Roguishly handsome Lantana, son of a womanising explorer, makes his living selling lingerie - but when a management position opens up the stakes are higher than he thinks, in Nidhi Singh's flamboyantly written tale.
Macaws and parrots swaddling in dead leaves on white-barked trees slumbered fitfully, while toucans with massive bills and bright plumage, sated from eating too many picked cacao beans during the day, tossed and turned at the higher reaches of the dense canopy. It was high-water time and the river had risen about fifteen meters already - pink dolphins sliced through her raging black waters while tiny canoes tossed and tugged furiously at their tethers.
Loud laughter drifted out from the dimly lit log cabin sitting squat in the middle of a clearing in the dense jungle. Guinea pigs roasted in huge open-air ovens outside while empty hammocks in the porch swung lazily in the breeze fanning the clammy lowland. It was too oppressive even to breathe. Save for cracks in its logs, the cabana was almost windowless; its door a mere flap of woven palm fronds.
Inside, flush from drink and dance and sleaze and sauce, grizzled gadabouts slapped their thighs with empty hands and roared in revelry - the laughter neither touching their vacuous eyes nor their desperate souls.
The man laughing the hardest was a bare-chested craggy explorer going by the name of Gringo the Damned. He was damned, the fellow travellers said, not because like a devil he'd survived alligators, killer crabs, corrupt customs and other's treacheries; but, like a devil, it was held that he deserved to be judged and incriminated by a force much higher than mere mortals, who could dispense meager comeuppance only.
"I enjoy my drinks a rich piss color," the gringo observed, holding out his glass of tap water under the brimstone lamps. "Drink, my fuel, my inspiration, my reason for staying alive."
Maria, buxom, brown eyes, hair darker than eyes, sun-kissed cheeks and crimson lips that showed a mild Aztec strain mixed with vintage Spain swayed in her suppleness on the gringo's knee. She slammed down her Pisco sour mug on the table and laughed - it was the caroling of birds setting forth from a giant kapok tree at dawn. "Why don't you disinfect your drink with some brandy, Louis," she asked, biting his ear, drugging him with her coca breath.
"Never has alcohol touched these lips, nor ever shall," he replied, slipping his calloused hand into her blue serape, sending her into a twitter of girly raptures.
"Marry me, Diablo Americano," she said, drawing from her garter a little dagger and cutting the oppressive air with it, making a passage, as if. "Take me back with you, hombre."
"I have a family; a dark beauty with sideways glances, and a little boy who's never set eyes upon me since he was ten. And you have this cabana to call your own, and these men that are drawn in droves to your doorstep - the light at the end of the tunnel."
"No men these are to me, Mr. Bones - but wretches and savages stealing from an honest man's work. Their custom keeps the fire alight... the hog roasting, and the business of life up and about. You - watch out for them," she said, waving her dagger at a gang of scruffy macheteros with dark scowls, following every move of these two.
Louis didn't bother to turn but shoved his small tin trunk closer between his feet under the table. "I have nothing of value for them, Maria, so fear not."
"Nothing of value, bah! They say you found Capt. William Thompson's treasure - life-size gold statues of Mother Mary... precious stones and silver coins; the loot he turned a pirate for... was hanged for."
"What fancy," he said, rubbing down her supple thighs.
"These men will not let Peru's property leave this land. The Spaniards couldn't; nor can a grizzly gringo, all by himself, the very devil though he might be," she said, whittling her dagger down his stubbled cheek. "What's in the box then," she asked, bending down, glancing at the tiny trunk under the table.
"Photos, letters, tide tables, a moon calendar... memories... some Aguaje, Camu Camu fruits for people back home."
"A map perhaps? Of a fortune buried under caves, mounds, dead foliage? A Shaman mask, beads, mumbo jumbo?"
"Why not an El Dorado, eh? These are ravings of fevered minds, from too much time spent looking for easy money in the cruel bush. There's nothing out there but struggle, and death - if you're lucky. And I think that's all there to me - lucky, but living. And I'll be lucky to get on that boat and out of this boiler-room if the river subsides within the week."
"Still, be careful, mi Guapo," she said, rising from his lap to see to the till behind her bar.
"Que sera sera," he said; blowing a kiss her way, he walked out into the stuffy heat to lie down on a hammock, one arm covering the trunk by his side, the other nursing a six-shooter on his thickly muscled, hairy chest.
