Post Road Magazine #11

The Magic Box

Robert Anthony Siegel

Augustus Auerbach woke before dawn, worried about the light. He got himself into his wheelchair, rolled to the window, and pressed a hand to the glass. He needed sunlight, sunlight so translucent that he would be able see the world as he needed to see it, so luminous that it would make him appear beautiful to the models he posed in front of his cameras. He watched as the window filled with a gentle blue iridescence, and felt the yearning grow into an almost unbearable ache. Outside, the garden was gathering the light to itself. He could make out a gazebo, a line of trees, and then the high wall that kept out the city.

An hour later, brushed and dressed, Auerbach wheeled himself down the long corridor that led to the winter garden behind the house. It was a large structure made entirely of glass that had once housed palm trees and orchids but now contained his photographic studio. Entering was always a dramatic moment: he pushed through the doors and suddenly the sky was everywhere, like the ocean surrounding a ship. He looked up at the great massy clouds floating like cities overhead, at the light pouring down like water into a crystal bowl, and immediately wanted to weep. This was not surprising: many of the models did weep, but then they were in a particularly vulnerable state-naked before the camera.

Auerbach smoothed the blanket over his lap. Elijah Grapes, his assistant, was waiting on the set with the models, Henry Twersky and Jane Larue. It was the usual set, three canvas flats painted to represent a bedroom, with a real brass bed at the center. "Good morning," said Auerbach. He required meticulous courtesy in the studio.

They answered in unison, like schoolchildren. "Good morning, Mr. A."

The sight of their worried, expectant faces was enough; he felt himself settling into the role he always assumed in the studio-that of benevolent but absolute command. He turned to examine Jane Larue. Her face had grown fleshy and round in the four months she had been gone from work, but her body-hidden in an old army greatcoat-was the truly vital question. "Well, Miss Larue, shall we take a look?" he asked.

"Yes, Mr. A." She hesitated a moment, then let the greatcoat fall. The pink nightgown took a little longer, as she had trouble working it over her head, but then it too was at her feet.

Auerbach sat very quietly, contemplating the naked figure before him. Over the two years of their association, he had photographed every inch of her body, from every conceivable angle, yet he did not recognize her now. Her belly changed everything. It was enormous, and very possibly crushing. Beyond that, it clearly contained something, as if it were a

bag: something alive that jutted, brooded, hunched, and strained at the

skin. "You're in your ninth month?" he asked her now.

"Yes, Mr. A."

"So this is as big as you get?"

She giggled, a high-pitched girlish affair that hinted at her age- twenty? Twenty-one? "I hope so," she said.

"May I?" he asked, putting his hands to the curve of her belly. The surface was surprisingly stiff. Her stomach felt full to bursting with some kind of heavy liquid, yet there was clearly something solid in there as well, floating within. It retreated from his touch and then surged back again. Impulsively, he leaned forward and pressed his ear to her skin: warmth, a salty body odor, dark interior sounds, vague gurgling. And then he heard that giggle of hers ripple through her stomach.

She was so large that Elijah Grapes had to help her put the nightgown back on. It was like putting a pink drape over a boulder. Henry Twersky pulled at his frock coat, clearly perturbed by what he had seen. "Is she going to be all right?" he asked Auerbach.

"Do you have your mask, Mr. Twersky?"

A hint of displeasure in the voice was more than enough. Twersky pulled a black strip of cloth from his pocket and tied it around his head, careful not to dislodge his top hat. His eyes peered out from two eyeholes, looking startled by their own transformation. "Ready, Mr. A."

"Then wait for your cue. Places, everyone." Auerbach wheeled back to where the camera stood on its tripod. It was a large boxy thing with a black hood trailing behind, and not one but two lenses at the front, like a pair of eyes. Indeed, these lenses functioned much like eyes, focusing on the same point in space, but from slightly different angles, and thus producing two ever-so-slightly different images side-by-side on the negative. That doubleness was the start of the process in which he specialized, called the stereograph. The two images were printed on a single rectangular card and, when viewed through a device called a stereoscope, immediately merged into one unified picture of extraordinary life-like volume and depth-a chunk of the world enclosed in a simple optical instrument the size of a cigar box.

