This is an excerpt from The Pearls, available now from Elective Affinity.
March 17, 1923
HENRY CORN steps out of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, holding one tense arm around Marion Hammer as she glides down the white marble steps. Passing slowly before them is the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Despite all the raspberry phosphates and speakeasy so-called whiskey he’s spent months pouring down her throat, and the nights they’ve stayed up in ghastly, gas-lit Broadway diners confronting the fate of the League of Nations and what it means to be a modern man on the precipice of a godless death, and despite the sour aura of sexual passions unfulfilled that pervades her every movement, mood, and jagged, jet-black eyebrow lift, when it comes to the point, he can’t quite connect. She’s like a wall covered in trompe l’oeil windows.
An ocean of noise rolls over them as they fight their way to a spot behind three rows of spectators. A hundred thousand shifting feet form the obscurity of its deeps; ten thousand marching steps, the roll of its broader waves; and the murmur of countless voices—confounded by their very multitude—its spume. The reedy melody of “The Minstrel Boy,” when a piper in a Christmas-colored kilt strikes it up nearby, cuts through the noise like a seagull’s shriek.
Marion’s father, Felix, won’t even shake hands with a colleague in a business meeting, lest some contract or commitment be pinned to the gesture. But earlier this morning he put both hands on Henry’s shoulders and guided him to a seat at his marquetry breakfast table. When Marion went off to powder her nose, Henry stood up, too, without pausing as he claimed in false, florid detail that Eugene Onegin was his favorite book. It was the only title he could think of. And based, apparently, on nothing but this, this and Henry’s reciprocation of the liberally brandied glitter in his own eye, Hammer took Henry right back out of the breakfast room and into his mahogany-paneled study.
Hammer slipped into the closet for a moment, leaving Henry alone to rest his eyes on a pair of massive gold candlesticks standing beneath a tiny medieval portrait of St. Peter crucified upside-down. When Hammer reappeared with a jewelry box covered in royal-blue velvet, Henry asked himself how bargains ever get made in this world when both parties stand to lose their power at the moment of exchange. But looking into Hammer’s eyes, he saw an image made sharper and more vivid by reduction: a reflection of a reflection of the old man himself.
“Think about it,” Hammer said.
At the same time, Marion, having returned from the powder room to find the breakfast room empty, slipped into the butler’s pantry to look over the family silver. Inside the solid oak cabinet that filled the pantry nearly to its ceiling were oyster spoons; fish knives; bouillon spoons; ladles; hundreds of ordinary forks, knives, and spoons; and a giant platter engraved with the spurious family crest—a single lean raven with wings addorsed clutching a rose in its dexter claw. The platinum lighter with the emerald switch that Hammer’s friend Mr. Chodorow had given her had run out of propane and Marion didn’t know how to refill it, so she tossed it in with the solid gold cigar cutters and bubble blowers littering the cabinet floor and picked up a delicate brooch instead, a hammered-gold cameo of the rape of Danaë. Just before slamming home the heavy cabinet door, she noticed a silver-plated pistol with a handle of mother of pearl.
“Think about it,” Hammer said, back in the study.
But Henry didn’t think about it. He simply accepted the blue jewelry box and went back to the breakfast room, where Marion was standing under a cascade of yellow light pouring through yellow stained-glass windows, fastening a pearl-button cuff around her wrist. Henry snapped open the box, discovered a string of pearls, draped it around Marion’s neck, and fastened the clasp:
A mounted brigade of Fenians approaches with a hot wave of horse stink, and a ruddy patrolman standing in the gutter stretches out his arms and steps back. The tall, veal-colored Swede behind him takes his eight-year-old son by the shoulder and also steps back, bumping into three bohemians in the second row, two gents and a flapper, who also step back, bumping into a widowed mother in a rose beret who grabs her miserable daughter by the back of the neck and also steps back, landing on Marion’s foot. Marion yelps and stoops over, and as she does, her pearls slither back into Henry’s hand so eagerly that he can still feel their elven kiss against his palm after he’s stuffed the necklace into his jacket pocket and run halfway down the block.
He descends into the subway, shadowed closely by Marion, and reemerges into the hot sun and seedy confusion of Coney Island. On the boardwalk he finds Dot Cohen sitting on a pillar watching the sea.
“I’ve got something for you,” says Henry.
“My parents went to Elizabeth,” Dot replies.
Peering through the Cohens’ living room window not more than ten minutes later, Marion sees Henry and Dot enter the room, pull off their jackets, embrace, and fall to the sofa. They rock back and forth on disordered cushions, feet grazing and tapping the floor as they struggle and kiss.
