affair before midnight, but when she saw Farley sitting at the end of the bar, she decided to settle on having a few cigarettes and a Manhattan. The only truly dependable men in her life had always been bartenders.
Farley went to the Ritz Carlton every New Year's Eve in his black suit to sit at the end of the bar to smoke a pack of imported cigarettes bought especially for the occasion, to slowly sip bourbon until it tasted sweet, and in honor of the fast approaching New Year, to contemplate infinite possibilities and suicide. Katherine sat down, and when Farley turned toward her, he had flicked his cigarette over his drink instead of his ashtray. She didn't say anything, and five minutes later, when he would finish the rest of the bourbon in a single, dramatic gulp, he wouldn't realize that he had just swallowed ashes.
He looked at the woman to his left and immediately thought of Henry V. He knew she was special because he preferred Richard II, especially on New Year's Eve.
"You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate."
She stared at him, somehow unsurprised, and did not bother insisting on being called Katherine instead. She just looked at him. Her eyes made him feel small and insignificant, seeing in a glance that this was his only suit, that he could only afford imported cigarettes and well-aged bourbon once a year, and that he would never be capable of suicide. Her eyes were, of course, blue.
"May I?" she asked, and she helped herself to a cigarette, and waited patiently as he fumbled with his lighter. She took one long drag and began pulling out the pins that held her hair in a severe bun. The skin on her forehead relaxed, finally released from tension. Faint crow's feet wrinkled the make-up at the corner of her eyes.
In that single gesture, Farley felt he knew her. He felt he knew her entire life - her misery, her emptiness. He saw her jaded, married to a wealthy husband and miserably seeking solace in hotel bars to escape the shallow world that slowly suffocated her like the weight of water at the bottom of the ocean. He felt the paradox of this metaphor was profound, and he finished his whiskey, thanked her, and took a cab home to finally finish writing his book.
She wasn't surprised when he left, either.
She helped herself to another cigarette from the pack he left on the counter before she returned to the party. Farley mailed her his book six months later. They would meet again only twice. Once when Katherine visited his home, and once at her Christmas party, almost three years later. And in all the time she knew him, Farley Burges would never surprise her.
The package was addressed to "Miss Katherine Edwards," but Blake accepted it from the postman, and he folded it inside his morning paper and brought them both to his breakfast table. Katherine had gone out early that morning for a hard ride on her new thoroughbred, so she wasn't aware of the book's arrival.
Blake read the front page and methodically carved his steak in even pieces before chewing each bite seven times. He had a two eggs over-easy and a steak medium well with a glass of fresh-squeezed, pulp-free orange juice every morning. If it were a weekday, he would dine at six and be at the office by seven-thirty, but it was a Saturday, and he breakfasted at eight.
At nine he would read a book, and at ten he would lift weights on the patio.
He always read the morning paper with a red pen, and he would grade each article he read, underlining interesting thoughts and crossing out poorly-phrased sentences or unfounded statements. Katherine had never asked Blake why he did this. It was because his mother had been a teacher, and he had been raised in the presence of red-pens. He loved the finality of their bleeding judgment. After finishing the paper, he slit open the package addressed to Katherine with his hunting knife, which he always carried on his belt when he was home. It was almost nine o'clock.
When Katherine returned from her ride at ten-thirty, she found her husband heavily perspiring on the patio and Farley's book on the table. She poured herself a glass of juice and carried the book upstairs and drew a bath. On the second page, she read: "Dedicated to Mrs. Katherine Edwards, the only woman I have ever loved." Beneath it was scrawled "Mildly underwhelming and overwrought. Good effort, but too melodramatic. B -"
She agreed with Blake's assessment after she finished the book, but she still resented his red pen. That afternoon, she would drive to Farley's house. She never spoke to Blake about the book.
Farley lived in a small ranch house cut into a hillside. He had taken great pains to make it seem intentionally rustic instead of just run down. He had repainted the walls and scratched the fresh coat with a wire brush and sanded patches down to grain, so that it looked like the tastefully antiquated summer home of a wealthy businessman. As Katherine walked up to the door, she smiled, thinking that Blake would have liked the house.
After she knocked, it took Farley a minute to answer the door. He needed a minute to compose himself after reading the first reviews of his book.
She walked in without saying hello and didn't comment on his red eyes.
"Did you get the book?" Farley asked.
He knew she had, that was why she was standing in his living room staring at his bookshelf, but he wasn't patient enough to wait for the subject to materialize naturally.
"Yes, but I didn't read it. My husband did." Katherine lied. "I saw that you dedicated it to me though. I'm flattered."
And she was flattered. She was annoyed and embarrassed, but she was also a bit flattered.
"What was it about?" she asked.
"It wasn't just for you," Farley said. "It was about you."
"What is this?" Katherine interrupted. She was staring at the ivory tooth. It was the pale tooth of a sperm whale, bleached white with age and sunlight. It had a sinister arc that culminated in a dull point worn smooth by the bodies of victims. The stark black ink lines of an etched mermaid bled like tattooed scars into the white bone. Sometimes when Farley stared at her, he imagined she spoke to him, but she would only recite the words carved into the rock that served as her perch as she basked in the light and the air above the sea with her tail dipped in the water below:
Death to the Living
Long life to the killers
Success to the sailor's wives
And greasy luck to the whalers.
