“All Them Saints” by Kim Bussing

16 March 2018 on Fiction   Tags: ,

As a dressmaker’s daughter, she should have known the risk of a bad seam. Rosemary had grown watching her father in his workshop, his couturier’s fingers finding piousness in velvet, bisso, chenille, chintz: it plucked warmth back to his cheeks, sound back to his laugh, returned him almost to who he’d been before her mother died. She did not think Paris would pose any dangers. She did not think human beings were assembled and undone by a needle and thread. As a dressmaker’s daughter, she should have known better.

*

Despite The Saint, Rosemary and her father had no business in Paris. It took them a week to learn how to buy bread at the boulangerie, so tenuous was their grasp on the language. They were confused by the snail shell of arrondisements, by the ancient world the buildings had been pulled from. It was one more city that wasn’t theirs.

The fashion designer had brought them here. He was a name in department stores and lips and labels, a creature fermenting in the dregs of scandal. He was The Saint.

He had stolen Rosemary’s father from a men’s store on Fifth Avenue, dropped him stunned in a workshop on Avenue Marceau as though there were no other considerations, a solitary chess piece without a board. Yet with a Rosemary. The Saint, in his indecipherable way, must have at least pondered what part this quiet, motherless child would play, what game she had been taken from.

At first, the Saint existed in nights of whiskey and cigarette smoke, none of which Rosemary attended. She had never seen The Saint, never seen the men who crowded around him, but she smelled the aftershock on her father when he came reeling in late or past lateness, tripping upon the mattress they shared in the one-room flat, his fingers stuffed with paper dolls. These dolls he placed on the kitchen table. He cursed when ash from his cigarette battered their legs. Rosemary would run her fingers over their outlines when her father was gone, trying to lose herself in them the way he did. She only saw kindling.

Her father had been hired as a modiste. He whispered to the dark, choked with liquor, liqueur, lunacy, lore, that he had emerged a muse.

*

She and her father used to spend their evenings together. When her mother died, their existence corseted — the two of them, not belonging to the city in the way an insect does not belong to a spider web. The stitching around them was tight and precise; Rosemary never feared what lay beyond because she never feared it ripping.

They would endure in a space carved out for them on West 84th Street and eat white bread smeared with marshmallow crème, the kind in the ad with a red-haired boy, beaming, cheeks bulging, a mouth that was illustrated but Rosemary knew was sticky with sugar.

Her father had red hair once. Now it seemed to be nothing, but that was the same color as Rosemary. She imagined that when her mother had died, she had taken everything with her. Things like flavours, belonging, fur and its softness, blue.

On West 84th Street, there was the howl of drunkards and addicts and perverts, the idolization of broken bottles and street gutters and an eye blackened and a universe cursed.

Rosemary and her father did not know then how different all saints could look.

*

In Paris, her father’s hours stretch and test their limits; he finds the possibilities within them more giving than expected. He travels to Madrid with The Saint. To China and Russia. What do they do? As far as Rosemary knows, they collect swaths of fabric. They thieve patterns from the air. They stare at thin woman draped in tulle and muslin as Rosemary stares at fingers slick with butter and chocolate — the vague whisper of something maternal under the quivering thrust of her tongue. Endless stretches she’s left alone on the Boulevard de Clichy, a greyness to the garret like a long-departed smoker had sat patiently puffing by each slice of wall. Headless mannequins with waists as thin as transcendence guard her and mock her.

*

The Saint starts coming to their apartment, oozing in with her father when the stars are exhausted. Absinthe would leak out of him, all holey, all holy. When The Saint comes, Rosemary is banished to the bathroom. She will squat on the toilet’s closed lid and tilt open the pebbled glass window as if sounds are currency, and she will hand the gasps of The Saint to the whores below and they will pass back the songs from the Moulin Rouge.

She will know she can return when the room falls silent, but she will often be asleep by then, curled in the bath with its ring of grey scum and Rorschach clumps of hair. Sometimes she will be awoken by pissing. In the light from the still-open window is The Saint, wide-legged before the toilet.

*

Her father and the Saint are going to Morocco. They leave for the summer, they leave Rosemary.

Rosemary for remembrance, Ro like woe, Mary for bitterness and babies holy. A name that could be flipped, unzipped, recut, resewn to fit the need, the wearer, though this was so often more the speaker than the subject.

Now it has no need. Her father has the Saint, and the Saint has fashion, and fashion has made the Saint into a piece of history. And what does history care of a girl in a garret who knows nothing of the world?

*

She is seventeen, and then eighteen. An endless summer. A quiet girl, a swelling girl. Full of facts and curiosity and solitude and ghosts. Full of baguettes and beurre, jam and jambon, bottereaux and beignets, mergeuz and melancholy. Whatever would fill the empty spaces, but for such a small apartment, a small life, the emptiness is an exacting master to assuage. She likes to watch herself grow fatter and skin distend; she likes the rolls, the compounding flesh on her rack of bones. She disgusts herself, and at least that is an answer why she is left behind.

