Read Small g Online

Authors: Patricia Highsmith

Small g (2 page)

His studio was white, high-ceilinged, and had almost no chairs, as three out of four big tables were meant to be stood at. Lights with jointed supports craned over each table. There was a sink with hot and cold water in a corner, next to this a stove with two electric burners, and below the stove a square fridge.

Having removed his cardigan, Rickie put the kettle on for more coffee for himself and Mathilde. He got a sack of coffee beans from a cupboard and poured some into his grinder. The reaching had given him a twinge in the midriff. He was in fact ashamed of the bulge there, but had persuaded himself that the bulge made him look casual, indifferent to keeping fit, such a fetish among young and aging these days.

The twinge also reminded him, against his will, of goddamned Renate who Rickie had vowed to keep out of his thoughts today, in order to have a good day. This was because Petey had died from being knifed, and Renate out of bitchiness and maybe inborn dishonesty had spread the story that Petey had been murdered in his—Rickie’s—own bed by a pickup that Petey had brought to Rickie’s apartment that night when Rickie had been working late in his studio. Never mind that police records and newspaper accounts gave the truth! People, strangers in Jakob’s, for instance, didn’t bother to check stories like that. Rickie knew that
some
people in the neighborhood believed the story. It was Ursie who had told Rickie that Willi was murmuring a story about a stranger—or Petey and a stranger?—coming into Rickie’s apartment via his outside steps to the balcony, and Petey meeting his death that way. Rickie had shrugged it off, though it had angered him. Willi had made that up? Well, maybe someone else had put the idea in his head, Ursie had replied. Rickie had said no more. Who else but Renate?

Rickie looked at his wristwatch—almost ten-thirty—just as his doorbell rang. Most likely Mathilde, to whom Rickie had not yet entrusted his key.


Good
morning, Mathilde!” Rickie said in his rich baritone, holding the door for the bulky female form that entered.

“G’morning, Rickie.” Her eyes were pink-rimmed.

Rickie dreaded what might be coming, but at least coffee was on the way.

Mathilde let a large brown handbag slip from her shoulder to a bench at right angles to the two plaster-of-Paris ladies, but kept her white cardigan on. Unlike Rickie’s, Mathilde’s was rather clean, pocketless, and fitted her form snugly. Mathilde as a form was an assembly of curves. Her buttocks were broad and round, and the sweater cupped under them at the back. Rickie supposed that she thought this concealed her backside, but in fact the white sweater accentuated it. Her hip bones—they were somewhere under those lateral bulges—seemed to ride high, hardly preparing one for the really curvaceous and ample pair of breasts just above them in front. Rickie realized that Mathilde dressed to minimize all this mass—she tried—but the effect was just the opposite.

Rickie sighed. “Some coffee, yes? I’m going to have some. Only two letters to open today.” In the kitchen, he poured coffee for both. Mathilde took hers with sugar. “Then if you can get the enlarger ready—for that perfume job, you know? Franck and Fischer. I’d love to get that done today.”

“Thank you,” said Mathilde tremulously, accepting the coffee. A tear had found its way down her cheek and disappeared into two chins.

“Now come along, Mathilde. Take the coffee to the big table.” Rickie had put the two letters on the big table, a central table for both of them, used for general work. “Now, what is the matter, dear?”

Mathilde looked at him, wet-eyed; her cup even rattled in its saucer. “I think I’m pregnant.”

Rickie took a slow breath. Artificially, was his first thought. He couldn’t ask, “What makes you think so?” Idiotic. The idea of Mathilde being pregnant stupefied him. The mere thought of kissing her shiny, red-lipsticked mouth was Rickie’s idea of hell. The possibility that some man had gone further—

“I’m sorry,” he said, since Mathilde seemed very sorry. He cleared his throat. “You’re sure?” struck him as another inane question, so he checked that. “So what are you going to do about it?” he asked as gently as possible, and suddenly he didn’t believe Mathilde. Wasn’t she always full of drama? Maybe she should’ve been an actress. Still could be, maybe. She was hardly thirty.

“I don’t know what to do about it,” she said with a tremble, looking off into the distance.

“Well—” Rickie shifted. Frau Mueller who lived upstairs was always asking him, “Why do you keep Mathilde on? She’s more of a drag than a help to you.” Frau Mueller was right. But Mathilde needed the money. But then a lot of people in Aussersihl needed a salary and were prepared to work for one. “Well, for today—” Rickie moved toward his letters, but did not touch them. “Let’s get moving, at least. Maybe—by this afternoon something will come to you.”

