Authors: Deb Elkink
Tags: #Contemporary fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Mennonite, #Paris, #Costume Design
THE THIRD GRACE
By Deb Elkink
To all my lost sisters wandering alone
out of earshotâHis voice still calls.
Man has always lost his way.
He has been a tramp ever since Eden;
but he always knew, or thought he knew,
what he was looking for.
What's Wrong with the World
Be mindful, goddess! of thy promise made;
Must sad Ulysses ever be delay'd?
Around their lord my sad companions mourn,
Each breast beats homeward, anxious to return.
The Three Graces, by James Pradier, 1831
ight from the floor lamp winked at Aglaia through the garnet wine as her guest swirled the glass upwardâwinked as though it shared Aglaia's secret, just waiting for her to ask her question again. But she held back. She was pacing herselfâ¦
She studied the profile of Dr. Lou Chapman, the critical eye and the nose thrust aggressively into the bouquet of the vintage. She shifted on the sofa and reached for her goblet to mimic Lou's actions, careful not to slosh her own wine over the rim. She didn't want to appear gauche; it was awkward enough trying to draw out from Lou the information she needed to prevail in her search.
Maybe she shouldn't have asked the professor up following the theater tonight after all, she thought. Work had been demanding of late, and this afternoon's traffic brutal in the drenching rain. She'd arrived back at her apartment with no time to slouch into relaxationâjust a few minutes to pin her hair into a messy nest and slip on the sapphire chemise that now lay against her skin, silky as a French boy's whisper.
“Nice legs,” Lou said.
Aglaia crossed them instinctively but caught herself before saying thanks, realizing just in time that the compliment was intended for the wine. Feeling foolish, she straightened her back and feigned a worldly, knowing air.
Lou picked up the bottle, tilted it towards the light, and read the label through the bottom half of trendy spectacles. “Where did you purchase it?”
“At SantÃ© on East Sixth Avenue,” Aglaia said with a shrug, as though she stopped in at the posh Denver cellar regularly on her way home from work rather than just the onceâlast week for a tasting with her wine appreciation class. But Aglaia wondered if she'd ever truly appreciate wine. This bottle of imported pinot noir had cost her dearly but it was worth the money to gain Lou's confidence and, besides, Aglaia's growing collection of corks in the green bowl on the coffee table proved she was recovering from her habit of temperance.
With eyes closed Lou sampled the wine, swished, sucked air in past pursed lips. “Subdued, earthy with a subtle berry, long finish. Excellent choice.”
Aglaia couldn't detect earth or berry, but she was glad now she hadn't caved in to her first impulse to grab a domestic merlot at half the price.
“A toast to your enduring success in the arts,” Lou said, wine stem raised, “even if it is in the private sector instead of the university, where talent like yours belongs.”
Glasses clinked; the two women sipped.
Aglaia swallowed the astringent and watched Lou's eyebrows, the most animated part of her face. They signaled her mood, usually dipping downward at the outer edges in world-weariness but arching now in approval. Lou's slate-cold eyes themselves were flat, two dimensional, and gave nothing away.
Aglaia angled her glass and looked into its blood-red interior. Wine was a symbol of communion, she thought, and she was using it with carnal deliberation to seal this relationship that had so much to offer her. As she lifted the glass to her lips again, she hoped her own silhouette projected an image of glamor. Alcohol had been taboo in the home of her youth. In her current lapsed state, the mere thought of consuming it was intoxicating in itselfâand emboldening. She was about to pose her question again when Lou spoke up.
“The costumes in tonight's performance were remarkable, but your Phantom stole the show.”
Phantom exactly,” Aglaia said.
“Don't be coy. You're obviously an accomplished artisan and you deserve to be discovered.”
Heat rushed to Aglaia's cheeks but she knew she'd earned the praise. Her boss at Incognito Costume Shop wouldn't let another employee touch the feature pieces contracted for the production, and they'd shown well on stage tonight.
Earlier this evening the curtains had closed to robust applause, but Aglaia waited until the last scalloped hem and tip of a feathered cap disappeared into the wings before joining in with the rest of the audience. When she recognized a critic from the
dashing backstage for an interview with the cast, she knew for certain that the name of Aglaia Klassen, up-and-coming costume designer, would appear again in the weekend reviews; her creations had worked their usual opening night magic. Indeed, Aglaia herself had been transported in her imagination to the play's setting of the world-famous opera house in Paris.