The macheteros, seeing Maria get busy with her books, quietly slid back their chairs, and followed Louis outside.
Curls & Curves, now
The shabby-chic lingerie store on Delancy Street was abuzz with murmurs and sighs. The small sales staff, Lantana, Penny and Willy, waited bushy-tailed for the owner, Mr. Dunce Schlemiel, to make an announcement of the new manager for their store. Mrs. Isis Funker, the widow of their previous slave driver, was still dressed in black and wondering what to do with the urn containing the still-warm wreckage of the dear departed's corporeal legacy.
No sooner had a shifty-eyed woman left after making a purchase of many boxes of Heartbreaker Open Back Panty and Fishnet Nurse Thigh Highs, Dunce cleared his throat and summoned the minions to his pride of place behind the cash register.
Prone to bombastic speeches, he began, "Dear rank and file of the C&C, gather close and hark: we put ourselves together this afternoon to dwell on the irreparable loss of Mr. Funker, and to chart the future course of this enterprise under the stewardship of a worthy successor. While each of you is meritorious in their own right, we must take a tough call on the heir-apparent, the Prince of Wales, so to say." Adjusting the hem of a Crotchless Schoolgirl Skirtini politely, he paused.
"So, I have come to the conclusion that only a final acid test, a trial of wits," he continued, "may elect the legatee in a fair, equitable manner. And bless the one who perseveres under ordeal, for they'll clinch the promised crown."
There were gasps and a soft rolling susurrus of clicking tongues among the gathered petitioners.
"What test, which trial," the whispers rose.
"What crown - Prince of Wales?"
"That's sexist - why not Princess Diana?"
Dunce raised his hands, like a General aloft a valiant steed of battle, bidding the floodwaters recede. "Hold your horses, unit. All are welcome to the contest - and may the fairest and the feistiest win," he said, glancing meaningfully at dark-haired, swarthy-complexioned, devilishly handsome Lantana.
"A contest! A horseback joust?"
"I alluded to horses only - "
"Exactly. Figuratively. All you have to do is tot up sales of USD 50,000 by the end of the month, and become the manager."
"Fifty thousand G's! A bra cage here costs 320 dollars, and that's the higher end of the scale. How do we manage?"
"Not we - it's individual sales," Dunce clarified. "The sales specialist who gives me that figure by the 30th wins."
"But it's impossible!"
"There's only ten days!"
"A five-thousand bucks sale per day - and four holidays coming up!"
"If you thought life was a bed of roses and thousand fragrant posies, well, you're seriously off-kilter. I sold panties and hoses from a pushcart out on the pavement yonder, and see where I've reached." Dunce waved his arms expansively, looking suddenly disoriented as he knocked nipple tassels off a mannequin in Spanky Pants.
"No ifs and buts, " Dunce said, carefully clipping a loose suspender back on a model's garter belt. "We'll suspend the discussion here. Alrighty now," he clapped his hands, as a couple of ladies with sideways-bulging breasts walked in. "Back to work!"
Before the store closed, Dunce summoned Lantana to his small office toward the back. He was dressing up a male dummy with split seam thongs. "How does he look," he asked, stepping back, and on second thoughts adding a lace trimmed eye mask.
Lantana laughed and sat down. "Visionary. I would hand him a crystal encrusted whip... and some furry animal ears."
Dunce sighed and sat down across the desk from Lantana. "Ouch!" He squirmed slightly to dig out from under him Sudoku Knickers with pencils dangling from black bows. "They kept it simple during our days - practical, comfortable granny pants stuff with cotton, satin and maybe some lace if you were adventurous."
Lantana nodded and examined his nails. He had a date with Penny, and he waited patiently for Dunce to come round to his reason for this late-hour tete-a-tete.
"Why are you in this business," Dunce asked, flipping open a can of beer and leaning across the desk at him.
Lantana shrugged. "For the same reason as everybody else."
"For someone who wasn't born with titties himself, you have displayed remarkable talent in knowing how ladies wish to cover them. Or uncover them."
"You don't have to be born a Mozart to know the thrill of music."
"Still, you don't belong here - by which I don't imply that you aren't my best salesman - which you are, by miles."
"Why the contest then?"