In the flickering instants when their eyes open at all, Henry and Dot mostly look past each other. But their gazes do meet once or twice, and when they do, it’s with the humble fellowship of strangers at a scene of natural wonder. I didn’t expect it all to be so colorful, one bashful tourist might whisper to another. Henry stops to mutter a question, and then, because their embrace is already broken, he unbuttons his shirt. We came from different places but we both ended up here! Dot pulls off her dress. It’s a small world. Henry, his shoes. Yes, and a big one. He reaches over to unsnap her stockings and gently roll them down. Look, says Dot’s innocent face in the declining light, you can see the shadow of the peak down in the valley.
Marion presses her face against the glass.
Down in the valley, continues Dot’s kiss, they measure the mountain in its shadow. What more could we find by climbing? But Henry’s urgent breathing replies, It isn’t just a question of finding. It’s a question of finding and measuring ourselves against what we measure and find. Dot’s gasp gasps, That’s an excuse. And then, breaking apart again like chorus girls at intermission, they stand and begin pulling cushions off the sofa. If you think I think I’m really trying to leave the valley, says Henry’s furrowed concentration as he fails to work the pull-out bed, you don’t understand me at all. And Dot’s curved back and swinging breasts, as she smoothly pushes Henry aside and pulls out the bed herself, reply, If you really think I think your running around is for anyone’s sake but mine, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. Henry pulls off his shorts. We didn’t really come from different places.
No, he tells Dot, we understand each other perfectly, but her body replies, It’s not the same thing. Henry says, You said it yourself, there’s no place or time, there’s nowhere but here. But Dot’s circling hips demand, How could we meet if we weren’t apart? To which Henry’s unvoiced voice replies, How different could we ever have been? She answers, “How different” isn’t the point, and he says, “How different” means the same as “how far.” An impasse, a tussle, the answer in flesh. Okay, offers Dot with a final sigh, so we came from roughly the same place. Henry lets himself agree, Yes, roughly. They’re just about to get under the covers when the apartment door slams open.
A silver pistol snout leads Marion’s extended left arm into the room.
Henry and Dot flinch, imagining the sound of a shot.
“Take off your clothes!” screams Marion.
They get under the covers.
“Henry, I forgive you,” says Marion.
He understands that she means, Come here.
The strange thing is that he feels nothing. Oh, he’s afraid, of course. Arguably even chastened. But for the first time since Marion picked him up at the Central Park Carousel two months earlier, slipping her feverish body under his arm and adeptly piquing him with a casual double entendre, her acting hasn’t yanked him, as if with a series of fish hooks, into an emotional reaction of his own. Keeping his eyes on the pistol, Henry reaches for Dot’s hand and says, “No.”
“Henry!” Dot protests, pulling her hand away. But Henry misunderstands her, and he tilts back his head to jut out his jaw. You can shoot us, he tries to suggest with his posture, but you cannot split us. Marion takes a deep breath; the air shimmers around her, and the floor wobbles under the bed; and Henry and Dot learn that you cannot prepare yourself, in the face of death, for death.
Marion bursts into tears.
“Just looking for attention,” Henry whispers.
“I only have one bullet!” Marion shrieks.
She’s across the room, pressing the cold snubnose into Henry’s cheek and screaming, “Out of the bed!” They all three clatter into the radiator under the side window, and then Marion steps back, pistol outstretched, and pulls a pair of handcuffs out of her pocket.
“Why does she have handcuffs?” Dot exclaims.
The pistol jams up under Dot’s chin.
“I am not she,” growls Marion. “You’re she. I am I.” She notices the necklace. “Are those my pearls?”
“Get the fuck off me,” says Dot, pushing Marion back onto her ass. Henry’s heart beats in his mouth as the two women stare at each other, but then Marion chooses to continue.
“Put them on,” she says, tossing the cuffs to Henry. He snaps one onto his wrist and slips the other through the loops of the radiator.
“What are you doing?” says Dot.
“She has a gun,” Henry replies.
“Yes, but has she got a key?”
Henry snaps the other cuff around Dot’s wrist.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know you,” Dot says. “Don’t forget your fucking hat when you leave.”
“Henry prefers his girlfriends not to use vulgar language,” says Marion.
“So go tell his girlfriend.”
Marion turns away to fiddle with the record player.
“It’s not electric,” Dot snaps. “You have to wind it.”
There’s a Jelly Roll Morton disc already on the turntable. Marion lowers the needle, and they listen with brittle attention to the bouncy stride intro until Morton begins to sing, I killed that bitch / because she fucked my man, and Marion remembers what she was doing. She points the gun at Henry’s face.