Paris! It was the city of her dreams where, in just three days' time, she'd finally be walking in the flesh. Aglaia took another sip to sober her elation over the imminent business trip, particularly regarding her plans for how she'd spend her free time there. Of course this would include a whirlwind tour of the city sights but other, admittedly idealistic, aspirations were at the forefront of her mind and had been all evening.
After the play, as Lou had driven through the city to take her home, Aglaia barely heard her scholarly assessment of the musical score because she was caught up in her thoughts of international travel. When Aglaia did speak, it was to articulate the undercurrent running though her subconscious for most of the performanceâfor most of her life, it seemed. That was when she'd casually brought the subject up with Lou.
“I wonder how someone can just disappear in Paris.”
Lou, slowing to make the turn onto Aglaia's street, had said, “I suppose you're talking about the masked villain spiriting the fair maiden away to his lair beneath the OpÃ©ra Garnier.”
“No, I mean nowadays, in real life. How would someone find a missing person in Paris?”
“That's hardly the first question that comes to mind in critiquing
The Phantom of the Opera
,” Lou had said, and she coughed out a laugh as if expecting an analysis of the play's Faustian implications or something as cerebral. Aglaia's own interests were much more intuitive, and she'd let the matter drop as Lou pulled into the space facing the apartment block, armed the car lock, and followed her up the steps while pontificating on the literary elements of the script.
Lou had remarked on Aglaia's use of the Greek mask of tragedy as a pattern for the Phantom's own disguiseâa clever adaptationâand her mirroring of Hellenistic fashion in the simplicity of the heroine's robe, guessing correctly that Aglaia's inspiration had come from the Greek style of the OpÃ©ra's architecture.
But all the while, right up to the time Lou had opened the wine, Aglaia was reviewing and reframing her questionâher
âregarding Paris. Lou, a sociologist at Platte River University and a jetsetter, was versed in things European, and Aglaia could use an expert at this point. Her Internet surveillance over the past month had turned up nothing very helpful.
Now Lou plucked a cat hair from the arm of the loveseat and Aglaia regretted not having vacuumed more thoroughlyâLou probably had a cleaning lady. Before the other woman could resume her intellectualized thread of the discussion on the evening's entertainment, and at the risk of sounding fixated, Aglaia ventured a third query.
“So, Lou, if you were looking for someone in Paris, where would you start?”
This time Lou heard her, though she frowned. It clearly wasn't her topic of choice. “Well, maybe I'd launch an investigation through the
or contact the American embassy. Sightseers must go missing now and then. Or,” she gibed, “are you afraid of getting lost yourself when you're over there, all alone in the big, bad city?”
Aglaia ignored her sarcasm. “It's not a tourist issue.”
“You're referring to a resident?” Lou asked with her eyebrow cocked. “The telephone book then, I suppose.”
The local phone book, of course. Aglaia would start with that notion as soon as she got to Paris. It might be a long shot, but she had this one chance for disclosure and she wasn't going to let it slip away. She knew now how she would begin her on-site manhunt and felt herself unwinding for the first time all night.
But then the apartment buzzer rasped.
She didn't expect anyone. Before she could answer it, the door was bumped open by her elderly mother. Tina Klassen, cheeks perpetually rouged by prairie wind and high blood pressure, was caught midsentence as though continuing an interrupted dialogue, her Low German accent still discernible.
“â¦ and your father is in such a hurry to get home, Mary Grace. When harvest is wet like this and so late, you know how tense he is.”
She pronounced it “tanse” and, more out of habit than necessity, threw a
word into her ramble here and thereâabout the rain rotting the crops on the
and about how Henry was waiting in the
outside. The tongue of the Klassen heritage was still spoken in many rural Mennonite households, but it was just partially understood and strictly avoided by Aglaia herself. She hoped Lou didn't catch Tina's flat, sticky words and the use of her old name, which Mom still hadn't given up after all these yearsâor wouldn't give up.
Maybe it was just as well. Tina wasn't able to pronounce “Aglaia” correctly either, no matter how many times she was reminded that it rhymed with “I'll pay ya.”
