John Danahy

Shriveled Hearts

Cassie rounded the bathroom corner, slid under the sheets, and nestled her body against the middle-aged man who’d said his name was Thomas Prow. “It’s Thomas, not Tom,” Cassie remembered him saying emphatically. She lay still next to him and watched as he stared at the ceiling, his right arm covering his forehead. His left hand, its long, bony fingers flattened and crooked, rested on his navel.

Raising her head, Cassie tried to catch his eye, but his gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. She didn’t think being with her had turned on Thomas Prow at all. He had explained matter-of-factly what he wanted. She thought he had probably planned the details, that he was used to planning everything he did. Thomas’s movements had been controlled, and the sex had been perfunctory, his mind elsewhere. She wanted to know what he was thinking right now, at this moment.

As Cassie watched, his face slowly stiffened, first around the eyes, then the mouth and chin. The aura of relaxation that had surrounded him evaporated. Cassie wondered if this man so caught up in control sensed she was trying to read his mind. She moved aside as he nudged her off his chest, signaling the end of the interlude.

Cassie remained in bed while he sat on the edge, pulled on his pants, then stood. His dressing ritual, quick and methodical yet taking care to smooth the wrinkles from his navy-blue suit and textured white shirt, fascinated her. A red silk tie expertly done in a Windsor knot and a white handkerchief in his lapel pocket completed the look.

She guessed the suit, a hand-tailored silk Armani, had cost more than a thousand dollars; the Brioni shirt and tie, gold cufflinks, and Prada shoes another thousand; and the gold Rolex, its bezel encircled with diamonds, more than her father made in a year.

With his square jaw, slim nose, light-gray eyes, and short, perfectly groomed hair, Thomas looked the picture of a wealthy man in firm control of his own destiny. She saw hardness in his eyes and around his mouth when he spoke, and she guessed that he could be ruthless when necessary. This man would do anything to get what he wanted.

“Will I see you again?” Cassie asked.

She made it a point to try to see her first-time customers again as quickly as possible. It was good business “to cement the relationship,” she had been told. This time it was more than just business. Cassie wanted to know what made Mr. Thomas Prow, the chief executive officer of Consolidated Industries, tick.

“I have your number,” Thomas answered, his back to her. He put 10 one-hundred-dollar bills on the dresser and left the hotel room without looking at her.

In her six months in the business, Cassie thought she’d seen just about every type of man: rich men who didn’t have the courage to meet women, bullies who’d brag about their exploits to impress her, businessmen who supervised hundreds of people yet begged her to be scolded, grown men who wanted to be mothered. But why would a man so presentable and so powerful have to pay for sex? There would certainly be plenty of attractive women at Consolidated who would line up to sleep with the CEO. Cassie remembered her last straight job as assistant to the director of marketing at First Financial. She could have kept her job if she had given in and slept with her boss, but she’d hated to give the sleazy son of a bitch the satisfaction. She told herself, even now, she slept with men only on her terms.

Cassie went to the dresser and counted the money, smiling. It still amazed her how easy it was to make six hundred dollars, net of Norma’s 40 percent finder’s fee. It amused Cassie that Norma preferred to be called a finder, but she guessed it soothed Norma’s blue-blooded conscience. Norma’s society friends might be shocked to learn how she made money since she’d depleted her trust fund, but Cassie assumed many of Norma’s exclusive circle of male friends were also customers.

A few months after Cassie had lost her job at First Financial, her husband announced he’d found someone else. Devastated but trying desperately not to show it, she decided to move to Philadelphia. Her Aunt Camille, entrusted with making sure Cassie began her new life by meeting all the right people, introduced her to Norma a few weeks later. Cassie wondered what Aunt Camille would say if she knew her dear friend Norma had suggested hooking to Camille’s favorite niece.

Cassie no longer cared what any of them thought or said. At the rate she was saving, in seven or eight more months she’d have enough to quit this business for good and pursue her dream of studying fine arts.

She dressed slowly, taking care to make sure she looked her best. At 26, her body was smooth and slim. Her blonde, shoulder-length hair softened her angular face, and her deep-blue eyes exuded an innocence belied by her knowing smile. The dark-gray Dana Buchman wool suit and light-blue silk blouse, along with the low-heeled Ferragamo shoes and Gucci handbag, gave her the look of an ambitious, soon-to-be-successful executive. Pleased with how she looked, Cassie tossed the key onto the dresser and left.

