“Games are all that’s left of me.”
The Man With The Silver Smile
Wednesday night, 15 May 2013, PM
Sterling: The weeks pass. Sometimes he needs her frequently; by his side at the Silver Dollar as his moll, or to pass the early hours with a game, or to walk the streets with her and talk about nothing. Other times he does not call her for days, or occasionally in excess of a week, when his only excuse is that the sight of his conscience should surely make him ill.
Tonight, though, he wants to take her out to dinner. Dinner, and maybe a movie. He likes movies where he can bet on the endings.
He seems tired. His kind don’t seem tired often.
He tells her to take Ash. If she asks about the theaters not allowing the dog, he simply laughs.
Sterling: It’s a long walk. He wears an unusually subdued suit; it’s only grey, unlike his more garish usual patterns. He has the cane with him, but seems almost to lean on it.
“I had cancer,” he says apropos of nothing. “Before I died, I mean. I guess I still do, but it’s not bothering me.”
Genevieve: Ash walks well on a leash. She’d had to train him into the habit, but now he walks next to her as easily as she walks next to Sterling. He stops to sniff occasionally, so the two of them pause while he does so, and Gen keeps her attention on her domitor.
“I’d heard the change sends things like that into remission.” There’s a pause as she surveys him. “Your real voice, the smoker’s voice?”
He changes it often enough that she isn’t sure.
Sterling: “Yes,” he says, in that smoke-scarred rasp. “Once upon a time. I guess it’s my first voice, really.”
“Now,” he says in the almost feminine, supercilious voice he favors for social settings and witticism, “I suppose it’s just another.” He winks, like a magician explaining a trick.
“I was dying. I had a son, but I was going to be dead before he was grown anyways. I had a wife, but she would have wanted me to get help. And I didn’t want help. I wanted to keep my hair, my mind. My body.”
“Had family, too. And I loved them. But I didn’t want to tell them, either.”
Genevieve: “You told your wife about the Embrace but not your cancer?”
Sterling: He smiles briefly, and his silver teeth seem to grate against their bone neighbors. “It’s a long story. Suffice it to say there wasn’t a tremendous amount of rationality applied to either revelation.”
He points at the street. “You know this used to be called the Rue de Craps? They changed it because of all the churches. Bible-thumpers.”
He likes to change the subject when he’s uncomfortable. Even when he’s the one who started it.
Genevieve: Gen knows that he brought it up for a reason, though. She presses on. She can’t be afraid of him or she’d be a bad conscience.
“You miss them?”
Sterling: “Hmm. Not as much as I should. I should miss them more. My life should be woefully incomplete without them, my lady love and my baby boy. And maybe it is. But I’m too wretched of a bastard to notice.”
His voice turns real, for that last sentence.
Genevieve: “You notice. That’s why you bring it up.”
“That’s why you mentioned it to me, before.”
“And why you buy him things.”
“You’re wondering if you’re doing enough.”
Sterling: He is silent, for a while. They pass street performers, gay bars, nightclubs. Drunkards and tourists and the politer society of vagrants that police haven’t banished. It’s still early enough that the night feels safe, promising, rather than something with teeth that hides monsters in its shadows.
But monsters still walk. He still walks, leaning on a cane she’s pretty sure he doesn’t need. She notices the grey at the corners of his hair, the bags under his eyes that must have been there the night he died.
“Enough, like what? I wasn’t built for child-rearing, even before I became what I am. The kindest thing my kind can do is stay away. You know that better than anyone, I expect.”
Genevieve: “Then doesn’t that answer your question? That you’re doing enough. You’re staying away. Doing what you can for them from afar.”
She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. She had dressed for dinner and a movie as if this were a normal date, and her heels click along the ground. She takes his arm in her hand, leaning on him like she would any mortal.
“How long as it been since you have seen them?”
Sterling: He accepts her arm, accepts her proximity. She knows how she must smell to him. Intoxicating. Willing.
