The Bible of Insects
as appeared in Tina in the Back Seat (Bard/Avon Books, 1999)
It is commonly known that after mating, the female praying mantis kills the male, eating him slowly, the male seemingly shivering with anticipation, because it is what happens; it is the natural thing to do. It is not masochism, this act of sacrifice, but a code, an instinct, a law in the bible of insects that must be followed.
These are the women Inez knows she will never be. They are twenty-four and blond, in billowing beige chiffon, standing in open doorways of their gandfathersí houses. They are used to massive walls of stone, crystal, candlelight, and the smug silence of being better. Inez never had, and never will have, that Grace Kelly chignon, that Elizabeth Taylor white dress, that Joan Fontaine way of craning oneís neck so attractively.
No, Inez wears bright colors and big jewels, to make her babies happy, so they donít die in a sea of beige perfection. And she knows she is the one who takes care of these grandfathers when those beautiful, billowing girls are too busy breathing in the night air to take notice.
Inez knows she is the one they whisper about at breakfast, about how much of the estate that she, a complete stranger, will claw her way into. Just another vulgar middle-aged woman, they say, as the hazy Bel Air sunshine hits the morning table. They do not have to worry. The were born provided for. And Inez is smart enough to know eyebrows are raised if she gets too much; lawyers are called.
She is tolerated as a last wish, a foolish dream, like a tumor that spreads haphazardly, of dying old men. The beige women say, let her sit with him watching game shows, let her feed him and tell him dirty jokes and have him write checks. He is already dead. She is merely taking care of the corpse.
Let her marry him, change the will, earning her living like a locust who tears through dry fields. She is more trouble than she is worth, but she is harmless, and can be easily bought. Not to worry. She is still a stranger.
These women, Inez knows, will marry men richer than their grandfathers. They will maintain homes in Palm Beach and New York and Bel Air and Mexico, and she is just a cog in the well-oiled wheel, someone who, in time, will disappear, satisfied with the payroll. But she will never be let inside. She may be up in the old manís bedroom, with crossed legs and her high heels off, reading U.S. News and World Report out loud as he shakes his head distrustfully. There may be only one light on, contouring her cherubic face in a luxurious shadow, and she may put the magazine down, the both of them smiling warmly. There may be a moment when she puts on a tape of Benny Goodman, he loves Benny Goodman, it reminds him of his first wife, and he may turn his head to look out, through the high French doors, into the black night. As he falls to sleep, she may pick up her heels, silently padding across the sculpted Chinese rug to his bed, putting on his nightlight. As she reaches down to kiss his cheek, the scent of her perfume, Orange Blossom, from Miami, Florida, will fill his nostrils, and she will go into the next room, her room, the last wifeís room, large and pink and ivory, swathed in silk and damask, and she will prepare for bed, leaving the door between their rooms open just a crack. Soon the sound of crickets in the night-blooming jasmine will permeate these rooms, the sound of a bedside clock whose numbers flip over endlessly, the heavy breathing of the old man and his occasional mumbling of hatcheted memories. But she will sleep soundlessly, without effort, her heavily creamed face shining like a deep lake under the moon.
But she is still not inside. Because the beige women who know this scenario are standing in those doorways of night, their chiffon rippling and their slender hands clutching a drink, but they are looking out. Inez is still at the front door, pressing the buzzer, waiting to be let in.
Sarah is one of the beige ones, the only surviving relative, the granddaughter of Inezís fifth husband, Jumpiní Jim Kelley, the corn king of the Midwest, who at eighty-nine is considered the thirtieth richest man in America. Surprising to Inez in an almost evenhanded sort of way, she is also Jim Kelleyís fifth wife.
Jim Kelley, like all the men Inez chooses so carefully, has outlived all his ex-wives, and also outlived his only daughter, Constance, who died an alcoholic.
Constance was dressed in a mink coat and staring straight ahead at a booth at the Beverly Wilshire bar for so many hours someone finally called an ambulance. Only Sarah remains, and she is a very rich young lady with dishwater blond hair, like Julie Christie in Darling. Sarah will live in her grandfatherís house until he passes on, which both women seem to be hoping for feverishly.
Sarah tolerates Inez, she knows the score; she has seen three other stepmothers come and go every few tears, their purses considerably fuller than when they arrived. She knows old Jim Kelley, whom she has never been particularly fond of, even as a child, has more money than he will ever be able to spend, and if Inez wants a complexion raising three or four million, or even five, so what? Sarah gets two hundred million, and once Pops passes, sheís moving to Paris.
