A serialization of The Sound and the Shadows. Last week’s post is here.
In a TV interview, looking straight into the camera, Davy said, “Tackling this play, I needed to drag Eliot—the bitter old bastard—kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I told the son of a bitch, the time is now, whether you’re willing or not!” Taking a breath, basking in the spotlight, he continued. “The job was to render ol' TS to his essence, strip ‘Murder’ down to its skeleton, then, bit by bit, piece by piece, add muscle and sinew, blood and a brain, build an epic poem that speaks to now. Consider it my declaration of war on mediocrity and theater-as-usual.”
It was Davy’s idea, after he and Esmerelda had settled into a mock-Tudor, to join the local theater group. The Evendale Players performed “Murder in the Cathedral” at Davy’s insistence, giving him both the director role and the part of Becket. A ragtag group of amateurs, they were child’s play to manipulate. For his first order of business, Davy cast Esmerelda, alone, as the female chorus. From the start there were problems with that: “Here let us stand, close by the cathedral? Here let us wait?”
Beaming beauty outweighing thespian shortcomings, she prevailed. Her allure was a factor in opening various doors to haute Evendale, such as it is. The Village of Evendale, Ohio, typical of well-heeled villages, was burdened with an overabundance of self-esteem. But at heart, the arrogant are sycophants, waiting for betters to grovel before. Davy and Ezzy, exotic newcomers exuding the irresistible fragrance of easy money and casual good looks were Evendale’s superiors.
Accents helped, too. Esmerelda already had her faux-French-by-way-of-Florida lilt; Davy focused on a clipped Brit accent. Together, they easily wowed Midwesterners famished for company they thought of as classy. The duo wore their parts like a skin, performing even simple tasks— parking the car or walking Angel, their Pekinese, for instance—with a chic and effortless élan. Never mind that Mr. and Mrs. Voltaire were a confection, their marriage little more than Tiffany wedding bands purchased 10-cents-on-the-dollar via eBay, the adoption of her surname a way to elude the wrath of Helen.
Davy’s rethinking of Eliot’s elephant was, in his phrase, “avant-garde with a vengeance.” Besides reducing the female chorus to a single bikini-clad bubblehead, the remaining actors were assigned scuba suits. The lone props: a 1920s John Deere tractor off to one side and a large Soviet flag dominating center rear.
Now sporting a trimmed full beard and usually seen at rehearsal, and sometimes around the Village, in a USAF surplus jumpsuit, Davy leapt about, exhorting or excoriating his minions: “Yes! That’s it! That’s it precisely! Exact so!”
Or, stalking the lip of the stage, “NO! NO! NO! A thousand times... nooo. What are you? Some sort of blithering imbecile?” Then crouching, his head bowed, frantic fingers grasping his scalp, “Try it again... And put your bloody soul into it! You can do it! I know you can! Again!” Now a mad leer crossing his face as he stood. “From the tippy top!” He clapped his hands twice, sharply. They jumped to position.
He exasperated his team. One wounded ego quit, others teetered on the brink. But in the end, despite the pains of labor, “Murder” was all the rage, drawing the northern Ohio art crowd, moths fluttering to a flame. “Murder” ran for an entire month, not the one week originally scheduled. Big city critics compared Davy Voltaire to Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett. Cincinnati TV news aired clips of the nuttier scenes and interviewed the self-styled genius. It was all soundbite stuff, but more limelight than The Evendale Players had ever seen.
On opening night, a middle-age man in a jacket and tie, hired by Davy on the sly, stood up during the first act, waved his program at the stage and bellowed, “This is just bullshit! The worst sort of fucking bullshit!” and stormed out in a faux-huff, leaving the audience gasping, unwittingly, at the best performance of the evening.
The Soviet flag was a red cape to a herd of furious bulls: locals with too much spare time crawled out of the woodwork, upper belfries, and fever swamps to picket and protest. Davy Voltaire, an eyebrow arched, dismissed them as, “The enervated remnants of Birchers and ramshackle reactionaries who would, in reality, be perfectly at ease with the iron fist, the omniscient control, of the former Soviet Union. What these people fear above all else is freedom, is liberty. Consider them an American Taliban, if you will.” (He really did enjoy hearing himself.)
The cranks had reacted as he’d hoped, providing publicity gratis as he sat back, fingers laced over stomach. Audacity fueled Davy’s charisma. He’d found his true self, his proper place, at long last. He reveled in it. He was the Orson Welles of a small green-with-wealth pond.
(Lost in the rush to ballyhoo was a voice of sanity, a free-weekly critic who jabbed that Davy’s approach was more retro than avant, that it owed much to Happenings of a half-century prior, as they’d owed much to Dada, yet another half-century ago. The critic opined that “Murder” was a nostalgia trip, a comfort zone for dilettantes.)
After the cast party, the Voltaire’s home, safe in bed, his arm around her, her ear on his chest, Davy said, “I just have to love America. What a land of opportunity, still. One can always press the restart button, begin afresh, as if the past never happened. Whatever its foibles, it’s the fairest system going. The rest of the world would be wise to emulate us. You know, for a long time I didn’t believe in God. But now? Now I think there may be something to the notion. Not that I’m any sort of theologian or anything. Yet when I look at my life’s trajectory, I see a master plan at work. Mysterious at times? Sure. Other times, the mystical is so obvious it hits me like a punch to the nose...” He paused, thinking for a minute or two, sighed, then said, “It’s as if everything’s a peppermint lump, all sharp and clean and swirly with red and white. And bite-size,” but Ezzy wasn’t listening, she was already asleep, dreaming.