“Do you love her?” she demands.
“Yes,” Henry says, and Dot whacks him in the forehead, knocking his head back into the radiator with a richly musical clonk.
“What is the matter with you?”
“I don’t care,” he says. “I’m not going to lie.”
Marion puts down her pistol, distracted again, and picks up Henry’s jacket from the floor.
“We barely know each other!” says Dot.
While Marion is emptying his jacket pockets onto the bed, Henry thinks about what he might mean. She takes a souvenir pocketknife from a socialist summer camp out of the left pocket, as well as a creased and greasy letter from Henry’s uncle Jake Lichter, decorated with long vertical cartoons of the satyrs and dybbuks he plays pinochle with at his madhouse upstate; a gold eagle palmed from a side table in Mr. Hammer’s walk-in humidor; a much-corrected list, in ink pencil on paper napkin, of the best cafeterias in Manhattan from which to steal coffee; another smudged list, this one of the local gangsters who offered after Henry’s father’s death to “take care of him,” whatever that might mean; a wad of silver certificates that Marion slipped into the jacket herself the other day, now rolled up tight and wrapped in three red rubber bands; two French prophylactics in brown paper covers; a fistful of lint; and a couple of mints. In the right pocket is an empty, royal-blue velvet box with gold hinges.
“I know that I will love you,” Henry says.
Marion puts Henry’s papers and money away in her Japanese deer-leather clutch, wipes her nose on her arm, sniffles, and looks around the room for the hostages’ shoes. She gathers them all together into a string bag she finds on the bookshelf and drops the bag by the door. Then she picks up the pistol again and turns back to face her prisoners, feet in third position, hips cocked, back arched, weapon displayed as if for an amphitheatre.
“When?” replies Dot. “After she kills you?”
The Jelly Roll Morton record ends and the machine switches itself off:
“I have just realized,” says Marion, speaking anglified American stage English. “We are a metaphor for the human condition.”
She points her silver pistol at the inside corner of Dot’s left eye.
“Was it my fault?” she intones. “An avoidable error on my part, something that could have averted bitter tragedy misplayed or left undone? The notion is intolerable!”
She moves her whole arm from the shoulder to point at the inside corner of Henry’s right eye.
“Or else,” she continues, “was there in fact nothing I could have done, no way to change my fate? Is fortune’s swift fall impossible to predict and, so far as human wit may ever compass, fully meaningless in its landing?” Marion pauses. “Equally intolerable!” she exclaims.
She puts her fists, left one still clutching the pistol, on her hips. “Is our only real choice, then, simply whether or not to face a second unendurable choice?”
She extends her arm, bends the elbow, and rests the nose of the pistol against her own forehead. “Into the temple,” she growls, “the holy of holies from whence there is no return.”
Abruptly she drops her pose and her arm, and looks at Henry with innocent enthusiasm. Her silly purple hat has fallen off, her fine black hair is clipped up with the delicate golden brooch of Danaë in her tower of bronze, her cheeks are like powdered marble, her eyebrows sable, her eyes like searchlights.
“No, Henry?” she says. Even Dot feels warily the force of Marion’s charm. “Don’t you think this gets right to the heart of what it means to be a civilized man?”
Henry clears his throat.
“I think the most civilized thing, Marion,” he says, “would be not to shoot anyone.”
“God damn it,” Marion spits back from a sudden mad animal face, “you knock-nosed piece of Hebrew gutter-trash shit, you’re always missing the point. You’re always taking my metaphors literally and reading metaphors into simple declarations. You can’t just mix and match like that. It doesn’t work like that. As a metaphor, as a symbol, as a psychological motif, having two targets and one bullet means having an undecidable choice. And isn’t that interesting? That’s really all I’m saying, Henry. Don’t you find that interesting?”
“Okay,” says Henry, “but—”
“But as a practical question it’s completely different! As a practical question, if I have only one bullet and two people who’ve wronged me equally, all I have to do is bludgeon the girl in the face till everyone’s covered in blood, put the bullet in your head, and leave her with the empty gun. You’re already chained to the radiator, and who in the world is going to believe anything she says about anything by the time your blood has seeped into the basement and I’m at home in my bath?”
The room fell silent. Marion held her position, and Dot and Henry froze, too, staring at Marion’s opaque eyes as the faint sound of crashing waves and yelling voices drifted in from the beach.
Will Heinrich was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Japan. His novel The King’s Evil, published by Scribner in 2003, won a PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship in 2004, and he currently writes about art for The New York Times.