They get to the restaurant. It’s a nice place. French. The maitre d’ is very confused, but oddly non-argumentative, when Sterling tells him dogs are, in fact, allowed. He orders a drink he sips intermittently. She should get whatever she likes.
Genevieve: She doesn’t press him. She orders what’s on special, Coq a vin, and a drink as well. Chocolate soufflé for dessert, though they haven’t reached that yet. A glass of wine. Maybe two. Actually, she says to the waiter, a third. Keep them coming. She likes the taste. It makes her head as bubbly as the liquid in the glass.
Ash gets a meal as well, some sort of duck. Gen doesn’t press for details about it, just makes sure there’s no garlic or onions that can mess up his tiny tummy. Though she thinks Sterling could fix it, if the dog were to get sick. Still, she enjoys feeding him pieces of charred duck beneath the table. It’s greasy. Clings to her fingers. Other people stare, but she pays them no mind.
She only has eyes for her domitor. She waits, silently, for him to speak. He’d had a point.
Sterling: “Her, it’s not so hard to visit,” he says. “She hates me. She looks forward to my visits, I think, and we play chinese checkers. But she hates me. I can live with that. I see her a few times a year.”
Genevieve: “And him?” Gen prompts.
Sterling: “Him, I visit. Birthdays. Summers. Sometimes. When I trust myself.”
Genevieve: “Then why do I feel like you’re beating yourself up, Sterling?”
Sterling: “You’re my conscience. You’re supposed to beat me up. I try not to do your work for you.”
Genevieve: “Then I sense something is bothering you, but I can’t fulfill my duties unless you tell me what it is.”
She sips at the wine. It’s good. Expensive, but that’s not why she likes it. A dry white. Like her.
“…are you getting rid of me?”
Sterling: He blinks, actually surprised. “Why would you think that?”
“I won’t be rid of you for as long as I can help it. You’re too vexing, and therefore too exciting.”
“And fun to fluster, of course. Maybe I’ll play with you during the movie, just to see if you can keep quiet.”
It takes her a moment to realize he’s kidding.
Unless he isn’t.
Genevieve: She squirms in her seat. Her chest is tight; she drops her eyes to the plates in front of her. Her fault for wearing a dress, easy access and all that.
He’s kidding though. He has to be. The alternative is… she won’t think about it.
“I found some names for you,” she says abruptly, changing the subject. “If you still wanted me to… pursue that in with any of them.”
Sterling: He chuckles delightedly at her reaction. “Tell me why you thought I might be done with you. And what names? Regale me.”
It doesn’t escape her notice that he’s manipulated her into changing the subject.
Genevieve: “You brought me out, you brought the dog out, you were talking about death in a roundabout way. One last good night before you cut me loose, in… whatever way that means to you.”
She doesn’t give him the names yet. She watches him instead, waiting.
He’ll tell her. Eventually.
Sterling: His eyes twinkle. “No, no, Gen. This is just a quiet night with my Conscience. A last good night with you will be far grander than this.”
He spears a piece of food on his unused fork and offers it to her like she does to Ash.
“The year I died,” he says finally, after she bites, chews, “I lived like it. At least for those last few months. I was sober. Hadn’t been inside a casino for… four years. Maybe five. I had beat it. But then they told me I was gonna die. And all I could think about was how little time I had left to play.”
Genevieve: “Instead of telling them,” she says after she swallows the offered food, “you disappeared. Back to the casinos. Smoked more. Gambled more. Left the both of them to their own things.”
It’s a guess, but she thinks it’s a good one. She takes a drink of the wine.
“Left your wife at home with a newborn.”
Sterling: “Hmm,” he says. “I visited. But yes.”
“I was going to die. At the time, I thought, better they remember me as a bastard. Or some such reasoning. It wasn’t going to be my problem, in a few months.”
Genevieve: “And then you became… this.”
She sweeps over him with her eyes. Dead, but still around.
Sterling: “I died,” he agrees, “but not the way I’d expected. And suddenly I couldn’t make things right, but I couldn’t put off caring about it, either.”
He looks morose. “Do you think they’d be happier if I just died, instead of finding a way to survive?”
