Even in the unsentimental world of agents Sandy Muynck was thought of as hard. Hard and good. Smooth quick mind, charm as required, elephant’s memory. From Brooklyn to Manhattan to the southern California estate that had belonged only to major movie stars since the forties stretched a trail of writers, producers, actors, directors and lawyers who had learned not underestimate the little dark-haired woman from nowhere who took a law degree while supporting the charming, useless upscale husband who eventually and conveniently drove his restored 1939 Packard into the gorge that swept breathlessly down to the Pacific on the private road into the compound of which her estate was part. Alcoholic writers showed up sober for Sandy, filthy-mouth producers put a sock in it for her, action heroes on strong drugs were overcome by civility in her cool presence. Her behavior was so purposeful and assured that a kind of mythic power had attached itself to her, and the husband’s spectacular death in the flying Packard only enhanced this. It was said that she had no friends, but she was also known to have a fine sense of loyalty, and never failed to appreciate this quality in others, as long as they weren’t stupid or indiscreet. Boring she had learned to tolerate. At forty-five she looked barely thirty, and she was healthy as people can be healthy when they love their work, eat well and enjoy using their bodies. She could dance for hours, wear out partners the way she wore down negotiators, always with a half smile ready to form on her unlined oval face.
In the early nineties, newly arrived in California, she came to understand the business significance of fine cuisine in entertainment. The husband had been extremely good in the kitchen, and would hire attractive assistants whom he invariably bedded. When she came to accept that, he had lost hope and driven the enormous old newly-restored 1939 Packard eight convertible into the gorge full-bore, dead sober. The step program had worked, strictly speaking, but without the buffering effects of a fifth of Jamesons each day much had come into view for him. And while his cooking had distinctly been a feature of their entertaining, it had been as much the novelty of a Harvard man doing this for his publicly educated wife that made their dinners special. After his death came the month of seclusion, followed by a period when she read a lot and had no guests, and it would be unfairly inaccurate to say she was not deeply affected by his loss. But as she ignored her work and from a distance watched her business gently decline in the caretaking of assistants, she knew that sooner rather than later she would have to come up with something. Because people would soon be saying that it had been too much for her, that she just might be a bit past it. And now, of all times, a bitter and devouring sexuality engulfed Sandy Muynck, angering and confusing her. She had taken her well-bred, casual, sensual husband too much for granted. She knew Augustus been a find and that there wouldn’t be another like him. Why he’d stopped drinking was beyond her; his liver had been fine, and he’d been a well-coordinated, expansive, socially-inclined drinker.
She sat in her sunglasses and black kimono under a lime green umbrella on the long white balcony overlooking the lap pool and the gorge beyond and thought about New York’s hellish summer of ’88, much of it spent in the city’s fetid humidity for business reasons. It had driven her west, which had been fine, it had worked. But now what? In the blink of an eye she went from being distinctly vulnerable to feeling betrayed. Not many people had betrayed Sandy Muynck in her adult life, and they’d all paid for it. Gus was beyond retribution, but in the sunny angry morning she met with herself and decided on her new needs. A lover and a chef. Money would be no object with a good chef, and the lover would have to be invisible at least until Thanksgiving.
Had it been the cats? A new thought. Grief brought strange ones. He’d been a cat lover, but the licentious abandon she so enjoyed in her two Burmese had irritated him. Hardly anything did, but Kibosh and Kebab had got under his skin. It was after they tore up the Matisse that he began to change. He hadn’t bothered to put his little asset management boutique back together after the Bush recession, and then came the Matisse, which was a legitimate catastrophe of course, not to mention one of the very few possessions he valued other than his cars. Well, they’d survived him. They still sat in the sun with her at breakfast each morning as they had since she bought the place, and now that Gus was gone she realized how much they meant to her. It was primal. They were winners like herself, tough, elegant, practical. And loyal, completely devoted. With their competitor gone they could now sleep with her, as they’d always wanted.
It was three months since the funeral. As the cats sunned themselves she saw that she could not work, swim, watch another video, read another book, or even think if she did not end her mourning. It would deepen further, drive her inward and slowly paralyze her if she did not break out of it directly. (That was one of his words, directly. Like a Brit.) She decided to drop in on Elaine Reilly, who also lived in the compound. Elaine would be glad to understand that Sandy Muynck needed a couple of drinks and a joke or two. She was lucky to be in the neighborhood at all, newly arrived and needing business, in no position to be judgmental. Her husband Ken was a studly stuntman from Kansas who doubled as a Steadicam operator, useless in gaining clients for her law practice, but Elaine was a happy person, for an attorney. Elaine it was. Catch her by surprise.
Sandy picked up the phone and told her maid and handyman respectively that she’d be going out, and to make sure the Ford wasn’t dusty inside. The Ford was another of the husband’s automotive projects, an old woody-wagon that seemed to create dust on its own. It lived next to a Cord that had not run since WWII and a Bugatti she had bought him for his final birthday and which she was rather afraid of. He’d begun renting the cars to directors, apparently happier with this little business than managing people’s money. Had that been a clue?
Make it history, she thought. Now. Half an hour later she was off down the long hill to Elaine’s dwarf chateau to start this process with Irish coffees, pastry (plump pink Elaine ate a lot) and jokes. Filthy ones, with champagne. Penis jokes especially. And Black jokes. No Jewish jokes. The room they sat in had French doors and was very cozy, like Elaine, but it was very yellow. Yellow with too much red in it. Did death make you more color-sensitive?
– It was good to see you coming up the drive, hon, said Elaine with feeling, her corner of the undistinguished brown velvet couch sagging like an old shoe: Gus was a great guy, so supportive, and I was afraid, you know . . . . that you’d just kind of –
– Collapse? Fuck collapse, Elaine. That’s over. I need a chef.
A look came over Elaine’s face, a look that said she knew something that might be useful to her newly closer friend Sandy, who saw the change in her expression and felt a bit more alive. What a thing Gus Muynck had done to her! She had played it as fair as she knew how. Suicide was shitty, there was no better word. As her mind found itself she allowed herself certain thoughts that had been held in abeyance – revenge? For what? How?
– So what is it, Elaine? What do you know?
– In a minute. Come on outside with me.
Then the two of them left the godawful yellow room for the back garden, where a young Mexican gardener stood in what looked like a Chicano version of standing at attention. While Sandy walked around admiring the garden, which was the best thing about the place, the other two spoke in Spanish for a couple of minutes, after which the women returned to the yellow room.
– Sorry about the native tongue, we all learn it out here. His English like sucks. But he’s a good gardener and anyhow he has friend, a chef who came out here for God knows who and got stranded, and now he’s like number three man at Albertine’s but no chance to advance, and he prefers private work. Very good manners, doesn’t shout or fart or anything.
The chef’s name was Armand and he was French, on the young side, barely thirty if that. He arrived the next morning in a taxi with Elaine, wearing a French-looking brown-green jacket and crisp jeans, and he knew exactly how a qualified young supplicant should walk into a great room. It was right from the start. He was immediately delighted with his sense of her standards, the excellent kitchen, the big room and bath he would have to himself, and the cars, and, ultimately, with her generous offer. None of which he could communicate in words, Armand being a deaf mute. But there was no awkwardness, and he had found a home. He let this be known with respect, with deferent eyes, and through small, disciplined European nods and smiles. He was an accomplished lip-reader and Sandy remembered her French; she rarely forgot anything she wanted to remember. Notes when necessary would be fine with both of them. He stayed the night, shopped extensively the following day, and prepared his first dinner that night. Dinner for four, including a plump vegetarian novelist of developing reputation, Elaine, and Fred the Stuntman. A mushroom soufflé that gave the evening wings. The writer was from the South, burned out on bad-mannered New York business lunches, and he saw himself reentering the civilized world. He agreed to write a screenplay for which the star had demanded a name-brand writer.