But still, she lives those days gently, she lives them in the wafts of bread from the boulangerie, of unwashed men, of milk becoming cheese, of dreams rued on the rues. She is afraid of disturbing the cockroaches in the walls. She does her shopping, she stuffs herself on pain au chocolate in her garret where no one can see, she stares out from her window to the windows of the prostitutes as they birth themselves each night anew under the moon’s resplendent breast.

She is still like a coffee cup yet drunk, an orchid yet bloomed, like twilight yet rattled by stars.

With furtive hands though there is no one to see her crimes; she slips the dresses off the mannequins and recites their names. Bombazine, brocade, dimity, duck, flannelette, and fustian. It feels like praying.

The green one explodes with tulle. Her father’s mind lingers on it, though this is not a dress for Rosemary, not even a dress that would have been for her mother.

Rosemary strips to her underwear. The color of soot, sagging. The skirt she steps into easily. The bodice is another matter. It won’t move upwards beyond her hips, but it must, it must, and she yanks it until it rips with a sound like nothing in particular. She cradles the remains. No animal had ever died so quietly.

She tries on the rest, knowing what will happen. What is left behind is seductive carnage — hers. Something she has made. The dresses are finally honest: here they are. Here’s the truth to all beautiful things. So she lets the shreds cascade from her arms, all too heavy to be caught by the wind, collapsing to a pavement limp with rain.

In the tiled bathroom no bigger than the head of a pin, overlooking the Boulevard de Clichy and the clatter of prostitutes bursting from their chrysalises, Rosemary ministers to her face, the outline of her skeleton, the vengeful flesh settling around and over her hips, sometimes daring to stroke the thigh near that gash between her legs. She searches for a seam, curious to find that bump of thread, that almost invisible suture that would lead her to unravel, that would show her exactly how she had once been put together, and why, and for whom.

*

And then, somehow, somewhere, in those lonely days, she leaves girlhood behind. It is a story that had to be had. There is a boy. There is a thrill. There is the brief rumor of color like there is for all who get close to what they secretly wish had been love.

The boy does not matter, not really. He smokes, and gives her her first cigarette. He is from America but doesn’t taste like Rosemary’s America and that is a betrayal she can’t forgive.

He is always learning — he is a student. To be anything else doesn’t interest him. To learn anything well frightens him. Rosemary learns something, too. She learns that it is possible for men to look at her.

She learns that she burns. She keeps smoking after the boy is gone because she likes the embers’ waltz at the paper’s far edges. Sometimes she will flick out her tongue, catch them on the tip, swallow and imagine they travel straight down to her gut and she will glow like she has gorged on the constellations.

*

Her father and The Saint return from Morocco. Her father is brown now as if he could not get the dirt off of him. Her father saying each morning, he was baptized, holding his fingers to his nose and smelling rosewater. Her father who marvels at the dye of the sky, as if he and the Saint are the first to discover the color blue. According to her father, The Saint is responsible for noticing the stars. He does not see that she’s started smoking. He does not ask who the boxers puddled by their mattress belong to. He’s even forgotten her birthday.

Now there is no hiding what is happening between her father and the Saint.

For Rosemary, it is time for girls her age to be trotting off to be secretaries and sleep with their bosses and wear pants to work and scream along to the Rolling Stones. But her father is her life. She does not know how he can so easily have forgotten that she used to be his. She does not even know where she would go, who would have her.

The stones are rolling, the saints are marching, the great world is tumbling, and within the wild dervish of it, the calculus of how to make a girl into a paper doll.

*

Her father is under the spell of the Saint. He is a worshiper, a zealot, a chieftain of adoration. He would have dug out his teeth if the Saint liked them for next season’s earrings.

She will not be left behind any longer.

She will smoke herself thin, she will pray herself pretty, and one morning, she wakes up and her clothes hang off her so there is nothing for her to wear, so that when The Saint wakes, she is there naked staring down at him. Thighs no longer like grapefruit peels, body a hypothesis and him the scientist leading the charge.

Her father has gone to fetch a baguette. Her hair hasn’t been washed in several days. It obscures her nipples. But the rest is visible. Her ribs are in vogue. Her body is a sheet on which he can make his own sketches.

He stares at her, he tells her to wait. From his bag, he retrieves a camera and green fox fur. He drapes it around her, brushing aside her hair, securing it at the nape of her neck. The fox should be soft and tender against her breasts, against the concavity that used to be a stomach.

The camera clatters and clicks.

I wish you would die this beautiful, the Saint tells her.

*

The next day, the Saint has clothes delivered. A stack from his collection. In an apartment that sways with the footsteps of whores and the windmill of the Moulin Rouge, she has clothes worth a culture and nothing at all.