“What?”

“An idea. What to do.” If she had proposed then and there to go home for the day, Rickie wouldn’t have tried to dissuade her. To set her an example, if possible, Rickie went to the enlarger and started getting it into position. This inspired Mathilde to go to the two letters at least.

One of the letters, which Mathilde brought to Rickie because she needed his answer, was from a firm called Logo Pogo, illustrated by a small black-and-tan design of a boy with feet on a slanting pogo stick. These people made sports equipment and wanted to illustrate a campaign, which was already on paper. Would Mr. Markwalder be interested?

“Tell them, yes,” said Rickie. Mathilde could type, at least, and her German wasn’t bad. Or maybe she would telephone.

“May I please have a beer, Rickie?”

“M-mm—of course.” It was eleven; Mathilde had held out longer than usual on a painful morning too.

The telephone rang and Rickie answered. This was Philip Egli, asking if Rickie could come to “a small party” at his place that night, and please bring Lulu?

“Lulu needs an early night. She was out last night,” Rickie replied. “But thank you, Philip.”

Philip groaned. “
Think
about it. No need to phone me back. Just come if you can make it, OK? All fellows. Two new guys—young guys. Well—just to
talk
to, you know. Do you good. Eats too.”

“Like the lasagne last time?” Rickie laughed genially, rocking back on his heels. Someone had managed to dump a huge platter of cooked lasagne on Philip’s kitchen floor, and Philip and another guest had salvaged what they could from the top of the heap. “Thank you, Philip, I’ll think about it,” Rickie said as he hung up, but he wasn’t going.

Mathilde did telephone the Logo people, and Rickie got on the line and made an appointment: they were to come to him.

“That way you can have a look at my workshop,” Rickie said in the casual, friendly tone he unconsciously used with business people, at first. It broke the ice, certainly, but it also helped Rickie later to drive a hard bargain if he needed to, not that Rickie had worked this out, it had simply evolved.

With eyes still wet, Mathilde had set up his enlarger and had treated herself to a small Dubonnet, Rickie noticed. There were quite a lot of beverages in the fridge besides milk, Coca-Cola, soda, and tonic. There was tomato juice and a bottle of good vodka, Cinzano and the tail end of an old crock of Steinhäger, which had sentimental associations with a nice blond boy from Hamburg, so he neither drank from this bottle nor offered it to visitors.

Just after twelve noon, when Rickie had attended to the second letter and finished his enlarging job, the waters burst for Mathilde.

“Boo-hoo-
hoo
!” loud in the big room, a classic.

Rickie had been then glancing at an orange-backgrounded lipstick ad with a lightning zigzag of bright red through it—Rickie disliked it but the lipstick company loved it—and he stared at the design, tormenting himself for a few seconds before he forced himself to start administering comfort.

He began with the usual, after all. “Now, are you sure? Have you told your mother?” She had not. Was she going to? No answer. “Who—who is your man friend?” asked Rickie, treading on unknown, even incredible ground. What man could be roused by Mathilde sufficiently to impregnate her? Suddenly to Rickie his thought seemed a guarantee that she wasn’t pregnant.

Mathilde lifted her dismal eyes to Rickie. “A man I’ve been seeing. Karl—”

“Does he know?”

“No—” Here came a great sob.

Rickie inwardly gave up. Was it his business? Mathilde had been with him only three months. She had answered his advertisement in the
Tages-Anzeiger
for a secretary-receptionist, salary and hours to be arranged. Out of three, Rickie had chosen Mathilde, because she had looked cheerful, healthy, and strong. Well, he had not been totally correct, he admitted.

“Now look, you go and have a good lunch at Jakob’s. All right, Mathilde? Promise me.”

Mathilde did like to eat, and at Jakob’s she could have another beer.

“Telephone me, if you’re not coming back this afternoon. I’d advise you to tell your mother—and decide what you want to do. I assume it’s been only a month or so.” Rickie was doing his level best.

Lulu had raised her pointed nose at the big “
Boo-hoo-hoo
,” and had been concentrating ever since. She lay curled on her blue pillow, following each word, glancing at Rickie and back to Mathilde.

“You are so nice to me, Rickie.” Mathilde seemed to be trying to conjure up more tears.