"You know, Mrs. Schlemiel, I can't say this word to her... this no. 20 years ago, when she sashayed past me on this pavement wearing a foot-long headgear in the custom of Cleopatra, decorated with broomsticks, paper flowers, silver coins, glass beads and seashells, time stood still. With plumes of white fluffy clouds as her parasol, patched with pineapple and potato slices, she looked like a walking vegetable garden of exotic foodstuffs. One look, and I knew then that the best 34DD teardrop jugs lurked under that black wavy chiffon dress. I worshiped them then and I go weak in the knees to this day..." His voice trailed as he dreamily smoothed a Pleasure Delivery Maid dress on his desk.
"I don't see how this connects to our little situation in the office?"
"Yes - pardon me - where was I at? Peek-A-Boo Mesh Cups?"
"No - you were at the contest."
"Quite. Now you see, this willy-nilly - this William-nilliam - Willy, he happens to be dear Mrs. Schlemiel's distant nephew. She's under some eleemosynary obligation to place this creature in a position of advantage. And the unfortunate passing away of dear Funker has put the future of this store in jeopardy - she absolutely insists the chap gets the job. And we all know what an abomination he is. The only way I could get her to agree to a compromise was by this impossible bet, this contest. She too knows there's no way this target can be met - it's a matter of few days before Willy gets the raise."
"Why don't you talk her out of it?"
"Alas," he moaned, "all logic flies out the window when she jiggles those puppies at me. You understand?" he asked, peering at Lantana through keyholes of a Playtime Kitty dress. "You want to set them free and play with them."
"Well, then, what's left to discuss? Que sera sera."
"But there is! You are the only one who can make the target!"
"I don't know how. You must know how! I see it in your eyes - they're free, wild, broadly set - like a bird of prey's. You're here - like I said, I don't know why - but I see that you have that bold adventurous spirit - that devil's couldn't-care-a-damn attitude. Trust me - who else would know if a woman who walks in through that door is wearing panties or not? You could do anything you set your heart to - why, you could murder, if push came to shove - am I not right? Why're you even selling this stuff - you should be out there sailing the high seas like your father, discovering new civilizations? But now that you are with me - I implore you - meet this target, and save this store."
"Thank you for your confidence, Mr. Schlemiel - do I take it the job will be mine, then?"
"Absolutely - from one hawker to another - you have my word."
"Well, I'll try my best then - as I don't have any tall ship or a star to steer her by at the moment." Lantana pushed back his chair and hurried to the taco food truck on the street corner where Penny would be impatiently waiting for him with a six-pack, and a kiss.
Shut Up & Eat
The pavement around the Shut Up & Eat truck was as crowded as ever. Kids from college to streetwalkers to motorcycle gangs patronized the cheap dump. Fiery spices camouflaged the lack of taste and the only way Lantana could have the tacos was by washing them down with beer.
He found Penny leaning against a lamppost, away from the crowd, empty-handed. She was pretty in a pinched sort of a way. He could feel her pointy 28AA bra cups bite into him as she arched her flat chested, skinny body against him in a long greedy kiss.
"Where's the beer," he asked, finally disentangling from her tentacles.
"I thought it'd get warm by the time you get here, so I didn't get it. Here's the money you gave me -" she said, digging a bony hand deep into her pocket - but not taking it out.
"Never mind -" he said; jovially taking her arm, swinging her like she was made of straw, he led her to the liquor store just across the street. Tossing some crumpled bills on the counter, Lantana paid for the beer and they returned to the taco stand. The crowd around the truck had bulged; the night air was laden with a heavy smell of cinnamon mingled with chilies scorching on direct flames.
Lantana walked up to the puesto and said, "La salsa pica?"
"No, no pica," said the cook.
"Estupendo. Dos de carne con cebolla y cilantro. Quiero dos con todo."
"Si bucanero." The cook winked.
Lantana looked at the grinning cook with surprise and stepped out of the crowd.
"Did you hear that - he called me a pirate," Lantana said, scowling. "Do I look a ruffian?"
"You look a potential lingerie manager to me." She laughed drily. "But you would make a handsome pirate, though, with the wooden stump and wicked parrot."
"You speak good Spanish too," Penny remarked.
"Madre was half-Spanish."
