Even though he's big, Freddie's got the face of somebody who's been beat too many times, like his face is just out there to be beat. He's also got the face of somebody who, after the beating is done, gets up, says "Okay," and keeps trying to find something good to eat or drink or roll in. He likes to end stories by saying, "But they'd probably just tell you I'm an a-s-s-h-o-l-e," like, Oh well, what's on TV? That's the thing Bianca hates most, that beat-up but still leaping out into the turds for a swim quality. Especially the leaping: It's like a personal affront to her. But I like it. It reminds me of the sea lion, swimming into town with its perfect round head sticking up--even though the lion is gliding and Freddie is rough. It's like something similar put in different containers. Sometimes I want to say this to Bianca, to defend Freddie. But she won't listen. Besides, I understand why he disgusts her. She's a refined person, and I like refinement, too. I understand it as a point of view.
The writer on the radio is talking about her characters like they're real people: "When you look at it from her point of view, his behavior really is strange, because to her, they're just playing a sexy game, whereas for him it's--" She blooms out of the radio like a balloon with a face on it, smiling, wanting you to like her, vibrating with things to say. Turn on the radio, there's always somebody like her on somewhere. People rushing through their lives turn the dial looking for comfort, and the excited smiling words spill over them. I drink my coffee. The novelist's characters dance and preen. I drink my coffee. People from last night's dream stumble in dark rooms, screaming at one another, trying hard to do something I can't see. I finish my coffee. Water is seeping in and soaking the edge of the carpet. I don't know how this happens, I'm on the second floor.
It's time for me to go clean John's office. John is an old friend, and as a favor, he pays me to clean his office every week. Into my patchwork bag I pack the necessaries--aspirin, codeine, bottle of water--then I look for my umbrella. When I find it, I realize it's broken, and I curse before I remember the other one, the red one from New York that I never use. I got it at the Museum of Modern Art gift shop when I lived in Manhattan. It has four white cartoon sheep, plus one black one, printed on its edge, along with the name of the museum. The decoration is precious and proper, and it reminds me of Veronica Ross. She is someone from my old life. She loved anything precious and proper: small intricate toys, photographs in tiny decorated frames, quotes from Oscar Wilde. She loved MoMA and she loved New York. She wore shoulder pads, prissy loafers, and thin socks. She rolled her trouser cuffs in this crisp way. On her glass-topped coffee table, she had miniature ashtrays, gilt matchboxes, and expensive coasters decorated with smiling cats.
When I go out into the hallway, Rita is there in her housecoat and slippers, holding a little plate of fried chicken livers. She offers me some, says she made too many last night. They smell good, so I take one and eat it while I talk to Rita. She says that last week "that son of a bitch Robert" fired up the barbecue again, on the puny deck right under hers, sending up poisonous charcoal fumes, which, she has explained time and again, are terrible for her hepatitis.
"I knew he still had that grill out there, and sure enough, the sun came out and I heard him mobilize it. I heard the charcoal in the bag. I heard him slide the lid off. I sat down and I meditated. I asked for help. I asked, What is the most powerful force in the world? And the answer came to me: Water."
Rita has hepatitis C; so do I. We don't discuss it much; she doesn't remind me that codeine by the fistful is like dropping a bomb on my liver. I don't remind her that while charcoal smoke is not a problem, her fried-food diet is.
Excerpted from Veronica by Mary Gaitskill Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gaitskill. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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