My Chantilly Lady


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 To this day I can't stand the smell of Chantilly perfume.

 She word it all the time, day and night, so thick, the cloud of it had the effect of a chemical attack.

 You could tell when she was in the building and how close she was to your room, the smell growing more intense, despite burning incense and towels stuffed along the bottom of the door.

 The hall before her room stank of it, as if leading to the entrance of some perverted garden.

 Very few people could breathe long enough to look in on her, let alone enter, though the smell might have been part of her defenses.

 She didn't like people bothering her; yet she didn't always like to be alone.

 Sometimes I could hear her through the thin wall that separated our room, pacing like a caged animal. Occasionally, I'd hear romantic music mumbling, too, and imagined her teary-eyed over the record player, mouthing out the lyrics from memory.

 She arrived at the Montclair house during my second stay there, after I have moved to Passaic, got tossed out of the apartment by Pauly and Garrick, and lived the high life in an uptown apartment with find woodwork and stained glass.

 I rarely saw her except during the morning when she exited the bathroom still brushing her teeth. Even then, she just nodded, leaving me in the wake of her Chantilly perfume.

 Part of the problem had nothing to do with her.

 I worked a job that drenched me in perfume eight hours a day, five days a week, and I came to resent the fact that one of the fragrances had followed me home despite all my efforts to keep it away, bathing morning and night to get the stuff out of my pores.

 At first, I didn't even know who she was, only that she wore this one fragrance to a fault.

 She did tell me in passing once that she was looking for work, but did not tell me how she managed to make the monthly rent.

 Gradually, I saw her in the kitchen when she came down for a snack while me and my friends played cards at the table. Eventually, she joined in and generally lost.

 As far as I could tell, her best friend was the building's hold-over hippie, Martha, who took up every cause, and took in every stray, some of the stranger men cursing her at night as they tumbled drunk or stoned down the stairs to the door.

 Over time I became aware of the secret conversations that went on between those two, the whisperings and the coded words that sent them into Martha' room when they got too excited to speak more discreetly.

 I sometimes asked what was said, but Martha would only shake her head and say: "Sad things, poor Beth has had a rough life."

 "We all have," I answered.

 "But not like her," Martha replied, then dropped the subject.

 On most nights towards the end, Beth (My Chantilly Lady) appeared at the kitchen door every night after dinner, played a few hands of cars before yawning, stretching, then retreating to her bedroom.

 One time, I offered to walk her up the stairs, and she turned so red I thought she would fait, then ran full tilt up the stairs, slamming her bedroom door behind her.

 She apologized the next day, saying she didn't mean to think badly of me, or that I might take advantage of her situation.

 I didn't ask what situation she meant, but could no more imagine making love to her, than to the open mouth of a Chantilly perfume bottle, both situations would have made me faint.

 Finally Christmas time acme around, and the house celebrated with a party, a little alcohol, a little pot, a few cross-topped white pills to keep us awake.

 Someone offered a joint to Beth, and to my everlasting surprise, she took a hit, then, once loosened up, drank and smoked enough to keep up with the rest of us, and after a time, nodded her head quietly in the corner as the rest of us giggled.

 One by one, the other people vanished, this boy going off with that girl, leaving the only two odd people in the kitchen alone, me and her.

 Then, I saw she wasn't asleep at all, but had watched me through nearly closed eyes the whole time, and this time, she smiled as if ready to suggest I accompany her to her room. But instead, she began to talk.

 "I used to be normal," she told me. "I used to live like everybody else, doing everything they did, feeling about things the way they did. But that was before I decided I wanted to die. I begged someone, anyone to kill me, but no one would."

 I laughed, thinking she was just pulling a head trip on me, and would have kept on thinking that if she hadn't jumped up and rushed to the silverware drawer -- which she yanked open and got a knife out of, coming back at me with the sharp ended pointed at my throat.

 At the last minute, she handed the knife to me and said: "Use it."

 "Sorry," I said, laughing again, because I decided that she was still joking. "I'm not the suicidal type."

 "No," she said. "Not on you. Use it on me!"

 She was not joking, and rocked back and forth on her heals, some stark gleam in her eyes that was clearly madness, holding the tip of the blade as she handed the knife handle first to me.

 "Look," I said, trying to clear my head. "I know how rough Christmas can be on people, but..."

 "So you won't do it either," she screamed and threw the knife against the wall, where it stuck -- quite by accident -- wobbling slightly like some circus act.

 We both looked at it, me in horror, she in sorrow, and then, she vanished, her feet tapping out the tale of her retreat up the stairs, the scent of Chantilly lingering behind the kitchen and the hall like smoke.

 I didn't go upstairs that night, but drank the rest of the wine left behind by the others, and smoked the rest of the pot I found half smoked in the ashtrays, leaving the knife just as she had left it.

 By New Years Eve she was gone, the door of her now-empty room open, and only the smell of Chantilly lingering there to say she had ever existed.


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