Genevieve: “I think,” she says slowly, “that death is very final. That if you want to fix things, it isn’t too late. That, more than yachts and Ferraris, your son wants a father, your wife a husband.”
Sterling: “The man who might have been either died last century,” he says. “How would I play father, now?”
Genevieve: “He’s young yet. You start by apologizing for the wasted time. By showing him what he needs to know to survive in this world. With your distance and his mother in a hospital, he needs someone steady. It’ll take patience. But if that’s the man you want to be… then that’s who you become.”
Sterling: “You make it sound so simple.”
Genevieve: “Isn’t it?”
“Put the games down with him.”
Sterling: “Games are all that’s left of me.”
Genevieve: “That’s a lie you tell yourself. A mask you hide behind to avoid anything real.”
Sterling: He giggles. “You haven’t met my old man yet, or you would know the importance of masks.”
Genevieve: “You’re deflecting.”
Sterling: “Of course. Change is tiresome. It’s work. I’ve always disliked work.”
Genevieve: Gen looses a sigh. She sits back in her seat, pushing food around on her plate with her fork. The other hand drops to rub the top of Ash’s head.
“Why ask, then?”
Sterling: “So you can nag me, obviously, and so I can articulate to myself the many reasons not to change until you find one that stymies me. I’m very, very good at being bad, Gen.”
Genevieve: “You want a reason to change?” She leans forward. “If you aren’t there for your son he’ll turn into you.”
Sterling: His face goes flat.
Genevieve: Maybe that was too far. She leans back again. Looks anywhere but at him.
Sterling: “Good conscience,” he says finally, in his real voice. “Good, good conscience. You bitch.”
He finishes a drink that must taste of ashes.
“I can always count on you, Gen.”
Genevieve: It doesn’t feel like praise. She downs the glass of wine.
Better her mind be cloudy for whatever happens next.
Wednesday night, 15 May 2013, PM
Sterling: They finish, and pay. Ash takes a piss on the street outside. Some of it gets on Sterling’s shoes. He doesn’t seem to notice.
He walks her, arm around her waist, occasionally on her stomach, to the theater.
Again, a red-shirted attendant tells them they can’t have dogs in here. This time Sterling simply shoves several pictures of Ben Franklin into his pocket and walks past him as he stammers.
“You choose the movie,” he whispers in her ear, the way he sometimes will without moving his lips or bending to her.
Genevieve: Every time he does that she thinks she is used to it, but it still sends a shiver down her spine. So does his arm around her waist. He’s not as cool as the others of his kind, but she still recognizes what he is, what she is to him.
There’s a moment, looking at the board, when she thinks to pick something cute and funny. Something animated. But his threat lingers in her mind, and she doesn’t think it appropriate to be fondled in a kids movie. She picks at random instead, the one with the short haired girl on the poster in a white jumpsuit.
This late, there aren’t many others around. They have their pick of seats. Gen leads him up the stairs to the last row.
She keeps the dog on her lap once they’re seated, as if that will protect her from Sterling’s wandering hands.
Sterling: They watch the trailers and make fun of them together. Or at least, Sterling does. He likes guessing things about the trailers.
His hands don’t wander. When the theater darkens and the curtains press in, though, he leans over, looks her in the eyes, and says, “This is a true story.”
Then he sits back and enjoys the… is it a documentary?
Genevieve: Gen giggles when he makes the comments about the trailers. It’s the first time she’s done so around him; it’s a sweet sound, so different than her dry laugh. Makes her ordinarily stern face seem pretty. Striking instead of alien. Young, even. Like she hadn’t spent years being abused by Sabbat packs.
Then he leans in and tells her the horror she’s about to witness is real.
He couldn’t have picked a better movie for it. It’s already shot in documentary style, with the events of the movie punctuated by interviews. Lower thirds are in all the right places.
She’s silent as she watches the events play out, watches the doctors run tests on an unsuspecting girl, watches the military come in to seize control of the facility, watches them electrocute the poor woman with the demon inside of her. It’s set in a mental institution.