He waited while Jane Larue settled herself under the sheets in the old brass bed, Henry Twersky tiptoed off to the side, and Elijah Grapes ran back to man the camera, all but his thin legs disappearing under the black hood. When everyone was in place, Auerbach began speaking in what he thought of as his directorial voice: a voice slower, deeper, richer than his ordinary speaking voice, a mesmerist's voice. "Are you comfortable, Miss Larue?"

"Yes, Mr. A."

"Very good then. Now listen to me carefully and I will tell you about our little scenario. This great mansion is your home, and this luxurious

bedroom is your bedroom. It is late and you are asleep in bed, beneath

wonderfully cool satin sheets. Can you feel the coolness?"

"Yes, Mr. A."

"Good. Now remember, your husband is away on business tonight, but you are not worried about being alone. After all, there is a high wall around the mansion, and a night watchman at the gate. Tell me, do you feel secure tonight, Miss Larue?"

"Yes, Mr. A."

"Good. And because you feel so secure, you have fallen deeply asleep. You are having very beautiful dreams about the blessed event to come, the birth of your first child. Can you tell me what you are dreaming about, Miss Larue?"

"Last night I dreamed I fell down the stairs."

"Well, yes, but tonight you are having better dreams-you are dreaming of babies. Fat little cherubs, pink and smiling, with blue eyes and wisps of downy hair on their heads. Can you see them, Miss Larue?"

Jane Larue liked lying on her back, listening to Mr. A's voice. With her head propped up on two pillows, feigning the sleep of the rich, she could look out through all-but-closed lids at the dark fuzzy figure of Auerbach in his wheelchair, crumpled in that pose she knew so well. He always sat that way-head tilted to one side, fingers lost in his beard, as if he were viewing not her but the pictures she would become, and the wrapping they would be sold in.

The first time they met, it had all been too much for her: that odd expression, and then the wheelchair, and the blanket covering his legs. She had stiffened as he wheeled himself over, and her eyes had drifted down to the blanket.

"Well, of course, you're curious," he had said to her, and then, before she could answer, he had removed the blanket. She caught her breath, but it turned out there was nothing to be frightened of. The legs were clothed in pinstriped pants and patent leather boots-withered, lifeless but not ugly. "You see how it goes," he said. "We all have our troubles."

It drained the fear from her; he was harmless, someone to be pitied, just like herself. It was not till months later, when she saw him do the exact same thing with another new girl, that she realized it was contrived-no, not contrived, but a method he had. Mr. A. was full of methods. But by then she knew him better and did not begrudge him his methods.

Covering up his legs that first day, he had asked her: "Have you ever seen a stereograph, Miss Larue?" She had liked being called Miss Larue.

"No, sir." She had arrived in town less than a week before from West Virginia and was living in a tenement on Cherry Street. She had not yet been to a theater, or a kinetoparlor, or one of the museums on Broadway. She did not know that stereoscopes cost just a dollar, and that everyone had one, forgotten in the closet or attic.

"It's like a photograph you can step into," he had said. "Like stepping into a room. You can see everything as if you were really there."

He had handed her a small wooden box, no bigger than a sugar tin. She held the box to her face, and it was like looking through a keyhole into an enormous, secret room: somehow, the little wooden box contained a vast space inside of itself. Inside the box was a complex and shady garden enclosed by tall hedges, a waterfall filling a reflecting pool, a table and chair beneath a tree. It was utterly real and completely private, and so beautiful she felt tears come suddenly to her eyes.

"That's how you'll be," he had said. "Men will look and yearn but will never be able to enter. Almost, but not quite."

Later, as she lay naked on the couch, he had given her directions with a gentle, measured flow of words. Without thinking, she had reshaped herself, following the curve of his voice. Yes, that's good, open your knees, wider, wider, hold it. Okay, now close the knees, that's right. Hold it just like that. The feeling was strangely selfless, as if she had somehow left Jane Larue behind to become this other thing created by the voice: breasts and neck and open lips-an image in Mr. A's mind, a step in his chain of production, a miniature woman in his magic box.

