"Where's Jennifer?" I asked, referring to his wife, the third of his wives that I knew about. She was a designer herself, a good one, and the daughter of impoverished New York bohemians, folks with an eye for the good art they couldn't afford.
"Out of town."
He caught the question in my raised eyebrow.
"Back tomorrow," he said. "Or the day after. Soon, anyway."
"And the kids?" Luis hailed from Peru, originally. His children tended to be dotted throughout the Americas, like features on a map.
"How convenient," I said, wondering what Luis had going on, already guessing at the answer.
We walked through the high, narrow hallway into the living room, a wide and airy sunken space that flowed through sliding doors onto a patio of dazzling tile. The room was filled with Luis's nice things, his pictures and his sculptures, but the atmosphere was of neglect and I wondered how long his wife had been out of the picture. One leg was gone from the chrome-and-black-leather sofa; a couple of Luis's guests perched there nonetheless, whispering as they sipped their cocktails, like determined revelers on a ship going down. Another fellow, dressed in black, with a beret cocked to one side, stood at the fireplace, eyeing Luis's family photos in their frames of ornate and tarnished silver. Perhaps he was thinking of stealing them. And through the sliding doors I heard the hubbub of jazz and saw the rest of the revelers, the shadowy figures gathered around the pool's late-afternoon dazzle, the losers and beatniks and hangers-on swilling the liquor that Luis must have gotten on credit from some merchant who never guessed that he was being stiffed. Luis, when he wanted, had fine manners.
"Who are they, Luis?" Some clown had started up on the bongos.
"Not your kind of people."
"I guess not."
"Oh, sure," I said. I hadn't come to the party to gloat, although I was happy enough to let him know who was calling the shots now. "I bet their art keeps them very busy. And laughing all the way to the bank, too."
"What about you, Maurice?"
Here it comes, I thought; soon he'll be down on his knees.
"What are you working on?"
"Oh, you know how it is."
"No, I don't," Luis said, stepping toward me, looming at my side like a shaggy bear. "Tell me."
"The people behind the building I've just done in Nevada. They want five more hotels. Three in Las Vegas, maybe a couple in Cuba."
"That's a lot of work."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"Can you handle it?" he said, angling now, not even bothering to be crafty about it.
"Luisare you asking me for a job?"
"Would you give me one?" He kept his voice buoyant but his shoulders were tense, hunched a little, struggling with the anger and humiliation. Here he was, the great Barragan, seeking employment from his former disciple. And there I was, Maurice Valentine, the man of the moment, realizing I might actually need and want him on board.
"Maybe," I said.
"We'd get to go to Havanawith someone else picking up the tab?"
"Sounds like my kind of project," he said, expansive now, but still nervous, sweat falling from the creases on his forehead and splashing onto the black velvet of his monogrammed slippers.
"Get in line, pal," I said, toying with him, and we went through sliding glass doors, out of the room into the blaze of the setting sun and the beat of those crazy bongos. Luis's house was long, low, flat-roofed, projecting straight out of the hill, held in place as if by architectural alchemythat is to say, by steel struts that were invisible beneath the structure. He'd built the place soon after the war, when he'd been at the top of his game and in full command of his career, ranked alongside Wright, Corb, Saarinen, and Mies, the greats. The shimmering pool seemed suspended in midair and had thus far defied both termites and earthquakes. A metaphor, in a way, for Luis himself, who snatched another brimming martini from a waiter's tray but neglected to offer me one. This was another part of Luisself-obsessed, oblivious. Or maybe this was how we always were with each otherjostling and jousting. And I did remind myself that he was in the process of digesting a hefty slice of humble pie.
From The Devil's Wind by Richard Raynor. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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