Tina pushed farther into the apartment. “Your father needed to pick up a tractor part none of the local dealerships had, and I don't like it when he drives alone so long and so far. I only have a minute, dear. I brought you some fresh-baked
Aglaia was trying to lose a few pounds before the trip butâoh!âthose rolls smelled delicious. The aroma disarmed her; she knew she should be hustling Tina out the door but couldn't find her words.
“Did you get my parcel?” her mother asked, not yet noticing Lou sitting on Aglaia's couch. “I didn't know I was coming to town or I would have waited to bring it along and saved the postage. But I wanted to be sure it got to you before you left on your trip.”
In fact, when Aglaia received the package yesterday after work, she immediately began to tear at the brown paper, piqued about what her mother might be sending, until she saw the two-word title on the spine glaring through torn edges:
. Annoyance at her mother's intrusiveness soured her then and rose again now like acid in the back of her throat. Tina knew Aglaia was disinterested in religionâand that was an understatement.
Before Aglaia could shut the closet door, her mother spotted the packet amongst the shoes in the shadow of the coats and reached down for it. “Why, it's right here,” she said. “Didn't you read the note to call me?” Aglaia hadn't gotten that far in her unwrapping, and she recoiled as Tina shoved the bundle at her. Then her mother glanced up, for the first time seeing Lou in the living room. “Oh, my,” Tina said, tightening the knot on her kerchief, “I didn't know you had company.”
Tina seemed to have shriveled even since the last time she and Henry made the two-hundred-mile pilgrimage to Denverâa city, a state, a lifetime away from their Nebraska farm. Aglaia looked down on her though she wasn't tall herself. She looked as far down on Mom as she looked up at Lou. Tina's jacket didn't hide the dowdy housedress and her shoes were muddy. Aglaia was sorry again that she ever gave her mother a key to the apartment. Resigned, she made introductions.
“It's a pleasure to meet you.” Lou arose and offered a manicured hand. “Do come in,” she said, as if she were the hostess. Aglaia didn't blame Lou for wanting to compensate for her own uncomfortable silence.
But Tina, a teetotaler, now eyed up the wine glasses and Aglaia could almost hear her judgmental thoughts about her daughter's rejection of long-held Klassen values. Aglaia couldn't risk letting Tina make further comment in Lou's presence and took hold of her mother's arm to steer her towards the outer hallway.
“Isn't that Dad honking outside? You have a long drive home tonight.” That was true; they wouldn't get back until well after midnight. “I'll walk you down.”
“No, no. I need to explain.” Tina, flustered, ripped the butcher's paper fully off the cumbersome black leather book, exposing it to Lou's purview. “I found this when I was digging around under the basement stairs. I haven't opened that trunk since the summer the French boy came to stay with us. You remember?”
Did she remember? It was all Aglaia could do to keep her memories under wraps.
Tina was opening the Bible now to the dedication page. “It says, âPresented to FranÃ§ois Vivier from the Klassens.' I thought to myself, that boy must have meant to take this home with him, since he carried it to church every Sunday he was with us, and to every Wednesday prayer meeting.”
Horrified, Aglaia opened her mouth to protest, but no sound emerged. This was worse than she first imaginedâworse than her mother simply sending her a Bible for reasons of maternal concern over her spiritual state. Tina was trotting out the one aspect of Aglaia's life she'd been trying to hide, especially from Lou. Not only was this a Bible that linked her to a personal religion, but also the very Bible owned by the person who'd totally reformed her religion.
“He wrote notes into the margins, starting right here in Genesis,” Tina said. She pointed to a finely penciled script but, thankfully, didn't read the misquotation aloud:
In the beginning, the gods created
. Tina went on, “It was too small for me to make out without my reading glasses there in the basement, and Henry was about to leave for town so I had to rush if I wanted to get it into the mail. Can you see what it says?” Tina held the book out at arm's length for a moment before giving up. “Anyway, I decided that, since you were going to Paris, you should pack it into your suitcase and take it to him.”
Aglaia bit down hard to stop herself from exclaiming and kept her face turned towards her mom so that the other woman wouldn't discern her mortification. She heard Lou say under her breath, “Ah, hence the questions,” and was immobilized by her mother's propositionâin fact, by her own resolutionâto find FranÃ§ois, which sounded completely ridiculous when spoken aloud.