A week later, back for more work, she had peered into the stereoscope he handed her. Inside the little box she saw the room she was even then standing in, seemingly more real than the version that surrounded her. The velvet drapes, the couch-all real, utterly real, and nothing more so than the woman laying there, her body in sated repose, a mysterious, carnal smile floating above full breasts and dark nipples. She had never seen a photograph of herself before, let alone this kind of thing. The sense of loss was immediate, terrible. The woman on the couch could never be her.

Watching Jane Larue pretend to sleep, Auerbach was pleased. For reasons that were still not entirely clear to him, expectant mothers represented new territory for exotic photography. He had made a quick check of his competitors' offerings and had found not a single visibly pregnant model. The morning's experiment would establish an entirely new category of photograph, which meant in turn a whole new class of things his customers would need to buy from him. In other words, a new desire.

How many men manage to leave their imprint upon humanity in this way, not on the outside, the way we look, but on our very natures-what we want? The inventor of ice cream managed it, as did the first horticulturist to domesticate the tobacco plant. Gutenberg did it, and so did Moses-Moses with his tablets, inventor of the desire to be good. It was select company. Auerbach's place in history would be assured.

He signaled to Henry Twersky, who took up position by the bed. "You are a gentleman jewel thief," he told him, "meaning a man of culture and refinement who robs for sport rather than crude gain."

"Sport," said Twersky, nodding anxiously. "I understand."

"At this point, the gentleman jewel thief comes in and sees the rich woman in her bed. He is immediately struck by her unearthly beauty."

So began a series of carefully shaped tableaux: The rich woman waking, a look of dismay on her face. . .the rich woman sitting up and pointing to her belly. . .the thief, inflamed, ripping off her nightgown. . .touching a hand to her swollen stomach. . .removing his clothes. . .climbing onto the bed, wearing only his top hat and mask. . .

Auerbach gave directions in his slow, syrupy mesmerist's voice, watching as his words made the two bodies on the bed twist, stop and resume. The stereotyped progression of positions did not bore him, even after twenty years. Rather, he saw it as a form of internal coherence equivalent to the rhyme scheme of a sonnet-a thing to make one quietly rejoice in the world's order. He could envision just how the two bodies would look in the stereoscope, stopped in time, transformed into enchanted things. He could see customers in Kansas City and Buenos Aires with their eyes to the box, viewing not the actual Jane Larue or Henry Twersky but the imprint of their light, the relic of a moment months or even years in the past. This moment.

And then suddenly Twersky leaped off the bed. "Blood!" he yelled. "Oh, God, blood!" He stood hopping from foot to foot, wringing his hands while Elijah Grapes ran over.

Auerbach's attention returned to the scene only slowly. The models were not supposed to do anything other than what he told them to do. He sat, momentarily speechless, while Elijah Grapes examined the situation.

"I think we're done for the day," called Grapes, in his dry, uninflected voice.

"Done?" asked Auerbach, feeling a surge of annoyance. "We are not done." Only then did he wheel himself to the foot of the bed, where Jane Larue lay, feeling awkwardly beneath herself with her hand, then examining her fingers.

Her voice was quiet. "I think my water broke."

"Water?" asked Auerbach delicately. He had no idea what she meant, though he could see the dark stain spreading out over the sheet.

"I'm going to have the baby."

"The baby," he echoed, remembering that there was in fact a baby in the equation. He looked up at the sky. Enormous clouds sailed past, casting shadows. The light was losing its intensity. "It's not like you to quit in the middle, Miss Larue."

She closed her eyes and gave out a long, earthy groan-more male than female.

"No, no, no," said Auerbach, startled but determined to assert his authority. "Not now. After we finish. After."

"It hurts, Mr. A."

He thought of the terrible darkness of his room before dawn, and the way he had waited by the window for the light to come. It seemed to him that he had been waiting in one way or another his entire life for a moment that never happened. "Listen to me carefully," he told her, trying to be reasonable. "It's very important that we finish today, because you won't be pregnant tomorrow."

Jane Larue's mouth opened as if to reply but then kept on going into a scream so brutal that Auerbach immediately forgot his resentment. He looked around for Elijah Grapes, who was suddenly nowhere to be seen. "I'll get somebody," he told her, frightened.