"He was something of everything - a bit of a swashbuckler, a madcap, a pioneer... quack... pundit - all rolled into one heady mix. Left us when I was ten, and never set foot home again. Left me a rusty trunk with rags and dolls. Left Ma to work houses to bring me up."
"But you spend and dress so rakishly - where did he go?"
"Gone... lost to drink, gambling, women - at least that's what Aunt Apate says. Murdered in a drunken brawl somewhere in the Amazon. But I don't quite like to think of him like that; of what little I remember, he seemed a kind, large-hearted man who loved us more than anything in the world."
"Tacos están listos." The cook waved at them from the truck.
Lantana handed over the money to a swarthy lady in the window, grabbed the tacos and headed back to the pavement. "Quédese con el Cambio," he shouted over his shoulder, "keep the change."
"What did he say?" the Mujer Mexicana asked Penny in the din, counting out the change.
"Nada to you," Penny said, grabbing the notes from the woman and pocketing them.
"Why don't we eat out in some decent joint?" Lantana asked, blowing out air and stamping his feet on the ground as the spices hit him. "Something American. No wonder this guy Trump says 'we don't have a country anymore' and wants to make America great again: presumably by returning it to a time before Taco Bell!"
"For a half-Spaniard, you don't have half a taste for Mexican food," she said, giggling. "And you can't afford fancy restaurants on your salary. You could if you won the contest."
"That would pit me right against you."
"Not if we hitched up together," she said, snuggling up to him, sticking a sharp knee in his butt. "Not if we were one."
"Yeah? The only sensible thing Dad acquired in his lifetime was the house - it's massive. We could move into it."
"It's a distinct possibility, honey, as long as you pick up that gauntlet."
"And if I can't? What if Willy wins?"
"That jerk - he can't keep his eyes off women's breasts."
"That's what he's paid to do, isn't it?"
"Not the way he does it. To me, he talks to my face, though - and that seriously bothers me."
Lantana swallowed the chuckle he was about to let out.
"You're so pretty, he probably forgets your breasts. Do you know who he is," Lantana asked?
"Willy is Willy - who else?" she said, pocketing his uneaten food in a paper bag. "It's for the cat - he runs away sometimes when he doesn't get meat in a long time."
"Willy is Mrs. Schlemiel's nephew."
Penny caught her breath. "So that means if one of us can't beat the target, Willy gets the job?"
"Which means that this jousting is just a red herring to promote this - this William over us."
"Do the Schlemiels have any offspring?"
"Naah - the old man spent too much time staring at his missus's breasts, I think, and missed the train. He's probably framed them and put them up on the wall, and lights incense to them daily."
"This Mr. William Schlemiel, willy-nilly, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is the crown prince then, the heir-apparent to the Curls & Curves throne?"
"On the dot. Bingo!"
"There's no way you can win this, can you," she said absent-mindedly, untangling her long fingers from his.
"You can bet I'll slog hard if it means winning you over, darling."
"But you still can't beat him to owner, can you? Hey, I gotta rush!" She suddenly spun on her heels and made off.
"Hey, wait, I'll call a cab," he said, spreading his hands in wonder at her abruptness.
Penny waved her hand without turning and continued, picking up pace.
"I'll pay," he shouted. Penny stopped. She turned and strode back, an embarrassed smile on her face.
"I absolutely must rush - I forgot I have the first shift in the morning," she said, settling down in the cab Lantana had whistled down. "Go," she whispered hoarsely as soon as Lantana had slipped a few bills in the driver's palm.
"But tomorrow is Sunday," Lantana murmured after the speeding cab.
The Raging Coliseum
Bright clouds sailed over the wet grass; rooks leaned in on the light breeze, mingling their tunes with whistling leaves drooping over shiny pavements; butterflies rose like balloons from yellow buttercups; a far sea moved softly in his ears as Lantana ambled to the store on Monday morning, a song on his lips, newspaper and coffee in his hands.
Penny was helping Willie dress a model in Outerwear Lingerie for office; the Asian maid was vacuuming body hair off the floor; Dunce was drying out sweaty boob money from last week's sale.
Lantana removed his raincoat, put on the purple uniform with black waistcoat, hung the pink measuring tape around his neck, and totted up his sales - 376 dollars as on Friday. There were five more days to go, 49,624 more dollars to be added to the cashbox, and he had no clue how. So like all men who have no clue, he drummed his fingers on the glass counter, whistled softly under his breath, and playfully pinched the maid's buttocks.
