Time: the present.
Location: the upstairs master bedroom of a fabulous mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast.
Greta, the maid, knocked on the open door to give advance warning and walked thirty feet to the nightstand. She deposited the breakfast tray and acknowledged with a slight bow the thank you from the Mrs. on the near side of the bed. The Mr., on the opposite side, continued to look down at his notes.
Greta had signed a non-disclosure agreement when first hired and had learned long ago to never stare at the Mrs. for any extended period of time.
Curiosity from the outside world as to the appearance of the Mrs. was something she could never satisfy, not if she wanted to keep her job. So it was best if she didn’t tempt herself.
The Mr. was another matter. He’d become a public figure. He’d grown into his looks. He resembled nothing so much as a wise old gnome who was carrying the secrets of the financial world around in a satchel.
Greta knew he was preparing for questions on Business Beat that day. He was a guest three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
A small studio was set up on the ground floor, so he could always “go live” with any one of a host of on-air personalities without ever having to leave the comfort of home.
It was an exceptionally fine and well-paying life for the couple she served. It was just too bad the Mrs. had been forced to become such a recluse.
Time: a step back 10 years.
Location: a television studio in Hollywood.
Luther Foster, host of the talk show Scuttlebutt, was winding down after a treacly interview with an up-and-coming male teenage singing sensation. His new assistant, Laetitia, had just brought him coffee and was preparing to add an 80-proof pick-me-up.
She knew Luther would want her to stay and hash out how the show had gone and then touch on what was on tap. Was tomorrow’s guest firmly lined up? Would he or she be interesting enough?
Laetitia was eager but inexperienced and her contribution to these critiquing sessions was often limited to nodding. She knew this was a disappointment to Luther.
Her boss dearly missed his previous assistant, Maggie, who’d left the show when it moved from New York to the coast. Maggie’d chosen to stay, marry her boyfriend and raise a family.
While Luther wished Maggie all success in her new life in Connecticut, there were many times he now felt weightless.
He’d scratched and clawed his way to the top in a cutthroat business. On the journey, he’d met and fought with many colorful personalities. However, those others had mostly moved on, retired or been fired.
Luther was now stuck making surface conversation with people a fraction his age who often had no idea what he was talking about.
He started this day’s gab-fest with a throw-away line he figured would lead nowhere. “You won’t believe who I ran into at the Governor’s fundraising ball last night. Della Croza. Haven’t seen her in a couple of years.”
“Oh yeah. Who’s she?” said Laetitia. “Wait, I seem to remember. She was a famous sculptress.”
“Very good, Laetitia. That ivy league degree you earned is good for something,” said Luther. “She and her husband were back in the city after attending the funeral of a friend in Arizona.”
Proud of her contribution, Laetitia was quick to go on. “Her work was very popular at one time, wasn’t it? Particularly her busts. But then she drifted into abstraction and that was more controversial.”
“Actually, I like her later work better,” said Luther. “But she’s more famous for being a celebrity than anything else. I had her on my show many times in the old days. She was a great guest. She’d say and do anything.”
“She was supposed to be very beautiful.”
“There’s no ‘supposed to be’ about it. I can vouch for the fact. I’ve never seen a woman more attractive. And she kept her looks for a very long time. Odd too, since she was in many ways quite nasty.”
“How’d she look last night?” asked Laetitia.
“There were some cracks in the edifice,” said Luther. “She even seemed embarrassed about it. Still held herself well, though. Great poise. Except her dress was ill-fitting.”
“Isn’t she married to somebody fairly well-known?”
“Laetitia, you keep surprising me. Well done. Yes, Winston Rudolf. He’s risen to prominence only recently. When Laetitia was in her glory, I remember Winston as a fright. It was hard to imagine the two of them together. But now he seems a lot more comfortable in his skin. He’s still no beauty. But at his age, nobody expects him to be.”
“Isn’t he some sort of top adviser to the government?” Laetitia was on an approval-seeking roll.
“Yes. He’s a behind-the-scenes man, but every once in a while he surfaces to give an opinion on CNN or whatever. His career’s on the rise.”
“They’re quite the power couple,” said the young girl, with an inflexion of admiration in her voice.
“Yes, I guess you’re right. I’m not sure that’s what Della ever would have expected from her marriage. It used to be almost exclusively about Della. I guess we’ll never know. I’d love to ask her.”
Laetitia jumped in with an offer. “I’ll see if I can arrange an interview.”
“Don’t bother. I asked her last night. She couldn’t have said ‘no’ more emphatically. She’s pulling back from public life. Too bad, really. She was on top for a very long time. Okay, so who’ve we got lined up for tomorrow?”
Time: an additional step back of 15 years.
Location: a television studio in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Luther Foster is conducting a live interview with Della Croza before a sizable camera crew and enthusiastic audience.
LUTHER: Welcome to my show, Della. I know you’ve been here many times, but it’s always a pleasure.
DELLA: Mine as well, Luther. I’m thrilled to be here.