– You, Phil. He asked for you.
A lie given substance by sunset and soufflé. Sandy and Elaine discussed it in some detail the next day on the phone. Telephone-chummy was all right with Sandy, and Armand was an important acquisition. She would repay the favor, but physical proximity could be overdone, as could drinking, which Elaine and Fred strongly favored.
– He is quite marvelous, Elaine. Like very marvelous.
This is going to jump-start my life. He reminds me of Julian Sorel.
– Do I know him?
Mental quickness was one of Sandy’s strengths and she could strike like a cobra, but she was so pleased with Elaine’s performance that she completely checked several sarcastic responses, gently suggesting that Ellen read The Red And The Black. Then she told a dirty Stendhal story, to redirect the conversation.
– I have to read incessantly, she finished, almost apologetically, though in fact reading was her passion.
– Isn’t he dishy? Armand? After eight years of weight-room-Ken anyone young and lithe gets me wet.
– Oh Elaine, Ken’s a doll.
Elaine’s take on this was just slightly delayed, then explosive, requiring Kleenex.
– I haven’t laughed so hard . . . . Jesus, I’m bleeding from the ears, Sandy!
She returned to the dishiness of Armand.
– Isn’t he ever, replied Sandy Muynck: Quiet, too. (another Elaine guffaw.) But he’ll be much too valuable, it’s out of the question. Business and pleasure and so forth. Carlos is nifty too, but I’ll bet you’re not spending your afternoons with him.
– Carlos, alas, is gay as a jay.
And they laughed into their phones under the California sun, unexpected allies, one willingly deceived, the other purposeful and deliberate. But the seduction of Armand was not to be easy, because for him it was business, and he was both European and a very private person, and a deaf mute. He knew that he was attractive, though, understood the downside of that, and placed no special value on sexual satisfaction without the emotional accoutrements. It was there, he could have it. What he could not find in California was a life, something solid and reliable, with continuity and the pleasures of the known. As Sandy Muynck soon realized, her new chef was elusive as well as private, intelligent and skillful in preserving his freedom, able to end an awkwardness like a skilled headwaiter, with a certain expression. If necessary, by using the shield of his deafness. His lip-reading would disappear when that special mood came over his employer, and he would become lost in his work, retreating into himself, sometimes even leaving the house, always on a virtuous pretext. Good leeks, fresh seafood, replacement of tired garlic. But as in any duel where one party may only parry while the other attacks with skill and determination, the result was inevitable. He had nowhere to go, and he wished to remain at Belle Époque for reasons of his own: Carlos the gardener was not only his friend but his lover, and he knew that in matters of the heart Carlos was Sandy Muynck’s superior. It had less to do with sex than with the real heart of the person, which Armand’s long journey from the Midi had made for him the central issue in matters intimate. Not that he rejected women. He took it on a case-by-case basis. And despite his handicap he thought he might eventually marry, if only he could become established, and then have children. For that to happen, he must keep this job and leave with a good reference, if at all.
An hour after he had sensed one of Madame’s special days coming on at breakfast, she arrived in a black silk robe to write out what she would like for lunch. On the pad he read:
It is a condition of your employment, Armand.