Inez does take good care of Jim Kelley, just like she did with Albert and Jeffery and Bill and Stewart, all of them covered with liver spots and waving at Inez to take her clothes off, walk around the room, jump up and down so her titties bounce. Well if thatís all it is, she would say with a sly wink, then I guess you deserve your treat. Afterward, as she leaned over her babies in their sickbeds, the beige ones downstairs quietly moving from room to upholstered room for no reason at all, her husbands would take her chubby hand and kiss it with dry lips, stroke the powdered down of her cheek and say "Read me some more, open the window, I need my pitcher of water, help me to the toilet."
And Inez, the dutiful wife, helped. No one could ever accuse her of neglect. The most exciting moment, which hasnít yet happened with old Jim Kelley, is that first, deep, dry cough. Thatís when Inez knows to call, with much fanfare, the doctor for a professional nurse. Then come the IVs and the bedpans. Inez, although ringing her hands in front of the nurse, her eyes liquid with the possibility of tears, would actually walk around her husbandsí beds, repeatedly, rubbing her thighs tightly together until she got wet and excited. She could always tell how her husbands knew, their shivering with anticipation, was not intense fever.
When the final moment came, Inez was there with the nurse and doctor, and whichever beige one happened to attend, and Inez always kept her face stoic, saddened, but what they couldnít see, these last attendants in these heavily carpeted rooms, was that Inezís mouth was watering, spit sliding down her throat. She was hungry.
Tonight Sarah is downstairs in the living room, French doors open, with a dizzy panorama of Los Angeles and Century City below her. This house is considered the only truly ugly house in Old Bel Air, with too many porticos, balustrades, columns, sculpted miniature trees and yard lights, but what a view.
Thatís what itís all about, Inez thinks, sipping her nightly bourbon and Coke with Jim. Itís all in what you can see below you. Thatís why she spends more time upstairs, having her needs delivered by the staff, because when she does have to talk to Sarah, she can look down on her as she descends the stairs.
"You want some ice, sweetheart?" Inez asks Jim in a singsong voice. Jim can on longer speak, due to a series of small strokes, his mouth folded into a left-sided grin, spittle running down his chin into a small attached tray. He nods his head and makes a weak gesture with his hand. Jim Inez thinks, you canít talk but you can sip bourbon and Coke through a straw, canít you, you sly fox. Inez gingerly takes Jimís paper cup and plops two more ice cubes and another two jiggers of bourbon into it, then hands it back, smiling. Jimís eyes light up, and Inez settles herself into her favorite club chair and picks up a copy of Town & Country. heíll be out in twenty minutes, she thinks to herself.
Inez can hear night birds cawing in the manicured trees. She believes she can hear black beetles burring under bushes, their wings flapping, a thin musical armor, holding onto Hollywood berries and gardenia bushes already shorn of their blossoms. Sarah probably has those gardenia in one of her priceless crystal bowls, Inez, thinks, floating silently until they yellow. Sarah will never hear the black beetles, Inez realizes, but I can. I am able to decipher the love songs of anything ugly that in the shadows and bites.
The female praying mantis can be either a dusty green or brown. Known as mantis religiosa, because when it rests it lies down on its front legs as if in prayer, it is widely known as a predator who knows how to blend in. This is, again, instinctual. During certain breeding seasons, hundreds of prying mantises can make a fascinating picture, clinging to an old tree, barely distinguishable from its withered bark.
Sarah always seemed to be hovering about now, Inez concludes. She is always at the base of the stairs, seldom going up except to take a bath or go to bed. Inez has it arranged so they do not take their meals together, particularly breakfast, when she might have to answer Sarahís subtle questions in her beige purring voice.
A coffee is served in the sun room for the two women at about five P.M., and they force each other to attend, smiling archly, trading the hieroglyphics. Sarah goes out for drinks and lunch three times a week with her college girlfriends from Spence and Smith who seem to have landed in Los Angeles, because thatís where their familyís money really is, and besides, who wants to walk through all that slush and dirt in New York or Boston? Of course, no one in their right minds will admit, at lunch, to actually liking Los Angeles, and no one admits to fucking the waiters at all the best trattorias in town, or that they are waiting for their trusts to be finalized and still have to beg their familyís lawyers for the occasional advance. Desperation in not attractive.
Today at coffee, the plants in the sun room have been watered and misted, the floor waxed and the silver polished. There are even those little raspberry cakes that Inez will eat five or six of. Underneath the table is a bottle of whiskey to mix in the coffee, and Sarah is wearing an oyster-colored cashmere sweater from Barneyís, tan Italian slacks, and sensible flat leather shoes. Sarah is not the string of pearls type; her gold necklace, bracelet, and earrings are from Bulgari. Sarahís hair is pulled up, with a crisscross pigtail braid in back, no makeup except a clear gloss on her lips.