She licks them, disappointed they aren’t as sweet as chocolate.

The morning of the fox fur, they had also fucked. Of course they fucked. Her father had left to get a baguette, and she and The Saint slammed into each other with so much violence she is surprised no one bled.

It changes, then. The Saint hauls her to his life, to the parties, to the flash of paparazzi, to the perfume, to rooms with chandeliers that disintegrate with crystals. He gets her high and he gets her drunk and over and over they threaten the limits of her stitching. He will take her out on balconies and rage against the stars. Some nights, for him, they are an aspiration; others they are an imperfection, rips in an otherwise perfect fabric.

He leaves her when she is too dazed, too swirling, to remember who he is leaving her for. But sometimes, even in these hallowed halls, she can hear the skittering of cockroaches in the walls. Sometimes, she thinks that she hears them beneath the Saint’s skin.

*

Even from the Boulevard de Chlichy, she can feel the buzz of celebrity, Chanel, champagne, colour, cockroaches, cocks, cigarettes, cashmere, cunts, cognac, cocaine, couture, couture, couture.

It does not fill her up. She is hungrier than ever.

*

Later. Weeks yes, perhaps months. Rosemary had thought the Saint would bring Paris to her, but he severs her. She loses time. The streets are a conversation in a language she doesn’t speak. Her tongue is a stranger. Each pill seems to drag her somewhere else, and she awakes to not know which way is north. The only thing she knows is her father, and to have her father, there must be The Saint.

The Saint likes to take pictures of her in the garret, likes the grime and grease and grim that settles on all the surfaces, even their skin. He likes to fuck in the kitchen, near the knives.

When he is done, when there is the sour smell of anticipation lost, she starts to take photos of him. The camera is cold and firm and it yields to her. It makes her feel real, and the Saint a reliquary.

In pictures, he is intoxicating.

He has a face much too young, a cursed portrait behind some curtain. He is some Dorian, some Oz, an androgynous Faustus. Lips so plump they had been swiped from Bardot. Those great, black glasses he wore, like a mask robbed from a robber, once Nothing clear to him, not even the dusty insight of lens glass, smudged with finger grease, pushed into his forest of hair as he bends over a jacket or a sketch or a lamentation of fabric.

Of course you worshiped him. He defied the cruel world’s rules.

*

The hands, though, the hands betray him. She seizes them in a photograph. The hands of a man, a man his age. Skin thin like gossamer, punctured by pins the same as the careless pinpricks in the night sky through which come in light. Hands experts at finding a dress’ frantic organ, the seam that secures a person. Like an apricot, will our pit be rotten? What will we look like on a cutting board?

When she receives it, she gives the Saint the photo of his hands. He stares at it. He holds it up to the illumination from the window.

In the morning, he is gone.

*

Later.

The city rejects them; it does not want The Saint’s scraps. Her father is left to find a job working for a tailor on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. He becomes a grey man, a man sunken. Rosemary tries to reach him. She buys cabbage, fries it in olive oil, cuts it before him but he’s attentive only to the door. The footsteps that might echo beyond it. She thinks, someone ought to invent a cure for faith.

She cooks cabbage, cleans up dejected fabric, waits for her father to come back to her. He fades into the garret. She walks him to work and beyond the smell of butter and sewers, the moaning of Notre Dame, there is the cry of couture. Her father’s outline is fluid when he hears it, but at least, every night, he is home.

It is a month before the Saint returns. Even men who are not men need men like her father.

But when the Saint appears at her door, her father is at work, prodding strangers with needle and thread though he is the one with seams that are ripping. She tells the Saint her father is dead. She tells him he has killed himself. He leaves with his hands and their holes in his pockets. She watches him walk, afraid he will see her father, hoping he will start climbing the air until he is too distant to do them more harm.

It seemed to her like all the saints could march straight up to those thousand little pinpricks in the sky and that might do them some good, Rosemary thought, to have to wonder for once what all the fuss was about.

 

----

Originally from Seattle, Kim splits her time between the Pacific Northwest and Australia. She studied Honors English at Georgetown University, spent time studying creative writing and English literature at Cambridge and Oxford University, and will be pursuing an MFA in the fall. Her fiction has appeared in publications including South Dakota Review, Sou'wester, and Story/Houston, among others. When not writing, she can be found taking up residency at local bookshops, drinking too much coffee, or refusing to use an umbrella. You can find her on Twitter at @kimbussing.

"Century Dresses Sold in Flea County, NY." Photograph by Pearse Anderson. He is a photographer and writer living in Oberlin, OH. His photos have or will appear in The Tishman Review, Bad Pony Magazine, and Juke Joint Magazine, while his writing can be found in Weird Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, and OCCULUM. He is from Central New York and took many of his favorite photographs (such as this one) from his adventures around the region. More of his work can be found on his website pearseanderson.com, or on his @pearseanderson Instagram account.

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