"That's a scrimshaw," Farley replied, disappointed. "It was carved by Frederick Merick when sailed on the Susan, a whaler out of Boston from 1826 to 1829. He's the greatest Scrimshaw artist in American history. There are only nineteen other teeth. My ancestor was a shipmate of Merick's. It's been in my family ever since."
He couldn't explain why, but he found himself telling Katherine, "It's worth forty-thousand dollars."
He blushed and busied himself making coffee, leaving Katherine alone in front of the bookshelf.
When Katherine saw the scrimshaw, she had known what it was. She just didn't know if Farley knew that it was a fake. Farley's older brother had switched the scrimshaw when he had visited Farley for Christmas ten years earlier. He was badly in debt. Farley would never learn that his greatest and only treasure was worthless.
"In what way was your story about me?" she asked, and Farley accepted the change of subject without question.
"It was about a woman. She was very poor, but she had a small, jade comb that her father had given her mother. She lived with her brother, and one night, at a tavern, he was stabbed in a brawl. She couldn't pay the rent, and she had to sell the comb." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "The man who always loved her traveled the world in search of the comb, but when he finally found it, it was broken."
"So am I the sister or the comb?"
"You're the sister, of course. The comb is a symbol for passion and love."
Katherine looked at the scrimshaw and thought about the story and realized Farley had written most of his book before he met her. She also knew that Farley was every important character in his book; he was the sister, the sailor, and the brother. Katherine was the thug with the knife in the tavern, but Farley didn't know that.
"Why?" she asked. "Why did there need to be passion and love?"
"Because people need to love something," Farley answered quietly.
He poured her coffee, and they sat at his table for hours sipping quietly, smoking Marlboros, and avoiding the topic of love. He learned that she was neurotic, self-conscious and vain, and that she demanded order in her life. When she left, Farley understood that it would be years before he saw her again.
Katherine slid a vase back to the center of the end table by the sofa so that Farley would hear the sound. He didn't turn from the bay window. He waited until she walked up behind him because he wanted to see her eyes reflected in the window. He wanted to stare through her eyes into her thoughts and the snow falling on the other side of the glass.
"In a recent study, scientists discovered that snowflakes can be identical to one another. Nothing is unique, Farley."
"Are you saying I'm not special?" he asked, not realizing she was talking about herself.
"No. And that's not the point."
He couldn't tell what she was thinking. The wind whistled past the window. He began to recite the quotation he usually reserved for New Year's.
"Any man that but man is, with nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased, with being nothing. Is that what you meant?"
Katherine shook her head.
"Leave Richard II out of this." She sighed, and asked, "Why are you here?"
The lights came on in the room. Blake was standing in the doorway, his finger resting on the switch. He was staring intently at his Blackberry.
"Katherine, it's almost eleven."
arley didn't say a word. He watched Katherine turn away from him. He wanted to tell her why he had come. He wanted to tell Blake why he had come. But Katherine already knew, and Blake didn't care. Blake's left hand came to rest on the small of Katherine's back as he offered his right to Farley.
"Blake Edwards. And you are?"
Farley had not wanted to shake Blake's hand, but he did.
"The writer. Of course. Well, it was nice to finally meet you. Katherine, would you join me in the parlor?" he asked, and steered her away from the window with the faintest pressure against her back.
They both turned, leaving Farley standing there, speechless.
With a snarl, he slapped the vase on the table with the back of his hand. It flipped twice before it hit the floor. Blake and Katherine stopped and walked quickly back to him, alarmed.
"I broke the vase," Farley said.
"No you didn't, Farley. It's not even cracked," she said as she stooped to pick it up and set it back on the table. "It's all right. Don't worry about it. Accidents like these happen all the time."
Blake didn't notice that Farley hadn't apologized.
"Think nothing of it," he said. "He seems a bit distraught, dear. Perhaps Nathaniel could drive him home?"
Farley apologized then in spite of himself.
"Yes," she agreed. "In fact, I'll ride with him."
As the driver waited in the car, Katherine followed Farley into his house. Farley knew that everything had gone wrong.
"I did it on purpose," he said as he unlocked the door.
He took her coat and hung it on a hook. Then he knelt and began building a fire. Katherine walked over to the bookshelf.
"I did it for you," he said.
He lit a match and held it under the newspaper. It curled before the flames. Farley brushed the soot off of his hands and stood next to Katherine.
"No, Farley. You did it because you almost realized something awful."
"That you'll never love me?"
"No. You always knew that."
"That you never loved me." She walked around him and sat down on the couch. She crossed her legs gracefully beneath her slim dress.
"That can't be true. I know that I love you. That's all I know," he said, and he crossed the room and kneeled in front of her.
"Farley, you don't know anything," she whispered without resentment.
She sat in the flickering light of the growing fire, her skin golden in the amber glow. He hugged her legs and laid his head sideways in her lap. She didn't look at him as she began to run her fingers through his hair. He stared at the plastic scrimshaw on the shelf, and all he could think about was death to the living, long life to the killers, and the terrifying possibilities of the sea. Katherine began to sing softly, but he didn't recognize the song.
He looked up at her, his eyes imploring, but she was beyond him. She was beyond everyone and everything. Farley finally asked what no one had thought to ask before.
"Who are you?"
Katherine smiled, and continued singing.
There didn't seem to be any words.