Like the one he took her to. To play pretend. Even the props are real. Her body had jerked like that too. They don’t show the girl wetting herself from prolonged exposure to electrical shock, though. Must have edited it out.
Her eyes are wide. At some point Ash whines when she squeezes him too tightly. After that she buries her face in his fur.
It’s too real.
Sterling: He glances over at some point, sees her buried face. Maybe he reads her mind. Maybe that explains the tone of voice. “Shit. Shit, shit.”
He’s pulling her up. “Come on, we’re leaving. Shush, Ash.”
They’re outside. He sits her on a bench some way from the theater.
“Shh, Gen. Shh. It wasn’t real. I’m sorry. It wasn’t real.”
He doesn’t change his voice. It’s burned and cracked.
Genevieve: It is real, though. Even if the movie wasn’t, what’s inside of her head is very, very real.
She moves along with him, subservient as always, and keeps her eyes on the ground. She nods at her toes, as if they can see. She’d painted them a pretty shade of red for this evening. Red looks good on her, he used to say. She hates him, but he’s right. She’d even felt pretty after they were painted.
“Okay,” she says, voice small.
Sterling: “I didn’t mean to hurt you. It was supposed to be a joke. A bad joke, maybe, but a joke. Not a punishment. I can make you forget. Let me make you forget.”
Genevieve: She doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“You can’t make me forget what he did.”
Sterling: He’s silent, for a moment.
“I didn’t know.”
Genevieve: “It’s okay.”
She’s shaken. It’s easy to see with how quickly she forgives him. The remnants of her former slave driver, perhaps: submit or be punished. She clutches the dog to her chest. His warm body feels nice.
Sterling: “It isn’t,” he says simply. “I can make you forget what you saw. Would you like that?”
Genevieve: “How big is my blooper reel?”
She’d heard someone say that once, about the memories they took away.
Sterling: “Short. For now. This will grow it.”
Genevieve: “It’s okay,” she says again.
She isn’t sure that she believes him. He could make her do anything over the course of a night and then take it all away. Or implant fake memories. Were her vacations fake, too?
Sterling: “I won’t, then. And no, they weren’t.”
He takes a moment to realize what he’s just said, and he says again, “Sorry.”
He hails a cab and soon they’re back at her apartment, him walking her through the door and holding Ash’s lead in the other hand.
“Take a seat. Do you have those, whatchamacallits, the TV libraries everybody has now?”
She does, though. She hands him the remote.
Sterling: “Yes! That.”
He takes it and after a few moments navigates it to the ‘KIDS’ section.
They’re watching a movie with talking animals, now, and bright colors. He tosses a blanket over her, and goes to pour her something. A drink, if she has anything decent. Water, if she doesn’t. He turns out the lights so the high-definition TV illuminates the dark apartment. Then he joins her on the couch, scoops her onto him. She’s never noticed how scrawny he is, before. How thin.
He strokes her hair and makes soothing noises without changing his voice.
Genevieve: She’s dead weight in his arms. She doesn’t touch the drink he poured—wine, she has nice wine, she’d brought back a bottle from Paris (if that was even real, she thinks)—though it isn’t for lack of want. Her head rests on his shoulder, eyes focused on nothing. For all the times he’d ‘diddled her’—his words—she’d never actually been comfortable on his lap. She’d wanted this for a long time, though. It’s easy to relax against him. To let him soothe her with his touch and voice, to let the musical numbers from the show wash over her and make her, if not forget, then ignore.
It’s almost nice.
Sterling: It is, isn’t it?
When it’s over, he whispers in her ear. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake, tonight.”
Genevieve: “Don’t go,” she says to him. She tucks her face against his neck, breathing him in. She’s not so stiff as she was before. Relaxed, almost.
Sterling: His stubble tickles her forehead.
He stays with her, warming her. “I don’t like hurting you, Gen. Not like that. I’ll be smarter next time.”
He runs a hand under her blouse, over her bare back. “You’ll be better tended. Like a good conscience is.”
“Such a good conscience.”