*    *    *    *

Thomas liked the black velvet jumpsuit Cassie was wearing. A partially opened zipper, running from her neck to below her navel, revealed little yet hinted at much more. She had come to the door dressed in the jumpsuit, her hair swept back and tied in a ponytail, her face clean and fresh, with no makeup. Thomas thought she looked both wild and wholesome. As he stood in the doorway, the mangled fingers of his left hand spasmed.

He had been seeing Cassie twice a month for the last four months. At this point, he didn’t like sharing her with other clients but had said nothing. When she had returned his call to her pager this time, she suggested they meet at her apartment. Thomas agreed without hesitation, then thought later how curious and anxious he was to see where and how she lived.

“It’s good to see you again,” Cassie said, smiling broadly. “Come in. Let me take your coat.”

Thomas stood perfectly still, his eyes roaming around the rooms. Four double windows, with sills large enough to sit on, began 2 feet above the floor and ran to the 12-foot ceiling, creating a feeling of spaciousness in the small apartment. Burnished wood tables sat at each end and in front of an oversized taupe leather couch. Pieces of art hung or stood everywhere. Stained glass, hand-painted pottery, and wood carvings adorned every open surface of table and counter and windowsill. Pastels, oil paintings, and charcoal sketches covered the walls. A faint smell of turpentine hung in the air, and he guessed she’d just cleaned her brushes.

“I’m glad you could come,” Cassie said. “It’s cozier than a hotel.”

“Do you often have clients here?” Thomas asked.

“You’re the first,” she said with a smile.

“Where did you get the glass?” he asked, sweeping his hand in a large arc. “And the pottery and the carvings and the pictures? Most of this is very good.”

Cassie smiled, and her smile reminded Thomas of his mother. He hadn’t thought of her in months, maybe years. His mind leaped to his childhood, and he was struck with a feeling of emptiness.

“You’re looking at my life’s work,” Cassie said.

Her words jarred Thomas out of his thoughts. “Did you start as a child?” he asked.

“I did most of the wood carvings when I was in high school,” she said. “My grandfather taught me. The glass I did when I was in my lonely poet’s phase. I wanted my words to be as pure and clear and fragile as the glass.”

“Impressive,” Thomas said, his eyebrows arched. “Tell me about the pictures.”

“I did most of the pastels and oils before I dropped out of college. Now I’m into sketching in charcoals. It fits my mood these days—black and white and stark.”

“Why did you drop out?” he asked. He turned his head and spotted a sketch of an attractive woman in a trench coat and high-heeled shoes walking a disembodied male organ on a leash.

“To put my husband through medical school. My ex-husband that is.”

Thomas flinched at the image in the sketch, then remembered he was due back at the office before long. “Uh-huh,” he said. “Well, I have to be back in an hour.”

“Shall we, then?” Cassie turned down the hall toward the bedroom.

Afterward, Thomas lay on her bed, spent and empty, physically drained, and relaxed. He wanted to linger peacefully next to her. With others, he had started mechanically, finished swiftly, and left without looking back, but with Cassie, he’d experimented, let himself go. She was young and pretty, like the others, but she was different—self-confident, intelligent, and probing, and she excited him.

Cassie’s head lay on Thomas’s shoulder, and she gently rubbed the hair on his chest. “I’m pleased that you like my work,” she said. “Your opinion means a lot to me.”

Staying motionless under her touch, Thomas moved his eyes to her face. He hadn’t been idly complimenting her. Her work showed potential, although some of the subject matter was quirky. He knew he could get a gallery to agree to show it.

An itch between his shoulder blades broke his mood. What was he thinking? Talking to a gallery about her was out of the question. She was not someone he wanted to have his name associated with. This was a business arrangement only. Or was there something more? The fingers of his left hand twitched.

“What’s wrong?” Cassie asked. “You seem preoccupied.”

“I have to get back,” he said.

“Relax a while longer. Surely the boss can be late.”

Thomas rose up on his elbows, pushing her away. “Being late is a sign of sloppiness, of someone who can’t meet his commitments.” He climbed out of bed and dressed quickly.

“Come back when you can stay longer,” Cassie said from the bed.

The haughty, mocking expression on her face both infuriated and attracted him. “Perhaps,” Thomas replied, holding her gaze as he counted the money and placed it at her feet.

*    *    *    *

“I’m glad you could stay,” Cassie said.

Sipping white wine, she and Thomas lounged in her bathtub in the still-hot water. It had been six months since their first meeting, and for the last two months, Thomas had been seeing her once a week, usually on Tuesday evenings. The sex kept getting better, and he was getting to know her also. Cassie still saw other clients, and they had argued about it several times.

“The board meeting ended early,” Thomas said. “A good sign. I left the rest of the day open, just in case.”

“Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here.”

“That’s you in the sketch, isn’t it?” he said, pointing his glass toward the nude on the dark-green wall behind her. The sketch was of an old woman with sagging breasts, stringy hair, and lines etched in her face. Eyes large and blazing with anger, the old woman cupped a shriveled heart in her hands.

“Yes,” she answered, “although most people don’t recognize me.”

“The eyes are unmistakable.”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s your heart, isn’t it?”

“When I sketched it, I felt like my heart had withered away, and I had to separate myself from my feelings to survive.”

“The divorce?”

Cassie shrugged and knitted her brow. “It’s just a painting,” she said.

“A very good painting,” Thomas said. “Have you ever considered stopping what you’re doing and painting full time?”

“Maybe someday, ” she said softly, put her glass down, leaned to him, and kissed his cheek. “I’ve wanted to ask you what happened to your fingers?”

“Nothing,” Thomas answered and put his hand under the water.

“They’re so long and slender. Did you play the piano?”

He pulled his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them, his eyes fixed on the sketch over her head.

“A long time ago,” Thomas said, “when I was a child, my mother wanted me to be a pianist. I wanted it too. But my father had been on the boxing team in college, and he wanted his son to box.” He made a steeple with his fingers and held the bridge of his nose at the apex, his eyes cast downward.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I haven’t talked about this in a long time, or even thought about it.”

“If it’s painful for you, let’s drop it.”

“I wanted to please them both,” Thomas said without returning her look. “I loved playing the piano, and I even enjoyed practicing. My piano teacher was very special—a warm, gentle old man from Austria who spoke broken English. He had tangled white hair like a sheepdog. His nose had a wart on the tip the size of a pea, and when we practiced, his reading glasses would perch on the wart.” A broad smile lingered on Thomas’ face.

“You can do it,” Cassie said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile.”

“Oh?” he said.

“Were you a good boxer?”

A frown brought a deep cleft to his forehead. “I hated it. In the citywide tournament, I crushed my middle two fingers and had to quit boxing and piano.”

“Couldn’t the bones be set?”

“Our family doctor botched the splints. The doctors tell me now I’ve got arthritis in my hands. If I had tried to go back to playing years ago, maybe.” His fingers jerked spasmodically, and he closed his right hand over his left. “I have to go,” he said. Thomas stepped out of the tub, water dripping onto the floor, and reached for a towel.

*    *    *    *

Cassie was pleased Thomas had agreed to come early for dinner. Scurrying about the kitchen, she asked herself why she was so anxious, fussing so much over this meal and this man. He was married, even if his wife had been in and out of psychiatric clinics for the last few years. After all, this was a business arrangement. She sold her body, and he bought it. But was it more? He’d expressed interest in her art and in her as a person, but what frustrated Cassie most about Thomas was he hadn’t shared any feelings with her, and when she tried to share with him, he’d cut her off.

She had enough money now to apply to the fine arts program, as she’d always wanted, but for some reason hesitated. What held her here, in this city, in this life? She was independent for the first time in her life. Was she afraid of losing that or of failing as an artist? And why did taking his money bother her? Perhaps because she admired him for his success and his control. Cassie wanted to learn from Thomas, and she wanted him to be her friend, but she worried that the money would get in the way.

The timer on the oven sounded, and while she was removing the rolls, the doorbell chimed. Cassie checked her hair in the hall mirror, then opened the door.

“Come in,” she said. “Dinner is just about ready.”

Thomas smiled and arched his eyebrows.