The very next moment, Grapes drew up with an old rickshaw from the prop room. He and Twersky lifted Jane Larue inside, and then pulled her out of the studio and into the mansion, where they deposited her in one of the guest rooms. It was a grand affair with a cathedral ceiling and four-poster bed. Auerbach sat with her while Grapes went for a doctor. Henry Twersky had vanished. "He probably thinks he killed me," she said, staring up at the canopy, grimly amused.

"We don't need him," he told her. "Anybody can finish up. That's the beauty of the mask."

"And what about me?"

"You are irreplaceable, unfortunately." He was still hopeful that something might give them a chance to finish. Maybe this was just a false alarm; maybe the labor would subside.

But Jane Larue's labor did not subside. It went on, receding and then returning with a kind of nerve-wracking circularity that left Auerbach drained and exhausted. At first, he tried to reason with her, but when that did not work he retreated to a corner, watching with a mixture of annoyance and stoic determination. There was clearly no chance of finishing the photographs. As soon as Grapes arrived with the doctor, Auerbach returned to the studio.

But his mind kept slipping back to Miss Larue, and he found himself returning to check up on her now and then during the course of the day, sitting for a few minutes at a time by her bedside. He tried to comfort her, telling her about how Napoleon walked among the wounded at Austerlitz, a model of stoicism in the face of terrible suffering. When that didn't help, he tried to distract her with small talk about the rising cost of bulk-rate shipping to Minneapolis and points West. But a particularly horrible series of screams sent him wheeling back to the studio.

Morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon to evening, and Jane Larue still lay on her back in the darkened room, howling, panting, and cursing. She grabbed Auerbach's hand with such force that he could not get it back-though he tried fairly desperately. She was squeezing his fingers so hard he thought they would break, but the pain did not confound him so much as the sudden intimacy. He had photographed every bit of her body but had never held her hand.

Auerbach was there when the baby broke the surface. Suddenly, between Jane Larue's sweaty thighs, a round, puffy face that looked to have been carved from an apple. The ferocity of the little being was overwhelming, intimidating. Jane Larue was not pushing the baby out, despite her screaming-no, the infant was peeling her off like wet clothes, working one shoulder up, then the other, grimacing blindly with the effort, till the doctor yanked it free in a single long wet slithering motion. For one frozen moment, the baby hung in the air, the doctor holding on to him by the arm as if he had apprehended him shoplifting. A little gray man dipped in oil. He glared out at the room through his one open eye.

That night, Auerbach was unable to sleep. Images of the birth kept running through his mind, over and over, like a kinetograph: the baby peeling Miss Larue away with a ruthlessness that was more natural process than human act. The baby's cry, so relentless, so perfectly repetitive, so devoid of individual personality that it sounded closer to machinery than human speech. Miss Larue, her color ashen, her skin glistening with sweat, going into a fit of trembling so intense that Auerbach thought she might die. Blood stained her thighs and pooled on the white sheets draped over the bed and the floor. Yet she had taken the wet, oily creature and put it to her breast.

Auerbach had stared in horrified fascination, trying to reconcile the smallness of its fingers and the delicacy of its ears with the ruthlessness of its feeding. That odd combination of rapacity and fragility-he recognized it immediately: humanness.

From this one little fact, he felt, the entire world could be teased. Men are just infants with mustaches and pocketwatches. Life is a battlefield on which they contend. Whatever one combatant takes, the others cannot have.

Auerbach stared up at the ceiling, wide-eyed, the sweat trickling down his back. He recognized these thoughts now. They were the thoughts that tortured him on sleepless nights, the thoughts that forced him out of bed and into the office down the hall, to write catalogue copy and answer correspondence till the sunlight returned-returned with one more chance to save himself from annihilation.

Since his competitors copied his every innovation, he was never more than a single catalogue ahead. That meant he had just thirty days to invent something new-not once, but twelve times a year, with a double issue for Christmas. Was it any surprise that he could not sleep, that his eyes burned, that his head ached and his hands trembled? Morris Kleinfeldt at Montparnasse Exotic was probably planning a pregnancy series right this minute. Kleinfeldt would get credit for pregnancy-the category would belong to him. Auerbach would lose his rightful place in the history of exotic photography. He would be spat on and then forgotten. The grass would grow over his grave.

