Unbecoming

Unbecoming BY Rebecca Scherm




For Jon, my love,

and

for Katie, my accomplice





Paris





1



The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Julie,” Grace had said. She’d been in Paris for only a month, and her French was still new and stiff. She’d chosen the name Julie because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue—much more so than Grace was. The best lies were the simplest and made the most sense, in the mind and in the mouth. These lies were the easiest to swallow.

Jacqueline, the boss, had shown Grace to her worktable, abutting Hanna’s, and where to store her tools in the jars along the center crack, what she could borrow and what she would need to procure herself. Hanna had reached out to cover a jar of picks and pliers. “I don’t share these,” she’d said with a taut smile, like someone forced to apologize.

When Grace sat down on her spinning stool a few minutes later, Hanna asked where she was from. Grace was so obviously American.

“California,” Grace said, because most people already had ideas about California. They didn’t ask you to explain it to them. Grace hated lying, got no joy from it, and this was how she knew she wasn’t pathological. But California satisfied people so easily, even in Paris. Garland, Tennessee, where Grace was really from, was a confusing answer that only led to more questions. “Tennessee?” Hanna might have started. “Elvis? Péquenauds?” Hillbillies? When Grace had lived in New York, everyone who asked her where she was from followed her answer with the same question: “What’s that like?”

As if her journey from somewhere as tiny and undistinguished as Garland had required a laborious transformation. As if getting from Garland to New York City had been some kind of pilgrimage to the first world.

Grace had been in Paris for two years now, and she had been Julie from California since her arrival. Her life was conducted entirely in French, another kind of disguise. She and Hanna seldom discussed anything deep in the past, and when the conversation took an unwelcome turn, they quickly righted themselves. Facing each other across their tables, they hunched over their antiques and talked of busted hinges and gouged veneer, not sorrow or worry, not home.

The boys would be paroled tomorrow, released from Lacombe and sent home to Garland with their families. It was three o’clock in Paris now, morning in Tennessee. Riley and Alls would be eating their last breakfast of powdered eggs and sausage patties, doughy-faced guards planted behind them. Grace had always imagined them together, but she’d begun to imagine their lives without her so long ago that she often forgot how little she really knew. She didn’t know a thing about their lives anymore. She hadn’t spoken to them in more than three years, since before they were arrested for robbing the Wynne House: three years of imagined sausage breakfasts.

He wouldn’t come for her, she told herself. It had been too long.

Grace had often felt like two people, always at odds, but when the boys had gone to prison, one Grace had stopped her life’s clock. Now it had begun to tick again. She had no control of Riley now, what he would do and where he would go, and these unknowns bred in her a private, shapeless dread. She’d left lies unleashed in Garland and now she couldn’t mind them.

Riley and Alls were twenty years old when they were sentenced to eight years each in Lacombe. This was the minimum: it was their first offense, they were unarmed, and, more important to Judge Meyer, they were “not your typical criminals,” and Riley’s family was a nice family. The Grahams had lived in Garland for seven generations, and Alls benefitted from the association—as had Grace, when she’d been associated. Grace often thought that if Alls alone had been charged with the crime, he would not have gotten off as easy, and that if only Riley had been charged, he probably would have gotten off altogether. Greg had pled guilty too, but his parents had won him a plea bargain for turning in his friends. He was released in a year.

Grace had robbed the Wynne House too, and she could not go home again.

She remembered the moment—maybe it had lasted minutes or maybe days; she didn’t remember—after the judge had handed down the eight-year sentence, but before she’d learned that they could be paroled in only three. Eight years had seemed an incredible length of time. Eight years was longer than she had known Riley. Eight years seemed long enough for everyone to forget.

She gave the birdcage’s latch a final swipe with the chamois and called for Jacqueline. The filigree onion dome alone had taken her nine days to clean. The wire metalwork was so fine that from a distance, it might have been human hair. On the first day, she’d held the vacuum hose in her left hand and the hair dryer in her right, blowing off dust and sucking it up before it could land again. Then she’d spent more than a week swabbing the curlicues with dental tools wrapped in cotton and paintbrushes dipped in mineral spirits. This morning she’d finished scraping off centuries of songbird guano from the cage’s floor. It wasn’t a birdcage anymore, but a gilded aviary, orientaliste, late nineteenth century, nearly as tall as Grace was. Jacqueline would return it to the dealer who had purchased it from the flea market, and he would sell it for at least five thousand, maybe much more. Perhaps it would be wired for electricity and made into a chandelier. Maybe an orchid collector would use it to shield his best specimens from human hovering.

When Jacqueline emerged from her skinny office beneath the stairs, Grace stood apart from her work. She waited as her boss pulled a pair of white cotton gloves from the bin next to the tables. Jacqueline ran her gloved index finger lightly along the wires. She gently turned the latch on the door and bent close to listen to its movement. She craned to see the underside of the onion dome.

“?a suffit,” she said.

That was as approving as Jacqueline got. She did little restoration herself, only the most basic things—regluing a horn handle to a letter opener, or cleaning larger metalwork—and only what she could do while on the phone. Now she clacked over to Amaury’s dark alcove, where he was slumped over an open watch. After decades in exactly that position, his shoulders had slid into his belly. Jacqueline reached for the watch, but Amaury grunted and swatted her hand away. He’d been at Zanuso et Filles the longest. He’d even worked for the original Zanuso, back when Jacqueline and her sister were the filles. Jacqueline had neither the head nor the hands for antiques restoration, but she was the senior Zanuso now. Grace supposed that made her and Hanna the filles.

Hanna cleared her throat, eager for their boss’s attention. Last week she’d begun a new project, and now she wanted to show off her progress.

“C’est parti,” Jacqueline said, squeezing the bridge of her nose. “Yes, Hanna?”

“My beaded centerpiece is Czech, 1750 to 1770,” Hanna said, though they all knew by now. “I will have it to the decade by the end of the week.”

Hanna was sitting in front of the shared computer, clicking through the hundreds of photographs she’d taken of her project. The centerpiece was the size of a card table and divided into four quadrants, each containing beaded miniatures of flora and fauna: spring blossoms, a summer peach orchard, an autumn crop harvest, and a snowy thicket with white wool sheep and shepherdesses. The centerpiece had clearly once been exquisite, if silly. Grace imagined it as a diorama that some young countess had hired palace artists to build for her. The trees, their leaves made of cut silk, were as detailed as real bonsai.

“The materials,” Hanna continued, “are linen and pinewood, glass, mica, copper, brass, steel, lead, tin, aluminum, beeswax, shellac, white lead, paper, and plaster of Paris. I have disassembled and numbered it into 832 parts, each corresponding to this diagram. You will see how the glass beads have been discolored by oil, no doubt applied by someone with limited knowledge of the period.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Julie will help you with this one. It’s a very big job.”

“I don’t want any help.”

Jacqueline put her finger to her lips. “Until something else comes in for her to do, she will assist you.”

“You’ll have to measure all the old wires,” Hanna said to Grace. “The new ones will be steel, which won’t be historically correct, of course, but my primary objective is to preserve the integrity of the object’s intention.”

“Which is to be a centerpiece,” Grace said.

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