LUTHER: How long have we known each other, Della, 20 years? In all that time, your appearance hasn’t changed one iota. You’re still as gorgeous as ever. Remarkable. You have the face of an angel. How do you do it?
DELLA: And the body. Don’t forget my body, Luther. She props up her breasts with both hands.
LUTHER: Who can forget your body? That’s why everybody loves you. You’re so outrageous. I guess we should talk about your latest work, though.
DELLA: It’s why I’m here. To promote my crap and make some money.
LUTHER: Your critics say your latest work is nothing but fluff. Only chaotic ticker-toys. Bits of this and that welded together and arranged willy nilly. A child could do it. How do you respond?
DELLA: How many children know how to weld? I love putting on the goggles and lighting the torch. Then bringing various bits of metal together to adhere in glorious and unruly ways. Plus there’s the heat. You know how much I like the heat, Luther.
LUTHER: Based on your life, there can be no doubt, Della. But what about the critics? I admire your work, but I’m not sure how accessible it is.
DELLA: To those who say I don’t know how to sculpt I say perhaps they don’t know how to see.
LUTHER: You have to admit, you’re not challenging Donatello, Rodin or Moore in your latest pieces.
DELLA: Please Luther. Far too much reverence is extended to those old farts.
LUTHER (shocked): What’d you say?
DELLA: Those guys put on their pantyhose one leg at a time, same as everybody else. It’s true in all walks of life. The people most revered weren’t gods. They didn’t have light shining out of their you-know-whats.
DELLA: I was going to say eyes, but your interpretation’s better.
LUTHER: So you’re comparing yourself to the greatest sculptors of all time?
DELLA: Why not?
LUTHER: Isn’t that rude? Doesn’t it smack of poor taste?
DELLA: You mean ‘cause it isn’t done? We’re too polite. We’re supposed to fake humility.
LUTHER: What about hubris?
DELLA: Screw hubris.
LUTHER: Ever think you may upset people by being too prolific? I’ve heard some comments your work suffers from being rushed.
DELLA: I believe an artist has to keep producing. You never know when the creative well may run dry. Or you might drop dead. (She points to someone in the audience.) Look at my husband. How much longer do you figure he’s got?
LUTHER: What does Winston think when you say things like that?
DELLA: You mean my bitter half? I don’t know. Ask him yourself.
The camera focuses briefly on Winston, who’s smiling awkwardly.
LUTHER: Maybe after the show. What do you think of the work of some of your contemporaries?
DELLA: Please, I’d rather not damage my brain by thinking about them.
LUTHER: Shouldn’t be too big a strain. Authorities say we use only 5% of our minds.
DELLA: I don’t believe that.
LUTHER: Why not?
DELLA: It’s obvious, isn’t it? Researchers were only using 5% of their brainpower when they reached that conclusion. That’s not enough effort for me to put much faith in their findings.
LUTHER: So is there anyone you admire on the current scene?
DELLA: Some of my rivals are producing eminently pleasant stuff.
LUTHER: Maybe we can pursue this after the commercial break.
DELLA: Sure Luther, chase away.
Same day, two hours later.
In the decompression phase after the show, Luther and Maggie chewed over how the shoot had gone. The star and his major factotum were completely comfortable in each other’s company. They lounged in leather-bound chairs on either side of Luther’s office desk.
Maggie opened with, “Good show. Della’s always such a great interview.”
Luther responded, “That’s ‘cause she’s crazy. She’ll say anything. That business with her husband, I couldn’t believe it.”
“I know. I looked at him in the audience. When they arrived earlier today, he was already beat up. Like she’s been putting him through the wringer,” said Maggie.
Luther jumped on the idea. “I know what you mean. He started off looking like an aging hockey player who’s had too many fights. Then every time she opened her mouth, it was like he took another shot to the head.”
Maggie broke in, “By the end of the show, he was so weathered and wrinkly, he could have been mistaken for an aging rock star. Not good at all.”
Luther could only shake his head in wonder. “It didn’t phase her a bit. In fact, she grew more radiant as the show progressed. She left the studio glowing.”
“How do they stay together?” Maggie wondered.
“I have no idea. Maybe they have a pact. She says whatever she likes and he absorbs all the emotional blows,” Luther speculated.
Maggie had the final words on the subject. “Marriages that last are always a mystery.”
Time: stepping back 30 more years.
Location: a swanky resort in the Caribbean.
A sprightly young lady approached a distinguished middle-aged man seated at a metal table outdoors. Attendants were nearby, cleaning the pool prior to the day’s recreational activities.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I believe you’re Doctor Hasbad and this may be my one chance to speak with you.”
“Why would you want to do that?” said Dr. Hasbad.
“Because I have a proposition for you.”
“In my line of work, I get all kinds of proposals. Usually late at night. Rarely first thing in the morning.”
“I know and I’m nervous about how to proceed, but I feel I must. You see, I haven’t come all the way to St. Maarten by accident.”