The image of that forgotten grave made him throw off the covers. He climbed into his wheelchair, pulled the blanket over his legs, and wheeled himself down the hall to his office. At his desk, he cast a panicked look at the stack of correspondence that had accumulated since the night before, grabbed the topmost letter and started to read. It was from a mail order customer and therefore bore the usual name, John Smith, and the usual address, a post office box. The contents were also of the usual kind:

Please help me. I have been a customer for the last two years, and now regularly buy the complete contents of each monthly catalogue. The cost far exceeds my means as a schoolteacher, and I have sold our silver candlesticks and plate. My wife has taken our baby and returned to her mother in St. Louis. I do not know where else to turn, nor how much longer I can last. This can only end in death.

Normally, Auerbach wrote back right away, politely referring his correspondents to the fine print on page two of the catalogue, which stated, To be used in moderation only, for purposes of bodily relief and healthful relaxation. Yet this disclaimer seemed like the height of pointlessness now. His job was to feed them. He did it grandly, efficiently, nobly, but the more he gave them, the hungrier they grew, till they wrote him letters begging for an end to their hungers. Life itself was hunger; he could not shut it off. And so this time he just let the letter flutter to the floor.

It was then that he heard the noise: a series of cries, like the cries of a cat. He let the balled-up letter drop, wheeled himself out into the hall, and then followed, drawn onward in spite of himself. They stopped short just as he arrived at the room Miss Larue was occupying.

The door was open. She was sitting up in the great four-poster bed, her nightgown lowered to her waist, her breast in the baby's mouth. She glanced over at Auerbach and then returned her attention to the baby, without greeting or comment. Powerful physical processes seemed to be taking place inside her, making her superior to the outside world. She grunted and then arched backward, lifting her face and closing her eyes- in relief or pain, he was not sure. One hand squeezed down the length of the breast, increasing the flow. With her big mammaries and fleshy, preoccupied face, with the dark circles under her eyes, she looked heavy, purposeful-not the fluttery, nervous Jane he knew from life. No, this was closer to the Jane he saw in his stereoscope, the Jane sculpted around a need.

It was a long time till she acknowledged him. "What are you doing up, Mr. A.?"

"Work to do," he said, suddenly bashful. He had just witnessed an act more intimate than any he had ever photographed.

"You can come in if you want."

"Can't, I'm afraid." But he wheeled himself in, till he was at her bedside. The baby seemed to have fallen asleep on the breast, its tiny pugilist's face set in a grimace of satisfaction. "I wish I could sleep like that, but my mind keeps racing in circles."

"You need to forget business for a little while." She pressed her nose to the baby's pate, and then elevated the sleeping form for Auerbach to sniff, as if it were a flower. "Here, smell this. He smells so clean."

Auerbach was not normally a smeller of roses, but he bent down and put his nose to the baby's hair. Though the fragrance was very particular, he could identify it immediately, with uncanny precision: freshly baked bread, still warm, dipped in milk.

"Does he have a name?" he asked.

"Augustus," she said matter-of-factly.

He drew himself up in his chair. That was his name. "What do you mean?" he asked. She was a mere model, after all, and he was-well, himself. There could be no duplicates.

"You were there when he was born, Mr. A."

"So was the doctor."

She looked hurt. "Don't you like it?"

There was a part of him that indeed saw the logic involved. Why shouldn't the whole world be full of him? And he would need an assistant some day, when Elijah Grapes got old. "It's a dignified name, I'll give you that."

"I think it fits," she said, smiling down at the child. "You're a millionaire, and he's going to be one too." Without warning, she lifted him up and passed him into Auerbach's arms. "Here, hold him," she said.

He held it stiffly against his chest. The child's physical presence was shocking. He smelled sweetly of warm milk, but there was otherwise something raw and feline about him. Naked except for his diaper, he was stringy and lean, rubber bands of muscle strung on a delicate frame of bone. Head, ribcage, fists and nothing more. His mouth hung open, a clean cat's mouth, pink and empty of teeth-a sucking device form-fitted to the nipple.

And then suddenly the baby was gazing up at him with his cloudy blue eyes. The look was indescribable, a kind of clear seeing that seemed to take Auerbach in just as he was, complete and unabridged-and nevertheless to find him good. It was not the way people were supposed to look at each other.

