The Poison Artist



After he checked in and got up to his room, Caleb stood in front of the full-length mirror screwed to the bathroom door, and looked at his forehead. In the back of the cab he’d stopped the bleeding by pressing his shirt cuff against the cut, but there were still tiny slivers of glass lodged under his skin from the tumbler she’d thrown. He picked them out with his fingernail and dropped them on the carpet.

Then the blood started again: a thin runner that dropped between his eyes and split on the rise of his nose to descend in twin tracks toward the corners of his mouth. He looked at that a moment, the blood on his face and the bruise just getting started on his forehead, and then he went to the sink and wet one of the washcloths. He wrung it out and wiped the blood off, then went and sat on the floor with his back against the closet door. The little blades of broken glass glittered in the weave of the red carpet.

It was good glass. Murano crystal, maybe. They’d bought a set of the tumblers at the Macy’s fronting Union Square a year ago at Christmas, right after she’d moved in. There’d been ice-skaters going in circles on the rink beneath the lit-up tree, and they’d stood there awhile, side by side, to watch them. She’d been so warm then, as if there were embers sewn into her dress.


That was the word in his mind when he pictured her. Even now. It was a dangerous path to stroll down, but what wasn’t?

He picked one of the shards out of the carpet and held it on the pad of his fingertip.

On their third date, they’d walked on the beach across the road from the western edge of Golden Gate Park. She’d taken off her sandals, had slapped them together a few times to get the sand off them before putting them into her purse. The Dutch windmill and some of the big cypress trees were breaking up the fog as it streamed in off the ocean. Bridget was holding his hand and looking at the blue-gray gloom of the Pacific. She’d cried out suddenly, falling into him as her right knee buckled.

“Ouch. Fuck.”

“What?” he said. “What?”

She was hopping on one foot now, her arm around his waist.

“Glass, I think. Or a shell.”

He helped her to a concrete staircase that led up the seawall to the sidewalk. She sat on the third step and he knelt in the sand and took her small bare foot into his hands. It was tan and slender, and he could see the Y-shaped white mark where the thong of her sandal had hidden her skin from the sun. For a second, he saw up her leg, the skin smooth and perfect all the way to her pink panties. She saw his eyes’ focus and blushed, then used her hand to fold her skirt between her thighs.

“Sorry,” he said.

She smiled.

“My foot, stupid.”

“Right. Your foot.”

The piece of glass had gone into the soft white skin in the arch of her foot. It wasn’t bleeding until he pulled the shard out, and then the blood came. It trickled to her heel and then dripped onto the bottom step. Bridget made a low gasping sound. When he looked up at her, she was biting her lip and her eyes were closed.

“You got tissues or something in your purse?”

“Yeah. Take it. I can’t look.”

He took her purse and found the plastic-wrapped package of tissues. He pulled out a handful and folded them into a thick pad and then pressed it against the cut, holding it tight. She made the gasping sound again.

He didn’t know her well. Not then. He’d come to know her sounds, would know the difference between a gasp of pleasure and one of pain, or the quick way she would draw a breath when she was afraid, like a swimmer getting one last burst of oxygen before a wave washes over. But that afternoon, on his knees at the edge of the beach with her foot in his hands, he didn’t know any of these things yet. She was the girl he’d met at a gallery opening two weeks ago. The beautiful shy girl in a thin-strapped black dress, who, it turned out, had painted half the work in the show. He didn’t know much about her except that he wanted to know everything.

“Am I hurting you?”

“I just really don’t like blood.”

“Pretend it’s paint.”

She laughed, her eyes still closed.

“I’ll carry you to the car, so the cut stays clean.”

His car was a quarter mile away, to the north, where the beach ended and the cliffs began.

She opened her eyes and looked down the beach.

“Can you manage it?”

“Easy,” he said. And it was. She hooked her elbow at the back of his neck and he lifted her up and carried her in his arms, and thirty minutes later, when he parked outside his house on the slope of Mount Sutro, he carried her inside. He cleaned her foot with hydrogen peroxide and covered the cut with gauze and tape, but that came off in his bed soon enough, and neither of them noticed. The wound traced the patterns of her pleasure in blood on his sheets as he knelt before her and learned the first of many lessons about the woman he would come to love and to live with. Later, when they realized her cut had reopened, he took her down the hill to the hospital, where they cleaned the laceration a second time before closing it with stitches.

They hadn’t spent a night apart afterward, until now.

He sat on the carpet with the washcloth against his forehead and thought the simple artistry of the pattern was something she wouldn’t have missed. It might even please her a little, might make her smile in that quiet way she did when the paint covered the last empty places on the canvas and the shapes came into focus as though a fog had blown clear. Broken glass at the beginning; broken glass at the end. He pulled the washcloth away and looked at it.

“Blood in, blood out,” he said.

Like a rite. The code of some secret society. Their sect of two, now disbanded. He wadded the washcloth and threw it into the bathroom.

He’d left the house with nothing but his wallet. No phone, no keys. He’d walked down the hill to the UCSF Medical Center, called a cab from a pay phone. He stood waiting for it, thinking maybe Bridget would drive down. Double park in the ambulance loading zone and come running to him. To apologize, to ask him to come back.

But if she’d come, it was after the cab rolled up, so he was gone.

The bar at the Palace Hotel was called the Pied Piper. A Maxfield Parrish painting hung across the back bar and gave the place its name — ninety-six square feet of light and shadow and menace, the children leaving the safety of the walled city of Hamelin to follow a monster with a face as old and as cruel as a rock.

It wasn’t the first time Caleb had taken shelter in a painting, giving himself over to the canvas until both the room and the world holding it went black and silent. Some paintings were made for it, maybe. When he found them, and sat close enough to see the individual brush strokes, the room would eventually tilt toward their frames, as if the mass of the earth had recentered itself. Drawing him closer, drawing him to the world hidden beyond the veneer of paint.

He blinked and looked at his watch. It was a Saturday afternoon, not quite two o’clock.

There were three people in the bar, total, counting the bartender. Caleb pulled out a stool and sat, elbows on the glowing mahogany. The only real light in the place was aimed at the painting, and the bartender gave him time to study it again before he finally came over.

“You like it?”

“Always have.” The bartender had been studying The Pied Piper of Hamelin too, but now he turned back to Caleb.

“Hotel commissioned it,” he said. “Paid six grand, in 1908. Parrish knew it’d hang in a barroom. He wanted men to sit where you are, to look up and maybe recognize a kid — to think of their own kids, waiting at home. And then not buy that second drink.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. You know what you want?”

“Jameson, neat. And a pint of Guinness.”

“Look at a menu?”

Caleb shook his head, then looked down at the bar. Someone had left the local section of the morning’s Chronicle. It had been folded twice so that only one headline was visible: