Linda turned her green eyes up into the lights, her expression a struggle of anguish and hope. "We're free and clear," she said dreamily. "We're free. We're free."
And so ended "Death of A Salesman." The curtain dropped, and the audience rose to its feet, cheering. Palo Alto Theaterworks was still pretty good, as community theater went. Liz looked across at Kiki. She was applauding fiercely.
Later, Willy Loman -- back from the beyond -- fairly tackled Kiki in the theater's espresso bar.
"I really want to thank you, Mrs. D. We couldn't have done it without you."
"The show must go on," Kiki smiled. Then, "Nice suspenders, fella," she teased, snapping the elastic against the actor's broad chest. "I want to see you stretch your character for Falstaff, OK?"
He grasped the small of her back and kissed her full on the lips. "You got it, doll. But first, there's a jar of cold-cream backstage with my name on it." He glided back into the house.
Kiki batted her eyes and winked at Liz. "Oh, he's a naughty one. But great intensity. Pretty eyes, too. Much too young for me. Besides, I have a little rule about necrophilia."
They both laughed.
Liz was starting to figure Kiki out. This wasn't the first time this evening Kiki had been showered with unsolicited gratitude. Earlier, Liz had scanned the theater program. There, under the heading "Many, many thanks," she had seen a familiar name, at once discreet and personal: "Kiki D."
She thought back across their friendship: The Zen Center. Her salon of quirky, artsy friends. The mysterious acquisition of the valley's orphaned orchards. The palatial Woodside ranch house. Then there were the chance meetings with Kiki's acquaintances, all of them involved in arts organizations and preservation foundations, all of them greeting Kiki with an unspoken undercurrent of indebtedness. Liz's friend was starting to look a lot like a reticent crypto-patroness of local culture.
Her curiosity drove her to attempt a gentle clarification of Kiki's true identity. "You know, I'm starting to get an idea about you," Liz declared coyly. "Why do I always get the feeling there's more to you than there appears?"
Kiki, keenly familiar with Liz's powers of inference, dropped the pretense without a ripple. "Darling," she said in her best Zsa-Zsa, "there's actually a good deal less, the truth be known." Then, in a considerably more sober tone, "And soon there may be nothing to speak of at all, at least where charity is concerned. I'm just trying to do some good while I still can."
This ominous statement startled Liz for a moment. "What do you mean?" she asked with some urgency.
Kiki read Liz's concern and moved to reassure her. "Oh, don't worry too much about me. It's Barry. We haven't been together for years, but it looks like even my sham marriage may not be a thing much longer." She pushed out her lip. "Barry intends a rather drastic reduction in my circumstances. If he gets his way, I may be a charity case myself before the year is over."
Liz felt a surge of emotions: sympathy for Kiki, anger and exasperation with Barry. She narrowed her eyes. "What is it with that guy? And why didn't you leave him years ago?"
"Oh, it's a long story. Once upon a time, Barry made a lot of promises -- not just to me, but to the world: the 'New Florence,' enlightened markets, commerce with a soul. Somewhere along the line, he just forgot." She gave Liz a winsome look. "I'm trying to remember for him. He's got so much, and he enjoys so little."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Candy had stormed up to the 21st floor to confront Barry over her sudden termination -- as well as the unexpected downsizing of his affections.
Clearly, he'd anticipated her move; he was conveniently off-site. More like off-continent, actually; Barry had timed the denouement to coincide with the Sydney-to-Hobart regatta, soon to be the latest of his yachting conquests.
But he hadn't left Candy completely unattended. He had presciently arranged for her rendezvous with security in the executive suite. They collected her ID badge and card-key, and gently but firmly escorted her down to the main lobby. The blue-shirted sentries left her there with nothing but her leather folio and gym bag -- a blond palm tree bent and shivering in a typhoon of rage and injustice.
She turned her angry eyes to the main receptionist, hoping for at least some expression of sympathy, but he could only look away uncomfortably. Candy flung the folio at him, slung her gym bag over her shoulder and charged toward the main door with a shriek. Good thing it opened automatically; Candy would otherwise have walked straight through it without breaking her stride.
She made her parting gesture in the parking lot, spinning the tires of her white Porsche convertible more than a little conspicuously, finally vanishing into the pastel blue smoke of her Boxster's burning tread like some turbo-charged magic act.
She turned the car north onto 101, merged across four lanes without looking and gunned the engine.
Somewhere around Palo Alto the speedometer crept back down below 90. She exited at University Avenue; perhaps an hour in a coffeehouse might help her to reflect and collect herself.
There was, as always, a surfeit of trendy coffee joints on University, but a famine of parking. Today she wouldn't be troubling herself with details. She dumped the car in a handicap spot, left the keys in the ignition and walked.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Two hours, three mochas and four back issues of Glamour later, Candy still hadn't regained her poise. She stuffed a $20 bill into her empty glass and walked in the direction of High Street, toward the last line of defense in her battle for self-composure: Watercourse Way.
She walked into the quintessentially Northern Californian bath house. It reeked of sandalwood and chamomile.
"Got any empty tubs?" Candy asked wearily.
The private bathing chambers drew their names from an innovative number/nature scheme. Today Candy would soak in Five Fishes. She pushed open the door, her thoughts twisting with preoccupation. Absent-mindedly she peeled down, flinging her designer office duds in a random scatter across the room.
It wasn't until she'd reached her foundation garments that she realized she wasn't alone. Behind the etched glass divider between the dressing room and tub, she saw something move. At first, it looked a little like a bear.
She clutched a towel to herself and peered around the edge of the divider:
rising Neptune-like from the roiling water, a man's tanned and muscled
back, crowned by the most luxurious dreadlocks she had ever seen. On the
edge of making a quick apology and a hasty retreat, she found herself
reluctant to move; after months of Barry's thinning scalp, she was locked
in rapt fascination.
And not just by this appealing physicality; there was an oddly compelling
detail. Tattooed against the smooth, pale flesh of his scapular, a curious
symbol: capital C, with a small numeral 6 hovering above, and 12.0107
subscripted below. Candy had never been one to pay much attention to
quantitative details, but this one rang a faint, junior high science-class
bell. Wasn't that the periodic table entry for Carbon?
The man turned to face her, but looked only into her eyes. He unfolded an
easy, serene smile framed by a perfect goatee.
"Come on in," he invited. "The water's fine."