He waited for Penny to come to his side of the shop, but she seemed to have taken to Willy the Nilly like Trix the Rabbit to fruit-flavored the ground corn cereal. She walked past him many a time carrying boxes of leotards and spanky-pants to arrange on the shelves, but never looked in his direction even though he threw false lashes, nipple pasties and pink wigs at her. 'Must be the tacos,' he thought, promising himself to take her to a better place even if he had to carry her over his shoulders.
There wasn't much time to be wasted thinking of Penny's self-inflicted gastronomic adventures, as the first customer of the day, a stooping lady with a walking stick, walked in. She paused at the first sales hand, Willy, who snorted, looked at Penny, who had eyes only for Willy, and carried on to the back where Lantana held the fort.
"Looking for a wedding dress, pretty girl?" Lantana asked solemnly, helping the lady to the countertop where she could lean her stick.
She checked to see if he was joking and then smiled gummily.
"Something racy - a see-through bra... black lace... red ribbons - enough to give the boyfriend a heatstroke?" Lantana continued his assault.
"Stop, will you," she chuckled. "I get it. Give me something frothy and frilly to keep the body parts in one place, is all."
"Of course, sister," he said, bending far under the counter to fetch old-world charms from stocks that never sold anymore. He gave the smiling woman a hefty discount, even slicing some from his own commission, and waved her out to a golly-good sunny day.
As the day wore on, a steady stream of women of all shapes and sizes pored in.
"Even though they rarely shower, or wash their underwear, women don't seem to have enough of the mindboggling array of straps and fasteners that act as puzzling impediments to engaging in coitus," Lantana observed to Dunce during a brief lull in the battle.
"Don't call it underwear that we sell, son, call it sartorial statement. Boudoir dresses are a serious investment in ladies' collection of unmentionables. If God gave women five pounds of flesh extra, he also planted a nipple on top of it to make it beautiful - it is god's painting - his work of art. Revel in it and stay blessed," Dunce replied, after arranging floral bandeaus and bloomers in the display behind him.
"Dum-de-da," Lantana warbled moodily, watching Penny drop gummy bears into Willy's laughing mouth. "That I obviously stand rejected, affects me little, or a little, I don't know which."
"That Penny has rejected you should affect you none at all."
"That I should lose her to Willy does affect me."
"Were it a better person than that nincompoop."
"What then of the prize - part of it was to win over Penny? Then there's nothing to be won?"
"The prize of not losing? Is that not winning enough? She does know, does she, about Willy?"
"Alas, I told her, putting myself at second best instantly. She also believes I can't beat Willy to owner even if I win this contest."
"What poppycock! I would gladly burn down this life's labor, this pièce de résistance, than bequeath to that lemon. Why, in a year to two, I see myself hauling out my roots and answering to the wanderlust with my ladylove, without a care in the world."
"What then of this mighty institution, this sprawling empire of boudoir commerce?"
"I shall make you equal partner before I take time-out, my son: you may deal with Willy then as you deem fit."
"You humble me with your trust."
"Enough with the drivel - git - duty beckons you," Dunce said, as a gaggle of society ladies walked through the swinging doors, bringing the sweet sparkle of sunshine and silver in. Like pigeons, the pretty ones homed in to Lantana.
"Did you see that zaftig rolling eyes at Lantana?" Penny remarked with scorn.
"Yeah, 38CC," Willy replied, dabbing the corner of his lips with his tie to check the dribble.
"She'll be lucky not to spill food on them."
Willy mumbled something under his breath, not able to yank his eyeballs off the heaving half-moons.
"I bet she balances wine glasses on them," Penny added, sliding up a hand under her shirt and pushing out her boobs in the mirror.
"If you're not careful, then that skinny one with the sagging bags is likely to drift in our direction." Willy dug an elbow on Penny's side, pointing out with his chin a well-heeled woman, who, finding a throng around Lantana, had started checking out the merchandise in their corner.
"What's she going to do with a bra - mop the floor with it?" Penny said, tittering.
"She'll need only the lower half of a bikini." Willy sniggered.