Across from her, Inez sits comfortably in a wicker chair; she is wearing a jungle print housedress and a pull-on turban, mules and her big diamond wedding rings from Jim. She reaches down under the table and breaks open the whiskey, offering some to Sarah first, who accepts, smiling, then pours some into her own coffee as well.
"Nothing like an Irish coffee," Sarah says quietly. The sun casts a burnt yellow fog in the room.
"Actually, we need Kahlua too, but I suppose beggars canít be choosers," Inez says with as much charm as she can muster.
Silence. Both women sip their coffee, easing back into their chairs. Sarah finally breaks the quiet.
"Howís Grandfather, Inez?"
"Perky. He gets up and walks around the room a lot. His appetiteís good too." Inezís voice flutters downward spiral.
She realizes Sarah has been in to see her grandfather only once in the past month. Considering the amount of money Jim is leaving her, Inez feels strongly that Sarah could at least come up for ten minutes every day. Sarah doesnít even bother with excuses; "Oh, it just upsets me too much, seeing Grandfather like this," and other beige songs, never pass her lips. Sheís a cold one, Inez thinks. Sheíll die alone. Her Sarahís ancient, shaking hand will someday read on fine stationery; what with Billís promotion and my charity work, we barely have time to breathe. But have a lovely death, Mother. Weíre thinking of you.
"Youíve been truly wonderful, Inez."
"Heís my husband."
Silence again. A small garden spider crawls from one potted plant to another. Inez watches it with disinterest.
"Inez?" Sarahís voice is probing.
"I mean, is he really all right?"
"You mean, even though heís perky, is he ill? Yes, Sarah, heís ill. Heís eighty-nine years old, dear."
"Of course." Sarahís reply seems downtrodden, curious, even eager. "What kind of illness is Grandfather experiencing, Inez? It isnít painful, is it?"
No, Sarah, Inez thinks, no pain. No morphine needed. No possibility of the new being in sound mind and body. Inez has already been trough that little drama with Stewartís stepdaughter from a previous marriage. What was her name? Eileen. How could she forget? An out-of-court settlement from Inez, and Eileen went back to Montana or wherever she came from. Inez remembers how Eileen approached her outside the lawyerís, tears in her eyes, saying, she did it for her children, so they could have a future, to which Inez cooly replied, "I did it for love."
"Not painful at all, Sarah, just a creaking of the bones, I suppose. But Jim has great spirit, you know." Inez can see the trace of a scowl on Sarahís face, and is amused.
Donít you realize, Sarah, that your grandfather loves me? Inez muses silently. We have experienced a satisfying passion that only age and time create. I am forty-nine years old, with large brown eyes that Jim Kelley said reminded him of mink, and you know, silly girl, he bought me two minks to match my eyes. Had the furrier bring them right up to the bedroom, so I could select. Jim doesnít care that Iím heavy and my breasts are too large. He likes them big, likes for me to take them out and rub them on his face, likes to close his eyes and feel my nipples on his eyelids, then passing over his mouth. And I love him. I love his body, ancient and spent. I can see how broad his shoulders must have been, and I put an arthritis cream on them every night, very gently so it sinks in the right way. I massage his old feet and legs and tickle his privates and feed him his medicine and I make sure he eats only the food he loves, like fried chicken and chili and coleslaw and chocolate pudding. He gets his bourbon every night, he does whatever his heart desires. Because I love him. We have an understanding, something the beige ones will never have.
Sarah taps her nails on the table, pours herself some more coffee and reaches under the table for the whiskey.
"Donít drink too much coffee, Sarah, youíll never get to sleep."
"Iím going out tonight."
"Oh, I see."
"On a date. Grandfatherís business partner; have you met Teddy Goddard?"
"Yes. Youíre going out with Teddy Goddard?" Inez asks, disbelieving. "Teddy Goddard is eighty-seven years old."
"God no. His grandson, Turk. Turkís a stockbroker."
"No, Inez. Iím not following in your footsteps." The air becomes stale.
"That was an unnecessary remark, Sarah. As you go on in life, youíll discover there are many reasons to marry. Companionship. Love. Intellectual stimulation."
"Yes, money makes a difference, Sarah."
"You must be a very wealthy woman by now, Inez."
"Yes, I am."
Sarah purses her lips. Inez stares very hard at her and it frightens her.
"Am I not allowed to be wealthy, Sarah?"
"No, I didnít mean it that way."
"You know, dear, wealth is a privilege, not an expectation. Some people actually work for their money."
Sarah purses her lips again. Inez thinks, Oh, youíve got that down pat. Youíll be pursing your lips like that for the rest of your life. God, how many men you will make miserable with that tight little smirk.