Rickie knew what was coming next, and he hated it. Gay men were so nice, so understanding. Why couldn’t other men be as nice as gay men? It came, and Rickie switched off and barely heard it.

“Hm-hm,” he said noncommittally. “Now I’ve got to go off to lunch soon, or I can’t get back for this afternoon’s work.”

That got Mathilde on the move. Rickie gazed for some seconds critically at the big sheet of white paper under his enlarger: motorcycles—maybe twenty of them—zooming from upper left to lower right, all blurred. Speed. That was sure. Not bad, Rickie thought. He waited till Mathilde had exited before he moved. He fastened the lead to Lulu’s collar, and she led him to the door.

Rickie’s apartment was several meters away in the same street. The building had a garden at the front and one side, with bushes, three or four handsome trees, and a hedge along the pavement. Rickie’s flat, on the first floor, boasted an iron balcony with steps down to the garden. French windows in his apartment gave onto this little balcony—alas, hardly big enough for a table, though sometimes Rickie ate out here with a friend.

Inside, a teal blue dominated. There was teal-blue wall-to-wall carpeting, darker blue wallpaper in nearly all the rooms, conservative furniture, all of wood and unpretentious. Here on the walls hung at least six of Rickie’s cruising-white-bird paintings of varying sizes—all oils—the bird’s slender outspread wings long in proportion to the body, of which little was visible. The bird’s head was slightly turned in a direction that varied in each painting. The subject was a seagull, though one painting was of a white stork gliding over houseroofs.

And here too Petey Ritter was apparent in photographs framed and unframed, in color and black and white. Rickie had in six months progressed to the point of not looking at them, certainly not staring any longer at any of them, but not to the point of taking any down. Yes, one he had taken down a month ago, the least good, he remembered. When one entered the flat, Petey loomed from the left on his motorcycle, blond, smiling, the wind blowing his hair back, the motorcycle slanted as if on a curve, though he had been still, posing for Rickie. Another that Rickie loved showed him and Petey at a pavement table, black and white and in dappled shadow and sun because of the vine-covered terrace. A good photo. Rickie had had that one blown up.

Rickie opened a small beer, and pulled out his leftovers of spaghetti and cheese and tomato from last night, which had been delicious. More butter, a dash of milk, and Rickie eased it into a pan.

How long had it been since Petey? Rickie found he wasn’t sure any longer of the number of weeks, only of the date. His absence was the point. What they might have had together! Helping each other, being happy. Murder was the point. Murder and drugs. Rickie glanced at his pan, whose contents had not yet begun to bubble, and walked with his beer to the french windows, which were in his dining area, as some called it. Here was a well-polished table that seated six comfortably.

He opened the french windows, which in fact didn’t lock. The doors were so loose—though they looked closed from outside—a mere push could cause the horizontal bar to give, the doors to part a little, and a hand could do the rest. Ought to get that fixed, Rickie told himself.

Rickie began his lunch at the coffee table before his sofa. After less than a minute, he went to his cassette shelf and chose a female singer, American, singing some of his favorites. Several minutes later, there came a song that recollected Petey so strongly that he jumped up and turned the machine off, pushed it again to rewind.

“Lulu! One more little biscuit?”

Lulu, silent, stood up and wagged her tail, and looked at the biscuit box by the sink.

Rickie gave her one. Then he went into his bathroom where he had a full-length mirror on the wall, not a meter wide and some two meters high. Rickie pulled his shirttails out of his trousers and jerked his shirt up to his nipples.

He went forward and took a good look at his scar. Now there was a nasty job, from just under the sternum nearly to the umbilicus, and worst of all
broad
—as if the surgeon had messed around a bit or had been drunk. The scar was a mottled pink and white, pointed at top and bottom, as if the surgeon had begun and ended properly but got lost in the middle. It
was
a bad job, another doctor or two had said that, and Rickie hadn’t worn his Velcro girdle as he’d been told to do during the critical days after the stitching, hadn’t worn it day and night, Rickie had to admit.

That gash had happened about three weeks after Petey’s death. Rickie had gone to a section of Zurich dense with bars, without his car, intending to enjoy his drinks, but he’d had one too many, that was certain. Suddenly it had happened, in those seconds of blackout as he stepped out of the bar into the street, intending to try to find a taxi, and tripped. The blackout lasted until he woke up in hospital, hours later, when the dawn was breaking, and a nurse was asking him his name.

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