“The food is hot,” she said. “Let’s have dinner first.”

As Cassie stacked the dirty dishes in the sink, she glanced at him as he read the newspaper and listened to Bach. He looked relaxed as if the tension of the day had drained out of him. At times like these Thomas seemed more in touch with himself and with her.

“There,” Cassie said as she sat next to him. “Now I can relax with you.” She patted his thigh softly, but he continued reading without notice. “What’s so fascinating?” she asked.

“Huh? Oh, nothing,” Thomas said. “It’s a story about Consolidated. I try to keep up with what the press is saying about us. Most articles are generalizations and innuendoes, but Wall Street pays attention, so I have to.”

“Can’t you take your mind off Consolidated for a little while?”

His eyes moved across her face and back to the paper, but he didn’t respond.

“Do you ever relax, let it all go?”

He stared at her, his jaw tightening. “Let go of what?”

“Whatever is preventing you from just living your life.”

“I’ve told you before—Consolidated is my life.”

“Surely you’ve got enough money. Why can’t you slow down?”

Thomas’s left hand twitched, and his eyes grew cold and hard. “It’s not the money,” he said, his brows stretching. “Not anymore. That’s just a way of keeping score.”

“Okay,” Cassie said, “okay. You’re getting tense over nothing.”

“I’ve spent my life trying to be the best,” he said, “trying to make Consolidated the best and the biggest.”

“It is the best. What’s left for you to prove? And to whom?”

Thomas slammed the newspaper on the table. “You really don’t understand, do you?” he shouted. “You can’t get to the top, then walk away. I have to keep showing them I can do what no one else can.”

“This obsession will catch up with you,” Cassie said in a soft, halting voice. “You can’t go on at this pace much longer.”

Thomas jumped up from the couch and stood over her. “That’s none of your business,” he said, pausing at each word.

“For God’s sake, Thomas,” Cassie implored. “Calm down. Please.”

“I have to go,” he said. He reached into his wallet and held out a stack of bills.

“That’s not necessary.”

“Why not?” he sneered. “Dinner, sex, what’s the difference?”

“I don’t deserve that,” Cassie said. “Not from you.”

“Take the money. You’re kidding yourself.”

“You’re the expert at that,” Cassie hissed. “You think you can put up with the pressure and the tension forever. And you think you can hide behind your money. It gives you an excuse to ignore people’s feelings, including your own.”

“What the hell do you know about me?” Thomas challenged.

“Maybe more than you think. Did you ever ask yourself why you pay for sex?”

“To avoid the hassle, to avoid this kind of scene.”

“Take your money and please leave,” Cassie shrieked. “Now.”

“I’ll go,” Thomas spat, “but don’t be a fool. We’re both selling out. Do you think being with all those men hasn’t affected you? Don’t you know the danger you put yourself in, the type of people you deal with? I…I’m…I have to go.”

*    *    *    *

Thomas couldn’t concentrate on the work at hand. Although 10 days had passed, he couldn’t get the scene at Cassie’s out of his mind. She was very perceptive. He was hiding behind his money, behind a barrier that held back whatever and whoever he chose not to deal with. He had grown secure, isolated behind his private green wall.

In spite of his reluctance to admit it to himself, Thomas missed Cassie. It wasn’t just the sex. He missed seeing her, missed her company. Surely she’d understand he had been under a lot of pressure, that he hadn’t meant what he’d said.

Thomas tried to put Cassie out of his mind. He was just too damn busy for this right now. There was much to do to get ready for the meeting with the Wall Street analysts, but first, he had to clear his desk.

His administrative assistant, Mrs. Schnell, had screened and sorted the morning mail. She hadn’t reacted when he’d barked at her earlier for no good reason. He supposed she recognized a certain amount of abuse came with every job, and after all, he paid her very well.

Thomas read swiftly through the immediate-action items, jotting follow-up notes for his staff. He skimmed the information-only materials and started to whiz through the papers and periodicals. The story was on page three of the Times.