She dreamt of her orphanage days in Florida, then the brief stint as a prostitute before joining Avon’s female army, selling soaps and scents door-to-door. In the dream, those doors stretched to a remote horizon. Then her dream took a turn as only dreams can, into a sleepy little beachside town. She was walking, barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt, along a sandy road with a mini-skirted brunette who was cradling a baby. The pair sneaked into a rickety house on stilts where the woman rested the baby on a cashmere blanket on the wood floor next to a napping red tomcat. The tom looked up and said, “I don’t like this baby!” But the baby had become a kitten, a green kitten, and it said, “Like me, please.”
Esmerelda followed the woman into another room, empty, with an enormous picture window looking onto the Atlantic. In the distance a storm was raging, but the mighty sun shone everywhere else. Ezzy knew, somehow, that there was an ocean liner in that squall, and it was capsizing, drowning all aboard.
The brunette now wore an evening gown and walked up to Ezzy, held her shoulders, kissed her forehead and said, “Avocado...” Not knowing how to respond verbally, Esmerelda produced a bottle of Avon perfume, a peace offering to the woman she now understood to be the mother she’d hadn’t seen since birth.
The next morning, Davy and Ezzy got up early. By nine they were holding court at a booth in Evendale’s Nosh Nook, eating bagels with cream cheese, drinking black coffee, sharing a copy of The New York Times and reading The Cincinnati Enquirer’s rave review of “Murder in the Cathedral,” as strangers congregated to kneel and congratulate. The Voltaires were icons, their standing in Evendale set in stone. Within three months they came, they saw, they conquered.
If Esmerelda’d been a lab mouse, you could drop her into a labyrinthine maze and she’d streak to the cheese without a single misdirected step. On IQ tests she hovered somewhere just below normal, but when it came to sniffing out the money she was a savant. So on an April morning still chilly enough to warrant gloves, she left the house, pocketbook in the crook of an elbow, and walked, unannounced, several blocks to the house of Mrs. Linda Lattimore, an elderly widow. Mrs. Lattimore was surprised, a little flustered, to see Ezzy at the door, but of course she ushered the star of Evendale in.
As the matron bustled to the kitchen to prepare coffee, Ezzy followed, silent as a shadow, picked up a big cutting knife from the counter and stabbed her hostess in the back once, severing the spinal cord, killing her instantly. The corpse crumpled to the tiled floor, knife handle protruding like a crank on a windup toy. Except for a nano-second of metallic white agony, it was a painless death. In that flash, Linda saw her husband, Richard, greeting her with his smile, his gentle smile.
Still wearing her kidskin gloves, Ezzy made a cool beeline to the bedroom, removed the painting hiding the wall safe, set it gently on the gray wool carpet. She took a stethoscope out of her purse. Using it, she dialed left, twirled right, left again, and so on, until the door gave. Feeling a sexual charge, she helped herself to jewelry and cash, cramming the plunder in her purse before locking the safe and repositioning the painting. Ezzy stepped back a moment to admire the artwork, a modernistic landscape: sky, lake, mountain and tree reduced to geometric shapes and flat colors. (In the 1950s and 60s the Lattimores collected regional modern art.) Exiting the room, she swiped a small Kenyan sculpture from the bureau top, souvenir swag.
Done with her tasks, back in her overcoat, Esmerelda opened the front door a crack until she was certain the coast was clear, and slipped out as unnoticed as she’d arrived. From a candy bowl on a stand by the door, she took a peppermint lump. Outdoors, she unwrapped it, dropping the cellophane on the walk. She sucked on the candy and headed home, hands in coat pockets, purse dangling from a wrist, collar turned up against the breeze. The heavens were overcast. Soon it would rain. The sculpture was nestled in an inside pocket, next to her heart.
The following day, she drove to a neighboring town where she’d rented a safe deposit box at the Ohio Bank & Trust weeks earlier. Her drive was relaxed, the radio played quietly, the budding green scenery passing by like a symphony. The sun played hide-and-seek among the cumulus clouds, winking at her. Occasionally the sky sprinkled just enough for her to turn on the wipers.
Alone inside the bank vault with her key, Esmerelda placed all of the jewelry and most of the money in her rented box. $500 remained in her purse—mad money. She drove to an Italian restaurant, one that catered to a business clientele, for lunch—a special treat. Over dessert she scanned the room full of deal-makers and GE vice presidents, contemplating how nearly ideal life had become since meeting Davy and how utterly perfect it would be with him out of the picture. A fortune divided by two is a lot, but it’s twice as much undivided. Would arsenic be too obvious? She’d watched enough mysteries to know how the poison worked, that it was cumulative, bits given over time added up to what appears to be a natural death.
That evening, Davy was propped up in bed, tugging absent-mindedly at his beard, reading Spengler. Ezzy removed the book from his hands, placed it on the nightstand and straddled him, making love to him with all the rapture of a black widow while at the foot of the bed Angel slept.
Davy said, “I love you so much! What did I ever do to deserve you?”
“Oh, probably something really terrible? They laughed.
It began to pour, the wind whipping rain against windows. From atop their bedroom dresser, a small African sculpture watched the domestic scene in silence.
—Follow J.D. King on Twitter: @jdking_mod