As the day was done, Lantana ran up a tidy sum of 2,300 dollars in sales. It was no good. He'd sold seamless panties to women with camel toe issues; low-legged, high-waisted underwear to ample size women; pushup bras to ladies with modest cleavage; hipsters from Lane Bryant for quad-boobed miseries; but it didn't quite add up to anything.
"Unless there's a miracle, I don't see how Willy will not be Manager before the week is out," Lantana said, popping open a beer in Dunce's cubicle after work. Penny had left with Willy - they were going to a food truck called 'Burger, She Wrote,' or something.
"A shame, isn't it?" said Dunce, popping open a chips bag. "A chips bag is like a pushup bra - when you open it, it's half empty. Women are so comfortable in your company - they simply adore you - it's that dark man on horseback thing, isn't it? They need saving, this store needs saving, I need that pension, son - do something!"
"Most mornings, I am confused whether I should enjoy the day, or make the most of it."
"Sweat in peace, son, and you won't bleed in war. Think of this place as yours - a legacy for your kids. Grow roots, invest in this venture."
"I wonder if this was the calling God chose for me?"
"You'll never figure out unless your stir your ass. Set forth, and seek trade."
"But I'm not a traveling salesman, Dunce."
"Are you prepared to lose out to Willy, then? Are you prepared to have Penny lording over you? Have you got any family fortune, a buried treasure lined up? If not, then go forth and bring me a fat order book. And to ease you on your way, I place my motorcar at your disposal."
"That indeed is most kind, Mr. Schlemiel. I shall set forth on my journey at the ambrosial hour. But could you, with your vast experience with the fairer sex, guide me where I'm likely to find a plentiful assemblage of our clientele?"
Dunce crossed and uncrossed his legs and wiped the froth from his mustache with crochet butt comforters. "They are most likely to gather en masse in contemplative, cloistered lives in nunneries: the women in habits; and in easy, unbridled spirits in bordellos: women of bad habits; and rich, guilty women in elysimionery pursuits in swanky nightclubs: women with no habits."
The Killing Fields
At dawn, when the cityscapes had whitened, Lantana set out. To the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, with a boot-full of unmentionable merchandise, he cast out.
The convent stood two stories tall, boxy and artless, finished in cream-colored siding with mauve trim and low-sloping gray-shingled roof. A few steps lead to a bare porch and the front entrance. All kinds of things grew around the earth and stone courtyard: a fig tree, still green and gumdrop-sized; a scrub of bright white gardenias; and Pecan trees overhanging the driveway, dropping furry strands of pollen. The porch was covered in shells picked clean by Bolshoi squirrels. Beyond the iron gates, scores of nuns in coarse habit lined up for prayer in soldierly rows in the nave leading up to the choir.
The office of the Abbess, Mother Hildegard, was dim, lit only by side-table lamps. Periwinkle valances floated above the Venetian blinds, still closed to the morning. A bright rosary lay on the coffee table next to a crucifix and a bowl of plastic Easter eggs. On the mantel stood one of those tall mechanical clocks trapped under glass, hemmed in by folk-art angels.
Mother Hildegard exuded the graceful air of a prissy grandma: her lovely white curls; her air of neatness and gentle order; her way of sitting with her delicate, plump white hands folded in her lap just right.
Faint notes of prayer wafted into the room. Lantana felt like cracking open a leather-bound prayer book from the book shelves lining the bare walls and joining in the chorus. For the first time, he couldn't care to tell what the formidable woman before him wore under her veil. He shed levity and fed gravity with remorse at so frivolous a calling card, so silly an enterprise, and so trivial the merchandise that he was the master of.
Mother Superior placed Lantana's glossy catalog on the side table and addressed him in a kindly voice. "I see that you had the courtesy of showing only sober garments. Though once we loved to hear the wild thrush sing, we knew the hedgerow blooms all by name; all is past - gone, every vain joy; no splendor tempts us in these lonely cells."
"You could keep what you like, Mother."
"We will; but we have only blessings to repay you with, child."
"Ahem..." Lantana shifted in his chair. "That will do splendidly, Mother."
Mother Superior rose and clapped her hands. A nun drifted soundlessly into the room, her habit sweeping the wooden floor after her. "Escort the gentleman out and ease him of his burden, Sister Therese. God bless you," she said, drawing a cross in the air and beaming at him as he paced backward to leave the room.