Auerbach left without saying goodbye and wandered the mansion until he came to the indoor pool. He stared down at his reflection in the water. It was a simple drawing made with a minimum of strokes: an eye, a nose. But this was not what the baby had seen, could not be.

It is a strange fact that water makes soothing noises even when absolutely still. Listening to the pool's wetness, he fell asleep and dreamed.

He seemed to view his dream through a jeweler's glass. He could see every street and alley of a vast city, knew every life lived in each house. Who would kill whom, who marry whom. Each raindrop had a direction and purpose. It was a vision of order that left him amazed and overwhelmed.

The cries entered his dream in the form of a light-footed man, a gentleman jewel thief in top hat and tails. But the thing he was stealing was Auerbach himself-wheeling his chair out of the room with the pool, down the long hallway towards the bedroom where Jane Larue was staying with the baby. And when he awoke he was in fact there, and the cries were hers, not the baby's. She was standing by the bed with the baby in her arms-cradled in such a way that Auerbach instantly understood something had happened. "Do something," she screamed, holding the baby out to him. "Please."

He knew instinctively that he must not take the baby from her, that to do so would envelop him in something so heartbreakingly sad that he would never find his way out. But his hands seemed to reach up of their own accord. The little creature felt different now, its body slack, as if an essential string had been cut. Its face was blue, the eyes slightly open, showing the whites. A quick glance was all he could take.

"Oh, please, please, please," wailed Jane Larue, hovering over him.

He thought of the pull-cord to call the servants. Somebody might know what to do. He began an awkward, weaving progress across the room, switching the baby from arm to arm so he could direct his chair. It seemed to take forever-there was furniture in the way-and then suddenly he was tipping, sprawling. He gripped the baby to his chest with one hand, broke his fall with the other, and rolled onto his back. From the corner of his eye, he could make out his chair a few feet away, tipped on its side. "Ring for help!" he yelled to Jane Larue, then raised himself to his elbow and watched her run toward the velvet cord. She tugged till it came down in her hands.

He sat upright, his blanket gone, his legs spread out in front of him. A moment later, she was on her hands and knees beside him, crying hard. It would take time for anyone to come from the servants' quarters, which were at the far end of the east wing. "Oh, God, my baby, my baby," she repeated, the words no longer language, but a kind of private song. He held the child up, looked at its blue face, and then clapped it on the back, at first gently and then harder. When that did not work he shook it and watched its head wobble back and forth. These efforts seemed to require all the strength he had; he gasped for air. Finally, he could think of nothing else but to hold the baby to his chest, as if to fill it with the beating of his own heart.

Two weeks after the funeral, Auerbach sat with Mr. Grapes by the stage set in the studio, waiting for Jane Larue to make her first reappearance at

work. She had promised to come, but was now ninety minutes late, and the early morning light was losing its purity. Mr. Grapes kept himself busy tinkering with a broken camera, but Auerbach had long ago abandoned the stack of invoices on his lap to gaze out at the garden beyond the glass wall of the studio. Ever since the baby died, he could do little else.

The catalogue was four days past its closing date and not a photograph had yet been taken. Every morning, Auerbach came to the studio as if nothing had changed and sat down before a model, but within a few minutes he always found himself unable to continue. His mind wandered to the baby. He remembered the stupid, pointless ways in which he had tried to save it, but the thing he returned to again and again was the way it had looked at him earlier that same night, before he knew anything was wrong. It had gazed up at him as if he were not Augustus Auerbach, not a millionaire, not the world's foremost purveyor of exotic photography. It had looked at him as if he were simply good.

After much brooding, he had come to the conclusion that the baby's gaze had adversely affected him in some way, had robbed him of something essential to his identity. He had read about animal magnetism and other such theories of personality, and whether it was something of that sort or something else again, he knew he had been weakened-shrunken. He felt shrunken. He had not been able to save the baby that night, and now he could not produce even a single photograph.

"She's not coming," said Grapes, checking his pocketwatch. "In two years, she's never once been late. It's not like her."

"She'll be here," said Auerbach, with a certainty based on need. Only Jane Larue had the power to heal him. If she came back they could start over. The baby would be forgotten, and they would once again become what they had been: happy.