“Why are you here, child? Please, have a seat and tell me your story.”
“I’m here on my honeymoon, but I didn’t pick this spot at random. I did my research and discovered you would be the keynote speaker at the world-wide Congress of Plastic Surgeons. I only want the best.”
“Surely a lovely creature such as yourself doesn’t believe you need any work?”
“Doctor, I’m a connoisseur of beauty. In fact, I’ve managed in my own small way to acquire some fame in my field. I sculpt profiles in clay. I was recently featured in an article in Time magazine. Something to do with most promising artists under a certain age.”
“I’m an artist. I know about the ravages of time. I don’t want to be a victim. At least, not for a good long while.”
“And you think I can help,” said the doctor.
“I know you can. What I’m proposing is an exchange of skills. I’ll make several busts of you in exchange for being able to call on your services when I feel the need.”
“That’s a fascinating idea. It borders on the outlandish, but I’m intrigued. What does the new man in your life think about it?”
“I haven’t asked him and I don’t intend to,” said the young lady.
“Where is he?” asked the doctor.
“I made sure he’d sleep in this morning. We had a full dance card last night.”
“My impression is you’re one of those people who have a very clear idea of what they want in life. Recognition and glory.”
Blushing a little. “That about sums it up.”
“How did you meet your husband?”
“He saw my photo in the magazine and came to my next gallery opening. There was an immediate connection between us that I’m still having trouble understanding. I have a feeling he’ll always be loyal to me.”
“Sounds like a man of character. What else about this paragon of virtue?”
“He’s very handsome. One might even say stunning.”
“Another confirmation of my theory. I’ve often observed ‘like’ attracts ‘like’.”
“I suspect you’re correct,” said the young lady.
“I have no doubt you’ll achieve great success in your career, Miss Della Croza. Yes, I know who you are. When I saw you in the lobby yesterday, I was compelled to ask the concierge your name. How could I not, being a student of beauty myself?”
Della looked pleased at the revelation.
The doctor continued. “Clearly, you’ll never have any problems in the self-promotion department. But I feel I must also pass on to you the advice I give all my clients. The magic I can perform will last only so long. The path you’re pursuing is unlikely to lead to happiness long-term.”
Della thought for a moment then responded with apparent caution, so as not to offend. “That’s according to who’s definition, Doctor?”
He sighed. “I see you’ve already considered the matter from all sides. Very well then, I’ll being seeing you in a couple of years. My clinic is in Scottsdale. When you think you might like some touching up, give me a call. I’ll be ready at any time to sit for you.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I know this is only the first of many occasions when we’ll be sharing some interesting insights.”
Time: the present again, but in the late evening.
The Business Beat broadcast was over and Winston was pleased with himself. Once again, he’d done his job, throwing a spanner into the financial soup.
A phrase here, a suggestion there, and the government might take action against its own best interests.
On a professional level, there was no denying Winston was the best – or the worst, of course, depending on one’s point of view. That’s not where his imaginings were taking him.
Winston had never thought of himself as a rebel. Yet here he was. He’d done so many things to anger his sulfurous father. He could never explain his behavior.
He’d been sent up to earth’s surface 500 years ago, when the Italians were establishing the rudiments of a banking industry in the Renaissance.
During the intervening years, Winston had learned all there was to know about commerce and economics.
Working on the devil’s behalf, he’d helped initiate countless crises. Boom and bust cycles were his specialty. The latest one, brought on by the sub-prime mortgage mess, was a particular masterpiece.
He’d fashioned a disaster-sculpture beyond anything his wife, Della Croza, might once have aspired to.
That was his professional life. It was in his personal life that matters had gone far astray.
After countless affairs over several centuries, Della became his first and only wife. He still couldn’t believe this horrible, self-absorbed and magnificent creature was married to him.
He’d even come to tolerate generation after generation of the damn Pekingese pets she insisted on smothering with affection in lieu of children.
He shuffled across the room from the bathroom, preparing to turn off the side-table lamp and climb under the covers.
His partner of 50 years smiled up at him. “Come to bed, Winston.” she said and he was putty in her hands.
They were a matched set now – craggy, cratered and crumbling.
Only Winston didn’t have to look this way. He could change both his appearance and persona at will.
Why Della had felt the need to use the services of Doctor Hasbad, he’d never understood. He could have helped her stay young-looking forever.
But she didn’t know his secret. And she never would.
Turning to Dr. Hasbad was her choice. Winston had made a decision he was never going to interfere with her free will.
That’s where he’d departed so far from his upbringing. That plus how crazy in love he’d fallen.
He looked at her. Not for the first time, not for the millionth time, he thought about how Della made even breathing fascinating.
Their marriage may have contained several of the elements of hell, but it had evolved onto another plane altogether.
His relationship with Della had him firmly marching across the neutral zone that separated past evil from future good.
Speaking of surprises, there are a few to uncover in A Curious Case of Bottled-up Passion. A budding artist is waylaid by a wanton and fickle future.