'That's 5,000 Dollars worth of merchandise struck off my commission,' Lantana mused as he drove to his next destination: Mahogany Hall, a rococo behemoth, a decadent parlor for ladies with easy virtues and hearts of gold. With Tiffany stained glass windows, chandeliers and imitation artworks, secret stairways and hidden doorways, it was a playpen run by Jade Trollope for the rich and the noble.
Jade lay on a satin covered bed, her white arms and thighs bare, wearing a pink sequined dress held up by random silver chains that barely covered her booty. She was well endowed and pleasant, drinking red wine from a goblet of gold. She leafed through his catalog and sighed. "Alas, these pretty accessories are only impediments in our profession, for we like to dress without inhibition, darling." She tossed the catalog back to him. Reaching under her pillow with fat fingers, she brought out a swanky, gem encrusted compendium of her own wares. "Perhaps," she cooed, "I may entice a red-blooded young man like yourself with these flowers - these roses without thorns?"
Lantana leafed through the journal politely. "A most artistic corpus of beauty, madam, no doubt: one that requires serious pursuit at leisure. I'm pressed for time, alas, as I must purvey my own cargos to meet more mundane targets." Grabbing his catalogs, Lantana bid goodbye to the scented house of pleasure with regret.
'That leaves only Aunt Apate,' he thought, 'and her secret coven of bored, rich connections. The last straw.'
Honking the horn pleasantly at a leggy brunette in a floral dress sauntering on the sidewalk, he wondered what might become of him if he lost in the contest. Staying put was not an option, and once more, the far sea raged in his ears, salt winds assailed his nostrils, and he felt homesick, although what he'd known of as home, he was there already.
The Athenaeum boasted of a classical revival building; it had a front portico with paired Doric columns, a continuous balustrade on the main floor, a frieze above that floor copied from the Parthenon, and a statue of Pallas Athena above the porch. Aunt Apate sat by herself in the lounge, a gin and tonic and a deck of cards on the table. She took out cards one by one, placing them face up.
"I have been long waiting for you, Lantana boy," she said, peering over her glasses.
"Sorry, Auntie, had to make a few pit stops this morning before coming."
"It wasn't this morning I was talking of. What brings you to your old aunt? If it's to enquire after my health, you can see I'm doing quite fine."
"I need a little professional help, auntie."
"You're still selling that underwear with white drawstrings? What a shame, a proud scion of the Bones a salesman of unspeakables."
"Proud scion, indeed! What did Papa leave me, Auntie, enlighten me? You're definitely soaking it up here - what about us? He didn't even come for Mama's funeral."
"I married right - four times - not like your Papa. I don't know what ashcans he'd been rummaging around in the world when he brought home that dark haired trash."
"That's Mama you be speaking of," Lantana half rose, his knuckles white as he gripped the armrest.
"God bless her soul then. Sit you down, boy!"
"Why, auntie, why did Papa desert us like this," Lantana asked, wringing his hands. "What became of him?"
"Now that you ask - my poor brother - he was self-willed... obstinate. He had enormous talent, which he wasted in whacking around in the bush, making friends and enemies with the most unlikely of colorful characters. Threw away his life to drink, gambling, and darkly irresistible bewitchers. Of what little I heard - he was killed in a drunken pub brawl with some macheteros over unpaid debts."
"Are you certain - Mama said he never touched a drop of alcohol - never gambled."
"I have it on authority - from travelers to those parts." She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "But I believe he didn't really leave you with nothing - he did send back something, didn't he?"
"Yes - how did you know?"
"What was it," Aunt Apate asked hoarsely, the crochet handkerchief gripped tightly in her fist.
"Just a trunk, with knick knacks," replied Lantana, a little surprised at the sudden animation in his aunt.
"I bet you never opened it - it's under your bed."
"No, it's in the attic. There was stuff that didn't make any sense... no money... some letters... charts..."
"And the mask?"
"Yes, a black creepy wooden mask."
"Is it still there?"
"Good." She seemed relieved. "Now explain your business, if that's all your reason for paying a poor aunt a visit." Her fist relaxed and she dabbed her moist eyes with the hanky.
Lantana eased back into the plush cowhide upholstered wing chair. He quickly explained his stakes in the contest at the store.