"I can get somebody else here in an hour," said Grapes. "There's still time."

"You don't understand, I don't want anybody else."

Grapes put down the pieces of the camera and got up to leave. "I'll be in the darkroom," he said, and walked out. It was the closest he came to a protest.

Alone, Auerbach gave himself over to his study of the garden, with a care he usually expended only on stereographs. He could see a stone path twisting through grass, then a stretch of the high limestone wall that surrounded the mansion, and a door in the wall that must have led to the street outside. The path disappeared through a decorative arbor and into a grove of trees.

He could not allow himself to consider whether Grapes might be right. Instead, he wheeled over to the glass wall of the studio. A door stood in the wall, its long iron handle cool to the touch. He had never once used it or seen it used, but the handle turned easily, and the door swung open without effort. Unlocked, all these years.

He paused on the threshold, looking out: the stone path started from this point. He wheeled himself forward, feeling the sun on his bare head, hotter than in the studio. From somewhere came the scent of flowers, impossibly sweet. He passed along the wall, wheeled beneath the arbor, and entered a kind of natural amphitheater, shaded by trees. The light was soft and brown, the air almost chill. A small waterfall tumbled from an artificial grotto into a pool, filling the space with the sound of falling water. By the pool stood a wrought iron table with chairs, looking as if they had never been sat in.

He felt suddenly melancholy. Yes, it was beautiful, but that did not explain the bittersweet longing he felt, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia so intense it made his chest ache. He had never been here before, and yet he felt that he knew the place, that something very important had once happened to him here. And then he understood: this was the garden in the stereograph, the one he had shown to Jane Larue. Mr. Grapes had taken the photographs; Auerbach had never asked where. But it was here.

When he looked up, she was standing in front of him. Her eyes were red, her face blanched. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun. She was wearing an ugly black sack of a dress with a high collar and long sleeves. Her hands gripped an old carpetbag. "I've come to say goodbye," she said.

He was a little confused by the sight of this new Jane Larue-so grave and dignified. If he were to stop her, it would have to be done carefully, in the gentlest way possible. And so he gave a long sigh, and a bittersweet, wistful smile, and pretended not to have heard. "Do you recognize this place?" he asked, intending to surprise her.

"I come here often." She lifted her chin, a slight gesture, but defiant.

It took him aback. He had never considered the possibility she might know something he did not, and now felt foolish-all the more so because he was not used to being wrong when it came to the models. He tried to make a joke of it. "Not quite as nice as the stereograph, is it?"

"The difference is that it's real."

"Photographs are real, Miss Larue."

"Not like people, Mr. A."

He looked at her, suddenly frightened. This was about the baby, he realized; she blamed him for not saving the baby. It was as if she could see right through him to the hidden truth of his weakness. "There was nothing anybody could have done for him," he whispered. "You heard the doctor."

"You did what you could," she said, eyeing him coldly.

"Then why not stay?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. A., but I've already made my decision." She turned and began walking back down the path.

He followed behind, through the arbor and out into the sunlight. It seemed incredible that she might actually leave, that he could not stop her, but the door in the garden wall quickly loomed up ahead. He spoke to her

back-he had no choice. "You're leaving me in a difficult position, Miss

Larue. Exotic photography is a collaborative art."

"You'll find somebody else."

"No, you don't understand, it requires a very particular sympathy between model and photographer." He did not have the heart to tell her the rest.

She reached the door. He watched her open it, as if it were nothing. He wheeled up behind her, frightened by the swath of city that came into view. He saw carriages drawn by enormous, muscled horses-carriages he would never ride to the ocean or the mountains or any of the other mysterious places beyond the mansion. He saw women in elegant dresses and great swooping hats-women he would never kiss or hold. No matter how rich or famous he became, they would all look at him with disgust.

"Goodbye, Mr. A.," said Jane Larue. She stepped through the gate and disappeared into the fast-moving crowd, like a leaf taken by a stream. •

Robert Anthony Siegel’s first novel, All the Money in the World, was published by Random House. His short fiction has appeared in Story and Fiction International, and has been anthologized in Men Seeking Women and Full Frontal Fiction. He is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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