“Police, responding to an anonymous call, found Ms. Cassandra Neff unconscious in her apartment on Independence Street, an apparent victim of foul play. No signs of a struggle or forced entry were found, and police assume the victim knew her assailant. Full medical details are not available, although it is known that Ms. Neff is being treated at City Hospital for complications due to multiple stab wounds. Sources said the victim likely suffered permanent damage to internal organs and would require nursing care for an indefinite period. Ms. Neff, the niece of Phillip and Camille Blumenthal of this city, was a native of Baltimore…”

Thomas’s pulse raced, and his hand twitched uncontrollably. No matter how hard he concentrated, he couldn’t stop the trembling. He held his breath, waiting for his heart to stop pounding.

Had it been one of her customers? He had tried to tell her the life she was leading was dangerous. Why hadn’t she listened? Why hadn’t he insisted, forced her to see only him? Would she ever recover, ever be her warm, vibrant self? Could he and Cassie have had something more, something genuine?

Held in his twitching hand, the newspaper shook erratically as if blown by a gusting breeze. Thomas folded the paper on his desk, rested his chin on his clenched, white-knuckled fists, and stared out the window.

Was he kidding himself? Could he have something real with any woman after the pain he’d been through with his wife’s breakdown? With Cassie recovered, perhaps he could. She was different. Cassie had opened him up—to her feelings and to his own. Cassie was young and full of life, and she made him feel alive, not dead; connected to his feelings, not exiled from them on some emotional desert.

The news article flashed through his mind: “…would require nursing care for an indefinite period…” Did Cassie need his help? What should he do? Should he go to her, be with her, support her? Would she be an invalid, a vegetable, unable to recognize or respond to him? Would he ever see that life flashing, pulsating in her eyes again, or would Cassie’s eyes be empty and flat, like his wife’s? Thomas sat motionless, struggling to remember his mother’s eyes.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Schnell’s voice snapped him out of his trance. “Your wife’s doctor for you, online one.”

The thought rushed over Thomas like a wave. He was vulnerable. Cassie had made him feel vulnerable again. When he opened himself up, people could get to him. It unnerved him to think that he could be hurt again, that he had been hurt. He prided himself on his self-control, his strength, but his strength had drained from him, and he felt weak, helpless, old. He couldn’t deal with the possibility of again losing someone he cared for, and he could not bear to look into another pair of blank, empty eyes. His hand trembled uncontrollably.

Uncertainty overwhelmed him. The pounding of his heart brought sharp pain as if he were being physically assaulted. He needed to get away from this pain, from this place. Cassie always said he couldn’t keep up the pace. Perhaps she was right. He’d take a few weeks off to regain his equilibrium. Scenes of places he’d been flashed by so fast he felt nauseous. Possibilities and scenarios raced through his mind but were crowded out by the image of a green wall and an old woman with striking eyes and a shriveled heart. The relentless pounding of his heart brought the palpable fear of a cardiac attack. He wanted to scream, to run from his office, now.

“The doctor is still waiting on line one,” Mrs. Schnell said. “Shall I take a message?”

Her austere, matter-of-fact tone returned Thomas to the world he controlled. His heart began to slow slightly. With great effort, he focused his mind on Consolidated. He took a deep breath, and nausea subsided. He rubbed his face in his hands, then ran his long, bony fingers through his hair.

“Put him through,” Thomas said.

The call concerned a routine administrative matter. Thomas didn’t hide his irritation with the doctor for wasting his time and hung up without a word. Focusing his anger externally fed his self-control, and he began to regain his confidence.

He had to snap out of this. What was he thinking? The police would certainly find out he had been at her apartment many times in the past six months. It would probably come out that she was a prostitute. He had to protect Consolidated.

Thomas buzzed his assistant.

“Get my lawyer on the phone,” he barked.

Waiting for the call, he weighed the options for keeping Consolidated and him out of this sordid mess. He had important connections and was sure they could be counted on. He’d simply call in his considerable markers.

He buzzed Mrs. Schnell again.

“Where’s my lawyer?” Thomas shouted. “I don’t care if you have to get him out of the bathroom. I want him now. After my lawyer, get Norma Harrington. And make a reservation at the Concord tonight. I’m staying downtown.”

***

John Danahy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aim Magazine, The Alembic, Amarillo Bay, Art Times, Desert Voices, Forge, Good Works Review, The Griffin, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The MacGuffin, North Atlantic Review, The Penmen Review, riverSedge, Salt River Review, Sanskrit, and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

 

A Literary Magazine

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