Artifice

Had I known, I would have brought Marcus.

The thought crossed Alice’s mind and her stomach sank.  She had tried very hard, promised herself with the threat of punishment in the form of cleaning out her closets, to not think about Marcus today.  And yet how could she stick to that self-promise when she stood – in her painfully tight red heels at a pea-soup-boring charity event – not ten feet from Marcus’ favorite author?

Impossible, Alice reasoned with the scolding voice in her head.  For a full year she had dated Marcus.  For a full year she had suffered through his detailed plot summaries and analysis of each and every one of Sir Walter Hubert’s crime novels.  For a full year she had stared at Sir Walter’s droopy cheeks and watery eyes on the back of the hardcover editions that Marcus was constantly reading and re-reading and leaving open on the kitchen counter so the spines cracked.

Sometimes it had seemed to Alice that she was in a relationship with Sir Walter instead of with Marcus Alby.  Marcus had certainly spent a lot of time trying to convince her of the merit of Sir Walter’s novels, reading passages out loud to her at night, marking places for her to read and watching as she did so.  It always puzzled her that he was so smitten with Sir Walter, since it didn’t seem to fit the rest of his tastes.  Marcus was a literary agent, but he wasn’t usually interested in crime fiction.

Perhaps that had been the problem: she hadn’t known Marcus the way she thought she had.  If she had known him, maybe she would understand why he left.

Alice forced her attention back to the present and away from her failed relationship just in time to spot the short bald man moving toward her.

Damn, she thought, gritting her teeth and looking for an escape.  She wove her way through the crowd in the direction of the restrooms as fast as she could move in her heels.  The man was a pest of an agent who had been hounding her about reviewing a client’s latest novel.  She slipped into the ladies room, not entirely certain that would deter him.  None of her past avoidances had, including telling him flat out that she may be a literary critic, but she focused on memoirs and biographies and not on fiction.

After a few minutes, she peeked out the door.  The agent was still there, but looking in another direction.  She slipped out of the ladies room behind a pair of women and ducked into the crowd.  When she had put distance and bodies between her and the pesky agent, she looked around and realized that she was once again within feet of Sir Walter.

Funny, he didn’t look as droopy in person as he did in his headshots.  He was smiling and gesturing emphatically.  His voice wasn’t what she would have imagined, either.  Based on the photo, and on the novels – which she had tried a number of times to read but not managed to get through – she would have thought his voice would be reedy and thin, a dry monotone.  Instead, it was deep and booming, even vibrant.

“…and she wasn’t even in the room!”

She heard him reach the punch line of the story he was telling and the group around him burst into appreciative chuckles.  With a nod of his head that sent his cheeks jiggling, he swung around and headed straight for her.

Alice tightened her grip on her wine glass.  Should she say something to him?  What should she say?  What would Marcus have said?  She racked her mind for the plot of one of his novels.  Had there been one about a horse thief?  Yes, the Mustang Caper.  Or was it about a car thief, as in the convertible?  She really should have paid more attention.

Sir Walter approached and swaggered by without stopping, stirring up the air around her.  She got a whiff of bourbon and Old Spice and wrinkled her nose.  Looking over her shoulder, she saw he was at the bar.

A moment later, she casually leaned against the bar next to him.  One of the bartenders took her empty glass.

“Chardonnay?” he asked with a polite smile.

“Pinot Grigio,” she corrected, then turned and aimed a smile at Sir Walter.  She held out her hand.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met, but I recognize you from your novels.  I’m Alice Charles.”

Sir Walter’s grin widened.  “A fan!  Wonderful.  Lovely to meet you.”  He stopped for a moment, tilted his head.  “Did you say Alice Charles?”

“I did.”

“As in, Alice Charles the literary critic?”

“That’s correct.”  Alice accepted her fresh glass from the bartender and took a sip.

“It’s a pleasure, my dear.  A true pleasure.”

Here it comes, she thought.

“I can’t help but notice you’ve never reviewed any of my novels.”

“Crime fiction isn’t the genre I generally review,” Alice said, smiling in what she hoped was an apologetic manner.  “I’m afraid it’s not my personal preference.  I’m not sure you’d want me to review your work.”

“Hm.  Well.”  Sir Walter didn’t seem to know what to do with that, and tossed back half of his freshly-poured bourbon.

Alice took a slow breath.  She was pathetic.  She knew she was pathetic, and yet she was going to do it anyway.

“Actually, I came over to meet you because I was wondering if I could get your autograph.”

Now Sir Walter focused on her over his glass.  His grey-blue eyes, watery as ever, widened in surprise.

“If I’m not your cup of tea, why would you want my autograph?” he asked.  “Not that I mind, I’m just curious.”

Alice laughed.  “It’s not actually for me.  It’s for…a friend who is a big fan.”

There it was, out in the open.  The pathetic-ness of her.  Getting an autograph for Marcus so she would have an excuse to see him again.  She could imagine the conversation now.

Oh, hello, Marcus, she’d say, breezy and confident – and over the phone so that she could disguise her nerves.  I’m glad I caught you.  Yes, I know we said we would give each other some time and distance, but you’ll never guess what happened.  I ran into someone the other day at the MSPCA event.  Don’t try to figure out who.  I have something for you.  Can we meet for a drink?  She’d laugh, lightly.  My treat, of course.

He would be surprised to hear from her.  After all, he had dumped her unceremoniously, told her not to call him.  She had returned home one day and there he was, carrying out a box of his belongings.  He hadn’t even bothered to set it down.  He had simply flipped his shaggy hair out of his eyes and said that it wasn’t working, he had met someone else.  There was no thanks-for-the-good-times, no let’s-talk-about-the-difficulties-in-our-relationship, no final goodbye kiss.  Just the sight of his back as he walked down the hall to the stairwell.

She was so stunned she hadn’t even run after him.  She hadn’t said anything.  And she had spent the last month wondering what had gone wrong, and staring at the Sir Walter novel he had accidentally left behind because it had fallen behind the bookshelf.

The real Sir Walter smiled at her, and she forced herself to focus on the present.  “Well, I will be happy to give you an autograph for your friend, on one condition.”

“Of course,” she said.

“Just give one of my stories a try,” he said.  “You don’t have to review it.  Just pick it up and see if it grabs you.  We should all be open to new experiences.”

“I’d be happy to.”  Alice nodded, knowing that she never would – or rather, that she already had.

Sir Walter picked up a cocktail napkin and pulled a pen out of his pocket.

“Who should I make out the autograph to?”

“Marcus.”  Alice cleared her throat.  Saying his name out loud, for the first time in a month, was harder than she thought it would be.  “Marcus Alby.”

Sir Walter glanced up in surprised, pen frozen over the napkin.

“Marcus Alby?”  He tilted his head, his brow wrinkled in confusion.  “But…my dear, Marcus Alby is my agent.  And my son.”

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“Artifice” won first place in the Abbey Hill Literary 3rd Quarter 2009 Short Fiction Contest.

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