“Nearly always right.”
Genevieve: “Nearly?” she asks. “When did I get it wrong? I’ll do better.”
Sterling: He chuckles. “Shush, sweet. What would you like me to do to you, tonight?”
Genevieve: She just wants to stay like this. On his lap. His arms around her. She’d never liked being touched before, not by his kind. It made her skin crawl.
This, though, she can enjoy. She can forget that he was the one who turned her into this quivering mess of nerves this evening, that he triggered the memories that had nearly broken her.
“We could play a game,” she offers. He likes games.
Sterling: “Hmm? A game? And you won’t cheat?”
Genevieve: “I might cheat.”
Sterling: His arm flickers around her, traces a breast with a finger.
“My, my. Daring.”
“I’ll have to watch you carefully.”
Genevieve: His touch sends shivers down her spine. Her nipples stiffen beneath her clothing.
“You already do.”
Sterling: “You’re a pleasure to see. I like beautiful women, and lucky things. And you’re the luckiest ghoul in New Orleans, if I have anything to say about it.”
“What game shall we play? Something with cards, or a board? Something with fingers?”
Sterling: “Fingers,” he repeats. He takes one of her hands in his and waggles them.
Genevieve: “…do you have to cut them off to play?”
Sterling: “Not at all.” He adjusts her fingers, shows her his.
“What shall we play for?”
Genevieve: She can think of a number of things. Secrets, stories, clothing, favors. None of it seems right though. He always wins, too, so it has to be something she doesn’t mind giving up.
She lifts one shoulder in a shrugging movement.
Sterling: “So uncertain?” he chides.
“Why don’t we play for a kiss? If I win, you have to kiss me. And if I lose, I have to kiss you. That seems fair, doesn’t it?”
His fingers move. Glide over her arms, her stomach.
“Of course, I could cheat too. You’re very vulnerable, Genevieve. A very tender conscience.”
Genevieve: “You’re very distracting,” she points out. Her skin pebbles in the wake of his fingertips. Her breath is a little shaky, too. She presses her lips together, as if that will control it.
Sterling: “Distracting? How? Surely my statue doesn’t mind me running my hands along her?”
His hands are up her skirt, then, pinching her bottom before sliding down her thighs, then wrapping around her waist, pulling her against him.
“Hmm. You should find yourself a boyfriend, Gen. Then I won’t have to give you so many… treats. Are we playing, or are you too distracted?”
Genevieve: Her attention lingers on the word boyfriend. She lets her mind wander down that road. That dangerous, dangerous road. What would it be like to date again? To be taken out by someone who won’t mess with her head, or at least not in a supernatural way? Maybe, if things got ugly, Sterling could take that from her too.
“You want me to date?”
How clumsy would their touch be compared to his? What would it even feel like to be with someone again, to do more than just… fingers?
Her cheeks heat. She’s picturing Sterling beneath her, not some faceless guy.
Can he see that?
Sterling: He chuckles. “Is that what you’d like, Gen? Maybe if you win, I’ll let myself be yours for a night.”
His hands stop teasing and adjusting her. They float in front of hers.
“Maybe if you lose, I’ll choose your boyfriend for you. A man should look after his conscience. Or maybe I’ll just play with you for a night, and you won’t be able to tell me how wicked I’m being. I’ll be considerate, in any case. I still feel bad, you know.”
Genevieve: “I thought your kind couldn’t have sex.”
She touches a finger to the back of his hand, then looks back at him.
“If you choose my boyfriend for me, are you going to find someone who doesn’t make you jealous?”
There’s a small smile pulling at the corners of her lips. Maybe she has forgiven him.
Sterling: “Who would make me jealous?”
His hand moves. She feels herself bared from the waist down, her skirt and underthings on her one second, the next draped over the television.
“Is there somebody else you would pick I would disapprove of?” he ponders. “Somebody who could make you their conscience, instead of mine?”
“And believe me,” he says, his rough voice amused. “We can perform, if properly motivated.”
One hand awaits hers to play. The other traces her ass from her belly-button.