He looked up to see the robe hanging just open. An excellent body, really lovely. Demure, one dainty breast in view, big soft-looking nipple, fine neck, smooth belly, slender waist. Armand nodded and smiled as if receiving an unexpected bonus. At Belle Époque he held the best position he’d ever had, the first where he’d been fully in charge, and for the first time in his life he had checking and savings accounts, the latter already containing several thousand dollars. And at the bottom of the hill he had Carlos, lover and best friend, whom he was teaching the language of signs. Nor did the Sandy experience turn out to be unpleasant. Successful therapy and years of what amounted to near-devotion from her husband had taken the Brooklyn out of the girl. She was smooth, graceful and experienced without quite being jaded. He did not confuse her with the aging lacquered California women he detested. She achieved, or appeared to achieve, full satisfaction, although it took a very long time. But then she would become absorbed in her business and let him alone for a number of days without becoming unfriendly or difficult, which had been his fear. She liked to have him after a late breakfast on a day when she did not go to the office. Nor would she insist on his services on an entertainment day, or in the evening. It was all right, it was workable, until one September day when he drove down to pick up Carlos for a monthly night on the town and saw Carlos’s expression. His lack of expression, which Armand understood immediately, as he did the ostentatious lack of warmth. Living in silence, Armand understood this language to a nicety. After a while he pulled the old woody over into a picnic area and reached into his pocket for the pad he always carried.
Let’s just have a good time tonight, all right? he wrote.
They talk about you on the phone. You are special now.
People of deep heart were inclined to jealousy, Armand knew. He tried to keep it light.
Yes, the handicapped are special here in America. You know I need the job.
She is a witch, wrote Carlos: Her husband killed himself in his favorite car, I will show you the place.
And he did, directing Armand back toward Belle Époque and pointing down the scarred ravine to the blackened dwarf pines and shrubbery. Armand nodded and shrugged. Later at their bar Carlos drank many Margaritas, flirting indiscriminately and seriously with males and females, which disturbed Armand more than his employer ever had. But they went on, patched it up in the spirit of those who must oblige their employers. Rather than being resolved though, the problem for Armand became worse. He now had two loveless relationships. It was cheap, he thought, and low. He had not made his way so far for this. As the situation became clear it became obsessive, and he began to drink in the chef manner, a glass of wine now and again, and again, starting about noon. Like Sandra Muynck’s late husband he was a good drinker, and he seemed to become more sober as he drank, more thoughtful. Having thought about his problem at some length, he obtained a small amount of cocaine through Carlos, which he sniffed secretly in the bathroom, between sets as it were. Then he set about fucking his employer beyond satiation into a condition where she would be thoroughly sore, front and rear, and come to see the pointlessness of the thing. It was an athletic contest and the results disappointing. Tough and limber, Sandy Muynck had rarely been out-fucked and took the situation as she took most of life, as a challenge. He saw that it was a no-win, that he would shortly be out of a job and without Carlos as well. The cats divined his difficulty and made their move. Each day they were more of a nuisance, hanging about the kitchen, in hiding at first, then startling him with a leap in the air or a dash across the counter as he was doing some complicated thing. Especially before important dinners. Once they tripped an assistant and the guests ate a pork roast that had slid the length of the kitchen floor before wedging itself under the stove.
The cats are interfering with my work, he wrote finally one late afternoon after one of them knocked the crème fraiche into a béarnaise. To his surprise she was not irritable about it.
Put them in the back pantry with some catnip when they bother you, she wrote, taking time to favor him with a half-smile even though preoccupied with the imminent arrival of a major-major studio executive and several other important guests. He saw that the harsher and more perverse sex had had the exact opposite effect of what he’d wanted. The cats were fractious when he put them in the pantry, but he had grown up on a farm and could handle animals. He was distracted though, and Kebab got in a good scratch on the inside of his forearm, just missing a vein. Minor but unsightly, and it upset the rhythm of his preparations. He wasn’t pleased with the meal. No one else seemed to notice, but afterward the cats seemed to be smiling at his quandary. And it was out of the question to keep them in the back pantry for any length of time, they were her favorites. When he saw Carlos a few days later, he just shook his head.
I told you she was a witch, wrote Carlos, and ruffled Armand’s hair. He was temperamentally better suited for such problems, more easygoing, and he hardly understood Armand’s state of mind at all. His own heart had mended, and he assumed that his friend’s drinking that night was due to his own sexual indifference, which was really just a little game of the moment.