"I couldn't buy all that underwear even if I could afford it," she scoffed. "Whom would I show off to?"
"I never suggested that you buy it all. But you could pass it along to your pals in the club - all they have to do is place a combined order at the store - by Friday," he said, removing a few catalogs of fancy stuff from his satchel and sliding them across the mahogany-velvet table to her. She took one look at the covers and hastily covered them with a napkin.
"This is most shocking - the girls will have a field day stinging me with their barbs."
"Not if you assure them it's charity - girls are known to have gone nude for calendars."
"But it's not charity is it - that would be a lie."
"See how many lives it saves at the store?"
She shook her head. Twirling the gin and tonic glass in her flawless long manicured fingers she seemed to become lost in thought. "Perhaps, on one condition I could help you."
"Yes, a remembrance of my dear brother - give me the mask."
"The mask - why for?"
"I don't have any last photos of his - I'll hang it up - it'll remind me of the poor lost soul."
"I don't see why not - if it helps. I'll bring it around on a Sunday."
"Run along then boy, leave your calling card here. Get ready to shoulder extra responsibility at work - why, I might even buy a partnership in the store and send that Dunce packing."
"Don't do that, Auntie, the store is that man's life."
She cast a sly sideways glance at him and tittered. "No, I won't then, boy," she said aloud. "Silly sentimental fool, like his father," she added, under her breath. Turning slightly as he left, she waved her empty glass at an old waiter lurking in the shadows.
A hush had fallen upon the small staff gathered on this special Saturday morning meeting called for the grand announcement of the contest winner. They shuffled their feet as they looked time and again at the door waiting for Lantana to walk in. Dunce looked impatiently at his watch.
"I hope he was informed that we were opening the store today for this extraordinary staff meeting?"
"Ya, I told him, Mr. Schlemiel," said Penny, squeezing Willy's hand, gazing dreamily into his eyes.
Penny nodded vigorously as Willy remarked, "maybe he saw no point."
"I wonder, why not," Dunce said, sighing. " Because he's won!"
"What?" Penny howled.
"How come - that's impossible," Willy said, stamping his feet, hot tears welling up in his eyes. "We've been seeing the daily sales! He gave away everything he earned to the convent."
"True, but there's this last minute order for 73,000 USD from... from this 'Philanthropists of Athenaeum' to his name. So that seals it - ladies and gentlemen - please welcome Mr. Lantana Bones as your new Manager. I will halt by at his home and personally break the news to him. Let's shut down and enjoy the weekend," he exclaimed, clapping his hands in glee, even as Willy rushed to the telephone to break the shocking news to his aunt, Mrs. Schlemiel.
Meanwhile, it was high tide as the fully laden ship sailed out from the mouth of the Hudson in Jersey City, onwards through the Panama Canal to the South Pacific. The great deep heaved under his footsteps as Lantana paced the deck. Time and again, he reached into his overcoat to feel the black mask as it lay warm and cozy next to his breast.
After his meeting with Aunt Apate, Lantana had gone straight home, and fortifying himself with a stiff brandy, found the nerve and curiosity to bring out the rusty tin trunk that Maria, a friend of his father's, had taken care to send after his death. He remembered the mask from years ago as something dark-heaving; with a dim uncanny tinge of the patina of time, without eyes, without matter, something that terrified him as a child. Its sunken face, its drawn chin, untouched by traces of wrinkles or tears, seemed to sing mute strains, laying bare things we didn't dare tell.
The face had seemed to melt away, like dark ink suffusing his hands as he finally found the courage to scrutinize the mask the previous night. A dark green sea had roared in those empty eyes, and its lips seemed to quiver, like casuarinas swaying in the salty winds, whispering secrets untold. He'd held the mask close to his ear, and it'd spoken - it was meant to speak to him alone. It revealed the message that his father, Louisiana Bones, had left him. It revealed the treachery his aunt had employed against an orphaned child.
It showed Lantana Bones the way. The way home down the raging waters of the mighty Amazon, across its dark underbelly of deep forests and lurking perils, to the cool shaded caves where the treasures, treasures that belonged to him lay. Maria would be waiting for him with supplies and trusty hands when he landed in Iquitos, and that was where the erstwhile salesman of unmentionables was headed. Home.