Genevieve: “Someone you—”
The rest of the words go unsaid. She covers herself with both hands, thighs pressing together around her arms. As if that will stop him.
“D-don’t tease, Sterling, that’s not. Not nice.”
Sterling: He laughs. “So earnest. Finish your sentence before you tell me about teasing.”
He pinches her again, his irregular breaths tickling her neck.
Genevieve: “Someone younger.”
She jumps when he pinches her, swatting at his hand. Then she realizes she is no longer covering herself and does so again. She scowls at him.
Sterling: He bites her, drinks for a moment. When he licks her wound clean, he’s practically purring.
“I like how you taste when you’re a little wound up. A little indignant. You need both hands to play, you know.”
“Someone younger? Do you think I’m an old man?”
But she’s grinning, either from the teasing or the way he’d just drawn from her. She has to take a breath before she moves her hands away from herself, holding them out to play. One finger extended from one hand, she thinks that’s how he said to start.
Sterling: “Well, you know what they say about playing old men.”
He wins, like he so often does. But she has him for a moment. More than a moment, even. Maybe because he’s enjoying the expression on her face too much.
“You’re good, when you don’t worry about silly things. If I’m to pick a boyfriend for you, you’ll have to get over this shyness. But I hope you don’t. It’s very charming.” He spanks her, lightly. “What makes you think I’m old? Is it my touch?”
Genevieve: Silly things, like being half naked on his lap. She’s going to tell him, one day, that he should play naked. She doesn’t think it will bother him though.
Still, when he wins she can’t help but pout, then yelp as his hand connects to her. She shoots him a wounded look, though it’s all for show.
“No. You called it a TV library.”
She almost giggles again. He can see it start, but it’s not the same as it was in the theater.
“Are you? Going to pick someone for me, I mean.”
“I went… um. I went on a few dates.”
“There’s an app for that.”
Sterling: “I heard,” he says wryly. “And I died at the turn of the century. It was a time of cable. Were they good dates? Were they good enough for you? I suppose you aren’t so pliant for them as you are for me.”
“I’d almost think you like me, Genevieve. Wouldn’t you like a boyfriend? To distract you?”
His hand wanders. Feels the shape of her.
Genevieve: I do like you, she almost tells him.
Almost. It’s there, on the tip of her tongue, there in her thoughts. The thoughts that he so carelessly reads. The mind that he breaks into on a whim.
The body he touches without a care for how it makes her feel.
He’d never hurt her. Not like that. And though she could not stand the touch of these things, though she had once said she would rather cut her wrists than ever be subject to that torture, she doesn’t pull away. She leans in instead. Her thighs part. She’s his. She wants him. And it’s a shameful thing, that wanting. It makes her feel… wanton.
“No,” she tells him, finally, “they were terrible.”
Sterling: “And what was so terrible about them? Were they handsy?”
He plays with her, as if to demonstrate.
Wanton, maybe. But so happy, too.
Genevieve: She shakes her head at him, though it’s a brief movement lest he think it due to his hands.
“No.” Her voice is breathy, panting. “They were just awful people. One of them asked if I’m white all over. Before drinks even arrived.”
Sterling: “Oh, how crass. And what did you tell him?”
Genevieve: “I smiled coyly and waited until the drink arrived so I could pour it on him.”
Sterling: Sterling laughs, a real laugh. “You make me proud.”
His fingers speed up, pass like lightning over her, as if to emphasize his point.
“So much more fun to pamper than to punish, my little Conscience.”
“I’ll find you a good lover. One who treats you right.”
Genevieve: It could be him. But he has a paramour, she knows, and for all his talk of being able to perform with the right motivation she doesn’t think he actually enjoys the act of sex itself. So she’ll take his fingers, his mouth, whatever else he wants to share with her, and she’ll be grateful for it, and she’ll show him how grateful she is with the noises that she makes, the way her back arches, the way her eyes close as she comes apart in his arms, on his lap, her head thrown back to expose the long, pale line of her throat.
Sterling: "Good Genevieve. Very good… "