It was all coming apart, thought Armand, all the parts of this new life, and for the first time he allowed himself to feel anger with Sandy Muynck, to see her as others did when she drove them into impossible situations. He ached to do what his father would have done, to smash her smoothly composed face with the back of his hand as hard as he could, which was hard enough to have discolored that side of her face for a week or ten days and perhaps loosen some expensively maintained teeth. Why had no one ever done it? But then, what good would it do? The game was moving forward and he was losing. Nor could he find another situation, or even return to Albertine’s – she could prevent that. He retired yet further into himself, sank into a serious depression and was fairly ill for several days, which kept him away from both her and the cats.
In the end he accepted the situation and its inevitable outcome. He would not oblige her again. Or he might, if he had to, to avoid unpleasantness, but he would leave, and quickly. He drove to the bank and withdrew his money as soon as he was well, and sent a cashier’s check to his sister. Back at Belle Époque he found a note that simply said: Something Asian tonight. Arrogant and demeaning. Humiliation and Gallic rage gusted violently in his chest, but professionalism took over. His employer was dining alone with Elaine Reilly, an unimportant meal, but he would make them something interesting anyway. His last meal at Belle Époque, though only he would know this.
It took some creativity, but both women pronounced the aromas glorious when they arrived. It was seven, the sun low on the horizon, the two women in a confidential mood, just returning from cocktails with a director for whom Elaine hoped to be doing extensive work. The maid being off for the day, Armand served, which he did with more style than that Valley Girl had ever mustered. He watched and knew that it was memorable. Their moving lips, their smiles and their evident pleasure made it clear. A good job in impossible circumstances.
– What a find he was, Elaine. I owe you more than Harry’s litigations.
– Where does he come up with these things?
– He’s a very major talent. I mean it.
– How’re we doing on wine?
Sandy Muynck made a mental note of this breach, and of her guest’s small blue eyes, pig-like but friendly, and somehow attractive in the round flushed face. She filled both glasses, came about, tacked away from these shoals.
– I’m really interested to see what he’ll do for dessert, aren’t you?
And she wanted coffee. With Armand doing double duty, it might take a while. The two women fell into conversation about the director’s guest list, and then into a little doldrum. Just as she was becoming irritated with the delay, Sandy Muynck recognized the woody’s old starter grinding in the garage. No dessert tonight, Elaine, she thought, but said nothing. He must be furious about something, she realized. Whatever was wrong she would straighten it out, and maybe it was time to stop sleeping with Armand. Better than losing him. She continued chatting as the car backed out the driveway, inaudible to Elaine, and concentrated on finding some way to undo the loss of face. But then, who was Elaine? Elaine had nothing on her. She sensed rather than heard the car heading down the hill and threw out a distracting tale about one of the director’s guests, discovered on her knees in his office by an actor who got himself fired off the picture for barging in. Total cost about $.5 mil. As Elaine leaned forward, breasts spilling out of a very silly cocktail dress, Sandy Muynck began to consider the next step with Armand. As she was working this out there was a heavy crash in the middle distance, followed by smaller sounds. Then a silence as they looked at each other, then the much louder sound of an exploding gas tank. In the great bay window behind Elaine’s flushed face, the twilight began to glow unevenly as flames from the woody went up, setting off tinder-dry pines. Sandy Muynck knew just about where it would be, and then with a sickening lurch she knew exactly what they had been eating. Elaine straightened herself in her chair.
– What the hell’s going on down there d’ya think? she asked not quite drunkenly. She hadn’t noticed the sound of the woody’s starter, but through her sluggish synapses came the thought that coffee was way overdue. Across the table Sandy Muynck’s composure held, but her face was pasty and the eyes looking past Elaine were blank with fear. Her expression was sobering, and Elaine Reilly very strongly wished she were somewhere else. And then she got it, all of it, all at once.
– I think I had too much wine, hon, she said in a calm voice: I’m gonna be sick. Back in a sec.
Well, she has something on me now, thought Sandy Muynck.