"You should marry many times, Inez."
"Too many already." Inez waves a fly away from her forehead and begins to smile. "I have noticed your grandfather seems to be very congested. We should call in his doctor the next few days."
Good news. Inez studies Sarah. She can see Sarah thinking. How long the legalities will take, what kind of taxes she will have to pay, who she knows in Paris, who she will have to write to, asking for certain introductions.
Sarahís head snaps up as Inezís voice gruffly whispers, "See, little girl, I donít do it for the money."
"Then what for?"
"Because I enjoy it."
Now a throbbing silence. Sarah sets her coffee cup down noisily on its saucer. The sunlight is dimming.
Inezís tone completely changes.
"Well tonight Jim and I are going to play Monopoly. He always wins, you know. of course. Of course, I let him1 But then, I have to remind myself I'm playing Monopoly with a man who made a fortune dealing in corn! what do you know? You know, Sarah, all my husbands, all the men in my life, were self-made men. they never relied on anyone but themselves, never waited around for the prize. They had already stolen it! They have always seemed to understand me, and I them."
Inez looks at her ten carat diamond wedding ring and smiles. The afternoon sun has hit it just the right way, spinning light pattern and shadows on the interior wall of the sun room. All Inez has to do is tilt her finger slightly and a new kaleidoscope seems to emerge. It is a game, Inez thinks.
Sarah watches Inez play with the reflection of her diamond. Inez doesnít care; she has a box full of big diamond rings from big-time men who spawn spoiled mistakes like Sarah and Eileen and others, and no, she doesnít care.
Sarah gives Inez a curious glance, and gets up from the wrought-iron table. The spider Inez saw earlier has moved on to a third pot and disappeared into a thick tunnel of leaves.
"You and Grandfather have a good time tonight, Inez. I donít think thereís anyone quite so kind as you are."
Inez blushes as is she believes her. She feels she may have said too much to Sarah, but isnít concerned. Sarah is like all the beige ones, the well-bred girls before her and after her, their mothers and aunts and cousins and school friends who cling to a tree, never flying, fed easily and expecting their due without ever thinking they wouldnít get it. Because they always get what they want.
Inez rises and slowly trudges up the stairs. She feels she is getting too fat, her thighs thick and little veins appearing around her feet. A little extra weight and you never have wrinkles in your face, Inez notes. In the right light, the light of old menís bedrooms, you can look like a dream for years.
It is three oíclock in the morning and Inez is awakened by the sound of crickets and something else she cannot put her finger on. Getting out of her bed, she goes to the old manís door and listens. It is a full moon outside, firing up her bedroom in a blue light. She opens the door further, and stands in the doorway, listening.
Then she hears what sheís been waiting for. The dry, hollow cough, the thinning blood, the lumps that are beginning to form. She sees Jim in his with his nightlight on. She goes to the bathroom, wets a washcloth, then gingerly sits on the bed next to him, gently patting his forehead and cheeks.
His eyes are sunken, terrified. He coughs again, blood comes up in his spittle. Inez kisses him on the lips very slowly, then runs her tongue along the outer rim of his mouth. Jim suddenly smiles, and Inez is pleased. She then walks over to the phone and dials emergency 911 for an ambulance. Time being of the essence, she walks down the hall in her pink nightgown and knocks on Sarahís door. A surprised voice answers.
"Who is it?"
"Sarah, its Inez. Please get up." There is enough seriousness in her voice, she knows Sarah will be at the door, and quickly.
The door opens just a crack.
"Jimís starting to die." Nothing more needs to be said.
Sarahís eyes glaze over. She is not quite sure of what to do, Inez can tell.
"Iíve called for an ambulance. Thereís not a great deal of time. Please get dressed and then come to your grandfatherís room."
"Turkís here," Sarah says in a whisper.
Inez can do nothing but sigh. "Get rid of him!"
"All right. Of course, youíre right, Inez."
"Meet me in fifteen minutes. And turn the house and yard lights on. And notify the staff."
Back in Jimís room, Inez closes the double doors and locks them, smiling at her husband. She watches his convulsions, his shivering and his mouth opening to speak her name silently, and she thinks, Oh Jim, now is the time, the house will be full of light and sirens and this is all we have, the last great moment, when all hunger is appeased; watch me, darling. I will lead you by the hand as the crickets chirp and my beetles burr, into the garden, to the tree and the sky, and Inez leans back against the double doors, watching her husbandís eyes roll up and back again as he tries to focus on her, and she shimmies and arches her back, slowly lifting the folds of her nightgown above her hips, like curtains parting for the first act of the show.
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